The mysterious ways of the universe

I’m in the middle of writing Magdalene, book 3 in my series.

If you’re passingly familiar with Christian myth, it should be quite clear where I’m going with this.

But let me tell you a little about my main characters.

Mitch Hollander, PhD, metallurgical engineering; founder and CEO of Hollander Steelworks, headquartered in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. He is also a widowed Mormon bishop who served half an 18-month mission in Paris, France. He likes fast cars and ZZ Top.

Cassie St. James, MBA; Vice President-Restructuring Division, Blackwood Securities. In a previous life, she was a high-dollar hooker. She is divorced, lives in Manhattan’s Upper East Side, has four adult children (all of whom live with her), engages in strategic revenge, and possesses a latent penchant for silliness.

So I was on the search for a special little gift that Mitch could give Cassie that meant something but was not expensive. After all, what do you give a woman who can buy anything she wants?

Naturally, I turned to books because I have a vested interest in people buying books (product placement!). I decided that Mitch might have a special book that he may have acquired on his mission and is probably in French. Naturally, I googled, and then headed over to Wikipedia where I stumbled upon a list of French novels. I doggedly worked my way through them one by one, read the synopses, then picked one based on a vague similarity of the plot to Cassie’s past.

I wrote it into my book as if I’d read the thing (but hadn’t), then decided I probably should read it. And it freaked me out. Big time.

The book? Angélique, the Marquise of Angels by Anne & Serge Golon, first published in 1958.

Unbeknownst to me, this was a huge hit in Europe and apparently a big hit here. I’d never heard of it, never stumbled across it in the intellectual drunkenness of my youth (that actually amazes me).

The book is heroine-centric, so it’s all about Angélique. The parallel I found between Angélique and Cassie was that they both had arranged marriages. The similarity stopped there.

Angélique didn’t know her contracted husband, feared him at first, then grew to love him.

Cassie knew the man she was to marry, adored him from afar and was eager to marry him, and then quickly realized that her marriage was a sham.

Cassie is familiar with the story via film, so she has no problem making this parallel and had, in fact, written a paper on it during her undergrad years.

What doesn’t show up in the plot summary is a description of the hero’s “unusual way of life.” Joffray (the hero) is described as “scientist, musician, philosopher.” I didn’t think much of it. Mitch is a scientist with his own lab, true, but he’s also a CEO and I’ve always thought of him in those terms.  He’s not a musician. He’s not a philosopher. At heart, he’s a blue-collar steel worker who loves steel enough to reinvent himself and the industry; steel is his life’s work.

Turns out that Joffray’s science is metallurgy. That was freaky.

Turns out that Joffray is hung out to dry, religiously speaking, for reasons that have nothing to do with religion and everything to do with power, politics, and money. That was even freakier.

As I got deeper and deeper into the book, I felt like I’d entered the Twilight Zone.

Then I got to the end. Angélique plunges out into the cold night, penniless and powerless, to exact revenge. That is so Cassie. I nearly expired from the freakiness the universe had perpetrated upon my person.

I couldn’t have picked a better novel if I’d written it myself.

PS: Yes, I know Mary Magdalene wasn’t a prostitute.

PPS: In the mid-1980s, missions were, in fact, only 18 months long for men.

Coming out of the closet

I’ve taken a lot of heat the last couple of months because I dared to say that the bodice ripper romance was a product of its time and thus needed to be considered for the time in which it was written. Is the forced seduction PC? No, and never was. It was a fantasy, a fantasy that, if the contemporary nonfiction literature at the time is to be believed (both anecdotal and academic), was common. Considering the number of those written and sold, I’d say it was a pretty popular one, all dressed up in period clothing and the mores that clothing represented.

Also lately, around the romance blogs, historical and contemporary romance/erotic romance with bodice-ripper elements have been ridiculed, maybe rightly, maybe not. But in a romance reading public that’s taking to male/male romance and BDSM romance, this abhorrence of the longest-running sexual fantasy in romance is bewildering to me. Women have their fantasies. Some of them involve the forced seduction. Is it PC? Absolutely not. Is it valid? Yes.

