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 .

Loving the Beast: Or What I Learned From Loving the Villain

Luke Evans as Gaston. I approve.im-such-a-bad-boy

Everyone thinks the story Beauty and the Beast is about Belle and the Beast, a cursed prince, but really it’s about Gaston’s ability to expectorate, decorate with antlers, and his slide into hell.

You can keep your pure-hearted heroines and heroes. I’ve always liked fairy tale villains best. Villains give a better example of what it means to be truly human. Villains face or ignore their own shortcomings. Villains illustrate the concept of free will. Villains demonstrate human frailty, human morality. Villains illuminate how to and how not to behave if one wants to be loved, accepted, and admired. We learn more about ourselves from the villain’s actions than we do from the heroine’s or hero’s actions.

Heroines and heroes can be kind of boring, particularly if they are all goody-goody, principled types. Why I think Cinderella is boring as dry grass is that I never learned anything from her, and I never learned anything from Sleeping Beauty, from The Little Mermaid, or Snow White either—other than if you’re pretty people hate you. But I learned plenty from the evil stepmother, nasty stepsisters, and The Evil Queens: If you do something mean it will, eventually, bite you on the ass and lead to your downfall.

Best to avoid being mean.

I love a well-fleshed out villain, but what I love even more is a character who has villainous traits. For me, what makes Mr Rochester far more interesting than Mr High Morals Darcy is that Rochester has a secret, a screaming wraith of a secret that makes him deceitful. The secret is in the attic and it very nearly ruins him. What do we learn from Rochester’s villainous behavior?

Polygamy is bad and don’t keep secrets from the woman you love.

queen2Naturally, my love for a bit o’ badness points to the usual discussion about ‘niceness,’ as in how the leads, particularly the female lead in a romance novel, must be ‘nice,’ never nasty or bitchy, which points to the double standard discussion about how women ‘ought to behave,’ and how older women have been maligned for centuries, which points to a discussion on social mores blah, blah…

I want more female leads in romance fiction to be villainous, to have villainous traits the way Scarlett O’Hara and Rochester do. While Scarlett’s behavior in Gone With The Wind would never be questioned if she had been a man, she is, like Rochester, a perfect example of how good people, men and women, do bad things to protect what they love.

Yes, that is what I learned from Scarlett O’Hara and Mr Rochester.

What I learned from fairy tales wasn’t be pretty, be tidy, kiss frogs because they may be princes. My education came from the villains. I learned to never pretend to be something I wasn’t because that would get me shut up in a cask stuck with nails and dragged through the streets. I leaned to never be wicked to others because that would get me shut up in a vat with poisonous snake and then boiled in oil. I learned to be happy and grateful for what I have because, like the materialistic fisherman’s wife, I could lose it all in a flash, and its only ‘stuff.’

In Beauty and the Beast, Gaston’s utter ruin teaches us how to be human far better than the Beast does when he is transformed by love. Gaston’s transformation from man into a real hellish beast shows us that the villains are the true teachers in fairy tales and in life.

That’s My Job

book-2The other day, over coffee in a café with a writer friend who lives around the corner from me, the topic turned from our writing to the great mystery of promotion and the elusive magical unicorn that leads readers to your books. We discussed when your new book comes out strong, gets well-reviewed, and then…slips into something like a zombie-like state where sales shuffle along, taking an occasional bite here and there. My friend and I wondered how much promo can you do for yourself, how can you market your work and get it noticed, get it ‘discovered’ without being annoying or spending a fuckton of money by hiring a marketing & PR firm.

Fun fact: Did you know fuckton is a now a standard unit of measurement?

