Cinémawonque Review:
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

I doubt anyone who’s read a few of my books will find it too surprising that I’m a fan of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004). Nor indeed surprised that I count it as a romance, ambiguous though its ending may be. I skew open-ended myself. That’s no secret…and possibly a euphemism.

Eternal Sunshine is a hard to classify film. At the video store where I worked as a teenager, we would’ve debated long and hard where to shelve it—drama? Sci-fi? Cult? Though it’s not quite any of those, singularly. It’s of a type with Being John Malkovich, at once funny and sad, realistic personalities and setting coupled with an utterly out-there premise. It was directed by Michel Gondry, and if you don’t think you know his work, go ahead and Google him and I bet you’ll prove yourself wrong. Or else find yourself saying, “I thought Spike Jonze did that!”

At any rate, I’m going to shelf this film as wonkomance, and I’ll tell you why. Without the romantic relationship, there would be no crucible to contain the story’s quirky science fictiony element, which in my mind officially makes it a romance. (If you took the sci-fi elements out, however, there’d still be enough substance left over to cobble together a decent drama.) Add to that romantic base the premise, characters, and overall execution, and it’s twisted seven ways from Sunday—hence, wonkomance.

Here’s the basic gist: Joel (Jim Carrey) and Clementine (Kate Winslet) are a couple. A very intense and fraught couple of about two years (kinda, I think, maybe, except that…or did they…?) who spend the movie trying to get over each other by undergoing medical memory-erasing procedures. We’ve all been in one of those relationships, right? Minus the brain-scrubbing?

Joel is not your typical romance hero. He’s awkward, shy, cautious, and probably mildly depressed, alternately a chilly, stand-offish bore and an apologetic doormat who cries his share of man-tears. Overbearing alpha-male achiever he is not. We never even find out what he does for a living, actually, though judging from his apartment, I suspect he’s not a billionaire entrepreneur or a sheikh.

Clementine is a heroine after my own heart. An impulsive, reactionary, annoying, tactless, creepy, defensive, aimless, pushy, needy, borderline alcoholic. I wish I’d written her! She’s got poorly dyed blue—and green and orange and red—hair, sneaks shots of Jagermeister into her coffee at the diner, falls to pieces at the drop of a hat, sculpts effigies out of potatoes, and occasionally drives drunk.

In short, I’m pretty sure Michel Gondry and Charlie Kaufman didn’t consult any romance genre how-to books when they constructed these protagonists. But I’m stoked they didn’t, because fucked up people are so much more interesting to torture and redeem.

I gave this movie an A when I saw it in the theater, and I’m giving it as A as of my latest viewing, last night. If you’re in the mood for a quirky, heartbreaking, artsy (but not too fartsy), sweet yet utterly fucked wonkomantic movie, it has my stamp of approval.

Bonus materials: Jim Carrey looks awful handsome in a knit cap and there’s an excellent cameo by Boston’s own Charles River (which, if you’re not sure, is an actual river, not a guy named Charles River. Note to self—name future hero Charles River.)

Super sad I can’t embed the trailer but sharing’s disabled on YouTube, so somebody’s copyright infringement department must be earning their keep. But if you have Netflix, go check the whole movie out on Instant Watcher!

Posted in Certified Wonktastical, Movies, Review | Tagged , , , , , | 3 Comments

Megan Hart’s Broken: What Erotica Can Teach Romance

I never read as just a reader. No matter how good a book is, no matter how engaging it is, the writer part of me is always alert and attentive, taking it apart, learning how it’s put together, admiring a turn of phrase, a twist of plot, some particular artistry to the characterization. In fact, I think the books I love most are the ones that are not just great stories but also lessons in how to tell a great story.

Megan Hart’s Broken was one of those books. I read it because I knew Hart a little bit from Twitter and I knew she was one of erotica’s best writers. I tend to be mercenary about reading—I want to read the people I know, I want to read a little bit of everything, I want to make sure I understand the world (and markets) I’m writing in.

I expected to like Broken a lot, but beyond that I didn’t know what to expect.

It blew me away. After I finished, I spent a long time sitting up in bed, trying to make sense of what I’d experienced. I felt like I’d been taken apart and put back together, not just emotionally by the story, but as a writer.

