Die Hard, Jupiter Jones, Cinderella, and Character Agency

When I'm talking narrative and I want someone's eyes to light up, I just tell them this: Die Hard is one of my favorite Cinderella stories. I cannot take credit for making the connection myself. It was at a conference. An editor from a well-known publishing house was defining an elevator pitch for the benefit of a new writer. "It's like: Cinderella meets Die Hard," he said. The audience laughed, and the editor with them. "I know," he continued. "What would that even look like?"

Reader, I was shaking. Instantly abuzz. If I hadn't been conspicuously seated in the second row at this panel, I'd have run straight out of the room and started writing.

OF COURSE Die Hard is Cinderella. A mysterious stranger crashes a party he wasn't officially invited to. His feet are covered in glass. Later he is pursued by people who are desperate to uncover his real identity. He ends up reunited with the person he went to the party to see. Holly is the prince. Al is the fairy godmother. Argyle's limo is the pumpkin carriage. And Hans Gruber, naturally, is the wicked stepmother.

John McClane sits by the sink and picks glass shards out of his bloody, injured feet.

I've been thinking a lot about this in context of a recent NPR story by the ever-revelatory Linda Holmes -- this paragraph in particular:

[Cinderella is] partly a fantasy about simplifying the relationships between social standing and coupling — one that makes the most sense in a world in which class differences are an accepted barrier to a good man choosing to marry a woman. If the prince is a man who believes from the outset that love conquers all, the story doesn't really make any sense. It would be hard to set Cinderella on a properly functioning egalitarian collective.

The gender-flip in Die Hard turns the prince into a princess -- but the class chasm stays the same. Bonnie Bedelia's Holly is a corporate ladder-climber, an executive at a Japanese company that occupies an entire LA skyscraper. Her job is far more high-status than that of her scruffy blue-collar cop husband. But where the original Cinderella is about elevating the low-born heroine to the prince's aristocratic level, Die Hard's perfect, meticulously constructed plot inexorably undermines the foundation of Holly's higher status.

Imagine Cinderella blowing up the palace.

Yes, technically Hans Gruber is the villain -- but our hero John McClane does at least as much blowing up of things as his nemesis does. One by one, the connections between Holly and her career are severed: her boss is killed, her douchey co-worker is shot, the company is burgled, the building is destroyed, and finally even her new Rolex must be sacrificed to ensure Hans Gruber's downfall. (See what I did there? Oh, Hans, please forgive me that joke, I love you -- you were raised to be charming, not sincere.) She is given no choice but to take John back almost out of self-defense.

It's not just me saying this, either -- witness this really  detailed PopMatters essay about the political/social/cinematic context of the film:

The obvious professional success of Holly at Nakatomi, which led her to forsake her husband in New York, is presented in Die Hard as a metaphor for the threat of feminism to the family institution and to the established patriarchal social order.

There's a lot in there about westerns and WWII and Vietnam and categories of masculinity; it's pretty dense and I recommend reading the whole thing.

Getting back to the fairy tale, everyone's always framing Cinderella stories in terms of agency. Here is Linda Holmes on the Prince in Disney's earlier Cinderella film:

If you were putting on a stage play based on that cartoon and you were short of actors, my very first suggestion would be that you obtain a large bag of flour and a toupee, allowing you to dispense with casting anyone at all as the prince.

And yet when we criticize the storytelling in Cinderella tales, it's never the prince's role that comes under fire. Because even in the most bare-bones versions, the prince goes in quest of something -- and there is a long, long, Western narrative tradition that tells us the quest story is a hero's story and automatically worthy (oh hello, Star Wars fans who like to cite Joseph Campbell). We read the prince as a little mini-hero in this tale, while we dismiss Cinderella for being confused and conflicted and passive. (Sondheim's Into the Woods will always be the most resounding critique of this structure, for me.)

Joseph Campbell has a lot to answer for.

But agency is only one axis on which a character can be given importance. Perspective, choice, centering of a protagonist can happen regardless of the level of doing-ness. For comparison: Hamlet is notorious for passivity and indecision, but his inability to act is a feature of the story, not a bug, and critics discuss it as such. Die Hard reads as anti-feminist thus not so much because Holly is inactive -- she is the agent of several key turns of the plot. The movie is anti-feminist because Holly's perspective/wants are not centered by the film's arc. We see a little bit of her emotions at the beginning, on the phone with her children, but we never see the real defining moment where she decides she and John can make their relationship work. (They ultimately don't, as the next few films demonstrate.) We do see John's moment of revelation -- but crucially, this transformation appears in a scene between him and Al. Al and John's developing trust, of course, is the real emotional arc in the film, and a much more convincing romance.

Using pure action-based agency as a metric to judge female characters as more or less feminist has become this year's Manic Pixie Dream Girl: it started as a useful critical lens, but when it's the only lens we apply it blinds us to other aspects of storytelling. The protagonist's lack of agency in recent glorious mess Jupiter Ascending was frequently singled out as poorly written and regressive.

From the Mary Sue's review:

If I had to critique this movie in any sort of, you know, actual way (beyond “it was a hot-ass mess”), I would say that I do wish the film had been a little less caught up in the traditional model of princess-saving. When I hear “Mila Kunis black leather space princess,” I want to see her bulked the hell up, Emily Blunt style, kicking ass and taking names. We don’t get to see Kunis looking really cool until the very end of the film, at which point I wanted way more of that. Which, I guess, means I would pay for a sequel.

From Variety:

Although clearly conceived as an empowered female heroine, poor Jupiter spends most of the movie being kidnapped and shuffled from one unpleasant situation to another...

From The New York Times:

Though she has more space opera swirling around her than any actor could possible hold together, Kunis does an admirable job even if never given much of a chance to be the prime mover in her fairy tale.

All these reviews and many others have bought into a limited concept of agency: kicking ass and taking names. Partly this is habit -- quest narratives and violence-as-agency are hugely enshrined in sff/geek culture and film blockbusters both, most especially when those two fandoms overlap: see The Matrix, The Fifth Element, Star Wars, Star Trek, Alien/Aliens, Terminator/Terminator 2, and even The Princess Bride. Take a good hard look at your love for The Princess Bride, those of you who found Jupiter Jones too passive a heroine.

See also: critiques of Twilight that point out how much of the series is designed to give Bella Swan everything she wants. People hate when you suggest that maybe Twilight is doing something interesting with its heroine. (Standard disclaimer: not a Twilight fan, haven't read it, found some persuasively written articles.)

Jupiter Jones does not hit very many people in the course of her movie, it's true. But her life, her experience, her anxieties, and her choices are all central to the film's framework. She is important, and not merely as a vessel of power: she narrates her own birth in voiceover and explains how it is significant, she worries about trust and love and an inherited history of unhappy relationships, she struggles with a difficult family whose engagement is embarrassing and an irritation, she is burdened with sudden knowledge and terrible power and galactic prominence without ever asking for it, without being sure if she even wants to be a part of what seems like a really shitty system of government and exploitation. That she hesitates to wield this power is, I think, a mark of intelligence and good moral sense. She mistrusts her sudden elevation in rank, and does not consider herself automatically an expert in an ancient and politically fraught hypertechnological culture she's only known about for three days.

Imagine Cinderella realizing she has no inclination to rule a kingdom where three of the most powerful nobles are constantly trying to kill one another.

Caine, by contrast, is given the cardboard quest narrative: get your wings back, brooding hero, and find your pack or mate or whatever. It's as plain and predictable as the prince's agency in the traditional Cinderella. Caine has only one possible choice or motive in this movie: to save Jupiter, to choose Jupiter, to support Jupiter. Jupiter, meanwhile, gets everything she wants. Caine objects to a relationship between them because of her higher rank, but she laughs this off and they end up together despite his objections. Caine gets his wings back (hardly a spoiler), and Jupiter lovingly caresses them as though they belong to her. She insists that he call her "Your Majesty" because she likes it -- and then she straps on his gravity skates and flies away with him.

Is our heroine really the one with the lack of agency in this framework?

Screen shot from Jupiter Ascending. Jupiter Jones is seen from behind, in a fancy white dress spotted with red feathers and a headdress to match. She faces away from the camera, shoulders tall, while far below her crowds of tiny people look up in awe.

The scene where Sean Bean lays out Caine's angsty backstory for Jupiter's benefit is so full of lingering shirtless Tatum camerawork that I laughed aloud in the theater. It is the single most romance novel-esque thing I have ever seen on film (though I haven't seen the wedding episode of Outlander, which author Alisha Rai assures me is the most Female Gaze-y thing in all the world). The critics focusing on action might have misread the film: the romance readers and authors I know were all hailing it as one of our own.

Romance as a storytelling form has long existed in counterpoint to the mainstream male narrative canon -- counterpoint both in the sense of alternative, and in the sense of harmony (since not all romance is automatically feminist in nature or perspective). Romance features happy endings instead of 'important' tragedies, female characters given pride of place as heroines, love and family and domestic concerns treated as weightily as wars and battles. Romance also deals quite often with limits on agency: the unmoneyed gently born heroines of Austen's novels; those notorious scenes of forced seduction during the era of Woodiwiss, Rogers, and Small; even E. L. James' The Book That Shall Not Be Named explores what it means to be constrained on both a physical and metaphorical level.

A romance heroine's limited agency is, like Hamlet's, not a bug but a feature.

Jupiter Ascending is a Cinderella story -- but it is also, importantly, Jane Eyre. We begin with our heroine's birth, we see her thankless labor and her mortified body (someone write me an essay comparing the egg-selling clinic with Lowood School IMMEDIATELY PLEASE), she finds a secret family and a brooding love interest, there is an interrupted wedding and an unpleasantly insistent relative and at the end everything burns to the ground but our heroine finds happiness anyways. And you could make a pretty good case for this narrative being anti- or ambiguously feminist, as people often do with Jane Eyre --but the critics of Jupiter Ascending have not been making this argument. The sci-fi movie lovers have not been making this argument. They have been arguing for more violence, more unquestioned use of questionable power. More doing simply for the sake of doing-ness.

It is not enough to critique a character's lack of action, especially a female character, without looking at the context in which that action or non-action takes place.

If what Jane Eyre really wanted from her story and her wold was agency for agency's sake, she'd have gone off with St. John Rivers. Rochester would have struggled alone with his disabilities. Jane herself would have died while bolstering a racist colonial empire in a sexless marriage with a coldly principled, joyless man. Instead Jane makes a choice -- as Jupiter Jones does, over and over, not carving out a space with fists and weapons but picking the least bad of several options -- and that choice is given weight and heft by the narrator. Reader, I married him, she says, speaking out to us from the page.

I've always loved dogs, says Jupiter Jones. And we laugh, because it's ridiculous, and she rolls her eyes, and says it again, horrified at what's just come out of her mouth.

