Hurt/Comfort: Two Shapeshifting Books Reviewed

Lately, and quite accidentally, I read three books in a row that involved shapeshifting or similar transformations. I'm going to talk about two of them. RoAnn Sylver's Chameleon Moon (kindly loaned to me by Corey Alexander) is a fantasy novel about a trans, queer, and poly found family struggling to survive in a burning city hemmed in by overwhelming surveillance. Nearly everyone left alive in the city has been transformed by the miracle drug Chrysedrine -- some people get wonderful, powerful talents, while others get horrible, painful conditions that might as well be magical curses. The story was beautifully built but at times too painfully earnest for me to disappear into like I wanted. Certain scenes were so palpably aware of the presence of the reader: explorations of one character's newly realized asexuality, for instance, or fierce objections when villain deliberately misgenders a trans family member. The book went out of its way to showcase characters being kind to one another, outside of the demands of plot. I initially read my discomfort as a flaw of the book -- as if you'd dropped by a friend's place casually to say hi and they'd immediately set out the best china and made three of your favorite desserts from scratch. I felt horribly awkward.

Then via NetGalley I received a copy of Masked Possession by Alana Delacroix, a debut in a new paranormal romance series about shapeshifting magical creatures called masquerada who can take on different physical traits and personae, depending on their level of talent and training. The prose is polished and the premise is a novel one for a paranormal. The reviews so far are strongly positive. A lot of people are going to enjoy this book.

I am writing this review for you, the trans reader, wherever you may be. Because I do not think you will enjoy this book. I think it's going to hurt you and I am writing this review to offer evidence.

Masked Possession is a story centered on trans-coded characters and experiences that never once stops to consider that the reader might be trans. This story about modern-day shapeshifters, about masks and passing and secret identities and mental trauma and family rejection and love and who someone really is deep down -- this story never once acknowledges the existence of actual trans humans in the world, despite having trans parallels at all levels from the worldbuilding right on down to the individual phrases.

To briefly show why this is inherently harmful it helps to consider The Matrix, which is certainly also a trans allegory but which places the burden of the metaphor on computers and machines. Neo's journey is a search for truth outside of the falsely imposed limits of the physical body. Masked Possession, on the other hand, consistently makes the characters' physical bodies the source of truth, power, and identity. The only place for trans people in such a metaphor is as collateral damage.

Did I really wince at Chameleon Moon being too considerate? I should have known better than to undervalue kindness.

I started Masked Possession with enthusiasm and a lot of questions I hoped the book would explore. Here is what I found; stop me when this starts to sound familiar.

Masquerada are manipulative, vain, and frivolous. They cannot be trusted. They cannot be intimately known, because they change appearances too drastically. One masquerada can recognize another wearing a masque (except all the times when they can't because the plot requires them to be fooled). Learning to take on a masque is referred to as a transition. Only the most powerful can change genders -- but that includes our hero, our heroine, and the Evil Other Woman. Masquerada are long-lived but prone to something called la vide, a severe depression that commonly ends in suicide. (The French term translates to "the void" or "the gap," which is probably worth a whole bitter essay of its own in this context.) Masquerada believe in their superiority to humans, and though humans find them captivating and sexually alluring intermarriage is extremely rare. They have a secret, glamorous hierarchy with royalty and etiquette of their own. They object to being incarcerated in human prisons.

It gets worse. As a cis woman, I don't often respond viscerally to descriptions of what amounts to body dysphoria, but the climax of this book left me sick and shaking. I'm going to provide a summary and very short quotes below, but I'm also going to put two rows of asterisks around the whole thing and set it in italics in case you want to skim right past this part.

*****

*****

Our heroine, Caro, is a journalist in hiding. Attacked and almost killed by the book's main villain, she now lives in Toronto under an assumed identity. The parallels to a deadname are evident from the start, and the fact that the heroine keeps her past life a secret from the hero is presented as a fault and a failing. The very first thing we see on page one is her arriving at work in mile-high stilettos, and her Francophone boss praising her for dressing "more like a woman." Later, when she finds her boss is in league with the villain, Caro will transform into a giant, muscular, "dickless" man and crush her boss's genitals with her bare hands. The prose goes needlessly, graphically out of its way to emphasize that A) she hates this form and we should never ever picture the heroine as having a penis, and B) that the genital-crushing is a severe and likely permanent injury (telltale phrase: "his ruined groin"). Caro is forced into this giant's body by the villain, who intends to send her in his place to duel the hero to the death. No, it doesn't make a whole lot of sense in the text either. At the novel's climax, Caro has to fight the mindless demands of her unfamiliar, aggressive, frightening, masculine body in order not to kill the man she loves. It is one of the most violently grotesque things I've ever encountered in a romance and it ruined my belief in the HEA, my trust in the author, and any sense of critical distance. And then we are treated to the final sex scene where the hero fucks Carol in those mile-high heels, then takes on a woman's masque and suggests having sex in that form, which Caro finds playful and arousing and I found infuriatingly flip and fetishizing.

*****

*****

The one good thing about having read all the way to the end of Masked Possession is that I can look at Chameleon Moon with a newfound sense of appreciation. It is now startlingly obvious that Sylver's book is centered on caring, on kindness, on radical acts of trust and belief in other human beings. There is conflict -- real, profound conflict, that endangers lives and futures -- but the conflict does not make anyone unworthy of human consideration. This story is founded on love, and not merely the characters' love for one another within the bounds of the plot. It is founded on love-as-a-verb, in the best sense, and it makes sure the reader knows some of that love is directed at you. The unease I felt with being so deliberately taken into account -- as if the book were looking back at me -- now feels like a major misread. Chameleon Moon opens its arms wide and shows a beating, vulnerable heart to the world just in case one reader, somewhere, is feeling raw and shaky and in need of succor. The world is better because this book exists.

In such an age as ours, I can think of nothing more necessary.

All The Iron Filings Line Up Nice and Neat

1. Magnetism seems magical not least because it is invisible. It acts semi-secretly in plain sight, whether it's holding one photo suspended on a refrigerator door or protecting all of Earth from the ravages of the harsh solar wind. We don't see it act -- we only observe the effects, as in this illustration of iron filings being rearranged by a bar magnet.

2.

I am going to ask you to keep that image in mind while you read this passage from a recent George Saunders essay on the process of writing:

When I write, “Bob was an asshole,” and then, feeling this perhaps somewhat lacking in specificity, revise it to read, “Bob snapped impatiently at the barista,” then ask myself, seeking yet more specificity, why Bob might have done that, and revise to, “Bob snapped impatiently at the young barista, who reminded him of his dead wife,” and then pause and add, “who he missed so much, especially now, at Christmas,” – I didn’t make that series of changes because I wanted the story to be more compassionate. I did it because I wanted it to be less lame. 

But it is more compassionate. Bob has gone from “pure asshole” to “grieving widower, so overcome with grief that he has behaved ungraciously to a young person, to whom, normally, he would have been nice”. Bob has changed. He started out a cartoon, on which we could heap scorn, but now he is closer to “me, on a different day”.

Did you see the iron filings move?

Saunders starts off with two characters, Bob and the barista, connected by an action. Saunders then adjusts the story until his alignment with Bob becomes clearer and clearer -- Bob gets a past, a backstory, an emotional landscape. Bob becomes me, on a different day. The barista gets a single adjective: young. Saunders says this is "more compassionate."

But I notice the barista's still the one getting yelled at. She never even gets a name.

I found this jarring because in the initial setup, I allied myself far more strongly with the barista than with Bob. Granted, we started with Bob is an asshole so the initial flinch is tied to that whole I'm not an asshole self-defensive impulse that's so hard to shake. But even though I'm now a middle-aged lady who writes full-time and prefers tea to coffee, I've worked enough years in retail to automatically class myself as barista-adjacent. So I was waiting for her part in this drama to be more completely revealed. And it never happened. She stays a passive grammatical object, a thing that exists for Bob to do something to.

Quick poll: how many of us assumed the barista was white? I caught myself doing just that. Same with Bob, now I think about it.

Did you see the iron filings move? I did, but not soon enough.

Later, Saunders gives us another example of his composing process. He starts with a sentence, Jane came into the room and sat down on the blue couch. This makes him "wince." Slowly he pares away at it, word by word, making it more and more "Hemingwayesque" until he's left with merely Jane, which, he says, "at least doesn't suck, and has the virtue of brevity." Even in text, I guess, women should take up as little space as possible.

I want to tell you that Saunders isn't doing this deliberately, even though he's in the middle of an essay about self-editing and artistic deliberation. But on purpose or not, it fits a larger pattern.

3.

Saunders' essay is about how writers make millions upon millions of tiny, instinctual decisions that add up to internally consistent structures. Recognizing the partly hidden pattern is what makes the book satisfying to the reader. I resonate with a lot of what he says, because a lot of it is very close to my own process. A lot of it is also connected to a certain mystical strain in writing about writing: my characters tell me what they're doing, I just write it all down. Writers say this all the time, in every genre. Thousands of craft books talk about building a character as though you're exploring a map of a place that already exists. A writer's instincts are held as authoritative, unerring, no matter what stage of her career she's at. It's like love, or pornography: you know it when you see it. (For those of us who write romance, it's often a lot like love AND pornography.) It's impossible to overstate how revelatory this feels in practice -- I have felt it myself, more than once. I chase it. It's one of the best parts of being a writer, that breathless of course! moment. A wild story appears, and the pattern makes itself clear, as if without my input.

Of course it's bullshit -- but it's very useful bullshit, when you're trying to finish a draft.

But: Saunders' essay is also about how a writer connects with a reader. And this is where seeing the cause behind the effect becomes so much more important.

Because we are surrounded by patterns that seem natural, but aren't. This is every comment section about the wage gap where someone chimes in to say Well women just happen to choose lower-paying professions. It's every conversation about mothers who just happen to be the ones who stay home to raise the kids. It's black people just happen to live in the inner city and all rural voters are white -- even though we can point to the longstanding existence and wealth of data about redlining and sundown towns to show that these living patterns are the result of decades of fear, financial oppression, and outright violence. When queerness is framed as a perversion and classed with behaviors like kink or sex work, the mere existence of queer characters becomes enough to get a YA story flagged for 'sexual content' even if all your lesbian character does is live next door in the company of thirteen cats. Invisible networks of oppression and privilege nudge us into place, inch by inch, and then culture tells us this is all perfectly natural.

All those iron filings line up naturally in coruscating rays. Remember: naturally does not mean precisely the same thing as freely. Force is at work even if you can't see it. We've all got a little iron in our soul.

4.

Saunders is deeply interested in what it means to be a human in the world: "This mode of revision, then, is ultimately about imagining that your reader is as humane, bright, witty, experienced and well intentioned as you, and that, to communicate intimately with her, you have to maintain the state, through revision, of generously imagining her." This is a lovely thought. But it's important to remember the iron filings and ask: what do you see when you imagine this reader? Not just her personality and taste -- what do you see? 

It shouldn't matter, people will say, except that like fiction real life lives and dies in the specifics. And identity is very, very specific. Saunders flatters the reader of his essay by imagining that Tolstoy "thought well of you," that he would be thrilled you responded to the ideas in his work -- but it's clear this is Saunders projecting his own warmth and generosity onto other artists. Tolstoy was not writing for me. Even the briefest glance at the diaries of Tolstoy's wife Sofia suggests that Tolstoy took a very dim view of women intellectually, sexually, and morally. Imagine him deigning to converse with a bisexual, American, agnostic, staunchly feminist author of smutty romance and Greek-myth-inflected fantasy. This is not to say I cannot enjoy Tolstoy's work -- I have -- but it does mean that I have to enjoy Tolstoy's work a little bit in spite of Tolstoy. He weaves a pattern that has symmetry, consistency, beauty -- and which leaves me out entirely. It is difficult, at times impossible, to take pleasure in being deliberately left out.

Closer to home, award-winning librarian Robin Tuphlos recently tweeted about a webinar wherein a publishing professional wouldn't believe there was an audience for a book if she didn't think it would appeal to her own circle of family and friends. This is a jaw-droppingly limited perspective that does real-world damage to aspiring authors' careers. This is what happens when publishing imagines a reader who shares the imaginer's unexamined bigotry. It's like putting two mirrors opposite one another and then standing between them: the whole world becomes artificially homogenous.

5.

And books can certainly be mirrors. For instance, this pivotal Rudine Sims Bishop essay about the difference between mirror books and window books. Authors from the margins are always working hard to create much-needed mirrors so more people can look into the stories we tell and recognize themselves. Recognition -- both being seen and being known -- is a profoundly universal human need. Need, I'll say again -- not a luxury, not a trifle, but a need.

Unfortunately, marginalized groups have had to learn to recognize the lies that are told about them: black-on-black crimethe gay agenda, model minority, so inspirational. Remember that mirrors can distort as well as reflect. Whiteness, straightness, any systemic privilege puts you one step closer to the mirror: your reflection takes up more space and leaves less room for anyone else to be seen.

There are privileged authors -- far too many -- who have come to view this situation as a trap for them more than for marginalized voices: you can do a search for "scared to write diversity" if you would like more of that perspective. A great many of these authors are trying to do what they see as the right thing by getting more diverse faces in the mirror. But they are trying to do it without taking a step back, because that little iron filing tells them they're in the right place, that they're just naturally closer to the mirror. (Have I stretched this metaphor to the breaking point yet?) They have recognized the problem, but not the whole problem, and not their specific relationship to the problem.

Justina Ireland critiques one recent example. White YA author Jodi Meadows' next book is given a cover with a black girl in a pretty dress, while POC authors' covers get routinely whitewashed. Meadows tweeted that she did not want to tell the model she was being removed from the cover because she was black -- but it's wrong to frame the model's skin color as the crux of the dilemma. The problem originated when a white author staked a claim to her black character's visibility above and beyond that afforded to characters created by black and brown authors. Because Meadows doesn't reflect on her own position as a white writer she ends up only replicating the problem.

Privilege is all the more insidious for being least seen by those it benefits most.

6.

One becomes a better human the same way one becomes a better writer: by learning to see those invisible forces and call them by name. We cannot resist what we do not acknowledge, cannot change what we do not first identify as a problem.

We are living through a moment where the power of collective action is increasingly palpable. This is an opportunity for all of us to make more deliberate choices that have a meaningful impact on each other's lives and the future of the world. This is not hyperbole: in a political climate fraught with fear, lies, pettiness, and violence, it is more necessary than ever to stand up for truth, for justice, for caring, for the full humanity of all people. Right now even the smallest actions matter more. We are living in terrible times, yes, but also times of great moral opportunity.

Uplift the voices that are missing. Retweet #ownvoices book links, spread the news about new and upcoming releases, find the authors the gatekeepers overlooked. Submit your work to agents and editors of color, and let other writers know about them, too. Encourage the people the gatekeepers discourage. Support outlets (publishers and media) that focus on neglected voices. This is not a problem only one person can solve -- publishing is not itself a Chosen One narrative. (Oh, to be able to say as much to Jonathan Franzen's face!) You cannot fix everything by yourself -- but you do not have to! There are so many others who are doing the work, for themselves and for others. Find them. Support them. Buy books, make recommendations, write reviews. You're already doing this anyway, right? You hardly have to change a thing.

Take a deliberate step back from the mirror. Make the choices that you know are right, even if they feel awkward at first. It's not going to feel quite natural. It's still the right thing to do.

