Viscounts and Vorkosigans

Welcome to the inaugural post in my new once-monthly series, For the Love of Lit Crit, where we treat romance novels like the deliberately composed texts they are. Posts will be tagged as such and collected on their very own page. Spoilers generally abound. Suggestions for a better series title (and books to analyze) will be eagerly entertained. In Jo Walton's review of A Civil Campaign for Tor.com, she states that aside from the title she finds this book has more in common with The Grand Sophy than with Heyer's A Civil Contract. As far as plot structure and character are concerned, she's probably right -- I've never read The Grand Sophy myself so I'm leaving that one out of this analysis. But thematically, I feel like the Vorkosigan book is a direct response to the themes of Heyer's text. A Civil Contract is essentially about the social self, how to define it and how it can or cannot be changed; A Civil Campaign takes these fundamental questions and very forthrightly rebuts Heyer's conservative theses.

In A Civil Contract, hero Adam starts the book by being thrown out of his accustomed orbit. He has inherited his late father's title, he has become the legal head of his family, he has been injured in battle and has a permanent limp, and now he must cash out his captaincy and abandon his military career. The previous viscount ran in the highest social circles but was financially profligate and reckless; much of Adam's journey over the course of the book deals with him trying to find a different mode of aristocracy more suited to his personal inclinations. He does so by following the example of the elderly gentlemen-farmers and learning how best to improve his ancestral lands, thus satisfying his class pride while also gaining scope for his energy and individual drive. It is a personal decision, but it also means Adam never really questions his position as an aristocrat. He simply finds a more personally palatable form of aristocracy, without rejecting the class hierarchy's fundamental assumptions.

This is not the only time Adam inhabits a ready-made social role. His romance with Julia is obviously a classic example of the Wounded Hero romance, a connection between two types rather than two individuals and explicitly described as such:

It was not wonderful that he should have alleviated the pain and the weariness of the months he had spent in and out of the surgeons' hands with a flirtation with the lovely Miss Oversley; still less wonderful that a romantic girl should have encouraged the gallantry of a hero of Salamanca. (A Civil Contract, Kindle location 150)

Julia is less a character than a symbol in this novel: she exists to embody the most rarefied type of nobility. And while Adam found this charming before, he comes to a different opinion after her marriage to the Marquis of Rockhill: "when he looked at Julia, and listened to her, she seemed to be almost a stranger. Even her appearance had altered. She had always been charmingly dressed, but in a style suited to her maiden status; he had never seen her attired in the silks, the velvets, and the jewels of matronhood" (Kindle location 4975). This is the glittering and useless aristocracy of Adam's father, against which our hero has been struggling over the course of the whole novel.

I have said before that I often try to root for the Other Woman as a habit of feminist praxis, and Julia is such a quintessential Other Woman that empathizing with her feels like real resistance to patriarchy. The more the text tries to make her unsympathetic -- to make her spoiled, or histrionic, or casually adulterous -- the more I want to champion her. Yes, she's impractical and sheltered -- not hard, when her attempts to be practical are roundly mocked and everyone goes out of their way to shelter her. I can't find it in me to blame her for what has obviously been done to her by her family (and the author). Adam's gradual rejection of Julia and what she represents reads to me less like a character coming into emotional maturity and more like a man who slowly comes to believe himself a superior kind of person. His preference for the maiden over the matron ties in with his protectiveness of Fontley and his resistance to Mr. Chawleigh's wealth: there's something about purity in there that I would tease out if I could stand to spend so much time talking about Adam. (Confession: I'm one of those readers who remains unconvinced by this book's happy ending).

I must also disagree with Jo Walton's assertion that there's "none of Heyer’s weirdly vile racism here, because we don’t see anyone to provoke it." (Also: weirdly vile? As opposed to commonly vile?) Here's an early passage describing Mr. Chawleigh's reception by his new in-laws: "With every will in the world to talk pleasantly to him, an over-delicate refinement made [Adam's sister] Charlotte regard him with much the same nervous surprise as she would have felt at being addressed by an aboriginal" (1376). Racism and colonialism underscore the inherent class bias in the text: Mr. Chawleigh is as far removed from the world of Adam's titled English family as a brown- or black-skinned native of some far-flung imperial wilderness. It's a little moment, but a telling one: that's a lot of power systems to invoke in one throwaway simile.

Despite the narrative's attempts to make him overbearing, Mr. Chawleigh is an incredibly likeable character, even if I did hear his dialogue in the voice of Mr. Hardwood from this episode of Blackadder (video link: relevant bit starts at 11:04). His rampant generosity and earnest desire to make his new in-laws happy are touching and empathetic. But to Adam's high-born eyes his greatest virtue is his refusal to mix with those above his social station. Adam is similarly grateful for Jenny's reticence to make changes at Fontley, even when those changes are necessary maintenance and repair. As the romance progresses, the story asks the question: How permeable are the barriers between Adam and Jenny? How much can they transcend their social selves to make a sincere connection separate from class and status?

Not that much, as it turns out. They can essentially hold hands through the chain-link fence, but they will never be the same category of person. Jenny is much more attuned to this than Adam, which makes sense as the marginalized are always much more attuned to the workings of privilege than the privileged are. (See: rape culture, institutional racism, accessibility for disabled people, etc.) Upon her first much-postponed arrival at Fontley -- her husband's home! which her father's money helped save! -- Adam tells her she can do as she pleases and Jenny has the following heartbreaking insight: "She did not say: I am only a guest in your house, but it was what she thought, for he uttered the speech just stiltedly enough to betray that it had been rehearsed" (3473). This same assumption of difference underlies Julia's suggestion to Adam that they enjoy a discreet sexual liaison (it's couched as 'friendship,' but come on): "Cannot something be left to us? ... Jenny could not be hurt by anything that passed between you and me, Adam" (3830). Nor will I be the first person to point out that Jenny's lack of beauty reads as a function of class, even though there's no statistical reason to suppose a commoner is likely to be less pretty than a lord's daughter. Moreover, while Jenny gives birth to a son with a great deal of bodily risk and effort, Julia becomes a stepmother to two girls already half-grown. It's hard not to see this as a class distinction as well: the common folk's messy struggle, the upper classes' aloofness and untouchability. I found myself wanting to read more about Julia and her stepdaughters; it felt as though there was a whole book there waiting to be explored, more nuanced than the usual stepmother tropes allow. Again: official Olivia Waite stance is Team Julia.

And Team Jenny -- because Jenny broke my heart and she deserves better than what she gets in this book. Here is Adam's ultimate confession of love: "'I do love you, Jenny,' he said gently. 'Very much indeed -- and I couldn't do without you. You are a part of my life'" (6006). Jenny has one of her quiet, unspoken revelations: "Probably Adam would always carry Julia in some corner of his heart ... although he might no longer yearn to possess her she would remain nostalgically dear to him while life endured."

This is a hell of a thing for a romance heroine to think at the emotional climax of the book.

Look, I get it: the chemistry of lust can be blinding, and a quieter, less dashing partner can nevertheless be wonderfully romantic (e.g. Alan Rickman's Colonel Brandon, be still my swooning heart). And we should definitely resist the urge to define love as a thing earned through effort, because that way lie the hellish gates of the Friendzone and favor sharking and Bruno Mars' "Grenade," where unasked-for sacrifices by manipulative partners lead to an obligation for love, for sex, and for attention and power in ways that are clearly misogynistic. (Thanks to Cecilia Grant for reminding me about "Grenade!" That song is the catchiest and the worst.)

But does Jenny not deserve one goddamn moment where it's all about her? Where her thoughts, needs, feelings, and existence as a human being come first? Just one would be nice. But there's nothing in Adam's confession of love that even comes close to Mr. Chawleigh's quietly heartrending, "She's all I've got, you see" (4848). The problem is not that Adam and Jenny's relationship is different in kind than Adam and Julia's: the problem is that Adam and Jenny's relationship will always come second to Adam's relationship with Adam. Jenny becomes part of his life, but she never really becomes part of his self, and her own self disappears in consideration of his aristocratic priorities.

This is not merely a romantic failure in our hero, I would argue, but a larger failure of empathy across class boundaries. Contrast Mr. Chawleigh's open and earnest affection for his daughter with Adam's feelings upon seeing his newborn son for the first time: "He thought he had never seen anything less beautiful than the red and crumpled countenance of his son" (6006). Father of the Year, that one. He only waxes enthusiastic when he sees that this noble-born future viscount is equally scornful of his lowborn antecedents: "I left [Mr. Chawleigh] making the most peculiar noises to his grandson, who treated them with utter contempt -- very understandably, I thought!" (6006). He's pleased to see his baby son self-ally with the proper class by scorning Mr. Chawleigh. Blood will tell, as so often happens in Heyer. Class is changeless. It's an essentially conservative thesis.

It's also rejected in every possible way by Bujold's A Civil Campaign.

First, a few disclaimers: I've been hopping around the Vorkosiverse rather than reading the series straight through, which means there's a lot I've missed so any comments and clarifications from those in the know would be most welcome. Also, if anyone wants to put together a movie version of any of these books and cast Gwendolyn Christie (aka Brienne of Tarth, aka She Who Should Be Queen In Westeros) as Drou, I would be eternally grateful and see said movie seventeen times at non-matinee prices.

It's a truism that Heyer's book is about class -- but saying this obscures the fact that class, of course, is not one homogenous and indivisible thing. Class is a cake we make out of money, race, manners, education, family, and gender. A Civil Campaign explores each one of these in ways that could really only happen in a space Regency, where futuristic technology and antique social systems can smash productively up against one another.

It's also not going to be possible for me to talk as much about all this as I would like -- especially not when I've got edits to be working on! -- but I'll try and hit some of the highlights before my brain dissolves in the heat.

When these books are read back-to-back, Miles reads as an utter rejection of all things Adam: he's a successful soldier, his family members are strong and independent and happy (for the most part), he's got a sense of humor about his own failings, his disability is not made conveniently invisible in the way Adam's is (oh noes, I has a limp that's noticeable enough to get me sympathy laid but doesn't stop me from tramping around making pretend I am a farmer God I just hate Adam more and more). But the greatest difference is that Miles is adept at passing through the membranes of class and station that Heyer's book would have us treat as permanent barriers. His undercover identity as Admiral Naismith is a ghost that haunts the narrative, showing even to readers like me unfamiliar with prior books that Miles' identity is fluid and variable, Odyssean rather than Achillean. In fact, this becomes the very problem between him and Ekaterina: Miles chooses the wrong self to show her at first, hiding his true intentions in ways that remind her traumatically of her first husband's manipulations. The idea of being one solid knowable self frightens Miles a little, in fact: "Someday, if things went well, he must stand before her in his skin, in this very room and place, with no disguise at all" (Kindle location 7964). Imagine Adam feeling this self-conscious in front of, well, anyone. Miles is well aware that there is a secret kernel of self not defined by terms like Vor or ImpSec or even mutie: he hesitates to show it to Ekaterin because his shifting selves have successfully kept him alive for so many years.

And oh, Ekaterin -- I must really go back and read Komarr because I definitely want more time with Ekaterin. I also feel like she's a mirror version of Jenny, with Tien as another mirror-Adam -- a cold husband who's convinced his wife she's a mere accessory, who has a truncated military career, who's made a great financial gamble (Adam's is successful, but I still think it was a pretty self-serving move). It's an unsettlingly short leap of imagination from Adam's benevolent neglect to Tien's emotional manipulation and abuse. Ekaterin lost sight of who she was as a person during those terrible years, and on Barrayar she's trying to assert a self long-suppressed:

Every night now, lying down alone without Tien, was like a taste of some solitary heaven. She could stretch her arms and legs out all the way to the sides of the bed, reveling in the smooth space, free of compromise, confusion, oppression, negotiation, deference, placation. Free of Tien. Through the long years of their marriage she had become almost numb to the ties that had bound her to him, the promises and the fear, his desperate needs, his secrets and lies. When the straps of her vows had been released at last by his death, it was as if her whole soul had come awake, tingling painfully, like a limb when circulation was restored. (1183)

There's a whole spectrum of understood social roles for Ekaterin (mother, Vor, grieving widow considering remarriage) but no sense of her true individual self; this is what she is seeking over the course of the plot. The true self is here separate from class, rather than nourished by it as in Heyer's text -- yes, designing gardens is a pretty upper-class thing to do, but designing a prettier butterbug is a much more democratic, business-oriented move. It's also something that is uniquely her -- and she needs that, so desperately. It's only when she has her self again that she really begins to think about having someone else as well: the romance arc follows the swell of Ekaterin's growing strength and confidence -- even when the person she's at odds with is Miles himself. This is one of those romances that definitely keeps the characters apart to better effect -- something refreshing in a sea of fuck-til-we're-in-love erotic romances.

If you'll allow me a brief metatextual tangent, it seems that social class is a little like genre, in that both operate on a set of shared but mostly unspoken assumptions. Both are accumulations of similarities rather than hard-and-fast categories. (And genres, like classes, come with various levels of social prestige.) In her review of the Bujold text, Jo Walton states that the narrative moves of the romance genre are "as stylized as a Noh play." Romance does have codes and conventions but many of these are very opaque to outsiders or readers new to the genre. For instance, the Hardass Police Captain (video at the link) is an oft-cited cultural touchstone even among people who don't watch a lot of buddy cop movies, but things like TSTL and Secret Babies and the No Other Woman Bed are far less frequently referenced outside of romance blogs and reviews. In regard to Ekaterin, little moments like suddenly noticing how Miles' scent turns her on or keeping his apology letter tucked in the bodice of her gown for rereading are as good as an I love you to romance fans, but might not stand out to readers who lack the awareness of those tropes' repetition. Similarly, class markers are often codes, and often inherited, and rarely talked about openly: for instance, when you bring food to a potluck, what kind of food do you bring? (And all my super-upper-class readers just looked at each other in horror at the word 'potluck.') Or when an invitation specifies BYOB, do you bring a mid-range white Burgundy or a case of Natty Ice? (Everyone with working tastebuds just looked at each other in horror at the words 'Natty Ice.')

