That Villain Love

"Romance," says James Scott Bell in Writing Great Fiction: Self-Editing and Revision, "is about the characters trying to get love." Every romance writer who reads that will cringe. Getting love? Like it's a medal you win at the end of a race, or a prize you earn for doing everything correctly? It sounds absurd. It sounds boring. It doesn't sound like anything I look for when I pick up a romance novel.

This kind of thing comes up over and over, if you read enough books on writing. Here's Steven James on constructing the opening scene of your manuscript: "If you're writing a romance story, they [readers] want to see normal life for the young man or woman who's searching for love." Again: love as a singular aim. Straight as an arrow. Dull as dishwater.

Off the top of my head, I find it hard to think of many romances where love is the hero or heroine's one and only desire. "Searching for love" is so painfully vague! On the other hand there are thousands of romance novels where people are desperate to stay away from love—books where a newly blossoming basket of feelings does nothing but cause trouble and mess up everyone's plans and lives and expectations. Love in a romance is narrative kudzu. It takes root and grows and grows until it engulfs the world.

Think about our favorite tropes: The widowed duke whose history of familial abuse means he keeps his emotions carefully walled away. The governess who simply intends to teach her difficult charge and live a quiet, peaceful life far from the secret scandals of her past. The cupcake-loving heroine who has her hands full running a small bakery and can spare no time for dating. The billionaire who thinks a committed relationship will only slow him down from being a ruthless competitor. Even in that classic romance Pride and Prejudice, Elizabeth's goal is not really: "search for a loving and worthy partner." It's more: "don't get railroaded into marrying total assholes just to keep from starving."

It would be far more accurate to say not that romance novel characters are looking to get love, but that love is looking to get them.

It's no wonder if writing guides leave romance out. The genre breaks a lot of cardinal rules simply by existing. For instance, the trouble with protagonists.

Protagonists, the guides tell you, are singular. Two representative citations:

  • "It's best if you have one protagonist." -- Deborah Chester in The Fantasy Fiction Formula (which features a glowing introduction from Jim Butcher).
  • "There is usually only one protagonist in a given story. Sometimes there are two: Consider Romeo and Juliet." -- The Modern Library Writers' Workshop (Stephen Koch), which will drop a Stephen King or Ray Bradbury quote alongside Proust and Trollope and Anne Lamott, but which apparently considers any romances from the past four hundred years unworthy of literary notice.

But in romance, multiple protagonists come standard. You must have at least two; more if you're writing ménage or poly romances. . The h/h, I like to call them, to be gender-inclusive. Multiple protagonists means mulitple central goals -- so romance writers are already at least doubling the amount of work we have to do to craft a successful story. And it's more fun for everyone if those multiple goals share either a plot connection or thematic contrast. Continuing with Austen as an example, Elizabeth's goal is "don't marry assholes," and Darcy's goal for pretty much all of the book is "marry Elizabeth." The conflict? For most of the book, Darcy is an asshole! Instant dramatic tension.

Sometimes you can skirt the issue by pitting your h/h against one another. Author Gerri Russell once said in a workshop: "If your hero's a firefighter, your heroine had better be an arsonist." (Sadly, I have yet to read any arsonist heroines, though if someone knows about one they should drop a note in comments.) The h/h are often on opposite sides of a conflict: the billionaire developer and the earnest environmentalist, or the playboy ballplayer and the uptight publicist hired to buff his tarnished reputation.

It goes deeper than just plot mechanics. Sexually tempting heroes in m/f romances are often described in sinister, overwhelmingly devilish terms. Hell, I wrote one romance like that myself! Pretty sure there's a whole essay about this in Jayne Ann Krentz' Dangerous Men and Adventurous Women, too. And of course there's Gothic romance, where the hero is by definition suspected of being the villain. Darcy certainly doesn't look like the hero in the first half of Pride and Prejudice. He looks like a pompous, self-absorbed jerkface with more money than manners, who destroys his friend's budding relationship for what amounts to shits and giggles. He looks, in short, like the villain.

It goes without saying that a romance hero can't really be a straight-up villain, or the book ceases to be a romance (no matter what nefarious trendsters are trying to sell you). So the plot solution can't simply be to have one H defeat the other -- romances where one H's whole world is destroyed tend to read like the rigged games they are. The plot needs to resolve in a way that answers both protagonists' story questions. The transformations of both characters must feel balanced.

