Friday, April 18, 2014

Writing the Sex Scene—Not

Whenever we cross paths—shoveling our cars out of a snowbank; picking up a few last-minutes items from the supermarket down the street; clearing away winter's debris in anticipation of the tiny green shoots of spring—my neighbors A and AM always ask me how my novel is coming. AM, a schoolteacher by day, has aspirations of becoming a writer, too, she's told me, although I think that like me, she's in the early stages of the process. A year or two ago, during one of our infrequent talks, she recommended I check out the classes at Grub Street, a well-regarded writing school downtown. Last fall, I finally got around to following up on her suggestion. Unfortunately, though, the class I chose, one which I thought would focus on writing genre fiction, ended up not being the best fit for me; the teacher turned out to be a horror writer who seemed more interested in having us read literary fiction which happened to draw upon popular culture than any popular genre writing itself (with the notable exceptions of a bit of Sci Fi, one superhero comic book, and some James Bond film excerpts). After a few weeks of trying to push the teacher to teach something closer to what I was interested in without much success, I just chalked it up to a bad fit, and finished out the semester.

Next time I ran into A, I mentioned my less-than-happy experience, and ended up a day or two later with a copy of the latest Iowa Summer Writing Festival catalog slipped inside my mailbox, one originally addressed to AM. Not really the place to find a class for a genre romance writer, I guessed, though I thumbed through the pages, just in case. Yes, on the whole the classes seemed far more geared to the M.F.A. crowd than toward genre writers, although some special topic classes gestured toward the not-quite-literary: writing for young adults, writing about food, writing critical reviews. A two-week novel writing class, a class in which students would workshop each other's already written first drafts, caught my eye, but when I read the lines "Our emphasis will be on the literary novel" and "we will look to other literary novels as models for our own," I knew once again I was barking up the wrong tree.

I ran into A again only a week later, and thought for a moment about ducking away before she saw me, bummed out at not being able to reward her and AM's thoughtfulness with the news that it had been worthwhile. But I sucked up my embarrassment and thanked her for her efforts, even while I explained that I wouldn't be booking a plane flight to Iowa any time soon. Undaunted, she replied, "AM subscribes to Poets & Writers. Lord knows that magazine is filled with enough ads for classes. I'll bring over a copy." Another day later, and another delivery arrived in the mailbox: the Jan/Feb edition of P&W. Lots of ads, yes, just as A had described. But for workshops like Iowa's, and for M.F.A. programs from coast to coast. All geared to literary, not genre, writers.

I'm not someone who believes that there's a clear line in the sand between the literary and the popular, though, and wondered if the articles in P&W might be worth perusing, even for a writer focusing on writing genre romance. I was encouraged when, flipping through the Table of Contents, I came across an article with the title "Writing the Sex Scene." I've been struggling with just such a scene in my WIP, and flipped to the article in question, eager to learn what advice the author, poet and novelist Beth Ann Fennelly, had to offer.

Turns out, not very much. As the writers at Salon magazine discovered when they attempted to start a "Good Sex Award" for fiction, literary fiction writers don't often write about sex. Laura Miller, a judge in the 2011 contest, noted that unearthing potential nominees for the award "proved more labor intensive than we'd imagined, not because it's difficult to find good sex scenes in fiction but because its difficult to find any sex scenes in fiction" (P&W 24). Even when literary writers do write such scenes, they're in danger of being laughed at for it; the British journal Literary Review had been handing out the "Bad Sex in Fiction Award" since 1993*. Devised to single out "the crude, badly written, often perfunctory use of redundant passages of sexual description in the modern novel, and to discourage it," the award seems to delight in skewering authors who, when writing about things other than sex, craft sentences many a literary afficionado has found worthy of the highest praise. Past winners of the award have included many celebrated literary authors, suggesting to Fennelly that "it begins to seem as if there are two options for a novelist—write badly about passionate sex, or write well by skipping over the sex" (24).

Or, perhaps, literary folks might want to take a look at how romance writers do it? Unlike their more literary counterparts, romance writers on the whole are not shy about including descriptions of sex in their novels. "Nothing throbbing, nothing turgid" serves as the tagline of Fennelly's article, hinting at the long history of high culture's denigration of genre romance for its embarrassingly "purple prose." While the genre still includes its fair share of overwrought or ungainly language in both sex and non-sex scenes, today's genre romance authors, in contrast to their literary colleagues, can and do write with insight, clarity, and humor about this most human of physical acts. And sometimes even in prose of remarkable beauty.

Three of the nominees for 2013's "Bad Sex in Fiction" Award

Although bad writing, like beauty, is often in the eye of the beholder. While some of the excerpts from the nominees for the 2013 Bad Sex in Fiction award** were pretty painful to read, others struck me as merely straightforwardly descriptive, rather than badly written. Could the Bad Sex award be as much about discouraging any literary writing about sex as it is about discouraging the "badly written," or the "redundant"? At least in effect, if not in intention?

And just what's at stake when our purportedly "best" writers are uninterested in, afraid to, or simply refuse to, take on the challenge of writing about sex?

"The most difficult scene to write in a story or novel is the one in which your characters get it on. At least, that's way my fiction-writing friends have always said," Fennelly notes in the opening of her article (23). Would Fennelly's friends feel the same way, I wonder, if a few romance writers were part of their crowd?


