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.

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

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

Comments with further recommendations will be happily entertained.

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

“Thanks,” he said. “It’s mine.”

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

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

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

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

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

The Beekeeper's Ball by Susan Wiggs.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hiding from Hollywood by Ellie Darkins.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

12. A cute boy walks into a deli.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We just need to ask.

Batman and Bootleggers: For the Love of Lit Crit

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

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

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

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

A Good Man Who Does Bad Things

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

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

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

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

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

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

This metaphor struck me as being in extremely poor taste.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Two points:

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

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

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

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

Ugh, not this again.

A Bad Man Who Does Bad Things

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

Here is the first part.

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

Aida's response: "didn't."

(#NotAllWhiteHeroines)

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

Here is the second part.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

At least Batman tries not to kill people.

___

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

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

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

___

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

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.

Ecology and Uses of the Alpha Male in Romance

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

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

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

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

Another quote, worth unpacking:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

___

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

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.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And now, for f/f fiction!

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

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

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

___

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

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

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

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

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X is for X-Chromosomes: The Gender Binary (Part 1)

{Click here for the complete alphabet of intersectional feminism in romance.} Romance has a distinct gender essentialist undercurrent, as I've talked about briefly in the past. Men are Men, and Women are Women, and never the twain shall meet except in approved narrative arcs with guaranteed happy endings. Between romance reading/criticism and conference marketing and the thousand or so friends of mine who are having babies presently (another one since I started this post! no, for real though, the pics just went up on Facebook) and thus seeing all the baby shower pictures and gender reveals, I sometimes have to fight off the absurd notion that genders are like Hogwarts houses in constant competition and we're all just assigned to one or the other more or less at random even though many of us could have done just as well in Ravenclaw as in Gryffindor -- oh, god, and now I have this image of the Sorting Hat glomming onto people's junk and shouting out Man! or Woman! and now how could I possibly look J. K. Rowling in the face without blushing?

But ridiculousness aside, I've also started to notice the ways in which these false boundaries are asserted both within and around the romance genre. The performance of gender is repeated at every level in countless ways that reinforce the male/female binary, at the expense of people who don't quite fit within the limits of that mode of expression. A list may be helpful at this point, moving from the level of the text outward through the discourse:

  • Many a romance novel uses terms like "masculine" or "feminine" to mark sexual desirability and/or arousal -- as though gender is never inseparable from sexuality or is the primary basis for attraction (as opposed to honor, wit, charm, kindness, etc.). For instance, the hero who always smells like "some combination of Thing A, Thing B, and man," where "man" is the word that clues you in to the fact that this is a sexualized sense experience for the heroine. It often happens with heroines, too -- there's a soap smell (lavender, lemon, sandalwood), and then something like "the indelible essence of woman/[heroine's name]."
  • Many a romance novel mentions how the hero/heroine is desired by all women/men -- as though attraction is an objective measure, or as though gay and bisexual people don't exist, or as though the hero/heroine's sexual allure is a rule of physics like gravity or entropy and doesn't involve another person's desires or personal preferences at all. This often becomes a point of confusion for heroes in particular, puzzling over the heroine's resistance to their advances. "Did she not know his reputation with the ladies?"
  • Gendered euphemisms: "her most womanly places." As though gender were rooted in biology rather than culture and performance. And I don't know about you, but when I get tingly in my tingly bits, I don't respond by thinking, "How womanly of me!"
  • The improbably muscular hero -- even if he has no reason to be muscular because he works at a desk all day or because gyms didn't exist in Regency London. As though masculinity, social power, and physical power were all interchangeable, and a proper hero must have all three.
  • The improbably hairless historical heroine -- as though modern notions of grooming and hygiene were in operation in earlier centuries. (Google "merkin" if you doubt me.)  As though ungroomed femininity is somehow unspeakable, in need of mediation through beauty work. Someday I hope to find a historical heroine who actually spends time depilating with some gross pre-modern concoction, simply because that would be novel. (And hair removal has a long and fascinating history.)
  • The "kickass heroine" -- because she stands for type of aspirational womanhood that is inevitably tied up with the equivalence between violence and power that we see in the muscular hero. Fictive violence is in itself an inadequate rebellion against the stereotype of women's passivity and weakness. If we have learned anything from Quentin Tarantino movies (have we learned anything from Quentin Tarantino movies?) it's that power through violence does not automatically subvert patriarchal stereotypes. There was a moment from Laura K. Curtis' Twisted where the heroine claimed she was not like the killer's other victims, implying that she was physically stronger -- sadly, this empowerment comes at the expense of numerous dead women.
  • Heroines are often special because they are Not Like Other Women. Heroes are often special because they Exceed All Other Men. Either way, masculinity is the benchmark by which all characters are judged.
  • The term "book boyfriends," which elevates heroes over heroines and makes readers monolithically female and heterosexual. I've certainly fallen in love with fictional characters before -- who hasn't? -- but I think the fact that "book boyfriends" exists as a term while "book girlfriends" doesn't is telling. There is plenty of conversation around desiring men, but we so rarely talk about the heroines we want to hang out with -- for instance, as great as Alec Kincaid is in Garwood's classic The Bride, it's heroine Jamie who I want to actually meet in person, because she'd be awesome. Sweet and thoughtful and if a horse tried to bite me she'd punch that horse in the face -- she's exactly what I want in a friend.
  • The idea that m/m romance is free from gender roles -- as though masculine and feminine are the only gender options, and as though there's only one way of performing each role. (More on this tomorrow in The Gender Binary Part 2!)
  • The appearance of male cover models at conferences, purely for titillation. It is presumed that (female) romance authors are interested in (male) cover models, which is not universally the case -- think of all the lesbian romance authors, or happily married romance authors, or male romance authors, or romance authors who aren't really into the cover model type (especially when he's headless, the poor thing). Yet cover model appearances are always presented with a winking faux-naughtiness, the full weight of capitalist sexualization, and a great deal of pressure to go along with this imposed notion of fun. As though offering up cover models for readers'/authors' visual enjoyment were the same thing as offering food or drinks.
  • Any romance writers' conference is sure to feature a workshop on how to write plausible male characters -- as though men are interchangeable and can be built from one set of blueprints, or as though creating complex male characters is qualitatively different than creating complex female characters. As though we do not get a crash course on male characters in fiction simply by surviving a single year of high school English (much less college or graduate school). "Plausible male characters" in romance so often translates into "emotionally closed off" or "casually misogynistic in a dudely fashion."
  • The sharing of beefcake photos by authors on social media. This is a very complicated thing, because it is still a bold act for a woman to declare herself a sexual subject against the pressures of patriarchal culture. And there is a pure visceral pleasure in a good sexy pic that is very hard to deny: people are visual creatures. But I've come to believe that much of this photo-sharing also functions as performative heterosexuality -- not so much an actual personal desire as a show of personal desire for the purpose of community building (the "socially intelligible" part of this Wikipedia chunklet). Especially since the "hot men" thing is so often used as a way of establishing an author's personal brand for marketing purposes. This pattern echoes the way patriarchy asserts itself through the consumption of women's bodies -- to take one example, the sexually based bonding implied by the term "wingman," where the friendship between two men is cemented through sexual pursuit of women (who are then presumably discarded, while the friendship is kept). <-- Is this the most pedantic description ever of two dudes hanging out in a bar trying to get laid? Possibly!
  • Any time a major publication wants to talk about romance novels, they hire a male writer with little experience in the genre to write the piece. Noah Berlatsky's recent article in Salon (via DoNotLink) was not the most egregious example, and I do share his taste in romances to a large degree, but it adheres closely enough to the established pattern that I can hardly read it through the rolling of my eyes. I can only think of two exceptions to this rule, and both have taken place this year: Sarah MacLean's letter in the New York Times Book Review (about which she was interviewed at All About Romance) and Lorraine Heath's recent piece on dukes for NPR (DO NOT read the comments on that one, unless you are near-fatally low on blood pressure).

