Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Add Your Voice to the Popular Romance Literary Canon Debate

I've been busy with prep work for the upcoming NECRWA conference, so although I did read Noah Berlatsky's
Salon post suggesting that there is no real consensus about what romance novels should be included in a "canon" of best/great works when it was first published last Monday, I didn't catch up on the subsequent responses to it until yesterday morning. I was intending to write a book review today, but instead, found myself preoccupied by Berlatsky's piece and the various reactions to it. So, a few thoughts from me, then a request for thoughts from you.

I've appreciated Berlatsky's earlier blogs about the romance genre (primarily on Salon), but I admit I felt rather annoyed by this particular one. Why should we should listen to Berlatsky's personal recommendations for what novels should belong in a popular romance canon, when he dismisses previous "best of romance" lists, such as those on All About Romance, Dear Author, and Smart Bitches, Trashy Books because they "have been about what one person loves, or about what is popular"? Other writers did something more productive than just feel annoyed; Wendy the Super Librarian ("Little Miss Crabby Pants Fires the Canon"), Meoskop at Love in the Margins ("Dudesplainin' "), and Eric Seelinger ("The Berlatsky Affair: A Close Reading (1/?)," "The Berlatsky Affair, Part 2," and "Whose Affair is it Anyways?") wrote trenchant responses to the unintentional slights Berlatsky's piece dishes out to bloggers, readers, and others who have done major work in thinking what books belong on a "best" romance list (Seelinger's with some apologizing thrown in, as his quote in Berlatsky's article led to some of the frustration and anger with the piece).

As a sometimes academic, I found myself most intrigued by Sunita's response at Vacuous Minx, "The Uses and Misuses of Canon." Sunita points out that academics need a canon not only in order to choose what texts to teach in their classes, but also to make sure they've read the books that "are influential" in their field, so can "learn about the topic" and will thus share "a common ground for discussion" with other scholars in that field. With this grounding beneath them, academics can then proceed to "further the conversation" in their field, through their research, writing about texts that they and others have agreed are worthy of scholarly investigation. Sunita suggests that for the average romance reader, who reads for pleasure rather than to further the study of a field, "canonical works, while interesting to know and talk about, don't have an obvious usefulness for us beyond providing an 'if you like X, then you'll like Y' function."

I'm not so sure I agree.

When a field first begins to emerge as an area of inquiry in the university setting, there is often little agreement about what books can and should belong in that "common ground" of texts that everyone who studies the field should know. For example, in the 1970s and 80s, much of the work done in the emergent field of Feminist Literary Studies focused on identifying texts that were worthy of study, and justifying their inclusion within a forming canon that future scholars of women's literature should and would be required to know.

An early foray into feminist literary
canon formation: Showalter's 1976
A Literature of Their Own
Feminist scholars' canon creation typically involved unearthing once popular but now overlooked texts, texts that had been shut out of the general literature canon by patriarchal assumptions about what constituted "great" literature. Because of this, readers outside of the college setting were as unfamiliar with the books they championed as were literary scholars within it. A better comparison for the genre of Popular Romance might be to the development of Children's Literature as a field within the academy. When John Stott, the President of the Children's Literature Association (a group formed in the 1970s devoted to the scholarly study of works for children), called on the association's members in 1978 to create a list of books worthy of critical inquiry, he explained that such an undertaking "would provide common texts for shared dialogue and curricula and presumably position the field within canonical strata of academic privilege" (Lundin 65). But teachers, librarians, and child readers already had clear opinions about what constituted good books long before literature scholars decide they needed to create a canon. The ChLA committees that put together the canon list, and later, published three volumes of essays explaining their choices (Touchstones), included both literature scholars and librarians.

If popular romance studies hopes to create some sense of consensus about what constitutes "canonical" works of romance, one accepted within a university setting, academics would be well-served by asking librarians who represent readers' interests, if not actual readers themselves, to participate in the project. Even then, though, disagreement and controversy is likely to arise. The ChLA's project was fraught with tensions about just what belonged in the canon they were constructing. Books of high literary merit, no matter how unpopular they were with readers? Books that were historically influential, even if they were no longer read? The most popular books? A mix of all of the above?

This brings up another vital issue that Sunita identifies in her discussion of the purposes of canon formation: there's another kind of canon, one used to identify an "educated person," a canon that people both inside and outside of academia are likely to run into. Remember Alan Bloom's The Closing of the American Mind (1987)? Or E. D. Hirsch's Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know (1987)? Since such canons have ideological, rather than intellectual, underpinnings, Sunita writes, "I'm not about to draw quality-of-intellect-and-education conclusions about the people who follow or choose not to follow them."

But familiarity with of a canon, particularly one established by the scholarly, is often viewed as a form of cultural capital, a declaration that one has the education and knowledge to be considered a "civilized," "cultured" person. What's interesting to me about this is that for most of its history, Popular Romance has been considered cultural deficit, a sign that you most emphatically don't belong to the intelligentsia. Romance has the stigma both of gender (the romance piece) and of class (the popular piece). And while many academics have analyzed the gender piece, few have approached the class biases inherent in the denigration of the form. Does this sense of cultural deficit make creating a Popular Romance canon a contradiction in terms? Or does canon formation not always have to be a conservative, reactionary move?

