Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Feminism and Teen Melodrama: Katie McGarry's CRASH INTO YOU

In general, I haven't been a big fan of the emergent New Adult subgenre. Coming of age during the 1970s and 80s, the glory days of young adult realism, I'd been trained to prefer deep, psychologically complex, and above all, realistic novels of adolescent experience to books that took a more melodramatic approach to the teenage years. But ever since a commenter (Rebecca Rogers Maher) on an earlier post pointed out that melodrama as a genre is often preferred by oppressed social groups, I've been interrogating the grounds upon which I'd dismissed this new teen literature. Adolescents are in the midst of learning to navigate the world beyond the family, exploring social structures in which they often have little power or control. In contrast, to read a steady diet of YA realism means imbibing the genre's structural message: problems are internal, psychological, often of a protagonist's own making, and can be solved if a protagonist confronts and overcomes his or her personal demons. To delve into a genre like melodrama, which is typically structured around problems external to the protagonist, might be a way to reject realism's structural message, to insist that not all problems stem from an individual's inner psychology. Or at least to entertain the idea that the external world may play just as big a role as an individual's psychological weaknesses in impeding an adolescent's life goals.

Thinking about teen melodrama in this way helped me to better appreciate one of the most popular contemporary YA/New Adult melodrama writers: Katie McGarry. Her latest release, Crash into You, tells the story of two high schoolers whose lives often feel completely out of their control. From the outside, rich-girl Rachel seems to live a life of privilege. But having grown up the youngest of five, and repeatedly told she was conceived so her mother could have another daughter to replace the older sister who died of leukemia, Rachel feels like the invisible girl in her family. Always expected to be as perfect as the dead Colleen, to keep her mother from falling into the debilitating depression that hit her after Colleen's death, Rachel has to connive and sneak in order to indulge in the one thing she truly loves: tinkering with her beloved 2005 Mustang GT and driving it as fast as she dares. Succumbing to panic attacks whenever she's called on to speak in public certainly doesn't fall within the parameters of perfect daughterhood, either, and so Rachel has been pretending for the past two years that her own mental illness is just as nonexistent as is her own mother's. But as her parents and older brothers begin to push her to speak at the leukemia fundraisers her mother organizes, hiding her condition grows more and more difficult. Everyone in the family considers Rachel weak, in need of their protection; no one realizes how hard she's working to protect them all.

Fleeing one night from a particularly grueling fundraiser ("Cinderella ran away because her coach was going to turn back into a pumpkin. I'm running away because I'd rather be knee-deep in axle grease"), Rachel chances upon an illicit street race. She ends up competing against a dangerous-looking guy ("The two opposing parts of my personality, the girl who panics and the girl who loves speed, declare war and the result is a head rush") who helps her escape when the cops arrive. Readers of McGarry's previous books will recognize Isaiah, escapee from the indignities and abuses of the foster care system, cultivator of a bad-ass image, and the one on the short end of the romance stick after his best friend/confused sex partner Beth moved to the suburbs and found love with a good middle-class guy (in Dare You To). But Isaiah's destined for an even greater cross-class romance than Beth's after his car breaks down and swanky Rachel refuses to save herself and leave him behind for the police to capture.

Shunted into the foster care system at the age of six, after his mother was sent to jail for Armed Robbery and Child Endangerment (she'd brought her son along during her heists), Isaiah has spent most of his life struggling to regain mastery over his out-of-control life. Immediately drawn to Rachel, but convinced he's unworthy of this beautiful angel-girl, Isaiah's almost glad to have a real reason to keep away from her: Eric, the organizer of the street races, was robbed by the college boys who led Rachel to the race, and Eric's on the prowl for her, determined to teach her a lesson. The best way to protect Rachel is to steer clear of her.

A comic Rachel would likely appreciate:
1971's Nobody Wants a Girl Auto
 (although by comic's end,
mechanic Lisa wins a job, and the guy)
But in the way of good melodrama, malevolent Eric is not so easy to put off. And soon Isaiah and Rachel are forced to work together to appease the villain, by earning $5000 drag racing to pay him back for his losses. And also in the way of good melodrama, external forces—a betraying friend, an automotive mishap, a gambling-addicted brother—keep pushing the two away from achieving their goal, upping the stakes and drawing them emotionally closer.

Yet in the midst of the melodrama lies an interesting feminist message. Isaiah, determined to keep things under control, insists that he's the only one who will race Rachel's car (given Rachel's earlier loss to him during a race, she doesn't protest too much). Isaiah also doesn't tell Rachel everything he's planning or doing in his quest to gain the money. "I'm doing it to protect you," he protests when his well-intentioned deceptions come crashingly to light. But Rachel isn't having it: "You're doing it to protect yourself. You never really let me in, did you?" Just like her brothers, just like her parents, Isaiah has used the pretext of protecting her in order to appease his own psychological needs. And Rachel finally realizes that "I'm tired of being protected," tired of serving everyone else's needs but her own.

Only after finally breaking down and speaking honestly with his estranged mother does Isaiah realize that his own need to protect Rachel is just as much a need for control as was his mother's refusal to let a kind foster family adopt him, or to allow his grandparents to take him in. Only by recognizing Rachel as an autonomous individual, and accepting her right to take chances, to make decisions, to act in ways that might lead to results he cannot control, can Isaiah prove worthy of her. Rachel's triumphant moment on the race track inverts film melodrama's embrace of traditional gender roles in a particularly satisfying way:

     Her eyes have a contagious gleam. "I want to do that again." [says Rachel after winning the race]
     "You're going to make scaring the shit out of me a habit, aren't you?" [replies Isaiah]
     Her lips whisper against mine as she speaks. "And you won't do a thing to stop it."
     "No." As much as it kills me. "I won't."

