Don’t read the comments, I tell myself, and yet, because I am terrible at following my own wise advice, I read the comments. The article will be about a government project, or a politician’s promise that a benefit is coming for many, or the disadvantaged. Being generally on the political left, I think this is a good thing. The comment will claim this is a bad thing, sagely stating the proverb “there is no such thing as a free lunch.”
In the late 1980s I purchased a copy of The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Proverbs. It’s one of my most-used literary reference books, and while most of the information can now be found online, the book remains easy to use, ad-free, and authoritative, which is more than can be said for many online sources.
The Introduction explains that proverbs once carried much weight, and that “as late as the seventeenth century, proverbs often had the status of universal truths.” After that, proverbs dropped in status, sometimes being ridiculed, and while they are still popular (and still being created), they serve largely “to provide the sauce to relish the meat of ordinary conversation.”
“There is no such thing as a free lunch” is noted in the Introduction as an example of a new proverb. It comes from the field of economics, a good reason to be suspicious of its significance, with first recorded usages in the 1930s and 1940s. The proverb was popularized by use and discussion in Robert Heinlein’s novel The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress. Given Heinlein’s politically right perspective, that’s another reason to be suspicious of the proverb. (In my long ago Science Fiction reading days, I recall Have Space Suit, Will Travel as being not particularly good, and while I enjoyed The Door into Summer as a teen, when I read it a few years later I was repulsed by the use of time travel to legitimize an adult-child relationship, and noted the pervasive sexism and the attack on planned economies.)
Proverbs don’t carry much weight, this one is less than a hundred years old, so hardly the wisdom of the ages, and comes out of economics and the political right. Grounds to ignore it completely — but wait, there’s more!
Free lunches were a product of the industrial era. Numerous sources note the tradition grew out of American saloons offering a “free lunch” with beverage purchase, as an advertising gimmick or to skirt alcohol serving laws. It was no secret that the cost of the often cheap and salty lunch was built into the cost of the drink (or drinks) the patrons would purchase. Thus it is patronizing for economists (and online commenters) to make the obvious statement that nothing is free. We know. (Just as we know that free delivery is not actually free, as we add a $15 item to the cart in order to get “free delivery”).
Many proverbs do state the obvious, but manage to be less patronizing. For example, a favourite of mine manages to be both obvious and witty: “Love and a cough cannot be hid.” (Originally Latin, amor tussisque non celantur, first recorded in English in 1325. How did we lose the lovely onomatopoeia of tussisque?)
Though free lunches were not free, they did have a social benefit: “A free lunch-counter is a great leveler of classes.” Next time you hear a social program put down by a comment like “sounds good, but’s there no such thing as a free lunch,” remind yourself it’s a weak and biased argument that states the obvious, “free lunches” existed, and they were a good thing.
I never read the comic, but occasionally watched the 1970’s TV show. Silly at times, but enjoyable. My recollection of the 2017 movie was that it started strong, but had a tiresome battle with lots of things blowing up at the end.
Wonder Woman 1984, directed by Patty Jenkins, is not without problems. This New Yorker article covers many of the issues well, and helpfully explains, for folks like me, that the villains are canonical (and perhaps not appropriate to the period setting). And much can be said about the odd manner in which Steve returns. It is inconsistent with the other uses of wishes in the film, and that only draws attention to the ethical questions and concerns. It could have been handled much better, along with several other plot holes. (Given the living arrangements of Wonder Woman’s three creators, having Steve and his host body share consciousness would have been appropriate.)
That said, a few things stood out. First, the fashion montage, as Steve models various possible outfits. I’ve read this is over-emphasising the movie’s time setting. I disagree. Amy Heckerling’s 1985 European Vacation has a similar fashion montage, as do other films of the time. In other words, the film montage itself, not the fashions on display, is an aspect of the 1980s. A small thing, but those of us who lived through the 1980s appreciate the apparent concern with representing it faithfully in film style as well as visual appearance. The emphasis on wanting more nuclear weapons is also entirely appropriate to the time.
Of much greater significance: the villains are redeemed, not killed. So many movies create a situation where the hero must kill or be killed. That’s avoided here, albeit clumsily, and the reason may be the comic book origin and that genre’s need to maintain a stable of enemies. I was surprised to learn the death of the Joker in Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman was non-canonical. Regardless of the motivation, the result is a refreshing exception to so many action films.
