Woman Inherits the Earth: Dinosaur Feminism and Virgin Births

Their children will surely be dangerous. Men don’t want them having children. So men create expensive, inefficient, and cruel systems to control the potential for reproduction. This is the secret history of Jurassic Park.

“You want to have one of those?”

There are two primary systems the male scientists use in their efforts to contain the dangerous potential of the creatures on Isla Nublar. One: electrified fences, which keep the animals isolated not only from humans, but from each other. Some dinosaur species are given more freedom than others—look at the wide open plain teeming with brachiosaur and pachycephalus herds, and then at the high-walled, claustrophobic fortress of the velociraptor pen. The more times I watch this movie the odder this enclosure seems: why create this species for the zoo if people are never going to be able to actually look at it? Did they just try every dinosaur species they had cloneable samples for and breed groups of the ones that proved viable? That hardly speaks of a stable technology under its creators’ control.

Control, I believe, is central to this question: it is impossible to imagine a conversation in which male InGen scientists believed they could clone a velociraptor, but chose not to because the creature was too dangerous. Such self-doubt would look too much like cowardice. So they clone not just a single velociraptor—though that would be hubris enough—but a whole pack of them. Even though both Muldoon and Grant tell us—and how exactly does Grant know this?—that velociraptors are most dangerous in pairs. Muldoon’s entirely justified paranoia must have been contagious, though. Later we learn that the raptor pen is not only separate from the perimeter fence but is also almost literally on top of the island’s central power station. The male scientists—no doubt egged on by the imperially-coded, quintessentially patriarchal Muldoon—have placed their most dangerous creation at the center of what they feel is their bastion of strength. It’s a dungeon, plain and simple—and every good storyteller knows that a dungeon primarily exists to be escaped from. The velociraptors have no choice but to break free.

“There is no unauthorized breeding in Jurassic Park.”

The second system of control is medical manipulation. What’s striking about Dr. Henry Wu’s statement in the laboratory scene is how nakedly authoritarian it is: children aren’t conceived in this world, they are authorized. Gender is rigidly policed as an absolute law, in defiance of real biological science (where intersex bodies and ungendered bodies happen all the time). We learn that all the Isla Nublar dinosaurs are designated female—because female animals are presumed to be easier to control, and male animals are assumed to be necessary, but more on that later—while Malcolm delivers his famous line about how life, uh, finds a way and a baby velociraptor hatches from an egg. Hammond is as giddy as a grandfather shoving his way into a maternity ward: “I insist on being here when they’re born…Come on, little one! Very good, push!” But he’s applying human patterns to what is a fundamentally inhuman birth. This baby velociraptor has to bring itself into the world. It has to be its own mother. And it isn’t cute or sentimental: it’s bloody, with eyes and claws and a hissing beak and sinister undertones to the musical cues. The shape of the egg and the sterile laboratory setting are strikingly reminiscent of Alien/s, another franchise obsessed with how feminized reproduction resists male control and containment.

Throughout this early part of the film, Grant is excited to learn what ‘real’ dinosaur behavior is like, but he’s been tricked by an illusion. He’s reading these dinosaurs as authentic, when they are the results of provably ignorant human manipulations. We know now that many of the species on Isla Nublar would have been feathered—imagine the proud cloning scientists watching the growth of their first newborn hatchlings, only to see those babies sprout plumes and pinions and down in vivid, eye-searing colors. Would those men recognize such seeming chimeras as authentic prehistoric animals in truth? Or would they assume instead that there had been some mechanical error in the cloning process, and go through batch after batch tweaking the recipe until they produced something that looked more comfortably reptilian? They’re not so much trying to discover the truth as they are trying to manufacture a species to fit a faulty pattern.

