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?


Jen said...

Absolutely, rape and other unpleasantries (to put it mildly) should be allowed in romance. But I'm crazy. I believe in free speech. I understand, from a publisher's point of view, of appealing to the majority of readers to make the most sales, but I don't like to limit writers, including myself. And while I prefer certain things not be included, like animal killing, I don't need the writer to protect me. Even if a scene "sticks" with me in a negative way, I don't think the writer should be barred from putting it in a book. I can choose to avoid that author's books, if I worry s/he's going to put that kind of content in other books.

I know authors who like bodice rippers and continue to write them, although the ones I'm thinking of are all ebook writers. I have mixed feelings about a heroine who still wants a hero after rape, but I can't deny that "forced seduction" can turn me on, depending how it's written, and as long as it isn't too brutal. However, I would absolutely be disgusted, angry, and miserable if I were raped in real life; forced seduction is different, in that the heroine actually gets turned on and enjoys the sex, whereas with real rape, a victim may experience arousal, but she feels traumatized and violated. Fiction is fiction. As a song from my childhood goes, "Anything can happen in a fairy tale." And, the difference between a "rape fantasy" (or forced seduction in fiction) and real rape is, the person being raped (or, in fiction, the writer) is still in control. S/he decides what happens next, and where it stops. With real rape, the one being raped has no control.

I may not enjoy reading a rape scene, or sickness or other scene of suffering, but I can handle it. Some people can't. In P.C. Cast's Divine By Mistake, there is a part of the story that involves severe illness, with some vomiting and other unpleasant details. It didn't keep me from enjoying the story, and gave the main character even more substance in her compassion for the ill. Indeed, the dark side of life can give a writer a chance to add more flesh to his/her characters.

Granted, when I read a romance, I am looking for an escape from real life. Heck, I guess I'd say that about any genre of fiction. I prefer not to read about a stinky hero, unless it brings humor into the situation, and the smell of the streets after horses have trolloped through, plus the odor in the bedroom when chamber pots are kept under the bed. But as long as the story isn't overrun with stuff like that, it wouldn't automatically turn me off to the writer.

I really don't like to limit a writer's imagination--mine or anyone else's.

Morag McKendrick Pippin said...

I agree. If the story needs to be graphic write it that way.

Eliza said...

They should be allowed. I've often wondered if there should be a rating system like there is before certain television shows: something that says, hey, there's some harsh language in here or there's explicit violence. Of course, I come from a very conservative family. When I was at home, I wasn't even allowed to read anything that had -divorce- in it!

I worry about the unpleasantries, too, because my heroine in Atrocity Gods isn't a good person. She wants to be, but through the course of the book, we see her do some awful things...even if they are somewhat justified. And a lot of awful things happened to her. She's very much an antihero(ine), and so far no agents have wanted to take that on.

Vicki Gaia said...

Yes, absolutely if it's part of the story. My heroine is raped in my recent story and although, not by the hero, by a man she thought was a friend. I wouldn't have wanted to take that scene out, because it's pivotal to my characters future actions.

Anne Whitfield - author said...

This is an interesting topic.
I agree that writers should have the freedom to write whatever they want.

However, I find it repulsive for the hero to rape the heroine. If she doesn't give her consent, he should back off, be a man who thinks of the woman's needs first.

Rape isn't ROMANTIC, so why should it be in a romance novel?

A hero who rapes, is no hero in my mind, he's a selfish pig with no thought toward the heroine. There should never be anything forced. To me, the hero is a bigger man if he can coax the heroine to feel by tenderness, caring and concern.

If I was reading a book that had the hero forcing a woman to have sex with him, then I would bin the book immediately and never buy that author again.
Just think of some woman reading such a book, a woman who is physically abused and is too frightened to get help. She reads a book that is saying what is happening to her is fine, she should take it - that it's ROMANTIC and caring.
Total crap.

Yes, have rape if you want, but make it the villian not the hero doing it.

Just my opinion.

LynnC said...

I love my old bodice rippers...and I have no problem with rape in the novel...even if it involves the hero and the heroine. I am reading less and less romances because they are too much like the Barbara Courtland school of romance novel writing. Okay to read once in a great while, sugar and spice but very boring and they have very little to do with the time period that they are sit in. If writing a medieval romance ... the characters should be true to the time. Same for a romance sit in the 1800's, 1950's etc....heroines who reflect the attitude of todays women just aren't realistic. Today's reader who expects a 17 year old from the 1600's whose been forced into marriage or compromised to act the way a modern woman would act...well they aren't being very realistic either. And I shudder to think of that type of individuals coming out of our education system..that they can't stretch enough to understand someone who was raised with a different sense of morality, self-esteem, place in the world than they were raised with.

I read novels to learn, to imagine, to escape. I use to read a lot of romance novels...my buying is way down and I've gone back to reading more historical fiction, fiction, mysteries and science fiction.

As to the person who wrote a book with an anti-heroine heroine...I'd pick that book up and read it the minute it hit the bookstores. I hope that it get's published. Sounds interesting.

Oh and I loved Claiming the Courtesan...it was an excellent novel. And I'm looking forward to the next novel released by the author.

Anne Whitfield - author said...

I too buy more mainstream fiction than romance. Nearly all the historical fiction I buy is mainstream and mainly UK authors.

Mimi Riser said...

>>Should rape be allowed in historical romance?<<

If it works within the context of the plot and the characters, YES--and it has nothing to do with the right or wrong of rape (or any other gritty subject, for that matter). I don't think this question is about rape itself. As a person, rape is certainly not an action I condone in real life. But we're not talking about real life here; we're talking about fiction and what's right for the tale being told.

