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All The Iron Filings Line Up Nice and Neat

1.

Magnetism seems magical not least because it is invisible. It acts semi-secretly in plain sight, whether it’s holding one photo suspended on a refrigerator door or protecting all of Earth from the ravages of the harsh solar wind. We don’t see it act — we only observe the effects, as in this illustration of iron filings being rearranged by a bar magnet.

2.

I am going to ask you to keep that image in mind while you read this passage from a recent George Saunders essay on the process of writing:

When I write, “Bob was an asshole,” and then, feeling this perhaps somewhat lacking in specificity, revise it to read, “Bob snapped impatiently at the barista,” then ask myself, seeking yet more specificity, why Bob might have done that, and revise to, “Bob snapped impatiently at the young barista, who reminded him of his dead wife,” and then pause and add, “who he missed so much, especially now, at Christmas,” – I didn’t make that series of changes because I wanted the story to be more compassionate. I did it because I wanted it to be less lame. 

But it is more compassionate. Bob has gone from “pure asshole” to “grieving widower, so overcome with grief that he has behaved ungraciously to a young person, to whom, normally, he would have been nice”. Bob has changed. He started out a cartoon, on which we could heap scorn, but now he is closer to “me, on a different day”.

Did you see the iron filings move?

Saunders starts off with two characters, Bob and the barista, connected by an action. Saunders then adjusts the story until his alignment with Bob becomes clearer and clearer — Bob gets a past, a backstory, an emotional landscape. Bob becomes me, on a different day. The barista gets a single adjective: young. Saunders says this is “more compassionate.”

But I notice the barista’s still the one getting yelled at. She never even gets a name.

I found this jarring because in the initial setup, I allied myself far more strongly with the barista than with Bob. Granted, we started with Bob is an asshole so the initial flinch is tied to that whole I’m not an asshole self-defensive impulse that’s so hard to shake. But even though I’m now a middle-aged lady who writes full-time and prefers tea to coffee, I’ve worked enough years in retail to automatically class myself as barista-adjacent. So I was waiting for her part in this drama to be more completely revealed. And it never happened. She stays a passive grammatical object, a thing that exists for Bob to do something to.

Quick poll: how many of us assumed the barista was white? I caught myself doing just that. Same with Bob, now I think about it.

Did you see the iron filings move? I did, but not soon enough.

Later, Saunders gives us another example of his composing process. He starts with a sentence, Jane came into the room and sat down on the blue couch. This makes him “wince.” Slowly he pares away at it, word by word, making it more and more “Hemingwayesque” until he’s left with merely Jane, which, he says, “at least doesn’t suck, and has the virtue of brevity.” Even in text, I guess, women should take up as little space as possible.

I want to tell you that Saunders isn’t doing this deliberately, even though he’s in the middle of an essay about self-editing and artistic deliberation. But on purpose or not, it fits a larger pattern.

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Romance for the Resistance: A Primer

It’s so hard to balance principled resistance with self-care and necessary breaks from The Self-Sustaining Dumpster Fire. Sometimes you need direct confrontation with the world, and sometimes you need escape. I’ve been having trouble with purely escapist stuff, though — my brain just seems to slide right off it, sensing the real emergency is elsewhere. I suspect I’m not alone in this, so I’ve compiled the following list of semi-escapist romances.

These are all things I’ve read for fun on my own, so it skews heavily in the direction of m/f historical and historical fantasy — I’ll be adding other lists with broader recs over the course of the year as I dive into my ebook backlog and other places.

