Yearly Archives: 2012

the list

Welcome to my new design! Isn’t it just gorgeous? I’ve discovered throughout the design process that I’m a very particular person, so the first shout-out goes to Benji Greig who gently explained to me that turning “pages” had been done to death then proceeded to make me a website I love to bits.

I’ve been writing this blog for a couple of years now. Even though sometimes it feels like an endless sucking black hole (or as special k put it – like keeping a plant alive that’s being eaten by bugs), it’s become something I don’t think I could do without.

I’ve kept a journal since I was twelve, but I noticed an interesting thing in the past few years: I no longer have boy troubles to tell my journal, or friend dramas. There’s no, “But do I love him, diary?” to sort through, no poisonous fallings-out, or tearful reunions days later. Instead the things that consume me seem to relate to my writing, my future, my career. Adult things? It does feel like a marker of adulthood.

I find these days that writing about the questions that consume me serves the same function writing in my journal once did. Which isn’t to say you’re reading my journal now – that would just be icky. The wonderful thing about a blog is that it’s more conversation than soliloquy.

This design’s been in the works for a while, but given the recent sale of My Lady Untamed it just feels like the cherry on top – or like rushing into the future, which is nothing like a cherry. Either way, it’s something I want to celebrate with you all! And I thought, What better way to celebrate than to expand the conversation?

I wrote a list of writers and critics I admire – people I want to talk to and learn from. I made myself be impeccably honest, no matter how crazy the list looked. (This is hard to do, even though it’s just you, a pen and some paper you can throw away before anyone else sees it.)

I sent the first invitation to KA Mitchell and kept saying aloud, “I can’t believe I’m doing this.” There may have been some manic laughter also.

It took me a couple of days, but I invited every single person on that list. And a little over a week later, every single one of the them had said yes! It still blows my mind. It also means that in the weeks leading up to Christmas you’re going to be hearing from:

Ruthie Knox

Rose Lerner

Jodi McAlister

Liz McCausland

SU Pacat

Scott Pearse

Jo Bourne

Cecilia Grant

Nelika McDonald

Cara McKenna

Cath Crowley

Toni Jordan

Sherry Thomas

and

Meredith Duran

I know, right?

And from the posts I’ve received so far, this is going to be a really amazing couple of weeks. As the posts go up, I’ll link them to the names here so that it becomes a kind of directory.

There will also be prizes. Prizes!

Every time you comment you get a name in a hat (there will be an actual hat), and at the end of every week special k will pick a winner. The prize is a hand-made e-reader cover, with this design on the front <— and the rest of the materials picked out by me to be eclectic and/or elegant and/or funky depending on my mood.

Vassiliki had the genius idea of a Duke of Darlington paper dress-up doll – with a spectacular wardrobe, of course. I’ve run out of time to make it this year, but it’s in the works for next year. So very in the works.

On a practical note:

I’ve moved the accidental housewife to a new host, which means that all the subscriptions have been cancelled. If you want to subscribe by email, click the “follow” button on the bottom right of the screen and enter your email. If you have a wordpress blog you can subscribe the usual way.

I would like to thank all the people who were subscribed to the previous incarnation of the accidental housewife. It’s been so great sharing the journey with you from aspiring (rambly) writer to whatever I am today.

So this is me, officially declaring the festivities open!

 

 

there be monsters ahead

This is just a quick note to let you know that the next time I post, things are going to look a bit different around here. (Sneak peek on the left!)

The redesign has been in the works for a while, and I can’t wait to launch it next week. I love writing this blog and all the thoughts it lets me explore and the discussions that come from it. 

To celebrate I’ve lined up the most ridiculous series of guest posts, but there’ll be more on that – and all the pretty giveaways – when I post next week on the brand-new blog.

That’s it!

Oh wait, I promised monsters, didn’t I?

the marriage that knows itself

I want to talk about marriage, but I’m going to start by talking about sex.

One of the difficulties in writing sex scenes as a feminist writer is that so much of female desire is learned. What women have learned to be aroused by has traditionally been shaped by male desire.

It’s tricky.

I don’t want to just write my heroines as objects of desire – but just because it’s learned doesn’t make it any less real. In fact, when our learned desires come into conflict with our educated feminist ideas, they can gain a level of taboo that only heightens them.

So how do you write what’s genuinely arousing, without playing into an idea of female sexuality that doesn’t allow for real female pleasure?

As far as I’m concerned, Cara McKenna has figured it out.

Her characters are self-aware when it comes to sexual desire. They understand the role fantasy and objectification play in arousal, and they allow it to heighten their arousal.

In Curio, Caroly visits a Parisian prostitute to lose her virginity before her thirtieth birthday. Caroly is intelligent and self-contained – she’s almost cold. She’s no blushing virgin. Perhaps it’s because the whole premise of the book is about exploring sexual desire that I could see how McKenna sets her characters apart from their desires.

