Our Dear Author

Here’s a fun set of facts:

  • I am an Ellora’s Cave author who donated to Jane Litte’s defense fund.
  • I am an author who writes reviews (more like critiques/analysis really) and sometimes those reviews are negative. Like: really, really negative. Sometimes they’re ecstatic! But: you know.
  • A lot of my (long and thinky) analysis posts have cited Dear Author, because they’re a known and important voice in the romance industry.
  • I use the same pen name and website for both my books and my reviews.
  • Before I was published, and had no pen name, I wrote a few sharp reviews under my dayname, on Goodreads. They’re still out there: I stand by them. One of the authors I know for a fact has gone on to write a series that won a Rita, so clearly I’ve sunk nobody’s career.

So. Now you know where I’m coming from at the start. This is important. Nothing we write comes without baggage: the best you can do is be clear what baggage you carry, so people can take the necessary grains of salt. <– Probably a hint about where we’re going to go, so buckle up.

Here is the baldest, boldest fact I keep coming back to: Dear Author used to be a reader space, and now it’s not.

Like many, when I saw the headline on that now-famous post I worried the site was closing down. I was initially swamped with relief that my dread was unfounded. It was four in the morning (Pacific Time) (I am mildly insomniac) and when I went back to bed I kept waking up and thinking I’d dreamed the whole thing.

Over time relief gave way not to delight, but to more dread. I don’t give even a single fuck if a reviewer or author-reviewer gives negative reviews. Even snarky ones. Even mean ones. Someone once gave an audiobook of mine a one-star review that said “Too much sex” and I could have kissed them. This post is not about “bashing” or “mean girls” or “haters” or Jane’s semi-mythical army of detractors.

It is also not about author-envy. If I spent time envying every author with a bigger platform or more sales than me I wouldn’t have time to eat, sleep, or write ill-advised blog posts like this one. Yeah, there’s probably some schadenfreude out there in scurrilous corners of the internet (comments sections and author loops) — but thing is, everybody is not obligated to like you or support you, and I’ve never gotten the sense from reading Dear Author that Jane has spent many sleepless nights on account of people disagreeing with her, even vehemently.

So now that we know what it’s not about, here’s my question:

Where do the readers go now? 

Let’s not pretend this is purely an altruistic question for me. Submitting a book of mine for review to Smart Bitches and Dear Author was a specific publicity goal of mine: they are strong platforms, with smart reviewers, and a vast readership. They are also two blogs I’ve been reading for years, long before I started writing. These are the two largest, most wave-making blogs in Romanceland, and even a middling review there could have a huge impact on any author’s career. If you add All About Romance and Mrs. Giggles, you’ve got probably the most influential corpus of romance writing in the history of the entire genre.

Publisher blogs are materially different from reader-oriented blogs. It’s disingenuous to pretend otherwise. Look at Carina Press’ blog, or Heroes and Heartbreakers, just to name two. They are wonderful, social, frequently thoughtful places — but they have a sales agenda and everyone knows it and they play by a slightly different set of rules. Author-blogs are also something else: storefronts, sometimes, or more rambly text-intense spaces like this one, or research bastions like Loretta Chase and Isabella Bradford’s Two Nerdy History Girls.

Readers go to all these, but they are not reader spaces. Reader spaces are vital, and their numbers are shrinking. We need them not so authors like me can put books in front of them, but because reader spaces grow readers, and readers are the reason the whole book ecosystem exists in the first place.

Where do the readers go now that Dear Author shares a title with her blog?

To Goodreads? Goodreads is a cesspool of either vicious trolls or shallow commercial squee (or both!), depending on who you ask — and lately they’ve had their own troubles finessing the relationship between authors and readers. (THERE’S that schadenfreude! I knew I could find some in me somewhere!)

The question we’ve asked but not real loudly, because we’re all nervous about the answer: what is Sarah Wendell from Smart Bitches going to say, if anything? Did she know in advance? This question bugs me not because I want to parse all the layers of potential disclosure and obligation — there are better people for that — but because I want to know that one of the two pillars romance readers flock to is feeling the same things I and many others are feeling right now. Yes, there are many readers who are simply excited that two names they like (Jane and Jen) belong to the same person — but there are a lot of us who are shocked and saddened and bemused by what this means for the future. For our future.

Dear Author may still be a reader space — but it’s probably no longer a space where I should look for readers of mine. I write erotic historicals and erotic historical fantasy romances (they’re a mouthful! *rimshot*). Jane/Jen writes NA and has a penchant for extreme romance. When Dear Author was a multi-fronted reviewers’ blog this didn’t faze me — but now, as I said earlier on Twitter, the space has become not a place to seek reviews, but another author’s playground. I’m not going to invite myself onto the blog of an author in a completely different genre just to try and snag readers. This is not polite. It makes me feel cringey just to think about.

