Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Reporting from the Popular Romance Author Symposium

Apologies to all for not posting on Friday. Hotels that advertise "free Internet access" often leave out the fact that trying to maintain an online connection for more than two minutes at a time is next to impossible...

Due to technical difficulties, I'll be flipping posts this week, switching the book review to Friday, and posting about the doings at Princeton's Popular Romance Author Symposium today.

Much of the early academic writing about popular romance tended to lump all texts together, writing about romance as if it were one unified thing. Long after individual romance authors broke free from publishers' category lines and established themselves as marketable in themselves, scholarship is finally beginning to take note. The Popular Romance Author Symposium, organized by scholar An Goris, was the first broadscale attempt to bring scholars and writers together to attempt to explore the implications of this shift, and to attempt to determine what being a romance author might have in common with being an author of any other popular genre fiction, and what might be unique about romance authorship in particular.

The Symposium opened on Thursday afternoon with two keynote speeches, one by a romance scholar and one by a popular romance author. Kay Mussell, author of several studies on romance and its authors, set the tone for the conference to follow by noting that despite recent scholarly work to the contrary, the non-romance reader still tends to view romance as monolithic: all romance is the same, and all romance is bad. After listing many of the reasons why this misperception still abounds, Mussell called on her fellow scholars to help foster a more nuanced view of romance, and to communicate that view more widely, to push aside common knowledge about romance founded on outdated, flawed scholarship. She shared ten concrete recommendations for scholars and reviewers (I think I missed one or two as I rushed to take notes—other attendees, please do add any I missed below):

• Don't endorse a monolithic view of romance; when you speak or write of the field, make sure to emphasize the wide variety of styles, subgenres, and levels of writing out there

• Use the term "romance fiction" or "romance novels" rather than simply "romance," to emphasize that a work of romance is a crafted literary accomplishment (apparently other popular genre awards deem their works "novels" or "fiction," in contrast to the RITA awards, which only use the term "romance")

• Question the assumptions lurking behind the denigrating questions people tend to ask about romance, rather than answering the denigrating questions themselves

• Make clear you're speaking from a deep knowledge of the genre

• Make comparisons with other genres

• Avoid defending the genre; work from the assumption that the genre is worth studying and discussing

• Refer to the history of the genre; discuss the ways romance has changed over time (to displace the monolithic assumption, see above)

• Show respect for both authors and readers

• Bring gender into the discussion: why is romance fiction, primarily written by and read by women,  looked down upon, while male-oriented popular fiction is deemed worthy?

Mussell's call to arms was followed by a talk by best-selling author Jennifer Crusie, who was asked to "talk about your career in terms of gender." Crusie claimed that she'd not thought of her career in gendered terms before (which I was quite surprised to hear, given the time she spent as a graduate student studying feminist literary theory), and proceeded to identify several ways that gender played both positive and negative roles in her career. She reminded us that in 1992, when she published her first romance novel, her publisher, Harlequin, controlled 82% of the market. If you wanted to be a romance writer twenty years ago, you didn't have much of an alternative to Harlequin. The company offered crummy financial recompense, but it did offer stability for its authors; Harlequin paid out royalties on a regular and timely basis, even if those checks were far smaller than those being sent to writers in other popular genres.

Harlequin also epitomized the "patriarchal publisher," Crusie noted, with a corporate mentality straight from the 1950s. This patriarchal mentality extended not only to the financial end of the company, but to the content of the books it published; that patriarchal attitude shaped the field of romance for decades.

Crusie broke with Harlequin when she refused to sign away her "moral rights" as an author (there's a law stating that no one can take something you've written, change it, and then still use your name and market it as if you had written it; Harlequin decided to insist that authors contractually sign away this right, so that they might change, edit, and repackage authors' works at will). Moving to another publisher, and becoming a "lead title" writer, came with its own share of difficulties, many of them gender-based, including speaking to the sales reps during sales conference, trying to convince them to read her book first as simply a story, and second as a romance, to get them to move beyond their assumption that a romance book could never do well in hardcover.

Though Crusie herself has not done much work in the area of e-texts, she ended her talk by noting the ways in which the e-book revolution has both opened doors and, in the way of most feminist gains, created more work, for women writers. Writers with rights reverted backlists may be making money, as are a select few new authors, but Crusie cautioned against writers assuming that everyone will make big bucks from the e-book market.

