Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Troubling gender stereotypes: Rhoda Baxter's SMART GIRL IN TROUBLE

After reading a few too many books with alpha male heroes, I always find it a welcome break to pick up a romantic comedy written by a Brit. British romances seem far less enamored of the strong, über-manly types, often choosing to laud more huggable, even hapless heroes. Take for example Walter Hanborough, the hero of the third book in Rhoda Baxter's Smart Girls series, Smart Girl in Trouble.  Walter's a doctor, but of the rumpled scientific, rather than the sharply-dressed medical, kind. He's afraid of movie violence, and of spiders, and the microbiology of underwater volcanoes is what gets his intellectual motors revving. But Walter is reeling after returning from his latest trip to find his ex-wife (the one who left him because she was tired of competing with microscopic bacteria for his attention) is not only about to remarry, she's also moving with her new husband—and with Walter's daughter, Emily—to the States.

Such a non-alpha hero requires an equally unusual—at least for genre romance—heroine, one Baxter provides in the person of Olivia, the woman who just started renting the bottom floor of Walter's London house. Olivia (or, "Og," as she is more familiarly known as by her younger brothers and best bud Tom) is as unstereotypically female as Walter is unsteroetypically male. Og can both drink all the other guys at the stag party she's throwing for soon-to-be-married Tom and take the hottest guy from the party home for a fun shag. She has no desire to marry, as her mom and stepfather urge her to do: ("We thought that you just needed time to find your own equilibrium. You know, get the partying out of your system and settle down. But you're thirty now, love. You've had your years. We would love to see you settle down" [2823]). And she certainly has no desire to procreate, not after watching her mother almost die from HELLP (a life-threatening pregnancy complication related to preeclampsia) while carrying her two younger brothers to term.

Neither Walter nor Olivia has any problem with his or her own self-image; neither worries that they are not masculine or feminine enough to suit anyone but themselves. As Olivia notes about Walter, "He was gentle and kind. A bit of a scaredy cat when it came to spiders and movie violence, but the fact that it barely touched his self-confidence was astounding. And again, attractive" (1304). Olivia usually puts guys into two categories: "huggable" (i.e., a potential friend) or "shaggable" (i.e., a guy she'd take to bed without thinking twice). She's finding Walter rather confusing, though, because unlike any other guy she's ever met, he's both.

As for Walter, he finds Olivia's "laddishness" simultaneously puzzling and intriguing:

     "Why do you pretend you're not a girl?" he said suddenly.
     "What?" She gave him a funny look. "I don't pretend I'm not a girl."
     "But you're so... no nonsense."
     "You're scared of spiders. I don't accuse you of not being a bloke."
     "That's different."
     "How, exactly? You do something 'girly' and that's okay. I have short hair and suddenly, I'm butch. That's balls."
     "It's not just the haircut, it's the clothes and the... attitude."
     She glared at him for a minute, then her lips curved into a mischievous smile, which, he suddenly realised, was very, very sexy. "I am a girl," she said, leaning closer. "I can prove it." (1161).

What could be the trouble, then, for such a smart girl as Og? Take the above-mentioned post-bachelor party tryst, add a split condom and a thrown-up birth control pill, and mix with a guy who turns into an ex almost before Olivia realized they were doing anything more than dating. And, yes, you get a very unplanned pregnancy, which, when it comes right on top of just being made redundant from her job, Olivia is not at all happy about. Especially right when a potential romance is starting to bud between Olivia and Walter—who is certainly not the fellow whose sperm met up with one of her eggs.

Though Olivia is sure she wants to have an abortion, almost everyone around her counsels waiting (except for the awful ex, of course, who practically throws money at her in his eagerness to rid himself of any entanglements). Olivia's doctor; her best mate Tom; even her best girl friend Ruchi, liberals all, tell her to think twice, give it some time, avoid making any rash decisions. And let's not even mention what Olivia's mother would say, if Olivia ever told her...

Olivia is the most surprised by Walter's reaction. And this is where the romance might have taken quite a regressive turn. For Walter is deeply hurt by the impending move of his beloved daughter Emily, and, without even thinking, jumps in to declare that he's ready to start a new family with Olivia. And Olivia's child. By another man. Because he "likes" her.

