Category Archives: Reflections on Romance

ASKING FOR IT by Lilah Pace: The Fuck Political Correctness Review

Asking for It: the controversial romance of the summer that has stirred exactly no controversy because everyone who’s talking about it is being so careful not to judge, nor to remove the lens of women’s studies/fourth wave feminism/neo-Victorianism about triggers and consent and safe spaces from their analysis, nor to admit that they find rape fantasies erotic.

To all of which I say: fuck that.

If you want to judge someone else’s kink, go right ahead. Secretly we all do, in one way or another – but in this day and age of enforced tolerance no one is willing to admit to it. We tolerate anything except intolerance! Now I am not personally going to cast a judgment on a book that revolves around the safe enactment of a rape fantasy, because, as it happens, that’s my deep dark kinky kink. My number one most common complaint about dub-con erotica (dubious consent, AKA rape) is that it’s not dubious enough. Almost invariably the heroine gets too into what she’s being “forced” to do too quickly to maintain the facade of non-consent. So this book? Was pretty much written for me.

Except for the whole new adult thing. That romance genre (contemporary…college to post college…searching for yourself…heroine probably got raped or had a drug addiction because in this brave new (adult) world EVERYONE either got raped or has an addiction or is the wrong gender for their body) is not one that I relate to very much. NA also usually means first person (gag) present tense (double gag) point of view, so the barrier is tri-fold in that I am not interested in the setting/age bracket of the protagonists, find the conflicts and hyperbole laughable, and hate the way the books are written. First person in general tends toward deal-breaker for me. I find that almost all of it sounds the same, and none of it sounds like how I think. Actual stream of consciousness would be preferable because at least that would be interesting to untangle and decipher.

But I digress. We were talking about the fact that I am in the most important way the Ideal Reader for this romance.

Let me say this now – I have never been raped. Being bound/coerced/forced in some way is a fantasy that I can trace back to childhood and my earliest moments of sexual awareness; the very first sexual fantasy that I generated involved coercion. That said, I also have a clear mental delineation between what turns me on in the privacy of my own mind and what I want to experience in real life. For that reason I don’t read much dub-con set in the real world, because I don’t get turned on by imagining an actual rape that might actually happen to me. The “stranger in my bedroom” sub-genre squicks me out. Sometimes BDSM-scene stories work for me, because they do have the framework that makes non-consent consensual, but most of those stories are too much about the heroine’s mental surrender. Mental surrender does nothing for me. To me the eroticism of rape fantasy is the loss of control, not subsuming your sense of self to someone else’s will. I’ve blogged before about how not being in control is my biggest, deepest, ugliest fear; to me it seems a very natural extension that one of my most powerful sexual fantasies is having control taken away – NOT surrendering it. Big difference. Generally, then, the rape fantasy I read tends to be really out there, fantasy setting, fantasy creature type stuff…as I put it in a text to a friend before I started Asking for It, “Normally I just go with monster porn for that, no feminist sensibilities conflict there, but this one intrigued me so I figured I’d try and enlarge my mind a little vis a vis the new adult genre.”

Spoiler alert: I got what I asked for in terms of erotic satisfaction. (The book didn’t much change my opinion of NA, though.)

So what is the book actually about? Oh, you know, the usual story…. Girl meets boy, boy hears a rumor that girl has extreme rape fantasies and offers to fulfill them, girl says yes, they have amazing almost-anonymous sex, they realize sex is not enough and start emotionally bonding, just as they begin to fall in love they discover that the events in their respective pasts which gave them the same kink also make them psychologically incompatible as partners…or are they? The book ends on a cliffhanger where the couple is no longer together – an outlier in romance, which generally demands at minimum a happily-for-now ending. But this is book 1 of a duology, and the cover/release date for book 2 is on the last page after the book ends, so the reader is immediately made aware that the ending is an ellipses and not a period.

I loved this book. First and foremost, because the sex in it was smoking hot. Pitch-perfect, if you like that sort of thing. It felt real, authentically on the line between fantasy play and actual assault, with a clear demarcation in the aftermath to show that for both of them (hero, especially), it was role play.

