Love, Cake, and Vampires: A Guest Post by Alexis Hall

After interviewing Alexis Hall about his novel Glitterland, I asked if he’d be interested in guest posting here from time to time, and he agreed. I’m excited to present his first post — an outpouring of love for The Vampire Diaries, complete with a typology of love triangles and a last-minute plot twist!


Let me begin with a confession: I love The Vampire Diaries. I genuinely, passionately, my favourite thing on TV, maybe in the universe, love it. I tried to enjoy it in a cool, ironic way but from the moment bad boy vampire Damon rocked up in season one and actually murdered an innocent schoolgirl, I was like “hell to the yeah, this show has balls.” I can’t actually remember anything that’s ever happened in it ever, but that’s largely because so much happens. It’s the sort of show that leaves you sitting on the sofa, exhausted with incident and the dawning realisation that you’re still on episode four. I should probably mention here that I’ve not read the books, which I know this makes me kind of philistine, particular since, as I understand it, fans of the novels consider think the TV series of a travesty. So with my travesty hat on, I’m going to rave about how awesome the show is.


The centrepiece of The Vampire Diaries is something that seems, on the surface, to be Ye Olde Standard Teenage Love Triangle, consisting of our kind, noble heroine, Elena, and the two hot vampire brothers who want to bang her. There’s Stefan, the good one, who initially kept a diary but I think they stopped that when they realised it made him come across like a fourteen year old girl. Like most morally upright vampires, his hobbies include feeling bad and looking sad. Then there’s his brother, Damon, who is a sociopathic, mass-murdering, sexually promiscuous party boy with all the good lines. He also has literally one facial expression but he’s played by Ian Somerhalder so who’s counting.

-tvd-the-vampire-diaries-23701902-1680-1050Usually, I have no patience for love triangles. It’s kind of like watching someone standing in a cake shop, faffing endlessly over strawberry gateau or chocolate tart. In short, a lot of angst and woe over a non-problem with a very simple solution: honey, they’re both great, just pick one.

And I will confess that, by the end of season three, I was starting to lose patience with TVD. The love triangle was all dithery and the plot had gone more than usually tendriltastic. There was something with original vampires, and a white ash stake, and hybrids, and doppelgangers and, oh lord, I really have no idea. But the season ended, as is traditional for The Vampire Diaries, with somebody trying to do something for which it was somehow necessary to eat, kill or ritually sacrifice Elena and, yeah, she died.

But, y’know, only technically.

the-vampire-diaries-elena-damon-stefan-the-vampire-diaries-32662016-2560-1600So, spoiler, season four has kicked off with Elena being a vampire and my enthusiasm for the show is back in full force. Including, shockingly, my commitment to this bloody love triangle because, for the first time, I truly realised just how superlatively messed up and awesome it is. How fascinating its dynamics and how well-articulated its central conceit. The plot details are hazy to me but at the end of season three, there was one of those implausible “can only save one person” scenarios and Elena tells Stefan to save her best friend, Uninspiringly Human Matt. And Stefan does, so Elena snuffs it and then becomes a vampire, which is not something she ever wanted. The first episode of season four is largely taken up with people angsting about this. Including Stefan, who’s all like “oh no, how can you love me, I totally let you die, that’s not a good trait in a partner.” To which Elena replies that she loves him because he’s always respected her choices.

And I was like: omg, that’s amazing. He does respect her choices. He has respected her choices solidly for sixty six hours of television. That’s more choices than I’ve respected in my entire life.

One of the problems I tend to find in long-running TV shows is that relationships get established and then taken for granted.  In the first few seasons of Buffy, for example, Buffy and Willow used to hang out together, and talk to each other all the damn time.  But by season five they’re people who vaguely know each other and happen to have intersecting plot arcs, and yet the show still insists they’re deep, personal friends, and it’s, frankly, annoying. Friends don’t let friends go evil.  Anyway, The Vampire Diaries sort of suffered from a similar problem in that Stefan and Elena fall for each other in about the first three episodes of season one and from then on its all so focused on “oh no, somebody is trying to kill Elena again” and “oh no, I’ve reverted to my previous amoral, serial-killing self” and “oh no, maybe she should be with Damon actually” that it’s remarkably easy to forget that these are two people in love who are basically just trying to be together.