Signs of HELLP syndrome
My heart sank when I got to this point in the story, fearing that Olivia and Walter were about to turn into the protagonists of a sentimental Hallmark movie. You know the type, and just how it would play out: Olivia would refuse Walter's kind offer, but would ultimately realize how mistaken she was to reject him, and to reject her pregnancy (probably after she'd have a scare about losing the baby). She'd go on to gratefully have the child, despite any potential threats to her own health (her mother's HELLP syndrome is hereditary). Walter, of course, would be there by her side as she gave birth, claiming the infant as if it were his very own as soon as it slid from Olivia's body. And for the icing on the cake, Walter's biological child, the one he didn't realize he loved so much until his ex spirited her away, would somehow miraculously not be moving across the ocean, so Walter would get not only a new wife and a new child, but he'd get to the keep the older child, too (nah-nah, bitchy first wife, serves you right for abandoning your husband and for trying to take away a father's rights to his child!)

I should have had more faith in Rhoda Baxter. For Baxter's narrative sets up the sentimental situation only to send it spinning in entirely unexpected directions. Just for starters, Olivia is immediately on to the implicit sexism behind Walter's "kind" impulse, and is not at all wary about telling him just what she thinks of it:

"You screwed up the first time and now you're hoping that you can persuade me to keep this baby so that you can have another go. Is that it? Just THINK about how irresponsible that is. You want me to have a child that I don't want and that you have no claim on, just because you can't face the fact that you were a lousy father to your daughter." (2500)

I won't give away the other surprises in store for Walter and Olivia as they try to negotiate the bumps in their relationship that Olivia's unexpected pregnancy and Walter's reaction to it. I will say, though, that while Baxter's romance will make you chuckle, it will also make you think about just what a parent, especially a father, owes a child, and what a child owes a parent in return.

And what a woman owes herself.

Photo credits:
Couple embracing: Huffpost/Malia Moss
Keep Calm...: The Keep Calm-O-Matic
What the HELLP?: What the Hellp

Girl in Trouble (Smart Girls #3)
indie-published, 2017

Friday, November 17, 2017

Is it time to retire the phrase "sweet romance"?

Author Barbara James, in the comments section of several recent RNFF blog posts, used the phrase "sweet romance" to describe her writing. At around the same time, other romance authors on several listservs to which I subscribe were complaining about the same term—"sweet romance"—as well as its counterpart,"clean romance," as a label or category. What, exactly, does "sweet romance" say to a potential reader? And why do some authors find the term problematic?

Barbara James pointed to one specific meaning when she noted in a comment, "But the sex [in my books] is closed door, because I don't think graphic sex scenes are necessary—these are sweet romances!"  By this definition, a "sweet romance" refers to any romance novel in which sex scenes are not depicted on the page.

[A brief digression here into bibliographic historiography; feel free to skip if you want to get directly into the whys & wherefores...

Who first began calling romances without sex "sweet"? I ran a Google Books phrase search for "sweet romance" between the dates 1970 and 1980, expecting to find the phrase turning up in this period, in reaction to the more graphic sensual historicals that poured out of New York publishing houses in the wake of Avon's 1972 publication of Kathleen Woodiwiss's The Flame and the Flower. How could you have a "sweet" romance until you had a "sexy" romance with which to contrast it? Before Woodiwiss, all romances were what we today would term "sweet," so there would be no need to create such a label or category.

Google Books Advanced search was not of much help, unfortunately. It cites Ann Hampson's 1978 contemporary Harlequin romance, Sweet is the Web, includes an advertisement at the back for another series, Harlequin Historicals, which uses the phrase. But as this line did not begin publishing books until 1986, this must be a later reprint copy, rather than an original 1978 copy:

The broad, bold sweep of history and the quiet times of sweet romance—powerful, sinister lords doing evil deeds, and great ladies in gem-studded silks brushing against ragged beggars and homeless waifs (193)

The search noted the phrase appears in the Library of Congress's 1978 Catalog of Copyright Entries Third Series, although whether it appears as a descriptive phrase, the name of a line of books, or as the title of an individual book or books, one can't tell, as the search doesn't show an inside view of the book.

