Thursday, December 31, 2009

My Decade in Love

I started 2000 as a full-time corporate bankruptcy lawyer, married to a European patent attorney attending an American law school while working part-time as an American patent agent.  Henry was my "what if" guy -- I'd fallen for him in 1980, when we were both 24 and I was visiting his parents in London for a summer.  Leaving at the end of that summer was probably the healthiest thing I'd done in my life at that point, but I missed him and thought about him for years afterward.  So, when my mother died in 1997 and I needed a place to go for Christmas, his parents kindly agreed that I might visit.  Henry was there, still unmarried, and I fell right back in love with him.  We married in January 1999, on my parents' and grandparents' wedding anniversary.

In the spring of 2000, Henry and I bought a weekend house in Pennsylvania's Endless Mountains (a misnomer on two counts:  they do eventually end, and most of them are not really mountains).  And in March, we went to Paris to attend a special 75th anniversary dinner for Henry's favorite crossword puzzle, the Listener, published weekly in the London Times.  Sitting across the table from us was the then-editor of the Listener Crossword (well known in puzzle circles as the most difficult crossword in the English language).  "The" Ross Beresford.  While Henry and I had been courting transatlantically in 1998, he'd explained about this fellow who had been all-correct in solving the Listener for so long they'd retired him and made him the editor.  Henry (who is the smartest person I know) really looked up to this guy.

Looking at Ross from across the table in Paris, I was intrigued.  He seemed very quiet, but not shy -- he stared at Henry and me for most of the dinner.  Rather uncharacteristic boldness for a Brit, I thought.  And, yes, I had a teeny crush on "the" Ross Beresford.  But I knew nothing about him, and we only saw him a couple more times in London when our visits to Henry's parents coincided with the quarterly crossword puzzle get-togethers at the White Horse pub in Parsons Green.

As 2009 ends, of course, everything is topsy-turvy from 2000:  I'm no longer a practicing attorney of any sort, I live full-time in the weekend house, and I'm married to the guy who stared at us in Paris. 

Here's what I can't remember:  What was I reading in 2000?  Not so many romances, I'm pretty sure.  I do recall having surgery in 2003 and taking all of Susan Elizabeth Philips' Chicago Stars books to read.  (A good choice for the boredom of lying in an uncomfortable hospital bed.)  I still looked for the authors I'd loved in the 1990s: Jane Feather, Mary Jo Putney, Joan Wolf, Lynn Kerstan, SEP, and Linda Howard, but their output wasn't growing and I wasn't doing a very good job of discovering new authors.

Which is why today, on the last day of the decade, I'm still playing catch-up with authors like Mary Balogh (whom I'd tried a long time ago and not liked as well as, say, Jane Ashford or Elizabeth Mansfield), Jo Beverley, Loretta Chase, and Jennifer Crusie.  (It's a bit embarrassing about Jennifer Crusie:  I met her in 1997 -- I was her chauffeur to a writing workshop she gave for our RWA chapter -- and then didn't buy any of her books for ten years after that.  Trust me, that's not her fault.  She was quite lovely; I was quite crazy.)  All of that catching up has been in 2009.

I just counted: I've read 107 romances since last May.  That's almost certainly more romances than I read from 2000 through 2008.  That total includes some re-reads and a lot of books not published in this decade.  I'm also counting the Julia Spencer-Fleming Miller's Kill mysteries in that list for two reasons: a) there may not be a lot of romance in them by volume, but the romance in there is sublime, and b) it was reading her books -- a recommendation I got from Smart Bitches -- that got me restarted reading romances.  I have 50 novels in my (various) TBR tote bags and piles.  (There were also 9 DNFs -- books I started and for whatever reason didn't take to.)

But here's the most significant thing about this decade.  I found a voice for what I was feeling.  Not just a voice, but a lovely mezzo-soprano.  Before 2000, I croaked or whined or just didn't speak of feelings at all.  But in the course of making two happy marriages (hey, just because the first one ended doesn't mean it wasn't happy and successful; turns out it had a "Best By" date, that's all) and gently resolving some family problems, I learned to convey what I was feeling.

That voice -- that lyrical expression of love and pain and fear -- is essential to any effort I might make as a writer.  In the past, I think I read romances so that they might speak for my heart.  Today, I read romances a bit more critically.  Best book I read this year was LaVyrle Spencer's Morning Glory.  I first read it close to 20 years ago, but I doubt I noticed the quality of her writing back then.  This year:  wow!  She managed to inhabit those characters in a way I can only dream of doing as a writer.

It's only in this decade that I learned how much of loving someone is knowing how and what to tell them of that love.  I'm still learning.  But I understand now what was missing in all my previous attempts to write a romance: the ability to give love a voice.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

It's All About the Music

This post starts with a movie, but ends up being about books.  Feel free to skip to the book part if a) you hate "Love Actually," b) love "Love Actually" but don't care to read about it, or c) only have time to read about books.

I do love this movie, I truly do.  And if I'm being really honest, I love it because it starts with people greeting each other at the arrivals section at Heathrow.  There are several arrivals areas at Heathrow, but I've been greeted with tears & kisses -- and love -- at the arrival area at Terminal 3 (normally a domestic terminal, but for some reason flights from Philadelphia land there).  So all those nice, normal, non-movie star people being happy to see each other?  Been there, felt that.

But my husband and I wouldn't watch it every holiday season just to see the nice normal people.  We watch it because we're romantics and because it delivers the goods.  For us.

I have to mention, at this point, that this blog post is inspired by the juxtaposition of reading this post on Jessica's blog and having in the diary to watch LA with Ross.  Jessica has strong feelings about the morality and/or ethics (in case there's a subtle distinction) of  Mark's (Andrew Lincoln's character) actions at Christmas time in the situation where he's in love with his best friend's bride.  I disagree with Jessica's argument (pretty much all of it:  her assumptions, her interpretations, and her conclusions -- otherwise, of course, she makes a point...), but as I wasn't around when she posted, and the comments are closed, and she's now in South Africa, I will gnaw my fingers to the bone and NOT write a defense of that particular scene.

However, in the comments to Jessica's post a lot of people claim to hate the film.  Well, they must not have been Twittering last night because before we headed off to watch it, I asked who loved it, who hated it, and who thought "meh."  I only got a few responses, but they were all in the "loved" column.  Hardly scientific and it doesn't mean anything other than it's a film that seems either to do it for people or it really ticks them off.

What I enjoy every year is how the film depicts that sense that maybe it's not going to work out.  Richard Curtis did a good job of getting the emotional anxiety right -- even for the couples who do work out in the end.  I like crying during this movie.  (Which is no defense, I admit.  Just a preference.)  Not everyone has a HEA, and not all the HEAs are hard-won, but the ones that are (Colin Firth's, for example, and Sam's, the motherless little drummer boy) seem sufficiently organic.

This year, though, I really noticed the music.  It's got a great soundtrack, with the Beach Boys and The Pointer Sister's "Jump" as well as some holiday classics.  Maybe not "The Big Chill" level, but it's good, and Curtis really makes each song work hard and in a good way.  Which is something movies can do.  Think about these movies:
Titanic
Star Wars
Manhattan
Brief Encounter
2001: A Space Odyssey
Saturday Night Fever
The Big Chill

 -- they all had both specific pieces (or songs) and incidental music that became part of the movie itself.  (By definition movie musicals are all in this category.) 

Books can't do this.  (I supposed someday e-readers may come with speakers...)  I love Julia Spencer-Fleming's Miller's Kill books with a white-hot passion, but even she disconcerted me by referencing specific songs in the middle of Russ & Clare's "we can't be together" misery.  Yes, we listen to romantic ballads very differently when we're unhappy.  I even have a "Tears & Tissues" playlist on my iPod for when I need a nice, cathartic cry.  But unless the author is referencing a song so ubiquitous that everyone -- absolutely everyone! -- knows it, it can be a misstep to stick it in a book.

I'm currently reading Sea Swept, the first of the Nora Roberts' Chesapeake Bay series.  (It was mentioned to me recently as a candidate for the 100 Romances We've All Read (or Should Have Read) list.  Which I don't think exists.  But it should.)  The heroine, Anna, is tooling around in her convertible with Aretha Franklin singing "Respect."  That song qualifies as ubiquitous enough, but then it's not really conveying much in the scene.  It's a small play list of songs we all know, and all of us have songs that mean so much more than merely "ubiquitous."  The difficulty is, the song I might think of as the perfect "I'm in love with a married man" song isn't the song the next person might pick.

We don't all like the same songs.  When Ross and I were (no, really) just good friends, I would mail him CDs to try.  At that point in time, he only knew classical music and opera, and was pretty esoteric even there.  (For example, Brahms and Mozart were already passĂ©; he'd moved on to Mahler and Wagner.)  My first couple efforts failed; music I liked didn't interest him.  Then I hit pay dirt with, of all things, Alison Krauss & the Union Station, a pick I'd gotten from their song, "New Favorite," which had been used as incidental music in an episode of the TV show, "Medium."  (If you want to hear it, here's the music video.)  Next thing I know, I'm getting an email from him telling me he was riding aroundon  a bus in Oxford listening to that song and hitting replay over and over.  But if I were reading that scene in a romance, I don't think I'd want the author to tell me which song the hero was listening to.

We expect TV and movies to have soundtracks.  Do we want our books to come with sound?  Do you want actually to hear what songs Clare and Russ can't stand to play in their vehicles because it reminds them too much of each other?

Is sound going to be part of the Brave New World of book publishing?  And if it is (or isn't), should it?
.

Monday, December 28, 2009

A Tiny Insight (in Three Parts)


I'm reading Forbidden by Jo Beverley, the fourth in the Rogue series.  Before I get to my tiny insight, may I take a moment to discuss how ugly this cover is?  (It's from the original 1994 publication; the reprint in 2004 was banal but not ugly.)  Both garish and monochromatic, it neither tells us anything about the heroine, Serena, nor about the plot (I haven't finished it, but I'm pretty sure no fans were abused in the making of her romance with Francis).  And it's ugly.  So -- sure, I hate the Fabio covers, and sure I hate the "bodice-ripper" covers, and sure I hate the bulging bosoms covers, and I'm not particularly fond of the bare back to almost-but-not-quite butt crack covers.  But I really hate ugly.

I discussed Beverley's Rogue series here, where I remarked that I'd really not liked An Arranged Marriage, the first book.  I haven't tried to reread it, so I'm drawing on pretty dated memories of its plot and characters.  While I make no claims of accuracy here, what I recall is that its hero, Nicholas Delaney, was pretty tortured by his competing loyalties to the Mission and to his Beloved.  (The Mission, as I recall, involved unpleasant sex with, or in the presence of, unpleasant people.)

In books 2 and 3 of the series, Nicholas is the happy husband and father: pretty standard fare for a character shown in subsequent books.  In Forbidden, though, I was struck by this line about Nicholas:
Serena [was] embarrassingly aware that he had pinpointed her unacknowledged intention.  She was heartily sick of all these astute observations.
And later on, this:
...Nicholas still made Serena very nervous.  There was something in his eyes -- a quickness, a perception -- that made her feel transparent.  There were a great many things that she did want him to know.
Here's our first hero -- previously tortured and torn by the disparate demands on his morality -- suddenly the calm & knowing patriarch, the man who Sees All and can Fix All.

That's when it hit me.  In An Arranged Marriage, we see past that supremely competent facade to the self-doubt and struggles inside the man, but no matter how many times Nicholas turns up in the other books, we'll never again see an inner struggle.  And even if I'm misremembering the details of An Arranged Marriage, this tiny insight applies to other series or sequels.  The characters whose agonies of love and conflict we gobbled up in their book show up again settled and serene.  And, to be honest, a bit boring.

This explains a few things.  First, why epilogues and reappearances in sequels can be emotionally unsatisfying.  We meet the characters again, but we see them as others see them.  In the quotes from Forbidden, we're seeing Nicholas Delaney from Serena's POV; her awareness of him fits what we know of him, but he's not very interesting to her, so he's not very interesting to us.  Which may bother us if we'd particularly liked that character or couple from the earlier book.  We may want to relive, just for a moment, the thrill when Nicholas and Eleanor finally overcame all their problems and earned their HEA.  Instead, we get "calm & knowing."

Second, I understand a bit better now why romances can be so compelling.  We meet the protagonists through each other's POV.  At the same time, we not only experience the action from a specific character's perspective through their POV, but we also learn how they see themselves.  This is a very intimate experience, one that novels can provide better than almost any other medium.  (In theory a memoir is even more intimate, but only when the author is insightful in a particular way.  Too much self-doubt can be as off-putting as too much self-preening.) 

In a romance novel, this means we're getting a ringside seat to the emotional upheaval of falling in love, or being in love without any hope of being loved back, or being loved but not able to see a way to be together -- or whatever the conflict is.  We can feel vicariously the depths of anxiety or fear of loss; we get also to experience the exultation when the couple come together freed from the conflict.  With some novels, these vicarious experiences are so delicious that we want to re-experience them.  Sure we can re-read the book, but having the characters show up in a later book holds out the promise of a quick taste of the original book's flavor.  Instead, we get "calm & knowing."

As an ancillary insight, I wonder if this isn't a factor in some people's disfavor for the first person narrative.  On the plus side, the first-person narrator may reveal him- or herself more fully than in books with third person narration and shifting points-of-view, but we may never see the other protagonist's inner thoughts and feelings.  In romances, that can provide an imbalance -- we want to meet both characters fully; the first-person narrator may be a barrier toward that goal.  (By contrast, I think it works beautifully in mysteries and thrillers, where we learn what the protagonist learns when he or she learns it.)

Finally, my tiny insight reminds me that we appear to others quite differently than we seem to ourselves.  I recall a compliment a colleague paid me almost 20 years ago; what was so memorable was not how nice the compliment was, but how startlingly divergent it was from my own sense of how I must appear to others.  My colleague thought I was self-confident; I thought I was a lump of insecurity with a thin shell of pretend-competence.  It wasn't even the "I'm a fraud" phenomenon because until he paid me that compliment I had thought that the whole world shared my view of my inadequacies. 

In a couple's own romance, the conflict often involves these discrepancies between how they see themselves and how their beloved sees them.  We long to have them see each other as we (the readers) see them.  We know the misunderstandings and misconceptions need to be cleared up.  In a well-written book, those confusions can even seem reasonable, or at least understandable.  (In a poorly-written book, they merely seem evidence that the characters are too stupid to live, or at least too stupid to work their way out of a damp paper bag.)  But all those muddles and misunderstandings have to be worked out by the HEA.  And nothing that bad can arise between them again; part of the contract between the author and the reader is that the characters have learned their lesson by the end of the book: no more secrets, no more doubts.  Love, trust, intelligence & loyalty are all necessary conditions of the HEA.

Because Nicholas and Eleanor Delaney have had their HEA, we'll never again meet their inner fears and worries.  They will always come to us through the eyes of others: the other Rogues who know them well, or characters like Serena who meet them for the first time.  Nicholas and Eleanor are now more two-dimensional, and if we'd thrilled to their roller-coaster romance, we're now stuck with the boring side of life post-HEA.  They'll still have adventures when they join in the Rogues' idea of rough justice, but they'll not reveal themselves as thoroughly in the later stories.  They may now permanently be "calm & knowing."

Sometimes, an HEA means life will never again be quite so "interesting," as in the Chinese curse: May you live in interesting times.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Virtual Conversation with Moriah Jovan

In a recent post, I organized my thinking about defending romance novels.  As so often happens (often delightfully so), the comments thread led someplace very interesting, but slightly tangential to the original subject of the post.


In this instance, it led to an exchange with Moriah Jovan on the subject of forced seduction.  Her last comment was rejected by my crappy comments facility (honest, it's first on my New Year's Resolution list:  get blog onto WordPress!), and so she emailed me her thoughts about my comment on her comment.  Confused?  Never mind.  Read it for yourself:

Moriah Jovan said...

I don't bother to defend romance reading, but one thing I find myself defending one particular romance device, which is under fire by a lot of ROMANCE READERS (forced seduction, in case anybody cares).

It's like they forgot (or want to forget) romance's roots AND they don't want to acknowledge that this is a common female sexual fantasy.

I'm going to write a paper on that for Dr. Frantz's panel the year-after-next.

Magdalen said...

Hmmm. This is always a difficult topic, and can be viewed and approached from different perspectives. I completely agree with you that it can be a powerful sexual fantasy, but (and this is just me) I need the heroine's POV and her reaction to be favorable (continually throughout the forced seduction, or at the end) for me not to be grossed out.

But if the book is somehow promoting forced seduction, that's more problematic.

Rape is different, but "rape" in romance novels is often some hybrid act that has elements of anger, control, contempt and sexual attraction in it. And I didn't put it in quotation marks to defend it, merely to signify that the act of rape in a romance novel has some significant differences from rape in real life. It's also no defense of, or justification for, rape in real life.

I would argue there's a continuum from BDSM (where the act is fully consensual and either it, or the underlying relationship, has been fully negotiated in advance) through to "romance novel rape" (which I define as hero rapes heroine at a point in the story in which they are not in love, or even in lust, although they do end up together). Forced seduction -- say, like the "tied to the chair" scene in Untie My Heart -- is somewhere in the middle: there is sufficient subconscious sexual attraction between the characters that it's not rape, but it wasn't consented to in advance.

But hey -- that just my thinking. And I surely know that others can, and will, disagree.

Moriah Jovan said...

I like this definition:
"romance novel rape" (which I define as hero rapes heroine at a point in the story in which they are not in love, or even in lust, although they do end up together)

BUT
"rape" in romance novels is often some hybrid act that has elements of anger, control, contempt and sexual attraction in it. And I didn't put it in quotation marks to defend it, merely to signify that the act of rape in a romance novel has some significant differences from rape in real life.

what it really boils down to is "I want you so much I can't control myself around you." This is the appeal.

This has been around forEVER, but there was research going on in the field of female sexuality during the time when the "bodice-ripper" "rape" romance really hit it big, and the commonality was the rape fantasy.

(That's what I'm going to do my paper on.)

I haven't read Untie My Heart, so I don't know, but I agree that:
there is sufficient subconscious sexual attraction between the characters that it's not rape, but it wasn't consented to in advance.

Right. That's how it's evolved and it's the way I did it; the heroine had a crush on the hero and he was so discombobulated by her (and so afraid of her rejection because he thought she'd hate him when she found out that the rumors about him were, in fact, true) that he didn't know how to act around her and...voila.

Anyway, the whole topic is one I've taken a lot of heat for, and it seems like the baby (the fantasy) has been thrown out with the bathwater (rape is BAD, and nobody--least of all I--is disputing that).



That's what we think, at least.  Anyone want to join the discussion?

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Fiction Meets Real Life

In addition to "doing" Christmas yesterday, I saw a movie and finished a book.  Both reminded me of real life stories, which in turn influenced my reactions to the fiction.


Avatar (in 3D):  Glorious movie to watch; well worth it for the vision of an alien planet that doesn't look like the Gobi Desert masquerading as the moon.  (The bioluminescence is extraordinary and reminds me of Longwood Gardens Holiday Lights display.)  The plot, basically, is aliens (in this case humans) invade a planet solely to mine a rare and valuable mineral.  The indigenous people (in this case the Na'Vi) are explained as being hostile and deadly.  By the end of the film, the perspective has shifted, and it's the humans who seem hostile and deadly.

Here's what this all reminded me of:  Henry (the ex) and I formulated a plan early in our marriage to see all 50 states.  He's English, and the notion that there were 50 states, each large enough to have its own discrete identity, intrigued him.  New England was easy, as was the rest of the Eastern Seaboard and the Eastern mountain states like Tennessee, Kentucky, Ohio, and West Virginia.  Sometimes we'd do four states in a single trip, sometimes only one.  One of the last trips we took was to North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Colorado and Wyoming.  In many ways, the Dakotas trip was the most revelatory to me, as an American.

I'd learned about Westward Expansion in school, of course, as the conflicts between the Plains Indians (the term "Native Americans" came later, and I gather that's been replaced now by "First Nations Peoples") and Anglo-Europeans.  Fundamentally, "we" (the aliens; the invaders) believed it was possible to own property.  Even the tribes that were settled (e.g., the Mandan tribe, settled for almost 300 years near the Missouri River outside Bismarck, N.D.) had very flexible notions of ownership.  Other tribes were nomadic, so they treated the land as something no one could own -- a notion that was fundamentally at odds with the Anglo-American common law of property (dating back to 1066, when William the Conqueror took over most of England and established the feudal system which allowed for land ownership rights).  These two approaches -- that the land can be owned such that others may be excluded from it versus all people have an equal right to be on and use the land -- are not compatible.  Someone had to win.

Henry and I visited Fort Laramie in Wyoming, just across the border from Nebraska.  One display had letters from army personnel to their families back East.  Some correspondence betrayed the writer's bigotry toward the Indians; other letters showed real appreciation for their indigenous cultures.  At the same time, some actions by the Apache and other tribes were extraordinarily cruel, beyond any sense of decency.  There are no right answers; no one was perfect; all we know is land ownership prevailed.

As an Easterner born and bred (I've now lived in four different states in the Northeast for my entire life, not counting two 9-month stretches in Tucson, Arizona for grad school), it was stunning to imagine the hardship of the families moving west, and the tragedy of Indian tribes losing their way of life.  Mount Rushmore was interesting; the ongoing creation of Crazy Horse in the Black Hills made me cry.  (If you don't know this story, it's a great one:  He was defeated by the Army and taken prisoner.  Some snotty lieutenant said to him, "Where are your lands now?" and Crazy Horse pointed.  "My lands are where my dead lie buried.")

Well, Avatar revisits the same sort of conflict.  It's simplistic, but effective.  Basically, in the movie the human invaders have the opportunity to appreciate the unique culture of the Na'Vi.  If you want to know how that idea goes over, go see the film.  You won't be sorry.

I finished The Madness of Lord Ian Mackenzie last night.  Jennifer Ashley is new to me, and I appreciate that I'm still playing catch up with some of the more notable books of 2009.  I also gather that although it's not stated explicitly in the book, readers are meant to think that maybe Ian Mackenzie has Asperger's Syndrome, a high functioning version of autism.  Or not.  As Hans Asperger didn't give his name to the condition until 1944, it's a little hard to say.

My reaction was that I, as a reader, didn't even need to get to that degree of specificity.  I have an older brother who has some of the milder symptoms of Asperger's.  (Chances are he didn't, or doesn't, have autism.)  But my brother's experiences as a child suggested to me how a child could end up so deeply distressed that his behavior can be defined as "mad."

My brother (I'll call him Reeves) was slow to walk and talk.  My dad was on the faculty of the Yale Law School at the time, so my parents had access to a panoply of medical and psychological testing. 
Reeves was tested for deafness; nothing.  So my mother just worked around Reeves's oddities.  And sure enough, when he was ready, he spoke in complete sentences and walked across the room.  No faltering "dada" syllables for him, nor any baby steps. 

Eventually, my parents enrolled Reeves in the faculty daycare center, which was run in conjunction with a world famous early childhood development center at the university.  My mother carefully explained that Reeves was a bit of a handful, determined to do things his way.  The director looked dubious; clearly my mother was not raising Reeves correctly.  They (the day care center staff) would take care of this!  One day my mother got there early to pick Reeves up.  It was "circle time" and all the other pre-schoolers were obediently sitting in a circle while a book was read to them.  Reeves, however, was in a corner of the room, with his back to the rest of the kids, and surrounded by all his favorite toys.

My mother turned to a staff member, as if to say, "What's up with this?"  The staff person looked sheepish.  "We find it easier to let him do what he wants."  My mother felt vindicated.

I hadn't been born then, so I only know this story as one in the pantheon of family anecdotes.  But it made me think, as I read Ashley's book, that all a young Ian Mackenzie had to be was "different."  His differences would not have been dealt with very well, and then to witness what he witnessed (which I won't specify) -- well, things could go down hill pretty quickly.

I read someone's comment (and now have no idea where, or whose it was) that no one with Asperger's would be "healed" just by having good sex with the heroine.  Leaving aside that she does rather more for Ian than just schtup him and that he's hardly completely healed by the end of the book, I found myself thinking that the power of love (not carnal love, but the love of acceptance and empathy) is greater than one can imagine.  Someday I'll tell my story of mental illness and the power of love, but for now I'll just say that I enjoyed The Madness of Lord Ian Mackenzie.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Seeking Recommendations for a Husband-Worthy Romance

Sarah T. at Monkey Bear Reviews and I have an informal deal for 2010 -- we've each asked our husbands to read a romance novel and write a review. I believe the terms are these: we get to pick a handful of romance novels and the DH gets to pick the one he wants to read and review.

Now, Sarah may know precisely which ones she wants to offer her husband, but I'm seriously mulling over this question. But I now have a number of very smart romance fans reading this blog, so I might as well take advantage of your collective brilliance and creativity.

(Ross is the one on the right.)

Let me tell you something of Ross's habits, interests and current reading preferences. He is a crossword expert (you can read a bio here) and posts daily at his blog about the New York Times crossword.  He is big fan of Charles Dickens, Evelyn Waugh, Julian Barnes, P.G. Wodehouse, and the Sherlock Holmes stories.  He's read Douglas Adams' Hitchhiker's Guide books, but not Terry Pratchett's Discworld oeuvre (from which, I believe, you're supposed to deduce that he likes humor, can tolerate some sci fi futurism, but doesn't do fantasy).  He won't read the Harry Potter books, primarily because Ross had to attend a boarding preparatory school from age 7 and a public school from age 13; he has no interest in any fictional boarding school, and the fantasy element doesn't help.

Here's my thinking so far:  Because he's actually trying to learn about American football and baseball, It Had to Be You, the first of the Susan Elizabeth Philips Chicago Stars books.  It's not her best from a romance point of view, but it's funny and there's more actual football in it.  And, because he's English, the fact that the football is a bit, uh, fictionalized shouldn't be a problem. (On the other hand, he might enjoy Dream a Little Dream, which is my favorite from that series, because it has Edward, and Ross is a sucker for cute, weird kids...)

Next, a Pat Gaffney -- maybe To Have and To Hold?  (I personally prefer To Love and To Cherish, but Ross is pretty anti-Church of England, so would Christy bother him?)  She was inspired by mid-19th century novels, although the rural setting is so different from Dickens' London, I'm not sure that would trigger his interests.

A LaVyrle Spencer?  I've only reread Morning Glory recently, but I could hastily reread others of hers before offering them to Ross.  Similarly, he suggests Georgette Heyer, which is fine but which one?  I haven't reread any of hers other than These Old Shades and Devil's Cub, so I'd better get reading!

After that, I don't know.  A Jennifer Crusie?  (He likes humorous books -- both fiction and non-fiction.  He loves Bill Bryson, for example, and was a Garrison Keillor fan long before he came to the US.)  I liked the con artist family in Temptation, Ohio, but are there others?

Which is all I've thought of so far.  Help me out, Romlandia -- suggest some books that a nice British chap would enjoy!

Thanks!

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Lo! A Holiday Miracle!

It came upon a midnight clear, reading by the light of lamp oil that lasted eight nights (which is about how long it took me to read this book), that a true holiday miracle occurred:   I liked a Judith Ivory novel.

Now, before you get all excited, you should know that I didn't *love* this book with the heat of a thousand suns.   But compared with the way I felt about the four other J.Ivo. books I've read (Sleeping Beauty: hated it but not so much; Beast: hated it; Black Silk: really hated it; and Bliss: you don't want to know how much), I positively adored Untie My Hands (sorry) Untie My Heart.

And there's a very simple reason.  Emma and Stuart are happy protagonists, which I can best demonstrate with a quote:
He laughed, looked down into her face, stroking her hair, his palm curved to her skull. "A natural-born tyrant rehearsed from birth to rule the world." He smiled and changed the subject. "You are remarkable," he said.
"Not so much." She laughed ruefully.
He contradicted. "You told me once. 'Clowns make you laugh.' But you make yourself laugh, Emma. You see the humor and fun in life. What man could possibly not be laughing beside you?"
And something deep inside her sighed, pleased to hear him speak thus, to know he meant it. Stuart, who laughed so seldom, laughed a lot with her, she realized.

Okay, if someone wants to show me where in Black Silk the characters are that happy in each other's company (particularly before the last ten pages), I'll apologize profusely for all the nasty things I've ever said about J.Ivo.  Untie Me Please (oh, darn) Untie My Heart has put the Happy back into the HEA.

At the same time, there are some familiar J.Ivo. tropes in this book:  Someone's entitlements have been stripped away through legal action, someone is struggling to survive on very little money, there's an evil villain, and so forth.   But where these things make for very gloomy stories elsewhere, in Untie Me Now! (oops) Untie My Heart, the characters get tired of the sort of J.Ivo. inner conflict and general testiness (intended in other books, I guess, to show How Much They Want Each Other, although I find myself thinking it just shows how cranky they are -- d'you think they need to eat more prunes?) and get on with a) solving their problems, and b) liking each other.

Yes, Virginia: There is a Judith Ivory novel where they like each other BEFORE they ride off into the sunset. Amazing, hunh?

Alas, that's pretty much all I have to say about Unbreak My Heart (nope, that's a song) Untie My Heart.   Well, about the good stuff.  There's a con job that's fun but no better or worse than what you see in the English television series, Hustle, and Leverage on TNT.   It's undoubtedly true that J.Ivo. did a lot of research into sheep farming, but this notion that it would have cost £50 (in 1892?!) to replace a tup?  Uh, no.  Inflation of the English currency didn't occur until after World War I, so £50 then would be thousands of pounds today.  (There's a wonderful parliamentary report on the relative value of pounds sterling for the period 1750-2001 here.  In example 1, £50 in 1850 was worth £3,840 in 2001, p.8.)

Sheep aren't exactly hard to come by in Yorkshire even today, so purchasing a male lamb wouldn't have been too hard to do.  I went online to see how much a sheep (of either gender) would cost today in the UK.  The answer, at 2009 values, is £40 ($70).  So I ask myself: J.Ivo. visited family in North Yorkshire when she was doing the research on the area and sheep farming in general, so why didn't she ask someone how much a tup was worth in present-day sterling, and then translate that to 1892 pounds?

And of course she gets the law wrong.  Again.  *sigh*  But it's okay, because here -- unlike in Black Silk -- she doesn't make it essential to the very character of the hero and heroine.  Stuart gets notified rather late that his father has died, so by the time he returns to England, his evil uncle has convinced some body of authority that Stuart is dead so the uncle is now the viscount.   The principal seat is returned to Stuart (after the uncle hauled away everything of value) but all ready funds are tied up in the courts.  The problems with this scenario are pretty easy to spot: Stuart regularly dined with the Tsar, so a) the British Embassy in St. Petersburg would have known of his existence in Russia, and b) the British Crown -- related to the Tsar -- would have had people to ask how recently Stuart was seen alive.  Plus, other Englishmen and women would have traveled back to England from Russia and could have said, "Sure, Stuart's still alive."  Until someone said, "Nope, I saw him die," they would have hesitated to declare him dead.

[My ex-husband should be writing these books!   He came up with a really clever way to have the precise situation J.Ivo. wanted: Stuart is living in what is Nepal now or the Hindu Kush for a decade or so at the time of his father's death.  (Long enough for the courts to be convinced he's missing and presumed dead.)  Because the father had served in the Army in India as a youth, his obituary in the Times of London has at the bottom, "Indian papers please copy," which tells the Indian newspapers to reprint the story in their editions.  One of those newspapers makes its way north to Stuart -- and that's how he learns of his father's death months later.  Henry, my ex, says he knows this would have worked because his grandfather was a magistrate in India in the 1920s and that system was still in effect then.]

Anyway, Stuart gets home and Uncle McGreedy has supposedly tried to claim the viscountcy in Stuart's absence.  The book includes some references to The College of Arms, but that would only have decided who was entitled to the coat of arms, not who was the viscount (the College of Arms would have waited for the High Court's decision).  The litigation may have been proceeding in the High Court as a result of Uncle McGreedy.  But interestingly, in the book Stuart is in possession of the estate (and thus its revenues) so he shouldn't have been nearly penniless.  Also, he'd taken his seat in the House of Lords, which is in essence a declaration that he really is the viscount, so what's left for the High Court to decide?

But, hey, who cares about some picayune legal matters when Stuart and Emma manage to be happy for nearly half the book?!  Whoo-hoo!  Smiles, laughter, happy sex -- oh, and J.Ivo. even allows someone to turn some lights on.

Have you noticed this?  It's often really really dark in J.Ivo. books.  Here are some examples from Uncross Your Legs (oh wait, that's Sharon Stone, isn't it?) Untie My Heart:
This face scanned the interior of the coach, seemingly unable to find Stuart inside -- it must have been too dark, he decided, with the window up and no lamp lit.

Mind you -- it's midday in that scene, and the door to the carriage is open, even if the other door is closed and its window curtained.  And then we have the library.  A library worthy of Jean Cocteau's La Belle & Le BĂȘte:
Even by the standards of England's grandest of houses, Stuart's library was vast.  Its length was the most unusual -- so long that at night the fireplace and desk light at one end didn't illuminate the far end.  The walls of books simply grew dim and disappeared; she couldn't calculate how long the library might be for not clearly seeing its farthest reaches.

In fairness, J.Ivo. needs the room to be a bit dim in a later scene that takes place in the wee hours.  But here, where the servants have lit various lamps at one end, it makes no sense they wouldn't have illuminated the whole room.  Nah, I think she just likes a nice, dark, gloomy atmosphere.

Okay, so yes, I've mocked the hapless title, which is very Grinchy of me, but really I'm mocking the key scene where they have sex on a chair while she's tied up.  Oh, I don't care if it was consensual or not.  I don't even care if it was physically possible.  I just think the title is super funny and ironic in light of that scene.  Wouldn't Emma have asked for the rest of her body to be untied before she got to her metaphysical heart?  So I tease even as I love.

There you have my holiday miracle.  How a miserable curmudgeon was visited by the Ghost of Romance Past, saw the error of her ways, and still wrote a snide blog post.  (They don't make holiday miracles like they used to, hunh?)

And to all a good night.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Oh, Did I Not Mention That I'm Trying to Write a Novel?

Hmm, now that I think about it, that may have been on the other blog.  Let's see:  I certainly disclosed here that I'd tried in my past to write a romance or three.  But no, I guess I haven't mentioned it here.

Okay.

I'm writing a novel.  Actually, I'm writing two.  Only I'm not currently writing either novel.  One was started last summer and then set aside roughly half-done.  In November, I signed up for NaNoWriMo but as NaNoWriMo didn't want me to work on an existing novel (that would have been cheating), I started a new one.  I didn't get a full 50,000 words done, mostly because the fact that other bloggers were also doing NaNoWriMo meant I got to guest blog.  It was as a result of that guest blogging that this blog was created.

Since I started this blog, I haven't worked on either novel.  Which could support an argument that I'm not currently an aspiring writer (because a writer is someone who writes) but that's a cop-out.

And, anyway, I just joined RWA, so I'm guilty as charged:  I am a writer of romance novels, and I aspire to be published.

Now, according to Maili and Keishon, if I reviewed romances, it would be bad that I hadn't disclosed that I was also trying to write them.  Luckily for me, I don't review romances.  But I want to be fair here: I can see that some (all?) of what I've posted on this blog could mean subtly different things when read with the knowledge that I'm trying to write romance novels.

So here it is.  I'm outting myself as an aspiring romance author.

Now here's why I am not sure it matters much.  I have no special knowledge of writing.  I was a biology/philosophy major in college, have a master's in philosophy, and a law degree -- not a single writing course (other than legal research & writing) in nine years of higher education.  I'm actually a very poorly read individual, particularly compared to various family members.  In fact, one of my reasons for not reviewing is that I'm not a very good reader (too lazy, too critical, etc.).  So, quite the contrary to the presumption that because I'm an aspiring writer I'd have a skewed perspective on the books I was reviewing, I actually think the fact that I'm not-well-read and know nothing about the techniques of writing is what would diminish the validity and quality of my reviews.  If I reviewed books.  Which I don't.  (Do I say what I think about certain books?  Sure.  But those are my opinions, and there are no express or implied recommendations to read or avoid any books as a result.)

Also, the odds of my getting published are slim.  First, I have to finish a book (not everyone does).  Next, I have to pitch it to an agent or submit a synopsis or send an excerpt to someone in the publishing industry.  And I'd have to keep doing that (lather rinse & repeat) until I give up or someone says, send more.  And even that doesn't result in a contract, as we all know.

Plus, what if my writing is crap?  Someone will tell me sooner or later, but I'm not going to slap an excerpt up on my blog until I think it's passed through some process that winnows out the chaff from the wheat.  In the meantime, I have to do what a lot of people have to do: stick with it, write everyday, get critique partners, revise revise revise, and then polish polish polish.  At any point I might lose interest, get discouraged, have someone lovingly explain to me that my writing is crap, or otherwise quit.  And then, magically, I'm the same person but no longer an aspiring writer.

Instinctively, I've not wanted to say anything at this stage of the process, partly because of all the reasons why I might not be an aspiring writer in six months, but also because it gets people invested far sooner than I would like.  It's a bit like any huge undertaking:  getting a dream job, buying a house, starting a relationship, getting pregnant: we engage in these endeavors with no absolute guarantee that we'll succeed.  Having people ask over and over, "How's it going?" can be painful.  If I want to share, I will.  Silence about the endeavor may mean nothing more than, "I'm working on it.  I'll keep you posted."

But if it matters to Romlandia that I'm honest about being one of thousands of writers who want to be published someday, I hear and obey.

Monday, December 21, 2009

To Defend or Not To Defend: An Open Question

Defending Romance Fiction from the battlements: Is it sensible?  Will it help?  Does it hurt the genre?  And if you need some musical context, here's Sting singing "Fortress Around Your Heart."

Both Jessica at RacyRomanceReviews and Sarah at Monkey Bear Reviews have posted recently about a fundamental question:  Should we defend romance novels to non-romance novel readers?  Well, that isn't precisely what their blog posts are about, but it's what a lot of the comments have focused on.  So, with apologies to Jessica (who is a real philosopher!), I'm going to attempt to clarify my thinking on this issue.  If you get bored, jump to the last paragraph for the conclusion.

First, some assumptions:
  1. Romance fiction is a huge, successful and lucrative genre in mass market publishing.
  2. Romance novels written in the last 100 years are not considered literature, and if it's literature, it's not considered a romance novel.
  3. Romance authors can include some very successful writers (e.g., Nora Roberts) and some very well-spoken and well-educated writers (e.g., Eloisa James), but romance readers are considered (rather homogeneously) neither smart nor successful.
  4. As a result of #3, people are often surprised when a smart, successful person is seen to be reading, or owning, romance novels.
  5. Also as a consequence of #3, some smart, successful people are reluctant to have others see that they own/read romances because that might suggest that the owner/reader is less smart, etc.
  6. There is -- as in any subset of fiction -- some well-written romances and some poorly-written romances.
  7. But, unlike other genres or "lit. fic." generally, there seems to be no recognition of the truth of #6 outside the fans of romance fiction.  To put that another way, people who don't read romances assume all romances are the same: equally devoid of quality and possibly even literally all the same, i.e., written to a formula and thus completely fungible.
  8. In reality, romances come in a seemingly infinite variety of styles, sizes, periods, degrees of raciness, etc.
  9. There are a lot of non-romance-readers who hold romances in contempt even though they've never read a romance.
Okay.  So, with the assumptions above (and if you disagree with any of those assumptions, please leave a comment!), let's pose some questions:

In light of Assumption #9, would having a non-romance-reader (hereafter, NRR) actually read a romance make a difference to that NRR's opinion of romance?
  • Probably not, unless one could give the NRR the perfect romance novel to suit that person's taste.  As most of us are aware, handing a book to someone and saying, "You'll love it," is often the trigger to get that person either avoid the book like the plague, or read it in resentment.  Subtle marketing must be employed, which is hard.  I would consider this a low-probability-of-success strategem.  There's also the problem that the average NRR would discount a single well-written romance as being statistically valid evidence of anything.  (Never mind that they managed to form a negative opinion on NO evidence at all...)
Does logic work?  Would pointing out to the NRR that he/she is being unfair, illogical, or otherwise dunderheaded (but in a pleasant, friendly, non-judgmental way, of course) make a difference?
  • It might make a difference to the NRR's ad hominem (a personal or prejudicial attack rather than a logical argument) assumption, as in the case of Limecello (comment #7) whose visitor remarked, "You have more trashy romances than a New Jersey housewife!" (impressive: two insults for the price of one) or Collette (comment #12), who has been told she's "too smart" to be reading romances.  We should be able to get people to behave better, but of course that does nothing to influence their opinions of romance novels.  But when I try to imagine explaining to  a NRR that as they instinctively allow for the possibility of variation of quality (good, bad and indifferent) in all other genres, even others they don't themselves read, why don't they accord the same variation in romance fiction, I can only imagine their eyes glazing over.  I have a feeling this is a deep-seated prejudice.
Does defending the genre help?  Does a calm, positive, well-reasoned defense, complete with examples, have any chance of affecting the opinion of the average NRR?
  • Reluctantly, I would say not much.  Again, to turn around such a deep-seated and nearly universal negative opinion is a marketing job -- and it's not one that the various publishers of romance novels care about.  They don't expect to increase their market by getting NRRs to "convert" or even to read a well-regarded romance novel.  Therefore, romance publishers don't even attempt a general-media marketing approach.  This is one reason why most NRRs have only the sketchiest idea what a romance novel is like.  Their exposure to romances can be so limited: some cover art at Wal*Mart or the supermarket, a section to be avoided at the bookstore, a TBR pile or collection of keepers at a relative's house.  Having a romance reader explain how great the best romances can be is unlikely to turn that opinion around.
But does defending the genre hurt?  Does a calm, positive, well-reasoned argument in favor of romances, complete with examples, make romance fans look weak and, well, defensive, thus suggesting the genre is indeed as limited and uniform as NRRs think?
  • I think the answer here is no.  Certainly no one should feel the need to defend romances.   It doesn't look like a winning strategy (see above), so the only real reason to defend romances is because one cares to.  I defend the movie, "Pretty Woman" because I love it and feel it is unfairly maligned; even now, nearly 20 years later, it's still being listed as a movie that hates on women.  To me, it's about the transformative power of love -- Vivian's love of Edward transforms him! -- not the transformative power of money or shopping.  And I'm not alone: here's someone else who just had to defend that movie!  Now I ask you: does my defending "Pretty Woman" suggest it's a worse movie than you previously thought?  I'm sure I didn't change your opinion of "Pretty Woman" -- I'm not that persuasive! -- but I don't see how defending it suggests it needs defending.  Incidentally:  PW's total domestic gross is $178 million dollars; the market has spoken on that movie the way the market has spoken on romance novels. (See?  I'm still defending it!)
So what's the bottom line:  Should romance fiction fans defend their favorite authors/books/formats?
  • Clearly, no one should defend anything they don't want to defend.  What strikes me after laying all this out is how stupid the prejudice against romances is.  Sure, if a NRR doesn't like romances -- and I daresay the vast majority of them would not actually like a romance novel if they read one -- nothing we say can get them to change their mind.  But wouldn't it be an improvement if NRRs just shrugged and said, "I don't like romance novels," instead of insisting that they are right not to like romance novels.  Is there anything published today (and available in a mainstream bookstore -- just to avoid the raunchiest of porn) that you personally would deride in the same broad strokes and blanket terms as many NRRs reserve for romance fiction?  And yet we know that the vast class of NRRs include smart and successful people.  So how do these NRRs get so closed minded?  And if defending romance novels is equated with suggesting all readers should have an open mind and an accepting spirit ("I don't myself want to read [X], but I'm sure there are good [X]s out there," where X is anything from military history to manga), why not defend romances?
So, in the end, I come to this:  I don't think romance novels, authors and readers need to be defended.  I think having an open mind about almost all forms of fiction (with a carve-out for some pretty sick stuff sold in stores with XXX on their signage) doesn't require much more than common sense and a recognition that irrational and ill-informed prejudices benefit no one.  For me, I'll defend romances in the future from that standpoint: NRRs don't have to read them or like them, but they should consider the likelihood that romance novels are no better and no worse than any other genre in the bookstore.  In other words, few people read everything, but it's ignorant of NRRs to hold most everything else they don't read in higher regard than romances.

    Friday, December 18, 2009

    Ah, Yes, the Much-Maligned Comments Format

    I confess this blog was done on the quick-and-cheap, using Google's Blogger even though I own the domain.  And yes, I set up the comments ill-advisedly, so that you couldn't just post without a Google ID.  And yes, Blogger's Comments function is horrible.  I admit all this.  I apologize.

    My husband -- excuse me, my IT consultant! -- has promised to look into my non-Blogger alternatives for 2010.  In the meantime, I've opened these comments to "anyone" which will allow you to comment with your name, or even anonymously.

    Thursday, December 17, 2009

    An Amuse-Bouche and a Post-Script


    I order a lot of used books, usually one at a time, as a result of recommendations and mentions on the Internet.  This means books arrive in the mail, one or two a day, all individually wrapped.  Christmas in -- well, December, but mid-December.  And all for me.

    Yesterday, I opened the day's package and out tumbled two books:  Jo Goodman's Never Love a Lawman and Bronwyn Jameson's Silhouette Desire The Magnate's Make-Believe Mistress.  The latter was, I believe, on someone's Best of 2009 list, but I don't recall whose.  I apologize for that.

    Now, I'm in the middle of a Big Book -- I'm going to post about it as soon as I finish it, so I'll keep its identity secret for right now -- but as soon as Jameson's slim volume hit my lap, I just had to start reading.  It's the equivalent of an amuse-bouche, that perfect morsel of food you get (free!) at finer restaurants.  I read it straight through, finishing it before turning out the light last night.  (Not quite an espresso book for me; more a case of "Oh, I'm so close to finishing, I might as well...")

    Isabelle is a professional housekeeper who gets temporary jobs in the Peninsula region of Melbourne.  She comes to the attention of Cristiano Veron, the majority shareholder of a luxury jet company.  (Literally, a jetsetter!)  He thinks she may be pregnant with his sister's fiance's baby.  So he arranges to hire her services for a week in Melbourne.  That leads to a few more weeks in England, first pretending to be his mistress, then actually being his girlfriend.  It was well done for a series romance, and I enjoyed it without thinking it extraordinary.

    But it got me thinking about some comments I read on Twitter about my last post on the sexual double standard in romances.  Now, Twitter's a funny thing.  It's a public feed, but I can't link back to any of what I read; Twitter is deliberately ephemeral and those tweets were meant to melt away as being "just so yesterday, dude."  Plus, none of the comments I read was actually directed at me, although they referred to yesterday's post.  It's a bit like seeing that a group of people are talking about you, but not to you.  It's their conversation, which they're entitled to have.  If any of them had wanted to post here, they could and presumably would have.

    But some of their comments were interesting, and I would have enjoyed their discussion.  In particular, one tweet made the comment about romance novels that they are written by women for women, so you would think this sexual double standard would be gone by now.

    So, there I was thinking about how romances don't permit their heroines to have a more realistic (and sexually liberated) life while reading a book about a multi-millionaire who breeds polo ponies and the decidedly working-class heroine who's swept up in, but comfortable with, his lifestyle.  Not exactly a realistic depiction of any female I know.  I've remarked in the past that we don't want to read about leaky toilets in our romances; they are certainly intended to be fantasies to the extent that the mundane realities of our lives can be left out.

    But even in my amuse-bouche book, the hero used "protection," so safe-sex is a reality to be acknowledged.  Why not allow the heroine to have a more realistic sexual history?  Now, I'm not defending this, you understand, but I do think that in our fantasy romances, there is a tendency to have the heroine be really really happy with the sex she has with the hero.  Best. Ever. Orgasms. -- that sort of thing.  Is it lazy for an author to get that particular fantasy by making the hero more experienced than the heroine?  Maybe, but it sure helps build the fantasy that the heroine experiences so much more with the hero than she has before.

    And in a book with a helicopter-piloting, luxury-jet-company-owning, polo-pony-raising hero - - does the sexual double standard really leap out as the most unrealistic thing?  It's possible that the market has spoken here:  more sexually realistic heroines would be a good thing on moral and philosophical grounds, but they don't seem to be what authors are writing and publishers publishing, and maybe they're not what readers want to read.

    Tuesday, December 15, 2009

    Not That Anyone Asked Me, But . . .

    There's something in the air: the exhilarating scent of intellectualism coupled with the musk rose of romance novels.  I'm talking, of course, about the number of people thinking and writing about cultural and moral message of romances.  We have a Popular Culture Association conference on romances coming up in 2010, a popular blogger announcing that she's going to be presenting a paper (topic: ethical criticism of genre fiction) at that conference, and a post at Dear Author on Morality and Romances.

    Boy, have times changed.  When I was a philosophy student in college, there was no overlap between my "scuzzy romances" (as my family called them) and my studies in moral philosophy.  My aunt (a civil rights lawyer who had majored in philosophy back in the day) once commented with equal affection and irony that I was the only person she knew with Kant's Critique of Pure Reason on the same bookshelf as Barbara Cartland.  (And yes, I read Barbara Cartland.  Deal with it.)

    I bailed halfway through a Ph.D. program in philosophy in the late 70s.  Who knew that if I'd just stuck with it, I might one day have been submitting a paper on the "Ethical Constraints of the Ripped Bodice," or some such title.

    Understand, I'm not mocking this trend.  This is a good thing.  It helps to have smart people thinking about, talking about, and writing about romance novels.  Smart people -- people like RRR's Jessica and the crew at Teach Me Tonight -- increase the pressure on the Alan Elsners of the world.  There's something about a Ph.D. after a name that conveys gravitas and an intellectual rigor to that person's words.

    But then I read this:
    [T]he genre has a conflicted relationship to female sexuality, such that virgin heroines can be paired with affectionately dubbed “dukes of slut” in even the most traditional genre publishing lines and houses. In the meantime, courtesan heroines are still viewed with suspicion, with some authors going to great lengths to salvage the moral stature of their wayward heroines. There was much debate, for example, about Loretta Chase’s latest novel, in which the heroine was a very sexually knowledgeable former “harem girl” who, miraculously, it seemed, was still a virgin.
    That's "Janet" at Dear Author on the subject of  the double standard for the sexual history and nature of heroes and heroines.  She concludes her post with this:
    Ultimately, I’d like to see women in Romance have even more sexual freedom than they currently enjoy, or at least be less limited by the moral double standard that tolerates much more sexual freedom in Romance heroes than heroines.
    There's a lot in Janet's essay -- yet another rebuttal to the Alan Elsner screed (rebutted by others here, here, and here, and by me here) -- that I absolutely agree with.  I don't quibble with the notion that heroines (that subset of female characters expected to contract an HEA by the end of the book -- and you can take that in either the legal or the public health sense of "contract") should be allowed more complicated sexual histories, and thus be more like their real life counterparts.

    But the sexual double standard is harder to quantify and thus to criticize.  We know, for example, that there is still a double standard for men and women in the real world, such that women can be labeled a slut on the basis of far less sexual experience than the amount needed to earn a man the label "horndog."  (Obviously the word "slut" is more pejorative than "horndog," which links a crude term for sexual arousal and an animal known for indiscriminant humping, leaving the impression of a county fair foodstuff or the mascot for the Hooker (Oklahoma) Horny Toads, an American Legion baseball team.  There's no equivalent cute wordplay for "slut.")

    In the animal kingdom, there is a socio-biological aspect to the sexual double standard:  In genetic terms, the males of a species want to spread their genes around to as many receptive females as possible, while keeping each female from mating with other males.  That leads to randy males and females stuck tending the young.  There are exceptions: gender reversal in some species, animals that pair off for life, etc., but those counter-examples tend to highlight the high proportion of species that don't behave in a more gender-equivalent sexual manner.

    The real sticking point is that men and women are actually different.  This is a tricky truth to parse: women and men must be treated as equals in so many arenas because it would be illegal and unfair to do otherwise.  The differences between men and women cannot be used to justify imbalances in pay, access to good and services, or opportunities to succeed.

    But women and men really do process information differently, react in social situations differently, juggle the competing claims for their time and energies differently -- and none of that is carved in stone.  A quick search on the Internet yielded a paper by Stephen Meier of Harvard University on the behavior of men and women in situations involving financial generosity.  In some situations, men and women react the same; in others they react differently.

    This level of uncertainty and complexity -- with no clear cut distinctions between the genders -- doesn't scare me, but then I'm no longer in the philosophy game.  To some, such observations may seem like a dangerous start down a slippery slope: if we admit that men and women can, in some situations, react differently, don't we risk rewinding feminism by 50 years?

    I see it in another perspective:  Don't we promote feminism by embracing what makes us women?  If women were shown to be more intuitive in certain situations, why not embrace that intuition?  And if women multi-task better under some conditions (while men, hypothetically, are better at concentrating on a single task), can we not agree that both genders have skills and abilities to be celebrated?

    Okay, okay -- back to the romance novel.  I think women in real life weave emotion into sexual encounters rather more than men do.  (And may we agree that nothing I say in this post is intended to suggest 100% consistency on the part of any group or gender?  There's statistical variation in all things, even a non-controversial statement like "women have ovaries.")  If I'm right, this has two implications for romance novels.

    First, women read romance novels.  Let's assume that some (many? most?) female readers want to believe that the heroine is experiencing emotion in her sexual dealings, but those same readers don't expect the hero to behave the same way.  Thus, a heroine who has had multiple sexual experiences before meeting the hero might be seen as having had multiple emotional experiences.  This could call into question her ability to have the TRUE emotional experience with the hero.

    You'll see immediately that the hero is in a different boat.  Even if he said, "I love you," to every single woman in his sexual past, the reader may just smile fondly at his quaint jest because everyone knows that men will say anything to get laid.  He's not a slut; he's a horndog.  But when he meets the heroine, everything is different because we have his POV to reassure us that this time he's really feeling it.

    The second implication is that the heroine has to make sense as a character.  If she's had a lot of sexual experience, the reader has to understand that in a way that allows for the heroine to bond with the hero.  Yes, we have the heroine's POV, but as we believe she either did or did not have feelings for the men she slept with, we're left with a bit of a dilemma.  If she didn't have feelings for the men in her past, why not?  And why believe she is going to do so now?  And if she did have feelings for some or all of the men in her past, what were those feelings and how have they shaped her ability to love the hero?

    The problem for the author, then, is to craft a heroine who makes sense: She is sexually experienced but not a slut; she cared for the men in her past, but never to the point of thinking, "He's the one," because we know he wasn't (the hero is); and she's kept something in reserve that will belong to the hero alone, just as he's saved something (his heart!) for the heroine alone.

    This juggling act is hard enough in a contemporary romance.  Imagine the challenge in a historical romance, where the heroine's real life counterpart might as well have been raised in a convent for all she's had the opportunity to have sexual experiences that didn't ruin her reputation and thus her value as a prospective mate.  (I begin to see the value of fantasy genres: if you're inventing the world your heroine lives in, you can invent the social and moral codes by which she is to be judged!)

    Janet specifically mentions the miraculous virginity of the heroine in Loretta Chase's romance, Don't Tempt Me.  Zoe, the heroine, was kidnapped as a 12-year-old and installed in the harem of a Middle Eastern pasha who turns out never to have successfully consummated the "relationship."  I don't think Janet is suggesting that a 12-year-old should be having sexual relations, nor that sexual experiences resulting from a kidnapping are a positive addition to a heroine's sexual resume.  But I see what she's saying:  Does Zoe have to be a virgin to be desired by the hero?  And is it a good thing that romance novels perpetuate this imbalance between the hero's sexual past and the heroine's?  Isn't that a bit like using supermodels as the template for young women's body images -- an unrealistic ideal that will only lead to a distorted sense of what a "good girl" should be?

    The problem I have with this is not with Janet's thesis, but with her decision to use a specific book as an example.  Loretta Chase's heroine works (at least she worked for me): the book is so much more about Zoe's experiences as a fish-out-of-water than as a "demi-vierge" (that wonderful French term for the sexually experienced woman who is still, technically, a virgin).  Of course her sexual education is doubtless better than most of the demi-monde and filles du joie that the hero is likely to know; that's one of the things that makes the book so much fun to read.  As long as the author gets the details right enough, we believe in the heroine.

    I don't have a problem with Janet's thesis expressed in general and prospective terms.  Romances do currently have a double standard for heroes' and heroines' level of sexual experience.  But any specific romance novel really should be judged on its own merits.  We may wish to see more books with sexually accomplished heroines who convey the right degree of experience balanced with an unjaded ability to love the hero, but surely none of the thousands of great romances with a less experienced heroine is to blame for the double standard.

    Monday, December 14, 2009

    Meditations on a Series of Series

    Years ago, back before I started blogging, I read Jo Beverley's An Arranged Marriage. I didn't like it; it may even have been a DNF. In fact, I may have given it to charity last summer, when I boxed up 100 books that I was certain I would never need to reread. (Never say never, hunh?)


    But, as these things turn out, An Arranged Marriage is the first of the Rogues series, and I recently read books 2 & 3 in that series . . . and loved them. LOVED them! So what's that all about? Well, I gather An Arranged Marriage was written first, more than 30 years ago, and the rest of the series is closer to 20 years old. I can have sympathy for the evolution and maturation of an author resulting in a better book written later. [What I do recall of An Arranged Marriage is a convoluted plot involving our old friend the French spy in the heart of the ton (or something) and that it was very dark and nasty. You know I'm going to have to reread it at some point when my "must complete the set" gene kicks in...]

    Book 2 in the Rogues series (An Unwilling Bride) could have been terrible, as its premise seems weak on first reading: Because the hero (third-born son of a duke) is actually not the duke's biological child, when the older two sons are killed, the duke wants his now-heir (who isn't his son) to marry the duke's recently discovered illegitimate daughter so that their offspring will have the present duke's blood.  Hmmm.  Can I explain that better? The duke is forcing the hero to marry the heroine because she IS the biological child of the duke, and the hero isn't.  Wow, that is as clear as mud.  It makes you wonder how Beverley managed to explain it to her publisher.  Basically, though, it's the "forced to marry" trope.

    Here's what I loved about An Unwilling Bride: she successfully conveyed to me the claustrophobia created by having one's choices reduced to only one, especially when that one's not great.  Beth, the instructor at a respectable academy for girls, is coerced into marrying Lucien, the product of an adulterous liaison between the duchess and her former French swain.  Beverley does a good job of getting the details of the backstory to a point where they seem plausible enough.  The duchess isn't a monster, the duke's actions are monstrous but his motivations are understandable enough, Lucien isn't happy, Beth is horrified and repulsed.  All in all, an ill-fated union.  But instead of making everyone behave in broad, over-wrought fashion, Beverley shows us what it must have been like to live in a ducal seat with scores of staff.  One is rarely alone.  There are many privileges to that degree of wealth and influence, but privacy is not among them.

    [Beverley's skill in conveying that degree of claustrophobia is so good that now, when I read a historical romance that has a scene set in a comparable estate where the hero and heroine are behaving (often with a great deal of their clothing off) as though they are alone, I mentally fill in the dutiful footman outside the door.  Then I ask myself, would these two people being doing that if they knew -- as surely they must -- that Thomas the footman is listening?]

    In the end, Beth and Lucien find a way to trust each other and make their unlikely union work; their inauspicious and unequal relationship finally balances out.  But the next heroine also had practically no choice but to marry.  In Christmas Angel, book 3 of the Rogues, Leander (an earl) wants to marry a woman for reasons of convenience. His choice is Judith Rossiter, a widow so poor she really can't turn him down.  Again, an absurd premise; why doesn't he pick a chit off the shelves at the Marriage Mart?  But again, Beverley gets the rationale right, or right enough to carry the plot.  And again, marriage to a peer isn't always easy.  There are times when the "weeping widow" (supposedly still mourning her dead poet husband when in reality she's just too poor to buy new, non-black clothing) misses her life in a tiny cottage.  Of course it's easy to see where this plot is going: the couple that agrees to NOT fall in love with each other must, perforce, fall in love.  But the details of how these two people get on with their lives is what makes the book sing.

    Given that I didn't like Book 1 with its dark & twisty relationships, why am I not bothered by the implications in Books 2 & 3 of heroines so economically trapped that they have to marry men they barely know?  Well, apart from the fact that this is a trope more consistent with the social and cultural realities of 1815 than today, the reason has everything to do with Jo Beverley's wonderful plotting.  I'm impressed every time she sets up a scene and then doesn't take it where I'm half-expecting, half-dreading it will go.  Nothing wildly new & different, but a lot of great scenes that I picture easily and enjoy thoroughly.  Needless to say, Books 4 through whatever are in the queue.



    Next up, a quick comment about Mary Balogh's A Precious Jewel, which I commented on here.  I gather that's actually book 2 of 3; it was preceded by The Ideal Wife, which was reprinted last year, and next year we'll see  (I assume) a reprint of A Christmas Bride.  Thus, a series.  Of sorts.  These were all originally Signet Regency Romances, and hard to find in used book stores (or expensive to purchase used through Amazon) but given that they're being reprinted, a newby to the Mary Balogh oeuvre can get caught up . . . eventually.

    But here's the comment I wanted to make:  I'm actually glad I didn't read Book 1 first.  One of the things I loved about A Precious Jewel is that Gerald is such an unexpected hero.  Yes, as soon as the Earl of Severn shows up one knows he is the hero-type, but I really didn't mind the occasional mention of his romance in the background because it was refreshing to be reading Gerald & Priscilla's unconventional story instead of the more conventional "earl marries ordinary female, who then is revealed to be not so ordinary and actually quite unique and lovable" set-up.  Gerald & Priscilla's romance was like lemon sorbet after too much creme brulee.

    Of course I'll read Book 1 next, and when the "must complete the set" gene kicks in, I'll read #3 -- but not until they reprint it.  And let's hope my "must complete the set" gene doesn't require me to buy all of Balogh's backlist!


    Finally, Liz Carlyle.  Hers is one of the names I keep getting mixed up.  (I think I confuse her with Stephanie Laurens.  All fault here is mine; I've warned my husband that I'm getting Alzheimers...)  I really liked the Numbers Series (One Little Sin, Two Little Lies, Three Little Secrets) primarily because they dealt with music.  That made them stand out, for me, from some other Regency Era romances on the market at the time.

    Now, it's a funny thing, but when I walk into a big box bookstore's romance section, I'm overwhelmed by the number of authors I know nothing about.  Nothing.  Name after name that I neither recognize from my own shelves nor from reviews I've read and discussions on various blogs and comment threads.  Who are all these people?  One of these days I'll take my laptop with me and type all the names I see and don't recognize.  It's one of the few moments when it seems even possible that 400 titles are published every month.

    And, as it happens, I'll only buy books based on the author.  Cover art doesn't matter; back cover blurb doesn't matter; intriguing title doesn't matter.  If I like an author, I'll read another of her books without much further thought.  But if I don't know the author, there's little to no chance I'll buy that book.  So, when I was in a Border's and they didn't have the book I wanted to buy (Lauren Dane's Laid Bare), I bought Liz Carlyle's Wicked All Day.  It was okay.  I recall that I enjoyed reading it, even though ten days later I can't tell you a single thing about it.  No, wait -- that's not true.  It was a week ago, and I now recall the plot.  (Illegitimate daughter of marquess, raised as his daughter and denied nothing, is a bit of a scandal in the Marriage Mart. Her father's solution is to marry her off to an okay guy with a harridan mother who would make the heroine's life miserable.  She ends up in a compromising position with the hero's brother, so they must marry even though the brother is in love with the shabby genteel widow he's been "seeing" and the hero's this close to figuring out he actually loves the heroine.  A fortnight in the country sorts it all out.)  Like I say:  it was okay.

    Wicked All Day is in a series.  I don't care.  That's it.  That's my comment.  Don't care about all the characters in all the other books.  And just like that, the series is reduced to a single title, which I bought because I had liked a different series by that author half-a-dozen years ago.  And the "must complete the set" gene can do its worst; I'm not going to read so-so books simply because they're part of a series.

    Thursday, December 10, 2009

    Espresso Books

    Espresso Books:  Defined as books that keep you from going to sleep because you just have to finish them.

    I stayed up until nearly 3:00 a.m. this morning finishing Precious Jewel by Mary Balogh.  Obviously with a romance novel -- as long as it is a romance novel -- you know what the ending is: the couple ends up living happily ever after.  You may not know how the HEA is achieved, although you can probably guess.  No, I don't think an espresso book keeps us awake because we're unsure how the story ends.  I think it keeps us awake because we need these characters sorted out before we can sleep.

    I don't think espresso books are inherently more exciting (although they may be) or even better (although that could be true as well) then other more soporific books.  I just think an espresso book is, for that reader in that moment, compelling.  There's some thing the author is working towards in the story, and the reader has to read to the end to get there.

    (There is always another, more prosaic, possibility:  the reader has independent reasons to stay awake and the book is just a welcome escape.  But then that's not an espresso book.  A Prozac book, perhaps...)

    Precious Jewel -- a 2009 reprint of a 1993 Signet Regency Romance -- is a bit notorious in Romlandia because the heroine, Priscilla Wentworth, is a gently-born woman who ends up working as a prostitute in a "finishing school" in London.  The circumstances that led her to that decision are all laid out (unexpected deaths of her father and brother leave her at the mercy of truly unpleasant relatives, etc.).  We know rationally that there must have been other options, but it's voluntary suspension of disbelief time, and Priscilla is now Prissy, a working girl.

    {I'd like to take this moment to comment on the number of times the words "whore" and "whorehouse" are used in this book.  Anyone who has read a dozen or so romances set in the Regency Era knows that there are a panoply of euphemisms specific to that era for prostitutes and houses of prostitution.  "Ciprians," "Soiled Doves," "Lights o' Love," etc.  Balogh was, I suppose, making a point by using the "W-word" so excessively in this book, but mostly I felt it was for mild shock value.  Maybe in 1993 that worked better for her, but for today I found myself disconcerted, then annoyed, and ultimately bored with the one-note display of crudeness.}

    The hero in Precious Jewel is Sir Gerald Stapleton -- and in his unexpected role as hero, he's a much more controversial character than Priscilla is as the heroine.  Mind you, we've all met this guy: he's the dim, kindhearted, somewhat bumbling Good Friend character.  The one who stops off at White's to ask the alpha aristocrat hero enough questions to advance the plot or reveal the hero's true feelings.  Gerald isn't smart; he isn't even very wise.  He's not good with women, and he doesn't conveniently fall in love with his alpha hero friend's cast-off "opera dancer."  No, Gerald doesn't want to be the hero.  He just wants to get his rocks off.  And he does so, in a manner so completely unnatural for a romance novel that, truly, it's as shocking as a rape scene, if nowhere near as controversial.

    The first time he meets "Prissy," he gets on top, sticks it in, moves it all about, and is done.  Say wha-?  Since when is that acceptable between a hero and a heroine?  Why is he not stunned by her purity and innocence (despite the fact that she's one of Kit Blythe's "girls")?  How is he able to fall right to sleep, still lying on top of her?

    Okay -- I won't recite the entire plot (spoilers and all that).  But what was it about this book that kept me awake?  It was Sir Gerald.  I liked him, but he's almost too dumb for her.  Oh, she's in love with him all right.  And I really was prepared to believe the HEA; they'll be a delightful bland couple for their rest of their blissfully happy lives.  But leading up to that HEA, two things were going on. 

    In the first, we needed to learn why Gerald was, uh, so particular in the bedroom.  That's revealed very organically as he literally revisits the remnants of his childhood and upbringing.  The second thing, though, was what really compelled me.  Gerald knows what he wants and what he doesn't want, but he never seems to know why.  I think I had to read to the very end to see if he ever developed self-awareness.  (I won't say if he does or doesn't -- I do recommend the book, so I don't want to spoil anything.)  Throughout the book, we come to learn who he is before he even has a clue.

    But Priscilla is self-aware.  As she puts it at one point, she knows who she is and what she is, and she knows the difference.  Wouldn't she get tired of Gerald's seeming blindness to his own nature?  Or will she be able to help him see things a bit more clearly?  That outcome -- that they will actually suit each other very well if he allows her to help him with those things he has trouble with (the estate account books, for example) -- creates a Mobius twist out of the standard romance trope:  Romantic Heroes often need the heroine to complete them, but it's always in an emotional context.  She fills the holes in his heart -- that kind of thing.  Here, Priscilla has the opportunity to help Gerald in all sorts of practical ways, ways "normal" romance heroes don't need because, by definition, they do everything pretty perfectly already.

    Leave aside the whole question of her brief career as a fille de joie, leave aside the odd sex (which evolves so significantly, and reveals so much of how their relationship is going, that it virtually has a story arc of its own), leave aside whether Gerald has a learning disability.  What made this an espresso book for me was very simple:  These two people are so much more normal than the usual hero & heroine.  No one was dashing, no one was stunningly beautiful, no one single-handedly defeated Napoleon through high intrigue and spycraft, no one was transformed from ugly duckling to breathtaking swan.  Gerald (as a baronet) and Priscilla (as a woman with no economic power) are characters who were much more prevalent in the period than the glittering array of dukes & earls we usually meet.  But they are so, so much rarer in the world of romance novels.  Which makes their romance truly a precious little jewel.

    And impossible (for me) to put down.