Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Experimenting with Sex: Ruthie Knox's MADLY

I know I'm always in for a feminist treat whenever I pick up a romance by Ruthie Knox. And there are many feminist moments in Madly, the much-awaited second book in Knox's New York series (books in which midwestern women find themselves, and love, in the Big Apple). Some are familiar Knox themes: sisterly solidarity; the sexism that can often hide behind the facade of the "good guy"; the roles that family expects their daughters to play, even after said daughters may have long outgrown them. But the one I want to write about today has to do with sex.

A type of sex, I would argue, that is rarely found in any romance novel, whatever the subgenre. Rather than the seamlessly perfect, always orgasmic, almost effortless sex that is the staple of romance fiction, in Madly Ruthie Knox celebrates sex that is experimental, messy, and, most surprisingly, not entirely successful.

First, a bit about Madly's story. Allie Fredericks, whom readers of the first book in the series met as she was calling off her engagement to her long-time boyfriend on the day of the wedding, is Madly's heroine. Despite the embarrassment (not to mention the thousands of dollars in nonrefundable deposits for caterers, venue, flowers, etc.) of Allie's last-minute dash from the altar, Allie's former fiancĂ© still wants to be friends. But Allie has more to worry about than whether her "Good Guy" ex is turning into her own personal stalker; Allie's mother has run off to New York on the eve of her thirtieth wedding anniversary. Mrs. Fredericks has disappeared like this several times in the past, but she's always come home again, and no one in the family has ever explained why. But Allie, by hacking into her mother's email, knows the reason (or at least thinks she does). Though impetuous Allie has no plan for how to accomplish it, she knows that it is imperative that her mother come home: "Because I dumped Matt, and my sister moved to New York, and I can't bear for even one more thing in my life to change" (Kindle Loc 403).

But Allie's spying goes awry in Pulvermacher's Bar, where Mrs. Fredericks is scheduled to meet an old flame. To help her hide from her mother, Allie dragoons an unwary fellow bar patron, a man with all the looks and style of James Bond, but, unfortunately for Allie, the heart (and lifestyle) of a stolid conservative financial manager. Too distracted hiding behind the pinball machine tippling whiskey and exchanging confessions about failed relationships with British ex-pat Winston Chamberlain, Allie loses track of her mother—and has no other clue about how or where to find her.

Except that Winston knows the identity of the man with whom Allie's mom was meeting. But since said man is a client, a quite well-off client with some hefty secrets of his own, Winston is not quite willing to help Allie track him down. What he is willing to do is help her find a place to stay for the night. And to share cold camomile tea and "ruthless therapeutic confessions about our failed relationships" with chatty, charming Allie (758). Confessions which lead to flirting, which lead to a jokingly-made bucket list of 10 sex things they've never done and could do together. To help them get out of their respective romantic and sexual ruts.

The first items on their shared list—a thirty-second hug (the length a hug needs to be for oxycontin to release into your system, Allie informs Winston); blowing gently on a neck; spending an hour kissing, keeping one's hands over clothing—are not difficult to accomplish, even with a relative stranger. And as days pass while Allie continues her search for her mother, Winston is coming to feel "like someone she could know without the things that made him Winston infringing on anything that made her Allie" (821). But some of the later items on their mutual bucket list don't turn out to be quite as big a turn-on as the list-writers had originally imagined. Or at least, they don't upon first try.

Especially because, as Winston later realizes "everything he'd written on the list was there for a reason. Not simple, bucket-list, I've-never-done-this-before reasons, but deeper ones that had to do with how he'd been hurt in his marriage, or how he'd hurt his wife" (1635). And the same seems equally true for Allie. For example, during their attempt at item #4 ("everything but"):

