On Wednesday, as multiple firestorms raged in the online romance community, I was reading Robyn Amos's Promise Me and I couldn't help but notice similarities between the plot of the novel and the twists and turns in the online controversies, although a lot of what's been going on recently in real life has been far stranger than fiction. The issues of respect and control seem to be at the heart of both, and both draw attention to the narrow boundary between the personal and the professional. For anyone who isn't aware of the multiple (but related) controversies, please see my summary below, where I've included comparisons with some of the situations in this novel.
I'm not going to write a review of Promise Me, and the only one I could find was this one, which is short. However, there are a couple of reader reviews at Amazon and a long excerpt. I've done my best to avoid giving spoilers, but I can't guarantee that what follows will be spoiler-free, because it isn't, and I should perhaps also add that because I'm only going to look at certain aspects of the novel, what I'm about to write may perhaps give the impression that Promise Me is a very issue-orientated, serious novel. It isn't. It is about respect but it's also funny (at least, I thought so, but you might want to take a look at the excerpt to see if it appeals to you) and when I was thinking of some way of explaining how the combination worked, I came across this*, which gives me the same feeling, and I think it's also something that's conveyed by the cover of the novel.
Cara's personal and professional lives, and the personal and professional lives of those around her, are inextricably linked, and what happens in one area affects their responses in the other. A.J.'s professional life has been affected by his personal experience: 'As Capital Consulting's president, he welcomed responsibility. He never shirked a duty, and he never let anyone down. He knew how to handle pressure (2007: 11). Cara recognises that 'he needed so desperately to prove he wasn't like his father, he felt responsible for the world' (2007: 139). Cara ends up working with A.J., and says that: 'If we're going to work together, I expect you to treat me with respect' (2007: 103). Her sensitivity to the issue had just been increased by learning that her friend Ronnie's boyfriend, Andre, has split up with Ronnie by writing a devastating review of her culinary skills (Ronnie is a chef): 'Now, Ronnie not only had to cope with a broken relationship, she had to do damage control on her professional reputation' (2007: 100).
Cara is a fitness trainer, a profession she committed to as a result of her ex-fiancé, Sean's, behaviour which made her feel she 'needed to do something just for me' (2007: 84), and there are a number of instances where the fitness training, and Cara's opinions about it, can be considered as metaphors concerning the relationship issues Cara has to deal with.
The novel as a whole could be read as a re-examination of the ideas behind the phrase 'the personal is political', though in this case it's more 'the personal is professional (and vice versa)'. That this is the case is hinted at in the opening lines of the novel: "Control is the most important thing," Cara Williams instructed her sixteen-year-old client. "You need to control your body throughout each movement. Wendy, are you paying attention?" (2007: 7). Wendy's problem is that she isn't in control of either her exercise routine or her personal life, and Cara tries to encourage her in both these areas:
I've been trying to help her with that by forcing her to do things on her own. That way, when she accomplishes something, she knows it came from her and not me. She's made incredible progress in such a short time. Unfortunately, I'm afraid when she goes home, her parents undo all my hard work [...] They push her too hard. I think she feels inadequate because she can't live up to their high standards. They need to ease up and let Wendy figure out who she is for herself. (2007: 32-33)Cara recognises Wendy's problem because it's one she has experienced herself:
Control - something Cara felt she'd finally attained. She'd worked so hard, and now her dreams finally seemed within reach. Everyone had thought she was crazy when she'd quit a promising career in the computer field to become a fitness trainer. Her father had been livid. To this day, he constantly reminded her that he thought she'd made the biggest mistake of her life - next to breaking off her engagement to Sean Ingram. (2007: 24)Cara's analysis of male 'protection' of women is not totally dissimilar to that of Crusie's heroine in Crazy for You: both critique the way in which women are reduced to childlike status by the language of male 'protection' and unfortunately A.J., the hero, despite his appreciation of Cara, lapses into this patronising language at one point: Cara [...] started paying attention to the words he was using. Sweet. Cute. These were words for small animals and children' (2007: 206). Another problem is that in some ways A.J.'s
"[...] attitude reminds me of my father's. I'm seven years older than my brother, and he was a lot less sheltered than I was."Both Ronnie's boyfriend, Andre, who is 'so possessive. He barely let Ronnie breathe on her own, yet he didn't know the meaning of the word faithful' (2007: 15) and Cara's ex-fiancé, Sean, are men who seek to control the women in their lives. Sean
"That's probably because boys and girls need different things growing up."
Cara rolled her eyes. "That's chauvinism."
