Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Grieving and Loving: Sarina Bowen's KEEPSAKE and Alexis Hall's PANSIES

Mourning and falling in love would appear to be at the opposite ends of the emotional spectrum: the blissful highs of connecting intimately with another, the tearful, angry lows of an intimacy no longer possible. Yet both grief and love break down emotional defenses, leaving you achingly open and vulnerable. When grief comes first, several recent romance novels suggest, it can plough the untilled field, readying one for the planting of the seeds of romantic love.

In my book, the best grief/love stories are not the ones in which a new love magically heals the hurt the death of a loved one has inflicted. They are the ones in which the possibility of romantic connection with another helps one, or often two, grieving people find a path through the pain of loss.

In Sarina Bowen's Keepsake, the third book of her Truth North series, the grieving protagonist is Lark, a once fearless risktaker who is spending time on a Vermont farm recovering from being kidnapped while on a twelve-month assignment for her job with a NGO in Guatemala. Lark grieves not only for her lost sense of invincibility ("Back then I'd thought that bad experiences only made for good stories" [Kindle Loc 848]), but for one of her kidnappers, a young boy who was killed during her rescue. Lark smiles and acts "normal," determined to defeat her jumpiness, her illogical fear. But while her conscious brain knows she's safe on her best friend's rural family farm, at night, the "dragons in my heart," shake their chains and roar—in the form of scream-inducing nightmares, nightmares that jerk the male farmhands from their own dreams in the bunkhouse they all share.

It is Zach, the most cautious of the farmworkers, who takes it upon himself to help Lark through her night terrors, shaking her awake, or soothing her with his voice and with his touch when the nightmares return. Zach, too, has shouldered his share of grief, losing his family and his community after being kicked out of the polygamous religious group in which he was born and raised when he was just a teen. Diligent, quiet, feeling not quite part of the tight-knit family community at the Shipley farm, Zach knows what it is like to feel apart, to live "in the bunkhouse of life": "annexed to the farm. It was a part of it, but only in a casual way. Off to the side. Not quite independent" (452). As Lark and Zach begin to share small details of their losses, their shame, their guilt, feelings they have never shared with anyone else, emotional intimacy cannot help but follow.

But Zach has had a lot more time to deal with his grief than Lark has, and even his burgeoning love for her cannot "fix" her PTSD, no matter how hard he wishes it could. Each has to learn that "everyone has a time when they need a lot more than they can give" (3805) and that that need cannot always be filled by one person, no matter how much love that person holds.

Like Lark, Alexis Hall's Alfie Bell, the narrator of Pansies (book #4 in his Spires series), is also mourning a lost sense of self. But that self was not wrenched away by another, but by his own sexual desires. Born and raised in working class northern England, Alfie grew up believing that men want women, and that "There's not, like, space for that stuff [being gay] up there" (909). Moving to London, working as an investment banker, and discovering that he's attracted to men after twenty-eight years of assuming he was straight is wrenching, particularly since casual homophobia had been such a large part of what it meant to be a man back home ("Alfie tried to ignore the flicker of discomfort that he noticed these things. That he was a man who found bits of other men provocative" [274]). Going back home to South Shields and accidentally outing himself at a friend's wedding (the book's opening scene) is deeply upsetting: "But now he was back up north, it was starting to feel like he'd become, somehow, less than himself. Sort of a sketch. Just blunt lines and the basics. What a fucking joke. Not north, not south. A straight gay man" (386).

Alfie, who is not the most introspective of fellows, flees the wedding to drown his sorrows at a local bar. Where, to his surprise, he ends up hooking up with a small, prickly, unbelievably pretty man. A man who, it turns out, is the same boy Alfie bullied unmercifully during their school days, teasing and tormenting him for his obvious homosexuality:

     Faggot. Puff. Sissy. Pansy. Fairy. Fudgepacker. Cocksucker.
     His hands tingled suddenly. Remembering Fen across the years. Holding him down. It had all been petty. Small hurts. Humiliations. But relentless. And heedless. A habit. (6256)

Though Alfie, in his inept way, tries to apologize for his past behavior, he keeps stumbling over his own internalized homophobia to be convincing:

     "Okay, forget that. I'm sorry. Just sorry. But it was a long time ago. I'm not the same person."
     "Oh, right, yes. Because you're gay now and you feel all sad about it."
     Alfie's mouth dropped open. He knew his sense of betrayal was probably out of proportion. But it was like he'd shown his belly in a moment of weakness and Fen had responded by ripping his guts out.
     Before he could muster any sort of answer, Fen had torn right on. "You think you have it rough? Try growing up queer in a place like this."
     "I did grow up gay. I just didn't know it like."
     "Well, it didn't stop you making my life miserable."
     Alfie was still feeling too unexpectedly wounded to be capable of controlling what came out of his mouth. "Yeah, but you didn't exactly help yourself either."
     Silence. Again.
     "What," asked Fen very quietly, "the fuck is that supposed to mean?"
     "I mean, you could have kept your head down. You didn't have to make a big deal about it." (6256)

