Impossible Love

The other day on Twitter, I said, “I just can’t resist a good incest romance!”

I’m not sure why I didn’t predict the reactions I got to this comment. Because I am oblivious? Because I rarely think before I tweet? I expected crickets, and I got something more like, “Wha? Incest romance? Is that a thing? Are you drunk? I can’t read about incest at all, ever. Just, no.”

The conversation this statement came out of involved a book that I thought was a romance but it turns out is not, because it has a tragic ending.* So, I guess “incest love story” might have been more apt. Either way, such stories are a great big “NO THANK YOU” for many of the people I was talking to on Twitter, and I can understand that, I really can. I have brothers, and I don’t want to kiss them. It’s not that I find the idea of incest sexy in the abstract — I know it’s some people’s kink, which is cool and all, but it’s not mine. So why did I see this book and immediately decide I had to read it?

* I’m not going to link it — the book is unimportant, and I ended up abandoning it halfway through because it was dull. I know! Dull incest! So unfair.

Here is what I decided. For me, the appeal of a brother-sister romance is the impossibility of it. What couple could be more doomed? And what is more compelling than reading about doomed love, hoping against hope that the author will rescue these poor bastards?

I read LaVyrle Spencer’s The Fulfillment with the same rapt fascination in the characters’ doomed-ness. The Fulfillment is an adultery book. A farmer, his wife, and his brother all live together on a late-nineteenth-century Minnesota farm. The husband has decided, after seven years’ marriage, that he is infertile, and he asks his brother if he will impregnate his wife. “No!” brother and wife say. “How appalling!”

Except . . . you know how this story goes. Once the idea is there, the brother and the wife can’t push it away. They have always liked each other. In many ways, their easy friendship is more fulfilling to them than the wife’s relationship with her husband. And so a romance blooms between them that ends, predictably, in pregnancy. But it’s not right! The wife can’t keep seeing the brother. She returns to her husband, promises fidelity, and leaves the brother miserably heartbroken. At this point, there is simply no way for the story to end happily for everyone. Everything is impossible.

This is the point at which I couldn’t put the book down.

I am enamored, too, of cross-class historical romance. When I was a historian, I studied working-class social and cultural history. I have a very real sense of the size of the gulf between the British aristocracy and the working class in the nineteenth century. And it’s for this very reason, I think, that I love the Pygmalion-type historical romances most of all when they beat me about the head with their impossibility. Judith Ivory’s The Proposition (rat catcher hero meets well-off spinster!), Laura Kinsale’s Flowers from the Storm (devoted Quaker heroine meets dissipated duke!), Meredith Duran’s A Lady’s Lesson in Scandal (poor thief heroine and scandalous aristo hero!) – these are books wherein the protagonists pretend to be someone they are not, and it sort of works, in the middle. But all the while the book reminds the reader over and over again, “Impossible, impossible, impossible.”

The problem with these impossible romances, for me, is that I nearly always hate the endings. Because they are romance novels, the novelist has to come up with a wand to wave that will make the impossible seem possible, and I never believe the magic. Even beautiful wand waving feels, in the end, like trickery.

And — here is the other thing — I don’t even know if I want to buy it. All the theories of how genre fiction works suggests that I am meant to be on the edge of my seat, biting my nails, weeping in agony at the black moment — and then the cathartic resolution of the plot is supposed to fill me with joy and satisfaction. But in my case, at least, it almost never works. The more impossible the book is, the less likely I am to believe its happy ending. But I don’t care. I don’t read impossible books for the endings. I read them for the impossible love in the middle.

So what is that about? Is it about my interest in love’s tenacity? Its brazen refusal to crop up only in the appropriate places at the appropriate times? Is it that love in these stories is so often the torch the characters carry in otherwise dismal lives? I think of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, in which the father’s love for his son and the son’s love for his father are the only beauty in an unbearable world. Maybe I just want to watch love grow like a weed where it isn’t wanted. Maybe I hope it will be dandelion love, changing the color and texture of the landscape, more beautiful for being hardy and unwanted.

Only, I have no patience for Romeo and Juliet. My favorite part of Wuthering Heights is the bit at the beginning where the weirdo narrator is closed into the wooden bed, and also the dogs keep bothering him. I am not such a romantic soul that I seek out stories that venerate impossible love and then end tragically. I only seem to like the romancey ones, even though I hate the endings.