Google also cites the 1979 Australian Parliamentary Papers, and shows a tiny snippet from the book:

But this looks more like a book title than a descriptive phrase to me.

Moving on to 1981-1985 turns up a single citation, in the 1985 New York Times obituary of bestselling author Taylor Caldwell: "Not sweet romance but melodrama was her stock in trade, laced increasingly with her own conservative political opinions."

In fact, the term as used to refer to romances without sex only starts to show up on Google Books' radar in the 1990s, in guides to writers interested in writing romances, and in the works of librarians and scholars:

Wayne Barton and Kristen Ramsdell's What Do I Read Next? (1993) 
A Poetics of Criticism (1994)
Eve Paludan's The Writers' Pink Pages (1995)
David H. Bourcherding's Romance Writer's Sourcebook: Where to Sell Your Manuscripts (1996) 
Kristen Ramsdell's Romance Fiction: A Guide to the Genre (1999)
Kay Mussell and Johanna Tuñón's North American Romance Writers (1999)

That the term doesn't appear very often before 1990 may be due to the fact that Google's Book search includes fewer books from before the Internet age. I'd be curious to know if anyone has pre-1990 romance novels that refer to themselves as "sweet romances," or which include the phrase "sweet romance" in their sell copy.

End of bibliographic/historiographic digression :-)]

Why do some authors get annoyed by the phrase "sweet romance"? The ones on the listservs I read had two main objections.

First, those who write romantic mysteries, or gothic romances, or other darker books with romance plotlines but which also did not include sex scenes, object that the term misrepresents what they are writing. Their novels may not include sex on the page, but books with haunted mansions, gruesome murders, and psychopath villains should by no means be termed sweet. To label them as such is to misrepresent their contents to potential readers.

Second, feminist-inclined readers object to the term because, taking a page from Deconstructionist literary criticism, they understand that the phrase serves as one half of a binary opposition. The other side of the opposition—"not sweet" romance, or "sexy" romance, (or, if we use the companion phrase, "clean romance," its opposite, "dirty" romance)—is not just other, but lesser. Because of the positive connotations that go along with the word "sweet, "sweet romance" becomes the positive term in the binary, while its opposite is held up as a negative: something to be avoided, shunned, or denigrated. Sweet romances do not feature sex; romances that do feature sex are therefore not sweet. The label "sweet romance" thus implies that sex is bad, shameful, a decidedly unfeminist position.

Why, then, do we not simply call romances that do not include sex scenes "no-sex romances" or "romances without sex"? I think in part because the term "sweet romance" carries some additional connotations, connotations that are about more than just sex.

I hear hints of these connotation when Barbara James brings up the phrase again, this time in a comment in response to an RNFF blog post about how to define "feminist romance":

I write sweet romances. So my characters might be seen as anti-feminist. They are in college, but they want to graduate with their Mrs. Degree, work, and have their first children by their mid-twenties. They would rather become stay at home moms, work from home, or work part time while their children are small.

"Sweet" here does not just refer, then, to the presence or absence of sex. "Sweet" is a political position packaged as a personal choice. It links not having sex (or not showing it on the page) with other personal choices: for a young woman to want to marry (a man); for her to want to have children by a certain age; for her to be the parent who remains at home with young children, rather than her husband. It never questions why certain women should want such things, or what role public policies and institutions might have played in shaping private, "personal" decisions.

Why can't a sweet romance feature a 40 year old heroine? A heroine who falls for another woman? A heroine who never wants to have children? Any of these storylines could be written without explicit sex scenes, couldn't they?

I'm guessing it is because "sweet" carries with it a whole lot of other meanings than just the sexual one.

What would you say to retiring the term "sweet romance" and replacing it with "romance without sex"? Or, in the case of the sweet romance in which "sweet" means just a little bit more, how about "traditional values romance"? Or "socially conservative romance"?

