Friday, March 19, 2010

The Last Romance Taboo

It's splashed across the cover of magazines. It's fodder for primetime and the movies. Our newschannels fill their spare air time with the foibles of the famous. It's estimated that 30-60% of all married people in the US will engage in it at some point.

But it's a third rail romance authors are leery of touching. It's infidelity. And while the romance tent is expanding in a number of ways, this is one topic that isn't finding its way into print very often.

Most recently, Sherry Thomas, (one of my favorite authors) danced around the theme in her NOT QUITE A HUSBAND. But even the fearless Ms. Thomas couldn't deal with it directly. In this story, the infidelity took place prior to the wedding vows, but the husband's last fling tainted the marriage so deeply, the story begins with the couple about to finalize a divorce.

It surprises me sometimes that we romance readers are willing to accept rakish heroes who will mount anything that moves, so long as he instantly becomes the rock of constancy once he meets the heroine. Perhaps our genre should be renamed Romantic Fantasy.

Infidelity is a rich minefield of human experience for an author to explore. Yes, it's painful. It's devastating. Many people decide to throw up their hands and walk away from the relationship, and I can't blame them.

But I think the story of two people losing each other, finding each other again, and reinventing their relationship is one I'd like to read. Re-establishing trust is the deepest of all internal conflicts and the outcome is not a certainty.

What do you think? Have you read a romance with an infidelity theme? Would you be more likely to read a novel about infidelity if the cheater was female? What would a straying character have to do in order to merit a Happily Ever After?

PS. It's Chatelaine Friday! Please join me over there for a peek at my spring travel plans!

54 comments:

Kris said...

See i was thinking about making a post on this last night. I just finished reading one for review that the story line was all about infidelity. Much to my suprise I picked up the next review book and what do you know...same thing! I have strong feelings on this. When my review is posted I think all the world will see that. It doesn't necessarily make me hate a book, but I wonder why it's such a common theme these days.

May said...

For me, it depended. If infidelity happened before I saw the characters fell in love, I would be more willing to accept. But if I read through the story, watch the love bloom, invest my emotion to their love and then hero/heroine betray each other, I would be so mad.

Maybe it is fantasy considering the statistic but I read romance because of those fantasies.

Penelope said...

I think the difficulty with infidelity is that it's not "heroic"--romance readers are looking for a hero, and a man who cheats may be flawed and capable of redemption, but not heroic.

Gillian Layne said...

If either character, hero or heroine, no matter the time period, makes a knowing decision to cheat on his/her spouse (and that spouse is not some abusive maniac), then the story ceases to be a romance for me. Woman's fiction, yes. Romance, no. They may grow and learn to love and trust each other again, but it isn't going to be a pleasant read for me.

If the spouse is cheating without knowing (husband assumed dead, or they got married while drunk one night ten years ago and never really knew, etc), then fine.

EmilyBryan said...

Kris--Who were the books by? Were they well written? Let me know when you post your review.

I think more people are thinking about it with the Tiger Woods, John Edwards and now Sandra Bullock scandals.

EmilyBryan said...

May--I agree, it would be hard to watch the relationship disintegrate. That's probably why Sherry Thomas started her story where she did and dealt with the infidelity in backstory.

EmilyBryan said...

Penelope--You've hit a big nail on the head there. We do want our heroes to behave heroically.

Same goes for heroines too?

Kris said...

Hey Emily *waves* IMO the one I read was well written but hard for me to suck up. The book is 'Love In Midair' by Kim Wright. The story itself was excellent but I have strong feelings about affairs, which I think colored my PERSONAL opinion of the book.(which does have a positive review coming up) I'm only into the second by a few chapters so no opinion on that one yet. I think these types of books are different and will get attention but I think that it'll be harder for some women to go along with it. But then, I'm jaded and don't know how much of the readership is or isn't so my opinions could actually mean nothing. *shrugs*

EmilyBryan said...

Gillian--You have me thinking about PEARL or the newer movie BROTHERS, where the infidelity occurs because two characters thought the third one was dead.

It's hard to make a triangle work as a romance. (Ok, no menage jokes! I have trouble thinking of those stories as romance because someone is not going to get an HEA)

EmilyBryan said...

Kris--I suspect you are an accurate representation of the romance readership. This is a volatile issue. It cuts to the marrow. I understand why romance writers typically avoid it. Is there any deeper pain than betrayal?