So I don’t know. I really don’t.

I’ve been thinking about all of this in relation to what I write, in which the conflict is never even remotely impossible. Indeed, the conflict is generally scaled so small in my books that I reliably get two-thirds of the way through the draft and then panic. Oh, God! There’s no conflict at all! This is not even a book. I give up. And sometimes reviewers call me out on this. They say, “This was not a heart-pounding read. It was kind of quiet. It was kind of slow.” Fair enough.

As a writer, my preference is for small-scale, stupid human conflict — for characters who make the same sorts of mistakes I have made. People who don’t want to talk about their feelings. People who are afraid to take risks, afraid to rock the boat, afraid to make themselves vulnerable. I once wrote a buddy romance in which the entire conflict was that the heroine didn’t want to tell the hero she was into him, and vice versa. They got married in Vegas, had a lot of excellent sex, and got along like gangbusters — all while refusing to talk about their feelings at all. Because risk! Scary! My agent read it, and she was like, “Wait, why aren’t they just talking about this like normal people?” And I was all, “But normal people don’t like to talk about feelings!

Ha. Yes. That one’s still sitting on my hard drive.

The hero of my latest book, Flirting with Disaster, is afraid to talk to the heroine because he thinks she’ll make his adolescent stutter come back. (He’s right.) He’s hanging around his hometown because his mother died and he’s so incapable of dealing with everything he feels about her that he ends up squatting in her house instead of packing it up. The urn with her ashes in it sits on the kitchen countertop next to the Peet’s Coffee. This guy has issues, but there’s nothing impossible about them. He just has to open his mouth. He just has to pack his mom’s coats up and give them to Goodwill.

I write these sorts of stories because I love the arc of them. I love thinking about how love can help us take small but important steps as human beings toward more fulfilling, more honest, more open lives. This is the kind of happy ending I believe in. It’s the argument I know how to make, the story I have to tell. It’s a good story, I think. People seem to like it.

But those other stories — the impossible ones that I never imagine writing, myself — they have a beauty that lures me back time after time, pressing my nose against the glass, looking through the window, rapt.

Show me a love that’s impossible. Wave your wand and make me believe in magic. Convince me.

I don’t know what to make of it.

Posted in Shameless Self-Promotion, Talking Wonkomance, Thinky | 23 Comments

A Writer’s Experience

I’ve been thinking about my experience as a person and how that funnels into what I write. I mean, they’re definitely related. And by related, I mean wrapped up so tightly that it would take a psychologist and a crowbar to sort it all out. But it’s also not a straightforward equation, like PAST EXPERIENCE + SECRET DESIRE = BESTSELLING ROMANCE or something like that. Or is it? Fuck, I don’t know.

And then, rather separate from our past life experiences, there’s the experience of writing the book, which I think changes us. Minimally we’ve learned about the characters. Hopefully something about craft. And more than that, we have the little truth quartzes that surfaced during the dig.

This is why I write. It’s not because I “can’t not write” as I sometimes see bandied about. Or because of some hope for glory. I mean, I wouldn’t turn down glory, but my chances are probably better in another field. Writing is the second best way I’ve found to learn things, reading being number one. As a writer, I get to do a lot of both.

Awhile back I read some writing advice from a bestselling author that said to use what we see in our books. The example was something really simple, like she ate an orange and so her character did. Because of this, she was able to describe them better. It makes me wonder how much this applies to larger plot points. How would this book I’ve written be different if I wrote it in a year or two years or ten years?

1339345834820_8803315Because books sit on shelves with thick fancy binding, they have a sense of permanence. Digital books are a little different, but the same principles apply. Once you put the book out there, it’s done. Which, to me, is a certain acknowledgement against perfection. It’s not that my first book won’t be perfect or that my second one won’t be, it’s that they will never be. Cannot be. Because they’re not a culmination but a snapshot of where I am at the time. It can’t represent what I’ll experience or think up tomorrow any more than I can predict next week’s lottery numbers.

In addition, there’s usually a long lead time between when you finish a manuscript and when it’s available for sale. So by the time other people are reading my thoughts, they may have already changed or grown or retracted or become invalidated or become even more true or anything at all. That’s not to say that authors should or do dislike their past books. It’s about loving something that is by its nature imperfect and incomplete. It must be imperfect and incomplete, because if that’s still all I know, then I would not have grown since then.

