Tuesday, February 26, 2013


In many ways, Caroline Townsend, the female protagonist of Miranda Neville's latest Regency historical comedy, seems a highly unlikely heroine for RNFF. Caro is a far cry from the intellectual bluestockings of late 18th and early 19th century England, the women whom many point to as the precursors of first-wave feminism. She has about as much interest in visiting the British Museum, listening to a philosophical lecture, or partaking of intellectual conversation as she does of having a tooth pulled. Nor is she a political activist, working to better the lives of the poor or the downtrodden around her. In fact, Caro would much rather throw a party than give thought to much of anything of substance. One Goodreads reader has even gone so far as to christen her with the charming epithet "dimbo."

Yet after I finished The Importance of Being Wicked and put it aside for other, seemingly more worthy, romance heroines, the memory of Caro kept poking at me, insisting that she, too, might just deserve a place within the annals of feminist romance. Does a feminist always have to be bookish? she seemed to chide, laughing all the while at the piles of literary tomes littering my office. Is your bias in favor of intellectual feminism (I had, after all, first engaged with its ideas during my undergraduate years at an Ivy League college) keeping you from seeing the ways I call traditional gender roles and expectations into question? Don't you know why it's important for a feminist to be wicked?

 A typeface as well as an appellation for a dim female...
Like a pesky fly, Caro kept buzzing around my brain, teasing me to open the window and let her fly free. Finally, I gave in. Picking up her story again, this time with pencil in hand, I tried to discover just what a dimbo heroine was trying to teach me about feminism and heterosexual romance.

The first thing I noticed, something I had remembered from my first reading, was Caro's unembarrassed embrace of her own sexuality. Caro finds the "prudery of much of the world" a "dismal virtue" (28).  She took deep pleasure in sex with her first husband, admitting without shame how they anticipated their wedding night, and how they continued to engage in passionate sex until his love for gambling overcame his every other desire. She openly acknowledges to herself that she "desperately wanted to go to bed with Thomas, the Duke of Castleton," an inconvenient fact given that the staid duke has come courting not her, but her cousin.

Her desire isn't just a desire to be done to, but to actively do, as well; when she thinks of Thomas, "She'd wanted to sink into his large, protective embrace. To pull his firm stubborn mouth to hers and devour him. To rip off his perfectly proper, not-too-fashionable clothing and discover the powerful body she guessed dwelt beneath wool, linen, and starch. To feel those big hands all over hers" (59). After she and Thomas, improbably but not unsurprisingly, end up engaged, Thomas vows to treat her with respect. But Caro proceeds to seduce him, telling him "You may be prepared to wait, but I am not. I haven't had a man in two years" (200). After they wed, Thomas's precipitous desire and relative inexperience leave her sexually unsatisfied. But Caro is not loath to inform her new husband of his shortcomings. "She pushed him back. 'Not yet. I'm not ready.'" And she uses both words and actions to tell him how to make her so: "Then, her hand on his, she guided his movements until he found the rhythm that pleased her, and she left him to it" (267). Unlike even many a liberated modern woman, Caro has no difficulty speaking openly and directly about her own sexual needs with her lover, a feminist model well worth emulating.

Also unlike many of the bluestockings of the period, who worked hard to prove that they, too, just like men, could be logical and rational, only to find their efforts coming back to bite them when the male Romantic writers condemned them for their lack of emotion and passion, Caro glories in her feelings. A creature of emotions, her role, and major pleasure, in life is bringing joy to those around her, and feeling joy herself. As Thomas recognizes the first time he sees her, "Both her eyes, somewhere between gold and brown, and her dark rose mouth sent the message of humor and enjoyment of life" (21). When Thomas comes to press his suit for her cousin, Caro asks him not how much his estates bring in a year, or how many houses he owns, but instead, "What gives you pleasure? What gladdens your heart?" (25). Cousin Anne remembers Caro as the one "source of fun and giggles" during her rather dour upbringing (43); the many friends she and former husband Robert gathered in their unconventional London home keep returning long after Robert has died: "But it was you, Caro, who made this house a home for so many of us," friend Julian declares (209). Caro enjoys life and laughter and play, and brings those same joys to the friends who surround her. Unafraid to be tarred with the brush claiming women are too emotional, Caro instead embraces the identity, asserting through the way she lives her life the importance of feeling, not just thinking.

Novels for young adults are often described as bildungsroman: coming-of-age novels, stories of an individual's growth from childhood to adulthood. Such stories focus most often on personal growth and maturity. Feminism values this maturing into personhood, into individual identity, in particular when such growth involves recognition of the limiting gender roles society often places upon us.

Yet feminism also values another type of maturity, a maturity focused not only on self, but on self in relationship with others. Caro's story can help us to see the way in which romance as a genre functions to guide its protagonists, and through them, its readers, into a different, later stage of emotional development, the stage psychologist Erik Erikson termed "Intimacy vs. Isolation": the stage of engaging in mature intimate relationship with another. (Beziehungsroman hasn't really caught on as a literary term, has it?) In the majority of romances, intimate relationship is constructed as a heterosexual coupling, but the tasks and goals that must be accomplished to make such couplings possible can also can provide a model for other intimate relationships, by exploring how a young person whose primary emotional work has focused on developing an individual identity must shift gears, must learn to make the sacrifices and compromises intimate relationships require.

In Caro's case, this learning involves recognizing the limits of the very "wickedness" that allowed her to create her own sense of identity, an identity she forged by running away to marry at age 17. Caro's mother found her daughter headstrong, disobedient, and ungrateful, and tried with little success to eradicate her natural joyfulness, to mold her daughter into quiet, dutiful feminine gentility. Running away to marry a man whom her mother deemed unsuitable was as much a rebellion against that mother's rejection of her selfhood as it was an embrace of her love for Robert Townsend, Caro realizes towards novel's end.

But the need to hold onto that sense of identity, of that rebellion, has prevented Caro from becoming truly close to anyone, even her former husband. When considering re-marriage, Caro "feared a husband would wish her to mend her ways, make her settle down to respectability as Robert had never demanded" (118), a demand made over and over again by her mother. Fearing to return to that infantile state, Caro finds herself stuck in her adolescent rebellion, unable to acknowledge the very real faults that the brilliant but reckless Robert embodied, faults that prevented him from maturing into true intimacy with Caro. Only at novel's end, when she questions whether her "reflexive naughtiness" is  "really all she needed? She wasn't seventeen anymore" (344), does Caro realize that not all change is bad. Change that one chooses, rather than change insisted upon by another, change that allows one to expand rather than be diminished, is change well worth making.

Yes, feminism acknowledges that it is important to be wicked, to resist the stifling conventions of society and others. But realizing that there is more to life than "relish[ing] the little thrill of defiance that came with misbehavior" (289) may be just as feminist an insight, especially if one wishes to become an equal partner in a mature, intimate relationship.

