Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Squirrels and Poetry and College, Oh My!

Apologies for the lack of a post last Friday. The past week has been pretty hectic here at the RNFF household:

• We've had a crew in re-insulating part of our roof. Backstory: a bunch of pesky squirrels managed to chew their way through our roof and into the walls of my daughter's bedroom—that pink insulation stuff is pretty cozy, it appears. We replaced the roof a year and a half ago (and after, we still had one squirrel stuck in the wall—had to cut a hole in the wall and set a have-a-heart trap in it to catch the poor thing), and thought we were all set. But after spending much of last winter listening to our daughter complain about how cold it was in her room, we finally realized that the squirrels hadn't only taken up temporary residence in the roof; they'd stolen away the majority of the insulation for their nests outside our house. We're keeping our fingers crossed that the new insulation stays put this time...

• My daughter received an acceptance letter from her first choice college! Pop the champagne corks...

• My second historical romance, A Man without a Mistress, was published, and received a great review from Janga at the Heroes & Heartbreakers blog. More glasses were raised...

• I had the distinct pleasure of chatting with romance authors Molly O'Keefe and A. J. Cousins about a forthcoming book of feminist love poetry over at the Brain Mill Press blog. If you're looking for a last-minute holiday gift for a poetry-lover, definitely check out Tanka & Me by Kaethe Schwehn.




I'll be taking the next two weeks off from blogging, to spend the end of the year celebrating the holidays with family and friends. And, of course, putting together my end of the year best of 2015 post. What books have made your best feminist romance list this year?

Best wishes for an end of 2015 filled with joy and peace.
And no squirrels!




Photo credits:
Squirrel photo: Paul Marto Photography

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Switching Sexism's Gender? Nell Stark's THE PRINCESS AND THE PRIX

If someone handed me a romance, telling me it was about an aggressive, hard-partying, womanizing race car driver with a troubled backstory who reforms after falling for a shy, brainy philanthropist/princess, I'm pretty sure I would hand it back with a "thanks, but no thanks." Alpha-hole heroes turning over a new leaf just because they've found true love with a good girl storylines typically do not have much in the way of feminist moments to celebrate.

But what if that aggressive, partying, womanizer happens to be a woman? Well, I might just have to reconsider...

Lella Lombardi, the only woman to score
points during a Formula One race (1975)
Thalia De'Angelis's life dream has been to race on the Formula One circuit. The result of a British racecar driver's one night stand with dancer at an American club, Thalia has spent most of her life being ignored by her father, and more than a little angry about it, too. She's also angry about being passed over, yet again, for a promotion from the GP2 circuit to Formula One:

Conventional—and therefore misogynistic—wisdom demanded she maintain a positive attitude and keep on keeping on. she had at first believed, and then catered to, that wisdom for years. By now, she was sick and tired of it. No one told men to suck it up and be patient. They were tacitly and explicitly encouraged to be downright aggressive in pursuit of their goals. To suffer no fools and show no mercy and take no prisoners. Why should she behave any differently, just because one key chromosome had an extra leg? (Kindle Loc 92)

So it's hardly surprising that being asked one too many times by reporters about her male teammate being given the spot on the Formula One team instead of her, despite his second-place finish in the overall GP2 rankings, Thalia's temper explodes:

Look. Terrence Delmar is not a better drive than me. He's not even close. His instincts are all wrong—he's too loose when he should be running tight and too tight when he should be running loose. Ferrari hired him for what's between his legs, not what's between his shoulders....
     "Are you suggesting that Ferrari is a chauvinist organization?"
     "Suggesting?" Thalia laughed into her mic without humor. "No. Asserting, yes." She stared out over the murmuring crowd. "I'll probably lose my job over this, but it's true. And it's not just Ferrari, either. The glass ceiling is alive and well in Formula One. Women have the ability to drive at the highest levels. We're not there because the owners and team managers—and even some of the drivers—don't want us to be." (121).

"Grid Girls": The Cheerleaders of Formula One.
As Alix describes them: "The gird girls were objects to be
consumed, not subjects to be conversed with. That was the
problem, Alix realized—that the girls were content to be
repeatedly objectified. It was their occupation, not an
occupational hazard. (1064)
The reporter goes on to ask Thalia how she thinks the misogynistic culture of racing can be changed, a question to which Thalia has no good answer. Thalia's not really into being an advocate for women's rights: "she didn't want to be some pretty, quasi-famous chess piece in the struggle for civil rights. She wanted to push the boundaries of speed" (168). But her chances of doing either seem pretty slim after she's fired for her post-race outspoken words. Thalia drowns her sorrows at the after-party, drinking and picking up a grid girl for another round of energetic, no-strings-tied sex. Just like the majority of the men on the racing circuit do.

Her Serene Highness, Pomelina Alix Louise Canella of Monaco, knows all about being a role model. The least attractive, and most well-behaved of Monaco's royal siblings, Alix has spent her life serving her country, in particular by supporting charitable work. Having just completed her degree in public health, Alix is on the brink of establishing her own charitable foundation, one focused on empowering women in rural communities in East Africa. So when she meets Thalia at a wedding, then watches her race, Alix immediately recognizes that "Thalia's position in such a traditionally patriarchal sphere seemed like a golden opportunity from which to demonstrate gender equality" (842). Especially after Thalia wins a place on another racing team, a place driving not on the GP2, but on Formula One.

Thalia has participated in charity appearances, but only because that's part of her job, a means to an end: "If she were being honest, she rarely thought of anyone except herself and her own goals" (1181). When Alix challenges Thalia about her aggressive behavior—slugging a fellow driver after he "accidentally" nudged her off the racetrack—Thalia confirms her distaste for being a figure of social justice: "I like to drive fast cars and fuck fast women and drink too much and watch the sun rise before I sleep. That's who I am. I'm here to win, not to be a hero or make a point" (1453). Not even Thalia's attraction to Alix will make her change her hard-driving ways.

Does a professionally groundbreaking woman have a duty to be a positive role model, to act squeaky clean, to never get in trouble? Are Thalia's hard-partying, womanizing ways really "scandalous"? Or is that judgment "completely a product of the pervasive double standard that denied women the same social freedoms as men"? (1512) Is Thalia breaking feminist ground? Or just reinforcing male chauvinism from her position of power?

And can a woman who has no desire to be a role model even have a chance of making a romantic connection with a princess whose life has been entirely focused on working for the greater good?

I love that Nell Stark is able to ask such questions in the midst of a wonderfully appealing opposites-attract love story. And that not only bad-girl Thalia, but also unselfconfident Alix, are both given chances to change and grow as their friendship, and later their physical attraction and romance, develops. The Princess and the Prix may be a fairy-tale romance, but it's a romance that packs a surprisingly feminist punch.


Photo credits:
Lella Lombardi: Wikipedia
Grid Girls: Drive Spark









The Princess and the Prix
Bold Strokes Books, 2015

Friday, December 11, 2015

Romance Novels as Progressive Pop Culture?

