Friday, March 22, 2019

The Sorry State of Diversity in the RWA's RITA Awards: 2019 edition

Yesterday, Romance Writers of America® announced the list of finalists for its RITA Awards, which the organization bestows in recognition of excellence in publishing romance writing. So it's also time for the annual RNFF blog post with data on the state of racial diversity amongst the RITA finalists, with added info on the race/ethnicity and sexuality of the characters of the finalist books.

For the second year in a row, all RITA contest entrants were required to submit a pdf copy, rather than print copies, of their books. Entrants could also submit either an epub or a kindle mobi file as well, for the convenience of judges. As this was not a change that changed the basic demographics of the entrants pool, as the switch from all print to pdf was in 2017, it's not surprising that a similar number of self-published books were chosen as finalists this year as last (22, by my count).

Representation of queer characters is a bit down from last year, although there is one lesbian romance, as compared to no lesbian romances last year.

What about representation of race/ethnicity? What do those numbers look like?

Not good. Not good at all.


Many books, and many author bios, don't explicitly state protagonists' or authors' race. So the calculations below are based on the following:

• In cases where I'd read the book, I knew the race of the protagonists, either by being directly told 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 and 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 my best guesses for the rest. Two finalists do not include author photos on their web sites, so I classified them as white. Again, room for error (and correction) here.


Overall Statistics:

# of finalists:
  2018: 74
  2017: 78
  2016: 85

# of authors of color:
  2018: 3***
  2017: 5-6
  2016: 4-6

% of authors of color:
  2018: 4%***
  2017: 6-7.7%
  2016: 4-7%


Overall # of protagonists: 149 (73 * 2, 1 * 3 [one erotic romance features a ménage-a-trois])

# of protagonists of color
  2018: 8
  2017: 13
  2016: 5

% of protagonists of color
  2018: 5.3%
  2017: 8.3%
  2018: 2.9%


of queer protagonists:
  2018: 10 (8 in m/m romances, 2 in a lesbian romance)
  2017: 12
  2016: 8

% of queer protagonists:
  2018: 6.7%
  2017: 7.6%
  2016: 4%


Individual Sub-Genre Numbers:

Contemporary Romance Long
# of finalists: 7
# of authors of color: 0
# of protagonists of color: 2
# of queer protagonists: 0

Contemporary Romance: Mid-Length
# of finalists: 11
# of authors of color: 0
# of protagonists of color: 0
# of queer protagonists: 4

Contemporary Romance: Short
# of finalists: 8
# of authors of color: 0
# of protagonists of color: 0*
# of queer protagonists: 2

Erotic Romance:
# of finalists: 4
# of authors of color: 0
# of protagonists of color: 0
# of queer protagonists: 0

Historical Romance: Long
# of finalists: 4
# of authors of color: 0
# of characters of color: 0
# of queer protagonists: 0

Historical Romance: Short
# of finalists: 6
# of authors of color: 0
# of characters of color: 0
# of queer protagonists: 0

Mainstream Fiction with a Central Romance
# of finalists: 5
# of authors of color: 0
# of characters of color: 1
# of queer protagonists: 0

Paranormal Romance
# of finalists: 7
# of authors of color: 0
# of characters of color: 0
# of queer protagonists: 0

Romance Novella
# of finalists: 7
# of authors of color: 1
# of characters of color: 1
# of queer protagonists: 2

Romance with Religious or Spiritual Elements
# of finalists: 4
# of authors of color: 0
# of characters of color: 0
# of queer protagonists: 0

Romantic Suspense
# of finalists: 7
# of authors of color: 0
# of characters of color: 1
# of queer protagonists: 0

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


It's more than depressing that the representation of authors of color in the RITA finalist pool has decreased, despite recent efforts by the organization to better support its members of color. What else can RWA do to begin to address what is a glaringly obvious problem of bias in its judging system?

More than a year ago, RWA stated that it was in the process of polling its membership about demographic issues, but to date I don't believe that information has been made public. Does RWA have any sense of how the demographics of RWA membership compares to the demographics of the U. S. as a whole? And how its overall demographics compare to the demographics of the finalists and the judges? Compiling and sharing such information with its membership would be a good place to start.

Another intervention would be to begin asking entrants for demographic information about themselves and about the characters in the books they are submitting. Percentages could then be compared to the percentages in the finalist pool.

Or RWA could consider revamping the way the entire contest is judged, and create a process in which systemic racism could be, if not entirely eliminated, at least majorly curtailed. I'd strongly urge the Board to create a committee or working group to study the issue in the coming year.

I know more than a few authors who would be interested in serving...



US Census data on race/ethnicity (2016)
White: 61.3%
POC: 40.9%

2018 RITA Finalists by race/ethnicity
White: 97.3%
POC: 4%



* Caitlin Crews' A Baby to Bind His Bride includes this description of its hero: "amalgam of everything that was beautiful in him. His Greek mother. His Spanish father. His Brazilian grandparents on one side, his French and Persian grandparents on the other." I'm not counting this hero as a POC.

** one of these books, written by a white author, features Latinx characters, one of whom is a gang member. I have counted these characters as POC, despite some concern that this representation may be problematic. I have not yet read the book in question.

*** My original post listed 2 authors of color, not 3. I've updated the numbers accordingly, given the comments below.

Tuesday, March 19, 2019

Race and Romance: The State of Racial Diversity in Romance Publishing Report 2018

Early this month, the Ripped Bodice bookstore released their third annual "The State of Racial Diversity in Romance Publishing Report." The news about that diversity is not encouraging. The report lists the percentages of romances written by people of color and indigenous authors that have been published each year by twenty of the leading commercial publishers of romance books. As the report notes, in bold blue type, "there has been zero progress in the last 3 years." While a few publishers have increased the percentage of writers of color on their lists since 2016, the majority haven't. Even the publisher with the highest percentage of POC-authored books (Kensington, at 22.8%) does not come close to matching the percentage of the American populace who identify as something other than white (38.7%). Fewer than half of the publishers surveyed can even boast about having a lowly 10% of authors of color on their lists.

