Saturday, July 21, 2007

One More Take On That Black Swan

Okay, I told myself I wasn't going to get into this debate, and I've kept my word for five whole days. But I can't stand it any more. I just need to say something.

Ever since RWA National ended, there has been a running argument in the romance blogosphere about--of all things--the miniskirts and thigh-high stockings worn by two authors promoting their books for Dorchester's new Shomi imprint.

You can see a photo of Marianne Mancusi and Liz Maverick wearing their costumes and posing with their books here.

I first became aware of the discussion on Kate Rothwell's blog here on Monday. Believe me, when I say the debate has been lively. By Tuesday, the action had shifted to The Smart Bitches, who have racked up 566 comments on their blog here. Dear Author racked up another 81 comments here.

The debate has been mostly civil although there's been a tendency to reduce the discussion into two camps: The first described as more traditional and concerned with maintaining the respect of the publishing industry.

Members of the second camp are perhaps a wee bit less concerned about image and more comfortable being associated with the frontiers of the romance genre, including sci-fi, manga and cosplay.

For those of you not familiar with cosplay, the term is a contraction for "costume play." Wikipedia says the word originated at the 1984 L.A. Worldcon to describe the Japanese trend for dressing up as characters from anime and manga. In the sci-fi world, it is very common for fans to wear costumes depicting their favorite characters or series.

Mancusi and Maverick (henceforth called M&M) wanted to attract attention and came up with their own cosplay. It certainly succeeded. Their picture was featured in the July 11 edition of Publishers Weekly.

Before venturing an opinion, let me make a disclaimer. I am not one of the writers who has been laboring in the romance trenches for twenty years. Far from it. Although I was an avid reader of romances in my early teens, by the time I graduated from college, I'd abandoned the genre completely.

I'd had it with that uneven power distribution between the heroine and hero. I was tired of all those virgins who had to be seduced/coerced/made drunk/tricked into sex. I was fed up with all the "pulsing, throbbing" euphemisms. I can remember thinking, "I wish--just once--one of these women would approach her lover without all the freaking angst."

So I wasn't among the writers who worked so hard to gain professional recognition both for themselves and for their genre. But I do remember all the jokes and sneers about romances. I know how difficult it must have been to be a "real" writer and yet not be respected as such.

What brought me back into the fold? Robin Schone's The Lady's Tutor. I read it while stuck in a hotel overnight. The newstand's book choices were very limited and Tutor's historical setting won out over yet another serial killer novel. I stayed up all night to read that book.

Okay, enough beating around the bush. I'm just going to come out and say it:

A miniskirt and a pair of thigh-highs are not going to pull down the walls of the romance temple.

What has attracted me to the romance industry in recent years is how much bigger the tent has become. I have writer friends who write inspirationals. They don't slam me for writing erotic romance, and I don't mock their choices. We each have a perspective and, more importantly, the right to hold that perspective.

I have been awed and inspired by how helpful the published authors I've met have been. They offered me free critiques, advice and lots of encouragement. I'm quite proud to call myself a romance writer.

When I first saw the photo, I'll confess, I laughed at all the fuss. I spend a lot of time on a university campus, and I see young people dressed like this all the time. It's not a look I'd recommend for women over forty but, if you have the hips and thighs to carry it off, more power to you. It's a little edgy, and while I wouldn't choose to dress that way, I certainly don't denigrate another woman for doing so.

On impulse, I showed the M&M thigh-high photo to a certain man I know, who looked, shrugged and said, "So?"

Frankly, I suspect most men would have the same reaction as my friend.

Why is it that so many women were exercised by this? I think a writer calling herself Poison Ivy may have come closest to expressing the concern I heard on Smart Bitches Tuesday:

How many of you attended the RT convention around 25 years ago . . . Nora was around at the time, and we would show up at conferences and find writers dressed as southern belles and worse. It was demeaning and depressing, and it made for patronizing, scathing commentary in the newspapers. [Barbara] Cartland was a genius at self-promotion, no doubt about it, but she also was shamelessly vulgar. Some people in the romance world do not want anybody to get the idea that romance writers are just girls being silly, or worse, tarts. This is a profession, and it’s not the oldest one.

Jennifer Crusie had something to say, too:

There’s a difference between having a great time at a costume party and showing up for a professional booksigning dressed as one of your characters . . . I believe I’m also part of a multi-billion dollar business, that I respect what I do and what I am, and I choose to present myself as a professional. Since the reason for dressing like that is to call attention to oneself, it’s pretty much making yourself a marketing ploy and it’s very low-rent marketing . . .

I have to admit that my first reaction to Sherrilyn Kenyon's swan hat was exactly the same as Jenny's. Gimmee a break. See it here courtesy of Dear Author.

If Kenyon wants to wear a big black bird on her head, that's her Constitutional right. Of course, since that picture ended up on the cover of the Dallas Morning News the next day, I can understand other writers' annoyance. It's a more obvious case of promoting yourself at the expense of your peers--many of whom were aggravated by the crazy-looking woman with bad makeup suddenly serving as a representative for THEM. While it certainly got SK the attention she wanted, I wonder at what expense.

