Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Barbara O'Neal's THE ALL YOU CAN DREAM BUFFET

It's been quite some time since author Barbara Samuelson (later O'Neal) transitioned from writing romance to writing books that fall within the broader category of women's fiction. Yet as her latest novel, The All You Can Dream Buffet, shows, her writing still has a great deal to offer readers whose primary allegiance is to romance, particularly those readers with feminist sensibilities.

Willakenzie Lavender Farm,
O'Neal's source for her Lavender Honey Farms
The first gift O'Neal offers is her depiction of a community of women who support each other, both in their professional and personal lives. In the master narrative of traditional romance, most female characters besides the protagonist are cast as evil others, as competition for the main goal of winning the male protagonist's attention, affection, and ultimately, love. Romance novels can often teach readers to be wary of other women, to regard them not as colleagues or allies, but as rivals for the ultimate prize: the winning of a man. The All You Can Dream Buffet, in contrast, depicts four women who have built a community of friendship and support, initially without having even met, at least in person.

Each member of the Foodie Four—eighty-four-year-old Lavender Wills, an airline stewardess during the 60s and 70s and current owner of Lavender Honey Farms; nearly fifty Ginny Smith, small-town grocery store baker turned cake photographer; twenty-six-year-old Ruby Zarlingo, vegan chef; and forty-seven-year-old Valerie Andrews, former prima ballerina and wine connoisseur—drawn by her passion for food, began her own blog. Five years earlier, Lavender asked Ruby if she could use information Ruby posted on her blog about herbs; Valerie contacted Lavender about wine and lavender pairings; Ruby became intrigued by Ginny's beautiful new blog; and soon the four were knee-deep in conversations about the technical and marketing issues of blogging, conversations that gradually began to include the personal as well as the professional. Despite the difference in their ages, backgrounds, geographical locations, and family situations, the magic of the Internet allows Lavender, Ruby, Ginny, and Val reach across time and space and form an encouraging, loving female community. A community that is coming together at long last to meet in celebration of Lavender's birthday.

The second gift O'Neal offers is a depiction of romance in middle age. We're hardly surprised to find twenty-seven-year-old Ruby as the star of one of the novel's romance arcs; late-twenties or early thirties heroines are the staple of current contemporary romance. Yet to find the "edging hard toward fifty" Ginny in the midst of an unexpected mutual attraction is a surprise as sweet as any of the cakes Ginny photographs for her blog. Particularly because the married Ginny has lived her entire life in the (perhaps heavy-handedly, but quite tellingly) named town of Dead Gulch, Kansas, living quietly within the low expectations of her fellow townsfolks, friends, and family. Blossoming love is not only for the young folks, but can happen to us middle-aged ones, too, O'Neal's novel quietly but persuasively insists.

And this is the third gift that O'Neal offers: the gift of new beginnings, the gift of moving on. Ginny isn't the only one who uses the opportunity of the trip to Lavender's Oregon farm to take stock of her life, and to change its direction. Whether it is moving on from a deadening marriage, from the confusion of a relationship ended without explanation, or even from the excoriating pain of grief, O'Neal shows us women in transition, women supporting one another as each struggles to emerge from a time of confusion and pain, shucking off the temporary cocoon such times require to emerge on the other side, ready to embrace new possibilities, new beginnings.

What I most appreciated about this gift was the novel's insistence that we can't always explain, or even understand, why relationships that began in such joy sometimes turn so horribly wrong. Ginny's husband cannot, or will not, ever explain why he stopped wanting to have sex with her; Ruby's former boyfriend can't find any words to tell her, or even himself, why, after six years of being passionately in love with Ruby, he woke up one day to find himself just as passionately in love with someone else. It is tempting for both Ruby and Ginny to take the blame, or perhaps the opposite, to turn their hurt into bitterness and hate for a once-beloved partner. Instead, the novel shows us a Ginny and a Ruby who gradually come to accept that while there may never be understanding, neither can live a fulfilling life if she continues to long for what her partner simply cannot give. Life is a buffet of dreams; sometimes you must give up an old, familiar favorite to have the room savor the delights of a dish yet to be tasted.