Photo/Illustration credits:
Dimbo: DesignKnock
Bluestocking: Life Takes Lemons blog
Erikson's stages: Tumbler

Next time on RNFF:
What publishers are the most receptive to feminist romances?

Friday, February 22, 2013

Critiquing the portrayal of disability in romance

While researching the portrayal of disability in romance fiction for my last post, I came across Emily M. Baldys's intriguing 2012 article, "Disabled Sexuality, Incorporated: The Compulsions of Popular Romance."* Noting that people with disabilities have often "struggled to be recognized as sexual beings" (125), Baldys finds the prevalence of disabled heroes and heroines in romance fiction worthy of study. In particular, she wonders if, or how, such novels "revise or channel oppressive attitudes" towards the disabled and their sexuality.

To answer her question, she analyzes five romances that feature cognitively disabled protagonists: Colleen McCullough's Tim (1979); Billie Green's A Special Man (1986); Peggy Webb's A Prince for Jenny (1993); Pamela Morsi's Simple Jess (1996); and Jennifer Ashley's The Madness of Lord Ian Mackenzie (2009). Ultimately, she suggests that such novels are not as progressive as they first appear; though they grant their cognitively disabled protagonists sexual subjectivity and agency, they "strictly limit the kinds of (heterosexual, marriage-oriented) romantic options available to disabled characters" and "showcase ableist commonalities" in order to "downplay, reinscribe, and rehabilitate disability" (130).

I've not read the first four books that Baldys discusses, but I have read the the most recent title, the Victorian historical romance The Madness of Lord Ian Mackenzie. And my memories of it did not at all square with Baldys's critique. So I decided to reread the book, to see which I found more credible, Baldys' argument or my own recollections. Readers who haven't yet read Ashley's book (and I'd recommend it, highly) might want to stop here, as spoilers abound below.

Baldys raises four major objections to the portrayal of the disabled. The first three focus on the way "romances featuring characters with impaired minds compensate by assigning an increased aesthetic, erotic, and metaphoric significance to physical bodies" (130). These arguments lose much of their persuasiveness, however, when one considers the fact that they can be applied not only to books with disabled characters, but to the majority of romance novels published before 1990. If writers are following genre conventions, rather than conventions specific to romances with disabled characters, then it seems redundant to critique these specific novels rather than the genre as a whole.

Even if this were not the case, the first three objections Baldys raises do not apply to Ashley's Lord Ian. Significantly, Baldys only quotes from Lord Ian once, and in an unconvincing manner, to support these claims, although her evidence from the other books is persuasive. These differences suggest that the portrayal of disability in romance may have changed in important ways over the thirty-year span the works she analyzes cover.

Baldys's first claim is romance authors are able to make disabled heroes and heroines viable objects of sexual desire by focusing first on their bodies, rather than their minds, bodies which appear whole and normal. "The novels' narrators, as though offering preemptive compensation, emphasize the disabled characters' physical charms before their disabilities are revealed, so that, in most of the novels both readers' and characters' first impressions are of physical wholeness and attractiveness" (130). This is certainly not the case in Lord Ian. The book's title openly proclaims the hero's "madness," while its opening chapter includes no physical description. Told through Ian's point of view, the scene reveals not only his unusual behavior, but the different way he thinks about and responds to the world around him. Contemporary readers generally read his behavior as stemming from Asperger's Syndrome, but in 1881 England, the condition would have more likely been thought a form of lunacy. Ian's cognitive differences, rather than his physical "wholeness," is what is emphasized here.

Baldys also points to the "blatantly hyperbolic language" typically used to describe disabled bodies in these novels (130).  Well, yes, romance heroes in general are often presented in such language; Beth, Ian's heroine, thinks he "had the body of a god" (Ashley 150). But for Beth, Ian's attractiveness lies not only in a "normal" attractive body. During their first meeting, although "her entire world stopped" at the sight of him, Beth finds herself intrigued not only by Ian's looks, but also by his behavior: his restlessness; the way his eyes can't quite meet hers, or anyone else's; his abrupt announcement that he wants to bed her, and will marry her in order to do so. Older romances may have relied on the normalizing power of an attractive body to undercut readers' potential negative reaction to a cognitively-disabled protagonist, but Ashley's novel does not.

Lord Ian also does not follow the pattern of Baldys's second objection: the way "sexual desire and activity are used to interpellate the disabled characters as 'men' and 'women'" (131). Ian does not become a "man" when he consummates his desire for Beth; Ian is already sexually experienced before he ever meets Beth. And their sexual joining is not portrayed as "natural, organic, or instinctual, arising from the essential 'rightness' of heterosexual relations," as Baldys' argues occurs in the other novels.

Baldys cites from Lord Ian to provide evidence for her third objection, the way these novels deploy metaphors of able-bodied lovers incorporating the disabled into themselves. Such metaphors are not just an allegorizing of of sex, she suggests, but also work to contain the threat disability poses to compulsory heterosexuality; "incorporation works to discipline and restrain disability by representing its threat as safely contained within normality" (133). The quote she cites from Ashley's novel seems to support this interpretation:" [Ian] hungrily took her mouth, wanting to pull her inside him, or himself inside her. If he could be part of her, everything would be all right. He would be well. The horror he kept secret would go away" (Ashley 214).

Yet Baldys does not provide the context for this quote, a context which undermines her interpretation. Ian's hope that by being "pulled inside" he'd be "well" is not a wish for his cognitive differences to disappear. It is a wish that the "horror" he has kept secret for five years (that he believes his brother committed a murder) would disappear. His desire to be "well" is a desire to escape the pain of the nightmares that his remembrance of that secret bring on.

Even if Ian had been wishing to rid himself of his cognitive disabilities, though, the text that immediately follows this inner monologue suggests that it is a misguided one, and that Ian knows it is misguided: "Except he knew it wouldn't" (Ashley 214). Ian knows that striving to achieve normality through sex with his able-bodied wife cannot accomplish the impossible: it cannot change the events of the past, nor the present reality of his mental state.

Older texts typically cure or kill off disabled characters, in order to remove their threat of deviance. But this "narrative impulse to reduce and erase disability" does not work in the genre of romance, where happy endings are de rigueur. Instead, Baldys suggests, romance novels with disabled protagonists "radically reconstruct disability in order to conform to a particular kind of fantasy, one that imagines a compliant model of disability amenable to both reinscription and rehabilitation" (134). In particular, they suggest that "the effects of the disability are mitigated or overcome by the effects of blossoming love" (134). Her prime example of such "recuperation" is Ian Mackenzie.

Ian's recuperation plays out, Baldys argues, "through the explicit attribution of moments of 'improvement' in Ian to the influence of Beth and/or their relationship. Beth's love serves to cure Ian's headaches, calm his fear of crowds, and lessen his bouts of rage" (135). A closer look at the novel suggests that this is not in fact the case. One of Ian's bouts of rage stems is the direct result of another man's apparent threats to Beth, a rage that Beth is unable to contain. Another, the one mentioned above, is a result of his fears of his brother's guilt being revealed, or being directed in violence against Beth.  Beth is not able to mitigate or contain these rages.