And we laugh again, in recognition. Because we've been there, so many of us, at the peak of a crucial romantic moment, saying something that initially seemed clever but turned out to be an absolute disaster.

Jupiter Jones may not be the Heroine With Agency we're supposed to want -- but she may be the heroine we didn't know we've been missing.

___

There's always someone, somewhere, writing about Cinderella. Here's a very incomplete list of the most recent/most interesting ones I've seen:

For bonus fun, here is a short and pointed Jupiter Ascending fanfic that imagines an alternative wedding scene because, per the author, "I spent too much of the movie waiting for Chekhov's bees to go off."

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

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

Comments with further recommendations will be happily entertained.

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

“Thanks,” he said. “It’s mine.”

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

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

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

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

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

The Beekeeper's Ball by Susan Wiggs.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hiding from Hollywood by Ellie Darkins.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

12. A cute boy walks into a deli.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We just need to ask.

Batman and Bootleggers: For the Love of Lit Crit

{For the Love of Lit Crit is a post series that takes a feminist look at romance texts -- not so much to prove that romance is feminist or anti-feminist, but because sometimes analysis can be as fun and escapist as a love story. Spoilers abound! Also, a content note for discussion of guns and violence, though I don't think things get really graphic or specific. Meanwhile, during the month of January I'm catching up on a bunch of books from the TBR list, most of which have been out for some time because I am perpetually behind the curve. I'm also tweeting about what I find as I read; follow #Readening on Twitter for comments, thoughts, Titanic design corrections, and critiques of bee metaphors.}

That last long post must really be sticking with me, because here I was reading a lusty paranormal romance set in Jazz Age San Francisco and all I could think about was the violence. Not the sensual wardrobes, not the issues with race -- nope, the violence and how actions are morally coded based on the actor rather than the deed itself. Cover for Bitter Spirits by Jenn Bennett.

Capsule review: I'm torn about whether to recommend this. I loved the detail of the built world and I'm definitely going to read the next in the series because I already ship Bo and Astrid and I need to at least stay caught up until their story in book 3. And I'm revising a Prohibition paranormal of my own now (with monsters instead of ghosts and magic) so this series is totally Necessary Author Research and probably even tax-deductible. But I had a lot of issues with the way the book dealt with race: those concerns are pretty much covered in this Dear Author review (click the spoiler tag), and they're just problematic enough that I hesitate to give this book an enthusiastic two thumbs up. Not because I am easily offended, but because lot of the issues here are recognizable stereotypes with a long horrible history, and seeing them repeated in modern texts can make a reader so damn tired. It's less How outrageous! and more Ugh, not this again.

I'm glad Dear Author's review tackled the issues with depiction of Chinese-American characters, because that leaves me free to talk about the contradictory way this book presents violence -- specifically gun violence and domestic violence -- in regard to our hero.

A Good Man Who Does Bad Things

I knew going in that a bootlegging hero was probably going to have to kill someone. Not every rumrunner forbade guns like Seattle's Roy Olmstead, though I suspect that's partly who Bitter Spirits hero Winter Magnusson was based on. And there's definitely room in romantic heroism for killing: Han shot first, after all. So I wasn't surprised when the book revealed that Winter has a few deaths on his conscience.

I was a little surprised that one of them was his wife, though. Again, spoilers everywhere in this analysis.

It's negligence rather than murder, but Winter still holds himself responsible for the car accident that killed his mother, his father, his wife, and left Winter himself visibly scarred. The fallout of this trauma is one of the major emotional arcs of the romance. And you know what? All I could think was: That sounds about right. You killed your family, buddy. That feels like one of those events that maybe one shouldn't be able to entirely get over? It's like Batman, only instead of a thief in the alley it's like little Brucie was playing with a pistol and shot Mr. and Mrs. Wayne himself.

(I just giggled for five fully minutes imagining how self-flagellating and angsty Batman could get in that scenario. Batman really is the funniest superhero.)

Winter reserves the greatest measure of guilt not for his parents, but for his wife Paulina -- because, he explains, she'd asked him for a divorce and he'd refused: "I should have just let her go. I'm not sure why I didn't. I think maybe I saw it as a failure, and that was unacceptable ... I told her divorce was impossible, that I'd never let it happen ... So that's why I feel guilty -- because even though I didn't love her, I refused to let her go. If I had, everyone would still be alive" (Kindle location 2335).

Heroine Aida replies: "Paulina made the decision to marry you. You didn't hold a gun to her head."

This metaphor struck me as being in extremely poor taste.

For one thing, while I haven't specifically researched divorce laws in 1927 California (anyone with a quick link is free to add it in comments), my understanding is that divorce at this time in this place has to be agreed to by both parties. So that if Winter refuses to grant a divorce, Paulina has to stay married to him, no matter how she personally feels about it. This may not be violence, per se, but it's definitely an unpleasant level of control for him to exert for very little reason. It feels mean. It feels petty. It feels, in a word, unheroic.

For another thing, he's literally just told Aida he caused his wife's death. A woman is dead -- two women, and a man, if you count his mother and father, but he doesn't seem to agonize over that as much. And the best our heroine can muster is: "But the important thing is you shouldn't feel bad about it."

I for one am perfectly okay with the hero feeling bad about this. Forever. Maybe not to Batman levels of self-flagellation, but surely this tragedy is more than just an opportunity for him to grow emotionally as a person. There should be consequences for a mistake of this magnitude. Our hero is not in prison, he is not making restitution to his wife's family, he is not working to make automobiles safer or donating to charity or doing anything else to atone for his actions. He is merely berating himself emotionally. I find it unpleasant that those are the only consequences for such a colossal waste of life, but I am equally loth to see any consequence of that event erased because the heroine feels one should "live in the moment." (Yep, actual quote, Kindle location 2335 like the others.)

Taken on its own, bereft of genre context, this exchange makes Aida look cold and amoral. She's not, of course. She's simply being a Good Heroine: her job in the narrative is to reassure the hero about his past mistakes to prove he is a Good Person Deserving Of Love. And Good People don't do Bad Things. The hero is by definition a Good Person -- ergo his actions are Good, and must be construed in the best possible light. The cause of Paulina's death was not really the hero's inattention while driving; the cause of Paulina's death was her own "character defects" -- specifically, not being 'strong' enough to leave on her own when her husband refused to divorce her. Her rich, powerful, musclebound, lawbreaking husband with a ton of underworld connections and corrupt cops on his payroll, who'd just said he'd never let her go. Gosh, why wouldn't she be scared to leave? Again, "character defects" is a direct quote from our heroine. About the dead wife, not about the hero.

I was a little stunned. We're blaming the dead wife for her own death at this point and I'm supposed to be rooting for these two as a couple.

And it's not as though the violence of Winter's career as a bootlegger can be separated from his family life. His job was the reason why Paulina wanted a divorce in the first place. Later, when Aida gets nervous before she and Winter have sex for the first time, our hero reflects: "he was reminded of Paulina, timid and guarded -- worse, he was reminded of how he used to feel around her. Like a monster and a bully. Like the bad guy" (2412).

Two points:

  1. Winter clearly prioritizes his own feelings in this moment over his sexual partner's. He thinks his feeling that he might be 'the bad guy' is worse than Aida's feeling of being unsafe or unsure about the sex they are about to have.
  2. Winter wants Aida because he likes that she believes he's a Good Guy -- not because she has a solid moral compass, not because he can trust her judgment, but simply because it makes him feel better about himself. It's an ego-stroke, pure and simple. There's no sense that Aida expects him to do better. In fact, it's the opposite: Aida is presented as a better match for Winter because she can accept his violent actions.

We are a long way here from the world of Filthy Lucre, where the heroine wants a good man to stop doing bad things, and tells him so. Winter's tendency toward violence is by definition Good, because he is a hero, and the text gives him leave to be as vicious as he wants, consequence-free.

My concern about this moral framework is not only for Paulina: it's for our villain, too. Our evil Chinese necromancer villain whose big evil plan is to bring Pauline's corpse back from the dead as a weapon against our hero. Reader, I'd be lying if I said this wasn't a really fun plot point. I was hoping Pauline would get some of her own back; there's an earlier scene where Aida, a spirit medium, calls forth a dead husband who exposes his much younger widow's adultery and callousness. I was hoping either Paulina would get to yell at Winter, or that she'd get to say she understood it was an accident; either one would be fine with me.

Instead, Paulina is a wordless, mindless zombie monster, controlled by black magic. A really lushly described, viscerally gross zombie corpse. Who never talks. Who maybe needs to be exorcised by the heroine and/or shot re-dead by the hero because that's how we deal with first wives in romance, amirite?

Ugh, not this again.

A Bad Man Who Does Bad Things

The weirdness of the division between Good People and Bad People is illustrated most vividly in a scene between Aida and Doctor Yip, our villain.

Here is the first part.

Doctor Yip's motivation, as Dear Author pointed out, is a historical truth and major act of bigotry: "After the Great Fire, the city tried to move Chinatown and seize our land, and when we resisted, you kept us in cages on Angel Island, separating our families for years" (4126).

Aida's response: "didn't."

(#NotAllWhiteHeroines)

The text continues: "Aida could empathize with grief for a lost sibling, but she didn't lash out and kill people for revenge when [her brother] Sam died." Note what happened here: the villain laid out a sustained, horrible, systemic, racist injustice he personally suffered from, and the heroine rejected his moral claim because she personally had not participated in said injustice.

Here is the second part.

Doctor Yip makes another moral claim: despite the many killings he's orchestrated, he has not shed a single drop of blood: "'I have no blood debt on my hands. I am clean.'"

Aida's response: "'Just because you didn't pull the trigger doesn't mean you're not guilty.'" She refuses to allow him to salve his conscience with technicalities when the greater point is that he's responsible for several murders.

These two parts? They happen on the same damn page.

What this tells me as a reader is that the underlying moral structure of this text is tied to something other than action. Or facts, really. Aida resists any moral statement made by the villain, even if doing so means she contradicts herself within three paragraphs. The villain is Bad: he must be opposed. Winter is Good: he must be supported. Even if his actions in this same scene are comprised of several brutal murders (one done with Aida's complete knowledge and approval). But he's defending the heroine and himself, so it's okay, right? He's Good, isn't he?

I'm coming down hard on this text not because it makes a uniquely irritating choice, but because it's a vivid example of something I find all over the romance genre. I don't mind having Good People and Bad People in fiction; I am not criticizing the lack of moral subtlety. But I do object to moral categories being applied as fixed traits, regardless of what we see a character actually do. Like many readers I bring my own moral compass with me when I read, and it is a rare book that can convince me to abandon it. I can sympathize with a hero who wants to not seem monstrous on page 10: but when we get to 100 and he's murdered, tortured, threatened, and intimidated his way through the book, I begin to think that all those frightened secondary characters have a point.

