Theory Thursday: Autonomy and Agency

Today in feminist philosophy we’re reading Marilyn Friedman’s essay, Autonomy, Social Disruption, and Women. I thought I’d say something about autonomy.

A generic definition of autonomy starts with the etymological root: auto = self, nomos = governed. The opposite of autonomy would be heteronomy, being “other-ruled.” Someone who was brainwashed, as in the movie The Manchurian Candidate, would be a classic example in the philosophical literature of a non-autonomous person.

To most philosophers, especially those who situate themselves in the liberal tradition, broadly defined, autonomy seems like a good thing, both for what it is (intrinsically), and what it can do (instrumentally). An autonomous person’s choices are really hers in a personally (and often morally and politically) significant way.


A very common philosophical account (elements of which span philosophy from the ancient Greeks through the present day) says that to be autonomous, a person has to be independent, even isolated, rational, and a rule breaker.  Some feminists have criticized “autonomy” for being too closely associated with masculine traits (literary characters like Roark from The Fountainhead, or film characters like Mel Gibson’s character in Road Warrior would be paradigm examples of the autonomous man). Friedman says feminists, and indeed all human persons, need autonomy to fight oppression and because it represents full human development, a fully human life.

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Carolyn Crane's Double Cross: An excellent book that could have been WAY better

Carolyn Crane's Double Cross: An excellent book that could have been WAY better

I read Carolyn Crane’s debut urban fantasy Mind Games and loved it. So I was thrilled when she asked me to “beta read” its sequel, Double Cross, out this week. This was the first time a fiction writer had asked me to read her work prior to final edits and publication. “Just read it like you normally would”, Carolyn said, “and let me know if something doesn’t work.” I can do that, I thought.

In fact, once I got to thinking about it, I realized that I could do that and so much more.

I printed out the document, got out my highlighter, my red pen, and my scissors, and settled in for a long night. I slowly read Double Cross. I read it again, super fast. My Rabbi called on synagogue business, and, inspired, I reread it right to left, back to front. I read it while holding it up to a mirror and turning the pages slowly as I alternated crying jags with hysterical laughter. Finally, in an effort to free myself once and for all from the rigid linearity that sequentially numbered pages — and an author who perhaps underestimated my true talents, and therefore, extreme usefulness —  forced upon me, I removed them one by one and tossed them around the room, looking for new and unexpected juxtapositions as they glided to the floor.

It was 5:00am when I was ready to send Carolyn my list of suggested changes, which I reproduce below in full:

Dear Carolyn,

Thanks for giving me the chance to read Double Cross. I made the following changes:

1. New title: Double Double Toil and Trouble Cross — to alert readers to the hidden Shakespearean themes and mystify literary types at the same time

2. Halloween tie in: Start with a new spookier title (see #1), and make one bold cover change: place a recently carved jack-o-lantern at Justine’s feet, to impart  multiple new meanings –domestic and feminine —  to the knife she wields, and to catch the eye of those Walmart shoppers searching for candy corn

3. More complexity: Mind Games introduced a love triangle. It was good, but that geometrical shape has been done to death. We need to kick it up a notch with a love trapezoid. To that end, I added a new character, Otto’s long lost twin brother, Blotto, whose personality is perfectly expressed by his nickname, “Beer Cap.”

4. The setting of Double Cross is futuristic. I like how you represent the new world with words like “highcap”, “zing”, “descrambler”, “glory hour”, and “disillusion”, but why stop at adding a few nouns and verbs? To really make the reader feel the difference, I’ve taken the liberty of eliminating all articles such as “the” and “a”.

5. Your book is written in the present tense. As luck — yours, of course — would have it, I recently found out this is no longer the thing. Doesn’t it make more sense to write urban fantasy in a future tense? And isn’t future perfect a delicious irony for a quasi-dystopian novel? And doesn’t your book need more irony, especially at the meta levels, by which I mean the levels only a dog or PhD in English can hear? I confess I chuckled to myself every time I changed a line like “It’s like cool velvet fire on my tongue.” to “It will have been like cool velvet fire on my tongue.”

