Friday, August 30, 2013

The Challenges of Cross-Class Romance

In romance, the most common version of the cross-class love story is the familiar trope of Cinderella. Forced into a life of servitude by a cruel step-mother, the folktale Cinderella (with a little help from her fairy godmother) rises from the ashes of her degradation to marry into the glittering world of the royalty. Yet in most versions of the folktale, Cinderella's class background is not all that different from the prince's; before her mother's death and her father's remarriage, Cinderella lived not a life of poverty or labor, but of gentility. Cinderella's rise, then, is not really much of a crossing of class at all, but rather a restoration of a class status unfairly wrested from her.

Pretty Woman's Edward comes a-wooing
via fire escape
Many re-envisionings of the Cinderella trope in modern romance dress, ones which feature lovers from truly different class backgrounds (Pretty Woman, for example) conclude with a declaration of love or a wedding, suggesting that once the cross-class lovers acknowledge their feelings, an ending as happy as Cinderella's will inevitably follow. But as two recent blog posts on the blog of Class Action, a national nonprofit group committed to exploring social class and class privilege and bias, demonstrate, tensions in a real-life marriage between people who grew up in different social classes can often stem not just from differing personalities, but also from class-based assumptions about the way the world should and does work.

In "When Love Crosses Class Lines," Jessi Streib, a sociology professor at Duke University, writes about her research into the marriages of college-educated couples, in which one partner of the couple was raised in the middle class, the other raised in the working class. Though the 32 couples she interviewed rarely mentioned class as a cause of any of the challenges they had experienced in their relationships, Streib found evidence that the disagreements couples had could often be traced to class differences, rather than simply chalked up to individual partners' characters or personalties. "Partners from different class backgrounds typically had different ideas about how they wanted to go about their daily lives, and so marriages between people who grew up in different classes required navigating these differences," Streib argues. Partners raised in working-class families tended to take a more laissez-faire attitude toward life, wanting to live in the present, assuming the future would take care of itself. In contrast, those raised in middle-class families felt more comfortable planning for the future, and organizing the flow of daily life—what Streib terms the "managerial approach." Streib found these different attitudes affected seven separate aspects of married life: finances, paid work, leisure, housework, time, parenting, and emotions—all areas in which married couples must make decisions on a daily basis.

One of the few working-class families seen on TV: cast of Roseanne
Streib's findings are echoed in the experience of counseling psychologist Barbara Jensen, who specializes in working with cross-class couples. In her Class Action blog, "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner," Jensen illustrates how differing cultural assumptions lead to tension in one particular marriage. Carla, raised in a working-class family, finds husband Steve, who hails from a middle-class family, overly cold to her family. For his part, Steve doesn't understand why they have to spend so much time with Carla's relatives; aren't they grown-ups now? Steve doesn't understand why Carla shares her emotions and secrets with his boss's wife; Carla doesn't understand why they need to spend social time with his boss. Both Carla and Steve bring with them the social expectations of their class: for Steve, emotional boundaries signal respect for others, excessive emotional sharing signal rudeness, while to Carla, emotional boundaries signal coldness, reserve. For Carla, social time means spending time with equals, with friends, not with people who hold power over you; for Steve, cultivating those higher up in the power structure is an expected part of life.

Romance novels often feature cross-class couples. But rarely do the conflicts the couples experience stem from the different social expectations each member of the couple brings to the relationship. Or if they do, typically one member of the couple must give up what are portrayed as "immature" behaviors and assumptions in order to become worthy of the other partner's love. For example, in Sarah Mayberry's Harlequin Superromance Suddenly You, working-class hero Harry must give over his carefree life of living in the moment, choosing instead to take responsibility for his father's business, before middle-class heroine Pippa will accept that he's not going to leave her in the emotional and financial lurch as his best friend Steve did. Much ink has been spilled suggesting that romance fiction indoctrinates readers into patriarchal values, but little has been written about its ideologies of class. After reading Mayberry's book, I began to wonder—does romance also work to instill middle class assumptions and values in working-class readers?

As both Streib and Jensen point out, negotiating cultural differences stemming from class differences need not be an either/or. The couples with whom Streib spoke "usually reported being happy together. Class infused their marriages, but it did not extinguish them." Jensen notes that a class-conscious counselor will not simply urge Carla to adopt Steve's middle-class values, but to help both partners to understand that their differences stem not just from personal preference, but from the class-based assumptions each learned from their families of origin, and to "listen with compassion to each other's needs, dreams, and fears"—no matter whether said needs, dreams, or fears stemmed from middle-class, or working-class, values.

