Strawmen On Parade (Blame Las)

January 5, 2014 Opinion 15

Stop sign reads 900 free garage spaces pick onePity the poor romance reader. Despite driving the mass market in sales she is never as fully appreciated as those who read loftier works, however the day is defining that. She must fight against the dismissive assumption by others that she is reading porn for women. She must fight, even in her own community, against the shaming and censure of others.

As someone with over 30 years in this genre, I’ve pretty much had my fill of that. I speak about what I want to see more of in the field not because I want to curtail your stroke supply, but because I want to read those books. I don’t care if you read your books. You do you. But understand, when I decline to do you and you act like I’ve shamed you, it’s not me with the problem.

This is a constant conversation. It never, ever goes away. In a genre saturated with sexist rapist assholes wearing an Alpha badge there is a continual push back on those readers who want a non-sexist non-rapist  romantic hero. We’re wrong, and we’re shaming others. Just last week we had this from author Christina Dodd.

Major politically incorrect. Also much beloved by women who don’t care what some think of reading choices. I get cranky abt people who decide what’s proper to read & enjoy. Judging adult women’s reading choice is politically incorrect. A WELL PLEASURED LADY is one of my bestsellers. But indignant reviews.
It’s fine to hate non-pc romances. People should read what they like. But when readers buy a book labeled as “non-pc” & hate for that reason then try to shame or ridicule the readers who enjoyed that book that’s hypocrisy. Read the book description. Always.

Leaving aside whatever she thinks politically correct means, there are no hordes of haters snatching books from the crying arms of her readers. No one has rolled them into cylinders and smacked the noses of her faithful screaming “Bad reader, no books!” Some paid for her bestselling book and didn’t like it. Lots of other people made it a bestseller. This is not a real problem. The way she’s framed it, if you do NOT like her book it’s because you’re afraid of what people think and are being super politically correct (again, whatever she thinks that means). If you like it, you’re honest and brave. Readers should have X-ray vision into the book’s content and blurbs always disclose objectionable material. The straw prevails.

We also had a post from Dear Author that I’m not linking to. It’s a reasoned post from Robin and there’s an active comment thread I was warned to avoid. I made the mistake of glancing at it and I don’t want to go back. You can find the post, I have faith in you. While unwisely sampling the comments I saw the assertion made that readers who criticize elements of the genre are endangering the continued availability of those books. We are now not only shaming the readers, we’re stifling the market. The strawman has multiplied.

You can find absolutely anything to read. Snuff? Non-con? Beastiality? Incest? You can read love relationships that would make Ariel Castro uneasy. You will not lose your alpha hole, your rape fantasy, your look at power dynamics through subjugation. Your pseudo-incest guardian duke and young ward reads are safe. I don’t even want it to be hard for you to find. If Harlequin starts a non-con imprint tomorrow I am down with that, my sister. Buy your little heart out. I will celebrate for both of us as your kinks are clearly labeled away from my kinks and we can read the HEA of our heart’s secret desire. 

The books you want to read will not go away because I don’t like them. If it’s a green lizard, a billionaire dom or a ridiculously bulked up paranormal street thug, your rape fantasy is here to stay. Swoon away, my friends, swoon away. But let’s pretend your straw man is real? Let’s pretend that the bajillion dollars earned by Alpha Hole and his best friend Dom the Abuser really and truly was endangered by my distaste for their existence. Maybe that’s ok. Because yes, I am tired of finding your BDSM in my Rich White Colonizer fairy tale. And maybe my Rich White Colonizer fairy tale is in danger of disappearing. Maybe that’s ok too. Because the market gives and the market takes away, but it’s not reader shame that drives it.

Reader shame is internal, it is not external. It is not my job to give you warm feelings about your fiction choices. The market changes because people change it. Readers change it. Readers do not want complex interracial love stories, they want BDSM Twilight scenes. You’re safely in the majority, my distaste notwithstanding. But again, let’s say I win. Let’s say the market becomes dominated by something new. Its the cycle of life. Over 30 years reading in this genre might give me a different perspective than you, grasshopper. As Ice-T says, “I’ve been your age. You’ve never been mine. Listen up.” (Or, you know, maybe you ARE my age but whatever. That dude is super quotable.)

