Books to the Sky

Archive for the ‘tropes and conventions’ Category

I recently read Double Play by Jill Shalvis, which is a baseball romance.

I picked it up because I love baseball. The plot wasn’t even relevant when I first saw the title; I saw “baseball” and “romance” and clicked “buy.” It turned out to be a sweet little romance, on the fluffy side, but good for a long train ride, which is where I read it. The hero is Pace Martin, the superstar pitcher of the fictional Santa Barbara Heat. He’s, like, the Johan Santana or Joba Chamberlin of this season, with less injuries or more starts, depending on who you follow. Basically, he’s got the winningest record in the league, but he’s also got a shoulder injury that could end his career. The heroine, Holly, is a reporter sent to follow the Heat around and suss out secrets. She stumbles onto a steroids plot, which I had some mixed feelings about, but I’ll talk about that more below.

The problem here is that the book wasn’t really reflective of baseball as I think of it. Baseball fans are always quoting statistics at each other, for instance. And there wasn’t a whole lot of baseball lingo here, either. Not to mention that this team is basically all white, which struck me as not realistic.

But as I yearned for the writer to talk more about Pace’s ERA, it occurred to me that I am not the target audience for this book, that, in fact, a lot of the women who read this book probably have a limited (if any) knowledge of baseball. So all the stuff the fans get excited about—the stats, the numbers, the batting order, the game minutiae—would probably only render the narrative confusing for the non-baseball-fan reader.

And then there’s this steroids plot. It’s a predictable way to go in a baseball story, although (spoiler) our hero is, of course, not doping, but he tests positive because he takes a stimulant by accident. Ugh.

Maybe the lesson here is not to read romances about topics I know a lot about; I’ll inevitably be disappointed. Does this mean I should go read some of those NASCAR romances? I know nothing about NASCAR.

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I think this Jezebel headline says it all: Is “New Chick Lit” Just a Different Kind of Obnoxious?:

These tales of women overcoming obstacles to live independently of men and their bank accounts certainly sound inspiring — except that the obstacles aren’t really that big. In fact, it seems that divorce and financial devastation usually cause the heroines to do something fun and hip that they really wanted to do anyway. When her parents take away her credit cards, Mercury in Retrograde’s Lena “Lipstick” Lippencrass “discovers a talent for fashion design” — that noted path to financial security. The heroine of The Summer Kitchen is “forced to open a bakery,” also usually a capital-intensive and uncertain enterprise, at least in the real world. And Jill Kargman’s The Ex-Mrs. Hedgefund, has its heroine, post-divorce, “picking up the threads of a career built on her first love, rock ‘n’ roll.” These women don’t have to scrimp and save in menial jobs — instead, they embark on glamorous careers, with the implication that their lives are now more fulfilling than they were in the days of easy marital money.

It makes me think of that episode of Sex and the City in which Carrie goes apartment hunting only to find that things in her price range are tiny. The first time I saw it, I thought that it was maybe the first episode of the whole darn series that showed my New York. Carrie looks in a tiny closet and wonders where she’ll keep her shoes. Yeah, welcome to life for the rest of us. You may recall that the episode ends when Charlotte gives Carrie the money she needs to buy her old apartment, thus solving the problem handily in a half hour.

In other words, it’s hard to look at the plots of these books and not think, “Oh, you have slightly less disposable income so you pursue your dream job. Such problems!” This is appealing how?

Jezebel concludes:

The chick lit genre doesn’t deserve across-the-board opprobrium — at their best, these novels can be witty and wise, and their popularity supports many a female writer. But chick lit writers may be unconsciously buying into women’s magazine culture, with its idea that reading should inspire desire — for more stuff, or, in the new, recession-era formulation, for a life that is glamorous even in fallback mode. It’s neither realistic nor necessary to ask that writers produce only what Benfer calls “Great and Difficult works of art,” or that all chick lit novels be about unmitigated pain and suffering. But, as author Gigi Levangie Grazer says, “the idea that having the right bag buys you happiness-now that’s dark.” And there’s something dark, too, about the notion that even in a recession, heroines need to be better off than their readers. Do chick lit consumers want to read about working-class families dealing with layoffs, or women who find fulfillment in jobs that aren’t traditionally “cool”? We don’t know, because those books aren’t being written — yet.

There has been some discussion in the romance blogs of late about historical accuracy in romance novels. This is one of those things I always took with a grain of salt. Mostly I read historicals about periods I don’t know much about, so that the details don’t bother me or pull me out of the story.

