G is for Gold Mountain

{Click here for the complete A-Z of intersectional feminism in romance.} So yesterday was really something, wasn't it? Today will be much more relaxed, I promise. Less righteous vitriol; fewer italics; hardly any swears at all.

It appears that this blog series is developing ongoing themes and topoi -- such as 19th-century California, which has appeared in Beverly Jenkins' Destiny's Embrace and yesterday's unmentionable disaster. Sharon Cullars' short romance Gold Mountain is set during the wild and lawless days of the building of the railroads: our heroine is a black laundress/cook and our hero is a Chinese immigrant building the railroads. It's a short, quick read that didn't entirely work for me but did have the benefit of featuring hardly any white people at all.

Cover art for Gold Mountain by Sharon Cullars. A brown-skinned woman with dark hair looks out at the reader. Behind her, a shirtless man with narrow eyes and golden skin hides half in shadow. As we saw with Tessa Dare's book earlier, portrayals of marginalized identities can become stronger and richer when you have more than one character with that identity. I mean, come on Olivia, that's called tokenism and we knew that. But there's often a sense, when writing books specifically in resistance to a dominant kyriarchal narrative, that building books with marginalized characters is an act of rehabilitation. There are so many reductive, venomous stereotypes out there for us to rebel against. Highly Recommended Author Zen Cho describes how this very impulse informed her creation of Jade Yeo:

I think of this imaginary genre as being a reactive one, a thing that I am producing as part of a long slow recovery process. What I am doing with it is, I am processing my childhood reading — all the stuff that was really influential and enjoyable, but also kind of secretly toxic — and I am trying to extract the poison from it while preserving the things I loved.

So when romance has a long, long history with the gay villain, for instance, the initial temptation is to write the Nicest, Most Moral And Upright Gay Character Ever in response. And this is important and necessary, because we need to see heroes and heroines of every stripe; because I really believe that heroism (in both the romance sense and in the wider sense) should be something every person on earth feels they have access to. The title of protagonist should be one any human being can claim for themselves.

Unfortunately, we are not all heroes. Or heroines. Or admirable. Some of us are shit-eating bastards -- okay, so there are a few swears in here -- and others of us are purely mediocre, or cowardly, or weak, or self-serving. And being disabled or black or queer etc. doesn't magically forestall any of this. (Apparently today is Saying Obvious Things day on the blog -- bear with me.) So the need to resist toxic stereotypes is therefore directly at war with the need to depict human foibles in all their ugly reality.

The solution is obvious and yet so often not employed: if more than one of your characters is black, or Asian, or trans, you do not have to worry so much about making them all Model Minorities. Authors are also free, in this scenario, to complicate the story's conflict in realistic ways. Because marginalization is not martyrdom, and ugly power dynamics have a tendency to trickle downward through increasingly vulnerable layers of the social fabric. Oppressed groups can and do respond to systemic discrimination with violence of their own. This is precisely what we see in Gold Mountain, and I found it by far the most compelling aspect of the book.

The reason there are not a lot of white characters in Gold Mountain is this: white people in this world are dangerous. Our black heroine Leah and Chinese hero Quiang avoid them when they can. The two white people we spend the longest time with are a pair of bigoted arsonists who (it is implied) would probably not be averse to a little bit of rape as well. Then there are the railroad overseers, who are as negligent of the life and safety of their Chinese employees as you would expect.

The way that abuses of power filter through the social strata is very clear in this text. We start with 19th-century robber barons, who hire cheaper Chinese labor as a cost-cutting measure:

All the [Chinese] workers knew they were making far less than the whites who worked alongside them, but there was nothing they could do. The one time they'd decided to strike for better pay, the railroad management withheld their monies until they all went back to work. (Kindle location 890)

Naturally, the lower-class white workers are sympathetic to this Catch-22 in which their Chinese counterparts are trapped. Oh wait, no they are not:

If anything the Chinese were often the victims of those who resented their good fortune in this land. That was why the esteemed families had come together as the Seven Companies, as the Heaven and Earth Society, to protect those who were regularly beaten and sometimes even murdered. (1427)

In other words, when faced with economic hardship, abuse, and no legal recourse for redress, the Chinese immigrants organize their own shadow authority. Naturally, the triad is focused on justice and benevolent care for those harmed by the state of California's racist policies. Oh wait, no they are not:

The night running was often dangerous because several families were in contention for the opium trade. And certain independents without honor thought to push their way into the competition, making the running even more hazardous. On two occasions [Quiang had] had to take extreme measures to protect himself. One man would never walk again. And he had gained a few more scars to join those already mapped on his body. (1427)

Racist penny-pinching policies by railroad company men whose names we do not even know are directly responsible for the fact that Quiang has to maim a fellow immigrant in self-defense. And it must be stated: the dramatic tension of this situation makes for some eminently compelling scenes. My favorite moment in this novella is not anything to do with the romance -- though the romance is well-handled -- but rather the scene where Quiang is framed for stealing from the triad, resigns himself to death, and then convinces the dragonhead that if he must kill someone for the crime, to kill both Quiang and Quiang's boss, the real thief. It's a total badass move on the part of our hero as well as a riveting piece of drama, and it's all due to the fact that we know he has no legal recourse and is at the mercy of this deadly, whimsical brand of outlaw justice.

