Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Making Fun of the Romance Reader

But when I consider a girl, who is nearly entering into life with a susceptible heart, instead of recommending novels in general to her perusal, I would strongly dissuade her from reading them.... Should we even allow, that the generality of novels are written without the least indelicacy, yet as their only subject is love, why should we wish to lead the mind to that disposition, which nature is sufficiently ready to supply without art!  —Honoria, The Female Mentor, or, Select Conversations (1802)


On a rare outing to the movies last month, a friend and I sat down to watch Sally Field in the newly released My Name is Doris. I didn't know anything about the film, but my friend's description of it—a middle aged woman who has lived with her mother all her life gets to explore her own interests after that mother dies—made it sound right up my alley. A coming-of-age story about a middle-aged woman? Bring it on!

Early on in the film, though, a single shot of Doris commuting to work from Staten Island to Manhattan told me that this movie was not likely to be an unequivocal celebration of an older women blossoming into independence and a new sense of self:


Can you see it? There, held in Doris's two slightly wrinkled hands. Yes, readers, Doris his holding a romance novel. A real-life romance novel, in fact: A SEAL at Heart by Anne Elizabeth, which was published in 2012.

Yes, Doris, our frumpy, out-of-touch, sixty-something heroine, is a romance reader. As soon as you see that paperback in her hands, with its hairless, bare chested cover model, sweeping ocean waves, and gorgeous sunset, you're supposed to make the leap: Doris reads romance, hence Doris has wildly unrealistic expectations about what her own romantic life can possibly be.

And the film goes on to demonstrate the inevitability of that linkage of romance reading with the usual clich├ęs: Doris owns a cat; Doris is a secret hoarder; Doris doesn't have a boyfriend; Doris falls madly, ridiculously in love with John, a new coworker decades younger than herself.

Cue the laugh track.

Or, if you are a romance reader yourself, cue the gnashing of teeth.

Doris learning the ins and outs of Facebook from her best
friend's 13-year-old daughter
Doris's story is wildly uneven in tone. At times, it invites viewers to cheer Doris on as she starts to experience life far outside her traditional comfort zone of work, home, mother, and occasional dinner with her brother and his family. But at other times, it asks us to laugh at Doris's ridiculous dreams and expectations, especially when it comes to romance. Not the fault of Field, who does a marvelous job turning what could have been a figure of fun into a fully-realized human being. But because the script in which she is performing can't quite imagine how to portray a sixty-something woman whose sexuality is just beginning to blossom without making her appear, at least at times, a figure of ridicule.

And of pity.

Stalking her handsome co-worker leads Doris to exploring (and abusing) Facebook; attending (and enjoying) a "Baby Goya and the Nuclear Winters" electronica concert in hip Williamsburg; and joining her crush's girlfriend in a lesbian rooftop knitting circle ("I'm not a lesbian, but they are just so welcoming, you know?"). Doris really enjoys said activities, and we are invited to take pleasure in her pleasure, to be happy for her as she tries new things and finds herself welcomed by new people. But at the same time, viewers, more aware than Doris herself, are also meant to catch the cultural critique of hip millennial culture her unsocialized eye reveals.

And we're definitely meant to laugh (and, perhaps, cringe) at her Walter Mitty-like daydreams, daydreams not about her own heroism, as are Mitty's, but about being sexily wooed by co-worker John. Daydreams that are informed by the tropes of contemporary romance, be it in rom-com or novel form. Tropes that Doris has imbibed by reading romances during her daily commute to work.

And, if we've been reading our romance novel symbolism correctly, we should also be prepared for the painful crash when Doris attempts to bring her romance-inspired daydreams into real life. Romance readers are, by nature, deluded, immature, in need of a good dose of wide-eyed reality, aren't they? Or so asserts knowing pop culture.

Uneasiness about women who read, particularly women who read romance, has been a part of social discourse since the 18th century, as Jacqueline Pearson's intelligent book, Women's Reading in Britain, 1750-1835: A Dangerous Recreation clearly demonstrates. In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, that uneasiness manifested as fear, in particular, as fear that romance reading would lead to female sexual transgression: seduction, adultery, rape. Many, many novels of the period even used the types of books their female protagonists read as symbols of their virtue (or lack thereof).

Today, though, fear has been transformed into humor: we are invited to laugh at poor Doris, inspired by A SEAL at Heart and other romance novels to pursue a wildly unsuitable romantic partner. But behind that laughter, uneasiness still remains. Uneasiness at female sexuality, at female desire, and a hope that both might be safely contained, if only women would stop reading those damned romance novels.

Keep reading, Doris, I say. A dangerous "re-creation," indeed.


Have you noticed the trope of romance reader = deluded, repressed, or laughable in other current-day works of popular culture?





Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Bread for all, and Roses, too: Courtney Milan's HER EVERY WISH

Our days shall not be sweated from birth until life closes,
Hearts starve as well as bodies, give us bread but give us roses.

As we come marching, marching, un-numbered women dead
Go crying through our singing their ancient call for bread,
Small art and love and beauty their trudging spirits knew
Yes, it is bread we fight for, but we fight for roses, too.