Second, I really appreciated that the author was trying to take the baggage of the hero and heroine seriously and actually attempt to unpack it. Too often in romance really heavy backstory just sort of magically disappears or stops affecting a character’s life/decisions once it’s served its purpose of creating sympathy in the reader or creating a conflict in a situation that otherwise would have had no impediments (and therefore no story). Not the case, here. I mean, I guess in a way their respective baggage is driving the conflict (because if they were two otherwise healthy people who happened to share a kink, it’s pretty much boy meets girl, they are perfect together, the end), but it feels authentic. It’s an actual problem they have to actually solve, not a plot device that could have been replaced by…well, any other plot device. No. Replace these problems, and you have a different story. Some reviews I saw felt the book was kind of heavy or hard to read because it’s more serious, but I didn’t find it so. Just…realistic.

I did feel like the author imposed a frame of feminist rhetoric over the story that was heavy-handed enough to be distracting for me. Actually, my complaint about the frame is not that it existed – see above where I don’t like real-rape scenarios – but that it SO DELIBERATELY used phrases and topics from the politically correct handbook. Things like the hero saying he approached her at a party with other people in sight (and not, say, via text or email or asking her on a date) because, “I want you to feel safe.” It felt inauthentic for him to use that kind of language, and it pulled me out of the story. There are other ways he could have made his proposition to fulfill her fantasies, and for them to draw up a list of boundaries and limits and rules, that were just their words and their voices, not the cant of Political Correctness/Social Justice Warrior style activism. The whole book felt dipped in SJW rhetoric.

I like to think the author did that as a joke, that she used the trappings to create a Trojan Horse that could trick affirmative-consent proponents into reading (and perhaps even enjoying) about sex that actually offends everything they stand for.

Supporting this theory is the Easter egg for libertarian readers, of a side character’s kid being named Nicholas Gillespie Ortiz. You know, like NICK GILLESPIE, Editor in Chief of reason.tv? Because that happened. An unlikely coincidence given that the child was Hispanic and last I check Gillespie was an Italian name. Also supporting that theory is the fact that she wrote (fine: PUBLISHED) this book at all. (When I finished the book and found the “trigger warning” section as the very last page of the text I was convinced the entire thing was a giant middle finger to political correctness…it made me so happy to think that warning had been so blatantly and hilariously mis-placed…but when I looked at the Table of Contents, I saw the publisher had included a spoiler-free warning at the front with a link to the longer, explicit warning for those who needed more clarity about the triggers. Sigh.)

Here’s the real trigger warning this book needed: if you have ever lived in Austin, try to forget the city you know – she gets a lot of details wrong. The sort of things you can only know if you live there, about what the traffic and the parking is like and what the locals call certain streets, about the general vibe of the town and the countryside around it, etc. If I hadn’t been so intrigued by the premise I don’t think I’d have made it past Chapter 3. But the dirty sex more than made up for my outrage about “First Street” (which doesn’t exist because Austin has two, which are called South First and Ceasar Chavez, and I still don’t know which the girl lived off of).

Also I call bullshit on Pace being a YA author writing pseudonymously, or, at least, only a YA author. The sex was written too well to be a first-timer to writing romance.

Overall, well done Pace, and well done Randy Penguin for publishing a book like this. I’m sorry you had to include so much deference to the yeth hounds of outrage that drown dissent by screeching about their offended sensibilities. Maybe now you’ve established yourselves as “sensitive” and “aware” about such matters you can ignore them going forward. Keep fighting the good fight to bring down the walls of PC tyranny from within!

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Filed under Confessions, Ramblings, Reflections on Romance

Romance Novelist Whinge: Problematic Sex Scene Requires Fourth Re-Write

This is another of those posts where I am tempted to just leave it at the title.

In the never-ending novel revision project (never-ending because I am writing it 100 words at a session, and I have like…17,000 words to go), I am up to the first sex scene. And I’m writing it for the fourth time. Which, I dunno, maybe sounds like a lot of fun? It’s not. At all.

See, the first sex scene is basically the inciting incident for the whole rest of the book, so it happens REALLY early on. Like first chapter early. And it isn’t necessarily meant to be a sexy, hot sex scene. But I don’t want it to not be at all sexy, either, because it’s in the part of the book that would be in a sample download, and something that’s too either analytic or bad (in the sense of bad sex, not a bad sex scene, which are not the same thing!) might turn off (heh) readers who are trying out my work for the first time. So, since plot-wise what matters is that the hero and heroine have sex by mistake (it’s complicated), not what kind of sex they have, I would prefer it to be at least moderately good sex and a moderately good sex scene.

Hence writing it four (or more – God forbid) times.