Much has been said about Jane being caught between a rock and a hard place in regard to this disclosure. That nobody would be happy with it, no matter what she did. But a lot of being an author, or a reviewer, is about choosing between two risks. Authors like myself have to decide whether or not they want to review other authors’ books. (Some do, some don’t.) Reviewers have to decide whether or not they want to give negative reviews or not. Both these are significant career choices, with consequences that may extend for years.

Jane’s timing may have been forced by EC, but the choice she faced is uncommon only in scale, not in character. And, I suppose, in the fact that most authors face this choice the other way around: now that I’m published, do I review? Jane had to ask: now that I’m a well-known and influential reviewer, do I publish, and how? I’m not convinced the romance world has faced this particular question before. It’s interesting, but it is not comfortable, and I resent being asked to brush it aside as business as usual.

I’m not angry that Jane Litte is Jen Frederick. I’m not angry that her books are doing well. I AM angry that I’m expected to be uncritically happy about this news, though, if I want to be seen as nice. Sondheim tells us and we know it’s true: Nice is different than good.

I don’t yet know if I feel this change is good.

___

As a reward for making it this far, and just to make sure this is the MOST ill-advised blog post ever involving disclosure, here is the very first piece of romance writing I ever did: my entry in AAR’s Purple Prose Parody contest, starring the two pioneer missionaries my college was named after. It was submitted under my real name and I thought it would be super-embarrassing but then I reread it and oh lord I am so proud.

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Die Hard, Jupiter Jones, Cinderella, and Character Agency

When I’m talking narrative and I want someone’s eyes to light up, I just tell them this: Die Hard is one of my favorite Cinderella stories.

I cannot take credit for making the connection myself. It was at a conference. An editor from a well-known publishing house was defining an elevator pitch for the benefit of a new writer. “It’s like: Cinderella meets Die Hard,” he said. The audience laughed, and the editor with them. “I know,” he continued. “What would that even look like?”

Reader, I was shaking. Instantly abuzz. If I hadn’t been conspicuously seated in the second row at this panel, I’d have run straight out of the room and started writing.

OF COURSE Die Hard is Cinderella. A mysterious stranger crashes a party he wasn’t officially invited to. His feet are covered in glass. Later he is pursued by people who are desperate to uncover his real identity. He ends up reunited with the person he went to the party to see. Holly is the prince. Al is the fairy godmother. Argyle’s limo is the pumpkin carriage. And Hans Gruber, naturally, is the wicked stepmother.

John McClane sits by the sink and picks glass shards out of his bloody, injured feet.
Blood and glass and missing shoes.

I’ve been thinking a lot about this in context of a recent NPR story by the ever-revelatory Linda Holmes — this paragraph in particular:

[Cinderella is] partly a fantasy about simplifying the relationships between social standing and coupling — one that makes the most sense in a world in which class differences are an accepted barrier to a good man choosing to marry a woman. If the prince is a man who believes from the outset that love conquers all, the story doesn’t really make any sense. It would be hard to set Cinderella on a properly functioning egalitarian collective.

The gender-flip in Die Hard turns the prince into a princess — but the class chasm stays the same. Bonnie Bedelia’s Holly is a corporate ladder-climber, an executive at a Japanese company that occupies an entire LA skyscraper. Her job is far more high-status than that of her scruffy blue-collar cop husband. But where the original Cinderella is about elevating the low-born heroine to the prince’s aristocratic level, Die Hard’s perfect, meticulously constructed plot inexorably undermines the foundation of Holly’s higher status.

Imagine Cinderella blowing up the palace.

Yes, technically Hans Gruber is the villain — but our hero John McClane does at least as much blowing up of things as his nemesis does. One by one, the connections between Holly and her career are severed: her boss is killed, her douchey co-worker is shot, the company is burgled, the building is destroyed, and finally even her new Rolex must be sacrificed to ensure Hans Gruber’s downfall. (See what I did there? Oh, Hans, please forgive me that joke, I love you — you were raised to be charming, not sincere.) She is given no choice but to take John back almost out of self-defense.

It’s not just me saying this, either — witness this really  detailed PopMatters essay about the political/social/cinematic context of the film:

The obvious professional success of Holly at Nakatomi, which led her to forsake her husband in New York, is presented in Die Hard as a metaphor for the threat of feminism to the family institution and to the established patriarchal social order.

There’s a lot in there about westerns and WWII and Vietnam and categories of masculinity; it’s pretty dense and I recommend reading the whole thing.

Getting back to the fairy tale, everyone’s always framing Cinderella stories in terms of agency. Here is Linda Holmes on the Prince in Disney’s earlier Cinderella film:

If you were putting on a stage play based on that cartoon and you were short of actors, my very first suggestion would be that you obtain a large bag of flour and a toupee, allowing you to dispense with casting anyone at all as the prince.

And yet when we criticize the storytelling in Cinderella tales, it’s never the prince’s role that comes under fire. Because even in the most bare-bones versions, the prince goes in quest of something — and there is a long, long, Western narrative tradition that tells us the quest story is a hero’s story and automatically worthy (oh hello, Star Wars fans who like to cite Joseph Campbell). We read the prince as a little mini-hero in this tale, while we dismiss Cinderella for being confused and conflicted and passive. (Sondheim’s Into the Woods will always be the most resounding critique of this structure, for me.)

