Tag Archives: things we don’t talk about

The Sleeping Season

The Honest Courtesan reminded me that today is Imbolc; I simply woke up thinking it’s a friend’s birthday (ironically a Pagan friend, so you’d think the association would stick…). The amazingly lovely graphic she chose and her simple benediction make an excellent preface to this post, which I have had partially written since November, when I was staring into the oncoming winter, but never felt the time was right to finish. Today is that day.

Blessed Imbolc 2016

The Sleeping Season

Autumn – when all that has outlived its purpose dies and falls away, leaving nothing but bones. It reveals what parts are immutable.

Winter is the sleeping season. The season of renewal. The season of rest. The waiting season.

The season of dying is long past, and the long darkness has fallen over us, taking over by degrees of frost and silence. It has now been silent so long we know it will not be broken until spring.

Perhaps because I live in the South, winter has never seemed a particularly dead time of year in the physical world, and it never really has to me in the metaphysical or metaphorical senses, either. Green can still be found; the fallen leaves are noticed more in the return than in the absence. When spring hits, it is this great wall of verdancy that just appears, and only then do you see how empty it was before.

I can always find beauty in things, and the melancholy grey of winter is no exception. But I have never felt winter so keenly as a period of dormancy and rest. My soul has never followed the seasons; like the subtropical land I call home, it grows and blooms and lives all the year round. But not this year. This year I had that period of dying through the autumn, of shriveling up and falling off and sloughing dead pieces that had grown burdensome. Thus the need to experience winter as the sleeping season. What is waiting to burst forth in glorious bloom within my heart is so eager, but the soil of my soul was so drained. It needed time and peace to replenish the resources that grow beautiful things. But feeling that inner fire makes the emptiness of winter serene and hopeful. A necessary stop, a point to simply stand still and exist, a space between the moments, a pause between movements in the symphony of life.

I sleep, frozen. Hungry. Patient. Waiting.

But today my inner fire stirs. Almost, almost, almost.

I don’t want to go back to sleep – but there are 49 more days to my winter.

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“One is not born, but BECOMES a woman”

The quote above is from an interview with Paris Hilton, a perhaps surprising source – but the point of the article is that the woman is a surprise, who has played us all with a crafted persona. And I have never been one to care too much who said something I considered profound or insightful, as if only “the right sort” of person ought to be quoted or as if the surrounding text must always also be profound and insightful for the single line to truly be so.

That comment resonated with me. It felt true to my own experience, and it helped me articulate some of what I am working through psychologically in the wake of the end of a 13-year relationship.

I have never really felt comfortable as a woman.

I am female. There is no gender-swap longing within me. Just the opposite, in fact – I have always wanted to be more feminine than I am physically and in my personality. Psychologically I seem to gravitate to many “girly” things, such as romances and sparkles and unicorns, and have since I was a little girl. I just also happen to like math and logic and guns. I feel like to this day there is sometimes a disconnect between my aesthetic tastes and what suits my physical shell. My eyes seem drawn to dainty, ethereal things that would look silly on me or around me, because I am simply too robust in both stature and in my personality, which on the public side is brash and loud and a little inappropriate and often on the verge of strident, and in private is intense: determined, focused, and opinionated, and also risible and almost endlessly optimistic. As an adult of 32 I can look at myself and say “steel magnolia,” and it suits, but I could not always name a style of womanhood that actually fit me (by which I mean, both described me as I actually am and as I wanted to be).

Throughout childhood I felt graceless and unfeminine, too tall and too large-framed in my bone structure and muscle tone to ever be pretty and dainty (what all the girls who got it and seemed to be actual girls to me were like) or perhaps even desirable. I could starve myself into a skeleton and would still be 4 sizes above the cultural “ideal”; I was taller than all the boys I grew up with, and they were also skinny runty things, so my general Amazon/Valkyrie shape felt even more gawky and uncomfortable. I am not out-and-out clumsy, but I essentially spend my life directing my body from a driver’s seat in my head, rather like an Imperial Walker. I don’t possess the natural athleticism and connection to my body that some people have, which might have mitigated my sense of dissonance with my own form. Or perhaps it wouldn’t have made any difference at all.