I recently attended a fascinating panel discussion at the MIT Communications Forum, on the representation of women in politics in popular culture. One of the speakers, Ellen Emerson White, noted that 1984 book The President's Daughter, was one of the first to feature a woman in the role of U. S. Commander in Chief. She also noted that since that book's publication in 1984, other authors featured women presidents, but that most often those women had come to political power not by running for office, but as a result of the death of a spouse, death of the elected president, or some other catastrophic situation. The Atlantic notes the same trend in television depictions: while there have been six American TV shows to feature female presidents, all have either been VPs who got the job after the death of a President, or women who gained the role largely by dint of being part of a political family dynasty.

During the discussion that followed, an audience member made the offhand comment that popular culture tends to lead, rather than simply mirror reality, hence it has far more female presidents than the actual United States has. This statement didn't strike me as entirely true, not only because of the caveats White and The Atlantic note regarding presidential depictions, but because I've read so much lit crit on romance that points out the conservative, rather than the progressive, aspects of the genre.

But recently I read two different hetero romances with mother as president subplots. And this week, a lesbian romance with a Formula One race car driver protagonist, breaking new records for her sex. And it made me wonder—have I been selling romance too short? I've seen many a romance novel that encourages women to think of romance and family before career, but have I overlooked ones that depict women doing more, professionally, than they have in real life?

What other romances have you read that depict women breaking professional glass ceilings?

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Political Disagreements and the People Behind the Rhetoric: K J Charles' A SEDITIOUS AFFAIR

My heart always sinks whenever I open a piece of mail from a political candidate, or an organization whose work has become the subject of political debate. The rhetoric deployed in such mailings is most often of the ad populum type, an emotional appeal that speaks to negative concepts rather than the real issue at hand. Such appeals tend to demonize the person, party, or organization which are in opposition to the person, party, or organization making the appeal, using overblown language to insist that if I don't send money, the world as I know it will in all likelihood come to a bitter, nasty end, all at the hands of those being demonized. While I often agree with the candidates or groups whose letters clog my mailbox, I can't help but be turned off by their insistence that no good/intelligent person ever could/should/would disagree with their position.

how much political mail have you been pulling out of your
mailbox this season?
Being in the midst of a presidential election year (year and a half?) made me more than receptive, then, to the quite different message in K. J. Charles' latest m/m historical romance, A Seditious Affair. Its two protagonists could not be further apart when it comes to political beliefs and assumptions. Dominic Frey, God-fearing English gentleman and conservative Tory, believes in the natural order of society, with aristocrats at the top and the poor at the bottom. He is committed to his job at the Home Office, working to suppress radical and seditious calls for English government to be violently overturned. A realist, a man of means, and of power. Silas Mason, bookseller and printer, believes that the rich oppress and tyrannize the poor for their own aggrandizement. He is just as committed to his job as is Dominic Frey, although that job is the exact opposite of Dominic's: selling radical political tracts by day, printing seditious pamphlets advocating democracy by night. An idealist, a man scrabbling for means, one who must fight for every bit of power he can take.

If these two men met in the street, they'd likely sneer, or spit on each other's boots. Yet Dominic and Silas share a secret that brings them far closer than either might ever have imagined: a sexual preference for other men. In particular, men who get off on the power games involved in dominance and submission, power and shame. After they meet, anonymously, in an "assignation house," it is this shared secret identity, not the myriad differences between them, that keep them coming back each Wednesday night, week after week, for more than a year.

And soon it's not just for the sex, but for something more:

He couldn't remember which of them had started it, whose chance comment had begun an argument. Had no idea now when the first bottle had been laid out and waiting on his arrival, what day he had said, Have you read . . . and how long after that before the Tory had handed him a book and said, Tell me what you think. He didn't know when the fucking had become just one part of the night's pleasure, the thing they did before talking (238).

Charles gradually and organically reveals Silas and Dominic's different assumptions about the way the world works, both to the reader and to each other. For instance, at the beginning of the story, this exchange about their differing responses to reading Mary Shelley's Frankenstein shows their almost polar opposite views:

   
1831 edition
 "I finished the book," the Tory said.
     "Oh, aye? What'd you think?"
     "Good. Terrifying. Strange. I can't understand why you would like it."
     "Why would I not?"
     "I wouldn't have thought you'd agree with it." The Tory gave him a wry smile. "After all, its burden is the need for man to keep in his place—"
     "What?" said Silas incredulously.
     "The overreaching man dares to play God and pays a terrible price. Abuses the natural order and creates a monstrous thing."
     "Bollocks," Silas said. "That ain't what it's about."
     "It's what happens."
     "No. What happens is he creates, he's responsible something that should be"—Silas waved his hand—"great and strong, something that he owes a duty to. And he says to it, The hell with you. Go die in a ditch. I'll have my big house and pretty wife. And it says, You don't get to live in a grand house and ignore me. Do your duty or I'll tear you down. Treat me like I'm as good as you, or I'll show you—"
     "That I'm not,: the Tory interrupted. "The creature murders—"
     "Because he ain't given a chance to live decent," Silas interrupted right back. "You treat men like brutes; you make 'em brutes. That's what it says."
     "No, you create brutes when you distort the rules of nature and the order of things," the Tory retorted. "That's what the book's about. It's obvious."
     "It's not." (193)

Dom dislikes talk of rights and equalities, believes revolutionaries "intended to steal land from its rightful owners and share it out amongst what they called 'the people'" (367), and that the "Peterloo Massacre" is a "melodramatic nickname" for "the unfortunate incident at Manchester," "nothing more than a tragic misfortune" (305). Silas meets with those who "could no longer bear the stranglehold of the rich on England's neck" (205), and has been part of the struggle for the rights of the common man ever since "he'd had his eyes opened by Eupehmia Gordon, a radical firebrand and agitator for the rights of women, at the age of sixteen" (205).

Hard to imagine two people with such differing philosophies of life could ever find enough common ground to be anything more than casual lovers, no? Yet over the course of their weekly meetings, Silas and Dominic's understandings of one another gradually begin to change, because each begins to listen to the truth of other, not to dismiss, but to engage:

Arguing with Dom was damn near as good as fucking him. When those dark eyes narrowed in thought, when he bent that formidable determination to confront Silas's beliefs—not to ignore or dismiss, but to take them on at equal value, so that the pull of his attention became a physical thing—then Silas understood what it was to be important. (1412)

But even as they come to appreciate each other in private, by challenging each other's taken-for-granted beliefs, pointing to each other's hypocrisies, and insisting each recognize the complexity of what they've always seen as black and white issues, their public lives are putting them on a crash course for disaster. Especially when Silas finds his fellow radicals, made desperate after the passage of the repressive Six Acts of 1819, not just writing about overthrowing the government, but planning to stage an actual coup. "Pure pathetic fantasy," thinks Silas; "great chance to show the people that the repressive laws are vital" think the spies in the Home Office. And there are Silas and Dom, caught in the middle of the impending fiasco that will come to be known as the Cato Street Conspiracy.

