ClitLit – Women, Romance Fiction and Patriarchal Discourse

August 5, 2010

‘A Nothing Person’ – Quick Shots

Filed under: quick shots — Jodi @ 11:00 am
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“The power of her love for Nicolas had terrified the life out of her. She wasn’t herself when she was with him. She became his slave, a nothing person with no will of her own. He only had to take her in his arms and she was reduced to a robot, incapable of saying no to him.”

– Lee, M., 2010, A Night, A Secret… A Child [Harlequin Mills & Boon] p. 17

There is something remarkably self aware about this statement. This is exactly what I find so troubling about a lot of romance novels – the heroine’s self is subsumed and she only exists relative to the hero. (This is particularly true in the virgin/playboy novels I’m so fond of writing about.)  She becomes a nothing person. Nothing else matters except his love. She needs his validation. She cannot live without him, and with him, she is a nothing person. This obviously has a lot to do with the quality of writing as well, but no matter what the quality, this kind of attitude is fundamentally quite unhealthy.

Of course, this happens to the hero too, and ultimately, you could argue that she reforms him. But it doesn’t make the initial act any less. And I actually think it is quite good that Miranda Lee has articulated this in her book. Once things like this are identified, it is so much easier to reshape and move forward.

…thanks for invading my psyche, Julia Gillard.


July 29, 2010

“No” = “No” – Quick Shots

So I’m currently reading a novella by Yvonne Lindsay, and before I get to some of the most hilarious physical descriptions I have ever read, there was a line I thought definitely merited some discussion.

‘Clearly the word “no” simply meant “try harder” for men like Richard Wells.’

– Lindsay, Y., 2010, The Magnate’s Mistress-for-a-Month [Harlequin: Mills & Boon] p. 106

If there were no stories in the world about men chasing women, then there would be… a LOT fewer stories. Like, a LOT. However, what often happens in romance novels, and is definitely happening here, as far as I can see, is that this pursuit turns into something that is actually quite frightening. In this novella, Richard, the hero, sees Catherine, the heroine, riding a horse, decides he must have her, and sets off to make it happen, including encroaching on her personal space very significantly within about four seconds of having met her. If this happened in real life, he would be up on sexual harassment charges very, VERY quickly.

This is a line that often gets blurred in romance fiction – especially in category romance fiction, where space is so limited – that I wish was a little more clear. ‘No’ definitely does mean ‘no’, and not ‘try harder’. Pursuit is one thing (though the double standard around it is a whole other thing – the woman who pursues is usually portrayed as desperate) but what is basically tantamount to stalking is quite another indeed. One is a literary device – not my favourite one, but a device nonetheless. The other is bad. I really don’t like the trope of the man who just can’t control himself – it’s demeaning to men and dangerous to women.

In short? Sexual harassment should not be used as shorthand.

And now, for the funnies. Some of the best physical descriptions I have EVER read. I killed myself laughing.

‘[He was] always an early riser – in more ways than one, he smiled ruefully.’

– ibid., p.96

What’s the story, morning glory?

‘His nose was a straight blade of male perfection.’

– ibid., p.100

…are you sure you’re talking about his nose?

May 20, 2010

Independence is not a dirty word: Quick Shots

So I’ve picked up a romance novel for the first time in a few weeks – The Doctor’s Pregnant Bride?, a category by Susan Crosby, which I bought simply by virtue of the punctuation in the title. (Love a good question mark. Love it sick.)

Anyway, as per usual, I’m only a little way in and already I have something to deconstruct. Let me set the scene. We have our hero, Dr Ted Bonner, the socially inept and vaguely creepy (I think) doctor who works in a fertility clinic where he and his colleague (also male) try and develop a cure for male infertility. We have our heroine, Sara Beth O’Connell, head nurse at the same clinic. Don’t even get me started on the stereotypical men are doctors/women are nurses thing going on here. We go on.

Anyway, Sara Beth is assigned to work with Ted, and they’re all, ‘hi, I’ve vaguely seen you in the distance BUT OMG WE CAN’T DATE COWORKERS THAT WOULD BE BAD’ in their minds. Sara Beth leaves and Ted chases after her, and we get this gem of an exchange. (FYI, it’s Valentine’s Day the first day they meet. Foreshadowing? I WONDER.)