Though the continued melodrama of the novel's denouement seems rather needlessly (and unintentionally) punishing, it echoes the message of the novel's climax: "I've got to let Rachel make her own way, even if it means watching her stumble," Isaiah affirms to himself when she rejects yet another well-intentioned attempt to help her. Isaiah becomes not the savior, not the protector, but the symbolic reward for a girl who has finally learned that pretending to be weak only weakens the ones she loves. A message rare in traditional melodrama, but immensely welcome in a New Adult novel.

And here, weirdly enough, I've come full circle on the issue of control. Am I really only praising this melodramatic novel because at its end, it incorporates the internal psychology of the YA genre? Even if that internal psychological message is about giving up the need for control?

Photo Credits:
2005 Mustang GT: Kimballstock
Nobody Wants a Girl Auto Mechanic:  Career Girl Romances #66, courtesy of Sequential Crush

Katie McGarryCrash Into You
Harlequin Teen, 2013

Friday, December 27, 2013

How I Started Writing Feminist Books: A Guest Post by Courtney Milan

Please join me in welcoming guest blogger Courtney Milan, whose Victorian-set historical romances have often been featured in reviews here on RNFF. In this post, she reveals the surprising origins of the feminism in her writing.

My feeling is that if you read my books from the beginning of my career to current times, you'll see an evolution—and specifically, you'll see an evolution that takes a sharp jump with one book. That book is Unveiled, the third full-length book that I wrote. When I first got the idea for Unveiled, I had planned that Ash was going to be a very typical alpha male.

I write books out of order, so one of the very first things I wrote (and I wrote this in 2008) was a scene (not in the book any longer, for obvious reasons) where Ash first kisses Margaret. Here it is:

     She gathered that preternatural calm about herself. Despite her pale beauty, it descended on her like a cloak of darkness. And he wanted to crack it, to shake it up, to make her respond with something other than the mere hint of a whisper.
     He strode forward until he bracketed her against the wall. Her calm slipped, just a tad. Ash reached down and touched her face. Her cheek was warm and soft in his hand, and her lips parted just a fraction. She said not a word, though—just looked up at him.
     "Please," she said. "Don't—"
     But he did. He wanted her, and damn, he was going to kiss her.

So there you are. That's Ash as I initially planned him.

And then someone (@redrobinreader) on Twitter complained that it was creepy that in every historical romance, the hero tells the heroine how turned on he is by her pale skin.

There's nothing wrong with pale skin, and yes, Victorians did have a pale skin fetish. But when it's the only color that gets praised, that's seriously messed up. And since I don't have pale skin myself, this complaint led to a bit of introspection on my part. Why was I accepting this without question? Why was I writing this way? Why was I writing something I didn't believe, and what did it say that I'd internalized something like that enough to regurgitate it without thinking?

So the scene I wrote after that was a kind of response to how I felt about that moment. This was the scene where Ash says:

Do you know why my peers want their brides to have pale skin?.... They want a woman who is a canvas, white and empty. Standing still, existing for no other purpose than to serve as a mute object onto which they can paint their own hopes and desires. They want their brides veiled. They want a demure, blank space they can fill with whatever they desire.

I hadn't expected to write that. I hadn't planned to write it. The book I had been planning to write had no room for that kind of Ash. But when I wrote it, it felt right in a way that nothing I had ever written before had. Writing those words changed Ash, changed the book, changed what I write about, and changed who I am as a writer.

And you know what it was that pushed me over the edge into writing books that are more feminist? It wasn't feminism directly. It was race.

Even though the race part has rarely shown up directly labeled as such in my books to date, the fact that I am half-Asian, and have had to deal with stereotypes that I should therefore be more submissive, that I've had to deal with being sexualized because of my race, the long and very complicated relationship I have with my mother... These are questions that, for me, are so bound up in the question of who I am as a woman that I don't think I can separate them, and they're things that show up in my books, over and over.

I started paying attention to the feminist content in my books because of a question of race.

The moral of the story is, if something's bugging you, complain about it. You might not reach the person you're talking about, but someone else might hear, and it'll make a difference.

Photo credits:
Courtney Milan: Copyright Jovanka Novakovic, bauwerks.com

Courtney Milan's debut novel, Proof by Seduction, was published in 2010. Since then, her books have received widespread praise, including starred reviews from Publishers Weekly and Booklist. She's been a New York Times and a USA Today Bestseller, a RITA® finalist, and an RT Reviewer's Choice nominee. Her latest book, just released this month, is The Countess Conspiracy, book 3 in the Brothers Sinister series.

You can find Courtney on Facebook, Twitter, or via her website, courtneymilan.com

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Happy Holidays from RNFF

Just a brief post today to wish all happy winter holidays, whatever faith you practice.

Be sure to come back on Friday, when historical romance author Courtney Milan will be stepping in as a special guest poster, blogging about how she began writing feminist romance.

And start thinking back your past year's romance reading—RNFF wants to know your favorite feminist romances of 2013!

Friday, December 20, 2013

From Whence the Kick-Ass Heroine?

I've been wondering lately about the origins of the phrase "kick-ass heroine." According to the OED, the verb phrase "to kick ass," as well as its adjectival form, "kick-ass," refer to a person who is, or acts, "roughly, aggressively, powerfully, or assertively." Today the phrase kick-ass heroine is ubiquitous, used to describe protagonists of urban fantasy and paranormal romance on page and screen, from Kristin Cashore's Katsa to Suzanne Collins's Katniss, from Xena, Warrior Princess to Buffy, Vampire Slayer. But before the late 1970s, the phrase was simply unheard of, the gender-breaking combination of the masculine "kick-ass" with the feminine "heroine" not something English cared to name. Just who coined this phrase, and why was its coinage suddenly necessary?

