18 Feb

Reading Angst

As will be apparent in an upcoming post about what I’ve been reading, I’ve been having a hard time reading contemporary romance lately, with an 80% didn’t like/didn’t finish rate. These aren’t books I randomly selected—I read samples and negative reviews and didn’t see any red flags to keep me away from the buy button. When I spent my money, I believed I had made a good decision and purchased something there was a likelihood that I would enjoy. (I’m stressing this in the vain hope of making it clear I didn’t go in search of something to be pissy about, which is so often the accusation in response to “I didn’t like a thing that somebody else did.” Truly, I don’t have money to waste on recreational pissiness.)

Here, I will attempt to shed some light on the types of problems I’ve been having, which seem concentrated in contemporaries.

FAMOUS PEOPLE

This is the baby of the group—describing a character as resembling a well-known public figure. Believe me, I know it’s a drag describing a character’s physical appearance. It may seem quicker and more specific to say the hero looks like an actor. One problem with doing so is that a reader might think that actor is repulsive, and you have given her a very specific image to be repulsed by, which makes it unlikely she’ll want to read a book about him rubbing his repulsiveness all over some unfortunate woman.

Another problem is the potential for any named public figure to be outed as a rapist, domestic abuser, serial harasser, virulent racist, or any number of other undesirable characteristics at some point in the future, and the reference in your story isn’t going to age well.

If you need inspiration while you write, by all means keep your fave in mind and borrow his physical attributes and mannerisms, but do readers a bunch of favors and don’t name your muse in the story.

Moving on to serious philosophical objections recently encountered.

VIOLENCE

The woman in one book was the victim of violence perpetrated by her ex. The man in this book was angered that this happened to her, which is a reasonable emotional response when someone has been hurt.

Then he turned this anger into a plan to kill the abusive ex, drove across the state, waited at the ex’s office because he wasn’t there (thwarted by an external force), and got questioned by police (thwarted twice by an external force) before it occurred to him that maybe violence wasn’t the best solution.

The intent may have been to portray him as “protective,” but as a woman with experience with male violence, the last thing that makes me feel safe is uncontrolled male violence. When he has an argument with his girlfriend and doesn’t have an all-day delay and the help of police to calm down, I don’t believe he won’t beat and/or kill her, since he hasn’t demonstrated the slightest bit of self-restraint in moments of emotional extremity.

That wasn’t even remotely close to a “happily ever after” for me.

LYING FOR LAYS

I never object to a well-supported “my kids think you’re great” or “I’m absolutely a cabin boy” or “I never loved you” line of bullshit.

I do, however, strenuously object to a man not telling a woman information he knows might negatively affect her decision to have sex with him. That is misrepresentation, and it is a consent issue. She consented to sex with someone who hasn’t done whatever he’s hiding. He didn’t give her the option to make a decision about the person who has done that thing, and he’s going to fuck her anyway. He deprived her of the choice he thought a reasonable woman would make if he told her the truth because getting his dick wet was of greater importance to him than what she would want if she knew.

That’s unambiguously inexcusable.

SEXUAL AGGRESSION

The woman says “stop” and “no,” and the man responds “we both want this” and “it’s going to happen.”

The man invites the woman to meet him, and if she doesn’t show up, he will go to her hotel and bang on doors until he finds her.

In real life, these men would be villains, rapists and stalkers. How the hell are men who ignore a woman’s refusal, by her words and her avoidance, heroes in romance novels?

HYPEREXCITABILITY

Pubescent boys find spontaneous boners humiliating, so how did they come to be romance shorthand for “virility”?

A grown man should be able to control his erections. He should be able to get into an elevator with a woman, attend a business meeting with a woman, go to the beach where women are scantily clad, and even introduce himself to a woman he’d like to eventually fuck without popping a tent in his pants.