Meanwhile, our heroine Leah is dealing with similar though less obviously fatal dynamics. Black Pastor Caldwell has noticed her continued absence from church:

She didn't know how many Sundays she could let pass before it would be plain that she just didn't want to go to that church any longer. She was as pious as anybody, but she liked to worship in her own way. Not within the confines of a place where the menfolk made it known they were there more for wife hunting than worshipping God. She had just gotten plain tired of the male parishioners coming up to her with nary a word of wooing and expecting her to accept off-the-cuff proposals ... It didn't help that Pastor Caldwell was one of those men. (440)

Naturally, the black men are only looking out for a sister in a land full of predatory and lawless white men. Oh wait, no they are not:

She understood too well that in a community of only a few Negroes, any unmarried Negro woman was open game for not only decent-minded suitors, but those with less-godly intentions ... Some folk would always assume that a Negro woman, no matter how primly dressed, was a loose woman. Outside of the church and the colored women's auxiliary, there weren't too many places she and Clara could go to socialize. (465)

But of course, naturally, when Clara is killed and Leah in the hospital recovering from injuries, Pastor Caldwell offers to help her because of disinterested Christian charity. Oh wait, no he does not:

"I know you don't have a place to live right now. There's a room above the rectory where the church puts up visitors. I can have it made up all feminine-like for your comfort, and you can stay as long as you like. I know people will probably talk -- they always do. But maybe in a few months, we ... we can make the talking stop by ... I don't know any other way to bring this up. I haven't courted you properly, but I think you might have figured out by now that I have a soft spot for you, and I would be honored and privileged --" (1571)

Leah cuts off his inelegant speech at this point before he can go completely Collins on us. Her objections are that A) Clara loved him, and B) Leah does not, so his proposal is doubly unwelcome to her. Naturally, Pastor Collins takes this refusal with good grace. Oh wait:

The pastor took up his hat and stood. His face was stern and formal. "I'm sorry to have overstepped myself. You can trust that I will not make that mistake again. I wish you well, Sister. And .. if you ever do need anything ... well, the church is always open to you." (1597)

Injured and grieving, Leah has now been cut off from the only society she knows by her refusal to prioritize the pastor's romantic desires over her own. Racist discrimination in society and the law directly lead black women to be victimized by black men as well as whites. I'll admit that I spent a large part of this book giving Pastor Caldwell the side-eye as he lurked creepily through his scenes. He doesn't end up being more than self-absorbed and unpleasant, but the threat was very palpable. And if his fiancée Tallulah -- an engagement acquired immediately after Leah's refusal -- had not offered our heroine a place to stay after her discharge from the hospital, she would have been out on the dangerous streets of Sacramento.

These two social groups, black and Chinese people, each building a unique response to a unique pattern of repression, are deliberately isolated from one another, just as Quiang and Leah are initially separated from one another by the language barrier: Quiang does not speak English, and Leah does not speak Taishanese (Quiang's particular dialect of the Chinese language family). Mixing the systems of black, Chinese, and white power and resistance gets volatile very quickly: the one scene we have with characters of all three races leads rapidly to Clara's death. Leah is in no doubt about her responsibility for this: "Clara was dead because of her, because she had stood up for a Chinaman" (1336). Nothing good can happen when different groups or ethnicities mix:

At near midnight the streets were deserted but for the most base of the citizenry, whether white, Irish, Chinese, Negro, or Mexican -- races kept apart by the laws of man, brought together by the pursuit of illegal or lascivious distractions." (1355)

Quiang's inability to get free of association with the triad puts his and Leah's lives in immediate danger. Being shut out from legal existence means that illegal existence will necessarily flourish -- we see this with alcohol Prohibition, and we see it here in Gold Mountain. During the course of Leah and Quiang's romance, I was on tenterhooks to see how these tensions would be resolved.

Turns out -- spoilers! -- they aren't. Quiang and Leah move away, driven by the need to get away from the sinister control of the triad and its leaders. They raise happy children in Colorado, which I had a hard time believing was free from any prejudice against a mixed-race couple and their mixed-race children in 1865. The children are sweet and the romance was too, but I wish there had been more answers at the end.

___

Sharon Cullars really, really needs a new website -- seriously, no way to click through to page two of your blog? does page two even exist? I can't tell -- but the landing page did provide a link to this excellent interview she did with late mystery author and former Massachusetts cop Judith Smith-Levin (link is at the top left).

Lately activist Suey Park has provoked a larger -- and often vitriolic -- discussion about anti-Asian racism and white progressive allyship. Feministing has a piece that discusses how the response to Park's #CancelColbert mirrors other recent backlashes to women's online speech, particularly women of color.

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Cullars, Sharon. Gold Mountain. Loose Id LLC: 2010. Ebook.