Once upon a time there was a section of the genre called a Gothic. They were based on Jane Eyre and they were everywhere. Some had light paranormal elements but most contained an innocent young governess and a super broody homeowner with A Secret. The secret was pretty much always a first wife locked up in the tower who occasionally escaped her handlers and made Mr. Broody sad. She might cut up some clothes or put people in peril but sooner or later she’d fall off the roof and everyone would get their HEA on. Reader shame killed them. Not externally applied reader shame, but a growing realization that there wasn’t much romantic about a man and his second wife conspiring to destroy his under-medicated first love. Readers collectively lost their taste for them and they vanished. We all survived. We kept reading books.

Once upon a time a genre staple was for the hero and heroine to have a twenty (or better) year age gap. The hero would meet the heroine when she was 12 or 13. Sometimes he’d save her life and move on (Laurie McBain) sometimes he’d start seducing her right then and there. (Aleen Malcolm). Pretty much all the time she was coltish and young and fiery and untried and all sorts of other words that we collectively came to consider icky. Reader shame killed the March / December romances as we finally decided R. Kelly wasn’t even a very good songwriter. Old guys raping young teenagers is gross. We kept reading books.

Once upon a time there was a thriving publishing phenomenon known as the plantation novel. Black men, described as big bucks or in other racist terms, were the hopeless love interests of milky white blonde plantation daughters. Sometimes it was the plantation son realizing that the lightly tanned french woman he’d fallen for was actually a one drop girl so light that her enslavement was an injustice. On rare occasions, they were both white (See Burford’s Alyx). These books were filled to the brim with racist language, casual rape, whippings and other glorifications of a time in American history we whites still haven’t faced. Sure, it was super erotic to get your rape fantasy on while indulging in a nice round of othering, but sooner or later we all woke up and realized this was some sick shit. Black readers wanted books that portrayed black characters as humans, not as exceptions to the animal masses. White readers realized they were reading into their racism and felt bad. Plantation novels quietly slipped from our shelves and were not replaced by their logical successor, the concentration camp romance. We kept reading books.

Once upon a time the white slaver novel ruled the day. From Bertrice Small to the lesser known, bands of pirates sold helpless young women to fat filthy sultans or evil muslims or whatever flavor of brown was ruling white fears that day. She got raped by everyone who saw her, or not raped but trained in sex work, or some combination of both. She might rise to favored status, putting her children forward, and prevail in the fictionalized harem power structure. She might meet a fellow white slave and escape together. She might be endlessly sought by her beloved white lord and forgiven for her impurities, inspiring her love and gratitude. You know what happened there, right? We kept reading books.

Over the last 30 years I have had Erica Jong quoted to me endlessly. (I read that when it came out, thanks.) Jong was writing about women’s sexual fantasies. Let’s hit that again, their sexual fantasies, not their romantic ones. If you want to argue (and many do) that romance is not porn for women, then sexual fantasies are irrelevant to the conversation. If you accept that women read for a number of reasons, and that some of those women are reading for sexual pleasure, then yes, bring Jong into the conversation. Again, if you want to read about Alpha Holes and Non-Con that’s fine, and that’s you doing you. I don’t need to hear a justification, it’s your deal. Keep it in your lane.

What set me off about Dodd, and what sets me off about the mislabeling of reader opinions, the myth of shaming readers, and the accusations of market stifling is not just that it elevates one reader above another, it’s that it demands we be the same reader. Dodd is saying the only reason to dislike her book is hypocrisy. Many others have said the only reason to dislike those elements is a desire to shame other readers. The rape survivor who reads rape fantasy is elevated over the rape survivor who doesn’t. The domestic violence survivor who salivates over a motorcycle man is set above the one who really fancies Steve from Blue’s Clues. The reader shame team is working overtime to shame readers who don’t share their tastes by saying that these bestselling books they love are in danger of disappearing. It’s a false argument. It’s disingenuous and it’s insulting. The claim that women discussing (in whatever terms they chose) how they feel about what they read is damaging to the genre is in itself stifling and disenfranchising. But we’re only important if we want the same book you want.