ARC Courtesy of NetGalley

Photo credits:
Lavender: Willakenzie Lavender Farm
Blog banners: Barbara O'Neal





The All You Can Dream Buffet
Bantam, 2014

Friday, March 21, 2014

THE GLASS SLIPPER: WOMEN AND LOVE STORIES

Imagine you're a college professor, faced with a classroom of smart, empowered, independent, self-determining young women. Imagine, then, asking those postfeminist women about their expectations of love. Will you be surprised to find that most of your students still hold tight to the "old idea of a woman's value as defined through her ability to attain the love of the high-status man lives on to a surprising degree"? That the "lure of being chosen by the desirable man who pursues, and the fear or not being seen as a desirable object worthy of emotional attachment, are more powerful than the threat of what they might lose through submergence in a relationship" (xi)?

Be empowered...
The "double bind" facing modern young women—the expectation society holds out that girls should simultaneously embrace their own power and serve as a desirable objects worthy of a male's emotional attachment—both intrigued and disturbed Professor Susan Ostrov Weisser, so much so that she wrote an entire book, The Glass Slipper: Women and Love Stories, which attempts to explore why, in our postfeminist age, stories of love are still predominantly aimed at women, not at men, and whether women benefit personally and as a gender from them.

...but make sure you "make him want you more!"
Examining popular romances from diverse genres—literary novels, genre romances, romantic film comedies, magazines, Disney movies, and reality television shows—Ostrov argues that the "master narrative of current romantic literature" is symbolized by Cinderella's glass slipper: "the Glass Slipper is a trope for the 'perfect fit' of the romantic couple and particularly women's wish to be chosen as the One, whose value is at last recognized and rewarded at the moment she is discovered as perfect for him" (1). Though many modern love narratives "seem to take seriously feminism's advocacy of equal gender roles, leading to an egalitarian partnership or marriage," the prevalence of the Glass Slipper trope points to a "strong wave of nostalgia for traditional ideas of gender" (2). The "modern ideology of love's democratizing power" serves as an often ill-fitting mask covering the older agenda.

While the Cinderella tale has existed for centuries, the Glass Slipper trope is of more recent origin, Weisser argues. In Western society before the Victorian age, marriage and passionate romantic love were not typically linked. Earlier conceptions of marriage as a value exchange (women give attractiveness, domestic labor, and breeding rights to their husbands in exchange for economic provision and social status) had begun to shift during the eighteenth century, toward the companionate marriage, or "love match." But the "love" portion of the "love match" meant something far different to late eighteenth-century society than it does to our contemporary one. As Weisser notes, both conservative Jane Austen and radical Mary Wollstonecraft "devalued 'romantic' views of love as flighty, inimical to the importance of rationality and judgment, companionship, sensible affection, education and culture, and admiration of good character in marriage" (37). The Romantic movement revivified an earlier vision of love, one linked to "sexual desire, intense and all-consuming" passion (38), but it would take the Victorians to domesticate this heightened emotion, working to control it by placing it within the bounds of marriage. Much of the master narrative of our contemporary romance narratives relies on this historically specific linkage of passionate love to monogamous marital relations, with a late 20th century addition of female sexual empowerment.

Two powerful paradoxical visions of love coexist in the minds of Weisser's students, and in much American discourse about romance, both legacies of past views of love. First, "the mystery of passion" and second,

the knowledge and control that allow enduring affection to thrive in a permanent and primary relationship. We blithely live with these paradoxical convictions: on the one hand, the prevailing wisdom is that you "have to work at relationships," while on the other, love relationships are "meant to be" in some mysterious way. There are whole sackfuls of clich├ęs that support each of these ideas. My sophisticated students will readily mouth both unquestioningly; oddly, they may sneer at "fate" as an overly romanticized causal explanation, yet say that a particular relationship was "not mean to be" to justify or console themselves after a breakup. (9)

Passion & companionship? One then the other?
Or are the two at odds?
We reconcile these two opposing view of love by seeing them as serially true, or what Weisser terms the "stages theory of romantic love": "first comes the passion, then a more 'mature' version of romance will develop out of the first stage, which will be permanent if the object is the One [the Glass Slipper trope]. In other words, the magic comes first, and that enables the rational relationship" (9). Passionate love, viewed in earlier times as destructive, rule-breaking, often adulterous (think Lancelot and Guinevere), and in many ways at odds with monogamous marriage, has now become incorporated into monogamous marriage, as a "feeling that enables relationships. But we moderns don't want to relinquish passion—it's a popular theme of our culture... so the much older rhetoric of transcendent emotion and intense sexuality has had to be incorporated into our larger social system of marriage and family" (9).


