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.

 

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."

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.

I Take the Low Road About High Culture: A Rebuttal

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Anya, I think he was completely wrong about that.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Regards,

Olivia

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

Link to a condescending tweet.

... and under my day name:

Link to a snarky tweet.

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

N is for Zora Neale Hurston

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

__

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

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

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

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

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

L is for Jeannie Lin

{Content note: the following post very briefly quotes fictional acts of torture during a police interrogation -- and, in case anyone else cringes at such things like I do, I should mention the torture involves hand injuries. GAH.  Click here for the full alphabet of intersectional feminism in romance.}

Despite the casual malice of Othello and the oceans of blood in Macbeth, I have always found King Lear to be Shakespeare's most chilling tragedy. There's a dark purple void at the heart of that story into which all good things fall, never to be seen again -- it's simultaneously frightening and fascinating, a masterclass in showing how human isolation can tear a whole world to pieces.

I would never have expected to get shades of that same feeling from a historical romance set in Tang Dynasty China, but such are the marvelous gifts the romance genre sometimes offers to its reverent acolytes. And by "romance genre" I mean Jeannie Lin, whose Chinese-set historicals just keep getting better and better: Jade Temptress is a stunning and memorable book, maybe even a masterpiece of the genre. The Shakespeare angle only clarifies how the book deconstructs the interlocking systems of money, class, and power.

Cover image for Jeannie Lin's The Jade Temptress. A woman with pale skin, dark hair, Asian features, and deep red lips wears a white gown patterned with bright flowers and wrapped with a blue sash. Large red flowers are woven into her hair. One hand is languid and the other held against her face in a pose of subtle invitation.The first scene of King Lear sets up everything that follows: the king divides his kingdom between his three daughters, offering the most riches to whichever one who loves him most. Or rather, whichever one claims to love him most, since of course love is not so easily measured or proved as Lear seems to believe. It's a stupid game, thoughtless at best and malicious at worst. As the two eldest fall over themselves in their haste to kiss dad's ass, Lear's youngest and best daughter Cordelia decides the only way to win is not to play.

LEAR: ... what can you say to draw

A third more opulent than your sisters? Speak.

CORDELIA: Nothing.

LEAR: Nothing!

CORDELIA: Nothing. (Lear I.i.87-91)

Lear imagines himself as something like a fairy-tale king who can discern true goodness and reward it with the appropriate amount of wealth. It is stagey and disingenuous, particularly since he has plainly saved the best part, the "third more opulent," for his darling youngest daughter. Cordelia's "nothing" shatters the king's comfortable little play: she rejects the idea that love can be exchanged for anything except itself. To exchange love for money turns love into something like work -- or something like prostitution, though Cordelia doesn't say so. Lear throws a tantrum, the King of France proposes to Cordelia on the spot, the two elder daughters are embarrassed, and everyone agrees Lear is a royal ass. Things proceed to go quite rapidly to hell.

Jade Temptress heroine Mingyu, a famous courtesan in the imperial capital of Changan, is caught in a similar web where familial relationships and profit-based relationships are conflated. Her fellow courtesans are her "sisters," and the scheming brothel-mistress Madame Sun prefers to be known as "Mother":

Though they called each other mother and daughter, Mingyu never forgot the truth. She had a true mother once. Her birth mother had sold her and her sister for a small handful of coins. Madame Sun, her foster mother, would never let her go for so little. (Kindle location 352)

A nice little twist of the knife, there: are you really more valued simply because your foster mother sets a higher price on you? (Short answer: no.) Madame Sun is even less able than Lear to imagine human worth as anything other than a financial measure --  as a result, her affections are always expressed in terms of prices and profit. It's unclear how much of this is artifice, manipulation for her personal gain, and how much is simply her own deeply ingrained belief: even Mingyu is left uncertain about this, at the end. But she is quite clear on her own position in this dynamic: "Always 'us.' There was no Mingyu. There was Madame and there was the Lotus Palace . . ." (375). Since her love (or at least its performance) can be purchased, it becomes a commodity -- which is to say it has economic value, and therefore cannot/should not be given away for free. Any sense of the courtesan as a person capable of love outside of currency relationships must be suppressed in order to maintain the value of the courtesan's love as a luxury item. At the same time, since all her wages go to the Lotus Palace and not to herself, the courtesan is distanced from economic agency: she can earn, but she cannot spend. She is in essence a lever by which money moves from her suitors to her foster mother, who quite literally owns her. As indicated by "There was no Mingyu," our heroine reads this framework as an erasure: "This is a dream world," she says later of the city's pleasure district. "We don't exist outside it" (1223). This is Cordelia's thought turned inward: Mingyu recognizes that her participation in the sex trade has made her into nothing, both in a legal and an emotional sense.

