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"It’s possible I have bitten off more than I can chew"
April 16, 2014 1:08 PM   Subscribe

"This is the petty tyranny of inconvenience — just as the heroine believes that her individual comfort somehow justifies the enslavement of roughly a hundred other human beings, romance readers feel it’s inconvenient and uncomfortable to reflect on the ways the genre not only has marginalized but continues to marginalize not only characters, but also readers and authors of color. This book was not written by an obscure self-published writer with a small niche audience. Sandra Hill is a New York Times bestselling author, a genre mainstay for the past two decades; she is still writing books set in the contemporary South, though I am certainly not going to read them." -- Romance author Olivia Waite reviews Sandra Hill's Frankly My Dear, set on a sugar plantation in 1845 Louisiana, as part of the blogging from A to Z challenge.

The Blogging from A - Z challenge is to post every day (except Sundays) in April, each day chosing a subject that starts with a letter of the alphabet. For her own challenge, currently up to N of Z entries, Waite chose to blog about intersectional feminism in Romance:
Every day in April, Sundays excepted, I will post about an author or a book that features something other than the straight white wealthy cis able-bodied mold romance is so wedded to (see what I did there?). These will not be reviews in the usual sense, though I will usually mention whether or not I find a book compelling as a romance. Instead, these posts will be literary or structural analyses with a feminist lens, using as much privilege-checking as I know how to bring. Many of the books are no longer new, so if you can think of more recent releases that grapple with the same issues, please mention them.
Sometimes, as with Sandra Hill's novel, this means looking at a problematic work to see what it's doing wrong and what this means for romance as a genre, sometimes, as with Jacqueline Koyanagi's Ascension, it means looking at a book that gets it right and show how it does it:
It’s easy to say that Jacqueline Koyanagi’s luscious debut Ascension ticks just about every box on the anti-kyriarchy bingo card: our heroine is a queer disabled woman of color (in space!). She falls in love with a disabled starship captain who’s in a polyamorous relationship with another queer woman: a medic who plans on having children with a man-slash-engineer-slash-sometime-wolf. But like we saw with Her Love, Her Land, this book was written from deeply within the perspective of the identities it represents. The characters’ disability is a plot point, but it’s not The Plot Point — the same goes for queerness and race: they’re baked in, functions of character rather than Moving Moments. Polyamory gets a bit more of the Very Special Episode treatment, but this aspect is presented as bridging a gap between two different planetary cultures, one more sexually conservative than the other.

And all the characters are compelling, and several scenes made me gasp out loud (Adul!), but what I can’t wait to talk about is how this book treats the problem of humans having bodies.
Each of the reviews Waite writes contains spoilers, sometimes also for related books, as Waite takes care to put each novel in its proper context, with links for further reading and her sources in the endnotes to each post. The complete list of posts is linked from her introduction post.

A definition of intersectionality.
posted by MartinWisse (40 comments total) 21 users marked this as a favorite

 
Holy. Holy....crap. That first book, "Frankly, My Dear." Holy crap.

I mean...what?
posted by xingcat at 1:14 PM on April 16 [2 favorites]


Oh, man.

I love me some good romance novels, but I stay away from historical romances and time travel, and Hill's book is an excellent example of why
posted by magstheaxe at 1:32 PM on April 16 [1 favorite]


That first book is a real book?? Like, someone said, "Yeah, sure, let's make this happen" and they did??
posted by Kitteh at 1:33 PM on April 16 [1 favorite]


What the actual several fucks
posted by Tomorrowful at 1:38 PM on April 16 [10 favorites]


Judging from the Goodreads reviews, it's a book a lot of people really like. It seems like people focus in on the bit where the heroine is a starving model who finally gets to eat normally, and that's the part that gets empathized with. I'd be willing to bet most of those readers don't really see the dodgy handling of the slavery stuff - it's all soft-focus in the background.
posted by PussKillian at 1:39 PM on April 16


