Return of A Little Help From My Romance Reading Friends: The Lazily-titled Sequel

It’s coming up on two years since I put out my plea for your help.  Back in February of 2016, I penned a post titled A Little Help From My Romance Reading Friends. Once again,  I come to you, Dear Reader, you with your finger on the pulse of romance, your eyes on the words and covers and spines of books of paper, screen, and audio. I come to you asking for your help, asking you to tell me about the Romance novels you have read where the heroine is aged OVER 40. That is, the heroine is 40, 50, 60 and beyond.  It’s time to update my list and I need YOU to do this because I am only one tiny woman with a TBR pile and books to edit and books to write so I can add to this list of mine.

I’m very specific here. I want representation of women over 40. Why 40? Because, like in Hollywood 40 is some kind of invisible line for women. Women under 40 get roles, but hit 40 and they dry up. Plus, I’m tired (aren’t you) of the sexist, ageist older man-younger pairing that is the staple of Hollywood and, let’s face it, most kinds of fiction.

Let me be even more specific. I’m after Romance, not Women’s Fiction. In Women’s Fiction there’s often an element of romance, but the lovey-dovey stuff isn’t the primary focus. In ROMANCE the story is driven by a couple on a journey to find love, rather than, as you frequently find in Women’s Fiction, a woman’s journey of self discovery or tale of women’s friendship and/or relationship with friends and family. Call it Adult Contemporary Romance, MidRom, Seasoned Romance, Older Romance,  MatRom, Vintage Rom, (I’ll bite you if you call it HenRom, GrannyRom or HagRom), I want all the romance, I want two people falling for each other and all the glorious, complex, baggage-filled mess that goes with it, the Big Misunderstanding, the (however much I despise them) Secret Baby, Enemies to Lovers, Friends to Lovers, the Marriage of Convience, I want all those familiar tropes you love and maybe even hate, but I want them to feature heroines aged 40 and over.

My aim, if it’s not clear, is to present women of a certain age in the genre of fiction that is and always has been female-focussed. I want to draw attention that there are older romance readers who are so damn ready to see themselves reflected in the genre they love. It’s about visibility. Older women deserve and need to be written back into the narrative of life and fictional tales. Because of it’s position as a vanguard for women and social change, Romance fiction holds the power to make older women visible.  However, there are impediments still in place, sticky impediments. With this list as proof of a growing market and subgenre (not a niche, dammit),  I want to clear way the cobwebs that still obscure some publishers minds, and show them the vibrancy of older women.  The Romance publishers who are open to older heroines, but limit the ‘field of older’ to between the ages of 35 to 45 because, as one editor said to me, “No one wants to read about granny sex,” need to understand that this limit perpetuates the ageist and sexist attitude that older women aren’t attractive, sexual, or interested in sex, which implies women over 45 are lesser, other, unworthy of love, and their hideousness must continue to be hidden or kept out of the narrative–you see how ridiculous that practice is.

Have a gander at the list I already have. I know since 2016 there have been titles released by traditional and indie publishers (I’m looking at you, Maggie Wells), but as any author will tell you DISCOVERABILITY IS KEY to readers finding new authors and titles.  I want to add books to my list of romance fiction featuring heroines over 40!  Give ’em to me. Shoot those titles my way! Help me add to the list and help these books be discovered! Let’s wipe out sexist ageism one Romance novel at a time!

PLEASE Leave your book recommendation as a comment!

Required Reading for Anyone Writing About Romance Fiction

Valentine’s Day is nearly upon us. This means it’s the time when newspapers, magazines, blogs, and websites roll out the clichéd stories about Bodice Rippers, Fabio, heaving bosoms Romance fiction, lonely, bob-bon-eating, middle-aged cat-owning women who read romance, dating, pleasure, sex, and reading choices.

Like many other authors in the romance genre, I’ve had more than enough of the tired, poorly-researched, stereotyped drivel about romance fiction. The American comedian Rodney Dangerfield used to say in his shtick, “I don’t get no respect.” Readers, authors and academic scholars of romance know full well about the lack of respect afforded the genre. What I find rather fascinating is how these Valentine’s Day articles about Romance fiction are written by men and women.

