Friday, November 29, 2013

A Little Something to Chase Away Black Friday Blues

For those of us still recovering from Thanksgiving turkey dinner, but determined not to spend our post-Thanksgiving day hitting the malls, a little something from poet Mark Grist:

Tuesday, November 26, 2013


My significant other recently finished up a long-term project at work, and we celebrated this weekend by catching up on our viewing of The Lizzie Bennet Diaries, an updating of Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice in video-blog form. Though I've never considered Austen's class politics all that progressive, I always took it for granted that when it came to gender, Austen was an author well worth feminist praise. But watching the final twenty episodes of LBD, and thinking about the decisions the writers of the series made in order to update the story for a 21st century audience, made me realize how, at least in the case of Pride and Prejudice, Elizabeth Bennet's feminism is established in large part at the cost of another young woman: her younger sister, Lydia.

(Note: Spoilers ahead for both Pride and Prejudice the novel and for The Lizzie Bennet Diaries. If you haven't yet seen LBD, give yourself a Thanksgiving treat and check it out here. And can you truly call yourself a lover of romance if you've never read Pride and Prejudice???)

Updating the story of P&P for a contemporary audience presented series developers Hank Green and Bernie Su with some clear feminist challenges. Marriage as the only option for a gentlewoman? Daughters not allowed to inherit their father's estate? Money as a vital (if not the only) reason for forming a romantic alliance with another? Few such dated references to nineteenth-century patriarchal assumptions would fly with contemporary viewers, even if presented in updated dress.

LBD's Charlotte, Lizzie, Lydia, and Jane
But with only a few missteps (see Su's explanation/apology for the slut-shaming in the early episodes here) Su and his all-female staff of writers managed to create an updated vision of Pride and Prejudice that simultaneously hews to the novel's storyline and themes and presents women as mistresses of their own fates. Jane has a job in fashion design (albeit a low-paying one); Lizzie is in grad school, pursuing Communications; even Lydia attends community college. The Bennet "estate" is no longer entailed, although the family is experiencing financial difficulties, the details of which the parents do not discuss with their children. Mr. Collins is no longer a relative looking to marry a Bennet sister out of guilt at his future inheriting of Mr. Bennet's estate, but instead is presented as a (rather inept) businessman bearing job offers. Charlotte pursues the job offer Lizzie rejects, not because she has no other options, but because she is more pragmatic about her career than is Lizzie, and is willing to accept a less than ideal work situation in order to bring her closer to her goals. Each of these updates struck me as not only in keeping with the spirit of Austen's original story, but also respectful of contemporary women's abilities and rights.

Lydia running off with Wickham in the
2005 film version of Pride & Prejudice
As I've been slowly catching up on the episodes since watching the first this summer, though, I've been wondering just how the writers would deal with the one episode in the book that seemed both vitally important to the plot and yet inherently, unfixably sexist: the shame that Lydia brings upon her family by running off with Wickham without the benefit of marriage. In 2013, a woman having sex outside of wedlock is hardly viewed as scandalous, never mind an act destined to rain opprobrium down on her extended family. But in Austen's book, Darcy's intervention to bring about Lydia and Wickham's marriage is the straw that breaks the back of Lizzie's dismal opinion of her former suitor; if he's willing to put himself in the midst of such a shameful situation, he must truly love her, Lizzie is forced to recognize. How could the writers omit such a scene but still convince Lizzie of Darcy's worth? How could they leave it in, and still maintain their progressive depiction of women?

By turning Austen's Lydia, characterized by "high animal spirits, and a sort of natural self-consequence" into a victim.

In the novel, Lydia's character functions both as plot contrivance and figure of laughter. That laughter stems from her inappropriate behavior, behavior that other characters denigrate left and right: her father, Bingley's sisters, Darcy, and most cuttingly, Elizabeth:

"If you, my dear father, will not take the trouble of checking her exuberant spirits, and of teaching her that her present pursuits are not to be the business of her life, she will soon be beyond the reach of amendment. Her character will be fixed, and she will, at sixteen, be the most determined flirt that ever made herself and her family ridiculous. A flirt, too, in the worst and meanest degree of flirtation....Vain, ignorant, idle, and absolutely uncontrolled!" (Chapter 41).

Much of the proof of Elizabeth's specialness depends on this contrast between the wild, vain Lydia and her better-educated, far more witty, and far more well-behaved sister. We're never invited into Lydia's point of view; the text invites us to identify so closely with Elizabeth, insists that we take her values for our own, that I've rarely thought to question its depiction of Lydia, or its judgment of her behavior.

In LBD, Lydia's character initially seems an uncomplicated updated version of Austen's Lydia: a party girl, more interested in going out drinking and ogling cute guys than in her schoolwork or in any creative endeavor comparable to Jane's fashion designing or Lizzie's vlog. But even in some of the early episodes, the writers of LBD give Lydia a line or two indicating that her wild behavior stems in part from her feelings of being ignored by, or left out by, her two older sisters. And when Lydia makes her own series of spin-off vlogs, vlogs that show us the story from her point of view, we get an even stronger sense of Lydia's motivations. Not just the story of her interactions with George Wickham, but also her thoughts about her role in the family. Lydia becomes more than just a figure of fun, or a negative foil against which we are to judge the less wild Elizabeth. She's granted a depth of character, one which invites us to regard her with sympathy, not just laughter or scorn.

And then the final twist: a truly manipulative Wickham woos Lydia, tells her he loves her, convinces her to allow him to videotape them having sex, then, unbeknownst to Lydia, sells the sex tape to a website, which begins a countdown to the big reveal of "YouTube star Lydia Bennet." Romantic abuse and sexual betrayal, rather than joint flight into sexual ruin, is the updating the LBD writers choose to make their story relevant to 21st century audiences.