The following extract is a good example of what I’m talking about:

His hand abandoned mine to its clumsy devices. I measured him with light caresses, loving how tense the rest of his body had grown.

“You feel harder than I expected.”

“This is how I felt when I thought of you the other night. Thinking of you made me hard then, just as your touch does so now.” He was quiet for several strokes, save his labored breaths. “Do you like it?”

“Yeah.” Bolder, I wrapped my hand around him as much as possible through his slacks, squeezing to discover how thick he was. He moaned and I felt different, as I never had before—powerful and beautiful and wild.

“I’m the first,” he murmured.

The idea that he was fetishizing this experience gave me permission to do the same. I’d already grown quite fond of Didier—surely fonder than was rational, given our perhaps six cumulative hours of acquaintance—but reducing him to a stiff, suffering cock was electrifying. I’d always loathed this idea, openly lavishing a beautiful man with my admiration. As if such a fortunate specimen deserves more validation. But of course it felt nothing like that with Didier. I adored this glimpse into another side of him, a darker, cockier version of the man I was just coming to know.

“Kiss me,” I said.

He did. He turned and kissed me as no one ever had before, urgent and demanding. I ached for his hand on top of mine again, dictating—perhaps even forcing—the friction. But I was in charge. I imagined teasing him this way until he begged to be taken out and given release. I imagined denying such a request, degrading him with my refusal until he lost control, quaking and pleading and erupting beneath my hand, inside his clothes, perspiration shining on his forehead.

But of course I wasn’t ready for that. Indulging the idea was breakthrough enough.

In most romances with a virgin heroine, the virginity fetish is naively expressed in the narrative itself. By which I mean – the reader has the virgin fantasy by reading the book. McKenna adds another layer by having her character consciously experience the virgin fantasy, about herself, and allowing it to heighten her arousal.

McKenna separates her characters from their fantasies. When a novel becomes the fantasy of the reader, the characters are essential players in the fantasy and can’t be separated from it. In the above excerpt Caroly plays with different fantasies – different ways of constructing herself sexually – but none of them defines who she is.

In her essay Expressing Herself: the Romance Novel and the Feminine Will to Power Sarah Frantz explores the rise of the hero’s point of view in romance. She argues that

[b]y having ever-increasing access to the inner confessions of the hero’s mind, the reader can trust in his romantic transformation as he abandons his belief in a masculine economy of use (hence all the rakes and libertines among romance heroes), and recognizes the superiority of and adopts a feminine economy of exchange (hence the requisite exchange of vows at the end of the romance).

I didn’t entirely understand what Frantz means by “economy of use” and “economy of exchange”. Google tells me they’re actual economic terms, but the only academic references I found came from Frantz.

As far as I can tell, the masculine economy of use is a one-way relationship that involves the heroine satisfying a need for the hero; it requires nothing of him in exchange. The feminine economy of exchange is a relationship that passes back and forth and requires each party to give, take and be transformed by each transaction.

By getting inside the man’s head, by watching him fall in love, women are fantasising that they can understand and control the patriarchy – and also that they are freeing men of the constraints of patriarchy “into the emancipation of feminine exchange”. But Frantz goes on to point out that

romances seem to be “violat[ing] the cardinal rule of patriarchy, famously articulated by Jacques Lacan: the Phallus must remain veiled.” In lifting the veil from the hero’s thoughts, romances are pretending to readers that all the secrets of patriarchy are revealed as secrets they already know and control. However, the romance hero’s confessions are of course not representative of what a “real” man thinks—the narrator is seducing herself when she looks into the mirror of the romance novel. The reader believes that she is lifting patriarchy’s veil to find … “mortal men standing behind it, somewhat sheepish, perhaps, at having been exposed, but maybe a little relieved as well.” However, female authors and readers are actually lifting the veil to reveal a nonthreatening phallus that they themselves have created, one that bears little relation to the reality of patriarchal power structures besides their own fantasies about it…*

Frantz goes on to showcase some rather hair-raising examples of the power exchange in romance novels. In one instance the heroine likens herself to God – the ultimate patriarch – and her male lover becomes a supplicant. It’s a gutsy and appealing reversal, and it throws a powerful light on gender dynamics.

But the problem is, as Frantz points out, that it’s a woman looking into a mirror. It doesn’t bear on the reality of living with a subconscious, internalised view of the world that privileges men.

From within this world view all the signifiers of power are still male: God the patriarch, the breast milk spilling from erect nipples that becomes phallic. It’s a world trying to describe itself from the inside, with the language of power structures that already exist and which say – Female is defined by being Male or Not-male.

I think it’s incredibly difficult for women to re-imagine gender and power from within a patriarchal world without still privileging the great devirginator.

Partly this is because, as I said earlier, we learn desire a certain way and realising it’s biased doesn’t make it any less arousing. But partly it’s because we live subjectively in the world, and don’t have the words to describe ourselves from outside it.

