Thursday, March 06, 2008

My Favorite Romance "Rules"

In case you missed it, over the weekend, The Washington Post printed an opinion piece by a woman, Charlotte Allen, built around the premise that women are dumber than men. It was full of “science” (the correlation between brain size and intelligence) that has been de-bunked, questionable statistics (well, her interpretation was what’s particularly in question: in this old study, women got in more fender benders and men were involved in more fatalities—decide for yourself on how that makes females dumb), and anecdotal silliness comparing Obama Barack to the Beatles. Since then, the newspaper has said it was an attempt at humor. You know, the ol’ “tongue-in-cheek.” Yeah, The Washington Post must think I really am dumb if they expect I’ll believe that one, given the previous writings of this author.

But in the midst of Allen’s lousy essay was a swipe at “chick lit” which in the blogosphere developed into a discussion about romance novels. One blogger who viewed the Allen essay with as much distaste as I did, went on to say romances are not books and when she tried to backtrack from the statement once it was criticized, claimed it all had to do with these rules that romance novels have. Plenty of commenters tried setting her straight about romance and books and rules, including Nora Roberts, and others pointed out that all fiction exists within a certain set of constraints (let’s start with written in a language that someone else is able to read).

But I’m not going to shy away from the fact that readers bring to romance fiction a certain set of expectations. Hey, if you want, you can call them rules. Here are my favorites:

1. The focus of the story is on two people who are working toward becoming a bonded pair.

That is not to say that ménage erotic romances are not out there and said to be selling fast, but this is my list, so I’m going to say that I like my love between just the two. Maybe it’s because I live with three men. Yeah, I only take one of them to bed, but I can easily imagine what it would be like to be the sole woman agreeing to a lifetime of answering “Where’s the peanut butter?” and giving the okay to “Let’s all watch another Ben Stiller/Adam Sandler movie marathon.” I just can’t feel the romantic love for that, but another reader may feel differently.

2. There’s kissing involved (and maybe even more).

I’ve been a fan of kissing since I practiced on the back of my hand in junior high. I like the celebration of sex within a romance and how it demonstrates a couple’s growing trust and intimacy within the relationship. This does not, however, mean romance is pornography, an equation set out by others in the past and by the blog noted above so recently. Porn has it’s own place for those who enjoy it and I’m sure there are many who enjoy both romance and porn. But a romance does not exist for sexual arousal, although it can be a pleasant by-product. What all that kissing (and more) does for me is shows a dimensional, adult relationship—yet it wouldn’t be a romance without a heavy emphasis on the emotional component that exists within and without the love scenes.

3. The HEA.

Yes, that fabulous happy-ever-after. I wonder why this seems to stick so in the craw of those who denigrate romance? Some say it’s “unrealistic.” Um, wrong. I know plenty of long-term committed couples, including me and Surfer Guy. Does finding the love of your life inoculate you to tragedies, sadness, frustration? Of course not. No one said it did. But boy, is it a better ride with someone you love by your side. There’s a great song by The Indigo Girls called “The Power of Two,” and it’s about the strength you can find to overcome obstacles and enjoy your life as part of a couple. That’s what romance novels show. And it’s not unrealistic, either.

4. My last favorite romance rule: You don’t have to like them. No problem. There are books and genres of books that don’t appeal to me, either. I’m cool with that and I don’t feel the need to criticize what someone else enjoys. So romance (“they’re not books”) critics: Please give me the same courtesy.

What’s your favorite romance “rule”? Choose one of mine or share one of your own. (Or hey, feel free to rant on why a respected newspaper would publish a piece on the dumbness of women.)


Michele Hauf said...

If women are so stupid, why are we writing/reading the one genre that is the largest selling genre of all time? We must know something they don't. Probably that a satisfying ending is much more pleasurable to read than an unhappy, they-all-died ending. And probably because romances make us more positive and loving and caring toward others.

Cindy Gerard said...

