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Archive for April, 2008

The annual cover contest is in full swing and I had a fun time voting. Maybe I’m just really picky, but I always perceive a bunch of the nominations for best covers as better candidates for worst cover. Nevertheless, there was at least one cover that I enjoyed in every category. Go vote!

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Winner?

Indeed, it seems it is so.  The competition seemed like an unwinnable proposition (Near Eastern languages tended to carry the day) but also a lovely opportunity to organize my books and take stock of where I am after eight years of feverish romance reading (plus who knows how many years of romantic sci-fi/fantasy).  Much to my chagrin, it seems that I made a better argument for romance novels than I thought possible!

The sweetest part of the whole deal?  Displaying eight books (including this one) in the Reg for eight weeks. 

What follows is my essay, entitled “A Library of Love: Challenging the social order one couple (or threesome?) at a time.”  The bibliography turned out to be 20 pages long, so I will not reproduce it here.

My love affair with the romance started young and was pursued, as all good love affairs are, on the sly.  My mother owned a few romance novels that were scattered haphazardly among her expansive collection of women’s fiction.  When I was in middle school, I would get up before dawn to feed and take out the dog.  Instead of returning to bed, I would stay up and sneak pages out of these thrilling books by the light of the sunrise.  When I turned sixteen, my driver’s license meant clandestine trips to the library and local used bookstores to feed my romance addiction.  Looking back, I cannot fathom exactly why I kept my love of romance novels so secret, but my behavior was likely a product of Catholic guilt (I was scandalized in spite of myself!) and a nagging fear that people would not take me seriously if they knew the “trash” that I read.

My early collection was driven by current releases and in-print books that caught my eye, along with battered copies bought for quarters at library book sales.  I tended toward European Historicals, and my collection continues to display my early interest in this sub-genre and its shorter companion, the Regency.  As I discovered authors that I particularly liked, I would go on treasure hunts, working through backlists that were often hard to obtain, as Regencies had very short print runs.

When I came to the university, I found that many of my classmates and friends in the dorm were closet romance readers.  Soon people were knocking on my door, literally at all hours of the night, looking for a new read.  It is around this time that I began to think of my romance novels in terms of a library.  I wanted a collection that was broad enough to appeal to the varying interests of everyone who read my books but was also deep enough to satisfy my own interest in particular authors, sub-genres, and topics.  Every book I purchased was part of a larger scheme, a quest to build a library that conveyed the possibilities of the very best that romance has to offer.

A short gig as a reviewer for a popular romance community website further focused my desire to own the very best of the genre.  Often academic critiques of the genre are written after the author picks up some Harlequins at random, finds them unsatisfactory, and then generalizes his or her conclusions to the entirety of the genre.  However, my time spent as a reviewer confirmed that romance, like any other genre, has its dregs and its gold.  My collection is an attempt to sift the gold from the rest and present it to friends and interested acquaintances as a functional library.

Recently my collection has been moving in new directions.  University of Chicago’s life of the mind infects everything it touches, and my romance collection is no exception.  I follow academia’s take on the romance novel through the blog Teach Me Tonight, where several leading scholars of the genre post regularly on their work.  I have begun purchasing academic works of criticism of the romance novel and ethnographies of romance reading communities.  I am also pursuing my own interests within the genre.  My work with Resources for Sexual Violence Prevention here on campus has interested me in how romance communities are struggling with questions of sexuality and violence within the framework of the courtship plot.  I collect romances that take up themes of sexual violence, either by explicitly challenging paradigms of male power in the intimate realm or by uncritically incorporating partner violence into the courtship.  I also seek out romances that challenge heteronormativity or that struggle with incorporating ambiguous sexualities into the courtship plot.  These books are windows into how communities of women are struggling with questions of identity and power under the cover of pink typeface and floral covers.

            In addition, I am especially fond of cross-genre works and books of genre fiction that reference the romance.  I am always delighted when I find a covert romance hiding in another section of the bookstore, and reading these romances with a curious and critical eye yields fascinating stories.  Some are written in defiance of male dominated genres, while others are open and exuberant tributes to the romance.  In either case, I see no reason to limit my collection to books that are marketed as romances and instead rely on the definition laid out by Pamela Regis in A Natural History of the Romance Novel.  I also include sci-fi, mysteries, and fantasy whose romance is relegated to the role of sub-plot if these books somehow comment upon courtship in interesting ways.

