Task: Read an LGBTQ+ romance novel.
I used to be a jerk about romance novels. I’m not proud of this. I think romance bothered me because it was associated with almost exclusively with femininity (this isn’t to say that there aren’t male readers and writers of romance, but I don’t think it’s controversial to claim that the majority of the readership is female). There are plenty of genres out there that aren’t my thing – I don’t read many westerns, thrillers, or mysteries. But these genres never offended me quite like romance used to. In retrospect, my loud hatred for romance stemmed from exactly the same place that used to bleat about how I just preferred having guy friends to girl friends (shout out to my friendwomen here who somehow remained my friendwomen throughout that really unfortunate Anne-era).
To be fair, romance also bothered me because I thought it reinforced toxic gender norms, the most noxious of which being the assumption that the only plot a woman would be interested in is one that involves falling in love with a hot dude.
And lastly, I flipped through a Nora Roberts book once, and a character was described as wearing her hair pulled back “with some kind of band,” which to this day absolutely enrages me. THE BAND IS IMPLIED BY HAIR PULLED BACK. IT IS NOT SIGNIFICANT TO THE PLOT AND IT’S TOO VAGUE TO OFFER ANY DESCRIPTION. “Her hair was pulled back a thin strip of her enemy’s cured skin” would be compelling and necessary information. You know? Jesus Christ.
But look, god knows I require copious copy editing (and if you’ve read any of these posts, you know that too). And so in my old age, I’ve decided to forgive Nora Roberts at long last for this one sentence-level lapse, and I’ll also stop judging the entire genre because of it.
I completely missed the fact that romance novels are perhaps the most joyful, unapologetic exploration of pleasure – sexual and emotional, and predominantly female – out there. They’re also rather sneakily subversive. Romance comes from a cultural context where, to this day, the dominant narrative arc for female characters involves a love subplot supporting the male hero’s journey. Romance makes that subplot the plot, and it has an awful lot of fun with it along the way.
I was also unaware at the dizzying scope of the genre. For every deeply problematic title out there, there’s a wildly feminist counterpart. It’s worth noting that my “home genre” is horror by way of fantasy, and horror has just as many if not more hideously sexist tropes in its back catalog. If you accept the premise that eighteenth century Gothic novels were precursors to modern horror (which I would add lots and lots of caveats to, but we’ll never make it to this fluffy lesbian pirate romance if I get into that now), proto-horror fiction was even subjected to the same sort of criticism that modern romance suffers, as described in this British Library article that I recommend as an entry into an Ann Radcliffe rabbit hole:
… the ‘trash of the circulating libraries’ – that is, as a cheap and tawdry form of popular entertainment that, in its formulaic and highly repetitive nature, fell foul of the emphasis that emergent Romantic aesthetics placed upon the category of ‘original genius’ [source]
So, not only was my previous disdain for romance, its writers, and its readers fairly misogynistic, it was also kind of traitorous in a way.
Fortunately, a good friend who writes under the pen name Ariel Bishop came into my life and fixed my brain on this. She gave me stuff to read, too. And you know what? I liked it (this ‘un specifically, and here’s another list of recommendations from Bustle).She also clued me into the fact that while there’s plenty of heteronormative romance in world, there’s also plenty – plenty – of other offerings. Romance is never going to be my go-to genre, but I’m much better prepared to defend it, and sure, to read it every once in a while without getting all eye-rolly.
Back to the point of the post! I chose The Sublime and Spirited Voyage of Original Sin by Colette Moody for this task. It was a quick, fun read and if I said I didn’t like it, I would be LYING. Now, “kidnapped by pirates” is strongly associated with the rougher edges of romance that head straight into BDSM territory – territory, incidentally, that plenty of women maintain at least a vacation property on (witness the success of Fifty Shades of Grey). I used to think that these novels were romanticizing rape in a dangerous way. But in retrospect I don’t think rapists are the ones reading those books. Women with a mild to moderate case of kink are, and it’s fairly insulting to suggest that those readers aren’t capable of understanding the difference between rape and reality, or of recognizing that a highly fictionalized violation fantasy is entirely different from a real-world assault. Again, to make the unlikely comparison between horror and romance, as a horror reader I’m fascinated by subjects and scenes that I would never want to experience or for anyone else to experience. I’m not going to deny someone the pleasure of reading a juicy region of their id coming out to play, you know?
There’s quite a bit more to be said there, but this particular pirate romance is not that kind of party. It does, however, have a very good time subverting the formula. The pirate captain is Gayle Malvern – a womanizing buccaneer who’s apparently got a wench in every port (one of which is feeling particularly jilted). Celia Pierce is a seamstress about to be wed to a nightmare of a physician, until she is whisked away by a pirate crew looking for a doctor. They mistake Celia for her cowardly fiancé, who hides behind a door during Celia’s abduction.
Romance and I tend to part ways where I start hungering for more conflict. There is conflict in romance, but it’s typically in the form of barriers to establishing a functional relationship. Here, I found myself wanting to be able to sympathize with the vengeful serving girl or swept up in the harsh realities of life at sea in the early 1700s. Maybe a glimpse of the brutal practices of the British Navy that drove so many young men to piracy. But that’s just really not what this novel is trying to accomplish, and that’s okay.
To be fair, this story does kick off with a gut stabbing. Actually, the novel does amass a substantial body count, but for the most part fatal violence is cartoonish and reserved for characters proven beyond a shadow of a doubt to be “bad.” There’s also an awkward dinner scene with Celia’s father aboard The Original Sin, a hurricane, buried treasure, the works. But all of that stuff feels like window dressing for the attraction between Celia and Gayle, which steams up pretty quickly, and Moody never takes her foot off the pedal once things are moving.
Another really fun thing about this book was the degree to which a same sex relationship wasn’t a huge deal in and of itself. Compare that to My Cat Yugoslavia (which is the next post I need to write), where the narrator fears that a message he receives on an anonymous dating site might end in a murderous mob beating. Is it historically accurate that there would be lesbian relationships lived out in the open without fear of violent public sanction against the Golden Age of Piracy backdrop? I honestly have not done that research. Is it fun to imagine it though? Absolutely.