Bea and Leah Koch, the owners of The Ripped Bodice, note in their report that "When beginning this project three years ago, we believed that as soon as the numbers were collected and publicly released, publishers would immediately make strides toward correcting this imbalance. We hoped that providing clear data would contribute to the work that authors of color have been doing for decades to prove that there is widespread systemic racism within romance publishing." The first statement seems a bit naive, given the second. If "widespread systemic racism" exists within the romance publishing industry, merely pointing to data from three years of a report isn't likely to root that racism out.

An anecdote by way of suggesting why:

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, when I worked for a major trade children's book publisher, the head of our marketing department prepared an informal report on "multicultural" books. The report concluded that books that could be labeled "multicultural" sold, on average, at a higher rate that those that could not.

One of the "multicultural" books. Written by
author Mwenye Hadithi, aka Bruce Hobson
I don't know if other children's book publishers compiled any similar reports, or if they did, whether it would have helped decrease publishing's institutional racism. Because that report did not differentiate between multicultural books (which included a wide range of content, from folktales from other cultures to stories with primary, or more often secondary, characters of color) and books written or illustrated by people of color. I don't remember us discussing that fact in any great detail. Perhaps because everyone in the Editorial, Marketing, and Publicity departments, including myself, was white? Or because publishers, even publishers for children, were increasingly being asked to focus on the bottom line, rather than was what good for children or society?

Many of our "multicultural" books at the time were written by white authors; a few authors even took on pen names that suggested they were from non-white cultures. Something that really bothered me and several of my similar-aged colleagues at the time. But it didn't seem to bother our superiors. If "multicultural" would sell, then we would sell multicultural books, no matter who their creators.


It would take more than twenty years, and the advent of social media (in particular, Twitter), for  writers and illustrators of color to mount a collective campaign to protest children's book publishing's whitewashed version of multiculturalism. Pressure from the children's lit twitterverse, the work of the the nonprofit organization We Need Diverse Books (which was formed in 2014), and the publication of statistics on children's books publishing diversity by the Cooperative Children's Book Center (CCBC) have all combined to exert pressure on publishers, which has led to a marked increase in the diversity content of children's books being published (from 10% in 2013 to 31% in 2017).

Infographic courtesy of Lee & Low Books
Yet the percentage of books created by writers and illustrators of color still lag far behind those created by whites, even when the content of said books can be labeled "multicultural." Doing some back of the envelope calculations based on the figures cited by the CCBC, I come up with the following:

• Total percentage of books by authors/illustrators of color: 14%

• Percentage of books by black, Latinx, and Native authors: 7%

• Percentage of books by people of color that focus on multicultural content: 9%

• Percentage of books by whites that focus on multicultural content: 16%


14% is still a far cry from reflecting the actual racial diversity in America today (38%). And romance is doing far worse that children's books are...


In their 2018 edition of "The State of Diversity in Romance Publishing Report," the Kochs' place the onus for fixing the problem of systemic racism in romance publishing on publishers: "ultimately, unless acquiring editors purchase more manuscripts for publication by authors of color, these numbers will remain the same." Given my own past experiences, I'm not convinced that relying on the good will (or the embarrassment) of editors will be enough.

Some additional things that might help:

• More information about the publishing industry, like that compiled by the Koch's. And more detailed information, too, such as that compiled by the CBBC about children's book publishing. Is traditional publishing giving white authors preference over writers of color in writing multicultural romances? Are some groups of color underrepresented as writers to a greater degree than others?

• More information about romance's readership. Are publishers' claims that "they don't buy those books," i.e., white readers don't buy books about/by people of color, true? If so, is this true across all demographic categories we might study? (age, educational status, economic status, geographical location)? And what are the best ways to counter such attitudes, if they do in fact exist?

• More scholars to study the genre, to supply some of the answers to the above questions

• RWA to continue to call attention to issues of race and institutional racism in the industry, and to support authors of color. Also, guidance to its membership on how to talk productively, rather than adversarially, about race and racism in the industry

• The continued voices of Romancelandia Twitterverse speaking out in protest of the current situation

• More white readers to buy books about and by writers of color

• More conversations about the difference between institutional racism and prejudice, so that whites don't get so automatically defensive whenever the topic of race enters a conversation

• More blogs and reviews about romances by/about people of color



Will you answer Bea and Leah Koch's call to "join us" in advocating for "significant improvement" when it comes to authors of color in the romance book industry?



Tuesday, March 12, 2019

The Fix Is NOT In: Tamsen Parker's THE INSIDE TRACK

I am, by nature, a fixer. Whenever I hear someone talk about a problem, I immediately start to think about all the possible ways I could act to make that problem go away. It can be a really annoying habit, this urge to want to fix everything, especially when it comes to people. Not everyone needs, or even wants, to be fixed. Even if the larger society around them thinks they should do something to make their situation better, a lot of people are perfectly happy being the way they are.  Because broken isn't always fixable, especially when it comes to people. And also because one person's "broken" may just be another person's "different."

Reading Tamsen Parker's latest contemporary romance, The Inside Track, gave me a much-needed reminder of this. And did so while making me laugh harder than I can ever remember laughing while reading a romance.

The Inside Track's two white protagonists, financial advisor Dempsey Lawrence and boy band guitarist Nick Fischer, do not function in socially conventionally ways. Readers of Parker's earlier books featuring License to Game (Love on the Tracks and Thrown Off Track), the boy band on the cusp of aging out of their audience, will remember Nick as the goofball screwup of the group, an eight-year-old boy in a 28-year-old's body. Nick's more than just a bundle of impulsivity; he fidgets, he wrestles, he talks a mile a minute about the most fascinating, and often disgusting, things. He's never worried about making a fool of himself; he adores being the center of attention. Witness the book's opening scene, in which we find a drunken Nick with the accordion which once belonged to Lawrence Welk, an accordion which he's "borrowed" from the wall of the Los Angeles restaurant where he was dining. He's playing it outside, in the middle of a fountain—stark naked. If only he had his unicycle, too...

