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The Book Beat - January 3, 2020

Happy new year and new decade, book friends! Of course, a new decade can’t dawn quietly, for world news as well as book news, can it? Here are the stories that are making headlines this week. I also put some of the write-ups I’ve been doing for my “A Short Story a Day” Instagram challenge below, and finally, my Cover of the Week. Let’s get to it!

No HEA for RWA?

As I’ve said before, I love reading romance books. Ever since I stole one of my mom’s Danielle Steel novels as a teen, I’ve been hooked. And, as I’ve also said before, no other writing genre deals with as much controversy and criticism as romance. It’s a huge profit generator in the publishing world, yet it still is thought of, in some circles, as a guilty pleasure and not “real” writing. Remember when “chick lit” was the label of choice? I never really thought about it back then, but through my 44-year-old eyes? What a derogatory and sexist term for books by women about women-focused issues. See what you started, Nathaniel Hawthorne?!

Unfortunately, the drama involving romance writing/publishing isn’t relegated just to critiques/comments by writers of literary fiction. For a while now, RWA (Romance Writers Association, THE organization for representation of romance writers) has been struggling with its 21st century identity on two fronts. One, viewing older romance books through the modern lenses of #metoo, diversity, and inclusion. And, two, how to open up the genre in general to include more marginalized themes/characters and authors.

Right before the end of 2019, Chinese-American romance author Courtney Milan was informed that she was being heavily sanctioned by RWA for an ethics violation. What did she do? She called a book racist for its racist depictions of Chinese characters. Another author revealed the situation on Twitter and a huge mess ensued.   

The first link below gives the whole story, but put in a larger context, RWA’s struggle truly came to light in the summer of 2018 when Suz Brockmann, big-time romance author of the beloved Troubleshooters series and LGBTQ advocate, gave a powerful speech at the national RWA convention that called for more diversity in romance writing and publishing. While the response was mostly positive, there were also some complaints. “Why did she have to bring politics into her speech?” her detractors said.

I’ve included three links below. An article about the RWA situation from last week, Nora Roberts’ take on it, and Suz Brockmann’s speech from 2018. 

My opinion: Things change. Life and time move on, progress happens, and we should learn and grow. And, as romance teaches us best, there's empathy, friendship, and love out there for everyone. And, yes, there should be room for everyone at this particular table. If a reader doesn’t want to read a certain story with certain characters, they don’t have to. But the org that’s supposed to represent all romance writers and, in the end, champion a genre of writing that’s been subjected to naysayers putting it down for decades, needs to step up and do its job and be inclusive of all writers, stories, and readers. Period.

A Short Story a Day

Two down, 364 to go (it’s a leap year)! So far, I’m loving this challenge. Yes, most are being read late in the evening, but better late than never, right? Follow me on Insta @ashortstoryaday. And read along, if you’d like!

Wed. 1/1/20: A Good Man is Hard to Find by Flannery O’Connor

I must have read this story in an English class as a teen or college student, but I honestly can’t remember. I do know that when I read it before, I was horrified by the murder aspect of it, and didn’t really think about any deeper meaning.

Reading it now, I see it as a commentary on the various types of human beings, all being fallible and imperfect compared to Jesus (as discussed by the grandmother and the Misfit at the end). As for the humans, you have the grandmother, a chatty, bossy lady concerned about style over substance; the misbehaved, spoiled kids; the put-upon and grumpy dad; the quiet mom; and the murderous Misfit, who blames everyone but himself for his troubles. We don’t really get to know the mom very well, but all the others display the “sinful” behaviors that are the “sins” that have defined humans since Adam and Eve ate the apple. As a group, this family and the escaped convicts are judgemental, rude, dishonest, defensive, whiny, obnoxious, evil, self-absorbed, etc. They are “sinful” where the Jesus the grandmother and The Misfit discuss is portrayed by the Bible as sinless.

The moment where this interpretation crystallized for me, was when the grandmother touches the Misfit, and he gets very upset and kills her. His last comment, “It’s no real pleasure in life,” correlates back to his discussion of Jesus and how, if you believe he rose from the dead, you’ll spend your life following him and being good more than bad (but still committing sins), so you earn your place in heaven, your “rising from the dead.” If you don’t believe in Jesus (or, as the Misfit says, he wasn’t there so he doesn’t know if Jesus really did rise from the dead), your life is characterized by “no pleasure but meanness.” You are mean, evil, and hurtful to others because you don’t have to earn a place in heaven, you don’t have faith. In this instance, a good man is hard to find, because humans commit sins and therefore can never be 100% good. Good humans are hard to find because humans are fallible/sinful/imperfect/doubters or, as we like to say “human.”

I really enjoyed this story. Lots to think about and Flannery’s strong, clever, authentic writing is definitely engaging. Tomorrow’s story is “A New England Nun” by Mary Eleanor Wilkens.

Favorite quote: “‘It isn’t a soul in this green world of God’s that you can trust,’ she said. ‘And I don’t count nobody out of that, not nobody.”’

Thurs. 1/2/20: A New England Nun by Mary Eleanor Wilkens

First, thanks to my friend Marykate for recommending this lovely story. Written in 1891, it might be the oldest one that I’m reading in January. 

Evocative, serene descriptions about nature infuse this tale about a woman, Louisa, who pledged 15 years ago to marry Joe. He’s come back from 14 years of working in Australia to claim her as his wife and they’ll marry in a month. Louisa lives an orderly, calm, and content life on her own. She’s worried about how her marriage to Joe will disrupt her meticulous nature, but still never entertains the idea that she’d break her promise. She eventually finds out that Joe is in love with another woman, Lily. Lily, like Louisa, refuses to let Joe go back on his promise to marry Louisa. Louisa ends up hearing the lovers and, the next day, encourages Joe to agree to break off their engagement. Louisa, “an uncloistered nun,” can continue to live her quiet, solitary, orderly life and Joe can be with the woman he loves.

I really enjoyed this story. Seemingly simple in theme and plot, it offers an interesting take on marriage that I would think would be out of place in the late 19th century. Louisa ends up enjoying living life on her own terms and takes control of her future to live the life she wants, not what is expected of her. She bucks tradition, while holding steadfast to her ideals and what truly makes her happy. This definitely can be compared to a nun’s relationship to God. Louisa’s devotion is to her own happiness and her love of a life of order. Joe’s love for another woman does make Louisa’s pursuit of her preferred life easier, but she still takes the opportunity to live her life on her own terms. Definitely recommend reading this one!

Favorite quote: “Louisa’s feet has turned into a path, smooth maybe under a calm, serene sky, but so straight and unswerving that is could only meet a check at her grave, and so narrow that there was no room for any one at her side.”

Cover of the Week - Ayesha at Last

by Uzma Jalaluddin

I’ll admit. I will read any take on Pride and Prejudice that’s out there and I adored this one. It turns the typical trope on its head by having the brooding hero be a devout Muslim whose mother arranges his marriage and the heroine be an amateur poet who wants to buck Muslim tradition and marry for love. Set in Toronto, these two are forced to work together and, as with the real P&P, clash, argue, banter, break down each other's walls, and eventually fall in love. What a refreshing idea, to use the Muslim community of Canada and the traditions of the religion of Islam as a backdrop for the reimagining of this classic story.

This cover is definitely a highlight compared to other covers of romantic/women's fiction. Ayesha is depicted as a bright, hot pink hijab- and lipstick-wearing woman who seems to be looking forward to something. Shiny, gold outlines really add to the overall bold, bright look of the cover. It definitely compels a reader to pick it up and read to find out just what Ayesha is looking for.

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