The evening concluded with a roundtable which included the keynote speakers, several other romance scholars, and writer/scholar Eloisa James/Mary Bly. For me, the most interesting part of the roundtable was the differences in how Crusie and James use online platforms. James has one persona on Facebook ("the super nice me"), another on Tumblr ("the younger, more sarcastic me"), and stopped blogging because she found it tapped too much of the imagination she needed to pour into her fiction. She sees these different personas as part of developing her brand, broadening her appeal to different subsets of her audience. In contrast, while Crusie was one of the first authors to create her own web site, she rarely uses other social media platforms (Crusie's business manager, familiar with her outspoken nature, forbid her to Tweet!), preferring to present one "self" to her fans via her blog, and to collaborate with them there. "You're too honest," James told Crusie, when Crusie questioned how James could craft such different personas. She also joked, not at all unkindly, that Crusie's investment in her blog might be one reason why none of the four manuscripts she's currently at work on have reached the completion point.

The roundtable ended with each participant being asked "What is the significance of the romance author?" Their answers:

• Kay Mussell: For romance readers, the author is far more memorable than the titles of her books. But to those outside the romance community, the romance author is either invisible or looked down on.

• An Goris: The romance author drives the genre, and she's a she

• April Allison: The authorial personal is itself a fiction, a product, and this is true of romance authors as much as it is of any other type of author

• Eloisa James: Romance authors do have value. Tons of us are making far more money than our husbands, and are supporting the entire publishing industry.

• Jennifer Crusie: The perception of the romance author is inextricably tied to the perception of women in general. As long as women are second-class citizens, romance will continue to be looked down upon by the public at large.

Sociologists Jo and Jen -- I took the picture!
Attendance on Thursday included a surprising mix of folks—best-selling print authors and self-publishing newbies, established literary scholars and critics at the beginning their careers, academics who study Literature, Popular Culture, Women's Studies, and even Sociology. The scholarly talks on Friday were given to a smaller sub-set of this audience, but maintained the intellectual rigor, welcoming good humor, and commitment to furthering the scholarly conversation about popular romance that formed the backbone of Thursday's presentations. I found the presentation by sociologists Jennifer Lois and Joanna Gregson, who discussed how romance authors respond to negative comments about their work and their genre, particularly interesting, as well as the many conversations we had about the relationship between the romance author and her/his fans.

Thanks to An Goris and William Gleason of Princeton, who worked incredibly hard to make this unusual symposium happen. It was a true treat to take part.

And thanks, too, to Jennifer Crusie, who smiled at this tongue-tied fangirl and generously shared her thoughts over Friday's lunch...

Illustration/photo credits:
Popular Romance Author Symposium
Kay Mussell: The University of Iowa Alumni Association
Jennifer Crusie: Writewell Academy
Jo Gregson and Jen Lois: Romance Sociology

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Interrogating Self-Sacrifice: Julie Berry's ALL THE TRUTH THAT'S IN ME

It is one of my most visceral memories, leaving the movie theater that evening in 1996, anger, disgust, and fear roiling deep in my gut. I'd gone alone that night, eager to take advantage of my spouse's immersion in a graduate school project to see a film in which I knew he would never be interested. But by the time the lights came up in that theater, I was cursing myself for not staying at home. Lars von Trier's Breaking the Waves—the story of a "simple" young wife, madly in love with her new husband, who agrees to said husband's demand to sleep with other men after he is paralyzed in an oil rig accident—is stunningly shot and amazingly acted. Such artistry makes the film's gender politics even more disturbing; the beauty of the film urges us to admire the sight of a husband growing stronger as his wife's sexual encounters grow more sordid, veering into sadistic abuse. Breaking the Waves asks viewers to regard the wife's ultimate sacrifice as Christ-like, holy, transcendent. Instead, it made me want to vomit. I was literally shaking as I left the theater, afraid to be in company with my fellow theatergoers, worried that unlike me, some of them might actually have found the film's model of love-inspired female self-sacrifice not sickening, but admirable.

But is self-sacrifice a sacred power?
You will understand my misgivings, then, when I heard author Julie Berry describe the plot of her new young adult novel at a book signing last month. All The Truth That's In Me tells the story of eighteen-year-old Judith, who goes missing from her colonial-era town four years before the start of the novel, only to return two years later, physically mutilated, her tongue partially cut out. Shunned by the townspeople and her own family, overlooked by the neighbor she's loved for as long as she can remember, Judith lives the life of an outcast, her silence mistaken for stupidity, or possibly even damnation. But when invaders threaten both her town and her beloved Lucas, their only hope lies in the man who abducted Judith, a man whose identity she has kept secret for two long years: "So there is a way. If someone can find and purchase it. If someone's devotion and courage are sufficient to die for it" (41). Will Judith sacrifice herself to save her town? Her beloved?

