Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Questioning Authority: Juliann Rich's CAUGHT IN THE CROSSFIRE

When my family moved from Connecticut to Vermont when I was in the 10th grade, I had to transition not just from living in suburbia. No, it also meant a transition from a large public school with tracked classes to a small private school with only two tracks: Catholic and non-Catholic. Since you had to pay $100 extra if you signed up as a non-Catholic, my thrifty parents checked the "Catholic" box, even though my religious upbringing had hardly been traditional. A bit of Methodism, a bit of Catholicism, a bit of 70's spiritualism, and a whole lot of "screw it all," especially after the doctrinaire nun who taught my 3rd grade CCD class told me that my guinea pig, who had just died, was certainly not going to heaven (only people, not animals, have spirits and a chance at the afterlife). But at Mount St. Joseph Academy, it was a "yes or no" question, with no handy box for filling in further information available.

Checking that "Catholic" box, though, meant more than just a reduction in tuition. It also meant that I had to take Religion class. Most of my schoolmates, having attended Catholic school since kindergarten, tended to either nod in agreement or nod off in boredom while the nun or priest or occasionally the lay person heading Religion class taught his or her lesson. But I often found myself challenging the teacher, pushing at things that my classmates took for granted, or had long ago learned it wasn't worth the questioning. Asking the "why" questions that often excited, and often annoyed, the person at the front of the room led other students to look at me as if I were crazy for bothering, but I took pride in being a questioner, of not accepting the easy answer. 

I've often wondered what I would have been like if, like my Catholic school classmates, I had been brought up differently? If I had been taught from my earliest days that the tenets of Catholicism, and only Catholicism, were of course the right way to live my life and to judge the moral choices of myself and of others? Would I still have questioned those premises? What leads someone to question something that everyone around them takes for granted?

For sixteen-year-old Jonathan Cooper, it's not being thrust into an unfamiliar setting. In fact, he's been attending Spirit Lake Bible Camp for seven years now, drawn by its strong Protestant ethos and the caring of its leaders and counselors. They know how hard it is having a father in the military, away for years at a time, how hard it is being the man of the house. They listen, rather than just preach. And they know asking WWJD? (What would Jesus Do?) is a way to get him thinking about his moral and ethical choice, rather than just shoving them down his throat. Jonathan feels so at peace at Spirit Lake that he's even imagined himself becoming a junior counselor next year.

No, it's not the unfamiliar setting, but Jonathan's own unfamiliar feelings, that set him to questioning. When a new boy with bright red hair and a rainbow-colored wristband challenges the camp blowhard for saying "That's so gay!" to Jonathan's plans to go out for acting rather than for the more obviously masculine Outdoor Rec program, and Jonathan finds himself not just breaking up the fight, but befriending the newcomer. And then finding himself attracted to Ian McGuire. Not just as a friend, but emotionally, and physically, attracted. How can a pious, God-loving boy be experiencing such things?

None of the adults at Spirit Lake condone overt gay-bashing. They preach the gospel of love, not hate. As Jonathan's cabin counselor tells his campers during a discussion of temptation:

That's why we need to love people who are in bondage to sin and especially to this lifestyle. We are not to bully then or h ate them. Rather, we are to shine God's love into their lives and pray for them. You've heard the phrase Hate the sin and love the sinner, right? That goes double for homosexuals.

But most are equally certain that homosexuality is wrong, a sin, an abomination. When the camp leader, Paul, begins to suspect Jonathan and Ian's feelings for one another, he tells him he fears Jonathan is "under some kind of satanic attack right now, and you are being tempted by the flesh to deviate from your true identity in Christ" (Loc 1768).

Not all the adults think this way, though. Two of the camp's adults—significantly, both outsiders in different ways—offer Jonathan other ways of thinking about his identity, about his attractions and his feelings. And about what his religion has to say about same-sex desire.

Is it possible for an Evangelical Christian to also be gay? In literature and in popular culture, Evangelical Christianity is often painted as monolithic, black and white, intolerant of difference. Juliann Rich, a woman who grew up in an Evangelical household, both acknowledges and refutes this characterization, offering hope through her characterization of Jonathan, Ian, and Jonathan's more unconventional Christian adult mentors to devout young men who find themselves not fitting the heterosexual mold yet not wanting to sacrifice their religion for the sake of their sexuality.

