Tuesday, July 30, 2013

The Gold Rush of Self-Publishing?

This year, for the first time, the national conference of the Romance Writers of America featured a series of workshops devoted to the craft and logistics of self-publishing. Courtney Milan and other romance authors who had originally been published by traditional publishers spoke about the pleasures, both intellectual and financial, of controlling all aspects of a book's production after switching over to self-publishing. Authors such as Liliana Hart, who had experienced break-out success with nary a nod from a traditional publisher, described how they had built their careers, and their fan bases, from the ground up. Dorien Kelly and other long-time writers spoke about hybrid careers, and in particular about reaping new income by self-publishing backlist titles long ignored by their print publishers. Chairs were often at a premium at the Self-Publishing track workshops, published and potential authors alike eager to learn all they could about a publishing process that only two or three years ago, most would have turned away from with scorn, deeming it appropriate only for writers not good enough to make the cut with an agent or an editor at a big 6 publishing house.

The majority of speakers I heard tended to focus on self-publishing's benefits. Authors no longer need rely on middlemen to choose their cover designs, to promote their new titles, to communicate with booksellers and readers. Nor did they have to restrict their subject-matter, or self-censor, in order to please editors and marketing departments eager to make their books (i.e., their products) palatable to the widest readership possible. No more need to abide by the often arbitrary rules about what "the romance reader" likes or will tolerate, as if the millions of romance readers all share exactly the same tastes. No more accepting contracts heavily weighted in favor of publishers, or dealing with unscrupulous or unsavvy agents. No more being treated as if writers are the supplicants, publishers the ones doing them a favor by deigning to print their books. Most of the upsides of self-publishing, focused as they are on empowering (primarily female) writers, warm a feminist's heart.

Perhaps I am just by nature a contrarian, though, because I found myself suppressing the urge to caution writers about hopping too eagerly on the self-publishing bandwagon, to examine the process and its claims more critically, lest self-empowerment turn too quickly to self-delusion or disillusionment. Very few workshop leaders discussed the downsides of self-publishing. Milan noted that not everyone has the skills to self-publish, the organizational mind-set or the desire for control. Hart discussed the need to hold off on self-publishing until you have at least three to five books ready to launch, and told audience members to be prepared to offer something new (novel, novella, or short story) at least every month to sixty days, otherwise one's rankings on the all-important amazon.com sales charts would quickly sink. No one mentioned whether a book written and published in a month could match the quality of one over which a writer worked and polished for many months (or even, possibly a year!). Will self-publishing push readers even further into accepting quantity instead of quality?

The new closer relationship readers expect from authors—posting on Facebook, Twitter, and other social media sites not just about their books, but about their daily lives—is even more vital for the selfpublished author. With no publisher to rely on to get a book into stores, or into the hands of reviewers, self-published authors need to cultivate readers directly. As agent Steve Axelrod noted in an interview for the Popular Romance Project, such cultivation requires a completely different skill set than the one required for writing compelling prose.

The personal sharing social media demands may also give many writers pause. Do your children, your parents, your significant other really want the world at large to know about their hobbies, their likes and dislikes, their foibles? And how much time are you willing to spend cultivating those readers, as opposed to actually writing your stories?

Are you willing to be a "brand" rather than a writer? For I heard the word "brand" far more often than the word "book."

Money, as well as privacy, may be a stumbling block, especially for previously unpublished writers. The initial start-up costs required to produce a professional-quality book might seem small for authors already making a living from their writing, but how many writers will shell out several thousand dollars, hiring editors, copyeditors, cover designers, and promotional experts, only to find that their returns do not come close to recouping the initial expense?


I can't help but be reminded of the 1849 Gold Rush. So many men left everything behind to fly to California in the hopes of striking it rich. Yet the ones who benefitted the most were not the prospectors, but the ones providing services and equipment to them: the barkeeps and cooks, the storekeepers and laundry owners, the overall makers and the whoremasters. Will it be the freelance editors, book designers, file converters, and authors of books about self-publishing (271 at last count listed on amazon.com, 564 on Goodreads) who end up earning the most from the self-publishing boom? And will it be the female romance authors, rather than male prospectors, who are left with so little to show for their leap of faith into the unknown?

As a reader and a reviewer, I also wonder who will serve as the gatekeepers if and when traditional publishers disappear? If my tastes do not match those of the "average" reader, will I be able to find other sources besides popularity charts to guide my way through the deluge of self-published works likely to flood the market in the coming months and years?

