Friday, May 3, 2019

Imagining the Joys of a Progressive Political Future: Casey McQuiston's RED, WHITE, & ROYAL BLUE

Several of the workshops featured at this past weekend's "Let Your Imagination Take Flight" conference, hosted by my home chapter of Romance Writers of America, focused on "getting unstuck" and fighting writers' block. And I shared many conversations with fellow writers talking about the feeling that something is missing when we sit down to write these days, suggesting that this is an issue for many American romance authors at this particular point in history. Several colleagues pointed not to the prevalence of unpleasant weather currently plaguing America's northeast, but instead to the country's current political situation as the most likely reason why they are experiencing stress, lack of inspiration, and just plain burnout at the thought of writing about happily ever afters. It can be hard to imagine a more progressive future when you feel mired in an ever-expanding swamp of lies, constantly having to justify and defend the values, and the people, you hold dear.

Which was why it was such a joy to sit down post-conference and read Casey McQuiston's joyful but politically pointed romance comedy debut, Red, White, & Royal Blue. McQuiston originally came up with the hook-y premise for this book—the son of the American president falls for the youngest of England's royal princes—in early 2016, before the surprise of that fall's Presidential election. After said election, McQuiston herself felt blocked: "Suddenly what was supposed to be a tongue-in-cheek parallel universe needed to be escapist, trauma-soothing, alternate-but-realistic reality. Not a perfect world—one still believably fucked up, just a little better, a little more optimistic. I wasn't sure I was up to the task" (Acknowledgements).

I for one am amazingly grateful that McQuiston managed not to give up on this story. For rather than reading as a "tongue-in-cheek parallel universe," the love story of presidential son Alex Claremont-Diaz and Prince Henry of Wales served for me as a glorious vision of a more hopeful, progressive, and utterly achievable political future.

What does said future look like? It looks like a country willing to elect not only a female President, but a female amicably divorced from her first husband and happily married to her second. It looks like a country with two biracial first children (Mexican-American senator father, white President mother), who, with the "vaguely bisexual" granddaughter of the Vice President, serve as the country's most talked-about, and admired, twenty-somethings. It looks like a world in which the younger generation, comfortable both working and socializing in a multiracial, international, global world, serves as a model for their more cautious elders.

It also happens to look a lot like a classic enemies-to-lovers romance.

Staffers new to the White House are informed early on of three important things about FSOTUS Alex Claremont-Diaz: he lives at the White House, even though he's still in college (Georgetown is so close!); he often calls for coffee in the middle of the night while working on his college essays or his mother's reelection strategy; and he has a long-standing grudge against the youngest of Britain's royal princes.

A few years older than Alex, Prince Henry has always struck Alex as a dull stick-in-the-mud, undeserving of all the adulation and attention focused on him:

The tabloids—the world—decided to cast Alex as the American equivalent of Prince Henry from day one, since the White House Trio is the closest thing America has to royalty. It has never seemed fair. Alex's image is all charisma and genius and smirking wit, thoughtful interviews and the cover of GQ at eighteen; Henry's is placid smiles and gentle chivalry and generic charity appearances, a perfectly blank Prince Charming canvas. Henry's role, Alex thinks, is much easier to play.
     Maybe it is technically a rivalry. Whatever. (Loc 149)

Which is why attending the wedding of Henry's older brother is filling Alex not with delight, but with snark. As he tells elder sister June, "You can't just call him my 'arch nemesis'... 'Arch nemesis' implies he's actually a rival to me on any level and not, you know, a stuck-up product of inbreeding who probably jerks off to photos of himself" (93). And so, to the surprise of no-one, Alex can't restrain himself from taunting his "arch nemesis" during the very proper wedding reception:

The most annoying thing of all is Alex knows Henry hates him too—he must, they're naturally mutual antagonists—but he refuses outright to act like it. Alex is intimately aware politics involves a lot of making nice with people you loathe, but he wishes that once, just once, Henry would act like an actual human and not some polished little wind-up toy sold in a palace gift shop. He's too perfect. Alex wants to poke it. (229)

