Characters Behaving Badly

One of the first waves of romance books I read was Lord of Scoundrels by Loretta Chase, which is really a staple of the genre. I loved that book and went on to glom Loretta Chase, as well as much of the historical romance canon. I also re-read Lord of Scoundrels several times.

1995-lord-of-scoundrelsIt was only one maybe the fifth re-read that I noticed, I mean *really* noticed, that the heroine SHOOTS the hero. Like, with a gun. And a bullet in his shoulder. And that the narrative, from my interpretation, basically shrugs this off as “he had it coming.” I mean, that’s weird. It’s weird that I didn’t fully realize that beforehand, almost as if my brain refused to acknowledge the scariness of that situation in what is an almost humorous book. It’s also weird that the book managed to be as popular as it was, considering. I guess that’s a kudos to Chase for making it work.

Thinking about the heroine shooting the hero definitely altered my perception of the book, but it didn’t make me hate it. I still love the book, and still love Loretta Chase, only now there is a little WTF!? bookmark inserted in that love. I’m okay with that. There are WTF!? bookmarks inserted in my actual real life relationships (though no shootings, thankfully). And I am prepared to be far, far more permissive with fiction than I am with real life.

Which brings me to the inspiration for this post, which is the recent discussions online about dubcon and non con. Actually I believe that was kickstarted by fellow wonkster Alexis’s post about m/m having more dubcon than m/f. But the fact remains that having more dubcon in m/m would not, could not be troublesome if dubcon was not inherently troublesome, and it’s that trouble that I wanted to explore in this post.

And really, similar arguments are used for antiheroes or even alphaholes. The idea that “it wouldn’t be okay if some guy tried to do this exact thing to me, therefore this is not okay in a romance.” I mean, that makes a certain kind of sense.

Though I have to admit, that’s not how I read.

It’s not how I read general fiction or literary fiction or romance. Sometimes I don’t know if that kind of restriction is being placed on fiction in general or romance only. Is it the HEA that then makes the requirement for good behavior?

And when I read a book with bad behavior, am I exploring it or am I tacitly absolving it? The subconscious is a pretty mysterious place to me, so I don’t know the answer to that. But I also think that restricting characters to behavior I would personally do and/or approve of is not the right direction. I can choose not to read a certain book, of course, but suggesting that it’s problematic or that other people shouldn’t read it is another thing entirely.

But I’m definitely not okay with all bad behavior either. Sometimes I get pissed as hell and then I rant. I’m not sure there’s a specific line I can put on when I’m okay or not okay with it. It depends on the context, and to me, that’s a good thing, each book evaluated on its own merits and arguments.

One of the factors that influences my acceptance is the character’s self-awareness. For example, I’m far more likely to be interested in a hero who does bad things and knows they’re bad but does them anyway. That is interesting to me. Why does he do them? What happens next after he does them? Does he ever regret them? That’s a very different scenario than reading about a hero who, in the case of dubcon, doesn’t even understand how consent works. That’s not interesting as subject matter to explore, to me.

I think that explains why some (most?) of the old dubcon bodice rippers don’t work for me. Like when the hero coerces her but then tells her she deserved it and that it’s okay because she had an orgasm and he believes that. Because in addition to being an asshole, he’s a stupid asshole and there’s nothing interesting about that. Then at some point I wonder if the author also doesn’t understand consent, and then I get angry at like, all of society.

But with To Have and To Hold by Patricia Gaffney, that book worked for me because my interpretation was that he understood exactly what he was doing. And she understood exactly what he was doing. They were both fully aware, fully intelligent, as they acted against each other. Watching them move closer in spite of themselves was a beautiful thing. I fully believe that it’s possible to acknowledge what he did was wrong, and should never be done in real life, and still appreciate that book. In fact, I feel like that’s the core story of the book.

And some people may disagree with me, in their interpretation of that book. Still other people may not even care about interpretations, because it’s not enjoyable for them to read that kind of thing. My point is *not* to encourage people to read the book or to like the book, but just to say it’s important to be able to have that conversation about it, for those of us who want to. Reading about a certain type of behavior doesn’t mean we support it.

The truth is I don’t know how my subconscious will process everything that I read. I don’t know what I’ll think about some new situation, some new argument, some new book–but what I love about reading is finding out.

Posted in Talking Wonkomance | 15 Comments

RT 2014: A disjointed recap featuring food

Photo by Kailynn Jones, who is a badass photographer.

The Romantic Times convention happened this last week in New Orleans, so I’m going to attempt to recap that. However…I didn’t actually attend all THAT much of the conference, so fair warning, this will be at best a narrow perspective on the conference. Mostly I’ll be discussing New Orleans, because this was the first time I’d been back since Katrina. And also food, because you can’t really talk about the Big Easy without at least mentioning food. It’s kind of the epicenter of food porn in the South.

