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Let's Stop Making Excuses for Problematic Romances August 4, 2019

Since the dawn of the romance novel, readers and writers of the genre have been unfairly stereotyped as shallow, sex-obsessed, and worst of all, female.

People casually put down all stories about women finding significant others as "chick lit," "bodice rippers," or "easy beach reads." They harass romance authors online, threaten their livelihoods, and say to their faces, "My daughter isn't into that stuff, thank God!"

Under constant siege for their choice of entertainment, romance fans understandably get defensive. They fight back by pointing out how misogynist and sex-negative these comments are.

The problem is, not all criticisms of romances are unfair. And the urge to attack anyone who hints that romance novels are less than perfect can hurt the people trying to make the genre better.

Last year, when I was posting regularly on the Wattpad community forums, I made an offhand comment that Mr. Rochester of Jane Eyre is not a good role model for heroes today. He's a middle-aged man who seduces his vulnerable and isolated 18-year-old employee; psychologically manipulates her to test her feelings for him; forcibly kisses her while saying, "Don't struggle so, like a wild frantic bird"; and attempts to commit bigamy with her while imprisoning his mentally ill wife in the attic. What a prize, eh?

In response, people vehemently defended Mr. Rochester. He's just flawed, and that's what makes him interesting! He's just Byronic, not a bad person! One lovely person wrote multiple diatribes to me over several days, going on and on about how Jane is a strong heroine, so how dare I degrade her by implying she was a victim; and Jane secretly liked Mr. Rochester so he wasn't taking advantage of her; and that forced kiss wasn't assault, it was a misunderstanding; and obviously I don't know how to read.

Last month, when I started to become more active on Twitter, I made another comment that 20th-century romances that portrayed rape as something glamorous and sexy set a bad precedent for the genre. Denizens of Romancelandia leapt to educate me on all the reasons the "romantic" rape scenes were not only okay, but revolutionary.

  • Back then women who consented were "slutty," so the authors had no choice but to glorify rape.
  • There weren't any other sex-positive books for women at the time, so those novelists were actually "very forward-thinking."
  • "Those books got me into romances when I was a teenager, and I'll always remember them fondly. I admit they didn't age well."

"Didn't age well" is a ubiquitous euphemism for, "This exalted creative work has terrible morals, but I'd prefer not to dwell on that because I want to keep my nostalgia intact."

These slave-owning protagonists are white supremacist as heck? The book "didn't age well."

The guy slaps the girl around, or vice versa, and the violence is played for laughs? Those jokes "didn't age well," that's all.

This hero murdered his first wife and dumped her body in the ocean, but his young new one helps him cover up the crime and they live happily ever after? Oh, the story might not have "aged well," but back then good wives supported their husbands no matter what. Also that first wife was mean and had affairs, so the murder was a kind of justice, and you can tell he was basically a decent guy because he felt bad about it.

(Side note: Daphne du Maurier was irritated that people called Rebecca romantic fiction, because it was supposed to be a suspense novel about jealousy. I'd love to see a new adaptation that doesn't try to make Maxim sympathetic, but makes it obvious he's a controlling murderer who justifies his actions by painting his victim as a slut who "asked for it." And the second Mrs. de Winter isn't really a naive innocent, but an unreliable narrator who chooses to believe Maxim's questionable version of events because of her jealousy towards Rebecca.)

Today another Twitter thread reminded me of all this. An author I follow posted that she's concerned for women today who think the puppy-strangling Heathcliff of Wuthering Heights is hot. She followed up one hour later to ask people to kindly stop messaging her to explain that Wuthering Heights is great literature.

It is possible for a landmark literary work like Wuthering Heights to have artistic significance, and also have bad morals. It is not an attack on all romance authors or readers to admit a beloved work has bad morals, and to commit to doing better in the future. Minimizing or outright denying the problems in the classics doesn't protect the genre, but hinders it.

Why are problematic romances a problem?

Inevitably, when somebody brings up problematic elements of a well-known novel or movie, somebody else claims they're making mountains out of molehills because "it's just fiction."