So, am I being too much of a Negative Nellie here? What do you think are the potential up-sides of self-publishing, for romance authors? For their readers? What pitfalls do you see?

Photo/Illustration credits:
Publisher cartoon: David Sipress, The New Yorker
Self-publishing time chart: Ryan Gielen, AppNewser

Friday, July 26, 2013

Rediscovering the Romance in the Best Years of Our Lives: Laura Florand's TURNING UP THE HEAT and Ruthie Knox's MAKING IT LAST

In one of the most moving scenes in the 1946 Academy Award-winning film The Best Years of Our Lives, an account of three World War II veterans adjusting to civilian life, young Peggy Stephenson tries to explain to her parents why she's going to break up the marriage of the man with whom she's fallen in love. When father Al questions her decision, Penny exclaims,

You've forgotten what it's like to be in love.... It's just that everything has always been so perfect for you.You loved each other, and you got married in a big church, and you had a honeymoon in the south of France, and you never had any trouble of any kind. So how can you possibly understand how it is with Fred and me?

The camera, which had been shooting over the shoulders of of the Stephenson parents to Peggy sitting on the bed in their bedroom, cuts to a half-shot of Al and Milly, wife seated, husband standing by her side. The two look into each other's eyes, wry, pained, yet loving expressions on their faces. Finally Milly, squeezing tight to her husband's hand, responds:

Frederic March, Myrna Loy, and Teresa Wright
in The Best Years of Our Lives
We never had any trouble? How many times have I told you I hated you, and believed it in my heart? How many times have you said you're sick and tired of me? That we were all washed up? How many times have we had to fall in love all over again?

This central truth of marriage—that "I do" is not the end, but just the beginning, the verbal symbol of a commitment to keep fighting to rediscover the person you will fall in and out of love with many times over the course of your life—is one rarely addressed by contemporary media, especially contemporary romance. Married couples rarely serve as the protagonists in love stories; once mutual declarations of "I love you" (or, more rarely these days, wedding rings) have been exchanged, the romance novel comes to an end, implying that the relationship built within its pages, and the love upon which said love relies, will inevitably last into the future.

That's why I was so excited to discover not just one, but two novellas published this year that focus on married lovers who have grown estranged and who have to find their way back to one another through the minefields of their own misbeliefs, resentments, and deep vulnerabilities. Neither Daniel and Léa Laurier (of Laura Florand's Turning Up the Heat) nor Amber and Tony Mazzaro (of Ruthie Knox's Making It Last) are officially estranged; each couple is still married, still living together. Neither relationship has floundered under the weight of major disagreements or bitterly opposed goals. And neither husband nor wives have stopped loving each other—they think. Or hope. Yet each has lost the other in some way, has lost the connection—emotional as well as sexual—that initially led them to utter those life-changing words, "I do."

Tahiti, where you can see the fish right beneath your floor
Both authors use the device of a vacation—an escape from the mind-dulling everyday routine—to jolt their married lovers out of their passive acceptance of the unfulfilling state of their marriages. Daniel returns home from yet another consulting gig to find Léa gone, fled to Tahiti, while Tony urges Amber to remain behind, free of both him and their three demanding children, at the end of their less-than-relaxing Jamaican family holiday. Both women have spent years catering to the needs of their families (Amber to said children and to her extended family, Léa to her younger siblings, orphaned when she was only eighteen), but suddenly find themselves at a crossroads when the children move on to school or their own adult lives. With the constant press of fulfilling others' demands no longer distracting them from their own selves, each wonders if she has any self left, any desire of her own—even a desire for her own husband. "Back when she'd met Tony, [Amber]'d been so inexperienced that his cock had seemed like this miraculous thing, but lately she just wanted every penis in the house put away," Amber reflects when Tony unexpectedly returns to Jamaica, realizing that leaving her alone is not enough to ensure she comes back.

What, no kids?
Tony has long recognized that Amber has been slipping away, and that his long work hours are partially to blame. But with the poor economy endangering his business, their very home, he can see no way to fix their problems. Workaholic Daniel is more clueless than Tony, too caught up in his own insecurities to see Léa's. But he's just as afraid as Tony is that his wife's abrupt departure means she's going to leave him. Both men pray that reigniting their sexual chemistry will solve their marital woes, but both husbands and wives need to recognize that a bout of sex, no matter how mind-blowing, cannot change the fundamental patterns of the lives they've chosen, patterns that have made them all deeply unhappy.