Needless to say, Fen and Alfie do not part on good terms. But back in London, Alfie can't keep the memories of his time with Fen, or the guilt Fen's revelations have forced on him, out of his mind. And so Alfie sets off to try and make things better, to try and recapture some of the loveliness of being with Fen before Fen told him who he was, who they were, back when they were kids.

But Fen, too, is grieving, not a loss of identity but a loss of family. And just like Zach with Lark, Alfie wants to fix Fen, wants to take on the burden of Fen's losses for him. But "wanting to help isn't the same as wanting to fix" (3122), a lesson Alfie consciously understands, but one which takes a long time to really know, down deep where it matters. Alfie and Fen can mourn together, but ultimately each has to come to terms with his own griefs, his own losses, before either can begin to imagine a life that includes the possibility of happiness, and love, together.

Photo credits:
Vermont Farm: Farm to Fork Fondo
Pansy Party by Wendy Westlake: Fine Art America



Friday, November 18, 2016

Courtney Milan's HOLD ME

My first exposure to transexual identity came, as I'm sure did many cisgendered folks' of my generation, via Neil Jordan's 1992 film The Crying Game. IRA volunteer Fergus promises to seek out the girlfriend of a British soldier his group has kidnapped if the soldier should be killed. The soldier does die (although not at Fergus's hands), and he eventually does seek out the girlfriend, who is named Dil, in London. Of course, Fergus begins to fall for Dil. Only when they are about to make love (about midway through the story) does the film reveal to both Fergus and the audience that Dil is transgender, in a visceral visual way.

The "big reveal" as spectacle, and the reveal/revulsion of the hero (and viewer)
Marketing for the film positioned this secret as the heart of the film: "The movie that everyone's talking about, but no one is giving away its secrets." Though the film itself is far more subtle, its structure cannot but help construct transgender identity as a secret, a secret so shocking (at least to the cisgendered) that it makes the viewer (identifying with seemingly straight Fergus) throw up in revulsion. It also positions transgender identity as a spectacle, a display that titillates even as it shocks. Even though by film's end, Fergus sacrifices himself on behalf of Dil, thereby validating Dil's identity and existence, it can never quite overcome the distaste of that initial moment of reveal/revulsion. What reviewers talked most about (or tried not to give away) was the secret of Dil's trans-ness; the shock of the big reveal, rather than the film's story as a whole, was what made the movie worth talking about.

Romances featuring transwomen often struggle with that burden established by The Crying Game's precedent (see for example Brian Katcher's YA Almost Perfect). How can you depict trans lives without turning them into spectacle, without making the romance at its heart be about the big secret, the big reveal? Which is why I found Courtney Milan's latest contemporary, Hold Me (book #2 in her Cyclone series) such a pleasure to read. Milan blows right by this "cis-person's burden" of trans-ness as spectacle by making the central problem for her heroine not the revelation of her trans identity, but instead the problematic ways other peoples' responses to that identity have shaped her, and her ability to trust in love.

The first meeting between sexy, gorgeous Maria Lopez and super-brainy physicist Aroon (aka Jay) na Thalang is a definitely meet-cranky. Maria comes to Berkeley in search of her brother, who has just joined Jay's lab. But the driven, demanding Jay has no time for distractions, especially one who looks as hot as does the stranger knocking on his door. "What are you selling, anyway? Lab supplies? Amway?" Jay's sexist rudeness catches Maria a bit off-guard, but when her always-late brother Gabe finally appears and formally introduces her to his friend/boss, her sharp tongue returns with a vengeance:

     "Did you know Jay's working on a top secret project for the Department of Defense? He uses invisible radiation to turn himself into an asshole."
     Gabe looks at me, then at his friend, then back at me. "I'm missing something."
     "Don't worry, little brother." I pat Gabe's shoulder. "His terrible transformation only happens around women. You're safe." (Kindle Loc 171).