Bread and Roses strikers
As I was reading Courtney Milan's latest novella, I could not help but think of the Lawrence, Massachusetts "Bread and Roses" strike of 1912. In response to a new Massachusetts law limiting the number of hours women and children could work (from 54 to a mere 52!), textile mill owners in Lawrence cut the wages of their workforce. Expecting such a move, leaders in the Industrial Workers of the World union organized a strike of primarily female immigrant millworkers, workers whom several other unions claimed could not be organized.  The strikers demanded not that their wage be returned to its former level, but that it be raised by 15%. Because working women deserved not only the lowest wage that would allow their survival, but a wage that would allow them "small art and love and beauty," too.

Milan's novella is set hundreds of miles away from Lawrence, in London, England. And it takes place 46 years earlier than Lawrence's Bread and Roses strike, in 1866. Yet its heroine, Daisy Whitlaw, has the same thirst for the small beauties of life as did Lawrence's textile workers. Daisy (whom readers of book 1 in the "Worth Saga," Once Upon a Marquess, will remember as the working class best friend of that book's heroine), a woman who cannot stop reaching for her dreams, no matter how many times her hands are slapped away, opens the story by entering a contest offering fifty pounds to the person who presents the best plan for a new business. Ten semifinalists have been selected based on their written proposals (wise Daisy entered under the name "D. Whitlaw"), and now each must give a public presentation to the members of the parish. Unlike the other finalists (all men), whose proposals include the same old ideas for new stores and businesses, Daisy's proposal is a novel one: Daisy's Emporium, "a small shop of carefully selected goods. Durable, beautiful, and inexpensive. Designed for—" For women, Daisy had planned to say. But the hostility of the crowd, angered that a woman has dared enter the contest, makes it almost impossible for her to deliver her intended speech (Kindle Loc 121).


In spite of the difficulties of her presentation, Daisy is chosen as one of the five finalists invited to prepare a more detailed proposal. The man in charge of the program suggests that her invitation has little to do with her proposal's merit, however:



"We'll see you all next Saturday. And it looks like we have our entertainment in order. After all, we've just lined up the jester." He gave Daisy an exaggerated waggle of his eyebrows and let out a great, braying laugh, one that explained precisely why she'd been chosen. (163).

Daisy, though, can't help but hope that her proposal might have a slim chance of winning, even in the face of such sexist condescension. And so when Crash, her former lover, an impudent, self-confident flirt of a man whose ancestry is so mixed that people who barely know him feel entitled to come up and ask him, "What are you?" offers to serve as audience while she rehearses her speech—"You need to practice in front of someone you hate. Someone who makes your stomach curdle. Someone who will ask questions while you want to smash his face in," (i.e., himself)—Daisy finds herself accepting.

A 1868 velocipede race in France
And finds herself not practicing her speech, but being thrust upon a velocipede, learning self-confidence by learning to ride this newfangled wheeled contraption. And learning a lot more about Crash in the process, a man with whom she had once thought herself in love. A man so arrogant and self-assured that she'd thought nothing could wound him—especially not herself.

Though Crash and Daisy appear to be polar opposites, Milan shows that their common experiences of facing discrimination—sexist discrimination for Daisy, racist discrimination for Crash, and classist discrimination for them both—the two have far more in common than they, or we, ever thought. And that both deserve more, far more, than society tells them they should want.

Not just bread, but roses, too.


Photo credits:
Bread and Roses strikers: New England Historical Society
Emporium: Haute Design
Velocipede race: The Online Bicycle Museum






Her Every Wish
The Worth Saga, #1.5
self-published

Friday, April 22, 2016

Compensatory Romance: Charlotte Stein's NEVER SWEETER

   

     "Mom, that boy is hitting me!"
     "Oh, honey, that's only because he likes you..."





Female readers: when you were a girl, did you ever have an exchange like the one above with your mother, or another older authority figure? I know I did. The words were meant to make me feel better, and they did, to a certain extent. Though I certainly didn't like getting pushed, or hit, or having my hair pulled, thinking that such behavior was less about how much a boy hated me and more about how much he liked me bolstered my wilting self-confidence. But at the same time, the words also unconsciously taught me that it was okay for boys to hit me. Though boys could be violent, said violence was simply a stand-in for caring feelings boys were did not know how to, or were not allowed to, express, and so I should not protest, at least not too much.

I couldn't help thinking of such exchanges as I read Charlotte Stein's latest erotic romance, Never Sweeter, book 2 in her Dark Obsession series. In the novel's prologue, Letty, a senior in high school, is walking home after her car has broken down and comes across her long-time tormentors, fellow students Jason, Patrick, and Tate. She knows once they see her, they "were going to pull some stunt," but even she could not believe that they would force her off the road: "They weren't going to actually do it for real. Bullies like them never really did anything. It was all just safe things that made their target feel like shit" (Kindle Loc 89).

Yet Letty spends the next two years in rehab, recovering from the injuries she sustained after Jason's truck shoved her off a bluff. And none of the boys was prosecuted for the act—"just an accident," Jason tells the police, who believe him because he's popular, and a sports star.

The book itself opens when Letty starts college, two years late, only to discover that Tate, the worst of her three tormentors, is not only attending the same school, he's actually in her film studies class. Yet each time their paths cross, there's no sign of the cunning, cruel, feral bully of her high school years. In fact, Tate seems to be making a major effort to be nice to the girl whose life he once made a living hell. And to compliment her. And to help her feel less skittish around men.