What we do have is the ability to acknowledge and describe the way we react in the world.

This is why McKenna’s approach appeals to me. Her characters aren’t women trying to become powerful by becoming masculine or not-masculine. They’re individuals who recognise their patriarchal desires as separate to who they are as people – but who consciously embrace their desires, for their own pleasure.

McKenna’s approach acknowledges that gender and desire are constructed. It also acknowledges that there’s no way to live separate from how you are constructed.

Which brings me, finally, to marriage.

The feminist critique of romance that the patriarchy is brought into the “feminine economy of exchange”, represented by the exchange of wedding vows, bothers me.

Why is marriage the sphere of women? (Why is there a sphere of women?) What makes us so invested in the idea of marriage? What makes us tie our sense of success and accomplishment and status with the idea of marriage?

I don’t actually have an answer, because I would need a couple of degrees in sociology and anthropology and psychology and maybe even politics and history.

But I think it’s important to ask the question – and to reflect on it. Which isn’t the same thing as dismissing the fact that marriage is, for the most part, a female domain, or that women are emotionally invested in and fulfilled by it.

I would like to see romance address the idea of marriage the way McKenna addresses the idea of sexual desire – by having characters self-aware enough to acknowledge that their desire for marriage is learned, then choose it consciously, because of what it will add to their life.

When special k and I got engaged at 24, there was definitely some fetish attached to it. I would look at him – this vibrant, slim, intelligent, funny boy – and it gave me a thrill to think that I was turning him into a Husband. The idea of belonging and possessing is a fetish – just as a wedding ring is a fetish object.

None of that makes the fact of marriage in my life any less significant. It’s one of the most powerful forces that works on me every single day. But I know it’s constructed, and when I embrace that fact it empowers me to act out the Wife in ways that contribute to my life, and to be an individual outside of being a wife.

I wanted to say something about this that didn’t really fit in the post. I don’t think all romance is disconnected from reality – not even the reality of “real” men. Frantz quotes Laura Kinsale’s theory that romance is an internal reality check that allows us to become adult, which requires us to turn away from “adventure, from autonomy, from what-might-have-been, and [...] mourn the loss and deal with it”. But I think it goes further than coming to terms with our social reality.

I was really taken with this blog post about the reluctance of feminists to to deal with heterosexual relationships. For me, feminist romances dream up new ways for the world to be. They play with ideas about truly equal heterosexual relationships. They don’t look only at emancipated women, but at what their equal partners could be. They create a new set of expectations – a reality that we can live into, and create by living into it.

I would also like to thank Sarah Frantz for sending me her essay. Such nerd-joy to bring my literature degree and my love for romance together!

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. Okay, so you had to be there. And a man. And from the fifties.

We saw A Funny Thing last night at Her Majesty’s theatre. A musical about a Roman slave who has to match-make the hero and heroine to gain his freedom. I had problems.

So I get that it’s high farce, and camp as hell and in the first couple of minutes they even sing morals tomorrow, comedy tonight. But while I could kind of see the alternate universe where most of the audience was laughing, I just felt a bit horrified.

It wasn’t something I could just set aside, or lighten up about.

It wasn’t about me Making a Stand for Women Everywhere, or anything so complicated. It was simply that the story I was watching unfold on-stage appalled me.

Just to get it out of the way – yes, the farce is brilliant. The different story elements build seamlessly on top of each other then resolve like a deft magic trick. The slapstick was mostly funny, the script was mostly clever, and Geoffrey Rush on stage is a revelation.

But.

All the women in the show – with one exception – are courtesans/flesh. In the opening number they were wheeled on stage in a cage, dressed in skimpy bits of hessian. As cavewomen, maybe? It didn’t bother me – I figured it was just a kind of visual gag. Haha, treating women as just flesh? LOL, no. That would be stupid and wrong.

The next time we see the women, they’re paraded out one by one for the benefit of a lowly male slave who’s convinced their pimp he’s free now and cashed up. They weren’t in hessian this time – they were in gorgeous, amazing costumes. And it was somehow worse.

I think it was worse because although it was campy and over-the-top and slapstick – it had no layer of irony or self-awareness. The women were actually being paraded across the stage as objects of desire, for the audience as well as for the characters. And the men – lowly slave, airhead hero, pimp – were evaluating them.

Um, uncomfortable.

Not to mention the eunuchs (I’d kind of rather not). Apparently if you take away a man’s balls he becomes incoherent and baby-like. A kind of idiot animal.

Of course, the courtesan the hero is in love with is the one pure courtesan on the face of the planet. She’s a virgin. She is also apparently so stupid she can’t even count.

At this point I was trying to reason with myself and I was like, “Okay, but the hero’s a virgin and an airhead, too.” Yes, myself replied. He is also the free son of a senator; she’s a courtesan who’s been sold to a man she’s never met.

