Passions and Provocations

Alive and Thinking in Cyberspace: Pam's take on just about everything


The Shame of Victimhood

We finally saw 12 Years a Slave last week.

And yes, it’s stunning. Both in its “sober beauty” and in the powerful wallop it packs, it’s stunning in the sense that it renders you speechless — and fills me with admiration for the professional movie reviewers who had to digest and render account of the experience on deadline. I know I couldn’t have done so, though I can urge you to see this movie if you haven’t. Even if (as we did) you’ve been putting it off because you know it’ll be painful.

It will be painful, and I’m guessing it will remain so in your memory, perhaps as it has in mine. But for me, anyway, it wasn’t painful in the way of trauma that shuts off thought and inquiry. Not only have the images lingered, but they’ve raised questions, first sending me back to Solomon Northup’s original 1853 narrative, and then forward to a gazillion movie reviews and articles, to see how other viewers took it in, and whether they understood certain scenes as I did.

Which is why I’m writing about it here — to try to think through my questions some more. And — if you have seen it — to check in with you and see what you made of, in particular, the movie’s closing scene, of Solomon Northup’s reunion with his wife and (now) grown children, that Slate’s critic Dana Stevens rightly called “soul-rending,” and “the unhappiest happy ending” she’d ever seen, “a moment that makes you weep not just for this one man who found his way back to freedom, but for all those men and women who never knew it in the first place.”

All of which is true and eloquently put, if impossible to imagine without reference to Chiwetel Ejiofor’s face, emotions passing over it in agonized, complicated sequence. But which doesn’t account for what he says, which is to apologize to his family through his tears, and which I found deeply mysterious.

Apologize for what, I wondered? There’s no such apology in the memoir. And surely (as Northup’s wife hastens to say) no apology is necessary, most especially from some one so unambiguously victimized. Is it because Northrup nonetheless feels he ought to have understood this own vulnerability? That it was vain, self-regarding, simply foolish, to have let his guard down? That not only he but also his family have suffered for his hubris?

Is there something about the sight of his children, grown up without him? Is it all of the above, in some inextricable combination?

Or is it perhaps that there’s a kind of shame that adheres to suffering, even the most undeserved suffering? I’m not even exactly sure what I mean by this last, but it’s the pole to which my thoughts continue to gravitate, that seems to me to sum up all the other possibilities. The isolation of the feeling.

And does this have anything to do with director Steve McQueen’s last movie, called Shame?

I’d be grateful to hear what you think.


More about Longbourn, and Why I’m Claiming it for Romance

When I fall in love — with a book, an idea, and of course a person — I want to think hard about the object of my passion. Which is another reason why I love to write (because it’s the best way to get to know the how and the why and the he and the she of your passions). And maybe why I don’t write more often (cause how often does a person truly fall in love?)

And why I had such a wonderful time recently, writing at length about Longbourn, Jo Baker’s spectacular retelling of Pride and Prejudice. The post went up today, at Noah Berlatsky’s very smart blog of cultural commentary, The Hooded Utilitarian. And why I’m hoping you’ll come over and let me know what you think.

I call it “I’ll Take Romance: Reading Longbourn,” because it’s an investigation of this literary historical novel as a very very good romance novel — which is ultimately how I read it. Passionately, can’t-put-it-down-until-I-get-to-the-omg-it-better-be-a-happy-endingly. I’m curious what others think and how they read it. So do come read and share.

While as for why Noah calls his blog “The Hooded Utilitarian,” your guess is as good as mine. But I’m grateful for his permission to write my heart out.


Smart Thoughts on Writing

From Delia Ephron’s memoir/essay collection Sister Mother Husband Dog… (etc)

Our job as writers, as we begin that journey, is to figure out what we can do. Only do what you can do. It’s a rule I live by…. [I]f you only do what you can do, you never have to worry that someone else is doing it. It keeps you from competing It keeps you looking inside for what’s true rather than outside for what’s popular. Ideally. Your writing is your fingerprint.

It’s our job in life to come to some understanding of our new identity and being a writer makes that easier. What do I think? What do I love? What do I see? What are my stories? come up over and over again and/or reveal themselves, sometimes unintentionally, over and over again.

So true for me, I wanted to share it with you.


Reading on the Road, with Janet, Jane, Jo Baker, and my Mom

With so much of my family on the East Coast, my trips back here from California become elaborate omnibus affairs, with so many craftily-designed stops up and down the eastern seaboard that I sometimes lose track and wind up having to pay megabucks for a last-minute Amtrak reservation (and worth every penny, needless to say, especially when that leg of the trip included seeing my granddaughters and their parents).

