Friday, November 17, 2017

Is it time to retire the phrase "sweet romance"?

Author Barbara James, in the comments section of several recent RNFF blog posts, used the phrase "sweet romance" to describe her writing. At around the same time, other romance authors on several listservs to which I subscribe were complaining about the same term—"sweet romance"—as well as its counterpart,"clean romance," as a label or category. What, exactly, does "sweet romance" say to a potential reader? And why do some authors find the term problematic?

Barbara James pointed to one specific meaning when she noted in a comment, "But the sex [in my books] is closed door, because I don't think graphic sex scenes are necessary—these are sweet romances!"  By this definition, a "sweet romance" refers to any romance novel in which sex scenes are not depicted on the page.

[A brief digression here into bibliographic historiography; feel free to skip if you want to get directly into the whys & wherefores...

Who first began calling romances without sex "sweet"? I ran a Google Books phrase search for "sweet romance" between the dates 1970 and 1980, expecting to find the phrase turning up in this period, in reaction to the more graphic sensual historicals that poured out of New York publishing houses in the wake of Avon's 1972 publication of Kathleen Woodiwiss's The Flame and the Flower. How could you have a "sweet" romance until you had a "sexy" romance with which to contrast it? Before Woodiwiss, all romances were what we today would term "sweet," so there would be no need to create such a label or category.

Google Books Advanced search was not of much help, unfortunately. It cites Ann Hampson's 1978 contemporary Harlequin romance, Sweet is the Web, includes an advertisement at the back for another series, Harlequin Historicals, which uses the phrase. But as this line did not begin publishing books until 1986, this must be a later reprint copy, rather than an original 1978 copy:

The broad, bold sweep of history and the quiet times of sweet romance—powerful, sinister lords doing evil deeds, and great ladies in gem-studded silks brushing against ragged beggars and homeless waifs (193)

The search noted the phrase appears in the Library of Congress's 1978 Catalog of Copyright Entries Third Series, although whether it appears as a descriptive phrase, the name of a line of books, or as the title of an individual book or books, one can't tell, as the search doesn't show an inside view of the book.

Google also cites the 1979 Australian Parliamentary Papers, and shows a tiny snippet from the book:

But this looks more like a book title than a descriptive phrase to me.

Moving on to 1981-1985 turns up a single citation, in the 1985 New York Times obituary of bestselling author Taylor Caldwell: "Not sweet romance but melodrama was her stock in trade, laced increasingly with her own conservative political opinions."

In fact, the term as used to refer to romances without sex only starts to show up on Google Books' radar in the 1990s, in guides to writers interested in writing romances, and in the works of librarians and scholars:

Wayne Barton and Kristen Ramsdell's What Do I Read Next? (1993) 
A Poetics of Criticism (1994)
Eve Paludan's The Writers' Pink Pages (1995)
David H. Bourcherding's Romance Writer's Sourcebook: Where to Sell Your Manuscripts (1996) 
Kristen Ramsdell's Romance Fiction: A Guide to the Genre (1999)
Kay Mussell and Johanna Tuñón's North American Romance Writers (1999)

That the term doesn't appear very often before 1990 may be due to the fact that Google's Book search includes fewer books from before the Internet age. I'd be curious to know if anyone has pre-1990 romance novels that refer to themselves as "sweet romances," or which include the phrase "sweet romance" in their sell copy.

End of bibliographic/historiographic digression :-)]

Why do some authors get annoyed by the phrase "sweet romance"? The ones on the listservs I read had two main objections.

First, those who write romantic mysteries, or gothic romances, or other darker books with romance plotlines but which also did not include sex scenes, object that the term misrepresents what they are writing. Their novels may not include sex on the page, but books with haunted mansions, gruesome murders, and psychopath villains should by no means be termed sweet. To label them as such is to misrepresent their contents to potential readers.

Second, feminist-inclined readers object to the term because, taking a page from Deconstructionist literary criticism, they understand that the phrase serves as one half of a binary opposition. The other side of the opposition—"not sweet" romance, or "sexy" romance, (or, if we use the companion phrase, "clean romance," its opposite, "dirty" romance)—is not just other, but lesser. Because of the positive connotations that go along with the word "sweet, "sweet romance" becomes the positive term in the binary, while its opposite is held up as a negative: something to be avoided, shunned, or denigrated. Sweet romances do not feature sex; romances that do feature sex are therefore not sweet. The label "sweet romance" thus implies that sex is bad, shameful, a decidedly unfeminist position.

Why, then, do we not simply call romances that do not include sex scenes "no-sex romances" or "romances without sex"? I think in part because the term "sweet romance" carries some additional connotations, connotations that are about more than just sex.

I hear hints of these connotation when Barbara James brings up the phrase again, this time in a comment in response to an RNFF blog post about how to define "feminist romance":

I write sweet romances. So my characters might be seen as anti-feminist. They are in college, but they want to graduate with their Mrs. Degree, work, and have their first children by their mid-twenties. They would rather become stay at home moms, work from home, or work part time while their children are small.

"Sweet" here does not just refer, then, to the presence or absence of sex. "Sweet" is a political position packaged as a personal choice. It links not having sex (or not showing it on the page) with other personal choices: for a young woman to want to marry (a man); for her to want to have children by a certain age; for her to be the parent who remains at home with young children, rather than her husband. It never questions why certain women should want such things, or what role public policies and institutions might have played in shaping private, "personal" decisions.

Why can't a sweet romance feature a 40 year old heroine? A heroine who falls for another woman? A heroine who never wants to have children? Any of these storylines could be written without explicit sex scenes, couldn't they?

I'm guessing it is because "sweet" carries with it a whole lot of other meanings than just the sexual one.

What would you say to retiring the term "sweet romance" and replacing it with "romance without sex"? Or, in the case of the sweet romance in which "sweet" means just a little bit more, how about "traditional values romance"? Or "socially conservative romance"?

Photo/illustration credits:
Binary opposition: Slide Share

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Escaping Escapist Romance? Tasha L. Harrison's THE TRUTH OF THINGS

Heterosexual genre romance is filled with heroes whose professions are all about public service. From firefighters to Navy SEALs, CIA agents to cops on the beat, male characters who their lives on the line for the greater good rank high in the standings of readers' favorite romance heroes.