Each couple works to overcome their estrangement in different ways. Yet both solutions involve finding meaningful pursuits separate from their families for the two wives; discovering the strength to speak about shameful, embarrassing, guilty emotions; and choosing to recommit to each other, just as they did when they first uttered their wedding vows. In other words, each couple has to fall in love all over again, not only with each other, but with their best selves.

Knox and Florand wrote novellas, not novels, about the already-married. In Knox's case, at least, few people expressed enthusiasm about a full-length romance about a married couple. I hope RNFF readers will go out and support these two works, and their authors, and send a message to publishers and other romance writers that such stories are not only needed, but truly welcome.

This post is dedicated to my cousin Nicole, who will be saying her own "I do" for the first time this weekend.

Photo credits:
Tahiti: Romance Travel Concierge
Jamaica: Travel By Darcy

AOS Publishing 2012. 

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Mary Jo Putney: A Lifetime of Writing Romance

This past Saturday night, the Romance Writers of America handed out their annual RITA awards, honoring the best of the past year's romance fiction in categories from young adult to contemporary to suspense. But the most moving part of the evening for me was the presentation of the organization's Lifetime Achievement Award to historical romance writer Mary Jo Putney. I've read hundreds, perhaps even thousands, of romance novels over the course of my life, and so many of them linger in my head for only as long as I hold the book in which they appear in my hand. But Putney has the knack for writing not only stories, but characters, who remain vividly memorable, for crafting books that you want to read, and read, and read again.

Putney came to prominence during a transitional period in romance writing, and in many ways helped blaze a new trail from the 1970s and 80s Old Skool romance, with its aggressive, often abusive heroes, spunky but sexually innocent heroines, and narratives told primarily from the heroine's point of view. After publishing several traditional Regencies in the late 1980s, Putney branched out into single-title series romance, novels that moved beyond the Old Skool formulas, crafting narratives that allowed readers inside the heads of both heroines and heroes. Many of her heroes were still in the aggressive rakish mold, but by showing us their past traumas and how they felt and responded to them, Putney gave us sympathy for their vulnerabilities and fears. She also gave her heroes character arcs, rather than settling on the simple "I love you" moment to make said heroes worthy of their heroines' admiration. These rakes and ne'er do wells had to change, had to mature, in order to be worthy of adult romantic love. Chase scenes, gunfights, and other mayhem still played a role in her plots, as in Old Skool romances, but what drew (and continues to draw) readers to her books are the psychological nuances of her compelling characters, characters that made us feel that finally, someone was writing romances about grown-ups, rather than virginal untried girls and whining babies masquerading as men.

Putney was also one of the first romance writers to discuss taboo subjects such as alcoholism, incest, spousal abuse, and rape. Earlier authors had used such traumas as devices to motivate plots, or as reasons for a hero to rescue a heroine or to punish a villain on her behalf. But Putney chose instead to explore the psychological impact trauma inflicts on human beings, male and female, and how relationships with friends and with lovers can help trauma's victims come to terms with their pasts and find the strength to believe in the possibility of better futures.

Most of my romance reading is done via books I check out from my local library. I only purchase romances that I've read at least once, and know I'll want to go back to, again and again. Unsurprisingly, my romance keeper shelves include many a Mary Jo Putney title: her "Silk" trilogy, her "Brides" trilogy, and several of the books in her "Fallen Angels" series. I waited a long time, hoping that Thunder and Roses, the first Fallen Angels book, would come back into print, as I was tired of borrowing it from the library. A year or two ago, I finally gave in and purchased a used copy, so much did I want that book on my "keeper" shelf. 

As a special treat, I promised myself that after returning from the RWA conference in Atlanta, I'd cuddle up on my couch and reread my favorite Mary Jo Putney, Thunder and Roses, while raising a glass in her honor. What Putney book will you be rereading to celebrate? Let me know if you'd like a recommendation...

Friday, July 19, 2013

Talking with Feminist Romance Authors?

A short post today. I'm spending this weekend in Atlanta, at the national meeting of the Romance Writers of America. Over 400 professional writers of romance are in attendance, along with many aspiring romance writers, meeting with agents and editors, listening to workshops on developing their craft, and signing books to raise money for charities devoted to increasing literacy. I'm hoping to find a few writers here who might be interested in guest-blogging here on RNFF, and am wondering if there are any romance writers YOU would like to hear from about how feminism impacts their writing. Here's a link to the list of writers who attended the literacy book signing; are there any names that you'd be interested in hearing from here on RNFF? Let me know, and I'll do my best to track them down...