Photo credits:
Rainbow wristband: Rainbow Depot

Bold Strokes Books, 2014

Friday, March 27, 2015

Duke's UNSUITABLE #5: Jessica Scott on the Alpha Masculinities

Sorry for not posting on Tuesday; I've been traveling the northeast this week, touring potential colleges for my young one. Not so much fun when both the teen and the dad are struggling with head colds...

I did slip in a quick guest post over at the KickAss Chicks blog, though, which you can find here:

And today, in my stead, I offer a guest post from Jessica Lee, a student in Duke instructors and romance authors Laura Florand and Katherine Ashe’s “The Romance Novel” (HST 248S.01) class. Jessica tells us all about contemporary military romance author Jessica Scott's talk about Alpha Masculinities, the Duke: Unsuitable presentation #5, which took place on March 16th.

Romance novels have been around since the 18th century, but Duke University’s “The Romance Novel” course is currently only in its first semester of existence. Taught by two published romance novelists, the course allows us students to participate in a series of talks by prominent women in the romance industry. Our most recent guest was Jessica Scott, career army officer, mother, and Duke ROTC instructor, as well as the author of many contemporary military romance novels, including her latest, All For You. The topic of the day? Alpha masculinities, with an emphasis on the longstanding military hero archetype and on the “Rise of the Alpha-hole.”

Scott questioned why the alpha-hole—the alpha hero who is also an asshole—is suddenly a “thing” in romance. After all, the alpha-hole is not attractive, not someone with whom the reader wants to go on a journey, not a hero in any shape or form, and in real life is probably not going to make a romantic connection. Are romance authors simply reflecting cultural values through their characters?

Well, according to Scott, she’s surrounded all day at work by alpha men who are good men, in control of their lives, and not misogynistic. That doesn’t sound like she’s working with a bunch of alpha-holes. So if romance authors are writing alpha-holes as a reflection of society, then it’s not the men in Scott’s workplace—the military—they’re writing about.

Scott discussed how in romance, “alpha” is shorthand for “protector” in a lot of ways, in particular the protector of the heroine in romance. Who are these alpha protectors, usually? Cops. Soldiers. Firefighters. Navy SEALs. These guys are manly men. But part of the problem with masculinity is that when the average man looks at this sort of archetype, he usually isn’t a cop, soldier, firefighter, or Navy SEAL, and therein lies the subtle message that because he isn’t a badass like these folks, he isn’t manly enough. I suppose it wouldn’t be hard for a guy trying to be alpha badass to try too hard and end up crossing the line into alpha asshole. So maybe that’s the society romance authors are depicting through their alpha-hole heroes?

“Military,” like “alpha,” is also shorthand for “protector,” but also for “badass” and “selfless.” It’s this heroic combination of traits that makes the military man popular as a romantic hero: he will sacrifice himself for the heroine, for his comrades, for his country. We as readers are drawn by the military man’s powerful narrative of not being broken by his experiences, but instead overcoming his ordeals and coming out on the other side. All in all, “alpha” and “military” are an author’s shorthand for creating characters, his or her way of communicating to readers that the hero is a badass, selfless protector who is willing to sacrifice his life for something he values above himself.

However, Scott cautioned readers to not do as American society at large is prone to do, which is place soldiers on a pedestal and hold them to an ideal. This prevents readers from engaging with the humanity of the individual, and pretty much the most important thing for an author to accomplish in a novel is to make the characters feel real to the reader.

For Scott, it is very important in a romance novel for the hero and heroine to look each other in the eye, not for one to look down at the other. In All For You, the hero Reza and the heroine Emily don’t try to bring the other down but try, and succeed, to make each other better. Reza helps Emily build her sense of self-confidence and empowerment, and Emily broadens Reza’s moral circle. They give to and take from each other equally, so they are both equals in their relationship.

We see alpha heroes a lot in romance—in practically every romance novel, one could say. And alpha heroes tend to share a lot of the same characteristics: dominance, control of their situations, confidence, and of course protectiveness. Part of the reason that we don’t have a lot of male role models in romance besides the alpha hero is that we don’t have a lot of different types of male role models, period. Scott discussed how in antiquity, people used to derive different male archetypes from the gods of the Greek pantheon: Ares the warrior (Scott’s own Reza), Apollo the thinker, Zeus the leader, and so on. Today, we’ve narrowed that rich diversity of male archetypes into simply the alpha hero.

But not all alpha heroes are the same, and not all alpha heroes have the same type of relationship with their respective heroines. It’s how the author writes the male lead, the female lead, and their relationship that determines if their story is that of an alpha-hole and a submissive damsel, or if their story is that of an actual hero who is secure enough in his masculinity that he is undaunted by, and cherishes and respects, a strong and admirable heroine.

