Catullus 5

For a recent milestone birthday, Mr. Waite and I flew to Italy for ten days of food, wine, and historical geeking out. On the plane I realized I'd neglected to take even a scrap of Latin poetry with me -- a shameful omission for an amateur classicist on her first visit to Rome. Luckily, my Latin professor had always insisted we memorize at least one poem, so I had Catullus 5 available upon request from my brain. It is one of the most breathtakingly romantic poems in history. And because it was a very lengthy flight, I had time to work out the following rather loose translation into verse.

Enjoy!

We'll live my darling, and we'll love,

And all those grim and senile sneers

We'll hold a cheap accounting of.

The sun can set and reappear,

But us, we burn so brief and brave

That one day's light is all we get

Before night tucks us in the grave.

Give me a thousand kisses, yet

Another hundred and again

A second thousand, and then add

The sum twice more, with tips. And when

We've kissed so much that we have had

To turn the counter back to none

Let's keep the number hidden so

The haters hating down below

Can't nullify a single one.

The Billionaire Bait-and-Switch

{This is less review and more analysis. It goes without saying that there are spoilers all up in here, so be warned.} I had no business reading this book. My only defense is that the blurb said the couple would go "from spreadsheets to bed sheets" and I was captivated by the wordplay.

Cover for Jennifer Hayward's The Magnate's Manifesto.I do not generally have a positive response to the Battle of the Sexes trope in romance. (For example, this fiasco.) So although I do enjoy the occasional HP, I am clearly not this book's target audience.

"Not this book's target audience" is definitely the nicest thing I can say about The Magnate's Manifesto.

The truest thing I can say is: never have I so intensely and consistently wanted to punch a hero right in his crotch.

Oh, there is such a long rant I could write about Jared Stone, the magnate of the title. Every pet peeve I could have with a hero, he wears like a badge of honor. He's controlling, cruel, hypocritical, self-righteous, and publicly handsy with his heroine/employee. At two-thirds of the way through, he gets so mad at the heroine that he has to fight off the urge to strangle her. This happens to be one of my biggest personal NOPE buttons in a romance. For me, the HEA died right there on the page.

But a romance hero is a made thing. A romance hero is a generated by the novel he appears in, the way nuclear reactors generate radioactive byproducts. So now that I am up to my neck in this particular brand of toxic sludge, it's less useful to describe how nauseous I feel and more useful to talk about exactly how the reactor is misfiring.

Note: this does not mean I'll be speculating about the author's intentions. She seemed very pleasant and professional when we chatted briefly on Twitter. I will, though, be questioning the value of her choices as they appear on the page. If you can't parse the difference, feel free to tell your friends I am Not Nice. It's probably true.

Putting the 'Man' in 'Manifesto'

Category romance as a form is often quite elegantly balanced. Which is to say: if the hero writes a manifesto to start the plot rolling, odds are he'll write a second manifesto at the climax to resolve the conflict. And indeed, Jared does. These two essays, both published as full-page pieces in the Chronicle, mark the beginning and the end of our hero's character arc.

Here is the start of the first manifesto, titled "The Truth About Women":

Having dated and worked with a cross-section of women from around the globe, and having reached the age where I feel I can make a definitive opinion on the subject matter, I have come to a conclusion: Women lie.

Oh, he's not done:

They want a man who will take care of them, who gives them a hot night between the sheets and diamond jewelry at appropriate intervals. Who will prevent them from drifting aimlessly through life without a compass…

MANifesto indeed. Pretty standard misogynist talking points, with the usual built-in logical paradoxes. Notice how women are both dangerously active ("women lie," "women start every day with an agenda") and contemptibly passive (without a man they're just "drifting aimlessly through life"). You'll be unsurprised to hear that Jared has a poor view of women and marriage because his mother was a money vampire who bled his father dry. When the money ran out, so did she. Jared's father fell to pieces, and his son wears that resentment like an aegis because romance heroes are apparently allowed to judge all women based on the actions of one woman who's hurt them personally.

As a result of overcoming a wealthy but emotionally bankrupt childhood, Jared considers himself a superior kind of person. A leader. "A gilded ray of brilliance for all to follow." That is a direct quote, and possibly the most flat-out arrogant thing I've ever seen a hero say. It is like supervillain language.

Now, on the one hand, we know the hero's going to have to be humbled at some point. That's how romance novels go. Yet the power is part of the acknowledged HP fantasy: we know, we canny romance readers, that the hero of a Harlequin Presents will remain on top of his game, that he will wind up victorious at the end of the book. I am unable to reconcile my two realizations at this part of the story: 1) this man's views are profoundly shitty and awful, and 2) this man will ultimately get what he wants.

It's easy to believe, reading this first MANifesto, that the book is setting up Jared's attitude as the problem to be solved by the course of the plot. Because his attitude is a problem. It is a problem for millions of anonymous women in the book, who respond with "international female outrage." His attitude is a problem for his company's PR team and his mentor and his investors and his board. It is a problem for Jared's employee, heroine Bailey St. John, who immediately marches into his office with her resignation letter in hand. The only one who doesn't see the problem here is Jared himself, because of course this document was "just a joke." He says this quite a lot, in fact, with very bad grace. He resents the idea that a joke could have consequences outside his intentions.

Does his attitude actually get fixed in the rest of the book? To answer this, let's take a look at the second manifesto (italics for ease of block quoting):

"Experience had taught me that many women do not want the career life we as a society have insisted they do. That cries of a glass ceiling were perpetuated by females caught up in their own self-deception. And if the truth be known, I was not overly sold on a woman's place in the boardroom, nor her ability to stand toe-to-toe with a man.

"Then I had the chance to work with a woman I have admired for years ... I have to admit I severely underestimated her. [Several sentences praising Bailey's skill as a thinker and marketer.] 

"This extraordinary woman also taught me something else. Something far more important than the value of a woman in the boardroom. She has proven me wrong about a woman's place in my life. Hers."

This second manifesto is correcting a different problem entirely. The initial one showed: Jared Stone has shitty opinions about women. This manifesto insists: I have learned that women are capable but more importantly, now I have a great relationship. The idea that Jared's personal happiness is more important than institutionalized sexism? Pretty sexist. Jared has obviously learned nothing.

You'll have guessed that this second manifesto also contains a marriage proposal, because it's a Grand Romantic Gesture at the end of a Presents. Part of what Jared promises is, no shit: "I can offer you a lion in the bedroom because that part is still true and I know you like it. Love it, actually."

My reaction is twofold:

1) Women like good sex, news at 11.

2) This is a public, full-page piece in the San Francisco Chronicle. Addressed to a woman who is still an employee and subordinate. Marry me so I can keep giving you that good deep dicking you enjoy, says our supposedly unchauvinised hero. That Bailey enjoys sex is not a problem. But for her employer to take out a full-page ad crowing about how much she likes the fuckin'? When she's in marketing and her job is all about perception? When in practice women get shamed and punished much more than men for the exact same sexual behavior?

That is a goddamn problem.

The Virgin Business Stripper

Jared's manifestos are not the only example of this book moving the goalposts.