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Shaming the Slut-Shamer: Anne Calhoun's UNFORGIVEN

Slut-shaming was in the news last month, after researchers from Cornell University published a study in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships suggesting that women, even women who have had many sexual partners themselves, judge other "promiscuous" women more negatively than women who have had only two sexual partners. Ask to read two near-identical vignettes about women who differed only in the number of sexual partners they'd had, and then asked to rate said women, study participants judged the more sexually active women more negatively on nine out of ten friendship attributes, including competence, warmth, emotional stability, and morality. Disheartening news, to hear that so many women fear being associated with another girl who might be labeled a "slut" almost as much as they fear being smacked with the label themselves.

In contrast, men asked to read about and then rate other men expressed no such negative judgments on their more sexually wanton fellow males. Amanda Hess at slate.com warns against using the results of this study to jump to the conclusion that it's women, not men, who are the key policiers of other women's sexuality. Men may not judge other men for being sexually promiscuous, but study after study has demonstrated that the tables turn when its a question of a woman sleeping around.

Anne Calhoun's latest contemporary, Unforgiven, hits many of my personal and ideological sweet spots—a lovers-parted-then-reunited plot, a heroine comfortable with her own sexuality, a romance which doesn't mistake sexual intimacy for emotional intimacy, and the aesthetic pleasure of a darkly understated narrative voice. Yet even without any of the above, Calhoun's novel is worth a feminist's read, for the way in which, with subtlety and power, it allows us to see the male privilege at the heart slut-shaming.

Twelve years ago, guilt over his role in the death of a fellow schoolmate sent wild-boy Adam Collins fleeing into the Marines, leaving behind the girl with whom he'd shared everything except sexual intercourse. When he returns to the small South Dakota town to serve as the best man in a friend's wedding, he finds that little has changed—except for the reputation of his former girlfriend, Marissa Brooke. As Adam's soon-to-be-married friend Keith reports, "Her reputation's worse than in high school," right before he goes on to describe several of the men she's slept with since Adam left town. "And those were just the guys who lasted more than a night or two," Keith proclaims, then pronounces the final slut-shaming blow: "Marissa will make your bathroom or your kitchen or your sun porch look like something out of Architectural Digest, but she had a string of men teaching her what she needed to know, and she paid them the old-fashioned way" (117). Adam later hears similar talk in the local cafe, expressed in words so like his friend's that he realizes "Keith was the one to frame Marissa in that particularly unflattering light," the one to spread the malicious gossip about town (180).

Keith envisions women's sexuality as a bargaining chip, something they use in order to gain something else from a man—prestige, money, or, in Marissa's case, construction skills. As a lawyer, the son of the town's lawyer, and soon-to-be-husband of town banker's daughter, Keith knows that in the usual way of things, he would be the one in power, not Marissa, whose ne'er-do-well father could not afford the taxes to keep their family home.

But Marissa refuses to play the game the way Keith envisions it. She makes this clear after Adam, upset by the gossip, asks her "Why carry on like you did? You know how this town talks" (187). Marissa goes through several layers of explanation—from "I've liked every man I've had sex with. He's liked me" to "I got lonely. I wanted someone to touch me but I didn't want to have to promise undying love or link the rest of my life to his just to be touched"—until she gets to the heart of the slut-shaming impulse: "Good girls make the trade or keep their legs closed. I didn't do either. That makes me a slut."  (186, 187).

Keith takes for granted that as a man, he has the right to power, especially to power over female sexuality. But Marissa refuses to give credence to any such belief. "She turn you down?" Adam asks. "Twice.... Told me to go fuck myself the second time," Keith admits "without blinking an eye" (117). Disrupting patriarchal power structures by taking ownership of her own sexuality, Marissa presents a threat to Keith's self-image, a threat that he works to contain through slut-shaming discourse.

But not all men engage in the slut-shaming game. Adam proves this through his recognition of Keith's underlying ruthlessness while he slut-shames Marissa—"[Keith] laughed, the tone of the chuckle knowingly regretful, the way people did when they were about to say something cruel disguised as advice" (117)—as well as through his respect for Marissa and her decisions. And, most surprisingly, by his refusal to slut-shame another woman at the end of the novel, one whose sexual behavior was far more morally questionable than Marissa's ever was. An unexpected and gutsy move, both on Adam's part, and on Calhoun's, to refuse the "evil other woman" trope in favor of acceptance of other people's weaknesses—an acceptance that for Adam, leads to an acceptance of his own.

