Friday, February 27, 2015

Cocky Self-Confidence

His hand twitched against his side. Emma licked her lips. "Touch yourself," she repeated, more a whisper than an order, but he finally obeyed. His fingers, dark against his belly, slide down and curved around the dusky skin of his shaft. — Victoria Dahl, A Rake's Guide to Pleasure

Many romance novels come and go without leaving a memorable trace in my mind. But I can still remember the shock with which I read the scene in Victoria Dahl's steamy Victorian historical romance, A Rake's Guide to Pleasure, from which the above quote is taken. Emma Jensen has wormed her way into ton society, masquerading as the Dowager Lady Denmore, in order to wager and win enough at the card tables to secure herself a competence large enough to retire from society on. But her attraction to the rakish Duke of Somerhart has proven a distraction from her gambling. At a high-stakes house party, she finds herself spending less time gambling and more time negotiating a sexual power game with Hart. After realizing how much Emma is aroused by being told what to do, sexually, Hart challenges her to try out the opposite role: "You take control, Emma.... Take control of me. Come to me" (100).

Emma, despite her better judgment, takes up Hart's challenge. But the scene doesn't quite play out the way Hart expected. Emma doesn't tell him to do anything sexual to her; instead, she commands him to perform for her. "Touch yourself," she orders him, but refuses to step any closer to the bed in which he lies. She wants to watch him, to actually witness the act with which he taunted during their first sexual encounter: "I thought about this last night. Dreamed of your taste, of you pressing yourself to my mouth. I pleasured myself to this fantasy" (83). His fantasy turned her into an object of desire; hers, not just in mind but in the flesh, turns the tables, turning Hart into the object of Emma's.

Dahl makes it clear that Hart objects to being so-objectified. When Emma first issues her command, he outright refuses. Only after he makes a move to leave his bed, and she threatens to leave his room altogether, does Hart "finally obey." And when he reaches his climax, he's not just sexually satisfied; he's shatteringly angry, snarling, "Get the hell out of my room. Now" (111).

The next morning, Hart finds himself embarrassed by having ceded control, worried that Emma will tattle to others about "his little show" (112). Hart "wanted to take back the night, or at least turn it into something else. Something he controlled, despite his challenge to Emma. Somehow this seemed so much worse than being caught ravishing a woman in the card room" (113). A man sexually self-pleasuring himself in the privacy of his own rooms is fine. A man caught tupping a woman in public is not so bad, either. But a man touching himself in front of a woman, performing not just for his own pleasure but for hers, is something for which Hart fears he'll be "snickered at" and "turned into a freak" for, if word gets around (113).

I can't remember reading another such scene, one in which a man touches his own penis, in a historical romance, or in any romance, published around the same time (Rake first came out in 2009). But now, only six years later, such scenes seem to be popping up with far more regularity. Perhaps it is only because I've been reading more erotic romance of late, but in my reading of late, I've been noticing more and more romance sex scenes in which men take their own cocks in hand. Not just to guide them into various female (or male) orifices, but as one of the many possible sexual touches that play a part in longer sexual encounters. And unlike Duke Somerhart, the men in such scenes rarely think of touching themselves in front of a woman as something shameful, something freakish. Instead, they do it with self-confidence. Such acts are presented as part and parcel of a man's acceptance of his own sexuality, his own body. And an acceptance of, even a delight in, a sexual partner's being turned on by such a "show."

Am I just imagining things, or have you noticed such a trend, too? If so, what do you make of it?

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Bisexuality and Masculinity: Amber Lin and Shari Slade's ONE KISS WITH A ROCK STAR

A few days ago, I was trying to think of expletives that ring the same gendered vituperation toward men as "bitch" traditionally does towards women. "Ass," "asshole," and the like can be applied equally to women as to men. "Bastard," "son-of-a-bitch," and "motherfucker" are slurs as much against a man's mother as against himself. "Queer," "fairy," "faggot"* and their brethren all are slights suggesting a man is being too woman-like, rather than too something overly male. The only swear word I could come up with that referenced both male bodies and male actions was "cocksucker," a word that focuses less on identity and more on a specific bodily act.

The term kept coming to mind as I read the second book in Amber Lin and Shari Slade's Half-Life contemporary erotic romance series, One Kiss with a Rock Star. In book #1, Three Nights with a Rock Star, Krist Mellas, the bassist of the band Half-Life, had been caught on video participating in a three-way with his fellow band member Lock and Lock's girlfriend Hailey. Kiss opens with Krist attempting to purchase a classic bass in a dive guitar shop in Chicago, only to be turned down after the owners discover the incriminating video online while doing a fan-boy Internet search on Krist. Krist realizes he's broken the "golden rule" of male rock stardom:

   He could have blown up at a fan.
     He could have forgotten the fucking song onstage.
     He could have fucked an underage girl, even. Oops. Didn't know. It happened all the fucking time, and there was barely a blip.... Record sales actually went up. But God forbid he be bisexual with consenting adults—yeah, that was too fucking far (page 5).