Work at getting those iron filings out of your soul. Disrupt the patterns that don't bring benefit to everyone. We'll all breathe a lot easier once they're gone.

 

Jane Austen's Small-Town Caribbean

Jane Austen only ever wrote one duke. He doesn't even appear on the page. He warrants a brief secondhand mention during the amateur theatricals of Mansfield Park, and POOF, farewell to his grace. There are a few titled Austen characters floating around in the novels, but even such plain titles as Sir, Lord, or Lady are rarefied and remarkable among all the misses and misters.

Caught as we are in the current wave of Ducaphilia, it's hard for us to dissociate Austen from the sparkling titles that abound in modern historical romance. Every duke is a Darcy, after all, a well-bred, well-monied, appropriately snobby catch of a man. A lot of this transformation we can lay at Georgette Heyer's door -- the Austen --> Heyer --> Julia Quinn geneology seems pretty self-evident. (And there are plenty of names we could sub in for Quinn in that third step, no mistake: Eloisa James and Sarah MacLean, for instance.) But Austen's primary heroines are untitled, unlanded, and uncomfortably financed. The social ground is always ready to shift beneath their feet.

Cover art for Summer for Scandal by Lydia San Andres.Which is why it fits so nicely when Lydia San Andres' delightful Summer for Scandal transposes the structure of Pride and Prejudice to Arroyo Blanco, a fictional Caribbean town in 1911. Here social status can rise and fall with the speed of a rumor, small-scale authority can flex its muscle like a tyrant, and the course of a woman's whole life can be changed by something as ordinary as tipping over a rowboat in a lagoon. (White linen, lagoon swims, and guava jelly -- reading this book made me yearn for the tropics.)

At the same time, the story reverses several key dynamics of Austen's novel, and part of the fun for this reader was tracing how those changes worked within and against the familiar P&P pattern. This makes for a strong, elegant romance that gets better and more profound the more I look at it.

Naturally, spoilers will abound from here on out.

We begin with engaging heroine Emilia Cruz, a famed poet's daughter, ardent suffragette, and secret author of a shockingly lurid serialized romance that's taking Arroyo Blanco by storm. If you're not already leaping to click that buy link above, well, then we're very different people. Her father has been drowning his sorrows in rum since her mother died, and the family budget has been shrinking down to nothing since her father stopped writing. Shades of Mr. Bennet and the entailment, which makes murky his daughters' future.

But Emilia has options Elizabeth Bennet did not: the True Accounts, as her lush Arabian Nights-inflected romance is called, brings in enough money to supplement her sister Susana's schoolteacher salary and support them in reasonable comfort. The novel's end hints that marriage may actually hold her back, earnings-wise -- so her situation is nearly the reverse of Elizabeth's, in terms of financial incentives.

At the same time, because Emilia is putting her work out there to be judged publicly, she has to contend with criticism on a level Elizabeth Bennet never imagined, despite all her embarrassing family's antics. As Mr. Bennet says: "Wherever you and Jane are known you must be respected and valued; and you will not appear to less advantage for having a couple of -- or I may say, three very silly sisters" (Austen chapter 41). But Emilia Cruz has to sit by and bite her tongue as her literary hero snipes at her story's "blatant disregard for coherence" (San Andres, Kindle location 116). This is a much deeper wound than Darcy disparaging Elizabeth's looks.

That literary hero, Mr. Ruben Torres, is in fact our literary hero, and he is most definitely a Darcy. His family is well-off, and Ruben himself is described in the most effusive of terms:

She'd read his book, a debut so brilliant it had been lauded by all the critics, and had switched their newspaper subscription to El Diario Nuevo solely because she enjoyed reading his book reviews, which were intelligent, thoughtful, and so filled with a sharp, witty humor that more often than not she found herself laughing out loud. He was one of the writers she most admired.

And he hated her stories. (Kindle location 83)

This is riches indeed, to a writing heroine. Ten thousand a year is nothing compared to this wealth of critical acclaim and literary respectability. It's also notable that Ruben Torres' skill with a pen is what won our heroine's interest, just as Darcy's letter is what moves Elizabeth into a more charitable frame of mind. Literary brilliance is also something that makes a more understandable, democratic foundation for pride: it's not class snobbery, really (though, you know, it is) but the snobbery of talent that Ruben has to overcome to earn his happy ending.

Of course, the pride of talent is its own kind of prison. J. K. Rowling borrowed the name Robert Gailbraith to see her work judged on its merits and not by the expectations of her past work; here, Ruben hides behind a pen name as the editor of Blanco y Negro, a viciously biting gossip sheet. "Pseudonyms," he says, "are masks for cowards to hide behind" (105): he's criticizing himself, really, but Emilia bristles on her own behalf and begins arguing in defense of her work. This is a beautifully tense point of conflict, and a very effective modernizing of the initial division between Darcy and Elizabeth.

As with Austen, there's a sweeter secondary romance as a contrast to the snappy banter of our main couple: Ruben is in town because his friend Luis Rojas is returning from a college stint. Luis immediately gets googly-eyed over Susana, who's loved him since childhood and moons happily right back. Ruben, like Darcy before him, is aghast -- but not because he thinks Susana is unworthy. Rather, he doubts Luis' steadfastness as a lover, based on a checkered past full of well-meant flings and one disastrously broken betrothal. This is Bingley as imagined by Wodehouse, and I'd be lying if I said I wasn't giggling with joy and totally sympathizing with Ruben's delicate predicament.

Which, it turns out, is totally misguided. Luis is in fact as deeply, steadily, irrevocably in love with Susana as she is with him: all those flings were merely his way of getting comfortable with the dynamics of relationships until he could come home and try it out for real with the girl of his dreams. While Bingley and Jane would never have been reunited without Darcy and Elizabeth's stage-managing, Susana and Luis are meant to be -- maybe even more so than our primary hero and heroine. They would have had a perfectly ordinary, undramatic romance, if only our protagonists had never interfered. Ruben is the cause of the same implausible reversals and dramatic misunderstandings that he so abhors in Emilia's True Accounts.

The Accounts themselves offer an interesting subversive space in terms of the sexual double standard, which San Andres's world shares with Austen's. We are not, I think, meant to take it as an irony that Emilia is a virgin when she begins publishing this lust-filled romp. She may be a virgin, but she's done her research:

Emilia leaned back against the cushions and began to write a short description of the contents of the sultan's trousers .... a great deal of the things she wrote about were born from things she'd read in books she'd had to order from Ciudad Real, as the library in Arroyo Blanco lacked most kinds of salacious literature. (275)

Writing, specifically about sex, offers escape not merely from money woes but also from the rigid expectations of feminine purity and virginity culture. It is an outlet and an exploration, and even a means of seducing Ruben once she decides that's something she wants to do. (The sex scenes are A+, luminous and fun and, well ... did you ever want to hug two characters while they were doing it on the page? Is that just me?) It is not every light-hearted romance that could engage so savvily and successfully with the craft and uses of literature. For instance: Ruben makes notes and suggestions on a manuscript of Emilia's, which mean she has to make notes on his notes, and she gets so carried away by this textual intercourse that she sneaks out of her house in the middle of the night and demands he take her to bed. Words and bodies all entwining. It's lovely.

Part of this might be my own nostalgic lens coloring the text: for one thing, I won Mr. Waite's heart by translating dirty Latin poetry at him. For another, when I was a grad student, much of the romance-centered scholarship I found centered on how romantic fiction was politicized and functioned as allegory in Latin American history. (Oh, hey, look, there's a hint of this on Wikipedia.) With a Hispanic hero and heroine, both authors, deliberately constructing themselves as interpreters of human experience, it's hard not to see parallels. I wish I'd had the knowledge base to read more of that scholarship. I was/am wistful at the thought that romance could be part of a major cultural conversation, rather than a niche interest, the way it often feels in American media despite its consistent popularity.

Speaking of sex, there's a Wickham analogue here, too: Cristobal Mendez. He's plausibly awful: a debt-ridden, venomous, mean-spirited scoundrel. He's also technically our heroine's boss -- she works as a typist, when she's not writing -- reversing the Wickham-as-outsider pattern found in Austen. He's very much a figure of institutional power and sexual aggression: "He reminded Emilia of the duke [from the Accounts] -- wealthy and lazy and so very good looking it was inconceivable to him that a woman wouldn't swoon if he so much as glanced her way" (1025). A centralized Wickham is a terrifying Wickham, because he is a Wickham who cannot be escaped; nor will he disappear into the wilds of London and leave our heroine in peace. Because he is so central to Arroyo Blanco, he is not a Wickham who Ruben has natural leverage over, either: he presents a very real problem. This problem, like all the others, is solved by writing, though I leave it to you, Reader, to discover precisely how.

 

So far I've said nothing about the feminist subtext of the novel, but there's plenty of it worth discussing: for instance, the big social event at the climactic moment is not a ball or a picnic, but a book fair, run by the women of the town. Much of the secondary conflict also emerges from the suffragette society many of the younger women are a part of: there is a debate on what sort of literature feminists should endorse as being good for women (NO I'M NOT CRINGING IN RECOGNITION YOU'RE CRINGING IN RECOGNITION). If you wonder how it's feminist for feminists to be in conflict, may I point out that none of these issues revolve around women competing for dudes? And that respectability politics are still right here beside us modern-day feminists? (E.g. "If we keep our tone civil, we'll convince more dudes to treat us like people.") Naturally our heroine comes down on the side of escapist literature being just as necessary as feminist articles -- but it's not presented as a moral triumph, with the villainess being humiliated. Her exposure as the author of the True Accounts is a choice she makes for herself, but it still has some pretty unpleasant fallout she can't avoid just by being self-confident and strong.

It's been a roundabout argument, but I think what I'm trying to get at here is that Austen's world feels completed at the end of Pride and Prejudice: the good people have married good people, the evil people have married evil people, all our thematic threads have been neatly tied up and carefully knotted. Summer for Scandal manages to take the same basic structure, and with a few flipped switches end up with something much more fluid and ambiguous. The ending is really more of a beginning, with our protagonists poised to begin a new and unexplored phase of their respective careers, with new understandings of their place in their families and community -- all of which imply major changes to a place we've spent the book getting to know. Villains of long standing have been removed, old feuds patched, and emotional landscapes reimagined: there is the sense not of coming to an end, but a world being remade into something better than it was before.

And isn't that the happiest of endings?

___

Austen, Jane. Pride and Prejudice. The Republic of Pemberley. Accessed September 29, 2015.

San Andres, Lydia. Summer for Scandal. Amazon Digital Services: July 2015. Ebook.

High Stakes Visibility

Two things in particular happened this week. 1. Authors of color shared their experiences at the national RWA conference in New York. Suleikha Snyder's 'A Tale of Two Conferences' and Rebekah Weatherspoon's '#RWA15 - A WOC Perspective' are both required reading, especially if you're newly awakened to the obstacles that authors of color overcome in addition to more openly acknowledged difficulties (revisions, synopses, caffeine dependency). Subsequent Twitter discussion brought up microaggressions and pushback from both fellow conference-goers and, most egregiously, the aggressive indifference of Pocket Books, which admitted in a spotlight chat that they refer non-white submissions to other imprints.

2. NPR posted a list of '100 Swoon-Worthy Romances', a list compiled from both popular suggestion and curation. They are open about the fact that they corrected to showcase not only breadth of subgenre, but also more diversity of character and author than appeared in the popular vote. Some of the books on the list feature racist or misogynist content (I love you for being my first, Johanna Lindsey's Warrior's Woman, but come the fuck on.) The comments on the list are about what you'd expect in terms of romance reader versus non-romance reader, with bonus hat-tip to the misguided gentleman who stiffly informs Victoria Motherfucking Dahl she doesn't need to be embarrassed.

There was a brief feel-good reaction to the list on romance Twitter -- it's always pleasant when people take as a given that romance reading has merit, or at least as much merit as other kinds of reading. But in light of Moment No. 1 it felt stifling, as though we'd only just opened Romance's Box O'Problems and now the lid was slamming back shut out of defensiveness. H/t Mikki Kendall: #SolidarityIsForWhiteWomen.

My assertion in this post is that these two moments are connected by more than just the romance genre. Both arise out of a profound and profoundly human need for visibility in stories -- but then this need is filtered through the detritus of racism, classism, economic gain, and internalized misogyny. And things get shitty fast.

Romance has been the Designated Women's Genre for a couple centuries now in Anglophone literature: written by women, featuring women, focusing on women's lives and experience. This is often held up as proof of its empowering nature: I've done this more than once myself. It would be more accurate to say, though, that the vast majority of romance has focused on the lives and experiences of thin middle-to-upper-class white cis able-bodied women, with more than average levels of education. Bluestockings and heiresses a-plenty, housemaids and washerwomen not so much.

There's a straight line you can draw from Jane Austen's concern with the commodity model of marriage down to Betty Freidan's Feminine Mystique. Because taking out the Canonical White Male capstone from the pyramid of kyriarchal literature still leaves all the other levels of the hierarchy in place. Women who have privilege will take up more narrative space than women without. This is not to say subversive things do not happen in books written by privileged white women; it is only to say that this is a limited conversation, and a less than universal empowerment.

Treating visibility as a zero-sum game is a failure of empathy we have seen over and over again: in publishing, in movies, in games. In the women's suffrage movement, which as bell hooks shows explicitly rejected black women's participation, even as black women were being rejected from participating in the abolition of slavery: white women counted, and black men counted, but black women didn't. Black women, of course, kept participating anyways -- they just aren't historically celebrated for their labor. (See: Ida B. Wells.)

Now we're seeing this same dynamic in romance, right out in the open at conferences and on social media. White women -- because yeah, romance authors and publishers are mostly white, and anyone who gets defensive about this fact is not helping -- push back against the call to diversify the genre because they're used to defending it from the attacks of more privileged men. They have a readymade set of romance-defense rhetorical tools at the ready, whether it's "laughing all the way to the bank" or "written by women, for women."

They also push back against diversity because white privilege makes it easy to believe that women of color don't count. It is impossible to untangle these two motivations from each other, since they come from a single system.

Racism is not just about police violence and starred-out slurs: racism is equally manifest in that knee-jerk, quiet little voice that whispers outsider when a woman of color asks for more heroines of color in romance. And if she writes heroines of color in her own stories, with happy endings? If she courts publishers or agents and markets her work? She's taking our readers. Because white privilege tells us over and over that a woman of color cannot possibly be an insider herself. She doesn't count. Not as a writer, and not as a woman. Not really. Not like us.

That voice is all the harder to uproot for being quiet.

 

It is impossible to overstate how much of this is tied up with money. Romance is big money for white women -- one of the few genres where a woman's name on the cover is not an automatic liability to sales. Meanwhile more and more books are appearing every year, while we all feel we have to write faster and faster, and prices and royalties fall lower and lower. Meanwhile women of color have a much larger wage gap than white women, and as a result can less easily spare time for activities without an immediate financial benefit -- such as writing romances. Or self-publishing romances. They have to fight to enter the market, and fight to stay in it. This can be damn exhausting, and no wonder.

All because white women fucking forget that women of color count as women. As readers and insiders. As authors. As heroines.

We all have a need to be visible in the stories we tell. We as an industry need to be better at including all voices -- not least because we are an industry, not a group of friends who get together over red wine and shirtless Hiddleston pics. An industry means money, and money means that when we shut out women of color, we do so in a way that actively privileges our lives and livelihoods over theirs. It is disingenuous to pretend that this is only about what types of stories we like to read: you cannot rail against ebook piracy and then claim it's a total coincidence you only choose to read white authors.

