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

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.

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.

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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]

B006G2EX1I

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

{For more stories, albeit with fewer ruminants, please check out my books page or sign up for my charming monthly newsletter.}

 

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.

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

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

Comments with further recommendations will be happily entertained.

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

“Thanks,” he said. “It’s mine.”

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

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

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

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

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

The Beekeeper's Ball by Susan Wiggs.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hiding from Hollywood by Ellie Darkins.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

12. A cute boy walks into a deli.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We just need to ask.

Filthy Lucre and Laundered Souls

{Disclaimer: a copy of this book was provided me by the author for review. Ms. Cullars reached out after I discussed an earlier work of hers in my Feminism A-Z series on intersectionality in romance. It's a brave author who looks at those posts and asks to run the gauntlet again. Especially since this review turned out to be extremely long. Spoilers will naturally abound, so be ye warned. Also, this review series really does need a better title, so any suggestions will be most welcome.}

There's an old joke that runs though literature departments: everything in fiction is a metaphor for sex -- except sex, which is a metaphor for death.

Cover for Filthy Lucre by Sharon Cullars.

With money, it seems to go the other way. Money in fiction -- literary, mystery, romance, sff, whatever -- is always a stand-in for something else. Usually power, of course, but that begs the question: what kind of power precisely? In the case of Filthy Lucre by Sharon Cullars, money stands in for agency, for freedom, and for trust. Sometimes all at once, which makes my analytical brain rejoice.

Let's get one thing out of the way first thing: this is a thoughtful and unusual romance -- bank-robbing hero and black heroine in Missouri in 1933? AMBITIOUS -- and it was really enjoyable. Definitely read it before continuing this post. There are mouth-watering food descriptions and richly drawn characters and real human conflict keeping the hero and heroine apart. Things like: he's a bank robber who's brought his fellow bank robbers into her home and they've taken her hostage and are probably going to kill her so they can make a clean getaway after the robbery. Also, those other bank robbers are Bonnie and Clyde. Yes, that Bonnie and Clyde.

I told you it was unusual.

The very first thing we see is heroine Theodora Holliday -- Teddy -- being robbed. She's in a general store at the wrong time, and a small man with a shotgun takes everything in the till and the purses of the two women present. Unlike the other (white) woman, Teddy initially refuses to hand over her cash: she needs it to buy flour to make a pecan pie for her elderly neighbor. She only changes her mind when it becomes clear the choice really is between her money or her life. She hands over the purse and fumes all the way home -- money is hard to come by, and losing twenty dollars means her choices become more constrained. She resents that her kind and generous impulses (the pie) have been thwarted by someone else's violence and greed.

This is therefore not an auspicious moment for our hero Louis Daniels to make his entrance -- especially as a white man, in a fancy car, flashing a Hollywood smile and a wad of bills. Teddy often rents out rooms to make ends meet, and Louis is looking for a room somewhere quieter than the hotels in the middle of town. (The town is Joplin, Missouri, *ominous musical cue for those who know their Bonny and Clyde*.) Teddy is instantly (and correctly) suspicious of both his whiteness and his obvious wealth: "In her twenty-eight years, she'd learned that shiny, new things sometimes brought trouble with them… the man was just as 'shiny' as his car. Something about him set her spider's senses off" (page 7). She turns down the extra cash, despite her straitened circumstances -- a single white man boarding with her will be cause for damaging rumors and innuendo, and she's pretty sure he's got an agenda he isn't being open about.

Then the man offers her a hundred dollars. Per night. For three nights. It's a ludicrously high sum; for comparison, here is a current Seattle AirBNB listing for about the same price with a ton of amenities in a great location with excellent reviews. Teddy caves: "She'd heard people say that everyone had their price, and he'd found hers" (8). This is good money, an irresistible windfall, and she allows herself to be persuaded.

But what has she been persuaded by? Money in the earlier scene was something that increased Teddy's agency. But here, money substitutes for trust: Teddy's distrust of the shiny man is put aside in favor of an astronomical sum of cash. The less trust Teddy has initially, the more money it would take to change her mind. Now money is itself what limits her choices, what constrains her actions. Or to put it another way, Teddy is choosing one short-term limit (shutting down her inner qualms) in favor of a long-term goal (being financially stable for months). It says a lot about this book that I never felt like Teddy was powerless, even when she was technically being victimized. It always felt like she was making clear-eyed choices as best she could in an imperfect world, and that the text wasn't interested in punishing her or in making a fetish of her weakness (with one possible exception, which I'll get to in due course).

Even though her decision has changed with the money, her mind is still clear. When her handsome new tenant offers to go to the store to get the flour she couldn't buy earlier, Teddy's suspicions are alerted again: "Handsome and helpful, usually two traits she found good in a man, but she wasn't sure she was buying what he was selling" (11). Money is again a stand-in for trust, but in reverse: now instead of taking money to compensate for her distrust, Teddy is (metaphorically) reluctant to offer money as a signal of trust. Money's symbolic value in the text is already amazingly fluid, and we're only eleven pages in.

The Unheroic Hero

We switch to Louis' POV for a trip to the same store Teddy was robbed in earlier. Surprise! He's not a good man, or an honest one. He's shot people for cheating him at cards. He's robbed banks before, too, despite telling Teddy he's not on the run from the law. And then there's this revealing passage, which I'm going to quote in full:

Louis left the store wondering why the owner assumed he was married and then remembered the ring on his finger. He'd never taken it off, even after Laureen had up and left one day a few years ago saying she was sick of living off the measly money he made doing road work. She'd gone off with some starched-collar type who worked at the Kansas City credit union.

