Windows and Mirrors

A guest post from Shelley Ann Clark

Hey, Cara here. I asked Shelley to post for us here at Wonkomance, thinking it’d be great to get a librarian’s perspective on the genre. And also because she’s hilarious and adorable, and seems to have an uncanny talent for attracting strangers’ bodily excretions. I absolutely love the post she came back with, touching on her library’s underprivileged readers and their desire not necessarily for escapism, but realism. Without further ado…Shelley!

“My patrons see plenty of windows. I’m sure that sometimes they see enough windows that they wonder why they’re still standing outside in the cold.”

“My readers want an HEA, but they want gritty realism too. Stories about women working hard to get an education, the draw of a bad boy and how his choices have serious consequences—these are the themes my patrons love.”

Public libraries are wonky places.

It doesn’t matter if the library is a new suburban building, filled top-to-toe with shiny technology and a beautiful, endless book collection stretching as far as the eye can see; or if it’s a ten-storey marble-lobbied temple to literacy in a city’s downtown; or if it’s the building where I currently work, where the radiators leak, the boiler sometimes explodes, and the circulation staff has to hold umbrellas when it rains– libraries attract the studious, the ignorant, the sane, the not-so-sane, and, most certainly, the wonky.

My first library memory is of the hushed, cool, book-scented children’s area of my small hometown’s public library, where my mother would leave me to select books while she went upstairs to the adult department. The librarians gave me recommendations and bent the official-by-policy rule of only allowing children over twelve to check out books from the adult department after I read nearly every book in that basement by the time I was 9. I’d load up my tote bag with as many books as I could carry, especially in the summer, when my mother (a teacher who had summers free) and I would visit twice a week. “She’ll be a librarian one day!” the librarians would crow. But while they were awfully nice ladies, the job didn’t seem very exciting. I was usually the only patron in the children’s department. Librarianship seemed like a job for people who liked to sit in quiet rooms, alone, all day long.

But when I fell into a job as a children’s librarian’s assistant while in college, thanks to an abundant knowledge of children’s literature born in those basement forays of my childhood summers, I learned my first day on the job that public librarianship is about, well, the public first and foremost, and the public, as it turns out, is bizarre and fascinating.

There was no quiet hush in that beautifully maintained suburban library building, ever. My first reference question was helping a university student who spoke almost no English find directions to Wyoming (we were east of the Mississippi River and south of the Ohio). My second, taken over the phone, was a request to look up the world record for the number of gallstones removed from a living patient, because, as the patron on the end of the line told me, her doctor had just performed gallbladder surgery on her and thought she might qualify to break the record. My butt didn’t hit the chair behind the reference desk for more than two minutes at a time that first night at work.

I was hooked.

“Father’s Day is when I get the most requests for inmate photos from the IDOC site from kids who want to see their dads.”

Since that day, I’ve moved to a large city, where I’ve worked at the main library, at a branch in a wealthy neighborhood, and at my current branch, where the windows are built with bullet-proof glass and the light fixture in the entryway was stolen for its copper. I’ve cleaned up all manner of bodily fluids, more from adults than from children; I’ve walked one of our regulars out the front door and gotten him coffee after he was so intoxicated he fell out of his chair. I know how to recognize a heroin nod and a psychotic episode; I am at least as familiar with the Illinois Department of Corrections offender search page as I am with JSTOR. Father’s Day is when I get the most requests for inmate photos from the IDOC site from kids who want to see their dads. My heart breaks and re-forms itself again at that knowledge, which is both incredibly sad and incredibly hopeful.

Because, of course, people are messy and life is complicated. It’s messy and complicated everywhere, even in the wealthiest and most privileged of neighborhoods, but where I work now, it’s often made messier and more complicated by a variety of factors—institutionalized racism, poverty, food insecurity, an overstretched and underfunded social service net.

I have worked at libraries with extremely high circulation; I currently work at a library with extremely low circulation. Patrons at my library read. They sometimes sit in the library for hours at a time, absorbed in books. Frequently, our patrons will hide books they like particularly well, so that no one else will check them out until they can come back to finish them. This kind of in-library use isn’t because our branch is such a beautiful and pleasant place; after all, our boiler may or may not be working on any given day, and our carpet, which was installed in 1979, is held to the floor with electrical tape. It’s because one late fine or lost item is enough to create a permanent impediment for many of our patrons to ever actually checking out books, and yet, they come anyway.

And that’s the beauty and wonder of our world, isn’t it? Despite the impediments, there is hope and light. People fall in love, they search for meaning, they care for their neighbors. Jim*, one of my regulars who lives down the street at the Y, waits every morning on the library steps for me to arrive to open the branch. He tells me I need to stop drinking so much coffee, that it’s bad for my health. I tell him he ought to quit smoking. His life is, in nearly every way, harder than mine, but he tells me he worries when I leave the library late at night.