     He licked the slickness of her inner thighs, then worked inward bit by bit, savoring her strange and peppery flavor and how soft, how incredibly and unforgivably soft, she felt against his tongue. And then a rougher texture near her clit that he rubbed his tongue over, slow drag after slow drag with two fingers inside her that made her fling her arms wide and clutch at handfuls of sheets and finally turn her face into the pillow and shove it up over her head, her eyes covered, her breath coming fast as she said, "I don't think I can."
     "Do you want me to stop?"
     "No!" The word came out like a sob, urgent and full of feeling.
     "Okay. But I'm going to need more direction."
     "You're doing perfect. You feel . . . there aren't words, but it's so good. I just don't know how to make myself come like this. There's nothing to focus on, or push against, and I'm on my back like a stupid turtle—"
     He kissed her hip bone. Her stomach. Worked his way up to her neck, behind her ear, her cheek, which was when he noticed her eyes were full of unshed tears.
     She was trembling.
     "I can stop," he said. "There's nothing we need to get to. We could put on clothes and watch a film."
     This made her eyes overflow, and she swiped at them with the back of her hand. "I don't want to watch a film, not right now, I just—I don't know what I want. I want to know how to come." She turned onto her side, facing him. He rested his hand at the dip of her waist.
     "I suspect you do know how."
     She hid her face in the bed. "I don't want to have to figure it out, I want to have been doing this for years already, and I'm angry that I wasn't." She lifted her face to him. "I'm so mad, Winston."
     "That seems reasonable. Would you like a cuddle?"
     "No. A cuddle is the last thing on earth I want."
     But she didn't look as angry as she wanted to sound. She looked terribly sad. So he put his arm out, and she tucked herself against his side, her face in his neck.  (1742)


While Allie and her ex had sex on a regular basis, it was never the kind of exploratory, experimental sex in which she and Winston are engaging. And as the two begin to discover, it's not just a lack of experience and familiarity with a particular sexual act that can stand in the way of achieving pleasure via its use, but also the emotional scars one carries with one from other past sexual experiences.

This scene doesn't end with "failure," though. Instead, after talking—not just about Allie's inability to reach orgasm, but also about some of the emotional baggage they're both shlepping around—Winston comes to understand that "it didn't hurt more to admit how much it hurt in the first place. It didn't hurt more to unravel. And once you'd unraveled, you could look around and think, a bit. Discover" (1805).

And try item #4 on the list again. Or skip #4 entirely, and go straight to #5.

But even after the success of #5, not every item on the remaining list goes smoothly for Allie and Winston. They try new things, back away from some, try things that went wrong again, just to see if things might be different at another moment in time, another emotional state of mind.

Experiment. Acknowledge your own feelings, and listen to the feelings of your partner. Be willing to try again, or try something different, if your first attempt goes awry. Or give it all up for a while and connect with your partner on another level than the sexual. These are the expectations Ruthie Knox asks romance readers to have about sex with a loving partner, expectations far different from the "I've never felt like this before with anyone else/this is so amazingly perfect" kind of physical/spiritual intermingling that has become the staple of the majority of sex scene in romance books not just of the past, but of the present, too.

Which is the better fodder for a romance reader's fantasy? First-time perfect? Or try and try again?

As for me, I'll take the Knox version, every time.


Photo credits:
Sex Bucket List: Pinterest
Love never fails: We Heart It
Fall Seven Times: Deborah Tindle











Madly
Loveswept, 2017

Friday, March 17, 2017

The Lack of Diversity in Historical Romance

In case you haven't heard about it yet, there's a thought-provoking opinion piece over at Smart Bitches, Trashy Books about the dearth of people of color (POC) in historical romance. "The Diversity Thorn: Ethnic Identity, History, and Historical Romance," by new-to-romance reader and gender scholar Asha Ganesan, opens with a bold claim:

Historical Romance (HR) has a major diversity and accuracy problem. The problem stems from assumptions that have been passed down through the lineage of HR (though these assumptions are not exclusive to this genre). The assumption is that branding a story "historical romance" includes some representation of "historical accuracy." It does not.

Ganesan goes on to argue that since HR is often as much, if not more, fantasy than realism, authors cannot use the defense of "I'm being historically accurate" to justify not writing characters of color into their historical works:

If we are capable of suspending reality when it comes to our handsome rake alpha not being even slightly physically affected by his debauchery and we are willing to overlook the deus ex machina in many of our favourite books (twin-swapping? Windfall? He wasn't a commoner after all?), is it really too much to ask to make one of the MC's lover an African woman? To make his wife Asian? To have a character be a cunning Indian businessman—villain or hero?

I appreciate Ganesan's goal—to push writers to write, and publishers to publish, more HR featuring characters of color. But I think we have to go a little further than just pointing out the logical fallacy that lies behind most traditionally-published (and a lot of independently-published) HR if we want the ethnic and racial landscape of HR to change.

