Open to Romance

I try not to be unduly influenced by labels. The Spoonman on the street corner, the experimental-progressive underground rock band, and the latest Top 40 pop ingénue may all have something to contribute to the cultural dialogue. McG may never give the world a Citizen Kane, but I firmly believe in the artistic merit of John Woo’s ballet of violence.

Ed Wood’s artistic vision

If Ed Wood was really such a terrible director (and he was) why do we still watch his movies? Yes, we enjoy making fun of them, but dozens of other directors of B-grade horror movies have long since been completely forgotten. Wood’s movies have staying power because they were the expression, however flawed, of an artistic vision, and despite those flaws, they were expressed with a conviction that speaks to the audience more fluently than the vehicle itself.

Likewise, the term “literary fiction,” makes me uncomfortable. It smacks of exclusivity, and is as likely to be off-putting to a potential reader looking for a good story as it is to attract someone desirous of a quality read. The Great Gatsby, published in 1925, is one of the great works of 20th century American literature. From a literary standpoint, Fitzgerald was inarguably more a master of the craft than Zane Grey, whose book Under the Tonto Rim was printed the same year. Edgar Rice Burroughs, who published The Moon Men, also in 1925, is often consigned to the literary equivalent of the B-movie – genre fiction. Yet one would be hard pressed to identify which of these three authors has had the greatest impact on the development of American culture.

Given my egalitarian attitude towards art, when I started hearing about the novel Fifty Shades of Grey, I was shocked to realize that I had never read an erotica or romance novel. I had avoided the entire genre because I doubted there was anything of value to be found there. I was guilty of genre-ism!

Romance that’s relevant ninety years later

I decided to look further into the Fifty Shades phenomenon, and I found this piece. Here is what the author had to say about the book:

Obviously there were going to be explicit sex scenes, this I was prepared for. What took me aback were the cringeingly cheesy 50 pages or so of exposition before getting to the explicit sex scenes.

The article includes excerpted passages that confirm just how cringey the book really is. We’re talking some seriously bad prose. According to the article, the seven or eight sex scenes are good. But I could never swallow writing that bad just for sex scenes. As a test of the genre, Fifty Shades of Grey would serve only to  confirm my prejudices.

That same week, an email landed in my inbox titled “Feed your reader with steamy new romance – New erotic romance from Harlequin and Carina press.” The email suggested galleys for two kink books with submissive females; a homosexual romance between a young lord and a pickpocket; a reservation romance whose very premise reeked of racial exploitation; and a ripped corset story. Nothing really grabbed me. I was about to give up when I read the note at the bottom of the email.

“Looking for more erotic romance? Harlequin has the perfect primer for newcomers to the naughty stuff.”

I clicked through to one of the best-written marketing pieces I’ve ever read. It began:

Of course you’re curious about erotic romance…but perhaps the thought of asking questions has you turning fifty shades of red. Fear not: Harlequin has the perfect primer for newcomers to the naughty stuff. (We are romance experts after all, offering erotic reads that run the gamut from the boudoir to the dungeon!) So read on! You know you want to…

There was a perfect balance of information and humor. New releases were categorized for body count (three is never a crowd), editor’s picks (the A-list of the NC-17s), and historical (for readers who like their corsets unlaced and their nobles naughty). Links to editors’ blogs and free online stories filled the side of the page. It finished off with a cheeky Glossary of Terms such as:

Training: A period during which a dom instructs a sub in correct behavior, aka Best. Homework. Ever.

Safe word: An agreed-upon code word that a sub can use to stop a BDSM scene. Probably best to avoid antidisestablishmentarianism.

Vanilla: A term describing a person or sexual scenario outside the BDSM lifestyle. Not adventurous, but still pretty yummy.

If the books were even half as good, it would be worth my time to check them out. But what to try? Editor’s picks? After all, they are the experts. I was tempted by Alison’s Wonderland, just for its literary reference. Ironically, I didn’t meet Harlequin’s reviewer standards to receive advance copies of their books, so I was limited to the samples on their website. Figuring that period costume always increases one’s genre-tolerance, I opted for a historical quickie.

Fabio contributes to the cultural dialogue

And the verdict? Well, it wasn’t as good as the newsletter. Like Ed Wood’s Plan 9 From Outer Space, it was pretty corny. Random “Ayes” are thrown into awkward dialogue to indicate Scottishness. With only 8 pages, the plot was still plagued by inconsistencies. I snorted and almost gave up  at the line “I realized he meant to have me right there in the scullery.”

But also like Ed Wood, there was something unexpected buried under the corsets. I really liked the presentation of Wiccan spirituality. Although Master Ewan’s thighs take up a greater part of the word count, what ultimately, um, satisfies the heroine isn’t their not-quite-exhibitionist vanilla coupling but the peace she gets from joining a community of like-minded people. Plus, it was a free download that probably took less time to write than this blog post.

The magazine Weird Tales was probably filled with a lot of crap in addition to Robert E. Howard’s Conan stories. The erotic and romance genres, like horror and the macabre, may also house a few gems. It’s probably worth more than just a quickie to find out.