            All of my romances can be read with the grain for unadulterated pleasure or against the grain for more subversive or ambiguous portrayals of gender roles, partner violence, inequality, and sexual identity.  Either way, I stand by these books as interesting in their own right and worthy of scrutiny, commentary, and debate.  In the end, I firmly believe in the principle of pleasure as a justification for reading and as an inherent value in a literary work. 

            Pamela Regis argues that the form of the romance serves to initiate a change in a corrupt or broken social order through the integration and reformation embodied in a successful betrothal.  In even the most traditional and patriarchy-friendly of romances, the heroine has won through her own agency some improvement in her personal life and social milieu.  More daring romances show a world made better through the courtship plot, where the protagonists struggle with and in some way overcome misogyny, homophobia, socioeconomic inequalities, or other social ills and the violence these systems perpetuate.  The romance seeks to change the world, one couple (or in one memorable case, one threesome) at a time.

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A kiss is not a contract

but it’s very nice!

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Masculinity and the problem of chivalry? My boss Vickie at Resources for Sexual Violence Prevention has often clarified this by saying something along these lines:

You’re a woman, and you’re sitting alone in a bar. Maybe you’re waiting for your friends to come join you. A guy sidles up and starts to hit on you. You’re not interested, you feel uncomfortable, and you tell him in some way to back off. Maybe he does, just as likely he doesn’t. Now your boyfriend/husband/friend/brother walks into the bar, sizes up the situation, and comes up to greet you. He puts his arm around you and gives the other guy that look. And what does that guy say? “Sorry, man, I didn’t know she was taken.”

Put it like this and the problem is clear. Men’s protection can be welcome, valuable, even life saving. Yet in the end, this chivalry reinforces the idea that women are only safe if under male protection. The flip side of this coin is that women outside of male protection are fair game, a threat that is often targeted in very particular ways at openly lesbian women. Either way, women’s voice in consent is lost. Ignored by this equation is the fact that sexual violence is a crime overwhelmingly committed by intimates and acquaintances. That is to say, statistically speaking the guy at the bar isn’t nearly as dangerous as the people waiting for you back home. Despite this, we can never quite escape the damsel-in-distress/knight-in-shining-armor story.

One interesting reflection on the endurance of this power dynamic is found in Robert Jensen’s Getting Off: Pornography and the End of Masculinity. In addressing the role of feminist men, Jensen notes that this community is not immune to the posturing and the “dick waving” associated with American norms of masculinity. Jensen then writes:

These observations, and my own continuing struggles, forced me to ask: Should the goal simply be to reconstruct a kinder-and-gentler masculinity? If so, how do we keep ourselves from backsliding into the dominant conception of masculinity that surrounds us in a patriarchal world? Does that desire to find some new way to “be a man” and hold on to masculinity reveal a deep attachment to a position of dominance? Is that backsliding inevitable so long as we hold on to the idea of masculinity? (143)

These are important and difficult questions. These are also the type of questions that tend to upset people, birthing accusations that feminism can be equated with man-hating. Jensen notes,

…the fact that most men react with reflexive hostility to the idea indicates to me that it’s a good place to start the conversation; if men are that afraid of moving beyond masculinity, there’s something there to investigate further” (143).

Very nice, but all very abstract thus far. Yet several pages later Jensen engages with anti-violence campaign materials and generates a critique of man-as-protector that has a direct bearing on the role of many heroes in the romance. Jensen analyzes Shared Hope International’s “the Defenders” campaign of 2006, an attempt to interrupt male participation in sexual-exploitation industries that utilize children. Jensen writes that the campaign communicates,

…male dominance is a positive force, but one that must be used to protect rather than exploit children. At first glance it may seem hard to argue with this, no matter what one’s political grounding. If one wants to reduce men’s violence against children, having men publicly state their opposition to “the sexual exploitation of children, using pornography, and buying sex” is to be celebrated. But the underlying conception of masculinity is troubling. Why should men do this? Because such behavior “is not something real men will tolerate.” Why not? Because “real men” are defenders, “Men who take seriously our role to be protectors and providers” (146)

Where’s the problem?