"Bowie told the world he was bi and they didn't let him
be anything else for decades," Krist's agent warns him (27).
It's not just the fact of the three-way that has the guitar shop owners, and almost everyone else Krist meets in the following days, looking him askance. It's Krist's position in the threesome: "Rockers didn't suck other rocker's dicks" (5). But Krist had. And for calling rock's über-masculinity into question, Krist will have to pay. 

The band's agent informs Krist that he has an image problem. A problem that she's going to fix by setting up on some fake dates with pop-star princess Madeline Fox. Krist understands the hypocrisy of the whole thing—"Image problem. It was such bullshit. His image wasn't the problem. His sexuality was" (26)—and has no qualms about refusing to agree to date Miss Teenbopper Next Door, a girl who's been "packaged, pampered, pandering to the lowest common denominator" (25).

Nineteen-year-old Maddy, former KidMania television star now turned pop singer, is even less eager to partake in yet another image manipulation scheme than is Krist. Maddy knows all about the importance of image; though she's been drinking and having sex with boys and girls since her early teens, contractually she is required to maintain her girl-next-door identity (she's "got that good girl faith in a tight little skirt," just like fellow pop star Taylor Swift). Held together by guile and a smile, underneath Maddy seethes, tired not only of getting the evil eye from rocker boys like Krist—"one part disdain and two parts lust" (12)—but of pretending to be innocent when she's just as experienced, just as drawn sexually to both men and to women, as is Krist. Even though she's nursed a bit of a fan-girl crush on the Half-Life bassist since she was twelve, Maddy's not stupid enough to agree to her agent's plan.

Not until said agent suggests her refusal will condemn Krist's, and his band's, career to the toilet (and tells the same story about Maddy's career being endangered to Krist) do the two finally decide to take their fake-romance show on the road. In public, the two project a slick image of young love, but in private (young lovers will naturally share the same hotel room, won't they?), they yell, fight, fuck, and snarl. And discover that their privates selves are far different from their public personas, and far more compatible than either could ever have dreamed.

I'm not usually a big fan of rock star romance; too often its underlying message seems to be that you need to be validated by being loved by someone famous in order to feel good about yourself. But in One Kiss from a Rock Star, Lin and Slade create two fascinatingly complex characters, two people who project traditionally gendered images in order to maintain their place in the public spotlight, but who underneath the glitter and the tattoos gender-bend like pros (bad-boy Krist turns out to be the sensitive, submissive one, good-girl Maddy the one who gets off on bossing others, including Krist, around). Pulling back the masks of traditional gender, Lin and Slade ask readers not only to see beyond Krist and Maddy's mass-marketed images, but to consider the gendered constraints placed upon their own efforts at self-fashioning.

*Interestingly enough, the Oxford English Dictionary reveals that the use of "faggot" as a derogatory term originated as a term of abuse or contempt applied to a woman.

Photo credits:
David Bowie: Rolling Stone
Taylor Swift: Daily Star

One Kiss with a Rock Star
Half-Life #2
published by the authors

Friday, February 20, 2015

Kink and Commitment: Jane O'Reilly's INDECENT trilogy

With all the hype surrounding the release of the 50 Shades of Grey movie this past week, it's been hard to escape its underlying "kink is titillating, but ultimately incompatible with romantic commitment" message. Readers looking for alternatives to this stark opposition between kink and romance would do well to turn to Jane O'Reilly's recent trilogy of novellas, stories that not only celebrate the romantic possibilities of a shared interest in sexual pleasure outside the bounds of the vanilla, but do so by empowering, rather than infantilizing, their female leads.

On the surface, Indecent... Exposure's protagonist Ellie Simpson appears to be a mild-mannered, sensible photographer, content to capture the life-changing days of others on film rather than experiencing them herself. Yet the side-business she's fallen into—taking "dirty and hot and downright rude" pictures for people who want visual portraits of their erotic selves (Kindle Loc 29)—not only brings in extra cash, it also allows Ellie to indulge her own voyeuristic sexual urges. So when her best friend, Amber, asks Ellie to take pictures of Amber blowing off a guy so she can send them as revenge to the boyfriend who dumped her, Ellie's totally on board.

Yet when said guy turns out to be Ellie's seemingly mild-mannered accountant, the man she's been secretly crushing on for the past three years, Ellie vows to stop "living vicariously through the sex lives of other people. I need this to stop being my sex life, and I need to get one of my own" (72). Might creating a sex life of her own not require Ellie to give up her voyeuristic tendencies, but instead, to share them with another? Someone just as good at hiding his own kinky desires as she is herself?

Ellie's friend Amber, who at the end of Exposure had switched from exacting revenge on her ex to engaging in consensual group sex with him and his new partner, becomes the narrator of the trilogy's second novella, Indecent... Proposal. Six months into their three-way affair, Amber's ex and his new girlfriend are getting married, leaving Amber feeling more than a little left out, "an accessory to their desire, like a toy they liked to use in their games" (998). Determined to prove that "while my heart might be broken, my pussy certainly wasn't," bridesmaid Amber flirts with a fellow wedding guest and pulls him into an empty room for a quick fuck mid-reception. When Ellie's judgmental brother Scott Smithson walks in on them post-orgasm, half-naked and up against a wall, Amber refuses to let his obvious contempt shame her. No, Amber's far more interested in the surprising fact that stodgy Scott can't seem to stop staring at her exposed breasts. And that Scott thinks Amber should have asked someone she knew, someone she could trust, to ease her sexual itch, not a total stranger. Someone, maybe, like him.