What romance novels can you think of that truly grapple with class difference? Do any of them feature couples, like Jensen's Carla and Steve, "learning roles and rules from both of their parents' families" and sharing "their favorite aspects of either culture" rather than one set of class assumptions ruling over the other?

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

The Gender-Bending Appeal of the Cross-dressing Hero, part 1: Anna Cowan's UNTAMED

Cross-dressing heroines have long been a staple of historical romance fiction. Donning men's breeches not only allows heroines of the past to ride a horse astride, but to take on identities and infiltrate spaces coded as "for men only." A woman masquerading as a man suggests a rebellious spirit, a willingness to buck social norms, a desire to capture and wield the power culturally normed as "masculine." Though her peers may find her costuming scandalous, the cross-dressing heroine of romance fiction more often finds approval from readers raised to take the equality of women for granted.

What, though, of the cross-dressing male? If a woman donning breeches signals strength and power, what cultural assumptions do we make when a man pulls a dress over his head? As Mindy Hung notes, when it's obvious that the body beneath the petticoats is a male body—broad shoulders, hairy chest, square jaw—the effect is one of emphasizing masculinity rather than adopting femininity; see, even if I try to be a lady, my manliness still shines clearly through.

Jack Lemmon finds high heels a bit difficult to navigate...
With the exception of a burgeoning list of m/m romances featuring heroes in drag, most male cross-dressing heroes are played for laughs—think of Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis struggling to manage their high heels as the walk down the train platform in 1959's Some Like it Hot, or Robin Williams in 1993's Mrs. Doubtfire standing at the toilet, peeing from beneath his skirt. Men may don dresses if for some reason they've been stripped of their male power (Jack & Tony hiding from the mob, Daniel Hilliard/Mrs. Doubtfire because his wife has denied him access to his children), but once order has been restored, power returned to its rightful place, heterosexual men typically revert to more gender-conforming garb.

Can a straight woman find a cross-dressed hero sexually attractive? Worthy of love? Two recent romances challenge readers to embrace heroes who perform non-conforming gender not only to hide or to regain power, but because they enjoy the sheer pleasure of taking on a feminine persona.

The traditional cover of Anna Cowan's regency historical, Untamed, published this past May, gives little hint of the gender-bending story inside. Eager to break up the affair between her newly married sister and the rakish Duke of Darlington, Katherine (Kit) Sutherland rashly agrees to the duke's unusual bargain: he'll leave London, and abandon her sister, the Countess of BenRuin—but only if Kit allows him to tag along with her to Sutherland family manor in the country. Kit believes she's got the best of the bargain; more comfortable in her role as axe-wielding pig farmer than society darling (she describes herself as "the dark hobgobling sister. Although perhaps too tall and strong for a hobgoblin. Perhaps the child of a hobgoblin and a tree"), Kit is only too happy to abandon the city, a world to which "she would never be made to fit" (Loc 75).

That is, until she discovers Darlington plans to spend his time in the country dressed as a woman, so h/she can share unchaperoned time—and a bedroom—with Kit. Unfortunately for our heroine, the duke's female "cousin" is not played for laughs. Lady Rose makes for just as compelling a woman as s/he does a man:

Even after nine hours she could not stop staring.
     Across the table, taking tea, was the most magnificent woman Kit had ever seen. She wore the rigid dress of the previous generation, but instead of looking outdated she made you long for the gorgeous, riotous colours of another age. Yellow poppies burst across the wine-red silk that bound her torso, chest and shoulders. They trailed down the skirts that waterfalled under their modest table. She was tightly corseted, her trim figure accentuated by the flare of small hoops beneath her skirts. She looked out the window, offering Kit her profile—the fine, straight nose, the smiling, expressive lips and heavy eyes. She wore a black wig, one thick coil falling over her shoulder on to the white linen tucked around her neck. (800)

Dramatic enough for Jude?
Kit isn't the only one who finds Lady Rose attractive. Kit's less-than-assertive younger brother is relieved to find himself finally attracted to a woman, while Kit's don't-look-too-closely-at-what-you'd-rather-not-see mother is only too glad to have a London gossip of Lady Rose's caliber sharing her parlour. The local squire toadies to the noblewoman, while his daughter schemes to snare her high-ranking male cousin. No one is meant to laugh at Darlington's performance, not even the reader; we're meant to find it as magnetic, as energizing, as is everyone who is drawn into his circle. "If Byron was magnificent, Jude was cataclysmic," muses Kit, an opinion we are meant to share (4235).