I also as a kid had terrible clothes, because my mother literally does not give a rat’s ass (her words) about fashion, or clothing, or conforming her appearance to what other people think (which sounds brave and wonderful but is also sometimes embarrassing, especially to a kid; “why is your mom dressed like a homeless bag lady who is also colorblind?” Moreover it feels hurtful that she will not bend on this for her family, when we do care, and don’t ask much of her – just that she not look, well, not homeless – as if she is unwilling to perform that task simply because it is important to us. I suppose we are assholes for asking, and for not appreciating her for the strange and wondrous creature that she is, but, really, why couldn’t she be strange and wondrous like Professor Trelawney and not Hagrid?) and extended her dislike of paying attention to such mundane things to choosing clothes for my brother and I and caring for the clothes we had or were given by other people. I also had an aversion to most of the skirts and dresses that were attempted to be put on me. Thing was, it was not the dresses per se that I was objecting to – those articles of clothing were out-and-out uncomfortable to me. Scratchy, almost painfully so, bunching or rubbing at my waist in a way that i just couldn’t stand but also couldn’t articulate better than “it doesn’t feel right.” I can look back on now and recognize this as part of my general HSP (highly sensitive person) sensitivity to touch and material type. If I had known the issue was polyester and a lack of undershirts, maybe I could have successfully been put in a dress more often. But I fought that battle so hard and so well that I got to stop wearing them and was able to live in jeans (cotton) and t-shirts (cotton) and awesome neon-patterned late 198os short called jams (cotton – see the theme?). My hair went unbrushed because it has just enough wave to tangle and knot like curly hair, and my mom’s was straight and she just didn’t know how to deal with mine. So we skipped that mostly. I was an utter hoyden. Can’t even say tomboy because none of this was a conscious rejection of girlishness, more just a rejection of civilization in general.

Mentally I was painfully shy, almost incapable of speech in a group when I started school. Once I became more comfortable with the environment I became very proud of being the smartest person in the class and, I am certain, cruel about it to my classmates. As I grew older (more like junior high) I realized that my personality would have served me well if I were a boy, because the boys who were outspoken and independent-minded were admired and generally well-liked, whereas those qualities made me, as a girl, strange and awkward and intimidating. By high school I had an arrogant confidence in my own weirdness, because I can’t pretend to be something I’m not (I spent like…a week trying once. Literally I could not do it) and decided to simply embrace it. At least I attained that much self-acceptance.

But in all of this I felt like I was missing a vital component that would transmogrify my biological femaleness into actual femininity. It was something that seemed like the other girls I knew had been born with, some understanding or way of looking at such things that I simply did not have. When I put on make-up or really girly clothes I felt like an impostor, almost like I was dressing in drag even though I am female.

Being biologically female has always felt to me a separate experience from being feminine.

What I didn’t realize as a kid, of course, is that beauty is a language, and most girls begin to learn it beside their mother almost from the time they learn to talk. My mother did not have any of that language to impart to me, and so when I looked at other girls, girlier girls, even at 6 or 7 years old, I was seeing the result of using a language I didn’t even know was a language. Colors that harmonized and complemented. Shapes that flattered and fooled. Individual pieces that created a gestalt. All I saw was an end result I had no idea whatsoever how to achieve.

So Paris’s words really struck me: “One is not born, but becomes a woman.”

I was in the process of finding the right aspect of femininity for me when I met my ex. College is usually a time of experimentation and of slipping out of one’s old skin to try on a new one. My freshman year I took a lot of inspiration from Elle Woods (Legally Blonde) and took notes in class with a fuzzy pink pen and determinedly wore lipstick every day (which, outside sorority row, was actually a rarity on my campus). When I was a sophomore with an office job I took to wearing heels and pencil skirts – again garnering plenty of WTF looks from the people on campus and sometimes in class. In this case the strangeness was that I was more feminine than the other young women around me, a heady and empowering feeling. I moved from being obviously a smart girl to being the one least likely to be considered such because of my appearance, and holy hell how I reveled in correcting that mistake (some things never change, eh?).

But as amusing and empowering as pink and fuzzy and sparkly are, they were also a bit too far in the girly direction for me to make a lifestyle out of. Unfortunately for me, I still didn’t know where the overlap was on the Venn diagram of what I liked and what actually worked for me. I had by then grasped that beauty products were a language and had mastered a few phrases. I had a very basic make-up routine (subtle, subtle, subtle) and stopped experimenting with make-up because I had something that at least kind of worked and didn’t make me feel like a clown or an idiot for wearing. With clothing I kept exploring, with some hits and some misses, but no cohesive style.