Joseph Campbell has a lot to answer for.

But agency is only one axis on which a character can be given importance. Perspective, choice, centering of a protagonist can happen regardless of the level of doing-ness. For comparison: Hamlet is notorious for passivity and indecision, but his inability to act is a feature of the story, not a bug, and critics discuss it as such. Die Hard reads as anti-feminist thus not so much because Holly is inactive — she is the agent of several key turns of the plot. The movie is anti-feminist because Holly’s perspective/wants are not centered by the film’s arc. We see a little bit of her emotions at the beginning, on the phone with her children, but we never see the real defining moment where she decides she and John can make their relationship work. (They ultimately don’t, as the next few films demonstrate.) We do see John’s moment of revelation — but crucially, this transformation appears in a scene between him and Al. Al and John’s developing trust, of course, is the real emotional arc in the film, and a much more convincing romance.

Using pure action-based agency as a metric to judge female characters as more or less feminist has become this year’s Manic Pixie Dream Girl: it started as a useful critical lens, but when it’s the only lens we apply it blinds us to other aspects of storytelling. The protagonist’s lack of agency in recent glorious mess Jupiter Ascending was frequently singled out as poorly written and regressive.

From the Mary Sue‘s review:

If I had to critique this movie in any sort of, you know, actual way (beyond “it was a hot-ass mess”), I would say that I do wish the film had been a little less caught up in the traditional model of princess-saving. When I hear “Mila Kunis black leather space princess,” I want to see her bulked the hell up, Emily Blunt style, kicking ass and taking names. We don’t get to see Kunis looking really cool until the very end of the film, at which point I wanted way more of that. Which, I guess, means I would pay for a sequel.

From Variety:

Although clearly conceived as an empowered female heroine, poor Jupiter spends most of the movie being kidnapped and shuffled from one unpleasant situation to another…

From The New York Times:

Though she has more space opera swirling around her than any actor could possible hold together, Kunis does an admirable job even if never given much of a chance to be the prime mover in her fairy tale.

All these reviews and many others have bought into a limited concept of agency: kicking ass and taking names. Partly this is habit — quest narratives and violence-as-agency are hugely enshrined in sff/geek culture and film blockbusters both, most especially when those two fandoms overlap: see The Matrix, The Fifth Element, Star Wars, Star Trek, Alien/Aliens, Terminator/Terminator 2, and even The Princess Bride. Take a good hard look at your love for The Princess Bride, those of you who found Jupiter Jones too passive a heroine.

See also: critiques of Twilight that point out how much of the series is designed to give Bella Swan everything she wants. People hate when you suggest that maybe Twilight is doing something interesting with its heroine. (Standard disclaimer: not a Twilight fan, haven’t read it, found some persuasively written articles.)

Jupiter Jones does not hit very many people in the course of her movie, it’s true. But her life, her experience, her anxieties, and her choices are all central to the film’s framework. She is important, and not merely as a vessel of power: she narrates her own birth in voiceover and explains how it is significant, she worries about trust and love and an inherited history of unhappy relationships, she struggles with a difficult family whose engagement is embarrassing and an irritation, she is burdened with sudden knowledge and terrible power and galactic prominence without ever asking for it, without being sure if she even wants to be a part of what seems like a really shitty system of government and exploitation. That she hesitates to wield this power is, I think, a mark of intelligence and good moral sense. She mistrusts her sudden elevation in rank, and does not consider herself automatically an expert in an ancient and politically fraught hypertechnological culture she’s only known about for three days.

Imagine Cinderella realizing she has no inclination to rule a kingdom where three of the most powerful nobles are constantly trying to kill one another.

Caine, by contrast, is given the cardboard quest narrative: get your wings back, brooding hero, and find your pack or mate or whatever. It’s as plain and predictable as the prince’s agency in the traditional Cinderella. Caine has only one possible choice or motive in this movie: to save Jupiter, to choose Jupiter, to support Jupiter. Jupiter, meanwhile, gets everything she wants. Caine objects to a relationship between them because of her higher rank, but she laughs this off and they end up together despite his objections. Caine gets his wings back (hardly a spoiler), and Jupiter lovingly caresses them as though they belong to her. She insists that he call her “Your Majesty” because she likes it — and then she straps on his gravity skates and flies away with him.

Is our heroine really the one with the lack of agency in this framework?

Screen shot from Jupiter Ascending. Jupiter Jones is seen from behind, in a fancy white dress spotted with red feathers and a headdress to match. She faces away from the camera, shoulders tall, while far below her crowds of tiny people look up in awe.
Nothing powerful going on here, nosiree.

