Everything old is new again

In case you’ve missed it, there’s a new show on FYI called Married at First Sight. It’s reality TV, and it is heir to all the ills of that genre, and it’s probably crushing all our souls, yes, yes. But. As a writer, as somebody who’s interested in narratives, I find this show fascinating and really do have to recommend it for your next binge-watch.

The setup is: arranged marriages. At the start of the season, a team of experts–including a psychologist, a sociologist (the show calls itself a “sociological experiment”…more on that in a sec), a sexologist (Logan Levkoff!), and a spiritual advisor–sift through profiles of applicants and apply various rubrics to match up three couples. And then…the couples get married. They haven’t met prior to the wedding, and they have to spend a month together before deciding whether to stay married. So basically, a modern spin on the arranged marriage trope. And then the audience gets to watch the drama unfold, because of course there is a great deal of drama. If there weren’t, the show would create some for us, which is the beauty and the curse of reality television.

I do have a quibble with the attempt to characterize this as any type of valid “experiment.” For one thing…we’re talking about three couples. That’s a few anecdotes, not data. And there are too many unquantifiables here, things that simply can’t be controlled for, when you’re talking about people and self-awareness and emotions and whatnot. The sampling isn’t remotely random (for one thing, and it’s a very big thing…everybody involved is willing to be filmed and have their life aired on TV. Regardless of their motivation for that, it’s a huge factor in the types of personalities that’ll end up on the show). The criteria for matching up the couples aren’t all objective. This isn’t science. This isn’t even soft science. It’s entertainment, which is fine. It’s even thought-provoking entertainment, that has the potential to lead to some interesting discussions about the way we select mates, the conflict between our expectations and reality, and how those things impact on the long-term success of relationships. I do wish the show just acknowledged that, rather than trying to lend it some veneer of faux scientific credibility.

That said, I got the impression from the first episode that the matchup process did involve a lot of algorithms of the type that online dating services use…but on steroids. I’d be interested to see if, at the end of the season, they break down any of the specific factors for the audience in terms of which things seemed to be good predictors of compatibility or not. Dating sites actually do have an advantage in terms of statistics, because of the sheer volume of participants, and I think it’d be interesting to see them discuss a bit more what they did on the show that differed from dating algorithms and whether or not it seemed to work.

But whether it’s science or not, the show is pretty fascinating, and I think part of the reason it’s so fascinating is that this arrangement is a perfect pressure-cooker to provide tons of mini-dramas in a short time. It’s basically like a little narrative factory. When you’re first getting to know a romantic partner, there are all these moments of mystery, then potential conflicts, then possibly resolutions. The person drops a casual reference into conversation, you aren’t sure what it means, you sound them out on it and find out more to make sure it isn’t some deal-breaker of compatibility, you engage in that mental calculus (does this person’s physical appeal outweigh the possible implications of their being a libertarian?) then move forward based on the result (okay, sexy libertarian, you can stay…for now). This is a familiar dynamic, but MaFS raises the stakes dramatically by isolating this period in the relationship, compressing the time frame and adding the joint pressures of marriage and the awareness of being filmed all the time. Really, there’s no way that could fail to generate drama. And there are three couples. So each episode offers us three perfect, miniature examples of the classic conflict/resolution cycle, as well as bonus cliffhangers! Good, clean, narrative fun.

I confess part of the draw (a big part) is the schadenfreude. But it’s also that good old category-romance-style appeal. Because despite the modern trappings, the technology, the medium…it’s an ancient story, this one of matchmaking that sometimes succeeds. It’s why we’re still finding ways to fabricate arranged marriage circumstances even in contemporary romances. It’s one of the reasons some people read historicals. Heck, it’s one of the reasons Fiddler on the Roof is such an enduringly popular musical. We all love a fated-love story, we all want to believe that any or all of these couples will work out, will end up with the Best Story Ever about how they met. We want them to succeed…or perhaps to fail spectacularly. On camera, for our amusement.

And possibly, we want them to succeed because we want to think that a team of experts might have finally worked out the secret formula that will instantly hook us up with the perfect mate, and all we’d need to do is fill out a questionnaire in order to find true love. Matchmaker, matchmaker, make me a match!