Hey Christie - I love your rules! and I love your observations about them. My favorite rule has always been that there must be a promise implicit in a romance novel. A good romance promises the HEA, yes, but it also promises growth - someone is going to come out of the book a better person then they were, or at least a more complete person. I love the promise of fidelity and the healing power of a loving committed relationship. And I love the promise that something (oh, let's call it love) is going to happen to people who the reader has grown to care about that's going to knock them for a loop and challenge their preconceived notions about what life has in store for them.
IMO, these rules make a great romance when coupled with another rule: a riveting plot full of high stakes - whether those stakes are attached to danger or corporate take over or saving the ranch. The book must make the reader root for the H/H on every level.

lois greiman said...

I think there's a backlash against women recently. People, women included, seem to be afraid of powerful women and it's causing some havoc. Generally, the nastiest gender bias I hear is women against women and that often includes women's fiction.

My daughter has a friend who goes to a Christian based college. One of the guys stood up and said, "I'm going to talk about something we all are better than women." And the students clapped...the girls included. I still feel sick to my stomach. I thought my daughter was going to burst into spontaneous flame. So...there are girls out there who believe in their gender and abilities. We just have to give them a safe haven. I think that involves fiction that impowers.

Playground Monitor said...

Yeah. What Cindy said. *g*

My favorites are 3 and 4. I love a HEA. And 4 is imperative. I just get so angry with folks who condemn it because they don't like it. I'm not a huge fan of paranormals or historicals, but I don't bash them. As a matter of fact, I read Betina's latest and as Simon Cowell would say, "I LOVED it!"

Is the Post run by men? That should answer the question about female bashing.

And your comment about the Ben Stiller/Adam Sandler movie marathon made me laugh. My boys love those movies and now that they're grown and on their own, I don't have to listen to them anymore. #2 son is home for spring break this week and introduced me to Family Guy. Oiy! Of course, how can I criticize when I watched the "My Big Redneck Wedding" marathon last weekend?

I live in the Bible Belt, Lois, and sadly that mindset is prevalent here. Fortunately, I don't believe in it.


Christie Ridgway said...

Cindy: Your point about a great plot with high stakes for the character is such a good one! (Must remember as I begin plotting next book.)

Marilyn: I just do not get those movies. I don't get Austin Powers movies either. And I really don't get why people who don't like romances are so critical. I think it's the "reading shouldn't be entertainment" crowd, which burns me up too. As an English major, I read plenty of the classics (and I'm smart enough to understand them too!) so I don't feel the need to "prove" myself in my reading choices.

Christie Ridgway said...

As to the fear of powerful women...yikes, Lois, I see what you mean. As a mother of only sons (MOOS), I hope I'm teaching my boys that girls/women are just as good as they are. With the high-level classes filled with more girls than boys, I wonder how the male half of the population could doubt it?

Playground Monitor said...

As another MOOS I tried to instill that in my boys too but sometimes the outside influence kicks in. I remember when #1 son was about eight years old and his soccer team was scheduled to play an all-girls team. They were joking about how they were going to kick their butts and I warned my son that just because they were girls didn't mean they weren't good athletes. Guess who kicked whose butts? Those girls played rough and my son (and his little brother who was on the sidelines viewing) learned a big lesson.


amy*skf said...

Absolutely a backlash--especially this year with a woman running for the democratic ticket--it makes 'em nervous.

But I hate ranting--well, I love it actually, but I'd much rather make love--not war.

So, my favorite rule: you will feel good after reading a romance. Imagine that--here, read one and call me in the morning.

Vanessa said...

The "men are fearful of high powered women" has two facets. First there's just the men who can't handle women being in charge period. They didn't have a mother like Christie who taught them women were better. Or they went to a school like Lois mentioned or lived in an environment where women were put down as second class citizens.

