RULES OF THE GAME
Can the word penis appear in a romance novel, or is ”the throbbing evidence of his male arousal” still the euphemism of choice? Back in the mid-’80s, when I was still Tory Cates, author of what the industry calls ”contemporary category romances,” I knew the answer to that and most other questions of romance-writing etiquette. But the rules change quickly and a writer must pay attention, because contemporary romances — not the historical bodice-rippers with their period-costume covers — are the heart and wallet of a multimillion-dollar business.
A contemporary category has an up-to-the-minute setting with heroes and heroines to match. Most are published by Harlequin or Silhouette, both owned by the Torstar publishing conglomerate. Some 600,000 readers belong to Harlequin’s book club and buy, sight unseen, month in, month out, every book in their favorite series. Readers’ letters, focus groups, surveys, and sales enable the editors to keep their fingers on the pulse of their audience. This information in turn is passed along to writers as guidelines. Looking at these tip sheets after being absent for more than five years, I’m convinced that if you want to know what is up with women in the land, you could do worse than consult the rules of the romance-writing game.
The plot must force the couple together, yet prevent them from surrendering to their desires too early in the story. Otherwise, some new elements have been introduced of late. Time travel and the paranormal are now staples, with heroes from the future and ghosts from the past raising heart rates just as flesh-and-blood heroes do. But ”today’s brainstorm becomes tomorrow’s platitude,” warns Marsha Zinberg, senior editor of Harlequin’s Superromance series. She offers a list of overused devices to avoid: developer at odds with environmentalist; amnesia; the renovation of old inns; and heroine afraid of giving up ”hard-won” independence.
I could never understand the feminist opposition to romance novels. More often than not they feature feisty heroines forging places for themselves in a male-dominated world. The big trend in the mid-’80s was to get our gals onto offshore oil rigs, into the space program the more testosterone-ridden the job, the better. But as Melinda Helfer, senior review editor for Romantic Times magazine, reports, ”We’ve climbed that mountain.”
The swing these days is back to the home. Cottage industries are all the rage, and heroines can be found operating catering businesses and dog-grooming services out of their homes, instead of wrestling with the hero for control of a Fortune 500 company. Moreover, one occupation formerly taboo has emerged to resounding popularity. I am speaking of that fantasy figure for working mothers, the stay-at-home mom.
Whether riding the range or cooking at one, the heroines themselves are pretty much as I remember them. They are still spunky yet vulnerable, good- hearted but nobody’s fool, beautiful but unaware of it, and they’re still thrusting their chins defiantly. But they’re no longer quite so virginal or so young. ”You practically have to justify virginity if your heroine is over 20,” says romance author Cara West. When I was writing, 29 was the last birthday most heroines were allowed to celebrate. Now there are a spate of silver-haired, chin-thrusting temptresses out there.
All those Treys and Drus and Chases who used to set hearts aflutter have changed more than their heroines. To be sure, they still gravitate toward macho occupations, but now we find pastry shop owners, exotic dancers, even a nanny (ah, ultimate fantasy — he dazzles and diapers!) among them. The emergence of the sensitive hero has caused some dissension. Jayne Ann Krentz, whose books sell well, has called for a return to what editors call the ”alpha man.”
Stud or wimp, he must fulfill guidelines that still insist on ”a man any woman could imagine herself falling in love with.”
A bit surprisingly, many authors and editors maintain that today’s novels are no more graphic than before. I don’t know about that, but when I wrote my third romance, Cloud Waltzer, in 1984, the genre had just discovered oral sex. My editor at the time suggested that a few scenes along those lines would not be amiss, and I obliged. Today, faithful readers assure me, oral sex is de rigueur in all but the most chaste series. On the other hand, those few heroines who would jump into bed before the third chapter had a brief fling with popularity, and are virtually gone.
The Romance Reader’s Handbook lists some 2,000 pseudonyms and the reasons for their use. Euphony is one. Cynthia Sinclair sounds more rhapsodic than Maureen Wartski. Among males, Tom Huff, who writes as Jennifer Wilde, feels a female nom de plume gives him an edge in the field. The handbook maintains that embarrassment is never a reason for writing pseudonymously, but that is not so. I have known several authors who wrote under other names because they weren’t ready to acknowledge their works to colleagues, in-laws, or their children.
When I was writing five years ago all my bitches were turned to witches, damns to darns, and shits to shoots. Those prohibitions have been relaxed somewhat recently and the hero, but still not the heroine, is allowed a few goddamns and shits. If the guidelines are more lenient now, there are still subjects that editors feel are inappropriate. In her instructions to authors, Marsha Zinberg mentions terrorism, warfare, masculine sports, and incest under ”Topics to Avoid.”
As for the male body part that inspired my initial question, I hate to disappoint anybody, but little has changed. Helfer recalls seeing the word penis in a category romance but can’t remember where. Writer Cara West thinks she saw it mentioned in a romance novel involving sex education. So I’d have to conclude two things about ’90s category romance novels. ”Throbbing evidence of his male arousal” is still the preferred usage. And some parts will never change.