IF YOU’VE NEVER read Daphne du Maurier’s “Rebecca,” you’re in for a surprise. Initially dismissed by critics as women’s romance fiction, this 1938 bestseller delivers plot twists, promiscuity, dark secrets and, best of all, backstabbing servants. But it’s since been celebrated by feminist scholars for its critique of gender roles. On the surface, it tells the story of a mousy young woman—the traveling companion to a nosy American matron—who meets the wealthy and withholding widower Maxim de Winter while he’s on holiday in Monte Carlo, and marries him. When the trembling bride arrives at Manderley, his British estate, she realizes how little she knows about her new husband and his first wife, Rebecca, who died in a boating accident less than a year earlier and is still worshiped by many in the house and the community.
The novel begins in a dream state. “Last night I dreamed I went to Manderley again,” writes our narrator, the second Mrs. de Winter (we never learn her first name) on awaking at a “dull” hotel hundreds of miles away from the stately manor. Though in her nightmare, the house was overrun with “malevolent ivy,” she recalls that Manderley is “no more” and recounts what happened, setting the plot in motion. In this tale of betrayal, du Maurier echoed the tropes of gothic novels: ruined castles, haunted houses and a damsel very much in distress.
Adaptations, like Alfred Hitchcock’s moody 1940 classic, have mined the book’s atmospheric mix of untamed nature and voyeurism. “Sometimes I wonder,” whispers Mrs. Danvers, the conniving head housekeeper, to the newlywed, “if [Rebecca] comes back here and watches you and Mr. de Winter together.” The newest version, a sparkling Netflix take (premiering Oct. 21), surfaces the novel’s glamour and gloom quotient, with Kristin Scott Thomas giving Mrs. Danvers a twitchy dominatrix vibe opposite Lily James and Armie Hammer as the doomed new couple.
In the early Monte Carlo scenes, du Maurier conveys the elation the young narrator feels on the French Riviera. “I remember opening wide my window and leaning out…the sun had never seemed so bright, nor the day so full of promise.” Her mood turns claustrophobic at Manderley, where she feels hemmed in by encroaching woods and the dark sea. A stark contrast to Monte Carlo, Manderley seems as alive as any character in the novel. Its inspiration was Menabilly, a crumbling 16th-century ancestral estate on the rugged south coast of Cornwall, England (shown), where the writer lived for over two decades. Even Mother Nature seems to mock our narrator: At the front door she recoils from the profusion of monstrous rhododendrons, “their crimson faces…slaughterous red, luscious and fantastic.”
Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal (PG apologizes for the paywall, but hasn’t figured out a way around it.)
I can safely say that every time I’ve been asked to speak to aspiring writers, afterward, I’ve had not one, but several come up to me and say, “I can’t believe you did what you said you did. I was told never to do that. I was told never to break that rule.” This does not surprise me, but it saddens me. When I started writing, I too had a set of rules for writing romance (my genre) that I was under the impression were unbreakable. And I wrote within the confines of those rules.
It was only when publishing house after publishing house, agent after agent had rejected my submissions, and I’d decided that no one was ever going to read my books, that I threw the rules out the window. I then simply wrote what I wanted to write, wrote how the stories came to me, was true to them and my characters.
Then I published myself … And I’ve sold more than two and a half million books.
What are the rules I broke? First, I didn’t write what I thought people wanted to read. I didn’t research what might be popular — what might sell — and write that. I wrote stories that felt personal to me, that I enjoyed completely from writing to reading. The first book that I did this with was Rock Chick, and with it and the Rock Chick series, I broke all the rules:
I wrote in first person, and at that time, romance novels in first person were available, but not customary.
I wrote my heroine’s thoughts in a stream of consciousness. I had paragraphs — many of them — that were just one word. I put myself, and what would eventually be my readers, in the mind of my heroine, Indy. Not describing what she was thinking, but thinking what she was thinking as she was thinking it. It’s important to note that not everyone could get into that, and that’s understandable, even expected. It’s also important to note that the ones who did, really did.
I allowed my characters freedom of expression. This meant that if they cursed, if the F-word was prevalent in their vocabulary, I let them use it (and cursing was very rare in romance).
For that matter, I didn’t censor my characters or their behavior. I didn’t think, “Oh, that might make her unlikeable, I need to switch that up, make her perfect.” I didn’t water down my aggressive, but loving heroes. I let them be them — real, imperfect, sometimes annoying, more times endearing (I hoped). They were great friends and good people, but they could (and often did) do stupid things (like we all do).
And my Rock Chicks were — and still are — hugely successful.
Self-published writers are a large part of publishing’s billion dollar romance industry, but they still don’t get the credit they deserve. Here’s why that needs to change.
. . . .
It’s April 2019, and the line to get into Girl Have You Met, a book signing that focuses specifically on Black independent romance novels, is wrapped around the corner in Memphis, Tennessee. Women stand in line chattering, some with large bags they’ll use to hold their mountain of book purchases, others attempting to peer inside the glass windows to get an early glimpse of their favorite authors.
While those who peruse the New York Times to find their next read have probably never heard of most of these writers, the scene in Memphis isn’t uncommon at book signings that predominantly feature independently published romance authors. Pre-COVID, events like Book Bonanza, Behind the Pen, Indie Love and a swath of other events held in cities like Los Angeles, Atlanta, and New York were the same — sold out.
To say that independent romance is a beast in romance publishing is a well-known understatement. Indie romance has actually changed the business across the board, setting trends in craft and marketing strategies. But perhaps most importantly, indie romance has reshaped the narrative of what kinds of stories readers really want.
Take, for example, popular book vlogger, Mina Thomas.
“When I read Something Like Love by Christina C. Jones in 2017, I cried over my first ever experience reading about a bisexual Black woman like me,” says popular book vlogger, Mina Thomas of MinaReads. “Indie romances often provide me with representation that is often slow to show up on the traditionally published market.”
. . . .
“People have such antiquated ideas of what a romance novel really is,” says acclaimed romance author, Marie Force, whose independently published novel, 2013’s Waiting for Love, helped set a new precedent for the enormity of the genre when it became a New York Times best seller. She’s sold a staggering ten million books to date, including over 900,000 books last year, the bulk of them self-published.
“Romance is a dynamic, diverse, billion-dollar-a-year genre that celebrates the act of falling in love in so many different ways,” she says. “Of course, the ‘act of falling in love’ is also associated with sex, so that makes the romance genre taboo or racy or ‘porn,’ a word romance authors hate to have associated with our work. It’s just so disrespectful of the width and breadth of what romance really is.”
Nevermind that indies often have scores of faithful readers who, on average, devour multiple books per week, and have tight, vibrant branding, which means they regularly dominate USA Today and Wall Street Journal bestseller lists (those indies would be New York Times best sellers too, if it still counted ebooks).
If it hadn’t been for the pandemic and the near impossibility of visiting Vivian Stephens in person, I’m not sure I would have been so attuned to her voice. It is gay and mellifluous; she always sounded delighted to hear from me, a reaction most reporters are not accustomed to. But there was something else: she answers questions about herself not in sentences or paragraphs but in pages, and sometimes even chapters, as if she’s been keeping the whole story of her life in her head, just waiting for someone to ask about it.
. . . .
Stephens is 87 now, under self-imposed lockdown in one of those amenity-rich mid-rise apartment complexes that have sprouted all over Houston, this one just north of Hermann Park, in the Binz area. Her one-bedroom unit is cluttered with papers and stacks of books on nearly every surface. There are many romance novels, yes, as well as more-cerebral tomes such as A Nervous Splendor, a history of Vienna in the late 1880s. Family photographs, some dating back almost to that time, populate a small table in a living room corner.
The most captivating photo, though, is the black-and-white one Stephens has pushpinned to the wall above her computer. Taken in 1964, it shows her poised on the steps of New York’s Lincoln Center wearing a sleeveless sheath dress, hands on her hips, ready to take on the world.
. . . .
I was calling about the past, not the future. Specifically, an email she had received in May from Alyssa Day, the president of the Romance Writers of America, an organization based in northwest Houston, not too far from the white and wealthy exurb of Champions. Stephens had been instrumental in founding that group back in 1980.
What is this? Stephens thought to herself when she saw the email, which asked, politely and respectfully, if it would be okay to name the RWA’s highest writing award after her because her “trailblazing efforts created a more inclusive publishing landscape and helped bring romance novels to the masses,” as the press release would later put it.
Well, this is interesting, was Stephens’s next thought.
She wouldn’t put it this way, but it was kind of like getting an email from an old boyfriend who was now trying to make amends. It wasn’t that there was bad blood between Stephens and the RWA—she’d never admit to that, anyway—but there was some hurt that dated back to when she had felt disappeared by the organization.