But what happens when the society in which you live considers the police something to be shunned, rather than celebrated? Where dating a cop is tantamount to fraternizing with the enemy? These are questions that Tasha L. Harrison's The Truth of Things made me consider.

On her way home from an evening with friends, photojournalist and wedding photographer Ava Marie Greene tries to shrug off catcalls from the small-time drug dealers who hang out on the corner in her northside Camden New Jersey neighborhood, "a few blocks from the reach of gentrification" (Kindle Loc 86). But the call-outs escalate until Emiliano, another dealer with whom Ava is friendly, intervenes. Before Ava can de-escalate the confrontation, Emil and another dealer are brawling, and the police are on their way.

Officers on patrol in Camden, NJ
For Ava, the sound of sirens and the flash of blue lights don't offer the same reassurance that they would to a white person in a suburban neighborhood: "I wish I could say that I was relieved to see her [the cop], but to me, it felt like another gang had rolled up. One that was just as unpredictable as the boys with their bellies on the sidewalk" (131). Ava's suspicion proves warranted; the cop treats her with as much aggression as she does the fighting men, shoving Ava to the ground and breaking one of her expensive camera lenses. The cop, Stevenson, "looked like she could be a Latina or maybe mixed. Not that it mattered. All cops were one color. Blue" (193).

But the aggressive cop is soon joined by another, an African-American man who dials down the antagonism, even apologizes for his fellow officer's behavior. And insists on walking Ava home. But in Camden, even such an apparently chivalrous offer can be dangerous to accept. The officer tries to get his flirt on with Ava, but she shuts him down: "Well, kind sir. Thank you for escorting me to my front door after a lovely evening of street and police harassment" (224).

Ava is expecting that to be the last of Levi Raymond. Yet after she runs into him again at the Camden police station, where she's gone to file a complaint against the officer who damaged her property, Officer Raymond proves he's a bit more persistent than Ava had originally realized. Going out for a "I'm sorry" cup of coffee would not be the same as dating a cop, would it?

When Ava begins to tutor Emil in photography, though, the thought of her impending not-date is sitting pretty uncomfortably: "A girl who just offered to mentor a drug dealer, who cared about racial injustice, and the plight of the common man had no business having a casual cup of coffee with a cop" (650). But even though Ava tries to break her date, she and Levi end up talking—and then meeting, and then meeting yet again. Because the presumptuous, arrogant officer also does something no man has done for Ava in a long time—puts a smile on her face.

As Ava and Levi get to know one another, Ava discovers Levi is far from the stereotype of the cop who bleeds blue. He's kind, and honorable, and is interested in Ava's photography work; his parents are devoted lovebirds; and he spends his free time volunteering at the local Boys & girls Club. And he apologizes so easily, far easier than wary Ava. Ava, used to family letting her down (her father abandoned them when she was young, and her mother abandoned her for drugs), gradually begins to lower her defenses.

But when a police shooting rocks Camden, Ava and Levi are right in the middle of it, both professionally and personally. And when, in the face of police apathy about the shooting, Ava tweets out a video of the incident, sparking explosive public protests against the Camden police department, will Levi side with Ava and the protesters? Or with his department and fellow officers?

Many romance readers defend the genre by arguing it is a form of pleasurable escape, a way for readers to stop thinking about the problems of their lives for a few hours while they turn the pages of a book, a book in which the only real conflict is between potential lovers. After reading Harrison's romance, though, I began to wonder if even the idea of escaping into a romance novel is built on a certain assumption of privilege. What I mean is, just as white Americans, because of the history of white dominance in American society, have the privilege of not thinking about race all the time, but people of color do not, perhaps the option of escapist reading of all types is equally one reserved for the economically and racially privileged.

And perhaps romance novels that attempt to grapple with race and racism could help readers escape from their escapist romance blinders. If only for a few short hours...

    "I don't know if I'm going to be able to do this."
     "Yes, you can," he said. "You want to know how I know?"
     "Because you're strong. Stronger than me. You've already been through so much, Ava. You're the strongest person I know."
     People were always saying that.
     Ava, you've been through so much. You're so strong.
     For the first time, I allowed myself to say the one thing that was always on the tip of my tongue when people said that. "I wish I didn't have to be." (3889)

Photo credits:
Camden police on patrol: New York Times
Police and protestors: Sean Rayford/Getty Images via NPR

The Truth of Things
Dirtyscribbler Press, 2017

Friday, November 10, 2017

The origins of the bodice-ripper cover: Playboy Press?

Over the past month, I've been slowly reading through John Markert's Romance Publishing: The History of an Industry, 1940s to the Present (published in 2016 by McFarlane & Co.). Market is a sociologist, not a literary critic, and thus his book focuses not on analyzing literary texts or trends, but instead on "the structure of the romance publishing industry, and, in particular, the key role of decision makers within the industry who decide what novels to select or reject" (5).

And who decide what cover images will adorn those selected novels.

For me, the most fascinating fact in the early chapters of Markert's book is his discussion of the role Playboy Press played in the packaging of what publishers and writers were beginning to call "bodice-rippers" in the romance market of the 1970s. Though the trend for publishing historical romances "spicer and more sensual than any of the romance subgenres being published at the time" began with Avon, and their 1972 paperback original The Flame and The Flower, the number of sexy historicals being published began to climb at a rapid pace only after Playboy Press entered the market in 1976.

In his interviews with Mary Ann Stuart, editorial director for Playboy Press in the 1970s, Markert heard that Stuart had proposed the idea of publishing sexy historicals to Playboy management in 1975. But management was worried about producing a product aimed at women because "the company had always thought of itself as primarily in the entertainment business for men" (51). But with the success of Barbara Bonham's Proud Passion (the book sold more than half a million copies by the end of 1976, the year of its publication), the higher-ups at Playboy were convinced. And unlike Avon, which debuted only seven new historical romance authors between 1972 and 1979, Playboy Press issued five historical romance titles per month.

