yes, but do you *like* me?

Like exists in a sort of sub-category of romantic love. When you are in love with someone, it’s assumed that you also like them. It’s assumed so unconsciously that we almost never think of it, much less question it.

I decided to question it last week. I can’t remember why, exactly. I suspect I was having one of those hopeless personal moments of thinking, Why on earth is special k so sure he wants to be with me forever? I could imagine that it’s mostly easy, that it’s habit to spend a lot of time with me. But I was suddenly curious whether there was more than habit and ease and – yes, and more than love and the kind of loyalty that love breeds. Whether there was an active desire to spend time with me.

So I asked him, “What do you like about me?”

It’s an exposing question. Surprisingly exposing. And of course it’s a difficult thing to quantify. The things you can say – the words you can put to your feelings – are more like roadsigns or clues to feelings than feelings themselves. I tried to answer the question back, and could feel a whole world of feelings that were frustratingly unexpressed. I could see special k’s answers were the same, like suddenly looking at each other across a wide space of things unsayable, but trusting and loving and smiling all the same.

Liking, I discovered, is sometimes more romantic than loving.

Love has a kind of “no matter what you do, no matter who you are” quality about it. It’s what makes families to fraught and so wonderful. But like is specific. It means, “only you, in all the world”. 

In romance, we don’t see people liking each other nearly often enough. There’s quite a lot of admiring or being confronted by qualities in each other. There’s more than a lot of loving no matter how painful love becomes. But hardly any sitting and watching the other person make tea because the particular way they make tea makes you happy inside; hardly any conversations that wind the other person out, then an admission of how very much you like talking to them.

After sketching out the ideas for this post I started reading Cecilia Grant’s A Gentleman Undone. It shouldn’t have surprised me that her characters really like each other – and not only that, but we see them come to like each other. It’s not surprising because Grant’s interested in the personal qualities that make sex important. That is, the physical, animal urge for sex has a short-lived kind of meaning and most mature adults can resist it; when you come to know someone and admire and respect and like them – well, then sex becomes a much more complex thing.

Will and Lydia become friends over a scheme to earn money at the card tables of London. Lydia is a mathematical genius and a card shark – and she tries to teach Will to calculate probabilities.

He surprises her by being quick and intelligent in conversation; she doesn’t have to explain herself to him. He is also respectful and trustworthy despite, by his own admission, being quite desperate to sleep with her.

She dazzles him by being ruthless – by being able to calculate the odds of five hands at a time while cleverly incorporating signals for him into general conversation and flirting ineptly – on purpose – with the gentleman on her other side.

It is such a joy to watch them open more to each other with each conversation. To watch Lydia unfold herself under Will’s attention, because here is a man who actively likes who she is. When they are coming to know each other better, Lydia says:

“Why should you care at all what I think of you?” She all but squirmed in her skin at the notion, and one more fact about her became clear: I want you didn’t discompose her nearly so much as I like you and I want to you to think well of me.

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Posted in Characterisation, Love, review, Romance | Tagged , | 9 Comments

I really should have asked this question a long time ago

An old friend messaged me out of the blue on facebook the other day:

I have a question for you, it has been bothering me for a long time, but recently revived by watching new TV series.

Why does the classic structure of a romance novel and indeed of many many powerful stories & TV series (irresistible feelings for eachother, but misunderstanding, each thinks the other doesn’t want them, ultimately resolved in a great sense of relief and euphoria) appeal so much more to one gender than to the other?
OK maybe it only *seems* to appeal more to women than to men. And lots of men like Jane Austen and As You Like It. BUT. The relationship between Mal and Inara in firefly is in my head ALL DAY and keeps me all suspenseful and heart in my mouth each episode… doesn’t seem to have the same kind of itch or hold over Ben.
Would love your thoughts on this!!

My first reaction was: Wow. I really should have thought more about this before now. And my second reaction was to make up a bunch of science:

Not something I’ve thought a lot about, oddly enough, but my gut reaction is something like:

Women are powerfully interested in human relationships, and specifically in romantic relationships (and obviously this is massively simplifying/reductive). I assume this is part conditioning – we’re socialised to care about relationships, and until very recent history to judge our worth by our relationships – and part biology. There must be some biological urge to create safe, lasting environments for raising children, which means finding a partner with certain qualities. I.e. alone is bad, with man is good.

