Bigger versus Better

Reader, I like 'em long. And meaty. And powerful. And Latin, frequently -- though I'm not terribly picky about nationality. Greek and French and Finnish are pretty great, too. I have a particular fondness for the bastard ones. Of course, I'm talking about words. Where else did you think this blog post was going?

There's a specific mantra of writing advice -- in this great piece, among other places -- that I can never quite bring myself to abide by, and it is this: longer words will intimidate readers.

The reason I can't stand this maxim is that, as a reader myself, I know it to be false. Or at least false enough.

I was that kid who read dictionaries for fun. I memorized obscure terms for groups of animals (a smack of jellyfish) and poetic meters (trochee, spondee, anapest). I'll never forget the time in college when I first stumbled over the word crepuscular. (It means 'relating to twilight or dusk' and I have to hold myself back from using it when people bring up sparkly vampire stories.)

There's a general idea that shorter words are better for use in fiction. (I blame Hemingway, among others.) The trouble with this is that even if two words mean the same thing, the fact remains that they are different words and will do slightly different things. As Sideshow Bob Terwilliger taught us in the best Simpsons episode of all time, sometimes you want to disembowel someone, and sometimes you want to gut them.

Plus, sometimes the rule about using short words comes off as demeaning the reader's intelligence. I mean come on, people, we Regency romance devotees all know what a pelisse is, and that's hardly a useful word for today's modern gal on the go. (To do: draft memo, present proposal, wear pelisse.)

You know what's always long in romance novels? That's right: the ever-popular Mighty Wang. Sometimes it is too long to be practical, or even plausible. But usually it is long because that's what's going to get the job done.

Same goes for words. Don't use them just because they're long, or just because they're short. Use them because they're right for the job. (The Goldilocks Theory of Writercraft?)

So I'll keep mine long -- and strong -- and down to get the fiction on.

Now That You Mention It, The Internet Is Totally A Speakeasy

{Background: people have been saying -- on Techdirt, more recently on Techdirt, and now in a thorough 57-page paper that I haven't finished reading yet -- that copyright enforcement is 'our generation's Prohibition'. I'll have more thoughts once I've finished the paper, but for now this is immediately where my mind leapt. Metaphors are powerful, yo.} Mickey pulled his hat down lower over his face before heading into the alley. It was an unpromising canyon of a shadows with a single rivet-bound door at the end. For a moment his heart stuttered and fell to its knees, trying to convince him this was all a terrible mistake.

Anne tugged on his elbow, her smile like a slash in the dim light, as bloody red as her dress. "Come on," she said. "It's only frightening the first time."

Mickey pulled his heart up to its feet and followed.

Anne's heels staccattoed the concrete as she strode to the door. At her knock, a window slid open just wide enough to reveal a pair of thoughtful brown eyes. Said the man, "Weather's bad tonight. Looks like rain."

"They say it's going to come down in torrents," Anne replied.

The window snicked shut, then the whole door creaked open. The thoughtful brown eyes belonged to a pale man with wild, astonishing hair and a self-effacing smile. "Hurry up," he said.

Anne pulled Mickey inside and the doorman pulled the door closed once more. A long hallway led left, then right, then down, then through a dusty cellar. A tuxedo-clad man took Mickey's hat and politely opened a second thick door.

Mickey stepped into a swirl of music and color and noise.

He stopped to try and get his bearings. Straight ahead was a dance floor, crammed with bodies gyrating to bootlegs of live concerts, lost tracks, and illicit mash-ups—all of which were available upon request from the cat-eared DJ in the front of the room. In velvet-lined booths to the right people were trading reproductions of famous paintings, fan art, and celebrity photos. One girl proudly displayed a sketch where Disney's Belle and her Beast had been transformed into Chewbacca and Han Solo: Belle's blue skirt and white apron had changed into a white shirt, blue vest and pants, and the Beast sported a bandolier across his broad chest. The caption read: "I want adventure in the great wide somewhere."

On Mickey's left were a row of glass-walled rooms with flickering screens that displayed the latest smash hit movie, classic decade-long television shows, and forgotten classics that were rarely seen outside art houses and film schools in the nation's two largest cities. Above was a balcony studded with couches and chairs, each of which held someone curled up for comfort, balancing the slender weight of an e-reader in their hands.

And everywhere people were talking, squealing, laughing, fighting, creating, comparing, emjoying. It was lunacy—and it was infectious.

Anne encompassed the whole room with one regal gesture. "Where should we start?" she asked.

Mickey's face split in a wide grin. "The music," he said.

Within an hour, Mickey had procured albums by Tom Waits and Otis Redding, things he'd purchased years ago and had since lost. Someone told him about some band called the Avett Brothers, and gave him a copy of Four Thieves Gone. He found a set of headphones and hit play.

Thanks to the high volume of the music and the excellent quality of the headphones, Mickey only noticed the police had arrived when they yanked out the jack. "You're under arrest," said the detective. His white trenchcoat fit his broad shoulders like the wings of an avenging angel.

Mickey blinked in surprise. Blue-clad street cops moved somberly through the room, but everyone else had vanished, even Anne. CDs and mixtapes, videos and Blu-rays lay scattered and crushed on the caramel wood floor. As he watched, one cop lifted an axe and brought it crashing down on a screen showing a gifset from The Avengers.

Meanwhile, Mickey's detective was examining his list of titles. He pursed his lips and whistled. "The Avett Brothers?" he said. "You son of a bitch."

"I'm starting to really dig that album," Mickey protested.

"Then why would you take money away from hard-working young artists?" The cop kicked over a stack of copies of Johnny Cash's At Folsom Prison. "It's one thing to steal a dead man's tunes," he said. "But a small band struggling to make good?"

"I didn't know I would like it until I heard it," Mickey said weakly. "Aren't they coming to town next month? I'm sure I've seen the poster somewhere. I'd love to hear them play in person."

"Why not just download a bootleg of that concert, too?" the detective snarled.

"Well," said Mickey, "because concerts are fun."

"You won't be able to afford concert tickets for a long while, buddy," the detective replied. "The last guy we caught with this many MP3s got a six-figure fine and community service."

"Six figures!" Mickey cried. "You've got to be joking."

"It's piracy that's the real joke," said the detective. "Like the proverbial bad penny, you criminals keep turning up." He sighed and waved one hand to his subordinates. As the police hauled Mickey away, he craned his head over his shoulder to see that the DJ had already crept back into his booth and the readers were back in their chairs up above. (Had they ever really left?)

Lounging in one of those overhead chairs was Anne, her long legs stretched out easily before her. She smiled and blew Mickey a kiss.

The riveted door slammed shut.

{The inevitable disclaimer: I believe that copyright is vitally important, but that enforcement of copyright has taken some ludicrous turns in the course of developing a practical law. Piracy's overlap with fair use, international law, and fan culture is still a murky, ill-defined territory. The metaphor of copyright-enforcement-as-Prohibition is initially intriguing -- we'll see if the historical argument holds up -- especially since it implies that popular culture is intoxicating, vital, and impossible to quash. But it also implies that popular culture is vulgar, morally dodgy, and may provide a financial building ground for organized crime. And I'm not just talking about bootleg Sopranos episodes. I'll have more coherent thoughts about this in future.

Also if anyone wants to draw me a picture of Belle and the Beast as Han and Chewy that would be spectacular.

UPDATE: Ask and you shall receive!}

Belle and Beast as Han and Chewy -iPad sketch

Here's How a Trilogy Can Outsell a Septology on Amazon (and What it Means for Your Weekend)

Word came via The Mary Sue that, on Amazon, Susanne Collins' Hunger Games trilogy has outsold Harry Potter both in print and digital. The article raises the question: how is it that a young trilogy can outsell a seven-book series with a devoted generational global following? The answer that occurred to me, and to numerous commenters on the original piece: bookstores, and how there's still more to the bookselling world than just Amazon's dominance.

I was an early adopter of Harry Potter, having discovered the first one when it was brand-new in one of those eyes-meet-across-a-crowded-room scenarios that normally only occur in 50s romance films and Frank Sinatra songs. I was literally across the room, and my eye snagged on that famous purple cover, and a jolt of electricity went through me. I knew I was going to love that book even before I picked it up and read the cover blurb. By the time the third one came out, I was dragging my friends to midnight release parties, standing in huge lines of kids our age and younger with lightning bolt temporary tattoos on our foreheads.

