Friday, May 27, 2011

hurtful words

Once again, I have opened my mouth and paid a heavy price for it.  Poetry is not my medium, except when there is no other.

Alcestis at the coffee shop

And she must never ever be smart
Or strong.
But if she is then she must
Expect to be abused
By the weak.

And she must never complain
Or ask for help
Or ask for love.

If she has friends
They will abandon her
When she needs them most.
Because she does not need them
As much as they need her
Not to need them.

And she who does need them
Is she who needs everything and
Has nothing
And gives nothing.
She makes her need her friends
Then takes them with her cruel need.

For she is strong and smart
And can have no feelings.
She cannot have both
For that is an embarrassment
To those who have only one.

A mind is not a terrible thing to waste.
It is a terrible thing to have
For from it comes
The terrible terror of being
Hated for what she cannot change
And therefore is forced to change
Or deny
Or destroy.

Do not hate her because she is
She cannot change her beauty
(Except that she can)
Even if it only exists in her mind
Or her long faded childhood.

Hate her for her mind
Because she cannot change it.
And it mocks them
Even when she does not.
Hate her for her love,
Hate her for her generosity and her spirit,
Because they come from her heart
And her mind.

Love her for her hate.
Pity her for her spite.
Protect her meanness because it come from her tiny heart
And her tiny mind
And her tiny life.
But do not hate her beauty
That exists only in her
Tiny mind.

She is strong and she is wise
And you think she does not need you.
She does.
But you will not hear her cry
Because it is not your own.
You will only hear the tiny cry
The cruel cry.
And the cruel tears like acid
Will hate you as you love her.

And the love will die that never was.
And the love will die that might have been.

Karma's a bitch.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

The wrong words, the right words, no words at all

So, I guess I'm sorta persona non grata in some places because I made the mistake of speaking my mind on a sensitive subject.  Hey, it wouldn't be the first time and I'm sure it won't be the last.

If you know what I'm talking about, then it doesn't need any explanation; and if you don't know, it really doesn't matter.

But I can't for the life of me figure out why it should be considered wrong or rude or unethical to challenge the views of people who study "romance novels" as if the texts themselves exist in a parthenogenic state independent of the writers who write them or the readers whose eyes and brains translate the little black marks on the little white pages/screens into coherent thought.

What makes "serious literature" any more universal in its appeal or application to the human situation than "popular fiction"? 

Isn't love -- in all its many forms -- a universal quality of humanness?

How far back does the notion of romantic love go?  At least to the creation of some of our ancient myths, doesn't it?  Don't the gods and goddesses, the patriarchs and matriarchs, fall in love?  Aren't their stories of love and jealousy the basis for our own western morality at least, and aren't there similar tales that form the foundation for "other" moralities that are only a little different from ours and in some ways even better?  (Or some may be worse but that's for another entry.)

I don't know yet what the words are to express this but I'm workin' on it.  I don't think romantic love is going to go away any time soon, and while social, cultural, and political institutions may control its public and private expression, the essential nature of love seems to be a part of what it means to be human.  And I think that's pretty universal.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Words have meanings

"You keep using that word.  I do not think it means what you think it means."

This classic line from The Princess Bride draws a laugh, or at least a chuckle, as we identify with Inigo Montoya who, of course, knows what "inconceivable" means while Vizzini clearly doesn't.

But is that really the case?  Inigo speaks the line, but as we read it written out, there is no verbal emphasis.  If we didn't have Mandy Patinkin's portrayal of Inigo already fixed in our minds and we had to supply our own emphasis as readers,  that line could mean something much different.

For example, if we supplied an emphasis implying something less than absolute certainty: "You keep using that word.  I do not think it means what you think it means."

Well, I think you sort of get what I'm trying to do here.  Spoken words, simply because they are spoken and heard (and sometimes caught in the act visually with all the attendant body language and stage setting) can take on a very different meaning than when they are just written on paper and the reader has to supply the rest of it.

