Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Learning to Parent: Huntley Fitzpatrick's THE BOY MOST LIKELY TO

When my daughter made the transition from picture books to chapter books, she noticed a worrying pattern: more often than not, the child characters in her books had parents who were dead. I had to explain to her that the fictional dead parents trend was not a reflection of reality (no, Daddy and I weren't going to die anytime soon), but rather a literary trope common to the genre. Kids with parents have less freedom than those without; authors of books for children, then, often killed off their protagonists' parents to give their characters more opportunity to experience adventured unhindered by protective and interfering adults.

In contrast, many YA books are all about parents—or at least about teen protagonists' conflicts with them. Moms and dads in YA fiction often are the ones who put the "problem" in the "problem novel": woefully inattentive or painfully controlling; demanding perfection or too lost in their own addictions to demand anything; stressed out, drugged out, or too mentally ill to help their adolescent offspring negotiate the difficult transition from childhood to adulthood. Not dead, certainly, but readers might be excused for wishing many YA parent characters had kicked the bucket.

Eight isn't quite enough for the Garrett family...
Huntley Fitzpatrick's The Boy Most Likely To has a lot to say about parenting, but in a way far different than many a YA novel. Its two protagonists, Alice Garrett and Tim Mason, come from very different families, with very different parents. Alice is the eldest daughter in a family of eight (and counting) kids, a tight-knit, loving group, even if its members often get on each other's nerves. Tim's family, by contrast, is more about secrets and distance: his mother focused on collecting cute teddy bears and pillows with platitudes embroidered on them so she won't have to face the problems of her siblings or her children; his father as coldly judgmental and emotionally distant as an icebox, for reasons we, like Tim, never do come to understand.

At the start of the novel, though, both Alice and Tim are faced with disruptions in their usual family dynamics. After being hit by a car several weeks earlier, Alice's father is still recovering in the hospital; between focusing on her husband and her own pregnancy, Alice's mother has little to no time to devote to the daily tasks needed to keep her sizable family afloat. Nineteen-year-old Alice thus finds herself thrust into the role of parent to her six younger siblings, a role that she's not at all thrilled by.

Seventeen-year-old Tim, a friend of one of Alice's younger brothers, appears to be on the exact opposite trajectory. His aloof father (whom Tim refers to as "Nowhere Man") seems not to have noticed that his son has been making an effort to turn his hot mess of a life around: acknowledging his drinking problem; attending daily AA meetings; and holding down a job for the first time. Judgmental Mr. Mason sees none of it. In fact, in the book's opening scene, he gives his son until his eighteenth birthday to start "acting like a man—in every way," or he'll cut off his allowance, insurance, and funding for college. And kicks him out of the house to boot.

When Alice's brother offers Tim the apartment over their garage, Alice is incensed: now that her eldest brother is moving in with his girlfriend, Alice envisioned the apartment as hers, a place to get away from the madness that is her family. Readers of Fitzpatrick's earlier novel about the Garrett family, My Life Next Door, may envision a "boy gets adopted by a happy family" scenario will follow, complete with happy love story for Tim and Alice. Yet the story that unfolds is far more intense that the book's light romance cover art suggests.

During the opening scene, which depicts Alice trying to feed four of her siblings with yet another oatmeal breakfast while dealing with the early adolescent romantic angst of her younger sister, Alice wonders: "How does mom stand this? I pinch the muscles at the base of my neck, hard, close my eyes. Push away the most treacherous thought of all: Why does Mom stand this?" (19).  Alice may hate it when people come up to her mom in public and make disparaging remarks about the size of her brood, but she has no plans to follow in her mother's offspring-prolific footsteps. In fact, she's pretty sure she doesn't want any kids of her own at all. Which may be one of the many reasons for her love 'em and leave 'em ways when it comes to her own romantic life.