Entrenched gender performance like this means it really is an uphill battle for romance with trans or genderfluid characters to get enough mainstream traction to be noticed. That's starting to change -- witness the recent discussions of Painted Faces and Untamed -- but there's still a lot of room for growth. And I didn't even begin to approach the ways in which gender is not sex and biology is not as black-and-white as culture would have us think. (Useful search terms for those wishing to learn more on their own: CAMAB and CAFAB.) I'm still at the point of thinking about this issue where I can recognize a lot of what's wrong but have no map for where to go from here. I have said this before but it's perennially accurate: I have a lot more reading to do.

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For a real-world example of how the focus on biology-as-gender-and-sex is harmful and reductive, here is Laverne Cox being interviewed by Katie Couric, and her response to a particularly invasive and common line of questioning.

If you have not already read Cordelia Fine's excellent and most necessary book Delusions of Gender, I highly recommend doing so. It lays to rest a lot of the pseudo-science around the idea of gendered biology, particularly in regard to the idea of male brains and female brains being innately different. Eye-opening and keen and at times pure angry feminist fun.

Genderbent Romance is a young but worthy Tumblr I have stumbled over, that exists purely to swap the genders of characters in romance novel blurbs. The results are exquisite, and they accept reader submissions!

I am delighted to present you this charming piece from The Toast on Rules of Gender Variant Chivalry. Personal favorite: "A high femme must do battle for any androsexual in peril from dragon or Frenchman."

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V is for Vorkosigans, eVentually

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

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

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

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

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

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J is for Eloisa James

{For the full alphabet of intersectional feminism in romance, click here!} I knew when I started reading that Eloisa James' The Duke is Mine takes its inspiration from the Princess and the Pea, but halfway into the second chapter I was getting irresistible literary flashes of quite another story. (If the comment thread from the Dear Author review is anything to go by, I'm not alone in suspecting this text of being allusive even when I don't immediately recognize the references.) So I stopped, put the book down, grabbed my handy annotated copy of Through the Looking-Glassand had myself a quick re-read to look for connections.

Cover image for The Duke is Mine by Eloisa James. A pale-skinned woman with dark hair and a gold gown rucked up around her knees lounges back on a pile of mattresses that extend to the bottom edge of the cover. The mattresses have a variety of multicolored patterns.Building elaborate bridges between texts is one of my favorite games -- as we saw with Jade Yeo -- and it was a lifeline here, since without a secondary structure to prop it up this book has all the heft and resilience of antique tissue paper in a hurricane. Reading it with Looking-Glass in mind gives the story more resonance but not more meaning, and does nothing to mitigate the exploitative way the text treats its disabled secondary character, Rupert Blakemore, Marquess of Montsurrey.

Like much of Lewis Carroll's work, The Duke is Mine is lively, full of wordplay, and often shockingly cruel. Brief moments of connection between the texts pop up on virtually every page: rabbits, madness, mazes, math, pompous moral maxims, nonsense, riddles, and a sense of the world as incomprehensible to those who inhabit it.  I'm no Carroll scholar (the intensity of the absurdity tires me out) and not all of these parallels are relevant to my project at the moment, so I will attempt to be concise. (Good luck, self.) Olivia Lytton is a grown-up Alice: she delights in wordplay for wordplay's sake, she refuses to be intimidated by those in power, and she frequently has poetry recited at her. After she crosses into the mirror world, Alice's goal as a pawn is to cross the chess-board and be queened; similarly, Olivia has been "duchified" (James, Kindle location 147) in preparation for her to assume the position of duchess, which is explicitly equated with royalty: "a coronet was as good as a crown" (38). The proper instrument of transformation, according to Olivia's mother, is a book known as The Mirror of Compliments:

"'Dignity, virtue, affability, and bearing,'" Mrs. Lytton recited over and over, turning it into a nursery rhyme.

Georgiana would glance at the glass, checking her dignified bearing and affable expression.

