Urbanization, Secular Holiday Music, and the Simulacra

I was in my kitchen this morning drinking tea and listening to Christmas music. Bing Crosby’s recording of “Silver Bells” came on, and I started singing along. In between the city sidewalks and the ting-a-ling, something struck me as odd, as not like the rest of the songs on the mix.

What the hell? But I couldn’t place it.

Next came “Jingle Bells” and “Winter Wonderland,” and suddenly it hit me: “Silver Bells” is about “Christmastime in the city,” and that setting stands in contrast to the bulk of other Christmas music.

I began flipping through my playlists and reading–really reading–the lyrics, and I posted on Twitter to ask if there were other Christmas songs about cities. It quickly become obvious that the validity of my thesis rested on how I defined Christmas music and the city. So I’ll explain my methods, codify my list, and explain why I think this might matter below.

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“Stir the Bubbles Out”

Two weeks ago, my kids were sick, which isn’t in itself terribly interesting. But it was the first week-long illness of their lives, and their first full week out of school. And that meant it was also my first extended period playing the nurse version of mom.

When instinct kicked in, I administered Ginger Ale with the bubbles stirred out and put on The Price is Right–because there is no cold that cannot be conquered by that combination.

cover of the 1976 edition of Dr. Spock's baby and childcare, featuring a smiling baby

My kids weren’t in the least intrigued by Bob Barker, probably because they’re kindergarteners. Instead, it was Moana marathon for us. But they were curious about the flat Ginger Ale.

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Art, Bare Life, and Fragmented Identity

(This post is for a friend who’s contemplating how the self can be divided between being an academic and writing fiction; it started as an email, but I’m publishing it here to balance out all the promo I’ve posted lately.)

Several years ago, I was half-finished with my American studies dissertation, and I requested a meeting with a literary theory professor to discuss an idea I had for a chapter revision. Specifically, I wanted to apply Giorgio Agamben’s theory of the politicization of bare life (as articulated in Homo Sacer) to an obscure periodical novel published in 1857, a book set during the American Revolution but which clearly comments on the run-up to the American Civil War.

Agamben is concerned with how bare life has been consumed by political life. He locates the dissolution of this divide in concentration camps during the Holocaust, when the bodies of inmates become sites for what he calls the state of exception. What happens in the camps is extra-judicial, outside even humane comprehension, and nothing like bare life is possible there. The only possibility for resistance Agamben imagines is refusal. In saying no (or better yet, “I would prefer not to” as Melville’s Bartleby does) we stake out ground for bare life.

There’s a lot of overlap with Agamben’s argument, Foucault’s theory of biopower, and Habermas’s discussion of public sphere theory, and also with the feminist critique of the personal as political, the work of scholars on the economics and culture of slavery, etc. I suspect that in the nineteenth century–when in an American context we moved from merchant capitalism to industrial capitalism and when the space between citizen and consumer identities blurred–bare life became impossible.

Why am I telling you this story? Well, because something else was burning a hole in my backpack during that meeting: a signed contract with Carina/Harlequin to publish The Easy Part series.

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The Books that Write Well…and Those that Don’t

book cover reading "Private Politics, Emma Barry." It shows a door opening into an office. A couple in profile is having a heated argument in front of a window.

Last month was Private Politics‘ second book birthday, and next week is Star Dust‘s first. They’re a tale of contrasts. It took Genevieve and I approximately nine months to write the first draft of Star Dust. In contrast, while I started Private Politics during the summer of 2013, I wrote most of it in 6 weeks in September and October of that year. I don’t think I’ve ever written a book so well, so painlessly.

But does that mean Private Politics is better than a book with which I struggled?

There were moments when I didn’t think I’d survive Party Lines, for example. Of the four manuscripts I’m working on–by myself and with Genevieve–one of them is going splendidly. The other three…aren’t.

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The Everlasting Yea

As of this weekend, I have finished a book. On my own. As in it’s done and I don’t hate it.

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This was one of those things I had started to suspect would never happen again until it did.

Bear with me while I speak purposefully obtusely: for two years in my professional life (both with writing and my day job), I’ve heard no a lot. A lot a lot. To the point where it had begun to feel like all the doors weren’t merely closed, but locked.