Writing a good romance therefore means solving two central problems at once, in a way that is both emotionally satisfying and not too easy or obvious. Because if it were easy or obvious, your characters would have handled it in chapter two and never found themselves trapped in that gazebo during that thunderstorm, when the duke finally opens up about his tortured backstory and the governess finally allows herself to give in to the desires a mousy virgin never admits to having. And that night's outcome means the duke starts telling his troubled teenage son how much he really loves him, and the governess rebels against the suffocating role society demands she play, and both their lives are transformed by story's end. They do not end up with the same goals they began the book with; they end up with something better. Love always comes along to knock the h/h off-course.

See, for contrast, this love plot description from Deborah Chester: "Often you'll find stories where the protagonist and antagonist are in love with the same individual. In such triangles, winning a relationship with the love interest may serve as the goal and story question. Certainly the conflict will be focused and directly oppositional."

That phrasing rings all my feminist alarm bells: "winning a relationship," ugh. It has Nice Guy written all over it. How many of you suspect, as I do, that despite the neutral pronouns the protagonist/antagonist of this love triangle are probably men, and the object of competition is probably a woman?

Notice how this love triangle description actually makes the love interest a horribly static character: it implies she doesn't have a story goal of her own, but is merely a linchpin for the story goals of the two main characters competing to win her affections. Even when such craft books are speaking directly about courtship plots, the concept of a romance arc balanced between two equally weighted parties somehow fails to materialize.

This is a failure of imagination. A singular protagonist has a singular goal with two outcomes: win or lose, comedy or tragedy. Romance has double the protagonists, double the story goals, and the firm rule that both of the h's have to win for the game to count. And this is the genre that detractors dismiss as uncreative! It's like having an Olympian hopeful's flawless series of triple axles, Lutzes, and Salchows dismissed by the home audience because the sequins mean she can't possibly be a serious athlete.

But really the hero only masquerades as an antagonist. The real villain of any romance novel is love itself.

Love, much like rhythm, is gonna get you (boo!). It has to be treated as a character in its own right. You have to describe what it looks like, what it does to the unsuspecting h/h, what it forces them to confront, what makes them struggle against it, and what makes them ultimately turn and embrace it whole-heartedly. It is rarely kind to its victims. It makes them suffer and weep and work out problems they'd rather ignore. It forces them to grow, to learn, to take risks -- just like any worthy villain by Deborah Chester's definition: "the character most intent on wreaking havoc on the protagonist's life and happiness."

And maybe this is the problem so many non-romance writers have when they try to talk about romance. They think of love as this passive thing, sitting around like an artifact waiting to be picked up. Romance novels know love is active and mischievous. Love stalks in like Hans Gruber, prepared to blow up the building floor by floor until the h/h -- stripped down, bloodied, and battered -- finally come face to face with how much they mean to one another.

Love is such a superb and timeless villain that we've dedicated an entire genre to its exploits. We have taken something broadly scorned as passive, feminine, unserious, and profoundly less-than -- and made it all-powerful and irresistible. That is how romance is subversive. That is how romance is revolutionary.

That is why we need it now more than ever.

All The Iron Filings Line Up Nice and Neat

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

2.

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

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

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

Did you see the iron filings move?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3.

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

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

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

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

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

4.

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

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

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

5.

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

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

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

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

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

6.

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

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

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

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

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

 

High Stakes Visibility

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

That Pesky Empathy Thing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Note the stark lack of any empathy for these critics.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Emphasis mine.

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

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

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

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

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

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

It's that pesky empathy thing.

Our Dear Author

Here's a fun set of facts:

  • I am an Ellora's Cave author who donated to Jane Litte's defense fund.
  • I am an author who writes reviews (more like critiques/analysis really) and sometimes those reviews are negative. Like: really, really negative. Sometimes they're ecstatic! But: you know.
  • A lot of my (long and thinky) analysis posts have cited Dear Author, because they're a known and important voice in the romance industry.
  • I use the same pen name and website for both my books and my reviews.
  • Before I was published, and had no pen name, I wrote a few sharp reviews under my dayname, on Goodreads. They're still out there: I stand by them. One of the authors I know for a fact has gone on to write a series that won a Rita, so clearly I've sunk nobody's career.