Why should we, in our postfeminist age, still hew to the Glass Slipper trope, a vision of romance that arose during the Victorian age, in response to social and historical pressures of that period, not our own? Weisser argues that "in a society in which there are suddenly greater sexual freedoms than ever, women counter their anxiety about continuing sexual exploitation by clinging to romantic love as a kind of emotional affirmation that they are worth more than the exchange value of their bodies" (xi). Her analysis in the chapters that form the body of her book undertake close readings of overwhelmingly popular romance narratives—Jane Eyre, Lady Chatterley's Lover, Glamour and Cosmopolitan magazines, The Bridges of Madison County, Disney's The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast, the Sex and the City films, the Twilight trilogy, Harlequin romances, the television shows The Bachelor and The Bachelorette, Internet dating site profiles—trace the ways in which these texts gesture to feminist principles but also continue to espouse "a common fear of giving up traditional ideology, in which women will be respected only if loved by men" (208).

Weisser's decision to focus on breadth in regards to genre necessarily leads to a narrow scope within each of her chapters. Thus it can often feel as if she is shooting fish in a barrel, choosing the three or four obvious texts that best work to support her claims rather than seeing if a genre overall conforms to them. Much of her analysis of specific texts, too, repeats arguments or ideas that other critics have posed long before her, works that Weisser herself does not refer to (for example, I've read many other analyses of Disney's Beauty and the Beast that challenge the early praise of the film as feminist; I'm sure film, television, and other media scholars could say the same about chapters devoted to texts in their areas of specialty). Still, her close readings of diverse types of narrative are all insightful, nuanced, and persuasive, and, taken as a whole, provide clear evidence to support the major arguments she poses in her Introduction.

Though I admired its close readings, I found the book's Introduction and Conclusion to contain the most food for thought as a scholar and writer of romance. Weisser's overarching argument—our ideas about love are "not timeless or universal" or "the pure expression of primitive desires" but rather "historical representations of social issues" (206), representations that change in response to historical and social change—is incredible helpful both for scholars approaching the study of the genre, and for fiction writers wishing to interrogate or question the universality of contemporary romance's depiction of love. Its corollary—that older models of love persist, despite social and cultural changes that would seem to negate their purpose, often surviving in ambivalent tension with newer definitions—urges scholars and writers alike to think about the multiple discourses they might discover or draw upon in their texts.

I especially appreciated Weisser's call for further study of the genre as a whole:

Romance has become a formidable part of contemporary Western culture because it is an easy response to genuine confusion over love and gender, aided by media and profit. We ought to think more carefully about romance, embedded as it is in a multimedia society that is increasingly complex and shifting in its gender values. In particular, we need further analysis of love that neither indicts nor trivializes what is so important to so many women in modern times, one that both appreciates women's needs and is clear-eyed about the price we pay for fulfilling them. (211)

Here's to more works like Weisser's, scholarship that both appreciates and analyzes the books romance readers so love.



Photo credits:
Go Girl: High Heels and Hot Flashes blog
Cosmopolitan cover: Wikipedia
Passion and companionship: Slate

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Spotlight on the Lambda Nominees: Karin Kallmaker's LOVE BY THE NUMBERS

'Tis the season for literary awards to announce their nominee lists. As I mentioned in this post, the Nebula list, awarded by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA) came out late last month; in early March, the Lambda Literary Foundation announced its nominees for the 2014 Lambda awards, prizes awarded to "the best lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender books in their year of publication." The Nebula Award honors fantasy and science fiction in general (best novel, novella, novelette, etc.), with no sub-category for SF or Fantasy romance. But the Lambda Literary Awards give awards to both the best "gay romance" and the best "lesbian romance," defined as books that "feature a prominent lesbian/gay character or contain content of strong significance to lesbian/gay lives" and that "focus on a central love relationship between two or more characters." Gay and lesbian romances may fall into any one of the many sub-genres of romance, including "traditional, historical, gothic, Regency, and paranormal romance," according to the LLA web site.

