Cover Constellations

No romance novel exists alone—every one is building on the work of writers who came before.

Like every author, I was a reader first, so to celebrate The Lady’s Guide to Celestial Mechanics I made some art highlighting the books and authors who’ve been lodestars guiding me on my journey.

And then I made that art into stickers!

You can claim a set of six if you find me in person at the RWA Literacy Autographing in New York on Saturday, July 27, 3:00 - 5:00 p.m.

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Warrior’s Woman

by Johanna Lindsey

This was the first romance novel I ever read. It is a steamy space opera romance with a security-forces heroine burdened by virginity, a barbarian hero eager to relieve her of it, and orgasm denial as erotic punishment.

I stole it from my mother when I was five: she was appalled, and took it back before I could finish it. Ten years later I found a library copy and finally got that happy ending. From this you may deduce much about my stubbornness.

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Lady Rogue

by Suzanne Enoch

This was not the first historical romance I read with a cross-dressing heroine, but it was the first one that felt like the heroine wasn’t just forced into it for the disguise. The hero even buys her a new bespoke masculine wardrobe so she can swan about town breaking the debutantes’ hearts. It’s a sharp, smart romance about two difficult people, human frailty and disappointment, and the sacrifices we make for those we love.

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Topaz

by Beverly Jenkins

My favorite Beverly Jenkins novel is actually Forbidden, but Topaz is my favorite cover of hers, for the sunset colors and that glorious mustache and the much-needed visual of a Black historical couple in a classic clinch. Her books and her constant real-life encouragement have nourished an entire generation of romance readers and writers.

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The Jade Temptress

by Jeannie Lin

Jeannie Lin’s wonderful Tang Dynasty-set stories are all gems, but The Jade Temptress is an absolute romance masterpiece. It features a courtesan heroine and a police detective hero, both of whom are cynical and jaded and bitter — and who somehow find the truest, purest love in the darkest of places.

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A Gentleman Never Keeps Score

by Cat Sebastian

Avon’s first queer historicals were Cat Sebastian’s charming and ebullient m/m romances. I love them all, but I have a particular soft spot for the tenderness at the heart of A Gentleman Never Keeps Score. A former boxer turned bartender first tries to rob and then tries to seduce a lonely, witty, scandal-and-trauma plagued aristocrat fallen from social graces.

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The Lady’s Guide to Celestial Mechanics

by Olivia Waite

And of course, Avon’s first f/f historical! With that luscious cover and all my words inside it. I wrote this as a gift to myself after a rough couple years, when all I wanted was a femme, queer, arts-and-sciences escape into nerdiness and feelings. It is the best and most ambitious thing I have ever written. The print edition comes out on July 23, and an audio version will be available in 2020!

Historical Fiction Factions

I have spent a lot of time (and essay space) thinking about our responsibility to history: what parts we should keep, what parts we should not repeat, what parts we should unerase. This is far from uncommon — plenty of novelists get their material from real-life historical fact.

But where many authors of historical fiction — your Philippa Gregories and your Hilaries Mantel — stick as close as possible to the facts while still crafting an engaging narrative, historical romance often does something else. The facts become a jumping-off point. There’s a little sidestep that happens between the research and the writing: you find an interesting person or tidbit in an archive or a letter, and you imagine it being the foundation of a story, and then you set it up and change the names and let it all play out until you arrive at the HEA.

Historical fiction is making a claim of authority: this is what this person/place/event was like (probably, or possibly, or insofar as we know). Historical romance is making a claim of imagination: what if you were a person like so and so, in such and such a time and place? HF aims to make the past come to life as itself; HR wants to connect the past with the present in a way that amplifies resonances and promises a satisfying amount of resolution.

This means that sometimes it seems like historical romance creates a world where its most central subjects almost kind of … don’t exist?

Much of the time we readers don’t think about it in these terms, especially in cases when the inspiration is obscure or small-scale. A poignant ad in the back of a newspaper becomes a full-fledged epic love story in the hands of a talented author. Just because something is domestic or personal doesn’t mean it is unimportant; you could fill an entire career by exploring the seams and niches of history, and find plenty of things worth exploring.

But sometimes you want to write about characters doing something big. Something history does remember. Like translating a groundbreaking astronomy text. Or taking down a Confederate spy ring. Or going to the moon.

Because reading about characters doing big, world-changing things is fun — especially when you add sexual and romantic fulfillment to the mix. (However you might define fulfillment; a Pride Month shout-out to all the ace and aro folks in Romancelandia!) Different authors play this game to different degrees; sometimes a writer will split the difference by throwing in a wink to the hero or heroine’s inspiration: Heroine was one of the greatest swordswomen in France, second only to Julie d’Aubigny. I always find these moments a little awkward, as though the author has pulled back the curtain to whisper into my ear when I just want to watch these made-up people make out. I’m happy to look up the real history later.

The thing about queer history specifically is that we don’t have nearly as much of it as we should. Diaries and letters were burned, libraries full of research were destroyed, and these gaps were used as arguments against queer people’s value and worth. To write happy queer people back into history already involves resisting and revising the accepted historical narrative. We have to allow ourselves to imagine things we cannot and will never definitively prove.

And sometimes we want to write about queer people doing big, world-changing things while finding love and happiness.

I refuse to allow happy queer people to only appear in historical romance so long as they’re keeping themselves quietly at home.

When I was plotting Lady’s Guide, I knew my queer lady astronomer would occupy roughly the same space as Caroline Herschel and Mary Somerville (Lucy pretty much splits the difference, chronologically and scientifically). I looked forward to making references to scientific men like Joseph Banks, Pierre Laplace, and Humphry Davy. But the more I thought about it, the less happy I was with erasing the two women scientists and leaving all the men in place. That was pretty much the opposite of what I was going for.

So I destroyed the entire Royal Society, too. Also William Herschel, J. M. W. Turner, and Charles Babbage while I was at it. (My Ada Lovelace analogue hasn’t appeared on the page … yet.)

I kept the order of scientific discoveries in place, but the characters and the relationships are inventions. Because the truth is, no matter how closely we hew to known facts, we’ll never be able to perfectly capture the reality of even the most well-documented historical eras. The map is not the territory.

Perfection is unattainable — so what else can you shoot for?

Ultimately, the modern reader is my priority. I am not writing for people in the 19th century; I am writing for people in the present moment, who have a lot on their minds and who are looking for a way through. Sometimes we have to practice imagining a better world than the one we’ve inherited. Sometimes we need somewhere safe to practice hope, before we try something world-changing in our own lives.

Fulfillment we can give you. Happy queer people, making choices that matter to them, even if those choices are sometimes constrained. Happiness, in spite of anything. In spite of everything.

A short bibliography for The Lady’s Guide to Celestial Mechanics:

Age of Wonder by Richard Holmes

The Mechanism of the Heavens by Mary Somerville

Paper Garden by Molly Peacock

The Subversive Stitch by Roszika Parker

Queer City by Peter Ackroyd

Woman Inherits the Earth: Dinosaur Feminism and Virgin Births

Their children will surely be dangerous. Men don’t want them having children. So men create expensive, inefficient, and cruel systems to control the potential for reproduction. This is the secret history of Jurassic Park.

“You want to have one of those?”

There are two primary systems the male scientists use in their efforts to contain the dangerous potential of the creatures on Isla Nublar. One: electrified fences, which keep the animals isolated not only from humans, but from each other. Some dinosaur species are given more freedom than others—look at the wide open plain teeming with brachiosaur and pachycephalus herds, and then at the high-walled, claustrophobic fortress of the velociraptor pen. The more times I watch this movie the odder this enclosure seems: why create this species for the zoo if people are never going to be able to actually look at it? Did they just try every dinosaur species they had cloneable samples for and breed groups of the ones that proved viable? That hardly speaks of a stable technology under its creators’ control.

Control, I believe, is central to this question: it is impossible to imagine a conversation in which male InGen scientists believed they could clone a velociraptor, but chose not to because the creature was too dangerous. Such self-doubt would look too much like cowardice. So they clone not just a single velociraptor—though that would be hubris enough—but a whole pack of them. Even though both Muldoon and Grant tell us—and how exactly does Grant know this?—that velociraptors are most dangerous in pairs. Muldoon’s entirely justified paranoia must have been contagious, though. Later we learn that the raptor pen is not only separate from the perimeter fence but is also almost literally on top of the island’s central power station. The male scientists—no doubt egged on by the imperially-coded, quintessentially patriarchal Muldoon—have placed their most dangerous creation at the center of what they feel is their bastion of strength. It’s a dungeon, plain and simple—and every good storyteller knows that a dungeon primarily exists to be escaped from. The velociraptors have no choice but to break free.

“There is no unauthorized breeding in Jurassic Park.”

The second system of control is medical manipulation. What’s striking about Dr. Henry Wu’s statement in the laboratory scene is how nakedly authoritarian it is: children aren’t conceived in this world, they are authorized. Gender is rigidly policed as an absolute law, in defiance of real biological science (where intersex bodies and ungendered bodies happen all the time). We learn that all the Isla Nublar dinosaurs are designated female—because female animals are presumed to be easier to control, and male animals are assumed to be necessary, but more on that later—while Malcolm delivers his famous line about how life, uh, finds a way and a baby velociraptor hatches from an egg. Hammond is as giddy as a grandfather shoving his way into a maternity ward: “I insist on being here when they’re born…Come on, little one! Very good, push!” But he’s applying human patterns to what is a fundamentally inhuman birth. This baby velociraptor has to bring itself into the world. It has to be its own mother. And it isn’t cute or sentimental: it’s bloody, with eyes and claws and a hissing beak and sinister undertones to the musical cues. The shape of the egg and the sterile laboratory setting are strikingly reminiscent of Alien/s, another franchise obsessed with how feminized reproduction resists male control and containment.

Throughout this early part of the film, Grant is excited to learn what ‘real’ dinosaur behavior is like, but he’s been tricked by an illusion. He’s reading these dinosaurs as authentic, when they are the results of provably ignorant human manipulations. We know now that many of the species on Isla Nublar would have been feathered—imagine the proud cloning scientists watching the growth of their first newborn hatchlings, only to see those babies sprout plumes and pinions and down in vivid, eye-searing colors. Would those men recognize such seeming chimeras as authentic prehistoric animals in truth? Or would they assume instead that there had been some mechanical error in the cloning process, and go through batch after batch tweaking the recipe until they produced something that looked more comfortably reptilian? They’re not so much trying to discover the truth as they are trying to manufacture a species to fit a faulty pattern.

Considering how often scientists get it demonstrably wrong in this movie, it’s a wonder nobody has stepped up to challenge Grant’s later assertion that frog DNA allows adult dinosaurs to change sex to produce offspring. There is a lot of evidence against this hypothesis: it’s time- and resource-intensive, for one thing, and would be unimaginably complex in an animal as big as, say, a fully grown T. rex. Grant observes the evidence of wild dinosaur eggs, but is misled by the interpretive lens of human patterns of reproduction. He assumes dinosaur babies imply the existence of dinosaur fathers. He also assumes human science made this unauthorized reproduction possible, giving InGen's scientists much more credit than I think they actually deserve.

In fact, a much more likely explanation for these wild offspring is that they were created by parthenogenesis, the scientific term that means virgin birth and which describes the process wherein a female animal produces offspring that are genetically identical to the mother (usually) but otherwise viable for survival (more or less). This phenomenon has been observed in captive populations of pythons, cobras, turkeys, Komodo dragons, and chickens.

In other words, I contend that the female dinosaurs in the matriarchal dystopia of Jurassic Park have learned how to clone themselves. Which is not to say Isla Nublar has to remain strictly matriarchal forever: certain types of parthenogenesis can result in male offspring with the capacity to reproduce. Human fixations upon rigid gender and sex categories completely fail to apply to what the dinosaurs are doing as they recolonize their prison. (My dinosaur feminism will be trans inclusive or it will be bullshit.) The process male scientists and capitalists spared no expense struggling to master and control from the outside is something these creatures are naturally capable of. And the humans don’t even recognize this, thanks to what Dr. Sattler aptly terms “sexism in survival situations.” Human civilization has the gender binary and the nuclear family and the cultural narrative that women and children are weak and need male protection. Nature—inhuman, insatiable nature—needs none of these social constructs to ensure a species’ survival. Nature is happy to improvise.

“Dinosaurs eat man, woman inherits the earth.”

Since Frankenstein, male attempts to colonize and control female-coded powers of reproduction have driven countless science fiction plots. It never ends well. But just why should artificial reproduction always turn out so terrifying? Part of it surely is that what’s reproducing itself on Isla Nublar are predator species. But the terror here is not just the fear of death. The dinosaurs we read as villains in the film—the T. rex, the velociraptor, and the dilophosaurus—aren’t killing mindlessly, or for the evil joy of it. They’re killing for food. The fear is not that our characters will die, it’s that they will be devoured. The most notoriously frightening scene in the film happens in a kitchen as two raptors learn how to open human doors and try to make a meal out of two children. This beautiful piece of horror edges beyond butchery and into a realm I’d dare to identify as almost cannibalistic, with overtones of both Hansel and Gretel and Hannibal Lecter. This means the real threat in the film is about being used, or used up. Consumed. Human bodies are reproductive resources: women use men for genetic material (parthenogenesis has yet to be firmly established in mammals) and then women use their own bodies to build children. And we see at the start that Ellie Sattler’s desire to become a mother is explicitly presented as the key thematic framework in which this whole story takes place. Grant is hesitant about becoming a parent—a father—so the story sends him to an island full of monstrous mothers and gives him two human children to protect. As a test of his fitness. Grant’s arc is triumphant not because he has conquered the dinosaurs—he really, really hasn’t—or even (re)conquered Dr. Sattler (he hasn’t—compare this with, say, the reconquering romance arc in Die Hard). Grant wins because he’s learned to accept becoming a father in the human civilization he’s returning to.