Using close first person, Parker gives readers access to the whirling pinball inside Nick's head, following his thoughts as they carom from topic to topic, making leaps of association that are as amazingly imaginative as they are hilarious:

Maybe these police officers would like to be my friends. Because if any of my guys were here, they probably would've suggested that climbing into a fountain, naked, with an accordion was maybe not my best idea. Or at least they would've held my goddamn pants so some dickwad wouldn't take them. Fucking pants thieves. That's just low.  (Kobo epub, Chapter 1, page 7)

Or this, from the second chapter, where Nick is serving out his community service sentence for the aforementioned accordion incident by speaking with kids at a local performing arts school about managing your money when you're a creative. Nick on the coolness of spreadsheets:

"They're like wizards, guys. Seriously. Magic on your screen. They do math for you, but in a cooler way than a calculator. And then you can even make pie charts. Pie charts are really fu— falutin' rad. I don't know about you guys, but like, sometimes numbers make my head hurt? But I'm totally game for colors and shapes. And pie. Pie is delicious. My favorite is probably key lime. Why do you think they call them pie charts instead of pizza charts? Because pizza is great, and it would make them sound way cooler. But then I guess they call pizzas pies, don't they? Which is weird. Because it's not like a real pie. Except in Chicago. You guys like deep dish?" (Ch. 2, p. 13-14)


Even after encountering Nick not under the influence, a reader who knows anyone with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder is likely to be thinking "It's ADHD! Get diagnosed! Get some help!" But Parker is not interested in telling the story of a person whose life gets put back on track after receiving a welcome medical diagnosis. Sometimes, a diagnosis doesn't lead to an easy fix. As Nick reveals later on in the story, he was diagnosed as a child, but rebounding off the drugs proscribed to deal with the ADHD made him sullen and violent, and the meds themselves gave him a tic. So his family decided against medicating Nick's condition. Neurotypical is certainly not the word to describe Nick. But he and his family and bandmates have come to love him for who he is, not for who he should or could be if only the drugs had worked better for him.

Parker pairs attention-hound Nick with perhaps the most unlikely of opposites: a woman who has not left her property for more than five years. Thirty-four year old Dempsey, a former teen tv star, experienced major trauma due to her career. She, unlike Nick, takes medication, because the trauma has left her with debilitating problems; her meds help curb her anxiety and panic attacks, and allow her to function as a financial planner to other young show business kids who don't mind working with someone over the phone. But neither her doctors nor "a shit ton of pharmaceuticals" have been able to rid Dempsey of her agoraphobia. A shiny new boyfriend certainly won't, either, as Dempsey makes clear to Nick when she first tells him about her condition:

"You're not going to be the hero here. There are no white horses or castle moats or needle-pricked fingers. You should assume that I'm never leaving this quarter-acre lot ever again and make your choices based on that. There's the door." (Ch 6, p 9)

But unconventional Nick doesn't think Dempsey's agoraphobia is as anathema to romance as she does: "I like you. I  like being with you. And if I have to come here to hang out with you, then I will. I don't really feel like that's a big thing. No one's perfect." (Ch 6, p 10). Nick loves everyone's attention, but there's something about Dempsey's that is just off the charts compelling to him. Almost as if she can channel the cheering of a stadium full of people, just by herself. And Dempsey is equally charmed by Nick's intelligence, humor, and utter lack of guile. After being lied to over and over again in the past, Dempsey truly appreciates a man who isn't hiding anything.

As I read further on into their story, one part of my mind kept expecting some big plot event that would "fix" either Dempsey or Nick. Some danger to Nick would compel Dempsey to leave her house, and she'd find herself miraculously recovered. Or some new doctor would give Nick a different diagnosis, or would offer him a new drug that would calm down the impulsivity of his brain. And Parker throws out several plot complications that look like they might be headed in one of those directions—only to pull back and disrupt the common romance trope that falling in love will fix everything. Dempsey and Nick do help each other, not to fix themselves, but rather, to adapt to each other's needs, while keeping their own abilities and needs also in view. Those adaptations might be a bit on the unusual side for this particular couple, but its a process anyone, neurotypical or no, who is involved in a relationship must embrace if they are to make it past the first blush of romance.


Photo credits:
Lawrence Welk album: Treadwell's Music
Pie pie chart: EdwardTufte.com






The Inside Track
License to Love #2
Indie published, 2019

Friday, March 1, 2019

Why do women like m/m SEM? Thoughts on Lucy Neville's GIRLS WHO LIKE BOYS WHO LIKE BOYS

In the comments section of RNFF's first review of a m/m romance (Alex Beecroft's Blessed Isle, back in 2013), several commenters posted their thoughts about why they found m/m romance novels appealing, often more appealing than heterosexual romances. RNFF readers aren't the only ones who have thoughts on the matter. Slash fiction writer and academic scholar Lucy Neville has just published an entire book on the subject, or at least, on a closely related topic. In Girls Who Like Boys Who Like Boys, Neville reports on her sociological study of more than 500 self-identified women who engage with sexually explicit material (SEM) that features (or purports to feature) gay men, to explore how and why they engage with it, and what they enjoy about that engagement.

Initially, Neville began with focus groups and one-on-one interviews with seventeen subjects, guided by a rough set of questions she'd put together, but open enough to follow the ideas and issues raised by her interviewees. In response to those initial conversations, Neville then developed a questionnaire to send to the broader group of 508, which she'd found through chat groups, fandom groups, and connections from her own work as a writer of gay male slash fiction. The responses to these questionnaires were then "data coded," with recurring themes pulled out, reviewed, and refined, until Neville had the broad themes and subthemes that organize the 8 chapters of her published book (Chapter 1 serves as an introduction, and an explanation of her methodology).