If you were a judge in a "Best Sex in Romance" contest, to what author, and/or to what book, would you give the award? And why?



Thanks, A & AM. You may not have helped my fiction-writing, but you've given me great food for blogging thought!


* I was hoping to include a picture of the actual award, described in this BBC article as "a semi-abstract statue representing sex in the 1950s, by interior designer and socialite Nicky Haslam," but a Google image search came up with nothing. Even more strange, the web site of the Literary Review includes no mention of the award. 

** Interestingly, two of the nominees for the Bad Sex 2013 award were also finalists on the Bi Writers Association "Bisexual Book Awards" list. Significant, do you think?

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Spotlight on the Lambdas, Part 2: Ann McMan and Salem West's HOOSIER DADDY

During my late teens and early twenties, I worked in a variety of different part-time jobs to earn spending money and to help pay my college tuition. Most were pretty typical of the jobs available to American teens in the 1970s and 80s: working the counter and the Drive-Thru window at McDonalds; manning the register at a local craft shop; keying in typewriter-created manuscripts into a computer for a typesetting company. But the job I had during the summer between my sophomore and junior years of college is the one I remember the most vividly, perhaps because it was so different, so distant, from any career I could imagine undertaking. Working the line in a facility that manufactured tampons (in the 1980s, right before most such production migrated from the United States to foreign shores), I spent my days interacting with a few men and a whole lot of women for whom factory work was not just a part-time gig, but a day-in, day-out drudge.

Factory work, including the manufacture of tampons, is typically repetitive, regimented, and mind-numbingly dull. Most of the people who manned the production lines at the factory where I worked were women; most of the people in charge of repairing the machinery, or supervising its operation, were men. The line-workers were rarely asked their thoughts about how the plant was being run, or listened to if they made suggestions for improvements. I liked the working-class women with whom I worked, enjoyed their good humor and respected their resilience, but felt so different from them, and not just because of the differences in our ages. "Make sure you marry a rich guy," the two fifty-something women who worked the same line I did would often advise me over lunches in the cheerless cafeteria. "Don't end up stuck in a job like this." That the best way they could imagine to escape from a dead-end job, even for a young woman like myself, on the verge of earning an Ivy League degree, was to "marry up," to pin my hopes on the ambition and earning power of a member of the opposite sex, made me incredibly sad.

The narrator of Ann McMan and Salem West's Lambda-nominated lesbian romance, Hoosier Daddy, works in a Mid-Western factory, not a New England one, and in a facility that makes manly monster pick-up trucks, not feminine products that many men have trouble even naming without blushing. And unlike me, Jill Fryman, better known to her friends and co-workers as Friday, grew up as part of the working class. But Friday, unlike most of her colleagues in the Krylon auto plant, earned a college degree, catching sight of opportunities beyond the world in which she was raised. But Friday feels like a failure, both on the job front—she's right back here in the factory, working a job for which she's completely overqualified—and on the relationship front—the girlfriend choices are few and far between in conservative Indiana, and the few relationships she's had have all ended up in heartbreak, including her most recent one, with a woman whom she didn't even like that much, a woman who used her to get back at her husband for his infidelity. Friday would far prefer to stay home, reading her books and licking her wounds rather than facing the humiliation caused by her very public and embarrassing break-up.

But Friday's friends are tired of her hiding; as Terri, the aptly nicknamed T-Bomb, tells her, "Girlfriend, nobody in three counties gives a twat about your business—including you. And if you don't start using it, it's gonna dry up and drop off" (15). And so Friday finds herself at the bar where all the Krylon workers hang out, Hoosier Daddy's, listening to an unfamiliar but incredibly sexy stranger crooning a Karaoke version of "Melancholy Baby." It's just Friday's luck that the woman, Eleanor Rzcpczinska, is a recruiter for the United Auto Workers Union, come to town to try to persuade the Krylon workers to initiate a union vote before the Japanese company that has just bought their plant has time to come in and endanger their jobs. In a "Right to Work" town such as Princeton (Indiana, not Pennsylvania), a UAW recruiter is tantamount to the devil. Getting involved with El (whom Friday's friends nickname "El Debarge") is a risk the determinedly risk-averse Friday knows far better than to take.

But El and Friday, unlike the heroines in Karin Kallmaker's Love by the Numbers (reviewed here) or in another Lambda nominee, Broken Tracks*, spend little time dancing the "is she straight or is she gay" dance. Each is immediately drawn to the other, and unlike the reticent Friday, El knows what she wants and isn't afraid to ask for it. El and "Friday Jill," the name Friday stumblingly gives El when the stranger asks for her name and which El continues to use, thus quickly find themselves in a series of embarrassing public encounters, hilariously involving not one, but three different bathrooms, encounters that begin to persuade Friday that it might just be worth it to get to know El a little better.

But Friday's relationship comes to the attention of the outgoing owner of the plant, Don Krylon, who offers her a raise and a promotion if she uses her "connections and influence with the rank-and-file members of our Krylon family to smooth over any rough spots that might mistakenly lead them to think hospitably about the UAW's false promises" (98). Krylon doesn't want anything to ruin the deal he's made with Ogata, the Japanese company that is about to buy his company, and tells anyone who will listen that if the union vote happens, Ogata will move the production of the lucrative Outlaw truck to another, non-union plant. Will Friday, who has remained determinedly uncommitted to either side during the labor strife, be forced to take a stand?