Maria is used to having to deal with Gabe's "good guy" science friends, friends whose unthinking sexism leads them to dismiss or condescend to her, assuming that she's an intellectual lightweight. But unbeknownst to Gabe or to Jay or to any other male in the academic community, Maria is the writer of a science/fiction blog that is de rigeur reading for anyone with scientific chops. The blog, built around the premise that its writer is someone from the future who sends instructions back to the present to help people avoid apocalyptic events that threaten human existence, was Maria's way to keep her brain engaged between high school and college, during the years she was working to save up for surgery and hormones. Obnoxious Jay, who tells her during their first meeting that she needs to stop "distracting" her brother so he can focus all his energies on scoring a tenure-track job: "And look at you. You took a selfie with your brother. You're a girly-girl. You care about hour hair and clothes and pop culture. I've seen too many of my good friends struggle to get jobs. You don't know this market" (231). But Maria is proud to be a girly-girl, and won't let Jay reduce her to merely a "distraction," especially not to her brother, who was the only family member who has stood by her during her gender identity journey.

Enemies in person, lovers in print:
James Stewart and Margaret Sullavan
in Ernst Lubitch's Shop Around the Corner
Needless to say, Maria and Jay's in-person relationship only continues to go downhill as the two end up running into each other at every turn over the next few months. But in a Shop Around the Corner/You've Got Mail trope-move,  the commenter on Maria's blog with the moniker "Actual Physicist," the commentator with whom she's been corresponding and flirting with offline for the last eighteen months, is none other than her brother's boss, Jay na Thalang.

Milan not only rejects the big reveal of Maria's trans identity (Jay has had both boyfriends and girlfriends, and seems pretty unfazed when Maria tells him about her parents' rejection of her after she announced her desire to live as a girl at the age of twelve). She also rejects the secrecy that the Shop Around the Corner trope often demands: that even after one party discovers the real identity of their "pen pal," they must keep their own identity hidden from the one who has yet to learn the truth. For ultimately, what is keeping Jay and Maria apart is not the secrets they are keeping from one another, but the past traumas that have disrupted their relationships with their families of origin, traumas that have made both wary of trusting others with their most vulnerable selves.

Learning to trust is not about keeping secrets, and it's not about any big reveal, Milan's story suggests. Instead, it is about recognizing one's own blind spots (Jay coming to realize his own unthinking sexism; Maria recognizing her refusal to rock the boat so that she won't be rejected by those she loves). And above all, it's about the long series of small reveals, the everyday sharing of self with other, that builds a foundation of trust.

Photo credits:
The Crying Game: Deep Focus Reviews
Girly Girl t-shirt: Busy Bus
Shop Around the Corner: Film Forum

Hold Me

Friday, November 11, 2016

Romance Novels in the Wake of the U.S. Presidential Election

With the exception of romance novels that take place in political settings, romance and politics seem, on the surface, to be worlds apart. Romance is about entertainment, about escape; politics is about the real world. I'd like to take this space today, though, to think about the ways that one might influence the other—and what obligations romance writers have, or might want to take on, in the aftermath of this week's United States presidential election.

Some ideas, and some questions, in no particular order...

I'm thinking about the increase in depictions of LGBTQ rights and identities in the romance genre over the past five to ten years. Not every romance reader is a fan of romances with protagonists who are not heterosexual, but the increase in both the numbers of non-heterosexual romances published over this period and in their readership has been marked (See Jessica Freely's post, "Reading Gay Romance," on the Popular Romance Project's web site for more info). Such books provide happily ever afters for readers who identify as LGBTQ, stories that contest the insistence that such lives must always be ones of victimization and oppression. But they also serve to inform and educate those who have not encountered an openly LGBTQ person in their lives, or who have been raised in environments that demonize such identities. The evidence so far is anecdotal, but I've read many a comment on romance blogs which suggest that reading such books has opened the eyes of many a reader who had been taught by school or church or community that homosexuality and homosexuals were by nature evil and other. Though not without its downsides (objectification; #ownvoices, etc.), I take this as a generally positive movement in the field, one to celebrate. Romance is about entertainment, but it can also serve a positive social purpose: as they say in education, it can be both a mirror (to LGBTQ people) and a window (to those for whom such identities are unfamiliar).

Survey of readers of the Goodreads male/male romance group

Are there other identities that romance could be working to portray? What other mirrors and windows are we lacking? What identities do romances portray obsessively (biker, billionaire, duke), and why? What other identities do romances deliberately shun?

I'm thinking about race here, of course. Would so many white women voters have been able to bring themselves to pull the lever for a presidential candidate who utters openly racist statements if they had regularly "met" people with racial and ethnic identities different from their own via their romance reading?

How much does the restriction of romances with African American characters to African American only lines create, rather than reflect, the belief that white readers will not be interested in such stories? And how can we, as romance readers and writers, push back against such restrictions? How can we encourage cross-race reading among white readers (as readers of color have, by default, been forced to read white romances for a very long time)?

