Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Little Miss Crabby Pants Gets Her Pious Panties In A Bunch

When it comes to sensuality in romance novels I am a reader who will read the gamut.  Everything from just kisses to the filthiest, naughtiest sexy times you can imagine.  Books that my pious dead grandmother would find appropriate, and books that would cause said pious grandmother to stroke out if she weren't already dead.

When it comes to "the naughty bits" - I don't discriminate.  I like logical behavior and consenting adults.  Really, that's about it.  Give me those things, whether it's a "gentle" story or massive orgies involving hanging upside down from chandeliers - I'll judge the books pretty much the same way.  Did I like these people?  Do I feel like they belong together?  Did I get lost in the story?  

As much as I've "judged" books over the years, I've tried never to judge The Reader.  Readers read romance for a variety of reasons.  The reason I read the genre isn't necessarily "the right reason" or even "the only reason."  Plus you need to factor in personal baggage.  As much as readers talk about getting "lost" in a story - we never go into any story totally alone.  No, we're dragging a couple steamer trunks of personal junk along with us.  There is nothing wrong with this.  We're human.  No matter how hard we try, we will never forget ourselves entirely.  Which is why I always say that "relating" to a character is hogwash.  Make me understand the character(s), and you've got me.  I'll follow an author straight off a cliff if they make me "understand" the character(s).

Which brings me to inspirational romance.  When describing myself I would have to say I'm not a religious person.  Which begs the question of why I read the occasional inspirational romance.  It's pretty much the same reason I read category romance.  Sometimes I just want the romance.  I want a strong focus on "the relationship."  Sometimes I just want a nice story about nice people.  And inspirationals can give that to me.  Nice story, nice people, and common themes that play well into religious overtones without preaching from the pulpit.  For example, I've read many an inspirational where forgiveness and redemption are common themes.  I find these compelling as a reader, and while they play well into a religious world view, they are understandable and relatable to readers who don't necessarily believe in a higher power.  In other words, when done right, inspirationals can be life affirming without truckloads of endless preaching and spoon-feeding doctrine to readers.

I thought I'd never say this, but now I'm wondering if my reasons for reading inspirationals is "wrong." OK, maybe not "wrong" per se, but just a completely different reason other than why 99.9% of hardcore inspirational readers read them.

A perfect example of what I'm running up against happened to me this past weekend.  I'm in the midst of contest judging so cannot name the book outright, but in broad strokes - it's a historical mail-order bride story.  Literally, in the first chapter, the couple is married.  M-A-R-R-I-E-D.  As in, holy matrimony.  So the conflict is, essentially, that they are strangers and married.  Got it?  So being married, the couple does have sex.  Now, this being an inspriational, the sex is behind closed doors - but the couple is attracted to each other.  They have "feelings."  They feel desire for each other.

I'm thinking this is a good thing, right?  I mean, characters in romance novels who aren't eunuchs and/or dead below the waist are always a good thing.  Sex is part of the human condition.  I mean, God wants us to be fruitful and multiple, right?  And if you believe in God, and God gave us sex, how can sex (especially sex between a consenting married couple who have the hots for each other) be a bad thing?

But apparently I'm barking up the wrong tree.  Here are samples of some reviews I came across for this particular book.
"Throughout there is too much information behind their private doors."
Really?  I must have missed the part where Vin Scully strode in the bedroom and started giving readers the play-by-play.
"However, the endless descriptions of the couple’s passionate moments were way, way too much in this novel. It got in the way of the overall story a lot."
The irony being that I was bored with a lot of the other "stuff" in this story and was really struck by the fact that the author chose to portray an intimate married couple without being graphic.  Go figure.
"There was a little too much intimacy in the book to suit my personal reading preferences so I was a little disappointed in this book. Maybe there should have been a little pre-wedding story before the wedding."
So newlyweds being attracted to each other and doing what newlyweds do all while the author is giving us the G-rated rundown is "too much."  Got it.  
"Not that it was as bad as mainstream smut, but, it was way too much in my opinion. It didn't feel like a clean read at all..."
Words.  Fail.  ::headdesk::

So, let me see if I understand the issue here.  We have a married couple (M-A-R-R-I-E-D) who have the hots for each other and have G-rated sex behind closed doors.  The "passionate moments" are essentially heated looks, teasing banter, and the characters embracing.