And now we're at 3k words -- is your attention span as strained as mine? And I'm writing all this! It's summer -- we all deserve a break. Let's hit the rest in bullet-point form.

  • Mark: Miles' clone, so the two men are genetically identical. But physically and intellectually vastly different -- Mark was raised in an abusive, horrifying situation, trained as a living weapon of assassination for his clone-brother. He's been accepted into the Vorkosigan family (!) and is trying to figure out what his role is there, including getting treatment for mental health issues that manifest as a set of alternate selves known as the Black Gang. This was super-interesting to me, so again, going to dive heavily into the earlier books. Again: class is not destiny, family is not destiny, upbringing is not destiny.
  • Kareen Koudelka: Barrayar-born but coming back from a year's education on Beta. Her sexual activities with Mark are gratifying to both her and him, and immensely helpful in his therapy -- which would be creepier if Kareen weren't so obviously into Mark and vice versa -- but open pre-marital sex doesn't jive with Barrayar standards of behavior, particularly the narrow standards for young unmarried women of high status. Kareen and Mark fight against the objections of her parents to their relationship, since she's grown to enjoy the greater freedom and lack of disapproving supervision she found off-world. The pair also find satisfaction in borrowing economic terms with which to define the terms of their affair. This works because both Mark and Kareen place personal value (rather than class-specific value) on business and entrepreneurship.
  • Lord Dono: Betan medical technology allows a female character, Donna, to switch gender entirely for the purposes of inheriting a countship and thwarting her asshole cousin. There's an unfortunate equivalence here between biology and gender -- Dono has a penis, therefore Dono is a man -- which prevents me from labeling this as a depiction of a trans character. Let us say instead that it is trans-adjacent. For instance, after the biological change, plot protagonists express varying levels of surprise and approval, but plot antagonists react with revulsion, misgendering, and even attempted mutilation. Dono himself is a wonderful character, charismatic and compelling with an edge of wit and cunning. The Donna/Dono plotline also exposes the way Betan habits and technology are starting to be used as loopholes for the narrow constraints of Barrayaran tradition, and not just by progressives -- see also the rather horrifying plotline of the old Vor count and his hundreds of artificially created daughters, which I can't even begin to take apart without a few more read-throughs and several stiff drinks.

The more I think about it, the more I feel that the Beta-versus-Barrayar framework established in Shards of Honor and Barrayar (god, those books, so good!) exists to topple one by one many of the foundational pillars of Regency society as established in fiction like Heyer's. (Hence this book's dedication, obvs.) Primogeniture, ableism, women's role as primarily one of motherhood and childrearing, etc. It's not perfect -- it's very white and there's a distinct preponderance of happy heterosexual couples, though let's talk sometime about Aral Vorkosigan's youthful flirtation with bisexuality -- but it's an interesting and vastly explorable series. One which I hope to explore more fully once the temperature goes down and stops boiling my brain. (Seriously, my recent forebears were from Finland: I'm like Pratchett's Detritus in anything over 85 degrees.)

Thanks for listening, everyone, and happy summer!

___

Speaking of Tor.com, their series on Post Binary Gender in SF is well worth the reading; start here with the introduction.

Merrian Oliver-Weymouth curates the wonderful Pinterest board Barrayar Dreaming, using real-world images and artifacts to visualize the imaginary world of Barrayar. There's also The Vor, curated by Pinterest user fajrdrako. Both are utterly enchanting.

Someone somewhere has to be writing a thesis or dissertation on the Vorkosiverse and reproductive health choices, right? Abortion, surrogacy, pre-birth disability diagnoses, cloning -- it's all in there. Hard SF doesn't often get to be this messy about the body, nor so inclined to consider a woman's perspective on such technologies. I'm going to keep an eye on this as I keep reading. 

___

Bujold, Lois McMaster. A Civil Campaign. Amazon Digital Services, 2011. Kindle edition.

Heyer, Georgette. A Civil Contract. Naperville, IL: Sourcebooks Casablanca, 2011. Kindle edition.

Announcing: At His Countess' Pleasure

Did you enjoy Color Me Bad? You'll be glad to hear there's going to be a sequel! It's an angsty little gem of a novelette and I'm absurdly delighted with it. Here is the blurb!

Scandal has a long life, and Miss Anne Pym is running out of patience. Her cousin's shocking marriage to the Earl of Underwood's brother and their subsequent entrance into trade is still a burden Anne and her sister Evangeline must bear. Their own social standing is not enough to repair the damage, so Anne boldly seeks restitution from the earl himself, whom she holds partially responsible for the disaster.
 
To her shock, the earl not only agrees he's partly to blame, but offers to make Anne his countess. The title and the wealth that comes with it will help her mend the shattered reputation of her family -- and marriage will also provide Anne with the children she desperately wants. Simon needs an heir, and for that he needs a wife, and Anne's practicality and courage strike him as useful traits for a countess to have.
 
But marriage is a beginning rather than an ending, and Anne and Simon have much to learn about each other -- and about their pasts. Old hurts and new scandals alike threaten their burgeoning passion, even as Simon finds himself more and more eager to obey his strong-willed wife's every carnal command. When Anne's bitterest secret emerges, destroying their hopes for the future, Simon must learn whether or not he himself is enough for a lifetime of happiness -- and just how completely he is willing to submit.

Gendered Violence, Annotated

Content note: the following post discusses rape, domestic violence, and sexual/reproductive coercion. The instances are numerous, but not graphic. All I wanted to do was get some pointers on revising a novel: the next thing I know it's rape and domestic abuse all the way down.

Let me make two things clear at the outset. One: I had done most of the note-taking work for this post before the recent shooting at UCSB took place, before #YesAllWomen and the inevitable douchebag pushback against the many women describing the pervasive fears they deal with on the daily. What was intended as a light, comically astonished post with a tone of See, even here! has taken on a new tenor in light of these events.

Two, James Scott Bell, the author of Revisions and Self-Editingis clearly doing his best to put together a useful writing handbook for any writer of commercial fiction. He takes care to vary the gender of his pronouns very thoughtfully throughout the text. It's a nice touch and I didn't want it to go unmentioned -- but this is a surface-level thoughtfulness, easy to implement. Much harder to root out are the deeper biases the author may not realize he's prone to, most prominently fridging/damselling, domestic violence, and rape/attempted rape as a narrative shortcut to reader sympathy. These things come up again and again, recommended by the author as exemplary plot devices. Because I am a huge dork, I went through with a pen and post-its and marked the following things: rape, domestic abuse, Stephen King, Dean Koontz, Scarlet O'Hara, and instances of possible bias against female authors versus male authors. Afterward, the book looked like this:

A book whose pages are bursting with post-it notes.

That ... is a lot more than I was expecting, honestly. Here's the list, with commentary:

  • p. 3: "See Watchers by Koontz ... See The Dead Zone by King..."

Koontz and King are James Scott Bell's go-to authors. They are mentioned so many times that the index doesn't even cover all their appearances (page 3, for instance, is not listed in the index under King, though it does appear under Koontz). I don't object to using either author as an example on principle -- they're both hugely successful and famous for the kind of hooky commercial fiction this book is designed to help with -- but it sets a certain dudely-horror tone for the rest of the text. Dudely-horror is my second-least favorite genre of anything (only beaten by dudely literary fiction that revolves around suburban middle-aged adultery), so this is definitely a part where my own biases come in to play.

  • p. 9: Proust's most famous work is a "masterpiece."

Again, I agree with this as a fact. Proust's  À la recherche du temps perdu is a masterpiece. Also notoriously long-winded and overwritten. We will have cause to revisit this page later on in these notes.

  • p. 13: "Petey is gone again. And this time, he's taken Brad's wife and child with him."

Our first damselling! I thought nothing of this on my first read-through. But I definitely marked it when going through with my post-its, because the idea of putting a male lead's wife/female relative/love interest in peril to raise the narrative stakes comes up over and over again.

  • p. 19: Scarlett O'Hara

Scarlett appears here first as an example of a complex lead character. Which: sure. But she's also notably sexually assaulted at one point in the novel and oh yes, her book is nearly ninety years old. Plus, Scarlett is deeply and aggressively sexualized, not only by Margaret Mitchell but also by James Scott Bell. Perhaps I have my own reasons for marking down Gone With the Wind references as red flags, but it seemed ... odd.

  • p. 20: Scarlett O'Hara again; Stephen King's Rose Madder.

This is the section on GRIT, a quality your lead character must have. The rule -- verbatim -- is: "No wimps!" (Emphasis original.) Scarlett is described as someone who "overplays the coquette" but who is otherwise brave. Which: sure, though I'm not sure Melanie's the best person to cite as someone Scarlett is brave for, as JSB does here.

Meanwhile, we get the first of many mentions of Rose Madder, Stephen King's story of a battered wife trying to escape her abusive cop husband. Bell lingers to describe the physical effects of abuse and how it has also made Rose unfit for the wider world, therefore her every little step forward feels like a triumph. He sees this as an excellent way for an author to get a reader to connect with a character; I feel a little queasy watching this realistic misery served up as exemplary entertainment. Telltale quote: " It would have been easy for King to spend ten chapters detailing the abuse Rose took from her husband. But being a master of the craft, he knew that would have been too much 'taking it.'"

I cannot give enough side-eye to the phrase "taking it" when used in the context of domestic violence.

  • p. 22: Scarlett O'Hara and Rhett Butler

Another Scarlett mention -- but the character whose lines are excerpted on the page is not Scarlett, but Rhett. Again, Scarlett is shown flirting aggressively.

  • p. 23: Scarlett O'Hara the vamp

Scarlett's behavior and physical charms are detailed for about half a page, with an excerpt. The language is active, which is nice -- Scarlett is clearly in control -- but it's highly sexualized and vampish.

  • p. 29: Roberta from Theodore Dreiser's An American Tragedy

I admit, this is a book I'm not deeply familiar with (Dreiser? Really? In this day and age?) so I am limited to Bell's description of Clyde Griffiths' actions: "He seduces the tragic Roberta, consents to marry her (to save his own rep) when she conceives, then lets her drown so he can be free to pursue another woman." Gosh, why aren't they still teaching this in the academy? This is in the section about honor as a means of driving conflict: admittedly, Clyde is presented as a negative example, but a successful negative example. And it's still his perspective that is centered, not poor doomed Roberta's.

  • p. 36: Stephen King, The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon

Young Trisha is lost in the woods, thinking about how her mother is bound to be worried. Another female character in peril, though without the sexualized component of many of the others.

  • p. 38: Stephen King, Carrie

An abused young woman uses telekinetic powers to gain revenge -- the full plot is not detailed, and the excerpt here shows young Carrie knocking over the tricycle of a boy who calls her names. I don't think it's going too far to say that unlike Dreiser's novel Carrie is still high-trading cultural capital, and that the gendered aspects of the story (menstruation/the female body and socio-sexual competition) are invoked by the reference. Also, we have the abuse-victim-gains-superpowers trope: always a classic!

  • p. 42: Dean Koontz, Midnight

The first of many, many references to this book. This section is about creating complex villains rather than mustache-twirling caricatures. Yet Koontz's villain Thomas Shadduck has the most cliché villain trait of all: eeevil lust: "When we first meet Shadduck, he's floating in a sensory deprivation chamber in the grip of a weird vision: his desire to meld man and machine into cybernetic organisms. It's literally an erotic experience for him ... Shadduck's motivation is visionary -- perverse though it may be." I'm not convinced this is as creative and revolutionary as JSB seems to think: sexualized evil is pretty well-worn villain territory. Hell, I've done it myself.

  • p. 46: Stephen King, Rose Madder

Rose is presented as an example of creating sympathy through vulnerability: "Without real-world experience or skills because her psycho husband has kept her a virtual prisoner for years, Rose must figure out how to survive on her own, get a job, and most of all keep from being found by her policeman husband, who knows how to track." Rose does indeed excite my sympathy -- but, again, I am more than a little squicked out at the commercial exploitation by a male author of a real-world danger that mostly affects women.

  • p. 47: Romance

We are discussing character objectives and their importance, and JSB opines: "A romance is about the characters trying to get love." Which, the first time I read, nearly made me heave the book out the study window. "Trying to get love" is not at all how I would describe most romances. Love in the romance genre tends to be a thing that happens while the protagonists are trying to get other things. Jane Eyre, for example, wants a job that is not as depressing as teaching at Lowood. Elizabeth Bennet in Pride and Prejudice actively resists love for more than half the book, as does Darcy himself. Even Scarlett, who more than anyone else I can think of is trying to "get love," has other things on her mind -- Tara, for instance, or preserving her own social privilege. (One could argue that even her quest to "get love" is in service of maintaining this privilege. She's acquisitive, even in her affections.) Even books I can think of where there is a deliberate pursuit (such as Sherry Thomas' Not Quite a Husband), it's only on the part of one character, never both at once. I'm quite hard-pressed to think of a romance where both leads are gunning for each other but only held back by circumstances. Love appears in the genre most often as a complication of other goals -- such as the classic HP hero who intends to get revenge on a former business partner by seducing his virginal daughter but oh no now he has feelings for her. And this error is fundamental enough to make me question JSB's credibility in other things -- not least because his schedule shows he's speaking at a couple romance conventions this summer. I have a great many more thoughts on how love functions as a goal (or not) in the romance genre; this may become a whole separate post at some point in the future.

What's more, the whole "get love" thing is part of the idea of sex/romance as a commodity that may be purchased, earned, or stolen -- which is one of the biggest elements of patriarchy that #YesAllWomen was created to critique. Love is not an object, but presenting it as such is pretty directly correlated with all kinds of misogyny.