As a writer, I've always tried to supply as much of the sound effects and scenery as I can, to steer the reader in the direction of my original interpretation.  Commas and dashes and (parentheses) and !! and ?? and . . . are among the tools available to the writer, and when I'm writing casually -- such as on this blog -- I tend to use them rather freely.  That's not always possible, of course.  If I were to write a novel the way I write a blog entry or a friendly email, the reviews would eat me alive for infringing on the reader's imagination or not giving readers credit for being able to figure out the meaning from the words alone.  Well, that's my point.

The words alone have meanings, but the way they're used, read, heard, spoken gives them more or less or a different meaning.

A number of years ago, I was struggling to revise a novel to suit the wishes of the editor who had agreed to publish it.  At the time she made the contract offer, she couldn't praise the book enough: its concept, the twists in the plot, my writing.  By the time she got ready to send it to typesetting, it seemed as if there was nothing she liked about it at all.  I won't bore you, dear reader, with the details, but suffice it to say that I referred to this as the edit from hell. 

I discussed my various options with another writer: to do what the editor requested regardless what damage I thought it would do to my original concept of the book, stand up to the editor and fight for my own vision of the book I had written, or pull the book entirely and give the money back.

None of those options looked very good.   The third option, obviously, would have maintained my vision for the novel, but no one else would ever see that vision because the book wouldn't ever be published.  The money was an issue too, of course, but the long term implication was that pulling the book would essentially kill my future as a romance novelist.  So the third option was pretty much out.

The first option, though it would have kept me in the good graces of the editor (and by extension the publisher), required that I deny my own self, my own vision, my own authority as the writer of the novel.  I would have to submit, in the worst meaning of the word, my book and my dignity and my labor to the demands of the editor.  Well, words fail me at this point, but I think you can see that this was not going to be an easy route for me to take.  I loved that book and I had poured a good part of my soul into it, and, well, I just didn't think I would do that to it.

The second option was little better than the others.  Yes, I could fight for my vision of the book, but ultimately the editor would make the decision.  She could ignore my wishes and actually have someone else make the changes as she specified.  She did not -- as she had made very explicitly clear to me -- like "difficult" authors, and by "difficult" she meant anyone who didn't march to her drum.  So I could fight for my book but it would likely be the last time I did so; that editor would never buy me again.

I discussed these options with a number of my fellow writers, some of whom were published at this particular house and others were who desperately trying to get into this house.  Some of my author friends were NYT bestseller status, others were awaiting the release of their first sale.  After a lengthy conversation with one of them, I received a nice little note in which she wrote, among other things:

"Not to value your own work allows anyone else to denigrate it by default. If you're writing a book simply for the money, and don't care about it yourself, that's one thing. But if what you're doing has meaning to you, then you owe it to yourself and to the work to stand up for your own artistic integrity, or you have no right to insist that others take you seriously."

Maybe all I wanted at that moment was to have someone agree with what I already felt was the course I should take, because ultimately that's what I did:  I stood up for my story's integrity, I made an enemy of the editor, and my writing career was essentially finished.  I certainly don't blame the author who sent me that note, which is why I'm not identifying her here. 

But I've realized, too, that the sentiment extends beyond the single manuscript, the single story, the single contract.  It extends to the whole universe of what we call romance fiction.

I left the industry with a bad reputation as a difficult author, with a book I felt hadn't received fair treatment, with a bruised ego and shattered confidence.  But I never dissed romance fiction.  A few years after the publication of that poor novel, I suddenly decided to return to college after a 25 year absence.  I pursued a degree in Women's Studies and I was surrounded by well-educated feminist women who, for the most part, wouldn't have been caught dead reading "a harlequin, a bodice-ripper, a romance."  I spent four semesters educating them about romance fiction. 