You don't have to apologize for your privilege, if you have it -- but you can't use it as a weapon against those who don't. You can't hide behind it, either, and claim you're only being civil or professional.

Either you're in this business for everyone, or you're only out for yourself.

 

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.

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.

V is for Vorkosigans, eVentually

{For the full alphabet of intersectional feminism in romance, click here.} Reader, I was terribly excited about working on today's post. I fell head over hells in love with Lois McMaster Bujold while reading The Curse of Chalion and the exquisite Paladin of Souls. Then I picked up Cordelia's Honor and Barrayar and was blown to absolute smithereens. I put Miles down for discussion in this series because of his disability and because I knew the Vorkosigan books have a strong feminist vibe -- plus, the title of Miles' romance hinted at Heyer's A Civil Contract and I wanted to draw out the parallels. I was so excited to take notes and make citations and really dig in to all the work of this freewheeling lit crit thing I've been practicing here.

But in the midst of keeping up with the series, and fighting off not one but two colds (thanks, immune system), I realized it just wasn't going to happen. Oh, I could skim both books, throw up some paragraphs, and move on like nothing was wrong -- but it wasn't what I wanted. I wanted this post, of all posts, to be strong and thought-out and well-edited. I wanted it to have something new to say, even for those who (unlike me) have long lived in the Vorkosigan world. For that, I need to do a lot more research and a lot more listening and a lot more reading -- especially since I would be skipping many books in between Barrayar and A Civil Campaign and that would hamstring my analysis.

If I wanted to do this right, it wasn't going to happen quickly.

So this post is now a promise. Miles will get his day -- but he'll get it when April's done, when I have time to really sit and think again. In the immortal words of Ronald Ulysses Swanson: "Never half-ass two things. Whole ass one thing." I plan to do just that.

GIF of Ron Swanson from Parks and Recreation. He is a white man with dark hair and a luxuriant mustache. He wears a collared brown coat with an earthtoned plaid lumberjack shift. Behind him is a forest scene with a lake and ferms. He frowns thoughtfully as he delivers his words of wisdom:

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U is for Katya Nar Umbriel

{Click here for the full alphabet of intersectional feminism in romance.} Barbara Ann Wright's The Pyramid Waltz is a charming lesbian adventure romance in a fairy-tale setting. Heroine Katya Nar Umbriel is a quick-tongued, irreverent princess who strolls around the castle in tight trousers looking bored and charming the pants/skirts off any woman who catches her eye -- this rakish persona is an excellent cover for her real work, which is ferreting out threats to the throne and the lives of her family along with a band of roguish misfits.

Cover image for Barbara Ann Wright's The Pyramid Waltz. A gold stone gastle stands gleaming against the background of a reddish sunset. In the right-hand foreground is a CGI illustration of a woman with chunky shoulder-length blond hair and pale skin. She wears a short red coat over a long white vest with gold buttons, unbuttoned to show a bit of cleavage. Her hips are canted slightly,  her feet apart, and in her left hand she loosely holds a long thin sword.Our second heroine Starbride is a new courtier with red-brown skin and dark hair, who is less interested in the politicking and catty gossip of the court and more interested in the trade law of the kingdom of Farraday, since the people of her home city are being taken advantage of by Farradain traders. Unlike the world of Ash, women are free to marry other women and start families; they can wear trousers or gowns as they please, and daughters can inherit titles and estates and even the crown, depending on their place in a family's birth order. It's a fun premise and a sweet romance, though a little less sophisticated than I hoped. It hits that awkward spot where it's too sexy for YA, but feels too juvenile for adult romance. (Fantasy NA? Is that a thing yet? Please tell me it isn't a thing yet.) But despite the lack of refinement, the world of the text has a great many things to say about the ebbs and swells of power that are precisely what intersectionality was created to address.

Katya is second in line to the throne, but her elder brother the Crown Prince lives elsewhere with his wife and children so Katya is the nearest direct link to the King and Queen. (The royal family can't be all in the same place, for reasons that only eventually become guessable.) She is constantly besieged by favor-seekers, opportunists, and those who offer false friendship to advance a hidden agenda; as a result, she finds it hard to trust the kindness of others, particularly new acquaintances. At the same time, she plays the role of rebellious princess and seductress to mask her work as head of the Order of Vestra, a small band that uncovers traitors to and conspiracies against the crown -- Katya's friendship or attention, when offered, is therefore often as false or calculated as the flattery she receives in return. Katya unhesitatingly uses against others the same tactics (persuasion, lies, flattery, evasion) that she considers unethical when used against her.

(Over the course of the novel, I started to feel perversely sorry for the courtiers as a group -- they're characterized as universally shallow and silly and rank-obsessed and trend-mad in a way that reminds me a lot of the baseline misogyny in fantasies like Game of Thrones, where Sansa's girlish desire to be a lady with a devoted knight is negatively contrasted to Arya's boyish desire to take fighting lessons and run around outdoors.)

Complicating this power dynamic is the fact that Katya bears the Aspect, which is roughly to say she can transform into a Fiend when provoked or when involved in certain rituals. It gives her enormous physical power (horns, fangs, super strength and speed, the whole demon bit) but it is terribly inhuman and its lust for slaughter is insatiable. The pyramid necklace she wears keeps it mostly contained, but there is always a risk that anger or fear or other strong emotions will break the pyramid and loose the Fiend, in which case lots of people will die. This is different than many fantasy or paranormal romances, where the beastly side of a shifter is usually within the person's control and does not impact their personhood -- with the Fiend, however, Katya-as-Katya is so lost that she doesn't even remember what she does when she's changed. The Fiend is decidedly Not Her on a profound level -- which makes her to some extent its victim, though not as victimized as those she kills when transformed. Power in this metaphor is something inimical to humanity, something cold and malevolent that needs to be kept in check.

Starbride's POV expands the terms of power, for Starbride comes from a colonized people. I'm going to quote at length:

She ignored the Nereems' words on courtly life and studied the architecture and tapestries, the small statues, and the representations of the ten spirits that were everywhere. She knew them already, though she hadn't grown up with them. Like all aspects of Farradain culture, they had seeped into her homeland like a creeping tide of marmalade.

Allusia allowed Farraday into their land over one hundred years ago, to the mountains where the pale-skinned outlanders harvested the crystal to make pyramids. Some of the Allusian warlords had traded with them; others who attempted to drive them out were crushed by their army. The remaining Allusians organized to meet the Farradains on equal footing, learning more about these people, about their laws, but there was always more to learn. One hundred years hadn't solved all their problems. (Kindle location 296)

Starbride has come to the Farradain court at Marienne because her mother would like her to find a well-connected lover to ease the trade burden on the people back home in Newhope; Starbride herself means to do research on the law to help her people, rather than offer herself up as bait to induce someone else to do it. She has a meet-cute with Katya while trying to find the library, but the more they talk and the closer they become, the less Starbride is inclined to explain her people's problems to the princess: "Allusia has to fight its own battles. We can't expect Farraday to solve all the problems it creates. [Ed note: why, precisely?] If we lean on them to do everything for us, we won't know how to do anything for ourselves. We won't even know when we're being taken advantage of" (1172).

I have several problems with this approach  -- the first being that Starbride quickly finds that what Farradain traders are doing in Newhope (something like price-fixing?) is illegal under Farradain law. Now obviously this is a bullshit move on the traders' part, but what it tells the reader is that Farradain trade law has become the standard even in the Allusian capital. This is as clear an illustration of an imperial situation as I have seen in my recent reading. It is the threat of the Farradain army that makes this imposition possible and sustainable -- so while Starbride's urge to learn the law is all well and good, this will do nothing to eliminate the military threat that maintains the social imbalance. Her bootstrappy assertion that Allusians have to learn to cope on their own similarly ignores the nature of colonization and creates the illusion that Allusians and Farradains are operating on equal planes of agency. They are not, and we know it in the text: Starbride is ridiculed, fetishized, and Othered by the Farradain courtiers, who more than once refer to her as "exotic." Eventually, she reveals the situation to Katya, who not only says that she should definitely have been told (on account of the illegality) but who instantly comes up with the idea of offering law scholarships for students from Allusia. Though this does further entangle Allusia and Farraday in the imperial machinery, it does so by including Allusians as actors and so must be counted as something of a win.

Not that Allusian culture is entirely free from problematic elements -- they have a servant caste with something like a lifebond pledge. There wasn't enough detail for me to explore, but it reads like a very cultish, benevolent slavery and I wanted either more or less of it than I got. More, because then it would be more than a throwaway, and less, because then I wouldn't have to be occasionally squicked out by the casual way Starbride's maid offered to sacrifice her life to save Starbride's -- like all the time, in casual conversation, in hypothetical poisonings, just constantly. It was weird.

The imperial legacy of Farraday, rather underexplored in the text considering how troubling a dynamic it is for the romance, dovetails with the sinister origin of the Umbriels' power base: more Fiends. Every Umbriel within three removes from the throne has an Aspect like Katya's -- because centuries ago, an Umbriel ancestor bound the great Fiend Yanchasa beneath a giant pyramid and saved the kingdom. This was only possible by taking some of the demon into himself and his children, and the royal family has continued performing the binding ritual (the titular Pyramid Waltz) every five years, adding later descendants and children as needed. Yanchasa has become legend rather than fact in the minds of the common Faradains, so the Umbriels have to hide the monstrous sides of their nature from the population they rule over, even as they induct spouses and children into the ritual and give them their own Aspects to (hopefully) control. It is obviously in the kingdom's best interests to keep the great Fiend imprisoned, but the Umbriels assume royal power is the reward they earn for being the Fiend's jailers -- even though this reward is not consented to by the populace, and in fact there are many who would object.

Needless to say, I am uncomfortable with this status quo. Which makes for a really fun read, until the threads start to unravel. Some pretty major spoilers to follow.

Ready? Let's begin.

I knew by the third time dead uncle Roland's name came up that he was probably going to turn out to be not-dead uncle Roland, and sure enough there he is, leading the rebellion. Roland had been leader of the Order in his day, and he had often been eager to use pyramid magic and mind-magic in ways not endorsed by his family or his teammates. 'Enhanced interrogation techniques' is about the size of it -- he was more concerned with his own right to information than to any other person's right to anything (mental privacy, health, life). Katya has been warned away from similar impulses by her father's pyradisté (pyramid-wizard) Crowe, just as he'd once warned Roland. But Roland's near-death experience has led him to merge himself with his Fiend: "Roland smiled, and the features of his Aspect dropped over his face ... But his expression didn't lose its character, didn't become the Fiend's. He was himself, even with the Aspect" (5283). Note the ambiguity in "he was himself": Roland's lust for control has caused him to embrace the monstrous side of his nature to the point where all human affection and empathy disappear. All that's left is the desire for power: "All I ask is a kingdom ruled the right way, my way ... the people of Marienne will finally get a ruler they deserve, one who will protect and guide them by any means necessary" (5301).

Katya refuses -- but in the course of the fight scene that follows, she has her own humanity stripped away by the rising Fiend within. By the time Roland escapes, Katya has imbibed far more of Yanchasa's essence -- far more demon -- than is considered safe. Starbride's newly discovered powers as a pyradisté mean she is the only one nearby who can help, but in her inexperience she takes away not just the extra demon, but all of Katya's Aspect. This is presented, quite clearly, as a loss:

No Aspect. No Fiend. That which her parents had passed to her, that which all Umbriels possessed, gone. What did that make her? ... No more Fiend, maybe no more Umbriel. How could she lead the Order of Vestra if she didn't have what the original leader of the Order had possessed? (5584)

Considering the nature of the Aspect, it is tempting to snark back a reply that What that makes you, young lady, is safer to be around, but it is not so simple. The Fiend is the embodiment of both personal and political power. Many of the secret passages running through the castle are tuned only to those who have Fiendish elements, for instance -- and what's worse, it is not made clear how Katya's cleansing (if you can call it that) will affect the way the great pyramid imprisons Yanchasa. I'm sure this is covered by the next two books in the series, but I could have used a bit more closure at the end of this first novel. As it is, we're left with an unfinished thought on how much monstrous power one person/kingdom can contain without it consuming them.

{Minor note because it was just too good to let go unpraised: during one early scene Katya's Fiend is unleashed and we get one of the best descriptions of violence I have ever, ever read: "She reached between his legs and clawed him from groin to chin, cutting through him as if he were warm pie." Warm pie! I still squirm with delight to read it. GRRM eat your heart out.}

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Lately I've been finding and enjoying a lot of great sff that deals with colonialism and/or race relations in some way: for instance, Zen Cho's The Perilous Life of Jade Yeo and Jacqueline Koyanagi's Ascension and Ann Leckie's Ancillary Justice.

N. K. Jemisin, whose Inheritance trilogy fits in nicely with the above list of books, had a great post recently on confirmation bias and epic fantasy.

Wonderful author Malinda Lo recently posted her breakdown of diversity in the NYT YA Bestseller lists. She has pie charts for characters of color, characters with disabilities, and LGBT characters: the numbers are pretty stark and worth checking out.

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Wright, Barbara Ann. The Pyramid Waltz. Bold Strokes Books: September 18, 2012. Ebook.

T is for Twisted

{Content note: the following post is about a romantic suspense novel and contains some discussion of physical and sexual violence. Nothing graphic, but it's a pervasive mood. There are also some mild spoilers, but that's the price we pay for informed criticism. Click here for the full alphabet of intersectional feminism in romance.}

I'll admit, I picked up Ms. Curtis' romantic suspense Twisted because not only were there two major characters with disabilities, but also the author has epilepsy and penned a pretty epic rant about disability portrayals in fiction. So I bought a copy of Twisted (see? rants do sell books!) and it kind of sat around until I thought of this post series, because I am terrible at reading books in a timely fashion. And now that we're in the home stretch of the alphabet -- the letter T! I'm amazed it's gone so fast! -- I feel like resisting the urge to talk about specifics of the disability portrayal. Yes, there are two main characters, each with a different disability (one genetic, one a result of injury) that impact their lives and the plot in different ways, but do not take over the bulk of the story. They're well-rounded and specific portrayals, which is such a relief. But I'm trying to keep this project from becoming myopic, from making the inclusion of marginalized characters a niche topic -- so it's appropriate at times to talk about a particular book's inclusion in the wider world of romance. Because these books are romances, and must be understood as such. And Twisted in particular seems to be a book that exists in conversation with its genre in a more self-aware, metafictional way: the novel simultaneously illustrates and refutes some of my personal issues with the subgenre of romantic suspense.

Cover image for Twisted by Laura K. Curtis. Cover is divided in two. Upper half is a sepia-toned image of the top part of a blond woman's face. She looks frankly out at the viewer, her curling hair tumbling over one eye. There is a faux-paper tear that prevents us from seeing more of her face. Lower image is blue-toned, a man from the chin down, head tilted slightly to the side. He wears a pale uniform shirt with a star over his left breast. Trees wave ominously through the mist behind him.First, let me say this book is a page-turner; despite the occasional moments of feminist-lens side-eye, I was desperate to find out what was going to happen next and I had pre-ordered the sequel even before I hit the final page. It starts with our heroine, true crime writer Lucy Stone, returning to her hometown to solve her mother's cold-case murder. I believe it's significant that Lucy writes true-crime rather than mystery; she's neither Jessica Fletcher or Harriet Vane (love you, Harriet!). She deals in fact, not fiction: her skills are the same as any detective's, and unlike many true crime authors she specifically focuses on the victims and the survivors:

"All that time and energy, all that ink and air devoted to a man whose every act was destructive. It's criminal in and of itself. He doesn't deserve it. How do you think the friends and families of his victims felt when, every time they opened a paper or flipped a channel, they were confronted by another talking head spouting off about him? He killed those girls, but the media machine erased them."

