Friday, October 9, 2015

Celebrating Queer Romance Month

A quick post today, to give a big shout out to Queer Romance Month celebrations. Check out the posts at for intelligent, funny, heartwarming and heartbreaking posts about the current state of queer romance, and for recommendations for future reading.

And check out these past posts for queer romance reads from RNFF:

Complicated Identities: Sara Farizan's Tell Me Again How a Crush Should Feel

Complicating Dominance and Submission: Alexis Hall's For Real

Countering Orientalism: Sara Farizan's If You Could Be Mine

Feminist Guidelines for Reading M/M Romance?

Gay for You or Out for You?

Gay Romance and Professional Sports: Sean Kennedy's Tigers and Devils

Hiding In/From the Man Cave: Amy Jo Cousins' Off Campus

Late Bloomers? K. J. Charles' Think of England and Sarina Bowen's The Understatement of the Year

Lesbian Allies, Heterosexual Romance: Meljean Brook's Riveted

Lesbian Romantic Suspense: Mason Dixon's Date with Destiny and Andrea Bramhall's Clean Slate

Love in the Limelight: Nell Stark's The Princess Affair and Lynn Ames' All That Lies Within

Nancy Garden on my Mind

Negotiating the Gender Politics of Military Life: Lauren Gallagher's Razor Wire

Paying it Forward: Heidi Cullinan's Love Lessons series

Phyllis M. Betz's Lesbian Romance Novels and the state of romance scholarship

The Politics of M/M romance and Alex Beecroft's Blessed Isle

The Power and Limits of Labels: Bill Konigsberg's Openly Straight

Romance at the Roosevelt: Heidi Cullinan's Carry the Ocean

Spotlight on the Lambda Nominees: Karin Kallmaker's Love by the Numbers

Spotlight on the Lambdas, Part 2: Ann McMan and Salem West's Hoosier Daddy

Ways of Being Gay... Ann Herendeen's Phyllida and the Brotherhood of Philander

You Don't Complete Me: Solace Ames' The Submission Gift

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Not Your Everyday Erotic Romance: M. O'Keefe's EVERYTHING I LEFT UNSAID

Last week, on the Everafter Romance blog, Guest blogger Sara Horney noted her discontent with the current state of the erotic romance market. "Has Erotica Become the Beige Granny Pants of Romance?" Horney asked, suggesting that in their rush to bank in on the 50 Shades of Grey trend, publishers and authors are simply churning out cardboard cutouts of the same story, time and time again:

No longer was erotica the sexy, bright, red thong of my reading wardrobe, it became the beige granny panties. Just a boring same old-same old in which an Alpha billionaire/MC president/rockstar/DEA Agent/MMA fighter/sex club owner/shifter of some kind meets a naive ingenue/single mom/investigative journalist/uptight sex therapist/curvy entrepreneur and teaches her about the darker side/emotional healing power/feminist truth of pleasure. Over and over and over again. For me, erotica became the Groundhog Day of reading.

I both agree and disagree with Horney. I agree that what the mainstream publishers (and many indie writers, as well) keep putting out there are simply worn out retreads of an already painfully tedious storyline. But I disagree that this beaten-to-death storyline is not the only one you can find in the current realm of erotic romance (for example, give Ruthie Knox and Mary Ann Rivers' enchanted realism/erotic new adult novella The Dark Space a try if you're looking for something really different).

And even if an author does use the 50 Shades model as a starting point, it doesn't have to end up as pointless as a rerun of Groundhog Day. It just might turn into something as thought-provoking as Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.

Take Molly O'Keefe, whose contemporary romances I've often praised on this blog. Her latest offering, though, looks and feels far different than her previously published novels. Its cover is dark, rather than colorful; its cover models are shot in broody black and white. O'Keefe has even gone so far as to do that strange erotica writer thing, abbreviating her first name, so that the cheerful, sweet, down-home "Molly" becomes the more enigmatic "M."

