As part of The Pixel Project’s Read For Pixels campaign, we interview authors from genres as diverse as Science Fiction and Fantasy to Romance to Thrillers about why they support the movement to end violence against women and girls.
Today we welcome New York Times, USA Today, and Publisher Weekly bestselling author Ms Jennifer Crusie! Author of twenty books and counting, Jennifer is the acclaimed author of Anyone But You, Maybe This Time, Crazy For You and Agnes and the Hitman. Her writing spans romance fiction, literary criticism, miscellaneous articles, essays, novellas, and short stories. Plus, she’s also the editor of three essay anthologies. Hailing from New Jersey where she lives in a cottage surrounded by deer, bears, foxes, and dachshunds, she often stares at the ceiling and counts her blessings.
Jennifer’s longtime publisher, St Martin’s Press, is also taking part in the 6th annual International Women’s Day Edition of the Read For Pixels campaign fundraiser by generously donating a very special perk to help raise funds for The Pixel Project. They has assembled 2 Jennifer Crusie book bundles featuring 5 of Jennifer’s books including Welcome to Temptation, Faking It, Crazy For You, Tell Me Lies, and Fast Women. This is available for two (2) generous donors only so hurry over to the Read For Pixels IWD 2020 fundraising page to donate to get your bundle before someone else does!
If you’d like to have a chance to participate in live Q&As online with other award-winning bestselling authors who will be having live Read For Pixels Google Hangouts over the rest of March 2018, check out the schedule here.
And for now, over to Jennifer…
All pictures courtesy of St Martin’s Press.
1. Welcome to the Read For Pixels campaign, Ms Crusie! Let’s start by talking about Crazy For You, the novel in which you tackle the issue of domestic violence head on. Bill’s stalking and terrorising of Quinn, along with his control issues, are terrifying and accurate portrayals of the mindset of an abuser. That he refuses to accept that their relationship is over, deliberately sabotages her career, and nearly kills her reflects the reality women who leave abusive relationships are in the greatest danger of in the first 6 months of their escape. Ditto for the way in which the community continues to lionise him and refuses to believe her until he almost succeeds in murdering her. Why did you decide to tackle the issue of violence against women head on in Crazy For You?
I didn’t. What I was interested in was the communication breakdown between partners because of outdated assumptions about women’s agency; that is, the idea that sometimes women don’t know what they want until a man gives it to them, that women say no to play hard to get or to manipulate men, that the difference between “winning” a woman and stalking her is just a matter of semantics.
Our culture perpetuates this in heterosexual romance and has for decades: Rochester needed a sharp smack across the nose with a rolled-up newspaper and don’t get me started on Heathcliff. Even Jane Austen was exasperated by this one; remember Mr. Collins telling Elizabeth that he knew women were often coy and that he’d propose again, right after she’d told him flat out that she would not marry him?
The truth is, couples do play word games, tease each other, role play. The key is that everybody has to be playing the same game. What I was interested in was the comparison of consenting adults playing that game with an adult who was non-consenting trying to force another adult into his perception of reality. Call it the Mr. Collins effect. That’s why there’s a scene with Nick and Quinn on the stage right before there’s the scene with Bill and Quinn in the parking lot, I want that comparison right there.
Beyond that, I’m always interested in what happens when realities collide. Perception is reality so any time you have two characters who firmly believe in their own definitions of a situation brought into contact, you’re going to have conflict, the lifeblood of fiction, even if it’s just a tense conversation trying to get the other person to see reason (“Come to the dark side, we have cookies”).
When you add a sexual dimension to that, reality becomes even more skewed because it’s hard to think logically when you’re aroused. And when you add the perception of possession to that—this person belongs to me, we were meant to be together—the possibilities for high emotion go off the charts.
All of that makes romance a really fertile genre for emotional conflict, but it also leaves those of us who write it in a precarious position. We’re writing to fulfil people’s fantasies, and a lot of those fantasies are not politically correct. Actually, I can’t think of a politically correct fantasy, the best fantasies are transgressive. But that whole “she doesn’t know what she wants until he tells her” fantasy is really destructive because too many people believe it in real life, too many people live it in real life. There’s a reason Rochester and Heathcliff are still romantic heroes, that idea of a powerful man being so overwhelmed by passion that he overwhelms the woman he loves is a strong fantasy, but in real life, you’d need that rolled-up newspaper. Or a taser. So how do we play with that idea in fiction without perpetuating dangerous stereotypes?
That’s what I was aiming for in Crazy for You.
2. What steps did you take to ensure that your portrayal of an abuser and an abusive relationship was true to life?
I’m a woman. I doubt there’s an adult woman alive who hasn’t been pushed up against a wall by a guy who “knows” she wants it, harassed by a man because she’s not giving him what he wants, or found herself in a situation where she’s frozen in place because she can’t believe what’s happening to her. MeToo brought this out glaringly; when the conversation first started, every woman I know had at least one story and most of us had several.