Is it possible to disagree with respect? To become less absolute in one's convictions, to learn from those we've been taught to demonize? And yet still fight on behalf of one's principles? By way of William Blake ("Without contraries is no progression"), Charles' romance answers all these questions with a resoundingly hopeful "yes."


Photo/illustration credits:
Political junk mail: The Suburban Times
Frankenstein, 1831 edition: cbc books





A Seditious Affair
Loveswept, 2015

Friday, December 4, 2015

What do Porn and Romance Novels Have in Common?

"Romance is just porn for women": a phrase often trotted out by those who want to sneer at the romance genre. But something someone said to me today made me wonder what would happen if we set aside the denigration for a moment, and took seriously the idea that romance reading and porn just might have something in common. What might we find?

My friend and I were talking about desire, and desire unmet, and he said something along the lines of: "No one can be in a perpetual state of orgasm. It would take too much energy, and we'd never get anything else done." His words made me think about being in love (as opposed to loving), another state in which most human beings cannot remain, at least not for more than a few months or years. As researcher Helen Fisher points out in "The Drive to Love: The Neural Mechanism for Mate Selection," people in love "experience extreme energy, hyperactivity, sleeplessness, impulsivity, euphoria, and mood swings," which are associated with "elevated activities of central dopamine," a neurotransmitter associated with pleasure (88). Being in love is almost akin, chemically, to being insane, Fisher argues.

Such a heightened state of being is by its nature impermanent; neither the body nor the brain can sustain such high levels of chemically-induced euphoria for the long term. Though the high of falling in love usually lasts longer than an orgasm, both physical and emotional highs are ones that cannot be permanently sustained.

Thinking about these similarities then made me wonder whether porn and romance novels might both be functioning in a similar way. What I mean is, might both be a kind of compensation, or perhaps a proxy, for what we desire but cannot have or be, at least not all the time? Porn compensates for our desire to be perpetually sexually aroused; romance novels compensate for our desire to be perpetually in love. Neither porn nor romance fulfills our desires directly, or permanently, but for the time while we are watching/reading, we can pretend that they do, and are.

Do you think the two are comparable in this way? Or in other ways that may be of interest to those of us who like to think analytically about romance?







Tuesday, December 1, 2015

I Want You to Need Me: Serena Bell's CAN'T HOLD BACK

You might belong in Hufflepuff,
Where they are just and loyal,
Those patient Hufflepuffs are true
And not afraid of toil
        (J. K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone)



Not only readers of fantasy, but broader conventional wisdom, insists that no one would ever want to be a Hufflepuff. One of the four houses of J. K. Rowling's wizarding school, Hufflepuff is where the "duffers" hang out, those do-gooders who are not smart enough, or courageous enough, or sneaky enough to gain entrance to one of the other more prestigious houses. "Nobody wants to be Hufflepuff," Actress Mindy Kaling tweeted this past September; Republican presidential candidates Marco Rubio, Scott Walker, and Ben Carson, who were "sorted" by the New Republic into Hufflepuff, all apparently took issue with the designation. Being though of as a hard-working foot soldier, just and loyal, is regarded by not just by actors and political candidates, but by much of the public at large as the ultimate insult.

Except not, I would guess, by many readers of romance. And particularly when it comes their romance heroines. Female leads who are nice, who live to serve others without any selfish desire for accolades or acknowledgement themselves, are often the ones whom readers praise the highest, whom they hold closest to their hearts.

This embrace of the good-girl heroine is an attempt to reclaim the value of the caretakers of the world, a role which is far more often associated with women than with men. I'd argue, though, that just as conventional wisdom needs to get over its too-easy dismissal of Hufflepuff and its character qualities, romance could do with a bit of examination of the problematic aspects of the female-as-caretaker role.

Which is why, perhaps, I so enjoyed Serena Bell's latest contemporary romance, Can't Hold Back. Its female lead, Alia Drake, is the quintessential Hufflepuff. With an absent father and a mother suffering from mental illness, Alia had to play the role of parent to her younger sister, Becca, from an early age. A task made all the more difficult by Becca's learning disability, a disability that the schools did not recognize nor acknowledge until Becca's teens.

But Alia never complains about the familial burden which has been placed on her shoulders, in part because she is by nature a caretaker: "she wanted to walk a different path, a path of service and purpose. She wanted to be where she was needed" (Kindle Loc 205). Alia's career choice reflects her commitment to her principles: she trains to become a physical therapist, helping the injured to regain their physical mobility (and almost as often, their emotional stability). Working with the elderly, with kids injured during sports, with vets returning from war, and helping take away their pain, Alia has found meaning in her Hufflepuff-like commitment to serving others.

In the novel's prologue, Alia and Becca are attending a party held by a fellow physical therapy student when they meet a young soldier. Alia's instantly drawn to the man, Nate Riordan, but almost as quickly dismisses her attraction, precisely because of her caretaker ways: "Alia's life, for better or for worse, had made her into someone who thrived on taking care of people. It didn't tend to work out well for her with guys who were more the fiercely independent alpha types" (111). Alia is such a caretaker that she immediately steps aside,  because "Becca needed a guy like Nate Riordan way more than Alia did" (111). By "giving" Nate to Becca, Alia reinforces her self-identity as a caring, selfless sister.

But things do not quite turn out the way Alia anticipated between Nate and Becca. A fact that makes things more than a little uncomfortable when, two years later, Alia snags a two-week job at a veterans retreat only to discover that one of her new patients is Nate. Her sister's ex. And the man she betrayed by writing letters on her sister's behalf while he was deployed, letters that made him fall for a woman who did not really exist.

Nate's suffering not just from lingering physical injuries sustained during a bomb blast; he's also suffering from "mystery pain," pain that no doctor can seem to pin down or alleviate. On the verge of becoming addicted to painkillers, and being unable to fulfill his commitment to a dead fellow soldier because of it, Nate flushes his pills and checks in to his old friend's rehabilitation center. Finding Alia temporarily taking his friend's place does little to calm the bite of Nate's pain.

At first, Alia tries to keep things professional between herself and her new patient. But that mutual attraction that Alia once repressed keeps popping back up; combine that with her commitment to helping those in pain, and a hurting Nate becomes almost impossible to resist.

I found it refreshing that after a therapy session that veers too far over the line into a romantic situation, Alia immediately reports herself to her boss. Because not only does the physical therapy code of conduct forbid sexual contact between therapist and patient; Oregon law can fine Alia, even take away her license, if such contact is discovered.  Repercussions from breaking those codes are real, and important, to Alia.

Even more interesting, her boss reminds her that Nate is not the only one at risk in such a situation: "But I've got to tell you, you're vulnerable, too. It's a powerful thing, stopping someone's pain" (1195). Power and vulnerability in the caretaker's role—not things I'd given much thought to before reading Bell's novel. Is there a danger for Alia that being a caretaker, being needed, just might be as addictive as a painkiller is to Nate?