When I first saw the big reveal, I was impressed by the writers' decision. They've taken a caricature and turned her into a human being, one for whom we, like Lizzie, have great sympathy. Lydia learns a much-needed lesson, and, through her, women watching the vlog learn to be wary, both of lying, manipulative boyfriends and of the dangers of Internet overexposure. "The Internet is forever," as Lizzie reminds Lydia, and through her, the unthinking women among her audience. Lizzie learns that her earlier slut-shaming of Lydia led in part to Lydia's low opinion of herself, and to her willingness to listen to Wickham's lies. Lizzie and Lydia grow closer as a result of the experience, women supporting one another in the face of male abuse.

But then I began to wonder. After Wickham's betrayal, Lydia become a pale, wan, lifeless vision of her former self, far from the vivacious, teasing, flirty young woman featured in Lizzie's early vlogs. Even after being saved from true Internet exposure through Darcy's purchasing of the web company with the rights to her sex video, Lydia never seems to regain the high spirits that characterized her in the early months of the show. In contrast, the Lydia of the book does not buy into the judgments others make of her, even after her "ruin": "Lydia was Lydia still; untamed, unabashed, wild, noisy, and fearless," the narrator describes her after she returns to Longbourne as Mrs. Wickham (Chapter 51). Though the text dooms Lydia to a less than fulfilling marriage ("His affection for her soon sunk into indifference; her's lasted a little longer; and in spite of her youth and her manners, she retained all the claims to reputation which her marriage had given her [Chapter 61]), it makes it clear that her high spirits remain intact.

So which is worse? A Lydia we're encouraged to despise, but who refuses to (or is too stupid to) despise herself? Or a Lydia with whom we're invited to sympathize, especially after she becomes a victim?

Friday, November 22, 2013

Dukes: The 0.0001735%

I've been searching for the source of the conventional wisdom that any historical romance with the word "Duke" in the title will sell better than one without. One Goodreads commenter points to a romance author as the originator of this truism: "I remember Julia Quinn once posted on her FB an advice for one of her author-friends, books with 'Duke' in the title sell better." If Quinn were truly the source, though, one would think that more than just two of her many romances (2000's The Duke and I, and 2008's The Lost Duke of Wyndham) would follow this dictum.

Author Shana Galen writes that it was her editor who told her "dukes sell." Galen concurs:"Women want to read about dukes. I'm a woman, and I want to read about dukes, too." An reader echoes the idea that the truism comes from publishers in her story about her conversation with an unnamed author: "I was just talking to a writer when I bought her book at a signing a few months ago and jokingly said, 'Another Duke?" She looked tired as soon as I said it. 'Dukes sell. He was an earl, but my editor made me change him.'"

Editors urge their popular romance writers to endow every historical hero with the highest non-royal rank of the realm in order to increase their sales. Do said editors back up their assertions with actual sales figures, comparing duke books to non-duke books? Or do they simply rely on the wisdom of their Marketing and Sales colleagues? I'd be interested to see hard data from individual publishers, or individual authors, to see whether this claim is at all based on fact. Any historical romance authors out there willing to share their own experiences about the relative sales of their duke and non-duke books?

Whether or not duke books actually outsell their less lofty peers, the truism that they do means that duke books far outnumber their rivals in the marketplace. A quick scan of using the search terms "romance" in the subject line and "duke" or other noble epithet in the title line gives us:

550 books with "Duke" in the title
39 books with Marquess, 109 with Marquis = 148
278 Earl books
101 Viscount books
133 Baron books

Coronet of a non-royal duke, with its strawberry leaves
With a little over 31,000 books labeled "historical romance" at amazon, this means that about 1.7% of them use the word "duke" in their title. A small figure, perhaps, but one far larger than the actual number of dukes that existed during the Regency, the period during which many of these books are set.

Pardon me while I crunch a few numbers...

A check of Debrett's Peerage shows that only 25 non-royal dukedoms existed in 1818. Out of a population of 14.4 million people, only 0.0001735%, or one in every 576,000 English people, held the title of duke. Even if we narrow our population figures to the gentry only (about 2% of the total population, or 288,000), we're left with 0.00868%, or one in 1,152. Even if we narrow still further, and take only at those men who held titles (530), we're left with only 4.7%, or one in every 21 noblemen.

Obviously, then, the plethora of dukes in historical romance in no way reflects their actual numbers in real life. The more interesting question, then, perhaps, is not a mathematical one, but an ideological one. Just why do duke books sell better than other books? Or, even if in fact they don't, why do people think they do?

Shana Galen's blog post, "Why Duke's (sic) are so Sexy," argues that women want to read about the highly titled because they want to read about sexy heroes. Galen argues that dukes are sexy because:

• they have power and money
• they have a title, which "makes us think of royalty, which conjures images of country houses, jewels, horse-drawn carriages and the like. It's romantic. It's sigh-worthy."
• they're romantically selective, a selectiveness which grants value to the heroine, and by proxy, to the reader: "They are sought after, and they can choose any woman they want, for the most part. It's sexy to think that a man who can have anyone wants you."

Some questions pop into my mind after reading the above list. First, regarding power and money: Do all women find men who have power and/or money sexy? For those who do, is it watching a man exercise power that is sexy? Or is the power more symbolic? Doesn't the exercise of power involve working, which, in this period, would take a man way from his lady love? Is it a fantasy of not having to think about money (as aristocrats were purportedly not supposed to have to do) that appeals? Do women who find men with power and/or money sexy also believe that the best, or only, way to get either is through a man? Do they not believe they can achieve either on their own?