That’s where I was when we met…and that’s where I stayed. There were a lot of ins and outs to why, none of which I am proud of as I look back (graduating and not having much spending money nor a job that required a particular look which would have forced me to keep up my wardrobe; his (professed) disdain for fashion and trendiness and traditionally feminine things like make-up and styled hair that made me feel like my interest in them was silly; not really having anywhere to go where I was expected to look nice since he didn’t like parties or social events; as time went on, the weight I had put on senior year came to feel permanent, and feeling unattractive took a toll on my interest in my appearance, along with a paranoia on his part that I was going to cheat on him which caused me to prefer to be in understated (if not out and out unattractive) clothing when I was not with him). There’s a point where you just feel lost in the stream. Your entire wardrobe is either outdated or tired and sad from overuse or just bland basic pieces that you acquired piecemeal in moments of immediate necessity, and the prospect of replacing it is overwhelming and unaffordable. Somewhat amusingly, given his role in my choice to abandon my interest in fashion, my ex hit a point where he was so tired of “not having a wife I’m proud of” that he started taking me shopping. My interest started to revive. (Also, that was when we should have split. Oh, hindsight.) Then I got pregnant, and frivolous thoughts (all thoughts, really) got put on hold until after my son was born.

Through the last few years of this fashion depression, I had started sewing for cosplay purposes. Cosplay saved what little self-esteem (regarding my physical appearance) I managed to hold onto, because it is a way to care about fashion and make-up and appearance without the bullshit of the real world intruding. If I made a costume it was beautiful if it was made well or if it captured the look of the character, and I felt beautiful because my costume was beautiful. I could feel like a girly girl, dressed up in some ridiculous skirt, but also like a badass because I made that thing, and it was hard, and it took a lot of time and effort and passion to create, and it was something that was completely mine. I also started learning about my figure and its divergences from the “average” figure used for most off-the-rack garment construction (and commercial patterns). I learned about what shapes worked well on me. I realized how goddamned awesome dresses are. And I realized just how much math and puzzle-solving and logic go into designing garments and executing the designs.

That was the epiphany, right there: that I could observe system dynamics even in something like the world of beauty, use it to identify the questions I needed to answer, and then work within the system to find those answers. In other words, if I applied logic to things like fashion and make-up, I might actually be able to crack the codes on what had once seemed impenetrable languages I simply could not learn.

Since my son’s birth I have been quite interested in reclaiming the aspect of myself that likes being pretty and doing the things that socially signify an attempt to amplify one’s attractions. At first, not for my ex, but in spite of him; if he was going to be angry that I was attractive to other men but also angry that I was not, then he deserved no consideration in my choice at all, and choosing strictly for myself I would choose to embrace myself as femme. Now, obviously, his opinion doesn’t even have to be consciously ignored, because it is entirely irrelevant to me.

And I am faced with the task of actualizing myself as a woman without the leisure of experimenting.

The way I see it is, I am 32 and a mother. I have walked through hell and made it out the other side. I am an adult, and I know who I am and what I want. Finding a way to present myself that offers in one glance a genuine insight into my psyche should be second-nature to me by this point in my life. The fact that I stalled out that process during the experimental phase is not grounds on which to resume experimenting. Experimenting is no longer where I am. I need to find it – whatever exactly IT is – and become it. I am tired of wasting time on dead ends and poor choices. It is time to be what I am.

It is time to become.

I have embraced the idea of becoming the woman I wish to be via the use of logic and scientific principles. Color theory, applied to lipsticks and fabric choices, raised the rate of return on clothing tried on, make-up shades purchased, from about 1 in 5 to one in two. I have made a swandive off the cliff of perfumery and am compiling a mental database of perfumes and notes and accords and what should work on me/what does work on me.

