Category Archives: Romance

punch an asshole in the face

It took me an age to realise something obvious about sex. Sex on the page, sex between characters.

I’ve thought a lot about how to make sex hot again. God, is there a new position on the face of this green planet? We have seen it all, read it all.

We experience something new to us differently, because our brains are processing information for the first time – it’s more intense, slower, more deeply felt. So how do we make the sexual encounter between two characters feel like something new, something that has only ever happened between these two people?

My go-to method is to sink deep into the romance and write from there: write pain, hurt, disruption, vulnerability, bliss and oh shit did I just realise I’m in love. It’s a pretty good method, on a pure-id level.

But for putting your critical brain to work on making what your id gave you ten times better, here’s the obvious: the characters aren’t having the sexual experience. The reader is.

It clicked when I was reading a romance with a tense sexual premise. The hero has a sexual kink that is the source of shame and self-loathing to him. He’s tried and failed to cut it out of himself. The heroine is sunny and somewhat naïve. The longer they spend together the more his sexual desires reach out to her, the more he loathes himself.

About half way through the book he finally confesses everything to her – and she is a wonderful person who listens and asks questions, admits when she’s confronted but takes it in her stride. Then expresses some curiosity in exploring the kink with him.

An amazing woman, and a total buzzkill.

I had been experiencing the hero’s emotional agony (which, up front, I love) – but more than that, I’d been experiencing this building sexual tension that was all wrapped up in his shame and his raging need. The self-loathing that came from wanting what he did only fuelled the desire, because it made it that much more unattainable. He himself was aware how the shame was part of the sex, for him.

So when the heroine ‘absolved’ him, I no longer experienced/read the desire as shameful and therefore I no longer felt caught up in the sexual heat. I was no longer experiencing the kink.

It’s a good distinction to make, between character arousal and reader arousal. Oh man, is that suddenly a bit confronting to talk about actively arousing the reader? No? Ok, get on with it, Anna.

Understanding the distinction means you can write a scene like, She gave him a blowjob and he was very aroused and he came, which leaves the reader unmoved, or you can write a conversation that works on the reader like sex, because all the elements of the relationship, the kink, the arousal are there.

This is so useful! Sex shouldn’t always be arousing, and if romance is really going to hit the reader in the feelings, conversations should be. It’s easier to manipulate these effects once you understand that the reader is the one having the sexual experience.

I’ve been reading a lot of Charlotte Stein recently, because she brings the id like whoa. I love this description of an orgasm in Curveball: It’s unbelievably good. Like squeezing a stress ball or punching an asshole in the face.

A lot of the time we rely on shared physical experience to arouse the reader. We describe licked nipples and pulled hair and the erotic associations the reader has with the acts trigger arousal. What I love about Stein’s description is that she adds to base physical arousal; she creates two distinct effects in the reader’s mind and body. Squeezing a stress ball has associations of release and pressure, and punching an asshole in the face conjures pure satisfaction, violence, disruption.

Another example of how this works is dirty talk. I love the idea of dirty talk. I always get excited when a character threatens another character with dirty talk. But it rarely pays off for me when it actually happens. Unfortunately, just like sex positions/acts, dirty talk is well worn. Pretty generic, really, when you read it on the page. So it’s exciting for the character who’s experiencing it, but not for me, the reader experiencing it.

I’ve been trying to figure out how to do dirty talk in a way that really works. I considered my expectations – what makes the idea of it exciting to me? What I want is for it to shock me, for it to be a pin prick, a cut with a knife. I want it to disrupt the narrative and reveal something hidden and unsafe about the characters.

So one answer to how to do dirty talk is to achieve this effect on readers through other means. I think this is what I was reaching for in Untamed when I had Jude say shocking, exposing things to Katherine in a way that was erotically fraught.

‘You’re here,’ he said, and covered her hand with his palm. The sensation touched him – his hand like a lover taking hers from behind. He pushed his fingers between hers, and they lay like that without speaking for a couple of minutes.

Then he said, ‘I miscalculated in so many ways, when I asked to come with you to the country. I didn’t understand how dark it would be, or how quiet. But the worst of my errors was not allowing for these hands.’ His hand flexed around hers, the only movement in the room. ‘I didn’t know you’d go without gloves in the country. And you don’t have easy hands, Katherine. At first they repulsed me.’ He was ready, and didn’t let her pull away.