Such a set-up implies a "taming-of-the-female-rake" story will follow, yet O'Reilly refuses to buy into such a female-sexuality-squashing trope. Instead, she spins a tale of a woman who thinks of herself as the queen of casual sex learning to ask for what she wants—even if what she wants is a combination of both kink and commitment.

Lucas, Amber's quick wedding-day fuck in Proposal, is the male protagonist of the trilogy's third volume, Indecent... Desires. But, as in the previous two novellas, Desires's narrator is the female half of this budding relationship. Recently divorced thirty-four-year-old Meredith can't help but watch the pretty twenty-something young man in the flat opposite, the one whom she first spied sitting in front of his window casually playing with his cock. Now, every night at 9 p.m., the delicious young man comes to the window, cock in hand, well-aware he has an audience. For control-freak Meredith has started slipping notes into his letterbox, telling him exactly when and what to do. And he's doing it, much to Meredith's shock and delight.

But when the anonymous man shows up as a computer consultant at the office where Meredith works, and almost immediately picks up on Meredith's controlling vibe, Meredith's self-control starts to crack. O'Reilly openly confronts the gendered assumptions surrounding D/s:

"I knew bossy women existed," Lucas explains to Meredith. "The problem has been trying to find one.... It's hardly a topic you can bring up in the middle of a first date. 'Oh, by the way, I really want to be bent over the end of the bed and spanked, would you be up for that?' It's OK when women say it.... Then it's kind of kinky, you know? Naughty. But when a man says it, women think it's weird" (751)

O'Reilly also challenges such assumptions through her depiction of the relationship that Meredith and Lucas develop, a relationship between an older woman and a younger man built on both D/s sexual proclivities as well as on romantic connection.

These three stories work so well in novella format because each woman has a prior relationship (of sorts) with the man with whom she subsequently develops a more romantic attachment, allowing the romantic arc to develop quickly (FYI, all couples appear to be white Brits, although no real discussion of race/ethnicity appears in any of the volumes). And because each story takes place over a relatively short space of time, allowing the focus to remain on character development and romance arc rather than on drawn-out plot. And because O'Reilly has a real gift for writing not only complex characters, but scorchingly hot sex scenes, scenes made all the more compelling for the way they insist on the compatibility, rather than the opposition of, romantic commitment and sexual kink.

Jane O'Reilly's website tagline reads "Quirky romance for smart thinking women," a tag more than applicable to her Indecent novellas.  So, if you'd like a more feminist erotic reading experience than 50 Shades offers, why not give indecency a try?

Indecent... Exposure
Indecent... Proposal
Indecent... Desires
Carina, 2014

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Marrying for Money: Financial Empowerment from Romance

The best laid plans of mice and romance bloggers...

The current spate of snowy weather in Boston laid waste to my plans to attend the What is Love? Romance Fiction in the Digital Age conference last week. Luckily for me, and for RNFF readers, romance blogger and conference attendee Elisabeth Lane kindly agreed to share her thoughts on the conference. Take it away, Elisabeth...

This past week at the Library of Congress, romance readers, writers, and academics got together to talk about the romance genre. There was a sneak peak of a documentary, Love Between the Covers, by filmmaker Laurie Kahn, which set the tone for the two days of programing in its overwhelmingly positive and empowering vision of the romance genre. The following day, a conference on popular romance, What Is Love? Romance Fiction in the Digital Age, featured panelists from academia and publishing, as well as writers, readers, and others involved in the romance industry. Romance writer Margaret Locke wrote an excellent recap of the film and the four individual panels from the conference. And romance writer and blogger Kiersten Krum storified the #poprom hashtag that was used during the conference. Both are great links for a broad overview of what was discussed at the conference.

What I'd like to talk about here, though, is something more specific, a common thread that struck me after watching the documentary film and after attending the conference the next day: the huge economic impact of the romance genre. As a romance reviewer, I typically think of romance in terms of its content: stories, characters, plots, themes. And sometimes in terms of sociological analyses of what we as a society say about the romance genre and what the romance genre says about us. But while I have always known intellectually that romance is a huge business (it’s a fact that gets repeated frequently by romance apologists), I hadn’t really considered its impact on individual women’s finances. During the film and the conference, the theme that romance is a genre “for women, by women, and about women” was repeated at least a half dozen times by various speakers. While in the spirit of inclusiveness, we know that’s not always the case, it is still very much true of the bulk of the romance industry. Not only is the romance industry in general for women, by women, and about women, it is also a business that accrues major economic benefit to women.

