Friday, May 29, 2015

African-American Historical Romance and the Imperative to Protect

"It's mighty hard when you can't protect your woman."

One of the major themes running through all the different genres of romance fiction is that of protection. In particular, the naturalness, nay, even the inevitableness, of heterosexual males' need to protect the women they come to love romantically. Just this month, I've come across the theme in one form or another while reading science fiction/fantasy romance (in the first story in Robin D. Owens' Hearts and Swords collection), comic literary romance (Grahame Simsion's The Rosie Effect), category romance (Maisey Yates' Married for Amaris's Heir), and urban fantasy romance (Kit Rocha's Beyond Innocence). If I'd read more historical romance this month, no doubt I would have found the theme there, as well. I'm sure it wouldn't be difficult for you to add to this list from your own recent romance novel reading.

Whether the story offers the promise that a hero physically or psychologically protects the woman he loves, or, more often these days, demonstrates to the hero that his need to protect his woman is getting in the way of said woman's self-actualization and must be restrained, if not given over entirely, in romance, the hero's desire to to protect his mate is rarely called into question. More importantly, neither is his ability to do so.

Perhaps that's why the line above, used as this post's epigraph, made such a striking impression on me. It's from Piper Huguley's African-American inspirational historical romance A Virtuous Ruby, the first volume in her "Migrations of the Heart" series. I'm not usually drawn to Christian romance, given its tendency to embrace traditional patriarchal (i.e., anti-feminist) values, but there is so little historical romance with African American characters currently being published that I decided to give Hugeley's series a try. And I'm glad I did, not only because Hugeley's story features characters and histories rarely seen in popular romance, but also because it got me thinking about whether there is an inherent opposition between genre romance's protection imperative and the realities of African-American history. Or at least the pieces of African-American history that are most often taught in white classrooms.

Set in a small Georgia town in 1915, A Virtuous Ruby tells of the romance between two light-skinned African-Americans, one a doctor trained in the north, the other the oldest daughter of a local farmer and a laundress, a young woman whose outspokenness on behalf of factory workers' rights and against lynching met with white retaliation in the form of rape, impregnation, and the scandal of bearing a bastard child. Right from the very start of the novel, then, we are given a female protagonist who has not been protected—not by her father, not by her family or community, and especially not by her white male best friend, who, in a vicious inversion of the typical romance trope, is the one who is chosen to commit the violent attack upon Ruby Bledsoe's person.

Does the arrival of doctor Adam Morson in town signal a change for Ruby? Does Ruby just need the love of a good man, a man committed to her protection, to guarantee she will be free from future harm?

Amos 'n Andy's Sapphire
Stevens, whose character first linked
the name "Sapphire" with the African
American woman as domineering shrew
If the characters in this novel were white, the answer would more likely than not be "yes." But though Ruby and Adam are as light-skinned as any of the officially white citizens of the small Georgia town in which they live, they are not white; they are black. If an African-American young woman in 1912 does not conform to the one "positive" stereotype held by the majority of white Americans—that of the nurturing "Mammy"—then she must fall into one of the two negative stereotypes—the sexually promiscuous Jezebel, or the angry, in-your-face Sapphire. Or, even more upsettingly, embody a terrifying combination of them both (See Patricia Hill Collins, Black Feminist Thought, and Carolyn M. West, "Mammy, Jezebel, Sapphire and Their Homegirls" for more on these stereotypes).

A racist license plate deploys the Jezebel stereotype
to denigrate black Democrats
The white anxiety that the stereotypes of Jezebel and Sapphire simultaneously create and evoke leads not to a desire to protect another, but to lash out in fear, to protect one's white self against a black threat. Such racist anxieties, combined with the historical reality that enslaved black women were often overworked, beaten, and raped, make it more than a little difficult to deploy the romance theme of male protectiveness in historical romance featuring characters of African descent.

The word "protect," or one of its other forms ("protection," "protected," "protectiveness") appears 43 times in the NetGalley version of Huguley's book. Black characters protect themselves from the elements ("The wide brim would protect her too pale skin from the June heat" [43]); they express a desire to protect family members ("you know we want to protect our little man," says Ruby's younger sister, referring to Ruby's baby [664]); they bemoan the ineffectiveness of others' protective efforts ( "the solid nature of the wood that John Bledsoe used to protect his family struck him. What a good man he was, and still, despite his protections of building this big porch for his daughters, they were still terribly vulnerable" [1030]; they grieve their own inabilities to protect ("It was four or five of them. They all beat me down and had their way with me. I tried to fight them off, but I couldn't. I just couldn't.... "And they knock me out so I couldn't protect her." [1624]). Whites use the word as a form of threat: "I'll do what I have to do to make sure he's protected" [1882].

As this is a Christian romance, ultimately the characters must give themselves over to God's protection: "God will protect me. He will keep me," Ruby tells herself when she fears her former friend is about to attack her again [33-8]. Yet even God can't keep Ruby safe in her small Georgia town. Nor, significantly in romance terms, can Adam. Though Ruby pictures running "straight into the protective arms of Adam" as she flees from her potential attacker, ultimately Ruby and Adam must promise to move out of their town completely, and migrate to the north, in order to ensure their own safety.

