The more I write about what is and isn't acceptable in mainstream romance, the more I realize how restrictive the genre can be. Conventional romance calls for the rocky yet certain union of boy and girl through the course of one or several books. Romance outside the mainstream can vary from that in any number of ways, or fall within those very parameters, while still fitting within a niche market or interest. The challenge for a romance writer (and yes, this is more challenging for some than others) is to stay within the measures of acceptability to reader and industry, genre or sub-genre. Some writers purposely veer off course and do so with varying degrees of success. Those writers recognize the potential pitfalls of challenging industry and reader expectations and decide to do so nonetheless. Other writers are unaware of prohibitions and violate them, thereby becoming the unexpected target of rejection. At this point, I make no arguments about whether these rules should or shouldn't exist; I only acknowledge that they do. So, without further adieu, here are a few more taboos for you!
We could speculate endlessly as to the reason this is shunned. Maybe it lacks the romanticism afforded missionary sex or maybe its exclusion is the reflection of a still-conservative society. My guess is that people might shy away in squeamishness from the reality of what the act actually entails. Whatever the reason, boy meets girl, boy wows girl, girl bends over for anal sex is not the recipe for success in mainstream, contemporary romance. By and large, the act is treated as a fetish of sorts by the industry, relegated to erotica and/or erotic romance.
This is a sticky one. Philippa Gregory made a decent attempt at this in A Respectable Trade, acknowledging the inherent inequality and lack of real choice for at least one party in any romance that includes a slave. But this type of novel has an inherent ability to come off poorly, especially when the woman is the one enslaved. Without naming names for the sake of criticism, a particular interracial romance comes to mind, published in the last few years, that has taken quite a bit of flack for romanticizing the realities of the slave and master relationship. The most vocal of opponents made a point that I hadn't considered until made plain: How can their love truly be love, when one of them isn't free to love anyone else? Such is the state of just such a romance, robbed of the freedom of choice that pervades all true love. For this reason, I think it near to impossible to create a romance where at least one party is enslaved to other, and to do so without offending LOTS of people. I think it IS impossible to create a romance where one is a slave, the other master, and dominance is based on a long and sordid history of racial oppression, and to do so without offending LOTS of people. Wait. I take that back. I don't think Philippa Gregory suffered a ton of backlash, though some found the romance unconvincing. Something to think about, I suppose.
Alcohol and drug addictions are OK for secondary characters, but they're generally considered unattractive and undesirable for either hero or heroine. Again, it's about creating the illusion of near-perfectness (for each other) while maintaining flaws that make the character realistic. A substance abuse addiction is not one of those flaws. Though I hesitate to paint this one with a sweeping stroke, I can see the lack of inclination a reader would have in accepting a hero who's slumped over a bottle most days. Maybe he'll get treatment, maybe he won't. Either way, he'll always carry the stigma of addiction. It's not fair, I know, but sometimes, that too much reality in a romance is unacceptable.
I'll admit now that I'm a hypocrite when it comes to this one. In my debut novel, Crimson Footprints, the heroine's younger sister struggles with a substance abuse problem. And while that isn't quite the same, the subject does get some play in the novel in any case. In the book's sequel, Crimson Footprints 2: New Beginnings, substance abuse is an issue to be tackled, bringing me in complete violation of this norm. So, we've learned that I'm a hypocrite, hardly against the breaking of a few meager rules. Essential to all this however, is my awareness that rules have been broken. Any writer who violates taboos without realizing it is in for a long bout of confusion and a few angry, unanticipated outbursts.
Well, that's all for now. Look forward to The Unspoken Rules of Romance Part IV in a few days, when we discuss a few more obvious and not-so-obvious taboos in mainstream romance.