There’s been a great deal written this year about romance as an escape. I can’t help but picture an overwhelmed suburban mom, trying to work full-time, take the kids to soccer and Scouts, and keep up with the increasing demands of her household, when I hear that argument. To be sure, if anyone deserved to seek escape, it would be my patrons. Waiting in line for five hours every Wednesday at the food pantry, only to be turned away because the crowd attacked the priest handing out the food; being three months behind on rent and wondering how long you have before you’ll be evicted; working five twelve-hour shifts in a row, and then finding out your car won’t start—these are all circumstances patrons have told me about in the past month.

And yet, my patrons don’t, as a general rule, read to escape. When I talk to them about what they read and why, the most common answer I get is, “I like it because it’s real.” Our Urban Fiction section is always empty, the books checked out by those who have library cards, in use every hour the library is open by those who don’t, or stashed somewhere in the stacks by those who want to save their spot for next time (I always feel a little guilty re-shelving someone’s hidden treasure when I come across them). My patrons also love romance—not the bright, shiny romance novels with virginal heroines and perfect, wealthy heroes, though.

Librarians often talk about “readers’ rights.” One of those that I feel most strongly about is the right of every reader to access books that serve as both windows and mirrors. Readers should have the chance to read about characters like themselves, who face challenges like theirs, as well as the chance to learn about other worlds and lives. My patrons see plenty of windows. I’m sure that sometimes they see enough windows that they wonder why they’re still standing outside in the cold.

Wonkomances provide my readers with mirrors. There are definite issues of access, since so many of the books I know my readers would love are only available in e-formats, and the digital divide where I work is slightly larger than the Grand Canyon. But the fact that these books are being written at all is the first step. Despite the impediments, writers and publishers are producing books that show that people like my patrons, and people like me, deserve love and happily-ever-afters. Books that show that, despite the impediments, love and community are as much a part of our human condition as suffering. And despite the impediments of building conditions, decimated budgets, and pitifully low staffing, I’ll keep trying to find ways to hold those mirrors up to the community where I work to reflect back at least a little of the hope and beauty I find here.

*Note: patron names and identifying information have been changed because, as a librarian, I value and respect my patron’s right to privacy.

A few of the books my patrons love:

Upstate isn’t a romance—be warned, there’s no HEA for this one. But it is an enduring love story, a coming-of-age tale, and an epistolary novel about two teens in Harlem, life in prison, and hope in the hardest of circumstances. It’s also incredibly lyrical and beautifully written, and I can’t keep it on the shelf at my branch—partly because  I recommend it to everyone who walks in.

The readers at my branch can’t get enough Wahida Clark. Not all of her books have happy endings, and that’s a complaint my readers have—they want an HEA, but they want gritty realism too. Stories about women working hard to get an education, the draw of a bad boy and how his choices have serious consequences—these are the themes my patrons love.

Ni-Ni Simone is requested by teens and adults alike for fast-paced, romantic-drama-filled stories about young women finding their identities.


Shelley Ann Clark’s third-grade teacher told her she would grow up to be the next Danielle Steel. It probably says something about her that, at age eight, she knew who that was and thought it was a compliment. Shelley now holds an MA in Creative Writing, a Masters of Library and Information Science, and has worked in public libraries for twelve years. She lives with her husband in Chicago, where she writes about Southern men and the women who bring them to their knees.

Posted in Life & Wonk, Talking Wonkomance | Tagged , , , , , | 17 Comments

Why on Earth I Liked Young Adult

Perhaps a month ago, I watched Young Adult. It’s a 2011 comedy starring Charlize Theron as Mavis Gary, a self-destructive YA fiction ghostwriter (think Sweet Valley High) who at thirty-seven decides, pretty much out of the blue, to go home to small-town Minnesota to steal her high-school sweetheart away from his wife and newborn baby.

Wonked, right? But not really.

If this were a romantic comedy—which for about a second it tricks you into thinking it is—yes, it would be wonked. But it’s not a rom-com. It’s a black comedy featuring faux-romance storylines, but delivering zero actual romance. And since it claims no conventions and hence doesn’t purport to break any, it’s not wonky. It’s just…different.

This post is going to include spoilers, because it’s fairly impossible to couch Young Adult in meaningful storytelling terms without acknowledging whether or not Mavis gets redeemed. So if you don’t want to know, stop reading. Go watch it, then tell me what you think.

When I first saw this movie, I kind of loved it. But the more I thought about it, the more I wondered, “Why on earth did I enjoy that?” It features what would seem at first glance to be a highly unlikable heroine (great, love those) but that’s not what Mavis Gary is, really. As the title of an excellent Slate piece on the film quite accurately points out, “In Young Adult, Charlize Theron isn’t ‘unlikable,’ she’s mentally ill.”