Poking polite Henry, however, quickly escalates into "Cakegate" (you have to read it to appreciate it), an international breach of etiquette so dire that requires major diplomatic efforts (and major acting) to patch up. As his mother's aide sternly informs Alex,

"Both sides need to come out of this looking good, and the only way to do that is to make it look like your little slap-fight at the wedding was some homoerotic frat bro mishap, okay? So, you can hate the heir to the throne all you want, write mean poems about him in your diary, but the minute you see a camera, you act like the sun shines out of his dick, and you make it convincing" (311).

All Alex is convinced of is that a person who lists his hobbies as "polo" and "competitive yachting" has about as much personality as a cabbage. But with his mother facing a challenger criticizing her for her chilly relationship with her British counterpart, Alex gives in and heads to London for a whirlwind weekend visit with his "close personal friend" Prince Henry.

Alex prides himself on his ability to read others, and is convinced that he knows all he needs to about the stuffy, dull prince before he even gets off the plane. But during their tour through charity events, television interviews, and a false-alarm assassination attempt, "he keeps getting these little glimpses into things he never thought Henry was. A bit of a fighter, for one. Intelligent, interested in other people. It's honestly disconcerting" (623).

Even more disconcerting is the friendship the two develop via text message, and occasional in-person meetings, in the ensuing months. Because while Alex prides himself on his ability to read others, his ability to understand himself could use a bit more work. Especially when it comes to his own latent attraction to a not-quite-so-proper prince.

But can the son of the American president date a British prince in the middle of a re-election campaign? Especially if mom needs to win their home state of Texas in order to guarantee a repeat?

I've quoted so often from Red, White, & Royal Blue in the above review because so much of the pleasure in this rom com comes from McQuiston's distinctive, laugh-out-loud voice, told entirely from the point of view of its hyper intelligent but emotionally clueless main character. Though the story is told in the third person, it's also told in the present tense, which gives the narration both immediacy and a certain wry distance, both of which are perfectly suited to conveying Alex's character and charm. For example, after Alex sees a picture of Henry with a "mysterious blonde," the narrator tells us "Faintly, under it all, it occurs to him: This is all a very not-straight way to react to seeing your male frenemy kissing someone else in a magazine" (1655). Or the scene where Alex is trying to figure out whether he might not be as straight as he's always assumed by calling his former (male) best friend and asking, "This might sound weird. But, um. Back in high school, did we have, like, a thing? Did I miss that?" (5485).

No romance reader will want to miss McQuiston's glorious celebration of snark, sentiment, and the progressive political possibilities of a not quite straight royal romance.

And no writer could find a better cure for political-despair-induced writers' block than McQuiston's sparkling, effervescent romance.

Photo credits:
British/US flag pin: Athletic awards
Royal wedding cake: Getty Images
Hate to Love trope sticker: RedBubble 

Casey McQuiston
St. Martins, 2019

Tuesday, April 23, 2019

Short Takes: Spring 2019 Historicals by RNFF favorites

Cover of Elizabeth Kingston's DESIRE LINES

After being in somewhat of a historical romance reading funk for the first few months of 2019, I was thrilled to see that several of my favorite historical romance writers had new books coming out in the spring. Here are my short recs for books by three RNFF favorites:

Courtney Milan's full-length historicals feature traditional male/female romance pairings. But her shorter works tends to star more unconventional couples. The duo in her latest, Mrs. Martin's Incomparable Adventure, might just win the award for most underrepresented characters in Victorian romance. Although they are both white, both of her lovers are female, as well as "seasoned"—one in her sixties, the other in her seventies. Though the eponymous Mrs. Martin suffers from a lack of spirits after the death of her best friend, she hasn't lost any of her outspoken manner ("My husband, God rot his soul, used to bring prostitutes home all the time. After he'd finished with them, I'd serve them tea and double whatever he was paying them.... It was hard work fucking my husband. Trust me, I should know. I certainly didn't want to do it" [Kindle Loc 225]). She's certainly not the meek, retiring gentlewoman recently sacked boarding house manager Miss Violetta Beauchamps was hoping for, a woman whom Violetta could somehow swindle into paying the far-overdue rent for her smarmy nephew. Violetta desperately needs that money in lieu of the pension her employer had promised her, but then chose not to pay her upon unfairly firing her after she'd worked for him for forty-seven years. In fact, Violetta is far closer to the meek mouse she had hoped Mrs. Martin would be than is the formidable Mrs. Martin herself.

