Stuck

by Wardog

Wardog goes crazy for Sarra Manning's Unsticky.
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It's kind of hard work liking romances. What you find romantic, and what you find sexy, and what you ultimately find plausible, are so very much keyed into your personal preferences that it can be uncomfortably revealing about aspects of yourself you'd rather not share publicly, but equally it means that there's no guarantee you're going to like book, even if you usually like the work of the author, even if it's been incredibly well-received elsewhere. In the spirit of full disclosure, my all time, top favourite, I-will-save-you-from-a-burning-building-before-Dan romance is Laura Kinsale's Shadowheart, because it's beautifully written, incredibly complex, historically accurate, and features a ruthless, not entirely sympathetic heroine, and a broken alpha hero with a taste for pain. Most reviews of the book that I've read have gone something like “eeewww, he likes pain.” But quite frankly there is nothing hotter in this universe than a powerful person willingly at a another's mercy. As I said: the romances you like can be uncomfortably revealing.

Also given that romances have an insanely varied demographic ('women' – contrary to popular belief we are not all the same) there's an extent to which, they're obliged to be a broad sort of fantasy: woman meets man, they fall in love, they are happy. There isn't, for example, an alternative in which woman meets man, they have a slightly unsuccessful relationship, she dumps him to get it together with her female best friend instead. Well there is, but that would be quite a specific sub-genre. And, to be honest, I'd probably read it too.

This sounds like a criticism but what I'm trying to say is that romance is by its very nature heteronormative, and concerned with the lives of a very narrow subsection of society (usually fairly well to do to ludicrously wealthy white people). This being so, and given that here at Fb we like to get our Minority Warrior groove on, it makes me feel odd to be writing about my appreciation for the romance novel. But appreciate it, I do, not least because it is a genre by women, for women, and I think that's important enough on its own terms, even if some women feel excluded from it, or by it. Also: romances are fun, and pleasurable, and I genuinely enjoy reading them, and I don't think that needs to be in any way incompatible with either my credibility as a reader or my feminist principles. Just because a fantasy ends with marriage, and all the other vanilla trappings of a lifestyle I have no intention of living, doesn't undermine the satisfaction of the fantasy within its own terms.

I also think – and forgive the abso-fucking-lutely enormous chip on my shoulder – that romance gets short shift compared to other genres. I mean, fantasy is just as white-folks dominated as romance, and often just as heternormative, and with less excuse. But it's only romance that has to put up with crap like this:
Because the most disappointing aspect of Beguilement isn't that it's a simple love story, but that in telling it, Bujold does little more than lazily follow formula. I'll admit the most exposure I've had to romance storytelling has taken the form of Hollywood romantic comedies. But is there any other genre on earth whose formula can be best described as a dull postponement of the inevitable? Are they gonna end up together at the end? Do bears...? You know....

Gee, well, how about ANY genre? Are they going to get the Mysterious Magical McGuffin of Destiny? Why, yes they are. Are the aliens going to invade the solar system but will the plucky human colonists beat them back? Why, yes they will. This paragraph, in fact, this whole review, is actually enshrined in my consciousness under the heading 'Most Infuriating Thing I've Read On the Internet' which might go some way to illuminating just how much raw, naked fury this ignorant dismissal inspires in me. I wouldn't care if it was just one self-righteous twat, but I have run into this attitude time and time again, and it's embedded in a profound misunderstanding of the whole genre, and moreover a disinclination to bother acquiring a clue before launching into criticism.

The question is not (and has never been) “will they or won't they” any more than the question in fantasy is “will the great evil be defeated”, the question is HOW. Any genre is dependent on its tropes: the tissue of subtle and not-so-subtle signs and signals that clue the familiar reader into what is going on. Because romances are all about character, its significant tropes are so often dismissed as pointless trivia. An obsession with the colour of the hero's eyes, for example, or the scene in which the heroine meets the hero for the first time: these are as significant happenings on the romance novel's journey towards its happy ever after ending, than the death of the King in a hunting accident, or news from t'North, is in the fantasy novel's ponderously drawn out three book cycle of padding and world building.

And, yes, I am bitter.

And I will get onto reviewing the book I'm supposed to be reviewing – any minute now. The reason I am banging about on about only semi-related issues is that I loved Unsticky with a hot, intense and passionate love, and I've come away from reading it feeling both evangelical and protective, which is probably an unfortunate combination. I made the mistake of the skimming the Internet before embarking on this review, and unfortunately the first thing I read was yet another patronising failure to actually get it, couched in some of the most mealy-mouthed praise I think I've ever read. The reviewer – a dude, naturally – seems to have nothing especially positive to say about the book as far as he is concerned (“The novel is not witty, though it tries to be […] The plot is told in the simplest way possible, chronologically. The prose is clear but lacks brevity”) but finally, grudgingly, concludes that if you were the sort of person who liked this sort of book then you might like Unsticky:
Literary conventions exist for two reasons—because they are comforting, and because they allow people to express themselves. Unsticky satisfies the first, and partially satisfies the second; although the most surprising thing about the plot is the way it goes about boldly and originally fulfilling our every expectation. And, as anyone who has read Pride and Prejudice for the umpteenth time will tell you, that is unequivocally a good thing.

I am, once again, fury incarnate. Not because I like a book that this guy doesn't like, or because, once again, it's a review based on a fundamental misunderstanding of the way genre convention functions in romance, but because of the context in which he has felt it necessary to place his criticisms, and the repulsive tone of the whole piece. He opens his second paragraph with “Of course, literature needs conventions, though conventions can’t get much more conventional than in the chick-lit and romance genres, of which Unsticky is a part” just to make absolutely certain we are in no danger of believing he holds any respect for the genre, and continues throughout the review to distance himself as far as possible from the text he's reviewing. It's kind of the equivalent of me reviewing a Gene Wolfe novel, and wrapping it up with the line: “Well, I can see why people like Arthur would like this book, and if you are like Arthur you may like it too, but I have far better taste.” (Note: I do actually like Gene Wolfe). Or, to put it more bluntly, what he's basically saying in the paragraph I have quoted is this: “Genre conventions allow stupid women to write books that other stupid women enjoy, and that's a good thing because stupid women need books too.”

Right. Unsticky.

As you may have gathered from my earlier frothing and ranting, Unsticky, for me, was completely wonderful. The thing is, I suppose the romance sub-genre into which it fits most easily is chicklit and, as a general rule, I don't do chicklit. At least, not as something I could read for pleasure, as opposed to the depiction of some horrendous female-centric dystopia in which all women everywhere are required to work in fashion or journalism, be obsessed with shoes and vintage, and desire rich, unattractively arrogant men. The problem is that, although I am sympathetic to the Bridget Jones's of this world, even when its presented as satire, the extent to which insecurity seems to dominate female experience in most of the chicklit I have read actually horrifies and depresses me. This is, of course, the moment irony bites and I proceed to level ignorant complaints at a particular type of book I don't read very much and consequently don't get. But, fairly or unfairly, I am hostile to chicklit and I mention this not to distance myself from a genre I don't like but to emphasise how much Unsticky surprised and delighted me.

Our heroine, Grace, is, a talented but underpaid assistant at a fashion magazine called Skirt. The novel opens with her being unceremoniously dumped by her thoroughly, but attractively, awful boyfriend on her birthday in a department store in front of a designer handbag. She is “rescued” from making a fool of herself in public by an obviously wealthy art dealer called Vaughn, and that initially seems to be the end of it. But then Vaughn contacts with her a proposition that basically amounts to being his mistress for six months. She'll organise dinner parties for him, be his arm candy at various high profile art gatherings, and sleep with him – and in return he'll pay her. Grace is already heavily in debt and, despite some moral wrangling, she accepts the offer. Just to contextualise what, when presented like this, must look an utterly absurd and borderline offensive premise for a romance, the book is quite self-consciously a Pretty Woman riff (for example, one of the first things Grace says to Vaughn is “do people always do what you tell them to do?” which is a line direct from the film.), and if you're comfortable with that fantasy space, then Unsticky is more complicated, more subtle and, honestly, just plain better than Pretty Woman. The nature of Grace's 'arrangement' with Vaughn is fundamental to the book, and to the characters, it is not merely an excuse to get two unlikely people into bed. And its evolution from arrangement to relationship is far from easy or simple for both of them:
“It’s a partnership, an agreement with a contract – say for a six month period”
“This is not how you do things. It’s so calculated and it’s cold. You’d be paying me – and last time I checked, that was prostitution”
“Sshhhh….it’s better this way with clear-cut boundaries, so we both know exactly where we stand. Aren’t you tired of constantly stumbling about in the dark?”

I should probably also emphasise that Grace is attracted to Vaughn even before he proposes the arrangement – they have a sort of date in New York, in which she voluntarily makes her attraction to him very clear – so it's not as if he's expecting her to do for money something she would be unwilling to do otherwise. But, again, this is a line that remains quite deliberately blurred in the early part of the book. One of the things I very much admired about Unsticky (alongside EVERYTHING ELSE) is that Manning creates complex and tangled situations, and often lets them remain unresolved, or only imperfectly resolved. There are no easy answers here – to love, to relationships, to human psychology, to getting on in the world.

One of the darker aspects of the book (and, given its two very broken protagonists it's a rather dark book) concerns Grace's slow climb towards success. When the novel begins, despite her talent, she is struggling. Partially through her education with Vaughn, and her resulting self-confidence, but mainly because through him she makes connections and is able to display the trappings of wealth, Grace gradually is able to make something of her career. Her rise is not meteoric (I think she ends the book with her own section of the magazine) but it is progress, and it means that she has something of her own that can support her, so she is not dependent on Vaughn, which is naturally vitally important in order to balance out the already awkward power dynamics of their relationship. But even though Grace earns, and deserves, her success it is hard to forget that, without Vaughn, she would never have had the opportunity to even try. This does not make Grace a weaker character, but it is a rather clear-eyed commentary on the nature of the world in which she moves. It is the exact opposite, in many ways, of the expected fairytale of the talented, plucky young woman achieving her goals against the odds. Grace's talent gets her nowhere. Talent plus money makes the difference. And, frankly, I think that's a pretty brave thing to acknowledge.

Unsticky is not an easy or a fluffy romance by any means, but then that's largely why it appealed to me. There are plenty of elements to it that could be absolute deal-breakers for some people: the “is she a prostitute, then?” premise, the massive power differential between Vaughn and Grace (although I'd argue this has equalised by the end of the novel), the age-difference between them (Grace is 23, Vaughn is 42), the fact Vaughn is genuinely horrible to Grace on several occasions, and, truthfully neither of them are very likeable people. I honestly can't really analyse why none of these very reasonable EW!NO factors didn't bother me in the slightest, and I'm inclined to put it down to the overall strength of the book, alongside Manning's refusal to brush them under the carpet or pretend they aren't real issues. However, if the idea of two of utterly broken people falling in love with each other, and their lives being a little bit better as a consequence, appeals to you then Unsticky will break your heart and then glue it back together again for you.

There is so much I simply love about Unsticky I hardly know how to begin. I love the fact it's set in London, and that it has a real English sensibility, with places in England feeling like real places in England, and English people talking like English people talk. When Grace first meets Vaughn, there's a reference to his “etched-glass public-school English” and, really, it is impossible to imagine his dialogue in anything other than that sort of accent, but, having met a few Vaughns in my time (though sadly none of them offered me money to sleep with them), I was really thrilled to know exactly who he was and how he sounded. Now I know Sarra Manning is English, which probably explains her unerring ability to depict Englishness, but when you have a flood of romances that are set in England but written by Americans, or simply set in America, it is unbelievably refreshing.

