Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Making it Rain for RAINN: SUMMER RAIN anthology

As readers of RNFF know, I'm not a big fan of the romance novella form (see an earlier post here). But I do love a well-crafted short story. Not something that comes across as an underdeveloped novel, as so many romance novellas tend to do, but a tale that has the tightness of focus and unity of effect that Edgar Allan Poe, one of the earliest and most talented practitioners of the form, identified as central to the form. And when my purchase of a collection of short stories has the additional bonus of having its proceeds going to support a praiseworthy feminist organization, well, you can just about guarantee that I'll have my wallet out and ready.

But I wouldn't write about any book here on RNFF solely because of its charitable intentions. A book has to strike me as feminist not just in the cause it supports, but also in the stories it tells. I'm happy to report that the recently released romance story anthology Summer Rain, published in support of RAINN, The Rape, Abuse, & Incest National Network, fits both criterion to a T.

Surprisingly, perhaps, given the organization the book was published to support, few of the stories in Summer Rain feature protagonists who are coming to terms with past sexual abuse. Only RITA Award winner Molly O'Keefe's contribution, "The Heart of It," includes a protagonist/survivor (a hero, not a heroine) whose is working to understand why, despite an incredibly supportive network of family and friends, his relationship to his own sexuality is still so fraught. That O'Keefe is able to pair such a hero with an upscale call girl as heroine and still avoid drawing on the stereotypical, and often sexist, hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold trope demonstrates not only her strong skills as a writer, but also her familiarity with current activist work on the rights of sex workers to be treated as human beings rather than simply pathologized as agency-less victims.

If sexual abuse is not a prevalent them of the collection, many of the stories do focus on the related issue of consent in sexual relationships, exploring this issue in both fantastic and realistic settings. In "Real Feelings," Charlotte Stein wonders if, and how, an android created specifically so that a human can "Experience all the joys of a real relationship, without any of the risks" can ever grant meaningful consent. In "Sacrifice," Cecilia Tan imagines a more feminist son for god/serial rapist Zeus, a demigod who searches for a way to fulfill his role in fertility rituals that will not include coerced sexual coupling on the part of his partner. And in "Redemption," Ruthie Knox explores the ways that consensual role-play focused on coercive sex can offer a woman a needed respite from the failures that keep piling up in her life.

Rain, though, rather than abuse, serves as the unifying theme of the collection, the warm rain that brings relief from summer's scorching heat, from the pain of misunderstandings between lovers, from the vulnerability to words said in anger. Impending thunderstorms seem like a sign of potential rebirth to a former artist turned barista in Mary Ann Rivers' "Rainy Season," the story of a woman who takes a chance to find out why a certain customer "is so bright I can hardly look at him, and why I always want him to look at me" and ends up discovering not only him, but herself, as well. In Audra North's "Fitting In," dark, cold rain ruins an anxious, ambitious young man's attempt to win friends and influence potential voters by throwing a paintball party, but grants him the chance to find ways to move beyond shame by forcing him to spend one-on-one time with a woman whom he'd always thought of as the must-be-avoided "weird girl." And in perhaps my favorite story of the collection*, Shari Slade's "Private Study," a fierce downpour serves as fitting punctuation as a once-sheltered young woman demands with biting courage that the boy with whom she begins a tentative relationship admire rather than be ashamed of her newfound love for sex education, and treat her neither as a damsel in need of rescuing nor as a whore who should be feel guilty about her own sexual desires.

It's rare to find a volume that both supports a feminist cause and tells stories that help readers imagine what a feminist heterosexual relationship might look like. If I wish that the anthology had includes some stories with same-sex couples, and with more characters of color, that is not to take away anything from power and beauty of the accomplishments of these talented, politically-aware writers, nor from the work of the collection's editor, Sarah Frantz.

As a reviewer, I received a copy of Summer Rain for free. But I admired it so much that I'm going to purchase additional copies to give as gifts to my sisters. And hope very hard that the tagline on the anthology's cover—"Love in the Rain series"—means there are more feminist-friendly anthologies on the horizon, poised to shine out after the rainclouds clear.

*Although it is hard to whittle it down to just one, as there is only one tale in the entire anthology that did not engage both my aesthetic and ideological sympathies.

Photo credits:
Android sex: Greenprophet.com (and an interesting article about robots and sex tourism)
I love sex ed button: Cafepress.com

(Love in the Rain series)
Edited by Sarah Frantz
self-published by the authors

Monday, June 23, 2014

Bait and Switch? Or Point of View? Judging a Romance Hero

I've been mulling over my negative reactions to two romances I recently read, trying to figure out why each made me feel squeamish about accepting the pleasure that a romance typically offers—being happy that a hero and heroine have overcome their difficulties and have formed a lasting relationship. In both of these particular books, I found myself really bothered by a heroine's acceptance and/or forgiveness of certain behaviors or beliefs on the part of her story's hero. Each book asks me as a reader to accept the heroine's acceptance, to forgive and forget, too. But I found myself resisting.