When Letty makes her first female friend at college, she cannot help but think of how different it is to have someone who believes her side of the story: "Clearly, Lydia would never tell her that she had to stop doing whatever she was doing that goaded Tate. There would be no calls to the college's office to talk about the transfer she should get, instead of the one he should" (Loc 480). And she's thrilled to find someone who can help her keep in mind the old Tate, the one that Letty is certain is waiting just around the corner, ready to spring a new humiliating trap on her as soon as she lets her guard down.

When Letty and Tate are assigned to partner on a project about the depiction of sex in film, though, their relationship takes an unexpectedly sensual turn. Watching White Palace, Dirty Dancing, Nine and a Half Weeks and others turns them both on, something that Tate is not at all shy about noticing. Or talking about. Or acting on, at least when it comes to himself. And Tate's sexual self-display, combined with his ever-increasing displays of emotional vulnerability, lead Letty to do just what she could never have imagined doing: enjoying hot sexy times, and touchingly emotional times, with her one-time enemy. Yes, despite their harasser/harassee history, Letty and Tate fall for one another. And such is Stein's skill as a writer that she has the reader cheering for (and turned on by) this unlikely outcome.

One aspect of cultural work romance novels do, Catherine M. Roach argues in Happily Ever After: The Romance Story in Popular Culture, is "to try to make up for the costs to a woman's psyche of living in a culture that is still a man's world" (11). Roach terms this work "reparative," but I wonder if the better word might be "compensatory." Though both words are synonyms for "make amends," reparative also has an additional meaning that compensatory does not: to remedy an undesirable condition or situation; to restore or repair. Reparative suggests that something is going to be changed, fixed, mended; "compensatory" makes no such promise.

And it seems a far better word to describe what occurs in Stein's novel. Neither Tate nor Letty can go back and fix the past, the past in which Tate made Letty lock herself in the janitor's closet, or called her "fatty" and "thunder thighs," or put up flyers at school with her picture "telling everyone to watch out for the whale that had gotten loose from Sea World" (Loc 3576). In fact, the entire idea that your tormentor is actually tormenting you because he secretly loves you is deeply compensatory. Presented as reality within the novel—Tate, it turns out, was secretly in love with Letty all the time he tormented her—outside the novel, it serves as a fantasy, a fantasy that can make a reader who has been bullied feel better about the experience, even if, as is far more likely in real life, her own tormenter acted out of cruelty and privilege than out of frustrated caring.

Towards the end of the novel, Letty dumps Tate, because she believes she found evidence that he really is just conning her into thinking he cares for her. But of course, since this is a compensatory fantasy, Letty is mistaken, and the two tearfully reunite. During their getting-back-together conversation, Tate reveals that he only started bullying Letty after she called him a "jug-head" and turned him down when he asked her for a date. Letty then feels guilty for having started the whole vicious cycle, and, of course, for not trusting Tate this time round.

But Stein does not allow Letty to accept the guilt that such a plot turn initially seems to dump on her plate. And she uses Tate as her mouthpiece to explain why none of this is Letty's fault:

"But you're not fucking responsible for shit that I chose to do. You didn't owe me your love. You didn't owe me a polite yes. It was not on you to let me down gently and somehow ward off punishment I was fucking stupid enough to think you deserved." (4030)

Yes, the very zenith of compensatory fantasy: not only does the hot, sexy bully turn out to be in love with you; he also turns out to be a closet feminist.


Is reading Stein's compensatory fantasy a first, positive step toward restoring a bullied girl's stolen self-esteem? Or, more problematically, does it encourage the reader to side with the purportedly "loving" bully?

I guess the answer lies in whether said reader will tell her own daughter that she's "not fucking responsible" for a bullying boy's actions, or feelings, and should not stand for being teased, tormented, or hit by a boy just because he likes her.

Or whether instead she just ends up repeating the old line, "Oh, honey, he's only hitting you because he likes you..."





Never Sweeter:
A Dark Obsession Novel
Loveswept, 2016

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Romancing Beverly Cleary

During a recent discussion with some friends, we somehow got onto the topic of our kids and dating. Someone wondered how kids knew if a pair of teenagers was a couple. "You know because the boy gives the girl his ID bracelet," I said as a joke. Some of my friends didn't know what an ID bracelet was, never mind that it could be given as a token to say "we're going steady." So I had to explain how I knew this piece of 1950s trivia: from my reading of Beverly Cleary's 1956 teen romance, Fifteen.

With all the publicity surrounding Cleary's one hundredth birthday last week (April 12th), I couldn't help but recall that conversation, and my memories of reading Fifteen when I was an adolescent. Did I still have that old Dell Laurel-Leaf paperback that I'd bought when I was myself fifteen?

Turns out that I did. So this weekend, I took a stroll down memory lane, rereading the story of fifteen-year-old California teenager Jane Purdy and her introduction to dating, 1950's style. And I realized that it wasn't only lowbrow Harlequins that had first introduced me to the conventions of genre romance, but also the books of one of the most critically lauded children's writers of the 20th century.