So, no – watching a woman play the blonde bimbo on stage, getting laughs for explaining that the only talent she has is being lovely, wasn’t funny. It just made me sad and uncomfortable.

There’s a distinction in humour here that was in force throughout the play, so I’m going to try and define it.

Because the tone of the play is funny, it’s easy to say, “Yes, but it’s poking fun at the idea of a blonde bimbo, it’s not taking the blonde bimbo seriously.” But who’s making the joke, who’s the butt of the joke and who’s laughing at the joke?

The joke of the airhead blonde virgin never felt to me like it had a punch-line that was kind or powerful to women. I didn’t feel like it was going, “Haha, and this is what’s traditionally the ideal woman? Traditional ideals are crazy, yo!” It felt like, “Haha, women are so stupid and compliant.” And I know that makes me seem humourless – but I find the way humour obscures an issue troublesome. Because it’s really hard to define why it’s still not right, when it seems to be making fun of itself.

Maybe it’s simply the context of gender inequality. The airhead hero is funny because it’s playing against the existing/unquestioned assumption that a male hero is powerful, manly, intelligent and supreme. The airhead slave heroine is discomforting because it plays into the assumption that women are submissive desire objects. If the play itself had set up some other assumption about women for it to play against it wouldn’t have upset me in the same way.

I tried to read the kindest possible interpretation into the play, and came up with the airhead heroine as a subversive image of the feminine: When a woman is so deeply compliant that she’ll do whatever any man tells her to, she becomes somehow un-graspable. No man can have her when any man can have her. No man can ever grasp the woman as a person because she is reduced to an object.

But I just don’t think the play was being that complex.

The one woman who isn’t a prostitute is the hero’s mother. I loved the pants off Magda Szubanski’s performance! The mother is a powerful matriarch who is still a fully sexual being. I think this interpretation owes a lot to Szubanski’s performance, though, as the mother is treated in the story as a shrewish wife whose own husband can’t stand her – and finds a middle-aged woman’s sexual desires off-putting.

I enjoyed the second half of the show. I’d become a bit numb to the sexual politics and the farcical elements of the play started to really pay off. Also, there’s an excellent piece of cross-dressing by the head male slave of the hero’s household.

I honestly don’t understand why this play has been revived without a single speck of self-awareness.

I can think of so many interesting ways it could be subverted, the most obvious being a gender-swap version – parading men across the stage to be assessed by the women. Three women singing about how nice it is to have a male servant around to ogle when he bends over would at best be confronting and at worst vaguely refreshing. Three men singing about ogling the female servants they’re going to be sexually assaulting later on is just yuck.

The only reason I can think of to revive this naïve performance is as a celebration of cultural heritage. Like watching a movie from the 60s, but it’s a play. But that got me thinking – there are parts of our cultural heritage that just don’t beg reviving. If this play had been about white masters and black slaves, I just don’t think any amount of humour would cover up how deeply wrong it is.

The only way that play could be revived would be to have the black slaves prove some supremacy over their white masters, in a subversive commentary on the original play.

Our airhead virgin heroine? Well, she got the guy in the end, I guess. Woo women!

the cross-dressing duke lives!

So the big news this week is that I sold My Lady Untamed! After three years of writing and rewriting, 150,000 words scrapped and then more writing and rewriting, I’ve found a publisher who loves it just as much as I do.

At the beginning of the year my brother gave me the contact for a non-fiction editor at Penguin Australia – the wife of a barrister he shared chambers with. I went to talk to her about what it takes to get into the industry as an editor, but we ended up talking about what I was writing.

As soon as I told her I was writing romance, she called another editor in from down the hall. It was Sarah Fairhall, who was busy building Destiny Romance at the time, ahead of its launch in August. She was excited to meet me, because she’d been trying to explain to Marketing that young women read romance, too. She gave me her card and told me to send her my MS when it was done.

A month ago I’d finished another major draft. The five agents at the top of my list had all passed on my book, and I was waiting for another round of beta feedback before I did another set of edits and sent it to another round of agents.

I was feeling quite desperate about it all – feeling like no one would ever even see, or get it, and what on earth was I going to do next? So I sent it to Sarah, thinking at least she might feel obliged to give me some feedback.

She called me a week later, and made an offer for it. She said she and Carol, the editor, hadn’t stopped talking about it for days. I can’t even describe the feeling of having a publisher express their love of my book – and more than that, get my book.

I asked for a couple of weeks before I responded to the offer – which was pretty hard, when the offer was made on a Penguin Australia letterhead!

Destiny is a digital-first imprint, which means they publish e-books which may or may not be followed by a print edition – and it’s also based in the Australian market. That wasn’t what I’d imagined for MLU. 

I contacted another round of agents, letting them know there was an offer on the table, and asked their opinion on whether MLU had a chance in New York. The answer was the same across the board – too risky for New York, for a newbie author.