Cinderella's coach at Disneyland Paris
Second, regarding the "dukes make us think of royalty" argument: This one seems in many ways at odds with the first one. Royalty is about power, or at least it used to be, but this list of images evokes luxury, beauty, and comfort, not politics, war, or any of power's other manifestations. Does this suggest that women are not really that interested in power, but more in the trappings of it? Another thought: why are country houses, jewels, and carriages "romantic"? Are things associated with the past, and/or with money, inherently romantic? Or are we simply transferring a Disney version of royalty onto our historical romance?

Finally, regarding selectivity: When dukes cease to become a scarce commodity, as they have become in the current historical romance marketplace, does the appeal of the selectivity Galen posits come into question? Or are readers willing to suspend their disbelief, as long as any one author does not populate her particular version of the period with too many dukes to maintain the air of selectivity?

Like Sandy at All About Romance, I have to admit my partiality for more realistic portrayals of the life of a duke, such as Mary Balogh's in 2004's Slightly Dangerous. Her Duke of Bedwyn is not freed, but rather is weighted down by, the heavy responsibilities of managing his dukedom's extensive properties and serving as the head of his often trouble-prone family.

But I must be in the minority, if it's true that books with "duke" in the title really do sell better than other historical romances...

What do you make of the current plethora of duke books in the marketplace? As a reader, do you find dukes more sexy than other aristocrats? Does seeing the word "duke" on the cover make you more likely to open your wallet?

Photo credits:
Ducal Coronet: Stalking the Belle Epoque
Cinderella's Coach: Disneylicious

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Romancing the Heist: Tamara Morgan's CONFIDENCE TRICKS

At first glance, robbery and romance seem an unlikely couple. Robbery, at least of the high-stakes heist variety, is all head: planning, process, execution, and quick thinking when the inevitable wrench disrupts the scheme. Romance, in contrast, is all heart: instinct, chemistry, sensation and emotion. Yet reader/reviewer tension proves central to the appeal of both genres, whether in film, television, or novel form. Will our thieves outwit the guards and capture the jewel/statue/priceless painting? Will our hero win the girl? In a gifted writer's (or director's) hands, conflating these two very different types of tension can up the stakes to almost unbearably pleasurable levels. Is the hero really falling for our heroine? Or is his romancing only one more piece of an elaborate criminal deception? Think Cary Grant in To Catch a Thief, or Pierce Brosnan in the first season episodes of Remmington Steele, where plot suspense feeds into the sexual tension between women who aren't quite how far to trust, and the former thieves who purport to be now on the straight and narrow.

To trust or not to trust? Cary Grant and Grace Kelly in
To Catch a Thief
Copyright Paramount Pictures 1955
In Tamara Morgan's new heist romance, Confidence Tricks, it isn't just the hero, but also the heroine, whose motives are under suspicion. Neither Poppy Donovan, recently paroled con artist, nor Asprey Charles, rich boy turned sneak-thief, is at all inclined to trust the other. Asprey and his partner, after all, have just stolen the necklace Poppy's latest mark gave her, the necklace she intended to use to bankroll one last con. And Poppy (while in disguise as a rich man's bimbo), did actually dislocate Asprey's arm with her ninja moves when he tried to relieve her of said necklace, never mind nearly pierce his jugular with her pointy-heeled stiletto. But when Poppy tracks Asprey and his siblings down post-theft (not very difficult, since she lifted his wallet while he lifted her necklace), and discovers that the necklace he stole was a fake, she sees no alternative but to blackmail the Charles family into helping her fleece the scumbag who conned her now-dead grandmother out of all of her savings. Even if they might be the worst criminals on the face of the planet.

If you were a spork...
Cons and thefts require intelligence, an intelligence that often translates into quick-witted repartee, one of the central pleasures of the romantic heist story. Charming Asprey "had learned early on that it was just as effective to diffuse a tense situation with humor as it was with his fists" (Loc 2665); despite her wary nature, Poppy cannot help but be amused by a man who cries "Spork!" when she grabs his bad arm in another ninja hold ("It's my safe word.... You know—functional yet innovative? I hate to brag, but I've been told I'm a little of both" [Loc 300]). But Asprey's not the only one with an advance degree in bantering:

"Is this the residence of Asprey Manchester Charles, six feet tall, one hundred and eighty pounds? Isn't that cute... you're wearing the same too-tight vest in your picture. Do you always dress like you've been kicked out of a wedding?.... You really should check the donor box on your ID, you know.... It can be really hard for a family to make that kind of decision on their own." (Loc 349).

As each spies on the other, cleverly infiltrating each others' spaces, bent on "proving who had the upper hand" as they decide whether to join forces or keep their distance, the stakes continue to grow. And Poppy isn't the only one feeling that "the bigger consequences only increased her excitement" (Loc 1494). Heightened stakes lead to heightened feelings; as scientists have known since the 1970s, the physiological symptoms of anxiety or tension can easily be displaced, making those in danger feel as if they are sexually aroused by the person they are with when they experience the threat.* Scientists term this "misattribution of arousal," yet in the world of popular romance, such arousal far more often leads to lasting love than to disappointing sexual encounters.

Such a happy ending feels earned, rather than just genre-given, in the case of Confidence Tricks. The depth of characterization Morgan layers over the flatness of the typical caper yarn protagonists makes Poppy and Asprey's romance feel less like a plot-destined inevitability, and more like the meeting of two complimentary human beings. Like robbery and romance, good-time boy Asprey and clever con artist Poppy may appear to have little in common at first glance. Yet despite the book's unexpected (and not entirely satisfying) final twist climax, its sweet-tart denouement proves that a Poppy-Asprey partnership has lasting potential.