‘When you handed me that first plate of food, and I knew these hands had made it, I could barely swallow it down. But the more I watched you, the clearer it became that your hands cannot be separated out from who you are. The parts of the world that fascinate you pass through your hands first. I thought at first it was childlike, before I suspected what wisdom was in touch. And then I thought about touching. And then I could not stop myself from imagining the rasp of your hands on my skin – those rough, truthful things rubbing me until I was uncomfortable and tender with it. Testing and tasting me in order to understand me. I began to long for you to understand me.’

There was a long silence, and their harsh breathing, and then she said, ‘You shouldn’t talk to people like that.’

Not quite ‘I’m gonna come in your hot little hole’, but it sort of made me catch my breath, to write something so exposed.

A Woman Entangled Giveaway

Cecilia Grant’s third book, A Woman Entangled, is out in the world. Huzzah!

I’ve spoken quite a bit about Cecilia on this blog, because her writing is an inspiration. She also wrote one of my favourite posts from my guest series last year – the one that called romance fiction “a middle finger brandished in the face of existential despair”.

I’d read quite a few mixed reactions to A Woman Entangled, so I wasn’t certain whether it would grab me the way A Gentleman Undone did. In the end it was a completely different reading experience – and I loved every minute of it.

The first thing I love is how Grant evokes a sense of time and place. I’ve said before that my favourite kind of historical fiction creates a character moving into their own projection of the future that is based in what they know of the world, not what we know of the world.

The first time we meet the barrister hero, Nick, he is standing in the Inns of Court, and–

Actually, let me interrupt myself and say that the first time we see Nick is thusly: Round the landing, down the stairs, and through the heavy oak front door, Nicholas Blackshear spilled out into the cold sunlight of Brick Court, black robes billowing in his wake.

Then he stands out on the street and thinks:

Blackstone and Oliver Goldsmith had each surely stood here – he had only to glance up at Number Two Brick Court to see where the jurist and the writer had slept and studied a few generations ago.

But so it was throughout the Inns of Court. Just as he always had to stop at the sundial, so must he quietly marvel, every time he took a meal in the Middle Temple Hall, at the serving table whose wood came from the hull of Sir Francis Drake’s Golden Hind. So must he always attempt, mid-meal, to picture all the details of the evening, some two hundred years ago, when the benchers and students had been privileged to witness the very first performance of Twelfth Night in that same room.

To be a London barrister was to live surrounded by the best of everything England had to offer, all from men who’d charted their own courses to greatness. A fellow might end up anywhere, who began here.

Gah, the loveliness and depth of that passage! The historical writer in me despairs. The reader in me rejoices.

The next thing I love about A Woman Entangled is that when we meet Nick we’ve just come from meeting our heroine, Kate, who also aspires to greatness – she intends to marry into the aristocracy and lift her family back to their rightful place in society. And it is so heartbreaking to see the difference in what she is allowed to aspire to, compared to this grand dream of Nick’s that stretches back through time and all the great men that came before him.

Grant has done an extraordinary thing in this book: she has embedded it deeply, and without overt commentary, in the sensibilities of the time. Kate isn’t a feminist heroine placed anachronistically back in time to fight against all the constraints placed on women; she is an intelligent, warm-hearted woman living unselfconsciously within the world she knows. Nick respects and admires her – and treats her accordingly. But he also hands down judgement (and advice) on her actions in a very Knightly-ish fashion, because as a man he naturally knows more of the wider world and how it works.

What an incredibly fine line this is to walk! To fully evoke the sensibilities of a time that was more constraining and unequal than ours, and to believably write a man and a woman meeting as equals.

As far as I’m concerned, Grant succeeded.

There are many, many more things I loved about this book, but I’ll just discuss one more before proceeding to the giveaway.

I utterly adored Grant’s previous book, A Gentleman Undone. It grabbed me in some visceral, emotional place and left me feeling scrubbed clean and quiet. When the heroine of that book, Lydia, says to Nick in this book, “The first thing I want you to know, Mr. Blackshear, is that I love your brother. My attachment to him is fiercer than my attachment to life.” I believed her without hesitation.

But A Woman Entangled shows Nick suffering because of his brother’s decision to marry a courtesan. Almost no briefs come his way anymore, and he doesn’t feel welcome in the society he needs to impress, in order to become a politician.

