Tuesday, January 22, 2013

E-books, Wonkiness, and Feminism: Some Thoughts on Ruthie Knox's ABOUT LAST NIGHT

"Yeah, well. Looks can be deceiving." She thought of how he'd seemed to her before she knew him, cold and polished as a marble statue at the train station. How he really was when they were alone. Hot and messy. Intense and conflicted. Vulnerable and real. — Ruthie Knox, About Last Night

 As a woman who's conducted a life-long love affair with the printed page, accepting the advent of the e-book has been a struggle. In the spring of 2010, a tech-savvy friend brought over his cool new toy, an iPad, and demonstrated how he could make the adventures of Lewis Carroll's Alice come to life with a flick of his finger. I smiled, but inside I scoffed; a child brought up in the age of technology would hardly be satisfied by the miniscule interactivity offered by such a silly program, while a bookish child would find making the cards fly around Alice's head an unwelcome distraction from the real action: the story. Just because technology makes it possible to create something doesn't mean that it's worth creating.

In the two and a half years that followed, I continued to hold out against the onslaught of the e-reader. I watched as my dad, my mother-in-law, my best friend's daughter all succumbed to the lure of the electronic book.  They bragged about the ease with which their Kindles and Nooks allowed them to download and read almost anything they wanted, about how it was so much easier to take a small e-reader on a trip than it was to lug around a bundle of books. Still unconvinced,  I would simply smile while I packed my tote bag full of hardcovers to take on vacation. Keep your technology, I sniffed; I far preferred snuggling up with a real book.

What finally made me reconsider my Luddite position was not any new app or gee-whiz technological advance bruited about by the e-reader companies, but the simple fact that books I wanted to read had begun to be published ONLY in e-book format. At first, it was stories and novellas, works I could justify resisting; largely gimmicks, I thought, these short e-texts were likely just another ploy by publishers to "extend the brand," to make as much money off gullible readers as possible by convincing them to fork over dollars for something in e-format that they would never spend money on if they ever saw how slim a paperback copy of the same text would be. The temptation became greater, though, when authors I liked began reissuing long-out of print books in e-format, books that I couldn't get even through my local library's extensive interlibrary loan system. But still, I resisted.

Finally the day came when I discovered a new, full-length romance novel recommended by multiple reviewers on which I simply could not get my hands. I searched for this book on my library network; then, at online bookstores. To my chagrin, I discovered that this book would not be simultaneously issued in both print and e-text, but as an e-book only.  And then, at long last, I finally broke down and clicked that "purchase" button for a brand spanking new e-book. Yes, Ruthie Knox, you are responsible for taking my e-reader virginity.

At least I gave it up for a wonk. Knox, together with six other romance authors, created the blog Wonk-o-Mance in January of 2012. Their manifesto argues for both the viability, and the appeal, of the non-traditional in romance: "We are the mythical readers, the undermarketed writers, who like our protagonists less conventional, our conflicts less tidy, our endings less certain. We want escapism, but with a nice shot of human frailty." The Wonk-o-mance moves beyond the tall and tan hero, the thin and plucky heroine, the de facto amazing sex (at least some of the time) to give readers stories of the less expected. Tightrope-walking the line of romance conventions, sticking a toe over it upon occasion, even giving it a kick now and then to see how far it will stretch and still remain tied, a wonky writer will not be constrained by the homogenizing force of the lowest common denominator of the mass market, but will carve out her own unique niche, certain that there are others out there like her.

Not all wonk-o-mance is necessarily feminist, but wonkiness and feminism turn out to have a lot in common, as illustrated by Knox's recent Loveswept e-book original, About Last Night. Combining the false engagement/marriage trope of the romance with the embarrassing too-drunk-to-get-home-need-to-be-rescued trope of chick lit seems like a recipe for conventionality. Yet in Knox's hands, the tropes reveal themselves open to unexpected possibilities, in large part because of the way Knox reveals more and more nuances in her characters as their story unfolds. Looks can be deceiving, as heroine Cath notes in the quote that opened this blog, but great pleasures await those who move beyond the surface into the world of wonk-o-mance. And some of those pleasures are decidedly feminist.

Commuter romance
One of those pleasures is the way Knox depicts sex between her protagonists. During Cath's first intimate encounter with the man she's noticed riding the train into London every morning, the man she's dubbed "City" when she writes about him in her journal, the sex is mind-blowing. Yet its greatness is not due to some magical true love connection between Cath and Nev (City's real name is Neville), but rather to Nev's willingness to take "the time to figure out what she liked." For Cath, none of whose previous lovers could be held up as exemplary, Nev is a revelation: "She tried to remember when another man, any other man, had taken her hand off his dick so he could kiss her neck and make her shivery. She drew a blank."