Why? At first I thought it was because the authors each attempted to pull a bait and switch—to introduce asshatty behavior on a hero's part, only to distract the reader from said asshattery by introducing another person who behaves even more badly than does the hero. Giving the reader a different target for the anger that the hero's action originally evoked struck me as a disingenuous bit of bait and switch. But then I began to wonder—did the real reason why I wasn't cutting these heroes any slack have less to do with the author's sleight of hand, and more to do with issues of point of view?

Maybe if I tell you a bit more about the two books in question, you can help me figure this out. Both contain major spoilers, so stop here if you haven't yet but are still hoping to read Linnea Sinclair's Gabriel's Ghost (2006) or Emily Giffin's The One & Only (2014).

I've been trying to read more widely in science fiction romance, a subgenre in which Sinclair's name pops up as a recommended author on a regular basis. Her most recent books are part of an ongoing series, set in the Dock Five Universe, so I decided to start with the first in the series, Gabriel's Ghost, a RITA award winner. The story opens with Chasidah Bergren, a career military interstellar pilot unfairly framed and court martialed, being extracted from the prison-planet to which she has been sent by her nemesis, smuggler and rogue Gabriel "Sully" Sullivan. Sully convinced Chaz to work with him and his team to thwart a secret project to breed jukors, vicious killers who have long been outlawed by the Empire, but he has other, far more personal reasons for coming to Chaz's rescue.

Chaz used to be married, to another career military officer, but divorced him when he reneged on his agreement that he'd never demand that she bear a child. Early on in the novel, a government ship in pursuit of the escaped prisoner turns out to be piloted by said ex, Philip, making Chaz both fearful and angry, although she makes no outward show of her feelings. But it turns out that Sully is a secret empath, as well as someone who can enter another's mind without his or her consent; his feelings for Chaz are so strong that when he senses her anger and fear, he immediately delves into her mind to discover the reasons for her emotions. Needless to say, Chaz is less than happy about Sully's actions:

"Stay out of my goddamned mind. I'd meant it. Stars forgive me, but I'd meant it. And he knew that. When he'd invaded my mind I'd been shocked. It was like everything I'd read; it was like rape. A forced intrusion on my self, my soul." (195). Although Sully promises he'd never hurt her, Chaz upbraids him for thinking he already knows what would and wouldn't hurt:

"Did you think at all, Gabriel Sullivan, before you ripped into my mind, just what my feelings might be? Did you stop to consider that?" I thrust my finger at him. "Or was your anger, your... I don't know, petulant jealousy, your ego's temper tantrum more important than anything else? .... How in hell would you know what hurts me? You never even bothered to ask." (198-99)

It takes Chaz some time to forgive Sully's rape-like mind invasion, but she does, eventually. She even gives her approval when he invades the minds of several others (the means justify the ends?). As Chaz explains to her ex when he finds himself on the receiving end of a Sully mind-probe, "We had to know," then thinks to herself "Another no-choice situation" (392).

This is troubling enough, but when Sully once again takes away Chaz's agency by not telling her all of the implications of a link they forge together during an act of sex, I once again want to kick him into the doghouse. Sully warns Chaz, "this is a very deep link. You must be sure." She tells him she is, and when he says "We have time. Just knowing you're willing is enough for me" she tells him, "But not for me. I want all of you." (318). But Sully never told her that the act has made her his ky'sara, his bond-wife.

Sinclair gives clear reasons for Sully's lack of forthrightness—his powers are so feared, and so despised, by almost all sentient races that he would be outcast if he told anyone, even the woman he loved, the truth of what he is. Chaz is not at all happy to discover that Sully has kept things from her yet again, omissions that took away her ability to choose for herself:

"I thought of all the half-truths, the almost-lies that Sully layered around himself as a protective wall. And I reclaimed his hand when he offered it because, if I expected him to be honest with me, then I had to be honest with him. For all that I loved him—and I did, beyond all measure, as he'd once told me—part of me was angry over his deceptions and his usurping of my choice when he'd made me ky'sara to him. I wouldn't have refused, but it would have been nice to have been asked. He needed to feel that, read that from me" (445).

Philip, Chaz's ex, believes that Sully will use and kill Chaz, and that she only wants to stay with Sully because he is manipulating her mind. Sully takes issue with Philip's beliefs, telling him that Chaz isn't his servant or slave, but "An equal link.... If she is ky'sara to me and I am ky'sal to her, it's a link forged of love, not command. And that zragkor you threaten her with would kill me" (414-15). Philip doesn't buy it, and demands that Chaz separate herself from Sully, to prove that he's not controlling her.

