I Am Here To Suck Your Blood (and Culture Wars)

12129__1gellar_lToday, my secret was unleashed on the world. One of my college friends writes a book blog and, in today’s post, casually mentioned me. Not, much to my chagrin, as that up-and-coming writer or the girl who threw amazing Halloween parties, but as something altogether worse. I am the girl who gave her Twilight, pronounced it “SO GOOD,” and temporarily ruined YA literature for her in the process.

That’s right, chickens. I once liked Twilight.

A lot. I felt about Twilight the way Liberace felt about sequins: utterly beguiled. The story of Bella & Edward made my heart fucking jitterbug, y’all. Reading it, I laughed and cried and smiled over the triumph of vampy love. When I was done—less than twenty-four hours after picking it up—I loaned it to every girl I knew. Since these were the Halcyon days before “Robsten” and “I Drive Like A Cullen” bumper-stickers, there were quite a few people to receive my fangirl gospel. I told them it was the best book ever, forced it into their hands, and waited to share in its glory.

I am totally mortified about this. I am, also, not. Have I since completely rejected the series? Yes, indeed. The feminist in me, much stronger than she was at age nineteen, hates wimpy wet crumpet, Bella. I think vampires should explode, when exposed to sunlight, and that there are only two reasons a 100 year-old dude marries a teenager: mommy issues or too many nights watching Deep Throat. Either way, not my dream date. Twilight is problematic on both a craft level—one more damned adverb, and E.B. White would have reanimated and gone on a head-bludgeoning rampage—and as a thematic representation of genre. I don’t like it.

And, yet…it seems disingenuous to malign Twilight the way I have in past years. Hype and hindsight have destroyed my love of it, yes, but there was once love. The writing isn’t wonderful and the characterizations put teenage girls back a good fifty years, but so many readers have responded to it for a reason. So, is it just that vampires are foxy? Or that young women like escapist fiction, because our brains are wee and mushy? Those are the easy (read: offensive) answers people like to argue. The more I think about it, the more I think there is something redeeming in Stephenie Meyer’s series, just as there is in all popular fiction.

Getting millions of readers to feel for your characters is no easy feat. People don’t stand in three-day lines or tattoo book quotes on their bodies for every vampire novel that comes out. Meyer’s strength is, perhaps, just that: triggering strong emotion. Similarly, Dan Brown really is excellent at plotting and James Patterson paces books brilliantly. I don’t think they’re the best writers ever, but they also aren’t as bad as most of us literary snobs make them out to be. Things aren’t popular because readers are weak-minded, they’re popular because readers care.

It shouldn’t be embarrassing to care. You can like popular fiction and still be an intelligent, thoughtful person. My own bookshelves are proof that pink covers can peacefully coexist with scientific tomes. Neither is inherently better. I sincerely don’t love Twilight anymore, but I do love what it once sparked in me. Passion for the printed word should be celebrated, not reviled.

Yes, my dear Mr. White, even if that word ends in –ly.

– Grace

You Put Up A Door For Me & Other Romantic Tales

Professor McGregor brought me iced tea.

Your knees didn’t properly go weak there, so let me explain. If there is one unerring truth in the universe, it’s this: Grace loves unsweetened black iced tea. When your ancestors move to the South, then don’t leave for four-hundred years, this is the result. It can be below-freezing outside and I’d still like ice in my leaf water, thanks. Professor McGregor has picked up on this.

Monday afternoon, I’m sitting in his backyard, playing with his new puppy and waiting for him to get home for lunch. The plan was thus: he’d pick up sandwiches, we’d eat them, then I’d leave for Austin. In my overly complicated ordering instructions (Ham & Swiss, with lettuce, on wheat, plus olive oil & any salad vinegar…unless they don’t have any, then just meat, cheese, and the tiniest bit of mustard on white. Yes, I am that ridiculous, kittens.), never did I mention a beverage. Yet, when the screen door opened, my delightful boyfriend held a gigantic cup of iced tea. If the Great Lakes were to suddenly dry up, this cup could have refilled them. The man not only quizzed the sandwich maker about types of vinegar, but remembered my love for vast quantities of tea!

Y’all, my insular cortex swooned. I know that women are socially conditioned to want flowers, chocolate, and unreasonably sized teddy bears, but they don’t really do it for me.  Flowers and chocolate are lovely, but I regularly buy those for myself, and I’ve always been vaguely nervous about cuddling with bears. If I were a witch, out to seek revenge on mankind for a great wrong done to my sisters, my opening volley would be turning all stuffed animals into actual animals. (Not that I believe in witches, but I still only sleep with small, easily subdued stuffed creatures. ONE CAN NEVER BE TOO CAREFUL.) Never having had a boyfriend who strayed outside these socially accepted displays of affection, I didn’t realize how happy legitimate gestures of love would make me. My heart, it pittered and pattered.