One of them fancy head doctors might say that Laureen's leaving was why he'd started knocking off credit unions, eventually moving up to full-on banks. And maybe that fancy head doctor might be right; maybe he was trying to get back at her, as though he had something to prove to her memory at least. (15)

Olivia's notes: No shit, Sherlock. This is classic hero backstory, a man getting revenge on his evil materialistic ex. (Romance heroes are so pissy about rejection sometimes, I swear.) And as part of my habit of always trying to see things from the Evil Ex's perspective, I have to say: I can completely understand why someone would care about the financial stability of their partner during the Great Depression. It is the Great Depression, Louis. I'm sure your feelings are hurt by the fact that your ex wants to, you know, eat every day, but I'm not sure that a bank robbing spree constitutes a really mature emotional response to romantic disappointment.

To give Louis his credit, he knows this is not a sustainable career path. And he's never killed anyone, which is important both for his own morality and for my comfort as a reader. But like Teddy, he can't resist the siren call of an enormous sum of money: "The money split up evenly would mean twenty-five thousand dollars for each of them. That was enough dough to keep him on the up and up for a while" (19). Louis has made plans to rob the Joplin Citizens Bank with three other people named Bud, Buck, and Sis; he met Bud when they tried to rob the same store at the same time: "They'd held guns on each other; then Bud had broken out in a laugh and said, 'Halfsies?'" (20). Reader, I laughed. But this agreement means that Louis is handing over a certain amount of agency in exchange for a payoff: Bud is volatile and violent and unpredictable, a killer. The Joplin bank has only one elderly guard, but Louis is already worried the man will try to play the hero and get shot by an angry Bud.

Spoiler: Louis is right to be worried. But it's easy to say that Bud and Buck and Sis aren't due until the next afternoon, when right now you have a good home-cooked meal and a pretty woman to talk to over a highly symbolic pecan pie. And a slow dance with the radio on, and a good steamy kiss. Despite Louis' secrets, which the reader is privy to, it's lovely watching these two characters connect. They have a great deal in common despite the barrier of race (which the text does not shy away from in the slightest).

And then Bud shows up early and ruins everything. First, we learn that he is the man who robbed Teddy at gunpoint yesterday morning. Nice friends you've got there, Louis! Then he introduces himself as Clyde Barrow, which is when I yelled "Holy shit!" out loud and dove for Wikipedia to read up on Bonnie and Clyde before things went any further. Because honestly, I never in my life thought I would read Bonnie and Clyde as the villains in a romance novel. It's a great portrayal: humanizing without glorifying, empathetic and scary at the same time. The choice of characters takes only a minor liberty with history in a way I can easily approve of, and it plays into the text's themes in a way I won't forget for quite a long time.

Bud quickly realizes Teddy is an upstanding soul and therefore a liability. Suddenly our heroine is a hostage in her own home, her life very explicitly in jeopardy. And she is pissed at Louis for his role in events: "Snake! Here she'd given him a room and a good meal and ... and her company ... and this was how he repaid her. The money he'd handed her yesterday morning couldn't even begin to make up for this" (41). Louis tries to apologize, but Teddy's not having it: "'Sorry is worth to me about a sliver of a penny and not even that'" (46). Instead, she begins deliberately exploiting Louis' physical attraction to her, trying to win him over to her side, to deepen the bond they've formed so he'll help her escape. He sees what she's doing but goes along, since it means he gets to touch her more. (Heroes, amirite?) He's trying to win her over as well, to make her see things from his perspective:

'I hate preachers! ... They're like the cops, supposed to be helping you and what do they do? They take just like any robber you'd meet in the street. Same with the rich folk. They'd sooner kick you in the teeth than help out a child starving in the streets ... The big fat cats of the world have at least taught me a lesson. Those that got keep getting. They're not out on the roadsides, putting up tents, finding clay and dirt to eat. They're sitting down to plates of steaks and potatoes -- with the -- with the gratin -- and the champagne. Yeah, I want that. I want not to ever have to worry where my next meal is coming from' (51)

This is a persuasive argument, emotionally speaking. What's more, this speech marks Louis as the kind of Bootstraps Billionaire we see so often in both contemporary and historical romance: the man whose anger propels him to fame and fortune, the poor kid made good through sweat and seething vengeance, the self-made man who builds an empire on ruthlessness and intelligence and daring. Captain Wentworth from Austen's Persuasion is probably the origin point of this trope; see also every hero who runs a gambling hell in fictional London or who owns a penthouse apartment in a major contemporary metropolis. And generally such heroes have to either atone for the ruthless things they did on their way to the top, or learn that true love means more than bespoke suits and chrome furniture, etc. But here there's a twist -- and honestly, I think this is really innovative for a romance -- because we're catching Louis at the beginning of that typical arc. This is the Self-Made Hero before he's Made (shiny Studebaker notwithstanding). Teddy's job (as a heroine, not as a person) is to convince Louis to abandon that whole arc at the beginning. To give up on the money before he has the money to give up on.

I gotta say, that's a pretty radical move. Will he change his mind or go through with the bank robbery as planned? I was dying to know.

A Disarmed Heroine

Teddy's rejection of Louis' chosen means to wealth could not be more clear: he offers her a cut of the bank money, to compensate her for the danger and stress of being held hostage. She not only refuses that, but also gives back his original three hundred dollars:

"I'm not taking it back..."