C is for Zen Cho

{For the full alphabet of intersectional feminism in romance, click here.} Let me not even pretend I can write with perfect objectivity about author Zen Cho's The Perilous Life of Jade Yeo. It has been a long time since a book has charmed me so thoroughly, on so many levels. This Dear Author review by Sunita sums it up nicely: "It’s frothy but not at all insubstantial. Rather, it’s effervescent and sparkling like Champagne; it goes down easy, feels like something special, and tastes complex and subtle." I love champagne, both as a beverage and as a metaphor for intoxicating prose, so this was precisely to my liking.

Oh, there will be so many spoilers in the paragraphs ahead.

Jade (Geok Huay) Yeo is a Malayan writer of Chinese descent, living and working in 1920s London. She has a Dorothy-Parkerish keenness of voice, self-deprecating and self-confident by turns. She writes both articles with titles like 'What The Well-Dressed Woman Is Wearing' and literary pieces for the Oriental Literary Review. Her critic's eye is crucial to her story, which is surprisingly rich in literary antecedents for so short a book: Eliot, Austen, two of the Brontës, Tennyson, Dickens, Shakespeare, and Wodehouse are all represented -- and those were only the ones I noticed. This post and the comments name a few more.

But most significant are the frequent allusions to Jane Eyre, whose plot the novel parallels rather closely:

  • Our bookish and independent heroine refuses to be intimidated by a volatile, wealthy man.
  • The volatile, wealthy man finds her resistance irresistible.
  • The two begin an affair, but the first man turns out to have a wife already.
  • After a confrontation with the wife, our heroine takes refuge in a quiet spot in the country.
  • Our heroine finds a second chance at romantic involvement, with a less wealthy but more moral partner, and makes the choice most conducive to her personal happiness.

These are the broad strokes, though I could go on (our heroine has an overbearing aunt, our heroine finds employment through periodicals, Jade is one letter away from Jane, etc. there are so many it's really exciting I'll stop now honest).

Despite all these clues, Jade refuses this very comparison: "I had no intention of being anyone's Jane Eyre, particularly as Jane Eyre herself declined to be a second wife" (Kindle location 726). When filtered through a Malayan cultural lens that includes polygamy, the  catastrophe at the heart of Brontë's text -- the strong taboo against bigamy -- becomes something quite different. Jane Eyre in this context does not flee from a nearly committed crime: instead, she rejects a form of inclusion that would make her subservient, secondary. Western literature's meaning alters when it is viewed from the margins rather than from the center.

Jade's gently ironic tone should not prevent us from noticing that the state of second wife is the very type of subservience she is being offered by Diana Hardie. Again the threat is not bigamy or even adultery: the threat for Jade is being subsumed into a Western, high-literary, colonialist house; being subject to endless microaggressions about her country of origin; being "Hardie's assistant" rather than a writer with her own name and career. It would mean the obliteration of her entire self and experience: "It would be like forswearing rice, and only eating cake for the rest of my life. I couldn't do it" (752).

Sebastian Hardie, after all, could not be a more obvious symbol of the Western colonial and literary agenda. He is a celebrated author with a sexually adventurous lifestyle and a rampaging libido -- the perfect Roaring Twenties sheik -- the consummate romance novel hero. And like his wife, he would place Jade in a role as a sidekick. On their very first meeting, he refers to her as "Ariel ... Alone on an incomprehensible island"  244). It's clear he's  attempting flattery, envisioning the Asian female critic as a waifish, magical sprite who was rescued by a European and must repay that debt with servitude and gratitude. But Jade's not having it. "I'm really more of a Caliban," she replies. It's probably nothing more than a one-off joke, offered in a moment of social anxiety, but Hardie attempts for the rest of the novel to confine her within this persona: he refers to her as "little Caliban" (534) and writes revealing poems to her under that name. He has effectively colonized Jade, renaming her and confining her personhood within an explicitly English, literary framework.

It is never made explicit in the text, but I believe it's safe to assume that in this little game Hardie imagines himself as Prospero, a figure often associated with creative and artistic powers (not to mention God complexes). But from the perspective of a reader it is abundantly clear that Sebastian Hardie is a Miranda, traipsing around his island home, talking a great deal of nonsense about love, and wondering if the people he sees are real people or magical spirits. The role of Prospero is reserved for Sebastian's wife Diana, who is very clearly in charge of everything: "Being with Diana must be like living in a beautiful play written by a playwright of the modern school" (674).

Pregnant and disenchanted, Jade leaves the Hardies (and The Tempestbehind and goes to the country to have her child in seclusion. Like Jane Eyre, she finds herself in a place that operates on high moral principles and charitable acts:

Mrs. Crowther is a widow, but her assistants are Misses mostly. They are all very nice: they knit and are tremendously tactful. The food is British and hearty, and the furnishings are soothing, if plain. Perhaps they thought patterns might distress our minds further. (856)

Also like Jane, Jade finds friendship in this lonely place -- but while Jane finds solace in the puritan spirit of the Riverses, Jade is drawn to a fellow inmate, Margery, who suffers from what is pretty obviously clinical depression: she describes "a black thing with horns and wings ... that stares at one with yellow eyes -- and one can't get out of bed, but lies there and wishes one was dead" (910). Their sisterhood is not a literary-coincidental blood connection, but a sympathy created by marginalization. "I'm mad," says Margery; "I'm bad," replies Jade (892), but they do not let the prevailing cultural narratives about madness/badness impede their connection as human beings. Strict adherence to the plots of such narratives belongs to people like the Hardies, or to Margery's relatives, who privilege "scientific" medical authority over her own lived experience of her illness (933).