Since she is nothing, Mingyu has learned to use nothingness as a weapon in Changan's tangled web of money, gender, and class. She cultivates a quiet and mysterious air of unreadability -- an emptiness behind which she conceals her own truth. Hero Wu Kaifeng recognizes this:

"You make yourself into a blank canvas and let your admirers fill it as required."

"A mirror," she corrected, unperturbed. "A courtesan is a mirror. The bureaucrats value their own learning, so I give them poetry and music. The generals value competition and strategy, so I confirm the brilliance of their plans."

"And myself?" . . .

"You value justice, Constable. Unfortunately, that is the one thing I cannot speak to. I know nothing of it." (2023)

And this is true: Mingyu and her Lotus Palace sisters are disempowered in Changan by the trifecta of gender, class, and economics. They are all women, of low birth, whose earnings go to Madame Sun. They only have agency insofar as they control the agency of others -- specifically, men: "Sometimes exploiting a man's power is the only influence a woman can wield" (526), Mingyu explains. Love becomes a means of channeling power, and money a measure of both. The higher the price a courtesan commands, the more power she wields -- and vice versa. (Which goes a long way toward explaining Madame Sun.) Love separated from money is rendered meaningless, unmeasurable: nonexistent. Mingyu's fellow courtesan Ziyi, burned by heartbreak, expresses this most succinctly: "The inspector is wealthy and offers you his protection. He'll pursue you at any cost. It's hardly different from romantic love. In some ways, it's more reliable" (2565).

This is some Jane Austen-level irony in a genre romance -- especially since the inspector in question, imperial official Xi Lun, is so very easily read as the horror-movie version of the classic alpha romance hero:

Xi was pleasing enough to the eye. His face was square and his jaw broad. To match the strong features of his face, his clothing was impeccable and his manners cultured. He was young compared to many highly ranked officials and he was free with his wealth. (1724)

Handsome, powerful, rich, worldly, and younger than many at a similar point in his career -- all my Dom Billionaire alarm bells were ringing like mad. His pursuit of Mingyu is relentless and he completely ignores the charms of the other courtesans, all while giving our heroine crushing kisses, pricey gifts, and a barrel full of disregard for her limits and boundaries. This is the complete set of genre-recognized Stalker Romance Hero Cues. Mingyu responds the only way she can: by getting profoundly creeped out. Xi Lun has entirely bought into -- see what I did there? -- the system of love-as-commodity that she feels erases her as an individual and an agent. He offers her valuable objects and Mingyu knows this is because he sees her as only another type of object. His intent to purchase her bond -- to make her legally his property -- is the novel's biggest threat, and even his erotic desire is an expression less of physical lust than of an eroticized control: "Sex would just be another way for him to exert his dominance" (2160). Again, this is language we are used to seeing as the mark of an alpha hero, but in this context the alpha billionaire's confidence and compliments turn impeccably sinister.

Xi Lun is only the most obvious symbol of a patriarchal system where all women are commodified to greater or lesser extent. I was strongly reminded of activist blogger Melissa McEwan's "The Terrible Bargain We Have Regretfully Struck," which details the way marginalized groups -- specifically women, though she recognizes parallels to LGBTQ people and people of color -- learn to respond to the constant barrage of microaggressions with wariness and guardedness toward privileged groups, as a form of self-protection. For Mingyu and Ziyi and the other courtesans, every man in Changan exists as a potential threat. Even the wealthy men they hope to seduce into providing for them. Even our hero, Constable Wu Kaifeng.