  • p. 48: Stephen King, Rose Madder

This section is about 'adhesive' -- that is, the thing that keeps your protagonist and antagonist fighting, the reason neither can just walk away from the conflict. Rose Madder is cited as an example where "the adhesive is psychopathology. The husband is pyscho." This is not only a pretty shallow reading of psychopathology (and starkly ableist in its approach to mental illness), but also a pretty shallow motivation. Why does my character do what he does? Because he's crazy, man! I will allow that this may be merely a reductive paraphrase on JSB's part rather than an accurate description of the character motivation in King's novel.

Besides, plenty of men terrorize their spouses without qualifying as 'psychopaths.' Domestic abuse is sadly not as unpopular among humans as we could wish.

  • p. 49: Stephen King, The Shining

Briefly mentioned as a great use of setting. But this is another King novel featuring domestic abuse, where a mother and her child are terrorized by a 'psycho' husband/father.

  • p. 55: The Big Heat (film)

Another fridging: "Glenn Ford plays a cop whose wife is murdered by thugs working for a crime boss."

Also mentioned on this page: It Happened One NightRomeo and Juliet, and two Doris Day/Rock Hudson movies. Because nothing about romance has changed in fifty years or more.

  • p. 56: The Fugitive (film) and Stephen King, Rose Madder

Fridging and domestic abuse: Richard Kimball is on the run because he's been framed for the murder of his wife. Rose "has to stay on the run or she'll be murdered by her husband."

  • p. 72: Stephen King, Storm of the Century

"Don't ever get stuck on an island off the coast of Maine in winter if King is writing the story. He's liable to drop a pathological killer in there." Good advice, albeit impractical.

  • p. 75: Evan Hunter, The Moment She Was Gone

Fridging: main male character's schizophrenic twin sister (!) has gone missing.

  • p. 83: Stephen King, Christine

Citations from the novel include this line: "I heard some kid's rod peeling rubber -- it made a sound in the night like a hysterical woman's desperate laughter."

  • p. 90: rape scene

To demonstrate the technique of weaving backstory into the main narrative, JSB shows a rape victim being triggered by seeing a spider. The rape is included on-page in the excerpt: "Lester made his move in the back of the car. Wendy was helpless. It was all over in five minutes. The spider was at the web now..."

  • p.99: Stephen King

Stephen King uses Maine slang.

  • p. 101: sexual coercion and damselling

Another twofer! First we get an excerpt from the Dreiser novel that takes up most of the page. In this passage, Clyde is quite deliberately ignoring Roberta's attempts at deflection while trying to isolate her for sexual purposes. It's a textbook example of rape culture/PUA-style pressure, and it's pretty uncomfortable reading.

Immediately following is a passage where a male main character is talking on the phone to his wife and daughter, who are being held hostage.

  • p. 125: Dean Koontz, domestic abuse

Koontz opening line analyzed/explained. There is also an opening line from Anna Quindlen's Black and Blue: "The first time my husband hit me I was nineteen years old." Again, this in itself is very small -- but these citations are beginning to accumulate. This was roughly the point where I initially reached for my stack of post-its and turned back to the first page to make sure I wasn't imagining things.

  • p. 130-131: Dean Koontz, Midnight

Koontz begins the book with a woman jogging at night. The woman is then killed for shock value. JSB cites this as an effective entry point for a story: sensory details bring us into sympathy with Janice Capshaw, and we readers are then shocked at her death. I don't know why we should be: this the oldest tactic in the book. See also: Psycho, George R. R. Martin, Law & Order, all the CSIs, and every mystery series ever in the history of television. Even the really good ones, like Foyle's War.

  • p. 133: Stephen King, The Dead Zone; Dean Koontz, Whispers

King is cited for sly use of backstory. With Koontz, JSB tells us in awed tones: "Whispers has one of the most famous, chilling action scenes in suspense fiction -- the attempted rape of Hilary Thomas by Bruno Frye. He attacks and chases her in her house, from pages 24 to 41!" That exclamation point gives me the willies. A seventeen-page rape scene! it says. How fun!

  • p. 140 - 141: George Eliot, Middlemarch

Remember when I mentioned Proust, earlier? Gosh, that was a long time ago. Remember how Proust's multi-volume work of impressive self-involvement was described as "a masterpiece?" Well here we have Eliot's Middlemarch, a lengthy book but not a damn patch on A la recherche, quoted at length as an example of how 19th-century fiction was more about telling than showing. (Which: someday I'm going to debate this, but not now.) Middlemarch does not get to be a masterpiece. In fact, JSB goes so far as to rewrite the cited passage as he would imagine George Eliot might have done if she was writing in the 1940s.

The rewritten passage is terrible, and terribly dull. I can feel your shock all the way on the other side of the internet.

Proust, Dickens, Melville -- these are held up more than once as positive examples. Only George Eliot gets singled out for the dubious honor of having her lengthy clauses (appropriate for the period in which she was living and writing!) chopped and sliced and simplified.

  • p. 142: Iazy writing

JSB gives us "an example of lazy telling from a best-selling writer." As if we are not living in the age of Google where such evasions are easily unmasked. I plugged in the first few lines, and ta-da!

Screencap of the first result from a Google search: the best-selling writer is revealed to be Danielle Steele.

Not as sly as you think, sir. Also, "best-selling writer." Not author. Writer. Koontz and King categorically are brilliant masters of the craft; Danielle Steel is lazy.

  •  p. 146: Hemingway, "Hills Like White Elephants"

Here is an on-page passage where a man is trying to convince his pregnant girlfriend to have an abortion. Because nothing says 'literary classic' like reproductive coercion.

  • p. 149: voice

JSB says: "You're never going to mistake a Faulkner for a Koontz, or a Hemingway for a Danielle Steel." I think the first comparison holds much more water than the second; it feels like JSB is commenting more upon content than upon voice/diction/sentence length. Also, I am reminded of this Guardian quiz about gender and narrative voice.

  • p. 161: Dean Koontz, Sole Survivor

Fridging in a Koontz citation: "At two-thirty Saturday morning, in Los Angeles, Joe Carpenter woke, clutching a pillow to his chest, calling his lost wife's name in the darkness. The anguished and haunted quality of his own voice had shaken him from sleep." This in a list of examples of distinctive narrative voices -- every single one of which is a dude.

  • p. 162: Stephen King, The Shining

Again the Overlook Hotel is cited as an exemplary use of setting.

  • p. 169: Dean Koontz, Midnight; Stephen King, "Home Delivery"

Again a lengthy excerpt from the death scene of Janice Capshaw, with the explanation: "She's not going to make it out alive. In fact, she's going to become a treat for a horrible thing that chases her." A treat.

The King excerpt shows a woman worrying about what two men (a reverend, her fiancé) think of her.

  • p. 183: Stephen King, On Writing

Brief snip from King's book of craft advice.

  • p. 199: Stephen King, On Writing

Completely unnecessary sniping by JSB: "In his book On Writing, he talks about the boys in the basement, his metaphor for the subconscious writer's mind. When you write, and when you revise, you ought to get the boys working. If you're a woman and you don't like the idea of boys in your basement, feel free to come up with your own metaphor."

Fuck. You.

  • p. 230: fridging: Robert Crais, Hostage

Another mention of the hostage negotiator whose own wife has been taken hostage (ooh, irony!).

  • p. 232-233: fridging

Another hat-tip to The Fugitive, plus a second fridging: "the thugs plant a car bomb. It blows up the wrong person -- Bannion's wife. Now it's personal."

  • p. 234: Stephen King

Brief piece of writing advice.

  • p. 236: Dean Koontz, The Key to Midnight

Unrelated to Midnight above, apparently. A Western white man writes a book set in Japan even though he has never been there. Part of his research involved reading Shogun, another Japan-set novel by a Western white man.

  • p. 238: Dean Koontz, Midnight

A father and son reconcile. Much less awful, and much briefer, than the other citations of this book.

  • p. 240: fridging: Lawrence Block, "A Candle for the Bag Lady"

A lengthy passage where a killer explains his motivation for killing a homeless woman. We learn nothing else about the woman: this scene is all about the murderer's perspective. The woman herself is apparently disposable.

  • p. 241: rape: Dean Koontz, Whispers

Again JSB is thrilled to mention the seventeen-page rape scene, with this command: "Read it and learn." I find this language much, much creepier on my second read-through.

And there we are. Done. Finally. Did that feel like a grind? It was certainly exhausting for me.

In reference to The Shining, I realized at one point I was drawing much more from the Kubrick film (which I have seen and admire) than from the book (which I have not read). I immediately found the Tor.com reread post for the book (their reread series is the best! I want to do a Discworld reread for them, honest! email me!) which contains this stunning passage:

King has talked before about the rage he felt in his years of struggle, commenting that there were times when he felt real anger towards his children. It all comes pouring out in Jack Torrance, a bad dad who breaks his son’s arm while drunk (a condition King was later to admit he was in most of the time). All those years of guilt, of fearing that he couldn’t support his family, of feeling like they were a millstone around his neck, he finally shakes it off thanks to his success, and then he puts on a fiction suit and dives right back in again. He even gives Torrance his own bad habits, like chewing aspirin when hung over.

I've talked before (and more recently tweeted) about the fuzzy border between fiction and real life because it's a constant preoccupation of mine. I think one of the things I do as an author, and which King appears to be doing here as well, is taking a seed of a real-life feeling (something primal and often unspeakable) and letting it flower in fiction's fertile soil. This kind of inward-outward exploration may even be one of the greatest reasons for fiction's very existence. But even here, wallowing in his own deepest anxieties and childhood/parenthood traumas, King has limits: "To King, losing sympathy for his characters is the sign of a rotten imagination."

I believe authors have the right to do whatever the hell they want in their fiction. But I also believe there can be consequences, significant ones, to the choices we make in building stories. We don't revise novels in a vacuum, and our own cultural baggage inevitably comes in to play. The benefit of writing fiction is that we do get chances to fix our initial, thoughtless impulses -- but only if we're thinking very critically about the stories we're telling and the frameworks we're helping to shore up. (Especially if we expect to be paid for our work.) One instance of dameseling or fridging or rape-for-sympathy is a blip; a thousand of them, a million, so many that they become the default way to treat female characters in multiple media ... Well, that's a problem. It's a question of scale.

As authors, we have control over which characters we choose to harm, and which ones we put in a position to act. Over and over again, JSB shows us women/girls in peril, passively reacting or dead and men/boys in a dilemma, poised to act. This recent piece on similar trends in video games sums it up rather nicely: "It seems that when you want to make a woman into a hero, you hurt her first. When you want to make a man into a hero, you hurt... also a woman first." 

The takeaway of fridging and damselling in narrative: Women are only truly important when they're dead. This is not only repellent to me as a romance author: it's repellent to me as a woman, and as a human being.

___

This piece from The F Word reviews Stieg Larsson in the context of violence against women in the novels of James Patterson and Dean Koontz.

Questions about Stephen King and feminism are discussed by Grady Hendrix here in a different post for Tor.com.

As always, Anita Sarkeesian's videos at Feminist Frequency are a great example of just how prevalent such clichés are -- her posts are specific to video games, but it's not a great leap to extrapolate her analysis in regard to fiction, film, and television.

 

D is for Tessa Dare

{For the complete alphabet of diversity in romance, click here.} There's a lot to like about Lily, Tessa Dare's deaf heroine in Three Nights with a Scoundrel. Lily combines a fundamental optimism with the sympathetic resonance of grief -- for her murdered twin brother, for the best friend she slowly realizes she's fallen in love with but who has her on an uncomfortably high pedestal -- and a quiet practical side that keeps her grounded (she likes lists and accounting ledgers). Her deafness is real and palpable in the text, but is not the main focus of the story.

Cover image for Three Nights with a Scoundrel by Tessa Dare. Blue-toned landscape. Block of color in the middle has white text reading: THREE NIGHTS WITH A SCOUNDREL and, smaller, TESSA DARE. Above, a tan-skinned dark-haired woman in an apricot gown puts her hands on the shoulders of a tan-skinned, dark-haired man wearing apparently nothing at all.But the very best thing about Lily Chatwick's portrayal is that she's not the only deaf person in the book.

So many disabled heroes or heroines are the only ones so depicted in their stories. They labor under the burden of tokenism: how you depict your Significant Deaf Character reflects on all deaf people. But in real life the experience of being disabled is a spectrum of reactions, adaptations, limitations, attitudes, acceptance, and struggle that is exquisitely unique to each disabled person. In real life no single person is the One Deaf Person.

It happens just before the halfway point of the book. Lily and Julian, our hero, have dressed as commoners and gone to sit in the cheap seats at the theater (like you do for kicks when you're an aristocrat in a Regency romance). After the play, however, the suspense plot rears its head and Julian drags Lily across half of London to a run-down coffeehouse he partly grew up in, where nobody will think to look for Lady Lily Chatwick.

And then we meet the landlady:

Even inside the coffeehouse, they continued this way. Neither speaking a word. Not with lips or tongue, at any rate. No, Julian and the landlady were communicating solely with their hands. Rapid, precise, two-handed movements that Julian only belatedly -- after sending Lily an apologetic glance -- began pairing with speech. (159)

Unlike Anna the landlady, Lily wasn't born deaf, but lost her hearing after an illness five or so years back. She can read lips reasonably well, given the right conditions: adequate lighting, clear sightlines, no sudden tangents in conversation, help from gestures and expressions. But she cannot sign, and her experience of disability is not the same as Anna's  -- nor, we learn, is it the same as the experience of Julian's late mother, who was deaf and taught him to sign:

"My mother was born deaf. You were deafened by illness. It's an entirely separate thing. I can say to you, the pianoforte is out of tune, and though you don't hear it, you understand exactly what I mean. Not so with my mother. But she and Anna and the others downstairs, they notice things -- little subtleties of sights and smells and textures -- that you and I would never think to heed." He smiled. "If it helps, they don't see you as one of them either." (174)

It's somewhat radical that the born-deaf are presented here as rejecting association with Lily -- especially since she is a wealthy member of the nobility, and the born-deaf we see are all commoners. There is no big monolithic The Deaf in this book. There are only deaf people.