Cath doesn't expect her lover to mystically intuit her sexual preferences, either; instead, she communicates her desires: "She squeezed his hand tight whenever he found a good spot, gasped and moaned, urging him on." She does wonder, though, if a considerate man makes for a considerate lover, never having been attracted to a "nice" guy before. But Nev is not nice in an unattractive, insecure way. He, like Cath, knows what he desires: "No hesitation. No playing around. He behaved like a guy who was used to getting what he wanted." Cath finds not only his attraction to her, but her own active welcoming of it, a turn-on: "It was heady, being what he wanted and letting him get her." The narrative positions Cath not as a woman being possessed by a man, passively succumbing to his active sexual ministrations, but as a thinking, consenting adult who participates fully in their mutual sexual exploration.

Another feminist pleasure is the way the narrative refuses to succumb to the trope of having all of one's problems solved by falling in love. Cath and Nev do change over the course of the novel, but not because (or just because) they come to love one another. They change because each is able to show the other how the stories they've been telling themselves to make sense of their pasts—Cath convinced she's doomed to failure, destined to wreak pain and hurt on others; Nev believing he's done the best he can to carve out his own life in the face of his dominating family— can be retold, seen in an entirely different light. Love is not a cure-all band-aid; love sees both the worst and the best in the other, and helps the beloved see it, too.

I'm still not a big fan of the e-reader. I miss the deliberate choices made by an intelligent book designer about what size type, what typeface, best suits a particular story. I miss being able to pull out a quote from a book and cite a particular page, so my readers can find it again themselves if they wish. I miss the feel of paper in my hands, the smell of it in my nose. I worry that without its physical manifestation available for me to see and hold, a book isn't really quite mine.

But if the world of publishing continues to move in the direction of electronic books, I will have to grin and bear it. For e-publishing is making it possible for the strange, the unconventional, the wonky to find a market in a way the economics of physical book production rarely allow. And now that I've met it, I wouldn't give up the wonk-o-mance world for anything.

If only they would make those wonky e-books available through some print-on-demand service, for Luddites like me...

Ruthie Knox, About Last Night. Loveswept, 2012.

Photo/Illustration credits:
• Alice: Apple iTunes
Commuter Love: Virtual Tourist
• I Love Books: City of Waco, TX

Next time on RNFF:
Contraception Use in Contemporary Romance


  1. Ditto.
    Every word. About Ruthies writing and about the ereader fad. It is just a fad, right? LOL
    Great review
    lisakhutson at cox. net

  2. If there is one author worth going electronic for, it's Ruthie Knox! I also like that her heroines don't expect love to magically "solve" anything. It makes the happy ending of her stories so much more enjoyable.

  3. Thanks, krazymama_98 and pauline, for stopping by, and adding your thoughts and praise for Ruthie Knox. Glad to know she's got a lot of fans out there!

  4. Yesss! Ruthie Knox and this book in particular struck the very same cord in me! Admittedly I read 10+ romances a month of varying quality and heat level, and believe me Knox's book really stood out for me in 2012 and made my best of 2012 list. Another excellent "wonky" author I'd recommend is erotic romance author Charlotte Stein. Her novella Deep Desires pushes boundaries and is very "messy" but the one she's just given me to review (it's still in the editing process) called Addicted is just WoW. She and Knox are top-notch! Thanks for the insightful review I enjoyed it!
    ~Tina from BookCrack.com

  5. This is a fantastic post and I've subscribed to your blog I loved it so much. I couldn't agree more with all of the points you made. I bought an ereader for exactly the same reason after resisting for quite a while, and when I find a book I love I wish I owned it in print because I find it impossible to flick back through a digital book and reread my favorite scenes.

    And Ruthie Knox is SUCH a breath of fresh air. I love her stories. They are perfect for thinking women who have respect for themselves, for other women and for men - and who want characters who do, too.

  6. Another great post! I usually read your posts on my phone, and it's inconvenient to leave comments when browsing on a device. Thank you for this recommendation--I'm going to purchase some Knox e-books right now! (I miss real books, too, but I've got nerve damage in my hands, and they are so much happier with me since I switched to e-reading!) Cheers-- Kelly @ Reading with Analysis.

  7. Kelly:

    I didn't even think about the issue of readers with carpel tunnel syndrome and other hand-related problems having difficulty with the printed book. Thanks for bringing it to our attention.

    Have fun with Ruthie Knox!

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