The timing of Day’s email wasn’t incidental. The RWA had been embroiled in a bitter, and at times very public, racism scandal for much of the previous year. A skeptic might suggest that, good intentions aside—and there were good intentions—the Vivian award could be viewed as just another way to sanitize prior bad behavior on the part of the RWA. Stephens had to decide—again—whether to let bygones be bygones after a forty-year relationship that had been, in its way, a romance, albeit a difficult one.
So Stephens was uncharacteristically ambivalent about the RWA’s offer. After some thought, however, she wrote back to say that she would be honored. And then, being Vivian Stephens, she couldn’t resist adding a metaphorical flourish to the statement they requested. She cited an astrophysicist who explained that as stars explode, they produce the magical, mystical remnant that is stardust. “Since we all live in the universe it is well worth remembering that underneath the outer dressing of ethnicity, color and gender, we are all the same,” she wrote. “Showered with the gift of stars.”
. . . .
Romance writing has always been easy to laugh at, at least for the uninformed. You might imagine that these stories mostly involve a castle on the Scottish Highlands, inhabited by a restless warrior wearing nothing under his kilt. Or maybe you picture the broad and bare-chested phenom Fabio, taking time out from piloting his Viking ship on the high seas to attend to a buxom and bound captive down below.
But if this is your vision of the romance-writing world, you might have missed its evolution into a billion-dollar-a-year business. In 2016 romance made up 23 percent of the overall U.S. fiction market, and the net worth of some of its writers exceeds that of John Grisham (see Nora Roberts and Danielle Steel). According to Christine Larson, a romance expert and journalism professor at the University of Colorado Boulder, 45 percent of the romance writers she surveyed made enough to support themselves without a day job—“that is shocking for any group of writers,” she said—and thanks mainly to their embrace of digital publishing, 17 percent make more than $100,000 a year. Not Mark Zuckerberg money, but far more than the $45,000 median income of American working women.
That legitimacy is due in many ways to the vast social changes of the past several decades. Once upon a time, many romance writers—and their readers—were middle-aged, white stay-at-home moms who got their hair done in beauty parlors. But those women, who were often looking for relief from the doldrums of vacuuming and child-rearing, were more recently joined in the field by trial lawyers and anthropologists and social workers—professional women of all races and creeds—who were themselves looking for a creative outlet away from the pressures of family and career.
As more women joined the workforce, earned their own money, put off marriage (or dumped their loser husbands), and got on the Pill, a different kind of romance writer emerged, one less interested in emotional, sexual, and financial rescue than in self-respect and free will. The books they wrote reflected their world, even if writers set their works in Victorian England or the antebellum South. “If you look at romance now, it’s very much reflective of the current moment,” said Steve Ammidown, an archivist at Bowling Green State University’s Browne Popular Culture Library, which houses an enormous romance collection, including many papers from the RWA and more than forty romance authors.
Whatever controversies are being sorted out in the larger world have also been grappled with in romance novels, sometimes even before the larger world knew what was coming. “The RWA is a microcosm,” said the romance writer LaQuette, one of many who voiced this opinion.
Today, romance novels involve just about any combination of protagonists imaginable. There are books for every color of the human rainbow, every ethnicity and sexual orientation, every religious affiliation—and not just Jewish or Muslim, but Amish too. There are erotic romances for those who are gay, straight, and transgender. There are paranormal romances. Cowboy romances. Romances between humans and space aliens. Romances for those with autism.
Romance is a whole industry, with its own academicians, like Laura Vivanco (Pursuing Happiness: Reading American Romance as Political Fiction), and its alternative historians, as evidenced by Maya Rodale’s Dangerous Books for Girls: The Bad Reputation of Romance Novels Explained. There are influential blogs with names like Smart Bitches, Trashy Books and popular podcasts like Fated Mates, which, according to its Apple Podcasts description, “highlight[s] the romance novel as a powerful tool in fighting patriarchy . . . with absolutely no kink shaming.”
Despite all the changes, the foundation of romance writing remains the same, perpetuating the fantasy that women can find true love, at least for a while (if not an HEA—Happily Ever After, in Romancespeak—then an HFN, Happy for Now). “This type of narrative, by women for women, is the only space where women can seek joy and triumph on the page,” explained Rodale. “We don’t get these stories from Hollywood; they are not in the news; we don’t get them in literary fiction. In literary fiction women have sex and die. In romance they have good sex and live happily ever after.”
Of course, the inhabitants of Romancelandia, as they call their imaginary homeland, still suffer plenty of contempt at the hands of outsiders. The source of this contempt, they say, is that (1) women are still not taken seriously by men and, often, one another; (2) women writers are not taken as seriously as men writers; (3) women who write expressly about romance are not taken seriously unless they’re named Jane Austen; and (4) women who write about sex are really not taken seriously, because that would be way too scary for a lot of men and women.
Those backward ideas help explain why, when a public scandal rocked the RWA late last year, major news outlets were only too happy to cover the story. “Racism Dispute Roils Romance Writers Group,” declared the New York Times. The feminist website Jezebel weighed in with “Inside the Spectacular Implosion at the Romance Writers of America.” The Houston Chronicle: “As racism scandal escalates, Romance Writers of America board president resigns.” Vox: “The influential trade organization Romance Writers of America is tangled in a web of racism accusations, power grabs, and shadow plots.”
But this news wasn’t really news. It has long been an open secret—certainly among women of color—that romance publishing has a race problem. A 2014 survey of four thousand romance writers conducted by Larson revealed that authors of color earned about 60 percent less than white writers. In 2019, research conducted by the Ripped Bodice, in Los Angeles, one of the few bookstores in America to sell romance exclusively, revealed that only 8 percent of leading romance publishers had released novels by women of color. And, not incidentally or coincidentally, the membership of the RWA is 86 percent white, according to the latest data. No Black writer had won a RITA—formerly the RWA’s highest honor—until 2019, and not for want of trying.
Of course, it has also long been an open secret that publishing in general has a race problem. A 2019 diversity survey found that the industry—publishing companies, book reviewers, agents—is 76 percent non-Latino white (compared with 60 percent of the total U.S. population). The self-examination that started years ago with young adult fiction has spread, after the killing of George Floyd in May, to far more esoteric and elitist groups like the Poetry Foundation and the National Book Critics Circle. Over the summer, some concrete changes occurred, with the appointment of two women of color, Dana Canedy and Lisa Lucas, to head the major publishing houses Simon & Schuster and Pantheon Books.
But by that time, the romance industry had already had its own reckoning—several, in fact. This spring, the RWA emerged from the ashes of its 2019 scandal with a new board dedicated to diversity and inclusivity and righting the wrongs of the past. Shortly thereafter, the email arrived in Vivian Stephens’s in-box.
The promise of transformative change leaves Stephens understandably dubious. No one knows better than she that the issues that threatened to destroy the RWA go all the way back to its beginning.
Link to the rest at Texas Monthly and thanks to Krista for the tip.
PG found the OP to be a very interesting and informative read. The subject of the article, Vivian Stephens, had many accomplishments, but one PG hadn’t known about was that she was one of the main forces behind the creation of the RWA.
Since 2012, traditionally published romance has been in “a steady decline.” Much of this, of course, parallels the rise of self-publishers’ entry into the velvet-roped arena.
If there’s a category in which self-publishing can claim to have walked away with the goods, it’s in low-priced romance ebooks, consumed by enviably loyal readers often at a rate of several titles per week.
The COVID-19 lockdown stage in the United States, however, “helped to lift the category’s ebook sales,” McLean’s report says.
“Unit sales for romance ebooks,” she writes, “increased 17 percentage points from January through May 2020. In all, 16.2 million romance ebooks and print books were sold during this time period.”
Total romance book sales in the trade–which had declined 11 percent in January 2020 over January 2019–began trending upward in March.
The category showed strong growth through the acute COVID-19 shutdown period, with print and ebook sales closing slightly higher–0.1 percent–in May, because of an impressive rebound in ebook unit sales.
Those unit ebook sales rose 17.4 points from January through May 2020. This meant that ebooks made up 60 percent of romance category sales, and romance ebook unit sales increased 10 percent between January and May 2020.
. . . .
In breaking out growth subjects, McLean sees historical romance in the lead on a unit basis, both in print and ebook formats, “but top-selling ebook titles differed from print sales leaders.”
Golden in Death by JD Robb (Macmillan/St. Martin’s Press, February) led ebook sales in the overall romance category, followed by Hideaway by the dependable Nora Roberts (Macmillan/St. Martin’s Press, May) and Chasing Cassandra by Lisa Kleypas (HarperCollins/Avon, February).