Then there's another scenario. My husband is in this one. He respects women (he better, or I'll kick his a$$ LOL!) but he's been in several job situations where, because of affirmative action programs, unqualified women were promoted way beyond their level of expertise and then proceeded to rule with a heavy hand. While he respects women over all, he tends to look at women in business with a rather gimlet eye because until he's been around them for a while, he doesn't know which way things are going to be -- woman who deserves the position or woman who got it simply because she has two X chromosomes. Not making excuses or saying that attitude is right, but it's the cause in my hubby's situation.

That's why I abhor affirmative action. It ultimately only hurts the groups it was supposed to help. People get jobs they can't handle because they're unqualified, the work doesn't get done properly and the rest of the world is left scratching their heads and wondering why? It's created a sense of entitlement among groups of people and helps no one. Get rid of this (and that stupid No Child Left Behind Program) and we'll be moving in the right direction. Well, there's lots more that needs improving but...

A good friend of mine actually turned down a promotion because it was simply because she was female. She works for a government agency and told her boss it was insulting, and that when he could offer her a promotion based on merit to talk to her again. Good for her!

P.S. I don't get those movies either. And deliver me from Blades of Glory or the new basketball one. Gimme a good romcom any old day.

Christie Ridgway said...


Nice rule! Yep, you'll feel good. And that's another thing that really gets to me about all this. Somehow some equate feeling good about our reading material as being dumb.

Christie Ridgway said...

Marilyn: My son's junior varsity volleyball team scrimmaged against the girls last year. Girls whooped 'em.

Yeah, those girls were older, but the boys went in thinking they were going to win. Good lesson learned by boys!

Helen Brenna said...

I have to reign myself in here, or you'll get a rant no one wants to read.

I think the biggest issue for women these days is that people don't understand how sexist our US society still is. All you have to do is take a look at the statistics of how white men and women's votes are split between Hillary and Obama. More white males are voting for Obama that white women are voting for Hillary, if that makes any sense. And don't give me this crap about change. She's a woman. Period. And people are holding that against her and don't even realize it!

Sexism can be sooo incredibly subtle and the newspaper running that article is a perfect example of how we keep it going.

My favorite romance rule is that you can't judge a book by it's cover. Amen.

Helen Brenna said...

Oh, and sorry, but I like most of Adam Sandler's movies, and Ben Stiller's and the Austin Powers stuff. I don't want to watch them over and over and over again like a lot of guys will do, but I've enjoyed most of them the first time through.

Cindy Gerard said...

Amen and Hallelujah, sister Helen

flip said...

I read the article....seems that newspapers like to hide their misogyny behind a woman's skirts. The only recent article that outrage me more was a Wall Street Journal. In it, the female author basically blamed the victim of a highly publicized rape-murder in New York for putting herself in the wrong place. (Apparently a woman drinking at a bar at 2 a.m. is asking to be brutally raped and murdered.)

I love romances. I don't feel the need to defend my reading taste. Personally, I think anyone who mocks the importance of stories about enduring love as being childish is sad.

Sarah Tieck said...

I've got to go hunt down this essay before I comment too much ... but that thing about romances not being books is just making my blood boil ... actually the whole idea of the essay seems sort of wrong. Poorly done at best ... the Washington Post is not The Onion, so when they print an essay, people are not going to expect satire. Seems like a bad editorial choice ... or a good one if they wanted to get lots of attention and readers. For some reason, I think Charlotte Allen was behind another controversial woman/mother-bashing type piece a year or so ago ... couldn't confirm that though. She's definitely getting noticed!

Betina Krahn said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
amy*skf said...

Sarah, good point about the Washington Post not being The Onion--I certainly wouldn't expect satire. But I also feel that I need to read the essay.

Helen--I agree--with everything.

Flip--It makes me so sad that we are still fighting the "she deserved it" stigma of rape.

Christine, that might be why a romance will never be on the Oprah book club. When the movie Atonement came out in theatres they were calling it one of the most romantic movies of our time--hunh? You know you were not in for a happy ending.

Christie Ridgway said...

Amy*skf: I asked a friend who went to see Atonement before I stood in line. I had a feeling it wasn't going to be happy and so I skipped it. Maybe someday I'll be in the mood for a tragic romance...but not lately. Or, let's say I didn't want to put out my movie dollar for it. Will likely watch on cable.