Yesterday, I read the reddit IAMA from Ethan Hawke and turns out he is a novelist! I did not know this. Anyway, he’s talking about famous author Kurt Vonnegut and says, “I remember when we met I told him how much I loved SLAPSTICK and he said it wasn’t a very good book.” Well, it is and maybe it isn’t, but I think the author is perhaps in the worst position to judge his own work.

The characters I’m writing at the moment are possibly my favorite characters ever. I’ve had them in my head but avoided writing their book because I worried I wouldn’t be able to do them justice and then finally just… started writing. And, quite frankly, I’m not doing them justice. I’m not really sure how much of that is perception because of how much I love them. Or if I just need to wait and get more experience, in life and as a writer. Or maybe we are just destined to love our creations that we recognize as imperfect.

Posted in Writing Wonkomance | 17 Comments

Shame, Horribly Delicious Shame

So this happens all the time. Somebody here posts something, and either the post or the comments get me thinking.

In this case the post was Ruthie Knox’s Aim for the Middle (Oh, and Also, There Is No Middle). In the comments, Sherri Porter and Sarah Wynde were discussing shame and enthusiasm, because shame is all about rule violation and Ruthie wrote, “I think enthusiasm kind of crowds out rules, so there’s no room left for them.” This is why the Romantic Times convention is the happiest place on earth, by the way. Sarah mentioned the Id Vortex, which immediately made me think of Charlotte Stein’s deliciously filthy book, All Other Things. Charlotte is for some reason inextricably linked in my mind with Michael Fassbender—I don’t know why, I don’t question it. So then I had to go watch Shame because it seemed the thing to do. Then somebody on twitter mentioned Brené Brown (thank you Doren Cassale and/or Megan Mulry), who did two amazing TED talks on shame and vulnerability. And at some point in that whole round of shame-related research, I read the original Id Vortex post again and really started thinking about how shame can be delicious and maybe even transcendent, and that whole stream of consciousness is a perfect example of why I love this blog.

Oh, admit it, you like it a little.

Oh, admit it, you like it a little.

Okay, lemme back up.

The Id Vortex is this great concept used by fan writer Ellen Fremedon to describe what so much fan fiction is about—tapping into all that stuff that, when we read it in a fic, ruins our childhood memories in the worst/best possible way. Stuff that’s obviously compelling, universal material, despite the fact that we all agree it’s horribly wrong (she used the term in the context of a Star Trek Mirror Universe/M*A*S*H crossover slashfic involving slavery, and you can use your own id to imagine specifics). In fan fic, Ellen Fremedon suggests, “we’ve all got this agreement to just suspend shame.” We know we’re not writing or reading it for literary merit, in fact we know it’s often deliberate wank fodder, so the usual rules of professional fiction vis-à-vis sex and social norms and other taboos don’t apply. We dive right into the good stuff, smashing fandoms together, hopping genres with abandon, shipping and slashing improbable and sometimes even illegal couples, subjecting familiar characters to all manner of outlandish lewdness, just because we find it hot and/or entertaining. She goes on to ponder “what the effect on, if not mainstream literary fiction, at least on mainstream genre fiction is going to be, when the number of fanwriters taking that toolbox with them into pro writing reaches critical mass—which I think it’s going to, in the next decade.”

She wrote that in 2004. In Romancelandia I think critical mass has long since been reached—not necessarily because of all the fan fic writers turning pro (though we certainly abound), but because the same cultural influences and changes in mass communication that led to such a tremendous surge in fan fiction also led to a general shift in how we, as writers and readers, view the Id Vortex. The internet has taught people that whatever they’re into, they’re not alone. You can always find somebody online who shares and validates your desires. It’s a post-Rule 34 world, in which you’re never more than a few keystrokes away from, say, tentacle porn. On the other hand, there are still people who do not live on the internet, so there are still real-life contexts in which we are reminded that our various perversions are wrong and bad in the eyes of many*. We then recall these contexts the next time we surf for hentai (or whatever), and the frisson of the forbidden will spice our arousal, and so on, in an endless cycle. Shame: we’re soaking in it.