We misread this plot arc badly. Distracted by restrictive meta-conversations about characters with agency, we mistake Grant’s busyness for narrative centrality. We watch him slowly warm up to the kids and we know it matters but we never stop to remember why. Grant’s not changing for himself. He’s changing so he can live up to Dr. Sattler’s hopes. The whole point of the whole plot is to get him up to her level. At the end the dinosaurs reclaim the island, and Dr. Sattler smiles approvingly at her newly nurturing partner. The dinosaurs have eaten the men; the mothers inherit the earth.

Updated Covers and Re-Release Dates!

At long last, my final two backlist books have been shined up and champagne-polished for re-release! The romance formerly known as Color Me Bad is now titled A Thief in the Nude, and will be available in June in both print (new!!) and ebook.

Cover image for A Thief in the Nude. A red-haired, pale-skinned woman in barely a dress embraces a dark-haired, slightly scruffy gentleman whose white shirt and waistcoat are soon to be removed.

It has been ten years since Hecuba Jones last burgled her way into a darkened house, but it’s the only way to recover her rightful inheritance from her artist mother. She manages to find the Earl of Underwood’s study and the four paintings she’s searching for—but just when she is about to make off with her prizes, she is discovered by the earl’s sardonic younger brother.
 
John Rushmore has all but given up on his talents as a painter, unable to recapture the passion of earlier days. He is pleased to have his boredom lightened by the appearance of a redheaded thief—and even more delighted to be introduced to her the following night in an elegant Society ballroom. Miss Hecuba Jones is prickly and suspicious and absolutely irresistible. She’s also an inspiration. Before long John finds himself working deep into the night to try and capture the feverish, erotic visions she provokes.
 
Soon, they reach an agreement. John will trade the four paintings she attempted to steal for four portraits of Hecuba herself. Intimate nights and candlelight soon transform artistic pleasures into physical ecstasy—but old family secrets and a blossoming scandal threaten to shatter their fragile liaison.
And then, in September, I'll be releasing the follow-up novel, At His Countess' Pleasure, which involves a lot of angst, some light pegging, and an infertility plotline (a heads-up to those readers who avoid those, it's okay, I get it):
Cover image for At His Countess' Pleasure. A woman with dark hair and pale skin stands looking at the viewer in a deep red gown. In her hand, almost hidden in the folds of her skirt, is a slender riding crop.
Anne Pym and Simon Rushmore are still reeling from the scandalous marriage of Anne’s cousin Hecuba to Simon’s brother John. But Simon’s position as Earl of Underwood has shielded him from the harshest criticisms. In a bid to repair Anne’s shattered family reputation, Simon proposes a most practical solution—he will make her his countess and they will set about the business of producing an heir.

But marriage is a beginning rather than an ending and scandal has a long life. Old hurts and new family crises threaten their burgeoning passion, even as Simon finds himself more and more eager to submit to his strong-willed wife’s every carnal command. When Anne’s bitterest secret emerges, destroying their hopes for the future, Simon must learn whether he is enough to bring Anne a lifetime of happiness—and just how completely he is willing to submit.

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Hurt/Comfort: Two Shapeshifting Books Reviewed

Lately, and quite accidentally, I read three books in a row that involved shapeshifting or similar transformations. I'm going to talk about two of them. RoAnn Sylver's Chameleon Moon (kindly loaned to me by Corey Alexander) is a fantasy novel about a trans, queer, and poly found family struggling to survive in a burning city hemmed in by overwhelming surveillance. Nearly everyone left alive in the city has been transformed by the miracle drug Chrysedrine -- some people get wonderful, powerful talents, while others get horrible, painful conditions that might as well be magical curses. The story was beautifully built but at times too painfully earnest for me to disappear into like I wanted. Certain scenes were so palpably aware of the presence of the reader: explorations of one character's newly realized asexuality, for instance, or fierce objections when villain deliberately misgenders a trans family member. The book went out of its way to showcase characters being kind to one another, outside of the demands of plot. I initially read my discomfort as a flaw of the book -- as if you'd dropped by a friend's place casually to say hi and they'd immediately set out the best china and made three of your favorite desserts from scratch. I felt horribly awkward.

Then via NetGalley I received a copy of Masked Possession by Alana Delacroix, a debut in a new paranormal romance series about shapeshifting magical creatures called masquerada who can take on different physical traits and personae, depending on their level of talent and training. The prose is polished and the premise is a novel one for a paranormal. The reviews so far are strongly positive. A lot of people are going to enjoy this book.

I am writing this review for you, the trans reader, wherever you may be. Because I do not think you will enjoy this book. I think it's going to hurt you and I am writing this review to offer evidence.

Masked Possession is a story centered on trans-coded characters and experiences that never once stops to consider that the reader might be trans. This story about modern-day shapeshifters, about masks and passing and secret identities and mental trauma and family rejection and love and who someone really is deep down -- this story never once acknowledges the existence of actual trans humans in the world, despite having trans parallels at all levels from the worldbuilding right on down to the individual phrases.

To briefly show why this is inherently harmful it helps to consider The Matrix, which is certainly also a trans allegory but which places the burden of the metaphor on computers and machines. Neo's journey is a search for truth outside of the falsely imposed limits of the physical body. Masked Possession, on the other hand, consistently makes the characters' physical bodies the source of truth, power, and identity. The only place for trans people in such a metaphor is as collateral damage.

Did I really wince at Chameleon Moon being too considerate? I should have known better than to undervalue kindness.

I started Masked Possession with enthusiasm and a lot of questions I hoped the book would explore. Here is what I found; stop me when this starts to sound familiar.

Masquerada are manipulative, vain, and frivolous. They cannot be trusted. They cannot be intimately known, because they change appearances too drastically. One masquerada can recognize another wearing a masque (except all the times when they can't because the plot requires them to be fooled). Learning to take on a masque is referred to as a transition. Only the most powerful can change genders -- but that includes our hero, our heroine, and the Evil Other Woman. Masquerada are long-lived but prone to something called la vide, a severe depression that commonly ends in suicide. (The French term translates to "the void" or "the gap," which is probably worth a whole bitter essay of its own in this context.) Masquerada believe in their superiority to humans, and though humans find them captivating and sexually alluring intermarriage is extremely rare. They have a secret, glamorous hierarchy with royalty and etiquette of their own. They object to being incarcerated in human prisons.

It gets worse. As a cis woman, I don't often respond viscerally to descriptions of what amounts to body dysphoria, but the climax of this book left me sick and shaking. I'm going to provide a summary and very short quotes below, but I'm also going to put two rows of asterisks around the whole thing and set it in italics in case you want to skim right past this part.

*****

*****

Our heroine, Caro, is a journalist in hiding. Attacked and almost killed by the book's main villain, she now lives in Toronto under an assumed identity. The parallels to a deadname are evident from the start, and the fact that the heroine keeps her past life a secret from the hero is presented as a fault and a failing. The very first thing we see on page one is her arriving at work in mile-high stilettos, and her Francophone boss praising her for dressing "more like a woman." Later, when she finds her boss is in league with the villain, Caro will transform into a giant, muscular, "dickless" man and crush her boss's genitals with her bare hands. The prose goes needlessly, graphically out of its way to emphasize that A) she hates this form and we should never ever picture the heroine as having a penis, and B) that the genital-crushing is a severe and likely permanent injury (telltale phrase: "his ruined groin"). Caro is forced into this giant's body by the villain, who intends to send her in his place to duel the hero to the death. No, it doesn't make a whole lot of sense in the text either. At the novel's climax, Caro has to fight the mindless demands of her unfamiliar, aggressive, frightening, masculine body in order not to kill the man she loves. It is one of the most violently grotesque things I've ever encountered in a romance and it ruined my belief in the HEA, my trust in the author, and any sense of critical distance. And then we are treated to the final sex scene where the hero fucks Carol in those mile-high heels, then takes on a woman's masque and suggests having sex in that form, which Caro finds playful and arousing and I found infuriatingly flip and fetishizing.

*****

*****

The one good thing about having read all the way to the end of Masked Possession is that I can look at Chameleon Moon with a newfound sense of appreciation. It is now startlingly obvious that Sylver's book is centered on caring, on kindness, on radical acts of trust and belief in other human beings. There is conflict -- real, profound conflict, that endangers lives and futures -- but the conflict does not make anyone unworthy of human consideration. This story is founded on love, and not merely the characters' love for one another within the bounds of the plot. It is founded on love-as-a-verb, in the best sense, and it makes sure the reader knows some of that love is directed at you. The unease I felt with being so deliberately taken into account -- as if the book were looking back at me -- now feels like a major misread. Chameleon Moon opens its arms wide and shows a beating, vulnerable heart to the world just in case one reader, somewhere, is feeling raw and shaky and in need of succor. The world is better because this book exists.

In such an age as ours, I can think of nothing more necessary.

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.

It's no wonder if writing guides leave romance out. The genre breaks a lot of cardinal rules simply by existing. For instance, the trouble with protagonists.

Protagonists, the guides tell you, are singular. Two representative citations:

  • "It's best if you have one protagonist." -- Deborah Chester in The Fantasy Fiction Formula (which features a glowing introduction from Jim Butcher).
  • "There is usually only one protagonist in a given story. Sometimes there are two: Consider Romeo and Juliet." -- The Modern Library Writers' Workshop (Stephen Koch), which will drop a Stephen King or Ray Bradbury quote alongside Proust and Trollope and Anne Lamott, but which apparently considers any romances from the past four hundred years unworthy of literary notice.

But in romance, multiple protagonists come standard. You must have at least two; more if you're writing ménage or poly romances. . The h/h, I like to call them, to be gender-inclusive. Multiple protagonists means mulitple central goals -- so romance writers are already at least doubling the amount of work we have to do to craft a successful story. And it's more fun for everyone if those multiple goals share either a plot connection or thematic contrast. Continuing with Austen as an example, Elizabeth's goal is "don't marry assholes," and Darcy's goal for pretty much all of the book is "marry Elizabeth." The conflict? For most of the book, Darcy is an asshole! Instant dramatic tension.

Sometimes you can skirt the issue by pitting your h/h against one another. Author Gerri Russell once said in a workshop: "If your hero's a firefighter, your heroine had better be an arsonist." (Sadly, I have yet to read any arsonist heroines, though if someone knows about one they should drop a note in comments.) The h/h are often on opposite sides of a conflict: the billionaire developer and the earnest environmentalist, or the playboy ballplayer and the uptight publicist hired to buff his tarnished reputation.

It goes deeper than just plot mechanics. Sexually tempting heroes in m/f romances are often described in sinister, overwhelmingly devilish terms. Hell, I wrote one romance like that myself! Pretty sure there's a whole essay about this in Jayne Ann Krentz' Dangerous Men and Adventurous Women, too. And of course there's Gothic romance, where the hero is by definition suspected of being the villain. Darcy certainly doesn't look like the hero in the first half of Pride and Prejudice. He looks like a pompous, self-absorbed jerkface with more money than manners, who destroys his friend's budding relationship for what amounts to shits and giggles. He looks, in short, like the villain.

It goes without saying that a romance hero can't really be a straight-up villain, or the book ceases to be a romance (no matter what nefarious trendsters are trying to sell you). So the plot solution can't simply be to have one H defeat the other -- romances where one H's whole world is destroyed tend to read like the rigged games they are. The plot needs to resolve in a way that answers both protagonists' story questions. The transformations of both characters must feel balanced.

Writing a good romance therefore means solving two central problems at once, in a way that is both emotionally satisfying and not too easy or obvious. Because if it were easy or obvious, your characters would have handled it in chapter two and never found themselves trapped in that gazebo during that thunderstorm, when the duke finally opens up about his tortured backstory and the governess finally allows herself to give in to the desires a mousy virgin never admits to having. And that night's outcome means the duke starts telling his troubled teenage son how much he really loves him, and the governess rebels against the suffocating role society demands she play, and both their lives are transformed by story's end. They do not end up with the same goals they began the book with; they end up with something better. Love always comes along to knock the h/h off-course.

See, for contrast, this love plot description from Deborah Chester: "Often you'll find stories where the protagonist and antagonist are in love with the same individual. In such triangles, winning a relationship with the love interest may serve as the goal and story question. Certainly the conflict will be focused and directly oppositional."

That phrasing rings all my feminist alarm bells: "winning a relationship," ugh. It has Nice Guy written all over it. How many of you suspect, as I do, that despite the neutral pronouns the protagonist/antagonist of this love triangle are probably men, and the object of competition is probably a woman?

Notice how this love triangle description actually makes the love interest a horribly static character: it implies she doesn't have a story goal of her own, but is merely a linchpin for the story goals of the two main characters competing to win her affections. Even when such craft books are speaking directly about courtship plots, the concept of a romance arc balanced between two equally weighted parties somehow fails to materialize.

This is a failure of imagination. A singular protagonist has a singular goal with two outcomes: win or lose, comedy or tragedy. Romance has double the protagonists, double the story goals, and the firm rule that both of the h's have to win for the game to count. And this is the genre that detractors dismiss as uncreative! It's like having an Olympian hopeful's flawless series of triple axles, Lutzes, and Salchows dismissed by the home audience because the sequins mean she can't possibly be a serious athlete.

But really the hero only masquerades as an antagonist. The real villain of any romance novel is love itself.