Friday, who feels committed to her friends and her town, but who has also experienced life beyond both, is a first-person narrator who can see the humorous aspects of the working-class culture in which she was raised, but who never invites the reader to look down on the people who inhabit it. For example, the book's sub-plot about the annual Miss Pork Queen competition, in which the daughter of one of Friday's friends is a major contender, is simultaneously laugh-out-loud hilarious and emotionally satisfying. I deeply admired both the truth and the affection with which West and McMan limn a culture not often depicted with any depth or realism in romance.

As long as you don't mind the sexy times taking place off-stage, Hoosier Daddy has everything a feminist might hope for in a satisfying romance: a great conflict; engaging lead characters and expertly-drawn secondary ones; a far-from black-and-white depiction of issues of social justice (despite the smarmy Don Krylon); and enough comedy to have you laughing on nearly every page.


*Another book nominated for the Lambda for best lesbian romance, but which focuses primarily on training and running the Iditarod, with only a tiny smattering of romance thrown in as an accent, and hence won't be reviewed by RNFF.


Photo credits:
U. S. auto worker: International Business Times
Right to Work: Workplacechoice.org
Pork Queen float: Tipton County Pork Festival





Hoosier Daddy:
A Heartland Romance
Nuance/Bedazzled, 2013

Friday, April 11, 2014

Justifying Gender Nonconformity in Historical Romance: Meredith Duran's FOOL ME TWICE and Elizabeth Essex's AFTER THE SCANDAL

My apologies for the radio silence this past Tuesday. As my daughter so kindly told me, "Even feminists get sick sometimes, mom."

As recompense, I give you the following two-for-one historical romance review:



Man must be pleased; but him to please
Is woman's pleasure; down the gulf
Of his condoled necessities
She casts her best, she flings herself.
How often flings for nought, and yokes
Her heart to an icicle or whim,
Whose each impatient word provokes
Another, not from her, but him;
While she, too gentle even to force
His penitence by kind replies,
Waits by, expecting his remorse,
With pardon in her pitying eyes...
                           —Coventry Patmore, The Angel in the House, 1854


Reading historical romance with feminist expectations may strike many an exercise in the futile, or at least in the fantastic. For much of human history, women were considered lesser than men, an idea embraced not only by the males who benefitted from it, but also from the majority of females who were its victim. Common knowledge, scientific wisdom, and plain old human nature insisted that women were, by their very natures, inferior to men. While views about gender did begin to change during the nineteenth century, from a deficit model (women are lesser than men) to a more egalitarian difference model (women are different from men), in practice, laws and customs continued to place women in positions of dependency throughout the Victorian period. If a writer attempts to be at all historically accurate, he/she cannot ignore this essential component of social life in the past.

Contemporary women aren't likely to enjoy reading about historical counterparts who espouse gender ideologies that consign them to positions of inferiority. And thus many a historical romance uses the past as mere window dressing, a reason to place people with contemporary views about relations between the sexes in fancy dress. I had to admit that as a reader, I prefer those books that at least acknowledge the social assumptions of the world in which they place their characters, including, to our modern eyes, their sexist assumptions about gender, even if the characters themselves do not conform to said assumptions. The best of such works provide plausible and compelling reasons for why their characters have chosen, or been forced, to act in socially unsanctioned ways, reasons that add nuance and depth to their characterizations.

Two recently published 19th-century-set historical romances do just that. Elizabeth Essex's After the Scandal features the oh-so-prevalent duke as hero. But Tanner Evans, the Duke of Fenmore, has a background far different than that of his aristocratic peers. His father, estranged from his noble family due to religious differences, died when Tanner was just a child, as did his mother, leaving him and his older sister to scratch out a living on London's streets. By the time a chance meeting reunited them with their father's family, Tanner and his sister had become skilled street thieves. Being yanked from the life of a London urchin at the age of twelve, suddenly named the scion of a ducal heritage, Tanner can't help but feel a fraud. Nor can he help questioning the norms of aristocratic society, norms far different than those that ruled life on London's streets.

Protecting the girls...
Now twenty-eight, the reclusive Tanner has long yearned after innocent Lady Claire Jellicoe, the sheltered daughter of an earl. But because of his own past experiences, Tanner recognizes it is precisely her innocence that places Claire in danger from a rapacious fellow nobleman: "Refined, polite young women were easy targets. It was all the confining codes of ladylike behavior—of always having to be civil and passively polite—that got immaculate, refined young women into such monstrous trouble" (31). Tanner intervenes in the opening chapter to prevent the attempted rape (we are in a romance novel, after all), but the resulting story is not one of heroic alpha male rescuing hapless clueless female over and over again. Instead, Tanner and Claire become partners in solving a brutal murder, a murder that by its very nature interrogates gender roles and expectations.