Print sales were led by Window on the Bay by Debbie Macomber (Penguin Random House/Ballantine, February), followed by Every Breathby Nicholas Sparks (Hachette Book Group/Sphere, October 2018), and Country Strong by Linda Lael Miller (Harlequin, January).
In her comments, McLean says, “With brick-and-mortar retail bookstores closed in the States this past spring, ebook sales–which have always been stronger for romance than in other categories–really took off.
. . . .
“Print romance also rose slightly, as newly housebound readers looked for fun and immersive germ-free reads while waiting out the pandemic.”
On the heels of its second-quarter report on the American book market, which we covered here on Monday, the NPD Group today (July 21) has released new data showing that ebook unit sales in April rose by nearly a third over the previous month: a new indication of how consumers reached for digital retail under the constraints of COVID-19 mitigation efforts.
Year over year through April, NPD PubTrack Digital saw trade ebook sales decline by 6 percent, a total 55 million units sold. But Kristen McLean, who leads book industry analysis for NPD, says that when she looks only at April—in many parts of the States the first full month of stay-at-home measures—ebooks made that 31-percent jump in unit sales over March, selling an additional 4.2 million units.
“With brick-and-mortar retail bookstores shut down in the United States this spring,” she says, “the ebook format became more popular during the COVID-19 crisis. Ebooks are easy to purchase, can be read instantly after being downloaded, and eliminate any concerns over infection or availability.”
. . . .
Sales growth for adult ebooks was led by general fiction, which rose 23 percent in April compared to March according to data from NPD BookScan.
The leading general fiction title in April was Celeste Ng’s Little Fires Everywhere. . . The film tie-in was released in March, the same month that Liz Tigelaar’s Hulu series adaptation with Reese Witherspoon premiered.
The romance category posted 22-percent growth in April compared to March, led by First Comes Scandal by Julia Quinn . . . .
Adult nonfiction title unit sales grew 37 percent in April compared to March 2020.
What if we remembered Jack Kirby not for Captain America or Galactus, but for the romance comics that he and Joe Simon produced during the late 1940s and early 1950s in their wildly successful titles Young Romance and Young Love? Kirby’s work in the genre, which he and Simon invented, are marked by Wellesian compositions and subtle character studies. They’re the equal of Kirby’s best superhero stories. Twenty thousand romance comics were printed in this period. One billion copies were sold.
Imagine an issue of What If…, Marvel’s late 1970s series imagining alternative timelines for their characters, in which the romance genre’s fans never disappear. In the 1960s, Kirby moves to Marvel and he and Stan Lee create a universe not of superheroes and mutants, but of heartthrobs who dress like Steve McQueen and strong women who look like Jean Seberg. In the mid-1980s, Frank Miller and Alan Moore produce gritty, revisionist graphic novels that revive the genre for a more cynical era. Moore’s Watchwomen tells the story of a dystopian America in which Richard Nixon vanquished the Vietnamese thanks to a romantic intrigue involving a Minnesota housewife and Võ Nguyên Giáp. Romance, the culture understands, is best suited to the comics medium, and supermarkets don’t sell romance paperbacks.
In the early 2000s, Hollywood, after several false starts, produces lush big-budget spectacles based on classic romance comics. Franchises are born. Film snobs compare the current crop of blockbusters unfavorably to the saturated melodramas of Hollywood’s Golden Age. “Where is our generation’s All That Heaven Allows? Our Written on the Wind?” they write in The New Yorker. “Cinema is dead.” But ticket buyers don’t worry too much about the elites’ complaints. The movies sell toys and video games and they do well in China. Comic-cons are dominated by fans who think they’re rebels for performing romance cosplay.
Academics hold conferences where they argue for the cultural legitimacy of the romance comics genre. Professors teach Chris Claremont’s classic run on Heart People alongside Pride and Prejudice. Salman Rushdie declares himself a fan of romance, and Michael Chabon turns his own fandom into a career. Romance comics face a reckoning in the 2010s, when a disgruntled fan base points out the genre’s long history of racism and sexism. The major publishing houses introduce a new set of romance comics heroes and heroines who are more representative of the country’s demographics. An alt-right backlash ensues, but Marvel, to its credit, keeps the new characters. Ta-Nehisi Coates and Roxane Gay contribute story lines about classic romance comics’ few black protagonists. Fantagraphics and Drawn and Quarterly, meanwhile, publish indie superhero comics read by only a select few. The spring box office in 2019 is dominated by the Russo brothers’ Young Romance: Growing Older and Closer to Death. Think pieces in The New York Times, NPR, Slate, and the Los Angeles Review of Books point out connections to the #MeToo movement, Black Lives Matter, the war on terror, and climate change. Alan Moore declares the romance comics genre morally indefensible. Martin Scorsese makes superhero films.
In fact, it’s even more complicated than that. A society in which the culture as a whole reads romance comics is also a society more interested in women’s stories, and thus a society slightly less dominated by men. The industry includes more women creators. It is Margaret Atwood and Zadie Smith, not Rushdie and Chabon, who champion mainstream fare. Hillary Clinton is elected president in 1992 and proves just as inadequate as her husband did in another reality.
. . . .
In our own world, only a very small percentage of vintage romance comics have been reprinted. And the few that you can find are advertised as exceptional, either for their aesthetics or their ideology. In 2003, Fantagraphics released Romance Without Tears, a collection of work written by Dana Dutch for the independent publisher Archer St. John. Several of these comics are drawn by Matt Baker, a gay, black man who was one of the few African-American artists of the comics’ Golden Age. John Benson, who spent years compiling the volume, argues in his introduction not so much for the stories’ aesthetic brilliance as for their proto-feminism. “Dutch’s protagonists,” as opposed to those in other romance comics, “were lively, active young women who, though often naïve and inexperienced, had character, a sense of self worth [sic], and a great deal of common sense.” In 2012 and 2014, Fantagraphics published Young Romance and Young Romance 2, a selection of Kirby and Simon’s work. In the introduction to the first volume, Michelle Nolan calls Kirby and Simon’s issues “some of the most dramatic and emotionally powerful comics of their time.” She also commends the creators for their qualified progressivism, noting that “[t]o this writer’s best knowledge, Simon and Kirby dealt with virtually every type of social issue except the still-forbidden interracial romance.” Twenty-first-century readers accept, even celebrate, this sort of didacticism. Comics should be nutritional, they say. They should make us good, or at least less bad.
. . . .
Romance, by definition, is a genre in which women live to find love. If they didn’t, these stories would not exist.
Demand for Jane Austen far exceeds supply. When the novelist died in 1817 at the age of 41, she left only six full-length novels, plus three unpublished works and a collection of juvenilia. Yet in the two centuries since, Austen has become, as the British writer Alexander McCall Smith once put it, “a movement, a mood, a lifestyle, an attitude, and perhaps most tellingly of all, a fridge magnet.”
She got her first screen adaptation in 1940, with Laurence Olivier playing Fitzwilliam Darcy and the Bennet sisters dressed in American-antebellum corsets and huge frilly skirts. This Pride and Prejudice set the template for what an Austen adaptation was supposed to look and sound like: primly romantic, with both clothes and characters firmly buttoned up.
The 1990s were a boom time for that approach. Think Gwyneth Paltrow’s Emma peeking out from under a bonnet, or Kate Winslet daintily suffering a chill in Sense and Sensibility. The BBC’s 1995 adaptation of Pride and Prejudice stuck closely to its source material, and ended with a single, chaste postnuptial kiss between Elizabeth Bennet and Darcy.* The 2005 version, with Keira Knightley, veered into nauseating rom-com tweeness: A special ending for the U.S. market features the couple on the steps of Pemberley, joking about how keen Elizabeth is to be called “Mrs. Darcy.” The next fashion was to transplant Austen’s stories to new locations: Bollywood for 2004’s Bride and Prejudice, Pakistan for 2017’s Austenistan.
Today’s adapters, though, are tired of seeing the writer dismissed as a narrow chronicler of middle-class domestic gentility, and are turning to her unpublished fragments to make the case for another Jane Austen—sharp, satirical, and proto-feminist.
. . . .
Both Sanditon—which is being broadcast on Britain’s ITV and on PBS in the U.S.—and The Watsons, Laura Wade’s new play, take unfinished texts and canter off with the characters. Along with Austen’s abandoned novel Lady Susan, these pieces are spikier, more difficult, and more resistant to the bonnets-and-breeches treatment than her published works are. (Lady Susan, which was turned into 2016’s Love & Friendship, starring Kate Beckinsale, focuses on a widow trying to secure husbands for herself and her daughter. It is quietly radical: Imagine how different Pride and Prejudice would be told from the perspective of Mrs. Bennet.)
