Jo March’s Dilemma

I watched with interest the recent PBS dramatization of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, one of the first books I ever read cover to cover as a child. Alcott and her alter ego, Jo March, faced a dilemma common to all ambitious women of their time and place, nineteenth century New England: how to live a productive and fulfilled life while staying within the bounds of what was considered respectable womanhood. Although New England at the time was a relatively liberal place, a fount of many new social ideas, it was still no bed of roses for an ambitious female.

Alcott described Jo’s struggle to make herself a writer. Jo was determined to earn a living from it, because somebody in the family had to. They were a struggling family of four daughters, with a father who earned very little as the minister of a small congregation. A conversation between Jo and her father crystallizes their conflict. The character of Mr. March was undoubtedly inspired by Alcott’s own father, Bronson Alcott, a founder of progressive schools and a well-known supporter of transcendentalism, but useless as a wage earner. We learn that Jo’s father has been working on the same book for twenty years, and has yet to publish it. By contrast, Jo writes “sensation stories” for the weekly rags that sell like candy and help to buy household necessities.

A showdown occurs when Jo asks her father to critique her newly completed novel. Jo has been offered $300 for the publication of it, a fantastic sum for that time and probably more money than the family has ever seen before. Her father advises her not to make the requested alterations, which he feels would rob the book of its heart and soul. “Let it wait and ripen,” he advises. “There’s more to it than you know. You’re more talented than you realize.” Jo loses patience and bursts out something along the lines of, “Let it ripen? For how long? We need the money now.” She can’t resist pointing out to her father that he hasn’t supported his family. He takes this calmly, knowing it to be true.

Even though I was indignant for Jo’s sake, I had the sneaking feeling that Mr. March would be proven right … and he was. All through Little Women, the father appears weaker than his wife and daughters, but like most fathers in literature and popular entertainment, turns out to know best. Jo’s more practical mother urges her to go ahead and publish the book, figuring she will not only benefit from the immediate cash, but receive some useful criticism. As time goes on, it becomes apparent that the book isn’t selling, and any reviews she gets are too contradictory to be useful.

Later, Jo escapes the doldrums of home life by decamping to New York to work as a governess, the career of choice for educated women in those times. Here she meets an important mentor, although it isn’t love at first sight. Professor Bhaer is an immigrant from Germany, probably old enough to be her father, with two nephews whom she has been hired to teach. When Professor Bhaer realizes Jo is a writer, he asks to see her work, but she’s ashamed to show it. By this time she’s broken into the big city rags and is making a nice bundle, but still fears the professor’s judgment. Sure enough, his advice is basically the same as her father’s … that her romance writing, although lucrative, is unworthy of her. “You must be true to your talent. Never write a word that you haven’t felt in your heart and soul.”

The moral of the story seems to be that the men in her life have it right, even though she might have starved if she’d listened to them. It takes time, but Jo learns to make use of genuine emotional experiences that enrich her writing. In the PBS series, her breakthrough comes when she writes and publishes a poem about the death of her beloved sister Beth. The piece travels far and wide, and puts her on the path to success.

Alcott herself, like Jo, wrote “sensation stories” for quick money. But it took Little Women, a novel drawn directly from her real life, to immortalize her. By some accounts, Alcott felt somewhat flustered by her own breakthrough. She had felt pressured by the publishing powers-that-be to make Jo choose a more conventional, “womanly” path than she did herself. In the fiction version, Jo marries her professor and takes a break from writing to open a school for boys. Alcott, by contrast, remained independent all her life and never put down her pen.

So what does this conflict between Alcott and her alter ego say about authors through the ages? I don’t necessarily subscribe to the “write what you know” philosophy, which in my case would bore any potential reader to death. I can’t squeeze much drama out of my forty years spent riding subway trains back and forth from various workplaces in Washington, DC. Likewise, my office life was usually placid on the surface, with only a few eruptions here and there. Luckily, creative imagination can add spice to ordinary situations and people.

There’s nothing wrong with spicing up and exaggerating real life, of course, as long as an author still speaks his or her fundamental truth. Constrained by the social and commercial conventions of her time, Alcott didn’t quite tell the true story of Little Women. Later, as an established author, she seemed somewhat freer in the sequels Little Men and Jo’s Boys to introduce a few less conventional characters and situations. Still, you get the feeling Alcott remained under an edict to go on preaching platitudes to young girls and women. All in all, I find it a little sad that Jo starts out being Louisa May, but ends up being someone else.

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Forcing Romance

In my continuing effort to understand the popularity of the romance genre (and tamp down my jealousy, since I can’t seem to write in that vein), it has occurred to me that some stories try too hard to fit the mold.

I consider myself a fan of chick-lit, but I define that as any story that is woman-oriented, whether it has a happy ending or not. I prefer stories that skirt romance without necessarily following all the rules of the genre. For example, I was intrigued by the movie version of The Devil Wears Prada, based on the 2003 novel by Lauren Weisberger. It starts with an unusual premise and setting, featuring a rather innocent but ambitious heroine whom I easily identified with. Andrea, whose friends call her Andy, is an aspiring journalist who moves to New York after college graduation and gets a job at a fashion magazine, despite her own lack of interest in fashion. She works her tail off for a self-centered, insanely demanding boss, Miranda Priestly, who can never be contradicted or overruled because she controls the entire fashion magazine scene. Andy finds herself failing at the job, until she hits on a solution: she will become a fashion plate herself. This neutralizes not only her boss, but her nasty colleague Emily, who has continually belittled Andy for her lack of style.