To Tanner's surprise, during their investigation, Claire proves to be far more than just the pretty face and figure upon which he had cast his own longings: "But the realization that she clearly had a first-class mind hidden behind all that astonishing beauty excited him more completely than all of his inchoate longings from afar never had. My God—he could talk to her" (85). That Tanner had not expected Claire to be smart enough to converse intelligently with him demonstrates how even he, with his unusual background, takes many of the gender norms of genteel society for granted. Claire challenges some aspects of said norms, not because they do not exist for her, in the wallpaper-romance way, but because she recognizes the real limitations they place upon her—"[Am I] capable?... No. I know I'm not. But I want to be. And how shall I ever become capable if I do not try? If I do not attempt to do the things I ought? You said I was not ignorant, only unlearned, and I'm tired of being unlearned" (100). The plot in which Tanner and Claire find themselves may be rather improbable, but their negotiation of gender roles within said plot gives us a real sense of why each is calling certain gender norms into question, rather than taking the more standard route of acceptance.

In Meredith Duran's Fool Me Twice, it's the heroine, rather than the hero, who has grown up in a way that leads her to question the gender norms of late Victorian society. Olivia Holladay's mother broke the most dearly-held gender rule of genteel society: do not have sex out of wedlock, and especially do not give birth to a child.  Not only that, but Olivia's mother allowed that man to support her and her daughter in comfortable style, much to the disgust of the fellow citizens of the small English town in which Olivia grew up. After her mother's death, eighteen-year-old Olivia travels to London, intent on making her own way in the world, learning the new skill of typing and taking a job as a secretary. Her plans almost come to naught after she's brutally attacked and left for dead by a man she recognizes. Olivia knows she must hide, even while she searches for a way to prevent her attacker from striking again.

Olivia discovers that her freedom may lie within the house of the Duke of Marwick, a former political lion who, in the aftermath of his wife's death, has become a recluse and a tyrant in his own domain. Olivia applies for a job as a housemaid, hoping to leverage the work into an opportunity to search Marwick's house for the evidence she needs to bribe her attacker. Instead of a housemaid, though, Olivia finds herself in the role of housekeeper, the irascible duke's temper having sent yet another chatelaine fleeing. While Olivia's focus should be on her search, the upheaval in the Marwick household, and the disturbing behavior of the duke who is its cause, keeps distracting her from her own problems. And her own unconventional background makes Olivia far from fearful of rebuking her presumed social and gender superior the duke, as are the rest of his cowed servants.

Unlike Olivia, Alistair de Grey has long embraced the social roles his society expected of him. Marrying the right woman, agitating for the right political causes, and behaving always as a gentleman ought, he's determined not to follow in his dissipated father's footsteps. In fact, he expects to become the next Prime Minister. But his wife's death, and the shocking acts he discovers she's been hiding beneath her outwardly gender-conforming behavior, throw him into a state of near-madness. For months, he's confined himself to his house, to his room, knowing that if he leaves, his anger at his wife's betrayals will drive him to murder: "He looks into his palms. His eyes have grown accustomed to the dark he has made for himself, behind these curtains that never open. He sees clearly his lifelines, supposed harbingers of fortune: another lie, as much a lie as honor or ideals. He curls his lip. Fuck these lies" (20). Alistair is a man disillusioned, recognizing the social lies, including the lies of the superiority of the male sex, that have undergirded his socially and gender-privileged life. A man poised to recognize the merits of a woman brave enough to reject the gendered social judgments with which others would burden her: "When I was young, I decided nobody would ever be able to ruin me but myself" (302).

The journeys of both of these heroines begin after they are physically attacked by men. Nineteenth-century gender norms argued that women were the gentler sex, in need of protection and care. But when the very men who are supposed to provide said care are the perpetrators of the violence they are supposed to be protecting their women against, the gaping hole in the gendered argument becomes all too painfully obvious. Both Essex and Duran are skilled enough writers not to simply ignore the historical realities of gender norms; instead, they craft characters with plausible reasons for calling their own society's gender norms into question. In the process, they give readers far more courageous role models than any writer who simply adorns characters with twenty-first-century mindsets in the beautiful ball gowns and dainty dancing slippers of the past.


Illustration credits:
Victorian couple: Challenging Women's Roles Through Literature
The Oddie Children (1789) by Sir William Beechey. North Carolina Museum of Art, Raleigh.
Mind Your Manners: Fight Like a Gentleman





After the Scandal
St. Martin's, 2014










Fool Me Twice
Pocket, 2014

Friday, April 4, 2014

The Lopsided RITA nominations

Last week, the Romance Writers of America announced the finalists for their annual RITA awards, given to "promote excellence in the romance genre by recognizing outstanding published romance novels and novellas." RWA's Board had recently made substantial changes to the rules governing the judging of the contest, aimed both at "increas[ing] both awareness and prestige of the award" and "to ensure that books receiving a romance award are romance novels/novellas," according to a FAQ sheet about the 2014 award process created by RWA. The changes included shifting from a single 1 to 9 point scale to awarding points in four categories: 1-10 for the Plot; 1-10 for the Writing; 1-20 for the Characters; and 1-20 for the Romance. It also included changing several of the sub-genres in which authors could enter their books, including the elimination of the "mainstream novel with strong romantic elements" category. And instead of choosing books that receive scores in the top 10% of their sub-genre category as finalists, any book that received at least 90% of the total possible score (45 points or higher) would be awarded finalist status.

Many romance writers and readers (including myself) were more than a little curious to see if and how the changes would affect the makeup of the finalist slates. Curiosity quickly turned to frustration, and then to calls for change, though, after RWA members discovered just out unbalanced the 2014 RITA list turned out to be. In recent years, about 8 finalists in each sub-category had been named. In contrast, this year's list included categories with as few as 2 finalists (Inspirational Romance), and others with as many as 18 (Contemporary Romance). And some categories had disappeared completely, because not enough entries had been submitted (although the cap on the total number of books that the contest would accept may have played a role here).


