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About Angela T

http://www.twitter.com/lazaraspaste

Lazaraspaste came to the romance genre at the belated age of twenty-six. While she prefers historicals, she's really up for anything . . . much like her view of food! Some of her favorite authors include Jo Beverley, Anne Stuart, Lisa Kleypas and Joan Smith. Once a YA librarian, she is now working towards an advanced degree in literature with the mad idea of becoming a critic and teacher. Though she loves romance, fantasy has always been her first love. She hates never-ending series and believes the ending is the most important part.

Posts by Angela T:

Dear Author

Why I Now Hate Erotic Romance

Note from Jane:  The following is a post from Lazaraspaste, a former reviewer at Dear Author.   This was an interesting and thoughtprovoking post she put on her personal blog and I asked permission to repost it here at Dear Author.

In the history of American Arts and Letters there have been many persons convinced of their own ability to write. Since they speak the language, they are certain that they can wield a pen and produce a story, transferring the errant imagination into a book. Writing, in this view, is considered an extension—albeit a skilled extension—of the human capacity for speech and not, as with music or painting, an art which requires such paltry and mythical substances such as genius. Talent is reduced to a mere function of the desire to write with no pause to consider whether or not one should write. Thus, thwarted liberal arts majors have often dreamt of the day (retirement, perhaps?) when they would be able to finally sit down and write the Great American Novel, only to discover that such a novel neither exists (at least in the singular) nor is so easy to produce as they once thought.

But at least these men and women, for all their naiveté, understand that writing is a craft, something one must work at and something one must have time to do. Their dream of writing the Great American Novel stems from a desire to produce art. It is a worthwhile and lofty desire. Those who wish to write literature at least value the English language in all its unruly glory and recognize that it takes time to craft a novel. One would not suppose this to be the case for certain writers of erotic romance who seem to be under the mistaken impression that merely putting periods after words constitutes narrative progression and that the development of a love story can be totally reduced to declarations of “I love you” around a mouthful of cock. Based upon this sloppy and ugly use of language, I can only suspect their desire is less about art and more about cashing in on a lucrative publishing trend.

I did not always loathe erotic romance with this level of contempt or even at all, but persistent crimes against narrative have taught me not just cynicism, but hatred. There are, of course, exceptions. There are always exceptions. But if the ability to speak the English language has convinced some that it is easy to write it, then erotic romance is a genre that suffers the additional handicap of people thinking that just because they have fucked, that they can write convincingly about fucking. Let me be very clear: It Does Not. The overwhelming amount of badly written, narratively perfunctory, ethically problematic drivel being produced under the heading of “erotic romance” is as numberless as the sands of the Sahara. If I were a writer of erotic romance, I would be enraged by the crapulence daily glutting my genre and obscuring my own work.

In case you are wondering, the book that inspired this post was Food for the Gods by Camille Anthony. There is nothing exceptionally wrong with this book. I mean, there weren’t bull-shifters in it (Loving Scarlett which Jane did for a rom fail a long while back) or anything. No. The book was generic and that was precisely its problem. It exhibited tendencies (negligently deployed) I keep coming across whenever I try to explore the erotic romance genre. Tendencies that I find both troubling and persistent. It is true that there are other authors who use these tendencies with a higher level of skill, but the tendencies themselves are what I find problematic. However, I think these tendencies are the result of some unexamined premises upon which many erotic romance novels are founded. I will outline them as follows:

The Premises of Erotic Romance

 

  • Pleasure is good.
  • Repulsion or disgust is bad because it is not pleasure.
  • That which is good, is also moral. Pleasure is good, therefore pleasure indicates the moral.
  • That which is bad, is also immoral. Repulsion or disgust is bad, therefore it indicates the immoral
  • To find pleasure is to consent.
  • To find repulsion is to not consent.
  • Consent is to have pleasure.
  • Non-consent is to have repulsion or disgust.
  • Non-consent is bad because it is not pleasure
  • Good people have good sex, i.e. moral sex, because their pleasure is consensual (pleasurable to all parties) which is good.
  • Bad people have bad sex, i.e. immoral sex because their pleasure is non-consensual (repulsive to one or more party, this can be the reader) which is bad.
  • All sexual pleasure is good because it is pleasurable.
  • Love is good. Sex is good. Therefore, love is sex.
  • Sex is also love. Unless it is bad, i.e. not pleasurable which is to be repulsive. Then it is not love.