People learn from stories, even if they know conceptually it's "just fiction." Readers of historical romances know the love story is a rosy fantasy, but they think those are real period details in the background. Readers of thrillers know the gruesome murders came from a writer's imagination, but they think the details about forensics and law enforcement must be accurate.

Crucially, young people learn the difference between acceptable and unacceptable behavior from novels, movies, TV shows...and nowadays, pornography. Last year the New York Times Magazine ran a story called, "What Teenagers Are Learning from Online Porn." The boys interviewed said they knew they were watching paid actors pretend to enjoy themselves, but they believed the videos portrayed sex acts real women enjoy: slapping, hair-pulling, gagging, facials, etc. "Porn stars know what they're doing," one teenager proclaimed.

When I was growing up, I didn't have pornography popping up on my phone every day, but I did have Jane Eyre and The Fountainhead on the bookshelf in my bedroom. I had access to the VHS tapes of Gone with the Wind and Grease. From these and more I learned that strong men don't take no for an answer, that being sexually harassed is flattering, and that abuse equates to passion.

I didn't realize what lessons I'd internalized until I wrote some YA short stories in my early twenties. In one, a likeable young high school teacher fell for a senior student and punished her for it. In another, a cute girl kissed her study buddy without his consent. My husband read the stories and pointed out what I was doing.

I didn't take it well, of course. I denied the problems and made excuses. Everyone has a crush on a teacher at some point, so that story realistic. Plus I addressed the power imbalance as a primary source of internal conflict for the teacher, so I wasn't being irresponsible. As for the girl in the second story, it's not like she kissed her classmate on the mouth, just the cheek. Adults kissed me on the cheek without asking all the time when I was growing up, and nobody made a big deal about it. The very idea that I would have bad morals in my stories was insulting, because I was an enlightened egalitarian!

Then I quietly conceded those stories were a mistake, and I sheepishly unpublished the series from Amazon.

What can we do when we see problems in romances?

Just like I couldn't see the irresponsible messages I was passing on to readers with those YA stories, other people can't see the problems in popular novels if nobody points them out.

When we see sexism, racism, and other issues in novels—especially in popular ones—we need to acknowledge them. We need to say, "Okay, Wuthering Heights is a great artistic achievement, but hanging your wife's dog on your wedding day isn't sexy. Let's keep that in mind."

It takes courage to do this, because people will reflexively kick back in denial. They'll attack you for "trying to ruin a great book/movie." They'll say political correctness has run amok, artists have a right to creative freedom and morality isn't black and white, you're "reading too much into it" and you need to relax. "It's just fiction."

But we need to have courage and speak up, because these morals do real damage. Like me, thousands of other young writers emulate those harmful classics, posting countless #possessive #dominant #badboy stories on Wattpad and other websites. Every time I see one, I worry what will happen to the young people gushing over the "hot" scenes if they ever fall into the hands of a violent partner.

Every time we say, "That staircase scene in Gone with the Wind was just rough sex," we're teaching people that when partners physically threaten them and drag them to bed, it's not rape. We're also teaching those partners that people enjoy being "ravaged," and though they might be saying no right now, tomorrow morning they'll be smiling coyly in bed like the cat who got the cream.

Every time we see a "funny" scene of a man spanking his wife, or an actor in blackface/brownface/yellowface yucking it up, and we pontificate that "movies/books reflect the times when they were made," we're teaching people that bad behaviors are okay if they're common. And we're implying domestic violence and racism aren't real problems anymore, but mere relics of a grayscale past, and people today couldn't possibly be watching those old scenes and laughing along.

Let's stop making excuses.

How to Show Culture Subtly July 14, 2019

This month I've been spending more time on Twitter, and through it I've found out how weak I am to peer influence. I've bought lipsticks because pretty women posted selfies wearing them. I've sought out movies because people referenced them in memes and animated GIFs. And thanks to gushing reviews, my "To Be Read" pile has sprouted with surprising rapidity, like the flowering weeds in our yard after the summer rains.