But after Violetta shares the truth of her nephew's boorish behavior with his aunt, Bertrice Martin decides to set off on the adventure her doctor prescribed: not for a rest in Bath, but to London with Violetta, to help the unfortunate woman drive out the sponging "Terrible Nephew" from what she mistakenly assumes is Violetta's boarding house. Milan's trademark humor is in fine form here, as is her penchant for pushing her characters into a seemingly inescapable corners then inviting us to watch with unabashed glee as they use unconventional methods to escape the confines society wishes them to inhabit. Violetta's transformation, from traditionally "nice" woman who is happy to fade into the background to one who speaks out on her own behalf as well as Mrs. Martin's, is particularly delicious.

An Unconditional Freedom, the third entry in Alyssa Cole's American Civil War-set series The Loyal League, features a man as disillusioned as is Milan's Violetta, but far less happy to accept his fate with any meekness or humility. Before the war, Daniel Cumberland's greatest trauma was that the woman he loved (the heroine of book 1, An Extraordinary Union) did not love him back. But after the idealistic aspiring lawyer is kidnapped from his Massachusetts town and sold south into slavery, his happy, carefree nature is quickly beaten out of him. We meet Daniel after he is rescued from enslavement, unable to fit back into his old life, to "be strong and forget what happened," as his father recommends. Instead, he's working as a spy for the Loyal League, a spy who prefers to work alone. But when Janeta Sanchez, a new recruit, enters the league, the angry, disdainful Daniel is assigned to be her partner.

Janeta, the daughter of a Cuban planation owner and the black slave woman he later married, has grown up taking slavery for granted, even while recognizing that her golden brown skin makes others treat her not quite the same as they do her obviously Spanish half-sisters. Moving from Cuba to Florida changed little for her—until war broke out, and her father was arrested on suspicion of being a northern sympathizer. Her lover in the Rebel army promises that if she will spy on the Yanquis, he'll make certain her father is freed. And thus Janeta, the daughter of a slave owner, finds her way to the Loyal League, using her skill at hiding behind layers of pleasing behavior to ingratiate herself with all of its members. All, that is, but the wary Daniel.

Cole choice to decenter the whiteness that typically looms so large in northerner vs. southerner Civil War stories is not only a boon for readers of color looking for greater representation of their experiences in historical romance; it also allows white readers to step away their fears of being associated with the villain in the more typical white/black binary portrayal of slavery. Which may allow them to read without debilitating defensiveness about the blind spots that many whose heritage does not include a history of enslavement and racism often have towards those whose does, as well as the ways that good people are indoctrinated into accepting what we today often self-righteously believe we would never accept ourselves. Take this exchange between after Daniel and Janeta, after Daniel reveals the scars on his back:

     Janeta thought of the time her family had gone into the city center in Santiago. Her mother had clapped her hand over Janeta's eyes when they'd walked by a man tied to a post with his bloody back exposed.
     You don't need to see such things. You are a Sanchez. You don't have to endure such ugliness.
     She couldn't look away now, though. Daniel has bared to her this proof of his ill treatment and all she could ask herself was, "Why?"
     "That man tried to start an insurrection. They had to make an example of him."
     That's what her father had told her later when she'd questioned him about what she had seen. He'd handed her a gift when she'd asked why insurrection was bad, a beautiful porcelain doll with creamy skin, rouged cheeks, and blue eyes, and she'd let the matter drop.
     "What did you do?" she asked Daniel, and saw the muscles beneath the scars tense.
     "You think I did something to bring this upon myself?" he asked, his voice taut, and Janeta's fear came to the surface then. Not that he would hurt her, but that she'd made yet another misstep.
     "No! I—I meant, why did they do this to you?"
     He shook his head and pulled his shirt back up over his shoulder, not turning to face her as he did up his buttons.
     "I was born a Negro in a country where that is a crime, and I was ignorant enough not to know that I had already been convicted."(Kindle Loc 556)

