The Biggest (Little) Lie in Romance Fiction

Soon after ending a twenty-year marriage, a friend of mine began dating. We’ll call her Marti. One particular hunk she had her eye on was a six-foot-two, green eyed country boy with a build that would put a linebacker to shame. After a few weeks of flirty stuff, he asked her out for drinks. Soon after that came an invitation to dinner, and then, well, you know. They went to bed.

Marti called me for lunch soon after and related her story. At his apartment and with all the appropriate amount of kissing and fondling, he undressed her down to her panties. She unbuttoned his shirt and a few minutes later he was down to his tighty-whities. They lay on the bed kissing and petting and while he slid his hand inside her panties, Marti slid her hand inside his briefs.

And kept sliding. Because what she expected to find, she couldn’t find. Seriously could not find.

She said she thought she had slipped into an alternate universe. Did he not have a penis? His testicles were there, large and heavy. But the particular biological feature essential to intercourse? Finally she realized that this tiny thing brushing her palm was in fact his penis. It seemed about the size of a large acorn at first, but after she touched it a few moments, it grew in size to his full erection—about the size of her thumb.

Even in telling me, she was embarrassed. How many times had this guy gone through this torment? She said she couldn’t imagine what it was like for him to experience this discovery process with each successive woman.

But more than that, she was angry. She would have preferred to have the choice whether to enter into sexual congress with a micro-penis before getting stripped down and in the clench. He could have manned up and had an adult conversation as the petting got serious, set Marti down, and said “I have a micro-penis. What that means is…” Etc.

Maybe he’d done that before. Maybe the result of such a conversation was the woman getting dressed and walking out the door. Marti didn’t see him again after that because, well, two reasons. The last couple of years of her marriage had been sexless and she was desperate for a good fuck. She wasn’t looking for a love affair or any kind of serious relationship. Just good sex.

The other reason—she felt like she’d been lied to. One of those sins-of-omission kind of lies where vital information was withheld. Almost like false advertising.

Sadly for Marti and the rest of us women, the reality is that lots of men are dick-challenged no matter how great their abs. And even more sadly, it seems environmental pollution is making this a much more common problem.  Various studies have shown a correlation between environmental contaminants and the size of otter organs, polar bear penises, and crocodile cocks. In some species, the pollution impact is so strong that the critters can’t reproduce.

Is that where we’re headed? So far, even the micro-penis is capable of successfully planting sperm inside a vagina. But, scientists warn, fertility levels are decreasing.

These pesky details are way too serious for romance novels where making babies is generally beside the point. Romance novels are many things, but most of all they are escape and entertainment. Just as men’s magazines feature images of women with fabulous breasts, tiny waists and nice tight bums, women’s romance novels feature tall muscular men with rippling abs and a massive cock.

“She watched with avid interest as he took off his shirt, revealing a chest that seemed sculpted of marble, all carved lines and beautiful symmetry. Even the smattering of raven curls over it turned her knees to jelly… He shoved off his trousers, then swiftly divested himself of his drawers. And that’s when she thought better of her plan to lose her virtue to him. Because that massive engine thrusting out from between his thighs like a cannon headed for war was far more daunting than she’d expected. It was as arrogant as he, with ballocks the size of plums.” (The Secret of Flirting, Sabrina Jeffries)

“She shifted her hips, feeling the large, hard…thing pressed against her. And she wanted to see him. Theresa rolled off his right side, her lags tangling in her disheveled skirts. “Oh, my,” she whispered, looking down past his hips.” (A Lady’s Guide to Improper Behavior, Suzanne Enoch)

Of course every woman knows that such descriptions are idealized in order to entertain. Who would be interested in reading stories about men with micro-penises, pot bellies, or acne?

We crave the ideal and that’s what escape literature provides us. In these romantic adventures, we can become lost in a world where micro-penises simply do not exist and all men are virile hunks destined to fall in love with that cute little vixen of a female. Of course, most of us aren’t cute little vixens, either. By the standards of romance novels, we all fall short of ideal.

Romance plots usually follow from instantaneous attraction based on looks. That attraction leads to entanglement which leads to stunning sex which results in love. Which leaves one to wonder: without stunning sex, could there be love?

Love is one of those things no one can explain, but some wags have ventured to say a woman falls in love with any man who gives her a good fucking. There might be something to that. Orgasm is a hard thing to ignore.