Before their venture into the romance market, Playboy Press had distributed books primarily through mail-order. But to reach the romance market, the Press signed a distribution agreement with Pocket Books, which imposed a five title limit per month. After the termination of that contract, Playboy Press upped their publishing schedule again, this time to ten books per month. And by the time Playboy Press was sold to Berkely-Jove in 1982, the monthly production had been upped again, this time to fifteen sensual historicals each month.

The original 1972 cover
As Markert notes, the cover of Avon's early sensual historicals did not look much different from those of other, "tamer" romance books being published in the 1970s. Playboy's Mary Ann Stuart felt they needed to package their books differently, Markert reports: was essential that the cover tell the reader what to expect from the book's content. The cover illustrations were particularly important to Playboy because, unlike Avon, it did not have a developed group of writers whose names the readers would recognize; moreover, Playboy could not spend much on advertising to promote the number of new authors it was releasing to meet its monthly production schedule. (53-54).

And thus Playboy's art director (a man, I'm guessing, although Markert's book doesn't specify) searched for artists who could convey to readers the "startling sensuality [of] the content's passion" (56). Said art director contracted with a "group of expatriate artists living in Spain" (men, again, one can't but wonder?) to illustrate all covers for the Playboy Press romance line.

The far sexier TFTF 1980 cover
These new, provocative covers did more than just power Playboy Press romances to the top of the lucrative romance market. They also taught a generation of romance readers to equate the "startlingly sensuous" covers with the type of romance that, for the first time, depicted sex not from (or not just from) the male point of view, but from the female's (however problematic those depictions may have been). For with the success of the Playboy romances, other publishers who eagerly jumped into the historical "bodice-ripper" market in the late 1970s and early 1980s followed Playboy's lead, adorning their own new books with similarly "sensual" covers, and repackaging and republishing older books in newer, sexier garb.

Markert notes in an aside that the "ample bosoms swelled with lust" of the heroines featured on the covers of Playboy Press romances might be "a reflection, perhaps, of Playboy's obsession with large-breasted women" (54). Perhaps? It seems to me that the cover concept for the entire market of "bodice-rippers" owes both its genesis, and its proliferation, to the norms of sex and beauty promulgated by a company who "thought of itself as primarily in the entertainment business for men" (51).

Pretty ironic, isn't it, that women are the ones who were laughed and sneered at for snatching up the tawdry-covered bodice-rippers when it was Playboy Press, and other publishers who imitated them, who created those covers with the assumptions about the male gaze in mind?

If you're interested in reading some of the actual Playboy Press romances, check out these two lists on Goodreads:

Romance by Playboy Press, part 1
Romance by Playboy Press, part 2

Just reading the book descriptions is an education in itself.

And here are a just a few of the hundreds of Playboy Press historical romance book covers:

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

What's Modern About Modern Christian Romance? Tammy L. Gray's MY HOPE NEXT DOOR

I've been gradually reading my way through this year's list of Romance Writers of America's RITA award winners, given to the best romances published in 2016. The only one I'd read before was Courtney Milan's novella, Her Every Wish, which I'd featured on the blog back in April of 2016 (see review here). So I was curious to see if any of the other winners would feature similarly explicit (or even implicit) references to feminist themes, or if Milan's book was the exception that would prove the rule that the most popular romances tend to be more conservative than progressive in regards to gender issues.

My biggest RITA-reading surprise so far has been the winner of the "Romance with Religious or Spiritual Elements" category: Tammy L. Gray's My Hope Next Door. I'm no expert on religious romances, but the ones I have read have almost always been on the deeply conservative end of the gender politics spectrum. But Gray, who bills her novels as "modern Christian romances with true-to-life characters and culturally relevant plotlines," strikes a markedly different—and at times, even feminist—note from more traditional Evangelical romance authors.

Even Christian youth speaker and YouTuber Katie Gregoire,
"no feminist," finds typical Christian romance problematic...
Former town wild child Katie Stone is returning to Fairfield, Georgia, to help support her parents as they struggle with her mother's diagnosis of multiple sclerosis. Several years earlier, Katie had fled Fairfield, and everyone in it—her parents; her two best friends; and her ex, Cooper Myles, "two hundred pounds of stubbornness [who] had controlled her for most of their two-year relationship" (page 3)—chasing an elusive sense of peace. A peace she'd never been able to find, until she stepped into a church next to the women's shelter she'd been staying in four months earlier. Unlike most of the protagonists of the Christian romances I've read, Katie's turn to God comes before the start of the novel, rather than serves as the novel's climactic scene. The resulting novel, then proves to be less about Katie's coming to religion, and more about how she comes to terms with the harm she'd done to the people in her past, and the harm those people had in turn inflicted on her.

Somewhat predictably, Gray pairs Katie romantically with the town good boy, Asher Powell, the son of Fairfield's pastor. But Asher's not the flatly-constructed cardboard good boy common to the religious romances I've read. In high school, Katie had found "it revolting, [Asher's] kindness, the way he watched her with eyes that promised understanding" (17). But at twenty-six, Asher's faith in his religion is at an all-time low. Ten months earlier, he was forced to resign from his position as the church's media director in the wake of the painfully public revelation that his relationship with his girlfriend was not as chaste as their religion demanded. "Asher had given his life to that church. Half of the people in it had known him since he was a baby. Yet one lapse in judgment, and they crucified him" (10). Ten months after leaving to keep parishioners from calling for the resignation of his pastor father, Asher still can't get over his bitterness at the betrayal of his larger church family, even though his own parents have supported him throughout the ordeal.

Wild child Katie, reformed, trying to make amends; good boy Asher, fallen, trying to make sense of abandonment and betrayal. Is it any wonder that when Katie returns to her parents' home, to her mother's disappointment, judgment, and guilt, to her father's tight-lipped sobriety, and discovers that Asher has purchased the property next door, the two find themselves gradually drawn to each other? At first in wary attraction, later in neighborly companionship, and finally into something deeper.