So major RNFF kudos to Anne Calhoun, not only for refusing to fall into the slut-shaming trap, but, through both Adam and Marissa, for showing us ways to work our way beyond it.

Photo credits:
Stop Slut Shaming: Motley News and Photos
Slut definition: Megan Ann Ward Poetry

Anne Calhoun, Unforgiven.
Berkeley Sensation, 2013.

Friday, July 12, 2013

Where are all the female athletes?

After 77 years, the wait is over

Murray ends 77 wait for British win

Our Golden Boy: Andy Murray ends 77 years of waiting for a British champion

This past weekend, tennis fans around the world, in particular those in Britain, hailed with joy the straight-set win of Scot Andy Murray on the grass courts of Wimbledon. Newspaper headlines such as those above, from The Daily Telegraph, The Times, and The Daily Mail respectively, proclaimed Murray a new national hero, his accomplishment bringing to a glorious end a sporting drought second only to that of the hapless Chicago Cubs. But as The Guardian pointed out in its "PassNotes" column, "a humorous Q & A about a new issue of the day," the other newspapers had it wrong—unless, of course, women's athletic accomplishments simply don't count. Ignoring not only Virigina Wade, the most recent British woman to captured the golden plate in 1977, but also fellow Brits Ann Hayden-Jones (winner in 1969), Angela Mortimer (1961), and Dorothy Round Little (1937), the newspapers made clear that gender hierarchies are alive and well in the world of sports reporting.

As they are in romancelandia. For if, as The Guardian claims, Wade and her fellow female winners have been "airbrushed out of history" by the press, few women athletes ever even make it on to the romance land canvas. For example, a Goodreads list of "Romance with Hero/Heroine are athletes" includes 118 titles, but fewer than 10 of these romances feature heroines in the athletic role.  Of those, one heroine is a ballerina, one a former competitive figure skater who now performs in ice shows, and several are former, but no longer competing, athletes. One featured a woman martial arts specialist in search of a man who can fulfill her submissive BDSM desires by beating her in a fight. Interestingly, the two books on the list that I read and enjoyed—Jennifer Iacopelli's Game. Set. Match. and Patricia McLinn's The Games—featured the intertwining stories of three pairs of both male and female athletes. Can a woman who devotes herself to sport only be attractive to a fellow athlete?

A 2008 study by the Women's Sports Foundation found that 69% of girls (as compared to 77% of boys) participate in organized or team sports, a major leap in the forty years since the passage of Title IX. I certainly see signs of this with my daughter and her friends— crew, fencing, swimming, horseback riding, and dance are only some of the many athletic activities in which they participate, and thrive. More recent studies show that sports participation can result in "lifelong improvements in educational, work, and health prospects" for women.

Why, then, are there so few athlete heroines in romance novels? And such a glut of athlete heroes? Are there other female athlete romances that you would recommend?

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Dystopian Feminism: Alaya Dawn Johnson's THE SUMMER PRINCE

Since the 1915 serial publication of Charlotte Perkins Gilman's Herland, writers have often turned to the trope of the female-governed society to explore issues of gender and power . Gilman's novel suggests that excluding men from a culture would inevitably lead to a utopian state, one blessedly free from the violence, war, and drive to domination that Perkins found characterized the masculinity of her day.* Many writers who deployed the trope after Gilman have taken a less sanguine view, however, using the female-headed society to point out women's, as well as men's, drive for power and supremacy. Alaya Dawn Johnson's young adult novel The Summer Prince has ties to this second, more dystopian strand, but its far from traditional depiction of sexuality, as well as its emphasis on the powers and responsibilities of art and the artist, offer no easy answers about gender. Instead, it leads readers to keep asking questions about the power structures that govern not only the futuristic city-state of Palmeres Três—structures of class, skin color, age, access to technology, as well as gender—but also those that govern their own worlds.