Heroine Bailey St. John (I know, right?) starts as an ambitious, dedicated career woman, a living counterargument to Jared's sexist beliefs. He promotes her under protest as a desperate PR move, though literally every other character tells him he's an idiot for not having promoted her earlier. We're set up for a classic Extraordinary Woman Proves Sexism Wrong narrative -- not one of my faves, as noted above -- when it's revealed that Bailey worked her way through business school in Las Vegas as a high-end stripper.

Okay, I guess we're going somewhere with this?

Turns out Bailey's childhood was both emotionally and financially bankrupt. She had nothing except her looks, so she made those work for her and got out. Now comes the part of the story where Heroine's Lurid Past Threatens To Destroy All She's Worked For. Because of course the French dude Jared needs to impress to seal the deal of the century recognizes Bailey from her days as a dancer. And says he'll be much more amenable to signing the contract if Bailey spends the night with him. French Dude is basically the living reflection of Bailey's sexualized past and he is so fucking frightening that it is unreal. I mean, seriously, props to the author for my complete terror of this guy and what he was going to do. (Spoiler: nothing. He does nothing. A few creepy scenes and poof, he's gone.) Jared works himself into a jealous froth, sweeps Bailey up in his arms, and now we're set to kick off the physical part of the relationship.

Which is when our heroine confesses that actually, she's a virgin.

Jared says "You are goddamn joking" and drops her on her ass on the floor. Which is the most I ever liked him, but the scene unfortunately punctures suspension of disbelief pretty thoroughly.

Then Jared goes back to being hateful and gets mad at the heroine for being a virgin because he doesn't fuck virgins.

Look, the no-virgins rule makes sense in older historical periods, when breach of promise was a real legal threat. It makes no damn sense in 2015 San Francisco. And yet: "he didn't do the big V. Wasn't capable of it. It would be like asking him to vote Republican. To suggest he leave a big messy pile in the middle of his impeccably clean desk.

"Clean desk, clean mind, his Zen master had told him on that thirty-day search to find his soul."

Did you guys know Buddhism was about finding your soul in thirty days through proper desk organization? I did not. This fucking guy.

So that's our heroine: an ambitious businesswoman (driven, high-achieving) revealed as former stripper (feminine, sexualized) revealed as frigid virgin (innocent, vulnerable). None of these layers blend well together. She's like a human version of that Friends episode where the cookbook pages get stuck together and Rachel ends up putting ground beef in the dessert.

The Bait and Switch

At the end of all this, Jared's big moment of revelation doesn't come from the heroine at all. It comes from his estranged father. Wouldn't you know it, reading Jared's manifesto made him want to reach out and tell his son that it wasn't the evil golddigger wife who was the problem -- no, his dad "lost his mind" because of "his lack of faith in himself. His inability to follow his dreams."

So the real problem all along was that Jared Stone, self-described gilded ray of brilliance, didn't believe in himself.

Have we been reading the same book?

Meanwhile, the heroine is also having the rug pulled out from under her: turns out a clause in her shiny new contract states Jared can fire her, for any reason, after sixty days. It's an escape hatch, a way to mitigate the supposed risk of hiring a token female executive, and I'm with Bailey in finding this deceptive and hurtful. "Be reasonable," Jared scolds her, because he's the worst.

To her everlasting credit, Bailey promptly dumps his ass. Which may be why at least one Goodreads review refers to her as a bitch. I disagreed: I would have enjoyed at least 50% more bitchiness, at minimum. I grew fond of Bailey in spite of her inconsistent characterization. It felt like I was the only person who was going to support her -- the narrative offers her cruelty by coincidence (what are the odds slimy French Dude would remember one stripper from ten years ago?) and for all the hero's lip service to respect and trust, his actions undermine the heroine's comfort and security at nearly every turn.

The points outlined above are the biggest bait-and-switch moments, but there are plenty of others: small derailing moments in dialogue, false equivalencies everywhere (dating a virgin = voting Republican = having a messy desk, remember?), worries that are raised and treated as weighty obstacles only to be resolved in a page or dropped entirely. A chameleon heroine (and not in a fun shifter kind of way.) A hero we're told over and over again is brilliant -- using that actual word -- but who always picks the most obvious, least considered path.

The main mechanism of this book, both in dialogue and in structure, is to set up a game and then change the rules in the final quarter. In another genre, without romance's promise of stability and union, this technique could be subversive. Here, it's aggravating and dishonest. This book, like its hero, is desperate to avoid dealing with the consequences of its words. It promises one thing then hands you something else and expects you to be grateful for the effort.

A romance hero's entire job is to satisfy -- but this book is dissatisfying on every possible level.

___

For more long-form romance criticism, check out the other For the Love of Lit Crit posts or the Intersectional Feminism A - Z series.

For billionaires who deliver, try Courtney Milan's Trade Me or Alisha Rai's Gentleman in the Street. For disclosure's sake I should mention I am friendly with both authors on Twitter, even though saying that feels like a humblebrag.

 

That Pesky Empathy Thing

{Content note: the following post talks about forced seduction and sexual assault in romance and in real life. Nothing graphic, but the subject is pervasive. It's also heteronormative as fuck, since the reference piece deals exclusively with heroes and heroines in m/f romance. My apologies that I couldn't find a coherent way around that.} We need to talk about empathy in romance. Specifically: who receives it, both in the novels and in the reader/author/reviewer conversations. And that's a big, big project -- so many books, so very many books we could discuss -- so I'm going to start with the latest opinion piece, and confine my analysis to just the one bit of text.

The recent Dear Author rape-in-romance post spends a lot of time -- like a third of the wordcount -- talking about Jon Ronson's failure of empathy. For those who missed the conversation the first time around (lucky you), Ronson wrote an infamously facile book on shaming in social media. The galleys of this book contained a line later edited from the final product, where Ronson tried to imagine what being raped would be like for a woman, and could only get there (kind of) by thinking about how it feels for a man to be fired.

It's as gross as it sounds, and good on the editor for cutting it.

Choire Sicha had this to say in the New York Times:

Public shamings are often described in this book in terms of physical violence ...Twitter users have “taken a lot of scalps,” Ronson writes. “We were soldiers making war on other people’s flaws.”

It so happens that I have been ganged up on online, and I have also been beaten up by actual gangs of men on the street. The actual beating is — surprise! — exponentially worse.

Jane's post touches briefly on this same point: "male identity is often measured around his net worth or, at the very least, his ability to make money. Take that away from a male and, generally speaking, you’ve eviscerated him."

Generally speaking, of course, but not actually. I cannot emphasize this enough. Emotional violence is devastating -- but it is not really one-to-one comparable to physical violence. Especially since physical trauma so frequently brings emotional fallout as well. PTSD is a real thing and it sucks. Plus, for a woman, online abuse has a direct connection to real, actual, physical threats: just ask Brianna Wu or Anita Sarkeesian or Zoe Quinn or Adria Richards, or any woman who's had to vacate her home after daring to put words together on the internet.

When women protest online abuse, it's not only because they wish to avoid emotional pain: it's also because they wish to exist safely in the physical world.

Jane continues: "There’s probably nothing more confusing for a man like Ronson than the rape fantasy. He’s been told that just getting rape threats is enough to adversely affect the mental health of a woman. Yet, 60% to 2/3 of women (according to varying studies) have had this fantasy at one time."