There were myriad examples of this in both the film and the conference. Historical romance writer Eloisa James, who was both interviewed for the documentary and was present at the conference, said in the film that she started writing romance novels to pay off student loans. Liliana Hart, a self-published writer of romantic suspense, made reference during a panel to trying (with difficulty) to raise four kids on a teacher’s salary prior to her success as a writer. Kim Castillo, an author assistant, has turned her love of romance into a business, handling administrative and promotional tasks for James and other writers. She was clear in both the film and on one of the conference panels that the business of romance novels feeds her family. Tara McPherson, Associate Professor of Gender Studies and Critical Studies at University of Southern California, discussed the contributions of romance novels to the bottom line of publishers and the success of soap operas (another medium created primarily for women) in keeping television studios in the black for many years. This doesn’t even cover all that was said by speakers and panelists regarding the benefit of romance to their personal bottom lines.

Maybe she should have
taken up romance writing
These examples are anecdotal, of course. The conference wasn’t explicitly about the business of romance and so there were very few specific dollar amounts cited beyond a million here (for some authors) and a billion there (for the industry as a whole). So I looked up some statistics on the RWA website, the trade association for the romance genre. In 2013, the total sales value of the romance genre was $1.08 billion, accounting for 13% of the sales share of the adult fiction book market. And, also from RWA, 84% of the romance readership is female. I couldn’t find statistics for the percentage of romance writers, editors, agents, cover designers, marketers or others who work in romance publishing, but attendance at the conference, which spanned every aspect of the industry, was overwhelmingly female. So a lot of women are making a lot of money in the romance industry. How much is “a lot” to each person varies widely, depending on specific and highly personal goals—recently contemporary romance writer Cara McKenna did a really honest post on Wonkomance about her earnings—but it’s clear that whatever money is being made makes a tremendous difference to women’s households. 

When we talk about romance, the question of both economics and personal household budgets are rarely discussed. We can talk about how we read romance or whether the content of romance is inherently feminist or whether it upholds a status quo that is inherently conservative, marriage-centric, and heteronormative. And those are all very interesting questions that I personally could think about and talk about all day long, every day. But whether romance is a feminist genre or whether it isn’t in terms of its content, a lot of women are making a lot of money in and from this industry. And it’s an industry that wouldn’t exist or be popular or be profitable without the work of women, the business acumen of women, and the community of women. Which seems to me to be an inherently feminist good.

Elisabeth Lane is a romance novel-loving housewife who writes romance reviews for food lovers at her blog, Cooking Up Romance. You can also follow her cooking and reading adventures on Twitter @elisabethjlane and Facebook.

Photo credits:
Dollar heart: Tim Maurer blog
Girl Without Money book cover: University of Otego

Friday, February 13, 2015

"Purple Prose": Reject or Reclaim?

Recent online discussions of the phrase "purple prose" as applied to romance novel writing by author Emma Barry and reviewers/bloggers Elisabeth Lane and Alexis Hall at All About Romance got the attention of my inner word-nerd. I had always associated the phrase with bad writing, and in particular, with the euphemistically bad writing used to describe sex in the historical romances of the 1970s. Lane and Hall's post, as well as Barry's, though, had me wondering if my definition was correct. What is the history of this phrase?

Turning to my trusty copy of the Oxford English Dictionary (online version), I discovered a phrase with a long past, one that certainly predates the existence of genre romance. The OED defines Purple prose, which dates from 1901, as "overly ornate or fussy prose; cf PURPLE PASSAGE."

Two of the three examples cited suggest the negative connotations of the phrase:

"He sees advertisements describing new houses for sale... Glowing adjectives and purple prose embellish the descriptions." —N Straus, Two Thirds of Nation, 1952

"A good editor would have... written rude comments in the margins near the frequent passages of purple prose." —Times Literary Supplement, 10 Dec. 2004, 29/1.

Purple passage, which dates from 1822, has a similarly negative denotation: "an elaborate or excessively ornate passage in a literary composition. After the Latin purpureus pannus (see PURPLE PATCH)."


"The book is... marked by great reserve and quietness of tone... There is not a 'purple passage' in all the two volumes." —Macmillan's Magazine, Jan. 1822, 211/2.

"Mrs. Johnson says little about herself, indulges in no purple passages, and without the conscious effort of the raconteur she manages to introduce many good stories." Discovery Oct. 1937, 326/2.

Both examples are negatives; writers and speakers who avoid purple passages are to be praised, suggesting that those who indulge are to be condemned. (Roman poet Horace, the originator of the phrase purpureus pannus, also uses it to condemn inappropriate excessive of description.)

Purple patch, the oldest of this group of related English phrases, continues in a negative vein: "An elaborate or excessively ornate passage in a literary composition."


"One Part of the Work should not so far out-shine, as to Obscure and Darken the Other. The Purple Patches he claps upon his Course Style, make it seem much Courser than it is." —True Tom Double, ?1704

"His writing stumbles into purple patches... but, on the whole, a satisfying terseness and an unobtrusive local flavor inform the dialogue." — Commonweal 25 Feb. 2000, 19.

