a tongue twister, bi-erasure, and some gifs

honey-badger-dance-o

Please excuse me while I engage in some shameless self-promotion. Last week, Amber and I finished our second collaboration. Let’s pause for some honey badger dancing. Feel free to fire the glitter cannon.

It’s another round of raunchy rollicking rock stars (say that three times fast!) filled with some of my favorite things.

If Stefon from SNL were describing One Kiss with a Rock Star, he’d tell you it has everything: sad wanking, boundary issues, epic blow jobs, bi-erasure, finger-banging, double standards, and an ill-advised threesome.

spicy
It is totally spicy. But between all the boning, it’s also sorta-kinda an issue book. Maybe. If you squint. Like, it’s possible I may have referred to it as “the bi book” on more than one occasion. So, AJ’s post on Tuesday really resonated. You should go read that if you haven’t already. (Why haven’t you?) She says lots of thinky things about orientation and self-definition and the intersection of sexuality with love/lust/friendship. I nodded my head as I read it and then I talked about one of my favorite lines from One Kiss in the comments:

bi

Here’s what I had to say: On the surface it’s very much about sex acts and using/not-using them to define sexuality. But it’s also about railing against a binary, against erasure, against having sexuality dictated. (*snort* Dick-tated.) Because orientation can be endlessly complex…a lifetime of searching and questioning and exploring…but it can also be dead effing simple. And maybe sometimes, that simplicity is the hardest to understand.

kaylee

jayne

There’s a moment, the start of an M/M/F threesome, in the first book that people either love or hate. I’m sure there are some readers who are ambivalent about it, but we don’t tend to hear from those. What I did hear, in between all the omglovewhatjusthappenedyes were things like “so, was he gay?” or “ewww I don’t like M/M” or “that didn’t make any sense.”

And yes, it is possible for a male bodied person to be gay while engaging in sexual activity with a female bodied person (see above where orientation is NOT dictated by sex acts) but that isn’t what caused the confusion here. And it’s also possible that we didn’t set it up enough…but it seemed pretty simple to me. They’re bisexual. Which I guess is hard to believe in or accept? No, that can’t be right. Oh, wait…

bigoogle

Really?

pffffft

Krist and Madeline like what they like. Mostly they like each other, except for when they don’t. Their attraction (and its opposite) doesn’t have anything to do with gender. It’s about respect (or lack thereof), appreciation, admiration, and hot back alley smooching. Their sexuality isn’t a choice, a phase, or a trend. Their angst isn’t about navigating the interiority of their desires, it’s about navigating the media’s (mis)perceptions.

I really enjoyed the challenge of tip-toeing through the minefield of Krist’s ultra-masculine rocker world and Maddy’s hyper-sexualized pop arena. And by tip-toeing I mean blithely blundering and frantically groping.

You’ll be able to buy One Kiss with a Rock Star in early November. For now you can add it on GoodReads.

Posted in Shameless Self-Promotion | 7 Comments

Orienting Myself: Love and Lust and Liking

I have had the great good fortune to participate in Queer Romance Month, with a post about writing queer romance and parenting. I often learn something about myself when writing blog posts, but with QRM I’ve had the privilege of learning many, many things from reading other writers’ contributions too. JP Kenwood’s post about masculinity and gay sex in ancient Rome was fascinating, as was Thorny Sterling’s about gender fluidity and Lilia Ford’s about the subversive nature of being a historical outsider in publishing. G.B. Gordon’s post, Love Is Love, reminded me that even blog posts can be beautiful and poetic.

I’ve read posts about the word queer, about bi-erasure, about being the small voice that says “I support gay rights” when an acquaintance makes a casual slur. Many fascinating voices, many thoughtful perspectives.

I’ve been left with some additional thoughts though, and conveniently enough, a Wonko post in which to deposit them.

think of englandAlexis Hall (who conceived of and organized Queer Romance Month, for which I throw grateful hugs and kisses his way) wrote an excellent QRM guest post for The Book Pushers, most of which is an explication of exactly what makes KJ Charles’ Edwardian romance, Think of England, such a brilliant read. The post, Queer Is Intimate, begins, though, with an interesting look at how—whether due to the historical criminalization of homosexuality or to our own human patterns of hitting puberty and getting excited about having sex before a more mature excitement about having love sets in—what we end up with is “a preliminary understanding of sexual identity that is largely defined by sex acts.” So being gay or lesbian or bisexual is more generally defined by who you’re fucking than by with whom you experience the less dramatic day-to-day moments of love.

If you have a few minutes, you should go read that post. It’s worth it. I’ll wait. It gave me many thoughts, and while you’re reading, I’ll attempt to put them in order.