The first time it was waaaaaaaay too long and involved and tender. The second run swung too far in the other direction, and it was just too abrupt and selfish (on the hero’s part) and not fun to read (there was spit involved. It’s funny in a Joe Abercrombie book…not so much a full-on romance). The third time did a better job with pacing and mood, but was still a bit too ornate and also hinged on a revelation I decided the heroine does not make. Or, rather, one she makes but the hero misunderstands – it’s just one more part in their ongoing conversation where one says a thing and the other hears something different.

I’ve got the fourth version started; it’s written up to the end of the heroine’s POV section, and I will be able to use the intercourse section of the third version (also heroine), so I just need the hero’s perspective for the bit in between. I haven’t had a good block of time to sit down and write it, and I will say from experience here, that sex scenes really do read best when they are written pretty much in one go and gotten on the first take. Like, I can’t write this section in 100-word increments and expect to get a workable scene.

Coitus Imaginus Interruptus is the fucking worst.

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Filed under Confessions, Reflections on Romance, Writing

Cover Talk – Australia > U.S., Joanna Bourne Edition

I don’t feel like I need to add much to the title, except to reiterate how obnoxious I find the “sexy” covers so prevalent in U.S. romance cover art. I basically don’t look at books that have covers like this – and always look at books with covers like the Australia edition. The man-titty tells me it’s a sex-romp in which the relationship will be based primarily on the physical, which means I will find it unsatisfying, while the fully dressed woman in roughly accurate historical costume tells me the book is character-focused, which means I’m more likely to find it satisfying.

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What It Means To Love

Probably the most hurtful thing I’ve ever said to my husband was along the lines of “Maybe I would have made a different choice 10 years ago.”

I like to pride myself for not saying things I don’t mean when we are fighting, even in anger, so this comment didn’t stick out as being particularly awful when I said it. When I realized, analyzing the fight later, just what a shitty thing to say that was, my initial reaction was a knee-jerk apology; of course, I didn’t mean that! But then I wondered: was this a time when I forgot myself and said something untrue in anger, or was it yet another time when I did something worse – accidentally speak a terrible truth?

So I forced myself to consider it. Knowing everything that would happen between us, would I tell my college self to run, or to stay? At first I wasn’t sure; things were that rocky. But a lot of good happens in a relationship, and the more I thought the more I realized, no, I would not make a different choice, even in the midst of a rough patch. Even, perhaps, when everything is in splinters.

I read a memoir once (Kingbird Highway) in which the man wrote, about meeting his ex-wife while hitchhiking, that even if he could have looked down the tunnel of years to their divorce, he’d have gotten in the car with her anyway. Even if I don’t make it to 80 on the porch with my husband, I believe I will always answer the question the same way.

Re-watching Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind reminded me of that moment, and I realized – that is what it means to love someone: to choose them again anyway.

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Joel’s answer to her is, “Okay.” Okay, I’ll take the chance that things will unravel the same way they did the first time. Okay, I’ll take the chance that I will come to regret this choice. Okay, I’ll take the chance that you will hurt me. Okay.

Okay.

It’s the most beautiful scene in the film, to me. And it’s absolutely what it means to love someone – to choose them again, no matter what.

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Confessions of a Romance Writer: I don’t defend my genre

It’s Friday the thirteenth again, the day The Honest Courtesan asks non-sex-workers who support the decriminalization of prostitution to publicly say so. I do.

The most lauded article this week amongst my various news feeds was Emma Green’s piece in The Atlantic that rambles through the cultural subtext of Fifty Shades of Grey’s popularity and the intersectionality (heh) of desire, consent, and immaturity, as well as why the BDSM depicted in the book and film is an unhealthy example of such sexual predilections. If you haven’t seen it, you can find the piece here.

What struck me most about this article, aside from the fact that I have seen the titular theme multiple times in romance circles starting 2 years ago and so often since that it feels trite, is how damned ugly Ms. Green is toward the romance genre. You can quite clearly picture her sneer as she discusses “those books” and distills the genre in a reducto ad absurdum sense to “good woman reforms rake” – and then blames us for Shades. No, sorry, romance doesn’t have to take the fall for that one. We might be “trashy” and full of “those cheap books” and heteronormative cisgender-reinforcing bourgeois morality tales, but that atrocity? DID NOT SPRING FROM OUR LOINS. (Nor fully formed from our head, for that matter.) Pretty much every romance reader I know or have seen talk about the book agree it fails to meet our standards. So, sorry not sorry, Emma, but that one’s not on us. (She even implicitly admits this when discussing the phenomenon as millions of women discovering sex in a book for the first time. Yeah, romance readers knew about that 40 years ago and are able to set standards for craft and characterization.)