What strikes me about all the iterations of "purple" writing is the idea of excess—this type of writing is somehow too much. It goes beyond the bounds, splashing and smearing purple way outside the lines of convention. Literary convention in particular; the term only became popular in the 18th century, as Gary Martin at The Phrase Finder explains, when "literary critics valued evenness of pace and style in literary works. Unevenly written texts were singled out for censure and 'purple patch' was the ideal label for a passage that stood out as overly florid."

Today, though, the term goes far beyond mere literary convention. For when I think of purple prose in relation to romance, the passages that most often come to mind are those depicting sexual acts. Labeling such passages as "purple," then, may be a way to simultaneously contain and condemn the threat of female sexuality: hey, lady writers, you're going beyond the bounds by claiming sex, and sexual pleasure. You're wrong, you're bad, you're going beyond what we find comfortable. Rein it in, there, or we'll heap more contempt on you.

Purple: still favored by English
This excessiveness also points to what may be a forgotten class dimension to the phrase, too, one not captured by the OED definitions. Gary Martin at The Phrase Finder explains that the color purple was once reserved for emperors and imperial statesmen in Rome; adding a "purple patch" to one's prose, then, was to make a symbolic link to the elite, and to power. Purple dye was so expensive, Remy Melina at Science reminds us, that only the very wealthy could afford it. The Sumptuary Laws during Queen Elizabeth I of England's reign even went so far as to forbid anyone outside the royal family to wear the color. Only in the mid-19th century did the color become widely reproducible, and thus available to those with less gold in hand than the typical royal. To claim purple for one's own, then, especially if one is not part of the elite, is once again to go beyond the bounds, not just of taste, but of social class.

Strangely enough, the phrase purple patch has, since the 20th century, developed a second, far more positive, definition: "a notable or colourful period of time, a person's life, etc.; (now) spec. a run of good luck or success."


"They [crushes] are harmless outlets of natural instincts, harmless purple patches in rather grey lives." —Decatur (Illinois) Evening Herald 10 Mar. 1927, 13/2.

"France's Rhône Valley has been enjoying a purple patch in recent years that must irk its more stately rivals in Bordeaux and Burgundy." —Underground Wine Journal, Sept. 2011, 42/1.

A positive purple patch, then, also is excessive, unusual, beyond the norm; "a run" of good luck, not a permanent thing.

Given its rich history, do you think "purple prose," like "bitch," is a phrase worth reclaiming? Or would romance proponents better spend their time celebrating and analyzing romance authors whose prose style is more conventionally "literary"? Or is there a need to do both?

Photo credits:
Purple lorem ipsum:
Queen Elizabeth II: Daily Mail

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Short Takes: New Books from RNFF Favorites

Today, a few brief shout-outs for new releases from authors whose previous work has been featured in past RNFF columns, all featuring heroines as tough, determined, and whip-smart as any you're likely to find in contemporary romance today.

Emma Barry, Party Lines (The Easy Part #3)

When Michael Picetti, deputy campaign manager for one of the leading Democratic candidates for President, finds himself sitting next to an Economics Today-reading, politically-obsessed Latina on a flight to pre-caucus Iowa, he automatically assumes his seat-mate is a liberal like himself. An assumption that Lydia Reales, Assistant Deputy Campaign Manager for Voter Outreach for Scott Stafford, Republican Presidential candidate, is all too used to hearing, and that she takes deep pleasure in scuttling, much to Michael's chagrin. Yet their almost-meet-cute is not the last; their campaign trail paths keep crossing and throwing them into each other's path, a path each is far too intrigued not to follow.

Neither Michael nor Lydia is an idealist, ready or eager to genuflect at the feet of candidates they know are far from faultless. But each is deeply committed to the central tenets of their respective political parties, as well as to the thrill of the campaign trail ("This job makes me feel like pure, concentrated awesome," Lydia tells Michael (Kindle Loc 576). And both are used to committing themselves 150% to their jobs. But as their antagonistic acquaintanceship merges into no-strings-attached sex, and then to friendship, cynic Michael finds himself unexpectedly wanting more. Can professional and personal desires, never mind political differences, be reconciled? Filled with fascinating details about life on the presidential campaign trail, the frustrations of both racial stereotypes and racial tokenism, and the precarious position one is put it not knowing whether the lack of appreciation one feels is due to sexism, racism, personality conflicts, or a combination of all of the above, Party Lines makes for a fittingly feminist conclusion to Barry's outstanding D.C. insider trilogy, The Easy Part.

Cara McKenna, Give It All (Desert Dogs #2)

On the outside, lawyer and PR manager Duncan Welch presents as cool, controlled, and utterly contemptuous of anyone who lacks his class, looks, and intelligence ("I'm exceedingly difficult to date. I posses a winning combination of impossibly high standards and stunted empathy," he opines with biting wit [969]). But when he's accused of taking bribes during a casino development project in largely working-class Fortuity, Nevada, Duncan's highly-polished surface develop a few telling cracks. Cracks that popping extra Klonopins, downing more vodka and tonics, or engaging in some obsessive-compulsive cleaning doesn't seem to fix. Cracks that never-get-attached bar-owner Raina Harper is all too interested in breaking wide-open.