I especially loved that it is not a confrontation with Nate or with her boss, but with her dependent younger sister that finally brings Alia to ask herself the really painful questions. Such as why did she push the younger Nate so hard toward her sister? Why does she have such a difficult time articulating what she wants in bed? Why is she so ready to take the "consolation prize" of being needed, rather than admitting that sometimes, she, too has needs?

Alia doesn't need to reinvent herself, to give over entirely her caring Hufflepuff ways. But she does come to realize that even a Hufflepuff can let a little Gryffindor, a little Ravenclaw—and even a little selfish Slytherin—into her life, without compromising her values, or her principles.

Or her status as a nice girl romance novel heroine.


Can you think of other romance novels that balance praise for the typically feminine role of caretaker with a recognition of its potential for denying the self?



Photo/Illustration Credits:
Nice Hufflepuffs: Hercollege.com
PT & Vet: Namaste Y'all
Code of Ethics: Illinois Physical Therapy Association







Can't Hold Back
Loveswept, 2015

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Fat as a Feminist Issue for Teens: Julie Murphy's DUMPLIN'

Kelly Jensen's BookRiot post this past summer on Fat Phobia in YA points out how rare it is to see a fat person in books for teens portrayed as anything but a villain, or at the very least, a person who needs to lose weight in order to be deemed worthy of happiness and love. Despite the rise in activism around issues of body size and fat acceptance since the turn of the 21st century, YA books have been slow to embrace fat politics. Kind of makes you want to bundle up the 20+ books listed as references in Wikipedia's "Fat Feminism" page and drop them in the hands of the nearly one third of American adolescents who are, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, overweight or obese.

Or you might want to give them a copy of Julie Murphy's new YA, Dumplin'.

As Dumplin's narrator, sixteen-year-old Texan Willowdean Dickson, explains,

     The word fat makes people uncomfortable. But when you see me, the first thing you notice is my body. And my body is fat. It's like how I notice some girls have big boobs or shiny hair or knobby knees. Those things are okay to say. But the word fat, the one that best describes me, makes lips frown and cheeks lose their color.
     But that's me. I'm fat. It's not a cuss word. It's not an insult. At least it's not when I say it. So I always figure why not get it out of the way? (9)

Willowdean has always been pretty comfortable in her body, at least by her own account. Her mom may be a former beauty queen who can't quite bring herself to accept her daughter's far-different figure, but Willow could always turn to her live-in aunt Lucy to give her unconditional love and support.

Miss Texas Teen 2014 & court
But six months ago, Aunt Lucy, only thirty six, died from a massive heart attack. Lucy's obesity—she weighed four hundred and ninety eight pounds at her death—was undoubtedly a contributing factor. And Will's mom, wrapped up in her volunteer work for the annual Miss Teen Blue Bonnet Pageant, can't seem to help Will mourn her lost surrogate mother.

And now, this summer, so many other things in Will's life are changing, things that feel completely out of her control. Her best friend, Ellen, becomes sexually active with her boyfriend. And El's been hanging out with her summer job friends, the skinny girls obsessed with the fashions they sell at Forever 16. Both things make Will feel that she and El, best friends since before first grade, are slowly but inevitably drifting apart.

And even more unbelievably, Will's coworker at Harpy's Burgers & Dogs, Private School Bo, former super jock and still super hot guy, seems to be interested in her. Like, really interested. And not just in her ability to keep a conversation going when he can barely string a few sentences together at a time. So interested, in fact, that he kisses her, out by the dumpsters at work. So interested that he and Will end up driving to the old elementary school for epic make-out sessions almost every night after work.

Will believes she's never been really embarrassed by her size before. So when Bo starts to take things beyond kissing, Will (and the reader) are both pretty shocked by her reaction:

His hands travel down to my neck and along my shoulders. His touch sends waves of emotion through me. excitement. Terror. Glee. Everything all at once. But then his fingers trace down my back and to my waist. I gasp. I feel it like a knife in the back. My mind betrays my body. The reality of him touching me. Of him touching my back fat and my overflowing waistline, it makes me want to gag. I see myself in comparison to every other girl he's likely touched. With their smooth backs and trim waists. (58)

And Will's negative reaction to Bo never seems to abate. Especially after summer ends and schools starts, and Will finds out that her secret lover is no longer attending private school, but is going to be in her very public school. So Will breaks things off with Bo, without really telling him why. Because Bo lied/didn't tell her the truth? Because he kept her a secret? Or because she kept him one, and is afraid of trying to merge her secret and her everyday life? Because who wants to constantly hear "how did she end up with him?"

After being teased one too many times by the school jerk boy about her weight (and kicking said jerk boy in the nuts), Will spends her week on suspension brooding and longing for her dead aunt. But when Will uncovers a blank entry form for the Miss Teen Blue Bonnet pageant amongst Aunt Lucy's old papers, an "obscene thought" crosses Will's mind. And before she knows it, she's signing up to participate in her mom's obsession: The Teen Blue Bonnet Pageant. And providing inspiration for a small group of other teens whose bodies do not meet the conventional norms of beauty to join her.

But this isn't a Disney Channel story, one in which the underdogs triumph, or are at least offered acceptance by the normative folks. Instead, it's a story about fighting against one's own internalized prejudices. And taking a stand for what everyone, not just the beautiful people, deserve.

As Will's new friend tells her when Will's on the verge of dropping out of the competition:

"Maybe fat girls or girls with limps or girls with big teeth don't usually win beauty pageants. Maybe that's not the norm. But the only way to change that is to be present. We can't expect the same things these other girls do until we demand it. Because no one's lining up to give us shit, Will." (325)


If this were a Disney Channel film, a potential new boyfriend, a passel of new friends, and a chance to compete for a cubic zirconia crown would of course lead Willow to recapture her old self-confidence. But instead, Murphy sets a harder path for Willowdean:  to create a new sense of herself, one that recognizes the hidden loathing she harbors within herself, for herself and for others, and to move past it. Only then can she find the courage to "step into her own light" (371).


Photo credits:
Miss Texas Teen 2014: voy.com
Thin Privilege: Everyday Feminism
Crown: Miss Universe Bahamas Application



Friday, November 20, 2015

What Makes for a Good Battle of the Sexes Romance?