Photo/illustration credits:
Binary opposition: Slide Share

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Escaping Escapist Romance? Tasha L. Harrison's THE TRUTH OF THINGS

Heterosexual genre romance is filled with heroes whose professions are all about public service. From firefighters to Navy SEALs, CIA agents to cops on the beat, male characters who their lives on the line for the greater good rank high in the standings of readers' favorite romance heroes.

But what happens when the society in which you live considers the police something to be shunned, rather than celebrated? Where dating a cop is tantamount to fraternizing with the enemy? These are questions that Tasha L. Harrison's The Truth of Things made me consider.

On her way home from an evening with friends, photojournalist and wedding photographer Ava Marie Greene tries to shrug off catcalls from the small-time drug dealers who hang out on the corner in her northside Camden New Jersey neighborhood, "a few blocks from the reach of gentrification" (Kindle Loc 86). But the call-outs escalate until Emiliano, another dealer with whom Ava is friendly, intervenes. Before Ava can de-escalate the confrontation, Emil and another dealer are brawling, and the police are on their way.

Officers on patrol in Camden, NJ
For Ava, the sound of sirens and the flash of blue lights don't offer the same reassurance that they would to a white person in a suburban neighborhood: "I wish I could say that I was relieved to see her [the cop], but to me, it felt like another gang had rolled up. One that was just as unpredictable as the boys with their bellies on the sidewalk" (131). Ava's suspicion proves warranted; the cop treats her with as much aggression as she does the fighting men, shoving Ava to the ground and breaking one of her expensive camera lenses. The cop, Stevenson, "looked like she could be a Latina or maybe mixed. Not that it mattered. All cops were one color. Blue" (193).

But the aggressive cop is soon joined by another, an African-American man who dials down the antagonism, even apologizes for his fellow officer's behavior. And insists on walking Ava home. But in Camden, even such an apparently chivalrous offer can be dangerous to accept. The officer tries to get his flirt on with Ava, but she shuts him down: "Well, kind sir. Thank you for escorting me to my front door after a lovely evening of street and police harassment" (224).

Ava is expecting that to be the last of Levi Raymond. Yet after she runs into him again at the Camden police station, where she's gone to file a complaint against the officer who damaged her property, Officer Raymond proves he's a bit more persistent than Ava had originally realized. Going out for a "I'm sorry" cup of coffee would not be the same as dating a cop, would it?

When Ava begins to tutor Emil in photography, though, the thought of her impending not-date is sitting pretty uncomfortably: "A girl who just offered to mentor a drug dealer, who cared about racial injustice, and the plight of the common man had no business having a casual cup of coffee with a cop" (650). But even though Ava tries to break her date, she and Levi end up talking—and then meeting, and then meeting yet again. Because the presumptuous, arrogant officer also does something no man has done for Ava in a long time—puts a smile on her face.

As Ava and Levi get to know one another, Ava discovers Levi is far from the stereotype of the cop who bleeds blue. He's kind, and honorable, and is interested in Ava's photography work; his parents are devoted lovebirds; and he spends his free time volunteering at the local Boys & girls Club. And he apologizes so easily, far easier than wary Ava. Ava, used to family letting her down (her father abandoned them when she was young, and her mother abandoned her for drugs), gradually begins to lower her defenses.

But when a police shooting rocks Camden, Ava and Levi are right in the middle of it, both professionally and personally. And when, in the face of police apathy about the shooting, Ava tweets out a video of the incident, sparking explosive public protests against the Camden police department, will Levi side with Ava and the protesters? Or with his department and fellow officers?

Many romance readers defend the genre by arguing it is a form of pleasurable escape, a way for readers to stop thinking about the problems of their lives for a few hours while they turn the pages of a book, a book in which the only real conflict is between potential lovers. After reading Harrison's romance, though, I began to wonder if even the idea of escaping into a romance novel is built on a certain assumption of privilege. What I mean is, just as white Americans, because of the history of white dominance in American society, have the privilege of not thinking about race all the time, but people of color do not, perhaps the option of escapist reading of all types is equally one reserved for the economically and racially privileged.

And perhaps romance novels that attempt to grapple with race and racism could help readers escape from their escapist romance blinders. If only for a few short hours...

