The Dirty Parts
"His engorged maleness pressed urgently against her throbbing delta."
Romance novels are known for such florid, circulation-fixated descriptions of garden-variety rutting. In fact, those unfamiliar with the romance genre often skip directly to the obligatory fucking passage. What young girl hasn't powered through Harlequin paperbacks in a hidden nook at the public library, flipping past key plot points in a preadolescent lather? There are even novelty bookmarks that declare their intention to flag "the dirty parts."
Based on this popular behavior, one might assume that romance novelists would be grateful for the universal crowd-pleaser that is engorged maleness. Surprisingly, romance writer Connie Brockway would sooner see the convention, um, deflated.
"What is it about 15 pages of a romance novel that has everybody focusing on it so much? Is it because it's written by women?" Brockway asks. "I really don't mean to sound defensive, but I think 'the dirty parts' is a vision that non-romance-readers have of romance."
Brockway has published 17 novels, starting with 1994's Promise Me Heaven. This year, she's been nominated for two RITA Awards (the most sought-after prize in romance publishing) and has a chance of being inducted into the Romance Writers of America Hall of Fame. Talking in the kitchen of her spacious and airy Edina home, she's clearly passionate about the romance genre, especially historical romance. She's not reluctant to classify romance as "pop literature"--on the contrary, she believes that it's an insult to the genre to call it anything else. Rather, it's that pesky "paperback smut" stereotype that raises her hackles.
"Terms you hear classically about romance are 'bodice ripper,' 'trash,' and 'porn for women,'" Brockway says with distaste. "People who don't read [romance] always ask me about it. They say, 'That's bad, that's so not feminist, that's so sexist.' Then in the same breath, they turn around and say, 'Women should not write about sex.' The exact same people! You can't have it both ways."
Brockway says that she suspects the romance genre is often derided precisely because it is written and consumed primarily by women. "When I got out of college and I started writing romance, I got very defensive about that," she says. "I always thought it had a lot to do with a patriarchal, ivory-tower mentality."
Brockway attended graduate school at the University of Minnesota and received a degree in creative writing. She gravitated naturally toward romance owing to her passion for history and intrigue, but almost immediately after she began working in her genre of choice, she felt heat from those who felt her considerable talents might be wasted. "I got a lot of flak when I started. People felt like, 'You're leaving the sisterhood,'" Brockway says, alluding to the belief that the genre is sexist by design. "I did a lot of thinking about where the romance genre fits into society. What its function is. Why is it denigrated? Why is it looked down on?"
The prejudice against romance extends to popular media. "The Strib won't review any pop fiction, as far as I know, except mysteries. Why won't they review romance?"
Still, Brockway concedes that the genre functions mainly as high-quality fantasy fodder for its female readers. "It does romance a disservice to pretend it's something it's not. It becomes defensive. Saying it's literary is being embarrassed of what it is."
Despite this admission, the typical romance fan, according to Brockway, isn't a subliterate hausfrau slobbering after her teenage pool cleaner and Tivo-ing Passions. Rather, she reports, most romance readers consume a steady diet of quality literature, supplemented with their guilty pleasure of choice. "Readers are readers," Brockway says. "The one thing I'm always amazed by with my readership is what articulate and intelligent women they are. They're well-read; they're not segmented. They don't just read romance."
This informed readership isn't content reading about ditzy contessas being seized by swarthy pirates, either. Today's romantic heroine is the thinking woman's contessa. "Right now there are so many bluestocking [intellectual] heroines in historical romance novels," Brockway says. "Smart, canny heroines. Bottom line, that's what our readers identify with."
Desdemona "Dizzy" Carlisle, the heroine of Brockway's 1997 book As You Desire, is the very model of bluestocking pluck: The self-described "wunderkind of Egyptology," Dizzy can translate ancient glyphs, outsmart desert captors, and trade barbs with the wittiest of rakes. At the most inopportune of moments, Dizzy finds herself reunited with an old flame, devastatingly handsome scoundrel Harry Braxton. While Harry, a "complete jackal," excels at taunting and infuriating his steely companion, he secretly pines for her.
In a nod to more modern couple dynamics, Dizzy fulfills and emboldens Harry as much as she arouses him. When the pair finally marries at the book's end, Harry is suddenly flush with confidence, encouraged by his feisty new wife. "He'd never felt so empowered. So capable of doing anything. He might well author that treatise Sir Robert had for years been badgering him to do.... Anything was possible now."
Passages like this, depicting women as a source of strength and support, are common in Brockway's work. Dizzy is more evocative of a capable Indiana Jones sidekick than a submissive maiden pleading to be rescued. In fact, she's most often pursued for her translation skills, not her décolletage. And Harry? In chapter 26, the poor chap reveals that he can't read. One might say his accomplished bride has the upper hand in more ways than one.
Brockway's other books explore similar themes of empowerment and role reversal. My Surrender (2000), the third book of her Rose Hunters trilogy, showcases the spirited Charlotte Nash, a spy in Napoleonic England. She must pretend to have been "ruined" by fellow (dashing) spy Dand Ross in order to pose as an enemy's mistress. It's a coy twist on the concept of a woman's reputation as something that must be protected, as Charlotte herself is determined to inhabit the character. Naturally, Charlotte and Dand fall madly in love, and the naughty charade becomes reality. Who, exactly, is ruining whom?
Padding around making Earl Grey tea in the kitchen, Brockway may appear less glamorous than Dizzy or Charlotte, though she's every bit as engaging, with a sense of humor that hints at the series of rakes that parade through her storylines. She resembles any well-to-do suburban wife and mother, but her fluid, proselike conversational style suggests a life spent conjuring tales of more dramatic times.