Berry is a former student of mine, from when I taught at the Center for the Study of Children's Literature at Simmons College, and we've stayed in touch since she left Simmons to attend Vermont College's MFA in writing for Children and Young Adults Program. And her book has been receiving a lot of positive buzz from bloggers and reviewers. So I knew I would have to read it. Still, I put the copy I'd purchased aside for a few days, days which turned into several weeks, as I tried to overcome my trepidation. Finally, this weekend, I forced myself to crack open the book's spine.

And found myself captivated.

For the self-sacrifice that the flap copy and the buzz tout do not prove to be the culmination of the book, as they are in von Trier's film; Judith's return to her abductor happens fairly early in the story. Nor are we are invited to rejoice in Judith's act of self-sacrifice, an act that has the potential to be an act of self-erasure. Instead, readers follow Judith in the aftermath of her choice, watching as she begins the arduous process of reclaiming her self. The obsession with Lucas that marked the book's opening section (the entire narrative is written in the second person, with Lucas as the addressee) gradually recedes, with scenes of Judith almost stalking Lucas slowly displaced by scenes of her interactions with her family, other townspeople, and most importantly, with herself. Learning to read, remembering how to sing, welcoming a new friendship, Judith recaptures her own own voice, long before she can bring herself to attempt to speak with her mutilated tongue: "I try to imagine my body asleep, with only the musical air rushing out and in. Again and again I sing, until the sound is limber, light, and pure. What is this thing inside me that can make such sound, after so long? How could I have let it be stilled?" (136).

A subplot about a murder serves as the focus of much of the final section of the book, the subplot's resolution the book's climax. This subplot contains interesting themes for a feminist to consider: what constitutes healthy sexual curiosity vs. unhealthy prurience; the injustice of men who would restrain and deny women's sexual desires; the fears women have of being negatively judged by association with the shunned; the powers of both female rivalry and female friendship. But for me, the novel's climatic moment came mid-book, when Lucas asks Judith the one question she's been dreading. To give him the answer he so desperately wants would be to relive the anguish of the man she still so deeply loves. But it would be a sacrifice of herself bought at far too dear a price:

Lucas. At your bidding I'd have fallen at your feet. I'd have lied for you, I'd have lied to please you, if I had the words to do it.
     But I can't answer you this. Not even for you. In time the truth would make you hate me, if you don't already. But more than that, against all reason, I hold myself too dear. (145)

Would that all young girls learn to hold themselves as dear. And find partners, as does Judith, who will love them because they do.

Photo credits:
Breaking the Waves: Movie Posters 2038
Girl on rock: Getty Images

Viking, 2013

Friday, October 18, 2013

If You Could Ask Jennifer Crusie...

After working in children's trade book publishing for nearly a decade, I have to admit I tend not to fall into bouts of author worship. When you've seen big name writers and illustrators curse out their copyeditors, complain about their royalty statements, and turn in less-than-polished work, you quickly come to realize that the artists you once idolized are just as prone to having feet of clay as any other human being on the planet.

Yet I must admit that I'm having a bit of fan-girl moment about one of the attendees of the conference I'll be speaking at next week, The Popular Romance Author: A Symposium on Authorship in the Popular Romance Genre. Next Friday, I and other romance scholars will be presenting short papers on individual romance authors and on the figure of the romance author in general (see abstracts here). But the highlight of the symposium for me will be the keynote address on Thursday given by romance author Jennifer Crusie.

A few months after I rediscovered romance (story of said rediscovery told here), I was sitting on my couch, reading Crusie's classic contemporary romance, Bet Me, for the first time. I'm usually not one for reacting out loud to what I read, but Crusie's story, with its smart, wisecracking narrator, had me bursting out in a snort, even a full belly laugh, with almost every page turn.

As more and more giggles came from my end of the sofa, my spouse finally looked up from his own book and demanded to know just what it was that was making me cackle like a crazed hen. When he heard that it wasn't a book by Terry Pratchett, as he'd assumed, but a romance novel, he turned back to his own reading. But when I shut Bet Me with a contented smile, he took it up and began flipping through it. Then, he started reading it himself. And soon the cackling started at the other end of the sofa. Any author who can make both a feminist literary scholar and a computer scientist laugh like that has some kind of talent.