For those who haven’t read it, Broken is Sadie’s story. Every month, Sadie meets a man she barely knows, Joe, on a park bench and lets him tell her the story of his latest sexual conquest. Sadie relates each story in detail to the reader, putting herself into the story as its heroine—as the object of Joe’s conquest. The stories are sexy, sordid, sad, sometimes pathetic—stories that are as much about Joe’s inability to connect and stay connected as they are about his (incomparable) sexual prowess.

The stories are Sadie’s way of escaping her real life. She’s married to Adam, her first lover and the love of her life. Adam broke his spine skiing shortly after they were married and has been paralyzed from the neck down since. He is resigned, often bitter, and unable to love Sadie as completely or as physically as she needs him to. That she wants more from him than he can conceivably give is a source of endless guilt for her.

In her Amazon review of Hart’s book, Lauren Dane writes:

Whatever Broken is about, I can tell you what it’s not about – Broken is not about infidelity. I want to make that clear up front. Sadie loves Adam, her husband. But Adam has withdrawn himself emotionally after an accident has left him a quadriplegic. She’s lost him in many ways even though he’s there physically. Her entire being centers around his care and schedule – it isn’t that she hates him or wishes he didn’t exist, it isn’t that she wants to sleep with Joe behind Adam’s back. … [But] for that one brief time every month, she’s unfettered from all that responsibility and context and she gets to be a woman.

I know why Dane wrote that Broken isn’t about infidelity. If there’s one thing romance readers loathe, it’s infidelity. No one who deliberately reads book after book about monogamous relationships with happy endings can abide infidelity—it’s the antithesis of romance.

But I have to respectfully disagree with Dane. Broken is about infidelity. It’s about all the ways you can feel like you’re cheating when you’re not and all the ways you can be cheating even when you feel like you’re not. And that’s part of what makes Broken such an amazing book: It takes one of romance’s most beloved soft constraints and messes all the way to hell and back with it. It makes the reader have to live with and sit with and struggle with infidelity, and it still delivers one of the most satisfying endings I’ve ever experienced.

That is why I would like to declare Broken utterly wonktastical. For me, the best possible wonk is a romance that doesn’t break any genre rules, it just wrestles with them and pushes boundaries and asks its readers to move to a different level of understanding.

Spoilers ahead!!

Unsurprisingly, given its title, Broken also bears another trademark trait of wonk: Its characters are damaged almost to the point of being unhealable. Certainly that’s true of Adam, for whom there is very little hope of redemption. But both Sadie and Joe are badly wounded, barely functioning—for large portions of the book it seems unlikely they will have anything to give each other. And yet Hart makes you believe they still do, and that’s the really satisfying part of an HEA: when love takes two people who are truly broken and manages to redeem them convincingly, so you walk away certain that no matter how bad things may have been in the past, they’re going to be okay from now on.

Strictly speaking, Broken is probably erotic romance, not erotica, even though it’s published by Spice. Ultimately, it’s love, not sex, that redeems Sadie and Joe. But it would have been far more difficult for Hart to sell the book as erotic romance because Broken messes so utterly with that no-infidelity soft constraint. Erotica makes Broken possible. It makes Joe and Sadie’s story possible. So it got me thinking about the role erotica plays for romance writers and why erotica and erotic romance are so crazily close to each other (they have sex sometimes, when they’re lonely). Some of my very favorite romance writers write very romantic erotica. And I think they do it not only because they like to write about no-holds-barred, no euphemism sex, but also because writing erotica lets them write romance without wrestling so constantly with the genre constraints. There are many fewer—if any—real genre constraints in erotica. Turn the reader on, take the character on a sexual journey, force her to contend with something in herself that can only be fixed or cured or elevated or remade by sex. But otherwise? Feel free to mess with the reader’s head in a whole variety of ways, and by all means? Surprise the reader.

For God’s sake, do not surprise a romance reader. We are mean and bite when surprised.

Lately I’ve heard more than a few people say that erotica is a good way of breaking into the romance market. That’s in part because erotica lets you ease yourself into the rules that constrain romance writers. You can prove yourself as a writer first and prove yourself as a genre adherent second. You can write stories that are sexy and redemptive and then worry later about whether they have accessible heroines and sufficient alpha heroes with good earning potential, or back stories that are just a little bit, but not too, dark.

As a result, erotica is a delight to write. And, when it’s done the way Megan Hart did it in Broken, it’s a delight to read. Not just because it’s a totally brilliant story. But because it’s also a whole lesson in how to write about love, redeeming love, happily-after-after (or at least happily-for-now) love, as it should be written. At the very edges of what we know, at the very edges of what we’ve experienced ourselves, at the very edges of what we can bear to experience. Because that’s how we learn—to write, yes, but mostly, to live in the world.