My 1980 edition: "Having a
boyfriend isn't the answer!"
Though the tagline on my paperback, published during the height of second-wave feminism, reads "Having a boyfriend isn't the answer!" Jane's story opens by wishing for quite the opposite: "Today I'm going to meet a boy, Jane Purdy told herself, as she walked up Blossom Street toward her baby-sitting job. Today I'm going to meet a boy" (5). Jane's reasons for wanting to meet a boy don't have anything to do with sex, and only a little bit with romance; in fact, they seem far more about the social capital having a boyfriend can give a girl:

He would be at least sixteen—old enough to have a driver's license—and he would have crinkles around his eyes that showed he had a sense of humor, and he would be tall, the kind of boy all the other girls would like to date. (6)

When fellow student and "cashmere-sweater type" Marcy smiles and waves at Jane from the car in which she is riding (which of course belongs to popular Greg Donahoe, president of Woodmont High School's junior class), Jane feels that "Marcy belonged. Jane did not" (7). In part, belonging is about social class: Marcy "wore her cashmere sweaters as if they were of no importance at all," while Jane "had one cashmere sweater, which she took off the minute she got home from school" (7). But it is also about who your friends are, and who you date: "Marcy had many dates with the most popular boys in school and spent a lot of time with the crowd at Nibley's" Confectionary and Soda Fountain, while Jane "had an occasional date with an old family friend named George, who was an inch shorter than she was and carried his money in a change purse instead of loose in his pocket and took her straight home from the movies" (7).

The original 1956 edition:
telephones and cars at the center
of 1950s' teen life
Jane hopes that by meeting, then dating, a boy, one who meets all of her "would be" criteria, she'll be magically transformed into someone popular, someone who belongs. But even Jane realizes her dream is more fantasy than possibility: "And if I were in Marcy's place right now, Jane thought wistfully, I wouldn't even know what to say. I would probably just sit there beside Greg with my hands all clammy, because I would be so nervous and excited" (7). While the story that follows fulfills the wish Jane gives voice to in the book's opening lines—she and new-to-Woodmont Stan Crandall "meets cute" during Jane's babysitting job—the book's explicit message is one about claiming one's self-confidence. My feminist-packaged 1980 edition uses Jane's moment of realization as the interior sell copy:

From now on, Jane resolved, she would be Jane Purdy and no one else. When she saw Stan, she would act glad to see him, because no matter what had happened that was the way Jane Purdy felt. After all, Stan had liked her when she was baby-sitting with Sandra and when she walked through Chinatown with him, and she had been herself both times. Maybe if she continued to be herself, Stan would like her again. And if he didn't there was nothing she could do about it.

But there are other, less empowering messages that ride in on the coattails of this lesson in self-confidence. Messages that can easily be found in many a romance published for teens and adults in the years since 1956.

For a romance heroine, "being yourself" means being decidedly ordinary

"Is Jane ready for her first boyfriend?"
When Jane worries that her behavior has alienated Stan, she wonders "what she would do about Stan if she were some other girl." But then she realizes that she

was not any of these girls. She was Jane Purdy, an ordinary girl who was no type at all. She was neither earnest nor intellectual, and she certainly wasn't the kind of girl the boys flocked around. She was just a girl who liked to have a good time, who made reasonably good grades at school, and who still liked a boy who had once liked her. There was nothing wrong with that. (152)

On the one hand, such a message is reassuring to readers who do not have any particular talents or interests, who think of themselves as "no type at all." But on the other, Jane's insight suggests that girls who do stand out, who are intellectual or well-off or popular, are somehow less deserving than the "ordinary" girl.


"You're different from most girls"

Even though Jane is "ordinary," "no type at all," Stan still declares that she is "different" from "most girls." The "you're different" line shows up in almost every other romance novel I've read. Somehow, the romance heroine must be ordinary, while at the same time being judged "different" by the hero of their potential romance.

1992 edition: "Jane Purdy is fifteen,
shy, and in desperate need
of a boyfriend"
Sometimes this "difference" is only in the mind of the hero. But other times, it is tied to how the heroine treats the hero, as opposed to how other girls/women treat him. Stan's declaration of Jane's "difference" comes after Jane acted without teasing and without complaint when Stan arrives for a big triple date driving not his father's car, but the truck from his job at the "Doggie Diner." Unlike Marcy, who made fun of the truck, or unspecified "most girls," who "would have made me feel I'd spoiled their evening, because riding to the city in a Doggie Diner truck was beneath their dignity or something" (98), Jane "was filled with sudden sympathy" at the sight of Stan's "eyes, [which] were pleading with her not to mind, to be a good sport about riding in the truck" (81). Jane knows she has to "stifle her own feelings" of disappointment in order to be a good girlfriend. In order to present Jane as "different," then, Stan has to position "most girls" as not kind, not nice. Which leads us to point #3:


Other girls are your competition for the attention of boys. 

At the start of the book, Marcy, tooling around in Greg Donohoe's car, appears to be the embodiment of Jane's dearest desires. But she also becomes Jane's competition, at least in Jane's mind. During Jane's first date with Stan, while they are awkwardly starting to talk over ice cream at Nibley's, Marcy and Greg crash their booth, and Marcy proceeds to monopolizes the conversation. Jane grows jealous, and feels inferior, as she does on another, later date, when she and Stan and two other couples drive into the "city" to eat in Chinatown. Later, when Jane is expecting Stan to ask her to the first school dance, but then discovers that he is going to take another girl, Jane asks her friend Julie to find out who the unknown girl is (she fears it is Marcy, of course). Turns out it's a girl from the "city" where he used to live, a girl whom both Julie and Jane talk over with no little "cattiness" (125, 126).

