Friday, March 29, 2013

Feminism and the RITA nominees

This past Wednesday, Romance Writers of America announced the finalists for its 2013 RITA awards, the top honor given to love stories with happily ever afters. This year RITAs are slated be awarded in eleven different categories, with seven or eight finalists vying for each award (the one exception the Young Adult category, which named only four finalists). Since the romance field is such a massive one, I shouldn't be so surprised to see that I've not read the majority of the finalists. But I was disappointed that none of the RNFF Best of 2012 made the cut (although Ruthie Knox's About Last Night, which I read and reviewed in January of this year, did, yeah!). Laura Florand, Cecilia Grant, Juliana Gray, and Molly O'Keefe all deserve to be RITA finalists for work published this past year, in this reviewer's humble opinion. What 2012 favorites of yours were overlooked?

RWA's announcement states that the RITA is "the highest award of distinction in romance fiction." But I wonder if the process the RITA judging uses to winnow down the list of nominated books, at least as I've had it explained to me by fellow RWA members, really allows the cream of the genre to rise to the top of the finalist list? The RITA is a peer award; published romance writers serve as the judges in both the preliminary, and in the final, round. This in itself is not a problem; writers are usually readers, too, and know what works best in their own field. But judges in the preliminary round are volunteers, rather than nominated or elected to judge based on the respect of their colleagues, which means, alas, there is little control over the quality of the judging. Also, each submitted book is read by only five judges; each one only reads between five and ten books; and judges are advised not to judge the books against one another: "each entry should be judged on its own merits without comparison to other entries." Without being able to compare the books they are judging one to another, and with no opportunity to compare all the books submitted, judges score each book against an absolute, idealized model, rather than against the actual books published during one particular year.

The top ten percent, or top eight entries (whichever is smaller), in each category are named to the RITA finalist list. If an outstanding book is read by one or two judges who give lower scores to all the books they judge, while a less distinguished book is read by those who hand out higher numbers to all the books they score, it seems likely that at least some of the best books of the year are likely to be passed by. And since books that push the envelope, books that may not please everyone (feminist romances, perhaps?) are likely to push at least one judge's "I have a problem with this" button, won't they have a harder time finding their way to the final judging round than books that are less edgy, more homogenous in their construction of romance, sexuality, and/or gender, even if they are not as well-written?

Coming to romance from the field of children's literature, where the top awards are given by librarians, not by children's book writers, and the award process is quite different (a committee of fifteen judges, judges meeting in person twice during the year to talk over the books they are considering), perhaps I'm unfairly biased against RWA's process. Do you think the current RWA system is fair or flawed? If you were creating a design for judging an award such as the RITA, what would it look like, and why?

One last question: Of the books on the 2013 RITA finalist list that you've read, which ones would you say are feminist, and why? Does the list include books that are decidedly not feminist? And which books do you think should be on the list, but aren't?

Next time on RNFF:
Kristan Higgins' My One and Only

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Repairing the Romance, Repairing the Nations: Melina Marchetta's QUINTANA OF CHARYN

Though men have been responsible for starting and carrying out the majority of wars our planet has experienced*, women are often invited to play an integral role in picking up the pieces after war has ended. Epic fantasy, typically constructed around world-changing battles between good and evil rather than the less overtly heroic work to rebuild countries and societies inevitably damaged by them, has, unsurprisingly, traditionally featured more men than women, even when its primary audience has been young adult readers. Yet with the publication last year of Kristen Cashore's Bitterblue, and this month, Melina Marchetta's Quintana of Charyn, young adult fantasy has begun to explore what happens after the evil has been defeated. In particular, both authors ask readers to recognize that mending the physical destruction caused by war is likely to be far easier than repairing the emotional trauma war inevitably inflicts on both sides of a conflict.

As I've already written about Cashore's novel on Goodreads, I'd like to focus on Marchetta's in this post. Quintana is the third book in the Lumatere Chronicles; much like Tolkien's The Two Towers and The Return of the King, Marchetta's Quintana is less a sequel than a continuation of an ongoing story. If you're a fantasy fan and you haven't yet read the first two books, Finnikin of the Rock and Froi of the Exiles, I'd highly recommend them.