But it's not only Crusie's skill as a fiction writer that I admire. Crusie, who trained as a feminist literary scholar at Ohio State University before turning to fiction writing, was one of the first romance authors to argue for romance's affinity with, rather than opposition to, feminist principles. Her 1997 essay, "Romancing Reality: The Power of Romance Fiction to Reinforce and Re-Vision the Real,"* takes issue with those who disparage romance by arguing it only "deals in fantasy." When compared to the literary classics she studied during her graduate school training, fiction which "reflected male worlds told by male authorities," romance novels came far closer to depicting the reality of her own experience as a woman, she argued:

...even the most abysmal examples of the genre took place in my world, a world of relationships, details, and victories that balanced my defeats. Better than that, the best of the genre often directly contradicted patriarchal common wisdom by re-envisioning the male assumptions I'd grown up reading, telling me that my perceptions were valid after all.

Unlike many of the romance authors who took issue with scholarly arguments against the genre in the 1994 collection Dangerous Men and Adventurous Women, Crusie does not cast "feminists" and "feminism" as the villain responsible for the low esteem in which romance as a genre is held by the general public. Shoddy scholarship, not feminism itself, may be a culprit, but its hardly the only one, given the aforementioned "patriarchal common wisdom" and the way it dismisses women's lives and stories.

The bulk of Crusie's essay focuses not on justifying romance against previous critics' opinions, but on setting forth her own arguments about how feminism is inherent in the genre:

Romance fiction, while sometimes committing the patriarchy-reinforcing crimes the critics accuse it of, much more often reinforces a sense of self-worth in readers while reflecting a psychologically accurate portrayal of their lives. It does this by demonstrating the idea of women as strong, active human beings; by reinforcing the validity of their preoccupations; and by putting them at the center of their own stories, empowering them by showing heroines who realistically take control of their own lives.

Crusie, the rare writer who can make me laugh and make me think. No wonder I'm having a touch of fan-girl agita at the prospect of attending her talk.

I'm looking forward to hearing what Crusie has to say about the romance author in general, and about her own experiences in particular, during her keynote address at next week's conference. And if I have the chance to speak with her in person, I hope to avoid becoming a writhing mass of tongue-tied embarrassment by coming prepared. Not, like Jane Austen's obsequious Mr. Collins, with "those little delicate compliments which are always acceptable to ladies,"** but with some thought-provoking questions.

Will you help? If you had the chance to talk with Jennifer Crusie, what would you ask her?

* Her contribution to the groundbreaking issue of the journal Para•doxa, the first academic journal to devote an entire issue to popular romance.
** Pride and Prejudice, chapter 14.

Photo credits:
I'm a Fangirl: Kait Barnes

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Rethinking Columbus Day: Native American Romance

In fourteen hundred and ninety two,
Columbus sailed the ocean blue...

As I write this post (on Monday), many readers in the United States have the day off from work, in celebration of the anniversary of Christopher Columbus's arrival on American shores some 500+ years ago. The anniversary has been an official federal holiday here in the States since 1937, and is currently a state holiday in all but three American states. As a schoolchild, I remember making paper cut-out models of Columbus's three ships in art class, and studying Columbus and other European explorers who set out to disprove the commonly-held notion that the world was flat. We heard little to nothing about Columbus's harsh treatment of the native peoples he encountered, his investment in slavery, or his own rather unsavory personal character during our lessons, Columbus and his holiday having come to be used to celebrate American patriotism and the inevitability of European domination of the peoples inhabiting the Americas before Columbus's arrival.

My daughter's elementary school took a different tack toward Columbus, a tack I much prefer. "Re-thinking Columbus Day" asks students to look at the Columbus's "discovery" of America not only through a European, but also through an American Indian lens. So I thought I would apply this thinking to today's column, by taking a look at romances featuring Native American characters.

Running a Google search for "Native American romance" or "American Indian romance" is a bit disheartening. The Goodreads page for Native American romance features books with covers primarily from the bodice-ripping period, with dark-skinned native men hovering menacingly/sexily over light-skinned women with alarmingly low-cut blouses or dresses. "Savage" and "Wild" feature prominently in many titles, as do the names of the more familiar (to whites) native tribes. Most are historical romances; as the people at Oyate, a group devoted to reviewing books for children with Native American content, note, "Many non-Indian people—including authors and publishers—seem to have the notion that Indians are 'history,' cut off somewhere in the early 1900s, or at best marginally existing on a few reservations." Contemporary romances featuring American Indian characters are disappointingly difficult to find.