Love, much like rhythm, is gonna get you (boo!). It has to be treated as a character in its own right. You have to describe what it looks like, what it does to the unsuspecting h/h, what it forces them to confront, what makes them struggle against it, and what makes them ultimately turn and embrace it whole-heartedly. It is rarely kind to its victims. It makes them suffer and weep and work out problems they'd rather ignore. It forces them to grow, to learn, to take risks -- just like any worthy villain by Deborah Chester's definition: "the character most intent on wreaking havoc on the protagonist's life and happiness."

And maybe this is the problem so many non-romance writers have when they try to talk about romance. They think of love as this passive thing, sitting around like an artifact waiting to be picked up. Romance novels know love is active and mischievous. Love stalks in like Hans Gruber, prepared to blow up the building floor by floor until the h/h -- stripped down, bloodied, and battered -- finally come face to face with how much they mean to one another.

Love is such a superb and timeless villain that we've dedicated an entire genre to its exploits. We have taken something broadly scorned as passive, feminine, unserious, and profoundly less-than -- and made it all-powerful and irresistible. That is how romance is subversive. That is how romance is revolutionary.

That is why we need it now more than ever.

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.

3.

Saunders' essay is about how writers make millions upon millions of tiny, instinctual decisions that add up to internally consistent structures. Recognizing the partly hidden pattern is what makes the book satisfying to the reader. I resonate with a lot of what he says, because a lot of it is very close to my own process. A lot of it is also connected to a certain mystical strain in writing about writing: my characters tell me what they're doing, I just write it all down. Writers say this all the time, in every genre. Thousands of craft books talk about building a character as though you're exploring a map of a place that already exists. A writer's instincts are held as authoritative, unerring, no matter what stage of her career she's at. It's like love, or pornography: you know it when you see it. (For those of us who write romance, it's often a lot like love AND pornography.) It's impossible to overstate how revelatory this feels in practice -- I have felt it myself, more than once. I chase it. It's one of the best parts of being a writer, that breathless of course! moment. A wild story appears, and the pattern makes itself clear, as if without my input.

Of course it's bullshit -- but it's very useful bullshit, when you're trying to finish a draft.

But: Saunders' essay is also about how a writer connects with a reader. And this is where seeing the cause behind the effect becomes so much more important.

Because we are surrounded by patterns that seem natural, but aren't. This is every comment section about the wage gap where someone chimes in to say Well women just happen to choose lower-paying professions. It's every conversation about mothers who just happen to be the ones who stay home to raise the kids. It's black people just happen to live in the inner city and all rural voters are white -- even though we can point to the longstanding existence and wealth of data about redlining and sundown towns to show that these living patterns are the result of decades of fear, financial oppression, and outright violence. When queerness is framed as a perversion and classed with behaviors like kink or sex work, the mere existence of queer characters becomes enough to get a YA story flagged for 'sexual content' even if all your lesbian character does is live next door in the company of thirteen cats. Invisible networks of oppression and privilege nudge us into place, inch by inch, and then culture tells us this is all perfectly natural.

All those iron filings line up naturally in coruscating rays. Remember: naturally does not mean precisely the same thing as freely. Force is at work even if you can't see it. We've all got a little iron in our soul.

4.

Saunders is deeply interested in what it means to be a human in the world: "This mode of revision, then, is ultimately about imagining that your reader is as humane, bright, witty, experienced and well intentioned as you, and that, to communicate intimately with her, you have to maintain the state, through revision, of generously imagining her." This is a lovely thought. But it's important to remember the iron filings and ask: what do you see when you imagine this reader? Not just her personality and taste -- what do you see? 

It shouldn't matter, people will say, except that like fiction real life lives and dies in the specifics. And identity is very, very specific. Saunders flatters the reader of his essay by imagining that Tolstoy "thought well of you," that he would be thrilled you responded to the ideas in his work -- but it's clear this is Saunders projecting his own warmth and generosity onto other artists. Tolstoy was not writing for me. Even the briefest glance at the diaries of Tolstoy's wife Sofia suggests that Tolstoy took a very dim view of women intellectually, sexually, and morally. Imagine him deigning to converse with a bisexual, American, agnostic, staunchly feminist author of smutty romance and Greek-myth-inflected fantasy. This is not to say I cannot enjoy Tolstoy's work -- I have -- but it does mean that I have to enjoy Tolstoy's work a little bit in spite of Tolstoy. He weaves a pattern that has symmetry, consistency, beauty -- and which leaves me out entirely. It is difficult, at times impossible, to take pleasure in being deliberately left out.

Closer to home, award-winning librarian Robin Tuphlos recently tweeted about a webinar wherein a publishing professional wouldn't believe there was an audience for a book if she didn't think it would appeal to her own circle of family and friends. This is a jaw-droppingly limited perspective that does real-world damage to aspiring authors' careers. This is what happens when publishing imagines a reader who shares the imaginer's unexamined bigotry. It's like putting two mirrors opposite one another and then standing between them: the whole world becomes artificially homogenous.

5.

And books can certainly be mirrors. For instance, this pivotal Rudine Sims Bishop essay about the difference between mirror books and window books. Authors from the margins are always working hard to create much-needed mirrors so more people can look into the stories we tell and recognize themselves. Recognition -- both being seen and being known -- is a profoundly universal human need. Need, I'll say again -- not a luxury, not a trifle, but a need.

Unfortunately, marginalized groups have had to learn to recognize the lies that are told about them: black-on-black crimethe gay agenda, model minority, so inspirational. Remember that mirrors can distort as well as reflect. Whiteness, straightness, any systemic privilege puts you one step closer to the mirror: your reflection takes up more space and leaves less room for anyone else to be seen.

There are privileged authors -- far too many -- who have come to view this situation as a trap for them more than for marginalized voices: you can do a search for "scared to write diversity" if you would like more of that perspective. A great many of these authors are trying to do what they see as the right thing by getting more diverse faces in the mirror. But they are trying to do it without taking a step back, because that little iron filing tells them they're in the right place, that they're just naturally closer to the mirror. (Have I stretched this metaphor to the breaking point yet?) They have recognized the problem, but not the whole problem, and not their specific relationship to the problem.

Justina Ireland critiques one recent example. White YA author Jodi Meadows' next book is given a cover with a black girl in a pretty dress, while POC authors' covers get routinely whitewashed. Meadows tweeted that she did not want to tell the model she was being removed from the cover because she was black -- but it's wrong to frame the model's skin color as the crux of the dilemma. The problem originated when a white author staked a claim to her black character's visibility above and beyond that afforded to characters created by black and brown authors. Because Meadows doesn't reflect on her own position as a white writer she ends up only replicating the problem.

Privilege is all the more insidious for being least seen by those it benefits most.

6.

One becomes a better human the same way one becomes a better writer: by learning to see those invisible forces and call them by name. We cannot resist what we do not acknowledge, cannot change what we do not first identify as a problem.

We are living through a moment where the power of collective action is increasingly palpable. This is an opportunity for all of us to make more deliberate choices that have a meaningful impact on each other's lives and the future of the world. This is not hyperbole: in a political climate fraught with fear, lies, pettiness, and violence, it is more necessary than ever to stand up for truth, for justice, for caring, for the full humanity of all people. Right now even the smallest actions matter more. We are living in terrible times, yes, but also times of great moral opportunity.

Uplift the voices that are missing. Retweet #ownvoices book links, spread the news about new and upcoming releases, find the authors the gatekeepers overlooked. Submit your work to agents and editors of color, and let other writers know about them, too. Encourage the people the gatekeepers discourage. Support outlets (publishers and media) that focus on neglected voices. This is not a problem only one person can solve -- publishing is not itself a Chosen One narrative. (Oh, to be able to say as much to Jonathan Franzen's face!) You cannot fix everything by yourself -- but you do not have to! There are so many others who are doing the work, for themselves and for others. Find them. Support them. Buy books, make recommendations, write reviews. You're already doing this anyway, right? You hardly have to change a thing.

Take a deliberate step back from the mirror. Make the choices that you know are right, even if they feel awkward at first. It's not going to feel quite natural. It's still the right thing to do.

Work at getting those iron filings out of your soul. Disrupt the patterns that don't bring benefit to everyone. We'll all breathe a lot easier once they're gone.

 

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.

 

Catullus 5

For a recent milestone birthday, Mr. Waite and I flew to Italy for ten days of food, wine, and historical geeking out. On the plane I realized I'd neglected to take even a scrap of Latin poetry with me -- a shameful omission for an amateur classicist on her first visit to Rome. Luckily, my Latin professor had always insisted we memorize at least one poem, so I had Catullus 5 available upon request from my brain. It is one of the most breathtakingly romantic poems in history. And because it was a very lengthy flight, I had time to work out the following rather loose translation into verse.

Enjoy!

We'll live my darling, and we'll love,

And all those grim and senile sneers

We'll hold a cheap accounting of.

The sun can set and reappear,

But us, we burn so brief and brave

That one day's light is all we get

Before night tucks us in the grave.

Give me a thousand kisses, yet

Another hundred and again

A second thousand, and then add

The sum twice more, with tips. And when

We've kissed so much that we have had

To turn the counter back to none

Let's keep the number hidden so

The haters hating down below

Can't nullify a single one.

Astronaut Heroes and Heroines: A Romance Sampler

{Courting Critique is a post series that takes a literary-critical and intersectional feminist look at romance texts — not so much to prove that romance is feminist or anti-feminist, but because good analysis can be as fun and escapist as a love story. Spoilers abound!} I've been waiting years, actual years, to get my hands on Margot Shetterly's Hidden Figures book (and you've heard there's going to be a movie! Starring Taraji P. Henson and Olivia Spencer and my favorite Janelle Monáe!). The book comes out quite soon now, and I could not be more excited.

Meanwhile, I passed time reading all the astronaut romances I could reasonably get my hands on. We're talking real-world Cold War space-race or contemporary astronauts and cosmonauts -- no astronomers, sci-fi spaceship pilots, or telescope-loving Regency misses allowed (much as I adore those). Naturally, this led to some thoughts about how the role of astronaut is presented in this small slice of the romance genre. I'll let the argument unfold in the same way I found it: chronologically in reading order.

Cover image for Heaven's Time by Susan PlunkettHeaven's Time by Susan Plunkett

Readers who miss the old style of romances jam-packed with plot and melodrama will want to check this one out. Heroine Melissa Fuller is a former foster child turned astronaut, who names the stars after the people who tried to love her but who tragically died. (Her childhood: SUPER rough.) She has shut down all social ties to achieve success in her career, and then when she finally does get into space a meteor shower damages her capsule (this was written decades before Gravity!) and sends her hurtling toward the Earth and her death. She has just enough time to regret never letting anyone get close to her before a giant beam made of greeny-purple magic reaches up from the planet and grabs her.

Meanwhile, hero Rory McCullough is hanging out in the 1887 Washington Territory and has just learned the old Native American woman who's his best friend is actually an immortal wish-granting plot device -- she tells him she must leave because ten years is all she gets to spend with one person, magically rejuvenates herself into youth and beauty, and then says oh yes, and I've found the perfect mate for you and she's on her way but it's going to be a little weird at first. Just be nice to her, okay? I kind of want to read this woman's book, to be honest.

Melissa comes screaming down out of the sky and lands smack in the nearby lake. Rory fishes her out. She's disoriented and battered, so naturally they have tender, vulnerable sex pretty much at once. Then they decide to head to Rory's home north of the city, which is of course when the puma attacks.

At this point we're in chapter three. Later there's a surprising amount of page-time spent on child trafficking in early Seattle, and the heroine spends some time wrongfully imprisoned for a noble purpose. It's that kind of romance.

Science Quotient: 2/10: We don't spend much time in the present, so while Melissa's knowledge of things like modern medicine comes in handy, this book features more tragic orphans than orbital mechanics. The opening scene is solid, though.

Astronaut Meaning: The intensity and time investment necessary for Melissa's career in the Air Force and the astronaut corps explicitly function as a shield to keep other people from getting too close to her. Astronauts have no time for love or a social life; they are aloof, cold, distant, and impeccably untouchable. This is of course The Problem at the heart of her emotional arc. In many ways it reminds me of the heroine from Joanna Lindsey's Warrior's Woman, where the sleek, civilized, tech-savvy (and virginal) heroine is 'saved' by the love of a backwards barbarian hero with sex drugs and fetish wear.

It's always refreshing to see a Wounded Heroine in place of a Wounded Hero, but there's something unsettling about the way all Melissa's hard work and twentieth-century success has to be stripped away to establish her as a heroine of warmth and caring. Maybe she shouldn't have worked so hard, this plot structure implies. Maybe she was too ambitious and ungentle. Maybe she was denying the fundamental squishiness of her essential femininity. I distrust this both as a moral arc and as a piece of story-craft. I distrust gender essentialism. I distrust books that force the heroine to abandon her entire world, and then imply it was all for her own good and isn't she grateful for the loss.

StarDustNew8

Star Dust by Emma Barry and Genevieve Turner

This book is the first of the excellent Fly Me to the Moon series (have you read Earth Bound yet? It's magnificent) and features an astronaut hero and a divorcée heroine at a time when the stigma of divorce was still shockingly potent. Kit is a golden boy, a national hero and magazine-cover celebrity. Anne-Marie is a harried newly single mother with trust issues related to her cheating douche of an ex. The relationship starts as just physical-needs sex between two consenting adults, but you all know how that's going to work out in a romance. Then Kit gets to strap himself to a giant explosive and be shot into space, while Anne-Marie frets about safety and drinks super-strong cocktails with the other astronaut wives. This book will make you yearn for a cocktail like you're watching The Thin Man.