In Quintana, relations between former warring nations Lumatere and Charyn look to be on the verge of disintegration. Yet the book does not focus on diplomacy and political maneuvering; instead, it explores the difficult relationships of five related romantic couples, each of whose members are either leaders or allies of, or high-level advisors to, the two countries. Their romantic difficulties, and the work each couple must do to solve them, suggest in miniature what the two enemy nations must accomplish before they can move beyond their brutally antagonistic history and forward into a peaceful, generative future.

Five couples. Queen Isaboe of Lumatere and her consort, Finnikin of the Rock. Provincaro De Lancey and Gods' blessed priestling Arjuro. King's advisor Gargarin and King's whore Lirah.  Lucien of the Mont and Phaedra of Alonso. Queen Quintana of Charyn and Froi the Exile. Two from the elder generation that helped begin the conflict, three from the younger, which has had to live with the trauma of its aftermath. Four heterosexual couples, one homosexual. One couple both from Lumatere; two couples who are both from Charyn side; and two couples that each contain a member from each nation. One couple, apparently rock-solid at the end of Froi, suddenly erupts into anger and doubt; they must learn how to move beyond the fear of being lied to, of being betrayed, in order to help one another grieve a tragic loss. One couple, long-separated due to weakness and betrayal, must believe that people can change for the better. One couple, finally reunited after years of separation, must accept the limits their situation places on their love, for the good of both their child and their country. One couple must forgive the harm each has done the other out of prejudice and hate. And one couple must accept enforced separation, not only once, but multiple times, waiting until others who love them have laid the groundwork necessary to ensure that their joining will not cause irreparable harm.

And all, because they play in the realms of power, must acknowledge that the demands of the polis will often come before the demands of the personal: "In the games of queens and kings, we leave our dreams at the door and we make do with what we have. Sometimes if we're fortunate, we still manage to have a good life," Isaboe tells Froi. But the sacrifices never mean that the love is without meaning:

     [Phaedra] made a sound of regret. "We come second, you and I... Our allegiance is always to our kingdoms. Without that allegiance, our people would fall.
     She placed her head back against his chest, and he felt her tears. "This is not our time."
     "But that will never mean I love you less," he said. (310)

To keep faith with that love, to make peace with one another, and peace between their countries, all ten characters must learn to "look on the side of wonder" (180).  Rather than viewing the world through smog-tinted glasses, only seeing the disastrous and the damaged, both lovers and peacemakers must live life "drown[ing] in hope rather than wallow[ing] in despair" (324). Only then can lovers, and nations, begin the difficult, feminist work of cooperation and compromise required to pick up the pieces after the fighting is done.

Big thanks to AQ for sending me an ARC -- 25 years, and we're still friends!

* Primarily because throughout history, men have held the leadership positions in most countries. Women rulers have begun their fair share of wars, when they've had the chance (Cleopatra; Elizabeth I; Victoria I), although they often seem to be on the side of those rebelling against invaders or oppressors (Boadicea; Lakshmibai of Jhansi; Zenobia).

Candlewick, 2013.

Next time on RNFF
RNFF goes on vacation:
See you back on Friday, March 29th

Friday, March 15, 2013

Authors and Narrative Deception in Romance

During my teen years, I became fascinated not only by category romance and the burgeoning new field of young adult lit, but also by the far older genre of the mystery novel. Like myriad other twentieth-century mystery fans, I devoured the works of Agatha Christie, learning the conventions of the genre by following the adventures of her two most famous detectives, Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple. Yet even when I had blown through all of the Poirot and Marple books, there were still other delights in store: the playful romantic duo of Tommy and Tuppence, the horror of the one-by-one murders of And Then There Were None, the twists of the the stage play The Mousetrap.