Men are stereotypically more drawn to action/adventure, which also has a classic story structure (similar to romance, but with a different end goal, more external rather than internal obstacles, etc.). So it’s really just what holds the interest of each gender.

Obviously personal relationships and love are super important to lots of men in real life.

My personal theory is that love/kissing/romance is private and personal it’s something you DO in real life, not something you externalise and obsess over. Action/adventure is completely fantastical and therefore an escapist form of entertainment you can get lost in. Whereas female fantasy is much more wrapped up in romance for the very non-scientific reasons I said above.

Hope that gives you some new thoughts to shed light on the matter!

So, seriously, why DOES romance grab women so much harder than it does men?

Posted in Feminism, Romance, TV | 6 Comments

Puberty Blues

I feel a little bit smug. I’ve been watching a couple of bloody brilliant Aussie TV shows, and for once the rest of the world has to wait! (And here’s hoping other countries have the sense to buy these shows up.)

One of them finished last night, and the ending was so perfect I had that same glow-y feeling in my chest I get from a really great book.

Puberty Blues is about two best friends, Debbie and Sue, growing up in Cronulla in the 70s. Cronulla is an outer suburb of Sydney in an area famous in the 70s for its surfer tribal culture and more recently for the racist riots in 2005.

I tried to express, recently, the idea that a historical context allows us to explore female empowerment in a more emphatic way – but also lends itself to the kind of female empowerment that has nothing to do with finding love.

Puberty Blues is a subtle, impressive example of what I was trying to come to grips with.

Debbie and Sue are desperate to get in with the cool kids, and they eventually manage it by being a bit naughty and a bit mean, and mostly by catching the eye of the boys. Being someone’s girlfriend has nothing to do with liking or even knowing – it’s all about status and belonging.

Girlfriend duties include: sitting on the beach for hours watching the boys surf; buying meat pies and chiko rolls for the boys to eat when they come in, when you will also hand them their towel; and lying back to let him root you. Oh, and bringing the Vaseline – very important not to forget the Vaseline.

The casual rape culture depicted is absolutely chilling. It’s there subtly in the girls’ expectation of sex: it is not something you enjoy, it’s something you lie back and take. And it’s there overtly in the girl lying in the back of a panel van, a catatonic lack of expression on her face, while the boys climb in and out by turn.

Seeing that unsettles Debbie and Sue, but it doesn’t particularly stand out to them as wrong, or as having anything to do with them. The way they react to it – by not really reacting at all – is what makes it so chilling. They have no context to understand why it unsettles them.

They enjoy being the cool kids and having boyfriends. They also begin to experience the way a girl’s worth comes entirely from her boyfriend. The way a girl becomes a laughing-stock in a second if she goes against her boyfriend’s wishes – all ties of loyalty and friendship cut.

Again, they don’t consciously rail against this stuff. They don’t understand it, even while they don’t like it.

Sue starts to feel more and more restrained and angry inside her relationship. Finally, when her boyfriend’s a complete asshole to her in front of everyone, she says, “You’re dropped.” She doesn’t mean to – didn’t even know it was going to come out. It’s that part of her she doesn’t understand – the part that’s unsettled and angry – acting for her. But she doesn’t go all girlpower I’m-better-off-without-that-dickhead. She doesn’t understand herself or her actions and still craves the social belonging that comes with a boyfriend.

Debbie is dropped by her first boyfriend for being frigid (turns out all the Vaseline in the world can’t make up for really not wanting to have sex), then falls in love with the beautiful Gary. In heart-stopping, world-stopping first love. Sue asks Debbie over and over again to tell her the story of how she and Gary sat in her room and just talked all afternoon. Just talked.

But even the beautiful Gary is only a fucked-up kid, dealing with life outside of school.

Debbie and Sue have seen the reality of what it takes to be a cool kid, and they start, tentatively, to see the world on the other side of school – a world that’s bigger than just the cool kids and the outcasts.

They start to realise that the superpower they have is each other. In a world where all ties can be cut in a second if you act out of turn, they have the kind of loyalty that can get them through anything.

