Monday, June 29, 2009

Comeuppance

Last month I followed Kate and Vivi's advice and bought a copy of Beyond Heaving Bosoms, Sarah Wendell and Candy Tan's book based on the Smart Bitches, Trashy Books blog. On vacation last week I managed to sneak away and indulge a few chapters. Reading their analysis of Old Skool romances such as Kathleen E. Woodiwiss's The Flame and the Flower, I had one of those "I can do that" moments familiar to both crafters and aspiring authors. I resolved to go to the scary basement, unearth the bin of books from under the Christmas lights, and find The Wolf and the Dove, a Woodiwiss book I read twenty times during high school but not since. I remembered a Saxon maiden chained to the hearth by the Norman warrior who pillages her home. That would fit Sarah and Candy's description:


[I]t was well-nigh de rigeur for the heroine to be raped by the hero in those novels. The rape would be justified in any number of ways with the framework of the story ... Sometimes, the heroine was the spoils of war, so clearly, it was acceptable to rape her. Other times, the hero would assume the heroine was sexually experienced, and as we all know, rape counts only if the rapist knows the victim is a virgin.

I decided to blog using the Smart Bitches' methodology to analyze this old favorite, racking points for every "forced kiss - and she likes it" scene. I planned to ask you, Dear Reader, to play this parlor game with me. We would all be snarky New Skool romance fans together, bemoaning chained to the bed/hearth/ship's wheel/dirigible scenes, competing to rewrite overly modified sentences and rework similes beaten into "limp exhaustion," pointing out spears of manhood and other sexual euphemisms for our intellectual titillation.


I found the book box easily. The 1974 copyright date and $2.25 cover price dovetailed with my expectations. Filled with smugness and caffeine, I began to read and take notes, eager to line up this stereotypical Old Skool romance with the Beyond Heaving Bosoms flowchart.

I stumbled. Some bad guy named Ragnor, not the hero Wulfgar, is the one who rapes her (although, Candy and Sarah were correct in that Kathleen Woodiwiss contrived to have Aislinn and the villain consume sleeping herbs so in fact no actual bad guy rape occurred, thus the heroine was a technical albeit unaware virgin for the hero).

Sure, I found several forced kisses, such as page 40 where she slaps him, in front of his men, for mocking her and his retribution is ... "Without word or warning Wulfgar's hands were upon her like slaves' armlets." May I say, that is powerful writing? Read it out loud. Not an extra modifier lurking in that line. The repeated "w" sounds like a whip, doesn't it? Oh, the rhythm. It takes me hours to write like that.

Oops, it was her Saxon fiance chained to the hearth for trying to stab Wulfgar, who spares the poor guy and eventually elevates him to Sheriff. That's kind of progressive in 1066, isn't it? I am totally failing at snarkiness and remembering why I loved this book twenty years ago.

The Smart Bitches claim "most of these Old Skool romances were written solely or mostly from the heroine's viewpoint." But Woodiwiss does a fair amount of head-hopping, regularly giving Wulfgar his own point of view, such as this man-angst:
Was this to be his lot? To find her ever close at hand yet never know again the privacy with her that had been before. Was this marriage? To have a babe more oft between them than finding a moment to share long suffering passions? He sighed and turned his stare to the fire. Winter comes, he thought. And the nights are long.
Who among us is married with children and doesn't feel that? Woodiwiss wrote the thesis for Michael Lewis' new book Home Game when that dude still had baby teeth. The Wolf and the Dove is thirty-five years old, but it stills rocks and I feel ashamed at my pathetic intent.

I must apologize to the spirit of Kathleen E. Woodiwiss for assuming I could dismiss and mock a book that was already in its thirty-second printing twenty years ago, and remains in print and even ebook. I must apologize to my sixteen, seventeen and eighteen-year old selves for doubting their taste and judgment in reading material. And I must apologize for thinking I could convince you to play along with a petty game.

Let's try something nicer instead. I liked that paragraph from Wulf's point of view. Can you post a pre-1986 or so hero POV scene that you like? Something from the '70s or early '80s that reminds us all why we like those books (despite the arm-gripping). Brave your own scary basement, find a hero you've lugged around for longer than your favorite jeans, and put it up here.

12 comments:

Christine said...

I don't have a specific quote from a book, I just know there is a part of me that misses the books from the 70's and 80's... I liked reading them and I actually wrote more like that in the beginning of my long writing journey. Now I am struggling to find a blend of new romance with old "skool."

Chassily Wakefield said...

I love the spirit of this piece, and I love where you wound up with it. I think it's safe to say there was plenty of good mixed in with the "less-than" from the 70's and 80's. I grew up on Kathleen Woodiwiss and Celeste de Blasis (two of my all-time faves.) The Wolf and the Dove is a top ten for me, along with A Rose in Winter, Shanna and Ashes in the Wind from Kathleen, Proud Breed and the Swan series from Celeste. Any of those books would provide a plethora of quotes from the hero's perspective that are worthy of perusing. I defy any lover of romance to not fall in love with Roarke or Gavin! I do miss elements of those Old School romances and I find myself sprinkling them into my own writing. A balanced blend between old and new seems like a perfect recipe to me.

Anna Richland said...

What are the elements that you like in those? I realized that there is a lot less white space on the page, a lot less dialogue. KEW was not a snappy writer. But she was a compelling one - I did several of the editing exercises I learned in a workshop on random pages of Wolf&Dove and she was spot on. There is a lot of action buried in the long paragraphs.

Kendra said...

I love the picture of your box of books- I recognize several Amanda Quicks! I also dug up an old box of books (from my parent's basement), though they were all from college, so mid-90s. Still fun!

Anna Richland said...

I just visited the re-read challenge at Books, Books and more Books. On June 25 post and I think you'll see some of the same books in her used book store treasures that are in my basement box! I linked my Wolf and Dove musings as a review but I wonder if it is too free form to count?

Visit their challenge here:
http://natuschan.blogspot.com/2009/06/re-read-challenge-june.html

Christine said...

I love Amanda Quick, too!

Hilcia said...

Thank you for that post. I grew up reading Woodwiss and still have fond memories. She never left the top of my list. :)

Kat said...

This one is both a sentimental favourite and a keeper in its own right for me. I first read it when I was in my early teens, and then reread it a few years ago to see if it stood the test of time. It did. And now I feel like reading it again...

Vivi Andrews said...

I was reading Dr. Seuss in 1986, but I did devour all of Amanda Quick & Johanna Lindsey's backlists when I discovered romance as a teen. Old skool classic, baby.

Kate Diamond said...

Ooh! I'm with Vivi. I didn't start reading romance until the '90s. When I did, I fell in love with the Sunfire romance series.

They were teen romances set during important eras and/or events in American history (ranging from biggies like the Civil War to lesser knowns such as the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire).

To this day, the only sweet romances I enjoy. Normally, I love me some sexin' in the books. But give me one of those delicious beauties and I'll still reread like a mad thing.

Carolyn Crane (aka CJ) said...

Thanks for this post! Why wasn't I reading romance in the 1980's? I feel so left out! I'm trying to catch up.

"Without word or warning Wulfgar's hands were upon her like slaves' armlets."

That really IS a fabulous line!

Vivi Andrews said...

Kate, I loved the Sunfire Romances! Gabrielle, the tightrope-walking showboat girl! Roxanne, the wanna-be starlet with the perfectly symmetrical face! Megan in Alaska, Nicole on the Titanic! The names Vivian Schurfranz and Mary Francis Shura still make my little heart go pitter-pat. *sigh*