Perhaps instead of going straight to arguing which books belong in a Popular Romance canon, it would be more productive to think about what we mean when we talk about canon-worthy works of romance. Upon what should/do canonizers base their judgments about what to include, and what to exclude? Should a canon list focus on books that have been historically influential, similar to the ones listed in Wendy the Super Librarian's post, even if they are ideologically objectionable by today's standards? Or on books that have dominated the bestseller lists, even if literary scholars find them lacking? Or only on books that embody literary merit (which seemed to be Berlatsky's unarticulated standard)? Or some mix of all three?

If literary merit is deemed important, should the criteria for what constitutes literary merit depend on previously-established guidelines, those already in play in the world of academic literature studies?  Or should they be different, specific to the romance genre? If the latter, what criteria would you propose?

How will such judgments account for gender and class bias? Racial, ethnic, and sexuality bias?

So, rather than asking you what books you'd place in the Popular Romance novel canon, I'm curious instead to hear how you would make judgments about what belongs on the list. What criteria would you use if you were given the task of creating a list of "canonical" Popular Romance books?

Anne H. Lundin, Constructing the Canon of Children's Literature: Beyond Library Walls and Ivory Towers. London: Routledge, 2004.

Illustration credits
Cultural Capital: Digital Equity

Friday, April 25, 2014

M/M Teen Wish Fulfillment: Madison Parker's PLAY ME, I'M YOURS

When I was a kid, I was both painfully sensitive and decidedly feminine. I clung to my dresses and my patent leather shoes long after my younger sister and most of my elementary-age schoolmates had traded in their frilly wear in favor of Levis and sneakers. Unsurprisingly, I often found myself teased for my retrograde fashion choices. Tongue-tied with frustration, I'd rarely be able to stop the blushes from flooding my face or the tears from falling, even knowing taunts of "girly girl" and "sissy" would inevitably follow.

By high school, I'd learned to put up a good front, hiding what often felt like overwhelming feelings behind a quiet, good girl facade, but the feelings themselves still remained: shame at being so socially inept, so out of step with what the cool kids were wearing, saying, and doing; shame at having such overwhelmingly strong emotions, ready to pop out and embarrass me at any moment. At least, though, such a personality fit within the bounds of conventional, if often derided, femininity. I might be teased for being too much of a girl, but I wouldn't be castigated for not being a girl at all.

How much worse would I have been tormented if I had been born with the same personality, but in the body of a boy?  Madison Parker's gay male high school romance, Play Me, I'm Yours, provided one potential answer. Its protagonist, seventeen-year-old musician Lucas, is so far from embodying the "right" kind of masculinity, the kind that his swim-team-brother, his tool-loving dad, and almost all of his male classmates take for granted as the norm that he's never been able to hide. Slight, shy, and horribly sensitive, his effeminate looks and over-the-top emotions are enough to mark him as different; his love of Cyndi Lauper, cooking, and playing the piano mean that he's been the butt of gender-policing taunts for most of his life. "Lucas didn't want to be where he wasn't wanted. The problem was, that was pretty much everywhere" (Loc 83).

With only sons, Lucas's mom has enjoyed having a surrogate daughter of sorts in Lucas. But her penchant for putting "a positive spin on even the most miserable situations" means that she can't help Lucas navigate the torments attending high school as an effeminate boy. "If you tried a little harder to make friends, honey, things like this wouldn't happen" is the best always-look-on-the-bright-side mom can do (Loc 266). Worried about being tarred by association, younger brother Mason never protests when schoolmates verbally abuse Lucas; Dad just wishes it would all just go away.

Things start to look up for Lucas when he's befriended by Trish, an outgoing singer whom he's been pegged to accompany in the school's talent show. Trish, an eager matchmaker, sets Lucas up with her best friend, the super-cool and decidedly out Donovan. Mom, too, has been matchmaking, giving out Lucas's cell phone number to football player Alex, even though its obvious to everyone that Alex is straight. Lucas isn't sure either of the boys even wants to talk to him, never mind make out with him, but he's too tongue-tied to put up much of a protest. Lucas has to experience a situation many adolescent girls find themselves in—being used just for sex—before he can begin to understand just what it is he wants from a boyfriend, and what he's willing to do (or not do) to get it.

It was surprising to me to find such honest, funny, and explicit, discussions of gay male sexuality in the midst of a story featuring such an innocent, sweet protagonist (Lucas's squeamishness at the thought of anal sex, and Dad's facts-of-life, the gay version talk, prove particularly heartfelt and hilarious). I was also surprised by the book's depiction of Alex, a straight boy who demonstrates a level of comfort with gay Lucas that, at least from what I've witnessed, is unfortunately all too rare in real life. And I was surprised by the book's implicit look at how homophobia can be internalized, even by gay boys themselves. Lucas's happily-ever-after may come with fantasy wish-fulfilling ease, but the more innovative aspects of the book made me more than happy to cheer when Lucas finally wins the boyfriend he deserves.

Illustration credits:
Always half full: ifuckinglovescience via Kerri Maniscalco

Play Me, I'm Yours
Harmony Ink Press, 2013

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Romance Writers and Feminism

Last fall, at the Popular Romance Author Symposium, I gave a talk titled "Feminism and the Romance Author," an exploration of the different ways romance authors, in essays and articles that justified the romance genre, defined and embraced feminism. In comparing essays in Jayne Ann Krentz's Dangerous Men and Adventurous Women: Romance Writers on the Appeal of the Romance essay collection (1992), to essays published on the Read-a-Romance-Month web site (2013), I noticed that far fewer of today's authors referred directly to feminism in their justifications than did their 1990s counterparts, even though many of their arguments about "Why Romance Matters" were clearly influenced by feminist theory and thought. I concluded that talk with my plans to undertake new primary research, to try and discover just what the f-word means to romance authors today. Do most romance authors consider themselves feminists? Have feminist principles that in 1992 might have seemed novel become so taken for granted today that for most women, proclaiming themselves feminists seems beside the point? Are romance authors reluctant to declare themselves feminists, out of the fear of alienating potential readers?