The theory goes that anything written by women is demeaned and considered ‘lesser’ than the writing of men. Back in 1983, Joanna Russ’ How to Suppress Women’s Writing discussed the ways social forces hinder the recognition of female writers by the patriarchy. Russ ought to be required reading for anyone thinking of writing a piece about women’s writing, women’s fiction, and romance fiction in particular. Why? Russ highlights suppression with eleven common methods that are used to ignore, condemn or belittle the work of female authors. They are:

1. Prohibitions: Prevent women from access to the basic tools for writing.

2. Bad Faith: Unconsciously create social systems that ignore or devalue women’s writing.

3. Denial of Agency: Deny that a woman wrote it.

4. Pollution of Agency: Show that their art is immodest, not actually art, or shouldn’t have been written about.

5. The Double Standard of Content: Claim that one set of experiences is considered more valuable than another.

6. False Categorizing: Incorrectly categorize women artists as the wives, mothers, daughters, sisters, or lovers of male artists.

7. Isolation: Create a myth of isolated achievement that claims that only one work or short series of poems is considered great.

8. Anomalousness: Assert that the woman in question is eccentric or atypical.

9. Lack of Models: Reinforce a male author dominance in literary canons in order to cut off women writers’ inspiration and role models.

10. Responses: Force women to deny their female identity in order to be taken seriously.

11. Aesthetics: Popularize aesthetic works that contain demeaning roles and characterizations of women.

Once you look at that list, you may think it’s about the patriarchy, especially when one notices how the books that make review lists are typically penned by men, or when one considers that special chestnut A Roundup of the Season’s Romance Novels penned by former one-time Simon & Shuster editor in chief Robert Gottlieb, the older white man in New York Times last September—you know which one I mean. Once you look at the list you might notice how it influences the piece Verity ran today, 7 Romantic Books That You Won’t Be Embarrassed to Admit Reading, which mentions dear Fabio and puts quotes around the words “romance novel.” Articles such as these hit the screechy stereotyped notes. Articles like these highlight the patriarchy at work quashing and devaluing work, any work, by women. It’s a sinister thing because it’s ingrained practice familiar to women; it’s what we’re used to, what we navigate on a daily basis across a spectrum of mundane and professional duties we carry out. But here’s the thing that really grates: number 2 on Russ’ list. Number 4 pisses me off too, but number 2 is particularly insidious.

Bad Faith: Unconsciously create social systems that ignore or devalue women’s writing.

This practice is so entrenched that women use the suppression, consciously or unconsciously, not only to demean the work of women, but even to inform women of their need to feel guilty or be embarrassed when they read subversive, feminist, substantive, social commentary that explores the human condition and the very human need to connect to others.

Russ wrote about suppressing women’s writing 35 years ago. Clearly, change is still needed in the way women’s work, be it domestic, professional, or creative, is presented and discussed in the media, in the way women are presented in the media (particularly women over 40—I know you were waiting for me to mention the lack of respect mature women get). Pieces like Jennifer Weiner’s We Need Bodice Ripper Sex Ed  and Jamie Green’s Who Gets a Happily Ever After in 2018, place women’s pleasure, sexual and reading pleasure, first. Weiner and Green counter the usual claptrap about romance, trashy, sappy, porny romance fiction, and feeling guilty about sex or reading a novel.

Change is rolling in, slowly, but rolling in nonetheless, and it could use a little push forward. The next time I read a clichéd, crappy article about romance and romance fiction, I’m going to leave a comment directing the author to READ RUSS and do better research. I’ll also suggest reading Frantz and Selinger’s New Approaches to Popular Romance Fiction,  Rodale’s Dangerous Books for Girls, Wendell & Tan’s Beyond Heaving Bosoms. and contacting the International Association for the Study of Popular Romance,  you know, to get the facts straight instead of relying on sloppy stereotypes. I’ll point out that romance authors like Eloisa James (Professor Mary Bly), Jennifer Crusie, Jodi McAlister (aka Dr Jodes ), Amy T Matthews (Tess LeSue,), myself, and so many others lead, or have led, double lives as romance fiction scholars and academics.  I’ll be sure to mention that us scholarly types can tell you a thing or two about the romance genre, like how the genre is subversive, feminist, complex, political, how it deals with social and psychological issues, has been at the forefront of social change for women, and that Fabio hasn’t been on a romance cover in decades, but model Jason Baca has been on 500 or more.