The historical is dead. The contemporary is dead. The paranormal is dead. The romance that supports domestic violence dynamics must be protected at all costs. Because I (whoever you are) like them. We live in a culture saturated with rape. Rape is absolutely a valid and confirmed female fantasy. We cannot separate if this fantasy is coded in our DNA or created by our patriarchal culture because there’s no control group for that experiment. Every genre that dies has it’s critics sneered at. “Some People” turns into a misuse of “Politically Correct” when it’s found offensive by a reader. Eventually some tropes are collectively deemed offensive to humanity and removed from the romance genre to the erotic and pornographic. None of them cease to exist, tropes simply convert to a new state of matter.

In closing, earlier today I read a strong critique of Courtney Milan’s newest book. The reader felt Milan trivialized the emotional impact of Violet’s failed fertility and that the blurb should have warned readers about the content. I disagreed with the reviewer but respected her point of view. I did not feel shamed, nor did I feel she had no right to her objections. There was no need for me to jump up and cry she was forcing us all into Babylogue territory or otherwise demand that my personhood supersede hers. I did not demand she read other infertility based romances so she could see how wrong she was. All of that would have seemed ridiculous.

TL:DR Summary: STFU about the myth of reader shaming and own your choices. You like rapey heroes, whatever. We’ve got plenty out there for you to enjoy. I don’t have to wave your pom-poms.

TL:DR Rebuttal: Not ALL Rape Fantasies!

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Meoskop's first non-compulsory book review was in 1973. Although a hit with the 3rd grade, concerns raised by the administration necessitated an extended hiatus. Reviews resumed in 1985 but the concerns are ongoing.

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15 Responses to “Strawmen On Parade (Blame Las)”

  1. Solace Ames

    Great article :-) I write BDSM and I agree 100%.

    The thing that irritates me about the NO KINKSHAMING EVER brigade is that the vast majority of these kinks wouldn’t even be kinks without shaming. The sexual charge actually comes from the fact that it horrifies a lot of people. If enough people stop judging and shaming the kink, it gets too tame, and people get bored and move on to some other taboo.

    I wish people could acknowledge that dynamic with honesty instead of hypocrisy. We should be allowed to say, “I don’t like that and I think it’s fucked up” without being accused of erotic fascism.

  2. Meoskop

    @Solace Ames: I might love you. I’d add that we should be free to reject the erotic without rejecting eroticism. The weird mobius strip of “Romance isn’t for sexual arousal / this content sexually arouses me and I want it in my romance” is a Hall of Mirrors we need to break though. (I’m already on record as being a McDLT reader.)

  3. willaful

    Terrific post! I will comment again when I have more time to read thoroughly but for now… please tell me where I can find the romances with Steve from “Blue’s Clues”!

  4. Ridley

    I see a lot of similar reactions to criticism of rape/abuse themes in romance as I do to criticism of women taking their husband’s name after marriage. Which makes a lot of sense, I guess, since there’s a thin line between policing individual choices and bemoaning the symptoms of systemic inequality and not everyone minds the line in their critique

    I don’t want to see heroes rape or abuse a heroine in romance, and I sincerely hope it goes away. Whenever I see it romanticized, I see rape culture reflected back at me, and I get angry. I want society to rise above this, and soon.

    This might make fans of the trope uncomfortable. I won’t argue that they’re wrong to feel that way, because feelings aren’t up for judgement, but I also don’t see their discomfort as evidence that I’ve done something wrong. If they can love the trope and wish for more without maligning me, personally, I can do the opposite.

    Nobody said criticism had to put everyone at ease.

  5. Las

    You put into words what’s been in the back of my mind about the reader shame discussions–that most complaints about shaming seem to be about tropes that, going by sale numbers, the majority of romance readers enjoy. It’s irksome, because how can one be truly “shamed” when supply of their preferences is so secure? It’s like when best selling authors complain about negative reviews and “bullying.” Ignoring everything else, you’re books are selling! STFU about your hurt feelings!