You know, even if you had no familiarity with social justice and had never heard words like "intersectionality" or any such thing, I would think that just out of basic run of the mill human decency, when you hit the "teaching the slaves aerobics" part you would turn a little green and put the book down.
posted by edheil at 1:39 PM on April 16 [11 favorites]


I have heard that Sandra Hill's books about time-traveling Vikings who become Navy SEALs are not nearly so horrifying, at least not that way.
posted by asperity at 1:43 PM on April 16 [1 favorite]


I spent a lot of that review nodding my head in recognition--neo-Victorian fiction has a lot of the same racial issues and tropes, only transplanted to the imperial context (especially the Raj) instead of Southern plantations. The racial Other admiring the Super! Awesomeness! of Our White Heroine is a particularly common (and aggravating) figure.
posted by thomas j wise at 1:44 PM on April 16 [2 favorites]


I dunno, I put the F,MD book on my Goodreads list just for laughs. If I could get through the 50 Shades crapfest I figure I could manage this too.
posted by fuse theorem at 1:52 PM on April 16


I quite enjoy historical novels and historical novels, but I can't handle any happy romances set in slave-owning states or colonies, for just these reasons - or any with characters who supported the Confederates, whether they own slaves or not.

As for time-travelling to the Old South, how about Butler's stunning - and hard-hitting - time travel novel, Kindred? Experience the true romance of the Old South. (Spoiler: it was mostly rape and violence).
posted by jb at 2:04 PM on April 16 [2 favorites]


aerobics

Yes, if there was one thing slaves needed, it was more exercise.
posted by benzenedream at 2:11 PM on April 16 [20 favorites]


Wow, I remember the cover of 'Frankly My Dear' and may have even read it.

Her review of Pamela Morsi's "Simple Jesse" is gratifying to read; Morsi being one of my favorite romance authors back in the day. Really looking forward to her take on Miles Vorkosigan! (V – Vorkosigan: A Civil Campaign by Lois McMaster Bujold.)
posted by of strange foe at 2:12 PM on April 16 [1 favorite]


It isn't only historical romances that peddle the Good Slaveowner crap. Diana Peterfreund, who wrote silly unicorn books, wrote Persuasion in Space with slaves (who love their slaveowner so much that when she leaves, they keep being slaves to keep her plantation going). There are so many Good Slaveowner/Happy Slave YA stories, it amazes me.
posted by jeather at 2:12 PM on April 16 [2 favorites]


Man, I join Waite in saying that I would totally read a time-travel underground railroad book. That'd be hella fun, some kinda "Harriet Tubman: Chrononaut" thing. (Though why not take all the slaves? Is time travel too expensive that way? Does it only work with folks not in the historical record? Things to ponder!)
posted by klangklangston at 2:20 PM on April 16 [8 favorites]


"It isn't only historical romances that peddle the Good Slaveowner crap. Diana Peterfreund, who wrote silly unicorn books, wrote Persuasion in Space with slaves (who love their slaveowner so much that when she leaves, they keep being slaves to keep her plantation going). There are so many Good Slaveowner/Happy Slave YA stories, it amazes me."

Hegel's Master-Slave dialectic is something else that's interesting on its own, but he chose a terrible fucking metaphor to explore it through.
posted by klangklangston at 2:23 PM on April 16


That'd be hella fun, some kinda "Harriet Tubman: Chrononaut" thing.

I present to you a trailer for the play Harry & the Thief by Sigrid Gilmer, produced recently by folks I know here in Chicago.
posted by HeroZero at 3:42 PM on April 16 [2 favorites]


Wow.