In the meantime, screw the patriarchy and those clichés about Romance fiction. The only thing I am chained to is my laptop, and while I write my next book and continue to fight the good fight to place more women of a certain age as romantic leads, I’m left wondering several things. Does the romance community look at news articles about Romance fiction differently when they are written by women; does the community view the piece with a more or less critical eye than if written by a man? Or do we, as readers, authors, and industry members, judge each piece on individual merit?

What is it we romance ‘enthusiasts’ want to see in an article about the fiction we so adore?

Now, the next time you read an less-than well-researched article about Romance fiction, enjoy a game of ROMANCE CLICHE BINGO, inspired by and created especially for this post and you by author and spider-lover Ebony McKenna! Many thanks to you, Ebs!

Created by Ebony McKenna ©2018

 

Excerpt: Russ, J. (1983). How to suppress women’s writing. University of Texas Press. https://utpress.utexas.edu/books/rushow

 

 

 

 

I’m Getting Bored With This

You’ve heard it all before. It’s not new. It’s the same story, over and over. Nothing changes. There’s a gap in pay and a gap in age. Women get, as Marilyn Monroe says in Some Like It Hot, “The fuzzy end of the lollipop,” or, if you’re a woman over 40, no lollipop at all.

News items, like Anita Singh’s article in  The Independent,  Hollywood Gender Pay Gap Laid Bare as Rich list of Stars is Filled by Men, highlight the gender pay gap that exists between male and female stars in Hollywood, as well as the rampant ageism toward older actresses.

The pay gap can be attributed to the dominance of action blockbusters and to a dearth of opportunities for older women. In the list of top 10 actresses, the oldest woman is Julia Roberts (49). All but three of the male top 10 are aged 50 or over.

No big surprise there. While I applaud the reporting of the ongoing disparity, this news is now tedious and commonplace. Story after story indicates that, despite all the reporting of the gap, nothing has changed, that there’s still a “dearth of opportunities for older women,” and it is boring. So very boring. We know about the disparity.

Some of us are trying to alter the pay gap and and the age gap. We are telling stories about women of a certain age, in case Hollywood and the Romance fiction industry haven’t noticed. Writers like me are trying to be proactive and smart. We SEE the audience the industry doesn’t. We want  to ensure that both men and women are afforded the same opportunity to have a lollipop that isn’t fuzzy–or a just a damned lollipop.

 

 

Singh, A. (2017). Hollywood gender pay gap laid bare as rich list of stars is filled by men. The Independent. 24 August. http://www.independent.ie/entertainment/hollywood-gender-pay-gap-laid-bare-as-rich-list-of-stars-is-filled-by-men-36060056.html .

The Image Problem of Granny Sex

Older women have an image problem, a negative one that has become normalized. What do I mean by normalized? Representations of women of a certain age have become ingrained in society and have resulted in stereotypes—you know the ones I mean, the acceptable roles; grandma, crabby crazy cat lady, old hag, peddler of adult diapers, retirement communities, denture creams. Women over 40 are seldom presented as attractive, intelligent, sensual, sexual, whole human beings the way men are. This needs to change.

Back in 1972, Susan Sontag wrote about the Double Standard of Aging, and nowhere is this more evident than in film and romance fiction. In movies and books, men get distinguished as they age, and they are allowed to age. Men at 45 are silver foxes, while women of the same age are merely ‘old.’ Women become mutton dressed as lamb, cougars, are shoved aside, or dropped into those acceptable stereotyped roles because, unlike men of the same age, women are now toothless hags who need denture cream.