Among the things I noticed about New Orleans: the smell has changed since Katrina (not necessarily for the better or worse, just…changed. I was warned about this by family who’d visited since the storm). Old cities in warm climates tend to develop these olfactory patinas, distinctive signature notes of their best and worst fragrances layered together over centuries. Before its nonconsensual power-washing, New Orleans’ scent was always aging magnolia petals and old crawfish boil, but…more. Those things together, forming a new/ancient fragrance, which was then steeped into brick and slate and paint and wood and yes, the smell included notes of piss and vomit, but also jasmine and fresh herbs growing in window boxes. The latter smells are all still present, and I assume that after enough years, the spicy-sharp smell of crushed magnolia blossoms will also re-assert itself. But I’m pretty sure the restaurants aren’t allowed to just chuck the old crawfish boil water into the alley when they close for the night any more, so it’s possible the classic NOLA smell will never return and I’m not sure how I feel about that.

Shhh…they’ll still be serving beignets a few hours from now, honey.

I probably should’ve mentioned that I love New Orleans and just about always have, ever since my first visit there at age five or six or so. Because of this, I have many strong opinions about it, one of which is that it should smell a certain way, and another of which is that the best time to experience the city is in the early morning. New Orleans at dawn is a drowsy, once-beautiful but still-charming lady of the evening, rolling over and blinking in exhausted appreciation at the sunrise that paints her with a damp, rosy glow and reminds her of her distant youth even as she’s still groaning from the previous night’s excesses. Somewhere in the French Quarter, a saxophone is already playing. That hasn’t changed. New Orleans will pull the covers back over her head and snatch a few more hours’ sleep before she rises to search out some chicory coffee and beignets. I’ve noticed quite a few conference attendees on Twitter expressing a wish to do the same since returning home.

Several Wonketeers attended RT this year. We were spread out a bit; some of us stayed at the main conference hotel, some were at another hotel, and several Friends of Wonk were located in an extremely cool townhouse in the French Quarter (I think it was Shelley who termed it ‘bordello chic,’ pointing out that it looked like Belle Watling’s crash pad. Hopefully Jeffe Kennedy or Megan Mulry or Ann Calhoun will post some pictures, hint hint).

Hungry Shelley

Hungry Shelley is hungry.

But we kept meeting up, by chance and design, mostly in the conference hotel lobby (A MASSIVE WALL OF SOUND WITH INTERMITTENT DRINKS SERVICE) or at the Green Goddess (a sidewalk cafe on Exchange in the Quarter, where the food is all some crazy Babette’s Feast level of transcendent and you can just taste the love and reverence in every fucking bite…plus they also had a lot of vegetarian, vegan, and gluten-free options, and it probably would surprise nobody to learn that Wonkomance is heavily loaded with members who utilize some or all of those options).

This RT, food seemed even more than usually important, possibly because New Orleans, but also because there were eddies in the time-space continuum, so people kept planning for food then not getting to have food until they’d become hangry.

photo 3

We shall not soon see their like again…

photo 2Sometimes people couldn’t even make it to the actual restaurants and had to simply resort to whatever they had in their rooms. I’m not going to say “Don’t trust Cara McKenna alone in a hotel room if Cheetos are at stake,” but…she did feel strongly enough about these Cheetos in her room to take and subsequently share a photo of them. Read into that what you will. Cara, Shari, Amber and Tamsen Parker also apparently laid waste to several orders of beignets, which is a thing one is required to do when in New Orleans.


God. Breakfast. BREAKFAST.

There are other breakfast options in NOLA, though. For example, this “french toast” thing at Green Goddess, which involved some sort of apple substance and caramel and…all the gluten, and most of the dairy. I didn’t eat it, but it smelled amazing. Everything at that restaurant was amazing. We couldn’t have the Wonkomance dinner there because there wasn’t room, though, so for that event we went to Carmo, which was also superb. Dinner conversation included the set-up to such classic lines as, “Adorable Psycho is the name of my breakout album,” so you know that was a good time.

There was a plan to follow that dinner up with karaoke, and a few of us made it that far. Shelley sang Son of a Preacher Man and one of the bar employees fell in love with her I think. Then Kailynn Jones sang Hit Me With Your Best Shot, and I think the karaoke DJ fell in love with her a little bit. Mostly, though, the bar was dominated by a couple of large bachelorette parties, and there were several on-stage incidents featuring plastic penises (one of them about a yard long) and a lot of extremely unfortunate behavior. Blah blah, human pyramid with a drunk bride on top, yadda yadda yadda makeshift strap-on penis envy acting-out, blah blah some chick attempting to sing while riding a giant foam cock like an unfortunate pony. As my fabulous agent, Courtney Miller-Callihan, so aptly put it, “It’s Bourbon Street. It’s not a place for self-esteem.”

photo 1

Also at the karaoke bar, Shari and I demonstrated to Amber how to do a Jell-O shot. Hint: it does not involve a spoon, Amber. No spoons. Just tongues and some well-timed squeezing. Anyway, after that it was clearly time for a semi-drunken midnight game of Cards Against Humanity (picture of one winning hand, courtesy of Cara). Life tip: never play CAH with Sarah Frantz unless you are prepared to lose, and lose big. That woman is frighteningly good at CAH, and somehow I don’t think it was just newbie luck.

