Category Archives: Current

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.


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 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.

the romance genre is way ahead of the Australian government on this one

Yesterday the Australian Parliament voted against the Marriage Amendment Bill. It’s times like this when I think, “Thanks for maintaining the roads. I like the roads. But you do not represent me at all.”

But Penny Wong put it much better than I can.

Particularly to young gay and lesbian Australians, to those who may not have come out yet, or are finding their way – I want you to know that the prejudice you have heard in this debate does not reflect the direction in which this country is going.

Those who oppose this Bill speak to the past. I and my colleagues are talking to a better future.

Because whatever happens in the Parliament this week, our relationships are not inferior, our relationships are not less equal, and our love is no less real.

I handed in the first draft of my teen romance last week, so as a reward I took this week off. I’ve pretty much been reading without breathing, and mostly I’ve been reading m/m (male/male) romance.

I’ve been reading about repressed bankers in late 19C Manhattan, who can’t share their relationship with even their closest friends and families for fear of going to prison. I’ve been reading about Scuba Cowboys and trauma surgeons in present-day Florida who had to deal with family prejudice, but get engaged anyway, against the day their state allows them to marry.

Yesterday, when I saw on the news how very backward my government really is, I happened to be reading about a mismatched, gorgeous, crazy-romantic pair in present-day Britain. At the end of the story they get engaged. And then…they get married, in a civil ceremony, at Cambridge University where one of them is a lecturer.

It kind of blew my mind.

In the context of what happened in Australia yesterday – in the context of a not-so-distant past when gay couples couldn’t even share their relationships with the people nearest to them, and even of a present day in which gay couples are still waiting for marriage to be legalised before they can express their love out loud in the most fundamental way – that ending felt revolutionary.

The couple in that story didn’t have to wait, didn’t have to hesitate. They just got married.  And it’s not a fairytale, either – it’s just present-day Britain.

This is one of the things I love most about the romance genre. It made that experience real to me. It’s so unfalteringly optimistic when it comes to love.

I know there are conservative romance writers and readers out there, but for me, yesterday, my genre was one of the most powerful revolutionary forces operating inside this political debate. Romance doesn’t come into political speeches or reports – but it makes gay equality a reality for its readers, out in the world where change is happening no matter what our governments say.

the genre debate is never done

Last week Ursula Le Guin posted a great piece on genre vs literary fiction in response to Krystal’s article ‘Easy Writers‘ in the New Yorker in May. I don’t know that this debate will ever be done, so I see each of these pieces as the next part of a conversation – the next voice around the table.

For me, the most interesting piece to date has been Grossman’s reply to the same article. I can’t recommend reading it enough. He looks at what exactly “escapism” means, suggests that literary criticism has failed genre fiction, and concludes that genre fiction is disruptive technology. He also uses the sentence: “Because the shades of grey here, they are many.”

When special k started reading a draft of My Lady Untamed, he couldn’t immediately place himself in White’s Gentleman’s Club – didn’t know what it was, or that such a thing existed. He wanted description. He wanted to be placed firmly in a context.

When a contest judge read the same draft she wrote, “You probably only need to say ‘White’s’ – your readers will know what you mean.”

Let’s put aside for a moment the fact that if I could write like Jo Bourne everything would be present in description in the most vivid, unobtrusive way possible.

These two pieces of feedback brought forcefully home to me what it means in real terms to write within an established genre. I don’t describe White’s, because I imagine that the readers of Regency romance have, like me, their own default image of White’s that they call up each time a book takes them there. I work within a preconceived framework that allows romance to be the central, organising element of my narrative.

This is the shared “cultural encyclopedia” that Remittance Girl talks about in her post on erotica as literature. If I write with the expectation that my readers have no knowledge of the Regency I might appeal to a broader audience – but in the meantime I’d be losing my romance audience. Or at least covering ground they’re so familiar with it’d bore them to tears to read it again. I write with an assumed level of knowledge and expectation in my readers.

Grossman writes about plot:

But conventions aren’t the iron cage they’re made out to be. Sonnets are bound by conventions too, but that doesn’t stop them from being great, and wildly various. Conventions are more like the rules of chess: a small set of constraints that produces near-infinite complexity. They’re not restrictive, they’re generative.

My book is a 100,000-word love letter to the romance novels I read. It defers to and challenges the genre. It exists within a context – a long, constantly evolving history.