Though gay pornography and erotica, as well as slash fiction, are not the same as m/m romance, I was curious to read about Neville's survey, and its respondents' ideas, to see if any of those ideas might be applicable to romance.

Unfortunately, while Neville shares demographic information about her respondents, she doesn't share the survey itself in the book (unless I somehow missed it?), so we don't know precisely what questions she asked (and what questions she didn't). And the book itself spends far less time discussing what her respondents had to say than it does presenting the ideas of other researchers who have theorized about sexuality, porn, slash fiction, and other topics related to study. It's rare to read a single page here that doesn't include at least five, if not more, quotations from or summaries of other writers' scholarship. Perhaps this just a difference in writing style between literary scholarship and social science scholarship (Neville is a Lecturer in Criminology at Leicester University), but I found this constant name- and quote-dropping really frustrating. I wanted to hear what Neville's interviewees had to say,but their comments often got lost amidst the flood of secondary source material. How could you not want more of fabulous lines like this: "Porn is mostly for wanking, erotica is more towards inspiring the imagination towards wanking, and romance is more about making your heart feel like it's wanking" (126-27)?

Chapter 2, which discusses why women watch m/m porn and Chapter 3, which asks why readers read m/m slash fiction, struck me as quite relevant to m/m romance, too, as did and Chapters 5 and 6, which explore in more depth the reasons behind two general reader explanations for why they enjoy m/m SEM (the absence of female actresses/characters in Chapter 5, the combination of sex and emotional intimacy in Chapter 6).

So, what reasons did Neville's respondents give for watching m/m porn?

EYE CANDY: The most common reason was "the seemingly unradical notion that many women find men attractive, and therefore like looking at them, particularly without their clothes on" (50). Women like eye candy, but eye candy is rarely found in heterosexual media. Thus, women turn to m/m SEM to get what they want.


Their reasons for engaging with m/m slash fiction were far more numerous, and include:

"DEAD GIRLFRIEND OF THE WEEK" SYNDROME

There are far more male characters in popular culture than female ones (especially in the 1970s and 80s, when many of the study's respondents were growing up), so "many of the characters I care about most are male" (84). Since many slash readers prefer to read about characters they already know and care about, those characters end up being largely male.


THE PRIVILEGING OF BROMANCE

Homosocial partnership between males has far older culture roots than does heterosexual romance, which only emerged during the age of chivalry. Friendships between men, then, are held up as more noble, self-sacrificing, and worthy than friendships between women, or friendships between men and women. "All that slash fans do, then, is observe the homosociality they see all around them, and choose to frame it as homosexuality. Unlike others, they do not presume heterosexuality" (91). Additionally, men don't have to change in order to be with other men, unlike much traditional romance, where women must "often drop everything to be supported by him" (94).


POACHING/POWER GRABS

According to media scholar Henry Jenkins, "Fans operate from a position of cultural marginality and social weakness.... [They] lack direct access to the means of commercial cultural productions and have only the most limited resources with which to influence the entertainment industry's decisions" (Neville 97). And also, sneaking into privileged ground to poach is part of the thrill (101).


POLITICS

Written primarily by women, produced, distributed, and consumed primarily by women, slash is "both resistance and creative appropriation" and as such, is overtly political (103).


ETHICAL, FEMINIST PORNOGRAPHY

Slash doesn't raise some of the moral and ethical problems that readers and writers often have with visual pornography. There are no real people, no actual bodies involved, so there are no concerns over exploitation or coercion. And since slash circulates for free, there is no issue of capitalist exploitation to worry over (107)


THE ABSENCE OF FEMALE BODIES/CHARACTERS

Neville devotes an entire chapter to this issue, with its many nuances and valences. Here are the main reasons she suggests her respondents enjoyed not seeing women in their SEM:


Don't Hurt Her: As Clarissa Smith notes, "female consumers of pornography are constantly dogged by questions of harm, subordination, objectification, and authenticity, and the need to consider women's well-being before their own pleasures in watching porn." Neville finds that for many of her respondents, engaging with m/m SEM "is a way to sidestep some of these questions and start putting their own desires first" (155-56). In particular, "entrenched notions about power and submission with regards to penetration" in porn are hard to evade when there are female bodies on display, but in "m/m SEM men are doing things to or with other men—there is no woman to potentially feel bad for" (157).

My Sexual Pleasure Shouldn't Be Someone Else's Work: Many women, although they do not have a problem with sex work per se, are reluctant to consume sex for their own pleasure knowing that the sex they are watching was performed as work.

Don't Trigger Me: For women who have experienced rape or sexual assault, it can be triggering or re-traumatizing to see a woman in sexually explicit materials.

Female Bodies are Upsetting/Gross: Some women dislike seeing the female body in sexually explicit materials, either because they don't like to think about their own bodily perfections, or because they find female genitalia and sexuality "actively unpleasant" (158)

"It's Hard to Miss a Hard-On": You can't "see" female arousal with the same ease that you can see male arousal. There isn't any visual correlate to the erect penis or "come shot" for women. How can you enjoy pleasure if you can't see it? (145-9)

Same Body, Better Pleasure: Many study participants also believed that "same-sex partners are more proficient at pleasuring each other because of their familiarity with their own (male) bodies and preferences" (161)

Power Dynamics: One study Neville mentions found that "female sexual arousal in response to SEM is facilitated when participants perceive their identification figure as being in control of, or dominating, the sexual interaction." Neville goes on to report that "a lot of the women I spoke to struggle to find this in m/f SEM, either written or visual." But m/m SEM requires that they identify with a man, which allows them to identify with the controlling figure (162)

Unsexy Feminists: Neville quotes Judith Butler to explain this one: "among gay men, a certain focus on pleasure and sexuality that [i]sn't always available in women's communities highly mediated by feminism" (quoted in Neville p. 165)

Equality: Study respondents discussed a sense of equality between men that is often lacking between men and women. "This dynamic can in and of itself, be extremely erotic for some women" (165)