Okay, right. I’ll try not to make a hash of this. First, Queer is Intimate reminded me of one of my favorite books of all time, A.S. Byatt’s Possession. Possession is the story of two couples, the first a pair of Victorian poets who fall in love while both being involved with other people, and the second being the two contemporary literary scholars who discover hints of the Victorian poets’ relationship in their letters and poetry, and go on the hunt to track down concrete evidence of it, while also developing an intimacy of their own.

possessionOne of the most fascinating parts of the book to me was the depiction of the Victorian poet Christabel LaMotte, who is happily ensconced in domestic harmony with a woman painter when she meets Randolph Ash, a much more well-known (in the story) poet of their time. The two poets develop an intense intellectual connection before finally meeting in person and finding they have an irresistible physical attraction to each other also. They are both, however, effectively married. Ash, to a woman who he loves and who loves him, but who denied him consummation of their marriage. LaMotte, to Blanche Glover, a painter, with whom she has been living in quiet happiness, retired generally from society, in what is an implied lesbian relationship.

From the point of view of queer romance, Possession is a disappointment in that none of the queer relationships in the book have happy endings. (The book, although subtitled “A Romance,” most definitely means that in the scholarly sense of Romance with a capital R, and not romance with a happily ever after.) The current day literary scholar Maud Bailey, has had relationships with both men and women, although one gets the sense while reading Possession that Maud’s queer relationship was more of an intellectual exercise in feminist and lesbian theory than a mad passion or irresistible love. She finds happiness in the end with the very quiet and withdrawn Roland Mitchell, a less brilliant scholar than her with whom she can feel intimacy that doesn’t overwhelm her. (Mind you, if you’ve seen the movie, you will have an entirely different image of Roland Mitchell in your head, since he was played there by the very foxy and not at all retiring Aaron Eckhart.)

As for Christabel LaMotte, her quiet household is disrupted by the passion she finds in her brief affair with Ash, as a result of which Blanche Glover drowns herself. Ugh. Not a happy ending there. But Byatt’s book is not about Christabel and Blanche. That relationship is a side bar to the Victorian poets’ love affair and to the main mystery of the contemporary scholars’ race to discover the truth about this explosive (within their world) new research.

Still, what Alexis Hall’s post brought to mind was the idea, that lingered with me long after finishing Possession, that Christabel’s relationship with Blanche should be valued. Their quiet domesticity and emotional love, even with limited sexual connection (as hinted at in the book), is still queer romance and has equal worth in comparison to overpowering sexual and intellectual passion. In real life, that is. In a novel, not so much. It’s hard to make much of a story out of: “spends days writing and painting together, with occasional conversation but many soft, warm looks at each other.”

I read an excellent article a year or two ago (which I absolutely cannot find…my Google fu has failed me) about the idea of homo & hetero attraction (or somewhere in between the two on a spectrum) applying to a variety of relationships/orientations. So we all, under this theory, have multiple orientations. For sexual attraction. For emotional attraction, or love. For friendship. One person might have same sex attractions for sex and for love, but opposite sex attractions for friendship. Or be hetero for sex and love, but not have any friends of the opposite sex because the attraction there was toward the same sex. And of course, given the nature of the spectrum, most people will fall somewhere in between the extremes in all their relationships and attractions. But because of how we focus on sex as the defining characteristic of attraction, the definition of homo- and hetero- that we most commonly use focuses on sex to the exclusion of all else.

(In remembering Possession, which is not a romance novel, it’s clear that what Byatt is portraying are complicated characters whose various emotional, sexual, intellectual and friendship attractions range all over these spectrums.)

When it comes to romance novels, I think that this focus on sex works to our detriment sometimes. I am, to be clear, a big fan of erotic romance and erotica, and I have deep appreciation for books that make me flush and look over my shoulder when reading in public, in the hopes that no one will suspect why my cheeks are turning pink. I find the intimacy and vulnerability of sex intensely fascinating. But the books that I love, the books that stick with me long after I’ve finished reading them, are the ones that dive deep into the emotional connection between the characters. So I think it’s worth acknowledging that emotional orientation is something different from sexual orientation. And that there’s a whole world of possibility for conflict in the idea that emotional and sexual orientations might not always be an exact match. Several authors I know have been discussing in recent months their interest in writing romances involving asexual characters, and exploring the idea of love and romance with someone who doesn’t experience sexual attraction. This is a fascinating idea to me and I hope they write these books. I’ll be ready to *one-click* in a heartbeat!

Some of the most interesting queer romance books I’ve read recently have been Heidi Belleau’s Rear Entrance Video series. Between the gender presentation fluidity she explores in Wallflower and the rather difficult to describe orientation of the straight guy who ends up in a relationship with a bisexual man in Straight Shooter, I’ve enjoyed reading stories that push my boundaries when it comes to imagining who can develop what kind of attraction to or relationship with unexpected partners.