But in a blog last month, Heroes and Heartbreakers' columnist Janga highlighted the work of one writer who has spent her career working to depict contemporary native peoples, demonstrating how their political struggles often impact their romantic lives. Here's the opening paragraph of her blog:

Truthfully, when I think of Native American characters in romance fiction, the first image that comes to mind is a bodice ripper from the 1980s with a bare-chested Native American hero on the cover and a distressing use of stereotypes between the covers. Then, I remember the books of Kathleen Eagle and am reminded that my first image is not the whole of Native American romance.

You can find the rest of Janga's post here, a post well worth the read.

So, in celebration of Re-thinking Columbus Day, I've just ordered a copy of one of Ms. Eagle's titles via interlibrary loan, and hope to report on my reading in a future post.

Will you join me? Or let us know about other romances featuring Native American characters that avoid indulging in either "noble savage" or "uncivilized Other" stereotypes?

Friday, October 11, 2013

Why Do You Fall for One Person and Not Another?

A few days ago, an acquaintance of mine was telling me about a friend who had recently moved in with her boyfriend. The boyfriend had joint custody of two children from a previous marriage, and the raising of said children was beginning to become a bone of contention between the newly cohabitating couple. She felt that the children should be doing more chores around the house, and in particular, that they should be folding their own laundry. He, in contrast, had been folding their laundry for years, and didn't see any need to give up the task just to please his girlfriend.

The teller of the story, a single parent herself, thought her girlfriend was wrong for butting in on parenting decisions that were none of her business. I, on the other hand, had more sympathy for the girlfriend's frustrations; if the two were embarking on a long-term relationship, the girlfriend would become a step-parent to these children, and her values and expectations should be considered when making decisions about how to raise them. We both wondered if the argument would be resolved in a way that made both parties happy, or if it was an early sign that this relationship was headed for trouble.

If we told the same story to Helen Fisher, an anthropologist who has been studying the science of romantic attraction for more than thirty years, I'm guessing she'd focus less on who was right and who was wrong in this disagreement, and more on what the argument suggests about its two participants' personality types, and whether those personality types were likely to work well together in a romantic relationship. In her 2009 book, Why Him? Why Her? Finding Real Love by Understanding Your Personality Type, Fisher explains how little research has been done to date on why individuals are drawn to the mates they are, and proposes her own theory about the connection between personality and romantic attraction. Fisher groups humans into four personality types, two tied to the neurotransmitters dopamine and serotonin, and two tied to the hormones testosterone and estrogen. People whose personalities seem most influenced by dopamine—spontaneous risk-takers, enthusiastic optimists, high energy novelty-seekers—she dubs Explorers. Those more influenced by serotonin—the conventional and traditional, those skilled at building social networks, people who are calm, cautious, and social—she calls Builders. Directors, who are focused, analytical, logical, tough-minded, competitive, and emotionally-contained, are most influenced by testosterone, while Negotiators, who see the big picture, rely on verbal skills, are sympathetic and nurturing, idealistic, altruistic, and emotionally expressive, are most influenced by estrogen.

Interestingly, while some personality types are most often attracted to potential romantic partners who share the same personalities, other types prefer complimentary, rather than similar, mates. Explorers, she argues, tend to prefer other Explorers, and Builders prefer fellow Builders, but Directors are most often drawn to Negotiators, and vice versa. As Fisher notes, "No wonder so many scientists and laymen think that 'opposites attract' while so many others believe 'birds of a feather flock together.' Both patterns occur—depending on your primary personality type" (Loc 259).

As far as I can tell, Fisher's biologically-based argument has not actually been tested; she's not done any analyzing of her subjects' genetic codes or the ways that neurotransmitters and hormones actually work in their brains. She developed her theory in response to survey questions answered by 39,913 anonymous members of the Chemistry.com dating web site (developed by Fisher, but owned by match.com), added to other scientists' research on the connections between personality and neurotransmitters and hormones. But its an intriguing theory to think with, even while we're still waiting for hard scientific evidence to support or disprove it.

An Explorer and a Builder?
The theory made me wonder about my acquaintance's friend and the viability of her new relationship—does his behavior suggest he's a builder, and hers that she's a director, a personality match, according to Fisher's theory, unlikely to flourish? But it also made me think about the way attraction is depicted in romance novels. Are romance protagonists more often drawn to their opposites, or to those who are similar? If both are depicted about equally, are the similar lovers ones who could be labeled with Fisher's "Explorer" and "Builder" labels? And dissimilar ones those who fall into the "Negotiator/Director" complimentary personalities?