Of course, what becomes abundantly clear through the use of such a character spectrum is that the intersection of class and disability: Lily suffers plenty of microaggressions over the course of the novel, but her position as a lady (and her wealth) prevent her from being more thoroughly victimized. Julian's mother, by contrast, is raped while serving as a housemaid -- her illiteracy and the lack of people who know sign make her an easy target for predatory gentlemen.  She ends up pregnant, unemployed, and homeless. Julian recognizes the combination of  luck and determination it took for her not to abandon him in such straitened circumstances:

He'd been a help to his mother when he grew older. But Julian knew at any time in his infancy, she could have made life a great deal easier on herself by dropping him on the doorstep of a foundling hospital. She hadn't.  They'd always had each other. Most times, that was all they'd had. (166-167)

If disabled characters in historical romance are rare, depictions of a whole community of disabled people are unheard-of. I did a little digging based on the feeling that this background detail was based on real history, and it only took moments to turn up a Wikipedia page for Old Kentish Sign Language, which leads to a page on Martha's Vineyard Sign Language, and so on down the internet rabbit hole. The potential here for new ways of approaching familiar historical times is truly compelling -- imagine a small-town historical romance set in a village of people who are bilingual in spoken English and sign language -- if that doesn't get you at least a little excited, well, I don't know what else to say.

___

Updated because I knew there was a link I had forgotten: Matt and Kay Daigle produce the awesome webcomic That Deaf Guy, which is not only sweet and hilarious but also a great take on the day-to-day challenges of life as a deaf man and father.

For disability in romance, definitely follow the ever-marvelous Ridley at Love in the Margins: reviews, links, and thoughtful commentary abound. 

There is also this Dear Author recommendation thread for books featuring disabled characters, and this Smart Bitches thread for books with disabled heroines.

___

Dare, Tessa. Three Nights with a Scoundrel. New York, NY: Ballantine Books, 2010. Print book.

B is for Beverly Jenkins

{Click here for the full alphabet of intersectional feminism in romance.} Ask anyone who knows: they'll tell you Beverly Jenkins is the queen of African-American historical romance. I've had Destiny's Embrace sitting in my TBR pile forever, just waiting for me to pick it up. And I finally did! And ... I didn't like it.

Cover image for Destiny's Embrace by Beverly Jenkins. Pastoral background. A dark-skinned, dark-haired woman lounges on her right elbow facing away. Her light blue gown is undone to bare her long back. Facing her and the viewer is a dark-skinned, dark-haired shirtless man, gazing into her eyes with heroic intensity. Pink text above reads BEVERLY JENKINS. Yellow text below reads DESTINY'S EMBRACE.Let's be clear: this is mostly a matter of personal preference. Destiny's Embrace is a romance in a very classic mold: virgin heroine resplendent with niceness, alpha hero terrified of commitment, cast of secondary characters whose goodness is directly related to how much they help or are sympathetic to our protagonists. Plenty of conflicts are foreshadowed -- the heroine's abusive mother in Philadelphia, the hero's current mistress, the sinister neighboring rancher who's busting down fences to poach water he doesn't have the rights to -- but all these problems are resolved in a single scene each, and none of the solutions have any consequences or repercussions.

In short, I was bored silly.

This unsettled me so much -- was it due to unconscious racism? seriously, everybody talks about how much they like Beverly Jenkins -- that I bought and read another book of hers, Vivid, for comparison.

Cover image for Vivid by Beverly Jenkins. A flowery landscape. A shirtless man with dark skin stands behind a dark-skinned woman, his hands on her upper arms, his face tilted down toward hers. The woman wears a white gown with a red sash. Her eyes are closed, her shoulders are bare, and she is leaning back into the man's chest. Pink text reads BEVERLY JENKINS in the upper right and VIVID across the bottom edge.I liked Vivid a great deal more, not least because the heroine's goal was more concrete and emotionally plausible, but in many ways it felt like the same book with the same basic underpinnings. Like a book that had kept its boned corset but changed the color of its gown. And that book is one I've read before, over and over, in many a historical romance over the years. In fact, I checked the publication date on Destiny's Embrace to make sure it was published recently and was not a reissue from the late 80s. (It wasn't.) It's a very familiar romance type, and it is very much not my bag.

This is not necessarily something Beverly Jenkins needs to change. For one thing, she has a thousand awards, a passionate following, and can cheerfully ignore the opinions of a newbie author of weird erotic paranormal historicals.

For another, I kept remembering part of this Ann Leckie post about tradition and inclusion in genre ficion:

And the whole “escape the suffocating weight of Tradition!” thing doesn’t look the same from every angle. Consider that for women, POC, and LGBTQ writers the question of forebears and tradition can be a fraught one. “She wrote it, but she’s an anomaly.” Such writers have either been denied their own tradition by this kind of erasure, or have been repeatedly erased from the dominant one. To some of us, belonging to a tradition is a valuable and hard-won thing.

I had a similar thought two years ago when I discussed a contemporary romance with a trans heroine  that felt old-fashioned and cliché to me: having a romance heroine from a usually invisible group who is written the same way as all our much-discussed TSTL heroines is something of a triumph.

And yet ...

And yet here I am, unsatisfied, about to think overly hard about these two Beverly Jenkins novels and the value of resistance.

My very favorite line from Vivid comes early on, when our titular heroine meets the hero's mischievous daughter and recalls her own less-than-proper childhood:

Vivid's partner-in-crime had been her late grandmother Maria, founder of the Female Plotting Rebelling Society. Grandmother Maria believed that all females, regardless of age, race, or circumstances, should always be plotting rebellion to better the state of women. (Kindle location 512)

The Female Plotting Rebelling Society! I was enchanted. I imagined something like a black 19th-century Michigan Lysistrata taking place (tell me you wouldn't read that!) especially since the text has at this point already established the parameters of a gender battle: Vivid is a female doctor, determined to build her practice despite the era's rampant sexism, and Nate, our hero, is a man whose spoiled and adulterous ex-wife has left him convinced that women are flimsy, treacherous things not to be trusted or loved or anything. (Alpha heroes can be so adorably fragile, can't they?) Sadly, the FPRS is never again mentioned, as the plot meanders through several seemingly unconnected episodes of suspense and family melodrama.

Still, this quote helps set up a fundamental theme of the book: rebellion and resistance are important virtues. The indignities of Jim Crow are depicted, and several characters speak against those racist policies or find ways to work around them as best they can. National politics are mentioned frequently and in-depth, and I admit (nerd alert!) that I was delighted to find a mini-essay on the pros and cons of Frederick Douglass as a representative of black experience in a historical romance novel. Black voters in the text are forced to choose between a Republican Party that has neglected them and a Democratic Party that has worked for their disenfranchisement and destruction; some characters stay loyal to the party of Lincoln, but others make a different choice. This rebellious spirit, defending the dignity and humanity of black persons, is presented as entirely compatible with patriotic fervor: we are not resisting the state, so much as we are attempting to improve it.

Additionally, we have our heroine's resistance to rigidly sexist gender roles as conceived by the inhabitants of Grayson's Grove. Vivid is an excellent doctor, well-trained and passionate, who saves numerous lives and spends her off hours reading case reports and compiling patient histories. (Even in the 19th century, most of good doctoring is paperwork.) In defense of herself and other women, Vivid speaks out against prejudiced locals, including our hero himself -- and all of them are demonstrably wrong for distrusting her abilities. Her resistance to the town's initial sexist skepticism guarantees her own happiness in her profession and new location, and it also ensures that Grayson's Grove has a trained and competent doctor for the first time in decades. It's both a personal triumph and a sign of social progress.

In fact, Grayson's Grove has a particular history of anti-sexist action by the women who live there, as Nate himself reveals to the reader:

The women owned many of the businesses, oftimes they voted as a bloc on Grove affairs, and generally they had their way when they wanted it. According to legend, during his grandfather's day the men once tried to rein in their wives. It resulted in a disaster so cataclysmic that even today Nate could not get any of the elder men to discuss what had transpired. The women won, that was all Nate and his contemporaries knew. (1328)

(Shades of Lysistrata again...)

Unfortunately, resistance is also especially virtuous in courtship relationships. Both Vivid and Destiny's Embrace present their heroes as generally irresistible: handsome, caring, moral  men who have dropped panties all over their respective landscapes. Destiny's Embrace is particularly explicit about this, and features this memorable line from the hero's internal monologue: "How dare she be immune to his charms. Did she not know his reputation with the ladies?" (3182). In my mind he was wearing a fedora for the rest of the book. Also from Destiny's Embrace: "'I believe you will be good for my son,' Mrs. Yates was saying. 'Other than myself, he's unaccustomed to a woman who'll stand her ground as you did today'" (1217). This was the point where the phonograph in my head began playing 'Gaston' on endless loop.

In both texts the heroine's unique resistance to the hero's sexual appeal makes her different and therefore more desirable than other women. Both books also feature secondary romance storylines involving an elderly female relative of the hero -- and these romances are even more adversarial than that of the main protagonists. Witness local curmudgeon Adam Crowley from Vivid, declaring his intentions toward the hero's Aunt Abigail: "If Nate can court a recalcitrant female, then so can I ... I'm putting you on notice. Before the snow falls, you and I are going to be man and wife" (3262). Note the absence of a question mark or any suggestion that Abigail is permitted to refuse this offer.

The result of such a dynamic is that real, earnest resistance to romantic overtures is erased or at best transformed into mere temporizing and game-playing. There is a passage in Destiny's Embrace when local jerk Silas Cook decides Mariah would make him a fine wife: "She [Mariah] did not have a good time. One, Silas Cook kept referring to her as 'sugar,' and two, when she told him she was flattered by his proposal but uninterested in becoming his next wife, he refused to take her seriously" (3682). Hero Logan's announcement later in the book that he and Mariah are courting only infuriates Silas -- and the target of is anger, naturally, is the heroine: "Don't you hello me, girl. You led me on" (4111). The only difference between his and Logan's pursuit of Mariah is that Mariah secretly desires Logan -- but her spoken interactions with the two men are nearly identical in many places. Throughout both texts, female characters will express resistance or refusal to sexual overtures, only to have everyone around them chuckle knowingly and wait until refusal magically becomes blissful acceptance. Such is the textual, sexual power of the romance hero.

Structurally, the patterns of these three layers of resistance -- political, social, and romantic -- serve to equate the position of men with the position of the state, giving the world of the text a patriarchal authority that may be softened, but never completely overthrown. Black citizens resist the state, but are still contained within it and subject to its racist laws. Women in Grayson's Grove are educated and outspoken, but still subject to the tyranny of male opinion and control. That great passage about the prior generation of intelligent, active women? Their victory is hollow, because nobody currently knows how they won or what they were fighting to get (besides the vague 'not reined in').  It's a little chilling to think that because the men won't talk about it, nobody knows what happened -- why, exactly, can they not ask the women themselves? Male silence on this matter erases the effects of female rebellion from oral history as well as from living memory.

And female resistance to romance slowly evaporates beneath the exertion of male desire. Female desire exists, but it is tempered by both Vivid's and Mariah's (highly fetishized) virginity, which renders their desires less than fully active. The hero's good looks and sexual prowess frequently overpower the heroine's physical and emotional reservations in ways that longtime romance readers will instantly recognize -- unspoken attraction leads to bickering, arguments end when characters begin making out, etc. But because the sexual arena in these books is very much a sphere of masculine authority -- the 'let me teach you how to sex' language is everywhere -- the result is that feminine speech and self-assertion are subtly but consistently undermined.

Witness this climactic moment from Vivid. Nate and Vivid have gotten engaged and Vivid's parents are on their way to town to celebrate. But another stranger arrives first -- some weeks earlier, Nate had secretly sent out a batch of letters seeking a replacement doctor. Specifically, a male doctor, who has now arrived and proven to be lecherous and arrogant and generally gross. Vivid is naturally furious at Nate's betrayal, breaks off the engagement, and storms out -- but in the midst of her fury, we get this: "She knew she'd eventually be calm enough to hear Nate's explanation, but damn him, she hadn't reached that state yet" (4160). He has brutally undermined her career and lied to her (if only through forgetfulness, though that wouldn't make me any less angry in her shoes) -- but she's already putting her own emotions aside, thinking outside herself and prioritizing Nate's perspective over her own -- all in less than a page after the reveal.

We have come a long way from the Vivid of the first few chapters, who fired a rifle at Nate's hat when he tried to walk away mid-argument. Despite all the book's description of women as formidable, as strong, as troublesome, as rebellious, the narrative arc shows a process of taming, muting, and restraint. (And don't get me started on the hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold character, really just don't.)

This brings us back to the Ann Leckie quote, about the importance of the tradition for the marginalized. Black Americans in 19th-century Michigan were heavily Othered, and thus may have more stake in mantaining (a typo, but I'm leaving it) the politics of respectability. The excellent Trudy from Gradient Lair explains it perfectly this post; I'm only borrowing the most relevant sentence for my analysis, but please feel encouraged to click through and read the whole thing.

During the post-Civil War era and early-mid 20th century, the politics of respectability was viewed as a source of power or galvanization of Black middle class society, and a way to combat White supremacist myths of automatic Black inferiority associated with poverty and degradation.

I think it's fairly safe to say that Nate's urge to make Grayson's Grove a successful, thriving community in a racist country definitely leads him into some oppressive, anti-feminist behavior. Female rebellion threatens Nate's ability to counter the social pressures of white supremacy: his intentions are noble. This is precisely why intersectionality as a field exists: because this need to combat anti-black racism, both in history and in Vivid, has as a frequent consequence the erasure of black women's identities and perspectives.

___

An interview with Beverly Jenkins was featured in the inaugural issue of the Journal of Popular Romance Studies.

The history of the romance genre is only starting to be written, and black romances in particular are often overlooked. For more reading, this past February RT Magazine posted a timeline of African-American romances. There is also this Multicultural Romance Roundtable from Love in the Margins.

P.S.: If anyone has read Jenkins' Night Hawk and has insights to share, please weigh in!