At the risk of glibness: there is a vast difference between "imagining rough, even very rough, even nonconsensual sex" in your own head and "this actual human stranger on the internet has some very specific and uniquely vile acts to describe doing to you in hideous detail." And to be honest I'm a little past caring about how difficult it is for poor Mr. Ronson to comprehend the twisty, contradictory brains of Teh Ladeez.

But notice what's also happening here: Jane is extending empathy toward the unempathetic Ronson. She's trying to tease out his thought process on an intimate level. She's willing to allow the evisceration metaphor (for now) if it's the best he can do. She's giving Ronson the benefit of the doubt.

The next passage: "In some ways, I believe the [rape] fantasy is about eradicating the base line fear that lurks in the back of many women’s minds any time they are alone with a stranger or if not eradicating it, reclaiming it. If I am okay with being taken by force, the line of thinking would go, then I can survive this."

This is Jane empathizing with women who have rape fantasies -- note she is not saying that all women secretly want to be taken. She's presenting the rape fantasy as a symptom of oppressive patriarchy, a reaction to a deep-seated and highly gendered threat. The fear that lurks in the back of many women's minds any time they are alone with a stranger. (Though most rapists aren't strangers at all.) She slips quoteless into first-person language: this is an even more intimate identification than before.

Which makes the passage immediately following kind of a wrench: "Women have been shamed over certain fantasies, arguing that those consenting role-playing fantasies lend itself to confusion to the male population. By creating a shame surrounding the fantasy, by questioning its equivalence to actual rape, the critics are taking the control and power away from the women who enjoy it."

First, we have the straw man argument: some people apparently believe those consenting role-playing fantasies lend itself to confusion to the male population. Citation very much needed. I'm not convinced that "But it's confusing to dudes!" has ever been the rallying cry of romance readers who like their love scenes clearly consensual. "But this makes the hero feel skeevy to me, a reader" is much more common, I would think.

Next, we have this amorphous enemy group: the critics. Who are they, exactly? People who object to rape fantasies in romance, I guess -- hard to reach any other conclusion. And what do they do, precisely? The critics are taking control and power away from the women who enjoy it.

So: critics of rape in romance are ... doing something that sounds an awful lot like a metaphor for rape.

Note the stark lack of any empathy for these critics.

Granted, any time someone mentions "the critics" in a piece I tend to lump myself in automatically. Know thyself, etc. But notice how suddenly the rhetoric becomes antagonistic: Jane's not saying at least they're trying like she did with Ronson, she's not slipping into their mindset like she did with rape-fantasy-fans, she's saying these people are harming women, with an implied and they should stop.

But this isn't the biggest failure of empathy in Jane's piece.

I want to talk about the heroine in the rape-fantasy scene -- because it looks like nobody else is going to.

Jane's conclusion leans heavily on Robin's earlier piece on this same topic, where the success of the rape fantasy depends on how much "the reader consents on behalf of the heroine."

Fiction is flexible: fiction is not real life. Headspace is different than meatspace. But increasingly I find myself skeptical of the idea that as long as the reader's good to go, the heroine's consent is essentially unrequired. Take this segment where Robin analyzes a forced-seduction scene from Anna Campbell's Claiming the Courtesan: "It is a perfectly ironic scenario: the hero forces himself on the heroine, violates her bodily privacy and autonomy, in order to catalyze her acceptance of her own powerful and passionate nature." Rape: it's apparently good for her.

The heroine has virtually no agency in that description. The hero Does A Thing, Sexually, and the heroine reacts to it. He catalyzes her acceptance. She ... accepts. She doesn't even have a choice, narratively speaking. By Robin's metrics, this HEA either succeeds or fails on the strength of the reader's consent.

My perpetual question: Why do these posts constantly frame the heroine's lack of consent as trivial?

Asked another way: Why is the hero's sexual control more valuable to the reader than the heroine's willing participation?

I can try to answer that question: in rape fantasies, the reader is empathizing not with the heroine/victim, but with the hero/predator. Again, if the primary cultural model for sexual behavior is masculine = active/feminine = passive, there's an incentive to inhabit the masculine role for the purpose of regaining emotional agency/control. "Rape very much is about control being taken from a person," Jane says. "It’s an act of power, cruelty and dominance." She's explained that rape fantasies result from a specifically feminized fear. So the rape fantasy must be about reclaiming control -- and empathy with a predatory hero in fiction may be how it accomplishes this.

In which case, it's a stopgap solution at best. You know how else we could eliminate the fear of being raped? By working to build a real world in women don't have to be so afraid of becoming victims.

Jane's conclusion, which I'm going to quote at length, emphasizes this dynamic:

Both the reader and the person who experiences the forced-sex role play in real life—has the power to turn off the fantasy at any time. The reader walks away from the book, the person who is the taken in the role-play can (or at least should be able to) give the safe word at any time and end the experience. It’s the ability of a woman to separate fact (rape) from fiction (role playing). The refusal to allow women to do this is an exertion of the male privilege paradigm over one where women have power and agency (not over men but over their own bodies and their own fantasies).

Emphasis mine.

How safe this paragraph makes rape fantasies sound! Just like proper BDSM, with safewords and aftercare and boundaries. The reader walks away from the book.

You know who doesn't get to walk away from the rape in the book? The heroine.

Lilah Pace's Asking for It presents a heroine who, to judge from the excerpts, is all about negotiating consent. She has a rape fantasy, she's acting it out in a controlled setting, she's pushing her own boundaries and making her partner abide by her rules. It's good writing, as far as I can tell. But because it's so very controlled, it's not a representative basis for a defense of all rape fantasies in the history of romance. In order to find comfort and control in rape scenes from, say, The Flame and the Flower, the reader has to disregard the heroine's refusal almost entirely. It's an entirely different power dynamic. And refusing a heroine's control of her own body sounds like it might be ... what was the phrase ... an exertion of the male privilege paradigm.

'Forced seduction' as a concept starts to look a lot like 'legitimate rape.'

Yes, the heroine is fictional. But she appears woman-shaped, and we treat her as such. How we treat heroines reflects on how we think of women -- how could it not? We expect them to be good, to be nurturing, to be thin, to be selfless, etc. etc. etc. Plenty of ink has been spilled to describe how romance readers are notoriously hard on heroines: how could the lack of empathy with a heroine's sexual victimization be completely unconnected from that framework?

I am not arguing that rape scenes shouldn't be written into romance, ever; I'm not saying that anyone who gets turned on by a dubcon scene should be ashamed of themselves. I am just arguing for my right to feel creeped out when I come across rape in my romances, especially when the rape scenes are received enthusiastically by readers and reviewers. Put most simply, it comes down to this: I don't trust anyone, not even myself, to consent on a heroine's behalf. I'm rooting for her and her happy ending. I'm on her side.

It's that pesky empathy thing.

[Clickbait Headline About Romance Novels and Ladies]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How Many Does It Take?

  {Trigger warnings for discussions of sexual assault and consent issues, both of which are below the jump. Be aware that this story is also very long, though not very graphic.}

To tell this story properly, I'm going to have to tell it forwards and backwards at the same time. Because I lived it forwards, but only understand it in retrospect. Bear with me, please.