So. Now you know where I'm coming from at the start. This is important. Nothing we write comes without baggage: the best you can do is be clear what baggage you carry, so people can take the necessary grains of salt. <-- Probably a hint about where we're going to go, so buckle up.

Here is the baldest, boldest fact I keep coming back to: Dear Author used to be a reader space, and now it's not.

Like many, when I saw the headline on that now-famous post I worried the site was closing down. I was initially swamped with relief that my dread was unfounded. It was four in the morning (Pacific Time) (I am mildly insomniac) and when I went back to bed I kept waking up and thinking I'd dreamed the whole thing.

Over time relief gave way not to delight, but to more dread. I don't give even a single fuck if a reviewer or author-reviewer gives negative reviews. Even snarky ones. Even mean ones. Someone once gave an audiobook of mine a one-star review that said "Too much sex" and I could have kissed them. This post is not about "bashing" or "mean girls" or "haters" or Jane's semi-mythical army of detractors.

It is also not about author-envy. If I spent time envying every author with a bigger platform or more sales than me I wouldn't have time to eat, sleep, or write ill-advised blog posts like this one. Yeah, there's probably some schadenfreude out there in scurrilous corners of the internet (comments sections and author loops) -- but thing is, everybody is not obligated to like you or support you, and I've never gotten the sense from reading Dear Author that Jane has spent many sleepless nights on account of people disagreeing with her, even vehemently.

So now that we know what it's not about, here's my question:

Where do the readers go now? 

Let's not pretend this is purely an altruistic question for me. Submitting a book of mine for review to Smart Bitches and Dear Author was a specific publicity goal of mine: they are strong platforms, with smart reviewers, and a vast readership. They are also two blogs I've been reading for years, long before I started writing. These are the two largest, most wave-making blogs in Romanceland, and even a middling review there could have a huge impact on any author's career. If you add All About Romance and Mrs. Giggles, you've got probably the most influential corpus of romance writing in the history of the entire genre.

Publisher blogs are materially different from reader-oriented blogs. It's disingenuous to pretend otherwise. Look at Carina Press' blog, or Heroes and Heartbreakers, just to name two. They are wonderful, social, frequently thoughtful places -- but they have a sales agenda and everyone knows it and they play by a slightly different set of rules. Author-blogs are also something else: storefronts, sometimes, or more rambly text-intense spaces like this one, or research bastions like Loretta Chase and Isabella Bradford's Two Nerdy History Girls.

Readers go to all these, but they are not reader spaces. Reader spaces are vital, and their numbers are shrinking. We need them not so authors like me can put books in front of them, but because reader spaces grow readers, and readers are the reason the whole book ecosystem exists in the first place.

Where do the readers go now that Dear Author shares a title with her blog?

To Goodreads? Goodreads is a cesspool of either vicious trolls or shallow commercial squee (or both!), depending on who you ask -- and lately they've had their own troubles finessing the relationship between authors and readers. (THERE'S that schadenfreude! I knew I could find some in me somewhere!)

The question we've asked but not real loudly, because we're all nervous about the answer: what is Sarah Wendell from Smart Bitches going to say, if anything? Did she know in advance? This question bugs me not because I want to parse all the layers of potential disclosure and obligation -- there are better people for that -- but because I want to know that one of the two pillars romance readers flock to is feeling the same things I and many others are feeling right now. Yes, there are many readers who are simply excited that two names they like (Jane and Jen) belong to the same person -- but there are a lot of us who are shocked and saddened and bemused by what this means for the future. For our future.

Dear Author may still be a reader space -- but it's probably no longer a space where I should look for readers of mine. I write erotic historicals and erotic historical fantasy romances (they're a mouthful! *rimshot*). Jane/Jen writes NA and has a penchant for extreme romance. When Dear Author was a multi-fronted reviewers' blog this didn't faze me -- but now, as I said earlier on Twitter, the space has become not a place to seek reviews, but another author's playground. I'm not going to invite myself onto the blog of an author in a completely different genre just to try and snag readers. This is not polite. It makes me feel cringey just to think about.