Jessica Lee is a sophomore and a Classical Studies major at Duke University. Besides writing mythology-inspired fantasy manuscripts, she also enjoys baking, playing capoeira, acting out Shakespeare, watching BBC TV shows, and devouring books for breakfast.

Friday, March 20, 2015

The Fuzzy Set of Romance

In his 1992 book Strategies of Fantasy, Brian Attebery proposes applying the mathematical concept of the "fuzzy set" to the question of what is, and what isn't, a work of fantasy. I've been playing around with the idea of trying this out with romance, but I'd need your help, along with the help of other romance readers.

First, though, a bit of explanation:

In classical set theory (as in many discussions of literary canons), any single element is either in a set, or it is not. Given the set {tall people}, a member is either tall, or not tall:

In terms of fiction, classical set theory might look something like this:

For Fantasy, if {Fantasy = books in which the magic is real}, then
• Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings is fantasy
• Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland isn't (because the magic turns out to be only a dream)

In fuzzy set theory, however, a set is not created based on binary boundaries (this is in, this is out), but instead on each member's relationship to a central point. Rather than saying a person is tall, or is not tall, you can talk about degrees of tallness:

In terms of fantasy, Attebery's use of fuzzy set theory looked like this:

Quintessentially fantasy
For fantasy, if Tolkein's Lord of the Rings is our central point, then Ursula LeGuin's Earthsea trilogy would be fairly close to the center of the set, while Alice's Adventures in Wonderland might be further. But both Earthsea and Alice are a part of the set "fantasy."

How does one decide what should be the center point of a literary canon fuzzy set? Attebery put together a list of 40 books that he himself thought belonged to the set "fantasy," then polled fellow scholars of fantasy, asking them to rank each book on a 7-point scale:

Fuzzy set fantasy
1 = quintessentially fantasy
2 = basically fantasy
3 = technically fantasy
4 = in some respects fantasy
5 = like fantasy
6 = not really fantasy
7 = by no means fantasy (page 13)

The lower any book's score, Attebery argued, the more central the text. Thus Tolkein, who came in with the lowest score at 1.07, ended up serving as the center of Attebery's fuzzy set for fantasy. Dracula, which scored 1.76, is less of a fantasy than Alice, which scored 1.42; Earthsea, which scored 1.3, is more of a fantasy than either Alice or Dracula.

A cool thing about fuzzy set theory: two members of the same set may have nothing at all in common with one another, as long as they have something in common with the center point of the set. In visual terms, a fuzzy set might look something like this:

I've been wondering about the value of taking a fuzzy set approach to thinking about the romance canon, especially in light of RWA's ever-changing categories of which sub-genres are deserving of awards/recognition, and which aren't. Fuzzy set canon-building appeals to me in particular because it is a reader-based approach, rather than an authority-based one: to discover the center of your genre, you first need to poll actual readers, and get their feedback about what books then regard as central to the romance canon.

In classic set theory (using RWA-defined terms), the rules of canon-building would look something like this:

For romance, if {Romance = central love story with a happy ending}, then
• Jennifer Crusie's Bet Me is romance
• Margaret Mitchell's Gone with the Wind isn't (no happy ending)

• Cecilia Grant's A Lady Awakened is a romance
• much YA literature is not romance (because YA focuses as much, or more, on individual coming of age than on a central love story)

But in fuzzy set theory (using reader-defined "I know it when I see it" terms), both Gone with the Wind and YA novels with romantic elements could be included in the category "romance." Canon-building might look very different, depending on the group of readers one polled, and the views expressed by that group.

Attebery generated his own list of fantasies that he considered central. I'd like to take a step further back before constructing a romance fuzzy set, and ask readers to help me construct a list of "quintessentially romance" books, a list that I could then use to poll a broader range of romance readers.

This is where you come in, readers. What are the 3-5 books that you would consider "quintessentially romances"? And what are the 3-5 books you'd consider "quintessentially feminist romances"?

I'll compile two lists of responses, then use those lists for further polling.

Looking forward to hearing your thoughts!

Illustration credits:
• Tall/short graphs: Calvin.edu
• Fuzzy set graph: Information Research

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Duke's UNSUITABLE lecture series #4: Courtney Milan on Self-Publishing

RNFF readers will remember my post last fall about speaking at the inaugural meeting of Duke University’s  “Unsuitable” events series, talks by professionals in the romance field that engage students and members of the Durham community in a discussion of women’s interests and popular fiction. As I live so far from North Carolina, I’ve not been able to attend any of the subsequent talks in the series, but I’m pleased to report that students from Duke instructors and romance authors Laura Florand and Katherine Ashe’s “The Romance Novel” (HST 248S.01) class have offered to give RNFF readers a sneak peak by reporting about “Unsuitable” events and speakers.

