Sunday, January 23, 2011

Savage Sensuous Surrender

by Jeffe Kennedy

My mother raised me to be a reader.

She read to me every night before bed, and at other times, too. An avid Sesame Street watcher, I was sounding out the words on the big grocery store sign when I was four. By the time I was six, she gave up reading to me, because I'd read over her shoulder and correct her when she skipped words.

I was delighted because I finally could read through the whole part where the spider dies in Charlotte's Web - my mom always cried too much to get through it.

She belonged to a ladies book group back then and later she and my stepdad joined a couples book group that still meets, nearly forty years later. My mother kept a list of great books and worked her way through them methodically.

Every Wednesday after school, we went to the library. I was allowed five books per week, which sometimes barely lasted me. When I finished the juvenile section, I headed to the adult shelves. I discovered fantasy, science fiction, literary fiction. I loved it all. Around the time I hit twelve, I started picking up the romance novels in the wire stands with the candy and magazines at the grocery store. The library, of course, did not carry them.

"Put that down," my mom would say, "those are trash novels."

Now, this is a woman who never tried to limit what I read. Sometimes she read the edgier ones, too, but never did she say something wasn't worth reading. Except for the romance novel.

But the covers, the descriptions, they called to me with their siren song of sex and passion.

I had to know.

So I bought my first romance novel, Olivia O'Neill's Indigo Nights, at the used bookstore down the street.

Lady Caroline called no man master, but her wild, rebellious spirit drove her from the staid Victorian England of her birth to the opium dens of Suez and beyond - to the lush, bejeweled pleasure-domes of decadent maharajas... through jungle mazes rife with intoxicating dangers and jasmine-scented temples of pain and ecstasy... and into the arms of dashing Captain Rowland Steel, the only man who could match her thirst for freedom. Plunged into a world aflame with revolution, these magnificent lovers play out a tumultuous drama of unquenched passion, exotic desires and eternal, all-conquering love.

This description telegraphed the code words to my blossoming sexual self. Pain and ecstasy? Intoxicating? Thirst, aflame, unquenched passion and exotic desires?

Oh yeah. Sign me up.

The cover looks so cheesy now, but in my mind it glowed like an amethyst jewel. On the back they dance in front of the Taj Mahal, ride a rearing white stallion and she dances in a harem outfit next to a tiger. At the bottom it says Savage Sensuous Surrender.

I didn't hide it from my mother, but I didn't exactly show her either. And oh, yes, I loved the book in all its scorching, sweeping, wildly unlikely splendor. This was a book firmly of the 70s trope, where the heroine succumbs to the insistent desires of many men - from the dashing Captain Rowland Steel to various Sheikhs and Maharajas. They all wanted Caro, and most of them had her, too. And, of course, Captain Steel rescues her in the end and they go off to lead feisty, tumultuous lives. Happily Ever After.

It rung every bell in my brand new world of sexual and romantic fantasy.

Over the years, romance novels became my guilty pleasure. I never shook quite shook the idea that they were trash, that they somehow polluted my mind. They became my special junk food treat. I studied the classics through high school and college. I read widely and with eclectic fervor. But when I needed a break, a chance to rest my mind and just indulge in a lovely ride of a read, I turned to romance novels.

The disdain is still out there. Even some of my sister writers who write in some of the many genres romance now encompasses like to distance themselves from the romance tropes. They make fun of the happy ever after. They imply they're too smart to write it. And yet, the stories still carry the thrill of the savage and sensuous. Werewolves and demons bring exotic pleasures to our intrepid heroines now. We might frown now on the idea of the heroine being date-raped by every man overwhelmed by her beauty, but we've substituted mate-bonds and the irresistible hypnotic command of the vampire.

I'm not much for guilt these days. Life is short and if something gives me pleasure, I value that. And romance has come out of the closet. Websites like Smart Bitches, Trashy Books (their tagline is All of the Romance, None of the Bullshit) speak for women like me. They explore far better than I can why romance, now the biggest selling genre of all books, remains the red-headed stepchild of the reading world.

As for me? Oh yeah - sign me up.