Intellectually, I know that there are people who are apologists for slavery. I've seen some examples (even in mainstream US politics).But it's still hard for me to picture someone choosing to make their romantic male lead a slaveowner. I can understand wanting to ignore or downplay things that make you Feel Bad, but romanticizing them is just on a different level than that. Presumably, as the author of a romance novel, you have the choice of where to set it and who the leads will be. You don't have to make your male lead a slaveowner and then excuse slavery on his behalf. The (willful) blindness is astounding.
posted by Kutsuwamushi at 3:47 PM on April 16 [1 favorite]


"But it's still hard for me to picture someone choosing to make their romantic male lead a slaveowner."

An unrepentant and unchanging slave owner. I mean, isn't that one of the biggest opportunities of a time-traveling heroine, that she could explain/demonstrate to the slave owner that from the modern perspective slavery is HORRIBLE FUCKING TORTURE and needs to be abolished? I mean, I'm not saying there are no problems with that narrative, but to (apparently) not even nod toward it… Not to get too far up our own asses, but ending the massive genocide of Africans/African Americans is one of those things that modern people can take some legitimate moral high ground over if talking to someone from the past. Plus, our amazing skin and dental hygiene will mean they'll listen.
posted by klangklangston at 3:59 PM on April 16 [8 favorites]


An unrepentant and unchanging slave owner.

This. It's totally OK to have your hero in a romance do horrible things, but there's got to be some sort of redemption and usually a lot of groveling once they realize the awfulness of what they've done. Sometimes the magnitude of awful is so great as to not make someone a good candidate as romance hero (or heroine, but it's almost always the hero who gets this plot.) Owning slaves certainly fits this category.

I can't think of a witty way to include this other Hill novel, but the title speaks for itself: The Very Virile Viking.
posted by asperity at 4:07 PM on April 16


I spent a lot of that review nodding my head in recognition--neo-Victorian fiction has a lot of the same racial issues and tropes, only transplanted to the imperial context (especially the Raj) instead of Southern plantations. The racial Other admiring the Super! Awesomeness! of Our White Heroine is a particularly common (and aggravating) figure.

I think all these things have a universal grounding - it's another way of being (or courting) a princess or a prince, someone who is above others, it's the escapist fantasy of having power/wealth/privilege/admiration/love/importance/attention.

There might not be princes in America, but there are power structures in America that can be used as a drop-in-replacement. Likewise, stories involving princes might be outgrown, but there are drop-in-replacements in all times and places to hit all the same buttons.

Being one of the big-people amongst the little-people is an appealing fantasy. I hear Captain America is doing well at the box office.
posted by anonymisc at 4:31 PM on April 16


Sentiments like this are why Octavia Butler wrote Kindred. Thank goodness for the exposition!
posted by childofTethys at 6:23 PM on April 16 [3 favorites]


Five years of working side by side with the natives on a Santo Domingo sugar plantation as an indentured servant had taught him good and well what servitude felt like. (1368)

I think I read once that a sugar cane cutting slave's life expectancy was about 18 months
posted by thelonius at 6:42 PM on April 16


I am about to leave a thank you note on her blog for recommending Beverly Jenkins instead of Hill - I looooooove romance novels but they are so often problematic, so discovering romance novels about 18-19th century women on the underground railway is super-happy, and my library has a whole bunch of hers I have just downloaded, although not Indigo specifically.

Diana Gabaldon for all her various nuttiness does grapple briefly with slaveholders and slavery and indentured slaves in her series in a way that acknowledges the range of historical views.

And oh Jeather, that book. I wanted to like it so much, I did like some of it, but the wilful blindness to what she was doing was just infuriating. And in service to an author who wrote Mansfield Park, just gah.
posted by viggorlijah at 9:29 PM on April 16 [2 favorites]


"Judging from the Goodreads reviews, it's a book a lot of people really like."

Is this because the readers don't really pay attention to the slavery aspect, or does it mean they have a yearning for this sort of past, that they would like things back the way they were? Are they imagining it as some sort of golden age, when everything was better?
posted by marienbad at 1:12 AM on April 17


This book review was almost unreadable. Shouldn't a review maybe give an exposition of the plot, a summary of what seem to be the author's intentions, and some context for the appearance of the book? We get a tiny bit of context, but only near the end of the review. As a result, I have almost no idea what's actually going on in the book or what the author really believed. It's just several pages of "OMG LET ME TELL YOU SOME AWFUL THINGS FROM THIS NARRATIVE."

