Reading Desire: “Dark Notes on Paper”

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.

I’m reading Rabih Alameddine’s An Unnecessary Woman. Because of this review and this interview with the author. In the review, Steve Donoghue describes how the central character, Aaliya, will

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.

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50 Responses to Reading Desire: “Dark Notes on Paper”

  1. “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.”

    I agree with this completely. I don’t know whether it’s my own personal drop in libido, or just overfamiliarity, but I find sex scenes now leave me completely cold, in every sense. Even when they move the story forward and feel right for the narrative, as emotional/sensual experiences, they just don’t work at all any more. Writing them is impossible now.

    Of course, when I mentioned this recently in the context of a post about m/m stories, another (f/f and m/f) author snarkily asked why I bothered to write m/m at all, if I wasn’t interested in sex – as if writing about LGBT people has to be about the author’s arousal!

    When I first discovered romance, the lushness and excitement of the emotions was what grabbed me (because sex never appeared qua sex). That still grabs me in a good romance. But sex? Nah. Can’t be bothered 🙂

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      You know, I tried not to talk about my libido, because TMI, but obviously that is part of a reader’s response. We are more and less interested in sex at different points in our lives–and that may or may not be related to our interest in reading about it. I think a really good sex scene is one that focuses as much on the characters’ emotions as on the mechanics, and that can be interesting to read even if you aren’t turned on. That is missing in a lot of books, at least for me, and hence I skip. Wet panties is not the kind of “feeling” I’m talking about.

      The scene from Alameddine’s novel that I quoted from again goes on to describe how, when Aaliya and Ahmad are having sex, she feels his hands on her back (he’s behind her) and realizes he’s POPPING BLACKHEADS. He apologizes, and she says no, keep doing it, it feels good. So he does. This scene is not romantic, and not exactly titillating/erotic (maybe that depends on the reader), but it’s also not bad sex. They both like it. And it’s specific-to-them sex. The blackhead popping, which is what the text focuses on instead of the sexual mechanics, is far more intimate than the other things they are doing with their bodies, and more interesting, and more revealing of character (of Aaliya’s loneliness, for instance, I think). I wouldn’t expect THAT scene in romance, because the genre is clearly more firmly planted in the realms of fantasy and titillation than that, and that’s what readers want from it. But you COULD have scenes that were more specific to the characters and more focused on their emotions, and somewhat less Tab A/Slot B, and still were deeply erotic. In fact, you do in really good books, and those scenes I still love reading.

      Sometimes when I write these posts I feel like I have to defend the existence of my libido (“I still like sex in real life!”) because I have seen authors and readers on Twitter suggest that readers who complain about sex scenes or say they are too unrealistic must have boring sex lives. Um, no. To be honest (and TMI) social media probably plays a role in my feelings about this topic. There is SO MUCH focus, from authors and readers, on the sexual elements of romance and on romance as related to female fantasy. Authors give away sex toys as promo, people talk about their sexual responses to books. I feel the need to protect my own libido and fantasy life from Romanceland–I do not want the voices of blogs and Twitter in my head when I am reading sex scenes or, frankly, having sex and I find it hard to shut out sometimes. Ick.

    • jillsorenson says:

      That was me, I believe. I haven’t written any f/f, though I’m considering it. Anyway, I didn’t mean to be snarky or to suggest that writing m/m, or any other subgenre, has to be all about the sex. I only questioned why m/m is so much more popular with readers and authors for whom sex isn’t part of the draw. If love is love, f/f should be just as appealing, no? Of course I understand that some authors prefer to write male characters. I named Brockmann as having said that. No offense intended.

      • jillsorenson says:

        My reply was for Ann, in case that wasn’t clear! Great post Liz.

      • jillsorenson says:

        I also understand that romance readers often want to fall in love with heroes, whether the story is explicit or not. But, looking back, I can see how my wording was problematic. If I wrote sweet m/f, no one would ask me why I don’t also write sweet m/m and sweet f/f, as if I should be equally interested in all three.

        Sorry Ann. And sorry Liz for derailing with this side issue.