Considering how often scientists get it demonstrably wrong in this movie, it’s a wonder nobody has stepped up to challenge Grant’s later assertion that frog DNA allows adult dinosaurs to change sex to produce offspring. There is a lot of evidence against this hypothesis: it’s time- and resource-intensive, for one thing, and would be unimaginably complex in an animal as big as, say, a fully grown T. rex. Grant observes the evidence of wild dinosaur eggs, but is misled by the interpretive lens of human patterns of reproduction. He assumes dinosaur babies imply the existence of dinosaur fathers. He also assumes human science made this unauthorized reproduction possible, giving InGen's scientists much more credit than I think they actually deserve.

In fact, a much more likely explanation for these wild offspring is that they were created by parthenogenesis, the scientific term that means virgin birth and which describes the process wherein a female animal produces offspring that are genetically identical to the mother (usually) but otherwise viable for survival (more or less). This phenomenon has been observed in captive populations of pythons, cobras, turkeys, Komodo dragons, and chickens.

In other words, I contend that the female dinosaurs in the matriarchal dystopia of Jurassic Park have learned how to clone themselves. Which is not to say Isla Nublar has to remain strictly matriarchal forever: certain types of parthenogenesis can result in male offspring with the capacity to reproduce. Human fixations upon rigid gender and sex categories completely fail to apply to what the dinosaurs are doing as they recolonize their prison. (My dinosaur feminism will be trans inclusive or it will be bullshit.) The process male scientists and capitalists spared no expense struggling to master and control from the outside is something these creatures are naturally capable of. And the humans don’t even recognize this, thanks to what Dr. Sattler aptly terms “sexism in survival situations.” Human civilization has the gender binary and the nuclear family and the cultural narrative that women and children are weak and need male protection. Nature—inhuman, insatiable nature—needs none of these social constructs to ensure a species’ survival. Nature is happy to improvise.

“Dinosaurs eat man, woman inherits the earth.”

Since Frankenstein, male attempts to colonize and control female-coded powers of reproduction have driven countless science fiction plots. It never ends well. But just why should artificial reproduction always turn out so terrifying? Part of it surely is that what’s reproducing itself on Isla Nublar are predator species. But the terror here is not just the fear of death. The dinosaurs we read as villains in the film—the T. rex, the velociraptor, and the dilophosaurus—aren’t killing mindlessly, or for the evil joy of it. They’re killing for food. The fear is not that our characters will die, it’s that they will be devoured. The most notoriously frightening scene in the film happens in a kitchen as two raptors learn how to open human doors and try to make a meal out of two children. This beautiful piece of horror edges beyond butchery and into a realm I’d dare to identify as almost cannibalistic, with overtones of both Hansel and Gretel and Hannibal Lecter. This means the real threat in the film is about being used, or used up. Consumed. Human bodies are reproductive resources: women use men for genetic material (parthenogenesis has yet to be firmly established in mammals) and then women use their own bodies to build children. And we see at the start that Ellie Sattler’s desire to become a mother is explicitly presented as the key thematic framework in which this whole story takes place. Grant is hesitant about becoming a parent—a father—so the story sends him to an island full of monstrous mothers and gives him two human children to protect. As a test of his fitness. Grant’s arc is triumphant not because he has conquered the dinosaurs—he really, really hasn’t—or even (re)conquered Dr. Sattler (he hasn’t—compare this with, say, the reconquering romance arc in Die Hard). Grant wins because he’s learned to accept becoming a father in the human civilization he’s returning to.

We misread this plot arc badly. Distracted by restrictive meta-conversations about characters with agency, we mistake Grant’s busyness for narrative centrality. We watch him slowly warm up to the kids and we know it matters but we never stop to remember why. Grant’s not changing for himself. He’s changing so he can live up to Dr. Sattler’s hopes. The whole point of the whole plot is to get him up to her level. At the end the dinosaurs reclaim the island, and Dr. Sattler smiles approvingly at her newly nurturing partner. The dinosaurs have eaten the men; the mothers inherit the earth.