At next week's "Let Your Imagination Take Flight" conference, the annual conference of the New England Chapter of the Romance Writers of America (NECRWA), I'll be taking the first step to begin this research project. The NECRWA Board has agreed to allow me to distribute a research survey on romance authors and feminism to all conference attendees. I'll be awarding a $50 gift certificate to one lucky survey answerer, a certificate to a bookstore of the winner's choosing, so I'm hoping to get a good rate of participation. If you're planning to attend next week, look for the survey in your registration packet.

I'm in the process of working up the survey, and would love to get RNFF reader feedback on potential questions and wording. I'd also love to hear from members of RWA local chapters in other parts of the country, as I'm hoping to be able to conduct this same survey at two or three other conferences, to see if the region in which an author lives has any major influence on an author's views about feminism. Please let me know if you'd be interested in helping me coordinate with your local chapter to administrate such a survey at your next chapter conference.

Here are some of the questions about romance authorship and feminism I'm considering:

• How do you define feminism?

• Where/from whom did you learn this definition?

• Do you consider yourself a feminist? Why or why not?

• Do you think romance as a genre is, by its very nature, feminist? Why or why not?

• If a romance author openly declares her/himself to be a feminist, do you think that she/he is likely to alienate potential readers?

What other questions would you ask authors about romance and feminism?

But is it for romance authors?
Demographic information would also be helpful to have, too, I think:

• As a romance author, at what stage in your career are you?
   • Unpublished, searching for an agent or editor
   • Self-published
   • Published by an e-book publisher
   • Published by a print book publisher
   • Published by multiple types of publishers (including self-publishing)

• What is your age?

• In part of the country were you raised?
    • Northeast
    • South
    • Southwest
    • Midwest
    • West

• What is the highest level of education you have reached?
    • Some high school
    • Completed high school
    • Some undergraduate college
    • Completed undergraduate college degree
    • Some graduate school
    • Completed a graduate degree

• On average, how much do you earn from your romance writing each year?

• What is your average family income?

Are there other demographic questions that you think might be relevant?

Thanks, readers, for your input. I'll put up the final survey, as well as the responses to it, sometime after the NECRWA conference.

Illustration credits:
Keep Calm...: Keepcalm-o-matic
Feminism is for Lovers: Dangerous Books for Girls

Friday, April 18, 2014

Writing the Sex Scene—Not

Whenever we cross paths—shoveling our cars out of a snowbank; picking up a few last-minutes items from the supermarket down the street; clearing away winter's debris in anticipation of the tiny green shoots of spring—my neighbors A and AM always ask me how my novel is coming. AM, a schoolteacher by day, has aspirations of becoming a writer, too, she's told me, although I think that like me, she's in the early stages of the process. A year or two ago, during one of our infrequent talks, she recommended I check out the classes at Grub Street, a well-regarded writing school downtown. Last fall, I finally got around to following up on her suggestion. Unfortunately, though, the class I chose, one which I thought would focus on writing genre fiction, ended up not being the best fit for me; the teacher turned out to be a horror writer who seemed more interested in having us read literary fiction which happened to draw upon popular culture than any popular genre writing itself (with the notable exceptions of a bit of Sci Fi, one superhero comic book, and some James Bond film excerpts). After a few weeks of trying to push the teacher to teach something closer to what I was interested in without much success, I just chalked it up to a bad fit, and finished out the semester.

Next time I ran into A, I mentioned my less-than-happy experience, and ended up a day or two later with a copy of the latest Iowa Summer Writing Festival catalog slipped inside my mailbox, one originally addressed to AM. Not really the place to find a class for a genre romance writer, I guessed, though I thumbed through the pages, just in case. Yes, on the whole the classes seemed far more geared to the M.F.A. crowd than toward genre writers, although some special topic classes gestured toward the not-quite-literary: writing for young adults, writing about food, writing critical reviews. A two-week novel writing class, a class in which students would workshop each other's already written first drafts, caught my eye, but when I read the lines "Our emphasis will be on the literary novel" and "we will look to other literary novels as models for our own," I knew once again I was barking up the wrong tree.

I ran into A again only a week later, and thought for a moment about ducking away before she saw me, bummed out at not being able to reward her and AM's thoughtfulness with the news that it had been worthwhile. But I sucked up my embarrassment and thanked her for her efforts, even while I explained that I wouldn't be booking a plane flight to Iowa any time soon. Undaunted, she replied, "AM subscribes to Poets & Writers. Lord knows that magazine is filled with enough ads for classes. I'll bring over a copy." Another day later, and another delivery arrived in the mailbox: the Jan/Feb edition of P&W. Lots of ads, yes, just as A had described. But for workshops like Iowa's, and for M.F.A. programs from coast to coast. All geared to literary, not genre, writers.

I'm not someone who believes that there's a clear line in the sand between the literary and the popular, though, and wondered if the articles in P&W might be worth perusing, even for a writer focusing on writing genre romance. I was encouraged when, flipping through the Table of Contents, I came across an article with the title "Writing the Sex Scene." I've been struggling with just such a scene in my WIP, and flipped to the article in question, eager to learn what advice the author, poet and novelist Beth Ann Fennelly, had to offer.

