Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Looking Forward, Looking Back: A January Post with Love to the Bodice-Ripper

Blame my over-exuberant spam filter, or perhaps the exigencies of getting a draft of my forthcoming book to my editor: I let my membership in my local San Francisco Area Romance Writers chapter lapse for a couple of months last fall.

I did send the manuscript in on time. If you want to find out more about the forthcoming book -- due out in November 2008 -- you can check my in-the-works web page for info as I feel myself sure enough of it to share it with you.

And I also rejoined the chapter -- making our poor membership coordinator reenter all my stats into her database.

When did you first join? she asked me.

Oh, that's easy, I said. Sometime in the fall of... um??? Well, some year in the late '90s. In truth, I wasn't sure which -- but I knew it would have been the year I began writing The Bookseller's Daughter in earnest.

'97, '98, '99? It wasn't like my romance-writing career took off fast. The years between my getting the idea for the book and beginning to write it were spent doing things like wandering around museums getting a visual understanding of rococo style (which slow process I heartily recommend, no matter how at odds it is with the way things are generally done in this biz).

Ah, but I did remember what else I'd been writing when I joined RWA. And so I knew I'd find out the year by going to the page on my website that lists my published essays, bringing up Molly Weatherfield's review essay on Francine du Plessix Gray's At Home With the Marquis De Sade, and checking the date.


And how, in 1998, did I ask to describe me?

Molly Weatherfield is the author of the comic pornographic novels Carrie's Story and Safe Word, and is currently working on a bodice-ripper that takes place in pre-revolutionary France.

Sacre bleu! I said I was writing a bodice-ripper. Because I didn't yet know that the word was verboten to those of us in the romance-writing trade.

Perhaps it still is.

I'll see when I speak about at the Popular Culture Association Conference in San Francisco this March. The name of my comments (I'll be part of a panel) will be "From BDSM to Erotic Romance: Observations of a Shy Pornographer."

Yes, I mean the name to be provocative. But I also mean it as an honest end run around a vexing methodological problem: how can you have read enough to authoritatively discuss so huge a field as popular romance fiction? I'm not sure how romance scholars get around that one, but luckily I don't have to because I have a certain authority as, duh, an author. So I'll be starting from the case of my own trajectory, from Carrie's Story and Safe Word to my erotic romance novels. Because whatever I found out there in porn world, I (and others) it brought home to erotic romance, which seemed to be waiting for it, for us, for... something. (In any case the subgenre seemed to know what it was waiting for, or so will be part of my premise -- jamming all my speculations into 20 minutes will be like jamming Persuasion into 90 minutes -- and here's hoping I do better than the folks at Masterpiece Theatre.)

Part of what I'm going to speculate about is whether the bodice-ripper moved the romance genre forward. And whether what it moved romance toward was a discussion of erotic desire that paralleled some of the feminist (and -- let's never forget -- gay and lesbian) pornography of the 80s, where I found my Molly Weatherfield voice.

Because I'm beginning to think it was no accident that the bodice-ripper became wildly popular during the heyday of second wave feminism and the brave, heady post-Stonewall pre-AIDS years.

It certainly was no accident that when I wrote a scene in my first erotic romance novel where a bodice is in fact, ripped, I brought to it all the confusions of tense, agency, and consciousness that I'd been exploring in the Carrie books:
In future years Marie-Laure would never be quite sure what had really happened during the next moments. Of course she’d recall it with vividness and clarity, joy and delight. But she’d never truly be able to separate perception from imagination or distinguish memory from surmise. For how could she possibly have experienced every astonishment, decoded every sign, interpreted every wonder of that first embrace?

He’d mumbled something when she opened the door and looked up into his dark eyes. Pardon me, Mademoiselle Vernet, I’ll explain all this later, was what she thought she heard; perhaps he’d also said something about “danger” or “protection.”

But the only words she could be sure of were “Mademoiselle Vernet,” the only emotions she’d be able to swear to were giddy delight and delirious elation -- silly, selfish relief and prideful vindication, in truth -- that he hadn’t forgotten her name after all.

He wasn’t wearing his coat or waistcoat. She’d caught a quick glimpse of his hips and thighs in pearl-gray velvet breeches. The lights and darks of the velvet, illuminated by her flickering candle, revealed rather more than she was prepared to admit that she’d understood.

Nonsense, she’d think later. Of course she’d seen the bulge between his legs. After all, she wasn’t a child or a fool -- the velvet was definitely stretched by the tumescent flesh beneath it. And even if she’d been embarrassed to bring it to consciousness upon first observation, there could be no doubt of what she’d felt a moment later, no mistaking the urgent press of him against her own hips and thighs.

And no use pretending that she hadn’t been thrilled by it.