But what they need to navigate through their slowly developing relationship isn't religion, at least not directly. They need to learn from their religious journeys, and to teach one another the lessons they've learned, then apply those lessons to their lives and their relationships in the everyday world. Katie needs not only to make amends to the people she's hurt, and to forgive them for hurting her, but to extend that forgiveness to herself. And to accept help from others in her community when it is offered, and needed, rather than protecting her vulnerability at all costs. Asher, who has grown up invested in the importance of such community, models for Katie what that kind of caring can be. As he tells her early in their relationship, after she laughs at the idea that his father, the pastor, has flaws just like any other human being, "There are no perfect people, Katie. Just some who try harder than others to do the right thing" (76). Being willing to try, rather than to run away in fear, is what Katie must finally do in order to make things right with the people she loves.

But Katie is not the only one with lessons to learn. Good boy Asher also needs to change, growth which becomes easier to understand and accept once he becomes involved with Katie. Asher needs not only to rediscover the ability to forgive, but also to accept his own weaknesses, and to be honest about his own feelings. Honesty isn't something that, as a pastor's son, he believes he's entitled to: "That was the church way, right? Put on the smile, the mask; tell everyone you're fine when really you're dying inside" (99). But after his estrangement from the church, Asher "didn't want to be that person anymore" (99). And Katie's directness, her bold honesty, provides Asher with a model for how to move beyond playing the role of the happy good boy, to understand that he, like his father, is flawed, is not perfect. And her acceptance of his weaknesses "gives him permission to be flawed," permission he hasn't until now believed he could have (120). Only after accepting his own flaws, as Katie accepts hers, can he move beyond the bitterness of betrayal, to become once again someone "who tries harder than others to do the right thing" (76).

I've rarely found such fully-developed characters in the religious or spiritual romances I've read. And not only the protagonists; Gray's secondary characters—Katie's friends Laila and Chad, and Asher's and Katie's parents— are all rendered with equal nuance and respect. I even felt sympathy for Katie's controlling ex, Cooper, and Asher's fearful ex, Jillian, characters who in other religious romances might easily be cast as flatly evil others.

Most importantly, though, in feminist terms, is that Katie and Asher's relationship ends up working not just because they share religious beliefs, but because they share a respect for one another, and are willing to be there for each other. Not just during the easy times, but the hard ones, too. As Asher tells Katie at book's end:

"If you want us to work, you have to include me, even in the parts that aren't so pretty. I've been in a relationship with walls, and masks, and false smiles. I called it love, but it wasn't. What we have—real, honest truth, painful or not—that's love" (300).

Respect, honesty, shared burdens as well as joys—sounds like a recipe for a feminist heterosexual relationship to me...

Photo credits:
Katie Gregoire: YouTube
Georgia church: Midway Congregational

My Hope Next Door
Waterfall Press, 2016

Friday, November 3, 2017

Can You Define "Feminist Romance"?

At the Boston Book Festival last Saturday, I had the great pleasure of sharing a stage (or, rather, two chairs in the front of a conference room) with contemporary romance author Aya de León for a panel discussion of  "The Hows and Whys of Feminist Romance." We had a mixed audience—some romance writers, a lot of romance readers, and some Book Festival attendees who were simply intrigued by the seeming paradox of "feminism" and "romance" appearing in the same workshop title. Given that mixed audience, we thought it would be good to start by opening our panel by defining some terms: "romance," "feminism," and "feminist romance."

For me, the first two were fairly easy to define, but the third was a bit more fraught. Not just because I'm more of an intuitive reader and reviewer ("I recognize it when I see it—or don't see it"), but also because earlier discussions I've heard and participated in made me doubt whether a subgenre labeled  "Feminist Romance" is even possible (see this post on Cecilia Grant's blog for a sample of such conversations). The decision to name this blog "Romance Novels for Feminists," rather than "Feminist Romance Novels" was a deliberate one. Not just because I didn't want to give the appearance that I was the sole or ultimate arbiter of whether or not a book was feminist, but also because I wasn't sure that "Feminist Romance" could even exist as a category or subgenre. Sure, some romances can contain feminist elements and ideas, but since the romance genre focuses so tightly on romantic relationships, and often insist that those relationships are the most important aspect of their characters' lives, the very definition of "romance" seems to negate what feminism takes for granted: that other aspects of a woman's life are equally (and often more) important than with whom she falls in love.

But after looking at and thinking about different definitions of both "romance" and "feminism" with Aya, we each came up with definitions of "feminist romance." Here's a brief run-through of how we talked about definitions at the BFF:

What is a romance?

Aya and I wanted Boston Book Festival attendees to know that we were talking about mass market genre romance, not Romeo & Juliet, not literary fiction or women's fiction with romantic elements. Category romance published by Harlequin and other publishers; single-title romances from major New York and smaller independent publishers; and self-published books by authors who identify as romance writers or who tag their books as "romance" on publishing platforms.

For those who wanted a more specific definition, we pointed to the definition set forth by the Romance Writers of America. According to RWA, a romance must have two basic elements:

A central love story. "The main plot centers around individuals falling in love and struggling to make the relationship work. A writer can include as many subplots as he/she wants as long as the love story is the main focus of the novel"

An emotionally satisfying and optimistic ending. "In a romance, the lovers who risk and struggle for each other and their relationship are rewarded with emotional justice and unconditional love."

We also pointed out that while the traditional definition of "romance" pointed to a story about one man and one woman, that definition had expanded dramatically in recent years to include queer romances as well as romances with more than two protagonists

What is feminism?

I always think of Rebecca West's famous quote when I'm asked to define feminism: “I myself have never been able to find out precisely what Feminism is: I only know that people call me a Feminist whenever I express sentiments that differentiate me from a doormat or a prostitute” (1913). Aya, whose romances feature sex workers, had some problems with the last part of West's quip, deservedly so.

For more specific definition, then, we turned to the Oxford English Dictionary:

Advocacy of equality of the sexes and the establishment of the political, social, and economic rights of the female sex; the movement associated with this

I personally love this definition's focus on advocacy. During our talk, I mentioned the survey I did several years ago of romance writers, asking them to define feminism, and how many of them described feminism as a belief, rather than as an act. "I'm a feminist," or "I believe in feminist principles" rather than "I advocate feminism" or "I do feminism." In contrast, the OED definition insists that feminism is an act: to advocate, to support, recommend, or speak in favor of feminist ideas, goals, and principles.