Romance writers' discussion boards and e-mail loops lit up with protests in response to the perceived flaws in the new judging system. Many writers posted letters they planned to send to the RWA Board, pointing to the failures in the current system and calling for reforms. And I know of at least one RWA-affiliated chapter (The Mystery/Suspense chapter, better known as The Kiss of Death chapter) that has begun an online petition calling for the old judging criteria to be reinstated. I wouldn't be surprised to hear that others are considering this option, as well.

I'm not certain when RWA posted their "FAQ" sheet, but from its wording, it seems to have appeared after the announcements, suggesting that the organization was both taken by surprise by the results and was aware that they would likely prove controversial among its general membership. The FAQ concludes with this question (and its rather noncommittal answer):

Will RWA revisit the rules or provide better guidelines or training for judges?

The Board understands that the RITA Award is important to members and therefore commits significant resources each and every year to improving the outcome. The Board also considers whether guidelines for judging would be necessary or helpful.

Contest rules are approved at the July board meeting.


When RWA explained that the rule changes were aimed at meeting its strategic goal of increasing the prestige and public awareness of the RITA award, I guessing that this current brouhaha was not quite what they had in mind...

What are your thoughts on the 2014 RITA finalist list? And what do you think can/should be done to increase the prestige and the public awareness of the award?

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Color-Aware Interracial Romance: Nina Perez's SHARING SPACE

On Interracial Romance Books, a website where romance readers can purchase print and e-book copies of romance novels with love stories featuring heroes and heroines who are of different races, the site's title is followed by this tagline: "Where love is colorblind..." Visitors are, presumably, meant to view this tagline in a positive way—when it comes to falling love, the color of a potential partner's skin should not, and does not, matter. Romance can and does blossom across the once taboo line of race, and interracial romance novels celebrate this.

Often, though, the idea of being racially colorblind can have negative, not just positive, connotations. As Afi-Odelia E. Scruggs' article, "Colorblindness: The New Racism?" which appeared in the 2009 edition of Teaching Tolerance points out, the idea that ignoring or overlooking racial or ethnic differences in an effort to promote racial harmony more often has the opposite effect. Being colorblind more often simply allows people with racial privilege (in the United States, people of European ancestry) to ignore or pretend that their racial privilege does not in fact exist. As Randy Ross, a senior equity specialist at the New England Equity Assistance Center, a program of Brown's University Education Alliance, is quoted as noting, "I have never heard a teacher of color say 'I don't see color'.... The core of 'I don't see color,' is 'I don't see my own color, I don't see difference because my race and culture is the center of the universe.'"

Is the same true of interracial romances that embrace a colorblind approach to race? I've been wondering about this question as I've been making an effort to search out and read more romances by authors of color. Most of the interracial romances I've read do not suggest that a cross-race romance is or would be problematic in any way; few feature a character who questions or is unsettled by his or her attraction to a potential partner of a different race. This is likely a reflection of the fantasy aspect of romance as a genre, at least for readers of color: escaping the burden of having to think about the difficulties cross-race romance might entail in real life might be a large part of the pleasure in reading interracial romances.

Yet is there no room in the genre for romances that gesture toward, or even confront, the difficulties that interracial couples might face in our purportedly post-racial society? Not only from social and institutional prejudices and stereotypes, but also from the different kinds of privilege that those from different races have been, through their own upbringings, taught to expect from life and love? Are there romances out there that draw attention to disparities of privilege, even while they celebrate couples that work to negotiate relationships in spite of them?

Commenter sonomalass didn't know that I was thinking about these issues when, in response to my posting about ideology and good/bad writing she recommended I take a look at Nina Perez's romance, Sharing Space. But her recommendation hit just the right spot.

When I downloaded a copy and saw the novel's cover, though (actually, its multiple covers, as it was originally published as a serial in six parts), I wondered if I was in for another interracial romance with racial blinders firmly in place. But Perez's Author's Note suggested that something a little more complicated might lie between these digital pages: "I was in an interracial relationship with my now husband and wanted to write about the complexities of such a relationship, but also about all the humor and love of one" (305). Would it be possible to do both?

Perez's first-person dual-narrated romance opens with African-American Chloe telling us about her week from hell: not only did she discover her long-term boyfriend in bed with another woman, but her actress/roommate decamped for LA, leaving Chloe with only two weeks to either find a replacement or come up with a way to pay said roommate's half of the rent on their midtown Manhattan rent-controlled apartment. From the start, Chloe makes readers aware that she is aware that both personal and societal racism exist in her world. Chloe's best friend Myra, also black, tends to blame anything that goes wrong in her life on racism: "If she didn't get the repair appointment she wanted from the cable company, it must be because she's black. If a vacation request at work was denied, gotta be The Man! Menstrual cramps? Well, you know how those white folks do." (29) Though Chloe "could see her point sometimes. We were both shocked by some of the attitudes expressed openly during the presidential election" (29), Chloe herself prefers to believe that simple jealousy is the cause of her lack of popularity with her less achievement-oriented white co-workers at the marketing consulting agency where she and Myra both work. Although to Chloe, the reason doesn't really matter: "Lila [Chloe's boss] knew what it was like to work harder just to get the same rewards given so easily to male executives. She didn't let the inequality stop her from getting what she wanted, and recognized that I didn't, either" (5). Two black women with two different attitudes to racism makes for a refreshing change from romances that more often are blind to racism's continuing existence in American society.