"And I'm not keeping it..." she said as she let the bills fall to the floor. And their stalemate began.

She refused to pick up the bills, and he simply pretended they weren't there. (74)

THE MONEY LITERALLY COMES BETWEEN THEM I swear my lit-crit brain was giggling so hard at this point. Note the language is clearly tilted in Teddy's favor: she's the active one, refusing, while Louis is merely pretending. She's the one in touch with reality, and he's kidding himself. By giving back all the money she's taken from him, Teddy is withdrawing her implied participation not only with the coming robbery, but with everything Louis did to earn that first wad of bills too. She's making her distrust of him foremost in the relationship again. She's choosing her self-worth over his expedience. And she's doing it without being at all idealistic or naive: she knows damn well what that money could mean for her, but she knows she would betray herself by accepting it. She's principled in a realistic, grounded way. Also -- and this is only striking me as I write this -- she manages to refuse money without ever once resorting to prostitution references or using the word 'whore' or anything. She talks about sin and souls and the devil, but in the context of reckless murder during a robbery such language is fairly tame.

Have I mentioned how much I love Teddy? She's great. Just great. I only have two small reservations. 1) I was, and I can't believe I have to type these words in public, supremely uncomfortable with what I can only refer to as the Amos 'n' Andy sex scene.

2) I can't stop wondering what the author could have done differently with Teddy's knife.

Teddy keeps a knife strapped to her thigh because she's dealt with harassment before and wants to take no chances. It's a nice counterbalance to the secrets Louis keeps during the initial few days of the novel: he's hiding a criminal past she doesn't know about, but she's got a weapon he doesn't know about. It evens the scales and ups the stakes in a way that had me steepling my fingers.

Unfortunately, Louis catches sight of the knife when she attempts escape and takes it away. Now, for the first time, Teddy is presented as a victim: "He hated that she seemed so broken. She might as well be their first casualty. Not actually dead, yet something dead inside" (77). He also notes the knife was tied with a red ribbon -- a detail that sexualizes the exchange, as though Louis were a bridegroom removing a very sharp garter. (I should clarify that Teddy is not a virgin -- this is explained but not used as a shocking plot point and it was great.)

And now, if you're anything like me, some practical questions arise: How do you tie a knife to your thigh with a ribbon? There's no indication of a sheath, no indication that this knife is anything other than a common kitchen utensil: are you telling me Teddy's walking around with a butcher knife tied to her leg? Edge-out, or possibly dangling? Right alongside the carotid artery? This does not seem safe. This does not seem possible. And none of it matters, because once Louis takes the knife it disappears entirely from the text.

Oh, how I wanted her to stab somebody.

Or rather, since this book takes such issue with violence, I wanted her to half to stab somebody and to choose not to, or to choose to stab somebody in defense of her life or in defiance of principle. I wanted this to be a thread that tied up, not one that was cut short. Chekhov's gun is meant to be fired, after all. Instead, the text saves Teddy from having to make that choice. It felt a little bit like a waste.

Bonnie and Clyde

Mirror couples are fairly common in romance, particularly when there's a theme to illustrate. Bonnie and Clyde here are a contrast to the hero and heroine -- they are the Charlotte and Mr. Collins of this novel. It helps a lot that they're called Sis and Bud because it gives the reader a sense of distance: the historical facts don't get in the way of the characters on the page. Louis is puzzled by their connection and puts it in monetary terms: "He'd never figured out why Bud had taken up with her. Probably because she gave out easily what many women put a high price on" (56). This is pretty much the only time sex work is used as a money metaphor, so kudos to Ms. Cullars for avoiding that particular pet peeve of mine.

The more I think about Bonnie Parker in this book, the more amazing her character becomes. In the early chapters I was cringing every time Sis spoke: she drops the n-word, she's described as a bitch numerous times, she's unhappy and unpleasant and picks fights with our heroine. The men leave to case the bank for the robbery, and Sis is given a gun in case the hostage proves troublesome. Everyone is tense -- Teddy in fear for her life, Louis in fear for Teddy, Sis because she would rather be going with Bud. Then Teddy's neighbor Mrs. Williams (of the aforementioned pecan pie) drops by and it's looking like we're going to start the part of the book with the shooting before we even get to the robbery.

Then something wonderful happens: the women connect.

Mrs. Williams doesn't know there's a gun in Sis' pocket. She can tell Sis is unhappy, though, and treats her gently. Like a real person. Somehow, now that the men are gone, these three women are able to simply spend an afternoon talking to one another about their lives and their hopes. Sis even recites one of Bonnie Parker's most notorious (real) poems, which Mrs. Williams greatly enjoys. The threat of violence is dissipated -- for the moment, anway -- and afterward Sis starts treating Teddy better, helping out in the kitchen and everything. Teddy meanwhile sees Sis walking down a road our heroine wants to avoid, getting caught up in murder and mayhem for the sake of a man she loves beyond choice, beyond morality. When eventually -- after many turns I don't need to go into here -- Teddy ditches Louis (oh, she was totally right to do it), she does so in part because she doesn't want to end up like Sis, alone and friendless and cut off from society.