6. More cucumbers.

7. I hesitate to criticize, but I think you may have taken the word “sequel” a bit too literally. Readers already know Justine as the morally tortured disillusionist. It’s old news that she doesn’t like using her hypochondria to “zing” the stuffing out of the bad guys. Readers want to be shocked. Have you heard the expression “wall banger?” Take it from me: that’s the sign you are really having an impact. So I added a chapter. We’ll call it Chapter 9 and 3/4: In Which Justine Finds Religion. She spends the rest of the book in quiet prayer and meditation, interrupted only by occasional visits to shut ins.

8. You mention that the book will be shelved with romance, despite the fact that it does not technically fit the genre definition. I am happy to report that I have added (a) special smells for both Packard and Otto (“sandalwood and highcap” and “woodsmoke and highcap”), (b) a shower masturbation scene for each major character, (c) a secret baby who grows up to be a virgin widow, and (d) 5,000 adverbs. Voila! It is now a bona fide romance!

Yours sincerely,


Alas, my suggestions were not incorporated into the final version of Double Cross. Carolyn explained that while she absolutely loved every single one of them, her editor was being a real PITA and refused to budge. I do understand how these things happen, and can only hope that Carolyn gets a new editor with a little more insight, balls, and vision for Book 3.

Ok, seriously now, I loved the book, I was very flattered to be asked to read it, I loved being able to make suggestions, and I loved it that one or two of them were actually taken up. For folks who have read the first book, this one is faster, lighter (not in tone, but in the sense of less worldbuilding), and more romantic (no HEA, but more emphasis on Justine’s love life). The main niggle for me as a beta reader was a switch in attitude of one major character towards another that felt too quick and thus a little jarring. It’s the kind of thing that I think an author may not catch, reading the book in small pieces, but that someone reading it front to to back will notice. It’s amazing to see how just a few new lines made that problem go away completely. It was a really fun, rewarding experience, and I feel like I have a little more insight on the writing and publishing process as a result. So thank you, Carolyn!

Win a Free Copy of Carolyn Crane's Mind Games

How much do I love this fresh urban fantasy debut? So much that I am going to personally buy a copy on the day it is released — Tuesday 3/23 — and send it priority mail to the winning entrant.

Simply comment on this post by Tuesday March 23 at midnight EST. Winner announced Wednesday 3/24.

Click on the cover image for synopsis and other reviews.

From my review:

Mind Games is not romance, but it has strong romantic elements. I found it fresh, exciting, thought-provoking, mordantly funny, scary, and sexy. I absolutely loved this book.

From All Things Urban Fantasy:

Mind Games is actually a dark, gritty, and sexy urban fantasy that hooked me from page one. I’ve never read anything like Mind Games before,

Fantasy Dreamer’s Ramblings (5 stars)

Mind Games needs to be on everyone’s must-read-now list. Seriously – not kidding.

Good luck!

Review: Mind Games, by Carolyn Crane

Mind Games is the debut urban fantasy novel — the first of a trilogy — by Carolyn Crane, someone well known to the online romance community for her irreverent blog, The Thrillionth Page.  I received an advance copy from Carolyn (Mind Games will be released this Tuesday, March 23). Click on the image of the cover for excerpts, other reviews, and purchase info.

Mind Games is not romance, but it has strong romantic elements. I found it fresh, exciting, thought-provoking, mordantly funny, scary, and sexy. I absolutely loved this book.

There are so many genuine surprises in this book, from very early on, that it is hard to even know what counts as a spoiler. I have done my very best not to give anything away that in my opinion could diminish readers’ enjoyment of it.