* See Dutton, D. G. & Aron, A. P. (1974). "Some Evidence for Heightened Sexual Attraction Under Conditions of High Anxiety." Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 30: 510-517.

Photo credits:
To Catch a Thief: Paramount Pictures, via
Sporks: Wikipedia

Tamara Morgan, Confidence Tricks
Samhain, 2013

Bonus quote:

"It wasn't very feminist of her, but Poppy would be the first to admit that a large portion of her success in any con situation was thanks to the innate reserve most men carried against harming a woman. It was a reserve composed of equal parts deference and disbelief. Deference to her vagina; disbelief that said vagina was anything but a handicap in life." (Loc 460)

I don't know—sounds feminist to me...

Friday, November 15, 2013

Challenge a Romance Doubter

In my post about last month's Princeton conference on the Popular Romance Author, I wrote of Professor Kay Mussell's challenge to scholars of the romance genre to question the popular assumption that all romance novels are the same, and that all romance = bad literature. Scholars certainly have a role to play in shifting common knowledge. But the burden doesn't need to rest only upon academia. Everyday readers of romance can play a role in such a project, too.

Do you know someone who likes to read other sorts of genre fiction, but who believes that romance is beneath him/her? That romance is badly written, or cloyingly sentimental, or oppressive to women? I challenge you to challenge that person—a colleague, a neighbor, a friend—to sit down and read a romance you recommend, then talk with you about the experience.

I recently found myself inadvertently in the midst of such a challenge. During the school year, several families in my neighborhood get together for dinner once a week. We began the tradition when our kids were toddlers, when we noticed that unlike the summer, when the kids were all out on the sidewalks and the street enjoying each others' company, they barely saw one another during the colder months. Initially, our weekly dinners served not only to give the neighborhood kids the chance to play together as a group once a week, but also gave harried parents a much-appreciated respite from cooking three out of four Wednesdays each month (host family cooks for all). Most important to us grown-ups, with only one or two parents needed to supervise the the toddling hordes, our weekly dinners gave us new parents a chance to engage in all-too-rare adult conversations, conversations about politics, sex, salacious gossip, and myriad other topics that we'd almost forgotten in the constant chatter about Big Bird, baby wipes, or whether a frozen bagel or an plastic ice teether worked best to soothe sore infant gums.

Over the years, we've come to share news about our work lives, too, and support each other through the ups and downs of our careers. My neighbors encouraged me during the difficult years of writing a dissertation with a small child vying for my attention, and, more recently, have heard about the ups and downs of my attempts to parlay my academic writing skills into the fiction-writing realm. Several months ago, somewhat to my surprise, one of my neighbors, an MIT grad working as a computer programmer, asked to read my current work in progress. After reading the chapters I sent him, he told me his reactions, but admitted that his unfamiliarity with romance fiction made it difficult for him to judge what I'd written. He asked if I could recommend an exemplar of the genre, so he could have a point of reference, and so critique my work more constructively.

I ran upstairs to my office, and plucked two historical romances off my shelf, one a classic, one a more recent favorite: Laura Kinsale's 1992 Flowers from the Storm and Cecilia Grant's 2013 A Woman Entangled. Though he seemed a bit embarrassed by the cover of Grant's novel, he thanked me politely and took both home.

Would my neighbor have read
the book if I'd given him this edition?
I wasn't sure whether he would actually read either one of the books, but one long business trip plane flight found him turning the pages of the Kinsale. And after he returned home, he kept reading. Last week, while still in the midst of the book, he told me how much he was enjoying the experience. He'd been particularly surprised by the depth of research that had gone into writing it. "Are you sure this wasn't really written by a man, pretending to be a woman?" he asked. If another one of my neighbors had said this, I would have known he was joking, just trying to yank my chain, but this man is of a more serious cast. "Did you really just say something that sexist?" I asked, much to our fellow neighbors' amusement, and perhaps a bit to his chagrin. "Well, I just didn't think a romance writer would be interested in finance, and the state of medicine at the time, or any of the other historical details in the book," he said, before the general conversation moved to another topic.

The next week, dinner was at his house, and we had the chance to talk more about reaction to the book before some of our other neighbors arrived, and later, during the dinner. He'd finished it by then, and told me again how much he'd enjoyed it. In fact, he started asking me questions and talking about details of plot that I, not having read the book in several years, did not even remember. His wife told me she'd never seen him so engaged by a work of fiction, or read a book so quickly. Though he felt the story veered more towards Maddy's point of view, he thought both Maddy and Jervaulx well-developed and compelling; the plot held his interest; and the historical details gave him a strong sense of place. He was a bit more cagey when I asked him about the romance aspects of the novel—a bit shy to discuss sex in mixed company? Or just not that interested in that aspect of the book?

At the end of dinner, I asked for my book back, and he handed me both the Kinsale and the Grant. When I asked if he wanted to hold on to A Woman Entangled, he shrugged, saying "Better not take the chance of ruining the experience by trying another." Was he, despite having read Flowers from the Storm, unpersuaded that romance in general might be better than he had assumed? Or was it that he no longer felt the need to read another romance? Or was it, as his wife suggested, the appearance of the half-clothed man on the cover of the Grant that gave him pause? ["I did enjoy the book but I probably won't make time to become a fan of romances or any other genre really. I read only a few books a year, a mix of fiction and nonfiction, and I don't expect that habit will change in the near future," he wrote to me later when I asked].

In return for giving me his reactions, he asked me for mine. In particular, he was curious about whether I considered Kinsale's book feminist. My gut reaction is both yes and no, but I'm going to have to go back and reread Flowers from the Storm more carefully with his question in mind.

