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Sealing the Deal: The wet and wild world of selkie romance novels

It began with my friend Julie. At some point in our early adolescence, she started giving me her mom’s romance novels, helpfully dog-eared at the raunchy bits. My parents were into mystery and science fiction—my copy of Judy Blume’s Forever was probably the smuttiest book our house—so Julie’s supply of mass-market romances provided me with a welcome surfeit of sexually explicit scenes and situations.

The Flame and the Flower Now, decades later, I know that the books I was skimming for words like “shaft” and “thrust” were a direct result of the awesome success of  Kathleen Woodiwiss’ The Flame and the Flower. First published in 1972, this novel reinvented romance fiction by making explicit what had previously been decorously implied—which is to say, penetration. While there are still readers who prefer a chaste romance, and while there are still publishers happy to cater to this audience, sales figures for The Flame and the Flower made it abundantly clear that most romance fans wanted action, and lots of it. The book was a bestseller as a hardcover original—most romances debut as paperbacks—and more than four million copies had been sold by 1978. The Flame and the Flower is still in print. It’s even available in electronic editions.

Woodiwiss’ breakthrough provided the formula for pretty much every romance I read in the ’80s. As I worked my way through Julie’s mom’s castoffs and rummaged through neighborhood bookshelves during babysitting gigs, I encountered the same scenario over and over again: Naïve young woman experiences sexual awakening when she succumbs to older, very powerful man, while older, very powerful man is domesticated—but not in any way emasculated!—by aforementioned naïve young woman. True love and lots of intercourse. This is the formula that helped romance dominate bookselling. (Romance consistently beats every other category in consumer publishing, and the genre has, in recent years, proven itself recession-proof, continuing to grow even in a shrinking economy.) This is also the formula that inspired the pejorative “bodice ripper”—a reference to both the bosom-heavy art on the cover and the many garments torn from women’s bodies within—and earned the genre the enduring scorn of literary critics and feminists.

Indeed, if you’re not a romance reader, your perception of—and disdain for, perhaps?—the genre is probably based on the typical romance of thirty years ago. To be sure, there’s plenty to hate about the form Woodiwiss pioneered. The Flame and the Flower itself makes for difficult reading—and not because it’s intellectually challenging. The characters and conflicts are thin, insipid copies of prototypes by Jane Austen and the Brontës. (I am not alone in recognizing this: Scholars of the genre have long identified these nineteenth-century authors as the progenitors of modern romance fiction.) Heather Simmons, the protagonist, is like Jane Eyre without Jane’s intelligence, passion, and self-reliance. Innocence is a vital component—perhaps the vital component—of her appeal as a heroine, but her much-discussed naiveté manifests mostly as the most exasperating kind of stupidity. This line is not the best example of the aforementioned dynamic, but it’s probably the most (unintentionally) hilarious: “Her eyes traveled downward innocently to his pants.” Brandon Birmingham (the man with the pants) is, like Rochester, a hero in the Byronic mold—Heather even compares him to Satan—but he’s only like Rochester if Rochester raped Jane while under the impression that she was a prostitute, which brings us to the most troubling feature of the subgenre Woodiwiss spawned.

For more than a decade after the publication of The Flame and the Flower, rape-as-a-plot-device was a nearly ubiquitous element of the successful romance novel. The best explanation for this phenomenon is that it was more socially acceptable—within the pre-twentieth-century settings of historical romance, but also within the modern contexts in which readers were consuming historical romance—for a man to assault a young woman than it was for that young woman to willingly have sex. In a chapter devoted to rape in Beyond Heaving Bosoms: The Smart Bitches’ Guide to Romance Novels, Sarah Wendell and Candy Tan summarize the situation thusly: “[R]ape scenes gave the heroines permission to explore their sexuality without appearing to be sluts.”

I would like to say that I stopped reading romance novels when I realized how regressive they were, and that my budding feminist sensibility was shaped by my outrage at their persistent portrayal of women as victims, but that would totally be a lie. What really happened was that I could no longer take the tendency of romance authors to build a plot out of a stupid, easily avoidable misunderstanding that metastasizes. Also, I discovered Showtime After Hours Presentations, the nation’s premier source of softcore porn during my most hormone-addled years. My surreptitious reading was replaced by late-night cable viewing—with the sound turned way down to avoid waking my parents—and that was it for me and romance novels.

Sea Witch Until, one fateful day in 2008,  when I got a call from my friend, Sarah. She was standing in line at a drugstore, and she had, on impulse, plucked a novel from the rack. “You have got to get this book,” she told me. The novel Sarah recommended was Sea Witch by Virginia Kantra, and, just looking at the cover, I knew that this was not the romance novel as I remembered it. There’s no passionate clinch, no heaving bosoms—no bosoms of any kind, actually—simply a lone woman, naked and viewed from behind, rising from the ocean beneath a full moon. The novel’s opening line is just as arresting:  “If she didn’t have sex with something soon, she would burst out of her skin.” Clearly, this was a heroine who did not need a man to force her into sex. She just needed a man—as soon as possible.

The preceding was the original introduction (cut for length) of my latest piece for Bitch. You can read the published article here.

BONUS! Archival interview with Virginia Kantra

August 22, 2011 | Permalink