I have no evidence the doors will open now, but finishing a book feels like scoring a point back from what Thomas Carlyle calls the everlasting nay (everyone’s read Sartor Resartus, right?); it feels like I’ve finally moved back toward the everlasting yea:

Oh, thank thy Destiny for these; thankfully bear what yet remain: thou hadst need of them; the Self in thee needed to be annihilated. By benignant fever-paroxysms is Life rooting out the deep-seated chronic Disease, and triumphs over Death. On the roaring billows of Time, thou art not engulfed, but borne aloft into the azure of Eternity. …This is the EVERLASTING YEA, wherein all contradiction is solved: wherein whoso walks and works, it is well with him.

Romance is a genre that’s about the everlasting yea. And writing words, even when it feels small, is always optimistic, always hopeful. The world can use some positivity right now. We all need more yes.

PS I wrote the last 20K words of the book while listening to Julien Baker’s amazing album Sprained Ankle on repeat, specifically the track “Something.” If you like progressive folk/indie rock, give it a spin. The songs are sad, but lovely and insightful. I highly recommend it.

PPS Genevieve and I are going to send another newsletter on Wednesday that includes one of my all-time favorite deleted scenes. (Seriously, cutting it out of Earth Bound made me gnash my teeth.) If you aren’t on our mailing list, get on it!

PPPS Carina Press is running a 30% sale on all the books at their site, which includes The Easy Part series (my DC-set political romances). The deal is good through July 31; use the code RWA3016 when you check out. My Carina books rarely if ever go on sale, so if you’ve been waiting, get ’em now for less.

For the Love of…Work

I haven’t written a rambling, pretentious blog post in a while, and I have about 850 other things I should be doing, so…yeah.

I’ve been thinking about why I seem to have written so many romances that intimately describe the work of the characters, whether it’s how they negotiate the federal budget in Special Interests, how Anne-Marie made airline reservation in 1962 in Star Dust, or how Lydia prepares her boss for a presidential debate in Party Lines. (And if you like this sort of thing, don’t worry, there’s gobs of work stuff in Earth Bound.)

My initial thought is it might be related to the American notion of identity, which I’ve written about a bit before. For a modern USian, who we are is intimately tied to how we–or our family members–generate income. (I’m just southern enough to have heard young women say to each other at cocktail parties, “What does your daddy do?”)

But it isn’t a “modern” American thing, is it? This one goes back to Jamestown and the “work to eat” rule and the Puritans and their beliefs about idle hands being the Devil’s workshop. The contrasts and rejections we still see some people make between American and European economies are related to stereotypes about hard work and reward–and of course they are stereotypes. I don’t actually think people in the United States work any harder than anyone else, we just tie our mythos to our work in a way others don’t always, leading to great national tragedies such as Death of a Salesman.

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Toward a Definition of Historical Fiction

If you follow me on social media, or read this blog, or have been within half a mile of me recently, I probably mentioned to you that I have a book coming out in October that I wrote with Genevieve Turner: Star Dust. It’s primarily set in 1962 during a fictional version of the space race. But is it a historical romance?

In the category definitions for the annual RITA Awards, the Romance Writers of America (RWA) limits the designation of historical romance to those set before 1950. Wikipedia offers the following paragraph in a discussion of definitions in historical fiction:

Definitions vary as to what constitutes an historical novel. On the one hand The Historical Novel Society defines the genre as works “written at least fifty years after the events described”,[2] whilst on the other hand critic Sarah Johnson delineates such novels as “set before the middle of the last [20th] century […] in which the author is writing from research rather than personal experience.”[3] Then again Lynda Adamson, in her preface to the bibliographic reference work World Historical Fiction, states that while a “generally accepted definition” for the historical novel is a novel “about a time period at least 25 years before it was written”, she also suggests that some people read novels written in the past, like those of Jane Austen (1775–1817), as if they were historical novels.[4]

While writers’ organizations and scholars disagree, then, the rule seems to be that historical fiction is removed significantly from the present (perhaps 25 to 50 years at minimum) and from the writer’s personal experience. So “historical” requires temporal and experiential distance. But how much distance is necessary? And what does that distance get you?

I’ve been wondering about this while watching and rewatching Mad Men (1960 – 1970), The Americans (early to mid-1980s), Narcos (late 1970s through, presumably, the early 1990s), and Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries (1920s with some earlier flashbacks). RWA and The Historical Novel Society would call only Miss Fisher’s historical; the rest would be contemporary.