Another aspect that stood out was Diana’s eventual understanding that Steve could not stay with her. She had to make a difficult decision, and sacrifice something. There are so many films, and books, where the hero achieves everything at minimal cost. Some reviews have suggested her sacrifice should not have been a difficult decision – they were not together long, and their relationship was a long time ago. That is a rather cynical view of romance, as if the strength of love depends on the length of the attachment and how recent it was. More practically, the film established that Steve was missed.
We were prepared for Diana’s sacrifice in part by the prologue sequence, which also established the moral tone of the film. And not many action films have a moral deeper than “good guys win.”
Finally, the sub-plot of Steve’s return reminded me of Casablanca – your old love comes back, but everything is different and you cannot stay together. It’s a lovely time, and a lovely reminder of what was, and you enjoy it and carry on. Notwithstanding my penchant for reading and writing romance novels where the emphasis is on happy every after, there’s something deeply romantic about love that continues when the people aren’t together. I’ll have to try and write that someday.
I’ve had a lot of odd jobs, and some of them were odder than others. I went through high school with no career ambition beyond writing, no desire to attend university (an act of rebellion against my parents, then university students, enroute to earning their PhDs and distinguished academic careers), and no concerns about job skills. After all, in my last two years of high school I worked two part-time jobs, about 30 hours a week, and made more money than I knew what to do with. Which is to say I bought the best music system I ever owned.
It didn’t take long for me to realize I needed some job skills, so I signed up for a typing course, reasoning that skill could also help with writing. I pawned the music system to pay the rent and buy groceries, and started attending university part-time for job skills and help with writing. Meanwhile, I worked whatever jobs I could get, temping for both office and blue-collar agencies when I could not find permanent jobs.
Given that I pursued a degree in English literature, it’s fair to say the degree helped more with writing than job skills. Supposedly any degree helps with employment, and after five years with one employer they were happy to give me four months unpaid leave to finish my degree. They told me they supported life-long learning. When I returned to the office, newly credentialed, I was demoted two job levels, with the equivalent salary reduction. It turned out my employer was only willing to hold a job, not the job I had before, let alone consider a promotion.
Between no credentials and credentials not recognized, work has sometimes been a challenge. In December of 1988, I was driving passenger vans for a transportation company, taking children to and from schools in situations where the school bus was not appropriate, such as ferrying children from women’s shelters to their schools. The pay was low, the hours limited, the children difficult (understandably so), and there was no work over the Christmas school vacation, so I jumped at the chance to supplement my income by delivering packages for the post office.
Most jobs where I’ve dealt with the public have involved people who have purchased something – their food, their rollercoaster ride, their delivery to the airport – and they often believed their status as a paying customer, and mine as a low paid employee, entitled them to be demanding about the ingredients, the preferred seat, the speed of my driving. Delivering Christmas parcels was delightfully different. People were glad to see me, and grateful for the service. Sometimes the package was a complete, and happy, surprise. Other times it was expected, even late, but they were still happy it arrived. And I was gone before there was any disappointment over the contents.
It’s tempting to draw some sappy conclusion about the joy of the holidays being found by delivering packages, or receiving them, or perhaps about how everyone is more cheerful at Christmas, but I know from other jobs that everyone is not more cheerful at Christmas. It’s just nice to deliver and receive packages any time – or at least delivery was years ago, when the job involved a company vehicle and an hourly rate, even if it was minimum wage. I’m aware that many folks delivering packages these days do so under less fortunate conditions.
As with every job I’ve had, odd or otherwise, from Christmas package delivery I learned tidbits of information that I find interesting and are fodder for inclusion in stories. In addition to seeing the happiness of the recipients, I learned that a surprising number of people answer the door wearing very little. Risking the sin of vanity, I was younger and fitter then. And to put that in perspective, the surprising number was something like two men and three women out of several hundred people. Also, the promised plain brown wrapper on sex toys doesn’t fool anyone. Incidentally, there was no correlation between state of dress and package, and as a package delivery person my approach to both the packages and the customers was strictly professional.