Strangely enough, Emily grew on me, despite being as mean as blazes. Judging by some reviews I’ve read, I’m not the only one who found her more intriguing at times than Andy. At least Emily speaks her mind. She’s the one who gets stabbed in the back when Andy starts to become the crazy boss’s favorite. Still, Andy pays the price, losing the love of her idealistic boyfriend, who preferred the unstylish version of her. There’s some hope for a reconciliation at the end, after Andy impulsively quits her job during a trip to Paris for fashion week. However, it’s not certain that the boyfriend will “forgive” her.

When I became aware that there was a sequel in book form, published in 2013 (Revenge Wears Prada: The Devil Returns), I downloaded it. The story picks up a decade later, when Andy and Emily, both having escaped from Miranda Priestly’s reign of terror, have become partners in a successful wedding magazine. Andy is married with a baby daughter. Her husband, an investor in her new project, is obviously more supportive of her fashion-oriented lifestyle than her old boyfriend could ever be. This seemingly ideal setup goes sour when Emily and the perfect husband join forces to sell the business to Priestly, striking a lucrative deal behind Andy’s back. A betrayed and shattered Andy breaks up with both the husband and the business partner.

If the rest of the novel dealt realistically with Andy’s efforts to get back on her feet and find love again, it would have continued to engage me. Instead, there is a happy ending that, for my money, is tacked-on and not adequately explained. I could see it coming a mile away, when the original boyfriend, Alex, returns to the city from a teaching stint in the boondocks and keeps managing to run into Andy. They get involved again, predictably enough, but why? What about the issues that broke them up in the first place?

This sort of forced romance is nothing new. It was going on in the nineteenth century, when Charles Dickens, in an effort to satisfy his serial-reading public, came up with three different endings for Great Expectations. Most readers wanted the star-crossed pair, Pip and Estella, to live happily ever after. That would have been unrealistic, considering that Estella was damaged goods. She had been raised by an embittered, jilted woman for the sole purpose of breaking men’s hearts, and that was all she was capable of doing. Dickens seemed torn between artistic integrity and the desire to please his audience. Since he was never financially comfortable, I’m sure there were also commercial considerations. In the final version, the pair reunites at the end without falling blindly into each other’s arms. The best Estella can do is assure Pip that they will always be friends, even when they are apart.

Some hedging along those lines, when Andy reconnects with Alex in Weisberger’s sequel, would have made logical sense. What has changed between them, except that he’s recently broken up with his girlfriend and Andy’s marriage has collapsed, making them both available? This was the same man whom, by her own account, she had shared everything with for six years, only to be dumped without warning. He kicked her to the curb even after she had quit the fashion job that he thought had changed her too much. That lifestyle, in his opinion, had made her “too eager to do what everyone else wanted.” She wondered, What does that even mean? Good question. Maybe it meant she was learning that a grownup must answer to others besides herself. Or maybe, deep down, he was offended that she made more money than he did.

At any rate, he had refused to elaborate on what he meant. He accepted a job with an idealistic nonprofit, Teach for America, and moved to Mississippi, leaving her behind with barely a goodbye. As she recalls later: “He hadn’t called a single time, and the only contact had been a curt ‘Thanks so much for remembering. Hope you’re well’ e-mail in response to a long, emotional and in hindsight humiliating voice mail she left for his 24th birthday.”

Who was he to decide she was worthy of his attention again? One thing I hope all women take from the rapidly developing “Me-too” movement is that it isn’t only about sexual harassment. It’s also about respecting women’s choices in other areas, even if they turn out to be wrong. The romance genre is full of ends that supposedly justify the means. The man, possessing superior insight, pinpoints the woman’s hang-ups on first meeting her. In the course of the story, he turns out to be right. The message seems to be that if only the woman had obeyed him without question from the beginning, she would have saved herself a lot of time and stress. Heaven forbid she should forge her own path and learn from her own experiences.

Andy had certainly changed and grown in the time they had been apart, but what about Alex? He had returned to the city and started teaching at a progressive school that paid more than his previous job. He was aware of Andy’s life circumstances through e-mail blasts from her mother. He had been forced to leave the nonprofit world because he needed to earn more, especially since his former girlfriend had made noises about wanting a baby. I expected that Andy, as a parent herself, might take that opportunity to point out that as one gets older and responsibilities pile up, there are more and more benefits to having a job that pays the bills.

Andy can’t help recalling “the resentment, neglect, lack of sex and affection” that had characterized the end of their relationship. Yet she says, “I think I’ll always love him.” Approximately a year and a half after her marital and business breakup, she has a freelance writing career going and is dating someone perfectly nice, but for reasons she can’t quite pinpoint, she’s not really into him. At this point we are 95% through the book, and I’m asking myself, when is Alex going to stop being a jerk so that Andy can take him back without sacrificing her integrity?