These new adaptations make a simple case: Costume dramas are not about wallowing in nostalgia, and Austen was not writing straightforward romances. Sanditon, for example, has an “acerbic, screwball tone,” according to its director, Olly Blackburn—in it, Austen was trying something new. “It’s like [Bob] Dylan going electric,” he told me.
At first glance, the plot of The Watsons, which is showing at the Menier Chocolate Factory in London, is classic Austen—a young woman who has fallen on hard times tries to find a husband. As soon as Wade was commissioned to adapt the fragment for the stage, though, she realized that she had to take liberties with the material. The playwright was enough of an Austen fan, she told me, “to not want to do yet another Pride and Prejudice or whatever.”
In her play, the characters are self-aware—and notice a strange figure, named Laura, creeping around the period setting. Laura is a stand-in for the playwright herself, unable to resist seeing what an Austen story looks like from the inside. Realizing that they are actually in a play, the characters rebel against the confines of the narrative—two begin a lesbian relationship and set sail for India, and the heroine, Emma, rejects all the options available to a genteel but poor young woman in the early 19th century.
The play is funny, surreal, and full of affectionate iconoclasm. Wade sees Austen as a “brilliantly witty friend,” and was fascinated by why she abandoned The Watsons. Perhaps, Wade speculated, its premise was too close to Austen’s own life: The heroine’s father is dying, as was Austen’s when she wrote it. And after Austen discarded The Watsons, there was a gap of several years before she wrote her final three novels. (During this period, she also received a marriage proposal, which she turned down, but her reasoning is unknown, as her sister Cassandra burned her letters.)
Or maybe, Wade suggested, Austen abandoned The Watsons because she couldn’t work out which of the male characters would be a suitable match for her protagonist. “Maybe she couldn’t finish your story in the way she wanted,” the playwright-character Laura tells Emma. “She might have wanted to … make you some kind of amazing, bold, revolutionary feminist, but she thought her readers weren’t ready, or she was scared of it.” Wade said that the end of her script, which lets Emma explore the world without getting married, “felt like the more feminist thing that Jane Austen might have done if she were alive in a world where there were those possibilities.”
Difficult. It’s a word that rests on a knife-edge: when applied to a woman, it can be admiring, fearful, insulting and dismissive, all at once. In 2016, it was used of Theresa May (she was “a bloody difficult woman,” Ken Clarke said, when she ran for Tory leader). A year later, it gave the US author Roxane Gay the title for her short story collection. The late Elizabeth Wurtzel took “in praise of difficult women” as the strapline for her feminist manifesto in 1998. The book’s main title was, simply, Bitch.
The word is particularly pointed since it recurs so often when women talk about the consequences of challenging sexism. The TV presenter Helen Skelton once described being groped on air by an interviewee while pregnant. She did not complain, she said, because “that’s just the culture that television breeds. No one wants to be difficult.” The actor Jennifer Lawrence told the Hollywood Reporter that she had once stood up to a rude director. The reaction to the incident left her worried that she would be punished by the industry. “Yeah,” chipped in fellow actor Emma Stone: “You were ‘difficult’.”
All this is edging towards the same idea, an idea that is imprinted on us from birth: that women are called unreasonable, selfish and unfeminine when they stand up for themselves.
. . . .
So what does it mean to be a difficult woman? I’m not talking about being rude, thoughtless, obnoxious or a diva. First of all, difficult means complicated. A thumbs-up, thumbs-down approach to historical figures is boring and reductive. Most of us are more than one thing; no one is pure; everyone is “problematic”. Look back at early feminists and you will find women with views that are unpalatable to their modern sisters. You will find women with views that were unpalatable to their contemporaries. They were awkward and wrong-headed and obstinate and sometimes downright odd – and that helped them to defy the expectations placed on them. “The reasonable man adapts himself to the world: the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself,” wrote George Bernard Shaw in 1903. “Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.” (Or, as I always catch myself adding, the unreasonable woman.) A history of feminism should not try to sand off the sharp corners of the movement’s pioneers – or write them out of the story entirely, if their sins are deemed too great. It must allow them to be just as flawed – just as human – as men. Women are people, and people are more interesting than cliches. We don’t have to be perfect to deserve equal rights.
. . . .
The idea of role models is not necessarily a bad one, but the way they are used in feminism can dilute a radical political movement into feelgood inspiration porn. Holding up a few exceptions is no substitute for questioning the rules themselves, and in our rush to champion historical women, we are distorting the past. Take the wildly successful children’s book Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls, which has sold more than a million copies. It tells 100 “empowering, moving and inspirational” stories, promising that “these are true fairytales for heroines who definitely don’t need rescuing”. Its entry for the fashion designer Coco Chanel mentions that she wanted to start a business, and a “wealthy friend of hers lent her enough money to make her dream come true”. It does not mention that Chanel was the lover of a Nazi officer and very probably a spy for Hitler’s Germany. In the 1930s, she tried to remove that “wealthy friend” from the company under racist laws that forbade Jews to own businesses. In the name of inspiring little girls living in a male-dominated world, the book doesn’t so much airbrush Chanel’s story as sandblast it. Do you find her wartime collaboration with the Nazis “empowering”? I don’t, although admittedly she does sound like a woman who “didn’t need rescuing”. The real Coco Chanel was clever, prejudiced, talented, cynical – and interesting. The pale version of her boiled down to a feminist saint is not.
Ms. Austen has not changed nor has the content of her books but, as with great creations of any era, they resonate with people living in much different settings and circumstances than the author did because they deal with timeless human characteristics and traits. Per the topic of the OP, Austen’s handful of books include difficult women of a different era.
Miss Bates and Parson Collins have no shortage of social and intellectual analogs in 2020 nor will they in 2120 (in PG’s pompously humble opinion).
“Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever, and rich, with a comfortable home and happy disposition, seemed to unite some of the best blessings of existence; and had lived nearly twenty-one years in the world with very little to distress or vex her.” So begins Emma, one of Jane Austen’s most beloved books. But not everyone is carried away by Emma’s charm. To some readers, her decidedly unhandsome actions—meddling in love affairs and acting like an entitled brat among them—are cause for vexation and distress in and of themselves. And, writes English scholar Barbara Z. Thaden, that could even be the point. “Emma was not intended to be or become a sympathetic character,” she writes—and, she suggests, Miss Woodhouse might not even be her eponymous book’s own heroine.
Unlike Austen’s other heroines, Emma is beloved and seemingly blessed. Well treated by her family and well regarded by everyone around her, she flies in the face of heroines like Pride and Prejudice’s Elizabeth Bennet, who is charming but without social cachet, Sense and Sensibility’s stoic Elinor Dashwood, or Persuasion’s forgotten spinster Anne Elliot. She resembles others in the Austen world, though—but as Thaden suggests, it’s the condescension, pride, and social security of plenty of Austen’s villains that she shares.
. . . .
Thaden dissects Emma’s supposed charm—a quality that, she argues, pulls the wool over readers’ eyes. Meddling, cruelty, and entitlement are interpreted by other characters, and readers, as evidence of her superiority, but unlike other charming and wealthy Austen characters, Emma never has to prove her worth. Instead, she manipulates other people’s lives and romances, and seems unlikely to change her ways after snagging Mr. Knightley, a longtime friend she has encouraged another woman to love.
The enigmatic Jane Fairfax, on the other hand, is given none of her foil’s intrinsic tools. Forced to seek a post as a governess because of her orphan status, she is the only woman Emma envies. But she is nothing like her: Where the richer Emma can do as she pleases, Jane must “endure silently while a flirt of high social standing plays with the man she loves.” Jane Fairfax, argues Thaden, is more like Jane Austen than most of her heroines.
How do couples show their love? Some do it with flowers, because nothing screams romance like a handful of dying vegetation. Others send cute notes to one another, especially at this time of year. And in noir world, a lucky few get the chance to die together in a hail of high-velocity bullets.
Yes, romance in noir almost always starts out well, only to descend into death and despair (if you want to get truly pretentious and Greek about it, the characters’ eros, or love, just can’t overcome their thanatos, or death impulse). With that in mind, and in celebration of Valentine’s Day, here are seven films about lovestruck couples who truly go the distance—sometimes right into a police roadblock.
. . . .