Jude, the Duke of Darlington, finds himself drawn to Kit in large part because of her strength: she's survived the physical abuse of a father, acts as financial head of her family, and wields a mighty axe to boot. Darlington, too, has been the victim of abuse—"You may not have noticed this... but I'm not exactly the manly variety of man. My father was a keen observer of the fact, and his response was to lock me into a particular room under the house with no windows" (1087)—but finds himself as a result not a tower of strength, but a mass of suicidal fear, compelled to inflict pain and humiliation on others to ensure they keep a safe distance. Instinctually, he feels that the sharp-tongued masculine Kit can save him from worst self. But Kit turns the tables, urging him to embrace everything that makes him himself, arrogance, insults, and all.

Cowan does not just create a simple inversion of gender roles (although Kit does make for an arresting cross-dressed man, when she returns to London to pursue the fleeing Jude and publicly stake her claim to him). The masculine but passionate Kit doesn't do all the rescuing; the feminine but arrogant Jude isn't the only one to feel fear:

He had been so closed when he first came, she thought, and then frowned.
     She had not wanted to be moved by him. She held herself tightly, and understood for the first time why he did that.
     She had been so closed when he first came. (3605)

When the two finally become physically intimate (after weeks of tense longing), there is no sense that Darlington must first shed his womanly garments, that he must shake free of the feminine aspects of his mannerisms and appearance, in order to be a sexually-appealing partner to Kit. In fact, his appeal seems to lie largely in femininity performed by a male body:

She untied the bow of his laces and began to loosen them with practiced tugs. His hands gripped the seat against the movement, and she wondered whether he felt, as she did, that she was breaking into something tender and unseen.
     She lifted the bodice away from his body and pulled the chemise roughly down around his hips.
     Then she knelt behind him, and traced the red lines pressed into his skin by the bodice and the material trapped beneath it.
     She opened her hands against him, so that the whole surface of her palms and fingers could take in the sensation of his skin, finer and warmer than silk. The slim curve of his waist. His ribs. She leaned closer, helpless, her mouth open an inch from him. She felt how he shivered beneath her hands, how pleasure built between them and made him lower his head until his neck was a vulnerable curve that she had to capture in her palm.
     Was it possible to die of pleasure just from this? (3694)

Heyer's not-quite-so-gender-bending
romance, starring siblings
and Robin/Kate
The novel's climax suggests that through loving each other, both Jude and Kit will come into their own distinct types of power—wily Jude as a politician, master of manipulation; Kit in the more directly forceful role of future captain of industry. And they will continue to clash and quarrel, as they wrestle with one another for power, neither afraid his or her own strength will diminish the other. As Kit's sister Lydia reminds Kit in the novel's epilogue, "Darling, it would be impossible to be married to him and not fight. He'll never give up trying to get the upper hand, and you'll never let him. There's no way to do that peacefully. Besides, is peace really what you want?" (5452)

Cowan's debut novel often runs aground on the shoals of its ambition; the opening London section, in particular, reveals an author not quite in control of her material, doling out hints of myriad secrets in so opaque a manner that confusion rather than enticement is all that's likely to result. Yet I'm a reader who enjoys an ambitiously flawed novel as well as (often more than) a flawlessly executed iteration of the same conventional story. And when a flawed novel demonstrates how nonconforming gender identities can result, at least in part, from childhood trauma but simultaneously refuses to assert that such identities are in need of being "fixed" or "healed," even by love, it's definitely a work that I'll be placing on my "keeper" shelf.

Come back next Tuesday for Gender-Bending part 2: Thoughts on L. H. Cosway's contemporary romance, Painted Faces

Photo credits:
Some Like it Hot: YouTube
18th Century Dress: Chani et Binou
Masqueraders cover: Wikipedia

Anna CowanUntamed
Destiny/Penguin Australia, 2013.