By this point in the book Jade has realized the depth of her true feelings for her friend Ravi, the editor of the Oriental Literary Review, but she has no hope that he returns them -- until he shows up in the middle of a thunderstorm. Jade is reading Agnes Grey and cites David Copperfield  -- another book with two wives -- to describe her shocked reaction. These are small details, but it soon becomes apparent that Ravi and Jade have each been telling themselves stories about the other, and that those stories have not matched. They get things sorted out almost in spite of themselves, in the charming way of all the best romantic comedies -- and since we're talking about the Jane Eyre parallels still you may note that Ravi has been imagining himself as suffering from unrequited love for an unattainable object, just as St. John Rivers does for Rosamond Oliver. In the course of proposing, Ravi reveals that he knows Jade's untranslated name, Geok Huay. Jade is puzzled, as she'd never actually told him this -- but he mentions that she had written it but then crossed it out on the very first letter she'd written to him as an editor. It is clear that Ravi has deliberately chosen to address her by the name she'd chosen to use in public, in London, in the literary world -- but he has not forgotten her real name, and in this private, intimate moment he uses it, setting aside the colonial need for a 'normal-sounding' (read: British) identification.

If Jade excels at subverting and deflating the narratives of privilege and colonialism -- her initial bad review of Hardie's novel, her refusal to adore London's golden boy, her refusal to move in with Hardie and his wife, her rebellious friendship with Margery -- Ravi "remembers the things one has said" (176). He is an editor, someone who can keep multiple versions/visions of a narrative in his head without contradiction -- and also someone who can spot the telling details, the places for improvement, the moments where a story's plot or tone may be revised. As Jade says quite early about the Mimnaugh review: "I was worried he would give me helpful critique, which I would have to listen to because Ravi's judgment is unerring" (87). Jade is constantly shifting between social and personal narratives -- British imperial subject/foreigner, good girl/fallen woman, literary critic/pleasure reader -- and Ravi is the one person in the book who can follow the thread between all these shifting stories. As such, he is perfectly suited to her, and Jade recognizes it.

And of course, in a truly subversive move that's like catnip for lit-nerds like myself, Jade finds happiness not with the Rochester figure but with a much friendlier, warmer version of St. John Rivers, who initially offers her a similar kind of companionate marriage (before the two realize their mutual romantic feelings).

Nobody's Jane Eyre, indeed.

___

There is often the sense, as Zen Cho explainsthat "that fiction by or about people who are traditionally underrepresented in Western literature is kind of innately worthy and dull." This perceived gap between reading-for-escape and reading-for-representation became a strong theme in a recent Dear Author thread asking what books readers were hoping to see in the future. But this is a false dichotomy, a lingering symptom of the way that non-white people have been Othered and limited throughout literature and history. I for one am thrilled that Zen Cho is hoping to write more "post-colonial fluff for book nerds."

She has also complied this handy list of Malaysian science fiction and fantasy writers working in English, for your further reading pleasure.

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Cho, Zen. The Perilous Life of Jade Yeo. Seattle: Zen Cho, 2012. Ebook.

A is for Ash

{Welcome to the first post of my April A-Z challenge! For the full alphabet of intersectional feminism in romance, click here.} This is my second time reading Ash, Malinda Lo's lyrical lesbian Cinderella YA romance. The first time I found our heroine a little bit too reactive for my tastes, though I liked the book's style and setting a great deal. I also liked the presence of queer relationships in a fairy-tale context, and thought it was a step forward for LGBTQ representation in young adult fiction. Upon the re-read, I started to qualify and modify this second conclusion. It now seems to me that the specter of compulsory heterosexuality is very present in Ash, and even helps drive the mechanics of the plot.

Cover for Ash by Malinda Lo. A black background with the image of a black-haired, pale-skinned girl in a white diaphanous dress. She is on her side, curled up with her arms around her knees. Cursive script reads ASH.The main action is interspersed with fairy stories, many of which feature some element of romance. Some of these romances involve two women, such as the sweetly charming story of Niamh and the Fairy Queen. Throughout the book, women are shown falling in love with one another, sneaking away from dances with one another, all the usual motions of romance. But we never see two men together—and we never see two women getting married or raising children. We have queer relationships, but no queer families.

In fact, marriage in Ash is very classically heteronormative, particularly among the upper classes on whose borders our heroine exists. Her stepsister Ana is "well ready to find a husband" (Kindle location 970); her fellow maid Gwen "can't wait to find a husband" (1191); and the kingdom is all a-twitter about Prince Aidan choosing "a bride ... a lady worthy of becoming his wife" (1957). As for the prince's thoughts on his upcoming nuptials, Ash "did not think he seemed particularly thrilled by his parents' announcement" (1963). Just as in the default medieval fantasy-Europe, marriage is for legitimizing children, for inheriting power, and for merging property.