Ding ding ding! This is the crafty thing about the movie. You see the poster, read its zippy tagline [“Everyone gets old. Not everyone grows up.”], you see the star’s name, you know it’s a comedy…so your brain immediately begins making assumptions.

It’s clear in the first fifteen minutes of the movie that Mavis is a bit of a wreck. She’s disorganized, she’s unfocused, she’s half-assing her way through her day-to-day life and through her roles as a writer (nay, “an author,” she’d be quick to correct you), a pet-owner, and a sexual being. As a human being. Your bog-standard unlikable heroine, right?

But as the movie goes on, her character quickly unfolds, and what’s revealed instead is a chemically addicted (alcohol; Diet Coke), compulsive (hair-pulling; occasional binge-eating), obsessive (consumptive delusional infatuation; attachments to nostalgic objects and songs) woman with a teenager’s impulsivity and emotional intelligence, and nearly zero self-awareness, remorse, or empathy, and with what’s implied at one point to be clinical depression.

As in Shame—another 2011 film featuring an unlikable, self-destructive, unredeemed, compulsive protagonist—Mavis has a carefully (and yet sometimes sloppily) constructed outward image. But it’s not some perfect illusion, with only the viewer in on the wreck it’s hiding—just about everyone sees through Mavis’s act. Especially Matt, an old high school classmate Mavis stumbles into an opportunistic friendship with. After she makes Matt go with her to the home of her object-of-obsession late at night—where she wonders aloud, drunkenly, forlornly, if her old flame is perhaps upstairs, sadly masturbating to temporarily escape what Mavis assumes is his loveless marriage—Matt announces, “You’re fucking mentally ill.” And she is. Matt knows it. But Mavis sure doesn’t.

So our protagonist is a hot mess. In her mind, she’s on a hero’s journey. A quest to reclaim what’s meant to be—a rekindled romance with her old flame—from the villain—his perfectly lovable wife. Maybe that’s what’s so confusing, to a writer-viewer who thinks far too deeply about plot structure. This movie is about a hero on a quest. It’s just that that quest is completely delusional and the hero’s prize an impossibility. In a rare glimmer of clarity, Mavis actually tells her parents, “I think I’m an alcoholic.” But they just laugh it off, and her moment of honest self-analysis is gone as quickly as it came.

Now if you haven’t seen this film and this post is making it sound like a big drudgy bummer, I’ll tell you now, it’s really not. Because it’s pretty damn funny. It’s a dark comedy, but not in the overtly disturbing vein of, say, Fargo, or of Welcome to the Dollhouse or Happiness. The story’s far subtler than it would’ve been in the hands of a director like Todd Solondz, and far more authentic as a result (though I do love Solondz’s work, too.) It also manages to not be funny at the expense of its off-the-rails protagonist…although much of the humor does spring from Mavis’s self-destructive behavior. It’s funny in a way that borders on cringe-y, but doesn’t quite take us there. It’s funny because it’s completely, nakedly honest—which gets to the heart of why I like this movie so much.

After mulling all this over for a few weeks, I decided to watch it again, for this post, to try to analyze it as an anti-heroine study. [I’d just watched Fish Tank (2009), another movie centered around a highly unlikable heroine, and part of me wondered if I’d like Young Adult less, because in Fish Tank, though the heroine is thoroughly wretched, she’s undeniably the victim of her environment.] I imagined this re-watch would lead me to a conclusion of some sort, likely one along the lines of, “I like Young Adult because it’s a big fuck-you to all the fiction conventions that say only redeemable women deserve to have stories told about them.”

And I did watch it again. And I still liked it, though not for the reason I’d expected. It’s not a big fuck-you to anybody, because I honestly believe this film has no agenda. There’s no moral. We’re not asked to love her, or hate her, or root for her, or to feel better about ourselves in the face of her awfulness—we’re only asked to watch. Mavis is neither redeemed nor punished; she’s simply presented. And I think simply by being presented, just as she is…that was kind of awesome. Because I know this woman.

I see bits of Mavis in myself. I see her alcoholism in Coworker A, her capacity for self-sabotage in Friend B, her outrageous denial of reality in Cousin C, her pettiness and obsession and self-righteousness in Acquaintances X,Y, and Z. We all know these people. We are these people, to varying extents. If we’re human and have ever interacted with other humans, we’ve interacted with Mavis’s breed of mental illness—the tricky kind that we’re often so quick to write off as irresponsibility or wildness or a lack of self-control, to diagnose as a failure of character or temperament.

