Tuesday, December 4, 2018

Violence & Romance: Problematic Trope

Violence & romance has a long history. Consider the melodrama--the damsel in distress tied to the railroad tracks, the curly-mustached villain bent over her in glee.

Shoot, consider Last of the Mohicans (the movie) or Beauty & the Beast, the scene where an enraged beast snarls over the fallen body of his particular damsel.

This trope is a staple of romance literature. Quite often, it involves highly violent heroes stabbing and shooting and otherwise maiming bad guys while a love interest looks on fondly, waits to be rescued, or occasionally participates. It can be done well. Hey, I've watched and read my fair share!

And I've reach the entirely subjective conclusion that I far prefer my violence to not be the motivation for the love affair.

That is, I divide violence & romance literature into two categories: romances where the degree of violence equals the degree of love; romances where the violence (or violent aftermath) is something that the couple handle together.

In the first category--where the degree of violence equals the degree of love--the problem is bound up in the descriptor. Suffering becomes the pathway to affection. The more suffering, the more affection. This occurs even (especially) when the violence isn't gangs and armed bad guys but rather mental and physical damage from the past. One member of the couple underwent years of abuse. Isn't it wonderful that now he or she has earned true love?!

It sounds great. And I've read reviews where reviewers applauded the wonderfulness of someone with so much past pain getting love in the end. "I was so happy for him/her to get the comfort he/she needed!"

The book about destroying oneself for love.
I dislike it intensely. Here's why:

1. "Suspension of disbelief" crumbles in the face of the problem. 

Romantic love can't solve everything. It can't wipe out years of abuse. It can't overcome drug addiction. A person who has suffered such problems needs time and space to sort themselves out. Often, running into a relationship will only compound the problems, even sabotage the new relationship. Drowning people can drag other people down with them.

In books of this type, the trope "I saw someone across the room and knew we should be together" stops being cute and becomes intensely selfish, even skin-crawling. Sure, the object of the pursuit will cave--that's what vulnerable people do. Doesn't mean it's right. 

2. The pain inflicted on one member of the couple is used to manipulate the reader. 

I've read books of this type where I agreed with the romantic ending out of sheer exhaustion. Until I stepped back and went, "Yikes!" The detailed descriptions of how awful everything was--the terror and hopelessness of the one character's horrific past--ratcheted up to the point where any relief was welcome. I greeted the intrusion of romance as a solution because, well, Anything is better than this.

Below is an example of a romance book where the violence is handled well. I will then describe what the book would read like if the violence was handled poorly.
I do perceive Finder as a positive--
despite all the gun fights and rescuing.
Affection isn't contingent on the violence.
Akihito is a very stable person.

Well-Rendered Use of Violence in a Romance

Eli Easton's Boy Shattered is truly remarkable. It uses an external trigger of a school shooting. The shooting is described from two perspectives, and it is chilling. It is also handled with impressive brevity and sparseness of detail. We are shown the shooting--which is necessary to understanding the main characters' reactions--but we aren't forced to wallow in it.

The main characters, Logan and Brian, form a friendship which becomes a romance. The relationship is fast-forwarded due to the shooting since the shooting breaks down barriers between high school cliques. People re-vision their priorities. However, the friendship does not depend on the degree of violence that either young man witnessed or experienced. They already respected and liked each other, even if from a distance. It is entirely believable that several years later at college, they would have met up, remembered each other from high school, and bonded.

In other words, the school shooting doesn't vindicate the romance.

Logan and Brian deal with the aftermath of the shooting in different ways. Logan listens to Brian's theories; Brian attends Logan's anti-gun rallies. Ultimately, they come to terms with what happened to them individually. And they support each other's individual approaches/needs. "Support" becomes a radically more useful tool in the relationship box than the type of support suggested below.

If the Violence Was Handled Badly

The reader would be subjected not to a few of Brian's dreams but to a constant stream of flashbacks filled with writhing bodies, blood-stained pavements, and screaming victims with precise details of their wounds. One of the characters, Brian most likely, would become entirely incapable of moving forward. Only Logan's confession of love would enable him to do anything. By this point in the story, the reader would be so desperate for Brian's release from the railroad tracks of violent imagery, Logan's confession--in lieu of Brian's personal decision to act--would be welcomed with a heartfelt sigh.

And the future relationship would be doomed since loving someone in order to keep them from being miserable is a blueprint for disaster.

Kudos to Eli Easton for handling her romance in such a way that a stable, healthy future relationship is entirely possible.