Unsurprisingly, Everything I Left Unsaid reads far differently than O'Keefe's previous books, at least as far as content goes. Hot phone sex with a stranger; a woman discovering the pleasure of her own sexuality; a wealthy alpha male who tells the heroine what to do; deep, dark secrets haunting each character's past—in this book, you can find all tropes of the repetitively boring erotic romance that Horney decries, in abundance.

What's different about O'Keefe's book, though, is that it doesn't dance blindly on the thin line between domineering hero and abusive hero, as so many erotic romances do. Horney describes her frustration thus: "Too many times have I given up on a novel because authors have written a male character that has crossed the line from Alpha male to plain old asshole male." Such books never acknowledge, never mind even recognize, that they've crossed this line, that their storylines, as Horney describes them, "read as more abusive than sexy."

In contrast, Everything I Left Unsaid puts the issue of abuse front and center. The novel opens with protagonist Annie arriving not at a swanky office building of her future boss/romantic interest, but at a North Carolina trailer park, where "escape smelled like a thick layer of Febreze over stale cigarette smoke." We gradually learn that Annie has taken the courageous step of fleeing from her physically abusive husband, dying her hair, driving hundreds of miles, and laying a trail of diversions to keep herself safe.

When a cell phone starts ringing from behind the cushions of the trailer she's rented, though, the appeasing ways her husband inculcated in her over five years of marriage, as well as her own friendly nature, lead Annie to answer it. And when she hears the caller's "angry sigh. The this is your fault sigh," she struggles with how to answer. But her actions on her own behalf give her the anger, and the drive, to fight the urge to appease:

And I had this visceral reaction, screwed into the marrow of my bones over the last five years, to do everything in my power and some things incredibly outside my power to appease the anger behind that sigh. To make it all okay.
     But those days were officially over.
     Sorry, Dylan. No one sighs like that at me. Not anymore. Not ever. (Kindle Loc 141).

Though Annie isn't wise about the ways of the big bad world (she lived isolated on a rural Oklahoma farm for all her life), she knows enough to give the caller a false name. Her choice—that of her "bold... confident. Embarrassingly sexy" cousin Layla, rather than her "utterly staid and uptight" self—suggests the person she's hoping to become. A self that she begins to explore with the caller, a man named Dylan.

Because unlike her husband, Dylan asks if she's okay, asks "Are you safe?", and refuses her offer to return his phone to him. As a result, Annie is more than tempted to trust Dylan with her secrets. But asking someone else to help her, to solve her problems for her, is not why she left her husband, a man whose offer to do the same she had accepted without thinking, to her lasting regret.

The previous renter of the trailer had used the phone to report in to Dylan about the doings of her neighbor, a surly older man named Ben. Annie offers to do the same, even without knowing why Dylan needs to know about the old man. And suddenly, abruptly, their conversation turns charged:

     "Are you offering to look in on him for me?"
     "That easy?"
     "That easy.
     "When's the last time you said no to someone?" he asked.
     "Why does it matter?"
     "I have a sense, Layla, that you give away your yeses without thinking."
     Oh, he was right. So damn right.
     "And you want my no's?"
     "I want something you don't give away."
     My knees buckled and I leaned back against the wood-paneled wall, feeling light-headed. How... how did we get here? What has happened to me? (215).

Annie tells Dylan not to call her again, fearful of the strong feelings his words, and his voice, evoke. But when Dylan sends her a phone recharger, and tells her he'll keep paying for the plan, she can't help but call him back with her thanks. And again, simple conversation turns immediately erotic.

A series of hot bouts of phone sex between inexperienced Annie and directing Dylan ensue. But this isn't just a story about a dominant guy teaching an innocent ingenue how to embrace her sexuality. It's also about how to figure out when, and where, to draw the lines. Is neighbor Ben simply a grouchy old man? Or a stone-cold killer? Is niceness a positive trait, or one that only leaves you open to exploitation and harm? Can a man be simultaneously controlling and kind? How little control does a victim have over her own life, and how much of her own behavior is self-deception, an act of complicity with her own abuse? And where is the line between brave and just plain crazy?