Much has been said about Jane being caught between a rock and a hard place in regard to this disclosure. That nobody would be happy with it, no matter what she did. But a lot of being an author, or a reviewer, is about choosing between two risks. Authors like myself have to decide whether or not they want to review other authors' books. (Some do, some don't.) Reviewers have to decide whether or not they want to give negative reviews or not. Both these are significant career choices, with consequences that may extend for years.

Jane's timing may have been forced by EC, but the choice she faced is uncommon only in scale, not in character. And, I suppose, in the fact that most authors face this choice the other way around: now that I'm published, do I review? Jane had to ask: now that I'm a well-known and influential reviewer, do I publish, and how? I'm not convinced the romance world has faced this particular question before. It's interesting, but it is not comfortable, and I resent being asked to brush it aside as business as usual.

I'm not angry that Jane Litte is Jen Frederick. I'm not angry that her books are doing well. I AM angry that I'm expected to be uncritically happy about this news, though, if I want to be seen as nice. Sondheim tells us and we know it's true: Nice is different than good.

I don't yet know if I feel this change is good.

___

As a reward for making it this far, and just to make sure this is the MOST ill-advised blog post ever involving disclosure, here is the very first piece of romance writing I ever did: my entry in AAR's Purple Prose Parody contest, starring the two pioneer missionaries my college was named after. It was submitted under my real name and I thought it would be super-embarrassing but then I reread it and oh lord I am so proud.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3. Because I already paid for the print copies.

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

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

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

4. It's my last chance.

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

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

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

Invisible Labor in the Publishing World

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

Invisible Author-Work

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

It's more fun than it sounds.

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

Invisible Publisher-Work

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

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

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

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

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

Invisible Distributor-Work

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

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

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

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

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

Invisible Bookseller-Work

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

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

Invisible Reader-Work

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

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

Now We Smash All The Atoms Together. BOOM.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

___

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

Better, Less Offensive History

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

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

Thoughtlessness can look exactly like malice sometimes.

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

DavidManuel1

DavidManuel2

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

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

Thoughtlessness can look exactly like malice sometimes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

I wonder what else I have yet to learn?

___

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

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

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

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

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.

Gendered Violence, Annotated

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • p. 19: Scarlett O'Hara

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • p. 23: Scarlett O'Hara the vamp

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

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

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

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

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

  • p. 38: Stephen King, Carrie

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

  • p. 42: Dean Koontz, Midnight

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

  • p. 46: Stephen King, Rose Madder

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

  • p. 47: Romance

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

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

  • p. 48: Stephen King, Rose Madder

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

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

  • p. 49: Stephen King, The Shining

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

  • p. 55: The Big Heat (film)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • p. 83: Stephen King, Christine

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

  • p. 90: rape scene

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

  • p.99: Stephen King

Stephen King uses Maine slang.

  • p. 101: sexual coercion and damselling

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

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

  • p. 125: Dean Koontz, domestic abuse

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

  • p. 130-131: Dean Koontz, Midnight

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

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

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

  • p. 140 - 141: George Eliot, Middlemarch

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

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

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

  • p. 142: Iazy writing

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

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

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

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

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

  • p. 149: voice

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

  • p. 161: Dean Koontz, Sole Survivor

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

  • p. 162: Stephen King, The Shining

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

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

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

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

  • p. 183: Stephen King, On Writing

Brief snip from King's book of craft advice.

  • p. 199: Stephen King, On Writing

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

Fuck. You.

  • p. 230: fridging: Robert Crais, Hostage

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

  • p. 232-233: fridging

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

  • p. 234: Stephen King

Brief piece of writing advice.

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

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

  • p. 238: Dean Koontz, Midnight

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

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

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

  • p. 241: rape: Dean Koontz, Whispers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

___

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

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

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

 

[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]

The Fine Art of Literary Theft

I had an absolute blast this past weekend at the Emerald City Writers' Conference -- the friendliest conference you'll ever attend! For some reason, they let me have access to a microphone and a slide projector, so I was able to subject a room-semi-full of people to a presentation on genre tropes, mash-ups, and ethical artistic stealing. The slides are very pretty (thanks, Slidevana!), and some bits of it may in fact be intelligent as well! So I thought I might post it on Slideshare and on this here blog, for those who couldn't attend the conference in person. There's audio somewhere, and when that is available I'll see about posting that as well (or at least letting you know how to find it elsewhere).