Posted in Writing Wonkomance | 15 Comments

The Champion of Wonk: Editor Carolyn Nichols and Loveswept

In Serena Bell’s recent, excellent interview with Theresa Weir, Theresa said in answer to a question about her favorite “offbeat/thinky/champion-of-the-wounded romance writers”:

Back in the day, I really loved Loveswept authors and loved what was going on at Bantam’s Loveswept. Editor Carolyn Nichols founded the line, and those books were a breath of fresh air. (I never wrote for Loveswept, but I wrote for Bantam.) I really think Loveswept changed the landscape of romance. They removed the boundaries. They encouraged writers to color outside the lines. The books were fresh and fun and fast and daring. In fact, if any editor could be considered a champion of wonk, it would be Carolyn Nichols. Loveswept invited authors to push the boundaries. To completely ignore the boundaries.

Warm Fuzzies

Baby's Starter Romance!

Well, of course I was immediately intrigued. For several reasons. First, I’m an editor, so I liked the idea of finding out more about this editor who was a “champion of wonk.” What did she do, and how did she do it? Tell me more!

Second, I’m a historian. The fact that I was six years old when the first Loveswept was published in 1983 served only to make the whole topic more intriguing. The history of romance wonk — how could I resist its siren call?

And third, I have a large, smooshy soft spot for Loveswept, because (a) the revived Loveswept line is now publishing my books (duh), and (b) the first romance novel I ever read was a Loveswept. And it was wonked. (See: my post on Joan Elliott Pickart’s Warm Fuzzies, a romance novel about a wounded football player who talks to a six-foot-tall blue stuffed teddy bear.)

Then, as if by kismet, Sarah of Smart Bitches, Trashy Books put together a visual tribute to Loveswept covers of the past that is not simply hilarious but also sublime. Go look, seriously. There are unicorns. I’ll wait.

Right. So. Let’s delve, shall we?

Loveswept - Strong, Hot Winds

I can't even.

A quick scan of the Romancewiki tells us that Loveswept published 917 titles between 1983 and 1999. The first one, by Sandra Brown, had a hero whose touch “ignited fireworks that lit up the heavens and shamed the star-streaked Long Island skies.” Those are some touches! I’ve never seen Long Island blush so fetchingly before.

Loveswept no. 4 had a Native American heroine, which I thought was cool until I realized that Loveswept no. 7 — enticingly titled A Tryst with Mr. Lincoln — had a heroine named “Jiggs O’Malley.” Jiggs! What you’ll want to know about Jiggs is that she had both a one-night stand AND amnesia. I am so going to find a used copy of that book.

And the wonkery went on. The heroine of Loveswept no. 10, Hard Drivin’ Man, owns a trucking company. Number 13, Tiger Lady, features “a mysterious lover courting [the heroine] on the office computer.” Said computer, considering the publication year of 1983, was probably the size of a Mack truck. It probably would have been easier for him to literally court her on the computer than to figure out all the DOS commands entailed by computer-text-based courtship. But none of these mere technological hurdles stopped Loveswept from pioneering the computer dating genre. “Who was this mysterious stranger,” the copy asked, “and how could he compete with the irresistible Larry Hart, who came to repair the computer and stayed to short-circuit her emotions?” How, indeed?

Sorry. I’ll stop now. I’m really not making fun. I’m celebrating. These books were irreverent and quirky. They were weird, they were wonked, and they were romantic. Also, for many years, they were wildly popular.

Deborah Smith, who wrote fifteen titles for Loveswept between 1987 and 1991, says that “fans adored the Loveswept line for its inventive plots and quirky humor.” She remembers, “Loveswept authors were encouraged to push the envelope, and we did. Comedy, intrigue, super-villains, psychics, ghosts, exotic settings, over-the-top plots, red-hot romance and then some—very little was out of bounds, as long as it was written with a passion for unforgettable characters and plots.”*

Karen Leabo (who now writes as Kara Lennox) published seven books with Loveswept. She says of the experience, “My Loveswept editors encouraged me to write books that reflected what was important to me, books that I really, really wanted to write. Finding a welcoming home for my quirky, out-of-the-box stories meant so much to me. I wrote action/adventure, paranormal and romantic suspense as well as the ever-popular cowboys, brides and babies. The freedom to write anything I wanted was exciting, and I still cherish those books as some of my best.”**

Loveswept - Wild Child

Wild Child, Or, Love among the Ferns

Sounds wonderful, eh?