Towards the end of the book, Adam can not only not protect Ruby, he cannot protect himself: he is shanghaied onto a chain gang by a malevolent (white) sheriff. While working on the gang, he hears the words used as the epigraph above, spoken by a fellow prisoner:

     "It's might hard when you can't protect your woman," James said.
     Many of the men around the table nodded, agreeing. "Don't nobody blame you." (3047)

I wonder, though, if that "nobody" includes the average romance novel reader? Do expectations raised by romance as a genre, expectations that male heroes must and will always protect their women, make it difficult for some romance readers to embrace stories where such protection proves problematic? Might the woeful lack of African-American historical fiction be due in some small part to this opposition between, on one side, romance's protective imperative, and on the other, the painful historical realities of the African American experience, and the stereotypes whites have developed to protect themselves against acknowledging it?

Photo credits:
Sapphire Stevens and LBJ license plate: Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia
Psalm 91:4: Spiritual Inspiration Tumblr

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Falling for a Younger Man: Rebecca Brooks' ABOVE ALL

It was stupid, of course, to go skinny-dipping at dawn in the Adirondacks when spring had barely come to the mountains. It was only the Friday morning kicking off Memorial Day weekend, the first day that Paper Lake Campground re-opened after the quiet winter months. But it thrilled her, as it would every morning until the fall. She stretched out the short swimming season as long as she possibly could. (Kindle Loc 40)

It was hard not to be charmed by the coincidence as I sat down to read Rebecca Brooks' contemporary romance, Above All, on the Friday of Memorial Day weekend, the same day that the book itself opens. If I were of a superstitious turn, I might even have taken it as a sign that this book was destined to be the subject of a post-Memorial Day RNFF post. But it wasn't charm of superstition, but rather the thoughts and feelings inspired by Brooks' romance itself, that led me to want to write about its older woman protagonist, and the younger man with whom she finds herself unexpectedly falling in love.

Heroine Casey (Cassandra) Webb has spent the last year managing a campground in the Adirondacks, taking solace in nature in the wake of a breakup with her boyfriend of seven years. Though Casey's family keeps wondering "when was se going to get it together and leave 'that dump,' as her mother so graciously referred to Bonnet," the Adirondack town in which Casey had found herself after fleeing New York City, her Ph.D. program in Art History, and her less-than-supportive partner, to Casey Bonnet and the campground feel like home.

Opportunities for meeting men, though are pretty thin on the ground in small-town Bonnet. Thirty-four year-old Casey isn't looking for romance, but even she can't help checking out the cute buns on the attractive twenty-something guy who signs into the campground with his seven friends for a college reunion get-together. The language Brooks uses to describe the object of Casey's wandering eyes, chef-in-training Ben Mailer, is surprisingly different from the strong, in-charge alpha male so common in romance:

He was boyish, with straight dark hair long enough to stray into his eyes and a dimpled grin that carved two apostrophes into his cheeks and another int eh center of his chin when he smiled. He was tall and even under his black North Face fleece she could tell how lean and muscular he was. He had soft brown eyes and thin lips with a look like a puppy dog that had cultivated its sweet expression just to make you want to hug it. (Loc 174)

Intriguingly, Casey's attraction to twenty-six year-old Ben is not in spite of his boyishness, but because of it. And when it turns out that Ben is just as attracted to Casey (we're not told why, as the book is told largely from Casey's point of view, with only occasional forays into the povs of other, usually secondary, characters), the two must decide whether they will fan the sparks of their attraction, or stamp them out before they have a chance to flame.

Few readers have a problem with older man/younger woman storylines, but flip the sexes of the protagonists, and all sorts of squicky fears can arise, most focused around the potential for the hero's emasculation, and the heroine's guilt for bringing it about. An author can ignore such fears, or can attempt to mitigate them by constructing a hero with over-the-top masculinity.

Or, like Brooks, she can face them head-on.

Ben is far from the stereotypical über-confident, protective romance hero. He's not only younger than Casey, but he's far less self-assured. His idea of rebellion was to attend Vassar (significantly, a former all-women's college), rather than Yale ("where there are enough Mailer plaques to retile a mansion" [725]). He's studying Italian cooking at the Culinary Institute of America, rather than the baking that he truly loves, mainly to please his father. Casey is not only older than Ben, but she's close to his size, physically, strong enough to pin him down if she wishes. And Ben is far less experienced sexually than Casey is.

One of the best scenes in the book is of Casey and Ben's first lovemaking. Ben proves quite adept at oral sex, but not quite so skilled when it comes to intercourse:

He was pulsing rhythmically away, but that was precisely the problem. Whereas before she had felt passion, now his actions felt mechanical. Rote. The expected motions before a well-known finale everyone in the audience was waiting for so they could go home. Was this how they were going it these days? (1602)

Casey considers just lying back, letting him "drill for oil until he was done," but instead, she reasons "She'd had eight more years in the sack than he had.... Was all her experience for nothing? She would show him. She would guide him. She would—she was sure of it—utterly blow his mind" (1611). And in yet another welcome turnabout from traditional romance gender roles, so she proceeds to do.

Casey recognizes that Ben is both strong, physically and emotionally, but also that he's vulnerable, too, "holding back, afraid to voice his desires aloud. Wondering what if he failed, what if he was laughed at, what if he lost something important along the way" (1648). That Casey's description of Ben turns out to be just applicable to her, too, at least in regards to her professional life, suggests that loving another, whether younger or older, means not only encouraging them to reach for their dreams, but to grant them them time they need to grow ready to embrace them.

Photo credits:
Adirondack lake: Bear Lodge
Almond croissant: Gerard's European Bakery

Above All
Ellora's Cave, 2014

Friday, May 22, 2015

RNFF Pet Peeve: "But what choice did she have?"

