Monday, July 7, 2008

Home Economics: Love, Sex, and the Marriage Ending

I've been thinking out loud over at my own personal blog, about a new project I'm playing with, which I hope will be (as I say there):

[...a] thoughtful, highly literate and very smutty piece of writing, with[...] no monogamous ending; no ultimate sorting [of characters into happy coupledom]; no cozy, well-protected final retreat back behind the gates of Pemberley. And yet (I hope) no loose ends either[.... A] way of bringing together all the stuff I’ve been meditating on during my loopy journey from erotica to romance and now, perhaps, back.

A collaboration, as I see it, between Pam Rosenthal and Molly Weatherfield target="_blank" -- an exploration of mean(ing)s and end(ing)s, where we get to play close to the edge of the provocative margin between romantic and (if we must call it that) erotic (with a wink and a nod, here, to Celia May Hart and her funny recent post at this blog).

Is my collaborative idea saleable? I have no idea. I'm not far enough into it yet, and I'm not even going to try to shop it around to publishers until I know more about the shape it will take. So I'd be grateful for your comments about the distinctions between romance and that other thing -- and what role ultimate monogamy and the marriage ending plays in all of this.

And if you're interested in the topic, you might also want to go over to Tracy Grant's blog post about the popularity of courtesan themes in recent romance novels, which I think is related to this issue. What does the widespread recent interest in erotically experienced heroines tell us? Does it widen romance fiction's purview or does it ultimately domesticate the question of erotic experience? Also and always germane is anything our own Jane Lockwood has had to say on erotic pairings and happy endings (or not) in in Forbidden Shores. (What's a good post you did on this, Jane, from the vast archives of your web-hopping?)

Other examples from the huge mess o' online discussion would be appreciated as well... Links to other readers' and writers' cherished beliefs, prejudices, and finely (or even not-so-finely) drawn distinctions are all good. Monica McCarty's opinionated post about Romance and the One True Love a few months ago at the Fog City Diva blog is a great example of taking a position (not my position, but an enduring one), and stating it with impressive clarity.

Let me know what you think, if you've got a mind to.

And meanwhile, here are some closer-to-home messages from the material world.
  • Sending my thanks first of all to Lacy, whose post on dildos a while back has evidently been inspiring some action in my back brain, to surface in the scene I'm writing right now in the new collaborative project (I'm stealing one of her fabulous illustrations, but there are more where that came from).
  • And adding an update from my own real life and times. Because the little anniversary present my husband bought me at Good Vibrations last autumn (when I read there with Lacy, Eden Bradley, and Lillian Feisty) turned out to be of shoddy workmanship. No, I'm not going to tell you what he bought me, but I will say that -- for my birthday this month -- he replaced the shoddy original with a terrific little number from the Xandria Collection online. And that at least from our experience, Xandria seems like a pretty excellent site. Have you used it? Anybody else have some consumer info to share?
  • And... oh, this old illustration? Well, some of you may know a certain sex toy scene from Safe Word. And some of you may not. I may post the scene on my website when I have time for that, but it's not there now, so you just may have to employ some lateral thinking to guess (though I couldn't have). I will tell you that it does work: unlike some of the more farouche stuff in my erotic books, I tried this one at home -- and so did a happy reader. It's subtle, though. You might just have to read my Molly Weatherfield books...

Happy consuming, everyone (the inner nerd insists that I tell you that the word "economics" comes from the Greek for "household"). And happy theorizing . And do tell me what you think about the erotics (or not) of the marriage ending.


Jane Lockwood said...

Interestingly, Pam, I've had very comments on the end of Forbidden Shores--possibly because those who would have been snorting in indignation about it never got that far! Or just saw it as another nail in the coffin of romance, or some such.

I don't think I've yet achieved the
cozy, well-protected final retreat back behind the gates of Pemberley and I don't want to. I like to think of the happy ending as the shift from one stage to another, another perilous journey to be undertaken by h/h; sometimes I think of this as jumping off a cliff together, hand in hand, or at least jumping into the unknown.