The Christie novel that had the most influence on me as a reader, though, was none of these, but instead one in which she used the very conventions of the genre to hide the identity of the killer. Mystery's rules teach us to expect, nay, to rely on the fact, that the amateur detectives investigating a crime, the ones through whose eyes we witness the unraveling of the mystery, don't keep secrets from us. And they are never, ever involved in committing the actual crime itself. When an author breaks this convention—when one of the focalizing characters doesn't reveal all he or she knows, or, even more shockingly, turns out to be the very culprit for whom the other sleuths are searching—a reader can often feel shocked, even betrayed. Or she can learn from it, learn to take pleasure in the way an author has used the very rules the reader has internalized to pull the wool over her eyes.

(Christie spoiler alert ahead) Christie deploys a completely unreliable narrator in two of her books, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd and Endless Night, a technique slightly different from the one of which I am writing. With an unreliable narrator, a reader understands by book's end that the narrator character has deliberately set out to deceive the audience to whom s/he is writing/speaking. But in Christie's The Seven Dials Mystery, the trickery seems to rest more in the hands of the author than in the culprit. The murderer is only one of several characters into whose minds readers are allowed; by grouping the criminal with the innocents not only through plot, but through narrative technique, Christie isn't holding out a challenge to readers to recognize the unreliability of one narrator. Rather, she is actively manipulating our expectations in order to hide the villain from our view.

Though not a commonplace in the mystery, authorial narrative deception occurs often enough that an avid mystery reader will not be taken completely by surprise to discover it popping up every now and then in a year's worth of reading. But such deception seems far more rare in the genre of the romance. Part of romance's appeal is its direct access to the ideas, emotions, and above all, the secrets of its hero and heroine, its promise that what the hero and heroine know, the reader knows, too. To read a romance which, in spite of granting us direct access to minds of both its hero and heroine, holds some important piece of information back, or which, through its conventions, leads us to expect one type of ending, while moving toward another, is a bit of a shock.

Two of my recent romance reads—Grace Burrowes' Lady Eve's Indiscretion (2012) and Carla Kelly's Libby's London Merchant (1991)—each gave me such a "shock." (possible spoilers ahead). In Lady Eve, the hero, Lucas Denning, knows a secret about the Evie Windham's past. Intriguingly, the secret is one that the reader is let in on fairly early in the novel, so the purpose of having Lucas not reveal his knowledge of it is not to keep it hidden from the reader. Why, then, when we are admitted to Lucas' other feelings about, and knowledge of, Evie, is this one piece of information kept secret? After rereading the passage when Lucas finally reveals to Evie that he knows, I came up with several possible reasons. But I'd like to hear other readers' thoughts on this first, before giving my own.

Carla Kelly's "deception" in Libby's London Merchant has more to do with an author's playing on the reader's expectation of romance's narrative conventions than with a character keeping secrets from the reader. Or at least playing with the narrative conventions in 2013. Since Libby was written in 1991, I wondered if my surprise at the book's ending was due to a deliberate attempt by Kelly to play with narrative conventions, or rather due to a shift in narrative romance conventions between the early 1990s and the early 2010's. Again, I don't want to give the surprise away, but for anyone who has read Kelly's book, I'd love to hear your opinion.

In Libby's London Merchant, I guessed the "trick" before it was revealed, and so I found Kelly's manipulation pleasing. But in Lady Eve's Indiscretion, I was completely surprised, and thus found myself feeling a bit cranky at being manipulated.

Can you think of other romance novels that do not just play with genre conventions and/or reader expectations, but do so in order to trick or deceive the reader? Do such books make you feel as if you as a reader have been betrayed? Or do such deceptions give you pleasure in experiencing the unexpected? If you were able to "get" the trick before it was revealed, do you feel more positively about the deception? If the author completely succeeded in surprising (or making a fool of) you, do you find yourself reacting negatively? Or does this, too, give you pleasure?

Next time on RNFF:
Melina Marchetta's 
Lumatere Chronicles

(if I can steal the third volume away from my daughter long enough to finish reading it between now and Tuesday...)