How can and do romances model cross-race relationships? Not just between lovers, but between friends? Is there room for both "we are all humans/I'm blind to racial difference" type of romance, as well as the romance that openly grapples with the struggles different racial and ethnic groups have on both an individual and a group level?

Intersectionality is more often used to think about women of color, but can we also used it to think productively about white working class identity and romance readership? According to RWA,

  • The U.S. romance book buyer is most likely to be aged between 30 and 54 years.
  • Romance book buyers are highly represented in the South.
  • Romance book buyers have an average income of $55,000

RWA used to list information about educational attainment of the readership, but such information no longer appears on the site. Given that the average starting salary of a new college graduate in 2016 is projected to be $50,566 (Money magazine), the average romance reader is likely not a college educated one (although the readership does, of course, include many college-educated readers).

Romance readership, then, seems overlaps to a great extent with the women who voted for Trump. Many proponents of the romance genre have argued that romance is by its very nature feminist; do these demographic figures, and the presidential voting results in this election, call this claim into question?

I'm also thinking a lot about class. I'm thinking about the Trump message, "Make America Great Again," and the desire that lies behind that message: a desire to return to an America where white working class men could earn a respectable wage. Are there romances that depict this demographic, that play out against a background of the disruptive shift from a manufacturing to a technology/service economy? That show this desire in a positive light, rather than link it to a racist identity? What might such a romance look like?

Do small town romances feed into the desire to "Make America Great Again"? In what ways? Is there a way to write a small town romance that is not falsely nostalgic? 

"Socially responsible daily behavior": only one small
spoke in the social change wheel

Romance, and the novel itself, are about individual characters, rather than about groups. And so they portray change happening most often on the level of the individual: if Darcy can get over his prideful nature, and Elizabeth can stop judging people, they will be able to unite as a couple and live at Pemberly happily ever after. But political and social change comes about far more often through group movements than through change on the individual level. Is there a way that romance novels can incorporate depictions of group organizing as a positive force? Where are the romances that are set against social justice organizing/work?

I'm also thinking about religion. Why is religion been restricted to the subgenre of the Evangelical romance? For many people, on both ends of the political spectrum, religion plays a major role in their lives and identities. It also often plays a large role in social change. Why is romance as a genre (with the exception of Evangelical romance) so wary of religion?

And, of course, the obvious question: what about the depiction of masculinity in the most popular heterosexual romance novels? Do romance novelists who write alpha male heroes contribute to the normalizing and acceptability of offensive male behavior, such as that embodied in our current president-elect? Do the alpha males of romance, who are strong, aggressive, and often offensively mouthy but who inevitably learn to meet our heroine's emotional needs, hold out a deceptively hopeful picture of American masculinity to female readers? Do such depictions provide validation to women who say about real life men, "oh, he says some pretty bad things, but underneath he doesn't really mean them"?

Can romance writers ask our business organization to be more proactive in fostering social justice? In particular, I'd like to see Romance Writers of America track the number of romances published each year by the identities of their characters. And to track the number of romances published each year by the identities of their authors. So we can track over time what, if any, progress is being made by people of color and LGTBQ people in our books, and in our industry.

Perhaps it is a utopian vision, but I can't help but wonder if there is some way for romance, or for RWA in particular, to foster cross-geographical, and cross-political party discussion, as well. Via panels at the annual convention? (Any writers interested in participating in a panel discussion about how to write a feminist romance, please let me know...). Via a pen pal exchange between red state and blue state writers? When we get out of our insular bubbles, and get to know people who are different from ourselves, sympathy, rather than intolerance, come to the fore. What other ways might we as a community foster communication across political lines?

Romance readers often say they read romance to escape from the grim realities of their daily lives. But romance novels are not apolitical. The escapes they depict can either encourage readers to accept and/or ignore the oppressions that exist in their everyday lives, or encourage them to recognize and fight against them.

Romance readers and writers, what are your thoughts and feelings in the wake of this week's election?

Photo credits:
Gay romance readers: Popular Romance Project
Voter chart: FiveThirtyEight
Social change wheel: Der Viator

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

Doing My Feminist Civic Duty

Just got back from my local polling station, and am proudly wearing my "I voted" sticker. Bet you can guess who my choice for President was...

Encouraging all RNFF's USA readers to go out and vote, too.

I plan to kick back and watch the returns tonight, while reading a favorite feminist political romance—something by Emma Barry, no doubt.

What book would you choose?