Olivia would sing back to her mother: "Debility, vanity, absurdity, and ... brainlessness!" (176)

This kind of word-twisting is highly reminiscent of the Looking-Glass world, whether it's the Gnat's animal puns (Carroll 149-152) or Humpty-Dumpty's nonsense etymologies (184-189). Carroll's use of madness as metaphor is universalizing and inclusive, e.g. "We're all mad here," though admittedly that's from Wonderland rather than Looking-Glass. There's a sense that everyone in the Looking-Glass world is susceptible to madness, with different symptoms from different people at different times. Alice, for instance, forgets her name in one chapter, and while this is a source of some anxiety it is not considered a stain on her character, merely an effect of the peculiar Looking-Glass landscape. In contrast, Ms. James' text makes intellectual ability a moral value rather than a simple descriptor or a function of an otherworldly geography. Antagonists are frequently brainless (Lady Althea) or else they mistake self-importance for wisdom (the Duchess of Sconce, Lady Cecily). On the 'heroic' side, Olivia has her gift for witty banter, her twin Georgiana is a keen would-be scientist, and hero Quin is a mathematical genius. Meanwhile, Olivia's fiancé Rupert is reviled and belittled and pitied and scorned for his mental disability -- until he turns out to have a flair for military strategy, whereupon he is hailed as a national hero. (More on this later.)

The way Rupert's disability is treated in this book is shameful on so many levels that it took my breath away. There is absolutely zero narrative purpose to the early scene where Olivia and Rupert are forced to attempt a consummation of their betrothal -- no, let me use language more frank: Olivia and Rupert are forced to try to fuck one another for the social satisfaction of their parents. It does not go well, and the best thing I can say about this scene is that at least there is no penetration. I am not against uncomfortable elements in romance -- if anything, I think the genre could do with a little messification. I just want my discomfort to have a purpose in the story: consequences for plot or for character. The only purpose in this scene, however, appears to be Look how unpleasant sex with this person could be. Which ... doesn't really need spelling out at such length or so grotesquely. Rupert doesn't have to have his limp penis in his hand for us to know that he's the wrong partner for Olivia. The significant poem Rupert recites during this passage could have been delivered in any number of less appalling ways. Quin later calls this a "double rape" (James 4490) and he is absolutely correct. It made me feel complicit in a crime just by reading it, and I expected better from a writer whose work I have long admired for its intelligence and liveliness. But apparently this kind of rank humiliation of major characters does nothing to tarnish a story, as Ms. James has given her own book five stars on Goodreads.

Eloisa James gives her own book five stars on Goodreads.

Rupert's disability is frequently described in terms of eggs: he is more "akin to a duck" than a duke (623), a very Looking-Glass pun; his mind is "more scrambled than an egg custard" (2787); he lacks "a full twelve eggs to the dozen" (3719); he is a "poor scrambled egg" (5830). This metaphor combined with his love of poetry and obsession with military glory is more than enough to connect him with Carroll's Humpty Dumpty -- a connection I wish I'd thought about a little more deeply while reading, since it might have prepared me for -- SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER -- the bit where Rupert dies. Just like Humpty he has fallen from a wall, or rather the "battlements" (5754) of a Spanish fort, and he lingers only long enough to provide Olivia and Quin with an excuse to rush off to wartime France (?!?!?!) and indulge in some self-involved, mawkish sentiment.

The more I think about Rupert's death, the angrier it makes me. It's positioned at the climax of a series of narrative moves that make Rupert increasingly romanticized and heroic as a military leader -- moves which, in retrospect, were clearly designed to elicit my sympathy so that I would be all the more hurt by Rupert's demise. The fact that it worked, that I was devastated by Rupert's death, should not I think be counted a success. It is in fact the laziest, cheapest kind of emotional manupulation: this is precisely the pattern I hate about Nicholas Sparks' non-romance novels, and I don't like it any better for appearing here.

One of Rupert's men says he was "Babbling of green fields" (5680), and the Falstaff reference completes Rupert's transformation from Humpty Dumpty into Carroll's White Knight, with his "gentle face and large mild eyes" and talk of a "glorious victory" (Carroll 207) and, of course, his love of poetry. Humpty Dumpty is pompous and sharp-tongued, but the White Knight is a figure of elegy and pity; a sweet and noble type despite his lack of intellect. This transformation is, I think, meant to show how Olivia's initial disdain for Rupert has softened into respect and friendly affection -- but it is entirely meaningless, since she is softening toward Rupert's glorious reputation, rather than Rupert himself, who has been away on the Continent for most of the book.

Rupert's death also rather too neatly absolves Olivia from the responsibility for breaking off their engagement: she's never forced by the narrative to account for her less-than-loyal actions and speak in their defense or apology; she never has to deal with what Rupert feels as a human being. It's a betrayal of the narrative's original promises of tension -- just like it's too convenient that Georgie decides she doesn't want to marry Quin even though she's initially quite taken with the idea. By the time we hear of Rupert's injuries, Olivia and Quin have decided that all the reasons they shouldn't be together don't matter anyways, so Rupert's death feels cruel and unnecessary and becomes little more than an afterthought on the page: Quin, sitting at Rupert's deathbed, is so occupied thinking about his love for Olivia that he barely notices the moment Rupert stops breathing. I know many reviewers hate the heroine of this novel for being heartless and/or boinking literally the first man she meets after signing the betrothal papers, but I thought Quin's utter self-absorption in the face of a fellow man's death was a gobsmacking piece of selfishness.

Horribly, this death was imagined by Olivia and her twin in the early pages of the novel, in one of the most callous passages I've ever seen uttered by a heroine: "'Foolish fiancés are often killed on the battlefield,' Olivia pointed out. 'I think the term is "cannon fodder" ... I would be sad,' Olivia protested. 'I think'" (289). This kind of casual indifference to death is common in the absurdist worlds of Wonderland and Looking-Glass, but it's breathtakingly jarring in a historical romance, even a wallpaper one. The fact of Rupert's eventual death turns this macabre early joke into a prophecy.

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As we saw with Sandra Hill's book at the start of this week, it's profoundly dehumanizing to turn experiences of secondary characters' oppression into a metaphor for your privileged hero and heroine. It's equally dehumanizing to kill off a disabled character for the sake of an able-bodied protagonist's emotional journey. TVTropes calls it Bury Your Disabled, and it reduces the disabled person to the level of a prop for abled characters' development or convenience. I really feel angered to have to lay this out plainly for a professor of literature in the year 2014. It's especially frustrating in light of the fact that Rupert's own story, of which we see hints, looks fascinating: he has led a band of misfit soldiers, several of whom are also disabled in various ways, into an unlikely and significant victory. This is a tale that would be worth the telling, a historical heist with a diverse cast and a unique plot. Instead, we are left with the old cliché of the Inspirationally Disadvantaged character, and his death becomes deeply, distressingly fetishized:

Rupert was buried with honors: not in the family tomb, but in Westminster Abbey, as befitted an English hero who trailed clouds of glory. His place was marked by a very simple marble tablet engraved with his name and a fragment of an odd poem.