In the moral framework of this story, Bonnie and Clyde's bloody death -- not a spoiler, because who hasn't seen stills from the Warren Beatty film? -- could have been presented as a punishment. The hand of justice strikes down evildoers, that kind of thing. Instead Ms. Cullars puts it on-page in Bonnie's POV, which may be one of the most startling things I've seen in a romance in some time. It's intensely human, almost a stand-alone short story, and I know it's going to haunt me in the best way. There's no sense of voyeuristic pleasure, no sense that Sis gets "what's coming to her," even as the scene is much more violent than the usual fates of villains in romance. When the death makes the headlines, everyone is all "good riddance" except for our hero and heroine, who secretly find themselves mourning the loss. The moral position of the text is clearly weighted against celebrating the deaths of Bonnie and Clyde.

Again, that's a pretty radical move.

There's a lot more I could talk about -- the heroine's house, the realistic handling of race, the evil ex, the family issues -- but my stars, we're nearly at four thousand words already. Suffice to say that you can't write four thousand words about just any romance: this is a book I'm going to be thinking about for some time to come.

___

I talk a lot about the meaning of money in this review of Jeannie Lin's phenomenal romance The Jade Temptressand also reflect (rather more loosely) on money in romance here.

While I'm tooting my own horn, I'm also spending this month catching up on a great many books from my TBR: follow #Readening on Twitter for real-time updates, comments, and links to future reviews.

Jackie Horne at Romance Novels for Feminists has a great discussion of money in category romance, and how heroines deal and don't deal with money (with a really thoughtful comment thread, too).

My favorite detail from the surprisingly good Wikipedia entry on Bonnie and Clyde: "Several days later [slain highway patrolman] Murphy's fiancée wore her intended wedding dress to his funeral, sparking photos and newspaper coverage." That is some grade-A fuck-you material right there.

If you have the spoons for it, reading about sundown towns in America is terribly illuminating. Especially when you start searching the database for places you have lived. Content note for violent racism, white supremacy, and lynching.

The Toast has an excellent list of wealthy heroines in romance, for a palate-cleanser.

A fleeting anachronism led me to the history of the nylon riots after WWII, which are one of those things you think can't possibly be real until you see the photographs and read witness accounts.

___

Cullars, Sharon. Filthy Lucre. Loose Id Publishing: 2014, PDF.

Why I'm Entering My Ellora's Cave Book In The RITAs This Year

1. Because I love my book. In my subjective and unashamedly biased opinion, At His Countess' Pleasure is the best and weirdest thing I've written. It's quiet historical melodrama starring a dominant brunette social climber and a chunky earl with a mustache. There's also pegging, and period sex, and at one point a 19th-century gynecological exam (or the nearest approximation I could get according to research). At one point the hero -- have you got your pearls handy for clutching? -- loses his erection during a sex scene. So subversive! Not as subversive as including an actually diverse cast of characters and writing about something other than British aristocrats would have been -- but I'm taking baby steps here, pushing my own limits.

This book pushed a lot of limits. I launched into the writing of it with great abandon, and told myself I could break every rule I wanted because it was just to fulfill a contract clause and then at the end there was a story I loved and was excited to show to the world. So in one sense I was kind of fucked, but in another sense: hooray!

And I will be damned if anyone takes that away from me.

2. Because entering the RITAs means I get to judge the RITAs.

I've judged a couple of contests -- including PNWA, for those of you in the Northwest -- and I really enjoy it. But judging a non-romance-centric contest's romance/erotica category can be a bit, well, dicey. One manuscript entered by one gentleman was basically wall-to-wall rape scenes, presented as titillation. Very difficult to read, even as an excerpt.

I want to know what the RITAs look like in process. I want to see the difference between the books I'm sent and the books that make the final list, the ones that get officially celebrated. And I've never had a chance to do it before.

As a published author and RWA member, I could qualify to judge the RITAs by joining the Published Author Network (PAN). In fact, I did try to do this last summer. I counted up my royalties and figured out that one of my books had reached the required $1000 mark to allow me to apply.

The only problem: I needed proof of those royalties. From my publisher, Ellora's Cave.

You can laugh if you want to. I understand. (Most up-to-date masterpost here, if you can stand it.)

After many emails, I got a response: EC sent me an Excel spreadsheet with one year of royalties for that one title. Only numbers; no text. And it wasn't even a locked spreadsheet. RWA quite naturally laughed at the idea that this could constitute proof of payment in any meaningful sense of the word. My only other option was to copy every single royalty statement for all my titles -- two years' worth of financial records -- and highlight the book that qualified every time it appeared. I found I was uncomfortable at the thought of showing that much personal data to someone I wasn't paying taxes to. There the matter rested -- until RWA announced that all RITA entrants would be required to judge. It feels like a gift that I can finally do this.

3. Because I already paid for the print copies.

Three days before my publisher filed the now-infamous defamation suit against Dear Author, I spent over a hundred bucks out of pocket to get contest copies printed by Vlad at Third Place Press. (Disclosure: Vlad is both a friend and a bookselling wizard). While the books look incredibly beautiful -- you can see them in person at this weekend's Emerald City Book Fair, where I'll have a few copies to give away -- I would never have had them printed had the lawsuit been filed first.

Oh, I have a few noble reasons for that; anyone who tells you this case is not about free speech has not been paying adequate attention. But it's also true that unless I enter the RITAs, I have to consider that cash layout wasted. I can't currently promote this book for sale or for review, not without implicitly supporting a lawsuit that grates against every nerve I have. I've requested the rights back from EC -- for Countess and for all my books -- but Countess only came out two months ago. The print version is the only format I can do something useful with. I can't sell it, but at least I can see how it stacks up as a romance elbowing around in the wild among other romances. This would be valuable to me, separate from any notion of sales or self-promotion.

