Thursday, 28 June 2007

The sex thing sure was easier for Florence

I was working on cataloging my books on LibraryThing this week, and as I entered The Rosary by Florence L. Barclay, I couldn't help reflecting on just how much times - and romance novels - have changed. The Rosary remains one of my favorite romances, and favorite books, regardless of category. My copy really belongs to my mother, but I hijacked it years ago for my own collection. The book was first publishsed in 1909, and it is still in print. Our copy is old, the pages yellowed and brittle, and it was a fixture on our bookshelf all my life. For thirty-something years I never gave it a glance, mistaking it for a religious tome.

One day, after I had separated from my husband and moved to my mother's apartment, infant son in tow, I was busying myself cleaning bookshelves and something prompted me to open The Rosary. I began reading, and was immediately captivated. The language is simple and elegant, the story of the love between the plain, sensible Miss Champion and the handsome, artistic Garth Dalmain deeply moving, and as I read of their struggle to overcome their particular obstacles I felt their pain. To me, the story is transcendent. And there isn't a single sex scene.

I re-read The Rosary every few years, as I do many books that I love dearly. This one was written at a time when love was idealized, women were [supposedly] virgins when they married, and the writers of their love stories did not dare venture beyond the threshold of the bedroom. What the couple did behind closed doors - and this was post-marriage, of course - was private. Whenever I read The Rosary I feel deep nostalgia for those times. Although I thoroughly enjoyed writing the love scenes for my first romance novel, by the time I got to the second one I found myself groaning whenever I came to the bedroom scenes. How graphic should I get? Shouldn't less be more? At what point did romance become erotica, and erotica become porn? I understand why some romance writers write the story and simply type [insert sex scene] at appropriate intervals, then come back when the novel is written and labor over the parts where the couple get down to business.

Don't get me wrong. I enjoy a sexy contemporary romance as well as the next gal; hell, I even write 'em. But I'm ambivalent about the raunchy sex that has become a requisite today. Writing it and making it fresh is a challenge, but that's not all. I feel more and more a responsibility to convey positive, safe messages with regard to sexual behaviour in light of the pandemic of STDs. We must change our sexual behaviour, and so must our characters, I believe. We have to reexamine the old values of abstinence, virginity, monogamy and fidelity, of necessity - and so must our characters. It has become a survival issue.

Some publishers/editors now require condoms to be a part of sex scenes between unmarried couples, although we all know that condoms are unreliable, and they're not the solution to STDs. Should our stories be a gentle reminder of the realities out there? Or should they remain a fantasy arena, the readers' respite from the wearying realities of the real world, a place where no holds are barred, anything is possible, and nothing irremediably bad ever happens to our hero and heroine? Therein lies the conundrum for me.

I suspect things were simpler in Florence Barclay's day.


kim said...

Sounds like you answered your own question -- go with your gut, it will seperate you from the crowd.

I find it refreshing these days when movie makers and writers leave room for me to fill in the blanks.

As I type I'm thinking it's new frontier,rather than throwback, stuff. A writer can lead people to the doorstep in ways they previously wouldn't dare.

wordtryst said...

I find your comment very thought-provoking. I know I really shouldn't write anything I'm not comfortable with simply because that's the way it's done now in the genre.

But the sex scenes are just one aspect of the story. I've yet to learn where to effectively compromise, and where not to.