On the edge

On July 30th, Katharine Ashe, Jessica Scott, Virginia Kantra and I did a reading and a talk at our local indie bookstore, the Regulator. Before reading a small piece from our books, we each talked about why we write romance. You can read my dear friend Dabney Grinnan’s summary of the entire night over at All About Romance, but I wanted to expand on what I said about being in romance for the heroines, especially in light of the write-up about the event in the Independent, Durham’s local progressive weekly.

As I said in my bit at the Regulator, I’m in romance for the heroines. Oh, I like the heroes fine but what keeps me coming back to romance time and again are the heroines, who spend much of the novel getting pushed over repeatedly until a weaker woman would stay down. The best heroines find a way to get back up. Like women’s fiction, romance occupies a niche in the literary world by showcasing women at their strongest and their best. Romance (and occasionally women’s fiction) add good sex into the story as well.

The short story that raised my ire and which I referred to in my talk was “Amaranth” by Lauren Groff, publishing in the “Gender Issue” of Lucky PeachIf you’re not familiar with it, Lucky Peach is a quarterly journal about food with fun, thought-provoking articles, recipes (some of them completely off the wall, e.g. gnocchi made of crushed ramen noodles), and a piece of fiction. Lucky Peach falls firmly on the edgy side of food and writing with art and thought often designed to shock you (see the covers of the “Gender Issue” for example). As I read my back issue on the plane ride down to the Romance Writer’s of America conference, I was humming through stories on female shellfish divers in Korea, pizzle soup by Fuchsia Dunlop, and a story on a woman who ate several times at a strip club in Los Angeles.

Then, I got to “Amaranth.” At first, the story was interesting. A girl sees her father die, likely through murder by his partner. The partner marries her mother and moves into the girl’s life. In response, the girl stops eating. She starts cutting herself. By the end of the novel she has discovered her ability to make men want her–and how she can use her body and sex to enact revenge on her step-father.

Our “edgy” story is an old and hackneyed one. Women’s relationship with their bodies is a battleground they fight by starving and cutting themselves. Sex, for women, isn’t about pleasure, but it is about control. Sex–and our bodies–are tools to be yielded, not a part of ourselves to be owned (by and for ourselves) and enjoyed (by and for ourselves). We are weak creatures who can only maintain control of our emotions through self-harm and we can only find satisfaction through harming others.

I probably wouldn’t have been so angry if this story hadn’t been so jarringly at odds with the rest of the “Gender Issue.” It is revolutionary to realize and acknowledge that women are physical beings tough enough for sea diving, which provides much needed income for their families.

Sex=revenge is not revolutionary.

It’s trite. Been done. Will be done again.

Moreover, while there are woman who respond to trauma by harming themselves, the vast majority of us respond by bending a little at the waist, leaning into what is trying to push us over, and stepping forward. After trauma, we fall in love, marry, and raise children. We run for office, write amazing novels, and sing songs that make adults weep. We go to work to put food on our families’ tables and to provide a better life for our children. We respond to trauma by becoming bigger, better, and even more powerful.

It is revolutionary to tell these stories, because this triumph is not the cultural narrative, even if it is reality.

If Lucky Peach really wanted to be edgy, to really make people think about gender and food, they should include a story of a woman who responds to tragedy by pushing through her emotions as she keeps on with her life. A woman who gets pleasure from food and sex and love, and who gives pleasure in return.

Lucky Peach could include a romance novel.


*The Huffington Post had a similar post the other day, referencing the awesome Sabrina Jeffries. You can check it out here.

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