Lastly,  I'm entering the RITAs despite all the mess, because:

4. It's my last chance.

This book is my last chance to enter the RITAs for the foreseeable future. I haven't placed my next manuscript with another publisher yet -- anyone who wants a sweetly steamy ancient Greek romance with a robot heroine feel free to let me know! --  and my current manuscript is trending more romantic elements/sff/New Weird. Intertwining romance subplots! Semi-omniscient POV sections! Twists on monsters and myth that leave me giggling in fiendish delight! One detail popped out of my subconscious, slithered onto the page, and creeped me out so much I had to shut the computer and do something else. It's super-fun and an ambitious experiment -- but a RITA book it is probably not.

I don't know when I'll have another book published to qualify for the contest, and of course I'm ineligible for the Golden Heart. I'm not saying farewell to romance as a genre -- but I might be moving away from the RWA-approved definition of romance as established for the RITA contest.

I have this one chance, and I'm going to take it.

Invisible Labor in the Publishing World

I've been thinking a lot about the recent Dear Author post on books as commercial objects and now I'm going to try something ambitious. I'm going to talk about Amazon and Hachette and Authors United. I'm going to talk about Ellora's Cave as an Ellora's Cave author who's published six short books with them in the past four years. But most of all, I'm going to talk about work: when we notice it, when we don't, and what happens when we emphasize or downplay labor in the book industry. My Marxist credentials are, well, nonexistent, but I'm going on 15 years in the book business so that will hopefully compensate. Should be fun, right?

Invisible Author-Work

We'll start with the author, since that's where books begin. Author-work is profoundly hidden, even in the midst of its occurrence. It makes for notoriously terrible television. Getting the words out on the page is only the start of it. There's also research, revisions, and the inevitable but embarrassingly necessary craft technique of Staring Blankly Out The Window Until You Know How To Fix Whatever's Wrong. Plus, once you have a manuscript you're unafraid to call maybe kinda good if you read it on a Tuesday when the moon is in Sagittarius, then you have to send it out to agents and publishers -- or get it properly edited and formatted and hire a cover designer, if you're self-pubbing -- all of which requires countless hours of hair-pulling, teeth-clenching mental mud wrestling, but all of which happens almost entirely out of public view. (Unless you're on Twitter. I love you, Twitter.) And when it's published, you have to market it and track sales and pay quarterly taxes -- if you're lucky, that is, you pay quarterly taxes -- and pitch reviews and talk to readers and attend conferences, all while starting the whole process over with a brand-new book idea. Rinse and repeat.

It's more fun than it sounds.

Author-work is made visible when authorial integrity is in doubt. For instance, relevant life experience is highlighted as a guarantee of quality fiction -- which is why Clive Cussler is so often photographed next to classic cars, and why it was A Thing when pseudonym Robert Gailbraith's military background turned out to be a backstory created by author J. K. Rowling. Author-work becomes most visible every time someone lambastes a reviewer because the author worked so hard and put so much effort into their book. Effort is unerased and presented as evidence of worth.

Invisible Publisher-Work

A publisher is not merely a channel for authors' invisible labor: they have a lot of behind-the-scenes labor of their own. Two words for you: slush pile. I pulled submissions from a slush pile exactly once in college for the literary magazine and I still have Lovecraftian nightmares about it. And meetings -- sometimes when I listen to editors and publishers at conferences I get the sense that a publishing house is just a large collection of meetings galumphing ever forward through time. Individual editors, too, perform much of the same kind of labor that authors do: revisions, reading submissions, presenting themselves professionally at conferences and conventions, etc. I've lost track of the number of times I've seen editors desperate to clear their inboxes or mentioning they're taking work home for the evening.

But also: bookkeeping. And money. A publisher lives and dies by the numbers. The value they offer is tied to the accounting: they pay for editing, cover art, marketing, and distribution so that an author does not have to undertake all those as separate tasks by a new author unestablished in the network. They also track distribution numbers, returns, royalties, wholesale discounts, sale prices, etc. -- I get hives just thinking about trying to juggle all those numbers, which is why I haven't self-published.

This focus does lead to a certain amount of secrecy. Publishers generally do not tell the author how much they're paying that author's editor, or the cover artist, or the PR person. Publishers DO tell the author how many copies of her books are selling, and where, and at what royalty rate. Or at least, they SHOULD. Much of the issues authors have been having with Ellora's Cave -- issues which started at least a year ago and which therefore predate the 'Curious Case' Dear Author post and the now-justly-infamous defamation lawsuit -- stem from a frustration with the invisibility of publisher bookkeeping work: the definition of "quarterly" versus "monthly" payments, the obfuscation of whether "May royalties" describes sales made in May or simply received in May, and so on. None of what I'm saying here is new: author Lolita Lopez' post is an excellent and very strong take on this.

As we saw with authors, a publisher's invisible work is underscored every time someone wants to give publishers rhetorical weight and authority. It's why John Scalzi has often described the benefits he gets from being traditionally published, and why self-publishing advocates often minimize the work a publisher puts into a book's development. EC founder Jaid Black's blog post (DoNotLinkified) emphasizes the time and money EC has put into contracting and editing books to give her claims to contractual rights and steady payments more credence. What Jaid Black also does in this post is going to be important for the rest of this discussion: she states that some authors are also making public statements in service of a secret, selfish agenda to reclaim rights and revert contracts.