Sarah: The romances aren't books talk was in the blog, different than the dim bulb (with an agenda) who wrote the Post piece. I heard the Post piece writer (will no longer mention her name) did a chat at the Post online yesterday...I got the feeling she didn't exactly convince anyone she was going for humor.

Christie Ridgway said...

Ooops, did not finish.

Vanessa: I'm with you on NCLB. Surfer Guy (my husband) is a teacher and he can cite you chapter and verse about all that's wrong. Not to say there weren't good intentions, but...

As for affirmative action...I'm sorry your husband has had those experiences. I'm sure too that many of us have suffered from the Good Old Boys Network or just plain nepotism. This is why I like romance fiction. We can make sure the baddies get their comeuppance! to name a character...oh, yeah, I said I wouldn't mention her name again!

Betina Krahn said...

My favorite rule is the HEA, Christie. When I read a romance, I want a hopeful ending.


Christie Ridgway said...

Hey, guys: The woman who wrote The Post piece has also written that Katrina was the best thing to happen to New Orleans...and I don't think she ever then said she was just kiddin'.


If you have the time, though, the comments on the Obsidian Wing blog post that I linked to are so interesting. Made me mad, sad, and feeling pretty darn righteous all at the same time!

Betina Krahn said...

Christie, I read the blog (okay, most of it)and feel I need a shower. Ugh. The snobbery was pretty unpleasant.

But at least I have a new hero. Whoever Dan Farber is, I want to have his baby.. . . in my next life, of course. What a guy.

Kathleen Eagle said...

My favorite rule for romance: hopeful, uplifting ending.

Oh, man, tha Charlotte Allen piece is a hoot. And I loved the blog response that using herself to prove her point--she's dim, therefore women are dim--compromises her ability to make a valid point; case closed.

Liza said...

Personally, I love the promise of the HEA in romance books. I haven't found my HEA yet, so even reading about it in romantic fiction continues to give me hope.

Christie Ridgway said...

Liza: I love HEAs too. And you should have hope...they are out there! Again, it doesn't mean there won't be hard times or struggles that try our souls, but with a lover by your side it sure helps.

Betina: Dan Farber is the man! I'd try to set him up with Liza ::kidding:: if I could. But there's a guy who gets it.

Kathleen Eagle said...

So women are dumb because they swoon over rock stars of all stripes (musicians, actors, politicians, etc) in various public forums? Men do the same damn thing, but they do it in other ways. In Indian country they call it "thinking with his ce." The ce is an exclusively male part of the anatomy. And there is no female version of that expression. Have you ever heard of a woman thinking with her vagina? I doubt it.

Allen quotes some guy's claim that we're women on the outside and children on the inside. Yeah, right. When we're pregnant. A Lakota priest once told me that men were boys in large bodies. Maybe it's a cultural thing. Traditionally the Lakota have an abiding respect for female power.

Christie Ridgway said...

Kathleen: It makes it even more annoying that it's another woman saying and quoting all these "funny" things (remember, they're trying to tell us now it was all a joke). And then I start thinking it's sad. She's either saying this stuff because it garners her attention, or she really believes it. Either way, sad.

Debra Dixon said...


Great blog! I missed this article and discussion about it, so I'm glad you've brought it up. How could a woman honestly write an article about women being dumber than men??

Oh, wait. If she's dumber than a rock that would explain it.

Christie Ridgway said...

You got it, Deb!

And for any of you who followed that blog comment thread, I'm really trying to find a clever way to use what started as "a romance novel is not a book" to "a sunset is not a book, a cat is not a book..."

Too funny. I've gone from annoyed to bemused to sad and back again over all this. I'm reading another blog that focuses a lot of women's issues and there people are noting that the anti-female stuff seems to be cropping up more and more in the media/blogosphere.

Or maybe we're just sensitized right now.

Bridget Locke said...