Philip thus gets to fill the role of über-patriarchal bad guy, urging the reader, and Chaz, to redirect our anger at Sully's equally patriarchal actions onto Philip instead. Chaz refuses to cave in to Philip's condescending demands, and flies off into the sunset with Sully at book's end.

Something similar happened in Emily Giffin's latest, The One and Only. Thirty-three-year-old Shea Rigsby has long idolized her best friend's father, Clive Carr, the coach of the local university's beloved football team. Shea, a rabid football fan, is so devoted to the team that she's worked in the college's athletic department writing press releases rather than pursuing a more ambitious job as a sports reporter. At the start of the novel, Shea begins dating Ryan, an alum of Coach Carr's team, now a professional football player, a guy that everyone around Shea thinks she should be down on her knees with gratitude to for deigning to notice lowly old her. But Shea can't seem to summon nearly the same level of enthusiasm for Ryan as she does for her hometown team, or for its recently widowed coach.

Things become even more complicated when accusations of abuse—an NCAA investigation of Coach Carr's program, and hints from the ex-wife of Shea's boyfriend that he's got a serious anger management problem—begin to roil. Shea dumps Ryan after he takes his temper out on her, and begins a tentative relationship with Coach Carr. But their relationship runs into quick trouble, not only from the expected shock and protest from Coach Carr's daughter, but also from the coach's revelations about his role in an earlier accusation of abuse against Ryan. The coach, an honest, upright guy, feels compelled to tell Shea about it:

"Then she said he forced her to have sex."
     "He raped her?" I said, the word leaving a bitter taste in my mouth.
     "Well, she didn't say that exactly. But yeah... That's what she alleged. That he had sex with her against her will. So yeah. That would be rape." (354)

Coach advised the girl, a former girlfriend of Ryan's, to report the assault to the police. But he didn't believe her accusation, nor did he report it to anyone else at the university. As he explains,

     "You have to remember, Shea... There are rules now about this sort of thing. Rules that say coaches have to report all incidents to the university president or athletic director or police. Or all three. But back then... there was nothing in place. I had never dealt with anything like that before.
     "Did you tell Connie?" I asked, unsure of why this mattered to me. [Connie is his now-dead wife]
     "No." (355)

Coach Carr claims now, though,

     "If I could go back, I would change how I handled everything. I would have done more. I really thought I was doing the right thing, but now I can see that I let that girl down.... The other night, when I walked into your room and saw Ryan on top of you... It was almost as if I were standing up for both of you."
     I nodded, as if I accepted this explanation, but couldn't help feeling that throwing a couple of punches in my living room couldn't fix the past, and I felt myself withdraw from him in a way that scared me.

Shea, who throughout the novel has been a conflict-avoider, a get-along-with-everyone, make-everyone-else-happy kind of girl, experiences an epiphany of sorts when she finally is able to say "I'm angry" after listening to Coach's story:

    "At me?"
     "Yes" I said, shocked by the emotion, the very notion that I could be angry at Coach. "You should have reported it. You should have at least helped her report it."
     "Yes... I should have... I know that now... But, Shea... I honest to God didn't think he raped her. I still don't."
     I looked at him, thinking this was the wrong response, feeling a fresh wave of indignation, this time on Tish's behalf. "That's not the point," I said. "That wasn't up to you to decide." (339)

Coach yanks Shea from the high ground, though, when he takes major exception to her fear that his reluctance to report Ryan's girlfriend's claim might have stemmed from an all-too-important desire to win. He protests it's not about winning, it's

"...about commitment to the people you love. Your wife. Your family. Your friends. Your team. It's about giving it your all and doing the very best you can with what you have, in every moment you're in. And that's what I did that night in my office. That's what I do on the football field. And that's what I'm doing right now as I defend myself to the woman I love" (362-63)

This major impasse between Coach and Shea, no matter how troubling, is not what keeps the two apart, however. Like Philip above, we're given a replacement figure at whom we can direct anger originally inspired by the hero. Lucy, Shea's best friend, demands that Shea choose between Lucy and her father, or she'll cut off all contact with her. Shea chooses Lucy, and breaks up with Coach Carr. Several months later, though, when, out of the blue, Lucy changes her mind—"I was wrong, Shea. Go to him. You belong with him"—Coach's earlier revelations don't seem be in Shea's mind at all (412). She immediately seizes on Lucy's offer. In a weird, kind of sick way, those revelations might have even made their relationship possible, as Shea implies when she points out that she no longer holds Coach up to "mythic standards," but instead "see[s] him as a flawed man and a fallible leader," an insight that "only makes my faith and trust strong in him" (406).

