Tuesday, May 8, 2018

The Promise and Limitations of Hope: Courtney Milan's AFTER THE WEDDING

Where there's life, there's hope.
The darkest hours are just before the dawn.
Look on the bright side.
Every cloud has a silver lining.

I'm a person who tends to bristle rather than take comfort when someone offers an time-worn aphorism as a way to deal with a difficult or painful situation. A cup half-empty, rather than a cup half-fill kind of girl, that's me. Be realistic, don't hope for the impossible, and you'll be far better off than deluding yourself with overly easy platitudes.

I would have thought, then, that a romance about two people with irrepressible hope as the cornerstone of their characters would not have held much appeal. Yet such is the skill of Courtney Milan that she makes such characters not just understandable, but immensely sympathetic and appealing, even to one prone to undervaluing the Hufflepuffs of the world.

Readers of Once Upon a Marquess, the first book in Milan's Victorian Worth Saga series (2015), might recall Camilla Worth, the heroine of After the Wedding, as the missing sister of the Worth family, siblings whose fortunes and prospects dwindled after their father, an earl, was declared a traitor. At twelve, Camilla accepted the offer of a uncle to come and live with him, leaving her family behind in poverty for the chance to return to a life of privilege, complete with "gowns, lemon tarts, and a come out" (Kindle Loc 636). But the kindly uncle proved not to be so kindly, shunting the overly talkative girl off to some cousins, who shunted her off in turn to another relative, and then on to someone whom she barely even knew. Now, at twenty, Camilla feels herself fortunate to be employed as a maidservant for a rector, who only offered to take her in because he feared for her mortal soul after she dismissed from another household for kissing a footman. That the godly rector gets a full-day's work from Camilla but only pays her half-wages of course has nothing to do with his offer to help her reform her soul.

In spite of eight years of rejection, though, Camilla can't keep herself from hoping for something better, something more: someone to choose her, to love her. Rector Miles wants Camilla to feel her sinfulness, to feel debased and downtrodden; then she'd be easier to control. But somehow, in spite of everything, Camilla knows "she was the kind of person who, when dragged into hell, would hatch a plan to win the devil over with a well-cultivated garden of flame and sulfur. It wouldn't matter if it was impossible. She would still try. She just would" (1199).

Adrian Hunter's life hasn't been a bed of roses, either, although his family and financial situations are far more secure than Camilla's. His mother was the daughter of a duke, but was disowned when she married an abolitionist of African descent and moved to the United States. Adrian lost three of his four elder brothers to the American Civil War; as the youngest, he was sent to England to stay with an uncle, to keep him far from the conflict. Though that uncle was his mother's favorite sibling, he's also an English cleric; while Bishop Denmore is unerringly kind to his nephew in private, he will not acknowledge him as a relative in public, fearing for his reputation. Instead, Adrian must pretend to be his page, and then, when he grows older, his part-time amanuensis. Even goodhearted Adrian chafes at the pretense, but his promise to his mother that he'd do all in his power to change his uncle's mind, and "bring him round to the cause" leads him to swallow his pride and bear it (333). As does his uncle's continued promises that one day, some day, when the time is right, he'll openly acknowledge Adrian as his nephew. Adrian's brother warns him and warns him against placing too much hope in Denmore, but for Adrian, hope is intrinsic to his very essence.

At the start of the novel, Camilla finds herself foisted upon Adrian, yet another person in a long string of people who don't want her. Bishop Denmore has promised Adrian that if he does him one more favor—hiring himself on valet to Denmore's rival bishop, in order to ferret out proof of some mysterious malfeasance Denmore suspects the man has been up to—he'll publicly acknowledge him as his nephew. It's a promise that the ever-hopeful Adrian cannot refuse.

But the rival bishop, fearing discovery, manipulates maidservant Camilla and Adrian-as-valet into an apparently compromising position, then insists they marry—at pistol-point. Adrian knows enough about English law to realize that a marriage between two non-consenting adults is not valid, and would rather say "I do" now and ask for an annulment later. For her part, Camilla almost wishes the marriage would stick; Mr. Hunter is kind, and handsome, and defended her when everyone was hurling false accusations against her. And she likes him. In fact, it would take very little more to make affectionate, susceptible Camilla tumble into love with her putative husband.

Milan confronts issues not just of racial privilege, but also of gender privilege, as Adrian, as a confident male, treats Camilla with almost as much oblivious condescension as his white uncle treated him as a biracial man. That Adrian is, at least initially, oblivious of the parallels between his male privilege and Bishop Denmore's racial privilege suggests the ways in which being oppressed for one aspect of one's identity does not necessarily translate to understanding when you are unconscious of the privileges a different aspect of your identity grants you.

Hope is what keeps both Camilla and Adrian going in the face of multiple adversities, multiple oppressions, and what draws others to them. But over the course of the novel, both Camilla and Adrian gradually learn not just the promise, but the limitations, of hope. Sometimes, your hopes aren't ever going to be realized; sometimes your trust in others will not be warranted. And at some point, if you are to maintain your dignity, your self-respect, even your sanity, you need to insist upon your own worth, and stop listening to the siren song of "one day." Because those offering it truly believe their own promises, as Adrian finally realizes about his uncle:

He sincerely believed he had done everything for Adrian, because in his mind, Adrian deserved nothing and anything more than that exceeded his allotment. Likewise, he didn't notice anything Adrian had done for him. He expected everything, and anything less than that was too little. (4300)

Ironically, though, refusing to hope in vain may be the most difficult, yet most liberating, act of hope one can imagine:

"She deserved more. He deserved more. And just because the thing she wanted was impossible... That didn't mean she needed to give up hope." (3839)

Photo credits:
Platitudes: Prototypr
Anti-Slavery Act: Slavery Abolition Act of 1833 tumbl
I Promise: I promise one day tumblr

After the Wedding (the Worth Saga #2)
Indie published, 2018

Tuesday, April 24, 2018

FemDom with a Twist: Tanya Chris' MINE

I'll be the first to admit that I'm no expert when it comes to FemDom romance. But the books in the genre that I have read tend to depict submissive masculinity as heroic, largely in keeping with traditional masculinity: the submissive male demonstrates his strength and power by standing up courageously to the pain his dominant lady love so enjoys dishing out. It's far more rare, at least in my reading experience, for a submissive male hero to be portrayed as enjoying the emotional aspects of submission, of enjoying caring for and serving another, as opposed to glorying in the physical triumph of enduring pain. Which is why I so enjoyed Tanya Chris's latest erotic romance, Mine, a companion volume to My Guys (reviewed last year on RNFF). For its hero, handsome, unassuming, slightly goofy Derek, is someone who yearns for a girlfriend who will tell him what she wants, and who will demand that he give it to her.