Monday, November 26, 2018

Bad versus Good Polyamorous Romances

I am the product of polygamy (my grandmother was the youngest child of a second wife). Consequently, I have a soft spot for polyamorous stories. I sympathize with readers who never read such romances (M/M or M/F) but if they are well-written...

Here's the problem. Polyamorous stories are intensely difficult to pull off (and absolutely no double entendre was intended there).

Now, polyamorous relationships are somewhat different from polygynous (man with multiple wives) or polyandrous (woman with multiple husbands) relationships since polyamorous relationships can be any combination thereof. But the same problems haunt them all: competition, jealousy between members, lack of commitment, lust being perceived as inherent permission to stray, etc. All these weaknesses are compounded by a polyamorous relationship's numbers.

Jaime Samms's Three Player Game is one of the best romances of this type. I'm been pondering for awhile why it works--when quite honestly the concept is such a hard sell. I then read a polyamorous novella that was frankly so horrible, I've had to stop reading the author's entire oeuvre. At least for awhile. (Lack of trust between reader and writer is an uncomfortable thing.)

What's the difference? What makes a good polyamorous (literary) romance work?

1. The involved characters are all wired for a multi-person relationship.

The relationship isn't a surprise, especially not for the reader.

The horrible book was a sequel to a previous book. In the previous book, the author gave no indication at all that the characters were interested in a polyamorous relationship. The one character was a rather innocent young man who craved a family. The other character was a rather promiscuous man who decided to settle down when he met the "one." In the sequel, the innocent young man is shocked--shocked!--to discover his polyamorous bent.

Eh, no. Some things can shock a person. Wiring of this type, however, is not the sort of thing that creeps up on one. It is there already. In Jaime Samms's Three Player Game, the two characters already in a relationship are prepared to expand their home-life to a third person. They acknowledge their desires. They discuss them. They are the furthest thing from shocked and surprised.

2. Wanting a multi-person relationship is not the same as wanting to sleep around. Nor is it the same as a three-some or an open relationship.

The terms appear interchangeable to those who are fully committed to monogamy. Understandably since the lame excuse "hey, babe, commitment isn't part of our evolutionary makeup, ya know" is too often a fall-back position for those who want to do, well, whatever they want (whatever the cost).

At this point, it becomes necessary to deal with the stereotype that all men just want to sleep around.

Interestingly enough in yaoi, the "sub"
often has more freedom to play the field
than the "dom."
Promiscuity may be part of the evolutionary package. So is a yearning for stability. Going all the way back to forever, people in art and literature have yearned to be desired. And to get their jollies wherever they want. And to have that one and only. It's as much a male desire as a female one, even if it is often packaged differently.

And with very few exceptions, all art and literature since forever has determined that cheating/lying/deceitfulness in love is less than okay (and often downright dangerous).

Consequently, the need for clear understanding/agreement reigns supreme. A relationship that engages in three-somes (Dom and Silas from KJ Charles's Seditious Affair, for example) is exercising sexual desires as part of the two-person relationship yet outside of it. The couple engage in the behavior together, then return to their regular two-person lives. In an open relationship, the couple go their own ways, returning to "home base" at the end of the proverbial day.

In a polyamorous relationship, other partners are incorporated into the existing home relationship.

In sum, a successful relationship has rules.

The horrible book tosses around the above terms not only as if they are interchangeable but as if one kink in one direction allows for all behavior in all directions. Except human beings are far more individually wired than that. Dom and Silas would likely not be okay with a polyamorous relationship, in large part due to their mutually reserved personalities.

In the horrible book, the so-called open-minded boyfriend (or pimp) is actually pissed when his boyfriend finds the whole idea of polyamory kind of awkward: "It's just other people's opinions! You shouldn't feel that way! You make up the rules!"

In Samms's book, on the other hand, the idea of a multi-person relationship is not mentioned (for the first time) as part of a bedroom pep talk. It is not the result of pressure and second-guessing. The couple have already discussed, quite matter-of-factly, whether to include someone in their relationship. They have already laid out ground rules regarding approach and acceptance.

3.  The successful polyamorous relationship is not about wishful thinking. It is about commitment.

The horrible book paints the potential relationship precisely as wishful thinking. Oh, I met someone, thought he was hot, and by the way, I really, really like him. Wouldn't it be great if . . .?

And that's a good enough reason to start a relationship because . . . we're all fourteen-year-olds passing notes in study hall?