If we believe that a romance can influence its readers, can advocate on behalf of certain ideas, goals, and principles, then perhaps the idea that a subgenre we can label "feminist romance" has the possibility to exist becomes a bit easier to imagine.

What is a feminist romance?

Aya and I each presented our own thoughts about how to define "feminist romance." Aya's definition: a romance in which the male romantic lead decides to step away from the male privilege granted him by patriarchy and get behind the goals and beliefs of the woman he loves (Aya's more of a spontaneous speaker than I am, so this is paraphrase of what she said, rather than a direct quote of her words). Aya's novels to date have featured male/female pairings, although they do include queer secondary characters; we didn't have the chance to talk about how her definition might be applied/modified to speak to queer romances.

My definition was more literal. I wondered if combining the RWA definition of "romance" with the OED definition of "feminism" might yield a helpful definition, one that would move beyond just celebrating the fact that romances are primarily written by women, or pointing to a strong, outspoken, feisty female character in a romance and then labeling it as feminist. Here's what I came up with:

Two basic elements comprise every feminist romance novel:

• A central love story in which the characters and/or the author demonstrates a commitment to the political, social, and/or economic equality of the sexes. The main plot centers around individuals falling in love and struggling to make their relationship work in a patriarchal society. A writer can include as many subplots as he/she wants as long as the love story is the main focus of the novel.

• An emotional satisfying and optimistic ending. In a romance, the lovers who risk and struggle for each other and their relationship are rewarded with social, political, or economic, as well as emotional justice and unconditional love

How would you/do you define "feminist romance"?

Photo/Illustration credits:
What is Romance?: Better than a Story blog
What does Feminism Really Mean?: Whim Magazine
Be My Equal: Radical Buttons

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Talking their Way through Revolution to Love: HAMILTON'S BATTALION

If you happened to be pop in on the Twitter feeds of Courtney Milan, Alyssa Cole, or Rose Lerner during the past two years, you might be forgiven for occasionally mistaking them for historians of the American Revolution rather than authors of historical romance. Because in the wake of popularity of Lin-Manuel Miranda's Broadway smash Hamilton: An American Musical, each author, like so many Americans, became fascinated not just with the play, but also with period of history it depicts. The three biographies, histories, and primary source documents about it and Tweeted often about their research, along with quotes from the musical's hip-hop lyrics.

One line that resonates for many Hamilton fans—"Immigrants: we get the job done"—might have been the inspiration for the just-published novella collection to which all three romance authors have contributed, Hamilton's Battalion: A Trio of Romances. For each of the stories features characters from ethnic and racial backgrounds who rarely feature in the white male Protestant line-up of our most familiar Revolutionary War actors.

I like to believe, though, that Cole, Lerner, and Milan might have equally been inspired by a slightly different line: Aaron Burr's advice to brash, outspoken Alexander Hamilton, who has recently arrived in America, to "Talk less, smile more." For those who have seen the play (not me, alas!), or are familiar with its lyrics, know that Miranda's Hamilton could never have followed Burr's well-intentioned advice, even if he had wished to. Speaking, and speaking out—loudly, abrasively, and often—is the way that Miranda's Hamilton "gets the job done."

As do one of the partners of each romantic trio in Hamilton's Battalion.

The collection's premise is that Alexander Hamilton's wife, Eliza, is collecting stories from all who knew him in preparation for writing his biography. The book's first two stories purport to be letters written by soldiers who served in Hamilton's military battalion at Yorktown, while the third features the woman currently employed by Eliza Hamilton to take notes during her interviews. That Eliza Hamilton would be so charmed by the love story of a Jewish soldier, or that of an interracial romance, seems far more fantasy than possibility. Yet that such soldiers did serve in the Revolutionary army—Jewish ones, queer ones, even female ones—is the stuff of history, not make-believe, as each writer's author's note clearly explains.

Cole's novella, "That Could Be Enough," features the most familiar type of romance talker: a smooth-talking charmer who woos a heroine who has been hurt by love in the past. But the identity of both her heroine and her heroine's rakish fascinator is what makes this story refreshingly different. Mercy Alston, a free black currently employed in Eliza Hamilton's 1820's Harlem household, has little sympathy for the "awful hunger" that she believes the older woman is trying to appease by collecting stories of her dead husband. "That was the thing no one told you: great love took more than it gave, and the greatest love could obliterate everything you'd been" (Kindle Loc 4079).  Mercy, who grew up an orphan, is that staple of romance fiction: a woman who has been burned by love before, and who has repressed her best self to avoid feeling the pain of future disappointment.

But as soon as buttoned-up Mercy sets eyes on beautiful, curious, overfamiliar Andromeda Stiel, the tug of attraction pulls at her again. Andromeda, the granddaughter of a soldier in Hamilton's battalion, has come to Hamilton Grange to tell her relative's story to Eliza Hamilton. And tell it she does, with all the drama and skill of a stage performer rather than the dressmaker she actually is. For Mercy, watching a free black woman acting with so little constraint, even with a white woman, is "excruciating"—not because she fears for Andromeda, but because the woman makes her itch with irksome restlessness.

Romance readers well know how Mercy and Andromeda's story will end. Yet in her author's note, Cole suggests a more potent reason for her characterization of Mercy than simply following a romance trope: the link she implies between Mercy and herself. This story was the first piece Cole wrote after the election of 2016, a time when she, like Mercy, felt not only demoralized, but numb. America may not always prove worthy of the hope its marginalized citizens place it it, but it is that hope, Cole argues, as well as the strength of their communities, that people need if they are going not just to survive, but to thrive.

