I feel quite conflicted about posting this, because I haven't finished thinking about it yet. But it's a conversation I want to have, and perhaps the best way to decide what I think is to open the topic up? So, for what it's worth, here are some of my thoughts on Xanthe's "Coming Home".
In "Coming Home" I think Xanthe is writing an anti-romance that is masquerading as a romance... or perhaps it's just an interrogation of the romance, I haven't decided yet.
I've come to this conclusion because of the way "Coming Home" inverts some of the key elements of the romance. For instance, in a typical novel-length romance you have the main couple, and then a whole heap of other pairings that work as a commentary on that primary couple. Think of Pride and Prejudice: there are couples that just lust (LydiaB/Wickham); those that are mercenary and exploitative (Georgina/Wickham); those that marry for money in exchange for housekeeping and status (the Collins); a selfish widow with economic control of her life (de Bourgh), who is coupled with her daughter rather than her dead husband (there are other economically bound female couples too); an ill-matched couple who have made the best of things (Bennetts snr); several abortive matches (Eliza/Darcy's cousin, Eliza/Wickham); the compatible match (Eliza's aunt and uncle in the city--I've forgotten their names, but they are the closest we see to a comfortable match) and so on. These couples tell us what doesn't work in a marriage, and why it doesn't work, and the factors which are most important to happiness; also, nearly all of the couples end up on the spectrum of "happily together," with the primary couple the happiest, because that is what romance does. That is a standard, and central, convention of the genre.
Now look at "Coming Home". How many happy couples are there? Just two! John/Rodney, and John's parents; furthermore, John's parents die in a way that leaves behind a legacy of trauma that gets in the way of John finding intimacy. How many other even marginally happy couples are there? None. THAT IS ALL. We have Carson making do with Ford; Ford wanting Teyla; Teyla devoted to her people; John turning down casual sex; Bates being an obsessed psycho. The only other working relationship is not a couple, it's the polyandrous one with Miko and her subs. Everyone else is single, often disastrously, mostly unhappily or secretively, and in some cases, to the point of societal destruction (the offworld mission, where the locals try to kidnap the subs because their population is out of whack due to the Wraith culling). This is not a too-easy utopia that doesn't show the perils of BDSM. It really is not. In fact, the BDSM lifestyle is shown to be an abject failure on almost every level.
Nor is this a romance which says everything will end happily ever after. In fact, it says the opposite; it says that happiness is rare and hard to find. And most interestingly of all, it says that it isn't dependent on the pre-existing social conditions. The BDSM world doesn't work for this John and Rodney--they find happiness because John insists on throwing out the standard rules. We are shown that John and Rodney are both deeply conflicted about the expectations of the culture for different reasons, and neither of them engages with those expectations well. The ritualised punishment is shown to be problematic and open to abuse. The constant construction of romance in popular texts-within-the-text is shown to be both unrealistic and embarrassing if emulated. Rodney implodes because he can't deal with Bates; when John and Elizabeth finally figure it out, they write it off as Bates being psycho rather than it being a problem with the culture--and, wow, that's such a gorgeous, subtle piece of top-ism! John is terrified of what happened to his parents--wants it and hates it at the same time.
I just love this story so, so much, despite its flaws (and it has them; I'm not evangelising here). It is a genuinely original and thoughtful commentary on sexism and sexual repression and the problems of repressive Christian Puritanism in our culture (as put through the filter of the BDSM world); it's interesting world creation, but even better commentary. It still works as a romance, despite the innate subversion of the form; or maybe because of it? Is this what good slash always does? In any case, I think it's really, really clever.
This is not my final thinking on the story, but a starting point. Also, I need to re-read "The General & Doctor Sheppard", because I really wasn't sold on it, and it's too long ago for me to remember the specifics of why, and how those factors relate to "Coming Home".
How "Coming Home" relates to helenish's "Take Clothes Off as Directed" is a whole other conversation, which I'd rather not open here yet. But if you have thoughts on Xanthe's work, I'd love to hear them.