Sex causes increased production of oxytocin, which is often referred to as the “love hormone.” Before orgasm, oxytocin, released from the brain, surges and is accompanied by the release of endorphins, our natural pain-killing hormones. It also increases blood flow to organs throughout your body, and reduces inflammation. In other studies, scientists have found that up to 30 different parts of the brain are activated by orgasm, including those responsible for emotion, touch, joy, satisfaction and memory.[1]

Yes, women can gain orgasm without penetration, although clitoral orgasm alone leaves something to be desired, especially if a woman has previously enjoyed vaginal orgasm along with clitoral. For most women, the clitoral orgasm is like phase one. Then it’s time for that serious fucking.

Studies have shown that women prefer larger dicks and in fact, evolution may have favored the development of larger male organs specifically for that reason.[2] Longer slongs also have a biological advantage in depositing sperm deeper in the female reproductive tract, reducing the chance that a successive male with a shorter penis could displace the sperm.

So what should women expect in real life? A report published in the British Journal of Urology International analyzed 17 studies of male organ size and found the following:

… the study participants totaled more than 15,000 men. In addition to the averages listed previously, the analysis charted sizes and placed them into percentiles. For example, an erect penis of 6.3 inches is in the 95th percentile. That means that out of 100 men, only five would have a penis longer than 6.3 inches. Likewise, an erect penis of 3.94 inches is in the 5th percentile, meaning that only five men out of 100 would have a penis shorter than 3.94 inches.

[The report also found that] The average size preferred by the women in the study was an erect penis that is 6.4 inches long and 5 inches in circumference for a one-time encounter. For a long-term relationship, the average size preferred by the women was a penis that is 6.3 inches long with a circumference of 4.8 inches.[3]

These preferred sizes are slightly larger than the actual norm for the male organ. The study also found that men with below average penis size suffered lack of self-esteem and confidence, which in turn surely affected their approach to women.

You can bet that successful authors of romance fiction have done their homework about such details, and that’s why they’re successful. Their stories push the right buttons in women’s imaginations where a man’s John Henry needs to be big.

Common sense tells us it’s a rare man who is so magnificently built and awesomely hung as romances depict, much less handsome, courteous, clever and dying to make us his own. Did I mention rich? For every duke story in Regency romance, there’s an equally breathtaking billionaire in modern romance. These are merely a retelling of the fairy tale of the knight in shining armor, and no matter how smart we women might be, deep down inside we feel cheated when we have to accept less.

The question is, does romance literature exacerbate the problem? Or does it serve as a release valve for women caught up in mundane reality?

We’re biologically destined to seek the best representative of our species in order to produce the best possible offspring. So it’s not just vanity or fluffed up fantasies that lead us to enjoy those magnificent men in romance literature. We’re only doing what our genes tell us to do.

These stories also provide a few hours of escape from whatever troubles us, whether the size of our partner’s manhood or his increasingly pudgy tummy or his lack of wealth. If he loves us, makes us feel beautiful, and does his best to care for us, what’s the problem? The sexy novel might stir us up, but it’s our real partner who’ll benefit when we drag him to the bedroom.