I felt compelled to defend romance against the spurious accusation of spawning Shades on a Facebook link to the article; I have said it in a conversation at work.

Yet, these denials are the first such defenses I have offered to my genre outside of spaces devoted to it. I have myself made comments equating romance to trash, even though I don’t believe it is – not all of it, anyway. For a long time I would pretend to my family that I wasn’t working on a book rather than tell them about the romance novel I was writing.

Why? Why should I allow the judgments and dismissals of people who haven’t the slightest idea about the genre to dictate my behavior toward it?

Obviously some of it is driven by shame or shyness about admitting both that I enjoy reading books that sometimes fit the bill of pornography and books that focus on the finding of one’s life mate. Truly intimate sex, and sentimentality, two things our culture still finds uncomfortable.

In today’s sex-saturated era, the discomfort our culture still has with the former is almost incomprehensible. Yet every tawdry display of T&A at the Superbowl halftime show, every glimpse of Lena Dunham’s naked ass on Girls, every reference in an editorial to sexual deviances (and, yes, the kink du jour is BDSM), really only serves to create more of a barrier between our cultural representation of sex and our actual experience with it – or perhaps the divide is between the experience we actually have and the one we yearn for. Most of what we pass around in our culture about sex is a front. It’s inauthentic or impersonal, and ultimately unsatisfying. Certainly the depictions I see in television and popular culture of liberated, sex-positive women who have one-night stands on a regular basis and brag about it feel hollow. In such depictions there is this utter separation of sex and intimacy, with no alternative source of intimacy offered to fill that void.

I don’t want to sound like I think sex requires emotional or spiritual intimacy to occur or even to be “good” sex, assuming orgasmic and good to be interchangeable (it obviously does not), or even that using it as an act of intimacy should be the ideal (although for me personally it is). What troubles me, however, is that our sex-everwhere-all-the-time culture has removed intimacy from human connections by making sex common and not replaced it with a different way to foster trust and emotional connection to our lovers. All we are shown is empty encounters, where the female orgasm has become the goal the same as the male’s.

Romance is different from erotica and modern popular culture both because it contextualizes sex around trust, intimacy, emotions. Not every encounter in every book; sometimes the journey of the book is moving from empty physical friction to spiritual conflagration. But overall, as a genre and as an individual journey within it, romance novels still treat sex as personal, private, and capable of revealing our truest selves. And that’s beautiful.

Middle-class though it might be, I want the dialogue we have about sex as a culture to acknowledge that it can be a powerful means of bonding, and that satisfying sex and orgasmic sex are not always the same thing.

The most intimate sex scene I’ve ever put in a book was the one I didn’t actually write. At the end of Courtship, when Piers is wondering if he’ll need more than 6 minutes to have sex with Catherine for the first time: he realizes that it doesn’t matter. The satisfaction to be had in the act is not from the physical release but the emotional bonding, the exchange of trust offered and validated that occurs with emotionally engaged intercourse.

Perhaps it has taken the current levels of soulless sexuality for me to stop being embarrassed by my sentimental notions; perhaps it is simply crossing the 30 year bridge. But for me, for the kind of sex that I value, romance is the only voice in our cultural dialogue whose perspective I relate to. Feminists and social justice warriors are free to hate it because it is generally male-positive; the pearl-clutchers who ate up Fifty Shades but would never dream of reading “those books” are welcome to their naive hypocrisy. But I’m tired of hearing that my genre is responsible for reckless depictions of abusive relationships and unsafe BDSM. No. We got that out of our system by the late 1980s. It’s everyone else who hasn’t caught up yet.

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How To Not Sell Me Your Free Book

One might think making a book free will net oneself as many readers as encounter said book. Not so! Below are a few ways to convince Lily not to download your free book and waste her precious time attempting to read it.

Put any of the following plot elements in your novel:

  • Time travel (certain SF scenarios excepted)
  • Love triangle*
  • Real historical persons
  • Famous fictional persons (e.g., Holmes, Darcy, King Arthur, etc.)
  • Deities or their divine representatives (such as angels) as essentially human characters
  • Unrealistic gaps in station in a setting where such things matter
  • Patently anachronistic behavior or attitudes for no clear reason
  • A do-gooder hero or heroine, or one whose attitude feels politically correct
  • Any sort of secret society responsible for keeping order in secret (historical spy societies and paranormal hero councils equally despised!)**

*I don’t consider obviously false love interests to be triangles. But actual triangles are a deal-breaker.