M/m romance, and, to a lesser extent, gay romance, have become widely popular amongst general romance readers. But lesbian romance has not received the same level of attention, or interest. Given my own lack of knowledge of this area of the field, I decided to read all of this year's Lambda nominees for best lesbian romance, and to report on my reactions to them here on RNFF.

The first thing of interest to me as I begin this project is how few of the Lambda-nominated titles were available through my local library network. Massachusetts' Minuteman Library Network (MLN) is a consortium of 43 libraries, with 62 locations, including 36 public and 7 college libraries. Through the MLN network, I was able to interlibrary loan most of the books from the Nebula list that included a romance storyline. But access to the Lambda titles was far more limited. The week after the awards were announced, only one of the Lambda nominees for gay romance could be ordered, and none of the lesbian romances. Is this due to a lack of respect for gay literature? Or for romance? Given Massachusetts' liberal reputation, particularly in regards to gay rights, this lack of gay romance titles in the MLN system is more than a little surprising.

The second thing I noticed was that most of the Lambda award lists included books from multiple publishers. For example, 10 books nominated for Best Gay Romance were published by 8 different publishers (with Riptide Publishing garnering 3 of the 10). In contrast, the lesbian romance list was dominated by only two publishers: Bold Strokes Books and Bella Books, with 4 titles each (Phoenix Rising Press and Bedazzled Ink Publishing Company/Nuance rounded out the field). I'm curious, now, wondering about the percentage of publishers putting out lesbian romance books compared to gay and m/m romances, and the percentage of lesbian romance books published each year compared to gay and m/m romances. Tried to do a quick Google search to find figures, but didn't have much success. Any readers out there who might point me in the right direction?

Finally, my thoughts on the first title to arrive in my mailbox: Karin Kallmaker's Love by the Numbers. A seasoned romance and fantasy-science fiction writer, Kallmaker was awarded the 2011 Trailblazer Award by the Golden Crown Literary Society, "a literary and educational organization for the study, discussion, enjoyment, and enhancement of lesbian literature." Kallmaker's latest romance focuses on the "hate at first sight" relationship between a dour scientist and a woman hiding from her parents' criminal past.

The irony of Nicole Hathaway's academic tract on DNA and sexual attraction going viral is not lost on the less-than-personable professor. Nicole has cultivated a reputation as difficult and humorless, not only to protect herself against the unthinking sexism and racism a female scientist of Indian descent faces every day in the American college environment, but also to keep her private sexual preferences hidden from colleagues and family alike. The only thing that Nicole is looking forward to about the book tour her publisher is bent on sending her on is being able to hit the lesbian clubs and bars without fear of her alter ego, leather-wearing Cole, being outed. But when her publisher assigns the younger, gorgeous, and presumably straight Lily Smith to be her assistant on the tour, Nicole finds herself growing increasingly attracted to the woman who seems her opposite in every regard. Will she be able to survive the grueling book tour without allowing Lily to catch sight of Cole?

Unlike many of the m/m romances I've read, I really got a sense of a wider gay culture from reading Kallmaker's romance. Though Nicole remains closeted through much of the book, and Lily keeps her sexual preferences private from her boss, both women participate in the larger world of lesbian life, going to lesbian bars, attending a women's music festival, and picking up on sexual signals from other lesbians they encounter during their multi-country tour. Even while the one-to-one relationship between the two women develops, Kallmaker's book clearly acknowledges, and is embedded in, a larger, sexuality-specific culture.


Unlike most mainstream heterosexual romances, Kallmaker's story offers more in the way of intellectual than emotional pleasures. This may be due in part to Nicole's scientific personality; for example, when Lily says, "You don't feel that a person's race has bearing on whether they can have successful relationships." Nicole replies, "My feelings are irrelevant.... The data plainly says that race is not a factor" (91). Nicole often stops to analyze her own physical reactions, or the reactions of others, to help her contain her own feelings, a personality tick that also distances readers from her: "The pleasure of looking at Lily had her dopamine, serotonin and oxytocin spiraling upward" (189). Nicole is so emotionally closed-off, it made me wonder if Kallmaker intended for us to see her as on the high-functioning end of the autism spectrum (as Lily notes about some of her own former professors, "brilliant and utterly without social graces....Their neurons fired a little bit differently than most people's and their empathy was sometimes on a time delay. There, but slow to surface" [19]). Her distancing didn't seem a cultural thing, as both her mother and her half-sister were far more emotionally expressive.