My thoughts here take a few twists and turns. To start, I'm going to go counterintuitive: by arguing that Ganesan's claim that all historical romance features no historical accuracy is not accurate. Some HRs use their historical settings as little more than backdrops, yes, an excuse to feature pretty ballgowns, lavish jewels, and beautiful estates. Others, though, are deeply invested in what it was like to live in a particular historical moment, how daily life at a particular place and at a specific year or period in history influenced how the people alive then thought, felt, and especially fell in love. Some HRs are almost pure fantasy, while others balance on the line between historical romance and historical fiction.

Do you think that readers tend to prefer books on one or the other end of this fantasy/accuracy spectrum? I know I do, and many readers I know do, too. I don't know this empirically, but it's my hunch that readers who prefer the "wallpaper" HRs, the books that use the past as a pretty set piece rather than as opportunity to explore human difference as well as similarity, are also the ones who prefer their romances to feature only aristocratic protagonists. And that readers who prefer the other end of the spectrum enjoy romances with characters from all different social class positions.

In large part, the fantasy of aristocratic HR is a fantasy of escaping our social class: I may live a middle or working-class life, but when I read HR with dukes and duchesses, viscounts and viscountesses, I can fantasize that I live a life of wealth and ease. Crossing class lines (earls marrying governesses, or, even far less likely, dukes wedding serving girls) is an especially potent fantasy, one that's been a part of Western culture for as long as we've been telling versions of the Cinderella story. Such romances diffuses class tensions by allowing the economically underprivileged to fantasize about joining the ranks of the privileged, if only for the short while the book we are reading lasts.

But there's a second, usually unremarked-upon fantasy that the aristocratic wallpaper HR also allows: a fantasy of living in an all white world. Because the English nobility was almost exclusively white during the periods in which HRs are most popular. By asking for story after story of dukes and marquesses and earls and their ilk, readers not only get stories of rich, powerful men, but they can also get books with all-white characters, all without having to specifically ask for this.

Readers who want to "escape" by reading HR, then, might not just wish to escape the hardships of their own working lives (a class escape). They might also harbor a wish to escape the increasingly difficult-to-ignore fact that American, and much European, life now is inescapably not all white (a race escape).

Such readers may be unconscious of this desire. Or they may not wish to express it openly, for fear of being labeled racist. But the aristocratic HR, by its very nature, caters to such a desire, whether it wishes to or not.

How much does that fantasy of an all-white world, a world without racial strife, appeal to you, consciously or unconsciously, when you read or write historical romance? I'm asking myself this question today, and urging other white readers and writers to do the same.


Illustration credits:
Two Regency white ballgowns: The Miniature Historian
Contemporary white ballgowns: This is Glamorous








Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Walking the Historical Gender Tightrope: Lisa Kleypas's DEVIL IN SPRING


    (TRIGGER WARNING: rape scene in excerpt #1)

    "Don't," she choked, yet still the strange undreamed-of caress continued while she lay under him like a block of ice. It deepened, intensified until he was stroking the snug, shrinking tenderness of her virgin flesh, watching her stiff expression curiously. He continued until two wavering tears of humiliation wound their way down the sides of her face, yet still he did not appear satisfied with her response.
     "When are you going to stop?" the words fitfully issued from her lips, and Rand's mouth thinned. He discarded all efforts to make the act more pleasurable for her.
     "You would prefer a fast-paced finale? I'll endeavor to oblige you," he said, and before she could take another breath he thrust into her, hard and demanding, rending her feminine softness without restraint. Rosalie cried out in surprise and pain, her body arching sharply into his in immediate reaction. The disembodied feeling returned as he stared into her dazed face. Rand whispered something, a trace of some undefinable emotion in his tone. He remained unmoving as Rosalie endured the uncomfortable sensation of being filled, too much and too deep. He held her face between his hands, but she would not meet his eyes or accept the touch of his mouth. She had not wanted to be possessed by him, neither did she want his consolation. Patiently he let her adjust to the feel of his body, allowing the first shock to wear off before he began to ease in and out of her with exquisite care.   (Lisa Kleypas, Where Passion Leads, 1987)