By the way, I’m team Jason/Cortney, have conflicting thoughts about Jamie/Doug (in part because I doubt her sincerity), and feel that Vaughn and Monet should probably go back to living in different states. And I think part of the reason Jason and Cortney are doing as well as they seem to be doing is that they are younger and have fewer preconceptions/expectations to get in their way as they go through the process of getting to know one another. Which…surprised me, because I started out thinking the older participants would probably do better at least maintaining the appearance of getting along/working things out.

Anybody else watching this? Thoughts? Team?


Posted in Television | 5 Comments

Looking for Balance

I suck at this game. Balance.

Except, of course, it’s not at all a game. Between Ferguson and thousands of people dying on a mountain in Iraq and Ma’lik Richmond playing football again as if that pesky rape conviction never happened, there is a never-ending vortex of bad things happening right now that seems worse than ever.

Normally I only spend this much time reading the news during a presidential election year. And when it’s over, I am exhausted, drained of the ability to get worked up about anything at all for months. I don’t mind this. I’m a political junkie and a presidential election is like being offered your drug of choice on a silver platter at no charge. Bad for me, but nearly impossible to resist.

I take a sort of twisted pleasure in that however. Reading about campaign strategies, listening to the talking heads, mining the political blogs, watching debates. These things both fascinate and thrill me.

There is nothing thrilling about what’s happening now.

Watching the news and reading all of the blog posts feels more like bearing witness than staying current. There have been days in these past two weeks when I’ve done nothing but read and watch and witness. It feels like a moral imperative somehow, not to let these events slide by without notice.

It wrecks me, though. Hence the search for balance.

I have the soul of an addict. Finding balance is not my forte. In the same way that I spend hours combing Twitter for the latest updates on Ferguson, when I break from the strain of watching people provoked and battered and stripped of their civil rights, I go overboard with my relief strategies: staying up until dawn, literally, watching an entire season of Orange is the New Black; rereading all of Laurie R. King’s Mary Russell mysteries in a row; eating entire football-sized jars of kosher dill pickles.

This is not balance. This is just exchanging one obsession for another.

It feels petty even to worry about my own bad habits. If feels petty to work on my own writing. Everything that doesn’t involve me abandoning my child and running off to do something, damn it feels petty. How can I possibly justify spending time writing a romance novel when there are tanks and tear gas in the streets? Who could possibly care about whether or not I can redeem this banjo-playing hipster boy with anger management issues when there are videos so horrifying online I can’t even watch them?

So I binge on the news. And then I watch all of Season One of The L Word in another overnight glom. Anything to stop the voices in my head from their shocked chattering about everything that’s going wrong.

Another day of stalking the news. Another night of rereading everything KJ Charles published this year.

All the while ignoring my own writing, because how could it possibly matter, what I do? How could anything so silly matter at all?

Every time I write a Wonkomance post, you know, it’s because I’ve finally realized something so blatantly obvious that a smarter woman would have acknowledged it long ago.

A post-doc in rocket science is not required to analyze the lesson here.

Of course what I do is important. Of course writing romance novels, even ones about banjo-playing hipsters, is important. What am I doing every night to relieve the pressure of merely witnessing events if not losing myself in someone else’s stories? (The pickle obsession aside, of course.) And I’m only watching from the sidelines. I can’t imagine how much more desperate the need for relief, for distraction, is for those who are suffering directly. How much they will need to take themselves out of themselves when they at last, I hope, have more than moments of peace within which to do so.

I have friends and family members who are going through difficult times right now. Deaths in their families. Financial distress. Health problems that have only bleak outcomes. All of these people read books or watch movies to escape. That is no small thing to provide. Escape.

We hear the word “escapist” all the time in reference to romance novels, to genre literature and film in general. It’s a term of derision, of course. But how stupid of those who use it that way, scorning escapist stories. If I can grant, for a few hours only, a mental escape to someone who needs it, I would consider it a privilege to have done so. If someone else’s silly comic books or simplistic romcom flick can provide that escape . . . well, then, that’s neither silly nor simplistic at all, is it?

For myself, and my quest for balance, I might want to tone it down a little. Or a lot. Ten hours of news followed by ten hours of escape, not to mention those measly four hours of sleep, is no way to live. I think I’ll try to take turns a little bit more. Some work of my own, followed by some news and then an hour’s worth of escapism, perhaps. My son has also recently thrown himself headlong into World of Warcraft during the one month of the year that he’s neither in school nor at camp all day. I hear Pandaren monks have a marvelously adventurous storyline.