Bait and switch, yes? But as I re-read the passages I planned to quote for this post, I began to wonder if issues of point of view had as much to do with my "ick" responses as these bait and switch moves. Both of these texts are told in the first person, solely from the point of view of the heroine. Because I wasn't allowed into the heads of the male halves of these relationships, I wasn't sure I could trust their claims. Does Sully truly believe that he will never again use his powers to "rape" Chaz's mind again? Does he truly see her as an equal? Is Coach Carr being entirely honest with himself that the desire to win played absolutely no role in his decision not to report the accusations against one of his star players? In romances in which I'm allowed inside the heads of both the male and the female protagonists, am I willing to grant heroes who engage in blatantly sexist behavior but claim that they've reformed the benefit of the doubt, when I'm not willing to do the same in a woman-only pov story? Is this a sexist refusal to trust my heroines? Or a closer reflection of the caution we should all take in the real world, a world in which we can never truly get inside the head of another person?

Have you ever read a romance that engaged in a bait and switch like the ones described above? Do you find yourself more forgiving of bad behavior when you're allowed to see inside the head of the one who's behaving badly?

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Urban Fantasy Decidedly Not á la Mode: Alaya Johnson's MOONSHINE

When you think of the quintessential urban fantasy heroine, what characteristics immediately come to mind? Toughness? Mad skills with a sword or a gun? A wit quick enough, and sharp enough to cut through the ego of villain and alpha hero alike? Zephyr Hollis, the protagonist of Alaya Johnson's unusual urban fantasy Moonshine, is about as far a cry from your typical urban fantasy heroine as a reader can image. She gets around 1920s New York City not a tame dragon or a magical steed, but on a bicycle. She's given up following in her father's footsteps as a demon-slayer, disgusted by the demon-slayer's focus on earning a buck rather than adjudicating between good and evil. And she's a member of over thirty different citizen-activist groups, all working to better the rights of women, children, immigrants, negroes, or "Others"—the vampires and other supernatural beings who are treated as second-class citizens in Zephyr's world. Whether she's picketing City Hall, volunteering at a soup kitchen, discussing the importance of prophylactics with her fellow female activists, or teaching immigrants and Others Basic Literacy and Elocution, Zephyr seems to have more in common with real-life turn-of-the-century activist Jane Addams than with urban fantasy romance heroines such as Kate Daniels, Anita Blake, or Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Which makes her a surprisingly engaging heroine for this unusual urban fantasy novel.

Jane Addams and fellow activist
picketing on behalf of peace
Given Zephyr's penchant for do-gooding, it's hardly surprising to find her picking up the abandoned body of a young victim of the Turn Boys, a criminal vampire gang, rather than summoning the police. After all, the authorities would simply take him to the morgue and stake him, or cut off his head, because kids are too difficult to control when they turn into vampires. "The Others might not be human, but they're still people, you know?" Zephyr reminds herself as she hauls the body onto her bicycle, rushing not to be late for her evening class.

Luckily for Zephyr, she runs into one of her new students, a mysterious man named Amir ("He reminded me of Rudolph Valentino in The Sheik—foreign, handsome, dangerous—but darker, his features broader and a little more attractive"), on the way into the school building as the young boy begins to awaken into vampire-hood. "Shall we tell the blood-crazed vampire that you're late? Maybe he'll be polite enough to resume his mauling after you've finished," Amir quips when Zephyr seems more put out about missing her class than about being attacked by the boy; "I glowered at him, but was prevented from coming up with an appropriately dry retort by the sensation of gums and fast-sharpening teeth rasping across my suddenly exposed throat" (7). Zephyr may not have the fighting down, but she certainly has the wit. And she has a strange immunity to vampire-venom, a secret that she inadvertently reveals to Amir.

Prequel to Moonshine
A secret that Amir decides to capitalize on, by offering Zephyr a bargain—he'll offer the newly-turned vampire safe haven if she'll help him find Rinaldo, the leader of a band of criminal vampires, who has taken something from him that he wants back. Between searching for the vampire-boy's former family, infiltrating the Turn Boys gang by offering to teach them to read, picketing, volunteering, teaching, and attending suffragette meetings (rights for Others, as women already have earned the vote), Zephyr's days and nights are far from empty. Add in Zephyr's decision to serve as a source for a deb reporter; the arrival of a new intoxicant to the speakeasy scene, an intoxicant that sends vampires into a rage; and the sudden appearance of Zephyr's parents from Montana, her father hired to take out the Turn Boys gang, and it's amazing that Zephyr even has time to engage in a flirtation with the handsome Amir, never mind develop actual feelings for the man, who may not be a vampire but seems something more than human.

Moonshine's sequel
The disparate threads of Zephyr's busy life gradually begin to weave together, into a pattern that threatens not just Zephyr, but the boy-vampire Judah, Nicholas, the abused but vicious leader of the Turn Boys, and even the powerful Amir. Though Zephyr's never been much good with a pistol, she might just have some skills with a sword. But just who is really worth saving?

Though the storyline in Moonshine comes to a clear conclusion by book's end, the romance arc between Zephyr and Amir is left tantalizingly open. Luckily, a sequel and a prequel about the singing vampire suffragette await on library shelves.