Mind Games is set in Midcity, a congested, decaying city terrorized by a crime wave that began eight years prior to the action of the novel. Midcity at first seems very much like any contemporary US city, but Crane disperses cues throughout the book that add up to a complete and believable alternate urban fantasy world. The most significant difference is the presence of “highcaps”, humans with unusual cognitive powers, including standard fare fantasy abilities like telepathy, telekinesis, and memory erasing (“revisioning”), but also unusual choices like  “medical intuitionists”. As the book opens, our heroine, Justine Jones, is talking over lunch at the Mongolian Delites restaurant, with her boyfriend Cubby, who doesn’t believe highcaps exist, which is the official position of the authorities as well. But Midcity has been terrorized lately by an individual known as “the Brickslinger”, whom Justine believes is a telekinetic.

“Brickslinger” sounds goofy, doesn’t it?  And it is — one example of the quirky dark humor that permeates the book. But as we  see adults rushing in to their apartments to avoid getting hit, deserted ball fields and playgrounds, and children wearing helmets to school, it’s clear that “Brickslinger” is a perfect symbol for the social instability, urban decay, and random horror that grips Midcity.

Justine suffers from an extreme form of hypochondria. And since Mind Games is not only written in the first person, but in the first person present, you as the reader are sucked right in to her mental illness. Midcity has its own set of dread diseases, such as Vein Star Syndrome, the one that killed Justine’ mother, and which she fears most. I totally enjoyed Justine, but she is not a heroine for everyone. She is morbidly funny, smart, courageous, and resourceful, but she is breathtakingly narcissistic and selfish. Justine’s hypochondria negatively affects her life in every conceivable way, including interfering with her relationship with Cubby, an average Joe whom she refers to as her “aspirational boyfriend”.  Justine’s hypochondria was narrated in an entirely believable and gripping way. It makes her subject to constant self-doubt and second guessing (is this just a headache? Or something worse?). Especially chilling was Justine’s concomitant awareness that she is a hypochondriac, an awareness that could not prevent her from engaging in self-destructive behaviors like marathon web searches for symptoms or quick trips to the ER.

It’s Justine’s mental illness that attracts Sterling Packard, ruggedly handsome proprietor of Mongolian Delites (there’s a fascinating story there), who recruits her for his team of “disillusionists”. Packard has the ability to see psychic structures and detect psychological weaknesses. He can also absorb others’ weaknesses, leaving them temporarily free from them. He teaches Justine how to “push her awareness out through her energy dimension”, otherwise known as “zinging”, to rid herself of her hypochondria by giving it to someone else. All of the disillusionists’ power comes from their own illnesses in this way, whether it is anger issues, gambling addiction, or intense pessimism. We get a phenomenology of this stuff, not a detailed, exact science, and there’s a lumping together of mental illnesses and personality quirks, which worked for me.

The disillusionists (a small collection of well drawn, unique secondary characters) are hired by victims of crimes, who want a kind of revenge which the police cannot offer. Packard uses his skills to determine a target’s weaknesses. He then sends in those disillusionists who can best work together to break him down and “reboot” him. Packard convinces Justine that she can live a life free of fear, as well as help change people for the better. Since all Justine longs for is a “normal life”, the offer is irresistible. There’s an interesting kind of Platonism at work here: the underlying assumption is that evil doers are suffering under an illusion, mistaking the bad for the good. Packard contends that disillusioning, while a vigilante effort, is much more effective at rehabilitation than prison.

Here’s an excerpt from when Justine first meets Packard:

Some men are handsome in a sculptural, symmetrical way, but the restaurateur’s good looks come from imperfection: bumpy, maybe  once-broken nose, crudely shaped lips, a sort of  rough-and-tumble allure you can feel sure as gravity.

“Forget him.” He draws closer, and I become acutely aware of my pulse pounding. “I want to talk about what I can do for you, and what you can do for me.”

“I’m fine, thanks,” I say. “My boyfriend and I are just finishing up.”

“You’re fine?” He looks at me hard— looks into me, it seems. “What about the vein star problem?”