The book does indeed sound morally execrable, though. But I'm willing to bet a lot of us will be made morbidly curious by a review like that which explains so little and leaves so much to the imagination.
posted by koeselitz at 5:44 AM on April 17


It's not intended as a traditional book review. She's writing about aspects of romance novels through different critical lenses - feminism, publishing industry, race etc. She's not reviewing books so much as discussing them. Reviews are easy to find, but critical discussions of romance novels as a genre, not so much.
posted by viggorlijah at 5:56 AM on April 17


"These will not be reviews in the usual sense, though I will usually mention whether or not I find a book compelling as a romance. Instead, these posts will be literary or structural analyses with a feminist lens, using as much privilege-checking as I know how to bring. "
posted by coupdefoudre at 6:00 AM on April 17


We all rightfully find this book repellant, but how much of our media glorifies the medieval equivalent of the Deep South slaveowner? "Tell your teacher I said princesses are evil / how they got all they money was they killed people." There is no reason that stories where we are supposed to be on the side of the "rightful king" should be any less repellant.
posted by enn at 6:01 AM on April 17 [2 favorites]


I like literary and structural analyses. This was not those things.
posted by koeselitz at 6:17 AM on April 17


Koeselitz, what was it then? Her writing style definitely reads like The Hairpin, but she has put in thought to her discussion of the books and genre.
posted by viggorlijah at 6:25 AM on April 17


My problem is that the essay just makes the book sound kind of dumb, in a way that might even be passable in the "just-for-laughs" sense; whereas I feel like she meant to point out that the book was actually offensively racist. If it's actually offensively racist, it deserves to be torn apart and left in the gutter, literally and figuratively.
posted by koeselitz at 6:55 AM on April 17


(But then, it probably doesn't deserve a careful analysis, so I'm not sure what more I'd ask of this piece. People should be able to tell that such a book should not be read. fuse theorem: please reconsider.)
posted by koeselitz at 6:57 AM on April 17


It also helps to not just focus on that one review, but read the others she's written?
posted by MartinWisse at 9:48 AM on April 17


I'm also not sure how much you need to be told about the plot here; I got the impression it was very much a bog standard heroine meets man, they bicker and fall in love plot. It's the sort of thing that can be done well, but is of less importance when you're focusing on the context in which the novel takes place and its (unconscious) assumptions.

And it's not so much that the novel is evil, or racist in the treason in defence of slavery sense, but rather that it's thoughtlessly racist, written by a white writer for a white audience which wants to concentrate on the gowns and balls, vaguely self aware enough to do some handwaving about the evils of slavery, while ignorant about what slavery was really like. I bet the closest Hill came to any proper historical research was Gone with the Wind.

What Waite makes clear in the review is that Hill's novel stands in for a broader trend in historical romance genre, as she says in the excerpt posted above. It's just a particularly egrious example chosen because it's both popular and easy to see the flaws in. As such it should probably be read in the context of the whole series of posts she's doing.

And of course Waite is writing for an audience that is assumed to have some working knowledge of the romance genres and their conventions, share a vocabulary, which may make it slightly harder to follow if you're not so familiar with it. (Though I didn't have much trouble following it myself, some unknown terminology set aside.)

In any case, Waite is neither trying to review the book in the sense you mean, nor is she trying to crucify that particular novel. She's using it as an example, just like she does with the other novels she writes about in this series.
posted by MartinWisse at 10:08 AM on April 17 [7 favorites]


"The reviews of Delivery Bangers 43 didn't even make it clear what kind of food was ordered! Pizza? Thai? Did the girls know they didn't have any cash before the delivery boy arrived?"
posted by klangklangston at 11:09 AM on April 17 [1 favorite]


Is this because the readers don't really pay attention to the slavery aspect, or does it mean they have a yearning for this sort of past, that they would like things back the way they were? Are they imagining it as some sort of golden age, when everything was better?