I felt like I had to go through that process, just to be sure I was doing the best for my book and my career, but I was pretty stoked that accepting the Destiny offer was my very best option. I had a long phone call with Sarah after I accepted their offer, and it left me feeling so excited about the whole process.

Especially after talking to people who saw the subversive elements as too risky for publication, it was great talking to Sarah who wants to celebrate how different my book is. E-publishing really is an exciting extension of the industry that allows a wider range of books to be published and is in a position to champion subversive literature.

Plus, their new offices are just down the road from my house! My book will be available internationally, but I gotta say, it’s exciting being able to just pop into the office for a chat with the editors, and to be near local media, ready to take part in the local press events Destiny organises.

It’s looking like the e-book will be out around April next year, and it’s likely MLU will get a print edition too, which would be so exciting.

I can’t believe this book is actually going to be done!

Feel free to ask me anything about the process. I ended up signing with an agent, too, which is its own whole thing, so I’ll post about that next.

he makes me feel so feminine

When I started reading romance novels in earnest, about four years ago, I was drawn to the powerful heterosexual narrative. Actually, it’s more than that, isn’t it? It’s a really traditional sort of hetero-sex.

A big, hard man and a soft, curvy woman having sex – and reaffirming their genders by having sex.

Growing up, I never felt like a typical girl. (I’m assuming no girl does.) I let my body hair grow, because I didn’t see why I should waste all that effort shaving, when it was a losing battle. I wore some crazy outfits that were much more, er, aesthetically interesting than either feminine or sexy.

I did a Bachelor of Arts in my mid-twenties that further taught me to question everything. Turn any given dichotomy around. Subvert it.

I never felt entirely comfortable with straight-up hetero sexuality. The dominant paradigm always had to be confronted, questioned, investigated.

So there was something amazing about discovering romance, and letting myself read romance, and indulging in a simple man/woman relationship. It gave me permission to be a woman to my husband’s man in a way I hadn’t let myself before. I still think that was an important time for me, because there was a kind of guilt associated with “giving in” to traditional gender roles. To just being a woman as society constructs a woman. And that should, obviously, not be a guilty thing.

But I’ve come through the other end of it, and I’m back to questioning traditional gendering. (As you may have noticed.)

Now, the very thing that made me feel so comforted makes me pause. There’s one line in particular that I have read hundreds of times. When a man and woman have sex in a romance novel, the hero makes the heroine feel some variation of “soft and feminine”, because of how hard and different he is.

In that moment the hero and heroine reaffirm themselves as gendered.

I understand why the traditional gender roles are sexy – and hey, I might question it, but I mostly find it sexy too. We’re constructed that way our whole lives long, and our libidos are wired into it no matter what our rational minds might have to say on the subject.

But I can’t help wishing it wasn’t just the traditional genders being reaffirmed. “She felt so feminine,” is a hell of an ambiguous phrase. And just to prove that Arts degree wasn’t wasted, let me ask: What is feminine, anyway?

If the line goes unquestioned, “feminine” represents an amorphous thing that can be described by words like soft and rounded and gentle and giving. The default, traditional idea of feminine.

I gotta say, when I get ambushed by moments of feeling that sort of feminine it’s surprising and makes me feel a bit awkward and bashful and grateful. It’s an alien feeling – not something I experience myself as in a lived way.

Of course, romance is a kick-arse genre and many authors are exploring the different kinds of gendered relationships in their novels. Cecilia Grant comes to mind immediately, and I wish I had the book at hand so that I could quote it. In the climactic scene of A Gentleman Undone, when the hero is all tender and, well, undone, the heroine is a cold, implacable thing. Like a bird of prey. Something strong enough for him to break against.

I think this is part of why I love reading gay romance. Two gay men are allowed much more room to redefine their gender than a straight man and woman are allowed.

I recently asked Ruthie Knox whether she thought My Lady Untamed would have a chance in New York. I found her reply very interesting: “Definitely, the quality of your writing is there, but the hero is unusual enough (and here I’m thinking less of the cross-dressing than the gender dynamic of strong heroine, weaker hero) that it’s really hard to say.”

I’ve always known the cross-dressing would be a barrier, but it hadn’t even occurred to me that the gender dynamic could be more problematic. And even though this stuff is highly subjective, the many conversations I’ve had with industry professionals in the past week suggest that Ruthie’s comment was spot-on. (So not surprising.)

My problem is, I’m becoming more and more interested in the idea of androgyny. My KPop habit really isn’t helping, either. I mean, look at this guy:

 

I find G-Dragon’s androgyny incredible. It’s physically attractive, but it also seduces my intellect. There’s something about a man who is strongly, fully himself – and embraces a fluid aesthetic. He’s masculine, he’s feminine, he’s a man.