Both Daniel and Janeta discover their own blind spots as they work together to track Jefferson Davis—and struggle to reconcile the plans of the Loyal League with their own secret goals.

Cover of Elizabeth Kingston's DESIRE LINES
After Elizabeth Kingston's call for "Reclaiming Historical Romance" in the December 2018 issue of RWA's Romance Writers' Report, I was interested to see how she herself would address the problem of white supremacy in her own medieval historical romance writing (you can get a copy of her article free via her online store). The third book in her Welsh Blades series, Desire Lines, features two white protagonists, one an aristocratic the other a servant. But neither protagonist is typical of their class, a major theme of the story. The book also includes a secondary character who is dark-skinned, and a brief subplot depicts a Jewish family persecuted by the English. Such characters, while they do not play major roles, go a long way towards disrupting the "white mythos" of the more traditional medieval historical romance.

Gryff and Nan first meet on the road to Lincoln, when the bandits who have been holding Gryff captive attack the group of travelers of which Nan is a part. It is the servant, Nan, though, not the nobleman Gryff who does the rescuing, letting fly with her deadly knives until all of the robbers are dead. Gryff, fearful for his life from more than just the bandits, doesn't tell his rescuer or any of her fellow travelers his true identity, and neither does the narrative, although brief flashbacks hint at his less than lowly upbringing. Nan, though a servant, has benefitted from the favor of several noblewomen, favor that has not only taught her how to wield a knife, but also to speak Welsh as well as a noblewoman would. During their long journey across England—Nan looking for a long-lost sister, Gryff for his best friend, after which both then travel to Wales—the two exist in a liminal space, outside of traditional societal norms and expectations. Which allows each to see beyond the surface of the other, and of course to fall in love with that person. But when their journey comes to an abrupt end, that liminal space ends, too, and each must decide whether their feelings for one another can survive in a world that expects something far different of a nobleman than it does of a servant. An old-fashioned historical in the best sense—not because it has an all-white cast, but because it glories in real angst, high stakes, and a bucketload of both physical and emotional longing, with personal feelings set against seemingly insurmountable demands of honor and duty.

Not to mention the falcons and hawks...

Tuesday, April 16, 2019

The Thinks and the Feels: Kennedy Ryan's LONG SHOT

(Content Warning: discussion of domestic violence and rape)

On the eve of the NCAA basketball National Championship, star college baller August West is sitting in a bar, reluctant to return to his hotel room. It's not only the eve of his biggest game ever; it's also the eve of the birth of his father, a former NBA player who died fifteen years earlier, and he's restless and jittery. But after his high school coach, whom he was supposed to be meeting, has an unexpected emergency, West reconciles himself to an early evening.

Until he hears the young woman cussing like a sailor at the basketball game on the television at the other end of the bar.

Said woman's knowledge of basketball is almost as impressive as her colorful language, and West feels an immediate connection. Not because she plays up to him—in fact, she's initially pretty dismissive—but because he discovers that she, like he, is biracial. When he asks her where's she's from, the woman explains about her New Orleans Creole stock on her mother's side, and her German and Irish on father's: "I'm a mix of everything the bayou could come up with... So my cousin says I had more ingredients than gumbo," (Kindle Loc 231). Though West's mother is the white parent, his father the black, West and "Gumbo" share the same experience of feeling like a racial outsider. "Did you ever feel like you didn't quite fit anywhere? I mean, like you were always kind of in between?" Gumbo asks him, which causes West to think "I may not look a lot like my African-American father, but I look nothing like anyone in the family I have left. Most kids were one thing or the other and clumped together based on that. It left me sometimes feeling adrift" (245).