Do you prefer romance protagonists who share personality traits? Or are you drawn more towards the "opposites attract" dynamic?

And do you think your own personality type might be influencing your preference? (You can take Fisher's personality test here...)

Photo/Illustration credits:
Let's Flock: thedreamygiraffe
Opposites Attract: 20-Nothings

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Countering Orientalism: Sara Farizan's IF YOU COULD BE MINE

If I say the words "romance" and "Middle East," what are the first images that pop into your mind? The harem or seraglio, overflowing with women all poised to sexually serve one man? Warrior sheiks in flowing robes, kidnapping and seducing/raping European women? Or something a bit more modern? A sheikh category romance? A woman enveloped in a burqa, her sexuality carefully hidden from view?

I'm betting the words "lesbian" and "transsexual" were not at the top of your list. But these are the very words Sara Farizan, the daughter of Iranian immigrants, challenges Western readers to consider when they pick up her young adult novel, If You Could Be Mine. Eschewing stereotypical western constructions of eastern love and sexuality, Farizan asks us to imagine living in a country in which homosexual relations are forbidden, even punishable by death, but simultaneously where sex-change surgery is governmentally sanctioned: modern-day Iran. Her novel's narrator, seventeen-year-old Sahar, has been in love with her best friend Nasrin for as long as she can remember. Their emotional connection has recently shifted toward sexual exploration, although Nasrin insists "We aren't gay, we are just in love." Smart, ambitious Sahar dreams of becoming a doctor, and works hard to win a coveted place at Tehran University. Nasrin, the child of well-to-do parents, has rarely had to work hard for anything, and avoids thinking about the future whenever possible.

But the future arrives far more quickly than either Sahar or Nasrin could have imagined, in the form of a formal offer for Nasrin's hand in marriage by an eminently-eligible older suitor. Pleased by the attention and wary of disappointing her family, Nasrin accepts, unwilling to believe that such an act could push Sahar from her life. But Sahar isn't willing to share Nasrin with anyone. How can she keep the girl she loves more than anyone from leaving her behind?

After meeting Parveen, a woman who has recently undergone sex change surgery, at a party thrown by her unconventional cousin Ali, Sahar grabs onto one final hope: by becoming a man, might she be able to prevent Nasrin's marriage?

Clip from Be Like Others
Farizan, likely inspired by Tanaz Eshaghian's 2008 documentary, Be Like Others (also known as Transsexual in Iran), explores both the freedoms and the oppressions of living in a society in which transsexuality is seen as a curable illness, but homosexuality as a moral abomination. Through Sahar, readers are asked to consider not only the conventional questions of romance (How important is love to a successful romantic relationship? Sexual attraction? Compatibility? Personal integrity? Care for the other?), but also less conventional questions, questions about gender, sexuality, and the often confusing intersections between the two.

While Sahar's story is more coming-of-age than happily-ever-after-romance, Farizan's novel offers a welcome alternative to the stereotypes of both the dominating sheikh and the oppressed and repressed burqa-enshrouded woman that all-too-often haunt western popular culture, and especially the romance genre.

Photo credits:
Valentino as the Sheik: Rae Summers
Be Like Others clip: AllMovie

If You Could Be Mine
Algonquin, 2013

Friday, October 4, 2013

Romancing Abortion?

Sometimes, it seems as if all romance roads lead to parenthood. Ending a romance novel with an epilogue, one which depicts the hero and heroine years later, their happiness and content signaled by their production of offspring, has become so common that readers have given a name to the trope: the babylogue.

Given genre romance's roots in the comic mode (in the Northrop Frye Anatomy of Criticism sense), the babylogue makes sense: comedy focuses on the reform of, or integration into, society, the success of which is typically symbolized by the marriage that occurs at a play or novel's end. An epilogue showcasing that married couple's fecundity simply extends the symbol, providing proof that the newly formed society is already thriving and prospering.

Is this why romances featuring heroines who have had abortions, or who contemplate having an abortion, are so very rare? The question occurred to me while reading Ros Clarke's latest contemporary, Flirting with the Camera. Though it is a novella (a form about which I've expressed my reservations), Flirting has much to recommend it, especially its plus-sized heroine, Hattie Bell, who is incredibly comfortable in her body, and in her sexual appeal. What really made me stop in surprise, though, was a scene in which Hattie tells Tom, the photographer with whom she hopes to work and to whom she is very attracted, about her "tawdry love affair." Her year-long relationship with an office coworker ended when Hattie found herself pregnant, and her lover informed her that he's married. When Tom asks her what she did, Hattie says: "He gave me some money and told me to deal with it. So I did" (55).