They found out romance writers are, first and foremost, writers.  I hadn't taken a composition course in over 30 years, but my papers came back with glowing praise for my writing.  Professors told me they'd rather read -- and grade -- 20 pages of my work than 3 pages of most students' because my stuff was so easy and so enjoyable to read.  Well, duh, I'm a writer!  "Did you think I stopped knowing how to write coherent sentences and paragraphs and pages just because I wrote romance novels?" I asked them.  And too often the response was, "Well, I didn't think romance writers could, you know, actually write."

So I wrote papers comparing different film version of the Robin Hood legend -- through a feminist lens but with a recognition of the inherent romance of the stories.  I analyzed the Russian spy Natasha from the Rocky and Bullwinkle cartoons through a feminist lens but with a recognition of how her character was informed by and yet criticized the same gender stereotypes as found in criticism of romance fiction.  And then I wrote that honors thesis about romance novels, about the images of strong women in them, about so many aspects of a genre that most professors, even of popular culture, would rather have walked through fire than be caught reading one.  But because I treated my subject with respect and demanded that my advisors on the thesis also respect it, I got the damned respect.  I had to fight for it, just as I fought with my editor over the changes I didn't want to make to my book.  But I got it.

One thing I never did was to make fun of the genre or play into the negative stereotypes of it.  When one professor disdainfully suggested there was no difference between a romance novel and a soap opera, I pointed out the distinct differences.  When another repeatedly referred to all romance novels as "silly harlequins," I explained not only the differences in the various subgenres but I explained the differences in publishing houses and publishing styles.  When another complained that ALL romances were about weak women and brutal men, that ALL romances contained lurid sex scenes, that NO romances have anything of interest to feminists or serious scholars or anyone with over a fifth grade education. . . . .  

Never, never, never did I go for the cheap shot.  Never, never, never did I play it for laughs.  Never ever ever ever ever did I buy into the stereotypes or let anyone else do likewise.

Maybe I'm too sensitive about it.  Maybe I'm too vested in it, even after being out of the business since 1996.  Maybe I take it too seriously.  But when I'm shown a proposal for an academic study of how sexual relations are depicted in romance novels and the title of the proposal is "Heaving Bosoms and Pulsing Members," I do much more than "take umbrage."  I'm outraged. 

And when I ask a friend, a former English teacher who describes herself as "hopelessly romantic," for her opinion of that research proposal title, she responds,  "Okay, you’re going to hate me, but I laughed myself silly over this. However, I do think it’s wrong. It might work for an essay in English Comp I, however. I often gave my more clever students a little leeway, just to keep myself from being bored to death. And I guess in this day and age when comic books and Dr. Who are proper topic for Ph.D. dissertations, what can you expect? I would hate to have something like that dumped on me though. That’s presumptuous to say the least."

I wrote back that I didn't hate her at all, but I understood about the laughter. 

The problem is, when people are laughing at me, at what I do, at what I believe in, I have this tendency to believe they don't respect me and don't take me seriously.  I suspect they're using me for their own ends, laughing at me behind their hands, ridiculing me when I'm not around.

And just because I'm paranoid doesn't mean they aren't out to get me.

Monday, May 2, 2011

The second best word, or the best second word

Second-guessing oneself is a writer's nemesis. 

There are always words and mostly they're good words.  Mostly they do what the writer wants them to do, which is to tell the story.  Even those old chestnuts like "It was a dark and stormy night" get the job done.  The reader knows what's going on.  It's night, it's dark, and it's stormy.  It works.

As a writer, though, there's a temptation to think that one word is better than another, and so begins the hunt for The Best Word, the single word that does exactly what the writer needs done.

Remember "Throw Momma from the Train" and how Billy Crystal's character just couldn't get past not having the absolute right word?  While the movie exaggerated that need to a comic extreme, it's possible for a real writer to experience the same creative paralysis.  That's what made the whole movie so hilarious for me.  I don't remember hardly anything of the rest of it, but that desperate search for The Best Word hit home.