My shortest relationship lasted one month. It was with a guy I'd known for six years, shared dozens of mutual friends, had gone to college with, had been hanging out with pretty extensively for about a year before the relationship started. It was one of those long, slow builds of chemistry between friends that eventually blossoms into dating (my specialty). And it only lasted a month, despite all this, because toward the end of that month, every time he kissed me, I had to fight off the urge to punch him right in the face.

I never told him that -- how could I? How do you explain to someone you care about that every time their lips touch yours, some part of your brain starts yelling HIT HIM, JUST HIT HIM, HIT HIM NOW, HIT HIM HARD. I thought I was going crazy. But it was pretty clear that this was not a sustainable feeling -- I am human and one day my control was going to fray and I was going to do something terrible. So I broke up with him ("This just isn't working for me anymore") and we went back to being just friends. Then drifted apart, as the group dynamics dissolved and grad school took up all my time both waking and sleeping.

Fast forward a year and a half. I'm still in grad school, dating a gentleman I shall refer to as the Romanian, and I come down with a really vicious case of the flu. Backaches, fever, the whole bit. I called him to cancel the next night's date and told him I'd probably be down for a week or so (as the clinic doc had explained it to me). "Look," he said, "I really don't want to come down with this, so if it's okay with you I'll just steer clear and you can call me when you're feeling better."

My reaction to this? Pure, overwhelming, unadulterated relief.

This was also puzzling. Isn't a willingness to help a friend/lover when they're sick one of the most abiding tests of character we have? But there I was, feverish and shaking, so relieved I was almost crying with it. No, not relieved -- reprieved. It was a feeling of safety out of all proportion to the circumstances.

And then I remembered the last time I'd been this sick.

During the third week of that month-long relationship, I'd been sent home from work with a three-digit fever. It was a warm spring, and I was alone in a basement apartment with no air conditioning. Shortest relationship guy -- let's call him SRG because it's nothing like his actual initials -- offered to drive me to his place, where there was an adorable slobbery dog, video games, air conditioning, and someone to make soup for me. This sounded just fine -- remember, taking care of someone you love when they're sick is a moral virtue -- so I took a quick shower to make myself at least slightly respectable and hopped in the car.

I settled in on the couch (beside the dog) while he made me soup and Theraflu. I'd never had Theraflu before, never even heard of it, and quite frankly it struck me as the most marvelous invention ever on account of the way it took all the aches and pains and put them away for a few hours. This was the best I'd felt in days. I should also mention the kind of Theraflu I'd had was the kind chock-full of acetaminophen, and that I'm slightly sensitive to painkillers. Any pain I feel can be killed with just a single Advil -- that's half the recommended dose for adults.

So there I am, finally able to breathe again, feeling fully human for the first time all week, and SRG turns to me and says, "We should totally make out."

I stared at him, blinked a couple times to make sure I'd heard correctly, decided from his expression that he wasn't joking, and attempted a sarcastic, "Um, I'm not really in the mood." Because not even the Theraflu can take away the fever, and I promise you I am still super-contagious, and it is all I can do to stay upright and awake right now, and you think I have the energy for sexytimes? I should also point out that we had not slept together yet -- I was and am a slow mover. At the time I was also a virgin (for a given value of virginity, admittedly -- thanks, Catholic upbringing for making me terrified of spontaneous pregnancy), which SRG was fully aware of.

But he still really, really wanted to make out. "Come on," he says. "It'll feel good." And various other things, all gentle and friendly and smiling. But I do not remember the actual words, because my fever-addled, Tylenol-blinded brain was focused on the one overriding question: What part of this is hot to you? Is it the misery? The listlessness? The fact that I have forgotten to brush my hair in two days? The way I'm only half-involved with what is happening in my own body right now? I could not honestly find in me one single scrap of sexual interest, and was boggled that SRG seemed to be focused exclusively on nothing else.

I kept trying to gently, cordially, smilingly decline making out, but I was exhausted and weak both physically and emotionally, and it was increasingly clear that none of my objections were being actually taken as objections. That the ability to prevent sexytimes was incumbent upon how long I was able to resist, and that the subject was not going to change until I gave in.

"Okay," I finally said. When what I meant was: Let's get it over with.

We went downstairs to his room. Then, deliberately and with turn-off aforethought, I proceeded to attempt the most lackluster kissing anyone has ever achieved on purpose while knowing better. The squid tongue, the sloppy drool, the dead-fish hands, no head tilt, no rhythm, no involvement from anything below the neck. All while keeping a timer running in my head, trying to judge when I could finally try and call a halt, trying to figure out how long was long enough.

And then I started to fall asleep. The Theraflu was working.

Now there was some urgency -- at that moment the worst thing I could think of was falling asleep in this room, with this man. I abandoned the countdown. "I'm getting pretty sleepy," I said, trying to sound apologetic. "I think I'll just take a nap." At this point I realized my shirt was off. I honestly do not remember how or when that happened, and that lack of memory creeps me out to this day.

He agreed and left the room. I like to think my Terrible Kissing Olympics had something to do with it, but I'll never know. I spent an hour laying beneath the covers, shivering, while the aches came back and the sore throat made its presence newly felt. Soon after he drove me back home and I went straight to bed.

Two years later, the realization that the Romanian -- who I had slept with -- found nothing appealing about a feverish girlfriend felt like the best gift he could have given me. It felt safe. I had no idea what to do with this at the time.

Several more years pass. I get my masters, meet Mr. Waite, get married, become an erotic romance author. (Virgin --> married --> erotic romance author = less than five years. That's gotta be some kind of record.) There's a lot of talk about consent in the online romance community, and it builds on things I gleaned by reading Savage Love and Control Tower by Mistress Matisse, both of which appeared in The Stranger during my high school, college, and grad school years. I start noticing how refusals are treated in Romancelandia. I start catching up on the state of feminism online, which is best described as a glorious, frustrating mess. Most importantly, I start reading the stories of other women -- women who've been raped, women who've given in under pressure, women who've felt obliged to submit to men who felt entitled to sexual gratification, no matter what the woman thought about it at the time.

I learn that what happened to me -- what SRG did to me -- qualifies as sexual assault.

I have no cogent idea what to do about that either. I feel that even thinking the term is taking things too far. I go through the laundry list that many of you will by now be very familiar with. It was no big deal, right? I mean, it's not like I was physically hurt. Maybe I didn't make myself clear enough. So many people go through actual rape. It's condescending and patronizing of me to equate a little making out with what happened to a real victim. I should have told him to stop asking. I should have pushed him away. He's a lawyer now and you haven't seen him in years -- what's the point of bringing up old stories and tainting this guy's reputation among those of you who know you in day life and not just via the internet?

And then I remember his girlfriend previous to me -- another college friend. They'd dated since day one of freshman year, and they were that couple that everyone knows is going to get married as soon as they graduate and were going to live happily ever after. My college has a ridiculously high percentage of alumni marrying other alumni, and SRG and Previous Girlfriend seemed tailor-made to fulfill that prophecy. But, strangely, they'd broken up in rather a mysterious, dramatic fashion, details of which were only vaguely sketched in. I remember something about her running out into the snow during a Christmas trip with family, and breaking up with him via phone. At the time it was shockingly inexplicable: what on earth could this nice, normal guy possibly have done to push things to such a point? None of our friends -- and I was closer with his friends than with hers -- could make sense of it.