So yes, size matters, and it would be tragic for thousands of years of evolution toward larger pricks to be reversed by modern society’s indiscriminate use of chemicals. For myself and probably many other women, I prefer not to get naked with a man who isn’t going to make me feel it. Or to curl up with a glass of wine and a novel about a man who is anything short of, um, overwhelming. I hope that magnificent men with the skill (and equipment) to deeply stir us will continue to appear in our romantic fantasies. And in our beds.

~~~

 

[1] http://www.dailymail.co.uk/health/article-2031498/Sex-Why-makes-women-fall-love–just-makes-men-want-MORE.html

[2] https://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2013/04/130408-penises-science-evolution-genitalia-health-weird/

[3] https://www.healthline.com/health/mens-health/average-penis-size

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The Lowly Romance

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The female writer, pensive as she looks over her scribbles, probably a heartfelt journal entry or love letter. Note the ribbon typifying her work as romantic and ephemeral.

Plenty of women who read and/or write romance novels are fully aware of the stigma attached to the genre. Gallons of ink have been spilled in the discussion of how romance gets no respect. If you’re a new writer hopeful of making your way in the world of romance stories, you should start off knowing what you’re up against. And if you’re a jaded veteran of the romance genre, you should know that there’s a bit of light at the end of the tunnel.

Romances suffer derogatory terms such as ‘bodice rippers,’ ‘literary porn,’ and ‘trash,’ to name a few.  These fictional stories have endured a lousy reputation since they first appeared in literary history. Oh dear, these stories deal with private matters. No one goes around talking about the intimate details of their emotional relationships or their sex lives—not now, and especially not in the 18th century when the first romance hit bookshelves in the story of Pamela. Nevertheless, in 1740 no less than now, the novel and its sequels were huge hits and spawned countless clones.

Multiple reasons have been put forth for the failure of romance stories to gain legitimacy in the eyes of the publishing industry and its coterie of learned critics. One might hear that romances lack literary merit, or that the stories follow a formula, or that the cover images are hopelessly sleazy. But then, much of fiction lacks literary merit, mysteries and most other genre fiction follow formulas, and what is more visually disturbing than covers depicting murder and death?

One might even argue that the noble ‘literary fiction’ features its share of formulaic content, lack of literary merit, and sordid covers.

Yet all other genres aside from romance routinely enjoy critical review, even if some reviewers eviscerate the work in question. All other genres gain public notice and appear in lists of best-selling fiction. Romance, on the other hand, rarely captures a mainstream review and appears on lists only if those lists are specifically dedicated to romances, one assumes in order to allow readers to cleanly avoid wasting their time looking at titles that are beneath their dignity.

The Romance Writers of America define romance as stories that have a central love story and an emotionally-satisfying and optimistic ending. If that wasn’t shameful enough to earn the scorn of the publishing industry, its authors and readers are almost universally female.

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Note the serious legitimate male writer, glasses on, intent on his work in a book-lined space. Google ‘writer’ images and you’ll see that males outnumber females five to one.

One observer remarked that “Romance is seen as unserious and frivolous because women are seen as unserious and frivolous, and romance is written largely by women, for women, about concerns traditionally seen as feminine …”

Psst! Don’t tell anyone that without the massive annual revenues generated by romance books, the publishing industry would be unable to put out those fabulous literary works.

Without sounding sexist, I’m at a loss how else to say this. The universal denigration of romance writers, readers, and the genre in general is, well, sexist.

One might argue that criticism of romance is not necessarily sexist. Indeed, feminist Germaine Greer’s 1970 tome The Female Eunuch eviscerates romance novels as exploitative reinforcement of women’s submissive role in human culture. But as some of Greer’s critics have pointed out, she herself is stereotyping women by assuming that women who write/read romance are submissive little waifs clinging to their hero Alpha males.

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Here we have the whimsical female writer, flowers on her desk, few books in sight, as she toys with an out of date typewriter in a position blocking her access to serious work.

Okay, some may be. But for the very real percentage of women who enjoy and thrive in such a role, why denigrate their choice of reading material?

Increasingly, the liberation of women from cultural stereotypes has spawned writers and readers of romance novels who are strong independent women with careers in fields including law, medicine, and political office. Romance stories often include protagonist women with meaningful goals and intelligent life choices as well as relationships where the male and female see themselves as equal partners. How sexist is that?

One might even say that the two go hand in hand. Women reading about women grappling with the difficulties and rewards of careers and relationships, among other things tackled in romance novels, are the same women struggling for workplace equality and partnership marriages.

Most stories including literary fiction involve characters struggling with emotional conflict, love, loss, and sexual encounters just like they do in romance novels. With two differences: romances have happy endings and sex is more often described in specific detail.