So this evening I had some free time from the day job and rather than troll around other blogs and get myself in trouble, I thought maybe I'd better do some writing.  I knew which book I wanted to work on -- I had plenty to choose from and that will be the subject for another blog entry sometime in the future -- and it should have been just a matter of opening up the file and picking up where I'd left off. 

The problem was that I didn't like the opening line.  The more I read it, the more it felt wrong.  Worse yet, I knew why it felt wrong.  For the life of me, however, I didn't know how to fix it, how to make it right.  And I wasn't going to settle for anything less.  The opening might seem fine to someone else, to anyone else, but it didn't seem fine to me.  Second best simply wouldn't do.

The opening to any piece of writing is the most important.  Whether it's called a hook or a thesis sentence  or whatever, it absolutely has to work.  Way back in 1982, an article by Shelly Lowenkopf published in The Writer warned,

"There is nothing to match first the outrage and then the dismay of the beginning writer who discovers how much of a book-length manuscript an editor or agent will read before reaching the decision to send the manuscript back to the author.  Three pages."  (Shelly Lowenkopf, "Creating a 'Rejection-Resistant' Novel," The Writer, February 1982)

I took that warning to heart in 1982 and I've never forgotten it.  The beginning is paramount.  And the opening line of this book just wasn't . . . . enough.  Was that why the novel stalled back in 1997 and really hasn't been touched since?  No, I can't blame my voluntarily quitting writing on the lackluster first line of a historical romance.  Though all I've done in the intervening 14 years is add seven or eight pages, I've never lost confidence in the story itself.  In myself, yes.  I've lost confidence in myself repeatedly.  But not in that story.

Therefore, it deserved the best opening line I could give it.

Was I second-guessing myself?  Sure.  And I was using that second-guessing as an excuse not to write.  Absolutely.  (Excuses not to write are plentiful.  I'm hoping that as I throw more and more of them out here in public, the action will be kind of like tossing them in the garbage.  Not that you, gentle reader, are exactly the trash can, but well, you get the picture.  Don't you?)

Now, I won't say it was an omen or anything, because I'm really not superstitious, but this evening as I looked at that first paragraph for the bazillionth time, I knew what was wrong, knew what it needed to be right, and suddenly knew how to make it right.   I made the change that I knew it needed.  Just changing a few words shifted the focus of that opening paragraph to where it needed to be, altered the mood and settled the point of view.

I found The Best Words.  Or at least better ones.  I think.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

And all the other words they're using

Because I'm relatively new to this whole blogging thing, and since I'm essentially thinking aloud here, this particular entry is going off in a different direction.  That's allowed.

A few days ago, our writing and thinking community lost Joanna Russ.  I discovered this remarkable woman's remarkable writing when I was working on my undergrad honors thesis at Arizona State University West in 2000.

She didn't write it.  But if it's clear she did the deed. . . .

She wrote it, but she shouldn't have.  It's political, sexual, masculine, feminist.

She wrote it, but look what she wrote about.  The bedroom, the kitchen, her family.  Other women!

She wrote it, but she only wrote one of it.  "Jane Eyre. Poor dear, that's all she ever. . . "

She wrote it, but she isn't really an artist, and it isn't really art.  It's a thriller, a romance, a children's book.  It's sci fi!

She wrote it, but she had help.  Robert Browning, Branwell Bronte.  Her own "masculine side."

She wrote it, but she's an anomaly.  Woolf.  With Leonard's help. . . .

She wrote it, BUT. . . .

(from the cover of How to Suppress Women's Writing, by Joanna Russ (c) 1983).

As Dale Spender wrote, too, it's not what's written that counts, it's who writes it.  And romance fiction is still primarily written by women.  Therefore, it gets little to no respect.

In the 11 years since I wrote that honors thesis, has the picture changed?  I don't think so.  At the Teach Me Tonight blog -- -- there's an enthusiastic discussion about an academic paper recently published by graduate students/psychologists A. Dana Ménard and Christine Cabrera.  Briefly, for anyone who's not inclined to check out the site, Ménard and Cabrera studied changes in how sex and sexuality were portrayed in romance novels over a period of 20 years, from 1989 to 2009.  To do this, they studied 20 novels.  Not 20 per year, but just one per year.  How did they determine which one to study, out of the hundreds or thousands published each year?  They chose the winners of one of Romance Writers of America's annual awards.