2008 edition: "Jane's falling in love
for the first time"
Though Jane is "wistful" after seeing Marcy in Greg's car in the opening scene, she herself takes pleasure in instilling the same feeling in other girls after she and Stan begin dating:

Once inside [Nibley's], Jane could not decide whether it would be better to sit in a booth in the back, where she would be sure to have Stan all to herself, or whether it would be better to sit toward the front, where she could show him off to the rest of the crowd. She nodded and spoke to a boy who had been in her history class, a girl from her gym class, and two more from her registration room, and hoped she was behaving as casually as if she were used to walking into Nibley's with a good-looking boy. The girls spoke to Jane, but they looked at Stan. Jane noticed wistfulness, envy, or just curiosity on their faces—depending, Jane decided, on whether they were with other girls, boys they didn't like much, or dates they really liked. It was, Jane felt, a very satisfactory experience. (53)

And she enjoys sharing that same pleasure of lording it over the non-dating with her best friend, Julie:

"I've simply got to find time to wash my hair before we go to the city for dinner with Stan and Buzz," remarked Julie, in a voice that was not exactly loud but nicely calculated to carry to the crowd around them.
     .....
     "I wish I had a yellow blouse," said Jane, as if she were completely unaware of the interest others were taking in their conversation. "Stan always likes me in yellow."
     .....
     The faces reflected in the mirror behind the milkshake machines revealed that the girls around them were wishing they had dates for dinner in the city, too, and that they were sure to spread the news to every girl in Woodmont. Jane and Julie left Nibley's feeling that they had enjoyed an unusually pleasant afternoon. (78-79).


1991 edition: "Could Jane really
believe that a boy like Stand would
be interested in her?"
"That's how men are"

Jane's frustrated when Stan doesn't ask her about going to the first school dance during a Saturday date the week before. But she chalks up his behavior as due to his gender: "He was unusually talkative... but he did not mention the dance. Oh, well, thought Jane, that's how men are. He's probably taking it for granted. She found it very pleasant to be taken for granted by Stan" (103). On Tuesday, she uses the same excuse: "He had just forgotten—men were so absentminded about such things—and had been carrying the tickets in his wallet all the time" (106). While Jane is rewarded for taking Stan's feelings into account during the Chinese dinner date, Jane uses the gender card to excuse Stan for not taking similar regard of her feelings.

Since the novel is told entirely from Jane's point of view, we don't hear any "women/girls are like that" thoughts from any male characters. But in many a later romance, gender-based comments about feelings and behavior are often brought up by characters of both sexes, to explain or excuse behavior that often baffles them about their romantic partners. Such comments often function as humor, but they also simultaneously set forth the often sexist standards and boundaries about what counts as acceptable "masculine" and "feminine" behavior.


1977 UK edition
Lack of communication throws monkey-wrenches into romantic relationships

Jane and Stan experience several misunderstandings during their early dating days, misunderstandings that stem from their fears of telling each other the truth and hurting each other's feelings. Stan does not talk to Jane about already having a date for the first school dance, which leads Jane to having to tell him she's been asked by someone else, and feeling humiliated when he appears relieved rather than upset or jealous. Jane does not admit to Stan (or even to herself) that she's still angry with Stan after he comes by to apologize, and ends up responding to Stan's friend Buzz's joking offer to pay Stan fifty cents if Stan will let Buzz kiss his girl by offering her lips. Though Jane initially thinks her response was due to trying to act like Marcy, after she sees how hurt Stan is, she realizes the real reason she let Buzz kiss her: "She wanted Stan to feel some of the hurt she had felt" (138).

With Jane and Stan, who are new to the dating game, such problems of communication are easy to understand. No romance novel can't exist without a few conflicts, plot moments that keep the protagonists from achieving their HEA, or HFN, though, so the lack of communication conflicts pop up in romances for all ages. Even to the extent that readers just want to grab the characters and give them a good shake for being so emotionally stupid.


A girl's most important life goal is finding a boy

Jane's parents married right after graduation (she tells us that her father has been out of college for sixteen years [45]). While Jane anticipates having a career afterward she finishes her own degree ("Just what career, she did not know—an airline stewardess or a writer of advertising copy for a big department store, or perhaps a job at the American embassy in Paris—something like the girls in the pages of Mademoiselle, who always managed to be clever about clothes and to be seen in interesting places with men who had crew cuts" [140]), she also knows that "in the shadowy future" she will be married. And that being a wife is the most important role she will take on.

Fifteen opens with Jane's hope of meeting a boy. And it ends with Jane's hope realized: ID bracelet around her wrist and Stan's first kiss, a "tender, clumsy" affair, on her lips. Though that first kiss is comically interrupted by the family cat and Jane's father's praise of its hunting skills, Jane's thoughts post-kiss, which serve as the final lines of the book, confirm Jane's priorities: "She was Stan's girl. That was all that really mattered" (190).


Fifteen was originally published when my own mother turned fourteen. Reading it in 1980, at fifteen myself, made me feel both as if I were gaining a window onto my mother's adolescence and into the possibilities of my own future dating life (late bloomer, me). Before I reread it today, in 2016, when my own daughter is seventeen, I thought that it would feel entirely dated, a work of historical fiction.

And it does. But surprisingly, it also feels quite familiar, at least to a reader of romance. Because so many of the central ideological truths of the genre of romance remain the same, even at the start of the twenty-first century.