Turns out, not very much. As the writers at Salon magazine discovered when they attempted to start a "Good Sex Award" for fiction, literary fiction writers don't often write about sex. Laura Miller, a judge in the 2011 contest, noted that unearthing potential nominees for the award "proved more labor intensive than we'd imagined, not because it's difficult to find good sex scenes in fiction but because its difficult to find any sex scenes in fiction" (P&W 24). Even when literary writers do write such scenes, they're in danger of being laughed at for it; the British journal Literary Review had been handing out the "Bad Sex in Fiction Award" since 1993*. Devised to single out "the crude, badly written, often perfunctory use of redundant passages of sexual description in the modern novel, and to discourage it," the award seems to delight in skewering authors who, when writing about things other than sex, craft sentences many a literary afficionado has found worthy of the highest praise. Past winners of the award have included many celebrated literary authors, suggesting to Fennelly that "it begins to seem as if there are two options for a novelist—write badly about passionate sex, or write well by skipping over the sex" (24).

Or, perhaps, literary folks might want to take a look at how romance writers do it? Unlike their more literary counterparts, romance writers on the whole are not shy about including descriptions of sex in their novels. "Nothing throbbing, nothing turgid" serves as the tagline of Fennelly's article, hinting at the long history of high culture's denigration of genre romance for its embarrassingly "purple prose." While the genre still includes its fair share of overwrought or ungainly language in both sex and non-sex scenes, today's genre romance authors, in contrast to their literary colleagues, can and do write with insight, clarity, and humor about this most human of physical acts. And sometimes even in prose of remarkable beauty.

Three of the nominees for 2013's "Bad Sex in Fiction" Award

Although bad writing, like beauty, is often in the eye of the beholder. While some of the excerpts from the nominees for the 2013 Bad Sex in Fiction award** were pretty painful to read, others struck me as merely straightforwardly descriptive, rather than badly written. Could the Bad Sex award be as much about discouraging any literary writing about sex as it is about discouraging the "badly written," or the "redundant"? At least in effect, if not in intention?

And just what's at stake when our purportedly "best" writers are uninterested in, afraid to, or simply refuse to, take on the challenge of writing about sex?

"The most difficult scene to write in a story or novel is the one in which your characters get it on. At least, that's way my fiction-writing friends have always said," Fennelly notes in the opening of her article (23). Would Fennelly's friends feel the same way, I wonder, if a few romance writers were part of their crowd?

If you were a judge in a "Best Sex in Romance" contest, to what author, and/or to what book, would you give the award? And why?

Thanks, A & AM. You may not have helped my fiction-writing, but you've given me great food for blogging thought!

* I was hoping to include a picture of the actual award, described in this BBC article as "a semi-abstract statue representing sex in the 1950s, by interior designer and socialite Nicky Haslam," but a Google image search came up with nothing. Even more strange, the web site of the Literary Review includes no mention of the award. 

** Interestingly, two of the nominees for the Bad Sex 2013 award were also finalists on the Bi Writers Association "Bisexual Book Awards" list. Significant, do you think?

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Spotlight on the Lambdas, Part 2: Ann McMan and Salem West's HOOSIER DADDY

During my late teens and early twenties, I worked in a variety of different part-time jobs to earn spending money and to help pay my college tuition. Most were pretty typical of the jobs available to American teens in the 1970s and 80s: working the counter and the Drive-Thru window at McDonalds; manning the register at a local craft shop; keying in typewriter-created manuscripts into a computer for a typesetting company. But the job I had during the summer between my sophomore and junior years of college is the one I remember the most vividly, perhaps because it was so different, so distant, from any career I could imagine undertaking. Working the line in a facility that manufactured tampons (in the 1980s, right before most such production migrated from the United States to foreign shores), I spent my days interacting with a few men and a whole lot of women for whom factory work was not just a part-time gig, but a day-in, day-out drudge.

Factory work, including the manufacture of tampons, is typically repetitive, regimented, and mind-numbingly dull. Most of the people who manned the production lines at the factory where I worked were women; most of the people in charge of repairing the machinery, or supervising its operation, were men. The line-workers were rarely asked their thoughts about how the plant was being run, or listened to if they made suggestions for improvements. I liked the working-class women with whom I worked, enjoyed their good humor and respected their resilience, but felt so different from them, and not just because of the differences in our ages. "Make sure you marry a rich guy," the two fifty-something women who worked the same line I did would often advise me over lunches in the cheerless cafeteria. "Don't end up stuck in a job like this." That the best way they could imagine to escape from a dead-end job, even for a young woman like myself, on the verge of earning an Ivy League degree, was to "marry up," to pin my hopes on the ambition and earning power of a member of the opposite sex, made me incredibly sad.

The narrator of Ann McMan and Salem West's Lambda-nominated lesbian romance, Hoosier Daddy, works in a Mid-Western factory, not a New England one, and in a facility that makes manly monster pick-up trucks, not feminine products that many men have trouble even naming without blushing. And unlike me, Jill Fryman, better known to her friends and co-workers as Friday, grew up as part of the working class. But Friday, unlike most of her colleagues in the Krylon auto plant, earned a college degree, catching sight of opportunities beyond the world in which she was raised. But Friday feels like a failure, both on the job front—she's right back here in the factory, working a job for which she's completely overqualified—and on the relationship front—the girlfriend choices are few and far between in conservative Indiana, and the few relationships she's had have all ended up in heartbreak, including her most recent one, with a woman whom she didn't even like that much, a woman who used her to get back at her husband for his infidelity. Friday would far prefer to stay home, reading her books and licking her wounds rather than facing the humiliation caused by her very public and embarrassing break-up.