DeliciousBrené Brown researches shame, which has got to be among the strangest jobs ever. If you haven’t seen her TED talks, go watch them. A key component of shame, according to Brown, is vulnerability. Unlike guilt, which deals with our feelings about what we’ve done, shame involves our feelings about who we are. Guilt is, “I’ve done a bad thing,” but shame is, “I am a bad thing.” Shame makes us feel unworthy of love, and afraid to take chances. We fear the loss of connection to others; if people knew the horrible truth about us, we worry, they wouldn’t want us. But in order to make a true connection, we must let our true selves be seen, make ourselves vulnerable. From a practical standpoint, we have to display our deepest, darkest, stickiest, most potentially shameful shelves in order to find the others who share our desires. In order to connect, we must risk.



This tension is pretty much at the core of every romance ever written. What’s different lately, or at least it seems so to me, is the growing number of romances—erotic romances in particular, though not exclusively—that are willing to make this conflict explicit. They go there. They soak in it. And then they somehow turn it into something else. Case in point: All Other Things (I could’ve used any number of Charlotte’s books as examples). The premise is simple enough: wife knows she should be content with awesomesauce-but-vanilla husband; wife harbors shame-inducing lust for edgy coworker; awesomesauce husband is secretly IMing edgy coworker; eventual kinky threesome ensues (obviously). But the events are almost unimportant, because the key factor in this book is feels, and the most important feel of all is that one where the character is mortified and aroused and doesn’t want to like what’s going on because she thinks she shouldn’t, but she really, really does, so much, even though she isn’t certain she likes who that makes her since it involves sex and also because threesome. And then it goes from them talking about how filthy it’s all going to be to being unbearably filthy and it’s all the most delicious thing imaginable.

The characters think about and express their shame, spelling out the part it plays in the menage so that it’s almost as if the wonkiness of their sexuality is a fourth participant in the affair. And for all it’s a dark book, there’s an odd cheeriness in the delight the characters end up experiencing. Yes, it’s dirty, but once they reach a certain point, they’re gamboling and wriggling in the dirtiness like frisky, overexcited puppies. In effect, they’re fetishizing shame (which, in case this wasn’t clear, is awesome), which transforms it, and transforms how they view themselves. Their enthusiasm for how the shame itself makes them feel crowds out their previously held notions about whether wanting to engage in those shameful acts makes them bad people. At the end of the book they do still want to do those things…they just feel differently about what those things mean.

It becomes a story about how we wrestle with our shame. How it is possible, maybe even necessary, to make that struggle explicit in order to transcend shame. How we come to terms with—come to accept and embrace—what our desires and needs do or do not say about us.

Cone and LizardOnce I started to think about this use of shame in modern romance writing, I couldn’t stop thinking of examples, most of them from the last decade or so  (not necessarily just contemporary romance or erotic romance – Sherry Thomas and Courtney Milan, about whose historicals I’ve often flailed here, both excel at exploring how characters mediate their own shame). And how different these books are, how much more willing to explore and ultimately accept potential ugliness in protagonists, than the standard “shameful-act-is-shameful-and-must-be-atoned-for-before-love-is-earned” model of so, so many romance books that have gone before and will surely come after. This may seem harshly realistic, a quality we don’t always associate with romance, because in the real world shame works this way. It doesn’t usually lead to atonement and true love…in reality we are going to continue googling for XXX-rated Harry Potter Giant Squid stories even if we do find love, so instead of feeling like we’re bad people for enjoying weird stuff, it makes sense to find love with somebody whose response to that tendency is, “Filch/Squid is my  OTP! Mah fic recs, let me show u them!” But in a way it’s also deeply romantic, this notion that we can find a love who not only loves us for ourself but embraces what we might otherwise think of as the worst in ourselves. Maybe it’s the new romantic.

On the other hand, maybe all this means that love is really just an acute form of confirmation bias? Perhaps that has always been true. I have no idea. Feel free to discuss amongst yourselves.

Gosh, and I didn’t even get to naked Fassbender (amusing, and NSFW). I could have also said many things here about shame and the collected works of Cara McKenna, by the way, or discussed Ruthie’s instant wonko/shame classic, About Last Night, but I’d rather gather recs. What’s your favorite work of horribly delicious piping-hot shame?

[*protip: if somebody isn’t sure how to check their email, that isn’t a person with whom you should broach the subject of tentacle porn. Or whatever.]

Posted in Recommendations Needed, Talking Wonkomance, Thinky, Writing Wonkomance | 16 Comments