What makes for a good battle of the sexes romance? This question was much on my mind while I read reading Kate Meader's contemporary, Playing with Fire, which made both Publishers Weekly's and The Washington Post's lists of best romances of 2015. Though neither list's summary of the book includes the phrase, I think I can be forgiven for hoping that I'd found my catnip, a romance novel focused on two protagonists of the opposite sex who duke it out not only on their own behalves, but also on behalf of their sex, after reading the following:

...a smart, sexy book that stars Alexandra, a smart-mouthed, rough-and-tumble firefighter who has worked hard to succeed in a world where femininity is considered a weakness. Her hero? The handsome, eligible mayor of Chicago, how is about as masculine as it gets and has clear aspirations for higher office. These two are all wrong for each other, which, of course, makes their eventual match that much more rewarding. Their verbal sparring is tremendously fun, and when they finally succumb to their attraction, sparks fly (literally and figuratively). (Sarah MacLean, Washington Post)

Meader's flawless contemporary is a lust-hate match between a conservative mayor and a female firefighter. She thinks he's anti woman and anti-union; he thinks she's a dangerous hothead. Deft characterization, high stakes, and unabashed sexual hunger drive the gripping fast-paced story. (Publishers Weekly)


In many respects, Meader's book is an ideal romance novel. The writing is crisp, the dialogue is both funny and smart, and the characters each undergo clear development arcs before they can make their unlikely relationship a success. And the sexual tension between its protagonists, Alexandra and Eli, is smoking hot.

But somehow, despite its many positive qualities, I found myself getting really annoyed with Meader's book. And led me to the question, just what, and what doesn't, at least for me, makes for a true battle of the sexes book. Here are a few thoughts.


1. The female combatant has to appreciate other women, and women's concerns

Alexandra is a firefighter, the only woman in Chicago's Engine Company 6. Professionally, then, she is a feminist; she is carving out a job for herself in a traditionally male-only space. Yet Alex grew up surrounded by boys (4 foster brothers), and idolizes her now-dead firefighter adopted father. Because of this, and because of her physical size (larger than the average woman), I got the feeling that she had internalized many of the gender assumptions that typically go along with male, rather than female, socialization.

For example, Alex doesn't tend to have much respect for other women, as she reveals during this interchange with her potential love interest, Eli Cooper, the mayor of Chicago:

"You trade on your looks with the female voters, Mr. Mayor. All style, no substance."
     "So women vote for me because of how I look, and not because of the issues? You're very dismissive of your gender, Alexandra."
     Too right, she always had been. She was tougher and stronger than practically every woman she knew. It bothered her that the female sheep bought shares in the crap Eli Cooper shoveled by the bucketful. (73)

And wth the notable exception of two of her brothers' recently acquired girlfriends (a contrivance which allows characters from previous stories to pop up for guest appearances), Alex does not have, and has never had, she reports, any real female friends. Alex is not a girly girl; are we supposed to assume she ostracized by more typically feminine mean girls as a kid? Alex finds herself far more comfortable in the male world of the firehouse, even despite the male hazing she purportedly must endure (but which, significantly, we are rarely shown), than with other women who are not relatives.

Alex is deemed outspoken, a characteristic that many would find positive (in opposition to Eli, who can't stand Alex's "total lack of a filter"). But the expressions Alex used to express that outspokenness often set me on edge. Not because she swears, but because her language is often unthinkingly misogynistic:

     Across the table in the farmer-chic restaurant Smith & Jones, Alex Dempsey blinked at heir thirty-fourth date in ten months and pondered a suitable response. Perhaps the smartass retort, which she could manage in her sleep. Or the bitch-slap, which would be eminently more satisfying. (1, emphasis added)

"Less than two months to the election and you're hovering under forty percent."
     "All that matters are the numbers on the night."
     "Still, I'm sure you have babies to kiss, MILFs to ogle." Donor dicks to suck. "Don't let me stop you." (8, emphasis added)

"I"m not sure I was prepared for the womankind backlash I'd case if I didn't [rescue Eli from a fire]. Gnashing of teeth, gouging of hair, deflation of breasts. Just doing my part for the sisterhood." (66)

She should pull away, even though she had begged for it [his "brutal" kiss] with her smart mouth" (77)

She hadn't gone to her high school prom because no one had been interested (or brave) enough to ask her, and now she felt like she was getting another chance with the star quarterback. She'd be the envy of all the other bitches. Go Wildcats! (166, emphasis added)


Alex's language and sense of humor make sense from a character standpoint, given the predominantly male environment in which she was raised. Yet her unquestioning adoption of language that relies for much of its charge on denigration of other women makes me more than a little uncomfortable investing in her as a feminist icon.

Occasionally, Alex will say or think something that suggests she's aware of sexism ("Derek Phelan, who was lower than her on the rookie pole but didn't seem to feel the effects. The penis benefit" [86]). But such instances occur far less frequently than thoughts and comments that, intentionally or not, denigrate women. Which really bothered me.


2. No battle in which the sexism is primarily for show

Weirdly, despite Eli's sexist insistence that women shouldn't be firefighters, it is Eli, not Alex, who puts a feminist name to what Alex must be experiencing, both on the job and in her male-dominated family:

For the first time, Eli saw how hard she had it. He'd thought it was limited to institutional misogyny, but she was getting it from every angle. The press, her coworkers, and even the brother who was like a father figure to her. (283)

A man who knows the phrase "institutional misogyny," can use it correctly in a sentence, and actually believes it's real—and he believes men are superior to women? No, not so much, as it turns out. Alex pegged Eli as a "patriarchal woman hating asshole" after Eli "made it clear that firefighting and breasts were incompatible" in the previous book in Meader's series (9). I haven't read Flirting with Fire, but from what occurs in this book, it seems as if Eli's taunting is more a way to deflect attention away from his own attraction to Alex than a reflection of his deeply-held belief in the inferiority of the opposite sex. His campaign manager is a woman, and he appears to have no trouble working with other females. Is it really a battle of the sexes book if one of the battling parties is only expressing sexist beliefs in order to yank the other's chain?


3. No sexist behavior recast as attractive masculinity

While Eli's beliefs aren't really sexist, many of his actions felt misogynistic, at least to this reader. But the novel doesn't endorse such an interpretation of them. Instead, Eli's drive to protect, to control, and to dominate Alex are presented either as sexual turn-ons, or as positive qualities that reflect Eli's appropriately masculine love for Alex. For example

Guy making a decision on behalf of the girl, for her own benefit:

In the novel's opening scene, Eli threatens the police officer with whom Alex is dining with demotion if he doesn't leave Alex mid-date. Said police officer is a jerk, no doubt, talking about Alex behind her back ("Dyke or not, she's up for it tonight. Keeps leaning in to give me a good view, y'know. She's a bit chunky, but they're usually the most grateful ones" [17]), but is Eli any better for taking matters into his own hands, rather than allowing Alex to figure it out for herself? "She was a woman of incredibly poor judgment. And she needed saving from herself," Eli thinks to herself (19). By the end of the book, Eli is apologizing for this behavior, but Alex doesn't say "yeah, jerky behavior!" but smiles, and lets him off the hook.


