Sunday, May 31, 2009

In Defense of Women

In Defense of Women is a sly polemic written by H. L. Mencken almost 100 years ago, basically accusing women of trapping men into marriage because, according to him, we are much smarter than men but they are our economic main chance. Okay, simmer down. Times have changed since 1918. Women did get the vote. We did permeate the public world and are still pressing on to make further gains in government, the sciences, and other previously male-only or male-centric realms. We routinely work outside the home, and we no longer have to marry to assure ourselves of a secure economic future.

But such was not the case nearly 100 years ago, although Mencken points out that by then the situation had improved from 100 years prior to his time. He claimed that previously, a woman “could imagine nothing more favorable to her than marriage; even marriage with a fifth-rate man was better than no marriage at all.” And isn’t that exactly what Charlotte Lucas says to Elizabeth Bennet in Pride and Prejudice, written about 100 years before Mencken’s book? Charlotte marries the idiotic toady, Mr. Collins, rather than remain a spinster. Perhaps our modern love affair with Jane Austen persists in part because Elizabeth, speaking for Austen, is so disapproving of this marriage of economic convenience. As was Mencken 100 years later, when such marriages were already going out of fashion. And as are we today, when women who marry for money are despised as gold-diggers.

Still, it stings to read his claim that women were intent on trapping men into matrimony for the sole purpose of attaining economic security. Was the accusation true? Yes and no. It was probably as true as the counter-accusation that men married women just to have someone to cook and clean for them and produce offspring. Even 100 years ago, most men and women in our society married in the belief that they loved or admired the other person. Romantic novels had already existed for over 100 years by then. (The first English novel was a romance, remember.) Further, 100 years ago there were artistic archetypes in magazines of handsome young men and women to dream about. There were romantic songs. Movies existed and matinee idols were just around the corner. Even more significantly, marriage no longer involved a dowry from the bride’s family. Most men married for the woman herself, not for the money or land she would bring him. Did women marry for the man himself, or for the economic security? Sadly, because men had more economic options than women did, there’s a good chance that some women settled, as Charlotte Lucas did a century before. But even Charlotte Lucas acknowledged that a marriage based on true affinity would have been preferable. The problem with settling was that in an era in which divorce was uncommon and created a heavy social stigma, marriage was for life, and there doubtless were some unhappy surprises after the vows had been said.

Nearly 100 years after Mencken wrote In Defense of Women, many changes have occurred. Women don’t need to marry for economic security; they can create it themselves. Men don’t need to marry to have children; they can just live with a girlfriend who is willing to have babies without marrying. The microwave and commercially prepared meals mean that no one has to know how to cook. In between then and now, women and men spent nearly 100 years lightly chaperoned and going on dates that were essentially chaste in intent. A party or a dance. Dinner and a movie. Not so today, if the reports in the media are to be believed. If people like each other at all, they may end up in bed almost immediately. Only afterwards do they begin to decide if their relationship has any future. Or even if it’s a romantic relationship at all. Ironically, there is nothing new about this. It mimics the common situation of the past (whether 100 or 1,000 years ago) in which men and women courted formally or perhaps did not even meet before the wedding. Only after the marriage ceremony did they begin to learn about the real character of the new spouse. The relationship began once the wedding feast was over.

How, then, are we to judge Mencken’s dispatch from the past? Is the marriage of entrapment, made for economic purposes, dead and gone? Yes. Mencken’s outrage appears pointless in these days of men and women who live together without ever marrying, and households supported by the woman’s income, not the man’s. In fact, the conditions that Mencken observed appear to have been merely a stop along the way towards what we have today. Social mores quickly evolved even during his lifetime, and the carefully chaperoned young woman who tricked a man into marriage by putting on a demure act simply disappeared. Men and women dated freely throughout the twentieth century. More and more, they married entirely to please themselves, even crossing ethnic, social, and religious boundaries, to say nothing of not judging a potential spouse by economic standards. Of course there still are people willing to marry for money, both men and women, and even those willing to trap someone into marriage. But these instances are rare in our society today.

Is there anything to be learned from Mencken’s opinion of women? Yes, but probably not what he intended. What Mencken reveals by condemning women while seeming to admire them is that men also chafed under the old system. Modern courtship may be confusing, infuriating, and messy. But there is more freedom and honesty on both sides. Marriage has not been discarded as an ideal, but its main purpose today is seen as romantic, not material. People today look to marry their true love or soul mate, not a good provider or a good cook or baby maker. That nobody has to write supposed defenses of women anymore is proof that we’ve come a long way. But “He’s Just Not That Into You” and the current Jane Austen mania suggest that we’d like the courtship dance to be even more clear cut than it presently is. If that’s possible.
Copyright © 2010 Arrow Publications, LLC™. All Rights Reserved.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Confused About Paranormal Romances? Me, Too

Paranormal romances are big sellers these days. But it’s hard to know what is and what is not a paranormal romance, especially because there seems to be a fine line between that definition and urban fantasy, another very hot subgenre. For instance, Lara Adrian’s Ashes of Midnight is published by Dell as a paranormal romance (it says so on the spine). It’s got a bad marriage and a lot of vampires and other beasts doing vast amounts of killing. But it does end with a male and a female happy together. Humans? Not exactly.