He doesn’t know it yet, that what he’s doing now for fun may someday be one of the outlets he uses for escape. He already loves reading and superhero movies, so those bases are covered. I think the thing I need most to teach him is that balancing act.

Of course, since he stops every hour or two to switch activities, take a break, move on to something new, it may be that I’m the one who needs to learn from him after all.

On top of everything else, my next book, WHEN THE LIGHTS GO DOWN, releases on September 1st. So, I expect I will both require some escapism and become obsessively unbalanced about that in just a little while. Anyone have any good balancing tips for me? I’m gonna need ‘em.


Posted in Writing Wonkomance | 6 Comments

Coming Out of the Closet as a Writer: A Guest Post by Bonnie Dee

I’m excited to welcome Bonnie Dee with her first official guest post! Quite a few of us are fans of Bonnie’s work here at Wonkomance — Amber interviews her here, and Charlotte talks about Bonnie’s film-inspired stories here — so it’s a pleasure to hear what she has to say about being a writer in and out of the “closet.”


author photo 4
Hi all, I’m Bonnie Dee, author of an eclectic mix of romance books in many genres including contemporary, historical, paranormal, and fantasy, and featuring both heterosexual and homosexual love. They range from sweetly sensual to super spicy and there’s where the closet comes in.

Because I worked for many years as a secretary at a church, I felt the need to keep my romance writing on the down low. It wouldn’t do for the church members or the small community I live in to discover the nature of what I wrote, so I kept my writing a secret.

Guess what? You can only live that double life for so long before it eats away at you. By the end, just before I finally quit secretarial work, I often felt irritable and impatient with people. I was tired of avoiding any mention of something that’s such a big portion of my life and my identity as a person. Or maybe that sense of irritation with everyone was a symptom of perimenopause kicking in, who knows.

Since last November when I began writing full time, I’ve felt unchained, and it’s not only about not having to go to a desk job every day. I’m still at a desk job but I control the length of time I sit there, how many breaks I take, and how productive my day is. No, the freedom is in finally being able to tell random people in town who ask “So what have you been doing since you left your job?” that I am a writer. I’m not bumming around. I didn’t take early retirement. I am actually working.

Being able to claim my writing is a great first step, but I still don’t share my pen name with a lot of people. I tell them my romances are pretty erotic and I’m not comfortable sharing my pen name. Maybe that’s the next big leap I need to take, throw caution to the wind and let them look me up online if they care to. I could be eliminating possible sales and new readers by being overly cautious. I’ve actually learned that some of the people I’d imagined to be very traditional read all sorts of things I wouldn’t expect. Some people lay these unexpected reads at my feet like cat-caught trophies to assure me they’re not too conservative to be initiated into my secret identity club.

Think of all the books or movies you’ve read or watched where the entire plot hinges on a secret. Everything would be resolved in the first chapter, if someone would simply open his or her mouth and lay out the truth. Secrets are great for creating drama. They suck in real life.

Beloved Healer_500x750But it seems we all have secrets of one sort or another. Sometimes only by telling them do we come to realize the content of the secret isn’t that big of a deal after all and people are a lot more accepting than we expect. Or maybe sometimes they aren’t and we lose someone we believed was vital to us. But if that person can’t accept us as we truly are then perhaps it’s best they’re lost.

In my recent release, Beloved Healer, Mason hides the big secret of possessing healing powers. Using his ability to help people seems to be draining his life so he’s taking a sabbatical from getting involved with anyone. Enter Ava, a hard-working waitress with a disabled brother and alcoholic mother. Mason can’t remain removed from life for long. Soon his secret comes out, people in the community start begging favors, and eventually he must decide whether he can make the ultimate sacrifice to help Ava. You can check out Beloved Healer and other back list books at my web site.


Thanks for visiting, Bonnie! And if you’re interested in reading some of Bonnie’s work, her two-volume box set of NEW LIFE and NEW YEAR is currently available to Kindle readers for free.

Posted in Guest Post, Life & Wonk, Writing Wonkomance | 5 Comments