Payback: A small number of respondents enjoyed the fact that m/m SEM objectifies male bodies, which serves "as a form of payback for women's objectification in patriarchal culture as a whole" (180). As one respondent notes, "There's a little thrill of revenge when reading about men getting abused just like women. It's nasty, but it makes one feel better about the general situation of women in society to remember that this can happen to men, too" (181)



INTIMATOPIA

In chapter 6, Neville discusses one additional reason why female readers enjoy m/m SEM: "intimatopia." "For many of the women I spoke to, porn and love are not polar opposites. Instead, it is the fusion of these two things that gives them the most pleasure: sexually and emotionally" (191).  Neville refers here to Elizabeth Woledge's 2006 coinage of the term "intimatopia" to describe the fantasy world of certain types of slash fiction, a fantasy space which allows both sexually charged relationships and a high degree of sustained emotional connection. Woledge argues that while romance and porn "seek to separate sex and intimacy," slash fiction brings them together (212-213).


For those of you who read m/m romance, do any of these reasons strike a chord with you? And are there other reasons you enjoy m/m romance that Neville's focus on SEM failed to capture?


Photo credits:
• Bromance: Inside Hook
• Revenge & Payback: Photobucket





Girls Who Like Boys Who Like Boys:
Women and Gay Male Pornography and Erotica
Palgrave/Macmillan, 2018

Friday, February 22, 2019

Secrets and Narrative Manipulation in Jo Goodman's A TOUCH OF FLAME

Much of the romantic tension in Harlequin romances of the 1970s and 80s stems from the fact that readers are allowed access into the minds of only one of their books' two romantic leads. Authors show us what their female protagonists think, feel, and desire, but the thoughts, feelings, and desires of their male leads remain hidden, a mystery. Readers, like the heroine herself, are put into a state of suspense, looking for clues about the hero's goals and motivations but never really certain of them until the story's climax, when the hero declares his love. Only after the hero had given voice to previously private, secret feelings can readers, and the heroine, be certain they really know what is inside his head and heart.

Much contemporary romance fiction takes a different tack. Dual (or occasionally multiple) point of view is far more common now than single point of view. The two (or occasionally more) protagonists in a romance novel may not know what the other is really thinking or feeling, but the narrative puts the reader in a more privileged position. Authors allow us to see inside the heads of all parties who are falling in love. The pleasure now is less about the suspense of whether one romantic lead really has feelings for the other, but instead in knowing more than each of the protagonists do, being privy to the reasons why they belong together, even if they themselves do not yet see them.

And then we come to Jo Goodman. Goodman's most recent American-set historical romances are narrated using dual point of view. But even while they give access to the inner workings of both romantic leads, they often do not tell the reader everything the character is thinking or feeling. Her narrative voice is not unreliable, precisely; instead, it feels canny, strategically laconic. Appropriate, no doubt, given that her setting is the 19th century American West, a setting known for the iconic figure of the strong, silent cowboy. As readers, we are being manipulated by Goodman's narrative reticence; assuming we have access to all the important thoughts and feelings of our main characters, Goodman can then later surprise us when one of them reveals something we assumed we would have or should have been told or shown earlier if it had been important to the story. But the manipulation never feels like a betrayal, at least not to me; instead, it makes me just want to stand back and laugh, admiring the skill with which Goodman has shown me some of her cards, while slyly keeping others back.

Goodman's narrative style struck me especially delicious in her latest, A Touch of Flame, in large part because the male romantic lead, twenty-nine-year-old Ben Madison, does not at all resemble the iconic laconic cowboy of western novel and film. Although Ben has just been elected to the position of Sheriff in 1898 Frost Falls, Colorado, he's hardly the strong, silent gunslinger type. We're introduced to him as he's trying to take a nap on the boardwalk in front of the jail:

He tugged on the brim of his pearl gray Stetson and pulled it forward to cover his eyes and the bridge of his lightly freckled nose. Positioning the hat in such a way meant uncovering more of the back of his head and exposing his carrot-colored hair to passersby who'd known him all their lives and still seemed to think they were the first to comment on it.
     Nothing about being the newly elected sheriff of Frost Falls changed that. (1)

Ben's a friendly, steady presence in Frost Falls, always ready to engage its citizens with a funny story, cheerful word, or kind compliment. And always ready to be teased, or to position himself as butt of his own self-deprecating jokes:

     "Did I insult you?"
     "Insult me? No. I don't even know if that's possible."
     "Thick-skinned?"
     "Dull-witted. I don't know an insult even when it's poking me in the chest." (18)


But the joke is certainly on Ben when he goes to the train station to meet the new doctor that his friend, Dr. Dunlop, arranged to take over his practice before he moved back east. Because the new doctor, one E. Ridley Woodhouse, is not a white man, as everyone in Frost Falls, including Ben, assumed. She's a white woman.

Ben promised Dunlop that he'd offer his support for the new doctor during the transition, a transition that has become far more fraught, given Dunlop's keeping the sex of his replacement a secret. And that the women of Frost Falls are even more opposed to a female physician than are its men. Dr. E. Ridley Woodhouse is mannerly, but private, "willing to listen, not willing to share" (120), which makes it hard for the people of Frost Falls to put their trust in her. And she's prickly, too, quick to take umbrage with those who question her skills, or her independence, even if they do so inadvertently.

In order to keep his promise to Dr. Dunlop, Ben chooses to work behind the scenes, deciding when and if to reveal things he knows, and things he is doing, to Ridley and to his fellow townsfolk. Not that this is something that Goodman tells her reader directly; instead, she shows us Ben choosing not to tell the new doctor that he's the sheriff, or to tell the townsfolk they encounter that she's the new doctor, the first day she's in town. And Goodman has Ben think only in passing about the "spies" he relies upon to keep track of the new arrival during the weeks that follow, without giving us any details of who they are, or even if they are aware that Ben is using them for his own secret purposes.

