Romance fiction is a billion-dollar-a-year plus industry; over one-quarter of all books sold in the United States are romance novels. Although the romance publishing market seems to be uniquely open to novice writers -- the one market left whose writers need not have a marketable persona themselves, so long as they produce -- there are strict guidelines for drafting a sample of the genre. A conflict-filled love affair between the two main characters must constitute the bulk of the book, and there must be an optimistic ending. I recall one whose epilogue had the hero humbly kissing the heroine's belly as she labored to bring forth their fifth child. They were married, of course.
I have treated myself to three romances lately, on the grounds that it's summer and one wants to relax and have fun. When I was growing up my sister's bookshelves held one or two by Rosemary Rogers, and so I went to the library on purpose to find Sweet Savage Love, first published in 1974. With it I also found Jewel of My Heart, one of Rogers' latest, just published in 2004 and dedicated to her granddaughter. So the queen of romance is still working, and more power to her for it. I think it must be great fun to have a grandma who writes romance novels, and dedicates them to you. On that same trip to the library I also found a romance that takes place in eighteenth-century Scotland, and features a heroine named Madison who has a difficult time with the lovemaking scenes because she has a huge sword cut on her back. I'm sorry I can't remember the title or the author.
It's easy to laugh at these books. They really are soft-core pornography for, presumably, mostly middle-aged women. Reading them, we all have the treat of looking back on ourselves as the young, tempestuous heroine, aroused unto dementia by the perfect but outrageously threatening man, and passing with him, safely and beautifully (because of course it turns out he's a true gentleman), from virginity to glorious satiety and then to marriage. Some of the sex scenes are excellently written, even if it is curious how often they include words like "assault," "insistent," "onslaught," "helpless," and even "raping."
And of course, speaking of formulae and guidelines, certain things about the characters, too, must be just so. The heroine must be young, seventeen is a good age, and she must be a virgin. She must be fiery and independent -- independent in spirit, not necessarily in income, which is what the word would have meant in those previous centuries which are the background to many of the stories. She and the hero must loathe each other at first. Generally he is older, a friend of extended family perhaps, and thinks she's a "chit." An older man is de rigueur because there is little to arouse a girl in a seventeen-year-old boy, and anyway a boy that age would have a different word for a girl who annoyed him. Besides, as the plot thickens the heroine for all her pluck will have to be rescued, preferably three times, from angry sugar plantation workers or Mexican bandits or French soldiers playing cards in the downstairs room, and a boy can't do that. That needs a man. He just shows up, furious and in danger himself because of her. It's all wonderful. Like God, you know he cares, and that he is watching.
Three rescues, nicely paced in the middle of the book, set off by two major sex scenes before and after (one when they hate each other, and one when they are aroused unto dementia by the memory of the first one), and the story is just about done. Some authors put in a heart-rending touch at the end, when the hero breaks down in some meltingly boyish way, because he thinks his beloved is leaving him after all. Rosemary Rogers is capable of creating a hero whose heart bursts with pride as he looks down his rifle sight aiming at the villain who is struggling to subdue the heroine who is herself fighting like a tigress, and getting in the way of the bullet, where some other woman beside her had crumpled up in a corner and begun weeping. All this, after he thought she had left him for good.
And so on. It is easy to laugh at these, and years ago my favorite author did. In Secret Lives E.F. Benson, creator of the immortal Mapp and Lucia novels, wrote of the adventures of the middle- aged authoress Susan Leg, aka "Rudolph da Vinci," living high in London (incognita) off the proceeds of her hideously popular novels, Apples of Sodom, Heart's Queen, and the like. Susan's gifts are gigantic -- a neighbor who sees haloes above everyone's head sees that hers is "corn-colored," and advises her to "do something, Leg, write, go on the films, something" -- and her romances as thrilling as possible. In fact, if they existed and we could read them they would probably be different from, and a bit weightier than, the romances overspilling bookstore shelves today. In Benson's hands, Susan Leg writes about other characters besides pure young American girls who are "smart, passionate, funny, and brave," use twenty-first century idiom in all eras (" 'this isn't about me' ") and give the hero as good as they get. Imagine today's audience desiring to read about "little puny men with great hearts, and plain women with golden ones," or about "the bishop of aristocratic birth who gave up his princely income to the poor and needy," and once beat up a navvy who had been beating his wife. ("Saying, 'Damn it, I can't stand it,' he took off his coat and gave the navvy what for.") No, no. We want the seventeen-year-old, ourselves, safely aroused unto ....