Friday, April 15, 2016

The Nine Essential Elements of Romance According to Catherine M. Roach



Last week, my long-awaited copy of Catherine M. Roach's Happily Every After: The Romance Story in Popular Culture arrived in the mail. Like me, Roach has a double identity as both a scholar and a writer of romance (under her pen name, the far more romantic Catherine LaRoche), and I was curious to discover how she navigated those two identities, how her knowledge of one realm informed her thinking about, and in, the other. And vice versa.

I've only made it through Chapter 1 (out of 8) so far (ah, the glories of late winter viruses). But there are enough meaty insights even in just the Prologue and opening chapter to provide hours of thought for those interested in what popular romance is and does.

Roach's prologue serves as an invitation into the world of Romancelandia, both the genre of fiction and the readers of said genre. At the heart of genre romance, Roche argues, lies these two central tenets: FIND YOUR ONE TRUE LOVE and LIVE HAPPILY EVER AFTER! Her book, written in accessible, reader-friendly prose, proposes to think about and understand those two basic ideas. "How does this narrative function? Why, how, and to what effect does this story have such a hold on us?" (2)

Her opening chapter outlines her foundational ideas, what she's come to understand about popular romance after spending several years investigating the above questions. Said ideas can br boiled down to two related lists.

Rather than argue whether romance is good or bad, or good or bad for women readers, as has been the approach of many previous academic scholars of the genre, Roche takes a both/and approach: "My core argument is that romance novels are popular because they do deep and complicated work for the (mostly) women who read them" (11). That work has three related (and, I would think, often contradictory), aspects, Roach suggests:

Reparative: romance tries to "make up for the costs to a woman's psyche of living in a culture that is still a man's world"

Transgressive and empowering: romance works to encourage its readers to "refuse to be limited or lessened by narrow gender roles and a toxic ambivalence about women's sexuality"

Mythic/religious: romance serves as a testament of faith for its readers, faith in "the redeeming power of love as of ultimate concern in human life" (11).

As God says to Eve, "Your desire shall be for your husband and he shall rule over you" (Genesis 3:16).  For women living in a patriarchal culture, the "perfect trap" of romance is "to be made to want someone who will subordinate you" (12). Romance turns this "Gordian knot of female desire" into "the magic potion of a love that softens and sweetens the complications of desire into the guarantee of a happy ending" (13).  Or, in other words, romance novels address the "conundrum of living as a woman in a man's world, or more specifically, as a heterosexual woman whose desire is for men," by "offer[ing] a fantasy safe space that addresses these anxieties and has them all work out" (15).

In a footnote, Roach explains that her focus on heterosexual female readers is not an attempt to "erase the experiences of readers of other gender expressions and sexual orientations" (199, note 8), and poses a series of questions for future investigation. But I think with some minor editing, the cultural work Roach argues romance achieves  could equally be applied to LGBTQ readers, and to books featuring LTGBQ romances. Do you?

The remainder of her chapter expands upon this list of three aspects of the cultural work of romance with another list: the "nine key components to the core story about romance." In contrast to Pamela Regis's structural approach to romance's essential elements (in The Natural History of the Romance Novel), Roach takes a cultural studies approach, identifying the key ideological assumptions of the genre. Or, in other words, the ideas that all romances take as givens.

Here is a summary of the list:

1. It is hard to be alone
2. It's a man's world
3. Romance is a religion of love
4. Romance requires hard work
5. Romance involves risk
6. Romance facilitates healing
7. Romance leads to great sex, especially for women
8. Romance makes you happy
9. Romance levels the playing field for women


Though Roach is writing as a cultural critic here, I can see how this list of essential elements could be helpful both to romance writers and reviewers. I've often found myself reading a romance where something just seemed to be lacking, or off. And after reading through Roach's list, a lightbulb is going off in my head. Oh, this book felt flat because falling in love for the protagonists didn't involve any real risk; that one did not stick with me for very long because the love came too easily. As a writer, I could give this list to a beta reader and ask that reader to keep them in mind when critiquing my manuscript. Or I could even write up the list and pin them above my computer monitor, to help keep them in my mind for goals while I am drafting.

As a literary critic, I also appreciated that Roach also calls the reader's attention to problematic aspects of many of the key elements that she identifies. For example, "romance levels the playing field for women" can be problematic if it "obscures the extent to which they are options other than romance whereby women can thrive and become empowered" (26). And "romance is a religion of love" can be problematic "if and when privileges romance over other forms of love as the best and highest love" (23). I think I could add a few others—does the "romance facilitates healing" glorify the "broken"? Does it insist that romance has to "fix" you?

I'll be curious as I read further into her book whether she thinks these problematic aspects apply across the genre, or only in specific books within the genre.

One last side comment that really made me say "Oh, yeah, I never thought about that, but what you're saying seems really dead-on":

Begun in the suffering and unhappiness of the real world, the romance story must end in the healing and happiness of the mythic world. That is not to say that neither love nor happiness are real but that the romance story narrates their reality in a mythic way, pushing it into a more perfect fantasy space. (27)


What do you think of Roach's lists? Are there books that you consider romances that don't incorporate all of the above key components? Or that don't attempt to do all three types of cultural work she identifies?