The emotional pleasure also seems understated in large part because throughout most of the novel, neither Nicole nor Lily is aware that the other is attracted to her, or even that the other shares her sexual orientation: "There was nothing about Lily Smith that pinged her gaydar, and Nicole felt that hers was exceptionally accurate. She had made a study of the cues and signs of other lesbians to avoid giving out any of her own" (26). We read of Lily's growing desire for Nicole, and Cole's for Lily, but we get little of the mutual sexual attraction that for one reason or another must be denied/repressed, the mutuality and the repression that provides much of the emotional zing in traditional heterosexual romance. And when the sexy times finally do commence between Lily and Nicole, they are brief and interrupted by family problems the very next morning.

The intellectual pleasures, though, are many. We hear pieces of the presentations that Nicole gives during her many book tour stops, presentations that lead readers to question certain givens most people have about the way romantic love works. For example, when trying to get Nicole to give more thought to how to engage her popular, rather than academic, audiences, Lily notes:

"You found that people in interracial relationships were no more or less likely to succeed—be happy— than people who weren't. So when I read that case study what I took from it is that if I am looking to find a mate, there is no reason to narrow the field because I think I might be happier with someone of the same skin color or racial background... If I'm a woman looking to find a life mate, my possible pool just increaesd multifold. And that gives me hope. It says that it's actually a good idea to look outside my usual paths of life. Go further afield. Open my eyes to parts of the world I'd ignored" (91).

And later, during one of her book talks, Nicole tells us,

"Contrary to romantic comedies, the sexual spark isn't a reliable predictor of long-term success. Every participant in our study had felt it with both positive and negative outcomes. More than half said that while sex was important, it was not the deciding factor in the decision to make a long-term commitment" (108).

And

"So if sexual attraction isn't a good predictor of long-term relationship success, what are some of the things that are? One of the most commonly cited personality traits that participants said they shared with their long-term partner was a self-described 'good' sense of humor. That doesn't mean laughter, however. The predictor isn't that both people can laugh, but that they laugh—or cry, or get angry—at the same things. Their emotional responses to the same stimuli—a pie in the face, the loss of a parent, a national tragedy—are similar" (108)

Info-geek that I am, I wish that Kallmaker had included a note citing her real-life sources for Nicole's research findings; I wanted to track down and read the actual studies.

But if much of Love by the Numbers is more cerebral than emotional, its ending is filled with all the love declarations and love-proving gestures that fans of romance crave. I'm looking forward to reading some of Kallmaker's other work, and discovering if the balance between intellectual and emotional pleasures plays out in similar, or different, ways than it does in this Lambda-nominated title.


Photo credits:
Minuteman Library: Somerville Public Library
Golden Crown Logo: Golden Crown Literary Society
Laughing: Nurse Uncut





Love by the Numbers
Bella Books, 2013

Friday, March 14, 2014

Comfort Reads

A few too many family health crises this week = no time, and no brain space, left for blogging :-(

But check out this post by Dear Author blogger Janet about "comfort reads," something I'm definitely in need of right now.

What romance novels do you turn to when you're in need of comfort? And what kind of comfort do they offer?


Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Control and the Alpha Male: Suzanne Brockmann's DO OR DIE

Award-winning romantic suspense author Suzanne Brockmann is the owner of a more-than-intriguing reputation. On the one hand, her celebration of the military in both stand-alone volumes and in her Navy SEAL-focused Troubleshooters and Tall, Dark, and Dangerous series, has won her a devoted following among politically-conservative readers. On the other, her championing of diversity, both within her books and via her personal activism on behalf of gay marriage rights in her home state of Massachusetts, has won her the label of "groundbreaker." Though many romance writers before her had written heroes and heroines of color, Brockmann is oft-cited as the first mainstream romance author to include an openly gay romance subplot in her work.

How do celebrations of the alpha military male coexist with celebrations of diversity, in particular, celebration of male homosexual identity? When being gay is often equated with being feminine, or at least un-masculine, how is masculinity constructed in Brockmann's books?

Given the breadth of Brockmann's oeuvre, I suspect one could write an entire book attempting to answer these questions. This post attempts to give an abbreviated answer by looking at the main male character in Brockmann's latest novel, Do or Die, the first book in her new Reluctant Heroes series.