  2. Thank you, you have spelt out the problem I have been having with romantic fiction for the last five or so years. I actively miss the euphemistic days when more emphasis was placed on the relationship dynamics, the mental connection and couples could find a rhythm together outside of sex. I find them all rote lately when I come upon them in books and mostly skim and skip them over. I find the number of pages I have to skip has gotten increasingly high as well as these gratuitous scenes become more stretched out to pad novels. And worse yet is that I am not prudish. I read erotica too occasionally so it isn’t the sex aspect that bothers me. It’s the a) rushing into it (often I feel they barely have a relationship and are already sleeping together, as if sex is somehow the only ways to kickstart one) and the b) as u say, the making the entire relationship seem somewhat lust centered and therefore shallow in my eyes.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      Yes, I find in too many books the characterization and the relationship feel shallow. I am not sure that this is books changing. It may be me as a reader changing. As I read more romance, some of the things that felt “OMG I haven’t seen this in books before” (both sex/desire and a focus on emotions) now don’t feel so fresh.

      I am both tired of having things spelled out in detail when I’m perfectly able to interpret/intuit them, and wishing for some things to be shown in more details/to get more page time. What do these people do when they are not having sex. And yes, why the rush to get them in to bed? (I mean, they can lust without acting on it). Why not draw out the tension and let them get to know each other more? (Not every couple–I think how this happens should make sense for those two people, not feel as if “well, time for sex! this is a sexy book!”). Sometimes rushing into it makes sense, sometimes not.

  3. I’ve longed believed this is a flaw of many romance novels– or, rather, an approach that is now tired and rarely well done– It’s now common that romance novels begin with characters who are shown, from page one, to be destined for each other. The narrative never questions that. Not once, and that is true even when the characters, ostensibly, dislike each other. The narrative suggests and implies at every turn that this cannot last.

    I feel that authors and perhaps more aptly, acquiring editors, have forgotten how delicious it is when what the author puts on the page at the start is a couple who are not destined. Their lives, their thoughts, the very narrative of the prose puts them on separate tracks. Some of the early Trad Regency authors absolutely excelled at this.

    There are not very many Romance authors doing that these days. I wish they would.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      I wonder whether that is part of what people are responding to when they say “I wish genre romance could expand to include novels without an HEA.” I DON’T wish that! You can find unhappy romantic stories elsewhere easily enough. But I agree that the sense of inevitability can be tiresome. I was reading a Trad Regency recently where I wasn’t totally sure at first who the hero was, and it was so refreshing.

      What I miss is the focus on falling in love and courtship.

      • Yes. Very much so. I once wrote or said somewhere to some fellow writers that I thought a romance should begin (and perhaps persist for many pages) as if it were NOT a romance. I think I didn’t express myself well, because there was much criticism of the notion. Really, really a tremendous amount of push back. But I guess it had no effect on me, because I still believe that. I think it makes for a powerful romance.

        I think it was a Joan Wolf trad (not sure I have the author’s name right) where I was blown away by that tactic.

        • Liz Mc2 says:

          Well, if you ever read how people respond to first pages at Dear Author, it seems clear that some readers/authors believe the hero and heroine should be clear on page one. Which, really? How dull. (One of the protagonists should probably be your POV character on p. 1, but even that rule I’ve seen broken in interesting ways).

          I still remember reading one of your books (I won’t say which because of spoilers) where a character seemed obviously set up as having a secondary romance and then had a totally different fate, and I was STUNNED. I have rarely been that surprised by a romance novel (and of course, some people don’t want to be). And it made the book way more interesting–suddenly anything seemed possible, except a non-HEA.

          I think what you say about not seeming like a romance novel at the start makes sense–in part because I want the genre to make me believe in romance *as a part of life.*

    • Erin Satie says:

      Just want to say I am really drawn to this idea–that a romance should begin as if it is not a romance. I’ll be thinking about that for a while.

    • Juhi says:

      I love the idea that the narrative doesn’t just blithely build on the idea that the two are oh, so meant to be–to me that signals a relationship which has to be worked through amidst the clamor of everyday life… and that, for me at least, is a very seductive proposition.