But season four reminded me. And reminded me hard. There’s a really sweet scene with Stefan and Elena sitting on a rooftop as the sun sets and they’re just having a conversation.  And you remember: these are two genuinely decent, moral people who are separately a little bit sad, a little bit grieving, but find happiness in each other.

And also: he respects her choices.

Later that episode Damon storms in to deploy his one facial expression. And he ends up having a passionate conversation with Elena where he basically tells her that he would have saved her life, whatever else was at stake, because he’s just that damn selfish. Because he loves her enough to be selfish for her. Because he loves her so much he would put her safety above everything in the universe Including her own wishes.

And that was when I just about exploded. You see, the love triangle in The Vampire Diaries isn’t simply a question of what cake Elena should eat, it’s an exploration of the entire nature of cake itself. Because, actually, both Stefan and Damon are right here. Stefan’s love is right because love can’t exist without respect. Because love must sometimes be selfless, and heedless of pain. Stefan lets Elena die because he loves her more than he fears the pain of losing her. But Damon cannot bear to lose her. Because love must also sometimes be selfish, and sometimes be greedy. And, let’s face it, there’s something profoundly powerful about the idea of a love that defies morality and rejects kindness.

And, for me, this works as a love triangle (or a love shape of some kind) because there isn’t actually an answer. In some ways, there isn’t even a question. At the risk of sounding of overly categorical I’d say there are basically two types of love triangle in fiction, which you might call operational and symbolic. Operational love triangles are just literally about which guy the heroine winds up with (Twilight or True Blood being the obvious examples). But in a symbolic love triangle, the guys represent larger questions facing the heroine, either about her life or the sort of person she wants to be. It’s not really a romance by any stretch of the imagination but the classic example is The Phantom of Opera where poor Christine is essentially forced to choose between giving up a career or giving up any semblance of selfhood (or, y’know, bonking someone who isn’t composed of death from head to foot). The Vampire Diaries strikes me as particularly interesting, firstly because I read it as symbolic rather operational, and secondly because it’s actually almost reflecting on itself. It’s not about which hot guy Elena should be with, it’s about how you choose to love, and what that choice means.

So we’ve kind of left the cake metaphor behind since the opposing attitudes to love and loving represented by Stefan and Damon have differences than run far deeper than strawberry versus chocolate.

I think the other difference between D/E/S and most love triangles I’ve seen in in this kind of show, is that Damon has a relevance which goes beyond introducing artificial uncertainty into Elena and Stefan’s relationship. In fact, for a story built around a central love triangle The Vampire Diaries spends remarkably little time asking you to seriously consider the possibility that Elena could actually be with Damon.  Instead, he acts as a counterpoint and juxtaposition to Stefan, and the choices he makes in his relationship with Elena, and the comparison doesn’t always come out in Stefan’s favour. I mean, Elena literally died because she was with Stefan, rather than Damon.  This doesn’t undermine the validity of Elena and Stefan’s love, but I think what’s unusual about the arc is that reinforces this relationship by challenging it. Damon isn’t a straw man alternative, like Jacob in Twilight, and he’s not another stop on the merry-go-round like Eric in True Blood, he’s specifically someone Elena could have chosen to be with and didn’t, and so his role in the series is to explore the consequences of that choice.

In a sense, Elena’s story is as much about not being with Damon as it is about being with Stefan. And I think that’s, I dunno, pretty cool?