     Tearing her gaze from him, Pandora quivered with frustration. "Why can't I own my business the way a man would, so no one could take it away from me?"
     "I won't let anyone take it from you."
     "That's not the same. It's all convoluted. It's compromised."
     "It's not perfect," Gabriel agreed quietly.
     Pandora paced in a small, tight circle. "Do you want to know why I love board games? The rules make sense, and they're the same for everyone. The players are equal."
     "Life isn't like that."
     "It certainly isn't for women," she said acidly.
     "Pandora . . . we'll set our own rules. I'll never treat you as anything less than my equal."
     "I believe you. But to the rest of the world, I would be legally nonexistent."
     Gabriel reached out and caught lightly at her upper arm, interrupting her pacing. There was a ragged edge to his calmness now, like a hem that was coming unstitched. "You'll be able to do the work you love. You'll be a wealthy woman. You'll be treated with respect and affection. You'll—damn it, I'm not going to plead like a street beggar holding out his cap. There's a way for you to have most of what you want—isn't that enough?"
     "What if our situations were reversed?" she shot back. "Would you give up all your legal rights and surrender everything you own to me? You'd never be able to touch a penny of your money, except by my leave. Think of it, Gabriel—the last contract you'd ever sign would be our marriage contract. Would marrying me be worth that?"
     "That's not a sane comparison."
     "Only because in one case, a woman gives up everything, and in the other, a man does."
                                (Lisa Kleypas, Devil in Spring, 2017)


I've always had a reading love/hate relationship with the romances of superstar Lisa Kleypas. Kleypas writes some of the smartest, and at the same time sweetest, banter between potential heterosexual lovers in the romance field. Her historicals are well-researched, if rather American-values-centric (she finds entrepreneurial men of far more interest than life-of-leisure aristocrats, even though the bulk of her historicals are set in England, not the United States). She is especially good at capturing class differences, and the rapidly shifting class boundaries of British Victorian society. And her characters are well-drawn, each with his or her individual personalities and quirks, rather than just cookie-cutter imitations of the stars of her earlier books. 

But many of her novels also feature some pretty hard to stomach (at least for a feminist) depictions of alpha-hole masculinity. She began her career writing Old Skool bodice-rippers, complete with initial sex scenes between her protagonists that qualify as rape, not only by today's standards, but by those of the times in which they were written (as in the above excerpt from 1987's Where Passion Leads, a novel notably not included on the book list on Kleypas's web site). And even while her female leads are rarely push-overs, they do often end up in peril and danger—threatened, kidnapped, attacked—and thus in need of rescuing by their dashing male counterparts. Strong and devoted, yes, but Kleypas's male characters all too often step far over the line that keeps protective from becoming controlling.

Which was why I found Kleypas's latest, Devil in Spring, so interesting. The third book in her Ravenels series, DiS focuses on the awkward, socially-inept Ravenel sister, Pandora, whom Kleypas indicates in a video has what we today would label ADHD. It's a rather benign depiction of the disorder; all in Pandora's family circle find her inability to sit still, her restless energy, and unconventional manners charmingly appealing. As does the man labeled "a cynical rake" by the book's flap copy, Gabriel, Lord St. Vincent:

He hardly recognized himself in his reaction to her. She was full of life, burning like sunflowers in the rime of autumn frost. Compared to the languid and diffident girls of London's annual marriage mart, Pandora might have been another species altogether. She was just as beautiful as he remembered, and as unpredictable.  (70)

In truth, Gabriel is not a rake at all; he's just been tarred by the rake's brush because he looks so much like his father (the truly rakish hero of Kleypas's earlier Devil in Winter [2006]). Though his offer of marriage to Pandora came about through an accidental compromising (he helped her escape from where her dress was caught in the openwork of a garden settee, which led to the ripping of said dress and the appearance of impropriety), perfectly correct Gabriel finds himself immediately drawn to the unpredictable (and young) Pandora.

Pandora's game, too, is all about shopping...
circa 1898
But Pandora has no wish to marry; she has already begun plans to develop the board game she invented into a commercial product, with the help of her department-store-owning brother-in-law. As she explains to Gabriel

"As things stand now, I have the freedom to work and keep my earnings. But if I marry you, everything I have, including my company, would immediately become yours. You would have complete authority over me. Every shilling I made would go directly to you—it wouldn't even pass through my hands. I'd never be able to sign a contract, or hire employees, or buy property. In the eyes of the law, a husband and wife are one person, and that person is the husband. I can't bear the thought of it. It's why I never want to marry." (90)

Not a passage you'd be likely to find in a Kleypas novel from the 80s. And not a pronouncement that Gabriel hears without being taken aback: "The little speech was astounding. It was the most transgressive talk Gabriel had ever heard from a woman. In a way, it was more shocking than any of his mistress's most salacious words and acts" (90). Unlike many a current-day historical romance author, Kleypas does not ignore the gender norms of the social milieus in which she sets her stories. Pandora's desire is transgressive, shocking, revolutionary.