‘He just nodded. “I’m supposed to be at my parents’ house in forty-five minutes for dinner. I need to take a gift.”

“I’m sure you’ll be able to find roses at almost any market.”

“And my mother would say ‘how lovely’ and that would be that. I want to do better than that. I want you to be my parents’ gift.”‘

Crosby, S., 2010, The Doctor’s Pregnant Bride? [Harlequin] p.24

I had a few glasses of wine when I read this sentence, and for one nanosecond, I actually thought he wanted to physically give her to his parents like a slave or something. But no, it’s the whole bemyfakegirlfriendplz! scenario. Which no one in their right mind would go along with because hey, it’s totally weird! But no, it is OMG romantic.

But this isn’t what’s bothering me, though why Sara Beth feels the need to say yes to the fake girlfriend proposal is beyond me. No, the moment when I rolled my eyes and picked up my laptop to document it was this.

To set the scene: the night before, Ted had been talking to Sara Beth on the phone while she was walking home. He made sure to keep her on the phone until she was safely inside. Sara Beth mulls on this:

‘Her last boyfriend, a six month relationship that had ended a couple of months ago, would never have kept her on the phone until she was safely inside her house. He’d always “respected her independence”, as he’d put it – perhaps because she’d made sure he knew her independence was something she prided herself on.

But after last night she’d altered her thinking a little. Being independent didn’t mean she couldn’t let a man be considerate.’

Crosby, S., 2010, The Doctor’s Pregnant Bride? [Harlequin] p.57

Oh for f^&*s sake.

Sara Beth, go back to your old boyfriend. Newsflash, sister – it sounds like he didn’t treat you like a total dishrag incapable of doing anything for herself.

Sure, maybe it was nice of Ted to make sure Sara Beth got home safely. But why should she not do the same thing for him? This seems to me to be tied into the concept of chivalry, which is one I find deeply problematic. The term chivalry has come to signify a code of behaviours wherein men do things for women which are considered ‘courteous’ – effectively implying women are too weak and frail to do them themselves. Because women are too weak to open doors and put on their own jackets, for example.

It was also, I understand, originally a code of honour for men. You could prove your own honour by defending the honour of women. ‘Honour’ is basically analogous to ‘virginity’ here, when it all comes down to it. And you know how I feel about this.

Anyway, I digress. I guess what I’m saying is that I don’t have a problem with Ted’s action as it stands – it’s a considerate thing, to make sure someone gets home safe. What I dislike is that the action is clearly gendered and also Sara Beth’s reaction to it. Why is this act of human decency somehow encroaching on her independence? And why does she suddenly like it?

It sounds like her old boyfriend treated her pretty well, if he ‘respected her independence’. It sounds to me like he treated her like an actual human person instead of a frail wisp who could be blown over by the slightest breath of wind. During the actual phone call, Sara Beth muses that Ted is ‘watching over her’. Why, Sara Beth, do you feel you need to be watched? Because you know what that says to me?

Crazy stalker man.

April 21, 2010

Anxious Alphole Masculinity – Quick Shots

Apologies for the length of time between posts here – I have this whole real life which often interferes with my academic writing. (And, indeed, other interests in academic writing – Thomas Middleton, for one; Georgian theatre, for another).

But enough of that – I have some more Simone de Beauvoir that I want to ponder. Specifically, this quote:

“No one is more arrogant toward women, more aggressive or scornful, than the man who is anxious about his virility.”

This is a really interesting point, and one that I hadn’t thought of, to tell the truth. There is a real trend among the “alphole” hero – the Dante from The Italian Boss’s Mistress of Revenge, for example – to assert his sexuality in a very active way that really makes me recoil, because it is practically rape. He then treats the woman terribly and she, for some reason, gets off on it.

I’m usually – and still am – very concerned about the woman in this situation, because hello, sexual assault, and this is not cool. You can wave the ‘it’s pretend’ flag all day long, when you encode someone with such behaviours as ‘heroic’ in fiction with such an intense moral hierarchy (the good get what they want, the bad suffer) as romance fiction, then there’s a problem. But problematic as this is, this is not today’s point.