In Samms's book, the selection of the right individual is perceived as a long-term process. It won't happen overnight. And it may not happen with this guy (no matter how attractive). They aren't inviting him into their home to screw with him (literally and figuratively) because they were bored one day. Like any good polygamous family, they are scouting potential additions.

4. Successful polyamorous relationships are not about re-enacting the grand experience of falling in love over and over again.

That might sound odd since love and affection often accompany commitment.

However, in the horrible book, the one character decides (like a teenage idiot), "I want to sleep with him. AND I like him. Oh, it must be love. Therefore, I must be polyamorous!"


Feeling affection for multiple people does not translate automatically into intimacy. Or long-term love and commitment. Or not. People can love their friends. Their pets. Movie stars on the big screen. They can love people who are not their partners.

People don't act on every feeling of love or affection or desire or closeness nor do they act--when they do act--on those feelings the same way with everyone. People's emotions don't fit tidily into acceptable boxes. And their emotions don't stay there either.

In other words, being in a committed relationship doesn't mean I-never-look-at-anyone-or-think-anything-that-bleeds-into-the-love-spectrum-ever-ever-ever-again.

It means I-stay-in-this-particular-relationship-based-on-consent-and-agreement-to-terms (believe it or not, this is a very old definition of what constitutes a healthy, committed relationship).

Consent and honesty is why so many of us admire Booth for staying loyal to his girlfriend, even though his girlfriend at the time wasn't Bones and Bones had just confessed her love to Booth.

If Booth thought like the horrible book's characters, he would have dropped the girlfriend in an instant or suggested a three-way--because after all, he has powerful feelings of friendship and affection for Bones. Voila! A relationship must ensue!

Except Booth is a conservative guy (like Tim Allen's Mike Baxter and Tom Selleck's Frank Reagan), and he doesn't. He knows what his limits are. And we like him better for it.

I give the marriages in the horrible book a three-second shelf-life. As soon as another damaged hottie enters the mix, off they will all go . . .

Jaime Samms's characters, on the other hand, I can see living together well into old age. Support. Comfort. Complementary personalities. Meeting of needs. Their commitment isn't based on momentary lust (even if lust is present) or adolescent cluelessness about the nature of human affection--"Oh my gosh, I must love this person because I have all these warm & fuzzy feelings!"--or coercion about "free-thinking".

Rather, their commitment is based on honesty, knowing the rules, knowing each member's character, balance, and wanting the relationship because it is the type of relationship they have always wanted and valued. 

Consider grown-up Sherlock's comment to grown-up Joan:
Your romantic inclinations are not a flaw to be corrected. They're a trait to be accepted. I know you, Watson. You'll never be happy within the confines of a, quote, unquote, "traditional relationship." And I said what I said because it pains me to see you try to fit into one simply because it is the default mode of polite society. Would you be happier without Andrew? Alternatively, with him as an occasional sex partner and confidant? With him when in the States and free to pursue other interests when not? There are any number of possible arrangements. All you need to do is find one which is true to your nature.
He is NOT saying, "Oh, well, this time, you really like the guy, so, you know, whatever. Next time, whatever."

He is saying, "Figure out your wiring. Stop acting like it's other people's fault. Be upfront in your relationships. Take responsibility. Be rational and choose." 

That's how grown-ups talk.

Tuesday, November 20, 2018

The Deathless Romance as Social and Political Statement

One defense of HEA (Happily Ever After) M/M (Male/Male) romances is that too many movies and books kill off the gay couple, and it's time for that to stop!

E.M. Forster makes a similar gleeful point in his notes to Maurice when he points out that if he'd ended the book with a suicide pact, it would have been embraced as great literature.

He's right though I must point out two flaws with this argument:

1. A huge amount of romance art ends with the death of the young wife from a wasting disease (Steel Magnolias, Terms of Endearment, Love Story, A Walk to Remember, everything by Poe and the Pre-Raphaelites, etc. etc. etc) and nobody is starting any petitions (so far as I know) to Save Pretty White Women! Okay, maybe when Buffy was on the air but other than that . . .

2. Unfortunately, and sadly, sometimes death does reflect reality. All writers are faced with the conundrum How do I make this story real but right? Yes, I prefer God's Own Country; that doesn't mean Brokeback Mountain doesn't happen.

However, generally speaking, I am not an advocate of death in stories, mostly because I consider it to be a big writing cop-out. It is far more difficult to solve a problem without killing people off.