Please join me in welcoming guest blogger Katherine Berko, who will talk about attending UNSUITABLE #4 on March 2nd, a talk by romance author and self-publisher Courtney Milan.

“UNSUITABLE Event Number Four: Publishing Without a Publisher” was about to commence at Duke University, and New York Times-bestselling historical romance novelist Courtney Milan sat in a midnight blue dress, a few scraps of scribbled notes in front of her, ready to enlighten both undergraduate students and Durham locals about her journey to becoming a self-published author.  Little did audience members know that Milan was about to give them a combination math lesson, autobiographical story, and business speech, cracking jokes all the while.  Yet what less could be expected of a woman who studied chemistry and math as an undergrad while simultaneously running a data collection for HTML, went to law school, served as a clerk for Supreme Court Justice O’Connor, taught as a professor of law, and who now had done a full 360, choosing to write romance novels in the heart of the Rocky Mountains?  How did she manage to do all of that?  Well, as Milan unashamedly admitted, “I’m really smart.  I’m a girl so I’m not supposed to say that,” she chuckled, “but I’m actually really smart.”

Milan began her talk by explaining how the ability to publish a book digitally has revolutionized the self-publishing world.  No longer are a minute percentage of people self-published; with the popularity of digital books, it is increasingly easy for writers to self-publish their work.  Milan elaborated on the pros of being self-published: the first pro she shared was that there is a direct-financial benefit to digital sales.  With a publisher, an author gets around 17.5% of the purchase price in revenue. But when self-publishing, an author receives about 70% of the purchase price.  Another benefit to self-publishing is the increased author control over publication timing. Milan explained that books get published much quicker sans publisher because there are no committees to run them through. Publishers also often do not share important data with their authors, such as where books are selling, where they aren’t selling, etc.  This brought Milan to her next point: the publisher’s goal. 

The goal of a publisher is to maximize income, not necessarily for the author but instead for the company.  Milan confided, a twinkle in her eyes: “Hypothetically, you can sell more copies than your publisher.”  Then she shared numbers for a recent novel of hers, which happened to be both self-published as well as published through a publisher.  From July through September of 2014, Milan’s publisher sold 1,845 copies of her book.  Meanwhile, in the same time frame, Milan managed to sell 10,363 copies!  Let’s not forget the catch: Milan only gets 17.5% of that $1,845 that her publisher sold!  How could anyone make a living on that?  Luckily, Milan’s savvy brain also snatches 70% of that $10,363 she managed to sell.  Of course, it’s not this way for every self-published novelist out there.  As Milan admitted, “No matter how you publish, it’s not easy.”

Milan explained of the hundreds of thousands of brand-new books published every year, 50% of them do not sell a single copy.  Daunting?  Of course!  However, this should not frighten writers from the realm of self-publishing, as many of the authors of the aforementioned digital books write poorly Some of those non-selling books are good, though, and yet they still do not sell.  Why not?  Milan explained, “If you want to make a living as a writer, you must think of yourself as a small business and think of your work as an art.”  A big reason why many self-published authors don’t sell is because “something about their business sucks.”  Milan instructs listeners that all businesses require capital when they first start out, and becoming a writer is no exception to this rule.  Then Milan reminded her audience that yes, while writing requires capital at the start, a writer does not have to be best-selling to earn that investment, and then some, back.  50 Shades of Gray has sold a fuck-load of copies,” Milan said, eyes bulging.  “That means 1.4% of the world population bought a copy!” However, Milan then went on to reassure people that they need not sell their book to 1.4 % of the world in order to be successes. To make a living, one only needs 0.0001% of the world’s population to purchase one’s books: not so bad after all, right?  

Why did Milan ultimately crossover from being with a publisher to self-publishing?  She was a success with HQN, one of the best publishers, and quit!  Everybody was shocked by what she did. But Milan had already published four books with HQN, so she had avid followers, which are the key to success.  Milan quit because she’d made very little money from her traditionally-published books, and her publishers pissed her off.  They tried to remove all the elements in her story that somebody could object to. For example, they asked her to remove a gay character from one of her novels.  Milan objected: “These elements are often what we get most excited about.”  She also emphasized that while most publishers are this way, there are still some good ones.  Another reason Milan left was it’s easier to take creative risks without a publisher, be that risk a character in the story or a cover.  Romance novelists often despise their covers, which are selected by their publisher and who can blame these novelists?  Who would want an image of a rapist advertising their book?  A novel’s cover is its marketing device.