Readers of My Guys will remember Derek as the unassuming bi-racial (Norwegian father, Asian mother) rock-climber who was drawn into an affair with an older woman, a woman who was already sleeping with his friend. At the start of Mine, Derek is once again unattached, but is nursing a crush on tall, muscular, white, assertive redhead Amanda, who has recently moved to the area and has become a fixture at Derek's rock-climbing gym. After noticing how turned on Derek gets after she orders him to tie her climbing shoe, Amanda invites herself over to Derek's for dinner. But Amanda's expectations for some fun BDSM times go awry when Derek greets her demand that he kneel in front of her with a innocently humorous "Neil who?"

Amanda's been clear about her own sexual preferences since her teens:

There'd been a girl, a worshipful, adoring girl, who'd followed her from class to class, jumping to fill her every need. One day Amanda had looked at this girl and thought, If she was a guy, I'd fuck her, and her sexuality had clicked into place with a single, solid thunk. (Kindle Loc 356)

And Amanda has also "lived in her own body long enough to know that the media overestimated the uniformity and blandness of the American male's taste. They weren't all looking for women who were fragile or stupid, not even most of them" (319). But even as an experienced Dom, she doesn't quite know what to do with Derek, who appears to enjoy being submissive, but who also doesn't seem to have a clue that being a submissive might be an sexual proclivity, rather than just a response to a particular woman to whom he is attracted. And Derek, nice guy that he is, isn't after a one-night stand; he's longing for someone to call him "Mine" for the long term. Amanda may be experienced when it comes to kink, but not when it comes to romance. She hasn't ever had a romantic relationship, and isn't sure she wants to start one, especially with a guy who is far more comfortable identifying as "submissive to you" rather than "submissive" full stop.

But as Amanda spends more time with Derek at the gym, she's increasingly drawn to the "sweet-faced, pretty-mannered, submissive boy" (579). Which to her mind is a major problem: "The problem was... that she liked Derek. The problem was that she did want to be what Derek wanted. And that was definitely a problem. Because she didn't think she could be what Derek wanted and who she was all at the same time" (839). Amanda assumes that Derek wants a vanilla girl—a bossy vanilla girl, yes, but a vanilla girl all the same.

Derek's so gone on Amanda, though, that he'll try anything, even a little BDSM. But can Amanda truly enjoy herself if her "puppy" isn't taking pleasure in receiving pain, only pleasure in serving her?  Especially after Lissie, Derek's former lover and current friend, insists that she's trampling on Derek's feelings, and pushing him to do something he really doesn't want:

     "He's only doing it because you want him to."
     "Yeah, duh. That's the game, Lissie. That's how we play it." She looked around for Derek.
     "It's not a game to him, Amanda. He's crazy about you, obsessed. He'd do any fucked-up thinking you asked him to, but that doesn't mean he wants to. I see how he looks at you. If you care about him, you won't take advantage of him this way." (2066)

If Derek is only agreeing to submit to her to please here, is it submission at all, Amanda wonders. "What did yes mean if he wasn't capable of telling her no?" (2396). Even if he promises "I won't ever let you do something to me I'll hate you for," can she trust him to tell her when she needs to stop?

There's so much to enjoy in this funny, heartfelt romance: Amanda's brusque self-confidence, and her frustrations with the lingering male privilege of even the most submissive of men; Derek's growing realization about, and acceptance of, his own sexual likes and dislikes ("He'd never wanted to own up to who he was, and so he'd settled for women who were bossy rather than dominating" [2611]); a scene in which Amanda teaches a younger girl how to physically stand up to her pushy older brother at the climbing gym; another when Amanda brings Derek home with her to her "normal" family for Thanksgiving; and the hilarious discussion between Amanda and Derek's mom when she realizes that the small Asian woman may be even kinkier than she is ("Although, you know, your Mom and I were talking about voluntary restraints, and it got me thinking..." [3087]).

And especially the way that Amanda finally figures out how to be sure that Derek's devotion to her is given with full consent, rather than coerced from him by her. A way deliciously reminiscent of the the black moments of many a classic romance.

Another romance for the feminist keeper shelf.

Photo credits:
Redheaded climber: 123RF
Combination lock choker: Le coq sportiv

indie-published, 2018

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Love and Sexism in Scandinavia: Simona Ahrnstedt's HIGH RISK

Whenever I get too depressed about the state of political discourse in America, I start fantasizing. Not about sexy alpha men, but about moving to a different country, one more socially and politically progressive than the one in which I live now. Especially one where sexism is far less prevalent than it is in the good old U. S. of A.

To, say, Canada. Or perhaps one of the Nordic countries, which, according to the 2017 Global Gender Gap report (published by the World Economic Forum) score in the top 10 of countries that have come the closest to closing the gender gap (as measured by Economic Participation and Opportunity, Educational Attainment, Health and Survival, and Political Empowerment):

#1: Iceland, 87% of the gender gap closed
#2: Norway, 83%
#3: Finland, 82%
#5: Sweden, 81%
#16: Canada, 76.9%

The United States? All the way down at number 49, with 71.8% of the gender gap closed.

So I was thrilled when an RNFF reader sent me an email recommending a romance novel by Simona Ahrnstedt, a best-selling author in her native Sweden whose books have recently begun to be translated into English and published in the States. What would a romance that took place in a country with far more gender equality look like?

Turns out, there's still a lot of room for sexism in that 19% gap in the opportunities and achievements between women and men in Sweden. Especially in the age of gender-based cyber harassment.