Romance novels also rather famously ignore things like historical hygiene. Because, as you know, before the 20th century, people didn’t bathe to often. EvilAuntiePeril further points out

The thing is, I’m perpetually intrigued by what is justified in historical romance novels on the grounds of historical “authenticity” (eg. rape, abuse, swordsticks, Fabio in a Viking helmet) and what is extracted on grounds that it would put off the sensitive reader (eg. slavery, blatant racism, poor oral health, body hair). It’s not the removal of all ick. It’s selective historical sanitisation – and it’s not only in ye olde Romancelande that this takes place.

She goes on to say that historical novels are often more reflective of the period in which they are written, and certainly out contemporary obsession with cleanliness and hygiene comes across in novels written today. There are justifications for not describing the dank, dirty conditions of the time periods being written in, too: lack of hygiene would have been normal for all of the characters, so there’s no need to draw attention to it, or romance is fantasy and talking about body odor ruins the illusion.

Candy at Smart Bitches takes it further, point out that cleanliness = good, and lack of hygiene is often shorthand in romance novels for villainy. “If somebody in a romance novel has rotting teeth or smells weird, they’re not just going to bad, they’re going to be naaaaaaasty, and the hero and heroine are going to be distinguished from this nastiness, whatever the actual state of physical hygiene happened to be in Ye Olden Dayes of Yore for gently-bred people.” Candy brings up other examples: weird food as an explanation for Otherness in foreign characters; fat as shorthand for emasculation or even villainy (male obesity especially, since romance writers treat overweight heroines with a softer touch; Candy cites several fat male characters who are either emasculated—one is impotent—or else clearly the Bad Guy).

In the latter case, this is fishy because I can think of several historical figures known as well for their corpulence as their sexual prowess. Candy says this is beside the point, and also reflective more of 2009 than 1809.

What’s happening here has more to do with how contemporary culture desexualizes overweight people, and how overwhelmingly, we associate masculinity with muscularity. I particularly find the leap from emasculation to evil especially interesting, because it’s a theme you see quite a bit in literature in general and romance novels in particular. Oftentimes, I think the villainization is achieved via feminization, because emasculation often brings with it an identification/association with effeminacy, and that almost always leads to villainization of a character. You see it not only with men who are portrayed as fat and sexually impotent and are coded as womanish, but with men who are more explicitly coded as womanish, such as bisexuals, homosexuals or transvestites.

So there’s some food for thought. Um. Probably it’s improper to make a food pun when discussing obesity, eh?

Then there’s the entirely different matter of romance plots that would never have happened. Lynne Connolly at The Good, the Bad, and the Unread lists some things that could not or never happened in the real world:

* A known, famous courtesan marrying a peer of the realm and them being accepted into society with open arms.
* Peers of the realm becoming pirates.
* Regency gentlemen drinking whisky or whiskey from a decanter on the sideboard. [whiskey was illegal until 1823 and not a common drunk until the 1840s]
* A medieval Scottish warrior brandishing his claymore. [“No claymores until the late 16th century.”]
* A medieval Scottish warrior wearing a skirted kilt in his clan’s tartan. [No kilts until the 19th century.]

I agree with Connolly that when you come across a detail that you know not to be true (this is why I don’t read a lot of American historicals, because I would find all of these errors) it takes you right out of the story. She says, “It’s an insult to say “it’s only a romance, so it’s okay, I can write what I like and get away with it” or something else I’ve overheard, “They’ll never notice.” So what? The other person a writer should respect is herself and her art.” Trust me, readers notice. (Actually, The Phoenix takes place in a time period I’ve been studying lately, and I think the portrayal of New York in the 1890s was mostly spot on, if vague in places. Except for the LES, Sims never really specifies neighborhoods. I kind of wanted more detail, actually, though I suspect that if she’d gotten things wrong, I would have gotten pulled out of the story.)

So. Does historical inaccuracy in fiction bother you? Does it matter? Should Regency heroines bathe less often?

I discovered Chick Lit my last year in college, when I read a string of books in a row intended to distract me from my thesis. These were cutesy romances involving flawed heroines living in cities, and most of the ones I read were fluffy nonsense, but I could recognize something there. Before the books became cookie-cutter Bridget Jones clones, these were books about women, most of whom worked in media and lived in big cities like New York, and who were an interesting contrast to the typical superlatively beautiful and perfect romance heroine. And, hey, what did I do after college? I moved to New York and got a job in media.

I hate the label “chick lit” because I think it’s belittling. I went to an Erica Jong reading around the time her autobiography was published, and I chatted with her a little at the end about chick lit. She also hates the label because it necessarily segregates female authors in the book stores. Because, let’s face it, chick lit is looked down upon as being, well, fluffy nonsense.

But I like the idea of books about urban women with flaws. Maybe because I can see myself in a lot of these heroines, but I think there’s something really appealing in that. I’m also a sucker for a book that takes place somewhere I know well.