As in many of Brockmann's Ballentine-published books, Do or Die features multiple romantic storylines: the developing one, between former Navy SEAL and currently-jailed bad boy Ian Dunn and his would-be lawyer, Phoebe Kruger; the already-established one, between Ian's younger brother, Aaron and his high-school sweetheart, Shelly (Sheldon) Dellarosa; and a third, unresolved one, between Shelly's half-sister, Francine, and several potential love interests. Ian, though, is the hero of this particular volume, not only because he's the leader of the group who must rescue two kidnapped children from a foreign embassy while avoiding the wrath of Shelly's murderous gangster Dellarosa family, but because he is the one who experiences character growth over the course of the novel.

Ian, much older than Aaron, served as his brother's parent during much of their childhood, taking on the responsibilities that should have been shouldered by a mother who abandoned them and a father who drank far too much. His desire to protect, as well as his supersized body, military heroism, and leadership skills, marks him as a typical romance alpha male. Interestingly, though, up until now, his protective instincts have focused largely on his gay younger brother rather than on the more typical genre romance figure of a woman. When the novel opens, in fact, Ian is fulfilling a deal he made with Manny Dellarosa to keep the gangster from killing Aaron and Shelly, a deal which had Ian spending the last eighteen months in jail after taking the rap for a crime Manny's son actually committed. A deal about which Ian has not told Aaron, leaving Aaron upset and worried, wondering what has happened to his missing brother.

Over the course of the novel, however, Ian's protective instincts become awakened toward the more conventional romance figure. Lawyer Phoebe Kruger becomes inadvertently embroiled in the kidnapped-children-retrieval caper, and the verbal and physical sparks between her and Ian soon start to fly. In many a romantic suspense, we see the controlling alpha male being repeatedly ignored by the mouthy independent woman, typically to the woman's detriment so that the alpha male can then swoop in and rescue her from whatever danger she would have avoided if only she'd listened to him. Brockmann plays with this trope to interesting effect in Do or Die. Phoebe has a TSTL moment at the opening of the book, ignoring Ian's instructions to remain in the safe house, not believing that the Dellarosas would threaten or harm a member of the law firm that represents their interests. Ian, predictably, comes to her rescue when the Dellarosas come calling.

But in several other instances later in the novel, when Ian instructs Phoebe to remain behind while he trots off into danger, Phoebe initially agrees, but then disregards Ian's instructions when the situation changes and she must warn Ian about a new threat. Though Phoebe's disregarding of Ian's orders complicates each situation, the novel makes it clear that her decisions are the correct ones, saving both Ian and their larger mission. Blindly obeying orders, even those of the alpha male leader of your team, is not always wise, especially when conditions on the ground are rapidly changing. Over the course of the novel, Ian will learn that he cannot always control all situations, and that he must learn to trust the skills, knowledge, and instincts of those around him, especially those about whom he feels the most protective—his female lover and his gay younger brother. Neither women nor homosexuals need the protective alpha to infantilize them by condescendingly protecting them.

There's lots of other gender-related questions that the novel asks us to consider, or that we could ask after reading it: Is a romance between gay men the same as one between heterosexuals? To what degree are women and gay men equated as "other"? Is it morally right for a woman to use sex to forward a mission? Is it for a man? (My favorite line: "I was lying here thinking I'm guilty of being sexist... That it's somehow okay when James Bond does it—sleeps with someone in order to learn the secret code, but then I realized that I kind of hate James Bond. Probably because he sleeps with people to learn the secret code"). When does the "we're all alike once you get to know us" type of diversity celebration shade over into homogenization and appropriation? Is there room in the Brockmann world for masculinity (or femininity) that isn't always competent?

If only I had the time to go back to school and earn another Ph.D., this one in Suzanne Brockmann studies...