Bill’s actions were pretty typical. In fact, there’s a line in there, the one where Quinn tells Bill to buy new flatware because she’s taking hers and he says, “But then we’ll have two sets,” that came straight from a friend of mine who was in the middle of a divorce. There were lawyers involved and he still couldn’t see that they weren’t together any more. It was one of the most chilling things I’d ever heard. That guy is not letting go. That was Bill.
3. You had an unusual start to your career as a romance author: In 1991, you were conducting research for a doctoral dissertation on the impact of gender on narrative strategies. As part of your research, you were aiming to read one hundred romance novels and one hundred men’s adventure novels. However, you found romance novels so feminist and absorbing that you decided to try writing your own romance novels instead and the rest, as they say, is history.
The romance genre is the biggest-selling genre today but has been criticised for being anti-feminist, of providing unrealistic portrayals of sexual and romantic relationships, and of glorifying toxic relationships. What are the major changes and developments you have seen in the romance genre over the past three decades with regards to this issue?
One of the worst of the sexist complaints about the romance genre is that it’s unrealistic. Because male-centered fiction is so realistic. Look, fiction is in great part about fantasy. We create worlds so that we can order reality, make it mean what we want it to mean. Reality is chaotic and meaningless; no event has meaning until we assign it a meaning. So every story you read is an attempt by the writer to order chaos and give events meaning.
Romance fiction focuses on events in relationships based on love or a reasonable facsimile thereof, the way mystery fiction focuses on criminal justice or a reasonable facsimile thereof. People talk about toxic relationships in romance fiction? Let’s discuss The Scarlet Letter. But, you say, romance fiction portrays those toxic relationships as great loves, not as toxic. Let’s discuss The Scarlet Letter. That whole argument is based on one assumption: Women are too stupid to tell the difference between fiction and reality. I object to that.
And that’s before we get to the idea that fiction should be politically correct. I object to that, too. But I especially object because this is a criticism that is only levelled at women’s fiction. James Bond could use a sharp slap upside the head, but nobody’s arguing that his stories are bad for men because they’ll start demanding shaken not stirred.
The biggest changes I’ve seen in romance fiction are always a reflection of what women are concerned with at the time. In the seventies, if a woman was raped, her life was ruined, and we got a raft of rape romances where the heroine not only ended up married to the (always rich) guy who’d raped her, she had his child, his millions, his passionate devotion, and more power than General Electric. Plus he usually took a bullet for her in the end. Is the idea of marrying a rapist horrible? Yes. Is the fantasy that a woman not only survives “a fate worse than death” but triumphs and has absolute agency at the end empowering? Yes.
Those romances don’t work nearly as well now (depending on a reader’s fantasy needs) but they were liberating back then. Move forward into the nineties and the world was full of single mothers because the divorce rate skyrocketed, not to mention sex before marriage was now no big deal, and suddenly the racks are full of baby romances featuring men who really, really, really want to raise somebody else’s child. It’s not that those men didn’t exist before the nineties, it’s that in the nineties, women needed that fantasy.
If I had to sum up the basic message of the powerful romance novel, it’s “You can do this.” Romance heroines do not throw themselves under trains or walk around sporting a scarlet monogram and doing good works because they met a jackass early in life. They win. They may not win in politically correct ways, but they win.
There’s a lot of sneering about the happily-ever-after ending in romance (although strangely enough no sneering about the conviction rate in mystery novels) but women have had centuries of fiction where they ate arsenic because they had sex, liked it and therefore had to die. We are the revolution in that sense.
Are romance writers more aware of the toxic tropes in relationship fiction (not just romance)? Sure. But again, we’re spinning fantasy, and the fact that some people might object to our fantasies is not exactly news to any romance writer. Somebody will object to any fantasy. (I had one reader write that my heroines were needy and pathetic because they asked for sex. I told her that in my experience, asking for sex made women popular and satisfied.)
The problem with policing “toxic tropes” is that some of those fantasies fill a need for some people, people who are not damaged or delusional but just want a story where somebody else takes responsibility for things. Again, a lot of these fantasies make me gag – when did professor/student romances become a thing and how clear can I make it that this is an abuse of power and responsibility? Still, I would not work to stop them from being published.
4. Do you think reframing how stories describe romantic heroes, away from hostile and toxic stereotypes & toward complexity and even vulnerability, can be one of the methods romance writers use to break away from toxic tropes that promote toxic masculinity and the dehumanisation of women?
This assumes that in the past romance writers didn’t write complex and vulnerable men. Of course, they did; complex and vulnerable characters are the lifeblood of fiction. If what you’re asking is “Do you think complex and vulnerable romance heroes can break toxic tropes?”, then no. Complex and vulnerable people can also be abusive.
I’m also uncomfortable with the term “toxic tropes,” as in, story elements that current popular thinking deems unacceptable, because conventional wisdom is often reflective of the biases of the time. A good story challenges conventional wisdom, it doesn’t reinforce it. The minute everybody looks at a story of mine and says, “Ah, all of this is acceptable,” I’ll know I’ve failed.