  4. willaful says:

    No no no… the correct usage is, “I’m not a prude, but…” 😉

    I just read Ridiculous, in which the heroine is disguised as a man for much of the book, and falls in love with her best male friend. There were some excellent bits of her enjoying the tiniest bits of allowable contact, like just their boots touching. The actual sex, when it came, was far less interesting.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      Yes. Did you see that Anna Cowan post on fetish objects in romances? (Like Roarke having Eve’s button). The little things like hands brushing that have a huge impact, that’s what I remember about falling in love. YA can be good at this too–Rainbow Rowell is. Of course, all my feelings about this are probably colored by the fact that the last time I fell in love I was 21 and pretty inexperienced. If my own romantic history were different, I might find different fictional representations meaningful. I don’t know.

    • Erin Satie says:

      I think one of the things that extra helpings of sex has made possible in romance (sometimes, if we’re lucky) is that the book isn’t all about “Oh, so when are they going to have sex?” — and then you read on breathlessly until they do the deed.

      I still remember Gabriel’s Woman by Robin Schone as a revelation because the hero had a history as a skilled male prostitute and he had a really uneasy relationship with sexual pleasure. He knew he could provoke really strong, positive reactions from a wide array of women without any emotional investment, and as a result the fact that he and the heroine had (frequent, awesome) sex *could not* forward the relationship. It had no deeper meaning; pleasure was just a sensation. The attachment had to come from something else.

      So, my point is, sometimes adding in sex early on has a strange, counterintuitive effect: okay, now we’ve got that out of the way and the real story can begin.

      I think this is a different phenomenon than the one you’re addressing, Liz.

      If I have a point, it’s that the structure of a novel–a slow build to a peak, versus a relationship that’s sexual early on–doesn’t really determine what the content will be.

  5. Lucy Warriner says:

    Yes to your entire post. When I really think about it, my benchmarks for romance are relatively tame scenes from movies and books. I think of Frederick Wentworth helping Anne Elliot into a carriage when she’s tired, or lifting her misbehaving nephew off her back . . . or the extended nuzzle-kiss in Notorious and the longing looks prior to the “phone kiss” in It’s a Wonderful Life. Less is definitely more, and I don’t mind an author letting me use my imagination.

  6. I have so many thoughts! (Bear in mind that I’m still working the following points out within my own writing and that debut authors have less leeway than veteran, best-sellers) Forgive me if they seem scattered!

    1) Romance is packaged and consumed in a way that doesn’t reward the non-fantasy. In general, romance novels are supposed to move one’s emotions, as opposed to one’s mind, which means everything must be explicit. This is how we immediately know the rival for the hero’s affection is The Evil Other Woman (she doesn’t want children! she’s a bottle blonde! she’s bitchy!), or how the boner the hero gets for the heroine means she’s the one. Heaven forbid the hero–after meeting the heroine–idly notices another attractive woman, or the heroine doesn’t experience the best sex ever with the hero that will show how amazing he is. Short-hand plotting and characterization pushes the emotional and sexual connection the reader has with the book (or the hero) to the fore.

    2) We–general “we”–tend to write in a bubble, feeding and feeding into the norm. Most romance writers picked up a pen after reading romances, thus consuming the expected plots, character types, prose, POV, style, et al. When they realize they want to write for publication, they join structured romance writing organizations/groups, where they are conditioned to conform to “Da Rulez” (© Moriah Jovan) through contests, critique group feedback, rejections, reading more romances, and writing more novels. We don’t know if we’re successful writers because the focus is fixed on writing a successful romance novel–that is, making sure the novel hits the proper marks for the growth of the relationship, the prose fits standards (no omniscient POV, or the ubiquitous ban on “head-hopping”), and so on.

    3) I wonder if the praise of sex, sexuality, and women’s fantasies in romance have, in a way, eaten the genre’s tail. Parallels with the agendas of third-wave feminism vs second-wave? The modern romance genre came of age during second-wave, which fought to unshackled women’s fantasies and sexuality from the patriarchy. Third-wave is brought about the concept of sex-positivity. Since by and large, the mainstream romance genre is consumed by heterosexual American women, sex and fantasy is focused on the hero, and as a result, the emphasis on the heroine’s journey and the “women’s fiction” roots of romance have shrunk in comparison.