When Ian shares his fear with Beth that some day he will harm her in one of his rages, just as his father harmed his mother, Beth points out to Ian that his rages all stem from his desire to protect, not to harm. When he still insists "I have the rage inside me," she retorts, "Which you know how to control" (311). His ability to control his rage when it might unfairly harm another is not something that results from his love of Beth, but something he already had. She just allows him to see it for himself.

Baldys would have it that Ian, who could not look directly into Beth's, or anyone else's, eyes at novel's start, can once he acknowledges his love for her. But the text explicitly denies this:

     Ian cupped her chin and turned her face up to his. Then he did what he'd been practicing since the night on the train—he looked her fully in the eyes.
     He couldn't always do it. Sometimes his gaze simply refused to obey, and he'd turn away with a growl. But more and more he'd been able to focus directly on her. (Ashely 318)

Looking Beth in the eye is not something that magically happens because he now loves her; it is something that Ian struggles to accomplish, and not always successfully, in order to demonstrate to Beth his love.

A passage from Lord Ian that Baldys doesn't quote, but that speaks to the desire to "recuperate" disability, occurs toward the end of the novel:

"All of us are mad in some way," Ian said. "I have a memory that won't let go of details. Hart is obsessed with politics and money. Cameron is a genius with horses, and Mac paints like a god. You find out details on your cases that others miss. You are obsessed with justice and getting everything you think is coming to you. We all have our madness. Mine is just the most obvious." (Ashley 306)

Is Ian's statement an attempt to normalize disability? Or to disable normality? My view is that it does the latter, to quite positive effect.

Are there any readers out there familiar with any of the other novels Baldys discusses? Do they conform to the patterns she suggests? What about novels with physically, rather than cognitively, disabled protagonists? Are 21st century romances freer from the problems Baldys identifies than 20th century ones?

*Journal of Literary & Cultural Disability Studies 6.2 (2012): 125–141.

Next time on RNFF:
Miranda Neville's The Importance of
Being Wicked

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Romancing Disability: Bonnie Dee's NEW LIFE

The first thing you need to know about me is I'm not retarded. Or mentally handicapped I guess is the polite term these days. But whatever you call it, I'm not that. I have a mental disability, but I wasn't born this way. It took extra stupidity for me to get this way—driving drunk, shooting through the windshield, landing on my noggin, and scrambling my brains permanently.

Jason Reitmiller is not your conventional romance hero. We don't get a description of a handsome, physically-compelling body before we're informed about his disability, as we are in so many other romance novels with physically or cognitively disabled protagonists. Instead, readers of New Life know right from its opening lines that its hero is different: a little rude, a lot irresponsible (at least in the past), and "permanently," un-fixably disabled. Jason's first-person narrative voice, and its straightforward description of the cause of his disablement,  demands that the reader not take a sentimental stance towards him or his disability. Jason is not an innocent victim whom readers are meant to feel sorry for or romanticize, but a man learning to live with the drastically-changed circumstances of a life lived with "scrambled brains."

Not your average seduction tool...
As Jason tells his side of this dual-narrative romance, he shows readers the many areas of his life that have been affected by his accident and its aftermath. He speaks slowly, often with gaps between words or phrases while he struggles to find the word he needs. Sometimes the wrong words come out (he calls the girl he's interested in a "liar" instead of a "lawyer"). He has trouble keeping on task, and isn't as creative as he used to be; he has to write out all the steps of his job as a janitor in a downtown office building, otherwise he'll forget and get distracted. His memory is sketchy, and he's prone to sudden bursts of sorrow or anger, although he's gotten better at controlling his emotions if he avoids stressful situations. In case of emergency, he has a card with his name, address, and his parents' contact information, along with a line that states he is brain damaged. This certainly wasn't the life he had pictured as a young, party-happy college student.

Despite its unflinching depiction of Jason's disabilities, New Life neither holds Jason up as a heroic martyr, nor does it insist that the life disabled is a life doomed to tragedy and pain. And above all, it doesn't construct a narrative in which Jason is saved or rescued from his disability by an able-bodied lover.

In fact, during their first meeting, it is Jason who offers help to new-lawyer Anna, crying on her office-building stairs after she's embarrassed herself during her first day in court. He offers her advice, makes her laugh, and draws her attention not only to his good looks, but to the way he sees: "He was hot in an unkempt slacker kind of way that I'd always secretly been attracted to but had never dated. Shaggy black hair curled around his ears and fell like a crow's wing over his forehead. Equally dark eyes had looked into mine as if he really saw me. Intense. Intent."

Looking for Love: Disabled participants on the British TV show The Undatables
As Jason and Anna gradually ease from office friendship to dating, learning to understand Jason's disabilities, and, just as importantly, how to communicate with each other about them, proves a challenge, but not an insurmountable one.  "I'm sorry," Anna tells Jason early in their relationship. "I don't mean to pry, but can you tell  me a little more about the injuries from your accident? They're part of you. If we're going to spend time together, I think I need to know." But while she "understood we couldn't ignore Jason's disability if our relationship continued," Anna also recognizes that " it wasn't something he wanted to touch every aspect of his life." Disability is an important part, not the defining only, of Jason's identity.

Jason's disability will not magically disappear just because he's falling in love; Anna can't fix or change him because she loves him. And loving a person with disabilities means making choices, choices other lovers don't demand. As Anna's colleague tells her, "If you're going to be involved with this guy long-term, you need to consider what you're willing to give up, what compromises you're willing to make." But it needn't be an unbreakable barrier to their relationship, either, as long as they are able to keep talking with each other, and talking honestly, about how Jason's differences affect them, their feelings, and how they spend their shared time together.

When he meets Anna, Jason is still in the process of adjusting to his new life. As his romance progresses, he recognizes that he needs to make some changes, needs to mature and grow. But it's not Anna, or falling in love with Anna, that leads Jason to reassess his priorities. Instead, it is the fact that he is able to date, when he wasn't sure that it would be possible post-accident, that makes him ready to make other changes. "I didn't expect anything like this," he tells a friend who questions him about why he's suddenly become willing to talk during their group therapy sessions. "[Dating has] kind of changed my perspective about what I can expect out of life." Jason begins to ask himself what he wants out of his new life, what kind of goals he might have for himself, what it will take to make him happy and fulfilled, not just in a romantic relationship, but in other aspects of his life, too.

Another welcome aspect of the novel is the way it actively engages with, and undermines, popular culture discourses surrounding disability. After first meeting Jason, Anna thinks, "I noticed his movements were slow and deliberate. I thought about movies I'd seen in which people in rehab worked to reclaim the simplest motor skills, usually in an inspiring montage set to music. How awful it would be to lose everything in one life-changing moment." In contrast, a girl from Jason's past casts him in a role far more worthy of a feel-good movie of the week:

     "You don't seem the same. You seem a little lost and confused and... sort of pure or something. Like a sheet of paper that hasn't been written on yet." She reached across the table to touch my hand. "Horrible as your accident was, you gained something few people get to have—a chance for a real fresh start."
     "I guess so." Her poetic view of me didn't reflect my reality at all. I wasn't fresh or new, and I definitely wasn't pure or innocent. I was still a fuck up.