Professor McGregor, it turns out, does these things all the time. If he’s not bringing home iced tea, he’s grabbing me bottles of water at a football game or insisting I take his sweatshirt, because I’m the human version of permafrost. Kittens, a couple of weekends ago, he even put up a door for me. Friends were staying with him for the weekend, which meant my usual use-the-guest-bathroom routine was disrupted. Because he lives in an old house, full of both charm and a weird lack of three-hole plug outlets, the door to his bathroom has been missing since he bought the place. Knowing I would be sharing with him all weekend, he bought and hung a door, before I came in town. A man who is both handy and considerate? I don’t even know how to handle that!

I’m not really sure what the point of this blog post is, except that, sometimes, iced tea is more romantic than roses. Sometimes, the man you’re dating in real life is better than Ryan Gosling’s latest character. Sometimes, you just have to write a blog post talking about how awesome your boyfriend is, because if you tell him you “think he’s neat” one more time, he might realize how poorly you process emotion in real life.

– Grace

Barbie, Now With More Murderous Impulses!

Y’all, I’m having a serious case of age envy. Why, oh why, can’t I be eight years old again? Despite that such a phenomenon would require me to relive both middle school and those interminable pre-sixteen years, when I thought I would never get to drive ever and it was so unfair, it would be worth it. Why? Because Mattel, that peddler of pink plastic girl crack, has announced a Hunger Games Barbie.

Katniss Everdeen, of the badass archery skills and revolution-starting tendencies, is becoming a Barbie!

At first, I was horrified. Most of the time, I think Barbie epitomizes everything that is wrong with girl-targeted toys. Yes, I loved mine as a child, but the focus on shoes and cars and an ever-rotating closet is perhaps not the best message for little girls. Shoes are awesome, I will agree, but that shouldn’t be a core tenant of womanhood. So, the thought of Barbie – queen of pink Porches and pastel horses – as Katniss Everdeen made my stomach turn. How would she run through the arena with those anatomically impossible Barbie feet? Would she come with an archery set and a glittery hairbrush? Abomination! If Katniss were a real person, I thought, she’d set fire to the Mattel factory for the mere suggestion!

However, I’ve changed my mind. This may actually be good for both Barbie and The Hunger Games. If anything, Barbie could use more of an edge. Now, instead of making their dolls go to the mall, little girls across America can act out the adventures of one of the most progressive female characters in modern literature. She’s not necessarily the Suffragette Barbie I’ve wished for, but she’s certainly a world apart from “I Can Be A Baby Caregiver” Barbie and “Spin-to-Clean Laundry Room” Barbie. Katniss Barbie can not only date Ken, but take him in a fight!

Meanwhile, The Hunger Games, a series of books with themes parallel to modern societal issues, will bring its message to a whole new audience. Admittedly, that message is a bit over the heads of most Barbie buyers. These are not books I would recommend to elementary-aged children. Most of the adventures Katniss endures are not only harrowing, but terrifyingly violent. However, if children play with Katniss Barbie now, they are more likely to read the books when they’re older. I can’t argue with anything that encourages that. Not only is reading of any sort a victory, but this tale is one many of us need to hear. Beyond the love triangle (Team Peeta!), the story is one of survival and a much-needed rebellion in the face of oppression. That’s not something you get with Barbie’s “Strollin’ Pups Playset.

In the end, this is a curious match-up, but I can’t find it in me to complain. Anything that brings a little more adventure to the “girl aisle” is a good thing. Now, if only other toy manufacturers would get the message. I’m looking at you LEGO, with that pink & purple land of domestic horrors you just rolled out. Perhaps Katniss should point her bow and arrow your direction?

– Grace

A Spirited Defense of Romance Novels

It is a truth, universally acknowledged, that a woman who reads romance novels must be sad, lonely, and own a house brimming with cats.

Or, at least, that’s what the trio of teenagers in Barnes & Noble this afternoon would have me believe. Bodice rippers, they called them. Smut, they said. Housewife porn, they tittered, flipping through the pages for any utterance of the word “manhood.”

Obviously, they had to die.

Just kidding. I didn’t kill them with my sword of literary righteousness. It would have made such the mess. Blood stains do tend to ruin books, after all. Not only did I not end them, but I also didn’t launch into a lecture. It was close, but I bit my tongue and kept on browsing, with only the briefest of quelling death glares. I would like to cite my well-honed sense of tact for this, but let’s be honest. I didn’t lecture those kids, because it would do no good. There would be a new crop of giggling literary voyeurs in their place tomorrow. People love to mock romance novels.