Gabriel's attraction to Pandora, though, is such that he is willing to offer her as much legal concession for her grievances about losing her financial rights as he possibly can, given the laws at the time. But as their conversation (quoted above) reveals, those concessions are not the same as granting Pandora legal control. And those concessions are not at all satisfying to Pandora: "It wouldn't be ownership, but it would have the appearance of it. Rather like wearing a tiara and asking everyone to pretend she was royalty, when they all knew it was a sham" (155).

But only two scenes later, after a trust-building exercise Gabriel engineers, Pandora has completely changing her mind:

In that moment, Pandora realized it would kill her not to have him. She might actually expire of heartbreak. She was becoming someone new, with him—they were becoming something together—and nothing was going to turn out the way she'd expected. Kathleen [her sister-in-law] had been right—whatever she chose, it wouldn't be perfect. She would have to lose something.
     But no matter what else she gave up, this man was the thing she couldn't lose. (165-66)

And only a few pages later, she and Gabriel are off on their honeymoon. Pandora's transgressive feminist desires have been abruptly recast as an immature girl's unwillingness to compromise, the need for heterosexual love held forth as the most important thing in Pandora's (any girl's?) life. This is, of course, a love story; given the laws on Married Women's Property of the period (as Kleypas points out in her Author's Note), there is no way that Pandora can both be married and be a business owner. But the speed of Pandora's about face is more than a sign of her impetuous personality; it suggests a deep need to paper over the obvious tension between the desire to be a wife and the desire to be a business owner that Kleypas points to so well earlier in the book.

Chapters 15 to 23 of DiS, which take place after Pandora and Gabriel's wedding, focus little attention on Pandora's former wishes. Instead, she is thrust into a "lady in peril" plot, when, while she is out searching for a printer for her board game, she inadvertently comes across a Fenian plot against the crown. I groaned when I read the first of these chapters; was Pandora's capitulation to marriage just the first of many capitulations to follow, ones that would make her even more of a conventional historical romance heroine than she had already become?

But Devil in Spring concludes its lady in peril plot with a rather more progressive ending than I had expected. Unlike the storylines of many of Kleypas's earlier books, Pandora's husband cannot and does not rescue her. In fact, it takes another woman, not Gabriel, to save her life.

After his wife's recovery from her brush with danger, Gabriel, like many a over-protective Kleypas hero before him, wants to keep his lover safe under lock and key. Rather than make this clash of "who will be in control" into a big, black-moment showdown between Pandora and Gabriel, though, Kleypas chooses to resolve their conflict in keeping with the comic tone of the rest of the book. Pandora's doctor counsels her that her husband has experienced a shock, too, and that he needs time to recover. When Gabriel insists on that the doctor issue his wife a prescription to calm her, the doctor scribbles the following and hands it to Pandora:

Enforced bed rest might not be so bad if you could do it here...
Take one overwrought husband and administer compulsory bed rest. Apply as many embraces and kisses as necessary until symptoms are relieved. Repeat as needed. (252)

Though Pandora does temper her controlling beast/husband with cuddles and sex, ultimately Gabriel has to accept that Pandora can and will continue to risk herself, even in the face of his absolutely forbidding it. What else should one expect from a lady who has, after all, gotten a special dispensation to have the word "obey" stricken from the wedding vows?

No, Kleypas may not be the most overtly feminist of romance writers. Yet Devil in Spring points to some of the continuing tensions of historical romance, at least historical romance like Kleypas's, that wish to take history, and history's gender norms, seriously: the need to create heroines who come across as "empowered" to contemporary readers, but who also exist within the constraints of the social mores of their times.


Photo credits:
Playing Department Store: Pinterest
Victorian bed: Victoriana Magazine








Devil in Spring
The Ravenels, book #3
Avon, 2017

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Does "By Women, For Women, About Women" = Feminist?

Last week, I attended a Romance Fiction panel at the Boston Public Library, the first time the library had played host to talks by romance authors (although the librarian who introduced the panel said she hoped it would be not be the last). Eloisa James and Lauren Willig were the speakers (Sarah MacLean was scheduled, too, but had to cancel due to a family emergency), with Caroline Linden acting as moderator. In the audience were romance readers, writers, and reviewers, as well as a few folks who were there, as the woman sitting next to me explained, "to see what this romance thing is all about."