 Mill Street Synagogue in New York, the first synagogue
built in continental North America (1720)
Hope—at least, hope for the survival of her marriage—is something that Rachel Mendelsohn, the protagonist of Rose Lerner's "Promised Land" has long given up on. The story opens as American soldiers are encamped outside Yorktown, and Rachel, now known as Corporal Ezra Jacobs, is one of the many who, fired by the idea of independence, has joined the American army. Rachel had married at nineteenth out of need—an ill mother, and no money to pay for a doctor—but had meant to be a dutiful Jewish wife. Yet her mother had died anyways, and her new mother-in-law did little to support her. And her husband, twenty-three year-old Nathan, never stood up to his own mother on his new wife's behalf. Even after they find their way to sexual compatibility, Rachel cannot help but resent the advice Nathan has always lived by himself—just ignore his difficult mother—nor forgive him for his inability to comfort her in her grief. After Nathan sends her away with his mother to escape the British invasion of their home city of New York, Rachel decides to figuratively give her husband the divorce his mother has been urging on him for years: she fakes her death and flees to the rebel army.

Rachel can hardly believe it when she recognizes the husband she left behind five years earlier, strolling casually about the American camp. Whenever they had argued about the revolution, Nathan would always take the British side. He must be a British spy! For his part, Nathan can't decide which is more shocking—that the wife he's long mourned, the woman he sat shiva for, said Kaddish for, is still alive, or that Colonel Hamilton would order him imprisoned, since he's had a bit of a change of political heart since his wife's purported death.

Unlike the outcome of the battle of Yorktown, the outcome of the emotional battle between Nathan and Rachel seems far less sure. For their disagreements stem not just from simple misunderstandings, or even from deeper political divides, but from differences of personality that make it difficult for them to understand one another. Chatterbox Nathan yammers on and on, wanting people to like him, so deafened by the loudness of his own thoughts and feelings that he is little able to hear anyone else's. Stubborn Rachel cherishes her resentment of Nathan as if it were the child she has not been able to bear, denying that feelings for her husband might be more nuanced than her idealistic temperament will allow. But both Rachel and Nathan have learned a few things in the years they've been apart, and gradually begin to recognize not just that the other is different, but their differences might even be strengths.

Unlike Rachel, her fellow Corporal John Hunter was never fired by the zeal of patriotism. But he's serving nonetheless in the revolutionary army until the damned war ends, equally distrustful of the British as he is of the Americans. White men on both sides, few who would even bother to assuage their consciences by making an empty promise to a black man like him, never mind actually keep it.

Yet make a promise to John is just what a white British officer does. Because the officer doesn't want to go back to England, which he knows he will have to if he is taken prisoner by the now victorious Americans. John has no love for the "colonial brand of imperialist scum," and besides, the man, who kept prattling at him all the time they were fighting one another, is clearly mad (2174). Taking pity on the fellow, an exasperated John offers to exchange his coat for the officer's. The man's promise that he won't forget, that he'll pay John back someday—well, John has as little faith in that as he does in the "all men are created equal" promise proclaimed by that lie otherwise known as the Declaration of Independence. A black man who prefers the company of men to woman is hardly considered an equal, even amongst most of his fellow soldiers.

Soldiers at the siege of Yorktown, including an African American soldier
of the 1st Rhode Island Regiment, by Jean-Baptiste-Antoine DeVerger, 1781.
(Anne S. K. Brown Military Collection, Brown University)
Yet only a few days later, just when John is about to leave to return home to Rhode Island and his beloved sister, who should show up at John's tent but that crazy British officer, as determined to find John as he is puzzled about just how he is going to repay him. When John half-jokingly suggests that the prattle-basket fellow accompany him on his walk from Virginia to Maine and help , he hardly expects the man to take him seriously. Yet Henry Latham—not the man's entire name, John is certain— only asks "When do we leave?"

Thus begins one of the most unlikely, hilarious, and utterly sweet road trips in historical romance novel history. Henry Latham—"something of a puppy—earnest, exuberant, and utterly devoice of house-training" (2437)—talks constantly, without pause, whenever he's not asleep. After several days of Henry's talk, laconic John decides not to respond, not even to Henry's direct questions. But not even that drastic step can put and end to the fellow's chatter.

And soon John realizes that he doesn't actually hate likable Henry's talking. In fact, he might even sort of enjoy it. Especially after he hears what an effect reading the Declaration of Independence has had on Henry. And challenges Henry to imagine whether he'd ever imagined a man like John when he read those words, "All men are created equal."

Cole, Lerner, and Milan romance the American Revolution in directions likely unfamiliar to the majority of American romance readers. That they do so with wit, style, solid research, and even a touch of humor proves the icing on the deliciously diverse slice of historical cake that is Hamilton's Battalion.

Photo/illustration credits:
Hamilton gif: Know Your Meme
Mill Street synagogue: Congregation Shearith Israel
American military men at the battle of Yorktown: Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History

Rose Lerner
Courtney Milan
Alyssa Cole
Hamilton's Battalion:
A Trio of Romances

Friday, October 27, 2017

Five Years of Feminist Romance on RNFF

This Saturday, at the Boston Book Festival, author Aya de León and I are going to be on a panel together, speaking about "The Hows and Whys of Feminist Romance." Knowing that people in the audience might ask for book recommendations, I began browsing through the reviews I've written here on RNFF, only to realize that I totally missed the fifth anniversary of the blog! In celebration of that anniversary, I've put together a list of the more than 225 books that have been reviewed on RNFF over the past five years, either in stand-alone or group reviews, or in the RNFF "Best of 2012-2016" lists. You can either download this complete list as a handy pdf file here; or you can browse the list below, which includes links back to the reviews of each book if you want more information before you decide whether or not a book might be for you.

Happy reading!