Science Quotient: 7/10. This is very much the Apollo 13  of romance novels -- not a dig, I sincerely love that movie -- so there's a strong mechanical/engineering/problem-solving component. Kit is primarily a pilot, as all astronauts were at the time, so the flight sections focus more on the equipment than on the physics behind it. (Unlike Earth Bound, where the math is very much at the center.)

Astronaut Meaning: We're in the realm of The Right Stuff, where astronauts are the best of the best, bursting with American values and idolized by all. Kit is physically fit and trains to stay that way. In a highly gendered contrast to the virginal astronaut of Heaven's Time, there's also a strong playboy/sex champion component to our male astronaut archetype here: Kit is definitely a no-strings-attached kind of guy (at the start, anyways -- this is Romancelandia) and he's thickly painted with the "any woman would want him" brush. Astronaut prestige appears to have a masculinizing effect -- which is a positive for an astronaut hero, but a problem for an astronaut heroine. I'll be keeping an eager eye out for how this trope is dealt with in Barry and Turner's Star Crossedtheir upcoming f/f astronaut romance. (I know! I know! I'm excited too!) And it's interesting to see Kit later become something of an antagonist in Earth Bound, whose engineer hero absolutely loathes astronauts and considers them cocky, immature disasters waiting to happen.

Kit's arc forces him to choose between fulfilling the gendered and public expectations of the astronaut role or finding a more personal, private happiness on earth. At the end -- spoilers! -- he decides not to go into space again, but to stay on solid ground with Anne-Marie. It's a lovely moment and very emotionally resonant, but I have to wonder: Do astronauts in romance always have to stop being astronauts to get their HEA? After all, an astronaut's job is to leave Earth -- any romance novel's HEA is going to have to find a way to grapple with this. You can't have forever if your partner has to leave.

th_0373057504

Blue Sky Guy by Carole Buck

Reader, I was not expecting aliens to actually show up in this otherwise run-of-the-mill Silhouette Desire from 1992.[perfectpullquote align="right" cite="" link="" color="" class="" size=""]An astronaut's job is to leave Earth -- any romance novel's HEA is going to have to find a way to grapple with this.[/perfectpullquote]

Hero Kyle Gordon lived to fly and was thrilled to be selected for the astronaut program -- but before he could make it to space, an injury grounded him permanently. Now he's back in his hometown, bereft and insecure, and being idolized by a preteen plot moppet named Charlie. Whose mom Susan just happens to be the widow of Kyle's childhood best friend and whom he's been secretly lusting after for years.

The emotions in the book are delightfully splashy and vivid -- appropriate to a category romance -- but a lot of the plot arcs don't add up once the book cover's closed. Kyle and Susan were both powerfully attracted to one another from the instant they met on Susan's wedding day, and again on the day of the husband's funeral. They both feel profoundly guilty about this. The book takes a lot of time establishing this guilt, rooting the chemistry. It's a good slow burn. But when Susan and Kyle get together, they never once talk about their feelings in the past. They talk about Mike (the dead husband) in the context of parenting Charlie, but never about how Kyle might miss his friend, or how Susan might have noticed a lack in their otherwise warm marriage. It feels like a red herring rather than an emotional beat.

Also a red herring: Kyle's disability. An inner-ear injury that wasn't his fault and is never really identified. It makes a big notable entrance in the opening chapter and nearly causes him to pass out, but then vanishes from the narrative once we get down to the business of Watching The Man-Whore Realize He Yearns For Commitment. Something serious enough to wash him out of the military entirely should definitely have an impact on his low-altitude life. He's able to speed down the back roads in his Thunderbird just fine, though, even before the aliens magically heal him so he can be an astronaut again. (Yes, really.)

Science Quotient: 0/10. This book is more about wanting to fly than about actually flying. Nobody even gets off the ground -- except the villain. But we'll get to that.

Astronaut Meaning: I wasn't initially sure there would be a lot of astronaut stuff in here to talk about. It's your basic small-town romance until about the 80% mark.

But then the aliens touch down.

Turns out Kyle's uncle, a famous sci-fi writer and SETI-head, was right: this small town is the center of a lot of extraterrestrial activity. Two silver orbs, one found by Kyle and one found by Charlie, turn out to be robot alien babysitters. (Yeah, you heard me.) Fired government alien-hunter Alvin Pettit shows up to be villainous in search of these objects, but until the end the bulk of his villainy seems to consist of having dandruff and being unattractive. It's a terminal case of Evil Makes You Ugly. At the end, the aliens take their robot babysitters back, heal our hero with a magic blue glow cloud (alien ex machina), and offer Kyle the opportunity to go with them into the stars. He turns it down, choosing to stay on earth with Susan and Charlie.

Kyle's uncle then suggests the aliens make the same offer to Alvin, who's right there sobbing at having his ET tech taken away. He's got no family, nobody will miss him, and he's as obsessed with the stars as Kyle is.

Sure, the aliens say, why not. So Alvin gets to go to space. But not before the magic blue glow cloud pretties him up.

No, for real, here's the passage: "The glow finally faded away. The Alvin Pettit who emerged stood straight, had no dandruff on his narrow shoulders and, to judge by the haste with which he discarded his glasses, probably possessed twenty-twenty vision." This is a man who just beat up our hero's elderly uncle, who held the heroine at hostage at gunpoint, and we're supposed to forgive him and root for him to be happy because his posture has improved? Now that he's prettified, the text makes him Kyle's equal and spiritual twin: "'Goodbye!' he called, and snapped off a salute at Kyle. Something more powerful than military training prompted Kyle to return the gesture."

This is taking the idea of astronaut-as-superhuman past the bounds of the reasonable. Kit and Melissa were exceptional and exceptionally good-looking people, but it was presented as incidental to the job -- and in Kit's case, we are shown how hard he works to maintain his muscular physique. Here, being conventionally attractive is so closely tied to the meaning of astronaut that the book has to physically transform the villain, because it's unthinkable to present the reader an astronaut who was not handsome and perfect.

In sum it was a completely bonkers moment and I had to share.

Meanwhile it's implied Kyle goes back to being an astronaut, but we don't see any of it on the page. This is definitely the thinnest, most wallpaper-y use of the astronaut hero in any of our sample books. He could have been any sort of job and the book would have turned out the same.[perfectpullquote align="right" cite="" link="" color="" class="" size=""]Being conventionally attractive is so closely tied to the meaning of astronaut that the book has to physically transform the villain.[/perfectpullquote]

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Space in His Heart by Roxanne St. Claire

Our most modern example -- hero Deke Stockman (yep, he's named after Deke Slayton) is an astronaut and engineer for NASA during the era of shuttle flights and international space stations. Heroine Jessica Marlowe is the PR star NASA hires to try and shine up the agency's creaky image. Jessica decides that what the nation wants from NASA is some Grade-A American beefcake (judging by the way we swooned over Bobak Ferdowski, she's not far wrong), so she picks unmarried Deke as her poster boy. Deke would rather spend his time fixing safety issues before the next launch, so there is much tedious antagonism between hero and heroine: Let me stare at your cleavage while I sneer about how wrong you are. I have to admit I was not in the least convinced by the romance in this book. And don't get me started on the suspense subplot, which has an unfortunate Surprise Secret Killer and is utterly tacked-on.

Science Quotient: 7/10. We see a lot of shuttle flying, and some talk about the medical aspects of space travel. (Have you read Mary Roach's Packing for Mars?) There's a lot of electrical equipment and wiring problems, too, which was neat.

Astronaut Meaning: I'm going to let this book speak for itself for a moment: "Astronauts were a magnificent breed of human beings. Hungry for knowledge, curious, and driven to push the boundaries of earth. It humbled her." This is the heroine's POV, about two-thirds of the way through the book. Jessica's transition from "astronauts are hot and that's useful from a branding standpoint" to "astronauts are a superior breed of human" gives me a terminal case of side-eye -- particularly since Deke himself tends to emphasize the daredevil aspects of the position: "His sudden grin blinded her. 'Because the son of a bitch flies seventeen thousand miles an hour, that's why.'" In his PR interviews he talks about all the tech and knowledge advancements that NASA makes possible -- but he doesn't see the need to clarify that those advancements are made by engineers and scientists, not the astronauts themselves. An astronaut, like a duke or a billionaire, stands at the peak of a hidden pyramid of other people's labor. Jessica feels "humbled" because the book's project is to make her realize her work is less valuable than the hero's.

Jessica's arc is one of conversion to the religion of astronaut idolatry: she comes to believe in the NASA mission so profoundly that she makes it the center of her whole life. So what if we spend several chapters with her missing winter in the city? NASA's in Florida, so she must learn to love Florida. So what if her career is everything to her when the book begins, and she's on the verge of a promotion she's been working toward for years? There's nothing noble about PR, nothing admirable -- it's all trivial, surface work that can only be redeemed by putting it to work for something that is in fact noble. Like NASA.

For Jessica to aid NASA's mission is presented as a moral step forward for her; by contrast when Deke gives an impromptu interview, saving Jessica's job after a disastrous story despite how much he loathes playing the publicity game, this is presented as him doing her a favor. A kindness, not a change of heart about the worthiness of her work. Noblesse oblige. At every turn the hero's job's superiority is emphasized over the heroine's. How convenient that her colleague tries to kill her (sigh) so she has a great justification to quit and work directly for NASA. How marvelous that her skills help advance Deke's career even after he stops flying missions: the epilogue shows him as the space correspondent for CNN, still visible and an authority while Jessica works behind the scenes. Deke gets to keep everything he had before, plus he acquires everything of hers once she's fallen in love with him. It's like colonialism by osmosis.

Although there are many parallels between Deke and Kit, the way their respective books approach the risks of space travel make a clear distinction of meaning. Kit looks at the dangers and decides that facing them over and over would be selfish: he chooses to stay on the ground for the sake of his wife. For Deke, facing fatal danger is by definition selfless, heroic. Naturally he's not going to stop being a hero. This astronaut doesn't have to sacrifice anything -- his heroine does all the sacrificing for him. In fact it's a fairly strong parallel to Melissa and Rory's story in Heaven's Time: no matter which character is the astronaut, the heroine is the one forced to make sacrifices.

This book deals least successfully with the problem of an astronaut leaving -- the opening chapter is a flash-forward that shows Deke's shuttle taking off on the horizon while Jessica worries deeply about him and collapses from an unspecified ailment. The sense of peril in this scene is vivid, and I feel the rest of the narrative failed to fit in with it. (Also, if you guessed her unspecified ailment was pregnancy, give yourself ten internet dollars. I laughed when I saw that they presented it as an emergency when the heroine went into labor two whole weeks early!) Turns out all the fear we felt for Jessica in that first chapter didn't matter, not in the slightest -- it was an easy hook for drama but is ultimately glossed over with a babylogue. If there's one sure way to ruin a romance, it's to make us feel like what we feel about the characters doesn't matter.

So where does that leave us?

It is abundantly clear that the astronaut heroes/heroines in the four books above are strongly associated with physical ideals and perfection, and since we're talking romance, ideals of beauty soon follow. At this point I'd like to remind you that all our examples are also straight, white, cis, and pointedly able-bodied (with the temporary exception of Kyle, for whatever that's worth). This narrowness of representation can hardly be a coincidence.

Earlier I mentioned that astronauts were figures of privilege as much as any duke or billionaire, and the more I think about it the more I feel like that comparison bears further exploring -- dukes and billionaires clearly are about social power and money, respectively, while astronauts are more like, well, a moral aristocracy, a very particularly American embodiment of virtue. They're smart but strong, neither meatheads nor eggheads. The perfect blend of earthy and elite. This contradictory set of strengths strikes me as uniquely American -- like Ron Swanson being a staunch feminist, or Ruth Bader Ginsburg being good friends with Antonin Scalia.

If you can think of any other astronaut romances I've missed, please add them in the comments! Otherwise I'll add another entry to this list when Star Crossed comes out next year.

Jane's Cowboy's Father's Secret Space Ranch

{Olivia never met a fake romance title she didn't immediately want to write. This story title was found during a magnificent workshop given by Courtney Milan and Alisha Rai during RWA 2016. Enjoy!} Something was wrong with the cows.

Jane glared at the GPS monitor, which showed the location of every animal the Bar Sinister Ranch owned on the plateau. Normally the herd moved as an amorphous, amoeba-like blob within the boundary fences, drifting to and fro in search of water and good grazing.

Today, they were making patterns. Human patterns. Clear, recognizable shapes no cow should know anything about. It was, to Jane's mind, odd.

She crested the final rise and brought the Jeep to a skidding stop. Sure enough, there they were. Three hundred head of Flying Guernsey, standing precisely in the outline of a giant cartoon heart.

One thing the GPS hadn't been able to show her: they were glowing.

The setting sun made it hard to be sure at first, but as Jane strode forward with boots crunching on the dry summer grass, she noticed faint silver outlines on horns and hooves. The closer she got, the brighter they became.

This was more than odd, Jane decided -- this was downright spooky.

When she moved a few steps closer, she spotted the cowboy.

He was tall and lanky and absurdly hatted, wearing a Stetson with enough silver sequins to embarrass even Autry. He leaned lazily against the boundary fence while Jane approached. As questions and curses elbowed each other aside behind her clenched teeth, he hooked one thumb beneath the brim of his hat and raised it to fully show his face.

Crap, the man was gorgeous.

Long nose, sea-blue eyes, just the right amount of stubble on a rugged chin. Lips that looked sweet enough when still, and even better when the corners turned up. "Evenin', ma'am," he drawled, all black velvet and whiskey. "I suppose these cows belong to you?"

"They sure do." Jane kept her tone firm, though she couldn't help letting her eyes wander along the sling of his hips and the long of his legs. The boots were silver, too, she noticed -- almost like aluminum foil, but stiffer. "What the the hell have you done to my cattle?"