Milan told people to understand that: “Super successful self-published books would generally be successful if published by publishers.”  Essentially, Milan explained that a writer should choose whether to self-publish or go with a publisher based on his/her temperament.  Ask yourself: are you a person more stressed by responsibilities or by not being in control?  If the answer to the question is the latter (which happens to be Milan’s answer), then self-publishing is for you.  “The amount of non-writing stuff you have to do is huge,” Milan explained.  This  “stuff” includes finding somebody to design your cover, somebody to edit your book, and many other tasks.  Milan’s biggest hurdle as a self-publisher is finding good people to work with who will not quit.  She pays her workers a lot of money because she is “hard to work with.”

As a closing piece of advice for aspiring authors, Milan said the best person to receive guidance from is somebody who succeeded in marketing their book last year as a new author.  This is because the book market is extremely volatile.  And to make writers feel better about themselves Milan reminded, “The world sucks right now for both types of publishers.”  This is because everything is constantly changing.  However, on the bright side for novelists, “Authors, in general, are being treated better because of self-publishing,” Milan happily told her listeners. So go forth, remember to view your writing as both a business and an art, and look to your temperament to decide what publishing is best for you.

Katherine Berko is a New York City native attending Duke University. She loves to write and hopes to one day publish her own books. Aside from writing, Katherine also enjoys singing opera, as she graduated from LaGuardia High School of the Arts. She travels as much as she can, from the ruins of Machu Picchu to the pagodas of Myanmar.

Friday, March 13, 2015

Guest Blogging on Lady Smut

Madeline Iva over at the Lady Smut blog asked if I would answer a few questions as a guest blogger. Madeline had so many fascinating questions, I ended up writing enough to fill two guest blogs. You can find them here and here.

Hope you'll check them out. I'm also looking forward to checking out the new Lady Smut anthology, The Lady Smut Book of Dark Desires:

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Recovering from Rape: Elle Kennedy's THE DEAL

It feels a little weird to cheer a romance with a protagonist who was raped as a teen. Rape surely isn't anything to cheer about. But a romance with a heroine who has been, and is still, refusing to buy into the victim-blaming discourses that so often surround those who have suffered sexual trauma, a heroine who has been taking active steps to claim her own sexual pleasure despite her past assault, seems rare enough to be worth a hurrah or two.

It's not hard to understand why college junior Hannah Wells is not a big partier; at 15, she was raped at a party, and when she tried to prosecute her attacker, she and her family became pariahs in their small town. Hannah's had lots of therapy, and has even had a few boyfriends, since her assault, but she's never been able to reach orgasm during sex with a partner. Justin Kohl, sexy new transfer student, has her heart pounding, though, even though he's a jock, not arty Hannah's usual type. Might he be the one to help her get over her sexual difficulty?

When he signed up for Philosophical Ethics, hockey team captain Garrett Graham thought the course would be a breeze. But this semester, a new, far tougher instructor is teaching it, and after a disastrous midterm, Garrett (and most of the rest of the class) is in danger of failing. Brash, aggressive Garrett will NOT allow that to happen—if he can't get his GPA up, he'll be suspended from the team. And hockey, and his teammates, are the most important thing in his life.

Hearing that fellow classmate Hannah has aced the midterm, Garrett decides that Hannah must and will be his tutor. But unlike most of the girls who fawn over this BMOC, Hannah won't give him the time of day.

Garrett isn't one to take no for an answer, though, and tries several different angles to convince Hannah that it's in her best interests to accept the job he's offering. But Hannah remains firm—why would she ever want to spend her time tutoring a dumb, foul-mouthed, cocky jock? Especially when she has her duet in the Winter Showcase to prepare for. The Showcase isn't just a performance; it's a competition, with the winner granted a major scholarship. With all the money her family had to spend on lawyers during the rape prosecution and trial, Hannah wants more than anything to win the scholarship and relieve some of her parents' financial burdens.

When Hannah's roommate, aware of her crush on Justin, drags her at a party, and Garrett sees how she's drooling over Justin, he comes up with the perfect deal: she'll tutor him for a week and a half, preparing him for the Philosophical Ethics midterm re-do. After the test, Garrett will go out on a very public date with her, thereby raising her social profile up to a level that will attract the status-conscious Justin. Much to Garrett's surprise, and to her own, Hannah takes Garrett up on his challenge.