But at the same time, the writing crafter in me sees the possibility for a moving, redemptive story. It just might not be able to be shelved with romances.

Jane L said...

Good Morning Everyone! The infidelity issue does seem to be a growing trend, not only in books but also real lives. I hope this isn't one of those issues people will get so use to and say "oh well, it's ok if he/she does, so and so did." My thought is, there is so much bad stuff going on in the world. If I pick up a book to escape, I want the characters to be loyal, commited and happy in the end. No outside affairs. LOL!

Sarah Tormey said...

Lauren Willig's latest novel addresses infidelity and she happens to be blogging about it today at the RWA NYC blog:)

Kris said...

Emily, I agree that there is potential to these stories. I also agree that maybe they'll fall into a different category other then romance.

I also agree with what Jane L. said in her comment about readers trying to escape into their books.

The only thing I can point out about the whole thing is this....I wrote up the review for 'Love In Midair' and it's been a while since a book brought out so much "passion" on an issue with me.

Nynke said...

I really don't think infidelity is more of an issue in people's lives now than ever before. It's probably more a matter of it being out in the open more. that's what I think - I have absolutely no evidence to back this up and I'm only 30 years old. But it's just one of the sad tendencies that human beings have, I think.

And it's just because it's so sad that I don't want it to happen between my hero and heroine in a romance novel. The fantasy is important to me, too!

EmilyBryan said...

Sarah--Thanks for pointing out the post by Lauren Willig at RWANYC Blog. Ms. Willig is another favorite of mine. In her BETRAYAL OF THE BLOOD LILY, the erring spouse is the heroine and she's not married to the hero.

EmilyBryan said...

Jane--I'm not interested in encouraging infidelity. I believe everyone should have a real life HEA. But I am interested in how people (and relationships) survive it.

EmilyBryan said...

Nynke--I enjoy the fantasy too, but I want my romance to have a ring of truth as well. I don't think I'd turn a book into a wall-banger because the characters had to go through a painful reconciliation. Sherry Thomas, for example, managed to make her H/h's renewed relationship deeper and more honestly loving than their previous one.

Think that may be a fantasy too?

Nynke said...

hmm, maybe I need to slightly reconsider my earlier statement. I had two thoughts off the cuff: 1) the reason for my ex's infidelity was that we were not meant to be, so why would that be different in any other relationship?; 2)infidelity = real life = staid contemporary non-sensual romance, which I don't like to read.

Two big overgeneralizations :). A better reason for not liking to read a plot about infidelity would be that it's really tough to watch a relationship disintegrate to the point where of the partners is unfaithful. Of course, the story need not follow that whole process, and Sherry Thomas's book (which I loved) shows how a story of estrangement can be told in a way that gets the reader emotionally invested (exactly because of how sad and realistic it is), but never disenchanted, because there are constant reminders that there is still something between hero and heroine, and that they will get their HEA in the end.

So my bottom line would be: this type of story needs a really good writer, but it can be done, and I will read it :).

EmilyBryan said...

Nynke--It sounds like Lauren Willig's new book doesn't have a reconciliation in it since her adulterous heroine has an affair with the hero (not her husband.) This seems like a case of being in a failed relationship to begin with, not one that was violated and then renewed.

But she's such a good writer, I'll be looking for Betrayal of the Blood Lily anyway.

Sandy said...

Unfortunately, infidelity is a part of life. When my Grandmother started into dementia, she told us grandfather had an affair when they were much younger. We learned it was true, and we believe she made him pay for it the rest of his life.

I don't think infidelity is a good topic unless the person can be redeemed and even then the author has her work cut out for her.

EmilyBryan said...

Sandy--Sounds like the balance of power shifted in your grandparents' relationship over the affair. I'm sorry you found out about it the way you did. The Good Book says "Love covers a multitude of sins." I suspect your grandmother didn't mean to tell you.

Magdalen said...

When does a romance drift into Women's Fiction as a genre? (I'm assuming a contemporary; if it's a historical, it might drift into the more amorphous "hist. rom. fic" category.) I'm thinking, for example, of Barbara Delinsky or Pat Gaffney, after they each made the move to women's fiction.

