The Shape of Things to Come

By Poison Ivy,

At my dentist’s the other day, I wondered why he wasn’t playing the usual 1950s rock and roll he likes. He said indignantly, “There’s no 1950s music left!” Broadcast radio today is very straight-jacketed and owned by very few companies. Somewhere, some executive issued a memo, and now it’s nearly impossible to find a station that plays anything older than the late 1970s mixed with newer “oldies.” Ever the fixer, I suggested subscription satellite radio, which has separate channels for various decades of music. But my dentist pointed out that they don’t carry news, and so then he wouldn’t find out about local traffic jams that might be keeping his next patient from arriving on time. Sure, he could tune to the news channel, but he doesn’t want to hear all news. So he’s stuck with regular radio and music from an era he dislikes: Disco.

This happens to romance readers, too. Readers who do not want to read romances with a lot of sex or bad words in them are pretty much stuck these days. They can pick from a slender selection of category romances from a few publishers. They can read inspirational romances, but the narrowly focused evangelical Christian kind of story doesn’t usually appeal to a reader who is Jewish, or Episcopalian, and so on. They can try YA (young adult) books, but these are often about teenagers who are in the throes of adolescence and not ready to settle on a lifelong mate.

The seeming solution is to read older romances. But then the reader is stuck in a time warp, with topical stories or themes that proceed along old-fashioned lines. This can be fun, but it’s also limited. I myself have enjoyed reading contemporary romances written many decades ago, in which heroines lost their fortunes because of World War I, or the Depression. But sadness over not being able to wear silk underwear, speed around in a roadster, and dine at the Ritz seems more and more alien. These are historical romances already. It’s not that these antique romances did not have any sensual component or real romantic or social issues. They did. The dreadful choice of being rich or being a shopgirl still resonates in our modern culture, only today it is the choice between launching a career and being forced to work at Wal-Mart. The emotionally embroidered romances of Ethel M. Dell and her ilk in the 1920s were pretty frank sexually, without being detailed. The heroine in E. M. Hull’s groundbreaking novel, The Sheik—the big romance of the 1920s era—gets abducted in the desert and her captor has his way with her. Yep. Forced sex. These stories eschewed specific sexual details and instead used hyperbolic emotionality. But the relationships were resolved along conventional lines of the day. She marries her Sheik, who turns out to be—just like Tarzan—a long-lost British aristocrat. Very conventional and true to the prejudices of its day. Back then, even a real-life adventurous person like Alice Sheldon (aka James Tiptree, Jr., the famous science fiction writer), after a youth spent on safaris in Africa, was expected to make her debut and just marry well and be done with it. It’s doubtful that romance readers looking for less sex and less bad language also want less opportunity for their heroines.

Later last century a more prudish streak occurred, and a goodnight kiss suddenly was all that ever happened between a hero and a heroine. Mary Stewart’s couples in the early 1950s, even the pair who were exes in Wildfire at Midnight, never shared more than a kiss. (Stewart’s heroines never seemed to be doing much, either. They were sometimes teachers on vacation. Occasionally and most memorably in Nine Coaches Waiting, a governess. But mostly, they appeared to live off inherited money.) During this era, heroes and heroines seemed farther apart than ever, especially as so many supposed romances tended to be more about spies and mysteries than about love. And if they did focus on romance exclusively, the heroes were drawn as domineering pigs. The writing style typical for this kind of story was laconic, making a few words stand for many, and forcing the reader to fill in the gaps. This kind of style still works quite well in a murder mystery or a tale of suspense. But it is unlikely to satisfy a reader who doesn’t want a lot of cursing and sexual detail but who still wants a full-blown romance.

What famously happened to romances circa 1977 (and thus, yet another major change in direction in just one century of romances) is that they started to confront the very issues that they raised. Characters no longer spent whole books wondering about each other’s feelings; instead, they talked, argued, and generally expressed themselves. And because people can land themselves in plenty of trouble just by opening their mouths, the stories still had lots of excitement to offer even though conversation often was what moved the plot. This verbal effusion was matched by a sensuous explosion. Where before, a few words were sufficient to describe a hero as attractive, now the stories spent vast amounts of space on small details and on reiterating the erotic effect of one character’s physical impact on another. Thus, the romance gained a level of description it simply didn’t have before except in symbolism. (Ethel M. Dell had lushly emotional descriptions but her physical details were few and discreet.) A third change was thematic. No longer did romance plots generally feature emotionally distant, domineering men whose main goal appeared to be the subjugation by humiliation or violence of a basically helpless (and often naive) heroine.

Stories in which the hero and heroine were mostly antagonistic towards each other from across a wide gender gulf —whether they were equals or it was a David and Goliath situation—stopped being the mainstay of romance. In addition to confronting on life issues, heroes and heroines also resolved sexual issues by experiencing a happy sex life. Whatever the plot contortions, they ended up plausibly ready to live happily ever. But as a necessary part of finding this fundamental honesty to the relationship, the door to the bedroom was opened.

How or why to shut it? When the details of the sex are not crucial to the development of the story, of course. This is something that each author decides for herself. As younger generations of women launch writing careers, the sexual frankness they’ve always known in our culture might influence them to include details with a different purpose than was perceived by a prior generation of writers. Kind of like including the details of a fabulous dinner out. And maybe no more important than that dinner. Conversely, it could be a good reason for skipping the details. Possibly a younger generation of women is so well aware of their sexuality that they seldom encounter any sexual issues. Thus, no need to open the bedroom door at all. This is seen already in chick lit stories. Their heroines have sex, but it is mostly recreational sex and few details are given.

Those are two versions of one possibility, that sex will or can decline as a significant issue in a romantic relationship. There are so many other areas in a relationship to cause conflicts; one only has to read an advice column to realize that the range of potential problems is incredibly broad. I don’t think sex ought to be assumed to be automatically wonderful (or routine) and become taboo again, though. For most people, it is a very important issue.

As for the language problem, I’ve discussed that in another blog. While I, too, wince away from coarse language, the reality is that vulgar language usually moves its way up to respectability over time. Some basic words are still as nasty as ever, but plenty more are completely accepted now, though even a few years ago they were shocking. The older a person is, though, the more shocking it seems. I don’t want to minimize how unpleasant this is. But it is doubtful that people who think nothing of saying these words will feel compelled not to write them.

Do I have an answer for romance readers seeking stories with less sex and fewer bad words? Or for my dentist who is longing for 1950s rock and roll songs on the radio? It’s iffy. If romance writers themselves do not want to write lots of sex and bad words, then they might write different romances. And if their editors were daring enough to publish those romances, and readers bought them in significant numbers, then the direction of romances being published might turn again. My dentist is out of luck, though. The music of the 1950s is being phased out of corporate radio. And disco, hated and reviled disco, is back.