During the lively, entertaining panel that followed, one of the speakers (Willig, if memory serves), referred to the catchphrase that in the past three or four years has come to serve as a quick, easy justification to whip out whenever a romance lover meets one of those annoying people who assume that romance is stupid, laughable, or just plain embarrassing: "romance is the only fiction genre written by women, for women, and about women."

Implicit in this oft-repeated statement are two underlying assumptions. First, that in the past, value judgments made about of literature, including genre fiction, have been plagued by sexism, and thus romance, because it is by/for/about women, has been unfairly devalued because of its gender/genre connection. This is an assumption that I can get completely behind. But the second assumption—that because romance is written by/for/about women, that it must, by its nature, not be sexist—is one about which I have my doubts.

An anti-suffragist postcard c 1910
Even if all women shared the same biology (which, if we include trans women, they don't), they would not necessarily share the same beliefs. And since the dawn of feminism in the eighteenth century, feminism has seen its share of women who actively reject and crusade against its principles: Josephine Dodge and her fellow female members of the National Association Opposed to Women's Suffrage in the early 20th century; Phyllis Schafly campaigning against the Equal Rights Amendment in the 1970s; and the current crop of #womenagainstfeminism tweeters, just to name a few.

Thus it seems mistaken, if not actively misleading, to imply that all romances, just because they are by/for/about women, must be feminist. I'd buy the argument that because they are by/for/about women, romances are more likely to be feminist than other types of genre fiction, perhaps even more than literary fiction. But each individual romance has the potential to be feminist, anti-feminist, or not interested in feminism at all. I've certainly read my share of actively anti-feminist romances, and not just those from the bodice-ripper era. Though they may be less common than in the 1970s and 80s, romances that reject the principles of feminism are still being written, and still being read. Especially books that take it for granted that men and women are, by nature, inherently different, and which portray that difference along a traditionally stereotypical masculine/feminine divide.

Of course, any romance can be read through a feminist lens. I can use the insights of feminism to explore/explain the gender power dynamics of any romance, including those that strike me as particularly anti-feminist. I can point to the ways that one book takes it for granted that men and women are inherently different, or another calls such assumptions into question. I can look at the ways that one romance is built around the idea that that social norms and institutions favor men, or the way another suggests that men and women have equal rights and opportunities. Or even how both ideas can exist, in tension with one another, in the same book. I can even suggest the ways that seemingly anti-feminist images or storylines might be read symbolically, as a protest against gender inequality, or a longing for gender parity (billionaire romances, anyone?).

But using feminism to analyze a romance is not the same as asserting that a particular romance, never mind the entire genre of romance, is feminist. And the assertion that romance, because it is by/for/about women, must always be feminist, is an argument that is only too easy to shoot down.

I know that the speakers at the Boston Public Library panel were talking to a general audience, not to scholars of the genre, and so did not get into the nitty gritty of romance and its critics. And the current level of conventional wisdom about the genre (i.e., romance = bad, silly, or stupid) might find an easy, unsubtle argument to counter stereotypes about the genre imminently useful.

Even so, I worry that romance authors who use the by/for/about women argument to justify romance may end up having those justifications backfire on them. For what will happen when an romance-doubting critic, rather than a romance-friendly one like myself, decides to challenge the assumptions that lie behind the argument?


What catchphrase would/do you use to justify romance, when you encounter a romance denigrator? Or have we moved beyond the need to justify romance's existence altogether?


Photo credits:
Anti-suffragist postcard: Atlas Obscura
Anti-feminist comic: Comically Vintage


Friday, March 3, 2017

Too Many Funerals

Apologies for the lack of posts this week; having to go to my second funeral in two months for people younger than myself is killing my desire to write and even to read. Especially this funeral, for the 18-year-old son of my best friend from college. A totally unexpected and heartrending loss.



Any recommendations for romances that deal with the death of a child?

Or perhaps ones which start with the ultimate anti-meet-cute—a funeral?

Or when you're faced with the inexpressibly tragic, would you rather read a light-as-dandelion-fluff romance?





Photo credit:
Dandelion: Flickr (Lisame0511)

Friday, February 24, 2017

Feminism with a Kink: Teresa Noelle Roberts' DRIVE and Tamsen Parker's DUE SOUTH

Hearing Teresa Noelle Roberts and Tamsen Parker speak at February's meeting of the New England Chapter of Romance Writers of America on how to use kink to develop a romance arc reminded me that I hadn't read either of their recent releases. And so I spent a few evenings this week most pleasantly entertained by two erotic romances that use kink not only to titillate readers, but also to advance feminist ideals.