Friday, August 23, 2013

Romance Authors on "Why Does Romance Matter"

This month, writer and reviewer Bobbi Dumas, author of the popular NPR Books blog essay "Don't Hide Your Harlequins: In Defense of Romance," declared August "Read-A-Romance Month." Tired of being the butt of jokes at parties for her literary leanings, tired of being condescended to because of her love of romance, Dumas decided to do something more than just defend her beloved genre. With the support of several major romance publishers and nearly 100 romance authors, Dumas created the Read-A-Romance Month web site. The site is clearly a promotional one, with publishers and authors sponsoring contests and give-aways for visitors who leave their names and email addresses. But by publishing short posts by romance authors responding to the prompt "Why Romance Matters," Dumas is also attempting to jump-start a broader conversation about romance, one not based on stereotypes about romance novels or their readers.

Will feminism play a role in this broader conversation? I was interested to see how many of the authors posting on the site would refer to feminism as a reason why the genre matters.

Susan Mallery, the site's inaugural poster, began the month with a bang, opening her essay by asserting:

I am a feminist.
I read and write romance. 
Those two statements do not contradict one another.

In particular, Mallery argues, romances "empower women" in two specific ways: "Romance novels teach women that they can do or be anything" and "Romance novels teach women how we deserve to be treated by the men in our lives." I've only read one Mallery book (The Best of Friends) and found it rather flat, but her open embrace of a feminist identity makes me eager to read more.

In her post, Maya Rodale doesn't explicitly claim a feminist identity, but tells readers they must read a blog post by a "brilliant feminist blogger" (Caitlin O'Donnell at Drake University, who blogs at Help. I'm Alive), to find one of the reasons why she believes romance matters. Clicking to the post, readers discover O'Donnell's list of reasons "Why Society Still Needs Feminism", a biting and succinct summary of the ways in which our post-feminist age is not quite as kind to women as we'd like to believe. Rodale's list of reasons why she believes romance matters are all feminist ones: economic self-sufficiency; respect; safety; personal choice; empowerment. I wonder, then, why she herself doesn't use the word "feminist" to describe herself? Would the identity fit the books she writes? (Again, I've only read one of them to date).

Lucy March (also known as Lani Diane Rich), offers the most compelling (and the most amusing) post, by openly rejecting the prompt she'd been given. Having difficulty writing her post without "charging in here on my big feminist horse (her name is Betty, by the way, and she's kickass)," March tries to figure out why what is supposed to be a celebratory post keeps coming out as an angry screed. The reason is easy to discern: 

To say "Romance Matters," makes me feel like I'm acknowledging and accepting that romance is somehow different from any other genre and while we don't have to say that Mystery Matters or Thrillers Matter or Literary Fiction Matters, we do have to say out loud that Romance Matters, because somewhere deep down, we've internalized and accepted this nonsense that, by default, it doesn't.  And then there's the idea that it doesn't matter because its written predominantly by women, predominantly for women, and women are made to feel like we don't matter because misogyny is woven into the damn fabric of our culture...

Well, hell. I'm on the horse again.

Lucy March, you've just risen to the top of my To-Read pile. And I'd be happy to offer a carrot to Betty, any time you'd care to bring her by...

As of the writing of my post, we're on day 21 of Read-A-Romance Month. And only three authors have used the "f" word in their essays. These posts are making me wonder, how many romance novelists openly claim a feminist identity? And do those who claim the mantle of feminism write books with more feminist sensibilities than writers who don't? Are writers who write for the big NYC publishers (authors selected to participate seem to be primarily those who write for the web site's sponsoring publishers) less likely to claim feminist leanings than those who don't? If so, why might that be?

Photo credits:

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

The power and limits of labels: Bill Konigsberg's OPENLY STRAIGHT

When I was in the tenth grade, my family moved from a small suburban Connecticut town to an even smaller city in Vermont. Such a move gave me the opportunity many teens long for—a chance to reinvent myself, unburdened by friends and classmates' prior assumptions about who I was or what I could be or do. In Connecticut, I'd always been labeled one of the "smart" kids; in our progressive, but tracked-by-ability school system, everyone knew which students had scored high on standardized tests, and which ones didn't (classes were numbered; those ending in 9 or 7 were for the bright kids, those ending in 1 or 3 for the not so academically-attuned). I took Orchestra, which meant I couldn't take Acting (the two classes were scheduled opposite each other). Our school was also too large for the uncoordinated and unskilled such as myself to participate in competitive sports. But when I moved to Vermont, I got the chance to strut my stuff on stage, to play Varsity basketball (I scored 2 points all season, but had a lot of fun in spite of my lack of production), and to experiment with other identities that my previous reputation as a brainiac had made it far more difficult to try on while I lived in Connecticut.