Tim, then, should prove a welcome diversion to Alice when he moves into the above-garage apartment Alice's older brother just left. Tim's an incorrigible witty flirt, and has had his eye on older Alice for a while now But Alice sees Tim only as another problem, "yet another person who needs a mother, a maid, a manager" (42). And she's not at all happy to find the "hot mess inside and out" taking up residence in the apartment she had thought would soon be hers (42). But after a few encounters with the new tenant, ones in which Alice initially tries to  fix or mother Tim but ends up interacting with him as an equal, Alice finds herself inexplicably attracted to the quick-witted but emotionally messed up young man:

     "At least you've got your running shoes on." She looks down at my feet. "No you don't even, do you? Who jogs barefoot?" Her toes tangle with mine for a second, then move away. She looks down at the sand, not at me, draws a squiggly line between us.
     "It matters?"
     "Traction, honey," Alice says.
     "I thought that was only when you'd broken a leg. Navy Seals do it. So I've heard."
     I wait for her to make fun of that, but instead she smiles a little more, almost undetectably, unless you're looking hard at her lips, which I may be doing—says, "Maybe put off the BUDs challenge until you've built up more . . . stamina."
     There are so many ways I could answer that.
     She moves closer; smells like I've always thought Hawaii would, green and sweet, earthy, sun and sea mixed together, smoky warm. Her greenish gray eyes, flecks of gold too—
     "You've only got one dimple," she says.
     "That a drawback? I had two, but I misplaced one after a particularly hard night."
     She gives my shoulder a shove. "You joke about everything."
     "Everything is pretty funny," I say, trying to sit up, but sinking down immediately, back groaning. "If you look at it the right way."
     "How do you know you're looking at it he right way?" Alice's head's lowered, she's still circling an index finger in the sand, only inches from brushing her knuckles past my stomach. The morning air is still and calm—no sound of the waves, even.
     "If it's funny," I wheeze, "you're looking at it the right way." (35-6).

Until the novel takes a sudden turn, and Tim finds himself unexpectedly forced into a parenting role himself, when (SPOILER ALERT HERE), a one-night stand from his mirky past shows up, infant in tow, claiming that Tim is the father. Can the boy whom everyone thinks is one most likely to "forget his own name even before we do," "turn down the hottest girl in the world for the coldest beer," and "be six feet under by our fifth reunion" truly parent a baby (57)? And can Alice, who has already put her life on hold to care for her own siblings, form any kind of meaningful bond with a boy already burdened with a child of his own?

Through both Alice and Tim, Fitzpatrick shows not only the joys, but the repetitive, mind-numbingly dull, and physically taxing work that goes into caring for young children. Parenting is not something that comes naturally to Alice because she's a female; neither is it something that comes unnaturally to Tim because he's a male (in fact, the mother of the baby proves far less comfortable with parenting than either Alice or Tim does). Both have to work hard to learn new skills, to rein in their impatience and boredom, and to be forgiving not only of the mistakes made by their charges, but also of those they themselves have made, and continue to make. In many ways, by learning to parent others, Tim, and even to a certain degree Alice, learn to parent themselves.

And thus are prepared themselves to step into an adult romantic relationship as a partner, rather than a needy child.


Photo credits:
Eight is Enough cast: Wikipedia
Sober baby bodysuit: Cafepress








The Boy Most Likely To
Dial, 2015

Friday, February 5, 2016

On Being a Racist White Ally in Romancelandia

A few thoughts in response to the recent dialogue between Kirkus romance reviewer Bobbi Dumas and Courtney Milan about racism in the romance world (See Dumas's post and Milan's comment here; see Dumas's follow-up here; see Milan's blog post about the controversy here).

The first time I can remember being called out for making a racist statement was in the early 1990s, while I was working for a major Boston publisher in the Editorial department of their children's books division. The publisher, a bastion of Boston Brahmin whiteness, was conducting a survey of its employees about issues of diversity. One question asked something along the lines of "Why do you think so few minority candidates apply for entry-level positions here?" As I white person, I remember imagining a first-generation black college student, whose family had scrimped and saved to send her to college, and wrote that perhaps minority students felt pressure to take jobs in industries that paid better than did publishing (my starting salary in 1987 was $14,100).

Later, I was speaking to a colleague whom I considered a friend, one of the handful of women of color who worked for the company. She had offered (or perhaps been appointed to serve on), the committee investigating diversity issues for the company, and was talking about the results of the survey. She mentioned the question from the survey I wrote about above, and expressed her dismay with the very answer I had given. "Why do people always assume that black people are always uneducated? That if they have a degree, they must be the first in their family to have attended college? And that we couldn't be as attracted to careers that don't pay well as white people are?" She didn't come out and say the survey respondents were racists, but the frustration and anger in her words implied it.

Since the survey had been anonymous, my friend had no idea that I had been one of those white people who had answered the survey question based on implicitly racist assumptions. Being young, shy, and needing to maintain a positive working relationship with my friend, I took the cowardly way out: I didn't tell her how I had answered the question, or ask her in more detail why she thought the answer was a problem.