This is the invisible work of conspiracy. We'll be coming back to this.

Invisible Distributor-Work

Distributors are possibly the most invisible part of the book industry, at least from the outside. When I became an author I was shocked at how many writers had never heard of Ingram, much less had the ability to check and see if their books were available through them. Brick-and-mortar bookstores order direct from publishers if they order in quantity, but for smaller presses and individual items they'll go right to Ingram or Baker and Taylor or the others on this list. Sometimes I remember that there is a whole major subset of the book industry that never speaks to a single plain reader and I get a little stunned, I really do. Digital distribution is even more opaque and confounding: sure we have Amazon and ARe and Smashwords and Kobo and such (for now), but there's also many smaller etailers that are easily mistaken for the equally ubiquitous pirate sites.

Amazon of course is both a publisher and a distributor. This gives me, a longtime indie bookstore employee, a serious case of the side-eye. Print bookstores track sales through physical copies: the store receives a certain number of books and returns (usually) some of them, then is charged for any unreturned copies whether they were sold, damaged or stolen. This is why some (horrible) authors are advised to do the (invisible, horrible) work of signing bookstore stock without asking so that it can't be returned. (Short answer: sure it can, and fuck you very much.)

Digital sales cannot be tracked the same way: digital sales numbers are half-invisible to start with and therefore more easily obscured. Amazon is the only one who can know whether Amazon is fudging sales numbers. Amazon also keeps its notorious algorithm very close; this is no doubt a sound business tactic. Sometimes Amazon tweaks the algorithm (through invisible code-work -- remember that time some French Amazon employee made all the GLBTQ books vanish from Amazon searches?). This too is probably a sound business tactic and prevents savvy authors from gaming the rankings. A rigged game benefits only the rigger, after all -- and Amazon's not letting anyone else have control of their roulette wheel.

So far so good. Except: Amazon is also a publisher, not only through their imprints but also through the KDP program. Most self-published authors are not self-published, but really published through Amazon; the term self-published used to stand as a euphemism for the initial exchange of cash that was the mark of a vanity press. Now it more commonly stands in for published through Amazon or Smashwords or another non-traditional content delivery system. Notice how it's become a more respectable description when that initial cash outlay is erased -- though you could argue that it's only moved, that the paying of editors and cover artists upfront in self-publishing is not meaningfully different from paying a publisher to loan you their own editor and cover artist. Amazon has not actually invested resources in your book, after all, aside from the tech set-up of the Kindle system.

We'll be coming back to invisible tech-work later, too -- but for now ...

Invisible Bookseller-Work

The reason you've heard of The Night Circus and The Time-Traveler's Wife and Boneshaker and Shadow of the Wind and China Mieville and Haruki Murakami is because of the invisible work of booksellers. People with boots on the ground who can collectively make or break a book's success. People who have constant access to books and the enthusiasm to follow favorite authors across many years and genres. Murakami, for instance, is a literary writer of truly odd and dreamlike stories working in Japanese whose translated English editions now get midnight release parties with masks of the author's face. Some of this is self-interested: booksellers generally like their jobs and want to keep bookstores in business.

But self-interest isn't the whole story: most booksellers are avid readers.

Invisible Reader-Work

Readers' work, like authors, happens in private and in solitude. Not only the process of reading a book, but the process of becoming expert in a genre or subgenre, reading and writing reviews and doing any research that those reviews might require. Articulating feelings about a book is work, whether your feelings are good or bad or mixed. You also get the invisible work of dedicated hardcore reviewers, whose reviews are more critical (in the academic sense) and often require much research and expertise. Places like Love in the Margins and Romance Novels for Feminists and the new-to-me-but-awesome-for-everyone Cooking Up Romance. My own Feminism A to Z series of reviews took months of dedicated writing, reading, and link-hunting. (Worth it: I'm super-proud of those posts.) Even the Goodreads gif-heavy reviews that some authors consider too snarky take more than minimal effort to produce, and this effort is nearly always overlooked when authors choose to take issue with a review/reviewer.

What does get emphasized in those flare-ups is that a reader paid money for a book: money stands in for work in a way, as it often does in American culture more broadly. This is why we think rich people have earned their wealth: they wouldn't have all that money if they hadn't done all that work, right? Over and over again in author-reader conflicts we see the invisible effort of the author butting heads with the equally invisible effort of the reader, with money fluttering around the discussion like a musty green moth. Because of course the author's objections to a negative review are financial as well as personal: reviews sell books, and many authors believe positive reviews sell more books.

Now We Smash All The Atoms Together. BOOM.

And now we're (finally!) ready to look clearly at the Amazon-Hachette-Authors United tangle [egregious farting sound effect].

For background, I'm using this excellent Guardian post. It's important to point out at the outset that this whole conflict centers around a secret: the actual contract terms in dispute have not been made public, as far as I know. We're all chasing MacGuffins here.

The usually invisible labor we've charted shows up front and center in this conflict. We have publisher Hachette, who wants to retain as much control as possible over ebook pricing because their royalty rates and therefore their revenues are directly tied to that number. They're protecting their accounting strategy because that's where their value lies as a business, to authors who might want to send them future books to publish. They had support from the booksellers, whose often-invisible work was briefly in the spotlight as they rallied around Hachette authors caught in the corporate dispute.