I asked my neighbor if he would take a look at this post before I published it, to make sure I was accurately representing his views. After reading it, he sent me these two additional comments:

I thought at some points the book also caters shamelessly to stereotypical female cravings: handsome guy, bad boy needs to be straightened out, can't resist him, tough but tender, boss in bed, etc. "Emotional porn" came to mind. It's still a great book. In fact, part of its greatness is that it does those things so deftly and delicately.

In hindsight, it's clear from my reactions that I was giving the genre less credit than it deserves, or at least than Laura Kinsale deserves.

So, while the experience hasn't made a life-long romance reader out of my neighbor, I do believe it made him think a bit more about the assumptions he'd taken for granted about the genre I like to read, and the book I'm trying to write. The whole experience made me wonder: what would happen if romance readers each challenged one romance doubter to actually sit down and read an exemplar of the genre? Would the common knowledge about the genre of romance change?

Can you imagine extending such an invitation to a romance doubter you know? If you take up the challenge, I'd love to hear what book you choose, and how your romance doubter reacts...

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

The Pleasures and Perils of Succumbing to a Rake: Barbara Samuel's LUCIEN'S FALL

Ruined by a Rake. Bargaining with a Rake. To Refuse a Rake. Just the first three of over 1,500 titles that pop up if you type the word "rake" in the title line of's advanced search feature. The popularity of the rake lies in its promise to potential readers, holding out the chance to vicariously share pleasures of bad boy behavior, and to be on the receiving end of the purported "experience" garnered by the rake's forays into sexual decadence. Yet the "rakes" in such novels hardly ever live up to the full historical definition of the title: when the word first came into the English language in the 15th century (by way of the slightly earlier rakehell), it was used not only to describe "an idle dissipated man of fashion," but also "a man of loose habits and immoral character" (courtesy of the OED). Today's romance rake hardly ever behaves immorally during the course of a novel (unless one counts having sex with the heroine as immoral). Sometimes, he might have been bad in the past; far more often, any reputation for cruel or selfish behavior stems not from actual acts, but from malicious gossip, or from lies told or truths unsaid to guard or protect someone else. Our contemporary romance rake is far more of a rascal than the selfish, lust-driven man bent on his own pleasure, no matter the cost to others.

The original cover
To come across an actual rake in a romance novel, then, struck me as a refreshing treat. To find him, I had to delve into a popular author's backlist, just being reissued in e-book format. I'd read and enjoyed Barbara O'Neal's contemporary women's fiction, but hadn't read any of her earlier romances written under the names Barbara Samuel and Ruth Wind. The first of her Barbara Samuel romances to final for the RWA's RITA award (she's won a remarkable seven overall), 1995's Lucien's Fall portrays "a rake and a virtuous beauty, who are both the quintessential types of these characters and individuals of rare depth, individualism, and self-awareness," Heroes and Heartbreaker columnist Janga wrote, a description that proved enticing to this historical fiction devote. So, even though it doesn't include the ubiquitous "rake" in its title, I purchased and downloaded Lucien's Fall with eager anticipation.

From the opening words of her novel, Samuel wants her readers to know that her hero, the estranged only son of the Earl of Monthart, is a rake: "Lucien Harrow was drunk. It was not uncommon. In his set, to be sober at three of a muggy early summer morning would have been a far more unusual occurrence" (Loc 28). Yet what follows—a description of Lucien madly writing down the music he hears in his head, then burning it before finally falling into sleep—suggests that Lucien's drunkenness serves not only, or perhaps not even primarily, as pleasure. Lucien, then, embodies the archetype of the tormented rake that would haunt historical romances during the 1990s: a rake, yes, but one who uses self-gratification to keep other, more disturbing feelings at bay.

Invited to a house party by lusty widow Lady Juliette, Lucien is immediately attracted to the countess's step-daughter, Madeline. Juliette makes it abundantly clear that Lucien is not to pursue the challenge her step-daughter presents, for she's intended for another. Though his best friend Jonathan is currently carrying on an affair with Juliette, an affair in which Jonathan's heart seems to be at risk, Lucien has no scruples about deploying his seductive arsenal on both women:

God, it was too perfect! As he met that [Juliette's] avaricious gaze, Lucien made up his mind to seduce the girl. What rake worthy of the name could resist?
     .... Yes, he would seduce Madeline, under the watchful eye of her guardian, and meanwhile let Juliette think he was intent on seducing her.
    It might be his most splendid adventure to date. (Loc 325)

Lucien spends the first section of the novel cynically working his wiles on Madeline: he watches her incessantly; he joins her in her favorite pastime, gardening; he breathes flirtatious compliments and teasingly seductive poetry in her ear at every opportunity. He even tells her that he loves her (though of course he doesn't). Madeline, though a virgin, is no unworldly innocent: "Madeline had long been acquainted with the habits of rakes. At fourteen, this sort of insolent and knowing smile had turned her knees to mush. At twenty, she was beyond melting under the gaze of any man—even one who was, she had to admit, quite compelling" (Loc 153). She recognizes Lucien's game, and and openly tells him she knows what he's about. "Don't play the doomed man with me.... I lack the energy or the interest to save you."

Lucien realizes to succeed, he must change his tactics; only by allowing Madeline to see his vulnerabilities—the passionate music he has eschewed; the pain he experienced as a overwrought young man, laughed at by his older lover—does he have a chance of seducing her. "Yes, music would woo her to his bed—even against her own will. But could he do it? Could he twist even that to his lust? Was he willing to sacrifice his last holiness? He knew with utter certainly that it would also destroy him. And that he would do it anyway" (Loc 2262). Lucien may be beginning to feel more than lust for Madeline, but like Valmont and Madame Merteuil in Les Liaisons Dangereuses (1782) Lucien can even deploy his true emotions to manipulate the people around him.