    4) Romance trends are shaped by readers (and publishers), as opposed to readers responding to how authors shape the genre. Readers want to read another book just like the one they’ve finished and loved. Authors expected to stick to what works–you couldn’t write a book full of explicit scenes and the next book’s sensuality level is sweet and tender. In general, no surprises or anything that jolts the reader out of their comfort zone.

    5) The increasing involvement of authors in marketing/promotion of their books (even before self-publishing) has resulted in a narrow focus on hooking readers through blurbs, titles, cover art cues, first pages, et al. Echoes back to #2 and #3.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      Thanks, Evangeline, I always appreciate the perspective you bring. These are really good points, and I think you are spot on about many of the factors that push the genre (or large segments of it) towards greater explicitness/more sexual content.

      It’s #1 where my frustration is coming from, because that is just not my experience as a reader. I often find that the more the author spells things out, the less I feel, because nothing is left for me to imagine or interpret–my brain and my emotions just aren’t engaged. I think it may also be that the more explicit a book is, the more chance there is that a scene could turn a particular reader off. (I like some really explicit scenes, and others just don’t work for me). If I only have to be a passive recipient of the story–and this doesn’t just go for sex scenes–then it doesn’t move me as much. If everything feels familiar and predictable, like any two characters could be going through these motions, why am I bothering?

      I completely understand that I am not Every Reader. I see books with tons of 5* reviews about how emotional/sexy/swoony/hot they are, and I read excerpts that make me think, huh? How is that scene hot or emotional? (It’s also true that these scenes out of context often fall flat, because if they’re really good, their impact depends partly on knowing the characters and their relationship). It’s probably true that a lot of aspects of the genre just don’t work for me as well as they do for many readers.

      • willaful says:

        IME, many of those scenes fall flat in context as well. The vast majority of popular “hot” contemporary romances are totally blah for me.

    • willaful says:

      #4 is an interesting one… something I’ve noted when reading Mary Balogh’s HTF backlist slowly is that though she includes sex, she doesn’t *always* include sex. In An Unacceptable Offer, for example, there is no place in the story where it would make sense…. and it isn’t there! But Balogh has talked on her mailing list about an editor pushing an early sex scene into a more recent book, where she didn’t want one, and it’s noticeable that the books in that series all have predictable sex scenes. I was disappointed in the sex scene in A Matter of Class, which I didn’t think belonged at all.

      • GrowlyCub says:

        Matter of Class was a serious disappointment for me and I was very glad I read it from the library rather than paying HC price for a novella that then didn’t even deliver a good story. Also sad to think that Balogh’s caving to editors on this issue. You’d think with as many books under her belt she’d take a stand for her stories. But it certainly would explain why so many of the latter books really rub me the wrong way (with the exception of Angeline’s story and The Arrangements I’ve been meh to hate to loathe on her most recent efforts).

    • Sunita says:

      I agree with most of your points, Evangeline, but I’m not sure about #4. A lot of online readers are also authors, and it seems as if a lot of the ebook-first and self-pub books are as much responding to author-inspired interests as reader demands. And I think the effect of #5 is that authors and readers are less separated than ever before, so it’s hard to tell where the push for different aspects of the story are coming from.

      • Liz Mc2 says:

        I do think the idea that you need a brand, and that “heat level” is part of your brand, is completely enshrined though. I’m thinking of how many authors have “sexy” or “hot” or “sensual” as part of their tagline on their websites. So once you’ve written hot, you can’t go back. Which is ironically kind of like the argument of a bad boyfriend that when you’ve consented to sex one time, you should be up for it whenever he wants.

      • gnureads says:

        I love that analogy, Liz, lol.

  7. Laura Vivanco says:

    I was just wondering a few days ago about the amount of sex in romance because I read something by Susan Ostrov Weisser who suggests that

    the value we now put on sexual pleasure requires that we validate passion as the starter yeast for the long-term relationship, with the “meant to be” narrative guiding the tricky transition from mysterious passion to rational choice.