Reporter Ambra Vinter's career has been on the downslide for the past few years, ever since Aftonbladet, the popular news tabloid where she works, has hired a new editor-in-chief with whom Ambra doesn't click at all (maybe because she told him the paper had taken a step back when it came to feminism, perhaps?). The constant flood of hate mail her woman-focused articles often inspire is another downside of the job:

Twenty emails in ten minutes. Nineteen of the messages were hate mail on an article she'd written about sexual harassment at a gym, published the day before. She scrolled through them and knew that she should forward the worst to the security department, but she didn't have the energy. She had been working for too long now to care about anonymous misogyny. (7)

But Ambra's always wanted to work for Aftonblat, and doesn't want to risk losing her job. So she agrees to agrees to travel north to Kiruna, even though the small town is where she lives for a year as a foster child with an abusive family. Interviewing a tipster about a possible long-ago sex scandal might be worth the trip, especially if she can get the story and get back to Stockholm without running into any unpleasant memories.

But it's not just elderly Elsa and her stories of the secret sex retreat she and her lover ran during the 1960s that end up fascinating Ambra; it's a grumpy fellow in the hotel coffee shop, Tom Lexington, who has his own hidden reasons for coming to Kiruna: to try and convince his long-time girlfriend, who moved on after he was declared dead after a security job in Africa went terribly wrong, that she really should come back to him.

But Tom isn't the same easy, competent guy who left an already dissatisfied Ellinor to immerse himself in his high-risk overseas security work. Four months being held by terrorists have left him a shell of his former self. He can't eat; he can't function at his job as CEO of Lodestar, a private security firm; and he certainly can't avoid the panic attacks that overtake him without warning, turning him into a weak failure rather than the in-charge professional he's used to being. And he can't bear to medicate or talk his trauma away, far preferring to dull his fears in the numbing warmth of liquor. When Ambra gets stranded in Kiruna on the eve of Christmas, the two spend a surprisingly companionable holiday evening drinking together in the hotel bar. But when Ambra offers Tom a one-night stand, he ends up turning her down. Largely because he's convinced himself that "If he could just get Ellinor back, everything would be fine. He was sure of it" (30).

Readers are far less sure, and so aren't surprised when fate keeps throwing Ambra and Tom together. Even while Tom is up front with Ambra about his desire to reunite with his reluctant ex, he and Ambra find themselves drawn to one another, recognizing on some intuitive level that they're struggling in their different ways to deal with the very different traumas they've experienced. Tom gradually begins to emerge from his trauma-induced depression, with the help of an old friend, a new dog, and a woman whose directness is the exact opposite of his former girlfriend's tiptoeing around difficult subjects. A woman who makes him feel like "a normal man," not "a weakened freak or a violence machine, just a person" (277). But Ambra's only in Kiruna for a short time, and Tom's still too invested in the idea of being saved by Ellinor to leave.

Or is he?

There's not one, but two scenes in the book in which Tom ends up physically rescuing intrepid Ambra (although her endangerment in one of them was inadvertently caused by Tom). There's also a (male? female?) wish-fulfillment subplot in which Tom and his ex-military friend Mattias search out all the misogynists who have been cyberstalking Ambra and her foster sister Jill, a famous pop singer, and use their secret agent skills to scare the bullies into stopping and even apologizing. None of this comes across as all that empowering for Ambra (although thumbs up for the idea of making men be responsible for dealing with anti-feminist members of their own gender). But even despite these drawbacks, Ambra is not portrayed as a damsel in distress, but as a powerful, outspoken woman who takes it for granted that she and everyone else who shares her gender have just as much right to a seat at the power table as does any man. One of my favorite moments is this bit between Ambra and her (male) nemesis at the paper, entitled, arrogant Oliver, who once used a "I'm protecting you, vulnerable woman" manipulation to steal a story from Ambra:

     "Half my team's sick, but we have Oliver doing a series on murders of women out jogging. The unprovoked woman killer."
     "What does that mean? That some killings of women are provoked?" Ambra couldn't stop herself from asking. "And why say woman killer? You would never say man killer."
     Oliver groaned. "It's a good headline. Don't start with that crap again."
     "We'll take another look at the headline," Grace [their boss] said firmly.
     "Of course," Oliver said smoothly, but he exchanged a sardonic glance with his direct manager. (323).

Ambra's great at sticking up for women in the workplace. But the trauma she experienced, losing her parents as a child, being moved from foster home to foster home, and suffering an abusive placement, have her deeply confused about how to make personal connections, especially ones across the lines of gender. Another favorite scene is one in which Ambra tries to puzzle out with Elsa, the nonagenarian former sex retreat counselor, just what it is that men are looking for from a woman:

     "Men fall for a certain kind of woman, I think," Ambra continued. Elsa was almost one hundred. She had to know things.       But Elsa slowly shook her head. "Men aren't a uniform species. They fall for different types, just like we do."
     "What do you think men want, then? Really?"
     Elsa gave her a slight smile. "I lived most of my life with a woman, so I may not be an expert on the subject. But I don't think you can generalize like that. Men are different. Just like women . . . . There are plenty of crazy men out there, so there must also be plenty of crazy women for them."
     Ambra smiled. "That doesn't sound much like solidarity."
     "You shouldn't feel solidarity with someone just because they're the same gender. And stupidity has nothing to do with gender, it's everywhere."
     "So why do you think some women find it so easy to meet someone?" she asked, which was what she really wanted to know, after all.
     "I think, honestly, that a lot of them simply settle." (135-37).

It's no surprise, then, that Ambra refuses to settle, especially when Tom appears to choose a suddenly nostalgic Ellinor over her at an important social event. A man with a hero complex, a man who needs to rescue the damsel in distress in order to make himself feel whole—that's not the man for Ambra.

But can Tom redefine for himself what it means to be a hero? A man who doesn't just act, but who also feels?

After reading High Risk, I can understand why Ahrnstedt's been dubbed "The Scandinavian Queen of Romance." I'm really looking forward to reading more of her work.