If Xi Lun is a villainous romance hero, Wu Kaifeng is a heroic romance villain. We know Kaifeng interrogated Mingyu at one point in the first book, The Lotus Palace, but it's only now that we learn the full extent of what happened. Turns out, he tortured her. Actual physical torture as part of a police investigation -- and it's explicitly sexualized:

The first time Wu had interrogated her, he'd taken out six bamboo sticks and laced them between his fingers. He'd held her hand still in his own as he completed the task, a gesture that was grotesquely intimate. (573)

In the hands of an author I trust less, this would have had me side-eyeing the text something fierce. But Ms. Lin has remarkable control of her material and has not led me wrong before -- more concretely, this is not the first time Mingyu has been abused at the hands of a man in authority. The late General Deng was fond of making his possessiveness known in subtle but unmistakably douchey ways. She knows how to read abuse rather than merely react to it: Wu Kaifeng puts her in physical pain, yes, but he does it in the course of his duty -- torture being an accepted part of Changan police procedure -- and most importantly of all, he stops the torture long before he needs to. (And apologizes for it later in a perfect and specific way.) This one fact is enough to show Mingyu that the constable operates outside the usual dangerous networks of social privilege:

"I don't trust you because you are kindhearted and honorable, Constable Wu. I trust you because you don't care who Deng Zhi is or how vast his forces are. You don't care who I am, which means you don't care that a lowly courtesan was found with her dead and high-ranking lover. Or that her life means nothing to the magistrate or his superiors. All you care about is finding the truth." (596)

Note all the negatives in this early passage -- Mingyu is starting to rebel against the values of the Pingkang Li by seeing value in nothingness more generally. She will grow bolder about this as the novel progresses.

Merely being a member of the privileged gender is not enough to put Wu Kaifeng at the apex of power in Changan, and he knows it: "I'm ill-mannered," he says later. "Unsightly. Nothing to anyone that matters" (1271). Mingyu initially recognizes in Kaifeng a lack that gives him power, similar to her own mirror-like unreadability: "Part of her envied Wu Kaifeng and his unyielding approach. It must be freeing to walk through this world and feel nothing" (596). But their positions are differently privileged by class: Mingyu may not have money of her own -- except for what she's been able to hide away in secret -- but she does have access to a moneyed lifestyle. Her clothes, her social skills, her musical ability, all these mark her as a member of the rarefied upper echelons of society, even if she only exists there as a shadow of her true self. The constable, in contrast, is a man of unknown birth, fortuneless and indifferently educated, a pariah in the imperial world where scholarship and bloodlines are directly tied to career advancement and power. Mingyu's position might be a cage, but it's a cage raised far above the level a man like Wu Kaifeng can hope to reach. If he resists the kyriarchal network of money and privilege, as Mingyu sees, it is because he has as little hope of agency within that network as she does.

A third of the way through, at the very moment when Kaifeng insists he is nothing, Mingyu contradicts him:

"It's not true," she murmured. "You're not really like that."

He smiled crookedly at her. "Not ugly?"

"Not . . . nothing." (1271)

And then something happens: he kisses her. Something else happens: Mingyu kisses him back. (This seems as good a time as any to state that Wu Kaifeng is one of the swoon-worthiest heroes I've read in quite some time. Jeannie Lin writes the best first kisses.) "Don't think too much of this," Mingyu warns. "I won't," Kaifeng promises (1271). And then they part: "They both knew that nothing more could become of it" (1309). This kiss, like Mingyu and Kaifeng, is nothing -- but like them, and like Cordelia's 'nothing,' this nothingness has a power outside the system of commodified love and desire. Thanks to the iterative nature of romance narratives, the reader knows damn well that something will indeed come of this. Mingyu is changed almost immediately: "Her stolen and precious hour with Wu Kaifeng had emboldened her more than it should have" (1440). She's using the language of value -- stolen, precious -- to describe something that by law and custom shouldn't even exist.

Kyriarchal power systems are bending beneath the weight of actions motivated by honest mutual desire.