Unfortunately, I've been disappointed by several titles Twitter loves to death. The premises are exciting, and the writing is often lovely, but the books consistently share a quality that makes me give up less than fifty pages in: they preach.

Tweets that generate thousands of "likes" and "retweets" fall into two categories: (1) snarky quips that incite rage over controversies, or (2) mini sermons flavored with emojis and profanity. Every day Twitter tells me such-and-such identity is "valid," half the words in the English dictionary are "fucking offensive," and so-and-so people have no reason to feel guilty about something innocuous because they don't owe anyone a goddamn thing.

It's not surprising, then, that the books Twitter recommends have traits similar to the mini sermons with twenty thousand hearts. The novels scream morals in readers' faces like those Bible-waving lay preachers standing on street corners near college campuses. Social media does not reward subtlety; it rewards books with pithy quotes easily copy/pasted into a 280-character post.

When writing a book, you're not limited to 280 characters. You get a half million of them! You can use as many as you need to share a message, and do it in a way that will touch people and stick with them long after they put the book down. There's no point in writing an 80,000-word book if your message can be conveyed in a couple of straightforward sentences.

For example, a women's fiction novel I attempted to read last week set out to teach people about Chinese food and social norms, from the perspective of a woman who goes home to her Chinatown neighborhood after the death of her mother. Okay, awesome.

But instead of the heartwarming and relateable read I thought the novel would be, I got Chinese Culture 101 for Business Travelers.

Page 10:

I should visit my neighbors after my time away, but...my grief justified dismissing these cultural expectations.

Page 13:

Filial piety was sacred in my culture, and my mother had died while I was three thousand miles away.

Page 14:

The tug-of-war to pay the bill was a common cultural occurrence. [...] The performance of paying the bill demonstrated the traits of generosity and hospitality so prized by our culture.

Here I stopped reading. I could explain why using shorthand Twitter-speak like "self-othering," but this is my blog, and I can type as many characters as I want to explain more fully.

Telling about culture is unnatural.

Have you ever attended an obligatory family get-together and thought to yourself, "Dang it, now I have to uphold American cultural expectations by eating one of Aunt Martha's soggy pies"?

I assume not. That's not the way people within a culture think. It's the way people outside a culture think when they're trying very hard to fit in.

A person in the heroine's shoes, recently bereaved and coming home for the first time in years, wouldn't think, "My grief justifies dismissing Asian cultural expectations." She'd think, "If I don't pay my respects to the neighbors, those grannies will gossip about what a rude and unfilial daughter I am. But I really can't handle acting nice and brave right now, when all I want to do is hide under the covers and pretend Mama will wake me up tomorrow."

Telling alienates readers.

As I wrote long ago in "Show, but Sometimes Tell," showing engages readers with the story. Explaining complex concepts or emotions point-blank doesn't give readers the opportunity to fully empathize with your main character.

Worse, this particular type of telling encourages readers to view the main character as someone alien. The Chinese Culture 101 tidbits highlight that the heroine is different from the reader—a member of an exotic tribe so bizarre, the author must explain their actions in detail to us culturally myopic Westerners.

Simplistic telling perpetuates stereotypes.

After stopping at page fourteen, I checked Goodreads reviews to see if anyone else had a negative reaction to the over-explanation of "my culture." One or two did, but overall people didn't notice or comment on it. Some even adopted the same language as the author, with insulting results. For example...

The heroine left home seven years ago, having committed the worst sin in her culture, the sin of not respecting her mother's wishes.

Yes, filial piety is very important to a lot of Chinese people. But filial piety doesn't mean "blind, unquestioning obedience." It means showing respect to your parents and caring for them as they age, and doing your best to be an upstanding person who doesn't disgrace the family. Most Chinese parents aren't controlling Tiger Moms who exile children for failing to fulfill their every wish. Refusing to go to medical school is hardly the "worst sin in Chinese culture."

I can't blame one novel for planting reductive generalizations about East Asian peoples in American heads, but the writing didn't help by making blanket statements like, "Filial piety is sacred in my culture." Repeatedly telling readers about "our culture" implies the author of this book speaks for all one and a half billion people who identify as Chinese. Some Western readers will take her at her word and come away with freshly reinforced stereotypes.