Photo credits:
Why people don't report harassment: Dunya News
50/50: Mind Manager blog

High Risk
(High Stakes #3)
published in 2016 as en ende risk
Kensington, 2018

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Crossing the Color Line in New Adult Romance: Jacinta Howard's HAPPINESS IN JERSEY

I've read a lot of New Adult romances since the birth of the subgenre in 2009. But it didn't register with me how most of the NA books I read featured primarily white protagonists until I picked up a copy of Jacinta Howard's Happiness in Jersey, on the recommendation of Women of Color in Romance. Howard's 2014 romance, set at historically black Texas College in Tyler, Texas, opens with the strong first-person narrative voice and focus on sex common to the NA genre: "I wasn't having an orgasm. And that realization was a little disappointing, given that he was still on top of me pumping like there was no tomorrow. Or like . . . well, I was about to have an orgasm" (5). But the narrator here is not the typical white girl New Adult protagonist with which I was most familiar. The nineteen-year-old telling this story is Jersey Kincaid, a Georgia-born African American who rocks out on the bass in her band, The Prototype. And her story is less about the melodrama typical of NA romance, and more about the painful story of coming to terms with trauma, both her own and that of the young man who becomes immediately entranced by her after watching her play.

Texas College students
As the opening paragraph of Happiness in Jersey illustrates, Jersey's narration is direct, honest, and unflinching. She openly enjoys sex, but isn't one for boyfriends or relationships: "I just never wanted to do all of the emotional bullshit I guess. Too much drama and work with hardly any return" (114). In Jersey's experience, boys expect subservience and idolization from the women they date, things that she's not at all inclined to give. With her band and rehearsals, her job at a local coffee shop, and her grades in business management to keep up, there's no time for anything as complicated as a relationship that blurs the lines between friendship and sex.

Jersey's toughness, and her wariness about letting down her guard, stem not just from her personality, but also from trauma in her past: the suicide of her mother when Jersey was only nine weeks old, and the verbally abusive behavior of her Pops, who takes out his resentment of her dead mother on her, and who, when he drinks too much, tends to berate Jersey for being the cause of her mother's death. Jersey's best friend and bandmate Devin worries that Jersey's penchant for one night stands is a defense mechanism, one that allows Jersey to distract herself from her pain: "messing with these dudes isn't anything but you being emotional about other shit and trying to compensate for it with them. I guarantee you talked to your Pops today, huh?" (13). But even if Devin's "psychobabble bullshit" contains a grain of truth, Jersey has no desire to delve into it, not with Devin, and certainly not with herself. She's just fine the way she is, thank you very much. And cut it with the slut-shaming already, right?

But even Jersey can't help but admit that her attraction to the cousin of one of her bandmates isn't quite like anything she's experienced before. Zay, "short for Isaiah" Broussard, who has recently transferred to Texas College from his home in New Orleans, is one handsome dude: "His hair was grown out but cut low, not a fro like Devin's. It too was unkempt, but it was curly. His skin was dark caramel. But those eyes. They were piercing—and beautiful" (22). It's not just Zay's looks, though, but the look in those eyes, that draws Jersey: "He looked about our age, but like he'd seen some things in his life. I knew the look well" (23). In all likelihood because it's a look that Jersey wears herself.

Despite her attraction, Jersey insists on giving the flirtatious Zay the brush-off. But Zay, who has experienced painful losses of his own, recognizes a kindred spirit in Jersey, and keeps after her, clear that he'll back off if she wants him to, but equally clear that he really wants to get to know her better:

"I'm not a stalker, Kitten. Just interested, that's all."
My heart was thudding in my chest now and I struggled to breath normally. His words were simple, flirtatious, harmless. But it somehow felt like he was declaring something.
     "I don't know if it's even possible anyway." I shrugged, looking down into my cup before meeting his eyes. The sun was lighting his face again and this time his eyes looked even lighter, almost blue.
     "What?" he asked curiously.
     "Knowing someone. I mean really knowing someone. People tend to surprise you with the things they don't let you see about themselves."
     His eyes turned thoughtful and his signature smirk was gone. He looked at me like he was seeing through  me and I shifted in m chair, biting the inside of my cheek. I didn't know why the hellI even said all of that. I must need more caffeine.
     "That's true. But sometimes finding out, digging beneath the facade is the fun part." He smiled and it seemed more genuine than the others he'd flashed at me. (37)

Esperanza Spaulding: a model for Jersey?
I'm usually not a fan of romances in which the heroine gives in a little to a potential romantic partner's desires for closeness (physical and emotional), only to immediately back off, then move closer, then back off yet again. But Howard shows us why Jersey is so cautious, so wary, so that her moments of desiring closeness, then then backing off in fear at her "weakness" in giving in to her desire, make all too painful sense. How she feels that her Pops is her only family, and so can't stop answering the phone when he calls, even though she ends up feeling like crap after they talk. How she worries that if Devin starts seriously dating a girl, he'll have no more time for her or their friendship. How she fears that she herself might fall into the same kind of depression that killed her mother if she spends too much time being introspective rather than pushing forward towards her goals.

What's so unusual in this push-pull romance is how well Zay understands Jersey's reluctance to reveal herself, her fear of getting involved and then being abandoned, and how both patient and yet persistent he is in offering her friendship, even though he knows (and lets her know) he wants far more. When the two do end up crossing the line into sex, Zay knows that Jersey's motivation is less about love and more about escape from bad feelings. "Maybe I was wrong, maybe I shouldn't have let you escape that way, when I knew what you were doing . . . [But] I wanted to be your escape, Jersey, I wanted to be that for you, I want to be that for you" (179). But the fear of loss is too much for Jersey, and once again she retreats, brutally burning bridges behind her.

The narrative is only from Jersey's point of view, so at times Zay feels almost too good to be true, a projection of what Jersey most needs rather than a character with his own personality and needs. But it is only when Jersey finally realizes that Zay could use help himself in dealing with the aftermath of his own trauma that she is able to begin to move past her own fears of abandonment and recognize that she can both help and be helped, love and be loved, be tough and be open—with the right person.