Johnson's novel is an immersive fantasy—as readers, we're thrust immediately into the post-apocalyptic society of Palmeres Três, a glassed-in pyramid of a city with ten different tiers, built on the site of Palmeres, the community built by fugitive slaves in seventeenth-century Brazil. 400 years before the time of the novel, the "Y Plague" wiped out 70% of the planet's men; though gender balance has now been restored, Palmeres Três has maintained the female-dominated governing structure that emerged in the plague's wake. The book's narrator, seventeen-year-old June Costa, is the privileged step-daughter of one of the city's governing "Aunties," Auntie Yaha, who married June's mother shortly after the suicide death of June's father. Given the heteronormative world view of most futuristic fantasy fiction, and my own heteronormative expectations, it took me a few pages to understand the relationship between June and Auntie Yaha, and to wonder about the sexual norms of a society in which a woman may wed a husband, then later marry a wife. Are Palmerans bisexual? Pansexual? Polyamorous? Monogamous? June never stops to explain; her very lack of explanation normalizes a sexual culture far different from our own. Readers must come to their own conclusions about sexuality in Palmeres Três, but no matter what they decide, it's certain that we're not in heterosexual Kansas anymore.

June and her male friend Gil "solved our virginity problem together a few years ago," June explains, suggesting that Palmeres Três' openness to sexuality extends to teens, as well as to adults (58). Though Gil has continued to be sexually active with others, June has not. But when June and Gil catch sight of the new summer king, a dark-skinned boy from the verde, the lowest and least privileged level of the city, both are smitten. Even knowing that vibrant young Enki is slated to be sacrificed, his throat slit in a public ritual at the end of his one-year rein, does not dampen their attraction. It's male Gil, though, not female June, who first catches Enki's eye. Though "everyone knows that summer kings screw like mayflies," (49), the dance Gil and Enki share during Enki's first public appearance as king leads to a romantic relationship, a relationship that flourishes into love.

Unfortunately, Palmeres Três is not as equitable in regards to class and skin color as it is to sexuality. Enki uses both his dark-skinned body and his public platform to give subtle reminders to the privileged in Palmeres Três of the inequities of their society, inequities that their tiered geography makes it only too easy to ignore. June, a visual artist who "live[s] for spectacle, for the construction of emotional states and the evocation of suppressed feelings," begins to recognize a kindred artistic spirit in Enki (33). Knowing that "two artists can create work together that they can never imagine alone," June paints a transgressive public mural to capture Enki's attention, telling herself all the while that her desire has nothing to do with her attraction to the summer king, or her jealousy of Gil (66). Soon June and Enki are scheming to create a major public art display, one designed to capture the attention of the entire city and remind it of the injustices upon which it rests. And as they plot and plan, June finds herself falling in love not with the image of Enki, but with the rebellious, transgressive, doomed-to-die king himself.

Johnson's novel is both ambitious and frustratingly flawed. We're never entirely clear about Enki's goals; does he believe his and June's art can foment social change? Remaking the world, as did the first Queen of Palmeres Três through the establishment of the sacrifice of the king, is an act of artistry, he claims. But can art remake the world, make it better? If so, what would that better world look like? Enki gives us little idea.

Or is Enki's only real goal to point his country in a different direction by refusing his one important role as summer king: to re-anoint the current Queen at the moment of his ritual death?

June, also, proves an elusive character, as well as an often annoying one. She's an artist, but we never get a strong sense of why, of what art means to her beyond a vehicle to garner praise and prestige. The demands of plot, rather than of her character, seem to be why she makes an incredibly selfish decision mid-book, a decision likely to turn off readers just at the point where they should be rooting for a protagonist. Is she worthy of Enki's admiration? Of ours?

Perhaps, though, some books, some characters, do not need to provide us with the answers. Maybe it is enough that they, like Enki, show us what questions need to be asked. Only then can we, blind and unworthy Junes though we may be, choose whether or not to take on the painful task of finding answers, answers that do justice to the difficulties of the questions, and to the courage of those willing to ask them.

*The women of Herland have discovered a way to reproduce via parthenogenesis, so men are truly unnecessary.

The Summer Prince.
Arthur A. Levine/ Scholastic, 2013.

Friday, July 5, 2013

Asexual Romance?

Thanks to my friend Jane for telling me about a fascinating series of articles by Dominique Mosbergen on the Huffington Post's Gay Voices blog on the topic of asexuality. I knew what the word meant, of course, but I'd only ever read or heard it used in a pejorative way—referring to a person who for some psychologically problematic reason, did not feel sexual desire. But over the past decade, a group of men and women have begun to argue that asexuality is not always a sign of sexual disorder. Like homosexuality, bisexuality, and other sexual orientations that fall outside the sexual mainstream, asexuality should be regarded as an "intrinsic part" of a person's identity rather than a medical condition that needs to be fixed. Sexologist and professor Anthony Bogaert's research suggests that approximately 1% of England's population is asexual, a figure others have applied to the global population. AVEN (The Asexuality Visibility and Education Network) was founded in 2001 to create public acceptance and discussion of asexuality, and to facilitate the growth of the asexual community.