Feminist issues were always of deep concern to me. But it wasn't until years later—after I had gone to graduate school, was hired as an adjunct at a local college, and was doing a lot of reading in preparation for teaching a first-year college writing seminar—that issues of race and racial justice came to the fore for me. The college's writing class, you see, was meant not just to teach writing, and not just to teach about a specific subject of the adjunct's choice (in my case, children and childhood), but also to teach about gender, class, and race.

Perfectionist that I am, I wanted to do a good job teaching this class. I'd learned, and felt prepared to teach, about writing, about childhood and children's literature, and about feminism. I even felt somewhat prepared to teach about social class. But I didn't feel at all prepared to teach about race. So I read all I could find on the issue as it related to education and childhood: Peggy McIntosh's seminal essay "White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack"; Beverly Daniel Tatum's Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?; Janet Helms' "Towards a Model of White Racial Identity Development" and William Cross's "Theories of Black Racial Identity Development"; Debra van Ausdale's The First R: How Children Learn Race and Racism. And many, many more books and articles devoted to race and racial injustice, and how to teach about both. And I attended workshops for the teachers of the first-year course, several of which focused on issues of race. And I enrolled in a summer workshop on Race and Culture at Boston College. I wrote and published an article about issues of race in the Harry Potter books. I learned the difference between individual, personal racism and institutional/structural racism ("I don't want to work for your publishing company because you don't pay anyone enough" vs. "I can't work for your publishing company, because that company systematically discriminates against blacks").

So I could probably claim that I'm better versed in issues of race and racial injustice than are many, many white people in America.

And still, I screw it up. I say, and write, racist things. Not intentionally, and not all the time; not as often as I might have if I'd never read, and been taught, and taught myself some important, painful things about race and racism in this country. But because as a white person growing up in the second half of twentieth century America, I grew up in a racist society, and absorbed many of its racist assumptions without ever being consciously aware of it. It's a struggle, engaging in an ongoing practice of self-examination to recognize, never mind root out one's own racial, and often racist, assumptions. And it can be messy, painful, and embarrassing, especially when some of that self-examination takes place in public. Such as on a blog about romance novels.

I've screwed up on this blog, written things that offended romance writers and readers of color. And smart, brave people have called me on it. The first time it happened, in response to a post I wrote complaining about the lack of racial consciousness in romances with black heroines and white heroes, my urge was to deny it, to fight back, which I did by challenging my critic in the comments. Another time, an upsurge in traffic to my blog from the blog of an author of color led me back to her blog, where I discovered that she had been deeply offended by two lines in my review of her most recent book. I wanted to shout: I didn't mean to hurt you! I'm not a racist! Or if I am, it wasn't intentional! And look, you misread what I wrote! But I'm sorry!

In the end, I didn't respond to this author at all, but for far different reasons than I had kept quiet about my responses to that publishing company diversity survey. My intent in writing this particular review had been positive, but the impact of reading the review for the author had been decidedly negative. And one thing that has stuck with me from my training in race issues is that intention isn't the only thing that matters; impact matters just as much. Many white people have good intentions, but internalized or institutionalized racism often shadows their actions, even actions driven by the best of intentions. It was, and is, not that other writer's responsibility to make me feel better that my well-intentioned post had impacted her so negatively.

To be called out for racist statements when you're struggling to be a white ally in the anti-racist cause sucks. It's all too tempting to justify ourselves, or to protest, "I'm on your side! Why don't you criticize the obvious racists, rather than me, a person who is sympathetic to your cause?" It's also tempting to just give it all up, to stop engaging, to say "Well, it's not my problem; I'm white."

Don't give in to that temptation. Because it sucks much, much more to be a victim of racism than it does to be accused of it.


Photo/illustration credits:
Good-intentions of white people: Jim Cooke, via Jezebel





Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Heather Rose Jones' DAUGHTER OF MYSTERY

Is Heather Rose Jones' Daughter of Mystery a lesbian romance? A work of historical fiction? A fantasy? An adventure story? A tale of court intrigue? After finishing the book earlier today, I'm not quite sure what genre to place it in. What I am certain, though, is that I closed the book with a distinct sense of feminist satisfaction.