Since the book leaves us on a cliffhanger, none of these questions gets definitively answered. But by simply being willing to ask them, M. O'Keefe proves herself far more interested in women's empowerment than many a fellow rider on the 50 Shades erotic romance train.

Everything I Left Unsaid
Bantam, 2015

Friday, October 2, 2015

Second Chance Romance, One Night Stand Style

I'm a big fan of second chance romance, especially those books in which the protagonists were just not ready/mature enough to make a relationship work during their initial time together. For me, what's appealing about the second-chance romance trope is the idea that mistakes aren't forever. You can and will screw up, in life and in love, but that doesn't mean you're a bad person, or that you're doomed only to regrets until the day you die. Familiarity, too, is part of the appeal—returning to someone whom you once knew really well, and rediscovering those things about that person that made you light up with smiles. And then finding out the things about that person that are different, some of which may even make that person more appealing. Familiarity and forgiveness—a formula almost as good as salted caramel gelato, at least to this romance reader.

I've come across several second-chance romances of late, though, in which the "first chance" is barely more than a one-night or one-weekend stand. J. Kenner's Say My Name (an RWA conference give-away), Laura Florand's A Wish Upon Jasmine, and Johanna Lemon's That Girl all feature heterosexual couples who meet and experience an intense, immediate sexual and emotional connection, but then who for various reasons end up parting. And then who end up back together again, trying to understand what drew them apart, and why it might be better for them, and for each other, if they try and stay together.

This variation on the second-chance romance obviously appeals for one of the same reasons that its more common cousin does: the idea that mistakes aren't forever, that forgiveness is not just a possibility, but a realizable promise. But it seems to be totally lacking when it comes to the second piece: familiarity. These pairs of lovers did not stay together long enough to really know much about the other, not in the same way that, say, Jane Austen's Anne Elliot and Frederick Wentworth (Persuasion)  or Lisa Kleypas's Win and Kev (Seduce Me at Sunrise), Kristan Higgins' Harper and Nick (My One and Only) or even Sherry Thomas's Briony and Leo (Not Quite a Husband) do.

What different desires, then, do you think the one-night stand second-chance romance appeals to? What fantasies does it satisfy, that romances with longer-term first-chance stages don't?

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Paying it Forward: Heidi Cullinan's LOVE LESSONS series

"Pay it forward": to repay a good deed that someone has done for you not by reimbursing that original benefactor, but by doing a good deed to someone else entirely. According to Wikipedia, the concept is as old as the ancient Greeks, and endorsed by a panoply of past luminaries from Ben Franklin to Ralph Waldo Emerson, from Lily Hardy Hammond to Robert Heinlein. Sometimes, the philosophy focuses on random acts of kindness to strangers: paying the toll for the car behind you; buying the cup of coffee for the person standing in the Starbucks line beside you. Other times, though, paying it forward is more specific: volunteering at one homeless shelter after you've been helped by a different one; helping unpublished writers learn more about their craft when you're an already-published author. Some of the most powerful acts of paying it forward, I think, take place among groups of people who miss out on the benefits others of us take for granted. Such as adolescents who find themselves estranged from their friends, families, and networks of support because of their sexual or gender identities.

This concept of paying it forward serves as a unifying thread through each of the three New Adult romances that Heidi Cullinan has published as the Love Lessons series. In book one, Walter Lucas had planned to spend his senior year living off campus. But when his planned roommate graduates early and moves away, Hope's Dean denies Walter's request, insisting that he live in the dorms. Thus Walter, big gay man about campus, finds himself stuck rooming with geeky, Disney-loving, allergy-suffering freshman Kelly Davidson. Kelly, who grew up in a close-knit, accepting family but who is just coming out in public for the first time, is looking for romance with a capital "R." To cynical flirt Walter, wanting romance is to want a false, Disney-fied version of life:

"What the hell do I do on a date that I don't do any other time? Talk? Hell, you and I are talking right now. Go out to eat? That's on the agenda too. Doesn't mean we're sleeping together, not necessarily. Sometimes sex happens with people I hang out with, sometimes it just happens. It's like a game. Why would I want to fuck it up with some heterosexual mating dance?" (Kindle Loc 408)

With such an attitude, Walter's completely up for casual sex with his younger roomie. But Kelly wants his first time to be special, to matter. And so, despite his attraction to Hope College's very own homosexual Casanova, Kelly keeps his hands to himself.