"So you fix it."

"I can't fix it. All I can do is create a tiny bit of balance, a little resistance." (1424)

Lucy resists the true crime genre's slant toward voyeurism and fascination with monsters in favor of empathy for the survivors and the victims of violence. I am very tempted to also read this career choice as a subtle reaction to the way women's perspectives and experiences are often discounted in the justice system: Lucy is a woman who is literally not in the business of making things up. She's a great heroine, steely and vulnerable and sympathetic without feeling syrupy.

Our hero, police chief Ethan Donovan, is the perfect blend of laid-back charm and sharp-eyed observation. He's got secrets of his own and the usual ex-wife -- who, charmingly, is not demonized or blamed for his relationship failings! Oh frabjous day! things just didn't work out -- and he's also got a protective streak a mile wide. And I've got an absolute hair-trigger sensitivity for protective streaks: not enough, and I read the hero as callous; too much, and I read him as controlling. Ethan does pretty well, but he has an unsettling tendency to push Lucy's boundaries in ways that put up the hairs on the back of my neck. One example, from mid-(consensual)-kiss:

He palmed her breast through the jersey and she froze, a reaction even he could interpret. Lost in his own fantasies, he'd pushed her too hard, too fast. He loosened his grip, easing back slightly. She tried to wriggle completely free, but he kept her near. If he allowed her to step away, it would create a rift he'd never bridge.

Besides, he wasn't ready to let go. He wasn't at all sure hanging on to her wasn't the only thing keeping him standing. (1254)

We've already had plenty of hints in the narrative that Lucy's past includes trauma: she goes pale and chilly when certain men show up, she avoids questions about her childhood in Dobbs Hollow, she asks that evidence be sent to the state lab for testing and not the county lab controlled by the sheriff who she went to high school with and who she point-blank claims not to trust. It does not take Sherlock Holmes to figure out that something happened, and I expect any decent cop to be able to put two and two together. I would also expect any decent cop to respect a woman's physical boundaries and resistance, even if they happen to contradict his urgent pants-feelings at the time. Alas, little beats like this crop up continually during the romance and rather kill my buzz. We're in a romantic suspense, with heightened stakes, where women are being raped and killed and tagged with the word whore, or left to die in a pool of blood on the kitchen linoleum: it's an atmosphere where I'm encouraged to think of the world of the text as sinister and rife with hidden agendas. Ethan's disregard for Lucy's physical boundaries made my stomach twist every time, even after she started to accept it, even as they grew closer both physically and emotionally. It reminded me of the thousand Victoria Holt books I read as a teenager, where the hero is brooding and mysterious and may have killed his first wife but (probably) didn't (except for that one time he did, not that I can remember which Holt book that was). And we're supposed to thrill at the contrast of the good man who seems villainous versus the villain who seemed good up until the point where their villainy was unmasked.

The problem for me is the problem of escalation: just as many killers start sloppy and grow more methodical, as Lucy and Ethan discuss, men who push small boundaries are much more likely to push large boundaries. (Required background reading: Shrodinger's Rapist.) It's the sense that the hero knows what Lucy needs (emotional support, physical touch) more than she does, and that that knowledge entitles him to override her wishes, expressed or merely telegraphed physically. (And Ethan is under no misapprehension as to her wishes in the above quote.) So while a certain balance was built into their relationship from the start -- his disability (bad knee, mild mobility issues) meant he couldn't be as physically overpowering as many RS heroes, while Lucy's martial arts training and willingness to pick up a gun felt more empowered than I expect from a RS heroine -- it was not enough to override that little pulse of Ethan knows best, Ethan knows best. Especially since all Lucy's self-defense training never seemed to help her out in the clutch: I feel that was a missed opportunity. And Lucy's parallel desire to protect her younger brother Tim -- who has in fact been targeted by our villain -- is presented as a bit suffocating, as something she needs to let go so that Tim can be a full human being. Why is Lucy not granted the same privilege?

This aspect, and a persistent undercurrent of gender essentialism ("super-feminine" was used of our heroine's feeling of attraction at one point in the text and I rolled my eyes to the point of strain) were my biggest problems with the book, and they are problems I have with romantic suspense more broadly. Why are so many villains sexualized, and so many killing scenes eroticized? I think sometimes there must be a lot of overlap with mysteries and thrillers and horror, genres that skew male in their readership and are thus more prone to make victims out of their female characters in order to motivate their male heroes and titillate male readers. I think the urge to make fictional crimes more shocking and edgy pushes things in directions that go wrong quickly in careless hands. And, too, humans are never entirely immune to the voyeur's urge. That little twist in the gut that I hate so much is some people's sought-for pleasure.

Where Twisted really gets interesting, and definitely meta, is not the scenes where characters are in danger. Shootouts in the woods (spoiler?) is a pretty standard climactic move -- instead, the genre's usual feature of the villain's POV scene is twisted (aha haha) and multiplied, to really great dramatic effect.

Villain POVs are always a bit squicky for me, and the first one we see in Ms. Curtis' book is no different -- except that our villains are named. I was a little puzzled by this, since usually you'll get a few clues and a few red herrings in this kind of scene, but rarely names. Names give the game away too soon, would deprive the reader of the fun of solving the puzzle along with our hero and heroine. And then there comes a second villain's POV, from a second villain -- and it becomes clear (to the reader at least, if not to our protagonists) that there are two sets of crimes being committed in Dobbs Hollow. That we have two networks of bad guys whose operations are starting to converge and get in each others' way.

Reader, I was delighted. Not only does this triple my fun as a puzzle-solving reader (solving is the thing that keeps me coming back to mysteries and romantic suspense, despite all my other reservations), but it breaks the usual good/evil binary down. Evil in this book is not a monolith. Some people are monstrous, but some others commit terrible crimes just out of apathy and entitlement. Persistent harrassment, isolation, and poisonous gossip can be as traumatic as outright harm. Good is equally various -- witness librarian Eulie, who starts off as the classic Small Town Harridan but segues into a more humanized figure. I won't spoil the end of the book for you -- I will just say that this narrative choice made me super-happy despite all the dozens of disappeared and drugged and raped women, and that is no small thing.

Of course, we do have all those nameless, faceless victims -- rapes and murders and kidnappings, other cold cases that have never been solved, that may not have even been intensely investigated, which form the data constellation that helps our heroes solve Cecile's murder. This constellation shows us exactly which groups of people are considered disposable in the small Texas town of Dobbs Hollow: prostitutes, illegal immigrants, and Hispanic women, no matter their class. There's an unsettling construction of personal strength, particularly female strength, that sometimes veers a little too close to victim-blaming for my taste. Some sample quotes:

  • "'It's only fair you understand up front that whatever he can do to you is nothing compared to how far I am willing to go to find out who killed my mother.' The words were emotionless, cold, but over the red rage that filled him, Ethan noticed the rise and fall of Lucy's chest, how her breath came faster and her chin rose even as she half flinched, expecting the violence in him to take physical form. Why would she deliberately provoke such a reaction? Did she even believe what she was saying? He already knew she didn't trust him, so perhaps this was nothing more than another test. Artie had been right. Lucy's single-mindedness would get her into trouble in an inhospitable town with secrets to hide. She might not want a protector, but she was going to need one." (623)
  • "'Pretty' doesn't exactly scream 'competent police officer.'" (1059)
  • "'I'm not like those poor Hispanic women you chased through the woods,' Lucy said, leaning over. 'I fight back. I'm stronger than you are. Better in every way.'" (3723)
  • "'He killed her because she wouldn't sleep with him.' Impending hysteria added a sharp edge to Lucy's voice. 'Of all the men she could have turned down and didn't, she had to pick the psychotic killer to get some standards with.' Ethan jerked his head at TJ, who rose and left. He took her spot, putting his arm around Lucy and pulling her into him. 'She always had standards, sugar. She'd never have slept with anyone in your school, and she never brought men into the house. You stressed that yourself. He broke her rules, rules she set to protect you and Tim, so she sent him and his pals on their way. You've lived in Dallas. I'm sure you saw women there who truly lived without standards, whose lives had beaten any fight out of them. You can't say that about your mother.'" (3738)

Again: if Lucy's as take-charge and self-protective as the opening scene would have us believe -- and it's one hell of an opening scene -- why does she never actually get to fight back effectively in the course of the novel? Why is women's strength always tied to how sexually attractive and/or available they are? Why is women's agency -- Cecile's thwarted plan for escaping the town, Lucy's plan to find her mother's killer -- seen as provocative, as a woman making herself a target? Dobbs Hollow in these moments brought up a lot of the same questions asked about True Detective -- remember True Detective? -- particularly one raised by the Hairpin: what is the distinction between a work of fiction that shows misogyny, and a work of fiction that is actually misogynistic? I had no trouble buying the realism of the above quotes. But they would make my lip curl if uttered by someone in whose presence I was standing. I'd mark them down silently as a minor red flag and make sure not to have feminist arguments with that person unless I felt like I could spare the effort. Yes, Lucy is a strong heroine in many ways -- but when the heroine's strength is somehow exceptional among her gender, I start to have questions about the politics of the worldbuilding.

In the course of writing this I found a fascinating argument, not all of which I agree with, by author Tracy Cooper Posey:

Romantic Suspense novels had their golden age in the nineties and the early years of the first decade of the twenty-first century, and that was when women were just getting used to the idea of equality and beating men at their own game.  The glass ceilings were crashing down all over the place.  Having alpha heroes rescue us was still sort-of okay in our fantasies, until erotic romance fantasies like Sex and the City showed us that we could be equals or better in bed,too.

These days it’s no longer a matter of equality.  It’s a matter of being more powerful and completely different.

She goes on to suggest that paranormals and urban fantasy grew more popular because they gave their heroines power, rather than damselling them, while still preserving the marks of difference that keep men and women from being identical rather than equal (I'm extrapolating from her use of phrases like "And she never forgets she's a woman"). Someday I'm going to do a lengthy post on power structures (race, class, gender) in PNR/UF, but that day is not today. Suffice to say I rather disagree with her analysis of how power functions in paranormal romance -- and her assertion that alpha male heroes and rescue plotlines are a thing of the past.

I quote Ms. Posey's argument because to me it seems, like the worldbuilding in Twisted, expressive of the idea that women and men are equally but differently powerful. Men in Ms. Curtis' text are in positions of official authority: sheriff, mayor, DA, chief of police, county coroner, FBI agent. Women are in service or communication positions: author, librarian, cleaning service, diner owner. Lucy's friend Tara Jean/TJ is a cop, but most of her time is spent either talking with Lucy or eavesdropping on her well-connected family (including the mayor) for our hero and heroine's benefit. This unequal division of power is precisely what allows for the crimes Lucy and Ethan are eager to solve: women will always be primarily victims in a world that constructs them as inherently less powerful. This is true of Dobbs Hollow, it is true of romantic suspense, and it is sadly true of the real world in which readers live.

___

A powerful refutation of the 'monster myth' has been making the rounds of the internet recently, and seems like an excellent companion piece to Lucy's focus on the humanity of her subjects.

Romance Novels for Feminists has done several posts on romantic suspense and related genres like the Gothic, which may be found via the tag.

Speaking of sex workers, writer and activist Melissa Gira Grant has a great roundup of the best sex work writing of 2013. It's a lot of links and a lot of information -- I plan on coming back to this one many more times myself.

___

Curtis, Laura K. Twisted. New York: Intermix, November 19, 2013. Ebook.

S is for Suleikha Snyder

{Content note: the following post contains very brief discussion of sexual assault and suicidal thoughts. Click here for the full alphabet of intersectional feminism in romance.}

One of the biggest themes of this series is the idea of people being trapped by stories -- we saw how Jade Yeo refused to yield to the colonial narratives that threatened her autonomy, and how the Navajo were destroyed by the lies and omissions of American authorities. Suleikha Snyder's Bollywood-set novella Bollywood and the Beast is a further addition to this list. Jackie C. Horne at Romance Novels for Feminists has already done a complete breakdown of the feminist elements of the novella's plot, which covers just about every point I jotted down during my reading, so I'm free to go in a more metaphysical direction as I discuss the ways in which characters in this book struggle against the narratives that entangle them or mask their true selves. Because the film world of Bollywood is, like its Western counterpart, a tailor-made metaphor for exploring the points where image and reality differ, where appearance and substance are at odds. And I'm going to break with the analytic essay format and use bullet points! I like bullet points. This may partly be the Theraflu talking. My brain is going in tiny swirls and circles and I cannot seem to make it do anything in a cohesive line.

Cover image for Suleikha Snyder's Bollywood and the Beast. A background of lush red brocade pillows. A tan-skinned, dark-haired woman with closed eyes has one arm wrapped around a brown-skinned man in a half-on, half-off white shirt. He is facing away from the viewer, and she is pressing her lips to his shoulder.

  • Taj Ali Khan

The main story tangling around Taj is Beauty and the Beast and he knows it. He positively relishes his role, sitting around in dramatic half-lighting and using a wheelchair as a prop more than a mobility aid. (Which our heroine rightly chastises him for.) He takes a visceral pleasure in monstrosity and heroine Rocky immediately calls him on it; it becomes a running conversation between the two of them as their relationship progresses. The scars from a long-ago car accident and fire destroyed Taj's career as an action star and filmi hero; since then, he's stayed locked away from the outside world, growing roses in the garden and watching his old films alone in the dark: "he'd built himself a perfect cage of stone and soil and celluloid" (Kindle location 75). Appearances are currency in this Bollywood world: since Taj cannot trade on his anymore, he chooses to have no appearance, to retreat from the world entirely and go unseen by anyone for ten long, dark years. To surround himself with flickering, intangible images, like a Bollywood Norma Desmond. Jackie Horne rightly pointed out that the novel's end requires Taj not to fulfill the original fairy tale's narrative arc, but to rebel against it -- to go out in public is not only to refute the Beast's domestication of Beauty, but also to reassert the existence of his own face. I honestly tried to find a more elegant way of putting that -- damn you, Theraflu -- but there really is a nearly mystical sense to Taj's seclusion and then emergence: to the outside world, it really is as though he has recreated his own features from nothing. Taj is really very compellingly sharp and epic in scope: it's hard for me to be convinced that a hero is large these days because all heroes are written to be large -- but with Taj, it was very easy to believe that this one man could fill not just the room, but an entire crumbling mansion.