Illustration credits:
Try Patriarchy: Honors Mosaics

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Depicting Bisexuality in the Past: Grace Burrowes' TREMAINE'S TRUE LOVE

Though I'm a fan of all romance genres, historical romance is the one my alter ego, Bliss Bennet, writes and the one my reader-self gravitates towards the strongest. So I'm always curious to read the nominees for the historical romance category of the RWA's RITA awards. Grace Burrowes has received several RITA nominations over the years, unsurprisingly given her books' many strengths: beautiful writing, slow-building romances, the affection and comfort of large families, the respect and care her characters demonstrate toward one another even in the face of disagreement and difficulty.

Tremaine's True Love contains all of the above. But what really interested me in reading it was not the book's main romance, between Bernita (Nita) Haddonfield, the eldest daughter of the Earl of Bellefonte, andTremaine St. Michael, a half-French half-Scots comte/merchant/art collector who travels to Bellefont's home to bargain for some rare merino sheep Bellefonte owns. It was one of the book's subplots, the one featuring Nita's youngest brother, George, and how Burrowes depicted that character's "unconventional" sexuality.

I seem to recall hints in earlier Burrowes books, books about the elder Haddonfield brothers (in Nicholas: Lord of Secrets? or Beckman: Lord of Sins?), that George might be attracted to men. This book confirms those hints, and follows out their implications. We receive direct confirmation of his preferences from George himself, in a scene told from his point of view. He has just given the young son of his neighbor, widow Elsie Nash, a ride home on his horse to save him a cold walk. After Elsie attempts to engage him in polite conversation about his recent travels, George responds:

"I travel on the Continent because my family finds my taste in kissing partners inconvenient." Dangerous, Nicholas [his eldest brother, the current earl] had said, for certain sexual behaviors, regardless of how casually undertaken or commonplace, were yet considered hanging offenses. (72)

Said neighbor, though, is not put off by what she accidentally saw:

"George Haddonfield, if I were dismayed by every person I found kissing an inconvenient party in the garden, I should never have lasted a single Season as the colonel's wife. You were kind to my son, and that is all that matters to me." (72)

Nicholas, the current earl and George's older brother, knows about his dalliances with men (as the caution that George remembers above demonstrates), but doesn't outright condemn or shun George because of them. Others in George's family know about his attractions, too, and do not cast George aside: "George was the brother closest to Nita in age, and his unconventional attractions had never been a secret to her, nor had they been anything but natural to him" (240). In fact, the only person who knows about George's liking for men and expresses disgust for it is the villain of the book.

Well, perhaps that is not quite true. For George himself is not all that happy with his own "unconventional attractions." When he finds himself drawn to his sister Nita's suitor, Tremaine, he thinks thus: "[Tremaine St. Michael] was attractive, wealthy, and interested in Nita. So George must pant after him in silent frustration? Must comport himself with all the emotional delicacy of a tomcat? Such stirrings flattered nobody. They were for strutting, impulsive boys who had one foot planted in rebellion and the other in boredom" (177). George thus equates his same-sex sexual attractions to immaturity, to animality, to the uncontrolled.

From an 1835 broadsheet reporting the execution of
two men for homosexual acts: as George's elder
brother asserts, George's attractions are dangerous
Earlier in that same scene, George reveals that he's had sex with women, as well as men: "Though George had recently discovered he liked looking at Elsie Nash too—a puzzle, albeit a pretty one. He'd enjoyed the company of women in the past, the same as any other fellow at university—some women, anyway. And a few men." (173). His attraction to women, though, is not as strong—nor as dangerous—as it is towards men: "George liked women, and even desired them on occasion, the way a fellow might desire a hot cup of tea or chocolate with a dash of cinnamon on a cold morning. Not the way he longed for the fiery pleasure of a good brandy—stupidly, passionately, without any dignity or care for his own well-being" (175). If one were to categorize George in current-day terminology, one might say he's bisexual but with a strong leaning toward the masculine end of the gender spectrum.

Once George thought he would try to marry a woman who "wouldn't have minded a marriage where both partners were free to roam, provided appearances were maintained," hinting that his roaming would be in the direction of male, rather than female, partners. But, for some unspecified reason, "The notion struck George as vaguely distasteful now, sad even" (174). George realizes he is lonely, and finds himself envious of Tremaine and his sister. He, like almost all of Grace Burrowes' characters, longs for affection, comfort, and connection. For heterosexual characters, such desires are met, of course, through monogamous marriage.

And thus when George offers comfort to his neighbor Elsie Nash, and she kisses him in return, readers should not be surprised to read,"George's mind manufactured a single thought—kissing Elsie felt good too!—before he began kissing her back" and that her "mouth had the power to wake a man up, to reveal to him choices he could make, paths he could choose" (320, 346-47). The path George chooses is to propose to Elsie, telling her that "My regard for a passing handsome or even pretty face is eclipsed by the loyalty [your positive] characteristics inspire" (347-48). In the internal monologue that follows his declaration, though, George tries to convince himself that his assertion will, in fact, prove true:

He hoped. George's hope was based on several solid realities. First, his involvement with men had never gone beyond the casual or the physical. Men were a lot of bother, in George's experience, full of strut and blather, every bit as capable of drama as the blushing debutantes filling any ballroom.
     Second, his regard for Elsie included a fat dose of physical attraction, but finer emotions as well. He respected her, he enjoyed her company, he liked her. He liked her a lot, always had.
     Third, there was the boy. Digby needed a father, somebody to stand between him and [his uncle]. George could hardly be that father if he spent his evenings larking about London, bored, randy, and causing his family worry. (348).