A new wave of chick lit is deemed more realistic. An example is Amy Sohn’s new novel about Park Slope (Brooklyn) moms. Themes in these novels include finding oneself after divorce and raising children in affluent communities.

I work in Park Slope and spend a fair amount of my play time there, too, so I know from Park Slope moms, trust me. The idea of a novel about 4 Park Slope couples is kind of appealing, and I’d read it jsut to find familiarity. But after reading the summaries of this novel, I came to realize that I do not know these women. Or if I do, but I don’t like them. What I like to call the Park Slope Mom Brigade is something of a joke around these parts because these moms are crazy and overprotective, and conjure images of helicopter parenting and food co-op memberships (see also Fucked in Park Slope). And I’m supposed to find them sympathetic? Novels featuring wealthy divorcees? Um, what? I have some respect for what these writers are doing, but I feel like it’s not that far removed from Candace Bushnell, and maybe it’s “realistic,” but it’s still kind of whiney and elitist.

Thoughts?

Candy at Smart Bitches has a thought-provoking post up that gets into some interesting questions. I think a lot of romance readers probably have a love/hate relationship with some of the tropes of the genre, especially as pertains to gender roles. Candy certainly does, and she writes:

So, in romance novels, acceptable, masculine behavior for heroes that’s normally associated with the feminine include nursing a heroine through an illness, or confessing his emotional vulnerability, or being gentle and loving with animals and children. Other types of feminine behavior or traits outside the masculine, heteronormative norm are either seen as:

1. Transgressive and therefore villainized (homosexuality, bisexuality and general gender queerness used to be one of the most reliable earmarks, though that has changed somewhat in recent years. There are cross-dressing heroes and heroines, which is potentially queering, but they do it out of necessity and for purposes of disguise; there are not, to my knowledge, heroes or heroines who are true transvestites; anyone transgendered for a hero/heroine is still pretty much right out);

2. Signs of effeminacy, emasculation or mental illness and often portrayed comedically (slim physiques; preoccupation with fashion; dislike of violence or physical confrontation); or

3. Emasculating and therefore not portrayed very often at all (heroes who give up their successful careers to be with the heroine; stay-at-home dads). One big exception: if the hero’s job is one that substantially endangers his life, such as being an assassin, it’s perfectly acceptable for him to give up the job for love of the heroine, but then there’s usually the understanding that his super-secret Swiss bank account is every bit as turgid as his Staff of Pleasure and Wonderment. Or if the job is dangerous but either socially acceptable or not outside the law (he’s a Bow Street Runner, for example), he switches to a desk job, and it’s usually a sign of promotion.

I think my greatest beef with the genre is its strict adherence to traditional gender roles and to the characterization of things that fall out of these strict binaries as being bad or villainous. It’s why I hate virgin heroines; I want a woman who owns her sexuality, but many, many romances still seem to subscribe to the idea that it’s not okay for a woman to want to be sexual. Sexual women in romance novels tend to be evil ex-wives, you know?

Candy finds a silver lining:

One of the most powerful aspects of romance novels is the fact that they feature women who get to win. And it doesn’t matter if I agree with the terms of the heroine’s victory—I may think that her win was unrealistic, or unhealthy, or pyrrhic at best, or even a dead loss. What matters most is that the heroine triumphs, and that she ultimately gets what she wants. This doesn’t mean that I’ll stop critiquing the terms of that victory, and what those victories in aggregate say about readers and authors and society in general, but no other genre allows the women to win as consistently as romance novels do—and this is a valuable thing in and of itself.

I’ve been reading a lot of m/m romance lately, and had a discussion with a friend of mine about why we like it so much: it’s because there is no clearly defined gender category for the two protagonists to fall into. They start as equals. I, for one, would like to see (especially in contemporaries) a male and a female protagonist for whom there is a presupposition of equality. (Maybe this is why I like Suzanne Brockmann’s books so much. She knows how to write a strong woman, one who can triumph even playing with/against a big ol’ alpha male.)

Anyway, read the whole post. There’s some interesting discussion going on in the comments, too.

Sorta kinda tangentially related: Amanda at Pandagon has a post up entitled Why don’t men read more romance novels? The post is really about why women don’t watch porn (in reaction to an article by Violet Blue arguing that women say they don’t like porn because women aren’t supposed to like porn; see also some of what I said here about women and sexual agency). But Amanda says:

But even with the availability of stuff that you can kind of guess won’t be overtly misogynist, women still don’t consume as much. Why?

On one hand, that’s like asking why men don’t read more romance novels. You can usually tell when you’re in the intended audience, you know. Women aren’t stupid.