It's been a while since I've written a Pet Peeve post, in part because I generally prefer to focus on the positive feminist aspects in romance writing. But this past week, while I was reading Melanie Scott's contemporary baseball romance, The Devil in Denim, a thought that crosses its protagonist heroine's mind practically screamed out from the page at me, saying "Yes. This. This is really, really annoying." And hence this addition to the RNFF Pet Peeve list: books that make their heroines think they have no choice.

Australian Scott sets her contemporary romance in New York City, in the context of the city's third (imaginary) professional baseball team, the Saints. We're introduced to Maggie Jameson, daughter of the Saint's owner, in the midst of drowning her sorrows in tequila, having just learned that her father, Tom Jameson, has sold the team—what was meant to be her legacy—to three outsider businessmen. Three businessmen who are unlikely to offer Maggie the position of CEO, the one her father promised her, the one she's been preparing for by working for the team for years and years, then earning her MBA. One of club's buyers, Alex Winters, finds Maggie in the bar and insists on seeing her home. Alex, a self-confidence alpha type, does not take Maggie's "no" for an answer, framing his subsequent intervention as her "choice": "I know you're coming with me. You can walk or I can carry you, your choice" (13). When she continues to rebuff him, he simply scoops her off her barstool and throws her over his shoulder, a move that many readers are likely to take as protectively romantic.

I might have, too, if the story that followed did not continually repeat this pattern of placing Maggie in a position of abjection, then taking away her ability to choose anything different. Growing up in the public limelight, Maggie has become the public face of the Saints, even known by the nickname "Saint Maggie." But Tom Jameson proves she's not at all near the center of behind-the-scenes power; he does not inform Maggie that the team's been floundering financially, or that he's planning to sell it. When she demands an explanation, Tom refuses to provide one, instead guilting her into attending the press conference announcing the sale to the public.

To prevent Saint Maggie from publicly throwing a "shit fit on national TV," Alex makes her a deal: if she "behaves" at the press conference, he'll explain how he and his partners came to purchase the team (38, 46). Though Maggie has no desire to "deal" with the fast-talking Alex, the text backs her into a corner, confirming what Alex has already told her: "You don't really have a choice" (46). Maggie may find relief from frustration in calling Alex "an arrogant jackass," but she isn't able to come up with any different option from the ones with which her father and Alex have presented her.

Alex Winters knows the value of good PR, and, instead of offering Maggie a managerial position with the team, he asks her to "work with me," doing "whatever I need. Talking to the players, to the press" (68). Maggie explains that her degree is in management, not public relations, but Alex puts Maggie clearly in her place. Not only does he guilt-trip her—"I've seen you do PR pretty well. You've been doing it your whole life. Don't you want this to work out?" (69)—but he also manipulates her, telling for financial reasons, he may have to cut the ancillary women and urban youth league programs, programs Maggie herself started. "If I am going to have to spend all my time getting the team on board," the job he wants Maggie to perform, he'll have no time to manage the leagues.

And now Maggie herself, having internalized her father's and Alex's messages, doesn't have to wait for either of them to inform her she had no real choice; she thinks the message to herself:

     But what choice did she have? If she walked away from the Saints now, she'd have to go begging to pick up another job at another team. Any real job, that was. She'd probably have to go to a minor team. And she couldn't quite stomach that. (73)

And so Maggie acquiesces, accepting not only Alex's job offer, but also his assessment that she has no other choice.

Alex and Tom rub the message in further that Maggie has no choice by explaining to her why neither will give her the job of CEO. First, Alex:

    "I'm not going to make you CEO, Maggie," he said. "For a start, you're nowhere near qualified."
     She bristled, "I grew up with this team. I know more about baseball than you and your two pals put together."
     "Maybe. But that doesn't mean you know how to run a multimillion-dollar company."
     "I've watched my dad do it all this time. And I've spent a lot of years studying how to do it. I'm not an idiot."
     "No but right now the Saints can't afford rookie mistakes."
     "You're a rookie," she shot back.
     "Not at business." (67)

And then, far more painfully, her own father:

     "Maggie. I don't want to talk about this. The deal's done. Can't you just move forward?"
     "No. No, I can't. All my life I wanted to work for the Saints. To work with you. To take over one day. You wanted that too. But when push came to shove you just forgot me."
     Tom gave a heavy shuddering sigh, the wrinkles around his eyes and mouth suddenly stark against his skin. "I didn't forget you, Maggie. I just didn't think you could do it."
     "So, what, I was really just the team mascot all this time? Saint Maggie? Isn't she cute, let's wheel her out to look pretty when it's helpful?"
     "Sometimes. Not always. But sometimes. Sometimes that's what's needed." (147)

Is Maggie anything more than an
MLB cheerleader?
Tom goes on to say that he made the decision to sell the financially-endangered team "for her," because he was afraid if she failed with the Saints, she'd never have the chance to realize her dream: "You'd be poison [to any other team]. It's bad enough to most of them that you're a woman but a woman and a failure? You'd be done, love. You know that. I couldn't do that to you" (148). Rather than discuss the situation with his daughter, he makes a unilateral decision, once again taking all choice out of her hands.

We're supposed to feel happy because Alex gives Maggie the choice of whether or not to get sexually involved with him—"I liked it. You liked it. I'd like to do more of it. But that's up to you" he tells her after a hot under-the-mistletoe kiss (139)—and because a rival buyer for the team is a sexist, sexual-harassing nightmare. Who, of course, then offers a CEO job to Maggie. Because of course only a sexist jerk would think her capable of doing it (or would use her desire to be thought capable to manipulate her). Not a good guy like Alex. Or her father.