The combination of English-born Duncan, an orphan who has never experienced love, and Raina, a half-Latina heroine who feels "my heart's spent," "most of the things a woman feels for a man" having been "used up" by her care for her recently deceased father, make for an unusual, dynamic romantic pairing (989). As does Raina's gender-bending admission, one accepted rather than demonized by the narrative, that "I don't like feeling like I'm being take care of by anybody... I'd much rather be needed than do the needing" (981-84). Care to guess who ends up doing the rescuing at the story's climax?

Milan proves herself as adept at contemporary romance as she is at historical in this deeply intelligent story of a relationship between two people from vastly different social classes. The titular "trade" results from immigrant Tina Chen losing her cool when, during a discussion of food stamps in class,  fellow college classmate billionaire tech genius Blake Reynolds makes a thoughtless comment ("No matter what we do, we always have a permanent underclass. The only question we have is how we treat them, and what that says about us" [p. 10]). Tina knows that that "we" sweeps people like her and her family conveniently out of sight, and that Blake, and most of her fellow classmates, have no idea what it means to live outside the bounds of middle class comfort. "Try trading lives with me. You couldn't manage it, not for two weeks," Tina challenges. To her utter surprise, Blake takes her up on the challenge, and offers her his lifestyle—money, car, apartment, job—if she'll pretend to be his girlfriend for the next few weeks. 

What makes the story intriguing is that Blake's acceptance of Tina's challenge stems not from a manly desire to prove himself, but from his desire to run away from his own fears, fears that are gradually revealed over the course of the story. And tough-as-nails Tina has more than a few fears of her own, fears that have, ironically, kept her safe in a world filled with uncertainty of the financial and emotional types. And nothing about falling for a billion-point-four-aire genius with a brash, overbearing father and a boatload of psychological baggage says "safe" to Tina. Even if said genius proves to be far more than the stereotypes of a "winner of the nepotism lottery" might suggest. I especially loved the way that Milan presents each protagonist's difficult parent, a parent who in another author's hands would have clearly been labeled "villain," as rounded, intelligible, and above all sympathetic, complementing the book's larger themes of looking beyond the surfaces and understanding and confronting one's fears.

Friday, February 6, 2015

When the Form Works Against Feminism

In the two years since the debut of this blog, I've read and followed many an online debate about whether or not romance as a genre is, by its very nature, feminist. My own position on the matter has been that no genre, including the genre of romance, is inherently feminist, but any book, in any genre, has the potential to be feminist. While a woman-authored genre may be more likely, in general, to be sympathetic to feminist ideas and discourses, the mere fact that the majority of its authors are female is not a an iron-clad guarantee that all, or even most, individual texts within it will be feminist. A woman may write an anti-feminist romance, just as a man may write a pro-feminist one. Whether any individual romance is feminist or not, I thought, depends entirely on how its author uses or subverts its genre conventions to convey sympathy with, or antipathy to, feminist beliefs and concerns.

Yet a recent book made me rethink somewhat my "it all depends on what the author does with it" stance. Because in this book, it seemed to me that the dictates of the genre itself did constrain an individual novel's feminist impulses, even when those feminist impulses are stated explicitly within the text.

The book that made me think harder about my own assumptions was recommended by Sarah, an RNFF reader, as one of the best feminist YA romances of 2014. Sarah wrote:

I'd include Jennifer Echols' Biggest Flirts on my 2014 YA list (and the others in that series, which are out this year)—she does such a great job at portraying girls' experiences and is very positive in her treatment of teen girls and sex. She also pushes the envelope in terms of the "likability" factor, which I especially appreciate in YA.

I'd never read any of Echols' books, so off to the library I went, and discovered a real treat. Biggest Flirts, like the majority of YA, is told in the first person, in this case from the point of view of rising senior high schooler Tia Cruz. Floridian Tia's all about the fun: a classic extrovert ("People always tell me I could have a conversation with a rock" [186]), Tia would much rather spend time hanging out drinking beer with her friends, or hooking up with a sexy guy, than taking on anything that has the least hint of responsibility about it. She doesn't want to work hard in school (despite her high PSAT scores); she doesn't want to be promoted to be assistant manager of antiques store where she works part time; and she definitely doesn't want to be named captain of the drum corps, responsible for keeping all her fellow marching band percussionists in line, both figuratively and literally.

Tia's seen first-hand what too much responsibility too early can do to a girl. Her mom, who got pregnant with Tia's oldest sister at 17 and had three more daughters in quick succession, later got hooked on painkillers and started stepping out with other men—"She told my dad she was trying to get back something she'd missed out on when they were younger" (230). And all three of Tia's older sisters followed in their mother's early footsteps, dropping out of high school to be with boys who "became the most important people in their lives" (32). Two of them aren't even with the boys anymore, and the other one's relationship isn't very stable. Tia doesn't ever explicitly state that she wants to avoid the stereotypes inflicted on Latina girls (she's half Puerto-Rican), but a passing worry about the appeal (or lack thereof) of her "gangly puertorriqueña" looks suggests that she's aware of the racialized assumptions many in the United States hold. No way does Tia want to end up like her mom or any of her sisters.