What other urban fantasies have you read that feature female protagonists who don't fit comfortably within the conventions of the subgenre?

Photo credits:
Jane Addams: America's Library

Alaya Johnson, Moonshine
Thomas Dunne/St. Martin's Griffin 2010

Friday, June 13, 2014

Thinking about Trigger Warnings

While waiting in the doctor's office yesterday, I picked up a copy of The New Yorker and read Rebecca Mead's brief but insightful comment piece on the rise of demands for trigger warnings in college classrooms (online version here). "Trigger" here refers to a traumatic trigger, a term used by psychologists working with people with post-traumatic stress disorder. Triggers are words, objects, or events that remind PTSD sufferers of the original trauma they experienced, and which may lead them to re-experience that original trauma (flashbacks, nightmares, frightening thoughts), engage in avoidance behaviors, or experience fight-or-flight hyper-arousal, all of which may severely disrupt their ability to function in their daily lives. A trigger warning, then, is a caution to those who have suffered traumatic events that what follows (a blog post, a film clip, a work of literature) includes a discussion or depiction of trauma, which may act as a trigger to those who have experienced similar traumas in their own pasts. Having been duly warned, a person with PTSD can then make an informed decision about whether to engage with, or avoid, said materials.

I've come across trigger warnings in blog posts and blog post comments about romance novels, but until yesterday, I'd not encountered one in an actual work of romance fiction. But reading Mead's post reminded me of a book a fellow NECRWA member had sent me with a request for a review: Summer Rain, a collection of "romance novelettes" published in support of RAINN, the Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network. When I opened my e-ARC later that day, I found author Audra North's opening "Dear Reader" letter, in which she explains that "Each of these romantic novelettes is preceded by a Dear Reader letter introducing you to the story's characters and content. If necessary, these letters have trigger warnings, and therefore might contain spoilers" (Loc 23). Two of the actual "Dear Reader" letters contain explicit "trigger" warnings, while other stories' descriptions provide less direct warnings of potentially triggering material.

I hope to talk more about Summer Rain in a later post, once I've finished reading the collection. Today, though, I want invite readers to share their thoughts about trigger warnings. When are they appropriate? When are they not? Is there a difference between trigger warnings in an individual work of literature and those in a classroom setting? If your teachers in high school, or your professors in college, had included trigger warnings on their course descriptions or syllabi, how would that have influenced your decisions about whether or not to take a course? How does your own past (having experienced trauma directly; at one-remove, through a relative or friend; or only indirectly, through literature or media) influence your thinking about such warnings?

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Exploring the Possibilities of the Zipless Fuck: Megan Hart's FLYING

Erica Jong's novel Fear of Flying (1973) stands proudly beside Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique (1963) and Kate Millet's Sexual Politics (1970) as one of the landmark texts of second-wave feminism. Radical in its frank portrayal of female desire, Fear of Flying depicts erotic poet Isadora Wing's picaresque quest to explore her own sexuality in language as forthright and four-lettered as anything penned by Philip Roth, Henry Miller, or D.H. Lawrence. Today's readers of erotic romance may find Isadora's self-absorption a bit narcissistic, and her fantasy of idealized no-strings-attached sex (the "zipless fuck") almost quaint in today's equal-opportunity hook-up world. But in the early 1970s, when Fear of Flying first made its way onto bookshelves and nightstands the world over, its unapologetic, taken-for-granted belief that women have sexual desires, and those desires are just as raunchy, complex, and contradictory as any man's, proved shocking not just to the average American reader, but to many in the (primarily male) literary establishment.

As I began to read erotic romance writer Megan Hart's latest, Flying, I couldn't help but think that it might have been written with Erica Jong's book, and the fantasy that her protagonist Isabelle Wing describes in that book's opening chapter, firmly in mind:

The zipless fuck was more than a fuck. It was a platonic ideal. Zipless because when you came together zippers fell away like rose petals, underwear blew off in one breath like dandelion fluff. Tongues intertwined and turned liquid. Your whole soul flowed out through your tongue and into the mouth of your lover.
     For the true, ultimate zipless A-1 fuck, it was necessary that you never get to know the man very well. I had noticed, for example, how all my infatuations dissolved as soon as I really became friends with a man, became sympathetic to his problems, listened to him kvetch about his wife, or ex-wives, his mother, his children. After that I would like him, perhaps even love him—but without passion. (11)

In the opening chapter of Hart's Flying, we meet Stella, who seems to have achieved in actuality what Jong's Isadora could only fantasize about. In her twenties, Stella "had taught herself how to be sexy for a man," but now knows "it was so much better to be sexy for herself" (10). Stella's form of sexy is to dress in provocative clothes, fly to a random airport using the free tickets that were part of her divorce settlement from her airline CEO ex, tempt a suitable man in said airport's bar, and take him to a hotel room:

This is what she likes, what she craves. This is what she wants. Being wanted so much he'll do anything, finger her in a hotel doorway, maybe fuck her right there, not caring about anything but getting his cock inside her.... She wants to hold nothing back. Because this is what Stella really wants and craves and needs and seeks. This naked, somehow desperate connection of two people who don't even known each other's last names, but who each knows exactly how the other tastes. (21)

It's quite a shock when Chapter 2 opens with the word "Mom," and we discover that sexy Stella is a mother of a sixteen-year-old boy, a forty-something woman with a dull job, baskets full of laundry, and an ex-husband who shies away from all hints of responsibility beyond the monetary. Popular media warns incessantly about the college-aged girls being sucked into the faceless hook-up culture, but Hart shakes us out of our assumptions about who might want mindless sex, who can take pleasure from it, who has enough confidence to insist that "Her pleasure is hers. Not his." (107).

But there's more to the zipless fuck than pure anonymity. As Jong's Isadora imagines it,

The zipless fuck is absolutely pure. It is free of ulterior motives. There is no power game. The man is not "taking" and the woman is not "giving." No one is attempting to cuckold a husband or humiliate a wife. No one is trying to prove anything or get anything out of anyone. The zipless fuck is the purest thing there is. And it is rarer than the unicorn. And I have never had one. (14)

And neither, really, has Stella. The careful reader will begin to pick up on the clues Hart scatters through her opening scene, and through the other scenes of anonymous fucking in which Stella, never using her real name, engages during the first half of the novel, that what Stella has come to call "flying" is not quite as free of ulterior motives as a pure zipless fuck might promise. For the men whom Stella chooses are men, like her, who have secrets, men who will feel both titillation and guilt in the midst of their anonymous trysts, and for long after. Men mourning their divorces, or fearing their wives are about to leave them, or afraid that nothing they can do will ever really satisfy a woman. "He looks so broken, and there's not a lot sexier than a man who needs fixing... so long as when the morning comes you can say goodbye," Stella thinks when casing out another potential lover (95).

For Stella, flying is complicated, ambiguous, complex, both a coming alive and a killing off: a "coming out of the dark and into the light, if only for a little while" (56); an "agony" she both "loves and craves" (22); each lover's "scrutiny" the punishment she "deserves" (22). Though she "should feel pity" for these broken men she tempts, she's "unable to find any. Something's cold in her. And broken. But it's her own fault, she supposes, for picking men she knows are already damaged because it feels easier to justify breaking them" (108). Stella isn't good at opening up emotionally, nor is she any good at letting things go, an impossible combination for a person with trauma in her past, a trauma that is gradually revealed through Stella's "flights," her recollections of Craig, the man whose lack of knowledge about the tragedy she'd experienced makes him far more attractive to her than her husband, and her memories of how, eight years earlier, her marriage eventually came to an end.

Stella's story shifts mid-book, from dark erotica to—what? For the longest time, I wasn't sure if Hart was asking me to transition into an erotic romance, or a work of women's fiction. In Chicago, on the way home from a real business trip, dressed not as a sexy siren but in slim-cut jeans, a stretched-out oversized cardigan, and cotton granny pants, Stella meets Matthew, another divorced parent with as much baggage as Stella carries. Before she realizes it, she's telling him her name, sharing a drink, and, when bad weather cancels her flight, accepting his offer to leave the airport bar with him and spend the night at his place. The evening feels more like a date than a hook-up, and almost doesn't end with sex at all, Matthew awkward and unsure, it being his first post-divorce experience. But Stella is relieved when Matthew overcomes his reluctance, and the familiarity of "flying" one again takes hold: "Desire had become the one true constant in her life, the only feeling she could count on never to disappoint her. Desire required nothing from her. No investment. No responsibility. All desire wanted was to be sated. It was physical, and therefore could be killed" (138).

Yet after sating her desire, Stella finds herself answering the question that Matthew asks, the one none of her other hookups have bothered with: where did she get her scars? Sharing that answer proves a catalyst for Stella, a first hint that perhaps the cold inside her can begin to thaw. She begins to build a relationship with Matthew, traveling to Chicago every other week not only for fabulous sex, but for movies and outings and snuggles on the couch. But Matthew never offers to come to Pennsylvania to visit Stella, and seems embarrassed to introduce her to his children, or even mention the fact that he's dating again to his rather clingy ex-wife. And why does he like to hang out at the airport bar, anyways? Is Stella the only one whose relationship to "flying" is more complex than it seems?

Will Matthew turn out to be a temporary stepping-stone on the way to a healthier, happier Stella, now able to accept a more mature love from former crush Craig (women's fiction)? Will Stella return to "flying" after breaking up with Matthew, able to finally enjoy a truly zipless fuck without pain or guilt after working through some of her darker issues (erotica/erotic romance)? Or will Matthew prove himself worthy of Stella's love with a suitably grand and sexy gesture, one that will erase all the doubts his prior less-than-honest behavior have engendered (romance)?