This is, for me, the practical implication of writing genre fiction. It’s why I don’t agree with Ursula Le Guin that all written fiction should simply be termed “literature”. Unless you’re defining “literature” as “literary fiction”, this is already the case. The way I would level the playing field is to acknowledge that literary fiction is its own genre as fully as romance or sci-fi, with its own set of markers and shared cultural encyclopedia.

We can’t attempt to level the playing field by making all written fiction the same but different, because the truth is that I’m not writing for anyone, I’m writing for a particular audience. It’s my hope that anyone could enjoy reading my novel – but I’d be shooting myself in the foot if I lost sight of the genre it belongs to.

the piracy question

Illegal downloading is a subject I’ve been wanting to write about for ages. It’s very murky – it’s emotional and ethical/unethical and no one has a clue how to start untangling it (or rather, everyone has an opinion about how to start). But it’s an important topic.

David Lowery, a musician and lecturer in economics, wrote a public letter on Monday to an intern at NPR (national public radio). She had written on NPR’s music blog: “I honestly don’t think my peers and I will ever pay for albums.” In his letter Lowery breaks down some of the misconceptions about file-sharing and actively calls on our generation to think about the ethics of our actions.

His letter is passionate and articulate, but there were a couple of key points that I felt he either didn’t address, or which didn’t satisfy me. I want to outline them here in full knowledge that they’re not definitive answers to the digital media conundrum – but that I would like to begin challenging, discussing and rethinking them.

1) Consumers are not philanthropists.

There’s an image of the artist that pervades Lowery’s letter – the poor, struggling artist. He gives anecdotes of the ways artists have suffered – deeply – from losing their income. It’s tragic, the way thousands of people losing their jobs when a factory closes is tragic. But I don’t know that playing on peoples’ pity will change consumer choices – not on a scale large enough to affect the market.

He ends his letter with a call to action to donate money to various charities that help artists. That seems really odd to me.

On the one hand, yes, artists need a lot of financial help, and anyone who’s prepared to give it – thank you!

But artists who are serious about making money from what they do – the artists who would suffer from losing their livelihoods – are not charity cases. They’re business people. (Serious question: do business people in other industries also have access to charities?)

So: consumers are not philanthropists – and artists are not charity cases.

2) Artists are business people.

Lowery talks about the hidden costs of file-sharing. He points out that you might be able to download stuff for free, but the money is being exchanged somewhere. Internet providers get your money, the people who own the file-sharing sites get your money and the people who advertise (as well as the people who sell them the advertising) get your money.

So people are definitely making money off this – large corporations, mostly, not artists.

What Lowery fails to point out is: PEOPLE ARE DEFINITELY MAKING MONEY OFF THIS. There’s income to be made. Artists and artistic studios/companies/organisations just haven’t figured out how to get a piece of it yet.

3) Digital objects don’t have the same value as physical objects.

This is confounding, because just as much love and labour goes into, for example, an ebook as a paper book. It is the same object. But the simple fact that you can’t hold it devalues it in a consumer’s eyes. The simple fact that you can jump on the internet and have it almost right away devalues it. Probably it shouldn’t. But the fact is that it does.

I suspect bemoaning this undervaluing isn’t going to change what’s happening. Artists can’t browbeat their consumers into sharing their views – consumers feel the way they feel, irrational or not (and hasn’t consumer desire always been irrational?). I can only assume value has to be found elsewhere for digital objects, like Amazon have done with the Kindle.

We see this in other markets where a product is intangible. Public transport systems have to police commuters. Cinemas have been redesigned to have one door in, and one door out. And they charge $12 for a bucket of what is essentially the cheapest grain on earth and hot air. Notice, though, how people choose to buy popcorn? It’s all part of the experience and they don’t mind paying for it.

4) It’s not a matter of “not wanting to pay” – it’s a matter of lifestyle.

Lowery points out that consumers have already spent $1,000 on their laptop before they can get any “free” files. It’s kinda off-point, because no one buys a laptop just to illegally download stuff. (Okay. The world’s a big, populated place. Probably someone does.) They buy it because it’s one of the necessary lynchpins of their lifestyle.

No one denies that the internet has changed the way we conduct almost every daily transaction – so it makes sense that it also changes the lifestyle we expect. Actually, expect is the wrong word. It’s more like simple experience. We don’t question it. We rely on it, we breathe it. We know it’s there when we reach out.