If you've noticed a lot of gun metaphors -- pulling the trigger, put a gun to her head -- you're picking up on one of the very strong motifs of this book. Guns both as props and as symbols are everywhere. Even at the climax of the sex scenes!

... he shuddered in her arms like a great, divine beast taken down by a single bullet.

She didn't know if she was the gun that fired the bullet or the hunter who'd pulled the trigger ... she knew she had made a terrible miscalculation.

She was the one who'd been shot. (2910)

There's also a lot of guns-as-power imagery, but I won't tire you with all that. Suffice to say that in the world right now -- what with Ferguson, and Ottawa, and Paris, and now Boko Haram -- I am increasingly wary of those who idealize guns as the proper tools of Good Men, whose violence shouldn't be questioned.

At least Batman tries not to kill people.

___

Chinese-Canadian romance author Vicki Essex points out that new CBC show Strange Empire is an awesome diverse take on Western tropes, including violence and vengeance.

Speaking of Batman and the pitfalls of vigilante justice, here is a marvelous article from Cracked that lists Batman's 6 most brutal murders. Some of these veer hilariously into self-parody, and others are just plain awful, so click at your peril.

Leigh Kolb at Bitch Flicks has a grounded and thoughtful feminist reading of Sons of Anarchy's inescapably violent masculinity.

___

Bennett, Jenn. Bitter Spirits (Roaring Twenties Book 1). New York: Berkeley Sensation, January 2014. Kindle edition.

Filthy Lucre and Laundered Souls

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

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

Cover for Filthy Lucre by Sharon Cullars.

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

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

I told you it was unusual.

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

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

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

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

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

The Unheroic Hero

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Disarmed Heroine

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oh, how I wanted her to stab somebody.

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

Bonnie and Clyde

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

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

Then something wonderful happens: the women connect.

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

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

Again, that's a pretty radical move.

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

___

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

___

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3. Because I already paid for the print copies.

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

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

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

4. It's my last chance.

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

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

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

Invisible Labor in the Publishing World

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

Invisible Author-Work

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

It's more fun than it sounds.

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

Invisible Publisher-Work

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

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

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

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

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

Invisible Distributor-Work

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

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

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

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

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

Invisible Bookseller-Work

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

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

Invisible Reader-Work

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

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

Now We Smash All The Atoms Together. BOOM.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

___

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

Better, Less Offensive History

At present I am in a library, staring out a bank of windows at a grassy field. Huge pieces of public art are scattered across the space: a driftwood horse, a strange lemon-fish-bowl assembly, and others, all shaded by giant leafy trees. Yes, I am at a small private liberal arts college. It is my ten-year reunion weekend. And someone just rode by on a unicycle, because of course they did. For the next three days, I will be meeting old friends, walking familiar and forgotten sidewalks, and staring my past self right in the face. It's the emotional equivalent of crossing one's eyes: uncomfortable, perspective-changing, and unsustainable for long periods. I don't have many large regrets, but like anyone I have a collection of small mistakes accumulated over many years, often misunderstood at the time when I made them. Most of these can be boiled down to things like People can be terrible at fearlessly articulating what they need and Thoughtlessness can look exactly like malice sometimes. I liked who I was in college, and I like who I am now, but my current self is much wiser in many important ways. My past self is also much less afraid in other ways; I am trying to get some of that boldness back without ditching everything I've gained in the intervening years.

This college, where I spent four of the most vivid years of my life, also happens to be on/near the site of a famous missionary massacre during America's western expansionist/genocidal phase. These rolling hills and river valleys were taken from various NDN peoples (Walla Walla, Cayuse, Nez Perce, Colville, and others) by stealth and slaughter. The college itself -- increasingly rich and white -- did and quite probably still does an imperfect job of confronting this history in the course of student life. During my years, I spent much more time reading Ovid and Euripides than reading about the mass death of the Cayuse children from smallpox. Like the college, I am responsible in some part for not adequately confronting the past.

Thoughtlessness can look exactly like malice sometimes.

When we arrived, my husband came back from a visit to the hotel's business center and told me I must visit the second floor. I joined him and to my astonishment discovered a series of paintings depicting scenes from the life and death of Marcus and Narcissa Whitman. Most are blandly illustrative, but the others -- well, others are rather more appalling in their choice of subject. Artist David Manuel's website celebrates his tendency to value "historical accuracy over political correctness," and even telling you that in advance cannot prepare you for the effect of seeing these paintings. Since they are slightly bloody and almost certainly triggering, I have put them below the jump.

DavidManuel1

DavidManuel2

These images are so absurdly sensationalized that they are all but parodies of themselves. I believe them to be quite toxic. They remind me of the Pawnee murals from Parks and Recreation -- about whose defacement Leslie Knope says: "We need better security. We also need better, less offensive history."

It's a joke, but we laugh because it's accurate. Our history is full of things to regret, both personally and at a distance. The Triangle Shirtwaist fire. Chattel slavery. New World colonization and colonialism in Africa. The East India Company. The death of Hypatia. We have a responsibility not to sweep these things under the rug in service of our own comfort. We have a responsibility to face the mistakes we have made and the crimes we have committed. It would be easy at this point to say that I've never personally disenfranchised anyone or committed genocide, but since I also benefit daily from the actions of those who have, I'm going to let that guilty-defensive impulse rest in the darkness where it belongs.

Thoughtlessness can look exactly like malice sometimes.

And these thoughts in my mind are becoming entwined with recent conversations about the depiction of past eras in historical romance, especially in this Vacuous Minx post (the comments are legion and golden). Historical accuracy does of course matter.  Misrepresenting the past does a disservice to truth. But often, a too-perfect representation of the past risks recreating the same violence and harm. Consider how romances set in the American antebellum south so often dehumanize black characters as a matter of course. (Shout-out to Beverly Jenkins' Indigo for doing pretty much the opposite of that.) Consider the ways that aristocratic systems are ennobled (ha! see what I did there), romanticized, and democratized in historical romance. Every duke deserves his rank by merit of character/leadership as well as by birth. Every duke is also kind to his servants.

What matters, I think, are not so much the mistakes, but the mistakes we insist upon repeating. Repetition creates a space for its subject, like water drops wearing away a stone; accumulation becomes important. David Manuel's paintings depict a single historical fact: the Cayuse did in fact kill Marcus and Narcissa Whitman. But to focus on this one moment is to lose sight of the larger truth: Marcus and Narcissa Whitman were active, deliberate participants in a system whose goal was the elimination of the Cayuse people and their culture.

Similarly, historical romance has a marked tendency to focus on equalizing the oppressions of one white, straight, cis, aristocratic couple. The problem is that this is not simply one elision, in one book, by one author. It is the thousandth time this particular and very basic erasure has occurred -- which means it is not precisely a mistake. It is a tactic, a narrative necessity to make the duke palatable as a hero to a modern reader's taste. Romance authors and readers discover these rules without having to speak of them too much.

I am increasingly suspicious of rules we learn without speaking of them too much.

This campus is also where I rediscovered my love of historical romance. I wrote my first fan letter, to Julia Quinn, at a chair not ten feet away from where I'm currently sitting. Romance is an escape, people tell me -- but there are important corollary question: an escape for whom, and an escape from what? Julia Quinn's books gave me a break from the dude-centric, often joyless books I was slogging through at the time in service of a well-rounded education. Now I see what else that education tended to pass over -- and a lot of the same subjects don't appear in Julia Quinn's books, either, even if they could. Patterns shift, and escapes become cages. I still read Julia Quinn -- though I think I'm a few books behind at this point -- but I also hunger for something else. An escape from feeling like the frothy romance is the only acceptable or legitimate kind? An escape from a trope or template that is growing stale for me? I'm not entirely sure.

When I was an undergraduate, everything on campus was designed to convey the feeling: You belong here. I still feel it -- it's woven into the very ground of this campus. It's how I feel about historical romance as well. There is a way in which this belonging is true. There is another way in which it is not. This much I have found, since last I was here.

I wonder what else I have yet to learn?

___

For anyone near Washington, DC, I cannot recommend highly enough the National Museum of the American Indian on the National Mall. They dive head-first into historical confrontation, amplify NDN voices, and have the best cafeteria in the entire Smithsonian. 

At RT this past May, I was fortunate enough to get a free copy of Carrie Lofty's Starlight, which is a romance with a mill owning hero and a union-leader heroine in Scotland's textile industry. It definitely pulls some punches, but is still really different and enjoyable. I've been thinking I need to read the rest of the series, especially the one set in South Africa.

Bonus image: for those of you who enjoy dark irony, this screenshot comes from David Manuel's website.

Screencap that shows David Manuel's website has been built by a company called Cherokee Designs.

Ecology and Uses of the Alpha Male in Romance

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

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

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

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

Another quote, worth unpacking:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

___

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

Release Day: At His Countess' Pleasure

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

Countess Cover Reveal!

I have just received the cover for my next Ellora's Cave release, available from the publisher's website August 15 and other ebook retailers soon thereafter. Cover image for At His Countess' Pleasure by Olivia Waite.

I'm quite happy with it! I am especially fond of that large swirly P in the word 'pleasure,' and the luscious red of her dress. I must also admit to being initially confused about the shoulder-boob -- but shoulder-boob, you see, is totally the new sideboob. So hot right now.

I Take the Low Road About High Culture: A Rebuttal

Dear Anya, wherever you may be, Please allow me to express my sincere sympathies for your appearance in this Open Letters Monthly piece by Stephen Akey (via DoNotLink). You had the misfortune of encountering a man who believes that birdwatching in a cemetery is a perfectly cromulent first date -- which admittedly it may be, for some people. It certainly seemed to work for Mr. Akey and his now-ex-wife: birdwatching in this very same cemetery was their first date two decades ago, as our author informs us without a trace of self-awareness. I cannot adequately express my horror at someone who deals with the emotional fallout of an ended marriage by attempting to recreate the outward forms of the relationship with a new and unwitting victim -- I mean, date.

And then, on this bizarre replica date, our author offers you an unprompted lecture on the semi-obscure architect who designed the cemetery gates. Your response:

“Really? How fascinating! Stephen, how can you know so much?” Such were the words Anya did not speak.

Oh, Anya, of course you didn't say that. If you're anything like me, you would rather chew off your own hand than say anything so abjectly fawning -- even if you were interested in 19th-century American architecture. I don't know if you are, you see, because Mr. Akey never sees fit to tell us what your interests are -- or what work you do -- or anything you may be passionate about. He is too distracted by your "luscious" figure and his own sense of wounded self-superiority.

She didn’t say anything, and didn’t need to. I could read her thoughts all too clearly in the pained silence that followed. And what she thought was this: How could any human being possibly be so boring?

Anya -- you may well have thought that. Lord knows I did.

Our author then presents us with Himself, as representative of an earlier generation bastioned by a common body of knowledge and learning, and you, Anya, as representative of a lost generation "educated to believe that everything I held dear was rot." He then suggests he would have made a self-deprecating remark about resembling George Eliot's classic pedant Casaubon, but he did not believe you would have recognized the reference.