The weave of his linen shirt had grazed her chest and shoulders; his hand cradled her breast. She’d gasped with surprised recognition: somewhere, in some secret place at her center, she’d wanted his hands on her breasts ever since she’d watched him pile books onto Papa’s desk.

Was that the sound of cloth ripping? It was hard to discern behind the sound of her heartbeat and her breath, hard to concentrate with his mouth against hers, opening it, probing and teasing it with his tongue.

His other hand was tight at the small of her back. Well, it had been tight at first. Yes, she was sure of that. He’d held her closely -- for a moment. And she was pretty sure of what had happened next, almost certain that his hand had loosened, had become more adventurous. It had moved downward, slowly but confidently lingering over the curve of her buttock, while it gathered her skirt and petticoat out of the way. And as for where his hand was poised to go next, and where he might put his fingers...
Not to mention that I learned from the SM tradition to wonder where "reality" leaves off and theatricality begins.

So since I'm gonna be yammering away on these issues until the conference and perhaps beyond, I'd love your help toward preparing my comments.

What to you think about all this? Where do you find the roots of your taste for erotic fiction -- in bodice rippers, writers like Anne Rice, classic French erotica, low-rent porn, or what? And where do you think this mix of genre and market is going?


Kate Pearce said...

I think I found my love of all things romantic and erotic within myself-the more I wrote, the more I found my writing leaning toward the erm,carnal and the more I wrote and the more honest I became, the better the fiction became.
Not sure if this makes any sense or is actually relevant to your lovely post!

Pam Rosenthal said...

thanks for the "lovely," Kate...

In my case, I'm always responding to something or other... or something I've read brings out something within me... which was why my erotica heroine Carrie is defined by her porn reading, and why the romance in The Bookseller's Daughter is between a passionate reader and an erotic writer.

Sometimes I forget that that's perhaps just me.

And sometimes I'm astonished that anybody at all out there seems to get it.

Tumperkin said...

I wrote a long response to this last night but my PC went into a huff and it was lost.

So, to summarise:-

1. I read somewhere that where porn (for want of a better word) is concerned, men respond better to visual stimuli and women to written stimuli. Figures.

2. A lot of women would never buy something classed as porn.

3. But they like to read erotic writings....and, handily, if someone sees you reading erotic romance, they tend to sneer at the romance before the sex (depending on the explictness of the cover and title).

4. But it's not just a case of finding a sneaky way to read porn - the romance is an integral part of the draw**.

5. The sex and romance in erotic romance (in fact, in mainstream romance IMO) are inextricably linked. The 'mystical sexual connection' (immediate uncontrollable orgasms even where the heroine is a virgin) has become the single most important characteristic in most love stories and a powerful indicator that H/H are Made For One Another.

6. Feminism? I'm not sure. Even in explicit novels, it is not uncommon to discover that virginity/sexual-choosiness is equated to moral virtue and villianesses are often sexually rapacious.

** as I think I've mentioned in this blog before, it was actually the potential romance between Carrie and Jonathan that got me buying Safe Word.

Sharon Page said...

Great post, Pam. I think my roots are from the books I read as a teenager--Fear of Flying; Blue Skies, No Candy; lots of 70s style sex instruction manuals on the kinkier side. Sort of a blend of those and the edgier young adult books that were dealing with tougher issues. So, an odd mix, I think.

Pam Rosenthal said...

I also found inspiration in Fear of Flying, Sharon.

And tumperkin, I'd reply to your fascinating comments by clarifying my situation -- by the time I wrote my Molly books, I'd already digested a lot of stuff that called itself feminist porn, plus Anne Rice's very queer-inflected stuff (she had lots of friends and influences among the gay men's scene in SF), plus Story of O, which takes a brilliantly synoptic view of the tradition since Sade.

And my view at the moment is that popular romance fiction has been flirting with some "closeted" dangerous literary traditions for some time -- and that it took the cataclysm of 70s feminism to make the connections happen on that side of the aisle, as it were.

As I said, you can expect to hear me speculating about this until the end of March, when I offer my 20 minutes of remarks at the conference.

Oh, and as for "dangerous" literary traditions, I'm getting a lot of this from a fascinating book called The Dangerous Lover: Gothic Villains, Byronism, and the Nineteenth Century

Pam Rosenthal said...

oops, and it's by Deborah Lutz

E. M. Selinger said...

You're certainly whetting my appetite (wetting? which is it? somehow both seem appropriate!) for your PCA talk. Glad to know the Lutz is proving helpful--and I can't wait to hear your thoughts on the other papers!

This is going to be quite a conference, I think...

Pam Rosenthal said...

It's "whet," Eric, at least according to Paul Brians' Common Errors in English Usage, where I just now looked it up.

Proving once again that nerds have more fun.

I'm looking forward to the conference too.