Lucien's Fall evokes not the current crop of rascally rake romances, but instead the intense, all consuming passion of late 17th century and early 18th century amatory fiction, stories of rakes overpowered by their love/lust then seducing or overpowering the objects of said feelings. In books such as Eliza Haywood's Love in Excess (1719) (an immensely popular English novel, outsold only by Defoe's Gulliver's Travels and Robinson Crusoe in its day), passion is overwhelming, beyond the control of either lover; it cares not what damage it does to those around it, even to the lovers themselves.

Frontispiece and title page from Love in Excess
Why would a feminist romance column feature a book about a real rake? Because while Lucien's Fall ends happily, it does not shy away from portraying the harm, as well as the pleasure, that results when people allow passion to overcome all scruples. The friendship between Lucien and Jonathan is damaged; the romance between Jonathan and Juliette smashed; the heart of Madeline's intended, a kindly marquess, is broken; the love between Madeline and her step-mother Juliette is questioned. Some of the damage may be repaired; some will not. While Samuel rewrites the tragic ending common to amatory fiction, she does not shy away from sugarcoating the pain that the overwhelming passion that draws so many readers to the romance genre often leaves in its wake.

What other historical romances feature heroes who are rakes in more than name only? Who actually act in cruel or selfish ways during the course of the novel, rather than in the distant past? Or do you find such heroes so unappealing that you wouldn't want to read about them?

Friday, November 8, 2013

Real Sex in Erotic Romance: A Guest Post by Cara McKenna

Please join me in welcoming RNFF's first romance author guest blogger: Cara McKenna, a smart woman who writes smart erotic romance

I do my best to write realistic sex in an escapist genre.

The sex in Romancelandia is pretty glorious, I have to say. Typically everyone gets an orgasm or three, heretofore virgins respond ardently, the requisite oversized romance-wangs are easily accommodated sans lube even in moments of the most spontaneous (and vigorous) boning, and the resulting fluids are mysterious absorbed into the ether, allowing everyone to fall into a clean and blissful post-coitus sleep. It's a fairly rare denizen of Romancelandia who shuffles lock-thighed to the bathroom to tidy up, lest she drip the spoils of her conquest on the bedroom carpet.

This is all awesome. It's fiction, after all, so why not make sex as perfect as possible? It'd save us all a lot of time, not needing to launder our long-suffering sex towels, or explain to our swarthy new lovers how exactly they might succeed in making us come.

Weirdly, perhaps, I love the more unglamorous, not-so-dignified, and sometimes inconvenient aspects of sex, so I put them on the page. My characters own lube. My heroines' clitorises are stimulated during intercourse. Lacy thongs are generally absent. Pubic hair is generally present. Foreskins occasionally make an appearance. Bladders must be emptied and bad breath mitigated before morning action can break out. Even carefully-planned three-ways get awkward and sometimes implode. Jaws grow weary during epic blow jobs and gag reflexes are triggered. Petite heroines get punched in their cervixes by overly-endowed heroes. Intercourse precedes oral on occasion, and so the taste of latex and condom lube is endured. There's lots of rug burn and slapping skin, and yes, those post-coital shuffles to the bathroom happen, or else nearby articles of jettisoned clothing become the casualties of clean-up.

When I was new to writing romance and got to the point where I noticed myself slipping these details in, I wondered if I'd gross my readers out, wither their excitement with all those granny panties and the rubbery aftertaste and the surprise of bottoming-out. But the delightful thing is, I've been told again and again by readers that they love those moments, the real stuff. It seems to strengthen their connection to the characters, seeing them living the less-glamorous realities.

I don't believe it's my duty to present realistic sex or anything like that. I do get clucky mother-hen fretful when imagining the younger generations (girls and boys alike) cobbling their sexual educations together exclusively through the lessons imparted by commercial pornography—coming away from those viewings expecting that hairless junk and hands-free female orgasms and insta-anal are exclusively what actual sex looks like, in the wild. That those things are expected, or required. I'm distressed, yes, but not so much that my tendency to write what I see as realistic sex crosses over into personal-mission territory. I write imperfect, messy, sometimes awkward sex because I think it's actually pretty fucking sexy.

I love the intimacy of a hero asking a heroine, "What do you need?" Or if you like it a bit rougher, the thrill of a pushy hero demanding this information. Or the confidence of a heroine coming out and naming those things without a prompt. What does she need to reach orgasm, and can he make that happen for her? Clitoral stimulation, a certain speed or position, to feel or to be treated a certain way, to be relaxed, to be ever so slightly frightened. I love a guy who knows that his possession of a hard cock is only going to take him so far, and who cares enough to ask for instructions, and is man enough to take them (and a sturdy enough flower that if the heroine needs to do these things for herself, his petals will not drop off in a fit of sad-penis feels). That man isn't threatened by the knowledge that his wang is not a magic meat wand whose mere attendance in the festivities is sufficient to get a woman off. I love that man!

We all have idiosyncracies in bed—the highly personal particulars we need to have done or imagine or to hear or to say, to get there—and so should fictional characters. There are greedy areas of the body that require spoiling, and sometimes cagey ones that prefer to be left alone. The hero may need to be told about his cock, or a heroine to hear her lover's moans to get over the edge. Some might require perfect silence and concentration. Then there are the things we need to feel—pretty, big, overpowered, strong, dirty, safe, coerced, used, worshipped, angry, exposed, cherished, known. Needs that may reflect our out-of-bed personas, or confuse them, or outright contradict them. The things we crave the most but may also be the most afraid to come out and name.