This hints at the real issue many book snobs hold against romance novels. Life doesn’t have happy endings, not in the literary world. In literary fiction, people die in terrible ways and reading about these deaths and losses is supposed to inform and entertain readers. And sex? Well, let’s not hear the details, shall we? It’s titillating. It’s gross.

Yet each of us hope for happy endings and find great pleasure in hearing that our neighbor or beloved family member has survived cancer or some other brush with death. We hunger for the satisfaction of healthy sexual relationships and the pleasure we gain in orgasm. The fact that some people find these too disturbing to read about says more about their psychological and emotional problems than about any shortcomings of romance stories.

Does it take a psychologist to caution women that what they read in romance novels should not form the basis of decisions about their lives? A British psychologist says that romance novels can be a bad influence on women and lead them to make poor health and relationship decisions. “The novels give women unrealistic views about what to expect out of a relationship because they, well, romanticize love,” said Susan Quilliam, a relationship psychologist based in Cambridge.

Please. Talk about sexist.

Does this mean that novels about war cause readers to rush out and murder someone? After all, they romanticize the glory of war.

Fortunately, with self-publishing and the continuing elevation of women to positions of power and wealth have earned romance a bit higher standing, at least in some venues. Prominent institutions of higher learning have begun offering classes that discuss romance as a legitimate art form. In the January 13, 2016, issue of the Princeton Alumni newsletter, Jennifer Altman wrote about classes that focus on this genre:

Women always are center stage in romance novels, and those women are guaranteed to find a satisfying relationship by the book’s end, whether it’s with a Viking or a vampire or another woman. “Romance fiction is about hope, and about the possibility of finding a relationship in which you’re appreciated for who you really are,” [Laurie]Kahn says. And if critics find the stories unrealistic, well, that’s what they’re meant to be. “Romances are fantasies,” [Nancy] Herkness says. “We try and make them as authentic as we can, but it’s still a fantasy.”

It’s the uplifting final pages, say many, that draw readers to romance. “I need a happy ending,” [Anna] Muzzy says. “The world is a dark and grim-enough place. I don’t need to read dark stories.” No matter how difficult the complications of the plot are for the protagonist, the story always ends on an optimistic note. “You know it will be emotionally satisfying,” [Mindy] Klasky says. “There’s a comfort in knowing that, despite everything, there will be a happy ending.”

Similarly, the Yale Herald surveyed the world of romance writing in a thorough discussion of the pros and cons from an academic viewpoint. No less than the Smithsonian Magazine recently published an overview of criticism and opinion about romance and how there are winds of change in academia.

I’m a little uncomfortable with the Princeton ladies with their praise of fantasy and uplift. Nothing is more fundamental or relevant to human life than loving relationships and satisfying sex. These are the emotional nests from which our children spring and the context in which we go forth each day to wage our battles for security and meaning. It’s been an ongoing failure to recognize this primal need and stand up for its literary importance to all detractors.

As women’s fortunes rise in society, romance will continue to gain a stronger position in literary circles. Emotion and relationships have always been the realm where women reigned supreme just as war and conquest have been the arena where men ruled. Until recent decades, arguably until the arrival of self-publishing where women have been able to break past the publishing stranglehold, men controlled the industry and formed the predominant ranks of literary criticism; books about emotions and relationships failed to interest them.

So make it good, ladies. Put out stories that make us proud. Entertain us with inventive plot lines and unique characters. Enlist beta readers and work hard to be professional. The future is ours.

Stealing Your Words

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Periodically, my Facebook news feed erupts with the latest update on works ‘stolen’ from authors and re-published by someone else. In the early days, I hurried to track down such lists. Mostly I found links to links and then no access unless I signed up for something.

But there is a thriving industry of thieves who make a few changes in what a self-published author wrote then release it under a new title. This was extensively discussed in an excellent article in June 2016.

It seems romance writers are the primary target of such scoundrels for two reasons: many romance authors are self-published and romance sells. As noted in an Atlantic Monthly article, “In 2013, the Romance Writers of America (RWA) estimated that sales of romantic novels amounted to $1.08 billion, and accounted for 13% of adult fiction consumed that year, outselling science-fiction, mystery and literary novels.”

Self-publishing is like walking home alone at night. There’s no big–or even small–publisher to back you up. Yes, Amazon has software that supposedly scans new manuscripts for duplication in an effort to prevent such horrors, but a cunning thief can substitute a few words and character names in your text and easily fool that software.

Even worse are the occasional outright thefts of authors’ work by small e-book presses and/or agencies which promise to format, publish, promote, and/or sell your work. This kind of wraparound service appeals to new authors, many of whom jump into writing with the specific idea of self-publishing a romance story. Most recently, romance writers are outraged to hear about the theft of fourth quarter proceeds (among other things) by All-Romance Ebooks, LLC.