George and Elsie go on to marry, and, in the book's final chapter, we hear that not only Nita & Tremaine, but also George and Elsie, are expectant parents.

I can't help but feel pulled in two directions by this end to George's story. On the one hand, I'm thinking that it's likely pretty historically accurate for a gentleman of this period to find his own attraction to the same sex upsetting and disturbing, as George does. And that if he had any attraction to women at all, that such a man might prefer to marry a woman to avoid both his own fears and to give his birth family peace of mind than to engage in sexual acts with other men.

But on the other, I can't help but cringe when I read Tremaine St. Michael's response to George's declaration that he is to marry Elsie and that he would "like to survive until my wedding night" (the two are about to participate in a duel): "Never did like public school, myself," says his soon-to-be brother-in-law (368). Public school here presumably being the site where George first developed and explored his sexual attraction to men. In that one short sentence, Tremaine simultaneously indicates that he is aware of George's sexual attraction to men and asserts that such attraction is nothing more than a bad habit George picked up because he was sent away to school, away from his (heteronormative) family. That George takes no umbrage at Tremaine's assertion suggests that he, too, believes that his same-sex attraction belongs to his youth, which, by marrying, he is putting aside to become a mature male adult.

Not a message I'm happy to embrace.


Would love to hear the take of other readers of Tremaine's True Love on George's character arc...


Photo credits:
Pratt & Smith trial broadsheet: EQ View







Tremaine's True Love
Sourcebooks 2015

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Finding the Line between Apology and Punishment: Seressia Glass's SUGAR

There's a popular strand in romance fiction that focuses on the apology. Apologies for poor choices, for hurtful actions, for painful words said in the heat of anger or grief; apologies followed by acts of atonement so that the romance sinner to prove his (or occasionally her) worthiness for love. The words "I love you" may be the most repeated ones in all of romance, but the words "I'm sorry" may come a close second.

Some apologies are clearly long overdue (see yesterday's, from Romance Writers of America, for issuing a survey in 2005 to its members polling them on the question "should romance be redefined as between one man and one woman"). But others can serve a less worthy purpose, given the attitude of the apology's recipient. For when the one done wrong by continually demands that a wrongdoer apologize, only to then reject each and every apology said wrongdoer proffers, penance can start to look an awful lot like punishment. To find a romance novel willing to say that enough apologizing is enough is pretty rare; to find one in which the apologizer is a mother, and the wronged one her child, practically unheard of.

Which is why I so enjoyed Sugar, the second novel in Seressia Glass's erotic contemporary series Sugar and Spice. The series focuses on four female friends, all working to get their lives back together after recovering from various addictions, which gives the books' storylines a lot more emotional heft than the average erotic romance. Sugar's female protagonist, Siobhan Malloy, co-owner of a bakery in small town Crimson Bay, California, has not taken a Percocet or OxyContin in over four years. But she knows she can't absolutely promise that she'll never take too many again. She made that promise once before, and broke it by getting hooked all over again. Her husband and parents may have liked her better when she was on drugs than when she wasn't, but getting hooked on painkillers a second time led to an accident that put her daughter's life in danger. She knows that's why her second fall from grace cost her her marriage, her relationship with her parents, and even her own daughter, who refuses to speak with her even after Siobhan's recovery.

So it's more than understandable that Siobhan is reluctant to become involved in anything like a committed romantic relationship. But go-getting local business owner Charlie O'Halloran isn't used to taking no for an answer. Immediately struck by the curvy blonde behind the counter the first time he stepped into her bakery, Charlie has bided his time, watching and waiting for the right moment to make his move. When Siobhan finds the business proposal he finally dangles to tempt her intriguing (combining his delivery service with her bakery's treats), he can't resist pushing her to test the sexual waters, too. And despite her doubts, soon Siobhan and the younger Charlie (thirty to her thirty-five, or so he tells her) are heating things up between the sheets (and in the office, and at the burlesque club where "Sugar" Malloy struts her stuff in an attempt to channel her sexuality in a healthy, life-affirming way).

When should someone with an important life secret, a secret that may affect the way others view her, share that secret with a sex partner? Siobhan's business partner, Nadia, told her sex-only guy of her past addiction before they even slept together (see Sugar and Spice book #1), but only because her former job on a cooking show made her descent into addiction headline news. For herself, Siobhan decides to be more circumspect, especially because she is determined to keep things casual between herself and Charlie. But when he wants to push their relationship deeper, and reveals a secret of his own, Siobhan knows it is time to come clean.

Charlie's secret is a far happier one than Siobhan's, and it soon has Siobhan yearning once again for the closeness of a family of her own. But her ex, her parents, and her daughter all pretend that she doesn't exist.

Is it fair to turn Charlie's family into a surrogate for her own? Or does she owe it to her daughter and her parents to keep trying to mend the fences her drug addiction brought crashing down? Even when her family keeps yanking the ground out from underneath each fencepost she tries to re-erect, then blames her for when they fall?

Romance novels are chock-full of characters who have been traumatized by the behavior of their parents, especially their mothers. To read one in which a child's ability to emotionally wound a mother is the underlying message makes for a refreshingly feminist read.


FYI, Sugar is one of the nominees for the 2016 RWA RITA award, in the erotic romance category.


Photo credits:
Burlesque dancer: Rebel Circus
Apology not accepted: Wiki How







Sugar
(A Sugar and Spice Novel)
Heat/Penguin Random House, 2015