The two of us talked and talked — and didn’t come up with any answers, had no suggestions to make, and we went back to sitting side by side drinking coffee, wearing headphones and writing. Because that’s what we do. We meet,we write, and drink coffee.

book1Like my friend, I’ve followed the advice I’ve been given, done blog tours, sent my books out for reviews, peddled my publications on Facebook, Twitter, Wattpad, Pinterest, in newspapers and local magazines, and radio, on my website, on other’s websites. I’ve gone to conferences, presented workshops and papers, and my books continue shuffling along. What I can say is that, while we spent quite some time discussing what to do, I don’t worry about my books doing a zombie shuffle. I set my focus on writing books. I write because THAT’S MY JOB.

I will be totally honest. I don’t write to make money. You may call bullshit on this, but  I have a great life and I do not define myself as a human being by the amount of dough my books do or do not bring in. As a pragmatist, I know this business is a crapshoot, that there are a shit-ton (slightly smaller than a fuckton) of writers and books out there, and very, very, very few make any real sort of money from the work. Making lotsa money would be nice and I’ll admit that royalties are kinda awesome, mostly because they keep me able to sit in a café, drink coffee and write, but as pleased as hell as I am when someone reads my work and buys me another cup of coffee, I do not write my books FOR anyone other than myself. I’m my own audience. And I know what I like

I started writing because I couldn’t find what I wanted to read, which, by now, all of you probably know that’s stories with women over 40 as the lead. Some of you out there happen to like what I like, and like what I write, and that’s totally bitchin’! Thank you for buying me coffee!

While my next two books continue my placing a 40+ woman as the heroine, they are a sligantonellicoverssmallht departure from my usual romance snark, and I still wrote them for myself first. I also wrote them for my friend Elle because she shares my love of coffee and the Bond movie Quantum of Solace. Cult status, coffee money, and Elle aside, what I’m pondering again today is this:

  1. How soon is too soon to market and promote a new book? If I begin this Friday, as I had planned to last week, will it be overkill of the fuckton of promotion?
  2. Is it too early for promo, considering that one of the books has garnered a little interest, but no publishing deal—yet.
  3. Is it too early for promo if I indie publish it and become a hybrid author, and if so see question 1?
  4. Is it possible to overfeed the elusive unicorn and kill it before it has a chance to become a zombie book?

The point of all this is that I am a writer. I am not schooled in marketing or promotion—I don’t even know if there’s a difference between marketing and promo. I am a writer and a coffee drinker.

Maybe one of you could mull this over and get back to me while I’ll carry on writing to please myself, drinking coffee, because contemplating the path to ultimate promomojo sure does get in the way of my job.

The 3 or 5 Hats of Sandra Antonelli

hatsjpgLast week was a busy one. Like Bartholomew Cubbins, I wore a lot of hats– not quite 500 hats, but  3 or 5, which is a lot of hats when you’re a little over 5 feet tall.

My first hat was a holiday hat. Dr Shrinkee and I flew to Adelaide–a city in South Australia that was NOT settled by convicts transported for stealing a loaf of bread. We rented (or hired as we say here) a Toyota Something Silver Sedan with a giant trunk (boot) far too large for the ONE piece of luggage we shared, and drove around wine country where I took lots of photos of bees doing their bee thing because bees are awesome.Bee1

The holiday hat was put away when I went to attend the Romance Writers of Australia Conference in the seaside Adelaide suburb of Glenelg. I was at the conference to do the sort of stuff writers do at writers conferences such as meet romance industry types, like agents and editors. Hat No. 2 was kind of something of a fedora that I did a nervous Jimmy Stewart-esque fumble with while I pitched At Your Service, the story of a butler, her boss, her dead husband, a missing trust fund, and a deadly toilet brush to an editor at a well-known romance publishing house.

I wasn’t half as nervous about the pitch as I was the fact I had interviewed the editor back in 2012, when I was in the middle of my doctoral research on why publishers wrinkled their noses at older romance heroines. The mind-blowing thing about the pitch was the fact the editor remembered me. The other mind-blowing thing is that she wanted to read the full manuscript about the butler, her boss, her dead husband, a missing trust fund, and a deadly toilet brush.

