Tuesday, September 05, 2006

A “DEAR ABBY” REBUTTAL

Saturday morning I was drinking the first of my many cups of coffee and reading the newspaper. I’ve been reading DEAR ABBY since I first picked up a newspaper as a nine-year-old. I’ve both agreed and disagreed with her over the years. But it wasn’t until Saturday morning that I felt compelled to write to her.

Saturday’s letter was written by a mother who voiced concern that her fourteen-year-old, straight-A student daughter was reading adult romance novels. The mother felt the books were “too mature and erotic” for her daughter and worried about how they’d impact her daughter’s future relationships, especially as to what is and isn’t “acceptable in those relationships.”

For the most part, I agreed with Abby’s response. She pretty much told the woman she was being overprotective and instead of trying to censor her daughter’s reading materials, she should keep the lines of communication open and let the daughter know she can come to her mother with any questions she has. Abby even suggested that the mother read some of the books her daughter is reading.

Great response, I thought. Enlightened. Intelligent. Yeah for Abby!

Then I read further.

Abby blew it with her next paragraph in which she states: “Some might argue that the idealized depiction of romance, and women being ‘rescued’ by powerful, wealthy men, is more worrisome than the sex and eroticism. However, if you are raising your daughter to respect feminist principles, I don't think you have anything to worry about.

That’s when I marched over to my computer and sent Abby an email, setting her straight. I told her that it was apparent she hadn’t picked up a romance novel in decades (in hindsight, I wonder if she’s ever read a romance, given how long romances have featured strong heroines), that today’s heroine’s are independent, empowered women who don’t sit around waiting to be ‘rescued’ by the hero. They work alongside the men in their lives as equal partners, that more often than not, they’re doing a good deal of the rescuing themselves. I also told her that the plot lines of today’s romances deal with issues that impact all women.

I could have written volumes, but I decided to keep my response to a few succinct sentences, the better to have a chance at getting them published as a rebuttal. There’s a lot more I would have liked to say. I’m sure after reading the column and her response, you have some choice thoughts on the subject, as well. Let’s hear them! And let Abby hear them. (You can read the entire letter and Abby’s response at http://www.uexpress.com/dearabby/?uc_full_date=20060902)
Go to the link to respond to her column. We romance authors take enough of a beating from sanctimonious individuals who form opinions of our work without ever having read a page of our books. Here’s our chance to reach millions of people to set the record straight.

24 comments:

Alesia said...

Good for you!! I'm going to send a reply, too. It's beyond ridiculous that this archaic stereotype follows the romance novel around, and who better to set the record straight than us?

Kathy Holmes said...

Actually, I chuckled over this letter because isn't there at least one "steamy" novel for every generation? The mother's reaction to it does more harm than any book ever could. But good for you for informing "Dear Abby" of her misconceptions. Alesia is right - who better to set her straight.

Nancy Morse said...

I sent my e-mail to Abby over the weekend enlightening her on how romance novels have evolved over the years. Today's heroines are strong, independent women who would serve as role models for any young woman. They all have professions and don't rely on men to rescue them. On the contrary, often it's the man who needs some kind of rescue, usually emotional. Heroes have also changed. They're not all wealthy dukes or earls who are years older than the innocent, inexperienced heroines, a la Barbara Cartland. The heroes of my books aren't wealthy, possessive or royal, and my heroines aren't young, inexperienced, naive or in need of rescue. These are real stories about real men and women with real problems. Now, erotic novels are a different story. If the mom who wrote to Dear Abby feels that the books her daughter is reading are too sexually explicit, maybe she should sit her down and have a talk with her about the difference between having sex and falling in love.

Susan Vaughan said...

Way to go, Lois!
I too fired off an email to Abby after reading the column. My comments were along the same lines as everyone else who has posted. I did add that our heroes are strong men and equals, not above, our heroines. I mentioned that in some women's shelters, they offer romance novels as examples of how a man can be strong without being abusive. And I suggested some romance authors Abby could read. Maybe we'll have a new best fan!

Anonymous said...