    "I don't know if I'm going to be able to do this."
     "Yes, you can," he said. "You want to know how I know?"
     "Because you're strong. Stronger than me. You've already been through so much, Ava. You're the strongest person I know."
     People were always saying that.
     Ava, you've been through so much. You're so strong.
     For the first time, I allowed myself to say the one thing that was always on the tip of my tongue when people said that. "I wish I didn't have to be." (3889)

Photo credits:
Camden police on patrol: New York Times
Police and protestors: Sean Rayford/Getty Images via NPR

The Truth of Things
Dirtyscribbler Press, 2017

Friday, November 10, 2017

The origins of the bodice-ripper cover: Playboy Press?

Over the past month, I've been slowly reading through John Markert's Romance Publishing: The History of an Industry, 1940s to the Present (published in 2016 by McFarlane & Co.). Market is a sociologist, not a literary critic, and thus his book focuses not on analyzing literary texts or trends, but instead on "the structure of the romance publishing industry, and, in particular, the key role of decision makers within the industry who decide what novels to select or reject" (5).

And who decide what cover images will adorn those selected novels.

For me, the most fascinating fact in the early chapters of Markert's book is his discussion of the role Playboy Press played in the packaging of what publishers and writers were beginning to call "bodice-rippers" in the romance market of the 1970s. Though the trend for publishing historical romances "spicer and more sensual than any of the romance subgenres being published at the time" began with Avon, and their 1972 paperback original The Flame and The Flower, the number of sexy historicals being published began to climb at a rapid pace only after Playboy Press entered the market in 1976.

In his interviews with Mary Ann Stuart, editorial director for Playboy Press in the 1970s, Markert heard that Stuart had proposed the idea of publishing sexy historicals to Playboy management in 1975. But management was worried about producing a product aimed at women because "the company had always thought of itself as primarily in the entertainment business for men" (51). But with the success of Barbara Bonham's Proud Passion (the book sold more than half a million copies by the end of 1976, the year of its publication), the higher-ups at Playboy were convinced. And unlike Avon, which debuted only seven new historical romance authors between 1972 and 1979, Playboy Press issued five historical romance titles per month.

Before their venture into the romance market, Playboy Press had distributed books primarily through mail-order. But to reach the romance market, the Press signed a distribution agreement with Pocket Books, which imposed a five title limit per month. After the termination of that contract, Playboy Press upped their publishing schedule again, this time to ten books per month. And by the time Playboy Press was sold to Berkely-Jove in 1982, the monthly production had been upped again, this time to fifteen sensual historicals each month.

The original 1972 cover
As Markert notes, the cover of Avon's early sensual historicals did not look much different from those of other, "tamer" romance books being published in the 1970s. Playboy's Mary Ann Stuart felt they needed to package their books differently, Markert reports:

...it was essential that the cover tell the reader what to expect from the book's content. The cover illustrations were particularly important to Playboy because, unlike Avon, it did not have a developed group of writers whose names the readers would recognize; moreover, Playboy could not spend much on advertising to promote the number of new authors it was releasing to meet its monthly production schedule. (53-54).

And thus Playboy's art director (a man, I'm guessing, although Markert's book doesn't specify) searched for artists who could convey to readers the "startling sensuality [of] the content's passion" (56). Said art director contracted with a "group of expatriate artists living in Spain" (men, again, one can't but wonder?) to illustrate all covers for the Playboy Press romance line.

The far sexier TFTF 1980 cover
These new, provocative covers did more than just power Playboy Press romances to the top of the lucrative romance market. They also taught a generation of romance readers to equate the "startlingly sensuous" covers with the type of romance that, for the first time, depicted sex not from (or not just from) the male point of view, but from the female's (however problematic those depictions may have been). For with the success of the Playboy romances, other publishers who eagerly jumped into the historical "bodice-ripper" market in the late 1970s and early 1980s followed Playboy's lead, adorning their own new books with similarly "sensual" covers, and repackaging and republishing older books in newer, sexier garb.