And though a reader certainly assumes that since Ben and Ridley are the two characters from whose points of view Goodman tells her story, the two are headed for future romance, she rarely shows either thinking lascivious, or even romantic, thoughts about the other, at least not until the two are practically in bed together. And while they snip and snipe at one another, their banter is never mean-spirited; Goodman, like Ben, wants to make us laugh, and includes plenty of dry, wry humor as she slowly builds the romance between her amusing lawman and her serious doctor.

If she's going to keep secrets from the reader, why should Goodman choose dual point of view, rather than tell this story entirely through Ridley's eyes? Perhaps to reassure the reader that the secrets that Ben is hiding behind his oh-so-cheerful facade are not secrets that will be damaging or harmful to Ridley if she places her trust in him. Early in the story, Ridley thinks "It was difficult to argue with [Ben]... but it did not keep her from trying. He simply grinned at her in that maddening way of his and rolled over her objections by never addressing them at all. He never really argued so he never lost an argument. It was frustrating and just a little unnerving" (127). If we didn't have any access to Ben's interior thoughts and feelings, such behavior could be read as demeaning to Ridley, a sign of a man hiding a dangerously controlling streak behind a false front of good cheer.

Instead, showing us some of the thoughts inside Ben's head, Goodman shows us a man worthy of our admiration and trust. And thus we cheer him on as he and Ridley gradually being to join forces to help the residents of Frost Falls. They work together to rescue a family overcome by poisonous gas from by a faulty stove; to foil a robbery at the town bank; to figure out why the town's most influential woman, a woman who actively worked to promote women's suffrage, is trying to undermine Ridley's reputation. And most importantly, to come up with a way to help a family whose male head is becoming increasingly prone to drinking and physically abusing his wife, when said wife will not tell the truth about what has been happening to her.

As they work together trying to address the town's problems, Ben and Ridley also make the conscious decision, mid-book, to become lovers. They aren't moved by torrid passion, or uncontrollable desire, but by wry humor, by affection and appreciation, and by deep respect for the strengths and needs of the other. Though on the surface, they appear to be opposites—Ben amusing, Ridley serious; Ben open, Ridley self-contained—at heart, they are quite similar, and quite suited:

    "Sometimes I take things too seriously, myself included."
     "Sometimes." He paused, bent his head to catch her eye. "And sometimes I fail to see when things are serious."
     She shook her head. "No, you don't. I never think that. You merely wear a different suit of armor than I do."
     Ben said nothing. She had captured it exactly. (263) 

Ben's preferred method of dealing with problems is to deploy his particular suit of armor, what might best be described as "soft power": influencing others so that they see what he wants them to see, wants what he wants them to think. Rather than taking the more traditionally masculine path of force, physical or verbal, Ben uses methods more commonly associated with feminine persuasion: he works behind the scenes, placing this bit of information in that person's ear, another bit in someone else's. Which is perhaps why many of the problems he and Ridley tackle—the inequality of traditional gender norms, domestic violence—have clear feminist implications.

And why in the end, their story asserts, some secrets are better kept than revealed.

As least, as long as they're not kept from the reader...









A Touch of Flame
Cowboys of Colorado #2
Berkley, 2018

Friday, February 15, 2019

The Appeal (or not) of Compulsory Demisexuality

I've always had decidedly mixed feelings about the "fated mate" romance, but could never quite articulate why. Until this past week, when I came across the term "compulsory demisexuality." It's a fascinating concept, and one that helped me understand the sexist implications of the "I'm only sexually attracted to my one true love" ideology that's found in many single title and even more category romances.

Jodi McAlister, in her other guise as
YA author
Over the course of my years of reading about and studying gender and genre, I've often come across the term "compulsory heterosexuality." But this past week was the first time I'd heard the similar coinage, "compulsory demisexuality." The phrase appears in Lucy Neville's book Girls Who Like Boys Who Like Boys: Women and Gay Male Pornography and Erotica (about which I plan to write more in a future blog post), but the term was first coined by romance scholar Jodi McAlister. Wanting to find out more about this fascinating idea, I checked Neville's footnotes, and then tracked down the Australasian Journal of Popular Culture from 2014, in which McAlister's article, " 'That complete fusion of spirit as well as body': Heroines, Heroes, Desire, and Compulsory Demisexuality in the Harlequin Mills & Boon Romance Novel," was first published.

Lesbian feminist poet and essayist Adrienne Rich used the phrase "compulsory heterosexuality" to describe the way that our society compels its members to believe that opposite-sex attraction is normal and natural, and to regard same-sex attraction as unnatural and deviant. The phrase is meant to call into question these so-called "natural" assumptions, to point out that they are not inherent to humanity, but are instead social constructions.*

McAlister's riff on Rich's term, "compulsory demisexuality," has a narrower scope and but a similar purpose. At the start of the majority of Harlequin Mills & Boon category romances, the female protagonist, or heroine, is demisexual: she can only feel sexual desire towards someone for whom she first feels an emotional attachment. But compulsory demisexuality takes demisexuality one step further. As McAlister explains, "someone who is actually demisexual is capable of experiencing attraction to a number of partners, as long as they have an emotional attachment to those partners" (300). But in the HM&B romance, "demisexuality intersects with the narrative of one true love" (300), so that a romance heroine can only feel sexual desire for one man, the man who is her soulmate. Women, according to the category romance, are (or at least should be, if they are proper heroine material), innately demisexual. A heroine will know the man she loves because it is only with him that she will share "that complete fusion of spirit as well as body" (in the words of Denise Robins, author of the 1933 Mills & Boon romance Shatter the Sky).

McAlister goes on to make two additional important points about compulsory demisexuality in the category romance. First, that while the male protagonist in such books is rarely demisexual at the start of the romance, by its end, he, like the heroine, is decidedly demisexual. Think of those passages in your romances when, after being attracted to the heroine, the hero suddenly discovers that the pleasure he once took in looking at, or sexually interacting with, other women has suddenly disappeared. He's just not that into looking at other women, at playing the field, anymore; he only has eyes (and a hard-on) for her. Converting the hero to demisexuality signals the triumph of the heroine; she has brought him into her world, a world in which "sex and love are tied together." As McAlister pungently puts it, "she gives him love as a sexually transmitted disease" (307).