  1. When I found sword and sorcery fantasy I was SOOO 'sign me up!!!' I remember the first smut scene I came across in my reading adventures. It was in The White Dragon by Anne McCaffery. I would read anything with dragons in it at that point, and when I realized that my book had such a scene in it I truly was surprised. I remember reading that scene on the bus on the way to the religious school I was then (rather unwillingly) afraid someone would peek over my shoulder and read those words and get me in trouble.... Great post Jeffe! :-D

  2. Linda! I *totally* remember that smut scene in The White Dragon! Oh yeah, Jaxom Baby!

  3. Johanna Lindsey was my first exposure to romance novels. I pilfered stacks and stacks of her books from my sister. It's the HEA that always appealed to me. The need to expose different types of HEA turned me into a romance writer.

    Hystericals will always be a happy escape for me (well written ones, at least). I give JL full credit for that.

  4. Hear, hear! Life's too short not to read what you like. I enjoy many different genres (mysteries being my favorite, if I had to chose...but I'm glad I don't). And a good steamy romance is always fun. :)

  5. Oh yeah, KAK - "Everyone Loves a Lindsey." I read those, too. And yes, finding that happy ever after is always the challenge.

    Well, okay, Linda - we'll let the mystery readers be in our club, too. ;-)

  6. @LindaR - Okay - apparently I totally missed that scene in The White Dragon...or blocked it out. I mean, I was probably in 5th grade when I started reading that series so it could be I just skipped over all that. Now I'm all curious though.

  7. When I was a young teen, I used to stand in the bookstore, pick the sexiest looking book I could find, and just read the sex scenes. Wasn't allowed to read them at home. I fear my development might have been slightly warped, as that really comprised my sex education, lol. In general, I love a book to include romance, but I want a whole lot of story and action to balance it out, so as an adult I've read very few of the pure "romance novels".

  8. Yup, life is definitely too short not to read what you want. And, hopefully, the market will always be broad enough to the allow enough freedom of choice for readers to choose whatever we are in the mood for at the moment.

  9. I love that image of you, Kerry, furtively reading in the book store. And for the record, a lot of romance novels have lots of story and action, too.

    Amen, Laura!

  10. That was me too. Worked my way through all the books "appropriate" to my age (and whatever was in the small school library).

    I think the first "romance" I read was about this egyptian slave girl set in ancient egypt. Can't remember the title exactly, something something "mara".

    Anyways romance is what I use to destress from my life cause its such a guilty pleasure!!

  11. I raided my moms and aunts stashes. Can't remember the first book but it might have been a Harlequin. Though I was given what my aunt thought of as age appropriate romance, Lucy Walker, still love her to this day. Most shocking find in the stashes was Jackie Collins.

  12. Oh, what was it about the slave girl stories, Silver Blue Lily? De-stressing is the key for me, too!

    Ha, Chudney! I can just see a young you in the islands, reading those shocking urban Jackie Collins tales.

  13. Allison- all I remember now is a mention of Jaxom's naked butt cheeks in the warm sun. And really, what was with his name? I didn't think it was perverted then, but now I'm older, and hopefully wiser, but definitely more jaded and well, say it a bit slower and you'll understand.

  14. Yeah - remember he lost control of himself with his young man hottie ways and was all with the accommodating holder girls. I seem to recall a plowing metaphor. Now that I think of it, wasn't it partly in response to Ruth being too runty to be sexual? Was this a latent homosexuality thing that whooshed over my head?

    The book is on my shelf - might have to pull it down.

  15. My grandmother actually got me into reading romance. She borrowed me one of her Kathleen Woodiwiss books and I haven't looked at her the same after that. From that time on she often borrowed me romance's that she loved and she also loved discussing them with me.

  16. Ha! Lurv Kathleen Woodiwiss. I used to share with my grandmother, too. After my grandfather left her for another woman (long story), she would underline passages, usually where the heroine would rant bitterly about the hero. Wish I still had some of those...

  17. I inherited my grandmother's collection of Kathleen Woodiwiss books. No underlined passages there, but still a collection I treasure.

  18. I'm sure! They're likely gaining in external value now, too. Were you ever to be a material pig.

  19. Great post! I like happy ever after too...

  20. Thanks Kristin! Can't beat the happy ending - as long as it's earned. ;-)