So much of arousal and sex is wrapped up in power—the having of it, the taking of it, the surrendering of it. Conflict doesn't exit stage-right the second genitals get hauled out. Sex ushers in an entirely new landscape to navigate, hopefully one that enriches (or further complicates) every other dynamic the characters have been struggling with, before they dropped their pants. I think perhaps that's why I get a touch bored when romance sex is too perfect. It can buff the sharp edges right off a story, when actually it's barbs you need, to keep your attention snagged and your nerves fraying. Your readerly chair should be just slightly too hard, to keep you awake and just a little worried about the characters.

And I think showing imperfect, realistic sex can be powerful and effective for another reason. When a reader detects aspects of their own sexual reality in a work of fiction, it becomes easier to connect with the characters, and to imprint on them for a few hundred pages. The intimacy becomes something that one is not simply reading about, but recognizing. It brings the characters alive in a way that no artful purple description of the most crashy-wave Calgon-take-me-away orgasm ever could. Plus, as I wrote someplace, in some book or other, who masturbates over the memory of an orgasm? Very few of us. No matter how amazing the release might've been, it's the build-up we crave and revisit. The tension. And there's no tension to perfection. Perfect is pleasant. But awkward is hot.

Now do excuse me—I've got a scene to write where the hero bravely tries to fuck his way through a charley horse without the heroine noticing. And it's going to be sweet.

Photo credits:
Lube lineup: Wikipedia
Sad penis: Someecards

Cara McKenna writes smart erotica—sexy stories with depth. A little dark, a little funny, always emotional. She also writes red-hot romance under the name Meg Maguire. She loves writing sexy, character-driven stories about strong-willed men and women who keep each other on their toes, and bring each other to their knees. Cara's latest book is Unbound.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Making the Submissive Man Sexy: Cara McKenna's UNBOUND

Most of the BDSM erotic romances that I've come across feature females, not males, taking on the submissive role the the sexual relationship. This made me wonder: what would such a romance look like if it were the man, rather than the woman, who got off on being the one under someone else's command? Western culture is so invested in the construction of the masculine as powerful, as strong, as in charge; would it be next to impossible to create a hero who enjoyed being dominated, and still make him appealing to a general reader audience?

This summer, I spent some hours reading femdom erotic romance that posters here had recommended, books that featured women who preferred to take the dominant role in their sexual relationships. Interestingly, few of the books featured the wimpy, take-no-charge men I had assumed would serve as the foils to these dominating heroines. Instead, most of the books I read featured men who were heavily alpha in aspects of their lives other than the sexual. Though each preferred to submit to a woman during sex, such submission has more the feel of of strength, rather than weakness; enduring the challenge of a dominating woman, and the pain of BSDM, proves men such as Joey W. Hill's Mac Nighthorse (in Natural Law) and Stephanie Vaughan's Steve Eriksson (Cruel to be Kind) to be just as strong, just as masculine as their non-kinky male counterparts. As Vaughan's Steve thinks, "He wasn't sure exactly what Megan was asking him. What she expected from him. But he knew he couldn't live with himself as a man if he backed away from her challenge." Charlotte Stein's Benjamin Tate (Power Play) came the closest to what I had expected, with the masochistic pleasure he takes in being reprimanded for his goofy fumbling and bumbling by his female boss Eleanor. But even Ben proves to have a core of competence, teaching the self-hating Eleanor how to come to terms with her own kinky sexuality. Ben doesn't struggle at all to reconcile his own masculinity with his submissive sexual needs. My reading made me wonder again: was the only way to write a erotic romance with a submissive hero to either make his submission hyper-masculine, or to have any conflicts between socially acceptable masculinity and submissive sexual preferences already resolved before the book begins?

Reading Cara McKenna's latest erotic romance, Unbound, shows that in the hands of a talented writer, even the most unconventional characters can come to sympathetic life. Rob Rush has secluded himself away in a solitary cottage in northwest Scotland, attempting to dry out after three years of excessive drinking and abusive behavior drove away all the people he cared for. Rob's been an outsider most of his life, "rubbish at friendships as a child... rubbish with girls" as an adolescent, his unconventional sexual interests only exacerbating his poor social skills. Only after discovering alcohol in college had he been able to calm his anxieties enough to "function as a young man was designed to do," to develop friendships, to marry, to start two successful businesses. But drinking gradually shifted, no longer simply "merely a bit of fuel to get the social flames to catch," but now "the means for becoming insensate." Insensate, in particular, to the most "heinous predilections," the "hateful appetites" (Rob's words) a man can have: a desire to be dominated, to be tied up, to be controlled, treated like an object, during sex.

Only by hiding himself away from all humanity can Rob be sure that he won't return to the bottle, won't cause harm to anyone else, he believes. But the arrival of a ill, injured, but quite chatty American tourist on his secluded doorstep forces him not only to play reluctant, grumpy host, but to begin to attempt the difficult work of reconciling his sense of himself as a man with his unusual sexual desires.

Merry Murray has set off on a hiking trip through Scotland in celebration of the positive changes she's made in her life of late, including losing a lot of excess weight. Seducing a man had not been high on her list of to-dos for the trip, but cagy, taciturn Rob sparks her interest. After spending a few days recovering from her ailments and doing her best to get to know the self-contained man, she decides to see if her attraction to him is mutual, to instigate and explore sex as the active, rather than the passive partner. But when Merry recognizes the signs that Rob enjoys a passive role in sex, and asks him he wishes he were tied up, Rob wilts in shame. "An entire adolescence's worth of fear, fostered up north where there was absolutely nothing worse you could be than queer. Except perhaps whatever Rob was, he'd imagined. Spanking. That was something done to girls, because men were the spankers. The punishers. So what did that make Rob? The question had dogged him for years." Sexual desires run straight into normative constructions of masculinity here; in the contest, Rob views himself as the loser.