Later, I attended events at small, dedicated bookstores like Walla Walla's Book & Game and worked huge release events for the sixth and seventh books at the marvelous Third Place Books. Those midnight release parties -- they're common enough now, but I can't emphasize enough how revolutionary they felt at the time. Reading is often depicted as a solitary pursuit, an escape from other people, the consoling hobby of lonely kids and adults isolated by any number of factors (temperament, geography, what-have-you). Midnight release parties were where the non-literary book world showed up en masse: it's where we looked around and recognized ourselves in others on a vast, unprecedented scale.

And if you'll pardon me some adult language, those book events sold a metric fuckton of books over the course of an entire decade.

It's not surprising that The Hunger Games and its sequels have sold plenty of copies: they've got a gripping story, compelling emotional resonance, cross-generational appeal, and the kind of kickass female protagonist I would have Quarter Quelled somebody for in high school. They've also been released at a time when digital reading is at an all-time high-water mark. The same is not true of Harry Potter, whose digital release was significantly delayed (though exquisitely managed -- I approve full-voicedly Pottermore's avoidance of DRM).

But popular as they are, the Hunger Games have not (or not yet) performed the kind of literary and cultural sea change that Harry Potter did. It seems like a safe bet to say that Susanne Collins' success is very indebted to the culture of reading nurtured by J. K. Rowling. And nurture it she has -- through charity work, interviews, fan events, and numerous other avenues designed to engage kids with a culture of reading, not just her own series and its brand.

The way that this news about sales rank is being framed -- HUNGER GAMES NOW OFFICIALLY THE BEST BOOKS, as indicated by lots of headlines that use the word 'surpass' -- illustrates the trouble with assuming that Amazon rankings and sales data represent the whole of the book industry or reading culture. I'd argue that most Harry Potter books are not sold via Amazon -- they were picked up in print bookstores, or in airports, or grocery stores, or Walmart. I know I've picked up paperback copies of Harry Potter books in Seattle, Chicago, San Francisco, and Helsinki. Those sales do not, cannot factor into Amazon's numbers. (This aside from the fact that Amazon's data on sales can only be verified by Amazon, and not by chain or independent retailers or publishers -- a sinister point that seems to get glossed over quite a bit in print-digital conversations.) And while Amazon's promise to ship you a new release on the official day is convenient and customer-friendly, it doesn't bring the giddy elation of witnessing two hunded black-clad wannabe witches and wizards waving wands and cheering at the top of their lungs because you've just sliced open the first red-taped box of Book Seven with your trusty Exact-o knife.

So, though I'm as guilty as any author of checking my Amazon sales rank like a gerbil going back for a food pellet, it bears repeating: Sales are not substance. Amazon is great at getting books into people's hands -- I've yet to be convinced that they're great at getting books to change people's lives.

Now Available: Hell and Hellion!

Hell and Hellion is finally out! Let there be trumpets and confetti and rejoicing in the streets! I know I get excited every release day, but this one really is something special. This book was the first one I cried while writing. Full-on, Joan-Wilder-style sobs that had the mini-dachshund leaping to my side in concern. Part of it was that I think I let myself go a little more in this book than I normally do -- and that's a good thing. I don't know why it's so hard to just shut off your brain as a writer and let the heart and veins and viscera take over, but it's really damn difficult.

It also feels pretty amazing, once you get the trick of it.

So if you want to see what makes me cry, now's your chance.

The Robot Girls of Ancient Greece

In Homer's Iliad, there appears the following passage. Translation by yours truly, because if you can't use your 7 years of ancient Greek for translating things like this, what can you use it for? ... And to their lord hastened Golden servants like living maidens. In them were minds and hearts, voice and strength, And they have learned skills from the deathless gods. They hurried around and about their master. (Iliad 18.417-421)

Why am I posting about ancient Greek lady-robots made of gold? It's a secret—for now. Feel free to let your imaginations go wild. (Lord knows I did!)

 

The Great Boat Book-a-thon

You know how you've picked the right crew for your tropical boat vacation? When you look around on the evening of the first day and discover that everyone has silently and unanimously concluded that it's book time. We had paperbacks and hardbacks, mass markets, Kindles, and iPads. Even if you count an e-reader as one book, we had about three times as many books on this trip as we did people. It was magical.

This also means I got more read than I usually would on a group trip—and in another wave of good fortune, everything I read just happened to be spectacular. So I thought I would recommend them to you.

Throne of the Crescent Moon by Saladin Ahmed.

If you are looking for sword-and-sorcery fantasy with an older protagonist that takes place in an Islam-inflected world rather than your standard faux-medieval Europe, you are totally in luck. Characters include a tired old ghul hunter, an ascetic young dervish who needs to learn to relax, an orphaned tribal girl who can turn into a tiger, and some really terrifying monsters. The city of Dhamsawaat is as vibrant and unique as anything you'll find in Dickens or Mieville. I really cannot recommend this highly enough, and I cannot wait for the next book in the trilogy.

The Siren by Tiffany Reisz.

One of our fellow vacationers was reading Fifty Shades and mentioned that it was a bit tamer than she expected. I said she ought to try The Siren, even though I was only a few chapters in at the time. This book, to put it plainly, does not fuck around. The characters are all thoroughly fleshed-out—which comes in handy, since that flesh gets seriously tested as the plot unfolds. This is the kind of clearly consensual, intense lifestyle BDSM that occasionally puts people in the hospital, but is also very intimate and emotional. Kink is a method of sexual expression, rather than a way to cope with mental illness (as E. L. James has depicted it). This book is also very Catholic, which surprised me more than the kinky sex but which was fascinating and unique.

The Money and the Power: The Making of Las Vegas and Its Hold on America by Sally Denton and Roger Morris.

A great piece of non-fiction, full of speculation and anecdotes and behind-the-legal-scenes stories of how Las Vegas was founded on shady finances and money laundering and violence. Later it deals with presidential politics (so many Kennedys!) and the eventual corporatization of organized crime. It's well-written and complicated and will very probably destroy whatever remaining political innocence you have. I was seeing conspiracy theories everywhere for at least a week after I finished this. Bonus points for being written before the current New Depression, so occasional delightful anachronisms will pop up about the sterling reputation of Lehmann Brothers and other now-defunct institutions.

A Gentleman Undone by Cecilia Grant.

Cecilia Grant's first book featured a chilly widow and a charming rake slowly opening up to one another. This book features a card-counting courtesan—she's amazing—and an ambitious gambler with plenty of baggage from the battlefield. Together they have a plan to fleece a gaming hell, so it's basically a heist story as well as a romance. If there's a better way of getting me excited about a book, I haven't found it yet (I love heist stories!). Ms. Grant's usual poetic style and spot-on metaphors are back in full force, so definitely check this out if you like angsty, intense historicals.

The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern.

Everyone who told me to read this book—there were at least seven of you!—was totally correct. It was great, and I loved it. I ended up buying three copies, actually: one is a signed first, but I didn't want to take that on a boat, so I picked up a digital copy as well. But my iPad screen is difficult to read in direct sunlight—which there was plenty of, in the tropics—so when I saw a mass-market paperback for sale in one of our ports of call, I grabbed it as well.

Suffice to say, this is a book totally worth buying three times. Herr Thiessen forever!

And now I am in need of recommendations for what to read next. Suggestions, anyone?

