Sunday, January 31, 2010

Technology Wars

Okay, would everyone who has an e-reader please sign the guest book?

Now, everyone planning on considering buying an iPad, please join the lemmings lining up over there.

And for those of you considering being Luddites in the digital book revolution, we'll be announcing our meetings by email.

I really have nothing to say about Macmillan, Apple & Amazon, apart from some small degree of surprise that I even own a Macmillan book: Jeffrey Eugenides' Middlesex (which of course I mean to read).  I'm not even sure I have anything sensible to write about the entire e-book v. e-reader v. e-vendor v. e-author situation.  But let's find out the hard way, shall we?

Let's start with my non-Luddite credentials.  Here's some technology I adore:  the DVR (TiVo, etc.; ours is attached to the machine that translates our satellite feed: it records two programs at once, both in HD, and has up to 200 hours of programming -- I love it); the MP3 player (iPods and the like; just the option to take all my music with me is amazing, even if I still only listen to five things over and over); and the GPS (we use it a lot, but had to program it to have an Englishwoman's accent; the American woman was too grating).  We have satellite radio in the car and a weather band radio in the house.  We have at least five computers (one's going back to the UK as a gift, but yeah, that's more than two people have any rational need for), three printers, two scanners, a fax and a dog.  Wait.  How'd the dog get in there?

But no e-reader.  I'm not a complete e-reader virgin: I got to first base with a Kindle once.  I have a good friend who adores hers so much I joke she would grab her Kindle from the burning house, provided she'd already rescued the husband, dog and cat.  When we visited them in October, she proudly presented her Kindle to me so that I too could fall madly in love with it.  Erm.  Didn't quite happen that way.  I wasn't used to the way the controls work, so I kept moving a page ahead or a page back when I didn't want to, or out of the book entirely.

Truthfully, I'm not sure I'd have fallen in love in any event.  There's no convenience in an e-reader for me.  I read one book at a time.  I know that's insane, but it's also a true statement.  So the old "no longer have to pack a zillion books for each trip" argument is unpersuasive for me.  If I even take three books on a trip, I come home with maybe one book finished.  Paperbacks just don't weigh that much that I worry about them cluttering up my luggage.

Next,  while I love having all my music in a little box smaller than a deck of cards, I'm not sure I'd enjoy having my TBR pile completely disappear.  Admittedly, it's untidily spread out on a bench in plain view of any visitors, but we don't have many visitors.  And isn't that what tote bags are for?  Shove everything into a bag when company comes and then take it all out again when they leave -- works for me!

While the TBR piles (yes, plural) may look untidy and disorganized to others, they represent choice and variety and anticipation to me.  Reduce them to pixels and stick them all into a gray box?  It's not aesthetically or psychologically attractive enough to lure me across the digital divide.

But none of these is a good reason not to have an e-reader.  Here are two good reasons:  I asked Keira Soleore -- who tweeted recently that she took 50 pounds of books when they traveled for a month over the holidays -- why she doesn't have an e-reader.  She has two good reasons:  it would give her migraines, and she's not eager to introduce technology to her school-aged child, who's such a good reader that two-thirds of the books for their trip were kid-lit chapter books.

And there are no bad reasons for having an e-reader if the desire and funds are there.  Well, none but the fact that the industry is in an uproar and can't collectively find its digital ass with both hands.


Okay, so if e-readers are great, and digital publishing is a wave of the future, and everyone wins, why are we having technology wars?

Because no one yet has figured out how all this can work as a win - win - win - win for the four broad categories of interested parties:
  1. Manufacturers/vendors of e-readers and purveyors of digital content; e.g., Amazon, Apple, etc.
  2. Publishers
  3. Authors
  4. Readers
You can understand what might seem best for any one, even two of the groups -- Publishers are happy if they're getting top dollar for digital publications, so they sign up with a specific manufacturer/vendor that will accede to price demands . . . and piss off another manufacturer/vendor who yanks all of that publisher's titles from its site.  Which really doesn't help the authors much (a greater chunk of nothing is nothing -- and that's what Macmillan's authors are getting currently out of the Macmillan-Apple deal) and, apart from the no-publicity-is-bad-publicity angle, having your titles pulled from Amazon is never in anyone's interests.

But readers have been getting the short end of the stick all along.  Sure, the technology is great -- but it's not yet perfect.  It's not perfect if by selecting one reader you discover you can't buy digital books that are only published in a format incompatible with your device.  Or you download a book and the next time you sync with the mothership, that book is gone.  Or the anti-piracy software screws up, or the book you want isn't available in your corner of the planet.  Or the book's out in the marketplace -- you can even see it in a big box store -- but you can't buy it yet because they're delaying the digital publication.  (Which is the stupidest thing of all.  As several people have pointed out: just charge more for the digital publication on the same day as the hardcover release, then lower the e-price on the day you were planning to release the digital publication.  You won't lose money, you'll gain good will.)

I know these things will get worked out, but here's the part that bothers me.  Why do I get the distinct impression that no one is advocating for the consumer?  And are readers, a fairly responsible & respectable bunch overall, failing to put the sort of economic pressure on a hidebound industry that Napster & illegal file-sharing put on the music industry a decade ago?

What it looks like to me -- and I don't have a dog in the fight, obviously, as the old paper paradigm continues to meet my needs -- is that it's too bad that the people who make and sell the e-readers are also the people who sell the e-books.  I'm no antitrust expert, but that's starting to sound like bundling, which is when the sale of one thing is conditioned upon the sale of a second thing.  (For a more precise discussion of tying and bundling as antitrust concepts, you can read about it here.)  You can buy a digital book at Amazon, but only if it's being loaded onto their Kindle, which you also buy there.  Even if that is not an antitrust violation, it's too narrow to be completely helpful to consumers -- and it allows Amazon to do things like remove Macmillan from its direct sales.

With apologies to my younger readers for sounding like the old fogey I am, it used to be you bought a "record player" and then bought whatever records you wanted to play on that player.  All records were the same groovy vinyl, so any stylus and turntable would do.  People picked their stereo components based on price and quality -- not on which records could be played on it.  Ah, the good old days.

I own an iPod, but I don't believe I've ever bought anything from Apple's iTunes store.  I generally buy the CD (I'm probably stupidly old skool that way, but habits die hard) and load that onto my library.  I would love to do the same thing with books (if I were going to have an e-reader): have the whole library stored back home and take just a few books with me on an e-reader that then fit better into a handbag: something the dimensions of a slim category romance, say.

If all e-readers could be made to conform to certain basic standards, then digital books could be read on all e-readers.  No more bundling or quasi-bundling.  No more poaching by Apple, side deals by Macmillan, or economic blackmail by Amazon: if someone wanted a Macmillan book in digital format to read on their Kindle, they could buy it elsewhere.  And if someone wanted a Macmillan book to read on their iPad but didn't want to pay $15, they could maybe get it cheaper elsewhere.

But it's not working out that way, and I don't see any economic pressure building on the horizon to make it work out that way.  So for now readers continue to squawk about the technology glitches and vendor arrogance and how no device does it all, ad nauseum.  And I just sit here reading a paperback book.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Friday Medley

1.

I love Emily Cardinal's blog, Welcome to My Eternity, so I'm stealing her pretty formatting.  Imitation, and all that.

2.

I clicked on a link to this wonderful collection of covers that use the same works of art.  Apart from making me try to work out the precise mechanism by which one can use the image of a painting owned by a specific museum (because even though the painting is itself out of copyright, the owner of the painting controls the images of that painting . . . I think), my real reaction was, "Susan Carroll has a book out called The Courtesan?  How could I have missed that?"

So a quick trip to Amazon, and lo! she's been writing historical romances with actual history woven in.  (I've ordered The Dark Queen, on Lynn Spencer's recommendation at AAR.)  But while I was at the Amazon page, I scrolled down to look at the reviews, and the first one is by Kristi Ahlers, whose name I recognize not from her writing but because she was the answer to a crossword puzzle clue the other night.  Understand, when my husband, Crossword Man himself, points to a clue that invariably reads, "Romance author [last name here]," I'm expected to have heard of her and to know her first name.  Alas, there really are too many for me to know.  Sorry about that, Kristi.  And sorry about my ignorance, Ross.  (He told me to write that.)

3.

I'm fibbing here slightly.  I've titled this post "Friday Medley," but in fact it's still Thursday.  Barely.  But I don't want to be blogging tomorrow.  In fact, I'm pretty sure I'm not going to want to be doing anything at all except reading.  Because Laura Kinsale's Lessons in French arrived today.  Literally all I've gotten read so far is the dedication to Ventoux, the world's second most perfect dog.  (Hey, I gotta throw my dog a bone, you know what I'm saying?)

So I'm pre-blogging in order to clear time tomorrow for the truly important things in life.  A new book by Laura Kinsale, and time to read it in.  And then, finally, I can go back to reading all the wonderful blogs that I've been avoiding because they all have reviews of LiF up now!


4.

From the sublime to the ridiculous: a friend, listening to my explanation about a comment thread here, suddenly grabbed her copy of The Technology of the Orgasm to show me.  What a hoot -- I have to get this book, and it may be the only book capable of getting me to break my rule about not reviewing.

What my friend told me was that sex toys, specifically the battery-powered sex toys that are coyly marketed as "massagers," were actually invented a century ago by physicians tired (?) of giving their "hysterical" women patients orgasms.  She flipped through her copy to show me the illustrations -- can't wait to ask the patent attorney ex about the claim constructions on those inventions! -- and it just boggles the mind.

First, you have to wrap your brain around the idea that male physicians figured women were hysterical, and that the cause of this hysteria was that they were oversexed.  Then you have to comprehend that the same male physicians figured the cure for this "condition" was for their patients to have orgasms.  Orgasms that the physicians had to administer, as a treatment.  (I've heard of "deep tissue stimulation," but this is absurd.)  And that the same physicians got tired of providing these treatments, so they decided to invent a range of devices to uh, handle the problem.  And that's how we today have vibrators.  (And carpal tunnel injuries?)

I have to read this book.  Like now.  No -- wait.  After Lessons in French.  But no later.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Meditations on the Marketplace of Ideas


 The Italian Market in Philadelphia, a scant few blocks from where I used to live.

The expression, "the marketplace of ideas," has a legal connotation, as it appears in a variety of constitutional cases.  It's been attributed to Oliver Wendell Holmes, although (rather like Sherlock and "Elementary, my dear Watson.") Holmes never actually used those words.  Here's what he wrote:
Persecution for the expression of opinions seems to me perfectly logical. If you have no doubt of your premises or your power and want a certain result with all your heart you naturally express your wishes in law and sweep away all opposition...But when men have realized that time has upset many fighting faiths, they may come to believe even more than they believe the very foundations of their own conduct that the ultimate good desired is better reached by free trade in ideas...that the best test of truth is the power of the thought to get itself accepted in the competition of the market, and that truth is the only ground upon which their wishes safely can be carried out. That at any rate is the theory of our Constitution.
Stirring stuff, hunh?  (That was from Holmes's dissent in Abrams v. United States, 250 U.S. 616 (1919), by the way.)

As it turns out, the concept underpinning this notion of a "marketplace of ideas" goes back to John Milton, who believed, "Let all with something to say be free to express themselves. The true and sound will survive. The false and unsound will be vanquished. Government should keep out of the battle and not weigh the odds in favor of one side or the other."

In the very first post on this blog -- written before anyone even knew I was here -- I (rather presciently, if I say so myself) wrote about the value of the marketplace of ideas versus the value of civility.  I speculated that there's something about the Internet that permits, or even encourages, people to argue to extremes or as I also call it, to "go polar."  I gave an example of a hypothetical conversation on Twitter and the same discussion face-to-face in a coffee shop.  (Funny stuff, if I might immodestly plug as ancient a text as a blog post from *shock* over two months ago.)

But the whole subject has come back to me, and in a slightly different context.  Here's the set-up:  You are reading a blog post and it triggers an idea.  You post that idea in the comment thread.  Then the person whose post you're commenting on comes back and says, in effect, "Seriously, that's the one thing you got from my post?  Really?"  Well, no, that wasn't the only thing you "got" from the original blog post.  But the comment thread, surely, is not intended solely for people to write a "book report" style comment discussing the major and secondary themes, the imagery, etc., thus demonstrating a full grasp of everything the poster meant to say.  It's not homework.  It's a comment.

Blog posts can be a bit like the present that was selected with tremendous care but upon presentation, the recipient is most thrilled with the box it came in.  (And it's not just cats and children that do this.  I once got a plain pine box with some soap & stuff inside from Takashimaya and it was a great gift because I really needed a plain pine box for my Tarot cards.  On another occasion, I gave the judge I clerked for a silver potpourri jar for her 25th anniversary of her elevation to the bench.  My husband at the time also binds books, so he made a silk-covered presentation box.  Guess which she loved the best -- yup, the box.)  But so what?  The box was part of the gift too.  Who cares which bit of your generosity was appreciated the most?  Your offering was appreciated.

Here at Promantica, I write what I'm thinking about.  That's it, and that's pretty much all there is.  I'm not trying to convince people I'm right, even though (and I do so hope this doesn't shock anyone) I do actually think I'm right.  But people are going to get from my posts what they get from my posts.  I'm happy when someone has a thought about something (perhaps just a single tiny thing) I wrote.  They took the time to share it.  I want to respond, even if it seems the commenter picked up on a tangential point that I didn't expect anyone to think about.

This happened here yesterday -- Catherine (hi, Catherine -- hope this attention doesn't make you never come back here) asked why I thought simultaneous orgasms are a misleading trope in romances.  Her question really make me stop and think.  Why had I written that?  I believe it to be true, but why?  It's like those math tests that tell you to show all work.  My response to her comment and her response to my response -- well, it's not even remotely on the topic of the blog, but I'm so glad she brought it up.

Now, I did just tell you that I think I'm right.  I do think that about opinions I express here: at the time that I write them, I believe them to be valid conclusions.  But I know I cannot have a monopoly on "the right answer" because I cannot possibly have thought all there is to think on that topic.  No one can.  I don't think having an open mind means having no strongly held opinion.  It means that everyone else's opinion is welcome and worthwhile.  I may change my mind, I may agree to disagree.  But either way, I enjoy the discussion.  It's invigorating, even if very strident disagreements aren't always fun.

So why is it that some blogs seem like an oligarchy, meaning a small body of people who have the supreme power of a state in their hands.  Of course that's okay for the posts themselves -- even guest posts are vetted by the blogger -- but the comment threads?  Other than keeping crude or abusive language out, should bloggers really tell commenters which element of the post it's okay to comment on?  And if the blogger feels strongly that a commenter is being too argumentative or hostile, is hostility toward the commenter the best way to deal with the situation?

Here's a link to a brilliant, sparkling parody of an "incendiary blog post."  What Chris Clark has done is strip an incendiary blog post down to its bare bones.  Read the penultimate sentence:
This sentence invites readers to respond freely and without constraint as long as those responses fall within certain parameters. 
 And what I love about this parody is that it tells me this isn't just Romlandia, peeps -- this is the Internet.  Here's one of the comments in the resulting thread:
This comment misreads one of the previous commenter’s comments and wonders why on earth he has posted something so off-topic as a rant about women’s bicycle races, and wants to know about this “race card” he thinks everyone is playing - what is it? Some kind of betting pool on the Tour de France?
Brilliant stuff.  I may just have to comment.

So, who's with me?  Let us go back to the marketplace of ideas.  Let us have free and open discussion on topics.  Let us, as bloggers, "keep out of the battle and not weigh the odds in favor of one side or the other."  And as customers in the marketplace of ideas, let us remember that if the salespeople are rude to you, maybe another market has the same goods.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

A Study in Scarlet Women

Below is an incomplete list of genteel women from historical romance novels who, each for her own reasons, offers to trade her body & sexual favors for money.  Most offers are accepted, and all but one of the women have sex only with the man they end up with.  The questions these plots raise are complicated: How desperate does a character have to be before she chooses to go this route?  (And is more desperation a better or worse thing in judging her character and sensibilities?)  Is a woman offering her sexual chastity in exchange for money to be pitied, judged, or congratulated on finding she has an asset worth money in such a misogynistic culture?  And, finally, does the mercenary nature of her decision affect the romantic qualities of her story: is her HEA any better or worse than that of a more chaste heroine, and is her ultimate relationship with the hero deeper and more honest, or does it have structural flaws that they will need to patch up before the HEA can be believable?

Here they are.*  You can judge for yourselves.

TITLE:  A Debt of Honor

AUTHOR:  Diana Brown

HEROINE:  Fiona Guthrie

SET UP:  When the hero, Lord Peter Chalmsford, goes haring off after his scapegrace younger brother, he believes that Gerald has taken up with an unscrupulous fille de joie.  He's determined to rescue Gerald before he does something really stupid, like marry her.  When he arrives at Culross Abbey in the Cambridgeshire Fens, he is shown into a room that already contains a beautiful young woman.  He assumes she's the wanton he's protecting Gerald from, so he starts to seduce her and says she can name her price for a night with him.  He later discovers she is actually his host's sister, and thus a proper young woman.

      Fiona's brother's gambling generates a debt of £7,000, which they don't have.  They could sell the Abbey, which costs more to maintain than they can afford, but it has great historical value to Fiona.  Instead, she asks her aunt in London, and is turned down.  On a sudden whim, she goes to Chalmsford and asks him for the money, which initially he is happy to give her.  She insists that he take value for that amount, so could she accept his offer of giving him a night with her in exchange?  He refuses, makes her accept the money on his terms and sets her up with his mother for sponsorship in society.  (He's attracted to her, but her family isn't quite up to the standards he would expect from a potential wife.)

     Fiona considers the £7,000 to be a debt of honor and is desperate to make good.  She ends up winning the money at cards with the villain, and thus is able to pay back Chalmsford, who (of course) assumes she slept with the villain to get the money.  Nonetheless, he offers to marry her (she might be pregnant, he figures), and even after she declines that offer, he pursues her.  The villain's tricks go on a bit too long, but eventually Chalmsford & Fiona clear up all the misunderstandings and are able to marry.

THE OFFER:  £7,000 for one night with her (and -- although this isn't stated explicitly -- her virginity)

ACCEPTED?  No.  In fact, the very offer strikes Chalmsford as repugnant and makes him judge her very harshly indeed.

MY TAKE:  The wrinkle in this plot is that there is an alternative to selling her body: selling the Abbey instead.  At one point in the story, she's willing to give up her virtue for the money she could make selling the Abbey.  (There are timing issues; the moneylenders need repayment immediately, but she could have borrowed the money from Chalmsford, sold the Abbey and repaid him then.)  Later on, she does agree to sell the Abbey, this time to repay Chalmsford the funds expended in buying her brother a commission.  So all along, Fiona's not so very desperate that she has to sell her virtue.  In fact, what makes the most sense is that she values her virtue much less than it would seem to be worth in a man's world of commerce and consideration.  She also argues against the double standard regarding a man's debts of honor and why they don't apply to women.

DESPERATION LEVEL: 4 out of 10 (She had other ways to make that money, as she proves when she makes it gaming and a later sum selling the Abbey.)

DEMONSTRATION OF HER CHARACTER: 8 out of 10 (Fiona makes a strong case for paying her debts.  By modern standards, her valuation of her own chastity seems reasonable and her willingness to solve her brother's problems admirable.)

ROMANTIC QUALITY OF HEA:  7 out of 10  (Chalmsford pursues her even believing that she's slept with the villain; he also realizes too late that what she did took courage.  Plus, he restores the Abbey for her, and we love him for that.)
TITLE: Dearly Beloved

AUTHOR: Mary Jo Putney

HEROINE: Diana Brandelin

SET UP: After a completely implausible wedding, Diana Brandelin (née Mary Elizabeth Diana Lindsay Hamilton) is abandoned by her husband and left to raise a child (miraculously conceived in wedlock, albeit the result of rape) and get on with life.  After seven years of dubious social standing in a small Yorkshire town, Diana takes in a "retired" cyprian, Madeline Gainford, and through her learns of how certain women make a living in London.  Madeline paints a rosy but realistic picture of both the sexual and the commercial side of being a mistress.  Still, when Diana decides to go to London to become a courtesan, Madeline is against the plan.  "It was one matter to sell oneself when there was no choice; it was quite another to do so voluntarily."

    Diana is launched at a demi-rep party, where she meets Gervase, Viscount St. Aubyn.  She knows he's her fate (I don't think I'm spoiling anything by saying that he is, in fact, her husband) but he just thinks she's "a beauty, a whore and a mystery."  They enter into a tense negotiation, and a not-entirely-relaxed relationship as lovers.  St. Aubyn distrusts her beauty and sees in her calm, rational discussion about their arrangement risks that she would not be faithful to him.  His cynicism is both evidence of her power over him, and his sourness of disposition; he's wildly attracted to her, but even the force of that attraction is Diana's fault.

     Okay, so we have French spies, the intolerance of the English against gay men, and epilepsy.  Strip all that away, and you finally get to the big reveal, where St. Aubyn learns that his mistress is (ta-dah!) his wife.  He is not pleased, feeling -- not unreasonably -- that she's played him for a fool: either she's lying that she's his wife, or she was lying all the while she was his mistress.  He leaves on this deathless line: "Strange.  I was willing to make a whore my wife, but I find it quite unacceptable that my wife is a whore."  (He has mother issues.)  And, truly, it's not hard to think that revenge was part of Diana's motive for coming to London.  It's plausible she didn't plan to lure St. Aubyn into bed, but there's got to be some anger in her decision to be a courtesan.

      When they next meet, she's playing the part of his wife.  Putney's ingenious in getting Diana out of the coil of lies surrounding her "career" as St. Aubyn's mistress, but that only gets the couple so far.  There's an ending of high drama (weaving together the French spy, intolerance to gays, and even the epilepsy) and then they are happy.

THE OFFER: Very complicated.  Diana is willing to be St. Aubyn's mistress in exchange for those small tokens of appreciation he might bestow.  (Madeline pulls St. Aubyn aside later and behind Diana's back gets a far more generous amount of cash for Diana's favors.)

ACCEPTED?  Yes, eventually.   (These two negotiate like a couple of transactional lawyers.)

MY TAKE: Very dark and twisty, to say the least.  Each of them has had a Bad Childhood, so that all along seems much more of an obstacle to the HEA than the wife/mistress/whore issue.  I don't think her actions are well suited to engender a trusting love in a man as scarred as St. Aubyn, but there's no doubt that they love each other a lot!

DESPERATION LEVEL: 0 out of 10 (She's got £1,000 a year from him, which isn't a massive amount but enough to make it possible to live more comfortably even than she does.)

DEMONSTRATION OF HER CHARACTER: 5 out of 10 (Diana claims she took this step because it was the only way she could imagine meeting a man and falling in love.  Aspects of this make sense: she is gently born, so she actually is of their class.  And she can never marry anyone, so being a mistress isn't a bad compromise from a chance-to-have-sex sense.  It's true St. Aubyn refuses to have anything to do with her, thus explaining her not trying to contact him before taking any other action -- but I take points off for her decision not to notify the solicitor that she'd borne St. Aubyn a child.  She really ought to have done that much.  Although, he might have taken the child away from her, but then if that's the issue uppermost in her mind, she should have just stayed in Yorkshire and raised Geoffrey.  So I kind of get it, and I kind of don't.)

ROMANTIC QUALITY OF HEA:  8 out of 10  (But not because of the mistress/wife thing; I actually like this book better because of the two damaged people healing each other aspect.  I'd have been happier if that had been more of the plot than, say, the French spy.)
TITLE:  His Lordship's Mistress

AUTHOR: Joan Wolf

HEROINE: Jessica O'Neill (née Andover)

SET UP: Jessica Andover is trying hard to save the family horse farm, Winchester, for her two half-brothers.  Their father, her step-father, was a wastrel, and the farm is in debt.  She gives a mortgage to a benevolent neighbor, but when the neighbor dies, his son demands payment or else marriage.  She knows from watching her mother's second marriage how much a woman stands to lose in her marriage, so she decides to go another route.  After borrowing the money to pay off the hateful son, she goes to London, gets a job as an actress with the stage name Jessica O'Neill, and chooses the Earl of Linton to be her protector.

     She is focused on the precise amount she needs to get Winchester free of debt, but not so focused that she doesn't fall in love with Linton and he with her.  He wants to marry her, and initially she says no, but then wonders if it could be done.  A conversation with a member of Linton's family convinces her it could never be done, and when she finally has the money for the principal and interest on the mortgage, she leaves him.

     Because she never told anyone her real name, it takes the sheer coincidence that his nephew is going to the same school as Jessica's brothers to allow Linton to find her.  This time, he (with help from his sister) is able to convince her that they can marry without the social firmament collapsing.

THE OFFER:  She'll be his mistress for an undisclosed but very generous sum per month.

ACCEPTED?  Oh, yeah.

MY TAKE:  Well, it's a wonderful romance, as last year's discussions in Romlandia confirm.  Certainly Wolf wants us to see Jessica's actions as both necessary and principled.  Linton is presented as the very best of gentlemen, and when he says to his sister that Jessica has more courage in her little finger than most men he knew had in their entire bodies, it's a swoon-worthy moment.  But before we throw her a parade, consider this:  She knows that being an actress and then a mistress will make it impossible for her to marry.  But that rather suits her all along.  One of the adjustments she has to make at the end of the book is to see marriage to Linton as preferable to a life of independence at Winchester.  I think there's more to that cost-benefit analysis than perhaps we realize.  Of course we know how it will come out (she's dead miserable without him) but if she hadn't fallen in love with her protector, I think Jessica was quite comfortable to have traded her marriageability for money.

DESPERATION LEVEL: 9 out of 10 (She might have been able to find someone to marry if she'd worked hard at it, but there was a lot if in that route, and she knew her fortunes were more secure in the path she chose.)

DEMONSTRATION OF HER CHARACTER: 10 out of 10  (No doubt about it, she's a great heroine.  A natural actress, a gifted horsewoman, a deeply satisfying lover -- Linton's not wrong to praise her.)

ROMANTIC QUALITY OF HEA:  9 out of 10 (I'm taking a point off for the loss of some of her freedom and independence.  As the Countess of Linton, she'll lead a much more circumspect life than she has been.  And Jessica never comes across as the sort of person who won't notice those restrictions just because she's in lurve.  Instead, I would predict she'll chafe at some of her new life, enjoy enough other bits, and fill in the spaces with good works and, of course, children.)
TITLE:  Lady in Blue

AUTHOR:  Lynn Kerstan 

HEROINE:  Clare Easton (née Easter Wilhelmina Clare)

SET UP: Brynmore Talgarth, Earl of Caradoc, has good reason (possibly needing some suspended disbelief) for wanting to bed only virgins: he watched his father die a repulsive death from syphilis and vowed never to be like his father in that regard.  Still a man has needs, so his solution is a form of (expensive) serial monogamy: he hires a virgin as his mistress.  When he meets Clare, she is a mystery to him (and to us) but he's physically attracted to her.  He agrees to her terms and that sets in motion a series of almost madcap (without the humor) adventures and surprisingly little sex.  But they do eventually have happy sex, and after everything is sorted out, he marries her.

     Half the book has elapsed before we even learn Clare's backstory, which we need to know in order gauge her actions.  She's the only daughter of a widowed country vicar with a bit of a drinking problem.  When a rather wild young woman comes to their village and he learns she is pregnant, he marries her to give her unborn twin sons a name.  He dies five months later, and so never learns that Aldis is quite mad.  Clare, only a child at the time, endures fanatical punishments from Aldis in an effort to protect the twin boys.  Aldis finally dies, but of course there's precious little money in their village, so even the parish cannot support them.  Clare moves to dodgy accommodations in London and works 16 hours a day as a seamstress, but the money will barely permit her to feed two growing boys.  After a year of this, she is thinking about trying to contact a woman her mother had known -- yes, it's our old friend the Kindly Madam.  Clare still wouldn't have gone except that two drunken louts accost her and when her brothers try to help her, they sustain serious injuries.  The next day, she walks four miles to see "Florette."

     As with Dearly Beloved, the conflict between the characters comes down to rotten childhoods.  Clare falls in love, but when the subplot shoots Caradoc, she prays to God for his survival and lo! he survives.  Clare now reckons she has to keep her end of the bargain, and as she'd promised God not to sleep with Caradoc again, that pretty much only leaves marriage.  But when he proposes she still says no, and he actually has to trick her to get them legally wed.

THE OFFER:  In exchange for £10,500 (10,000 guineas), she will sleep with him for one night and then they'll see how it goes and maybe she'll stick around.

ACCEPTED?  Yes.

MY TAKE:  I love Lynn Kerstan's shorter-format Regencies, so I wish I could say this was a great book.  Clare definitely wins the prize as the most desperate of the heroines, but there are a ton of secondary characters, the subplot is odd, and Clare's religious beliefs just a bit suspect given how much loony abuse she endured.  Caradoc seems very adolescent and at times rather stupid.  By contrast, His Lordship's Mistress's Linton and Jessica both seem a lot more mature.

DESPERATION LEVEL: 10 out of 10 (When you finally find out what she's endured and how hard she worked to take care of her brothers without selling her virtue, Clare gets full props.)

DEMONSTRATION OF HER CHARACTER: 5 out of 10 (See?  A lot of desperation doesn't equal a lot of character.  Clare strikes a good bargain on its face, but she seems to have missed the point of what Caradoc wanted.  He explicitly tells her he wants a friend, lover, etc., and that doesn't seem like an unreasonable return on a 10,000 guinea investment.  But Clare won't give up the goods -- in this case, willingness to feel sexual pleasure -- until her feelings are engaged, and after that happens, she feels guilty and as though her original sin has been compounded.  In other words, she can prostitute herself for her brothers, but she mustn't feel good about it -- even when that's part of the deal!)

ROMANTIC QUALITY OF HEA:  6 out of 10 (It's not that she was his mistress that causes the problem with this HEA, it's the hugger-mugger way everything shakes out.  Caradoc almost dies but still she won't marry him when he finally proposes?  Eh, but they really do love each other, so I'll be generous here.)
TITLE:  A Precious Jewel

AUTHOR:  Mary Balogh 

HEROINE:  Priscilla Wentworth, aka Prissy 

SET UP:  When her father and brother die unexpectedly, Priscilla is taken in, grudgingly, by her cousins.  Oswald treats her as a servant, complete with the sense that he'd like to take liberties with her person.  So she decamps to London to see Miss Blythe, her former governess.  Priscilla has a notion that she can be usefully employed at Miss Blythe's finishing school for young women.  Only that's not precisely the establishment that Miss Blythe is running, and when Priscilla finds that out, it's too late.  Irene & Oswald won't take her back, even for the purposes of getting Priscilla married off, and Miss Blythe can't let Priscilla stay indefinitely without working.

     Prissy, as she's known to the customers and other girls, makes the best of it.  When our hero, Sir Gerald Stapleton, shows up, she has been working for a couple months.  Sir Gerald has particular preferences in bed; she follows his directions to the letter (easily the least erotic sex scene in the history of romance novels -- there is no brand of vanilla bland enough to describe what he likes in bed) and he becomes a regular.  She even likes him, perhaps because he's roughly the sort of fellow she might have married had her brother lived.  Two months later, after Prissy is beaten by a customer who wanted something from her that is forbidden by Miss Blythe's rules (fun to imagine what perversion that would have been), Sir Gerald makes Prissy his mistress.

     I've written about this book elsewhere, so I'll keep the summary short(er).  Being a mistress is a huge step up for her.  She gets a house that allows her to keep some private space that Sir Gerald will never enter: a room of her own.  Every time his feelings for her lurch forward, he's torn between desiring her and thinking it a colossal nuisance having a mistress.  And he's conscious that he does not want to know her as a person, and resents the occasions that she makes him think of her that way.  He doesn't seem to know why he wants her to accompany him to his estate.  Their relationship evolves in a back and forth, sometimes with greater intimacy and sometimes with less.

     Almost a year after she first "pleasures" Sir Gerald, Priscilla realizes that she's pregnant and that she must leave him.  She concocts a story about an old suitor wanting to marry her despite her past, and he buys it.  Through Miss Blythe, she has a place to go: a village along the southern coast.  It's a point of honor to tell the village vicar and his wife the truth of who she was and how she got there; she feels much more human after she's done so.  And of course Sir Gerald finally shows up -- he's slow, but he gets there in the end -- and is able to convince her that he wants to marry her because he loves her.

THE OFFER: Variable; at first it's for an hour with her (rate unknown), then to have her live in a little house as his mistress (rate also unknown).

ACCEPTED?  She has no choice in the first instance, but says yes in the second.

MY TAKE:  I actually respect these two more the second time around.  Sir Gerald has -- you guessed it! -- childhood issues, but as I reviewed his more commercial relationship with Prissy, I realize how much honesty Balogh has given us.  (Or else her views on prostitution fit my own, namely that it's a relationship that allows a man to see and treat a woman as something other than as a person of equal moral weight.)  The book is all about the development of their relationship, and apart from some implausible hiccups at the end, the HEA is in some ways the most organic.  He really needed her for his very happiness, and that's why he wanted to marry her even before he'd learned to stop thinking of her as a "whore."

DESPERATION LEVEL: 5 out of 10  (Priscilla has options available to her, but she figures that prostitution is more "honest.")

DEMONSTRATION OF HER CHARACTER: 7 out of 10 (She's a good girl -- Sir Gerald keeps saying that -- and the proof of that comes quite late.  But I personally am not as impressed with her honesty in telling the village that's she a former mistress and pregnant.  The milk of human kindness and Christian charity are all very well in theory, but there was a huge risk it wouldn't work out in reality.  And telling the truth can be, on occasion, be a selfish act: it can require others to do some heavy lifting to accommodate what facts they never asked to know.  In the end, I think she got lucky and found the one magical village in the UK with all nice people in it.)

ROMANTIC QUALITY OF HEA:  8 out of 10  (Even with the support of Sir Gerald's good friends, the Earl and Countess of Severn, they have a rough road to hoe, what with the number of people who know Priscilla was one of "Kit Blythe's girls."  I think Caradoc (from Lady in Blue) had it right when he said that by the time his and Clare's daughters were presented, no one would remember how he'd appeared with Clare before their betrothal was announced.  But Sir Gerald and Lady Stapleton may need longer than that; her past is going to be an on dit for a long time.) 
Final thoughts?  Well, I truly didn't have a coherent thesis when I started this.  But now, ten hours and five books later, here's what I think:
 ♥ That the degree of desperation isn't the only factor in how we judge these women; their intelligence and sensibilities pre-date the decision to sell their virtue and survive it as well.
 ♥ That the author has some heavy lifting to pull off the HEA and really get us to believe these couples want to be together despite the protector-mistress relationship in their past -- if for no other reason than that the hero has to see the heroine as his moral equal.
 ♥ And that the silliest heroine was the one who didn't see the value in having a good time sexually while she was at it.

* I limited myself to books I'd read recently or knew well enough to discuss.  Thus, this is by no means a complete list, and I'll happily include any other stories you want.  Just leave a comment with the title and author.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

The Charlotte Phenomenon

My favorite doctor on Private Practice -- you know, the spin-off from Grey's Anatomy that everyone hates -- is Charlotte, the "steel magnolia" sex queen played by KaDee Strickland.  Personally, I think she's wasted on Cooper, and my sympathies are entirely on her side in their recent break-up.  So what if she didn't tell him she had been married before.  She's entitled to some privacy, and she can reveal the totality of her history when she's ready.  If that piddling detail is enough to derail their romance, then he's a fool and doesn't deserve her.

One of the many things that makes Charlotte so great is that she is unapologetically sexual.  She's creative in bed, versatile and enthusiastic.  She's perfect for Cooper, who's frankly stalled in adolescence and is this close to being a sex addict.  She's so good at sex that she's established a practice dealing with sexual performance and dysfunction.  Oh, and she can renovate their bathroom, too.




Charlotte is precisely the character I think of when I read posts on Dear Author and elsewhere about how romance novels need more sexually confident women.  Damn straight they do, and as we already have some pretty classic (and misleading) sexual tropes in romance (the simultaneous orgasm comes, you will forgive the expression, to mind), why not start introducing more women like Charlotte?  She has never, and will never, apologize for being sexually experienced and proficient.  Nor should she.

[Honest, if you haven't seen Private Practice, tape a couple episodes and watch just for KaDee Strickland's character.  Although, personally I love it all.  It's medical ethics with tears & tissues.]

I know I've given the impression of not favoring this movement to get Romance Fiction women (specifically, but not exclusively, heroines) to be more like Real Life women.  But that's not my position.  Here's what I believe:
  1. Yes, Romance Fiction women should be more like Real Life Women.  I don't take a position on what percentage of RF women need to be more like Charlotte (my exemplar for the sexually experienced and unapologetic female), but I completely agree that more women in romance novels should be more like Charlotte.

  2. Each romance novel should be judged on its own merits.  If it has a virgin heroine but is otherwise a good romance, then I'll all for that author's choice to make her heroine a virgin.  There are virgin women in Real Life -- not very many by the time they're old enough to merit an HEA, but a few -- and maybe this is a book about one of those very few women.  But understand -- to my mind, the author of a virgin heroine romance has a tougher hill to climb to convince me that her heroine is sensible, smart, autonomous, etc., particularly as virginity well into one's 20s seems counter-intuitive.

  3. Real Life women come in a range of sexual identities, so it's not unreasonable for Romance Fiction women to also come in a range.  It's a bell-shaped curve of sorts: the virgins at one end (statistically infrequent but not the null set) and Charlotte at the other end.  I consider Charlotte to be a narrow-end type simply because she is so proficient and experienced; I don't think many RL or RF women own a black latex cat suit.

  4. Historical fiction doesn't operate by the same rules as contemporary romances.  Sorry, but it's true.  In Real Life, 19th century women were almost all economically dependent on a man (father, brother, uncle, husband); the few professions for women were class specific (so even in poverty, a genteel woman would not have been able to get a job as a domestic servant) or outside the cultural norm (actress, opera dancer, etc.), and virginity -- or rather the appearance of complete sexual propriety -- was a fundamental element of a young woman's value as a spouse and mother.  Once she'd married, the rules changed. 

    Authors of historical romances must then juggle the degree of historical accuracy, the degree of modern cultural sensibilities, and the need for internal consistency that every romance novel has.  One reason Loretta Chase's Don't Tempt Me didn't bother me is that she found a historically accurate quirk (the tendency of certain Englishmen and women to travel to foreign parts) and exploited that to come up with a different sort of heroine.  If Zoe had been deflowered in the harem, that loss of value might have been the end of her hopes for a Society marriage.  But instead, she's both a Charlotte and a virgin!  How novel, and yes, how unbelievable in any statistical sense -- but Chase managed to win me over, so Rule #2 was satisfied.  I would say the same about every historical romance where a) the heroine is a virgin, b) isn't a virgin, c) is a mistress/courtesan/paid sex worker, d) in love with a Duke of Slut, or e) in love with a Duke of Discretion: They have to work as romances and to the extent the author has deviated from the cultural norms of the 19th century, she'd better make it work.

  5. Finally -- and this is where I have gotten in trouble -- there has to be a reason why we don't get enough Charlottes in our romances.  (As opposed to sheer random chance.)  Here are the reasons I can think of, any or all of which may be at work:
  • Authors aren't writing Charlotte romances so that even if publishers wanted more Charlotte romances, they aren't getting the manuscripts to reflect that.

  • Authors are writing Charlotte romances but they get rejected because publishers (or big box store reps, or whoever) don't want Charlotte romances.

  • Authors have written Charlotte romances that got published, but readers haven't bought them in sufficient numbers to push publishers to seek out more Charlotte romances.
I don't know which of those factors is at work here, but I do know that authors who want to read more Charlotte romances should write books with Charlottes in them.

It was with high hopes, then, that I read First Kiss by Marilyn Pappano.  Her heroine, Holly, is presented as being more like a guy when it comes to sex: she has serial affairs, she doesn't want anything but sex from the men she sleeps with, and she's definitely good in bed.  But she's no Charlotte, and I'll tell you why.

First off, let me say I liked everything about this book except for the first 135 pages, and the two angels.  Other than those minor details, it was a great read.  On page 136, the hero, Tom Flynn, asks Holly to marry him.  He's not in love with her; she's not in love with him.  Her counter-offer (he's a corporate lawyer so it's all about the deal for him) is no thanks to the marriage, but she would love to have sex.  He declines that offer, and counters with no sex, no marriage (for now) and how about if they date.  Get to know each other.  What makes this fun is that neither of them know how to date, where dating is defined as conversation and a nice meal but no sex.

What keeps Holly from being a Charlotte is her motivation for being so sexually active.  Turns out she has daddy issues, and lost her virginity as a teenager (and didn't enjoy the sex), then "did it" again and again with different guys.  Boys rejected her as being "easy."  She doesn't value herself as a result.  Trust me -- it's all in there.  She's not a Charlotte, she's a woman who has a legitimate reason to find it hard to trust, so she figures any man who will sleep with her will also leave her.  She rejects Tom's marriage proposals over and over until finally he gets it that this deal isn't happening.

It's actually got a nice emo-porn ending, and on balance I quite liked the book.  (Too bad about the first third, which dragged so badly I really despaired of ever finishing it.)  So, other than my reservations, it passes my Rule #2: it holds up on its own terms.  Pappano wanted to write a book about a sexually experienced woman who hadn't yet figured out that having great sex isn't the same as making love.  When she learns to love, the sex is better, yes, but the context has completely changed -- and, for the first time, when the guy leaves she's devastated.

Just a word on the angels:  No.  These characters were smart enough to get there on their own.  Supernatural interference shouldn't be necessary.

I'm still looking for good Charlotte contemporary romances.  Arm Candy by Jo Leigh had a sexually confident heroine but it didn't satisfy my Rule #2, as it just wasn't very romantic: All the emotional stuff was shoehorned into the final ten pages or so.  It's possible I've already read and loved a Charlotte romance but didn't recognize it as such at the time.  Two candidates come to mind:  Linda Howard's To Die For, which I know I loved -- enough to lend it to a non-romance reader who doubtless donated it to charity; time to buy it again! --  Susan Elizabeth Phillips' Ain't She Sweet.  I am actively soliciting suggestions for more titles; leave a comment please.

And yes, I have a Charlotte in mind for a future book I want to write.  I'd better obey my own Rule #2!

Friday, January 22, 2010

Five Things That Surprised Me About Pride & Prejudice

I've mentioned this before: I am remarkably ill-read.  I've yet to finish a novel by Dickens (I've committed on Monkey Bear Reviews to finish Little Dorrit for her Stretch Yourself Challenge), I've read only one Bronte sister, I've (and oh, wow, is this a shameful confession) never read Little Women (although I did read Eight Cousins and Rose in Bloom), and of course I haven't read any Jane Austen.



Technically, I still haven't.  But I did yesterday finish listening to Lindsay Duncan's wonderful reading of Pride and Prejudice on CD.  (I won't claim to be an expert, but if you're looking for a good audio version of P&P, hers is excellent.  My husband got it for me on Amazon and did lots of research on which version was favored.)  And while I have no doubt that everything that can be said about Pride and Prejudice has already been said (or written), and thus I have nothing new to offer, I was sufficiently struck by just one or two things.  (Okay, five.)
  1. How almost earworm-like the syntax and cadences of Austen's language can be.  This is perhaps a result of hearing it rather than reading it, but by the time I was done, it felt as thought contractions and familiarity were just so rude and ill-bred.  Coincidentally, I was also reading (on paper) Mary Balogh's Slightly Scandalous, and I fancied I could see similarities in the language of  Balogh's modern-day interpretation of a romance set at roughly the same time as P&P.  That's a compliment to Balogh, of course.  But also a note to self:  if I should ever decide to write a historical romance (and no one thinks to shoot me in self-defense), I should listen to Austen on tape before I began to write.

  2. How formal the forms of address really were.  I knew that Mr. and Mrs. Bennet called each other precisely that: Mr. Bennet and Mrs. Bennet, but I hadn't appreciated that we (the readers) never even learn their first names.  Nor Bingley's, either of the Gardiners' (although we know her first initial is M.), and so forth.  In fact, we might never have learned Mr. Darcy's first name but for his signing his letter.  By contrast, we know all the unmarried ladies' first names, even Caroline Bingley's.  Once married, though, their first names are extraneous (unless part of an honorific due to noble birth, as with Lady Catherine de Bourgh).  And what really stopped me cold was the way that correspondence between Jane and Elizabeth includes the form "my mother," "my aunt," etc. as though they don't both have the same relationship to that woman.  That has to be some peculiarity of the times; there's no other reason for it.  Sounds all wrong now; in fact, it smacks of sibling rivalry:  "she's my mother!" = "Mom loves me best."

  3. Geography.  (For a fun discussion of which place names are real and which are not, go here and don't be shy about clicking on the map of England.)  The term "neighborhood," as used to describe the relatively small geographical area, say, around Meryton, I understood.  And "shire," meaning the whole of Hertfordshire or Derbyshire, was also perfectly clear.  But it took me a while to understand that "country," as in "he quit the country," was about leaving an area larger than the neighborhood but smaller than the shire.  (Because of more than one incredulous -- on my part -- conversation with my first husband, I already knew that one is always going "up to town" when traveling to London regardless of which direction London is in and thus going down to anywhere other than London* even someplace considerably north of the capital.  *The one exception, I understand, is university: one goes up to university, and if expelled, one is sent down from university.)

  4. Sex versus money; sex versus love.  I certainly wasn't expecting any sex in P&P, but I was surprised at how superficial the valuations of people were nonetheless.  No one notices anyone's sexual appeal (let alone specific erogenous zones, e.g., breasts) but we sure do know a lot (if not everything) about how much money everyone has (or hasn't), gets, expects, spent on furniture, and so forth.  So, rather than value anyone for their sexual prowess, experience, inexperience or anything else sexual, there's loads of frank conversation about how much money a man has (meaning, presumably, income from an estate), a woman is likely to have settled on her on the occasion of her marriage, a widow will have to live on, etc.  I speculate that as this money isn't "earned" (as we think of "earning a living," for example) it's okay to talk about, in perhaps the same way that it's okay to talk about how hawt someone is, just not in their hearing. 

    And in a related point, while there's no physical touching (even the illustration above rather reads into that scene the idea that Jane and Bingley were actually holding hands), there's lots and lots of love.  People are deemed in love if they're just interested in another.  Even "violently in love" and in one notable example, someone is described as a "lover" where we'd only think him to be an admirer.  Either "love" wasn't much valued back then, or it's roughly synonymous with having one's interest engaged.  It reminds me of my mother's childhood in the 1930s, where it was quite unremarkable for an adolescent schoolgirl to have a "pash" (short for passion) on a teacher, even a teacher of the same sex.  We wouldn't equate "passion" with "crush" today; language changes.  And some time in the past 200 years, love because lurve!

  5. Elizabeth's impression of her father changes subtly over the course of the book even as her impression of Darcy changes more dramatically.  Mr. Bennet seems "all that is amiable" in the beginning of the book, but by the end, Lizzie has figured out that his "indolence" is a factor in some of their family's difficulties.  (Her mother is not similarly rehabilitated by the same point in Volume 3, but Lizzie does seem more sanguine about Mrs. Bennet's ill-advised opinions and prejudices.)  I found myself more struck by Lizzie's budding awareness of her father's faults than her awareness of Darcy's virtues; that seemed real evidence of her maturity.  (At the same time, I really enjoyed Lizzie's answering her own question about why Darcy fell in love with her, speculating that it was because she was, in effect, the anti-Miss Bingley and thus all the more attractive for not sucking up to him.)

There you have it.  It was wonderful, and very hard to leave Pemberly.  My only disappointment is having to wait until next Christmas for another Austen book on CD.  (Hint hint, honey...)

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Amazing Grace

I broke my glasses last week. We'd gone to our "local" (meaning it's only 15 miles away) pizzeria, and when I got out of the car I thought I stepped on something but hey, it was dark, and there was still some snow and ice in places on the asphalt, and anyway it wasn't anything big...

You see immediately where this is going: we got all the way home before it dawned on me that the solution to the "Mystery of the Missing Glasses" was coincidentally the answer to the question "What Was That I Stepped On in That Parking Lot?"  Another round trip drive (the dog was happy, at least) and I had my mangled glasses back home.

I'm managing with a pair of reading glasses weak enough to allow me to use the computer, but still too strong for walking around. I've picked out new frames and had my eyes tested, and in a week I'll be back to wearing glasses *almost* all the time. (It's those situations when I prefer to take them off, like driving, that get me into these predicaments.)

I have a new appreciation for prescription glasses.  I was lucky in my youth (which, frankly, is all but the last ten years): I alone in my family didn't need glasses . . . until presbyopia caught up with me.  (I know that sounds like a secret society associated with a certain Protestant church, but it's actually the naturally occurring hardening of the eye muscles that makes reading glasses a must-buy for people in their 40s and 50s.)  For a while, drug store reading glasses were sufficient, but they're a gateway drug; before too long I was on the hard stuff: $800 progressive lenses in special rimless frames.  And I resented the hell out of those glasses -- so expensive and a pain to have to remember, etc., etc. -- until last week when I realized I couldn't read the computer without some glasses.

This is a true story, but it's also a metaphor for having a critique partner.  As a result of my connections in Romlandia, I have a critique partner for my writing.  This is almost always a good idea; you get a fresh perspective on your work.  I simply can't see my own writing as well without her as I can with her.  Of course I miss the "good old days" when I thought I knew if my writing was any good.  (Ironically, I was most convinced of my "perfect vision" when I thought my writing was crap.)  And the one other time I tried to connect with a couple fellow writers for mutual critique, they were less than helpful.  (Bluntly, they were able to communicate that they didn't like what I'd written but not why, let alone how it could be improved.)

My partner (I'll let her remain anonymous if she wishes) and I exchanged 8,000-word chunks of our books last week, and today we had our first critique session.  On a personal level, it was like rejoining a dear friend: there was none of that awkwardness with a new acquaintance.  On a business level, it was like -- well, it was like wearing new glasses.  I was able to see my work fresh, learning where the blurry bits were so that I can rewrite them back into sharper focus.

And on a third level, it was a wonderfully energizing experience.  I had thought I'd get off the phone and choose between a nap or some TV time, both pretty brainless activities.  Instead, I wanted immediately to recognize what a gift this feels like.

It's an overstatement to say I "was blind, but now I see," and I don't want to diminish the gravity of that hymn, with its connection to the abolitionist movement.  I just want to say, this week in particular, how grateful I am for the grace of vision -- mine and others'.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Bob, May I Present Mrs. Palme and Her Daughters?

Dear Author had an interesting discussion recently that touched on the value of including masturbation scenes in romance novels.  I have an irrational and a rational objection to this, but first, I want to give the best argument in favor that I can.

{If the word masturbation bothers you, you won't want to read any further.  But there's nothing more explicit than the word itself in this post, and frankly, reading the phone book might be sexier.}

Romance novel heroines should be smart, sexually confident and self-fulfilled, which means that they masturbate.  There are situations of sexual frustration in many romance novels where the smart thing for a character to do (male or female) is relieve that frustration for themselves.  While it may be romantic for a protagonist to think that only sex with the other protag will satisfy the craving for intimacy, that's not true when it comes to the purely physical sensation of orgasm.  And for women, in particular, it risks being insulting to suggest that she can't bring herself to orgasm and needs the hero to accomplish that goal.  Therefore, it's evidence of her sexual autonomy to include a scene in a romance novel that demonstrates she does know how to get the job done when alone.

If I have missed something, or you feel that's not an adequate argument in favor of masturbation in romance novels, let me know in the comments.

There is one other argument in favor, and it's a subjective one:  Readers may find it sexy.  I don't (personally), and I do think that's a point people will know for themselves.

My irrational objection is also aesthetic.  In the 60s black & white movie, Rachel, Rachel, Joanne Woodward masturbates (not very explicitly) with the voice-over line: "It's just to make me sleep."  It's such a sad scene, with Woodward's character so lonely and bereft, and it has stayed with me for decades.  It doesn't make me think less of masturbation; it makes me think less of masturbation scenes.  (You may need to see the film to know what I'm talking about.)  I'm not sure I'll ever be able to detach the melancholy of the movie version when I read a masturbation scene in a romance novel.  (Not true with erotica, I hasten to add.  Where the characters in a book are striving for better and more varied sexual experiences, masturbation can be a nice addition to the mix.  But where characters are striving for a romantic connection, as in a romance novel, masturbation seems counterintuitive to me.)

Here, now, are my rational reasons for not favoring masturbation scenes in romances.
  • Romance novels are about two people striving to form an emotional connection.  It's not that they mustn't masturbate while they're working toward that end -- and I completely agree that scenes or internal monologues that suggest that the protagonists wouldn't dream of masturbating or that masturbation "wouldn't work" are silly -- but how does a scene in which one or both characters masturbate (separately but perhaps unintentionally in unison) further the story of their coming together romantically?  
  • Similarly, romances tend to leave out certain bodily functions (also nouns ending in -ation) because while clearly the characters need to do those things, the reader doesn't need to read about them.  There are exceptions to this rule based on public health concerns, most obviously the use of condoms (although the noun is not "condomnation").  The point at which a condom should be used does arise in sex scenes and not to mention the couple's use of protection might suggest they magically don't need to.  That would be an unfortunate message to readers, as all sex (in romances and in real life) should be safe, and pretty much universally the characters in romance novels don't yet have reason to be certain unprotected sex would be safe.  (Verbal assurances are not enough.)
  • We have good reason to believe that women know how to masturbate successfully and don't need pointers or reminders.  According to Shere Hite's research in the early 70s, 97% of women surveyed were able to masturbate to orgasm.  Her sampling methods have been questioned with respect to other conclusions, but I don't know of anyone suggesting she got that specific number wrong.  And the intervening years, that number is unlikely to have gone down.  If women in real life know how to masturbate, it seems safe for readers to assume that romance novel heroines know how to masturbate.
  • If readers know how to masturbate, and characters can be presumed to be masturbating, and if reading about masturbation in a romance novel isn't sexy (we have no way of knowing what percentage of readers think it is), and it doesn't emphasize much more than that Character A thinks Character B is hawt, why put it in?
Okay, so I finished Arm Candy by Jo Leigh last night.  If there was a check-list of plot points, scenes, and internal monologues designed to show that a romance novel heroine is fully capable of taking care of her own sexuality, this novel ticked all the boxes.  Jessica masturbates (coincidentally achieving a simultaneous orgasm with the hero when he masturbates elsewhere), she talks about masturbation, she tells the hero her favorite masturbatory fantasy, and she owns a "Bob" (acronym for Battery Operated Boyfriend).

Here's I didn't find in Arm Candy:  enough romance.  They're a lovely couple, but the relationship was 65% about sex, 25% having sex, and 10% analysis of how the relationship should go on.  All the "mushy stuff" happens off-screen at the very end of the book.  In the last ten pages, we learn that they miss each other, they think about each other, they have a hard time staying in the negotiated format for their relationship . . . and then, boom, they're going to marry.  If romance novels had soundtracks, this one was missing the swelling strings and Celine Dion singing, "My Heart Will Go On" at the end.

Still, I'm a proponent for a wide range of romances and novel types to be available, and one that ticks all the boxes on the Sexually Self-Fulfilling Heroine check-list clearly has its place.  As do masturbation scenes.  I won't file Arm Candy on my keeper shelf, but it's enough that others will.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Speed Bump Books

I'm presently in the Capitol Skyline hotel in Washington, D.C. and I'm about to log off the computer and read a book.

I brought two books with me because I don't own a e-reader and so can't take along an entire library the way Kindle owners (you know who you are) can do.  Please feel free to leave a comment about how wonderful your e-book reader is for this very reason: ease of travel.

Okay, so I was packing in a rush yesterday morning and had time to grab just two books:  The Element of Fire by Martha Wells, which I've had on my bedside table for so long I don't remember who recommended it or why, and Arm Candy by Jo Leigh, which Robin/Janet recommended over on Dear Author, in part because there's a wonderful gender-role switch with the heroine being the high-powered businessperson in need of a superficially appropriate companion for a business function and the hero volunteering for the job.



I know I'm going to enjoy both books.  Element of Fire is a fantasy; I like fantasies.  Arm Candy is a Harlequin Blaze; I like that line.  I rather thought I would want to start Element of Fire first because I worried Arm Candy would be an Espresso Book and I really needed a good night's sleep.  But when I picked up Element of Fire and read the blurb on the back cover, I put it down and started Arm Candy instead.

Why?  Because Element of Fire is a speed bump book for me: a book that generates a mental barrier I have to "get over" in order to read.  The Thief by Megan Whalen Turner was a speed bump book.  I enjoyed it (perhaps not as much as others have) once I got started, but it sat around a long time before I cracked it open.

I can identify some possible reasons why some books will have speed bumps and others won't.  Whether I know the author is an obvious one: once I know an author's style, I'm much more likely to dive into another of her books.  But, interestingly, a DNF can reset that reason; after a DNF, the next book I have by the same author may have a speed bump.

Subgenre is an obvious reason.  I'm not an automatic reader of paranormals, fantasies, sci-fi romances, or romantic suspense books.  I've read great books in all those sub-genres, but any given book in a sub-genre may have a speed bump.

Forgetting why I got the book in the first place.  It may not be helping Element of Fire, for example, that I can't recall why it was recommended.

Apparent difficulty in getting a book started.  Some books just seem like they'll be harder to read -- maybe because there's more disbelief to be suspended, or because the writing is denser, or the book seems long.  (A 500-page Nora Roberts may not seem like a long book the way a 300-page novel by a new author might.)

Finally, my fear that I won't finish a book is a definite speed bump.  I can't know in advance which book will evoke this feeling, but it's an unpleasant sensation even about a book I know I wanted to read.  (Which prompts the question: what fuels a fear that I won't finish a book?  But that'll have to be the subject of its own post!)

Here's the crazy part:  I'm going to read Element of Fire (just not today) and I'm going to like it, maybe even love it.  But after I do, I'll still discover speed bumps when picking among my TBR piles.  Sometimes a speed bump book reveals itself to be a book I adore and can't wait to rave about.  Not even that miracle removes speed bumps from other books in my TBR.
.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Gaslighting

D'you know the movie? I've seen it a few times.  I tend to think of it as a domestic version of Notorious, the Hitchcock classic, but perhaps that's because in both movies, Ingrid Bergman gets to act terrified and particularly vulnerable.

I've used the movie title as a verb, as well. Usually when both my husband and ex-husband are standing around while I search desperately for my keys or something and I'm starting to think a) I'm losing my mind and then b) no, I'm not, they're gaslighting me.  So I accuse them, and they laugh.  Not a bad result; being Brits and coming from the land of Monty Python, Rowan Atkinson, and Douglas Adams, they often don't laugh at my jokes.  I get the deadpan Brit stare, instead.

I was accused of gaslighting someone the other day, and I'm pretty sure she was joking.  I'm also pretty sure she was really mad at me and, although I may never know why, I'm okay with the incident.

See, I think of Romlandia -- which is what I call the corner of the Internet where people think, blog, comment, and tweet about romance novels -- as being like high school.  There are cliques, sets, loners, etc.  One thing that happens in that context is that we're all invited, implicitly, to act like high schoolers if we want to.   I wonder if I disappoint when I don't act like a teenager?

I'm 53 -- gonna be 54 next month -- and I wasn't very good at high school, or at being a teenager, even when I actually was in high school.  In a chart of groups, types and affiliations in my high school, I wouldn't even have shown up.  No lie -- I'm not in my yearbook, not even mentioned.  I was invisible.  (I get it that I'm not invisible in Romlandia High.)

Before I started working full time on trying to be a romance writer, I was a lawyer.  Before that, I worked in public health.  Before that I was an editorial assistant to a statistician.  Before that, I was a philosophy grad student, before that I was premed.  I've been half-assed at all those endeavors; I'm a perennial B+ student and merely average worker.

But before all those things -- even college -- I wanted to write romances.  (I was mediocre at that even then, btw.)  And before I wanted to write romances, I read romances.

I have been reading romances for over 45 years -- which is longer than most of the student body in Romlandia High has been alive.

So, no, I wasn't gaslighting anyone.  I'd apologize, but I think the record is pretty clear that I'm innocent of the charge.  I've heard that I was labeled as "smug" and a "smart aleck" (which Chambers defines as "a would-be clever person or one too clever for their own good").  Hmm, under that definition, I might be a smart aleck -- certainly my intelligence (and yes, I am smart) gets me into trouble.  And I suppose this paragraph establishes that I'm smug.

But what I am -- more than anything else -- is old.  Lots of "been there" and "done that" in my life.  If I'm not reacting in a heated fashion to the antics of mean girls in Romlandia, it's because I've seen worse.  Hypocrisy, double standards, and violations of basic principles such as "you comment on a blog post at the blog that posted it" -- those I'll speak out against.  But not name calling and such on Twitter.  Lord, Twitter is so evanescent that even to blog today about the Tweets of Yesterday is a bit like reminiscing about the snows of yesteryear . . . in high summer.

Gaslighting is a high school prank.  I've got my faults, but I'm reasonably confident (or smug) that I've outgrown high school.

Five Blogs That Make Me Think

Keira Soleore tagged my blog -- and seven others -- as Five Blogs That Make Her Think.  (No comment on how none of these blogs are about mathematics...)

In response, I am supposed to list five blogs that make me think, and also link you here for the original idea.  There's going to be some duplication with Keira's list, I'm afraid, but those bloggers will just have to feel even prouder that they're making lots of people think.

First up:  Dear Author.  I know sincerity is the toughest thing to fake convey on the Internet, but I truly do benefit from much of what Jane and the gang do at Dear Author.  In addition to their reviews, their round-ups are wonderful reminders of what's going in the world, and you have to love it when someone does work for you and does it better than you could or would do it yourself.  But the best part of DA is that everyone reads them, and that means you get the very best comment threads in Romlandia.  Long and particularly intelligent, like the posts that prompt them, these threads show how valuable the marketplace of ideas can be.

Next, The Pioneer Woman's From Black Heels to Tractor Wheels love story.  (Which you can read in individual posts here or all in one big, long, rambling story here.)  The Pioneer Woman is Ree Drummond, the daughter of an orthopedic surgeon (I think) in a small city north of Tulsa.  She met a cowboy (who happens to be a multi-millionaire, but I truly don't think that was ever part of the appeal) and fell in love.  She says, not inaccurately, that it's like a Harlequin Romance.  But I thought a lot after reading it -- about the nature of love, what it feels like, how much I wished it had been fiction so I could get the hero's POV, and all the little things she included in her story that made it clear it was real life.  So it's this weird amalgam of real life and fairy tale romance.  Good stuff, but have some time on hand -- it's long.  (Oh, and a warning:  she cooks; she even has a cookbook out now; and just looking at the pictures will cause you to gain weight.  They are that yummy.)

MonkeyBearReviews makes me think about the clarity of her reviews, and the even greater clarity she brings to the issues of the day.  I wish I had her lightness of touch -- she writes a relatively brief, cogent post and it draws out the most interesting ideas and discussions in the comment threads.  She makes me think about my shortcomings as a blogger -- which is always a good thing for me to be thinking about in pursuit of a better, simpler, stronger way to communicate.  With Sarah, less is often way more, and I admire that.

Dooce.  There, I admit it.  I (and millions of other people) read Dooce.  She's funny and outrageous, but she's courageous as well.  Not just because she is willing to overshare for our amusement (and yes, for her own financial gain -- she is truly making blogging pay!), but because she endures a shitload of abuse in return for her fame and notoriety.  She's pretty good about it; she mocks it and exploits it.  But she also makes it clear how painful it is.  I wouldn't want her job even with the money -- I don't have that thick a skin.  I think a lot about how hard blogging honestly is when I'm reading Dooce.

Racy Romance Reviews  Jessica at RRR is a philospher, teacher, reader, reviewer and fangirl.  She does it all, and often all at once.  I think a lot about subtleties of morality and narrative when I'm reading her posts and the comment threads that follow.  But she does something I see nowhere else.  She's had a couple real-time book chats (with Black as their theme: Black Ice by Anne Stuart and Black Silk by Judith Ivory).  In both cases I had to think hard about what I found in these books and why I felt and thought about them as I did.  I got to meet and interact with other readers (because -- except when Anne Stuart herself commented -- we're all readers in a discussion like that) and see these books through their eyes and hearts.  It doesn't change my opinion, but it's not supposed to.  What it's supposed to do is get us all to exchange opinions and end up with a wider view of the book under discussion.

There are my five!  Oh, and an honorable mention to the Fugly Girls at GFY.  They make me think, a little, about fashion and the foibles of the rich & famous.  But they sure do make me laugh.

Thanks again, Keira!

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Research on Market Research: Michael Norris

Yesterday, I posted about the lack of customer satisfaction research in romance publishing.  I cited an annual report by Simba Information, a company that provides various publishing industry insiders with data on book sales.

On a whim -- and because fundamentally I don't know anything about this field so let's ask someone who does -- I sent Simba Information a question:  Did they know if anyone was doing customer satisfaction research with regard to romance novels?

Here's Michael Norris's answer.  He's Senior Analyst for Simba's Trade Books Group, which would include romances.
The short answer is no, we’ve never done customer satisfaction studies on a genre basis, and if the Romance Writers of America haven’t done one in the past I’m not sure who has. We’ve done quality ratings for fall lists by surveying independent bookstores nationwide (How do you feel the quality of the fall list in 2009 compares to that of 2008, etc.) but reaching out to readers themselves is tricky, especially since we know diehard romance fans consume a lot of books, so a quantitative analysis about satisfaction in general would be completely subjective. I’ve always believed ‘books are sold one at a time to one person at a time’ so the quality of a book depends on which reader you ask.

Okay, that answers that question.  (Does anyone know if RWA has done a customer satisfaction study?)

I followed up and asked Norris specifically about this idea that the traditional publishers of romance novels have just two customers: the buyer for Borders and the buyer for Barnes & Noble.  (I got this notion from Robin/Janet at Dear Author; here's the link to her comment.)  Here's Michael Norris's answer to that question:
The choices of readers matter, but most of the time all a publisher has in front of them to base decisions on is a spreadsheet with sales figures on it of the choices readers have made. Put another way, I’m tired of listening to aspiring authors complain about getting rejected from publishers, yet when I ask them what they buy, they practically recite the New York Times bestseller list, which is home to less than 2% of books published annually.  If readers are choosing to scoop up books from the pre-famous authors only, publishers will get the message that those are the books readers want. I tell people who want to become authors to skip Nora Roberts and seek out new authors because if publishers see new voices selling, they’ll want to publish more new voices.

I’d also recommend buying their books at local bookstores; preferably independent ones. The reason for that is: the huge number of non-bookstore entities like Wal-Mart, Target, and CostCo aren’t likely to carry anything other than books published by authors who have created their reputations 10+ years ago. Better to buy books at a place that has a stake in the future of print.

Unfortunately, my experience with independent bookstores is that they either don't carry romance novels at all, or if they do, they carry only "brand name" authors like Nora Roberts and/or cross-genre books like romantic suspense.  (I think I bought Anne Stuart's Black Ice at a small bookstore in Staunton, Virginia for that exact reason: I wanted something to read and they didn't have anything more mainstream in the romance genre.  Still, not a bad pick.)

Here's my point:  we can disagree with what Michael Norris has to say, but not with his familiarity and experience in this field.  He says that sales numbers -- the actual choices that actual readers make -- matter.  I'm willing to believe him, particularly as I have absolutely no data that contradicts him.  And if he's right, there's hope that we readers can make a difference.  Keep buying the books that present women the way you want them presented.  Don't buy the books that don't or that perpetuate a stereotypical and anti-feminist message that heroines are worth more if they're sexually innocent, sexually naive, sexually clueless, or just waiting for the right hero to uh, push the right buttons.  (As someone put it on Twitter: TSTM.  Too stupid to "seek her own pleasure.") 

So maybe Victoria Dahl's contemporary novels are having a greater effect on the market than we realize:  they're popular, they present women as sexually experienced and confident in their own sexuality, there's no suggestion that anyone (the hero, the author, or the reader) should judge the heroine for being confident in her sexuality or for having a variety of sexual experiences. 

People can disagree with me; I'm okay with that.  I guess I believe two things that are potentially unpopular.  First, there is a cause-and-effect at work in the publication of romance novels.  If we see too many "women are judged on their sexual history" books, there's a cause for that.  It might be a complex equation involving what authors are writing, what publishers are picking up from new authors, and what readers are buying.  Or it could just be the buyers for the big box stores.  No matter what the cause, if we want things to change it may help to know what the causal factors are and how they can be influenced.

Second, I do believe that each individual title should be judged on its merits as a romance novel.  If a character is presented as sexually insecure or inexperienced, the author should be doing two things: making that character's backstory consistent with her personality, and presenting the heroine's story arc as one that shows the heroine as self-determining.  Of course the heroine is influenced by what the hero thinks of her.  But she shouldn't substitute his judgment for her own, and she should have sufficient backbone to orchestrate her own change into a more confident and self-determining person.  For that matter, so should the hero.  (It goes without saying that the author should respect her characters and present them as fundamentally interesting.  A sexually inexperienced heroine can be interesting; a sexually inexperienced and wimpy heroine isn't.  At least not to me.)