The scene where Sean Bean lays out Caine’s angsty backstory for Jupiter’s benefit is so full of lingering shirtless Tatum camerawork that I laughed aloud in the theater. It is the single most romance novel-esque thing I have ever seen on film (though I haven’t seen the wedding episode of Outlander, which author Alisha Rai assures me is the most Female Gaze-y thing in all the world). The critics focusing on action might have misread the film: the romance readers and authors I know were all hailing it as one of our own.

Romance as a storytelling form has long existed in counterpoint to the mainstream male narrative canon — counterpoint both in the sense of alternative, and in the sense of harmony (since not all romance is automatically feminist in nature or perspective). Romance features happy endings instead of ‘important’ tragedies, female characters given pride of place as heroines, love and family and domestic concerns treated as weightily as wars and battles. Romance also deals quite often with limits on agency: the unmoneyed gently born heroines of Austen’s novels; those notorious scenes of forced seduction during the era of Woodiwiss, Rogers, and Small; even E. L. James’ The Book That Shall Not Be Named explores what it means to be constrained on both a physical and metaphorical level.

A romance heroine’s limited agency is, like Hamlet’s, not a bug but a feature.

Jupiter Ascending is a Cinderella story — but it is also, importantly, Jane Eyre. We begin with our heroine’s birth, we see her thankless labor and her mortified body (someone write me an essay comparing the egg-selling clinic with Lowood School IMMEDIATELY PLEASE), she finds a secret family and a brooding love interest, there is an interrupted wedding and an unpleasantly insistent relative and at the end everything burns to the ground but our heroine finds happiness anyways. And you could make a pretty good case for this narrative being anti- or ambiguously feminist, as people often do with Jane Eyre –but the critics of Jupiter Ascending have not been making this argument. The sci-fi movie lovers have not been making this argument. They have been arguing for more violence, more unquestioned use of questionable power. More doing simply for the sake of doing-ness.

It is not enough to critique a character’s lack of action, especially a female character, without looking at the context in which that action or non-action takes place.

If what Jane Eyre really wanted from her story and her wold was agency for agency’s sake, she’d have gone off with St. John Rivers. Rochester would have struggled alone with his disabilities. Jane herself would have died while bolstering a racist colonial empire in a sexless marriage with a coldly principled, joyless man. Instead Jane makes a choice — as Jupiter Jones does, over and over, not carving out a space with fists and weapons but picking the least bad of several options — and that choice is given weight and heft by the narrator. Reader, I married him, she says, speaking out to us from the page.

I’ve always loved dogs, says Jupiter Jones. And we laugh, because it’s ridiculous, and she rolls her eyes, and says it again, horrified at what’s just come out of her mouth.

And we laugh again, in recognition. Because we’ve been there, so many of us, at the peak of a crucial romantic moment, saying something that initially seemed clever but turned out to be an absolute disaster.

Jupiter Jones may not be the Heroine With Agency we’re supposed to want — but she may be the heroine we didn’t know we’ve been missing.

___

There’s always someone, somewhere, writing about Cinderella. Here’s a very incomplete list of the most recent/most interesting ones I’ve seen:

For bonus fun, here is a short and pointed Jupiter Ascending fanfic that imagines an alternative wedding scene because, per the author, “I spent too much of the movie waiting for Chekhov’s bees to go off.”

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Even More Romance Novels For the Modern Woman, Whoever She May Be

{Disclaimer: I have not read nearly all of the books I list here, but the author of the original post hasn’t either, so what the hell, let’s do this.}

Short version: someone who’s never read a romance novel showed up today to tell us what she’d like to see in modern romance novels (DoNotLinkified for your pleasure). It’s the usual nonsense — ignorance of the genre worn like a badge of honor, obligatory Fabio namedrop — but since it takes as premise the idea that these are romance novels the author would enjoy reading, I’m going to pretend to take her at her word and provide this list of actual books she can read right damn now that fit her wishlist. In a way that isn’t just me shouting: “New Adult! New Adult! That genre you wish were invented, it’s called New Adult and there’s tons of it!”

Comments with further recommendations will be happily entertained.

1. “This is a great playlist,” she told the barista, her hand reaching out for her freshly-made soy latte.

“Thanks,” he said. “It’s mine.”

Breakfast at Giovanni’s by Kate Hardy. Ex-musician barista hero.

Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist by Rachel Cohn and David Levithan. Possibly cheating because it’s YA and co-authored by a man (MISANDRY), but super-adorable and funny as hell. Urban indie music-obsessed kids.

2. They’d tweeted back and forth for quite some time and it was always thoughtful commentary. But now here he was — at this happy hour, just across the room and right next to the bar snacks.

Goodnight Tweetheart by Teresa Medeiros. Twitter-epistolary romance written when Twitter didn’t inspire hand-wringing thinkpieces. Or maybe just not quite so many hand-wringing thinkpieces.

3. She and the beekeeper would have led separate lives had it not been for their chance run-in at the CSA box pickup.

The Beekeeper’s Ball by Susan Wiggs.

Truly by Ruthie Knox. One of these days I’m going to write a beekeeping romance, I swear — I just need to do more reading and research first. I fucking love bees.