And after Jason makes a particularly spectacular "fuck up" in his relationship with Anna, and tries to apologize through the "grand romantic gesture" common to romantic comedies, it backfires in a truly spectacular way: "Wasn't this the part where the girl was so moved by the guy's sincerity that she gave in? But there was no swelling music in the Haggenstern and Lowe offices, only the quiet whispers of staring lawyers and Anna's softly muttered, 'Please go, Jason. I don't want to do this here. I'll talk to you later.'"

Two other unconventional, and very welcome, aspects of Dee's romance are its attention to social class, and its disruption of traditional gender roles. Anna and Jason also must negotiate differences in social class, as well as in ability, in order to make their relationship work, a component of identity not often acknowledged in the world of romance. Anna's embarrassed when her parents arrive early for a visit and discover a disheveled Jason in her apartment. When Jason calls her on it, she thinks "How could I respond to that? You're right. I'm a little embarrassed to be dating a janitor with no apparent plans to be anything else. Jason was hardly the guy I wanted to bring to the law firm's Christmas party or a family event, and I couldn't reconcile that feeling with my very real love for him." Instead of hiding her fears from him, though, she admits her ambivalence, and tells him "I can't pretend the discrepancy between our economic positions doesn't exist, but my feelings about it are just something I'll have to work through. You're not the only one struggling to adjust to this thing between us."

The novel concludes with an interesting take on gender roles: it is Jason, not Anna, who ends up in the role of homemaker: "Yeah, I was a kept man, but the living arrangement suited both of us. I cleaned the house, cooked, and did laundry. She brought home the bacon." Is this a dig against the domestic, suggesting that only the mentally disabled would find the role of homemaker rewarding? Or is it another attempt to disrupt conventional wisdom by suggesting that a man, as well as a woman, might find cooking, cleaning, and doing the laundry to his liking? Or perhaps a bit of both?

What other novels with cognitively disabled protagonists would you recommend?

Bonnie Dee, New Life. 2013. e-book.

Photo credits:
Floor buffer: Hardwood Floors Blogs
The Undatables: Guardian UK
Worst Romantic Gesture Ever: Deviant Art

Next time on RNFF
Disability and Heteronormativity:
A match made in romance?

Friday, February 15, 2013

Feminist Guidelines for Reading M/M Romance?

In a recent post on the Dear Author web site, Lori James, Chief Operating Officer for All Romance eBooks, revealed that in company's survey of 6000 e-book romance readers, the top romance subgenre among ebook buyers in 2012 was not contemporary, or historical, or even paranormal, as I would have guessed. No, the top romance subgenre at All Romance was m/m romance. While All Romance is just one retailer, and thus can't characterize the entire e-book romance market, this statistic does speak to the growing popularity of a romance subgenre that few straight readers even knew existed before the advent of e-books.

In the comments section of an earlier post, I mentioned my worries about reading and reviewing male/male (or as it is more commonly known, m/m) romance. Is writing and reading about the love and sex lives of gay men problematic, I wondered (and still wonder), when the people doing the creating and the consuming of such stories are, as seems to be the case at this moment in history, primarily heterosexual women? No matter how well-intentioned, are such books just another case of members of a dominant group (in this case, heterosexuals) colonizing the "other" (gay men) for its own ends? And how could I, as a heterosexual female reader, begin to decide? (Last week's Smart Bitches Trashy Books podcast discussed the same issues, I just discovered: find it here).

The earliest feminist literary criticism pointed out the prevalence of such a dynamic in "high" literature, the way books written primarily by a dominant group (men) colonized the "other" (women), promulgating patriarchal assumptions and misrepresenting women's lives. In the 1960s and 70s, feminists spilled a lot of ink protesting male depictions of women in their literature, depictions they felt were demeaning, or reflected male fears and fantasies more than actual female experience. In the 1980s and 90s, many authors of color made similar claims, charging white authors with misrepresenting their lives and cultures, promulgating stereotypes and prejudices in the process. I'm not comfortable dismissing out of hand concerns expressed by gay authors about their depiction in other-authored texts, even while being sensitive to the fact that heterosexual women writers are not just part of a dominant group (heterosexuals), but also part of an oppressed one (females), and recognizing that some of the criticisms made against them stem from gay male writers' privilege as men.

All Romance's top 10 e-romance subgenres
Few feminist literary critics would argue that every book written by man from a female point of view must, by the nature of its creator, be sexist. And few authors of color would refuse to read a book with Latino, African-American, or Navajo characters simply because its author identified as white. The goal of feminist literary criticism, and of culturally-informed literary criticism, is not to ban books by certain groups, or prevent their being written. Nor is it to champion the rights of any and all authors to write what they wish, no matter their own identities. Instead, it is to approach all books, no matter who has written them, with a critically-informed interpretive lens.

What would such a lens look like for m/m romance? Before I begin reading in this subgenre, I really feel the need to develop such a lens. So, with apologies for the presumption of doing so, I'm going to propose some possible ideas here, and hope that others will chime in with additional suggestions to help me guide my own reading.

As a scholar with a background in children's literature, my first instinct was to turn to work done by those who are called to judge "multicultural" children's literature, to see if it is possible to adapt the questions and guidelines they use and apply them to a different set of insider/outsider distinctions. One article that I've found particularly valuable here is Jean Mendoza and Debbie Reese's "Examining Multicultural Picture Books for the Early Childhood Classroom: Possibilities and Pitfalls," which includes a list of questions one might pose when selecting multicultural texts.

To help me think about how to adapt Mendoza and Reese's questions, I've been reading the links that Lawless523 was kind enough to post about the debate about women writing m/m romance (see comments section of this post).  This debate began in reaction to the 2009 announcement by the Lambda Literary Awards that entrants must self-identify as GLBT in order to qualify, a change that excluded works of m/m romance written by heterosexual women. Looking beyond the arguments about the award criteria, to the more specific criticisms of heterosexual female m/m romance raised by gay male writers, has informed the questions below.

Mendoza and Reese's questions, reprinted below in purple, are followed by a potential reworking for m/m romance, reprinted in blue. Following each question, I've reworked the language so it might apply to m/m romance, then listed some thoughts about the knowledge necessary to answer said question:

Are characters "outside the mainstream culture" depicted as individuals or as caricatures?
Are GLBT characters depicted as individuals or as caricatures?
In order to answer such questions, a reader/critic would have to be aware of the common caricatures or stereotypes of GLBT people. What caricatures/stereotypes would gay readers/writers point to as ones to watch out for?

• Does their representation include significant specific cultural information? Or does it follow stereotype?
• Does the representation of GLBT characters include significant GLBT cultural information? Or does it follow stereotype?
Ditto comment above; knowledge of GLBT cultures (plural) is necessary in order to make such judgments. What stereotypes about GLBT cultures are promulgated in heterosexual culture?