Genre romance has always thrived on the power imbalance between the male and female, but this has its caveats, and the caveats make up the majority of the fantasy:

1. The heroine is always clearly superior to any male in her milieu except for the hero, who is the only male strong enough to conquer her.

2. The heroine is always isolated from female companionship for many reasons, one of which is that she is superior to all other females and thus, the object of female derision/jealousy. If there is a female, she takes on a mentor/sister/mother/fairy godmother persona.

3. She’s already attracted to him and he gets her off.

4. The “asshole alpha”’s transformation into acceptable mate material depends on whether his eventual groveling is equivalent to his previous assholishness.

5. He better damn well grovel and do it right.

6. At the end of the book, the reader knows that while the heroine can go on and live without the hero, the hero cannot live without the heroine. He always winds up more dependent on the heroine’s love and presence than she is on his, turning the power imbalance 180 degrees.

7. It’s all about the groveling.

Other than the innumerable authors who write the six Harlequin Presents novels every month, I can’t really name any contemporary romance authors who write the “asshole alpha” except, perhaps Susan Elizabeth Phillips, and boy does she write good groveling, viz. Kiss an Angel, which is one of only five romances on my DIK list (and the only contemporary).

Lately, Anna Campbell and others have come back with the bodice ripper, but again, they write historical and I don’t think it does anybody any good to pretend that some of these characters are a century or two more enlightened than the people around them at the time.

The power imbalances in my own book have been pointed out to me with startling clarity, and I’ve been chewing on this for days, not because I disagree in the case of Knox and Justice (an homage to the Harlequin Presents line of books I cut my teeth on and my best crack at writing an anti-hero), but because I do disagree in the cases of Giselle and Bryce, and Sebastian and Eilis. I’m not going to go into why because that entails spoilers.

What ultimately brings me to write this post, though, is because lately, despite my professed ambivalence (possibly distaste) for paranormal romance and urban fantasy, I’ve been reading a few books (that I liked!) that have led me to a conclusion:

The asshole alpha still lives and breathes, as assholish as he ever was. The bodice ripper hasn’t gone away. The forced seduction hasn’t lost its appeal.

It’s morphed.

Into demons, werebeasts, vampires, ghosts, ghouls, goblins, and things that go bump in the night. In many, many cases it’s further disguised as the (overused) “one true mate and nature has given us no choice” device.

Only now, because it’s dressed up in con clothes and otherworldly window decoration, it’s perfectly acceptable. Except … some of us don’t care for the window dressing.

I also made a statement a while back that a lot of Mormon authors write our basic tenets and philosophies and beliefs and religious history in science fiction and fantasy, where it’s almost or fully unrecognizable to non Mormons. I said that I thought it was cowardly. I was told by one author that his first instinct was to write science fiction/fantasy and that the incorporation of our doctrine, traditions, and culture was secondary. I believe that—for that author. I don’t believe it across the board.

Why does this happen? Perhaps because suddenly, one person’s fantasy/message is another person’s call to battle?

I don’t write that way. I can’t wrap the bodice ripper up in paranormal and urban fantasy paper and put a shibari bow on it because that doesn’t appeal to me, although the sex probably will. I can’t put a pretty dress on what is, to many readers, an ugly philosophy/belief system in science fiction and fantasy because that doesn’t appeal to me, although the philosophy will.

This is why I like erotica, because, by its very nature and reader expectations, it’s bald. It’s honest. It’s also why I did actually appreciate The Actor and the Housewife for one thing: It put our culture and beliefs and jargon out in the open honestly, naturally, with no apology or preaching.

I want it straight and I write it that way. I call it what it is because that appeals to me, the honesty of it, the setting of human-as-animal in a contemporary world where our baser wants and needs are not only taboo, but ignored as if they don’t exist. And likewise, where our spirituality/religious beliefs offend a whole lot of people, and short shrift is given to the struggle between the natural (human) man and the enlightened (human) one, who attempts to control himself and sometimes simply doesn’t.

I have no issue with control, losing it, struggling with it, conquering the natural man. After all, that’s why we’re here, right? To vanquish the natural man?

But I’m interested in the process.