Anya, I think he was completely wrong about that.

Because Middlemarch has been damn near everywhere lately. That hip young website and cutting-edge font of misandry The Toast hosted a Middlemarch read-through this year, as well as a follow-up read-through of Rebecca Mead's My Life in Middlemarch. That's six solid months of discussion! Romance author and certified brilliant person Cecilia Grant is often seen mentioning George Eliot's influence on her own life and work on Twitter -- along with other romance writers, readers, and scholars. Our author wants to make a hilarious Casaubon reference? Many young women will totally be here for that.

At this point, Anya, you disappear from our author's narrative -- you were clearly only an introductory gimmick, a straw Young Millennial on which Mr. Akey could hang his broad and unwarranted generalizations. He devotes one much-welcome paragraph to the idea that "the urge to create endures" -- a rather lovely phrase, to give credit where credit is due -- but then returns to this imagined division between High Culture and Low Culture. The temptation to pull all the fatuous quotes from this section is irresistible, but I will restrain myself to this one:

Still, no amount of wishful thinking – nor any amount of coolly ironic pop art or postmodern appropriation — can ever overcome basic distinctions of high and low. If you think those distinctions are stuffy Victorian relics, you probably haven’t done jury duty lately. When I last served a few years ago, I learned a lot about Beyoncé, Dancing with the Stars, and Vin Diesel movies. My fellow jurors did not care to discuss that season’s offerings at the Museum of Modern Art or the contents of the latest New York Review of Books

Imagine, Anya -- a group pulled from their lives and jobs for a day of often-tedious citizen service did not treat the experience like a literary salon! Our author here has made a fundamental mistake: he has assumed that the importance of High Culture as High means it must be made welcome in any social situation. This is the same mistake he made on your date, in fact. A date is a social outing meant to explore a possible romantic and personal connection between two people; this is not the same thing as an opportunity for one of those two to show off his pet lecture topic and be childishly praised for his ability to memorize trivia. He reports the words he wished you'd said and none of the words you actually said: I would gently suggest that this particular romance may be a non-starter.

Mr. Akey never actually defines what he means by these "basic distinctions of high and low." He knows what it means, and he guesses we all do as well. But as a critic and feminist, I am inordinately suspicious of anything that is assumed to not need speaking about. Such concepts tend to come with assumptions built-in. For instance, when we use the phrase "high culture," we could mean any or all of the following:

  • expensive to experience or enjoy
  • enjoyed by rich people, who are by implication smarter/better/more cultured/have better taste
  • a medium or art form that has a lengthy historical tradition
  • enjoyed by white Western people -- opera, ballet, and classical music are high art, as opposed to wu-xia films, Bollywood musicals, and K-dramas.
  • concerned with a fundamental or universal aspect of human existence: death, love, war, family, the self, etc.
  • has a great deal of social cachet, but does not tend to make or produce money for itself or its audience/creators; is not "commercial"
  • requires hard work or years of training to appreciate

The idea that High Culture requires years of training -- an idea that appears repeatedly throughout Mr. Akey's piece -- means it is necessarily more limited in audience than something that one can engage immediately. Vin Diesel movies, for instance, are a much more likely conversation topic for a jury duty pool not because juries are essentially anti-intellectual, but because there is a greater chance of that being a common experience between jurors than a stroll through MoMA's current exhibition. Indeed, Mr. Akey reveals he eagerly joined in the Vin Diesel discussion as well.

Despite this populist frosting, our author believes that "basic distinctions of high and low" align perfectly with "basic distinctions of class." He allies himself specifically with "the slim minority of [the middle] class that genuinely prefers challenging modernist fiction to cookbooks."

Anya, I admit I frowned at that word, "prefer." Cookbooks -- like dates, or jury duty -- have a purpose: they present recipes and techniques so humans can make tasty food. They are in no way competing with challenging modernist fiction, and there's a whiff of women-in-the-kitchen sexism to imply those categories are mutually exclusive. If I pick up Jeni's Splendid Ice Creams at Home it does not cancel out the parts of my master's thesis that involved Joyce's Ulysses.

Having established his anti-populist credentials, Mr. Akey lulls us into somnolence with some more architecture trivia before contradicting himself: architecture "bridges high and low," you see, because people live in buildings. Therefore architecture is important. Honestly, the less said about this section the better: it is brain-foggingly self-indulgent and tangential. Something something Fallingwater, something something Louis Kahn. A brief reflection on Mr. Akey's imperfect memory, which puts him firmly in the category "human." How he is ignorant, because there are subjects he has not mastered. To be frank, Anya, I was starting to skim at this point, because there did not appear to be any larger point to any of these discussions.

I perked up briefly with alarm at the mention of Bayard's How to Talk About Books You Haven't Read, because suddenly it occurred to me that one could, if one was inclined, use this book as a how-to for the kind of mansplaining that makes my life and the lives of other women occasionally and vividly unbearable. (Honorable mention here for the gentleman at a recent party who told me he didn't know anything about feminism, then proceeded to tell me all about feminism.) And indeed, our author finds this kind of un-expertise a laudable trait in himself: "I find that I can talk to almost anyone about almost anything because I generally know just enough about any topic (theology, linguistics, the life cycle of the horseshoe crab, you name it) to be able to bullshit convincingly..." It does not occur to him that "able to bullshit convincingly" may not be the most desirable quality in one's conversational partner. Especially since what he wanted from you, Anya, was undiluted admiration, not a well-faked false erudition.

And then, my dear Anya, we get your male counterpart: Alistair. A friend of Mr. Akey's who was decidedly and determinedly lowbrow -- and who appears to have led an unsatisfactory life. According to Mr. Akey, that is. This is, we hear, because he does not have access to the high culture that sustains our author:

No stranger to loneliness or depression myself, I at least had the consolation when times got hard of knowing that the world didn’t begin and end with my sorrows. Culture is a river that binds me to the living and the dead. Yes, I’d rather have a beautiful woman to dally with, but in the meantime there are some Jane Austen novels I’d love to reread. When Alistair needed to escape from himself, he had nowhere to go.  In terms of emotional damage suffered or caused, we were just about neck and neck, but he had one monster to wrestle with that I didn’t: He was bored. I wasn’t.

Culture is a river that binds me to the living and the dead. Again -- such a well-turned phrase! But you know what else binds Mr. Akey to the living? Being alive. Being present, in the same place, in the same moment. As with you, Anya, Mr. Akey tells us what he and Alistair did not talk about -- "Johannes Vermeer or Willa Cather or the Mughal Empire" -- and glosses over what they did discuss. (Rock music, one presumes? Alistair liked Guns N' Roses, our author is a fan of ZZ Top. But one has to arrive at this conclusion on one's own.) Faced with a friend who was apparently restless, lonely, and dissatisfied, Mr. Akey appears not to have offered help or sympathy or anything else; instead, he seems to have retreated into self-satisfaction that he himself would never be so bereft. Alistair, meanwhile, falls prey to ... nothing. We don't know what happens to Alistair. We can presume it's bad, because he has no Culture to rescue him, but Mr. Akey verbally wanders away before he can finish the anecdote. This fails rather spectacularly to demonstrate the consequences of a Life Without High Culture.

Our author cannot grasp the idea that people can participate simultaneously in so-called high and low culture, even as he gives himself free license to do so. This is allowed, presumably, because he does so while knowing that High Culture is superior. When in fact, most people I know alternate between so-called high and so-called low culture, fitting the medium to the mood. Thrillers in the summer, art films in the fall; cartoons when we're sick, opera when we're feeling fancy. As an author of commercial romance who also does her own Latin translations for fun, I have a vested interest in high-versus-low culture debates. I could no more choose between low and high than I could choose between my right and left hands.

What Mr. Akey has built instead is a wall between Culture on the one hand, and People on the other. Culture is where you go when People disappoint you -- when they misunderstand you, when they ignore you, when they decline to allow you to do sex with them. Yet if you pointed out the basic escapism of this, Mr. Akey would probably be affronted. He envisions himself as an absorber of Culture -- but the problem with the culture-as-river metaphor, despite the prettiness, is this: unlike a river, culture is not unidirectional. Culture informs people, but people also inform culture. Mr. Akey has proven that he can take in the elements of the culture he admires, but his treatment of Alistair and Anya -- his inability to connect with them on a human level, not simply an intellectual one -- shows that he is not turning this cultural education to any emotional or spiritual purpose. Mr. Akey's deeper mistake is this: he mistakes learning for thought, and facts for feelings.

From a feminist and intersectional standpoint, I must point out that our author does briefly acknowledge that the traditional high culture he so admires has a habit of erasing groups traditionally considered less-than. For instance, he mentions Zora Neale Hurston as missing from all his college syllabi. He enjoys Zora Neale Hurston, and regrets she was left out.

Yep, that's it. That's the sum total of his thoughts on systemic racial prejudice in 'high' art and literature: a recognition that he could have been reading Zora Neale Hurston earlier, if only he'd known. Notice how that thought immediately circles back to focus on Mr. Akey -- as did his discussions of Anya and Alistair before.

Even on the internet, which sometimes feels like a machine created specifically to increase the world supply of self-indulgence, this kind of overbearing smugness stands out. Our author closes his opus with this rallying cry: "Plenty of people think I’m pretentious. I don’t mind. I know how to think, I know how to talk, and I’m not bored." As though the lasting achievements of human art and creativity are nothing more than great ways to while away the time before death. As though "how to think" and "how to talk" are the sum of potential human connection and contribution. 

Mr. Akey is welcome to his High Culture: it sounds terribly lonely to me.

Regards,

Olivia

This post brought to you entirely by Open Letters Monthly's breathtaking condescension to me on Twitter, both under my pen name ...

Link to a condescending tweet.

... and under my day name:

Link to a snarky tweet.

In the interest of complete disclosure, I should mention that I once pitched something to Open Letters Monthly and was rejected. It was many years ago, before I was published. Like many authors, I have been rejected by the best and brightest: Harlequin, The Stranger, Tor, Entangled, Carina Press, McSweeney's. Rejection of a submission is part of the business; archly questioning my reading acumen on social media, however, deserves a sharp rebuttal.

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.

 

A to Z Wrap-Up

1. I did it! I did it! *collapses into wild laughter and sobs* Thank you to everyone who commented, replied, and retweeted -- the best part of this series was hearing other people's thoughts, whether or not they aligned with mine. Authors, readers, and reviewers all care so deeply about what is going on in romance: it gives me hope in a world that so often seems unfixable. 2. It occurred to me around the letter D -- for Tessa Dare -- that this whole project could be considered a particularly exquisite and long-form instance of trolling. We have talked so much and at so many cross purposes about reviewing and readership and authorship in the genre lately, and here I was with twenty-six posts that question, criticize, analyze, and overthink romances by authors who are frequently friends or online acquaintances. There was the distinct feeling that I was angling for trouble. Especially since some of the books I took most to task were by big-name authors heavily laureled with industry awards and platinum sales figures. And some of the subjects I tackled were things I approach as an outsider. I'll admit to no few qualms about this, despite all my grumpy defiance. But a lot of people seemed to be on the same page about problematic books, and many authors commented or tweeted in support as well. Best of all were the people who got excited and went out in search of the books I discussed -- the whole point of this was to draw more attention to characters and authors from underrepresented groups, and if I've done even a little work to help that then this project counts as a success.