To what extent is this (repellent) alphole hero emasculated by the heroine in romance fiction? His sexual desire for her is very different to the desire he has felt for any other woman – she ends up converting him to solid monogamy, case in point, when he has generally been sleeping with anything that moves beforehand. To what extent does he treat her terribly because of his anxious masculinity, because he is afraid he is no longer virile because he no longer to desire to do anyone, any time?

I would contend that an alphole is just an arsehole, end of story. But I am not a romance author, and so I don’t know if any romance authors really think about endowing their heroes with this kind of anxious masculinity. It is an interesting way of humanising the alphole… but I also find it a problematic way of excusing him.

March 17, 2010

Quick Shots – It’s A Love Story, Baby Just Say Yes

So I read this article about Nicholas Sparks, who has penned a novel which has been made into a Miley Cyrus vehicle. Sounds like the captain of the literary fiction brigade, n’cest pas? This article reveals his hilarious douchebaggery, including a classic moment where he paints himself as the heir to Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides. Genius.

But he also gets hating on romance. He bristles whenever anyone tells him he writes romance novels – no, he writes love stories. To quote from the article:

‘Sparks cringes at the word: romance. But since it comes up again, isn’t he kind of splitting hairs with this whole “love story” vs. “romance” thing?

‘”No, it’s the difference between Cinderella and Romeo and Juliet,” he says. “(Romances) are all essentially the same story: You’ve got a woman, she’s down on her luck, she meets the handsome stranger who falls desperately in love with her, but he’s got these quirks, she must change him, and they have their conflicts, and then they end up happily ever after.”‘

 This, I think, is indicative of one of the biggest challenges romance fiction faces – the perception that all romance novels are the same. And Nicholas Sparks (douchebag extraordinaire) isn’t helping. But what really comes out of this article is that Sparks is super-anxious that his books aren’t classified as romances because he thinks it is reductionist… and sort of girly.

And because he is obviously the heir to Sophocles as well.

And I think he’s obviously playing into the ‘I am a man! I would never write a book in which Fabio might appear on the cover!’ There’s the notion that romance is women’s fiction. Which is obviously not Sparks-exclusive, but a widespread idea.

Sparks says:

‘”A romance novel is supposed to make you escape into a fantasy of romance. What is the purpose of what I do? These are love stories. They went from (Greek tragedies), to Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, then Jane Austen did it, put a new human twist on it. Hemingway did it with A Farewell to Arms.”‘

Quite apart from the monstrous size of Sparks’ ego, he does raise an interesting question. What is the purpose of romance? Is it simply escapism? To what end do we write and read romance?

Sparks’s love stories are different, he contests, because you don’t know that the ending is going to be happy. But the meat is still the same – it’s a story of human interaction and human relationships. What I usually focus on when I write this blog is the gendered nature of these interactions and relationships, which I suppose might be considered the means to the end – in romance, the happy ending.

Just because Sparks’s books don’t necessarily end happily doesn’t mean that these means are any different. I’ve never read any Sparks, I confess, but the desire for the two characters to end up together is still there, yesno? You’re still rooting for them. In romance, you get a guaranteed pay off. You know that what you want will happen in the end. It takes place largely in a moral sphere where the good are rewarded and the bad are punished and we all live happily ever after. (Exactly what constitutes good and bad is contentious for me, but that’s another issue).

Does this set Sparks apart, because this payoff is not guaranteed? His means do not necessarily end up at the same ends, but he’s essentially cooking with the same ingredients. I guess what I’m trying to say is this: is romance that happy ending? or is it the path that leads the characters there?

When does a story that features human interactions and human relationships change from being a Sparksian ‘love story’ to a ‘romance’?

March 10, 2010

Some Simone – Quick Shots

Just came across this quote in Simone de Beauvoir which I found very, very interesting.

‘The body of man makes sense in itself quite apart from that of woman, whereas the latter seems wanting in significance by itself … Man can think of himself without woman. She cannot think of herself without man.’ And she is simply what man decrees; thus she is called ‘the sex’, by which is meant that she appears essentially to the male as a sexual being. For him she is sex – absolute sex, no less. She is defined and differentiated with reference to man and not he with reference to her; she is the incidental, the inessential as opposed to the essential. He is the Subject, he is the Absolute – she is the Other.’

