Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Queer for Me, not Gay for You: Alexis Hall's LOOKING FOR GROUP

Last week, I attended a panel at MIT on "The Turn to Tween," a panel discussion about the roots of the word, its connection to consumerism and marketing, and the way "tweens" are depicted in popular culture. During the Q & A period after the discussion, the issue of tweens and social media came up. One of the speakers, Tyler Bickford of the University of Pittsburgh, mentioned that most academic studies of kids' use of of social media indicate that they are typically not using these new technologies to meet and interact with strangers, but far more often with people they already know.

Even as I found myself shaking my head, wanting to disagree, or at least qualify, Bickford's statement, a student sitting beside me said the same thing that I was thinking: "That's not true for queer kids."

My doubt arose not from personal experience, but from having recently read Alexis Hall's loving tribute to online gamers and queerness, Looking for Group. As Hall himself notes on his blog, Group is a far cry from his RITA-award winning erotic romance For Real; no kink, not much sex, and lots of gaming jokes. Its narrator, college student Drew, is an avid player of the MMO (massively multiplayer online) game Heroes of Legend (loosely based on Blizzard Entertainment's World of Warcraft). He's a bit burnt out though, both with his "guild," or group with whom he typically plays, and with the style of his own playing—methodical, aggressive, competitive, and, increasingly, joyless. And so after a major disagreement with his guild ("he pretty much admitted he ragequit his last guild over loot drama" [Kindle Loc 103]), Drew decides to apply for membership in a different one.

The book opens, in fact, with the post that draws Drew's attention:

<Same Crit Different Day> is Recruiting

SCDD is a tight-knit raiding guild (heroic and normal difficulty), currently looking for a main tank to join our mature, dedicated, and frankly fabulous team. Founded in 2011 by a group of friends with no fecking clue how to run a Heroes of Legend guild, but definite ideas about the right way to treat people—fairly, without harassment, and with equal opportunity to participate—SCDD roared past the traditional guild life expectancy of six months and has been getting awesomer ever since.

Following this post, the members of SCDD debate (online, of course) Drew's application, and ultimately decide to accept him and his game persona, Orcarella (Dread Knight tank) into the guild. During the days and nights of game play that follows, Drew finds himself increasingly drawn to the unusual ways of SCDD, "the most progressed casual guild on the server" (150). Not only do his fellow members praise him, and one another ("in Anni he'd only ever been told when he screwed up, and he wasn't sure how to handle having someone say he'd done well" [971]), but they also tackle their fights in entirely different ways than he is used to, making what was once routine for Drew into a challenge.

And Drew finds himself increasingly drawn to one member of the guild in particular: Solace, a healer elf who not only enjoys the fighting aspects of the game, but also loves wandering into unseen corners of the world just to see what they look and feel like. As Drew (as Orcarella) and Solace start hanging out in the game together, separate from the rest of the guild, they end up talking, not just about the game, but about where they go to school and what they hope to do with their lives after uni. And Drew begins to wonder: is Solace a girl in real life? Or is she, like he, female online but male offline?

Drew's upset when he finds out the answer. His fellow uni mates, Sanee and Tinuviel, have very different takes on Drew's response:

     "Man," sighed Sanee. "I know I totally told you this was going to happen, but I'm really sorry for you."
     Tinuviel pulled her knees up to her chest and hugged them. "Well, yes and no. I mean, I think what you need to ask yourself is how much this changes things."
     Drew gaped at her. "Um, it completely changes things?"
     Sanee sat forward on the chair. "T, are you being deliberately dense?"
     'That's a very strange question. The way I see it, Drew's met somebody he likes. He's clearly sad at the thought of losing him. So the question is: why should he?"
     "How about: because he's not gay?"
     "Well, neither am I, but I've still had sexual relationships with people who defined as female."
     "Yes, but you're a girl."
     "Tinuviel sighed deeply. "If our friend wasn't in the middle of a crisis, I'd be quite cross with you now." (1905)

Cisgender heterosexual male Sanee thinks of gender and sexuality in a binary way: you are either a girl or a boy, and you're either attracted to members of the same sex, or to those of the opposite sex. Tinuviel, who identifies as female and pansexual, has a very different take on what is possible, both sexually and romantically, and tries to encourage Drew to think about the situation in a radically different way:

"Maybe I'm wrong, but your problem doesn't seem to be that you're not interested in this person, but that you still are."
     While Drew was sorting through that, Sanee steepled his fingers like a supervillain. "Dude, are you gay?" There was a pause. "Like, it's okay if you are."
     Drew glared at him. "I think I'd have noticed."
     Tinuviel raised a hand. "I suspect you'll think this is a weird question, but what would you have noticed?"
     "Well...." Drew hated it when T did this. She'd ask you something to which the answer was so screamingly obvious that you'd immediately start second-guessing yourself. And, right now, that was the last thing he needed. "Fancying guys for a start?"
     "Maybe you just haven't met any guys you fancy. I mean, I'm pretty sure you're not attracted to Sanee..."
     Sanee made a valiant attempt not to look horrified. "You're not, right?"
     Drew made no such attempt. "I'm really not."
     "Okay," Tinuviel went on. "And you don't fancy me either."
     "Jesus, just because I don't fancy every girl I meet, that doesn't make me gay."
     She looked smug. "And by the same argument, not fancying every boy you meet doesn't make you straight."
     There was a really long silence.
     "Holy shit," gasped Sanee. "That's a really scary thought."
     "I can imagine it would be to a lot of people, but actually there's nothing scary about rejecting heteronormative notions of binary sexuality."
     "So you're saying," said Drew slowly, "I could be gay and not know it? Because that sort of sounds like bollocks."
     Tinuviel pushed her hair out of her eyes. "No, I'm not saying that, Andrew. I'm saying that, for many people, sexuality is more fluid and less clear-cut than they're taught to assume. You might, in fact, be completely straight, but it's also possible that you're not. And, even if you aren't, you might have gone your whole life completely happy an not caring and not knowing. And that's fine. But it seems to me that right now you have an opportunity to have something with somebody, and it might work or it might not, but if your only reason for not trying is that you're scared of the idea of being gay, then that's probably quite silly and a little bit sad." (1956)

Drew spends hours going round and round in his head after Sanee and Tinuviel leave him to sleep away his sorrows, and really wishes he had someone else to talk to about it all. Someone like Solace. And once he realizes that the only thing he isn't confused about is that he really misses her (or him), Drew knows what he has to do.

And it turns out that gender and sexuality aren't really the issue, not once Drew and Solace meet in person. What does turn out to be a problem is the issue with which this post started: are the relationships you have with people online somehow different from, or lesser than, those with people you know and interact with in person? Are online gamers, who are often different in age from you, and may even live in different countries, somehow not really your friends? Should the people with whom you interact in person matter more than the ones you interact with online?

And if you're gay, or bi, or pan, or genderqueer, and looking for your own "group," do the answers to those questions matter more?

Illustration credits;
World of Warcraft orc: MMO Champion Forum
Dark Elf: DeviantArt Vmbui

Looking for Group
Riptide, 2016

Friday, October 21, 2016

Women and Anger in Romance

I have a lot of reasons to be angry lately, both personal and political. But many romance novels, with their strict codes for appropriate female behavior, often don't acknowledge women's right to be or to feel anger. Unless, of course, said anger takes the form of cutting banter with a potential loved one, clever anger serving as a mask for a quite different feeling: sublimated sexual desire. While anger by men is often seen as a positive, a show of strength, a show of masculinity, an angry woman is often viewed as a shrew, a bitch, a woman to be shunned.

So when I came across an exchange of dialogue in Ruby Lang's contemporary romance, Hard Knocks (the second book in her female doctors series, Practice Perfect) that is all about anger, I found myself reaching for a highlighter, wanting to come back and think more about it.

The exchange happens mid-book, and takes place between the romance's two main characters: Helen Chang Frobisher, a neurologist, and Adam Magnus, a professional hockey player. The two met cute when Adam and his teammate land in the hospital after a car accident; soon after, Adam and Helen end up hooking up for a hot one night stand. But soon after their tryst, Helen decides to pen an op ed piece for the local (Portland Oregon) newspaper, calling for the banning of professional hockey because the sport's culture of fighting. And Adam, as a defenseman or "enforcer" for the Oregon Wolves hockey team, feels majorly blindsided and betrayed by the woman he once admired.

The two end up as the informal spokespeople for the two opposing sides of the issue (which is in the local news due to the Wolves' desire for the city to build them a new arena), and thus are thrust continually into one another's paths. Earnest, angry Helen has seen first-hand how how traumatic brain injury can damage a person's life; to engage in a sport that encourages men to beat each other up when the fighting has nothing to do with the game seems pointless, and she's not afraid to argue for banning it. Affable Minnesota farm boy Adam teases Helen for her earnestness, and points to the unwritten rules about fighting that keep hockey from becoming too violent to justify his side.