The following Christmas I was working at a better, full-time job, and I was lucky in my employment for several years after that. I wasn’t odd-jobbing over the Christmas holidays again until about five years ago. I was serving food and distributing party favours at a large New Year’s Eve bash. I’ve never seen so many people so desperately trying to convince themselves they are having fun. It was grim. At least this year they’ll have to stay home. If they’re lucky, someone will deliver a package to them.
It’s the first of December, which means about three weeks to the end of fall, the solstice, and the deadline for sending cards and otherwise preparing to share a little seasonal joy. Which means the chances of me publishing Ocean’s Lure this fall, as I have previously announced here and there, is somewhere near nil.
The good news is that this acknowledgement will not send legions of fans into a frenzy or require stopping of any presses. My failure to meet my self-imposed publishing deadline bothers no-one but me, and me not that much. I rationalize this lack of concern as being good to myself and forgiving of my faults (which is sort of connected with the seasonal celebrations). And it’s not so much laziness as experience resetting goals.
For example, a few years after graduating high school, I decided to obtain an English degree. I thought it might help me write (spoiler alert – it did that, and much more). I started a part-time university program, then dropped out after four courses, out of money. I started again a few years later at a different school, took one course, and failed it twice. (In hindsight, picking a university for its recruitment poster may not have been the wisest decision. I cannot reproduce it here, but you can view Heather Cooper’s stunning University of Guelph recruitment poster at Library and Archives Canada.) Five years after my first attempt, I finally enrolled in a program and stayed in it. It took a total of twelve years for me to earn a three year degree.
So if it takes a little longer to get my first book out, that’s okay. I know I’ll get there. This year is hard for everyone, and we all need to be good to ourselves (and limit travel, social distance, and wear masks). And I haven’t spent all my free time surfing in hopes of finding nuggets of good news and reassurance friends are okay. Among other things, I started a website and twitter account for Somewhat Grumpy Press, the small press that will eventually publish Ocean’s Lure (and has already published Recycled Virgin). It’s also been a good year for editing projects. At this rate, I’ll be able to quit my day job, write and edit novels part-time, and enjoy the royalties from the books I write and sell in…fifteen to thirty years?
Meanwhile, watch for Ocean’s Lure, coming spring 2021. Probably.
I’ve been studying film classification systems, or movie age ratings, for years. I wrote undergrad essays on the subject, an MA thesis on it, and have published journal articles. You can find some here. There are also many blog posts. I’ve concluded that, for all their flaws, film classification systems are necessary, desirable, and best run by the government (in a democracy). That’s what we have done in Canada, along with many other countries.
The United States has a voluntary system of film classification, run by the film industry. It favours films from the larger companies, ignores regional differences, and practises invisible censorship (films are quietly altered before or after production). It’s not responsive to public concerns, and while the classifiers are nominally independent, film industry representatives dominate the appeals board. Finally, contrary to what might be expected, censorship still occurs with age-classification, and industry run classification has more censorship and more restrictive classifications than government censorship.
The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child encourages countries to have film classification systems, in order to protect children from film content that may be harmful to them. The Convention also requires that children participate in decisions that affect them, including film classification. The United States does not meet these requirements, but has not signed the Convention (it’s the only country that hasn’t). Canada has signed the Convention, and more or less meets these obligations to children with mandatory classification in most provinces, and the participation of children in film classification in some provinces.
In short, the Canadian system of film classification is better than the American system, for many reasons. But, just over a year ago, the Government of Ontario stopped classifying films, choosing to rely on the ratings from British Columbia as an interim measure while they developed a “new approach.” In a journal article published earlier this year, I predicted Ontario would likely adopt the MPAA ratings, to the detriment of independent film makers and film viewers, especially children.
The government has now introduced amendments to the Film Act, which scrap ratings, and call for age recommendations and content advisories to be issued by film distributors, with the distributors to supply contact information for complaints. This is apparently to ease regulatory burden. However, if film distributors have to prepare a special recommendation and advisory just for Ontario, and staff a complaints desk, there’s not much change to the regulatory burden – if anything, it’s increased. If this goes through, I fully expect the film industry to announce that the existing MPAA age recommendations, content advisories, and contact information meet the requirements. In other words, Ontario will end up using the MPAA ratings, and this may put pressure on other provinces to follow suit.