Adams,Noelle. Late Fall (Contemporary)
Alexander, Kianna; Alyssa Cole; Lena Hart; Piper Huguley. The Brightest Day: A Juneteenth Historical Romance Anthology (Historical)
Ames, Lynn. All That Lies Within (Contemporary; Queer)
Ames, Solace. The Submission Gift (Contemporary; BDSM)
Anders, Adriana et al. Rogue Desire: A Romance Anthology (Contemporary)
Andrews, Ilona. Hidden Legacy series (Fantasy)
_____. Steel’s Edge and other books in the Edge Chronicles (Fantasy)
Austin, Lori. Beauty and the Bounty Hunter (Historical)
Balogh, Mary. Longing (Historical)
_____. A Summer to Remember (Historical)
Barry, Emma. Party Lines (Contemporary)
_____. Private Politics (Contemporary)
Barry, Emma and Genevieve Turner. Earth Bound (Historical)
Beecroft, Alex. Blessed Isle (Historical)
_____. Blue-Eyed Stranger (Contemporary)
_____. Lioness of Cygnus Five (Science Fiction)
Bell, Serena. Getting Inside (Contemporary)
Belleau, Heloise and Solace Ames, The Dom Project (Contemporary; BDSM)
Belldene, Amber. Not a Mistake (Contemporary)
_____. Not Another Rock Star (Contemporary)
Bennett, Jenn. Grim Shadows (Fantasy)
Berry, Julie. All the Truth That’s in Me (Fantasy)
Bowen, Sarina. Keepsake (Contemporary)
_____. Rookie Move (Contemporary)
_____. The Shameless Hour (New Adult)
_____. The Understatement of the Year (New Adult)
Bramhall, Andrea. CleanSlate (Romantic Suspense; Queer)
Brockmann, Suzanne. Do or Die (Romantic Suspense)
Brook, Meljean. The Kraken King (Fantasy)
_____. Riveted (Fantasy)
Brooks, Rebecca. Above All (Contemporary)
Brown, Lorelie. Far from Home (Contemporary; Queer)
Buchman, M. L. I Own the Dawn and other books in the Nightstalkers series (Contemporary; Military)
_____. Full Blaze and other novels in the Firehawks series (Contemporary; Action)
Bujold, Lois McMaster. Shards of Honor (Fantasy)
Burgis, Stephanie. Snowspelled (Historical Fantasy)
Burkhart, Joely Sue. The Billionaire Submissive (Erotica; BDSM)
Burrowes, Grace. The Captive (Historical)
Calhoun, Anne. Jaded (Contemporary)
_____. The Muse (Erotic)
_____. Uncommon Passion (Erotic)
_____. Unforgiven (Contemporary)
Callihan, Kristen. Shadowdance (Fantasy)
Carey, Jacqueline. Kushiel’sDart (Fantasy; BDSM)
Carriger, Gail. Parasol Protectorate series (Fantasy)
Cashore, Kristen. Bitterblue (Fantasy)
Chase, Loretta. Dukes Prefer Blondes (Historical)
Charles, K. J. A Gentleman’s Position (Historical; Queer)
Chris, Tanya. My Guys (Contemporary)
Clark, Shelley Ann. Have Mercy (Contemporary) 
Clark, Sonya. Good Time Bad Boy (Contemporary)
Cosway, L. H. Painted Faces (Contemporary; Queer)
Cousins, Amy Jo. Off Campus series (Contemporary; Queer)
Cole, Alyssa. An Extraordinary Union (Historcal)
_____. Let Us Dream (Historical)
Cowan, Anna. Untamed (Historical)
Cullinan, Heidi. Carry the Ocean (Contemporary; Queer)
_____. Love Lessons series (Contemporary; Queer)
_____. Santa Baby (Contemporary; Queer)
Crane, Carolyn. Off the Edge (Contemporary; Romantic Suspense)
Dahl, Victoria. Flirting with Disaster (Contemporary)
_____. So Tough to Tame (Contemporary)
_____. Start Me Up (Contemporary)
_____. Taking the Heat (Contemporary)
Danforth, Edie. Uncovering Ray (Contemporary; Queer)
Dee, Bonnie. New Life (Contemporary)
de León, Aya. The Boss (Contemporary)
Dev, Sonal. The Bollywood Bride (Contemporary)
Dixon, Mason. Date with Destiny (Romantic Suspense; Queer)
Dryden, Delphine. The Principle of Desire (Erotic; Contemporary)
Duran, Meredith. At Your Pleasure (Historical)
_____. Fool Me Twice (Historical)
Edwards, Louisa. Too Hot to Touch (Contemporary)
Elliott, Kate. Court of Fives (YA/Fantasy)
Essex, Elizabeth. Almost a Scandal (Historical)
Everett, Alyssa. The Marriage Act (Historical)
Farizan, Sara. If You Could Be Mine (YA)
Fitzpatrick, Huntley. The Boy Most Likely To… (YA)
Flake, Sharon K. Pinned (YA)
Florand, Laura. The Chocolate Kiss (Contemporary)
_____. Snow-Kissed
Forman, Gayle. Just One Day (YA)
Frantz, Sara (ed). Summer Rain anthology (Contemporary)
Foster, Emily. How Not to Fall (New Adult)
Gallagher, Lauren. Razor Wire (Contemporary; Queer)
Garden, Nancy. Annie on my Mind (Contemporary; Queer)
Gibney, Shannon. See No Color (YA)
Glass, Seressia. Sugar (Contemporary)
Goodman, Jo. In Want of a Wife (Historical)
Grant, Cecilia. A Christmas Gone Perfectly Wrong (Historical)
Grey, Juliana. A Lady Never Lies (Historical)
Hall, Alexis. For Real (Contemporary Queer)
_____. Glitterland
_____. Looking for Group (New Adult)
_____. Pansies
Hamilton, Laurell K. A Kiss of Shadows (Fantasy)
Hart, Megan. Flying (Contemporary)
Hart, Regina. Fast Break (Contemporary)
Henry, Lisa. Adulting 101 (YA; Queer)
Herendeen, Ann. Phyllida andthe Brotherhood of Philander (Historical; Queer)
Hewitt, Kate. Marry Me atWilloughby Close (Contemporary)
Heyer, Georgette. Venetia (Historical)
Higgins, Kristan. If You Only Knew (Contemporary)
Hubbard, Jennifer R. Try Not to Breathe (YA)