In the early 1980's, a do-over of my sexuality was not an experiment I considered. But it's precisely the possibility of such a do-over that draws Seamus Raphael Goldberg, the first-person narrator of the truly funny YA novel Openly Straight, to transfer for his junior year, from a liberal co-ed public Boulder high school to a small private all-boys Massachusetts prep school. Back in Colorado, Rafe leaves behind his ultra-liberal parents, his gal pal Claire Olivia, and, best of all, he thinks, his identity as openly gay. Out since eighth grade, Rafe is tired of being seen only as "gay," frustrated that other aspects of who he is get swallowed up by a label that only captures one part of his identity. He can't partake of the easy male camaraderie other boys take for granted; he's frustrated by the way his mom takes on queerness as her own personal cause (joining and becoming president of the local PFLAG chapter, bringing home stacks of books about homosexuality for him to read); he's angry that he always stands out, always has "different" metaphorically pasted across his back, a "kick-me" sign he's supposed to be proud of but instead just finds a deadening burden.

The above list may make Rafe sound like an ungrateful whiner, but Konigsburg's gifts as a writer create a narrator who is anything but. Between Rafe's narration of his present-day life at Natick and his creative writing assignments detailing "A History of Rafe," short pieces narrating events from his Boulder days that made him long for a less openly-gay public identity, Rafe comes alive as funny and thoughtful, confused and willfully ignorant, self-reflective and self-absorbed by turns, the perfect guide to this exploration about what really constitutes a person's sense of self.

After instituting his own "don't ask, don't tell" policy at Natick, Rafe gets to experience the thrill of being "mainstream," "acceptable," not automatically lumped in with the geeks and dorks and other clearly "different" kids as he was back in Colorado. The day he arrives, Rafe takes part in a pick-up football game and gets to experience the euphoria of group sports competition; later, he joins the soccer team and becomes part of the jock crowd; he even gets to sit with the "top of the food chain" at lunch, and enjoys cracking them up with his jokes. Not everything is about his sexuality, Rafe asserts:

...knowing a person is about more than knowing whom they fantasize about. That's the small stuff, actually. The big stuff is lying next to a guy on the floor and locking eyes and having deep conversations about philosophy. The big stuff is letting a friend know your hopes and your fears and not having to make a joke about it. That's what matters. (180-81)

Yet as the term progresses, Rafe finds himself drawn as much, if not more, toward the awkward and disaffected at Natick as toward the typical jock boys in the sporty crowd: his "ironic survivalist" roommate, Albie; Albie's openly gay best friend, Toby; and his fellow jock, quiet, kind, but guarded Ben. As Rafe's feelings for Ben grow beyond casual friendship, and Ben's for Rafe seem to, as well, Rafe becomes increasingly reluctant to face the truth that his sexuality may just be one of the "big things" about which a real friend has a right to know.

Teachers of my generation, those with a commitment to social justice, can often find the reluctance of younger students to acknowledge the racism, sexism, and heterosexism that still surrounds us frustrating, even bewildering. Reading Openly Straight helped me to understand a bit better where this reluctance stems from, and how my own attempts to counter it might just be compounding the problem. For example, after Rafe tells his parents about his sexuality:

   Suddenly there were six books I had to read about what it's like to be gay. I said to her, "Mom, can't I just be gay, and not read about it?" But she explained—and Dad backed her up—that we need to know history. Those who don't study history are doomed to repeat it, blah blah blah.

     You know how you get the urge to clean your room, and it's no big deal? But when your mom tells you that you have to clean your room, you don't want to? That's me, anyway. So maybe if I had found all this stuff on my own, I would have really enjoyed learning about it. But instead, I got a pile of books from Mom, and now it was like I had gay homework from my mother. I was like, Thanks for making this exciting new thing a chore, Mom. Awesome.

I think I'll still be offering the books (including Openly Straight), Rafe's frustrations notwithstanding. But I will have a little more patience when my offer is met with a groan or a grimace, keeping in mind Rafe and the time and space he needed to come to terms with the more difficult, even painful, aspects of embracing and accepting a "different" identity. And perhaps, after reading Rafe's story, teen readers will cut us older ones a bit of slack when we jump on the "let's celebrate difference" bandwagon, calling embarrassing attention to aspects of their identities that they're still learning to wear with pride.