5. In your books, you’ve always made it clear that consent is vital in relationships and that it isn’t a death knell to romance. For example, in your utterly hilarious and delightful romantic comedies like Anyone But You and Agnes and the Hitman, the male protagonist always errs on the side of asking or waiting for consent to be given. However, the line between consent and coercion hasn’t always been made clear in romance books (or at least, in earlier romances published in the 1970s and 1980s). Do you think this is an issue that romance writers have tackled successfully in recent years?
Okay, can we stipulate that the line between consent and coercion has been unclear in a lot of fiction published in the last four hundred years? This is not a factor confined to romance fiction, it’s not even a factor confined to fiction.
But no, I don’t think it’s an issue that people, in general, are particularly good at tackling. It’s not particularly erotic to be asked for permission to kiss before being kissed; the old swept-away vibe is just not there.
Are romance writers more aware of the problems? Sure, just like the general populace is more aware; again, it’s a response to the social situation we’re in. But it tangles up with the fantasy; politically correct is so rarely romantic and never erotic.
Beyond that, I don’t think that fiction has a responsibility to teach its readers the correct way to love and make love, or to act and think in general. No fiction has that responsibility. Women are perfectly capable of reading a story that crosses all kinds of civil, criminal, and sexual boundaries, enjoying it tremendously, and not taking it as a life map. This question seems to be based on the assumption that we have to police fiction for women, or they’ll throw themselves into abusive relationships and perish. No, wait, that’s Anna Karenina.
I’m very leery about giving content advice to any writer. Certainly, there are ways to incorporate consent that don’t absolutely negate eroticism, but it depends on the characters, their relationship, their style of communication, and their situation in that specific moment, not to mention the tone of the story. The most I’d offer is “Make sure he knows that “No” is a complete sentence.” After that, “consent” is given and interpreted in so many ways, that I couldn’t give specifics.
7. Over the years, a number of authors who have participated in the Read For Pixels campaign have said that authors can help stop violence against women by telling the right stories. In your opinion and experience, how can authors strike a balance in their storytelling between raising awareness about sexism and violence against women and telling an engaging story without being pedantic or preachy or falling back on toxic sexist tropes?
They can’t. Romance fiction does not cause violence against women. Our society promotes violence against women by portraying women as lesser because we’re still mired in a patriarchy. Romance writers can portray sexual violence as bad; we can write catharsis and justice into our stories since romances generally have happy, just endings; we can, in short, make sexual predators pay on the page, but we cannot stop violence with our stories.
8. Publishing has started having its own #MeToo reckoning with increasing numbers of survivors in genres such as kidlit and science fiction & fantasy coming forward since 2018 to name male authors, agents, and editors as having a history of behaving extremely inappropriately towards female colleagues (including workplace bullying and sexual harassment and assault at cons). What do you think the publishing industry can and/or should do to address this issue?
The same thing any industry should do: treat women the way they treat men. It’s not difficult, just stop seeing women as sexual beings first. And of course, more women in positions of power, although romance publishing has always been good about that.
There’s an added wrinkle in romance writing, though, which is that romance authors have always been underpaid and treated as nice little women who write that trash that sells so well that it supports the publishing house. Authors are notoriously easy to scam because we’re not really tuned in to reality (thank god for agents) and the dismissive attitude toward romance authors, in particular, has meant that we’ve been exploited and swindled on a regular basis. Treating romance fiction as more than a cash cow, and romance writers as equal to the other writers of other genres including literary fiction would do a lot to change that.
9. Parents are usually the most influential role models in a person’s life. As a mom yourself, what do you think parents can do to help prevent violence against women and girls in future generations and to get boys involved in helping to do so?
Teach your daughter not to be a lady. I was a single mom, and we’re notorious for the hit-him-in-the-nose approach to harassment. One of my proudest moments as a mother was when my daughter threw a party (with my permission, I was out of town) and a tough-guy classmate showed up drunk and demanded to be let in. She threw him off the porch.
One of the guys at the party who had come out to back her up looked at her and said, “You have the biggest balls at this party.” That’s my kid. The problem with being a lady is that it so often translates in predators’ minds to “victim.” I’ve found, as has my daughter, that if you have a reputation for fighting back, people tend to avoid attacking you.
I’ve never raised boys, but the boys I taught in junior high and high school who were the good guys knew that girls were human beings, not targets. It’s not a tough lesson to teach: basic humanity.
10. You have been so very incredibly supportive of our “Read For Pixels” campaign and our anti-Violence Against Women work as a whole. Why do you support ending violence against women and what do you think authors can do to help end the violence?
I’m for ending violence against everybody. I think authors have the same responsibility as human beings in general because as I’ve said above, I don’t think didactic fiction is a great idea, and taking “violence against women is bad” as theme is trite and limiting.
I think it’s a lot more interesting for authors to explore violence and character, to show in story what makes people do things, not because they’re evil but because of assumptions they’ve made, because of the society they’re living in, because their desires for sex, money, power are driving them beyond the limits of humanity. That said, given that so many of us have #MeToo stories, I think there’s real catharsis in narratives where women fight back against sexual aggression and win. There’s a reason Quinn takes out Bill with that porch rail at the end of Crazy for You.
Fiction isn’t the answer. Real life is where the work needs to be done.