Double Indemnity (1944)
Boy (Fred MacMurray as Walter Neff, smarmy) meets girl (Barbara Stanwyck as Phyllis Dietrichson, ice-cold). Boy helps girl kill her husband and dispose of the body in a way that looks like an accident, so they can score an extra-large helping of insurance money (the “double indemnity” of the title). Boy and girl try to escape the subsequent investigation’s ever-tightening noose, even as boy begins to suspect that girl is a murder-crazed lunatic. Boy and girl turn on each other, adding to the body count. It’s the perfect Valentine’s Day movie—right before you deliver the breakup speech.
. . . .
Bonnie and Clyde (1967)
Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde (1967) is the ultimate act of cinematic transformation: It took a pair of dirty, doomed bank robbers—barely more than kids when they were ambushed and gunned down by law enforcement in 1934—and transformed them into extremely photogenic, almost relentlessly suave icons of American rebellion. At least, that’s the hot take; the film has far more layers than you might remember, if you haven’t seen it in a decade or two (or if you’ve never seen it at all, which is something you need to fix).
As portrayed by Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway, Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker not only look good—they know they look good. But at crucial moments throughout the film, a far uglier reality intrudes. Friends, family, and innocent bystanders die messily; Clyde and Bonnie panic at the idea that there’s no way out. They don’t look quite so photogenic once the law has its way with them.
What the cinematic Bonnie and Clyde share with their historical inspiration is an all-consuming love, however doomed. One wonders how the real-life robbers, who were intensely aware of their media image when they were alive, would have regarded the 1967 film. They probably would have enjoyed being played by Beatty and Dunaway… and lamented the lack of a happy ending.
It’s exhausting to live in a world of constantly swirling social interaction, in which you never know who you’re going to hear from, or how you’ll live up to the pressure to respond. It’s uncomfortable to know that you can be assessed and measured by very public metrics, which amount to a transparent calculation of your worth. It’s stressful to hew to the standards of public discretion, knowing that any violation of propriety will be held against you forever.
These are the pains of living in the social-networking era—but they are also the pains of living in the world described by the nineteenth-century novels of Jane Austen. That’s why her well-loved books are worth revisiting at our particular moment, in search of wisdom on how to cope with the pressures of the digital age.
. . . .
The parallels between our world and Austen’s jumped out at me when I recently returned to her works after many years. When I first read Austen’s Pride and Prejudice at the age of fifteen, the World Wide Web had yet to be invented. When I picked up her next novels in my mid-twenties, it was still many years before the advent of blogging, Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube.
But I recently yielded to a sudden and acute Austen craving, which plunged me into six weeks of gorging on her work, this time in audiobook form. Austen’s words poured over me as I puttered through my daily tasks: Emma gossiping as I glanced at my morning email, Eliza Bennet whispering in my ear as I plugged my devices in to charge each night.
. . . .
Indeed, as I plunged into Austen’s England from the very device that normally connects me to Facebook and Twitter, her world and ours looked more and more alike.
The similarities begin with the sheer volume of social interaction required of both English gentry and social media users. In addition to their month-long visits (does anyone want an Airbnb guest who stays that long?), Austen’s characters indulge in a daily exchange of “calls.” In “Jane Austen’s Speech Acts and Language-Based Societies,” Candace Nolan-Grant describes this practice as
the convention of calling on one’s acquaintances, which requires either conversing with the members of the household for at least fifteen minutes if they are home, or leaving a card if they are not. Calling on acquaintances typically does the following: announces that the caller deems his or her host worthy of notice and feels some obligation to call; obliges the host(s) to receive the caller and to return the visit; and opens (or closes, depending on the tenor of the visit) doors for further social intercourse.
At first, I envied Austen’s characters this daily face-to-face social interaction: I often go weeks without seeing even my closest friends in person, staying in touch via Facebook or SMS instead. But I soon found myself wondering how the inhabitants of Austen’s world put up with this constant pressure to socialize—until I realized that we face just as much demand for interaction, albeit in digital form. Austen’s characters may face a nonstop parade of callers, but at least they don’t have to deal with Facebook friend invitations and an endless series of requests to connect on LinkedIn.
Of course, if our inboxes are overflowing, it’s often because we’ve followed the many admonitions to build up our professional networks and attract social media fans. This is another way in which social media replicates the dynamics of Austen’s world: both place great emphasis on the value of introductions, and both quantify the value of each new friend or connection.
As of today, January 10, 2020, here’s where we are with the implosion of RWA:
Damon Suede has (finally) resigned…
after the recall petition filed by C. Chilove, the President of CIMRWA, Laurel Cremant, President-Elect, and Diana Neal, Treasurer, was certified and
after every major publisher pulled out of RWA Nationals
Executive Director Carol Ritter also resigned, except according to RWA’s January 9 statement, she’s staying on to assist with transition to new leadership.
. . . .
So things are sort of resolved: we got the first thing we asked for (repeatedly) which was that Suede step down and the leadership take some responsibility for the mess. They sort of did, and I think that is part of what makes this semi-resolution so unsatisfying for me.
There’s a lot of “sort of” in the RWA statement, too. There’s the continued presence of many of the people who contributed to the mess in the first place, such as remaining board members who were appointed by Suede, coupled with the onomatopology (term coined by author NPR host Linda Holmes) which doesn’t do nearly enough to address the valid concerns of the membership. I’m exhausted from mishegas that didn’t need to become as bad as it did, and dispirited as I ponder the next step.
Also: it is a lot easier to convince a publisher NOT to spend money than it is to convince them to spend money. So the loss of publisher participation and sponsorship is a BFD to the conference, the organization, and the future of writers who relied on RWA’s advocacy on their behalf when dealing with those same publishers.
. . . .
while discussing the destruction of RWA’s reputation over the past two weeks with people who aren’t part of the community, I was asked this question: Who does the organization serve?
That question is referenced in the RWA onomatopology released yesterday:
We know we have a lot more work to do to restore the trust we have lost – and we are going to do whatever it takes to get there so that we can focus on the mission of this organization: to promote the professional and common business interests of romance writers. Our goal is to ensure the successful future of this association so it can be an even stronger, better and more inclusive professional home and advocate for romance authors.
We hope you will join us – collaboratively and productively – in rebuilding an RWA that serves its diverse and talented members well into the future. We believe this community is worth saving. (Emphasis mine.)
I see a very large and tangled problem with that goal, to rebuild RWA into a “professional home and advocate for romance authors…that serves its diverse and talented members.”
Whom does RWA serve specifically?
“Diverse and talented romance authors” is not clear enough as a definition.
. . . .
In other words, if an organization wants to change, current members often represent the past, the status quo, or perhaps the opposite of that change.
People who aren’t members, and a portion of the current membership, might represent the future, the wished-for changes, the possibility that hasn’t happened yet.
Setting aside the question of leadership for a moment (and again, the current RWA board should be removed and re-elected in its entirety) it’s important to ask over and over: whom does this organization serve?
Who is the priority?
Because it cannot be both.
If RWA serves the current membership of RWA, well, that membership contains a substantial number of people who:
openly embrace and promote racist ideologies
post on RWA Facebook pages and in internal message boards about their homophobia and racist views on people of color
write transphobic and racist articles for and letters to the Romance Writers Report
…and I could keep going but it’s depressing.
A substantial part of the current membership of RWA is a substantial part of the problem with RWA.
If the organization wants to serve any marginalized writers, it can’t also serve that portion of the current membership. It’s impossible. One side has demonstrated in PAN forums, email messages, and social media posts that it refuses to recognize the humanity of the other, and refuses to recognize their culpability in maintaining a White supremacist, classist, heteronormative, racist culture inside RWA. Nor can it commit to changing that culture.
The organization also can’t serve marginalized writers if the leadership has a documented history of not acknowledging ethics complaints from marginalized individuals, and of publishing and allowing screeds against those individuals in print and online. RWA can’t serve anyone if the organization doesn’t fully reveal what happened in the specific case of the ethics complaint and process against Courtney Milan, and what happened to the complaints from every writer who has reported a problem.
RWA can’t maintain its current membership nor its leadership and at the same time say it’s going to rebuild. Rebuilding requires people in leadership positions who are trusted by current and prospective members. And it requires trust in fellow members of the community.
As Olivia Waite and others have pointed out, the January 9 statement from RWA was a word assemblage that scarcely resembled the appropriate level of apology, acknowledgement, and intent to act. It lists as next steps several actions they’ve already performed multiple times. More consultants, more town halls, more discussions are not going to fix RWA.
PG is 100% an outsider in this mess, but he suspects that RWA is mortally wounded. Although he has actively participated in some non-profit legal organizations having nothing to do with writing and publishing in the past, he is not in any way an expert in this field.
