When I first arrived on the Internet in the mid-1990s and eventually discovered various forums and websites related to romance novels, one of the things that fascinated me was that romance had an official definition – as found on the Romance Writers of America website. I mean it’s perfectly logical that it would, at least in terms of the need authors have to be able to market their books to the publishers who in turn need to be able to sell them to the readers. That’s business. I can respect that need.
What amazed me was how stripped down that definition was from how I viewed the romances I read and that I’ve always read whether I realized it or not at that point. What I’ve always wanted in a romance is more akin to the traditional description or flat-out dictionary definition of the romance ballad, i.e. give me a heroic adventure, add in a bit of mystery, toss in a smidgen of fantasy, maybe a healthy dose of the supernatural and then leaven it all with that mandatory romantic relationship AKA love story but for god’s sake make sure everything ends happily ever after for the pair and I’m a happy camper. Because the one thing the RWA definition does get right is that happy ending.
It’s just that coming right out and saying that romances are about a central love story and an emotional satisfying ending is so bare bones. OTOH, it works for their purposes.
To a point.
Where that point started running into problems occurred around the end of the century and the beginning of the new one because that’s when the “wars” over the emergence of erotic romances began, mainly because that’s when electronic sites like Ellora’s Cave (November 2000) started up and, surprise, became relatively popular. That is, it seemed like that’s when everyone and their aunt started pointing at that RWA definition as both the guide and the dividing line in what would become the how much is too much (or the wrong kind of) sex wars in recent years. (‘Cause it’s not like that accusation has never, ever been made about books over the decades, nay, centuries, now is it? Right.)
It’s a battle that I’m not sure anyone can win. What I’m getting at is that as far as I can see it’s all about that balance between industry marketing, reader expectations and academic study in finding the real definitions and I will honestly admit that over the years I’ve witnessed many discussions of exactly this topic and only become more and more confused. Basically, what it always seems to boil down to is that an overly sexy romance is any romance that has sex that exceeds the individual reader’s comfort level – if we were talking about a romance reader’s expectations. Don’t believe me? Classic example but only one of many is a thread from the AAR forum entitled “Agree or disagree with Reader censorship on racy sex scenes?”
But enough background stuff, on to the author featured in this post. I didn’t discover her books until after I’d moved my original website – then called Beverly’s Book Sanctuary – over to WriterSpace close to the turn of the century. (That is so weird to be able to say that I’m trying to see how many times I can work it into just this post. :-D) It was through that site that I came into contact with many of the people who eventually got both the paranormal romance and sensual romance (later AKA erotic romance) movements going in a big way within romance community. At about roughly the same time that both the paranormal and sensual/erotic romance reader movements were shifting into high gear, I attended the Celebrate Romance conference in Atlanta in 2001 and several individuals who were also there from both those groups were absolutely raving about this new writer, Christine Feehan, who combined both highly sensual, if not downright erotic elements with the paranormal in her books. I think she was up to about the third or fourth by that time, but definitely hadn’t gotten to Gregory’s story yet.
There was just one problem, a slightly major one for me at least.
Her heroes were vampires and up to that point I’d pretty much managed to avoid vampire romances like the plague that they are – to me, at least. Right, famous last words but still I can stick to my guns at times and I honestly tried here. I’d been successful with avoiding most vampire romances and their authors prior to this, so I was confident. Seriously, I prefer Superman to Batman, so give me a break and believe me when I say I don’t do dark easily. It’s that curse thing as much as any else although the blood-drinking doesn’t help either. Seriously, though, I hate whiners and oh, woe is me stories with a passion. So, dark and brooding, no, thank you, which means that traditional vampires are certainly not going to be first on my list of heroes, or heroines either, to check out any way one sliced it.
Of course, it does depend on the author and the actual plot. Plots can and will sucker-punch me. Everyone rushed to assure me that Christine Feehan’s weren’t really vampires. They were Carpathians. They liked who they were. They were looking for their light.
Yeah, like all that was supposed to mean something. Still, the more they told me about the plots – see, plots truly are a selling point for me – the more curious I got and so I finally ordered the first book.
It wasn’t only that the stories themselves were addictive, the heroes to-die-for… figurative and literally, so to speak. Or that the sensuality level was completely off the charts in another one of those where the heck do the love scenes start and stop mind-boggling situations. It was also the universe she created. In an odd sort of way, it’s almost slightly off-kilter. Like it’s out of phase with the rest of the known universe but that works to its benefit instead of against it maybe because of their immortal life spans. I honestly don’t know. I mean they’re supposed to be contemporaries but, at the same time, there seems to be huge time jumps between books.
But you know what the real kicker was? I liked her heroines. A lot. They struck me as truly strong and having something special inside. Plenty of other romance readers screamed and hollered that they were wimps but not me. Go figure. And, yeah, I’ve spent some time over the years defending them, too.
She hadn’t simply taken old familiar Gothic elements and used them to tell a new story. She’d completely rewoven them into something else.
In a romance.
Using vampires who weren’t really vampires. The survival of a species. And heroines who could stand up to them.
The possibilities this series opened up were mind blowing in terms of paranormal romance and don’t think readers didn’t sit up and take notice or that publishers were that far behind them, either.
Anyone else seeing a trend in my reading tastes that isn’t necessarily connected to sex here? We shall see. Onwards and upwards. 😉