How does he know? “What about it?” I ask.

He smiles, all radiant  self- possession. “I’m the one who can cure you.”

“Cure me of what? Anxiety or vein star syndrome?”

“Both. I can give you your life back.”

I regard him carefully. He has to be a highcap. My guess is he read my thoughts back there and wants to con me. Still, I have to ask. “What’s the something I do for you?”

“You’d work for me.”

“Doing what?”

“Does it matter? Is there anything you wouldn’t do to be free?”

I know a Faustian proposition when I hear one. “A lot of things. I’m not that desperate.”

“You were desperate ten minutes ago. You’ll be desperate again.” He fixes on my eyes. Slow smile. He’s like this handsome maniac.

“I’m used to desperate, buddy. Desperate’s my factory default. But thanks anyway.”

I felt that the high level of psychological insight and inventiveness and terror in this book was its greatest strength, and that extends to its moral psychology. Justine often wonders what the right thing is to do, what qualities a “good guy” has, and what mix of motivations is morally ok. When a disillusionist “zings” a target, she experiences a period of not just freedom from her own mental illness, but intense joy, known as ‘”the glory hour”. How strongly can a disillusionist look forward to the glory hour before what she is doing is less about making the world a better place and more about experiencing personal nirvana? This is a book that makes good on the urban fantasy promise of postmodern moral ambiguity. It presents very clearly the ongoing, neverending struggle of figuring out what to do and motivating yourself to do it, and seriously questions whether the struggle is winnable at all.

This would be enough for a whole book in some less skilled writer’s hands. But Mind Games not only brings us along on Justine’s first few hair raising disillusioning efforts, but offers a very compelling overarching story arc having to do with Packard’s history, his ulterior motives, and his mysterious powerful nemesis. Justine and Packard are drawn to each other, and their relationship generates all the sexual tension and excitement a romance reader would want, but he betrays her again and again … or are they really betrayals? Crane’s use of first person narration keeps us in suspense as to who is good and who isn’t for much of the book. Things get especially complicated, and a triangle ensues, when Justine goes after her final target, The Engineer, a man to whom both she and Packard have some kind of personal interest, an interest which may be tainting their view of him … or not. There are a few sexual scenes in the book which I would say are  of “medium level explicitness” from a romance reader’s point of view.

I think this is an amazingly polished debut, but it is not a perfect book. At a few points in the middle, there was some repetitiveness. Also, there are a couple of things that I would love to see more fully developed in the next book. For example, the moral status of high caps. Are we to assume they are dangerous merely because they have greater powers than normal humans?  Is theirs, then, a kind of evil that is not about illusion? Finally, and this is something that may be less of a complaint than an observation: there is no mention in the book, IIRC, of the mental health profession. Aren’t there therapies or drugs for people with anger issues, hypochondria, or depression in Midcity, and if not, why not? The absence was slightly jarring since the world in which we live today is so thoroughly saturated with mental health discourse.

But those are minor niggles. I thoroughly enjoyed this book, and I can’t wait for the next one.

Monday Morning Stepback: At What Point in the Writing Process Do Writers Think About What Will Sell?

1. Links of Interest

Post of the week: Super Wendy’s DNF review of a historical that tries to be many things but succeeds at none of them

DABWAHA has begun. Put on by Smart Bitches Trashy Books and Dear Author, it’s “a tournament of books that mimics the March Madness tournament of basketball. We’ve picked a slate of 64 books in 8 different categories to compete against each other through the next few weeks.” Entrants can win amazing prizes, including an iPad for the grand prize winner.