Men provide. Men protect. Men defend. The campaign speaks only of men protecting children, which raises obvious questions: Where are the adult women in all of this? Shouldn’t they be protecting children, too? Can they be defenders? Or do they need protection as well? Another obvious question: Who put men in charge?… Real men protect, which means real men must have the power to protect, which means real men must have the right to tell women what to do. All this talk is a cover for a simple, ugly fact: Women and children don’t need to be protected by men- they need to be protected from men. This talk of protection should be seen for what it is: A protection racket. One man or group of men promises to protect women and children from other men. And to do that, these good men must have the power to protect, which means the power to control” (146-147).

Jensen does not pull his punches, it’s true. The very notions of male protection that are critiqued in the above quotes are, in my experience, common themes in many romances, especially those that feature a heroine who has survived sexual assault.

I have read many scenes of vigilantism on behalf of a survivor in romance novels. Susan Elizabeth Phillips’s It Had To Be You leaps to mind, if only because I just read it again yesterday. Hero Dan Calebow beats up Reed, the man who raped the heroine Phoebe:

Dan took his first swing, a hard jab to the jaw, and Reed flew back against the couch. He gave a howl of pain and scrambled to his feet, panting with fear.

“You get out of here, Calebow. I’m going to call the police. I’m going to-”

Webster calmly ripped the phone from the wall. “Too bad, Chandler. Phone’s not working.”

“You guys are crazy! You’re fucking maniacs.”

“We’re not maniacs,” Dan said. “We just don’t think a slimeball like you should get away with rape.”

“Is that what she told you? I didn’t rape her! She’s lying. She wanted it. She-”

Dan’s next blow destroyed Reed’s nose…Dan dropped his parka on the back of the couch. “When I’m done with you tonight, you’re gonna be hurt real bad” (361).

In this exchange Reed articulates common societal responses to a rape survivor. He names Phoebe as a liar and a whore. (Earlier in the book Dan himself perceived Phoebe in similar ways.) This outpouring of misogyny and contempt is interrupted by Dan’s fist, and thus the “good guy” has chastened the “bad guy” and everyone is supposed to go home happy. Dan had been deeply hurt when Phoebe disclosed to him; Dan has gotten his revenge, and thus the plotline of Phoebe’s rape is closed.

How do I respond to Robyn Carr’s Virgin River books? I must say, upfront, that I enjoyed all three books and found them to be powerful, joyful in the face of pain, and, in the end, comforting. However, I am intrigued by Carr’s portrayals of sexual violence. Take, for example, the scene in Shelter Mountain where Paige’s abusive husband has just caught up with her. He manages to injure Paige before the hero and his friend arrive on the scene. While the hero, Preacher, is tempted to do the man violence, his friend Jack convinces him to go help Paige. Jack is left with Lassiter, the husband:

“Good thing you stopped him,” Lassiter said, putting out his hand for assistance. “I’d have had his ass.”

Jack pulled him to his feet with a snarl, and once he was upright, threw a punch into his face that blew him across the street four feet. He walked the few feet and stood over Lassiter, looking down at him. “Now you gonna have mine?” he said. Lassiter looked up at him, blood immediately spurting from his nose. “What the hell…?” He got clumsily to his feet and faced off with Jack, his fists up as a boxer would do. He shuffled his feet a little, dancing, ready to land a blow with a closed fist.

Jack actually laughed, completely loose, relaxed. “You’re kidding me, right?” he said. He wiggled his fingers. “Come on.”…[Jack] delivered one more blow to the man’s face, sending him airborne a few feet before he landed in the dirt, rolling around, semiconscious (115-117).

In this scene two masculinities face off. Lassiter is clearly strong (gym time, we learn). He has had a high-flying career in finance and he kept his family in upper-middle class style. He is loud, opinionated, and aggressive, a recognizable figure in American pop culture. However, we read him as a hollow force, a shadow of a man. The career is derailed by drugs, the house is soon repossessed. The physical body of Lassiter, as intimidating and hurtful as it might be for Paige, is weak in comparison to the bodies of Preacher and Jack. The fight between Jack and Lassiter settles this issue once and for all- Lassiter is a joke, a straw-man, and he kicks like a girl. He can hurt women but he cannot win against Jack, the ultimate man’s man. Jack is an ex-marine, bartender, and woodsman. He takes Lassiter down with ease. All this strength is used by Carr to defend the good guys, the honest people of the town of Virgin River. This traditional and chivalrous masculinity is summed up in the words of the sheriff’s deputy, “I just can’t figure out why anyone in his right head would bother these Virgin River women” (121).