    That may help explain a lot of the insta-lust.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      I missed that post! Thanks for linking, Laura. Lots of food for thought.

      I think I’m somewhere in the middle on this. I don’t always mind insta-lust (or insta-attraction) but I do want to see the development into a more rational choice, or the addition of other things to the passion. And I also would like to see the insta-lust depicted in more various and subtle ways.

  8. Sunita says:

    You have expressed my frustrations with so much of what is offered today in the genre, but much more eloquently than I’ve been able to manage. The unsubtlety of how relationships develop in books today is staggering. Love (true or ephemeral romantic love) is always about so much more than the physical and sensual connection, even though of course that is foundational. But when did we switch from “critical” to “only” in terms of what is put on the page? I skip most sex scenes now, even when they advance the plot. I just don’t care. I feel as if there might be some maximum number of explicit scenes I can read in a lifetime and I’m dangerously close to that number, so I need to save the remaining ones for the times when they’re absolutely necessary. And the problem is that when you skip the sex scenes, there’s often not much left of the relationship on the page.

    I wrote about this at Dear Author a while back in an op ed on closed door romances, and someone made a very good point about how in the 80s you didn’t have a lot of explicit sexual content, so having it be part of the romance was important and unusual. Now explicit sex is all over the place and it seems both less necessary and less special in romance novels. We have been Tab A into Slot B’d to death.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      OMG, maybe the problem is that I maxed out on sex scenes too early!

      But more seriously, that comment about sex being everywhere in the culture is a good point. Erotica that explores the weirder sides of desire (and I don’t mean formulaic kink but just the strange places our fantasizing brains can take us) is much more likely than explicitly written romance scenes to make me feel I’ve gained some insight into sex or desire or fantasy. And maybe Evangeline is right that *insight* is not what romance novels are after, by and large. But that’s often the way we *talk* about them–that one key thing about the genre is that it is a space for women to express and explore their desires. Well, yes, if they are mass-produced desires. Otherwise, maybe not so much. People say radical things about what the genre does, but many don’t follow through. I don’t even think many are trying.

  9. GrowlyCub says:

    Merriam made some excellent points last night on twitter about female agency and sexual fulfillment being perceived as necessary ingredients for rom (paraphrasing, hopefully correctly) and I think she’s spot on. The problem with that seems to me is that there’s just not room for all those things between the suspense/action/other external plots needed to show female agency and the sex pages showing sexual fulfillment and so the little moments are what gets chopped by the editors or self-edited out by authors according to Da Rulez as Evangeline mentioned.

    I’ve been thinking about the point on knowing on page 1 who the h/h are. My instinctive reaction was ‘no, I don’t want/need that’ but then I remembered my extremely negative reaction to Sugar Daddy where the author led readers to believe that Hardy was the hero for a good half of the book only to then turn him into a villain to explain why the heroine chose the other guy. I can’t off the top of my head remember any trad rom that doesn’t establish h/h pairing fairly early on except Layton’s Duke’s Wager. I quite like that book so not knowing wasn’t an issue (not so happy what she did with the story for the ‘other guy’ but that’s a side issue :). I guess, the sweet spot is somewhere in the middle between those two extremes (know on p 1, know later one) if the author is good at their craft.

    What I’d like to see more of is the realization/question/exploration by insta-lust/insta-attraction characters&their authors of what there is to the relationship if they couldn’t have sex any more. I’d find that a much more interesting story than reading about them running through a jungle or figuring out who’s trying to off the hero so they can inherit his title. Maybe I’m getting crotchety but I just don’t know that many people in RL who are afraid for their lives and running from evil villains all the time.

    I definitely think you are right about cycles because I’ve done the sex skipping in the past and am starting to segue back into that to a certain degree, but in my case it may be more because I currently like to read kinkier stuff so vanilla slots and tabs are less attractive. Sadly, there’s very little kink that appeals to me in historical romance or the authors are good at kink by their writing or history knowledge is non-existent and I just don’t want it enough to read contemp for it. Being a picky reader can be a pain. 🙂

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      Merrian’s point is a good one, and I don’t want to seem sex-negative, which is part of why I tried to emphasize how this is about the reader’s own response and interests as much as anything else.