We also have Authors United. Their letter emphasizes the importance of their invisible labor -- hence that tone-deaf bit about "outsourcing." While I sympathize with their position -- more so recently, you may guess -- I can't muster any corresponding passion for their high-mindedness. Frankly, although there are big names on that list, I will be shocked if they turn out to have any effect on the results of this dispute. I get tired of the bombast just reading the first half of that letter. Especially when we have an actual on-the-ground free-speech case playing out in the romance genre.

And finally we have Amazon: a busy, secretive behemoth, who insists over and over again in this debate that they're only looking out for readers' interests. That their priority is the reader/customer experience. But in this system they have all the financial agendas and invisible work of a distributor, a publisher, and a bookseller -- without, of course, the tax burdens to match. They choose each face as it suits them: they present themselves as a bookseller to readers, as a distributor to publishers, and as a publisher to authors. And that's not even getting into their much-publicized Dickensian warehouse working conditions, which continue to appall. Because of Amazon's lack of transparency and multiple agendas, I find it hard to completely trust them -- and I'm not alone.

Remember that notion of the invisible work of conspiracy? There seems to be a lot of it in the book industry these days, depending on who you listen to. Certainly Hachette should be mentioned here, since they settled when the Department of Justice sued Apple for ebook price-fixing. I find it less plausible to think that Ellora's Cave authors are colluding, not least because we're all exhausted and busy and who has the time for conspiracy, honestly? I'm trying to finish a book and a workshop presentation before the Emerald City Writers' Conference next weekend. In the immortal words of Allison Janney's erotic romance author Ms. Perky: "I've got deviants to see and a novel to finish."

But this is the most succinct distillation of my anxiety regarding Amazon: if they wanted to collude, they could so easily collude with themselves. (I know, it's a little crude, but you follow, yes?) They have access to so many moving parts of the process, and they are so reticent to allow their inner workings to be examined. They're a ready-made conspiracy waiting to happen.

It makes me uneasy. I just wish that I knew what to do about it.

___

As a palate-cleanser, this short essay by Mary Beard on the book business in ancient Rome is entertaining and will strike many familiar notes.

Ecology and Uses of the Alpha Male in Romance

In the comments to Michelle Sagara's thoughtful and thought-provoking piece on alpha males at Dear Author, commenter Charming  points to the term's source in animal behavior studies (most notably from Rudolf Schenkel in 1947 and David Mech in 1970). These studies, it must be pointed out, have since been thoroughly debunked: it turns out that wolf behavior in captivity is not at all representative of wolf behavior in the wild. I recall reading once that comparing wild wolves to captive wolves in scientific studies is like trying to draw conclusions about general human behavior from prison populations (and then I found the citation! Hooray!) But by the time scientific literature caught up with the facts, the myth of alphas and pack dominance dynamics had spread far beyond animal behaviorists and had been eagerly grasped by the culture at large. Including, and perhaps most particularly, romance novels.

The idea of the alpha wolf in animal behavior studies turned out to be a fantasy: it happens in an artificial environment, something deliberately walled off from the larger, wilder world wolves usually inhabit. People have created the space in which the alpha wolf appears (or appears to appear, but let's not get ourselves more tangled than we have to). But like wild wolves, captive wolves still need to eat -- and that food comes from the real world. The real world feeds the fantasy.

A book or trope or genre like romance is also an artificial environment, and like wolf sanctuaries or zoos it is an environment created by people. Though we call it a fantasy, we can't simply declare it walled it off from real life: we have to feed the fantasy with real stuff. Sexism, gendered social roles, abuse dynamics, personal politics, religious beliefs, axes of oppression and resistance -- these things and others have a way of sneaking in. You may disagree, but you must first explain why else none of Charles Dickens' characters ever uses a telephone or sends an email. Our real world is inevitably tied up with our fiction.

"I write fantasy," says Michelle Sagara. "I write about dragons and magic and flying, winged people. I can obviously suspend disbelief when I write, because I do not actually think any of these things can exist in the real world. But when I write, I believe. To read a book, I have to be able to believe in the same way." It's true we have no dragons in our world. But we have fire, and birds, and large animals both on land an in water. You don't have to believe dragons are real to know that burns are painful and that large animals can be dangerous.

Another quote, worth unpacking:

As I said: the alpha male is idealized. Because he is a fantasy. But it’s the confidence and the commitment and the lack of feminine (the heroine’s) responsibility for another person that makes the trope attractive. If the heroine suffers from lack of confidence, it doesn’t matter; he has confidence. If she’s uncertain, if she desires him but she’s afraid to commit to more, he’s certain. The decisions and the mess are not actually hers to clean up. 

The idea that the alpha hero has power in the world, therefore the heroine has power through her power over the alpha hero, is precisely what many object to about alpha heroes in general. Even the nice ones, the so-called caretaker alphas. I like the caretaking when it happens on the page. I like it in real life when Mr. Waite makes me soup when I'm sick. But I also like it when my friends do those things -- or my parents, like the time I had the flu and my mother brought me over a whole roast chicken. And I like being able to do these things for Mr. Waite and my mother and my friends, because that is what balanced relationships require and it feels nice to be nice to someone else. The alpha male trope in romance, though, seems to rely on the heroine only finding comfort and power and support through this one intense sexual relationship -- and this relationship becomes the conduit through which she must relate to the world thereafter.  To use one of my favorite romance plots as an example, Cinderella is not a princess unless she marries her prince. Ana becomes Mrs. Christian Grey and through him makes things happen. If the alpha male is a purely escapist fantasy, as Sagara suggests, then it is an extremely specific and limiting one. And why one specific and limiting fantasy should be so overwhelmingly popular is precisely the point that critics like myself keep coming back to.