From where I sit now, the idea of what happened there chills me to the bone.

Suddenly I feel very grateful for whatever wordless part of me started yelling. The hitting voice saved me from something very ugly. I don't like to think about what would have happened if I hadn't listened. I had a great deal invested in this relationship -- again, we were very close friends and were hanging out with the same group of close friends.

SRG did try to get me back, about a month after we broke up, by telling me he'd been about to tell me he loved me, and what did I think of that? And I had one moment to feel terrible, and another moment for the hitting voice to yell some more, and then I realized it was totally possible for me to shrug and purse my lips in sympathy and say, "Oh, that's too bad." And he sat there and waited for quite some time before realizing that was all he was going to get. Even at the time, I felt kind of proud of that.

Since then, I've told this story to a handful of people -- Mr. Waite, certain others, once to a roomful of friends just to see if I was brave enough to get through it. (True story: it was a little awkward.) The fact is that this event lingers: the hitting voice was the first symptom, but was by no means the last. There's a lens now when I look at the world, a color I couldn't see clearly before. A current friend now lives two houses down from where this took place, which I only learned when I went to help assemble ribbon flowers for an upcoming wedding. My hands shook so hard the entire time that I burned myself pretty seriously with a glue gun.

My hands are shaking now as I type this.

The reason I'm telling this story today is because of many things. I've been thinking about telling it for a while. But last night I watched Senator Wendy Davis filibuster a ridiculous abortion bill in Texas, and read about the entwined misogyny and racism in SFWA, and on top of all this crap I found an Awl interview about Redditor Ken Hoinsky funding a seduction manual on Kickstarter and I read the following sentence by Maria Bustillos: I can think of a thousand ways whereby a woman could easily (easily) extricate herself from such a scenario if she were an unwilling participant.

Which: I am glad that Maria Bustillos thinks there are a thousand ways of saying no. I just wish SRG had cared to listen when I said it.

Also, if you're arguing that no coercion is implied by Ken Hoinsky's advice, maybe pick a word that is not "extricate." We lit-crit types notice verbs that give the impression one is pulling free of clinging tentacles, or tangling threads, or sticky substances.

And then there's this gem from the same piece: The literary aspect of this thing, where the parameters are on the woman's side, say like in Pamela, or Pride and Prejudice, the woman's resistance is in part to do with her imperfect understanding of herself, as well as of the man. But she comes to understand herself, and she comes to understand this man, and that is the basis of her acceptance. Both the man and the woman learn, and change.

This takes the cake for Most Pretentious Way of Saying "She Really Wanted It." I mean: "imperfect understanding of herself." Come on.

Pamela, for one thing, was written several centuries ago by a dude, and should by no means be used as an ethical guide for the modern datescape. Pride and Prejudice is an excellent novel and one of my favorites, but the aggressor in that novel is not Mr. Darcy. It is Mr. Collins, who uses every kind of social pressure to try and get Elizabeth Bennet to marry him. He winks at her first refusal, saying he's sure she'll accept the second time. He mentions that without this marriage her family will become destitute upon the death of Elizabeth's father. He deliberately misunderstands her statements, hears what he wants to hear, and its only because of her father's support that Lizzie's refusal is allowed to stand. Whereupon Mr. Collins goes off and marries her best friend, a woman with even less ability to refuse him, and remains self-satisfied and loathsome to the end.

Ken Hoinsky's book, quite frankly, will make Mr. Collinses -- or worse -- of every man who takes its advice. I'm thrilled that many of the comments on Bustillos' piece seem just as appalled as I was by the content of the text. I understand Hoinsky has apologized, but I honestly can't bring myself to click play on that video without getting queasy so I'll have to trust the transcript on that one. And trust is a harder thing for me than it used to be. I can't even trust fictional heroes who send up red flags, much less real-life strangers who have the potential to foment a great deal of harm by proxy. I've learned to grit my teeth and let pass the many Hoinsky's of the world, because life is short and I've got books to write. But something about watching him get an even bigger platform to demonstrate his profound lack of Getting It was just a step too far for me today.

You know who else doesn't Get It? SRG and the many men who've done similar things, who are doing them right now to women and other men. SRG to this day probably thinks he did nothing wrong. I wonder if he even remembers the incident, or if it was just a momentary blip. Ken Hoinsky had no intention of encouraging rape and sexual assault, he says. But this shit happened to me. This shit, shit precisely like this, was a damaging moment in my life. And you watch Ken Hoinsky trying to put the pieces together in the interview, and genuinely attempting to get it right, and he hasn't been at it nearly long enough to understand, and he's kind of awkwardly chagrined, and that is not fucking good enough. This is not an abstract, theoretical puzzle: this is not like being wrong about Kant and then laughing at yourself because you learned you were wrong about Kant. This is about the fundamental safety and humanity of half the human population. I didn't understand it when it happened to me, but that did not stop it from hurting me. Rape culture is phenomenally difficult to, ahem, extricate oneself from.

But yesterday one Texas senator decided to stand up and speak out, and by midnight there were millions of us standing and speaking with her. A chorus of voices raised in support and protest. Today came the news that DOMA and Prop 8 were both dead. While this doesn't take away the Court's shame for invalidating the Voting Rights Act earlier this week, it's good to know that we have fewer battles to fight than we could have. And suddenly we know how strong we can be when all of us stand up, when every voice is raised, when all of us speak at once.

So it's time for me to speak.

In writing this, I've had to constantly resist the impulse to apologize. Sorry for thinking this is a real problem, I want to say. Sorry for being traumatized by one April afternoon, by a relationship that barely even existed. Sorry to those of you who know whom I'm talking about, who may now feel like you have to choose sides. Times like this I take comfort in my small blog readership, I really do. I know I've been lucky: I wasn't physically hurt or scarred, the assault was never repeated, it dazed me but didn't tear me down. But the sheer ordinariness of this incident is haunting. And what we don't need, precisely what we do not need, is a dude telling other dudes to just go ahead and grab a woman, touch her without asking, ignore unstated and stated boundaries, she'll secretly like it, she'll respect you for it, this is what it means to be a winner, this is what it means to be a man.

That advice will hurt people, guaranteed.

I am not the first person to say this and I will not be the last. How many of us does it take?

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Enter our heroine.

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

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

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

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

The duke is clearly, unambiguously not the hero.

And yet our heroine is carrying his child.

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

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

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

Reader, I admit that I flat-out cheered.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She could steal him away. (62-63)

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

This is precisely what she does.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cover Reveal for Color Me Bad!

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

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

How Do You Read a Clinch Cover?

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Today's Post on Submission and Consent in Erotic Romance

{Trigger warnings for brief mentions of rape, domestic abuse, and questionable consent.} True story: when you write an erotic romance with an explicitly feminist heroine, I'm going to want to talk about it. As an erotic romance author and practicing feminist myself, I'm always on the lookout for the points where feminism and romance intersect. So when I heard that Cara Bristol's third Rod and Cane Society book (a series whose kinky tropes are spanking and domestic discipline) had a self-identified feminist heroine, I knew I had to see how she worked with that premise.