{Disclosure: clicking on the above links may result in benefits to me. And by "benefits to me" I mean "more books for Olivia." It's a good thing.}

Lynne Pearce on "Romance and Repetition"

{While Olivia is basking on tropical shores, please enjoy this thoughtful piece from the Journal of Popular Romance Studies.} "Romance and Repetition: Testing the Limits of Love" by Lynne Pearce

How romantic fiction has, in practice, dealt with the spectre of repetition is surely a question worthy of investigation, and—although I have not had the opportunity to conduct such a survey as yet—I offer below some hypothetical models predicated upon the canon of classic romance:

  1. Happy Marriage: The most popular solution to the problem is to avoid repetition completely by focusing on only one relationship for the duration of the story and then bring the romance in question to a clean and definitive ending in marriage (“the white wedding”). If previous relationships did feature for one or both of the parties, they are very manifestly not “the real thing” and explained away (see 2 and 3 following). Even though common-sense tells us that it is impossible for any relationship to come to a fixed point, the illusion of closure remains one of the most singular pleasures that romance fiction trades in.
  2. Discredited Former Relationship 1: As in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet wherein Romeo is enamoured of a girl called Rosalind before he meets with Juliet. Although this “repetition” of behaviour has the potential to debase “genuine love,” Romeo’s devotion to Rosalind is treated comically, with the Nurse roundly sending up his heart-sick lament. Discrediting previous relationships through the implication that they were (for example) predicated upon lust, or convenience, rather than love is clearly a neat way of solving the repetition problem. In other words, the characters (and especially the male characters) can be permitted more than one relationship, providing that only the current one is “the real thing.”
  3. Discredited Former Relationship 2: As in Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, there is also the possibility of a character having been “in love” more than once through a plot device which ensures that that the previous love-object is retrospectively discredited. This scenario was perfected in Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca , a text in which it is possible to accept that Maxim loved both Rebecca and the narrator but only because his first wife is subsequently exposed as “not quite all that she seemed.”
  4. Definitive Death: Here the notional finitude of marriage is replaced by the absolute finitude of death. The fact that there is no possibility of death-bound lovers repeating, and hence discrediting, their UR-passion explains why tragedy remains the most cast-iron means of supporting the view that love is exclusive, non-repeatable, and forever. The fact that so many tragic lovers actively seek death as a means of protecting their love from compromise underlines the principle that “true love” eschews repetition.
  5. Duplicitous Afterlife: Although clearly a variant of “Death,” the solution offered by Gothic Romance is remarkable inasmuch as it simultaneously eschews and embraces repetition. While it is true that the star-crossed lovers at the centre of a Gothic Romance must never be seen to recover from their (one and only) love or its loss, this need not prevent them attempting a re-union with the lost loved-object (or, on occasion, his/her “double”) beyond the grave. Further, the crimes and mishaps that have caused the lovers to be doomed are subsequently seen to repeat those of their forbears and/or to generate a repetition in future generations (Pearce 86). In this respect, then, Gothic Romance must be seen as an instance of a genre both having its cake and eating it: “Genuine Love” is, of course, unique and forever—but so is the (doomed) will-to-repetition.

 

An Goris on "Matricide in Romance Scholarship"

{While Olivia is on vacation, please enjoy this excellent piece of romance scholarship from the Journal of Popular Romance Studies.} "Matricide in Romance Scholarship? Response to Pamela Regis’ Keynote Address at the Second Annual Conference of the International Association for the Study of Popular Romance” by An Goris

In order to get a grip on some of the dynamics that underlie the diverging interpretations of popular romance novels put forth in different scholarly studies of the genre, Regis adopts as a methodological approach the rhetorical analysis of literary criticism as texts constituting a discourse community. This approach allows her first to establish that the critical community of popular romance scholars shares a set of values, and second to analyse how the critics’ different positioning of the object of study (the contemporary popular romance novel) in relation to these shared values informs the rather different findings, interpretations, claims, and conclusions formulated by each of them. By emphasizing the notion that all romance scholars are essentially answering the same, community-imposed question—namely, are popular romance novels complex?—Regis draws attention to a core issue that all romance critics have in common, regardless of their many different approaches, frameworks, and objectives. Each act of criticism, Regis’ analysis makes irrefutably clear, requires the scholar to take up a position in relation to the object of study—requires, that is, a basic conceptualisation of the romance novel. It is in this process of conceptualising the romance novel, Regis essentially argues, that one of the core explanations can be found for critics’ rather differing takes on the same genre.

Things to Read While Olivia is on Vacation

We here at Olivia Waite are going to be spending the next week on a boat in tropical waters, drinking rum and eating fish and snorkeling -- though not all at once, obviously. (That snorkeling mask really gets in the way of a cocktail.) There will be very few showers, very many cold bottles of beer, and always the soothing wash and slap of the sea.

Lately, I've been meaning to write up a post on the state of romance scholarship today. I'm a huge lit-crit nerd and overthinking par excellence, so the new field of popular romance studies is pretty much the greatest gift academia has given me in my lifetime. Since blogging will be tricky in the islands, this seems like a good time to highlight some of the things I've been reading in this brave new world of romance geekery. I've scheduled posts that link to some of my favorite works of romance scholarship available for public consumption. I hope you enjoy, and I'll try and post a few photos and stories during the trip if I get the chance!

While I'm gone, of course,  you could always try one of my books, which are short and steamy and rather charming, if I do say so myself.

How to Write Great Content About Writing Great Content

So you have a blog on the internet, and it's great. Profound, yet witty. Accessible, yet highbrow. Complicated Latin puns and cartoons about penises. And now it is time to share your hard-earned wisdom with the broader digital world. The internet is full of posts on How to Write Great Content, but what you need is a post on how to write a great post about writing a great post. I am here to help, at least until Chuck Wendig comes along and writes 25 Ways to Write about Writing. That guy is a genius at lists.

Content is King

Somewhere in the first few paragraphs of your post about great blog posts -- ideally the first sentence -- you will probably want to mention that content is king. Don't worry about tracking the source or attribution of this saying: it's about as scientifically verifiable as the idea that food dropped on the floor only begins to accumulate bacteria after five seconds have elapsed.

Now, maybe you hear the phrase "content is king" and you imagine writing something with staying power like Schroedinger's Rapist or White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack. Something that people will share and link to months after it appears, something that contains ideas that will change the lenses through which ordinary people view their lives and their fellow humans. But that kind of post is ambitious and time-consuming and requires buckets of self-awareness and insight -- in other words, it's a trap.

If, on the other hand, you write a facile, thrown-together post about how someone else should write a great post that will speak to readers and engage an audience, then maybe someone will take your advice and write something spectacular. Everybody wins!

Illustrations

One of the wonders of the digital age is that great pictures are everywhere, just a Google image search away. Don't actually advise your readers to steal other people's images and content -- just repeat the adage that a picture is worth a thousand words and tell them that vivid illustrations can really make their post look engaging and relevant. Some of them will know about public domain and Creative Commons, while others will merely find the prettiest landscape in all of Pinterest -- but by then it's not your liability anymore, so why worry?

Load Both Barrels with Bullet Points

You can't write a great post about great content unless it is divided up into smaller sections. Bold text, numbered paragraphs, or bullet points will add visual interest and make it clear that great writing is a systematic, repeatable process, like baking cupcakes from a recipe on the back of the box of mix. Bonus points if your subheadings have half-baked metaphors or aggression that is at odds with the business-casual tone of the post itself!

For instance, if you were taking this writing-about-writing-as-recipe metaphor too far, your description of the writing process might look like this:

  • Crack open several semi-related ideas.
  • Beat the ideas with your strongest words until the post is clear and the ideas are fully separated.
  • Make sure your post has the proper amount of detail -- not enough and your post is bland, too much and the reader starts to hallucinate, because details are the nutmeg of writing.
  • Bake on the internet until trolling and abusive comments begin to appear.

Keep it Short

This is the internet, where everyone is busy, unless you are an adorable cat with a capslock caption. No great thoughts or ideas need more than a thousand words (eight hundred is better, five hundred is ideal). If your post is longer than a thousand words, what you have is called a "book," and you should probably just slop that thing onto Kindle and charge people ninety-nine cents for the privilege of reading it already. (If you do, make sure your cover image is obviously distorted, so people will know with a glance that the book's content is freshly harvested from the wild internet.)

Sum Up

All great content advice ends with a summary, because saying something once isn't enough -- you really need to hammer it into your reader's mind. Let's recap!

  • Content is king -- not queen, and not the democratically elected president of a republic with a bicameral legislature and separate judicial branch. King, because the internet is a feudal state.
  • Use pictures, though never your own.
  • Bullet points and bold text.
  • Trim the excesses of your wayward intellectual meandering and distill merely the purest essence of your thoughts.
  • Recap.

Often posts about writing great content will end with the idea that you should solicit your readers' opinions and musings (despite the overwhelming evidence that comment threads are the internet's festering rain gutters, full of scum and illiterate invertebrates). Do you think it's a good idea to write about writing? Why or why not?