  • Rakhee/Rocky Varma

Rocky is the Beauty in our story, but this is by no means the only fairy tale she inhabits. There's a scene at the beginning where she imagines a trio of catty Bollywood starlets as predatory birds -- as RNFF put it there's a whiff of misogyny here, but I liked the slight unreality of the imagery. I also liked where it wound up: "[Her mother said,] 'This is no fairy tale.' Maybe not the Disney kind. But the dark, gory, original kind with all sorts of ironic lessons ...? Rocky stared at the blood-red heel of one fallen shoe and shuddered" (53). And I clapped gleefully, remembering the vicious birds and the lopped-off heels and the bloody shoes of the original Cinderella story. Cinderella's arc, like Beauty's, finds its closure in a castle with a Prince -- but Cinderella's arc is also about escaping the house, about class boundaries and artifice and whether or not you're the same person when you're dressed up as when you're in your workday wear. An entirely appropriate fairy tale for an actress, whose job description is to put on masks and take them off as needed. It's an open question whether this Cinderella promise is fulfilled in the novella; the ending is a trifle too ambiguous on the practicals. (I think Taj should become a director!)

And also, there's our heroine's nickname. "Rocky" is an American error: "The first time someone had mispronounced her real name, Rakhee, it had turned into a nickname she embraced wholeheartedly" (92). But by adapting to the American syllables she's made herself in a way unfit for Mumbai. In Bollywood the nickname becomes another reminder of her American-ness, associating her with a Western film about a lower-class male fighter whose voice is distinctively low and slurred; this is the opposite of the high, refined treble tone and fluid tongue expected of heroines in Hindi-language films. Like her namesake, Rocky goes through intensive training and works constantly to live up to the industry's expectations: diction coaching, Hindi language courses, script memorization. (And now, yes, I'm imagining all this happening in a montage set to "Eye of the Tiger," or better yet this catchy Bhangra remix.) The reason why Rocky comes to stay in Taj's house while filming is that her fellow actors and industry people are miffed because she dropped the polite, perfect heroine's mask and spoke too candidly in an interview about Bollywood's hypocrisy and bigoted underbelly: she pulled the mask off, just for a moment -- but nobody likes a spoilsport. So she is sent to the haveli, where she pulls off more masks. Taj's, of course -- but also his younger brother's.

  • Ashraf Khan

The gap between appearance and the substance beneath is most poignantly illustrated with Ashraf, or more familiarly Ashu. Like Rocky, he has two names: one formal and public, the other a private diminutive, familial and intimate. Ashraf Khan the actor is attempting to fill the void left by his brother's departure from the industry. There's a lot about this dynamic that I may be missing, since I haven't (yet) read the earlier book in the series, but Ashraf's bitterness and terror are palpable enough. He is acutely, achingly conscious of the many ways he fails to be as big a star or as powerful a presence as his elder brother; this consciousness becomes more and more a figure he uses against himself, to erase his own talents, desires, and even his existence:

He had never been one to hallucinate. Not until his brother's phantom taunting had taken root in his brain and Nina's oily threats had begun spreading like a slick down his spine. Now, those voices were almost deafening. With him always. And they all said the same thing: You are worthless, Ashu. You are terrible. You are filthy and dirty and godless. No one will ever love you. (1030)

Bollywood's conservative cultural standards place great burdens on their stars: no nudity, no kissing, no alcohol -- at least not where anyone can see you. It's a world of polite fictions and open secrets, of making sure you always smile for the cameras no matter how much you are hurting inside. Ashu's growing despair is typical for those who feel out of step with systems that privilege silence as a means of maintaining a pristine, false image of wholesomeness. His traumas are significant and impossible to speak about: he was sexually abused at a young age by an older woman in exchange for career advancement (an advancement that has tragically failed to materialize, which is also a source of trauma); he posed for nude photos for her, which she later uses to attempt to blackmail him and which could end his career completely; eventually it is revealed that Ashu is also gay, an orientation still highly marginalized and recently re-criminalized in India. The constant effort it takes to bridge the void between how Ashu feels and how he knows he should feel drain him both physically and emotionally -- eventually he is interrupted in an attempt to throw himself from the roof of the haveli. His brother, his co-star, and his caretaker Kamal have to talk him down. It's a moment as intensely, perfectly melodramatic as anything in a classic Bollywood tearjerker (personal gold standard for tearjerkers, and not just Bollywood ones: Kal Ho Naa Ho). At the same time, it's also a desperate gesture toward nothingness: Ashu has been straining against the void for so long that eventually he concludes it would be easier just to throw himself in. He is only able to begin recovery with the (unexpected) love of Kamal.

  • Kamal

The most opaque character, especially to a Western-culture influenced reader: I find it very hard to separate Kamal from the stereotype of the Magical Asian, or from other South Asian/Indian caricatures (hello and goodbye forever, Punjab). The other characters appear to be at least as puzzled as I am -- they refer to him at times as a ghost, a dead man, as cursed, a resident of the Hotel California, and so on. He is, as animated Kirk might say, the least scrutable man ever, a doctor who has somehow become a domestic nurse of sorts but who only follows his own orders, the bearer of an unrequited passion that finds only the tiniest gestures of expression until suddenly it bursts forth to give his beloved a new reason to live. Kamal has virtually no surface, no expression -- his smiles are rarer than diamonds, his mask welded on and impenetrable. He is entirely substance: even when he becomes more human toward the end of the book, he is still something a little bit apart, too much himself to really fit into anyone else's narrative -- not the fairy tales, and not Ashraf's burgeoning love for him. I freely admit that Kamal is a piece of this puzzle I have not yet figured out. Is there some key that I am missing? Or is he simply inexplicable? And why, if I do not know who he is or what he means, do I feel so much for him?

I have dabbled slightly in the films of Shahrukh Khan, so I am not entirely ignorant of Bollywood culture, but I wish I knew more about the politics and the industry to comment further, particularly on the dialect issues, which strike me as emblematic of a lot of fractures in current Indian politics and culture. I've included a few links to this effect in the extras -- just because I don't know what to say doesn't mean there aren't other smart people who are more expert and on top of this.

And finally this, because I could not resist, is "Dhoom Taana," a song from 2007 film Om Shanti Om, in which Bollywood reimagines its own history. If you ever have a chance to see this in theaters, I highly recommend doing so. There's an essay waiting to be written about Om Shanti Om and Singing in the Rain and a medium retconning its own past via musical spectacle for an audience in the know, but that Theraflu is really kicking in now and I feel a nap coming on.

___

On Twitter recently, Suleikha Snyder tweeted a link to this piece about Bollywood's mishandling of mental illness. The Guardian also recently discussed sex and censorship and Bollywood, and Priyanka Srivastava in the Daily Mail talked about Bollywood's use of ethnic stereotypes for comedy.

Recent legislation in India has recriminalized gay sex but also given legal recognition to transgender people -- which goes to prove that barometers of improvement in social justice vary from culture to culture. There is no Great Historical Narrative of Universal Progress: there is only the work that must be done in every culture to undo oppression and inequality.

___ Snyder, Suleikha. Bollywood and the Beast. Samhain Publishing: February 11, 2014. Ebook.

R is for Robin Hood

{For the full alphabet of diversity in romance, click here.} Carrie Lofty's What a Scoundrel Wants is a Robin Hood romance. Yes, technically the hero is Will Scarlet, Robin's nephew (in this version of the mythology) rather than Robin himself -- but we spend a lot of time in the woods, Scarlet's a dab hand with a bow, he's angsty because of his impossible youthful crush on Maid Marian (now Robin's wife), the villain is the new Sheriff of Nottingham ... You get the idea.

Cover image for What a Scoundrel Wants by Carrie Lofty. Forest background. A shirtless man with tan skin and folded arms faces us, slightly to the left, visible only from his chin to his incongruous belt buckle.If people know one thing about Robin Hood, it's this: He robs from the rich and gives to the poor. Socialism, or at least a sense of wealth redistribution as a social good, is baked right in to the legend. But we don't see a great deal of that in Lofty's text. We've got a few peasants in Nottingham, some more in a smaller village, and a gaggle of refugees in the woods, but aside from a general sense of sucks to be poor there's not a lot of social dynamics or even description of what the general public is supposedly suffering from.  In some ways this fits with Will Scarlet's more ambiguous morality -- but even when Robin himself shows up to help with the big battle scene at the end, the focus remains on a handful of larger-than-life heroes rather than the dismantling of an oppressive social system.

In fact, collective action in What a Scoundrel Wants is almost universally bad. The first scene  of the book involves Will being framed for the murder of a nobleman, purely because he was the only one of the guards not in on the conspiracy. Then a group of forest refugees try to hang him -- it's technically on the orders of their douchebag leader, our heroine Meg's ex-lover, but it's presented very much as the will of an angry mob. A second, much angrier mob later attempts to burn Meg as a witch -- an epithet Meg is used to, since this amorphous mass of peasants has often persecuted her on account of her blindness and her mysterious alchemical talents. The reunion of Robin's band at the end of the book seems to promise a positive scene of group unity, but then his men turn cowardly in the face of the Greek fire Meg has made for them to use in storming the villain's castle, and only Robin's personal bravery and charismatic leadership keep them from breaking ranks and running away.

Essentially, every group in this text is an amoeba. Heroes and villains stand out and can exert their will upon the group. The text's world is divided between these two types of characters: leads, who have agency, and extras, who don't.

It is in this context that we must evaluate our heroine Meg's blindness.

(Side note: The Dear Author review from 2008 manages to get through 800 words without once mentioning the heroine's disability. I suppose they did this to avoid spoilers, but it feels like an erasure, especially when slightly euphemistic language comes into play: "Meg has enough of her own troubles." Translation: We shouldn't talk about blindness: it's not polite.)

First of all, Meg is a fantastic heroine of a very unusual type. She's prickly, mendacious, and constantly horny. She gives fewer fucks than just about any other romance heroine I've seen, and I love her even more on this re-read than I did on my first time through. As a blind heroine, too, she avoids the most common pitfalls of disability in romance: she's not a Magical Cripple or a litmus test for the moral purity of other characters. She's accepted her disability to the extent that she has learned to cope with it in her daily life, but she is far from happy when it leaves her vulnerable or disadvantaged, and she's not above using it as a verbal dagger to win points when she has to. The text allows her to be difficult and human, and that's  worth celebrating.

However, Meg's blindness exists in the text's world of negative collective action. Her disability isolates her and forces her to depend on others for basic needs (food, shelter, translating ancient alchemy texts, not being stabbed with swords). She has worked hard to find ways around certain aspects of this dependence -- keeping the inside of her cabin strictly organized so she can find her alchemy supplies, for example -- and this is presented as heroic and admirable. But because she is a lead and not an extra, this dependence on others is presented as a problem in ways that seem ridiculous outside the plot context.

Such as when the hero drags her from her sickbed (literally, not figuratively) and ditches her in the woods. Because if she's truly strong, she'll make it back to the castle.

At this point in the narrative, Meg has been severely burned. On her hands, which are her primary tools for navigating a world. She has not regained feeling in her extremities since the injury, the skin is blistered and tender, and her hands are wrapped in thick linen bandages. This is not the first time Meg has been injured in the course of the book -- the text beats up on every character at some point -- but this is definitely a pivotal trauma. To make things worse, she's being tended at Loxley Manor by Marian, who she knows Will had deep tortured pants-feelings for. So she turns quiet, and emotionally distant, and worries that her hands will be as useless to her now as her eyes have become.

Whereupon Will Scarlet hauls her into the woods with this justification: "If you're strong enough to be my partner, come find me" (289).

She does, of course, because Meg is a heroine and a Lead With Agency. Tearing off her bandages, fueled by anger, using the moss on the north side of trees to orient herself (which: nope), she struggles back to Loxley Manor. Her hands are bleeding, her scabs open and painful. Naturally, she and Will fall instantly into bed, happy together at last: "He had hoped and gambled, and she rediscovered her strength in the forest, conquering the melancholy that hindered her recovery" (305).

Call me cynical, but it seems like groping through a forest with open wounds would hinder her recovery a lot more than a sulky attitude. It's the year 1199 and not only do we not have antibiotics yet, but we're not all that clear about bacteria or hand-washing, either.

But none of this is as important to the story as making sure that we demonstrate Meg's heroism by showing that she can rise above the limitations of her disability. Because to do otherwise requires her to depend on the kindness of extras -- of that amorphous, amoral mass of humanity that has no will of its own or sense of personhood.

If you've read much in the way of disability studies -- and I am by no means an expert -- you might have encountered two models of disability: the medical model (or individual model), and the social model. Lisa Egan at xoJane explains:

Someone with a medical/individual perspective would state that I am prevented from getting around my city because I’m a person with a disability and it’s tough luck that the Tube is so inaccessible. If I want to use the Tube then I’m just gonna have to find a new skeleton from somewhere.

The way I see it is that I’ve been disabled when it comes to travelling around my city by the architects that installed stairs and escalators instead of ramps and lifts at the majority of Underground stations. Stairs and escalators are man-made barriers put in the way by a discriminatory society that excludes me because I have impaired mobility.

The world of What a Scoundrel Wants very clearly adheres to the medical/individual model, not only because of its emphasis on Meg's personal strength, but also because it removes any agency from the extras who make up this world. Notice in Egan's description how the social model foregrounds the actions of non-disabled people in making the Tube inaccessible: the architects have chosen to use stairs and escalators instead of ramps, and that choice impacts Egan's ability to travel through the city.

The emphasis on personal resilience somewhat undermines Meg's strong portrayal, in my opinion: if only individual determination and heroism can make a disabled life manageable, if there is no room for a discussion of how society's choices impact a disabled person's ability, then there is no way forward. Indeed, at the end of the book, we're left with no hint as to what Meg and Will are going to do next -- where they will live, how they will earn their living, how they will afford to continue Meg's alchemical experiments (all issues previously discussed in the text). The background lack of agency in Lofty's world reaches up at the end to swallow even our hero and heroine.

___

It's a new blog to me, but the website Blind Spot run by UK researcher and lecturer Hannah Thompson has some excellent analysis of literature and media relating to blindness -- for instance, the Lego Movie.

For other books featuring disabled characters, check out this Dear Author thread and the always incisive Love in the Margins.

___

Lofty, Carrie. What a Scoundrel Wants. New York: Kensington Publishing Corp., 2008. Print.

Q is for Queer Vampires

{Click here for the full alphabet of intersectional feminism and romance.} There's really no point in my rehashing how vampires have been associated with sexuality (especially forms of sexuality coded as deviant) since long before Bram Stoker. Anne Rice, Stephenie Meyer, and Charlaine Harris did not invent the metaphor: they simply developed the nuances of the theme in different ways, and Rebekah Weatherspoon's Better Off Red: Vampire Sorority Sisters is part of this tradition. (Side note: I love a book that does what it says on the tin.) No surprise then that this book also dabbles with many of the ancillary themes of the vampire-sex association: belonging, bodily autonomy and consent, sexual identity, and predation.

Cover image for Rebekah Weatherspoon's Better Off Red. Black background with a red swirl on the left-hand spine. One pale-skinned woman with long red hair sits on a bed far away with her nude back to us; she has her head turned slightly as if about to look over her shoulder. Closer to the viewer, a pale-skinned woman with short dark hair, who is also nude, stands facing away from us, looking at the redhead.It all starts when our heroine Ginger meets the girls of the ABO sorority (I see what you did there!). She connects with one of them at once, a black girl with "a beautiful, full afro" (Kindle location 148):

"Ginger?" Cleo asked, taking in my long red hair. "I thought my parents were cruel. Tsk, tsk, naming a ginger kid 'Ginger?'"

"Yeah, it could be worse," I said with a shrug. "At least it doesn't rhyme with anything."