 

If these sound like the psychotic ramblings of a sociopathic philosopher to you, then you’ve probably spotted something troubling in this list.

The problem is that erotic romance often asserts itself as something other than pornography. It claims not to just be erotic, but romantic. The romance part ought to indicate that it is doing more with sex and sexuality than merely recounting various bits of fucking for the reader’s titillation. Otherwise, why call it romance? Why not just be pornography? So often there is neither an explanation nor a distinction of the differences between sex and love. The name of the genre itself points to the idea that such a distinction between sex (erotic) and love (romance) exists, and offers itself up as a genre that—unlike pure erotica or pure romance—will focus on both sex (erotic!) and love (romance!). But again and again I see erotic romance translating the romance part into premature ejaculations of love, usually right after some gang bang, or into the protagonists marrying. Love, then, is merely reduced to a byproduct of sex much like santorum or babies.

The elision between sex and love is further made problematic when erotic romance introduces a villain. Villains in erotic romance are also having sex, but they are having bad sex. We know this because they are the villains. Bad people have bad sex. Yet, the sex the villains have is rendered in the same titillating language as the sex the heroes have. We only know it is bad sex because it structured around some taboo that we are meant to find repulsive, whether it be incest or non-consent or torture. The good sex and the bad sex are determined neither by the quality of the sex nor by the ethics of the sex, but merely by who is having it, the villain or the hero. This is how we get such fine and beloved characters as Ye Olde Homosexual Villain and Ye Olde BDSM Villain. By equating the lack of sexual attraction or the presence of sexual repulsion with immorality, erotic romance defines the good with that which gives pleasure and the bad with that which give disgust regardless of the particulars. As such, when readers (like myself) encounter a scene in which a father and daughter are having sex we are repulsed by the violation of the incest taboo but then confused by the fact that other than that taboo being present and the participants being the villains there is no other indication that this sex is wrong because it is written in the same tonality and mood as every other sex scene. As in the axioms above, non-consent is only bad when it produces repulsion. When it produces attraction, then it is not bad. No means no only when it is uttered to the villain. If it is uttered to the hero, it means yes.

Let me be clear: what I find troubling is the shallowness of these depictions, the sheer uncompromising superficiality of the sexual ethics displayed by stultifying bad prose. I so often find that erotic romance is reductive to the point of total erasure, and sex positive to the point of naive positivism. It imagines a fantasy world in which distinctions between ethical sexual conduct and unethical sexual conduct are no more complex than whether or not arousal results.

I’m not suggesting that these problems are not present in romance as a whole or erotica as a whole, because they are. But erotic romance spotlights these problems in a way neither romance nor erotica does because of its hybridity. Because it is hybrid, it is easier to see where the genre fails as a romance and as a piece of erotica. The concentration on sex, like sex itself, exposes things that might otherwise remain hidden by a plot development or a characterization whose focus is not solely on sex. If what propels the story forward is a mystery plot, and not the next sex scene, then it is easier to hide the problematic equations between heroism and pleasure, and villainy and repulsion. Because erotic romance makes claims on the romance genre, I expect it to ask some question about the nature of love. What is love? What is sex? How are they distinct concepts? But it does not do this. More and more, it merely equates them. It has done this to such a degree, that romance now also posits the same idea. That intense sexual pleasure is the sign and the only sign for love. That love is sex.

Allowing me to break it down using the examples from Food for the Gods.