Set in a Ruritania-like kingdom in the second decade of the 19th century, Daughter of Mystery is told through alternating third-person pov chapters of its two protagonists. Twenty-year-old Margerit Sovitre never imagined her sophisticated, wealthy, and distant godfather, Baron Saveze, would leave her much of anything after his death. But to her shock, his will proclaims Margerit heir to all his properties, holdings, goods, and monies excepting those linked to the title. Margerit's inheritance earns her not only the enmity of the new baron, who believes her new fortune rightly his own, but also the grudging protection of the old baron's armin, or bodyguard, a young woman known only by the name of Barbara.

Purchased as a young child by the baron, Barbara knows little of her own parentage. What she does know is that the baron arranged for her to trained as an armin despite her gender, and that her patron promised her she'd be a free woman after his death. To be listed as one of the "possessions" given to his new heir drives Barbara nearly mad. Margerit is equally appalled, and offers to free Barbara from her servitude. But the terms of the baron's will, as well as the refusal of Margerit's guardian uncle to allow her to give away any of her inheritance, tie the two young women together until both come of age.

Now just imagine one of those duelists as a woman...
Thus unfolds a wary dance of power and attraction between the two young women, one highly skilled in martial arts but without any financial or social power of her own; the other exploring her very real but still constrained financial power, but owing her safety to armin. Barbara and Margerit's slow-developing relationship takes place against the backdrop of court intrigue: the fictional country of Alpennia (situated, like Anthony Hope's Ruritania, in the midst of existing European countries without displacing any of them), like the elder Baron Saveze, is also in search of its next heir. Will the ruling Counsel declare the prince's underaged son, child of his second (and French) wife, the heir apparent? Or will his grandson, child of his eldest daughter by his first wife, but raised in Austria, be given the crown?

Margerit, enthralled by the chance to continue her academic studies at university, cares as much about state politics as she does about finding a potential mate, her purported reason for traveling to Rotenek, Alpennia's capital city. But Barbara, accustomed to the intrigues of the court from her years serving the baron, knows how dangerous it is to ignore the hidden messages behind seemingly kindly advances. And with the new Baron Saveze as deeply committed to helping the young princess and her son as he is to his plan for revenging himself against both Margerit and Barbara, can either young woman afford to turn her back on the duties of society, even if both would prefer a quiet life of scholarship?

Daughter of Mystery is decidedly short on sexy times. But it contains myriad other pleasures. Unsurprisingly, given the author's PhD. in Linguistics, the language used for the names, places, and ranks of Alpennia feels strikingly realistic, a compelling mixture of sounds that evoke French, Swiss, and Italian, with hints of German and Slovak: Margerit, Nikule, Giseltrut; Rotenek, Chalanz, Turinz; Maisetra, Mefro, Mesner. Even though I knew that the book was a work of fiction, its language sounded so right that I found myself wondering many times if it had been set in an actual European country that had somehow slipped my mind.

The English language used to relate the story of two Alpennian women is just as compelling as its invented one. After reading just the book's second paragraph, I knew I was in the hands of a gifted wordsmith:

     If the baron were less rich or less powerful, he would have been called an Eccentric, but Alpennian society didn't use that word of a man like the baron. As he was the only person sitting to dinner, and as it was neither one of his eccentricities to explain his plans to the lower servants nor to presume such exalted rank as to speak in the royal plural, the target of this remark appeared to be the motionless figure standing precisely one step behind and to the right of his chair. (Kindle Loc 61).

World-building and plotting are also strengths in Jones' writing. Careful readers will pick up on the clues dropped throughout the story about Barbara's parentage, but most will likely be surprised by the way Barbara's antecedents are interwoven with the current-day political wrangling about who will inherit Alpennia's crown. The book's fantasy elements (Alpennia is a land in which Thaumaturgy is not just an imaginary skill in a role-playing game, but an actual field of study, one pursued by Margerit and her fellow university students) make complete sense within the world Jones has created.

But what I enjoyed most was the gradual friendship, emotional connection, and at last, openly declared love that grew between experienced but vulnerable Barbara and unworldly but determined Margerit. Some claim that romances with same sex couples do not have to cope with the distressingly unequal power relations common to heterosexual relationships under patriarchy. Jones' story suggests, however, that differing levels of power are always being negotiated between potential romantic partners: social power, economic power, cultural capital, educational attainments and in-born gifts. The ability to come to terms with each other's greater (or lesser) power, even more than ability to fight the baron intent on their harm, is what makes Jones' heroines so utterly appealing, both as feminist role models and as romantic heroines.



Photo credits:
Prisoner of Zenda (1922): Movie Morlocks
Grey Thaumaturgy card: Patrick O'Duffy blog






 
Heather Rose Jones
Alpennia #1
Bella Books, 2014

Friday, January 29, 2016

A Gender Tax on Books?