"True. It could be worse. My last name is Jones." I couldn't say what sucked more, a name tag mocking your hair and your God-given beauty marks or being named after a blaxploitation character. (166)

Cleo becomes a lodestar and a mirror for Ginger over the course of the plot: both girls are humans living among vampires, they're both gay but unsure about coming out to their families, they're both certain they don't want to be turned. Cleo is a locus of comfort and safety in Ginger's new vampire-oriented lifestyle -- a comfort she desperately needs, since even through her overwhelming attraction to vampire queen Camila, Ginger is starkly aware that she is at an enormous physical and sexual disadvantage. Camila is gorgeous, Camila is experienced and dominating in bed, and Camila is deadly: "Were amazingly good looks reason enough to trust your blood lusting captor?" (754). It's a question many women and girls will find familiar. Rich, beautiful, great in bed, a little frightening -- Camila is the standard alpha romance fantasy, complete with tragic backstory, emotional distance, and a few too many abusive red flags for my personal comfort.

Ginger's phrase 'blood lusting' is spot-on -- a vampire's bite is orgasmic for both the vampire feeding and the human feeder. We haven't only linked sex with violence: we've linked sex with violence and food. Camila explains:

"Well, you eat meat, right? Imagine if you had to chase the cows. You don't have a gun, so you have to use your fists and you can only chase those cows at night ... Wouldn't it be easier if the cow showed up at your door and let you take all you needed? ... We live off what humans give us. Humans were beginning to suspect our existence. When we are starving, our kind can drain a human in a matter of minutes. That sort of feeding leaves bodies, and they began to hunt us. A few vampires realized if they could just find humans to volunteer to feed them on a regular basis, no humans would have to die and there would be no trace of a monster to hunt. Our master finally settled on this sorority as a guise and many of us have become accustomed to finding our feeders this way. It's about convenience, comfort, and routine." (901)

The sister-queens' "convenience, comfort, and routine" requires that the human sorority pledges essentially restructure their entire lives around keeping vampires' existence secret and being fed upon; it's posited as a volunteer relationship, but it's also cloaked by the usual rituals of sorority pledging and maintained in strictest secrecy from the wider human world. I have to wonder: does this cloaking undermine the ability of pledges to give meaningful consent to this arrangement? Especially since the sister-queens use mind control to remove the girls' fear during the first feeding: isn't that a little bit, well, squicky, from a consent standpoint? The reason I was willing to trust that the narrative wouldn't just brush this under the rug was because of Ginger, who clearly sees the creepiness here and isn't afraid to call it out, even in her own head. I can stomach a great deal more consent iffiness when it's labeled openly as such.*

Ginger is an exception even in the vampire sorority: she has a small amount of demon blood from her birth mother, which means her blood isn't nourishing to vampires (though Camila still bites her frequently -- she likes the taste, and the orgasms). Alone among the new ABO pledges, Ginger is not food. Nor is she a feeder, and this combined with her intense romance with the Queen leaves her a little apart from the other girls.

Now that they're bonded to the sister-queens, the new pledges have their freedoms strictly curtailed: a curfew, required escort after dark, and although the girls can date whom they want they will be ejected from the sorority if they contract an STI: "As of last night, we know you're all clean," Cleo says (1343), which is a hell of a thing to announce so casually in a group setting. Medical privacy rights be damned! And the reason for this rule is not to protect the vampires, who are immune to human diseases -- it's because the group feeding almost always involves group sex, "and we play together too much to give each other the clap." Sexual orientation and personal boundaries don't matter in the face of the vampires' sexualized hunger, and over the course of the book we see some characters couple up while other characters sleep around -- but all of them except Ginger are participants in frequent multi-partner orgies where intense orgasms are a shorthand for consent with a partner someone may or may not desire outside of the feedings. Again: a little squicky. (Though it must be admitted, these scenes are hot as hell -- Ms. Weatherspoon writes an excellent sex scene.) The emphasis on secrecy and all the lesbian loving parallel the narratives of the closet, of being on the down-low, of all the times where being LGBTQA has been scorned or outlawed or forbidden and must be hidden from mainstream 'normal' society. While it's become much easier in the past decades for queer people to come out in American culture, for Ms. Weatherspoon's vampires that moment will never come. Revelation, as it appears in the Sookie Stackhouse novels or the True Blood tv show, is not an option for these sorority girls: their closet is for life.

New ABO members are given teardrop rubies they are required to wear at all times, so they might be recognized in case of emergencies: "If you get hurt, hit by a car, fall down some stairs, drink yourself half to death at Chi Nu house, you'll be taken to a hospital that is bound to our sister-queens ... If you know your turn to feed is coming up, do not drink or take any illegal substances. Our sister-queens can taste it in our system and I've been told it makes our blood taste like piss" (1363). Again, the girls' physical independence and choice is restricted for the vampires' convenience. While gathering this quote from my notes I had to do a double-take, because it's a rather spooky little piece of text that -- spoilers coming up! -- foreshadows the fate of first Cleo, then Ginger.

Cleo is in a terrible car crash and suffers horrible burns. (Car accidents: Olivia's Least Favorite Plot Point Ever.) She's in a lot of pain and isn't expected to last the night. Camila makes it plain that she intends to turn Cleo to save her life. Ginger objects, on the very relevant grounds that Cleo "doesn't want this" (4751). Cleo has explicitly said as much, because becoming a vampire would mean severing ties with her human family. But Cleo's decision not to become an immortal demon (vampires and demons are roughly equivalent, or at least related, in this mythology) does not, in the Queen's eyes, take precedence over Camila's own wishes: "'She's mine. I can't let her suffer in pain any longer. She'll be upset for a while, but in the end she will have wanted me to help her.'" Ginger is forced to wait in the corner while Camila and the other sister-queens perform the unwanted ritual on the unconscious, dying black girl in the hospital bed. There is a terribly unsettling echo in this of the way black people's consent has been routinely discounted in the course of American medical history: TuskeegeeOak RidgeHenrietta Lacks.

At first Cleo seems fine but things soon turn sour, especially with her maybe-girlfriend-maybe-not Benny. Benny has been raised in vampire culture and wanted Cleo to turn so Benny could feed her; her happiness that she can now do what she wants royally pisses Cleo off: "'She's fucking happy I died just so she could have me the way she wanted me'" (4980). Cleo begins arguing with Camila, acting out in ways that are completely psychologically understandable but which the vampire queen describes as troublesome. She's also feeding too much from one human, which is dangerous. The other girls have to meet Cleo's grieving family and not let on that Cleo's still alive at the ABO house; it does not help at all that Cleo's family is a mirror-version of Ginger's mom, dad, and brother: "I made it to the hall of Camila's quarters before I leaned against the wall and sobbed. Cleo's poor family. And I thought of my parents, what Dad and Mom would do if they lost me too soon and what Todd would have to say to the girls if he was in Maxwell's shoes" (5181).

Ginger becomes immensely frustrated with the situation and with Camila -- but she gets distracted by the approaching exams and then -- oh, look, more spoilers -- her lab partner and OBA frat pledge Greg sexually assaults her and pushes her down a flight of stairs. (Remember that prophetic quote? Yeah.) Our heroine suffers a massive head injury and Camila is there instantly to dispatch Greg -- and to turn our heroine, again with the justification of saving her life, again without proper consent: "Her blood was flowing into my mouth before I even thought to stop her" (5365). We learn from master vampire-demon Dalhem shortly after that unlike Cleo, who really was dying, Ginger could have been saved without being turned: "'Your sister-queens could have healed you and left you human, but our Camila let her emotions for you get in the way. She let her emotions overrule what she truly knew to be just" (5574).

This is a major, major failing. Even Dalhem thinks so, for he strips Camlia of her royal rank and gives the queenship to Ginger. I must admit I was a little frustrated at this point: new black vampire Cleo is unwillingly turned, loses her girlfriend, and turns a little bit feral -- but new white vampire Ginger is given control of the sorority, gets to keep Camila despite the gross breach of trust, and is praised for having more restraint than her years suggest. Not that Ginger feels all that liberated by the change: "There was nowhere for me to go. I couldn't hide in my dorm room. I couldn't go home. The ABO house was my home now. Even if I escaped to another sister-queen's room, Camila was a part of me now ... Making things right with Camila was something I had to do, though at the moment I wanted something different" (5790). Camila as Queen was a power fantasy; Ginger as Queen now feels limited, constrained -- imprisoned. Lost to the world she's grown up in and the family who adopted her and loved her and supported her when she finally got up the courage to come out to them. It highlights the fact that the vampires, like their human feeders, are not entirely free of important constraints: they must avoid daylight, they must live in secrecy, they are surrounded by a web of blood-bonds and hierarchy and rules laid down by God hisownself. The more I think about it, the less certain I am that anyone in this text is ever allowed to make a truly free and unconstrained choice. This feels both frustrating and realistic, an unresolvable tension.

Fortunately for my poor aching heart, Ginger gets to keep contact with her family, who are welcomed into the vampire culture as feeders in the area around their home. (PFLAG for vampires?) We learn that Cleo would have lost her family anyways if she'd told them she was gay: her mom would have cast her out due to church pressure. Tolerance for lesbianism is equated with tolerance for vampirism, and I just don't have an extra thousand words to use to unpack that right now. Ginger and Camila enact a vampire marriage that makes them truly -- finally -- equals, which is pretty good as far as happy endings go. I was still troubled by Cleo's plotline, by what had happened to her and between her and Benny and how they both had been betrayed by Camila's thoughtlessness -- until I learned she was the heroine of the second book in the series. That's a pretty great hook, actually. Well played, Ms. Weatherspoon.

Looking over this post, it sounds grumpy and unsatisfied and as though I did not enjoy the book. I did, very much -- especially once some of my worries about Cleo's storyline were soothed, or at least postponed. There's a lot of ambiguity about identity and consent in here -- taking apart the dynamics of animalistic vampires and humans who are compared to food animals could keep me busy for another week at least. At lot of these ambiguities strike me as important, and they're ones we've yet to really decode -- I'm not sure this book is perfectly suited to my tastes, but it's a hell of a set of questions.

*This is one the reasons I actually love the terms dubcon and noncon -- they mark a recognition that consent is questionable or absent, and I can read on or avoid it as I choose. Sometimes I read it, though usually in erotica rather than romance. My biggest problem with the use of dubious consent or even rape in romance is that it's so often excused as 'close enough' to meaningful, unconstrained consent. I see this elision as a symptom of rape culture.)

___

I am quite picky about my vampire fiction, but here are some gems I've discovered over the years. Dracula's Guest is an anthology of pre-Stoker vampire stories and legends, edited by Michael Sims. It is highly recommended for alternative visions of vampire mythology, some of which are still unexplored in fiction (a goldmine for authors!). For a different exploration of vampires-thinking-of-people-as-cattle and issues of autonomy and consent, Terry Pratchett's Carpe Jugulum is a perennial personal favorite, and quite funny to boot. Gail Carriger's Parasol Protectorate series also features homosocial/homosexual vampires, many of whom are adorably dandyish and playful and fun, and some of whom are masterminds of espionage and politicking.

Rebecca Skloot's The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is a book thoroughly worth the reading: deeply researched, empathetic, and significant. It is still, however, a black woman's story filtered through a white woman's voice. This piece at the Grio by Ronda Racha Price gives a solid overview of events since the book's publication and asks important questions about the financial agendas at stake with Henrietta Lacks' legacy and the use and abuse of black bodies in medical science.

Favorite website The Toast's series of Femslash Fridays features great snippets of imagined lesbian couples from pop culture: this one on Bend It Like Beckham is chock-full of insight into representation in media, self-awareness, and the full spectrum of queerness beyond the binary and the stereotypes.

I became aware of this book because of Rebekah Weatherspoon's Tumblr, which is delightful and sexy and smart. 

___ Weatherspoon, Rebekah. Better Off Red: Vampire Sorority Sisters Book 1. Bold Strokes Books: November 15, 2011. Ebook.

P is for Cathy Pegau

{Click here for the full alphabet of intersectional feminism in romance.} Cathy Pegau's sci-fi heist romance Rulebreaker has one of the most on-point titles I've seen in some time. From the con-artist heroine to her executive lesbian love interest to the giant mining company determined to cover up a sinister corporate secret, it feels as though rules and the law are created only to be broken, bent, flouted, or twisted. What's more, the way the book unfolds treats the usual turns and tropes of romance the same way, playing with reader expectations in a way not unlike a good con.

Cover image for Cathy Pegau's Rulebreaker. Vaguely futuristic metallic background. One woman with pale skin and short dark hair stands facing the reader. One hand is on her hip and the other rests casually on her head, holding a sci-fi looking pistol. She wears a dark blue strapless garment and her expression is cool and challenging. Behind her is a second dark-haired woman with pale skin, looking down demurely as though hiding something.Bisexual con artist and occasional thief  Liv has a whole set of rules for appropriate criminal behavior: "Felon's Rule Number One: Don't get emotionally involved" (87). Of course she's going to break this rule: she's going to get involved, and hard. It's one of the strongest types of what TV Tropes calls Tempting Fate -- similar examples include the cop who mentions he's two days away from retirement (and you instantly know he's going to be killed), or the computer geek who declares himself invincible (only to be immediately drenched in liquid nitrogen). They're practically prophecies in fiction and film. So when Liv's hot ex-husband Tonio reappears to ask for her help with an absurdly lucrative new heist, the reader is primed to expect a classic reunion story about a couple of exes rediscovering how to be together.

And it looks for a while as though that's what we're getting. Liv and Tonio have chemistry that is off the charts. Liv is intensely, frankly sexual and Tonio pushes all her buttons -- but they both keep pulling back, trying to keep things simple and uncomplicated because they knew that as a couple they were something of a disaster. And this would all seem very cliché and expected except that the astute reader (read: me) has read the blurb and noticed that we are to have a lady love interest at some point.

I'll confess: I was intrigued. Zia -- short for Jadzia -- first shows up at the halfway point in the text. Remarkably late for a main character. In authorly circles I have seen people dinged in critiques or pitches for not introducing both protagonists in the first ten or so pages. But bending this particular rule really serves the story, because in the first half of the book we get plenty of time to learn about the sci-fi world of Nevarro, and thanks to Tonio we get to see how Liv behaves both when she trusts someone and when she does not. Tonio might be her ex and they might have some unresolved issues about their past, but he's miles safer for Liz than Willem Grey or his son Christian, the two arch-criminals who have set up our blackmail heist.

[Author's note: I only just realized that one of the cold-blooded killer characters in Rulebreaker is actually named Christian Grey. There's a little one-off about his sexual preferences at the end of the novel that is suddenly a whole lot more hilarious.]

Liv's job is to cozy up to hard-nosed executive Zia Talbot, who has hidden files about a piece of safety tech that would earn the company heavy fines if the Central Mining Authority learns about it. Seduction is implied, if not explicitly required, and Liv is slightly anxious about this: she has had crushes on women before, but she's never slept with or dated one. I was worried we were in for a coming-out arc -- which is fine, just not that exciting to me -- but instead it turns out Liv is worried that she won't be as successful in seducing a woman as she would be with a man. She's anxious because of her inexperience, not because she's questioning her same-sex attraction. And when she does meet Zia, the intensity of the blaze between them is not presented as qualitatively different from her attraction to Tonio. When they do eventually sleep together, she notices the different textures and responses of a woman's body, but it's not presented as somehow validating or confirming anything we didn't already know about Liv. It's emotionally transformative -- but that's because Liv and Zia have a much more sustainable romantic connection than Liv and Tonio ever did. It's to the narrative's credit that this isn't presented as a competition, as though Zia is Liv's Tru Lurrv while Tonio was a mistake -- Liv and Tonio cared about each other but also hurt each other, while Liv and Zia bring out the best in each other. It's sweet and realistic and doesn't make anyone into the villain -- this being one of my pet peeves about love triangles and why I generally avoid them. (I haven't read much YA recently, as you can imagine.) A bisexual heroine is a rare enough thing in romance: a bisexual heroine who gets to actually display her attraction to both sexes on-page for reasons other than titillation is like some sort of romance unicorn.