Reader, it did not go well.

I'm not going to start with every single thing that bothered me about Body Politics. (My three word review: one long mansplanation.) I'm not going to start with how the heroine's feminism was treated as the obstacle to Tru Luurrv, or how it felt like it had come to us straight from the Nixon era (have we no feminist icons more recent than Gloria Steinem?), or how the hero's constant boundary-pushing undermined the lip service he gave to consent as the bedrock of a domestic discipline (DD) relationship. I'm not even going to start with how many curse words I shrieked at my e-reader when the heroine tried to use her safe word and he told her she wasn't allowed to safe-word out without trying the thing he wanted her to do. (That's what a safe word is for, you presumptuous fuckstick!)

What I am going to start with -- spoilers! -- is the bit where the story got super, super creepy.

We're halfway through the story. Hero Mark has taken heroine Stephanie to a charity auction at the Rod and Cane Society (a wife-spanking fraternity) and one poster spurs a discussion about how they both want children—she wants boys, he wants girls. Stephanie dreamily reflects:

He would be a very involved parent. A loving dad. A strict father. One who spanked his children when they misbehaved.

And his wife. (Kindle location circa 1480)

THIS IS NOT OKAY.

All along, Mark has made the distinction between erotic spankings and disciplinary spankings. But all along he's also argued that both are consistent with feminist principles of gender equality -- because Stephanie chooses to be in a DD relationship with him, ergo her consent is given, ergo everything's fine and everyone's equal. (Meaningful consent of course is not an on-off switch, but an ongoing negotiation -- arrrgh!) A typical passage: "Domestic discipline wasn't about punishment but intimacy and bonding. Spanking -- the aspect that had garnered Sentinel headlines -- represented only one facet of a complex relationship dynamic." (Kindle location circa 2306)

The quote about spanking kids and his wife, though, punctures this illusion. Either the disciplinary spankings are entirely non-sexual -- meaning that, despite the rhetoric, his wife is as much his subordinate as his child is -- or the disciplinary spankings are part of an intimate, adult dynamic -- meaning that spanking his kids is, at best, horrifically inappropriate. At worst, it's abuse.

Because children, of course, can't consent to something as complex as what Mark is offering Stephanie.

These concerns never cross the mind of our 'feminist' heroine -- who has no close female friends or family, which is more odd the more I think about it. Is she secretly a Regency governess magically transported across the centuries? (Wait -- has someone written that book? I would totally read that.) She believes Mark pushes her boundaries and argues with her and makes demands because he wants her and cares about her so much. And because she chooses to submit to Mark, and to marry Mark, and to walk down the aisle carrying Mark, Jr. in her arms instead of a bouquet -- no, I'm totally not joking -- we're supposed to accept that this is a happy ending, when it was really just one long episode of Hero Knows Best. This story played so fast and loose with the notion of equality that the word becomes unmoored from its accustomed definition. Equality, for Mark and Stephanie, means "we're both happy because he's in charge." That may indeed be happiness -- but it's not equality, and it's not feminism.

And just to be clear, I have tied up heroines of mine before. I've also tied up my heroes, for the record. Power dynamics can be hot as all get-out, and intense D/s relationships on their own aren't enough to put me off a book. (One of my favorite reads from last year was Tiffany Reisz's The Siren, where the D/s and kink content is far more extreme than anything in Rod and Cane.) And I've been known to question the idea that escapist fantasy for women must be morally correct at all times. But there are also narrative tropes and structures that I've come to see as toxic, including the one where a powerful, dominant man 'knows better' than the heroine, even about her own emotions and experiences.

Because the biggest problem with Body Politics as a story is that all the changes, struggle, and sacrifice belong to the heroine. At the end of the novel, Mark has gotten what he wanted, has never been proven wrong, has never had to change his preconceptions, has never had to do anything except exert his will as forcefully as necessary. He magically knows what Stephanie needs and gives it to her even when she protests. It is troubling because this is presented as ideal. Unlike Christian Grey, who is otherwise also a poster boy for troubling issues of consent, Mark's power is never questioned or presented as a problem. (Have I mentioned that he's the deputy chief of police? And that the day after they meet he calls her at work at the women's network and tries to talk dirty to her over the phone? What a catch.)

Meanwhile, Stephanie has been stalked (she's relieved at first that Mark doesn't know where she lives, but oh that's right DEPUTY CHIEF OF POLICE, so she can't say no to a second date because he'll just show up at her apartment anyways and how the hell is that romantic again?), spanked roughly, fired, and emotionally traumatized. (By other women, naturally, because that's how feminists do.) She's had her every position and principle questioned -- and at the end she gets a new job directing a women's program at Rod and Cane, "to assist women in developing their potential and influence within the context of a domestic discipline marriage," whatever the hell that means. Stephanie has become totally subsumed into Mark's goals and desires.

In a recent interview at governingana, Cara Bristol explained the book as follows:

I wanted [Mark and Stephanie] to work it out, to show the thought processes and negotiation that might lead a diehard feminist to allow herself to be disciplined by a man.

I especially wanted to show the give-and-take that exists in relationships, including DD ones. What I hope readers take away from Body Politics is concern and caring with which the hero Mark treats the heroine Stephanie. Her well-being is foremost on his priority list.

But benevolent sexism is still sexism. And it's hard to see Mark as truly benevolent when this novel debuts on the heels of Alisa Valdes' The Feminist and the Cowboy and revelations that the uber-alpha dude in the title who 'cured' the author of her feminism was in fact a completely abusive asshole. "I need to be the one in control" is a statement that should send up huge red flags, especially in a narrative with a supposedly feminist character who supposedly works with domestic violence and rape survivors -- not that we ever see her do any of that on the page. (Courtney Milan's Unraveled, in contrast, features a hero whose need for control is presented as an obstacle, not as an unchangeable given.) Ultimately, Cara Bristol's novel heavily privileges the assumptions and desires of a man who gives us this charming moment, in mid-spank, with the heroine pantsless and bent over his knee:

"Aren't you going to deliver the feminist party line about how your body belongs to you?"

"Not when I'm in this position."

He laughed. "Smart move." (Kindle location circa 1316)

Recently in the news we have seen Republicans try to bloviate about the definition of rape, we have seen women in Ireland dying needlessly in hospitals because the state overrides a woman's decisions about her own body, and we have seen riots in India over the stunning combination of sexual violence against women and police indifference to same. This is but a sample of what feminism is fighting against today. (And womanism! Hi to all the womanists! Womenists?) This is what we're all writing and Tumblring about and marching and fundraising and working to fix. Feminism has its problems -- let's talk about the intersections of class and race in mainstream feminism sometime -- but it is still very vital to many women's lives.

If we can critique a Regency romance for historical accuracy, we can certainly turn that same lens onto a contemporary. The feminism presented in Body Politics felt hollow, a straw man set up so Mark's love and protection could knock it down. This was not a "negotiation," as the author described it.