So that’s why I liked this movie, I’ve decided. Because I want there to be stories about these people. Actual people. With actual, everyday issues, the kind that don’t play so nice with fiction conventions. I like it for the same reason I like Hoarders and The Biggest Loser and Obsessed and Intervention—because it makes typically private dysfunctions public. [I won’t deny that those shows capitalize on people’s issues, nor that they make voyeurs of their viewers; but I do believe it’s valuable for such behavioral disorders and addictions to be hauled out of their closets and presented as what they are: common.] The interesting thing is, those shows are nonfiction, for all intents and purposes. Young Adult is not. And those shows all attempt to offer their subjects a solution. And yet, as fiction, Young Adult has the power to definitively fix its subject…but it chooses not to.

This could easily have been a Hollywood movie about a “psychotic prom-queen bitch” going back home and getting her comeuppance…and if it were a romance, perhaps her humbling revelations would transform her into someone “worthy” of love [gag], and she’d ultimately wind up with the underdog hero. But this ain’t that movie.

Right at the very end, after Mavis implodes at her high-school boyfriend’s baby naming party then has drunken, lonely sex with Matt, she wakes a nearly changed woman. She runs into Matt’s sister Sandra (who has a longstanding, creepy, heroine-worship lady-boner for Mavis) in the kitchen, and even goes as far as confessing, “It’s really difficult for me to feel happy,” and, “I need to change, Sandra.”

To which Sandra says, “No you don’t.”

The exchange goes on for a few more lines, and sadly for Mavis, this is pretty much all it takes for her to talk herself out of her rock bottom, and indeed out of changing. Sandra’s like the human embodiment of that thing in our heads that tells us what we want to hear, vindicates us when we least deserve it, dismisses our most productive moments of self-questioning, and convinces us we’re fine. When we’re so not fine. The voice that tells us that we’re right, that everyone else is wrong, and to go ahead and keep taking the righteous path of least resistance.

Which is what Mavis does, as the movie ends. She’s had a revelation, hit bottom, decided briefly, aloud, that she needs help. But once again, the clarity and opportunity are snatched away as quickly as they came, and she’s back on her dysfunctional track. Would she have wound up there if Sandra hadn’t talked her out of changing? Maybe. Likely, if this were reality. For plenty of people in a position like Mavis’s, the simple lack of an enabling voice like Sandra’s isn’t enough. They need many voices, shouting for them to get help. And often even that isn’t enough. So no, maybe Sandra’s not to blame. Maybe she simply got Mavis’s latest descent off to a more efficient start, saving her the trouble of slowly stumbling back down her usual hill by giving her a nice, swift kick.

It’s not an upbeat ending. It’s not a hopeful ending. It’s not any kind of ending, really, says the traditional storytelling arc, because the hero’s journey hasn’t led anywhere. The hero hasn’t changed. With a professional shift on her horizon, Mavis is approaching a crossroads, but the events of the film haven’t equipped her with a better calibrated compass or more accurate map.

It’s a downer ending, but I don’t hate it. It’s realistic, for better or worse, and though everything in a fiction writer’s programming is telling them to expect either redemption (Mavis is rescued by Matt’s love) or tragedy (Mavis fatally self-destructs) it offers neither. It’s not a satisfying ending, but it does feel…right. The rest of the movie pulls no punches when it comes to presenting the challenges of living with addiction and mental illness, so why should the ending suddenly go Hollywood? Mavis is neither redeemed nor condemned—she’s simply presented. And she made me think in ways no other film protagonist has in months. And I think that, in itself, is a mark of successful storytelling.

Posted in Movies, Review | Tagged , , , , , | 14 Comments

No time to say hello, goodbye! I’m late!

Hi all! This is Amber Lin, belatedly.

I realized this morning that I hadn’t gotten my post in but I’ve been so swamped with release related tasks that I couldn’t even… well, excuses, excuses.

Anyway, last Thursday, Serena had a great interview with author Claire Kent about her prostitute hero book, Escorted. Well, it’s free on Amazon today, so if you were on the fence about it or had a book budget, you can go read it now!

escorted coverShe hired him to take her virginity…but now she wants even more.

Lori might be a popular romance writer, but she’s never been anything but a flop with sex and love in her personal life. Still a virgin at twenty-six and increasingly frustrated by her inexperience, she decides to take matters into her own hands. She hires a talented, sexy male escort to take care of her inconvenient virginity.

She assumes one time with Ander will be enough, but she never dreams how much pleasure he can make her feel. Once isn’t nearly enough. Twice isn’t enough either. Soon, she becomes one of his regular clients.

Lori knows that nothing would be as foolish as falling in love with her paid escort, but she’s never been wise with her heart. And, despite his professionalism, he doesn’t seem entirely immune either.

It’s free on Amazon here but be sure to double check the price before you buy because these things can switch back.

There! I’ve been useful today! *tremulous smile*

Posted in Talking Wonkomance | 3 Comments