The other reason I’ve been thinking about these spectrums of attraction is because my QRM post about parenting was referred to as an example of being a good ally. Which is lovely, but also discomfiting. Because I often think of myself as being part of the queer community. But not always.

I spent most of my life assuming that at some point I would end up in a relationship with a woman. It seemed impossible that that wouldn’t happen, since I am as likely to walk into a party or other social gathering and be as attracted to a woman as to a man. But the bottom line seems to be that I’m not actually as queer as I think I am. I think, to refer back to the homo/hetero article, that I hit pretty close to the bisexual center of the sexual and friendship scales, but it seems that my emotional/love orientation is more strongly hetero than I imagined. I’m still open to the possibilities, but I’m also forty-two years old. It’s rather difficult to imagine that non-hetero love is going to pop up out of the blue now. (Note to universe: feel free to bring it on though. I’m just saying.) When I read Alexis’ post about romance being about more than the sex, I nodded my head and thought, “That’s what’s missing with women.”

So I’m left with this odd feeling. Because it doesn’t seem like I can call myself queer if I’ve never had a same sex attraction on the friendship or the sexual end of things turn into love. But I also don’t think of myself as a straight woman who’s trying to be a good ally. I wrote a character in my first queer romance, Off Campus, who tells someone, “No one gets to define your sexual identity but you.” I am lacking definition for myself, which is an odd place to be at this age, and I’m trying to get comfortable with the idea that I might never figure this out exactly and that’s okay. In the meantime, I would love to read more stories about people whose sexual and love orientations create complexity in their relationships. Because orientation is about more than sex, and romance in all of its varieties fascinates me.

Posted in Life & Wonk, Reading, Thinky, Writing Wonkomance | 8 Comments

The Secret Sermon In Every Romance Novel

photo (7)Welcome once again to the fabulous Amber Belldene, Episcopal priest and author of the Blood Vine Series of paranormal romances …

Thanks so much for inviting me back to guest post on Wonkomance!

This essay is really just one extended metaphor, but maybe you will find it useful. It all started with an interesting post/conversation on the romance blog Dear Author about the desire to see characters motivated by religious and philosophical values in mainstream (as opposed to Inspirational) romance. I’ve advocated for the same thing, so I appreciated the thoughtful piece and equally thoughtful commenters, including a person late to the conversation who strongly stated a preference religion be kept out of books.

I’m sympathetic to this opinion. Religion can be very divisive. I’m a priest in the Episcopal Church, and people assume things about my beliefs, values, and behaviors all the time. I’m often grateful for the polite reluctance to discuss religion. Members of my large extended Southern family privately scratch their heads over me being both a priest and a romance writer. But when I visit, we simply drink wine and play viciously competitive cards, which is really altogether more fun than debating theology.

The Dear Author commenter, who signed her comment Pet, also expresses this concern:

I am afraid that some authors will lose their common sense and try to give in to preaching. It is a huge turn off.

I think what she means by preaching is proselytizing—that authors might try to convert readers to their own religious perspective, which would turn me off too. (That’s why I don’t read Inspies!)

But on another level, we’re all preaching. Not the Christian gospel, or the Buddha’s four noble truths, but Romance with a capital R.

Romance novels are full of values and philosophy with lots of bonus sexual tension which, like a spoonful of sugar, helps the big ideas go down. The romance arc is so generally compelling, most readers don’t even realized they are being preached to. And yet, every romance novel is making a statement about the nature of romantic and erotic love. What’s more—this is a bold, hopeful thing to do!

Last week, the New York Times Magazine published a lovely interview with the novelist Marilynne Robinson, who writes brilliantly about faith. There were a million quotable gems in the piece, but this one especially struck me:

A lot of people who actually believe in the sacredness of life, they write things that are horrible, desolating things. Because…[of] the fear of making self-revelation of the seriousness of ‘I sense a sacredness in things.’

Her observation made me so proud to write romance, and to be an enthusiastic reader and evangelist for the genre.

Literary culture disdains earnestness, especially about the most sacred things–love, sex and religion, probably because all three are so hard to write that, as Robinson says, the fear of getting it wrong prevails. But romance does not skirt the sacredness of each person, nor of the bonds that form between us. We are not afraid of a little sincerity! (Though, admittedly, a lot of sincerity makes me queasy.)

I know authors pen romance for many reasons—love of the genre, compulsion to write, unexpected detours from Literativille or Ivory Towers to Romancelandia. But it’s also because we share some core beliefs:

  • Romantic love is good, redemptive, a source of meaning and joy.
  • Sex is an important expression of love.
  • Self-acceptance and authenticity are necessary for one to find/keep love.

