Monday, February 25, 2008

A Plug for the Girls Next Door

Virtually next door, that is. We list Smartbitchestrashybooks.com as a link on our sidebar, and I hope you have gone visiting sometime. It’s a fun site with lots of snark about silly covers and sillier romances. And there is plenty of thoughtful debate about romance, from people who ought to know because they write it and read it. And like me, they care about it.

Although women make up the majority of book readers, and romances make up the majority of fiction sold, sometimes the romance sensibility feels like it’s a minority world view. So if you’re hanging out on the web looking for your posse, make it a habit to regularly visit sites where romance is respected, and also dissected. I try to do that here, but I’m not the only person blogging about romance. Although—ahem!—I did just win second place in “Rename That Book: A Smart Bitch Contest.”

It’s right next door. No need to dress up or bring cookies. Just come as you are.
Copyright © 2010 Arrow Publications, LLC™. All Rights Reserved.

The Girl Gets it in the End

Carmen is not a good girl heroine. Carmen freely chooses and dumps lovers. Carmen dies. The wages of sex is death. Well, at least that’s the way it always used to go. Carmen, the antiheroine of a 19th century French novel by Prosper Mérimée, was such a bad girl that for the famous opera of the same name, the librettist actually invented a good girl to balance her. The good girl does not get the guy. Any guy. In fact, the good girl mostly stays with the hero’s dying mother, in that tediously virtuous manner of good girls.

But back to Carmen. Carmen wreaks havoc. We first meet her as she’s roughing up another girl at the cigarette factory. She’s going to prison for that, but she cozens the naive village boy solider, Don José, into letting her escape. Then, she hangs out with her smuggler buddies, and starts flirting with a glamorous bullfighter. Don José comes calling and professes his love. But this is not enough for Carmen. She insists that he desert the army and join the smugglers. Meanwhile, she flirts with his commanding officer. Don José is so maddened by jealousy that he attacks him, then has to desert. Once Don José has joined the smugglers, Carmen realizes what a drag he is. When the bullfighter comes to visit, José almost kills him. Carmen dumps José, but José doesn’t want to be dumped. He follows her to the bullring where she has gone with her new lover, and kills her.

That’s the plot. Carmen is aware of and uses her sexual power over men, which destroys her lover even as he in turn destroys her. Don José is probably the first stalker ex-boyfriend in fiction. Neither of them comes off well, but Carmen gets killed. Not a good end. But considered a suitable ending for a woman whose approach to love is amoral. Carmen’s crime is her willingness to take love where she finds it, and move on when she’s no longer interested. And that’s a behavior pattern historically forbidden, punished, and otherwise discouraged—for women. (Men get to do it all the time in all cultures.)

But I’m a good girl. I’m not going to get it in the end. I’m going to be with one guy and live happily ever after in my hearts-and-flowers, paper doll world. I’m going to be lucky. At least, that’s the way most people think, that the bad stuff isn’t going to happen to them, especially if they behave themselves. But what if we don’t behave? Do we all end up like Carmen?

Although romances don’t generally go to the extreme of punishing sexually active women with death anymore, they certainly have in the past. Just think of Madam X dying of absinthe addiction or the tragic heroine of Elinor Glyn’s Three Weeks, or of Madame Bovary coming to a sad end. And romances still do punish women, just not the heroines. The classic romance heroine is almost always portrayed as a modest type who hardly uses makeup, who never wears sexy attire to attract the attention of anyone but the hero, and who is mostly unaware of the power of her feminine allure. Moreover, most romance heroines do not actively pursue the men they fall for. If they do, it is seldom with the self-confidence of an experienced woman. Instead, the men pursue them.

But remember the Glamorous Other Woman? The Femme Fatale? The Bitchy Rival? She was a staple character in romances as long as the heroine was competing for the hero with another woman. In a culture with few opportunities for women, marrying well is the most important achievement. So it was definitely a competition. But virginal heroines were constricted by their very purity from using any of the ploys of the experienced other women who haunted their romances. These other women knew about makeup, and used it. They knew about allure, and used it. They even knew about manipulating men. And used them. Until the hero woke up and realized that the untouched heroine was the better bargain, because she had an honest soul. The glamorous other woman of romance got punished by not landing the man as a marriage partner. Yet meanwhile, she often was free with her sexual favors to the hero, and he took advantage of that. She got little long-term return on her sexual coin, and the goody-two-shoes heroine walked down the aisle instead.