West and Gumbo (her actual name is Iris) get so caught up in their conversation that they end up shutting down the bar. But when West goes in for a kiss at the end of the night, Iris call a halt. To West's everlasting regret, she's already got a boyfriend.

After this opening meet-bittersweet, a reader is expecting that the aforementioned boyfriend is not long for Iris's arms. And that the resultant romance will focus on two people connecting over their mutual biracial identities and experiences.

But said reader would be mistaken. For Ryan's story is less traditional romance and more women's fiction, a journey that the author hints at in the Author's Note that prefaces the novel:

I started writing this book two years ago out of righteous indignation on behalf of a young woman whose journey I didn't understand. I write when I have something to say, and I knew I couldn't say it from a place of judgment and hypotheticals. So I started talking with women who had walked that path.

Ryan writes in abstractions here, but one can't really write a review of her novel without being more specific. For the "path" that she refers to is the path into and out of an abusive romantic relationship. The "place of judgment" Ryan mentions is likely the judgment that many who have not experienced such a relationship first-hand tend to make about not the abuser, but the person being abused. Why didn't they leave? Why did they take it when the verbal abuse started pouring out of a love one's mouth? Why did they stay when the fists started flying? They just must be weak, or must want to be abused, right?

But the Iris we meet along with August is not weak in the least. As August observes, "A lot of girls just reflect. They figure out what you like so they can get in with a baller. This one has her own views, stands her own ground and doesn't five a damn if I like it. I like it" (224). And when we get inside Iris's head, we discover that her main goal in life is to not end up relying on a man, as her mother has for most of her life. She and her cousin have "always been afraid of ending up like our mothers—depending on a man for everything, taking his scraps" (908).

Iris DuPree's relationship with Caleb Bradley isn't about taking his scraps—at least at first. Despite being an economically privileged white college boy, Caleb spent time and effort to woo the reluctant Iris, and they've been dating for almost a year. But readers with any knowledge of how abusers operate is likely to pick up on the clues Ryan drops that Caleb is not as great a guy as he seems. He prefers Iris to wear her hair a certain way, gives her clothes that he wants her to wear, and is prone to angry outbursts on the basketball court when things don't go his way. And he's definitely not excited about Iris's post-college career plans, plans that will likely take her away from him.

Entitled Caleb proves to be a master manipulator, and Iris, despite her reservations, ends up living with her boyfriend soon after Caleb enters the NBA. And since West has also been drafted, Iris and West's paths end up crossing and recrossing, brief conversations with West serving as welcome respite for Iris from an increasingly tension-filled relationship with Caleb.

A relationship that, by the end of Caleb's first professional season, turns verbally and physically abusive. But a relationship that Iris can't find her way out of, at least at first. Ryan does not shy away from depicting the violence that Iris experiences at Caleb's hands; there are multiple scenes of both assault and rape on the page. Such depictions are likely to be deeply triggering for many readers. And for readers who are immersed in rape culture (as are we all), it can be difficult to read such scenes as solely violent when rape has so often been presented as an erotic experience in popular culture. Not at all what the author intended, I'd guess, but still, hard to escape.

Why then did Ryan choose to include such scenes? What purpose do they serve? Is is possible to tell the story of domestic abuse without showing on the page the violence that lies at its heart? Is it empowering or disempowering for those who have been abused to see similar abuse depicted directly, rawly, without a veil? What about for those who have not experienced such abuse themselves? Does seeing such violence depicted on the page make those who haven't been victims more sympathetic toward those who have? I don't think there are any easy "yes" or "no" answers to such questions; each reader will have to decide for themselves whether to pick up Ryan's book knowing that such scenes are included.