And in this world, despite all the lesbian love, ladies cannot earn their own living, as stepsister Clara makes clear: "I am a gentlewoman's daughter. I have no trade" (Kindle location 2120). Which means upper-class manners are heavily gendered in a way readers are likely recognize from their own lives:

"One must be properly respectful and yet give a hint of playfulness," Lady Isobel instructed ... "One cannot diminish the importance of this -- you must always show that you admire his wealth and stature, but at the same time you must not be in too much awe of it."

"Why not? Clara asked. "Do men not enjoy it when a woman is in awe of them?"

"Of course they do," Ana put in, "but you must avoid appearing as though you are interested only in his wealth." (Kindle location 2110)

Ambitious Ana is angling for the prince, and Clara merely hopes to be comfortably well-off, but Ash explicitly rejects marriage as a means of self-support. She argues with Clara and says that such an arrangement would "be false" (2127), emphasis original, and she "deliberately" devours an egg on a night when girls who fast are promised dreams of their future husband (1265).

It seems fairly obvious in this context that Sidhean the fairy represents Ash's putative husband. He is aloof and cruel yet protective in the manner of alpha heroes from time immemorial: he jealously rescues her from an interested female fairy (1333) and his gifts are magically binding and symbolically loaded -- a fur cloak, a medallion, and a moonstone ring. Each gift is a debt: along with the material gifts, he grants Ash's wishes and helps her attend the Royal Hunt and the subsequent masquerade, Ash's stand-ins for the single ball of the original tale. So again, heterosexual relationships are transactional and commodified. SIdhean's ability to grant Ash's wishes places him in the fairy godmother role, but unlike the original story it is made abundantly clear that his gifts come with price tags attached.

The hunters, including Ash's love interest Kaisa, exist somewhat outside this patriarchal framework: "hunts had always been led by women."

When she saw the hunters in the village, Ash was transfixed by the sight of them. The women, especially, with their casual camaraderie and easy grace, seemed like entirely different creatures than her stepmother and stepsisters. (493)

As the King's Huntress, Kaisa can earn wages. She is a member of the royal household in a way that is more than mere servitude: she has a certain independence, and she is invited to high-class events like the masquerade, which a true servant would never be permitted to attend as a guest. Her romance with Ash is secret and sweet and happens in the forest and in back hallways of the palace -- on the fringes of the world of straight marriage and patriarchal monarchy. In one of these stolen moments, we learn Ash has internalized the rules of straight romance:

"I am no one -- a servant in a poor household. What could I give you?"

Kaisa seemed taken aback. "You don't need to give me anything," she said. "I offer because I care for you." (2412)

At this point, Ash is still in debt to Sidhean, still bound to him by gifts and promises and the full weight of his love and expectation. There appears to be no way for Ash to be with Kaisa; she is owned by someone else, not free to make her own choices. Later, once she realizes the depths of her love for Kaisa (and vice versa), she has a deeper realization:

The knowledge of love had changed her. It focused what had once been a blur; it turned her world around and presented her with a new landscape. Now, she would do anything to bring Kaisa happiness. And if the knowledge of love could change her, would it not also change Sidhean? (2795)

The world of transactional (straight) romance is mutable, escapable: true love has a power that mere marriage can only envy, even as the fairies envy mortals and copy the forms but not the substance of their customs:

As the people swayed and stamped and sung their way around the bonfire, Ash knew that this was what the fairies were always hunting for: a circle of joy, hot and brilliant, the scent of love in the deepest winter. But all they could do was create a pale, crystalline imitation, perfect and cold. (2720)

Ash goes to Sidhean and does something that surprised and puzzled me on my first read: she asks him to let her free, in return for one night together. I'd been thinking of the fairy as something of a villain, or at least an antagonist: that Ash could simply ask to be released and get it seemed to cheapen the climax of the novel. It's that easy? I wondered. Just like that?

Well, yes, just like that -- because Ash's request preserves for Sidhean the form of the transactional, heterosexual marriage, an exchange rather than a true gift. There is a risk: "One night in my world is not the same as one night in yours," he tells her (2812). But Ash has the advantage of knowing that the fairy world is not quite real -- she has had this thought many times over the course of the book -- and she is willing to take a chance. And indeed, upon waking, only one mortal night has passed (though there's an argument to be made that something like a lifetime has passed in the fairy realm). Ash is able to accept Kaisa's love and to offer her own, freed now from the bonds of debt.

At the same time, this freedom from the larger patriarchal/transactional system appears to come at a price. Lesbian relationships aren't at all visible in the larger world of Ash, as straight relationships are. We only see two women living happily ever after together in the tales of fairies and heroes, tales that take place in an implied (and very romanticized) past. The choice between the fairy husband and the huntress lover is a lose-lose, given this structure. Queer love can subvert the larger social system; it cannot participate in it.