Recently someone was posting on a romance blog about how annoying it is that we never see heroines who are women of sexual experience and sexual confidence. Although we’ve gotten past the convent-bred virgin heroines, and we’ve even gotten past the glamorous other woman rivals, we still mostly do romances about women who are consciously good girls, not Carmen types in any way. And this romance reader was expressing her wish that we could get past the virtuous stereotype of the romance heroine. It’s a reasonable request, because women’s lives in our culture have changed so much. Love doesn’t change. But a girl who’s having sex at age 14 and then having a full-bore sexual relationship all through college and then doing casual hook-ups with friends while pursuing a career has got to have a different take on sex than a virginal heroine does. Or even a selective, relatively inexperienced heroine who doesn’t have the backlog of relationships that didn’t add up to much except sex. And that’s where chick lit comes in as a genre, but chick lit almost never is about the romance, it’s about what the heroine is going to do with her life. So we still don’t have romances about experienced, sexually self-confident women. We’re still mostly writing about good girls who are convinced that if they acted on their sexuality the way Carmen did, exploring the fullest reaches of its power and its pleasure, they’d get it in the end.
Copyright © 2010 Arrow Publications, LLC™. All Rights Reserved.

Friday, February 15, 2008

Does This Mean I Have to Reread Silas Marner?

Most of us struggled through reading a few examples of classic 19th century English literature when we were teenagers. Not because we wanted to, but because they were required for school. For some, that was the magic introduction to Jane Eyre, or Pride and Prejudice, or Rudyard Kipling’s Kim. A world of romance, comedy of manners, and adventure opened up to us. For the boys who were forced to read Jane Eyre instead of being allowed to read Kim, maybe the assignment was pure torture. But probably good practice for going on dates as adults to see dreadful chick flicks like...oh, anything with Meg Ryan, for instance.

Back in high school, another often-assigned book was one of Charles Dickens’ most depressing works, Great Expectations. For years on end, the book’s young narrator is led to believe that he has some financial benefactor who will take care of his future. And meanwhile, he falls in love with a selfish young woman who very obviously does not return his devotion. And he meets up with a crazy old rich lady whose life stopped on her wedding day when she was jilted. I think she wanders around wearing her tattered wedding gown, but I don’t remember the details. And I don’t want to. It was a downer book. Offhand, I don’t recall any classic 19th century book more likely to tell a teenager to give up now, that life is going to punch you in the gut, and so why bother. Even Anna Karenina (which to put it bluntly ends very badly for Anna) is not depressing like Great Expectations because it doesn’t insist on the folly of having dreams.

By far the most scorned of all the school classics was Silas Marner. This short tale by George Eliot, aka Marianne Evans, tells the story of a cottage weaver and his dainty daughter. All I remember from it is that Marner at one point has a seizure while leaning against a fence and freezes in that position. He is presumed dead, but he isn’t dead. I can’t remember why that mattered in the plot. But I did learn the term “catatonic fit” from reading about it. Unlike most of my peers, I quite liked Silas Marner at the time just for the daughter’s romance. (And the fit, of course.) From the comments many people have made about that book, I’m strictly in the minority. And I’ve never had a desire to revisit the book.

But a recent revisitation of another kind has started me thinking. I saw “Macbeth,” Verdi’s opera, not Shakespeare’s play, on one of the HD simulcasts at a movie theater ($20 for an opera ticket can’t be beat), and I quite enjoyed it. I’d seen it years before and disliked it so much that I rose from my pricey orchestra seat at the Metropolitan Opera at intermission and never went back. This time, I just loved it. Loved the singing, loved the characterization, loved all but one stupid crowd scene. Operas are full of stupid crowd scenes at the beginning of acts, and I am convinced they’re there so people can come back late from intermission and not miss anything important. Anyway, now that I’ve revised my opinion of “Macbeth,” I am wondering if there are other cultural experiences I should expose myself to again, in case my appreciation of them has changed through time and life experience. Not marionettes, though. I think they’re creepy.