Is Kelly at fault for wanting perfection, the ideal, a fantasy relationship that never can exist in reality? Or is Walter, for not being willing to even consider, never mind believe in, the ideal at all? Cullinan does an amazing job balancing the need to stick a pin in the false promises offered by the papering over, or Disney-fication, of real-life injustice, while simultaneously acknowledging the power of our fantasies and dreams to inspire.

This is a lesson that both Kelly and Walter take with them into the second book in the series, where they act not just as cameo guest stars from a past book, but play an active role in supporting the protagonists of Fever Pitch, both of whom are dealing with situations where their sexuality is far less accepted than was Kelly and Walter's. For Giles Mulder, high school has been a "slog through hell" (181). His family accepts and loves him for who he is, but since Giles doesn't not want, and isn't at all able, to pretend he's anything but gay, his male peers have taken their homophobia out both verbally and physically, on Giles' body. Especially those peers who've indulged sexually with Giles but who fear having anyone find out about it.

Parties are usually not Giles' scene—being the ball in a drunken game of "Kick the Fag" is hardly his idea of fun—but he promised best friend Mina he'd tag along to the end-of-senior-year shindig. No way had he expected the night to end in a lakeside tryst with Aaron Seavers, the popular transfer student whom he'd been crushing on all year. Or that he'd arrive at St. Timothy College in September to discover Aaron, who'd left him without a word, a fellow first-year.

Quiet, gentle Aaron has bee browbeaten for years by his overbearing father. But after he meets Walter during his summer job at his father's law office, and finally begins to talk openly about his sexual identity, he begins to find the courage to make a life decision: he'll follow Giles to St. Timothy. Aaron hopes being away from his family will help him figure out what he wants—out of life, out of love, and especially out of himself. Dealing with a deeply strange roommate, as well as Giles' unexpected animosity, leaves Aaron wondering if coming to St. T's was a huge mistake. But when Aaron's singing talent lands him in the midst of the college's chorus, as well as in its elite male singing group, the Ambassadors, he finds a built-in support group he never even realized he was missing.

A group he certainly needs after his father kicks him out of the house at Christmas after he hears that Aaron was kissing a boy (Giles) at the Winter Concert. But Aaron needs Walter's friendship even more, a need which Walter is determined to meet:

"I knew when I first saw you that you were lonely too. When I saw you in your corner all curled up, though, it got to me because you looked like I still feel inside most of the time. It was like I had to get you out of there,  had to take you to lunch, had to keep in touch with you, because everything about you felt like this big chance to take care of someone the way nobody ever did me, not until Kelly. I think if Kelly weren't so awesome, didn't know where this all came from, he'd be jealous. He does know, though, and he gets how taking care of you is like taking care of the little brother I never had or an alternate version of me. . . . Sometimes we need a place to be completely safe, somewhere boring that isn't about sex or adventure or wild hairs. I am that place for you." (Loc 3750).

Romance is important, yes but so is having friends who make you feel protected, feel safe. Especially when the world—or more painfully, one's family—is not a welcoming place.

I had originally started reading with book three in the series, Lonely Hearts, which was published this year, but I had to go back and start over with book one, because there were so many characters, with so many relevant stories, from the previous two books in the series that I felt I was missing out by not understanding all the romantic and friend connections Cullinan had established earlier in the series. And while each of these three books can stand alone, the experience is far richer if they are read in order.