Except the approach in all of these shows doesn’t feel contemporary to me. The temporal remove is so important that these stories could not be told without material alteration if they were set in another place or time. So I would argue that a historical novel is one in which the settings calls attention to itself through emphasis on the differences between our contemporary world and the world of the narrative’s fashion, social mores, technology, legal or economic structure, etc. In a historical novel, the temporal remove itself is one of the subjects.

Now I’ll grant that some distance is necessary for this to be true. Have you ever had the experience of looking at a picture and realizing how “of the moment” you look in it, even when (at the time the photo was taken) you couldn’t see how the cut of those pants or the pattern on that shirt or the style of those glasses reflected trends? Give it a few years and poof, you can see style in a way that was invisible.

I’m suggesting that a writer could successfully meet my standard in a novel set in the 1990s or even the early 2000s and even when s/he is writing out of lived experience. To wit, I’m excited about this collection and Rainbow Rowell’s popular YA romance Eleanor & Park was broadly considered historical despite (or perhaps because of) its 1980s setting.

In the last analysis, historical writing seems to be defined by its thick setting and orientation toward that setting more than by its use of dates and research.

Now I’m not arguing that RWA should adopt this definition. It would clearly be unworkable for something like the RITA. But when I label Star Dust historical, that’s what I mean.

What do you think? How would you define historical fiction?

Truth’s Superb Surprise

I try not to write about writing itself on my blog because such topics tend to only be of interest to other writers. Also, I don’t always (okay, I seldom) feel like I have something original or worthwhile to say about the writing process. But to break my own rule and be a little cryptic…

For a long time before I started writing fiction down, I was writing it in my head. I didn’t realize it, but I was carrying around a bag and I was putting all sorts of things into it. Jokes that I (and those around me) told. Words that I liked the sound of. Bits of description. Images. Smells. Fragments of motivation and psychology. And questions–so many questions. Why did he do that? Why did I say that? Could this have happened another way? What is she thinking? Etc.

When I started writing, I began taking things out of the bag. I recently re-read Special Interests and it amazed to me how much truth I told while lying. The bones of the scene, the things that were happening in terms of the plot or characterization, would be wholly fabricated. But every single detail of the scene would be true. The book is a patchwork quilt of my experience in and observation of the world.

For a long time in my writing life, I would take things out of the bag and tap them into my stories slant (sorry, Emily Dickinson, that’s one of those words). I mean to say that I used a trick not too differently from how it happened or where I had once seen that sweater or how that thing had tasted. I just sort of twisted a bit.

However, I’ve been writing something that is (for me) very different and crazy. But here’s the thing: I’m using just as much stuff out the bag as before. Maybe more. I’ve discovered whole other rooms, whole other continents, in the bag. So what I’m trying to say is that I am larger than I thought I was. And for the moment at least, that makes me less scared of my writing than I’ve been in a long time.

We, as writers, are told to develop a brand. To make a promise to our readers and to deliver on it in terms of voice and tone and story and setting. What I’m writing now doesn’t feel all that off-brand. It feels like me…but slant. And on the bias, there are entirely new ways of being.

What makes good criticism?

Sorry it’s been so long! I was trying to write a lot of words, which was I doing until about two weeks ago. Then we went on vacation and we moved into a new house. We’re still very much in unpacking mode and at the end of every day I fall into bed exhausted. I haven’t been reading or writing–and this somehow makes me more tired.

Also, while I’ve been happy with the words I’m writing, I’ve been experiencing professional disappointment that has me thinking about my voice and the market. I don’t have conclusions about this yet, but I’ll let you know.