3. In fact, I liked doing this so much that I'm going to try and do at least one analytic post a month from now on. I might not always pick books with the criteria I've used here, but this is a part of my brain that I'm happy to have dusted off and put back to work. I think it'll be good for my heart as well as for my fiction. Plus, I still owe you a Vorkosigan post, after all.

4. Around the letters M and N, I started to have more questions than answers about the books I was reading. Time was catching up to me and I refused to post something too half-baked just for the sake of posting, so I ended with questions. While this is not a strategy I intend to depend on entirely -- unanswered questions are neither helpful in large doses nor do they generally make for good reading -- I found it liberating to illustrate the net I was caught in, rather than trying to always cut myself free of threads that could ultimately prove useful or important. 

5. I made it onto Metafilter! Someone thinks my Sandra Hill post was a terrible review because I did not give a synopsis of the plot! Someone else thinks my writing style is like the Hairpin! It's a pretty fun thread, with some really good points.

6. If you missed this stunning essay from Daniel José Older, "Diversity Is Not Enough," then please click through and read the whole thing at once. It's an excellent reminder that while talk is all well and good, the ultimate goal of such talk is to change the world. The real world, the one we're living and breathing and eating and fucking and laughing and writing in.

7. I rarely tagged an author while sharing these posts, so I was surprised and delighted by the wealth of positive author response, even from authors whose books I had given less than glowing assessments of. Taking texts seriously as texts, even to disagree with, bears fruit, and that's something I'm going to hold close against my heart to warm me during the cold, rainy winter of the soul. And the times I did really get down and dirty with righteous wrath (ahem) so far have not risen up to crush me. Exciting! Though ask me again after the RT Convention I'm attending in May, where it's possible someone will give me the cut direct! Whereupon I'm sure I will weep bitter tears into my lemonade. Or, more probably, quote to myself a comforting snippet of Dorothy Parker:

And sweet's the air with curly smoke

From all my burning bridges.

Memorizing Dorothy Parker poems by reading them too many times is definitely one of the happiest accidents of my life.

In case anyone wants to go back and read past entries, I've made a complete page for just the alphabet without all the introductory paragraphs.

And in the immortal words of Strong Bad, now it is my intention to sit down and play video games for several hours.

Z is for Zoe Archer

{Content note: the following post contains brief mentions of rape and nonconsensual attitudes in romance. Click here for the complete -- actually complete! -- alphabet of intersectional feminism in romance.}

This post is both an ending and a beginning: an ending, because we have reached the letter Z, and after tomorrow's brief wrap-up of the whole series I am going to explore the exciting new field of Shutting The Hell Up; a beginning, because Zoe Archer's books were the ones that first got me really looking for more varied representation in romance all those (five) years ago. Rebel is the third book in Ms. Archer's Blades of the Rose series, which I thoroughly enjoy for their mix of magic, historical romance, and adventure. (I'm several books behind in terms of keeping up with her many series -- the curse of being a slow reader!)

Cover image for Rebel by Zoe Archer. Background of snowy peaks and high alpine forest. In the foreground a sharp-faced, dark-haired, tan-skinned man kneels, looking around observantly. He wears trousers, boots, a pale coat, and a fancy gold waistcoat. One arm is thrown out protectively to the woman who stands behind him, looking off in the opposite direction. She has pale skin and blond hair in a long braid down one shoulder. She wears goggles, trousers, a belted overshirt, and a long duster coat. A long knife is tied to the belt at her waist. One hand holds a pair of binoculars, and the other rests lightly on the man's shoulder. The premise of this series is an explicit treatise on the ethical and unethical uses of power. The Blades of the Rose (as in compass rose) are a group of fighters, spies, and scientists who travel the world to protect magical artifacts from being exploited. Their nemeses are a group known as the Heirs of Albion, whose purpose is to collect as many magical artifacts as they can for the purposes of elevating England above all other nations: "If the Heirs had their desire, Britain's empire would see no limits" (Kindle location 13015). The contest is perennially uneven: the Heirs are aristocratic and wealthy, central figures of the real-world British Empire, and they do not scruple to use every means available to achieve their goal. Our heroes, in contrast, only use magic "that is theirs by right or gift" (15869). It leaves them perpetually outgunned and outmanned, forced to rely on their wits and strategy rather than brute force -- ripe terrain for anyone who likes rooting for the underdog.

It's been a while since I read the whole series, but in broad strokes the Blades' own structure unfortunately replicates the pattern of imperial power, where the center is located in England (Southampton) and agents are dispatched out to the margins (Mongolia, Greece, Africa, Canada) on limited-time missions. I chose Rebel to discuss not only because it has a Native Canadian hero, but because the colonial themes of the series are brought out most vividly in this particular installment. Unfortunately, just as the Blades' resistance to imperialism takes an imperial form, the resistances to oppression and colonial power in Rebel often replicate the patterns that sustain those systems.

Hero Nathan Lesperance is part Cowichan and part Stoney, but he's never really known either tribe. Like many Native Canadian children, Nathan was taken from his parents at a young age and raised to be assimilated into white Christian culture. It's a particularly cruel piece of North American history whose present ramifications include dying languages, broken traditions, lost cultures, and traumatic isolation for many First Nations people. Nathan's determination to resist the colonial pressure that attempts to erase his history and his personhood has led him to become a lawyer on Vancouver Island, doing pro bono work to ease the burdens of injustice on Chinese and Native populations: "From the inside out, he'd smash apart the edifices of their prejudice, and the victory would be all the sweeter because they'd put the hammer in his hands" (12464). I was reminded of heroine Starbride from Barbara Ann Wright's Pyramid Waltz, who also hopes to use the law as a means of fighting imperialism. I was also very strongly reminded of Audre Lord's famous essay, "The Master's Tools Cannot Dismantle the Master's House" (PDF). In this light, Nathan's project is doomed to fail because he cannot see that the very foundations of the edifice are stacked against him. The law is created by imperial minds, with racist biases, and backed by prejudice at every level. A system that encourages settler colonialism through land grants, broken treaties, and military action cannot be used to dismantle imperialism: it would be like trying to use a hammer to smash itself.

Nathan, moreover, is not even truly within the system. One of the first descriptions we get of him explicitly marks out his difference through the eyes of a local Mountie:

"I'm not your typical lawyer," said Lesperance, dry.

On that, the sergeant had to agree. For one thing, most lawyers resembled prosperous bankers, their soft stomachs gently filling out their waistcoats, hands soft and manicured, a look of self-satisfaction in their fleshy, middle-aged faces. Nathan Lesperance looked hard as granite, hale, barely thirty, and more suited for a tough life in the wilderness than arguing the finer points of law in court or from behind a desk. (12231)

This description is a typical hero's look -- "hard as granite" in particular is one of romance's more often-applied phrases. But we're still gazing at Nathan through the imperial lens here: the definition of banker or lawyer implies male, middle-aged (well, yeah, after all those years of schooling!), soft and white. By invoking Nathan's difference from this type, the text reiterates his marginalization.

Soon after this, Nathan discovers an ability to shapeshift into a large grey wolf. Our Native hero quite literally has a beast inside him, one which matches faintly remembered stories told to him by his dead mother: "A legendary race of changers lived in the sacred mountains" (12811). But our white heroine has to fill in the gaps in his knowledge: "The race of changers are called Earth Spirits ... I have heard the legends, too. But I learned long ago that there is much more truth to legends than society would have us believe ... You are an Earth Spirit." The colonialist rupture of tribal tradition means Nathan now has to learn about his innermost self from a woman who comes from that same colonizing culture. When Nathan objects, as this seems to confirm every bigoted thing that's ever been said about him -- and he's not really wrong, is he? -- Astrid qualifies her statement:

"I did not say you were a man-beast. A man who can change into an animal. That is different."

His bark of laughter held no humor. "Stupid of me not to see the difference." (12847)

Bark of laughter -- again, a common romance turn of phrase that in context proves rather infelicitous. The problem of where Nathan's self as man begins and where his self as wolf begins (or later bear or hawk -- spoilers! he has three beasts in there!) troubles the text. As is common in paranormal romance, strong emotions tend to bring out Nathan's bestial form, especially anger, arousal, and fear. I am increasingly uncomfortable with the way these emotions are elided into one another in romance generally and paranormal romance most of all; I get that it's all connected to self-control but as someone who can't help flinching at loud noises I get uncomfortable at the thought of a partner who's one inciting incident away from literally turning into a slavering monster with sharp teeth and claws. Nathan can change shape at will and is able to understand speech in his animal forms, but this comforting sentience disappears when he changes under the pressure of emotional impulses. And the way this ties back into the stereotypes of Natives as bestial only compounds my discomfort:

An animal within himself. He'd always felt it, fought it down every day. White men thought Indians were animals. He would prove them wrong, even if it meant brutally tethering a part of himself. But that hidden beast recognized her [Astrid], saw its like within her. And demanded. (12313)

The existence of Nathan's beast-form here is a literal proof that white prejudice against Native peoples has some basis in fact in the world of the text. Some Native people are literally, not figuratively, animals. And the bestial nature is brought out by contact with (and attraction to) our white, blonde heroine.