Roberts' Drive, the first book in her Cougars, Cars and Kink series, spins a romantic suspense story about a forty five-year-old recent widow who finds herself in the midst of car chases, break-ins, and terrorist plots after she discovers her husband's high-tech business focused not just on the industrial and consumer markets, but on defense work for the government. The suspense plot wasn't what grabbed my interest, though; instead, it was the book's parallel story about a middle aged woman who had once enjoyed walking on the kinky side but who had suppressed those desires for the sake of her marriage. And who rediscovers her pleasure in being sexually submissive with a hot guy fifteen years her junior. So many romances, even erotic ones, take it for granted that the natural heterosexual pair is an older man with a younger woman. The gap between the ages of said heterosexual pair has narrowed over the years, but the rarity of older women paired with younger men in romance indicates that the general principle is still alive and well in the genre.

Suzanne Mayhew had initially been attracted to her husband, Frank, because he seemed in control, an adult while she was still floundering, figuring out her life. But Frank's controlling nature did not extend to the bedroom ("If the world ever needed proof that control freak and Dom are two different traits..." [Kindle Loc 53]). Suzanne was on the verge of getting a divorce when Frank wrapped one of the classic cars he seemed to care about far more than his wife around a tree.

Eight months after Frank's death, Suzanne is finally ready to move on with her life. Part of that moving on includes confiding to her old college friend, Janice, a Domme in Boston's kink community, that Suzanne misses "the spanky side of sex" (19). And Janice, good friend that she is, arranges for one of her Dom friends to go and check out the 1965 Mustang, Frank's favorite classic car, that Suzanne is putting up for sale. That neither Suzanne nor Neil, Janice's thirty-year-old friend, has any idea that they've been set up only adds to the excitement of their flirty meeting.

Suzanne has no hangups about a short term fling with younger guy Neil, and for his part, Neil has a decided preference for older women: "Older women were more confident, as a rule, more in touch with their own sexual needs and less likely to use the submissive role as an excuse to avoid responsibility" (97). But when things start to get really intense really fast, Suzanne ends up backing off. Only when Neil experiences his own personal crisis, after Suzanne's have all been resolved, can Suzanne shrug off her worries about their age difference and realize what she wants for herself, and from Neil.

I'm looking forward to reading future installments of this unusual series, which promise more romance and thrills for other members of Janice's Kinky Cougars support group. Younger men, bring 'em on!

Parker's Due South, the fifth book in her Compass series, features two protagonists who aren't nearly as sure about their sexual desires as Suzanne and Neil are. Lucy Miller, assistant to hard-driving boss India Burke (see books 1 & 2 in the series) and Evans, India's second in command, are about as awkward and deferential as two people can be. As Lucy describes them, "A flutter of 'sorrys' follows because both of us could probably get Canadian or British citizenship based solely on the amount of apologizing we do" (56). Evans has been nursing a crush on Lucy for years, but has never acted on it, not only because fraternization between employees is strictly forbidden by the company handbook, but also because "I can barely speak a sentence to women outside of a work context because I don't want to impose, and I feel the urge to apologize just for existing" (115). As for Lucy, she likes Evans, but has never really thought of him in any romantic, never mind sexual, way. As unlikely a pair of lovers as one is likely to find in romance today.

And it takes something completely unexpected to bring them together: accidentally observing their tough-as-nails boss engaging in BDSM sex with her husband at the office. And taking the submissive, rather than the dominant, role. While watching India's husband hit her with a belt kills Lucy's tiny crush on him, watching the two engage in hot sex turns her on—as does the sight of Evans' own arousal. And as soon as India and her husband leave, Evans' mouth comes crashing down on hers, not in any mild, tentative way, as his affect might suggest, but "demanding, passionate...hungry. Like he wants to devour me" (367). And Lucy isn't at all reluctant to be devoured.