Never, as it turns out, because Andy keeps letting him off the hook. Rather creepily, Alex jokes about stalking her, physically and on Facebook. He summons her one morning from her regular writing spot in a café, fabricating an emergency (which should have frightened her to death, since she has left her young child at home with a babysitter).

Gradually, Andy buys into the idea that they were “meant to be,” an opinion expressed by Alex’s brother. (Do male opinions always carry more weight?) Alex suggests they take their new relationship slowly. That would be sensible, in view of his history of mistreating her. If Andy agreed with that, and demanded an explanation of his former cruelty, I would find the story more satisfying. This woman, with all her business acumen and ambition, would have the potential to be a fabulous role model. Instead, she does the romantic genre thing and declares that caution is for losers; she would prefer to dive into this “second chance” relationship with reckless abandon. All I can do as a reader is sigh and say, come on, ladies. We can do better than this.

Can I Invent My Own Genre?

It’s been twenty years or so since self-publishing first became a viable thing. Two decades of growth in the indie fiction field have made it increasingly clear which writing styles and marketing tactics tend to be most lucrative. The “secret” to writing bestsellers is to define your genre and audience and satisfy them for all you’re worth. If you can manage to grind out several books in a series, you have the best chance of creating a steady revenue stream. That means developing a theme or formula that can sustain more than one book, exercising as much creativity as you can within those boundaries, and repeating the basics as long as your readers keep snapping it up. Writers who can do this also seem able to turn out books at supersonic speed.

Employing this “secret” isn’t as easy as it sounds. Personally, I don’t seem to have the skill that it requires, but that doesn’t make me bitter. On the contrary, I rejoice for those who can do this, since it makes all of self-publishing more legitimate. I remember all too well the days when gatekeepers stood in the way of aspiring authors, letting in a privileged few and making a point of mocking the rest of us and worse, wasting our time. I used to read or listen to advice given by “professionals” in the field who pretended to “encourage” those of us on the outside. Their real purpose was to keep us prostrating ourselves before the gates, so that they could pretend to stand in some beatified light from above that had blessed their own efforts. Now we can tell them what to do with their “advice.” It’s been exposed, if not as fraudulent, then at least as archaic.

Some of us have problems with genre. I’m not particularly a fan of romance, science fiction, mystery, or dystopian themes (although I’m most tempted to try my hand at the last one, in light of the disastrous presidential election of 2016 and its increasingly scary aftermath). I define my stuff as chicklit, generally speaking. Does it follow that just because I don’t write to suit a more exact genre, that few readers will get my stuff? I can’t be the only person in the world who likes to read long, complex, character-driven, woman-dominated stories, and tends to write in the same vein. Stories like this take a while to read and absorb, and accordingly take forever to write. One of the reasons this process is so arduous is that I go where my characters take me, not necessarily where the market dictates they should go. My stories usually feature a relatively weak heroine who is trying to get stronger. All I can say for her is that she’s not quite as big an idiot at the end of the story as she was at the beginning. Her life isn’t totally straightened out, although it’s getting there. Can a story like that represent a category in itself? Maybe we could call it the Incompetent Chick Genre.

If I depended on confused and indecisive heroines to move plots along, they’d spin their wheels for 300 pages. So I surround them with stronger characters, often female, who aren’t afraid to yell at them to get off their asses, and then show them how it’s done. In Secretarial Wars (2003), an ambitious but easily frustrated secretary, Miriam, needs such a push. She works for a Federally funded grants program that she suspects is subject to corruption, but doesn’t know how to prove it. She encounters Pamela Whittle, a college professor who has been rejected for one of these grants, and has determined not only to figure out why, but to reverse the decision. Whittle carries on with this plan until she becomes part of the corruption, at least in Miriam’s opinion.

When my critique group read Secretarial Wars, they took to Whittle much more than they did to Miriam. Like most writers, my colleagues enjoy playing the game of choosing which famous actors should ideally play the lead roles in any prospective movies based on their stories. The role of Whittle, according to the group, would be perfect for Kathy Bates, who is well known for her portrayal of dynamic, sometimes crazy women. In fact, it seems that every strong female role I come up with is a perfect fit for Kathy Bates. How about a new trend based on this phenomenon? We could call it the Strong Female Rescuer Genre.

In Let’s Play Ball (2010), I imagined a close but uneasy relationship between fraternal twin sisters who have taken radically different paths in life. Miranda is a government bureaucrat with a lawyer husband and a house in the suburbs, while Jessica is a sportswriter who sacrifices normal career prospects, relationships, and financial security for many years in order to establish a magazine. Jessica’s publication finally catches on, and her personal life seems equally settled when she becomes engaged to a Major League ballplayer. Her less conventional path seems to end up making her both happier and more successful than her twin. Then the balance of power is knocked off kilter again when Jessica’s fiancé is kidnapped, and circumstances plunge both sisters into the investigation … with Jessica harboring suspicions against Miranda even as she requires her twin’s help.

