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Tuesday, July 26, 2011

...But you look so normal?

Not too long ago I was at a friend's framing shop. I had stopped in to say hello and catch up, but seeing as she was busy, I told her I would come back another time. Needless to say, she asked me to stay, saying she'd only be a minute finishing up with a client that had come in from New York City to have some custom work done.

We all got chatting, and my friend mentioned that I was an author, and had been successful with recent book signings at a few local Barnes & Nobles. The look on the client's face was nothing short of incredulous. It wasn't because she had read my work and couldn't believe I had scored book signings at such a big chain, nor was it because I was a small pubbed was because she couldn't believe I was an author at all. And her reason?

"But you look SO normal!

She simply couldn't wrap her head around the idea that someone with talent could walk around without being pierced, tattooed, or sporting mutli-colored neon hair.

"That's certainly not what we see walking around the city?" she said staring at me like I was some sort of anomoly. I half expected her to turn me round and ask me to open my mouth so she could examine my teeth.

I politely told her that while those things may very well be the "costume de rigueur" of people who consider themselves creative, true creativity lies in how one dresses the mind, not the body. And while fashion choices may be an outward show of a creative mind, it certainly ISN'T a pre-requisite for one.

Now I'm no stranger to the stranger types...I hold an MFA from the School of Visual Arts in Manhattan, and have my fair share of friends who choose to dress as such, but that doesn't automatically make them more creative or talented than anyone else. Sadly, in my opinion, it almost makes them cliché, a stereotype of just the thing they are trying to rage against.

For Romance Writer's the stereotype is even sadder. When most people think of us, it's usually the image of a lonely woman sitting in a bathrobe and fuzzy slippers, conjuring lovers and adventure in her imagination. In other words, one step away from being the neighborhood cat lady. If that description just made you go "eeewww", then you get it. Thankfully, for most of us that image is far from accurate, and the same goes for the people who read our work.

On one of the Amazon forums, a woman once described what we write as 'white noise', what she reads to dumb down her mind after a busy day. While I don't mind the idea of our genre being escapist, I do mind the stereotype that it's somehow less than, and to say that it's something one reads to "dumb down a mind' is insulting to those of us who work so hard at our craft.

Stereotypes are hurtful and wrong... especially when they bleed into your personal space.

Marianne Morea

Thursday, July 21, 2011

True Life Romance

I have recently met a new friend who had the most romantic story to tell me about how she and her husband eventually found new love together. It made me realize that sometimes real life can be as good as a novel. 

My friend, Cindy, first met Dave in grade school. "He was Zorro for Halloween and my girlfriend and I were trying to figure out who was in the costume. This was back when kids wore their costumes to school and had parties for Halloween. "We had pretty well guessed who everybody was, except for Zorro. Then  we finally figured out it was the new boy, Dave, and I told my girlfriend that I thought he was the cutest thing." 

That was in fourth grade and by fifth grade Dave must have thought Cindy was pretty cute, too, because he asked her out on a date. "He was the first boy to ever ask me out," Cindy said.

"You went out on a date in fifth grade?" I asked.

Cindy laughed. "No. The teacher found out and told our parents who put the kabosh on it."

Even though her mother didn't let the date happen, she must have thought it was special because she wrote in her journal, "Asked out on her first date by Dave."  Cindy didn't know that until much later when she got her mother's journal after her mother died.

Cindy never dated Dave in high school, but  he dated her best  friend they were part of a large group of young people who bonded and formed a social circle that stayed close through the years and the miles that eventually separated them. Cindy married someone else and lived in the Chicago area where she taught school and raised her family. Dave was in Springfield,  Illinois. They reconnected later and the couples became good friends and socialized  for a number of years. There was no romantic stuff going on but later Dave said that he thought her first husband thought he had feelings for her. She asked him how her husband could suspect something when nothing was happening, and Dave said, "A man knows when another man has the hots for his wife."

Cindy laughed again in the telling of the story. "I never knew. Dave was respectful enough of my marriage never to make his feelings known."

Eventually both Dave and Cindy became victims of divorce. "I say victims because neither of us wanted it, but our partners decided the marriages were over."

Years later they got in contact again. Dave had moved to Texas and had been divorced for about 11 years. Cindy had been divorced for six. "Our first conversation was about how happy we were as bachelor and bachelorette and we did not want to get involved again. We both had been burned pretty badly."