On Bloomsday and Ex-Boyfriends

For those who like classic 20th century Irish literature, or famously difficult books, or stories with memorable poop scenes: tomorrow is Bloomsday! And not just any Bloomsday, but the first one since the book entered public domain in the UK! Which means Stephen Joyce can't stop people from reading the book, aloud, in public, to celebrate. (And yes he did try, the jerk.) Many people are doing many wonderful festive things, and tomorrow I will join them, but today I am reflecting.

My experience with Joyce started with one boyfriend in college, a math major who had figured out how many pages per day he had to read to finish Ulysses in a year. Halfway through, he realized he had forgotten what happened at the beginning, so he doubled his page number and started over while also keeping his more advanced bookmark -- meaning that by this schedule he would finish both his first and his second rereading at the same time. Of course, school and social life (ahem!) kept getting in the way, so he turned out to be reading Ulysses for pretty much the entirety of our year-and-a-half-long relationship.

Sometimes, I could persuade him to read bits aloud right before bed. I never had any idea what was happening plot-wise or character-wise, but it always sounded fantastic.

Many years later I would learn that this is a near-perfect way to approach Ulysses, which is rich and dreamlike and makes little to no sense when you read it in a straight line.

I read the book myself for my masters' thesis in comparative literature. This was a foolhardy, ambitious document I was thoroughly unqualified to attempt, since it started with Ovid's Fasti (Roman calendar poem, super-good), went through Dickens' A Christmas Carol and Great Expectations, and ended with Ulysses. Any one of these would have been more than enough for a thesis, and here I was cherry-picking material on time, ghosts, reading, holidays, bodies, and food. I'm pretty sure my professors let me pass just to get me out of the department. Our budget for grad student pretension was used up long ago.

I thoroughly enjoy Ulysses, especially now that I can hop around and reread my favorite parts (the Lazarus episode!) without having to slog through my least favorite parts (the whole brothel thing, ugh). But even though I've read it, and talked very pedantically about how it works as a novel (while quoting Ricoeur—I KNOW), it still doesn't feel like it's actually mine, in the way that Jane Eyre is mine or Good Omens or Howl's Moving Castle by the great Diana Wynne Jones (genuflects).

Ulysses will always belong to that ex-boyfriend, and I will read it with a mild sense of guilt, in the same way that Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band will always belong to that first guy I had a crush on in 8th grade, who told me the Beatles I loved for songs like "All My Loving" had a psychedelic phase. (Abbey Road, though? Totally mine.)

And there is a part of me that feels Joyce would approve this, or at least get an arch sort of Irish satisfaction out of it, this idea that there is always something furtive about how I approach his masterpiece, that there is no way I could ever fully grab onto it and fold it into my heart. None of the characters in the novel really get to do that with one another, either—and Joyce put so much effort into the poetry and music of his sentences that I know he would love to hear that for the first two years, I only listened to it spoken and never so much as looked at the words on the page.

And there's something pleasing in the idea that people we've loved leave something behind when they go. That this failed relationship lives on between Ulysses and I: awkward and ill-suited, but also still valuable, and worth every moment of the time.

Joyce might call it a gravestone in a cemetery; I think of it as adding one more volume to the library.

Sometimes I Hate Being Right

Last week, I wrote about women and romance in literary culture and included the following paragraph:

The current startling popularity of the Book That Shall Not Be Named But Whose Title Rhymes With Schmifty Shmades has really made it clear how deeply out of touch mainstream literary media are with regard to romance, and erotic romance in particular. “This one has spanking!” people cried, while erotic romance fans are over here with our ginger-figging and our office-supply erotica and our cowboy pegging and who knows what else. And The Guardian, who just last year created a marvelous quiz to see if people could tell the difference between male and female writing styles (that included a passage by Harlequin author Laura Abbott as well as Toni Morrison, Zadie Smith, and Margaret Atwood), has recently compiled a list of other popular dirty books in the E. L. James mode — a list that includes Judith Krantz, “Mills and Boon” (because they’re all the same, of course), Flowers in the AtticWuthering Heights, and the poems of motherfucking Sappho. I mean, sure, I love Sappho as much as it is humanly possible to love Sappho — but she’s hardly current, is she?

Am I the only one who looks at such things and wonders: Where the hell have you been for the last two decades? We have done so much work in that time!

Today, Chris Berube at the Daily Beast put up a jaw-droppingly shallow article about how self-published work like Schmifty Schmades is threatening Harlequin's monopoly on romance. Some of the (many, many) problems being, of course, that:

  • E. L. James' work didn't achieve really stunning numbers until she'd been picked up by first one, then a second publisher -- it was the Vintage edition that landed in airports and grocery stores. So this is really a question of one publisher grabbing a hot new thing and flooding the usual channels. The self-publishing aspect is crucial, sure, but it's not a black-and-white case of BOOK SMASH.
  • Harlequin is by no means a monopoly in the romance business. They happen to be the one romance publisher that non-romance fans can name, which is a Whole Nother Thing. And which Chris Berube explicitly brought up on Twitter, before being taken to task by the inimitable Lauren Dane. (And Leslie Kelly, and Shiloh Walker, and Sarah Wendell...)

In addition to a startlingly shoddy lack of research -- by someone who graduated from Columbia's journalism program this year -- the worst thing about the Daily Beast article is that it represents a missed opportunity. But apparently the Daily Beast thought that the perfect person to talk about romance is a first-year journalism grad who has apparently never touched the stuff.

As opposed to the many thousands of brilliant women who read and write about this all over the great wide internets. How about the folks of Dear Author or Smart Bitches -- Sarah Wendell writes for Kirkus as well, if you need journalistic credentials. If you are wary of review sites, how about Sarah Frantz or Laura Vivanco or anyone from the keen minds at Teach Me Tonight?

But no, once again, the correct person to talk about romance is a dude who knows nothing about the genre.

I look forward to the day when the literary media proves me wrong for once.

Writing While Female: Romance and the Vitality of Literary Culture

Oh, it's been an interesting few days across the book-o-sphere. Two recent articles have come to my attention, both of which deal with being a woman in the writing world.

One

First, via the inimitable Bookslut, we have a link to this piece: How to pitch (stories) like a girl.

It's about nonfiction writing rather than fiction writing, but take a look at this neat piece of rhetorical maneuvering:

At “Throw Like A Girl: Pitching the Hell Out of Your Stories,” which was organized by women’s nonfiction storytelling organization Her Girl Friday, a panel of experienced journalists and editors rejected suggestions that sexism or gender bias is exclusively responsible for the gap. Instead, they emphasized the need for young female journalists to develop the confidence to let rejection roll off their backs.

“You can’t see rejection as a real reflection of your value,” said New York Times metro editor Carolyn Ryan. “Every day, seasoned reporters pitch and get told no. Practicing pitching makes you a better pitcher. Rejection is part of the process.”

You see what they did there? It's not that the industry is biased against lady journalists, it's just that lady journalists aren't as professional as the men journalists. Yeah, I can see how sexism isn't a the problem AT ALL. And using a headline riffing on a sports-based taunt that reinforces the stereotype of women as automatically less skilled/talented in a male-dominated activity is SURE TO HELP.

Another lovely passage:

Although the majority of the discussion focused on confidence, the panelists also reviewed basic pitching guidelines: Spell the editor’s name correctly. Be familiar with the target publication. Explain why you are the best person to write the piece.  Keep pitches short. Always ask, “So what? Why me? Why now?”

Here is another way that sentence may have gone -- see if you can spot the difference! Although the panelists also reviewed basic pitching guidelines, the majority of the discussion focused on confidence. There is no need for this article to reiterate those pitch tips that hold true across fiction and non-fiction genres alike -- the much more relevant story here is that if you are a woman writing journalism, and you feel less than encouraged, that is your own damn fault:

“Female writers will pitch us, we’ll say no, and we’ll never hear from them again,” said Ratliff. He admitted that only two of Atavist’s last 15 stories were written by women (a confession that prompted a good-natured round of booing), but emphasized his commitment to correcting that imbalance.

Imagine -- women think that a rejection means their work is not good enough! When clearly it just means I haven't heard of you before, so clearly you are not serious. Try again later, if you can properly decode my unspoken expectations!