I’ve actually spoken to men about this. According to them, it’s not hard to keep it not hard. Their default state of mind is simply “now is not the time or place for a boner.” In situations more challenging than the default, when there’s a specific trigger for arousal other than the existence of women on the planet, a more forceful reminder that “THIS IS NOT THE TIME AND PLACE” is sufficient to dash a boner’s hope and send it off to sulk. This is reported to be effective even during sex, if necessary.

All it takes is understanding that most times and most places are not appropriate to have a stiff dick—therefore, men who self-report erections in nonsexual situations must believe every situation in proximity to women is sexual. To them, women are less than human, with no purpose other than to be sexualized by men.

That’s not heroic. That’s the 1 in 4 men who thinks it’s normal to expect sex from employees. That’s the guy who can’t dine in a public restaurant with a woman without the supervision of his “Mother” because he just can’t be trusted not to whip his dick out at the table because everybody knows men have no sexual control because rape culture has done its marketing well. That’s the guy who thinks verbal harassment, groping, and outright rape are compliments because he has given a woman the precious gift of his dick’s approval.

There is a miles-wide line between attraction (her hair smells nice, her hand on his arm makes his skin sizzle with awareness, etc.) or even having a sexual thought and getting a stiff dick. Conflating the two perpetuates the myth that men are nothing but rutting animals who think every woman is in heat and driven by a biological imperative to be mounted. That’s an insult to good men and a license for the shitty ones to act shitty. Stop it.

Why are men’s dicks so centered, even in stories written primarily by women to be read primarily by women? Is this seriously the best we can even imagine men to be?

Of course not. There are romance novel heroes I adore and many more I at least don’t find offensive. This whole screed was prompted by four books from one subgenre of a genre that includes millions of books, simply because I’ve had a bad streak of contemporaries.

I’m picking on contemporaries because I read an equal number of historicals during the same period and felt positively about 80% of them. Granted, the one book bringing down the average had a housebreaking hero who got a stiffy while restraining the woman who caught him in the act, so he’d fit right in with his contemporary counterparts noted above, but that book wouldn’t have been on the list if I’d read the first couple of pages of the sample before it ended up in my queue. I’m including it only in the spirit of full disclosure. He was certainly in the minority among his peers.

There seems to be a different portrayal of men in other subgenres. In historicals, even the rakes tend to be less uncontrollably horny than contemporary men. In paranormals, even men who are literal monsters tend to exhibit more basic human decency than contemporary men. It’s 2018. Men should be more evolved, not reverting to cavemen. It’s as if without the fiction of another time or supernatural influences, we’re obliged to recount the absolute worst extremes of the reality with which we live.

Not always! In the midst of that bad streak was Winston, who was a good, imperfect hero. He had a failed marriage in his past. He’d been a jerk to his brother in the past. He owned his responsibility for his bad behavior. He’s also trying to be the best dad he can be to a young adult. He helps a stranger in need in several ways. He worries about the professional ethics of some of the help he could provide. It bothers him that he has to meet with his assistant on the sidewalk because his apartment isn’t wheelchair accessible. He has sex when it’s time for sex, and the rest of the time, he has a life that isn’t centered on his dick, which shouldn’t seem so extraordinary, but ol’ Winston was mighty lonely amidst that streak.

The notion that men are nothing but unchecked violence and sex and women should love them for it is what we call a problem in the real world. I don’t know if women are so steeped in this image of men that they don’t see anything wrong with it or if it’s pushback against the “escapist fluff” label by representing the shittiest reality of relationships, but I can’t brush off despicable behavior as “just a story” and go along with it in a romance novel, where I’m supposed to be rooting for people to have a happy ending, not handing out pepper spray, restraining orders, and sponsorships to Krav Maga classes to all the women so they can protect themselves from the men they’re stuck with ever after.

1 comment on “Reading Angst

  1. Yes. Yes. Yes. I don’t know why these dudes are forever walking around with boners. Ties in with that ridiculous line we were fed when I was young about how men ‘suffered’ if they got a boner and then ‘we left them unsatisfied’. There is a lot of retro thinking going on in the world of Contemporary Romance and you are right, it makes uncomfortable, if not downright unpleasant reading

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