      But I think part of what I’m trying to explore is that the “mass-produced explicit fantasy” aspect of romance depictions of sex actually flattens out my own experience of desire or agency as a reader–there is no space here for me to bring the text to life or “co-create” it through my interpretation. Nope, every single ridge of the hero’s sex-pack, and how the heroine feels about touching it is laid out for me. And every thing they do with their bodies, even when that thing is pretty much what every other romance couple is doing rather than something meaningful just to them. As we were discussing on Twitter, the scenes that I still find worth reading and that stay in my mind are the quirky ones, like the heroine writing on the hero in Carolyn Jewel’s NOT PROPER ENOUGH. That scene belonged to that couple and came out of who they were and how they were feeling. And for me, things like that are still hot and worth my reading time.

  10. pamela1740 says:

    Wonderful post, and I know it’s one I will return to as I think about my responses to newer vs older romance novels, especially historicals. I love what you and Carolyn are saying in comments above, about the laziness of having to establish from Page 1 that the protagonists are destined for each other, and that narratives no longer allow space for questioning it. Laziness may not be the right word, but it feels to me like reader laziness, in a way, to not want to have to engage with a narrative that may present challenges or ambiguities to the fore-ordained HEA. It’s extremely rare to find serious rivals for the affections of a protagonist, or anything else that presents potential confusion or ambiguity. I too prefer lots more conversation and a courtship that feels organic and uneven, rather than hurtling along from page 1 with the inevitability of an oncoming train. Having protagonists who actively dislike each other has even been “tamed” as a trope, since we usually get gratuitous references to keen sexual attraction and insta-lust, in spite of whatever antagonism exists in the storyline. WIth histrom in particular, I think this is a big part of why there seems to be a general feeling that things are too “lite” in what’s being published now, as opposed to the older “angstier” historicals. (I should note that I take a mixed view of the dismay about newer historicals, as I am still finding much to enjoy and think about, but I am choosy about which authors I like, regardless of tenure in the industry).

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      Right. And I meant to say this to GrowlyCub too: I’m not begging for more love triangles or for a real mystery about who the hero is going to be. But I KNOW I am reading a romance and there will be an HEA, so why do I need to be bludgeoned over the head with that from p. 1? I really agree about the antagonistic lust. Sometimes that works, but usually I wish the author had not needed to clue me in that the antagonism will end by including an inconvenient attraction. (I personally am NOT attracted to people I truly dislike, even if they are “objectively” attractive). And why couldn’t something BESIDES lust overcome the attraction?

      It does feel lazy, or like shallow characterization.

      • Laura Vivanco says:

        I remember reading quite a lot of Jessica Hart novels (which were “sweet”) in which the heroes and heroines were quite different from each other so didn’t feel instantly attracted. They might even have thought the other plain/physically not very attractive. But then, as they get to know each other, they begin to find things about each other that are attractive e.g. she’ll find the lines round his mouth sexy.

        Finding someone attractive not because of their looks, but because of their behaviour, is what I think we see with Mr Darcy, isn’t it? At first Elizabeth is not handsome to tempt him, but then he concedes she has fine eyes and from there it’s not far to ardently admiring and loving her.

        • Liz Mc2 says:

          I love Jessica Hart and I think she’s great at writing attraction. The constraints placed on authors by “sweeter” lines often lead to more interesting depictions of desire and attraction (or more interesting to me). They are based on more than the purely physical and overtly sexual.

          When I first read Austen in my early teens, before the BBC had taught us to see Darcy as a romance hero, I really did not know how it was going to turn out (Wickham looked good to me at first!) or whether it would have a romantic happy ending. I think many Austen novels, and Heyer too, are good examples of what Carolyn said above about not obviously being a romance novel right away (because, of course, Austen wasn’t writing genre romance, and neither was Heyer, really–not in today’s sense).

      • willaful says:

        I remember finding the blurbs on my old Heyers annoying because they were so often inaccurate. But then I replaced them with newer editions and thought the new accurate blurbs were just terrible, because they gave everything away!