While on the air and screen, the two appear to be enemies, their sexual chemistry leads them to engage in some clandestine trysts. Gradually, a not-quite-friendship develops, a relationship which includes a lot of talking on the phone while Adam is on long road trips with the team.

During one such phone call, forthright Helen asks Adam an unexpected question:

     "How does it feel to beat people up?" Helen asked.
     The line went quiet for a while.
     "I'm not trying to antagonize," Helen said. "It's just... I watched the game tonight. And I can't help but think about it every time you start circling someone with your skates. He circles back, and I look at the screen and my stomach drops. I can't read your expression. Are you tense? Are you scared? What do you think is going to happen? It's hard for me to watch, sometimes. She laughed. "Every time. But then I can't look away."
     "What are you doing now?" Helen asked softly.
     "I'm sitting on the hotel bed. I'm icing my knee, again. And I'm trying to think of what I'm thinking when that happens."
     "When that happens," Helen said, lightly. "You sound as if you're not in control of it, like it just is this whirlpool that draws you in."
     "It's like that, in a way. I mean, I'm very aware of the things going on around me, the sound of my skates on the ice. I'm looking at where his stick is, and where the other players on his team are. I'm staring at him to see how much this means to him, too. Like, are you going to pull that move again? Am I really going to have to go in there? Does everyone expect it right now? And sometimes, I feel how tired I am. And if I've been playing awhile, I'm wondering how much of what I'm doing is a warning. I'm gauging if what I'm doing is enough. If by simply stopping to look at him, it's enough."
     "It sounds like a complicated calculation."
     "It is. A calculation and a ritual, in a way. But it only takes a few seconds. And the whole time it's happening, my adrenaline is pumping in anticipation of a blow." (Kindle Loc 2142)

Helen's best friend Sarah enthuses about the violence on display when men play hockey—"The world would be so much more orderly if we were all more conscious and responsible and ate our kale. But at the same time, hockey. Something about all that male aggression and sweating and well-defined goals. On ice! I'm a convert" (998)—but Adam's explanation of how it feels to engage in physical conflict during play presents a far more nuanced view. A calculation; a ritual; an uncontrolled force: three very different states of mind, with three very different levels of agency for the person experiencing them.

If Helen were engaging in her talking head role, her response might have taken an aggressive turn. But instead, it leads her to reflect upon her own aggressive impulses:

     Helen swallowed. "Sometimes I feel like I'd really like to beat someone up," she said. "What's worse, it's usually... well, I was in the hospital elevator after biking to work last week and I saw a man in a bowtie, and I wondered, what would it be like to kick his head in? I felt like I could really do some damage. And then I could assess the damage, speaking as a neurologist, of course."
     Adam laughed a little. "I didn't know women had these feelings that often."
     "What's that supposed to mean?"
     "Like, random physical aggression. The desire to test out your impact, maybe."
     "Well, I don't like speaking for all women, so I'll just say all people do, and it depends on their personality."
     "Well, I like speaking for all men," said Adam. "I like to think I'm in charge or that I could run things better."
     He sounded relaxed now. (2158)

Adam's violence on the ice is, as Sarah pointed out, goal-oriented. But what Helen describes is quite different: "random physical aggression," Adam terms it. Rather than being appalled or censorious of Helen's admission of aggressive feelings, though, Adam accepts them as normal, reading them as a "desire to test out your impact." Part of what he admires about Helen is her strength, her power, her ability to impact the world; to see that aggressive impulse in her, then, even if it is cloaked in the guise of anger towards a completely benign stranger, is something he not only understands, but values.

Helen goes on to take this extraordinary conversation in yet another unexpected direction when she links Adam's experience playing hockey to her own experience as serious ballet dancer when she was a teenager:

     "No, violence doesn't have to be a series of sudden blows, I think. I mean, when I danced, I hurt all the time. I developed a condition called female athlete triad, which was amenorrhea, disordered eating, and osteoporosis. Um... I was never anorexic. I definitely ate." She winced, knowing she sounded defensive. "But yeah, my bones became thin, and I tore my ACL, and I had to quit because I was—"
     She couldn't finish.
     "Anyway," she said.
     "Dancing looked beautiful. But for me, anyway—not for everyone, but for me—it was also painful, and it was good for me to get out of it. I know it's not anything compared to the abuse that other people, other women, suffer the world over. But it was a slow violence for me, and it came from expectations that other people had and that I had of myself."
     They were both quiet for a minute.
     "Thank you," he said, and his voice was so gentle she felt calm again. (2158)

Both Helen and Adam have been on the receiving end of physical violence, Helen argues. "Slow violence" may be less apparent than the "sudden blows" which Adam receives, but it is violence nonetheless.