Huguley, Piper. Virtuous Ruby (Historical)
Hunter, Faith. Blood of the Earth (Fantasy)
Hunter, Kelly. Pursued by the Rogue (Contemporary)
James, Eloisa. Your Wicked Ways (Historical)
James, Julie. Practice Makes Perfect (Contemporary)
Jenkins, Beverly. Forbidden (Historical)
Johnson, Alaya Dawn. Moonshine (Historical; Fantasy)
_____. The Summer Prince (Fantasy/YA)
Jones, Diana Wynne. Howl’s Moving Castle (YA; Fantasy)
Jones, Heather Rose. Daughter of Mystery (Historical; Queer)
Kallmaker, Karin. Love by the Numbers (Historical; Queer)
Keyes, Julianna. In Her Defense (Contemporary)
Kothari, Falguni. It’s Your Move, Wordfreak! (Contemporary)
Kennealy, Miranda. Catching Jordan (YA)
Kennedy, Elle. The Deal (New Adult)
_____. The Score
Kennedy, Sean. Tigers and Devils (Contemporary; Queer)
Kinsale, Laura. Flowers from the Storm (Historical)
Konigsberg, Bill. Openly Straight (YA)
Knox, Ruthie. About Last Night (Contemporary)
_____. Madly
_____. Truly
Latham, Kat. Tempting the Player (Contemporary)
Lauren, Christina. Beautiful Secret (Contemporary)
Lennox, Cass. Toronto Connections series (Contemporary; Queer)
Lerner, Rose. Sweet Disorder (Historical)
_____. True Pretentions (Historical)
Leveen, Tom. Manicpixiedreamgirl (YA)
Levithan, David. Two Boys Kissing (YA; Queer)
Lin, Amber and Shari Slade. One Kiss with a Rock Star (Contemporary; Queer)
Lockhart, E. Ruby Oliver series (YA)
Lord, Emery. The Start of Me and You (YA)
McGarry, Katie. Crash Into You (New Adult)
_____. Dare You To
McKenna, Cara. After Hours (Contemporary; Erotica)
_____. Give it All
_____. Hard Time
_____. Unbound
McMan, Anne and Salem West. HoosierDaddy (Contemporary; Queer)
McMaster, Bec. Of Silk and Steam (Fantasy)
Maher, Rebecca Rodgers. Fault Lines (Contemporary)
_____. Just Give Me a Reason
_____. Rolling in the Deep
_____. Tanya
Maley, Siera. Dating Sarah Cooper (YA; Queer)
March, Lucy. That Touch of Magic (Fantasy)
Marchetta, Melina. Quintana of Charyn (YA; Fantasy)
Mayberry, Sarah. Her Kind of Trouble (Contemporary)
Merrow, J. L. Shamwell Tales series (Contemporary; Queer)
Milan, Courtney. The Heiress Effect (Historical, with two exceptions)
_____. Hold Me (Contemporary)
_____. Trade Me (Contemporary)
_____. Unclaimed
Morgan, Tamara. Confidence Tricks (Contemporary)
Morsi, Pamela. The Lovesick Cure (Contemporary)
Moskowitz, Hannah. Not Otherwise Specified (YA; Queer)
Murphy, Julie. Dumplin(YA)
Nelson, Jandy. I’ll Give You the Sun (YA)
Neville, Miranda. The Importance of Being Wicked (Historical)
Nix, Susannah. Remedial Rocket Science (Contemporary)
Newman, Stella. Pear-Shaped (Contemporary)
North, Beau. Modern Love (Contemporary)
O’Keefe, M. Everything I Left Unsaid (Contemporary; Erotic)
O’Keefe, Molly. Can’t Buy MeLove (Contemporary, with one exception)
_____. Tempted (Historical)
_____. Wild Child
O’Neal, Barbara. The All You Can Dream Buffet (Contemporary)
O’Reilly, Jane. Indecent trilogy (Contemporary; Erotic)
Pace, Lilah. Asking for It (Contemporary; Erotic)
Parker, Madison. Play Me, I’m Yours (YA; Queer)
Parker, Tamsen. Due South (Contemporary; BDSM)
_____. In Her Court (Contemporary; Queer)
Parrish, Roan. Small Change (Contemporary)
Paton, Ainslie. Sold Short (Contemporary)
Perez, Nina. Sharing Space (Contemporary)
Rai, Alisha. A Gentleman in the Street (Contemporary)
Raybourne, Deanna. A Curious Beginning (Historical; Mystery)
Reid, Penny. Dating-ish (Contemporary)
_____. Elements of Chemistry (New Adult)
Reiss, CD. King of Code (Contemporary)
Rich, Juliann. Caught in the Crossfire (YA; Queer)
Rivers, Francine. Redeeming Love (Historical; Inspirational)
Rivers, Mary Ann. Laugh (Contemporary)
_____. Live
_____. Snowfall
Robb, J. D. Naked in Death (Science Fiction; Romantic Suspense)
Roberts, Teresa Noelle. Drive (Contemporary BDSM)
Rocha, Kit. The Beyond series (Fantasy; Erotic)
Salcedo, Nicki. All Beautiful Things (Contemporary)
Samuels, Barbara. Lucien’s Fall (Historical)
Satie, Erin. The Young Blood (Historical)
Sayers, Dorothy. Gaudy Night (Mystery)
Scheidt, Erica Lorraine. Uses for Boys (YA/New Adult)
Schone, Robin. The Lover (Historical/Erotic)
Scott, Jessica. All for You (Contemporary/Military)
Singer, P. D. A New Man (Contemporary; Queer)
Snyder, Suleikha. Bollywood and the Beast (Contemporary)
Sorensen, Jill. Backwoods (Romantic Suspense)
Stark, Nell. The Princess Affair (Contemporary; Queer)
Stein, Charlotte. Intrusion (Contemporary; Erotic)
Stivali, Karen. Tonight (Contemporary; Queer)
Thomas, Sherry. The Luckiest Lady in London (Historical)
_____. The One in my Heart (Contemporary)
Trout, Jenny. Choosing You (YA/New Adult)
Waller, Sharon Biggs. A Mad, Wicked Folly (Historical; YA)
Willner-Pardo, Gina. Prettiest Doll (YA)
Wilson, Kai Ashante. A Taste of Honey (Fantasy; Queer)
Wind, Ruth. In the Midnight Rain (Contemporary)
Woods, Sara Taylor. Hold Me Down (New Adult; BDSM)

York, Robin. Deeper (New Adult)