Wu Kaifeng may have started as a torturer, but he moves increasingly away from any attmpts to claim, control, or possess Mingyu. All these terms are standard romance sex scene tropes -- hell, they're practically subgenres at this point -- but Kaifeng makes a great case for the pure undiluted hotness of un-claiming: "He found her sash and looped the length of silk around her wrists to secure her arms overhead, but the gesture was only symbolic. Almost poetic, for someone untrained in poetry. He couldn't tie her there, he couldn't keep her" (2383). [My notes at this point are simply "SWOON SWOON SWOON." From me, not Mingyu. She's not really the swooning type.] This deliberate and careful unclaiming consistently allows Mingyu the metaphorical space to claim herself, to exist again as a person: "When Kaifeng took her like this, single-mindedly, with no motive but for his pleasure and her own, she finally belonged to herself. Her body was her own and this pleasure -- this pleasure was hers for the taking" (2737).

But this progression is unsustainable and comes to a head at the climax: Mingyu is growing bold enough to want to free herself from the entire money-love-power system, and talks of leaving the city. Wu Kaifeng knows that although he has come to love her anything he does to claim or take or possess her will only keep her imprisoned. So he retreats entirely, saying they must part.

This next move will take some explaining, so bear with me. Mingyu and Kaifeng are falling in love while trying to solve the mystery of the death of Mingyu's protector General Deng. (SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS!) At first it appears Deng was beheaded by one of his bodyguards, so the general is given a state funeral and a very expensive new head made of jade. But then it turns out -- SPOILERS NO REALLY IT'S COMING UP -- that the headless body belongs to one of the bodyguards, and Deng has faked his own assassination so he can start a coup, and he's been hiding in the family mausoleum, but by the time our protagonists figure this out someone else has killed all the surviving bodyguards and also poisoned the general. And servant confesses and commits suicide, but maybe he didn't really do it either? And maybe he was poisoned by the real killer? It's a giant MacGuffin of a murder investigation, with near-constant deceptions and a complete lack of meaning at the end -- in short, it's perfect. And the late general's oh-so-valuable jade head? Is broken up by Wu Kaifeng and used to buy Mingyu's freedom from Madame Sun.

So the head of a man who was not actually beheaded is broken, and the pieces used to pay Mingyu's very real debt -- a concrete example of something coming from nothing, of emptiness being turned into profit. Now that the courtesan owns herself again, of course, she is able to reunite with Wu Kaifeng. Mingyu has some money she's hoarded and they spend most of it renovating a derelict tea-shop: in the book's final scene, Kaifeng has bought Mingyu a very pretty musical instrument with basically the last of their cash. Now, at the happy ending, nothing is all they have. They're hoping the tea-shop will turn a profit, but they don't know. It's the diametric opposite of the usual romance narrative, where the couple ends up wealthy or at least comfortable -- but while a lack of funds might jeopardize the normal HEA, we've had the whole rest of the book to know how capable our hero and heroine are at making something out of nothing. Where King Lear let nothingness destroy his life, his family, and his kingdom, Mingyu and Kaifeng find nothingness a haven from the interconnecting dynamics that work to dehumanize them. The vast amount of nothingness at the end of this novel is not a lack, but an opportunity. It's really quite elegant, as a twist on the usual trope.

A brief postscript: Let this analysis not be taken to mean that sex work per se is necessarily degrading or corrupting or dehumanizing. This is a study of a single fictional text and its motifs. But the intersections beneath which sex work takes place in both Ms. Lin's Tang Dynasty setting and in our own modern Western Judeo-Christian culture -- systems of class oppression and gender bias most especially -- these often do great damage to sex workers as individuals and as a class. If Mingyu feels erased as an individual, so too do many real-world sex workers, who are criminalized by an imperfect justice system, and whose voices are discounted by a culture that considers them less than fully human.

An even briefer, much less serious postscript: using the words 'nothing' and 'something' so often has gotten "Something Good" from The Sound of Music thoroughly stuck in my head -- and it occurs to me that the lyrics to that song also set up a system where goodness is rewarded with love as if love is a prize for moral behavior and how is that not a type of commodification and I should probably just stop now before my brain dribbles out my ears.

___

Dear Author's group review of this book touches on the class issues as well as themes of artifice and reality -- it's a really great discussion of a really wonderful book. Miss Bates has a review the parallels many of my own reactions here.

Jeannie Lin's first book in this series, The Lotus Palace, sold less than expected, so that Harlequin pulled The Jade Temptress from print distribution and made it digital-only. Ms. Lin blogged about her complex reaction to the news, and Courtney Milan responded with print sales figures of her own to back up Jeannie Lin's thoughts. It's an interesting conversation on how we interpret sales data in light of race and romance, and there are no easy answers anywhere.