It must be confessed: I love Astrid as a character. She's lonely and standoffish and deeply wounded in ways that usually only the hero is allowed to be. I love a prickly heroine, and she's a top-notch example. Astrid is frequently characterized, like Nathan, as beast-like or having a hidden beast that matches his. Astrid's beast, however, is metaphorical: Nathan's is literal. I cannot read this as an even distribution of power -- unless her position as a white colonizer with greater knowledge (of magic, of his own people, of the threats posed by the Heir) compensates for the fact that Nathan is constantly fighting the urge to -- if you'll allow me a mild euphemism -- disregard her sexual non-consent:

Nathan lowered back down to sitting, though he grimaced in pain from his aching cock. He breathed in hard, forcing himself and the beast back under control but having a hell of a time. The beast demanded more. He never took an unwilling women -- even if the woman's body was so damned willing she could start a firestorm with her heat ... He clenched his jaw so tightly it throbbed, felt the animal in him growl, demanding to be set free. But he was more than animal. He had to prove that to her, and to himself. (13959)

"He never took an unwilling woman" -- the pronoun's most immediate antecedent is the beast, not Nathan, but both are active so both are mingled here. Normally such language is an externalization of a purely interior struggle -- the classical example is Athena grabbing Achilles by the hair in the Iliad to prevent him from striking Agamemnon. But Nathan's inner beast is frighteningly, fatally real. He never for one moment accepts that Astrid might honestly, truly reject him: all her denials are ascribed to fear, or avoidance of pain, or her desire to hide from complicated emotions. Their bond is presented in the text as something diegetically real and palpable even before they have exchanged more than three sentences: it is not quite a fated mate scenario, but it is close. The problem with this is that, like Nathan's beast, the ethical landscape changes when what is usually a metaphor becomes factual. If you meet someone and the two of you have an instantaneous, real bond that happens because of magic, then it is accurate to say that rejecting that must be immoral or deluded, just like denying climate change or the benefit of vaccination is deluded (note: there will be no arguing about those statements in comments). But in real life, such palpable bonds are not scientific, they are not demonstrable by any outside measure, they are not objectively true -- they are, however, frequently used as justifications for sexual assault and abuse. A brief tour through the many blog posts about the Jamie-Cersei rape scene from the recent Game of Thrones episode "Breaker of Chains" (this one from the Mary Sue is my favorite) will provide ample parallels for why this is an important sticking point.

This tension between threat and desire is resolved in the plot when Astrid yields her consent, as often happens in romance, whereupon Nathan's beast of course turns protective instead of ominous. And to the text's credit, Nathan's change is not purely presented as an increase in power. It unsettles him, disturbs the course of his life, and makes him vulnerable in new ways. In fact, he way Astrid and Nathan progress from shame about the change/looking away, to watching the change as though watching is a gift, becomes highly sexually charged: "'We shared something before,' he nodded toward the direction from which they'd come, the riverbank on which they'd made love. 'We'll share this now.' He pulled off his boots with hands that shook slightly with the intimacy of what he was about to do. A greater intimacy than the joining of their bodies in sex. They both knew that no one had ever seen him so unguarded, so truly exposed as he would be in a moment" (27211). This further complicates the interplay of violence and sexuality, and strikes me an unsatisfactory answer to the questions raised by the text. More and more, I am unsettled by the idea of romances whose erotic charge is He could hurt you, but he doesn't. That is not a fun fantasy for me; that is not an escape; that is far too close to real life and my nightmares. You're special: you're the only one he shows the monster to. <-- A horrible pun I could not resist.

If Nathan's sexualized shapeshifting is a vulnerability, it is one that makes him and the other Earth Spirits a target for the Heirs, who want to colonize tribal powers the way the British colonized tribal lands: "Captive breeding ... They will force you into captive breeding and create their own army of shape changers" (14754). The Heirs will do this by using three totems -- a bear, an eagle, and a hawk -- that each give them the power to control that animal's shifters. There are repeated statements that the tribes can do nothing to resist the Heirs. There are repeated statements that the power of the Heirs is generally irresistible. It is hard to discern which of these statements are textual (setting us up for the eventual triumph of our heroes) and which of these statements are interacting with real-world historical narratives, which holds that all Native cultures eventually fall beneath the onslaught of white settlement and militarism. Similarly, Astrid's eventual sexual submission is never really in doubt in the text -- this is romance, where we know our hero and heroine will get together, so all her protestations are mere bumps in the road. Nathan has been colonized and is under the threat of an even more terrifying colonization by the Heirs -- at the same time, his determined sexual pursuit of Astrid bears a strong resemblance to the forward movement of an irresistible, implacable enemy. At one point when Nathan is explaining why it's particularly hard for men to watch the women they love take risks, Astrid says, "I thought that, rebel that you are, you'd have a bit more progressive attitude." Nathan's reply: "Some things are carved into a man's blood and bones" (15520).

Let us have rebellion, this book says, but not too much.

___

Snarky Cake's post Multicultural Tokenism in Paranormal Romance and Urban Fantasy has informed much of my analysis in this post, and aligns with many of my own observations of the genre.

I really wish I had had the time to read Stranger as well for this post, since black English genius inventor and waistcoat enthusiast Catullus Graves is the closest I've ever come to having a real-life crush on a romance hero. And Ms. Archer pairs him with a buxom, redheaded writer, so the self-identification for me there is off the charts.

Now added to my impossibly long reading list: Werewolves and Other Shapeshifters in Popular Culture.

Definitely worth checking though it may not be still trending when this post hits: the hashtag #DiversityIsNot. Those who devalue Twitter as a means of amplifying decentered voices are talking out of their (frequently centered) ass.

This Goodreads thread about abuse red flags, sexual violence, and paranormal and erotic romance (and a bit of romantic suspense) is full of food for thought. I don't necessarily endorse every comment in here, but I do endorse having the discussion. This post asking whether we give paranormal heroes a pass on abusive behavior is also important.

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Archer, Zoe. Blades of the Rose bundle. New York: Zebra Books, December 1, 2010. Ebook.

Y is for Y Chromosomes: Gender Binary (Part 2)

{Click here for the full alphabet of intersectional feminism in romance.} Yesterday I talked about the gender binary in mainstream romance; today's post is all about m/m and f/f romance. I'm a mere dabbler in each of these deep pools, with much of my knowledge gleaned second-hand from scurrilous if entertaining places like Tumblr, so I hope there will be experts around to chime in with points I may not have considered or come across. None of the below comments will have anything to do with the writing quality of either subgenre -- instead I'd like to explore the various intersections that crop up around the reading culture and reception of m/m and f/f separately within the broader mainstream culture of romance.

Sharp-eyed readers may have noticed that this month's posts have not featured a romance with two male leads (though we have seen gay secondary characters). As I mentioned in comments to the Evangeline Parsons Yazzie post, I tend to give m/m romance a heavy side-eye: although I've read quite a few m/m fics and fanfics as a youth on the internet, my early experiences with m/m romance as a genre came when I started publishing erotic romance and joined my first author loops. (Oh, author loops, those gutters of self-promo and tone policing -- it's like being in a cutthroat high school clique with your mom.) <-- Statement that may ensure I'll never be in another author loop ever again?

The m/m authors I learned about on the loops were primarily straight women. They were upbeat, self-consciously naughty, and self-described allies of gay men. Note: gay men. A standard example comes from author Tara Lain (screencap), who writes m/m and the occasional m/m/f menage: "I love the intensity, passion, lack of gender roles, diversity, and innate drama that accompany two men in love."

LACK OF GENDER ROLES COMMA DIVERSITY. This right here could easily fuel a two-thousand word post about privilege and appropriation and the way political theory devolves into marketing buzzwords. Limiting gender to one half of the binary is not compatible with diversity as a value. For one thing, despite the many parallel comments in this Goodreads thread on m/m romance, erasing the presence of women is not an acceptable solution to the problems that gender inequality presents. Not even in fiction. Because simply erasing one gender from a text does not erase capital-G-Gender from the text. A post at Vacuous Minx puts it most succinctly:

Let’s be honest and acknowledge that m/m provides a respite from what women’s gendered roles in romance novels make us confront, not from “gendered power relationships” more generally.

For another thing, "diversity" here is a feel-good term and an emotional manipulation: it aligns the straight author and her books with the morality of tolerance even as she makes money from the appropriated lives of marginalized identities. This is the very definition of fetishization.

When Victoria Brownworth wrote about m/m romance for Lambda Literary several years ago, including her own experience as a young lesbian reading f/f stroke fiction authored by men, it became A Huge Thing. [Updated to add: Victoria Brownworth has been active in TERF circles, which if I had known when I was writing this post would have made me pass her over in silence. Sometimes I get turned around by internet chronology. I stand by my citations below, mostly because they do not cite Ms. Brownworth.] One of the very first commenters was a female author of m/m who took issue with the terms:

[A] fetish by definition means to hold something in awe or in high regard. How does that jive with the hate-filled connotations that you want to associate with it? I also have a shoe fetish… does that mean I hate shoes?

Note: in her example, gay men = shoes. The definition of objectification. This is the facet of the m/m culture that always gives me the impression the (straight, female) author has taken two GI Joes and is mashing their faces together while saying, "Now kiss!" It gives me the heebie-jeebies and it means I hesitate to pick up an m/m romance that does not come with a recommendation from a trusted source. (Much more thoughtful responses to Brownworth's argument can be found in this post by Sarah Frantz at Teach Me Tonight, and in comments. It's a good old-fashioned internet clusterfuck and now my brain hurts so I'm moving on.) I know there are gay male authors of m/m and I know there are wonderful books out there -- but the fetishizing gatekeepers have so far succeeded in scaring me away from nearly the entire subgenre.

Let's revisit Tara Lain's author page again, because it brings up another issue I'd like to develop more fully, and which I haven't seen brought to the forefront of any mainstream m/m discussions in the past few years. Here is her front-page bio, in full, where I've added some crucial emphasis:

I’m Tara Lain and I write The Beautiful Boys of Romance. I love all my characters, but especially my unique heroes. I write mostly MM romance with some MMF as well. I love the intensity, passion, lack of gender roles, diversity, and innate drama that accompany two men in love. Giving my guys their happy ever after is my favorite thing. I write serious themes with a light touch and readers often call my books “sweet” despite all the hot sex!  I believe in love and enjoy giving more of it to the world! Please say hi, ask questions, and make yourself at home!  : )

The theme here is of ownership and control: the author is explicitly foregrounding her authority in the world of her texts, not only in regard to "her" boys but in regard to the shape of their (fictional) lives. The issue of control is also what makes discussions of m/m so quickly vitriolic on both sides: lgbt people object to feeling not in control of the bulk of fictional depictions of their own lives (and have been systemically erased from history and literature), and m/m authors and readers object to the idea that their own creative endeavors must be limited by considerations outside themselves (especially volatile for romance authors/readers, who are routinely pushed outside the literary tradition).

The idea of control helps explain why the same kind of rhetorical turns and attitudes that put my hackles up in professional publishing tend to merely (or sometimes profoundly) amuse me when I see them on Tumblr and in fan spaces. For instance: the Science Boyfriends fandom, which imagines that Bruce Banner and Tony Stark are in a romantic relationship and/or like to hang out and do lab work and experiments and make inventions together. It tends to be pretty cute, with a sweet rom-com vibe in both art and fic. Like many popular fan and slash pairings -- the Winchesters, every Sherlock/Watson iteration, the original Kirk/Spock -- these stories and artworks are a response, a reframing of an original work that is both culturally resonant and light on female characters or straight romantic relationships. Fanfic/slash is often deeply personal, experimental, self-aware, allusive, complex, and vivid. It is also mostly read and written by young women. In a world where young women's own bodies and sexuality are constantly policed, scrutinized, and appropriated by everyone else, I suspect the way slash takes control back from creators (generally also men) is profoundly therapeutic: These are the characters you've given us, but we are reclaiming them as our own. Or else it's an echo of the way young women feel appropriated by media? Taking the image or depiction of someone and putting that to your own use: if this is how value is created for young women, perhaps it also can become how young women create value? (See yesterday's thought about authors swapping beefcake photos.) Remember the Creamsicle fandom? That time when a cartoon pointing out sexist depictions of girls on social media became a sweet lesbian romance between two characters who hadn't even existed twenty-four hours earlier? God, that made me so happy. Young women (and some of them young queer women!) working together to create something positive out of misogyny and systemic erasure. I tear up just thinking about it.

