This is a transcript of my introduction and interstitial talks at the Raunchy Romance Storytime event at Customs House Library last Wednesday. (It will differ slightly from the actual event because not everything I said was written down.) Items in italics are asides. I’ve linked to sources where relevant. Click here for a list of all the books featured on the night.
Good evening, everyone, and welcome to Raunchy Romance Storytime. I’m Kat Mayo and I run a book blog called Book Thingo, which focuses on romance fiction and, to some extent, genres that intersect with romance.
Here I asked the audience and the presenters to indicate if they’ve read a romance book before. There were quite a few of them!
I’m glad to see that we’re so well represented tonight, because romance, generally speaking, doesn’t hold an exalted place in our literary culture. Even when you look within genre fiction circles, there’s a sense that romance is the lowest common denominator and there’s a tendency to justify romantic elements within stories. That, or to kill romantic leads off, usually quite violently.
You also might not realise this, but Australia has the highest number of romance authors per capita in the world. The local market can’t actually support support their output, so they end up being published by overseas publishers.
So when Alison emailed me and invited to curate this event, I was extremely chuffed, for two reasons:
- First, because it’s organised by the library, and some of the best romance fiction I read as a teenager were courtesy of my local library. I also know that there are some strong advocates for romance fiction working in City of Sydney libraries, and I love that their advocacy for my genre has not gone unheard. So thank you to Customs House Library for hosting this exciting event.
- The second reason that I was so excited to be part of this project is because when Alison proposed this idea to me, she was very clear on the fact that she wanted to tie it in with International Women’s Day, and I want to talk about this briefly.
When the romance genre is portrayed in the media, and in academic and literary circles, often we only hear the tired, old arguments around stereotypical characters, bodice-rippers and formulaic writing. And while I agree that the genre can produce some godawful prose—moist channels, nubs, turgid manhoods and, my favourite, lady-softness—romance also includes some of the most heartbreaking and emotionally exhausting books that I’ve read.
It’s also a genre which is overwhelmingly dominated by women, both as authors and as readers.
It’s a genre that’s often inherited from female family members, and many romance readers will have a story of their first Mills & Boon discovered in grandma’s bookshelf or next to their mother’s bed.
Finally, it’s a genre that has evolved over time to reflect the changing values of women in contemporary society. Gone are the rapish rogues of the 70s and 80s. Today you’re more likely to see bluestocking heroines and retired courtesans in historical romance, senior partners and business owners in contemporary romance, and alpha females and feral witches in paranormal romance. Not always—but that’s part of the diversity in the genre.
So despite what we regularly hear in the media about romance fiction, I firmly believe that this is a genre that reflects a diverse range of feminist values.
And one of the most important—yet most denigrated—aspects of romance fiction is the smut. Yes, the smut. My first Charlotte Lamb featured kissing cousins having oral sex in a car. He was giving; she was receiving. It was fantastic!
Tonight, I hope everyone gets a little bit of AURAL fun!
But seriously, sex in romance fiction is so misunderstood. It’s not just chick porn (I stole that phrase from another blog). The best sex in romance is a complicated dance of desire and angst and power and despair and, quite often, humour.
So tonight, I’ve chosen not just my favourite authors or books, but excerpts that I hope will give you the broadest taste of what we read in between the pages of a romance. And if the sexy, sultry, delightful voices of Rhys Muldoon, Libbi Gorr and PJ Lane can’t bring them to life, then I’ll eat my Mills & Boon.
I’ve chosen to start off with three not too graphic excerpts in order to highlight how big a part sexual tension plays in romance fiction.
The first excerpt is from a Mills & Boon book called Red-Hot Renegade by Australian author Kelly Hunter. This book was a finalist for the RITA awards last year—the Oscar award equivalent for romance authors. I’ve chosen my favourite scene from this book. Basically, Jacob and Jianne are an estranged married couple, but he’s agreed to let her stay in his house/dojo so he can protect her from this guy who they think is stalking her. Being a gentleman, he’s given her his bedroom to sleep in, and this scene is set at breakfast after a night of…unfulfilled lusting. It’s not particularly graphic, but it’s deliciously naughty and very much focused on the heroine.
The second excerpt is from a book that I recommend to everyone who loves fun historical romance but can’t get into vampires and werewolves. Soulless by Gail Carriger features a heroine who has the power to neutralise other paranormal characters. Her love interest is a werewolf, who, conveniently always turns back into a man when she touches him. In this scene, he has just realised that he gave her a love bite, and she uses the opportunity to do some…scientific exploration.
The third excerpt is a little longer because it requires a bit more context. It’s from a book called Whistling in the Dark by Tamara Allen, which was originally published as an ebook. It’s set in New York, just after World War I and towards the end of the flu pandemic. It features a gay romance, and for me, this scene is incredibly tense and sensual and quite gorgeous.