The OED suggests we have Rolling Stone to thank for the first appearances of both "to kick ass" and "kick-ass" in print; two different 1977 articles describe the playing of male jazz and rock musicians as "kick-ass." Four years later, in her novel Tar Baby, Toni Morrison used the phrase to describe the black women of New York City, "Snapping whips behind the tellers' windows, kicking ass at Con Edison offices, barking orders in the record companies, hospitals, public schools.... The manifesto was simple: 'Talk shit. Take none'." The above usages suggest the term originated in African-American culture, but don't say much about the origins of the hybrid term "kick-ass heroine" in the current-day sense of the phrase.

I've not yet been able to find an instance of the combined term "kick-ass heroine" before 1996, although the existence of female protagonists to whom one might apply the phrase certainly predate this: Ripley of 1979's film Alien; Robin McKinley's literary characters Harry Crewe (from the YA fantasy novel The Blue Sword, 1982) and Aerin (from The Hero and the Crown, 1984). A Google Books search limited by date suggests that Julius Marshall's 1996 film guide, Action! The Action Movie A-Z, may be the first appearance of the phrase in book form. Using it to describe Rene Russo's character in Lethal Weapon 3, Internal Affairs detective Lorna Cole, Marshall writes, "Besides offering Riggs some spirited romantic interest (with a wacky game of 'I'll show you my scar, if you show me yours'), head butts and spin kicks confirm that Lorna's one gal who knows how to take care of herself, a kick-ass heroine in league with T2's Linda Hamilton and Aliens' Sigourney Weaver" (119). A "kick-ass heroine" knows how to fight, perhaps even enjoys fighting. And though her role may in part be to function as romantic interest for an equally-adventurous male hero, she doesn't rely upon said hero to help or save her: she "knows how to take care of herself."

I also found the term in, or rather, on, another 1996 book, Bitches, Bimbos, and Virgins: Women in the Horror Film, an essay collection edited by Gary J. and A. Susan Svehla. The cover copy describes the book as "the history of women in the horror cinema, profiling their evolution from coffee-maker to scientist, from seductress and victim to kick-ass heroine, and finally detailing their emergence as well-drawn characters who play important roles in horror movie history—past, present, and future." The "kick-ass heroine" is a sign of growth in the role of women in the movies; she serves not simply as backdrop or romantic reward/threat for our protagonist hero, or as the symbolic trophy of his conquest over the forces of evil, as she did in the early days of cinema, but instead as the heroine of her own story.

I'm guessing, though, that there must be many examples of the term in magazines or in scholarship produced between 1981 and 1996, works that Google has not yet got its digitalizing hands on. And I'm eager to find out when the term was first applied to heroines in romance fiction. If anyone out there knows of in-print examples of the term "kick-ass heroine" that date from this period, I'd love to hear from you. Especially if the author of the phrase turns out to be a woman...

Do you think the "kick-ass heroine" has changed since her first appearances in the 1980s? Who are your favorite kick-ass romance novel heroines?

Photo credits:
Sigourney Weaver in Aliens: Allstar/Cinetext/20th Century Fox, via The Guardian web site
Buffy and crossbow: SciFi, Fantasy, and Historical Writing

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

The Pleasures and Pitfalls of Being a Sex Object: Victoria Dahl's SO TOUGH TO TAME

I was talking on the phone with an old friend the other day, reminiscing over funny stories and memorable moments from our college years. There's a story my friend likes to retell, one about the time another friend of ours was complaining about having gone on a dinner date, and how the guy she was with had spent the entire evening talking not to her face, but to her chest. "You don't know how annoying it is, having guys look at you only for your body, not for your brain," she informed my friend, a guy. It being a joke amongst some in our crowd to tease this guy for his apparent lack of appeal with the ladies, my friend riposted, "Yeah, well, you wouldn't catch me complaining. Just once in my life I'd love it if someone stared at me only for my body..."

Supermodel David Gandy, a fav among
many of my NECRWA chaptermates
In the twenty-first century, though, women are no longer the only ones who can be viewed as sex objects. Hot male actors bare their abs and pecs, and women around the world post Facebook and Tumblr paeons to their beautiful bods. Even hotter male models do the same to sell everything from underwear to cologne, and again the women (not to mention many gay males) swoon. My friend's story made me wonder: what are the pleasures for a man of being regarded as a sex object? Are they similar to, or different from, the pleasures available to women? And are there any downsides? Would my friend really like it if it happened to him, not just once, but over and over again?

I had my friend's story, and these questions, in the back of my mind as I was reading Victoria Dahl's latest contemporary romance, So Tough to Tame. Everyone assumes that for cowboy Walker Pearce, easy on the eyes and quick with the flirt, being the go-to guy for any woman in the greater Jackson Hole area who wants strings-free sex must be as close to heaven as a guy on earth can get. Ever since high school, Walker's known just what to say to women young and old to charm the socks (or other pieces of clothing) right off them whenever he felt the need to "scratch an itch."

Yet underneath his good-natured charm, Walker's carrying around a whole shitload of insecurity. He's never been in any relationship that's lasted for more than few months—no women, especially the smart women he really goes for, think him worth more than a few rolls in the hay. He's nearly thirty, but he's got "exactly as much to his name" as he had when he left high school: "a big truck, a strong back, good hands, and some almost-promising ranch work lined up" (51). And he's not even got what everyone else from high school left with: a diploma. His dyslexia, and his own low opinion of his intellect, an opinion only confirmed by the verbal and physical abuse dealt out by his ornery father, has him believing all he'll ever be good for is what he can do with his body: lug bales of hay; rope a cow; and have sex with women, none of whom will want him to stay longer than they need to find their own pleasure. And now he's been fired from a job he really enjoyed, all because he drew the attention of the boss's cheated-on wife, and fell into making out with her more through happenstance and others' expectations than from any real desire for the woman of his own. Men are supposed to like it when women offer them sex, aren't they? Why would he say no?