I also really like the way Manning writes, which is effortlessly stylish. I know it can sound borderline insulting to say something is easy to read, as Literature is meant to challenge us and make us miserable, but I could swim about happily in Manning's prose all day and all night. She sketches her scenes and depicts her characters with remarkable precision – and if there's an occasional over-reliance on telling, rather than showing, both her telling and her showing are satisfying enough it didn't bother me. One of the pleasures of romance is a sense of burgeoning intimacy with complicated, interesting characters and Manning creates this perfectly. Since the novel is told entirely from Grace's POV, and Vaughn is quite frankly not at all sympathetic, there was a danger that he would seem remote and psychologically shallow. Far from it. He is, in fact, better drawn than many romantic heroes who have had chapters devoted to their points of view. He's a very cold and self-controlled character, but Manning manages to give us what feels like sneaky insights into his true feelings and state of mind, usually through physical clues:
Grace turned to Vaughn who was now staring out of the window and looking as remote as hell. Before she had time to chicken out, Grace's hand covered Vaughn's so she could squeeze his fingers. The pressure was returned immediately though neither of them spoke for the time it took the car to wend its way through the Mayfair streets.

Also there's a fascinating reversal that takes place over the course of the book – as Grace is getting to understand Vaughn, it seems as though the reader is able to see through his moods better than she is, picking up the clues from the narrative, that he's unhappy or stressed or liking her more than he lets on, but by the end of it Grace has become the world champion interpreter of Vaughn, and there are several scenes towards the end of the book dominated by her insights, her kindness and sympathy towards him. To me that development felt incredibly convincing and delightful – part of the problem with reading romances is that you sometimes feel you know more about the heroes and heroines than they do about each other, as you've seen everything from both perspectives, but by the end of Unsticky I felt like they'd left me behind, and I liked that. I absolutely believed that whatever their future held it would be okay (and yes, I do know they're imaginary people, but I cared about them!).

For example, there's a scene near the end of the novel, in which Vaughn thinks Grace has slept with someone else. This is a pretty typical happening in Romancelandia and it's inevitably annoying. I know it's meant to be a demonstration of the value the hero places on the heroine, and an enactment of sexy “mine mine mine” possessiveness and all that. But, for me, it rarely works – for starters it's usually little more than an excuse to have a Big Misunderstanding, liable to drag on for chapters, and no matter how appealing the “this woman is mine!” fantasy may be it is destroyed by what the hero is actually saying, which amounts to, “I don't trust you and, incidentally, I'm now going to call you a whore.” Not romantic. Not sexy. Fail. As ever, Manning manages to spin something immensely touching out of this infuriating trope. It helps, of course, that the whole thing is resolved over the space of a few pages so it's not so much a Big Misunderstanding as a Misunderstanding Some People Who Genuinely Like Each Other Resolve In A Moderately Adult Fashion.

I'm not saying it isn't a rather nasty scene, but one of the things that really struck me about it was Grace's compassion, despite the fact Vaughn is awful about it. Most heroines insist on behaving absolutely pigheadedly under such a circumstance, and refusing – out of outraged virtue – to confirm or deny the accusation, which naturally the hero takes as confirmation. Grace is not only far more sympathetic to Vaughn than his behaviour warrants, but she demonstrates the understanding she has of him:
That was when she started crying, because Vaughn's eyes weren't angry. She could see the hurt lodged there, and the way he cringed from her gaze, like a wounded animal. She'd been on the receiving end of that kind of agony often enough to know how wretched it felt....

“I didn't … I never have,” she began. “Please, just listen to me and let me tell you what happened. Just be quiet and don't say anything, OK?”

Vaughn nodded and his hands fell away as if he couldn't bear to touch her, and that was all right. He was allowed to feel like that.

I just loved that whole scene, not only because it confounded the anticipated fail but because Grace behaves with sense and compassion, rather than getting up on her high horse about it, despite being entirely entitled to do that. And she explains the situation, and Vaughn believes her, and this doesn't drag on for interminable chapters, and nobody gets called a whore. I'm not saying it has a happy ending of cuddles and mutual understanding (far from it) but at least it plays out along different lines than usual, and Grace behaves really well in it, and I genuinely admired her for it.

On the subject of Grace and Vaughn, I have commented that they are both profoundly unsympathetic characters, but nevertheless I did like them, almost in spite of myself, and I desperately wanted them to be happy together. Grace was a bit bewildering to me because she is nothing like me at all, nor anyone I would ever aspire to be, but by the end of Unsticky I found myself respecting her precisely for being different to me. There's an essay by Laura Kinsale on reading romances called 'The Androgynous Reader' in which she proposes the the heroine, rather than being the person with whom the reader automatically identifies, is a place-holder for the reader, into which we may read ourselves if we identify admirable qualities. The focus of the essay is about the reader's relationship with the hero, and I do agree with many of Kinsale's conclusions, but I always feel that romance heroine's get short shrift, in their unacknowledged role of disposable reader stand-in. I think what I really appreciated about Grace as a character was that she felt like a real person, and not necessarily one I would like or agree with. There's a moment in which we see her failing to read Kavalier and Clay, and the narration admits to us that Grace didn't like long books – it's very easy to imagine yourself throwing up your hands in disgust at this unattractive display of what we might want to call shallowness but, I have to admit, I smirked. I guess the key to Grace is that she is someone who appeals to Vaughn, rather than someone who may appeal to the reader, or someone to make the reader feel good about themselves.

As for Vaughn. Well. He's completely toxic but utterly irresistible. He always hovers on the borderline of being unforgivable and yet never crosses over. I have no idea how Manning managed it so perfectly. I can't actually tell you why I liked him so much, and I did really really like him, and I feel faintly embarrassed for doing so even in the safe space of fantasy. Apart from being reasonably attractive, intelligent and good in bed, he has almost no redeeming qualities whatsoever. But his loneliness and his vulnerability – which ought to be no less unattractive than his arrogance and his cruelty – are just present enough to make him heartbreaking, and weirdly wonderful. Gah. I think it's probably testament to the romance that Grace and Vaughn sort of redeem each other. It's such a struggle for both of them to reach a point that they can dare to love each other and trust each other and move forward into a functional relationship that it feels like an incredible triumph. There's a point, somewhere towards the middle of the book, when they do talk honestly to each other about their pasts, and their fears, and I liked it because it was presented as information rather than explanation. Sorry to keep referencing romance tropes but often finding out “the issue” serves as a signal that the issue is solved – one of the many awesome things about Unsticky, and yes I am running out of adjectives, is that nothing is this neat. Knowing what happened to someone does not necessarily make it any easier to relate to them, nor does the telling change them.

Since it's a romance novel, I should probably mention teh sex, of which there's quite a bit. Although there's lots of it, and it's fairly forthright and explicit I wouldn't call it prolonged or graphic. It is, however, quite sexy, and in its no-nonsense, anti-purple approach reminded me of Dirty. Furthermore, it's always contexualised; there's never sexing for the sake of sexing, it drives the narrative and explicates the developing relationship between Grace and Vaughn. In short, it's sex that actually tells you something, and it's honestly rare to find effectively written sex-scenes so, yes, another gold star for Manning.

I should probably wrap up this review by saying Unsticky has joined my very short list of amazing, perfect romances. I'm also very well aware that as deft and assured as the book is, it just happened – for whatever reason – to suit me. I am hesitant to recommend it with the unqualified fervour I want to simply because I'm aware that, when it comes to romance, it's all about personal preference. But if you're even the slightest bit intrigued, you should read it and, truthfully, even if the premise has made you look a little askance you should read it anyway because the whole thing is so beautifully done it may just win you over in spite of yourself.

Two Other Things I Thought Were Awesome About Unsticky But Include Spoilers...

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Spoilers! Blah blah blah.

Okay.

1. Vaugn has what is very clearly an eating disorder. Yes. A man with an eating disorder. Obviously I'm not trying to suggest that this is somehow deeply attractive in a partner, and it's not a major component of the book or anything, but I was just really glad to see body image and body anxiety issues not being relegated to women.

2. They never say "I love you." To me, it didn't matter in the slightest. It was obvious from everything they did and said to each other, and I liked the fact that the reality of their relationship didn't needed to be validated by three little cliches. But I understand this is genuinely a bit shocking for a romance novel, since "I love you" is kind of the money shot.
Themes: Books, Romance
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Comments (go to latest)
Arthur B at 01:51 on 2011-05-01
It's kind of the equivalent of me reviewing a Gene Wolf novel, and wrapping it up with the line: “Well, I can see why people like Arthur would like this book, and if you are like Arthur you may like it too, but I have far better taste.” (Note: I do actually like Gene Wolf).

Then give him his trailing "e" back. ;)

Seriously though, I've become much much more conscious of how pervasive the "romance is for losers, fantasy is clearly a genre for grown ups" attitude is (and how much I bought into it) since I started reading/vomiting content onto FB and I don't think I ever apologised for dumb shit I've said previously about the genre in the past, so, uh, this is me saying sorry.

It's particularly galling, realising I've had those attitudes, because it means I recognise a little bit of myself when I read SF/fantasy reviews saying idiotic things like "the romance gets in the way of the plot and character development" - as if the romantic life of characters in fantasy can't be a source of story, as if the romantic behaviour of a character can't be a pretty damn important insight into their character. People actually say shit like that with a straight face and I'm pretty sure I used to be one of them.
valse de la lune at 08:42 on 2011-05-01
Eh, sorry for triple-posting, but I felt I wasn't being articulate enough:

But appreciate it, I do, not least because it is a genre by women, for women, and I think that's important enough on its own terms, even if some women feel excluded from it, or by it.

But see, from the perspective of someone who's entirely excluded from that--in pretty much every way imaginable: race, orientation, culture, everything--and indeed as someone whose existence romance and its conventions help erase, I'm going to continue deriding and judging the shit out of it because I don't feel "by women for women" is all that and a bag of chips. Not least because much of mainstream feminism is incredibly exclusive and alienating to many women: women of color, non-cis women, asexual women, the genderqueer. In fact, this majority feminism is run by exactly the same demographic romance novels target: white, straight, middle- to upper-class, first-world, able-bodied, cis.

Romance and the attitudes it perpetuates is why a lot of asexuals grow up believing there's something wrong with us. That we're just "waiting for the right one." That we're just "repressed" or late bloomers or a bunch of other stupid claptrap that romance readers and writers adore so much. That our orientation isn't real, isn't valid, doesn't exist. I imagine the same would hold true for other non-cis or non-srtaight women; after all when you're bombarded with so much heteronormativity, prevalent through books and music and TV and films, some of it is going to get through and make you feel horrible for not fitting in.

I have never made apologies for my attitude toward romance, not as a fiction genre but romance in general. And I never, ever will, because to me it's hateful, exclusive, othering, and just all around fucking horrible.
valse de la lune at 10:22 on 2011-05-01
(Just to be clear: by "romance in general," I of course didn't mean it as a concept, but romance that's not just the romance genre, but tropes across all media--pop music, films, games. Didn't want to make it sound like I'm hostile to romantic relationships between living, breathing people or anything.)
Wardog at 12:15 on 2011-05-01
I totally see where you're coming from, Pyrofennec, and these are all valid points. However, I do think you can be critical of something without deriding it, and that in a nutshell is my problem with the general attitude towards romance. I think "this reinforces harmful cultural stereotypes" is a an acceptable criticism, I think "these are stupid, badly written books for stupid people who like that sort of thing" isn't.
valse de la lune at 13:06 on 2011-05-01
But Kyra, part of my problem was with the way you addressed the issue of exclusion in this hand-wavy, throwaway way:

because it is a genre by women, for women,

What you really mean is: a genre by straight cis white middle-class women, for straight cis white middle-class women. And to women who don't fit into this demographic, this carefully coded qualification--"by women, for women"--means jack-squat. It's worthless. It's not about us or for us or anything to do with us, while pretending to be broadly for us and about us and implying that we should buy into it, because it's "by women, for women": exclusionary feminisn't at its best.

even if some women feel excluded from it, or by it

You know how when you take, say, people like Gabe and Tycho to task for some -ism they committed in their works and they issue a fauxpology? "I'm sorry you feel this way." It shifts responsibility from offender to the offended. "Some" (and that's an odd quantifier, seeing that it's a good bit more than some) women don't feel excluded; we are excluded. I'm not sure why you thought it necessary to phrase it that way.