The perfume hunt has been especially enjoyable, perhaps because I never even tried to experiment with it before so I have no sense of past failures holding me back or making me afraid. Finding scents that I feel psychically represent me along with smelling good on my skin has been fascinating, because it is forcing me to think through the qualities I wish to project. I am most interested in projecting a truth about myself, therefore I have to think about what a scent choice says and whether that is something true about me. And since I have set myself the task of acquiring a scent wardrobe, I get to consider several different things to say about myself. As an exercise in self-reflection I thought through what my psychic “scent” might be, and that imagery has in a weird way been helpful for me in reframing my view of myself, away from feelings of being too tall, too heavy-boned, too statuesque to feeling more grounded in my body, and viewing my shape as strong and powerful and, well, still statuesque but with a positive sense of that vs. an uncomfortable one. If my psychic scent is an alpine meadow on a sunny day – a little earthy with hints of flowers and a chilly breeze – then essentially I should smell like a Valkyrie. (And tell me that isn’t a fun perfume quest to undertake! “I wish to smell like a Valkyrie.”) Or maybe it’s a campfire in a pine forest with a fifth of whiskey. Or a summer day so blazingly hot it feels cold again. All of the images are strong (i.e., vivid) images (mine is not a subtle personality), but they are also all images that combine beauty with…something else. Strength, or serenity, or drama, or danger; never weakness or delicacy or frothy frivolity.

It’s helping me untangle the associations I made as a child between the feminine and the dainty. Sure, that is one aspect of femininity, but it’s not the only one, and it’s not mine. Which I have recognized for years without being able to define what mine is. That harmonizing is what I am doing now – using wardrobe, make-up, perfume, etc., to build a bridge between the raw form of my flesh and the sense of femaleness that has always lurked beneath my skin but never quite surfaced.

I am not quite there yet; actualizing takes at least a little time, even when you finally have a reasonably clear picture of what you are trying to do. But it’s an overhaul that is long overdue, and one I am taking great satisfaction in making. I can feel parts of my psyche that had been dented and collapsed filling and plumping back into place. I can feel the pieces of me that had never quite fit together being sorted, evaluated, and matched. I still have a ways to go; parts of me still feel broken, and despite all my logic and observation, sometimes the answer I thought I had turns out not to be the answer at all. But I am determined. I am no kind of quitter. I am a Valkyrie, a steel magnolia, a princess who has slain her own dragon, and I have unlocked the code even if I have not yet unraveled all its secrets.

I am, at long last, becoming a woman.

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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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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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Big 5 Romance: novels by and for the petty bourgeoisie?

Today is a Friday the 13th, the day the madam of The Honest Courtesan uses as a call to awareness for sex workers’ rights. It’s my chance to state publicly that I believe all sex work, including prostitution, should be decriminalized (or legalized, as long as that is not used as a backdoor to regulate it out of existence). The sooner our society leaves off attempting to legislate morality and dictate private, consensual behaviors, the better off all of us will be. And the sooner our legislative bodies and feminist activists stop the infantilizing of adult women by suggesting that we are incapable of making a rational choice to have sex with a particular individual for any reason whatsoever, the safer and more empowered all women in this country will be.

Pretty much since I started this blog, I’ve been mentioning an observed trend in the romance genre out of New York that started somewhere between college (early aughts) and 2009, namely, the excision of almost all “unsavory” elements from historical romance. First they came for the booze. Then they came for the whores. It’s the most bizarre thing, that even as the amount and variety of sex in romance explodes, the presumed morality and interests of its readership narrows.

Why are these changes happening? Is this trend driven by readership or by the “gatekeepers” (agents and publishers) or by the creators themselves?

Before I go further into this topic, let me clarify that I don’t think genre is a static thing, even for a genre like romance that has very clear rules that haven’t changed since the early 1970s (or the 1930s, when Georgette Heyer started producing her Regency  romances…or the 1810s when Jane Austen was inadvertently inventing the genre). There are always going to be cultural values embedded in literature that reflect the perspective and anxieties of the time in which they are written, not the time in which the book is set, and this is especially true in romance, because it is by women, for women, and centered around issues that women still consider important (love, marriage, and how those fit into women’s lives). The books from the 1970s and 1980s are pretty dated now, with relationships that border on (and sometimes cross over into) abusive and heroes who would be rapists except the heroines always secretly want to have sex but can’t admit it, so instead of viewing him as a criminal and an attacker, the audience (of the time) saw the “won’t take no for an answer” hero as a tool to give the heroine what she wants without her having to accept the responsibility that comes with sexual agency. The abusive man/forcible-seduction scenarios are pretty non-existent now in non-50-Shades-knockoff romance (erotica is a different matter altogether!), although I still see a lot of seductions where the hero’s magical sexual power “overwhelms” the heroine so that she can’t resist. Modern-written historicals often verge into anachronism by using heroines who insist on not needing a man’s help for no clear narrative reason and who feel no moral or practical dilemma about having premarital sex, also for no clear reason. So what I am really interested in, and why I wanted to write about this topic, is why the particular cultural values being embedded in (imposed upon?) romance are the ones being used.