      • GrowlyCub says:

        That’s actually the kind of hist rom I try to avoid like the plague because I find it utterly implausible. Antagonistic h/h just don’t appeal to me at all and if the author adds to it ‘I hate you, but I want to shag you’ I’m riding into the sunset so fast you can’t say boo. 🙂

  11. Allison says:

    Read this last night, commented on twitter, was in an interesting discussion on it, had to get to sleep, woke up to 30 mentions! Very cool comments.
    I didn’t read rom for years (although I read mystery/SFF/suspense/women’s fic w/Rom elements instead.) I returned really due to the robust community on twitter.
    I’m find myself zoning out over the slot A/TabB stuff I read. A SFF I just read had no sex until the final quarter, and suddenly there were 4 scenes in a row. Why? I would have appreciated more page space dedicated to the finale of the story, rather than sex.

  12. sonomalass says:

    We were just having this conversation over dinner on Friday! Not just explicit sex, but shorthand that’s TOO short — that “instant connection” between the main characters, and the amazing hot sex, are ways to quickly establish the romance/eventual HEA. Not only do I not need that, I’m frankly getting bored with both techniques.

    I love romances where the HEA isn’t signaled quite so heavily, and the best sex scenes I’ve read lately have been ones where the sex was awkward rather than amazing.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      Yes, it isn’t explicitness per se that I am objecting to (or even bored by, I don’t think) but the way it is routinely used as short-hand for so many things I am really more interested in reading about.

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  14. fionamcgier says:

    Honestly, what’s an author to do? No sex, or lots of it? You can write what is the “hot” flavor of the month, which still is reflecting the ungodly amount of money made for everyone connected with FSOG, by writing about a rich alpha dom who completely overwhelms a shy virgin with self-esteem issues. Involve some bondage, some beatings, and voila! Instant money, right? Except not always.

    The best part of a romance is seeing how two people can be brought to realize they have found someone special. Whether it is through sex scenes or discussion, that is the crux of the story arc. Personally I admit to being hopelessly vanilla because I don’t care to read about the gymnastics involved with 3 or more people in bed at the same time…or trying to navigate a relationship. Men who share? I’ve never met any. My boys wouldn’t even share toys when they were younger…they sure as hell wouldn’t share their woman with their brothers! Nor do I care to read about being tied up and flogged until it feels good…which to me sounds like something to call the cops about!

    But still as a writer, I like to write about people who fall in love, and to me an integral part of finding out if you’re compatible with someone is how you are in bed together. It can be awkward, or funny, or mind-blowingly spectacular. Or all 3 at the same time. But it IS a part of a love affair, so I will continue to include sex scenes in my books. I let the characters “tell” me how much sex is involved with their courtship. Some need only one or two scenes. Some need more. But it isn’t gratuitous, and I feel readers would be missing the “pillow talk” if they skip those scenes. Just my two cents’ worth.

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  16. Juhi says:

    I love this so much. For years I have been skipping over the sex scenes and felt vaguely guilty about it.

    The last story where I read the sex scene was in Kate Elliots’s Spiritwalker Trilogy (the story is fantasy with romantic elements). There, I couldn’t get enough of Cat and the hero whose name I now forget going at each other (it wasn’t a lot anyway from what I remember). I’d become vested enough in their story and them to want to read through their sex scene. Plus, the way Elliot builds on the shimmer of attraction between them was a turn on for me. As was the eventual sex scene which was, if I remember correctly, only a page or so long.

    In contrast, I find almost all the sex scenes in the romances I read quite boring. There’s absolutely nothing about them that makes me want to read them.

    I wonder if it was the sheer bulk of pages—which allowed Elliot to build up the characters and the ups and downs of their relationship—which engaged me emotionally enough to want to read the sex scene.

    Ok, off to read the comments.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      Thanks! And this reminds me I still haven’t read the last Cold Magic book.

      Often I’m more likely to care about reading a sex scene if there is a slow build-up and development; I’m more likely to be drawn into the characters’ emotions and to find it meaningful. And also, I find attraction/sexual tension is often just more interesting to read about. Many authors can’t sustain that kind of tension well once the characters start having sex.

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