Markert notes in an aside that the "ample bosoms swelled with lust" of the heroines featured on the covers of Playboy Press romances might be "a reflection, perhaps, of Playboy's obsession with large-breasted women" (54). Perhaps? It seems to me that the cover concept for the entire market of "bodice-rippers" owes both its genesis, and its proliferation, to the norms of sex and beauty promulgated by a company who "thought of itself as primarily in the entertainment business for men" (51).

Pretty ironic, isn't it, that women are the ones who were laughed and sneered at for snatching up the tawdry-covered bodice-rippers when it was Playboy Press, and other publishers who imitated them, who created those covers with the assumptions about the male gaze in mind?

If you're interested in reading some of the actual Playboy Press romances, check out these two lists on Goodreads:

Romance by Playboy Press, part 1
Romance by Playboy Press, part 2

Just reading the book descriptions is an education in itself.

And here are a just a few of the hundreds of Playboy Press historical romance book covers:

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

What's Modern About Modern Christian Romance? Tammy L. Gray's MY HOPE NEXT DOOR

I've been gradually reading my way through this year's list of Romance Writers of America's RITA award winners, given to the best romances published in 2016. The only one I'd read before was Courtney Milan's novella, Her Every Wish, which I'd featured on the blog back in April of 2016 (see review here). So I was curious to see if any of the other winners would feature similarly explicit (or even implicit) references to feminist themes, or if Milan's book was the exception that would prove the rule that the most popular romances tend to be more conservative than progressive in regards to gender issues.

My biggest RITA-reading surprise so far has been the winner of the "Romance with Religious or Spiritual Elements" category: Tammy L. Gray's My Hope Next Door. I'm no expert on religious romances, but the ones I have read have almost always been on the deeply conservative end of the gender politics spectrum. But Gray, who bills her novels as "modern Christian romances with true-to-life characters and culturally relevant plotlines," strikes a markedly different—and at times, even feminist—note from more traditional Evangelical romance authors.

Even Christian youth speaker and YouTuber Katie Gregoire,
"no feminist," finds typical Christian romance problematic...
Former town wild child Katie Stone is returning to Fairfield, Georgia, to help support her parents as they struggle with her mother's diagnosis of multiple sclerosis. Several years earlier, Katie had fled Fairfield, and everyone in it—her parents; her two best friends; and her ex, Cooper Myles, "two hundred pounds of stubbornness [who] had controlled her for most of their two-year relationship" (page 3)—chasing an elusive sense of peace. A peace she'd never been able to find, until she stepped into a church next to the women's shelter she'd been staying in four months earlier. Unlike most of the protagonists of the Christian romances I've read, Katie's turn to God comes before the start of the novel, rather than serves as the novel's climactic scene. The resulting novel, then proves to be less about Katie's coming to religion, and more about how she comes to terms with the harm she'd done to the people in her past, and the harm those people had in turn inflicted on her.

Somewhat predictably, Gray pairs Katie romantically with the town good boy, Asher Powell, the son of Fairfield's pastor. But Asher's not the flatly-constructed cardboard good boy common to the religious romances I've read. In high school, Katie had found "it revolting, [Asher's] kindness, the way he watched her with eyes that promised understanding" (17). But at twenty-six, Asher's faith in his religion is at an all-time low. Ten months earlier, he was forced to resign from his position as the church's media director in the wake of the painfully public revelation that his relationship with his girlfriend was not as chaste as their religion demanded. "Asher had given his life to that church. Half of the people in it had known him since he was a baby. Yet one lapse in judgment, and they crucified him" (10). Ten months after leaving to keep parishioners from calling for the resignation of his pastor father, Asher still can't get over his bitterness at the betrayal of his larger church family, even though his own parents have supported him throughout the ordeal.

Wild child Katie, reformed, trying to make amends; good boy Asher, fallen, trying to make sense of abandonment and betrayal. Is it any wonder that when Katie returns to her parents' home, to her mother's disappointment, judgment, and guilt, to her father's tight-lipped sobriety, and discovers that Asher has purchased the property next door, the two find themselves gradually drawn to each other? At first in wary attraction, later in neighborly companionship, and finally into something deeper.