Which… hmm. I think she has a point about porn; so much of it is so obviously made with male (gay or straight or whatever) viewers in mind, misogynist or not. Same deal with romances (gay or straight or whatever, come to think of it). So many of them cater to (stereotypical) female fantasies: men as protectors, men who are strong but also sensitive, any of the things Candy listed that I quoted above, even, you know, two hot guys making out with each other. (Which is where I kind of differ from Amanda’s POV. She goes on to critique porn because female orgasms are so obviously fake and male orgasms are so obviously real, but I’ve read that a lot of male orgasms in porn are fake, too, created with prosthetics and, no joke, Ivory dishsoap. More to the point, Amanda dismisses Violet Blue’s point about women liking gay porn; at least the commenters are all, “Fanfic, hello?” And also, Exhibit B: the vast amounts of m/m romance and erotica written by women for other women. Just saying.)

I can’t deny that the fantasy is part of the appeal. The first time I picked up a Nora Roberts novel, I thought, “Oh, I get it.” Roberts tends to write men who strike me as realistically drawn and also immensely appealing. The heroes seem to be pushed out there with a sign saying, “This is your fantasy!” She sells all those books for a reason, you know?

I’ve run into plenty of men who read romance, though, even on the DL. There’s also this guy, who argues that, “I had always thought that the idea of coercing the fairer sex into abandonment stemmed more from the male than the female gray matter.” Which is kind of interesting: are we so steeped in old patriarchal assumptions that romance novels are really female fantasies based on male fantasies? Wacky, yeah? Is that why gender roles are so confining in romances?

Still, I think there are some authors out there who do really interesting things, who turn gender roles on their heads, or who are just really good writers. For me, the appeal lies mostly in the way the genre tackles human relationships, which is on-face what any romance is about. Throw in some fantasy about falling in love in a week and happily ever after, and it’s fun and escapist but can also make you think. Or this is what a good romance does.

Jane at Dear Author has a post up about first lines that pulled her into good romance novels. She lists a bunch. I bet you can think up some classics on your own, everything from “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” to “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” to “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.”

What are some great first lines that pulled you into a book?

Hey, wanna hear something crazy? You know how I don’t like rapey romance heroes? It’s because I am a Young Person!.

Amanda Hess picks apart a blog post by an old-skool romance writer defending rapey heroes. The writer says:

Mind, this definition of “rape” is not a legal one; it’s a highly stylized one in which it allows the female to retain her Good Girl status while still A) having sex and B) enjoying it because the hero is a different kind of rapist: One who is attractive, who is uncontrollably attracted to the heroine, and who gets her off after he’s made it possible for her to have an out, i.e., “I was raped.”

The problem for me is that this whole “women are not supposed to like sex outside of the confines of marriage, and even then, they aren’t supposed to like it much” notion is not really as outdated as we might think. I suppose, if you squint and turn the book sideways and shake it a little, that there’s something a little subversive about the sexual aggression in old-skool romance. The hero, after all, initiates her into enjoyable sex. But he also does this by taking away the heroine’s agency over her own body and sexuality.

My disdain for virgin heroines is well-documented, and I think what bothers me the most about them is that usually, they require some kind of sexual awakening, meaning they aren’t fully-realized people when they meet the hero. I read a lot of romance novels, so I obviously don’t have a problem with people falling in love and finding companionship and whatever else comes with the HEA, but I do have a problem with a woman needing a man to function.

Plus, there’s that whole sexual violence thing. Excuse me for not getting excited about a swarthy hero violating a woman, no matter how handsome or good in bed he is.

Our author goes on:

I’m not sure why there’s this unwillingness to go along with the zeitgeist of the time in which the book was written, but instead to apply today’s standards of fashion or technology or pop culture as markers of timelessness. We don’t expect that of our historical novels, so why do we expect it of “contemporary” romances that cease to be “contemporary” the moment the galleys are finalized?

Amanda Hess answers this pretty well: “Young readers don’t just find the fashions and soundtracks of 70’s romance novels ridiculous—they find the very romantic ideals they’re based on offensive.”

I mean, we make fun because the trope is ridiculous, although it’s not even making fun so much as being actively offended by these old notions of female sexuality. We may not be that far removed from those old notions of what women are supposed to want, but I think a lot of women today, young women in particular, have more agency. We have relationships and jobs and friends and lives, and we don’t sit around in the window waiting for our knights to come rape us.


Books to the ceiling,
Books to the sky,
My pile of books is a mile high.
How I love them! How I need them!
I'll have a long beard by the time I read them.
--Arnold Lobel

From the moment I picked up your book until I laid it down, I was convulsed with laughter. Some day I intend reading it.
--Groucho Marx

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