And the groveling.

I don’t expect a non genre romance reader to get this, so the objections I’ve received have only made me think about the genre, think about why women read romance, the vast subgenres of romance, and why some women despise genre romance altogether.

Whatever universal truths are revealed in fiction, no matter how they’re portrayed, I don’t give a shit about vampires or demons trying to overcome their natures to be moral creatures because vampires and demons don’t exist.

I don’t give a shit about a being (possibly alien) who drives a spaceship for a living (or who has some fantastical adventure) who’s going through some vague spiritual struggle that Mormons can drill down to the most minute nuance, and might kinda look like Mormonism to anybody with a passing familiarity, because I can’t relate to that.

I can relate to asshole people whose feet are planted on earth, who don’t have regular contact with the boogeyman or aliens, who have no magic or fae blood, no superpowers, who strive and fall and fail and lose themselves in their baser natures, who want something better for themselves but may not know how to get it, who make bad choices and know it even while they’re doing it, who depend on other people or a religion or a deity or a philosophy to help “fix” them.

We all need fixed in one way or another, and there is always a power imbalance in a relationship. It shifts and it changes and it morphs and it takes time to level out as much as it’s ever going to. It’s a neverending process, and sometimes it seems like being on a hamster wheel.

How do I know this?

’Cause I’m an asshole and I strive and I fall and I fail and I lose myself in my baser nature, trying, always striving, for enlightenment. And because I need my husband to “fix” me, and I daresay he needs me to “fix” him, too.

And we both have to grovel.

But please, can we stop pretending the forced seduction romance, and the inherent power imbalance the male has over the female is gone? It’s not. It never will be. We like it too much, and, as a fantasy, it’s no less valid than the up-and-coming PC fantasies of male/male romance or BDSM romance in all its incarnations.

It’s just been driven into the closet.

Update on the creepy book.

Okay, I’m about halfway through The Actor and the Housewife and things have started to become a little clearer.

The actor is clearly in love with the housewife; I don’t believe he is in denial about this, although he puts up a good act. Because he’s an actor. Heh. He’s a nice man.

The housewife is in complete and total denial. On purpose. She’s smart; she knows what’s up. She doesn’t want to deal with it because it’s gonna be nasty messy and painful. That is to say, she’s bored and she’s lonely and she’s completely unappreciated and she’s not getting much in the way of sexual healing from her husband. So handsome clever dude comes along and appreciates her as a woman, and of course it’s gonna go to her head. All the while she’s saying, “I have the perfect husband and I love him so much!” What she needs to do is wake up and tell her husband they need marriage counseling. I don’t excuse her actions. She’s lying to herself. IMO, that’s her biggest sin and she needs slapped.

The husband is . . . not a creep or a dick or an asshole. He’s lazy. Possibly stupid, but I’m leaning toward lazy. He’s lazy about his marriage. He’s lazy about taking care of his wife. He’s lazy about seeing her value to him as an unpaid (oh, but she gets room and board!) maid, chauffeur, nanny, and for the occasional (I think? He doesn’t seem interested.) sexual favor. Maybe. If she pushes hard enough.

He’s disturbed by her relationship with the actor (who calls every day; tells her he misses her), but he doesn’t notice when she’s trying to be sexy for him and his idea of a romantic evening is sitting on the family room floor after the kids go to bed watching the ten o’clock news and drinking chocolate milk—and that’s AFTER he’s already had his little pout about her friendship with the actor. He never gets really mad and yells at her. He does a couple of really passive-aggressive things to let her know he’s pouting. He can’t even be bothered to manifest his jealousy properly. (Is he that sure of her or does he think she’s not attractive enough? I can’t tell.) Yet he’s not disturbed enough to seduce her or romance her (or take what she offers, for that fact); either he doesn’t know how or he doesn’t see a need. Idiot lazy ass. You deserve to lose your wife to someone who’d sweep her off her feet given half a chance. Oh wait. You already have. Fight for her, you stupid fuck.

This is turning pretty dark with (dare I say it? I shall!) SPARKLES all over it to make it look like it’s all bright and shiny and cute and fun, and that the housewife is the only one with a little problem.