I think "these are stupid, badly written books for stupid people who like that sort of thing" isn't.

How's "these are stupid books catering to a specific fantasy by and for privileged first-world straight cis white women"?
Wardog at 14:32 on 2011-05-01
I apologise that I used "women" to mean cis white middle-class straight women. I framed that badly. I certainly am not advocating that people should like or buy romance. I understand that romance is a deeply problematic genre in terms of inclusion and social justice; I am not talking about your criticisms of the genre, which are entirely legitimate, I was trying to address mainstream dismissals which generally amount to "these are girl books for girls."
http://lokifan.livejournal.com/ at 17:36 on 2011-05-01
So, SO agreed on the derision of romance. People criticising it as formulaic and predictable are foolish for all the reasons you mention. It's just... right, because nobody knows the copper will confront the killer at the end! Maybe the dark wizard will win after all!

I love Sara Manning - Let's Get Lost (YA coming-of-age) was fantastic. This looks great; I like the acknowledgment of the importance of contacts, connections and wealth in these businesses.

"Our heroine, Grace, is, a talented but underpaid assistant at a fashion magazine called Skirt." This sentence is very reminscent of the first chapter of a book I read recently - the chapter was made into a free mini-book thing that arrived free with my ASOS delivery and was so bad. PREGNANCY DESTROYS CAREER WOMEN AND MAKES THEM THICK. NOT HAVING SEX FOR TWO YEARS IS SHOCKING AND SHAMEFUL. Plus (presumably) unintentional racism: the woman thinks of how she can do better than her doctor, since he's 'a balding five foot four Asian man' or something along those lines. Perfectly legitimate little description made massively icky by including the detail that he's Asian in a sentence about why she can do better than him.

It was all sadly indicative of a lot of the issues in romance Pyrofennec mentioned. So seeing something like that, but WAY better apparently and by Sara Manning pleases me enormously. (Hopefully the enormous largely-irrelevant comment will be taken as me getting into the Ferretbrain spirit.)

Also, have added Shadowheart to my Amazon wishlist.
Th thng s, y cn't sk mn t cr, r vn rspct rmnc s gnr bcs dp dwn thy knw tht s bsclly prn fr &qtwmn&qt (sng th dfntn f wmn n rmnc gvn hr).
Editor's Note: This comment has been disemvowelled. FerretBrain welcomes your comments but if you disagree with something please address the article or the comment in question, rather than the style or nature of the writer. Disemvowelled for unimaginative trolling.
Wardog at 22:46 on 2011-05-01
@Pyrofennec
Sorry for lack of a proper response earlier - I had a rather busy day. As I said, sorry for using the "by women for women" shorthand. I certainly didn't mean to imply "by women for all women".

How's "these are stupid books catering to a specific fantasy by and for privileged first-world straight cis white women"?

I'd compromise on "by some women for some women" since I would hesitate to characterise an entire genre of fiction as "stupid", even if it didn't cater to me, and I think there are some women who aren't privileged first-world straight cis white women who get something they consider valuable from the genre. Ahem, I'm one.

I'm not sure why you thought it necessary to phrase it that way.

Well, thanks for comparing me to Gabe and Tycho but I phrased it that way not as a fauxpology but because it's not my place to tell people whether something excludes them or not. I understand some people do feel excluded from the romance, and I understand why they might. However this does not make the genre de facto exclusionary to ALL people who do not fit the demographic you name. I do not fit the demographic you name, (although, admittedly I fit it more closely than you do) and I do not feel excluded. I do not see this as evidence the genre is not exclusionary though.

Romance and the attitudes it perpetuates is why a lot of asexuals grow up believing there's something wrong with us.

But it's a why a lot of people grow up believing that there isn't something wrong with us, that it's okay to like to sex, to like certain sorts of sex, to expect a certain level of treatment when in a relationship with someone.

I'm going to continue deriding and judging the shit out of it

This genuinely troubles me. I understand why the genre is not for you, and I acknowledge the criticisms you level at it and largely agree with them. However, there is ultimately a difference between making a legitimate criticism and 'deriding and judging the shit' out of something. It's the fact that people do not direct legitimate criticism at the romance that bothers me; everyone simply feels at liberty to 'deride it and judge the shit out of it', because it is dismissed as being a stupid genre for stupid women. You say this repeatedly yourself, as I quoted above.

If you want talk about 'feminismisn't' how about calling other women stupid for enjoying things that specifically address their fantasies? I understand it's problematic that these fantasies are treated as universal when they're not, but that's not a reason to condemn people, or look down on them, for enjoying them.
Wardog at 22:55 on 2011-05-01
@Lokifan
I love Sara Manning - Let's Get Lost (YA coming-of-age) was fantastic.

I'm a late-comer to Manning, I understand she has a pretty good reputation as a YA novelist and I will, in fact, be eagerly devouring her back catalogue (starting with Let's Get Lost, since you recommend it). She's written another adult novel called You Don't Have To Say You Love Me, which is equally good, although not as perfect for me personally as Unsticky. Review incoming I'm sure, when I get a bit more time, also it's just possible Fb will get bored of me gushing about Sarra Manning :)

Perfectly legitimate little description made massively icky by including the detail that he's Asian in a sentence about why she can do better than him.

That is just icktastic. Romance does fail hard, sometimes, but then so does genre fiction in general.

It was all sadly indicative of a lot of the issues in romance Pyrofennec mentioned. So seeing something like that, but WAY better apparently and by Sara Manning pleases me enormously.

Yes, Pyrofennec is dead right about the problems inherent to the genre, but that's a different issue to the derision and scorn directed towards it by the critical community at large. I really hope you like Unsticky, I was bloody impressed with it. And Shadowheart is pretty special - it's Kinsale, of course, so it's dramatastic, but in an incredibly cool way. I also like it because it's not really, in any sense, a BDSM-romance or anything like that - it's just a romance where that dynamic exists, and even to the end of the book it isn't something either of them are particularly comfortable with. I think the hero muses at one point that he thinks he was cursed by heaven so that he is given pleasure instead of pain. As you can probably tell, I like it when these sort of things come up in romance and aren't in any way "solved."

(Hopefully the enormous largely-irrelevant comment will be taken as me getting into the Ferretbrain spirit.)

Welcome aboard ;)
http://inverarity.livejournal.com/ at 23:33 on 2011-05-01
If you want talk about 'feminismisn't' how about calling other women stupid for enjoying things that specifically address their fantasies? I understand it's problematic that these fantasies are treated as universal when they're not, but that's not a reason to condemn people, or look down on them, for enjoying them.


From your review:

But quite frankly there is nothing hotter in this universe than a powerful person willingly at a another's mercy


but what I'm trying to say is that romance is by its very nature heteronormative


It sure sounds to me like you are describing your personal fantasies and declaring them universal.
Cammalot at 23:46 on 2011-05-01
I dunno -- I thought Kyra included quite a lot of this sort of stuff:
I'm also very well aware that as deft and assured as the book is, it just happened – for whatever reason – to suit me. I am hesitant to recommend it with the unqualified fervour I want to simply because I'm aware that, when it comes to romance, it's all about personal preference.

from the very intro, even:
It's kind of hard work liking romances. What you find romantic, and what you find sexy, and what you ultimately find plausible, are so very much keyed into your personal preferences that it can be uncomfortably revealing about aspects of yourself you'd rather not share publicly, but equally it means that there's no guarantee you're going to like book, even if you usually like the work of the author, even if it's been incredibly well-received elsewhere.

to indicate that this review was going to be intensely personal, specifically, personal to Kyra. (So very personal, in fact, that I'm inclined to stay away from the book. I should note that as market-category romance is not my preferred genre anyway, it's not that the review is at fault for that. More like this review did not influence me to get over my normal shying-away enough to try this particular book.)
Dan H at 23:56 on 2011-05-01
It sure sounds to me like you are describing your personal fantasies and declaring them universal.


The first line you quote is clearly a statement of personal preference. If I say "hot chocolate with chilli is the best thing ever" I am not literally declaring it to be objectively superior to all other things that have ever existed.

The second line you quote is making a statement about the Romance genre as it exists. The literary genre known as "romance" consists of books about heterosexual women having romantic relationships with men. This makes it pretty much *by definition* heteronormative.
Wardog at 23:59 on 2011-05-01
It sure sounds to me like you are describing your personal fantasies and declaring them universal.

Then I did not express myself clearly enough. I suppose I should have written "But quite frankly there is nothing hotter *to me* in this universe than a powerful person willingly at a another's mercy" but I assumed that was covered by the *whole paragraph* in which I talked about the personal nature of reading romances. The line you quote is distinctly framed as one of my personal preferences, which is why I followed it up with the line "As I said: the romances you like can be uncomfortably revealing."

I've shied away from attempting to review romances on Fb for quite a long time - and this is largely why. It seems you can say whatever the fuck you like about any other genre and nobody will give a damn but the instant you dare admit to occasionally enjoying a well-written romance people seem roll up simply to take potshots at everything from a line they didn't like to your apparent intelligence.

@Cammalot
So very personal, in fact, that I'm inclined to stay away from the book.

I think Manning does what she does very well - but if it's not something that appeals to you, it's not something that's going to appeal to you, and that's entirely fair enough :)
valse de la lune at 07:08 on 2011-05-02
But it's a why a lot of people grow up believing that there isn't something wrong with us, that it's okay to like to sex, to like certain sorts of sex, to expect a certain level of treatment when in a relationship with someone.

But much of romance portrays creepy and abusive relationships (including rape as seduction) as sexy and desirable, so I'm a little puzzled as to what you mean by "a certain level of treatment."

I think you are veering into an unfortunate territory here, unless I'm reading you incorrectly. For ex, people of color are erased or have their imagination disemboweled by mainstream fantasy; I don't think responding to that with "So? Fantasy fiction gave refuge and empowered the imagination of bullied white nerdy teenagers while they grew up" would be helpful. Rather derailing, actually.

You say this repeatedly yourself, as I quoted above.

If you want talk about 'feminismisn't' how about calling other women stupid for enjoying things that specifically address their fantasies? I understand it's problematic that these fantasies are treated as universal when they're not, but that's not a reason to condemn people, or look down on them, for enjoying them.


Where did I say "lol stupid women"? Privileged women, certainly, as that's what it is about--as you yourself have acknowledged, the main body of romance is about the most privileged of women; POC romances and LGBT romances are so discrete from it it's ridiculous. For that matter, these fantasies you talk about are so meaningless to me and marginalize me so thoroughly it's not even funny. Why shouldn't I condemn them? "This thing is by some women for some women", as I've pointed out, is abjectly worthless for people who are not one of those women, people who are excluded: bringing it up over and over--as if "by privileged women for privileged women" should be accepted as the gold standard of female empowerment or whatever you believe it is--reads like rhetoric meant to shut down those who are more marginalized than you. Which I'm sure isn't what you intend.