Who has the power in this story? What is the nature of their power, and how do they use it?
This wording of this question could be kept, or perhaps could be qualified by thinking about types of power commonly found in romance: sexual power, financial power, the power to make decisions for oneself and for one's partner.
Also, how is power manifested? Physically? Psychologically? Socially? Economically?

• What behaviors or traits are rewarded, and how? What behaviors are punished, and how?
Again, similar language, but perhaps with qualifications: sexual behaviors and traits; romantic behaviors and traits; relationship-development behaviors and traits.
You'd want to think here not only about characters rewarding and punishing each other, but also the way the text as a whole rewards or punishes its characters

• Who has written this story? Is he/she/they inside or outside the group(s) they are presenting? What are they in a position to know? What do they claim to know?
• Who has written this story? Does he/she/they self-identify as GLBT? A GLBT ally? If the latter, on what grounds does he/she/they make such a claim?
This is obviously a controversial one. It can feel a bit prurient, checking up on the sexual identity of a writer. The point here is not to be peeking into authors' bedrooms, or to disqualify anyone without GLBT cred. It is simply to recognize that someone who has firsthand knowledge is more likely to get the details right than someone who doesn't, and that it might be necessary to ask additional questions.

Some other potential questions, unrelated to Mendoza and Reese:

• Do the sex scenes function to develop/reveal character, or are they gratuitous? Are gay male bodies objectified, used primarily as sex toys? (See SparkinDarkness's post for more on this). If it is a work of erotica, is this a problem? (for a female reader, try flipping the sex of the characters, and seeing if you find it objectifying/offensive)

• How does the book depict women and girls? Are they demeaned or marginalized? Completely absent? Portrayed as villains?

Finally, a question raised by this insightful post by blogger VacuousMinx, which another reader linked to in response to Lawless523's post about the appeal of m/m romance being its freedom from gender roles:

• Does the story and/or its characters engage with heteronormative, patriarchal structures that shape our society? Or does it pretend equality between men is unproblematic?

What questions would you suggest might be useful in crafting a lens through which to interpret and judge m/m romance from a feminist perspective?

Photo credits:
Popular Genres in Romance: Dear Author
Lambda Literary Award Medal: Books Inc.
Heart Lens: Macro Photographer

Next time on RNFF:
Romancing Disability


Tuesday, February 12, 2013

A WRINKLE IN TIME goes graphic

We all have them, our personal "comfort books," the books we return to again and again whenever we need the reassurance of the familiar, a story to offer solace in the face of setback or failure. As a newly minted teenager, I had two such books: Elizabeth George Speare's The Witch of Blackbird Pond (1958) and Madeleine L'Engle's A Wrinkle in Time (1962). One a work of historical fiction, the other of science fantasy, yet each reminded me that being different from everyone else might be difficult, but worth it, and that a smart, strong girl need not pretend to be less than she was just in order to fit in, or be liked by a worthy boy.

Returning to A Wrinkle in Time as an adult, as I had cause to do many times in the course of teaching a class on children's and YA fantasy and science fiction for nearly a decade, was both a pleasure and a disappointment. I took great pleasure in recognizing an old familiar friend, in seeing once again L'Engle's clear attempts to point out the limitations of gender roles, and, of course, in allowing myself to share Meg and Charles Wallace's triumph of good over evil. My disappointments came from recognizing the book's limitations, limitations that as a child I did not have the knowledge or skills to see. For example, what looked to me at 12 to be a classic case of good vs. evil strikes me today as a rather heavy-handed, Cold-War-influenced construction of evil (Soviet-style conformity = bad). And as an adult, I'm left wondering how rescuing Mr. Murry has made a major strike against the Dark Thing plaguing the universe.

The most biting disappointment, though, stemmed from limitations of the feminism upon which the story was built. Yes, L'Engle broke with gender stereotypes by making Meg the one who is good at math and science, while Calvin O'Keefe, her nascent love interest, is the "communicator," someone far better at literature and history. She also made not only Meg's father, but also Meg's mother, a scientist. And she chose to make the magical helpers who aid Meg and Charles Wallace's quest women/witches, refusing to embrace the negative construction of the witch as the feminine face of evil. But even while she broke with many gender stereotypes, she also reinforced others (more on them below).

Last fall, on the 50th anniversary of the book's original publication, FSG issued a graphic novel version of L'Engle's classic text. Knowing of my love for the book, my spouse gifted me with a copy these past holidays. As I turned through its pages, I wondered if adapter and illustrator Hope Larson would attempt to mitigate any of the limiting messages about femininity lurking in the text's implicit messages.

Interestingly, since Larson hews so closely to L'Engle's original text, using her dialogue almost word for word, any reinterpretation comes largely due to the play of words against pictures, not to any changing of L'Engle's words themselves. Two threads that popped out at me in reading Larson's pictures against L'Engle's words were first, the discussions of female beauty, particularly Mrs. Murry's; and second, the many instances of hand-holding in the novel between Meg and others.

As a teen, I appreciated the message that a girl could be both smart and beautiful, or, at least in Meg's case, had the potential to grow up to be pretty. But as an adult, I found the insistence that Mrs. Murry was beautiful, not just smart, rather annoying.  Meg is the first one to broach the topic of beauty, while talking with her mother about her difficulties at school:

With only L'Engle's narrative, readers are given no real sense of what Mrs. Murry looks like. But Larson's drawings give us Mrs. Murry in the flesh. And while Mrs. Murry is a bit more put together than is scruffy Meg, she's no overwhelming vision of gorgeousness. The dialogue balloons here emphasize that it is Charles Wallace's opinion that his mother is beautiful, one that his mother doesn't necessarily share. Meg, in her adolescent malaise, may think beauty is important, but the text does not necessarily share her opinion.

In fact, it is the boys in the novel who insist upon Mrs. Murry's beauty, a fact that the graphic novel format emphasizes. Not only does Charles Wallace think his mother beautiful, but so does Calvin, who laughs when Mrs. Murray tells Meg "You just haven't had any basis for comparison, Meg. I'm really quite ordinary," and denigrates his own mother in comparison:

I used to feel sorry for Calvin for having a family that "didn't give a hoot about me," but now the class dimension of his rejection, as well as the beauty-bias inherent within it, give me pause. I also find it annoying that he reassures Meg that no one would believe her father left her mother for another woman "after one look at your mother." Beauty, not intellectual interests or shared passions, are what keep men glued to women's sides, Calvin's attempts to comfort Meg suggest. Seeing Mr. Murray's photograph, Calvin deems him "not handsome or anything," suggesting that unlike for men, beauty is not that important. Calvin's praise of Meg's "dreamboat eyes" continues to be a touching moment, the first time a bloom of attraction is recognized and returned. Yet recognizing Calvin's investment in the cultural necessity of women's beauty makes it less touching that it once was for me.