A few years later, a young poet named Keats stood puzzling over the inscription one long afternoon. Sometime after that, a middle-aged poet named Auden found himself fascinated by it for a whole week. Fifty years later, an erudite dissertation discussed the complexities of fragmentation ... but that was all in the future, a puzzle that lay ahead for those interested in twists of language. (6867)

(I hate like fire the suspicion that the dissertation mentioned is Ms. James' own. Someone please correct me if there's a reference here I'm missing.)

Rupert's job in this alternate history of influence is not to be a great poet himself, but an inspiration of great poetry in able-bodied, able-minded men. Just like he is not to be a lover or a husband, but an object of pity and a lens to demonstrate the supposed noble nature of our hero and heroine. It was only at the end of the book that Ms. James brought attention to Rupert's middle names: Forrest G. There was a succession of swear words that erupted before I could get myself under control. Forrest Gump is not exactly an ideal representation of people with disabilities, but at least Forrest Gump fucking survives to the end of his own story.

We saw with Tessa Dare's Three Nights with a Scoundrel how having multiple disabled characters broadens the spectrum of representation. In theory we have multiple disabled characters in this book: in the afterward Ms. James identifies Quin as a character with "Aspergers-like" traits; I initially read this as "Asperger's-lite," and the Freudian slip turns out to be an accurate description of our hero's supposed condition. Quin has difficulty reading the emotions of others, we hear at the start -- but with Olivia, everything is magically clear. It's so simple! Problem solved! Disability conquered! Now if only he could rescue his wife from the garrison of French soldiers who've kidnapped her!

You heard me.

The last section of this novel veers off inexplicably into adventure-romance territory. I caught the Scarlet Pimpernel reference -- unlike French blockades, the Day Dream can't slip by me!-- but I did not understand its purpose as a climactic movement. It would barely be worth mentioning here, were it not for the bit with the mattresses, which I cannot bring myself to pass over sans comment. Olivia has been imprisoned in the garrison, where most of the soldiers are adoring young boys but one, Bessette, definitely has predatory intentions toward our heroine (you're not a real romance heroine unless someone's threatening to rape you, doncha know). So how do the young soldiers propose to defend Olivia? By putting her on top of a stack of fourteen mattresses in her cell.

You heard me.

The logic of this strategy absolutely requires quoting:

"We thought that it looked too much like a bed with just one or two mattresses."

"It is a bed."

"Yes, but if it looked like a bed, there was the chance that Bessette might decide to ..." He waved his hand, embarrassed. "You'd be there, you see, on a bed. But this way it is difficult to reach you."

"You are brilliant," Olivia said sincerely. (6447)

I am seized with quiet horror at the thought that, even in jest, someone believes that sexual predators can be thwarted by a giant-ass stack of mattresses.

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I have tried to form a coherent analysis of the mechanics of this novel, but that is hard to do when so many pieces of the narrative do not seem to fit with one another. This book reads as though the author is moving pieces around on a chessboard, making clever patterns and shapes that reference other stories (I spotted a few, including to my shame the Justin Bieber lyrics; Ms. James confirms many other allusions in her afterword). But none of those shapes seem to have anything to do with one another, making for a very shallow reading experience. And like Carroll's stories and poems, that cutting edge of cruelty at the expense of the vulnerable is never quite blunted.

Update: After I posted the above, Eloisa James has removed her own review of this book from Goodreads. 

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As I've mentioned before, Love in the Margins does excellent posts about disability in romance, among many other topics. There's also the Disability 101 series at great feminist site Shakesville, and this very illuminating Tumblr post from Shit Ableist's Say 

For a great breakdown of the many, many problems with framing narratives of disabled people as 'inspiration porn,' please enjoy "Kevin Grow and Disability as Inspiration" by s. e. smith from Disability Intersections.

___ James, Eloisa. The Duke is Mine. New York: Avon Books, 2011. Ebook.

Carroll, Lewis. Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass. London: Penguin Books, 2009. Print book.

B is for Beverly Jenkins

{Click here for the full alphabet of intersectional feminism in romance.} Ask anyone who knows: they'll tell you Beverly Jenkins is the queen of African-American historical romance. I've had Destiny's Embrace sitting in my TBR pile forever, just waiting for me to pick it up. And I finally did! And ... I didn't like it.

Cover image for Destiny's Embrace by Beverly Jenkins. Pastoral background. A dark-skinned, dark-haired woman lounges on her right elbow facing away. Her light blue gown is undone to bare her long back. Facing her and the viewer is a dark-skinned, dark-haired shirtless man, gazing into her eyes with heroic intensity. Pink text above reads BEVERLY JENKINS. Yellow text below reads DESTINY'S EMBRACE.Let's be clear: this is mostly a matter of personal preference. Destiny's Embrace is a romance in a very classic mold: virgin heroine resplendent with niceness, alpha hero terrified of commitment, cast of secondary characters whose goodness is directly related to how much they help or are sympathetic to our protagonists. Plenty of conflicts are foreshadowed -- the heroine's abusive mother in Philadelphia, the hero's current mistress, the sinister neighboring rancher who's busting down fences to poach water he doesn't have the rights to -- but all these problems are resolved in a single scene each, and none of the solutions have any consequences or repercussions.

In short, I was bored silly.

This unsettled me so much -- was it due to unconscious racism? seriously, everybody talks about how much they like Beverly Jenkins -- that I bought and read another book of hers, Vivid, for comparison.

Cover image for Vivid by Beverly Jenkins. A flowery landscape. A shirtless man with dark skin stands behind a dark-skinned woman, his hands on her upper arms, his face tilted down toward hers. The woman wears a white gown with a red sash. Her eyes are closed, her shoulders are bare, and she is leaning back into the man's chest. Pink text reads BEVERLY JENKINS in the upper right and VIVID across the bottom edge.I liked Vivid a great deal more, not least because the heroine's goal was more concrete and emotionally plausible, but in many ways it felt like the same book with the same basic underpinnings. Like a book that had kept its boned corset but changed the color of its gown. And that book is one I've read before, over and over, in many a historical romance over the years. In fact, I checked the publication date on Destiny's Embrace to make sure it was published recently and was not a reissue from the late 80s. (It wasn't.) It's a very familiar romance type, and it is very much not my bag.