{Edited to add this one single slide, as a reference link and teaser.}

Screen Shot 2013-11-05 at 1.43.10 PM

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Enter our heroine.

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

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

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

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

The duke is clearly, unambiguously not the hero.

And yet our heroine is carrying his child.

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

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

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

Reader, I admit that I flat-out cheered.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She could steal him away. (62-63)

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

This is precisely what she does.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How Do You Read a Clinch Cover?

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

The Perils of Estate Planning for Writers

The lawyer was doing an excellent job at explaining the different structures available to Mr. Waite and myself. He'd clearly done this before, with people as or even more clueless than we were, and he had multiple color-coded graphs with lists of pros and cons for things like wills, living trusts, and everything in between. He was especially good at finding oases of clarity in the desert of legal terminology, and would occasionally spice things up by hinting at the ways in which the system could provoke familial conflict or trouble for relatives and spouses of the deceased. This was not, however, a good way to keep short a meeting with a writer. It was great fodder for a mystery plot.

"Your wedding ring, for instance," said the lawyer. "Right now it's yours, because you brought it with you into the marriage. But if your kind husband were to add stones to it, it would become joint property, because he'd put money into it."

"Really?" I perked up my ears. "What about, say, a family heirloom like my grandmother's ring? Would it become joint property if he just had it resized or polished, or would he actually have to add stones?"

The lawyer blinked at my sudden enthusiasm. "He'd have to add stones," he said.

"Ah," I replied, jotting this down in my notes.

The lawyer cleared his throat and continued explaining. I interrupted a few more times to ask about "trust mills" (a shady practice whereby couples are sold a living trust but the trust isn't funded, so that the seller keeps a boatload of cash and the surviving spouse is left with nothing on their partner's death) and sapphire mines in Australia (which I normally think of as exclusively opal country -- this was a bit of a detour, but really interesting). Soon we got into the meat of probate and post-death-of-a-spouse legalities. I waved off concerns about my own assets -- I'm a writer, so: what assets? -- and asked a lot of questions about the line of inheritance, trusts generally, the various opportunities for civil suits in inheritance law, that sort of thing.

And then, mid-note, I caught a sharp glance from the lawyer and realized: what I was doing was building up a pretty sizeable motive. This lawyer would definitely go right to the police and tell them all about my suspicious behavior. And then, officer, she specifically asked me to explain how to legally prevent someone from contesting a will. 

I'd better hope nothing untoward happens to Mr. Waite.

Ominous music.

Clap of thunder.

Shifty eyes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Romance Trope: "Any Man/Woman Would..."

Fellow authors and readers, I have a confession: the quickest way to undermine my belief in two characters' romance is to tell me this: Any woman would have [swooned over his angelic looks/smouldered over his muscular physique/gasped in astonishment at the implausible proportions of his wedding tackle]. There's a lot of useful repetition in romance, so it is not the frequency that bothers me. And I know you have the best of intentions. You're trying to demonstrate the impressive desirability of your hero or heroine in quantitative terms. The more people who lust after Lord Dudelypants, the more potent his appeal, right? It's Science (TM)!

The problem with this approach is that attraction is very, very individual.

Granted, I come at this from a feminist perspective, so when you say, "Any woman would drool over this dude," my immediate response is: "Not the gay ones!" Nor even the straight ones who prefer blonds to brunettes, or lean and lanky over broad and muscular, and so on. Both Daniel Craig (fair, burly, with a raw kind of edge to him) and Benedict Cumberbatch (dark-haired, thin, brainy)  are pretty well-known lust magnets these days -- and there's still plenty of room in people's hearts (and pants!) for Idris Elba (black, muscular, appealingly chilly) and Martin Freeman (practically perfect in every way).

Telling me that Any Woman would desire Lord Dudelypants translates, in my prickly brain, as this: It is required of all women that they desire Lord Dudelypants. It starts to feel like a rule that even I have to follow, a rule built into the fabric of the world.

Now, if it's actually a rule built into the fabric of the world, that's interesting and worth exploring. That's why I love incubus/succubus stories (including this one of my own!) and the Cupid trilogy of Karen Harbaugh.

