Reading (and Writing) Romance in the Time of Trump

If you follow me on Facebook, you know I’ve taken the leap to pitching blogs to HuffPo and some other mainstream outlets. I mitigate the sting of rejection by repurposing that unclaimed content here. Please pardon any redundant thoughts or things that might seem totally obvious to anyone who already knows or follows me.

(Disclaimer: No bodices were ripped and no pussies were grabbed in the writing of this post.)

Romance novels get a bad rap. We know this. They’re dismissed as trashy, fantastical, formulaic. Romance is a joke, not something to be taken seriously. That’s the argument against anything by/for/about women, right?

But now more than ever, women are standing up and refusing to be quiet. We resist. We persist. And now more than ever, romance should, too.

My grandmother gave me my first romance novel in 1993, when I was in eleventh grade at the Academy of the Sacred Heart, an all-girls Catholic boarding school in south Louisiana. The sex was barely PG, but she gave me a warning anyway. “It’s a good story,” she said. “Just skip the dirty parts.” I tucked myself in my room and read it instead of doing my homework on the Sacraments. It was the closest I’d come to being a bad girl. I was hooked.

By the time I got to college, romance was my preferred guilty pleasure. I hoarded Harlequins to read between studying for organic chemistry and genetics. And after changing my major to English, I savored Nora Roberts in secret, far from the judgmental gaze of my literature professors and creative writing seminar classmates.

In grad school, I discovered Janice Radway’s Reading the Romance and learned the language of dismantling hegemonic patriarchal structures. But even as I wrote papers and pounded my fist about the importance of women-centered stories, romance remained something I sheepishly admitted to reading. Usually while blushing and saying something about how I alternated romance with “real” books.

That changed a few years ago when I finally gave myself permission to write the genre I loved. Suddenly, halting attempts and half-finished chapters gave way to a finished manuscript and a publishing contract. I met a community of readers and writers who not only love romance, but take it seriously. I got my first fan mail.

Now, I’m a college administrator by day who reads and writes lesbian romance novels by night (and early morning and weekend and the occasional sick day). I might still blush when people ask me what I write, but I’m much savvier in what I have to say.

Romance is hopeful, I say, and that’s a pretty radical thing. Name another genre where love conquers all and female protagonists—surgeons and Supreme Court justices and bounty hunters and CEOs—are front and center.

I make the business case. Did you know, for example, that romance makes up a 13% share of the adult fiction market? Then there’s the feminist angle. The romance industry is one of the few in the U.S. that is and has always been predominantly by women, for women. It’s also been quicker than other industries to embrace a host of diverse stories and characters—people of color and LGBTQ characters in particular.

But that’s my usual shtick. These days, there’s more to the story. Just like everything in the era of Trump, the rules have changed.

Romance isn’t just legitimate; it’s relevant. I’d go so far as to say it’s essential. In these days of alternative facts and grossly unqualified cabinet picks, romance keeps me centered. It keeps me sane.

I’m pretty sure I’m not alone.

Take La La Land. Whether or not you’re smitten with the romantic musical comedy, it’s hard to argue with its record-tying fourteen Oscar nods. You’d be hard pressed to find another time when the drama-loving Academy picked an upbeat romance as its darling.

We’re living in a world where #lovetrumpshate is part of the vernacular. For every three articles or calls to action on our Facebook and Twitter feeds, there’s one about self-care. Resistance is exhausting, after all. Making the time to recharge is critical for the long game. I don’t know about you, but I’m in it to win it.

So I’m saying loudly and proudly: Romance is part of my resistance strategy. Because when women are repeatedly silenced and publicly reprimanded, romance amplifies women’s voices. When women are grabbed—literally and figuratively—by the pussy, romance empowers women’s agency, sexuality, and desire.

Romance is escapism, sure. But it’s also rebellion. I’d go so far as to say it’s a nutrient. Like vitamin D. And much like my pale, pale self in the throes of winter in upstate New York, I need all the help I can get.

Represent (-ed, -ing, et. al.)