Lonely Hearts, in fact, opens with Walter and Kelly's summer wedding, a Disney-themed extravaganza that has bitter, nasty Elijah (Aaron's difficult former roommate) nearly gagging. Elijah, whose gayness was anathema to his strictly religious parents, has nearly lost himself pretending to be the repentant Christian boy his mother and father demanded of him after he limped home after a painful year on the streets. He understands why St. Timothy's music clique has adopted "orphaned" Aaron—Aaron's sweet, and kind, and handsome, and good. But prickly, caustic, unlovable Elijah knows he's another story. He alternately rejects with loathing and feels weak at accepting Aaron and Giles' intrusion into his solitary life. And drowns himself in liquor and drugs to dull his feelings.

Elijah's not the only one who needs drink and drugs to help him pack away the pain from a life that's been "a lot more Grimm brothers and much less Walt Disney" (310). Baz Acker, the senior member of the Ambassadors, works hard to present a hip, carefree face to the St. Timothy community, even while his dark glasses and bum hip speak to Baz's own share of Grimm brothers in his past. Baz rarely tells anyone about being gay-bashed outside of a Chicago Boystown bar on his sixteenth birthday ("I lived. My boyfriend didn't" [460]), but finds himself confiding in Elijah at the wedding. Baz's graduating friends warn Elijah away from the volatile Baz, but Elijah knows Baz doesn't always cut and run—he's saved Elijah's life, not once, but twice.

Yet as the new school year unwinds, and Baz vacillates between wooing Elijah and giving him the cold shoulder, Elijah isn't sure he can cope—with college, with romance, or with his increasingly frequent anxiety attacks. And especially not with the publicity of having a relationship with a guy who has become the center of a maelstrom of media interest after said guy's mother announces her candidacy for a U. S. senate seat. Only the wholehearted support of Giles, Aaron, Walter, Kelly, and the music gang can help Elijah and Baz find the sheer courage to care about another, and, more difficultly, about themselves.

And to find their own unique ways of paying it forward.

Love Lessons
     Book #1 Love Lessons 
     Book #2 Fever Pitch
     Book #3 Lonely Hearts

Samhain, 2013, 2014, 2015

Friday, September 25, 2015

What Makes for a Strong Woman in Romance?

Last weekend, I visited the Maine Chapter of New England Romance Writers, to give a workshop on using the Myers-Briggs personality type indicator to construct character and conflict in romance novels. The Maine chapter spends the first hour of their meeting on business, and the third on guest speakers, but the second hour is devoted to a brown bag luncheon, where members (and the guest speaker) get to chat. During that time, I was really struck by a comment one author made after I mentioned that I also reviewed and wrote about romance from a feminist perspective on this blog. I explained that I had started RNFF in part because I thought that the romance genre had changed so much since most of the major academic theoretical work had been done on it, and that conventional wisdom about romance had not caught up with these changes. "Oh, yes," the writer said. "Women in romance are so different now. Almost every book I read has a strong woman in it."

I had to move on to get ready for my presentation, so I didn't have a chance to get into a longer discussion about this assertion. But it's been hanging out in my head for days now, making me wonder: are all female characters in romance strong now? What does it mean for a heroine of a romance to be labeled "strong"? Does what it means to be "strong" vary, depending on the subgenre of romance in which a heroine appears? How does being strong carry relate to a character's arc, which is often all about confronting and/or overcoming a weakness?

I have some initial thoughts about all of the above questions, but I'm curious to hear yours. When someone says "strong romance heroine," what comes to your mind?

Illustration credits:
Raised by a strong black woman: Feed Art Network
Girl Power (Wonder Woman): Aaronlopresti, Deviant Art
Pamper me: Radical Latina

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

No More Miss Mean Girl? Julianna Keyes' IN HER DEFENSE

It strikes me as funny that, in my review last week of Kristan Higgins' If You Only Knew, my commentary focused on the perils of women being too nice, and this week, I'm writing about the opposite issue: the problems faced by women who are perceived by others as being too mean...