But too often the Any Man/Woman trope is coupled with extreme gender essentialism. Men are like this; women are like some other thing; each gender is a monolith of its own, and never the twain shall meet. It's profoundly reductive and even dehumanizing to have every person of one gender obliged to slaver in the hero or heroine's awesome hottness -- regardless of age, inclination, or orientation.

In sum, like all the tropes I hate, it's pretty obviously lazy writing.

We don't care what everyone else in the world thinks. In romance, we care about these specific people. Show me how they affect one another. Show me how they get tongue-tied when the object of desire appears, or how they lose control of themselves. Show me romantic rivalries if you must -- tired as the Other Woman trope can be, I will always have a soft spot for the Caroline Bingleys and Blanche Ingrams of the genre -- but make those specific as well.

Show me why these two deserve their happy ever after -- and let the rest of the world go hang.

 

Stop The Presses: Tired Writer Cannot Write

Okay, so it's been two weeks now that I've been working full-time at the bookstore. Nights and weekends. It's fun, I get to look at pretty books all day and alphabetize -- I am one of those nerdy types who finds alphabetizing a soothing and engaging activity -- and help customers find books as best I can. Even the foot-killing four-hour register shifts haven't really dampened my enthusiasm. Except...

I haven't been able to write since I started.

It's not a question of inspiration. I still have all my ideas, I'm still doing research, still fine-tuning outlines. The stories are somewhere, waiting. But every time I sit in front of the keyboard, all I can think, over and over, like the phonograph inside my head is stuck on this one groove, is this:

I'm so tired.

I'll try to push through -- I know that voice can be made to go away -- but every time I put down a sentence I know it is wrong. Know, deep down in my bones, that there is no life in it. Everything feels so absurdly shallow, suddenly -- not in terms of subject matter, but in terms of my own engagement. And a writer disengaged from what she's writing is not going to write anything worth reading. Especially not in romance.

And it hurts, because I like to think of myself as disciplined, as determined, as a writer who works and does not wait for inspiration to strike. I've gotten stuck before -- who hasn't? -- but when one story is stuck another one is sure to be working, so I bounce from one to the other until the first one unsticks itself, like they always do.

This is the first time I can ever remember where nothing is working.

And it feels as though I have failed on some profound moral level. Chuck Wendig, penmonkey patron saint, would certainly disapprove. But it seems, to my shame, that I am somehow fundamentally incapable of working full-time and also doing anything substantive in the wordsmithery.

I tell myself to just get on with it. But the listening half of me has that same gut-level revulsion as when your coach in the sport of your choice looks at your broken ankle and tells you to walk it off.

Other writers do this. They do this all the time. 

What on earth is wrong with me?

In comments: please leave sympathy, tips, and any good jokes you may have heard lately. Bonus points if they involve terrible puns. You see what I've been reduced to.

Now That You Mention It, The Internet Is Totally A Speakeasy

{Background: people have been saying -- on Techdirt, more recently on Techdirt, and now in a thorough 57-page paper that I haven't finished reading yet -- that copyright enforcement is 'our generation's Prohibition'. I'll have more thoughts once I've finished the paper, but for now this is immediately where my mind leapt. Metaphors are powerful, yo.} Mickey pulled his hat down lower over his face before heading into the alley. It was an unpromising canyon of a shadows with a single rivet-bound door at the end. For a moment his heart stuttered and fell to its knees, trying to convince him this was all a terrible mistake.

Anne tugged on his elbow, her smile like a slash in the dim light, as bloody red as her dress. "Come on," she said. "It's only frightening the first time."

Mickey pulled his heart up to its feet and followed.

Anne's heels staccattoed the concrete as she strode to the door. At her knock, a window slid open just wide enough to reveal a pair of thoughtful brown eyes. Said the man, "Weather's bad tonight. Looks like rain."

"They say it's going to come down in torrents," Anne replied.

The window snicked shut, then the whole door creaked open. The thoughtful brown eyes belonged to a pale man with wild, astonishing hair and a self-effacing smile. "Hurry up," he said.

Anne pulled Mickey inside and the doorman pulled the door closed once more. A long hallway led left, then right, then down, then through a dusty cellar. A tuxedo-clad man took Mickey's hat and politely opened a second thick door.

