Occasionally someone will come along and write a romance that makes everyone go, “was everyone at the publisher asleep?” Over the past few years, we’ve seen several “romances” with Nazi “heroes” (scare quotes very much intended in both cases). For the most part there’s uproar and the books vanish–with the notable exception of that time a Nazi romance got nominated for two RITAs.
The latest entry in the “WTF were they thinking” sweepstakes is Midnight Hunter by Brianna Hale. The “hero” here isn’t a Nazi–currently. But he was one, and now he’s an officer with the Stasi, East Germany’s state security service that was active from 1950-1990 (the book is set in the 1960s). East Germany’s secret police was known for their brutality and for having spies everywhere. When word of this book came out, Twitter was awash with people sharing stories about how they, their families, and their friends were spied on, victimized, arrested by the Stasi. To present a man like that as redeemable and worthy of the love of a romance heroine is incredibly tone deaf. (Full disclosure: I haven’t read this book, and since I have seen it classified as “dark romance” that may well mean that the hero and heroine don’t get a happily ever after.)
But here’s the thing.
I read the blurb:
He’s hunting me, and there’s nowhere to run.
East Berlin, 1963. I thought I understood the consequences of trying to flee to the West. Death. Imprisonment without trial. Instead I’m being hunted by the most dangerous man in the city, secret police officer Reinhardt Volker.
Now I’m his prize, no longer a traitorous factory girl but his elegant and pampered secretary. He wants to possess me, body, soul – and heart. I’ll do anything to get away from him, but first that means getting closer.
I want to feel only hatred for my captor but beneath his uniform I discover a man with a past as scarred as Berlin’s.
And if I don’t escape him soon it will be too late.
Horrific historical context aside, the conceit behind this book made my id sit up and go “ooh.” I won’t defend that–the id wants what the id wants and sometimes it wants dark stuff. But, that got me started thinking about dark themes in romance/erotica and how we approach them, particularly in historical fiction.
This discussion comes up pretty regularly in fanfic circles, or a variation of it, whether or not it’s “okay” to write and read fic with themes like rape/non-consent, dubious consent, etc.
I’m not going to re-cover that topic. I’m pretty much on board with people writing and reading what they want to write and read. That said, when you’re dealing with darker topics and adding a romance element to them, there are some common sense things to keep in mind.
The most basic is context. If you want to write about a woman being hunted and held captive and falling in love (or at least in lust) with her captor for the love of all that’s holy, don’t put it into a real historical context. The problem is when people try to take a situation like that–redeeming an awful hero, etc, and put it against the backdrop of a real world tragedy. You are taking a real person’s pain and saying “this is a good backdrop for smut!”
It seems like a good rule of thumb when writing a dark or unhealthy sort of relationship, either a) give it a fictional setting, or b) if you feel you simply must make it historical, ask yourself, and ask others, if real living people today are still dealing with the aftereffects of that tragedy, and if yes, don’t write it–e.g, Nazis, the US Civil War/slavery, the Stasi, and so on. And I’d still tread lightly on b) anyway. Even if you want to ignore the idea that your setting is likely to hurt other humans (although seriously, why would you), it’s going to be a hell of a lot harder to make your hero someone the reader actively roots for on any level.
Can you go ahead anyway? Clearly you can, and you might well even get published. The question is, do you want to? This isn’t a question of censorship, it’s a question of who you want to be, as a writer, and as a person.
I get the urge to be shocking. I get the urge to write dark subjects. It can be intensely satisfying. But if you’re writing for an audience, you always have to keep that audience in mind. While, as writers, we’re not necessarily responsible for how readers react to our work, we do have an obligation to treat our subject matter responsibly–especially if what we’re writing is sensitive. It’s easy to forget that, especially when there’s a particular thread of literary fiction that seems to love being edgy.
It seems simple enough, and yet people keep missing the boat. Keep your audience in mind. Ask yourself if you want to cause them pain just so you “write what you want”. Again, it’s not censorship. It’s recognizing that not every idea we have is a good idea, and it’s deciding not to put our ego or our “Art” over real, living humans.