Essentially what they are doing is blaming the victims of marginalization for being marginalized. It discounts the fact that there are very real, palpable forces that convince women of their own lesser worth and minimal authority. Maybe we should think about changing those structures, instead? But no -- it's not that we live in a patriarchy/kyriarchy that silences all but privileged voices -- it's that those silenced voices just aren't yelling loud enough. (And when we do yell, we're hysterical or emotional or irrational. "What a fun game!" said no woman, ever. "I love not winning.")

Although they offer some rather condescending advice hardly specific to print journalism -- "Spell the editor's name correctly"? YOU DON'T SAY -- this passage about organizing group Her Girl Friday gives me reason to hope:

The group developed such an enthusiastic following that almost 500 people registered for Tuesday’s event on its Facebook page, and organizers had to set up audio for the attendees who spilled into a second room. Most of the guests described themselves as print journalists, but there were a fair number of documentary filmmakers and photographers in the room, too. Throughout the evening, the crowd was friendly, convivial, and supportive – exactly the kind of atmosphere that Her Girl Friday organizers hoped to build.

Sound familiar? This describes every romance conference I have ever attended. In fact, one of the very first things I learned about the romance industry when I was starting to really study it as a dewy-eyed undergraduate was that it is cheerful, and supportive, and welcoming -- as described in this life-changing episode of This American Life, which pretty much cemented my ambitions to write romance. Because I had spent plenty of time by then talking to other people who loved books, and who wanted to write literary fiction or sci-fi or fantasy, and I always came away with the clear conviction that the moment I opened my mouth and said, "I like writing love stories, here is one of my opening chapters," there would be disappointment and dismissal and the cruel, curled lip of scorn.

Two

Speaking of the curled lip… here, via Dear Author, is that second link I mentioned: Sarah Wendell taking a Kirkus reviewer to task for his ignorance of the romance genre and general assholery.

Allow me the liberty of imagining what was going through our reviewer's head:

Oh goodness gracious, I have to sully my critical faculties by reviewing an historical romance. Everyone knows romances are mindless bits of sexual titillation for bored country housewives, not hip urban sophisticates -- they're sold in drugstores and in Walmart, not in respectable bookstores like the Strand or City Lights. How can they be important? Nobody ever talks about them except for women. If romances were important, men would be writing them too ... Oh, this romance was actually well-crafted. I shall conclude not that my initial assumptions were false, but rather that this is the one intelligent historical romance that has ever been written in the history of the world.

The Ladies' Underground

These articles came from different corners of the book-loving interwebs, but they are deeply connected by the same tired old gender imbalances in the literary world. Women and women's writing are automatically less serious and worthy of critical interest, as though words can become less robust, less true, or less incisive when the hand holding the pen or tapping the keyboard belongs to a woman rather than a man. (Someone explain to me why Jonathan Franzen is so great again? Or better yet -- don't.) It is a great deal harder for a writing woman to achieve the same level of recognition as her male peers -- as evidenced by two years of VIDA numbers -- not least because she knows that if her writing has any flaws or failings, those will be held up as marks against all writing women everywhere. This is a huge burden of responsibility, and authorship is not the easiest life to begin with -- are we really going to blame women for being discouraged at this?

Romance as a genre provides a definite relief from the pressures of representation, but the genre itself is still the red-headed stepchild of the literary world. It did not take me long, however, even a decade ago in my naïve undergrad years, to realize that some of the most innovative, exciting, ground-breaking storywork was being done in the romance genre. The closing of bookstores like Borders and countless smaller independents (I will always miss you, Fremont Books!) has made many people despair that a once-lively American literary culture is fading fast -- but in romance, new genres and subgenres are appearing nearly every day. We have scholarly journals and college courses and academic texts dedicated to treating romance as an art and a subject worth serious consideration. Writers are taking risks with old conventions, or pushing boundaries both sexual and social -- and we are doing it as part of a broad conversation with readers, reviewers, and scholars about what a romance can be, and what a romance can do. It's similar to what McSweeney's is doing with literary and experimental writing -- but a thousand times bigger (and with significantly less self-conscious irony).

And it's all happening almost exclusively without mainstream literary acknowledgement.

The current startling popularity of the Book That Shall Not Be Named But Whose Title Rhymes With Schmifty Shmades has really made it clear how deeply out of touch mainstream literary media are with regard to romance, and erotic romance in particular. "This one has spanking!" people cried, while erotic romance fans are over here with our ginger-figging and our office-supply erotica and our cowboy pegging and who knows what else. And The Guardian, who just last year created a marvelous quiz to see if people could tell the difference between male and female writing styles (that included a passage by Harlequin author Laura Abbott as well as Toni Morrison, Zadie Smith, and Margaret Atwood), has recently compiled a list of other popular dirty books in the E. L. James mode -- a list that includes Judith Krantz, "Mills and Boon" (because they're all the same, of course), Flowers in the Attic, Wuthering Heights, and the poems of motherfucking Sappho. I mean, sure, I love Sappho as much as it is humanly possible to love Sappho -- but she's hardly current, is she?

Am I the only one who looks at such things and wonders: Where the hell have you been for the last two decades? We have done so much work in that time! And the so-called literary world has no idea!

You want a thriving literary culture? You've got one, provided you can check your assumptions at the door.

Announcing: Hell and Hellion!

We here at Olivia Waite are thrilled to announce that the good people at Ellora's Cave have offered us a contract for Hell and Hellion, an erotic paranormal Regency novella!

***

Last year Virginia Greening made a journey into Hell to rescue the man she expected to marry. To her dismay, she arrived to find he'd fallen in love with someone else—and now Virginia is home in London and nursing a bruised heart. Worse than that, however—she finds that since her return she can see demons. How do you make polite conversation when something green and evil is leering at you over another guest's shoulder?
Incubus James Grieve is intrigued to realize one evening that this petite brunette woman is staring right at him. Her unique ability to see him is soon eclipsed by the power of their mutual attraction. James has no soul to save, and Virginia's soul is incorruptible by infernal decree, so it is not long before they are indulging in any number of passionate sins and pleasurable vices. 
Until, that is, James acquires a soul of his own.
Burdened with newfound mortality, and surely condemned after death for his multitude of sins, James must make a choice. Will he abandon his beloved and his soul in favor of vice and immortality? Or can Virginia convince him that a virtuous mortal life is worth both living and dying for?

***

Technically, Hell and Hellion is the follow-up to Damned if You Do. But it's twice as long, and set in London rather than in Hell, and … Well, in short, it's less a sequel and more a stand-alone with a prequel that I just happened to write first.

Which is not to say you shouldn't go out and read Damned if You Doespecially since Nix at Scorching Book Reviews recently called it "Witty, pacy and sexy"! I'm still blushing -- though clearly not hard enough to keep me from repeating the praise.

 

 

A Trans Romance Heroine and the Problems of Representation

Regular readers of this blog and those of you who follow me on Tumblr and Pinterest will know that I'm pretty keen on bringing feminism full-on into the romance genre. One of the things I'd like to see is greater numbers of heroines and heroes other than white, straight, cis, able-bodied, thin, wealthy people. (On which note: Dear Author recently had a thread recommending good romances that feature protagonists with disabilities, so let's take a moment to cheer for that!) So you can imagine how thrilled I was to learn that there was a contemporary romance that featured a transgender heroine! It's Two Spirit Ranch by Jaime Stryker, and reading it brought up a lot of questions for me.

But First, A Primer

The language for talking about trans experiences is still pretty fluid and I am still learning, but here is a lamentably brief and limited definition of the two terms that are valuable for the discussion in this post.

  • cis: short for either cissexual or cisgender, but no need to worry about that distinction right now. Cis was originally a chemistry term, but in social justice it just means 'not trans' -- if your experience of your own gender matches the gender you were assigned at birth, you are a cis person. I love this word so much, partially because it is useful and illuminating, but also because it reminds me of the Roman province of Cisalpine Gaul, which is just 'Gaul that is on the near side of the Alps.'
  • dysmorphia: I can't explain it any better than QueerSexEd, but trans people often experience a certain amount of distance from their own body. This varies from person to person and can be psychologically traumatizing.
  • trans: short for transgender or transsexual, another much-debated distinction that I do not feel qualified to tackle. A trans person is a person whose experienced gender identity is different from the gender they were assigned at birth. For instance, a trans woman experiences her gender as female though she was assigned male at birth.  (The article for transgender on Wikipedia is surprisingly thorough and link-heavy, if you'd like more information.)