As for the end of FB, I really couldn't stand the thought of a happy threesome strolling into the sunset (or even off a cliff)--there had never been a happy threesome anyway, although Clarissa had had her moments with it (greedy girl). I'd say it's a vaguely optimistic ending. Possibilities are presented. I felt it was an ending in keeping with the rest of the book and it was a reversal of the beginning, which I liked a lot: sailing in the opposite direction, for a start.

Lil said...


Very interesting post. It is a funny thing with the strong reactions I see among romance readers and the insistence for a happy ending.

And as for my imagination and the whisk...the former is not cooperating and my mind is still boggling at the usage of the latter for other than the normal kitchen purpose.


I have heard good things about Forbidden Shores. People did mention that the ending was not traditional but that doesn't make me balk. I bought a copy yesterday.

Jane Lockwood said...

Lil thanks for buying my book!

Oh yes, the whisk. I remember the whisk. Sorry to hear about your, ah, frustrating retail experience, Pam.

Pam Rosenthal said...

Well, you know, Jane, I have to admit that I wrote exactly that cozy retreat for the end of Almost a Gentleman, which is by far my most popular romance novel. And I'm still having be-careful-what-you-wish-for thoughts about it. In some ways I prefer the end of The Bookseller's Daughter, where the class differences of the h&h are never quite resolved. And The Slightest Provocation, which is a little more of a leap into the unknown.

It's a funny thing, lil, about romance readers' insistence on a happy ending. I can understand it, and yet I can't. In some ways I can understand the "real life is tough enough" argument. But in other ways -- hell, I'm shy and timid enough in real life; it's only in my reading, really (and perhaps, sometimes in my writing) that I'm brave and adventurous enough for risks, surprises, and challenges.

And as for the whisk, lil.. It's a real thing, I promise -- a genuine, if very subtle, pleasure.

Eva Gale said...

HEAs. Hmm, I don't NEED them, but I would say that when I pick up a romance I expect it to have an resolved uplifting ending. I don't need pumpkin carriages, but I need to know that the couple/people are better off and closer than when the journey began. If it's shelved as fiction-anything goes.

Eva Gale said...

I surfed over to the Fog City Divas post you linkied and I have to say that the book she used as an example-Penelope Williamson's THE PASSIONS OF EMMA is one of my most favorite books ever. Lyrical and haunting. A perfect example of why I am so happy there are no soul mates. I think soul mates are code for a need we have to be totally loved and known to the fullest extent of our being by our mates and when we come close to that-or what we as individuals percieve that need filled-we sometimes lable them a soul mate. I don't think it's a Blessing of the Divine Wand, I think it's a series of small everyday choices that turn us towards eachother. The miracle occurs when two seperate people make those small every day choices that move them towards eachother.

Pam Rosenthal said...

I don't think it's a Blessing of the Divine Wand, I think it's a series of small everyday choices that turn us towards each other. The miracle occurs when two separate people make those small every day choices that move them towards each other.

Jeez, Eva, that's frakin' beautiful (to use Battlestar Galactica-speak).

Though of course, it begins with one big choice, doesn't it? Which Jane Lockwood's describes, -frakin-beautifully as well, as jumping off a cliff together, hand in hand.

Tracy Grant said...

Great post, Pam! I don't think of the endings of my books as cosy retreats (expect maybe for the first through traditional Regencies I wrote with my mom). But they do tend to end up with the character paired off. In fact, in "Beneath a Silent Moon," Mélanie compares the last scene of all the couples wandering off to bed to "a dark version of the end of 'A Midsummer Night's Dream.'" And later in the scene she and Charles (her husband) have an exchange that sort of goes to the present discussion. He says "Odd how we latch onto marriage as the only sort of happy ending to balance the scales." And Mélanie replies, "I suppose it's some sort of affirmation of hope for the future. If one does it for the right reasons."