"It's not chauvinism. It's reality. More things can happen to girls, so you have to be more careful with them."
"That's ridiculous. Why do girls need more protection?"
"Because they're more vulnerable to rape or assault."
"And who is going to rape and assault them? Other women?"
"Of course not, but-"
"That's right. It's men who put women in danger. So, how much sense does it make to keep a tighter rein on women because men can't control themselves? It seems to me that if we forced the same moral codes on boys that we do on girls, maybe the girls wouldn't be in danger in the first place!" [...]
A.J. shook his head. "There's nothing I can say. I've never thought about it that way before [...]." (2007: 34)
had always been caught up in those traditional male/female roles. When we went out to dinner, he had to pay. He couldn't stand the idea of me treating him. When we stayed in, I was supposed to cook. [...] At first I thought it was something we could work through together. You know, eventually he would learn to respect my independence, and we would find a happy medium. That's what happens when you love someone, right? But instead the opposite happened. [...] I fell into his routine. Letting him take care of me. It was so easy to do that I didn't even see it coming. At first, I felt safe and protected, but I woke up one day and realized I was Sean's fiancée and nothing more. I had no identity. [...] So then I started to take care of Sean. Doing the kinds of things for him that he'd been doing for me. He couldn't stand it. It wasn't masculine to lean on a woman for anything, in his opinion. A man always has to be in control. [...] he didn't respect me (2007: 83-84)What both A.J. and Cara both have to learn is a way to find a balance in their lives, so that both are equals in a 'partnership where we work together and share things' (2007: 212). Given the way in which Amos has intertwined the personal and the professional, it's significant that the language used here is one drawn from the professional sphere. What Cara wants in her personal relationship has perhaps been prefigured in an event which took place during Wendy's lessons at the gym when Cara was trying to encourage Wendy, who'd been working-out on the treadmill. It wasn't until A.J. helped Cara that Wendy began to make real progress:
A.J., slicing his arms back and forth, taking tiny steps, was pretending to run at top speed on his treadmill, then he slowed down and pretended to run in slow motion like an action shot from a movie. [...] He was distracting Wendy from her workout - or was he? She glanced at the monitor and found that, not only had Wendy exceeded her goal speed, but was maintaining the higher speed comfortably. (2007: 30)By the end of the novel Cara and A.J. are able to challenge each other and also work together. Each, with the help of the other, succeeds on a professional level and improves his or her relationships with other family members.
Clearly this is a novel in which the issues surrounding control and respect are explored through a variety of different relationships. The way in which this is achieved may lack subtlety for some readers (given that this was a criticism levelled at Crusie's Crazy for You**, it's almost certainly one which would also be made of this novel) but it's not didactic, inasmuch as there is recognition that the solutions which work for Cara and A.J. may not be ones chosen by other people, perhaps for valid reasons:
"[...] I blame my mom for not taking a stand with my dad. [...] If she really does want to work at the bridal shop, she should do it. Instead, because my father is 'the man of the house,' she goes along with what he wants. When there's a problem, it's his duty to solve it. He never treats her like her opinion is worth anything."As Cara says, 'everyone has an idea of what their ideal relationship should be. To me, love is mutual trust and sharing. [...] I need to know that I can contribute as much to this relationship as I can take from it' (2007: 214). But as she's learned, not everyone will have the same ideal. Cara's statement about the fitness CD-ROM she's creating also applies to relationships: 'One thing I hate to see in this field is a diet or workout schedule that claims it's right for everyone' (2007: 67).
A.J. hugged her closer. "Cara, you have to remember they're from a different generation. Just tell me one thing. Are they happy?"
Cara blinked. "Yes. The years only seem to bring them closer," she said, her voice taking on a tone of wonder.
"Then maybe you should accept that the choices your mother makes are right for her, even if they're not right for you." (2007: 166-167)
- Amos, Robyn, 2007. Promise Me (New York: Kimani Press).
** Robin said of Crazy for You that she felt it was 'one of those books that's so obviously issue-oriented that at times I felt like I was reading a treatise on sexual politics rather than a novel that portrayed those complex relationships'.
The background is that on Friday the 27th of April Karen Scott posted a rather critical review of an ebook. There were a number of comments made, including one allegedly posted by Kathryn Falk, CEO of Romantic Times. Karen then responded to this comment, quoting it in full and confirmation that it was indeed written by Falk was posted here, except that when the Smart Bitches talked to Falk, she said 'Someone took my words but that isn’t me'. According to GalleyCat, 'Susan Edwards, the media relations director for Ellora's Cave', the publishers of the ebook which received the critical review, said that 'I can not confirm for you that Kathryn wrote that blog commentary, though I have no reason to doubt that she did'. And in yet another development two supposed co-signatories of Falk's said that they had nothing to do with the comment that was posted.