Feeling aggression is not a gendered thing, but instead something "all people do," depending on their personalities. And while being the victim of violence may be appear to be gendered (do women experience more "slow violence," while men experience more "sudden blows"?), the impact is the same: pain.

I don't think I've ever come across such an acceptance of a woman's aggression and anger in another romance novel. Or a woman acknowledging it as a part of her own sense of self, her own feelings, in quite this way. Have you?

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Redeeming the Redeemed Rake Trope: Erin Satie's THE YOUNG BLOOD

The trope of the redeemed rake is a staple of historical romance. But the rake of romance is very rarely a rake in the sense that people of the past meant the word: "a fashionable or stylish man of dissolute or promiscuous habits." Or at least, the emphasis tends to be far more on the "promiscuous" side of things, than on the "dissolute." A rakish romance hero is one who is sexually experienced (a good quality in the eyes of romance readers), rather one who is characterized by the negative qualities of licentiousness, profligacy, or debauchery. Admiration for a "young blood," another name for the rake, rarely takes into consideration the blood (metaphorical and actual) such a man is likely to leave in his wake.

The original 18th century rake:
Hogarth's The Rake's Progress (painting 3)
Which is why I'm always excited when I come across the one or two historical romances published each year that feature rakes who are rakish in both senses of the word: lauded for their sexual exploits and disdained for the lack of morals which has engendered them. And Alfred Lamb, Earl of Kingston, the male lead in the fourth book in Erin Satie's Victorian romance series, No Better Angels, is most definitely a romance rake of the more uncommon type.

Readers of Satie's earlier books have met Kingston in the guise of antagonist, and so will be well aware that the hero of The Young Blood is not heroic in any real sense of the word. But for those for whom this is a first Satie read, the author makes it clear from the book's opening lines that here is a man who is about as uninterested in living the life exemplary as it is possible to be: "He hadn't bothered with the fancy dress. For a long time—most of his life, really—Alfred Lamb, Earl of Kingston, had done the absolute minimum necessary to get by. More and more often, even that was beyond him" (Kindle Loc 36).

"Getting by" for Alfie consists largely of charming different women into bed—or onto a couch, or down to the floor—drowning the griefs of his youth in physical pleasure. He has a way with the ladies, a bad habit, as even he himself has come to see it. A way of slipping past their defenses, of seeing what it is they truly desire, then giving it to them—or at least, some semblance of it: "Show her an idealized version of herself, give her a magic mirror that reflected just the right amount of truth, and she would treat the painter as an oracle. She would want more; she would reveal herself, make herself vulnerable, to have it" (299). Alfie knows his behavior is selfish, but at least he is no longer suffocating on his own despair.

Alfie, too, lets women see just enough of himself to entice them—but without making himself the least bit vulnerable:

"Lord Kingston," she murmured, all wonder and sympathy. "I believe you've been hurt."
     "Is it so obvious?" Alfie felt his lips twist. He knew the answer to this question: yes. An alarming number of women scented it on him.
     What's more, it only whetted their appetites. They seemed to enjoy the fantasy of a rake driven by heartbreak. As though he were one shard short of being whole again and thought the missing piece must be hiding under a lady's skirt.
     He gathered that many women hoped his loyalties would transfer to a new target midcoitus. And then, broken heart healed, the fullness of love would drive him with the same intensity as the lack of it had. He'd be a perfect mate.
     These women were impressed by the dogged persistence of his decade-long pursuit. It ought to worry them. Any method that failed so consistently ought to be abandoned, or at least revised.
     But really, they ought to have asked themselves a completely different question: where had the object of his affections disappeared to? What did she know that they didn't? Because if she had gone, never to return, it wasn't because he was so damned loving.
     He had never been anyone's knight in shining armor.... The misunderstanding was staggering, really. (558)

To show any of the women he lies with anything beyond the mere air of vulnerability would be to defeat the purpose of the game: to drown the sorrows of his many painful losses in sensual pleasure.