However, such experiential shortcomings have never prevented PG (and many others) from expressing an opinion on all sorts of subjects.
He thinks it would probably be easier to build a new organization rather to deal with past complaints, slights, insults, leaders, stakeholders, etc. In metaphorical terms, RWA is a dirty slate which will require cleaning and reconstruction before it can begin to build a compelling new identity. It will require thoughtful and energetic work to demonstrate that all the bad/embarrassing/nasty pieces are gone and only a positive and energetic group remains.
An organization which is a clean slate can start working on structure, governance, solicitation of membership without having to spend any time or energy on past mistakes, bad feelings, etc. Those authors who have become angry and vowed to never have anything more to do with RWA would seem to be low-hanging fruit for a new organization.
In suggesting that a new organization is a better idea, PG is not minimizing the hard work necessary to build a successful non-profit with enough resources – leadership, financial, membership numbers, marketing and promotional talent, etc., to succeed. Any group thinking about starting a new organization will have to worry about competition from other groups that want to replace RWA as well.
The Romance Writers of America ended 2019 reeling from the backlash to its handling of a racism accusation. It is beginning this year by canceling its 2020 awards for romance novels, known in the industry as the Ritas, after it said that several contestants and judges had already pulled out.
The awards, which recognize “excellence in published romance novels and novellas,” are typically given during the trade organization’s annual conference in the summer. But in a statement released on Monday, the R.W.A. said that many had “lost faith” in its ability to conduct a fair contest, leading participants to withdraw.
“The contest will not reflect the breadth and diversity of 2019 romance novels/novellas and thus will not be able to fulfill its purpose of recognizing excellence in the genre,” it said in the statement, adding that it planned to recognize 2019 and 2020 books next year. The organization declined to comment further.
Romance books are a lucrative part of the publishing industry, with a deeply engaged fan base, but the lack of diversity among the genre’s writers has been an ongoing topic of debate. Many readers, writers and others in the community followed the turmoil that engulfed the R.W.A. late last month, when the organization suspended Courtney Milan, a former board member and chair of its ethics committee, and banned her from leadership positions in response to an ethics complaint. Ms. Milan, a romance writer who is Chinese-American, had criticized the depiction of Chinese women in the novel “Somewhere Lies the Moon,” prompting its author, Kathryn Lynn Davis, an honorary R.W.A. member, and Suzan Tisdale, who employs Ms. Davis at a publishing imprint, to file ethics complaints against Ms. Milan.
. . . .
The R.W.A.’s punishment was widely criticized on social media and by other writers, and the organization quickly reversed course on its decision. Still, eight board members resigned in protest, as did the former president Carolyn Jewel, and a petition calling for the resignation of the R.W.A.’s new president, Damon Suede, has been submitted to the organization.
It began, like so many contemporary racial kerfuffles, on social media. Courtney Milan, a bestselling romance novelist and former chair of the Romance Writers of America (rwa)’s ethics committee (which sounds like fun) called “Somewhere Lies the Moon”, a historical novel by Kathryn Lynn Davis, “a f****** racist mess”. Ms Milan, who is Chinese-American, objected to physical descriptions (“slightly yellow” faces and “slanted almond eyes”) and to a character who said that Chinese women were “demure and quiet, as our mothers have trained us to be” and “modest and submissive, so they will make good wives.”
Ms Davis and Suzan Tisdale, a writer who also runs a romance-publishing imprint that employs Ms Davis, accused Ms Milan of violating several sections of the rwa’s ethics code. The rwa’s ethics committee dismissed all of Ms Davis’s complaints save one: that Ms Milan’s comments violated “the organisation’s expressed purpose of creating a ‘safe and respectful environment’” for its members. The committee recommended a year’s suspension of Ms Milan’s rwa membership, and a lifetime ban on holding any rwa leadership position.
. . . .
The romance-writing world was already roiled by issues of race and representation. In 2017 just over 6% of books released by major romance publishers were written by non-white writers, according to a study by The Ripped Bodice, a romance-only bookstore. HelenKay Dimon, a former rwa president, believes that one of the reasons this dispute raised such strong feelings was that “coming out of last year…there was a little bit of hope” that things were getting better, and that using the rwa’s ethics code to punish a non-white writer for calling out what she saw as racist stereotypes “felt like a violation”. LaQuette, a mononymous African-American romance writer, says that before the row blew up, “we were one step closer to finding that…support” for non-white romance writers. But that “this event in a matter of days destroyed all that.”
At this point, romance readers might wonder several things. Is it really unimaginable for a fictional woman in the 19th century—even a Chinese woman, with all the attendant stereotype warnings—to praise demureness and modesty? Why did Ms Davis not simply apologise for having given offence? Is there any fight more bitter than one among well-intentioned, decent people who are trying to convince each other that they are best intentioned and most decent?
. . . .
Tone-deaf racial representations in bodice rippers may rank fairly low on the hierarchy of America’s social ills. Yet if a trade group that has done well by numerous writers sunders over it, romance authors of all backgrounds may find themselves bereft. Tone-deaf racial representations in bodice rippers may rank fairly low on the hierarchy of America’s social ills. Yet if a trade group that has done well by numerous writers sunders over it, romance authors of all backgrounds may find themselves bereft.
Let’s talk about the power of romance. There’s power in the written word, even in a genre that we tend to consider — because of sexism — less intellectual than some others. And it isn’t just about hearts and flowers and candy; this is cold hard cash: Romance as a literary genre represents a quarter of all fiction sales and more than half of all paperback sales, and it brings in over a billion dollars in sales annually.
The impact of romance books on the culture is outsize because everyone is interested in romance, whether they admit it publicly or not.
The business of selling books about love is often handled through the offices of the Romance Writers of America, or RWA. It’s the largest writers’ organization in the world, with nearly 10,000 members and 150 chapters. Because of those chapters and their dues-paying members, it has about $3 million in the bank, according to its latest publicly available tax filings — which should, in theory, mean that the RWA would be around for years to come.
Yet it’s been roiled by a series of scandals around inclusion and representation for most of the last decade, all of which have seemingly come to a head since shortly before Christmas. As outlined by The New York Times, that’s when the organization’s board voted to sanction a prominent Chinese American romance writer and former board member, Courtney Milan, for criticizing on Twitter the novel of a white writer, Kathryn Lynn Davis, as a “racist mess” for its stereotypical portrayals of Chinese women.
. . . .
The sanctions apparently were considered as part of a secretive process outside the organization’s normal ethics procedures, and they would have resulted in Milan’s being barred from a board position ever again. As a result of criticism after the incident became public, the sanctions have been suspended, but the firestorm has led to calls to recall the board president, as well as accusations that most ethics complaints go unheard — particularly those by non-white writers — and of favoritism by RWA staff and board members toward white and straight writers.
. . . .
Romance, like much other niche literature, interests readers from all walks of life — and the RWA membership, which is made up of writers, agents and publishers, almost reflects that reality. It should be one of the most democratic professional organizations in the publishing industry, working to grow the genre’s readership, especially in a time of flagging fiction sales. You can’t, however, do that without appealing to more diverse readers, especially as America itself is changing demographically.
. . . .
But whenever the topic of more inclusion in an industry comes up, it feels like there’s always someone insisting that diversity means lowering standards — or that calls for inclusion are bullying, which is essentially what Milan was accused of when she pointed out the racism of Davis’ portrayals of Chinese women.
. . . .
Having been involved in these debates myself, I find it hard not to notice that the people making the most noise against inclusivity are often those who have already put out racist or homophobic work and who strenuously object to their work’s being characterized as offensive at all. And though some other authors, when criticized, do pull their books off the shelf for rewrites, most shrug off the criticism or apologize and keep writing books.
Take Nora Roberts, one of the biggest names in romance: In a long statement backing Milan and criticizing the RWA’s long history of non-inclusivity, she also makes it clear that she doesn’t think her history is perfect, apologizing for the possibility of offensive imagery in a catalog of hundreds of books.
. . . .
But there’s inevitably a small contingent of writers who simply can’t handle being criticized, whether directly or indirectly. Vitriolic responses to critics are hardly limited to well-known writers; those who aspire to become household names are equally prone to them. Having your work dissected, discussed and sometimes even demeaned, however, is part of putting it out into the world. All writers know this — or at least they should — and writing romance novels is no exception.
Writers who want to make money, then, often hire sensitivity readers to help them sidestep pitfalls, especially if they don’t feel that their agents, editors or publishing houses are up to the challenge.
. . . .