Our cultural assumptions about which gender wants
sex, and which gender wants other things, too...
When Walker's high school tutor, the smartest girl in school, returns home to take a job at a local resort, Walker's not surprised to find himself attracted to her. But just like in high school, he thinks there's no way Charlie Allingham could be interested in a guy with as little going for him as he has. But Charlie's no longer the demure sixteen-year old virgin who was too shy to act on her crush on Walker, and the two quickly fall into a steamy sexual fling. But with Walker convinced Charlie's only in it for his body—

She'd left his apartment with a friendly "Thank you," as if he'd done her a service. And that's probably all it had been to her. He'd heard that same "Thank you," before. More times than he cared to count, actually. Thanks, cowboy, that was just what I needed. (113)

—and Charlie careful not to expect too much, given Walker's ladykiller rep—

...he couldn't stop thinking of all the other thing she'd said since they'd started messing around. That he wasn't her boyfriend. That it was only stress relief. That he wasn't the marrying type and she wasn't possessive. (209)

—it's hardly a surprise that neither Walker nor Charlie can believe that their fling could turn into anything more than superficial sex. Yet Walker's beginning to wonder if "Thanks for the ride, cowboy" is all that he'll ever hear. "Yeah, he got it. And hell, he was up for a good time, but what if he wanted more than that?" (210).

At first, Walker assumes that the only way to get that something "more" is to "stop dating women who were so far above his station" (210). The smart ones, the witty ones, the ones glowing with intelligence and humor (Oh, yeah, this romance is a tasty bit of wish-fulfillment for girls who were nerdy geeks in high school :-)). Only if Walker dates the dull ones, the ones who don't make him dissatisfied with the role he'd taken on early in life, a role that once fit comfortably, but has now begun to chafe—"just a big package of physical labor" (210)—does he have a chance at experiencing something different than what the good-time guy role offers.

But what Walker really needs is to ask not for less, but for more—more from his friends, more from his brother, more from Charlie, and, most importantly, more from himself. Being a sex object certainly has its perks, perks that both Walker and Charlie have enjoyed in the past, and continue to enjoy with each other in the present. But the limits it places, on both women and men, Dahl's novel argues, means that it's only one role among many that both sexes can and should take pleasure in donning.

Photo credits:
David Gandy: Ftape.com
Sex Ven Diagram cartoon: The New Yorker, April 5, 2010. Via Culture Mulcher

So Tough to Tame
HQN, 2013

Friday, December 13, 2013

Is the Political Personal?

I've always been fascinated by the relationship between Republican strategist Mary Matalin and Democratic consultant James Carville. How could two people with such divergent political belief systems ever see beyond their obvious differences and fall in love? How, twenty years after marrying, can they maintain a respectful, loving relationship when their views about the way our government should function are so utterly different? I have a lot of friends with far more conservative political views than I do, but at the end of the evening, I can leave them and their (obviously misguided ;-) ) views behind; my political opinions and those of my spouse overlap enough that I can be sure we won't end up in a toothbrush duel over the merits of Obamacare or the efficacy of the TSA as we get ready for bed.

I've read several romances of late with protagonists on opposite ends of the political spectrum. In the most interesting, Karyn Langhorne's Unfinished Business (2007), Washington DC schoolteacher Erica Johnson and war hero U.S. Senator Mark Newman meet not cute, but antagonistic, when Erica stands up in the middle of a Senate Education subcommittee hearing to protest American involvement in Iraq: "If we weren't spending billions in Iraq, we wouldn't have to debate on cuts that take food from the mouths of our schoolchildren!" The senator, southern gentleman that he is, asks that the protester be treated respectfully—"This is still America... and dissent is not punished with manhandlin'." But Erica won't allow the Senator's good looks, charm, or arrogance to turn her protest into a photo op for himself, insisting on teaching her own civics lesson: that standing up for your beliefs has consequences, consequences that one must be willing to accept. Including being arrested.

Before she's hauled off to jail, Erica tosses a challenge to the irate upstaged senator: "Come to my school. Explain your policies—your war—to my kids. Erica Johnson's fourth-grade classroom. Any time you want. Door's open." Little does Erica expect the cocky, smirking senator to show up at her school, nor does she expect him to offer a challenge of his own: to accompany him on a week-long swing back through his (unnamed) home state while he campaigns during the reelection primary. But neither the white conservative southerner nor the black liberal northerner can seem to stand down in the face of the other's challenges.

Langhorne does a great job presenting the humanity behind the political stances. Both Mark and Erica come off as intelligent, well-informed political actors, though each initially draws on stereotypes and easy put-downs to insult the other's position and to bolster his or her own. Each chapter opens with an epigraph or slogan, sometimes from the liberal point of view ("Waging war to stop terrorism is like using gasoline to put out a fire"), sometimes from the conservative ("If we don't stand up for something, we'll fall for anything"), with neither side belittled nor denigrated. It's clear that both Erica and Mark enjoy matching wits with the other, enjoy being challenged to support their views in the face of doubt. And the physical attraction between them is obvious to everyone around them.

Although much of the narrative's energy comes from the knock-out verbal exchanges between "irritatingly granola flower-child" Erica and "conservative nut job" Mark, I expected that Mark would learn to moderate his views by visiting Erica's classroom, as would Erica after spending a week in fictional southern "Billingham." In order to make their relationship work, they'd have to meet somewhere in the middle, wouldn't they?