This post from Racialicious is brief but illuminating and touches on capitalism in China, contact between Asian and European cultures, Orientalist stereotypes, and the difference between a concubine and a mistress.

My own views on sex work are rendered largely irrelevant, I think, by the fact that I am not nor ever have been a sex worker. (And no matter what they tell you, erotic romance authorship is not the same thing at all.) For years I have looked to Seattle's own Mistress Matisse for considered and knowledgeable opinions in a very volatile field of discourse and experience: her Twitter feed is a great source of activism and writing. And while I've only just started reading Melissa Gira Grant's recent book Playing the WhoreI can tell you that it is robust, insightful, and pulling no punches.

___

Lin, Jeannie. The Jade Temptress. Toronto: HQN, 2014. Ebook.

Shakespeare, WIlliam. King Lear. Shakespeare Online. Web. 1999. Accessed April 4, 2014.

C is for Zen Cho

{For the full alphabet of intersectional feminism in romance, click here.} Let me not even pretend I can write with perfect objectivity about author Zen Cho's The Perilous Life of Jade Yeo. It has been a long time since a book has charmed me so thoroughly, on so many levels. This Dear Author review by Sunita sums it up nicely: "It’s frothy but not at all insubstantial. Rather, it’s effervescent and sparkling like Champagne; it goes down easy, feels like something special, and tastes complex and subtle." I love champagne, both as a beverage and as a metaphor for intoxicating prose, so this was precisely to my liking.

Oh, there will be so many spoilers in the paragraphs ahead.

Jade (Geok Huay) Yeo is a Malayan writer of Chinese descent, living and working in 1920s London. She has a Dorothy-Parkerish keenness of voice, self-deprecating and self-confident by turns. She writes both articles with titles like 'What The Well-Dressed Woman Is Wearing' and literary pieces for the Oriental Literary Review. Her critic's eye is crucial to her story, which is surprisingly rich in literary antecedents for so short a book: Eliot, Austen, two of the Brontës, Tennyson, Dickens, Shakespeare, and Wodehouse are all represented -- and those were only the ones I noticed. This post and the comments name a few more.

But most significant are the frequent allusions to Jane Eyre, whose plot the novel parallels rather closely:

  • Our bookish and independent heroine refuses to be intimidated by a volatile, wealthy man.
  • The volatile, wealthy man finds her resistance irresistible.
  • The two begin an affair, but the first man turns out to have a wife already.
  • After a confrontation with the wife, our heroine takes refuge in a quiet spot in the country.
  • Our heroine finds a second chance at romantic involvement, with a less wealthy but more moral partner, and makes the choice most conducive to her personal happiness.

These are the broad strokes, though I could go on (our heroine has an overbearing aunt, our heroine finds employment through periodicals, Jade is one letter away from Jane, etc. there are so many it's really exciting I'll stop now honest).

Despite all these clues, Jade refuses this very comparison: "I had no intention of being anyone's Jane Eyre, particularly as Jane Eyre herself declined to be a second wife" (Kindle location 726). When filtered through a Malayan cultural lens that includes polygamy, the  catastrophe at the heart of Brontë's text -- the strong taboo against bigamy -- becomes something quite different. Jane Eyre in this context does not flee from a nearly committed crime: instead, she rejects a form of inclusion that would make her subservient, secondary. Western literature's meaning alters when it is viewed from the margins rather than from the center.

Jade's gently ironic tone should not prevent us from noticing that the state of second wife is the very type of subservience she is being offered by Diana Hardie. Again the threat is not bigamy or even adultery: the threat for Jade is being subsumed into a Western, high-literary, colonialist house; being subject to endless microaggressions about her country of origin; being "Hardie's assistant" rather than a writer with her own name and career. It would mean the obliteration of her entire self and experience: "It would be like forswearing rice, and only eating cake for the rest of my life. I couldn't do it" (752).