**One of my friends is convinced I am destined to get propositioned by just such an order because I find them so insufferable in fiction.

Alternatively, you can present your story in one of these ways:

  • Spell a character’s name two different ways in the description
  • In fact, have any sort of typo or grammatical faux pas in your description
  • Have a description longer than 300 words
  • Use so many generalities in your description that I have no real notion what the conflict is
  • Use so many details in your description that I have no idea what the real conflict is (or feel like I have now read your entire book)
  • Fail to clarify by cover and summary when your novel is set
  • Give your characters ridiculous names vis a vis their time period
  • Employ gratuitous diacritical marks (especially random apostrophes!) in the names of people and places – looking at you, epic fantasy

I suppose this is also a list of deal-breakers for books NOT listed for free, as well, but the more salient point is that I don’t make exceptions to my taste just because a book is free. I make exceptions only when a book sounds truly extraordinary.

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The 99 Problems of Contemporary Romance

In addition to historicals, I have been reading a lot of contemporary romance these past weeks. I have never been hugely fond of co-ro, mostly reading it now as a break from historicals, with which I am saturated. While most of the contemporary stuff I’ve picked up has been enjoyable enough, I am seeing many of the same structural flaws pop up over and over again in the genre – not just what I select but also the chaff I sort through.

Foremost among the issues are: how inconsequential most of the conflicts are. How trivial the barriers to being together. And how goddamned repetitive the tropes are.

Historical fiction is pretty easy to run on external conflicts, either as barriers or facilitators to love – family pressure to marry one person and not another…the need of one party to marry money…class differences…racial or religious differences…social pressure and expectation…scandal…the list goes on.

But what are the impediments to any two people making a relationship work in a modern context? Basically…each other. In any sort of real life scenario, the only thing that will keep apart two people is one or the other of them. Sure, geographic situations can happen, but if the relationship is the priority that can be overcome with sacrifice of a job or property. So the conflicts that hinge on the characters living in different places seem forced, and those that hinge on emotional baggage (I got dumped once/my parents divorced, so I don’t do relationships!) are just juvenile and silly.

What remains, after an author has come to those same conclusions, are outlandish situations – lying about a relationship so you need a fake partner because you are too embarrassed to admit the truth…having crazy terms of inheritance that require a marriage of convenience dictated by a relative…needing social cache to break into a good ole boy business network…knocking up a one-night stand despite using condoms…having a ridiculous, bullying family that thinks a hasty marriage is necessary when their (adult) little girl gets caught having sex. Or taking thing to the same realm as historicals in terms of wealth – rich girl getting death threats needs bodyguard, business empire merger requires marriage so it stays “in the family,” bored trust fund brat surprised by love, celebrity goes incognito for a break and lies about their identity to The One, etc.

It’s not realistic. I mean, I get that romance isn’t meant to reflect reality, but at the same time, situationally speaking, can’t it at least be plausible?

I have found myself picking up more small town series than anything else, even if the conflicts are petty. But they have their own issues in addition. For instance, how many people do you know who are really happily paired off, in a true love sense? Two other couples? Three? To have every bachelorette in a small town find the one and only begins to stretch credulity after a few books. Even if you can get past the slim odds of that, is it likely to happen one right after another? Doubtful. If the books in a small town series were spaced out more than 3 months between them I might find all those love matches more believable than when 6 happen in a year. Also, how big are these small towns supposed to be if every person featured is totally good-looking? Where are the average schleppy-looking folks that, you know, comprise 2/3 of the population? Especially out in the middle of nowhere. Now, if you have a town of say 30,000, I can believe the numbers of foxy mates…but then the whole small-town charm, everybody knows everybody claim disintegrates.

Also, what the hell is up with the “I used to be in love with him” trope?! Why must every case of falling in love with a sibling’s friend or old acquaintance hinge on a case of puppy love/hero worship?! Why? Why can’t it simply be a case of adult onset attraction? Gah!!!!!

What I think most of this boils down to is that a contemporary love story has the story for a novella and has to be forcibly extended to reach even short novel length, and every added wrinkle stretches the mooring ropes tethering the piece to reality a little more. I would rather see shorter, more straightforward stories with more interpersonal dynamics and less pointless drama. But, then, no one has ever accused me of liking conflict for its own sake…

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