Here are a few quotes from that comment posted in Falk's name on Karen Scott's blog:
I am proud of any woman who writes erotica and gets published. I know how tough it is. [...] This has been the situation since I started up in 1981. That is why I have been so supportive of e-publishing women and will continue to be.The villainess in Promise Me, Angelique, doesn't support other women: 'Her type cozied up to men in order to get what they wanted, but other women were competition. The first order of business with her kind was eliminating the competition' (2007: 46). However, Cara's female friends aren't uncritically supportive: rather, they challenge her and question her decisions so that she has the opportunity to think them through in a context which is both critical and supportive.
it wasn't the men who attacked me in this business (with the exception of one crooked literary agent!!) but the women. [...]
It will set us back years if we are portrayed as a bunch of jealous females baring their claws, upsetting our colleagues, and seemingly approving of a small group of savagely narcisstic [sic] women who can't stand to see other people succeed.
We know what to do: support our editors and publishers, support our booksellers and authors, or -- if you can't say "nice" -- say nothing.
According to the comment, Falk had just returned from the Romantic Times Convention in Texas (April 25-29 2007) but despite the calls for greater support for female authors, it seems that at least one female author at the Convention was not given much support, because her novels are male/male romances. Laura Baumbach's account of how her promotional material was removed by the management of the hotel at which the Convention was being held can be found in full here and she writes that 'Sharon denied RT involvement but they certainly didn’t do anything to support an author attending their conference. Instead they willingly, immediately consented'. A.J., on the other hand, supports his client and makes Angelique apologise to Cara because 'I won't let her personal whims affect Capital's customer service reputation' (2007: 68). It remains to be seen whether the Hyatt will take action against the manager of their Houston hotel but in a comment which appears to be from Carol Stacy of Romantic Times (and which appeared in the comments thread in response to Baumbach's account of events), Stacy says that
Regarding RT's Policy to not review m/m books in RT) [...] My decision to not review these books has nothing to do with being homophobic. Some of my best friends are gay and in fact several attend our convention and have been friends for years and I love them dearly. My decision is based on my "print" readership and the fact that the majority of my "print readers" are not interested in m/m books at this timeThe phrase 'some of my best friends are ...' is one that's been satirised on Black People Love Us! (for the background on this website see this article and this explanation of 'contagious media') which, like the following quotation from Amos' Promise Me, points out the absurdity (and underlying prejudices) of
People trying to prove just how 'down with the bros' they are. Inviting me to shoot a couple of hoops on the weekend or saying things like 'How 'bout that new Ice-T CD,' and trying out their versions of the latest homeboy slang. I guess I like basketball and rap music as much as the next guy, but when they assume that's all I like, I can't resist the urge to stretch the truth a little."And racial issues were raised by the Convention too. Seressia Glass wondered whether it was the subject matter of her novels or her own skin-colour which affected readers' responses to her books.
Cara smiled, "What do you mean?"
"Well, one guy was really ticking me off. He said come over for a fried chicken dinner, and we can shoot hoops afterward, and my son has the new L.L.Cool J album."
"What did you say?"
"I said I'm trying to lay off fried foods, golf is my sport of choice, and who is L.L.Cool J?"
Cara burst into giggles. "How did he react to that?"
"His mind was boggled. [...]" (2007: 193)
As if all this weren't enough to demonstrate that respect, support and/or the lack of it is a big issue this week, the Smart Bitches received an email, in response to some critical comments they had made, in which the emailer stated that the SBs clearly
have nothing better to do than to trash people they dont even know, [and] probably all look like fat disgusting hairy looking men! [...] I would love nothing more than to throw you bitches in the trunk of my caddy and dump you in the weeds somewhere off the Belt Pkwy! But instead, I will pray for you.Even if, as it appears, this was a troll impersonating someone else, it does reinforce the impression that Romanceland this week is not a place in which either the milk of human kindness or honey are flowing in abundance. And to conclude with a post which brought the debate about respect and how the genre might gain it into the area of reviews and literary criticism of romance novels, on the 2nd of May Kassia Krozser said that 'Romance authors constantly whine about lack of respect. They complain about lack of column inches. They decry the fact that their work is referred to as “bodice rippers”'. She suggests that one solution might be for some (not all) authors to consider writing reviews.