Larson is able to make more of an intervention in her depiction of scenes of hand-holding. For Meg, holding hands is a sign of relationship, a sign of love, as in the early illustration of Meg and Charles Wallace above, from early in the story. But in the novel, reaching out for someone's hand can also be seen as a sign of Meg's weakness, or perhaps instead of Calvin's active, masculine strength: "Calvin reached out and took Meg's hand with a gesture as simple and friendly as Charles Wallace's"; "Meg stumbled as the land sloped suddenly downhill, but Calvin's strong hand steadied her" (50). In the graphic novel, however, such narrative tags disappear, replaced with pictures which give no sense of who took whose hand first, and no indication of any stumbling on Meg's part. Though Calvin appears in the lead in one pane, the two others show Meg and Calvin side by side:

Later, before they "wrinkle time," Meg asks the witches if they can hold hands while doing so. The novel notes "Calvin took her hand and held it tightly in his" (76), but the picture suggests a mutual holding-on:


During their first visit to the dark planet Camazotz, Meg realizes that "She wanted to reach out and grab Calvin's hand, but it seemed that ever since they had begun their journeyings she had been looking for for a hand to hold, so she stuffed her fists into her pockets and walked along behind the two boys. —I've got to be brave, she said to herself. —I will be." (125-26). I come away from reading this passage feeling Meg's determination, but also her fear. Larson's image, however, with Meg smiling in the last panel, leaves me with a far more positive feeling about Meg's rejection of hand-holding, suggesting that this is a step forward for Meg, a sign of her growing maturity.

The next time we see Meg and Calvin holding hands, it is not out of fear or the need to protect or be protected; it is a sign of their mutual discovery of a way to communicate with the beast creatures who have no sense of sight (a discovery which in the novel Calvin makes alone, sitting on the opposite side of the table from Meg):

At novel's end, hand-holding becomes a sign of goodness, of the spirituality of the three witches, and above all, of the power of love: "Then there was a whirring, and Mrs. Whatsit, Mrs. Who, and Mrs. which were standing in front of them, and the joy and love were so tangible that Meg felt that if she only knew where to reach she could touch it with her bare hands" (190). Though Larson does not reprint Meg's interior thoughts, she does conclude with a final picture which makes that metaphorical hand-holding literal, and doubled: the mature romantic love between the newly reunited Mrs. and Mr. Murry, and the tentative, blossoming affection between two adolescents learning to value their own, and each other's, true worth.

Madeleine L'Engle, A Wrinkle in Time: The Graphic Novel. Adapted and Illustrated by Hope Larson. FSG 2012.

Next time on RNFF:
Feminism in the Romance Classroom

Friday, February 8, 2013

Guns, Love, and Ideology in Romantic Suspense

In the public debate about gun control currently taking place across the United States in the wake of the December 2012 killings at Connecticut's Sandy Hook Elementary School, politicians, lobbyists, and pundits of all stripes have set forth arguments both rational and emotional for changing the nation's laws regarding the ownership of guns. In the past, the majority of disputants in the gun rights vs. gun control debate were, perhaps unsurprisingly, of the male persuasion. But as Washington Post reporter Philip Rucker recently noted, both sides in this current debate have turned more and more to women, using them both to frame the terms of the debate and to symbolize the stakes of gun ownership and abuse.

Why was I so surprised, then, when I started to read what I thought was an entertaining work of romantic suspense only to discover myself immersed in gun advocacy ideology? And not a heavy-handed, preachy, easily brushed-aside advocacy, but an advocacy woven with extreme skill and care right into the heart of the novel's romance? Uninformed critics of the genre may beleive that romances contain nothing but escapist fluff, but a closer look reveals potent political ideology in this particular novel, ideology that may be all the more effective for being packaged in the form of a compelling narrative than in political punditry or dry statistics and facts.

As discussed in Tuesday's post, many works of romantic suspense rely on the Gothic trope of placing a woman in danger to guarantee their readers thrills. In their jointly-authored Running Wild, Linda Howard and Linda Jones follow the formula, putting their heroine, Carlin, right in the cross-hairs. After only two dates, Carlin's would-be boyfriend becomes so obsessed with her that he believes her refusal to see him again demands her death. Though the narrative choice to make Brad, her stalker, a cop makes sense plot-wise, to explain his skill with firearms and computers, it also functions to foster a larger suspicion of government institutions that arm their members, a suspicion common among many gun rights activists.

After Carly's stalker mistakenly murders her co-worker (she'd borrowed Carly's raincoat), Carly flees from Texas (no slacker when it comes to gun rights) to Wyoming, the land where, the narrative informs us, carrying a concealed weapon is legal, and private gun sales require no background checks. Unsurprisingly, it's also where she meets her Prince not-so-charming, taciturn ranch owner Zeke, quite handy himself with a pistol.

Interestingly, Zeke doesn't simply tell Carly that he and his gun will protect her; neither does the narrative overtly show Carly depending on Zeke to keep her safe. Carly is constructed as tough, independent, and sassy, not a girl in search of a savior. So when Zeke counsels Carly to learn to shoot and carry her own weapon, his advice can easily be interpreted as empowering, perhaps even feminist. But the novel's true leanings become more apparent as the plot progresses.

Carly, put off by the idea of gun ownership, initially ignores Zeke's advice. The text thus must put her in a position of danger again, to persuade her how wrong such a decision was. It is not Brad this time, but a ranch hand who plays villain; his inexpert flirting leads to an attempt to coerce Carly into having sex. Although she threatens the reprobate with not one but two knives, it takes Zeke and all the other (male) ranch hands to rescue her. Zeke not only removes the threat, but beats up the miscreant in the bargain. That Zeke had the bad judgment to hire the man in the first place, and then to buy his story about needing to go back to the ranch house where he knew Carly was alone, are facts the narrative would have readers conveniently forget.

Allowing Zeke to rescue Carly, even though she never asked him to, clearly intensifies Carly's growing attraction to him:

The idea that Zeke had gotten into a fight for her—that was what was bothering her [in a good way]. After Brad, she simply hadn't been tempted by any kind of relationship, but Zeke was kind of the antidote to Brad. Brad threatened her; Zeke protected her. (197-98)

It simultaneously convinces Carly of the wisdom of learning to shoot:

She'd thought a lot about taking shooting lessons since Zeke had first mentioned it, and she still couldn't make a firm decision about whether or not she wanted to go that far. Arming herself seemed like such a drastic step. On the other hand, Brad was definitely armed, and if by some nightmare she found herself face-to-face with him she never, ever, wanted to be empty-handed and defenseless.
     There was her answer right there, reluctantly arrived at or not. (222)

A woman needs a gun not to hunt, or to enjoy target practice, as male-focused gun advocacy typically asserts, but to protect herself from dangerous men. Women are "defenseless" without a pistol in hand, the text urges readers to believe, a belief also commonly expressed in gun rights propaganda.