Alfie thinks because he warns women about his true colors, tells them that they shouldn't sleep with him, that it is their fault, not his, if they do not heed his warnings:

     "I should never have—"
     "Which I told he last night," he interrupted. "Several times."
     She gaped at him, the blood slowly draining out of her face. It never helped to warn them. (839)

It takes a curious bystander, one as brusque as Alfie is charming, to hold up a magic mirror to him, one that begins to show him not an idealized version of himself, but rather the havoc his own behavior is causing in the lives of others:

     "Because it was your fault."
     "It was?"
     "I saw you talking to her at the Finlay-Coateses', before I left."
     "If there is any truth to these rumors, then you've caused her great harm. Altered her life for the worse—perhaps ruined it entirely."
     "Helen Fairbanks is free to make her own choices. Good or ill."
     "That doesn't follow at all, Lord Kingston," said Sabine. "She might have chosen to spend one evening with you; that doesn't make her free." (1196)

Sabine Banchory, the daughter of a duke, has been unhappily married for years. But intelligent, dignified Sabine holds tight to self-respect, something that Alfie has never been able to grasp, and does not deign to show her unhappiness in public. It is in nature to reserve all the hardest tasks to herself; she believes that "work, persistent and unstinting effort applied over time, was the secret to a life well-lived and the only route to greatness" (756). And if it is work to put up with her gambling, philandering husband, well, that is what she will do. And she will not hesitate to chastise a man whose selfishness causes harm to others. Even when that man has set his sights on seducing her.

Sabine's magic mirror may start Alfie thinking, but it a lot more to shock him out of his self-absorption. A horrific act of violence. A debt incurred, a repayment necessitated. And the slow, drawn-out tension of a seduction unsatisfied, taut with desire.

I've been a fan of Satie's gorgeous writing style from the start of her career. But with this final book in her inaugural series, she proves that she is as capable of crafting a compelling storyline replete with sexual tension as she is of penning gorgeous prose. The Young Blood could well be the best historical romance you'll read all year.

Illustration credits:
Hogarth: Wikipedia
Magic mirror: Bon Appetit Hon

The Young Blood
Little Phrase, 2016

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Feminism, Love, and Baby Longing: Ainslie Paton's SOLD SHORT

Romance novels in which the heroine's longing for a child plays a major role often make me cringe. Because so often such novels present motherhood as the most important thing a woman could ever want, do, or be. No matter how accomplished they are in other areas of their lives—successful careers, loving families, strong friendship groups, kick-ass social lives—heroines in such novels almost always believe they are somehow lacking, incomplete without having given birth. And the novels in which they feature too often reinforce such beliefs, rather than show their heroine protagonists that while having a child is a wonderful, joyous life experience, a woman can still be a woman without having experienced it.

Which is why I was so charmed by the latest entry in Ainslie Paton's Sidelined series, Sold Short. Its heroine, Sarina Gallo, founded the tech company Plus along with three friends, Owen, Reid, and Dev, right after college. Now, a decade later, her skills as a talent recruiter, her insistence upon gender equality on the job, not to mention the long, long hours she's clocked at work, have helped transform the small start-up into one of Silicon Valley's hottest firms. But now, after watching Reid and Owen widen their lives beyond the office and fall in love (see books 1 & 2), and with Dev looking to be well on the way to doing the same, Sarina is starting to think for the first time about how she, too, wants to have a family of her own.

But Sarina, whose workaholic ways have led to a disappearance of her casual dating mojo, is less than inspired by the need to search for a guy with whom to have that family. And she's unexpectedly resentful of her male colleagues, because they, unlike her, have no "looming personal deadline": 

[T]hey were never going to be held hostage by their reproductive cycles. That's what sucked most about being a woman. A form of inequality she had no certain way to address. It was hard coded into her femininity and it didn't matter how many other gender divides she stomped across, this one was an unbridgeable chasm.  (Kindle Loc 130)

Sarina could freeze her eggs, then sit around waiting for Mr. Right. But given what a workaholic she is, she knows that he isn't just going to drop from the skies. And she's not willing to put her life on hold. Especially since right now is a good time, business-wise, for her to take time off for a baby; things at Plus are stable for the first time since they launched: "In terms of our business plan, and where we've plotted growth spurts, this plan of mine is a good fit," as she tells her three fellow company founders (446). Thus, her plan: single motherhood, via insemination by a sperm donor.