They see the girl in the back of the van again, the boys climbing in and out to take turns. They still watch her from a distance, and vow to each other that the world would have to go through one of them first, to get at the other. Then they realise: That girl doesn’t have anyone to stand between her and the world.

And then they realise: Maybe she has us.

It’s such a superhero moment when they decide to walk over. “We’ll just get up and walk,” they tell each other. They challenge those boys who are the gods of this small world, and they get the girl out of there.

They’re so high on what they’ve done – so disbelieving and amazed – that they want to do it all over again. So they do the next best thing. They go down to the beach, with a surfboard, and run into the water, where girls are not allowed to go.

The cool kids sitting on the beach call them every name they can think of, but Debbie and Sue just laugh back at them and say, “Get us a chiko roll!”

The girls, watching fully clothed from their “girlfriend” stations, watch with contempt but also with a kind of dawning confusion. And awe.

Debbie and Sue are a product of their culture. They don’t have the means to stand outside it and understand it. This made their eventual liberation so much more powerful than if they’d been on a crusade from the start.

Their liberation came from acknowledging that their own feelings about the world are the only compass they need. That they get to say what’s wrong and right.

This is how I want to use the historical context for my heroines. Not to have them understand right from the start: I am oppressed, and my fellow-women are oppressed! But to have their experience and their knowledge not match up. For that to be an unsettling thing, and for their anger and frustration to become more than they can keep inside. And when it comes out it’s not necessarily going to be comfortable, and they’ll probably want to take it all back.

In the kind of society Debbie and Sue are growing up in, the love of a teenage boy cannot empower or liberate them. But their friendship with each other can.

Posted in Feminism, Rave, review, TV | Tagged | 4 Comments

the romance genre is way ahead of the Australian government on this one

Yesterday the Australian Parliament voted against the Marriage Amendment Bill. It’s times like this when I think, “Thanks for maintaining the roads. I like the roads. But you do not represent me at all.”

But Penny Wong put it much better than I can.

Particularly to young gay and lesbian Australians, to those who may not have come out yet, or are finding their way – I want you to know that the prejudice you have heard in this debate does not reflect the direction in which this country is going.

Those who oppose this Bill speak to the past. I and my colleagues are talking to a better future.

Because whatever happens in the Parliament this week, our relationships are not inferior, our relationships are not less equal, and our love is no less real.

I handed in the first draft of my teen romance last week, so as a reward I took this week off. I’ve pretty much been reading without breathing, and mostly I’ve been reading m/m (male/male) romance.

I’ve been reading about repressed bankers in late 19C Manhattan, who can’t share their relationship with even their closest friends and families for fear of going to prison. I’ve been reading about Scuba Cowboys and trauma surgeons in present-day Florida who had to deal with family prejudice, but get engaged anyway, against the day their state allows them to marry.

Yesterday, when I saw on the news how very backward my government really is, I happened to be reading about a mismatched, gorgeous, crazy-romantic pair in present-day Britain. At the end of the story they get engaged. And then…they get married, in a civil ceremony, at Cambridge University where one of them is a lecturer.

It kind of blew my mind.

In the context of what happened in Australia yesterday – in the context of a not-so-distant past when gay couples couldn’t even share their relationships with the people nearest to them, and even of a present day in which gay couples are still waiting for marriage to be legalised before they can express their love out loud in the most fundamental way – that ending felt revolutionary.

The couple in that story didn’t have to wait, didn’t have to hesitate. They just got married.  And it’s not a fairytale, either – it’s just present-day Britain.

This is one of the things I love most about the romance genre. It made that experience real to me. It’s so unfalteringly optimistic when it comes to love.

I know there are conservative romance writers and readers out there, but for me, yesterday, my genre was one of the most powerful revolutionary forces operating inside this political debate. Romance doesn’t come into political speeches or reports – but it makes gay equality a reality for its readers, out in the world where change is happening no matter what our governments say.

Posted in Current, Love, Marriage, Romance | 9 Comments

death is my independence

The dissolute rake falling for the pure virgin is a classic romance trope. In Romancelandia it means watching a man beyond redemption become redeemed through love. In the original rake/virgin novel…not so much.