And yet this is apparently "bad."

In which case I hope none of these women ever set foot in the Bat Cave and accidentally stumble across my collection of Black Lace novels.  I'd probably find myself the subject of an exorcism.  Or as the lead in a reenactment of the Salem Witch Trials.  Either one = Not. Good.

Romance readers are often labelled as wanting to escape into a Fantasy Land because they can't handle "real life."  Yes, some readers do read romance for escapism (I don't - but I also don't feel like there's anything wrong with "escapism" - hey, whatever floats your boat).  Some readers like that emotional connection that romance gives to them.  Emotions are universal human conditions.  We all can understand hate, anger, joy, happiness etc.  Romance offers that immediate buy-in.  Then there is this business of "falling in love."  A lot of us have done it, but it's never uniform.  How one couple "falls in love" can be (and often is) totally different from most other couples on the planet.  Love may be universal, but it's also a tad mysterious.  It's not one size fits all.  You can't bottle it.  That's why it's so freakin' fantastic to read about.  Yes, in romance, the characters fall in love.  But they don't necessarily fall in love the exact same way as the couples that came before them.

 Like all romance sub genres, I think inspirationals offer these things too.  But these comments I keep running up against in some inspirational reviews begs the question:

What do inspirational readers want?  

And for that matter - do I really want an answer to that question?  (Probably not)

Because honestly, I'm starting to wonder.  If it's not OK for a married couple to feel desire for each other - well I'm sorry, I don't know who to feel more sorry for: the women leaving these kinds of review comments or.....their husbands.

And yes, I just went there.

I refuse to believe that I shouldn't be reading inspirational romances and I refuse to believe that I'm wrong for reading them for the reasons that I do.  I've always said that I read romances because I believe in the heroine.  I believe she can be the hero of her own story.  I believe she deserves happiness.  And by extension, women in real life deserve happiness.  They should be allowed to control their own destinies.  They should be allowed to feel desire, to be open in their sexuality, to revel in being A Woman.  And then I read comments like the above in reviews for inspirational romances and I think, "If married women aren't allowed to be sexual and feel desire for their husbands, what are we left with?"

Yeah, a big steaming pile of No Thank You Ma'am.

So who is the problem here?  I refuse to believe I am the problem - because this is my blog and I'm always right on my blog.  I refuse to believe that an inspirational author writing about the feelings and desires of a married couple is wrong.  And while I try very hard to never tell another reader what they should feel, what they should think, and that yes, they are allowed to their own opinion - this is one instance where I want to stand on top of a desk, give my patented Librarian Death Stare and say....

Madam, you are wrong.

But instead I'll settle for blogging it.

38 comments:

Lori said...

Right there with you. I read the (very) occasional inspy for the back to basics of romance. But I refuse to believe in a HEA if the couple doesn't demonstrate they are attracted to each other.

Hilcia said...

Oh please! It's not you. It's this type of hypocritical, judgmental, puritanical bullshit commentary that keeps me from getting involved in reading and reviewing inspirationals. And yes, I'm being judgmental right back.

Hilcia said...

PS: That's my baggage coming to the surface.

PK the Bookeemonster said...

I, too, read the gamut of romance books from sweet to erotica. I also read crime fiction, SFF, etc. I understand your frustration with the readers that you commented on, I do. But you are judging them for their beliefs. This wasn't the right book for them, obviously; ROMANCE probably isn't the right genre for them. But they tried it. And they were "vocal" about their experience of non-enjoyment. I'm sure it is difficult to really find many books that it appears they would be more interested in, maybe classics.

willaful said...