For Sarina, who comes from a family that does not embody the traditional heterosexual monogamous norm (her sister is a lesbian; her parents are still lovingly married, but invite other sexual partners, some of them long-term, into their family group), such an course seems downright conventional. And Owen and Reid Plus partners are both down with her plan.

But calm, cool, peacemaker Dev, her best friend, blows an unexpectedly major gasket:

     "By shopping, you mean for sperm." Reid grinned. "Is there an app for that?"
     "Almost. A website, and it's very comprehensive. I've got a lot of thinking to do about the attributes I want to match with," she said.
     Ah, this had gone far enough. "Let me get this straight. You let some random person talk you into being a single mom and now you're shopping online for sperm like it's a pair of shoes."
     Sarina shook her head. "Dev, don't be like this."
     "Truly, you'll take any man's sperm?" His voice was still raised; he couldn't adjust the volume.
     "No. There's a process, it's all highly regulated and totally anonymous if I want it to be."
     "You don't even want to know the father of your own kid?"
     "He won't be the father in any real sense."
     "This kid already has three fathers, if Sarina wants us." Owen said.
     "I'm not in on this. Don't count on me."
     Sarina reached for him. "Dev, please don't be like this."
     He'd tripped and stumbled over Sarina the day they met; maybe he'd been wrong to think there had ever been anything personal between them, because  more than a decade later, this was the real fall. (500)

After Dev storms out of the room, Reid, the social maladept nerd of the bunch, follows, and attempts to calm him down. But accusing Dev of being in love with Sarina, then arguing that men are irrelevant to the contemporary parenting equation, does little to calm Dev's uncharacteristic hotheaded response:

     "Who chooses to be a single mom?"
    "Any intelligent, well-resourced woman who's on a timeline, doesn't have a partner she trusts and understands her options. Hot take, Dev. Women don't need us anymore. We're redundant tech."
     "That's no. It's not. I can't accept that." He shook his head. Reid had no idea how relationships worked. "Not for Sarina and not for a child. Parenting is hard going, doing it alone by choice is a bad decision."
     "Because you're currently fucked in the head I'm going to ignore that you just invalidated my whole childhood. Cara's too, probably several hundred of our employees. Men have been voluntarily removing themselves from the parenting equation for so long, women have worked out how to do without us." (551)

A t-shirt Dev definitely doesn't want to wear

The resulting story, then, is not about Sarina's lack, a lack that needs to be fulfilled by a man with love and lively sperm, but, rather, about Dev's. First, Dev's lack of confidence in Sarina, to make decisions for herself and her future child: "He wasn't okay with Sarina planning a baby without him, he wasn't okay she didn't consult with him, and he was gunning for her because of it, and until he could sort that out in his head, he was the dudebro who didn't trust his best friend" (729). "Dudebro" here being a decidedly derogatory term. 

Dev also has to wrestle with the lack of conventionality that bursts in on his own family. Dev's from a loving, tight-knit Indian family, one with clear expectations about how the next generation will marry and procreate. Dev's allowed those expectations to lead him almost without his own awareness into a casual affair with a long-time family friend, an affair that he is only now starting to realize everyone in both their families expects will become permanent. And when his good-girl college-age sister confides in him that she's out-of-wedlock pregnant, Dev truly has to face what matters more: saving family face, or being there for a family member in need.

And of course, Dev has to wrestle with his own lack: his lack of confidence in himself. For Reid is not far off base in saying that Dev has been in love with Sarina for years. But Dev's suppressed any other kind of feeling for his best friend and colleague for a very long time, and it takes some major arguing with Sarina, and the threat of losing her completely, for those long merged feelings to rise above his anger, frustration, and fear of rejection to reach the rational part of his brain.

But by the time Dev gets his emotional shit together, will the sperm donor train already have left the station?

Illustration credits:
Sperm donor: Providence Fertility Center
Dudebro t-shirt: I love Nussies

Sold Short
Supervised by Cats, 2016

Friday, October 7, 2016

Do Your Romance Characters Speak to You?

Wearing one of my other writerly hats, I've been working on collecting interviews given by children's fantasy author Madeleine L'Engle. When a writer is interviewed multiple times, even by different writers writing for vastly different types of magazines or journals, similar themes tend to thread through the interviews as a whole. One theme that I've been noticing in L'Engle's interviews is her thoughts on characters.