And Now, A Review

Sad to say, Two-Spirit Ranch was not very good, as a romance. It's riddled with lame cliché and, for all its evident enthusiasm, not very competently written. But plenty of romances are bad, and talking about things like the sheer, untrammeled idiocy of our sheriff hero is not nearly as interesting as talking about how this book succeeds and fails at representing characters from marginalized groups. (Though a disproportionate number of my reading notes consist of the words: "Stupid sheriff.")

Because while the book received a lot of press from non-romance sources like Jezebel and MediaBistro, it didn't get a lot of coverage within the romance industry itself. Partly this is a factor of the sheer business of the industry—so damn many books!—and partly this is a factor of the silencing that trans voices routinely are subject to in a culture that is hostile to their very existence. I am by no means an authority on trans experiences—I'm as straight, white, able-bodied, and cis as your average romance heroine—but it seems to me that someone in the romance community should be talking more about this book, and nobody else has stepped forward. That the existence of this book is a referendum on the state of diversity in romance today should be clear from this ChicagoNow headline: Will romance genre embrace new transsexual story?

You are heartily encouraged to call shenanigans in the comments.

Our Heroine

Overall, I felt that the depiction of our trans heroine Terri was positive and plausible. Female pronouns were used to refer to her throughout, except when her past as Terrence was discussed. This seemed appropriate, respectful, and fairly similar to what trans bloggers have written about all over the internet. The author has clearly listen to trans women talk about their lived experiences, and transgender blogger Cyrsti Hart agrees (though she enjoyed the book more than I did). For me, this authenticity was most clearly shown in this speech of Terri's:

"Dont get me wrong. I'm proud of who I am. It took me a long time to get to this point in my life, and I had years of struggle. But sometimes you just don't want to have to get into your story with every person. You just want to be who you are now. Not everyone is open to understanding." (Kindle 1615)

The book's most nicely written passage deals with Terry's dysmorphia growing up, and is worth quoting at length:

The body she had lived in then had always felt like a stranger's from as far back as she remembered. Looking at it now, the person seemed like a distant memory. Almost like the feeling of waking after a long dream. On a conscious level, she knew that was her in the photo, but it felt so unreal since she never identified with the person in that body. In fact, going through puberty was very difficult. Imagine the shock of seeing your girl friends grow breasts and wider hips while you were getting hairier and your voice started to deepen. (Kindle 377)

Even the fact that our heroine was often TSTL was kind of refreshing: she was shallow and frustrating in precisely the same way as any other poorly written category heroine. I liked as well that her trans identity was dealt with in the opening chapters—I refuse to count the prologue, which was word-for-word a scene from the novel's emotional climax and was exactly the kind of unnecessary beginning that gives Angela James at Carina the fits—so that it was a part of our heroine's thought process throughout, and informed her experience as she moved from busy New York to small-town Montana.

The quibbles I have are these. One: Terri was treated exactly like a woman—a stereotypical, girly, watches-her-figure (yes, she used that old-timey phrase) kind of woman. It was peculiar to find a trans-centered romance novel that was so heavily invested in maintaining traditional gender roles. It read less like an attempt to show that trans women are still 'real' women, and more like the classic Mars-Venus bullshit that is so insidious within the genre and the category romance in particular.

Two: Terri's trans identity was used in classic romance fashion as a Deep, Dark Secret, one that she 'should' have told the hero right off and one that causes much romantic angst when it is eventually revealed. Normally the Deep, Dark Secret cliché is as good or bad as the writer who employs it—but in this case, it worryingly mirrors the idea that a trans person's very existence is a deception. As Cord Jefferson explains in Good Magazine:

Time and again in both comedic and dramatic films, transgender people are cast as deviant tricksters out to fool innocent victims into sleeping with them. This narrative plays upon two of America's deepest fears: sexual vulnerability and humiliation. Not only is your sex partner "lying" about their gender, victims who "fall for it" are then forced to grapple with the embarrassment of being had, of being seen as gay. Men "tricked" into sleeping with another man are embarrassed by the threat to their masculinity. So much culture has taught us that transgender people aren't just sexual aliens, they're also predatory liars.

The supposed deceit of trans individuals is often used against them—it's a dehumanizing justification to hurt them, often violently, in the name of a false sense of self-defense. I cannot state this strongly enough: trans people have been and are being killed because of this attitude, and its presence in a romance is disturbing. Especially when it's our hero who's upset at having been 'deceived':

"I may be a small town sheriff but didn't you respect me enough to tell me the truth? But I would have rather heard it from you first hand. Don't you think I deserved at least that, Terri? Don't you? Didn't I deserve some respect after all we've been through?" (Kindle 1779)

He really sounds like a man working himself up to put his fist through a wall, and I was concerned. Especially since "all we've been through" consists of one day at the fair and one night's good lovin' (closed-door, to my disappointment). And even after the sex he'd had no idea she was trans until his evil condo-building cousin showed him the proof acquired from a private detective (don't even ask).

This is a small town, where everyone knows everyone else's business, sexual and otherwise—you bet your ass any trans person would take their sweet time before revealing something so dangerous, no matter how sexy the sheriff.

Our Hero

But my main problem with our hero Jake is not his alpha-hole behavior (though there's plenty of that). My main problem with Jake is that his backstory presents him as part Native American—and this brings up the biggest issue I had with treating Two-Spirit Ranch as what author Jaime Stryker wants it to be: a progressive novel advocating greater diversity in romance.

It must be stated: romance has a terrible history with Native American and First Nations characters. It's noble savagery all the way down. And, sadly, so is this book: in its use of the two-spirit people as a solution for the plot, there is a distinct tone of Gosh, those Native tribes were so much more tolerant and environmentally friendly than we supposedly advanced white settlers:

"I had no idea," Terri said, dumbstruck. "It sounds so much more advanced than our society now." The professor nodded knowingly. "When it comes to our society's rigid views regarding sexuality or gender, you're right. It was seen as a positive rather than a negative. Diversity was a reflection of nature and all its infinite possibilities." (Kindle 1688)

And then Professor Redfeather goes back to digging up transgender Native pottery from beneath the lightning-struck tree on Terri's ranch. No, really.

There is precisely one mention of "the reservation" in this book, and here it is:

Jake: "I hated being part Native growing up. Not only were they bad guys in the western movies, but sometimes I'd see alcoholic Indians begging on the streets of town or committing crimes around the reservation. At the time, I didn't understand what was really behind some of that." (Kindle 1085)

But the issue of what's "behind some of that" is never discussed. Native Americans here are academics and people of the past—there's no discussion of what's happening on the reservation right now, on the fact that these supposedly magical, tolerant people are no longer here because we either killed them all or drove them away. The whole point of including the Native background at all is to 'solve' the problem Jake has with Terri's trans identity.

And—pardon the swearing—it's just plain shitty to present one marginalized identity as the 'solution' for another person's different experience of marginalization.

In Conclusion

Ultimately, for all my criticism, I'm glad Two-Spirit Ranch exists. It can be easier to creatively respond to a bad representation than to a lack of representation: the No no no, here's how that story should have gone! motivation is a strong one.

But frankly, I'd hoped for better. I think we as an industry can and should do better at including trans characters. And if anyone knows of any other examples out there, be sure to point me in their direction.

Further Reading

These are by no means the only resources on the web if you want to read more about trans or Native identity and issues of representation. (Let me introduce you to my friend, Google.) These are merely the websites I could think of right off the top of my head, and which have thoroughly informed my reading of trans experience, Native experience, feminism, and intersectionality. Any mistakes or missteps in the above analysis are entirely and completely my own.

Finally, a Feminism 101 Blog

How To Make Love to a Trans Person by Gabe Moses

Native Appropriations

QueerSexEd

Shakesville

Tiger Beatdown

P Is For: Porn

For today's post in the A to Z April Blogging Challenge, I'm going to take the bull by the horns—see what I did there?—and talk about romance, erotic romance, and porn. But not like you expect.

Lately there has been a great deal of media attention being paid to Fifty Shades of Grey. It's the story that just won't die, and it has baffled many of the erotic romance authors I had the pleasure of meeting this week at the Romantic Times Convention in Chicago. And lately we've hit rock-bottom with a piece by Katie Roiphe in Newsweek (to which I refuse to link because, come on, Kate Roiphe).