The cowboy glanced skyward, then pushed away from the fence. Suddenly the laziness was gone replaced by a steely sense of purpose. "Sorry to tell you, they'll have to come with me."

"Sure," Jane snorted, since there was not a wheeled thing in sight besides her Jeep. "Are you planning to ride them all into the sunset?"

"Nah." The cowboy smiled, and despite herself Jane's mouth went dry. That smile was trouble, and she'd always had a weakness for trouble. "We got something a little more technical planned." He put finger and thumb up to those lips -- oh, those lips, Jane, stop staring -- and let out a piercing whistle that carried a bit farther than Jane expected it would.

The sky lit up, bright as day but twice as cold. White light poured down onto the earth, giving every blade of grass a shadow like a bared knife.

Cows rose gently from the ground, bobbing like balloons, some of them lowing in irritation at being moved and others stretching their necks to keep lipping at the grass.

"Son of a bitch!" This couldn't be happening. Jane had leveraged every last cent of credit she could squeeze out of the bank to buy this herd and put the Bar Sinister back in the black. Without these cows, she'd have nothing.

She'd worked too hard to have it all vanish now.

A callused hand clasped her shoulder, not ungently. "I'm afraid you'll be coming along with us, ma'am," said the cowboy. "Can't leave any loose ends."

Jane cursed a navy-blue streak all the way up from the ground.

~~~~~~~

The ship itself was round and silver and every surface was studded with rhinestones. "Light collectors," Ed explained. (The cowboy's name was Ed.) Everything sparkles on the moon."

Jane floated by a porthole, fuming, as the great grey sphere drew nearer outside. Ed had gone to change -- Jane had yakked all over those silver boots as soon as they reached zero-g. It wasn't exactly her proudest moment, but then again it kind of was.

The door hissed open as Ed returned, boots freshly wiped and gleaming. "I brought you something to wear for when we land," he said. "One of my sister's spare outfits." It was as silver and glittery as Ed's clothes, but with considerably more puffiness around the shoulders.

Jane hurled the thing to the floor. Tried to, anyway. The suit rebounded off the tile in the low gravity and careened ceilingward. "Put me the fuck back down!" Jane demanded.

"Could do that," Ed said, unflappable. Jane swore to herself she would flap him before this was through. "But the Men in Black would have to kill you to keep the secret safe."

"What secret?" But just then the ship rounded the curve of the moon, and the question answered itself.

Below was a vast complex of domes, spheres, and spires -- a sprawling, bubblous city that covered nearly half the moon's surface. Slender antennae swiveled to track them, and eerie neon lights flashed in cryptic patterns.

"What," said Ed, as Jane goggled. "You didn't think we came all the way up here and then just turned back around?"

It took Jane a minute to catch her breath. God, but it was beautiful. "What is it for?"

"Mining, at first," Ed said. Pride and, yes, love warmed the whiskey of his voice. "Helium-3, other minerals. But later science got a foothold. Some things are easier here than waybelow: nanotech, diamond synthesis, artificial intelligence. Some of it's been up here since Grissom. My grandmother came up around then."

"So you're…"

Ed tipped his hat. "A space cowboy, born and raised."

Jane rested one hand on the window, glass cool against her palm. Chilled by the vacuum of space just outside. "What on earth does a city like this need with my cows?"

"What else? We eat 'em. Moon-raised beef's not the same, trust me. Of course, I've got something a little different planned for this herd. You'll see." Klaxons began to sound, and Ed waved at the suit that was still bobbing cheerily around the cabin. "Gotta bring us in, but soon as you're outfitted I'll give you the ten-cent tour. Considering you're a resident now." He nodded, and something sheepish softened his features. "Welcome home."

~~~~~~~

Jane had only known about Artemis for an hour now, but that was plenty long enough to have developed certain expectations. The city had looked so dazzling at a distance, but up close the flaws queued up to introduce themselves. "You said your family'd been up here since the 70's," Jane snapped. "I didn't think you meant the 1870s."

"It's rotten, I know," Ed said, all apologies. "Dad's a little old-fashioned."

Old-fashioned didn't quite cover it: they were standing in the middle of what looked like an old movie set from a spaghetti Western, with swinging hinged doors, wooden beams, and honest-to-God ropes hanging from hooks on the walls. Mint-green grass grew hopeless and humble on a layer of washed-out topsoil. Above them, in unsettling contrast to the decor, was a glass dome ringed with solar panels. The lower panes of glass were half-blocked with the soft grey lunar dust Jane had already learned to loathe. She wrinkled her nose against the taste of that dust in the back of her mouth. They'd better have whiskey here, or she would damn walk back to Earth. "Ed, honey, this is just not going to be enough space for three hundred head of Flying Guernsey. They're a nervous breed if you pen them up -- they need room to roam."

"They're going to get it," Ed said. He'd gone all steely again. Determination suited him, and Jane's heart kicked up in spite of her irritation. She let herself enjoy the view as he strode to a broad pair of doors in the dome's wall and flung them open. The room beyond had the too-full, harried air of all storage sheds, but from out of the piles of spare parts and equipment Ed rolled a giant hollow sphere of iridescent plastic, taller than he was. "I mentioned the nanotech?" he said, grinning at Jane's confusion. "A friend of mine's been working on something for me. It's going to be a game-changer." He tapped his fingers on the side of the sphere, and grass sprang up along the lowest curve of the sphere. Ed put a hand on the side of the sphere and pushed -- instead of rolling up the side, the grass slid along to stay at the bottom as the sphere rolled over the dusty ground. Another tap of the fingers and a stream appeared, clear water making a flowing circle around the grass. "Space is at a premium up here, and of course we can't get real grass to grow on the surface," Ed said, beaming with pride like a miniature sun, "so I thought: what if the cows could take the grazing land with them when they moved?"

Jane squinted, skeptical. "So you put the cows … inside? Like a hamster ball?"

"Yep. It's climate-controlled, UV-protected, and airtight. Waste gets broken down and recycled as fertilizer, or reconstituted into more grass. You can put one of those Guernsey of yours in here and set 'em loose for days on the lunar surface, no trouble. I've got five hundred of these all set -- I was just waiting to snatch a herd that wasn't being watched too closely. Finally, free-range beef for Artemis without the import markup and trouble of going waybelow."

"Cow balls," Jane said flatly. "You've invented cow balls."

Ed laughed. "I guess I have, at that."

Jane pinched the bridge of her nose. "Why are the pretty ones always so dumb?"

Ed's face went still, and Jane had one moment to regret her thoughtless tongue. But then that smile appeared again, catching her breath. He stepped forward and rested a hand on the wall behind her, leaning in, all conspiracy. "You think I'm pretty?"

"Sure," Jane said, not at all breathlessly, no matter how much her heart hammered. "And dumb."

Ed leaned in one more inch, and Jane's whole body tightened. That whiskey-velvet voice went even lower. "Maybe I just haven't had the right teacher."

Jane licked her lips, but then her defensive instincts kicked in. "Maybe kidnapping people isn't a great way to convince them to trust you."

Ed's lean face sobered. "I'm sorry about that. And sorry I scared you."

"Scared me? You pissed me off, is what you did. Maybe I'll be scared when I have the time." When this was over. Except it would never be over. She would never go home again. Never see the sun set behind the mountains, or smell the salt breeze coming off the ocean. No more oceans, ever.

Fingers brushed her chin, tilting her head up. Ed's blue eyes peered down into hers. "Look, damn the Men in Black," he said softly. "If you want to go home, I'll take you back right now. Cows and all."

It was sweet, but it was too late. "I'd have to spend the rest of my life on the run, wouldn't I?" Ed nodded, his eyes still on hers. Jane shook her head. "I'm not the running kind."

"You sure aren't." He bent, and his lips touched hers and were gone again before she even realized what he was about. He put some distance between them and stuck out a hand. God, Jane realized, with a silent laugh -- he was blushing. It was adorable. "Partners?" he offered.

"Partners." Admittedly, the moon wasn't where she'd meant to end up as a rancher, but Jane had never been one to let the details get in the way of her dreams. She grasped Ed's hand, callus to callus. Sparks flew up her whole arm.