If my heroes are headed in this direction, I really don’t know what readers are going to make of it.

id

I keep wanting to talk to you guys about id-related writing stuff, but it’s such a pseudo-concept Cat and I half-invented to discuss a certain kind of writing, that I’m going to have to explain it first.

Leave all actual psychological understanding of the term at the door.

Cat, who has a degree in psychology, was going to write me a post about it. Then she decided that to do the actual psychological concept of id justice she would need to write a PHD thesis on it. Which hopefully she is actually going to do.

So here’s the made-up version:

I’ve been using the word “id” a lot recently – mostly to describe the quality in writing that I most enjoy. My over-eager use of the word has led to quite a few of those awkward moments where someone more honest than I looks at me a little confused and says, “What exactly is id writing?”

Er.

Good question.

My loose understanding of the concept is this: You know when you come across a scene in a book, or a premise for a story, and the emotion of it grabs you by the guts? It doesn’t have to be sophisticated, and it certainly doesn’t have to be an emotion or moral you would agree with. But something about it is primal and captivating, and there’s no question that the idea of it grabbed the writer and wouldn’t let go until it was written down.

For me, that is id writing. The thing that appeals to you on your most basic level – often in ways that are confronting, or that you wouldn’t expect, or that contradict what you rationally look to for fulfilment. It is the satisfaction of a childish emotional urge that cannot be reasoned with.

I decided, after a few too many of those awkward looks, to do a wee bit of id research (i.e. look it up on wikipedia). It’s fascinating reading. It all begins, of course, with Freud.

According to Freud (and now I feel like I’m back at uni) the id is the instinctual part of the human mind, whose only master is the pleasure principle. It’s a powerful drive for self-gratification that’s free of moral conscience. Contradictory impulses exist without negating each other; it is “the great reservoir of libido”, and it houses the “death instinct”.

We’re born id-ridden. We are all animal, all instinct. The heart wants what the heart wants.

Then, as reality starts making itself felt, we develop ego. Ego is the realist. It takes the desires and drives of the id and manages them in relation to reality. It compromises and goes into damage control. It lies to the id about reality, to make it more palatable.

The ego is where we develop defence mechanisms. The id runs into disaster – the ego makes a plan for how to stop that from happening next time.

The last of the trifecta is super-ego, the idealist and perfectionist. The super-ego has all the conscience, and it deals out punishment in the form of guilt when the ego hasn’t managed the mediate the contradictory goals of id and super-ego. The super-ego is what makes our behaviour socially acceptable.

So when I describe writing as coming from the id, you can start to get a picture of what that means. It’s writing that strips away the layers of sociable behaviour, then strips away the acceptable reality of the ego, and taps into the pure instinctive drive towards pleasure and destruction.

A good sign that you’ve tapped into an id-idea – you feel extremely confronted by it. And that doesn’t even mean it’s a full-on idea, objectively. Just that, to you, there’s something taboo about expressing it.

It’s fascinating, actually, discussing someone else’s id-idea with them. You can see it in their face, hear it in their voice, how difficult it is to even bring themselves to speak it – even though the idea itself is more often than not something completely innocuous to the listener.

One friend had to almost whisper the idea that her two characters might cook each other dinner and take care of each other.

Sounds like nothing, right? But when someone feels it that deeply – when it’s such a subversive, breathless idea to them – you can be sure that scene is going to be breathless and subversive to read.

This is where you risk something, when you write.

It’s why I went so deep into fan fiction. Fan fiction is all id. The only reason you would take characters from a world and explore them deeper is because something about them or the world-premise grabbed you right where your most instinctive desires and pleasures are, and wouldn’t let go. And because you’re not writing to a market, you can express every single one of those ideas without censorship.

Censorship is pretty much the antidote to id. Which is why those self-published novels that are badly written and unedited are doing so well. I’d bet good money on them being chockers full of id.

Once you start paying attention, you can spot id. Sometimes it’s overt – the Japanese have id coming out their ears, so almost any anime will be full of id. The character premise and relationships – and especially the way you can be sure whatever the premise, they’ll explore it to its most extreme end. The first book I read where there was no moving for id was Anne Bishop’s Daughter of the Blood. Her anti-hero is Daemon Sadi, the fallen son of Satan, who has spent centuries as a pleasure slave. He’s controlled by a magical cock-ring that hasn’t always been strong enough to contain his rage. But often it’s less crazy-obvious.

If our id is the animal part of us, then reading id writing is something like a hand brushed rough and good through our fur.

Cat and I have discussed id so often, and gotten so good at spotting it in each other, that now when one of us is confronted by an idea our first reaction is: “You have to write that.”

So next time you get a glimmer of an idea that terrifies you, or you think up a line of dialogue that makes you blush and go, “No way could I ever write that! Writing that would crack the world open!” – write. Explore. Be brave. It’ll be worth it.

yes, but do you *like* me?

Like exists in a sort of sub-category of romantic love. When you are in love with someone, it’s assumed that you also like them. It’s assumed so unconsciously that we almost never think of it, much less question it.

