Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Big News!

You guys! I got some great news on Monday.  My book, Figs From Thistles, is a finalist for the 2012 RWA Golden Heart ® award!  I got the call at eight a. m., while breastfeeding The Small One.  I got very excited; The Small One got very confused. Ten minutes later I got pooped on.  Ah, the glamourous life of a writer.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Why We Need Romance Novels

I'm not new to defending the romance genre.  I have a number of friends and relatives who have expressed shock that I read (much less write!) "those books."  With the recent media attention over Fifty Shades of Grey (which I admittedly have not read), the conversation seems to be coming up more frequently.  Usually I just point folks to Smart Bitches, Trashy Books--Sarah Wendell is the reigning queen of romance apologia--but the current situation has made me so frustrated, I couldn't keep quiet.

We have a long-standing narrative tradition of punishing women who are promiscuous or adulterous.  Dido in the Aeneid, Emma Bovary in Madam Bovary, Myrtle Wilson in The Great Gatsby, Katherine Clifton in The English Patient, April Wheeler in Revolutionary Road, Elizabeth King in The Descendants: all of these women engage in affairs, and all of them die, often horribly.*  Many of them commit suicide—Dido impales herself on a sword (hello, symbolism!); Emma Bovary eats handfuls of arsenic. More commonly in modern narratives, women don’t kill themselves out of grief or guilt; they die in painful, gruesome accidents.  In other words, they are symbolically dealt with by the author.

One could argue that it’s unfair to use adultery and promiscuity as proxies for sexual pleasure, but the point I want to make is that our society handles male and female sexuality very differently.  Female sexuality—and more importantly, female sexual pleasure—is at best mysterious.  In The French Lieutenant’s Woman (John Fowles), Charles Smithson evinces shock that the woman he has just had sex with could experience pleasure from the act.  In the mid 1800s, doctors brought “hysterical” women to orgasm as a medical procedure, as though the female sexual climax is so divorced from the act of sex it requires the intervention of a physician (see here).  And at worst, female sexuality is not mysterious, but dangerous.  From Anne Boleyn to modern cases of women stoned to death for sex before or outside of marriage, women have always been disproportionately punished for revealing themselves as sexual beings.  I hardly need to bring up recent legislative actions in Arizona and Virginia or a certain radio commentator's vitriolic attacks on Sandra Fluke.  

Unfortunately, sex actually is more dangerous for women.  It’s always been more dangerous.  There are the obvious risks and burdens of pregnancy and child-rearing**, but women are also more likely to contract sexually transmitted diseases than men.  Women who are raped face all of the consequences of their attacker’s actions, but making a man feel the unintended consequences of even a consensual sexual encounter requires a court order.  If a heterosexual woman wishes to seek sexual pleasure with a partner, the safest way to do so is within a committed relationship, but men are not constrained by the societal or physical dangers that sex poses to women.  In trusting herself to a sexual relationship with a man, a woman makes herself inherently and unavoidable vulnerable.  That's the world we very unfortunately live in, as I have been repeatedly and unpleasantly reminded in recent weeks.  How can this ever work without subjugating the woman?  By uniting a sexually self-actualized woman with a trustworthy man.  This is the kind of relationship that the best romance novels depict.

Many romance novels feature a hero who is utterly trustworthy despite, say, a promiscuous past or an excess of masculine sexuality. (A Kiss at Midnight by Eloisa James, The Iron Duke, by Meljean Brook, How to Knit a Love Song by Rachael Herron).  This type of hero is often an easily-recognized dangerous/powerful masculine archetype—a soldier, a politician, a warrior, a prince.  He unquestionably has physical or social power over the heroine, and yet, through the course of the narrative, he will consistently fail to exercise that power.  The heroine has nothing to fear from him.  Another common romance narrative features a promiscuous heroine who finds love and total acceptance from the hero (Your Scandalous Ways by Loretta Chase, The Villa by Nora Roberts).  The hero would be socially permitted to dismiss the heroine as a whore or a slut (words that almost exclusively apply to women), but he does not do so.  Both possibilities share an essential core: the hero commits unconditionally and exclusively to the heroine.  He has the ability to subjugate or shame her, but he does not.***

The trustworthiness of the hero is a necessary condition for the second important theme of romance novels: the heroine’s journey to sexual freedom.  Romance novels often chronicle a heroine’s progression from a state of sexual uncertainty to one of sexual satisfaction.  In a way, this journey mirrors society’s slow acceptance of female sexual pleasure, with the often-maligned “virgin heroine” as the most powerful example of this arc.  Rather than a symbol of feminine purity, I think the virgin heroine is actually a symbol of safe vulnerability.  When a female heroine moves from a state of sexual inexperience (or a past in which sex was unpleasant or hurtful) to sexual pleasure, she is moving from a sexually constrained world to one in which she is free to experience sexual pleasure (Montana Sky by Nora Roberts, Halfway to the Grave by Jeaniene Frost).  In other words, she’s moving from a world in which her sexuality is ignored or punished to one in which her sexuality is celebrated.

Let me be clear:  Romance novels do not subvert our existing paradigm.  They don’t disproportionately punish men for their sexual crimes; they don’t create a world in which women may be sexually promiscuous without consequences.  Rather, they hold up a possible world within our paradigm, one in which women are able to seek sexual satisfaction with a trustworthy partner without fear.  The “happily ever after ending” is the most well-known “rule” of romance, but the heroine’s sexual satisfaction is even more critical.  This, I would argue, is why romance novels are described by their supporters as subversive.  The romance narrative is an unapproved narrative, but one that is, shockingly, very real and very attainable.  Relationships based on mutual trust and mutual pleasure are, in fact, possible.  Women can have sexually fulfilling relationships that don’t end with subjugation or gory death.  These relationships exist despite the horrors around us, and they should be acknowledged and celebrated, not ridiculed.  

Obviously, not all romance novels are subversive celebrations of female sexual freedom, just like not all novels in which promiscuous women die are examples of society symbolically punishing female sexual freedom.  Still, I think it’s worth noting that one of the most profitable genres in publishing is routinely ridiculed as formulaic and trashy, while genres like mystery and thriller—in which murder, rape and torture often feature prominently; see here—are seen as perfectly acceptable “escapist" or even "high-brow" fiction.  The ghettoization of romance fiction as “trash” is just one more way in which female sexuality is ignored and punished.

So, if you're enjoying Fifty Shades of Grey, or any of the other stories the modern romance genre has to offer, read on, and don't you dare hide it behind a newspaper on the subway.  

*Sometimes it’s the man who dies in the end (The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne).  But not nearly as often.

**These are also joys--I'm a mom, and I love my son.  But I've never heard of a man dying in childbirth or having trouble convincing his employer to give him time to pump breast milk.

***I fully acknowledge that there are other, less pro-woman romance narratives--not all romance is created equal.