Cindy and Dave stayed in touch as friends and were planning a get together for the old gang. The reunion was set for some time in June, but about mid-April Dave told her he didn't want to wait until June to see her. He had come up to Illinois to help plan the reunion, and he told her he didn't want to wait until June to see her again. "He stayed the weekend and my daughter had planned a big dinner so friends and family could meet him." Cindy said. "I woke up the next morning to find him on my computer.  I asked him what he was doing and he said he was making plane reservations to come back again."

He did go back two weeks later. They were sitting at the breakfast bar in her house and he said,  "What do you think? Would you be willing to give it a go again?"

"Yeah I think I would."

Dave went in to call his mother and asked, "Mom am I old enough now to date her?"

The couple got married July 7, 2001 on a lovely garden on the lake in Austin.  On their second anniversary Dave gave Cindy a card with the inscription, "Grow old along with me, the best is yet to be."

The quote is from Robert Browning and it meant so much to Cindy that she framed the card along with the class picture from fourth grade and gave it to Dave for their fourth anniversary.

I love stories of new-found love. That's what my novel, Play it Again, Sam is about, and it was inspired by a true story that another friend shared with me.

What about you? Do you know a story about a new-found love? I'd love to hear about it.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Does Sexism Sell?

ABC and NBC are spending a lot of $$$ to market sexism to a new generation. An insidious media campaign is helping the networks along by working to convincing women that they're not smart enough to know the difference between real life and make believe. Wouldn't the little ladies be a lot happier if they just returned to their "place?"

NBC is at least being honest and "in your face" about its intentions. There's nothing subtle about the sexist message behind their new Fall TV show - "The Playboy Club." The "About the Show" section of NBC's Playboy page puts the message right out there. It says:

It's the early '60s, and the legendary Playboy Club in Chicago is the door to all your fantasies... and the key is the most sought-after status symbol of its time. Step inside the seductive world of the Bunny, the epitome of beauty and service, and rub shoulders with the decade's biggest mobsters, politicos and entertainers (like Tina Turner and Sammy Davis, Jr.)

The Playboy Club will feature Eddie Cibrian starring as Nick, the dapper hero presiding over a world of grown women who saunter around in tiny little plunging neckline bunny suits, complete with fuzzy tails and matching bunny ears. Hugh Hefner's voice-over says that Nick's world was an amazing place where "everything was perfect, where life was magic, where ... fantasies became realities for everyone who walked through the door." Hef's tagline doesn't add "except for the women selling their dignity to make a dollar" - but that would've been a little too honest now, wouldn't it?

ABC is trying to convey its sexist message a little more subtly - but it still comes across loud and clear. The network's promo page says that in the 60's air travel was "the height of luxury" and the pilots are "rock stars" while the stewardesses are "the most desirable women in the world." The page doesn't say that the women are paid to show off their cleavage and legs to the mostly male travelers. The promos show shots of women bending down to assist passengers and lots - and lots - (Did I say lots?) of leg shots. So the video footage shows what the network doesn't say about Pan Am's slant.

I got the message and have discussed it - too often - to my darling hubby. But I was very, very interested to run across an article today as I researched this post. It proves that I wasn't the only one who noticed that both TV shows play to male fantasies at the expense of female dignity. I ran across an interesting article from the May 22nd edition of the Los Angeles Times written by reporter Melissa Maerz. She sounds like a smart lady making a living in a business that doesn't require her to serve or service her male colleagues (unless she's into that kind of thing). Ms. Maerz's piece states as follows:

Luring more male viewers is particularly important to ABC, whose audience is 65% female. True, some women will enjoy both networks' lipstick-feminist take on career girls busting their carefully manicured fists through the glass ceiling. (One "Playboy Club" bunny tells her friends that she's making more money than her father.) But both of these dramas also indulge a popular male fantasy -- at a time when many men are anxious about job stability and women are getting higher college degrees, "Pan Am" and "The Playboy Club" recall a less threatening era, when an ambitious woman's prime goal was to serve the guys who rule the boardroom. The "Pan Am" tagline boasts, "They do it all and they do it at 30,000 feet."
So two networks in the same season are trying to lead women to march backwards to a time when they did a good job if they kept their men happy. How to do that without having all the currently uppity women getting all pissed off and militant? Well, one way would be to attack something the women really enjoyed. The best defense really is a good offense now, isn't it?

Now, what is it that those smart, ambitious broads particularly enjoy? Oh, yeah, they like to read. And what kind of book sells best to women? Romance novels. Now that's the ticket. We'll get 'em all stirred up and we'll try to do it in a way that makes 'em do what they do too much of anyway - we'll make 'em think. What they'll be thinking is that if they don't stop reading all that crap about love and passion they might lose the man they've got at home. We'll have experts that are women tell the little ladies that they should put down those books and ereaders and spend more time catering to their man.