How to Show Culture

If you want to teach about a culture through fiction, you don't have to spell everything out. Readers will glean what's going on from the behavior and dialogue of your characters.

Let's take the example of the bill-paying tug-of-war. (Which is not exclusive to Chinese culture, by the way. We ain't got nothin' on Persian taarof, for example.)

To show the tug-of-war, it's sufficient to portray two characters fighting over who will pay the bill. This book already did that before the explanatory paragraph about virtues "so prized by our culture." (Shortened below.)

"I'll pay the bill," Celia said.

Mr. Wu cleared his throat. "No, Celia. Don't worry about the bill."

"Business is business. We all need to make a living." She reached into her purse for her wallet.

"I refuse to allow you to pay. Put your wallet away, Celia."

"Please, I insist."

If you're concerned people will think these characters are behaving that way due to individual personalities instead of cultural norms, you can make it clear this is a performance through actions embedded in the scene.

"I'll pay the bill," Celia said.

Mr. Wu raised his hands to reject her offer, in the expected show of humility. "No, Celia. Don't worry about the bill."

"Business is business. We all need to make a living." She placed her credit card in Mr. Wu's hands.

"I refuse to allow you to pay," Mr. Wu said, making a half-hearted attempt to give the card back to Celia.

Celia smiled generously. "Please, I insist."

Conclusion

Heavy-handed explanations of culture do a disservice to everyone: the members of that culture, by reducing them to exotic stereotypes; your readers, by patronizing them; and yourself, by diluting the effect of your message. Any cultural norms you need to communicate, you can show through natural actions and dialogue, rather than tell in awkward infodumps.

The Difference Between Racist Jokes and Inclusive Humor May 6, 2019

In March, thanks to a freak snow storm that buried Central Oregon for a solid week, I finished writing Lizzie Bennet's Diary. The project isn't fully finished because I'm in the process of distributing the paperback and eBook through Lulu. While the technical and business parts of me have loose ends to tie up, the creative part of me has already moved on.

My next project is a former project, in a way. I'm now rewriting a novel I first drafted about six years ago, Kagemusha. And by "rewrite," I don't mean I'm making minor tweaks to the existing novel. I mean I'm scrapping the whole dang thing. I'm taking the same basic premise and writing an entirely different book.

In July 2016, I wrote the following in a blog post titled "Writing Without Fear."

Kagemusha has a fatal flaw: I was so determined to be lighthearted and funny that I shied away from any complex emotion. I left the characters and their relationships deliberately underdeveloped because I was afraid of making the story "too serious." I deleted whole chapter outlines and filled the gaps with time skips to avoid any sticky topics.

I first conceived of Kagemusha in my mid-twenties, before I was a fully formed adult. I was still living in my college apartment and struggling to launch my career in libraries. My life was like freshly mixed Jello, liquid and lumpy. Looking at it you'd worry, "Can this really gel into something solid?"

Now I'm in my early thirties, and my life has set up nicely. I have a stable full-time job and a house. I'm comfortable enough to afford costly hobbies like sewing, flute, and piano.

"Growing up" has had a complicated effect on how I write. On one hand, writing blog posts like this one is harder than it used to be. I'm more cautious about what I say. My students or coworkers might find this blog, so I filter myself to avoid saying anything too controversial or upsetting.

On the other hand, when it comes to writing fiction, I'm no longer afraid of sticky topics. In fact, I love writing melodrama. Bring on the tears! I need more conflict!

My mid-twenties attempt at Kagemusha was essentially a sitcom. It was highly episodic, with only a pinch of plot to glue the chapters together. The outline I have now is heftier, with a central theme of the tensions between individual identity, cultural identity, and public persona.

The project is also riskier. The hero of the story is now Iranian-American, and the heroine is Chinese-American. Their racial identities are core components of the new plot. The clash between Western and Eastern cultures fuels much of the drama and the humor.

Those of you blissfully insulated from social media likely read the paragraph above and thought, "Cool." Those of you who lurk in the Twitterverse might have sucked air through your teeth and thought, "Oh dear. Are you sure you want to do that?"

