Dispatches

The Ups and Downs of Prince Charming

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 DISPATCHES



The Ups and Downs of Prince Charming  

by Joanna Cagan  



I used to be queen of the euphemisms. Give me an erect penis and I could turn it into a

proud manhood faster than you could say glistening rod or throbbing shaft or any of the

dozens of awkward terms romance writers use to describe male genitals.


    

I was a historical romance editor for more time than I ever thought possible. With

tours of duty at one of the industry’s smallest paperback houses and at one of its biggest

corporate conglomerates, I was a small fish in the biggest school of genre publishing

around. According to Romance Writers of America, the industry’s 8000+ member trade

organization, romances make up nearly 50% of paperback books sold in America,

accounting for nearly one billion dollars in annual sales. With scores of chapters

nationwide, RWA calls itself “the world’s largest non-profit genre organization.”


    

Romance novels have been ridiculed and defended a million times over — and for

good reason. Far more professional and serious than they’re given credit for, romances are

also far more formulaic, and ultimately troubling, than their defenders will ever

acknowledge.




Once upon a Time



It all began, innocently enough, with The Flame and the Flower. Compared to

preceding romances, Kathleen Woodiwiss’s 1972 epic was revolutionary in size, form and

sexual content. The book tells the story of innocent young Heather Simmons, living a

miserable Cinderella existence until she’s kidnapped by Brandon Birmingham, a

handsome American sea captain. Thinking her a common, “lively vixen,” he rapes the

virginal Heather — and a love story is born: “She lay unresponsive, yet his long-starved

passions grew and soon he thrust deep within her, no longer able to contain himself. It

seemed with each movement now she would be split asunder and tears came to her eyes.”


    

Actually, Birmingham rapes her more than once in a flurry of aggressive activity in

his sea cabin. Yet the book’s remaining 300 pages are remarkably sex-free and

relationship-oriented, as Woodiwiss cemented a rhythm (of trembling heroine learning to

reach out to angry hero) and a writing style (the purplest of purple prose) that would

become industry boilerplate for years.


    

Heather and Brandon don’t have consensual sex — and she doesn’t come — until the

book’s final pages. Apparently, though, it’s worth the wait: “A startled murmur broke

from her lips as she at last found what had awaited her . . . And he gloried in his triumph

as they were dissolved in a mutual fire which died slowly, leaving them cinders in the

hearth of love.”


    

Until The Flame and the Flower, gothic romances had ruled the day: tales

of innocent young governesses and brooding, mysterious lords of the manor, they were

slim volumes lacking the sweeping feel of Woodiwiss’s bestseller. Their publishing

houses also handled them as small books, in direct contrast to the red-carpet treatment that

The Flame And the Flower, an unagented first-time novel, received from Avon

Books. The bodice-ripper would rule for years to come, and so would the idea that

paperback romances could be huge money-makers for their publishers.




Back in His Arms Again



To be sure, romances have changed since Woodiwiss’ breakthrough, and even as a certain

stigma has plagued the genre, their defenders have grown more ardent and sophisticated.

These dedicated authors and readers consider romances to be more than just simple fantasy

or harmful trash. As they are fond of pointing out, the violence of the bodice-ripper, and

the extraordinary naiveté and frailty of the heroine, are no longer the norm. Again

and again, authors talk of their books’ positive values and empowering life lessons.

Romances now tackle complicated issues such as alcoholism and domestic abuse. The

books are increasingly sexually graphic, and the heroines increasingly self-aware.

Romances, the feminist-friendly argument goes, provide their modern readers with needed

and healthy escapism — even inspiration — in a complicated world.


    

The books have their conservative defenders too, who claim that, sexy or not,

romances promote heterosexual monogamy and old-fashioned family values. They have a

point. Yes, the heroines usually have plenty of pre-marital sex, but it’s always with the

man they end up marrying, or spending their life with. There’s no such thing as a casual

fling, or an intense affair that fizzles out. Pregnancies bring characters together in the

romance world. Happiness is found by settling down and committing to your soul mate —

almost always in marriage.


    

Marriage is so heavily pushed in romances that it often happens to a couple before

they’ve realized their everlasting love. Though bickering and distrustful, the protagonists

routinely find themselves wedded for convenience or safety or to honor some family

obligation or drunken bet — and lo and behold, it works out every time! Sure, trust your

heart, the books preach, but also trust the most traditional of our societal norms. The

requisite happy ending will, of course, follow


    

A friend points out that a book like Gone with the Wind, perhaps the most

famous romance of all, provides a counterargument. But that’s just it. Gone With The

Wind isn’t a romance — not by publishing industry definitions. (Go see what shelf you

find it on at your local bookstore.)


    

Yes, the sparks between Scarlett and Rhett, the alpha male running into the

headstrong willful brat, were a classic influence on the Woodiwiss era and beyond. But

the lesson of Gone with the Wind is clear. You may have witnessed the burning

of Atlanta and the loss of your ancestral home, you may have been abandoned by the only

man you’ve ever loved, but you can still fight, to get him and your lost dignity back.

Tomorrow is another day. You are Scarlett O’Hara, and you will survive.


    

Today’s romance heroine should be so lucky. For while her newfound self-confidence or independence is well and good, it leads our heroine to the same place that

trembling rape-victim Heather Simmons finally found herself: back in her man’s arms,

where, we are led to presume, she belongs.




Spanning the Globe



How and where romantic protagonists find their love varies a good deal. Historical

romances, whether set in the Scottish highlands, American West, Victorian England or

elsewhere, remain wildly popular, as do those with contemporary settings. The so-called

“category” house of Harlequin/Silhouette continues annually to sell hundreds of millions of

its books worldwide. (Harlequin’s website boasts that in 1996 “more than 1,000 new titles

were released in North America.”)


    

The industry has also found room for an astonishing array of subgenres. “Time

travels” typically send modern day heroines into the embrace of men in some more

romantic era. A woman may be running down the stairs, late for a date with her

emotionally unavailable fiancé when a misstep sends her crashing headfirst into the

newel post. She awakens in the arms of the most handsome man she’s ever seen, and he’s

wearing chain mail.


    

Then there are futuristic romances, which peaked in popularity a couple years back.

Futuristics find our feisty heroines on distant planets far far away, where they often battle

for a planet’s very survival while falling for alien men who still seem to love the

missionary position.


    

Always eager to tap new trends, publishers have also offered up subgenres

featuring characters as diverse as angels and babies at one end and werewolves and other

paranormal creatures at the other. There are also African-American imprints and even a

smattering of Christian romance lines (where the lovers find each other, yes, but find God

as well). As long as it’s blissful heterosexual love stories you’re craving, the romance

industry’s got you covered.



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