If you’re sick of reading my epiphanies about why romance fiction isn’t working for me right now and wish I’d work this out for myself privately, well, skip this post.
be thinking about one of these deep sorrows that have marked her life, and then she’ll drift into thinking about the latest book she’s reading and how it reminds her of a movie, or a piece of classical music – and the reminding never prompts any epiphanies. It’s just the unremunerative train of her thoughts. It takes you twenty or thirty pages before its stunning fidelity to real life sinks in.
The thing is, the train of Aaliya’s thoughts may be unremunerative for her, but it isn’t for the reader–not for me, anyway: I had an epiphany on page 43. (That description might make the book sound dull. It’s true we see Aaliya brushing her teeth, but as she lives through the Israeli seige of Beirut, we also see her chasing intruders from her apartment with an AK-47. As middle-aged ladies do).
Anyhow, here’s the passage that prompted my epiphany. Aaliya is trading sex with a much younger former employee for that AK-47 and of course she’s thinking while she does:
How can one describe the ephemeral qualities of sex beyond the probing, poking, and panting? How can one use inadequate words to describe the ineffable, the beyond words? Those salacious Arabs and their Western counterparts [she’s just enumerated the books that taught her about sex] were able to explain the technical aspects, which is helpful, of course, and delightful. Some touched on the spiritual, on the psychological, and metaphor was loved by all. However, to believe that words can in any way mirror or, alas, explain the infinite mystery of sex is akin to believing that reading dark notes on paper can illuminate a Bach partita. . . . Sex, like art, can unsettle a soul, can grind a heart in a mortar. Sex, like literature, can sneak the other within one’s walls, even if only for a moment, a moment before one immures oneself again.
Ohhh, I thought. Lately, when I read romance, I find that the depictions of desire and sex are mostly just dark notes on the page to me, inert. They don’t evoke a melody. I find myself wondering whether this has something to do with the push towards more frequent sex on the page, more explicitness, towards spelling it all out, and if older, purpler, more euphemistic days were more interested in reaching for the ineffable and thus produced sweeter unheard melodies (Aaliya’s constant literary allusions rubbed off on me). I also wonder if that shift is all in my mind. I suspect so.
Because this response is really about what’s in the reader’s mind as much as what is on the page. I’ve read sex scenes others find deeply moving (in various ways) but that leave me cold, or make me want to laugh. And vice versa. But I do wonder about the expectation, in a lot of romance, that all the notes must be on the page. And the shorthand depiction of physical attraction = sexual attraction = thinking about fucking right now.
When I first discovered romance and erotica (both when I was younger and when I began reading them again a few years ago) I found the explicitness and openness about sex liberating. Now, I’m increasingly bored. Even when sex scenes are not gratuitous, when they develop the relationship, they are often rote and familiar. And sometimes it seems like sex and the desire for sex are the main way the relationship gets developed. There are aspects of romantic relationships and feelings that cannot be explored through sex, or that could sometimes be explored in other ways, and I’d like to see more of that. Don’t tell me in a sentence that they talked all night and then toss them into bed for 10 pages. What did they talk about? (Besides sex). Will they still be talking in 30 years?
But if sex scenes bore me, I can skim or skip them, as long as they aren’t too much of the book. What’s harder to skip is the way an author depicts attraction throughout the story. Here’s an example from Part I of Meljean Brook’s Kraken King (which, by the way, I am really enjoying). Hero and heroine have just “met” escaping from a battle, and she’s squeezed up behind him on a small flying machine with her skirt hiked up:
His blood raced. His flesh hardened. He only had to glance down to see the woman’s leg, smooth and pale as a fish belly. . . . Ariq didn’t know if she was bare all the way up, where she cradled him between taut thighs.
To be fair, this line of thought seems totally in character for Ariq, who is shortly going to bluntly proposition the heroine. And it’s not just her legs that make her desirable but her courage, sense of humor and intelligence. I’m only pointing to this particular passage because I just read it.
I see this kind of crude (by which I mean unsubtle) spelling out of desire a lot in romance fiction, and I find it less and less appealing. I can think of good reasons for it. For one, authors have to use words for things that in our heads could just be flashes of sensation or images. Almost inevitably, fiction that wants to depict desire makes its characters more explicit about that desire than many of us are even to ourselves (or at least than I am). So you might enjoy the sensation of pressing up against someone’s back without thinking “wow, my nipples are hardening against his firmly muscled back”). Romance authors are caught in this bind of having to spell out the notes of the song. If it is a bind.
I think there is also a wide-spread assumption that “men think this way, all the time.” (Romance heroines get their dark notes of desire printed out too, but not to the same extent). I’m not so sure. And even if many real men do think like this, romance heroes are fictional, female-authored fantasy men, so maybe a few more of them could be guys who don’t go straight from noticing the heroine has long, shapely legs to he imagined them wrapped around his waist as he buried himself in her tight, wet passage oh sorry where was I? Do we have to go from 0 to hard-on in a heartbeat? I can understand that he finds her hot if he notices her legs without having every dark note pressed into the paper.
When I say physical attraction, sexual attraction, and imagining sex are not really synonymous, that equating them is short-hand, I mean that if I notice a man has beautiful hands, I don’t automatically picture them down my pants. Maybe I just admire them aesthetically. Maybe I think they’d be nice to hold. Or maybe I do picture them down my pants (not me, I’m kind of a prude). I think there is a sexual element, for most people, most of the time, in holding your beloved’s hand, or stroking his hair, or other kinds of affectionate touching. Or that those things, in a romantic relationship, are on a continuum with sex. But it seems like in genre romance we spend a lot of time on one end of the continuum, focusing on the most sexualized aspects of physical attraction.
I’ll just shut up now and read more traditional Regencies or novels with romantic elements to get my romance fix. Or there’s my category romance stash: Harlequin Romance authors are often great at subtle depictions of attraction. These books leave more notes off the page, but sometimes they evoke the ineffable elements of desire and sex all the better because of it.