My trips are sometimes built around book promo, sometimes around family events — weddings! bar and bat mitzvahs! (I’ve always been delighted by the strange ironic Jewish genius that causes us to celebrate the advent of a kid’s journey through darkest adolescence). This one was a Connecticut bar mitzvah, w/ the cantor setting a few psalms to Leonard Cohen’s Halleluiah. Not bad.

But I also kind of made it a book event, by bringing a copy of Jo Baker’s novel Longbourn — the Pride and Prejudice story as lived by the servants — to my Mom for a belated 92nd birthday present. Belated-shmelated —  my mom was really wanting to read it and so have I been ever since Janet Mullany started rhapsodizing over it. Rightly, as it turned out; Longbourn‘s every bit as good Janet said..

And so Mom and I spent a happy two days reading at her kitchen table, she turning pages and I (some 100 virtual Kindle pages ahead) coldly and cruelly refusing to reassure her about how it all turns out. Not that I could have done much about it even if I’d wanted to, because Baker keeps you guessing (hoping, agonizing) until the very end.

And that’s all you’re going to find out from me, except to say that Longbourn made me weep and marvel. For me it was what novelist and critic Christopher Beha calls holy crap fiction, the kind of book where you finish it and think, “holy crap, what was that about?” Fiction that makes you think differently.

Mileage may vary, of course. One person’s holy crap book… But I’m still mulling over all that (and thanking Noah Berlatsky  for his smart comments on Beha, and for turning my thoughts toward these knotty and entertaining matters). And also mulling over whether Longbourn, though not written for the romance market, could be considered a romance novel.

Stay tuned.

And if you’ve read Longbourn, I’d love to know what you think.


More on Why I Love Romance (when I do)

Over at Twitter, I’ve added my 2 cents to a discussion of a recent piece on romance and erotica. And of course, I’ve also been writing my heart out about Regency romance at Goodreads.

Here’s another sidelong contribution, a poem by a recent Poet Laureate Kay Ryan, who’d probably be surprised that I’m putting it to this use.

Bear with me and Ryan here: we’re descending into a bit of a vortex, because her poem begins in response to an epigraph by Annie Dillard that I think could be read as a defense of what’s often called “literary fiction.”

Got that? Here we go…



An honest work generates its own power; a dishonest work tries to rob power from the cataracts of the given. — Annie Dillard

If we could be less human,
if we could stand out of the range
of the cataracts of the given,
and not find our pockets swollen
with change we haven’t–but must have–
stolen, who wouldn’t?
It isn’t a gift; we are beholden
to the sources we crib–
always something’s overflow,
or someone’s rib hidden in our breast;
the answer sewn inside us
that invalidates the test we set ourself
against the boneless angel at our right
and at our left the elf.

— Kay Ryan, from Flamingo Watching, 1994

See, it seems to me that rather than always defend romance as empowering and the rest of it, we ought to treasure “the answer sewn inside us”. Genre as the given. Which we wouldn’t need to be givien “if we could be less human”.




lives don’t stop and start at the behest of a goddamn plot…

Though my life did more or less stop for a few days when writing this rather extended discussion of the romance novella anthology, At the Duke’s Wedding, by Miranda Neville, Caroline Linden, Maya Rodale, and Katherine Ashe.

I didn’t expect to write 1500 words about it, but my inner wonk grabbed the reins. So many of the themes and ideas I’ve spent my life thinking about, since my teenage love affair with Shakespearean comedy through my stop-again start-again career as a romance writer. Now that I’m turning my mind to erotica, I seem more and more to want to consider what makes a romance work, and what I want from the genre that we don’t always get.

This was so much fun to write — I hope you get to read it at

Do let me know what you think.


What Susie Said

I’ve got to share this lovely bit from Susie Bright, pre-nominating Carrie’s Story for a 2014 Audie (’s annual award) in erotica:

Carries Story, by Molly Weatherfield. Narrated by Shana Savage.

This is actually a Romance classic. It changed the genre from R to X. It brought Story of O to romance, with open, thrilled arms. People who say, “Why is SoO so bad?”–find their home here. Molly Weatherfield is the most brilliant psychologist and historian in erotic romance. She knows how to play every stroke.

Shana just took the script and fulfilled it, beautifully. This is probably the most requested backlist title I ever produced, and I was thrilled we did it so perfectly.

I’m thrilled about it being “probably the most requested backlist title [she] ever produced.”

And note that she nominated it in romance as well. Which might not thrill formalist students of the romance genre (spoiler: Carrie and Jonathan don’t wind up a committed couple), but I love that Susie, who takes a more fluid view of these things, simply found it a romantic book. Which of course I do to.

And so might you.


Live, Love, Learn

So there I was, last night, enthusiastically spritzing about my list of Erotic Writers’ Tools for Taking it From Arousal to Art. I was giving a workshop on writing BDSM, in, of all places, Pink Bunny, a lingerie and sex toy store on San Francisco’s upscale Union Street, and (as I tend to do) I was working up a head of steam about my material.