Ed, bless him, went stiff and steely again. "There's only one more person you have to convince: my father, Edward Goodnight III."

~~~~~~

Ned Goodnight's only concession to appropriate lunar attire was the silver fabric of his suit. In every other respect he was the nearest thing Jane had ever seen to an Old West cattle baron -- waistcoat and string tie, silver watch-chain, and a fussy calligraphy sweep of salt-and-pepper mustache. He'd been running the Mare Desiderii Beef Company the exact same way for thirty years, and from the stubborn gleam in his eye he looked forward to running it for another thirty. "I thought we put this cow ball nonsense to rest two months ago," he said, chewing on the silver end of an electronic cigar. Beside him, his second wife Corinne took notes on a transparent clipboard, her brown skin looking smooth as velvet next to the shiny silver of her moon suit. Hers was a jumpsuit, impeccably tailored, and Jane was already planning to ask where she could get one of her own.

"It's the best option we have, if we want to save the company." Ed looked so much more boyish without his hat, his chestnut hair mussed and sticking out at all angles. His eyes had the same stubborn gleam as his daddy's, though. "Face it, the MDC is a sinking ship. Profits are lower than they've ever been, and we can't turn things around unless we start making changes. Big ones. Bringing in new ideas, new blood." His eyes flicked briefly to Jane, then away.

"New ideas," Ned scoffed. "You know how many new ideas I've seen in my time? They come and go, and you could lose a whole lifetime chasing after them, but let me tell you what never changes: people have to eat."

"Sure," Ed shot back, "but they haven't been eating beef. The new GMO labs are producing plenty of tasty proteins at half the cost of imported steak."

"Supply has also been an issue," Corinne added. Her black hair was pulled back into a demure ponytail, and her ankles were crossed and tucked beneath her chair in the most ladylike way, but there was something confident in her voice that had Jane sitting up and paying better attention. Here was the power behind the throne. "Waybelow advancements in surveillance have made it more difficult to acquire the necessary numbers of raw product. It's not going to get any better, either."

"It'll come back around," Ned insisted. "Business is a cycle, you have to ride it out."

"Excuse me," Jane broke in, "but does this mean you brought my herd all the way up here just to slaughter them?"

Ned turned to face her, hands tucked into the blue sash wrapped around his silver suit. "I suppose you have a better idea?"

"Sure do," she said at once. "You moon folks know anything about running a dairy farm?"

"Dairy?" Ed looked confused, then intrigued. "Nobody's ever had a chance to try it in Artemis. We never had the pastureland to support a dairy herd. We get the dehydrated stuff from ISS transfers: powdered milk, crunchy cheese, astronaut ice cream."

"Your cow balls mean we've got the pastureland now, don't they?" Jane said.

"That's right." Ed drummed his fingers on the boardroom table, his enthusiasm building. "I've had the real stuff waybelow. Ice cream, pepper jack, sour cream. People up here would love it. They'd pay anything."

"Don't forget butter," Jane added.

Corinne paused her note-taking. "Butter?" Her gaze drifted into the distance. "I had that once." She smiled faintly, pen poised in the air. "It was the most delicious thing I've ever tasted."

Jane leaned forward, her eyes on Corinne. "Those GMO proteins the competitors' labs are making? They'll taste even better fried in butter, I guarantee it. Why fight the competition when you can force them to collaborate, and corner a unique share of the market?"

"I can have projections made within the hour," Corinne said, pen flying.

"This is all well and good," Ned huffed, "but I'm the CEO here and what I say goes."

"Not quite," Jane said. She slapped both hands down on the table. "That herd belongs to me, even if we're nowhere near my ranch. And I'm not handing them over just to be killed for a batch of steaks nobody's even going to buy. So either we turn your pastureland into a proper dairy barn -- no more of this frontier crap -- or I'm taking all three hundred cattle and going back waybelow."

"The Men in Black will find you within days," Ned growled.

"And what good will that do you, all the way up here?" Jane pushed back. "You'll be left with nothing and no hopes for the future. Bankruptcy on Earth is a vicious process, and I'm sure it's no different in Artemis. Worse, I'd guess."

From the angry spots in Goodnight's cheeks, she'd guessed right. Ned chewed on his cigar, moved it away, chewed on his mustache, and put the cigar back in his mouth. Jane raised an eyebrow in challenge. Ed bided his time and bit his lip. Finally Ned's eyes wandered to his wife, who was patiently waiting him out. "You think it'll work, Corinne?"

"I think it's the best idea I've heard in decades," she replied.

The transformation in Ned was instantaneous. "Right," he said, and shoved himself to his feet. Cigar vapor trailed him as he began pacing the office. "I'll need a list of materials -- technical specs, cattle feed, production specifics, you can give me all that, right?"

"Right," Jane said.

"Do it. Meanwhile we'll work on converting the slaughterhouse to a dairy barn, and you two'll get those cows in balls and make sure they're ready to go as soon as we are." He stopped and waved at his son. "Ed can show you the city, find you some accommodations within the family compound. Easiest if you stay close -- we're going to be going at it 24/7 for the foreseeable future."

Jane glanced out the window as Ned continued, Corinne easily keeping up with the list. Artemis spread out beneath her, glittery as a gem. A prize waiting to be seized.

"You hungry?" Ed said, and she glanced back to see he was looking nervous and adorable again. "Artemis food's a bit different than what you're used to. My fridge is stocked up right now -- I could take you back to my place, show you what moon cooking is like. If you're interested."

"Oh, I'm interested." She'd let her tone turn suggestive, making Ed blushed again. Jane wondered just how far down that blush went, and if he'd let her find out tonight or if he'd make her wait. Jane grinned -- this was going to be fun. "Show me what you got, cowboy."

THE END

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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.

To clarify, Parsons has absolutely no issue with hiring women. Many of the computers are women (just like in real life: see the wealth of links at the end of this piece). Parsons does, however, have a problem with how deeply attracted he is to Charlie's astonishing beauty. With the other computers their gender is a nonvariable, an unimportant detail he can put aside in the interests of getting the best work from the most competent people. But he can't do that with Charlie -- "his body refused to stop noticing hers" (197) -- and he loathes himself for this failing, even as he insists on hiring her for her undeniable talents. In the classic romance tradition, this self-loathing adds a potent charge to the characters' interactions on the page (Parsons happily avoids being creepy or domineering, or at least not any more domineering than he is with his male subordinates).

Charlie doesn't recognize it's attraction at first, of course. Parsons is a closed book (and locked, and chained, and encrypted…), and Dr. Eason is used to being undermined and underestimated on account of her gender: "It would never be enough. No matter how many papers she authored, no matter how many projects she successfully completed, deadlines she met, or snafus she navigated, all they'd ever be able to see were the breasts" (879). No matter how objectively skilled a woman is, her femininity is read as a flaw when it appears in spaces and roles designated masculine. She will always be imperfect by default. The same is clearly true about race, though the text only briefly glances at this. (Again, links below!)

[perfectpullquote align="right"]No matter how many papers she authored ... all they'd ever be able to see were the breasts.[/perfectpullquote]

Which is not to say there is no standard for a specifically feminine perfection, because of course there is -- rigidly defined and lionized gender roles trouble the course of both hero and heroine. There is an unwritten expectation of purity in the binary gender construct, and a sense that real, flawed humans are constantly falling short of what it means to be a perfect man or a perfect woman. Consider this bit about the astronauts' wives: "Their wives sat among the spectators, looking cool and polished, and in the case of the new Mrs. Campbell, a little bored. She didn't yet have Mrs. Reynolds' expertise in being utterly blank every second of the day" (1508). Blankness is perfectly feminine; polish is perfectly feminine; emotion and thought are to be hidden or erased while attempting to conform to the ideal.

Charlie has the markers of idealized femininity down pat: makeup, polite smiles, skirts and heels, never a sign of anger or hurt. Cool, cool as marble, polished, frozen -- these descriptions surface over and over about Charlie and other women. I feel like I've seen a lot of romance heroines characterized as 'naturally' feminine (contemporaries do this with surprising frequency): in this text high-femme presentation is explicitly a strategy for social leverage, even though it leaves women open for predation (lecherous astronaut Carruthers) and exploitation (shameless magazine photo ops to get good press for ASD): "Yes, she used her looks to gain the advantage in certain situations. But they were her looks and her advantage. She was furious that her face was going to be used to sell ASD to the public. Why couldn't they discuss the mission, the technology, and the sheer wonder of what they were trying to do? Why did it have to be the surface, the glamour, the stuff that meant nothing?" (2033). Having spent so much time constructing that surface in self-defense, Charlie is nevertheless frustrated by people who choose to treat it as the sum total of who she is. It's a double-bind that still feels far too familiar to those of us here in 2016.

Expectations of purity also underscore a beautifully ironic conflict between Charlie's love for computer programming and her parents' romanticization of physics: "For a long time, the conversation had been about Charlie's field of study. Why couldn't you go into physics like Tom? Tom the golden child, who couldn't get enough of splitting and combining atoms -- and whose genitals were the right shape" (290). Charlie's mother even pronounces the word engineering "like she might pronounce shit" (281): in her parents' eyes Charlie's intellectual talents make her too pure for her chosen profession. They believe she is squandering herself on something corrupt and pedestrian: the scorn they heap on her career choices is couched in the language of support and pride in their daughter (why isn't she living up to her potential?) but Charlie can't help but read this as scorn for her as a person -- especially in comparison to her brother, whose gender is part of what makes him the Platonically Ideal Physicist. All this despite the fact that the pure 'secrets of the universe physics' the elder Easons are so enamored with is the actual Manhattan Project. Hardly a landmark of non-applied, non-militarized, above-it-all science.

Meanwhile, Parsons' family offers a contrasting image of masculine perfection in war hero brother George. He's smart, handsome, charming, and brave: the town is literally putting up a statue to him to memorialize his death in combat. Like younger siblings the world over, Parsons feels he suffers by comparison: "I felt like I was this weaker, lesser version of him and could never measure up" (1795). This sense of falling short mixes with grief and guilt (Parsons and George had argued before he was killed) and poisons Parsons' interactions with ex-Nazi rocket scientist Friedrich Gerhardt (clearly a von Braun analogue). Gerhardt's presence not only reminds Parsons of the masculine standards he feels he fails to meet, but he's also an indication that the world itself is the furthest thing from perfect: "The fact that George -- his wonderful, boisterous, heroic brother -- wasn't here and Gerhardt was was all the evidence Parsons needed to know the universe was fundamentally fucked" (1676).

Defining the universe as unfair, perverse, and cruel is absolutely vital in a historical that addresses sexism and misogyny in such a head-on manner. We know -- at least, if we've been reading tons of books about the Cold War and the Space Race and the Manhattan Project, have you not? -- that Charlie's contributions are not only neglected by her contemporaries, but also erased from the broad historical narrative. Like Lise Meitner, Margaret Hamilton, Hazel Ying Lee and the WASPthe Mercury 13, the real-life women of NASA, and countless others, Charlie's battle against discrimination and diminishment will be endless and unrewarded. She'll be written out of the narrative, and that unwriting will be used to deny women spaces and voices in decades to come.

[perfectpullquote align="left"]The fact that George wasn't here and Gerhardt was was all the evidence Parsons needed to know the universe was fundamentally fucked.[/perfectpullquote]

What saves this point of view from being far too harsh to nourish a romance plot is the last and, I think, best definition of perfection: something that is neither too little nor too much, but just right. This is perfection as completion: two satellites meeting in orbit against all odds, the whole becoming greater than the sum of its parts. What makes this kind of life-saving perfection possible? Love, of course.

If you think I wasn't hearing Origin of Love while rereading this, think again. (Two Plato references in one blog post! It's a banner Thursday.)

An early passage sees Parsons thinking of himself and Charlie in astrodynamic terms: "She was the capsule here, serenely making her orbits, while he was the rocket casing, jettisoned to burn up in the long fall back to earth" (158). Geeky penis metaphors aside (come on, right?), Parsons continually views himself as secondary to Charlie, as a resource who's only there to be used and discarded so she can achieve her proper glorious heights. He's a man who demands perfection, but once he decides she is perfect, his devotion is absolute: "I'll work to get you whatever you need, Charlie. You know that" (1305). This is undoubtedly part of what makes Parsons work so well as a version of the Demanding Boss hero archetype, which usually makes me grimace: the dedication and generosity he displays toward the mission and toward Charlie more than balance out the barked orders and fraying temper.

Charlie recognizes this devotion and even refers to Parsons once as an "acolyte" (916); she also envisions their relationship in terms that echo his : "She didn't think she was perfect, but she thought that together, they might be more than they were apart. Together they might be something like it" (2465). The inevitable crisis in the relationship is paralleled by a crisis in a planned orbital rendezvous mission. Charlie and Parsons have to navigate their way back to one another emotionally even as they maneuver two soaring metal ships within kissing distance of one another. Their final reconciliation is as subtle, tense, and minutely managed as any astronaut's docking procedure.  It's a sublime and elegant piece of work and as an author I am equal parts delighted and envious.

Charlie and Parsons' HEA doesn't make the world perfect -- he's still going to be snappish, and she'll still be subject to plenty of micro- and macro-aggressions --  but it shows they've earned the kind of perfection they find with each other. And what more can a romance possibly offer?

 

___

Barry, Emma, and Turner, Genevieve. Earth Bound. Amazon Digital Services, 2016. Kindle edition.

___

Further Reading:

  • You know about the Hidden Figures book and movie already, right? Taraji P. Henson, Janelle Monáe? I could not possibly be more excited.
  • But since that's not out until September, here is Rise of the Rocket Girls, a primer on the race to the moon focusing on women's contributions and participation.
  • Also Amelia Earhart's Daughters, which expands the years examined and looks at women pilots in WWII and the Cold War.
  • Something from the Russian side of all this: The Night WitchesMost of the prose in this book about Russian women flying bombing runs in WWII comes straight from interviews with survivors, so it's a little plain prose-wise -- but you cannot beat the level of detail and vividness.
  • Girls of Atomic City. Summers spent driving by Hanford on our way to Eastern Washington campsites kicked off my fascination with the Atomic Age. (You might have noticed this is something of a pet topic of mine, huh?) But Hanford was basically a glorified military base -- Oak Ridge was a whole damn city, with segregated living spaces and sock hops and I swear to God a rabbit breeding club.
  • Also great: 109 East Palace, about a woman who worked as Oppenheimer's trusted secretary (and front) during the early days of Los Alamos.

Linda Belcher's Nautical Romance Novel Covers If They Were Written By Brave Literary Men

You'll be thrilled to hear that finally some brave literary man is daring to write about sex! Sex with teenage girls, in relationships with incestuous overtones and questionable power dynamics! How very avant-garde of him, I'm sure. Meanwhile we romance authors are over here doing ... whatever it is we do. Not literature, certainly. Not art of any kind. The stuff we do is called genre fiction ("we agree upon a few rules in advance") or commercial fiction ("the stuff we all know sells the most") or women's fiction ("people who aren't women can safely ignore it") or chick lit ("people who aren't young women can safely ignore it"). Brave Literary Men write for other Brave Literary Men. They are authors writing at other authors, particularly the dead greats of the early and mid-twentieth century (Joyce, Hemingway, F. Scott, Updike, Roth, etc.)

Who do romance authors write for? Ourselves, a lot of the time. Other times, we write for Linda Belcher.

Linda Belcher is a mom, but that's not all she is. She's more human than Wilma Flintstone and more fun than Marge Simpson. She loves her family, and wine, and dinner theater. She has dreams that involve her husband and her kids, and she has dreams for herself apart from them.

She reads romance novels.