Something that is being missed here is that the original "Dear Abby" has passed on (died), and her daughter is now writing the column. In a way, that makes her response even more thought provoking.

I have never been drawn to reading romance novels - mystery is more my forte, as a writer and a reader. Romance novels have changed (somewhat), and they have kept up with the times. However, there is still a certain section of the genre that focuses on the Knight in shining armor coming in on his white horse to save the damsel in distress. This is no more "real" than some of the "men and women are equal partners" books that are out there.

"Dear Abbey" may need to take another look at life, but this may also apply to some romance authors.

Madeline Hunter said...

Well, mysteries aren't "real" either, if you think about it. Nor is science fiction, fantasy, horror---most genre fiction. Actually, very few novels, even literary novels, are. Most plots and stories are reality heavily manipulated by the writer.
It is the feminist spin on the Abby letter that is incorrect, and has been ever since journalists first locked onto this cliche'. I have read very few romances--even very old ones-- in which the female character was passive, waiting for a man to save her. For one thing, that scenario has little opportunity for the kind of conflict that is needed for a book to be a romance.

Anonymous said...

I quote from the column: “Some might argue that the idealized depiction of romance, and women being ‘rescued’ by powerful, wealthy men, is more worrisome than the sex and eroticism. However, if you are raising your daughter to respect feminist principles, I don't think you have anything to worry about.”

Personally, I think both point of views are highly skewed. FIRST, if my 14 yr old daughter were reading some of the erotic sleaze that passes for "romance" these days, I'd be highly upset also! I mean, COME ON, romance writers--the genre has gone loco with the "sex is love too" thing. The days of LaVyrle Spence and her ilk are long gone. (Except for Nora Roberts, who still seems to understand that good sex comes from compatibility and love, although I still prefer Spencer.) The genre has gone slutty, imo.

As for the "strong woman" thing--well, okay, so we don't want women to be the weak and defenseless creatures they were in the 80's "bodice rippers." I can understand that. But on the other hand, do they always have to be wearing combat boots? Can they ever have a NEED for that man in their lives every bit as much as a man might have a need for THEM? Is it still okay to desire a family and babies? Or is that out with the babys' "bathwater" too?

I say that the "Abby" response was both misguided and stupid. Misguided to suggest that the erotica sleaze is okay for a 14 yr old. And stupid to suggest that today's romance heroines are the heroines of the bodice rippers of yesterday.

And I think most romance writers have their heads in the sand these days.

Colleen Thompson said...

Maybe I'm alone in this, but I thought the response was pretty even-handed, basically, a reminder than nearly all of us read/watched/listened to "questionable" culture that would have shocked our parents. It's a part of growing up, and most of us have turned out to be reasonably well-adjusted adults.

Sure, the characterization of romance as rescue fantasy was cliched and narrow, considering the wealth of material out there that contradicts it. But the lead in to that sentence, "Some would say..." is both true (although I have to admit I've never heard people gripe that reading/watching mysteries leaves young people with the mistaken idea that all evil-doers get their just desserts) and in contrast to the columnist's "don't worry about it" message.

Maybe I'm just feeling especially laid-back this minute, but I believe that sitting back and continuing to produce popular literature that millions of women (and plenty of men, too) find entertaining and inspiring is the best "revenge".

Sandra K. Moore said...

Different strokes for different folks. For some readers, the fantasy of the woman being rescued by a strong and dashing hero fills a need, just as for other readers, the woman rescuing herself fills a need.

There's nothing inherently wrong with the "rescue fantasy." The problem is when that particularly storyline is chosen, treated with disdain, dismissed as childish, needy, or irrelevant to "real life," and then used to paint an entire genre.

Not all mysteries are graphically violent thrillers with hard-boiled detectives. Not all fantasy novels have elves. Not all science fiction novels have androids.

Reducing an entire genre to a single subgenre is a logical fallacy -- a hasty generalization, typically used to support an already embraced bias or prejudice. The romance field is much, much bigger than that.

Gail Dayton said...