So of course Maggie must "decide" whether she's with Alex and his partners, or with the sexist harasser. Once again, Maggie is given a choice that is actually no choice at all.

Thanks, but no thanks. Since as a reader I do have a choice, I'm going to just say no to romance novels such as Scott's, novels that insist that their heroines, and thus, by proxy, their readers, can and do have no power to make important decisions in their own lives.

Can you think of other romances that use "no choice" language to constrain their heroines? Does such language ever get used in reference to a hero rather than a heroine? If it is, are a hero's choices constrained in similar or different ways than are a heroine's by such language?

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Truth and Lies about the Past and the Present: Alex Beecroft's BLUE-EYED STRANGER

Since I've written about other romances by Alex Beecroft books in previous RNFF posts, I was originally going to make this review part of a "Short Takes" column, discussing Blue-Eyed Stranger in brief, and in the context of several other similarly-themed books. But when I started writing, I realized I couldn't do Beecroft's intelligent, provocative romance justice without devoting a full post to it...

How important is it not to lie about the past? At the start of Blue-Eyed Stranger, schoolteacher Martin Deng would say it is vital. Martin, whose father emigrated from Sudan to Britain, has made it his cause to teach history in a way that does not reinforce lies of omission about people of colour. As Martin reflects about traditional pedagogical practice, "The teaching of history in UK schools could so easily be an all-white thing. Not a deliberate glorification of the Anglo-Saxon race, nothing as egregious as that, but simply the underlying assumption that all the important things in world history had been done by white people, whether those people were British or Roman" (2). In contrast, Martin makes sure to teach his kids that "there have been people of colour in Britain since Roman times, and that people of colour had had a long and glorious history in the world.... Children who'd picked up the modern myth that all black people had once been slaves, and who therefore had rejected history as something they didn't want to know about, suddenly began to see themselves as kings and prophets and world leaders" (2).

Martin's getting pushback from the head of his school, though, for his teaching practices ("You're giving the children a false impression of the past. A parade of freaks and exceptions do not constitute history" [8]). Martin is incensed; as he well knows, the flip side to the joy of discovering yourself in the formerly all-white past is "Fury. Because finding out that you'd been here all along also meant finding out that you'd been lied to all this time. Deliberately lied to so you would carry on feeling small and foreign, so you would feel you had less of a right to be here than your neighbours" (8). Lying about the past reinforces the prejudices that keep the oppressed feeling that oppression is their due.

Black Vikings in the Madrid Skylitzes (12th century AD)
Martin finds a measure of relief from school politics in his hobby—organizing and participating in a historical reenactment society he recently founded, a group focused on medieval Viking life. Yet even here, proudly declaring that there were black Vikings in the past, Martin can't be completely himself; out and proud about his race, he keeps his sexuality hidden: "But God it was hard enough being one minority. He really wasn't sure he could face being two" (24).

If Martin is frustrated by being too conspicuous, Billy Wright has the opposite problem. Because of both his reticent personality and his ongoing battles with crippling depression, Billy often feels that "if I don't remind people I'm here all the time, they forget I exist" (21). The only time Billy really feels seen is when he's wearing a mask, the costume and painted face of a morris dancer.

A error over performance scheduling at a festival both groups are attending sets Martin's Vikings in conflict with Billy's Stomping Griffins, a conflict only exacerbated by the morris dancers' makeup: "Look, I've got to ask you this," Martin says to Billy as they are waiting in line to purchase lunch for the two groups in an attempt to mend fences via food. "You do know how offensive the blackface is, don't you? Are you meaning to be racist or are you just doing it by accident?" (45). As Billy tries to explain, though, history is multi-faceted, with one group's symbol of oppression signifying something completely different to another:

Well, the blacking comes from Victorian times, when morris dancing had been made illegal. Um, the Victorians thought of it [morris dancing] as aggressive begging and decided to stamp it out.... the dancers could be accused of demanding money with menaces. It meant that the householders could set the police on them and have them arrested.... So the dancers got into the habit of going dancing in disguise. All year round, they'd had strips of cloth sewn inside their jackets for extra warmth, but now they turned their coats inside out, so they couldn't be recognised by their clothes. And they rubbed soot all over their faces, so no one could recognise those either.... So you see, it's a disguise thing. It's not a racist thing at all" (46-7).

And it gets even more complicated, Billy notes, since because most contemporary people are not aware of the hidden history behind morris dancing, they simply assume it is racist: "So on the one hand, I don't want to ruin your day, and I don't want to make some guy in the crowd who is a racist feel good about himself. But on the other hand, this is what they did" (47). How important is it not to lie about the past?

Martin offers a solution to this particular problem, one grounded in his own practice: "Maybe it's something you can explain when you go on... You'll have a microphone and a crowd. A good opportunity to education them, yeah?" (49). Given all they have in common, including their sexual attraction to each other, it's hardly surprising that Martin and Billy end up dating.

But there is one difference between them that proves less tractable: Billy is openly out about his sexuality with his fellow dancers, while Martin is not among his fellow Vikings: "I've got a new society to hold together and I stand out enough for the colour of my skin without having any more minority ticky boxes against me. I'm just... waiting for a better time to tell the rest of the garrison. When things aren't quite so precarious" (54).

Billy initially accepts Martin's terms, veering between hope—"Martin could practice being out while he was at Billy's, and once he'd realized for himself how much better it was, it might just spread, automatically, into other areas of his life" (128)—and despair—"You're going to give in forever, you know. You always do. You have no fucking backbone at all. He's never going to change, you're never going to change. You're going to carry on being dishonest for the rest of your life" (135). Billy ultimately must decide if loving Martin is worth lying about not just the past, but about the present, too.