The third hat was one I shared with Dr Shrinkee as we presented a a workshop together at the Romance Writers of Australia Ain’t Love Grand conference.  The workshop was titled  Personality Goes a Long Way: Is Your Bad Boy a Psychopath or A Dude with ‘tude? As you can imagine, what with Dr Shrinkee being a psychologist at a WRITERS conference, the workshop was all about crafting characters with believable personalities–good guys and bad guys.

Hat No. 4 was one of those English style floppy bonnets university graduates and academic types in the UK and Australia wear because I presented an academic paper at the University of Love conference that ran concurrently with the RWAus’ Ain’t Love Grand.  You know my paper was ALL ABOUT placing women over 40 as protagonists in romance fiction– the stuff that I discovered in my doctoral research, the stuff I go on about ALL THE TIME.  The paper was titled The (Saggy) Bottom Line: Women of a Certain Age and Romance Fiction.

Aside from speakiBee2JPGng a little too fast (I was excited) and not being able to hear the awesome clip from Amy Shumer’s Last Fuckable Day (Go watch it RIGHT NOW), I did rather well. I was surprised by the number of questions I fielded. I still sometimes think that I’m shouting into the wind about ageism, stereotypes, and the need for broader representation of women of a certain in romance fiction. However, the questions I was asked provide more evidence that readers want to see themselves, or people like them, represented in romance fiction. I was very HAPPBEE to learn that.

See what I did there?

Side note: I am grateful that Kat from BookThingo kindly tweeted bits from my presentation. Thank you for that Kat. Thanks also to Kaetrin from Kaetrin’s Musings and Dear Author for giving a wonderful wrap-up of the RWAus Ain’t Love Grand and University of Love conferences, as well as mentioning our ongoing differences of opinion on whether Gone With the Wind is a romance or not–I say yes, Kaetrin says NOOOOOOooOooOo!

I never saw hat 5 coming. It was half hidden by the ENORMOUS mountain of laundry and dust bunnies that had accumulated after a week away from home. I am happy to say I washed (an ironed) everything and vanquished vicious dust bunnies like a badass in a laundry drudge’s bonnet.

Next to You and An Introvert on Book Release Day

NextToYou_V1_FINAL Round3-Harlequin1920_1920x3022It’s BOOK RELEASE DAY for Next to You

This is the point where there are a choice of ways for me to react. Let’s examine them and break them down.

I could have a Book Launch Brunch, except… As much as I LOVE the breakfast-lunch amalgam that allows others to imbibe and relax with alcohol whilst I get hyped-up on caffeine, I’m an introvert who hates parties where there are more than six people, and no one, except me, would get up and boogie to the Partridge Family’s I Woke Up In Love This Morning from William Murphy’s Bubblegum pop classics playlist if there’s hollandaise, coffee, and booze.

I could be obsessive and check my sales rank on Amazon, today and tomorrow because it’s July 25th here in Australia, but not yet in the UK or North America. However, Amazon boggles my mind and means nothing much at all to me, except for the fact that I’ll eventually get a royalty statement showing that I made enough money from selling a few copies of Next to You to allow me to buy three to ten cups of coffee.Antonellicoffe

Those three-to ten cups of coffee—OH WHAT JOY!!

It’s a proud moment and I’d like to burst into my favourite local café and shout COFFEE FOR EVERYONE, which, for me is the equivalent of popping a cork on something, tossing confetti and SQUEEEING and stuff…except that introvert, more-than-six people thing again, and I SQUEE better on paper. So I’m gonna go to my favourite local café and continue writing my new book at my favourite table in the corner, and have 2 cups of coffee that, thanks to my readers, my royalties have allowed me to buy. And coffee OH WHAT JOY!

I’m really, really incredibly happy to have William Murphy and Caroline finally meet and have you meet them. Thank you for sharing this moment with me and, well, if you happen to stop by and see me at my favourite café, know that I am truly enjoying the coffee you bought me when you bought my book. 