Mickey stepped into a swirl of music and color and noise.

He stopped to try and get his bearings. Straight ahead was a dance floor, crammed with bodies gyrating to bootlegs of live concerts, lost tracks, and illicit mash-ups—all of which were available upon request from the cat-eared DJ in the front of the room. In velvet-lined booths to the right people were trading reproductions of famous paintings, fan art, and celebrity photos. One girl proudly displayed a sketch where Disney's Belle and her Beast had been transformed into Chewbacca and Han Solo: Belle's blue skirt and white apron had changed into a white shirt, blue vest and pants, and the Beast sported a bandolier across his broad chest. The caption read: "I want adventure in the great wide somewhere."

On Mickey's left were a row of glass-walled rooms with flickering screens that displayed the latest smash hit movie, classic decade-long television shows, and forgotten classics that were rarely seen outside art houses and film schools in the nation's two largest cities. Above was a balcony studded with couches and chairs, each of which held someone curled up for comfort, balancing the slender weight of an e-reader in their hands.

And everywhere people were talking, squealing, laughing, fighting, creating, comparing, emjoying. It was lunacy—and it was infectious.

Anne encompassed the whole room with one regal gesture. "Where should we start?" she asked.

Mickey's face split in a wide grin. "The music," he said.

Within an hour, Mickey had procured albums by Tom Waits and Otis Redding, things he'd purchased years ago and had since lost. Someone told him about some band called the Avett Brothers, and gave him a copy of Four Thieves Gone. He found a set of headphones and hit play.

Thanks to the high volume of the music and the excellent quality of the headphones, Mickey only noticed the police had arrived when they yanked out the jack. "You're under arrest," said the detective. His white trenchcoat fit his broad shoulders like the wings of an avenging angel.

Mickey blinked in surprise. Blue-clad street cops moved somberly through the room, but everyone else had vanished, even Anne. CDs and mixtapes, videos and Blu-rays lay scattered and crushed on the caramel wood floor. As he watched, one cop lifted an axe and brought it crashing down on a screen showing a gifset from The Avengers.

Meanwhile, Mickey's detective was examining his list of titles. He pursed his lips and whistled. "The Avett Brothers?" he said. "You son of a bitch."

"I'm starting to really dig that album," Mickey protested.

"Then why would you take money away from hard-working young artists?" The cop kicked over a stack of copies of Johnny Cash's At Folsom Prison. "It's one thing to steal a dead man's tunes," he said. "But a small band struggling to make good?"

"I didn't know I would like it until I heard it," Mickey said weakly. "Aren't they coming to town next month? I'm sure I've seen the poster somewhere. I'd love to hear them play in person."

"Why not just download a bootleg of that concert, too?" the detective snarled.

"Well," said Mickey, "because concerts are fun."

"You won't be able to afford concert tickets for a long while, buddy," the detective replied. "The last guy we caught with this many MP3s got a six-figure fine and community service."

"Six figures!" Mickey cried. "You've got to be joking."

"It's piracy that's the real joke," said the detective. "Like the proverbial bad penny, you criminals keep turning up." He sighed and waved one hand to his subordinates. As the police hauled Mickey away, he craned his head over his shoulder to see that the DJ had already crept back into his booth and the readers were back in their chairs up above. (Had they ever really left?)

Lounging in one of those overhead chairs was Anne, her long legs stretched out easily before her. She smiled and blew Mickey a kiss.

The riveted door slammed shut.

{The inevitable disclaimer: I believe that copyright is vitally important, but that enforcement of copyright has taken some ludicrous turns in the course of developing a practical law. Piracy's overlap with fair use, international law, and fan culture is still a murky, ill-defined territory. The metaphor of copyright-enforcement-as-Prohibition is initially intriguing -- we'll see if the historical argument holds up -- especially since it implies that popular culture is intoxicating, vital, and impossible to quash. But it also implies that popular culture is vulgar, morally dodgy, and may provide a financial building ground for organized crime. And I'm not just talking about bootleg Sopranos episodes. I'll have more coherent thoughts about this in future.

Also if anyone wants to draw me a picture of Belle and the Beast as Han and Chewy that would be spectacular.

UPDATE: Ask and you shall receive!}

Belle and Beast as Han and Chewy -iPad sketch