Imagining the past, Martin muses, is comparable to putting oneself in another's shoes, seeing with a "stranger's eyes":

"Encountering the minds of people from history was like encountering aliens. Funny and bizarre, unsettling and uncomfortable, sometimes even repellent. But you always returned form it with a refreshed perspective, so that just for a little while, before habit kicked back in, you could see your own world with a stranger's eyes, and all the thing that were normally invisible showed up like cancer cells tagged with radiant dye" (98).

And seeing with a stranger's eyes lies at the heart not only of studying history, Beecroft insists, but at the heart of love.

Photo/illustration credits:
Black Vikings: Africa Resource
Morris dancers in blackface: BBC News

Blue-Eyed Stranger
Riptide, 2015

Friday, May 15, 2015

Highlighting Highlights

I was reading along in my e-book edition of Piper Hugeley's Christian historical romance, The Preacher's Promise, when I came cross a passage underlined with light grey dots—the sign the Kindle uses to indicate that an earlier reader of the book had used the Kindle's highlighting function to call out a passage she particularly wanted to remember.  The sentences in question—a prayer spoken by the novel's female protagonist, Amanda Stewart—were not ones that I would have highlighted. But a touch of a fingertip to my iPad instantly informed me that "5 other people highlighted this part of the book." Though I have no idea who those five other people might be, I did know that they all found the passage worth remembering. Were these five readers indicative of the general audience for Hugeley's book? Did they suggest that many, or most, of her readers approached her book looking for religious inspiration more than (or perhaps as much as) for the emotional pleasures of romance? Were they highlighting passages for their own edification, or because they wanted to point out the book's religious message to other readers?

After thinking about such questions, my mind began to consider the egotistical flip side of this highlighting business—what, if anything, would other readers make of the passages I chose to highlight?

When I read a romance, I underline words or sentences containing information that might be relevant if I decide to write a review of the book (characters' ages, descriptions, relationships to others, backstories, etc.). But I also highlight passages that I consider feminist-friendly, or passages that hint at (or openly espouse) anti-feminist ideas or sentiments. Such passages might be more widely read than any review I would ever pen. Might coming across such highlighted passages in their books lead other readers to start thinking about issues of feminism and romance, too?

Turns out, probably not. As the amazon Kindle FAQ page, under the topic "Popular Highlights," informs us:

The Amazon Kindle and the Kindle Apps each provide a very simple mechanism for adding highlights. Every month, Kindle customers highlight millions of book passages that are meaningful to them.
We combine the highlights of all Kindle customers and identify the passages with the most highlights. The resulting Popular Highlights help readers to focus on passages that are meaningful to the greatest number of people. We show only passages where the highlights of at least three distinct customers overlap, and we do not show which customers made those highlights.

Unless at least two other people have underlined the same passage that I have, it's not going to appear as a highlight in another Kindle e-book. So much for my delusions of grandeur, believing I might indirectly influence the popular romance-reading public towards a greater awareness of feminist issues...

Or does it? Turns out that the Kindle has another highlighting feature, one they've dubbed "Public Notes":

This feature allows Kindle customers to make their highlights and notes available for anyone to see. Now authors, thought leaders, passionate readers, professors and all Kindle users can opt-in to share their notes with other readers, helping friends, family members, and other Kindle users who choose to follow them to get more from their reading. If someone you follow has highlighted a passage in a book and has turned on Public Notes for the book, you'll see that passage highlighted along with the name of the person who highlighted it. You'll also see the notes that they made in the book.

Direct influence among followers, rather than indirect influence among the public at large. And I though my delusions of grandeur were egotistical...

Do you pay attention to the highlights other people have made in the books you read? Do you follow other readers specifically so you can see their highlights and notes? Or do you ignore highlights completely? Or find them so annoying you've decided to shut them off entirely?

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Slut Shaming, University Style: Sarina Bowen's THE SHAMELESS HOUR

In a Wonk-o-Mance blog post in April amusingly entitled "Herpily Ever After," romance author Cara McKenna mused about why there are so few mentions of sexual transmitted diseases in contemporary romance. After her initial instinct to "get uppity" about their absence, well-aware of the way that our "sex-shaming culture still clings to the belief that STIs are punishment for moral failings," McKenna reined in her initial instincts, noting that for most sufferers, dealing with a sexually-transmitted disease today is akin to dealing with pollen allergies or wearing contact lenses. And, like other similar banalities that people deal with on an everyday basis, STIs only belong in a story if they have some meaningful effect on a character or on the plot in which he or she appears. McKenna definitely believes that there should "be more visibility and frankness in our culture around STIs," but doesn't necessarily think that romance fiction is the "place to champion such a movement."

At least one romance author begs to differ. Only a few days after McKenna's "Herpily" post appeared, Sarina Bowen published the fourth book in The Ivy Years, her New Adult college romance series set at a thinly-disguised Yale. The Shameless Hour not only uses romance to call for the very visibility and frankness around STIs that McKenna is looking for, but also explores the linkages between STIs, slut-shaming, and the policing of young women's sexuality.