Sebastian Hardie, after all, could not be a more obvious symbol of the Western colonial and literary agenda. He is a celebrated author with a sexually adventurous lifestyle and a rampaging libido -- the perfect Roaring Twenties sheik -- the consummate romance novel hero. And like his wife, he would place Jade in a role as a sidekick. On their very first meeting, he refers to her as "Ariel ... Alone on an incomprehensible island"  244). It's clear he's  attempting flattery, envisioning the Asian female critic as a waifish, magical sprite who was rescued by a European and must repay that debt with servitude and gratitude. But Jade's not having it. "I'm really more of a Caliban," she replies. It's probably nothing more than a one-off joke, offered in a moment of social anxiety, but Hardie attempts for the rest of the novel to confine her within this persona: he refers to her as "little Caliban" (534) and writes revealing poems to her under that name. He has effectively colonized Jade, renaming her and confining her personhood within an explicitly English, literary framework.

It is never made explicit in the text, but I believe it's safe to assume that in this little game Hardie imagines himself as Prospero, a figure often associated with creative and artistic powers (not to mention God complexes). But from the perspective of a reader it is abundantly clear that Sebastian Hardie is a Miranda, traipsing around his island home, talking a great deal of nonsense about love, and wondering if the people he sees are real people or magical spirits. The role of Prospero is reserved for Sebastian's wife Diana, who is very clearly in charge of everything: "Being with Diana must be like living in a beautiful play written by a playwright of the modern school" (674).

Pregnant and disenchanted, Jade leaves the Hardies (and The Tempestbehind and goes to the country to have her child in seclusion. Like Jane Eyre, she finds herself in a place that operates on high moral principles and charitable acts:

Mrs. Crowther is a widow, but her assistants are Misses mostly. They are all very nice: they knit and are tremendously tactful. The food is British and hearty, and the furnishings are soothing, if plain. Perhaps they thought patterns might distress our minds further. (856)

Also like Jane, Jade finds friendship in this lonely place -- but while Jane finds solace in the puritan spirit of the Riverses, Jade is drawn to a fellow inmate, Margery, who suffers from what is pretty obviously clinical depression: she describes "a black thing with horns and wings ... that stares at one with yellow eyes -- and one can't get out of bed, but lies there and wishes one was dead" (910). Their sisterhood is not a literary-coincidental blood connection, but a sympathy created by marginalization. "I'm mad," says Margery; "I'm bad," replies Jade (892), but they do not let the prevailing cultural narratives about madness/badness impede their connection as human beings. Strict adherence to the plots of such narratives belongs to people like the Hardies, or to Margery's relatives, who privilege "scientific" medical authority over her own lived experience of her illness (933).

By this point in the book Jade has realized the depth of her true feelings for her friend Ravi, the editor of the Oriental Literary Review, but she has no hope that he returns them -- until he shows up in the middle of a thunderstorm. Jade is reading Agnes Grey and cites David Copperfield  -- another book with two wives -- to describe her shocked reaction. These are small details, but it soon becomes apparent that Ravi and Jade have each been telling themselves stories about the other, and that those stories have not matched. They get things sorted out almost in spite of themselves, in the charming way of all the best romantic comedies -- and since we're talking about the Jane Eyre parallels still you may note that Ravi has been imagining himself as suffering from unrequited love for an unattainable object, just as St. John Rivers does for Rosamond Oliver. In the course of proposing, Ravi reveals that he knows Jade's untranslated name, Geok Huay. Jade is puzzled, as she'd never actually told him this -- but he mentions that she had written it but then crossed it out on the very first letter she'd written to him as an editor. It is clear that Ravi has deliberately chosen to address her by the name she'd chosen to use in public, in London, in the literary world -- but he has not forgotten her real name, and in this private, intimate moment he uses it, setting aside the colonial need for a 'normal-sounding' (read: British) identification.

If Jade excels at subverting and deflating the narratives of privilege and colonialism -- her initial bad review of Hardie's novel, her refusal to adore London's golden boy, her refusal to move in with Hardie and his wife, her rebellious friendship with Margery -- Ravi "remembers the things one has said" (176). He is an editor, someone who can keep multiple versions/visions of a narrative in his head without contradiction -- and also someone who can spot the telling details, the places for improvement, the moments where a story's plot or tone may be revised. As Jade says quite early about the Mimnaugh review: "I was worried he would give me helpful critique, which I would have to listen to because Ravi's judgment is unerring" (87). Jade is constantly shifting between social and personal narratives -- British imperial subject/foreigner, good girl/fallen woman, literary critic/pleasure reader -- and Ravi is the one person in the book who can follow the thread between all these shifting stories. As such, he is perfectly suited to her, and Jade recognizes it.

