Romance Writing: Prurient Interest in our Novels?

I saw some tweets not that long about Stacey Adams’ interview with Stephen Colbert: link. He was interviewing her about her political career. Knowing how high profile she is, one might have expected the focus to be on her background in law and public policy and a recent book she wrote: link.

Instead, he wanted to read excerpts from the romance novels she once wrote as Selena Montgomery, even though she didn’t want him to: link; link.

Romance writers and readers were indignant, and rightfully so, because he was feeding into a prurient interest in her romance writing that diminished her as a lightweight, as many tend to see romance writing as a silly women’s thing, as though love and companionship isn’t a universal desire.

It was as though Ms. Abrams’ novels was all that mattered about her, because romance writing can be seen as a reflection of the writer herself, and in very personal ways. Is she writing about things she experienced or things she has fantasized about? One’s writing can never just be an entertaining story.

Various authors noted that romance writers come from all types of backgrounds. They are lawyers, doctors, and professionals of all types. They tweeted the excerpts of their books they would have liked to hear out loud. They all referred to those where the heroines indicated their intelligence, strength and resilience, not just their characterization as sexual beings.

One writer asked whether a male writer would have been questioned like that about a thriller he might have written.

I thought that was an interesting perspective. Romantic suspense novels are the flip side of thrillers and spy novels like those written by Ian Fleming of the James Bond franchise. But we don’t see them as romance novels, because the stories are from the perspective of the male protagonist. The romance is secondary to the high level drama of the thriller. In romantic suspense novels, the heroine is not a secondary character, and the romance is part and parcel of the suspenseful story. Yet only one genre is dismissed as being less important. Only one genre is targeted for prurient interest.

It seems to me that the topic of sex scenes in romance novels fuels debates within the genre in important ways and it’s directly tied to the prurient interest in what we write. Those readers and writers who argue that women’s sexual empowerment is paramount are the ones who demand women’s sexual agency notwithstanding the dismissal which might follow.  Others believe, in turn, that sex scenes aren’t crucial for the development of a romance and that women’s empowerment can be demonstrated in other ways. So an author noted a criticism that she wasn’t really writing romances because her sex scenes were closed door.

When these debates abound within the world of Romancelandia, I think it’s important to step outside for a bit and remember that these discussions indicate some underlying tensions that persist in society about romance writing.

Copyright Barbara James. All rights reserved.