But what they need to navigate through their slowly developing relationship isn't religion, at least not directly. They need to learn from their religious journeys, and to teach one another the lessons they've learned, then apply those lessons to their lives and their relationships in the everyday world. Katie needs not only to make amends to the people she's hurt, and to forgive them for hurting her, but to extend that forgiveness to herself. And to accept help from others in her community when it is offered, and needed, rather than protecting her vulnerability at all costs. Asher, who has grown up invested in the importance of such community, models for Katie what that kind of caring can be. As he tells her early in their relationship, after she laughs at the idea that his father, the pastor, has flaws just like any other human being, "There are no perfect people, Katie. Just some who try harder than others to do the right thing" (76). Being willing to try, rather than to run away in fear, is what Katie must finally do in order to make things right with the people she loves.

But Katie is not the only one with lessons to learn. Good boy Asher also needs to change, growth which becomes easier to understand and accept once he becomes involved with Katie. Asher needs not only to rediscover the ability to forgive, but also to accept his own weaknesses, and to be honest about his own feelings. Honesty isn't something that, as a pastor's son, he believes he's entitled to: "That was the church way, right? Put on the smile, the mask; tell everyone you're fine when really you're dying inside" (99). But after his estrangement from the church, Asher "didn't want to be that person anymore" (99). And Katie's directness, her bold honesty, provides Asher with a model for how to move beyond playing the role of the happy good boy, to understand that he, like his father, is flawed, is not perfect. And her acceptance of his weaknesses "gives him permission to be flawed," permission he hasn't until now believed he could have (120). Only after accepting his own flaws, as Katie accepts hers, can he move beyond the bitterness of betrayal, to become once again someone "who tries harder than others to do the right thing" (76).

I've rarely found such fully-developed characters in the religious or spiritual romances I've read. And not only the protagonists; Gray's secondary characters—Katie's friends Laila and Chad, and Asher's and Katie's parents— are all rendered with equal nuance and respect. I even felt sympathy for Katie's controlling ex, Cooper, and Asher's fearful ex, Jillian, characters who in other religious romances might easily be cast as flatly evil others.

Most importantly, though, in feminist terms, is that Katie and Asher's relationship ends up working not just because they share religious beliefs, but because they share a respect for one another, and are willing to be there for each other. Not just during the easy times, but the hard ones, too. As Asher tells Katie at book's end:

"If you want us to work, you have to include me, even in the parts that aren't so pretty. I've been in a relationship with walls, and masks, and false smiles. I called it love, but it wasn't. What we have—real, honest truth, painful or not—that's love" (300).

Respect, honesty, shared burdens as well as joys—sounds like a recipe for a feminist heterosexual relationship to me...

Photo credits:
Katie Gregoire: YouTube
Georgia church: Midway Congregational

My Hope Next Door
Waterfall Press, 2016

Friday, November 3, 2017

Can You Define "Feminist Romance"?

At the Boston Book Festival last Saturday, I had the great pleasure of sharing a stage (or, rather, two chairs in the front of a conference room) with contemporary romance author Aya de León for a panel discussion of  "The Hows and Whys of Feminist Romance." We had a mixed audience—some romance writers, a lot of romance readers, and some Book Festival attendees who were simply intrigued by the seeming paradox of "feminism" and "romance" appearing in the same workshop title. Given that mixed audience, we thought it would be good to start by opening our panel by defining some terms: "romance," "feminism," and "feminist romance."

For me, the first two were fairly easy to define, but the third was a bit more fraught. Not just because I'm more of an intuitive reader and reviewer ("I recognize it when I see it—or don't see it"), but also because earlier discussions I've heard and participated in made me doubt whether a subgenre labeled  "Feminist Romance" is even possible (see this post on Cecilia Grant's blog for a sample of such conversations). The decision to name this blog "Romance Novels for Feminists," rather than "Feminist Romance Novels" was a deliberate one. Not just because I didn't want to give the appearance that I was the sole or ultimate arbiter of whether or not a book was feminist, but also because I wasn't sure that "Feminist Romance" could even exist as a category or subgenre. Sure, some romances can contain feminist elements and ideas, but since the romance genre focuses so tightly on romantic relationships, and often insist that those relationships are the most important aspect of their characters' lives, the very definition of "romance" seems to negate what feminism takes for granted: that other aspects of a woman's life are equally (and often more) important than with whom she falls in love.