I decided to question it last week. I can’t remember why, exactly. I suspect I was having one of those hopeless personal moments of thinking, Why on earth is special k so sure he wants to be with me forever? I could imagine that it’s mostly easy, that it’s habit to spend a lot of time with me. But I was suddenly curious whether there was more than habit and ease and – yes, and more than love and the kind of loyalty that love breeds. Whether there was an active desire to spend time with me.

So I asked him, “What do you like about me?”

It’s an exposing question. Surprisingly exposing. And of course it’s a difficult thing to quantify. The things you can say – the words you can put to your feelings – are more like roadsigns or clues to feelings than feelings themselves. I tried to answer the question back, and could feel a whole world of feelings that were frustratingly unexpressed. I could see special k’s answers were the same, like suddenly looking at each other across a wide space of things unsayable, but trusting and loving and smiling all the same.

Liking, I discovered, is sometimes more romantic than loving.

Love has a kind of “no matter what you do, no matter who you are” quality about it. It’s what makes families to fraught and so wonderful. But like is specific. It means, “only you, in all the world”. 

In romance, we don’t see people liking each other nearly often enough. There’s quite a lot of admiring or being confronted by qualities in each other. There’s more than a lot of loving no matter how painful love becomes. But hardly any sitting and watching the other person make tea because the particular way they make tea makes you happy inside; hardly any conversations that wind the other person out, then an admission of how very much you like talking to them.

After sketching out the ideas for this post I started reading Cecilia Grant’s A Gentleman Undone. It shouldn’t have surprised me that her characters really like each other – and not only that, but we see them come to like each other. It’s not surprising because Grant’s interested in the personal qualities that make sex important. That is, the physical, animal urge for sex has a short-lived kind of meaning and most mature adults can resist it; when you come to know someone and admire and respect and like them – well, then sex becomes a much more complex thing.

Will and Lydia become friends over a scheme to earn money at the card tables of London. Lydia is a mathematical genius and a card shark – and she tries to teach Will to calculate probabilities.

He surprises her by being quick and intelligent in conversation; she doesn’t have to explain herself to him. He is also respectful and trustworthy despite, by his own admission, being quite desperate to sleep with her.

She dazzles him by being ruthless – by being able to calculate the odds of five hands at a time while cleverly incorporating signals for him into general conversation and flirting ineptly – on purpose – with the gentleman on her other side.

It is such a joy to watch them open more to each other with each conversation. To watch Lydia unfold herself under Will’s attention, because here is a man who actively likes who she is. When they are coming to know each other better, Lydia says:

“Why should you care at all what I think of you?” She all but squirmed in her skin at the notion, and one more fact about her became clear: I want you didn’t discompose her nearly so much as I like you and I want to you to think well of me.

I really should have asked this question a long time ago

An old friend messaged me out of the blue on facebook the other day:

I have a question for you, it has been bothering me for a long time, but recently revived by watching new TV series.

Why does the classic structure of a romance novel and indeed of many many powerful stories & TV series (irresistible feelings for eachother, but misunderstanding, each thinks the other doesn’t want them, ultimately resolved in a great sense of relief and euphoria) appeal so much more to one gender than to the other?
OK maybe it only *seems* to appeal more to women than to men. And lots of men like Jane Austen and As You Like It. BUT. The relationship between Mal and Inara in firefly is in my head ALL DAY and keeps me all suspenseful and heart in my mouth each episode… doesn’t seem to have the same kind of itch or hold over Ben.
Would love your thoughts on this!!

My first reaction was: Wow. I really should have thought more about this before now. And my second reaction was to make up a bunch of science:

Not something I’ve thought a lot about, oddly enough, but my gut reaction is something like:

Women are powerfully interested in human relationships, and specifically in romantic relationships (and obviously this is massively simplifying/reductive). I assume this is part conditioning – we’re socialised to care about relationships, and until very recent history to judge our worth by our relationships – and part biology. There must be some biological urge to create safe, lasting environments for raising children, which means finding a partner with certain qualities. I.e. alone is bad, with man is good.

Men are stereotypically more drawn to action/adventure, which also has a classic story structure (similar to romance, but with a different end goal, more external rather than internal obstacles, etc.). So it’s really just what holds the interest of each gender.

Obviously personal relationships and love are super important to lots of men in real life.

My personal theory is that love/kissing/romance is private and personal it’s something you DO in real life, not something you externalise and obsess over. Action/adventure is completely fantastical and therefore an escapist form of entertainment you can get lost in. Whereas female fantasy is much more wrapped up in romance for the very non-scientific reasons I said above.

Hope that gives you some new thoughts to shed light on the matter!

So, seriously, why DOES romance grab women so much harder than it does men?