Photo credits:
Gay Candy poster:
Rainbow books:

Bill Konigsberg
Openly Straight

Arthur A. Levine/Scholastic, 2013

Friday, August 16, 2013

Mid Adult Romance?

recent post by S. L. Scott on the Huff Post Books blog, discussing the rising popularity of the "Mid Adult" book—genre books with "characters that range from the ages of 35 to late 40s"—surprised me, because I'd been considering writing my own blog post about how few genre romances feature protagonists of a certain age. The Old Skool romance paradigm, matching a-30ish hero with a late teen heroine has given way in recent years to protagonists of more comparable ages, but still, the majority of romance lovers could hardly be said to be middle aged. The three books that Scott cites as examples of this new trend—Gillian Flynn's Girl Gone, Daisy Prescott's Geoducks are for Lovers, and Helen Fielding's Mad About the Boy—can all be categorized as romances, although Girl Gone's primary genre affiliation is suspense/thriller, and Mad's (if it is anything like the earlier Bridget Jones books) is chick-lit. But do three books make a trend?

Despite the fact that, being myself a gal of a certain age, I'd appreciate seeing more middle aged protagonists in my romances, I can see quite a few reasons why the genre is less than welcoming to such older lovers. First, as my spouse pointed out when I was bemoaning the prevalence of the youthful in romance, we've all been young once. Older folks can remember, and thus presumably relate to, love at a younger age, but the opposite is not true for younger readers. In a genre focused so much on "relateability" (oh, how I dislike this coinage!), on assuming that a reader must closely identify with its protagonists, the market for older heroes and heroines will necessarily be smaller than that for younger lovers. Perhaps the splintering of the market in the wake of romance's current self-publishing tsunami will make books with smaller audiences more economically feasible, but in the past, few traditional publishers could justify printing a genre romance with an in-built limited readership.

Not the image I was looking for when
I did a Google search for
"middle age romance"
Older lovers also fly in the face of the "one true love" paradigm that most genre romance still holds close to its heart. If you've made it to 35 or older and still haven't found that one true love, that's a pretty sad statement about the state of the world, a sadness that romance isn't likely to want to acknowledge. Or if you have, but then lost it (except through death—widows and widowers still make for good romance protags), you're flying in the face of the central hope that romance offers—that finding true love = living, and loving, happily ever after. In the world of romance, if a breakup or divorce, rather than death, ended a romance, then you must not really have found true love, putting us back at problem 1 (the bummer of not finding true love before age 35).

Are there other reasons you can think of why "Mid Adult" romance is unlikely to flourish? Or, if you're of a more hopeful turn of mind, reasons why we really might be on the cusp of a flowering of forty-something lovers in our romance reading?

Do you have any favorite romances that feature not just one, but two older protagonists?

Photo credits:
Medieval romance: GGGA English

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Self-Sacrifice and the Single Man: Mary Ann Rivers' THE STORY GUY

At the climax of many a romance novel, the hero and heroine's exchange of "I love you"s is often accompanied by language of wholeness or completeness. "You're everything to me," says the heroine; "All I see is you," responds the hero. Part of the fantasy of the romance is this suggestion that hero and heroine are sufficient unto themselves, everything and all to one another, regardless of any job commitments, friendships, or previous family ties either one may have had before the start of their relationship. Such an inward focus can have the unfortunate result of suggesting that a person with colleagues, friends, or relatives who demand anything substantial in the way of time or energy is simply not a likely candidate for true love in romancelandia.

But aren't the busy and the burdened worthy of romance, too? Especially those who choose (or are forced) to spend the bulk of their days and nights sacrificing themselves for others?

I will meet you on Wednesdays at noon in Celebration Park. Kissing only. I won't touch you below the shoulders. You can touch me anywhere. No dating, no hookups. I will meet with you for as long as you meet me, so if you miss a Wednesday, we part as strangers. No picture necessary, we can settle details via IM. Reply back with "Wednesdays Only" in the subject line.