Moreover, saying "these books are stupid" isn't the same thing as saying "people who read it are stupid" for the same reason that saying James Cameron's Avatar is racist doesn't mean calling everyone who enjoyed it racists. I'm sure you can appreciate the difference. Since I'm here anyway, why not drop a few links: black folks and romance - getting it right, the unbearable whiteness of being.
Arthur B at 13:47 on 2011-05-02
I think you are veering into an unfortunate territory here, unless I'm reading you incorrectly. For ex, people of color are erased or have their imagination disemboweled by mainstream fantasy; I don't think responding to that with "So? Fantasy fiction gave refuge and empowered the imagination of bullied white nerdy teenagers while they grew up" would be helpful. Rather derailing, actually.

The treatment of people of colour (and women in general, for that matter) in mainstream SF/fantasy is, of course, shameful. But then again, we both know that if you dig enough you can find examples in the genre which are not so harmful - you personally have done a lot of valuable work in tracking down and highlighting such examples.

Why, then, is it so hard to imagine that the same is possible for romance? Why is it OK to try and find the silver lining in SF/fantasy on the one hand, but on the other hand the only appropriate response to romance is to deride it as being stupid and a waste of paper?

I will point out here that Kyra has taken far more shit for reviewing this one romance novel than I ever have in over three years of reviewing Warhammer novels here. And if ever there were a white nerdy boys' treehouse in SF/fantasy, Warhams is it.
Dan H at 13:57 on 2011-05-02
But much of romance portrays creepy and abusive relationships (including rape as seduction) as sexy and desirable, so I'm a little puzzled as to what you mean by "a certain level of treatment."


Firstly, you're arguing from the part to the whole here - some romance is about creepy, abusive relationships but not all of it is (particularly since, if I read your comments right, your definition of "romance" seems to extend to all portrayals of romance whether they're within the romance genre or not). Secondly, this is a distinct criticism, and nobody is complaining about distinct criticisms.


I think you are veering into an unfortunate territory here, unless I'm reading you incorrectly. For ex, people of color are erased or have their imagination disemboweled by mainstream fantasy; I don't think responding to that with "So? Fantasy fiction gave refuge and empowered the imagination of bullied white nerdy teenagers while they grew up" would be helpful. Rather derailing, actually.


Yes, that would be derailing, but that is not what Kyra said, and it is not what she was responding to.

You complained that romance (both the formal genre and the general concept) caused you to grow up believing there was something wrong with you *because of your sexuality*. However there are a great many women (and yes, many of them will be straight, white, middle class and cisgendered but *not all of them will be*, some will be people of colour, and some - like Kyra - will be queer and not remotely middle class) who would have grown up thinking there was something wrong with them *because of their sexuality* if they hadn't had things like romance novels telling them it was okay to like sex.

I'd also point out that despite the fact that people of colour are erased by fantasy, you still read it and still enjoy reading it and make no apologies for reading it and enjoying reading it. You even presumably find value in it, and there must be some extent to which you consider the value you find to outweigh the genuine harm the genre does to other people of colour (and for that matter other women). Nowhere do I see you avowing your intent to "deride and judge the shit" out of fantasy.


Where did I say "lol stupid women"? Privileged women, certainly, as that's what it is about--as you yourself have acknowledged, the main body of romance is about the most privileged of women; POC romances and LGBT romances are so discrete from it it's ridiculous. For that matter, these fantasies you talk about are so meaningless to me and marginalize me so thoroughly it's not even funny. Why shouldn't I condemn them?


You shouldn't condemn them because it isn't okay to condemn something just because you find no value in it. Again, you don't condemn fantasy - indeed you praise quite a lot of it. Once again, nobody is complaining about people making specific criticisms of specific texts, or even of general trends within genres. What we're complaining about is people dismissing an entire genre as stupid, just because it's about love and relationships instead of about wizards and spaceships.

"This thing is by some women for some women", as I've pointed out, is abjectly worthless for people who are not one of those women, people who are excluded: bringing it up over and over--as if "by privileged women for privileged women" should be accepted as the gold standard of female empowerment or whatever you believe it is--reads like rhetoric meant to shut down those who are more marginalized than you. Which I'm sure isn't what you intend.


Nobody is declaring romance to be the gold standard of female empowerment, but it is *a contributor* to female empowerment and as such it *matters*. Straight, cis, white women are - in fact - still women and their voices matter and are, in fact, routinely silenced in mainstream publishing (partly by people who dismiss romance novels a stupid and worthless). And I *do* understand that it's a problem that the discourse of mainstream feminism is so white dominated (and frequently flat-out transphobic) but the solution to that is most certainly not to abandon it entirely.

Nobody is saying that you have to like romance or find value in it, nobody is saying that you can't criticize it, but when you dismiss it as being "stupid books catering to a specific fantasy by and for privileged first-world straight cis white women" you are, in fact, contributing to the silencing of a marginalized group. The fact that you identify as being relatively "more" marginalized is neither here nor there.

Moreover, saying "these books are stupid" isn't the same thing as saying "people who read it are stupid" for the same reason that saying James Cameron's Avatar is racist doesn't mean calling everyone who enjoyed it racists


No, it's not the same as saying "people who read it are stupid" but it is arguably the same as saying "the people who wrote it are stupid" and "the intended target audience is stupid" it might also be considered the same as saying "people who don't consider this to be stupid are stupid". Certainly it declares those books to have less *value* than other books - specifically it declares them to have less value than books written by straight white cisgendered middle class *men*.

Kyra opened this article - in essence - by saying that she was aware that the Romance genre had issues, but that she found value in it anyway (and yes, she grounded that against the fact that she, as a woman, appreciates the fact that these books are primarily written by women and for a female target audience despite the fact that the assumed target audience is straight and she isn't). Romance gets a lot of criticism for being "stupid" and this isn't a valid complaint - it's a complaint grounded in patriarchal notions of what is and isn't worth writing about.

There are lots of reasons to criticize romance novels (most of them also being valid reasons to criticize all works of genre fiction) but "they're stupid" isn't one of them.
valse de la lune at 16:01 on 2011-05-02
@Arthur:

Why, then, is it so hard to imagine that the same is possible for romance? Why is it OK to try and find the silver lining in SF/fantasy on the one hand, but on the other hand the only appropriate response to romance is to deride it as being stupid and a waste of paper?

Then wouldn't it have been super-duper useful if Kyra had pointed out examples of the romance genre that aren't about white straight cis middle-class women or even made a passing mention of those? She was the one, after all, who admitted that that's what the majority of the genre. I'm quite aware of romance that's not about this demographic, actually, hence my links (one of which mentions erotica that empowered and was positive to a woman of color, hooray).

I will point out here that Kyra has taken far more shit for reviewing this one romance novel than I ever have in over three years of reviewing Warhammer novels here.

She has? I mean honestly now, if there was an entire mob of FB readers chiming in you might have a point, but I think I'm the only one who takes issue with her review here--and then partly because of her problematic phrasing.

@Daniel:

I'd also point out that despite the fact that people of colour are erased by fantasy, you still read it and still enjoy reading it and make no apologies for reading it and enjoying reading it.

There's a reason I don't read--and in fact deride and judge the shit out of—a good bit of fantasy, actually. Robert Jordan, Terry Goodkind, George RR Martin, Forgotten Realms/D&D spin-offs, etc.

Certainly it declares those books to have less *value* than other books - specifically it declares them to have less value than books written by straight white cisgendered middle class *men*.

I'm tilting my head at this one: I consider a lot of books written by straight white cis middle-class dudes stupid, and entire genres by and for the same likewise (to wit: certain sections of SF). Are you addressing me specifically, or the general disdain directed at romance? If the latter, sure. If the former, I'm a little bothered by the assumption.

Straight, cis, white women are - in fact - still women and their voices matter and are, in fact, routinely silenced in mainstream publishing (partly by people who dismiss romance novels a stupid and worthless).

You do realize straight cis white women often silence the voices of women who aren’t straight, cis, or white? Well, actually you do, you’ve said so. So what are you really saying? You would have a point if I had privilege over straight white women; if I indeed had any power to silence them. Problem is, I don’t. I’m not speaking from a position of power—there’s a world of difference between someone like me dismissing the fantasies of straight white women and someone like… well, you (straight white dude) doing the same. Dynamics and nuances, you see. You're a little too used to berating privileged people who are rather ignorant from what you believe is the soapbox of enlightenment. Please recognize why the discourse is different when you're talking down to the marginalized. Minority Warrior, indeed.

Nobody is saying that you have to like romance or find value in it, nobody is saying that you can't criticize it, but when you dismiss it as being "stupid books catering to a specific fantasy by and for privileged first-world straight cis white women" you are, in fact, contributing to the silencing of a marginalized group. The fact that you identify as being relatively "more" marginalized is neither here nor there.

Holy shit, the dismissive whitesplaining/mansplaining here is amazing. Are you serious? I adore how you put “more” in quotes. Adore. I’d say you should know better, but perhaps not. Are you familiar with intersectionality?

Eh, fuck it. I do realize you’re trying very hard to be feminist and shit here, but this is making me slightly ill seeing that you are a straight white dude—dunno about Arthur—essentially shouting FEAR NOT LADIES, I AM Joss Whedon A straight cis white DUDE DEFENDING FEMINISM FROM A WOMAN, WOO, ALSO LET ME AIR-QUOTE YOUR MARGINALIZATION LOL. Any points you have made are just… buried under that and I can’t look past the fantastic giant pile of fail.

Sorry, I’m afraid I will have to disengage, this is raising my blood pressure unnecessarily.
Arthur B at 16:50 on 2011-05-02
Then wouldn't it have been super-duper useful if Kyra had pointed out examples of the romance genre that aren't about white straight cis middle-class women or even made a passing mention of those?

Possibly, but then wouldn't it have been similarly useful to have included some examples of SF/fantasy that isn't pitched at white straight cis middle-class boys in all of those reviews of mainstream SF/fantasy that I and others have posted on the cite? Why is romance the breaking point whilst SF/fantasy isn't?

She has? I mean honestly now, if there was an entire mob of FB readers chiming in you might have a point, but I think I'm the only one who takes issue with her review here--and then partly because of her problematic phrasing.

I have seen at least one other person in this conversation who came in with some drive-by sniping, and at least one other comment which needed disemvowelling. None of my Warhammer articles have evoked even slightly the same level of vitriol, even though they're about militaristic power fantasies dripping with pseudo-fascistic trappings and in which (with a few exceptions) women and people of colour and non-straight/non-cis people are almost entirely invisible. And yet apparently I get a free pass for my love for the Emperor and his glittering legions of Space Marines even though it's clearly kind of problematic and, on top of that, incredibly stupid.

Addressing one of your points to Dan:
I’m not speaking from a position of power—there’s a world of difference between someone like me dismissing the fantasies of straight white women and someone like… well, you (straight white dude) doing the same.

But you're doing it using almost exactly the same tactics that straight white dudes use to dismiss romance - tossing it aside as formulaic, predictable, schlocky trash. And when you repeat their dismissals, don't you amplify and strengthen them?

By all means the arguments you raise against trends within mainstream romance are valid, just as the arguments you raise against trends within mainstream SF/fantasy are valid, but we both know that mainstream SF/fantasy works can buck those trends, so why is it so impossible to imagine that mainstream romance works can do the same? But to discard an entire genre, as you seem to want to do, is effectively saying that the whole thing is irredeemable and that you simply cannot imagine that any work of mainstream romance could possibly exist that isn't harmful in the ways you have outlined. It's not like you discarding Goodkind and Jordan and the rest, it's more like you discarding the whole of the mainstream fantasy genre, tossing Le Guin, Mieville and the rest down the memory hole along with John Norman and R.A. Salvatore.

With fantasy, you have shown more than willing to judge works or series on their own merits and to make a decision as to whether they are individually harmful or not. But you're not offering romance the same chance, nor do you seem willing to let other people who are just plain more interested in reclaiming romance a chance to do the same.
valse de la lune at 17:37 on 2011-05-02
Why is romance the breaking point whilst SF/fantasy isn't?