RT is a professional convention, so of course we also all attended things, presented things, signed things. We all met people and fangirled people. Some of us also pitched and/or wrote things.  The usual. But it was all going on in New Orleans, which made it extra fun. New Orleans is one giant plot-bunny generator. I want to go back there and stay for about a month, people-watching and writing. Many of the apartment-for-rent signs conveniently specify whether the apartment is haunted or not, but I think I’d take my chances on this ambiguous place over an art gallery across the street from Pere Antoine. Ghost, schmost, it’s all location, location, location. Shelley, you comin’?





Posted in Writing Wonkomance | 9 Comments

Leaning in and the myth of having it all

The day after Jill Abramson was fired from the New York Times, I got an e-mail from an old acquaintance—let’s mix things up a bit and call her 聰明的女人, yeah?—wondering if we could talk. She is the mother of two young children, is highly educated with a bachelor’s degree and an MBA from top schools, and is on the verge of leaving a professional, high-level job that had offered her flexible work hours.

And she was wondering what to do next.

A mutual friend had suggested to her that she talk to me, since I was in this same position nearly five years ago, and had made some very conscious choices with regard to being a woman and a mother in the professional world.

So, 聰明的女人 and I got on the phone, and she told me she was looking for something that would pay well, allow her to be with her children when they needed her, and that would be intellectually stimulating, and…Why doesn’t this exist? Why is it so hard for women?

And I remembered thinking, Oh. This is sad.

Because there were two things going on in that conversation.

One, that the struggles over pay equality, expectations of women’s behavior, and burdens of women as primary caretakers are problems that so many women don’t even know about. It’s easy to forget, in the self-selected community in which I exist, that a significant portion of the female population might have a suspicion that something isn’t quite right, but they’re not aware of what that something is, and the relatively small knowledge about where we stand as women is still more than what others possess. And that was the situation I found myself in with 聰明的女人. She was only beginning to realize. Before this shift in her life, she belonged in the teeny weeny tiny segment of the population that might possibly maybe benefit from Sheryl Sandberg’s advice in Lean In (If you have not read this book, there are parts that are interesting and worth a read, but also parts that made me laugh out loud at how literally impossible the suggestions in there are for most women to act upon.)

Anyway. The point is that, in so many ways, these kinds of realizations are moments of crisis that are unique to a woman and a woman’s experience, and they’re not her fault. No matter how much onus books like Lean In try to place on the woman, herself, to change the entire system that is in motion around her, it’s not her fault. But it’s easy for it to feel that way when one doesn’t know the subtle-but-heavily-ingrained expectations that we, as women, fight against every day.

The second thing going on in that conversation was that, despite the evidence in front of her, 聰明的女人 really had expected that reaching for new opportunities was all she would need to succeed. She listed off a bunch of folks she knew who were in powerful positions, who might be able to help her find exactly the kind of job she wanted. These connections could all lead to opportunities, and she was initiating their creation.

Except all of the people she listed were men.

And when we hung up, it was clear that she still had at least a little of that expectation. She’d been really fortunate in the past with that same approach. And, to be fair, maybe it will work for her. She’s brilliant, well-educated, experienced, and tough. I admire who she is and I am grateful that a woman like her had that moment of realization, that This is more than just a feeling that something is off. It’s an ongoing struggle with a mass of knowledge behind it that is waiting to be discovered. Sitting at the table is great—when there is a table. Finding a true partner is fantastic—when you have an adequate pool of partners from which to choose. Leaning in is only possible when there’s something there to lean against, in the first place. Otherwise, you just end up falling on your face.

I hope that doesn’t happen to 聰明的女人. I hope she ends up getting everything she wants. But I also hope that this shift in her life changes the way she looks at all of the opportunities she has, at how hard she had to work for them precisely because of her sex, and how the discrimination is rampant at every level of professional and social interaction. If it can affect someone like Jill Abramson, that says a lot.

I’m not trying to be all, This sucks so let’s just give up. Not at all. This post is more of my own personal catharsis, to be honest. To have felt sad to see a smart woman feel stupid. To process the regret that comes with seeing a female go through something that women have been experiencing for centuries. It’s hard, and it’s never not jarring. It’s one of the reasons why I love the romance community so much. We are predominantly women. We are mostly extremely supportive of one another. When we lean in, it’s because, for the most part, we know that we are leaning on a caring shoulder. We know that we are leaning into a strong hug. Leaning is not about a fight. Should not be about a fight. And I’ll continue to rely on that perspective to get through the moments of crisis.

Posted in Writing Wonkomance | 8 Comments