This was a set-up. That book was rigged.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Robot Girls of Ancient Greece

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

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

 

P Is For: Porn

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For instance: Lolita.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Every Shade Of Grey: A Primer

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

Which one should we read?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Be Careful What You Wish For ...

... Especially if what you ask for is snarky reviews of your own book. There's one up already, from the marvelous Sarah at Knitting the Wind. Visiting her blog is often the most peaceful moment of my day—her photographs are beyond lovely—and it was with no small trepidation that I sent her my erotic Regency romance set in Hell.

And then Sarah did precisely what I'd hoped for in asking for bad reviews.

She put her finger on one of my biggest problems as a writer. She says,

Damned If You Do will stick around in my memory for a long time. But it only took half an hour to read, and I felt frustrated afterwards for lost potential.

Here is my big, dark secret: I am terrible at long plots. At least, the ones I've done so far have been terrible. And by "terrible" I mostly mean "unfinished." My stories live and die by their outlines, and I like to know scene by scene what's going to happen before I go and write the thing. Otherwise I get stuck, I write paragraphs only to erase them later in self-disgust, and I generally waste a lot of time not-writing and making myself feel miserable with nothing to show for it.

For instance, there's a book I've been trying to write for the past year. It's a long one, and it keeps getting better, but it's had more incarnations than the Doctor.

David Tennant in Doctor Who: a tall, lanky, and handsome brunet man with pale skin and a dapper brown suit stands facing the viewer with his head turned to his right. One hand is raised to his face, in preparation for removing his sexy dark-framed spectacles.

I wrote the first 20,000 words at one point. Then I wrote them again. Then I did a bunch of research on cephalopods (which was totally fun, by the way), then I completely redid the story, then I made it a menage instead of a m/f romance, then I wrote those first 20,000 words a third time, then I suddenly decided Raymond Chandler was important to this book somehow ... And I was doing all of this without a Tardis or sonic screwdriver, which is highly inconvenient.

But the story! The world! The people in it! There is a beating heart in there, somewhere, and eventually I will have uncovered enough of its mechanisms to move forward. Even after a year I find I can't give up on the idea, as I have with some other shining plot ideas that turned out to be merely candles.

This story is a bonfire. I just haven't managed to light the match yet.

A wise author would not be putting such things in a blog post. A wise author presents books as finished products, because we all like to think the books we read are strong and steely things that can grapple with us and potentially win. (Reading as Greco-Roman wrestling, I guess? Or Jacob's Ladder?) But a wise author would also not have asked for people to point out the negative aspects of her books, either—so I guess I might as well go all out and lay these anxieties out there for everyone to see.

And so, while I'm impossibly flattered that Sarah put me in the same company as Julia Quinn—the author who got me back into romance, who taught me that historical romance can be hilarious and smart at the same time—the thing I am going to take away from Sarah's review is this: I really need to roll up the sleeves and write some longer things.

Because as much as I love novellas, they leave me wanting, too—I want to have complicated people I don't have to explain all at once, and to whom I can add sexual tension in torturous inches. I want to build a vast and filigreed world, piece by piece—and then I want to destroy it, and show how my characters might begin to rebuild. I want to take the few longer manuscripts that I have done and polish them until they sparkle like the eyes of a mischievous god.

And then I want to do it again.

I'd better get started.

I'm Thankful For You—And You—And You ...

Right now it is raining outside. I am on the couch, wearing knee-high purple argyle socks, a soft grey long-sleeved t-shirt, and my favorite pair of underpants. There is a soft blue blanket wrapped around me, in one fold of which is bundled a sleepy miniature dachshund who does his best napping after lunch. He huddles close enough for me to use him as an armrest while I do work on the laptop. He likes this: makes him feel like he's helping. And by "work," I mean: looking up what the contents of the British Museum were in 1816. Or writing a scene where an incubus seduces a virginal-but-curious heroine. Or tweaking some descriptions of an artificial aether-powered heart in a futuristic steampunk space opera. Whatever seems most exciting to work on at the time.

Days like this I am so thankful to be an author that I could damn near cry.

It's been a little over a year since I signed my first contract with Ellora's Cave. I've had two short books out since then with a third on the way, and Jesus H. Jones have I learned a lot.

And I have so much to be thankful for. I'm thankful for my supremely talented editor—hi, Meghan!—and the print book that's now out. I'm thankful for my wonderful readers—you know who you are—who are worth their weight in gold, regardless of whether or not they liked my books. (I learned quite a bit from the people who didn't like my books, to be frank.) I am thankful for a galaxy of authors whose stories delight me and whose examples I am eager to follow. I am thankful for my marvelous husband who is the world's best beta reader (as well as his other sterling qualities I'm just too much of a lady to discuss here).

And I finally am thankful to have a job that lets me use all the parts of my brain and heart to their fullest extent.

It's not all sunshine and roses—I've had my share of down days and rough patches and moments of sheer pants-wetting metaphysical terror. And that's just in one year of authorship! But even the worst days are better than the best days at many other jobs I've had. And then I'll write a sentence I just know is perfect, or I'll discover the reason for that scene I didn't have a place for but couldn't get out of my head, or I'll see something perfecly ordinary in daily life and suddenly be caught up in the passion of a new story idea that has to be outlined right now, or I'll talk to another author on Twitter and they'll say something to make me laugh.

This is the first time in my life I have looked at a job and thought, I will do this happily until Death pries the keyboard from my twitchy, arthritic hands.

This week we've lost Anne McCaffrey, and earlier this year we lost Diana Wynne Jones, both of whom had as profound an impact on my reading and writing life as Shakespeare or Homer or David Foster Wallace. It's been marvelous to see how people respond with warmth to the loss of authors they've loved. Good storytelling saves lives and refreshes hearts in ways nothing else can. It makes us more at home with ourselves, and with each other.

And I'll talk a lot about how I love doing my job sans pants, or that I can create worlds where things happen because I say so—but what it really comes down to is that desire to brighten lives, to say something true enough that someone's heart will leap up when they read it, to discover people and places that only exist on the page but which may be a key to something in our real world.

Being an author is a privilege, and I am humbly thankful.

Q: How Is An Orgy Like A Book Review?

A: They're both usually more fun in theory than in real life. Or so I imagine. Up to this point my life has been noticeably free of orgies.

Not free of book reviews, however. Like every author, I've got some good ones and some not-so-good ones. (So far, nobody has told me never to put words on paper ever again, but believe you me I know that day is coming. Remember that earlier post on one-star Amazon reviews for Melville, Dickens, and David Foster Wallace?)

Which is why I was interested to read this recent piece in n+1 by Elizabeth Gumport, who argues that book reviews are essentially meaningless. But what struck me most about Gumport's piece was the way she eroticizes both writing and reading. After claiming that only an author and her friends read reviews, she goes on to say:

Why should a writer be ashamed to write for someone she knows? Why should her friends and enemies feign a lack of interest in her work? Affection, attraction, admiration, rivalry, resentment: all are aphrodisiacs, and heighten our interest in what’s before us. Nobody insists we fuck strangers—why must we read them? If the privacy of pure patronage is impossible or undesirable, the traditional courtship can be replaced by the orgy.