Of course, if this is a major propellant of slashfic (hint: probably not entirely!), then it's an impulse that must eventually need tempering with an eye toward other marginalized identities. No matter how many Science Boyfriend fics are written, Bruce Banner and Tony Stark will remain safely un-marginalized: actual gay men do not have this luxury. Making the switch to original characters transforms the writer's ethical landscape -- especially if this change happens to align with your own social privilege as a straight or straight-identified person in a homophobic culture. I'm starting to think this dynamic (a straight female writer progressing from slash fic to original fic to a career as an author of m/m romance) parallels one identified in this piece from Restructure, where geeky men redefine intelligence/math skills/computer savvy as masculine in response to jock bullying and identification of manliness with physical prowess. So when women claim to be intelligent/skilled in math/computer savvy in the same way, geek men push back out of ingrained self-defense. Similarly, slash writers potentially reclaim and reframe male relationships as a vital means of self-expression; when real-life gay men object, writers push back to defend themselves as a matter of course. I think this might explain certain common rhetorical moves in these debates -- the description of m/m romance as works of respect and pure imagination, for instance, read very similarly to defenses of fan fiction against authors who object to it. You don't own that, is the general refrain all around.

To get back on track ... The money is, I realize now, a large part of what makes the m/m industry so distasteful to me on a grand scale. When the BBC Sherlock mocked fan culture in the Series Three premiere, I was appalled and put off. It was an inappropriate use of power: Moffatt and the producers of Sherlock were much more culturally and financially powerful than the fans they were poking at. In m/m, the existence of royalty relationships tends to amplify hegemonic power, so that straight women -- Suzanne Brockman and J. R. Ward come to mind -- reap the bulk of the attention and financial rewards in a subgenre centered on the love lives of gay men. Particularly when straight women can build entire careers and lengthy backlists on just books with m/m pairings. I can't get past this as a sticking point, quite honestly. Not every m/m romance is automatically appropriative -- but the structure of the industry itself deserves some sharp critique. So all this isn't to say that I'm against m/m romance as a thing per se -- merely that I'm going to be extra-careful about where my dollars go in an industry that feels so fundamentally imbalanced.

And now, for f/f fiction!

I've had incredible luck with f/f romance for this series. I've found wonderful new authors whose books I'm now itching to read more of, and I've found great resources like The Lesbrary which features lesbian-themed fiction both popular and literary (often reviewed by actual lesbians!). Not everything has been perfect, but nothing has made me feel as deeply uneasy as with m/m, either -- not even the unabashedly pulpy ones like Rebekah Weatherspoon's Better Off Red. There's probably something about the intersections between straight women/queer women, as opposed to those between straight women/gay men, that has implications (but people smarter than me will have to work on this for the moment). When discussing f/f fiction, there are few genre-wide arguments to cite, few clusterfucks to dig up -- but why? I can think of many reasons and all of them are depressing. Is it because:

  • Two women having sex is not as much of a social threat as two men (witness all the anti-marriage equality materials that featured scare grooms, and the way lesbian sex was never as thoroughly criminalized as gay sex between men).
  • If romance is "women writing about women," then f/f romance is "women writing about women falling in love with other women." That's like a Double Romance. "Gross," says Patriarchy.
  • The much lower revenue streams of f/f mean there are far fewer presses, authors, and readers with a financial stake in the subgenre. So there will be arguments, but they will rarely reach the heights of a debate that hits, for instance, a revered literary institution for gay lit, a top-notch romance review site, Gawker, and OUT Magazine.

F/f has yet to go mainstream in the way that m/m has/is about to -- but I'm certainly going to be reading more of it. And that seems as good a place as any to call it a day.

___

A Twitter-borne recommendation from queer gamer scholar Todd Harper has gotten me hooked on sci-fi gay romance animated webcomic Buying Time. I'm only a little ways in but I am thoroughly charmed. More like this, please.

Gay author of m/m romance Theo Fenraven has some thoughts on this issue, which do not entirely align with my own, but which are definitely worth bringing up for debate.

This year's Lambda Literary Award winners were announced today! I freely admit this is just a coincidence, but it's a pleasing one nonetheless.

Edited to add: An email remnded me of this thoughtful post from author E. E. Ottoman about the popularity of f/f versus m/m romance.

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X is for X-Chromosomes: The Gender Binary (Part 1)

{Click here for the complete alphabet of intersectional feminism in romance.} Romance has a distinct gender essentialist undercurrent, as I've talked about briefly in the past. Men are Men, and Women are Women, and never the twain shall meet except in approved narrative arcs with guaranteed happy endings. Between romance reading/criticism and conference marketing and the thousand or so friends of mine who are having babies presently (another one since I started this post! no, for real though, the pics just went up on Facebook) and thus seeing all the baby shower pictures and gender reveals, I sometimes have to fight off the absurd notion that genders are like Hogwarts houses in constant competition and we're all just assigned to one or the other more or less at random even though many of us could have done just as well in Ravenclaw as in Gryffindor -- oh, god, and now I have this image of the Sorting Hat glomming onto people's junk and shouting out Man! or Woman! and now how could I possibly look J. K. Rowling in the face without blushing?

But ridiculousness aside, I've also started to notice the ways in which these false boundaries are asserted both within and around the romance genre. The performance of gender is repeated at every level in countless ways that reinforce the male/female binary, at the expense of people who don't quite fit within the limits of that mode of expression. A list may be helpful at this point, moving from the level of the text outward through the discourse:

  • Many a romance novel uses terms like "masculine" or "feminine" to mark sexual desirability and/or arousal -- as though gender is never inseparable from sexuality or is the primary basis for attraction (as opposed to honor, wit, charm, kindness, etc.). For instance, the hero who always smells like "some combination of Thing A, Thing B, and man," where "man" is the word that clues you in to the fact that this is a sexualized sense experience for the heroine. It often happens with heroines, too -- there's a soap smell (lavender, lemon, sandalwood), and then something like "the indelible essence of woman/[heroine's name]."
  • Many a romance novel mentions how the hero/heroine is desired by all women/men -- as though attraction is an objective measure, or as though gay and bisexual people don't exist, or as though the hero/heroine's sexual allure is a rule of physics like gravity or entropy and doesn't involve another person's desires or personal preferences at all. This often becomes a point of confusion for heroes in particular, puzzling over the heroine's resistance to their advances. "Did she not know his reputation with the ladies?"
  • Gendered euphemisms: "her most womanly places." As though gender were rooted in biology rather than culture and performance. And I don't know about you, but when I get tingly in my tingly bits, I don't respond by thinking, "How womanly of me!"
  • The improbably muscular hero -- even if he has no reason to be muscular because he works at a desk all day or because gyms didn't exist in Regency London. As though masculinity, social power, and physical power were all interchangeable, and a proper hero must have all three.
  • The improbably hairless historical heroine -- as though modern notions of grooming and hygiene were in operation in earlier centuries. (Google "merkin" if you doubt me.)  As though ungroomed femininity is somehow unspeakable, in need of mediation through beauty work. Someday I hope to find a historical heroine who actually spends time depilating with some gross pre-modern concoction, simply because that would be novel. (And hair removal has a long and fascinating history.)
  • The "kickass heroine" -- because she stands for type of aspirational womanhood that is inevitably tied up with the equivalence between violence and power that we see in the muscular hero. Fictive violence is in itself an inadequate rebellion against the stereotype of women's passivity and weakness. If we have learned anything from Quentin Tarantino movies (have we learned anything from Quentin Tarantino movies?) it's that power through violence does not automatically subvert patriarchal stereotypes. There was a moment from Laura K. Curtis' Twisted where the heroine claimed she was not like the killer's other victims, implying that she was physically stronger -- sadly, this empowerment comes at the expense of numerous dead women.
  • Heroines are often special because they are Not Like Other Women. Heroes are often special because they Exceed All Other Men. Either way, masculinity is the benchmark by which all characters are judged.
  • The term "book boyfriends," which elevates heroes over heroines and makes readers monolithically female and heterosexual. I've certainly fallen in love with fictional characters before -- who hasn't? -- but I think the fact that "book boyfriends" exists as a term while "book girlfriends" doesn't is telling. There is plenty of conversation around desiring men, but we so rarely talk about the heroines we want to hang out with -- for instance, as great as Alec Kincaid is in Garwood's classic The Bride, it's heroine Jamie who I want to actually meet in person, because she'd be awesome. Sweet and thoughtful and if a horse tried to bite me she'd punch that horse in the face -- she's exactly what I want in a friend.
  • The idea that m/m romance is free from gender roles -- as though masculine and feminine are the only gender options, and as though there's only one way of performing each role. (More on this tomorrow in The Gender Binary Part 2!)
  • The appearance of male cover models at conferences, purely for titillation. It is presumed that (female) romance authors are interested in (male) cover models, which is not universally the case -- think of all the lesbian romance authors, or happily married romance authors, or male romance authors, or romance authors who aren't really into the cover model type (especially when he's headless, the poor thing). Yet cover model appearances are always presented with a winking faux-naughtiness, the full weight of capitalist sexualization, and a great deal of pressure to go along with this imposed notion of fun. As though offering up cover models for readers'/authors' visual enjoyment were the same thing as offering food or drinks.
  • Any romance writers' conference is sure to feature a workshop on how to write plausible male characters -- as though men are interchangeable and can be built from one set of blueprints, or as though creating complex male characters is qualitatively different than creating complex female characters. As though we do not get a crash course on male characters in fiction simply by surviving a single year of high school English (much less college or graduate school). "Plausible male characters" in romance so often translates into "emotionally closed off" or "casually misogynistic in a dudely fashion."
  • The sharing of beefcake photos by authors on social media. This is a very complicated thing, because it is still a bold act for a woman to declare herself a sexual subject against the pressures of patriarchal culture. And there is a pure visceral pleasure in a good sexy pic that is very hard to deny: people are visual creatures. But I've come to believe that much of this photo-sharing also functions as performative heterosexuality -- not so much an actual personal desire as a show of personal desire for the purpose of community building (the "socially intelligible" part of this Wikipedia chunklet). Especially since the "hot men" thing is so often used as a way of establishing an author's personal brand for marketing purposes. This pattern echoes the way patriarchy asserts itself through the consumption of women's bodies -- to take one example, the sexually based bonding implied by the term "wingman," where the friendship between two men is cemented through sexual pursuit of women (who are then presumably discarded, while the friendship is kept). <-- Is this the most pedantic description ever of two dudes hanging out in a bar trying to get laid? Possibly!
  • Any time a major publication wants to talk about romance novels, they hire a male writer with little experience in the genre to write the piece. Noah Berlatsky's recent article in Salon (via DoNotLink) was not the most egregious example, and I do share his taste in romances to a large degree, but it adheres closely enough to the established pattern that I can hardly read it through the rolling of my eyes. I can only think of two exceptions to this rule, and both have taken place this year: Sarah MacLean's letter in the New York Times Book Review (about which she was interviewed at All About Romance) and Lorraine Heath's recent piece on dukes for NPR (DO NOT read the comments on that one, unless you are near-fatally low on blood pressure).