What I can say is that I wholeheartedly applaud Ryan's inversion of the racist image of the white woman endangered by overly sexualized black man, an image that has played out over and over in American popular culture since the end of the Civil War (see D. W. Griffiths' 1917 film Birth of a Nation for just one example; see Martha Hodes' White Women, Black Men for a historical corrective). While the majority of sexual assaults in the United States today are intra-racial (victim and perpetrator are of the same race), we cannot say the same about the past; Americans tend to repress and erase the long history of white male rape of enslaved black women during our country's long embrace of slavery. Ryan's choice to make her domestic abuser a white man serves as a pointed reminder of this often forgotten history.


Through Iris, Ryan also makes pointed comments about the way our current society continues to look away from the violence perpetrated by men against women, especially when those men are in positions of power (professional athletes, rather than plantation owners) and the women they abuse are women of color. Once Iris figures out a way to free herself and her daughter from Caleb, she doesn't choose to press charges against him:

"Other athletes outed as abusers are fined and miss a few games, only to be back on the court, back on the field in a few weeks. I'm not trusting my life, my daughter's life, to a system that favors men just like Caleb. I've seen the so-called consequences we have for domestic abuse, and I need more than that."

What she needs is a guy like West, who throughout the story serves as a vision of hope for what a future with a kind, caring man might be like. But Iris never asks West to rescue her; in fact, she turns to her cousin, and to her great grandmother, not to her potential good guy lover, to help her recover emotionally in the wake of her trauma. West may be the idealized prize at the end of the struggle, but the hard work of recovery is one best undertaken with sympathetic female supporters, Ryan suggests.

Ryan is adept at giving readers the "big feels," a vital skill for any romance writer (see West's swoon-worthy declaration to Iris: "If you were mine, Iris, there would be no doubt what position you'd hold in my life. You'd be center. I'd play you at the five."). But she's also just as good at getting readers to think hard about the big issues, issues that American culture would often prefer we ignore: domestic violence; racial identity; the gendered aspects of privileged and power. It's this combination—big emotions and big ideas—that make Ryan one of the most provocative authors writing romance today.

Photo credits:
Basketball bar: DHGate
Pro sports arrest rates: Vocativ

Long Shot
A Hoops Novel (#1)
indie-published, 2018

Tuesday, April 2, 2019

Romancing the Balikbayan: Mina V. Esguerra's KISS AND CRY

Due to my travel schedule, I completely missed watching this year's World Figure Skating championships, one of the few sporting events I usually carve out time to take in. I made up for it by moving Mina V. Esguerra's Philippines-set skating romance Kiss and Cry to the top of my reading pile. It's an unusual skating story, and not only because it's a winter sports story set in a country without a winter. Instead of focusing on the tension of competition, Esguerra's story is about adjusting to life after the days of competition are over.

Thirty year old Calinda Valerio, the most lauded figure skater in the Philippines, has won her share of gold-medals: in the All-Asia Games, at the Winter Southeast Asian Games, and in her home country's national competition, Skate PH. Some people wonder if it was worth it, all the hard work and self-denial, given that she never made it to the Olympics. But for Cal, that doesn't matter:

Samantha Cabilles, Filipino figure skater
Sometimes a thing wasn't meant for you but damn you wanted it anyway, didn't mean you'd stop trying. Never mind if you had to knock on more doors and need to work so much harder. Sometimes even years at it wouldn't be enough and the next thing to do was to help make it easier for those coming in after you. (Chapter 2)

Now that her own amateur career is over, Cal is "making it easier for those coming in after her" by working as a choreographer, both for individual skaters and as creative director for Manila's Six 32 Central ice rink. For her past and current work, Cal is being honored by being included in a Manila society magazine's video feature, "30 Most Accomplished in their Thirties."