Cover of a 1961 edition
Second, the "way in which compulsory demisexuality has been realized within category romances has... changed over time." In Shatter the Sky, published all the way back in 1933, "the happy ending of the novel is less a victory for the heroine and more a victory for loving demisexual relationships in general... a victory for [heroine] and [hero], rather than a victory of [heroine] over [hero]" (308, emphasis added). But the demisexual paradigm becomes more, rather than less, associated with the feminine over the course of the twentieth century, especially in the period after World War II:

Although the idea that sex and love should be linked has been a consistent hallmark of the Mills & Boon novel, there seems to be a growing emphasis on the idea that this is a uniquely feminine viewpoint, and it is this viewpoint—her viewpoint—that triumphs at the end of the romance novel. (309)

McAlister describes the pattern of compulsory demisexuality in her article, but she doesn't speculate about its implications, or its potential effects on romance readers. Is it a problem that category romances demand compulsory demisexuality of their protagonists? And that many many single title-length romances do as well?

Sexier cover, same compulsory
demisexual message: 2009's
Desert Prince, Bride of Innocence
I think it is. First, by demanding compulsory demisexuality of female protagonists, category romances suggest that female sexual desire cannot and should not exist without first being activated by a man. And not just any man, but only by the "one true love" a heterosexual woman is destined to be romantically linked to for the rest of her life. If a reader identifies with the heroine of such romances, or sees said heroine as a role model, she may passively accept such beliefs without even realizing she is doing so. What's even worse, those beliefs implicit shame any girl or woman who experiences sexual desire before she meets her "one true love." Compulsory demisexuality functions to control female sexuality, to contain it within the safety of a patriarchal relationship. Hardly the sex-positive attitude a feminist would wish for her in her romance reading.

And compulsory demisexuality also works to instill the idea that there is and must always be a "one true love" for each and every woman in the world, a belief that can lead to the idealization of romantic relationships and unrealistic expectations of a romantic partner. It can also lead to the belief that life is not complete if one has not found "one true love," and/or to a justification for looking down on those who haven't yet found (or have no desire to find) a "soulmate."

Are there any upsides to compulsory demisexuality that I'm overlooking? Or when we come across messages of compulsory demisexuality in our romances, should we set them aside and look for romance options that don't promulgate the compulsory demisexuality message?



* Rich, Adrienne. "Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence." Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 5.4 (Summer 1980): 631-660.


Photo credits:
Jodi McAlister: Goodreads


Tuesday, February 12, 2019

Navigating the Line Between Stalking and Devotion: Katie Ruggle's HOLD YOUR BREATH and CD Reiss's BODYGUARD

I've never been much of a fan of romantic suspense, especially those stories that feature a villain who stalks the a female heterosexual heroine. They often seem to ask a reader to share in the feeling of said protagonist, the feeling of fear and terror that knowing that there is someone out there, usually a male someone, who has crossed to the wrong side of the line between selfless devotion and dangerous obsession. For some readers, being invited to share such feelings proves cathartic, because by the end of a work of each romantic suspense novel, the love interest who is dangerously, often violently obsessed is always banished or defeated, dis/replaced by a love interest who understands what it really means to love, honor, and protect his heroine. But for me, there is no thrill in the fear; being invited to share in someone else's fears when my own are already sometimes too strong to stomach is not something to which I'm inclined to issue a "yes" RSVP.

Which is why I was surprised to find myself enjoying two recent works of romantic suspense, one that takes the conventional formula and pushes it to the edge of its feminist possibilities, another which shifts the focus away from the more traditional formula to think more deliberately about just where the line is between stalking and devotion.

Katie Ruggle's Hold Your Breath (the first book in her Search and Rescue) series, is told mostly from the point of view of twenty-six-year-old Lou (Louise) Sparks, who has recently relocated from the comfort of her white privileged New England upbringing for a life in the Rockies. Though she pays the bills for her small cabin by working as a barista in the local coffee shop, Lou has decided to put her expensive diving lessons to good use by joining the local volunteer rescue ice diving team. Current-day Lou is a quick-talking ball of fire, messy and impulsive, who immediately catches the attention of her polar opposite, strong and silent Nordic-looking Callum Cook, the head of the diving squad. Methodical and controlled, Callum also has the typical alpha hero's protective streak, and quietly but immediately beings to help Lou when it looks like she's being stalked by her ex.

Lou both resents and appreciates said protectiveness. She resents it, because her goal in moving away from home and family was to reinvent herself as a stronger, more self-sufficient woman, and Callum's insistence on helping not only plays into sexist stereotypes ("I am fully stocked with tools, despite being in possession of a vagina" Lou wisecracks [116]), but makes her feel far too tempted to just "dump everything" in Callum's lap, "and lie on a fainting couch while you fan me with palm fronds and feed me grapes" (251). Lou doesn't want "to go back to that helpless, weak person I was before," back when she did whatever her parents, and her controlling boyfriend, ask/demanded her to do (251). But the book's message is that everyone, not just women, need to rely on others, even in the self-sufficient wilds of the Colorado Rockies. As Callum explains, "It's okay to have help. When we go on dive-team calls, we are never alone. We're stronger together, safer together" (252).

Ruggle still relies on putting her heroine in danger, over and over again—slashed tires, dive safety line cut, house set on fire, and body attacked directly, not just once but twice, by Mr. Stalker. And while we aren't privy to Callum's inner thoughts or feelings, we are given the occasional glimpse inside the mind of Lou's stalker. While I understand that this is a standard move in the romantic suspense formula, used to simultaneously heighten suspense by give the reader advanced notice that something really bad is about to happen, and also to reassure the reader, by giving her more knowledge that the protagonists don't yet have, I always end up feeling squicky when I have to read those scenes, because they force me to identify even for a few moments with a villain who hates the female heroine in large part because of her gender.