Only the morning after their embarrassing tryst, when Rob has had the chance to calm himself after being so awfully exposed, can he admit to Merry that she might have been right. And to see that it might not be his desire that had poisoned him, but his shame. And that's when the pleasure begins...

But can a bona fide hermit and a woman just bursting out of her shell, ready to take on the world, have anything more than a quick fling, no matter how sexually compatible they find themselves? How McKenna turns what could have been simply an erotic episode into a full-blown romance once again proves that she is one of the most honest, and most gifted, contemporary romance authors writing today.

Photo credits:
Scotland loch: The Markers Club

Cara McKenna, Unbound
Penguin/Intermix, 2013

Next time on RNFF:
Guest Post by Cara McKenna,
on why she writes realistic sex in an escapist genre

Friday, November 1, 2013

Romancing the Nice Guy: Molly O'Keefe's WILD CHILD

As I write today on Halloween, many of my fellow romance bloggers and reviewers are uploading posts about the monstrous men of romance: werewolves, vampires, demons, and their ilk. I thought I'd mix things up a bit by posting instead about the opposite: the nice guy as hero.

In an essay written in 1992, Jayne Ann Krentz argued that a hero who is nice simply does not cut it in the world of romance:

     The hero must be part villain or else he won't be much of a challenge for a strong woman. The heroine must put herself at risk with him if the story is to achieve the level of excitement and the particular sense of danger that only a classic romance can provide.
     And the flat truth is that you don't get much of a challenge for the heroine from a sensitive, understanding, right-thinking 'modern' man who is part therapist, part best friend, and thoroughly tamed from the start. You don't get much of a challenge for her from a neurotic wimp or a good-natured gentleman-saint who never reveals a core of steel. —Jayne Ann Krentz, "Trying to Tame the Romance"*

Though the taste for the overbearing alpha male that Krentz and other authors in Dangerous Men and Adventurous Women: Romance Writers on the Appeal of Romance (1992) extol certainly continues twenty years later, most romance readers no longer demand such a monolithic vision of masculinity in their romances. Dominating men, damaged men, funny men, former best-friend men—they all take up their fair share of space on the romance genre bookshelf. And, more and more often, the nice guy is asking (politely, of course) to join the club.

Do nice guys fail to provide a "challenge" for their strong female counterparts? Wild Child, the most recent romance by contemporary author Molly O'Keefe, suggest that "niceguyness" can be just as much a defense mechanism against emotional engagement as is the arrogant callousness of any a more obviously damaged hero.

"Nice. Sure. Everyone thinks he's nice," says Gwen Davies of her older brother Jackson. Didn't Jackson give up law school to come home and take care of Gwen after their parents' died? Hasn't he spent the last few years struggling as the mayor of Bishop, Arkansas, trying to dig the dying town out of a financial hole? Isn't he perfect at walking the line between town father figure and monk, careful not to raise false expectations in any of Bishop's women? Jackson's a nice guy, a can-do guy, a guy who holds doors and apologizes when he says anything the least bit rude. Nothing happens that can't be fixed, and Jackson's the man to fix it.

But the people closest to Jackson—teen sister Gwen, best friend Shelby—know that Jackson's nice-guyness is a way to push people away, even while it deceives them into thinking they've been invited in. "He managed to gather people close, earn their trust, their affection—sometimes their love. Without ever investing back in them. He was closed off. In some respects, totally untouchable," Shelby thinks to herself.

That Jackson's nice-guyness is a performance—a comfortable, familiar performance, but still a role that Jackson dons for his own protective purposes— is something that former television reality star Monica Appleby recognizes almost immediately: "I see you, she thought. All the parts you hide behind that smile. And they aren't all pretty," she realizes when polite Jackson politely urges her to leave Bishop shortly after her arrival, to avoid disrupting his current plan to save the town.

At first glance, Monica appears to be Jackson's opposite. She's dealt with the spotlight of fame by turning into a "wild child," running away from home, severing relations with her mother, sleeping with rock stars left and right, creating a name for herself as trouble with a capital "T." Jackson is certain that bad-girl Monica's arrival in town will derail his plans to make Bishop shine in a televised contest between other towns vying to win the favor of an America-first cracker manufacturer looking for a site for his latest factory. Especially since she's writing a book about the murder of her father, the most notorious crime in Bishop's history.

But both Jackson and Monica are dealing with the difficulties of living up to other people's expectations, each caught by the roles they've adopted in a "bubble of distance," a bubble that keeps any intimate, meaningful relationships safely at a distance. By recognizing such behavior in Monica, Jackson gradually becomes to see the ways in which his own good guy act serves the same purpose:

He realized, watching her, how skilled she was at letting people think they were getting close while in reality she was keeping them at arm's length.
     Something prickly ran up his neck, an awareness.
     I do that, too.

O'Keefe asks both her characters and her readers to look not only beyond the reality-TV gloss, but at the the roles everyone puts on, to protect themselves from the slights of real life. For we're all always playing a role, whether we're on a reality TV show or just interacting with acquaintances throughout our quotidian days. Are these roles serving us well? Or are they getting in the way of creating meaningful relationships?

Who are your favorite nice guy heroes in romance? And is their niceness a performance that they need to grow beyond? Or a quality that the text holds up as hero-worthy?

Illustration credits:
Nice Guy Emotions: Mr. Oblivious
Mr. Nice Guy T-shirt:

Bantam, 2013