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Fertile Grounds for Discussion

Fertile Grounds for Discussion

Saturday, May 26, 2012
Posted in: willaful

(I originally wrote this post without mentioning specific books, thinking it was more fair to the authors. Then I realized that it’s really unfair to the readers not to mention the books, because how else can they argue with me?  So be aware that while I don’t think I say anything about A Gentleman Undone that isn’t revealed early on, there is at least one spoiler here for About Last Night.)

I recently read two terrific new books which have some coincidental similarities: About Last Night by Ruthie Knox, which I reviewed here, and A Gentleman Undone by Cecilia Grant, which I’ll review shortly.  Both books feature heroines who love sex and have been around the block a time or three before they meet their heroes.

This is very daring in mainstream romance, and so pretty much automatically awesome.  The unwritten genre rules make me feel so claustrophobic that I would probably welcome a hero who’s a telemarketer, or who hands out coupons while dressed as a giant pizza, just for the novelty. (Okay… maybe not a telemarketer.) But it’s especially refreshing to see heroines who don’t need to have their sexuality switched on by the hero.

That’s not the only unusual and daring similarity. Both heroines have also wound up infertile (and really infertile, not the kind that can be cured by a magic wang) as the result of failed pregnancies. This is where I started to feel a little squirrelly. It reminded me of when I was a kid and every gay teenager in YA literature, no matter how sympathetically drawn, wound up being hit by a car.  (My husband points out that this dates me: it was post- they all committed suicide and pre- they all died of AIDS.)

This is a hot button.  My husband and I were infertile for many years, so I know that it can hit a woman (or man) in a particularly personal, sensitizing way.  Even if you don’t particularly want kids, having your body not work in that most basic of ways feels like a betrayal. When someone’s in that position, it’s very easy to get… superstitious, for lack of a better word. I remember someone on an infertility mailing list telling me that she had had two abortions and much later in life, miscarried twins. She felt it was some kind of cosmic evening of the score by God.  When your body can’t do what it’s made to do, which everyone around you can apparently do with ease, and therefore you can’t have something you desperately want, it’s very easy to interpret it as some kind of punishment — even if your brain knows better.

I’m not intending to call out the authors in any way; as I said, these are excellent books and in both cases the infertility is thematically important. In About Last Night, part of the heroine’s emotional journey is to recognize that her past (which includes the most daring rule-breaking of all — she has had an abortion) “didn’t require forgiveness, because she hadn’t sinned against anyone but herself, and she’d done the best she could.”

But infertility is such a classic metaphorical punishment for sexual misbehavior that I can’t help but wonder if these books are picking up on and reflecting a cultural vibe. I really hope this isn’t a Thing. We had to wait thirty years or so to have happy gay teenagers in YA literature. Let’s not wait that long to have romance heroines who can have high sex drives and multiple partners, without suffering tragic consequences.

19 Comments »


  • Bren
    May 27
    12:08 am

    Like you, this is a hot button issue for me, for similar reasons. I have not read either of these books so I don’t know the particulars of how these heroines’ struggles are relevant to their infertility. I do think that portraying infertility as a result of some sort of previous misbehavior on the part of the woman is inaccurate and likely reflecting a very real cultural bias. Most people who have never gone through this just don’t get it. Authors included.

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  • Lori
    May 27
    12:29 am

    Willa, what a brilliant post. Just yes, a thousand times yes.

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  • @Bren: I want to stress, if this didn’t come across, that I don’t think either writer was intentionally depicting infertility as a result of misbehavior.

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  • @Lori: [blush] Thank you!

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  • Great post. Agree 100%. Am shocked that the Knox heroine had an abortion and is not beating herself up for it.

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  • Jeannie S.
    May 27
    3:50 pm

    I think a lot of authors are trying to be careful in coming up with novels in which the heroine has some unresolved conflict in their life that they are trying to get past, while also trying to come up with fresh ideas. I don’t mind previous pregnancy/infertility, as long as, like you said, it does not become a trend. It has to be done well also. A lot of authors feel the pressure to be politically correct and not offend anyone. I like the books that are very UNpolitically correct, as long as they don’t get offensive.

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  • @Jeannie S.: Yes, probably as hard as coming up with fresh new words to use during sex scenes!

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  • Lori
    May 27
    4:46 pm

    The thing about infertility is that any woman who ha experienced it knows there are many choices from keep trying to specialized treatments to adoption to choosing not to have kids.

    Each choice can be a good choice for the person making it. The problem in having a character experience it, especially if the need to have a child is strong, is that the choice the character makes that doesn’t jibe with the reader could ruin the book for the reader.

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  • @Lori: that rarely bothers me; I’ve done so much reading and interacted with so many people online, I’m comfortable with pretty much every option now. It only pisses me off when characters are snooty or insensitive about it.

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  • Great post. What you said.

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  • Wendy
    May 27
    11:00 pm

    Oh lordy, I hope it’s not a “Thing” either – although I read a category romance in recent memory that featured an infertile heroine who had an abortion when she was younger. In that instance, the author failed to convince me that her infertility wasn’t a cosmic punishment and I spent the rest of the story pretty ticked off.

    In retrospect, it felt like back-handed preaching. Not sure if the author meant it that way, or I was just “sensitive” about the issue? Who knows. But yeah, this kind of thing, done poorly, is a pretty big hot button for me.

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  • Forgive me for rambling…

    @Bren:

    I do think that portraying infertility as a result of some sort of previous misbehavior on the part of the woman is inaccurate and likely reflecting a very real cultural bias.

    This, absolutely this–but it’s a difficult line for writers to cross.