– de Beauvoir, S., 1949, The Second Sex

This not only fits with that notion of sex-completing-the-woman while the man is complete already, but also highlights something I have only (to my shame) noticed about category titles. When do you ever see ‘The Mistress of Revenge’s Italian Boss’? ‘The Virgin Secretary’s Sheikh’? ‘The Pregnant Housekeeper’s Greek Millionaire’? No, it is always the men doing the possessing.

More on this when it is not late o’clock at night!

February 27, 2010

Yin/Yang Love/Sex Woman/Man – Quick Shots

So I’m reading this really bad sheikh category at the moment – Exposed: The Sheikh’s Mistress by Sharon Kendrick – and while it has lots of elements which I am sure I’ll write about ad nauseam lately, I had something vaguely resembling an insight.

This is wildly simplistic, but in a lot of romance fiction, particularly the playboy/virgin type (my particular field of interest at the mo) the hero represents sex and the heroine represents love. He teaches her how to behave sexually and she teaches him how to behave emotionally.

This is done particularly clumsily in this book of Kendrick’s that I’m reading at the moment, which is probably why I noticed it (and why I feel comfortable reducing it to something so simplistic). I’m only a little way in, but we have our virginal, vulnerable heroine and our harsh, alphole sheikh hero. (Sidenote – that thing from Talbot about eroticisation coming from the polarisation of gender? Kendrick totally tries to play that out. The first time they meet, the hero is totally all ‘I want to crush her soft lips with my hard ones’. Not great writing, but it illustrates that point pretty clearly). There is a total double standard at play – he is obviously one of those virile do-anything playboy sheikhs, but he totally ditched her the first time they met because he thought she was a virgin (which she was and still is) but he found out she posed for topless pictures one time.

As noted, I haven’t finished the book yet, but I can tell you exactly how it will play out (and if I am wrong, apologies to Ms Kendrick). Our sheikh hero will initiate our virgin heroine into the ways of sex, and multilple orgasms will be had by all. He will then realise that he can’t live without her, because all this time, she has been awakening his empty barren heart, etc etc. When, at the end, they get their happily ever after, it will be the union of sex and love in one domestic paradise.

There are obviously gendered implications to the man representing ‘sex’ and the woman representing ‘love’, but I’ll get into them later… when I’ve thought about them some more.

January 31, 2010

How Not to Introduce a Hero – Quick Shots

Hi all! I’m back and hopefully posting on a more regular basis now that the Australian Open is drawing to a close and I can indulge my love of writing about romance fiction rather than my love of writing about tennis.

A quick shot to get back on the horse – I wrote a few weeks ago about how not to introduce a heroine, using examples from Karen Templeton’s Pride and Pregnancy. Today, the coin is flipped. Here we have a classic alpha-arsehole (alphole) category hero. What a prince this guy sounds like.

“…he remembered the open, trusting, dark eyes of the voluptuously proportioned swamp brat he’d seduced and then jilted nine years ago to save his twin brother, Jake.”

– Major, A., 2009, To Tame Her Tycoon Lover [Harlequin], pp.1-2

Because… I routinely save my siblings by seducing swamp brats. That, um, makes sense. And makes me SUCH A NICE PERSON.

I’m only a few chapters into this book, so I’m suspecting this particular hero (his name is Logan, for those of you wondering) will improve and be redeemed by the POWAH OF TWOO WUV sometime soon. But at the moment… he’s pretty much an alphole. He’s some big business tycoon who’s come home to his palatial Lousiana home to visit his sick grandpa, to find out that said seduced swamp brat, now a successful war journalist, is looking after said grandpa. Does he say, ‘thank you, how nice?’ No, he tries to invalidate her lease and make her leave, even though she is doing him a huge favour, because it means his grandpa doesn’t have to go into a home (grandpa not keen on leaving palatial plantation home).

In short, he’s a total prick. The whole seducing incident aside, which verges on sexual assault.

Redemption is something that we see a lot of in romance fiction, particularly in heroes – it’s a very popular trope, redeeming your hero through the power of love. It even ties into that Foucault stuff I’m always yapping on about, about how the heroine replaces the playboy hero’s ‘wild’ sexuality with her own model (domestic bliss, feat. solid monogamy). But it’s books like these that pose the question – there has to be something worth redeeming in the first place, surely? If you start the book loathing the hero, how can you possibly want him to end up with the heroine?