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Feminism and BDSM: Teresa Noelle Roberts' KNOWING THE ROPES

Feminism and BDSM (Bondage/Discipline/Domination/ Submission/Sadism/Masochism) have a long and fraught relationship. Feminists concerned about the violent, coercive elements of patriarchal discourse have suggested that BDSM is a reflection of the woman-hating inherent in patriarchy, and believe that any women participating in BDSM, or involved in a BDSM relationship, has simply been brainwashed into colluding in her own oppression. Feminist proponents of BDSM argue that such criticisms are a form of sexual policing, a policing just as coercive and repressive as the patriarchy protesters aim to undermine. If a woman enjoys being submissive, being spanked, or even being beaten as part of erotic or even non-erotic play, as long as she has consented to partake in such acts, then her sexual choices should be none of anyone's business. Even a feminist's.

Given this wide divergence of feminist opinion on the topic, I've been wondering about the possibility of a feminist BDSM romance. What would such a novel have to contain in order to satisfy feminist sensibilities of both types? Teresa Noelle Roberts* must have been wondering, too, for her new erotic romance, Knowing the Ropes, clearly works to address the concerns of both feminist opponents and feminist proponents of kinky pain, not only debunking myths about BDSM but pointing out its potential feminist pitfalls, particular for women who take on the submissive role.

At the start of Knowing The Ropes (which might better have been titled Learning the Ropes), our nearly thirty-year-old protagonist Selene Daniels, a graduate student who has worked with victims of domestic abuse, is about to attend her first "Boston Kinksters United" meet and greet. Her pressing question is the same one shared by many feminists: is there a line between consensual kink and abusive violence? And if so, where is it? Despite her professional interests, even despite having witnessed domestic abuse in her childhood best friend's family, Selene finds herself craving "pain mixed with her pleasure, to want so desperately to give up some of the control other women were fighting to regain." As a newbie to the BDSM scene, Selene thus serves as a stand-in for readers who might share her curiosity and doubts, as well as her unfamiliarity with and stereotypes of the rules and practices of the BDSM community.

As we travel with Selene, readers are introduced to both "doms to duck"—arrogant cavemen who show little respect for the women whom they seek to dominate—and "alpha-in-a-good-way" doms—men who, though they enjoy taking on a dominant persona for the purposes of sexual or other play, do so with respect, kindness, and sometimes even love for their partners. As Selene thinks when she meets good-alpha Nick, who doesn't completely look the part: "Even a dom couldn't be all imposing and serious and stern 24/7, or he'd be impossible to deal with." Doms come in all shapes, sizes, and ideological persuasions; finding a dom who is not a sexist pig is possible, but only if you're aware of the differences that exist between men who are into BDSM.

Readers also get to meet a troubling submissive, one set up in opposition to heroine Selene. When first meeting her, Nick intuits that Selene "didn't take shit from anyone. She might take orders, if it entertained her, but not shit. And she got it. She might be new to the scene, but she got that it was about people shaping fantasies, not fantasies shaping people." Nick's old girlfriend, Natalie, however, threw Nick over because he wouldn't dominate all aspects of her life. Later, Natalie finds herself in the midst of an emotionally and physically abusive rebound relationship, a relationship that she can only be persuaded to leave because of Selene's previous experience counseling victims of abuse.

Natalie, though, still feels guilty for leaving her "master." "Slaves don't get to ask, except maybe once in a while when we've pleased our master.... We exist to please our masters. It's not about us. We get our pleasure from pleasing," Natalie tries to explain to Selene. While Selene finds the idea of ceding more control to Nick a turn-on ("loved but controlled, with status and respect but with rules and rituals to follow"), she finds Natalie's willingness to be locked up, punched in the face, denied clothing and even contact with anyone besides her "master" unhealthy and scary. Natalie's extreme form of submission is a problem not just for the submissive partner, but also for the dominant one: "Control was one thing, but that was way too much responsibility for someone else's life and safety, like having a perpetual toddler. How could the dom ever relax?" Natalie thus proves to be the example of the "bad sub," one who does seem to embody feminist fears that a submissive BDSM woman is truly victimized by patriarchal desires, while Selene, who keeps her self-respect and sense of self even while sexually submitting to Nick, provides the example of a sub who is also able to commit to feminist ideology and activism in other parts of her life.

As Selene becomes more involved with Nick, readers learn about the rules BDSM'ers use to keep the "play" "safe, sane, and consensual." First is the importance of informed consent. "Consent's definitely key, even if we're all pretending we're forcing you," Nick tells Selene before their first BDSM encounter.