Hurt/Comfort: Two Shapeshifting Books Reviewed

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*****

*****

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

*****

*****

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

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

All The Iron Filings Line Up Nice and Neat

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

2.

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

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

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

Did you see the iron filings move?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3.

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

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

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

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

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

4.

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

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

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

5.

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

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

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

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

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

6.

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

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

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

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

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

 

Space, Science, and the Gender of Perfection

{Courting Critique is a post series that takes an analytic and intersectional feminist look at romance texts — not so much to prove that romance is feminist or anti-feminist, but because good criticism can be as fun and escapist as a love story. Spoilers abound!} Engineer Eugene Parsons demands perfection. It's the first thing, possibly the only thing, people know about him.

The problem: perfection is unattainable, like a limit in calculus that is never quite reached. The other, less obvious problem: the definition of perfection keeps shifting, especially where gender is involved.

Cover image for Earth Bound. Starry background behind two light-skinned people in a tense embrace. The woman has dark hair, artful makeup, a black dress, and full-length black gloves. The man has a grey suit, intense expression, and his hands on the woman's bare skin.

First, a capsule review: Earth Bound,  the latest entry in Emma Barry and Genevieve Turner's stellar Fly Me to the Moon series, is an absolute gut-punch of a romance between two difficult, critical, closed-off engineers who put their ambitions and the mission above everything else. Oh, and seedy '60s motel sex. I could not have possibly loved it more. Full spoilers from here on out.

The most basic definition of perfection is free from factual or mathematical error. Parsons has good reason to pursue this kind of perfection, as the lives of real people depend on the machines and mathematics used by the American Space Department to send men and machines into orbit: "If the capsule wasn't traveling fast enough, wasn't flying straight up, the massive hand of gravity would catch it and pull it straight back down. It could crash right into a place filled with houses and families" (Kindle location 63). Not to mention that whole Cold War business, which Parsons at times seems to be fighting as though he's out to win it single-handed. The urgency of this mission leads him to look for the very best -- which is how he meets our heroine, computer and programmer Charlie Eason.

Charlie is a perfect hire for ASD -- except that she's a woman.

To clarify, Parsons has absolutely no issue with hiring women. Many of the computers are women (just like in real life: see the wealth of links at the end of this piece). Parsons does, however, have a problem with how deeply attracted he is to Charlie's astonishing beauty. With the other computers their gender is a nonvariable, an unimportant detail he can put aside in the interests of getting the best work from the most competent people. But he can't do that with Charlie -- "his body refused to stop noticing hers" (197) -- and he loathes himself for this failing, even as he insists on hiring her for her undeniable talents. In the classic romance tradition, this self-loathing adds a potent charge to the characters' interactions on the page (Parsons happily avoids being creepy or domineering, or at least not any more domineering than he is with his male subordinates).

Charlie doesn't recognize it's attraction at first, of course. Parsons is a closed book (and locked, and chained, and encrypted…), and Dr. Eason is used to being undermined and underestimated on account of her gender: "It would never be enough. No matter how many papers she authored, no matter how many projects she successfully completed, deadlines she met, or snafus she navigated, all they'd ever be able to see were the breasts" (879). No matter how objectively skilled a woman is, her femininity is read as a flaw when it appears in spaces and roles designated masculine. She will always be imperfect by default. The same is clearly true about race, though the text only briefly glances at this. (Again, links below!)

[perfectpullquote align="right"]No matter how many papers she authored ... all they'd ever be able to see were the breasts.[/perfectpullquote]

Which is not to say there is no standard for a specifically feminine perfection, because of course there is -- rigidly defined and lionized gender roles trouble the course of both hero and heroine. There is an unwritten expectation of purity in the binary gender construct, and a sense that real, flawed humans are constantly falling short of what it means to be a perfect man or a perfect woman. Consider this bit about the astronauts' wives: "Their wives sat among the spectators, looking cool and polished, and in the case of the new Mrs. Campbell, a little bored. She didn't yet have Mrs. Reynolds' expertise in being utterly blank every second of the day" (1508). Blankness is perfectly feminine; polish is perfectly feminine; emotion and thought are to be hidden or erased while attempting to conform to the ideal.

