As I’ve been working to finish my Master in Library and Information Studies, crying in a ball underneath my favorite chair about how “I’ll never be a librarian and I don’t want to join the military!!!!!”, I’ve been losing myself in escapist fiction. I have little attention span for television and movies, so the only way I’ve been able to pull myself from my own irrational, hyperventilating internal monologue has been with romance novels. Of course, this has just added to the mantra with “I don’t have time to date and even if I did, I wouldn’t give guys any real chance and I’m going to die alooooooone!” Nothing’s sexier than a girl sucking on an inhaler in an empty bathtub, wearing leggings and an oversized butter-stained Ice Age 3D t-shirt from her fat days, amiright?
I’ve not previously been a romance novel gal and I used to mock them mercilessly. My interest started with Nicky Charles’ Law of the Lycans series last summer (because it was free) and moved forward with J.R. Ward’s The Black Dagger Brotherhood series. I read a lot of paranormal romance, because what’s hotter than a hot naked alpha male? The answer is… a hot naked alpha male with a barbed penis. I had a brief foray into erotica, though there’s just not enough plot there for me. Lately I’ve been engrossed in romantic suspense of the hot-spec-ops-guy-saves-girl-from-Somali-pirates variety. I’m not kidding. I just finished that one yesterday. My MLIS has taught me that all literature has value, so I regret the days I mocked romantic fiction. I feel it’s increased my vocabulary significantly and it’s just fun to escape my brain, which is pretty much like having 533 windows open in a browser at all times. That being said, I have noticed some recurring themes in romance novels and they annoy the crap out of me. I’m not even talking about the traditionally ridiculous names of the male leads, but rather..
… the best friend that I hope dies screaming, while strapped down spread-eagle and disemboweled.
Too graphic? I’m gonna give a shout-out to my Gail here and state that I just have the best best friend in the whole world. She may be a little (lot) paranoid, but for the most part, she respects my life choices. She’s the voice of reason in my head and often just my conscience in general. She’s my Jiminy Fucking Cricket and I’m her Tinker Bell whispering in her ear to shoot Wendy out of the sky with her bow and arrows. We balance each other out and for the most part, we do so without any touchy feely crap. It’s awesome. Maybe that’s why I hate most of the best friend characters in romance novels. They just don’t measure up. Yeah, Gail. You ruined my fiction. Go fuck yourself.
I only recently noticed this trend when I tried to read the This Man series a couple of months ago. It was recommended to me for the alpha male bit I find so appealing in fiction-only-fiction-ever, but it was just too much for me while somehow still managing to be too little. Oh my gosh. My favorite? The part where he was a bag of dicks and then nothing happened. Ooh! Then there was that part where he more or less ass-raped her and then nothing happened. And sa-woon, the part where… holy shit I cannot actually come up with anything else to say before nothing happened because nothing happened.
Some of the review titles:
This book made me fear for an entire generation.
Just… really bad.
There is only one E.L. James. (Yeah. Thank GOD for that, but seriously, she’s saying this was worse than Fifty Shades?)
This Man may not have suited me in general, but I absolutely hated the best friend. Main Character Ava was pretty awful, but at least I could pity her as the victim of both the male lead and her bestie roommate. There was actually a scene where Best Friend Kate leaves her van parked on a busy one-way street, causing Ava to be manhandled by an angry driver. Kate takes her sweet time, then comes out and does not freaking care. What the crap?!?! Gail would never do that… well period, but she’d be especially contrite if I were harmed because of her actions. I didn’t actually finish this book, because there’s this one part, at about 60%, where nothing happens and I just couldn’t take it anymore.
After This Man, I realized that this is just a thing. Maybe Kristen Ashley just has really pushy and obnoxious friends like all of her supporting female characters. It throws me a little that she writes such unlikeable friends when I find her main characters generally pretty relatable. Maya Banks has the same problem. In Jennifer Armintrout’s analysis of Fifty Shades of Grey, she suggests that E.L. James attempts to villainize the best friend so we’ll be rooting primarily for the main character… to die in Anastasia’s case, but you get the idea. Maybe this is just a bad effort to make readers favor the lead, but it always leaves me thinking THIS IS WHY I DON’T SPEND TIME WITH VAGINAS! A GIRL ONLY NEEDS ONE! The best friend characters of romance novels are supposed to be concerned, but they often come off as disrespecting the lead by refusing to acknowledge that they are adults who’ve been making their own decisions for years. They nag them and repeatedly insist that this relationship is a bad idea, despite the lead making it clear that they’re going to see things through. When Gail dated the most terrifying postal worker ever, I expressed my concerns regarding specific stories and waited it out. She’s a big girl. She’ll decide when she’s had enough and I’ll be there when that time comes. Pissing her off and alienating her isn’t going to make any headway. Other times, the best friend characters are supposed to be supportive, but they often come off as gluttonous alcoholics encouraging their friends to cope poorly or ignore their problems. When I got divorced and drank a vat of Long Island Ice Tea, Gail slept in my car with me because I couldn’t get up the stairs, but she didn’t encourage the behavior in the future. I suppose the real problem is that these characters just aren’t Gail.