The unequal marriage is a romantic notion – the duke and the serving girl, the countess and the steward. But in romance we never see the cost of these marriages, because then we would have to ask ourselves the uncomfortable question: is love worth this? It’s a question that runs counter to the whole premise of romance.

Grant didn’t back away from that question. She forced me to wonder whether Lydia and Will – who I believed in so thoroughly – should have put family before love. Not a comfortable feeling. But one that feels closer to the real choices we make around love – and the real triumph love can be – than I usually find in romance.

Fortunately, she attacks the same question from the other side in the romance between Nick and Kate, and comes to – no surprises here – a happy conclusion. Not easy, but happy.

Neither Nick’s aspirations nor Kate’s are served by them marrying; each has connections that will cast a shadow over the other. But as they fall in love, each comes to feel how genuine, fulfilling human relationships make up the real stuff of life. They are still driven by what drives them, but they come to understand that aspirations are dreams that don’t take into account the daily living of life.

It’s a joy to read about the difference real human connection makes – and Grant answers her own question about love by suggesting that fulfilling relationships not only make life bearable, they give us strength to see ourselves clearly and pursue, in the long-term, what we really want from life.

I’m giving away a print copy of this wonderful book to one commenter! (All countries welcome.) Leave any comment you like, from “Gimme” to a thesis on literary analysis. I’ll be drawing the winner’s name on Monday morning, Australian time.

ETA: I have just done my usual, highly scientific names-from-a-hat, and the winner is Londonmabel! Congratulations! I hope you enjoy this wonderful novel. Thanks to everyone else for entering your names. I encourage you all to get your hands on the book without delay :-) .

feminist is one side of a shape

All those posts about romance and feminism last week kicked off some huge discussions on twitter. Where those discussions more or less ended up: It’s kind of irrelevant whether romance is feminist or not – I love reading it.

This gave me Thoughts.

As I said last week, my stance is that romance isn’t obliged to be feminist, and the most feminist thing about it is the critical discourse surrounding it. I’ve engaged in this discourse. I find the feminist readings of romance novels fascinating and enlightening. It’s helped me become a better, more engaged writer.

But I’ve been wondering whether we truncate our reading experience by not reading romance with the same level of critique in other ways.

Example: I recently read Pleasure Unbound by Larissa Ione. I found it cheap at a charity shop, and remembered being curious about the series years ago when I first discovered the particular crack that is paranormal romance. It was kinda fun, kinda forgettable.

The first sex scene between the hero and heroine is only consensual if you really, really squint. Through binoculars. She’s a demon slayer who’s been brought, critically wounded, into a demon hospital. The demon doctor heavily drugs her then patches her up. While she’s still off her face, the doctor’s brother gets inside her head with his special demon powers and gives her a really hot sex dream. (The brothers are incubi, natch.)

The doctor, summoned by her arousal, sends his brother off but then becomes overwhelmed by his own instincts. He “wakes her up” (she’s still off her face), and she, thinking this must all be a dream, tells him to take her. So, consent. But not really, because she’s injured and drugged and was just coerced into arousal while innocently sleeping.

They have really hot sex.

And the thing is – it is hot. These two sex-demons are taking full advantage of the woman, but it’s still hot. It’s even hotter when she realises she’s having sex with a demon – a race she hates – while he’s still inside her.

None of that is particularly yay-woo feminist. It’s not something that ever gets addressed in the book, like, he shouldn’t have taken advantage of her. But that didn’t stop it from being enjoyable.

It makes me think there are other critical conversations we could be having around romance – like about erotic power dynamics.

There’s been a lot of conversation about the slavery in S.U. Pacat’s Captive Prince. From what I’ve seen, the discussion has been solely about: What stance does this book take on slavery? And is it problematic? I’ve seen no discussion about the erotic dynamics of slavery – which wouldn’t cancel out the socio-political conversation, but would add another, equally important angle to the critical discourse. I didn’t read it as a book about slavery – I read it as a book about (sexual) power dynamics.

Whether romance is escapist or not, it is largely emotional and erotic fantasy.

I think this is the reason it’s so interesting to read from a feminist perspective. It’s a direct look inside female desires, largely undiluted by what’s correct or progressive. It’s a kind of snap-shot of what is.