Second is the necessity of having a discussion about rules and expectations before any BDSM encounter takes place: "And then he proceeded to ask her a series of no-holds-barred questions that made her squirm on the leather couch in a combination of embarrassment and lust. After they'd gone over her experiences... and the things that were absolutely off-limits... the subject turned to her fantasies." As in any sexual relationship, but especially important in a relationship involving pain, not just pleasure, open communication is vital.

Last is the concept of the "safe word," a word the submissive can say if the violence of the play goes beyond the boundaries of acceptability. Natalie believes that safe words are a cop-out, and shouldn't be used by "real" subs. But as Nick and Selene's relationship shows, sometimes even a "fun" scene can unintentionally slip over into frightening or dangerous. Without a safe word, "good" pain can all too easily morph into "bad."

If BDSM is all about highly unbalanced power relationships, while feminism is about creating relationships in which power is shared between equals, can the two ever intersect? At the crux of a feminist BDSM, at least in Roberts' depiction, is that the BDSM power imbalance must be regulated, set within protective boundaries. And that it must occur between consenting individuals, each of whom understand and accept said boundaries. And, perhaps most importantly, that the thrill come not just from the power differential, but also from the sharing, and satisfying, of another's fantasies: "No, not callous, because it was exactly what she needed, exactly one of her fantasies, and it seemed clear to her that Nick not only knew that but was turned on precisely because of it, because her fantasy and his collided so precisely."

I didn't always find Selene and Nick's romance emotionally compelling. Because their kink is not mine? Or because the progress of their romance felt a bit too programmatic at times, a bit too much like a deliberate lesson? But I still found Roberts' novel worth reading. Because her story struck me as a good one to "think" with—introducing me to concepts and practices that I had read about in the abstract but had a difficult time imagining actually occurring between two consenting adults, especially feminist adults, giving me a jumping-off point to think about the implications of them. Given that studies suggest at least 1 in 10 American adults has experimented with S&M, many of them women, dismissing BDSM practice as without any feminist value seems shortsighted. Roberts' novel helped me to imagine what rules have to be in place in order for feminism and BDSM to find common ground.

Do you believe that feminism and BDSM are mutually exclusive? If not, in what romance/erotic novels do you see the two portrayed as compatible, rather than in opposition?

* Disclaimer: Both Teresa Noelle Roberts and I are members of the New England Chapter of the Romance Writers of America.

Photo/Illustration credits:
"Quit Judging Me":
Safe word:

Samhain, 2013.

Next time on RNFF
Fooling the Reader: 
Narrative Tricks and Treats

Friday, March 8, 2013

Romancing the $s and £s

To date, I've not reviewed any category romances on RNFF, having made the assumption that the most mass-produced of titles in a decidedly mass-market genre would hardly be likely to hold feminism in high regard. Literary scholar Laura Vivanco, however, suggests that such an out-of-hand dismissal on my part may be premature. In her article "Feminism and Early Twenty-First Century Harlequin Mills & Boon Romances,"* Vivanco reports on the results of her reading of 120 category romances published between 2000 and mid-2007. Sixty of Vivanco's books came from Harlequin/Mills & Boon's "Modern"/"Presents" line, sixty from the "Romance"/"Tender" line.

Heroine Natalie is "no women's libber"
Though she discovered a "small number" of books which "appeared to be antifeminist in that they either explicitly critiqued moves towards equality or they end with the hero exerting significant control over the heroine in some way," and an unspecified number in which "little evidence of either a positive or negative engagement with feminism" appeared, 26 of her 120 books either "explicitly express positive attitudes towards feminists and feminism" or directly engage with feminist issues or ideas (1062, 1063). If we extrapolate from Vivanco's sample, her findings suggest that a little over 20 percent of Harlequin/Mills & Boon category romances portray feminism in a positive light. A distressingly low percentage in our purportedly "post-feminist" age, yet a percentage greater than conventional wisdom has previously assumed.