Clarissa, written in 1748, is the story of a virtuous woman pursued by an irredeemable man, Robert Lovelace (aka Best Rake Name Ever). Modern romance readers are allergic to “bad” heroes, which means that all rakes must be Tragically Misunderstood for Tragic Reasons (see sympathy coupons). Not so Lovelace. He is a genuinely Bad Man. Also a Very Beautiful Man. (Here’s where I admit I haven’t read the book, only watched the BBC adaptation. Sean Bean in makeup and lace is a Very Beautiful Man, at any rate.)

He works outside of the morals of society, so he’s a powerful agent for change. He alone can help Clarissa escape her restrictive family. But the same qualities that make him powerful also make him unable to love her in the right way. For the first time he feels love, and it unsettles him as it should unsettle any rake. He reacts the only way he knows how, and tries to force Clarissa into marriage. Instead, he drives her to starve herself to death in obscurity.

The priest who’s caring for her tells her that the bible absolves her of any shame, and that she must choose to live. She says to him, “Death is my independence.”

This is apparently the longest novel in the English language, but I reckon that single line makes every other word in it worthwhile.

Historical settings are romantic to us romance writers because the social restrictions a woman has to overcome to choose a selfish, personal kind of love are much more obvious. Her journey to personal autonomy and sexual expression is clearer, because she exists in a context that doesn’t allow her these things.

But aside from the occasional fluke, I’d say Clarissa’s a much more realistic picture of what a woman’s emotional journey would have been if a more experienced man became infatuated with her.

It’s a kind of independence that’s mirrored almost a hundred years later in Jane Eyre when she withholds from Rochester the only thing that’s still hers to withhold. Her body is wholly in Rochester’s power – there’s no one to interfere on her behalf. But Rochester, despairing, says, “But whatever I do with this cage, I cannot get at you, and it is your soul that I want.”

Even if a woman found love with her husband, it would take a pretty extraordinary woman not to have been somewhat subsumed inside her husband’s desires and society’s expectations of her as a married woman.

Let me say here that I don’t want romance heroines to die for the sake of their purity. Er, no. Having a woman overcome the obstacles imposed by her gender is a wonderful allegory for modern women, whose obstacles are far more ambiguous. But I wonder whether the historical context could also be used for a story about personal independence.

There’s a romance trope that goes something like this: The wallflower, who’s fast approaching her late twenties *gasp!* with no sign of marriage on the horizon, decides to remake herself. She starts to follow her own desires. She becomes unreasonable, and powerful. And then she gets the man.

I get it. It’s a statement about the autonomy that’s necessary, even in marriage. It’s a clear declaration of the fact that you’re always at your most charismatic when you’re being purely yourself. But there’s also something in there that goes: Independence is one more trait you need to acquire in order to get a man.

The next romance series I plan to write will be five books long. It’s the story of an enigmatic man and his adopted children who drive Britain’s industry in the mid-1800s. The series begins when a genteel woman, Hadrienne, is engaged to the eldest son, Primus. Primus ends up marrying her companion instead, and Hadi gets engaged to the next son in order to stay with the family who have become her family.

My initial idea was that Hadi’s romance with the father would be the series-arc romance. The father has turned his back on his aristocratic beginnings, and Hadi is everything he thinks he’s disowned. She subscribes to very classic “female” behaviour, and as she comes into her own the father can no longer discount her.

Then the other day something happened. I realised that one of the kids’ biological mother is, contrary to popular belief, still alive. And that she’s the love of the father’s life. This felt absolutely right…but it left Hadi hanging.

Her engagement starts the whole series. Her story gives the series its arc. I couldn’t leave her romantically unresolved, could I, in a romance series?

My first reaction was a categorical No. And then I thought, Yes.

The more I think about it, the more right it feels. Her journey was always one to personal independence. It’s not easy for her, but she has to face the women’s movement and decide for herself what she thinks. She takes up photography and documents the lives of women. She becomes someone who would once have seemed disgusting to her.

And it’s right that her actions aren’t rewarded with a man, but with herself.

I recently came across photographer Clayton Cubitt’s portraiture project Hysterical Literature. He films women reading aloud and being brought to orgasm. They’re fully clothed, and they appear to be sitting alone at a table. Cubitt’s interested in catching genuine glimpses of people in an age that’s obsessed with self-documentation. He’s referencing the idea that female hysteria was once treated with medical orgasm, and the sensual relationship women have to the written word. He’s also interested in exploring concepts of high art and low art. The project obviously edges onto the space occupied by pornography – but is also wildly different.