  • Daughters of a Nation (Kianna Alexander, Piper Huguley, Lena Hart, Alyssa Cole): This anthology has received plenty of buzz but it’s a privilege to add to the chorus. Alyssa Cole’s Let Us Dream was a personal standout for me (cabaret scene in 1900s New York is my literary catnip) but don’t miss Piper Huguley’s sharp and funny story based on Frances Ellen Watkins Harper‘s real-life daughter and the Washerwomen’s War. I do wish there’d been a content note for sexual assault early in Lena Hart’s opening story — so I’m adding one here.
  • Let it Shine (Alyssa Cole): Civil Rights-era protest romance with a black heroine and a Jewish hero. Heart-wrenching and gorgeous. You know what? Let’s just read all the Alyssa Cole there is.
  • Congress of Secrets (Stephanie Burgis): slow burn historical fantasy romance set in post-Napoleonic Vienna. There is a muzzled press and a secret police and a subplot with an acting troupe that absolutely gutted me. Note: there’s also magical torture that gets reasonably harrowing. I read this right after the election, in that maze of grief and shock and horror, and it was like a thread leading me out of the labyrinth.
  • The Suffragette Scandal (Courtney Milan): an outspoken suffragette with her own newspaper meets a disreputable left-for-dead-once forger intent on revenge. Sparks fly, secrets wound like knives to the gut. Even with my expectations at sky-high huzzah! Courtney Milan! levels, this one surprised and staggered me.
  • Starlight (Carrie Lofty): British-set historical. Astronomer hero. Ignore the gown on the cover — this heroine’s a union organizer in industrial Glasgow. I thought the ending pulled a few punches, but I’m in burn it to the ground mode right now.
  • The Jade Temptress (Jeannie Lin): In addition to being one of my top romances of all time (of. all. time.), this book looks hard at sex work, wage theft, police brutality, classism, and poverty. I wrote a whole spoiler-filled essay comparing this book (favorably!) to King Lear in terms of how it constructs monetary wealth and emotional labor.
  • Blades of the Rose series (Zoe Archer): Four-and-a-novella-book series about a secret society who fights to keep magical artifacts out of the hands of British imperial supremacists. Basically a Victorian Indiana Jones-type arc. Great adventure, sizzling romance, memorable characters (such as brilliant black inventor and waistcoat enthusiast Catullus Graves, hero of book four).

{Disclaimer: I chat occasionally with several of the above authors on Twitter (social media makes fangirling so easy these days) but I was not compensated for any of these recs.}

Updates will be linked here as they appear.

 

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Space, Science, and the Gender of Perfection

{Courting Critique is a post series that takes an analytic and intersectional feminist look at romance texts — not so much to prove that romance is feminist or anti-feminist, but because good criticism can be as fun and escapist as a love story. Spoilers abound!}

Engineer Eugene Parsons demands perfection. It’s the first thing, possibly the only thing, people know about him.

The problem: perfection is unattainable, like a limit in calculus that is never quite reached. The other, less obvious problem: the definition of perfection keeps shifting, especially where gender is involved.

Cover image for Earth Bound. Starry background behind two light-skinned people in a tense embrace. The woman has dark hair, artful makeup, a black dress, and full-length black gloves. The man has a grey suit, intense expression, and his hands on the woman's bare skin.

First, a capsule review: Earth Bound,  the latest entry in Emma Barry and Genevieve Turner’s stellar Fly Me to the Moon series, is an absolute gut-punch of a romance between two difficult, critical, closed-off engineers who put their ambitions and the mission above everything else. Oh, and seedy ’60s motel sex. I could not have possibly loved it more. Full spoilers from here on out.

The most basic definition of perfection is free from factual or mathematical error. Parsons has good reason to pursue this kind of perfection, as the lives of real people depend on the machines and mathematics used by the American Space Department to send men and machines into orbit: “If the capsule wasn’t traveling fast enough, wasn’t flying straight up, the massive hand of gravity would catch it and pull it straight back down. It could crash right into a place filled with houses and families” (Kindle location 63). Not to mention that whole Cold War business, which Parsons at times seems to be fighting as though he’s out to win it single-handed. The urgency of this mission leads him to look for the very best — which is how he meets our heroine, computer and programmer Charlie Eason.

Charlie is a perfect hire for ASD — except that she’s a woman.

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