Well, that’s where the cash comes in. Not only is romance big business for those already in it, but the possibility of attracting more readers — and their money — can also make those who think they deserve an audience regardless of the quality of their work antsy about competition from those trying to raise the quality of the industry overall. The complaint against Milan was fundamentally that her criticisms — accurate though they were — had cost other writers opportunities by drawing attention to their flaws.
. . . .
This is about writing, but it is also about our culture and whether we want the people who have traditionally influenced it to continue to do so without engaging with the consequences their work might visit on other communities. Everybody wants a little romance; what most people of color who read about it don’t want is romance novels written by white authors filled with stereotypes about people of color.
A dispute over a racism accusation and how it was handled have upended the romance writers’ community, with best-selling novelists speaking out against the Romance Writers of America and most of the powerful, 9,000-member trade organization’s board resigning in the last days of the year.
The R.W.A. on Monday said it was hiring a law firm to “to conduct an audit of the process and these events to provide a clear report of the facts.” The dispute arose over the group’s treatment of Courtney Milan, a former board member and chair of its ethics committee who last summer criticized Kathryn Lynn Davis’s novel “Somewhere Lies the Moon” on Twitter as a “racist mess.”
Ms. Milan, who is Chinese-American, took issue with the depiction of 19th-century Chinese women in the book, including a description of “slanted almond eyes” and a quote from a character describing them as “demure and quiet, as our mothers have trained us to be.” “The notion of the submissive Chinese woman is a racist stereotype which fuels higher rates of violence against women,” Ms. Milan wrote on Twitter.
Ms. Davis, who is an honorary R.W.A. member, disagreed with Ms. Milan’s assessment, saying her book was historically accurate and based on years of research. She filed an ethics complaint with the R.W.A., saying that Ms. Milan’s comments were “cyberbullying” and cost her a publishing contract.
“I would not have filed a complaint if she had been more professional,” Ms. Davis said of Ms. Milan.
In her response to the complaint, Ms. Milan said that the R.W.A.’s ethics code does not cover discussions on social media accounts it doesn’t operate, and said of her criticism: “I am emotional about these issues. Negative stereotypes of Chinese women have impacted my life, the life of my mother, my sisters, and my friends.”
. . . .
As a result of that complaint and one from another writer, Suzan Tisdale, who employs Ms. Davis at a publishing imprint and said she had lost potential authors as a result of the controversy, the R.W.A. told Ms. Milan earlier last week that her membership was suspended and she was banned for life from holding leadership positions within the organization.
Ms. Milan called the judgment “a form of betrayal” and shared the documents associated with the complaint with her friend and fellow romance writer Alyssa Cole, who posted them to Twitter.
“If it was now R.W.A.’s policy that talking about a book and specifically saying negative things about a book as a marginalized author was going to get you banned from the organization,” Ms. Milan said, “I felt that other marginalized people in the organization needed to know that.”
Once the documents were on social media, other writers, including best-selling romance novelists like Nora Roberts and Cynthia Eden, voiced their support for Ms. Milan. The R.W.A. quickly reversed course on its judgment, but eight board members resigned as well as the former president Carolyn Jewel, and a petition calling for the resignation of Damon Suede, the R.W.A.’s new president, began circulating online.
I started reading romance novels when I was 12 or 13. I remember reading them and thinking they were enjoyable but they weren’t about people like me. Nearly all of the characters were non-disabled, as well as being white, cis and heterosexual, and the few characters that were disabled were villains. When I did finally find romance novels with disabled leads, they were either cured of their disability or their significant other was portrayed as a saint who was willing to look past their disability.
Both of these tropes are so harmful. I was born disabled and I will always be disabled. There’s no option of being cured for me and even if there was, I wouldn’t take it. Being disabled is an intrinsic part of my identity and I wouldn’t be me if I wasn’t disabled. I also don’t think being disabled is anything to be ashamed of and the idea that a partner would have to look past my disability in order to love me is incredibly hurtful.
These attitudes, of course, are a reflection on how society views disabled people. I hear stories all the time from other disabled people who have had complete strangers tell their partner that they must be a wonderful person in order to be with a disabled person. This attitude is dehumanising and suggests that being in a relationship with a disabled person is an act of charity. Most disabled people are surrounded by negative opinions on disability from the moment we’re born, it’s impossible not to internalise that and it’s easy to convince ourselves that we aren’t deserving of love or that we have to minimise our disability in order to get our happily ever after. Ableism is a daily reality for most disabled people but for me romance novels are supposed to be an escape from reality, an idealised version of what life can be like with the right person or people. Romance novels are supposed to be emotionally satisfying for the reader and that includes disabled readers.
The second romance-only bookstore in the country opened in Tinley Park in mid-June. Love’s Sweet Arrow is owned and operated by mother-daughter team Roseann and Marissa Backlin, who were inspired to open the business by their love for romance novels.
“Romance is one of the most widely read genres in publishing, and yet there were only two exclusively romance bookstores in the world before we opened. And the only other one in the country is on the west coast,” Marissa Backlin said. “We wanted to do our part to change that and give romance readers a place to find their favorite books in the Midwest judgement-free.”
Developing the store from idea to actual opening took about a year.
“We had to do a lot of research into authors, publishing houses, form a business plan and attempt crowdfunding,” said Roseann Backlin, who also works as a food service manager at a local elementary school. The Backlins did a Kickstarter campaign that raised more than $12,000 and are now accepting donations on Patreon. “We reached out to friends who had spare bookshelves, went to a resale shop [for furniture] and were lucky enough to get some of our used stock from a retiring bookstore owner.”
. . . .
In the age of impersonal ordering on Amazon, Love’s Sweet Arrow aims to be more than just an independent bookseller offering new and used novels. Marissa and Roseann hope to make it a community space, with events centered on bringing local residents together.
“In part of our research, we found that independent bookstores that focused on that community space feel and provided events for the community at large were more successful and were embraced by the community,” Marissa said.
Love’s Sweet Arrow hosts its own book club every other month, but encourages other local clubs to host meetings at the store.
PG went to school and lived for several years in the Chicago area. While he vaguely remembered the name, Tinley Park, he had no idea where it was located.
A quick search revealed that Tinley Park is a village of 56,000 in South suburban Chicago east of Joliet.
While 56,000 people sounds a bit large for a “village,” if PG recalls correctly, under state law, Illinois has Cities, Towns and Villages. They are each forms of municipal government and PG seems to remember that no more Towns are being created, just Cities and Villages.
Shy and retiring creature that he is, PG just learned about The Ripped Bodice.
From The Bustle:
If you’re something of a bookshop connoisseur, you’ll know all about The Ripped Bodice Bookstore in Culver City, CA — a shop entirely dedicated to selling books that fall squarely within the romance genre. Founded by sisters Bea and Leah Koch, the shop opened in 2016 after their super-successful Kickstarter campaign raised over $90,000 and quickly became a go-to destination for romance novel events and readings. Now, just two years later, the Koch sisters are taking their expertise from the shelves to the small screen.
Earlier this week, it was the announced that the duo have inked a deal with Sony Pictures Television to develop romance-based projects for TV, based on their unique position of expertise within the industry. And something tells me I’m about to have a lot more television marathon-watching in my future. According to an article in EW, the Koch’s were first approached by Sony employees at their store (apparently Sony is only blocks away from The Ripped Bodice storefront) and a partnership grew organically from there.
. . . .
After all, the romance genre has pretty much always been primarily created by and for women, but the film versions of these stories haven’t always followed suit. In 2017, most major film producers, directors and writers were still overwhelmingly male, according to statistics collected by Women & Hollywood.
In all my years of romance reading, the only hero I recall who was described as overweight was Henry Tewskbury-Hampton of Carla Kelly’s delightful vintage Signet regency Miss Billings Treads the Boards.
Over twenty years.
Hundreds, if not thousands, of books.
Precisely one slightly saggy midsection. Which tightened up by the end of the story.
It’s always difficult to find a cause from looking at end products alone, and I’m sure this state of affairs reflects varying degrees of reader preference, author choice, and editor or publisher requirement, depending on the book. And I’m not saying your Navy SEALs or your shapeshifting werewolf warriors can’t be in peak physical condition, or even that you shouldn’t want your Regency ducal sundae topped with a six pack, however historically implausible that mixed metaphor is. Just because I happen to like bigger men (in fiction and in real life) doesn’t mean everybody has to write it (although I’d be delighted if somebody did, and I welcome recommendations in the comments).
I’m not demanding fat heroes, but I’m done – I’m beyond done – with fat losers.
. . . .
I originally intended to put quotes in this post in which authors used weight to identify their duds and deadbeats, but I realized quite quickly that it wasn’t going to work. There are just too damn many examples. It didn’t seem fair or productive to call out a few authors arbitrarily when the entire industry is taking the same cheap shot.