And out come the recent pair of articles that have gotten so much press lately. The first piece by Kimberly Sayer-Giles appeared on eight (8) days after Ms. Maerz's LA Times article. In it, author Shaunti Feldhahn claims that women can become "dangerously unbalanced" by romance novels "entrancing but distorted message." The psychologist cited in the piece, Dr. Jill Slattery, says that when women reading romance experience the same "natural high" as men viewing pornography. When the "high" wears off, women crave another release and buy another romance novel. The shrink says she's seeing "more and more women who are clinically addicted to romance books."

The Sayer-Giles article quotes a "pornography addiction counselor" as saying that reading romance or viewing porn may cause women to have affairs. The so-called experts claim that romance novels lead women to expect too much intimacy from a real relationship and become unhappy because they can't get as much satisfaction from their partner as they do from reading a romance. The experts say women need to focus on their real relationships, STOP READING ROMANCE, and spend more time with their partners. The piece doesn't mention watching TV with your partner as a suggestion but I ask you, if you're spending time with your hubby, aren't the odds pretty good that watching TV is one of those activities you'd engage in with your "real" partner?

The other piece appeared on July 7th in the UK's Daily Mail. Written by an unnamed reporter, it cites a magazine article by "relationships expert" Susan Quilliam in the Journal of Family Planning And Reproductive Health Care. The Daily Mail article was titled: "The Mills & Boon Effect: Why A Romantic Read Can Harm Love Lives." Quilliam says that although romances "may account for almost half the novels bought" the books' "idealized" notions of love and sex give readers "false expectations."

Quilliam says that romance may be a great foundation for a novel, but it's "not a sufficiently strong foundation for running a life together." (Quilliam also complains that not enough condoms are used in romances.) She says that readers start to believe the stories which causes them so much trouble that they seek counseling. Then the counselors tell women to STOP READING ROMANCE "and pick up reality."

Now, once women stop doing all that pesky reading, surely they'll stop pushing for career success and will see that real success is catering to men - like on The Playboy Club and Pan Am.

The belief that women can't separate reality from a romance novel is beyond insulting. But even if I believed such a load of divine ca-ca, I'll be a toadfrog's toenail before I ever, ever allow ANYONE to tell me what I can and can't read. Like many other women, I have worked to build a successful career - actually two because practice law and I write some of those "dangerously addictive" romance novels. I truly and deeply hope that our society has progressed far, far past the place where women can be convinced that "their place" is serving men.

Today's women are strong enough partners in a relationship to protest their men watching The Playboy Club or Pan Am. Maybe women should insist on a little TV equality too. CBS hasn't imbibed the sexism Kool Aid-- yet. If CBS wants to garner a ratings number that will pound its competitors into the dust, it should respond to the anti-woman bias of the other networks by putting on a sexist show of its own. The Chippendale Club, anyone? All the wait staff will be men wearing tiger-striped kilts with tiger tails and cute little pointy ears.

NBC and ABC shouldn't forget that "dangerously addicted" women can be mighty dangerous adversaries.

And anytime a man in your house watches The Playboy Club or Pan Am, exercise your Female Fierceness by buying another romance novel.

Mary Anne Graham
Quacking Alone Romances
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("Playboy Club" pictures are property & copyright of NBC, "Pan-Am" pictures are property & copyright of ABC, all other pictures copyrighted by their respective owners)

Monday, July 11, 2011

The Truth is Stranger Than Fiction

The difference between fiction and reality? Fiction has to make sense. - Tom Clancy

More than once I've been told by an editor that no one would believe something I'd written had happened. The funniest thing about that comment is that, without exception, it's been on a situation I pulled from my life.

In "The Christmas Curse" I have a woman who has terrible things happen to her at Christmas with great regularity, one of which happened when she was just starting to mature: she got a training bra in her Christmas stocking, and opened it in front of her father and brothers.

Yeah... that really happened. I was mortified.

I was told that no one would believe an older woman (by "older" I mean mid-twenties) was still a virgin. I happen to know THREE women who are now in their late forties, who are not nuns, are not gay and are still virgins.

Most recently there was a significant number of frustrating misfortunes in my life -- to the point where I just sat around and waited for them to happen. And as they happened I said to myself, "If I wrote this in a story, no one would believe it."

Sometimes the adage "write what you know" may not be the best advice, because clearly what *I* know and experience isn't always believeable.

What are some things that you've experienced that no one would believe if they read it in a book?

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