4. After 10 minutes of reading the same book across from each other on the L train, she finally managed to catch her eye. She smiled.

I’m sure there are literally hundreds of romance novels that start like this. So rather than listing just one, here is an anthology: Strangers on a Train. Stories by Donna Cummings, Samantha Hunter, Meg Maguire, Serena Bell, and Ruthie Knox.

Also About Last Night by Ruthie Knox. Again! I’m starting to think our author just needs to buy everything on Ms. Knox’s backlist.

5. By now she should have known that plans for a Netflix marathon aren’t as innocent as “Gilmore Girls”. Part of her did know. But all of her secretly wanted it to happen.

What even is this? Nobody wants to read romance novels about people sitting around watching television until they get up the courage to tenderly make out. OH WAIT, NO, THINGS LIKE THIS TOTALLY EXIST TOO BECAUSE ROMANCE IS AN OMNIVOROUS BEASTIE: Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell. Fanfic writer heroine, a sweetly realistic college story and setting.

6. Of all the brunch joints in all the retrofitted warehouses in all the world, she walks into mine.

Chef heroes/heroines are less common than billionaires, but more common than beekeepers I don’t have to list just one, because there is an entire Goodreads thread with copious suggestions. Chef heroes, baking heroines, chef heroines, food-as-sex metaphors, the whole shebang.

7. After a showing of the newest critically acclaimed indie film, she stepped outside for a cigarette where he was smoking too. Long, sighing drags.

“That really sucked, didn’t it?” he said suddenly, turning towards her.

I’m sure this scene exists in countless romance novels — but they’re hard to search for, because I can tell you this is not going to be what readers talk about when they talk about the book. They’re going to talk about the major issues between the protagonists, a great voice, a unique setting. We’re not going to be sitting here going, “Oh, and parts of it are recognizable from my experience as a human being who occasionally sees movies in public places and chats with strangers when I step outside for a smoke.” That’s kind of assumed.

But for the sake of things, here is a small selection of movie-set romances.

The Unidentified Redhead by Alice Clayton. Actress heroine, hero’s an up-and-comer in the film industry.

Hiding from Hollywood by Ellie Darkins.

Suleikha Snyder’s Bollywood Confidential series, of which I’ve read one and it was awesome.

8. Your stomach is in knots after you send that first Tumblr message. But you know from his reblogs that there’s too much in common not to reach out. And those GIF sets. Unf.

You know why you don’t see Tumblr used as a major plot point in romance novels? Because trademarks exist. Romance novelists and novelists more generally know better than to use trademarks they don’t have licenses for, because that shit is EXPENSIVE. I’m guessing that Teresa Medeiros could do a Twitter novel because it was super-new, she’s super-established, and the legal team at her publisher got all their legal ducks in a row. (Someone please draw me a legal ducks in a row, please, I bet they’re adorable.)

That said, I’m surprised that a Tumblr quoting romance novels that briefly mention Tumblr doesn’t already exist.

But if you want social-media-based romance, you’ll get it: Love, Rosie by Cecilia Ahern. Skews a bit chick-lit, probably, but hey, they’re a close cousin of romance and get spattered with the same mud. So come on over, chick lit!

9. She went up to pay her tab, but the bartender said it was already taken care of.

“This man left his name and Instagram handle for you. He said you should get in touch if you want, but feel free not to because no one owes anyone anything and he just wanted to make a kind gesture.”

Again, I have read this scene or ones very like it in romances more than a few times, but don’t remember which because what sticks are the specifics. This is not terribly specific. It reminds me a bit of one of the early bar scenes in Bet Me by Jennifer Crusie, which everyone romance-inclined should try at some point. Hero Cal nice-guys at our heroine, who totally calls him on it. Fun stuff!

Also: Trade Me by Courtney Milan, because it’s amazing and I can totally see billionaire techie hero Blake doing something like this for someone he liked.

10. “Hey, I’m DMing because I think I found your moleskine? Your name is written inside the cover. I also write to-do lists and haikus about the weather.”

Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn. HAHAHAHA NOPE, just messing with you, that is not at all a romance.

Instead, may I suggest Romancing Mr. Bridgerton by Julia Quinn. Yes, it’s a historical, so supposedly un-modern. But it also features two characters who write — who write about the weather, even! — and a misplaced diary that leads to conflict and angst. A lot of Quinn’s characters are list-and-diary-inclined, now that you mention it. Let’s see some of them in list form!

11. Whenever she went to the library she strolled through the stacks, knowing it wasn’t necessary. He always left a book of poetry he thought she’d like at the reference desk. On the 10th week there was a note tucked inside the cover.

So many librarian heroes and heroines. So, so many. Here is a long, long list from Wendy the Super Librarian (apropos!).

12. A cute boy walks into a deli.

Get out of here with that weak sauce: I present Sandwich, with a Side of Romance by Krista Phillips. Not just deli-set, but deli-themed.