But instead of reconciling their politics, the narrative sidesteps the issue of Mark and Erica's differences by introducing a suspense plot that places both in physical danger. Once each's life is threatened, their political differences become far less meaningful, far less divisive. As Erica tells Mark's media advisor, who questions the viability of Erica and Mark's relationship:

"There's more criteria in a successful relationship than what political party you belong to, or what color you are. There's another whole list of characteristics and qualifications. Things like trust and loyalty, having passion for people. A passion for life. It doesn't matter how it's directed. It matters that you both have it, and that you both know that, when it's all said and done, you're willing to work together, to fight together, and to serve the common good together."

Initially, this felt like a cop-out to me: immersing Erica and Mark in danger simply to deflect attention from what really matters—the differences in their deeply-held values. But then I began to wonder. Do life-changing (life-imperiling) events make people hone in on the personal characteristics that underlie a person's values? Might it be a sign of a mature relationship when people can agree to disagree? Or could differences in politics sometimes be a reflection of different means to the same end, not always the sign of fundamental differences in deeply-held values?

It's a little difficult to say for sure in Unfinished Business. The novel ends with Mark and Erica agreeing to "try" to form a relationship, with an epilogue in the form of a newspaper wedding announcement describing them one year on. "I think they fight it out at home.... Then the senator comes in ready to work toward the best outcome. Marriage is all about compromise, and government is all about compromise. So it works for everyone," Mark's chief of staff is quoted as saying. But we don't hear much about any compromises: we don't know where they decided to live (in DC or in Billingham or both), whether Erica kept her teaching job, or whether she still publicly protests when Mark takes a stance with which she disagrees. The only sign of their compromise is their honeymoon in Baghdad, visiting servicemen and women: "they are both very committed to seeing our troops home safely." Have they compromised? Agreed to disagree? Decided never to talk politics? Readers are left wondering...

Have you read any romances with protagonists on opposite ends of the political spectrum? Do such romances tend to downplay political differences? Or do they show the two sides learning to compromise? Or do they argue that politics and the personal don't necessarily need to mix?

Photo credits:
Mary Matalin and James Carville: All Things CNN
Elephant, Heart, and Donkey cufflinks: Unicuffs

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Pulled in Opposite Directions: David Levithan's TWO BOYS KISSING

Have you ever read a book and found yourself feeling both incredibly moved and incredibly unsettled by it? For me, reading almost anything by Rudyard Kipling evokes this powerful mixed response. I'm in awe of Kipling's facility with language, the joy of it as his words dance and fly from the page to my eyes. But I'm equally appalled by the "white man's burden" and "the female of the species is more deadly than the male" ideologies that undergird much of his writing. Reading Kipling is a double-edged sword, on one edge the pleasurable sting of a language jubilee, on the other the painful hack of dehumanizing ideologies that undercut values I hold close to my heart.

I'm having a similarly ambivalent response to David Levithan's latest YA novel, Two Boys Kissing, but for reasons less clear-cut than the language/ideology split I see in Kipling. I hope you'll excuse me as I use this blog post to try and tease out the whys and wherefores of my ambivalence to this emotional, fascinating novel.

At first, Two Boys Kissing seems something other than a novel—a eulogy? A celebration? A defiant shout of affirmation in the face of a world that would deny the right of gay and transgendered boys to exist? The narrator is a most unconventional "we," a we readers soon are told is the voice of "the ghosts of the remaining older generation" (3), the gay men who died of AIDS. "We" alternates between offering advice to plural second person "you," the boys attracted to other boys growing up in the age of the Internet, and relating brief snippets from two days during the lives of eight adolescent boys in the present.

Matty Daley and Bobby Canciello, the world-record-
breaking college students who inspired Levithan's novel
Providing the framework for the novel is the quest being undertaken by Harry and Craig, former lovers but still friends who respond to the gay-bashing of Tariq, a fellow student, by deciding to publicly attempt to break the world record for the world's longest kiss. Harry's parents are completely supportive of their son and his sexual identity; Craig's family is unaware of his. Similarly, another couple, Neil and Peter, who have been dating for more than a year, interact with one supportive family and one in which the boy's identity is an "open secret," something everyone knows but everyone silently agrees not to mention. In contrast, Ryan and Avery are just beginning a relationship, which may be derailed by Ryan's angry response at being verbally gay-bashed in front of Avery. Finally, we have Cooper, filled with disgust both for his own sexual desires and for the those of the men he can't seem to stop interacting with on Internet chat boards, deeply disturbed and deeply depressed by how distanced he feels from everyone around him, as well as from his own self.

Like Levithan's Boy Meets Boy, Two Boys Kissing is in many ways a deeply affirmative book. The Greek Chorus "we" narrator sings the body electric, offering hymns of praise to the wonder that is gay boy life in the early 21st century:

Things are not magical because they've been conjured for us by some outside force. They are magical because we create them, and then deem them so. Ryan and Avery will say the first moment the spoke, the first moment they danced, was magical. But they were the ones—no one else, nothing else—who gave it the magic. We know. We were there. Ryan opened himself to it. Avery opened himself to it. And the act of opening was all they needed. That is the magic. (8)

Boys looking for positive role models for how to navigate gay or transgendered identity will find a welcome variety of possibilities in Levithan's collage. And they will find a plethora of advice and wisdom from the chorus, guidance backed by the authority both of past experience and current all-seeing observation. For example, on the lighter end, "We often believe the truest measure of a relationship is the ability to lay ourselves bare. But there's something to be said for parading your plumage as well, finding truth as much as in the silly as in the severe" (40); on the darker,