Moon Burn, by Alisa Sheckley (who has also written comic books and some chick lit novels as Alisa Kwitney) does not indicate that it is a paranormal romance. It is from the Del Ray imprint from Ballantine Books, which is generally considered a fantasy and science fiction line. It seems to be a straightforward, character-driven werewolf story, and again, it ends with a male and a female happy together. So why isn’t it labeled a paranormal romance?

Eve of Darkness by S. J. Day has been categorized as urban fantasy by Tor on its spine. The heroine starts off surrounded by Satan’s minions, and things go downhill from there. But by the end, she and her lover are going on a date. Hmm...does this qualify as paranormal romance?

And then there is Norse Code by Greg van Eekhout, which is another Ballantine book, but this time from its Spectra line, which used to be a Bantam imprint. (I love that title, by the way; it’s genius.) Norse Code takes Norse mythology and runs a straight fantasy with it, starring a heroine who looks just like the other heroines from these books. But, as is common in a story written by a man, it starts with a man’s point of view in a prologue, and only then begins the heroine’s journey. So, always, there is the sense that no matter what she does, she is clueless about the true significance of her actions. There’s a very good chance she is a mere puppet in the hands of experienced schemers.

As you can see, the covers of three out of the four books are remarkably similar. They’ve each got the same dark-haired girl showing a lot of flesh—but not cleavage. Ashes of Midnight has a clinch cover, a little bit of scrollwork, and a completely boring, empty street. It’s the only one that visually advertises a romance element.

Here’s something different, just to conuse me even more. Night’s Rose, by Annaliese Evans, is billed on its spine as a historical paranormal romance, but on the author’s web site, she calls it a historical urban fantasy. And the first page deals with ogres who eat people, bones and all. Lovely introduction to a romance. Lots of supernatural creatures and violence despite the soft-looking blonde (with a sword) in the red velvet gown on the cover. Is this a paranormal romance?

And the final entries are from Sherrilyn Kenyon, who has achieved bestseller status. Her two recent releases from St. Martin’s Paperbacks are labeled novels. Not paranormal romance, not urban fantasy, and not fantasy. Once genre novelists hit the bigtime, their books never carry a genre label on their spine, nor are they typically shelved in bookstores with other genre novels. But as you can see, the cover of Dream Warrior has the typical dark-haired young woman with a skimpy black dress. And a cemetery for good measure. But even though there is a strong heroine, the back cover blurb reads as if this is fantasy starring the usual somewhat accursed hero type. (There is a manga version of Kenyon’s Dark-Hunter series beginning that might be a shortcut to comprehending the story arc.) Kenyon’s second recent title, Acheron, is a hefty 806 pages of backstory and current adventures of a character from her previous continuity. This one has a nonrepresentational cover, to align it with other hefty novels that a man might not be ashamed to be seen reading. Acheron starts like any historical novel, except that it’s a fantasy novel that is in her Dream-Hunter series. It ends with happily ever after. Is it a romance or not? Has anybody ever counted the kisses (I’m cleaning things up here) versus the number of demons burned, vampires impaled, and so on? I thought not.

In addition to my confusion about which, if any, of these paranormal romance/urban fantasy/fantasy/novels would offer me the story closest to a pure romance, I’ve got another issue. The world building. Each author has carefully created a new reality, and within it, new hierarchies of power, new creatures, and new methods of attaining power and of attacking others, and more. And the authors usually create some related political or power struggle between opposing supernatural forces, the more labyrinthine the better. It’s a lot of work to buy into each new world, because although the rules of vampire bites might seem common in all, for instance, that is not guaranteed. When I read for pleasure, I don’t want to learn a lot of new details about an imaginary system of demonic forces. To me, that’s not relaxing. But given how popular these books are right now, lots of people do like all the world building. Or just put up with it, because they like all the creature-slaying, demon-burning, etc.

I still haven’t solved the basic question, which is, how do I figure out which of these novels might have the strongest romance elements? There is no way to tell from the covers, other than the Lara Adrian one. The back cover blurbs and first page excerpts don’t help. In fact, none of these titles has a first page excerpt. Most of them feature praise from reviewers. I remember when I was a kid and I was trying to figure out what a book might be like, and I would read these kinds of reviews. (If they said “bold and lusty” I knew to stay away. I was just a kid, after all.) The trouble is, when a reviewer of fantasy says a story is erotic, the reviewer might mean that there is a hot romance, but there might be some sexual behavior that does not constitute romance at all. I read something recently in which the devil (yes, Himself) wants to have sex with the heroine. Erotic? Maybe. Romantic? I don’t think so.

I’m still confused about where the romance is, and to be honest, I’m not sure I want to wade through all the demon-slaying and ogre-crunching to find it. Next stop, Amish romance. I can’t go wrong with an oil crust homemade pie and a hunky Amish carpenter.
Copyright © 2010 Arrow Publications, LLC™. All Rights Reserved.