And now we romance and erotic romance writers and readers have to live beneath the shadow of that execrable phrase: "mommy porn."

There are a lot of posts from romance fans that defend the genre against the all-too-prevalent accusation that we're merely writing porn for women. Some of these say, "No, we're not writing porn, we're doing something different." Some of these say, "Yeah, we're writing porn, so what?"

I'm going to leave aside the porn/not-porn question for now and try to tease out something else I've noticed in all the mainstream romance coverage.

Non-romance readers see the popularity of Fifty Shades and draw a thick black line connecting the (presumably) female reader and the tortured billionaire kinkster hero. Then they label that line WHAT WOMEN WANT and opine about whether or not it's good for women to want that kind of man, or whether or not it's easy for men to be that kind of man. Then they go on to say some unusually stupid things about romance being a pernicious influence on a woman's real-life relationships (example: this old chestnut).

The problem—okay, one of the problems—with this line of argument is that it completely erases the heroine.

Take Fifty Shades, which admittedly I have only in part. Our heroine is Anastasia Steele. She is the one in the relationship with Christian, not the reader. The reader is interested in watching the relationship between the two of them, as this Feministing piece quite accurately points out: the fun is watching the couple. It would be hard for a romance reader to imagine that the hero is a complete apotheosis of their personal desires when he spends an entire series fucking and loving and marrying someone else. (Though the 'women are stupid and don't know what's good for them' thread is nearly as strong in romance coverage as it is in coverage of reproductive rights.)

It could be argued that the book's first-person POV effaces the distinction between the reader and the heroine: because we are in her head, we are implicitly thinking her thoughts and sharing her experiences, sexual or otherwise. There are, however, a few problems with this.

For instance: Lolita.

One of the common threads of analysis that surrounds Nabokov's masterpiece is that the first-person POV prevents us from seeing the real character of Lolita with any truth or clarity. We know how Humbert thinks and feels about her, but we cannot trust that his perspective is accurate or objective in any way. We know nothing of how Lolita herself really feels about anything that may or may not happen in the book. It's the classic example of an unreliable narrator: Humbert is real, Lolita is not.

And yet with Christian Grey, we are expected to ignore Anastasia's first-person presence entirely because of course the female reader is only interested in the sexually charged male hero. He is more real than she is.

We can't have it both ways: either first-person POV elides the relationship between reader and narrator—in which case anyone who reads Lolita is criminally and emotionally complicit in a whole lot of disturbing and unethical activities—or first-person POV filters everything through the perspective of the narrator—in which case we should be talking a lot more about Anastasia Steele than Christian Grey. (Before all my fellow lit-crit junkies jump in the comments thread: yes, despite what I said above both these modes can be active simultaneously—books are magic that way, and readers are individuals—but that kind of subtlety rarely rears its head in the trend pieces that are my subject in this post.)

What this comparison makes clear is that whether we're talking above Nabokov or E. L. James, it's always the men who are deemed important.

This is a subtle form of sexism, but once seen it cannot be unseen. It's why supposed relationship experts worry that romance heroes will make real-life husbands pale in comparison. It's why people who could not name one single romance author to save their lives can still talk about Fabio, and people who've read romance their entire lives cannot name a single female cover model. (Guilty as charged—though a quick Google search fixed that right quick.) In an industry that is nearly entirely read and written by and for women, there is still a sneaky little undercurrent that it's only the men who matter.

Which may, now that I think about it, explain the 'porn' epithet so often hurled at romance. Romance has sex, yes—often very explicit sex—but it has a history and tradition of its own quite separate from the porn industry, even that part of the porn industry that deals in dirty books and Tijuana Bibles. But there really isn't a short cultural term for texts that explore sexual relationships from a specifically female-centric standpoint; the closest thing we have is porn, images that explore sexual relationships from a specifically male-centric standpoint. Hence the 'romance is porn' idea, and why it feels so wrong but is so hard to untangle.

Romance is not porn. Romance is romance. And it's not easily decoded, especially not by a couple self-involved paragraphs in a magazine that wouldn't know J. D. Robb from J. R. Ward.

Library-Inspired Business Cards

We here at Olivia Waite are terrible at office jobs, but love a well-made business card. In the past we have gone with elegant black text on a matte white background because it stands out in the sea of glossy cover images and author photos (and also because it is cheap). But since we're going to the Romantic Times convention in Chicago in a few weeks—all the cool kids are doing it—we decided it was time to step up and get ourselves something fancy. Behold!

These are masterpieces in miniature, tactile and luxurious. The design and letterpress printing (letterpress! I swoon!) were accomplished by the marvelous Boxcar Press, who were an absolute delight to work with.

And yeah, I'm a digital author, but I grew up loving print books and moveable type and the Book of Kells and old book smell and libraries with narrow aisles and all those bibliophilic things that are comfort food for the soul. I've illuminated manuscripts before just for fun. I still get fizzy with delight when someone sends me a letter in the mail, too. The prophets of doom (cough cough Konrath) would have us believe that print is dead, or very nearly so.

They can have print books when they pry them from my cold, dead hands.

Face Reading, Racism, And The State Of The Romance Today

This is not going to be a nice post. It is not going to be a short post. It is, however, a necessary post, if only to keep me from feeling slimy in my soul. Please accept honesty as a virtue today in lieu of graciousness. Tomorrow my chapter of the Romance Writers of America is having their monthly meeting. I generally look forward to chapter meetings, but tomorrow I will not be in attendance. Because the speaker is Jean Haner, talking about her particular school of face reading, also known as physiognomy.

And from everything I can tell, physiognomy is kinda racist.

I am not simply skeptical because The Wisdom of Your Face sounds like something Leslie Knope would yell when angered. (It totally does!) I'm also skeptical because I'm a historical romance author, and like virtually every historical romance author I have read about phrenology and I know that it is a load of crap.

More specifically, it's a load of racist crap, used to justify both slavery and eugenics (among other atrocities) on the grounds that African people were less intellectually developed than Europeans. This despite the fact that none of the evidence amounted to a hill of beans, scientifically. None of the research I've done on face reading in the past three months has convinced me that physiognomy is any more science-based or any less racist than phrenology.

And calling it "Chinese face reading," as many do, does not reassure me on this front. You might as well drop the words "exotic" or "Oriental."

Also a red flag: when you talk about what the shape of a person's nose can tell you about their relationship with money. Because that's certainly never been a talking point of anti-Semitism, nosiree.

The science: I'm not the only one out there to shout "What about genetics?" in response to the fuzziness of phsyiognomy's data. One face-reading website I found addressed these concerns in a FAQ, but the response is chock-full of shoddy science. (Hint: if the romance author can spot you're doing science wrong, you're doing science really, really wrong.) The FAQ in question comes from Rose Rosetree's school of face reading:

So you're claiming that genes have nothing whatsoever to do with how we look? It's not mere chance or coincidence?

No, I believe your soul chooses from what's available in the gene pool. And sometimes it's a pretty long reach in that pool to find the trait that's needed. For instance, one face reading student of mine pointed out that, in his family, there are four brothers. All of them look alike except "the rebel," whose face looks completely different from all the others.

Say it with me now: Correlation does not equal causation!

That is, it is just as likely that the rebellious brother's facial differences caused him to act differently from his brothers as it is that his personal differences are reflected in his facial features. Especially if everyone in the family was frequently making a big deal about it. Oh, you look so different from your brothers! Maybe you were adopted! Maybe the milkman is your real dad! Ha ha ha! It's just a joke—why aren't you laughing? That would certainly lead me to feel rebellious.

Another excellent post, from the hitherto unknown-to-me Motor City Blog, talks about going to a face reading event. Our reviewer is asked to consider the shape of her own eyebrows (because the eyebrows are windows to the soul, or something):

After telling us that women can have high, moderate, or low eyebrows, but there isn't a man on the planet who has high eyebrows (high-brows being, naturally, more sensitive), she had us evaluate the lower arch of our own eyebrows. After a long moment of mirror-gazing, I asked what seemed the obvious question: Before or after plucking? "The way they look right now," she told me. "Because you chose it."

