Monday, October 22, 2007

The Case for the Bodice Ripper, Part 2

After realizing that I had a few brain cells to kill this week, I went on a romance-novel reading binge. Mind you, I don't always read them for the plot (hah), the dialogue (I've read department memos with more heartfelt passion) or the characterization (if I wanted pretty, perfect characters whining about the same damn thing over and over again, I'd watch a marathon of The Hills). That leaves us, however, with the only other thing that's worth reading in romance novels: Teh Sex.

Now, before we get into the discussion of what a dirty old woman I've become, let me explain. I'm not saying that romance novelists don't know how to write about sex. A good number of them actually do, in fact. And we're not talking softly-lit, well-choreographed Mary Sue sex, or so-dirty-I'm-surprised-Jenna-Jameson-hasn't-bought-the-film-rights sex. I'm talking the kind of sex that these books are supposed to be about in the first place: messy, spontaneous, combustible - the kind of sex that affirms your life and tests your limits at the same time.

But let's face it - as I mentioned in my first "bodice ripper" post last summer, many sex scenes in these novels are actual sources of unintentional comedy. And even the good ones follow the same format as the bad ones. The way I see it, if you are spending upwards of $7.99 on a romance novel, you are actually paying for an average of three sex scenes per book. And if your book contains the requisite three, they should be in the following order:

#1: First Contact. Clothes drop, bosoms heave, Tab A goes into Slot B. This should happen around 1/4 to 1/3 the way into the book. The sex must occur as a highly spontaneous coupling where one does not realize that s/he has silently consented to do the nasty with the partner initiating the contact prior to the scene itself. Readers of historical novels should know that the first sex scene is always a tip-off: If the rumpy-pumpy occurs in the context of the male coercing himself onto the female - or his preceding "foreplay"-like actions may be construed as illegal under international law - you are definitely in the hands of a bad writer.

#2: We're Bored, Let's Pad The Book. Usually happens if the plot is going nowhere. In contemporary romances, Sex Scene #2 is the tip-off to the writer's flaw, because this is where the usual Something Interesting happens, no matter how long (or short) it takes. Take note: If Sex Scene #2 leads to 1) the female lead having the orgasm that she has "never felt before", 2) one or both leads realizing something integral to the plot that they never realized until recently; or 3) both ("I've never felt like this before! Wait, I just realized something"), the gig is definitely up - and unless the writer can come up with a disingenuous way of convincing us with the mind-clearing properties of that sex, put the book down and walk away.

#3: Let's Make Looooooove, All Night Loooong! ! And to get the full effect of what I'm talking about here, imagine Faith Hill and Tim McGraw singing the last sentence to each other. Why? Because this is where our characters take their clothes off a little slower, touch each other more tenderly, kiss each other in various places (and often with varying amounts of tongue - in some cases, this is where your heroine learns to Get Real Freaky After All and "pleasure the man"). And you'll know it because it will take two to three pages, max, before the author summarizes it with some BS line about how our Intrepid Hero and Brave Heroine made love a few more times that night, over and over again. Most times, the sex is also intertwined with the penultimate I Love You moment, where one or the other realizes that they are Meant for Each Other. But often the prolonged sex will be treated as some kind of bittersweet metaphor about death, since it will be followed by an inevitable separation that keeps them apart for the last few chapters. But not, however, before they have this post-coital conversation:

Guy: Marry me.
Girl: I can't.
Guy: Why?
Girl: (comes up with sad, pathetic explanation of why she can't be married to him because she's unsure/ unsuitable/ broken/ yada yada; in some contemporary novels, this is also where the girl explains the Reason Why I May Never Have Children Again Unless That's What You Want Because Otherwise I'm A Broken Woman Like That).
Guy: I don't care, I love you. That's all that matters.
Girl: Then why are we not going to see each other again for the next few chapters of this silly novel?
Guy: ...Oh, yeah, you're right. But it's our book, remember? It's not like we're never going to end up together.
Girl: But I love you. (cries)
Guy: Aw, sweetheart. Here, let me hold you one last time while I get horny thinking about some way for us to get rid of that one last complication in the next few chapters.

Again, I'm not saying that all romance novelists follow the same formula. Sometimes there are authors who will add more than one scene - usually Scene #3 for the inevitable "makeup sex" that happens, or Scene #2 to test out the author's knowledge of awkward positions and/or lingerie product placement. Sometimes the kinkier sex happens first without the characters even so much kissing each other or giving out their last names/ phone numbers/ Social Security information. Sometimes the sex doesn't even have to happen with the same person. But if you know the MO, and still the book doesn't give you more bang for the buck (ahem), you might as well hold out and find yourself a real book.

Say, Love in the Time of Cholera is beginning to sound like a really good book right about now...

No comments: