Tuesday, July 28, 2015

The Li.st Romance Panels: Is Romance Feminist?

Last week, eight romance authors, invited by the Li.st, gathered in a New York City work cooperative space to speak to an enthusiastic audience about romance, feminism, and sex. I was thrilled to be a part of the audience, and planned to write up a report for RNFF readers on the evening. Of course, now that I'm back home, unpacking after the RWA annual conference, which took place in the days following the Li.st panel, I can't for the life of me find the extensive notes I took as the authors talked and debated. Insert your favorite curse words here...

Luckily for me, fellow romance scholar Jayashree Kamble live-tweeted during the panels, and put her tweets together on Storify; you can find her tweets here.

"Feminism and Romance" panel: Alisha Rai, Sarah MacLean
Maya Rodale, and Carla Neggers. Photo from Alisha Rai's tweet
There are a few things that I'd like to add to Jayashree's thoughts. Maya Rodale, moderator of the first panel, "Romance Novels as a Feminist Trope Throughout the Centuries," opened the discussion by asking her fellow panelists "Are romance novels feminist?" Kamble suggests in her tweet that the response was "hell, yes" (or perhaps that was Kamble's answer?), but panelists' actual comments were more nuanced. There was a bit of silence at first, that funny pause that sometimes happens at the start of a panel talk when no one is quite sure who is meant to speak first, and Rodale interjected a few more questions "Are romances bad?" "Romances are written by women for women, about women, no?" MacLean and Rai then jumped in to note the difficulty of answering any of these questions with a simple "yes" or "no," especially given the breadth of the romance field at present. Carla Neggers, who has been publishing longer than any of the other panelists, added historical context, talking about many of the limits placed on romance authors when she was just beginning her career, and how many of those limits are no longer in place.

"How has the romance genre evolved over the past few decades?" was the next topic Rodale asked panelists to consider. The greater diversity of the genre, particularly in regards to the inclusion of romances featuring LGBTQ protagonists and protagonists of color. Rai had perhaps the best line of the night, though, when she noted that diversity still has a looooong way to go in the largely still-white world of romanceland: "We say evolution, but evolution is too slow. We need revolution." #weneeddiverseromance, indeed.

Sarah MacLean, who is white, did not disagree, but framed the issue somewhat differently, suggesting that the genre is on the edge of a huge shift, moving inexorably towards a more inclusive stance. Other panelists noted that diversity took hold first in the ranks of the self-published, and is only gradually (if at all) effecting the look of the pub lists of the big 5 romance publishers. It would be a cool research project, my academic self thinks, comparing the numbers of POC and LGBTQ characters in books by those publishers over the past 5, or perhaps 10, years...

Readers' often judgmental stance towards romance heroines formed another topic of discussion, but soon segued into thoughts about the prevalence of the billionaire hero in contemporary romance published in the past few years. MacLean put forth a theory that I've heard in other venues: that romance is a fantasy, and today, given the tough economic times and the dual role of worker and homemaker that the majority of American women have to play today, the fantasy of being swept away by a man who has so much money that you'll never need to worry about paying the bills again is vastly appealing.  Rodale concurred, focusing on the alpha male in billionaire romance not only being able to meet the heroine/reader's economic needs/worries, but also being able to address her other desires (sexual, emotional), desires that in everyday life often have to be pushed to the side. I get this argument, but I'm wondering why books in which the women are billionaires themselves, and fall in love with appreciative guys, aren't nearly as popular? Is there some gendered sense that a rich woman will be exploited? That a rich woman is somehow bad? That she must have had to do something not quite feminine in order to achieve wealth? That being a billionaire is hard work, but loving one is not? I'd love to hear readers' thoughts about this...

The question of happy endings—does romance require them, or can the genre take them or leave them?—concluded the first panel. Most audience members seemed to be in the former camp, despite Rodale's citing of many romance-writing and -reading friends who are happy to live without the HEA, or even the HFN. I wondered if there is anything inherently feminist, or anti-feminist, about the restrictiveness, of the HEA—what do you think?

"Erotic Writing and the Role of Women" panel. Photo from Alyssa Cole's tweet

The second panel, "Erotic Writing and the Role of the Woman," featured an entire panel of romance writers of color, a rarity at RWA or other meetings, unless the workshop/panel topic is about diversity (more about this in Friday's post). Feminista Jones, a sex-positive social worker, activist, blogger, and now BDSM romance novelist, moderated the discussion with fellow erotic romance writers Suleikha Snyder, Rebekkah Weatherspoon, and Jordan Silver.

I thought it was fascinating that all of the writers except for Jones began their writing careers penning fan fiction, then discovering through traditional or, more often, through self-publishing, that what they were giving away for free could be earning them money. Does the slash tradition of fan fiction make writers more comfortable with erotic romance publishing? Does the independence of fan fiction (no editors, no publishing houses) lead fan fiction writers more easily to self-publishing?

This panel, like the earlier one, talked about the changes in the romance genre over the past 20 years. The rise of self-publishing; the shift from heroines with no sexual agency to heroines whose sexual desires are affirmed; the rise of queer romance, and sex-positive romance—just a few of the changes the panelists noted.

A fascinating exchange occurred between Jordan Silver, who declared that she wasn't a feminist, that she liked alpha males and wanted to be taken care of, and Feminista Jones, who spoke about the often fraught relationship between black women and feminism (many black women feeling that feminism is a white girl thing, without any real relevance to their lives). Jones argued for a broader understanding of feminism and its focus on equality for women, no matter their race or ethnicity. The discussion highlighted a point made earlier in the evening, that there is no one black voice, no one black identity; the three women of African descent on the panel were all coming from different backgrounds and different cultures, and one's experience did not mirror that of the others'. Only when we have enough books with people of color will we be able to move beyond the assumption of a monolithic black identity.

Jones also spoke about the feminism she tried to portray in her BDSM romance, Push The Button, which she wrote partly in reaction against the misconceptions about the BDSM lifestyle she saw in the popular 50 Shades of Gray novels. A member of the BDSM community herself, Jones wrote Push to present the everyday life aspects of a s/D relationship. When I read Push, I didn't find it that feminist, to be honest. After hearing Jones speak, though, it's clear that she herself has a strong grounding in feminist ideas, and I'm curious to know more about how she sees those ideas playing out in her novel. I've emailed her to see if she might like to guest post here at RNFF; will keep you posted...

The panelists also discussed the difficulties in finding homes for their work with traditional publishers, in large part because of the paucity of agents and editors of color in the industry. I've seen far more younger editors in the business than there were when I worked in publishing (in the late 80s and the 90s), but until people of color hold positions of power within what are often very hierarchical publishing houses, the lack of real investment in the stories of writers of color is all too likely to continue.

Two other great comments from this portion of the evening: Feminista Jones took major issue with the idea that black women are not deserving of love; her goal in writing romance, she says, is to "show black women being adored." Suleikha Snyder mentioned that in one of her Bollywood novels, she had great fun writing one white character in her otherwise all Indian cast, ironically turning the tables on all of the token (insert minority identity here) portrayals found in the majority of American-published romance.

During the Q & A period, two questions white readers often ask of authors of color came to the fore: how do I find more books by writers of color, and how do I, as a white writer, include characters of color in my work without stereotyping/being offensive? The panel turned the first question back on the audience—rather than giving them places to find POC romance, the panelists challenged audience members to help create a publishing and consumer environment in which such romances will not be hard to find. Buy books by writers of color; use social media to promote writers of color; tell publishers that you want romances by writers of color. Don't let publishers off the hook by letting them continue to say that such romances do not sell.

The panelists were gracious in offering advice in response to the second question. Ask questions with thoughtfulness and respect, do research, run your stories by beta readers of color, even just make friends with people from cultures and ethnicities to which you yourself do not belong. What they did not say, but what I would like to add, is that it is not the responsibility of writers of color to make us white writers feel safe when writing about people outside our own cultures. We have to take a risk, be willing to make mistakes, be willing to be called out on them, learn from them, and keep going.

Just as writers of color have been doing all along.

More on Friday about the RWA National conference, and topics of interest there to feminist romance readers.

Friday, July 17, 2015

Talking Feminism and Romance in NYC

The annual meeting of the Romance Writers of America is being held next week in New York City, and I'm looking forward to attending. And I'm especially looking forward to attending a pre-conference discussion on the evening of July 21 about romance and feminism, put together by a group called theli.st. Two panels are scheduled: "Romance Novels as a Feminist Trope Throughout the Centuries," moderated by Maya Rodale and featuring Sarah MacLean, Carla Neggers, and Ashley Antoinette; and "Erotic Writing and the Role of the Woman," moderated by Feminista Jones and featuring Alisha Rai, Jordan Silver, and Rebekah Weatherspoon. For more information, check out the web announcement here.

If any RNFF readers are going to be at RWA, or at the panel discussion, I'd love to chat with you face to face. I'll be the short redhead looking shy and ill-at-ease (confirmed introvert, here) over in the corner of the room, unless of course someone brings up something to do with feminism...

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Rape Culture and Rape Fantasy: Lilah Pace's ASKING FOR IT

Do we live in a culture that normalizes rape? Tacitly encourages it?

If so, do romance novels play a role in perpetuating such a culture?

Do women who have sexual fantasies about being raped feel ashamed of such fantasies? Feel like bad feminists?

Would a woman who lived in a non-rape culture never fantasize about being raped?

These and other questions have been swirling around in my head after reading Liz McCausland's June 13, 2015 "Unpopular Opinion" post on her blog, Something More: my extensive reading, which discusses the questions we are not asking about our romance novels when it comes to the issue of rape. And after reading an article in the July/August 2015 edition of the Yale Alumni Magazine, in which four women, including two current Yale students, hold a conversation about issues of sexual misconduct on campus. And especially after reading Lilah Pace's controversial erotic romance, Asking For It, which explores the issue of rape fantasy while simultaneously presenting eroticized scenes of consensual rape for its readers' pleasure.

Pace's novel, told from the point of view of Vivienne, a white New Orleans girl of privilege who has moved to Austin, Texas, to attend the University of Texas and earn a Ph.D. in art. Vivienne is in therapy, in part because of the guilt and shame she feels about her sexual fantasies: "I don't get off unless I'm imagining being raped.... I hate this about myself" (page 2). She hates it, but even so, she wishes she could move from fantasy to reality, not by being attacked (been there, done that), but by sharing her fantasy with a willing partner in a sexual role-play. Unfortunately, her last boyfriend, nice-guy lawyer Geordie, was not at all comfortable playing such a sexual role, even in play, and because of this, as well as other incompatibilities, the two broke up.

One part of Vivienne is sickened by her obsession with rape fantasy. Another takes deep pleasure in indulging in it, even when the lines between reality and fantasy get blurry. A flat tire on a dark, lonely road; a cell phone with no charge; a large, overpowering male stepping out of his sleek car to help—when Vivienne finds herself in the midst of this real-life scenario at the start of Asking For It, her mind soon fills

...with visions I didn't want to want. Visions of him bending me over the back of my car, pushing up the skirt of my sundress. Of him pulling me into the backseat, putting my hand on his cock, whispering, Time to thank me. His hands fisting in my hair as he towed me down on my knees—
     Stop it. (8)

Good Samaritan does not turn into actual rapist, and the two part without even exchanging names. But only a few days later, at a friend's party, Vivienne finds herself being introduced to unsmiling Jonah Marks, UT Earth Sciences professor, and the sexy object of her latest guilty fantasies. Even worse, former boyfriend Geordie is also in attendance, and is headed toward sloppy, confessional drunk territory. When Geordie attempts to apologize for his role in their breakup in excruciatingly embarrassing detail—"I mean, kink yay, right? Everybody should love kinks. And you get to have yours! You do. But it's not my kink. At all. Playing rapist freaks me out. But I shouldn't have been such a dumb cunt about it" (25)—Vivenne can't bring herself to just laugh and forget it. And neither can Jonah, who overhears Geordie's confession. And who makes Vivienne a proposal that tells her that he, too, was as far from envisioning himself as a Good Samaritan as it was possible to be:

     "I don't even know you."
     "That's going to make it better for you," Jonah says. "With a boyfriend, you can pretend—but it's a joke, really. A game. Not the fantasy you really want. Me? I'm nearly a stranger. I can do more than fuck you. I can scare you a little. Just a little. Enough to make it what you really want.
     "It's your fantasy, and mine. Chances like this don't come along often—two people twisted in the exact same way." Jonah smiles; it's a fierce expression, rather than a friendly one. "If we don't make something out of this, I think you'll regret it. I know I will." (29)

Unsurprisingly, the rational, thinking part of Vivienne is appalled by Jonah's proposal:

My fantasy is something I'm trying to escape from, not sink down into. If I try this and hate it, that would be beyond horrible. It might be as traumatic as a real rape, and I would have walked right into it. That's not what scares me, though. What scares me is that I'll try it and love it. Maybe I really am that fucked up. (30)

Yet her own obsession calls to her, and only a few days later, she finds herself emailing Jonah, asking him to meet. And then asking him for more.

Several consensual forced sexual encounters later, and Vivienne and Jonah know they're explosive together as lovers. And so do readers; these scenes are detailed, explicit, and meant to be a turn-on, not a sign of Vivienne's "fucked up" mind. And they were so, at least to this reader, even though rape fantasy isn't really something that pops to the front of my brain when I'm imagining sexy times. I've never been sexually assaulted myself, but I have friends, acquaintances, and relatives who have, and I find the idea of eroticizing sexual violence against women in the face of that knowledge pretty distasteful. But Pace's story turned me on. Why?

I think that it's because that, despite all the pre-publication talk about the blurring of the boundaries between fantasy and reality, there is a clear line between rape and role-play, both for Vivienne and for the reader. Vivienne and Jonah discussed their hard and soft boundaries, as occurs in many BDSM romance novels, before their first encounter, and all of the sites of their trysts, as well as the general outlines of the fantasy each one will involve, are agreed upon by both parties before each occurence. Vivienne is sickened by her actual rapist, who is still involved in her life to a small degree, but she is turned on by the pretense of being forced. Reading Vivienne's story felt far different to me than reading Old Skool rape-tastic romance, in which rape occurs but is rarely named such in the texts. In Old Skool romances, a reader has to turn a narrative of actual rape into a fantasy inside her own head. In contrast, what Vivienne and Jonah are doing is meant to simulate rape, rather than rape pretending to be something more benign as in Old Skool romances. The fantasy takes place on the pages of the book, in the head of the protagonist, rather than in my own. I'm not pretending that rape is a pleasure; Vivienne is, and it turns her on. That difference may not seem to be a major one, but for me, it was the difference between a book that makes me want to throw up and a book that I find both intellectually intriguing and sexually pleasurable.

And it's also because Vivienne has the advice of a kindly, intelligent, and insightful therapist to guide her through her unusual sexual journey. Doreen, said therapist, reassures Vivienne that experiencing rape fantasies in the wake of being sexually assaulted, while uncommon, is not unheard of. After her first encounter with Jonah, Vivienne fears that Doreen will judge her negatively for turning her fantasies into reality/play (projecting much?), and will advise Vivienne for her own mental health against doing it again. But Doreen, like the best of therapists, refuses to judge; instead, she assures Vivienne that "there's a world of difference between your fantasies and what [X] did, because he raped you.... You choose your partner in the fantasy—whether that's a figment of your imagination or a willing lover like Jonah. You didn't choose [X]. He took that choice away from you" (192). Doreen tries to help Vivienne redirect her focus to what she thinks is Vivienne's real problem:

"One of the reasons you came to me was that you wanted to stop having this fantasy. I understand your reasons. But I don't think the fantasy itself is your most significant problem. I think your main problem is the way you beat yourself up about it.... That, and the reason you're fixated on the fantasy in the first place." (11)

Initially, Vivienne is able to keep her guilt and shame out of her trysts with Jonah. In large part because she and Jonah agree to keep their personal lives out of their sexual play, feeling that this will make the play all the more sexually charged. But such compartmentalization becomes more and more difficult as they encounter each other casually on campus and find themselves feeling empathy for the other's emotions, and when real life, in the form of family problems, interrupts their consensual play. Can a relationship founded on rape fantasy transform into a romantic relationship? How much can Jonah and Vivienne keep hidden from one another (Vivienne's rape and her dysfunctional family; the reasons why Jonah's so drawn to rapist role-play, and his own family troubles) and still hope to build mutual trust?

The most memorable scene in the novel for me was a confrontation of sorts between Vivienne and Doreen, when, after months of building up trust between them, Doreen thinks Vivienne is strong enough to listen to this bombshell: "You might have had this fantasy even if [X] had never raped you" (251). Though Vivienne disagrees—"No." I shake my head. "He did this to me. You know he did," Doreen asks Vivienne to consider thinking about her history in a different way:

     "[X] raped you.... The fantasy comes from that, and from a culture that eroticizes violence against women, and leftover puritanical guilt about sex that tells us we're not allowed to choose it and want it for ourselves, and from God only knows where else."
     I'm furious with her. I want to cry. My cheeks are flushed with shame. Every emotion I've ever felt about this is bubbling up at once. "But it's the only thing that gets me off. I can't come any other way! Does that sound normal to you?"
     Doreen looks at me steadily. "Exactly. The fantasy isn't your problem; it's the extremity of your fixation on it. Who  is it who won't let you find sexual satisfaction any other way?"
     Me. She means me.  (251-52)

Asking For It doesn't provide any easy answers to the questions that opened this post; in fact, with its "To be Continued" ending, it leaves far too many of them frustratingly open. But at least it is asking us to give voice to the questions, to start thinking about the intersections of rape culture and rape fantasy, in romance novels and in real life. A truly feminist move, in my book.

Asking for It
Berkley, 2015

Friday, July 10, 2015

Romancing Independence: Juneteenth

Last week, those of us in the U.S. spent a day celebrating the 4th of July, the anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence. Many African-Americans, though, point to a date in June, not July, as their day of independence.

As Beverly Jenkins explains in the Foreword to The Brightest Day: A Juneteenth Historical Romance Anthology, different groups of African-Americans have chosen different days to celebrate the anniversary of the emancipation of blacks from enslavement: September 22th, the day in 1862 that President Lincoln issued an official warning that he would order the emancipation of all enslaved people in states which did not stop rebelling against United States by the end of 1862;  January 1st, the anniversary of the day in 1863 when Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation officially went into effect; April 3rd, the day in 1865 when Richmond, the capital of Virginia, fell to northern troops; and April 9th, the day in the same year that General Lee, the commander of the Confederate forces, officially surrendered at Appomattox courthouse. But in Texas, the last rebellious state to surrender to Union forces, official emancipation of the enslaved did not occur until June 19, 1865, when Union General Gordon Granger publicly read General Order #3 from the balcony of Ashton villa in Galveston: "The people of Texas are informed that in accordance with a Proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free." In Texas, then, and in cities across the country to which Texans have migrated, June 19th, or what has come to be known as "Juneteenth," is the day chosen to remember and celebrate African American emancipation.

I celebrated July 4th in part by dipping into The Brightest Day, which, in addition to Jenkins' Foreword, includes four novellas each focused in part upon Juneteenth celebrations of the past: one in 1866, immediately after the end of the Civil War; one in 1875, when African-Americans were reaping the benefits of freedom under Reconstruction, often despite white resistance; one in 1910, when white oppression was once again on the rise; and one in 1961, during the Civil Rights era. The stories not only focus on budding romances, but also on the changing conditions of African-Americans in each of these quite different time periods. My favorite was the last, Alyssa Cole's "Let It Shine," but Piper Huguley's "A Sweet Way to Freedom" is particularly bittersweet for those who have already read her A Virtuous Ruby, which takes place a few years after "Sweet Way."

2015 is the 150th anniversary of Juneteenth. Since 1980, it has been an official state holiday in Texas, and since 2014, 43 of the 50 U. S. states and the District of Columbia have recognized Juneteenth as either a state holiday or a ceremonial holiday, a day of observance. As has the U. S. government. But it's a holiday that many outside of the African-American community often have little knowledge of. The National Juneteenth Observance Foundation has been organizing a petition campaign, to urge the U. S. Postal Service to create a stamp in commemoration of the holiday. If you're interested in supporting their efforts to make this holiday more widely known, you can find a petition form at their web site, here.

Or you could pick up your own copy of The Brightest Day, and share it with others who might not know about the importance of June 19th...

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Romance at the Roosevelt: Heidi Cullinan's CARRY THE OCEAN

"A quad[riplegic], an autistic, and a depressive walk into a bar..."

Sounds like the opening line of a really insensitive joke, no? But it's an all-too-likely description of three residents of the Roosevelt, an assisted living facility for younger adults who need a little extra help in order to live apart from their parents. The first book in Heidi Cullinan's new romance series actually begins before the Roosevelt opens, when first-year college student Emmet Washington develops a crush on the young man who lives (literally) across the Ames, Iowa railroad tracks. Because Emmet has autism spectrum disorder, which in Emmet's case has gifted him with an eidetic memory, mad math and computer skills, physical sensitivities, an inability to read others' emotions, and a tendency to hum and flap his arms when he's excited or distressed, meeting new people is more difficult for him than for the average Joe. Especially when that new person is as cute as recent high-school graduate Jeremey Samson.

After ten months of frustrated pining, Emmet finally gets his chance to meet Jeremey in person when their neighborhood holds a summer block party. Emmet's been practicing polite party talk, and is doing a good job of keeping his flapping to a minimum when he walks up and introduces himself to Jeremey. Some guys might panic when the boy of their dreams starts having a panic attack not long into their first conversation, but not straightforward Emmet. Instead, Emmet just asks if he can help, and holds out his hand. And Jeremey takes it.

Turns out that Jeremey's problems interacting with other people may be even more difficult than Emmet's. Emmet, after all, has informed, amazingly supportive parents who accept him for who he is, and work with him to figure out how he can best make his way independently in the world. Jeremey's, in contrast, won't listen to the doctor who tells them that Jeremey is suffering from major depressive disorder, won't allow him to take medicine for it, and keep telling him that he just needs to  "get over it," just needs to make an effort and he'll be normal.

Emmet's matter-of-fact acceptance of his own disability, as well as Jeremey's shameful secret is, a revelation to Jeremey: "It took me a second  to digest the fact that he'd spoken of his disability as casually as he might a paper cut. Plus he'd given me so much information about himself, helpful information. Intense and direct. It was, honestly, refreshing. I wondered if I could dare to be the same" (Kindle Loc 448). Emmet's straightforward, "What do you think? Should we give friendship with each other a whirl?" has Jeremey thinking about something besides himself for the first time in a long time, and the two fall quickly into an easy friendship (Kindle Loc 229). A friendship that over the summer gradually turns into a romance when mutual meltdowns lead to mutual comforting, and then mutual arousal. Turns out people with autism spectrum disorder, as well as people with major depressive disorder, are far more than just their diagnoses; they also have sexual identities, and sexual desires. As Jeremey notes:

I don't think most people believed we actually were having sex, or if they did, they thought we were cute while we did it or something. People saw us walking down the street to the grocery store or wandering the aisles of Wheatsfield and acted as if we were escapees from the Island of Adorable, puppies dressed up in people clothes. Like we weren't really boyfriends, like we were fake. (2739)

With her explicit depiction of Emmet and Jeremey's sexual relationship, Cullinan goes a long way toward showing readers that their "cutsey" views of disabled peoples' sex lives is more of a defense mechanism against their own worries than any accurate vision.

Cullinan breaks down other stereotypes, too, including ones related to genre expectations. For true love does not lead to instant recovery of health or ability, as it might have done in a romance novel of the past. Emmet and Jeremey help each other, but Jeremey cannot keep people from teasing Emmet when his excitement or frustration leads to arm-flapping or humming. Nor can Emmet prevent Jeremey's depression from worsening, to the point where even his parents have to accept that their son needs help, far more help than the easy "pull yourself up by your bootstraps" advice they've been giving to date.

That help takes the form of a stay in the hospital, a new relationship with a supportive psychiatrist/social worker, and, to Jeremey's surprise, a new life with his boyfriend Emmet at the Roosevelt. Living on their own, without their parents, for the first time, is a challenge for the two young men, especially when they're adjusting not only to apartment living, but to living with a romantic partner. And to living with their fellow Roosevelt residents, too, some of whom are less than happy to find themselves living in "the freak house" with Jeremey and Emmet (2788).

Is it "normal" for a quad, an autistic, and a depressive to walk into a bar? Cullinan's novel argues that there is no real "normal" even while insisting that we not regard that line as the opening to a joke, but to a very real situation we might encounter in our "normal," everyday world.

Illustration credits:
Autism Awareness Ribbon: Wikimedia Commons
Depression word cluster: Mental Health Resources
Group living cartoon: Autism blog Seattle Hospital

Samhain, 2015

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

More Short Takes: Contemporary Romance

So many of RNFF's favorite authors have new books coming out this summer that another Short Takes blog is in order for June:

Victoria Dahl's latest contemporary, Taking the Heat, features a heroine rather different from the typical Dahl protagonist. Though she's funny as hell ("There are men out there who will put their penises in a tree. There are men out there who will put their penises in sheep. You do not need to feel flattered that a man wants to put his penis inside you"), Veronica Chandler is majorly lacking on the self-confidence front [Kindle Loc 259]. All her life, Veronica dreamed of escaping the confines of her Wyoming hometown and making a shiny new life for herself in New York City. But the reality of Big Apple living proved far less enticing than the dream, and at twenty-seven, Veronica finds herself back in Jackson Hole, licking her wounds, dependent again on her emotionally-distant father. Even her success in her new job as "Dear Veronica," a newspaper advice columnist, can't persuade her that she's anything more than a fraud. Only when she starts taking her own advice as seriously as her readers do does Veronica begin to understand the difference between faking it and being it. But when a new-to-town hot guy librarian begins to take an interest in the real Veronica, will his good guy persona turn out to be just as much a fraud as was Veronica's big-city-girl mask?

One of the first releases from start-up publisher Brain Mill Press is a novella by Mary Ann Rivers, set in the world of her Burnsides series. In My Only Sunshine, Rivers experiments with the dual narration typical of contemporary romance, not just for the sake of variety, but as the best way to capture the psychological nuances of her two protagonists. Chapters from the point of view of Mallory, written in the third person past tense, are purportedly from the memoir the adult Mallory has written about her adolescent crush on John, now a famous musician, while chapters from John's point of view, which tell the story of their meeting in the present after fifteen years apart, are told in the first person present tense. During their teen years, Mallory "was everything that was the opposite of John—short, fat, pale, poor, invisible, untalented" (71). But for one brief year, the two shared almost every evening together, "making a kingdom for ourselves under the stars": talking, sharing, feeling, and above all, longing (119). But neither had the confidence to talk about their relationship openly, barely acknowledging each other at school, and certainly never daring to try to transform their emotional connection into a sexual one. But after a violent altercation breaks up Mallory's family, John finds he's not only lost his chance to kiss the girl he loves, he's lost the girl as well. And he's left alone with his regrets, and his guilt for not intervening when he should have, too selfish to let anyone else share the secret magic that he found in Mallory.

As an adult, Mallory has used therapy and writing to help her come to terms with the traumas of her childhood. But John is still hauling around the albatross of his guilt, a guilt that has prevented him from reaching out to Mallory, even after the publication of her memoir about their teen year. Only after he forces himself to read a description of her memoir, The Encyclopedia of an Ohio Girl in Love, and finally realizes she loved him then as much as he loved her, does he find a courage to match Mallory's, and contact her. Such a reunion story could have felt schmaltzy, or unconvincing, in the hands of a less talented writer. But Rivers, who makes the unconventional choice to have the hero, rather than her "Venus-covered-in-sea-foam" bodied heroine, be the one still learning to cope with adult life, has the writing chops to make a more-than-persuasive case for the power of adolescent love, and its potential to last far into adulthood.

The immensely entertaining sidekicks in Amy Jo Cousins' Off Campus get their own story in The Girl Next Door, which moves from the first book's college setting to a first job in the big city milieu. Charles "Cash" Carmichael, a privileged legacy admit to an Ivy League college, had a major awakening when his best friend announced he was in a romantic relationship with another man. Now, having left a cushy job with his family's Boston lobbying firm and taken a low-paying gig teaching soccer to elementary-school kids in a working-class neighborhood in Chicago, Cash has become the point man for all things gay, though he strictly goes for the girls himself. So much so that his high-school-age cousin, Denny, runs to Cash when his parents refuse to believe him when he announces he prefers to sleep with boys. Not feeling all that confident in his ability to provide the proper guidance, Cash calls on his one-time college fuck-buddy, iconoclastic, feminist, bisexual Steph, who has recently moved to Chicago to be closer to her estranged father, for help.

Sparks have always flown between Cash and Steph, and even though Steph broke off their relationship in college to be with another woman, soon the two are back to their old college sexual hijinks. Each insists to the other, though, that it's nothing but casual fucking. But as they spend more time together, Cash is growing increasingly frustrated with the distance Steph insists on maintaining between them, and "how badly he'd fucked up back in school when he hadn't taken her, taken them, seriously" (1961).

You might think reading an entire romance novel from the point of view of a privileged, not entirely quick-on-the-draw heterosexual guy might not be so entertaining, but you'd be oh, so wrong. Cousins does amazing work conveying the character and voice of a young man who should embody everything conventional and oblivious, but who is open and kind enough to learn that there other equally valid ways of being, and to embrace the unconventional with honesty, vibrancy, and joy.

Victoria Dahl, Taking the Heat. Harlequin, July 2015
Mary Ann Rivers, My Only Sunshine. Brain Mill Press, July 2015.
Amy Jo Cousins, The Girl Next Door. Samhain, June 2015.

Friday, June 26, 2015

Romance at the Children's Literature Association 2015 Conference

My apologies for not posting last Friday. I was attending the Children's Literature Association's annual conference, which was held in Richmond VA this year, and there were so many interesting panels to attend that I didn't have a moment to blog. If you're interested in hearing about some of the presentations which touched upon issues of feminism and/or romance, here's a quick peek at some of the talks I had the chance to attend:

On Thursday, I attended a panel on "Female Authorship" in children's and young adult fiction. Megan Isaac of Elon University talked about the difference problems faced by girl authors in earlier fiction, (Jo March in Louisa May Alcott's Little Women and Cassandra Mortmain in Dodie Smith's I Capture the Castle) and such authors in more recent books (Rainbow Rowell's Fan Girl and Scott Westerfield's Afterworlds). Material conditions were the biggest challenges to earlier girl writers, Isaac argued, while commercialism and celebrity prove the greatest threats to contemporary adolescent female authors. Jocelyn van Tuyl of the New College of Florida also spoke about Fan Girl and Little Women, suggesting that Rowell both replicates and reverses the themes around writing found in Alcott's classic work. Lots of interesting points in her talk, particularly about the ways that romances affect the writing lives of both characters.

Friday featured a cool panel on "Comics and Feminism." From Amanda Loeffert of the university of North Carolina at Charlotte, I learned about the latest incarnation of Ms. Marvel, a Pakistani-American teen named Kamala Kahn, who initially echoes stereotypes of sexualized female superheroes, but then subverts them when she realizes how they limit her abilities to fight the bad guys. Rachel Dean-Ruzicka from Georgia GWinnet College talked about a comic just started in 2014 called Lumberjanes, which features five friends attending Miss Quinzella Thiskwin Penniquiqul Thistle Crumpet's Camp for Hardcore Lady Types (say that five times fast!) who band together to fight supernatural strangeness. An understated romance is developing between two of the girls, which makes me eager to check this one out.

In a panel later on Friday, amusingly titled "Show Us Your Ankles," Deidre McMahon of Drexel University spoke about "Girls Who Kill in Victorian Books and Magazines for Boys." Not the most romantic of talks, for sure, but intriguing for forcing us to question the assumption that all girls in 19th century adventure stories played only passive roles. McMahon described several examples from the colonial novels of G. A. Henty in which daughters of English colonists killed belligerent natives to protect their brothers, or themselves, highlighting both Henty's racism and also his suggestion that when displaced from their native England, young women were forced into more active roles.

I remember owning and reading
 Janet Lambert's junior novel
as a teen
The panel which I spoke on, "What is YA," featured another talk with relevance to the study of romance. Amanda Allen of Eastern Michigan University spoke about the similarities and disagreements between librarians and academics between the 1920s and 1940s about what should count as "good" literature for adolescents. Though today most scholars point to the 60's as the origins of young adult literature, books for teens were being published and promoted far earlier, in a genre typically labeled the "junior novel." Junior novels have been described as "the story that records truthfully the modern girl's dream of life and romance and her way of adjusting to her school and family experiences" (quoted in Michael Cart's Young Adult Literature: From Romance to Realism), which sounds to me remarkably like the New Adult fiction that has taken the romance community by storm in the past five years. Critics today tend to ignore the junior novel genre, and Allen's examination of the debates between librarians and academics in the period in which they were published can help us understand why.

On Saturday, I attended "Happily Never After," which featured an intriguing talk by Vikki Terrile of Queens Library entitled "What's Your Price for Flight? Escape from Arranged and Forced Marriage in Young Adult Literature." Many of the YA books listed under the heading "arranged marriage" actually feature "forced marriage," Terrile argued after reading 17 such titles. Conflating the two terms is damaging to young readers who come from cultures in which arranged marriages are still the norm, Terrile suggested. The recurring plot in these books, which presents flight from the unwanted marriage as the only possible solution is also problematic, because said flight typically involves not only leaving behind an unwanted suitor, but also leaving behind family and culture.  Interestingly, the majority of the books she examined were fantasy novels, set in societies in which allowing girls to choose their own partners presented a threat to their social codes. During the Q & A session, we had a lively discussion about issues of culture and race, as well as about why such books, whose primary readers were presumably American girls who were not being raised  in a society where arranged marriages were the norm, would have such a recurring pattern of force and flight. What kind of fantasies was such a plot pattern fulfilling for such readers? Terrile was kind enough to send me a list of the 17 books in which she found this pattern, many of which were unfamiliar to me.

I always end up with long lists of books I want to read after attending ChLA conferences, as well as ones I want to scoop up to give to my daughter. So enough writing for today; I'm off to the bookstore in search of Ms. Marvel and some Lumberjanes...