So far it’s shaping up not to be so much the story of her (without doubt) emotional affair with a (IMO) pretty awesome dude who’s head over heels in love with her.

It’s shaping up to be the story of an already fractured marriage that needs the x-ray of aforementioned affair to show it for what it is. It’s not a spiral fracture or a comminuted fracture. It’s not even a clean break. It’s a stress fracture, the kind that gives you twinges of discomfort that you can ignore for a long time until it breaks and you’re like, “I didn’t do anything to it!” But catch it early enough, and all it’ll need to heal is a cast and time and a helluva lot of TLC.

There’s a quiet desperation about it that’s starting to get heartbreaking (I have sprouted tears in a couple of spots). I suspect there are a lot of those kinds of marriages in the church. In a lot of churches. And outside them, too.

And oh, it’s so not chick lit. This is Women’s Fiction with a capital W and capital F. Dark and angsty without letting you KNOW it’s dark and angsty (and the bright perky cover is complicit in the deceit).

If this is where Shannon Hale meant to go without letting the reader figure out where she’s taking you, then I salute her. She’s effing brilliant.

But I haven’t finished it, so I may again change my opinion. I shoulda waited until I was finished, but this is too dense with subtext not to share as I go along. I hope it’s intentional. Dear Sister Hale, please don’t pull a Stephenie Meyer on me. Please. Pretty please.

The zeitgeist of a story

Romance novels are mocked all the time everywhere. That’s not news. What was surprising to me upon my reentry into reading and writing romance, which necessitated entering Romancelandia, the world of romance reader blogs, was that they’re also mocked by people who love romance novels.

Some books deserve it, but some that might seem to deserve it . . . don’t.

Those are books from the history of romance novels that are mocked for their fashions and specific song references and other tidbits of culture that date them and, quite often, the covers that were made for them at the time. In particular, very often the sweeping scope and larger-than-life characters and plots are mocked. The people doing the mocking, I find, are young and/or young to the romance genre.

I don’t know quite what they expect when they read a book from the 1970s, 1980s, or 1990s that would rightfully be fodder for mockery if written now, but the fact of the matter is, they’re not meant to be timeless in every respect. If one puts oneself into the study of romance novels, to be intellectually honest, one must also be able to sift the culture of the time and how these novels work within that.

In the 1970s and 1980s, there was a host of “rape romances” that are routinely sneered at by younger romance readers and/or people young to romance reading. The device is that the hero is cruel, arrogant, and (as I saw in a comment about my favorite one, written in 1974) he “rapes her until she loves him.”

Sounds harsh now, right?

Let me put this in some context. In the early 1970s, a lady named Nancy Friday interviewed women on the subject of their sexual fantasies and published them in a couple of books: My Secret Garden (1973) and Forbidden Flowers (1975), just at the cusp of the “rape romance.” Without taking Friday’s scholarship into account, I find it interesting that many women’s fantasies at that time featured rape prominently. I also find it fascinating that these books were published nearly simultaneously with the early rape romances and thus, probably didn’t inform each other.

And then came the soap General Hospital in 1979, with Luke and Laura, which is, as far as I can tell, the most famous rape romance ever.

Mind, this definition of “rape” is not a legal one; it’s a highly stylized one in which it allows the female to retain her Good Girl status while still A) having sex and B) enjoying it because the hero is a different kind of rapist: One who is attractive, who is uncontrollably attracted to the heroine, and who gets her off after he’s made it possible for her to have an out, i.e., “I was raped.”

Why did she need an out? Because, at the time, a woman’s enjoyment of sex (especially outside of marriage) was still taboo.

(In The Proviso, one couple’s, uh, courtship [heh] is an homage to this era of genre romance.)

As an another aside, there is the shifting definition of “genre.” In the aforementioned 1970s and 1980s, many heroines typically had more than one lover throughout the course of her story, but ended happily with one. This would not happen in genre romance now unless it is a ménage à trois erotic romance.