And that leads me to a question. Should I reread Silas Marner, looking for the literary merit this time, and not holding on desperately to any vestige of a romance? How many classics that I slogged through in high school and college should I try again, hoping to find a different perspective? And should I bother with lesser literary works? Should I attempt to read Gone with the Wind again? I tried to when I was a teenager and I hated all the characters so much I hardly got through the first chapter. (And I’ve never even seen the movie.) Should I try again, hoping that the distance of time and maturation will change my opinion? Or should I just keep on slowly reading other classic books, ones that I’ve never read before? There’s a limit to the number of books any person can read in a lifetime. I’ve already spent years and years wallowing happily in romances and murder mysteries and self-help books and whatever. My list of classics to be read goes down by about three books a year. If I have to reread them, I’ll never finish.

So many books, so little time.
Copyright © 2010 Arrow Publications, LLC™. All Rights Reserved.

Saturday, February 09, 2008

Phyllis A. Whitney, Gothic Writer Supreme

Today we mark the passing of a remarkable romance writer, Phyllis A. Whitney, at age 104. Ms. Whitney had a long and distinguished writing career, finally retiring when she was in her nineties. This included being named a Grand Master by the Mystery Writers of America in 1988. Had there been an organization devoted to romance writing during the heyday of her career, no doubt she would have been awarded its highest honor as well. For although she was the author of numerous books for adults, teens, and children, many of which could be called mysteries, her biggest success and influence was as a writer of Gothic romances. No history of mid-20th century romances would be complete without her.

I first read Phyllis A. Whitney when I was a kid stuck in the hospital. It was one of her children’s mysteries, either Mystery of the Black Diamonds or Mystery on the Isle of Skye, both excellent stories for the young set. It wasn’t long before I graduated to her books for adults, which were a mix of period Gothic romances and modern romantic suspense. I think I started with Thunder Heights, an evocative tale of a young woman who comes as a long-estranged relative to a Hudson River mansion, then The Trembling Hills, happening during the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, Skye Cameron, about old New Orleans, and my favorite, which I’ve posted about before (including the cover), The Quicksilver Pool.

The setting of The Quicksilver Pool is Staten Island during the Civil War. It’s a memorable story of a new bride making a place for herself in an unfamiliar and somewhat hostile family during difficult times. I admired this heroine above all of Whitney’s, because although there was a romance, a lot of the book was about a woman improving the lives of her new family, righting wrongs, giving people new hope, and by doing so, causing people to love and respect her. Quite an achievement for a young woman without the help of a husband in love with her (it was a wartime marriage of convenience), or beauty, money, connections, or even a clean emotional slate. This heroine worked hard for her happy ending. Even the mystery’s solution had a certain element of human folly (hoop skirts, those heavy iron contraptions, play a key role) that made the truth believable while still having that edge of glamor so much a part of a Gothic romance.

Whitney was a master at utilizing all the most evocative elements of a Gothic novel. Her books took place in glamorous settings all over the world: New York, Japan, New Orleans’ Garden District, Nob Hill in San Francisco, South Africa, Greece, and even Istanbul, to name a few. Usually, they centered around the fancy mansions and estates of the wealthy. Family secrets and estrangements between spouses played a large role in her stories. She was brilliant at creating portrayals of strong and not-so-strong women of varying generations and backgrounds, not just naive young heroines and their beautiful romantic rivals. Additionally, she didn’t avoid controversial realities about her settings. The Quicksilver Pool has a subplot involving slavery issues, and Blue Fire comments on apartheid even while the main plot involves glamorous (and controversial) diamond mining struggles. Daring topics for a writer of supposedly escapist fiction.

For years, I eagerly read each new book by Phyllis A. Whitney. I even searched out and read her older books. I’ve read her first book, for instance, A Place for Ann, a young adult novel published in 1941. I am not sure why I grew away from her writing. I know that by the time I read The Stone Bull, I was impatient with a young heroine who seemed never to get in a word edgewise, who was overawed by the powerful and much older people she encountered in the rarefied air of a wealthy estate. Yet, even though I had turned my back on Whitney, she continued to write the kind of book she always did. And she continued to sell well and to receive excellent reviews. It’s easy to tell the difference between a kind review and an enthusiastic one, and she received genuinely admiring reviews even of her late-in-life books.

Phyllis A. Whitney led a life full of achievement. That’s a lot to say about anyone.
Copyright © 2010 Arrow Publications, LLC™. All Rights Reserved.