Puberty Blues

I feel a little bit smug. I’ve been watching a couple of bloody brilliant Aussie TV shows, and for once the rest of the world has to wait! (And here’s hoping other countries have the sense to buy these shows up.)

One of them finished last night, and the ending was so perfect I had that same glow-y feeling in my chest I get from a really great book.

Puberty Blues is about two best friends, Debbie and Sue, growing up in Cronulla in the 70s. Cronulla is an outer suburb of Sydney in an area famous in the 70s for its surfer tribal culture and more recently for the racist riots in 2005.

I tried to express, recently, the idea that a historical context allows us to explore female empowerment in a more emphatic way – but also lends itself to the kind of female empowerment that has nothing to do with finding love.

Puberty Blues is a subtle, impressive example of what I was trying to come to grips with.

Debbie and Sue are desperate to get in with the cool kids, and they eventually manage it by being a bit naughty and a bit mean, and mostly by catching the eye of the boys. Being someone’s girlfriend has nothing to do with liking or even knowing – it’s all about status and belonging.

Girlfriend duties include: sitting on the beach for hours watching the boys surf; buying meat pies and chiko rolls for the boys to eat when they come in, when you will also hand them their towel; and lying back to let him root you. Oh, and bringing the Vaseline – very important not to forget the Vaseline.

The casual rape culture depicted is absolutely chilling. It’s there subtly in the girls’ expectation of sex: it is not something you enjoy, it’s something you lie back and take. And it’s there overtly in the girl lying in the back of a panel van, a catatonic lack of expression on her face, while the boys climb in and out by turn.

Seeing that unsettles Debbie and Sue, but it doesn’t particularly stand out to them as wrong, or as having anything to do with them. The way they react to it – by not really reacting at all – is what makes it so chilling. They have no context to understand why it unsettles them.

They enjoy being the cool kids and having boyfriends. They also begin to experience the way a girl’s worth comes entirely from her boyfriend. The way a girl becomes a laughing-stock in a second if she goes against her boyfriend’s wishes – all ties of loyalty and friendship cut.

Again, they don’t consciously rail against this stuff. They don’t understand it, even while they don’t like it.

Sue starts to feel more and more restrained and angry inside her relationship. Finally, when her boyfriend’s a complete asshole to her in front of everyone, she says, “You’re dropped.” She doesn’t mean to – didn’t even know it was going to come out. It’s that part of her she doesn’t understand – the part that’s unsettled and angry – acting for her. But she doesn’t go all girlpower I’m-better-off-without-that-dickhead. She doesn’t understand herself or her actions and still craves the social belonging that comes with a boyfriend.

Debbie is dropped by her first boyfriend for being frigid (turns out all the Vaseline in the world can’t make up for really not wanting to have sex), then falls in love with the beautiful Gary. In heart-stopping, world-stopping first love. Sue asks Debbie over and over again to tell her the story of how she and Gary sat in her room and just talked all afternoon. Just talked.

But even the beautiful Gary is only a fucked-up kid, dealing with life outside of school.

Debbie and Sue have seen the reality of what it takes to be a cool kid, and they start, tentatively, to see the world on the other side of school – a world that’s bigger than just the cool kids and the outcasts.

They start to realise that the superpower they have is each other. In a world where all ties can be cut in a second if you act out of turn, they have the kind of loyalty that can get them through anything.

They see the girl in the back of the van again, the boys climbing in and out to take turns. They still watch her from a distance, and vow to each other that the world would have to go through one of them first, to get at the other. Then they realise: That girl doesn’t have anyone to stand between her and the world.

And then they realise: Maybe she has us.

It’s such a superhero moment when they decide to walk over. “We’ll just get up and walk,” they tell each other. They challenge those boys who are the gods of this small world, and they get the girl out of there.

They’re so high on what they’ve done – so disbelieving and amazed – that they want to do it all over again. So they do the next best thing. They go down to the beach, with a surfboard, and run into the water, where girls are not allowed to go.

The cool kids sitting on the beach call them every name they can think of, but Debbie and Sue just laugh back at them and say, “Get us a chiko roll!”

The girls, watching fully clothed from their “girlfriend” stations, watch with contempt but also with a kind of dawning confusion. And awe.

Debbie and Sue are a product of their culture. They don’t have the means to stand outside it and understand it. This made their eventual liberation so much more powerful than if they’d been on a crusade from the start.

Their liberation came from acknowledging that their own feelings about the world are the only compass they need. That they get to say what’s wrong and right.

This is how I want to use the historical context for my heroines. Not to have them understand right from the start: I am oppressed, and my fellow-women are oppressed! But to have their experience and their knowledge not match up. For that to be an unsettling thing, and for their anger and frustration to become more than they can keep inside. And when it comes out it’s not necessarily going to be comfortable, and they’ll probably want to take it all back.

In the kind of society Debbie and Sue are growing up in, the love of a teenage boy cannot empower or liberate them. But their friendship with each other can.