So between thievery by outsiders and by insiders, what’s a hopeful writer to do? Is the answer only to wait until you can get a toe in the door with an agent who, if you’re wildly lucky and a damn good writer, can get you in with a mainstream publisher, both of whom will shave off a healthy 80-85% of your book’s proceeds? The reality of that world is pretty dim, as discussed in a recent article about book sales in that arena.

Fact is, romance is still looked down on in the elevated sphere of mainstream publishing. Never mind its sales numbers. Never mind that romance stories deal with important fundamentals of human existence like courtship, love, sex, and–sometimes–having babies. That’s just beneath the thin air world of Literary Fiction.

Besides, most of the readers of romance are women, an easily dismissed demographic in the still-patriarchal world of mainstream publishing.

Put it all together and romance gets no respect.

If that’s not enough to depress you, how’s this? Even if you find an agent who thinks your work is great and you get a contract for that agent to shop your manuscript around town, there’s no guarantee that your work won’t get stolen. This has happen to me, actually. Twice.

First time the problem arose from me submitting to a publisher directly. This was a non-fiction project, but the lesson applies across the board. I sent my outline of chapter summaries and overall concept to all the big publishers like Random House. Each query letter solicited a form letter response. No.

Before I embarked on that quest, I had checked the most recent list of ‘books in print’ as well as ‘forthcoming books’ where publishers list everything they’ve got in the works. Nothing in the realm of my project was listed.

Despite all the rejections, I started contacting agents. Three said yes, we’re interested. I contracted with one of them and after making edits he suggested, I sat back and waited for the good news.

Four months later, the agent notified me that Random House was coming out with a book very similar to mine. Very Similar. Topics grouped in each chapter almost identical to my proposal–check. Overall concept exactly like mine–check.

The difference between this book and mine? The author. She had previously been published by Random House, already in their stable, plus she held professional credentials in the subject of this book which I did not.

Time frame: My proposal had been sent to Random House in March. The ‘new’ book would be released in the following January.

No reason this wouldn’t have been listed in forthcoming books at the time I searched if indeed they already had the project underway.

The agent questioned whether such a work could be completed in such a short time frame…until he learned the author also taught at the college level and could have easily accessed a small army of graduate students to do the research.

I consulted an intellectual rights attorney and provided him with the materials I had sent to Random House and the fresh-off-the-press copy of the other author’s book. He agreed the similarities were too striking to ignore. Then he told me the truth about copyright infringement.

First, until I could discover what profits had been earned, I had no grounds to sue. That’s because lost profits were my ‘damages’ and lawsuits were about damages. Second, Random House was in New York City and in order to sue them, I would have to retain an attorney who was licensed to practice law in New York City.

There were other reasons I walked out of his office in the depths of despair but mostly it was the fact that I had no money for a NYC attorney. I had lost my idea and all my hard work.

There’s a nasty sequel to this story. With the agent’s encouragement, I rewrote the proposal. Jazzed it up, made it more about fun than scholarly. Added cute quotations at the beginning of each chapter. Etc. He started making the rounds with the new version. A year later as the manuscript sat in so many publishing houses’ ‘maybe’ piles, a new book came out.

Yes, you guessed it. Same concept down to the exact same quotes at the beginning of each chapter. Two young women ‘authored’ the book. Not coincidentally, they both worked in the NYC publishing industry giving them easy and quick access to proposals they thought might be successful, evidently.

I have a file drawer full of all my research, proposals, agent contract and other random bits of worthless paper that grew from that bitter lesson. Including both the books that were stolen from me.

The point is–nothing is safe. But as the agent remarked at the conclusion of this relationship, fiction is harder to steal. Non-fiction is usually subject matter that anyone can research but fictional stories are yours alone.

Unfortunately there are many ways to steal fiction as the unfortunate authors tangled up with the All-Romance Ebook LLC scandal are finding out, not to mention the countless authors whose works have been pirated. It’s an ugly world.

My advice to myself–and to anyone reading this post–is to write because you can’t avoid it. Write because the story keeps you awake at night with words flowing through your head like water through a river in flood. Write because you love to write, because you have something important to say.

Even if very few people ever read the work and especially if you never get rich from it, writing is what some of us have to do no matter what.

That doesn’t mean you have to be stupid about it. I still self pub, fiction and non-fiction. If I ever decided to engage a third party to help me market or publish my work, I would research them thoroughly–how long they’ve been in business being a primary concern. And if you’re going to seek advice on writing or publishing, try to not fall into the quicksand of buying such advice. Plenty of good input is available at no cost, not the least of which is your local author group (if you can find one you like).

For example, check out this excellent blog post about self-publishing and e-book sales.

Yes, acceptance into the lofty world of mainstream publishing provides stunning validation and what author doesn’t want that? But if that’s what you want and need, contemplate a long period of learning to write well and then write something beside romance.

Write on!