I'm always so intrigued by the comments I see on extremely mild romances. My theory is that these books are recommended by sane people as "clean" romances, which causes some really nasty backlash, as you've seen. And then there was the Abby Green I reviewed, in which the heroine had one unsatisfying experience with a man she was dating and was reviled as a whore and a bad mother who left her child alone which carousing in hotels with strangers.

Internalized sexism... fear it.

Wendy said...

Lori: I think what floored me so much here was that these intimate moments were between a married couple. And both characters come into the marriage with pretty vanilla backgrounds. It's not like we have a Duke of Slut or anything!

Wendy said...

Hils: Hey, at least you own your baggage. We all have it. I'm super finicky when it comes to infertility themes and how adoption is portrayed in romances. I've DNF'ed many a book, or gone full-on rant!

Wendy said...

PK: Yeah, I am. I'll own up to my judgy-ness.

Mostly because I think it's sad that, in this instance, the intimacy (vanilla and G-rated as it is!) is between a married couple. It leaves me feeling very sad. And while I can't speak to all of the examples I found - some of them were definitely made by romance readers - as they had read other books by the author, who writes exclusively romance.

It leaves me feeling depressed. Also a little sorry for the author. Inspirationals, more than any of other sub genre, tend to support a traditional world view. Marriage is pretty much the ONLY end-game. I can totally understand them having an issue with this sort of thing if the couple was unmarried. I certainly expect hands-off in that scenario - MAYBE a fairly chaste kiss. But they're married. And given the crux of the conflict to the story (very opposites attract), exploring the intimacy between the characters is hardly out-of-bounds IMHO.

Oh well. Something to get off my chest. I probably just need to stop reading inspirational reviews.

Lori said...

Based on my experience (baggage ahoy!) there's a layer to this that you're missing. The issue is not the character, it's the reader. It's acceptable for a woman to feel (nice, respectable vanilla) desire for her husband, but it's only acceptable to feel desire for one's husband. If a book talks too much about the characters having sex, even behind closed doors, the reader's imagination might run away with her and she could end up feeling desire when she's not thinking about her husband at all. And that would be bad and wrong and most definitely Not OK.

Wendy said...

Willaful: Reminds me of a contemporary single title I read by a SUPER popular author where the cop hero saw a single mother at the local bar and mused he should "stop by and check to make sure her kids weren't being neglected."

And a big ol' FU to you sir!

The big thing that floored me here about this clean read is that 1) it really IS clean and 2) we're talking a married couple. It's not like they're single and ready to mingle. Intimacy is a perfectly normal part of a marriage - and hopefully it's enjoyable for everyone involved AND healthy. IMHO, that's what the author was striving for and honestly it was the most memorable aspect of the story for me. The rest of it I could have left well enough alone ;)

But, whatevs.

Wendy said...

The Other Lori: OMG - that is a really excellent point. I mean, who knows if it's valid in the examples I ran across - I'm not a shrink and don't play one on my blog. But you're totally right. I bring up "baggage" in this post and yet didn't even consider that maybe "baggage" could have something to do with the reviews I ran across.

Duh Wendy. Like, duh.

Lori said...

Eh, don't be hard on yourself. I strongly suspect it's less "Duh" than lack of experience with the particular subculture in question.

bookish29 said...

I read the odd inspy for pretty much the same reasons. The emotional connection between the characters is why I read romance, and if that's portrayed in a sexual way, great, and if it isn't equally great. Some writers can write brilliant sexual tension without writing the actual sex - and there has been many a time I'd have preferred to read that rather than pages of endless and irrelevant sex scenes!

An author friend of mine - who does write sex scenes, but not explicit ones - had a reviewer comment on one of her books that there was too much sex in it - which surprised her hugely, and made us both wonder what sort of book this person had thought they were buying.

Maybe for some people, even hand-holding isn't "clean".

cleo reader said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Kate Rothwell said...

One wonders why they are attracted to the genre. no, really, I wonder. Maybe it's the godly part of the book? Like back when smut wasn't so easily available the women who wade through the pages of plot for the sexxing -- only the opposite.