Thirty-something librarian Carrie ( has a thing for the personal ads posted by men in the online Metrolink newspaper. Reading them not as a "source of entertainment at the expense of the lovelorn" but "the way I might ritually eat a favorite candy bar," Carrie takes pleasure in what appears to be "what men might really be thinking and never say. They yell and cry and woo and break themselves open before their post slips off the page." They're especially appealing during Carrie's current "Lady of a Certain Age funk," brought on by her realization that she really doesn't want to go on yet another vacation with her parents.

But Carrie hasn't ever answered one of the ads until the above words (as well as the accompanying photograph of a beautiful man with "completely closed" body language) capture not only her imagination, but intrigue her libido. Frustrated with her overly safe life, Carrie impulsively responds, reassured by the knowledge that her email will likely be lost amidst the dozens of other replies cluttering Wednesdays Only-man's in-box. But it's Carrie whom he contacts. And it's Carrie who agrees to meet, for "Kissing only," wondering all the while what this contained, private man really needs.

Carrie wants to know even more after she meets Brian on their first Wednesday, which begins awkwardly but develops into kissing far more intense than either had expected. Yet when Carrie begins to broach the idea of not waiting another week to meet again, Brian immediately closes down. Even after further Wednesday meetings, IM chats, and even a steamy bout of phone sex, Brian won't reveal why "it's complicated," why he "can't be lucky, can't ask for anything" from her, even though it's obvious that their attraction is more than kiss-deep.

"What am I doing with this man who can't make himself available to me?" Carrie wonders, even while she "can't help but think I might be able to pick his locks. Come across his latch.... Coax him from the center of his labyrinth." But even when the knife-edge upon which Brian has been dancing starts to slip, slicing open his tightly-held secrets, the revelations do little to help. For it's not that Brian doesn't want to be available, but that something else demands his time, his thoughts, his emotional energy. Something "so sad it called out over all the other sad men's voices in the city's most desperate corner." And if he turns away from his responsibilities for any more than a Wednesday lunchtime, Brian fears he'll never come back.

As a feminist literary critic, I often use this little trick: switch the genders of the main characters, and see if the story still makes sense. If not, said text is often a sexist one. Or at least a text that mirrors the sexism of the larger culture in which it was produced. Brian's story would still make sense if Brian were Brianna, but would it tug on our heartstrings in the same way? Would the caretaking burdens that Brian shoulders be so moving, so worth our admiration, if Brian were a woman? Would readers feel sympathy if a Brianna, not a Brian, expressed the same frustration and anger at the life-draining deal fate has dealt her?

Perhaps not. But Rivers' novella still feels anything but sexist. By upholding a man who embodies not the usual competencies of the romance alpha male, but rather those more commonly found in a stereotypical female, as hero-worthy, Rivers expands the possibilities of romance masculinity far beyond its typically narrow borders. That The Story Guy also asks readers to consider where to draw the line between self-sacrifice and self-abnegation, and does so in prose far more beautifully-honed than is typically found in genre romance, makes for a reading experience far more moving that that offered by most first-time authors. I'm looking forward to reading more from such a promising writer.

Photo/Illustration credits:
Personal ad heart: Funny Craigslist Ads
Heart and key: SpectacularStuff on etsy

Random Love Inspired, 2013

Friday, August 2, 2013

Happy Birthday to RNFF!

Yes, it's a bit early to be celebrating the birthday of the Romance Novels for Feminists blog. After all, its first post went up in September of 2012, and it's only the 2nd of August now. Yet with the blog having recently reached the 50,000 hits mark, it feels appropriate to sit back and raise a glass in tribute to the community of readers that RNFF has fostered. Thanks to everyone who has visited the site, and especially to those who have taken time out of their busy schedules to post their ideas, arguments, and book recommendations. I look forward with such anticipation every day to the messages in my in-box, telling me that someone has posted a comment on the blog.

One of the main reasons I began writing RNFF last fall was to reach out to readers, writers, and literary critics, hoping to start a dialogue with others who are committed both to feminist principles and to the genre of romance. It's been a welcome and quite lovely surprise to discover that there are so many of us out there, all invested in the possibilities of romance fiction, yet not willing to settle for books that shortchange us as women. I'm looking forward to the wonderful books, and intriguing conversations, that RNFF's second year will bring.

I'll be taking a one-week break from posting, but will be back on August 13th, ready to share more opinions and ideas about feminism and romance novels. In the meantime, I'd love to know what topics you'd be interested in seeing discussed here in future...

Photo credit:
Birthday cake: Romance & You