Readers of earlier books in the series will remember Shameless's heroine, Bella, as the student-manager of Harkness College's male hockey team. Bella has had, and continues in this book to have, an active sex life, one which she refuses to feel shame over, even when friends on the team make stupid remarks ("Who does Bella like? I need this intel for the season-opening bets.... There's a pool going on which freshman Bella goes home with first" [Kindle Loc 357]). Such comments grate on Bella: "It was true that I'd had a lot of sex with hockey players. (One at a time, usually). But the players weren't saints, either. And nobody was starting a betting pol about any of them. Double standard, much?" (357). But Bella won't change her behavior just to conform to unfair sexual norms, even though she knows there's a price to be paid for nonconformity: "The truth was that people were always going to talk smack about me because I didn't hide the fact that I'd had more than a few sexual partners. Girls who played the field got called names. I knew the drill" (370).

Talking smack is one thing, but public humiliation is another. After Bella is diagnosed with chlamydia, the most common STD in the United States ("Well, yippee. It isn't every day you find out that you've got the good kind of STD" [1408]), she's faced with the task of informing the one guy with whom she had sex within the transmission window that he infected her, and needs to get checked himself. Not freshman Rafe, with whom she had a mutual consolatory one-night stand early in the semester, but her most recent hook-up, Beta Rho frat boy Whittaker.

Bella's nurse counsels her that her partner may not believe her, since "over half the people who carry [chlamydia] don't have symptoms" (1417). Thus readers aren't surprised when Whittaker, an entitled jock, refuses to accept responsibility. More than that, he actively blames Bella, orchestrating a particularly public form of revenge against her, one involving permanent pens, misogynistic words, and photos uploaded to a fraternity boast and prank web site. Even though the nurse who treated Bella tried to interrupt the linkage of STDs and female sexual freedom—"Bella, would you be feeling the same way if you'd caught the flu from a partner? ... This isn't a message from God. There's no reason to panic or to feel any shame" (1408)—after Bella's experience, she can't help but burn with shame.

Bella's protective alpha hockey team friends rally around her, but their questions—"Was the ink the worst thing that that happened to you that night?" (1969)—just add to her humiliation. Bella withdraws from her friends, even from her job on the hockey team itself. And she decides not to report Whittaker's fraternity, or Whittaker himself:

He'd want to know if I'd been assaulted, just like Rafe had tried to ask, too. In their minds, it was the worst thing that could've happened to me. And maybe they were right. It's not like I had any experience with that.
     But I'd had enough experience with other kinds of assholery to know public humiliation was no trip to Hollywood, either. I wasn't about to make my own life worse by making a complaint against the fraternity, because there was no way I'd prevail. The Beta Rho national chapter probably wrote their own slut-shaming tactical handbook. (1977)

This is a romance novel, though, so justice does eventually get meted out, both of the official and unofficial (i.e., Bella playing a decidedly feminist prank on the entire Beta Rho fraternity) kind. And Bella finds unexpected support, and friendship, with her next-door dorm mate, when she's never had a close friendship with someone of her own sex before.

And she finds surprising support from another unlikely quarter: her one-time hook-up Rafe, a boy who is in many ways her exact opposite. Dominican to her white; working class to her ownership class; family-loving to her family-rejected; serious to her casual. Especially when it comes to sex (favorite line: "I don't do casual, because I don't want to feel like the most convenient dick in the neighborhood" [2887]). Despite his own sexual mores, Rafe clearly appreciates Bella, in all her outspoken, sexually liberated glory:

"Someday," he said, "you might have a daughter..."
     "People keep warning me that karma is a bitch."
     He shook his head. "That's not what I mean at all. You'll have a daughter, and she'll be able to tell you wahtever is in her head. And you won't hit the roof you'll just deal with it, you know? The girls in my neighborhood, they hit high school and all the aunties start heaping on the guilt. 'Don't wear short skirts, because the boys will think you're easy. Don't let him kiss you. Don't let him touch you. Go to confession.' It's crazy." (2421)

For Rafe, though, friendship is rapidly transforming into falling, and falling hard. But when he scrapes up the courage to ask Bella to be his girlfriend, she says no, and counteroffers a friends-with-benefits deal. When Rafe in turn refuses, Bella accuses him of slut-shaming her. But he immediately protests: "I think you're amazing, and I've said so every chance I get. Don't put words in my mouth. I never said your way was wrong. It's just wrong for me" (3121). Is wanting a relationship with Rafe the same as giving in to everyone's desire that she be a good girl, that she stop rocking the sexual double standard boat and settle down with a guy, instead of playing the field?

In The Shameless Hour, Bowen dissects the ways that privileged men often use shame to control female sexuality, and the corroding effects of such sexual shame on young women. But in Bella and Rafe, she also provides strong role models for both women and men who want to reach a place of both shamelessness and caring when they embrace their own sexual desires.

Photo/illustration credits:
Chlamydia statistics: National Chlamydia Coalition
Slut Shaming poster: Betrayed Mermaid

The Shameless Hour

Rennie Road Books

Friday, May 8, 2015

The Benefits of Speaking Out

Every month, a copy of  RWR: The Romance Writers' Report, arrives the old-fashioned way—in my actual, not virtual, mailbox, the one hanging just outside my front door. RWR is the journal of the Romance Writers of America, a magazine filled with articles by RWA members that range from the motivational ("Breaking Free of Distractions"; "Conquering Self-Defeating Behaviors") to the practical ("DIY Author: Six Scrivener Shortcuts"; "How to Throw a Book Release Party"). When I first joined RWA, about five years ago, I found RWR to be a toss-up—some articles, particularly those related to craft informative and helpful, others, consisting mainly of encouraging platitudes, not so much.