Nikki said...

Perhaps the readers confused this particular novel for a more, shall I say, Christian novel, which I understand is whole different genre. There is a difference, is there not, between inspirational novels and Christian novels? Or maybe it's just that I am the one confused...

Erin Burns said...

This is precisely why I have about given up on inspirationals. Either the marriage feels so flat all I can imagine is quiet desperation as two people who are miserable do their duty, or there is backlash from people who are looking for I just don't know what. It just doesn't make sense, particularly with how racy the bible can be when discussing marital relations- Song of Songs anyone?

Wendy said...

Caz: I think we've all read romances where it felt like the author "tacked on" a sex scene (or two) because they felt like they had to. For me it's all about what will best serve the story. Sometimes that G-rated romance would benefited from a love scene, and sometimes that NC-17 rated romance would have been better served if the author had dialed things back a wee bit. It's what feels authentic to the characters IMHO

It's the married component of this romance that really tripped me up. I can wrap my mine around readers not wanting any hanky-panky (even G-rated) in an inspirational if the couple is unmarried. That I "get." But dude. They're married. Shouldn't it be OK for married folk to get frisky and be attracted to each other?

Wendy said...

Kate: LOL! Skimming for God ;)

Wendy said...

Nikki: No, you're right. I had no idea (and I'm a librarian - for shame!) but they really are too different genres. "We" tend to use inspirational and Christian interchangeably - but "inspirational" doesn't necessarily HAVE to have a religious component. Like, say, Tuesdays With Morrie by Mitch Albom. Inspirational non-fiction, but one that doesn't have a strong religious component to it.

Wendy said...

Erin: Yeah, it was the whole "But they're MARRIED!" thing that really got my goat here. This was basically a story of two near-strangers navigating their way through being newlyweds. It was heartening, for me, to know that while they did have some Odd Couple-like issues, the intimate "stuff" wasn't one of them. It made buying into the happy-ending that much easier.

azteclady said...

(Blogger is hating on me again)

So, as I was trying to say erlier...

I think that the other Lori got the right of it: it's all about not tempting the readers with the shenanigans of a fictional couple engaging in religiously sanctioned sexy times--even if said sexy times are so bland as to bore a prepubescent girl and fade to black behind closed doors.

Is this kind of thing--what the people leaving the reviews you mentioned are complaining about--that makes me wonder if any couples with a healthy view of sexuality can be members in good standing of any organized religion. From what I see of the world, a healthy view of sexuality is the first thing to go, whenever and wherever organized religion has anything to say. (The second, is women's rights)

liztalley said...

Oh, I'm sorry I'm late to this conversation, especially since I'm a dirty-mouthed, sex writing Christian :)

First, I do think there is a group of women who think discussions of sex in inspy romance is inappropriate, and I'm gathering they are the same women who likely avoided the talk of sexual relations their entire life. They are women like my grandmother, who thought sex was dirty...and cursing was a sin. Hey, I love my grandmother, but I read romance (aka Rosemary Rogers) like a fiend so I knew better. Thank God (yes, I said it) for raunchy romance teaching me how awesome sex could be between two people who loved each other. If it had been left up to my Grandmother, I'd still be reading Shepard of the Hills and have no clue about the wonder of intimacy, abandon, passion, toe-curling sex that awaited me. So, yeah, I feel so very, very sorry for those women who think the deep emotional bonds of good sex is inappropriate for a book about falling in love.

And that's why even as a Christian woman, I refuse to read inspirational fiction (outside of my critique partner and Francine Rivers). Publishers in this sub-genre skip over the reality of Christians falling in love...as if loving Jesus prevents you from wanting to get down and dirty with someone you're falling for. Jeez Louise, giving your life to Christ doesn't mean you don't get horny. It doesn't mean a cold beer doesn't taste good anymore....or "shit" doesn't roll out of your mouth when you drop a can of creamed corn on your toe. Christians are human and they do ugly, raunchy wonderful things...and still love God. So the books that prevent someone from saying "I bet you can't beat me in a race" (cause you can't use the word 'bet') aren't realistic to modern Christians. They only resonate with women like my grandmother. So I don't bother to read them even though the story is likely good.