The F*ckable Silver Fox Romance Heroine And Me

If you have a psyche of a sensitive nature, one that detests off-colour language, you may want to look away now because I’m about to drop some f-bombs.

By now you’ve probably seen it, Amy Schumer’s Last Fuckable Day. If you haven’t here’s a link to it.  Go watch it now.

If you don’t want to watch it, in a nutshell, the skit addresses the ageist and oh-so-sexist double standard in Hollywood. You know the ageist double standard I mean, don’t you? It’s that thing when an actress reaches an age grannyand is suddenly put out to pasture, or only offered stereotyped roles like mother, cougar, knitting grandma, and crazy hag cat lady, because they’ve crossed The Line of 40 and are no longer considered ‘fuckable’— or bankable. It’s that thing that doesn’t happen to men in Hollywood.

It also that thing that doesn’t happen to heroes in Romance Fiction.

In Schumer’s Last Fuckable Day, Amy and her pals, Tina Fey, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, and Patricia Arquette point out a woman’s ‘use by’ or ‘best before’ date in Hollywood, the enduring stereotyped roles available to an actress of a certain age, and how their male counterparts fail to suffer the same fate when they cross The Line of 40. You see, Silver Foxes, like George Clooney, are welcome in Hollywood as much as they are in romance novels. And in romance novels silver fox heroes are a hot and sought after hero.

Like in Hollywood the silver fox romance hero is usually paired with a younger woman. Like in Hollywood the silver fox moniker applies only to men. There are those of us who are tired of this ageist and sexist double standard. There are those of us tired of being told, ‘Sorry, you’re over 40 and no one wants to fuck you onscreen or in the pages of a romance novel.‘ To that I say, bullshit, there ARE people who want to see thosCGAHe movies and read those books. There are those of us who have money we would spend to see those movies and read those books because there are those of us who think that, who know that, being over 40 doesn’t mean you’re done with love or sex or romance.  There are those of us (in spite of how much we love Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn in Charade) who’d like to see the silver foxy hero paired with a woman his own age. There are those of us who want to change things, who want silver fox to apply to women who have crossed The Line of 40.

Yes, I’m one of those who wants to change this because, goddamn it, I’m over 40 and I’m a silver fox, not a dumpy middle-aged hausfrau who’s dead from the waist down, and I’m tired of seeing women like me left out of movies and books. I’m so over seeing Daniel Craig’s late 40s SPECTRE James Bond get paired up with the then 20-something Lea Seydoux instead of 50-something Monica Bellucci.

Pardon my momentary rant. I still haven’t recovered from the missed opportunity of Bond getting the RIGHT GIRL.

I write romance fiction with silver foxy men AND silver foxy women. Yeah, no, I’m not going to call her a silver vixen because cougar is already pejorative enough and there isn’t a male equivalent besides ‘dirty old man,’ which is something more perverted than a screen hero paired with a woman half his age—which keeps getting rammed down society’s throat Antonelli coveras normal.

Sorry…sorry, ranting again. Bond should have been with Bellucci.

There are those of us who believe we need a new normal, those of us who believe that if we saw silver foxy women on a regular basis, in advertising, on the big screen, on TV, in print that the double standard that keeps women over 40 trapped by stereotypes of age might change. That’s what I am doing, changing what I see by presenting real women in romance fiction who are not trapped by a stereotype of age, who are not cougars, grannies, or crazy cat ladies. In fact, I’m going against the Hollywood image completely.NextToYou_V1_FINAL Round3-Harlequin1920_1920x3022

My books, all of them, feature pairs of silver foxes in romance fiction, something we are lead to believe is a younger woman’s tale, which we know in real life is bullshit.

My latest release, Next to You, features a pair of silver foxes. It’s about a Bubblegum pop loving albino man named William Murphy and his new neighbor, Caroline, a woman who’s trying to grab life by the balls.  Next to You  comes on on Monday.