What you see is what you’ve always seen, and it is what you accept because that is all you have ever been shown. You may not be aware that you buy into the negative image. After all, the imagery you’ve seen about adult diapers, creams that lift sagging skin, and late fortysomething Daniel Craig’s James Bond romancing twentysomething Lea Seydoux rather than fiftysomething Monica Bellucci, reinforces the information you see about women ‘getting old,’ and men being hot silver foxes. Who would blame you for believing the double standard of aging?

Although you’ve had plenty of movies and romance novels where the older guy silver fox gets the girl, and gets it on with the girl, how often have you seen a couple who are roughly the same age getting it on? Age equivalent sex suddenly becomes problematic—and it’s all because of the woman. Add a woman with sagging skin and she’s a grandma, and granny sex is gross because grandmas don’t have sex—even with silver foxy grandpas.

Give us silver fox smokin’ hot grandpas, but no grannies and their saggy this and that. I had a romance publisher tell me no one wanted to read granny sex, quite recently in fact. I was prepared to show this publisher evidence contrary to her statement (have a look at the Seasoned Romance Facebook page). Unfortunately, this was at a conference, others stepped in, and my opportunity to continue was lost. That moment indicated that, for some publishers, romantic interludes in romance fiction, like onscreen, is still considered to be a venue open only to young women.

For many publishers the status quo remains, silver foxy men, but no silver foxy women, and THIS is the root of the image problem. We get what we’ve always had because of this pervasive attitude that older women aren’t attractive or sexual. The image problem is a vicious circle, but I’m pushing for change. While I’ve posted about what to call this subgenre of romance (I’m still leaning toward just calling it Romance), this time I’m asking for reasons why you think portrayals of sexual women over 40 is so problematic. 

Is it really about sagging breasts and lined faces?

Is it really that romance is a tale for younger women, or readers who want to remember what it was like when they were younger?

Is sex after 40 just plain gross?

Or is it because we have so rarely been shown positive images of mature female sexuality?

The image problem boils down to a lack of representations showing us that women over 40 are attractive, intelligent, sensual, sexual, whole human beings. This means it’s time to make a NEW status quo, to normalize how life really is, and how women over 40 really are. If a publisher thinks granny’s saggy boobs are distasteful (not something a romance hero would care about), the solution is simple. Romance has various ‘heat’ levels. That is, an array of how intimate sexual activity is described–from a chaste kiss and closing the bedroom door, to graphic sex. There is a spectrum of readers, those who like the bedroom door closed and those who want explicit description. There is a spectrum of readers who want romance tales featuring women 40, 50, 60, and beyond, those who want granny to close the bedroom door, and those who want to see granny in all her glory.

Leave a comment about what you think is problematic. Meanwhile, I’ll keep writing my sexually active silver foxy heroines over 40.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Calling All Readers: What Do We Call It and How Do We Do it?

For years, I’ve been writing for an overlooked audience. Now, finally, I’m writing for a slowly emerging market, one a few publishers are, after years of ignoring, only just beginning to cater to. Despite the presence of a target audience, that is readers over 40,  two stumbling blocks remain when it comes to marketing romance fiction to readers over 40: WHAT to call this subgene, and HOW to market romance with older couples.

The WHAT: The front-running suggestions for this romance subgenre (Thank you, Laura Boon Russell for reminding me to mention that this is a subgenre), from those of us who write romance fiction with lead characters over 40, have been Adult Contemporary Romance, Seasoned Romance, Mature Romance (MatRom), and Silver Romance. The new category line from Entangled is called August, which is a charming moniker, but the line is limited to stories of characters 35-45. Now, here’s where you come in. Do you have any ideas of WHAT to call romance fiction with both lead characters who are over 40?

If you do, leave a comment. Better still leave a comment about the search terms you use when you go looking for romance tales where both characters have been around the block a time or two? You as a reader have the power to pick the name that REALLY sticks.

Groovy, say we come up with a consensus on a name for this subgenre, for Romance of a Certain Age, Granny Lit or Hag Lit, (Can we agree now NOT use any of those?), but what about the HOW?