___

Malinda Lo has talked quite a bit about race in fantasy and race and sexuality in character dialogue. The prequel Huntress makes it more explicit than the text in Ash, but Ms. Lo does say that she pictured both Ash and Kaisa as having Asian features. At the end of last year she also did a post full of YA books featuring LGBT characters of color.

Recently I discovered the existence of The Lesbrarywhich is a fantastic name for a website and a bountiful source of recommendations and reviews of lesbian writing in just about every genre.

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Lo, Malinda. Ash. New York, NY: Little, Brown and Co. 2009. Ebook.

You'll Never Believe How This Author Marketed Her Books

It's hard out there for an author. There seem to be more of us than ever before, and we ARE SHOUTING. ALL. THE. TIME. in order to be heard above the cacophony. Books for sale! we cry. Well-crafted, edited, smut-filled books for sale! Ahem.

To save yourself another scratchy throat (or worn-down capslock key), here are some innovative suggestions that are sure to thrust your book right out to the head of the slavering, ravening pack. Innovate your platform! Paradigm your author brand! Some other business-y sounding word or catchphrase!

1. Print out rectangular stickers with your name in an eye-catching font. Take these to your nearest bookstore, and place them carefully on the most attractive book covers over the name of the original author. "Gee, this Penelope Fotheringay must really be something!" people will say. "Look at how many books she's written! And I've heard such good things about this Moby-Dick one!"

2. Get thee a Street Team, like the Avon Addicts or the Entangled Mafia, so you can harness the power of groupthink and subterfuge in service of greater personal profit and notoriety. I'm sure keeping a gaggle of volunteers happy and organized will not use up all of your valuable and much-guarded writing time! Try and make your team name sound as 'urban' as possible, with allusions to violence and drug use -- examples: the Fortheringay Gangstas, or Penelope's Pimps -- because Street Teams originated with primarily black urban musical genres like rap and hip-hop and are therefore a totally natural marketing strategy for the overwhelmingly white and suburban/rural authors of genre romance. I mean, it's not like there's a lengthy history of white appropriation/exploitation of black music and culture to make us rethink this, right?

3. Have the Fotheringay Ganstas tattoo their faces, hands, or other visible body parts with QR codes linking to excerpts from your book. QR codes are so hip right now!

4. Going to a holiday gift exchange? What better gift could there be than a print copy of your latest masterpiece? After all, it's the thought that counts -- and you should always be thinking of increasing your brand's exposure.*

5. On Twitter? #TheBestWayToGetNoticed is to #HashtagEverything. #AccuracyBeDamned. #freebooks #free #solidarityisforwhiteauthors #whateverstrending #tcot

6. You've heard of blog tours, right? Pshaw -- old hat. What you need is a bus tour! Simply procure  an all-day bus pass, wear comfy shoes, and hop from route to route in your city while loudly hawking your book to weary commuters and handing out business cards with QR codes like they're going out of style.** Everyone wants things to read on the bus, so this is a target-rich market and will definitely have no social or legal repercussions.

7. Try writing a character interview, which is a basely promotional post where authors answer questions in the personae of their hero/heroine as though professional publishing is no different than an assignment for their 7th grade Advanced English class. To make your character interview really stand out, have your own characters interview characters from best-selling, big-name authors, to prove your characters are better. Suggestions: Christian Grey (great for SEO), Fitzwilliam Darcy (for the lucrative fan-fic demographic), or Jamie Frasier from Outlander (make sure to ask about the rape scene!).

8. Collect pen names like they're Pokemon cards: one for romantic suspense, one for erotic romance, one for sweet Regencies, one for paranormals, one for New Adult, one for steampunky space opera ménages with squidshifters, sexbots, and a disgraced engineer heroine.*** For bonus points, create a group blog with all your pen names for sneaky self-promo and sock-puppeting.

Good luck, and good sales!

*I saw an author do this. At a white elephant gift exchange for other writers, many of whom (including myself) are professionally published. It was indescribably tacky. And I'm not just saying that because I'm the one who ended up with that 'gift.'

**Which they are.

*** Patent pending.

And Now I Wish I Could Make This A Real Thing

So Rose Lerner recently noticed that Booklikes had substituted a scholarly book cover in place of the proper cover for Cecilia Grant's A Woman Entangled. But Rose is gifted with a sense of fun in addition to her keen observational eye, and she quickly had put together a series of faux-scholarly romance covers. They are delightful!

And now everyone's getting in on the game. Isobel Carr has a roundup post, but here is my own hasty contribution.

Screen Shot 2013-11-14 at 1.14.20 PM

Because what form would a Greek robot romance take, if not that of the marvelous Loeb Classical Library?

"Does This Book Make Me Look Fat?"