TorrentFreak recently collated all their illegal download data and found Australia topped the Game of Thrones ranking. (The comments, by the way, are enlightening.) There’s this phenomenal tv show that every online community you belong to is talking about. Every day you see the images, hear spoilers. There’s buzz, because HBO wants you to watch it – so you want to watch it.

And you can.

The internet turns geographical restrictions into an abstract concept – because Game of Thrones isn’t on the other side of the world in America, it’s right here, where you are, at your fingertips. I should point out that it airs in Australia one week (I think) after its US airing, but only on Foxtel. I couldn’t find any exact figures on their website, but let’s say $50-$80 per month?

I was chatting with Jo Bourne on twitter about the geographical restrictions problem, and she said, “But isn’t there value in preserving local communities?” Well, yes. But just look who said that to me – Joanna Bourne, an American writer, who is part of my everyday community. Because of the internet.

Many of my localised communities are not geographical.

And yes: sharing files that don’t belong to you is an illegal act. There’s no getting around that. I can’t explain why our generation is taking to it anyway. It’s a full-blown ethical question, and I enjoyed how Lowery’s letter engaged with it. We have responsibilities to each other as human beings that are more complicated than just what we want right now.

But I do not see this trend reversing itself. And I want to make it very clear that when I say trend I don’t mean taking things illegally, I mean the systems people use to consume their media. This is also what I mean by lifestyle. Not some odious sense of privilege – but the day-to-day, lived experience of life. The way people consume media has changed – the market has changed.

Which isn’t to say artists won’t figure out how to make it profitable. I have every faith in human inventiveness.

Lowery shakes his head at a generation who doesn’t use their morality and principles to guide them through technological change, but rather lets technological change dictate their morality and principles. I’m researching the industrial revolution at the moment. Technology (which comes from people, not the Jules Verne nightmare Lowery points to) has always felt beyond us, pushing us into the future despite ourselves, from the first train engines – which were named after gods and dragons – to the internet.

But the wonderful thing about people is – just as quickly as technology changes on us, we change on it. We’re so adaptable – so ready to put what we have to good use.

Take Pioneer One, a crowd-funded tv show that’s released on the sites where people download their tv. The creative team fundraised enough for the first two episodes – and then relied on its fans wanting to see what happened next. It’s absolute proof that people aren’t scared to shell out. People want to contribute to the culture they belong to. The Nazi-spoof Iron Sky that was recently on at the cinema? Crowd-sourced.

I can only imagine the visceral rage artists feel seeing their hard work up on file-sharing sites. What downloaders are doing is illegal – but I don’t know that anyone’s going to change their minds. Those people artists rage against? They are the market. I said earlier that the value of a digital object has to be found elsewhere, and when it comes to ebooks I suspect the value is somewhere in community, tied to media systems that work with consumer habits.

I greatly respect Courtney Milan for blazing the way with self-publishing – but even more so for her generous approach to her community. In the back of her novella The Governess Affair she doesn’t sternly remind the reader that this is her property, she writes: Thanks for reading The Governess Affair! I hope you enjoyed it. Did you know you can lend this book? Please consider sharing it with a friend. And: Where such permission is sufficient, the author grants the right to strip any DRM which may be applied to this work.

Here’s what I’m facing: All things going well, people will be pirating my books in the next couple of years. That’s going to be my reality.

It’s natural to expect that when that happens my neat little aphorisms about “lifestyle” and “philanthropy” will be chucked to the wayside while I chase down my titles and remove them from illegal download sites.

Right now – I don’t want that to happen. I want to put my money where my mouth is. I believe there’s a market out there – bigger than there’s ever been – it’s just a new market, and no one quite knows how to access it yet.

I’m a writer, not a marketer. I don’t know how to look at this mess and create something from it. But then, three months ago I didn’t know how to write a business plan, either. Actually, it was worse than that. I was sure I couldn’t write one. I was so confronted by trying to do it, when I had no clue how to even begin, that I felt physically sick. But I kept at it, and now I have one – and boy is that a useful document!

So I’m going to approach this whole new-market thing the same way. Something I can’t do. A lot of hard work. Necessary, if I want to make it. As Philip Pullman writes*:

You don’t win races by wishing, you win them by running faster than everyone else. And to do that you have to strive your utmost, and sometimes even that isn’t enough, because another runner just might be more talented than you are. Here’s the truth: If you want something, you can have it, but only if you want everything that goes with it, including all the hard work and despair, and only if you’re willing to risk failure.

* from Clockwork