That Pesky Empathy Thing

{Content note: the following post talks about forced seduction and sexual assault in romance and in real life. Nothing graphic, but the subject is pervasive. It’s also heteronormative as fuck, since the reference piece deals exclusively with heroes and heroines in m/f romance. My apologies that I couldn’t find a coherent way around that.}

We need to talk about empathy in romance. Specifically: who receives it, both in the novels and in the reader/author/reviewer conversations. And that’s a big, big project — so many books, so very many books we could discuss — so I’m going to start with the latest opinion piece, and confine my analysis to just the one bit of text.

The recent Dear Author rape-in-romance post spends a lot of time — like a third of the wordcount — talking about Jon Ronson’s failure of empathy. For those who missed the conversation the first time around (lucky you), Ronson wrote an infamously facile book on shaming in social media. The galleys of this book contained a line later edited from the final product, where Ronson tried to imagine what being raped would be like for a woman, and could only get there (kind of) by thinking about how it feels for a man to be fired.

It’s as gross as it sounds, and good on the editor for cutting it.

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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.

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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.

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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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