This is not necessarily something Beverly Jenkins needs to change. For one thing, she has a thousand awards, a passionate following, and can cheerfully ignore the opinions of a newbie author of weird erotic paranormal historicals.

For another, I kept remembering part of this Ann Leckie post about tradition and inclusion in genre ficion:

And the whole “escape the suffocating weight of Tradition!” thing doesn’t look the same from every angle. Consider that for women, POC, and LGBTQ writers the question of forebears and tradition can be a fraught one. “She wrote it, but she’s an anomaly.” Such writers have either been denied their own tradition by this kind of erasure, or have been repeatedly erased from the dominant one. To some of us, belonging to a tradition is a valuable and hard-won thing.

I had a similar thought two years ago when I discussed a contemporary romance with a trans heroine  that felt old-fashioned and cliché to me: having a romance heroine from a usually invisible group who is written the same way as all our much-discussed TSTL heroines is something of a triumph.

And yet ...

And yet here I am, unsatisfied, about to think overly hard about these two Beverly Jenkins novels and the value of resistance.

My very favorite line from Vivid comes early on, when our titular heroine meets the hero's mischievous daughter and recalls her own less-than-proper childhood:

Vivid's partner-in-crime had been her late grandmother Maria, founder of the Female Plotting Rebelling Society. Grandmother Maria believed that all females, regardless of age, race, or circumstances, should always be plotting rebellion to better the state of women. (Kindle location 512)

The Female Plotting Rebelling Society! I was enchanted. I imagined something like a black 19th-century Michigan Lysistrata taking place (tell me you wouldn't read that!) especially since the text has at this point already established the parameters of a gender battle: Vivid is a female doctor, determined to build her practice despite the era's rampant sexism, and Nate, our hero, is a man whose spoiled and adulterous ex-wife has left him convinced that women are flimsy, treacherous things not to be trusted or loved or anything. (Alpha heroes can be so adorably fragile, can't they?) Sadly, the FPRS is never again mentioned, as the plot meanders through several seemingly unconnected episodes of suspense and family melodrama.

Still, this quote helps set up a fundamental theme of the book: rebellion and resistance are important virtues. The indignities of Jim Crow are depicted, and several characters speak against those racist policies or find ways to work around them as best they can. National politics are mentioned frequently and in-depth, and I admit (nerd alert!) that I was delighted to find a mini-essay on the pros and cons of Frederick Douglass as a representative of black experience in a historical romance novel. Black voters in the text are forced to choose between a Republican Party that has neglected them and a Democratic Party that has worked for their disenfranchisement and destruction; some characters stay loyal to the party of Lincoln, but others make a different choice. This rebellious spirit, defending the dignity and humanity of black persons, is presented as entirely compatible with patriotic fervor: we are not resisting the state, so much as we are attempting to improve it.

Additionally, we have our heroine's resistance to rigidly sexist gender roles as conceived by the inhabitants of Grayson's Grove. Vivid is an excellent doctor, well-trained and passionate, who saves numerous lives and spends her off hours reading case reports and compiling patient histories. (Even in the 19th century, most of good doctoring is paperwork.) In defense of herself and other women, Vivid speaks out against prejudiced locals, including our hero himself -- and all of them are demonstrably wrong for distrusting her abilities. Her resistance to the town's initial sexist skepticism guarantees her own happiness in her profession and new location, and it also ensures that Grayson's Grove has a trained and competent doctor for the first time in decades. It's both a personal triumph and a sign of social progress.

In fact, Grayson's Grove has a particular history of anti-sexist action by the women who live there, as Nate himself reveals to the reader:

The women owned many of the businesses, oftimes they voted as a bloc on Grove affairs, and generally they had their way when they wanted it. According to legend, during his grandfather's day the men once tried to rein in their wives. It resulted in a disaster so cataclysmic that even today Nate could not get any of the elder men to discuss what had transpired. The women won, that was all Nate and his contemporaries knew. (1328)

(Shades of Lysistrata again...)

Unfortunately, resistance is also especially virtuous in courtship relationships. Both Vivid and Destiny's Embrace present their heroes as generally irresistible: handsome, caring, moral  men who have dropped panties all over their respective landscapes. Destiny's Embrace is particularly explicit about this, and features this memorable line from the hero's internal monologue: "How dare she be immune to his charms. Did she not know his reputation with the ladies?" (3182). In my mind he was wearing a fedora for the rest of the book. Also from Destiny's Embrace: "'I believe you will be good for my son,' Mrs. Yates was saying. 'Other than myself, he's unaccustomed to a woman who'll stand her ground as you did today'" (1217). This was the point where the phonograph in my head began playing 'Gaston' on endless loop.

In both texts the heroine's unique resistance to the hero's sexual appeal makes her different and therefore more desirable than other women. Both books also feature secondary romance storylines involving an elderly female relative of the hero -- and these romances are even more adversarial than that of the main protagonists. Witness local curmudgeon Adam Crowley from Vivid, declaring his intentions toward the hero's Aunt Abigail: "If Nate can court a recalcitrant female, then so can I ... I'm putting you on notice. Before the snow falls, you and I are going to be man and wife" (3262). Note the absence of a question mark or any suggestion that Abigail is permitted to refuse this offer.

The result of such a dynamic is that real, earnest resistance to romantic overtures is erased or at best transformed into mere temporizing and game-playing. There is a passage in Destiny's Embrace when local jerk Silas Cook decides Mariah would make him a fine wife: "She [Mariah] did not have a good time. One, Silas Cook kept referring to her as 'sugar,' and two, when she told him she was flattered by his proposal but uninterested in becoming his next wife, he refused to take her seriously" (3682). Hero Logan's announcement later in the book that he and Mariah are courting only infuriates Silas -- and the target of is anger, naturally, is the heroine: "Don't you hello me, girl. You led me on" (4111). The only difference between his and Logan's pursuit of Mariah is that Mariah secretly desires Logan -- but her spoken interactions with the two men are nearly identical in many places. Throughout both texts, female characters will express resistance or refusal to sexual overtures, only to have everyone around them chuckle knowingly and wait until refusal magically becomes blissful acceptance. Such is the textual, sexual power of the romance hero.