Another concern I have is that infidelity drags at least two additional relationships into a story about the protagonists' relationship: the cheater's relationship with the person he/she cheated with, and the cheater's own personal resolution of the issues at stake. If a romance only looks at the protags (whom I assume are the cheater & the cheater's partner/spouse) then that's missing two points: one, the person the cheater slept with isn't a less-than-person even if he/she was only a one-night-stand, and two, the cheater has to do some real heavy lifting in the internal development department to get back to being a worthy partner/spouse.

As with any romance, too much time spent with secondary relationships or internal soul searching shrinks the romance. Put another way, the solution to infidelity can't (I think) be entirely between the protagonists.

Final point: I have a lovely marriage to my second husband where our relationship began almost precisely as my first marriage -- which was very happy, curiously enough -- was wrapping up. As a result, I have a DH and a DXH and we're all good friends.

When people hear or read about this, they say, "Oh, how romantic." Well, no, I don't think so. Miraculous, yes, but in a fictional version, it would seem horribly convenient that a happy marriage was finishing up just as a new relationship was beginning. Denial? Self-justification? I don't think any reader would buy it. (File it under "stranger than fiction," I guess.)

I could see it screwball comedy, but not a romance...

EmilyBryan said...

Magdalen--Good points. No one in a romantic triangle is a non-person.

Speaking of screwball, did you ever hear about the infidelity in comedians George Burns and Gracie Allen's marriage?

He supposedly apologized to Gracie for a brief affair by giving her a silver candlestick for the dining room table. Years later Gracie was shopping with a friend and said, "You know, I wish George would cheat again. I need a new silver candlestick".

They are buried beneath a common headstone that reads "Together Again." Her name is listed first, because George wanted her to have "top billing."

Kate Pearce said...

I grew up in the U.K. and I remember reading a fabulous set of historical novels-romances- set during the industrial revolution, written by Brenda Jagger. There are at least 2 of them in the series where both the hero/heroine are unfaithful, but all of them end up eventually married to the right people, or the same people and I thought those problems enriched the novels immensely.
I was surprised when I moved here to the U.S. and started writing romances that there was such a taboo against it.
I think it can add a lot to a story if handled well.

Ravenous Romance said...

God post. I'll link to it. I have noticed that in M/M romance, there is often an incident of infidelity of revenge or misunderstanding. Done passionately nd tastefully, I think this would work in traditional romance, or erotic romance. If anyone is working on one of these and would like to run it by me and/or submit it to Ravenousromance.com, please get in touch with me at lori@raveneousromance.com.

EmilyBryan said...

Kate--I think the issues and emotions would make a very involving story. Hard to read, no doubt, but the kind of story that sticks with you.

Keira of LoveRomancePassion said...

Infidelity isn't sexy and it isn't romantic. It shatters trust. It hurts. It proves that one person was thinking all with their sexual organs and/or didn't really care about the other person in the first place. Neither of which is attractive. It's almost entirely irredeemable in RL... imagine it in a book? Who wants the crappy side of RL in their romance?

EmilyBryan said...

Keira--I agree. Infidelity isn't sexy or romantic, but unfortunately, it is real.

Perhaps the books exploring this topic aren't meant to be shelved with romances.

Thanks for your comment.

EmilyBryan said...

Lori--Thanks for dropping by and for the link! I'm not working on an infidelity story. Since my books are more lighthearted, it wouldn't fit, but I have lots of writing buddies out there.

Anybody got something percolating? Please contact Ravenous Romance.

Magdalen said...

Emily -- Here's another celebrity (kinda) story about infidelity. My great aunt was friends with Sir Julian Huxley (Aldous's brother and famous in his own right has the head of the London Zoo -- would be on BBC from time to time). Sir Julian had divorced wife #1 to marry the Swiss nanny, Juliette; they'd been married for many years.

But if they'll do it with you, they'll do it to you, and sure enough, eventually Sir Julian's eye fell on a comely younger woman. He decided he had to leave Juliette to run off with the newer model. (You know, change a 40 into two 20s...)

Juliette heard about this planned elopement and had the perfect solution: she buried his false teeth in the garden. When he confronted her, she said she'd retrieve them if he promised (on his honour as a gentleman, no doubt) to give up the 20something. He agreed, and they remained married.

EmilyBryan said...

Magdalen--Very funny. And very smart. Juliette reminded him of his age by snatching his teeth. The ridiculousness of the situation must have made him realize how ridiculous he was for considering running off.

I think sometimes, people just lose their minds and need someone to call them back to themselves.