The plot of Food for the Gods is a bit like Hamlet in that there is an evil uncle who has poisoned his brother in order to become king. The similarities between the two end in the haphazard violence of the rest of the story which is basically: displaced Greek princess gets sacrificed to Poseidon in order to appease the angry god for the crimes of her people which include incest but more upsetting to the god, failing to worship him. The Kraken to which she is sacrificed turn out to be the triplet godling sons of Poseidon, who are both hot and hung and want to make Daphne their consort after they eat her, if you know what I mean.

Leaving aside the multitude of absurdities (Daphne keeps a journal whose entries comprise most of the exposition), the stilted, twitching prose, the incoherent plot arc, and the troubling insertion of a token POC character for no apparent reason whatsoever (Terena, the maid servant is black. A big deal is made of her skin color and her kinky hair in an appallingly fetishistic digression in one of Daphne’s journal entries), I will merely focus on the erotic aspects of the novel—if I may be so bold as to accord the term novel to this rambling mess of an erotic romance.

The triplet godlings who Daphne ends up falling in love with after a hand-job or three, are brothers. A statement so obvious and redundant that you are probably wondering why I am bothering to make it. But wait, all will be revealed. They are the heroes. The villains of the piece are the Princess Ordana and her father, King Meneos. Princess Ordana and the King are having a sexual relationship. Ordana is also a lesbian. So she is both incestuous and a lesbian, which is bad on account of the fact that she is the villain. How do I know this? Because the godlings, Porimus, Playdor, and Polyphemus are also involved in an incestuous relationship in which they all simultaneously fuck the same woman, but their incest is “good” incest. Possibly because they aren’t lesbians or possibly because we aren’t supposed to see it as incestuous since they are three from one egg?

To play the devil’s advocate for a moment, perhaps the reason that Ordana and her father are eeeeevil is because they are selfish, cruel and murderous. Except why isn’t that enough? Why then make them incestuous lovers? Moreover, why is their incest wrong but the incest of the Kraken brothers a-okay? Is it because the brothers are gods? Though I highly doubt that this book is positing some essential difference between divine morality and human morality which it is trying to explore through the theme of incest. I assume that this could not possibly be the case based on what I’ve read.

My only conclusion is that the incest between father and daughter (for which the daughter is blamed, by the way) is meant to titillate us as much as the incest between the brothers. I come to this conclusion based upon the fact that a sex scene between father and daughter breaks up the first and last half of the book. That means, as far a narrative progression goes, we get three major sex scenes before the denouement. The first between Daphne and the godlings, the second between Ordana and her father, and the last again with Daphne and the godlings. That means that they are narratively equal. The only clue that we have that the scene between Ordana and her father is wrong is that it they are villainous.

While I am using this example, similar plots abound. I’m sure you can think of one. Unethical sex is defined by the fact that it is the villains having the sex in both The Seduction of Miranda Prosper as well as in Elizabeth Amber’s Satyr series. I’ve seen it in other erotic romances as well. Alas, my memory does not serve. I cannot remember the titles and I haven’t got access to my ereader.

To equate “bad” sex with villainy without examining the actions, relations, and power structures involved is a disservice especially if you are asserting yourself as something other than porn. I’m defining pornography pretty basically as that whose primary purpose or only purpose is to cause sexual arousal. If you are only attempting to get people’s rocks off, then I suppose it doesn’t matter. It can be just a fantasy. But if you are asserting that you are a romance—a genre which has labored greatly under the misperception that it is merely “porn for women”—then you’d better have some other narrative purpose than masturbatory material.

Even when erotic romances don’t have the problem of defining unethical sex as that sex had by the villains, they still have the problem of positivism. By which I mean, the notion that knowledge can only be gleaned from empirical evidence, like the wetness of the vagina as proof of desire and desire as proof of love. In erotic romances where no villains exist, the conception of sexuality still proves troubling because it not only rarely bothers to explore interiority, but it asserts through the same concept of attraction and repulsion that it does not exist. Moreover, it asserts that the essential identity is only sexual identity rather than sexual identity making up a part of an individual’s total identity. Again, this proves troubling because it erases contradictions, smooths out complexities, and relies on a narrative in which the proof of love is sexual pleasure, and that sexual pleasure is proof of love.

