Recently, the Smart Bitches had a posting on the rules and boundaries of the romance hero’s conduct—namely, is he allowed to sleep with other women in the course of his love story, once he has met the heroine, or even once the reader has cracked open the book?
This, of course, is but a corollary to the much older, much more pervasive, blood pressure-raising, and probably never-going-away debate on whether the romance heroine is allowed to have—and enjoy—sex with other men once we are past the dedication page.
I frankly don’t care about the hero’s chastity. If he’s pure as the driven snow, great. If not, I’ll judge his action—and any action he might enjoy with someone other than the heroine—in the context of the story. The rules—or stricture, I should say—about the heroine’s conduct, however, have chafed me more than a little over the years, precisely because such rules existed, unspoken perhaps, but very much adhered to and demanded from authors.
Schemes of Love, the first novel I sold, is, in a way, the first novel that I ever wrote. It got me the attention of my first agent. She saw some potential to the story. But she did not hesitate to tell me that the manuscript, in the shape and form as was presented to her, was unsaleable.
The basic premise of the story has always been girl meets boy, girl loses boy through her own misdeed, and many years later, girl meets boy again. My first agent gave me three pieces of advice on the book. One, she said, you can’t write the story in a linear fashion. Start the story when they meet again and not a minute before. Two, you can’t have the heroine do something morally wrong and then somehow vindicate her. Wrong is wrong. Three, you can’t have the heroine take lovers, even if she did it off stage, during a very long separation, with the hero having made it abundantly clear that he would never come back to her.
The majority of romance readers live below the Mason-Dixon line, said my very liberal New Yorker then-agent (those were her exact words). They would not tolerate the heroine’s unfaithfulness, she added, particularly not from a debut author.
That was in the earliest months of 2001.
When I returned to the story some four-and-half years later to rewrite every last word from scratch, I took her first two pieces of advice to heart—and rejected the third one outright. It would have been out of character for my heroine to mope for ten years and save herself for a man who has rejected her unequivocally. It would have been out of character for me to submit to the whim of some mythical, disapproving reader when I’m not even writing for her, but for me.
For good measure I emphasized in the first chapter that neither of my protagonists has been sleeping with only his or her feather pillows.
And then, of course, came the hand-wringing, as I waited for reactions to this heroine who is utterly unapologetic about her lovers—and to this couple for whom the lovers, his and hers, aren’t even an issue compared to what really divides them.
The contest judges were unfazed that neither the hero nor the heroine remained celibate during their long separation and I know for sure that some of them live below the Mason Dixie line (hasta la vista, stereotype). My agent has never said a thing. My editor at Bantam is resolutely unbothered.
Maybe the times have changed, thanks to the authors of erotic romances who have managed to smash a lot of rules while making money hand over fist for their publishers. Maybe the readers have become more accepting of heroines who differ rather dramatically from the old, agreed-upon feminine ideal. Maybe I’ve improved enough as a writer that people get absorbed in the story and don’t care about such peripheral distractions.
We’ll see by next year this time what reader reactions would be. In the meanwhile, I have a story to pitch to my editor in which, gasp, there is sleeping with other people again–and this time not quite so peripheral to the story.
A little side note. A reader inquired some time ago in the comments about the use of profanities in romances. It seems that in historical romances the f-bomb is still largely unwelcome (both my former and current agents have asked me to avoid them if I can, though I am trying again in DELICIOUS to sneak a few in by having the hero drunkenly comments on the fate of a particular piece of legislation—he’s a politician). But in single-title contemporary romances I don’t think those are frowned upon at all, especially when used by men. So go ahead, f-bomb away as you write. Take half of them out before submitting and leave the rest to the gods of obscenity.
The Theory of Accelerated Karma, it seems, needs to marinate some more before it will be ready for the grill.