In an interview/Q&A for Scholastic Books, in response to being asked if Charles Wallace, one of the main characters in her Newbery Award-winning novel A Wrinkle in Time is based on a real person, L'Engle replies, "I don’t base my characters on real people because if I do I’m limited by what I know of that person. I like them to be who they are." And in an interview with the magazine New Moon in 1996, L'Engle tells the "New Moon Girls" who are serving as interviews: "Most writers of fiction will agree that our characters do things we don't expect them to. They say things we didn't plan for them to say. And they know better than we do, so we have to listen to them." L'Engle speaks of the characters she has created as if they were actual people, people separate from her rather than constructs from her own mind. They act, they know, they speak.

I was struck by this thread in L'Engle's interviews in part because I had just read something quite similar in an interview by a major romance writer. In an interview for The Writer magazine, historical romance author Beverly Jenkins says this about dialogue: "This will probably sound strange to those who are not writers, but my stories play in my head like a movie, and I can hear the pitch, rhythm and flow of the characters' voices as they speak." And this about suspense: "Being a pantser allows my characters the freedom to take me along for the ride and sometimes lead me to places and situations that are so jaw-dropping my fingers are flying over the keyboard in an effort to keep up."

Both L'Engle and Jenkins suggest that the characters that they write have a life somewhere beyond the words each puts on the page. And they also imply that other writers feel the same way about their characters: "Most writers of fiction will agree"; "This will probably sound strange to those who are not writers."

I'm wondering, though, do most writers of fiction feel this way about their characters? That their characters speak to them, that they are somehow separate from the writer who has created them? I don a fiction-writing hat almost every morning, but I've never thought of the characters in my stories as separate from my own self, my own creativity. I don't always feel rationally in control of my writing, but that is because my unconscious sometimes points me in a direction that my conscious brain has not yet considered. But even my unconscious is a part of me, not a character with an existence separate from my own.

Because my thinking about characters is so different, I've been wondering a lot why so many writers talk about their characters as if they are not their own creations. Are they simply speaking metaphorically, as if their unconscious ideas are coming from a different source than their conscious ones? Is thinking about your characters in this way a personality thing, the difference between what Jenkins terms a "pantser," a writer who makes things up as she writes, vs. a "plotter," someone who plans a story out ahead of time?

I'm also wondering if the trope of characters speaking to an author is more often heard from female writers than from male writers. Historically, women have had to justify speaking out and writing, have had to prove that what they say is valid, is as worthy as the speech and writing of men. Is claiming that a character speaks to you, which makes it appear as if a writer is channeling the voice of another rather than creating it herself, allow a writer to sidestep the burden of providing justification for what she writes?

Would love to hear from other romance writers about whether or not their characters speak to them, and in what guise(s)...

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Romancing Gender Fluidity: Edie Danford's UNCOVERING RAY

During a phone conversation my spouse and I had with our daughter a few days after she moved out of our house and onto her college campus, said daughter described to us her first dorm meeting: "Yeah, we went around the circle and told everyone our names, where we were from, what we were thinking of majoring in, and what pronoun we preferred to be called by." Not a question many in my generation would have been asked, that last one. But awareness of gender identity—in all its perplexing, liberating, limiting, socially-constructed, cis, trans, and non-binary complexities—is something that many college students today are being asked, and are expected, to add to their cultural and interpersonal repertoires.

As are many romance readers, especially ones who search for diversity in their romances. Which was why I was so surprised when I started to read the first book in Edie Danford's Ellery College series, and realized that that Uncovering Ray was the first romance novel I can remember reading that features a genderqueer protagonist who is also a biological woman, and who identifies (at least some of the time) as heterosexual.

And then I began to wonder about my wondering...

Ray's performance of gender is decidedly androgynous: purple hair in an Elvis-style pompadour; tats; makeup on some days, and not on others; clothes that often evoke a David Bowie vibe. Ray's gender is so androgynous, in fact, that many Goodreads reviewers think that Ray's biological sex is being deliberately kept secret, not only by Ray but by the novel itself. But I think that is a misreading of the novel and its project.

Early in the book, Wyatt, a student at Ellery College (which bears some striking resemblances to Dartmouth), attempts to draw Ray into conversation while Ray is working at the Ellery Inn diner by talking about the gender studies class he is taking. When Ray asks Wyatt why he's chosen Ray to discuss gender issues with him, Wyatt says:

"But the professor said it was important to move beyond our comfort zones. To think about alternative points of view and how we react to those. Like... transgender or bi or pansexual, or, um, you know, one of those other things I don't know much about. Yet.... I'll admit I'm clueless about a lotta shit... But I'm pretty sure the girls I've been with have been absolutely satisfied being heterosexual women."