I don't know one way or another which it is in the case of this book, but in general, the romance genre is full of tropes and settings that are problematic. Romance novels are meant to be escapist, and engaging with thorny questions of privilege or difficult historical realities doesn't fit with many readers' desire for escapism. This is most evident when, as Waite points out, an author uses such a fraught and painful setting as a slave plantation as a "Fun Unique Setting!" Because otherwise, romance is full of a benign sort of ignorance of historical realities: of course all of our heroes and heroines are nobility! Of course we won't explore just what their wealth is built on! Of course all the lower classes are but props to the lives of our Noble Heroes! The average romance novel reader has no problem just rolling with all of that, particularly in the popular Regency or Georgian settings, because the settings are just window dressing, and none of the injustices are as obvious. You can have a relatively guilt-free "escape into privilege" with a lot of these settings, which is definitely part of the appeal.

But when you set something in the antebellum South on a slave plantation, escaping into privilege is (or should be) a lot more difficult. There are probably plenty of romance readers who are willing and able to do it, enough to get this terrible book reprinted apparently, but I don't think you can separate the response to it from how readers respond the same way to other "escape into privilege" settings. I wouldn't say it's a specific yearning to return to that past, so much as it's just not real enough to a lot of readers, and there's no "too soon" factor.

Recently, romance novels have been trying to move towards more diverse settings and characters, so it's not all this bad by a longshot. I've enjoyed Courtney Milan's books especially for making some effort at grappling with historical realities and injustice.
posted by yasaman at 1:41 PM on April 17 [2 favorites]


(But then, it probably doesn't deserve a careful analysis, so I'm not sure what more I'd ask of this piece. People should be able to tell that such a book should not be read. fuse theorem: please reconsider.)

I'm sorry if my comment made it look like I was being flippant about the horrific concept and subject matter of this book. That was not my intent at all.

I am generally not a romance novel aficionado and don't have to work very hard to be bothered by the entire genre. My real interest in reading this book was to be able to post my own scathing review of it.

I would never pay for a book like this and like 50 Shades (which offended me greatly) I'll be reading it courtesy of my library. Barely one chapter in, it's doubtful my attempt will be successful. Hill's a terrible writer but in a way that's 180 degrees different from E.L. James.

(Just to put things in some kind of context, I've refused to see the film Django Unchained but did a couple of years ago watch the notorious blaxploitation film, Mandingo. My ability to take offense at commercial depictions of slavery seemingly walks a fine line.)

I bet the closest Hill came to any proper historical research was Gone with the Wind.

Yep. I have a whole separate issue with GWTW (I once knew a Southern belle type who said Scarlett O'Hara changed her life; WTF?) and that was partially what drove me to want to read this book.
posted by fuse theorem at 4:44 PM on April 17


Aristocrats may have made their money expropriating the labour of peasants, but serfdom still wasn't anywhere near as horrific as chattal slavery. There is just no comparison. The rape or murder of a serf was a crime, whereas anything was allowed against slaves.

On other books: Diana Galbadon deals relatively well with race (not just slavery but also native rights); Sara Donati's Into the Wilderness also deals well with race and history through the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century.
posted by jb at 4:48 PM on April 17


It should also be clarified that serfdom wasn't universal. In many areas, peasants were not tied to the land (as serfs often were) and things worked more on a taxation or land-rental/99-year-lease system.
posted by PharmacistofLucifer at 10:44 AM on April 18


and that serfdom in Western Europe was very different from later serfdom in Eastern Europe. In medieval England, serfs were more prosperous than free peasants (who could accurately be called landless peasants).
posted by jb at 12:02 PM on April 18


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