One of the many (many) awesome conversations I had at the GCLS con included the ups and downs of joining and participating in Romance Writers of America, a.k.a. the RWA. It can be a bit of a sensitive topic. As vocally supportive as the organization is of LGBTQ romance, many of its members are not. And of those who don’t object to us, many would never consider reading our work. Even on a good day, it can feel like an uphill battle. That can feel even more daunting from the warm cocoon of GCLS, where lesbians and queers and our stories are front and center.

But even then, or perhaps especially then, we need to show up. If we want to be visible in the mainstream arena, we have to be there. We have to climb on and go for a spin, arms in the air, for all the world to see. It might be uncomfortable, but we must. They aren’t going to come looking for us. If we want to be represented, we need to represent.

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Not a week later, I got my copy of the Rochester Review, the alumni magazine of the University of Rochester. My second novel, Built to Last, is included in the “Books and Recordings” section in the back. As an undergraduate and young alum who spent more time daydreaming about writing than actually writing, seeing my name–my book cover!–on those pages was a dream come true.

And yet. And yet, had it not been for a chance conversation with a former colleague who is now one of the magazine editors, I’d never have submitted it. Don’t get me wrong, I’d wanted to. But I was squeamish, a little embarrassed. There were serious books there and mine was just a romance. Just. A. Romance.

For all my carrying on about the importance and legitimacy of romance in literature, and the importance and legitimacy of lesbian stories in romance, I can still be my own worst enemy. I still giggle and break eye contact when I tell someone what I write. I talk about how important it is to represent our lives and our stories and our genre, but I still chicken out.

Sometimes. I’ve gotten much better. But there’s still more to do. Of course, if the people I met at GCLS are any indication, we’re in good shape. Talk about represent. I’m still a little giddy to be in their ranks. And, as we’ve already discussed, far braver than I used to be.

P.S. If you can, but haven’t, send your book covers and blurbs to your alumni magazine. You might be the first, but I’m absolutely certain you’re not the only.

 

One of These Nights, or Things I Learned while Listening to the Eagles

They say that all the stories have been told. For a writer–or reader for that matter–this is intrinsically depressing. Why do we even bother?

We bother because it’s not so much the story we’re after. It’s the telling. Now before you your get your knickers in a twist, hear me out.

When I say story, I mean the basic arc of a narrative. The archetype, if you will. Sure there are some crazy twists and new takes, but it’s pretty rare that something entirely new will pop onto the scene.

This isn’t a bad thing. Part of what makes stories so powerful is the fact that they resonate; familiarity is what makes that possible. But it’s also because, within the telling, there is still so much room for variation. Limitless possibilities, an infinite number of stories to be told. As a writer–and reader–of genre fiction (specifically romance), I find the whole thing reassuring. I know what’s coming, but I’m still surprised. It’s like having my cake and eating it to.

So, if you’re still with me, you’re probably wondering what this has to do with the Eagles. Well, I’ll tell you.

This weekend, as we so often do in the summer, A and I built a fire and poured some wine.

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The sun goes down. The fire roars. If A has anything to say about it, the Yacht Rock station comes on. Although we are both children of the 80s, she has a 70s fixation. I make fun, but it’s pretty entertaining to watch her get down to Hall & Oates. Who am I kidding? I do, too. But I digress.

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It’s at this point in the evening that the conversations get interesting.And by interesting, I mean seemingly philosophical, but borderline silly. The kind of conversation that comes after a third glass of Cabernet.

Case in point: “One of These Nights” comes on. Great song, right? I’m sipping my wine and singing along and I get to the part where Don Henly says, “I’ve been searching for the daughter of the devil himself / I’ve been searching for an angel in white / I’ve been waiting for a woman who’s a little of both.”  And it hits me. It’s just like when Ludacris says he wants “a lady in the street but a freak in the bed.” I share this revelation with A, who rolls her eyes but laughs heartily and refills my glass.

The moral of the story, other than me thinking I’m super clever? The stories may not be new, but the tellings sure are. And as a reader and a writer (and a casual listener to yacht rock and hip hop) that’s what makes it fun.