___

Jenkins, Beverly. Destiny's Embrace. New York, NY: HarperCollins, 2013. Ebook.

Jenkins, Beverly. Vivid. N.p.: Amazon Digital Services, 2013. Ebook.

The Ghosts of Christmas

Dickens' preface to A Christmas Carol famously describes it as a "Ghostly little book." Scrooge's journey is indeed full of ghosts -- the ghosts of memory, of imagined futures, of symbolic spirits and metaphors come to life. And death. Death is the hidden secret of A Christmas Carol, with all the attendant terror of the powerlessness and isolation of the grave. One ghostly vignette in particular is usually left out of stage and screen adaptations (even the otherwise perfect Muppet version):

The air was filled with phantoms, wandering hither and thither in restless haste, and moaning as they went. Every one of them wore chains like Marley's Ghost; some few (they might be guilty governments) were linked together; none were free. Many had been personally known to Scrooge in their lives. He had been quite familiar with one old ghost, in a white waistcoat, with a monstrous iron safe attached to its ankle, who cried piteously at being unable to assist a wretched woman with an infant, whom it saw below, upon a door-step. The misery with them all was, clearly, that they sought to interfere, for good, in human matters, and had lost the power for ever.

The book is remarkable for presenting many such scenes of tortured regret, but no corresponding images of Heaven. Do good people even have an afterlife in this cosmology? They seem to vanish from the world, never to be heard from again. Only the unhappy and the damned linger in the mortal sphere. A life well lived might bring eternal rest -- but good or bad, death inevitably brings a severance, isolation from warm hearths and loving hearts.

There are more than a few ghostly Christmases in my own past -- such as the one during my first year of college. My mom, sister and myself all came down with a particularly nasty flu, and my dad was in the middle of a lengthy recovery from a hernia surgery the month before. Later we would learn that his immune system was too busy fighting cancer to be able to heal other things, and it's hard not to let the memory of that news color what came before. I remember the four of us prostrate and miserable, variously nauseated or eating microwaveable pot stickers -- the only thing Mom could manage to cook before collapsing back on the couch with the rest of us. I've never quite forgiven pot stickers in all the time since.

A few years later, Christmas again turned ghostly when we lost both my great-grandmother and her youngest brother three days apart, one on either side of the holiday. An entire generation vanished in the blink of an eye. They'd been an enormous part of my entire life -- my grandma had poured me cup after cup of strong black tea, and let me climb all the trees in her yard-that-was-basically-a-farm, and made the most delicious applesauce you've ever tasted. My great-uncle was also the elementary school janitor who played St. Nicholas to all us Catholic schoolkids -- he made me my first hot buttered rum when I was (not quite) old enough to drink them, and was always in the most unfailingly generous humor. By the time this holiday was done, we were on first-name terms with the gentleman at the funeral home. We would see him again when my dad died a few years later.

And now this year came the news that my grandmother had cancer. A different, new cancer -- not the one she managed to fight off two years ago. This one is much worse, caught at a much later stage. She went into the hospital last Tuesday, certain that the doctors would have a treatment plan for her. I walked around for most of a week with fists clenched, absolutely spoiling for a fight. Then I drove down for a day to visit her along with with a broad coalition of family members, who are camping out in Portland the way they camped out in Seattle during my dad's final decline.

My grandmother passed away Friday afternoon.

This weird space of grief is starting to become familiar. I've visited enough times to know the landmarks and mileposts. I know that wine will help but Scotch will not, that watching Game of Thrones will be a solid distraction but watching Lilo and Stitch will leave me a sobbing, snot-daubed wreck. Time becomes an accordion, compressing and expanding unpredictably. Some hours fly by, while other minutes linger long past their usual welcome. I spent the entire trip to Portland and back listening to Welcome to Night Vale, because the eerie tone and portentous language seemed to acknowledge the weirdness and darkness in my own life.

Times like this we cling hardest to the stories that encompass what we're feeling. I keep thinking of the Ghost of Christmas Present -- the pleasant, hospitable, yet somehow fierce second spirit that Scrooge encounters. He's had "More than eighteen hundred" brothers, but he can't have met any of them -- they are born, live, and die in the space of a single night. (The way the Ghost fades away into sparkles in the Muppet version is particularly heartbreaking.) He is the embodiment of human warmth and holiday feeling, and he is terribly, tragically ephemeral. Mortal, even. What does it mean for a Ghost to die?

I think, insofar as I can think these days, that it's about memory. The Ghost of Christmas Present may not have met his brothers, but he remembers them. The Ghost of Christmas Past remembers everything. And one of the reasons death is so frightening is that it threatens us with forgetting. There's a shock that comes when you can't precisely recall the face of someone you've lost -- what was their nose shaped like? The precise color of their eyes? Photographs and home movies are not as much help as you'd think -- they are limited, incomplete. They don't so much fill the void as remind us that it exists.

We have to trust that the important things will still be remembered. The way someone laughed, or smiled. The gifts they gave -- and not just the ones wearing bows under a glittering tree. The inextinguishable light they brought into our lives. On these longest, darkest, coldest nights of the year, we night that light the most.

And we will remember, as best we can.

[Clickbait Headline About Romance Novels and Ladies]

[Introductory anecdote about the writer encountering a romance reader in public.] [The writer's shock at the chasm between the woman's successful, professional self-presentation and the assumed sexual, emotional content of her chosen reading matter. As though people are frequently to be found wearing bathrobes on the subway, or as though people deliberately choose dull and dry books to while away the minutes of their workday commute.]

[Paragraph that sneers at romance's anti-feminist nature but also refers to women as 'females.' Ignore the fact that to many this may make the writer sound like some kind of Ferengi.]

[Dismissal of entire romance genre using loaded words more commonly found in discussions that police people's choices about food: 'no nutritional value whatsoever,' for instance.]

[The paragraph where the writer took thirty seconds to Google some statistics on romance's popularity and profitability. Refer to these statistics as 'sobering,' as though romance's popularity is some kind of unspecified threat to an equally unspecified safety. Do not bother to actually analyze this data: it is merely there to be a surprising twist, not as a basis for any reconsideration of the writer's assumptions about romantic fiction.]

[Mention that romance readers and authors are on the cutting edge of the emerging digital readership. Present this fact without a trace of self-awareness or irony, even though the headline prominently describes romance novels as 'old-fashioned.']

[Sidebar with a romance novel cover image at least twenty years old, inevitably featuring Fabio.]

[Paragraph that acknowledges the existence of Harlequin Enterprises, as though this were a surprise and revelation.]

[Discussion of a single romance author, most often someone who either has long since stopped writing (Barbara Cartland, Kathleen Woodiwiss) or someone who does not describe their own books as romance (Danielle Steele). Ruthlessly reduce the life's work of this woman down to three sentences.]

[Referendum on feminism and its indifferent success, as measured by the daunting evidence of A) an anonymous Goodreads reviewer, and B) a cherry-picked quote from a Regency romance author about the 'courtesy' of men in Regency times, despite historical realities such as systemic racism, institutional sexism, insidious class-based prejudice, imperialist politics, and questionable hygiene.]

[If you have not already done so, please find a way to work in the phrase 'secret desires,' because we all know that women's desires are never straightforward, that women never say what they mean, that women are deceitful and sneaky and not to be trusted even about the minutiae of their own inconsequential lives.]

[Edit the piece to make sure your vocabulary is high-brow and literary enough: ilk, enamored, eschew.]

[Close with the inevitable Jane Austen or Charlotte Brontë comparison, because despite all the cited evidence above proving that romance readers are educated, successful, and frequent bookstore patrons, it is categorically impossible that they have read Austen or Brontë already]

If You Can't Say Anything Nice, Come Sit By Me

Let's get one thing straight: I am a natural critic. I doubt. I rethink. I overthink. I was practically born with a side-eye. I love Project Runway and feminist critique and Dorothy Parker's hatchet jobs. I am one of the many romance authors who started writing because they read something sub-par and thought: I can do better than that. I dissect stories I love and stories I loathe with equal abandon, and I continue to do so as an author because you can't learn how to fix your own work until you learn what broken looks like.

This does not mean I am a negative person, nor does it make me a cynic. Quite the opposite. I believe, right down to my toes, that a negative review can absolutely have positive effects.

An illustration. Some years back, I was reading a young adult novel. (This one, in fact.) I was thoroughly enjoying myself: the narrator was hilarious and slightly bitter and awkward and had an incongruous love of classic rock records. At one point in the book, quite as a throwaway, he mentions that the Doors are the worst band in history.

The Doors, of course, are one of the great rock legends of the psychedelic era. They still get radio play over half a century later. Val Kilmer played their (tragic, drugged-out, idolized) frontman in a movie once, and there was a recent documentary about them that was supposed to be pretty good. And yet ...

The Doors are the worst band in history.

... And yet I kind of hate them. "People are Strange" is pretty great. "Touch Me" can be fun. But "Hello, I Love You"? That is some deep-fried faux-romantic sleaze right there, the kind of song only douchebags get laid to, the lyrics drenched in the lurid musk of the creeper. I realized now I'd hated the Doors for years, in a furtive and guilty silence. I hadn't felt permitted to confess this, because the Doors were supposed to be great. Their popularity and influence were presented as an objective measure of their inherent artistic worth, and my own individual tastes and preferences were trivial considerations. Who the hell did I think I was, that I could hate the Doors?

The Doors are the worst band in history.

It was like a bell had sounded, deep in some part of me I hadn't dared to acknowledge. I was allowed to hate the Doors. I was allowed to say that I hate the Doors. I actually closed the book and hugged it, wrapped my arms right around it, letting that sense of relief and freedom and the pure pleasure of not being alone fill me up until, swear to God, I cried.

Critiques, snarky book reviews, live-tweets like the recent #NobodysBabyButMine hashtag -- all these have, over the years, given me that same sweet release. Knowing that I am not alone in rejecting alphahole heroes and humiliated heroines, or in finding a lot of what goes on in paranormal romance super-creepy. (Fated mates? UGH UGH UGH.) And I have given as well as received: I recall in my pre-author days, writing a frustrated and intensely disappointed Goodreads review of one highly anticipated romance. Right up until I deleted that account, every few days would bring a notification that some other Goodreads user had liked that review. Some of them even commented, chiming in with relief: Oh, I hated this one too! I'm so glad you wrote this! I am not alone. I am not crazy. I just did not like this particular book. 

That book, as it happened, was the first in a series, and the author has not only continued the series but won a Rita for one of the later installments. My embittered review did absolutely nothing to hurt her career -- and I wouldn't have wanted it to. I didn't swear when I saw her listed as a winner, I didn't rush to the blog to write a thousand words on why this was a miscarriage of justice. I didn't send her a copy of the review, either, or write to tell her personally how let down I was. No, I was busy reading something else, something I probably loved, while she was earning a ton of royalties on a popular series.

All that is pretty okay by me.

My review tendencies have changed a bit, now that I'm in the author end of the pool. If a new book by a debut author from a tiny press doesn't work for me, I'll usually let it pass in silence. Always punch up; never punch down. Luckily for me, I'm small potatoes, so there's plenty of room in the up direction and I can vent my spleen with the knowledge that I'm in no position to do damage. Plus, there's always the legions of passionate readers and critics, amateur and professional and academic alike, writing those witty, sharp, observant pieces that do my venting for me.

But perhaps you, fellow author, are big potatoes. Perhaps you are an author so well-known and established that I can refer to you by the three letters of your initials, or simply your first name, and people will know at once who I'm talking about. Perhaps you were a bit stung that someone from a much less rarefied position in the book world had expressed displeasure at one part of your life's work, and you expressed that hurt publicly. You have every right to do so -- speaking short, brutal truths is precisely what Twitter is for. 

But I'm not part of your sisterhood. I'm going to be over here, reading those snarky tweets and gleefully agreeing with them. Not because I'm jealous of success and need to see big names cast down -- but rather because I don't believe negative reactions automatically have negative effects. Because I believe the culture of positivity is often suffocating and silencing, and I have been silent longer than I'd like. If we allow ourselves only nice things to say, we shortchange ourselves, our readers, and our genre. If we don't talk about what books let us down, we're going to find it harder to talk about what books lift us up. Criticism is a muscle and it needs balanced exercise.

And the Doors are still the worst band in history.

The Fine Art of Literary Theft

I had an absolute blast this past weekend at the Emerald City Writers' Conference -- the friendliest conference you'll ever attend! For some reason, they let me have access to a microphone and a slide projector, so I was able to subject a room-semi-full of people to a presentation on genre tropes, mash-ups, and ethical artistic stealing. The slides are very pretty (thanks, Slidevana!), and some bits of it may in fact be intelligent as well! So I thought I might post it on Slideshare and on this here blog, for those who couldn't attend the conference in person. There's audio somewhere, and when that is available I'll see about posting that as well (or at least letting you know how to find it elsewhere).

{Edited to add this one single slide, as a reference link and teaser.}

Screen Shot 2013-11-05 at 1.43.10 PM

 

From Bennets to Billionaires: Some Thoughts on Writing Money in Romance

Money has been woven into the romance genre from the start. Take Pride and Prejudice, that classic foundational text. Sandwiched between the witty banter and the embarrassing family antics is a deep, urgent concern with money as a social stabilizer. Elizabeth Bennet's courage consists largely in rebelling against marriage for purely material concerns, even though marrying someone who will financially support her is basically Her Entire Job As A Gently Born Lady. Her refusal to settle for the first eligible offer of marriage (or the second, counting Darcy's jerk-proposal) is a big, big risk, despite the fact that it's never entirely clear how dire the Bennet's circumstances will be after Mr. Bennet's death: will they be starving in the streets? Or will they merely have to fire their two servants and do for themselves while living simply? Is it real poverty or only the kind of poverty that will make them a social embarrassment? Either way, Lizzie's insistence that her happiness is as vital as her family's social standing is a bold moment that changed the entire history of English literature, both popular and literary. Jane in Jane Eyre is similarly unmoved by money, despite being a virtually penniless orphan -- what she values in Rochester is his grumpy brilliance, that mercurial charm that makes him both unlikeable and fascinating. He tries to shower her with gifts, and she refuses them. She later inherits a fortune from a distant relative and promptly gives away as much of it as she can. Miss Eyre is definitely more self-sacrificing than Elizabeth Bennet, but both heroines are in the same moral register where personal satisfaction is a higher good than mercenary material gain.