ETA: I've finished my re-read of "Coming Home" and having thought about it some more in terms of interrogating the romance, I think the story falls into three parts.
- The coded D/s romance
- That Man, part two
- After happily ever after
If you've read any "line" romance novels, such as Mills & Boon, you will have come across the coded D/s romance, in which an alpha male forces himself on the heroine, despite her repeated refusals, and makes her like it. This is the kind of romance novel that makes me fling the book across the room in disgust. I always knew my reaction was because I hated the passivity of the woman, but until thinking about "Coming Home" I hadn't realised that this narrative was actually a coded rape fantasy, in which readers with an unacknowledged D/s preference can vicariously get off without taking any responsibility for their response. I don't mean that to sound condemning--we live in a culture that doesn't encourage sexual enlightenment, so I can understand how a kink like that could remain unexamined.
In any case, I think the first part (about the first 6 chapters) of "Coming Home" interrogates this type of romance through Bates, who is the archetypal alpha male of this sub-genre, as he menaces Rodney, who repeatedly says "No." It even has the cliche of Bates manipulating things so that Rodney is trapped socially (through his job), which is a typical strategy of the alpha in these stories, although usually it's through an arranged marriage or economic threats.
What's interesting about this section of "Coming Home" is that when Rodney says "No" he means it, and that no amount of pressure can make him change his mind; and part of the difference for me as a reader is that Rodney is self-aware of his own preferences and needs no excuse to get off on being in a D/s situation. So despite his powerlessness, which is typical of the romance heroine, he is immediately a less enraging figure for me, and I can happily despise Bates (as I always do despise That Alpha Man) without fear that he will suddenly become the love of Rodney's life. Yay.
And then in the next section, we have John moving forward into the primary alpha male slot. Again, we have an interrogation of what the alpha/dominant should be, but this time we are being given Xanthe's answer, her exemplar, if you will. This change in tone is signalled in several ways. For a start, and most importantly for my reading enjoyment, we get John's point of view as well as Rodney's, which is a really clever narrative strategy, as it means that tops, bottoms, and switches can all find something to identify with as they read. It also means that the negotiation and consensuality of the situation is very clear.
Another issue Xanthe considers here is John's intense emotional arc. One of the things I find frustrating about "line" romance is that the characters typically have these huge, world-shattering emotions, and a lot of the negative aspects of that are elided by the happily ever after rose-tinted glasses of the genre. I really, really hate the alpha males of line romance who just go around raging with jealousy and threatening people. In "Coming Home" we see the other side of intense love, which is intense jealousy and rage and depression; and we also see a rational response to those things: fear, struggling to find control, making it part of the D/s negotiation. I really enjoyed seeing John struggling to cope with his romance-cliche feelings.
One of the other things that bugs me about "line" romance is the happily ever after ending. It's so unsatisfying. This is another aspect of romance that "Coming Home" considers. If "Coming Home" were a typical romance, it would end around chapter 12 or 13, with the collaring sequence, which works in the story in a similar way to a wedding: it's a public and symbolic partnership commitment. However, Xanthe continues the story, showing us that the negotiation and discovery continue after marriage; that happily ever after must continue to be worked at.
I really like that the story does this, but, ironically enough, this sequence works least well for me as a reader. That's not because there's anything wrong with the final chapters, but because D/s is not a major kink for me, and this part of the story is predominantly about fine-tuning the D/s relationship. The pattern appeals to me, but the detail doesn't, if that makes sense. Still, in terms of my argument, this final section is also interrogating the typical romance by giving us a sense of the and then, and then, and then of married life.
I still don't have any really deep conclusions to make here; I'm still not sure if the subversion of the romance in "Coming Home" is strong enough to make it an actual anti-romance. After all, romance is still valorised as worthwhile, it's the coding of it that's being challenged. But I do think "Coming Home" is interrogating the typical romance in a very deliberate, and often clever, way.