Progress vs. Hysteria

Every month or two I read about a new controversy in the publishing world over authors who write about cultures other than their own. In March, the controversy was about Kosoko Jackson's A Place for Wolves. The New York Times discussed the incident in the article, "Teen Fiction and the Perils of Cancel Culture." Jackson, a gay black man who had previously worked as a sensitivity reader for publishers, wrote a novel set in Kosovo during the '90s civil war. One of the villains was an Albanian Muslim. According to the YA corner of Twitter, writing such a villain equated to "shitting on genocide victims." Jackson pulled the book from publication.

Then this week the NYT ran another piece titled, "She Pulled Her Debut Book When Critics Found It Racist. Now She Plans to Publish." The article details the Goodreads kerfuffle, subsequent cancellation, and later resurrection of Amelie Wen Zhao's Blood Heir. The YA novel is about a world where "a group of people called Affinites, who have special powers, are feared and trafficked for labor by the powerful elite." Netizens who hadn't yet read the book deemed it insufficiently sensitive on the issue of slavery, because real oppressed peoples don't have magic powers.

Much genuine racism and sexism can be found in published novels. I see it all the time and also get upset about it, as you can see from my previous posts like "Faux Diversity in Fiction," Faux Strength in Female Characters," and "Sex Isn't a Story, Intelligence Isn't Cute, and Culture Isn't Character." But extreme cases like these, in which people whip themselves up in a frenzy over microscopic hints of insensitivity, raise the questions: Where is the line between progress and hysteria? What's the difference between a portrayal of an Albanian Muslim villain that merits moral outrage, and a harmless portrayal undeserving of the punitive reaction on social media?

I can say what the difference is not: intention. Most harmful stories and jokes aren't told out of malice, but out of carelessness. People are unaware of their biases and don't realize a joke can be terribly hurtful.

The difference is also not necessarily in how positive or negative the portrayal is. Yes, many xenophobic writers have crafted books and movie scripts starring blond, blue-eyed heroes fighting mustachioed villains with heavy German, Russian, Italian, Chinese, or Middle Eastern accents. So when we see a character of an oppressed group cast as a villain, it's easy to jump to the conclusion the author must be racist.

But it's possible to write a complex villain that happens to have a certain ethnic identity without throwing shade on his or her entire group. It's also possible (and common) to write a seemingly benign character that unintentionally reinforces stereotypes. Think of the funny gay sidekick in a rom-com whose one and only character trait is "flamboyant." Or the cool black best friend who starts every sentence with "Girrrl" and has no apparent life of her own.

Racism vs. Humor: Examples

In December of my freshman year of college, the girls in my dorm gathered in the common room to watch A Christmas Story. A clean kids' movie with heartwarming morals, right? Until you get to the scene in which the waiters at the Chinese restaurant sing, "Deck the harr with bough of horry! Fa ra ra ra ra, ra ra ra ra!".

The girls around me cracked up at the scene. I wasn't offended, but I was puzzled. I couldn't understand what they all found so funny. A girl with curly blond hair explained to me, the only half-Chinese person in the room, "It's because Chinese people can't say the 'L' sound."

There are two reasons this scene is racist, not funny. First, the "humor" relies on painting Asian Americans as perpetual foreigners, too different and dumb to ever fit in with us true Americans.

Second, Mandarin has the "L" sound! Bruce Lee? Lucy Liu? Do these names ring any berr?

The "L" sound is used at the beginnings of Chinese syllables, not at the ends. (See: Table of Initial-Final Combinations). So it can be difficult for Mandarin-speakers who learn English later in life to pronounce words like "hall" and "bell." But "holly" and "fa la la" are easy peasy.

Other Asian languages use an alveolar tap halfway between "L" and "R," like Korean; or they don't use the "L" sound at all, like Japanese. So the gag works...if you toss all East Asian people into one perpetual foreigner pot and assume they're the same. That's pretty much the definition of racism.