Photo credits:
Firefighter saving woman: Women's Happiness






Do or Die
Reluctant Heroes
Ballantine, 2014

Friday, March 7, 2014

The Good, the Bad, and the Ideological

Earlier in my professional career, I spent a year working as a freelance children's book reviewer for several national book review journals. Writing reviews of 60 or fewer words (which I did for The Horn Book Guide), or longer 150-250-word reviews (for Publishers Weekly) barely gave me enough space to limn a book's plot and write a sentence or two about its literary merit. Analyzing, or even mentioning, the ideology/ies underlying a particular novel or work of nonfiction was completely beyond the scope of such traditional-length reviews. Not that many review journals would have appreciated a reviewer who spent time pointing out a book's gender, racial, sexual, or any other politics. Most journals like to pretend that what constitutes good literature is completely separate from issues of "isms," and that bringing up political concerns will only muddy the literary critical waters. One of the reasons I started writing this blog was to have the chance to review books while discussing not only their literary merits, but also the implicit and explicit expectations about the world, about life, and in particular, about masculinity, femininity, and love that each book contains.

But because I was trained both as an editor and as an academic scholar, I always bring along my own expectations about what good writing is, and what it isn't, to any book I read. Correct grammar, round rather than flat characters, showing rather than telling—these and many other rules I've learned and internalized over the course of almost 50 years of reading shape my reaction to every text I encounter.

I've read many a book that I consider well-written, even beautifully written, but which espouses ideologies I cannot stand. But what happens in the opposite situation? When I read a book which I would consider feminist, but which I find poorly written? How important is it to me as a reviewer to uphold certain standards of writing? How important is it to you as a reader of my reviews? How sure are we that those standards of writing themselves do not contain implicit assumptions, assumptions that may directly or indirectly lead me to exclude certain books from consideration? Can the line between good and bad writing be so easily drawn?

This issue proved particularly pressing for me this week as I read Pepper Pace's interracial romance Crash. On her Facebook page, Pace self-identifies as black, and notes that she is yet to be published. But she has self-published quite a few interracial (IR) romances, and was recommended to me by a commenter in response to a blog post earlier this year about wanting to read and feature more works by African-American writers.

As its heroine, Crash features a woman not unlike Pepper Pace herself, a forty-two-year-old woman of African descent who writes IR romances. Spotting a young runaway out her back window one night, at first Sophie chooses not to get involved. But when she sees that the person is still there hours later, Sophie's memory of her own mother vowing to protect her draws her outside. Sitting on the curb is a young white teen, homeless, the victim of a beating. Sophie invites the boy, Lucas, inside, then takes him to the hospital when she realizes he's not only been beaten, but robbed and raped.

Sophie believes that Social Services will take care of Lucas, but when it turns out that the boy is not a boy at all, but a man of twenty-two, Sophie ends up bringing him back home, offering him a place to sleep in her basement, and a temporary job working as her assistant. Thus begins one of the most unconventional romances you'll ever find, a romance that crosses not only differences of race, but also of age. Pace's novel is vitally interested in how to draw the line between loving and taking advantage, issues of power that come up in both racial and age-related situations such as the one in which Lucas and Sophie find themselves. I found her story unusual and intriguing, and deeply appreciated reading about characters whose stories and voices are so rarely heard in mainstream fiction.

One of the many truisms I've learned
about what constitutes "good" writing
But Pace's story breaks so many of the rules of good writing that I take for granted that, despite my interest in her characters and her story, there were many times when I wondered if it was worth it to keep going. Hopping from Lucas's POV to Sophie's and back again within the same scene, without any warning, made it difficult to keep track of who was thinking and feeling what. Several consistent word misspellings ("Ma'ame" instead of "ma'am," for example) kept tripping me up, pulling me out of the story, as did the constant misuse of semicolons. Long paragraphs that summarized actions instead of showing through scenes kept putting me at a distance, instead of drawing me in to the narrative, the position I most enjoy being in when I read, especially when I read a romance. If I had to give the book a rating based only on the writing, I'd probably give it a 2 out of 5. And that would be generous.

On Goodreads, though, Pace's books consistently earn ratings of 4 stars and higher, so it's clear that not everyone shares my beliefs about what constitutes good writing. Or, perhaps, believes that writing matters to quite the same degree that storytelling and characters do (interestingly, though, on Pace's blog Writing Feedback, she announced that she had been re-editing several of her previously published books, with the help of outside editors, suggesting that she herself is aware that there is room for improvement on the level of her prose).

Does it matter to you? How willing would you be to read a romance that you felt was not well written, but which presented a character, or a storyline, from an underrepresented group? Would you be interested in reading reviews of such books? Why or why not?