Howard's log line—"love is beautiful. people are messy. I write about the space in between"—feels like far more than a catching slogan. With her strong ear for dialogue, her gift for crafting nuanced characters, and her focus on protagonists whose voices are not often heard in New Adult romance, Howard is definitely a romance author worth following. I'm excited to pick up the second book in The Prototype series, and to dip into her adult contemporary romance series, Love Always.

Photo credits:
Texas College Students: Texas College Photo Gallery
Esperanza Spaulding: Wikipedia

Happiness in Jersey
The Prototype, Book 1
Indie published, 2014

Tuesday, April 3, 2018

Thoughts on the original RITA winners

When I came across romance author Corinna Lawson's January 2018 post on B&N Reads' blog, "The Great RITA Read: In the Beginning," I was decidedly intrigued. Lawson announced her plans to read and then write about past winners of Romance Writers of America®'s Golden Medallion Awards, now the RITA Awards, as a way to "explore the history of the romance genre." This first column focused on the four books which were the first to be named Golden Medallion winners (back in 1982): one long and one short historical, and one long and one short contemporary romance. I thought it would be fun to try and find these books and read them too, and then talk about my findings here on the blog.

Given its place on a Barnes & Noble-sponsored web site, Lawson's post leans towards more toward the celebratory than the analytical. Lawson notes that she had some "preconceptions" about what the books would be like, given conventional wisdom about Old Skool romance. In particular, she worried that these books' heroines would be flat, tame damsel-in-distress. But actually reading the books quickly dispelled her preconceptions: "I had a collection of characters who would not be out of place in a contemporary romance," she argues.

I wondered if I would feel the same.

After reading the two short Golden Medallion winners, Constance Ravenlock's , Rendezvous at Gramercy (Candlelight Regency Special 1981) and Brooke Hastings' Winner Take All (Silhouette 1981), I can report that I both do and don't. Neither spoiled Regency rich girl Alexis Palme, nor window-turned-business-owner Carrie Spencer is your stereotypical passive heroine. Yet both are distinctly limited by the gender roles of the 1970s. And both of their narratives struggle, sometimes implicitly, sometimes explicitly, with questions about gender equality that the Women's Movement of the 1970s brought into the popular consciousness.

At the beginning of Rendezvous at Gramercy, our heroine, nineteen-year-old Alexis Palme, is a self-involved, rather heartless girl. Her American mother is dead; since that death, her Swedish diplomat father has "taken to spoiling his only daughter until the sweetness was little more than an evanescent mood and her prettily curved lips were more frequently hardened into a line of stubborn arrogance" (20). Ravenlock doesn't just tell readers this; she shows her protagonist's selfishness in the opening chapter, by having Alexis care more about her clothing than about the war raging across Napoleonic Europe; by showing her refusing her maid's request to remain in England with her sweetheart rather than travel with her to Gibraltar where she is to meet her father; and by having her keeping the ship upon which she is to travel waiting: "Naturally the ship's captain would understand a woman's last minute packing requirements, even if he had stressed the importance of her arriving at the latest by eight fifteen" (12). Alexis, then, is the type of heroine with whom readers are not expected to identify, at least at the start of the story. The romance will spend the bulk of its time tracking Alexis's transformation, from self-centered, thoughtless society girl to other-centered helper of the poor and downtrodden. Ironically, though, it is the very arrogance and self-assurance for which Alexis is condemned at book's start that allows her to succeed in her new role as smuggler and spy.

Early in the story, Alexis's ship wrecks off the north coast of France, landing her in Breton, or Brittany. Rescued by an elderly pair of aristocrats, Alexis's restless curiosity soon leads her to discover that the aloof Count and Countess de Chambord are deeply involved in smuggling goods from the British to help the impoverished Breton peasants. But when the Count is injured, Alexis ends up taking on his role in the smuggling rather than fleeing with the English smugglers herself, going out at darkest night to exchange French goods for British. Masquerading as the Count and Countess's niece, Alexis also pretends to flirt with the suspicious colonel at the local garrison, a man bent on discovering and routing the smugglers, to pump him for information. Said flirting felt pretty smarmy to me as a reader, in part because I got the feeling that Alexis enjoyed what she was doing, plying her feminine wiles to deceive the obviously dim Colonel. Alexis, then, is not a passive damsel, but an active protagonist, but she can only act under the guise of deception.

Another sign of the story's dated feminism is it's "mean girl" foil, a staple of 70's and 80's category romances. The de Chambourd's actual niece, Laure, who arrives mid-book from Paris to create more difficulty for the smugglers, bears a remarkable resemblance to Alexis at the novel's start, and serves primarily to show readers that Alexis is no longer the unfeeling creature she once was. For now, unlike Laure, Alexis is kind to the servants; she respects the poor and feels a landed gentry's responsibility to aid and succor them; and she disdains Laure's focus on finery and frippery (at least when it is the sole focus of one's attention and concerns).

This is a romance novel, but Alexis's love story takes a decided second seat to the derring-do of the smuggling plot. Her love interest is a doctor, Edouard Lautrec, a bitter, disillusioned former naval surgeon who initially suspects Alexis of "the vilest foppery and shallowness" (59). I'd expected that the two would end up working together by book's end, Edouard seeing beyond Alexis's false mask to her true, good smuggler self. But Edouard is pretty much a bystander to the majority of the action up until the very end of the story, after Alexis has stolen jewels from the smug actual niece of the Count and Countess, after she's duped the smarmy Colonel again and again, and after she's disguised herself as a drunken slop-bucket carrier to free her former fellow shipmate, an English seaman, from prison. Only after the dim Colonel finally catches on and imprisons and whips her does the good doctor come riding to her rescue. So yes, in fact, Alexis does need to be rescued at novel's end. But the rescue feels almost as gratuitous as the romance in the book, a cap added to appease the conventional trope of male hero saving the heroine which does little to mask the self-directed actions of the female protagonist we witnessed throughout the bulk of the story.