HOW to market these books is fraught with the same issues Hollywood has when it comes to marketing any film featuring a woman over 40 as the lead. Artwork and advertising, which in the publishing world means book covers, can be tricky for a tale with younger leads. A book cover, like a movie poster, is supposed to be shorthand for the story presented. Marketing departments for Romance fiction have always found a way to work around finding cover art for troublesome novel, usually steering clear of the stereotypical clinch cover in favour of something benign, such as a pair of shoes, a dog, an empty Adirondack chair sitting on a beach. In Hollywood, the usual thinking is:

  1. If the older woman appears on the advertising, be sure the image includes an object that obscures her age, such as a coffee cup in front of her face;
  2. If the older woman appears on the movie poster, ensure only a small percentage of her body is shown, no full body shots;
  3. Reduce the size of the woman’s image, place her in the background in a setting, such as on a dock, on a boat, behind Bruce Willis or Morgan Freeman. Seriously. Go look at this poster for Red, right now.

Obviously, in fiction and film there’s a similar workaround showing the ageing body, which is primarily horrifying because ageing and the bodies of older people are continually presented as ugly and something to fear. These images lead to an unconscious bias against older people, particularly older women, and that bias keeps women from appearing roles other than mother, granny, harpy, crone, or keeps them from appearing at all. ON book covers and movie posters.

The chief antidote to treating ageing as a disease is to present it as normal, as everyday, but creating a new standard and breaking down pervasive image stereotypes of age—or any stereotype—takes time. People need to ‘get used to’ something new. I understand starting small, put the aged female face behind that coffee cup a few times, or reduce the size of Mary-Lousie Parker and Helen Mirren on the poster for Red. Use those benign beach-front images that suggest peace, use the dog, the shoes. Then, slowly, because, people need time to adjust to change, get rid of the coffee cup, enlarge the size of the woman, move her to the foreground, right beside the acceptable male silver fox in that Adult Contemporary-Seasoned-Mature-Silver-August Romance.

Seeking Role Models for Women Over 40 in TV and Romance Fiction

In the Hollywood Reporter, Inkoo Kang’s Critic’s Notebook: For Women Over 40, TV’s Feminism Is Flawed has interesting things to say on TV and the meaty roles for women over 40, but questions, like I do, why these women of a certain age remain bizarrely flawed and dysfunctional, why these women, more often than not, remain morally ambiguous, less-than-positive role models of older women. In other words, why women of a certain age are still cast as something wicked.

Kang, praises the inclusion of older women (as do I), yet points out that ‘Moral ambiguity is the currency of today’s prestige and middlebrow small-screen projects, and ethical transgressions can indeed make for a more compelling protagonist.” Kang also notes out how “There’s not a powerful and pure-hearted Buffy Summers, Dana Scully or Jane Villanueva among them,” and cautions “let’s not make the mistake of confusing goodness for a lack of complexity.” This confusion is where the danger lies because it relies on continuing to present older women as stereotyped cranky old ladies, kooks, and harpies.

On one hand, we have to applaud television’s inclusion of the older woman, since old broads have been invisible for so long. On the other hand, and yes there are a few TV series that offer positive, complex, moral-hearted representations and role models of women over 40 (Grace & Frankie, Madame Secretary, The Fall, The Night Manager), yet too many still rely on the stereotypes and assumptions about older women.

Which brings me to my usual plug for the older romance heroine. The 40+ romance heroine is perfectly placed to combat the confusion, the moral ambiguity, the stereotyping. Yes, it’s time for 40+ romance heroines to step in and BE models of strength and poise, to BE valued for their potential, to BE powerful, ‘powerful, pure-hearted,’ and complex, not merely bizarrely flawed and dysfunctional. After all, Romance fiction has been at the forefront of social change for women for decades–but romance publishers have been a little…intractable with seeing women 40+ as viable romantic leads (because falling in love only happens to young women and sex over 40 is icky), or as a valuable money-making audience. Romance publishers are beginning, slowly, to come around. Like television has.