And of course, in a truly subversive move that's like catnip for lit-nerds like myself, Jade finds happiness not with the Rochester figure but with a much friendlier, warmer version of St. John Rivers, who initially offers her a similar kind of companionate marriage (before the two realize their mutual romantic feelings).

Nobody's Jane Eyre, indeed.

___

There is often the sense, as Zen Cho explainsthat "that fiction by or about people who are traditionally underrepresented in Western literature is kind of innately worthy and dull." This perceived gap between reading-for-escape and reading-for-representation became a strong theme in a recent Dear Author thread asking what books readers were hoping to see in the future. But this is a false dichotomy, a lingering symptom of the way that non-white people have been Othered and limited throughout literature and history. I for one am thrilled that Zen Cho is hoping to write more "post-colonial fluff for book nerds."

She has also complied this handy list of Malaysian science fiction and fantasy writers working in English, for your further reading pleasure.

___

Cho, Zen. The Perilous Life of Jade Yeo. Seattle: Zen Cho, 2012. Ebook.

[Clickbait Headline About Romance Novels and Ladies]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sex and the Single Man in Possession of a Large Fortune

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Debugging The Bestseller Code

Last year, there was a onetime flurry of attention over a website called I Write Like. Everyone was delighted to throw in their own manuscript paragraphs and see what famous author-names came out—although the fun deflated when it was noticed that nobody writes like women. Today, on a whim, I entered the first section from Damned if You Do.

I write like: Anne Rice.

Yeah, I'll accept that. Plus, it means more female authors have been added to the database! (Though Virginia Woolf still writes like James Joyce. Nobody tell her—she'll be pissed.)

Today, thanks to Tumblr user myonetrupassion, I discovered a website called The Bestseller Code, which promises to tell you how commercially viable your work is. Based on sentence length and word complexity.

Oh, really? I think. And cracked the knuckles on my typing fingers.

To begin, I put in that same excerpt from Damned if You Do and selected "romance" as the genre. And what came out was this:

It seemed like a fair cop. I like the big Latinate words, and I throw them around like they're going out of style. But then I looked at the list of complex bolded words in red and had second thoughts. Along with "proficient," "dossier," and "unparalleled," here are some of the words that are considered complex:

  • lovingly
  • preparation
  • criminals
  • naturally
  • every
  • recently
  • separated
  • punishment
  • inflexible
  • certainly
  • somehow
  • understanding
  • anything
  • defense
  • soldier
  • amazement
  • imagine

This is boggle-worthy. I can't make myself accept that the word "lovingly" is too complex for the romance genre. And where would mysteries, thrillers, or romantic suspense be without "criminals"?

Just how do proven commercial successes fare against the algorithm, you ask? The answer: not well.

The famous, brilliant opening of Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice initially gets a 15.5 (as both literature and romance). When I switch to an excerpt of the scene where Darcy and Elizabeth are discussing his reticence (the "we neither of us perform to strangers" scene), the score for both genres goes down to 15.4.

An excerpt from Breaking Dawn (note: super-hard to find Twilight excerpts online): 15.6.

The opening pages of The Hunger Games (genre: YA) gets a measly 10.7.

The opening of Genesis, from the Bible, the best-selling book of all time (genre: Literature, probably): 7.4.

And—this really was my favorite one—super-mega-bestseller The Da Vinci Code scored only 14, with slightly more word complexity than the average thriller. (I am avidly curious to know what texts they used to generate these "average" numbers.) Bolded red words from this excerpt include: telephone, hotel, visitor, darkness, evening, and probably.

Ultimately, my problem with the Bestseller Code is not that they guarantee their formula will bring commercial success. They know better than to offer such a guarantee. They also admit that they are stretching the definition of "complex" to pretty much mean just "multisyllable." (Which—argh! Words have actual meanings! Length is not the best measure of complexity!)

But—and here's my objection—they suggest their algorithm can be a useful tool for revision. To quote from the website: "Paragraphs littered with red words should be revised to improve readability even if the individual words themselves are not particularly sophisticated."