Traditional romance novel male protectiveness:

Alex saves Eli from a fire (but of course he got caught in said fire because he ran back to save another woman first). And then Eli gets to save Alex in turn, when she passes out from smoke inhalation. In the hospital, after the rescue, the two verbally spar:

"It's a man's job to take care of—"
"Be careful, Mr. Mayor."
"A woman. So it's a good thing I made up for it by saving your ass" (47)

And again, after they first begin fake-dating: 

"After tomorrow with a few pictures online, it won't be necessary. It'll be clear that you're under my protection."
     My protection. Falling under a man's shield was the one thing she had been fighting her whole life, but when Eli said it, she enjoyed an erotically forbidden thrill at the prospect. (109)


And, of course, dominant-guy sexual hotness:

"You need to be taken in hand," he rasped, every word a provocative puff of air against her lips. "You are wayward and out of control, and a danger to yourself, and if I wasn't your boss, if I wasn't worried about all the lines I've no doubt crossed every additional sec on I spend with you, I would be the one to tame you."
     Do it, her lust-scrambled brain urged. Take me in hand. Use those big, forceful hands to take me and tame me. (76)

     "I just don't want to be with someone who doesn't respect me and what I do. Or who's using me to get ahead."
     Kinsey hummed. "Not even for the amazing orgasms, orgasm hog?"
     Alex opened her mouth. Closed it. Maybe she'd been looking at this all wrong. What did it matter what she thought of his worldview, his total lack of political correctness, or even his sketchy motives as long as he was delivering the goods in the bedroom, the hallway, or maybe a fire truck? Since when had she become so fussy? (168-69)


During the novel's climactic scene, in which Eli does some major groveling to atone for his characteristic manipulative ways, he tells Alex, "You said I never saw you as an equal and you were right, but not the way you think. You're a goddess and I'm not worthy to worship at your feet, but I'm happy to spend the rest of my life trying to be good enough for you" (350). Quite a major turnaround from the previous dynamics of their relationship.

But it's not a shift that appears to be permanent, or which excludes Eli acting in the dominating manner to which he has become accustomed. Weirdly, we never hear Eli recanting his belief that women firefighters are less able than male ones, only that "He might never fully come to terms with the dangers she faced in the job she loved, but he didn't nag. Just gave her the support and respect she needed" (359).

And perhaps this is what really makes Playing with Fire not feel like a true battle of the sexes book. As a reader, I'm not sure if Alex wants a romantic relationship in which the partners consider each other equals, or a relationship in which she is dominated by a strong male, or one in which she is worshipped as an all-powerful goddess. I'm guessing that she (and we, by proxy) are supposed to want all three. Simultaneously.

And all without admitting that that is nigh near impossible.


Photo credits:
Challenge Girl Hate: We Heart It
End Institutional Misogyny: crunchings and munchings


Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Best Romance Book Lists?

It's November, which means 'tis the season for best books of the year lists. In the past few weeks, Booklist, Publishers Weekly, Amazon, and Goodreads (via their Goodreads Choice Award nominations) have culled from hundreds, nay thousands of romance books published in 2015 to come up with 6, 10, 13, or more select few that they deem stand out from all the others issues in the past year. The reasons behind their choices are rarely transparent, if articulated at all; some lists include a byline, so we know who is doing the choosing, while others do not.  What do you make of such lists?

I'm struck by several things. Something to celebrate: the appearance of two romances with gay male couples not just in supporting roles, but in the leads: Elle Kennedy and Sarina Bowen's Him (a Goodreads Reader's Choice nominee) and Alexis Hall's For Real (on the PW list). Some things to decry: no lesbian romances. And, unless I'm missing something because I haven't read all of the books that made the lists, no romances with or by people of color. Lordy, here's hoping that when RWA announces the RITA and Golden Heart nominations, the landscape won't be so blindingly white.

And, since I review romances with feminist sympathies, I was struck by the fact that there is very little overlap between the books on these lists and the books I've written about on RNFF this year. I reviewed Hall's For Real in this post, and Lilah Pace's Asking For It here (both from the PW list). And I just read and enjoyed Him, although when I went to write about it, I found myself leaning more towards writing a post about whether female heterosexual readers are more comfortable with m/m romances in which the protagonists, with the exception of their sexual orientations, embody traditional masculinity (as do the two hockey playing friends who become lovers in Him) rather than a review of the book itself. But I haven't reviewed, or even read, the majority of the other list-making titles.

Because there is little overlap between generally praiseworthy (or generally popular?) romance novels and romance novels with feminist appeal? Because no one reviewer has the time to ferret out, read, and review all potential great romance novels, even when the scope of what constitutes "great" in said reviewer's mind is restricted to feminist-friendly books? Some combination of the two, or some other reason altogether? I was curious enough to go out and get a hold of many of the books on these lists, reading them to see if I could figure out the answer to these questions. Sadly, it's looking like the answer is closer to the former than to the latter, so far.

Hence, then, no feminist-positive review today—I've spent too much time being disappointed by the list books, and not enough time tracking down and reading feminist-friendly titles. I like to keep the review section of the blog to books I feel comfortable endorsing, but I do write up my thoughts on other books I've read on my Goodreads account. I've added a feed showing my current Goodreads reviews to the right-hand sidebar, if any RNFF readers are interested in my take on other romance novels. And I've love to connect with other feminist-minded readers on Goodreads, if you, too, write up your thoughts about your reading there.

In the meantime, anyone have any feminist-friendly romance novels published in 2015 that you haven't yet seen featured on this blog? Would love to hear your thoughts...

Friday, November 13, 2015

Are Beefcake Covers Sexist?

Over on the IndieRomanceInk Listserv this past week, one poster wrote of a male friend who accused the romance genre of sexism for objectifying men. In particular, this friend had a problem with the recent trend in romance novel covers, covers that feature headless male torsos, typically wearing little to no clothing. Such images, this friend felt, reduce the male body to a sexual object, and thus are sexist.

The original poster felt ambivalent over her friend's claim, and asked her fellow writers for their thoughts in response. A fascinating discussion has resulted, with some authors arguing in support of the male friend's position, others taking issue with it. And still others complicating the question in various intriguing, often feminist, ways.

So I thought I'd ask you, readers, what you think of the beefcake cover? Is is a celebration of the male body? Or an objectification of it? And if it is an objectification, is that a problem? Why or why not?










Tuesday, November 10, 2015

A Fantasy Heroine with no Superpowers? Meljean Brook's THE KRAKEN KING

I've been a big fan of Meljean Brook's Iron Seas series, especially of Heart of Steel (#2) and Riveted (#3). But when I heard that the fourth book in the series, The Kraken King, was to be published in serial form, I decided to hold off until the entire book was available. A fan of Victorian literature yes; a fan of Victorian-style publication, sometimes; a fan of paying $1.99 per part for an 8-part serial, thank you, no.

The publication date for serial-as-book came and went, though, and somehow I never pulled The Kraken King to the top of my TBR ebook pile. Only after my teen daughter began plowing through every fantasy romance book could recommend to her this past summer, including Meljean Brook's Iron Seas titles, did I remember that I myself hadn't yet read the latest addition to the series.