Clarke uses Tom's response to signal to the reader how s/he should respond to Hattie's matter-of-fact, but for a romance story, very surprising, declaration:

     She was staring at him fiercely, daring him to pity her. Or judge her. He wouldn't do either. He could only admire her courage, then and now.
     "And you're telling me he didn't break your heart? You're a strong woman, Hattie Bell.
     "He didn't and I am. Thank you for noticing." (55)

Hattie isn't lying here; though Tom senses "the layers in her voice. Bravery concealing the old scars of fear and hurt" (54), nothing Hattie says or does suggests that being duped by her former lover, or terminating a pregnancy, has broken her, emotionally or psychologically. A difficult and painful life decision, yes; a choice that makes her ineligible for future romantic partnerships, decidedly no.

The Centers for Disease Control report that in United States in 2009, for every 1,000 live births, 227 pregnancies were terminated. The majority of women terminating their pregnancies were in their twenties. Many of these women, like Hattie, are likely to engage in romantic relationships and marriages in the years after their abortions. Their experiences, however, are notably lacking in our current romance literature.

Can you think of any romance novels that feature heroines who have had abortions, and who are not judged/scarred for life by the experience? Or a romance in which a couple works through the decision together about whether to continue an unwanted pregnancy, or terminate it? Can you imagine a romance novel in which a couple chooses an abortion, but still remains together at story's end?

Photo credits:
"I had an abortion": The Phoenix

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Challenging the Virgin Myths: Anne Calhoun's UNCOMMON PASSION

Virgin heroines, or at least sexually unawakened ones, have long been a staple of the romance genre. In historical romance, the trope is hardly surprising; in times when primogeniture served as the backbone of ruling-class feudal and early modern societies, the virginity of one's potential wife was one of the few safeguards a man had that the child to whom his estate would pass would be of his own blood, rather than another man's. In contemporary romance, however, the number of virgin heroines seems strikingly out of proportion to the number of actual women (at least in the United States) who have never engaged in sexual intercourse (see this 2010 report from the Centers for Disease Control on American teen sexuality). As recently as 2009, in their book Beyond Heaving Bosoms: The Smart Bitches' Guide to Romance Novels, Candy Tan and Sarah Wendell could proclaim the sexually inexperienced heroine "one of the more peculiar constants of most romance novels"; even in many paranormals and erotic romances, a heroine is often "relatively innocent, as proven by her inexperience or outright virginity. No matter what type she is, she is definitely not the ho-type" (37).

The "ho-type" label that Tan and Wendell suggest the typical romance heroine deftly avoids may be the key to her continued presence in Romancelandia. "No other genre is as obsessed with the heroine (a) having excellent sex, and (b) not having sex at all unless it's with the One True Love, who's also usually the sole person who can make her come. Got orgasm? Got true love!" BHB's authors proclaim, arguing that the virgin trope allows for the conflation of sexual and romantic awakening, thereby intensifying the heroine's (and through her, the reader's) experience of both (37).

But the conflation of these two tropes serves another, more ideological purpose. Romance authorizes women to enjoy sex, nay, insists that sexual fulfillment is a basic right. But in a society still haunted by the sexual double standard, women who demand sexual fulfillment can all too easily be labeled promiscuous, trashy, sluts, or "hos." By both insisting that women have the right to sexual pleasure, but simultaneously insisting that only the "right" man can give the right woman the pleasure she deserves, the trope of the sexually unawakened/virgin heroine functions to mitigate the anxieties that the sexual double standard inevitably invites. I love good sex, but I'm not a slut; see, I only enjoy sex with that one special someone, not with any or every good-looking guy in the bar...

Equating great sex and true love may have been a step forward toward the goal of acknowledging and accepting women's right to their sexual feelings and desires, and their right to have those feelings and desires met by a partner. Yet the great compromise of Romancelandia has not come without its costs, costs that Anne Calhoun deftly explores in a contemporary erotic romance featuring, yes, a virgin heroine.