Laura Vivanco at Teach Me Tonight has posted the PCA romance section program. Check it out, and see if you can spot:

1 erotic romance author who also happens to be a librarian
1 author who describes their work as “gay porn with plot”
1 mastermind behind a leading romance blog
1 romance author and multiple RITA award winner
1 koala hugger

A great post at the Millions: What About Genre, What About Horror? (hat tip Ann Somerville)

let’s admit that literary fiction is a genre, too, shall we? Expectations guide its readers, that of respect for consensus reality and the poignancy of seemingly ordinary lives, of sensitive character-drawing and vivid scene-painting, of the reversals and conflicts characteristic of the several sub-genres of literary fiction: the academic novel, the comic novel, the adultery novel, the comic academic adultery-novel, the experimental novel, the novel of foreign travel or inward journey, of unexpected encounter, of breakdown, of alcoholism, of youth, of middle age, of a hundred different things so well-known and encoded that the fonts used for the titles and the authors’ names tell you as much as the flap copy.

Heather at Galaxy Express is Mad As Hell At Double Standards in Science Fiction Romance and She’s Not Going to Take it Anymore.

The F-Word is talking about the possibilities of self-publishing and POD:

Can print-on-demand and self publishing help feminists today continue the legacy of the suffragettes & the women’s liberation movement?

The Ecological Case for Ebooks at the Guardian Books Blog:

I’ve only managed to find one report – on the Kindle (by The Cleantech Group) – but it backs up suggestions that so long as e-readers are used as book replacements rather than supplements, they soon start to pay back in carbon terms.

Lynn at All About Romance is defending the first person narrator.

A cute feature at The New Yorker’s Book Bench, determining what your book shelf says about you. I’m thinking of sending in a picture of mine.

An interesting post on American Indian dress of the nineteenth century at Petticoats and Pistols.

2. How do art and commerce intersect in the writing process?

Let me preface this by noting that

(a) I don’t think this question applies only to genre fiction writers, and certainly not only to romance writers (It’s not just a question for “commercial art” in other words. You can hardly find an art form more steeped in class, money and celebrity than modern art, for example, which is considered very high art indeed. But I am asking it about the romance genre because that is what I am interested in.)

(b) I don’t think there is anything wrong with writing, among other reasons, to sell books, nor that doing so diminishes a book’s quality, although it might (people write for all sorts of reasons in addition to creating art, like being loved, avoiding boredom, revenge, impressing someone, etc. In this post I am focusing on writing to sell books, but I don’t for a minute think that’s the only possible non-artistic motivation.)

I was reading an erotic romance recently. It was a story I liked by an author I like. Then I noticed that the romance arc was pretty much resolved and I was at the halfway point. Hmmm. Sure enough, part 2 involved the introduction of another man, and the development of a menage relationship as an HEA. I felt the hero, as he had been portrayed, would never have consented to this, beyond maybe a one night experiment. I also felt the massive negative social and psychological consequences of arranging their lives in a way that most of society condemns were minimized in favor of several sex scenes. I kept thinking, “this would have been a great story if it had ended at the halfway point.” and I speculated — maybe unfairly — that the author wanted to throw in a menage, even though it did not fit the narrative, for other reasons. Like that menages sell.

I have this simplistic idea that thinking about sales (packaging, using social media to promote your book, marketing, etc.) should happen after the story is written, but I know that’s not possible. For example, suppose you want to write a Harlequin category romance. You would look at the guidelines of the particular line. And those guidelines are written based on what sells. So already, as a writer, the commercial aspect of writing is intertwined with the writing.

Also, you have to get an agent if you want to publish outside of categories or some e-pubs, don’t you? And an agent is looking not just for good stories, but good stories that sell. Same for editors.

Finally, if you go to RWA meetings or have any involvement with local chapters, you are being exposed to a culture of thinking about what will sell as a part of the writing process. For example Emily Bryan gave a workshop on adding humor to your books at RWA 2009 called “Neurotica: How adding Humor Can Jumpstart Your Career like Crazy”. The first bullet point is “Why Write Funny?” and the first reason is “market demand”.