Chloe's life becomes even more complicated when the only suitable tenant who responds to her ad is Pat Murphy, a white, and very male, actor from Long Island. Chloe has reservations about allowing Patrick to move in, and openly questions herself about whether those reservations stem from his sex or from his race. After talking the situation over with both Myra and with her cousin Crystal, though, Chloe decides to take a risk and invites Patrick to move in.

Patrick, interestingly, spends far less time worrying about Chloe's race, and far more time worrying about how attractive he finds her: "I was less surprised that she was black—I hadn't given any thought to the race of the person placing the ad—and more surprised to discover that she was so good looking. It was like when you go on a blind date you expect the worst, or when you're on the Internet and some girl tells you how hot she is when in real life she's overweight and bucktoothed" (37). As a white man, Patrick has the privilege of being colorblind, of assuming that racial differences shouldn't matter. They haven't mattered too much in his own life; why should they matter in anyone else's? After he moves in, Patrick thinks "a man would have to be deaf, dumb, blind, gay, and racist to not be interested in Chloe," revealing his own white-centric world view (would a black man have to be racist to not be interested?) (53).

Yet in spite of their different understandings about the presence and workings of racism in their world, Chloe and Patrick gradually develop a friendship, and eventually, a romantic relationship. Their sexual relationship progresses quickly, although Chloe does wonder if she's feeling some reluctance to actually sleep with him because "maybe deep down there was some apprehension about  having sex with a white guy" and humorously goes on to laugh at the sexual stereotypes blacks have about white men and those that whites have about black women (137-38).

Chloe and Patrick, though, never discuss race, even after Patrick invites Chloe out to Long Island for Thanksgiving, to meet with his extended Irish family. Chloe tells her mother that Patrick is white before introducing them, and is dismayed to discover that Patrick hasn't done the same. Patrick tells her "I told them what you do, and that you're great, and that we're involved. And I told them that I'm happy. What else do they need to know?" but in fact admits to himself that:

I wasn't being completely honest with Chloe. The thought of telling my parents that she was black had crossed my mind and I'd decided not to. Of course I wondered how they'd react to Chloe being black, but it seemed to me that mentioning it beforehand would be like admitting there was something wrong with it. (171)

Patrick has been caught in the racist undertow of racial colorblindness: You're not supposed to notice race, because if you do, race becomes a problem: it feels like "there [is] something wrong with it." In the race-blind paradigm, race becomes an embarrassment, rather than something to celebrate. And despite Patrick's disbelief that any of his relatives could react poorly to Chloe because of her race, not every member of Patrick's family can maintain the pretense that race does not matter.

Interestingly, though, the difficulties that temporary break Chloe and Patrick apart during the latter part of the novel do not stem from the problems of race-blindness that the text identifies. Instead, the more traditional romance-novel relationship-breakers of career ambition, family tragedy, and bitchy-girl jealousy take on the job. And it's not Patrick, but Chloe, who has to make the big gesture in order to ensure the relationship continues. Having brought the problems of race-blindness to the surface, does Perez then sweep them under the carpet to achieve her HEA? I'm curious to hear what other readers think...


On a related side note: of the heterosexual interracial romances that I've read that feature one character of African descent, that character is almost always the female half of the romantic couple. Intriguingly, this is precisely the opposite of real-life marriages in the United States between blacks and whites, according to the U.S. Census Bureau: In March of 2009, there were almost twice as many marriages between white women and black men as there were between black women and white men.

If romance was truly colorblind, would we not have an equal number of black hero/white heroine couples as we do white hero/black heroine couples? What does the prevalence of the black woman/white man romance tell us about the desires that current-day interracial romances fulfill for their readers?





Sharing Space:
The Complete Series
JK Press, 2014

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Barbara O'Neal's THE ALL YOU CAN DREAM BUFFET

It's been quite some time since author Barbara Samuelson (later O'Neal) transitioned from writing romance to writing books that fall within the broader category of women's fiction. Yet as her latest novel, The All You Can Dream Buffet, shows, her writing still has a great deal to offer readers whose primary allegiance is to romance, particularly those readers with feminist sensibilities.

Willakenzie Lavender Farm,
O'Neal's source for her Lavender Honey Farms
The first gift O'Neal offers is her depiction of a community of women who support each other, both in their professional and personal lives. In the master narrative of traditional romance, most female characters besides the protagonist are cast as evil others, as competition for the main goal of winning the male protagonist's attention, affection, and ultimately, love. Romance novels can often teach readers to be wary of other women, to regard them not as colleagues or allies, but as rivals for the ultimate prize: the winning of a man. The All You Can Dream Buffet, in contrast, depicts four women who have built a community of friendship and support, initially without having even met, at least in person.

