I had an e-mail conversation with a relative the other day that frankly had me gnashing my teeth. My relative is a wonderful person who happens to prefer not to read the romance genre. I have absolutely no problem with that--to each her own. However, during the course of our e-mails, she referred to romances as "bodice rippers," and said they were books she felt did not have complex characters or descriptive language.
Everyone is entitled to her opinion, but these two phrases side-by-side, unfortunately, were enough to make me see red. I'm sure she didn't intend to send my blood pressure into the stratosphere; however, to have my life's dream dismissed so easily by someone I care about was upsetting, to say the least.
But that's not why I hate the term "bodice ripper," which is what this post is really about.
What I pointed out to her, and what I find myself wanting to point out to every lazy reporter who uses this term in their faintly condescending pieces on the romance genre instead of actually doing research, is that nobody has written a "bodice ripper" in about 20 years. The very use of those words reveals ignorance about the genre. Romance is all grown up, and even if one wants to criticize it, one should at least get the terms right. That phrase is considered derogatory amongst romance writers these days for the implication that heroines of today enjoy having their bodices ripped, i.e., being submissive objects in the dominating male approach to mating and sex--in other words, being raped. Modern romance readers today would never put up with that sort of thing, thank goodness.
In today's romances, the woman is in charge of her love life. I know they are in mine. If someone who hasn't read a romance novel in twenty years wants to see just how far romance has come, I can recommend some intelligent, thought provoking books with deep characters and great descriptive language that would be right up their alley. Try Susan Elizabeth Phillips Ain't She Sweet? for contemporary romance with some of the most complex, multi-layered characters in romance, including a heroine right out of The Last Picture Show, but all grown up.
Or JD Robb's ...In Death series (start with number one) for a glimpse into the future of police work and an uncompromising cop who always gets her man. Or Shane Bolks The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly Men I've Dated, for a hilarious look at love and Star Wars from a "chick-lit" point of view (a la Bridget Jones' Diary). Or Deanne Gist's Inspirational (Christian) romances set in Colonial American times. Or Brenda Scott Royce's hilarious sex-free romp Monkey Love, about a stand-up comedienne learning to love and respect herself, or along those same lines Kathleen Bacus's Calamity Jayne series, about a "dumb" underachieving blond who makes good.
Or Colleen Thompson's book Head On, which takes a ripped from the headlines story of a drunk teen crashing his car and killing three cheerleaders, only it looks at what happens to the survivors and family fifteen years later. If one is a fan of shorter reads with fewer subplots, try Lynne Marshall's terrific medical romances (they're hard to get in the US, as they are published by Harlequin Mills & Boon in the UK, but can be found on their website and are well worth the effort), or try the new paranormal line from Harlequin Silhouette called Nocturne, with authors like Linda Howard and Linda Winstead Jones taking a turn. I could go on, but that's enough to start.
I happen to know many of the women who write romance--the industry is a small business, and sooner or later everyone meets at the National conference or is introduced on a Yahoo Groups loop to just about everyone else--and they are some of the sharpest, funniest, intelligent, interesting, capable people I know. Many romance writers have advanced degrees in law, history, science, English, French, Art History and other fields. Some of them are entrepreneurs, teachers, doctors, nurses, and some of them are stay at home moms. And some of them, lo and behold, are men. I know one woman romance writer who is a Harvard graduate, and another from Yale, and there are many who are professors. I have met one who writes "aviation romance" and is a pilot for a major airline, and another who is a former Lt Col in the USAF, one who is a former sheriff, and several who are cops.
Most of them have worked for years to learn their craft while holding down full-time jobs and/or raising families, all the while perfecting each word until they create a story that leaps over the heaps of trash being submitted to publishing houses today to be the one in ten thousand submissions that makes it into a book store. And not a one of them writes passive women who enjoy having their bodices ripped, any more than they themselves would (excuse the reflexive pronoun).
While quality and tastes vary in every genre, from thrillers to mysteries to spy novels to horror to literary fiction, whatever a reader's interests are, she (and more increasingly, he) will find a book in the romance genre she will enjoy, written mainly for women by women, and will know that no matter how troubled the characters are, no matter how difficult the relationships get, or how deep a hole they dig for themselves, good will always triumph over evil, the bad guys will get punished, faith will be restored, and love will conquer all. I see nothing wrong with that.
Just don't call them bodice rippers.