Who benefits from this change? Large film companies. Why is it being being done? Because the Ontario provincial government and its supporters have the ideology that government is bad, and business is good. From decades of studying film classification systems, I know that’s wrong when it comes to movie ratings. From witnessing the collapse of American democracy and growing social inequality thanks to small-government conservatives and neo-liberals, we should all know by now that the ‘business does it better’ mantra is bad for everything and everyone, except large companies and wealthy individuals. I take little comfort in predicting this sad shift to the film industry providing film classification in Ontario, and hold out hope that more reasonable approaches continue in other provinces.
Red, White & Royal Blue, by Casey McQuiston, is not a book I would have chosen for myself. I like my contemporary romances to have relatable characters, and I find it hard to sympathize with the romantic struggles of the very, very, rich. I admit enjoying historical romances, most of which feature wealthy Dukes or similar, but these stories are so far removed from reality in the quantity and qualities of these characters that they are easy to enjoy. In these trying times of pandemic and crazy right-wing politicians, my near-daily dose of Duke meets impoverished lady is a treasured escape. Why would I want to read about the highly privileged offspring of contemporary world leaders? I read enough of that in the news. But Red, White & Royal Blue was selected for my book club (now disbanded due to pandemic and layoffs), and I purchased a paper copy. It sat in my TBR pile for months, until I selected it for a bathtub read, largely out of a desire to reduce that pile.
Most people seem to love it, some hate it, and I found it good if not great. Spoilers ahead.
Red, White & Royal Blue, published in 2019, is set in a parallel universe United States, where the 2016 election was won by a Democratic, divorced, woman, with a biracial family. In other words, the United States became even more progressive and liberal after Obama. The right wing is still out there – Mitch McConnell and the Westboro Baptist church are mentioned and mocked, and a corrupt Republican presidential candidate obtains emails from a private server in a political thriller subplot – but racial and gender equality and diversity are unthreatened.
The president’s two children, Alex and June, in their early twenties, live at the White House. Together with the vice-president’s grand-daughter Nora, their best friend and former lover of Alex (and possibly June), they fully enjoy their celebrity status as young, hot, singles. They’re also brilliant and work hard in various fields, and we get regular reminders of how smart, wealthy, and desirable they are.
In the fall of 2019, Alex creates an international incident when he gets drunk and fights Henry, an English Prince and heir, at a royal wedding (the parallel British monarchy has an elderly and long reigning Queen, named Mary, but is otherwise different, and I never did figure out exactly where Henry fit in the line of succession). Henry, like Alex, is a tabloid heartthrob, and Alex has long held an unreasonable dislike for him. To patch things up after their fight, the PR departments of the two nations arrange for Alex and Henry to have a few friendly visits.
Romance novels tend to have an arc of friends to lovers, or enemies to lovers, with some obstacle to the relationship, because there’s not much story potential in a few dates and becoming lovers. A plot challenge is bringing together two people who are compatible, keeping them together long enough for propinquity to kick in, and quickly enough so the relationship is the central plot thread. One way to accomplish this is some form of a marriage of convenience (used in both historical and contemporary romance). The ordered friendly visits are essentially the marriage of convenience that turn our enemies to lovers (and, as is often the case, the attraction was there all along). Social media, and the ability of either party to fly across the Atlantic on a whim (rich kids, no pandemic), make up for the physical distance.
My biggest disappointment with the story is the obstacle to the relationship – the need to keep it secret. This is a common romantic obstacle in non-hetero romance, and it represents an odd stage for the non-hetero romance story: Society is open enough for these stories to be told and appreciated, but closed enough that the need for secrecy is an acceptable plot point. Hopefully, some day the need for secrecy obstacle will be relegated to historicals. Meanwhile, though a realistic obstacle, in this story it seems at odds with the otherwise utopian tone of the book, and it is ultimately revealed to have been a non-issue. Friends, family, co-workers, and most of the public are supportive. A few of Henry’s relatives are concerned, but their dislike is limited to how it affects the image of the royal family, not personal animosity. One is left wondering why the characters were ever worried about it.