As Garrett and Hannah spend time together prepping Garrett for his test, their sarcastic dissing of each other gradually leads to something unexpected: friendship. And for Garrett, who is happy to sleep with almost any girl, but has no desire to take on the time-sink of a girlfriend, something even more unexpected happens: not only is he attracted to arty singer Hannah, but he actually might want to spend time with her outside of bed.

It was great to read a romance with a female character who had experienced sexual abuse, but who had already engaged in extensive therapy and who was not allowing shame, guilt, or victim-blaming discourses to undermine her hard work in learning to deal with the aftermath of her trauma. Hannah has learned to be comfortable with her body, can bring herself to climax through masturbation, and knows that she'd like to experience orgasm with another person, if she can only find the person who turns her on enough. That she learns that it's not only her own attraction to a potential partner, but also the attentiveness of that partner to her needs, that allows her to achieve her sexual goals, is a lesson that not only those who have experienced sexual trauma benefit from learning, but that every girl and woman beginning to explore her own sexuality needs to discover.

And it was also great to watch the brash, vulgar Garrett starting to recognize the sexist language and behavior that he and his fellow jocks take for granted in their dealings with the opposite sex. When Garrett's housemate and fellow teammate Logan says about Hannah, "She's hot... You tapping that?" Garrett can't help feeling uncomfortable:

I'm not sure why I'm suddenly on edge. I'm not into Hannah in that way, but the idea of her and Logan hooking up makes me uneasy. Maybe because I know what a slut Logan can be. I can't even count the number of times I've seen a chick do a walk of shame out of his bedroom. (Kindle Loc 1295)

After Hannah reveals her trauma and asks Garrett to help her overcome her sexual problem (thinking it might be easier to focus on her own pleasure, rather than worrying about disappointing her partner by not reaching orgasm, if she's with someone whom she doesn't love), Garrett agrees. But Hannah and Garrett don't jump immediately into fabulous, problem-free sex; despite Garrett's cocky reputation, there's no magic penises here. Garrett actually takes the time to do some research about victims of rape, and refuses to rush straight to intercourse. The two work on establishing mutual trust, and joint experimentation, to find what Hannah responds to sexually, and what triggers can short-circuit her sexual pleasure.

The last quarter of the book, when Hannah and Garrett's friendship-with-benefits is threatened by Hannah's earlier agreement to go out with Justin and by the meddling of Garrett's verbally and physically abusive father, takes a decided turn toward the melodramatic. Rather at odds with the realistic feel of most of the earlier story, and certainly not my usual cup of tea. Yet I was willing to live with the soap-opera-y shift for the rewards of the book's earlier unusual, progressive depiction of a young woman who had been raped, but who, through therapy, self-development, and the cultivation of caring friendships, works to craft an identity that is far more than just "victim."

Photo credits:
Girl with Guitar: Love this pic
Shame Blame: Pinterest Mirah Bradford

The Deal
(Off-Campus Book 1)

Friday, March 6, 2015

Judging Our Romance Characters

Earlier this week, the All About Romance blog ran its first "Winsome or Loathsome" column. This new feature will "look at well-known heroines and asked the pointed question—Winsome or Loathsome?" Each column will open with an AAR reviewer giving a brief description of the heroine in question, and the book in which she appears, then the reasons why she has not been "universally loved" by romance readers. Several AAR reviewers will then weigh in with their own judgments; AAR readers will be invited to discuss and debate in response to each post.

Why do romance readers so often judge the likability of romance characters? It's a tendency that's always interested me, because it's not one that literary critics are not trained, or encouraged, to pursue. Maria Konnikova's 2013 Atlantic article, "Do Readers Judge Female Characters More Harshly Than Male Characters," shows how the entire question of wanting your literary characters to behave well is rather ridiculous to the literary cognocenti:

Should we be looking to fiction for friendship material to begin with? Imagine for a moment that someone wrote an impassioned critique of Crime and Punishment on the basis of Raskolnikov's unworthiness, or denounced Macbeth because Lady Macbeth would likely turn out to be one of those frenemies who invites you for a sleepover and takes the opportunity to poison you and ruin your reputation on the chance you survive, or railed at The Inferno because, out of all its major players, hardly a one would pass muster as friendship material. You'd dismiss any of these arguments from the get-go. Judge literature on the merits of its characters-as-my-best-friend material and you lop off the vast majority of the literary canon—and much of modern fiction along with it.... Such a reading misses the point entirely.