In all the distractions of the holidays, you may have missed news of the report issued last month by the New York Consumer Affairs Board detailing the "gender tax" women pay on typical consumer goods. Entitled From Cradle to Cane: The Cost of Being a Female Consumer, the study compared the prices of products in five categories—toys and accessories; children's clothing; adult clothing; personal care products; and senior/home health care products—and found that in New York City, girls and women were charged on average 7% more for similar products than were men. 42% of the time, women's products costs more than men's products; only 18% of the time did products for men cost more than those for women.


Seven percent might not sound like an awful lot, but small percentages add up over the course of a lifetime of purchasing. According to a 1994 study  cited in the New York one, a study that focused on gendered services rather than products, women "effectively paid an annual 'gender tax' of approximately $1,351 for the same services as men." Paying more for services, paying more for products, and earning less because of the gendered gap in wages, women are given the short end of the financial stick.

The report made me wonder whether there is, or ever has been, a "gender tax" on books. Mass market books aimed primarily at women (aka romances) don't cost more than those aimed primarily at men (spy, adventure, etc.), a cursory glance at pricing suggests. But might the gender tax come not at the back end (charging the consumer), but rather at the front end (lower advances and royalty rates for the producers)? The still unresolved class action lawsuit against Harlequin Enterprises, arguing that the company created Swiss subsidiaries so that it would not have to pay its authors the royalties they were contractually owed for ebooks suggests as much. It might also explain why the price of lesbian romance is generally higher than that of conventional romance: lesbian publishers, in a move counter to the sexist drive to charge women more, are not gouging their consumer, but rather more fairly compensating their (primarily female) creators.


The New York Consumer Affairs Board is promoting a social media campaign, asking people to report instances of gendered pricing differences on twitter, at #genderpricing. And I'd love to hear from you here, if you see now (or have seen in the past) gendered price differences in mass market fiction.


Tuesday, January 26, 2016

What Do We Owe Our Exes? Elle Kennedy's THE SCORE

The latest addition to Elle Kennedy's New Adult Off-Campus series, The Score, focuses on the developing romance between college hockey player Dean Di Laurentis, the "king of one-night stands," and Allie Hayes, the girl who makes "little Dean" (i.e., his cock) pine for her and no other. Yet Kennedy's tale isn't the "teach/tame the philandering bastard the folly of his promiscuous ways by throwing a good-hearted virgin at him" storyline typical of old school romance (a large part of the appeal of the novel is that Allie, though she's had far fewer partners than has Dean, is in many ways more sexually adventurous than he is). Neither is the novel about being simultaneously resentful of and jealous of a man's right to be more sexually active than a woman is, as are so many other good-girl-heroine romances. In fact, the key to the fantasy of Kennedy's romance is that the villain of the piece is not sleep-around Dean, but Allie's nice-guy ex-boyfriend, Sean.

Reading The Score made me laugh at Dean's bawdy seduction attempts as he tries to win over the one girl who says "no" to any repeat performances after sleeping with him one time. But it really made me think why so many young women hold on to romantic partners long after everyone around them knows that the relationship has long run its course. And how many young women feel guilty if they are the ones to call a halt. What, if anything, do girls owe their exes?

The Score opens with Allie receiving increasingly desperate text messages from Sean, whom she's just broke up with—again. For the fourth time in three years. After being part of a couple since freshman year, Allie feels "like such a failure" for not making it work with Sean. "No, I feel like a quitter," she amends her thought; a quitter because "The last piece of advice my mom gave me before she died was to never give up on love" (Kindle Loc 62). Women teach other women that it is their role to nurture relationships, to pour their energies into emotional care-taking; when such care-taking fails to achieve the promised results, women are often made to feel, or make themselves feel, guilty about it.

Sean isn't evil; in fact, he's often rather sweet. But he can also be pretty un-sweet, especially when Allie's goals do not align with his. Their latest breakup came after Allie realized that while Sean had been fine with her plan to move to LA after college to pursue an acting career at the start of their relationship, of late he'd been arguing against her going into acting at all. His dream is for Allie to join him in Vermont, playing the role of happy housewife as he works at his father's insurance firm. And the arguments he'd been using to convince Allie of the rightness of his dream have involved far more verbal abuse of her acting talent than celebration of the bucolic Vermont lifestyle.