Entrenched gender performance like this means it really is an uphill battle for romance with trans or genderfluid characters to get enough mainstream traction to be noticed. That's starting to change -- witness the recent discussions of Painted Faces and Untamed -- but there's still a lot of room for growth. And I didn't even begin to approach the ways in which gender is not sex and biology is not as black-and-white as culture would have us think. (Useful search terms for those wishing to learn more on their own: CAMAB and CAFAB.) I'm still at the point of thinking about this issue where I can recognize a lot of what's wrong but have no map for where to go from here. I have said this before but it's perennially accurate: I have a lot more reading to do.

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For a real-world example of how the focus on biology-as-gender-and-sex is harmful and reductive, here is Laverne Cox being interviewed by Katie Couric, and her response to a particularly invasive and common line of questioning.

If you have not already read Cordelia Fine's excellent and most necessary book Delusions of Gender, I highly recommend doing so. It lays to rest a lot of the pseudo-science around the idea of gendered biology, particularly in regard to the idea of male brains and female brains being innately different. Eye-opening and keen and at times pure angry feminist fun.

Genderbent Romance is a young but worthy Tumblr I have stumbled over, that exists purely to swap the genders of characters in romance novel blurbs. The results are exquisite, and they accept reader submissions!

I am delighted to present you this charming piece from The Toast on Rules of Gender Variant Chivalry. Personal favorite: "A high femme must do battle for any androsexual in peril from dragon or Frenchman."

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W is for the Other Woman

{Click here for the full alphabet of intersectional feminism in romance.} It's impossible to write a month's worth of posts on feminism in romance and not bring up the trope of the Other Woman.

She's as old as the genre itself, and appears in many of the canonical works. The ur-example is probably Pride and Prejudice's Caroline Bingley, snobbish and catty and redolent with poisonous politeness. We have two Other Women in Jane Eyre: lovely and self-important Blanche Ingram, and monstrous, pitiable Bertha Rochester. These figures have countless echoes in romance, from the mad villainess in Julie Garwood's The Bride to Julia Quinn's Cressida Cowper to all the immoral, cheating, heartless first wives that have stomped on the hearts of angsty alpha heroes since time immemorial.

Screenshots from both the 1995 and the 2005 versions of Pride and Prejudice, showing heroine Elizabeth Bennett and rival Caroline Bingley standing side by side for comparison.At her most basic level, the Other Woman functions as a way to generate conflict by means of female competition. She battles the heroine for the hero's affections/penis/hand in marriage (a typical shallow take: this evo-psych video which honestly I only made it halfway through on account of some predictably vapid statements about "Harlequin romances"). The symbolic function of the Other Woman is to demonstrate the distance between the heroine and herself -- to the left you will see a pair of screenshots of Elizabeth Bennet and Caroline Bingley (from the 2005 Pride and Prejudice above and the classic 1995 Firth-tacular version below). Note how both Carolines have dresses of finer material, showier jewelry, and more artful hairdos than the Elizabeths. Note the posture, as well: the Elizabeths have their arms at their sides, approachable and vulnerable. The Carolines have their arms crossed in front of them -- right in front of their ladyparts, in fact! -- showing that they are essentially closed off, distant, and cold. Keira Knightley's waifish Elizabeth Bennet is contrasted with a womanly, sultry Caroline, while Jennifer Ehle's bouncy, bosomy Elizabeth is set off by a thin, birdlike Caroline (always the feathers! Anna Chancellor, I love you).

To go a bit further, the Other Woman is frequently a representative of hegemonic power: in historicals she commonly has birth, wealth, and a gift for adroit social backstabbery. She has beauty and knows how to use it, or she is more sexually available (the word "overblown" often marks this, especially in older historicals). Contemporary Other Women (Cin from Bet Me, or C. C. from modern sitcom classic The Nanny) are often portrayed as overly ambitious and career-focused, which are fiction-code for a woman who is cold and self-interested. To them the hero is a prize, an item they intend to acquire as an accessory to a life lived successfully. The most common Other Woman archetype in contemporary romance is not the rival, however, but the ex: the cheating first wife, the neglectful mother of the hero's kids, the too-desperate former girlfriend who can't accept that it's over. These figures are the mirror image of ideal womanhood as embodied by the heroine, who is invariably contrasted as faithful, nurturing, and sexually resistant.

Typically, the Other Woman has obviously put effort into the work of being beautiful: she has elegant clothing, wears visible makeup (rouge in Regencies, blood-red lipstick in contemporaries), carefully coiffed hair, and a figure on deliberate display (daring decollétage, fake boobs). She is using femininity as power, and it's often presented as artificial in some way, particularly in contrast with the heroine's innocence/earnestness/virginity. The heroine feels; the Other Woman calculates. The Other Woman is usually snobbish and elitist -- she treats servants poorly, while the heroine is democratically friendly and un-self-important.

The difference between the two figures adds a moral aspect to the romance plot. The hero is not choosing between two women so much as he is choosing between two models of womanhood: the question needing an answer is not Which woman will he choose? but rather How should a woman be? The Other Woman's inability to snare the hero is often read as a punishment -- she shouldn't have been so self-involved/aggressive/sexually available/shallow/etc. -- as though the hero's romantic choice constitutes a moral judgment, rather than a personal attraction or a choice about mutual compatibility. All the Other Woman's social privilege crumbles beneath the heroine's genuine affection and lack of agenda. Caroline Bingley's pursuit of Darcy is rebuffed and shut down at every turn, while Elizabeth Bennet's success with him is marked at first by a powerful (and deserved!) refusal of his suit. Later, when she does love him, she does not say so openly, but instead declares that she will not say she will not marry him -- a positive expressed in a double negative, a deferral rather than a statement of desire. Darcy correctly interprets this, but it's always struck me as a bit of a reach: I knew you loved me because you didn't say you didn't!

Unfortunately, the way this trope rewards the heroine who earns love/sex without actively seeking it tends to reinforce patriarchal narratives about women's sexual expression and passivity. It's the classic femininity trap: you have to be pretty but not work at it, thin but not too thin, have boobs but not big boobs, be available but not too available. Plus, you are expected to guard against the negative agency of brazen hussies without actually becoming one yourself -- and if all your interactions with other women take the form of competition over men, it's unlikely you'll have time or energy for things like calling out sexism or dismantling systemic discrimination or figuring out how to articulate what you actually want instead of falling in line with a dominant cultural narrative about what you should want.

The Other Woman is a symptom: she is the deliberate embodiment of the negative aspects of femininity, a challenge to the heroine's approved goodness. She destabilizes the text's tight focus on the hero and heroine's bond, and threatens that narrative throughline. She is a reminder, also, that there is a wider world outside two people's romance. I've found it a useful exercise in feminist praxis to root for the Other Woman whenever I encounter her. So Caroline Bingley pursues Darcy obviously and aggressively -- but what the hell else is she supposed to do with her life? Get a job? Oh, now I want to write about Caroline Bingley getting a job -- perhaps a banker like Lady Sally Jersey. I've even thought about writing her love story (exciting discovery: someone already has!). Blanche Ingram is fairly uninteresting, but Jean Rhys has received great critical acclaim for telling Bertha Rochester's story in her anti-colonial Wide Sargasso Sea. (Much as I kind of hate that book, I'm glad it exists. The response was necessary; I just get irritated with the prose style.) One of the greatest moves Margaret Mitchell makes in Gone With the Wind is that Scarlett basically is the Other Woman, a desirous, scheming mischief-maker contrasted with the sweetness, self-abnegation, and porcelain-fragile goodness of Melanie Wilkes. Tessa Dare's Wanton Dairymaid trilogy also plays with this trope: the Other Woman of the first book is the heroine of the second, and neither she nor the first book's heroine end up with the man they're rivals for. (Side note: the plot structure of that trilogy is one of my favorite things ever, and I really need to reread it.)

It's easy to reduce conflicts between women to catfights and an inborn female viciousness -- but this not only minimizes women individually, but leaves no room to discuss the meaningful divisions in women's agendas that shape our daily lives and stories. In particular, I'm thinking of the the well-documented conflicts within feminism -- not only the movement's long history of white supremacy, which spurred black women to create and foster womanism, but also feminism's history with class bias, which privileges discussion of the problems of white upper- and middle-class women (stay-at-home-mothers a la Betty Friedan's Feminine Mystique) over issues facing working- and lower-class women (domestic service workers, sex workers, immigrant women, etc.), to say nothing of the specific challenges faced by gay women and trans women and disabled women. These disagreements are important and worthy of debate, but the figure of the Other Woman and the pervasive specter of Cattiness often serves to shut down otherwise useful conversations. We are afraid to play into the stereotype, so we keep silent and let harmful things slide (or are urged to do so in the name of solidarity). It reminds me of the way we minimize feminine-coded activities in the name of equality: women are just as good as men, we'll say, because we like whiskey and climbing trees and hunting and being physically strong. And by saying that we've ceded the ground that masculine-coded things are good and admirable and feminine-coded things are backward and inferior. We've mistaken the limits of patriarchy (for instance, the idea that women do/should wear pink) for the marks of patriarchy (feminism means never wearing pink!). With the Other Woman, the defensiveness is identical: Don't punish us, the Good Women, the heroines -- we're Not Like Her at all.

The Other Woman is a symptom of patriarchy, but she is also a victim of it. She too must be humanized and defended. Because as soon as we start making a list of Women We Don't Need To Listen To, Women We Can Discard, Women Who Are Less Human -- we all lose.

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Justine Larbalestier unpacks the idea of Scarlett O'Hara as a feminist icon/feminist target in a truly incisive piece.

Last year Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar received the National Book Critics Circle's Lifetime Achievement Award, in no small part for their masterwork The Madwoman in the Attic. Maureen Corrigan at NPR describes the revolution inspired by this book and its continuing relevance.

Here is an old but excellent post from The Book Riot about the "for women, by women" tagline used to defend romance and why it ought to be retired. I'm not sure I entirely agree, but it's a debate I'm really eager to participate in!

The Toast once again knocks it out of the damn park with Suffragettes Who Sucked: White Supremacy and Women's Rights.