Just how deeply do these romances embrace feminism? I sometimes find myself frustrated after picking up a children's or YA book that a reviewer or expert has touted as featuring positive female role models, only to discover after reading that its feminism is no more than surface-deep, or that my definition of feminism seems quite different from that of the recommender. Often I find such books explicitly declare their alliance with feminist principles but then proceed to undermine said principles on the level of implicit, rather than explicit, ideology. I'm eager to take a look at some of the books Vivanco discusses, to see whether they are wholehearted in their embrace of feminism, or whether they present conflicting attitudes toward feminism. (I know that Laura Vivanco is a frequent reader of RNFF, and hope she will chime in here on this issue).

Until I can round up and read a few of these books, though, I thought I'd share another issue Vivanco's article raised for me: the issue of women's relationship to money. Vivanco notes that many of the heroines in the Modern line "struggle not to be seen as 'gold-diggers,'" a struggle she suggests "may be read as attempting to redefine the institution of marriage so that it is no longer a sexual/financial transaction but a relationship built around emotional trust and intimacy" (1070). This struck me as an surprising argument, as I'm guessing few unmarried young people today regard marriage as a financial transaction at all, never mind feel a need to "redefine" it as something distinct from financial matters. Why then should "emotional trust and intimacy" be placed in opposition to money?

The quotes Vivanco includes to support her argument, and the language in which she couches them, made me wonder if these books weren't just attempting to redefine marriage as no longer a financial transaction, but also, simultaneously, setting up a binary opposition between money and love. In this binary, love in placed in the superior position, money in the inferior, the opposite message most Western men are socialized to believe. Such a binary construction unconsciously suggests to women that money is not, and should not, be important, at least not to them.

Vivanco argues that in order for Stasia, the heroine of Sarah Morgan's Public Wife, Private Mistress,"to prove her point that marriage is not an exchange of sex for financial security, when she left him [her husband]," Stasia says:

 "I left everything because there was nothing I needed." She met his gaze full on, the message clear in her eyes. I was never interested in your money and I can't believe you don't know that. (1070)

Vivanco later suggests that Stasia

thinks of her work as something which benefits others and gives her more than merely financial rewards: "Life isn't always about money.... There are other things that matter, like independence and self-belief. I like my work. I need to know that I'm good at something. Making a contribution that matters." (1072)

While a belief that money is the end-all and be-all of life is one most feminists would find troubling, the completely opposite view—that money is "merely" a "reward" given for acting in ways that "benefit others," rather than something women earn so they can support themselves —seems equally problematic. Life isn't always about money, but it is often about money, especially life in a marriage. As myriad studies, including this 2012 study from  the  American Institute of CPAs,  have shown, the most common reason married or co-habitating couples fight is over finances. If romances function to persuade women that money should not be of much concern to them, then how will they be able to function as equal partners in a relationship in which many, many decisions about money occur?

The lines from Morgan's novel made me begin to wonder—have I ever read a romance, either category or single-title, in which a woman is proud of the money she earns? In which earning money through work is seen as a positive, empowering act for a heroine? A romance in which a heroine earns more than her potential love interest? A romance in which a woman does not want to give up her job after finding her true love, not because giving it up with be a sacrifice of personal fulfillment, but because earning her own money makes it easier for her to feel like an equal partner in a relationship with a fellow wage-earner?

I could not think of a single one. Am I just being forgetful? Or do some come to your mind?

* Vivanco, Laura. "Feminism and Early Twenty-First Century Harlequin Mills & Boon Romances." The Journal of Popular Culture 45.5 (2012): 1060-1089.

Photo/Illustration credits:
Women Minimum wage: Center for American Progress

Next time on RNFF:
BDSM & feminist romance

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Molly O'Keefe's CAN'T HURRY LOVE

Victoria Schulman was hugging his horse.
     If that wasn't enough to piss a man off, Eli Turnbull didn't know what was. That she was doing it in one of those fussy satin shirts only made it worse.