As soon as I read Dear Author's review of Julianna Keyes latest contemporary, In Her Defense, I knew I had to read this contemporary romance. Jayne, the reviewer, opened her commentary with her fears that the novel's narrator and protagonist, Kaitlyn Dufresne, would not be welcomed with open arms by romance readers, given the decided preference said readers often express for heroines who are nice. And Kaitlyn, the top-billing lawyer at her Chicago law firm, is as about as far from nice as Pluto is from the sun. Intelligent, competitive, and hard-working, excelling at anything she sets her hand to, Kaitlyn loves being the first one into the office every morning, and the last one to leave every night. If she were a man, people might call her driven, or arrogant, but since she's a woman, she's known about the office by the charming nicknames "coldhearted bitch," "she-devil," "hell-on-heels." But Kaitlyn, who is from an economically privileged background (and is presumably white, too) doesn't give a shit about what others think; she knows she's "better than good. I'm the best," and isn't afraid to say so, to anyone, anywhere, anytime (Kindle Loc 256).

A feminist romance reader's heart tends to sink at this point in such stories; brash, self-confident, workaholic women far too often get "schooled" during the course of their romance story arcs, learning to dial down their outspokenness, to give up their workaholic ways, to above all, learn how to be nice, what every good woman should and must be (at least in romancelandia). That such schooling often takes the form of subjecting ambitious protagonists to embarrassment, shame, or out and out abjection, however, conveys not only the importance of connection and kindness, but also sends the gender-policing message that any woman who doesn't fit comfortably into the nice girl role needs to be humiliated, so she'll learn her proper place.

And cue the plot convention. Kaitlyn's just been given the prize position of head lawyer at the firm's soon-to-open new Los Angeles office. But at the opening of chapter 2, Kaitlyn wakes after falling asleep at her desk on a Saturday night to the news that she forgot to attach a promised document to a time-sensitive e-mail the night before. And gets called onto the carpet by the firm's three senior partners, not just for this lapse, but for a few other minor mistakes that have been cropping up in her work of late. Ugh, I thought, here we go again, yet another book set on punishing the ambitious career woman by making her look like an incompetent fool.

But Kaitlyn doesn't end up losing her job; she's not out on the street with no money and no friends, as happens in so many other romance novels bent on "nicening" powerful women I've read. Instead, the law firm partners (all male) tell her they worry that that she's overworking herself, something they know the office culture does little to discourage. Billing twenty-three hours a day on average is a little extreme, though, no matter the sex of the lawyer doing the billing. "We understand your position. We've all been there. That's why we know the signs," one tells her (301), and it doesn't seem like sexist placating, or bullshitting. Kaitlyn doesn't lose her job, nor her promotion; she's only forced to take a vacation, and, during her last weeks in Chicago before she moves to LA, while she'll be prepping lawyers to take over her cases, she'll only be allowed to work "holiday hours" (i.e., 7am to 7pm, Monday through Friday). The partners also encourage her to work on her leadership skills, particularly on team-building, skills which she's never much seen the use for, especially since they haven't been exactly encouraged in the cut-throat atmosphere of the law firm.

Kaitlyn's less than pleased with the partners, but she knows "when to play my cards and when to fold," so she seemingly accepts their terms. Because she's certain she can find a work-around on her ban on company network computer use outside of "holiday hours" by intimidating the head of IT. But after hearing Kaitlyn ream out the accountant who ratted her out to the boss about her excessive billing ("Let me spell it out for you. You're support staff. I pay for the house, you clean it. You say thank you, Caitlin. I say shut the fuck up. Is that clear?" [483]), said IT head does not shudder in fear. He just turns her down with a calm, straightforward "No."

Of course, said computer guy, one Eli Grant, turns out to be Kaitlyn's love interest. Not because he's tough enough to stand up to her (although he is), and not because he teaches her something about the effectiveness of kindness in building a team (although he does), but because they happen to end up in the same bar drowning their sorrows (his girlfriend cheated on him with his best friend), and their drunken flirting results in a hotter-than-hot car tryst. But more importantly, because he models for her the value of being just one thing, and being passionate about just one thing. Kaitlyn's family life (workaholic father lawyer; stay-at-home mom; older, workaholic doctor sister) and the atmosphere at her office tell Kaitlyn to be only one thing: a take-no-prisoners lawyer. The beauty of Keyes' romance is that Kaitlyn isn't forced to give up that aspect of her personality, by her bosses, by her lover, or especially by what she learns over her character arc.