At the risk of understatement, reading and fucking are very different things. For instance, only one of them can be done quietly and legally on public transportation. Also, unless you're being much more, um, creative in your reading practices, as far as I know books cannot give you STIs. (Well, maybe herpes. But you can get herpes practically by breathing, so that hardly counts.)

While there is definitely an intimacy that can spring up when you find an author that particularly speaks to you, I bristle at the notion that we should write for/read books by only people we know in the course of normal life. Some of my favorite books were in fact written by total strangers! Some of those strangers have been dead for centuries! If I wanted to leverage personal relationships for profit, I would sign up to be a Mary Kay representative.

No: what I want is to tell stories that resonate with people, even if we've never met. I want to read books by people whose experiences don't match my own and see what truths they have found that I may have missed. I want someone to stand up on the internet and shout out, "I have read a marvelous thing and you might want to consider taking a look."

Because some of my favorite books of the past few years I've found on account of a review from a trusted source.

There's a well-worn academic theory that says writing about sex is really writing about death, and after all this talk about sexy patrons and modern literature Gumport brings this out:

But our lives will end, sooner than we think, and our youth is already almost over. The self is not a renewable resource. If we wouldn’t describe a book to someone we wanted to sleep with, we shouldn’t write about it.

It is really tempting to dismiss this as pure disaffected hipster drivel. "Our youth is already almost over." As though there were no old people anywhere near bookstores, or writing for the New Yorker or the Times Review of Books. And as though all our social interactions should be viewed through the lens of our sexual desires. There are plenty of people I'm happy to talk to and books I'm happy to read that have nothing to do with adding another chapter to my slapdash sexual history.

When the erotic romance author is telling you that perhaps you have too much sex on the brain, it may be time for some self-examination. (Not like that!)

Linda Holmes from NPR's Monkey See blog has a completely lovely post on how it is tragic that we cannot read every book in existence, and that's okay. And one bit that stuck with me was this:

What I've observed in recent years is that many people, in cultural conversations, are far more interested in culling than in surrender. And they want to cull as aggressively as they can. After all, you can eliminate a lot of discernment you'd otherwise have to apply to your choices of books if you say, "All genre fiction is trash." You have just massively reduced your effective surrender load, because you've thrown out so much at once.

Gumport is making precisely this mistake when she writes:

Not only do we not want to read about Gary Shteyngart’s latest novel, we don’t even want to know it exists.

This is the frustrated cry of someone who feels obligated to be on the cutting edge of literary hipsterhood—the book-lover who feels ashamed to admit that A Visit from the Goon Squad is still sitting unread on their bedside table. She wants the same freedom from peer pressure in the book world that she feels she has in her sex life—nobody's making her fuck people she's not interested in, so why should she have to read authors she's not interested in?

But if you ask me, a lot of that pressure's internal. I know: I've been there. But I've also found books that have changed my life, such as Night of the Avenging Blowfish, which nobody in the world but me considers important, but which broke my readerly brain in some very nice ways. And I've read some very important books (cough cough Wide Sargasso Sea) that felt like a waste of my personal time. Ultimately, I've learned not to ask whether or not a book is going to be important, but whether or not a book is going to be important to me, with the limited lifespan I have on this earth.

So bring on your orgies, your lists of summer books, your lists of highly anticipated fall titles, your new doorstop biographies, your Night Circuses and your Marriage Plots. I can't read all of them, but there are millions of readers out there. Together, we can read every book ever written, with time to spare to tell each other about the great ones.

Things I Imagine Are Happening At RWA Nationals (From A Perspective Of Neurosis, Envy, And Also Ignorance, Unless Twitter Counts)

  • There is a champagne fountain in every room, and one entire hotel tv channel devoted to nothing but period pieces with elaborate costumes.
  • The air is filled with compliments on how marvelous everybody looks—because obviously everybody has gone to some trouble to look unbelievably splendid.
  • You get a RITA! And you get a RITA! And you get a RITA! …
  • Every author whose books you've loved are hanging out and talking about how much they hated your debut novella and how it's a relief you aren't here so they can finally all say how much they dislike you both personally and professionally.
  • Every author whose books you've loved are hanging out and talking about how there's just something missing—like maybe there's some magical future friend they have yet to meet but who will fill the missing gaps of the imaginary friendship circle and make life a wonderful adventure rich in laughter and warmth and shoe shopping.
  • Bacchanals, orgies, and general debauchery.

Black and white photographic image from an ancient Greek red-figure vase: several ladies in drapey clothing with loose hair cavort generally about, with the bearded limbless figure of Dionysus in the center.

  • Your Dream Agent is signing somebody else whose squidshifter/sexbot/lady engineer steampunk space opera menage erotic romance is not nearly as brilliantly written as yours.
  • Impromptu dance-fights break out between publisher parties: Ellora's Cave does the samba, Harlequin approximates a Lindy Hop, Samhain dances like Molly Ringwald in that scene where everybody gets high in the Breakfast Club, Avon waltzes with great sweeping passion, and Penguin does a jazzy sort of modern dance choreography that's really way too hip for the crowd to comprehend.
  • The Pulitzer Committee happens by and decides the industry is so vibrant and lively that they're instituting a whole new award just for romance.
  • The cast of True Blood is offered up as a sacrifice for success in the coming romance year.
  • Nobody ever feels hungover, overwhelmed, jet lagged, or intimidated.
  • Everyone goes home happier, energized, and excited to get back to work.

Thirteen Questions About The Most Bangable Male Characters in British Literature

This morning, we here at Olivia Waite were delighted to discover that a Facebook friend had posted the Awl's list of 111 Male Characters of British Literature, in Order of Bangability. And it left us with a few questions—thirteen of them, to be precise.

 

A Pride and Prejudice screencap of Colin Firth in a see-through wet white poet shirt, looking somewhat despondent.

 

 

  1. Seriously, Mr. Darcy is only number 3? Behind Rochester and Aragorn? Even though the latter is a total prig in the book and the former has that whole wife-in-the-attic problem?
  2. Aslan is considered bangable, even though he is a resurrected Jesus lion? And he's higher on the list than King Arthur? Who, it could be argued, is also a resurrected Jesus lion?
  3. Aslan—more bangable than Severus Snape. You're really going with that? On the internet?
  4. How is it that Captain Wentworth only barely cracks the top half of the list? I mean, isn't a naval hero who writes beautiful love letters and also hinted that he made his fortune by royally sanctioned piracy the very definition of sexy?
  5. I mean, isn't it?
  6. When you put Legolas and Robin Hood next to each other on the list, did you suspect it might inspire some kind of erotic crossover fanfic about their forbidden trans-dimensional love? Wouldn't such a story have to lean heavily on the archery metaphor?
  7. Would you perhaps post such a story if I wrote it? Because it sounds really fun.
  8. How is Willy Wonka even the slightest bit more bangable than Dr. Watson?
  9. How did Bertie Wooster beat Colonel Brandon? Or is that another erotic crossover fanfic waiting to happen?
  10. And you're just fucking with us when you included King Lear, right?
  11. And Peter Pan?
  12. And when you list Tom Bombadil as more bangable than James Bond?
  13. That can't possibly be right. Can it?