In a recent conversation on Twitter, the incisive Miranda Neville mentioned that historicals are "all about money" (partial feed here). Certainly there are countless historicals following the Austen/Brontë format, with poor or lower gentry heroines being wooed by lavishly wealthy aristocrats (and the occasional lavishly wealthy tradesman or criminal). One of the things I loved about Julie Anne Long's Like No Other Lover was its upending of this trope: the heroine explicitly planned on using her good looks to snag a rich husband, because she had a few shillings in her purse and that was about it. (This situation was scary and refreshing, though it's true the book has some flaws.) But rarities aside, it's abundantly clear that in Romancelandia, the scales of finance are more often weighted in the hero's favor.

Sex and the Single Man in Possession of a Large Fortune

But it isn't just historicals that are all about money. Think of the new appetite for billionaire hero romances, from Christian Grey to Gideon Cross to all the BDSM billionaire knockoffs I don't have the patience to list here. They're not only kinkier than the classic Harlequin lamp-jawed CEO, but they're wealthier too.

And the trait the heroines of these billionaire BDSM books share with both Lizzie Bennet and Jane Eyre: they're not only sexually virginal, they're financially virginal as well.

Heroes are endowed with licentious pasts and taboo sexual tastes. Heroines -- well, not so much, at least not outside of erotic romance, and even there there's a pretty strong let this sexy dude instruct you in the sexy ways of sex vibe. (Full disclosure: I've written one of those myself, so I'm not entirely immune to their appeal.) But it seems like heroes are also permitted to be rich, to bask in the trappings of wealth: penthouse apartments, fine furniture, expensive and tailored clothes, wine, food, private helicopters. Heroines -- again, not so much. One of the consequences of the Lizzie/Jane Eyre tradition is that it's pretty much a moral imperative in the genre that Heroines Do Not Care About Money. Chick-lit strongly rebelled against this for a while, before collapsing under the weight of all those shoe descriptions. Aside from Nora in Tiffany Reisz's The Siren, I'm hard-pressed to think of a wealthy heroine who really enjoys being wealthy. (Eva from Bared to You -- which I have not read -- may be an exception as well. Feel free to weigh in in the comments.)

The giant elephant in this post is, of course, prostitution. Lizzie Bennet and Jane Eyre exist in the context not only of mercenary marriage, but in the context of an unspoken underclass of women who have sex for pay (whether of their own volition or or coercion because it was the only economic option does not matter here). As a result, women and money existed in an uneasy relationship -- the rules of behavior for ladies exist in large part as a way of distinguishing between respectable women and whores. Centuries of social and legal activism have opened up women's financial horizons -- here in the States we can own property and hold jobs and earn wages now, even if those wages still aren't equal to men's on average -- but in romance it still comes across as unseemly if a heroine thinks too much about money. Even if it's her own money she's throwing around. Even if she's worried about how to feed her kids or pay her rent or keep her business from going under. The billionaire romance's happy ending is not that the heroine now has access to money, it's that the heroine never has to think about money again, because Thinking About Money Is Bad.

So we get this weird double standard that exists across multiple books and even multiple subgenres. For every city girl who finds love in a small town and gives up the urban flash and glamor, we have a bespoke-suited billionaire in a shiny penthouse who gets to keep all his fancy things when he finds true love. In the first story, the heroine comes down to the hero's financial level (how often have you read small-town heroes who can't bring themselves to depend on the heroine's money because of pride? A LOT); in the second, the hero raises up the heroine to upper-class status, though of course she doesn't really care about such things, oh no, not the silk dresses or the satin handcuffs or the of-course-we-can-pay-for-it trip to the emergency room from all those adorably klutzy accidents. In Jane Eyre, at least it was Rochester who fell down when he and Jane first met.

Contemporary heroines in billionaire romances are expected to prove -- to readers as well as to the hero -- that they are not that dreaded monster, the gold-digger. (Cue Kanye West earworm in 3 ... 2 ... 1 ...) One way authors do this is by showing that the heroine is uncomfortable around the trappings of money. Heroines refuse expensive jewelry and fancy dresses, they stand in awe of the gleaming marble in penthouse foyers, and so on. Some of this no doubt is meant to play to reader fantasy -- since most romance readers are not billionaires, the theory goes that they may relate more to a heroine who's equally at sea in the world of high finance, while still getting a vicarious thrill from all the niceties. Wealth in fiction is a fantasy with a lot of appeal, to be sure -- but I think it's telling that we so rarely write the working-class hero, gaping at the rich heroine's foyer. (You ever have one of those days where everything sounds vaguely dirty? Gaping at the heroine's foyer, hur hur hur.)

Sometimes the power differential is so skewed as to make me uncomfortable -- a big reason why I haven't tried to pick up 50 Shades or any of its imitators. If total dependency upon a hero is really the fantasy you're after, we're never going to like the same books. But you've got plenty of yours already, so let's even the scales. Let's see more billionaire heroines with kinky tastes corrupting innocent young workingmen, please. (Cough cough The Siren cough.) Let's write a heroine who's hard up for money and when a rich dude she's got the hots for offers to take her to a fancy dinner, she says Hell yes and orders all the wine because he won't miss the money, she can't afford to treat herself and hell, she's going to boink his brains out anyway so the wine is just a bonus. Let's write heroines who don't care about the billionaire hero's money because they already have plenty of their own. Let's close the romance wage gap.

Because if we can't even bring ourselves to do that in the fictional worlds we create, how can we hope to effect that change in our real lives? If romance is fantasy and escape, why does that fantasy always take such a conservative form? Where are the romances for women who fantasize not about bagging the billionaire, but about being one?

{In closing: this particular author is nowhere near being a billionaire. If you'd like to do your bit to change that, please consider visiting my books page to purchase one of my fine stories, available in many convenient digital formats.}

'As if money was a substitute for fair play': feminist subtext in The Governess Affair

After the Vicki Essex review and the feminist heroine fiasco, I've been feeling like many of my latest posts have come down on the negative side of the critical spectrum. To balance things out, I kept an eye out for positive examples of romances with feminist leanings -- and now I'm thrilled to say that Courtney Milan's The Governess Affair has a strongly feminist subtext based around power, money, consent, and women's autonomy. {Be ye warned: spoilers abound. Also, at present the novella is free on Amazon, so I'd run right out and grab it if I were you.}

Cover for Courtney Milan's The Governess Affair: a light-skinned woman with dark hair wears a long gold gown. She has her back to the viewer, and is turning to look at the viewer over her right shoulder.

The book opens with a description of two men, one of them a duke, and the other, our hero:

An untutored observer would focus on the Duke of Clermont, apparently in full command ... his patrician features were sharp and aristocratic. Compared with Hugo's own unprepossessing expression and sandy brown hair, the untutored observer would have concluded that the duke was in charge.

The untutored observer, Hugo thought, was an idiot. (2-3)

Less than a page in, the visible marks of patriarchal power—expensive clothing, "patrician features"—are irrevocably undermined. Hugo isn't a servant. He's a former boxer who is now something of an enforcer, working to eliminate the duke's many debts. If he succeeds before a given date, he will be rewarded with enough money to launch his own business empire. He successfully helped the duke marry an heiress, but the new duchess' father was canny enough to put her fortune in trust, to be doled out on a regular schedule—provided, of course, that the duke does not do anything to irritate his new bride.

This is worth unraveling further. The 'official' channels of social power—a husband's authority over his wife and her property, a master's authority over his hired hand, and an aristocrat's authority over a coal miner's son—are subverted by the ebb and flow of money. The legal actions of the duke's father-in-law do much to thwart the duke's own exercise of power, proving that emotional ties and competing agendas can complicate what should be straightforward hierarchies. As Hugo observes soon after: "A duke should have known how to take charge. But no; Clermont was so used to having others bow before his title that he'd never learned to command by force of personality" (5). I love how this reverses the usual romance trope where a titled hero is so used to getting his own way that he becomes autocratic or commanding or a force of nature. Privilege, in Courtney Milan's text, means never having to work to exert one's will upon the world.

Our hero Hugo, of course, has to work very hard to do the same thing. His past as a boxer means he has more than common physical power, of course, but his past as an abused son of a battered mother makes him wary of the uses of physical force, particularly against those less powerful than himself. His low-class birth and shady employment further exclude him from the halls of official authority—from government as well as from society. The solution he seeks is wealth, "his own empire" (7), which will allow him to exist comfortably outside the channels of official power. Money is, in the aristocratic system, unofficial power.

Again, at this point we're still about seven pages into this novella.

Enter our heroine.

Or rather, say that she is revealed to be our heroine. She first appeared on page three, in a bit of description where the duke was looking at her and grinding his teeth. She wears a hat with a "thin pink ribbon." She appeared again, "a smudge of pink for her lips," on page seven. And she gets finally introduced in the least impressive manner possible: "'You see,' Clermont muttered, 'there was this governess … that's her, now. Waiting. Demanding compensation from me" (8). Our heroine wants money too.

Actually, she wants a great deal more than money. Unlike Hugo, who sees money as some kind of proof that he's transcended the legacy of his abusive father, Serena Barton wants the things money can bring her rather than money for its own sake. She wants to buy a lavender farm to ensure her financial independence, and she wants a guarantee that the duke will pay for the future education of his unborn son (or a Season for his daughter, if the child is a girl).

Serena Barton, you see, is a survivor of sexual assault. She is also pregnant with the duke's illegitimate child.

I've seen plenty of rapes in romance, whether by the hero or by the villain. I've even seen some heroines get pregnant after being raped by the hero, in a few romances of the 'sweeping generational epic' type. And there's the heroine in Loretta Chase's Not Quite a Lady, who has a bastard child with a deceased rake.

The duke is clearly, unambiguously not the hero.

And yet our heroine is carrying his child.

This is textual violence as well as sexual violence. Babies tend to be almost magical in romance. They embody hope, happiness, love, and the future. Secret babies bring long-estranged lovers together. Children's troubles are often the inciting incident to reunite formerly feuding spouses and exes. Barren heroines are mystically un-barrenated by True Love in cherubic baby-filled epilogues. If a couple has One Night of Passion, the chances of baby go through the roof. (Does nobody understand how condoms function?) But this particular baby is an accident, an unfortunate consequence of a traumatic experience. This is not a baby born to solve its parents' problems. In another romance, an author would let her heroine wonder if she could possibly love a child born from such a cicumstances. Serena Barton, however, seems to have simply accepted this baby as hers to protect—not out of defiance, but as a matter of simple responsibility. It's very quietly powerful.

Virginity, too, is fetishized in romance, and Serena Barton was a virgin until Clermont came along. But Serena Barton does not spend a lot of time mourning her lost innocence. In a romance so concerned with money, it would have been easy to depict the heroine's rape as a robbery, in the commodity model of sexual relationships. Especially since it also cost her her governess' wages. But this is not what Courtney Milan does. Yes, Serena is traumatized by her rape—she has nightmares, she gets triggered (though she doesn't of course use the term), and she has been fired from her position as a result of her pregnancy. She fears being silenced, she wonders if she should have fought back harder, if there was something she could have done to protect herself—all very standard responses for victims of sexual violence. But while her rape has affected her, it has not taken something from her femininity, and this is hugely important in feminist terms.

Serena Barton has no money, no character, no prospects, no power. But she still has agency: "I am done with things happening to me. From here on out, am going to happen to things." (38)

Reader, I admit that I flat-out cheered.

And this is the moment when Serena first begins her assault on Hugo's bleak and tender heart. Though she doesn't realize it at the time.

Because Hugo is sensitive to the workings of power, and one of the other visible marks of official power is that it allows men like Clermont to succeed in abusing women like Serena. "I'm a duke," he says in the first chapter. "I have no need to force women." (10) Astute readers will notice that this is not the same as saying I did not force that woman. And it's true he did not use physical force—but then, he didn't have to. "He promised not to wake the household" (98) Serena explains later. His wealth, his title, and his gender all allow him access to unpunished violence. The duke is not a moustache-twirler in the classic romance tradition—unlike, say, my own heinous and much-beloved Lord Wart—he's an average man, with average appetites, and the unshakeable conviction that he is entitled to satisfy those appetites no matter what it costs anyone else. "I was so bored, and she was the closest thing to a woman around. What would it hurt?" (171)

As a governess, Serena has no official recourse against abuse and violence. All the duke has to do is tell her to be quiet, once during the rape, and once when she takes up her vigil on the bench outside his home: "She'd been cut deep by her own silence, cut to the point of shame … Silence could cut both ways—for instance, when one failed to repudiate rumors that might cause damage. She wished Clermont much joy of her silence." (17-18) Privilege thrives on being unseen, so Serena makes her silence conspicuously visible: "What do you suppose the gossip will run to once I begin to show?" (109)

Hugo, whose instincts for abuse are finely honed, sees through the duke's feeble lies about the rape; he even sees through Serena's insistence that she was not forced under the legal definition of the term: "Somehow, what had happened seemed even worse than physical violence—as if Clermont had taken not only his pleasure and her future, but had robbed her of the right to believe herself blameless." (99) Note that the robbery metaphor here pertains to Serena's sense of herself, not to her status as a virgin. It is the damage to Serena-as-a-person that matters in this text, not the damage to Serena-as-a-sexual-object. Her virginity is barely even established as having been taken—a brief mention of blood on the sheets when it wasn't her time of the month—but the results to her security, happiness, and peace of mind are thoroughly explored.