Ray, who sees Wyatt's "conscious, knowing" smile at that last line, decides to "fuck with him" by telling him "Well, whaddaya know... I'm pretty damn satisfied being one of those too." (29)

Ray's declaration seemed pretty clear to me: non-binary gender-wise; female biology-wise. But many reviewers aren't quite so sure. Perhaps because they are responding to Ray's refusal to answer Wyatt's subsequent question: "Is that, um, how you identify? What you prefer?":

"Hmm. Is that how I identify?" I pressed my forefinger to my chin and rolled my eyes toward the ceiling lights. "I dunno. Maybe I'm not sure. Maybe I didn't check my underwear this morning." I fixed my gaze on his, steady. "Maybe I didn't fill out the questionnaire right. Or maybe I just don't give a fuck." (29)

Ray prefers to think about gender not in terms of fixity, but of fluidity: "Humans are fluid.... Labels don't stick to skin.... It all changes...moment to moment, person to person. You don't need a class or a survey or a PhD to figure the fuck outta that one" (30).

Ray's position, though, makes me wonder: where does this leave the reader? The novel's title—Uncovering Ray—simultaneously acknowledges a readerly desire to know, to reveal, the "truth" behind a person's gender. AND at the same time, it makes at least this reader feel uncomfortable about that desire. To "uncover" Ray would be to strip Ray of Ray's gender performance, to remove the clothing, the makeup, the jewelry, so I could get down to the biological Ray. Contemplating such an act of uncovering makes me deeply uncomfortable, makes me feel like I'm violating Ray.

But since I am reading a novel, and a deeply character-based one, am I not reading to "uncover" Ray? To get at the essence of Ray the character? Does the novel simultaneously invite me to uncover Ray AND invite me to experience deep discomfort when I accept its offer by reading?

Somehow, I'm guessing that if Ray's dorm leader asked Ray what pronoun Ray would prefer to be called by, Ray likely would have given just the same answer Ray gave Wyatt (or given Ray's prickly, acerbic character, tossed the well-meaning counselor the finger). Because Ray is one hot mess: on leave of absence from Ellery after a mental breakdown; recovering from a bad romance, a recent car accident, and a life-sapping bout of depression; estranged from a judgmental family and with only a few close friends to call Ray's own. And early on in the story, Ray's ex-stepfather kicks Ray out of the house where Ray has been holed up: "I think you need a push. You need to think of this as an opportunity, not another failure" (52). Ray is not up for other people's intrusive philosophical inquiries into Ray's performance of gender, no matter how open they are to Ray's fluid gender presentation.

Fluid is great, but completely unconnected is quite another, is what I think Danford's book is trying to explore. Which is part of what Ray starts to recognize through interactions with Wyatt, who on first glance seems to embody the stereotype of typical college frat guy. But Wyatt, who, though he is a leader in one of the college's largest frats, rejects the gender and class biases that have underlain frat identity for so long at Ellery. Wyatt wants to create change by working within the system, rather than rejecting it outright. And Wyatt is attracted to Ray precisely because of Ray's fluid gender performance, not in spite of it. In some ways, despite his cisgender, heterosexual identity, Wyatt's identity in other areas of life may be almost as fluid, as nonconforming, as is Ray's.

As Ray gradually begins to grow closer to Wyatt, readers discover that it's not Ray's gender fluidity that is the problem that Ray needs to face in order to move forward. Ray, in fact, is quite comfortable with Ray's own androgynous gender presentation. Instead,  Ray has to learn how to incorporate the idea of fluidity into other parts of life—in particular, in how Ray relates to family, and to the world at large:

It was pretty embarrassing, really. I'd always liked to think of myself as a rebel, as someone who shrugged off labels, someone who just didn't give a fuck about power. But Wyatt, here...he made me think about all that stuff in a new light. Rebellion was a fluid thing. It worked better if you stopped to think about it every now and then. Make adjustments. (183) 

And perhaps that is what Danforth's book is asking readers to do, too: not only to stop and think about gender performance and identity, but to make adjustments when they realize how that very act of thinking about gender has the possibility to "other" those who perform gender differently than do they.

Illustration credits:
David Bowie: The Telegraph
Hello, my pronoun is: Star Tribune

Uncovering Ray
Samhain, 2015