    I get it up to a point. It’s long been my impression that Romland isn’t at all representative of the majority of readers (thought maybe that been changing?), so we get a lot of discussions about problematic or outright hated tropes that seem almost universal even though those views don’t correspond with what gets published and what sells. If you’re someone who likes these tropes (and many of us like something problematic), it can be jarring to read posts and tweets about all that is wrong with them. But it shouldn’t be so difficult to acknowledge that something you like to read has issues.

  6. meoskop

    @Jody Wallace: Please. Joe’s the more conventionally attractive one but he’s far needier. And a wee bit less intelligent.

  7. Fangs 4 the Fantasy (@Fangs4Fantasy)

    Oh lordy, it’s another round of “criticism = censorship and silencing and bullying you mean mean people!” it’s amazing the excuses they will trot out. Now it’s “kinkshaming” to point out anything problematic because it’s found sexually arousing?

    Some things are problematic. Yes they may float your boat, but that doesn’t mean they’re not problematic and don’t need criticising, the fact they get one’s rocks off does not mean they are immune to being analysed, criticised and called out. “It so hawwwt” is no more an excuse for being silencing criticism of prejudiced portrayals et al than “it’s so funny!” is an excuse for silencing criticism of prejudiced jokes.

    In all, agreed to the hilt

  8. Fiona McGier

    Thanks for such an erudite discussion of the rampant shaming that goes on ONLY in the romance genre. I don’t see viewers of porn yakking about how the nympho-teenager thing is so overdone and just plain wrong. Instead women attack each other endlessly about what we write/read. Why? Can’t we all just agree that “to each her own” applies here and get back to writing and reading?
    Just like we all aren’t attracted to the same man (thankfully so we don’t all want to attack each others’ husbands), we don’t all enjoy the same tropes in our romance novels. There’s plenty of books out there for everyone. And for best-selling authors who make huge royalties to complain they’re being persecuted because someone didn’t like their book, is hugely disingenuous!

  9. meoskop

    @Fiona McGier: I don’t agree with (and in fact wrote the piece specifically to refute) this sentence –

    “Instead women attack each other endlessly about what we write/read.”

    I agree that is the perception, but I strongly contest that it is the reality. My position is that critique is healthy and appropriate, even when worded strongly. As a genre we need to move past the belief that we “attack each other endlessly” when we are pretty much not. We may be attacking art we dislike, but it gets twisted into something else, the same way a one star review gets twisted into bullying the author.

  10. willaful

    Well, I am back with nothing more to add really, except this was hilarious as well as clever. And I’m still waiting on the Steve book recommendations. ;-)

  11. Ros

    I was reminded of this post yesterday when I was reading the comments on an old review of an NA book that I was wondering about trying because it’s on sale. One of the commenters said ‘I don’t like X trope – I find it unromantic and problematic.’ The reviewer responded with ‘Are you saying no one should write about X?’ To which the original commenter replied, clearly bemused, ‘No, I’m saying I don’t like to read it.’

    It seemed bizarre to me, and clearly to the original commenter, that an expression of personal distaste was immediately escalated to a call for a ban. I don’t understand where that mindset comes from but there are some people out there who don’t seem to see the distinction.

  12. Meoskop

    @willaful – If I find one, I will let you know. I’m sure fan fiction exists but I’m pretty afraid of what we’d find. Did you ever hear the actor’s solo album? It’s pretty good in the mellow indie style.

  13. cleo

    @Ros: I’ve participated in a couple comment exchanges like that :) I remember how gobsmacked I was the first time it happened to me.

    Based on comment threads I’ve read, it seems to be relatively easy to take a statement like “I don’t like this” and turn it into “this shouldn’t exist” – but it still surprises me, because I don’t tend to think like that. I don’t want the responsibility of policing the contents of an entire genre, I just want to be able to avoid reading things that I find offensive (and when I do accidentally read them, I want be able to talk/complain/rant about them).