He never explicitly draws the parallel, but to me the idea of high literature and low literature was so present in the videos – especially the uneasiness around what women read and the arousal that’s often part of what they read.

The videos are…not explicit in the pornographic sense. You see nothing. But you do watch a woman come to arousal and come. So don’t watch them if that kind of thing disturbs you.

I found them extraordinary. They depict a female sexuality that has nothing to do with a partner. It’s intensely personal. It’s something I’ve never seen so explicitly depicted before. It’s the kind of romance that I want Hadi to embody, so that her story is not to do with a man but is deeply, powerfully romantic anyway.

Posted in Feminism, Romance, Sex, Tropes | Tagged , , , | 3 Comments

4 more things to adore about Miss Marple

Special k and I watch a lot of who-dunnits. Sherlock (Holmes), Poirot, Whitechapel, Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries. But my very favourite is Miss Marple.

The show, for one thing, is ridiculously well made. Sharp scripts, beautiful sets, well-shot and chock-full of Britain’s best actors. There’s something about Miss Marple, too, that sets her apart from other detectives. She’s unassuming (she doesn’t, like Poirot, introduce herself as The Best Detective Alive) but never submissive. I love watching the people around her underestimate her and then gradually change their minds – though her behaviour remains constant. I love the melancholy wrapped up in this woman people assume is doddering or numb, because she’s old.

The latest episode to air on the ABC was ‘At Bertram’s Hotel’. Here are four things I adored about it:

1) Miss Marple’s assistant for the episode is one of the hotel’s maids, a woman called Jane. The first time she talks alone to the war-stricken detective she says to him, “Just because I’m in a pinny, don’t make me stupid.” “Well,” he says. “That’s me told.” Her sister worked in munitions during the war, and told her that women’s equality had arrived. Then the war ended and Jane found herself in service. Like nothing had changed at all.

Working with Miss Marple to solve the murder she proves herself to be quick and clever – catching on about ten times faster than the detective to everything that’s going on. At the end of the episode she quits her job at the hotel, because she figures the police force will be recruiting women soon. “What do you think?” she asks Miss Marple. “I think,” Miss Marple replies, “it sounds exactly the sort of thing I’d never have done at your age. And always wish I had.”

Oh, and this conversation begins with Jane telling Miss Marple that Detective Bird has asked her to go away with him – not to get married though, no, just to live together for a while and see they get on. Her idea.

2) Which brings me to the romance. Detective Bird is a disillusioned soldier who seems to have been exhausted by the war. His declaration of love is the very best kind.

“Miss Cooper. Jane. Um. I wondered if I could. If you would be so good as to, er. If you would maybe like to consider.” *long, nervous pause* “You’re the most wonderful, intelligent, beautiful woman I’ve ever met. When I first saw you, you took my breath away. And it hasn’t come back yet. When I’m near you I feel drunk. Or dizzy. Or drunk and dizzy. And like I’m walking on air.”

“Inspector Bird–”

“And if whatever you may think of me is a fraction of what I feel for you–”

“Inspector Bird!”

“If there’s any hope you could in your heart–”

“Inspector Bird!”

“Yes?”

“What’s your first name?”

My favourite thing about this gorgeous declaration is that when he says “And like I’m walking on air” he’s uneasy, unsettled, like walking on air is terrifying.

3) ***SPOILERS FOR THE MYSTERY***

This is just one example of Agatha Christie’s mastery of her genre.

A set of identical twins are staying at the hotel, and early on Miss Marple notes that she can tell them apart because one of them is left-handed, one right-handed. The twin she’s talking to thinks she observed his left-handedness because he held his paper under his left arm. It feels like a fairly obvious set-up for a case of mistaken identity.

Indeed, during a critical scene one of the twins appears looking for the other, with a book tucked very definitely under one arm. The other twin arrives soon after, with a hat in his other hand. It felt a little deflating, because it was so obviously the same twin.

During the “all-is-revealed” scene Miss Marple calls them out on it – but absolves them of the murder. They were off stealing jewellery.

The actual murder is much more complex, and involves two girls passing themselves off as one girl, so as to be in two places at once. And what gave them away? One shoots with her left hand, the other with her right.