As an author, the thought of censorship in any form sets my teeth on edge. And, as a reader, I don't want someone else's views on political correctness influencing what kind of books are available to me. If a story deals with things I find offensive, I don't have to read it. But it's neither my nor anyone else's place to tell an author what they can or can't write about. The minute we start limiting what's allowable in any genre, we're sailing into dangerous waters.

Great post, Bonnie! Thank you for raising this question. The subject of censorship is one we should all be concerned about.

:-) Mimi

jennifer said...

I write what i want to write and if a publisher doesn't like it I don't change it, but there's one thing i can't get past. A woman falling in love with the man that raped her no freaking way. Even historically i don't see that happening. married off to a man she might have never met and he forced himself on her the night they wed, but how many really started loving relationships filled with years of happiness to follow that way. yes rape happened, yes I've written about it, and the horror of it I've also made my characters smell sometimes, and bring up slavery, they've been poor, they've been abused etc. but i can't imagine that any woman in history would just fall in love with her raper fiction or not. My hero is the one that fixs her past gets her past distrust over what happened, he seduces her despite what happened. Somehow a forced seduction just makes it sound like the man isn't a very good seducer if he has to force anyone to finish.

Several have brought up that they would hate if it happened to them, why should it be right for the man to get the woman in history just because rape happened. Rape happens now, would you write about a woman falling for the man that raped her in contemporary. I have a friend that was raped and years after it happened warned me she might sit bolt upright in the night if i got up to us the facilities or something. She was still worried it would happen again.

rape is not the action of a hero by definition.
From the Greek ἣρως, in mythology and folklore, a hero (male) or heroine (female) usually fulfills the definitions of what is considered good and noble in the originating culture. Typically the willingness to sacrifice the self for the greater good is seen as the most important defining characteristic of a hero. However, in literature, particularly in tragedy, the hero may also have serious flaws which lead to their downfall, e.g. Hamlet. Such heroes are often called tragic heroes.

Tess said...

Yes, though like some of the others, I don't want to read about the hero raping the heroine. But to exclude it all together is just wrong. That said, I know some authors can make a forced seduction by the hero work. Overall though, it's not generally to my taste. And if a character is raped, there has to be a darned good reason for it - if it appears to be gratuitous violence, that doesn't work for me.

lacey kaye said...

I've heard this book is awesome. I own it and fully intend to read it, rape or not. Go, Anna!

Marjorie Jones said...

Lots of good arguments back and forth here. I think if the rape is historically accurate, then sure, the hero can 'rape' the heroine. Say, arranged marriage, she doesn't wanna, but it's her marital duty, so he goes for it. As they get to know each other they fall in love. It could happen. Why? Different mentality. She would have done her marital duty, and boyfriend needs an heir and a spare.

A violent rape? Nope. I can't go there, sorry.

What if the character was raped at another time/place? Sure, but I don't want to 'be' there when it happens. I don't want to actually read that scene. Weave it in, reference it or what-have-you, but as the victim of such a crime myself, I don't want to participate in it again.

A scene written well takes the reader into the midst of the action and it plays all around them. I don't think I'd want to be there for that particular event.


DeborahBrent said...

I read those books in the 80's. I didn't like the rape by the hero then, and like it even less now. If the rape doesn't happen between the H/h it can be in the book.

I have seen the devastation of rape first hand. I have a niece who was date raped in college. I watched her go from a bright vivacious young woman to a girl who flinched at the slightest touch.

She was very brave and tried to file charges. It boiled down to he said, she said.

If there is forced seduction, she should already be in love with the man, and he cares about her. It won't stop her from feeling used, but it isn't rape.

Pamela Clare said...

Great post, Bonnie.

I think there are two different questions implied here, and getting them mixed up in my answer would be bad.

1. Is the subject of rape acceptable in a romance novel?

Abso-freaking-lutely yes! Rape is a reality that so many women deal with in their lives. It's a part of women's reality, unfortunately, and no writer should be prevented from including the full spectrum of human experience in her books. I like dark books. I like books in which the characters have some emotional depth, some shadows, some scars. Cheerful, light books about wearing dresses and going to parties at the Duke's house bore me to tears.

2. Is it permissable for the hero to rape the heroine? In the absolute REAL sense of that word, I would say no. I deplore violence against women, and a man who TRULY rapes the woman he supposedly loves is NOT a hero.

But where is the line? It's going to be different in a historically authentic historical than it is in a contemporary. And it's going to be different for each author and each reader. Someone in a university women's studies class might call it rape if the heroine doesn't expressly give consent. Someone else might be outraged if the hero presses on after the heroine makes half-hearted attempts to resist him.

For me, the book would go to far if; the heroine truly objects; the hero feels no empathy for her; and the hero forces her to have sex anyway, leaving her emotionally wounded. If a heroine were put through that scenario and then made to fall in love with the guy, I wouldn't like the book.

In my books, I push the envelope, but the rule I never break is that the hero, however forceful, alpha and barbaric he can sometimes be, he can never intentionally harm the heroine.

Whether it offends me has entirely to do with context. Whether the author has the right to write it isn't the least bit in doubt. Absolutely she does.

Amanda Brice said...

Oh, it should absolutely be allowed in romance, not just historical romance.

HOWEVER, rape is exactly the type of hot button issue that demands a disclaimer of some sort. As a woman who is a sexual assault survivor, the night of my assault is the worst night of my life. While I don't deny anyone to right to write what she wants (or the right of anyone to read what she wants), I certainly do not want to inadevertantly purchase the book and then find myself smack dab in the middle of a rape scene that brings me back to that night and eradicates years and years worth of therapy.

Bonnie Vanak said...

Thanks all, for your interesting and diverse opinions. Great discussion.