Charlie has the markers of idealized femininity down pat: makeup, polite smiles, skirts and heels, never a sign of anger or hurt. Cool, cool as marble, polished, frozen -- these descriptions surface over and over about Charlie and other women. I feel like I've seen a lot of romance heroines characterized as 'naturally' feminine (contemporaries do this with surprising frequency): in this text high-femme presentation is explicitly a strategy for social leverage, even though it leaves women open for predation (lecherous astronaut Carruthers) and exploitation (shameless magazine photo ops to get good press for ASD): "Yes, she used her looks to gain the advantage in certain situations. But they were her looks and her advantage. She was furious that her face was going to be used to sell ASD to the public. Why couldn't they discuss the mission, the technology, and the sheer wonder of what they were trying to do? Why did it have to be the surface, the glamour, the stuff that meant nothing?" (2033). Having spent so much time constructing that surface in self-defense, Charlie is nevertheless frustrated by people who choose to treat it as the sum total of who she is. It's a double-bind that still feels far too familiar to those of us here in 2016.

Expectations of purity also underscore a beautifully ironic conflict between Charlie's love for computer programming and her parents' romanticization of physics: "For a long time, the conversation had been about Charlie's field of study. Why couldn't you go into physics like Tom? Tom the golden child, who couldn't get enough of splitting and combining atoms -- and whose genitals were the right shape" (290). Charlie's mother even pronounces the word engineering "like she might pronounce shit" (281): in her parents' eyes Charlie's intellectual talents make her too pure for her chosen profession. They believe she is squandering herself on something corrupt and pedestrian: the scorn they heap on her career choices is couched in the language of support and pride in their daughter (why isn't she living up to her potential?) but Charlie can't help but read this as scorn for her as a person -- especially in comparison to her brother, whose gender is part of what makes him the Platonically Ideal Physicist. All this despite the fact that the pure 'secrets of the universe physics' the elder Easons are so enamored with is the actual Manhattan Project. Hardly a landmark of non-applied, non-militarized, above-it-all science.

Meanwhile, Parsons' family offers a contrasting image of masculine perfection in war hero brother George. He's smart, handsome, charming, and brave: the town is literally putting up a statue to him to memorialize his death in combat. Like younger siblings the world over, Parsons feels he suffers by comparison: "I felt like I was this weaker, lesser version of him and could never measure up" (1795). This sense of falling short mixes with grief and guilt (Parsons and George had argued before he was killed) and poisons Parsons' interactions with ex-Nazi rocket scientist Friedrich Gerhardt (clearly a von Braun analogue). Gerhardt's presence not only reminds Parsons of the masculine standards he feels he fails to meet, but he's also an indication that the world itself is the furthest thing from perfect: "The fact that George -- his wonderful, boisterous, heroic brother -- wasn't here and Gerhardt was was all the evidence Parsons needed to know the universe was fundamentally fucked" (1676).

Defining the universe as unfair, perverse, and cruel is absolutely vital in a historical that addresses sexism and misogyny in such a head-on manner. We know -- at least, if we've been reading tons of books about the Cold War and the Space Race and the Manhattan Project, have you not? -- that Charlie's contributions are not only neglected by her contemporaries, but also erased from the broad historical narrative. Like Lise Meitner, Margaret Hamilton, Hazel Ying Lee and the WASPthe Mercury 13, the real-life women of NASA, and countless others, Charlie's battle against discrimination and diminishment will be endless and unrewarded. She'll be written out of the narrative, and that unwriting will be used to deny women spaces and voices in decades to come.