Eli is immediately attracted to the brash, outspoken aspect of Kaitlyn ("I thought, Holy shit. She's the hottest, meanest woman I've ever seen," he recounts his first sight of her [672]). But he also wants her to value the other parts of herself, too, parts that he sees but that she doesn't seem to recognize, or value:

"I like the hell-on-heels lawyer that storms into the place very day like she's going to take it over. I like the woman who sits next to me to watch a baseball game, and the one who hangs out on the bleachers when I'm coaching softball. I like the woman who carried my groceries and sanded the crown molding, and the one who wore that gorgeous fucking dress and turned every head when we walked into Mache 42." (2973)

In Keyes' story, it's not just Kaitlyn, but also Eli, who makes mistakes in negotiating their tentative romance. And it's both Kaitlyn and Eli who have to cop to their shortcomings, as well as celebrate their strengths, in order for their relationship to flourish. Most importantly, Eli never insists that Kaitlyn be less, to be weak or incompetent so he can save or protect her, as so many romance novels tacitly suggest. Kaitlyn doesn't have to be nice and only nice in order for Eli to love her. Instead, Eli encourages Kaitlyn to be more.

A challenge at which Kaitlyn, overachiever that she is, can't help but excel.

Photo credits:
Overworked lawyer: Global Legal Post
Multiple passions (hearts in grass): Gare & Kitty, via I'm Not the Nanny

In Her Defense
A Time Served Novel
Carina, 2015

Friday, September 18, 2015

A story of pride and prejudice: Laurie Kahn's LOVE BETWEEN THE COVERS

Last December, I wrote about having the opportunity to meet with filmmaker Laurie Kahn and film editor Bill Anderson and view a rough cut of their documentary-in-progress about romance writers, Love Between the Covers. Earlier this month, I had the pleasure of watching the final version, when it was screened via a special Tugg screening at the Kendall Square Cinema here in Massachusetts. Back in December, Laurie asked me not to report on any of the film's details, but now, with the film "in the can," as it were, I'd like to share some thoughts about the film.

Kahn opens the film with a clever invocation of one of the ur-texts of romance. But she does it with an unexpected twist. A screen card appears with the words

We then see a shot of romance author Jane Porter, who, in an somewhat agitated voice, tells the interviewer, "I'm so proud of what I do, and what I do is so important. And it means so much to me, I don't care what critics say. I don't care."

Porter's words are immediately followed by another screen card:

After which we see romance blogger Sarah Wendell, who tells the camera, "I will have people standing above me [imitating riding on the subway], going 'You read that?'"

Though twentieth and twenty-first-century romance writers have long been plagued by derogatory stereotypes both of themselves and of the books they write, Kahn's opening statements insist that, unlike Mr. Darcy, authors of romance have no "improper pride" they must give up in order to achieve their happy endings. Instead, Love Between the Covers shows us a community of romance writers, justly proud of their many amazing achievements, especially in light of the many prejudices they face from other writers, from society, and sometimes even from their own friends and families. Many of those prejudices are confronted and challenged by the authors in the film, while others remain tantalizingly open or unaddressed.

Invoking (and poking fun at) the vilification of romance
covers by incorporating them into the film credits
Kahn's interviewees also tackle some of the major issues that scholars and readers of romance have been grappling with for decades: What is the continuing appeal of romance as a genre? Who writes romance? Who reads it? Why is romance so looked down upon, far more than are other popular (popular as in mass market) genres? What is different about romance readers than readers of other popular fiction? And what's up with those lurid, clinch-filled covers?