Disclaimer: okay, so anybody who watches The Vampire Diaries is probably thinking something along the lines of “oh you poor man, you are about to get your parade rained on quite hard.” So, yeah, turns out, spoiler, Elena gets together with Damon in season four, completely undermining my whole article. But, you know something, I don’t care. One of the things I find kind of fascinating about long-running TV is the way there’s an extent to which it exists only fluidly and is saying basically whatever you think it’s saying at the time that you’re watching it. So wherever The Vampire Diaries is going, and whatever it thinks it is saying, I would still like to celebrate the one brief shining moment when I thought there was an interesting love triangle on TV.  Thank you.

Posted in Life & Wonk, Talking Wonkomance, Television | 18 Comments

Guest Post: Romance Sociology on the Feminine Culture of Romance Authors

It should surprise no one that some of us here at Wonkomance fangurl the ladies of Romance Sociology, Joanna Gregson and Jen Lois. I mean, really…it doesn’t get much more deliciously meta than sociology professors who study the culture of romance authors. For today’s post I asked them to talk about some of the positives they’ve seen in their research [and their response immediately made me recall John Scalzi’s reaction to attending the 2013 RT convention, so I’ll just link that here for anyone who’s interested].

Take it away, Joanna and Jen!


For the past three years we’ve been conducting sociological research on the romance-writing community. Our work has taken us to romance writers’ conferences, writing groups, and author and reader events. We’ve also interviewed over 50 authors, agents, editors, and reviewers.

At the first RWA conference we attended, we were struck by how different it felt from other professional associations we’ve encountered. Virtually every person we’ve spoken to about the romance community has expressed a similar observation—that there is something distinctly different about this group. We attribute that difference to the predominant influence of women in the subculture. Social research of single-sex social groupings shows they tend to take on and magnify the stereotypical characteristics of that gender. Thus, men’s prisons are hypermasculine, while sororities are hyperfeminine. The same can be said of occupational groups dominated by one sex, and it’s certainly true of the romance community.

The driving force in the romance-writer subculture is the emphasis on “being nice.” Though Sarah Wendell and Candy Tan deftly explain the downside of this directive in their book Beyond Heaving Bosoms, we’ve been most interested in the source of this subcultural code. As sociologists, we examine how the code arises from female gender socialization—the messages girls and women receive from the larger culture. Girls are taught first and foremost to “be nice”: to the new kid in class, to adults and authority figures, to people in general. As part of that code, girls and women are also encouraged to cultivate a sense of self through relationships; they’re rewarded for playing well with others, expected to seek compromise over conflict, and bear the onus of managing social relationships. Boys, in contrast, tend to be taught that a sense of self comes from setting themselves apart from others—from standing out in the crowd on the merit of their accomplishments. Although many people receive both of these messages, research has shown that they are weighted differently for women and men. Therefore, it’s no surprise that the romance-writing subculture, a subculture dominated by women, would reflect an emphasis on being nice as the means to developing relationships.

We’ve observed several ways in which these codes are infused into the culture. First, being nice is equated with professional behavior. Two agents on a panel at a regional conference provided examples of this in their response to the question “What do you look for in an author?”:

Agent 1: “The work comes first. Then not having a negative platform, like flaming on Goodreads, taking part in a Twitter argument, or commenting back on Amazon.”

Agent 2: “No matter what medium, professionalism at all times… Nothing can happen in mudslinging except getting dirty.”

A second aspect of being nice is being inclusive. For example, writers often reassure newcomers that they should never feel intimidated to approach “famous” authors (who are often described as “totally accessible”), and that this community is special because no one ever feels excluded. One writer expressed this on a listserv in anticipation of an upcoming regional conference:

“The conference is small enough that NO ONE ever feels left out unless it’s their choice to fly solo. You’ll be pleasantly surprised how many new friends you’ll make in just the first few hours.”