Romance writers are artists, with all the good things that implies (all the things we value about art, like beauty, creativity, insight, pleasure, communication of emotions, values and principles, community building, etc, etc). And romance authors see themselves this way. When authors are interviewed, they talk about “giving birth to the characters in their heads”, and “being true to their own voice” and such. They rarely say “well, menage/BDSM/YA/zombies (name your trend of choice) is selling like hotcakes so I thought I would write one of those.”

So, I wonder where in the writing process writers think about this. (What makes it an even tougher question is that it is not easy to disentangle “writing for readers” from “writing to sell”.)

Does saleability function like a limiting set of pre-writing conditions, which, once determined, leave the writer free to forget about them, as long as she stays within their boundaries? Or is sales always one of the voices in a writer’s head as she types away?

Possibly it also matters where one is in her career. I wonder if a never published or early carer writer has to pay more attention to what sells. We all make fun of certain kinds of stories (think of the subjects of #romfail, for example), but if a veteran successful writer, named, say, Nora Crusie-Kinsale were to tell her editor she was penning a story about a leprechaun and his unicorn lover, would they balk?

I feel that as a reader I do sometimes detect “bandwagoning” when it is in conflict with art: when it is not true to an author’s voice or the story. But maybe the only difference is in how skilled the writer is. Maybe Nora Crusie-Kinsale could shrewdly look at the trends and write to them, and I wouldn’t know the difference.

What do you think?

3. Personal

Now that the transition to Read React Review has been completed, and spring break is over, I’ll likely return to my 3-4 days a week blogging schedule.

Our masks finally arrived from South Africa, (although only one of them is actually South African):

(This isn’t where we’ll keep them. We are in the process of redesigning of our first floor. Exciting stuff, I know.)

4. On the blog this week:

A review of Carolyn Crane’s Mind Games (early Wed)

A TBR pile historical review for Keishon’s TBR Challenge (late Wed — this will probably be Written on Your Skin by Meredith Duran).

A post on ethical criticism late in the week.


Racy Romance Questionnaire: Carolyn Jean of the Thrillionth Page

I don’t recall how I discovered Carolyn Jean’s blog, The Thrillionth Page, but with its distinctive retro look, it quickly became a daily stop. She is incredibly funny (check out her alter ego, Miss Doreen’s, interview with author LB Gregg) and insightful (I have read a dozen reviews of Blue Diablo, but it was CJ’s recent discussion of the dual nature of one character’s gift that sent me to the bookstore to buy it), and she is one of those writer-bloggers whose voice really comes through on her blog. I have no idea what her forthcoming book (Bantam 2010) is about, but I know I will be buying it.

Without further ado, here are CJ’s answers to the Racy Romance Questionnaire:

1. What motivated you to start your blog?

I guess my blog started as a way for me to reach out to find community. Here in Minneapolis in real life, I know lots of writers and readers, but mostly they are into super literary stuff. When I discovered romance and paranormals several years back, it renewed my love of reading and writing. Frankly, it improved my whole life!  But I lost common ground with my RL friends around books; honestly, it’s been hard for my longtime bookish buds to relate to what I’m reading and writing now.  I missed talking about books like that. The blog was a way to reach out, both as a reader and a writer, and connect with other people around books.

2. Are those still the reasons you blog?

Yes, but I’ve added reasons. I discovered I learn a lot about writing when I do reviews the way I do, by focusing on an aspect of a book I think really worked. Sometimes just by typing out a passage I enjoyed, it shows me things.  Also, some posts make me sort of snigger to myself. I guess you could say I get a certain kind of fun out of putting up certain posts.  And obviously now that I have a book coming out, I can let people know about it, though I mostly have my website for that. And there’s the people of course now, that’s huge. Connecting with the friends I’ve made.

3. How has your blog changed since you started it?

I think it’s become clearer, because it was pretty oblique when I started. Like, I looked back the other day on this Linnea Sinclair post I did way back, and she was gracious enough to visit and comment, but I sort of wonder if she could tell if I even liked the book.

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