    You think there is no point.
     You think you will never find a place.
     You think your pain is the only emotion you will ever feel. You think nothing else will ever come close to being as strong as that pain.
     You are certain of this.
     In this minute—in this, the most important minute of your life—you are certain that you must die.
     You see no other option.
     You need to wake up, we cry.
     Listen to us. (188)

At the same time, the book clearly acknowledges the difficulties that still remain for gay youth, despite the many changes that have occurred since the AIDS generation fought its battles: "We know that some of you are still scared. We know that some of you are still silent. Just because its better now doesn't mean that it's always good" (6). Before the book opens, Tariq is senselessly beaten; Ryan's classmate Skylar torments Ryan in small ways almost daily to make himself feel bigger, as tossing the taunt "faggot" is still the easiest, and most popular way for straight boys to assert their masculinity. Cooper's father reacts with anger and disgust when he discovers his son's Internet life; Craig's father refuses to allow his family to offer support for his son's record-breaking quest after he discover's Craig's sexual orientation. Sexual identity is only intermittently a problem for some contemporary gay youth, but for others, as it was for many of the AIDS generation, it continues to be a rock-strewn road to travel.

Levithan's choice of the first person plural narrator clearly gives the book much of its power. To have an entire group of men, men lost through to the plague of AIDS but able through Levithan's words to return and both observe and comment on the lives of boys in the present, serving as one's narrator gives said narrator a degree of authority uncommon in the YA genre. Yet I think it is just that authority that is giving me pause, causing me to draw back a bit from the strong emotional reaction Levithan's novel evokes in me, urging me to for just a minute to think a bit more about what's at stake in evoking such narrative authority. The benefits seem all too clear; what, though, are the drawbacks to such a narrative choice?

The most obvious is the line the narrative walks between welcome advice and overbearing preachiness. For the most part, the litany of narrative "can'ts" and "shoulds" feels supportive, affirming: "You should never feel doomed" (5); "you can't always expect your partner's love alone to fill you" (181). But at times, the "we" can feel overly admonishing, even dictatorial: "We know that gratitude is the last thing on your mind. But you should be grateful. You've made it to another day" (22). Something about this authority makes me want to resist, to wriggle free of such heavy-handed manipulation, despite the guilt I feel at rejecting the authority of the tragically deceased speaking voice Levithan adopts.

On the one hand, giving voice to one's dead ancestors, whether figurative or literal, especially ones who have died so tragically, is a deeply respectful act of veneration. But at the same time, it's a choice with disturbingly coercive implications for a reader. How do I avoid being plagued by guilt if I want to disagree with the authoritative assertions of men who died in large part due to the homophobia of the society of which I am a part?

I'm also disturbed by the homogenizing effect of the "we" voice. The narrator tries to acknowledge that within his "we" lies a multiplicity of voices, of opinions, of values: "We are rarely unanimous about anything," he notes early on (8). But that narrative "we" works in opposition to such an assertion, because "we" speaks far more often in one voice here, expressing one point of view, one way of looking at the world, than "we" speaks of differences. Can "we" have the narrative cake and eat it, too? Or even if "we" are aware, as Levithan surely is, that we is multiple, does the very usage of the first person plural function to urge readers to forget such multiplicity?

Hints of homonormativity in the novel also give me pause. The one boy out of the seven who is portrayed as deeply unhappy is Cooper, who, along with Tariq, are the only two boys not currently in, formerly in, or about to be in, a monogamous romantic relationship. We are given little idea of Tariq's former or present love life, but we are shown Cooper exploring his sexuality in online chat rooms. The narrator frame's Cooper's search not as positive exploration, but as a desperate attempt to find something genuine amidst a sea of artificiality. But when Cooper actually hooks up with a rather nice young man he meets online, his own self-loathing prevents him from finding the genuine, from taking that leap into the vulnerability of "opening" oneself Levithan praises Avery and Ryan for making. Casual hook-up sex, and the Internet culture that enables it, is thus connected to despair, to self-loathing: "All of these men and boys trying out this new form of gratification. All of these men and boys still lonely when the rush is over, and the devices are off, and they are alone with themselves again" (65). In contrast, monogamous pairing is presented in a far more positive light. Now, I am far from an expert on the AIDS generation, but wasn't it true that for many of those men, casual sex was part of the appeal, rather than a negative aspect, of their sexual identities? What's at stake in erasing that aspect of gay culture?

Levithan's book is chock-full of lines I want to paste upon the wall so I won't forget them. One of my favorites:

     People like to say being gay isn't like skin color, isn't anything physical. They tell us we always have the option of hiding.
     But if that's true, why do they always find us? (36)

But even in the midst of my admiration, I can't help but find myself a resistant reader at other points in the novel. Is it because as a straight-identified woman I am not part of the "you" the book addresses? Is it because of my own homophobia, or my fear of confronting head-on the horrors of the men who died from AIDS? Or is it because the use of the narrative "we" has both amazingly positive and disturbingly negative aspects? Or all of the above?

I'd love to hear from other readers of Levithan's book, to see if you had similar or different responses to this innovative, powerful, and deeply thought-provoking book.

Are there other romance novels you've been moved by, have admired, but have felt ambivalent about, as well? Why?

Photo credits:
Daley and Canciello: Metro Weekly
The Aids Generation: The Human Rights Campaign
Queers Questioning Gay Marriage: To the Exclusion of All Others web site

David Levithan, Two Boys Kissing
Knopf, 2013

Friday, December 6, 2013

Where Are All the Women of Color, RNFF?

