Tag Archives: the writing life

That Villain Love

“Romance,” says James Scott Bell in Writing Great Fiction: Self-Editing and Revision, “is about the characters trying to get love.”

Every romance writer who reads that will cringe. Getting love? Like it’s a medal you win at the end of a race, or a prize you earn for doing everything correctly? It sounds absurd. It sounds boring. It doesn’t sound like anything I look for when I pick up a romance novel.

This kind of thing comes up over and over, if you read enough books on writing. Here’s Steven James on constructing the opening scene of your manuscript: “If you’re writing a romance story, they [readers] want to see normal life for the young man or woman who’s searching for love.” Again: love as a singular aim. Straight as an arrow. Dull as dishwater.

Off the top of my head, I find it hard to think of many romances where love is the hero or heroine’s one and only desire. “Searching for love” is so painfully vague! On the other hand there are thousands of romance novels where people are desperate to stay away from love—books where a newly blossoming basket of feelings does nothing but cause trouble and mess up everyone’s plans and lives and expectations. Love in a romance is narrative kudzu. It takes root and grows and grows until it engulfs the world.

Think about our favorite tropes: The widowed duke whose history of familial abuse means he keeps his emotions carefully walled away. The governess who simply intends to teach her difficult charge and live a quiet, peaceful life far from the secret scandals of her past. The cupcake-loving heroine who has her hands full running a small bakery and can spare no time for dating. The billionaire who thinks a committed relationship will only slow him down from being a ruthless competitor. Even in that classic romance Pride and Prejudice, Elizabeth’s goal is not really: “search for a loving and worthy partner.” It’s more: “don’t get railroaded into marrying total assholes just to keep from starving.”

It would be far more accurate to say not that romance novel characters are looking to get love, but that love is looking to get them.

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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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High Stakes Visibility

Two things in particular happened this week.

1. Authors of color shared their experiences at the national RWA conference in New York. Suleikha Snyder’s ‘A Tale of Two Conferences’ and Rebekah Weatherspoon’s ‘#RWA15 – A WOC Perspective’ are both required reading, especially if you’re newly awakened to the obstacles that authors of color overcome in addition to more openly acknowledged difficulties (revisions, synopses, caffeine dependency). Subsequent Twitter discussion brought up microaggressions and pushback from both fellow conference-goers and, most egregiously, the aggressive indifference of Pocket Books, which admitted in a spotlight chat that they refer non-white submissions to other imprints.

2. NPR posted a list of ‘100 Swoon-Worthy Romances’, a list compiled from both popular suggestion and curation. They are open about the fact that they corrected to showcase not only breadth of subgenre, but also more diversity of character and author than appeared in the popular vote. Some of the books on the list feature racist or misogynist content (I love you for being my first, Johanna Lindsey’s Warrior’s Woman, but come the fuck on.) The comments on the list are about what you’d expect in terms of romance reader versus non-romance reader, with bonus hat-tip to the misguided gentleman who stiffly informs Victoria Motherfucking Dahl she doesn’t need to be embarrassed.

There was a brief feel-good reaction to the list on romance Twitter — it’s always pleasant when people take as a given that romance reading has merit, or at least as much merit as other kinds of reading. But in light of Moment No. 1 it felt stifling, as though we’d only just opened Romance’s Box O’Problems and now the lid was slamming back shut out of defensiveness. H/t Mikki Kendall: #SolidarityIsForWhiteWomen.

My assertion in this post is that these two moments are connected by more than just the romance genre. Both arise out of a profound and profoundly human need for visibility in stories — but then this need is filtered through the detritus of racism, classism, economic gain, and internalized misogyny. And things get shitty fast.

Romance has been the Designated Women’s Genre for a couple centuries now in Anglophone literature: written by women, featuring women, focusing on women’s lives and experience. This is often held up as proof of its empowering nature: I’ve done this more than once myself. It would be more accurate to say, though, that the vast majority of romance has focused on the lives and experiences of thin middle-to-upper-class white cis able-bodied women, with more than average levels of education. Bluestockings and heiresses a-plenty, housemaids and washerwomen not so much.

There’s a straight line you can draw from Jane Austen’s concern with the commodity model of marriage down to Betty Freidan’s Feminine Mystique. Because taking out the Canonical White Male capstone from the pyramid of kyriarchal literature still leaves all the other levels of the hierarchy in place. Women who have privilege will take up more narrative space than women without. This is not to say subversive things do not happen in books written by privileged white women; it is only to say that this is a limited conversation, and a less than universal empowerment.

Treating visibility as a zero-sum game is a failure of empathy we have seen over and over again: in publishing, in movies, in games. In the women’s suffrage movement, which as bell hooks shows explicitly rejected black women’s participation, even as black women were being rejected from participating in the abolition of slavery: white women counted, and black men counted, but black women didn’t. Black women, of course, kept participating anyways — they just aren’t historically celebrated for their labor. (See: Ida B. Wells.)

Now we’re seeing this same dynamic in romance, right out in the open at conferences and on social media. White women — because yeah, romance authors and publishers are mostly white, and anyone who gets defensive about this fact is not helping — push back against the call to diversify the genre because they’re used to defending it from the attacks of more privileged men. They have a readymade set of romance-defense rhetorical tools at the ready, whether it’s “laughing all the way to the bank” or “written by women, for women.”

They also push back against diversity because white privilege makes it easy to believe that women of color don’t count. It is impossible to untangle these two motivations from each other, since they come from a single system.

Racism is not just about police violence and starred-out slurs: racism is equally manifest in that knee-jerk, quiet little voice that whispers outsider when a woman of color asks for more heroines of color in romance. And if she writes heroines of color in her own stories, with happy endings? If she courts publishers or agents and markets her work? She’s taking our readers. Because white privilege tells us over and over that a woman of color cannot possibly be an insider herself. She doesn’t count. Not as a writer, and not as a woman. Not really. Not like us.

That voice is all the harder to uproot for being quiet.

 

It is impossible to overstate how much of this is tied up with money. Romance is big money for white women — one of the few genres where a woman’s name on the cover is not an automatic liability to sales. Meanwhile more and more books are appearing every year, while we all feel we have to write faster and faster, and prices and royalties fall lower and lower. Meanwhile women of color have a much larger wage gap than white women, and as a result can less easily spare time for activities without an immediate financial benefit — such as writing romances. Or self-publishing romances. They have to fight to enter the market, and fight to stay in it. This can be damn exhausting, and no wonder.

All because white women fucking forget that women of color count as women. As readers and insiders. As authors. As heroines.

We all have a need to be visible in the stories we tell. We as an industry need to be better at including all voices — not least because we are an industry, not a group of friends who get together over red wine and shirtless Hiddleston pics. An industry means money, and money means that when we shut out women of color, we do so in a way that actively privileges our lives and livelihoods over theirs. It is disingenuous to pretend that this is only about what types of stories we like to read: you cannot rail against ebook piracy and then claim it’s a total coincidence you only choose to read white authors.

You don’t have to apologize for your privilege, if you have it — but you can’t use it as a weapon against those who don’t. You can’t hide behind it, either, and claim you’re only being civil or professional.

Either you’re in this business for everyone, or you’re only out for yourself.

 

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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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