Anyhow, the real point of this point: what is good criticism? Natalie of Pretty Terrible posted this question on Twitter. For reasons related to my academic training and my area of study, it is something I have very strong opinions about. I was going to respond there, but it would be too long. I’ll keep the abbreviated bullet point format of Twitter, though:

  • Good criticism is an intellectual, and not primarily emotional, response to a text. I’m not saying there’s no emotion in criticism—indeed, really good criticism often comes from explaining one’s emotions—but isn’t primarily about “the text made me feel X.” Criticism is what comes after that stage.
  • Good criticism is not primarily evaluative. It’s NOT about saying whether the text is good or bad. When I teach this idea, I often show students a Siskel and Ebert film review (say this one). Then I show them Matthias Stork’s amazing series on Chaos Cinema (here’s part one). What’s the difference? Siskel and Ebert are trying to tell you whether you should go to a movie—is it worth the price of admission? Stork is trying to tell you what this new style of film is. He has an opinion about whether it’s a good or bad development, but he’s mostly trying to define it and tell us how it works. Stork is critical; Siskel and Ebert evaluative.
  • Good criticism has a clear idea about what it’s doing. So any individual entrant is joining a larger conversation. This conversation (or method) can be formal. For example, there’s a set of writing that lays out Marxist critical discourse, or formalism, or New Historicism. But the critical approach can be more squidgy. Either way, people over time develop critical schools of thought and any given critical gesture is in the style of (or in response to) one or more of these.
  • For example, in romance (and I’m sure this is true in other fan communities), popular feminist discourse is important. We talk about whether heroes are alpha or beta (or caretaking alpha or alphaholes), which is another way of talking about how the texts construct masculinity. Also important: genre studies. What tropes does the text use? And does it just replicate the trope, does it make it fresh, or does it subvert it?
  • Good criticism, then, tells me how the text works (and to do this, it must substantively engage with the text) and then puts this into a genre context and a large critical conversation.
  • Here are a couple of critical responses that I think are good: Olivia Waite on Jenn Bennett’s Bitter Spirits and Natalie Jo Storey in the Los Angeles Review of Books on sheikh romance. These make good comparisons because they both use gender studies to talk about how the texts “do” gender and post or neo-colonialism to talk about how the texts “do” race. They do make some evaluative judgements, but mostly they’re talking how the texts work. They’re explicit about the critical moves their making (good criteria) and they engage substantively with specific works. Waite focuses on one text while Storey takes in an entire genre–but she’s still citing lots of specific examples.

I’ve used academic language for this definition, but I have serious concerns about how this goes down in the academy. I don’t think academics are always good at explaining their critical criteria and group-think leads them to only ask certain questions and only of certain texts. Part of what I love about romance is that there are really cool critical conversations happening that I never heard in the academy.

Finally, to be clear, I don’t think criticism is the only valid approach to texts. GIF/squee reviews do important work, I read things all the time that I never move past the “digestion” stage with, etc. Criticism isn’t higher or more valid or anything. It is its own flavor and pursuit and sometimes it’s what you want and sometimes it’s not.

So, what do I have wrong?

Both Alike in Dignity

Over the weekend my friend and critique partner Gen Turner started a Twitter imbroglio when she confessed that she doesn’t really connect with the novels of Jane Austen. I was traveling so I didn’t get to follow all the nuances of the ensuing discussion, but several of us posited that there seems to be a schism in romancelandia (and probably the broader culture) between folks who love the novels of Jane Austen and those who prefer those by the Bronte sisters. Elisabeth Lane compared it to the Star Trek vs. Star Wars debate.

If so, it makes sense. While Austen died in 1817 when the Bronte sisters were infants, Charlotte Bronte famously disliked Austen’s novels, saying Pride and Prejudice was “An accurate daguerreotyped portrait of a common-place face” or, in other words, realistic but boring. In another letter Charlotte Bronte wrote, “The Passions are perfectly unknown to [Austen].”

There’s a lot I could say here about how Austen is more properly grouped with the 18th century novelists than the 19th century ones. Austen has a more Enlightenment view of human nature and love, not to mention that she wrote novels with strong romantic elements not genre romances per se. In contrast the Brontes–who are hardly a united front as my favorite Kate Beaton cartoon spoofs–were more influenced by Romanticism and Wordsworth’s “spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings.” They also wrote for a vastly different audience.

But that’s not my area of expertise and so I’ll refrain.

Instead I want to suggest that Austen/Bronte debate is unnecessarily adversarial. Genre romance descends from both, as Pamela Regis explicates nicely in A Natural History of the Romance Novel, but I’m going to argue that genre romance uses Austen and Bronte for different things. To my mind, Austen provides a set of plots for romance and Charlotte Bronte provides an aesthetic for romance prose.

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