Because those reviews of SF/F didn't go "well, this is important because it's by women and for women" (which, okay, doesn't apply), probably? There's no pretense that said fantasy is about social justice and the uplifting of the marginalized, whereas Kyra here admitted to using "women" as a shorthand for "cis straight white women."

But you're doing it using almost exactly the same tactics that straight white dudes use to dismiss romance - tossing it aside as formulaic, predictable, schlocky trash. And when you repeat their dismissals, don't you amplify and strengthen them?

Holy shit, straight white dudes dismiss romance based on the grounds that romance excludes/erases/harms non-straight women of color? Where do you find these dudes? LINK ME. LINK ME RIGHT NOW. I demand to be introduced to these rare specimens! Or you could quote where I said "hoho romance is formulaic predictable schlocky trash unlike SF/F WHICH IS VERY GROWN-UP AND INCLUSIVE FUCK YEAH" maybe. Both of you are very, very defensive over comments I never made. I've said "stupid fantasies" because I think being exclusionary and othering is a stupid thing to do.

But to discard an entire genre, as you seem to want to do, is effectively saying that the whole thing is irredeemable and that you simply cannot imagine that any work of mainstream romance could possibly exist that isn't harmful in the ways you have outlined.

What do you think constitutes "mainstream"? Because to me, "mainstream" is synonymous with white-straight-middle-class-cis--and that's what it remains, despite gradual progress that's IMO not going fast enough. I also do my best to resist the impulse to flail when someone goes "SF/F is mostly about straight white people, so I've no interest in reading it and I judge it harshly" (mainstream being what the average person will see when browsing the SF/F shelves in most bookstores). Their feelings of being marginalized are much more important, I think, than my own fannish butthurt and my urge to defend something I enjoy to the death.
valse de la lune at 17:39 on 2011-05-02
(That is, if you refer to my previous comments on a different thread re: urban fantasy/romance, I've already conceded to being in the wrong--my main thrust here has far less to do with whether I think romance's formulaic and more to do with... everything else with regards to exclusion.)
Wardog at 18:01 on 2011-05-02
There's no pretense that said fantasy is about social justice and the uplifting of the marginalized, whereas Kyra here admitted to using "women" as a shorthand for "cis straight white women."


Admitted to it, and apologised for it - it was a linguistic shorthand and I should have expressed myself better. I have *certainly* also not tried to claim romance uplifts the marginalised - I have, in fact, repeatedly said that romance is deeply deeply problematic in the ways you have articulated, and in the ways I articulated in the damn article. I have, however, objected to the way romance is dismissed and derided by critics, including you. You have spoken about romance, and the people who dare to to like it, using deliberately contemptuous and dimissive language ("stupid" comes up a lot). I see all your specific criticisms but I honestly believe that dismissing out of hand *an entire genre of fiction* and one that, moreover, does speak to some people who may consider themselves to be marginalised, is not okay.
Dan H at 18:05 on 2011-05-02
Holy shit, the dismissive whitesplaining/mansplaining here is amazing. Are you serious? I adore how you put “more” in quotes. Adore. I’d say you should know better, but perhaps not. Are you familiar with intersectionality?


Intersectionality is an area I'm trying to get more familiar with, but I'm aware it's complicated. One of the things I *thought* I understood (although I may have got it entirely wrong) about intersectionality was that it was important *not* to try to couch things in terms of greater or lesser oppression - the reason I put "more" in quotation marks was because I was genuinely surprised that you had expressed the idea in that way.

I do understand that some people are marginalized within marginalized groups, but I have always understood that it was important not to treat these things as comparisons but rather, well, intersections. Again part of my issue here was that Kyra is not in fact straight or middle class so I have no idea who counts as more or less marginalized than her, or even if such a comparison is possible.

Eh, fuck it. I do realize you’re trying very hard to be feminist and shit here, but this is making me slightly ill seeing that you are a straight white dude—dunno about Arthur—essentially shouting FEAR NOT LADIES, I AM Joss Whedon A straight cis white DUDE DEFENDING FEMINISM FROM A WOMAN, WOO, ALSO LET ME AIR-QUOTE YOUR MARGINALIZATION LOL. Any points you have made are just… buried under that and I can’t look past the fantastic giant pile of fail.


I absolutely see how I could have come across that way and I apologize. I am in fact very aware of the danger of going into FEAR NOT LADIES mode, and I try very hard to avoid doing it, but sometimes I fuck up.

In this context, I was concerned less with defending feminism than with defending Kyra, who was deeply upset by a lot of your comments. She felt that your dismissal of romance was grounded primarily in the mainstream notion that it's "stupid" and as somebody who finds great value in the genre this genuinely offended her. However I was overly aggressive in my defense and for that I apologize.
Wardog at 18:18 on 2011-05-02
Both of you are very, very defensive over comments I never made. I've said "stupid fantasies" because I think being exclusionary and othering is a stupid thing to do.

And you're attacking things I haven't said. If you find something exclusionary and othering, then say it's exlusionary and othering. Calling it stupid is not only unhelpful in this context but it echoes, as I have said, the traditional criticisms directed at romance novels from the mainstream - going all the way back, in fact, to George Eliot's dismissal of silly books for silly women. And although you have never explicitely said "hoho romance is formulaic predictable schlocky trash unlike SF/F WHICH IS VERY GROWN-UP AND INCLUSIVE FUCK YEAH" there are plenty of SF/fantasy novels that you have critcised for also being exclusionary and othering but you have not - as far as I can tell - blanket-condemned the entire SF/fantasy genre as stupid as a consequence.

Also as Arthur as has said above, there seems a general tolerance towards accepting SF/fantasy books that ARE exclusionary and othering because of their other virtues or the fact that they're considered to be "fun" (Warhammer, and Lord of Light, being excellent examples). Whereas liking romance seems to also require a tacit acceptance of the label "stupid white straight cis-gendered middle class woman" - which I think is unfair, dismissive and untrue.

I do not believe that the fact that romance is good and validating and enjoyable for *some* women (who may not all be cis-gendered straight middle class and white) "cancels out" the fact that some people feel feel excluded and othered by it. (I am continuing to use the word feel because I don't believe it is my place to tell people what they are excluded from or othered by). However, I don't believe the fact it does have some pretty serious problems renders it value-less as a genre, any more than I think the serious problems in other genres renders them value-less either. However, romance is consistently attacked by the mainstream as being value-less because it it is written by, and enjoyed by, women. Some women. Who may not all be white cis-gendered and middle class.
valse de la lune at 18:45 on 2011-05-02
@Daniel:

Intersectionality, as I understand it, is more the interaction of different forms of oppression (hence "intersect"). Consider a white woman and an Asian woman: both are subjected to misogyny, but the latter will be subjected to racism too. In fact, I'm going to be treated to lovely racial stereotypes ("submissive Asian doll") that white women simply don't experience. Some groups do have more privilege over other groups, and it is important to bring that up when one (more privileged) group silences a less privileged one.

It's also why many women of color identify as womanists: feminism as a term and movement is too often centered around the concerns of white women, so much so that many of us no longer wish to be associated with it.

Oh, incidentally: I used to read fantasy about white people and enjoyed it because I didn't know anything else existed and wasn't socially aware enough to realize how problematic so much of it was. This isn't evidence that said fantasy is not exclusionary, or that said fantasy empowered me--in fact it's the opposite: I had to take scraps from the privileged table because, as far as I was aware, there wasn't anything else for me. I don't speak for anybody who's not me and I'm sure this feeling of "taking scraps from the privileged table" is by no means universal, but then... there're an awful lot of SF/F fans of color who read the same stuff I did for years, and turned out the way I did: creating or consuming more things that perpetuate the supremacy of the privileged, not quite able to imagine fantasy that could be anything but Europe-based and inhabited entirely by pale-skinned folks (apart from the darkling horde from the east under some dark lord's command).
http://inverarity.livejournal.com/ at 18:50 on 2011-05-02
I have seen at least one other person in this conversation who came in with some drive-by sniping, and at least one other comment which needed disemvowelling. None of my Warhammer articles have evoked even slightly the same level of vitriol, even though they're about militaristic power fantasies dripping with pseudo-fascistic trappings and in which (with a few exceptions) women and people of colour and non-straight/non-cis people are almost entirely invisible.


I wasn't drive-by sniping and I really don't think I was vitriolic.

I haven't read your Warhammer stuff because I am no more interested in Warhammer than I am in romance. Have you been saying "Yeah, I know it's nerdy white-boy power-tripping but you should give it a pass because it makes me squee," or have you been acknowledging that it's a guilty pleasure? The gist of Kyra's article seems to be that romance should be defended to the ground, problematic or not, because it's "by women, for women" and that therefore even the "guilty pleasure" label would be insulting. I would have passed on and not said a thing except that she prefaced her review with a bunch of text about how everything that makes so many people side-eye romance novels should get a pass because otherwise you're being sexist.
valse de la lune at 19:01 on 2011-05-02
@Kyra:

Calling it stupid is not only unhelpful in this context but it echoes, as I have said, the traditional criticisms directed at romance novels from the mainstream - going all the way back, in fact, to George Eliot's dismissal of silly books for silly women.

Okay, so essentially we associate "stupid" with different things and you felt I wasn't being sufficiently precise. Fair enough.

And although you have never explicitely said "hoho romance is formulaic predictable schlocky trash unlike SF/F WHICH IS VERY GROWN-UP AND INCLUSIVE FUCK YEAH" there are plenty of SF/fantasy novels that you have critcised for also being exclusionary and othering but you have not - as far as I can tell - blanket-condemned the entire SF/fantasy genre as stupid as a consequence.

Okay. Feel free to recommend me romance novels that are not about straight relationships, where women form strong bonds and empower each other, where men are not the entire focus of women's lives (extrapolated from the Bechdel Test, if you will), and where either the protagonist is a woman of color or women of color are more than the "sassy sidekick" stereotypes. It'd be extra nice if the novel in question isn't about women who live in the first world, but since we're talking English-language fiction that may be a stretch. Would help if these novels are shelved under romance and not, say, "Asian literature" or "African-American literature" or whatever (that what could qualify as romance is shelved under Asian/African/etc because it's about women of color is on some levels problematic, isn't it? Likewise with LGBT fiction being in its own section).

I'm not being sarcastic: throw me a few bones and I'd be delighted to judge them individually as opposed to going "gee, romance as a genre is pretty shite."
Wardog at 19:02 on 2011-05-02
The gist of Kyra's article seems to be that romance should be defended to the ground, problematic or not, because it's "by women, for women"


Err...no, it's not? I didn't even try to mount a defence of romance as a genre, and I don't ever intend to. My pleasures are my pleasures, and guilt is the refuge for the middle classes. I merely mounted a criticism of mainstream dismissals of the genre - which are usually based on a lack of understanding of the way the genre functions, and a generalised contempt for books written by women, with a target audience of women. This is a completely different issue to other problems inherent in romance, and indeed other genres. The confusion seems to have arisen because I expressed an awareness of the problems, rather than pretending they don't exist or concealing them in the "oh but it's fun" catchall.

As I said above to Pyrofennec I don't believe that the fact that some women (including me) like romance means that it's "okay" that some people feel othered and excluded by them. The two don't cancel out. However, equally, just because some people *do* feel othered an excluded by the genre doesn't make the genre as a whole utterly and wholesale worthless, suitable to be only a "guilty pleasure."

I've apologised three times now for using "by women for women" as a sloppy shorthand, and I agree it was an unfortunate phrase to fall back on but, yeah, I fuck up sometimes.
Wardog at 19:07 on 2011-05-02
I would have passed on and not said a thing except that she prefaced her review with a bunch of text about how everything that makes so many people side-eye romance novels should get a pass because otherwise you're being sexist.