One of the people who made me see the “cleaning up” of romance most clearly was Thaddeus Russell (though his writing has nothing to do with fiction). His book A Renegade History of the United States made me view historical settings in a different context–specifically just how fractional a part of the population romance really focuses on–and also how few people even in a historical context actually shared the obsession with chastity and saving virginity for marriage that 99% of all historical romance problems revolve around.  He revised my view of politics and social reformation vis a vis how much of it was done by a very narrow interest group and a narrow part of society. I have never gravitated toward books with “reformer” heroines, even though such women existed, but after reading Russell I downright loathe that type of character. I can understand women who are willing to live within the rules of their class—despite my perspective I am very conventional in the way I live my life, especially as seen from the outside—so they don’t bother me even if they have vastly different agendas or thought processes from me as a modern woman.  But the reformers who want to ruin everyone else’s fun?  No, thanks.

However, most romances don’t feature reformers per se; the authors simply let certain behaviors (such as doing charity work, supporting one or more severely physically/psychologically damaged persons in their domestic service, abhorring male fun such as gambling, drinking, fighting, etc., and sitting in judgment of any drug use beyond alcohol or tobacco) stand in for the heroine’s personality as if there is no possible question about the legitimacy of those “virtues” or the fact that everyone in their audience would applaud them. Despite their newfangled free-love/fuck-like-men-feminism approach to sex, romances are more often than not extremely socially conservative in all other ways.

And why? Beyond, I mean, the obvious answer that publishers push what sells and pressure the authors who still work for them to conform with those codes.

I have a theory: the acquisition editors buy to their own taste, and that taste is uniformly ivory-tower elite, with the proper number of women’s studies classes on their transcript and lockstep “socially conscious” moral edicts that are based on proving how much you care. (Think that’s incompatible with social conservatism? Then why is it that public health initiatives to ban cigarettes and cut down on drunk driving are driven by Democrats? – they just pretend it’s about saving children when it’s about controlling people’s private behavior. The only difference between that kind of statism and what the Republicans peddle is that Republicans are more honest about wanting to legislate morality. And also that the Republicans are basing their moral imperatives on religion versus some nebulous idea of social conscience or you-wouldn’t-like-it-if-it-happened-to-you emotional appropriation.)

Romance may have started out with a high percentage of smut (low-brow) vs. story-driven (high-brow) novels, but now that erotica has emerged as a genre in its own right, most of what’s left in romance attempts to appeal to the readers who want more than just lust – who require a story. And that story is always the same: no matter how unconventional the characters are to begin with, their story ends with a return to convention. Romance, in fact, has only two stories, that of a man raising a woman up via marriage (up either from low birth or a moral failure), or a woman and her love bringing an immoral man back into the fold of upright society. It’s a normalizing genre that reinforces the nuclear family and the idea of monogamy and marriage.

But why is that normalizing infused with all those other social values? The answer to that piece of illogic lies in knowing who still gets married these days – middle class women, especially upper middle class women. The same women who are curating the genre at a publishing house level. The same women who are writing and reading romance from the major publishers. Some of them are even self-publishing romances in the same vein.

Yes, some of the self-published romance is more of the pap the big publishers ladle out, but not all. To me the most exciting part of self-publishing from the perspective of both writer and reader is that authors who have a different moral compass (in any number of directions), or who prefer to examine the grim realities of historical times, or who want to attempt writing actual historical attitudes as opposed to modern ones in costumes, are now free of any interference from a publisher who just wants more of the same “mistorical” romance. The attitudes and tropes of chick-lit that bled into the romance genre following the collapse of chick-lit as its own genre are no longer infecting the entirety of the genre. Thank goodness.

Or maybe just the free market of ideas.

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Filed under Digital Revolution, Ramblings, Rants and Storms, Reflections on Romance

Audience Expectation Vs Artistic Experimentation

Or, Spitting Out the Kool-Aid

The musical theme for me this week has been the tension between giving the audience what they want and evolving as an artist.

My favorite band released a new album on Tuesday. For purposes of this essay, the fact that they are an independent band and have been since the late 1990s – AKA long before it was the cool thing to do, or an acceptable thing to do, much less the most logical thing to do – needs to be said up front. For 15 years they have answered to no one but themselves, and their fans, when it comes to the direction of their music. They have been my favorite band since high school, and for their first several albums (five, to be exact), for me, they could do no wrong. Every song, or very nearly every song, was golden.

