Thursday, November 30, 2006

The "Soap Opera Syndrome", or, why I'm seriously considering leaving romance fiction behind

...okay, not that I ever really wrote category to begin with, or so some people tell me. Winning the Golden Heart in category was a dream come true--but seeing as how that book hasn't sold YET (8 years later), and the only book I did sell was for all intents and purposes an inspy... But, I digress. I promised to elaborate further on the Soap Opera Syndrome, as I've nicknamed it, most recently encountered via my reading Susan Elizabeth Phillips. Now, this isn't a diss on SEP. She's obviously found a formula that rings true with lots and lots and lots of people, her writing fairly zings off the page, and I should have her problems of trying to make sure I make the NYT list...again. (tee hee) But reading a secular women's fiction book (something I haven't done a whole lot of in the last year and a half) brought home to me a weakness and predictability that comes straight out of romance and soap operas--something for which we, if we write this kind of thing, are justifiably criticized or ridiculed. It's the simple operating principle of soap operas and most romances: A man and a woman, put together in close proximity for long enough--no matter how incompatible they are in most areas--will inevitably end up being attracted to each other, falling for each other, and having sex. Now in romance, of course, this happens by design. It doesn't make it any more believable to have two characters who basically are snotty to each other for most of a book, but who have an inexplicable physical chemistry that simply cannot be denied, yatta, yatta, but at least within the confines of the genre, it's expected that these two will pretty much hop from snipping at each other, to the bed, and then to the altar. (They've got the order backwards, but hey, it is secular, after all.) What's distubing about this, however, isn't its immorality...but the fact that, despite all logic or reason to the contrary, it's considered the way to show character growth and development between real characters living real lives. Well, I don't know about you, but that's not my reality. We've all worked with the opposite sex in various capacities on intense projects...or been trapped with someone who's a good friend and nothing more in a snowstorm/traffic jam/disaster/service project we couldn't get out of...or been assigned a lab partner of the opposite sex in college and had to do gruesome experiments together which both of us despised...or whatever. Most of us have done all of this without either of us feeling the urge to take off any clothing, much less fall into the nearest bedlike object and "git it on." Even in those instances (and we've all had them) when we may have been tempted to misbehave, the great majority of us are faithful, ignore the temptation, and stay friends or acquaintances, without adding complications of possible adultery and certainly some fornication in there to deal with later. But it still remains not only a viable plot line in these fictional venues--it's become pretty much a requirement, albeit a veiled one at times. Years ago, I submitted a great book (one that's making the rounds now in a different form) to St. Martin's Press, believing it would be a good fit. I received a rejection, however, that asserted that the hero and heroine's relationship wasn't "sufficiently developed" for them. I was flummoxed by this--the hero and heroine were together, if in thought if nothing else, on virtually every page--until I talked to a friend who knew a St. Martin's author, and she asked me, "Well, are there any sex scenes in it?" "Well, no," I said. Because my characters weren't married yet, and so therefore... "Well, that's what they meant by not developed enough," she told me. "They wanted the relationship consummated, and as many times as possible." They could have told me that directly, of course, rather than using this "shield" language. It wouldn't have resulted in a sale, of course...because I wouldn't have put in the sex scenes. But they could have come right out and said it. Why didn't they? Because the ultimate hypocrisy of the romance/women's fiction genre is that these books aren't sex books...they're relationship books. Never mind how farfetched the relationship is from real life. Never mind how many times authors throw people together who wouldn't make it 20 minutes in the real world...and expect us to believe they're going to make it for a lifetime. Bottom line (not to make a bad pun)? What makes that relationship happen is to get that attraction going, baby, hot and heavy as possible--an attraction that will happen, by golly, because it's a man and a woman and every man and every woman ultimately want to have sex with one another, that's the only way they can truly communicate, and if you don't believe this, whatsa matta you, you got a problem with sex? Yeah, it's silly. But it's also a foundational principle of the pap that holds together soap operas and the pap that presently underlies much of romance fiction and even women's "big books." And it does no good to point out that characters can develop outside the sheets...that people get to know each other in thousands of other little ways other than having sex, every day of the week...and that in most cases, even the plot points or character traits they claim are being shown in sex scenes can be just as easily, and more vividly, shown outside the bedroom than in it. It does no good even to point out that out of most people's favorite romantic movies, there are very, very few that have even so much as a shred of nudity in them, much less fully developed sex scenes. And if you make the joke that "My mother always told me there was a nasty word for people who watch other people having sex..." Well, you just don't wanna go there. So there it is. The thing that's bothered me about soap operas for years, that bothers me about the present climate of romance...but the thing that, they tell me, more and more people want more and more of. . Any man and woman, thrown together long enough, will inevitably end up in bed; that's reality, baby. Write it or don't sell. And then writers of these things wonder why they "don't get no respect"? Sheesh, and sheesh again! Janny


Bonnie Way aka the Koala Mom said...

Good points! I'm not much a romance fan for most of the reasons that you've mentioned - and for the unreality I find in most romance novels, or the silly/stupid reasons two characters find themselves together and decide to be a couple. We need more writers out there writing real, honest stories about real, honest romances - with all the nitty gritty about them!

Donna Alice said...

This is so true! I agree that we need more books that are realistic and now soap opera spin offs. My last venture into reading a secular romance left a very bad taste in my mind for this same reason. A man and woman met during a holdup at a convenience store---knew little more than one another's first names and yet when they were released they head right for a local hotel. ICK!

Maybe that's why people who write (or are attempting to write) books where the characters are not "developed enough" can't get a foot in the publishing door. I found this to be true after a recent venture with the Hearts of the West contest. My ms. got some decent scores, some good notice, BUT..since the hero's family is murdered in the first chapter (it's a western), the judges had grave doubts about how he was going to fall in love with the heroine at a later date--since he was so obviously in love with his wife. My thoughts were, that is the point of the book! It takes him until the end to be thinking about the heroine and the romance doesn't even happen until book two.

Makes you wonder! Keep up the blog!

PS. My email address is: Didn't know any other way to get it to you.