Structurally, the patterns of these three layers of resistance -- political, social, and romantic -- serve to equate the position of men with the position of the state, giving the world of the text a patriarchal authority that may be softened, but never completely overthrown. Black citizens resist the state, but are still contained within it and subject to its racist laws. Women in Grayson's Grove are educated and outspoken, but still subject to the tyranny of male opinion and control. That great passage about the prior generation of intelligent, active women? Their victory is hollow, because nobody currently knows how they won or what they were fighting to get (besides the vague 'not reined in').  It's a little chilling to think that because the men won't talk about it, nobody knows what happened -- why, exactly, can they not ask the women themselves? Male silence on this matter erases the effects of female rebellion from oral history as well as from living memory.

And female resistance to romance slowly evaporates beneath the exertion of male desire. Female desire exists, but it is tempered by both Vivid's and Mariah's (highly fetishized) virginity, which renders their desires less than fully active. The hero's good looks and sexual prowess frequently overpower the heroine's physical and emotional reservations in ways that longtime romance readers will instantly recognize -- unspoken attraction leads to bickering, arguments end when characters begin making out, etc. But because the sexual arena in these books is very much a sphere of masculine authority -- the 'let me teach you how to sex' language is everywhere -- the result is that feminine speech and self-assertion are subtly but consistently undermined.

Witness this climactic moment from Vivid. Nate and Vivid have gotten engaged and Vivid's parents are on their way to town to celebrate. But another stranger arrives first -- some weeks earlier, Nate had secretly sent out a batch of letters seeking a replacement doctor. Specifically, a male doctor, who has now arrived and proven to be lecherous and arrogant and generally gross. Vivid is naturally furious at Nate's betrayal, breaks off the engagement, and storms out -- but in the midst of her fury, we get this: "She knew she'd eventually be calm enough to hear Nate's explanation, but damn him, she hadn't reached that state yet" (4160). He has brutally undermined her career and lied to her (if only through forgetfulness, though that wouldn't make me any less angry in her shoes) -- but she's already putting her own emotions aside, thinking outside herself and prioritizing Nate's perspective over her own -- all in less than a page after the reveal.

We have come a long way from the Vivid of the first few chapters, who fired a rifle at Nate's hat when he tried to walk away mid-argument. Despite all the book's description of women as formidable, as strong, as troublesome, as rebellious, the narrative arc shows a process of taming, muting, and restraint. (And don't get me started on the hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold character, really just don't.)

This brings us back to the Ann Leckie quote, about the importance of the tradition for the marginalized. Black Americans in 19th-century Michigan were heavily Othered, and thus may have more stake in mantaining (a typo, but I'm leaving it) the politics of respectability. The excellent Trudy from Gradient Lair explains it perfectly this post; I'm only borrowing the most relevant sentence for my analysis, but please feel encouraged to click through and read the whole thing.

During the post-Civil War era and early-mid 20th century, the politics of respectability was viewed as a source of power or galvanization of Black middle class society, and a way to combat White supremacist myths of automatic Black inferiority associated with poverty and degradation.

I think it's fairly safe to say that Nate's urge to make Grayson's Grove a successful, thriving community in a racist country definitely leads him into some oppressive, anti-feminist behavior. Female rebellion threatens Nate's ability to counter the social pressures of white supremacy: his intentions are noble. This is precisely why intersectionality as a field exists: because this need to combat anti-black racism, both in history and in Vivid, has as a frequent consequence the erasure of black women's identities and perspectives.

___

An interview with Beverly Jenkins was featured in the inaugural issue of the Journal of Popular Romance Studies.

The history of the romance genre is only starting to be written, and black romances in particular are often overlooked. For more reading, this past February RT Magazine posted a timeline of African-American romances. There is also this Multicultural Romance Roundtable from Love in the Margins.

P.S.: If anyone has read Jenkins' Night Hawk and has insights to share, please weigh in!

___

Jenkins, Beverly. Destiny's Embrace. New York, NY: HarperCollins, 2013. Ebook.

Jenkins, Beverly. Vivid. N.p.: Amazon Digital Services, 2013. Ebook.

Blogging From April A to Z: Intersectional Feminism in Romance Series!

Lately it seems like we're all talking about feminism, diversity, and representation in fiction (and games, and movies, and so on) a lot more than we used to. This is marvelous! Even when we're fighting about those things, and how to do them best, and how not to do them. But there is so much ground to cover. That fact combined with my own ever-increasing pile of TBR romances by authors of color, featuring POC heroes/heroines, disabled characters, trans characters, non-Western settings, etc. has spurred me on to something overly ambitious and time-consuming and more than a little foolhardy. So I hereby welcome you to the April A to Z Challenge: Intersectional Feminism in Romance edition! Every day in April, Sundays excepted, I will post about an author or a book that features something other than the straight white wealthy cis able-bodied mold romance is so wedded to (see what I did there?). These will not be reviews in the usual sense, though I will usually mention whether or not I find a book compelling as a romance. Instead, these posts will be literary or structural analyses with a feminist lens, using as much privilege-checking as I know how to bring. Many of the books are no longer new, so if you can think of more recent releases that grapple with the same issues, please mention them. Comments on how I can do feminism better are both welcome and encouraged, while fedora-wearing trolls (should we trip over any) will be banished back to their Hemingways, Kerouacs, and Orsons Scott Card.

Some introductory remarks for the new kids: Intersectionality is an incredibly significant and clarifying term coined by critical race theorist and law professor Kimberle Crenshaw -- this page from the Geek Feminism wiki is a useful starting point if you're unfamiliar with the concept. Basically the idea is that different systems of oppressions (racism, sexism, and so on) cannot be understood as being separate and distinguishable, but often operate in concert with one another. A middle-class white queer woman's experience of oppression and discrimination is not necessarily going to be analogous to a working-class black woman's experience, since both will be systemically marginalized in different ways.