My two music-inspired novels, The Rock Star’s Homecoming (2007) and Handmaidens of Rock (2014), both unfold partially on college campuses. I made use of my own experiences as an academically conscientious but socially awkward coed in the early 1970s. In those days, the friends I made tended to be stronger personalities than I was. More often than not, I let them set the tone of the relationship. The heroine of “Homecoming,” Imogene, feels herself getting crushed between two powerhouse roommates. One is a hopeless snob, and the other is the sister of a rock star whom Imogene worships from afar, and eventually gets to meet. In “Handmaidens,” aspiring journalist Candy struggles with a bad freshman roommate, who hypocritically criticizes her timidity with the girls in the hall while systematically badmouthing her behind her back. Although that situation mirrors my own unhappy freshman experience, I did not leave my small-town school, as Candy did, for the more congenial and diverse surroundings of a big university. I stuck it out, and eventually found my niches.

All in all, the “incompetent chick” in my stories resembles me, while the “strong female rescuer” is the more dynamic friend who swoops in and takes over. If I were casting a movie based on this dynamic, any number of ingénues could play the innocent girl.  But I couldn’t do without Kathy Bates, or a Kathy Bates type, to move in and threaten to blow her off the screen.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Is Fantasy Doing The Trick?

I’m not a big fan of made-up worlds. I’m more of a realist in my literary tastes. I prefer stories that could conceivably happen to me, with familiar and accessible settings, as opposed to the wildest flights of an author’s imagination. Not since childhood have I been easily captivated by fantasy, science fiction, and tales of ancient times. Nor do I readily identify with wizards, zombies, space aliens, and kings and queens of antiquity.

So what accounts for a recent, growing urge to immerse myself in the unreal? Is the real world becoming too much for me? Alternate realities seem to be all the rage these days. Maybe it’s the strain of living in a country with a crazy president, who brags about his willingness to launch real missiles at an equally unstable leader who thinks he is capable of launching them right back.

I’ve dipped into the anti-realism craze before. I read the first Harry Potter volume, The Sorcerer’s Stone, and downloaded the movie a few years ago. I recently finished reading the first volume of Game of Thrones. Do I get what the excitement is about? Absolutely. JK Rowling and George RR Martin are masters at drawing audiences into their made-up worlds and mapping them out in rich detail, giving them believability and their own inner logic. When everything is so alien, it takes extra effort on the part of the reader or viewer to grasp it. Dangerous and unexpected things lurk around every corner. The main characters go looking for danger, since they are by nature heroic, driven, or at least extremely curious. Both tales feature the occasional woman or girl who behaves as heroically, or more so, than her male counterparts.

We first glimpse Harry Potter when he is about to leave drab reality behind and become a wizard-in-training. His new school is chock-full of magic, while the outside world remains ordinary and predictable. To be sure, weird things were happening to young Harry before he ever heard of Hogwarts, but he did not associate those incidents with magic. He was a maltreated orphan whose treacherous relatives covered up the truth about his parentage, and thus tried to deny him his destiny. Although he begins to realize his true nature when he arrives at Hogwarts, that place isn’t entirely different from the public schools we all recognize. I had a flashback to junior high when I glimpsed the crowded, turbulent dining hall at the school of magic, where much the same bonding, intrigue, and sometimes nastiness goes on. I felt for young Hermione when a fellow student calls her out for her abrasive personality and superior attitude. She runs off and cries, but manages to gain some perspective and humility when she falls into the hands of a dumb but dangerous troll. The only two fellow students who have made her acquaintance, Harry and Ron, at least care enough to help her out of that jam. A mighty threesome is launched.

Harry could live a relatively safe life in school, just learning his magic lessons, but that proves impossible. As the blood of his deceased parents courses through him, he and his two friends keep testing the boundaries. The first time they venture somewhere off limits, they encounter a three-headed dog. As if that weren’t scary enough, they discern that the dog is guarding some kind of secret. Of course the kids can’t rest until they uncover it. Along the way, they discover that some of their fellow students, and even one or two adults, are not necessarily supportive. They’re either jealous, or covering up the schemes and plots of the shadowy Voldemort, the embodiment of evil. Despite being one of the original founders of Hogwarts, Voldemort is also responsible for Harry being an orphan. We learn that possessing magic powers isn’t enough; one must also learn to use them for good.

Despite its medieval trappings, Game of Thrones strikes me as a more recognizable world than Hogwarts. We have the daily news to remind us that not much has changed since the so-called dark ages. The constant, bloody feuding between at least seven distinct houses described in the book is all too familiar to the modern observer. Vestiges of that world rage on in the tribal warfare of the Middle East, and many other places. Even if lords, ladies, and knights are no longer defending strongholds and castles, we still have endless religious and national quarrels and grievances. Who can sort out the allies and enemies in the interminable fight to overthrow the Syrian government? Countless nations have put an oar into that mess without any clear idea of an end game. They may agree that ISIS is the embodiment of evil, but they seem unable to join forces to remove the menace. Besides the intractable quarrel between different branches of Islam, there are also Kurd nationalists on the scene whom the US sometimes support, except when we’re obliged to designate them as a terrorist organization to placate our on-again, off-again ally, Turkey. Sometimes we appear to be on the same side as the Russians and sometimes on the opposite side. Who will the winners be if Assad actually falls? Not that it looks like he ever will.