On a more serious note, there’s something in this piece I feel is worth addressing. Supposedly this is ‘satire’ meant to poke at the boundaries of the genre and expand them past their current domain. The fact that the author was wrong about where those boundaries are and what’s actually contained in them is irksome, but predictable, and by this point in time kind of boring (for a rage-inducing value of boring, anyway).

But I think there’s another significant error being made here, and it’s one I haven’t seen talked about before when articles like this crop up. I want to poke at that a while, for the novelty.

Look at the list of activities, jobs, hobbies, and interests: it’s a constellation that spells the word GENTRIFICATION in all-caps. Delis, coffeeshops, indie movies, slim volumes of poetry, mass transit, Twitter and Tumblr and Instagram. Fucking Moleskine (she said, looking at her shelf of like six Moleskines from college and beyond). The ‘modern woman’ these images conjure is unavoidably young, straight, cis, and white. Kind of a loner — no parents or friends are mentioned — but connected on social media. A reader, of course, though of intelligent, critically approved fare (I bet she has read Jonathan Franzen, or at least Dave Eggers). After all, she uses her reading as a way of forming bonds with men she might like to date (the book on the L train, the poetry in the library).

And this is a person who is supposedly unimaginable as the heroine of a romance novel.

All the writer had to do, if she really wanted these books like the piece said, is ask literally anyone on the internet. Nobody likes giving recs like a romance reader or author. Twitter and Tumblr would be all over this. But that wasn’t really the point — it was about the piece’s author establishing her cred as Not Like Those Other Girls. It’s that old misogynist trick the patriarchy helps women play on themselves: the one where they can prove their worth by disassociating with everything coded feminine. Choosing whiskey over fruity cocktails, or eating a hamburger rather than a salad. Reading Hemingway and Franzen and laughing at romance. I suspect that’s where the editors at Femsplain (ugh ugh ugh) come from when they talk about this as “satire.” The idea being that a romance novel with a young urban heroine is so unusual as to be laughable. Or so I guess — the satire part remains inexplicable to me.

Meanwhile, for several months now and with admirable determination, many people in romance and publishing more broadly have been talking about the vital need for diverse representation in books — in romance and YA and sff specifically, but also as authors and editors and publishers. Our author feels erased from romance as a so-called Millennial (if she can so be called)? Imagine what it feels like to be a woman of color, or an older woman, a fatter woman, a disabled woman, or a trans woman looking around at this same landscape. But it turns out that the more you go looking for that kind of representation, the easier it is to find. As soon as I started actively reaching out to read authors of color, they were everywhere; as soon as we started talking about the need for trans heroines and heroes, recommendation lists come out. Black romance (authored by black women!) has a long history of its own (overview timeline here) that parallels but doesn’t perfectly overlap with the history of — and I guess I’ll coin the term — White Romance.

Racism (like other isms) doesn’t mean this history doesn’t exist: it only means it’s harder for those of us with privilege to really see it, until we try.

It’s easy to get discouraged on the social media front, especially in the current climate where a certain movie release means romance is a more appealing target than usual. But the lesson I’d like to take away from the Femsplain piece (ugh) is not that romance is letting us down: it’s that maybe we haven’t personally seen everything romance has in it. That diversity we all want more of? It’s already here.

We just need to ask.

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Batman and Bootleggers: For the Love of Lit Crit

{For the Love of Lit Crit is a post series that takes a feminist look at romance texts — not so much to prove that romance is feminist or anti-feminist, but because sometimes analysis can be as fun and escapist as a love story. Spoilers abound! Also, a content note for discussion of guns and violence, though I don’t think things get really graphic or specific.

Meanwhile, during the month of January I’m catching up on a bunch of books from the TBR list, most of which have been out for some time because I am perpetually behind the curve. I’m also tweeting about what I find as I read; follow #Readening on Twitter for comments, thoughts, Titanic design corrections, and critiques of bee metaphors.}

That last long post must really be sticking with me, because here I was reading a lusty paranormal romance set in Jazz Age San Francisco and all I could think about was the violence. Not the sensual wardrobes, not the issues with race — nope, the violence and how actions are morally coded based on the actor rather than the deed itself.
Cover for Bitter Spirits by Jenn Bennett.

Capsule review: I’m torn about whether to recommend this. I loved the detail of the built world and I’m definitely going to read the next in the series because I already ship Bo and Astrid and I need to at least stay caught up until their story in book 3. And I’m revising a Prohibition paranormal of my own now (with monsters instead of ghosts and magic) so this series is totally Necessary Author Research and probably even tax-deductible. But I had a lot of issues with the way the book dealt with race: those concerns are pretty much covered in this Dear Author review (click the spoiler tag), and they’re just problematic enough that I hesitate to give this book an enthusiastic two thumbs up. Not because I am easily offended, but because lot of the issues here are recognizable stereotypes with a long horrible history, and seeing them repeated in modern texts can make a reader so damn tired. It’s less How outrageous! and more Ugh, not this again.