And here's where I think self-publishing can really make some strides for the modern Christian woman. I'm excited about where Inspy fiction can go when these authors can write REAL people.

Great post!

Piper Huguley said...

There's a whole other side to this equation and that is of African American Christian fiction. In a number of these books, people do have sex (of the toe curling kind), and a number of times it's premartial. So when I decided to close the door on my married couple, several people looked at me as if I had lost my mind. I'm not sure what I'm going to do when this situation comes up in my next book, but I do agree with you Wendy. The edge of the envelope in inspriationals should be pushed in a number of ways, and showing lovemaking scenes as this author has done should be one of them. Amy Talley is right, self-publishing is doing something to help this along.

Bona Caballero said...

I haven't read any inspirational. Those books are not translated and published here, in Spain, as far as I know. No reading public for them.
Those comments from very conservative readers sounded to me like those that do clit ablation in Africa -and sadly they try to do it in Europe as well, even if it's legally prosecuted: women should not feel desire. And that's all, because -for them- sex is dirty, even in a married couple, b/c if they enjoy it, then they could be unfaithful.
I ground my teeth when I read that a book was not a 'clean read'. If it's not clean, then joyful sex in a married couple is a 'dirty read' for them. Maybe it's one of those things that I simply don't understand.

Bona Caballero said...

I agree with you. You're very brave to say it.

Wendy said...

AL: I'm so glad I was raised by a nurse. My mother is so pragmatic about the human body - what a blessing for her three daughters!

(And Blogger - I've found that if I sign in first before I comment it seems to like that better. Silly Blogger. Be nice to AL!)

Wendy said...

Liz: Totally, completely agree. I don't like to read about Mary Sue heroines in heathen books - and I certainly don't want to read about them in inspirationals. Goody-goodies are so frickin' BORING! I don't want Stepford Pod People Heroines. I want heroines (and for that matter, heroes) who behave like normal people - warts and all. Like you said, just because you believe in Christ does not mean you're going to wake up tomorrow being perfect. Ugh, and who would want to be? Perfect is boring.

Some of the best books I've read that have dealt with religious themes have actually been secular books. The last one that really blew up my skirt was Always To Remember by Lorraine Heath. Strong religious themes in that story - including faith, forgiveness and a hero who is a conscientious objector.

(And I need to try Francine Rivers...)

Wendy said...

Piper: For me I think we get hung-up on "the sex stuff" too often in inspirationals. For me I'm much more in it for the "life affirming" reason. All romance should leave the reader feeling hopeful, but for me this seems like it would be the natural bread and butter of the inspirational market. That feeling of being uplifted.

Wendy said...

Bona: Probably not - since the inspirational market strongly targets an American, Protestant, borderline Evangelical market. That doesn't really translate overseas. I've enjoyed several inspirationals but I'd love to see the sub genre broaden it's scope. Because I could see "life affirming" stories doing well overseas - but the way a lot of the sub genre is now? Not so much. The focus is too narrow. What I have discovered is that the inspirational writers I enjoy the most fall into that "comfort read" zone. Cozy, nice stories about nice people. Some religious elements are there, but they tend play well across the board no matter what you believe (for example, forgiveness).

Kelly Campbell said...

I read anything / everything. I have found myself highly enjoying the inspirationals. I am NOT a religious person in the traditional sense of the word. I believe I have mentioned before that the religious elements in the book are of course there but they don't smack you in the face/over the head with them. I like to think of the inspirational line, especially the historicals, as Little House on the Prairie for adults. ;-)

Kaetrin said...

I don't read a lot of inspies but I love to read about intimacy. It doesn't have to be physical intimacy but the romance isn't going to work for me if I can see an intimate connection. So, I'm with you Wendy. I don't get it either.