Last week, an RNFF reader sent me an email that made me smile, both with appreciation and chagrin. Said reader wrote that she'd found much to admire about the blog, but found it "depressing" that through its choice of titles to review, RNFF relegated women of color to "invisible status." Rather than castigate the blog or its creator for talking the talk of diversity and intersectionality, but not walking the walk, this reader decided to share her reservations, and encouraged RNFF to do something about them: "Romances featuring WoC have very strong feminist leanings. I do hope your site will reach out to diverse authors and feature more diversity in books."

The lack of romances about PoC I've reviewed on RNFF (as well as the near absence of lesbian romance) had been on my mind a lot lately, for two reasons. First, the scholarly one: I recently picked up a copy of Susan Ostrov Weisser's fascinating The Glass Slipper: Women and Love Stories (Rutgers UP 2013), a book that asks the question, "Why is the story of romance in books, magazines, and films still aimed at women rather than men?" (back cover copy). Weisser's book discusses both high and low literature, historical and current narratives, and I've been delving into individual chapters as my fancy takes me, planning to write a review of the entire book in the not too distant future. But one of Weisser's chapters, Chapter 8 "A Genre of One's Own: African American Imprints and the 'Universality' of Love," has been a bit of a burr under my saddle, urging me to explore in more depth romances written by African Americans.

In this chapter, Weisser compares ten category romances from black genre imprints to ten "Anglo Harlequin" romances, and concludes that while the two groups contain many similarities, black genre romances differ in several noticeable ways:

• African or African communal values and traditions are often referenced and celebrated, "thus countering black invisibility in mainstream novels" (161)

• Feminism more often plays a role in "break[ing] down chauvinism if it  is present in the hero" (162)

• These books display an "unusual and refreshing recognition of other kinds of beauty than that found in most Anglo romances" (163)

•  They include more "sexual conservatism and focus on marriage, including in some cases virginity before marriage" (165)

Despite the positive aspects of the first three differences, the similarities Weisser finds between both groups—the dominant alpha hero; the focus on professional, wealthy characters; the emphasis on the physical beauty of the characters—make her wonder how progressive these novels truly are. The erasure of more painful aspects of African American history and identity from these narratives also gives her pause.

Weisser asks a vital question: "Does a line of romance devoted singularly to African American authors and characters (and most probably readers) represent a long-overdue entrance into a world of human pleasure previously denied? And if so, is it therefore a mark of progressive equality, or is this publishing phenomenon a representation of white privilege in blackface, a false promise of happiness that masks and distorts the problems that surround race relations?" (165-66). I have a hunch that the answer to all three questions is "yes," but I'd feel far more comfortable arguing such a position if I had read more romances by African American writers.

Second, the personal one: This fall, I enrolled in a writing class focused on "smart" genre fiction. Unfortunately, the experience proved a frustrating one; my vision of what the class would be about was far different from that of the instructor's, and his teaching style was not one that worked for me as a learner. Most upsetting to me, though, was the lack of women writers amongst the stories and novel excerpts we were assigned to read. Each week, I'd wait for the teacher to hand out the photocopies of readings for the next class, hoping that the imbalance would correct itself over the course of the semester, that the readings' focus on male writers and male experience would gradually shift in the other direction. But by midway through the course, though, it became clear that such a hope would remain unfulfilled.

After one particularly frustrating class, during which the instructor and I ended up in several verbal tiffs (I admit that I was letting my frustrations out by challenging him as a teacher), I asked if we could talk after the session, so our differences wouldn't steal class time from other students. When I brought up my concerns, the instructor had difficulty hearing me. He viewed himself as a progressive, liberal, even a rebel—we were analyzing both high and low culture, John Cheever and the Muppets, Raymond Carver and superhero comics, weren't we? He'd edited romances once upon a time, hadn't he? And praised soap operas during class for their ability to keep narratives rolling? But when I asked him what he thought the percentage of male to female writers in the course readings was, he said "I'm not sure —about 60-40?" In fact, the proportion was closer to 85-15 at the time we spoke.

I did use the words "male privilege" but at least I didn't sic
feminist superheroine Gyno-Star on him...
And the proportion did not markedly improve over the final weeks of the class. He'd all but told me it wouldn't—"I can't up and change the entire syllabus at this point"—so as far as my own class experience went, the discussion was not all that productive. But I felt better, usually shy me, for having said my piece.

If he teaches this class again, will this instructor revise his syllabus because of our conversation? I'm not sure. But I know the experience has made me even more aware of the need to listen when others, especially those from traditionally marginalized groups, express discontent over the way their voices are (or aren't) being heard.

So thank you, RNFF reader, for emailing me about your problems with RNFF's lack of coverage of romances with and/or by PoC. I plan to heed your advice, to take more active steps to seek out romances by PoC and feature their work on RNFF far more frequently than I have in the past.

What are your favorite feminist romances featuring characters of color? Or written by authors of color? Are there places besides the Romance in Color web site that you go to to find new books by writers of color?

Illustration credits:
Gyno-Star comic strip: The Adventures of Gyno-Star, by Rebecca Cohen

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Exploring the Possibilities of the Prologue: Sherry Thomas's THE LUCKIEST LADY IN LONDON

It's conventional wisdom that agents and editors frown upon romance manuscripts that open with a prologue. Some suggest prologues slow down the action; today's readers, raised on the quick cuts of television and film, want a fast-paced read, and have little patience for wading through a prologue. Others argue that most prologues aren't really prologues at all, only incorrectly named opening chapters. Still others assert that prologues simply present backstory, backstory that would be more enticing to the reader if doled out in small, tantalizing bites during the course of the present-day action rather than extruded in one large, undigestible chunk at story's start. An editor or an agent who comes across a manuscript with "PROLOGUE" written in bold letters at the top of page one is most likely to shudder and toss the misguided pages into the "reject" pile.