But for readers of romance, unlike readers of literary fiction, judging its characters has always seemed part and parcel of the reading process. Why?

AAR already has a successful column, "Dreamboat or Douchebag," devoted to a similar evaluation of male romance novel protagonists, so clearly this is not simply a gendered thing, this judging. Although I'm guessing there have been, in the original column, and will be in the new one, interesting gendered aspects to reviewers' and readers' conclusions. What actions do readers find reprehensible in a heroine? In a hero? Are they similar, or quite different?

I'll be interested to read  future AAR columns, to analyze the gender politics behind the judgments readers make. But today, though, I'm more interested in the larger issue of judging itself. Why do romance readers feel (I'm not sure of the right word to use here)—compelled to? entitled to? deep pleasure in?—making moral, ethical judgments of the characters in our romances? 

Is it because romance readers believe/wish/desire on some level that the characters in the books they read be their friends? And being friends with a protagonist who does something bad makes the reader feel bad/guilty by association?

Is it because their main way of responding to romance protagonists is by identifying with them, and if a character behaves in an unacceptable way, it's like throwing a monkey wrench into the identification process?

Is it because romance, unlike most other genres, focuses so much on emotions, especially on the impact one character's actions can have on another character's feelings? Bad behavior leads to hurt feelings—by condemning a hero or heroine's actions, are readers trying to protect one another from feeling hurt?

Is it because romance heroes and heroines are supposed to be larger, and thus less fallible, than people in real life? So if they aren't, we feel the need to point out their unsuitableness for the role of hero or heroine?

Is it because romance readers are so-often judged (negatively, in large part) for their reading, so they extend this judgmental stance to what they themselves are reading?

I'm also wondering about the line between judging and being judgmental. Is there a meaningful difference? Between making an ethical judgment and conservatively policing the behavior of others?

When you read romances, do you find yourself judging their characters? Why or why not? And to what end?

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

The Mysteries of Grown-Up Romance: Julia Spencer-Fleming's Clare Ferguson/Russ Van Alstyne Mysteries

In between reading romances, I've been gradually making my way through Julia Spencer-Fleming's Clare Ferguson and Russ Van Alstyne's mystery series. Like many paranormal romance series, Spencer-Fleming's focuses primarily on plot, not on romance, with the relationship between its two main characters developing slowly over the course of the series' arc. I enjoy a good murder mystery, and the setting of Spencer-Fleming's series, a New York state small town just a few miles over Vermont border, very close to where I spent my adolescence, is certainly a personal draw. But what keeps me coming back to Spencer-Fleming's books are her two decidedly adult protagonists, 35-year-old Clare Ferguson, a former army helicopter pilot turned Episcopal priest, and 50-year-old Russ Van Alystyne, Vietnam vet and current Chief of Police in the small town of Millers Kill.

The series opens with In The Bleak Midwinter, with Clare's arrival in Millers Kill, fresh from divinity school and eager to take on her new parish duties. Clare's southern upbringing means she knows what's expected of a lady, but she's never been one for conforming to convention, whether it's her call to join the military or her call to the ministry. Not surprisingly, then, the parishioners of Millers Kill's episcopal church are more than taken aback by their new priest. Not just because she's a woman, or because she drives a sports car, or because she has framed aviation sectional maps hanging in her church office, but because she wants to extend the reach of the ministry, to serve not just the well-heeled, church-attending faithful, but those who aren't typically thought of as "deserving"—unwed mothers, teens far too likely to get in trouble in a dull small town, and the like. Since her parish's historic church is in need of a new, expensive roof, a renovation that required a major capital campaign, pissing off the congregants isn't the wisest way to go. Yet Clare's sense of pastoral duty, as well as her own driving curiosity, leads her to become involved in the town's crimes, situations that often bring less than glowing publicity to the church.

Clare meets Russ van Alsytne when a baby is abandoned on the steps of her church. After pulling himself out of a downward post-service alcoholic spiral with the help of his wife, Russ was more than a bit surprised to find himself being offered a job as Chief of Police of the small Adirondack town where he grew up. And surprised to find himself accepting it. A handful of years later, he and his wife have made a comfortable life for themselves in Millers Kill, even if Russ spends far more time at work than he does at home. Russ has a few friends in the town, but his fellow officers, as well as the police dispatcher, Harlene, are his true family.