I’m glad Dear Author’s review tackled the issues with depiction of Chinese-American characters, because that leaves me free to talk about the contradictory way this book presents violence — specifically gun violence and domestic violence — in regard to our hero.

A Good Man Who Does Bad Things

I knew going in that a bootlegging hero was probably going to have to kill someone. Not every rumrunner forbade guns like Seattle’s Roy Olmstead, though I suspect that’s partly who Bitter Spirits hero Winter Magnusson was based on. And there’s definitely room in romantic heroism for killing: Han shot first, after all. So I wasn’t surprised when the book revealed that Winter has a few deaths on his conscience.

I was a little surprised that one of them was his wife, though. Again, spoilers everywhere in this analysis.

It’s negligence rather than murder, but Winter still holds himself responsible for the car accident that killed his mother, his father, his wife, and left Winter himself visibly scarred. The fallout of this trauma is one of the major emotional arcs of the romance. And you know what? All I could think was: That sounds about right. You killed your family, buddy. That feels like one of those events that maybe one shouldn’t be able to entirely get over? It’s like Batman, only instead of a thief in the alley it’s like little Brucie was playing with a pistol and shot Mr. and Mrs. Wayne himself.

(I just giggled for five fully minutes imagining how self-flagellating and angsty Batman could get in that scenario. Batman really is the funniest superhero.)

Winter reserves the greatest measure of guilt not for his parents, but for his wife Paulina — because, he explains, she’d asked him for a divorce and he’d refused: “I should have just let her go. I’m not sure why I didn’t. I think maybe I saw it as a failure, and that was unacceptable … I told her divorce was impossible, that I’d never let it happen … So that’s why I feel guilty — because even though I didn’t love her, I refused to let her go. If I had, everyone would still be alive” (Kindle location 2335).

Heroine Aida replies: “Paulina made the decision to marry you. You didn’t hold a gun to her head.”

This metaphor struck me as being in extremely poor taste.

For one thing, while I haven’t specifically researched divorce laws in 1927 California (anyone with a quick link is free to add it in comments), my understanding is that divorce at this time in this place has to be agreed to by both parties. So that if Winter refuses to grant a divorce, Paulina has to stay married to him, no matter how she personally feels about it. This may not be violence, per se, but it’s definitely an unpleasant level of control for him to exert for very little reason. It feels mean. It feels petty. It feels, in a word, unheroic.

For another thing, he’s literally just told Aida he caused his wife’s death. A woman is dead — two women, and a man, if you count his mother and father, but he doesn’t seem to agonize over that as much. And the best our heroine can muster is: “But the important thing is you shouldn’t feel bad about it.”

I for one am perfectly okay with the hero feeling bad about this. Forever. Maybe not to Batman levels of self-flagellation, but surely this tragedy is more than just an opportunity for him to grow emotionally as a person. There should be consequences for a mistake of this magnitude. Our hero is not in prison, he is not making restitution to his wife’s family, he is not working to make automobiles safer or donating to charity or doing anything else to atone for his actions. He is merely berating himself emotionally. I find it unpleasant that those are the only consequences for such a colossal waste of life, but I am equally loth to see any consequence of that event erased because the heroine feels one should “live in the moment.” (Yep, actual quote, Kindle location 2335 like the others.)

Taken on its own, bereft of genre context, this exchange makes Aida look cold and amoral. She’s not, of course. She’s simply being a Good Heroine: her job in the narrative is to reassure the hero about his past mistakes to prove he is a Good Person Deserving Of Love. And Good People don’t do Bad Things. The hero is by definition a Good Person — ergo his actions are Good, and must be construed in the best possible light. The cause of Paulina’s death was not really the hero’s inattention while driving; the cause of Paulina’s death was her own “character defects” — specifically, not being ‘strong’ enough to leave on her own when her husband refused to divorce her. Her rich, powerful, musclebound, lawbreaking husband with a ton of underworld connections and corrupt cops on his payroll, who’d just said he’d never let her go. Gosh, why wouldn’t she be scared to leave? Again, “character defects” is a direct quote from our heroine. About the dead wife, not about the hero.

I was a little stunned. We’re blaming the dead wife for her own death at this point and I’m supposed to be rooting for these two as a couple.

And it’s not as though the violence of Winter’s career as a bootlegger can be separated from his family life. His job was the reason why Paulina wanted a divorce in the first place. Later, when Aida gets nervous before she and Winter have sex for the first time, our hero reflects: “he was reminded of Paulina, timid and guarded — worse, he was reminded of how he used to feel around her. Like a monster and a bully. Like the bad guy” (2412).

Two points:

  1. Winter clearly prioritizes his own feelings in this moment over his sexual partner’s. He thinks his feeling that he might be ‘the bad guy’ is worse than Aida’s feeling of being unsafe or unsure about the sex they are about to have.
  2. Winter wants Aida because he likes that she believes he’s a Good Guy — not because she has a solid moral compass, not because he can trust her judgment, but simply because it makes him feel better about himself. It’s an ego-stroke, pure and simple. There’s no sense that Aida expects him to do better. In fact, it’s the opposite: Aida is presented as a better match for Winter because she can accept his violent actions.