And so Allie breaks up with him. Again. For the last time, she swears. Afraid, though, because of her "terrible habit of wanting to make everyone happy, eve if it means sacrificing my own happiness" makes her scarily susceptible to Sean's sweet-talking ways (1046), Allie calls on her roommate, Hannah, for backup. But Hannah, out of town for the night with her boyfriend, can only offer her boyfriend's house as an escape. A house which said boyfriend just happens to share with the incorrigible, highly-sexed Dean. Allie, who's not a one-night-stand kind of girl, starts off the evening determined not to heed Dean's inevitable come-ons. Yet Dean's surprisingly easy to talk to, and, after a movie, a joint, and more than a little tequila, Allie wakes up the next morning hung over and naked—beside an equally naked Dean.

Allie feels anything but satisfied, even though the sex she and Dean shared was fabulous. "I'm such a slut. Okay, maybe I'm not. Maybe I'm just a twenty-two year old woman who had some no-strings fun for once in her life," Allie debates with herself after the fact. One-night stands make her feel "defiled," "ashamed," and now, having engaged in one only one day after breaking up with a long-standing boyfriend, more than a little guilty (721, 726). So guilty that Allie feels compelled to tell Sean what she's done when he calls with his heartfelt apologies and pleas for forgiveness and second (fifth?) chances). And later, when Sean tells her "I forgive you," Allie feels not just resentful ("because forgiveness implies that I'd done something wrong by sleeping with someone else, and that wasn't the case"), but also "relieved."

Intriguingly, it is the two men in her life who do the most to convince Allie that she does not owe Sean. Allie's tough father tells her he's glad she broke up with Sean:

    "Boy was too needy," Mr. Hayes continues. "I didn't like the way he looked at you."
     "How did he look at me?" Allie asks warily.
     "Like you were his entire world."
     She frowns. "And that's a bad thing?"
     "Damn right it is. Nobody should ever be someone else's entire world. That's not healthy, AJ. If your whole life is centered on one thing—one person—whatcha going to be left with if that person goes away? Absolutely nothing." He gruffly reiterates, "Not healthy." (3427)

And Dean urges her to drop the name/blame game:

    "But I wasn't kidding when I said I'm not into casual sex, okay? Every time I think about what we did this weekend, I feel—"
     "Horny?" he supplies.
     Yes. "Slutty."
     I don't expect the flare of irritation I glimpse in his eyes. "You want some advice, babe? Erase that word from your vocabulary."
     I suddenly feel guilty again, but I'm not sure why. Very reluctantly, I join him on the couch, making sure to keep some distance between us.
     "I mean it," he continues. "Stop slut-shaming yourself. And fuck the word slut. People should be able to have sex whenever they want, however many times they want, with however many partners they choose, and not get some shitty label slapped on them."
     He's right, but . . .  "The label is there whether we like it or not," I point out.
     "Yeah, and it was created by prudes and judgmental assholes and jealous pricks who wish they were getting laid on the regular but aren't." Dean shakes his head. "You need to stop thinking there's something wrong with what we did. We had fun. We were safe. We didn't hurt anybody. It's nobody's business what you or anyone else does in the privacy of their bedrooms, all right?"
     Oddly enough, his words succeed in easing some of the shame that's been trapped inside me since Friday night. (1315)


And this, perhaps, is where the fantasy of this romance lies: not in the fact that sex-loving Dean falls for sexually adventurous Allie, but that sex-loving Dean proves to be a sex-positive feminist, while nice-guy Sean proves to be a sexist asshat (examples of which come later in the story). Allie may need validation from men, as so many romance heroines do, but ultimately this validation is about affirming her rights—to her own plans, her own desires, and above all, her own sexual selfhood—not the rights of her male partner.

Or maybe there are just a lot more sex-loving sex-positive male feminists out there than when I was in college?






The Score
Off-Campus Book #3
2016

Friday, January 22, 2016

Offstage Heroine-ism and Gendered Cornering

If you're not a fiction writer, you may not be familiar with this piece of advice: be cruel to your characters. But it's something that experienced authors often tell writer wanna-bes.

Why? Because conventional writing wisdom says that authors often feel protective of their creations, and so do not put them into difficult enough situations, either plot-wise or emotion-wise. Which leads to a story without conflict, without the tension that pushes readers to turn the page, and the next, and the next. As a writer, don't coddle your characters; corner them, then toss them, kicking and screaming, into the hottest water you can boil.