With such examples before her, it's hardly surprising, then, that the idea of dating turns Tia completely off. What's different here, though, from the typical YA is that while Tia doesn't want to date, she does want to have sex, and isn't ashamed to acknowledge it. She'll sleep with a guy, but she definitely won't date him, something she's careful to make perfectly clear to any guy with whom she hooks up. Including the hot new guy in school, midwesterner Will Matthews:

   "I think we're sending each other mixed messages," he said.
     "I think I've sent you a very clear message," I corrected him, "and you're choosing not to receive it."
     His hands paused on the bottom button. "You mean you do like what I'm doing right now, but you don't want to date me."
     "Date anybody," I fine-tuned that statement. "See? You do get it." (66)

Tia does not view her behavior as slutty or aberrant, and we don't hear others in the novel denigrating her for it, either. When Tia's overprotective friend Kaye, who has a long-term boyfriend, scolds Tia for taking Will home the same night she first met him—"Girls are supposed to say yes to a date, then no to manhandling. You're not supposed to say yes to manhandling, then no to a date" (73), Tia is quick to point of the hypocrisy of Kaye's statement: "First of all, you are not saying no to the manhandling.... And second, I want the manhandling. I don't want the dating. That stuff is fake anyway. The guy is taking you on dates just so he can manhandle you later. You're not being honest with each other" (73-74). Later, when Tia hears she's been named her senior class's "Biggest Flirt," Tia immediately recognizes the anti-feminist undertones of such an "honor": "I'm not sure I like this. It has a slut-shaming flavor, like they really wanted to give me Biggest Ho" (119). And when Will, who, despite their decidedly non-dating status, is granted the male half of the "Biggest Flirt" title right along with Tia and starts to blame her for the unwanted moniker,  Tia calls him on his sexism: "Cheap shot, but you have taken on an accusatory tone. You're standing here blaming me when we both got elected Biggest Flirt. We achieved that honor together. It's like a guy blaming a girl for getting pregnant" (122). Tia knows her feminist principles, and will not allow others to get away with making sexism comments or assumptions about her or her behavior.

Yet Biggest Flirts is a romance novel, and the genre demands that any book within its bounds has to end with a happily-ever-after, or at least, a happy-for-now. And in particular, one that celebrates the creation of a new romantic relationship. In order for this to happen in Biggest Flirts, Tia's objection to dating has to be reinterpreted. Tia's refusal to date, which might have been seen as a wise decision, to hold off on getting too involved with another person at such a young age, instead becomes a psychological problem: a refusal to trust in the goodness of love. As Tia explains to Will:

"It's not just a sex thing. You can have a boyfriend without having sex. You can have sex without getting pregs. It's not the sex that messes people up. It's love. You can have sex and protect yourself and still keep out of trouble. It's love that starts to tangle everything up, and makes you think that an army private who's been to juvie would  make a great dad, and that seventeen is the perfect age to start a family. When my sisters and I used to talk about sex, it wasn't embarrassing as long as we were being honest. It's love that confuses things and makes you unable to explain later why you didn't use a condom. Love and pressure and the feeling that you're everything when you're with this guy, and when he leaves you, you're less than you were before. If you fall in love, you attach yourself to somebody, and you can't do what you want ever again." (233)

But only a few pages later, Tia is declaring her love for Will, and is starting to believe that her "fear of having a boyfriend seemed immature" (283). Friend Kaye, whose advice earlier in the novel Tia rejected as sexist and hypocritical, now serves as the mouthpiece for compulsory heterosexuality:

     "You've watched your sisters make mistakes. You're younger, so you may have seen your mother leaving very differently from the way they saw it. You miss your mom, but instead of trying to fix your life by filling her shoes, you avoid further complications by sidestepping responsibility when you can. You have an allergic reaction when you do get put in charge. You stay out of any relationship at all."
     "But that's a good thing," I defended myself. "I'm a lot better off than my sisters."
     "But what if you don't change?" Kaye asked. "At some point when you're older, you're going to look around and see that everybody is in a relationship while you're alone. And pretty much everybody in your high school classes will have gone off to college." (286)

Tia's refusal of responsibility is conflated with her refusal to have a boyfriend, both cast as problems Tia must overcome. By book's end, then, not only has Tia begun to stop sabotaging her future, has taken a few steps toward greater responsibility at home, at school, and in the band; she has also agreed to try dating Will. The happy ending required of the romance genre—that Will and Tia be together by book's end—can't help but undercut to some extent the book's earlier assertion that casual hooking up is nothing to be ashamed of, may even be a wise life decision for a woman on the verge of adulthood.

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Power Dynamics in the May-December Romance: Jenny Trout's CHOOSING YOU

One day over lunch, a work colleague/friend and I were exchanging "first time" stories. I remember feeling so shocked, and not a little confused, after my friend revealed that her first lover had been a man much older than her mid-teenaged self, and a teacher of hers to boot. My friend was so well-adjusted, so normal, with a long-time boyfriend her own age; how could she have experienced such a traumatic sexual coming of age without it having done her irreparable damage?