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Suspenseful Equality: Carolyn Crane's OFF THE EDGE

I've read romantic suspense novels with police officers, detectives, and FBI agents as heroes. With army officers, Navy SEALS, and members of various military special ops groups. Even with spies, thieves, and the occasional assassin. But until last week, when I picked up the second book in Carolyn Crane's Undercover Associates series, I'd never come across a work of romantic suspense featuring an academic in the leading male role.

Or at least, a former academic. American Dr. Peter Maxwell was once happy to spend his days analyzing language, breaking words into smaller sound components, spending "entire months studying the way different people pronounced a dipthong like the ow in low, and draw all kinds of conclusions about what that meant" (20). But after his family and his fiancee are killed during an attack on a Mexican train, Peter turns his academic skills to tracking the terrorists responsible. So successful does his investigation via linguistics prove that he's recruited by a secret cabal, The Associates, a private group devoted to "keeping the balance of power intact," "keeping World War Three from happening," and "stopping the most despicable crimes" (124). After years of training, Peter Maxwell has transformed himself in Macmillan, one of the smartest, as well as the most dangerous, members of the Associates team.

If Henry Higgins had turned to spying...
For his latest mission, Macmillan has come to Bangkok in the guise of a visiting professor, but really to keep a disturbingly advanced remote control drone, a weapon powerful enough to take out an entire airport, and precise enough to target a single man on a crowded street, from falling into criminal hands. If he could only get close enough to hear the conversations of arms dealers who have gathered in a famous Bangkok hotel, he'd be able to use his linguistic analysis skills to hone in on the man who stole the weapon, and shut him down before he can auction off the weapon to the highest bidder. When he realizes that the hotel's lounge singer, a woman whose sentimentally irritating songs have been pissing him off all night, has been recording her set, her equipment right next to the arms dealers, Macmillan knows that seduction and larceny are next on his agenda.

Laney Lancaster, like Macmillan, has come to Bangkok for motives other than what appear on the surface. Having played a vital role in sending her gangster husband to jail, Laney fled the States to avoid being captured by men loyal to her ex. Hiding in plain sight in Thailand, Laney seems a damsel custom-fitted for being rescued from distress.

But Laney, like Macmillan, is far from the typical romantic suspense heroine. Though the opening scene shows her fleeing and hiding after spotting a man she believes worked for her husband, Laney is determined to protect herself, determined never to allow the abusive Rolly to harm or control her ever again. To never allow another man to tell her want she wants, to make her feel small, to turn her into a victim. Her skills with language, as well as her newfound skills with a gun, will make sure of it.

Macmillan may think he's the one in control during their seduction, but Laney's way with language proves just as disarming as his own. For Laney, poetic language is "about connecting with people, not hurting them or isolating them [as her husband uses it]. The dusty old poets Laney so loved—Keats, Byron—they helped her feel less alone, as though she was linking with another soul across time. That was poetry" (9). Macmillan uses language against others, to hide and deceive, to hunt and track, to entice and seduce. But Laney uses language to forge connection, to delve beyond the commonplaces, to flush out the truth. To pull pieces of the old Peter out of Macmillan, pieces he'd long imagined dead: "Peter hadn't lost parts of himself in the train bombing. He'd gained parts of himself. He was all of these things. Lover. Fighter. Scholar. Hunter. Killer."

Peter, like most romantic suspense heroes, feels protective towards Laney, and takes his fair share of punches, insults, and bullets on her behalf (and on behalf of the mission). But it's her courage that he most admires, not her frailty: the courage to forge meaningful connections with others, even after the abuse she suffered from her former husband; the courage to fight with him, to tell him what he doesn't want to hear; the courage to keep hope alive. "That was Laney. A warrior for the people she cared about" (215).

Unlike in much romantic suspense, the emotional thrill of this book doesn't stem primarily from watching its heroine be placed in danger. Instead it's from the danger that both Peter and Laney face together. And from the emotional vulnerability each must risk for the other, if their mission is to succeed. For it will be their ability to work together, rather than Peter's ability to swoop in and rescue, that will bring these two "word nerds" to a fittingly happy, and feminist, ending.


Photo credits:
Rex Harrison as Henry Higgins: Wikimedia
Word Nerd: Melville House







Off the Edge
(Associates #2)
self-published by Carolyn Crane
2013