This year, though, I've noticed a small shift, with the inclusion of of articles with more of an intellectual and/or ideological bent. I was particularly excited by the March 2015 issue, which featured not only "Diversity in Romance: A frank look at the market by romance authors who write books featuring people of color" but also "The Dance of Consent: Making consent visible as a positive and desirable feature of lovemaking in romance fiction." Both articles tackled ideological issues of great concern in the larger romance community: are books featuring characters of color subject to discrimination, by readers and/or publishers? Can discussions about sexual consent be crafted in a way that adds to, rather than detracts from, a romance's appeal?

It was disappointing, then, to reach the end of the magazine to find an article listing ten things an author should not post on social media, an article that included a piece of advice that directly discouraged this slight move of RWR's toward addressing important ideological issues. Among perfectly understandable professional recommendations, such as "don't share personal information" and "don't post revealing photos," the Marketing Insider warned romance writers about taking a too public stance on "polarizing topics." To wit:

     There are a million polarizing topics. Let's name some: religion. Gay marriage. The ruling in Ferguson, Missouri. Yes, an author's social media account should tell others who you are, but you are also in the business of selling books.
     Leading a some-what public life means that while you may have your opinions, you cannot afford to let those opinions turn your readership away. Therefore, should a polarizing issue arise, take a more neutral approach, express sadness or appreciation that the topic is being addressed. (RWR March 2015, page 42).

The Marketing Insider assumes a typical corporate attitude: don't say anything with the least chance of pissing any group off. The columnist, though, did not seem to realize that some of the issues she used as examples of "polarizing" might in fact be central to an author's writing, and, even more so, to her or his identity. Romance authors need to be apolitical, Marketing Insider assumes, if they are to reach as broad an audience as possible. Don't be controversial; be nice.

The niceness imperative is particularly pernicious in the romance-writing world, in no small part because of the strongly gendered nature of its membership. Girls and women are encouraged to be nice, to fit in, to get along; females who chafe against this message are often policed not by men, but by other women who have internalized the unwritten rules.

I was more than a little jazzed, then, to open the May 2015 edition of RWR today to find Courtney Milan's strong rebuttal of the Marketing Insider's position, in the magazine's lead article, "Speaking Out: Why authors speak out on social media, the consequences of doing so, and the danger of silence" (pages 23-26). Seeing such a rebuttal penned by a member of RWA's Board (Milan was elected this past year), and published in RWA's monthly magazine, gives me hope that the larger organization may be ready to engage in a larger conversation about the politics of romance writing, and the problems with, as well as the benefits of, the romance community's niceness imperative.

I won't go into the details of Milan's rebuttal here (although I do hope she will make her article publicly available to those outside the RWA community). What I will do, though, is list the authors she interviewed for her article, authors who speak out about "polarizing" issues, and provide links to their author web sites. Not surprisingly, books by several of the authors (including Milan's herself) have been featured in previous RNFF posts, and on RNFF "Best of" lists. Writers with feminist sensibilities tend to recognize the interconnectedness of different forms of political and social oppression, and aren't afraid to speak out about them. To the benefit of us all.

I'm planning to thank them for their courage in speaking up by pledging to read at least one book by each author on this list with whom I'm unfamiliar in the coming months. Will you join me?

Authors who spoke out for Milan's article (in alphabetical order):

Solace Ames
Heidi Belleau (no active website, but here's a link to her publisher's page)
Kay Cassidy
Alyssa Cole
K. M. Jackson
Racheline Maltese
Courtney Milan
E. E. Ottoman
Farrah Rochon
Suleikha Snyder

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Romancing the Emotionally Distant: Christina Lauren's BEAUTIFUL SECRET and Sherry Thomas's THE ONE IN MY HEART

For a genre that focuses so directly on emotions, romance has more than its fair share of emotionally distant, closed-off, and even repressed protagonists. The character arc for such protagonists typically involves moving from a stance that regards emotion as something to be feared and shunned to one that accepts and embraces emotional vulnerability. This past week, I read two contemporary romances, one after the other as it chanced, that featured such a character arc. One book's character was male, while the other was female. As feelings are so often coded as feminine, not masculine, I was curious to think and blog about how each of these stories—the third book in Christina Lauren's Beautiful series, Beautiful Secret, and the first contemporary romance by historical and fantasy author Sherry Thomas, The One in My Heart—presents the tasks and challenges that its emotionally distant protagonist must face and overcome.

The earlier books in Lauren's Beautiful series has been noted for its strong alpha male leads. Secret proves a departure, with gorgeous but "prim" and "stodgy" British urban planner Niall Stella cast in the role of hero (5). Though our heroine, unrestrained, ebullient American Ruby Miller prefers to think of him as "steady" and "restrained," there is no question that the stiff Mr. Stella is just about the last guy one would ever imagine engaging in a friendly bout of flirting. Even so, Ruby's been nursing a fierce crush on the thirty-year-old recently-divorced VP, a crush seems destined to remain unrequited.

Only one of the NYC spots in front of which Ruby
takes a selfie...
Until Ruby and Niall are sent away to a month-long International Summit on Emergency Preparedness for urban infrastructure in New York City. Staying in the same hotel. On the same floor. Working together all day in the same tiny temporary office. Of course, Ruby's crush soon becomes glaringly obvious, even to the emotionally out-of-it Niall. And Niall finds himself more than a little intrigued. The uptight Brit isn't sure which is more shocking—the fact that a young, attractive, intelligent woman like Ruby finds dull old him of interest, or that his own long-dead passions are responding so immediately, and so intensely, to her.