But it’s also something worth looking into for itself. For what it tells us about fantasy, about erotics, about emotional desire. (I had written “separate to the feminist context”, but I’m not sure whether this is true or not. Feminist can sometimes feel restraining to desire, but that seems like a counter-productive statement to make, so I’m probably missing something.)

It’s totally possible these discussions are already happening, and I haven’t found them yet. Please point me in the right direction, if you know where the party’s at! For myself, I’ve enjoyed these thoughts, and the direction they’re leading me in both as a reader and a writer.

 

a cup of tea

I’m imagining a round wooden table in an alcove of windows somewhere – Scotland, maybe. The house is old, the glass is old, and I’m looking out over my favourite kind of countryside: a bit desolate, low and scrubby, its few trees like fists raised at the sky. The sky, of course, is full of movement.

But it’s so snug inside. Let’s have a cup of tea, and a catch-up!

That silence on my end has mostly been about productivity. I’ve been through the revision process for My Lady Untamed, and it has added so much value to the book. There’s one scene in particular that just melted my heart as soon as I’d written it. Going with a publishing house has been worth it just for that one scene alone, not to mention how cool Penguin Aus HQ is.

The book’s in copy-editing at the moment – which means someone’s picking up my spelling errors or logistical errors, and no doubt fainting in horror at my…unconventional use of punctuation. I can’t help it. I love the truncated sentence with a full-stop.

All signs are pointing to a May 15th publishing date (so soon!) – but you can be sure I’ll keep you updated. I can hardly wait for you all to meet Kit and Darlington.

I’ve also fallen head over heels in love with the idea for my next book. This is what I know so far:

The heroine is a debt collector.

The first time she and the hero meet, she’s murdering someone.

He’s the lovely, naive youngest son of someone-or-other.

He’s engaged to a very proper young woman whose family have just lost everything.

In other news, I was recently mentioned in an article in The Atlantic about romance and feminism. The article’s an interesting overview/jumping in point for looking at what romance is up to these days.

And as this is a discussion that will never be done, and can be looked at endlessly from all angles, there are wonderful follow-up conversations over at Cecilia Grant’s blog (can romance be feminist?) and Something More (are we doing ourselves a disservice when we dismiss early romance?).

I think the heart of my stance on all of this is: Romance is not obliged to be feminist; and the most feminist thing about romance is the critical discourse around it.

I’ll be back to regular blogging next week. Damn that was a good cuppa!

and still, we will fall in love

ANNA

Cecilia Grant is another author I first discovered through AnimeJune’s excellent (hilarious) review. And then I realised it was kind of hard to move on the internet for glowing reviews of her debut novel A Lady AwakenedSo naturally I read it immediately. Highlighted in my Kindle:

Her hands fell at random places on his back and stayed there, passively riding his rhythm like a pair of dead fish tossed by the sea. Or rather, one dead fish. The other still curled tight, like a brittle seashell with its soft sensate creature shrunk all the way inside.

I’ve tried to describe why I love that passage so much a couple of times, and deleted every attempt. It speaks most clearly for itself. Also, sex and dead fish.

Since then Cecilia and I have struck up many conversations, and come to realise we share ideas about sexuality and gender – and even more so, the passionate desire to embody those ideas through romance.

Her second book, A Gentleman Undonewas a tough, uncompromising, incredibly romantic book. Cecilia’s post gives a glimpse into why it touched me like a hand around my bones. And it makes me want to read everything she hasn’t yet written.

***

CECILIA

Warning: I’m usually a perfectionist, and fiddle with things I’ve written until I’m reasonably sure they won’t embarrass me. But one of the things I love about Anna’s blog is the risks she takes in her topics and her opinions. So I promised myself I’d write something truthful here, and not try to file away the sharp edges. You’ve been warned.

*

“I asked most of my guests some specific questions,” Anna said when inviting me to write a post in this series, “but I’m curious to see what you might come up with on your own.”

I’m guessing this is the last time she makes that mistake.

Because I’d like to start by saying a few words about the dull horror of the human condition.

Or rather, by calling on Tennessee Williams to say those words.

Asked once for his definition of happiness, the playwright thought it over for a few seconds and then said, “Insensitivity, I guess.”

I love that quote. It’s really kind of appalling, isn’t it? It’s glib, it’s indicative of a piss-poor attitude, and it’s insulting to people who consider themselves happy.