I hope you enjoy these three very different but, I think, fabulous introduction into how we like to be wooed and seduced in romance fiction. And now I shall invite our lovely performers to bring them to life.
The performers read the excerpts in the following order: PJ Lane, Libbi Gorr and Rhys Muldoon. PJ’s reading was a great ice breaker. Libbi turned a good scene into a great one and all with a twinkle in her eye. Rhys seriously made me weak in the knees. I don’t think anyone could’ve read his excerpt better. I was a bit inarticulate when I got up to talk again!
I had a bit of a quick rant about ebooks here. Oops. I mentioned that libraries were starting to embrace ebooks, and that it would be great if the City of Sydney would offer ebook lending. I think I also mentioned that romance readers were early ebook adopters because it meant they could read books without having to flash the dodgy covers around. But I wasn’t as articulate as that. So, a bit ranty–adlibbing is not my forte.
Now that we’ve had some foreplay, I know what you’re thinking: Get into the smut, dammit!
Romance fiction smut should not be underestimated. For some, it’s porn with an emotional context. For others, it’s a fantasy that explores more complex underlying emotions in a safe way. And still for some, it’s a gateway to sexual empowerment. I still remember an interview of Ayaan Hirsi Ali by Jennifer Byrne a couple of years ago, in which Hirsi Ali talks about reading Barbara Cartland novels. And Byrne asks her how these books could possibly be challenging.
They challenged the authority that women should not be thinking about or indulging in any form of erotic or, um, you know, trying to imagine what it would be like to have a relationship with a male.
Descriptions, page after page, about getting aroused and meeting a man and defying his authority, of which I think Barbara Cartland also allows women to defy the authority of the bad guy.
This next set of excerpts was the most difficult for me to choose, simply because there are SO MANY books with such wonderfully emotional and layered sex scenes. So I’ll tell you why I picked these three in particular.
The first excerpt is from a book called Shadow Heart by one of my most favourite romance authors, Laura Kinsale. (Incidentally, I first read this when I borrowed it from Ultimo Library.) It caused some controversy when it first came out in 2004, because it features pretty much every button-pushing trope in romance fiction. The heroine, Elena, is a virgin who is basically raped by the hero in order to consummate a politically motivated marriage. And in the process of negotiating this uncomfortable union between them, Elena discovers that she likes to dominate and hurt Allegreto during sex. I chose a scene where Elena basically takes control of the seduction and, I suppose, tests the power she wields over Allegreto. It’s a particularly powerful scene, because he is an assassin and being defenceless, letting Elena control what happens in the bedroom—or in this case, the lake—basically strips him of all his emotional armour.
The second excerpt is by Shannon Stacey, who is best known for her contemporary romances published under Carina Press, the epublishing imprint of Harlequin Mills & Boon. But before she became mainstream, she wrote some hot romantic novellas for Ellora’s Cave, an epublisher that specialises in quite explicit erotic romance—they even trademarked the term ‘romantica’. This excerpt is from Stacey’s short story, Interstellar Sparks, and it includes two scenes. The first scene has the heroine, Ilyna, ‘an intergalactic ambassador who is genetically engineered to be appealing to Earthlings’, indulging in a bit of vigorous self-pleasure until she decides that she needs something—or someone a bit more…well, vigorous. It’s pretty self-explanatory, so I’ll let PJ reveal some of the funnier twists in the plot. I chose this one not only because Ilyna is the sexual aggressor but because I think it shows just how much fun and light-hearted romance can be, without losing that underlying need that the characters have of connecting with someone else—someone who understands their innermost desires.
The third excerpt is from an erotic contemporary romance titled Broken by Megan Hart. Megan Hart is one of those authors who write such exquisite and excruciatingly emotional stories—not all of them romance. Broken kind of straddles erotica and romance, and it’s fairly daring as far as romance fiction goes. It’s written in the first person, which is unusual, from the point of view of the heroine, Sadie. Every month she meets Joe, who tells her a story about one of his many sexual encounters with other women. I don’t want to spoil too much of the plot, but essentially, she’s married to someone else. It’s almost unheard of in romance that a heroine would be unfaithful—even if, in this case, it’s not physically consummated. This scene occurs when Joe and Sadie are finally free to act on their feelings for each other.
So…prepare to be seduced.
The performers read the excerpts in the following order: Rhys Muldoon, PJ Lane and Libbi Gorr. In hindsight, I shouldn’t have had Rhys read two excerpts back-to-back, but he did a great job. He was very low-pitched and sexy and swoony—I’m not sure if people realised what Elena was actually doing to Allegreto. It didn’t sound so painful when Rhys was reading it. :-)
PJ chose to channel Russell Crowe for the hero of the story and it made what was already a funny scene into an outrageously hilarious one. It was such a clever choice for the hero.