It’s easier to keep track of the houses contending for the Iron Throne, even with their extended families and retainers and bannermen and outriders. Most readers’ sympathies will be with the family that seems to have valid historical reasons to believe it was usurped in the old days. At least in this world, there are no major religious quarrels going on, although some folks worship the old gods and some prefer the newer ones. Everyone seems to speak a Common Tongue, while more obscure languages are spoken on the outskirts of society.

The implements of warfare are what make this world so different from the one we know. It takes real heroism to be a warrior, as there is no avoiding the enemy. It’s all hand-to-hand combat with swords and lances. There are no fighter jets dropping bombs, no drones, no suicide car attacks, no assault rifles. Amputations are the most common injury in battle. Unless they result in decapitation, they’re considered mere flesh wounds, not serious enough to stop a true fighter. Combatants are always threatening to slice off the manhood of someone they intend to humiliate, and feed it to whatever wild animal is lurking about. And this proves to be no idle threat.

Some of the characters have a ring of familiarity. Robert, the sitting king when Game of Thrones opens, reminds me in some ways of Trump, although he’s much smarter and more self-aware. Robert admits that he felt truly alive and engaged when he was fighting for the throne; the actual job of ruling bores him. He fills his days with entertainment, putting on banquets and tournaments he can’t afford. The young ruler, Joffrey, who replaces Robert on his death, is Trump-like in his childishness. He is given to empty bragging and impulsive decisions, which need to be modified and countermanded by his more mature advisors. At least Joffrey has an excuse; he really is still a child, not a 71-year-old man.

These stories have some romantic potential. Unfortunately, the budding Romeo-and Juliet-style romance I anticipated between Joffrey and Sansa, the daughter of Robert’s loyal retainer, fizzles out for the time being. I thought it had a chance even when Joffrey and Sansa’s father clash, since it appears Sansa clings to her romantic notions for a brief time. Then Joffrey goes so far as to put her father to death as a traitor, and still has the insufferable arrogance to insist that the marriage will go on. As for romance in Harry Potter, I assume it’s waiting in the wings for the kids to mature in later volumes.

Fantasies like these have the power to divert us when real and potential disasters, both natural and manmade, loom everywhere. Sometimes I feel that existential threats like nuclear war and climate change are getting alarmingly close, yet I can still go to the Mall or to restaurants without meeting a gang of marauders who might decapitate me for having the wrong family name. Stories also remind us that life is never easy, even in fantasyland. The reptilian core of the human brain has always lurked barely underneath the surface, ready to erupt at any time. Voldemort, the embodiment of evil, may not be a real person, but he isn’t so different from people we know, too many of which are in positions of power. At least our real enemies aren’t magical, so presumably we have a fighting chance. Too bad we’re not magical ourselves.

My Girls Are Unlikable

Why do readers and critics of chicklit fiction demand likable heroines? When asked why this is so important, some say they can’t get into a story unless they find themselves rooting for the central character. They must be able to identify with her, or at least care what happens to her. They’ll concede that everyone has flaws, and a perfect heroine would be dull, but she must overcome whatever foibles are standing between her and a happy life.

So how flawed can a heroine afford to be? Must she achieve near-perfection during the course of the narrative to allow the reader to develop the necessary sympathy? Do readers really strive for such perfection themselves, or think they can achieve it with such a person as a role model? In the process of writing four novels, I’ve come up with imperfect and perhaps even unlikable heroines. I never thought they were bad people, just a little messed up. Of course they tend to be self-absorbed, but aren’t most young people like that? That’s how I defend them from naysayers.

In Secretarial Wars, a story inspired by one of my office experiences, the recently divorced secretary Miriam is still sleeping with her ex-husband, although he wasted no time marrying someone else. That’s certainly not nice of her―in fact, it’s called adultery. She actually gets a kick out of risking discovery by the volatile and jealous second wife. Miriam’s professional goal is to shed her secretarial identity and become an investigative journalist. This presents a conflict of interest, as her efforts to uncover malfeasance at the office make her something of a turncoat to the agency that pays her salary. Along the way, she takes some tentative steps toward personal happiness, but without benefit of a real epiphany that would lead to a character makeover.

I chose a small-town college setting, like the one I experienced myself, for The Rock Star’s Homecoming. Imogene, a college senior, rants and raves because her unreliable boyfriend Steve won’t commit to taking her to her final homecoming dance. What will that mean for her chances to leave college with the all-important “Mrs. degree”? To makes Steve jealous, she allows herself to be seduced by the rock star who returns to campus with his now-famous band to play the dance. Since her strategy kind of works, has Imogene learned any real lesson? At least she realizes that she wants more from her post-college life than just a husband.

Handmaidens of Rock also involves girls sleeping with musicians, although the three who hang out with the band called AMO certainly have career aspirations of their own. The way they use the musicians to acquire fame and fortune in their own right might not make them the nicest people. Still, if they didn’t grab some benefits from the arrangement, the arrogant band members would be far too inclined to treat them as mere groupies.

In Let’s Play Ball, fraternal twin sisters Miranda and Jessica penetrate the world of baseball while pursuing widely different career paths and personal lives. Miranda is a bureaucrat with a stable job and what looks like a solid marriage to a lawyer. Jessica, by contrast, is a sportswriter who has sacrificed conventional career prospects and relationships to establish a magazine that pursues controversial topics. After a long struggle, she makes a success of it, and becomes engaged to the major league ballplayer who was the subject of one of her most famous profiles.