I'm sorry now that I waited so long to dive in. For while this steampunk fantasy is named after its hero, the real star of the show is its writer-heroine, Geraldine Gunther-Baptiste, otherwise known as Zenobia Fox. Despite penning popular serials about the adventures of treasure-hunter Archimedes Fox, Zenobia has long been a stay-at-home, content to remain in the shadows. First, to keep out of the way of an abusive father; then, to put off would-be suitors after they discover her relation to the actual Archimedes, a wealthy treasure-seeker; and, then, as depicted in Heart of Steel, to seem as innocuous as possible while enduring several kidnapping plots designed to bring her brother down. While her brother "flung himself at every peril," Zenobia is content "to observe it from a safe distance" (9).

Unlike Zenobia, the heroines of Brook's previous Iron Seas books had all been empowered, kick-ass warriors, fighting side by side with their equally kick-ass future mates. How would Zenobia, whose greatest superpower is her ability to wield a pen, survive, never mind prove herself heroine material, I wondered?

The opening of The Kraken King has Zenobia taking a small step out of the shadows, leaving home and hearth to set off halfway across the world with a childhood friend who is traveling to the Red City in Australia (in the alternate history Iron Seas world, Europe has been overrun by zombies; the "Golden Horde" [i.e. the Mongols] control much of the world through despotism and nanotechnology; and Australia has been partially colonized by Nippon [aka Japan]). Though in the wake of multiple kidnappings, Zenobia has hired two bodyguards (just in case), nothing of much event has occurred during the journey—just as she expected.

Until, that is, they reach the western coast of Australia, and their airship is attacked by unidentified marauders. Current manuscript and store of gold in hand, Zenobia jumps from the doomed airship—and is pulled from the ocean by a man straight out of the most fantastic adventure story. Ariq, the Noyan or leader of Krakentown, a Mongol settlement on the Australian coast, is larger, stronger, and physically more powerful than anyone that Zenobia has ever met. Known as the Kraken King (because once he gets something or someone in his grip, he never lets go), Ariq had once been a major player in the rebellion against the Mongol ruler. But when the rebel leaders began fighting with themselves over who would take power once the Khagan fell, Ariq felt the need to distance himself not just from their infighting, but from the rebellion as well.

Sounds like the perfect set-up for a he-man rescues imperiled woman storyline, no? But in Brook's capable hands, Zenobia isn't forced to magically transform into a warrior-woman fighter or to reconcile herself to playing the damsel in the typical damsel-in-distress storyline. How?

In part, because Brooks uses an alternating point of view narrative, a narrative that shows us Zenobia through Ariq's perceptive eyes. Ariq falls for Zenobia almost the moment he first sees her—but not from unmotivated "insta-lust." As Brook's describes it, "he remembered her expression when she'd jumped from the falling balloon. Serenity. Acceptance. As if her entire life had been leading to that moment and she faced it without fear" (30). Fighters, Ariq knows, are not the only ones who are brave. And when he begins talking with the woman he's pulled from the sea, and discovers that she also has a sense of humor as well as a quick, agile mind, he's even more drawn to Zenobia. Her unremarkable face, her unremarkable hair—none of it matters, not after he first looks into "her eyes like jade stones lit by an inner flame.... There was nothing unremarkable behind those green eyes—and this woman might have the power to lay waste to him. But if she did, he didn't want to fight it" (37). Throughout the story, Ariq interprets Zenobia for us, showing us how our expectations of heroine-ism might be blinding us to the kind of heroine that Zenobia is.


Also in part because Zenobia does undergo a transformation over the course of the novel, though it takes place internally, rather than externally. All her life, Zenobia has waited—waited for her abusive father to leave on another trip; waited for her suitors to tire of her; waited for Archimedes to bring the ransom and rescue her from her kidnappers. But when Zenobia is captured by a former ally of the Kraken King's, an ally who now wants to use her to manipulate Ariq, Zenobia is no longer content to be a pawn in others' machinations. She knows that Ariq, or her bodyguards, or her brother will eventually come to save her, and that it might make more sense to wait, now, too.

But she couldn't bear to wait. She couldn't bear to let Ghazan Bator determine the course of her life. She couldn't bear to let anyone decide who she would be or what she would do. Not anymore. And the thought of staying here on this ironship with a man who would use her to frighten her friends and threaten thousands of others? Who would wield her like a whip on Ariq's back? She'd rather burn the ship down and sink with it.
     Yet far better to escape—even if she died trying. And if this meant her death, maybe the effort would be all for nothing.
     But if she lived, that effort would mean everything. (303)

Zenobia does not train to be a fighter, nor does she magically gain new skills that enable her to overcome stronger foes. But she does discover the power of refusing to be driven against her will, a power that she will have to draw on throughout the second half of the novel in order to survive.

And finally, because Brook brings Zenobia to the realization that courage does not mean a lack of fear. In fact, fear is at the very heart of courage—the courage to fight against tyranny, yes, but also the courage to accept love.










The Kraken King
Berkley, 2014

Friday, November 6, 2015

The Sheik and I: Academics and Authors On the Sheikh Romance

I've been reading my way through the latest issue of the Journal of Popular Romance Studies, and my eye was caught by a pair of articles that focus on contemporary Sheikh romances. Reading the two side by side helped me understand why romance writers and scholars of the genre often find themselves at odds.

The first article, "Love in the Desert: Images of Arab-American Reconciliation in Contemporary Sheikh Romance Novels" by historian Stacy E. Holden, is far longer than the second, "Stacy Holden's 'Love in the Desert': A Response," by romance author Megan Crane—17 pages, plus 2 pages of "Works Cited" references, in contrast to Crane's less than 3 pages, with no sources cited. Academics are trained to point to past work that has been done in their field, and then build their own arguments in response. As one of the professors in my graduate English program once said, "You have to show how your work is intervening in the current critical conversation." Whenever a scholar writes an essay, s/he must show awareness of what previous critics have said about the topic, as well as explain how the argument made here differs from that previous criticism.

A book by Megan Crane (under her pen
name, Caitlin Crews)
Crane opens her response essay by making it clear that she, like Holden, has an academic background: "I was an avid and enthusiastic reader of romance novels long before I found myself pursuing my doctorate in English Literature" (1). Crane's essay, though, does not follow the scholarly model of drawing upon previous sources to build one's argument. Instead, Crane uses her own experience ("I feel"; "I'd argue"; "I'd argue further") to frame the arguments she makes. Academics are sometimes told directly, and are certainly trained indirectly by examples, to avoid using "I" statements, a practice which results in prose that often makes the person doing the arguing disappear, replaced by a faceless voice of authority. I'm guessing that many romance authors find that faceless voice annoying, frustrating, or even oppressive, and struggle against its claims to authority by highlighting their own experiences, their own "I"s. But academics, trained to cite their sources, are likely in turn to find Crane's "I" arguments, unsubstantiated by citations from scholarly sources, less than convincing.