We are a long way here from the world of Filthy Lucre, where the heroine wants a good man to stop doing bad things, and tells him so. Winter’s tendency toward violence is by definition Good, because he is a hero, and the text gives him leave to be as vicious as he wants, consequence-free.

My concern about this moral framework is not only for Paulina: it’s for our villain, too. Our evil Chinese necromancer villain whose big evil plan is to bring Pauline’s corpse back from the dead as a weapon against our hero. Reader, I’d be lying if I said this wasn’t a really fun plot point. I was hoping Pauline would get some of her own back; there’s an earlier scene where Aida, a spirit medium, calls forth a dead husband who exposes his much younger widow’s adultery and callousness. I was hoping either Paulina would get to yell at Winter, or that she’d get to say she understood it was an accident; either one would be fine with me.

Instead, Paulina is a wordless, mindless zombie monster, controlled by black magic. A really lushly described, viscerally gross zombie corpse. Who never talks. Who maybe needs to be exorcised by the heroine and/or shot re-dead by the hero because that’s how we deal with first wives in romance, amirite?

Ugh, not this again.

A Bad Man Who Does Bad Things

The weirdness of the division between Good People and Bad People is illustrated most vividly in a scene between Aida and Doctor Yip, our villain.

Here is the first part.

Doctor Yip’s motivation, as Dear Author pointed out, is a historical truth and major act of bigotry: “After the Great Fire, the city tried to move Chinatown and seize our land, and when we resisted, you kept us in cages on Angel Island, separating our families for years” (4126).

Aida’s response: “didn’t.”

(#NotAllWhiteHeroines)

The text continues: “Aida could empathize with grief for a lost sibling, but she didn’t lash out and kill people for revenge when [her brother] Sam died.” Note what happened here: the villain laid out a sustained, horrible, systemic, racist injustice he personally suffered from, and the heroine rejected his moral claim because she personally had not participated in said injustice.

Here is the second part.

Doctor Yip makes another moral claim: despite the many killings he’s orchestrated, he has not shed a single drop of blood: “‘I have no blood debt on my hands. I am clean.'”

Aida’s response: “‘Just because you didn’t pull the trigger doesn’t mean you’re not guilty.'” She refuses to allow him to salve his conscience with technicalities when the greater point is that he’s responsible for several murders.

These two parts? They happen on the same damn page.

What this tells me as a reader is that the underlying moral structure of this text is tied to something other than action. Or facts, really. Aida resists any moral statement made by the villain, even if doing so means she contradicts herself within three paragraphs. The villain is Bad: he must be opposed. Winter is Good: he must be supported. Even if his actions in this same scene are comprised of several brutal murders (one done with Aida’s complete knowledge and approval). But he’s defending the heroine and himself, so it’s okay, right? He’s Good, isn’t he?

I’m coming down hard on this text not because it makes a uniquely irritating choice, but because it’s a vivid example of something I find all over the romance genre. I don’t mind having Good People and Bad People in fiction; I am not criticizing the lack of moral subtlety. But I do object to moral categories being applied as fixed traits, regardless of what we see a character actually do. Like many readers I bring my own moral compass with me when I read, and it is a rare book that can convince me to abandon it. I can sympathize with a hero who wants to not seem monstrous on page 10: but when we get to 100 and he’s murdered, tortured, threatened, and intimidated his way through the book, I begin to think that all those frightened secondary characters have a point.

If you’ve noticed a lot of gun metaphors — pulling the trigger, put a gun to her head — you’re picking up on one of the very strong motifs of this book. Guns both as props and as symbols are everywhere. Even at the climax of the sex scenes!

… he shuddered in her arms like a great, divine beast taken down by a single bullet.

She didn’t know if she was the gun that fired the bullet or the hunter who’d pulled the trigger … she knew she had made a terrible miscalculation.

She was the one who’d been shot. (2910)

There’s also a lot of guns-as-power imagery, but I won’t tire you with all that. Suffice to say that in the world right now — what with Ferguson, and Ottawa, and Paris, and now Boko Haram — I am increasingly wary of those who idealize guns as the proper tools of Good Men, whose violence shouldn’t be questioned.

At least Batman tries not to kill people.

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Chinese-Canadian romance author Vicki Essex points out that new CBC show Strange Empire is an awesome diverse take on Western tropes, including violence and vengeance.

Speaking of Batman and the pitfalls of vigilante justice, here is a marvelous article from Cracked that lists Batman’s 6 most brutal murders. Some of these veer hilariously into self-parody, and others are just plain awful, so click at your peril.

Leigh Kolb at Bitch Flicks has a grounded and thoughtful feminist reading of Sons of Anarchy’s inescapably violent masculinity.

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Bennett, Jenn. Bitter Spirits (Roaring Twenties Book 1). New York: Berkeley Sensation, January 2014. Kindle edition.

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