{While Olivia is sailing tropical seas, please enjoy this classic post from the Journal of Popular Romance Studies.} "Does This Book Make Me Look Fat?" by Sonya C. Brown

At the very least, romance novel readers live in a society that stigmatizes fat women. Research demonstrates that fat people suffer from prejudicial treatment in the workplace and in social life, including romantic relationships (Baum; Bordo; Joanisse and Synnott; Lerner; Lerner and Gellert; Paulery; Register; Solovay). Indeed, research suggests that men may prefer women who struggle with drug addiction over their larger peers (Sitton and Blanchard). In the corporate world, men whose romantic partners are fat women may be judged badly as potential employees in contrast with men whose partners are slender women (Hebl and Mannix). As a result of this stigma, Samantha Murray puts it succinctly: “We do not talk about fat and sex. The two appear as mutually exclusive” (239). The inclusion of larger women in romance novels addresses and perhaps, as Stinson suggests, helps fight very real fears that readers’ own bodies may render them undesirable in the sexual marketplace or liabilities to male partners.

Yet those same societal constraints make it difficult for readers to imagine fat women (as opposed to women size 16 and under) as romantic heroines. As one reader commented about another reader’s desire to read about a happy, confident fat woman as heroine, “Considering I’ve never met a plus-sized, ‘average,’ or fat woman who isn’t obsessed or concerned or worried about her weight and society’s perceptions about her, I don’t know how realistic this heroine would be” (Jana 26 Jul 2008). Size acceptance novels, in theory, offer readers an opportunity to read about just such a woman, enjoying her body within the context of a faithful heterosexual relationship—a woman who enjoys her body regardless of the fact that it does not meet, or to put it in a more optimistic light, is not constrained by, social expectations about women taking up space and limiting their appetites in order to seduce men. The absence of this heroine from size acceptance literature is revealing about the ambivalence of publishers, authors and readers towards size acceptance and HAES, as well as towards what size acceptance might mean about norms that continue to affect heterosexual relationships, such as the function of women’s bodies as pleasing to men rather than as vehicles of the woman’s own pleasure.

Six Bodies

{While Olivia is on vacation, please enjoy this classic article from the Journal of Popular Romance.} "There Are Six Bodies in This Relationship: An Anthropological Approach to the Romance Genre" by Laura Vivanco and Kyra Kramer.

Each of these heroines has aroused her hero’s Mighty Wang. The term “Mighty Wang” (Wendell and Tan 36) was coined by Sarah Wendell and Candy Tan as a humorous way to describe the extremely large and effective sexual organ possessed by many a romance hero. The Mighty Wang (MW) can also be thought of as a symbol of the male sexual drive discourse: it is a penis functioning as a symbol of the ideal masculine socio-sexual body. The term “MW,” as it is used in this paper, will refer not to the individual body’s penis, but to the hero’s socio-sexual body. The appropriation of the name of this particular body-part to refer to the whole of a hero’s socio-sexual body seems particularly apt given that in romances there is frequent “use of the personal pronouns — me, he, him, himself — to signify this body part […]. The seemingly unavoidable use of these pronouns is a […] curious euphemistic practice because it equates the man’s penis with the man himself” (Johnson-Kurek 119). The sentence “She cradled the rigid length of him in her palm” (Castle 172) is an example of this kind of writing: the part seems to become the whole. Conversely, when the reader is told that a hero’s body has “Long, long legs, […] a broad back that went on forever, all golden-skinned and rock-hard” (Lindsey 47), the allusion to another part of the hero that might be long, broad, and hard is not subtle

The Devil's Dictionary Of Publishing Terms

Recently, the marvelous Liana Brooks posted a link to her Glossary of Publishing Terms. I was in mid-afternoon brain-death and hoped it was going to be something snarky á la Ambrose Bierce. Instead, it was a clear and concise, perfectly helpful breakdown of many things it took me nearly a decade to learn. How useful and disappointing!

It was clear that if I wanted snark, I was going to have to bring it myself.

Et voilà!