I was also puzzled by the lesser obstacle of Alex coming to terms with his bisexuality. On the one hand, cool that it was not a big deal to him. On the other hand, given his past experiences, the bisexuality of his best friend, and his long interest in Henry, it seemed a little odd that he’d never thought about his same-sex attraction until he enjoyed a great surprise kiss from Henry, and that he then picked a new label relatively easily.
There’s a slight YA tone to the story – the coming of age arc, youth saving the day, and the concerns of the adult world being distant thanks in part to the wealth of the characters. The sex scenes drift to vagueness whenever things get steamy, to the point where sometimes I had to go back and read them again to see what, if anything, happened. During one, Alex says “After that, things got hazy,” and he’s correct. The main characters are fond of Star Wars (the original trilogy) and know the mid-1980s film, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, which is a treat for older readers such as myself, until I wonder how likely it is that people born this century would be fans.
Those disappointments aside, this is a delightful read. First, of course, there is the happy ending, with everything working out for the characters, the broader utopian vision of the United States without Trump or the dark forces that support him, and the individual and international celebrations of gender, sexual, and racial equality and diversity. Romance novels tell us what is possible. That’s usually at the individual level, and while the relationships between Alex and Henry and their friends and family are perhaps too good to be true, they are something to aspire to. At the national level, while this story is firmly set in a pandemic-free 2020, with its climax the US election, it’s still a possible future. With the announcement of a Biden-Harris presidency, that possible future is a little more likely.
Second – the romance. Wow. We’d all love to be romanced the way these guys treat each other. The novel includes some of their texts and emails to each other, which are hot, sweet, and sometimes include quotes from historical novels and love letters, such as this passage from Michelangelo to Tommasco Cavalieri:
I know well that, at this hour, I could as easily forget your name as the food by which I live; nay, it were easier to forget the food, which only nourishes my body miserably, than your name, which nourishes both body and soul, filling the one and the other with such sweetness that neither weariness nor fear of death is felt by me while memory preserves you to my mind. Think, if the eyes could also enjoy their portion, in what condition I should find myself.”
Letter, July 28, 1533, from The Life of Michelangelo Buonarroti by John Addington Symonds, 1893.
Then there’s the museum scene. Alex and Henry sneak out of the palace one night, and explore a closed museum, ending with a dance to Your Song in one of the galleries. Unlikely? You bet. Sign of privilege? Absolutely. Heartbreakingly sweet grand romantic gesture? Oh yes.
Finally, the structure is impressive. McQuiston knows their Checkov’s gun and uses it repeatedly, to great effect. Symbolism is uneven, but present enough to be appreciated, and pacing is strong. There are a few great visuals that would be fun on film.
Despite the all-too-familiar White House setting, Red, White & Royal Blue is far enough from realistic to be a pleasant escape. Judging from the success of the book, many agree. The escapades of these wealthy privileged brats is told with enough humour and affirmative messaging that to criticize them or the story seems curmudgeonly. And I note that Henry, like the Dukes of my historicals, has misgivings about his source of wealth. The characters are hardly relatable, but they are decent folk at least, and the final scene of the story is a beautiful quiet moment that left me very pleased the book club recommended this book.
September, and the last few weeks of summer, have flown by. At the beginning of the month, I took a long delayed road trip, and that was followed by two weeks of self-isolation. Did I write while traveling? No. Did I write during self-isolation? Also no.
Not writing doesn’t mean I was not productive – I have three editing projects at different stages, and worked on those. I updated the website for Romance Writers of Atlantic Canada, and did some planning for the publishing of Ocean’s Lure. And I did some exploring while travelling, to the extent it can be done while observing COVID-19 restrictions.
Lately I’ve been telling people Ocean’s Lure will be coming this fall. In August, that seemed a long way off. Now it is fall, and the clock is ticking. However, it’s a self-imposed deadline, which means it is less important than the deadlines for my editing projects. I’m not going to be too hard on myself. I consider that self-care, not laziness.
This is the first year since 2012 that I have not participated in the 3 Day Novel Contest. In recent years, the contest has been poorly run, and the new management that appeared less than two months before the 2020 contest weekend did not inspire confidence. By then, I had decided to support a new contest on that weekend, the 3 Day Novella Contest. I am now one of the judges (and thus also have a story-reading deadline). Thanks to previous years’ entries, I have several romance novel first drafts, and I’d rather finish them than write another draft. And that’s another reason for getting Ocean’s Lure out. Much as I love the story, and working on it, there are other stories I want to tell.