Hugo, unlike Clermont and unlike many other romance heroes, is very very good with boundaries. A list:

  • When he first suspects Serena has been raped, he sets a twig on the bench between them, declaring his intention of treating it as a wall. He does not move the twig; Serena does, at the end of the scene.
  • He tries to take her glove off to warm her hands, chilled from standing all day in a downpour. When she flinches at the touch, he stops, lets go, apologizes, and asks if she can take her own gloves off. When she can't manage it with stiff fingers, he asks her permission again before gently removing the gloves, not touching her any more than he has to, not turning it into a caress or a seduction. (Since I love Lord of Scoundrels, I read this as a clear callback to the famous glove scene between Dain and Jessica.) If she'd refused, he would not have touched her, even though it meant she continued to shiver and drip in the rain. He would not have manhandled her "for her own good," as so many heroes are wont to do.
  • In the scene where they finally consummate the relationship, he turns it into a game, with hairpins as tokens, and pre-arranged rules. The rules apply to him, not to Serena: "You can make me touch you," he says. "I can only make you touch yourself." (132) He deliberately gives her more power. She is explicitly the one in charge of this encounter. He never loses control and breaks the rules he's set, never pushes her, even after they both forget about the pins.
  • When Serena mentions how clever the games with the twig and the hairpins, he explains that things like this were how his mother dealt with the reality her own abuse. Hugo's mother is not shown to be a passive victim—she has coping strategies, mental tricks to avoid being dragged down by hopelessness, which she has passed on to her son. The fact that she was killed by her abuser is a tragedy, but it does not dehumanize her in the text or in Hugo's eyes.

Hugo, despite his declarations of ruthlessness and his nickname (the Wolf of Clermont), is incapable of true cruelty. Serena notices this, recognizes his value and strength, and makes her decision. I'm going to quote at length:

She'd thought of the Wolf of Clermont as the duke's tool, his thing. Yet Mr. Marshall was sitting in the rain feeding her sandwiches. Maybe this was some twisted, diabolical strategy on his part. It seemed unlikely. It would have made more sense to keep her cold and hungry.

Her heart beat hard, half fear, half excitement. This was the man who, if the gossip papers had it right, had brought Clermont's estates back from the verge of imminent doom. The duke relied on him for everything. Without him, Clermont was nothing.

She could steal him away. (62-63)

To clarify: she's initially looking to use Hugo, but this quickly changes: "She wanted to steal him away—not to deprive Clermont of his use, but to have him for herself." (91)

This is precisely what she does.

It's a beautifully inexorable plot. One step at a time, Hugo becomes Serena's. She mentally declares him hers at precisely the midpoint of the novel—in the same scene where she agrees to marry him in name only, for the legitimacy of her unborn child. In the same scene she ends with this thought: "He was fooling himself if he thought she would settle for a half-marriage. She'd vowed to win him from Clermont. She'd be damned if she stopped with less than full victory." (116) I kept expecting it to fall apart; I kept expecting she would have to humble herself, or change, or compromise what she wants in some way.

Instead, she gets married, gets one night with Hugo—on her insistence—and gets her lavender farm. After she leaves for the country, the reader stays with Hugo, watching him suffer (in the best romance-y sense of the term). He writes her letters; she writes back with wit, and warmth, and friendship, and a few delightfully prosy innuendoes. He watches the money come rolling in, and can't think why he used to feel it was so important. Unofficial power is still power, which is not the same as love. It's not the same thing as trust, even. The duke returns, having reconciled with the duchess, and asks Hugo what to buy first with all this lovely, lovely money.

Hugo punches him right in the stomach. And does it again, once the duke has admitted to the rape. Physical violence finally has an appropriate use and an appropriate target. Hugo then blackmails the duke into handing over everything Serena wanted, both funds for the child's education and a written confession of what he's done.

And then Hugo shows this confession to the duchess, saying: "I think you've lied to quite enough women." (173) It's not a prosecution, not really justice. Justice is impossible under the laws of the time. But Hugo, through the duchess, can change the balance of unofficial power—money—in such a way as to be a punishment. (A punishment the duke can't really openly discuss, either, echoing Serena's position that silence is a weapon.)

Then—only after Serena has everything else she's wanted—Hugo goes to the lavender farm and tells her he loves her. This is what he says next: "I want to be somebody. Let me be your husband. Let me be the father of your child—of all your children." (177)

I couldn't believe that passage was real the first time I read it. A romance hero was defining himself in relation to the heroine, rather than the other way around. Possessing and stealing and claiming and owning tend to be the domains of the hero, not the heroine—but here, Hugo is the one being claimed. He even—I can't believe this, either—he even asks permission to be claimed: Let me be yours. This ending is not papered over with gender essentialism; it's not the you woman have taught me to love and open my manly heart to your nurturing feminine ways trope. It's not about power, because Hugo and Serena have always related to one another as equals, even when they were on opposite sides. There's no magical shower of money gilding this particular lily. It's just sweet, and human, and utterly romantic. (Side note: there's something intensely poetic about the idea of a lavender farm—why hasn't this come up before? It's ready-made for romance heroines.)

In sum, this ending? It's fucking revolutionary.

I'll stop before this post hits the 3k mark. I know I've practically written a novella analyzing Courtney Milan's novella. But strongly feminist romances are still rare and remarkable, and this was not only a strong feminist book, it was a strong book. I can't wait to get started on The Duchess War.

{You can find digital copies of The Governess Affair at Amazon, ARe, and Third Place Books. It's also a finalist in this year's DABWAHA, if you feel like a bookish brawl.}

Cover Reveal for Color Me Bad!

Today I'm thrilled to reveal the cover for my upcoming historical erotic romance, Color Me Bad, coming soon from Ellora's Cave! Folks, it's so, so pretty.

Cover image for Color Me Bad. A red-haired woman with pale skin and an innocent expression is wrapped in a swath of pink fabric, her hands held daintily up to her chin. Behind her are stacks of paintings, in various stages of completion.
The blurb:
It has been ten years since Hecuba Jones last burgled her way into a darkened house, but it's the only way to recover her rightful inheritance from her artist mother. She manages to find the Earl of Underwood's study and the four paintings she's searching for—but just when she is about to make off with her prizes, she is discovered by the earl's sardonic younger brother.
 
John Rushmore has all but given up on his talents as a painter, unable to recapture the passion of earlier days. He is pleased to have his boredom lightened by the appearance of a redheaded thief—and even more delighted to be introduced to her the following night in an elegant Society ballroom. Miss Hecuba Jones is prickly and suspicious and absolutely irresistible. She's also an inspiration. Before long John finds himself working deep into the night to try and capture the feverish, erotic visions she provokes.
 
Soon, they reach an agreement. John will trade the four paintings she attempted to steal for four portraits of Hecuba herself. Intimate nights and candlelight soon transform artistic pleasures into physical ecstasy—but old family secrets and a blossoming scandal threaten to shatter their fragile liaison.
I'll trumpet the release date as soon as it's announced, but in the meantime, feel free to catch up on my backlist!

How Do You Read a Clinch Cover?

Recently the glorious Sequential Crush posted a link to Scott Edelman's thoughtful reflection on the differences between romance comics covers and romance novel covers. He points out that he's never noticed this variation before -- that makes two of us, to my chagrin -- and then he says something about clinch covers that surprised me:

They depict (or seem to anyway, since we have no idea what the characters are really thinking) people in love. And more than just in love, happy in that love. What you’re seeing is the aspirational goal of a romance—its, yes, “happily ever after” loving conclusion.

And I realized there is another disconnect here: Scott Edelman assumes that a clinch cover depicts the happily ever after.

Cover for Sandra Hill's Frankly, My Dear. A tan-skinned shirtless man with dark hair holds a tan-skinned, dark-haired woman in a yellow historical gown. Red background. The cover pose references the famous movie poster for Gone with the Wind.It has never occurred to me that clinch covers were meant to be happy. Angsty, of course -- impassioned, sure. But happy? Never. For one thing, as Smart Bitches loves to point out, there is a distinct tendency for the couple to look constipated. Or sleepy. But I always interpreted the clinch as the moment where the hero and heroine have recognized that Doin' It Is A Bad Idea, but have decided that We Just Can't Help Ourselves. (Leaving aside questions of ravishment and forced seduction, which were definitely operating in many an Old Skool clinch cover. I'm looking at you, Kathleen Woodiwiss -- though most of your clinches were stamp-sized mini-clinches glued on top of a misty landscape, for some reason.) Clinch cover from Victoria Alexander's The Emperor's New Clothes. A pale-skinned blond man with a blue neckerchief half-wears a lighter blue button-up shirt while standing hip-deep in a pool of water. His arm is wound around the waist of a pale-skinned, red-haired woman in a damp white chemise with her hand on her hip, looking tempestuous. This view of the clinch might explain the Mysterious Wind, which will often be tugging the hero and heroine's flowing locks in opposite directions at the same time. They're caught, you see, in a literal storm of passion -- they lean toward each other even as the wind swirls around, about to tear them apart. The clinch is danger -- the love is under threat -- separation and destruction are looming.

Then again, this is all my own interpretation. I went through my collection, looking for clinch covers that showed scenes from the actual text, and came up empty-handed. (Curse my tendency to cull my shelves every other year!) The closest was the Victoria Alexander cover above, which is from a book I found recently at a library sale and haven't had a chance to actually read yet. But judging from the title and the synopsis on the back (mistaken identities, actresses in the Wild West, and untrustworthy ladeez), I'm going to go out on a limb and say that the scene on the cover is almost certainly not the happy ever after.

I don't have a conclusion here. I'm just kind of fascinated. Thoughts, o Reader?

 

A Small Post About Bitches and Mothers in Romance

It's thanks to Liz at Something More that I read Vicki Essex's Back to the Good Fortune Diner for her blog-book-party-thing-of-awesome. This was a tough read for me: the bits I loved I really, really loved, and the bits I disliked were enraging. My main problems were with the story's resolution, as elegantly discussed in this review by Sunita at Dear Author, but I'd like to talk about one specific point that really stood out for me. Spoilers (and curse words) will absolutely abound. Let's talk about the word 'bitch' for a moment. It's got a nice, cozy ring when you're hanging out on Smart Bitches, Trashy Books, and I could refer to myself as a member of the Bitchery without batting an eye. But context is key, and a playful self-application of the term is worlds away from the use of it as a specifically gendered slur.

Bitch appears eight times in Back to the Good Fortune Diner, which seems staggeringly high to me. Those eight instances break down like so:

  • number of times super-racist dad refers to himself as "a son of a bitch": 1
  • number of times Tiffany refers to Chris' ex-wife as a bitch: 1
  • number of times someone calls Tiffany a bitch to her face: 2
  • number of times Tiffany refers to herself as a bitch in conversation: 1
  • number of times Tiffany thinks of herself as a bitch: 3—and never in the fun way

It's not only the appearance of the word itself, of course, but the adjectives that appear and modify it, which are: selfish, superior, petty, and heartless. It's a little mini-masterclass in convincing a woman that her needs and her dreams are wrong. And it lights up one aspect of the novel that I always hate to see in a romance with a kid character: the sins of the mother are visited upon the heroine.

Chris' ex-wife Daphne was a cartoonishly terrible mother. When Tiffany and Chris begin 'dating'—if by 'dating' you mean 'banging whenever they get the chance instead of actually talking to one another once or twice'—all those unfulfilled maternal expectations are dumped right onto Tiffany's shoulders. This is why it's "selfish" of her to not want a permanent relationship with Chris, or to want a job or a place in the city. Actual quote about Simon and Tiffany's decision to move: "How could you do that to him? Don't you know what his mother's like?"

That isn't a relationship: it's a hostage situation.

Are the Jamieson men made of glass, I ask you, that one summer fling can destroy them so completely?

And it's somewhat galling that it's Tiffany who has to apologize at the climax for "playing house." As though paying any kind attention to a struggling kid automatically means you now have all the obligations of his absent mother. As though this kid does not already have two parents in the form of his dad and grandfather—whose arguments hurt Simon far more than anything Tiffany ever does to him.

I would not have been so angry at all this if I hadn't gotten sucked in by the writing to begin with. The way that the cultural issues were dealt with was compelling and nuanced and something we could use a lot more of in romance. Chris and Tiffany felt completely, utterly real to me. Their isolation was physically painful to read about. Their problems were important and not easily solved. I wanted to see them reap the rewards of their hard work, to get rid of old habits that weren't serving them well, and to forge a new life free from the expectations and obligations that had held both of them back for so many years.

Instead, it felt like Chris got what he wanted, and Tiffany got trapped. I could swear at one point the author was planning to find her a job in the cute little town bookstore/bakery, where she could use her book industry knowledge and maybe publish a hip short fiction and poetry zine with material by local authors. Seriously, how cool would that have been? Or her painting—remember her painting? The talent she won awards for, the canvases left in her abandoned apartment (which forced me to assume she'd been kicked out for not paying rent, which means it is even more imperative that she get a job and earn some money and get her stuff back and keep the collections people off her back). Tiffany's artistic skill was a bright, interesting narrative thread—and one that undermined the bookish Asian schoolgirl stereotype rather nicely—but it vanished as soon as Tiffany and Chris hooked up. As soon as that happens, Chris slots Tiffany into a spot in his head labeled "not-Daphne," and everything specific about her and her situation becomes an obstacle to Chris and Simon's happy ending.

I really wish Tiffany had gotten a happy ending of her own.

Classification: The Bad Boy and the Abuser

Per last week's lengthy post on domestic violence and romance, author Foz Meadows has a truly excellent post up on the Book Smugglers site that deals with the fine line between heroes who are Bad Boys (TM) and heroes who are just plain abusive. Here's the bit that made me sit straight up and cheer:

The classic bad boy – the rebel – is defiant, confident, anarchic; a counteragent to the conformity, he breaks rules, laws and established social mores alike, both on principle and for the joy of it. Such danger as he poses to women is neither physical nor emotional (or at least, not emotionally toxic), but rather inherent in his ability to make them aware of their own sexuality in settings that would otherwise repress it, and to make them rebel in settings where modesty, obedience and chastity are heavily gendered virtues. Which isn’t to say that women take no risks in pursuing a classic bad boy: they might get their hearts broken, or encounter more dangerous situations than usual by dint of stepping beyond the safety of the familiar – and certainly, they risk their reputations. But they’re not exposed to possessive, violent jealousy; they’re not stalked, controlled or threatened.