[perfectpullquote align="left"]The fact that George wasn't here and Gerhardt was was all the evidence Parsons needed to know the universe was fundamentally fucked.[/perfectpullquote]

What saves this point of view from being far too harsh to nourish a romance plot is the last and, I think, best definition of perfection: something that is neither too little nor too much, but just right. This is perfection as completion: two satellites meeting in orbit against all odds, the whole becoming greater than the sum of its parts. What makes this kind of life-saving perfection possible? Love, of course.

If you think I wasn't hearing Origin of Love while rereading this, think again. (Two Plato references in one blog post! It's a banner Thursday.)

An early passage sees Parsons thinking of himself and Charlie in astrodynamic terms: "She was the capsule here, serenely making her orbits, while he was the rocket casing, jettisoned to burn up in the long fall back to earth" (158). Geeky penis metaphors aside (come on, right?), Parsons continually views himself as secondary to Charlie, as a resource who's only there to be used and discarded so she can achieve her proper glorious heights. He's a man who demands perfection, but once he decides she is perfect, his devotion is absolute: "I'll work to get you whatever you need, Charlie. You know that" (1305). This is undoubtedly part of what makes Parsons work so well as a version of the Demanding Boss hero archetype, which usually makes me grimace: the dedication and generosity he displays toward the mission and toward Charlie more than balance out the barked orders and fraying temper.

Charlie recognizes this devotion and even refers to Parsons once as an "acolyte" (916); she also envisions their relationship in terms that echo his : "She didn't think she was perfect, but she thought that together, they might be more than they were apart. Together they might be something like it" (2465). The inevitable crisis in the relationship is paralleled by a crisis in a planned orbital rendezvous mission. Charlie and Parsons have to navigate their way back to one another emotionally even as they maneuver two soaring metal ships within kissing distance of one another. Their final reconciliation is as subtle, tense, and minutely managed as any astronaut's docking procedure.  It's a sublime and elegant piece of work and as an author I am equal parts delighted and envious.

Charlie and Parsons' HEA doesn't make the world perfect -- he's still going to be snappish, and she'll still be subject to plenty of micro- and macro-aggressions --  but it shows they've earned the kind of perfection they find with each other. And what more can a romance possibly offer?

 

___

Barry, Emma, and Turner, Genevieve. Earth Bound. Amazon Digital Services, 2016. Kindle edition.

___

Further Reading:

  • You know about the Hidden Figures book and movie already, right? Taraji P. Henson, Janelle Monáe? I could not possibly be more excited.
  • But since that's not out until September, here is Rise of the Rocket Girls, a primer on the race to the moon focusing on women's contributions and participation.
  • Also Amelia Earhart's Daughters, which expands the years examined and looks at women pilots in WWII and the Cold War.
  • Something from the Russian side of all this: The Night WitchesMost of the prose in this book about Russian women flying bombing runs in WWII comes straight from interviews with survivors, so it's a little plain prose-wise -- but you cannot beat the level of detail and vividness.
  • Girls of Atomic City. Summers spent driving by Hanford on our way to Eastern Washington campsites kicked off my fascination with the Atomic Age. (You might have noticed this is something of a pet topic of mine, huh?) But Hanford was basically a glorified military base -- Oak Ridge was a whole damn city, with segregated living spaces and sock hops and I swear to God a rabbit breeding club.
  • Also great: 109 East Palace, about a woman who worked as Oppenheimer's trusted secretary (and front) during the early days of Los Alamos.

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.

 

Jane Austen's Small-Town Caribbean

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

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

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

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

Naturally, spoilers will abound from here on out.

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

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

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

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

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

And he hated her stories. (Kindle location 83)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

And isn't that the happiest of endings?

___

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

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

High Stakes Visibility

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

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.

Die Hard, Jupiter Jones, Cinderella, and Character Agency

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Imagine Cinderella blowing up the palace.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Joseph Campbell has a lot to answer for.

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

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

From the Mary Sue's review:

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

From Variety:

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

From The New York Times:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

___

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

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

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

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

Comments with further recommendations will be happily entertained.