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Your Feet's Too Big? Romance Novels and the Larger-Than-Life Male Appendage

Lynn had forced herself to make a joke, but amazement ended up being precisely the right word to describe the sight of their pants hitting the floor. She found herself staring at two erect cocks. Two erect cocks that were long and thick and much, much bigger than any shed encountered before. Her first thought was anticipation—the guys obviously had a talent or two and since it was their equipment, she figured they knew how to handle it. Her second thought was, Suz is going to die of jealousy. —Vivian Arend and Elle Kennedy, All Fired Up

My spouse and I recently attended a concert by the Hot Sardines, the New York jazz ensemble "on a mission to make old sounds new again and prove that joyful music can bring people together in a disconnected world." One of their "old sounds made new again" was a cover of a song originally sung by Fats Waller, "Your Feet's Too Big." The original tune has Waller poking fun at (and expressing his jealously of?) a male friend whose "pedal extremities are colossal." Said friend waltzes onstage with two women on his arms, and later takes center stage to demonstrate how his "obnoxious" feet can dance up a storm.

Though the film clip of the performance (below) concludes with Waller as the one who ends up with a woman in his lap, the song hints at male anxieties about the common symbolic meaning of a large foot: an equally "colossal" male genital. "Your Feet's Too Big" humorously hints at the male fear that his "foot" may not measure up to those of other men, and thus he'll be at a disadvantage in the competition to attract women. (For a scholarly discussion of the symbolic meanings of the foot, check out K. J. Kerbe's " 'Your Feet's Too Big': An Inquiry into Psychological and Symbolic Meanings of the Foot," in the Summer 1985 edition of Psychoanalytic Review).

Many other singers have recorded versions of the song (including the Beatles!), but it wasn't until I attended the Hot Sardines concert that I heard a woman croon the tune. Elizabeth Bougerel's cool, deep, yet decidedly feminine vocals, as well as the changes she made to some of the lyrics, simultaneously bring male anxieties about penis size to the surface and call them into question.

Waller's verses jokingly insult the man with the big feet, but they also suggest the singer's uneasiness at the sight of a man with "feet" bigger than his own:

     Oh, your pedal extremities are colossal
     To me you look just like a fossil
     You got me walkin', talkin' and squawkin'
     'Cause your feet's too big, yeah

In contrast, Bougerel never feels the need to "walk, talk, or squwak"; instead, her lyrics consistently point to the absurdities of oversized male appendages:

     Now when you go and die, no-one's gonna sob
     The undertaker's gonna have quite a job
     You're gonna look funny, when they lay you in the casket
     Oh look at those feet, stickin' up out the basket

Both singers include the line "Hate you 'cause your feet's too big" in their chorsues, but Bougerel's version changes one of those "hate" lines with this: "Mad at you, 'cause your feet's too something." Too something—too inept? Too unwieldy? Too big to fit?

Even in places where the lyrics are the same, I couldn't help thinking about how the meaning might change, having a woman, rather than a man, singing them:

     Yes, your feet's too big
     Don't want you, 'cause your feet's too big
     Can't use you, 'cause your feet's too big
     I really hate you, 'cause your feet's too big

"Can't use you" has quite a different meaning if the singer in question is a heterosexual female, rather than a heterosexual male, doesn't it? Rather than worrying about another fellow's cock being bigger than his, a female singer singing the same lines suggests that a male member may be too big for a satisfying sexual encounter.

I have no idea of the gender or sexuality of either Waller or Bougerel (Waller was married twice), but the interpretive possibilities are even more disruptive if one imagines a queer singer taking on these lyrics, aren't they?

The Hot Sardines' version of the song ends not with Waller's signature phrase, "One never knows, do one?" but instead with the far more directly suggestive (and simultaneously hilariously undercutting)

     And you know what they say about big feet, don't you?
     Big shoes.

Why am I nattering away about Fats Waller and the Hot Sardines on a blog devoted to romance novels? Because when I heard the Hot Sardines sing their version of this song, I was immediately reminded of the way many romances hold up as ideal a larger-than-life male, including his larger-than-life male appendage. Though the quote with which this post opened, from the first book in Vivian Arend and Elle Kennedy's new Dreammakers series, features two rather than just one idealized male, change those two male bodies for one and the passage might have been pulled from almost any romance novel which leans towards the idealization of the heterosexual male: six-foot-plus muscular physique, aggressive but protective alpha personality, and, inevitably, an oversized penis.

Are large cocks always better? As a woman who is on the petite side, I have to say I've never been all that drawn to large men, and always cringe a bit when I come across such passages in my romances. I've long wondered if I was just an anomaly among the romance-reading public in that regard. But after listening to Elizabeth Bougerel's sly version of "Your Feet's Too Big," I'm thinking perhaps I might not be so alone...