As a middle-class, able-bodied, straight cis white woman myself, I can't help but approach this topic with a hefty invisible backpack full of privilege (link goes to a PDF). Let no one mistake my thoughts here for anything other than my own -- I'm speaking to depictions and experiences of being disabled, or queer, or trans, etc., but I'm not speaking from such experience. If you'll pardon my ego, there's a risk of my centering myself at the expense of the many writers and authors who've done a lot of the work to help me get here -- breaking down racist narratives, pointing out homophobia and transmisogyny, daring to exist visibly in a hostile world, etc. Naturally, I will use frequent links to outside sources. Each post will also end with suggestions for further reading, so that while my voice may be the loudest one here -- insofar as this tiny one-author blog can be considered loud -- mine will not be the only voice heard, nor automatically the most authoritative.

It's possible I have bitten off more than I can chew.

The other criticism I anticipate is that as an author, I should refrain from critiquing other authors' books. I have addressed this topic before, but recent conversations (at Dear Author and Vacuous Minx) have got me thinking that there's more to criticism than just Did I like it or not? or even Is it feminist or not?

The question I most want to answer is this: What does this book do as a machine? I want something more about symbols/motifs/mechanics than the reviews at Dear Author and Smart Bitches, but something more accessible than the high-critical work being done by IASPR and academic journals. And nobody's itching to write that kind of criticism except me. So I'm stepping up.

In this blog series there will be moments of snark as a release valve for frustration, and moments of rapturous admiration for what an author has accomplished -- but mostly there will be arguments based on textual evidence for the various systems of character, plot, language, and story within the book, and how that machinery interacts with the genre's readership and people's daily lived experience.

The complete alphabet, insofar as it is currently known (links will be added day by day):

A - Malinda Lo, Ash

B - Beverly Jenkins, Destiny's Embrace and Vivid

C - Zen Cho, The Perilous Life of Jade Yeo

D - Tessa Dare, Three Nights with a Scoundrel

E - Vicki Essex, In Her Corner

F - Frankly My Dear, Sandra Hill

G - Gold Mountain, Sharon Cullars

H - Harmony, Sienna Mynx

I - American Indians, Native Americans, First Nations, Indigenous Peoples, Etc.

J - Eloisa James, The Duke is Mine

K - Jacqueline Koyanagi, Ascension

L - Jeannie Lin, The Jade Temptress

M - Pamela Morsi, Simple Jess

N - Zora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God

O - Overwhelmed

P - Cathy Pegau, Rulebreaker

Q - Queer romance: Rebekah Weatherspoon's Better Off Red

R - Robin Hood: What a Scoundrel Wants by Carrie Lofty

S - Suleikha Snyder, Bollywood and the Beast

T - Laura K. Curtis, Twisted

U - Katya Umbriel, heroine of The Pyramid Waltz by Barbara Ann Wright

V - Vorkosigans, eVentually

W - the Other Woman in romance

X - X Chromosomes: The Gender Binary (Part 1)

Y -  Y Chromosomes: The Gender Binary (Part 2)

Z - Zoe Archer, Rebel

The Ghosts of Christmas

Dickens' preface to A Christmas Carol famously describes it as a "Ghostly little book." Scrooge's journey is indeed full of ghosts -- the ghosts of memory, of imagined futures, of symbolic spirits and metaphors come to life. And death. Death is the hidden secret of A Christmas Carol, with all the attendant terror of the powerlessness and isolation of the grave. One ghostly vignette in particular is usually left out of stage and screen adaptations (even the otherwise perfect Muppet version):

The air was filled with phantoms, wandering hither and thither in restless haste, and moaning as they went. Every one of them wore chains like Marley's Ghost; some few (they might be guilty governments) were linked together; none were free. Many had been personally known to Scrooge in their lives. He had been quite familiar with one old ghost, in a white waistcoat, with a monstrous iron safe attached to its ankle, who cried piteously at being unable to assist a wretched woman with an infant, whom it saw below, upon a door-step. The misery with them all was, clearly, that they sought to interfere, for good, in human matters, and had lost the power for ever.

The book is remarkable for presenting many such scenes of tortured regret, but no corresponding images of Heaven. Do good people even have an afterlife in this cosmology? They seem to vanish from the world, never to be heard from again. Only the unhappy and the damned linger in the mortal sphere. A life well lived might bring eternal rest -- but good or bad, death inevitably brings a severance, isolation from warm hearths and loving hearts.

There are more than a few ghostly Christmases in my own past -- such as the one during my first year of college. My mom, sister and myself all came down with a particularly nasty flu, and my dad was in the middle of a lengthy recovery from a hernia surgery the month before. Later we would learn that his immune system was too busy fighting cancer to be able to heal other things, and it's hard not to let the memory of that news color what came before. I remember the four of us prostrate and miserable, variously nauseated or eating microwaveable pot stickers -- the only thing Mom could manage to cook before collapsing back on the couch with the rest of us. I've never quite forgiven pot stickers in all the time since.

A few years later, Christmas again turned ghostly when we lost both my great-grandmother and her youngest brother three days apart, one on either side of the holiday. An entire generation vanished in the blink of an eye. They'd been an enormous part of my entire life -- my grandma had poured me cup after cup of strong black tea, and let me climb all the trees in her yard-that-was-basically-a-farm, and made the most delicious applesauce you've ever tasted. My great-uncle was also the elementary school janitor who played St. Nicholas to all us Catholic schoolkids -- he made me my first hot buttered rum when I was (not quite) old enough to drink them, and was always in the most unfailingly generous humor. By the time this holiday was done, we were on first-name terms with the gentleman at the funeral home. We would see him again when my dad died a few years later.

And now this year came the news that my grandmother had cancer. A different, new cancer -- not the one she managed to fight off two years ago. This one is much worse, caught at a much later stage. She went into the hospital last Tuesday, certain that the doctors would have a treatment plan for her. I walked around for most of a week with fists clenched, absolutely spoiling for a fight. Then I drove down for a day to visit her along with with a broad coalition of family members, who are camping out in Portland the way they camped out in Seattle during my dad's final decline.

My grandmother passed away Friday afternoon.

This weird space of grief is starting to become familiar. I've visited enough times to know the landmarks and mileposts. I know that wine will help but Scotch will not, that watching Game of Thrones will be a solid distraction but watching Lilo and Stitch will leave me a sobbing, snot-daubed wreck. Time becomes an accordion, compressing and expanding unpredictably. Some hours fly by, while other minutes linger long past their usual welcome. I spent the entire trip to Portland and back listening to Welcome to Night Vale, because the eerie tone and portentous language seemed to acknowledge the weirdness and darkness in my own life.

