There has been a great deal of uproar in the romance author community lately. If you are not a big fan of conflict over what is or is not proper in a romance novel, this might be a post you want to skip.
WARNING: This post discusses sex, racism, and has opinions.
First of all there is the discussion about how much sex is too much sex. Is clean the right term? Does that imply sex is dirty? What if the sex is there but doesn’t advance the plot? Or the plot could use a little sex to make the characters more human? What if the way a particular thing is done is a “trigger” for someone’s trauma? How clearly does consent need to be spelled out? Does only the female character need to consent? What happens in a non-heterosexual romance?
So many questions. As an author, I struggle. We could do “warning labels” to death and still miss something that sends someone over the edge. Authors have been known to label their books sensual, and been slammed because the reader didn’t see the word and objected to reading something … well … sensual.
How would you describe a book that has some sex, but it’s there only to move the plot forward? How much does there have to be before it offends you? Are there qualities it has to have to be “okay”? If you have an opinion about this, I’d love to hear it.
The latest upheaval is about Lisa Kleypas’s new book, Hello Stranger, that takes place in Victorian England. There is a passage that offended a reviewer because the male character referred to being taught about sex from a woman in Calcutta. (To read the review, click here.) Personally, I found the passage sensual, but I’m a white woman who grew up in the 60s when the Kama Sutra was all the rage.
Is it a trope? Definitely. Lazy writing? Maybe. Offensive? To some, it is. The author has apologized and promised to make sure “all future editions will be culturally sensitive and mindful of how every single character is portrayed.”
A few things. First, the author never says the woman in Calcutta is a woman of color. That’s an assumption on the reviewer’s part. Second, the British conquered and colonized India for some not nice reasons during the time period of the story. Everything history tells us is that they looked down on the natives of the country.
Are we served if this is never referenced in a romance novel, as if it never happened? Or are we better served to leave it in and add an afterword that talks about how this attitude influences our lives today? How can we fix a problem if we deny it every existed? The uproar over this passage is actually a good thing in some ways because it opens the discussion.
But it is a limited discussion. Why not have a romance about the “Woman from Calcutta”? Show the other side of this time period? Why not have a book that updates it and turns it around like Black Panther is doing for superheroes? Why not have a reader’s guide that suggests questions like “How is this attitude toward women in general still in existence today?”
Or is all of that not romance? This gets to the heart of my question as an author.
As a romance reader, how much realism do you want in your novels?
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