I was thinking about this bit of writing advice while I was reading Cate Cameron's forthcoming contemporary, Hometown Hero. Hero's hero is actually a heroine: Mixed Martial Arts fighter Zara Hale. Daughter of an absent mother and a perpetually drunk father, Zara grew up on the wrong side of the tracks, depending on her older brother Zane to keep her fed and safe. Zara did not so much escape her small Vermont hometown as get pushed out of it after Zane suffered a mental breakdown and went on a drug-induced crime spree, a spree that landed him in prison. Sent off to live with an aunt in New York, tough-girl Zara found solace, and then a career, in the local gym and in MMA.

small town Vermont:
all rainbows & kittens?
Now, ten years later, Zara's at the top of her game, the reigning female MMA champion. But author Cameron has clearly heeded the conventional writing wisdom, and is not afraid to heap the bad times on her protagonist. As the novel opens, two concussions in a row have temporarily sidelined Zara. And thus she has no excuse for not going back to her Vermont hometown to keep tabs on Zane, just released from prison. And to take a temporary job at a community center, helping disadvantaged kids. No matter how little love she has for quaint Lake Sullivan and its inhabitants. Why should she put herself out for them? What did anyone there do to help her or Zane when their family was falling apart? And why should she be grateful to Cal Montgomery, town rich boy and Zane's purported best friend, for offering both her and Zane jobs at the community center? Isn't he just trying to make up for the fact that it was he who called the cops on Zane?

Zara's not into publicity, but her agent, Andre, insists that going home is perfect move, one that will both improve her own image as well as that of the MMA: "But seriously, making you into some sort of Ripley character, like from Aliens? You're a fierce warrior woman with a soft spot for kids. It's brilliant." Zara tries to argue with him—"I'm so tired of that crap. The men are allowed to just fight. They don't have to look pretty and flirt with reporters and work with damn kids!" But her sexist agent immediately shoots her feminist argument down:

Fighter or sex object?
"Simple question, Zara. Because, I don't know, maybe I missed something. So let me just check . . . Are you a man?" Andre paused, just long enough to pretend he was waiting for an answer. "Oh, no, you're not? Okay, next question. Do you live in a fantasy world of total equality, or do you live in this world?" Another pause for effect. "Oh, you live in this world? Then stop wasting my time with your whining and help me manage your career as a female fighter in the current universe. Okay?" (Kindle Loc 141)

With such a set-up, was it any wonder that I feared the take-home message of the story would be something along the lines of: 1, Zara needs to learn to like kids (because all good women like kids!); 2, Zara needs to learn to like small-town Vermont (because yeah, small-town America!); and, of course, 3, Zara needs to fall for the right guy (yeah, romance!). All of which, of course, will lead to 4, Zara needs to give up her MMA career for 1, 2, & 3.

Unsurprisingly, numbers 1, 2, and 3 all happen. But, (minor spoiler alert, here) to my utter pleasure, number 4 did not.

I began to wonder, then, why I had anticipated, no, actually predicted, that the book would end with Zara giving up her career. Was it because the older conventions of the genre so often demanded such a message? Because I tend toward glass-half-empty rather than glass-half-full kind of thinking? Or did it have something to do with this particular novel,  and the gendered ways in which Cameron "cornered" Zara?

I think it the answer is "yes, yes, and yes, but..." One and two are self-explanatory, but I wanted to think a bit more about #3. Because I don't think gendered cornering is something that happens just in Cameron's novel. It happens in many other romance novels, too.

Some examples to show what I mean by the phrase "gendered cornering":

• While Zara is a kick-ass heroine, we as readers never get to witness her in MMA action. How many romances have you read where the heroine is heroic offstage? Where you have to take her gutsiness for granted, at secondhand, at someone else's word? Does this diminish/undercut her impact, her power?

• The tension that exists between Zara and her love interest, Cal, lies primarily in Zara's refusal to not fight. Both Zara and Cal know that Zara is still having symptoms that might be due to her injury, symptoms that she hasn't reported to the doctors who have cleared her to fight. And with a challenger to her title already lined up, Zara isn't willing to come clean. Is it more common in romances for female characters to be told not to do something, to be put in a position where their professional goals are set up in opposition to their safety and/or health, than it is for male characters?