But wait, wait, there’s more!

Deb Smith says of the line’s variety:

The Loveswept line allowed a glorious range of stories, from dark drama to wild comedy. Paranormal elements were acceptable, and so were sequels and series. I was able to do a little bit of everything in my 15 novels for the line. I had a woman who communicated psychically with animals, a heroine who could heal with her touch, an Amer-Asian hero whose background hinted that he’d been a victim of sexual abuse; a hero who was a justice of the peace while growing some kind of weird mushrooms on the side, for his famous barbecue sauce. I had a Scottish heroine who kidnapped an American millionaire and held him hostage, and a heroine who battled a genius psycho who planned a terrorist attack using a killer herbicide.

A lot of these books couldn’t have been published anywhere but Loveswept. Karen Leabo underscores this point: “I wrote a heavy-duty paranormal romance for Loveswept before that was popular; my other publisher wouldn’t have touched it at the time.”

Loveswept - Reluctant Lark

Is that . . . the lark? Back there?

And, as Theresa Weir points out, the reason this haven for wonkomance existed at all was Carolyn Nichols.

Deb worked with Nichols, and she remembers how the editor shaped her work:

I loved working with Carolyn and feel that she taught me more about writing than any other editor I’ve known. She was very willing to take risks, and yet she could tell an author exactly where to tweak an emotion, description or mood, so that the bizarre became charmingly eccentric and the crude became edgy and sexy. She was a master of fine-tuned editing skills. I’ve always told people that Carolyn could transform a book with a list of deceptively ordinary revisions. She made it very easy to polish a book, and she taught me a lot about editing. To this day, when I’m editing one of the authors my small press publishes, I try to work the way Carolyn did — picking out specific but crucial elements and telling the author precisely what to change. She was a genius.

Kara suggests that Nichols’s legacy persisted at Loveswept long after she left:

I didn’t work directly with Ms. Nichols. But I felt her continued influence, and I was never told to pull anything back or tone anything down. Loveswept was always known as an “author driven” line. Unique voices and quirky stories were welcome.

Loveswept - Spellbinder

Both have robes, but only one is a witch. I think.

So . . . a wildly successful, author-driven, quirky, variety-indulging line of category romance. Is there any possible response but a hearty Huzzah?

I asked Deb and Kara if, when they look at today’s romance-publishing landscape, they see a field that’s more open to wonkomance, or whether they think the conventions have hardened in the past few decades.

Deb replied:

I’m not up to date on what’s being published by the major romance houses, but I do know that here at Bell Bridge [Books] we often get projects that were rejected by the Big 6 pubs for being too edgy. And by “too edgy” I don’t mean way out in left field, I mean they just don’t conform to a narrow standard of romance storytelling. So I’m assuming that the rules of romance publishers have not strayed far from the ol’ tried and true. The good news is that diverse perspectives ARE reaching a receptive audience now, thanks to small presses like Bell Bridge and also to opportunities for authors to publish their own work.

Kara agrees:

I think the landscape is far more open than it ever was. With the growing popularity of e-books, there’s more room for “niche” writers who can still make a profit for themselves and their publishers with fewer copies sold than in the past. There seems to be a place for everyone and an audience to be found.

An uplifting message for the forces of wonk!

And yet . . . I can’t help but wonder what, exactly, has changed? Why is what was once mainstream now “niche”? I understand that publishing has shifted tremendously, and I’m grateful for the advent of e-publishing and all it has done to open up the field for wonk. But if romance readers of the 1980s and 1990s were happily scarfing down this creative, author-driven line — in large enough numbers to keep the imprint going strong through nine hundred titles — well, what happened?

Seriously. What happened?


Huge thanks to Deborah Smith and Karen Leabo / Kara Lennox for their help with this post! Deb Smith’s Loveswept title Legends — in which the heroine kidnaps a billionaire and holds him hostage — is now available in e-book. Kara Lennox’s Outside the Law is a March Superromance release. Her Loveswept novel Callie’s Cowboy will be rereleased in August 2012.

*These quotations are from Deborah Smith’s post for Romance @ Random,  “Deborah Smith Celebrates Loveswept Relaunch,” August 3, 2011.

**Quotation from Karen Leabo, “Karen Leabo and Loveswepts,” August 7, 2011.

Posted in Historical Wonktastical, Talking Wonkomance | 17 Comments