My problem is not that erotic romance dramatizes interior experiences or emotional abstractions through physical bodies and encounters, but rather that over and over I seem to find novels and novellas that do this with little to no awareness as to the problems this presents both ethically and narratively. I have determined that they lack this awareness based upon the atrocious and bland prose styles; the ridiculous plots; the failure to distinguish in any meaningful way the sexual titillation of “bad” sex and “good” sex; the persistent failure to develop any interior landscape for the characters; superficial declarations of love; the refusal to deal in any meaningful way with what consent and non-consent actually mean; the failure to actually distinguish between love and sex; and more often than not, the failure to achieve even the most basic coherency and comprehensibility.

Erotic romance, you have become what romance is so often accused of being: the shallow outpourings of adolescent sexualities grafted onto the bodies of middle aged women who churn out the most asinine of prose. At best you are mediocre and pass away unremembered and un-mourned. At worst you are, quite literally, unreadable. But most often you are blindly offensive, naively asserting a concept of sex so simple, so sentimental, that it is positively sticky.

A fact that brings new meaning to the phrase, “sowing the seeds of their own destruction.”

REVIEW:  The Dark Palazzo by Virgina Coffman

REVIEW: The Dark Palazzo by Virgina Coffman

Dear Ms. Coffman,

During my junior year of high school, I happened to take AP European History. I recall many things from that course, but what I chiefly remember is the section on the French Revolution. Perhaps it was my general interest in all things French during that phase of my adolescence, but I seem to remember that I was especially fascinated with the Revolution more than any other section we studied. I sympathized with the sans culottes. After all, I too felt oppressed on a daily basis by the petty authoritarianism of high school politics. I was of the opinion that there was nothing as perfectly natural as wanting to behead aristocrats, an opinion I maintain to this day.

The Dark Palazzo by Virgina CoffmanI was honestly baffled by my fellow students who sympathized with the aristocracy. It seemed absurd to me. Not only were they not aristocrats, but they never would be. None of their ancestors were aristocrats and in all likelihood, should they ever travel back in time, they would have undoubtedly have been one of the unwashed masses cramming the sewage littered streets leading into the Place de la Revolution. I, at least, had the awareness that I was more likely to be Madame Defarge than the Scarlet Pimpernel.

The reason I mention this long ago high school memory is because as much as I love my dukes and earls in my historical romances, I’m a bit disturbed by their sheer number. There’s something I find ideologically disturbing in how the French Revolution gets cast as some Great Tragedy in the annals of history as opposed to something more akin to our own American Revolution. I don’t really understand why the French are always the villains, especially considering that from a philosophical perspective the ideals of the French Revolution were not so very different than America’s, today or yesterday.

Flash forward to me sifting through books at the annual library book sale. I just so happened to pick up your book, The Dark Palazzo. I guessed it was a gothic based upon its cover and, although I had never heard of you before, I also suspected it was a romance. I think I paid $1 for it. And boy, am I ever glad that I did.

The Dark Palazzo is, in many ways, the quintessential gothic. It begins as Rachel Carewe, daughter of the British Ambassador to Venice, disembarks on the Grand Canal her companion, Miss Dace, in tow. Miss Carewe has come to Venice to live with her long-estranged father who she hasn’t seen for the better part of a decade. Around the time that Rachel was twelve, her French mother took her back to France when she returned to her own people. Unfortunately, she did so right before the Revolution. Since that time, Rachel has endured many trials and tribulations, not least of which was a stint in the Conciergerie and the death of her mother.

The novel is set during that strange period of time when Napoleon was not yet Emperor, but merely the general of the Revolution armies. The Venice that Rachel enters is one that is decadent, decrepit, and divided between the Austrian Empire and the shoe-less soldiers of the French army as it pushes its enemies back beyond their borders. Venice is teetering on the brink, caught between two ideologies and the armies that represent them. It is awash in spies and displace aristocrats from various countries. At the center of all this is Rachel’s father, Sir Maitland Carewe—called the British Lion by the Venetians—holds the dubious distinction of maintaining Venice’s precarious balance between the various European forces now encroaching upon its borders.