Finally, we believe the be-nice ethos in RWA can be seen in the incredible support writers find here. In fact, one of the characteristics most people offer when we ask them to describe RWA is “supportive.” Support takes the form of mentoring, of cheering, of being there for the trials and tribulations of the career. It means taking time from one’s own work to read someone else’s, offering advice to a newcomer, and doing other things that emphasize the human relationships at play. As one author told us:

“There are not a lot of environments where women who have been successful will routinely come back and keep helping women be more successful. So even though there’s a very big competition there’s also an incredible amount of support and generosity that is just staggering.”

With over 10,000 members, RWA is one of the most successful professional writers’ organizations. As we analyze the be-nice culture among romance writers, we see sociological significance in the fact that it is an outgrowth of a female-dominated community. Just as significant, we think, is how the culture seems to help writers compensate for the difficult experiences in this industry: the constant rejection built into a writing career and the stress of constantly defending the romance genre against the negative perceptions of uninformed outsiders. The be-nice culture has its downside, to be sure, but it also functions in a tremendously positive capacity by providing the community cohesion that romance writers need to meet the challenges of the career.

Because we’re still collecting data, we’d love to hear from you if you have thoughts about this topic. We’re especially interested in hearing from people who can compare their experiences in the romance-writing world with other professional communities, including male-dominated writing groups.

Jen Lois_Joanna GregsonProfessors Joanna Gregson (Pacific Lutheran University) and Jen Lois (Western Washington University) have been studying the romance author culture since 2010. In 2011, they received an Academic Research Grant from the Romance Writers of America. You can follow their research on facebook (Romance Sociology) and Twitter (@RomanceSoc).

Posted in Writing Wonkomance | 7 Comments

Certified Wonktastical: Scrap Metal by Harper Fox

Whenever I hear a book is a slow burn, I run in the opposite direction. While I certainly have loved some of them (LaVyrle Spencer comes to mind) most of the time I end up bored. When reviews say how the author captured the setting and the beauty of it, snooze. When there’s death in a book, I’m out.

But when it comes to these sorts of “I never read this”, there’s nothing more satisfying to me than being wrong wrong wrong.

Scrap Metal by Harper FoxI picked up Scrap Metal by Harper Fox because it was free. I saw that it had great ratings and I’d seen the author’s name before, so it wasn’t a totally random one-click drive-by. However, the free part was the driving force.

And I know this doesn’t really make sense in any sort of economic structure, but wouldn’t it be awesome if books could be afforded their cost based on how much enjoyment they give or emotions they evoke or how many times they’ll be re-read? Right now I’ll buy some book at $9.99 and DNF it halfway through and the money is gone, but this book, even though I loved it, is still free. I could agree to spend, say $100 a month, on books and at the end of said month, the Book-Love-o-Meter would spit out a percentage and Scrap Metal would have a lot of percentage points, that’s all I’m saying.

Right from the beginning, I knew I was going to like it, because I connected to the voice. I liked it, I respected it, I was ready to trust where it was going to lead me. Tell me about the Irish countryside, I thought. You won’t bore me. You can’t, because I love the language you’re using and the way that you’re using it. But I don’t feel we just stopped and talked about the weather or the countryside, not really. Every word moved the story forward, the setting was the action, and that right there, if we could do that every time, I would love beautiful settings.

I would love slow burns, though I’m not sure how slow this one can be called if I fell in love at the 4% mark on my Kindle.

Before the 4% mark, we meet Nichol who is cold and wet and uncomfortable as he rescues a lamb from a cliff. Then he trudges home to the house on the family farm that’s about to go bankrupt. He can’t go back to Edinburgh where he’d rather be finishing his graduate degree but he can’t save the farm, either, so he’s stuck in this rural purgatory, trying to save these lambs who keep dying anyway. And his mother recently died and his brother recently died. His grandfather, though, he’s still alive, even though he totally disapproves of Nichol. And so Nichol falls into bed at night, too exhausted to even be unhappy.


And then, as things generally do in a good book, things get worse. He wakes up in the middle of the night and it’s storming, of course, but above that he hears the sound of someone breaking the windows of the barn, breaking inside. And you know, just fuck it. He has no emotional bandwidth to deal with this be he has to deal with it, so he grabs the gun that belonged to his dead brother, the gun he barely knows how to use, and runs over the wet grass, just ready to do something crazy.