Libbi absolutely smashed the reading. She had the longest and probably the most difficult piece of the night, and she showed me nuances in the text that I hadn’t noticed when I read it. Absolutely amazing and, believe it or not, she even managed to make us laugh! (‘Usually, at this time of night, I would be reading Thomas the Tank Engine.’)
By this time, we had gone way past the hour. Lesson learned: one page in the hands of a professional requires more time than when I read it out loud to myself. Totally my fault! We decided to skip to the last excerpt, which worked out great because they were meant for Rhys and Libbi, who had had to do such lengthy readings.
By the way, if you guys want to know how the stories end, come see me afterwards and I’m more than happy to do a bit of book pimping.
Here I kind of skimmed through my notes and plucked out some relevant sentences around how we’re running late so we’ll skip to the last excerpt, and that I chose it because it’s a scene where the hero and heroine realise how much the other person means to them. That is, after all, why we read romance—for the happy ending.
We’ve now come to our final set of excerpts. These are all scenes in which one or both of the protagonists realise how much the other person means to them. That is, after all, why we read romance—the happy ending.
The first excerpt is from a futuristic paranormal romance called Slave to Sensation by New Zealand author Nalini Singh. It features Sascha, who has been conditioned not to show emotion, and Lucas, a were-panther, for whom emotion and touch are as essential as breathing. Lucas is one of my favourite alpha heroes—aggressive but gentle, powerful but restrained, protective but not smothering. Paranormal romance is an interesting subgenre because it’s still dominated by aggressive, powerful, growly heroes. I think there’s some truth to the notion that the fantasy elements in paranormal romance are used to revive romance tropes that are no longer fashionable. It’s also a subgenre that can, to some degree, present fantasies that have been ‘shamed’ out of other genres in a more palatable way—rape, BDSM, multiple partners and even, I kid you not, the double-pronged hero. (I know, right? Ouch! But don’t worry, he has this tongue thing that comes out and…repairs broken skin. Or something. Talk to me later and I’ll tell you the title.)
(A quick note on the bit above regarding fantasy elements in paranormal romance that revive unfashionable tropes and those that have been shamed out of other genres. This is something I added after reading a Twitter conversation between @IsobelCarr, @McVane, @sunita_d, @Liz_Mc2 and @MoriahJovan and is a light paraphrase of their tweets. The reference to the double-pronged hero is all mine, however, and I absolutely regret that I didn’t get a chance to BRING IT UP.)
The second excerpt is from Tempt the Devil by the wildly popular Australia author Anna Campbell. The heroine, Olivia, is a courtesan, who wants to get out of the business. Julian, ‘London’s most notoriously wanton rake’ is her latest paramour and he refuses to let her be the detached, in-control mistress she normally is. I love this scene because even though they finally declare their love for each other, there’s just this sense of desperation because she really doesn’t want to be part of his world any longer and she knows that he’s not willing to risk everything for her. Yet. (It’s a romance, after all.)
And finally, we’re going to end on a gentler note from a romantic suspense set in the outback. As Darkness Falls is the debut novel of Australian author Bronwyn Parry. Interestingly, Parry wrote this book for the US market and when it was picked up by an Australian publisher, they wanted to cut the sex scenes from her book. I’m glad they kept it in. I think it’s only fitting to finish the night off with words crafted by a female Australian author that features Australian characters.
Enjoy this happy ending.
PJ Lane read this excerpt, and when he finished—‘He reached to turn off the lamp, eased the last of their clothes away in the muted light from the veranda, and almost forgot how to breathe when she stood before him, naked and beautiful and giving.’—I swear I heard the audience sigh.
What a beautiful note with which to end the night. I’m feeling kind of swoony, to be honest. (I think I said some other stuff here because I didn’t like what I had written in my notes!)
To finish off, I just want to thank Rhys, Libbi and PJ for breathing life—and lust—to some of my favourite couples in romance. And also to thank all of you who came along tonight, for letting us seduce you with words.
I’d like to close with a quote from a fellow blogger, Wendy, who blogs at Misadventures of Super Librarian, who had this to say about why she reads romance:
Romance gives me something that no other genre can—when it’s done right, it emotionally invests me. It speaks to me on a deeper emotional level. It has a lingering effect. Let us call it what it is—Reading Afterglow. With a good romance, I have total recall. I can tell you how I felt when I was reading it, and the emotional effect it had on me.
I hope we’ve left you all with your own special reading afterglow.
You can see more photos from the event on Flickr.