Caroline "Carrie" Spencer, the heroine of Brooke Hastings' Golden Medallion short contemporary Winner Take All, seems to be far more empowered at the start of her story than Alexis Palme was. She's the owner of Elliot Bay Electronics; she has a college degree; she even enjoys playing basketball in her spare time. A modern empowered woman, no? But this contemporary romance is far more ambivalent about female power than its historical counterpart.

Carrie only owns Seattle-based Elliot Bay because she inherited it from her dead husband. And her authority as owner is continually questioned, not just by other characters, but by Carrie by herself. And by the plot trajectory of the novel as a whole.

Within the first paragraph, we learn that "Caroline invariably felt inexperienced" by comparison to the company's longtime comptroller, and, a few paragraphs later, that "she never could have fulfilled her duties as president so competently without his encouragement and advice" (9, 10). And by page three, we hear that her former brother-in-law has just sold off his share of the company to corporate raider Matthew Lyle, a man who has a reputation for hostile takeovers of reluctant companies. The stage is set: alpha male Matthew against ice queen Carrie, cool on the outside but deeply insecure on the inside.

Carrie thinks to get the jump on finding out about Matthew by going to observe him when he speaks at a local boat show. Little does she realize that he's already out-manipulating her, arranging to casually "bump" into her and ask her out on a date, pretending all the while that he has no idea who she really is. The two have an enjoyable, if argumentative, dinner; when Matthew sees her home, he immediately begins to kiss her (this contemporary is far more interested in sex and sexuality than its historical winning counterpart). In typical Old Skool romance style, Carrie's mind protests, while her body can't help but respond:

Her lips were parted with punishing swiftness, her mouth probed and explored with passionate impatience.
     It was the first time Caroline had been kissed by a man with any real experience and technique. Matthew had gone too fast—demanded more than she could give—and initially she froze, her body objecting by means of a sudden, shocked stiffness. Her hands slid up to push against his chest, rejecting his rough invasion of her mouth. Although he loosened his hold, he refused to release her. His mouth became gentle and persuasive again, caressing, nibbling, teasing relentlessly.
     Caroline heard her own soft moans as she began to kiss him back. Now when he parted her lips the intimate feel of his tongue moving against her own was arousing rather than alarming. And when he deepened the kiss into a passionate conquest, Caroline was only too ready to be enslaved. (53)

Carrie, despite having been married, is a virgin (older, ill husband), and is decidedly skittish when it comes to sexual intimacy. Behavior which the arrogant Matthew interprets as teasing, a tactic to which he strenuously objects. He objects so much, in fact, that he makes her a bargain: spend a weekend away with him, and he'll stop his hostile takeover of her company. He'll settle for two seats on the board of directors and an immediate audit of the books.

Carrie, of course, objects to this crass bargain, but after she discovers that her kindly comptroller, on the instructions of her now-dead husband, bribed companies to win contracts for the firm, her former determination to fight the takeover begins to waver. Because the audit Matthew is insisting upon will likely send Sam Hanover to jail. Carrie worries for Sam, and for her late husband's reputation, but isn't at all happy about the idea of giving in to Matthew, even though subsequent meetings continue to demonstrate that when it comes to his sex appeal, Carrie's mind may protest, but her body inevitably gives in.

Twenty-first century rape victim advocates argue strenuously against the automatic equation of a sexually responsive body and affirmative consent to sex. But in early 1980s category romance, a sexually responsive female body is always read as a sign of willing, usually repressed, female sexual desire, a sexual desire that a strong male will insist takes precedence over any woman's verbal refusal to engage in sex. As Matthew explains in frustration, "When you stand there like that, not moving, I can't take it. Because I can feel you wanting me and resisting it. I can't stop myself from forcing you to respond when I'd rather not have to do that, Carrie" (93). A man knows better than a woman what she wants, and is rather put out when she refuses to acknowledge it.

Interestingly, Carrie's office assistant and close friend Maggie, a divorcee who lives with her boyfriend, offers a different take on female sexuality. Maggie gives Carrie the purportedly liberated woman's view of sex:

"Just remember that when you go to bed with someone, Caroline, you don't have to give him your soul, and you don't have to sacrifice your independence. You'll be giving Matthew Lyle your body for forty-eight hours—nothing more. From what you've told me [that she finds Matthew attractive], you'll probably enjoy doing it. Afterward, you can refuse to see him again, if that's what you want. There's no reason to become emotionally involved with him." (73)

But the 1980s category romance rejects any attempt to divorce emotional involvement from sex, at least for a woman. Though she plays basketball with men, and runs her own company, Carrie is not the liberated woman than Maggie is; she can't imagine sex divorced from love, and neither can the category romance. To Carrie, such a divorce is tantamount to using someone, and using herself.

Carrie is, however (perhaps like the average female reader of 1981?) interested in the women's movement. One of the books she's reading is "the latest novel by an aggressively feminist author who had raked the male sex over the coals in her three previous books" (87). Needless to say, Matthew isn't at all pleased to hear about Carrie's current book: "I'm not letting you near that one. By the time you've read two chapters, you'll probably throw it at me" (87). Feminism is tantalizing, but "aggressive," dangerous wrong. It's not surprising that by book's end, the liberated Maggie is planning her wedding.

Back to the story, from that quick diversion: In spite of her misgivings about his proposed bargain, Carrie ends up deciding to agree to Matthew's terms, reasoning that "It would cost her nothing to go up to the San Juan Islands with him, because if she found that she couldn't go through with it, she could walk out of his cabin and find a place to stay in town. He wouldn't drag her into bed—he was hardly the type to engage in rape" (74).

But Matthew is the type of engage in a bit of kidnapping, in the form of tricking Carrie onto his boat and taking her not to the populated San Juan Islands, but to a private island of his own. Carrie asked to return home, saying she's changed her mind, but Matthew arrogantly refuses: "By Sunday night you'll thank me for kidnapping you; I promise you that" (100). How quickly would an executive in 2018, acting like Matthew does, be hit with a sexual harassment lawsuit?