Point of View, my notes said. What Jane Austen can teach the erotic writer! Time and space, setting and story! Power: the personal is political! (yes, I really still believe this, even in the benighted times we live in). Talk dirty to me, but not in cliche! Basically, I try to give an overview of those writers’ tools you’ll need to sharpen, and those personal attitudes you’ll need to explore, to give your personal erotic vision the form and substance that will make that “one little roome” in your head “an every where,” as John Donne put it.

It was going great, and I was swinging into one of my favorite parts, perhaps the heart of the presentation, on Fetishism, Symbol and Substance, and how it’s more like metaphor than pathology when we substitute the part for the whole, or an object for a person, in order to spend some quality creative time with our insanely wonderfully convoluted sexual imaginations. Fetishism as a kind of language parsing our subjectivity and objectivity, sex balanced on a delicate fulcrum between nature and culture… I love this stuff, and my audience always seems to like the moments of discovery, of connecting the dots between erotic and literary creativity.

So I was going great guns, feeling myself very creative indeed — when I happened to look up from my notes to a rack of amazing embroidered, seamed, black stay-up-by-themselves stockings, to some elegant little whippy thing with black feathers, and of course the extraordinary selection of vibrators in colors to die for. And suddenly I’m like duh, what else is new, Pam? Because here I am in the heart of the hallowed halls of fetishism, surrounded by shelves full of this and that adorably hard or soft or silky or feathery item, trying to make my wonky little point about the importance of objects to interesting, expressive sex.

Oh, I say, a bit abashed, as I turn to Tovah and Jewely, the workers at Pink Bunny who were so welcoming to me. Oh, so I guess this isn’t exactly news to you, it being what you do for a living.

But they were cool, because after all, it’s what I do for a living too (or try to). And so, wonky points were made, debated, and clarified, and a lovely time was had by all. And I’m loving that you can find Carrie’s Story and Safe Word sold among dreamy satin underwear.

Of course, I also like to talk about this stuff in conferences, meetings, and other more conventional venues. So do invite me, if you’re interested. And if you want to read the passages of fetishistic writing we studied, drop me an email at, and I’ll send you a copy.




Pride, Not Prejudice: thinking gratefully, and thinking like a romance writer

Another “why didn’t I think of that?” — the “Pride, not Prejudice” slogan on the San Francisco Public Library Bookmobile float today at the Pride Parade.

Still, good for them for coming up with one more reason for me to feel inspired and grateful during this most joyous of Pride celebrations, during a week when the Supreme Court gets a few important things right and couples are lining up at City Halls all over the country to get married.

I also feel a little proud, as California Prop 8 finally and deservedly goes down in flames (thanks again, SCOTUS), to re-post this picture from 2008 of two aging hippies out there on the streets agitating for the right of everybody to marry. (Finding the picture also led me to note a comment on my blog from my wise friend Penni, who mused, “Can’t you just see an eager reader 150 years from now downloading a tale of two wedding-thwarted lovers from the unbelievably primitive days of homophobia?” Yeah I can, Penni, thanks for that too.)

Thanks and celebration come together, I think. Periodic festivals like the Pride celebration (not to speak of New Year and Thanksgiving) give a positive spin to… well, to the spin of the earth and the dance of generation and generations. When you think in terms of cycles, you’re thinking in romance time — sort of like a waltz, only in four beats, the four seasons following in order as the earth spins on its axis. Redemptive time; time to get it right. Romance time.

More later about this.



Pride 2013: Still Aglitter

Because I didn’t just march in this most joyous of Pride celebrations. I danced, with the contingent from the Rhythm and Motion Dance Program. I strutted, sashayed, and shimmied and (when all else failed) smiled my way down Market Street with a posse of more than a hundred students and teachers along with whom I’ve been smiling my way through charming, witty, delicious exercise dance routines since 1981.

Rhythm & Motion Contingent at SF Pride Celebration, 2013

R&M Teachers have told me they remember my smile — I’m guessing because it’s so much more consistent than my mastery of the steps. But I do smile a lot in class, because I’m so thrilled to be dancing at all, since by and large I think of myself as somebody who writes because she can’t dance. The kind of engagement, expression, and all-out presence that I feel when I find the exactly the right word or subtly nudge a narrative forward is something I’m not privileged to feel very often when I let my own body loose in space. And so for 30 plus years I’ve been grateful to Rhythm and Motion for giving me the opportunity to feel a little of that in class.

And a lot of it today. In public. With people cheering us down the street. I danced down the street. Still can’t believe it; I’m still not willing to wash off the pink and silver glitter from my cheeks.

But what do you want to bet there will still be some shiny dance magic clinging to me even after I get out of the shower? For good. Thanks again, Rhythm & Motion.