It’s into this political bumble-broth that Rachel must navigate, gondolier or not gondolier. For herself, Rachel desires some kind of peace and quiet. A sense of home that has been deprived of her since the first sallies of the Revolution. Alas, because this is a gothic, this is not to be. Her father’s home is no haven to Rachel, run as it is by the housekeeper, Signora Teotochi, a beautiful and cunning woman who appears to resent Rachel’s appearance and position as lady of the house.

As for her father, Sir Maitland Carewe has changed. He’s aged. No longer the Lion she remembers him being, Carewe’s formidable personality seems to have diminished in the decade since Rachel last saw him. With the exception of her English companion, Miss Dace, there are none who remember her. When she goes to seek out her father’s First Secretary, a man who has known her since earlier childhood, she finds that he has been replaced and no one, apparently, has any idea what has happened to him.

Before long, it is Rachel’s own identity that is being questioned. Signora Teotochi has planted seeds of doubt her father’s mind. Every dinner becomes a test of her memory of the past. More strange still, there’s a man loitering about the canals outside the Carewe Palazzo. Calling himself Messire Livio, the gentleman seems to be some kind of tarnished gentry, slight and bespectacled. But behind the spectacles and the slightly effete mannerisms, Rachel suspects is a different sort of man, someone who seems to be hiding. But what Messire Livio interest in the Carewe household is, is not certain.

I very much enjoyed this book. As I said, it is in some ways quite a traditional gothic and there are not that many surprises when it comes to the plot in this respect. Yet, what I found compelling about this book, more than the ubiquitous mystery at the center of Venice, was how France, the French, and the French Revolution were treated.

Part of Rachel’s character arc is realization that she does not belong in Venetian society, nor British society either. The Revolution has changed her. Not simply because of the deaths and destruction she has witnessed, but the ideals behind it. She has spent her adolescence and young womanhood in a place that does not demand she submit her will to any father, husband, or step-mother. The strictures of Venetian life began to chafe at her, and slowly, Rachel comes to the realization that she is not English, cannot be Venetian, and is, most shockingly of all, a citizen of the Republic of France, one and indivisible.

Parallel to this personal journey, is Rachel’s falling in love with the mysterious Messire Livio.

Spoilers:

[spoiler]Messire Livio, it turns out, is a Corsican spy, sent ahead of Napoleon’s armies to make a treaty with the Doge behind Austria and the Council of Ten’s backs. Livio is not an aristocrat and he may not even be a gentleman. Technically speaking, he isn’t even French. The fact that it is this man, not a British spy or a British aristocrat, who plays the hero, is really the thing that is different about this book. I’m not entirely sure if the history is correct, AP European notwithstanding. And certainly, it takes an idealistic view of the Revolution. However, not anymore idealistic than the view most historical romances take of the British army.

I think this totally unexpected viewpoint of history is best summarized by the last paragraph of the novel which goes as follows:
“And we three started out across the lively square of San Marco. The great red and gold banner, the Lion of St. Mark, beat at its talk staff. Beside it was the bright Tricoleur of France, to guarantee, as I hoped, the liberties of Venice. After a few minutes, Livio and I looked at each other and smiled, and we were thinking not of the painful past, but of the future, of those glorious years to come in the new century.”

[/spoiler]

The love story and mystery are all superbly done and since this is an older novel, there isn’t much sex. But what shifts this book into a remarkable category, is the sheer novelty of the treatment of the Revolution, which I think I have never seen before. For that fact alone, I would recommend this book. Fortunately the romance and the mystery are worth reading in and of themselves, especially if you like late 1960’s gothic novels as much as I do. B+

Digital editions are now available on Kindle and at Barnes & Noble for $2.99.

Lazaraspaste

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