Times like this we cling hardest to the stories that encompass what we're feeling. I keep thinking of the Ghost of Christmas Present -- the pleasant, hospitable, yet somehow fierce second spirit that Scrooge encounters. He's had "More than eighteen hundred" brothers, but he can't have met any of them -- they are born, live, and die in the space of a single night. (The way the Ghost fades away into sparkles in the Muppet version is particularly heartbreaking.) He is the embodiment of human warmth and holiday feeling, and he is terribly, tragically ephemeral. Mortal, even. What does it mean for a Ghost to die?

I think, insofar as I can think these days, that it's about memory. The Ghost of Christmas Present may not have met his brothers, but he remembers them. The Ghost of Christmas Past remembers everything. And one of the reasons death is so frightening is that it threatens us with forgetting. There's a shock that comes when you can't precisely recall the face of someone you've lost -- what was their nose shaped like? The precise color of their eyes? Photographs and home movies are not as much help as you'd think -- they are limited, incomplete. They don't so much fill the void as remind us that it exists.

We have to trust that the important things will still be remembered. The way someone laughed, or smiled. The gifts they gave -- and not just the ones wearing bows under a glittering tree. The inextinguishable light they brought into our lives. On these longest, darkest, coldest nights of the year, we night that light the most.

And we will remember, as best we can.

[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]

If You Can't Say Anything Nice, Come Sit By Me

Let's get one thing straight: I am a natural critic. I doubt. I rethink. I overthink. I was practically born with a side-eye. I love Project Runway and feminist critique and Dorothy Parker's hatchet jobs. I am one of the many romance authors who started writing because they read something sub-par and thought: I can do better than that. I dissect stories I love and stories I loathe with equal abandon, and I continue to do so as an author because you can't learn how to fix your own work until you learn what broken looks like.

This does not mean I am a negative person, nor does it make me a cynic. Quite the opposite. I believe, right down to my toes, that a negative review can absolutely have positive effects.

An illustration. Some years back, I was reading a young adult novel. (This one, in fact.) I was thoroughly enjoying myself: the narrator was hilarious and slightly bitter and awkward and had an incongruous love of classic rock records. At one point in the book, quite as a throwaway, he mentions that the Doors are the worst band in history.

The Doors, of course, are one of the great rock legends of the psychedelic era. They still get radio play over half a century later. Val Kilmer played their (tragic, drugged-out, idolized) frontman in a movie once, and there was a recent documentary about them that was supposed to be pretty good. And yet ...

The Doors are the worst band in history.

... And yet I kind of hate them. "People are Strange" is pretty great. "Touch Me" can be fun. But "Hello, I Love You"? That is some deep-fried faux-romantic sleaze right there, the kind of song only douchebags get laid to, the lyrics drenched in the lurid musk of the creeper. I realized now I'd hated the Doors for years, in a furtive and guilty silence. I hadn't felt permitted to confess this, because the Doors were supposed to be great. Their popularity and influence were presented as an objective measure of their inherent artistic worth, and my own individual tastes and preferences were trivial considerations. Who the hell did I think I was, that I could hate the Doors?

The Doors are the worst band in history.

It was like a bell had sounded, deep in some part of me I hadn't dared to acknowledge. I was allowed to hate the Doors. I was allowed to say that I hate the Doors. I actually closed the book and hugged it, wrapped my arms right around it, letting that sense of relief and freedom and the pure pleasure of not being alone fill me up until, swear to God, I cried.

Critiques, snarky book reviews, live-tweets like the recent #NobodysBabyButMine hashtag -- all these have, over the years, given me that same sweet release. Knowing that I am not alone in rejecting alphahole heroes and humiliated heroines, or in finding a lot of what goes on in paranormal romance super-creepy. (Fated mates? UGH UGH UGH.) And I have given as well as received: I recall in my pre-author days, writing a frustrated and intensely disappointed Goodreads review of one highly anticipated romance. Right up until I deleted that account, every few days would bring a notification that some other Goodreads user had liked that review. Some of them even commented, chiming in with relief: Oh, I hated this one too! I'm so glad you wrote this! I am not alone. I am not crazy. I just did not like this particular book. 

That book, as it happened, was the first in a series, and the author has not only continued the series but won a Rita for one of the later installments. My embittered review did absolutely nothing to hurt her career -- and I wouldn't have wanted it to. I didn't swear when I saw her listed as a winner, I didn't rush to the blog to write a thousand words on why this was a miscarriage of justice. I didn't send her a copy of the review, either, or write to tell her personally how let down I was. No, I was busy reading something else, something I probably loved, while she was earning a ton of royalties on a popular series.

All that is pretty okay by me.

My review tendencies have changed a bit, now that I'm in the author end of the pool. If a new book by a debut author from a tiny press doesn't work for me, I'll usually let it pass in silence. Always punch up; never punch down. Luckily for me, I'm small potatoes, so there's plenty of room in the up direction and I can vent my spleen with the knowledge that I'm in no position to do damage. Plus, there's always the legions of passionate readers and critics, amateur and professional and academic alike, writing those witty, sharp, observant pieces that do my venting for me.

But perhaps you, fellow author, are big potatoes. Perhaps you are an author so well-known and established that I can refer to you by the three letters of your initials, or simply your first name, and people will know at once who I'm talking about. Perhaps you were a bit stung that someone from a much less rarefied position in the book world had expressed displeasure at one part of your life's work, and you expressed that hurt publicly. You have every right to do so -- speaking short, brutal truths is precisely what Twitter is for. 

But I'm not part of your sisterhood. I'm going to be over here, reading those snarky tweets and gleefully agreeing with them. Not because I'm jealous of success and need to see big names cast down -- but rather because I don't believe negative reactions automatically have negative effects. Because I believe the culture of positivity is often suffocating and silencing, and I have been silent longer than I'd like. If we allow ourselves only nice things to say, we shortchange ourselves, our readers, and our genre. If we don't talk about what books let us down, we're going to find it harder to talk about what books lift us up. Criticism is a muscle and it needs balanced exercise.

And the Doors are still the worst band in history.

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.