Ah, Zia ... She is intelligent, demanding, controlled, and lovely -- a Harlequin Presents-type fantasy CEO who just happens to be female. No wonder Liv so quickly breaks that first felon's rule by falling in love with the mark. This part of the text plays out another traditional romance narrative: Pining Secretary In Love With Sexy Boss. Zia responds to Liv's flirtations the way any alpha would: knowing smiles, innuendo, seductive compliments, expensive gifts. She notices Liv's hesitation and chalks it up to inexperience (Liv has told her this would be her first time with another woman), so she offers to go slow and do things right -- again, all very classic protective alpha.

Only the reader knows that Liv is anxious not just because of romantic timidity or the newness of lesbian action, but because she's dreading the moment when Zia learns Liv's been conning her the whole time to break into her computer system. Moral twinges are read as virginal shyness -- it's a clever twist on an old trope and it makes for some nicely angsty reading. It also preserves the fantasy of the boss-secretary dynamic without undermining Liv's agency as a character: one of my biggest problems with the alpha CEO hero is how often the heroine is made passive as a counterbalance or contrast (Christian Grey and Ana Steele being a fairly obvious example). Liv is an excellent assistant, due in no small part to the skills she's honed on the shady side of the law, and it really is a pleasure to watch her blossom in the cutthroat corporate world. There are hints that she could easily transition into a permanent position in the company -- a feint toward the well-trod redemption arc, where the thief goes straight because of love. A cop from the CMA appears to try and get Liv to turn on her fellow criminals: she has an opportunity here to get in good with the law, for possibly the first time in her life.

But Willem and Christian are growing impatient: the pressure is on for Liv to find the right files so the blackmail can begin. When she does, the discovery of what's in them twists the usual tropes again: Zia is not innocent. She's covered up deaths and allowed more deaths to happen just to preserve her career; the fact that the actual death rate is higher than she realized is not treated as a mitigating factor to absolve her of blame, but as a demonstration that she should have been asking better questions and made more ethical choices. It's a bold move by the text -- especially since the secret really is a plausibly dirty one, involving the forced labor of conscripted prisoners and faulty safety equipment -- but it mens that Zia's high-status position as a wealthy and successful woman is compromised. The fantasy is tempered by the truth. In many ways this revelation also makes Zia a better match for Liv -- they both know how to hide their tracks from the inquisitive eyes of the law. Liv's own past is far from pristine, so now they can move forward together on a more equal footing -- or they could, if Liv still weren't on the con. And if she didn't know that turning evidence for the CMA would get Zia not only fired but imprisoned in the same prison mines Liv's spent her whole life avoiding, and from which Zia picked people to die in the mines.

At this point, I had no idea where the text would go. My sense of the narrative direction had been twisted too many times -- I was being conned, and I was delighted. Everything depended on the characters' choices at this point: there was no one story shape (reunion story, Presents romance, redemption arc) that was controlling the narrative's direction: "None of these choices ended with a happily ever after. In my world, what did I expect, roses and rainbows?" (2699). Things go merrily to hell in the manner of all the best heist stories (Sneakers being my perennial favorite). Liv confesses her hidden agenda to Zia. The Greys take Liv's mom hostage. In the resulting shootout Tonio is killed and Zia is critically injured. It's the rock-bottom black moment for our heroine:

Zia and Tonio were both gone because of things I'd done. Did I think I could get away with breaking all those rules? Who the hell was I that they didn't apply? And now look what had happened. (3683)

I knew as a reader that Zia wasn't going to die, but I couldn't help worrying about it anyways. Tonio had died, after all, and up until that moment I'd thought we might also be in for a last-minute menage romance (I do like a good menage). It didn't help that I was reading this book in the lead-up to the Purple Wedding on Game of Thrones and was having a week where every character felt vulnerable. Ms. Pegau's text had shown itself so willing to play with genre tropes that my usual rock-hard certainty about the protagonist's survival was ever so slightly shaken. I was impressed.

Liv ends up in a CMA holding facility, a place where nothing exists except rules. A mostly recovered Zia comes to find her, and the book ends with a new rule: "Find someone you love who loves you back, the job be damned" (3988). It's a sweet yet plausible ending, not unmixed with difficulty -- really very satisfying.

You may be wondering, in all this, where the feminist angle comes in. Partly it's that this is a story about women with agency that isn't based on violence or magical powers, but on intelligence, persuasion, perception, and guts. Much as I love a good fantasy premise, it's refreshing to have people -- especially women in fiction -- who are strong because of purely human traits.

But also, I believe that stories can be either a way to keep the walls up or to tear them down, both in our individual lives and in our collective culture. We saw with Zen Cho's book how the (re)interpretation of the colonizers' literary traditions helped people with colonized identities manage the oppressions and obstacles they faced. If the nature of oppression is restriction -- through the law, through custom, through reductive stereotypes -- then a plot about breaking rules and confounding expectations must be somewhat liberating. Liv and Zia go through a process of discovering which rules are solid and which rules deserve to be broken: they are more sensitive at the end of the book to each other and to the consequences of their own actions. The text's meta-narrative at the same time shows us how flexible stories really are -- it suggests that we can decide to some extent which story we're living in, which set of rules we want to follow. Like Jade Temptress, this ending feels almost like a beginning, with two people who have a wider understanding of their own powers and a greater resistance to forces that would try to keep them from reaching their full potential of happiness and self-assertion.

Sounds pretty feminist to me.

___

Sexism in SFF and geek culture is really having a moment lately -- this post by Foz Meadows lays out some of the ways that women's participation in the history and culture of geekdom has been consistently overlooked, tested, or erased entirely.

This older post from Tor.com is a recap of a WorldCon panel from 2010, and opens up some interesting questions about bisexuality in sff more specifically (especially: why is there not more of it?).

Romance Novels for Feminists has a great post on the interaction between heist plots and romance.

___ Pegau, Cathy. Rulebreaker. Carina Press: August 8, 2011. Ebook.

O is for Overwhelmed

{Click here for the full alphabet of intersectional feminism in romance.} The first time someone told me I was worthless because I was a girl, I was five years old. The person telling me was my next-door neighbor. He was six in chronological age, but years older than that in pure unmitigated jerkdom. Apparently, because I was a girl, it was wrong for me to play with the He-Man toy whose chest armor would flip to look dented when you hit him. I didn't have the vocabulary at the time, but three words sum up my reaction: This is bullshit. Over the next few years, I boyed it up as hard as I could -- scraped knees, sports, climbing trees, GI Joe, psychically controlled dinosaurs with laser armor -- just to prove to that kid that I could be just as good as he was. It was never going to work, and that kid never ever changed his mind, but I was borne forward on a mixture of self-defense and a stubborn, grumpy anger that smoldered in my heart like a charcoal briquette.

One of the hardest things for me to unlearn is the idea that I have to personally refute every stereotype about women in order to prove that feminism is valid. As though the theory's credibility is called into question every time I wear pink, or feel hurt or anxious about something, or decide I don't want a high-powered corporate job where I have to wear suits and use words like "synergy" and "conference call." There is a strong temptation to be All Things Good to prove that all women are capable and strong -- as though other women's humanity is dependent upon me, as though my individual abilities are admissible as evidence in the constant debate called Women: Do We Really Have To Treat Them Like Humans Or What? And part of the reason this is hard to unlearn is that there are people who believe this is, as the cartoon says, How It Works. I'm not wrong to conclude that people expect this of me: I am only wrong to conclude that I have to play by their shitty, shitty rules.

This zealous impulse dovetails a little too nicely at times with my innate perfectionism and tendency to take on more than I should. I've had to learn over the years how to back out of things, how to decline work requests, how to allow myself to make mistakes or take extra time if I need it. I've had to teach myself how to stop before I get to the point where I feel overwhelmed and panicked and end up wailing incoherently at three in the morning because there are more things to do than time to do them. I published my first book three years ago, and in the time since I've not only published four more strange little novellas but I've also become a board member of my local RWA chapter, worked on two conference planning committees, and given workshops at the Emerald City Writers' Conference for the past two years. It looks pretty intense written out like that, doesn't it? But I always feel like I'm lazy, like I'm falling behind, like I could do more or achieve more if I just gave up time-luxuries like video games or Scrubs reruns or making jewelry out of tiny beads. Who do I think I am, using my time for enjoyment and personal relaxation?

This blog project has already been hugely rewarding, but I'm a slow reader when I'm reading critically and I'm starting to feel the time pressure. So I'm giving myself a day to catch up and/or play video games and/or work on my Fancy RT Necklace -- whichever I feel like doing -- because it's important to remember that in a world stacked against us, prioritizing our own needs can be a radical and subversive act. Self-care is feminism turned inward. Not to the point where we lose sight of collective action and meaningful protest, but just to the point where we remember we're humans and humans need a break every now and again.

I did get some marvelous recommendations for the letter O. Calque suggested Octavia Butler's Wild Seedand on Twitter Sunita suggested Line and Orbit. Author Sunny Moraine has a brave post about reactions to the latter, and learning from mistakes, and fighting against one's own privilege when creating fictional worlds.

And let me take this opportunity to suggest you check out my books page to see if anything catches your eye, because it's also hard for me to remember that brief, frank moments of non-invasive self-promotion do not make me a sellout or a nag or shill. Let me also say that if someone wants to turn the tables and give one of my romances the same critical treatment I've been giving other authors' works this month ... Well, I'll be over the moon, is what. Turnabout is fair play and highly encouraged.

Thank you so much to everyone who's retweeted and commented and listened so far, and see you again tomorrow for our regularly scheduled post, brought to you by the letter P.

N is for Zora Neale Hurston

{Click here for the complete alphabet of intersectional feminism in romance.} With great difficulty, let us put aside (IF WE CAN) the verifiable fact that Their Eyes Were Watching God is a masterpiece. A perfect book, where perfect does not mean without flaw, but does mean stands out against the background of the mundane world and is so boldly itself that discussion of its flaws does nothing to diminish its power. It's lush and poetic and funny and heartbreaking, all at once. I know the vernacular dialogue can be hell on the eyes (and was criticized by Richard Wright at time of publication), but I do believe that if you don't find marvels in this book, you may in fact have a rock where your heart should be. I tremble every time I read it: from bliss, from fear, from awe.

Cover image for Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God. Sepia-tone background. A dark-skinned woman with rosy cheeks and dark, full lips tilts her head toward the reader, eyes closed and brow slightly furrowed. Gold leaf flowers sprawl across the bottom third of the cover, lending a mystical, magical air.Like many people, I first encountered Janie Crawford/Killicks/Starks/Woods as part of a high school English class. We also read Jane Austen, and Jane Eyre, because all three books are considered fundamental parts of the Western literary canon. At least, they are now -- none of them were overly popular in their time. All three had to be resurrected and dusted off by succeeding generations before they could be set up on the pedestals they currently occupy. Two of these Janes are widely considered foundational heroines of the romance genre. I don't have to tell you which book is the odd one out, do I? (Hint: it's the black woman.)

Romance authors and readers are only just beginning to discuss what a canon of the genre would look like (example: this Smart Bitches podcast). What are the most important texts of so rich and populated a tradition? The most influential? The most copied and rewritten? The most astonishing or moving or surprising or genre-changing? Lists inevitably grow long. Certain names come up often: Kathleen Woodiwiss, Julie Garwood, Georgette Heyer, Barbara Cartland, Jennifer Crusie, Nora Roberts, Susan Elizabeth Phillips. And, of course, Jane Austen and Charlotte Brontë, whose texts provide classic story patterns even though romance as a genre hadn't really been established yet. Other books have also had influence, but are frequently disqualified as romances on account of their less-than-blissful arcs: Wuthering Heights, Rebecca, and as I recently, memorably discussedGone With the Wind. 

You may notice that all these authors are white. As are all but two of the authors on AAR's Top 100 Romances Poll from 2013. (The exceptions are Sherry Thomas, who writes excellent 19th-century romances starring white people, and Nalini Singh -- we should talk some time about race and paranormal/UF romance, because more of that conversation needs to happen.) There is a black romance tradition -- a lengthy one, going back to the 19th century -- but somehow those books and those authors never make best-of lists when readers line up to cite their favorites. Beverly Jenkins is often named as the Queen of African-American Historical Romance, but she's never won a RITA. In fact, as far as I can tell from hours of focused and increasingly angry internet searching, no black author has ever won a RITA in the twenty-year history of the award. Only a handful have even been nominated.

It's a serious gap that becomes more noticeable and less explainable the more you look at it, and learning more about the publication history of Hurston's text. Their Eyes Were Watching God was first released in 1937, one year after Margaret Mitchell's insanely popular Gone With the Wind -- did you remember that won the fucking Pulitzer? because I did not -- a novel which is often heavily criticized for its depictions of black characters (for instance Mammy, who's getting an upcoming prequel authored by a white man, so help me God I want to smash something now). Mitchell's book went on to inspire a major movie of Hollywood's Golden Era and vast numbers of plantation-set romances, while Hurston's work languished in obscurity until being rediscovered decades later by Alice Walker.

Part of this obscurity is no doubt due to the divide between commercial fiction (though apparently not too commercial for the Pulitzer Committee) and literary fiction; the former tends to have a much greater tendency to trickle over into romance. Hurston's literary heirs are now numerous: they include Alice Walker, Toni Morrison, and Edwidge Danticat (who write the foreward for my digital edition of Hurston's text). But at the time of TEwWG's debut, she was heavily criticized by black male writers, including Richard Wright, Alain Locke, and Ralph Ellison, who felt her works either pandered to the white gaze or had no relevant social urgency. The idea that black Americans could lead happy and fulfilled lives was difficult to untangle from the racist narrative that black Americans had led happy and fulfilled lives under slavery: much of the work of black writing was/is to undo white supremacist narratives that were/are designed to nullify and silence black voices -- in this framework, Hurston's lyrical, deeply personal prose lacked a direction and an agenda that many black authors at the time felt (and still feel! and rightly!) was necessary to their very survival as a race.

Black/white, literary/commercial, male/female -- Their Eyes Were Watching God always seems to end up on the wrong side of history's divides, though nowadays it's closer to popular literature than it once was. This unlikely resurrection is both heartening and tantalizing: I dream of an alternate history where the novel was hugely influential on the romance genre. There are plenty of connection points ready and waiting: the focus on Janie's personal journey toward happiness and the enduring value of love, the secondary characters drawn in economically brief but vivid and memorable ways, the small-town feel of both Eatonville and the 'Glades, the melodrama of the trial scene. Romance is an omnivorous genre and the past few years have seen erotic retellings of Much Ado About Nothing and Regency reboots of The Brady Bunch, as well as creation of entirely new subgenres like New Adult and a groundswell of interest in sci-fi romance and the 1920s as a setting for historicals. Why shouldn't authors turn to Hurston for inspiration as they turn to Austen and Brontë? But the race line in romance seems incredibly starkly drawn: there is mainstream (read: white) romance, and there is AA romance, and the two strains rarely meet.