The novel devotes an entire chapter to Zeke teaching Carlin to shoot, a performance watched by all the male ranch hands. Each man brings out his pistol or rifle so she can try different weapons and find out which one she likes best. After firing her first shot (which, of course, comically misses its target), Carlin exuberantly exclaims "Yes! I want to shoot everything. This is fun!" (230).

She likes handling the rifles, but

when she picked up her first pistol, she felt something click inside her. As much fun as the shotgun had been, some primitive gene deep inside her sat up and took notice when her hand closed around the butt of the pistol. Oh my God. This was it. This was what suited her best. (230)

The desire for a gun is coded here not only as a natural, biological urge (what chromosome do you think that gun gene is on?), but also as a romantic imperative. The wording used to describe Carly's discovery of the right gun parallels the wording many romance novelists use to describe the discovery of the other "right one," the one and only true love; romance and gun ownership here become inextricably linked, even conflated. As an added bonus, Zeke finds the sight of Carly with her pistol a clear sexual turn-on: "If you could see your expression," Zeke said, his own voice low.... His eyes were heavy-lidded, intent." (231).

Now that Carly can wield her own gun, is she safe? Does she no longer need protecting? The narrative almost immediately puts her in danger again, not, this time from a man but from mother nature, which brings down the snowstorm which causes the truck in which she is a passenger to slide partway down a cliff. Zeke and the other ranch hands come to her rescue, of course, and the near-death experience leads to another intensification of her relationship with Zeke. Intriguingly, the narrative does not overtly suggest that being saved by Zeke makes Carly desire him; instead, it positions her earlier decision to refrain from becoming sexually involved with Zeke as a misguided attempt to protect, both herself and him:

     She thought she was protecting herself, protecting him, and all she'd been doing was depriving them.
     She'd be damned if she'd let Brad have that much control over her, over her life. (256)

Carly's attempt to protect Zeke from Brad by not acting on her attraction to Zeke is thus constructed  as a negative giving over of control; readers are meant to see Carly's going to Zeke's bedroom, and asking him to have sex with her, as a positive, empowered move, one in which she refuses to knuckle under to the patriarchal control of the mad stalker cop. When Zeke asks "You want me to fuck you?" Carly tells him, "No.  I want to fuck you" (259).

Yet even before Carly takes a step into Zeke's bedroom, she's already putting constraints on her own empowerment. "She couldn't take back control of her entire life, but right here, tonight, she could be a woman. She refused to let Brad keep her from that anymore" (257). Engaging in sex is equated with "being a woman"; being a woman means not being able to exert full control, not being able to protect herself fully. (Ironically enough, Carly's initial sexual encounter with Zeke is "unprotected"; neither uses any form of birth control. Though they later use condoms, Carly is glad when she's able to get a friend to procure her birth control pills, happy to do away with the "annoying" condoms; apparently, there are no STDs, as well as no background checks, in Wyoming).

After they have sex, Carly finally confides in Zeke, telling him about stalker Brad, but makes him promise not to tell anyone, or to try to "fix" her problem. "A part of him wanted to call Brad himself, to hunt the bastard down and issue a challenge—Come and get her, motherfucker, try to get through me. But this wasn't the Old West, and unfortunately, 'He needed killin' was no longer an acceptable defense," Zeke thinks. He ultimately agrees not to butt in—at least "for now" (313).

But a few months and a mere sixty pages later, Zeke decides it's time to take action. Without telling Carlin, he engages a detective to track Brad down, a move that almost leads Brad right to Zeke's ranch. The narrative lets Zeke off the hook, though, by making the meddling of another woman—Zeke's former housekeeper, an older woman who's known Zeke since he was a child and feels protective of him—what really leads Brad to Carlin. Once again, a woman's misguided attempts to "protect" a man backfire.

But Carlin is packing now; if, as gun rights proponents such as Women Against Gun Control (source of the photo to the left) suggest, owning a gun means you're safe from the murderers and rapists of the world, then Carlin should be fine. Carlin certainly thinks so:

Her pistol lay on the passenger seat, fully loaded, one in the chamber. Thanks to Zeke, she knew how to use it. And she would, by God, fight for her life and the lives of everyone she loved. Brad knew her as a woman who would run rather than fight. He knew her as an easily manipulatable, scared mouse.
     That wasn't who she was anymore. She'd changed—and she was more than willing to fight for what was hers. (348)

At this point in the novel, I wondered aloud whether it would be Carlin or Zeke who got to pull the trigger on the despicable Brad (because of course, even though Wyoming is not the Old West, you just knew that this book was not going to allow Brad to be captured and sent off to jail without some blood being shed). If Carlin did the honors, wouldn't such an act undermine the text's message that women are in danger from bad men, and need good men with guns to keep them safe? But if Zeke did, wouldn't readers understand that the novel's gestures towards empowered femininity were just a form of appeasement, a move to allow female readers to pretend to be empowered while really still embracing the old construction of man as protector, woman in need of protection?

Howard and Jones solve this apparently no-win situation by allowing both Carlin and Zeke to have their turn at Brad. I'll leave you to guess which one only wounds him, and which one "fired, and the side of Brad's head blew out in a red mist of blood and brain matter" (362).

In order for gun advocates to successfully deploy the figure of the woman in their rhetoric, they must balance between two apparently opposing visions of femininity. Women must be constructed as in danger, subject at any time and for no apparent reason to the violent behavior of marauding male criminals such as Brad. Yet they must also be shown as believing that gun ownership will empower them, will allow them to protect themselves and others from any such depredations.* Howard and Jones demonstrate how conflating romance and gun ownership might just make this ideological tightrope that much easier for gun rights activists to walk.

Running Wild is taut, tight, and deeply engaging, a showcase for the skills of two gifted writers. But as a feminist, I find what they say with those skills disturbing. What other romance novels can you think of that engage so successfully (and/or disturbingly) with political ideology, of either a liberal or conservative stripe?

* That twelve times as many women are killed by guns owned by men whom they know, rather than by strangers, is a fact conveniently hidden in the course of such rhetoric. Violence Policy Center, When Men Murder Women: An Analysis of 2008 Homicide Data. Violence Policy Center, September 2010.

Photo/Illustration credits:
Gun Owners are Compensating and Gun Control T-Shirt: Women Against Gun Control
Protect Children, Not Guns: ivillage.com

Next time on RNFF:
A Wrinkle in Time goes graphic

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Female Sexuality, the Gothic, and Romantic Suspense: Robin Schone's THE LOVER

Is there any such thing as a feminist romantic suspense novel? I've been pondering this question as I read more widely in this romance sub-genre. Like the Gothic novel of the 18th and early 19th century, which relies on the threat of violence against women for most of its dramatic oomph, the majority of romantic suspense books I've come across features a heroine who is threatened with grave physical danger, most often in the form of a powerful, menacing male. And most often, said heroine is saved from said physical danger by another scary, but at least on her side, human of the male persuasion. Not really a recipe for empowered womanhood, you say? I would have to concur.