I almost hesitate to offer my 2 cents, since so many have said what I think so well already. I do agree that a 14-year-old doesn't need to be reading erotica, but not all romance goes that far, and I think there are plenty of writers out there who still emphasize that the best sex comes from a loving relationship.

If I wanted reality, I wouldn't be reading fiction.

Shanna Swendson said...

I'm trying to figure out why "an idealized depiction of romance" is such a bad thing. True, not all (or maybe even many) men in real life are quite as perfect and romantic as the heroes of romance novels, but isn't the idea of a hero in fiction to be a sort of ideal to live up to? Look at stories and myths throughout the ages. Did the ancient Greeks worry about setting unrealistic expectations with the stories of Hercules?

It seems to me that the "idealized depiction of romance" shows some positive models -- people can work through and overcome conflicts, they can make sacrifices for the people they care about, they can learn to discern what they really need as opposed to what they want.

As for the rescue stuff, that's certainly not all books, and even that's not an entirely bad thing to read about as part of the overall mix. Yes, I'm glad that the days of the dark, arrogant tycoon rescuing his secretary from a life of having to work for a living are over, but in a more modern context, isn't part of being strong knowing when you need to ask for help? As others have mentioned above, there are different kinds of rescue. He may be saving her from the bad guys at times, but she often has the more difficult task of saving him from his inner demons. It's all about the partnership, which is certainly a lesson I'd want a 14-year-old to learn.

JENNA said...

It is sad that erotica and romance are so entertwined in some people's minds. 14 year-olds have no business reading erotica. There are certain lines that I wouldn't let a middle-schooler near (Blaze, Brava, all the new erotica imprints). But there are authors and lines I think are perfectly fine for young women, even big girls. Traditional romance like HQs Romance line is perfectly fine. It's what I read until I could buy my own books - it gave me high expectations for how I should be treated by men and opened my world to places and occuations I never knew existed. Our fourteen-year-olds need higher expectations. If you raise your expectations, that forces those around you to either treat you better or leave you alone. There is nothing wrong with that.

Anonymous said...

I would love for my 14-year old to read romances. I think her views on what women should "put up with" are skewed and an ideal of what a man could be would help her see how un-ideal some of the relationship "norms" she experiences are. After all, there are few romances of today where the hero is emotionally abusive, or where the characters go through the endless break-up, make-up dance that teens seem to go through. Plus, as a teen, when I started reading romances, I craved that emotional connection with people. Maybe romances helped to fill that need somewhat -- I certainly didn't date anyone/everyone that moved, as some of my daughter's friends seem to try to do! That said, I would want to keep an eye on what she's reading if she did get "into" romance novels. As others have said, some of the new "erotic" or highly sexual romance lines just aren't appropriate for younger girls.

Actually, since the "feminist ideals" in "Abby's" reponse also hit a few buttons, I actually think that reading romances is good for women -- it reminds women (and potentially younger girls!) that males can be heroes. The image of a "male" in today's society is being eroded -- men are boors, idiots, laughingstocks, discriminatory, sleazy, slimy and potentially dangerous. The image of a man as a hero, an upstanding partner and intelligent being, is one that many girls simply don't have, to their detriment, IMO. If reading a romance novels reminds my daughter that there are men who love their wives and children, cherish and protect them and yes, Want and Need them as people and partners, well...I'll put a book in her hand as soon as she expresses interest.

JoAnn Ross said...

Having written strong heroines in monogamous relationships since 1982, AND having heard all the sweeping, negative generalities about romance novels for just as long, I couldn't get terribly upset about either the letter or Dear Abby's response.

Several years ago, a librarian friend told me that her middle-school daughter was reading my Temptations. That was a bit of a yikes (!) for me, because I thought they were steamier than I might encourage my eleven to twelve-year-old daughter, if I'd had one, to read. But she didn't believe in censoring her daughter, with whom she had an excellent relationship, so I figured it was totally her call as a mom.