And it resonates with me, from the back of my skull right down to the metatarsal bones in my feet.

Back in the days when I had vague thoughts of writing, but didn’t yet know I wanted to write romance, I kept a clipping of that quote thumbtacked to my bulletin board, for inspiration. Alongside other, equally inspiring quotes. The “Out, out, brief candle!” speech from Macbeth. The Holocaust survivor in the documentary Shoah who sums up his state of existence with, “If you could lick my heart, it would poison you.” (God help my shallow, missing-the-point soul; the incisive brilliance of that image gives me chills.)

And for variety, the passage in William Faulkner’s 1950 Nobel Prize acceptance speech, where he names -

“…the old universal truths lacking which any story is ephemeral and doomed – love and honor and pity and pride and compassion and sacrifice.”

So now that I’m writing escapist genre fiction, I’ve retired all those quotes and the thoughts that go with them, right?

No. Not anywhere near right. I keep those quotes closer than ever. Because genre fiction, in my opinion, is the most faithful keeper of those virtues Faulkner championed. And because hopelessness, meaninglessness, and human suffering are not only the backdrop against which romance exists; they’re the very compost out of which our genre grows.

I often see people defining romance’s worth in terms of its “escape” value. “Life is hard; I get enough exposure to sadness by reading the daily news; I want a book that can transport me away from that.” And I do think that’s a useful function for literature to perform. I’ve gone through difficult times myself when I was deeply grateful for the power of a book or movie to give me respite.

But respite reading suggests a kind of turning-away, or temporary retreat, from conditions and realities that are too painful to steadily face. And I find it more interesting, more rewarding, to think of romance as an unbowed answer to those conditions and realities. A confrontation. A tiny defiant candle held up against the dark; a middle finger brandished in the face of existential despair.

“Yes,” says the person falling in love, “We know. All our yesterdays have lighted fools the way to dusty death. Life is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. Yep. Got it. No further questions.

“And still, we will fall in love. We will find meaning in one another. We will bring further generations into this world, with full unblinking awareness of how painful life can be. We will take stock of all the evidence that suggests hopelessness as the most reasonable attitude, and we will hope anyway.”

And some of us… some of us will read and write books that celebrate all the poignant quixotic bravery of the human attachment to romantic love.

That’s what writing and reading romance means to me. I’m cringing already with the certainty that it sounds pretentious, but I’m not going to go back and tinker. This is the truthful thing I wanted to write. Thanks, Anna, for giving me the opportunity.

Note: every comment puts your name in the hat for an accidental housewife e-reader cover.

reader reader writer reader

There was a post on Romance Novels for Feminists recently about the way we read “feisty heroine” as “feminist heroine”, even though this is often not true. In the comments, Jackie and I talked specifically about the feisty heroine who sees some “wrong” and runs about fixing it as she sees fit. She either makes this pig-headed mess that the hero has to clean up afterwards, or comes to realise her strongly held beliefs were wrong and wouldn’t be strongly held by anyone with more sense than a worm.

Doesn’t exactly scream intelligent, competent woman.

So it was a joy to read Courtney Milan’s The Duchess War the next day and see her tackle this heroine trope head-on. Her heroine, Minnie, has declared war on her hero, Robert, when he refuses to give up the dangerous activity he’s involved in. She tells him she’s going to find proof of his involvement and turn him in to the authorities. Robert proceeds to think this:

In reality, he suspected that he was about to be subjected to a barrage of amateur sleuthing. Bad disguises, ham-handed questions, attempts to go through his rubbish in search of clues… Miss Pursling was undoubtedly the sort of hotheaded young lady who would throw herself into the chase with abandon.

Instead, she ignores him. And then they have this conversation:

He swallowed and cleared his throat. “This isn’t what I expected when you said you’d go to war with me.”

“Let me guess.” She fingered her glove carefully, and he noticed that she was worrying at a tiny hole in the tip. “You thought I would simper if you smiled at me. You supposed that when I said I would prove what you were doing to everyone, that I planned to engage in a bumbling, graceless investigation into your surface activities.”

“I–no, of course not.” But Robert felt his cheeks heat. Because that was precisely what he had thought.

She bit her lip, the picture of shyness. But her words were the opposite of shy. “Now,” she whispered, “you’re surprised to find that I overmatch you.”