Each member of the Foodie Four—eighty-four-year-old Lavender Wills, an airline stewardess during the 60s and 70s and current owner of Lavender Honey Farms; nearly fifty Ginny Smith, small-town grocery store baker turned cake photographer; twenty-six-year-old Ruby Zarlingo, vegan chef; and forty-seven-year-old Valerie Andrews, former prima ballerina and wine connoisseur—drawn by her passion for food, began her own blog. Five years earlier, Lavender asked Ruby if she could use information Ruby posted on her blog about herbs; Valerie contacted Lavender about wine and lavender pairings; Ruby became intrigued by Ginny's beautiful new blog; and soon the four were knee-deep in conversations about the technical and marketing issues of blogging, conversations that gradually began to include the personal as well as the professional. Despite the difference in their ages, backgrounds, geographical locations, and family situations, the magic of the Internet allows Lavender, Ruby, Ginny, and Val reach across time and space and form an encouraging, loving female community. A community that is coming together at long last to meet in celebration of Lavender's birthday.

The second gift O'Neal offers is a depiction of romance in middle age. We're hardly surprised to find twenty-seven-year-old Ruby as the star of one of the novel's romance arcs; late-twenties or early thirties heroines are the staple of current contemporary romance. Yet to find the "edging hard toward fifty" Ginny in the midst of an unexpected mutual attraction is a surprise as sweet as any of the cakes Ginny photographs for her blog. Particularly because the married Ginny has lived her entire life in the (perhaps heavy-handedly, but quite tellingly) named town of Dead Gulch, Kansas, living quietly within the low expectations of her fellow townsfolks, friends, and family. Blossoming love is not only for the young folks, but can happen to us middle-aged ones, too, O'Neal's novel quietly but persuasively insists.

And this is the third gift that O'Neal offers: the gift of new beginnings, the gift of moving on. Ginny isn't the only one who uses the opportunity of the trip to Lavender's Oregon farm to take stock of her life, and to change its direction. Whether it is moving on from a deadening marriage, from the confusion of a relationship ended without explanation, or even from the excoriating pain of grief, O'Neal shows us women in transition, women supporting one another as each struggles to emerge from a time of confusion and pain, shucking off the temporary cocoon such times require to emerge on the other side, ready to embrace new possibilities, new beginnings.

What I most appreciated about this gift was the novel's insistence that we can't always explain, or even understand, why relationships that began in such joy sometimes turn so horribly wrong. Ginny's husband cannot, or will not, ever explain why he stopped wanting to have sex with her; Ruby's former boyfriend can't find any words to tell her, or even himself, why, after six years of being passionately in love with Ruby, he woke up one day to find himself just as passionately in love with someone else. It is tempting for both Ruby and Ginny to take the blame, or perhaps the opposite, to turn their hurt into bitterness and hate for a once-beloved partner. Instead, the novel shows us a Ginny and a Ruby who gradually come to accept that while there may never be understanding, neither can live a fulfilling life if she continues to long for what her partner simply cannot give. Life is a buffet of dreams; sometimes you must give up an old, familiar favorite to have the room savor the delights of a dish yet to be tasted.


ARC Courtesy of NetGalley

Photo credits:
Lavender: Willakenzie Lavender Farm
Blog banners: Barbara O'Neal





The All You Can Dream Buffet
Bantam, 2014

Friday, March 21, 2014

THE GLASS SLIPPER: WOMEN AND LOVE STORIES

Imagine you're a college professor, faced with a classroom of smart, empowered, independent, self-determining young women. Imagine, then, asking those postfeminist women about their expectations of love. Will you be surprised to find that most of your students still hold tight to the "old idea of a woman's value as defined through her ability to attain the love of the high-status man lives on to a surprising degree"? That the "lure of being chosen by the desirable man who pursues, and the fear or not being seen as a desirable object worthy of emotional attachment, are more powerful than the threat of what they might lose through submergence in a relationship" (xi)?

Be empowered...
The "double bind" facing modern young women—the expectation society holds out that girls should simultaneously embrace their own power and serve as a desirable objects worthy of a male's emotional attachment—both intrigued and disturbed Professor Susan Ostrov Weisser, so much so that she wrote an entire book, The Glass Slipper: Women and Love Stories, which attempts to explore why, in our postfeminist age, stories of love are still predominantly aimed at women, not at men, and whether women benefit personally and as a gender from them.

...but make sure you "make him want you more!"
Examining popular romances from diverse genres—literary novels, genre romances, romantic film comedies, magazines, Disney movies, and reality television shows—Ostrov argues that the "master narrative of current romantic literature" is symbolized by Cinderella's glass slipper: "the Glass Slipper is a trope for the 'perfect fit' of the romantic couple and particularly women's wish to be chosen as the One, whose value is at last recognized and rewarded at the moment she is discovered as perfect for him" (1). Though many modern love narratives "seem to take seriously feminism's advocacy of equal gender roles, leading to an egalitarian partnership or marriage," the prevalence of the Glass Slipper trope points to a "strong wave of nostalgia for traditional ideas of gender" (2). The "modern ideology of love's democratizing power" serves as an often ill-fitting mask covering the older agenda.