But Evans, being Evans, immediately apologizes for his unacceptable behavior and flees. But the evening has even more embarrassing moments in store for them both until they begin to see a way out of their predicament:

    "What if you... weren't you?"
     He starts, but then it seems as though the sun comes up and shines on his face. "You mean like pretend?"
     "Yeah. Pretend. Like we could still be Lucy and Evans, but braver."
     "Bolder."
     My breath speeds up, and I bite my lip. "Yeah. Sexier." (479)

Even under the guise of pretend, though, Lucy, who grew up in a conservative family, has difficulty bridging the gap between what she wants in her head and actually speaking her desires aloud:

But I can't quite get the words from my brain to my mouth. They keep getting hung up on everything I've been told my whole life. That sex is only appropriate inside the bonds of marriage and I need to set a good example because girls have more self-control than boys." (509).

Lucy knows, now, as an adult, that her family and her church's teachings are misogynistic. But still, it's difficult to keep those teachings, those voices, out of her head. It takes real work, feminist work, to allow herself to believe her desires are not bad, that "it's okay to want sex, to like it, to enjoy my body and be proud that men find me attractive. It's okay to be a sexual creature" (523). But with Evans, someone equally as diffident, ready to combine bold and sexy with shy and awkward, Lucy finds the courage to be an active participant in her own sex life.

But conquering your inner slut-shamer isn't a one-time affair; the old familiar feelings of shame and embarrassment don't disappear overnight. With an awkward, but equally eager partner, though, Lucy can get in a lot of practice reciting her sex-positive mantras and laying down new patterns in her brain. Patterns that say "yes" to pleasure—even if said pleasure includes a touch of kinky exhibitionism—and "no" to misogynistic shame.


Photo credits:
Red Mustang: Mustangattitude.com
Office spies: Metro





Drive
Cougars, Cars and Kink
Samhain, 2016






Due South
Compass series
indie-published

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

What's Missing from BDSM Romance?

At February's monthly meeting of the New England Chapter of Romance Writers of America, Tamsen Parker and Teresa Noelle Roberts, two talented members of the chapter, gave a fascinating workshop on "How to Throw a Kink into your Romantic Arc." Focusing not on the whips and chains aspects of kinky romance, but instead on its psychological and emotional aspects, Parker and Roberts talked about what an author who wishes to write kinky characters convincingly needs to know about the world of BDSM and kink, explained some of their pet peeves about erotic romances that portray kink less than convincingly, and explored how to write about specific kinks when you yourself don't find said kink sexy. I don't write kinky romance myself, but I do read it, and I found their presentation both informative and thought-provoking.

From a gender standpoint, one comment that Parker made really stood out for me. Masochism, she noted, can come in two different flavors. Some masochists enjoy pain, and experience it as pleasure: a "a pain slut." Others, however, don't like pain in and of itself, but instead "enjoying taking it for their partner." For this latter type of masochist, pain is painful, not pleasurable. But the pain is worth it, for the pleasure it gives the partner to inflict it, and the pleasure it gives the receiver to offer that pleasure to a partner.

In my own BDSM reading, I've often noticed a difference in the depiction of female submissives and male submissives, and Parker's comment clarified for me just what that difference was. Female submissives in BDSM romances are far more often depicted in the first masochism category, people who enjoy pain, people who take pleasure from the pain itself. In contrast, male submissives more typically fall into the second category, people who "take pain" for the pleasure of a partner. Why?

Submission as strength
At the end of the workshop, I asked Parker about the gendered portrayal of masochism in erotic romance, and whether she thought it accurately reflected real-life BDSM practice. Were actual female masochists more often pain sluts, and male masochists who enjoyed pain in and of itself far less common? Or was this a reflection of historically gendered romance tropes, romance tropes that insisted that men and masculinity be depicted as strong and empowered?

I didn't write down her exact response, but I think that our conclusions were similar: both romance tropes and larger social norms about gender make it not as commercially viable to portray masochistic male characters who enjoy being submissive, who enjoy pain, who enjoy being humiliated. Especially if their Dom is a woman. If an erotic writer wants to appeal to a wider market, aka a market that includes non-kinky readers as well as readers involved in the kink scene or lifestyle, that writer cannot stray too far from the gender expectations of that wider audience. The one bright spot: Parker did say that she thought while a writer who crafted stories with masochistic men of the first type might develop a smaller audience, it would likely be a more devoted one.

Many readers envision erotic romance as a space of freedom, a space where anything goes. I know I did when I first started reading it. It seems more than a little ironic, then, to discover that erotic romance may be just as gender-bound in as more traditional romance fare...


Have you read any compelling erotic romances (as opposed to erotica) with a male character who enjoys pain for its own sake, not for the sake of a female partner? Who takes pleasure in being submissive?


Photo credit:
Submission as strength: Pinterest