Becky said...

I find that the spice level I'm looking for in my reading is directly related to my cycle. (Yes, I went there.) There is a week where I'm *only* interested in the really raunchy stuff and a week when the most I can even contemplate is an inspirational (this is also the week for non-fiction reading).

But, I tend to read the Amish ones and they tend to be very heavy on undercurrents with not much at all in the way of even a heated look. They also tend to be a little less heavy on the jarring preachy section since the religion is woven into their everyday life. If you've mostly read those, the more contemporary inspirationals will be a big shift. At the same time, it's rare that I feel so moved by an inspirational that I simply must review it (for instance, I really liked An Honest Love and it notably addressed infertility) and I think that's both the nature of reviews and also what you're bumping up against. People review books they love and books they really hated and then not so much the middle. There are a hunk of women who feel they are doing a service to their sisters in Christ to be sure that they aren't "tempted to stray" (as an earlier commenter explained). They also probably envision the likely reader as their daughter or other quite young lady who needs a higher level of protection. There are also a hunk of readers that are likely unwilling to admit that they read the book, enjoyed it, and found the sensuality appropriate. Be *their* voice.

Wendy said...

Kelly: The Little House on the Prairie sentiment is exactly how I feel about the Love Inspired Historical line for Harlequin. Two of my favorite western writers over there are Sherri Shackelford and Lacy Williams.

Wendy said...

Kaetrin: I'm of the belief that without intimacy no marriage is going to "work." And I think there's a way authors can convey that without getting graphic - as many good inspirational authors illustrate. But dang, getting smacked down for showing two people who are into each other? I just don't get that. Especially when you're reading the romance genre ::shrug::

Wendy said...

Becky: I loved your comment. Yes, I will strive to be "their" voice :)

I find that I turn to inspirationals when I want a "comfort" read - and so far that has been with historical westerns. As someone stated in an earlier comment, it's that Little House on the Prairie vibe. I should try some Amish ones. I think they'd probably have the same effect for me.....

Anne-girl said...

Hi, I really appreciate this post.

I'm a fairly conservative Christian. As in, I personally am not going to have sex till marriage - and that's between me and God. Oh, and I'm 30, so it's not like I haven't had the opportunity or anything.

I also love romances. Some mainstream, some inspirational, some paranormal. Some are even a bit smutty :-). Granted, I skip some parts in novels that are too discriptive to be comfortable to me, but if there is one thing I'm FULLY COMFORTABLE with, it's a healthy sex life between marrieds. Guess what? When I do get married, I'm planning on having no holds barred, down and dirty sex. I'm not waiting cause I think I shouldn't like sex, or because it's wrong. I'm waiting because I think it'll be awesome, and I want to share it with someone I love enough to commit my life to (and this is not a judgement if you're not on the same page, just an explanation of my reasons).

The fact is, some Christians confuse personal commitment to a code of conduct based in the bible with fear, judgement, and the shaming of female sexuality (which, hello, read the song of Solomon, people. He totally goes down on her. There's a description of married sex life those commenters probably wouldn't like either...)

My point -I'm glad you like inspirationals and can take away a positive message even if your personal beliefs varry. I do the same with mainstream romance I read. So please don't let a few of the confused turn you off of this particular genre.

-future librarian

Wendy said...

Hi Anne! Sorry your comment got hung up in moderation - I turned it on for older posts to help curtail spam issues. Anyway, here you are now!

I really appreciated your comment. I think that is what floored me so much in this instance - is that the couple in question were married. I'm thinking God would totally be cool with a married couple "enjoying" each other ;)

Going into inspirational reading I fully expect two things: 1) no pre-martial hanky-panky outside of (maybe) a few stolen kisses and 2) G-rated Sexy Times assuming the couple is married. Which, in the instance of this particular book, is totally what happened. It was nice that the author was able to convey that these two people were hot for each other, all while keeping it a "clean" read. Obviously the definition of "clean" can vary wildly for folks.....