Maybe I was lucky, but I grew up in a family where women, especially our intelligence, was celebrated. My mom is a very, very intelligent woman & as we all know, men can be intimidated by that, but my dad has always said that's one of the things that first attracted him to her. He thought it was sexy that she wasn't afraid to speak her mind. :)

I've always been of the opinion that if someone is intimidated by women, it means that they've got something about themselves that they're embarrassed by. Men always seem to put down women who are stronger than they are. It's ridiculous & stupid, but there you go.

As for women who put down women, shame on them! It's true that women can be more spiteful than men, but to write an article about the stupidity of women is...I can't even think of the word I want to use. It's basically throwing us back to the days of Women's Lib. Argh! *banging head on wall*

But I do like your rules. :) I'm a sucker for the HEA, even if they aren't married w/ babies & all that. If they're just together at the end...that's all that matters to me. :)

Christie Ridgway said...

Bridget: Me, too. Not every HEA needs a preggers heroine at the end. My imagination can add that in, if I so choose.

As to men intimidated by women's intelligence, I =just= got off the phone with my mom and I was telling her about a recent incident where a man gave me an out-of-the-blue putdown that completely floored me. I was so aghast I just shut my mouth. Too much later, I realized that was his exact intention. He didn't like my participation in the debate (which seemed very mild to me) that was going on. Maybe he's not used to women "talking back."

flchen1 said...

Oy. Thanks for the great list, Christie--I love romances for the HEAs, too :) And the whole how-they-get-there, of course!

I admit I haven't read the article or follow-up blog--I'm not sure if I will or not just because I think it'll really upset me. It's so frustrating that even today there are people who are so publicly ridiculous in such a harmful way. And I'm a Christian woman, and don't happen to believe that men are across the board better than women--that isn't what the Bible says either. People who twist it as a weapon for their own warped agendas will someday get theirs... but it's small comfort when they're blasting away right now :(

Playground Monitor said...

We were watching Survivor and something was said about women being weak and #2 son, who's home from grad school on spring break, told about an incident in one of his curriculum classes. He's getting his master's in PE and one of the guys in class made a blanket statement that men would always beat women in any sport. A girl who was an NCAA national champion soccer goalie bet him he couldn't get 3 goals past her in 10 attempts. He took the bet and didn't get even one ball into the net. #2 son said he took some pretty stiff ribbing from the class and instructor. Had he challenged her in track, which was his sport, he'd probably have won. But he challenged her on her own turf where she was a known champion. Some guys...

Christie Ridgway said...

Flchen1: You don't have to read those pieces--we've given you enough of the gist to get your blood pressure up anyway. Like you, I try to tell myself that ultimately the ignorant will learn and the bad will...well, I don't want to wish ill on anyone. Just hope they learn the errror of their ways too.

Marilyn: I'm loving that soccer goalie story! So there's one ignorant guy who I hope has learned a little something. At least not to run his mouth off, right?

flip said...

I am a life long feminist, but I am not supporting Hillary Clinton. It has nothing to do with her sex. I would love to be supporting a female candidate. Anna Quindlen wrote a great opinion piece in Newsweek last year. She effectively expressed my feelings on Hillary Clinton. Basically, Ms. Clinton is firmly entrenched in our corrupt political system. She and her husband have demonstrated that they are politically expedient. So my failure to support Hillary has nothing to do with sexism.

OTOH, there has been outrageous sexism demonstrated against Hillary. The organization C.U.N.T. created to "tell the truth about Hillary Clinton." The Hillary nutcracker... Limbaugh's rants about the horrors of watching a woman age in office... Dowd's claims that Hillary cried to win is insane.

Christie Ridgway said...

Oh, eeek, Flip. I hadn't heard about Limbaugh talking about a woman age in office. That is really, really low.

I have the distinct feeling that some (most?) men do not fathom the depth of our loathing of that kind of talk about our sex. They think we should not take ourselves so seriously or that if we protest too much over being called "dumb" that we are protesting too much.