We could debate these semantics, and there are probably more core values, but the list of universal doctrine is ultimately pretty short.

Less foundational, but still important to the tradition, we have the tropes that scaffold our stories and sometimes make us the butt of jokes (like, say, The Italian Billionaire’s Secretary Mistress. I actually sort of love how the Harlequin Presents line doesn’t even bother with a titles, as if someone once unabashedly said, “Why not just call it 3 Tropes and a Setting?”). Underlying each trope is another bit of slightly less universal romance doctrine. For example:

  • Friends to Lovers stories uphold true love is worth risking a friendship.
  • Opposites Attract argues love can help us find balance or complementarity.
  • Boss/Secretary suggests true love is worth breaking the rules for.

I’m coming to think of each romance novel as a sort of sermon, shining new light onto a familiar truth, deepening our appreciation of it and our ability to live it out in our own lives. Those faithful readers of the trope-heavy category romances remind me of devoted church goers, longing for the comforting ritual of being told again in fresh words their most dear truth–that love heals, or that mistakes can be redeemed, that an ugly duckling is secretly a lovable swan, just as a seasoned preacher will tell you everyone needs to hear God loves them every Sunday.

Each writer has her or his own take on the romance doctrine, a distinctive world view which colors and flavors the way we tell these familiar stories.

Last year, Mary Ann and Ruthie wrote fabulous Wonkomance posts (which I refer back to every time I get bogged down in revisions) about how a romance novel is an argument in the sense of classical rhetoric. The argument is made up of logos, pathos and ethos. Their posts are well worth the read. I especially like how Ruthie offers the schema as a tool for analyzing our own work and why we may or may not like a particular book:

What’s so interesting to me, here, is two things: first, the idea that I might love an author’s work, love her characters, but hate her argument so much that I can’t even read her book…And second, the idea that I might dislike an author’s writing and her characters, her plot, and her style, and yet find her argument so fascinating, so convincing, that I can’t put her book down.

Later, Ruthie astutely points out that those masters of trope–category writers–are the experts at this kind of argument, and I would go even further to say if you don’t like a particular trope, you may be skeptical of its underlying dogma. (Ex. Maybe Boss/Secretary is never okay because you see the abuse of power as irredeemable, or both the billionaires you slept with were lousy in bed, as the incomparable Remittance Girl reports here, so you prefer to read about less wealthy guys).

A romance novel’s argument reflects the writer’s beliefs about romantic love and why it matters. If you write like me, you may not know what that belief is when you start a story, or that you even believed it until you finished your first draft.

Once I grasp hold of it though, I am most certainly writing to persuade you of it, to show you with all the logic, appeals to sympathy, and authorial credibility I can employ.

I am preaching!

I’m trying to convert you to my vision of love, trying to stretch your already spacious heart a little wider, to embrace to the kinds of conflict and affection that move me and turn me on because I believe it’s good for you and for the world to love this way (and by the way, I’m entirely open to being converted to your way, too!).

Maybe I think about writing this way because I cut my teeth penning sermons instead of fiction, but I’m convinced we’re all doing it. I can certainly understand readers preferring not to read books with religion in them. But to me, the romance writer undertakes that courageous task Marilynne Robinson describes, we admit we “sense sacredness in things” and we want others to sense it too. A romance novel is our attempt to persuade. The story of a conflicted romantic couple is an ideal, page-turning, heart-tugging, arousing medium to argue for our take on this sublime truth.

Counter-culturally, romance novelists resist fear, irony, and cynicism to profess love matters. But it’s okay lots of readers and writers think it’s just a story. It’s way more fun for all of us to pretend we aren’t really preaching, we’re “just” writing a romance novel.

Darling Serena Bell suggested I end this post by asking, “Can I get an amen?” But it feels more right instead to tell you that when I finish one of your books or any truly well argued and sublime romance novel, my whole body hums with that ancient word:

Amen. So be it. The affirmation of, the assent to, the beliefs that unite a community.

Love is good. It matters. Now go back to your life and make it real.

About Amber

Amber Belldene grew up on the Florida panhandle, swimming with alligators, climbing oak trees and diving for scallops…when she could pull herself away from a book.  As a child, she hid her Nancy Drew novels inside the church bulletin and read mysteries during sermons–an irony that is not lost on her when she preaches these days. 

Amber is an Episcopal Priest and student of religion.  She believes stories are the best way to explore human truths.  Some people think it is strange for a minister to write vampire romance, but it is perfectly natural to her, because the human desire for love is at the heart of every romance novel and God made people with that desire. She lives with her husband and two children in San Francisco.

Amber writes scorching and smart paranormal romance and quirky-hot contemporary romance–all of which draw on her interests in spirituality and sexuality.

 

 

Posted in Writing Wonkomance | 11 Comments