Besides, the defense of HEAs in gay literature led me to ponder Jane Austen and Charlotte Bronte. When they wrote their seminal romantic works, namely Pride & Prejudice and Jane Eyre (Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights is more old-school), they marked a profound social shift in the nineteenth century world. People were marrying for love--successfully--without apology or death.

Nowadays, we take this kind of statement for granted. We are even somewhat derogatory about it (since some people are still foolish enough to think sad endings are more realistic than happy ones).

In Reading Lolita in Tehran, Azar Nafisi explains why reading Pride & Prejudice in a dictatorship would be considered subversive even though the work itself rarely mentions the politics of its day. The existence of a proliferation of voices--speaking over and under each other, surviving side by side--is democracy in action. Austen allows Mrs. Bennet to exist alongside the Bingleys; Darcy to exist alongside Mrs. Reynolds; Wickham alongside the Gardiners. They all have different attitudes and characters and desires and opinions. Yet Austen doesn't kill them off. The novel is inherently tolerant.

Romance literature falls into this category. Yes, some of it can be rather shallow and silly. And some of it can be rather badly written. But hey, I know so-called great works that fall into both those categories. What sets HEA romances aside from everything else is that their ends are inherently constructive, pro-people, pro-individualism. It isn't just that the good guys win--the good folks let other people win too.

Wednesday, November 7, 2018

Extrovert and Introvert in Easton's Boy Shattered

https://www.amazon.com/Boy-Shattered-Eli-Easton-ebook/dp/B07JB2CB84/ref=sr_1_3?ie=UTF8&qid=1541522971&sr=8-3&keywords=eli+eastonEli Easton's Boy Shattered is a very good book in many ways. One of those ways is the depiction of the different-but-equal main characters, Logan and Brian.

Logan is an outward planning extrovert. Brian is an introspective introvert. They complement each other. Yet their relationship also provides relationship tension.

Logan's reaction to the school shooting is to objectify his experience, to see it almost as something historical, something he can make sense of. Fix. Use. He was affected by it, tremendously. He handles his emotions by asking himself, "Okay, what do we do about this?"

In the world of labels, Logan is an agentic extrovert.

Brian is the warrior poet. He loves to keep physically active, to run with the ball (quite literally, as a basketball and football player). He is also highly introspective. Granted, his introspection is enhanced by his near-death experience. But he was a pondering type of guy beforehand.

It makes total sense that in the long term, Brian would become a detective (think a much younger Frank Reagan who hasn't yet been forced into the political arena) while Logan would become a talkative political activist (think a more liberal-leaning Mike Baxter).

Easton does an excellent job depicting the tension that could arise between such personalities, even when they get along. The position, Why do you have to go out there and involve other people? versus Why can't you see that what we went through does involve other people? is well-rendered.  And goes a long way towards explaining the fall-out between Tolkien (introspective introvert) and C.S. Lewis (affiliative extrovert).

Logan and Brian succeed in large part because they maintain the objective ability to step back and ponder the other person's perspective. In complete honesty, I'm not sure I totally believe that high school students could be quite so objective. The older-by-ten-plus-years Bones and Booth, yes, especially since Logan is Booth's extroversion plus Brennan's logic while Brian is Brennan's reserve plus Booth's "gut".

I hate to say it, but I rather think Brian and Logan would break up in college.

Then get back together!! Soul mates, dude. And if someone wants to argue that their high school experience forced them to mature faster than usual, I would be cool with that.

In sum, it's gratifying when a romance writer can capture not only a gripping external problem but a realistic internal problem that doesn't rest on either extreme inner distrust or extreme inner anger. Logan and Brian can solve their differences, if not immediately, then eventually.

Wednesday, October 31, 2018

His in Herland Updated

I recently updated my response to Charlotte Perkins Gilman's Herland along with new chapters. The original version was intended as a response to the problem of utopias. They are so attractive on the one hand, yet so entirely problematic on the other--especially since they always seem to depend on the constant grinding work of invisible people behind the scenes.

As so often happens with a text, the problem of the main character, Alim, rather took over. What makes him a "him"? Nurture? Nature in the genetic (inherited) sense? Or biological sense? Or evolutionary sense? How much of his personality is a "him" and how much of it is specific to Alim as Alim (as opposed to Bob or Gary or Charlotte)?

I don't try to answer all those questions--quite frankly, I don't think I can. But they are out there.