***END SPOILERS***

4) Miss Marple’s first name is also Jane. Jane-the-maid is quite clearly a girl after her own heart – one who will take after her in a new era. Sharing a name signifies all the other qualities they share. It also allows for a subtle, heart-breaking moment at the end.

The two Janes are talking, and then a man calls out, “Jane!” in a passionate, joyful way. The camera is on Miss Marple as she looks up, a kind of wonder in her face. Then pain. The man is Detective Bird, and he’s calling the younger Jane who goes blithely to him, to embrace him, to walk into the future with him. Jane the elder, whose love was killed in the First World War, remembers that she is an old woman, and her time for young love has passed.

For any Aussies who want to watch it, it’s up on iView at the moment.

Posted in Characterisation, Craft, dialogue, Love, Recommendations, review, Romance, TV | Leave a comment

Total Recall. Except I totally don’t recall that I love you.

I watched the Arnie version on TV the other night, and I watched the Colin Farrell version at the cinema tonight, and I’m convinced: Total Recall missed a trick in the romance department. And it makes Douglas Quade look like a douche.

Here’s a bit of a run-down with some spoilers: Douglas Quade goes to Rekall have a false memory implanted into his brain. He requests a Secret-Agent Adventure. He then proceeds to have an adventure in which he is truly a secret agent called Houser who’s had his memory altered so that he thinks he’s Douglas Quade, Everyman. (I’ll give you a second.) It’s never entirely clear whether the adventure is real or the requested implant.

At the end of the story Quade has to chose between retrieving the memories of Houser and becoming “himself” again, or remaining the implanted self, Quade. He chooses Quade.

My problem is this: Quade has a wife called Lori. They were childhood sweethearts and have been married for seven years. She’s beautiful. In the Arnie version she’s also compliant, a good listener and a sexpot. In the Farrell version she’s smart, tough and sexy.

When the adventure ensues, it turns out she’s one of the bad guys. She claims she’s only known Quade for six weeks, when she was assigned to him. The entirety of their history is an implanted memory. She tries to kill him. She’s pretty good at it.

In the Arnie version, he puts a bullet through her head and his new girlfriend says, “What a bitch.” Or something. She definitely calls her a bitch. And Arnie just gives this knowing sneer like, Haha, your observations about my erstwhile wife are hilarious, because she is a woman who had the bad manners to be kind of a badass.

In the Farrell version she at least gets to be the baddie, not just the baddie’s girlfriend. Farrell makes some show of feeling conflicted when the new (old) love interest shows up, because his memories tell him he was married for seven years. Not so much conflicted about his feelings for his “wife”, however, as conflicted about what’s true and what’s not.

The whole premise of this story relies on the idea that a false memory is just as “real” as a true memory. The fact that they missed an opportunity to explore that idea to its furthest end boggles me.

Quade believes, utterly, that he’s been married to this woman for seven years. Both films use the fact that she tries to kill him as an easy-out. Like – psychopathic behaviour cancels out seven years of marital love and trust.

It would make a much more interesting point to say: He’s only known this woman six weeks in real time. He feels he’s loved her for seven years. What would it take to disassociate himself from those feelings – to be faced with the painful fact of her utter lack of feeling or loyalty to him?

Lovers to enemies can be just as interesting as the other way around.

Let me say here: I get that this is action-adventure, and not some complex love story. But the movie’s internal logic is what frustrates me. When Quade is faced with the choice between Quade and Houser, he chooses Quade. Because his emotional attachment to Quade is strong enough to overcome an external sense of his “true” self. The life that’s been implanted in his brain feels authentic to him.

But only when it comes to himself, apparently. If that life has such a strong emotional pull on him, why is it so easy for him to distance himself from his wife, or the emotions surrounding her?

In the Arnie version it makes him come across like a bit of a sociopath. Farrell almost pulls it off because he’s so damn good at the coy, uncertain looks that make him feel human. But I came away feeling that if he couldn’t feel the loss of love, he surely couldn’t feel much at all.

It’s a fascinating and terrifying question, whether love is pure chemical delusion, or something more. Total Recall asked the same question about reality, but only as it touched on the reality of one man’s ego. Ho hum.

Posted in Love, Movie, Romance | 1 Comment