Niall's personality isn't the only think holding him back, although growing up the quiet, introverted one amidst a large family of extroverts had definitely exerted its influence. Niall is also still trying to adjust to life after a sixteen-year relationship with the same woman, a relationship which he pretty much just went along with, and which he allowed to descend into boredom and even contempt with nary a protest. Not surprisingly, then, it is the female half of this relationship that does the majority of the heavy emotional lifting. Every time Ruby and Niall take a step forward, sexually, the inexperienced, logical Niall finds himself overthinking things, taking two steps back. The daughter of two psychologists, Ruby is used to talking about feelings, and isn't shy about sharing hers with Niall. But she also realizes that Niall's understanding of emotions is far different from hers, and that it will be her role to teach him more about how partners communicate. To Ruby (and to the reader), Niall seems more than worth it, if she can just crack open his layers and layers of protective shell. Patience will be the order of the day.

Until, that is, Niall proves particularly obtuse about Ruby's own emotions, acting in a way that any person with half an ounce of empathy should have realized would be not just hurtful, but deeply emotionally wounding. For me, the depiction of how Niall and Ruby recover from Niall's emotionally tone-deaf disaster proved the most interesting part of the book. For it drew a clear line in the sand about just how much a woman should have to carry the emotional weight of a relationship before said weight becomes too burdensome for her own self-respect. It's not groveling, nor his ham-handed attempt at a fairy-tale rescue (adding insult to injury), that brings Niall back into Ruby's life. Instead, it is a taste of his own medicine, time and emotional distance. Time for Ruby to lick her wounds and to recapture her sense of professional self-confidence, and to understand the importance of balance in a relationship:

But as soon as she'd said it, I knew that being back with Niall would be just as good. I wanted Niall just as much as I wanted to work with Maggie. And for the first time since [plot spoiler deleted], I didn't feel embarrassed for it, or that I was betraying some inner feminist thread by admitting how deep my feelings were. If I went back to Niall, some days he would be my entire life. Some days school would be. Some days they would occupy the same amount of space. And that knowledge—that I could find balance, that maybe I did need to separate my heart from my head after all—loosened a tension that had seemed to reside in my chest for weeks now." (360).

Lauren's novel is told in the first person, but with alternating points of view, allowing readers into Niall's head so that we can understand his emotions, even if Ruby (and Niall himself) don't. Sherry Thomas, in contrast, confines her story solely to the heroine's first person POV. It's only after you reach the book's ending that you realize just how significant that POV choice is; allowing us only into narrator Evangeline Canterbury shapes the story, and how readers respond to it, un expected ways.

You might be a bit wary, too, if you saw these
headlights coming down a deserted road at you...
Thomas's romance opens on a dark, rainy night, with Evangeline walking a deserted road. When a car comes abreast, both Evangeline and the reader can't help but be suspicious, even though the book's bright, sunny cover suggests that danger and suspense have no place in this romance. And this initial sense of suspicion carries over throughout much of the first half of the book. Is the man who offered Evangeline his car, and who then accepted her offer of a ride home, the man with whom Evangeline thought she was having a one-night (one-hour) stand but who later reemerges in her life, a man to be trusted? It's clear that wealthy, intelligent heart surgeon Bennett Somerset is deeply gifted at manipulation; he talks Evangeline into going out with him again, charms her into sleeping with him again, even convinces her that he needs her to pretend to be his fiancée so that he can reconnect with his long-estranged parents, who are part of Evangeline's family's New York city social circle. Is Bennett interested in Evangeline at all for her own sake? Or is he only using her to achieve his own ends?

Can you really trust a guy who lives  in the
world's most exclusive NYC apartment building?
I was so distracted by my worries over Bennett's intentions that it took me some time to pick upon the fact that Eva has her own emotional issues, too, even though Eva tells us early and directly that she is emotionally messed up: "My preferred method for dealing with everything that frightened, saddened, or unsettled me was to never speak of or even acknowledge it. In other words, I was incapable of emotional intimacy" (Kindle Loc 397). But because we're so tightly in Eva's head, and we don't seen inside the head of anyone else, someone who might give us some perspective about Eva, her own self-description doesn't resonate as much as it might have. In fact, it only became clear to me when Bennett began to shake off his own debilitating emotional crutch (in his case, pride) that Eva, too, has some emotional growing to do before she can make any kind of romantic relationship work. What initially looked like a sign of Bennett's emotional immaturity—his long-ago affair with a much older woman—eventually emerges as a sign of his skill at communicating, at connecting, with a romantic partner. Eva might be right to be initially suspicious of Bennett's intentions, but it is her own refusal to allow herself to be emotionally vulnerable that keeps those suspicions front and center throughout their relationship, and prevents her from allowing herself to engage emotionally to the same degree that Bennett has, and hopes to again. With her.

Interestingly, many Goodreads reviewers have responded far more negatively to the emotionally-distant Eva than they did to the emotionally-repressed Niall, even though her emotional issues are conveyed far less directly, far more subtly, than are his. A man in need of training in the ways of emotion and communication (by a woman) is acceptable, even welcome, given how gendered emotional work is in our society. But when a woman is the one who is emotionally closed-off, well, that character is far less comfortable for readers who take it for granted that it is the woman, rather than the man, who is the one responsible for maintaining a romantic relationship's emotional health.

What other emotionally repressed romance characters can you recall from your own reading? Are emotionally-repressed men more common (and/or more beloved) than emotionally distant women?

Photo credits:
Radio City: pixshark
Emotionally distant hearts: Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health
Tesla headlights: Tesla Motor Club

Beautiful Secret
Gallery Books, 2015

The One in My Heart
self-published, 2015