Up to the very end, I wasn't sure which direction Hart would take. And I'm not entirely sure I'm satisfied with the choice she finally made.

But I'm also not sure how satisfied she wants me to be with it, either. Or perhaps that's just wishful thinking on my part...

Would love to hear others' thoughts about Flying, especially about its ending.

Megan Hart, Flying
Harlequin/MIRA, 2014

Friday, June 6, 2014

The Anatomy of Courage

On Thursday morning, I woke to the sound of ten teenagers whispering and giggling as they stole downstairs in search of breakfast after a sleepover celebrating the end of their final exams. But my smile faded as I turned on the radio in search of the morning's news and heard of Vladimir Putin's sexist jabs at former U.S. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton. As reported in the Huffington Post, Putin's comments came in reaction to questions from French journalists about statements Clinton reportedly made comparing Putin's aggressive policies toward Ukraine to Hitler's imperial tactics during the 1930s. Putin's response to being compared to Hitler: call his opponent a girl. As reported in HP:

What Hilary is thinking:
"What? You're a sexist pig? I think the world
already knows..."
"It's better not to argue with women," Putin said, per a transcript of the interview posted online by the Kremlin. "But Ms. Clinton has never been too graceful in her statements.... When weak people push boundaries too far, it's not because they are strong but because they are weak. But maybe weakness is not the worst quality for a woman."

As much as I'd like to embrace the fantasy that such obviously sexist statements are only made by dictatorial leaders of countries with clear anti-American sentiments, my week has been far too filled with everyday examples of how men's bodies, in particular the two ellipsoid glands constituting the sperm-secreting organs, so often function as stand-ins for strength or courage. And how often women and their bodies end up on the weaker end of the binary of strong/weak.

Exhibit A: A post on the Lady Smut blog on strong women in romance entitled "Women with Balls," in which Elizabeth Shore notes:

In romance novels, self-assured strong women are alternately described as fierce, independent, headstrong, strong-willed, or plucky. Yeah, I'm not a fan of that last one, either. But for this post, I'm going with balls. It's an all-in-one kinda word that sums up so much of what I love in women like Pat [Benatar]. Women who don't take any shit, who can kick ass when needed, who have courage and confidence and heart but whose feminine side and kind side remain front and center. They are sexy femme fatales, these ballsy women, and I'd sure love to be in the club.

Exhibit B: Serena Bell's "Loveswept" romance, Hold on Tight, which I very much enjoyed reading, with one niggling exception. In the midst of a secret-baby story, we have a heroine who is clearly on a feminist mission—to build a world for herself and her son "where bossy men didn't tell her what to do or what to feel" (Loc 1185). And it is equally clear that our hero, an alpha male soldier struggling to come to terms with a war injury that cost him a leg, respects her and her desire for independence and self-determination. But, perhaps not surprisingly given the potential elision between loss of leg to loss of penis/masculinity, said hero continually uses gendered body terms when he thinks about strength and weakness:

She's going to kill me, Jake thought, and then Really? I must have left my balls in Afghanistan. (Loc 902)

This was a situation that called for him to be a grown man with big balls who stuck to the program" (Loc 1092)

Mira could figure it out. Handle it. God, she could handle anything. She could take life by the balls ten times over, and she pretty much had. (Loc 3334)

...as much as he wanted to run and hide, he hated that man. Soldiers engaged, and even if he wasn't one anymore, he wasn't going to be a fucking wuss. (Loc 1427)    [FYI, the OED reports that the origins of "wuss" are uncertain, but are perhaps a blend of "wimp" and "puss"].

Exhibit C: A discussion on the Self-Publishing list-serv about whether an author should feel mean if she refuses to allow her agent a cut of her self-publishing income, which included the following reply from an author

[Author refused permission for me to include said quote, even if I removed her name from it...]

While there's a huge difference between the examples I've cited and the overt sexism of Vladimir Putin, I can't help but be struck by how often we, as well as those kids who woke me up this morning, find ourselves surrounded by images of testicles (males) as strength, pussies (females) as weakness. It's not such a simple thing, as the author of the quote from Exhibit C points out when she notes how gender norms (whether socially or biologically constructed) teach women to be less forceful than men if they want to be thought to be "nice" or "good" or "feminine," often much to their detriment. And as the examples above demonstrate, testicular imagery can and is often used to praise women, as well as men.

Blogger FatGirl vs. World's proposed award:
because "female" = FE (iron) + male
But even when women are cheered for being "ballsy," the usage still echoes of male privilege, at least to my ear. An echo I wish those eight girls and two boys who spent the night sprawled out on the floor of my daughter's room did not have to be confronted with each and every day.