Russ and Clare served in the military at far different times—Russ in Vietnam, Clare during Desert Storm—yet their military experiences give them far more common ground than Russ shares with his wife. And they both share a deep commitment to serving, and helping, the people of their town. Russ is initially annoyed by Clare's more intuitive, at times impulsive, approach to solving problems, but the combination of their similarities and their differences are what make them work so well together as an informal team. As each pursues the baby's missing mother, on their own and sometimes together, Clare and Russ develop an unexpectedly strong friendship. And by the end of In The Bleak Midwinter, each is beginning to realize that the other has the potential to mean far more to him/her than anyone ever has before.

Yet Russ is married, happily married, to a woman whom he loves, even if he doesn't feel as emotionally close to her as he is coming to feel to Clare. As the novels are told through multiple viewpoints, primarily those of Clare and Russ, we are privy to their thoughts about each other; even though the two do not openly acknowledge their feelings until the third book in the series, readers know how much each is coming to respect, trust, and care for the other.

Both Russ and Clare are leaders, with power and authority in their own quite different professional spheres. And both are deeply honorable people, unwilling to let their own needs harm others. Russ is committed to his wife; Clare is committed to her church. Because they are both so deeply involved in the lives of others in Millers Kill, their paths often cross; staying away from each other doesn't seem to be an option. So they choose to remain friends, committed to continuing to work together when they can, determined to keep their attraction for one another from crossing any inappropriate lines, a decision appropriate to responsible grown-ups. At 35 and 50, Clare and Russ are not impulsive young lovers.

Yet Clare and Russ's sheer liking for one another can't help but be noticed by others, and by book four, To Darkness and to Death, gossip about their relationship has begun to spread throughout the town. Both Clare and Russ are starting to believe that they might need some help from others to negotiate the tricky shoals of small-town rumor and their own painful feelings. When Clare asks him if he'd be troubled if she sought guidance from someone in the church hierarchy, Russ's answer demonstrates his deep respect for her: "Don't make yourself anything lesser for me."

With the gossip rampant, Russ's own honesty won't allow him to keep his feelings for Clare a secret any longer from his wife, either. And thus book five, All Mortal Flesh, opens with Russ having been kicked out of the house by a frustrated, embarrassed, angry Linda Van Alstyne, a perfect set-up for a tense "get the wife out of the way" mystery plot.

Though she's encountered several murderers during her time in Millers Kill, Clare does not for a moment entertain the thought that Russ could have killed his wife. But she's not willing to sacrifice herself, or her sense of what is right, for him, either:

    "What if I did it?" He sounded distant, as if he were talking about someone else.
     "You couldn't have."
     "What if I did?"
     "Clare, if there's one thing I've learned in twenty-five years of law enforcement, it's that anyone is capable of anything if pushed hard enough. What if I did it and I'm just racing around trying to cover my ass at this point?"
     "Why are you asking me this?"
     He rocked forward in the chair suddenly, snapping it on its springs and leaning into her space. "I want to know what you wouldn't do for me."
     She stared into his eyes, crackle-glazed blue. They hadn't been this close since... she cut off that thought. For whatever reason, this was a deadly serious question for Russ. Not what would she do for him, but what wouldn't she do?
     "I wouldn't deny God for you," she said slowly. "I wouldn't betray my country for you. I wouldn't break a parishioner's trust for you." Without conscious intent, her hand started to curl over his. She yanked it back into her lap. "I wouldn't let you get away with it if I found out you were doing something wrong."

     "I am doing something wrong. I'm evading questioning by a New York State Police Investigator."
     She made a face. "That's rule-breaking. I mean wrong. Sinful. Wounding others. Wounding your own soul." (148-49)

To Russ, is it vital to know not that Clare will stand with him, but rather that Clare won't compromise who she is on his behalf. And forthright Clare has no qualms about telling the man she loves that she will never deny the essence of herself for him.

I was able to guess the true killer of book five fairly early on, even as I admired the skill with which the author scattered her clues. Yet I was still drawn in by the tension of the mystery, drawn in by Russ and Clare's own not knowing, and gradual discovering, of who killed the woman found in Russ's house. A woman who, it turns out, may not be Linda Van Alstyne at all...

Even if her murder plot is not impossible to figure out, Spencer-Fleming still has a few surprises for readers of All Mortal Flesh, surprises that leave Clare and Russ by novel's end as far apart as they've ever been. Can't wait to pick up book #6, to see if, and how, Spencer-Fleming can bring these two deeply honorable, intelligent, and loving people back together.

Are there other romantic couples in the mystery genre that have what you think of as a relationship compatible with feminist ideals?