In other words: let's make sure we have plenty of small words to give the long words breathing room. Let's never use the word "telephone" and "hotel" in the same paragraph because readers might be confused. The great minds behind the Bestseller Code apparently live in a nightmarish world where telephones do not come standard in hotel rooms.

I strenuously object to this flattening-out of vocabulary as a hard-and-fast rule. English is a rich and thieving tongue, full of stolen words and shifting definitions. It is a mutant, cannibal language. There is no need to fear complexity as such—especially not in a world where the dictionary is a keystroke away. But then, I'm a fan of Austen and Dickens and Melville, of Joyce and Calvino and David Foster Wallace. When I find a word that I don't recognize, it's an exciting moment, like discovering a new species of beetle in the backyard.

As writers, word choices define us. Hemingway told stories like this: "For sale: baby booties, never worn."

Joyce—sometimes—told them like this: "And as no man knows the ubicity of his tumulus nor to what processes we shall thereby be ushered nor whether to Tophet or to Edenville in the like way is all hidden when we would backward see from what region of remoteness the whatness of our whoness hath fetched his whenceness."

And, so far, quite happily, I tell stories like this: "Idared was proficient in the use of all the correct torture implements for a demoness of her rank, but with the whip she was an artist of unparalleled caliber."

They can have my complex words when they pry them from my hyperborean, moribund appendages.

Make Yourself A Victorian Doll

We here at Olivia Waite have a long history with paper dolls—not merely the basic kid kind, but the fancy and detailed presidential kind you can buy at the Smithsonian. Jane Austen paper dolls. 1920s flapper paper dolls. We had sharp scissors and infinite patience for fiddly tabs and zigzag edges. But the magic of the internet provides instant gratification, infinite customization, and increased safety for our scissor-scarred thumbs. So it is with great delight that we point you toward today's discovery: The Victorian Doll creation page on Doll Divine.

Here is my first try, which is pretty much me in Victorian gear—note that I am something of a bluestocking:

Here I am with blue stockings:

Here I am as a vampire:

And as an adventuress:

Leave your own creations in the comments, or on my Facebook wall!

The Vampire Sherlock

We here at Olivia Waite are a little old-fashioned. We like typewriters, and postcards, and bicycles where the front wheel is considerably larger than the back no matter how impractical that makes them for the hilly city in which we live. We are also therefore a little late to certain cultural enthusiasms, particularly A) the vampire craze, and B) Sherlock Holmes. And since we started looking into these at around the same time, they became kind of linked in the mysterious tendrils of our brain, until we came up with the following brilliant idea, that we cannot really believe nobody has written about before:

Sherlock Holmes could totally be a vampire.

A medium shot of actor Jeremy Brett as Sherlock Holmes, with a mysterious paper in one hand and his index finger pressed against contemplative lips.

Admittedly, most of the theory originates not from the Sherlock stories -- working through them slowly but steadily -- but from the Jeremy Brett series that ran in spurts for ten years starting in 1984. Of which I have seen every episode. And developed more than a passing crush on the late, lamented Mr. Brett.

Thus, without further ado: points of commonality between a traditional, non-sparkly vampire and Sherlock Holmes:

  • black hair slicked back from a widow's peak
  • pale skin
  • pointy eyebrows often raised to indicate a superiority of intellect
  • elegant clothing, but never dandyish
  • master of disguise, as either a bat or a working-class laborer, respectively
  • a predatory brain, which searches out prey in the form of edible humans or clever criminals
  • a preference for shadows and the city and not, say, country hikes on a sunny spring afternoon
  • eloquence
  • coolness of manner, particularly toward lesser beings
  • the ability to enthrall and fascinate individuals of weaker mind (cough cough Watson cough)
  • a general air of what could only be termed bloodlessness
  • a cruel streak
  • an addiction to something polite society finds distasteful (blood, cocaine)

There are a few distinctions -- vampires tend to commit murders rather than foil them, and are generally depicted as more popular with/fond of the ladies than dear Sherlock caught up in his Watson bromance -- but on the whole there's something appealing in the idea of a dark-haired man with a powerful nose and piercing eyes, flitting through the night solving crimes and drinking blood.

After all, if Jane Austen can turn vampire, anybody's fair game.