She reads nautical romance novels with deliciously absurd titles and clinch covers loaded with man-abs.

I find I loathe the thought of anyone making Linda Belcher feel small because she has a few splashy escapist reads lying around.

So instead of going on a rant about Brave Literary Men, I have made Linda Belcher some new covers to put on her romance novels, so she others will think she's reading about something appropriately intellectual and reflective instead of an adventurous ocean romance starring a strong heroine and her man-candy. Several images. Above, large: two sailboats, nestled cozily together. Below, repeated several times: a semi-clothed man and woman in a clinch. Title text: Ahoy! Mating, a Naughty Nautical Novel.Two images: on the left, a boat moored on a dock. Focus is on the knot of frayed rope coming off the boat. On the left, a shirtless man. His abs blend nicely with the twist of rope. Title text: All Hands On Rick, a Naughty Nautical Novel.

Three images. One: a woman with dark hair in a red sweater stands on a boat deck, looking out across the water. Two: smaller underneath, a small boat with a linen tarp. Three: smaller underneath, a bearded gentleman adjusts the tie beneath his crewneck sweater. Title text: The Seaman's Wife, a Naughty Nautical Novel.Two images. Above, a lanky young man with thick leather and twine bracelets holds out his hand to someone else. Below, a knot of deep blue rope in close-up. Title text: the Sensuous Swabbie, a Naughty Nautical novel.

The Billionaire Bait-and-Switch

{This is less review and more analysis. It goes without saying that there are spoilers all up in here, so be warned.} I had no business reading this book. My only defense is that the blurb said the couple would go "from spreadsheets to bed sheets" and I was captivated by the wordplay.

Cover for Jennifer Hayward's The Magnate's Manifesto.I do not generally have a positive response to the Battle of the Sexes trope in romance. (For example, this fiasco.) So although I do enjoy the occasional HP, I am clearly not this book's target audience.

"Not this book's target audience" is definitely the nicest thing I can say about The Magnate's Manifesto.

The truest thing I can say is: never have I so intensely and consistently wanted to punch a hero right in his crotch.

Oh, there is such a long rant I could write about Jared Stone, the magnate of the title. Every pet peeve I could have with a hero, he wears like a badge of honor. He's controlling, cruel, hypocritical, self-righteous, and publicly handsy with his heroine/employee. At two-thirds of the way through, he gets so mad at the heroine that he has to fight off the urge to strangle her. This happens to be one of my biggest personal NOPE buttons in a romance. For me, the HEA died right there on the page.

But a romance hero is a made thing. A romance hero is a generated by the novel he appears in, the way nuclear reactors generate radioactive byproducts. So now that I am up to my neck in this particular brand of toxic sludge, it's less useful to describe how nauseous I feel and more useful to talk about exactly how the reactor is misfiring.

Note: this does not mean I'll be speculating about the author's intentions. She seemed very pleasant and professional when we chatted briefly on Twitter. I will, though, be questioning the value of her choices as they appear on the page. If you can't parse the difference, feel free to tell your friends I am Not Nice. It's probably true.

Putting the 'Man' in 'Manifesto'

Category romance as a form is often quite elegantly balanced. Which is to say: if the hero writes a manifesto to start the plot rolling, odds are he'll write a second manifesto at the climax to resolve the conflict. And indeed, Jared does. These two essays, both published as full-page pieces in the Chronicle, mark the beginning and the end of our hero's character arc.

Here is the start of the first manifesto, titled "The Truth About Women":

Having dated and worked with a cross-section of women from around the globe, and having reached the age where I feel I can make a definitive opinion on the subject matter, I have come to a conclusion: Women lie.

Oh, he's not done:

They want a man who will take care of them, who gives them a hot night between the sheets and diamond jewelry at appropriate intervals. Who will prevent them from drifting aimlessly through life without a compass…

MANifesto indeed. Pretty standard misogynist talking points, with the usual built-in logical paradoxes. Notice how women are both dangerously active ("women lie," "women start every day with an agenda") and contemptibly passive (without a man they're just "drifting aimlessly through life"). You'll be unsurprised to hear that Jared has a poor view of women and marriage because his mother was a money vampire who bled his father dry. When the money ran out, so did she. Jared's father fell to pieces, and his son wears that resentment like an aegis because romance heroes are apparently allowed to judge all women based on the actions of one woman who's hurt them personally.

As a result of overcoming a wealthy but emotionally bankrupt childhood, Jared considers himself a superior kind of person. A leader. "A gilded ray of brilliance for all to follow." That is a direct quote, and possibly the most flat-out arrogant thing I've ever seen a hero say. It is like supervillain language.

Now, on the one hand, we know the hero's going to have to be humbled at some point. That's how romance novels go. Yet the power is part of the acknowledged HP fantasy: we know, we canny romance readers, that the hero of a Harlequin Presents will remain on top of his game, that he will wind up victorious at the end of the book. I am unable to reconcile my two realizations at this part of the story: 1) this man's views are profoundly shitty and awful, and 2) this man will ultimately get what he wants.

It's easy to believe, reading this first MANifesto, that the book is setting up Jared's attitude as the problem to be solved by the course of the plot. Because his attitude is a problem. It is a problem for millions of anonymous women in the book, who respond with "international female outrage." His attitude is a problem for his company's PR team and his mentor and his investors and his board. It is a problem for Jared's employee, heroine Bailey St. John, who immediately marches into his office with her resignation letter in hand. The only one who doesn't see the problem here is Jared himself, because of course this document was "just a joke." He says this quite a lot, in fact, with very bad grace. He resents the idea that a joke could have consequences outside his intentions.

Does his attitude actually get fixed in the rest of the book? To answer this, let's take a look at the second manifesto (italics for ease of block quoting):

"Experience had taught me that many women do not want the career life we as a society have insisted they do. That cries of a glass ceiling were perpetuated by females caught up in their own self-deception. And if the truth be known, I was not overly sold on a woman's place in the boardroom, nor her ability to stand toe-to-toe with a man.

"Then I had the chance to work with a woman I have admired for years ... I have to admit I severely underestimated her. [Several sentences praising Bailey's skill as a thinker and marketer.] 

"This extraordinary woman also taught me something else. Something far more important than the value of a woman in the boardroom. She has proven me wrong about a woman's place in my life. Hers."

This second manifesto is correcting a different problem entirely. The initial one showed: Jared Stone has shitty opinions about women. This manifesto insists: I have learned that women are capable but more importantly, now I have a great relationship. The idea that Jared's personal happiness is more important than institutionalized sexism? Pretty sexist. Jared has obviously learned nothing.

You'll have guessed that this second manifesto also contains a marriage proposal, because it's a Grand Romantic Gesture at the end of a Presents. Part of what Jared promises is, no shit: "I can offer you a lion in the bedroom because that part is still true and I know you like it. Love it, actually."

My reaction is twofold:

1) Women like good sex, news at 11.

2) This is a public, full-page piece in the San Francisco Chronicle. Addressed to a woman who is still an employee and subordinate. Marry me so I can keep giving you that good deep dicking you enjoy, says our supposedly unchauvinised hero. That Bailey enjoys sex is not a problem. But for her employer to take out a full-page ad crowing about how much she likes the fuckin'? When she's in marketing and her job is all about perception? When in practice women get shamed and punished much more than men for the exact same sexual behavior?

That is a goddamn problem.

The Virgin Business Stripper

Jared's manifestos are not the only example of this book moving the goalposts.

Heroine Bailey St. John (I know, right?) starts as an ambitious, dedicated career woman, a living counterargument to Jared's sexist beliefs. He promotes her under protest as a desperate PR move, though literally every other character tells him he's an idiot for not having promoted her earlier. We're set up for a classic Extraordinary Woman Proves Sexism Wrong narrative -- not one of my faves, as noted above -- when it's revealed that Bailey worked her way through business school in Las Vegas as a high-end stripper.

Okay, I guess we're going somewhere with this?

Turns out Bailey's childhood was both emotionally and financially bankrupt. She had nothing except her looks, so she made those work for her and got out. Now comes the part of the story where Heroine's Lurid Past Threatens To Destroy All She's Worked For. Because of course the French dude Jared needs to impress to seal the deal of the century recognizes Bailey from her days as a dancer. And says he'll be much more amenable to signing the contract if Bailey spends the night with him. French Dude is basically the living reflection of Bailey's sexualized past and he is so fucking frightening that it is unreal. I mean, seriously, props to the author for my complete terror of this guy and what he was going to do. (Spoiler: nothing. He does nothing. A few creepy scenes and poof, he's gone.) Jared works himself into a jealous froth, sweeps Bailey up in his arms, and now we're set to kick off the physical part of the relationship.

Which is when our heroine confesses that actually, she's a virgin.

Jared says "You are goddamn joking" and drops her on her ass on the floor. Which is the most I ever liked him, but the scene unfortunately punctures suspension of disbelief pretty thoroughly.

Then Jared goes back to being hateful and gets mad at the heroine for being a virgin because he doesn't fuck virgins.

Look, the no-virgins rule makes sense in older historical periods, when breach of promise was a real legal threat. It makes no damn sense in 2015 San Francisco. And yet: "he didn't do the big V. Wasn't capable of it. It would be like asking him to vote Republican. To suggest he leave a big messy pile in the middle of his impeccably clean desk.

"Clean desk, clean mind, his Zen master had told him on that thirty-day search to find his soul."

Did you guys know Buddhism was about finding your soul in thirty days through proper desk organization? I did not. This fucking guy.

So that's our heroine: an ambitious businesswoman (driven, high-achieving) revealed as former stripper (feminine, sexualized) revealed as frigid virgin (innocent, vulnerable). None of these layers blend well together. She's like a human version of that Friends episode where the cookbook pages get stuck together and Rachel ends up putting ground beef in the dessert.

The Bait and Switch

At the end of all this, Jared's big moment of revelation doesn't come from the heroine at all. It comes from his estranged father. Wouldn't you know it, reading Jared's manifesto made him want to reach out and tell his son that it wasn't the evil golddigger wife who was the problem -- no, his dad "lost his mind" because of "his lack of faith in himself. His inability to follow his dreams."

So the real problem all along was that Jared Stone, self-described gilded ray of brilliance, didn't believe in himself.

Have we been reading the same book?

Meanwhile, the heroine is also having the rug pulled out from under her: turns out a clause in her shiny new contract states Jared can fire her, for any reason, after sixty days. It's an escape hatch, a way to mitigate the supposed risk of hiring a token female executive, and I'm with Bailey in finding this deceptive and hurtful. "Be reasonable," Jared scolds her, because he's the worst.

To her everlasting credit, Bailey promptly dumps his ass. Which may be why at least one Goodreads review refers to her as a bitch. I disagreed: I would have enjoyed at least 50% more bitchiness, at minimum. I grew fond of Bailey in spite of her inconsistent characterization. It felt like I was the only person who was going to support her -- the narrative offers her cruelty by coincidence (what are the odds slimy French Dude would remember one stripper from ten years ago?) and for all the hero's lip service to respect and trust, his actions undermine the heroine's comfort and security at nearly every turn.

The points outlined above are the biggest bait-and-switch moments, but there are plenty of others: small derailing moments in dialogue, false equivalencies everywhere (dating a virgin = voting Republican = having a messy desk, remember?), worries that are raised and treated as weighty obstacles only to be resolved in a page or dropped entirely. A chameleon heroine (and not in a fun shifter kind of way.) A hero we're told over and over again is brilliant -- using that actual word -- but who always picks the most obvious, least considered path.

The main mechanism of this book, both in dialogue and in structure, is to set up a game and then change the rules in the final quarter. In another genre, without romance's promise of stability and union, this technique could be subversive. Here, it's aggravating and dishonest. This book, like its hero, is desperate to avoid dealing with the consequences of its words. It promises one thing then hands you something else and expects you to be grateful for the effort.

A romance hero's entire job is to satisfy -- but this book is dissatisfying on every possible level.

___

For more long-form romance criticism, check out the other For the Love of Lit Crit posts or the Intersectional Feminism A - Z series.

For billionaires who deliver, try Courtney Milan's Trade Me or Alisha Rai's Gentleman in the Street. For disclosure's sake I should mention I am friendly with both authors on Twitter, even though saying that feels like a humblebrag.

 

Jane Austen's Small-Town Caribbean

Jane Austen only ever wrote one duke. He doesn't even appear on the page. He warrants a brief secondhand mention during the amateur theatricals of Mansfield Park, and POOF, farewell to his grace. There are a few titled Austen characters floating around in the novels, but even such plain titles as Sir, Lord, or Lady are rarefied and remarkable among all the misses and misters.

Caught as we are in the current wave of Ducaphilia, it's hard for us to dissociate Austen from the sparkling titles that abound in modern historical romance. Every duke is a Darcy, after all, a well-bred, well-monied, appropriately snobby catch of a man. A lot of this transformation we can lay at Georgette Heyer's door -- the Austen --> Heyer --> Julia Quinn geneology seems pretty self-evident. (And there are plenty of names we could sub in for Quinn in that third step, no mistake: Eloisa James and Sarah MacLean, for instance.) But Austen's primary heroines are untitled, unlanded, and uncomfortably financed. The social ground is always ready to shift beneath their feet.

Cover art for Summer for Scandal by Lydia San Andres.Which is why it fits so nicely when Lydia San Andres' delightful Summer for Scandal transposes the structure of Pride and Prejudice to Arroyo Blanco, a fictional Caribbean town in 1911. Here social status can rise and fall with the speed of a rumor, small-scale authority can flex its muscle like a tyrant, and the course of a woman's whole life can be changed by something as ordinary as tipping over a rowboat in a lagoon. (White linen, lagoon swims, and guava jelly -- reading this book made me yearn for the tropics.)

At the same time, the story reverses several key dynamics of Austen's novel, and part of the fun for this reader was tracing how those changes worked within and against the familiar P&P pattern. This makes for a strong, elegant romance that gets better and more profound the more I look at it.

Naturally, spoilers will abound from here on out.

We begin with engaging heroine Emilia Cruz, a famed poet's daughter, ardent suffragette, and secret author of a shockingly lurid serialized romance that's taking Arroyo Blanco by storm. If you're not already leaping to click that buy link above, well, then we're very different people. Her father has been drowning his sorrows in rum since her mother died, and the family budget has been shrinking down to nothing since her father stopped writing. Shades of Mr. Bennet and the entailment, which makes murky his daughters' future.

But Emilia has options Elizabeth Bennet did not: the True Accounts, as her lush Arabian Nights-inflected romance is called, brings in enough money to supplement her sister Susana's schoolteacher salary and support them in reasonable comfort. The novel's end hints that marriage may actually hold her back, earnings-wise -- so her situation is nearly the reverse of Elizabeth's, in terms of financial incentives.

At the same time, because Emilia is putting her work out there to be judged publicly, she has to contend with criticism on a level Elizabeth Bennet never imagined, despite all her embarrassing family's antics. As Mr. Bennet says: "Wherever you and Jane are known you must be respected and valued; and you will not appear to less advantage for having a couple of -- or I may say, three very silly sisters" (Austen chapter 41). But Emilia Cruz has to sit by and bite her tongue as her literary hero snipes at her story's "blatant disregard for coherence" (San Andres, Kindle location 116). This is a much deeper wound than Darcy disparaging Elizabeth's looks.

That literary hero, Mr. Ruben Torres, is in fact our literary hero, and he is most definitely a Darcy. His family is well-off, and Ruben himself is described in the most effusive of terms:

