11 April 2007

Should rape be allowed in historical romance?

There's a topic stirring controversy in romance blogland. As I read through blogs this morning before work, I found myself asking this question.

Should rape be allowed in historical romance?

The controversy comes from Claiming the Courtesan, an Avon book written by debut author Anna Campbell. In the book, the hero rapes the heroine. Some opine that such actions harken back to the days of bodice ripper romances. Just to see what the public terms a "bodice ripper," I looked up the term on Wiki.

Bodice Ripper:

"A bodice ripper is a genre of romantic fiction, often historical fiction. In the 1970s and 1980s, the heroine of such a novel often lost her virginity by force. While the genre has turned away from the trope of forced seduction contemporary bodice rippers still feature unrestrained romantic passion, and a heroine who initially dislikes and actively resists the hero s seduction, only ultimately to be overcome by desire. These historical romances did not shy away from sensational topics such as rape, slavery, the loss of family members, and the effects of poverty and disease."

The period from 1970-1980 saw explosive growth in the sale of these books, and romance today accounts for more than 40% of all fiction commercially sold. Historical romances published by the largest presses (Avon, Warner, etc) are written to strictly enforced guidelines which shy away from the depravity found in older books. Those guidelines frequently mandate perfect fidelity between hero and heroine, no abduction, forced seduction or rape."

I guess whoever posted this at Wiki hasn't read Claiming the Courtesan yet.

The term "strictly enforced guidelines" makes me queasy. "Strictly enforced" and "guidelines" clash. Guidelines aren't rules. Are bodice ripper police out there, reading books, blowing the whistle and screaming if these guidelines are violated?

If we were to follow the Wiki entry and write to strictly enforced guidelines/rules, then we restrict ourselves as authors to NOT include any of the aforementioned elements. Not only rape, but poverty, disease, slavery and loss of family members. Yet history is crammed with these elements. Violence. Rape. Death. Should they be included in an historical romance? We write historicals and set them in a variety of time periods. Many of us include authentic history in our stories. Do we ignore what really happened?

We do, anyway. Historical fact: Medieval knights didn't bathe frequently. But no one wants to read about a hero who smells like a high school locker room in summer. It's not romantic.

What if the hero rapes the heroine and she falls in love with him? He violated her. Is it wrong to include such an element in an historical? Do we dare step off that springboard and dive into the murky waters to explore that question? Or do we stay in the shallow waters where it's safer and we can easily see what lies below?

I've written two historicals with rape in them, however, the hero did not rape the heroine. In The Cobra and the Concubine, Badra the heroine is raped as a little girl by her abductor. I based her character on restavek children in Haiti I've met in my travels who are domestic slaves, and frequently beaten and abused. To gain insight about psychological damage, I interviewed a psychologist who counsels child rape victims.

In Cobra, there's a character who bonds with Badra. He too, was raped as a child. I couldn't get Graham out of my mind. Something inside me screamed to write his story. That book became The Panther & the Pyramid. The book drew positive and negative reaction. Even my husband asked, "Why did you write it like that?"

My answer was simple, "I couldn't ignore his past. I had to do justice to his character."

I'm grateful my editor and publisher did not place restrictions on me when I wrote Graham's story. This freedom enabled me to draw deep inside myself as a writer.

Should rape be allowed in historical romance? My answer is yes, if it fits the story the author wants to tell. We owe it to readers to deliver the best story we can write. That's the ultimate pact an author makes to a reader. For me, Nora Roberts' comment summed it up best on Dear Author’s blog.

"Rules, for me, aren't meant to be broken just because they exist. That's ego. They should be broken if the story demands it. That’s writing."

Break the rules for the sake of writing. If the story calls for it, dive away into that pool. As historical authors, if we place restrictions on ourselves, we limit our ability to explore topics that challenge us as writers.

Do you think rape should be allowed in historical romance? What's your opinion?