As a longtime romance reader, I’m well-acquainted with such literary snobbery. Despite having bookshelves similarly filled with mysteries, non-fiction, and young adult books, whenever people peruse my library they comment on the romance novels.The following exchange has happened way too often…

Friend: Grace, you read trashy books? I never would have guessed!
Grace: They’re romances, they’re not trash.
Friend: But they’re all about sex! I thought only bored housewives read these.
Grace: The one you’re holding is written by a graduate of Harvard, Oxford, and Yale.
Friend: Look, it says “manhood!”
Grace: *explodes in fury*

Why is it considered socially acceptable to impugn romance novels? Despite it being the bestselling category of books, with over $1.3 billion in sales last year alone, it’s the darling of haters. No other genre has to deal with this kind of heat. Personally, I ascribe this to it being the only genre primarily written by and written for women. Classically feminine interests have always been easy to malign, after all. Alas, that’s a (long, rant-filled) discussion for another day. What I really want to talk about is the thing most haters of romance have in common: they’ve never actually read a romance novel.

Feel free to hate on a genre, if you’re well read in it. All too often, however, the people talking about how smutty romances are have never actually picked one up. From cover art and literary gossip, they make all sorts of ridiculous assumptions about the books and their readers. Since it would be impossible to force them to pick up a pink book, I’m just going to break some myths myself. How convenient that we write this blog, isn’t it? Get ready, captive audience readers, we’re talking romances today.

Myth One: Women read romances for the sex.

Oh, darlings. No. Romances are not porn. If I were reading a book solely for its erotic content, I’d be more efficient about it. In the average romance novel, there are like six total pages of sex. If the book is 400 pages, that’s 1.5% total. Y’all, I’ve read young adult books with higher percentages than that. In romance, like other genres, it’s all on a spectrum – they range from sweet romances (kisses only) to erotic romance (legit erotica), but most popular romances fall in the middle. One or two sex scenes tops, most of which I skim through. Because…surprise! That’s not why I, or most romance readers, pick up a romance.

Myth Two: Women who read romances have submission fantasies.

Ah, the bodice ripper argument. This is the reason I truly know most haters have never read a romance. Bodice rippers, books with overly-Alpha (read: chauvinistic asshat) heroes and unwilling waif heroines, haven’t been popular in over twenty years. Modern romances celebrate realistic characters. In historicals, you’re just as like to run into a pickpocket heroine as you are a countess, and neither one will be a helpless waif. Heroes also run the gamut, from sensitive Gammas to boy-next-door Betas, but the one thing you don’t find anymore are irredeemable Alphas. If a guy acts like a jerk to the heroine, he better have a good backstory about why and he better lighten up eventually. Heroines aren’t pushed around anymore. If anything, they’re the focus of most modern romance novels, something which my feminist core adores about the genre.

Myth Three: Romances are poorly written template novels.

Every romance reader has heard this before. Aren’t all romances the same? They’re formulaic, sentimental shlock that preys on women’s emotions. To this I say: No, you moron. The only thing romances have in common, one book to another, is that the hero and heroine must end up together. That’s not called a formula, that’s called a genre convention. It would be like saying all mysteries are the same, because a crime is solved. It’s just illogical.

Like in any genre, there are good romances and bad romances. They’re not all one or the other. However, like in other genres, there are brilliantly written books that just happen to be romance novels. Even my mother, who isn’t a romance reader, will pick up the latest Susan Elizabeth Phillips…because they’re wonderful, well-written books, no matter what genre they fall into.

Myth Four: Women who read and write romances are just bored housewives.

Oh, holy bejeezus. Let’s just stop this nonsense right there, shall we? From just my sampling of friends who read romance novels there are: two lawyers, one of whom graduated first in her class from a top law school, three doctors, and five women with “executive” in their job titles. Sure, some housewives read them too…because some readers are housewives, not because they’re all women’s weak little brains can handle. Have you met housewives lately? Did they seem dumb or bored to you? Because some of the smartest, busiest women I know are stay-at-home moms.

Beyond that, I defy you to find a group of better educated writers than romance authors. As a writer, albeit in a different genre, I annually attend Romance Writers of America’s national conference. Each year, I meet doctors, lawyers, and college professors writing in the genre. Eloisa James, one of my personal favorites, is the chair of Fordham University’s English Department. Julia Quinn, one of romance’s most beloved modern writers, was accepted to Yale School of Medicine, when her first book sold. Excellent credentials for anyone’s intellect, I would say.

So, why do we read romance novels? Just like other genres, it’s hard to pigeonhole readers, but I think it all comes back to characters.  Romance is the only genre whose conventions favor character over plot. Mysteries must have an investigator, but chiefly they need a crime to unfold. Science Fiction needs a hero, but even more it needs world-building and large scale plotting.  Romances are, at their core, about two people falling in love. Ergo, the people are the most important part. They must be three-dimensional, well-written characters to truly make us feel the emotion of their journey. Like in every genre, there are books that don’t succeed, but the great ones do so brilliantly.

If you’ve dismissed romances, I challenge you to read a few. You might become a lifelong fan or, perhaps, you’ll just bust a few more myths. Either way, I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised at what you find. Don’t worry, you don’t have to own cats to enjoy the books. I’m more of a dog person anyway.

– Grace

Awesome romance-centric sites:
Smart Bitches, Trashy Books
Dear Author
All About Romance
International Association for the Study of Popular Romance