I would not have found this scene to be particularly remarkable if it were not for the masculinity of the next book’s hero. While Shelter Mountain provides a rugged variation on the theme of male protective chivalry, Whispering Rock engages with gender, violence, and power in a more nuanced fashion. In Whispering Rock Carr tells the story of Brie, a rape survivor, and Mike, an ex-marine, ex-policeman, and divorcee.

In some ways Mike conforms to the ultra-masculine type that seems to populate Virgin River. He is tough, physically and mentally. His service in the armed forces and then in the LAPD have exposed him to violence. His past is that of the helpless womanizer- he is never able to settle and has clearly charmed many women into his bed.

Yet Mike is also left vulnerable by the gunshot wounds that got him invalided off the force. Among other things, these wounds have left him impotent and until he makes love to Brie toward the end of the book he is left uncertain of whether he will ever have intercourse again. These gunshot wounds have also had an impact on his personality- by being a victim of violence himself Mike is able to relate to Brie and support her in her recovery process. In this way Mike and Brie connect as human beings first. They bond through their shared experience of victimization and each relies on the other for support.

I particularly like the moment when Brie and Mike decide to go out for lunch on a more equal footing:

“I was wondering- do you want to have lunch again? Meet me this time? Provided you don’t have far to go and agree to leave the gun at home…”

“Where?” she asked.

“Maybe Santa Rosa,” he suggested. “I’d be happy to come to Sacramento, but it might be good, you driving somewhere that’s not just around the corner.”

“It’s a long way to go for lunch,” she said.

“Practice,” he said. “Expand your boundaries. Get out there.”

“But what’s in it for you?” she asked quietly.

“I thought that was clear,” he said. “There are a hundred reasons I want to help you in recovery, not the least of which is, I like you. And… I’ve been there” (50).

An intriguing blend of typical masculine tropes and feminized vulnerability, Mike is a testament to the changing roles of men in survivors’ lives and in the anti-violence movement. I still see the ambivalence described above by Jensen. Mike is made vulnerable to both Brie and the reader; Carr compensates for this by gifting him with a promiscuous sexual past and an ultra-masculine resume. Additionally, over the course of the book, Mike brings a Virgin River serial rapist to justice. He is not a vigilante in the Jack/Preacher mode but he is invested in the act of holding rapists accountable and bringing them to justice. This investment is highlighted in a secondary romance plot between another rape survivor and a local boy. Mike is an intermediate figure between the unapologetically and violently protective Jack and the humanized, non-masculine figure championed by Jensen. Mike operates in many ways as though he has set aside his masculinity, but he is only able to act in this fashion because he is characterized in an exuberantly uber-masculine fashion.

I read the progression from Jack and Preacher to Mike as an interesting commentary on the role of male lovers and relatives in survivors’ lives. The tensions between vengeance and justice, hurting and healing, are thrown into relief by the heroes’ different reactions to the problem of sexual violence. Carr intermingles old chivalric/protecting masculinities with new identities, but Jensen’s “end of masculinity” is not yet in sight. However, I believe Carr’s work represents a new direction in romance and I am excited to see where things go next.

Carr, Robyn. Shelter Mountain. Toronto: Mira, 2007.

Carr, Robyn. Whispering Rock. Toronto: Mira, 2007.

Jensen, Robert. Getting Off: Pornography and the End of Masculinity. Cambridge: South End Press, 2007.

Phillips, Susan Elizabeth. It Had to Be You. New York: Avon, 1994.

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Business time

Conditions are perfect!

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I want to start off with dangerous men, sexual violence, and the romance in honor of April.  Tentatively speaking, I will compare the dangerous but nuturing men of Robyn Carr’s Virgin River series with the more ambiguous heroes in Mary Balogh’s The Secret Pearl and Patricia Gaffney’s To Have and To Hold.

My general plan is to write something interesting and issues-driven about once a week.  Reviews might pop up at any time, depending upon my capricious whims.

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