The last three (and now four) releases have been spottier, a lot of songs I either didn’t like or didn’t deeply connect with and a few gems that gave me hope for future albums. The album this week didn’t even have the gems, just songs that I didn’t find bad but also didn’t find…inspiring. They didn’t speak to me, nor did I find them objectively great even if not my preference.

I found myself wishing, for the fourth record in a row, that they would go back to their alt-country/desert rock roots and stop writing adult top 40 pop songs with the vaguest of twang to the guitar. It’s not so much a protest of their changing the style so much as judging that their change was a poor choice, aesthetically, and they would probably do better – or at least please my taste better – by writing mediocre songs in the genre where they started instead of mediocre songs in a different one. I appreciate the experimentation, the desire to do something to keep the songwriting and sound fresh…what I don’t appreciate is continuing to try the same experiment over and over when it didn’t really work the first time. At some point I have to attribute it to a new sound for the band, and one that I don’t care for.

Experimentation and change is always a risk for an artist, no matter what type of art they create. When it’s executed well, it breathes new life into your fandom and brings in new fans. It revitalizes your own interest in art and creating, because new horizons offer new challenges, and without challenges there is nothing to strive toward in the act of creation. And there is definitely a trap to be found in staying in the same mode, doing exactly the same thing, over and over again. At some point you become a parody of yourself, because you have said every profound or even mildly insightful thing that you can, and all is left is regurgitation and imitation of your younger, rawer self.

The flip side of experimentation, however, is that it doesn’t always work, and when it doesn’t, your audience may be upset that you changed the formula. Some people will appreciate the attempt to experiment, but others will just be upset by it. And if you experiment and fail too many times in a row, you begin to lose your audience.

I think what really drives away an audience, though, is if, in the process of your experimentation, you lose the qualities that drew them to your work in the first place. A writer, for example, whose fans love her for deep character work can change genres every book so long as she maintains the same type of characterization. A musician whose songs echo the empty desert highways can change the subject all he wants as long as that echo is there in the sound of the music, while one who writes songs about the absurdity of life can change the sound every album as long as the lyrical “voice” remains the same.

It’s a delicate balance, a fine line to walk between delivering what the audience really wants and what they only think they want. I wonder how many artists actually understand what their audience loves about them? And how many members of a fandom really understand what it is that draws them to a particular artist’s work?

As a writer working in one of the most formulaic of genres, I worry sometimes about writing the same thing over and over – the same conflict, perhaps, or maybe the same characters, all while believing each story is unique. I have seen too many writers start off with a string of strong books and then slowly wilt into fainter and fainter copies of themselves as they continue to just do more of the same, with less conviction each time. Will I recognize when I need to experiment? When I do experiment, will I successfully carry over the elements that define my work at its core? Will I be able later, after experimenting and evolving, to revisit the style of my early works and reconnect with it in a deeper way as an older, more seasoned creator?

The one thing that is simultaneously most relieving and most frightening about being self-published is that I don’t have to worry about an editor turning down my request to experiment when I feel that itch to change…but the onus of executing it well will be entirely on me. I won’t have to answer to anyone’s instincts or tastes but my own – but as my band proved to me this week, sometimes that’s not a good thing.

I know for me, as a fan, the worst part about a disappointing new release is the dashed hope for something that would be as special to me as that artist’s earlier works – the works that made me fall in love with them. This is true of the above-mentioned novelists who, instead of getting better, get worse, and it’s true of movie directors as well as musicians. It’s the tyranny of being in someone’s first tier of artists: the expectations are high.

Perhaps youth and insouciance are the key to creating works that do not disappoint, because you can create without fear of rejection or letting someone down. You have no audience to lose, so you have no chains on yourself. When you feel the weight of expectations, you second-guess yourself or lock yourself into the same old creative habits and patterns. It’s why, in the end, the only audience I can care about, when I am inside my creative sphere, is myself. I have to please my own aesthetic and believe that if I do, it will please other people’s, as well. But the only one I can consider is my own.