The opening sentences of Can't Hurry Love, the second book in Molly O'Keefe's Crooked Creek Ranch contemporary romance series, set up its reader to expect a traditional battle of the sexes storyline. Country vs. city, touchy-feely vs. tough-as-nails, satin vs. denim, dainty ballet flats vs. crushing bootheels—the differences between New York socialite Victoria Schulman and Texas cowboy Eli in this opening scene, differences destined to set sparks a-flying as opposites inevitably attract, are differences grounded in traditional constructions of gender.

Yet O'Keefe is after something a little more subtle here than the usual "men are like this, women are like that, and it's their differences that make for compelling love stories" assumptions common to much traditional romance. It's even more complicated than the "he'll learn to be a bit more emotive, she'll learn to be a bit more assertive" character arcs to be found in more recent, more progressive romance novels. Instead, O'Keefe strives to show the true costs, to both men and to women, when the sexes are corralled inside the fences of overly rigid gender roles.

Victoria has spent her entire life being bullied by domineering men. First by her father, an arrogant Texas rancher whose favorite pastime had been throwing verbal insults at his illegitimate daughter. Then, seemingly more benignly but ultimately just as destructively, by her husband Joel, a New York City financier who loved Victoria's "delicate femininity" because it "made him feel strong. Like a protector" (6). Now that both men are dead, one due to old age, the other the result of suicide after his Ponzi scheme went belly-up, Victoria finds herself dangerously adrift, whining and waiting for someone, anyone, to rescue her and her young son from financial and emotional ruin.

That is, until yet another man attempts to push her around. Eli Turnbull has worked on Victoria's father's ranch for all of his life, yearning one day to take back the land his ancestors were forced to sell to Victoria's. Though Eli feels "bad bullying a woman who clearly needed not only a good meal but someone to take care of her" (1), he doesn't let his feelings stop him from laconically insulting, belittling, and condescending to Victoria in an attempt to persuade her that she would be far better off selling the ranch to him than in making the patently ridiculous attempt to run it herself.

Being on the receiving end of such treatment from Eli, who had been the only one to take any positive interest in her during her childhood summer visits to her father's ranch, proves galvanizing to the previously passive, put-upon Victoria:

It was as if Victoria were totally invisible and after being invisible to every man in her entire life, she'd had enough.... After years of lying down, of capitulating, of surrendering before she even realized she had something she wanted to fight for, she was filled with an unholy hostility.... She was a woman who was just beginning to realize how scorned she truly was. (6)

Rather than taking the entire novel to learn the value of gumption, Victoria takes advantage of her fury forged in hell right from the book's opening scene. And not because she's a woman scorned, but because she's one who will no longer tolerate being belittled and ignored by the men around her. By the end of the first chapter, the feminine Victoria has become just as "pissed off" as the masculine Eli was in the book's opening scene. Can some lessons in the value of the touchy-feely for cowboy Eli be far behind?

Eli forces Victoria to muck out the barn; Victoria leaves potpourri and a "Home, Sweet Home" pillow in Eli's horse's stall. Eli sells off the herd; Victoria leases the land Eli longs to buy. The lines for a typical battle of the sexes clash seem clearly drawn.

Yet when Eli pulls Victoria's son into the game, Victoria calls the battle to a screeching halt. And when Eli, in a move that would have been rewarded in an Old Skool romance, tries to bully her into relenting by playing on her obvious physical attraction to him, she throws him off the ranch. For good. In the year 2012, the old "You want this... Don't fight me" line (words which Eli actually uses) just don't have the power to persuade, even the most delicately feminine of women.

Barely 60 pages into the novel, and O'Keefe has kicked the ladder of reader expectations out from under us. And she's done it while simultaneously pointing a finger at the misogyny underlying the traditional battle of the sexes romance plot. Where can this city girl/cowboy tale go from here?

Mudslides, mudbaths, and an unlikely alliance with two other women—the ranch's Latina cook, and Victoria's stepmother, a former model who once took her frustrations at her untrue husband out on the unhappy fruits of his philandering (i.e., Victoria)—lead to a risky, but tempting solution to Victoria's financial woes. And finally taking responsibility for her own life allows Victoria to own up to her own sexual desires, too, rather than expecting Eli to play the bad guy so she can keep her good-girl self-image intact.