Now here's another video I saw in college with stereotypes of Asian people: "Shit Asian Moms Say." While I scratched my head at the restaurant scene in A Christmas Story, in my early twenties I found this off-color skit side-splittingly funny.

What's the difference? Both videos show ridiculous caricatures of Chinese people. So why would I find one offensive and the other humorous?

Racism divides. Humor unites.

You can see a pattern in the comments of the two YouTube videos. On A Christmas Story, the comments are generally along the lines of, "Best scene in the movie! Humorless millennial SJWs ruin everything!" People recognize that the scene is racist, yet they defiantly insist it's funny anyway. And if you don't agree, "Know some humor or get outta my country."

In contrast, the comments on "Shit Asian Moms Say" are from Asian viewers writing that a particular part of the video hit home. "Honestly this is my Korean/Japanese/Filipino mom ALL THE TIME!"

People from other cultures chime in and say, "This is just like my Mexican mom too, lol." Or, "Same as an Indian, but instead of East Asian languages it's all Hindi." The video isn't just for Asians; it resonates with people everywhere.

So one video divides people and encourages cruelty to "outsiders," while the other brings people from different backgrounds together to laugh about their shared experiences. One is factually incorrect, while the other prompts people to write, "I'm Chinese and this could not be more true!"

Racism generalizes and promotes lies. Humor is complex and truthful.

I wrote in 2014 that truth is the backbone of comedy. The restaurant scene lacks authenticity, while the viral YouTube video has it in spades.

Has anyone in the audience of A Christmas Story ever listened to a group of Asian carolers sing "Fa ra ra"? No, because it doesn't happen.

Has anyone in the audience of "Shit Asian Moms Say" ever been on the receiving end of an angry tirade that ended when the telephone rang, and Mom switched instantly to her dulcet public voice? Absolutely.

Racism alienates groups as "others." Humor embraces groups as "us."

A Christmas Story was made by a Hollywood studio in the early 1980s, based on a book by a humorist who grew up in Indiana in the 1920s and '30s. The scene frames the Asian waiters from a distance as one homogeneous group in Manchurian costumes. The audience is expected to identify not with them, but with the white family in the background gaping open-mouthed at these alien curiosities.

"Shit Asian Moms Say" was made by an Asian-American man and his friends in the early 2010s. His exaggerated portrayal of his Taiwanese mother is based on personal experience, and it comes out of love. The video portrays a complicated character who's comically strict and frank, but also nurturing, friendly, and affectionate. The audience is expected to identify with the Asian actor doing the impersonation and think, "Man, we had the same childhood!"

Professional comedians of all races mine their own lives for material. Gabriel Iglesius impersonates Mexican men and women running taco stands in his stand-up programs. Trevor Noah jokes about life in South Africa, where traffic lights are mere "suggestions." Hasan Minhaj shapes routines around his relationship with his immigrant Muslim Indian parents. Yoo Byung Jae ruminates on the absurd social niceties of life in South Korea, Mel Brooks makes movies featuring "Druish Princesses," and so on.

This list might give you the impression that only people from within a culture are qualified to joke or write about it. I believe everyone should be "allowed" to write about any group of people, but only those very familiar with a culture can do it well.

These comedians have been immersed in their cultures since birth, so they've had daily opportunities to notice the truths that can be spun into comic gold. If writers from other cultures want to do the same, they have to work very hard.

Writing Sensitively While Pushing Boundaries

I can't start my life over as an Iranian-American, but I can do everything in my power to immerse myself in the culture. I can read all the Persian books and blogs I can find, watch all the movies from filmmakers in Iran that I can get my hands on (which is sadly few, even for a librarian), and talk to people with first-hand experiences.

I can also make sure my characters are characters, not caricatures. Racist portrayals frame characters around their ethnic identities first and their personalities second (or not at all). Respectful portrayals imbue every character with complexity and realism, regardless of race.

My ultimate goal in rewriting Kagemusha is to create a novel that people of all races will recognize themselves in. I hope Persian and Chinese readers will be delighted to see themselves represented in print. It would be the ultimate compliment for someone to say, "This is so my life!"