… the size of the men.
I am 5’5.5” tall and weigh 175 pounds. I don’t look like a supermodel or a teapot. I just look pretty average at a size 8/10. I, however, totally understand the appeal of feeling like the dainty little woman and recognize that writing big tough alpha male characters is a reflection of this common desire. It works, too… within reason. My paranormal romance phase involved a number of male characters who were described as being larger than most humans. It made sense, because they were supernatural vampiric warriors and I never gave it much thought. I started with paranormal romance, but as I moved to stories that took place in the real world, I realized that the main characters were still 6’8”. I’m into tall and have said a few times that I won’t date beneath 5’10”, but come on. 6’8” is no longer attractive, but rather something to get past. I’m not saying I wouldn’t date a guy that size, but I consider that abnormally tall. “Abnormal” is never hot, just endearing at best.
In addition to being the tallest men in the world, these guys are always freakishly built as well. In Kristen Ashley’s and Julie Ann Walker’s novels, they’re often described as not having an ounce of fat on them and are compared to professional wrestlers. How is there enough space in the room for our lead heroine when a redwood is standing next to her?!?! Honestly, I don’t really find professional wrestlers attractive. I’d give Alcide Herveux a rim job if I had the opportunity, but he’s hardly got the build of a WWE fighter. I never want to be with someone morbidly obese again, but I want someone I can cuddle. It’s tough to cuddle the Statue of David. The guards tend to chase you off.
… the way people smell.
Gail doesn’t typically read romance novels, because Dave Ramsey is never the lead, but she recently had this idea to read the most disturbing erotica we could find on Amazon and discuss. I read Comfort Food, by Kitty Thomas which was very well-written and also gave me nightmares. Then I got distracted with school and Gail was left to read Tender Mercies, which apparently involved a tailed butt-plug, all alone. Shucks. I missed out. Having read very few romance novels, though, Gail understood exactly what I was talking about when I texted her the following yesterday.
PEOPLE don’t smell like a day at the beach.
Brock always smelled like that time at the lake when I fell asleep in the sun and got lightly burned and then woke up and realized I had a handprint tan line on my chest and then the dog leapt into my lap and scratched my thighs and then I washed the blood off in the lake, so I had to ride back on a towel to protect the interior of his truck.
We’re so oddly in-sync that she immediately responded with:
Lucas always smelled like that time I went shopping for the kind of shoe strings that curl instead of tie and that guy left his dog in the car, but I didn’t call the cops because it wasn’t really all that hot outside, even though it was almost June.
When men describe how women smell, however, it’s always something tangible. For example, she smells like lavender. What 9′ body builder with a concealed carry license knows what lavender smells like?!?! I don’t even know what lavender smells like and I’m girly as fuck. If I’m with a man who can pinpoint lavender and honeydew, my 15th anniversary is gonna suck when I find him knee deep in another dude. Seriously, if he tells you you smell astoundingly like nutmeg, buy him an ascot as a parting gift.
the virgin sex that is the best sex ever.
I’m not gonna lie. The idea that men like inexperienced women is pretty encouraging since I don’t know what a penis is anymore. What bugs me about this is the propensity for women well into their twenties to be inexperienced, while the men make a huge freaking deal out of how awesome it is. She’s a virgin, not a damned unicorn princess.
Believe it or not, I write this shit and then find the pictures. Call me Google Master. Do it.
The men in romance novels are always, always, always so experienced that we don’t get a number, while the women have been with either no one or few enough people to keep count on one hand. When Heroine has just not been with a lot of people, she catches on really quickly and shows a lot of enthusiasm and the sex is awesome. That gives me hope and I consider that one reasonably realistic, because while inexperienced, I would not call myself prude. However, if Heroine shares that she’s a virgin, Hero is totally freaking psyched that no one has squeezed this peach before him… even though she’s like 25 and people only wait that long for pretty much one reason: so they can share the experience with someone who means a lot to them. For realz, that’s a bit daunting.
When Hero finally twirls his mustache and steals Heroine’s virtue, it is absolutely the most mind-blowingly not awkward sex anyone has ever had. As a general rule, sex is never awkward in these books. No woman bounces too high, causing him to pop out and bend uncomfortably when she lands. No one’s distracted from their pleasure by the weird snarl the other person just made. No one ever sneezes or does anything else not sexy with their bodies. I get that. We’re reading idealistic sex and that’s the point. I don’t need to read about how Christian Grey has trouble finishing, though that would clearly be because he’s at it for nine hours a day and somehow still maintains his fortune at age eleven, but whatevs. I’m totally comfortable with skipping all fart-in-bed scenes forever. Writing virgin sex as anything but emotionally charged and sweet, though, is just unrealistic. That shit hurts and continues to hurt for a couple of days. Anastasia isn’t waking up and hopping on pop Dr. Seuss style. You may as well write unicorn princess sex. There is not a Google image for that.