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Romance Novelists Don't Know What Fisting Is, and It's Hilarious

Characters in romance novels are "fisting" their dicks. They're fisting their eye sockets. They're fisting one another's underwear. Authors have a lot of ideas about what fisting means, but what you're thinking of is not in there.

by Mike Pearl
Aug 6 2014, 1:50pm

Chasing Amy screencap via YouTube user Movieclips. Other images via Google Books.

I'm not a romance reader, and you probably aren't either. Most of my experience with romance novels comes from pulling them off the shelves in a coffee shop and reading excerpts out loud with my friends. Romance authors know exactly what they're doing when it comes to hair tugging and florid descriptions of the first moments of old fashioned, penis-in-vagina fucking. However, they have a serious blind spot where fisting is concerned. They don't seem to know that "fisting" means putting your whole hand in someone's vagina or butt.

The first few examples are the most common mistake: using "fist" instead of "grab." This just isn't used in modern parlance, except when someone places something pointy in their fist to make a weapon, as in, "When the assailant got close, she fisted her key, preparing to strike." Outside of clueless romance novelists, that's literally the only time people fist things other than butts and vaginas anymore, and it's still pretty rare and weird.

Romance authors tend to use "fist" during sex scenes, so they seem to have the idea in their heads that "fist" is a sexy word. Men do a lot of relatively implicit "fisting" of women's hair or the fabric of their blouses and skirts, so in these cases they mean "grasp." Sometimes people just "fist," or a character will "fist her fingers." 

Here are a few other ways to say "grasp," thanks to the good folks at Thesaurus.com who did not include fist as a possible synonym.

  • clutch
  • grip
  • seize
  • snag
  • glom
  • grapple
  • catch hold of
  • get one's hands on
  • take hold of

Those are the tame examples. It gets weirder.

You might think this is just some sort of anachronistic 1950s slang. I took the liberty of looking into this possibility. It's not mid-century slang, but fist has meant a lot of things over the centuries. In Shakespeare's Henry IV part 2, a character says, "And I but fist him once, and ’a come but within my vice,' " which wasn't anywhere near as good as the line from Tennyson's 1876 play Harold: "The Boy would fist me hard." Tennyson was dirty as hell.

OK, so maybe very authentic characters in a period romance might use the word this way. But most 21st century romance novels have contemporary settings, and the writers still throw in the fisting in this way, as though they learned it from old bodice rippers. 

This is probably because a lot of writers of romance don't watch much porn.

The porn vs. romance debate is one of those big, heady grad student problems. Evidence suggests there's a range of readers, some of whom dig porn—some of whom, it should be noted, want actual fisting in their romance novels, and get it—but most of whom just aren't interested since they get the majority of their jollies from the written word. It seems plausible that they don't know that "insertion of the whole hand" is even a thing.  

What's funniest is when the author genuinely has no idea what it even means to make a fist, let alone stick it in someone. Sometimes they just seem to think it's a powerful-sounding word and throw it in for no apparent reason.

How does one's heart just fist? I looked the term up in the Oxford English Dictionary, and this just doesn't work in any way. Fist isn't exactly an SAT word, but it still seems to trip people up from time to time.

The above author, Chris Marie Green, is sometimes a writer of romance, but Break of Dawn is more of a Twilight type of book. If you'll forgive me for venturing outside of romance completely, you'll get to enjoy the moment this fantasy writer has a character fist her own eye sockets:

Overwhelmingly though, only romance authors use the term in this way, which is what fascinates me. I'm not saying that romance novels are dumb or worthless. The idea that romance novels are for stupid people is bullshit. Stupid people don't read romance novels. They read nothing.

Still, most romance novels are formulaic, making sure the reader gets the exact fantasy or fetish they're after. I'm not being cynical about this phenomenon. The publishers are very open about it. Here's an excerpt from the very specific guidelines for submitting your manuscript to the Harlequin "Blaze" series of novels. I wish Hollywood anticipated the whims of its audience this precisely:

A Blaze heroine is usually between 25 and 33. She knows what she wants, and isn't afraid to go and get it. She's confident and has a good idea of who she is. She doesn't need a man to fulfill her, but she'll happily take advantage of the situation if the right guy comes along.

Romance readers can really be steered wrong, though. If you're anything like a "Blaze" protagonist, who "knows what she wants, and isn't afraid to go and get it," you might want the experience described in the above passage. You might cry out, just before the big moment, that you want to have your thighs "fisted apart."

Unless you're having sex with another romance reader, that'll get you a lot more than you bargained for. 

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