It's a sign of my profound privilege that I'm able to get mad at this only now: black romance authors have been caught in this mess for decades. Zora Neale Hurston herself articulated this problem half a century ago:

Now, do not leap to the conclusion that editors and producers constitute a special class of un-believers. That is far from true. Publishing houses and theatrical promoters are in business to make money. They will sponsor anything that they believe will sell. They shy away from romantic stories about Negroes and Jews because they feel that they know the public indifference to such works, unless the story or play involves racial tension. It can then be offered as a study in Sociology, with the romantic side subdued. They know the skepticism in general about the complicated emotions in the minorities. The average American just cannot conceive of it, and would be apt to reject the notion, and publishers and producers take the stand that they are not in business to educate, but to make money.

Beverly Jenkins' description of getting the copyedits on her first book is heartbreaking proof that not enough has changed since then:

The draft went from the editor to a freelancer. Scenes were changed. The scene where Cara’s grandfather appears, “nigger, nigger” replaced his name. Characters were depicted as “black as coal.” I was devastated when I received the galley. I called Vivian Stephens, my agent, and told her that she should return the advance on the book. I did not want the book published like that. The editor called. She cried and apologized. For four and a half hours, the editor and I were on the telephone going over the revisions. There should be trust between editor and author.

The truism that white readers won't buy romance books about black characters has echoes of similar truisms in other media. White readers won't buy YA books with POC on the covers. Male gamers won't buy games with female protagonists. Films with women as lead characters are box office poison. They are all self-fulfilling prophecies: it is not considered a wise financial strategy to throw good marketing money at a low-reward product, so movies with female leads and games with female protagonists and romances with POC heroines routinely get under-marketed and under-financed -- that these books so rarely become wildfire hits is then taken as proof of the gatekeepers' sound business sense, and the cycle repeats. Marginalization begets further marginalization.

Rereading Hurston's book after Beverly Jenkins' Vivid illuminated distinct similarities in structure. Both books take place in all-black towns, where white people's oppression happen mostly on the fringes: racism is still a part of the characters' lives, but not necessarily a central feature or most significant obstacle. I fully expected to see Hurston's name crop up at some point in that IASPR interview. But it didn't, and to further confound my assumptions Ms. Jenkins indicates that part of her project as an author is to show strong black women in the past working for the betterment of their society, putting her firmly in the Wright/Locke/Ellison camp:

I do know that what these illustrious foremothers stood for—justice, equality, education, a commitment to community and the desire to push the envelope on race and gender—is something I consciously place in each of my heroines. I “borrowed” the concept from the great historian Dorothy A. Sterling. Her book, We Are Your Sisters: Black Women in the 19th Century, is my bible. In it, she states that nineteenth-century Black women had three gifts: a strong work ethic, a commitment to community, and a penchant to push the envelope on race and gender. Whether it’s schoolteacher Cara Lee Henson, journalist Kate Love, or banker Grace Atwood, I try to bestow at least one of Sterling’s gifts on them. Nineteenth-century Black women changed the world not only for themselves and the race but for women of other races as well. Women like Black abolitionist Maria Stewart, who in 1832 became the first woman in America of any race to lecture to a mixed audience; Rebecca Lee and other pioneering Black doctors of the late 1860s were often not only the first Black doctors, but many were the first doctors of any race in their communities. Their experiences helped shape crusading Dr. Viveca Lancaster, the heroine in my second novel, Vivid.

We are down to the heart of things now, where I have too many questions and no answers that aren't uncomfortable: should we expect all literature to be morally uplifting? Is it hypocritical of me to want to defend Their Eyes Were Watching God against the requirement that it feature social protest and activism, even as I continue to criticize romance as a genre for its perpetuation of harmful attitudes and stereotypes? Romance in particular is often excused on the grounds of "escapism" -- critics are told they're overthinking an essentially trivial genre, that they're ruining other readers' fun or shaming them for their enjoyment. In this response there is a tiny grain of truth like the sand that starts the pearl, which is why this response is so irritating. But I think when the word "escapism" shows up there are two questions we should answer before letting the discussion proceed: Who do we imagine is escaping, and what are they escaping from? One person's hilarious Southern romp is another person's racist garbage nightmare. And one of the reasons I want to call out problematic tropes in romance is that their existence threatens my own sense of safety in my escapist reading: when a hero turns controlling and jealous, for instance, I feel the muscles in my neck kink up with fear, and the romance loses all its spark and sizzle. I don't want to erase those books from existence -- but I would like to know in advance which ones they are, so I can detour around them and read something more my style. In the growing debate about trigger/content warnings, I come down firmly on the side of more rather than fewer labels and tags.

There are harder, more shamefully personal questions as well: is my desire to connect Hurston's text with the romance genre an act of appropriation, as I suspect it could easily be? How many of the similarities I see between Their Eyes and Vivid come from my own knowledge of their authors' skin color? Unconscious biases are the blackberry vines of the mind: you think you've pulled them all up at the roots, but they seem to start growing back as soon as you put down the spade. I've thought and unthought and rethought every paragraph above: you can tell when my opinions are doubling back because I go very heavily in for parentheticals (which I've noticed I use when my thoughts are either too fast or too scattered or both).

I honestly don't know where to go from here. The best I can say is this: it seems I have a great deal more reading (and listening) to do.

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The Zora Neale Hurston essay cited above, "What White Publishers Won't Print," is required reading and feels far more on-the-nose about 21st-century publishing than we might hope. Clearly my next post-April project is to read Hurston's entire body of work, especially the essays and fiction.

A book-length analysis of black historical romances can be found in Black Women's Activism: Reading African-American Women's Historical Romances by Rita B. Dandrige.

A 2006 article from The Free Library about the founding of Harlequin's Kimani line has some great names and data about African-American romance.

For some amusing hate-reading, here is one gentleman's one-star opinion (via Goodreads) about how Their Eyes Were Watching God is just like a trashy romance novel.

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Hurston, Zora Neale. Their Eyes Were Watching God. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2009. Ebook.

M is for Pamela Morsi

{Click here for the full alphabet of intersectional feminism and romance.} One of the great delights as I continue this post series is how intertwined the various books are starting to become. Themes and connections are coming from the woodwork out, which is incredibly gratifying for someone who thinks of books as part of a grand conversation anyways. Last week Eloisa James broke my heart (and not in the good way) with her depiction of a character with a mental impairment caused by oxygen deprivation at birth: Pamela Morsi's earthy and charming Simple Jess is the perfect book to read as a follow-up, since it features a character with a similar disability and an identical cause. Unlike Rupert, however, Jesse Best is the hero of his story, with a POV and HEA and everything. This book was recommended by Ridley and it more than lived up to its reputation for empathy and charm: Jesse's depiction is thoughtful and rounded and avoids many of the common problems of mental disability in fiction. (Counterexample: Colleen McCullough's Tim, which to my shame I read dozens of times in high school.) Additionally, the romance as a whole brings up but doesn't answer many surprisingly troubling questions about society, difference, and belonging that invite further feminist critique.

Cover of Simple Jess by Pamela Morsi. Blue and pink gradient background with leaves, pine needles, twigs, and a blown dandelion clock. Text is serifed and highly ornate.The village of Marrying Stone is a place where codes of behavior are rigid and vehemently policed by the inhabitants: "On Marrying Stone Mountain, being different was not thought altogether to be such a good thing" (3288). There's no government or law to speak of, outside of the farcical kangaroo court (which I found both entertaining and excruciating): all the pressure to conform is social pressure rooted in familial ties and individual force of will. The good people of Marrying Stone know what is right and they will require you behave accordingly.

In this narrow-eyed, strong-minded world, every major character struggles with a mark of difference. Heroine Althea is determined to stay unmarried and is letting a fertile farm lie unplowed (hur hur hur); hero Jesse Best tries to be "a man like other men" despite the mental impairment that makes him an outsider even in his own head; Mavis Phillips worries that someone other than her brother will learn she slept with Eben Baxley contrary to ideals of feminine chastity; Oather Phillips worries that the village (and his father) will find out he isn't drawn to women the way that other men are. Every family/gender role is set and specific, every activity has long-standing rules and traditions: hunting, farming, butchering, the Literary, the kangaroo court. Even the constant near-feud state between McNees and Piggotts is way of maintaining the boundaries of set categories, even though the bloodlines of the two families have been mixed and mingled for generations.

Social pressure is intense because social cooperation is necessary for survival. The people of Marrying Stone are subsistence-level farmers and hunters, and it takes careful planning and hard work to last though the winter. One of the most compelling reasons for Althea to remarry is that she cannot work her farm on her own: "She hadn't had an idea about putting in a crop last year. Orv and Tom had offered to do it for her. But she'd turned them down flat. As she'd turned down all their offers for assistance. She hadn't wanted their favors. She hadn't wanted their presence" (859). These favors aren't charity, and they aren't neutral: "it was part of the courting process for the female to feel beholden to the gentleman" (3863). Althea can't accept help without implying acceptance of sexual or romantic overtures as well: it's only because Jesse is considered asexual by his fellow townsfolk that there are no innuendoes made about his presence on her farm. Even then, his chores become an indirect courtship, a way for Althea to realize that Jesse is good for her and her son as well as good for her farm. It's a standard romance narrative -- but it also fits in seamlessly with what the townsfolk expect of a courtship.

Of course, Jesse turns out to be anything but asexual. When the town learns of the kiss he shared with Althea, they have to remove him from the category of "child" and place him in the category of "man," with assumed sexual desires and agency:

Jesse Best had kissed a woman and now people knew it. Whether they believed that Althea had led him on or not, parents would be warning their daughters to steer clear. The notion folks now had of Jesse Best would include not just his sweetness, his strength, and the sounds of his fiddle, but also his sexuality. For folks on the mountain, simple and sex didn't go together. That was a thing to be feared. (3150).

Despite the town's newfound suspicion, our hero's pants-feelings are explicitly coded as natural by the text: "'The feelings you get in your body, Jesse, they are the same feelings that other men get and they have nothing to do with your mind.'" (1834). Jesse's mental struggles mean he is forced to depend more on instinct than logic to make decisions: this is often expressed in naturalistic terms, as when he trusts his hunting dogs to be aware of predators in the woods, or describes his sensitivity to people's scents. I'll admit to being charmed by Jesse's private terms for arousal and sexuality, especially "round parts"; don't we all create our own internal shorthand for sex, after all, even if we know the cultural or clinical terms?

And of course our heroine is equally enthralled, again tied to the idea of naturalness:

He was no practiced lover, but it was his love, as natural as his beauty, that had drawn her into his embrace as easily as had his arms. And it was that authenticity that had kept her there, reveling in the pleasure of it. (4360)

But Jesse's sexuality is only natural because it is expressed in a heterosexual direction: the closeted Oather Phillips has no such luxury, even though his response to Jesse's good looks are identical to our heroine's:

"My God, he is beautiful." The words, spoken in near reverence, came from the man standing next to her.

"Yes, he is," she answered languidly from her sensual trance. "Oh!" Her horrified little squeak came immediately thereafter. Althea looked over at Oather, shocked that he had read her thoughts, and such wicked thoughts, too.

Oather stared back at her, his eyes wide in equal alarm. It was as if he too were aghast at his own words. (4360).

Oather's queerness is often expressed in coded terms, but it's clear enough to a reader familiar with closeted characters in romance. His behavior toward Althea during his courtship, sadly, is often categorized as unnatural: "Oather put such a polite face on everything. It felt so unnatural, so constrained. He was much aware of the rules of etiquette. Somehow she found Jesse's more honest assessment more to her liking" (3863). It's an open question whether this unnaturalness is located in Oather's denial of who he is and who he wants, or in his homosexual desire more generally: "Oather felt uncomfortable about commenting on what was natural" (3377). He is palpably uncomfortable when attempting to perform any of the prescribed behaviors of heterosexual masculinity: courting, hunting, sexual aggression (Althea notices he doesn't try and cop a feel like the other men do). Manliness in this book is identified with heterosexuality: we have no burly bearded hunters falling in love with other burly bearded hunters. (Though that sounds like it'd be fun to read.) Jesse Best's revealed heterosexuality and its expression brings both him and Althea into line with community standards: his simple-mindedness is proven to be compatible with Marrying Stone's vision of masculinity, and her isolation is ended by marriage and acquiring a husband who can help her farm and raise Baby Paisley. Oather Phillips, on the other hand, spectacularly fails to perform masculinity and nearly kills a child in a hunting accident. His shock at this near-miss is the impetus for him to finally confront his father and leave Marrying Stone for good: "Oather's different," Althea says at the book's end. "He's always been different from folks here on the mountain. Maybe somewhere else he'll find folks that are more like him" (5159).

I have said that Jesse and Althea are reintegrated into the community of Marrying Stone, but it's not a pure surrender. Granny Piggott, sharp-tongued matriarch, gives Althea some advice that subverts the immutability of Marrying Stone's codes: "Listen and learn. What is worthwhile -- and for all that I don't take great store by Beulah's pronouncements, there is bound to be some worthwhile -- that you keep. The rest you just smile and say thank you, and forget you ever heard it" (3713). This advice preserves the form of tradition, if not the substance. Difference can be masked, not erased. But unlike Althea and Jesse, Oather cannot follow this advice, since his particular brand of difference invites/implies the participation of someone else, another gay man who would then have to similarly reject traditional categories of masculinity. So Oather goes to New Orleans, where apparently there are people like himself, according to the vision that semi-magical Pastor Jay gets from the angels at the end of the book:

"You can show me his future? Now that's a neat trick if I ever heard one. Let's see you try. -- Why yes, I see it. I see it now. Ain't this pretty. What a beautiful place. The boy looks so happy. All those friends around. Everybody laughing. What a wonderful place. Oh, Lord, it's not what I think, is it? -- It's Heaven, ain't it? Poor Oather dies young and goes to Heaven. -- It's not Heaven. Then where is it? -- New Orleans? Hmmm. Sure looks like Heaven from here." (5568)

This ending is an optimistic one, but it is also a kind of death. It seems Ms. Morsi is playing against the Kill Your Gays trope, but in a way that still invokes it -- hence Pastor Jay's assumption that Oather dies young. This is the final passage in the book and it brings into question the value of separatism: is it satisfying when the narrative suggests that Marrying Stone does not constitute an entire world? That not everybody can be comfortably or safely a part of this small and insular mountain community? That other communities, with other rules, exist? How hard must we work to reform the societies we live in? Is our effort better spent simply creating societies that are safer and more inclusive? What do we stand to gain by leaving oppressive communities, and what have we lost?

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Thoughtful blogger Jackie C. Horne at Romance Novels for Feminists has a great post on interpretations of disability in romance fiction. Books mentioned include Simple Jess, Tim, The Madness of Lord Ian Mackenzie and others.

Writer Nina Mitchell had a stroke at age 26 and now writes frankly about her experience and daily life. I found her through her series for the Hairpin, but she also runs her own site, Mindpop, with more current updates.

Sunita at Vacuous Minx had a provocative and many-layered post about disability devotees, fetish reading, content warnings/trigger warnings, and genre definitions that has more thoughts in it than I believed one blog post could contain. Comments highly recommended as well.

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Morsi, Pamela. Simple Jess. Jove Books, 2011. Ebook.