Bogaert suggests that the "ace" (short for asexual) identity helps us see how often society links romance and sex, a conflation that in the case of the asexual simply does not happen. Some asexuals desire a romantic relationship with another; others do not. Or some do not experience sexual desire until they've forged a strong emotional (and often romantic) connection with a specific person.

Today's romance novels typically couple sex and romance. Growing sexual attraction leads to growing emotional connection. Would it be possible in this day and age to envision an asexual romance novel? What would it look like? Could you argue that the traditional Regency romance can function as an asexual romance? What would a contemporary asexual romance look like?

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

New Adult or Young Adult? Katie McGarry's DARE YOU TO and Gayle Forman's JUST ONE DAY

Most definitions of the emerging category "New Adult" focus on the age of a book's characters. "Protagonists generally fall between the ages of eighteen and twenty-six" states the web site NA Alley, while the opening line of Wikipedia's entry on the category opines "New Adult (NA) fiction is a developing genre of fiction with protagonists in the 18-25 age bracket." By this rule, Gayle Forman's Just One Day, with its eighteen-year-old narrator Allyson telling the story of the year after her graduation from high school, should fall firmly within the bounds of NA. And Katie McGarry's Dare You To, with its seventeen-year-old protagonist Beth, still struggling with the restrictions of high school, should clearly be labeled "Young Adult." Why, then, after reading the two books back to back, do I feel so strongly that each belongs in precisely the other group? Might there be more to YA and NA than simply the age of their protagonists?

Books marketed as YA
Robert Small* argues that "adolescent fiction often employs a point of view which presents the adolescent's interpretation of the events of the story," a presentation that is often incomplete, reflecting the not-quite-mature development stage of the teenaged narrator (282). Building upon Small's argument, Mike Cadden** suggests that even while YA authors depend on "the reader's failure to see, understand, and subsequently regret the adult's ironic construction of an 'authentic' adolescent voice," a voice that doesn't see everything that's going on in the story, an ethical YA author will "help the reader recognize the limits of the young adult consciousness in the text.... the contestability of any immature consciousness in the narrative" (146, 147). Though Cadden argues that the most ethical YA texts are ones with "double-voiced discourse," narratives that "represent voices as equal and provide alternative interpretations that offer, in their aggregate, no single and final answer for the reader," I'd suggest that all YA texts offer a double voice: the (explicit but incomplete) voice of the adolescent narrator and the (implicit but complete) voice of the adult author. The growth that YA protagonists experience over the course of any YA narrative is the growth from a limited (adolescent) consciousness to a broader (adult) consciousness, from self-absorbed to self-knowledgeable.

In the bookstore: a new category
In contrast, at least in the New Adult texts that I've read, this gap between the limited consciousness of the adolescent protagonist/narrator and the more knowing consciousness of the adult hidden behind the text rarely exists. Perhaps this is because so many NA texts have been written by "new adults" themselves, writers in their early twenties, so the irony inherent in an adult author writing a purportedly "authentic" teenaged voice simply does not exist. Or perhaps it is because so many NA stories are romances, focused primarily on developing a relationship with one special person than on developing an individual. The protagonists in NA texts may change and grow over the course of their narratives, but there is little sense that another, more knowledgable consciousness lies embedded within the narrative, hints of which a skilled reader will see.

Just One Day's eighteen-year-old protagonist, Allyson, has lived a controlled, sheltered, protected life. But because this is the only life Allyson has known, she herself isn't quite aware of the limits that have been placed around her. At the opening of the book, Allyson is on a post-high-school graduation trip of Europe with a tour group. As Allyson describes it:

I know everyone else gives [tour guide] Ms. Foley crap for the eagle eye she keeps on us, but I appreciate how she is always doing a head count, even appreciate how she disapproves of the nightly jaunts to local bars, though most of us are of legal drinking age in Europe—not that anyone over here seems to cate about such things anyways.
     I don't go to the bars. I usually just go back to the hotel rooms Melanie and I share and watch TV. You can always find American movies, the same kinds of movies which, back at home, Melanie and I often watched together on weekends, in one of our rooms, with lots of popcorn. (5)