So as a thought exercise, I wrote some quotes of my own.
Such is the power of male weight in romance novels that I can invent descriptions of male characters and transform them from heroes to zeroes just by changing the words describing their bodies.
Imagine if you read:
Mrs. Gates’s son Robert was moving back into his mother’s house across the street. His sweaty t-shirt clung to his sculpted abs as he carried a television down the steps to the basement.
Your immediate take would likely be that Robert is going to be this novel’s hero. He’s a good guy, probably home because his mom is sick, or he’s between deployments. You probably can’t wait for the other protagonist to meet him.
But what if the author changed that description, just a tiny, tiny bit? Now, instead of the previous quote, you read:
Mrs. Gates’s son Robert was moving back into his mother’s house across the street. His sweaty t-shirt clung to his pudgy belly as he carried a television down the steps to the basement.
Nothing has changed about Robert except his stomach, but that’s enough to tell you he’s going to be a loser. The television, the mom’s basement – it means something totally different when the hero is fat. This Robert isn’t a caretaker or Marine on leave, he’s an unemployed man-child addicted to video games and internet trolling. That sweat is probably yellow, and it definitely stinks.
Does the now rather tame eroticism of Victorian novels restrict their readership mostly to English majors, culture warriors invested in traditional moralities, and Masterpiece fans? Here’s an experiment for more jaded 21st-century readers: let’s take a quick tour of the love scenes of a famous Victorian novelist, Anthony Trollope, who is more celebrated for his lengthy chronicles of Victorian society and politics than romance, to see if his writings still intrigue or even enflame. Such a tour might help readers decide whether they want to read through all of Trollope’s 47 novels or, say, to work through the 800-ish pages of Can You Forgive Her? to find the one embrace, where, exemplifying both her passion and her shame in that passion, Alice Vavasor still shrinks guiltily from her lover as she accepts him.
Erotic encounters in Trollope can now seem both anachronistic and unintentionally funny not only because the author was a rather standard-model Victorian moralist but also because his novels often are more invested in the social or the political than the romantic. As Trollope admitted in An Autobiography, he shrewdly wrote romance into his novels to attract readers to whom he could teach moral lessons: “dealing with love is advantageous” since “the passion is one which interests or has interested all.” Briefly assessing the lurching forms of hugging and kissing in Trollope, however, will show that his works aren’t just period pieces. Instead, our survey will reveal an intriguing clash between the author’s conventional social views and his impish literary impulses—and, more fascinatingly, between those same views and the quiet stirrings of a few proto-modern ideas. For concision, we’ll restrict ourselves to his two major novelistic series, the six Barchester novels and the six Palliser novels, starting with Trollope at his most literary and moving from there.
1. The Embarrassments of Attraction In Phineas Finn, the eponymous hero, after unsuccessfully romancing three ladies above his station, conforms to garden-variety Victorian values by marrying his hometown sweetheart, Mary Flood Jones, who has pined for him from afar the whole novel. “’Mary,’ he said, ‘will you be my wife,—my own wife?’…When half an hour had passed, they were still together, and now she had found the use of her tongue. ‘Do whatever you like best,’ she said. . . . Then he took her in his arms and kissed her. ‘Oh, Phineas!’ she said, ‘I do love you so entirely!’” Presumably, Mary isn’t using that tongue to kiss him back; she is instead a morally suitable example of Victorian female subservience and restraint. Like many 19th-century writers, Trollope often associates physical attraction with danger and self-control with virtue: his heroines Lily Dale, Glencora Palliser (for a while), and Emily Wharton are all betrayed by their attachments to handsome men who appear to act like gentleman but instead jilt, drink and gamble, and ruinously speculate, respectively. But Trollope knew he was employing a literary cliché here in Phineas Finn. And Mary’s long silent treatment reads like an absurdist expansion of famous scenes like the moment when even 19th-century British literature’s most verbose pixie, Elizabeth Bennett, is briefly silenced and cannot even look at Mr. Darcy right after he proposes. By contrast, Mary is revealed here as a characterological bore, and, presumably admitting defeat, Trollope conveniently killed her off before the sequel Phineas Redux. He often had trouble fully committing to conventional romantic narratives.
I recently went on a romance-related trip to New Orleans, which means basically all my thoughts the whole time there were twofold: romance novels and food. There is a lot of good food in New Orleans, so the only reason I wasn’t drooling over these books was that I was devastatingly full the whole time. But these books are legit appetizing, and you should definitely check them out.
Jackie Lau’s Baldwin Village series (Starting with One Bed For Christmas) is all about eating, and this one is no exception. It starts just before Valentine’s Day, when Josh, the CEO of a local app development company, wanders into Happy as Pie, Sarah’s shop. After having some of the most delightful pie of the sweet and savory kind, Josh comes up with a way to lure his estranged father—a math nerd extraordinaire—to visit him in Toronto and speak to him again: the ultimate Pi Day party, complete with a total smorgasbord of pies. He and Sarah have to meet to figure it all out, but there’s also a chemistry between them. Has been since they met. What can they do about that, while also maintaining their professional relationship?
Eat, that’s what they can do.
Or at least it feels like it. There’s so much hungrifying stuff in the pages of this book, and it makes it all the better for it. The pies are scrumptious (yes, scrumptious!) and there’s plenty of other food to drool over while you’re reading. Which isn’t great if you’re trapped on a two hour flight with pretzels and cookies that you can’t eat because flour. And then of course there’s the people, who both have strong but complicated relationships with their families, particularly their parents. The resolution of the story has more than one resolution, which is great, and more food, which is also great. If that’s not enough hunger, you also want to check out Ice Cream Lover, which just came out! (Much more dessert in that one, but you might also want to find the nearest place that has soup dumplings. Not gonna joke.)
That’s according to a new study conducted by sociologists Michael Rosenfeld and Sonia Hausen of Stanford University and Reuben Thomas of Arizona State University. It looked at data from the multiyear How Couples Meet and Stay Together survey and found that, in 2017, meeting online was by far the most frequent way people met their significant others. Some findings from the study:
In 2017 39% of heterosexual and 60% of same-sex couples met online. That compares to only 2% of couples meeting online in 1995.
Fewer couples are now also meeting through friends or family. In 1995 33% of couples met through mutual friends and 15% met through family. In 2017 only 20% of couples met through mutual friends and 7% met through family.
Even relationship-forming hotbeds like your college years saw a decline in couples meeting during this time. In 1995 9% of couples met in college versus only 4% in 2017. That means in 2017 a couple was as likely to meet in college as they were in church.
There are also fewer couples meeting through or as coworkers. In 1995 19% of couples met via work, but only 11% of couples met via work in 2017.
The only place outside of the internet where couples meeting for the first time grew were in a bar or restaurant. In 1995 19% of couples met in a bar or restaurant. That number shot up to 27% in 2017.
As a preliminary note, PG will remind one and all that he doesn’t necessarily agree with everything he posts on TPV.
From The Guardian:
“How to avoid turning your home into a MANrepeller”, the Daily Mailproclaimed from atop the mountain on Sunday. “Interiors therapist reveals the items that could be making your abode offputting to men.”
It could be forgiven for wanting to jump on the Marie Kondo bandwagon, but the twist obviously had to be that the gaze you must please is not your own, but a man’s.
Femail’s nominated manrepeller was a journalist named Liz Hoggard, and her salvation came in the form of life coach Suzanne Roynon, whose mission is to “clear your past and present clutter to create a new relationship in your life”.
How does it work in practice? Well, there are a number of rules. You should not have too many paintings of “strong, iconic” but single women in your home; cacti are bad because they’re “too spiky”.
. . . .
Speaking of bedrooms – books apparently aren’t allowed in there, as they are a room for “sleep and love”. This raises some questions. Does it mean that if you like reading a book in bed you must then go put it back elsewhere in the house just before falling asleep? Is one book (singular) in the bedroom fine but two or more forbidden? What if you do find a partner thanks to your attractive new flat and he also enjoys reading in bed, does this create a loophole? Should you read this singular book together at the same time? Any word on Kindles?
Roynon doesn’t expand on these particular quandaries, but does offer more advice on books. As it turns out, a single woman in search of companionship should not own novels with “depressing titles” like Little Deaths or The Suspect.
. . . .
Or maybe put Normal People by Sally Rooney in a place where he is sure to spot it. Not only is it a good book, but it will subconsciously tell him that you are, in fact, normal. Just a normal woman, looking for a normal man, so you can be a normal couple together, living in your normal house. Normal, normal, normal. What’s not to love?