The Devil's Dictionary of Publishing Terms

  • Author: Someone who takes a little time off Twitter each day to arrange words in a more or less pleasing order for profit. Nervous, excitable, and often drinks to excess.
  • Critique-partner/group: Either the best friends or the worst enemies an author can have—and frequently both at the same time.
  • Alpha/Beta reader: An author's spouse or parent.
  • Agent: Like the great white shark from which at least one agent takes inspiration, agents were once populous but their numbers are declining. This is due to any number of industry factors, including increases in digital publishing, the recession, gay marriage, and the recent demise of the giant, scarred, and senile whale more commonly known as Borders.
  • Editor: Someone who knows quite a bit more about your book than you do. And then, magically, helps you fix it. (Hi, Meghan!)
  • Reader: Another person who knows quite a bit more about your book than you do, since they have given you money for the dubious privilege of reading it. Alternatively: your mother. (Though not my mother, who has repeatedly promised not to read any of my erotic romances. Hi, Mom!)
  • Draft: A steaming pile of crap.
  • Manuscript (MS/MSS): A pile of crap that has been left to cool.
  • Word count: The sum total of all you have ever accomplished in this world. It creeps upward, but not as fast as the sand in your life's hourglass falls downward. Try not to think about this when drinking to excess.
  • Novel: A book where all the adjectives and frothy descriptions have been let stand.
  • Novella: A book that is short on plot and character development.
  • Short story: The dust bunny of the literary world—occasionally they form larger collections that are then swept under the rug.
  • Flash fiction: If all the flash fiction in the world were laid end to end, I wouldn't be at all surprised. (Hat tip to Dorothy Parker!)
  • POV: Point-of-view. Shorthand term for the theory that if a human brain gets exposed to a broad enough set of perspectives at once—it will explode.
  • MC: Main character. Perfect, except for one socially sanctioned flaw, like stubbornness or vampirism.
  • WIP: Work in progress. A manuscript doomed never to be completed.
  • DL: Dialogue. For historicals, simply write the way you normally speak, then pepper it with outdated curse words: Lawks! Demme! Gadzooks! For contemporaries, everyone in the Northern US speaks 'normal,' and everyone in the Southern US has a twang. {Side note: if anyone can think of a contemporary romance where either hero or heroine has a Boston accent, I would find this very interesting.}
  • Genre: This book will never win the Nobel Prize for Literature, because you can describe its basic plot with a simple formula like: Boy meets girl. Man builds robot. Detective solves murder.
  • Sub-genre: Viking boy meets modern girl. Victorian man builds steam-powered robot. Scandinavian detective solves Scandinavian murder.
  • Publishing: The first thing Gutenberg printed was the Bible. The second thing Gutenberg printed was an essay lamenting the death of publishing.
  • Traditional publishing: A new term that sometimes means print publishing, and sometimes means New York publishing, and mostly means someone is bringing it up only to talk about how it is dead or nearly so.
  • Big 6: There are more than 6 of them. Or fewer than 6. But certainly not 6 exactly.
  • Indie publishing: A new term that sometimes means small-press publishing, and sometimes means digital publishing, and sometimes means self-publishing, but really means that you certainly did not receive an advance.
  • Self-publishing: An old term with a new spin that sometimes means you're a bold innovator, and sometimes means you're a sap.
  • Hard cover: A book you will get as a Christmas gift from a relative and never read.
  • Paperback: A book you buy to save money on the hardback, but then proceed to destroy and dog-ear until it falls apart and you have to buy another.
  • Trade paperback: A slightly larger size of paperback, that goes to pieces slightly more slowly and is slightly more expensive. Also looks 'more literary' than a mass-market paperback.
  • Ebook: Not a real book. Or else the future of all books.
  • Bonfire fodder: To be honest, this is the first time I have ever seen this phrase, and I am beyond delighted with it. The idea of books as Solstice sacrifices tickles me just pink. Once I burned my high school math textbook in a fireplace, and it was magical.
  • E-publisher: How is an e-publisher different from a traditional or an indie publisher? Fish.
  • ARC: Advance reader copy. The bane and delight of booksellers the world over, any given ARC will either be brilliant and precious and the Next Big Thing, or will languish in the back room unread for years to come.
  • Proof copy: A much-sought luxury item, like a sleek and speedy Jaguar. But one that comes with a lot of anxiety, like a sleek and speedy jaguar.
  • Revision notes: A list of parts where your book is broken—which is, perversely, reassuring. Because you tell yourself it means only those parts of your book are broken.
  • Query: A short, cheerful, to-the-point description of your manuscript that is terrifying to both authors and agents.
  • Synopsis: The longest, hardest way to make your much-loved, slaved-over manuscript sound dull and shoddily written.
  • Advance: Magical elven coins that turn into dry leaves when you A) realize they count against royalties, and B) are taxed.
  • Royalties: Very small numbers that nonetheless feel as though they are ten times larger, because these are what make you a Real Author.
  • Earning out the advance: Hitting the jackpot.
  • NYT: The Old Grey Lady, whose book review section is mostly full of Young White Men.
  • NYT Bestseller: Have you seen that old political cartoon where William Pitt and Napoleon are carving up the globe like it's a turkey? I imagine something like that happening to the NYT Bestseller list, but with J. K. Rowling (who famously broke the list), J. D. Robb/Nora Roberts, and James Patterson.
  • Review: Like having stage fright and performance anxiety at the same time, but at least it's acceptable to not be wearing pants.

An etching by Gustave Dore, showing a muscular, pale-skinned man with long hair, princely armor, enormous batwings, and a forlorn expression. One hand is resting on the rock face behind him, supporting his unsteady body.

{Olivia Waite is a little obsessed with all things devilish lately, on account of her forthcoming novella, Damned if You Do. Just be grateful she didn't feel like telling you all about apple varieties today. BECAUSE THAT DAY'S A-COMIN'.}

Your Literary Video Game Fix

We here at Olivia Waite have spent the past two days on the couch with Mr. Waite, fighting off a vicious cold we've come to call The Crap. Our struggles have involved many episodes of Doctor Who and lots of freshly downloaded games on the trusty Xbox. Regular library-themed, book-obsessed, quirky-item-loving service will resume on Wednesday. Until then, have a few incredibly nerdy literary video games, courtesy of the magical internet.

The Great Gatsby for NES

A screencap from the Great Gatsby, an imagined video game for the Nintendo system.

George Plimpton's Video Falconry

A screencap from the imagined video game George Plimpton's Video Falconry