Inside the barn is Cam, who is on the run from the Glasgow mafia. He’s scrambled inside this barn for shelter and is hiding behind some haybales and the little lamb nudges him there. And Nichol is holding his gun, ready to be an angry Irish landowner, well he is an angry landowner for all intents and purposes, he just doesn’t usually self identify that way, and he says, in this totally conversational way, “I see my attack sheep have cornered.”

And both of these men are cold and tired and grieving in their own ways, but I just fell in love with how awesomely casual they are in their desperation. When Cam responds from behind the hay bale, this is their conversation:

“Christ, why the hell is it trying to…eat me?”

“It’s not trying to eat you. It’s hungry. It’s trying to suckle. Stand up.”

“I can’t. It weighs a ton.”

“Just get hold of it and move it. You won’t… You won’t hurt it.”

It’s like they’ve known each other a hundred years, in this dialogue, and yet they’re strangers; these are their first words to each other. Here, both of them remind me of little boys talking, and yet they’re not, and the problems they deal with are not. It’s life or death for both of them, more death recently than life, and yet their first concern is the little lamb with a penchant for climbing cliffs and nibbling on strangers and generally making trouble. They can’t hurt her, they won’t.


So they continue on, with Nichol holding a nervous Cam at gunpoint. Nichol is pissed, really, at life and at death. They fix up the windows so the animals won’t die of the cold, because the animals come first on a farm. And they go inside, and Nichol finally gives it up. He sets down the gun, because he was never going to use it, really. He’s angry at how much death there has been, the very last thing he would do was cause more of it, even to a trespasser. And he’s just drained. And feeling awful. He puts his head in his hands. He hears some sounds and a familiar scent but can barely lift his head.

Cameron was standing in front of me, at cautious distance, holding out a steaming mug. “Nichol. Here.”

My burglar had made me a cup of tea.

I think this is beautiful and so defines them too. How Nichol will work himself until he’s ready to fall over because it’s the only way he knows to honor the memory of his brother and his mother, and the only way he knows to show love for his grandfather. How observant and caring Cameron is, even when he should probably be running for his life. How easily they fall into a domestic rapport.

And I haven’t even gotten to tell you how Nichol studies languages or how Cameron builds art out of scrap metal or how Nichol and Cam and all of them *are* scrap metal, the ones left behind. But I did want to share one more piece that I loved.

Swimming-ScrapMetal-HarperFoxOne of my favorite things is a story within a story. I think this can happen on a micro-level, when even a quiet metaphor can shine new meaning on an ordinary exchange. But they can also be larger, stories told through a character or a book. One of those stories in this book are mermaids. They aren’t real, of course, in this contemporary book, but there are their myths.

In one of them, a mermaid marries a man, and the man is so jealous and possessive. He locks her inside a room, but the mermaid escapes through a pipe and is gone from him. Nichol worries about this and Cam, because he wants Cam to stay but he doesn’t want to lock him in a room to make him leave. Cam will leave, he knows that, just like his mother and brother and father and everyone leaves. There’s just him and his grandfather trapped in his dwindling farm, and eventually his grandfather will leave him too.

Nichol thinks about the mermaid who got away, and how his mother told him the story, and asks himself “Had she been trying all my life to prepare me to face loss?”

Except I don’t think she was preparing him for that. I think she was talking about herself and him, how she was of this farm and land but how Nichol always dreamed of going to the city and being free. She was telling him that she wouldn’t lock him in, even if she kind of wanted to. She was saying that the only way he would stay on the land was if he wanted to, and that’s the journey of this book. It’s about loss, definitely, and it’s about finding where you really belong.

Read Scrap Metal by Harper Fox now:
Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Kobo | All Romance

Posted in Certified Wonktastical | 8 Comments