While the Cinderella tale has existed for centuries, the Glass Slipper trope is of more recent origin, Weisser argues. In Western society before the Victorian age, marriage and passionate romantic love were not typically linked. Earlier conceptions of marriage as a value exchange (women give attractiveness, domestic labor, and breeding rights to their husbands in exchange for economic provision and social status) had begun to shift during the eighteenth century, toward the companionate marriage, or "love match." But the "love" portion of the "love match" meant something far different to late eighteenth-century society than it does to our contemporary one. As Weisser notes, both conservative Jane Austen and radical Mary Wollstonecraft "devalued 'romantic' views of love as flighty, inimical to the importance of rationality and judgment, companionship, sensible affection, education and culture, and admiration of good character in marriage" (37). The Romantic movement revivified an earlier vision of love, one linked to "sexual desire, intense and all-consuming" passion (38), but it would take the Victorians to domesticate this heightened emotion, working to control it by placing it within the bounds of marriage. Much of the master narrative of our contemporary romance narratives relies on this historically specific linkage of passionate love to monogamous marital relations, with a late 20th century addition of female sexual empowerment.

Two powerful paradoxical visions of love coexist in the minds of Weisser's students, and in much American discourse about romance, both legacies of past views of love. First, "the mystery of passion" and second,

the knowledge and control that allow enduring affection to thrive in a permanent and primary relationship. We blithely live with these paradoxical convictions: on the one hand, the prevailing wisdom is that you "have to work at relationships," while on the other, love relationships are "meant to be" in some mysterious way. There are whole sackfuls of clich├ęs that support each of these ideas. My sophisticated students will readily mouth both unquestioningly; oddly, they may sneer at "fate" as an overly romanticized causal explanation, yet say that a particular relationship was "not mean to be" to justify or console themselves after a breakup. (9)

Passion & companionship? One then the other?
Or are the two at odds?
We reconcile these two opposing view of love by seeing them as serially true, or what Weisser terms the "stages theory of romantic love": "first comes the passion, then a more 'mature' version of romance will develop out of the first stage, which will be permanent if the object is the One [the Glass Slipper trope]. In other words, the magic comes first, and that enables the rational relationship" (9). Passionate love, viewed in earlier times as destructive, rule-breaking, often adulterous (think Lancelot and Guinevere), and in many ways at odds with monogamous marriage, has now become incorporated into monogamous marriage, as a "feeling that enables relationships. But we moderns don't want to relinquish passion—it's a popular theme of our culture... so the much older rhetoric of transcendent emotion and intense sexuality has had to be incorporated into our larger social system of marriage and family" (9).


Why should we, in our postfeminist age, still hew to the Glass Slipper trope, a vision of romance that arose during the Victorian age, in response to social and historical pressures of that period, not our own? Weisser argues that "in a society in which there are suddenly greater sexual freedoms than ever, women counter their anxiety about continuing sexual exploitation by clinging to romantic love as a kind of emotional affirmation that they are worth more than the exchange value of their bodies" (xi). Her analysis in the chapters that form the body of her book undertake close readings of overwhelmingly popular romance narratives—Jane Eyre, Lady Chatterley's Lover, Glamour and Cosmopolitan magazines, The Bridges of Madison County, Disney's The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast, the Sex and the City films, the Twilight trilogy, Harlequin romances, the television shows The Bachelor and The Bachelorette, Internet dating site profiles—trace the ways in which these texts gesture to feminist principles but also continue to espouse "a common fear of giving up traditional ideology, in which women will be respected only if loved by men" (208).

Weisser's decision to focus on breadth in regards to genre necessarily leads to a narrow scope within each of her chapters. Thus it can often feel as if she is shooting fish in a barrel, choosing the three or four obvious texts that best work to support her claims rather than seeing if a genre overall conforms to them. Much of her analysis of specific texts, too, repeats arguments or ideas that other critics have posed long before her, works that Weisser herself does not refer to (for example, I've read many other analyses of Disney's Beauty and the Beast that challenge the early praise of the film as feminist; I'm sure film, television, and other media scholars could say the same about chapters devoted to texts in their areas of specialty). Still, her close readings of diverse types of narrative are all insightful, nuanced, and persuasive, and, taken as a whole, provide clear evidence to support the major arguments she poses in her Introduction.

Though I admired its close readings, I found the book's Introduction and Conclusion to contain the most food for thought as a scholar and writer of romance. Weisser's overarching argument—our ideas about love are "not timeless or universal" or "the pure expression of primitive desires" but rather "historical representations of social issues" (206), representations that change in response to historical and social change—is incredible helpful both for scholars approaching the study of the genre, and for fiction writers wishing to interrogate or question the universality of contemporary romance's depiction of love. Its corollary—that older models of love persist, despite social and cultural changes that would seem to negate their purpose, often surviving in ambivalent tension with newer definitions—urges scholars and writers alike to think about the multiple discourses they might discover or draw upon in their texts.

I especially appreciated Weisser's call for further study of the genre as a whole:

Romance has become a formidable part of contemporary Western culture because it is an easy response to genuine confusion over love and gender, aided by media and profit. We ought to think more carefully about romance, embedded as it is in a multimedia society that is increasingly complex and shifting in its gender values. In particular, we need further analysis of love that neither indicts nor trivializes what is so important to so many women in modern times, one that both appreciates women's needs and is clear-eyed about the price we pay for fulfilling them. (211)

Here's to more works like Weisser's, scholarship that both appreciates and analyzes the books romance readers so love.



Photo credits:
Go Girl: High Heels and Hot Flashes blog
Cosmopolitan cover: Wikipedia
Passion and companionship: Slate