All hell breaks loose when that ballplayer is kidnapped, and Miranda is caught sleeping with a teammate whom Jessica suspects of participating in a wide-ranging plot. Obviously, Miranda is no paragon of virtue, although she claims to have been driven to it by her cheating husband. Jessica’s self-righteousness doesn’t endear her to readers either. She tends to regard herself and her fiancé as perpetual victims, and is too quick to accuse everyone in sight of participating in the vast conspiracy to destroy her perfect happiness.

I’m hardly alone in creating less-than-virtuous heroines. Famous authors have been known to do it, although they rarely make their girls totally unlikable. If they do, critics and online reviewers savage them. For example, Candace Bushnell has created a plethora of heroines in her many chicklit novels, including One Madison Avenue, Lipstick Jungle, Trading Up, and the best known of all, Sex and the City. The four SATC girls who were featured in the television series and movies tend to rise from the confusion as fully realized characters, simply because we’ve known them for so long. Carrie the writer is the most relatable to me, but Miranda the career-minded lawyer, Charlotte the homemaker, and even Samantha the nymphomaniac publicist are likable most of the time.

In one instance, however, many of Bushnell’s readers think she went too far. Trading Up features a total narcissist in Janey Wilcox, a superstar model with Hollywood aspirations. This novel has received more one and two-star ratings than I have ever seen on Amazon for a famous author. The description reads: “Modern-day heroine Janey Wilcox is a lingerie model whose reach often exceeds her grasp, and whose new-found success has gone to her head. As we follow Janey’s adventures, Bushnell draws us into a seemingly glamorous world of $100,000 cars, hunky polo players and media moguls, Fifth Avenue apartments … Unseen forces conspire to bring her down, forcing her to reexamine her values about love and friendship―and how far she’s really willing to go to realize her dreams.”

This description is somewhat inaccurate, in my opinion. As far as I can see, the only “reexamination” Janey undertakes is to figure out why she hasn’t hit the big time as forcefully as she expected. She latches onto a Hollywood mogul by pretending to write a screenplay, only to be exposed as a fraud. She marries another star maker who actually loves her and tries to help her, but he proves to be a dead end, forcing her to “trade up” again. There is no come-uppance that would make Janey a better person. There is only a vague discontent that keeps her moving on.

The soulless heroine isn’t a totally modern phenomenon. In fact, Edith Wharton raised the topic way back in the early twentieth century. Bushnell was perhaps giving us a sly wink in that direction when she had her character Janey propose Wharton’s 1913 novel, The Custom of the Country, as a film subject to one of her producer lovers.

Wharton’s heroine in that novel, Undine Spragg, was like Janey in a different era, lacking the Hollywood glitter. Undine marries three times, leaving a trail of destruction and never looking back except to offer self-justifications. Her first husband, who doesn’t share her taste for high society, bores her. He is too busy trying to support her and pay her bills to keep her amused. When she moves on, she abandons her young son, until she later sees some benefit in having him with her. An ensuing custody battle ends up destroying her first husband. Predictably, once she wins the child back, she neglects him. Her second husband has a noble title but not enough money. Her third husband does have enough money, but rather crude manners.

Wharton sums up Undine’s dilemma: “She had everything she wanted, but she still felt, at times, that there were other things she might want if she knew about them.” Both Bushnell and Wharton suggest that their heroines are trapped in the societies they inhabit, and are therefore perhaps not entirely to blame for being so ruthless. Undine was born into an era in which marriage provides the only outlet for an ambitious woman. Similarly, Janey is social-climbing in a community that values her beauty much more than her mind.

Both authors have created beautiful sociopaths, who by definition are incapable of change. Does that mean they’re unworthy heroines, as many critics suggest? I find them fascinating in their own way. Sociopaths may be disturbing and infuriating, but they are people too.

 

Uncooperative Heroines

I used to think it would be great fun to write steamy romances and watch them sell like hot cakes. Theoretically, it didn’t seem too hard. The requirements of the genre, as established by publishers such as Harlequin and Silhouette, were very specific as to length, type of plot, and the need for a happy resolution. Authors who mastered this form seemed able to generate at least two or three books per year. Their stories were gobbled up like candy by their addicted fans. None of these works had long shelf lives, but presumably the speed with which they were produced made up for that.

So why couldn’t I acquire this lucrative skill? I actually started my first two novels with romance at least partly in mind. Secretarial Wars is the tale of a secretary, Miriam, who aspires to be an investigative reporter, and discovers malfeasance at her quasi-government agency. Her plan is to impress a handsome underground editor with her journalistic skills. The Rock Star’s Homecoming features a college senior named Imogene who can’t get her boyfriend to commit, not even enough to take her to their final Homecoming dance. She concocts a plot to make him jealous by pursuing the leader of a homegrown rock band that returns to campus to perform at the dance (and incidentally, to cause a riot, just like the old days).