Holden's article argues the increase in the number of sheikh romances published in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, as well as the narrative patterns within them, "highlight the vast cultural differences between the Arab hero and the American heroine that will be overcome during the course of the book. In this way, they emphasize an implicit political fantasy that undoubtedly contributes to this genre's popularity in a post-9/11 world" (1). Crane takes issue with Holden's thesis, arguing that "As a life-long romance reader, former scholar of literature, and a current author of romances, I feel one could as easily substitute 'Scottish highlander' or 'Greek tycoon' for 'sheikh' and make many of these same arguments. Which is more persuasive? Your answer may have as much to do with your own background as anything in each of the essays.

Both Crane and Holden employ literary theory to ground their arguments. But the theoretical lenses they each don are often viewed as antithetical by contemporary literary critics. Crane takes a universalist view, one most commonly associated with Archetypal literary theory: finding "recurrent narrative designs, patterns of action, character-types, themes, and images which are identifiable in a wide variety of works of literature, as well as in myths, dreams, and even social rituals. Such recurrent items are held to be the result of elemental and universal forms or patterns in the human psyche, whose effective embodiment in a literary work evokes a profound response from the attentive reader, because he or she shares the psychic archetypes expressed by the author" (Abrams 13). That is, archetypal critics tend to focus upon patterns that can be found across genres, across cultures, universal commonalities.

Though Crane cites no specific archetypal critics, she displays her archetypal leanings in statements such as these:

"The reconciliation fantasies that lurk within romance novels are between the heroes and heroines first and mainly, are not specific to any particular culture or even in some cases species, and are certainly not restricted to stories featuring sheikhs" (2-3)

"Romance novels are not the exclusive province of Americans or, indeed, Western women, and tus, the fears they strive to address lie more within the scope of human frailty and the darkness of the human soul than any purely Western, quasi-colonialist gaze on the shifting geo-political landscape" (3).

(emphasis in both quotes added by RNFF)


Old Skool literary criticism?
Archetypal criticism had its heyday in the 1950s through the 1980s, although many past and contemporary romance authors still embrace it (many of the writers in 1992's essay collection, Dangerous Men and Adventurous Women: Romance Writers on the Appeal of the Romance drew on archetypal arguments in their championing of the genre). The last decades of the twentieth century saw this school of criticism come under attack, though, from many different quarters: from feminists; from New Historicists; from critical race theorists, and others. Such critics pointed out the ways that all too often what was viewed as "universal" by archetypal critics was far more often a Western norm than a human-wide pattern. Universalizing, what was once seen as a strength, is now more often viewed as a weakness. Current literary critics, then, would likely not be very responsive to an argument based on archetypal tenets.

Though Holden, like Crane, identifies patterns, she uses culturally-specific, historically situated lenses to explore the meaning of such patterns. Each section of her essay presents a specific sub-argument that works to support her overall claim. First, she references two previous studies that showed a sharp increase in sheikh romance titles since 9/11 (six in 2000, eighteen in 2002) to back up her claim that there is something different about sheikh romances published before 9/11 and those published after. Then, she notes how the fictional sheikh kingdoms in romance novels leave out the urban settings common in contemporary Arab countries, preferring to focus instead on desert settings. Third, she points to the pattern of cultural clashes in the novels she examined, clashes between male Arab sheikhs and their Western female loves. Finally, she analyzes how these clashes are resolved, finding that "The careful negotiation between sameness and difference... —ultimately, sameness is primary, though difference must be there—can also be found in any given sheikh romance's denouement, and in the political fantasy offered in it" (13).

Historically-situated literary theory
What makes Holden's essay particularly fascinating is that she does not just draw on the sheikh texts themselves, but also on interviews with eleven authors and two editors of sheikh romances, to back up her claims. Many literary critics have moved beyond the "intentional fallacy" (trying to read a text and guess an author's intentions) to Barthes' "Death of the Author" position—the belief it is a mistake to cede the interpretation of a text to its author, even if its author has openly stated what s/he intended when s/he wrote it. Holden, in contrast, finds value in an author's take on the text, so much so that she conducted interviews with eleven authors and three editors of sheikh romances to find out their thoughts on the works they had created.

Holden's interviews demonstrate that the authors of sheikh romances themselves typically intend their books to be culturally positive: "I would love to think that we are in some way getting people to look at other people and other places, and saying it doesn't all have to be, you know, American Velveeta cheese on white bread" says Sandra Marton (14). But at the same time, she uses her interviews as only one of many types of evidence she brings to bear in her analysis. And ultimately her analysis demonstrates that there is often a gap between what an author intends and the cultural work the text she produces actually accomplishes:

Marton and other authors express the desire to break free from the negative stereotypes of Arabs put forth in other media via the vehicle of romance, a worthy intention indeed. In order to accomplish this goal, however, authors sometimes suppress certain aspects of Arab culture and contribute inadvertently to Orientalist discourse" (14).

Holden concludes her essay by suggesting two possible readings of sheikh romances:

Read skeptically, against the grain, these novels present a fantasy in which autocratic leaders of the Arab world—those sheikhly heroes who love American women—embrace the values of their Western fiancĂ©es and wives, reconciling their two cultures in a way that secures and privileges American interests. But read more generously, in light of their authors' intentions, the sheikh romance novel does present a hopeful vision of the world, one which exchanges Huntington's Clash of Civilizations for a world in which the class between individuals from two worlds, now at odds, is ultimately an erotic clash: one which leads them to fall in love, resolve their differences, and live harmoniously together" (17).

In contrast, Crane's essay opens by reducing Holden's nuanced argument from two open possibilities to one closed interpretation:

"Do contemporary sheikh romance novels fetishize Arabs and subject the to the unwavering, privileged glare of the Western imagination as Holden asserts? Or is there a way in which all stories of the beloved fetishize and objectify the beloved—both heroine and hero in their turn, regardless of their cultural background or racial make-up, across all subgenres of romantic fiction?" (1)

Crane, then, misreads Holden, just as she claims Holden misreads sheikh romances. And just as many romance authors feel scholars of romance do...


The "archetypal" Western sheik:
Rudolph Valentino
I myself find Holden's arguments far more persuasive than Crane's. But then, of course, I was trained as a literary critic. I'm curious to hear whether other romance readers, those not familiar with the debates between and assumptions by academically-trained readers will feel the same.

If you're curious. both Holden and Crane's essays are available online:

Holden, Stacy E. "Love in the Desert: Images of Arab-American Reconciliation in Contemporary Sheikh Romance Novels." Journal of Popular Romance Studies, August 2015.

Crane, Megan. "Stacy Holden's 'Love in the Desert': An Author's Response." Journal of Popular Romance Studies, August 2015.

I've also cited from M. H. Abrams' canonical A Glossary of Literary Terms. 8th edition. Boston: Thomson/Wadsworth 2005.



Illustration credits:
Archetypal chickens: The Educated Imagination
Postmodern cross-dressing: Frank Grady syllabus