My assumption that such a disparity of age between two lovers must signal a negative, exploitative experience stemmed from many different sources: my reading of 1970s and 80's young adult problem novels; the fairly recent cultural openness surrounding childhood sexual abuse; feminist discourse surrounding unequal power in male-female relationships, an inequality compounded when relationships of authority (such as student/teacher) also come into play. Never mind American cultural suspicion of teenage sexuality in general.

Yet my friend calmly stated that her relationship with an older male teacher had been an entirely positive one. With his greater sexual experience, he was more confident, and more attentive to her needs, than a teen her own age would have been. Neither one became obsessively attached to the other, and when the relationship ran its course, they parted amicably, still friends.

The memory of this conversation kept popping back into mind as I read Jenny Trout's New Adult novella, Choosing You. Its first-person protagonist, white American twenty-year-old Madison Lane, arrives in summertime Wales, eager not only to begin her class on Arthurian mythology, but also to nurse her crush on its teacher, 38-year-old Welsh professor Thomas Evans. When Thom runs across Madison a few days before class starts and invites her for breakfast, Madison can't but dream a little about what it might be like if her handsome teacher liked her just a little bit, too.

When Thom responds to Madison's verbal sparring by asking "Are you flirting with me?" Madison realizes her relationship with her teacher is on the verge of change. Even knowing how awkward it would be if Thom responds with the "I'm flattered, but..." talk, Madison decides to take a risk: "Yeah. I am. A little bit." (Kindle Loc 266). Thom acknowledges his own attraction, but takes care to point out that Madison is his student. "I don't want you to think I asked you to take this course so that I would have a chance to..." he tells her, a worry that Madison eagerly, and confidently, dispels:

     "I don't think that at all." And I really didn't. "I have a freaking amazing GPA and I'm an English lit major. You apparently loved my final paper, you practically drew hearts in the margins—"
     His embarrassed laugh interrupted me.
     "Trust me. I don't have any suspicion that you were trying to perv on me by inviting me here." Partially because I hadn't wanted to get my hopes up. Which I wasn't proud of; I knew I shouldn't view classroom favoritism as proof of some deep emotional connection. My education was worth more than that. (277)

Flirting leads to exchanging of truths, which leads to kissing, and later, to sex. Their first time together is revealing, not about their own relationship, but about cultural expectations that leave young women ready to accept, even to expect, sexual experiences that are less than satisfying. As Madison tells Thom, she's had intercourse with a few other young men her own age before, but none had focused much on meeting her sexual desires. She never reached orgasm with any of them; none ever even went down on her ("My last boyfriend thought it was unhygienic," she tells an amused Thom [866]). Significantly, her thoughts about her lack of orgasms focus not on her own dissatisfaction, but, as good girls are taught, on how her boyfriends might have felt: "I always felt so bad for the guys when I didn't come. I didn't want to make them feel bad about their skills" (876). Because she's been taught by the movies that "people just had crazy, fulfilling sex without talking about it. In the heat of the moment, they just knew what to do," Madison never communicated with her partners about her own likes or dislikes, never even talked with them about why she wasn't reaching orgasm (significantly, not a problem when she was by herself).

Thom, with far more experience, and a far more mature approach to sex than any of Madison's previous lovers have had, introduces Madison to the pleasures of mutually-gratifying sex. As Thom croons while kissing her, "There comes a time... or there should come a time... in every man's life... when he realizes that what he's seen in magazines and pornography... isn't necessarily required for good sex" (886). Further, he tells her, "Let me know what you like, and what you don't. I want this to be good for you" (895), modeling for Madison the idea that communication between partners is the cornerstone of fulfilling sexual relations.

Guinevere, Lancelot, and a (jealous?) Arthur
While sex between Madison and Thom proves far better than anything she's experienced before, over the course of the summer Madison gradually begins to realize that "besides fucking and talking about mythology, what is there?" Though Thom is no jerk, Madison is quick to reassure her fellow classmate and friend Zoe, "there's just no spark, personality wise, between us.... It's like, are orgasms enough?" (1284). Class debates about the ethics and feminism of Guinevere's love for Lancelot, as well as her own attraction to a hot young man her own age who works at the pub below the room she's rented for the summer, lead Madison to think not just about Thom's needs and desires, but also her own. And to make choices about her life, and her relationships, accordingly.

I can't say that I would be very happy if I discovered my own mid-teen daughter was dating a man far older than herself, especially a man in a position of authority over her in some way. Yet the memory of my friend's experience, as well as Madison's, make me wary of assuming that every such relationship must and will inevitably lead to trauma. If, instead of casting all teenagers in the role of potential victims, we accept that some teenagers are able to make wise, informed decisions about their own sexual lives, we may be able to acknowledge that some May-December romances may be less about abuse of power or the creation of permanent emotional damage than about a positive opportunity to learn and grow.

Choosing You

(originally published as "A Choice Fit for a Queen"
in the anthology If Ever I Would Leave You)

self-published, 2014