…unless you loathe the heroine as well and wish them joy in their miserable little world together. But with this book, that’s not the case – the heroine, Cici, is really quite likeable. I want her to tell his punk arse off, instead of ending up with him – I want to win, not to surrender. And I think that means that this novel is flawed, right from the very beginning, because the hero and the heroine do not deserve each other.

Wow. Didn’t intend to end up there when I started this ramble. But it’s food for thought…

January 5, 2010

Your Heroine Is Not Your Barbie – Quick Shots

I’m slogging my way through Pride and Pregnancy and I made it a whole two paragraphs further before I found something that completely rubbed me up the wrong way. I hate, hate, HATE when people insist on describing their character’s clothes in unnecessary detail. I realise this has nothing to do with the Proper Grown Up Academic Study of Romance Novels ™ but it drives me absolutely NUTS.

So you know what I’m going to do? I’m going to read the first chapter, and every time the author makes an unnecessary note of some facet of a character’s clothing, I’m going to write it down. Because I have a feeling this is going to be one of those books and THIS TREND MUST STOP.

– gardening gloves, covering press-on nails (p.8)

– beaded slides (p.8)

– eighties retro hair (p.11)

– stretchy pants (p.11)

– “the top rode high” (p.11)

– “the bellybutton sparkled like the North Star” (p.11)

– “a delicate gold chain hugged her ankle” (p.12)

– “assortment of fake gemstone rings” (p.12)

– “tugging a straw coloured hair out of her lipstick” (p.13)

– “her cheeks pinked way beyond the makeup” (p.14)

– “he also didn’t miss the lack of panty lines underneath all that soft, snuggly fabric” (p.15)

– “umbrella sized straw hat” (p.17)

– entire conversation about authenticity of Karleen’s boobs (p.19)

– not exactly clothing, but could be considered an accessory – “trusty Swiss Army knife” (p. 22)

– Templeton, K., 2007, Pride and Pregnancy [Harlequin Mills & Boon]

Obviously, there are situations when a little description is a good thing. But YOUR CHARACTERS ARE NOT YOUR BARBIES. Clothes are not the window to the soul. I really, really don’t care what they are wearing. Am I alone here? Maybe. But this is why (well, one of the many reasons) I had to stop reading those cracktastic Anita Blake books. Round about Book #8, they started degenerating into sex scenes and descriptions of what people were wearing linked together by something to do with vampires and werewolves and… was there more plot? It was dressed up so much I missed it, obscured by the trappings.

Less is more. This is a lesson I could use in all aspects of my own writing, but when it comes to clothing your characters, this really, really irritates me. If your heroine’s beaded slides are magical and will be used to save the world, tell me all about them! But don’t tell me about her umbrella-sized straw hat, unless it is the nemesis of the beaded slides and turns whoever wears it evil. And if every single article of clothing your characters are wearing are magical and vital to the plot, you know what you need to do?

Write a goddamn better book.

January 4, 2010

How Not To Introduce A Heroine – Quick Shots

I’ve just returned to the world of category romance after being blown away by Jenny Crusie. I’m two pages in, but I had to share this.

I’m reading Pride and Pregnancy, a Harlequin from 2007, picked purely by virtue of its hilarious title. It opens thusly:

“By the time she was thirty, Karleen Almquist had signed three sets of divorce papers, at which point she decided to make things easier on herself and just get a hamster.”

– Templeton, K., 2007, Pride and Pregnancy [Harlequin Mills & Boon] p.7

I thought this was a pretty good opening line. I chuckled a little, I confess. Templeton goes on to muse that ‘they [hamsters] weren’t of much use in the sack, but then the same could be said of most husbands’. I chuckled a little more.

But then we see Karleen, our heroine, burying one of her beloved hamsters in the backyard. We get a woman with a shovel scene, hamster graveyard, ra ra ra, then… this:

“Fond of Melvin [being her late hamster] as she’d been, it had taken the better part of an hour to glue on these nails and damned if she was going to ruin them for a dead hamster.” [Templeton, p.8]

Gee, Karen Templeton. Way to make your heroine totally unlikeable. Pet > nails.

I’ll keep you posted on how manicured Karleen progresses…

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