Carrie managed to fend off his advances, first by drinking too much and throwing up, then by crying, then by admitting she's a virgin. Matthew, of course, misinterprets her revelation:

"Make him happy? When you wouldn't let the poor guy near you? He must have been absolutely besotted with you, to marry you on those terms, His life must have been one long frustrated agony. And I thought he had hurt you! Just what kind of sadistic, manipulative woman are you?" (115)

But at least he stops importuning her. At least for a short while; not a month later, after hearing more kindly things about her from the son of his colleague, who is a basketball teammate of Carrie's, Matthew approaches her again, offering marriage rather than an affair. More bargaining ensues: if she marries him, will he call off the auditors? He says he will, but then breaks his word, which of course turns out to be justified (in order to get rid of the now not so kindly comptroller), once again undercutting Carrie's authority as head of her own company. By novel's end, the two are happy in their marriage, Carrie because Matthew loves her, and because he allows her to keep running a portion of her company (he's split off the government contract side of the business).

The book concludes with the two joking about women's lib:

     "I'm not about to object. I like the idea. Just think—our son could be the next Bill Bradley," he mused. "College All-American, Rhodes scholar, pro basketball player, United States senator. We've got all the right genes, sweetheart."
     "Really?" Caroline asked with feigned coolness. "And suppose we have a girl, you male chauvinist! Your mother wants a granddaughter, you know!"
     "Carrie, my beloved, enough is enough. I'll only accept so much liberation from the women in my family, and that's it! A corporation president for a wife is one thing, but no daughter of mine is going to make it her life's goal to get drafted by the Seattle SuperSonics!"
     "How about senator from the state of Washington?" Caroline countered.
     "If you don't shut up and let me get you where you belong, there won't be any offspring, Mrs. Lyle."
     "Who's talking?" Caroline giggled and held out her arms to him. (189)

In the world of award-winning early 1980's contemporary category romance, there is both acknowledgement of women's desire for greater power and independence, and also deep anxiety about that desire. Winner Take All acknowledges both the desire and the anxieties it provokes, then works to contain those anxieties by insisting that a woman can be liberated, as long as her liberation is palatable to her husband.

And as long as sex continues to be equated with emotional intimacy and love.

Photo credits:
Fort-La-Latte, Brittany: Dutch, Dutch, Goose!
San Juan Islands: Visit San Juan Islands

Friday, March 23, 2018

The slightly less white, not-quite-so-heteronormative world of the RITA awards

Earlier this week, Romance Writers of America® (RWA) announced their annual list of finalists for the RITA Award, which the organization bestows in recognition of excellence in published romance writing. In 2018, as in 2017, the award will be given in twelve different sub-genre categories, as well as an award for best first book.

Last year, after the 2017 RITA list (for books published in 2016) was announced, I wrote about the predominance of white authors amongst the finalists, as well as the predominance of white and heterosexual protagonists in their books. Out of the 85 distinct finalists (several books were up for best first book and best book in another sub-genre), four featured protagonists of color (with 3 of the 4 featuring a protagonist of color falling for a white partner); 4 books featured same-sex protagonists; 4-6 were written by authors of color.

This year, for the first time, the RITA contest was not restricted to authors with print books; in fact, no print books were allowed to be submitted. Instead, authors and/or publishers were required to submit pdf copies of books for judges to read and score.

Did this shift change the demographics of the winner pool? It did as far as the independent publisher/traditional publisher divide, with a whopping 22 self-published authors as named finalists, far more than had ever finalled before. Almost every sub-genre category (except for Young Adult and Long Historical) included at least one self-published title.

But did the shift change the demographics of the winner pool in terms of race and sexual orientation of the authors? Or their books' protagonists?

Given the report from The Ripped Bodice on "The State of Racial Diversity in Romance Publishing" released earlier this year, which found that fewer romances by authors of color had been published by leading romance publishers in 2017 than in 2016 (6.2% in 2017, down from 7.8% in 2016), I was guessing the answer would be "no." But the answer turned out to be a small but noticeable "yes."

Of course, many books, and most author bios, don't explicitly state a protagonist or author's race. So my calculations below are based on the following:

• In cases where I've read the book, I knew the race of the protagonists, either by being told directly in the narrative, or from context clues in the book

• In cases where I had not read the book, I examined book covers, book descriptions, Goodreads book reviews, and character names for hints about protagonists' racial or ethnic backgrounds, and made my best guess. Major room for error here, so if you see any mistakes below, please let me know!

• Similarly, for authors with whom I was familiar, and/or who had discussed their own racial backgrounds in public, I went with self-represented racial identities. I had to rely on author photographs and guess for the rest. Again, room for error (and correction) here.

Overall Statistics:

# of finalists
    2017: 78
    2016: 85

# of authors of color
    2017: 5-6
    2016: 4-6

% of authors of color
    2017: 6-7.7%
    2016: 4-7%

# of protagonists of color
    2017: 13*                                                     
    2016:   5

% of protagonists of color
    2017: 8.3%*                                             
    2016: 2.9%

# of queer protagonists
    2017: 12     
    2016:  8

% of queer protagonists
    2017: 7.6%                                               
    2016: 4%

Individual Sub-Genre Numbers:

Contemporary Romance Long
# of finalists: 7
# of authors of color: 2 (or 3?)
# of protagonists of color: 1
# of queer protagonists: 0

Contemporary Romance: Mid-Length
# of finalists: 9
# of authors of color: 1
# of protagonists of color: 2
# of queer protagonists: 2

Contemporary Romance: Short
# of finalists: 7
# of authors of color: 0
# of protagonists of color: 1? (he's a sheikh)
# of queer protagonists: 0

Erotic Romance:
# of finalists: 5
# of authors of color: 0
# of protagonists of color: 1
# of queer protagonists: 0

Historical Romance: Long
# of finalists: 5
# of authors of color: 0
# of protagonists of color: 0
# of queer protagonists: 0

Historical Romance: Short
# of finalists: 7
# of authors of color: 0
# of protagonists of color: 3 (1 is from Spain)
# of queer protagonists: 0

Mainstream Fiction with a Central Romance:
# of finalists: 4
# of authors of color: 0
# of protagonists of color: 0
# of queer protagonists: 2