Though Callum helps Lou escape several times from the dangers of her stalker throughout the course of the novel, he also states quite directly that he doesn't admire Lou because he thinks she's weak and thereby makes him feel strong by comparison. Quite the opposite: "You are smart, and you might not know how to do something, but you figure it out. You're tough and brave, and I respect you" (282). And Ruggle constructs the final confrontation not one in which Callum rescues Lou, but one in which she rescues him, and herself. An event which allows her to accept the book's overall message that it is not weak to rely on others:

"In the hospital I had a lot of time to think, and I realized that loving you doesn't make me weaker. To save you, I dove into a frozen reservoir, killed a guy, and almost died."
     He flinched, and she gave him an apologetic grimace. "Loving you actually made me into a kind of badass." (366)

It's about as feminist as you can expect a romantic suspense novel to be if it still also hews to the key tropes of the formula. So if you don't mind the parts of RS that squick me out, you might want to give Ruggle's book a try.

If you're looking for something that interrogates the romantic suspense formula, rather than pushes its boundaries, then CD Reiss's Bodyguard might be more up your alley. The second book in her Hollywood A-List series, Bodyguard features the classic trope of a heroine in danger and the bodyguard hired to protect her falling for one another. But the basic set-up is just about all that is familiar here in Reiss' unconventional imagining of the classic trope.

In fact, Carter Kincaid isn't choreographer Emily Barrett's bodyguard at all, at least not at the start of the novel. He's been hired to join the security team for Emily's best friend, pop singing sensation Darlene McKenna. Even though they came from quite different socioeconomic backgrounds, white Emily and black Darlene bonded over gymnastics camp, then over dancing and singing, and left Chicago together as high school grads to chase their dreams of fame in LA. But once there, the two women's dreams took off in opposite directions: Darlene's towards stardom, Emily's to obscurity due to a bum knee and a boyfriend who disliked sharing his woman with the spotlight. Darlene had enough experience with abusive relationships to recognize that Vince was not a good influence on Emily, it wasn't until Vince moved from verbal to physical abuse that Emily was able to listen to her friend's advice and dump him. Darlene proves a staunch friend, not only helping Emily gain a restraining order against Vince, but also hiring her to choreograph her shows and videos.

All this has happened before the start of the novel. The trouble now is that the restraining order against Vince is about to expire, and Darlene is convinced that he'll be back. In real life, breaking free from one's stalker isn't just a matter of physical confrontation; there's the law, the legal system, and the prejudices of individual judges who administer them to deal with, too. As Emily explains to Carter when he observes that a one-year restraining order is pretty mild,

"The judge was unusually hostile to women. Said Vince only hit me once so he'd probably forget about me in a week. No need to inconvenience him further... And he insinuated I was going back to him anyways. Judge Croner, and I'll never forget his name, didn't want to 'remove incentive for Ms. Barrett to work on the relationship as opposed to lean on the courts when things get rough.' Which was another way of saying I was crazy enough to deserve it."

And so Darlene ups her security by adding Carter (who is presumably white) to her team. And after Emily is the victim of a not-so-funny anonymous prank, one that no one on the team prevented, Carter is given the specific assignment of watching out for Emily.

Which, interestingly, turns out to be only a temporary gig, as both Carter and Emily find themselves physically drawn to each other. Carter does the "I shouldn't/I must/I shouldn't dance for a few chapters, but fairly early on in the book asks to be reassigned, knowing that his growing feelings for Emily will only get in the way if he is assigned to protect her. In most bodyguard/target love stories, the two sides of the pair are forced to remain together throughout, the threats (and attempts to implement said threats) to one used to heighten the romantic feelings of each for the other. But in Carter's case, there is no need for such external heightening; his feelings for Emily skyrocket in intensity all on their own. And we know this because the narrative is a dual viewpoint one: we get inside both Emily's head and Carter's (but not, significantly, inside Vince's):

"I didn't have any control around Emily. I knew plenty of beautiful women and plenty of smart ones. She had real talent, but in Hollywood, talent is cheap. My reaction to her came from the gut. My body overrode my common sense. I had to have her. I'd never been addicted to anything, so I was unprepared for what an addiction did to a guy. I didn't know if I liked it, but I knew I couldn't do anything about it. Like an addict, I felt powerless in the face of my addiction" (112)

Romantic? Or stalkerish? If one didn't know any better, the intensity of the above might suggest that these are the thoughts of Emily's ex, Vince, rather than Carter, her supposedly more sane new love interest. Even Carter himself realizes this, and asks himself, "Where was the line between stalking and devotion? When could a woman be convinced? How could I show her I wanted her without scaring her?" (170). Given that Carter's family is also haunted by the aftereffects of obsession gone frighteningly awry, it's not a question that he, or the narrative, takes lightly.

And thus Reiss's romance is not about Carter's strength in the face of Emily's weakness, or Emily's endangerment. Or the push-pull thrill of protagonists in repeated danger. It is instead about the need for privacy and trust, the damage done when privacy and trust are violently violated, and how far one can and should go to protect oneself, and the people one loves, in the face of such violation.

I like the conclusion that Reiss comes to (in Emily words): "Nothing was guaranteed. Life wasn't sure, protected, or secure. But [Carter] made love feel as if it wasn't a risk. Love was the good part. The joy. The reason. Love was the one thing worth protecting." (316)

Photo credits
Ice rescue training: Daily Camera Bolder News
Stalking Awareness: Centers for Disease Control
Two women singing: ©Blend Images www.fotosearch.com
1 in 4/1 in 13: Women with a Vision





Hold Your Breath
Rocky Mountain Search and Rescue #1
Sourcebooks/Casablanca, 2016










Bodyguard
Hollywood A-List #2

Montlake Romance, 2017