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

“Thanks,” he said. “It’s mine.”

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

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

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

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

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

The Beekeeper's Ball by Susan Wiggs.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hiding from Hollywood by Ellie Darkins.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

12. A cute boy walks into a deli.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We just need to ask.

Batman and Bootleggers: For the Love of Lit Crit

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

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

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

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

A Good Man Who Does Bad Things

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

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

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

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

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

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

This metaphor struck me as being in extremely poor taste.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Two points:

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

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

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

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

Ugh, not this again.

A Bad Man Who Does Bad Things

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

Here is the first part.

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

Aida's response: "didn't."

(#NotAllWhiteHeroines)

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

Here is the second part.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

At least Batman tries not to kill people.

___

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

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

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

___

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

Filthy Lucre and Laundered Souls

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

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

Cover for Filthy Lucre by Sharon Cullars.

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

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

I told you it was unusual.

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

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

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

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

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

The Unheroic Hero

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Disarmed Heroine

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oh, how I wanted her to stab somebody.

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

Bonnie and Clyde

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

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

Then something wonderful happens: the women connect.

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

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

Again, that's a pretty radical move.

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

___

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

___

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

Invisible Labor in the Publishing World

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

Invisible Author-Work

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

It's more fun than it sounds.

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

Invisible Publisher-Work

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

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

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

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

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

Invisible Distributor-Work

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

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

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

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

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

Invisible Bookseller-Work

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

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

Invisible Reader-Work

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

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

Now We Smash All The Atoms Together. BOOM.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

___

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

Better, Less Offensive History

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

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

Thoughtlessness can look exactly like malice sometimes.

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

DavidManuel1

DavidManuel2

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

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

Thoughtlessness can look exactly like malice sometimes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

I wonder what else I have yet to learn?

___

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

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

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

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

Ecology and Uses of the Alpha Male in Romance

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

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

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

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

Another quote, worth unpacking:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

___

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

Viscounts and Vorkosigans

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks for listening, everyone, and happy summer!

___

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

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

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

___

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

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

Gendered Violence, Annotated

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • p. 19: Scarlett O'Hara

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • p. 23: Scarlett O'Hara the vamp

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

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

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

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

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

  • p. 38: Stephen King, Carrie

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

  • p. 42: Dean Koontz, Midnight

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

  • p. 46: Stephen King, Rose Madder

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

  • p. 47: Romance

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

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

  • p. 48: Stephen King, Rose Madder

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

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

  • p. 49: Stephen King, The Shining

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

  • p. 55: The Big Heat (film)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • p. 83: Stephen King, Christine

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

  • p. 90: rape scene

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

  • p.99: Stephen King

Stephen King uses Maine slang.

  • p. 101: sexual coercion and damselling

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

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

  • p. 125: Dean Koontz, domestic abuse

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

  • p. 130-131: Dean Koontz, Midnight

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

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

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

  • p. 140 - 141: George Eliot, Middlemarch

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

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

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

  • p. 142: Iazy writing

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

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

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

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

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

  • p. 149: voice

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

  • p. 161: Dean Koontz, Sole Survivor

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

  • p. 162: Stephen King, The Shining

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

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

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

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

  • p. 183: Stephen King, On Writing

Brief snip from King's book of craft advice.

  • p. 199: Stephen King, On Writing

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

Fuck. You.

  • p. 230: fridging: Robert Crais, Hostage

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

  • p. 232-233: fridging

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

  • p. 234: Stephen King

Brief piece of writing advice.

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

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

  • p. 238: Dean Koontz, Midnight

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

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

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

  • p. 241: rape: Dean Koontz, Whispers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

___

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

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

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

 

A to Z Wrap-Up

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

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

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

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

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

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

And sweet's the air with curly smoke

From all my burning bridges.

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

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

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

Z is for Zoe Archer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And now, for f/f fiction!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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