The problem with Miriam and Imogene was that they refused to behave like romantic heroines. The guys they pursued acted like jerks, which is typical male behavior in romances, especially at first acquaintance. The genre requires that the men eventually overwhelm such heroines with their redeeming qualities, beginning with sheer sex appeal. Unfortunately for Miriam and Imogene, the guys they were most attracted to were pretty much who they were, and never improved much when it came to character.

My heroines’ stories took a long time to unfold and never got totally resolved. I suppose the long epilogues, which some critics objected to, were a giveaway that there were many loose ends to tie up. I couldn’t seem to envision these stories whole. Like life, they didn’t come to me with a blueprint. It seemed the more I worked on a particular story, the more complicated the plot would become. Even though I edited as I went along, I acquired multiple threads and a profusion of secondary characters. I tried to bend my plots and characters to certain rules, but these conventions eluded me. I felt like I was back in first grade, trying in vain to color within the lines and finding out I was hopeless at art.

Back in the 1980s and 1990s, I studied certain hot-selling examples of the genre, trying to figure out what made them so popular. Some of these books I couldn’t finish. Not that they didn’t contain some decent writing and interesting plot twists. But in my opinion, the ever-present, required formulas dragged down what could have been intriguing stories. I found the predictability stultifying. Beyond that, the heroines simply didn’t speak to me. It’s not quite fair to say they were all alike, and yet in some ways they were.

I liked sex when I was younger, and I still like it theoretically, but I find endless, repetitive sex scenes quite boring. I roll my eyes and think, there they go again. Two people who are barely acquainted, or even dislike one another at first sight, can’t keep their hands off each other. Who really acts like that?  Lovemaking scenes rarely rise above trite writing. Can’t authors leave some of this to the reader’s imagination?

Miriam and Imogene didn’t cooperate by living happily ever after, although they were still young and hopeful when I left them. When I looked for romantic prototypes to model them on, I found too many women sacrificing every other passion in their lives for a chance at a perfect love. That is something Miriam and Imogene simply couldn’t do, as much as they longed to embrace their magic men. You can smell the main lesson of a traditional romance a mile away: a woman can’t possibly live a fulfilled life as a workaholic. In my sampling of romances, I encountered a ruthless prosecutor feared in the courtroom by criminals of all stripes, who happens to wander into a physically perilous situation while on a rare vacation, and has to be rescued by a sexy man. Of course she’s infuriated by her own helplessness, but how can she deny the pounding of her heart? I squirmed at the clumsy symbolism of a widely renowned heart surgeon whose own heart is broken. The question hovers over all of these heroines: what frustration or heartbreak are you covering up when you work so damned hard?

Sandra Brown’s Heaven’s Price, which I first read around 1983, is a prime example of a romance that has both the virtues and flaws of the genre. As far as writing and plotting, it’s not bad. Ms. Brown’s success as a romantic author is astounding. According to her Amazon page, she starting publishing in 1981 and wrote over 70 novels, 60 of which are New York Times bestsellers. Judging by her picture, she’s also blessed with movie star looks. Heaven’s Price was relaunched more than ten years after its first publication, due to customer demands. I guess you can’t argue with that kind of success. Or can you?

The very title of this book screams what it’s about and how it’s destined to end. A woman has to pay a price for her “heaven,” which is defined as the love of a good man. A man’s “goodness” is measured not by his kindness or virtue, but by his ability to turn her on. In this case, we have a heroine pushing thirty years old, who has enjoyed moderate success as a dancer but is discontent because real fame and fortune have eluded her. Her knees have been damaged by years of pounding stages, forcing her to take time off from city life and move to a remote location for treatment and rehabilitation. Her new landlord acts like a creep, but a sexy one. He pretends to be the masseuse she’s expecting, and has thoroughly manhandled her by the time the real masseuse turns up. Of course she’s angry at the deception, but who can resist such virility? What’s a little violation when you can get aroused like that?

As the relationship develops, the landlord proves to be seriously controlling in ways that would raise all kinds of red flags if this were real life. The sexual relationship develops quickly, and strikes me as barely consensual, which is typical of the genre. She might have said no at first, but she really meant yes, and since he could tell she really wanted it, he presses ahead. He also strikes me as both angry and possessive. She realizes she’s been loved before, but “never with such dominance.” Her growing need for him “could well destroy her life’s blueprint.” At one point, he tells her, “If you weren’t already battered, I’d be tempted to punish your insistence.” That seems to suggest that he didn’t need to resort to violence—just the suggestion of it was enough. Later, he comes out with, “I ought to knock the hell out of you for saying that … or better yet, I ought to throw you down on the bed …” As if violence and lovemaking are synonymous. When she pursues an audition before her knees are completely healed, he sabotages it “for her own good.” Of course she’s furious. The pain in her knees makes her even angrier, since it proves he was right. Once again, he knew better than she did what was best for her.

What really set my eyes rolling was the cheesy conversation these two have at the end, when all their differences are neatly resolved and they’re safely married. She has forgiven or soft-pedaled all of his offenses against her. Both are caught up in youthful passion, as if nothing else in the world mattered. It leaves me wondering what a couple is supposed to do when that burns out, as it inevitably must. Is there such a thing as a popular romance that depicts a relationship substantial enough to take a couple through middle and old age? Or are we to presume that fond memories of all that hot sex will suffice to keep the spark alive? At least my Miriam and Imogene will keep on trying to climb their respective career ladders, if only to have something to talk about with any future partners who respect their intellects as much as their bodies.