Sandy said...

No, I'm sure grandma didn't mean to tell anyone, Emily, but it sure explained a lot of things. Smile. She was getting senile, and she was in and out some of the time.

SarannaDeWylde said...

I don't care for infidenlity stories. Why? It's the same reason I don't write horror anymore. It's too close to what happens in real life. Your heroes can't be perfect and they don't always have just one fatal flaw. Same with the heroines. I prefer to read about reform(ing) rakehells and a Happily Ever After that really is forever.

I do take my hat off to those who would chance writing a story like that and keep pushing the boundaries and tropes of our comfort zones.

Mary Anne Landers said...

Emily and commentators: Thank you for your posts.

Yes, I'd welcome romances about adultery---but not the kind that's being discussed the most in this blog. I'd go for those in which the married hero/heroine has an affair with someone who's not his wife/her husband.

That's the classic triangle of so many romantic tales from history, myth, and literature. And except for modern genre romances, it's been this way from the get-go.

If Helen hadn't been married to Menelaus when she ran off with Paris, would the Trojan War have happened? Would King Arthur and Guinevere's story be worth telling if it hadn't been for Lancelot? Would Elizabeth Taylor have attracted so much attention if she hadn't broken up Eddie Fisher's marriage to Debbie Reynolds? And later Richard and Sybil Burton's?

But today's romance editors and publishers don't allow this theme. That's a pity; we readers and writers are missing out on lots of possibilities in terms of plot, character, and theme.

And if editors and publishers argue that adultery won't sell---wait a sec. How can they know if there aren't any such novels in the market?

Hope this helps. Thanks for the thought-provoking topic. Keep up the good work!

EmilyBryan said...

Sandy--I think we'd all be surprised if we knew the private stories in our family tree.

My great-grandmother left my great-granddad when she was pregnant with my grandma because my great-granddad LOST THEIR HOUSE in a poker game! He wooed her back and when I knew them as a child, she had 3 HOUSES--one in Florida, Missouri and Minnesota.

I'd like to be able to report that my great-granddad never gambled again, but I can't. He was a railroader as my father was. And at the other end of the road, my dad found him in the middle of a card game one time. My great-granddad pulled my dad aside and whispered, "Hey, Bobby. Got a twenty?"

At least it wasn't a house.

EmilyBryan said...

Saranna--I have less trouble with a story of infidelity that's an aberation in a character's actions than I do with the notion that a rake can be instantly reformed by the right woman. If a guy is used to being constantly in the hunt, it's unrealistic to imagine that he'll change.

EmilyBryan said...

Mary Ann--The problem with the classic romantic triangle is that we hate one corner of it. The one who's torn between two lovers always comes off as non-heroic (no matter which gender they are.)

As a side note, I played Guenevere in a production of Camelot once and I felt so conflicted. Sure, Lancelot was hot, but Arthur was the best man of the Age. As I marched to the stake, I couldn't help but feel I deserved it.

Gail Zerrade said...

Great blog, Emily! I wrote one chapter of a historical where the heroine was the other woman. My critique partners immediately let me know they couldn't fall in love with the hero no matter how good his motivations. He just wasn't heroic in their eyes.

I didn't move forward with the novel, but it's a topic that's been on my radar ever since. I'm watching to see what the limits are, who writes it well, and how do they do it. So I appreciate this discussion.

Glynis said...

What a coincidence, I came across this blog yesterday,(link below). I didn't read much, I felt I was betraying the person in the novel who was going to be cheated on. Silly I know, but that is how I felt. I couldn't follow the blog because of it either.
I am not sure why I felt like that, I just did.

http://achronicleofinfidelity.blogspot.com/

EmilyBryan said...

Gail--I think your critique partners are probably right. The romance market won't support a cheating hero and I'm not sure it should. But I'm convinced there is a place for this type of story exploring the issues and emotions surrounding infidelity. It belongs to literary or women's fiction.

But if someone could write the story of love rebuilt after the devastation of infidelity, it would be worth reading.

EmilyBryan said...

Glynis--Not silly at all. The author obviously did what he/she was supposed to do. You were put into the character's shoes and they pinched you hard.

Sandy said...

LOL Gambling is as addictive as smoking or drinking, Emily. There was no help for people like your grandfather back then.

EmilyBryan said...