While the film includes interview snippets from dozens of romance writers, romance scholars, romance industry insiders (editors, book designers, publishers, etc.), and, of course, romance readers, Kahn focuses in more tightly on five representative authors—European historical romance writer Eloisa James (otherwise known as literary scholar Mary Bly, daughter of the poet Robert Bly); African-American historical romance writer Beverly Jenkins; contemporary romance writing partners Celeste Bradley and Susan Donovan; and lesbian romance writer and publisher Radclyffe (Len Barot). The diversity of the featured authors, as well as the extra camera time given to each, encourages viewers to identify and/or empathize with these authors as people, rather than holding them as objects of derision or scorn. These authors show up again at later in the film, when other, broader questions about the genre come to the fore, preventing viewers from getting lost in a sea of talking heads.

One of those questions is "what is the continuing appeal of romance?" Kahn's interviewees provide many possible, but no definitive answers. Writer Jayne Ann Krentz argues that romance invokes archetypes that go back thousands of years, and that we learn core values from popular fiction. Blogger Sarah Wendell argues that romance is the "one place where you will consistently find women's sexuality treated fairly and positively." Author Jennifer Crusie points to the sexism underlying much of high literature, contrasting the fates of women in books she studied in college with those she reads in romance:

You know, just those toxic stories, no matter how great literature they are, they're toxic to women. If you're free and sexual and you go after what you want, you're going to die horribly. Or end up with a scarlet letter on your chest celibate for the rest of your life because boy did you screw up. But in romance fiction, it's not there. You get rewarded for going after what you want. And you can have sex without dying horribly, which I thought was a plus.

Nora Roberts and Beverly Jenkins both point to the inevitable happy ending (the H.E.A, or happily ever after that is one of the defining characteristics of the genre) as the genre's major draw. But neither the writers, nor the several scholars who appear in the film, mention issues of gender—whether romance reinforces patriarchal gender roles, as many early scholars of the genre often posited—as another potential contributor to the genre's appeal. Romance is far more popular in the west and in the south of the U.S., in red states more than in blue ones; but the film is not interested in such issues of politics and gender.

Gender is decidedly brought up when authors comment about why their genre has been the target of so much popular and scholarly criticism. Jenkins observes, "It's a fantasy, yes. But so are Arnold Schwarzenegger movies. Arnold's never killed at the end of his movies? So why beat up women, because they're reading an HEA? And guys have the same kind of HEA. Sylvester Stallone never dies."  "Why is romance sneered at?" scholar and now romance editor Sarah Frantz Lyons asks. "I'm going to give the same answer everyone else has given. It's sneered at because it's written by women, for women, and it's written about women." Kahn, though, isn't interested in digging into the content of romance novels; there is little in the film about whether the genre as a whole, particular sub-genres, or even individual books promote or undercut the "empowered woman" message that the "by women, for women, about women" line that has become so ubiquitous in the romance community in the past decade asserts.

Romance readers who met online share stories in person at the RWA
That sense of community—among writers, among readers, between authors and their fans, between established writers and aspiring ones—that is where Kahn's real fascination lies. "Romance has been so dismissed. So people who read it really bonded. Had to conglomerate for safety, almost. To say it's okay to read these things," author and reader Nicole Peeler notes, adding "Romance reading isn't solitary, like other reading." Romance communities are empowering for women, no matter what the books may have to say about gender relations, Kahn's film quietly but consistently asserts. The fan girl culture of romance; the pay-it-forward attitude of the majority of romance authors; the friendships and rivalries and lifetime bonds that form, primarily between women, because of their love of romance books—this is what interests Kahn, what she most wishes to convey about romance. And convey it she does, with artistry, humor, and above all, respect.

I was going to end this post with a series of memorable quotes from the film. But it's not just quite the same, reading such quotes rather than hearing them and seeing them on film. So instead, I'm going to encourage you to go out and see the film for yourself. The producers of Love Between the Covers have hooked up with Tugg, a company that brings "on demand films to local theaters," and are in the midst of planning a series of 50-100 screenings of Love across the globe this coming fall and winter. They have been working to team up scholars, readers, and librarians with local romance writers to host such screenings.

If you are interested in bringing the film to a movie theater near you, here is the relevant contact information:

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