I don't think I said this or implied this. What I did say was that sometimes some people sideline romances for sexist reasons.
Shimmin at 19:12 on 2011-05-02
As far as I can see, Kyra's article boils down to:
* Romance relies a lot on personal taste
* They tend to be quite normative so they'll appeal to a larger audience (numberwise, not categorywise)
* Kyra genuinely enjoys them even though they often don't mesh with her... tickboxes, if you like
* Romance is unfairly belittled compared to other genres, to a large extent because it's so associated with women
* Kyra really likes Unsticky

Nothing about defending it to the death or giving it a pass for the problems, just not singling it out for criticism above all other genres.
Wardog at 19:23 on 2011-05-02
Okay, so essentially we associate "stupid" with different things and you felt I wasn't being sufficiently precise. Fair enough.

I think this is probably the heart of our disagreement - I react quite strongly to the word 'stupid' because to me it comes across as dismissive.

Okay. Feel free to recommend me romance novels that are not about straight relationships, where women form strong bonds and empower each other, where men are not the entire focus of women's lives (extrapolated from the Bechdel Test, if you will),

I don't think me attempting to do this would be helpful for either for us. All the things you mention here are kind of inherent to the way the mainstream romance genre works - they are about relationships between men and women, where the main focus is on that relationship, and that's kind of what mainstream romance *is*. You might as well ask for a fantasy novel not set in an imagined world.

As I said in the review this is hugely problematic when it comes to issues of inclusion but it's also fundamental to the way the genre works. Don't get me wrong, it doesn't also mean that the women can't have strong, worthwhile relationships with other women and that the heroines can't themselves be empowered and decent human beings - I would argue that those are also integral aspects of the genre but they're always going to be the secondary focus.

The thing is, everyone has their own deal-breakers when it comes to reading fiction - and yours mean that there is no way that mainstream romance isn't going to annoy the fuck out of you. Don't get me wrong, that's okay, I'm not trying to imply there's anything wrong with a genre not being for any individual, and I can completely see where you're coming from on this one. Sometimes I read romance and I wonder why it doesn't annoy the fuck out of me. However, I think even though a genre may not have anything to offer an individual is not a reason to condemn the whole genre, especially because it may have real value for others.
Dan H at 19:29 on 2011-05-02
@Daniel:

Intersectionality, as I understand it, is more the interaction of different forms of oppression (hence "intersect"). Consider a white woman and an Asian woman: both are subjected to misogyny, but the latter will be subjected to racism too.


Okay, I was under the impression that it was more to do with the way in which different forms of oppression interact differently at different times and in different contexts, but maybe that boils down to the same thing.

Some groups do have more privilege over other groups, and it is important to bring that up when one (more privileged) group silences a less privileged one.


I do understand that and again, nobody has ever suggested that your criticisms of the genre are invalid, except insofar as they appeared to mirror the "these books are stupid" criticism which one gets from so many mainstream critics.
Shimmin at 19:49 on 2011-05-02
Pyrofennec, I think there are some complicating factors that aren't just about romance as a genre. I'm not trying to say it's an unreasonable request, it's just complicated.

For one, writing by white cis middle-class people in the first world (as you put it) is overwhelmingly about those types of people; and I think that, because romance is very much down to personal tastes, it's even more likely to be about people that can... substitute for the author, I suppose - which is probably exactly those people. I think it's easier for both authors and readers to stretch themselves in other genres, like indeed fantasy.

For another, where books get categorised by libraries or bookshops is more down to those places, or to some extent general social pressures, than to the authors or whoever is supposed to be responsible for romance as a genre. I'm sure the point's been brought up elsewhere on the site, but as soon as a romance isn't about white cis protagonists, it's probably going into a special interest section or in General Fiction. From what you've said already, you seem to be defining "romance" in terms of mainstream normative romance, explicitly excluding POC and LGBTA romance; then dissing it for being normative. So what I mean is, if you're looking just at normative romance shelved in the generic romance section, it's probably there because it doesn't contain any of the elements you want.

For a third... well, the romances I've read are basically exactly those stereotypical ones, mostly because that's what were in the family, but that's probably what I'd look for in a romance anyway. So I'm not in a position to recommend anything. Sorry.
Arthur B at 22:35 on 2011-05-02
I wasn't drive-by sniping and I really don't think I was vitriolic.

Accusing people of declaring their personal fantasies to be universal based on cherry-picking quotes out of the article and ignoring the context of those quotes (in which Kyra made it abundantly and glitteringly clear that those personal tastes were, in fact, personal) seems pretty damn inflammatory to me, to be honesty, and since at the time it was your only comment it read to me like drive-by trolling.

If you actually intend to engage in the discussion in good faith then fair enough. It would go a long way towards convincing me that that's the case if you addressed the points previously raised about how you selected your quotes.

Have you been saying "Yeah, I know it's nerdy white-boy power-tripping but you should give it a pass because it makes me squee," or have you been acknowledging that it's a guilty pleasure?

I don't really think I have been doing either but you are welcome to read the articles and form your own opinion if you wish.

I do not consider my enjoyment of my warhams to be a guilty pleasure because I don't consider my enjoyment of it to be a moral failing, or a problem with me which I should fix. But I don't expect everyone to enjoy, accept, or condone Warhammer simply because I do.

My interpretation of the gist of Kyra's article, particularly in light of the previously cited portions in which she talks about how enjoyment of romance can only ever be a highly personal thing, is more or less the opposite of yours. I don't know where you are seeing universalism there unless you're taking the article sentence by sentence and not paying any attention to the context.
http://inverarity.livejournal.com/ at 02:36 on 2011-05-03
f you actually intend to engage in the discussion in good faith then fair enough. It would go a long way towards convincing me that that's the case if you addressed the points previously raised about how you selected your quotes.


I didn't really think I had anything more to add, but since you insist: it was not "glitteringly clear" to me that Kyra was expressing her own personal tastes and not issuing pronouncements of what the romance genre is by definition. In particular, I found her statement that romance is necessarily heteronormative to be baffling, since I'm pretty sure there is a thriving market for non-hetero romances.

Since she was defending her tastes amidst what amounted to a preemptive accusation of sexism on the part of anyone who might criticize fiction that caters to them, the entire piece struck me as extraordinarily lacking in self-awareness.

If it had just been a book review of Unsticky, I would have shrugged and passed on by as Not My Cup of Tea; I certainly wasn't looking for opportunities to jump on someone for writing a review of a romance novel.
valse de la lune at 06:33 on 2011-05-03
@Kyra: You might as well ask for a fantasy novel not set in an imagined world.

But... there is fantasy not set in imagined worlds? Urban fantasy, historical fantasy, alt-historical fantasy etc. "You might as well ask for fantasy without supernatural elements or magic whatsoever" I'd get, though oddly enough that also exists (Geoff Ryman's Was just to name one; the thing is even published under the Fantasy Masterworks heading). Yeah, yeah, entirely beside the point but hey.

Shimmin and Kyra: hmm, what if I were to take out "must be about women of color" and "non-straight romance"? My problem with romance isn't just that it's focused on relationships between men and women but that often it doesn't even pretend it wants to pass Bechdel: to name and shame a favorite punching bag of mine, Silver Phoenix (YA fantasy) is allegedly about a girl and the title refers to the name of a woman, but inexplicably the book begins with the birth of a boy who'll grow up to be the protagonist's love interest. She then spends the entire book defined by men (dad, love interest, assorted acquaintances), instantly hates any woman who she thinks will draw the attention of her male traveling companions, and the only conversation she has with anyone that's not about men is ordering food from a waitress: otherwise when she talks to other women it's about men, and when she talks to men the dialogue is about men too. You see what I mean? I'm sure it is possible to write about a woman getting together with a dude without her talking, thinking, and pining after him (or talking, thinking, and being defined by male role models) every minute of her waking hours while she spends the rest of her time insulting, loathing, and demonifying every woman that's not her; see also Charlaine Harris and Laurell K. Hamilton.
Orion at 06:48 on 2011-05-03
Kyra,

I really enjoyed this review--and all of your romance reviews, actually. I've read about 4 romance books ever, but I liked them, and I'm open to finding more. I also recognize the dismissal as an attitude I absorbed--from my mother more than anything. Actually, the only reason I started reading romance at all was that some perfectly formulaic romances are shelved in Sci-fi because they're set in a secondary world.

Pyrofennec, I have a number of thoughts about your take on things. Some of them will undoubtedly come from thoughtless privilege, for which I apologize.

First, I'm curious why you think it would be relevant to cite examples of romance novels about people of color. I agree that it is a failing of romance writers as a group that they tend to exclude people of color, but this article is a review of one book. My understanding was that Kyra felt forced to defend romance as a genre not because she likes every romance, but because she likes some romances, and to justify liking any of them you necessarily disagree with a blanket condemnation.

Unstuck is by white people for white people, and it will still be about white people no matter what other romance writers are writing. Sometimes you seem to be arguing that white people should never read books written by white people for white people. I think that's probably an offensive distortion of your actual view, so I can only apologize for the mischaracterization and ask you to explain further.
Arthur B at 07:54 on 2011-05-03
Since she was defending her tastes amidst what amounted to a preemptive accusation of sexism on the part of anyone who might criticize fiction that caters to them, the entire piece struck me as extraordinarily lacking in self-awareness.

I think this is our essential disagreement. Where you are reading a defence of Kyra's tastes, I see an acknowledgement on her part that she has them, and that because romance is so very dependent on engaging with readers' tastes that inevitably any review of a romance novel is going to be coloured by the reviewer's tastes and may be less useful to a reader if said reader just doesn't share the reviewer's preferences. That isn't to say that everyone should share those fantasies; if anything, it's an acknowledgement that the review is inevitably going to be less useful to people who don't share them, and if you don't like Unsticky because it just ain't your cup of tea that doesn't reflect badly on you, but equally doesn't reflect badly on it.

As far as the heteronormativity of romance goes, I read that as saying that as romance is a genre which caters to fantasies, then commercially speaking, even if we enjoyed a seismic shift tomorrow which left the genre much more accurately representing the occurrence of different desires in the general population, the majority of romances published are always going to cater to straight fantasies simply because (unless something very unusual happens to the demographics of the general populace) the majority of readers out there are going to have straight fantasies. This isn't to say that it isn't an important and wonderful thing that LGBT romances are doing well, or even an assertion that this heteronormativity is a good and wonderful thing, just an acknowledgement that, well, most people are straight, and the romance genre is going to reflect that. That's just kind of the hand we've been dealt and it's not something that is going to change suddenly.
valse de la lune at 08:36 on 2011-05-03
First, I'm curious why you think it would be relevant to cite examples of romance novels about people of color.

Not in the review itself, but in the subsequent discussions where it'd have been useful as a defense against the generalization that romance is het-normative and etc etc, see my exchange with Arthur. Lo and behold, no such example has been cited, merely further admissions that het-normative and white is just how romance rolls.

Unstuck is by white people for white people, and it will still be about white people no matter what other romance writers are writing. Sometimes you seem to be arguing that white people should never read books written by white people for white people. I think that's probably an offensive distortion of your actual view, so I can only apologize for the mischaracterization and ask you to explain further.