The pictures indicate how much a young male can change between the ages of 15 and 21. So human development also plays a role.

His in Herland by Katherine Woodbury can be found here.

Saturday, October 20, 2018

Another Non-After School Special: Hidden Kisses

In an earlier post, I comment on fiction that comes across as an "After School Special."

There's nothing particularly wrong with After School Specials; I simply prefer my literature to be less Important Topic Under Discussion and more story for the sake of story.

Hidden Kisses greatly surprised me for being very much not an after school special.

The blurb on the DVD back cover rather implied that it would be--two boys kiss at a party; someone takes a picture; the one boy is recognized; bullying ensues.

And yes, that is (more or less) the plot that runs the movie.

But that's not what the movie is about.  

*Minor Spoilers*

The movie is about the families, specifically the fathers of the two boys. The one father is rather wonderful. Stunned, at first he distances himself from his son, only to come around and rebuild their positive relationship. The other father--who nearly invites us to hate him--reacts with a passionate determination to "fix" his son.

And yet--

The movie is not a LECTURE on HOW PARENTS SHOULD BEHAVE. Rather, the movie illuminates how two fathers see themselves reflected in their sons (an only son and an eldest son), not only in terms of their sexuality but in terms of their interests and behavior. It isn't so much about good v. bad but about how a parent reacts when his or her belief about the future (my child will be . . .) is shattered.

The first father is able to more easily move on because that future always held a bit of mystery to him. The second father, whose images of his well-functioning family were more assured and definite, needs more time.

We don't get the Hollywood ending. We do get hope.

What makes the film so extraordinary is that without abandoning the boys--the movie always takes their side--it allows for the heartache and uncertainty of others. At the end of the movie, the two boys are reunited when Louis returns from his grandparents. The boys greet each other with a relieved embrace while the mother looks on.

Is she sad? Thoughtful? Resigned? Accepting? Did she think the time away would "cure" Louis like his father hoped? She decided to take her son away before her husband did him irreparable harm. Does she feel guilt? Relief? Shame? Exhaustion? Does she bemoan her marriage? Does she have hope for it? Is she confident in her decisions?

We aren't told.

This is story, not a lesson.

Tuesday, October 16, 2018

Allowing for Reality: K.J. Charles's Band Sinister

K.J. Charles does it again!

One of my favorite aspects of Charles's plots is her refusal to adopt easy answers. It is frankly common for many romances to fall back on the assumption that all the people who are trying to keep the lovers apart are bad while all the people who want to get them together are good.

Jane Austen and Shakespeare each point out the futility of these assumptions. As does K.J. Charles--though she wends a more difficult line (Austen and Shakespeare had unified cultural moralities to fall back on or at least, as unified as their individual class systems allowed for).

In sum, Charles tackles the moral quandary: What is the line between thumbing one's nose at the world, doing one's own thing, being an island--and being a responsible, social human being?


In Band Sinister, Philip may have good reason to go his own way, to shrug at society's strictures and moral coding. But then, Philip can afford it.

The clothes are wrong but the expressions are right.
As sweet, thoughtful, and level-headed Guy points out, many women and some men can't afford the same indifference (or studied indifference). They need social support. They need good reputations, so they can get decent employment or make decent marriages or receive allowances from relatives so they can, you know, eat.

In addition, he points out that Philip's disregard for social niceties has made things difficult for Guy's sister. In a tribute to Georgette Heyer (which I think Band Sinister may very well be), Amanda breaks her leg on Philip's property and cannot be moved from his house. It is practically impossible to entice a decent nurse to stay as her companion due to Philip's notoriety.

Guy's perspective isn't the final say, however. Charles plays fair! Philip has good reason to protect himself and his friends. In any case, Philip and his friends are philosophical bohemians, not alcoholic libertines. And frankly, who cares what the neighbors say? At some point, everybody has to decide a future course based on his or her own integrity, not the world's views.

It's a problem that applies to more than romance. I work at a job I am reasonably good at, yet I am surrounded by people, from college administrators to relatives, who act as if my job is so much wasted time and space. I would be a fool not to admit the impact and reality of that social pressure. I've done my share of crying into my pillow. Yet I still have to ask myself, "Do I give up something that matters to me, something that I'm good at because of social pressure?"

This is the narrow line that Charles is attempting to tread. Where does personal fulfillment end and social needs/compromise take over? And vice versa?

Guy's solution: "I dare say I can learn not to mind being talked about, if you don't mind trying to be talked about a bit less."