...

No bad boy is a perfect saint: that’s key to their appeal. But whereas the classic bad boy allows women to escape from patriarchal control, new bad boys – abusers – reinforce it. Where rebels are too cool to show they care and so appear jaded or standoffish, abusers both show and mask their love through manipulation, stalking, aggression, threats and belittlement. And at some point in the not-too-distant past, the cultural default seems to have switched from the former to the latter.

It's a great piece. Read the whole thing!

Thirteen Thoughts upon Seeing This 50 Shades of Grey-Inspired Domestic Abuse PSA

{Trigger warnings for domestic abuse and rape, though nothing is explicitly described.} Found, via Canada and Tumblr:

Parody of the infamous cover of 50 Shades of Grey: a close-up photo of a noose in black-and-white, with side text listing the red flags that mark an abusive relationship.

1. I have never been in an abusive relationship, so I cannot speak to that experience. Nor have I read 50 Shades. Mostly this is because the narrative voice doesn't appeal to me. Though, like Twilight, I have read many excerpted passages and follow the criticism closely. I wouldn't enjoy the book, but I'm fascinated by the meta-conversation that surrounds it.

2. But even from an outsider's perspective, Christian Grey is definitely on the extreme asshole side of the alpha hero spectrum. He's controlling, physically aggressive, and completely focused on the primacy of his own desires and decisions. By these objective standards, Christian Grey is a horrible, horrible person.

3. Christian Grey, of course, is not a person. He's a fictional character, a composite of Twilight's Edward Cullen and the stereotypical dominant alpha hero. He was created by a woman, E. L. James.

4. I make the point about Christian Grey being fictional because I am highly resistant to the way that women's reading matter must be instructive, safe, and 'healthy' while men's reading matter gets a critical pass. Women's reading is used as a moral gauge; the PSA above comes close to saying that reading 50 Shades is equivalent to being in an abusive relationship. I find the elision of real life and escapist fiction a suspicious rhetorical move, generally.

5. To point out a contrasting case, and because this piece was heavily inspired by it, there is this Rejectionist meditation on Lisbeth Salander, which lays out the ways in which the tenor of Steig Larsson's books is problematic. Lisbeth Salander, of course, is a female abuse victim created by a male author. She often takes illegal or violent revenge on her abusers, including her own father.

6. I did read the first two Larsson books. I kept waiting to get to the enjoyable parts. I thought if I just waded through one more lengthy, graphic rape/murder scene I would get to the parts that were wonderful, that made people recommend this book and put it on bestseller lists around the world. But the good parts didn't seem to exist -- the best I found were scenes that didn't make me flinch as much as the others did.

7. Actually, that does sound like the pattern of an abusive relationship.

8. There are in fact some pretty specific ways that Christian Grey and Lisbeth Salander are similar: both are victims of abuse, both are kinky, both are emotionally broken and yet irresistibly attractive to others. But Salander gets held up as an aspirational fantasy -- all the vengeance, I suppose -- while Christian Grey's popularity is considered a symptom of women readers' questionable taste/morals/self-esteem. Consider the opening line of this RAINN article: "The film adaptation of Stieg Larsson's novel The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo illustrates the real life effects of sexual violence on victims and survivors, emphasizing the importance of getting help." I'm not convinced that Lisbeth Salander's transformation into a punk bisexual hacker vigilante is a more realistic portrayal of the 'effects of sexual violence' than Christian Grey's broken notions of BDSM and consent. I'd also like to know at what point Lisbeth Salander gets help -- unless by 'help' you mean 'boob job,' because I remember that part quite well.

9. Christian Grey's story, to put it mildly, romanticizes controlling behavior and lack of respect for boundaries. It is a dangerous narrative to idealize, that I admit. So is Lisbeth Salander's. But only Christian Grey's threatening nature is projected back at the readers: Don't like this book! Don't enjoy this story! It's bad for you! 

10. I'm not the only one who's found Larsson's work troubling. Tom Matlack raises similar questions at this link and Missy Schwartz at this one. But notice how both those articles also point out Larsson's self-professed feminism and give his literary intentions the benefit of the doubt. I don't think it's a coincidence that the male-fantasy book gets this consideration while the female-fantasy book does not.

11. It's also worth bringing up the self-congratulation and weird voyeuristic tone of this post from 50shadesisdomesticabuse.webs.com. The author describes the decadent, druggy, sexually permissive atmosphere of London, the libidinous exploits of his fellow teachers, and then mentions his own two teenage daughters are 'pretty.' But he doesn't talk all that much about what, specifically, he finds objectionable and abusive in 50 Shades -- he mentions Ana being tied up and fucked in the ass, but he seems to be equating BDSM, hookup culture, and domestic abuse in a way that muddles more than it clarifies. The post ends with this startling thought: "I sincerely hope that the legacy of this trilogy is just in the volume of book sales, and not in a case of someone meeting an untimely end as a result of what it seems to make acceptable." The line between what women read and what women do in real life is apparently a straight shot from A to B. (Notice, also, how the presence and behavior of the abuser -- the murderer, in this case -- is conveniently dodged. Women do not 'get themselves abused' any more than they 'get themselves raped.')

11. I excerpt that last post because much of the backlash to 50 Shades -- as with Twilight -- is simply snake-in-the-grass misogyny or concern trolling masquerading as literary critiques. Nor do I want to find myself aligned with or even linking to Kate Roiphe's assertion that 50 Shades is popular because all women secretly want to submit to men. (Hell, some women don't even want to sleep with men! Imagine that!) Sometimes it's hard to separate valid criticism of harmful narratives from the kind of large-scale social policing that values men's voices over women's, in genre fiction as well as other media. (Side point: the same questionable consent issues and aggressive male dominance that people find so troubling in E. L. James' story are everywhere in heterosexual porn created for the male viewer. Porn that is created using real-life people rather than words on a page.) I feel it's important to point out that we (meaning the romance community) have struggled with alphahole heroes and consent in romance for a good many decades now. As this thorough post from Smart Bitches, Trashy Books points out, 50 Shades is somehow transformative without being really innovative. Many feminist romance readers and authors -- oh yes, there's lots of us! -- are concerned that 50 Shades' popularity will lead to a resurgence of some of the Old Skool tropes we've tried to move away from. Not because alphahole heroes dissolve our precious lady-brains, but because we have higher standards for heroines as agents in their own lives, and abusive behavior on the hero's part means that we will find the hero and heroine's romance less plausible. We often bring real-life standards to our romance, rather than the other way around. (Side note: there have been some excellent conversations about the history of rape in romance, which is one of the thornier subjects in the industry -- this piece by Laura Vivanco is a great starting point if you're new to this particular topic).

12. In sum, it's complicated being both a feminist and an erotic romance author. I want to object to the implication that women are sponges who soak up all harmful messages uncritically, while not dismissing the profound worth of stories like "I married Christian Grey,"  a harrowing account of domestic abuse from Natalie Collins (strong trigger warning on that link!). Ot this heartbreaking post by author Jennifer Armintrout. I want to be able to assert that alphahole heroes are textbook abusers, without also excoriating as 'backward' every woman who gets turned on by forced seduction scenes. I have more questions than conclusions, which is why this post is so long and appears when the 50 Shades trend appears to be waning. And I must admit that like everyone else in the world I'm an imperfect feminist -- I like to say I'm a practicing feminist, the implication being that it's both a process and a thing that you might screw up from time to time, but which gets easier the more you do it.

13. I've tried to anticipate objections to this post as much as I can; the biggest is that it's heavy on the fiction-analyzing and abstraction, but doesn't talk much about the fact that domestic abuse hurts real women as well as fictional ones, and that the stories we tell ourselves as a culture can either subvert or reinforce those patterns of abuse. Consider this last paragraph a reminder of those truths, and I appreciate your forbearance with my focusing on the side issues rather than the big, untackleable question.

Romance Trope: "Any Man/Woman Would..."

Fellow authors and readers, I have a confession: the quickest way to undermine my belief in two characters' romance is to tell me this: Any woman would have [swooned over his angelic looks/smouldered over his muscular physique/gasped in astonishment at the implausible proportions of his wedding tackle]. There's a lot of useful repetition in romance, so it is not the frequency that bothers me. And I know you have the best of intentions. You're trying to demonstrate the impressive desirability of your hero or heroine in quantitative terms. The more people who lust after Lord Dudelypants, the more potent his appeal, right? It's Science (TM)!

The problem with this approach is that attraction is very, very individual.

Granted, I come at this from a feminist perspective, so when you say, "Any woman would drool over this dude," my immediate response is: "Not the gay ones!" Nor even the straight ones who prefer blonds to brunettes, or lean and lanky over broad and muscular, and so on. Both Daniel Craig (fair, burly, with a raw kind of edge to him) and Benedict Cumberbatch (dark-haired, thin, brainy)  are pretty well-known lust magnets these days -- and there's still plenty of room in people's hearts (and pants!) for Idris Elba (black, muscular, appealingly chilly) and Martin Freeman (practically perfect in every way).

Telling me that Any Woman would desire Lord Dudelypants translates, in my prickly brain, as this: It is required of all women that they desire Lord Dudelypants. It starts to feel like a rule that even I have to follow, a rule built into the fabric of the world.

Now, if it's actually a rule built into the fabric of the world, that's interesting and worth exploring. That's why I love incubus/succubus stories (including this one of my own!) and the Cupid trilogy of Karen Harbaugh.

But too often the Any Man/Woman trope is coupled with extreme gender essentialism. Men are like this; women are like some other thing; each gender is a monolith of its own, and never the twain shall meet. It's profoundly reductive and even dehumanizing to have every person of one gender obliged to slaver in the hero or heroine's awesome hottness -- regardless of age, inclination, or orientation.

In sum, like all the tropes I hate, it's pretty obviously lazy writing.

We don't care what everyone else in the world thinks. In romance, we care about these specific people. Show me how they affect one another. Show me how they get tongue-tied when the object of desire appears, or how they lose control of themselves. Show me romantic rivalries if you must -- tired as the Other Woman trope can be, I will always have a soft spot for the Caroline Bingleys and Blanche Ingrams of the genre -- but make those specific as well.

Show me why these two deserve their happy ever after -- and let the rest of the world go hang.

 

How NOT to Promote Your Book

Scene: an independent bookstore, less than a week before E. L. James will be arriving to sign books. Phone rings. I answer. The following dialogue is as accurate in quotation as my stunned memory would allow. ME: Bookstore -- this is Olivia -- how may I help you?

CALLER: I have a question about getting a ticket for the E. L. James signing.

ME: Oh, I'm sorry, we're all sold out.

CALLER: I have a secondary question.

ME: Fire away.

CALLER: I'm a photographer with a book out. It's about women and beauty and self-esteem and has been carried by the University Book Store. I would like to attend the E. L. James event and hand out my business card to people in the signing line.

ME: ... No.

CALLER: No?

ME: I would strongly encourage you not to do that.

CALLER: Why not?

ME: Really? Well, because it's inappropriate. The people in the signing line are here for E. L. James, not because they have issues with their bodies or their self-esteem.

CALLER: But I'm trying to help people!

ME: I can't consent to your help on behalf of my customers.

CALLER: But I'm watching Katie Couric right now ... I miss the next few sentences, wondering what on earth Katie Couric has to do with this. Though it's clear she really believes she's doing something important.

ME: Again, I would caution you against this.

CALLER: Are you going to have me arrested?

ME: What? No!

CALLER: So it's not illegal, then.

ME: ... Can I take your name down, please?

CALLER: Only if you agree that I can hand out my business card.

ME: Well, it looks like we're stuck. Thanks for calling, and have a wonderful afternoon.

Exeunt omnes, pursued by a bear.

Stop The Presses: Tired Writer Cannot Write

Okay, so it's been two weeks now that I've been working full-time at the bookstore. Nights and weekends. It's fun, I get to look at pretty books all day and alphabetize -- I am one of those nerdy types who finds alphabetizing a soothing and engaging activity -- and help customers find books as best I can. Even the foot-killing four-hour register shifts haven't really dampened my enthusiasm. Except...

I haven't been able to write since I started.

It's not a question of inspiration. I still have all my ideas, I'm still doing research, still fine-tuning outlines. The stories are somewhere, waiting. But every time I sit in front of the keyboard, all I can think, over and over, like the phonograph inside my head is stuck on this one groove, is this:

I'm so tired.

I'll try to push through -- I know that voice can be made to go away -- but every time I put down a sentence I know it is wrong. Know, deep down in my bones, that there is no life in it. Everything feels so absurdly shallow, suddenly -- not in terms of subject matter, but in terms of my own engagement. And a writer disengaged from what she's writing is not going to write anything worth reading. Especially not in romance.

And it hurts, because I like to think of myself as disciplined, as determined, as a writer who works and does not wait for inspiration to strike. I've gotten stuck before -- who hasn't? -- but when one story is stuck another one is sure to be working, so I bounce from one to the other until the first one unsticks itself, like they always do.

This is the first time I can ever remember where nothing is working.

And it feels as though I have failed on some profound moral level. Chuck Wendig, penmonkey patron saint, would certainly disapprove. But it seems, to my shame, that I am somehow fundamentally incapable of working full-time and also doing anything substantive in the wordsmithery.

I tell myself to just get on with it. But the listening half of me has that same gut-level revulsion as when your coach in the sport of your choice looks at your broken ankle and tells you to walk it off.

Other writers do this. They do this all the time. 

What on earth is wrong with me?

In comments: please leave sympathy, tips, and any good jokes you may have heard lately. Bonus points if they involve terrible puns. You see what I've been reduced to.