The Illiterate President

American history is a long, absorbing tale made up of countless episodes and intriguing characters. The republic began as a radical dream of economic freedom and political independence, cooked up by a handful of East Coast intellectuals who were exuberantly aware that they were committing treason against the British Empire. These ideas spread until they became a cause that enough citizens (although nowhere near a majority) were willing to fight for. The story continued to unfold on a landscape that encouraged westward expansion, a movement that seemed inevitable, yet presented many obstacles and challenges. Several decades after its founding, the young republic was put to the ultimate test when it became plain that two diametrically opposed economic systems, one based on slavery and the other on paid labor, could not remain one. A long, bloody civil war was fought to settle this issue in favor of freedom.

The story never stops unfolding. Democracy is continually threatened by both internal and external forces. In the present day, an unfortunate set of circumstances has elevated to the presidency a kleptomaniac with an untreated mental illness. He was assisted by an anachronism known as the Electoral College, a system originally designed to ensure that under-populated areas of the country would be given a voice. It has served this purpose, but in the present day, long after the nation has ceased to be predominantly rural, it continues to give these areas inordinate power. The electoral process in 2016 was further disrupted by interference from a foreign adversary, probably with the full cooperation of the winning candidate and his campaign. Donald Trump’s ultimate goal is to install a Fascist dictatorship, answerable only to him. Our place in history will depend on how well we resist this threat.

One of Trump’s worst qualities, apart from his extreme narcissism, is his ignorance. These traits are actually two sides of the same coin. His lack of knowledge is something that could have been remedied in school, or by reading books. But how can you educate someone who seems to think he was born knowing everything there is to know? He must have been a nightmare to his teachers. This man is emphatically not a reader. That would require a level of concentration, and an ability to immerse himself in another person’s ideas, that seems beyond him. The American story reads like a novel, with its twists and turns and nuances. It takes real effort to absorb all of its moving parts and get it whole.

Trump recently exclaimed over his incredible discovery that Abraham Lincoln was a Republican. “Does anybody else know that? I bet nobody else knows that!” Actually, that is a fact well known to any halfway attentive school child. He wonders why “nobody” has thought about the causes of the Civil War, which must be the subject of millions of books. Has he ever cracked one open in his life?

Abraham Lincoln was indeed a founding member of the Republican Party. The newly minted party of the 1850s took in both abolitionists and the more moderate proponents of “free soil,” a movement to stop the spread of slavery into territories that were yet to become states. Lincoln at first adhered to the free soil platform, and only gradually became a full-fledged abolitionist. As president, he held back until it suited his military strategy to issue the Emancipation Proclamation. The Democrats of that time were generally a pro-slavery party. They continued to hold the south through Reconstruction, and for many years after that, until a gradual realignment began to take place. This movement picked up speed just before and during Franklin Roosevelt’s presidency, and included a major shift in the alliance of African American voters.

The idea of party realignments that unfolded over a period of more than a century would make Trump’s eyes glaze over, if someone were foolhardy enough to try to explain it to him. How to make him understand that the Republican Party has evolved into something that Lincoln wouldn’t recognize? That would be beyond the capability of an extreme narcissist who doesn’t believe in anything except his own life story, suitably embellished to remove any fault.

I like the idea of a president who values the truth that can be found in books, including novels that don’t claim to be the literal truth. When I first read Barack Obama’s Dreams from My Father shortly after his election to the presidency in 2008, I thought it read like a novel. Some critics have gone so far as to call it historical fiction. It’s a youthful autobiography, first attempted after Obama’s election as the first black president of Harvard Law Review. By his own admission, it gained only modest attention and lukewarm reviews. A second edition came out during his campaign for the Senate in Illinois. In the foreword, he admitted that some of his writing in the first edition made him cringe in retrospect. Judging by that statement, he showed more self-awareness in his thirties than Trump has ever shown in 70 years.

Obama admitted in that foreword that he occasionally used fictional elements. “There are the dangers inherent in any autobiographical work; the temptation to color events in ways favorable to the writer, the tendency to overestimate the interest one’s experiences hold for others, selective lapses of memory … I can’t say that I’ve avoided all, or any, of these hazards successfully … the dialogue is necessarily an approximation of what was actually said or relayed to me. For the sake of compression, some of the characters that appear are composites of people I’ve known, and some events appear out of precise chronology.” Again, Obama acknowledges falling short of perfection, something that Trump seems incapable of doing.

Can you even imagine Trump reading a novel? That would require him to embrace a world not his own. He’d need to exert some imagination, to develop an attention span of longer than five minutes, to stick with a narrative that stretches beyond 140 characters. Trump is too busy reigning over a fantasy world in which he is the unquestioned supreme dictator of the United States, if not the galaxy. He is Superman and Batman rolled into one, a godlike creature who ordered the sun to come out at his inauguration. Soon he will command the Israelis and Palestinians to embrace one another, and ISIS to disband and give us all their oil. How can they not obey? He is the all-knowing, all-powerful Trump, who surpasses any hero in fact or fiction.