Note also what is being escaped here, according to Sagara:

I don’t think it’s the conditioning that makes romance alpha males work for readers. I think it’s the rest of real life. It’s having to raise children and be aware of their needs and their emotions constantly. It’s having to deal with failed relationships or walking away from those that are just draining because of incompatibility, etc. It’s having to be responsible, always, for other people. It’s having to make nice and to be someone else or be something other than we actually are for so much of day-to-day life.

Social conditioning is what makes us feel like women have a greater responsibility than men do to raise children, to be the responsible nurturer in defiance of our own needs and wants. To be something other than what we actually are. What Sagara is describing here is patriarchy, in a very fundamental way. Patriarchy is the symptom, and the alpha male is an anaesthetic, that comforts without curing.

That sentence was fairly inflammatory, so let me make myself more clear: the alpha male as described in this piece is an anaesthetic. This alpha male, however, only appears here. We can recognize that he is an echo of other alpha males we've seen in romance over the decades, but we're not talking about any one specific fictional character here.  Sagara's post is written in response to newly minted Hugo winner Kameron Hurley's equally thoughtful and thought-provoking piece where she was asked about the appeal of alpha heroes. In the process of coping with (though admittedly not answering this potentially unanswerable question), Hurley describes her fiction as a way of breaking down too-broad categories:

I'm here to challenge assumptions of normal, of hierarchy, assumptions that humans will always be bullies, or assumptions that "man" and "woman" are anything but poorly constructed language boxes created by humans to organize what is, in truth, a fantastically messy and diverse and incredibly non-binary world.

Sagara's piece instead very deliberately builds the kind of language boxes Hurley rejects. Sagara constructs an Ideal Alpha and then explains his appeal -- but this Ideal Alpha is her own invention. She cites one example of such a hero in the comments, but it's important to note that she doesn't base any of the post itself on any individual text or group of texts. She is not so much explaining the appeal of any particular existing alpha male hero, as she is constructing one in process while we watch and then declaring him good.

Her Ideal Alpha is a pure fantasy. He doesn't exist in a world, even a fictional one. If he did appear in a book, we would have behaviors and actions we could discuss and debate for their worth. But we don't have anything like facts -- which explains the mess in the comments thread, where some are invoking abusive heroes and others are talking about how alphas are "exciting" and "dramatic." The conversation is hugely unmoored, and therefore fairly unproductive. This is why I describe this Ideal Alpha as an anaesthetic: he is a broad generalization, a hypothesis rather than a dataset. He doesn't even have a name.

Writing feminist pieces about romance means standing on a tightrope stretched between These Trashy Books Rot Women's Tender Brains on the one side and I Like It So That Means It's Morally Good on the other. I'm not really interested in telling people they shouldn't read or enjoy reading alpha heroes. I am very, very interested in why we have alpha heroes coming out of the woodwork, but the number of alpha heroines can be numbered on the fingers of one hand. This is an extreme imbalance and well worth figuring out -- unless you take the tack that men are just naturally alpha, and women are just naturally not alpha. In which case I am not going to talk feminism with you until you get some of the 101-level reading done. (Great place to start: Cordelia Fine's excellent Delusions of Gender.)

There are real-world conclusions to be drawn from romance reading, more nuanced than what we normally see in the press. Because the road between fiction and the real world is a two-way street. Wolves have to eat, and they also have to poop. (This metaphor just got much less elegant, didn't it?) If alpha heroes in all their multitudes are read purely for comfort, what does it say about our culture that we as women need so much comfort, so badly?

I hope this does not count as me "decrying the need for comfort." The problem I have is not choosing between comfort fiction and challenging fiction, because like many humans I enjoy both. The problem I have is the gap between the specific and the general. Are romance novels feminist or conservative? Are alpha heroes good or abusive? These are broad and therefore useless questions. (#NotAllAlphaHeroes?) Writing a defense of alphas in romance without reference to specific alpha heroes is a recursive exercise only. Defending one specific type of fantasy while labeling it "comfort reading" without qualification erases the fact that for many women, myself included, comfort reading happens when we find a story that does not feature overbearing, belligerent dudes trying to take decisions away from us. I don't want a man to "dress me," as one of the supportive commenters does -- though I'll admit I wouldn't mind if a billionaire handed me a credit card and told me to just go nuts with the Modcloth orders. But is the fantasy there the man, or the money?

"Comfort requires trust," Sagara writes in conclusion. I agree entirely. But my trust is based in my real-world experience, even with my disbelief suspended. I can believe in dragons, easily, but I will be wary of their teeth.

___

For some reason, all this talk about wolves makes me feel as though I am somehow exploiting the wolves for personal gain -- so let me point any readers in Washington State toward the website for Wolf Haven, which does marvelous work and is a truly great place to aim a visit or a donation. Their website does auto-play wolf howls, but I had my volume quite low and found this strangely soothing and perhaps the only time I've ever actually found autoplay enriching to a website visit. I will always remember visiting as a child and being instructed to howl at the wolves. They howled back, all around us, and I got chills.

Release Day: At His Countess' Pleasure

If you are not reading about Ferguson -- though really, you should be reading about Ferguson, and here's a good roundup to start -- you may as well be reading my latest book, which is out today from Ellora's CaveAt His Countess' Pleasure is a femdom marriage of convenience erotic historical; the working title was Pegging the Earl, which should tell you what kind of sex scenes you might be in for.