Does your sexism radar beep when you come across "balls" and "pussy" wording/imagery in a romance novel?  Or does it not bother you, if the book is not sexist in other regards?

Photo credits:
Clinton and Putin: The Wire
Iron ovaries: FatGirl vs. World

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Love in the Limelight: Nell Stark's THE PRINCESS AFFAIR and Lynn Ames' ALL THAT LIES WITHIN

In A Natural History of the Romance Novel, Pamela Regis lists "the declaration," i.e., the moment when the hero tells the heroine that he loves her, and vice versa, as one of the eight essential narrative events of a romance (34). Such declarations most often take place in private, privacy serving as a protection against embarrassment if the "I love you" should prove not to be reciprocated, as well as a sign of the intimacy of the relationship the newly acknowledged love promises.

A large minority of heterosexual romances, though, include very public declarations, with a heroine or, more often, a hero, proclaiming his devotion in front of family, friends, or even the couple's entire social circle. The "grand gesture" of a public declaration serves not only as confirmation of one person's commitment to another, but also as recognition that a romantic relationship takes place within a larger social sphere. The lover who declares his devotion publicly asks not only for acknowledgement and acceptance from his beloved, but also from the broader society in which they both live.

Continuing my project of reading all of the lesbian romances nominated for the Lambda Award this year led me to think about how the declaration scene functions in same-sex romance. Lynn Ames' All That Lies Within and Nell Stark's The Princess Affair both feature protagonists who spend a large proportion of their time in the public eye: Ames' Dara Thomas is a famous film actress, a woman whose "most intimate emotions and moments [are] plastered across the pages of a tabloid for the world to see and dissect" (Loc 1169); Stark's Alexandra "Sasha" Carlisle is second in line to inherit the British throne (in a world with no Queen Elizabeth, but instead a King Andrew). Both spend much of their time performing a role for their publics, Dara that of tantalizing straight sex object, Sasha that of socialite party girl who may or may not have bisexual proclivities. Neither woman feels truly seen by the public for which she performs, in large part because neither feels able to reconcile her sexual identity as a lesbian with the demands of her public role.

Each woman falls in love with a woman who "sees" her for herself, who sees beyond the public performance. Both Sasha and Dara's lovers are already out, comfortable with a publicly-acknowledged identity as a lesbian. But in order to participate in a relationship with such public icons, graduate student Kerry and English professor Rebecca must accept a return of sorts to the closet: neither Dara nor Sasha feels able to "go public" with the news of her new relationship.

In both novels, it is the woman who is already out of the closet who first utters the love declaration. Both declarations are made in private, and are echoed by their objects, one immediately, one later, after a family crisis has been resolved. In Lesbian Romance Novels: A History and Critical Analysis, Phyllis Betz argues that "Saying I love you...in a lesbian romance becomes a radical act, even though the narrative framework remains very conservative, and many of the characters in these novels seem to recognize that their declaration will alter how the rest of their community will respond to them" (75). But not until the love declaration moves from the private to the public sphere.

And thus the climax of both novels is not the private love declaration, but a later, enormously public one: actress Dara Thomas's in the midst of accepting an Academy Award; Princess Sasha's in the middle of a press conference to discuss an incriminating photograph of her and Kerry published in the tabloids. The declaration scene is duplicated, repeated for an audience far broader than that of just the beloved. The declaration thus becomes not only a declaration of love, but a declaration of sexual identity. And not just an individual declaration by the public figures of the actress and the princess, but an insistence that a gay identity can and should be accepted by the broader culture in which each serves as public symbol and role model.

Ellen DeGeneres announcing to Rosie
O'Donnell that she's "Lebanese" (1996)
Betz suggests that in lesbian love novels, "the happy ending that is essential to the romance erases the public censure for such visible displays of affection," such as these very public declaration of same-sex love (75). Though the narrative tells us that actress Dara was interviewed after her declaration, we don't hear any of the questions she was asked, nor do we hear anything about the public reaction to her surprising announcement. Neither do we hear any response from Sasha's audience, even though her announcement included not only her personal statement, but a larger promise: "I pledge to every gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, and intersex member of this Commonwealth that I shall be your champion in the years to come" (Loc 4122). Instead, both narratives whisk us immediately back to the personal for their conclusions: an embrace between Dara and Rebecca; an introduction of Kerry to Sasha's quite accepting family.

The erasure of such censure may be the most fantastic element in these wish-fulfillment romances. But I'd far rather fantasize about a world that accepts same-sex romance than a world populated by burly alpha males bent on rescuing my helpless female self. Thanks to both Stark and Ames for helping me to do so.

Photo credits:
Billboard proposal: Daily Edge
DeGeneres and O'Donnell: UTube

Lynn Ames, All that Lies Within
Phoenix Rising Press, 2013

Nell Stark, The Princess Affair
Bold Strokes Books, 2013