It's one thing to suggest that the shape of a facial feature is drawn by genetics, or behavior, or even choice. My eyebrows are drawn by Cyndee. Although I'm generally satisfied with the styling (read: I don't really care), I had no input into the process other than "ow." Now, it could be argued that a good stylist (and Cyndee is, without a doubt, a good stylist) shapes a woman's brows based on her bone structure etc., but I don't think the sensitivity of my nature was taken into account. This is completely aside from the physiognomy claims, particularly since she also told us that temporary/styling considerations -- like hairstyle -- are not a part of the "read."

I have a related question: what about survivors of trauma—army veterans, for example–whose personalities are deeply altered by their experiences? Do their facial features change shape to reflect their new selves?

The face reader in Detroit then went on to compare the faces of candidates for political office, as Jean Hauer has done in a post about the current election cycle:

Western studies have found that it’s almost always the politician with the strongest jaw who wins the election. Gingrich has a massive jaw compared to Romney.

In Chinese face reading, the jaw is called “The Roots of the Tree.” A tree with strong roots can’t be easily knocked over by the wind. So like the tree, a person with a strong jaw can’t be easily influenced by other people. In other words, they have strong beliefs and will stand up for those beliefs.

Aside from the fact that Gingrich has taken a massive dive in the polls since that post was written, here are my two problems with this:

  • Saying that people will vote for the politician with the strongest jaw may well be a sociological fact. But that just means we have a cultural preference for strong jaws, not that strong jaws are an indication of strong will. After all, "strong jaw" is just a phrase that means "big jaw." It's already a loaded term. And as far as I know there is no way to measure the strength of a politician's determination, so that we might quantify the actual ratio of strength-of-jaw to strength-of-will. I can't believe I even just typed that sentence.
  • People are not trees! Jaws are not actually, factually roots! Do I really have to explain that metaphors are not the same thing as data? Because metaphors are not the same thing as data!

None of the websites I've found have any actual numbers to back up their assertions, or citations of the studies they claim support their arguments. Most of what they offer is specious, transparently cultural assumptions like the above—and such assumptions have no place in science. Or in art, for that matter.

Why This Matters To Me As A Romance Author Specifically

Leaving questions of science or prejudice aside—and oh, how privileged I am to be able to do that—there are reasons why a workshop on face reading is also an offense against the craft of writing.

The strong jaw and trustworthy face ring bells to me as someone who reads and writes romance. The classic romance heroine's mouth is just a little too generous, her chin just a little too stubborn. And from this we are to infer that the heroine herself is both generous and stubborn. Trustworthy people have trustworthy faces, and all our villains are ugly. I'm as guilty of this as anyone—have you met Lord Wart? he's my favorite—but I'm trying to do better.

Lately romance fans have been talking more about the way our characters are physically described and how we can expand more upon the traditional forms of beauty. (Example: this Smart Bitches thread from last year.) Romance as a genre is moving away from the Endless Perfection Parade it was in days of yore. We don't really think that all beautiful people are good, and vice versa. We don't really believe that people with wider mouths are kinder than others. (I mean—we don't, do we?) It's just a convenient way of making our words work doubly hard for us—something we're trained to do by all the writing advice on all the blogs and in all the world. So we make physical descriptions carry the load of character-building as well.

I am here to say now that this is sloppy. It's cliché and trite and plain lazy writing.

So I'm writing no more heroes or heroines with generous mouths. (Villains, maybe—that sounds promising. I need to write more villains.) Or stubborn chins. I would rather show my hero smiling generously, or my heroine stubbornly sticking out her chin. Gestures are fine. Gestures are actions. We can legitimately judge people (and characters) based on their actions.

Because this idea that we can tell what kind of person someone is just by looking at them? It's pseudo-science, and I won't have it turning my books into pseudo-craft.

The First Book I Ever Wrote

We here at Olivia Waite can't remember the first thing we ever tried to write, but we sure do remember the first book we ever finished writing. It was a terrible high school romance written longhand on blue-lined notebook paper, and it was inspired by seeing an ad for this book in Seventeen magazine:

I knew nothing about the book and I didn't want to know. {NB: The author is still writing, and appears quite popular! Here is her Amazon page!} All I knew was that the title—Zoey Fools Around—struck me as the most ridiculous title in the world. What kind of plot went with that title?

I sat down over a weekend and wrote it.

And oh, looking back, it's clearly horrible. You know that scene in Twilight where Edward and Bella are partners in science lab or whatever? {Disclaimer: I haven't read Twilight, though I've read just about every piece of Twilight criticism on the whole wide internet.} Imagine that scene without the abstinent sexual tension and sparkly vampires. Then imagine that scene drags on for several more scenes, before ending with something even more disappointing than a whimper.

There may also have been attempted date rape depicted at one point, to let the reader know the popular-kid villain was the villain and not the hero. (He was handsome, and I didn't want anyone to get confused.) I was reading a lot of Catherine Coulter at the time, and date rape seemed like the high school translation of the forced seduction that was The Thing in romance of that era. Especially as I hadn't been to high school yet myself, but had gathered my information on it from a variety of terrible movies, magazines, and after-school specials.

It's possible this manuscript still exists either here in my library or at home in the house where I grew up. I'm a little afraid to go looking.

From such a beginning, there was nowhere to go but up. No manuscript I ever write will be as awkward, as shallow, as wooden as that first one. Damned if You Do and Hearts and Harbingers are masterworks by comparison—and hopefully those too will be eclipsed by the books I have yet to write.

It's a comforting thought. The worst book I've ever written is behind me, and I hope that the best is yet to come.

Every Shade Of Grey: A Primer

We here at Olivia Waite have been hearing a lot of buzz lately about Shades of Grey—which was surprising, since that book is a couple years old by now. And then we realized that maybe people were talking about Shaedes of Gray? Or Fifty Shades of Gray? It's taken us most of a week to realize that these were all different books.

Which one should we read?

We can't be the only ones who are confused about this. Hence, we have assembled a handy primer for reference. If there are any other currently popular books with "shades" or "gray" or any variations of same in the title, please let me know in comments!

Shades of Grey by Jasper Fforde: This 2010 novel is the first in a series by acclaimed author Jasper Fforde, whom you might recall from The Eyre Affair and subsequent Thursday Next books. The story is dark and imaginative and completely original, set in a world where individuals can only see certain colors, and what colors they see determine their rank in society. There were several points where I was terrified, and many where I was delighted, but there was never a moment where I was not totally fascinated with what was happening on the page before me.

If you've read any of Jasper Fforde's work, you know how hard it is to describe exactly what his novels are like—and if you haven't read any of Jasper Fforde's work, what on earth are you waiting for?

Shaedes of Gray by Amanda Bonilla: My library copy is two feet away at the moment but I haven't started the book yet, so I'll just put in the part of the cover blurb that I liked best. In the shadows of the night, Darian has lived alone for almost a century. Made and abandoned by her former love, Darian is the last of her kind—an immortal Shaede who can slip into darkness as easily as breathing. With no one else to rely on, she has taught herself how to survive, using her unique skills to become a deadly assassin.

I picked it up pretty specifically on account of the glowing Space Needle on the cover, because I grew up in Seattle and am pretty thrilled it's coming into its own as an urban fantasy setting. (See also: Cherie Priest and Kira Brady.) Also, I can never resist a redheaded heroine, no matter how many times I read them. Further bulletins as events warrant.

Fifty Shades of Grey by E L James: College student Anastasia Steele (um, really?) finds herself pursued by a hot, rich, dominating man who likes kinky, kinky sex rather than sweet, sweet romance. So of course she falls right smack dab in love with him. I owe my initial awareness of this one to the good people at Dear Author—though apparently it's starting to get coverage all over as a sort of older woman's Twilight. (Isn't Twilight an older woman's Twilight?)

The parallel is not a coincidence, since this book started out as Twilight fanfic with a BDSM slant. In other words, this book comes waving eleventy billion red flags to warn me I should stay away. And the review posted on Dear Author bears out that hunch. The BDSM relationship portrayed in this book is severely unhealthy, even abusive, and the prose is not good enough to turn this into a literary exercise along the lines of Lolita or The Story of O.

So there you have it! Three very similar titles, and very different books. At this point I'm tempted to write a Shades of Gray of my very own ...