Yet behind her newly empowered self-identity, Victoria's older self lurks. And ironically, it raises its debilitating head not due to fears of losing a man, but of gaining one, and sliding back into her weak, disempowered way of life. It threatens to take completely over out of guilt, when her former friend Renee, a victim of Joel's dirty business dealing, arrives at the ranch, determined to force Victoria to bear her pain like a good, self-sacrificing feminine wife should.

Seeing how the feminine Victoria comes to terms with the differing roles she tentatively inhabits (and though I've no room in this post to discuss them, the roles that the masculine Eli finds himself trying on for size, too) makes for a romance which, while celebrating the differences between male and female bodies, challenges the restricting of specific professional, intellectual, and emotional needs as the particular province to one gender rather than the other.

Photo credits:
Chanel ballet flats: AKisforKate
Muddy Cowboy Boots: Cowboy Boots: A Gallery
Mud Bath: etsy

Bantam, 2012.

Next time on RNFF:
Feminism and BSDM?

Friday, March 1, 2013

Romance Publishers and Feminism

Earlier this week, an RNFF reader wrote to me off-blog with a publishing-related question. This reader is interested in writing a romance novel, and had been given the advice to read books from a particular line or publisher to get a good sense of what her targeted publisher is looking for in order to tailor her writing to its needs. As she intends to write as a feminist, she wondered if I could recommend specific romance publishers who are particularly welcoming of romances with feminist themes or beliefs.

I've been focused on individual books, rather than at particular publishers, so I'm not sure I can give this reader a reliable answer. The question did make me wonder, though, if the search for a welcoming home for feminist love stories might be similar to the search for an appropriate graduate school program, something that I went about without really knowing what it was important to be looking for. When I was in the midst of applying to Ph.D. programs in English, I initially focused on schools with the most prestigious programs, regardless of my particular areas of interest (children's literature, Victorian literature, and women's studies). Only after I'd been accepted, and had my initial welcoming interview with the English professor charged that year with creating a new incoming graduate class, did I realize that such an approach might have been shortsighted. My university's English department had a strong reputation, but one build primarily on the reputation of its Americanists I discovered, alas, not a field in which I had any interest. And when I asked if any of the professors had an interest in children's literature, he cheerfully replied, "Oh, you'll have to teach us about that!" Only later, after speaking with fellow students who had approached the application process with a bit more information than I had did I realize that targeting specific professors whose research interests would be compatible with your own, not just universities with the best overall reputations, should have been a key part of my search.

Luckily for me, my university also had a reputation for iconoclasm, for welcoming scholars with unique or unusual research areas. And it also had one of the foremost feminist scholars of eighteenth-century British literature, a scholar welcoming enough to serve as my mentor despite my preference for the Victorians rather than the Georgians. At a different university, though, my lack of knowledge about the interests of the professors might have led to much more gnashing of teeth and pulling of hair, perhaps even to dropping out of the program altogether.

This experience makes me wonder if the search for a feminist-friendly romance publisher might similarly lie less in targeting a particular house, and more in identifying particular editors who embrace and sympathize with feminist goals and ideas. Editors, of course, have far less freedom to pursue manuscripts they like than professors do to support scholars whose work they believe has potential, yet I'm guessing that like professors, individual editors have decided preferences not only of subgenre, writing style, and types of heroes and heroines, but also in the underlying messages the stories that speak to them convey. Some might assume feminists have an ax to grind, or are anti-male, or have some other outdated view of what feminism is all about; others may simply take feminism as a given.

This, of course, is just a hunch on my part, not something I've researched empirically. So, I'm turning to the collective wisdom of this blog's followers. RNFF readers, what is your take on this reader's question? Are there particular publishers, or particular lines at particular publishers, that seem more welcoming of feminist-friendly romances than others? Published authors out there, has the "f-word" come up in your conversations with specific editors or agents, and if so, was it frowned upon as an evil to avoid? Or smiled at as a welcome friend? Are there editors who are actively looking for feminist romance?

Photo credits:
Romance novels: Felicity Heaton via Women's Voices for Change

Next time on RNFF:
Mothers and Lovers in 
Molly O'Keefe's Can't Hurry Love