If that is, indeed, what my band did on this release, then perhaps we have reached a parting of the ways, of sorts, where the band they used to be is my favorite, not the band they are today. Or perhaps this was just another experiment, a path untravelled that will eventually reconnect with the path of my aesthetics. Time will tell. I have not given up on them yet…but I miss the glory days of my youth, when receiving the new CD in the mail still guaranteed an afternoon of gleeful bliss as I wrapped myself in new songs that meant as much to me as the old ones had. Now it represents a painful hope that I have less and less expectation of having met. Perhaps that is the most tragic part of all.

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Filed under Muse Music, Ramblings, Writing

Things We Don’t Talk About: booze edition

Sometimes I loathe our reactionary medical system and the social pressures that go along with it. Tonight is one of those nights.

I will freely admit that I’ve had drinks since becoming pregnant, knowingly and willfully. The American Puritanism that insists any amount of alcohol during pregnancy is bad-bad-bad has been debunked by studies in Europe (not to mention 50,000 or so years of human existence). My feelings on it have been to drink when it sounds good and stop when it no longer tastes good. I have had one drink on a lot of occasions, two on a few, and three on I think two nights. Nothing beyond three, by my own (physical) inclination as much as a desire not to push the boundaries of moderation.

The medical information and advice available to most women is to abstain completely. There is no useful advice for how much is too much, and most women would never broach the subject with their OB – certainly in my doctor’s office I have played the pearl-clutching part of “oh, no, of course I would never drink in this condition!” because I have my own advised opinion that her propaganda isn’t going to influence.

Tonight, though, I am running into an actual medical issue where I feel like I cannot get decent advice, even from the internet, and it pisses me off that I cannot take this question to my doctor for a realistic answer without being lectured or lied to.

I came back with an “abnormal” reading on my OGTT (oral glucose tolerance test) which is the 1-hour screening that all pregnant women are recommended to get. If you fail this test, then you get the 3-hour screening to definitively determine if you have gestational diabetes. I am not sure what to make of my abnormal result; for the OGTT you have to shotgun the sugar equivalent of a 12-oz can of soda. I accidentally did mine after fasting for about 14 hours (you only have to fast for 2 for this one, and I planned to get up early enough to eat breakfast beforehand…didn’t happen so I had to do it on an empty stomach), and while I don’t avoid sugar or bread-like carbs, I do try to limit them. I doubt I have enough of the paleo lifestyle issue with sugar to affect my results, but considering I rarely to never bomb my system with that much sugar in a short period (especially first thing in the morning!) I do have to wonder if that affected my results. I guess I’ll find out for sure this weekend.

In the meantime, I have spent tonight freaking myself out about how to handle GD if it turns out I have it, not to mention that my OB’s perspective was to treat my diet like I could develop GD at any time since clearly (to her) I have *some* sort of problem processing glucose.

One of the things I wanted to know was whether alcohol will affect blood sugar levels in a way that I need to be aware of, should I be diagnosed with GD or take my doctor’s advice to restrict my diet as a precautionary measure. This is not an unreasonable question. However, four entire Google results pages yielded nothing but a repetition of the propaganda: “if you are pregnant you should never drink alcohol ever under any circumstances because it will kill your baby or make it come out all fucked up and shit and you are a horrible mother for even considering drinking a single drop or even making chicken marsala because that has cooking wine and all alcohol is bad-bad-bad while you are pregnant!” Not exactly helpful information – not even a single “we advise against alcohol consumption but if you must do it, then know this…” type of page. Nothing. Not a fucking word about how alcohol interacts with GD.

Then I found this gem on a diabetes management site:

“Alcohol has the opposite effect. The body normally stores excess glucose in the liver and muscles in the form of glycogen and converts the glycogen back to glucose when your blood sugar levels fall too low. But alcohol interferes with the body’s ability to make that conversion…”

“…Women with gestational diabetes should avoid alcohol altogether, though for reasons unrelated to their diabetes.”

So what I’m gathering is that I should have a glass of wine when my blood sugar gets too high?

I kid. I realize that an inability to release additional glucose is not the same as a means of lowering a too-high glucose level. But my original question remains unanswered, and my point remains: how the hell AM I supposed to know what effect a beer or a couple fingers of scotch will have on my GD if the medical establishment is so afraid of any pregnant woman drinking anything that they won’t even release information on its effects when they are actually potentially most harmful?

I’m going to go try not to throw up and attempt to sleep now. Fuck yeah tests with a false positive 75% of the time that are making sleep-deprived stressed out pregnant ladies lose even more rest and feel even more stressed unnecessarily!

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Filed under Rants and Storms