Here's what I don't understand about some people. If you know what you are going to say is hideously offensive and arises from thoughtless privilege, why say it? I'm not going to dignify with this an explanation, because I owe you none whatsoever. Gross, gross, gross. No amount of preemptive apologizing is going to help. You might as well have said "Sorry if this sounds racist, but..."
valse de la lune at 09:21 on 2011-05-03
Hell, let me help you along a little bit: suppose you are reading a feminist blog that criticizes many books by men for men for being exclusionary and misogynistic. Would you have the gall to comment and ask "Sorry if this sounds sexist and I'm aware this may sound sexist, but why are you uppity women saying men should never read books by men for men? Why are you trying to take away their toys and, I don't know, hurt their feelings? How awful!" It ignores that nobody's trying to do any such thing and that nobody is saying any such thing, and it's just full of asinine, transparent derailing. Borderline concern-troll, in fact.

If this were a POC/inclusivity safe space I'd be calling you names and you'd be dogpiled like whoa.
Wardog at 09:37 on 2011-05-03
t was not "glitteringly clear" to me that Kyra was expressing her own personal tastes and not issuing pronouncements of what the romance genre is by definition.

I'm happy to take responsibility for not having expressed myself clearly on score. Shit happens. I'll try harder next time.

In particular, I found her statement that romance is necessarily heteronormative to be baffling, since I'm pretty sure there is a thriving market for non-hetero romances.

There *is* a thriving market for non-hetero romances; however I think this is a messy topic because as far as I can tell the "thriving market" for these sort of romances is still, err, largely dominated by straight white women. I'm not saying this is wrong, and I'm certainly not saying that non-heterosexual romances are read and written *solely* by these people but it still problematises the example. And although non-heterosexual romances *are* being published in increasingly number I would hesitate to say they were mainstream. Mills and Boon, for example, does not have a non-straight line.

Since she was defending her tastes amidst what amounted to a preemptive accusation of sexism on the part of anyone who might criticize fiction that caters to them, the entire piece struck me as extraordinarily lacking in self-awareness.

As I said above and in the article itself: I have no objection to specific criticisms to specific texts but much of the mainstream criticisms of romance novels, and romantic elements in fiction, are grounded in wholesale dismissals of the entire genre, and a fundamental lack of understanding of how romantic tropes function. I don't know where you got the other stuff from, I'm afraid. I wasn't even attempting to address the inherent problems of the genre - it's normativity - I was just attempting to acknowledge that the problems are there.

And equally, like Arthur, I'm not happy to accept romance, or any other genre of fiction, as a "guilty pleasure." I don't believe one should feel guilty for one's pleasures - if you do feel guilty about them, you shouldn't indulge them. If I genuinely thought it was morally wrong to read romances, I wouldn't read them. I think it's perfectly legitimate to enjoy reading romances, even though the genre has issues, just as I think it's perfectly legitimate to enjoy reading fantasy, even though that too has issues.
Dan H at 09:42 on 2011-05-03
In particular, I found her statement that romance is necessarily heteronormative to be baffling, since I'm pretty sure there is a thriving market for non-hetero romances.


There is, but it's shelved and categorised differently, and I think Kyra didn't want to cite gay romance as evidence that mainstream romance was non-heteronormative (it gets particularly tricky because quite a lot of M/M romance is actually written by and for heterosexual women, which raises a lot of difficult questions about appropriation - not all of it is, but some of it is).

Since she was defending her tastes amidst what amounted to a preemptive accusation of sexism on the part of anyone who might criticize fiction that caters to them, the entire piece struck me as extraordinarily lacking in self-awareness.


I understand how the introduction to the article might have come across that way, because in it Kyra was trying to do two quite a lot of things in a quite short preamble: to acknowledge that the genre does have some serious issues, to explain why she personally still finds value in it, and to highlight the fact that a lot of criticisms of the genre *are* in fact rooted in a sexist dismissal of things which are perceived as feminine.

The preamble was, I think, inspired mostly by the second review which Kyra quotes - which is full of the kind of patronising this-stuff-is-for-girls nonsense which is usually used to dismiss writing by women (it even contains the obligatory reference to "Pride and Prejudice" which - as always - fails to recognise that Austen was actually writing biting social commentary, not schmoopy love stories). Romance readers often *do* have to fight for the validity of the genre, and I don't think it's unfair to describe *dismissals* of Romance (as opposed to criticisms of it) as sexist.

Again, it was not Kyra's intent to dismiss or minimize the flaws of the genre, only to acknowledge them and highlight that she found value in it in spite of those flaws, and that since she found value in it she was always infuriated when the genre was dismissed as being stupid, silly, frivilous or otherwise worthless.
Dan H at 09:44 on 2011-05-03
Ah I see Kyra has made pretty much the same points for herself - I should probably have just kept my mouth shut.
Dan H at 09:55 on 2011-05-03
Sometimes you seem to be arguing that white people should never read books written by white people for white people.


I know Pyrofennec has already called you on this one, but I want to chime in and say that I really, really, really don't think she's ever said that. All she has said is that books written by and for white people exclude her, which they do.
http://ninjacatman.livejournal.com/ at 10:15 on 2011-05-03
Pyro-

So since you asked...

Purple Panties by Zane (African American lesbians)
Memory of a Face by Ansh Das (series of short romances in China some of which are homosexual)
RL Taylor and Zane (prolific writers of African American Romance)
Punany Experience by Jessica Holter (African American gay men)
Bicurious by Natalie Weber (African American bisexual)
Double Pleasure Double Pain by Nikki Rashan (African America lesbians)
Seoul Mate by Jules East (Korean het)
Young Restless and Broke by Michelle Yu and Blossom Kan (Chinese American het)
The Flavor of Love by Shiree McCarver (African American and Asian American het)
Thai Mangoes by Trirat Petchsingh (Thai het)
Imaginary Men by Anjali Banerjee (Indian het)
For Matrimonial Purposes by Kavita Daswani (Indian het)
Daughter of Isaan by Antoine Hudor (Thai het)

This was complied from a quick amazon search, I haven't read most of these so I can't speak for their quality but Zane is really popular and she at least is good romance (though very explicit if that isn't your thing you might not enjoy it).
Wardog at 10:32 on 2011-05-03
ut in the subsequent discussions where it'd have been useful as a defense against the generalization that romance is het-normative and etc etc

I haven't attempted to defend romance against a charge of normativity - that would be largely impossible. And this is a real problem, I agree. I'm not trying to tell you you should personally like romance, I think it seems likely from what you've said that it has nothing to offer you (and I don't mean that as criticism of you - far from it), and to be honest only select corners of it have something to offer me. I'm afraid I reacted strongly to this thread because I felt that you were expressing contempt for the genre and, by extension, those who read it, but I am sure this was not your intent.

I'm pretty sure Harlequin, Mills and Boon (that's the USA branch) as, err, an Africa-American category but I don't read Mills and Boon so...*shrug*

My problem with romance isn't just that it's focused on relationships between men and women but that often it doesn't even pretend it wants to pass Bechdel

Okay, I think we're talking at slightly cross purposes here. We seem to be using "mainstream romance genre fiction" and "novels with romantic elements" pretty much interchangeably, and actually they're quite different, with different aims and different audience expectations. To focus momentarily on the former - it doesn't matter if a MRGF novel passes Bechdel because MRGF novels are about a deliberately narrow bracket of human experience, which is falling in love with someone. And because that's where the primary interest lies, the developing love story is going to dominate the narrative to the exclusion of other elements. However, I think most "good" MRGF novels (and I've put good in airquotes because I'm using "good" in the sense of "novels I would like to read") attempt to capture a broader range of experience, and create central protagonists with functional other lives - with same-sex support networks and successful careers and all that. I mean, again, romance is very personal but one of the things that makes a "good" MRGF novel *for me personally* is a female protagonist who has female friends who aren't side-kicks and who isn't entirely subsumed by the pursuit and acquisition of a relationship. (Incidentally, Unsticky passes)

However, I would argue that the reason it is problematic that texts with romantic elements or texts that are not MRGF novels don't pass the Bechdel is because then they present a profoundly limited view of experience - as you say, of a female characters who exist only to be defined by the men in their life. And that's simply not okay, because that's not what being alive is actually like, and it reinforces an (untrue) male-centric view of female experience.

However, in a romance novel the fact is *both* characters are defined by each other, that's the point and focus of the story. The thing about the Bechdel test is that a text that fails it presents an inaccurate view of female experience; except in a romance novel that limited view may be *literally true* not because anybody is trying to portray a world in which women are totally defined by their relationship to men but because in a MRGF novel the whole point of the novel is the relationship of the central characters to each other, and everything else is largely irrelevant to the story. Although, as I said above, most "good" MSGF novels do, in fact, go to some effort to pass, because it's independently important.
Cammalot at 15:20 on 2011-05-03
Heh — talking of attempts to rec alternatives, I’m guessing now would not be the best time to go all “what about our daughters” in righteous fury on the quote-unquote “Urban Romance” genre, and how I feel it is actively detrimental to my culture and my own life.

Maybe later.
Dan H at 15:30 on 2011-05-03
Heh — talking of attempts to rec alternatives, I’m guessing now would not be the best time to go all “what about our daughters” in righteous fury on the quote-unquote “Urban Romance” genre, and how I feel it is actively detrimental to my culture and my own life.


Is Urban Romance the same as Urban Fantasy, or is it something else?
Cammalot at 15:33 on 2011-05-03
Urban Romance is a category so named because it sounds more hip and market friendly than "Blackfolk Romance." I speak with bitterness, please forgive it.
Dan H at 15:40 on 2011-05-03
Aah, that does not sound good ("Urban" as code for "black" is one of those things I'm vaguely aware of but don't hear enough to parse consistently).
Wardog at 15:40 on 2011-05-03
I had never heard of urban romance. It sounds sounds like fail incarnate :/
http://afro-dyte.livejournal.com/ at 15:41 on 2011-05-03
I only occasionally read this website, but this discussion piqued my interest after someone linked it to me. I used to think this was one of the places that Got It. I'm disappointed to say that I was wrong. It's my own fault because I should have known better.

You have people being told that how they approach particular media reflects their privilege (straight, cis, and/or White), those same people being fully aware of this and the harm it causes (or at least saying so), those same people fully admitting to reacting with knee-jerk defensiveness toward a LGBTQ woman of color based on a poor reading of her response, yet they will not do something as simple as admit that they failed to check their privilege and mistreated someone as a result. And these same people would likely wonder why we who don't share their privilege don't believe them when they say they're One Of The Good Ones. It would be shocking if it weren't so predictable.

All this conflict could have been avoided if privileged people simply acknowledged the truth of what was said instead of getting mired up in defending their positions as One Of The Good Ones from an attack that never was.

The conversation could have taken a new and much more interesting direction if people opted to explored the critique more deeply instead of deflecting it and acting like the ones raising the critique are the problem.

This is exactly why a space like Ars Marginal needs to exist.
valse de la lune at 16:15 on 2011-05-03
I'd never heard of Thirat Petchsingh before and now I wish I never had.

But even if I was as totally fluent in Thai, I would not choose to write fiction in that language... In my view, plenty [is wrong with the Thai language], such as the paucity of vocabulary to express just the right actions and shades of feeling. But let’s say that I admire the language of Shakespeare, and the thousands of great contemporary writers, as an ideal to aim for.


What a snotty little shit. The entire interview reads like "of course I'm not one of the hoi polloi of Thailand, I do so adore the west and everything associated with it." No acknowledgment of how problematic the "dick lit" set in Thailand written by westerners is, either. Loathsome, loathsome man. I'll have to pass on Daughter of Isaan as well, because seeing a non-Thai name attached to a book about Thailand is an instant DO NOT FUCKING WANT alarm for me.

@Kyra

I haven't attempted to defend romance against a charge of normativity - that would be largely impossible.

Oh, that was to Arthur, who was asking "why is it so hard to imagine mainstream romance that's not het-normative and about white women?" I also owe you a belated apology for upsetting you. Sorry.

Okay, I think we're talking at slightly cross purposes here. We seem to be using "mainstream romance genre fiction" and "novels with romantic elements" pretty much interchangeably, and actually they're quite different, with different aims and different audience expectations.