But what I find unsatisfying about these books from the get-go, for as sheer well-done stories they are probably several times more worthwhile than the mewling trauma memoirs earning all those mewling respectful reviews in the newspapers, is that they all stand cowering under the great sweeping anvil cloud that is Gone With The Wind. Rogers' Sweet Savage Love actually begins with a sixteen-year-old heroine, spoiled and pouting in the early years of the Civil War. And she has green eyes. Margaret Mitchell never had the bad taste to pair Rhett Butler with Scarlett O'Hara's mother -- in a shed in the rain, on page 26, "after her first cry of despair, completely satisfying" etc. -- but otherwise, these romances cannot seem to stop recreating the emotional story that Mitchell gave us more than seventy years ago. Fiery young heroine (Scarlett), dark, brooding older man with sardonic eyebrows (Rhett), blond, calm man whom the heroine thinks she loves (Ashley) but who is unworthy of her -- he's just plain weak, if he isn't also dissolute and evil. Yes, yes, we've been through all this before. In fact, Mitchell gave us the treat of breaking all the rules, evidently before they existed. Her heroine is a married mother at seventeen. Her wedding night to a teenaged schlub was a frightening disaster. When it is time for rescues the sardonic hero usually leaves her in the lurch, and in the end, far from the loving pair being united in joy down a rifle sight, he simply leaves her. "Didn't it ever occur to you that even the most deathless love could wear out?" Rhett asks. "Mine wore out." She is twenty-eight; he is forty-seven. Mitchell testified she wrote that chapter first and never gave a thought to Scarlett and Rhett's possible reunion.
In Gone With The Wind Margaret Mitchell has not written anything to render (insert great Author's name here __________) ridiculous, nor would she have thought she had, but I find that, in it, she has written something to make almost all subsequent American romance superfluous. Perhaps the emotional trio -- young heroine uncertain of where true love lies -- is just a plotline common to the human experience, and so she can't be given credit for inventing it. But the fact that she also wrote a story around these people, about history, about economic change and political problems, and paused to consider a friendship between two women as well, puts her home run (so to speak) far outside the ballpark where her imitators are still playing. And in 1936 she saw absolutely no need to insert the soft porn scenes. We do hear of one night when Rhett, drunk and enraged, "used [Scarlett] brutally through a wild mad night and she had gloried in it ... a real lady could never hold up her head after such a night" (how did she know?). But that is all. It is up to us to interpret "rapture," "the ecstasy of surrender," and "primitive" as we can. The word painting of Mitchell's professional descendants, all that flesh and fingertips, panting and assault, was for some reason in those days unthinkable.
So, when I do look at these romances, I tend to flip through them hunting for the sex scenes. Everybody claims they love the stories, editors insist you've got to give us a great story with believable characters, but I've already read Gone With The Wind so I know the story. The only difference is that now Scarlett and Rhett end up together. And they have flawless sex.
About ten years ago, Rachel Maines wrote a book called The Technology of Orgasm -- published by Johns Hopkins Studies in the History of Technology, no less -- in which she recorded Victorian women's habit of going to spas and physicians' offices in order to be manipulated to orgasm for health reasons. (" 'Mama says I screamed merrily,' " one satisfied young lass reported.) The vibrator was invented, Maines says, precisely to save doctors time and trouble. But then, after the 1920s or so, this little cultural habit died out. Then came Gone With The Wind, and now we have the soft-core porn romance industry, churning out product at the rate of a billion dollars a year. I'm not sure women might not be better satisfied going to a spa, one of those really full-service, old fashioned ones.