But Friday's friends are tired of her hiding; as Terri, the aptly nicknamed T-Bomb, tells her, "Girlfriend, nobody in three counties gives a twat about your business—including you. And if you don't start using it, it's gonna dry up and drop off" (15). And so Friday finds herself at the bar where all the Krylon workers hang out, Hoosier Daddy's, listening to an unfamiliar but incredibly sexy stranger crooning a Karaoke version of "Melancholy Baby." It's just Friday's luck that the woman, Eleanor Rzcpczinska, is a recruiter for the United Auto Workers Union, come to town to try to persuade the Krylon workers to initiate a union vote before the Japanese company that has just bought their plant has time to come in and endanger their jobs. In a "Right to Work" town such as Princeton (Indiana, not Pennsylvania), a UAW recruiter is tantamount to the devil. Getting involved with El (whom Friday's friends nickname "El Debarge") is a risk the determinedly risk-averse Friday knows far better than to take.

But El and Friday, unlike the heroines in Karin Kallmaker's Love by the Numbers (reviewed here) or in another Lambda nominee, Broken Tracks*, spend little time dancing the "is she straight or is she gay" dance. Each is immediately drawn to the other, and unlike the reticent Friday, El knows what she wants and isn't afraid to ask for it. El and "Friday Jill," the name Friday stumblingly gives El when the stranger asks for her name and which El continues to use, thus quickly find themselves in a series of embarrassing public encounters, hilariously involving not one, but three different bathrooms, encounters that begin to persuade Friday that it might just be worth it to get to know El a little better.

But Friday's relationship comes to the attention of the outgoing owner of the plant, Don Krylon, who offers her a raise and a promotion if she uses her "connections and influence with the rank-and-file members of our Krylon family to smooth over any rough spots that might mistakenly lead them to think hospitably about the UAW's false promises" (98). Krylon doesn't want anything to ruin the deal he's made with Ogata, the Japanese company that is about to buy his company, and tells anyone who will listen that if the union vote happens, Ogata will move the production of the lucrative Outlaw truck to another, non-union plant. Will Friday, who has remained determinedly uncommitted to either side during the labor strife, be forced to take a stand?

Friday, who feels committed to her friends and her town, but who has also experienced life beyond both, is a first-person narrator who can see the humorous aspects of the working-class culture in which she was raised, but who never invites the reader to look down on the people who inhabit it. For example, the book's sub-plot about the annual Miss Pork Queen competition, in which the daughter of one of Friday's friends is a major contender, is simultaneously laugh-out-loud hilarious and emotionally satisfying. I deeply admired both the truth and the affection with which West and McMan limn a culture not often depicted with any depth or realism in romance.

As long as you don't mind the sexy times taking place off-stage, Hoosier Daddy has everything a feminist might hope for in a satisfying romance: a great conflict; engaging lead characters and expertly-drawn secondary ones; a far-from black-and-white depiction of issues of social justice (despite the smarmy Don Krylon); and enough comedy to have you laughing on nearly every page.

*Another book nominated for the Lambda for best lesbian romance, but which focuses primarily on training and running the Iditarod, with only a tiny smattering of romance thrown in as an accent, and hence won't be reviewed by RNFF.

Photo credits:
U. S. auto worker: International Business Times
Right to Work: Workplacechoice.org
Pork Queen float: Tipton County Pork Festival

Hoosier Daddy:
A Heartland Romance
Nuance/Bedazzled, 2013

Friday, April 11, 2014

Justifying Gender Nonconformity in Historical Romance: Meredith Duran's FOOL ME TWICE and Elizabeth Essex's AFTER THE SCANDAL

My apologies for the radio silence this past Tuesday. As my daughter so kindly told me, "Even feminists get sick sometimes, mom."

As recompense, I give you the following two-for-one historical romance review:

Man must be pleased; but him to please
Is woman's pleasure; down the gulf
Of his condoled necessities
She casts her best, she flings herself.
How often flings for nought, and yokes
Her heart to an icicle or whim,
Whose each impatient word provokes
Another, not from her, but him;
While she, too gentle even to force
His penitence by kind replies,
Waits by, expecting his remorse,
With pardon in her pitying eyes...
                           —Coventry Patmore, The Angel in the House, 1854

Reading historical romance with feminist expectations may strike many an exercise in the futile, or at least in the fantastic. For much of human history, women were considered lesser than men, an idea embraced not only by the males who benefitted from it, but also from the majority of females who were its victim. Common knowledge, scientific wisdom, and plain old human nature insisted that women were, by their very natures, inferior to men. While views about gender did begin to change during the nineteenth century, from a deficit model (women are lesser than men) to a more egalitarian difference model (women are different from men), in practice, laws and customs continued to place women in positions of dependency throughout the Victorian period. If a writer attempts to be at all historically accurate, he/she cannot ignore this essential component of social life in the past.

Contemporary women aren't likely to enjoy reading about historical counterparts who espouse gender ideologies that consign them to positions of inferiority. And thus many a historical romance uses the past as mere window dressing, a reason to place people with contemporary views about relations between the sexes in fancy dress. I had to admit that as a reader, I prefer those books that at least acknowledge the social assumptions of the world in which they place their characters, including, to our modern eyes, their sexist assumptions about gender, even if the characters themselves do not conform to said assumptions. The best of such works provide plausible and compelling reasons for why their characters have chosen, or been forced, to act in socially unsanctioned ways, reasons that add nuance and depth to their characterizations.