As is 32-year-old Ramirez Diaz-Tan, a leading member of the Filipino national hockey team. Despite sharing the same main rink in Manila for training and games, Cal and Ram haven't spent much time together in the past ten years. Not since her parents and coach insisted that the budding friendship between their twenty-something selves would take Cal's focus away from her skating, and forbid her to date him—or anyone else. As Ram describes it, "It was over before it started; Cal rightly chose skating over him, and managed to live an accomplished life, congratulations." He got the privilege of being her first: the "First Guy Calinda Valerio Was Not Allowed to Date" (Chapter 1).

The 2017 Philippines national hockey team after
winning the SEA Games gold medal
Ram emigrated to the US with his family when he was ten, and now holds dual citizenship. He didn't make the adjustment to living in the States easily, though; at 13, his family sent him back to spend the summer in Manila with his uncle for being, as he describes it, a "bad Filipino son" (Chapter 8). But while back in the Philippines, Ram took up hockey, and has kept coming back every summer since to play. He's grown so skilled that he's spent twelve years playing for the Philippines' new national team.

But traveling back to his country of origin each summer to play hockey is becoming increasingly hard to do, given the need to hold a steady job back in the States. Taking eight weeks off every year to skate competitively in another country—it's not something most employers are ready to accept. And so Ram has made the tough decision to hang up his hockey skates; this will be his final competitive season.

After meeting Ram again at the "30 Most Accomplished in their Thirties" photo shoot, Cal is eager to try out the things she was never allowed to do when she was younger and focused on her sport—and to do them with Ram. Shocking her parents and former coach by introducing him as her boyfriend is just one of the things on the to-do list she proposes to her surprised but willing former almost-boyfriend. Even the news that he's headed back to the States in only three weeks, with no plan of returning anytime soon, doesn't discompose Cal. Catharsis and closure are what she wants, not a happily-ever-after. Her parents and coach were wrong to take her choice away from her, as they didn't from her brother; she knows she wouldn't have moved to the States and abandoned her skating just to be with Ram, even if they don't. And she can prove it—by not doing it now.

Ram and Cal's second-chance romance is light and playful, not overwhelmed by the bittersweet. One of my favorite moments, during a discussion of whether Cal would have derailed her skating career if she and Ram had ignored her parents and tried to make a go of it all those years earlier:

"Because they made it seem like the worst thing for me to do, at the time. That if we got together and this happened, I'd suddenly want to quit. When I decided to retire, I tried it out—I dated, I had sex, and sort of... checked if dicks demotivated me."
     He hadn't laughed so much while in bed with someone and he wasn't stopping yet. "And what was the verdict on dicks?"
     She shrugged. "Um, they're just dicks?"
     "I'm sure they'll be sad about that."
     "Oh, come on. They performed well, okay."
     This woman. Only she could say that and make it sound like a disappointment. (Chapter 10)

But even in three short weeks, a sort-of-pretend-boyfriend situation can turn into something surprisingly important. And Ram and Cal find themselves facing some tough choices, choices that, unlike the one that was forced upon them as teenagers, they'll have to make for themselves.

Esguerra writes with a Filipino audience, or at least, with those familiar with Filipino culture, in mind; the book contains quite a few cultural references that as an outsider I had to look up to catch the full meaning (EDSA; Ibong Adarna; longganisas and kesong puti and other Pinoy food). But the book's storyline and romance arc are as accessible to other English-speaking readers as any penned by an American writer. And Esguerra's story has the added benefit of reminding American readers, especially those whose fears of outsiders have been exacerbated by current anti-immigrant rhetoric, that the United States isn't everyone's holy grail. As Ram himself reminds Cal:

     "You said that whether we had something or not shouldn't change what my plans are."
     "Yes, it shouldn't."
     "But it can. Maybe it should. Why aren't you asking me to stay?"
     "No one asks someone to stay here. Especially when they've got a way out already. You know that don't you? It's just not done."
     "You don't think we can question that too?" (Chapter 21)

Photo credits:
Samantha Cabilles: Flickr
Philippines Hockey: ABC-CBN Sports

Kiss and Cry
Six 32 Central #2
Bright Girl Books, 2019

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:

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:


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.


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).


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).


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).


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)


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)


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."
     "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