But after looking at and thinking about different definitions of both "romance" and "feminism" with Aya, we each came up with definitions of "feminist romance." Here's a brief run-through of how we talked about definitions at the BFF:

What is a romance?

Aya and I wanted Boston Book Festival attendees to know that we were talking about mass market genre romance, not Romeo & Juliet, not literary fiction or women's fiction with romantic elements. Category romance published by Harlequin and other publishers; single-title romances from major New York and smaller independent publishers; and self-published books by authors who identify as romance writers or who tag their books as "romance" on publishing platforms.

For those who wanted a more specific definition, we pointed to the definition set forth by the Romance Writers of America. According to RWA, a romance must have two basic elements:

A central love story. "The main plot centers around individuals falling in love and struggling to make the relationship work. A writer can include as many subplots as he/she wants as long as the love story is the main focus of the novel"

An emotionally satisfying and optimistic ending. "In a romance, the lovers who risk and struggle for each other and their relationship are rewarded with emotional justice and unconditional love."

We also pointed out that while the traditional definition of "romance" pointed to a story about one man and one woman, that definition had expanded dramatically in recent years to include queer romances as well as romances with more than two protagonists

What is feminism?

I always think of Rebecca West's famous quote when I'm asked to define feminism: “I myself have never been able to find out precisely what Feminism is: I only know that people call me a Feminist whenever I express sentiments that differentiate me from a doormat or a prostitute” (1913). Aya, whose romances feature sex workers, had some problems with the last part of West's quip, deservedly so.

For more specific definition, then, we turned to the Oxford English Dictionary:

Advocacy of equality of the sexes and the establishment of the political, social, and economic rights of the female sex; the movement associated with this

I personally love this definition's focus on advocacy. During our talk, I mentioned the survey I did several years ago of romance writers, asking them to define feminism, and how many of them described feminism as a belief, rather than as an act. "I'm a feminist," or "I believe in feminist principles" rather than "I advocate feminism" or "I do feminism." In contrast, the OED definition insists that feminism is an act: to advocate, to support, recommend, or speak in favor of feminist ideas, goals, and principles.

If we believe that a romance can influence its readers, can advocate on behalf of certain ideas, goals, and principles, then perhaps the idea that a subgenre we can label "feminist romance" has the possibility to exist becomes a bit easier to imagine.

What is a feminist romance?

Aya and I each presented our own thoughts about how to define "feminist romance." Aya's definition: a romance in which the male romantic lead decides to step away from the male privilege granted him by patriarchy and get behind the goals and beliefs of the woman he loves (Aya's more of a spontaneous speaker than I am, so this is paraphrase of what she said, rather than a direct quote of her words). Aya's novels to date have featured male/female pairings, although they do include queer secondary characters; we didn't have the chance to talk about how her definition might be applied/modified to speak to queer romances.

My definition was more literal. I wondered if combining the RWA definition of "romance" with the OED definition of "feminism" might yield a helpful definition, one that would move beyond just celebrating the fact that romances are primarily written by women, or pointing to a strong, outspoken, feisty female character in a romance and then labeling it as feminist. Here's what I came up with:

Two basic elements comprise every feminist romance novel:

• A central love story in which the characters and/or the author demonstrates a commitment to the political, social, and/or economic equality of the sexes. The main plot centers around individuals falling in love and struggling to make their relationship work in a patriarchal society. A writer can include as many subplots as he/she wants as long as the love story is the main focus of the novel.

• An emotional satisfying and optimistic ending. In a romance, the lovers who risk and struggle for each other and their relationship are rewarded with social, political, or economic, as well as emotional justice and unconditional love

How would you/do you define "feminist romance"?

Photo/Illustration credits:
What is Romance?: Better than a Story blog
What does Feminism Really Mean?: Whim Magazine
Be My Equal: Radical Buttons