Two recently published 19th-century-set historical romances do just that. Elizabeth Essex's After the Scandal features the oh-so-prevalent duke as hero. But Tanner Evans, the Duke of Fenmore, has a background far different than that of his aristocratic peers. His father, estranged from his noble family due to religious differences, died when Tanner was just a child, as did his mother, leaving him and his older sister to scratch out a living on London's streets. By the time a chance meeting reunited them with their father's family, Tanner and his sister had become skilled street thieves. Being yanked from the life of a London urchin at the age of twelve, suddenly named the scion of a ducal heritage, Tanner can't help but feel a fraud. Nor can he help questioning the norms of aristocratic society, norms far different than those that ruled life on London's streets.

Protecting the girls...
Now twenty-eight, the reclusive Tanner has long yearned after innocent Lady Claire Jellicoe, the sheltered daughter of an earl. But because of his own past experiences, Tanner recognizes it is precisely her innocence that places Claire in danger from a rapacious fellow nobleman: "Refined, polite young women were easy targets. It was all the confining codes of ladylike behavior—of always having to be civil and passively polite—that got immaculate, refined young women into such monstrous trouble" (31). Tanner intervenes in the opening chapter to prevent the attempted rape (we are in a romance novel, after all), but the resulting story is not one of heroic alpha male rescuing hapless clueless female over and over again. Instead, Tanner and Claire become partners in solving a brutal murder, a murder that by its very nature interrogates gender roles and expectations.

To Tanner's surprise, during their investigation, Claire proves to be far more than just the pretty face and figure upon which he had cast his own longings: "But the realization that she clearly had a first-class mind hidden behind all that astonishing beauty excited him more completely than all of his inchoate longings from afar never had. My God—he could talk to her" (85). That Tanner had not expected Claire to be smart enough to converse intelligently with him demonstrates how even he, with his unusual background, takes many of the gender norms of genteel society for granted. Claire challenges some aspects of said norms, not because they do not exist for her, in the wallpaper-romance way, but because she recognizes the real limitations they place upon her—"[Am I] capable?... No. I know I'm not. But I want to be. And how shall I ever become capable if I do not try? If I do not attempt to do the things I ought? You said I was not ignorant, only unlearned, and I'm tired of being unlearned" (100). The plot in which Tanner and Claire find themselves may be rather improbable, but their negotiation of gender roles within said plot gives us a real sense of why each is calling certain gender norms into question, rather than taking the more standard route of acceptance.

In Meredith Duran's Fool Me Twice, it's the heroine, rather than the hero, who has grown up in a way that leads her to question the gender norms of late Victorian society. Olivia Holladay's mother broke the most dearly-held gender rule of genteel society: do not have sex out of wedlock, and especially do not give birth to a child.  Not only that, but Olivia's mother allowed that man to support her and her daughter in comfortable style, much to the disgust of the fellow citizens of the small English town in which Olivia grew up. After her mother's death, eighteen-year-old Olivia travels to London, intent on making her own way in the world, learning the new skill of typing and taking a job as a secretary. Her plans almost come to naught after she's brutally attacked and left for dead by a man she recognizes. Olivia knows she must hide, even while she searches for a way to prevent her attacker from striking again.

Olivia discovers that her freedom may lie within the house of the Duke of Marwick, a former political lion who, in the aftermath of his wife's death, has become a recluse and a tyrant in his own domain. Olivia applies for a job as a housemaid, hoping to leverage the work into an opportunity to search Marwick's house for the evidence she needs to bribe her attacker. Instead of a housemaid, though, Olivia finds herself in the role of housekeeper, the irascible duke's temper having sent yet another chatelaine fleeing. While Olivia's focus should be on her search, the upheaval in the Marwick household, and the disturbing behavior of the duke who is its cause, keeps distracting her from her own problems. And her own unconventional background makes Olivia far from fearful of rebuking her presumed social and gender superior the duke, as are the rest of his cowed servants.

Unlike Olivia, Alistair de Grey has long embraced the social roles his society expected of him. Marrying the right woman, agitating for the right political causes, and behaving always as a gentleman ought, he's determined not to follow in his dissipated father's footsteps. In fact, he expects to become the next Prime Minister. But his wife's death, and the shocking acts he discovers she's been hiding beneath her outwardly gender-conforming behavior, throw him into a state of near-madness. For months, he's confined himself to his house, to his room, knowing that if he leaves, his anger at his wife's betrayals will drive him to murder: "He looks into his palms. His eyes have grown accustomed to the dark he has made for himself, behind these curtains that never open. He sees clearly his lifelines, supposed harbingers of fortune: another lie, as much a lie as honor or ideals. He curls his lip. Fuck these lies" (20). Alistair is a man disillusioned, recognizing the social lies, including the lies of the superiority of the male sex, that have undergirded his socially and gender-privileged life. A man poised to recognize the merits of a woman brave enough to reject the gendered social judgments with which others would burden her: "When I was young, I decided nobody would ever be able to ruin me but myself" (302).

The journeys of both of these heroines begin after they are physically attacked by men. Nineteenth-century gender norms argued that women were the gentler sex, in need of protection and care. But when the very men who are supposed to provide said care are the perpetrators of the violence they are supposed to be protecting their women against, the gaping hole in the gendered argument becomes all too painfully obvious. Both Essex and Duran are skilled enough writers not to simply ignore the historical realities of gender norms; instead, they craft characters with plausible reasons for calling their own society's gender norms into question. In the process, they give readers far more courageous role models than any writer who simply adorns characters with twenty-first-century mindsets in the beautiful ball gowns and dainty dancing slippers of the past.