Allyson "appreciates" Ms. Foley's in loco parentis behavior, but readers are meant to see more than Allyson does: that Allyson's urge to stay in her hotel room, watching the "same kinds of movies" she can see back home is limiting, is keeping her from fully engaging with the new cultures to which her trip is supposedly introducing her. Significantly, Allyson's embryonic recognition of her self- and parental-imposed limitations begins with her encounter with a "guerilla" Shakespearean troop performing outdoors for no money; their drumming-up-business cry, "Set Shakespeare Free," calls not only for a rejection of a cash-for-performance exchange, but also for an embrace of life and art. It is just such an embrace that Allyson has rejected up until this point, a mistake the novel encourages her, and through her, its readers, to rectify.

The night before I read Just One Day, I had dinner with a group of forty-something women friends, most of whom were parents of girls. One friend brought up the idea of helicopter parents, and we talked about how many kids these days had few opportunities to develop self-sufficiency and independence because of parental over-involvement in their lives. One woman mentioned how people thought it was crazy that she allowed her ten-year-old daughters to ride their bikes to school alone; another about how her suburban family worried about her high-schooler, who took the subway with a friend into downton Boston every day to school. But we spoke about our pleasure in our children's competence, a competence they would not have been able to develop had we allowed our own fears as parents to enfold them within a protective cocoon. Just One Day makes the same argument, albeit in fictional form. And it's an argument that only an adult, one who had grown up experiencing one type of parenting and who now was witnessing a society trend toward a different kind of parenting, could make. Even though Allyson's story is narrated by Allyson, its theme and message are clearly coming from an adult point of view.

Dare You To also features a protagonist with over-controlling parents, although Ryan is the male rather than the female lead in this high-school romance. Ryan, like Allyson, does not at first recognize the limits that his family has placed on him. But readers might wonder why he is so blind, because the narrative constructs those parents as obviously wrong right from the start of the book. Ryan's father has banished his older son, Mark, after Mark came out of the closet, and "made it clear that we tell no one what happened with Mark." Though she argues with her husband, Mrs. Stone does not go against her husband's wishes. Ryan has not contacted his brother because he feels that Mark has abandoned him, but the reader, Ryan, and the author all know that the stone parents are wrong, wrong, wrong. The author and the protagonist are all on the same side, as it were; there is no gap between what Ryan knows and what the author knows is right.

It comes as no surprise, then, later in the book, when Ryan throws off the restraints his father has placed upon him. Choosing to go to college and study writing as well as play baseball, rather than pursuing a contract with a pro baseball team as his father insists he do, seems less like a growth of Ryan's character than a plot-motivated inevitability. Ryan's first rejection of his father's mandate comes because he must leave a baseball game early in order to save girlfriend Beth from an abusive stepfather, not because he chooses for his own sake. And at novel's end, Ryan doesn't come out and tell his father he's signed a letter of intent with a college, but allows his mother to tell his father for him.

In contrast, Allyson's decision to reject the summer job her mother has found for her and instead return to Paris after her freshman year of college is a surprise, both to her and to the reader. It comes entirely from her own anger, her own needs, her burgeoning recognition both of her mother's unhealthy over-involvement in her own life. And from her recognition in her own complicity in allowing it: "It's not like I didn't know she would do this. It's not like she hasn't done this my entire life. It's not like I haven't let her" (254).

Perhaps the differences I'm pointing out here have less to do with YA vs. NA, and more to do with the fact that Dare You To falls closer to melodrama on the realism/melodrama continuum, while Just One Day sits firmly at the realism end. But do readers recognize the melodrama in Dare You To? Does the author? Do YA texts push readers to look beyond melodrama, while NA texts remain unaware that a difference between melodrama and realism exists?

Illustration/Photo credits:
YA book stack: Just Another Pretty Farce blog
NA books in bookstore: Breathing Fiction blog
Parent/child caution sign: Huffington Post
Wrong Way sign: FreePhoto

* Robert Small, "The Literary Value of the Young Adult Novel." Journal of Youth Services in Libraries (Spring 1992): 277-85.
** Mike Cadden, "The Irony of Narration in the Young Adult Novel." Children's Literature Association Quarterly 25.3 (2000): 146-154.

Harlequin Teen, 2013.

Dutton, 2013.

Next time on RNFF:
The feminist appeal of the anti-hero