Sandy--He had my great-grandmother to help him. She kept him on the straight and narrow, most of the time. But they were a classic case of opposites attracting. She was very elegant and he was on his own from the age of 12, sort of a wild bad boy.

But since you brought up addiction, I wonder what everyone thinks about the way people are starting to treat promiscuity as sexual addiction. Tiger Woods was supposedly "in treatment." Experts don't agree on it yet.

Magdalen said...

Well, there are 12-step programs for sex addiction, and I think we can all imagine situations where the person craves the sex (porn on the Internet is an obvious example) in the same sorts of ways that alcoholics crave booze, etc.

Of course, we can't know what the situation was with Tiger Woods, although the number of bimbos, uh, sorry, women of a certain type suggests on his part a depersonalization consistent with addictive behavior: he wasn't having significant emotional affairs with those women as much as acting out in a very specific way over and over and over.

There's good news and bad in that interpretation. Good news (for his wife, say) is that impersonal sexual affairs can be ended with less baggage. Bad news is addictive behavior isn't that easy to switch off, by definition. And it's not like someone like Tiger Woods can pop in for an SA meeting after a round of golf. (We'd be listening to that bootlegged recording for months: "Hi, I'm Tiger and I'm a sex-addict." "Hi, Tiger...")

Glynis said...

PS:You did ask me to let you know ;)
http://www.glynissmy.com/

EmilyBryan said...

Magdalen--I have a problem with labeling cheating an addiction. It implies the inability to control the impulse to have sex. People aren't animals. We don't operate solely on instinct. Unless we're under the influence of alcohol or drugs, we make conscious choices what to do with our bodies.

EmilyBryan said...

Glynis--Thanks for the shout out on your blog!

Nynke said...

I wouldn't want to call every cheater a sex addict either -- that's oversimplifying things.
Still, anything that can make people feel good (or less bad) can probably be addictive. Alcohol, cigarettes, food, shopping, gambling, or sex... It could be anything. And addicts probably always take a conscious decision to give in to their cravings - often in spite of the fact that they'll harm themselves or others by doing so.

Magdalen said...

Emily -- I think the distinction may be this: if you define addiction as purely physiological (i.e., the body craves the substance and withdrawal comes with specific physiological symptoms), then only extreme alcoholism and some (but not all) drug addictions qualify.

Most psychologists recognize that addiction, in the non-physiological sense, is a valid concept: the individual has come to rely on the drug-of-choice as a maladaptive coping mechanism for stress.

As Nynke points out, there is an element of choice, but it's not what we'd consider a fully free choice. The person does feel compelled to partake of the "drug" (which can be any of those activities that we can put the word compulsive in front of: eating, shopping, gambling, drinking, exercising, binging & purging, and yes, sex) because he/she can't see a way out of the addictive cycle.

Now -- if we call it cheating, then no that's not a word I would modify as "compulsive." Irresponsible, selfish, narcissistic, indulgent: all likely. But not compulsive.

But that assumes that all adultery is "cheating" in the fuller sense, i.e., not just because there is a spouse in the mix. My point about Tiger Woods was that it looked a lot closer to compulsive sexual activity than, say, Governor Mark Sanford risking his political life to hook up with his Argentine sweetie. When you have a lot of women of a certain type, it starts to look like no one of those women is important to you as a person.

Basically, I figure that Tiger Woods is so freaking rich that his behavior was that of a sex addict who can afford to bypass all the Internet porn and go right to having a bunch of women waiting for him. My guess is that his therapy was a lot closer to that for an alcoholic than for the man who realizes he was acting selfishly in cheating on his wife.

EmilyBryan said...

I guess you might call it "temporary insanity." In the case of Sanford, no rational person would imagine they could hide something like a trip to Argentina with an artless lie about hiking the Appalachian trail.

Magdalen said...

Sanford's lie was stupid, but his motivation was selfishness and his conviction that his lover was his soulmate. Pure Woody Allen: the heart wants what the heart wants.

I must say, though, that I love "The Good Wife" on TV. What a great premise for a routine lawyer soap opera!

Sandy said...

I love the Good Wife, too. Great actors.

EmilyBryan said...

Ah, but do you want THE GOOD WIFE to reconcile with her husband or move on to greener pastures?

Sandy said...

I don't know. It's going to be a hard decision, and I'm glad I don't have to make it. lol

I will say this and that is that Will is not any more perfect than her husband.