Illustration credits:
Victorian couple: Challenging Women's Roles Through Literature
The Oddie Children (1789) by Sir William Beechey. North Carolina Museum of Art, Raleigh.
Mind Your Manners: Fight Like a Gentleman

After the Scandal
St. Martin's, 2014

Fool Me Twice
Pocket, 2014

Friday, April 4, 2014

The Lopsided RITA nominations

Last week, the Romance Writers of America announced the finalists for their annual RITA awards, given to "promote excellence in the romance genre by recognizing outstanding published romance novels and novellas." RWA's Board had recently made substantial changes to the rules governing the judging of the contest, aimed both at "increas[ing] both awareness and prestige of the award" and "to ensure that books receiving a romance award are romance novels/novellas," according to a FAQ sheet about the 2014 award process created by RWA. The changes included shifting from a single 1 to 9 point scale to awarding points in four categories: 1-10 for the Plot; 1-10 for the Writing; 1-20 for the Characters; and 1-20 for the Romance. It also included changing several of the sub-genres in which authors could enter their books, including the elimination of the "mainstream novel with strong romantic elements" category. And instead of choosing books that receive scores in the top 10% of their sub-genre category as finalists, any book that received at least 90% of the total possible score (45 points or higher) would be awarded finalist status.

Many romance writers and readers (including myself) were more than a little curious to see if and how the changes would affect the makeup of the finalist slates. Curiosity quickly turned to frustration, and then to calls for change, though, after RWA members discovered just out unbalanced the 2014 RITA list turned out to be. In recent years, about 8 finalists in each sub-category had been named. In contrast, this year's list included categories with as few as 2 finalists (Inspirational Romance), and others with as many as 18 (Contemporary Romance). And some categories had disappeared completely, because not enough entries had been submitted (although the cap on the total number of books that the contest would accept may have played a role here).

Romance writers' discussion boards and e-mail loops lit up with protests in response to the perceived flaws in the new judging system. Many writers posted letters they planned to send to the RWA Board, pointing to the failures in the current system and calling for reforms. And I know of at least one RWA-affiliated chapter (The Mystery/Suspense chapter, better known as The Kiss of Death chapter) that has begun an online petition calling for the old judging criteria to be reinstated. I wouldn't be surprised to hear that others are considering this option, as well.

I'm not certain when RWA posted their "FAQ" sheet, but from its wording, it seems to have appeared after the announcements, suggesting that the organization was both taken by surprise by the results and was aware that they would likely prove controversial among its general membership. The FAQ concludes with this question (and its rather noncommittal answer):

Will RWA revisit the rules or provide better guidelines or training for judges?

The Board understands that the RITA Award is important to members and therefore commits significant resources each and every year to improving the outcome. The Board also considers whether guidelines for judging would be necessary or helpful.

Contest rules are approved at the July board meeting.

When RWA explained that the rule changes were aimed at meeting its strategic goal of increasing the prestige and public awareness of the RITA award, I guessing that this current brouhaha was not quite what they had in mind...

What are your thoughts on the 2014 RITA finalist list? And what do you think can/should be done to increase the prestige and the public awareness of the award?

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Color-Aware Interracial Romance: Nina Perez's SHARING SPACE

On Interracial Romance Books, a website where romance readers can purchase print and e-book copies of romance novels with love stories featuring heroes and heroines who are of different races, the site's title is followed by this tagline: "Where love is colorblind..." Visitors are, presumably, meant to view this tagline in a positive way—when it comes to falling love, the color of a potential partner's skin should not, and does not, matter. Romance can and does blossom across the once taboo line of race, and interracial romance novels celebrate this.

Often, though, the idea of being racially colorblind can have negative, not just positive, connotations. As Afi-Odelia E. Scruggs' article, "Colorblindness: The New Racism?" which appeared in the 2009 edition of Teaching Tolerance points out, the idea that ignoring or overlooking racial or ethnic differences in an effort to promote racial harmony more often has the opposite effect. Being colorblind more often simply allows people with racial privilege (in the United States, people of European ancestry) to ignore or pretend that their racial privilege does not in fact exist. As Randy Ross, a senior equity specialist at the New England Equity Assistance Center, a program of Brown's University Education Alliance, is quoted as noting, "I have never heard a teacher of color say 'I don't see color'.... The core of 'I don't see color,' is 'I don't see my own color, I don't see difference because my race and culture is the center of the universe.'"

Is the same true of interracial romances that embrace a colorblind approach to race? I've been wondering about this question as I've been making an effort to search out and read more romances by authors of color. Most of the interracial romances I've read do not suggest that a cross-race romance is or would be problematic in any way; few feature a character who questions or is unsettled by his or her attraction to a potential partner of a different race. This is likely a reflection of the fantasy aspect of romance as a genre, at least for readers of color: escaping the burden of having to think about the difficulties cross-race romance might entail in real life might be a large part of the pleasure in reading interracial romances.

Yet is there no room in the genre for romances that gesture toward, or even confront, the difficulties that interracial couples might face in our purportedly post-racial society? Not only from social and institutional prejudices and stereotypes, but also from the different kinds of privilege that those from different races have been, through their own upbringings, taught to expect from life and love? Are there romances out there that draw attention to disparities of privilege, even while they celebrate couples that work to negotiate relationships in spite of them?

Commenter sonomalass didn't know that I was thinking about these issues when, in response to my posting about ideology and good/bad writing she recommended I take a look at Nina Perez's romance, Sharing Space. But her recommendation hit just the right spot.