The one good thing that came out of this for me is a better understanding of the RWA Board's seeming hypervigilance about maintaining the (admittedly hard won) respect for the organization's professionalism. I think I have a bit better understanding of what a long way they've come and how hard they are trying to keep from backsliding.

When women can finally relax and stop being apologetic or defensive of our choices, then we'll know we have reached full equality with our male brethren. There's lots of room in that big tent called romance for everyone who wants a place.


B.E. Sanderson said...

I saw the picture. It made me smile. Those pink striped thigh-highs were a hoot. I don't get what the problem is. I also saw the picture of Sherrilyn Kenyon in what I can only assume is vampire attire with a black swan on her head. Not my taste, but if it works for her, more power to her. The people who have a problem with this cosply thing are the ones with the problem, IMO.

Maria Zannini said...

Hmm...well, here's my take on it. -You reap what you sow.-

It doesn't bother me in the least if a woman wants to show up in thigh high stockings, a swan hat or a southern belle costume, but understand why you are doing it and what you are trying to achieve.

Since M&M were doing it for promotion and the venue was primarily geared towards women romance writers, I'd say their promotional efforts worked. On the other hand, when the swan hat left the Hyatt and got featured on the DMN, I wonder if it achieved the same goal, or did the general public see it (and by extension the genre) as an example of silliness. I saw the hat myself and thought it was cool. But you just don't get the same kind of cool factor when you see it isolated on a picture in the paper.

I go to several SFF conferences where people dress up in all sorts of (very) provocative costumes. Here, men AND women shave the duck and don the dog, but it is clearly for amusement and not promotion.

In this day and age where no comment, costume or blog post is sacrosanct in and of itself, you run the risk of looking stupid somewhere.

If you want to be taken seriously, the safest bet is to act the part. In the end feathers and mini skirts won't convince me to buy a book. Good writing will.


Marie Tuhart said...

I saw the one picture of M&M, and the picture of Sherrilyn Kenyon. I want to say, first off this isn't the first year Sherrilyn has dressed up - she was dressed up at the Reno RWA conference, I don't know about Atlanta. I never heard a peep out of people about it being unprofessional.

I don't have a problem with anyone dressing up at their booksigning. Sorry, but that's what it was. The literacy signing was open to the public and therefor a booksigning for every author that was there.

Maybe the constumes got more attention than some people wish, but it did get attention. I don't know if I'd consider it bad or not.

As Marie said SSF people dress up all the time at their conventions, not for publicity but for fun. I've seen them do it for publiciity, but what can I say I live in California.

Maya Reynolds said...

Thanks, Beth, Maria and Marie for your comments. I think I'm probably in agreement with Maria. Everyone has to make her own decisions and then live with them.

As I've said, I wasn't offended by any of the ladies although I thought SK was a bit over-the-top. But over-the-top works for some people. If it works for her, she should go for it.

We take too many hits from outside the romance community to be contributing to the grief ourselves.

BrennaLyons said...

Having taken flack from someone over this at RT2006, I have to agree that your aims are different for different venues. The flack I took was from a GUY that didn't understand my Night Warriors look...armored boots, dark pants and button down shirt with sunglasses. At least I'd taken off the dagger I wore at evening events. I was meeting not only writers but also readers. There was not a single negative word from the writers and readers. In fact, when said "gent" (I use the term loosely, in the extreme) decided to get rude in a rag of an article (all press is good press, if they spell your name right?), there wasn't a single person I saw that took his side.

I see nothing wrong with Mancusi and Maverick. (Though I might mention that there is already an established M&M team, so let's not confuse them...Mandy Roth and Michelle Pillow of NCP. They've been called the M&M for years.) They were promoting, and there's nothing wrong with that. I don't suggest it at a business meeting, but at a convention, when it's time to market, you market.

In addition, I've seen the swan hat before. Sherri also has a coffin-shaped suitcase and wears all black 9 days out of ten. The first time I met Sherrilyn Kenyon, she was in all black, I was in all black, and four dozen readers were in pastels. My first comment? "Will the two vampire authors please stand up." The fact is, her fans LOVE her quirky sense of style. Whether the old guard likes it or not is immaterial. Her publisher doesn't mind the sales, and her ability to connect to fans, even those that are also authors, is legendary.

One more thing to consider here... What is acceptable in some circles is completely unacceptable in others. Jolie du Pre writes F/F romance and erotica. She has a swimsuit shot of herself...very hot...on her site.

SENSUAL and EROTIC writers are expected to be somewhat flamboyant and sensual themselves, even when they have a professional site and bearing. I list my publishers and my professional affiliations on my site. I don't, as some erotic authors choose to, place banner ads to sex shops on my site. I have pictures of myself at podiums and signing business suits, sometimes. At the same time, I have fun elements to my site: a character Q&A with no hold barred, flipping covers on the front page...AND a cleavage shot of me, mixed in with the professional shots. I write erotic. That is tame, in comparison with what some others do. It's memorable. With the exception of a few idiots (always men, I notice), no one thinks there's something wrong with it.

IMO, do what you do to promote, as is acceptable to your audience and subgenre. After that, the heck with what others think.