Paranormal Romance:
# of finalists: 8
# of authors of color: 0
# of protagonists of color: 1? (several are fantasy worlds, so I couldn't really tell just by looking at the blurbs)
# of queer protagonists: 4

Romance Novella:
# of finalists: 8
# of authors of color: 1
# of protagonists of color: 1
# of queer protagonists: 2

Romance with Religious/Spiritual Elements:
# of finalists: 5
# of authors of color: 0
# of protagonists of color: 0
# of queer protagonists: 0

Romantic Suspense:
# of finalists: 9
# of authors of color: 0
# of protagonists of color: 1*
# of queer protagonists: 2

Young Adult Romance:
# of finalists: 4
# of authors of color: 1
# of protagonists of color: 1?
# of queer protagonists: 0

I'd be interested to see how the demographics of the RWA membership, and in particular, the demographics of the judges, compares to the demographics of the U.S. as a whole, and how those demographics compare to the percentages in the finalists selected by judges. Last year, RWA stated that it was going to poll its membership about demographic issues, but to date I don't believe any such information has been made public. I hope that it will, and soon.

Because this year's RITA finalist figures suggest that in terms of sexuality, the awards are quite representative of gay male experience, an improvement to celebrate. But though they are less racially imbalanced than last year's, they are still not at all close to reflecting the demographics of the country as a whole. And they do not represent female queer experience at all.

U.S. LGBT population: 3.8%

RITA Finalists with queer male characters: 7.6%

U.S. Census Data on race/ethnicity (2016)

White: 61.3%
POC:  40.9%

RITA Finalists by race/ethnicity:

White: 92.3%
POC:     7.7%

* Update 3/27/18: Author HelenKay Dimon wrote to let me know that the protagonist of The Fixer is biracial (white/Japanese parents). I've updated the overall figures, and changed the numbers in the Romantic Suspense category, accordingly.

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

What type of HEA do You Prefer: Accomodation or Collaboration?

At the March meeting of the New England Chapter of Romance Writers of America, attorney Alisha Bloom gave a presentation on different negotiating strategies, and how romance writers might draw on these strategies in construction their characters and conflicts. Drawing on the Thomas-Kilmann Conflict Mode Instrument, Bloom listed these five common negotiating styles:

• Avoiding
• Accomodating
• Compromising
• Competing
• Collaborating

These styles all sounded familiar to me, and I could easily assign each to different people in my life (and to different characters in romance novels). What was new was the underlying relationship Thomas and Kilmann posit between these five styles. They do not appear on a linear continuum, but rather along a dual axis, one the degree to which the outcome of a dispute matters, the other the degree to which the relationship matters. Or, in other words, how much do your wants and needs matter, and how much do you care about the wants and needs of the person or group with whom you are negotiating? (The Thomas-Killman instrument actually posits these axes as personality issues, with one axis = degree of assertiveness, the other = degree of cooperativeness).

People and characters who choose an Avoidance style of negotiating typically cluster close to the zero point on both of these axes: they don't care that much about the outcome, nor do they care that much about the relationship between themselves and the person or group with whom they are negotiating. Those who use a  Compete strategy cluster on the high end of the "care more about their own wants and needs" axis, but low on the "care about the wants and needs of the other" axis. And those who use an Accomodate strategy cluster around the point diagonally opposite that of the competitors: high on the "care for the needs of others" and low on the "care for own needs."

One might think that a "Compromise" strategy would be the goal in a successful negotiation. But in the examples Bloom provided from romance novels (all recently published), the protagonists moved not toward compromise (splitting things evenly, so each side wins a bit and loses a bit), a cluster at the midpoint of both axes, but towards the "Collaborate" strategy: a strategy that cares highly about both the needs of the self and the needs of the other.

Bloom asked us if we thought that this was a general goal of romance: to move characters through the arc of caring either too much or not enough for self, or too much or not enough for others, towards not compromise, which is a "split everything fifty fifty" type of negotiating, but towards collaboration: a strategy which seeks new ways to meet both sides' needs. "Expanding the pie" is one way to put it, but in terms of romance writing, Bloom described the character movement as one in which the romantic protagonists move towards valuing both their own and the other's goals and desires, and seek ways to have both sides' needs met.

A lively discussion followed Bloom's presentation.  I pointed out that unlike the 21st century romance novels that Bloom had used as examples in her presentation (Julie James' Practice Makes Perfect, one example), in which Collaboration proved to be the end goal, Old Skool romances generally held up the "accomodation" style as the heart of a true HEA. Older romances, which value the "taming" the the alpha hero, a taming that causes him to not only admit his feelings of love for the heroine, but also to recognize the value of emotional work typically carried out by the female half of the population, require their heroes not to compromise or to collaborate, but instead to "accomodate": to give up their own needs or desires (because they are misguided and harmful) and to replace those needs and desires with those of their heroines.

Some agreed that in more modern romances, "Collaboration" appeared far more often than "Accomodation." And some stated that they preferred this type of HEA to one that "tames" the hero, one that makes him fall at the feet of the heroine. "I want the protagonists to work together, to value each other and their goals equally," said one member.

But others expressed a continued preference for the "Accomodation" HEA over the "Collaboration" one.  "I will give up anything and everything for you, that's what I want to hear from the hero at the end of the romance" one person noted. "That's what makes me feel." Another noted, "This is a fantasy, not real life. In real life, you compromise. But the fantasy of romance is that your hero will do what you as a woman want. He'll come home and do the dishes."

The conversation made me wonder: how many romance readers prefer "collaborative" HEA's, and how many prefer "accomodation" HEA's? Is this a generational thing? Or does it depend more on one's own real-life expectations about and experiences of gendered behavior? My partner already does do the dishes (at least on weekdays; on the weekends he cooks, and I pick up the dishcloth), so my fantasy is not about finding a guy who will do that. If your partner doesn't, and neither of you expect that he will, are you more likely to wish for an accomodation HEA?

Would love to hear your own preferences, readers, as well as your thoughts on using a negotiating strategy model to think about romance novel endings.

Photo credits:
Negotiation styles chart: Negotiation Experts
Compromise: Redbubble
Win Win: Thought Exchange