When I downloaded a copy and saw the novel's cover, though (actually, its multiple covers, as it was originally published as a serial in six parts), I wondered if I was in for another interracial romance with racial blinders firmly in place. But Perez's Author's Note suggested that something a little more complicated might lie between these digital pages: "I was in an interracial relationship with my now husband and wanted to write about the complexities of such a relationship, but also about all the humor and love of one" (305). Would it be possible to do both?

Perez's first-person dual-narrated romance opens with African-American Chloe telling us about her week from hell: not only did she discover her long-term boyfriend in bed with another woman, but her actress/roommate decamped for LA, leaving Chloe with only two weeks to either find a replacement or come up with a way to pay said roommate's half of the rent on their midtown Manhattan rent-controlled apartment. From the start, Chloe makes readers aware that she is aware that both personal and societal racism exist in her world. Chloe's best friend Myra, also black, tends to blame anything that goes wrong in her life on racism: "If she didn't get the repair appointment she wanted from the cable company, it must be because she's black. If a vacation request at work was denied, gotta be The Man! Menstrual cramps? Well, you know how those white folks do." (29) Though Chloe "could see her point sometimes. We were both shocked by some of the attitudes expressed openly during the presidential election" (29), Chloe herself prefers to believe that simple jealousy is the cause of her lack of popularity with her less achievement-oriented white co-workers at the marketing consulting agency where she and Myra both work. Although to Chloe, the reason doesn't really matter: "Lila [Chloe's boss] knew what it was like to work harder just to get the same rewards given so easily to male executives. She didn't let the inequality stop her from getting what she wanted, and recognized that I didn't, either" (5). Two black women with two different attitudes to racism makes for a refreshing change from romances that more often are blind to racism's continuing existence in American society.

Chloe's life becomes even more complicated when the only suitable tenant who responds to her ad is Pat Murphy, a white, and very male, actor from Long Island. Chloe has reservations about allowing Patrick to move in, and openly questions herself about whether those reservations stem from his sex or from his race. After talking the situation over with both Myra and with her cousin Crystal, though, Chloe decides to take a risk and invites Patrick to move in.

Patrick, interestingly, spends far less time worrying about Chloe's race, and far more time worrying about how attractive he finds her: "I was less surprised that she was black—I hadn't given any thought to the race of the person placing the ad—and more surprised to discover that she was so good looking. It was like when you go on a blind date you expect the worst, or when you're on the Internet and some girl tells you how hot she is when in real life she's overweight and bucktoothed" (37). As a white man, Patrick has the privilege of being colorblind, of assuming that racial differences shouldn't matter. They haven't mattered too much in his own life; why should they matter in anyone else's? After he moves in, Patrick thinks "a man would have to be deaf, dumb, blind, gay, and racist to not be interested in Chloe," revealing his own white-centric world view (would a black man have to be racist to not be interested?) (53).

Yet in spite of their different understandings about the presence and workings of racism in their world, Chloe and Patrick gradually develop a friendship, and eventually, a romantic relationship. Their sexual relationship progresses quickly, although Chloe does wonder if she's feeling some reluctance to actually sleep with him because "maybe deep down there was some apprehension about  having sex with a white guy" and humorously goes on to laugh at the sexual stereotypes blacks have about white men and those that whites have about black women (137-38).

Chloe and Patrick, though, never discuss race, even after Patrick invites Chloe out to Long Island for Thanksgiving, to meet with his extended Irish family. Chloe tells her mother that Patrick is white before introducing them, and is dismayed to discover that Patrick hasn't done the same. Patrick tells her "I told them what you do, and that you're great, and that we're involved. And I told them that I'm happy. What else do they need to know?" but in fact admits to himself that:

I wasn't being completely honest with Chloe. The thought of telling my parents that she was black had crossed my mind and I'd decided not to. Of course I wondered how they'd react to Chloe being black, but it seemed to me that mentioning it beforehand would be like admitting there was something wrong with it. (171)

Patrick has been caught in the racist undertow of racial colorblindness: You're not supposed to notice race, because if you do, race becomes a problem: it feels like "there [is] something wrong with it." In the race-blind paradigm, race becomes an embarrassment, rather than something to celebrate. And despite Patrick's disbelief that any of his relatives could react poorly to Chloe because of her race, not every member of Patrick's family can maintain the pretense that race does not matter.

Interestingly, though, the difficulties that temporary break Chloe and Patrick apart during the latter part of the novel do not stem from the problems of race-blindness that the text identifies. Instead, the more traditional romance-novel relationship-breakers of career ambition, family tragedy, and bitchy-girl jealousy take on the job. And it's not Patrick, but Chloe, who has to make the big gesture in order to ensure the relationship continues. Having brought the problems of race-blindness to the surface, does Perez then sweep them under the carpet to achieve her HEA? I'm curious to hear what other readers think...

On a related side note: of the heterosexual interracial romances that I've read that feature one character of African descent, that character is almost always the female half of the romantic couple. Intriguingly, this is precisely the opposite of real-life marriages in the United States between blacks and whites, according to the U.S. Census Bureau: In March of 2009, there were almost twice as many marriages between white women and black men as there were between black women and white men.

If romance was truly colorblind, would we not have an equal number of black hero/white heroine couples as we do white hero/black heroine couples? What does the prevalence of the black woman/white man romance tell us about the desires that current-day interracial romances fulfill for their readers?

Sharing Space:
The Complete Series
JK Press, 2014