In 2013, a twenty-five-year-old virgin strains at reader credibility. Calhoun addresses the problem of reader buy-in by making her heroine, Rachel, a member of a strict Fundamentalist religious community, one in which patriarchal male dominance is a given. Yet Uncommon Passion is not about how Rachel comes to reject her community's sexist strictures; as the novel opens, it's been six months since Rachel left her father and the Elysian Fields Community of God behind. And Rachel, though thoughtful and quiet, is hardly the shrinking violet one might picture having just escaped from a strict religious community that insisted any negative feeling was a sin against authority. "Leaving Elysian Fields meant gaining a measure of not just control over her body and emotions, but also her privacy. She wanted the full range of human experience, and she wanted the option to keep it to herself" (12).

And for Rachel, an important part of that human experience is to know what it is to have sex. The annual fundraiser at the farm where she works presents her with the perfect opportunity: a bachelor auction. Rather than bid on the farm's owner, whom she knows to be kind and friendly, Rachel chooses Ben Harris, a police officer whose reputation suggests is only interested in sex, not a relationship: "the perfect man to take her virginity. Rachel wasn't the gambling kind, but she'd lay odds he wouldn't even notice" (13).

And Ben, wired from a run-in with an armed robber, doesn't—at least not until the morning after. He confronts Rachel, angered that she didn't tell him, equally upset at what the incident says about him: "was this who he'd become, a man who didn't notice a virgin in his bed?" (33). Part worried about his own callousness, part afraid of the danger the inexperienced woman might get into as she explores her budding sexuality, and part driven by his own attraction to her, Ben insists that Rachel give him "another shot."

And Rachel wants more experience: "A woman's most precious possession, according to her pastor and every other male authority figure in her life, the thing valued higher than rubies, more treasured than gold, was gone forever, and all she felt was a longing to know more" (30). Unlike her boss Rob, and all the other people who she's met since she left Elysian Fields, Ben doesn't see her as a fragile girl, but as a strong woman, who "expected her to know and take what she wanted... [who] had the courage and strength to do just that" (49). And so Rachel decides to take Ben up on his offer, the two agreeing to meet once a week for mutual sexual exploration, no romance, and no strings, attached.

Another aspect of the virgin heroine trope's appeal is that a man can and will satisfy a woman's sexual needs, without her having to explain those needs to him, or even to herself. A sexually inexperienced woman is one who doesn't know enough to ask for what she needs, the trope assumes, and insists that the right man can magically intuit her needs without her even having to acknowledge them, in thought or in speech. Through Rachel, Calhoun rejects this fantasy, replacing it with a more realistic, and more empowering, one: "Because you need to learn what works for you. Don't rely on the man to take care of you. Know what you want and how to ask for it," Ben counsels Rachel (86). Even before she heard his advice, however, Rachel was eager to discover the pleasures of being an active, rather than a passive, participant in the game of sexual exploration: "This wasn't about what she wanted him to do to her. It was about what she wanted to do to him, to feel with him" (84). After years of being told what to do, how to think, Rachel is eager to act, and in particular, to discover "what it's like to be in control" (171).

Ben plays out the fantasy of being the competent, experienced teacher to an inexperienced virgin, another aspect of the appeal of the rakish male/virgin female trope. His ultimate goal, though, is turning Rachel into himself: "She'd be easy to teach, easy to toughen up and prepare for casual sex in the modern world," he thinks to himself (102). Ben has spent his adult years using sex as a tension-reliever, a physical act valuable not just for the pleasure it offers, but for the way it distracts him from his own feelings, especially his feelings about his painful estrangement from his family. Sex allows him to substitute adrenaline for emotion, losing himself in the physical, a technique he convinces himself it would be to everyone's benefit to learn.

But Rachel left Elysian Fields in order to feel, not to repress her emotions. For Rachel, adrenaline alone is not enough. In his fear, Ben refuses to accept that Rachel has as much to teach him, both about emotions and about sex, as he has to teach her. When he attempts to train her in the ways of modern casual sex with one final, humiliating lesson, though, it is Ben, not Rachel who emerges devastated. Refusing to learn what Ben insists she must, Rachel turns the stereotypes inherent in the uneducated virgin trope on their head.

After such a dark black moment, it's difficult to imagine how Ben and Rachel could ever recover from the damage. That Calhoun manages to bring the two back together, and without any easy fix or glib words, provides yet another challenge to the assumptions that underlies not only the virgin heroine trope, but almost all romance fiction—that once you say "I love you," all other problems fall by the wayside.

What other reasons can you think of for the prevalence of the virgin heroine trope in romance fiction? And what are the dangers of its myths?

Photo/Illustration credits:
Chicken sex/love: Doug Savage
Bachelor Auction: The Art of Being Humane
Virginville: Photobucket

Anne Calhoun, Uncommon Passion
Berkley Heat, 2013