    It is absolutely true that a botched surgery–not just abortion, elective or medically indicated–can result in infertility, but it bothers me that there is this seemingly random link.

    Because, as Wendy says, it’s very easy for it come across as punishment for something “bad/evil” the heroine did.

    Mind you–derailing the conversation here for a minute–I don’t want heroines (or people in real life) to go around having abortions as birth control, so there has to be some effect from making a…difficult? important? significant? decision such as that, on the character.

    It’s…an event, not something one shrugs off.

    It impacts a person.

    But I certainly hope that not every infertile heroine for the next decade or so has to have been rendered infertile because of some karmic balancing of her life’s ledger.

    I believe that when writing about infertility, or difficulty conceiving, or difficulty carrying to term–particularly if the person wants children–fiction or not, author(s) should interview people who live with that, who deal with that in their real lives.

    Because I can’t think of anything more rage inducing that the trivialization of something that, for many, define their lives.

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  • Maili
    May 29
    2:04 pm

    “Because I can’t think of anything more rage inducing that the trivialization of something that, for many, define their lives.”

    I think it’s quite unfair to impose how you think they should react, let alone deciding it should ‘define’ their lives. It’s a very personal journey for each woman who had to go through this and, I believe, no two journeys are same. Shouldn’t be, either.

    I have a friend who treated the whole thing the same as going to a dentist’s. Afterwards, she insistently had no emotion towards having an abortion. She didn’t grieve, didn’t beat herself up and such afterwards. I did have to comfort her the night before she was due to go to the clinic, but that’s the only time I saw her wavering a bit between emotions. After that day, it’s now part of her past and she’s moving on. She was and still is emotionally detached from the whole thing. And she’s not the only one who acted like this.

    Is that a bad thing? I personally don’t think so. I admit I was shocked when I first came across this type of behaviour, but I came to – and strongly – believe it’s their way of coping. If that’s the best way for them to survive the experience, then let it be. I don’t think they were “trivalising” it at all. We all have our ways of coping, after all.

    It’s same with rape and similar. I mean, survivors’ reactions were/are so varied that the spectrum of those reactions is wider than this world. I’ve experienced three counts of sexual assault in my profession – a common hazard for women, unfortunately – and apart from those moments straight afterwards, I’m not a classic survivor – I didn’t grieve, I didn’t feel dirty, I don’t see those as a traumatic thing. If anything, I was deeply annoyed and angry, similar to being stuck in a long traffic. I was honestly not affected by those experiences in a way we usually see in stories, real and fiction, that address sexual assault or rape. I refused to care. *This* reaction made me feel like a freak. It was a while before I learnt that there are many other women who reacted the same as I did. That was when I realised. We all have our ways of reacting, handling and such. And none of those is ever wrong. Deep depression or moving on with life? Both are fine. This realisation helped me massively.

    It’s that realisation that has me applying it to those who had to have abortions. Sure, there are a couple who are callous, ignorant or stupid enough to treat abortion as a form of birth control, but I believe they’re a rarity, not the norm.

    For the record, I’m anti-abortion *for myself* yet I’m a solidly pro-choice supporter as I believe it’s up to each woman to decide what’s best for themselves on whether to go through with it or not. I also strongly believe it’s wrong for me to decide how they should react or handle something so personal. It’s impossible, too. Human beings are far too complex for us to create and establish a classic template of the ‘right’ way on reacting or handling. I feel we should bear that in mind where issues that affect women are concerned.

    FWIW, anyway!

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  • That’s an interesting point, Maili. Am I remembering correctly that Diana Gabaldon got flack for writing a character not typical affected by having been sexually assaulted? I have also known someone like you do, a friend from when I was a teenager who said that having an abortion was like having a growth removed. I found that mind-boggling, but that was her reality.

    I was bothered by the unconcern shown around someone having a miscarriage in one of Julia Quinn’s books. (I have had a miscarriage and it was devastating.) But other readers thought it was historically appropriate.

    In romance, it seems mostly unlikely that we”ll see many characters who aren’t strongly affected by infertility or abortion or whatever — because people having strong feelings is what they’re all about, after all.

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  • BTW, I totally agree with AztecLady about how infuriating the trivializing of infertility can be. There’s a trailer in my neighborhood with a bumper sticker that says, “Got kids? Want some?” Every time I bike past it, I wish I’d brought some tomatoes. Every person who has every joked to an infertile friend, “you can have one of mine!” basically just punched them in the teeth.

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  • Maili, I agree, wholeheartedly, that every person reacts her own way to such events.

    I find myself wanting to apologize for the line you quoted, because it’s obvious that feeling out of the norm hurt you, but that’s not what I meant, at all.

    What I mean is what you mentioned for your friend–she didn’t make the decision lightly. Once carried through, it’s over and done, and you live your life, and I’m all for that.

    But in fiction I want writers to show me that the decision itself was not something like choosing socks.

    Did that make better sense now?

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  • @AztecLady: AztecLady, you are officially Awesome.

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  • Maili
    May 30
    10:50 am

    @AztecLady: Thank you, but I felt I already understood what you were saying, but I’ll stop here.

    No need to apologise, My ‘out of the norm’ was related to what I was saying, not what you said. So nothing you said was wrong.

    In any case, I honestly would not be upset/offended if you disagree with any of my comments. :) My only seriously hairy trigger is Scotland, esp politics. Really pathetic, I know, but there you go. Heh.

    Anyroad, thanks.

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  • I just wanted to mention that I’m reading Thief of Shadows by Elizabth Hoyt and am really happy with how infertility is treated in it. Just hoping no magic babies pop up at the end to ruin it for me.

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