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.





Thirty-one Days of Halloweenie Day 10: Bobbing for Bacteria with Ebony McKenna

Tradition plays a big part in some Halloween celebrations. Some people do haunted houses to scare the bejesus out of trick-or-treaters. Other carve amazing jack-o-lanterns.  CSandrabooksharlie Brown and Linus all all about the Coming of the Great Pumpkin. Me? I ‘m all about the great Halloween tradition of pimping my own books, and by books I mean my grown-up, smart-assed romantic comedies, which you can buy here for cheap.

There are others, like Australian author Ebony McKenna, who embrace Halloween, and wonder about the hygiene of a few traditions.

Thank you so much Sandra for inviting me to join in Halloweenie. I’m equal parts spooked and excited to be here.

bobingI love how in America Halloween is embraced for all its spooky fun. Laughing at death is a great way to face your fears. Fear such as ‘I wonder how many million bacteria are swarming in this apple bobbing tub?’

Just about everything I know about this bizarre festival comes from watching American sitcoms and their Halloween specials . . . which are then shown in Australia some time around March.

ondine-2-autumn-palace-us-cover-v7d-medium-res-max100In the eastern European country of Brugel, where my Ondine series is set, they celebrate Halloween in the best northern style. Bruglers eat copious amounts of seasonal turnips and cabbage, (fried, in soups, roasted, etc.) then gather around the village square for Bonfire Night. Bruglers write down their bad habits or regrets on notes, and cast them into the fire, as a way of saying goodbye to the past and cleansing their futures. It’s considered tremendous bad luck to remain inside on Halloween Bonfire Night. Because of the mountain of turnip and cabbage consumed, and the lower-body explosions that ensue, staying outside is not just tradition; it’s vital for good health.

Feels wrong celebrating this particularly autumnal festival down here in the Australian spring. Sunburned zombies and vampires in broad daylight are totes legit. The important thing to remember is if there are lollies around (our name for candy), the kids will be in it.

Luckily for me, I have a kid, so I get to enjoy the fun vicariously through my son, while also wandering the streets pranking people.

Teenagers make the best marks. They’re all ‘I’m way too cool for this,’ or ‘I’m dressed ironically’, or ‘I’m only in it for the lollies’. But I got them. I had a skull-shaped lolly bowl, choc-full of candy. While my son, in his old-bedsheet-now-a-ghost costume ran up to people and yelled “boo”, I offered ‘mobile trick or treat’ to the vast gangs of teens roaming the avenues. They reached in and grabbed a chock. Then SURPRISE! A skeleton hand reached out and touched them. They jumped and screamed and laughed their costumed heads off.

I’ll have to think of something even better this year. Only a couple of weeks to go as well. I’d better get pranking!

Ebony McKenna is the author of the Ondine series, about a teen girl whose pet ferret starts talking with a Scottish accent.

Ebony’s books are available here

Seventy-five Days of Phobias Day 46: Ebony McKenna Spins a Tale of Triumph

To celebrate the upcoming release of my third novel, Driving in Neutral—a love story about claustrophobia—I am running the 75 Days of Phobia series. As Olivia, the heroine in Driving in Neutral says to Maxwell the claustrophobe, “Everyone’s afraid of something.”  While this is true, it seems Author Ebony McKenna may have conquered one of her fears. Showoff.

EJMCKENNA_small_4x6Not another author admitting to Arachnophobia, a phobia about spiders! Yeah, guilty as charged. But I’m also sharing a dramatic personal journey[1] about how I forced myself to get over them.

There’s nothing wrong with being afraid of spiders. They have evolved to look like they’ve come from the very bowels of hell. They bite, sometimes with venom; they’re sneaky and make enormous webs that get in our hair; they also love to hide in the car and leap out when we flick the sun visor down. This suburban cliché did happen to me. I did my best not to freak out, but the people in the car beside me lost their minds!

Growing up in country Victoria, spiders were part of life.

The woodpile was always a source of spider terror, so I’d routinely roll the logs off the pile with a rake and kick them a few times before bringing them in.

Then I’d sit by the fire and watch the black house spiders crawl out from those same logs of wood, into the flames of house spider

The worst ones were the orb weavers. They don’t spin webs; they make vertical trampolines. Walk into one and they fling you backwards. (I can attest to this. — Sandra)

My cat was the first of my rescuers. She had a litter of kittens in the corner of my bedroom, and one morning a freaking enormous huntsman sauntered across the floor. Like he owned the place. Before I could grab my shoe, the cat padded over, whacked the thing flat into the ground, then proceeded to eat it. The whole thing. Not even a hairy leg left.

That cat was either starving hungry, or protecting her babies. Either way, she was really freaking awesome.

I found red back spiders in my compost heap next to the veggie patch. I lifted the lid to chuck in the leftovers and there they were, calm as you effing well like, with a huge sack of eggs behind them.

A ciggie lighter and a can of fly-spray from the kitchen made a brilliant napalm fire-spray. Sure, it melted the compost bin lid, but in any war there’s bound to be collateral damage.

But there are only so many houses I could burn down before I had to admit I had a problem. A good and proper phobia of spiders. Plus, by this stage I was living in a share house so I had to harden up and look after myself instead of relying on another person, or cat, to deal with my issues.

Plus, at some point (I’m not entirely sure) I kind of grew up.[2] In those halcyon days when people read blogs, I wrote for a fake-news/satire site. I had to fill it with content! Every week! I know!

AusdieOne of those pieces of spak-filla content was about the numerous Australian creatures just sitting around waiting to kill unwary tourists. Crocodiles, irukandji jellyfish, blue-ringed octopus, stonefish, sharks, dingoes, drop bears and spiders.

Reading about these creatures, I learned that red-backs, while famous for hiding on toilet seats, weren’t that lethal. Sure, the bite itself is so painful you’ll wish you were dead, but you won’t die. Just recently, hospitals have found most spider bite cases don’t require antivenom.[3] Just painkillers (yes please!) and loads of ice packed around the wound to numb the pain.

Hmmmm, I thought. Not instantly dead eh? That’s a plus.

The more I read about our arachnid friends, the more I realised how incredibly helpful spiders are. They keep the bug, fly and mosquito numbers down in the garden. They in turn become bird (and presumably cat) food, thus continuing the circle of life.

Spiders also show us that we can become instant ninjas when we walk into one of their webs. How cool is that?

There are still some species that are very dangerous, like the Sydney Funnelweb (Thank goodness I live in Melbourne), but I believe most species are seriously misunderstood.

These days, when I see a spider, I don’t immediately kill it. I do the ‘jar over the top, slide a piece of cardboard underneath’ trick and take them outside.

Then, when it’s all over, I have a private little freak out and get back to work.

So now it’s your turn. Can you find it in your heart to love a spider? OK, what about a little picture of one instead?

PS. There are no spiders in my Ondine novels, but there is a talking ferret and copious footnotes.

Ondine # 1 The Summer of ShamblesTry Ondine2Ondine # 3 The Winter of Magic


[1] Results may vary.

[2] Open to debate.

[3] (An actual footnote citing source material. I know!)