Might want to reconsider this one, ladies...
• I loved that Cameron, unlike many writers, calls attention to the gender constrictions that lie behind the masculine urge to protect we so often meet in romance novels:

"She won't let me take care of her, of course. But that just makes me want it even more. Because she's so strong, but she shouldn't have to be." [says Cal]
     Zane seemed amused. "There's nothing wrong with being strong. It's not what you have to be, it's what you get to be." (3010)

and

"If she was for sure going to die, you'd be right.... But this? She's taking more of a risk than you want. That's all. It's not as black and white as you're making it out to be. So you have to ask yourself: How much of this is about loving her, and how much is about controlling her?... It's not about it being the right decision or the wrong decision. It's about it being her decision." (3413)

Unlike Zara's male agent, who did not listen to her gender critique, Cal listens to fellow guy Zane. Cal's mother second's Zane's insights, but is it significant that it is Zane, not Zara, who calls Cal on the underlying motivations behind his "protective instincts"?  How often does a woman say something and is not listened to, but when a man says something similar, he is?

• Finally, despite Zane's criticism of Cal's refusing to accept Zara's decision, and Cal's acknowledgement of its accuracy, Zara does not get to make the decision whether or not to fight herself. A handy villain shows up to derail Zara's title bid, conveniently taking Zara's choice away from her. How often do romances purport to be about women's choices, but then pull the female protagonist's ability to chose out from underneath her?


Cameron's novel ends with both Zara and Cal compromising, each giving up something for the other. But I wonder, which is more powerful? The end message of equity and equality? Or the ambivalently mixed messages that lie behind the conflicts with which many romance novelists choose to corner their female protagonists?




Photo credits:
Small town VT: Strolling of the Heifers
Ronda Rousee ESPN cover: Breitbart
Under my protection: Slayashell Tumblr

Friday, January 15, 2016

Lesbian Romance By the Numbers?



In the comments to last week's post, "Do You Read Lesbian Romance?" a reader (thanks, Jill!) questioned the numbers I posted that the number of m/m romances published over the past five years to the number of lesbian romances published over the same period, numbers which I came by after doing a very quick search (via the "keyword" and "date" categories) on amazon.com. I've since gone back and done some additional searching, and refining of search terms.

Turns out, you get quite different results, depending on the search terms you use. Or whether you use quotation marks around your terms or not. Or whether, after your initial search, you refine your results (say, if you're looking for SF f/f romance, or Teen & Young Adult f/f romance).

Here are the figures for lesbian romance, using four different keywords to search.The second line shows the numbers if each category is then refined for "romance" or "lesbian romance." Not quite sure why "lesbian romance" is a subcategory of "lesbian romance," but it is...


          "f/f romance"  f/f romance  "lesbian romance"  lesbian romance 

2015:        23                  3,334              3,986                       13,901
                 17                  2,835              2,552                         2,527

2014:        29                  2,175              2,128                         9,069
                 27                  1,850              1,141                         1,117

2013:         3                   1,493              1,308                         4,817
                  1                   1,177                 698                            677

2012:         5                    1,436                833                         3,547          
                  5                    1,133                383                            369

2011:         0                      610                 418                        1,508
                                          406                 213                           207


Looking at the actual titles that turn up in each search, it's clear that if you search without using quotations marks around your search terms, you get a lot of heterosexual romances, not just lesbian romances. Not to mention a lot of other, completely-unrelated-to-romance things (Tchaikowsky's Romance in F Minor Op. 5, anyone?) But using quotation marks isn't all that better, especially if you use the relatively new term "f/f"; hetero romances come up in those searches, too.

Is this because Amazon allows authors to tag their books with their own keywords? And authors are putting in keywords that aren't really relevant to their titles?

It would be nice if Amazon allowed searchers to refine their search to exclude certain things (so you could differentiate romance from erotica, say, or from Tchaikovsky sheet music). But given the way search parameters are currently set up, this doesn't seem possible.

So, after compiling all these numbers, I'm feeling that they are ultimately not all that helpful in thinking about lesbian romance publication numbers, or LGBTQ numbers in general. In fact, they're pretty useless. So I'm not even going to bother to do a similar search on m/m or gay romance (with or without quotes).

Perhaps this kind of research is something that a larger organization has, or should, take on? I've sent an email to the Lambda Literary folks to check if they have done any investigating. If not, I think I'll be emailing RWA Board members to ask if their "Romance Industry Statistics" page might be updated with some additional research, so LGBTQIA books don't have to be the rainbow sheep of the romance family when it comes to statistics.

Unless any readers out there have other ideas about how to find accurate publication information on the number of lesbian, f/f, gay, m/m and other LGBTQIA romances are being published today?