The key to changing the biases we have, and changing the stereotypes fiction and Hollywood clings to is, as Kang suggests (and I shout), offering NEW tales featuring women of a certain age, and presenting these women as something to aspire to be. We need to re-train our brains to accept a new status quo.

One last note. It may be my imagination, but I think the UK is frequently better at NOT relying on and challenging the portrayal of older women as kooky, dysfunctional stereotypes in TV and film roles.

Kang, I. (2017, June 13). Critic’s Notebook: For Women Over 40, TV’s Feminism Is Flawed. The Hollywood Reporter.  http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/news/critic-s-notebook-women-40-tv-s-feminism-is-flawed-1012782 

Introduction to an Old Character

Wielding my Shield of Smartass

The Pink Heart Society’s May newsletter discusses romance fiction with older heroines, and asks, as I do, if the romance genre thinks love has an age limit. The newsletter features interviews with Dee Ernst, Amanda Ward, Liz Flaherty, Morgan Malone and the Pink Heart Society’s (PHS) editor, Trish Wylie—all romance authors who place women of certain age front and centre of romance. It’s exciting to know I am not alone in being passionate in my desire to stamp out ageism and sexism.

Why is it exciting?

An Introduction (for you newbies)

Hi, I’m Sandra Antonelli. I write older romance heroines—silver foxy women over 40 as the lead characters, not as secondary characters, and not as protagonists in Women’s Fiction, but as the romantic leads. I represent this demographic of women and demographic of romance readers who want female heroines with all my heart, and I am passionate about continuing to do so.

If this is your first time reading one of my posts, and you don’t know, mature-aged romance heroines are my soapbox. Check out the Mature Content Stockpile tab for just how much soapboxing I do. There are many reports in the media discussing sexism and ageism in Hollywood, but there’s very little media dialogue on ageism and sexism in romance fiction. Strange, because there is such a parallel in the way women of a certain age are pigeon-holed in stereotyped roles (cougar, granny, witch, crazy cat lady) or rendered nearly invisible in both forms of entertainment. This really chaps my hide.

Years ago, before Harlequin’s NEXT line, which touted stories about women with a little more life experience, I went looking for older romance heroines and found next to nothing. So, I decided to write my own, thinking the world would catch up. I kept writing older protagonists in romance, and, like Liz Flaherty mentions in the PHS newsletter, I got curious about why there were only a handful to be found. I did a master’s degree and then a PhD on the subject to try to get to the core. The masters uncovered the demographic of reader looking for older romance heroines, the PhD examined why the demographic is overlooked. And in the mix of all that academic stuff, I kept on writing romance with older heroines AND heroes because no way was I going to be like Hollywood and let the hero be an older Bruce Willis-type while the heroine was 25 to 35-something. My books were published by Escape, a division of Harlequin Enterprises in ebook format—because ebooks are a little more open to taking a chance on something with a niche market, or outside the norm.

I have four books that sit outside the romance heroine age norm: A Basic Renovation, For Your Eyes Only, Driving in Neutral, and Next to You, as well as short stories Your Sterling Service, (which you can read for free here) and Niagara Falls at Café Nixin the anthology It All Happened at Café Nix. I have more on the way. You can find links to all my books here.

Knowing that there are other books outside the norm besides my own, that I’m not the only one writing older romance heroines, that Dee Ernst, Amanda Ward, Liz Flaherty, Morgan Malone, Karen Booth, Josie Kerr, Maggie Wells, Natasha Moore, and the Seasoned Romance Facebook page with over 600 members of authors (and readers) are also writing heroines with life experience and–gasp–wrinkles shows that older equals OH HELL YES!

Can You Predict the Future?

Yeah, you guessed it! I’ll write romance, blog, tweet, post on Facebook, and do academic-type stuff on women of a certain age in romance, and I’ll keep on championing  until we’re not a stereotype of age, a niche market, or a trend.

I applaud you ballsy authors who, like me, want to show the entire world, not just the romance world or Hollywood, that foxy doesn’t end at forty.