...and afraid: the classic Gothic
Women in danger...
What happens, though, when an author bent on celebrating women's sexuality decides to take up the form? And pushes against the boundaries not only of romance fiction, but also of the Gothic? You get the creepy, compelling, yet deeply empowering book that served as one of the earliest examples of the erotic romance: Robin Schone's 1990's The Lover.

Thirty-six-year-old virgin spinster Anne Aimes has spent the majority of her adult life caring for the bodily needs of her elderly, ailing mother and father. Tired of fending off men who long for her parents' fortune, not her person, and no longer willing to be embarrassed by her own sexual needs after her parents are gone, Anne takes an unconventional, daring step: through her lawyer, she proposes a business arrangement with the most celebrated male prostitute in Europe, Michel des Anges. For ten thousand pounds, he will be her lover for a month, fulfilling her bodily needs and teaching her about the depths of sexual pleasure.

Michel agrees to Anne's proposal, but not for the money; his smoldering sexuality has already made him a fortune, not only in France, but now in England. No longer the beautiful young man Anne had once spied across a ballroom when she made her disastrous ton debut at eighteen, Michel (whose real name readers, but not Anne, are told right from novel's start, is really Michael) is now a scarred man; burned in a fire, his face and hands have sent women running in disgust, not moaning in passion, for the past five years. Yet his bodily scars do not even begin to hint at the emotional damage inflicted upon him by a sadistic figure in his past, a figure upon whom he plans revenge—by using Anne as bait.

Schone's narrative simultaneously depicts Anne's detailed, explicit, and deeply erotic introduction to sex while dropping more and more terrifying hints about the horrors of Michael's mysterious early life. Horrors so appalling that the thirteen-year-old runaway was only too glad to use the lessons of an enterprising madam to turn himself into a prostitute guaranteed to bring any woman to orgasm. For only by drowning himself in sex could Michael block out the sickening nightmares of his past.

In the typical romantic suspense, as in its predecessor the Gothic novel, as the plot grows ever closer to its end, so, too, does the threat to the female body. Yet despite the reader's growing awareness of the potential danger to Anne, we're not all that worried about her. Not only because fairly early in their relationship, Michael realizes he can no longer just use Anne as his tool, and vows to keep her from harm, but also because the passion that each draws out from the other is strikingly at odds with the subgenre's conventional conflation of physical danger with sexuality, particularly female sexuality.

In romantic suspense, threats to the heroine are often implicitly coded as sexual threats. In the earlier Gothic works, such threats were typically to the pure heroine's chastity (as in these covers from novels by the master of the Gothic, Ann Radcliffe, suggest); in more recent suspense, threats of rape or other sexual defilement. Schone, in contrast, works not only to identify this linkage between sexual passion and violation/death, but to break it.

But it is a terribly difficult linkage to break, given the society in which Anne and Michael live, a society that Schone claims in her introductory Author's Note is not all that different from our own. For in its casting of its villain, the novel suggests that this linkage lies at the very heart of patriarchy, and thus cannot be done in the typical romantic suspense way, with hero bravely protecting the heroine from all harm, or at least riding to her rescue before any real damage can be inflicted. It is only by understanding this that the reader can accept the ghastly turn that the novel takes in its final four chapters, a turn that leaves Anne at the mercy of Michael's tormentor, experiencing the same horrors that were once inflicted upon him, horrors intended to drive them into a disgust of every bodily desire.

Society punishes both men and women for their sexual desires, making them feel as if they are a horror, not a joy. But to reject passion because patriarchy would trick you into mistaking it for horror is the true tragedy, Schone's book asserts. Only by embracing her passion for Michael, in all its messy, bodily manifestations, can Anne learn to differentiate the screams of horror from the screams of passion, and break the damning linkage of desire and death.

Robin Schone, The Lover. Kensington, 2000.

Next time on RNFF
Be afraid, and carry a big pistol:
Romancing Gun Rights

Friday, February 1, 2013

Printzs and RITAs and boys, oh my!: Constructions of masculinity in award-winning YA romance

The Michael L. Printz Award annually honors the best book written for teens, based entirely on its literary merit" —Young Adult Library Services Association web site

The purpose of the RITA contest is to promote excellence in the romance genre by recognizing outstanding published romance novels." — Romance Writers of America web site

This week, the American Library Association announced the winners of its major annual children's and young adult book awards. Among those awards is the Michael L. Printz Award for Young Adult Literature, and its affiliated lists, the "Best Fiction for Young Adults" and "Best of the Best" lists (named the "Best Books for Young Adults" list until 2011). Librarians, booksellers, and especially publisher across the country wait with bated breath for the announcement of said awards. Winning guarantees not only a big increase in a book's sales, as schools, libraries, and booksellers rush to stock titles with YALSA's stamp of approval, but a welcome addition of prestige.

Criteria for the selection of literary prizes such as the Printz typically assert that their award's goal is to promote "excellence" or "merit." But as Kenneth Kidd points out in his essay "Prizing Children's Literature: The Case of Newbery Gold,"* examining the history of such prizes often reveals as much about a particular organization's identity and ideological leanings as it does about what constitutes an abstract, or absolute, vision of literary merit. Comparing the prizes awarded by different organizations to the same category or genre of books, then, should reveal important differences (and perhaps surprising similarities) between said organizations.

So, for a talk I hope to be giving at this year's Children's Literature Association conference, I've decided to read the books nominated for a RITA award for Best Young Adult Romance of the year by the Romance Writers of America, and compare them to those books with romances or strong romantic elements awarded a Printz, or named to the "Best Fiction for Young Adults" or the "Best of the Best" list.

In particular, I'm going to look at how these books depict masculinity. What does mean to be a teen hero? What types of boyhoods/male adolescences do librarians hold up as worth emulation? Are they different from the types of masculinities valued by romance writers? If so, how? And are there any similarities?

The Printz list this year, alas, looks a bit short on romance:

     In Darkness by Nick Lake (Bloomsbury)

 Honor Books:
     Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Sáenz (Simon & Schuster)
     Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein (Hyperion)
     Dodger by Terry Pratchett (HarperCollins)
     The White Bicycle by Beverly Brenna (Red Deer Press)

So I may have to delve into YALSA's "Best of the Best 2013" list for more relevant titles (Maggie Stiefvater's Raven Boys? Alethea Kontis' Enchanted? David Levithan's Every Day?)

Anyone interested in joining me on this reading odyssey? I'll be posting intermittently between now and June about these books, letting you know what I've discovered, and would love to hear your thoughts, either in response to mine or in response to your own reading of the book(s). All contributors will be given due credit (and thanked profusely) in any presentation I make :-).

* Kenneth Kidd, "Prizing Children's Literature: The Case of Newbery Gold." Children's Literature 35 (2007) : 166-90.

Photo/Illustration credits:
• Printz Award: YALSA
• RITA statue: RWA

Next time on RNFF:
Sexuality, the Gothic, and romantic suspense: Robin Schone's The Lover