Now, the heroine who has more than one lover during the course of a genre romance novel would not be meeting the expectations of the average genre romance reader, which is to say, sexual involvement between one man and one woman throughout the course of the book, with a happily ever after ending. (This does not speak to the fact that the male occasionally has other lovers, but in context, and with the understanding that that’s okay because a man has his needs. We haven’t come all that far, baby.)

In fact, in a Twitter conversation with (among others), @mcvane, @victoriajanssen, @redrobinreader, we decided that those romances would now be classified as women’s fiction. Naturally, our word is law.

I’m not sure why there’s this unwillingness to go along with the zeitgeist of the time in which the book was written, but instead to apply today’s standards of fashion or technology or pop culture as markers of timelessness. We don’t expect that of our historical novels, so why do we expect it of “contemporary” romances that cease to be “contemporary” the moment the galleys are finalized?

Me? I like reading the zeitgeist. I don’t miss it if it’s not there, but if it is, it’s a lagniappe for me. It gives me a feel for the time period and takes me back. Perhaps the difference is whether one is too young to be taken back or not. I don’t know.

However, in reading some earlier novels, I find this especially important because a lot of the plot devices realistically used then could not be used now because of advances in technology. If one can accept that it was 1979, and the heroine didn’t receive a letter that the hero had sent and he had no other way of contacting her or finding her to clear up a misunderstanding, one should also accept the blue eyeshadow and feathered hair.

I date my novels for a reason, which is to commit the zeitgeist of the moment in the mind of the reader, leaving no question as to its pop cultural references. In 10 years, no one can say, “That feels so dated.” They’ll have to say, “The author is very explicit about these events occurring between 2004 and 2009. If it feels dated, well, that’s because it is. It says so right in the chapter headings. Go with it.”

The expectation that one should be able to pick up a romance novel (or any other novel) from the 1970s, 1980s, 1990s, and either not be reminded that that was when it was written, or not be offended by some of the themes in the novel borne of the time it was written, seems to me that we wish to either forget that part of our history or cover up the history. More likely, however, is that we may live (and read) in the moment and may be either unwilling or unable to reference the history of the time in which the novel was written.

It’s a shame, really, because a lot of stories’ richness and layering gets lost without the proper historical context.

This book’s kinda giving me the willies.

And I’m only 50 pages in.

Right now I’m reading The Actor and the Housewife, and I just don’t quite know what to think. Here’s the blurb:

What if you were to meet the number-one person on your laminated list—you know, that list you joke about with your significant other about which five celebrities you’d be allowed to run off with if ever given the chance? And of course since it’ll never happen it doesn’t matter . . .

Mormon housewife Becky Jack is seven months pregnant with her fourth child when she meets celebrity hearththrob Felix Callahan. Twelve hours, one elevator ride, and one alcohol-free dinner later, something has happened . . . though nothing has happened.

It isn’t sexual. It isn’t even quite love. But a month later Felix shows up in Salt Lake City to visit and before they know what’s hit them, Felix and Becky are best friends. Really. Becky’s husband is pretty cool about it. Her children roll their eyes. Her neighbors gossip endlessly. But Felix and Becky have something special . . . something unusual, something completely impossible to sustain. Or is it?

A magical story, The Actor and the Housewife explores what could happen when your not-so-secret celebrity crush walks right into real life and changes everything.

This part is what gets me: “It isn’t sexual.”

My. Ass.

Now, look, Sister Hale. I realize that I shouldn’t be coming to this novel from the perspective of a romance reader, because it’s not a romance. (I know it’s not because the library cataloging block told me it isn’t. It says it’s “chick lit,” and library cataloging blocks don’t lie.) But I am coming to it from a romance reader’s perspective because it’s whispering naughty thing in romance’s ear at this point. Yet I don’t know a die-hard romance reader in the world who wouldn’t tear her hair out.

Becky Jack (the main character) is, thus far, what we romance readers would call TSTL.

Too Stupid To Live.

Also? Flirting *kofffallinginlovekoff* with someone while you’re happily married is a HUGE romance no-no.

I had to take a break from the gore of this woman’s squished IQ and blog it. I don’t even know if I’ll be able to finish the book, except . . .

I must get back to the trainwreck that she is. I should turn my eyes away. Look somewhere else. But I can’t.