Violence in Romance Fiction
by Linda Ambrosia
Knowing this is a hot-button topic, I certainly hope I don't offend anyone. Please keep in mind I'm still technically a "nobody." I'm just a little granny with no more than two e-books and a short story to my name thus far, so I'm scarcely an "authority" on this matter. My views are from the heart, but not meant to be considered "dogma." (And I'd like to thank Ms. Gracen for allowing me the opportunity to express myself here.)
Now, I hide behind a pen name for a number of reasons. Among them is that romance fiction as a whole still has a bad reputation among "non-believers." Many people think it's because of all the sex in romantic books. But as my Husband has pointed out to me, that's ludicrous, because our whole society is overloaded with sex, even in TV commercials.
What really scares people about romance books is that they often appear to advocate violence toward women. This more true of the romance novels of the 1970s and 1980s than now, but there are still some romances published today that include such violence, ranging from slaps to gunplay to rapes.
Let me put one thing right on the line: All three of my published works (including "Gulliver's Children," a book written with Husband) contain violence. My short story, for example, concludes with two women trying to kill each other on a sinking ship in the middle of a storm. Yet not a single review I've had so far has even mentioned the violent content of my work.
So why haven't any of my reviewers been upset? I strongly suspect because me and Husband use "stylized violence," which doesn't have the same impact on the human brain that more graphic material does. Also, both my novels have strong themes that are against the abuse of women, so it's very clear where I stand on this matter. I'd like to share this technique with you by going down the elements that tend to upset readers of romance books--and show how they could be written differently.
The number one culprits in romance's bad reputation are the old "bodice ripper" rapist-as-hero novels. (Such books were especially prevalent in the 1970s.) Now, I'm not at all sure if books like this are still being published. Husband tells me the majority of publishing houses forbid such storylines these days, but there may still be some places that publish them. I must confess ignorance here.
Regardless, I cannot and never will write such a book. They go against my moral and religious beliefs.
So I really have nothing to advise the writers of such novels, except this: If you're promoting such material, please let readers know ahead of time what to expect. In the past, a frequent gripe I heard from Husband was how publishers would slip rape scenes into books that have sweet-looking covers. This was often done in the eighties and nineties. Sometimes books would be advertised as wholesome only to have a "bodice ripper" content.
How a book is marketed is a combined effort between writers and publishers. So I can only advise them in this regard: Be honest with your readers. My own publisher for Firedrakes Weyr, bless her heart, put a warning about the violence in my Young Adult science fiction novel "Gulliver's Children" on the buy page--and I'm careful in my promos to warn readers that my book contains violent material and occasional strong language.
Now, speaking of "Gulliver's Children," several times in the second half of the book, there's references made to both rape and cannibalism. There's a scene where the heroine foils a rape attempt by tossing a bucket of urine in a bad guy's face. Another bad guy boasts of how he raped a woman in the past. And it's strongly hinted that members of an evil clan in the book are cannibals.
However, there's not one page that shows either rape or cannibalism. These things are either kept "off-screen" or stopped by the resourceful heroine. What's more, all the "bad things" in the book are done only by the "bad guys," and they are clearly designated "bad things." By utilizing "stylized violence," you don't have to describe everything in detail, and it's clear who's "good" and who's "bad."
Which brings up another point: If a book says that "rape is bad," then what harm is there in describing it? Well, for one, you automatically hurt your credibility by going graphic. It makes it look like you threw the rape scene in just for entertainment value--which smarts of hypocrisy, regardless of the writer's intention. You can't always get away with things by saying "Well, the bad guy did it."
Key to "stylized violence" is that suggestion can be more effective than description. Say, for example, you show a man running out of an alleyway. Then some cop/hero/nurse (whatever) comes along and finds a bruised young lady with a ripped blouse sitting in the alley crying, and through her tears she reveals that she's just been raped, there's no need for description. It can be just as emotional without resorting to showing the deed--depending, of course, on the skills of the writer.
There are other forms of violence that, with a little work, can be handled with good taste. In "Gulliver's Children," we have a sequence in which the heroine is branded on the back. To take the sting out of this episode, we had the heroine (who's an alien from another planet) turn the tables on her captors by suddenly reverting to her true alien self. Eyes bugging, roaring and displaying her fangs, she so frightens her enemies that they cring from her in fear. Such a technique kept the excitement level high without making the heroine look like a "helpless victim."
Make no mistake, writing about violence of any sort, especially toward women, is a tricky business. It's hard to depict without being misunderstood or "crossing the line" into bad taste. But with a little extra effort, it can be done in such a way that women characters are treated respectfully.
Linda Ambrosia, Writer of Young Adult Fiction
Disclaimer (because we don't have a choice): The views expressed by the guest blogger do not necessarily reflect those of The Deadly Vixens.
Thursday, November 6, 2008
Violence in Romance Fiction