She'd read his book, a debut so brilliant it had been lauded by all the critics, and had switched their newspaper subscription to El Diario Nuevo solely because she enjoyed reading his book reviews, which were intelligent, thoughtful, and so filled with a sharp, witty humor that more often than not she found herself laughing out loud. He was one of the writers she most admired.

And he hated her stories. (Kindle location 83)

This is riches indeed, to a writing heroine. Ten thousand a year is nothing compared to this wealth of critical acclaim and literary respectability. It's also notable that Ruben Torres' skill with a pen is what won our heroine's interest, just as Darcy's letter is what moves Elizabeth into a more charitable frame of mind. Literary brilliance is also something that makes a more understandable, democratic foundation for pride: it's not class snobbery, really (though, you know, it is) but the snobbery of talent that Ruben has to overcome to earn his happy ending.

Of course, the pride of talent is its own kind of prison. J. K. Rowling borrowed the name Robert Gailbraith to see her work judged on its merits and not by the expectations of her past work; here, Ruben hides behind a pen name as the editor of Blanco y Negro, a viciously biting gossip sheet. "Pseudonyms," he says, "are masks for cowards to hide behind" (105): he's criticizing himself, really, but Emilia bristles on her own behalf and begins arguing in defense of her work. This is a beautifully tense point of conflict, and a very effective modernizing of the initial division between Darcy and Elizabeth.

As with Austen, there's a sweeter secondary romance as a contrast to the snappy banter of our main couple: Ruben is in town because his friend Luis Rojas is returning from a college stint. Luis immediately gets googly-eyed over Susana, who's loved him since childhood and moons happily right back. Ruben, like Darcy before him, is aghast -- but not because he thinks Susana is unworthy. Rather, he doubts Luis' steadfastness as a lover, based on a checkered past full of well-meant flings and one disastrously broken betrothal. This is Bingley as imagined by Wodehouse, and I'd be lying if I said I wasn't giggling with joy and totally sympathizing with Ruben's delicate predicament.

Which, it turns out, is totally misguided. Luis is in fact as deeply, steadily, irrevocably in love with Susana as she is with him: all those flings were merely his way of getting comfortable with the dynamics of relationships until he could come home and try it out for real with the girl of his dreams. While Bingley and Jane would never have been reunited without Darcy and Elizabeth's stage-managing, Susana and Luis are meant to be -- maybe even more so than our primary hero and heroine. They would have had a perfectly ordinary, undramatic romance, if only our protagonists had never interfered. Ruben is the cause of the same implausible reversals and dramatic misunderstandings that he so abhors in Emilia's True Accounts.

The Accounts themselves offer an interesting subversive space in terms of the sexual double standard, which San Andres's world shares with Austen's. We are not, I think, meant to take it as an irony that Emilia is a virgin when she begins publishing this lust-filled romp. She may be a virgin, but she's done her research:

Emilia leaned back against the cushions and began to write a short description of the contents of the sultan's trousers .... a great deal of the things she wrote about were born from things she'd read in books she'd had to order from Ciudad Real, as the library in Arroyo Blanco lacked most kinds of salacious literature. (275)

Writing, specifically about sex, offers escape not merely from money woes but also from the rigid expectations of feminine purity and virginity culture. It is an outlet and an exploration, and even a means of seducing Ruben once she decides that's something she wants to do. (The sex scenes are A+, luminous and fun and, well ... did you ever want to hug two characters while they were doing it on the page? Is that just me?) It is not every light-hearted romance that could engage so savvily and successfully with the craft and uses of literature. For instance: Ruben makes notes and suggestions on a manuscript of Emilia's, which mean she has to make notes on his notes, and she gets so carried away by this textual intercourse that she sneaks out of her house in the middle of the night and demands he take her to bed. Words and bodies all entwining. It's lovely.

Part of this might be my own nostalgic lens coloring the text: for one thing, I won Mr. Waite's heart by translating dirty Latin poetry at him. For another, when I was a grad student, much of the romance-centered scholarship I found centered on how romantic fiction was politicized and functioned as allegory in Latin American history. (Oh, hey, look, there's a hint of this on Wikipedia.) With a Hispanic hero and heroine, both authors, deliberately constructing themselves as interpreters of human experience, it's hard not to see parallels. I wish I'd had the knowledge base to read more of that scholarship. I was/am wistful at the thought that romance could be part of a major cultural conversation, rather than a niche interest, the way it often feels in American media despite its consistent popularity.

Speaking of sex, there's a Wickham analogue here, too: Cristobal Mendez. He's plausibly awful: a debt-ridden, venomous, mean-spirited scoundrel. He's also technically our heroine's boss -- she works as a typist, when she's not writing -- reversing the Wickham-as-outsider pattern found in Austen. He's very much a figure of institutional power and sexual aggression: "He reminded Emilia of the duke [from the Accounts] -- wealthy and lazy and so very good looking it was inconceivable to him that a woman wouldn't swoon if he so much as glanced her way" (1025). A centralized Wickham is a terrifying Wickham, because he is a Wickham who cannot be escaped; nor will he disappear into the wilds of London and leave our heroine in peace. Because he is so central to Arroyo Blanco, he is not a Wickham who Ruben has natural leverage over, either: he presents a very real problem. This problem, like all the others, is solved by writing, though I leave it to you, Reader, to discover precisely how.

 

So far I've said nothing about the feminist subtext of the novel, but there's plenty of it worth discussing: for instance, the big social event at the climactic moment is not a ball or a picnic, but a book fair, run by the women of the town. Much of the secondary conflict also emerges from the suffragette society many of the younger women are a part of: there is a debate on what sort of literature feminists should endorse as being good for women (NO I'M NOT CRINGING IN RECOGNITION YOU'RE CRINGING IN RECOGNITION). If you wonder how it's feminist for feminists to be in conflict, may I point out that none of these issues revolve around women competing for dudes? And that respectability politics are still right here beside us modern-day feminists? (E.g. "If we keep our tone civil, we'll convince more dudes to treat us like people.") Naturally our heroine comes down on the side of escapist literature being just as necessary as feminist articles -- but it's not presented as a moral triumph, with the villainess being humiliated. Her exposure as the author of the True Accounts is a choice she makes for herself, but it still has some pretty unpleasant fallout she can't avoid just by being self-confident and strong.

It's been a roundabout argument, but I think what I'm trying to get at here is that Austen's world feels completed at the end of Pride and Prejudice: the good people have married good people, the evil people have married evil people, all our thematic threads have been neatly tied up and carefully knotted. Summer for Scandal manages to take the same basic structure, and with a few flipped switches end up with something much more fluid and ambiguous. The ending is really more of a beginning, with our protagonists poised to begin a new and unexplored phase of their respective careers, with new understandings of their place in their families and community -- all of which imply major changes to a place we've spent the book getting to know. Villains of long standing have been removed, old feuds patched, and emotional landscapes reimagined: there is the sense not of coming to an end, but a world being remade into something better than it was before.

And isn't that the happiest of endings?

___

Austen, Jane. Pride and Prejudice. The Republic of Pemberley. Accessed September 29, 2015.

San Andres, Lydia. Summer for Scandal. Amazon Digital Services: July 2015. Ebook.

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.

 

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.

Choire Sicha had this to say in the New York Times:

Public shamings are often described in this book in terms of physical violence ...Twitter users have “taken a lot of scalps,” Ronson writes. “We were soldiers making war on other people’s flaws.”

It so happens that I have been ganged up on online, and I have also been beaten up by actual gangs of men on the street. The actual beating is — surprise! — exponentially worse.

Jane's post touches briefly on this same point: "male identity is often measured around his net worth or, at the very least, his ability to make money. Take that away from a male and, generally speaking, you’ve eviscerated him."

Generally speaking, of course, but not actually. I cannot emphasize this enough. Emotional violence is devastating -- but it is not really one-to-one comparable to physical violence. Especially since physical trauma so frequently brings emotional fallout as well. PTSD is a real thing and it sucks. Plus, for a woman, online abuse has a direct connection to real, actual, physical threats: just ask Brianna Wu or Anita Sarkeesian or Zoe Quinn or Adria Richards, or any woman who's had to vacate her home after daring to put words together on the internet.

When women protest online abuse, it's not only because they wish to avoid emotional pain: it's also because they wish to exist safely in the physical world.

Jane continues: "There’s probably nothing more confusing for a man like Ronson than the rape fantasy. He’s been told that just getting rape threats is enough to adversely affect the mental health of a woman. Yet, 60% to 2/3 of women (according to varying studies) have had this fantasy at one time."

At the risk of glibness: there is a vast difference between "imagining rough, even very rough, even nonconsensual sex" in your own head and "this actual human stranger on the internet has some very specific and uniquely vile acts to describe doing to you in hideous detail." And to be honest I'm a little past caring about how difficult it is for poor Mr. Ronson to comprehend the twisty, contradictory brains of Teh Ladeez.

But notice what's also happening here: Jane is extending empathy toward the unempathetic Ronson. She's trying to tease out his thought process on an intimate level. She's willing to allow the evisceration metaphor (for now) if it's the best he can do. She's giving Ronson the benefit of the doubt.

The next passage: "In some ways, I believe the [rape] fantasy is about eradicating the base line fear that lurks in the back of many women’s minds any time they are alone with a stranger or if not eradicating it, reclaiming it. If I am okay with being taken by force, the line of thinking would go, then I can survive this."

This is Jane empathizing with women who have rape fantasies -- note she is not saying that all women secretly want to be taken. She's presenting the rape fantasy as a symptom of oppressive patriarchy, a reaction to a deep-seated and highly gendered threat. The fear that lurks in the back of many women's minds any time they are alone with a stranger. (Though most rapists aren't strangers at all.) She slips quoteless into first-person language: this is an even more intimate identification than before.

Which makes the passage immediately following kind of a wrench: "Women have been shamed over certain fantasies, arguing that those consenting role-playing fantasies lend itself to confusion to the male population. By creating a shame surrounding the fantasy, by questioning its equivalence to actual rape, the critics are taking the control and power away from the women who enjoy it."

First, we have the straw man argument: some people apparently believe those consenting role-playing fantasies lend itself to confusion to the male population. Citation very much needed. I'm not convinced that "But it's confusing to dudes!" has ever been the rallying cry of romance readers who like their love scenes clearly consensual. "But this makes the hero feel skeevy to me, a reader" is much more common, I would think.

Next, we have this amorphous enemy group: the critics. Who are they, exactly? People who object to rape fantasies in romance, I guess -- hard to reach any other conclusion. And what do they do, precisely? The critics are taking control and power away from the women who enjoy it.

So: critics of rape in romance are ... doing something that sounds an awful lot like a metaphor for rape.

Note the stark lack of any empathy for these critics.

Granted, any time someone mentions "the critics" in a piece I tend to lump myself in automatically. Know thyself, etc. But notice how suddenly the rhetoric becomes antagonistic: Jane's not saying at least they're trying like she did with Ronson, she's not slipping into their mindset like she did with rape-fantasy-fans, she's saying these people are harming women, with an implied and they should stop.

But this isn't the biggest failure of empathy in Jane's piece.

I want to talk about the heroine in the rape-fantasy scene -- because it looks like nobody else is going to.

Jane's conclusion leans heavily on Robin's earlier piece on this same topic, where the success of the rape fantasy depends on how much "the reader consents on behalf of the heroine."

Fiction is flexible: fiction is not real life. Headspace is different than meatspace. But increasingly I find myself skeptical of the idea that as long as the reader's good to go, the heroine's consent is essentially unrequired. Take this segment where Robin analyzes a forced-seduction scene from Anna Campbell's Claiming the Courtesan: "It is a perfectly ironic scenario: the hero forces himself on the heroine, violates her bodily privacy and autonomy, in order to catalyze her acceptance of her own powerful and passionate nature." Rape: it's apparently good for her.

The heroine has virtually no agency in that description. The hero Does A Thing, Sexually, and the heroine reacts to it. He catalyzes her acceptance. She ... accepts. She doesn't even have a choice, narratively speaking. By Robin's metrics, this HEA either succeeds or fails on the strength of the reader's consent.

My perpetual question: Why do these posts constantly frame the heroine's lack of consent as trivial?

Asked another way: Why is the hero's sexual control more valuable to the reader than the heroine's willing participation?

I can try to answer that question: in rape fantasies, the reader is empathizing not with the heroine/victim, but with the hero/predator. Again, if the primary cultural model for sexual behavior is masculine = active/feminine = passive, there's an incentive to inhabit the masculine role for the purpose of regaining emotional agency/control. "Rape very much is about control being taken from a person," Jane says. "It’s an act of power, cruelty and dominance." She's explained that rape fantasies result from a specifically feminized fear. So the rape fantasy must be about reclaiming control -- and empathy with a predatory hero in fiction may be how it accomplishes this.

In which case, it's a stopgap solution at best. You know how else we could eliminate the fear of being raped? By working to build a real world in women don't have to be so afraid of becoming victims.

Jane's conclusion, which I'm going to quote at length, emphasizes this dynamic:

Both the reader and the person who experiences the forced-sex role play in real life—has the power to turn off the fantasy at any time. The reader walks away from the book, the person who is the taken in the role-play can (or at least should be able to) give the safe word at any time and end the experience. It’s the ability of a woman to separate fact (rape) from fiction (role playing). The refusal to allow women to do this is an exertion of the male privilege paradigm over one where women have power and agency (not over men but over their own bodies and their own fantasies).

Emphasis mine.

How safe this paragraph makes rape fantasies sound! Just like proper BDSM, with safewords and aftercare and boundaries. The reader walks away from the book.

You know who doesn't get to walk away from the rape in the book? The heroine.

Lilah Pace's Asking for It presents a heroine who, to judge from the excerpts, is all about negotiating consent. She has a rape fantasy, she's acting it out in a controlled setting, she's pushing her own boundaries and making her partner abide by her rules. It's good writing, as far as I can tell. But because it's so very controlled, it's not a representative basis for a defense of all rape fantasies in the history of romance. In order to find comfort and control in rape scenes from, say, The Flame and the Flower, the reader has to disregard the heroine's refusal almost entirely. It's an entirely different power dynamic. And refusing a heroine's control of her own body sounds like it might be ... what was the phrase ... an exertion of the male privilege paradigm.

'Forced seduction' as a concept starts to look a lot like 'legitimate rape.'

Yes, the heroine is fictional. But she appears woman-shaped, and we treat her as such. How we treat heroines reflects on how we think of women -- how could it not? We expect them to be good, to be nurturing, to be thin, to be selfless, etc. etc. etc. Plenty of ink has been spilled to describe how romance readers are notoriously hard on heroines: how could the lack of empathy with a heroine's sexual victimization be completely unconnected from that framework?

I am not arguing that rape scenes shouldn't be written into romance, ever; I'm not saying that anyone who gets turned on by a dubcon scene should be ashamed of themselves. I am just arguing for my right to feel creeped out when I come across rape in my romances, especially when the rape scenes are received enthusiastically by readers and reviewers. Put most simply, it comes down to this: I don't trust anyone, not even myself, to consent on a heroine's behalf. I'm rooting for her and her happy ending. I'm on her side.

It's that pesky empathy thing.

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.