This is a post-in-progress, which is to say it’s an invitation to a discussion….
I’m still thinking through the questions I want to explore, and I’m hoping one or two fellow readers and/or bloggers will be willing to help me kick this around a little bit. What’s your comfort level with graphic violence in romance fiction? Does your level of ease/unease change according to the setting or sub-genre?
My previous post was a rave review for Donna Thorland’s The Turncoat. I think — although I’m by no means able to state this with any kind of statistical certainty — that it’s more violent than most histrom novels I’ve read. It’s a wartime romance, and the protagonists are engaged in espionage and counter-espionage on opposing sides. There are several scenes involving physical and psychological torture (of known and/or suspected spies, of ordinary citizens for the purposes of intimidation by the occupying British) that were intense enough to remind me of novels and films well outside the romance genre – painful WWII stories with Nazis, or at one point even the cable drama Homeland, which is sort of a maze-like essay on spying, love, illusion and torture. I thought perhaps the novel Thorland most evoked for me, in terms of the use of violence and fear as a theme in a love story, might be Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander, which some detractors dislike for its graphic no-holds-barred narrative (that’s the original cover from 1991, when it was published looking very much like a trad romance novel).
In a way, the grittiness of Thorland’s wonderful novel was oddly refreshing to my historical sensibilities, because I love this period and setting so much, and she made it a very real, very dangerous place and time, with safe domestic harbors few and far between. But there are other romance novels set in this period, even ones involving the spy networks, that don’t place the brutality of wartime so much at the forefront. It’s got me thinking about violence in the romance genre, and the delicate balance required to incorporate graphic episodes in a form of storytelling that is a lot about escape, fantasy, and happy endings.
We talk a lot about how rape or the threat of rape functions in romance, from “rapey” heroes and dubious consent to rape culture and assumptions about women who read BDSM erotica. These are important discussions, and what I’m talking about is certainly connected to these issues. But I’m pondering violence in romance more broadly — what do we find acceptable, and how does what we find acceptable change according to the different sub-genres or settings of particular novels? What about non-sexual violence?
Heroes are often called upon to be badass and perform a beatdown on the villain, or to annihilate random thugs. This is equally true in a Stephanie Laurens Regency or a Black Dagger Brotherhood urban fantasy from JR Ward. In some cases the heroine is also capable of delivering the beatdown – see for example Joanna Bourne’s female spies. Do we expect a certain level of badassery and capacity for violence in the hero across the romance genre? Do we look for a similar capacity in the heroine in selected contexts?
And what of violence and the threat of violence against hero and heroine? How much is too much? How much are we willing to let happen to our protagonists? And whatever has happened to them or whatever they endure, what level of detail are we willing to experience along with them?
If you’re still with me, I’m really curious to know what you think about the way violence gets used and incorporated in romance novels. Do you prefer the suspense to build via allusions to offscreen violence? Character development via potentially violent and/or abusive episodes from the past, not the present space of the novel? What about the function of plot devices such as last-minute rescues, subjecting a secondary character to violence to intensify the sense of danger to H/h, or going inside the villain’s head for sections or chapters involving evil deeds and/or graphically violent fantasies?
Even romance novels that are frothy and fun sometimes utilize danger or the threat of violence to drive the story. How does that work? When a novel is light in tone, how do authors elevate suspense if there is a plot involving hero or heroine in peril? I reviewed The Pirate Lord by Sabrina Jeffries a while back, and I struggled a bit with the romp-ish tone of the book given grim subject matter (pirates kidnap convict ship carrying female prisoners, for forced marriages so they can make a utopian community on a deserted island). Do some romance sub-genres depend on the element of danger as a plot device, yet avoid graphic depictions of violent crimes? How does this work without trivializing the emotional impact of fear, stress, etc. or reducing violent acts to the level of cartoonish evildoers?
Or are all these questions sort of meaningless since as readers we tend to instinctively choose books that will meet our needs within our comfort zone on several important measures? In romance fiction, people seem to frequently make choices based on subgenre, “sensuality rating,” and the opinions of trusted recommenders. Perhaps level of violence, like level of explicit sexual content, is something about which we make instinctive judgments, thereby avoiding books that will make us uncomfortable? Or are we willing to tolerate more variability with violence, from book to book?
Finally, are there loose conventions that guide us as readers — that is, does level of violence correlate with particular subgenres within romance? Do you expect a certain amount of danger in paranormals or urban fantasy because of the use of suspense plots, while contemporaries tend to offer less violent forms of danger? What about historical romance? Are certain settings likely to involve more graphic violence, or just different types of violence — eg. the ritualized violence of the duel?