Of course it isn't the only sort of affirmation of hope for the future (and books don't necessarily need to end with an affirmation of hope for the future--some are stronger for being quite the opposite). But I do tend to write toward endings with couples pairing off. However, paradoxically, I like not necessarily having to write to that sort of ending. And though I tend to like books in which the central couple ends up together, I often find those endings stronger when they aren't guaranteed (and are perhaps touched with reality). here are times when I'm in the mood for a perfect fairytale (I loved "Enchanted") but I can enjoy books with all sorts of endings (I also loved "Atonement"). As Penny Williamson, who wrote "The Passions of Emma," says, if you can make readers care about characters enough, they'll follow them off a cliff :-).

Lacy Danes said...

I am glad one of my posts and images sparked something for you Pam! i do so love that lovely dildo.

As for HEA. Some of my favorite stories don't have HEA's but are about a persons growth instead... Out of Africa for instance. No HEA. but she learned so much.

Wonderfully said.
Miss you bunches.


Pam Rosenthal said...

Hey Lacy -- and thanks again for that earlier post.

As for marriage as affirmation, hope for the future, Tracy: I think one of the big reconciliations romance often achieves is to plug its characters into a positive flow of generations (and generativity). But remember, I'm wondering where the line is between erotic romance and erotica (I want to say romantic erotica, but that seems redundant to me). Erotica's currency is the yearning, the longing, the sense of separateness-hoping-not-to-be -- like romance, only attenuated into a continuous present freighted with ultimately unsatisfiable desire.

I think that fan fiction sometimes focuses on secondary characters because there is a longing in the eyes of secondary characters have (think Alan Rickman as Severus Snape) that makes them deeply -- challengingly -- sympathetic.

Tracy Grant said...

I think the ending with the couple getting together goes way beyond the romance genre--it's found often (though not inevitably) in mysteries (where I think it often becomes a symbol for putting the world back in order), fantasy, science fiction, classic literature, etc... But interestingly a lot of classic love stories don't have happy endings. From "Wuthering Heights" to "Anna Karenina" to "La Dame aux Camelias," they're much closer to your description of "like romance, only attenuated into a continuous present freighted with ultimately unsatisfiable desire." In fact, the difference between that sort of story and a love story with a more settled happy ending, might be described as the difference between "Wuthering Heights" and "Jane Eyre."

Fascinating point about secondary characters and fan fiction!

Eva Gale said...

Oh my. Pam, you're a star in my eyes so from you that is a wonderful compliment. Thank you. (I'm fangirl squeeing on the inside).

Kisses, Lacy. :-)

Pam Rosenthal said...

Thanks so much, eva. Gosh I love the word fangirl, makes me feel young. "Imagine," I said to my husband. "I have fangirls," and he found the idea extremely hot. I checked out your blog and excerpts after that post and enjoyed them too.

As for Wuthering Heights, Tracy, that's been a constant source of inspiration. And now I'm reading an unpublished story that tells another side of Jane Eyre. Very hot, my husband and I agree -- though it's not for me to disclose its lady author...

Janet Mullany said...

Pam got there first, then Blogger ate my comment, but I too wanted to applaud Eva's lovely words about the small everyday choices. Very well said.

Celia May Hart said...

Glad you enjoyed my earlier post too!

Let's see. I think mine end up in pairings, although oddly enough its in the secondary characters that the happy ending is moe tenuous. Which is why, I think, that the Wintertons from SHOW ME appeared again in ONE MORE TIME. Their story wasn't done. I'm not sure it is, but there seems to be an understanding there. (And a Winterton has turned up in the latest WIP).

And I tried to write a book that would have a less than HEA, but it unsettled me so much, I trunked it. I think I must be wired for it.

Pam Rosenthal said...

Hey Celia. And you're right about secondary characters and series. A smart move, I think, for Julia Quinn to end the Bridgertons with a new generation -- of NINE new ones. The ultimate happy ending into infinite generativity I suppose...