Yet in many a classic historical romance, the prologue serves an important narrative function, a function vital to a reader's engagement with the story's protagonists. Take for example Loretta Chase's Lord of Scoundrels, voted yet again #1 in the 2013 All About Romance "Top 100 Romances Poll." Chase's beloved novel opens with a prologue that succinctly recounts hero Sebastian Ballister's life as a child and young man. The contempt in which Ballister père holds his second wife, the seventeen year-old daughter of an Italian nobleman, a seemingly placid girl who turned into a "dormant volcano" after their wedding, and later, the son who reminds him of said wife, goes a long way toward creating reader sympathy for the Sebastian of the later book. Without this prologue, readers would be hard-pressed to sympathize with the surly, insulting, and decidedly misogynistic adult whom they meet in the opening pages of the actual novel, never mind view him as a swoon-worthy hero.

The prologue, however, has become increasingly rare in more recently-published historical romance, whether due to readers' disinterest, or to editors and agents' assumptions about readers' disinterest, it is difficult to say. But I for one am a fan of the prologue, and always perk up when I spy the word when I crack the cover of a new romance. Prologues allow authors to push beyond the unobjectionably nice, easily "relatable" heroes and heroines less adventurous readers admire, giving us insights into the vulnerabilities of a protagonist who will do almost anything during the course of the actual story not to reveal his or her soft underside, to either his or her love interest or to the reader.

One author who has refused to give up the prologue is Sherry Thomas. Her historical romances Not Quite a Husband (2009), Beguiling the Beauty (2012), and Tempting the Bride (also 2012) all include prologues that give us insight into characters who might otherwise strike readers as less than worthy of their time and emotional investment. But the prologue of her latest book, The Luckiest Lady in London, does something a bit more complicated. Thomas not only deploys the "prologue as establisher of sympathy for the unlikable hero" trope but also inverts it, allowing us to see the complicated person behind the spotless persona Thomas's adult hero constructs for the consumption of his fellow members of late Victorian society.

Like Chase's Sebastian Ballister, Thomas's Felix Rivendell, the Marquess of Wrenworth, also has his character forged in the furnace of his parents' disastrous marriage, a forging readers are invited to witness during the book's prologue. Unlike Sebastian's parents, who parted ways early in his childhood, Felix's parents remained together until their deaths. Felix thus had a front-row seat to the travesty of their union, a drama performed not via shouts and screams, but with "icy rage" on the part of his mother, who'd been forced to wed against her will, and "quiet despair" on the part of his father, who thought he'd been marrying "the sweet wife of his dreams" but instead found himself shackled to a woman bent on making him "rue the day he'd first laid eyes on her" (5, 4). Used as a pawn in his mother's power plays, never able to console his father for the love he'd never gain from his wife, Felix finds himself inexplicably devastated by his parents' deaths during his seventeenth year, still yearning for love even after living through years of their antipathy.

The Victorian era's true "Ideal
Gentleman": Prince Albert
In response to his difficult childhood, though, Felix takes the opposite tack from Chase's Sebastian. Rather than become a hellion, the new Marquess of Wrenworth becomes a paragon. In ironic tribute to a mother with all the reputation but none of the spirit of a good and pure woman, Felix adopts the persona of the "Ideal Gentleman," admired alike by both male and female members of high society. And in tribute to his father, he vows never to repeat the mistake that left the man a powerless victim—"loving with all his heart and soul" (8).

As this is a romance, readers know from the start that Felix's latter pledge is bound to be broken. But it is his former promise that makes the breaking of the latter so fascinating. Unlike the notorious Lord Dain, who needed a woman to see beyond his menacing exterior and love the vulnerable man within, Felix needs a woman who will see beyond his gloss of perfection and be drawn to him for his less than admirable qualities. Surprisingly, though, said qualities do not need drawing forth. Thomas once again works against trope, having Felix become fascinated by the rather unexceptional debutante Louisa Cantwell precisely because she seems already to see beyond his polished exterior to the far more cynical, amoral creature that lies beneath. And that insight urges him to shed the skin of the "Ideal Gentleman," and act "as a far worse man than he had ever been" (38).

How much leeway should we grant those whose upbringings deprived them of affection, of love, of the example of giving rather than taking? The traditional prologue asks us to be tolerant, to grant badly-behaving heroes (and occasionally heroines) allowances that without prior knowledge of their childhood difficulties we might otherwise not offer. Yet Thomas suggests that such allowances have the potential to be far too one-sided, especially when it is a woman who is required to grant them. Declaring one loves often serves as the climax of a romance novel, but when Felix finally tells Louisa "I love you," it's in a last-ditch effort to save their relationship after her discovery of a particularly selfish and appalling act he took in order to prevent her marriage to another. Louisa is wise enough to recognize that his declaration is just another manifestation of his self-absorption, all about his feelings and nothing about hers. She may sympathize with his difficult early life, but she does not allow such sympathy to blind her to her own needs.

That Felix, too, begins to see his own self-absorption, and to move beyond the limitations imposed upon him by the dysfunctional examples set by his parents, proves that Louisa (and via proxy, the reader), is right not to settle, no matter how much sympathy the story of a lover's early life difficulties moves us to extend. A lady who makes her own luck is a lucky lady indeed.

What are your favorite romance prologues? Do they follow the "explain the roots of the hero/heroine's later bad behavior" model? Or do they use the prologue for other purposes?

Photo/Illustration credits:
Prince Albert (1841) by Charles Brocky: Royal Collection Trust
Hale-Bopp Comet: Wikipedia

Sherry Thomas, The Luckiest Lady in London
Berkley, 2013