In the past couple weeks, I've received complaint emails from two readers. One, just this morning, complained a book was too politically liberal because the Vice President character was financially and politically shady. The other accused me of being an ultra conservative warmonger because most of my heroes are former military (which is how my self-made heroes often pay for college, or straighten out rocky teenage lives) and I've a link to the USO phone card program on my website.

This might sound as if I've digressed yet again, but it actually underscores my point that I've never written a book to make any kind of statement, political, feminist, or otherwise. Believing in Sam Goldwyn's statement that If you want to send a message, use Western Union, I write my stories solely to entertain.

Several years ago, just as she was becoming published, Jennifer Cruisie sent me part of her doctoral thesis titled "This is not your mother's Cinderella: The Romance Novel as Feminist Fairy Tale," analyzing one of my stories with all sorts of charts and arrows. (I told Jenny at the time that if I'd known I was supposed to do all that technical literature stuff, I never could've written the book! LOL)

Here's a quote I just found on her website: "But if the Grimm's culture rewards passivity in females, Ross's modern audience does not. Therefore Ross has to skew her theme: her heroine is aggressive as she leads her sisters to security; she approaches the prince sexually; and she defends herself physically against her attackers because, as Ross puts it, her prince “could only fall in love with a woman capable of slaying her own dragons” (220). Ross's Cinderella moves the plot instead of being moved by it, so the theme of Ross's novel is not “Be Good and Passive” but “Be Strong and Aggressive “ or “Be Like the Bad Stepsisters.

And while I quibble with the word aggressive (I'd prefer assertive) and disagree about the "Be like the bad stepsisters part", because I remember them in the Grimm's version as being petty and vindictive, which my heroine definitely wasn't, perhaps I do stumble across a message occasionally. But trust me, if you find one in one of my books, it's totally accidental.

As for the fact that I write about strong women who have often overcome adversity, that's simply because I'm first and foremost writing to entertain myself, and those are the type of characters I prefer to read about. Fortunately, enough readers seem to feel the same way to have sent my kid to college and kept my doggies in kibbles for the last twenty-four years.

And finally, although this has gone way longer than I intended, I do believe, just as those who don't vote don't get to complain, you're not allowed to have an opinion of any genre unless you've read more than one book in that genre. And recently. :)

April said...

Funny, I sometimes give a talk on romance novels as eminist writing. After all, our books are about women being true to themselves and still finding love and acceptance. Our books are about men and women coming together in ways that empower both and diminish neither of them and that's what I've always believed true feminism to be--men and women becoming fully empowered. I suspect Dear Abby doesn't realize that our books are about empowerment, about love and honor and being true to oneself. What a shame she's missing out on some wonderful reading.

L. Faye Hughes said...

Great post, Lois!

And lots of great comments, too.

Anon, when you talk about "sleazy romances", which ones do you mean? I'm wondering if you're referring to erotica rather than romance. A specific line or title would be helpful.

Faye

Nancy Morse said...

If a certain section of the genre focuses on books about knights in shining armor coming to rescue the damsel in distress, all that means is that publishers are buying those books. Why? Because people are reading them. Maybe readers are so fed up with the crap they see all around them in this explosive world that they need a bit of fantasy to keep them sane. If that's a knight in shining armor, a werewolf, a vampire or shapeshifter, so be it. On the other hand, there are tons of readers out there who want stories about real life with all its grittiness. I don't think we romance writers have our heads in the sand. I think we are reflecting life by giving readers books they want to read. Why else would they be buying them? Why else would this genre sell more books than any other? I personally do not write books to teach any life lessons. I write about emotions that we can all relate to. I write characters that I like to read about. If I wrote for others and didn't sell the book, then it would all be for naught. I write for myself. If I sell the book, great. If not, that's okay because I will have fulfilled something in myself. I think all we romance writers ask is that others not judge our books based on just one book or a romance they may have read years ago, or a skewed notion of what a romance novel is. As for that "erotic sleaze" anonymous cited, personally erotica isn't my taste, but I wouldn't judge anyone for writing it or reading it. If you're going to fault writers for the kinds of books they write, wouldn't it be wise to read them so you know what you're talking about? Dear Abby's response to that mother was basically okay until she passed judgment on something she apparently knows nothing about. And as for what the 14 year old was reading, give me a break. Years ago how many young women secretly read Peyton Place which was considered quite shocking? How many young boys had their hormones in overdrive over the topless natives in National Geographic or these days have Playboy or Penthouse hidden beneath their mattresses? Unless your kid is out there torturing small animals and exhibiting Jeffrey Dahmer-like tendencies, chances are, he/she will grow up to be a decent human being.