Reading it again gives me tingles. She’s quiet, composed and confident. And she does outmatch him, and it surprises him. It worked for me as a kind of romance-trope satire because what Robert – and the reader – expect of her contrasts powerfully with what she really is. It’s creating character on the deepest level. However, it is still satire, in a sense. Robert doesn’t have any reason to expect silly sleuthing from her. He doesn’t think, “That’s how women are,” or even, “That’s how they are in silly romantic novels.” The expectation comes entirely from the genre itself, so it’s playing against the reader’s own expectations in a meta fashion.

Milan tackled quite a few romance tropes in The Duchess War. Some of them worked less well for me – they were less character-driven and more satirical, and so asked me to be conscious of myself as the reader and pulled me out of the story. This conversation between Minnie and Robert’s mother in particular (**CONTAINS SPOILERS**):

“Second,” she said, “you might consider not consummating the marriage.”

“What? Why? So it can be annulled?”

The duchess rolled her eyes. “That is a horrid myth. You cannot annul a marriage for simple lack of consummation. Trust me; I have consulted every lawyer in London as to the ways in which one might end a marriage. I know the law to an inch. … “

Perhaps women did hold the misconception back then that an unconsummated marriage could be annulled, and Minnie’s reaction is accurate. But it’s been one of the most pervasive, old-school misconceptions of historical romance, and I can’t help but feel that this exchange is a tongue-in-cheek jab at that, more than at any notions Minnie had or didn’t have.

The sex scene also challenged common romance tropes, though in this case it was absolutely wonderful, and served their characters before it served anything else. But it did make me think about social reading, and how it affects what and how we read.

There was a rash of Wish List posts recently, asking for more of certain romance trends. Unsurprisingly, there was a lot of sex stuff in the comments: mostly requests for more bad sex and more virgin hero sex.

I’m not saying Milan is responding directly to what readers are asking for, it’s not as simple as that. For one thing, she would have started writing this book ages ago. For another, she’s an author who writes consistently ahead of the curve. Also, she’s as engaged with the genre as any reader and would be as frustrated with certain tropes.

But her innovation isn’t read in a black hole. It immediately becomes part of the conversation.

I enjoyed the book a lot, but to me it felt one draft away from ready; some scenes felt as though they’d been changed from one POV to another and not entirely cleaned up, and there was one conversational exchange that should clearly have happened after, not before, an event. I particularly would have wished for Robert to depend on Minnie and her superior tactics for his end-game. She may not have been an unfeminist feisty heroine, but she was still not allowed to act in the crucial moment.

Maybe it’s because it felt unfinished that I could see more clearly than normal where Milan’s taking up the romance conversation, and what her book is doing to generate more of that conversation. The critical conversations around romance online is one of my favourite parts of the genre. There is so much intelligent, fascinating, engaged discussion going on, and I suspect we will see it affect what is written and published more in the next few years, just as what’s published feeds back into the discussion.

Note: every comment puts your name in the hat for an accidental housewife e-reader cover.

the “first time” fallacy

I’m sneaking into this gap in the guest posts, to address something that bugs me: Why does it always hurt, the first time a woman has sex in a romance novel?

I know that for a lot of women it is an uncomfortable experience, for one reason or another, but losing your virginity isn’t inherently uncomfortable. But in all virgin-romances there’s this moment –  whether she’s into the sex or not, as soon as he’s “fully sheathed” it suddenly stops feeling good, and goes on being painful until he moves in just the right way.

I have two problems with this:

1) The first time I had sex was transcendental. Nothing had ever felt that good. Sex has been a lot more interesting since that chaste, naive thing, but almost never so completely good, so completely transporting, so completely free of anything but sensation and wonder. And I was 16, so it’s not like I was experienced, or even understood my own body or all the mechanics of sex;

and 2) When sex is uncomfortable, the man moving around all up in there rarely makes it less so.

Of course, sex is a highly subjective thing, so that could just be me. But as it’s highly subjective, I wish more female characters got to have more varied experiences. (And I’m not even touching on the Unalterable Truth that sex is always, always amazing for men.)

Why always this moment of discomfort? Is it to mark the transition from virgin to not-virgin? The pang innocence makes on its way out of the body? Is it because sex should never, ever be a purely pleasurable thing, and we must first pay the price for it?

Also – do you have any idea how hard it was not to put the ‘ph’ into that heading?

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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!

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.

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.