My drafts pile is starting to resemble my to-be-read pile, but that’s okay. I’ve no fear of running out of things to read, or things to write. Life is good.
What’s Montague? it is nor hand, nor foot, Nor arm, nor face, nor any other part Belonging to a man. O, be some other name! What’s in a name? that which we call a rose By any other name would smell as sweet
When I started writing romance novels, I created a female pseudonym. Among other reasons, I write academically, and, at the time, I thought it a good branding strategy to keep my academic writing and my romance writing separate.
Several years passed as I drafted and revised my novels, and with Ocean’s Lure approaching publication, I stopped using the female pseudonym. Most romance writers I met, especially through the Romance Writers of Atlantic Canada, accepted a male romance author. Having made progress on various writing fronts, the notion of establishing my romance writing brand as something separate from my other writing seems unimportant. Maybe this is because I’ve grown weary of the concept of personal branding. I’m just me, with many interests, including writing, of many kinds. And I wanted to spend more time writing, and less time promoting myself thorough multiple social media accounts.
When I made the decision to stop using the pseudonym, several well-meaning people recommended I publish romance using my first initial rather than my full name, to keep my gender quiet. It was suggested that some romance readers would not consider anything by a male author. I decided against this, but last week ran a Twitter poll to check that advice:
First, the good news. The vast majority of respondents answered “Sure, why not?” That’s reassuring. However, the bad news is that there were only 8 votes (that’s out of 198 people that saw the tweet, over four days).
I’m not sure this is a meaningful result, as least with regard to whether or not romance readers would read one by a male author. What I do learn from this poll is that I don’t need to worry about losing sales by using my full name. I need to worry about reaching potential readers.
My marketing strategy, such as it is, is to wait until I have three books out, rather than invest a lot of time, effort, and money marketing one book. But I’ll still let people know when the first one is available. If sales are slow (and, being realistic here, they will be), I know not to blame my male name.
My forthcoming novel Ocean’s Lure has been read by half-a-dozen beta readers (thanks!), and I am reviewing the comments and making edits. On the whole, the comments were positive. It stood out that regular romance readers were generally more positive than non-regular romance readers, which I found reassuring, and no one suggested I was doing any of the terrible things men do when writing female characters.
One comment was that my hero makes a verbal declaration of love too soon. It’s a fair point, and I struggled with whether to include it when I wrote the draft. Verbal declarations of love are a delicate subject, and I am much influenced by a 1986 Vicki Hearne essay in the New Yorker, in which she wrote, among other things, “Cats do not declare love much, they enact it” (August 25, 1986). At the same time, I felt a verbal declaration was something my character would do. I should confess that I also felt readers might expect this – much as I do not want to ‘write to market,’ I also know such declarations are common in the genre, and perhaps expected by readers.
Fortunately, I can have my cake and eat it too, by making the question of whether a declaration of love is appropriate the character’s problem, not mine. Making a plot or character problem the character’s problem works for a variety of scenarios. Not sure how to get a character from A to B? That becomes something the character needs to solve. Not sure if a nickname makes sense? Let the character explain it. Timeline confusing? Someone can explain it to another character. Is this just a way to sneak in exposition and cover or acknowledge awkward plot or character points? Yes, but it can be effective. I call this the Palm Tree Solution.
Film director Richard Rush wanted a particular location for his 1980 film The Stunt Man (view trailer). The story concerns the making of a period film, set in northern Europe during World War I. However, the location Rush wanted had palm trees everywhere. As Rush explains in this interview (12:44 to 14:40), he solved his directing problem of the palm trees in his desired location by making it a problem for the director character in the film. Here’s how the scene he mentions appeared in the film (30 seconds at start of clip).
A bit of a cheat, perhaps, but my character will make his declaration of love, he’ll be unsure if that’s the right thing to do, and the heroine will suggest it’s too soon. This is in character for both, and he has the point of view at the time, so his hesitation is easy to add. My hesitation to include the declaration is addressed, those who’d like the hero to make such a declaration are satisfied, those who object are satisfied, and the story is improved. Thank you, beta readers.