Hmm. I cited Silver Phoenix because, as said, favorite punching bag but also as an acknowledgment that the things I find problematic are certainly not exclusive to romance--though they're things I've also found within the romance genre itself (I just didn't have a specific example to hand). Idk, I still think it's possible for a story to be focused on someone's pursuit of someone else as a romantic/sexual partner, but make it so that both partners involved still retain their individual personhood, desires, and agency.
Cammalot at 16:21 on 2011-05-03
But even if I was as totally fluent in Thai, I would not choose to write fiction in that language... In my view, plenty [is wrong with the Thai language], such as the paucity of vocabulary to express just the right actions and shades of feeling. But let’s say that I admire the language of Shakespeare, and the thousands of great contemporary writers, as an ideal to aim for.

Jesus CHRIST someone’s brain has been well and truly colonized. (Not even fluent! Admittedly not even fluent!)

I have to stop dropping in these teeny comments, but I also need to appear productive in the workplace. More thoughts, in bulk, later on.
Dan H at 16:55 on 2011-05-03
@afro-dyte

I am not entirely sure how to respond to your comment because anything I say is going to sound like after-the-fact apologia, which it in essence will be.

I am not proud of the way I have conducted myself on this thread, I do understand that I have behaved in a manner which has minimalized and dismissed people's concerns and experiences, and I do apologize. I am aware that this largely comes as too little too late, but I am genuinely ashamed of my behaviour.

Thank you for taking the time to comment.
Arthur B at 17:01 on 2011-05-03
Oh, that was to Arthur, who was asking "why is it so hard to imagine mainstream romance that's not het-normative and about white women?" I also owe you a belated apology for upsetting you. Sorry.

For what it's worth I don't think Kyra said anything in response to that that I wouldn't have anyway; nobody's attempting to defend romance against being normative because I don't think anyone here is seriously suggesting that the mainstream of romance is normative. Arguably, after all, it's in the nature of "mainstream" to be normative - if you're trying to go middle-of-the-road and go for big sales numbers and commercial success you're inevitably going to find yourself playing up to the expectations of the largest target market you have access to.
http://ninjacatman.livejournal.com/ at 17:06 on 2011-05-03
Pyro-

Sorry, Thirat Petchsingh sounds horrible. I haven't read his book, he came up in the amazon search and I'm sorry I didn't screen more closely.
Orion at 17:12 on 2011-05-03
Dan,

I don't think it's fair for you to lift that line from my comment without quoting this one: "I think that's probably an offensive distortion of your actual view, so I can only apologize for the mischaracterization and ask you to explain further." I'm well aware that Pyro never said that.

Re-reading my comment, I see that I didn't express myself clearly. I typed a long explanation of how the position I was attributing to Pyro wasn't as ridiculous as the position it looked like I was attributing to her. Then I realized that it would be better to just not put words in people's mouths.

So: Pyro, I'm sorry that I put words in your mouth. If you're up to it, I'd love to hear your thoughts on my initial question: what difference the existence of romances about marginalized groups makes to the value of Unsticky. If not, I'll watch this one from the sidelines and try to learn something.
Wardog at 17:13 on 2011-05-03
I also owe you a belated apology for upsetting you. Sorry.

No, it's fine, please don't worry - given your response to the article I think upset went in both directions here, and I'm sorry for the miscommunication in discussion, and also the badly expressed stuff in the article :/ Having re-read it, I can totally see how you got that. I never meant to downplay the problems of the romance genre, nor to suggest that disliking romance was inherently sexist. I was so busy trying to address mainstreams criticisms (this is just girly stuff or girls) that I think it came across that I was also trying to dismiss legitimate concerns. There really is not enough :/ in the world right now :/

Idk, I still think it's possible for a story to be focused on someone's pursuit of someone else as a romantic/sexual partner, but make it so that both partners involved still retain their individual personhood, desires, and agency.

No me neither, in part that's why I like romance. Because the characters and the relationships are the sole focus of the text, there's actually time (in good romances at least) to depict a healthy relationship in which both partners retain their identities. One of the major problems I've found with the way romances are portrayed in other genres is exactly the issue you describe here. And to be fair it's also sometimes a problem in romance so....

Oh, that was to Arthur, who was asking "why is it so hard to imagine mainstream romance that's not het-normative and about white women?

I would very would like to imagine this... I don't think it's impossible that romance *could* be this. It's just currently it isn't.
Arthur B at 17:13 on 2011-05-03
Oh, and @afro-dyte: I'm really not thrilled about the turn the conversation's taken and I'm especially not thrilled about the part I've had in it.

I genuinely thought that we had been making progress (see the realisation earlier about the subtly different senses in which people were using "stupid" in the conversation), but things have clearly gone off the rails badly. I'm particularly ashamed about dismissing at least one poster as being a drive-by troll, which is probably one of the most deflectional things you can do on the Internet. So I do apologise for that and for all the other deflecting I've been guilty of in the discussion.

At this point I don't know whether it'd be better for us to all throw our hands in the air and give up on this discussion as hopelessly broken or try to keep talking on the basis that so long as discussion in good faith is happening there's a chance of working through this.
Dan H at 17:17 on 2011-05-03
I don't think it's fair for you to lift that line from my comment without quoting this one: "I think that's probably an offensive distortion of your
actual view, so I can only apologize for the mischaracterization and ask you to explain further." I'm well aware that Pyro never said that.


Umm... as Pyrofennic points out in her reply to that comment, saying "hey, this is probably a horrendous distortion of what you're actually saying" and then going on to horrendously distort what somebody actually said is still *really not okay*. It is, as she observes, kind of the equivalent of starting with "I know this sounds racist".
Wardog at 17:18 on 2011-05-03
I'm particularly ashamed about dismissing at least one poster as being a drive-by troll, which is probably one of the most deflectional things you can do on the Internet.

I think that was my fault - I was genuinely a bit confused by what I thought was a wilful misreading of something I not only never said but would not in a million years have meant but, having re-read the article, I can totally see how it could have come across that way. :/
Melissa G. at 17:45 on 2011-05-03
Cammalot:

I’m guessing now would not be the best time to go all “what about our daughters” in righteous fury on the quote-unquote “Urban Romance” genre, and how I feel it is actively detrimental to my culture and my own life.


I'd actually be kind of curious to hear your thoughts on the genre if you're feeling up to it. Also, is *all* romance written by black authors shoved under the Urban Romance label or is it just the ones that are deemed to have a more "urban" feel to them?

When I worked in a bookstore, we had an African-American fiction section that encompassed all genres and not all black authors ended up there, just certain ones that were thought of as more specialized. Though Maya Angelou, Richard Wright, and Zora Neale Hurston (et al) were there too so perhaps it was that they were either specialized or particularly popular?

Anyway, I'd be curious to hear your thoughts because I've always felt sort of torn over whether separating the authors into a sub-genre based on race is a helpful thing or not. On the one hand, it makes them easier to find and celebrates their existence, but on the other, it makes it seem like they're not normal and need to be kept off to the side because they're somehow less than the "mainstream" stuff.
valse de la lune at 17:48 on 2011-05-03
If you're up to it, I'd love to hear your thoughts on my initial question: what difference the existence of romances about marginalized groups makes to the value of Unsticky.

Do I want to ask why you try so hard to turn a discussion about marginalization into a discussion about the privileged? 'Cuz, uhm... you keep doing it.

@Kyra--it's okay, no hard feelings. The conversation's a bit of a clusterfuck hijacking your review, anyway. It also makes me feel much better that we ended up where people (including me!) can admit where we did wrong. :) No really, it's really quite nice compared the usual turn such conversations take.
Cammalot at 18:18 on 2011-05-03
@ Melissa G — the short, quick, furtive response — I find the Af-Am section nowadays to be ridiculous and detrimental. Back in the day (up until around when I was very small) the U.S. was so unapologetically segregated both behind the scenes and in front, the African American section served an excellent purpose — to get the books out there, to have a venue for them at all, and to encourage the community that such things were even possible to have. (We did it for the children!) Nowadays, when the country at least makes consistent noises toward true integration, the African American section mainly serves to restrict books by American authors of African descent to an audience of less than 12 percent of the nation, truncating their total sales, shelf life, and overall career. (I don’t see this happening to Caribbean or British writers of African descent.) Not to mention it’s completely not sensible. Why on earth does it make sense to shelve Octavia Butler’s SFF alongside James Baldwin’s novels and essays alongside Barack Obama’s autobiography alongside Zane’s erotica? “Race of author” is a lousy categorizing technique, and the idea that works of literature by black people can only be of interest to other black people, regardless of topic (while works of literature about black people BY WHITE PEOPLE get categorized on the "regular shelf" for everyone to read) is beyond horrifying.

It should not go unmentioned that some very strong advocates for the Af-Am section are (still) African Americans. But I tend to look at it from the publishing/shelf-life/author longevity side/cash money side.

Longer and better responses with comments:
by Alaya Dawn Johnson

and by N.K. Jemisin.

Also -- my commentary here is about literature. I think it's perfectly reasonable to have an "African American Interest" section that deals with sociology and cultural studies.

I promise I'll bring this back to topic when I get a second. Well, several seconds. Strung together. I swear.
Melissa G. at 18:32 on 2011-05-03
Why on earth does it make sense to shelve Octavia Butler’s SFF alongside James Baldwin’s novels and essays alongside Barack Obama’s autobiography alongside Zane’s erotica?


Yes, I definitely agree that it seems ridiculous to put all the genres next to each other just because they were written by authors of the same race.

“Race of author” is a lousy categorizing technique, and the idea that works of literature by black people can only be of interest to other black people, regardless of topic (while works of literature about black people BY WHITE PEOPLE get categorized on the "regular shelf" for everyone to read) is beyond horrifying.


I'm glad that you brought this up because I feel like it's definitely true that non-black people can enjoy and find value in books that are often just tossed aside as "books for black people", and it really is a shame. I have to admit that I was interested in reading certain authors back when I browsed the Af-Am section, but for some reason I know that I would have felt embarrassed to even be in the section had I not been at work. Which I wish I wasn't, and I know I shouldn't be.

Also, extreme ick to this bit:

(while works of literature about black people BY WHITE PEOPLE get categorized on the "regular shelf" for everyone to read)


Such fail, it hurts.

Thanks for the links too! I'll definitely check those out. And I look forward to hearing more of your thoughts when you've time to organize them. :-)
Cammalot at 16:29 on 2011-05-04
(sorry, reposted for typo)

OK -- RE non heteronormative romance recs, I've been quite curious about this book for a while, but haven't picked it up yet. It seems to avoid at least some of the issues I have with "Urban Romance" (Although I am a little nervous that there's going to be a hint of "hint of alternative sexuality = raging self-harming sex fiend" in it. Which is, sigh, one of the problems I have with "Urban Romance" tropes. Still, it seems to take on a refreshingly complex combination of issues.)

Passing for Black, by Linda Villarosa
Robinson L at 15:36 on 2011-05-25
However, if the idea of two of utterly broken people falling in love with each other, and their lives being a little bit better as a consequence, appeals to you then Unsticky will break your heart and then glue it back together again for you.

That does sound awesome …

But I understand this is genuinely a bit shocking for a romance novel, since "I love you" is kind of the money shot.

Well then, I think I can see why Manning would want to subvert this trope. The other way to do so would be to treat the words “I love you” not as some ultra-sacred phrase only to be uttered during heightened moments of ecstasy, but as something semi-casual: Character A loves Character B reciprocally, and so they just tell each other a couple times a week. I can see why avoiding the phrase entirely makes sense for Manning's narrative, but I'd be interested to see another story giving the second option a try.
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