Anonymous said...

better sex than violence!!!

better strong women than subsurvient [sic]

Alesia said...

Honestly, I could go for a knight in shining armor these days. One who would: take out the trash without being asked, stay up nights with a sick child, heroically capture the mouse in the garage and release it humanely in a field, love and honor me and be true to me forever.

Oh, but wait! I HAVE one of those. No armor (unless you count the Naval officer's uniform), no horse (unless you count an old truck).

But my knight in shining armor all the same. So perhaps the truism inherent in this discussion is that part of the debate is over a definitional quibble. Today's knights work as partners and helpers and take turns being the strong one in the relationship, instead of being commitment shy, fidelity averse egomaniacs in a me-me-me culture.

If I define the core of the debate with my definition, I'm all for the knight in shining armor idea.

Anonymous said...

Great JOB!!!!!

I get the same thing from almost everyone I encounter. I get the sly look....the polite head nod....and the 'why dont' you write something serious, like kids books!"...just because I'm a Mommy.

I am a total romance book junkie. AND, I'm a PHD student in psychology. Trust me, there is more evidence of strong powerful women who are empowered to live full lives than in any other kind of fiction out there on the market.

AND, we are realistic to evidence a part of being human by allowing the emotions of those strong empowered women to envelope them from time to time. It's part of being human. AND...it's a part of being a woman that intimidate many women who are afraid of their own emotions. Ms. Abby must be projecting her insecurities about her feminine side OR she must be harboring resentment that her femaleness has offered her little respite in light of the types of columns she writes.

I enjoyed your rebuttle. Thank you for speaking for us all.

Karen Henry

Margaret Daley said...

Dear Abby described a romance as a strong, wealthy male rescuing the female in these books. I don't know which romances she is reading (and to make that kind of judgment she should have read recently more than one) but the ones I read there is no rescuing by the man. A good romance shows a respectful love developing between a man and woman. In inspirational romances we focus on the emotional bond developing between the man and woman. I also write inspirational romantic suspense and I have the woman sometimes literally rescuing the man from a dangerous situation. It's a two way street in my books.

And while I'm on the subject of romances, I want to say if more men read them they would see how to treat a woman. There is nothing wrong with a good love story with a happy ever after ending. That is what a romance is. The world could use more of that. So here's to picking up a romance and enjoying a good story of love triumphing.

Michele Dunaway said...

Heck, if romance heroes rescued women then Dale Jr. or Kenny Chesney would have shown up on my doorstep along time ago and carried me away to somewhere over the rainbow.

Still waiting....

Michele Dunaway
:)

LaraRios said...

My first thought was why does romance novel = anti-feminist. I started reading romance novels at 13, and my impression (even back then) was, "wow, I want to be like those women." They were in charge of their lives. They had problems or issues to resolve, but by the end of the books they had always managed to take control and do what was best for them. If anything, I learned about feminist ideals from romance books. A stark contrast to what was demonstrated to me at home by my parents!

Interestingly, I also picked up an erotic book (probably written for men) during this time period. I didn't understand most of the terms at the time, didn't like it, and never bothered with another one. Didn't damage me for life. I think kids need to be supervised, and parents need to be available to discuss what the child/teen reads, and answer questions. Not necesarily kept away from books that might interest them.

Andrew said...

Well said! I'm sure many people still retain old stereotypes about romance fiction, and other genres as well.

And btw, if you enjoy Dear Abby, you might also enjoy reading this relationship advice site: To Love, Honor and Dismay

All the best!
Andrew