Sounds like it's all about throbbing cerebrums these days, but have no fear--there are still plenty of bodices being ripped in every subgenre of romance. Even the juggernaut of political correctness can't squash the popular fantasy of lady-ravished-by-brute, and today's romance reader isn't afraid to cop to it. Says Brockway, "In spite of the fact that a certain percentage of the readership is always trying to jam PC stuff down the romance readers' throats, they're saying, 'Nope, I don't care.' Across the board, readers are saying, 'This is a fantasy, and for whatever reason, it works for me. And I'm not going to be apologetic about it.'"
Brockway is staunch in her belief that politics have no place in the labyrinthine boudoir that is the subconscious mind. "Just like you can't legislate morality, you can't tell people what fantasies should or shouldn't work for them."
And sometimes, what works is downright alien. "There's this huge surge now in fantasy romance where the heroes and the heroines are not human," Brockway reports with a gleam in her eye. One of her favorite examples of the extraterrestrial-turned-sexual occurs in a popular series of books by romance writer Sherrilyn Kenyon. "She writes about this group of people called the Carpathians. The men are a dying race, and once they meet a woman they're bound to her forever. Before they meet this woman, they see everything in shades of gray," Brockway explains. "But once they meet the woman, the world becomes colorful. Their senses awake. They can smell, they can taste. And it only happens after they meet their soulmate. A friend of mine, a very good writer named Eloisa James, had a really interesting take on [the Carpathian books]: They speak to a women's maternal instincts."
It seems odd that reproductive longing would manifest itself in escapist literature. After all, don't women read romance novels to quell the tedium of marriage and family? Not so, according to Brockway. In fact, stability is practically fetishized in most romances. "I think it's interesting that in romance, the relationships are always totally monogamous," she says, refilling our teacups. "Once the hero and the heroine get together--if we're talking romance, not erotica--that's it. There's no one else in the world."
Why would a fantasy be such a faithful reflection of many women's day-to-day reality? "I think it's sort of a biological imperative," Brockway says simply. After all, even headstrong Dizzy Carlisle is a blushing bride by the end of As You Desire, albeit in scandalous Egyptian-influenced garb.
However, monogamy isn't a form of surrender for modern romance heroines, even those who exist in Victorian times. "In the historical novels that I'm reading now, the hero is as conquered by monogamy as the female. He's probably had a little more sexual experience---talk about a double standard!--but in the end, she's not left at the homestead to raise the kids while he's out having a good time. In a lot of these books she's either running the estate or she handles his finances or she has an integral part in running his life." In other words, she's a power wife.
To hear Brockway talk, her world is as satisfying as those lived by her heroines. She just signed a contract to do a contemporary women's fiction novel, set in Minnesota. When asked how she continues to find inspiration in an environment that's often characterized as glacial and passionless, Brockway chuckles. "The winters are damn long! I hate winter and I hate being out in the cold, so you sit around and read and watch movies and listen to music and read articles, and soon you're living a rich internal life. It's either that or you turn into an axe murderer."
In her spare time, Brockway is more a romantic in the Thoreauvian sense: She enjoys the outdoors, is a "master gardener," and serves on the board of directors at the Minnesota Wildlife Rehabilitation Center, where she has volunteered for the past nine years. "I consider myself a Renaissance person," she says.
Though her imagination may tilt toward the past, advances in publishing have forced her to keep up with the modern machine world. "I've had to teach myself a lot of technical stuff," Brockway says. But she fears that fansites and increased internet exposure could have an adverse effect on authors, who, with the exception of corseted fan favorites like Anne Rice, typically haven't relied on their public image to sell books.
"As technology exposes the author to the fans, there's an ageism that comes into play," Brockway says. "You have to look hip and edgy on your website. Your books shouldn't rely on your age or your socioeconomic class or where you shop. But honest to God, it's working that way now." Although she chooses not to disclose her age, Brockway reveals that she'll have been married for 30 years this fall. This hint of real-life romance seems like a better endorsement for the genre than a lace corset or flamboyant image.
At the very least, crossing over to the women's fiction genre may provide Brockway with a welcome respite from writing the dreaded dirty parts. "They're boring," Brockway says of sex scenes. "I'll be the first one to admit that [writing them] gets boring. If you're writing a love scene and it comes naturally in the book, and it's going to somehow inform the relationship that you're trying to develop in the romance, then it works. But if you're putting them in there because of reader expectation, I think you can tell every single time.
"I've written 17 books, probably about 25 love scenes." She laughs. "Part A is going to go into Slot B every single time. There aren't many other ways to say it!"
Twin Cities Reader Summer Books Issue:
The Barnstormer A few years ago, Doug Ohman was a theme-park executive with 600 employees. Today, he photographs barns. What happened?
The Dirty Parts Romance Novelist Connie Brockway Wants to Know Why People Can't Look Past the Unbound Bosom and Love-Swollen Member
Fixing a Leak What happens when a reporter doesn't keep his word to an anonymous source?
From the Beauty Parlor to the Barricades! Her Warmhearted Characters Feel Good About the World. Lorna Landvik Doesn't.
Love and Marriage To Most of Us, Nothing Sounds Worse Than a Loveless Marriage. According to Stephanie Coontz, It Wasn't Always That Way.
Life of Johnson It wasn't fun bringing up the rump of the avant-garde. B.S. Johnson felt compelled to do it anyway.
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