Was that winning book necessarily representative of all the books -- and writers -- for a given year?  Well, what do you think?  I think not.  And quite a number of the academic posters on the TMT blog seemed to agree:  The sample was not sufficient to yield reliable conclusions.   Ménard herself posted to the blog and said the minimal sample was a matter of time and money, as if that were some kind of explanation that would be readily understood and accepted by the presumably academic audience.  Teach Me Tonight describes itself as "Musings on Romance Fiction from an Academic Perspective," so one assumes Ménard and Cabrera's fellow academics speak the same language and understand the same concepts.

I'm not an academic and I've never taken a single course in statistics, but I know enough about the scientific method that if you want reliable conclusions you need reliable data.  One novel a year for 20 years is not reliable.

So, why didn't they read more?  The money excuse doesn't really fly.  They could have picked up a bunch of books for half price or less at a used book store, thrift store, flea market, garage sale.  Not to mention the local library, although I suppose it's possible the educational institution they're affiliated with doesn't have one.  Yes, I'm being very facetious.  Hundreds of books are available for vitually nothing, so let's just skip the whole "we're underfunded grad students and we couldn't afford it" routine, okay?

Then there's the matter of time.  She said they didn't have time to read more than 20 books.  Excuse me?  Now, I understand, having done it myself, that reading a romance novel for analysis takes longer than just sitting back and reading it for fun.  And if they were "coding" the texts to track specific elements, that takes even more time.  The conclusion seems to be, however, that reading and coding sufficient books to be sure they had a reliable sample wasn't nearly as important to Ménard and Cabrera as just reading enough to get some data to support some theory or other and publish the results in an academic journal so they'd have something really cool to put on their CVs.

I mean, it's not like a study of changes in depictions of sex and sexuality in romance novels really mattered or anything.  :sarcasm: again.

Well, it matters to me.

The opening paragraph of Pamela Regis' review of another academic study of romance fiction ( seems apropos of Ménard and Cabrera's study especially since the Journal of Popular Romance Studies is a product of TMT, or vice versa, or whatever.:

Romance criticism often conveys the impression that it was written by a scholar on holiday, as it were, from more important work on worthier fiction. Interesting things may be said about the genre, but the formalities of intellectual rigor and theoretical sophistication have often been shrugged off, as though they were not really expected, let alone required, in this more casual context. What happens in romance criticism stays in romance criticism, this attitude suggests. No shoes, no Sedgwick, no problem.

The "intellectual rigor and theoretical sophistication" certainly seem to be lacking in the Ménard and Cabrera study.  But Regis, herself a member of the TMT crew, makes another comment in that review that stung like a whip:

She seems at home in this environment: as in so many of these critics and thinkers, the compression of her exposition and professional specialization of her vocabulary make few concessions to the reader’s comfort.

"She" is Lisa Fletcher, author of Historical Romance Fiction: Heterosexuality and Performativity, a 186-page, $99.95 ($89.96 online) academic look at historical romances.  And Regis is apparently saying that Fletcher has used language that is deliberately not accessible to the non-academic, non-pomo, non-lit crit reader.  And at that price it's not accessible to anyone but academic libraries.  Why do this?  What's the purpose?  To flaunt one's intellectual superiority?  And that's a good thing??

The point is, I don't think Joanna Russ would have encouraged that kind of elitism. 

Because it's not about the academics.  It's about the writers and the readers and the stuff that goes from one to the other and connects them.  If the academic draws more attention to herself or himself or themselves as though the study of romance fiction is more important than the romance fiction itself, that's wrong.  Those are wasted words, meaningless words, gibberish even if it is elite gibberish.

Joanna Russ didn't do no gibberish.