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Thursday, May 5, 2016 - 08:00

Today is even more random than usual, as any possibility of applying my brain to a new creative topic is toast. It looks like I'm finally circling down to being able to close the investigation that I've been working on the last two months. And I set up my new laptop last night and have yet to go through and do a complete functionality verification regarding programs and data-transfer, so I don't dare do anything on either the old or new machine that involves changing files yet. But fortunately I can do some more nattering on the question of what sorts of useful meaning can be squeezed from Amazon and Goodreads book ranking data.

I've had a delightful amount of engagement on this topic, and somewhat unusually it's come from a lot of different intersections of my online life. People are popping over from the LesFic mailing lists to comment, and Tuesday's blog got a mention on File 770, which resulted in pointers to some other similar data-crunching that ties in to the topic.

[Note: these two posts were originally posted on LiveJournal then migrated to Dreamwidth. Comments on the May 3, 2016 post can be found in DW here, and those on the DW version of this post can be found here.]

Correlation of Rating Volume and Sales

A commenter on File 770 pointed me to a fascinating analysis by SFF author Mark Lawrence that looks at the correlation between the number (but not magnitude) of Goodreads ratings and book sales. He used his own sales data plus data provided from colleagues writing in similar genres who were willing to provide numbers. (Note that book contracts sometimes explicitly prohibit authors from discussing income or sales numbers in public.) Lawrence's conclusions are stated as:

[T]here is a pretty close relationship between the number of Goodreads ratings a book has and its total sales. PROVIDING that the books are of a similar age and the same genre.

(A rough squint at his graph suggests that the correlation for his specific dataset works out to around $7-8 per Goodreads rating.)

Correlation of Goodreads Rating Volume and Average Rating

(This originally appeared in slightly different form as a comment I made at File 770.)

Having poked around a bit on Goodreads, I’ve pulled a data set from a list entitled “Best Historical Fantasy” (the genre chosen to be thematically comparable to one of the sets I pulled from Amazon) and I took the top 100 titles from that list. Goodreads lists (in contrast to the sales-based Amazon Top 100 lists) are created by reader/reviewers and books are added and up-voted by other reader/reviewers. Internal ranking in the list is dependent on some combination of the average rating and the number of different people recommending the book for the list.

Overall, the results confirmed my analysis from Amazon with a couple of interesting details.

The first interesting detail is that the Goodreads correlation (at least for this dataset) continues roughly linear throughout the ranking scale, rather than losing linearity toward the bottom of the scale. My knee-jerk hypothesis is that this relates to the ability to leave a ranking on Goodreads without leaving a review. This may suppress the number of lower rankings on Amazon because someone who doesn't care for a book may be less motivated to say so if they have to do it in a text review rather than a one-click star ranking.

The second interesting detail is something that most people who pay attention already know anecdotally, which is that Goodreads rankings have a wider spread. This may be simply a consequence of the "suppression of lower rankings" effect on Amazon noted above. (To be clear: I'm not saying that Amazon actively suppresses lower rankings, only that the structure of the interface may have that as an effect.)

The lowest ranking in the Amazon Historical Fantasy Top 100 was 4.0, while Goodreads rankings (though obviously not for the same exact books) went down to 3.1 In addition to the abovementioned suppression effect, the suggested interpretations for Goodreads ratings are also shifted down from Amazon ratings. If you go by the suggested interpretations, an Amazon 4* is a Goodreads 3*. Amazon rating distributions are more likely to descend from a maximum at 5-stars, while Goodreads distributions--even for popular books--are more likely to have a maximum at 4-starts, indicating an overall shift of the curve. More on this below.

The third interesting observation is more particular. As I was entering the rating/# of reviews data, I started noticing a particular name standing out as an outlier. Not an outlier in terms of matching the average-rating/no.-of-ratings trend, but a set of books–all by the same author–who fell high in the list (based on the number of people voting them for the list) while having surprisingly few ratings. So although I wasn’t tracking author or title in general, I flagged every time that author came up in the list: a total of 11 times (out of 100 books). When the books were sorted in descending order of average rating, that author occupied 7 of the top 10 slots (average ratings of 4.7 or more) and completely followed the overall correlation of having relatively few reviews. (In a dataset where a handful of titles had rating entries in the 6 figures, all but one of those 7 had been rated fewer than 100 times.) Having taken a look at the author’s bibliography on wikipedia (and I’m not going to name names because that’s not the point), the best hypothesis seems to be that this is someone with a small but extremely dedicated readership. That dedication extended to ensuring the authors position on the list by voting for the books there, but reflects the general conclusion that the average rating must be understood in the context of the overall number of ratings.

(A commenter on File 770 suggested an alternate interpretation than "small group of enthusiastic fans", noting that some Goodreads authors engage in list-vote trading to move each others' books higher in lists. I have no speculations on this particular author's situation.)

Correlation Between Average Amazon Rating and Average Goodreads Rating for Popular Books

While it's an easy anecdotal observation that average Amazon ratings tend to be higher than average Goodreads ratings, I wanted to confirm this impression with data. So I started with Amazon's Top 100 Historical Fantasy books, looking only at Kindle sales this time (for consistency), and stripping out omnibus editions (to avoid redundancy). I used Amazon data as the starting point because I figured sales figures were harder to game than Goodreads lists.

Because I was going to have to search on each book individually in Goodreads, I only took the top 40 from the Amazon list, which trimmed down to 33 when omnibus editions and not-yet-released titles were excluded. I then calculated the Amazon:Goodreads ratio, as well as the absolute difference. I played around with these results in several ways, plotting them as a curve distribution and running a mean and standard deviation.

At a very rough approximation, the absolute difference in reviews seems to follow a standard curve: average = 0.4 stars, standard deviation = 0.2 stars. In fact, roughly 90% of the data fell within one standard deviation of the mean.

The ratio of reviews isn't quite as pretty a distribution, but has an average ratio of 1.09 with a standard deviation of 0.06. Here only 80% of the data fell within one StDev.

I leave it to a better statistician than I to say something meaningful. I expect that differences in average rating may be much more variable for books with smaller distributions, due to the larger effects of individual choice (both in what rating to give and in which rating site to participate in).

Only one book in the set had a higher average ranking in Goodreads than in Amazon. It's a pre-release listing and has relatively few reviews, which may account for its position as an outlier. Its position on the Amazon Top 100 list seems to be due entirely to the fact that it's a 47 North publication (i.e., an Amazon imprint) and "sales" are probably artificially inflated by internal promotion activities, such as making it available to "book club" arrangements (based on comments in the reviews). Some of the text reviews on Amazon are...um...harsh.

Some Random Overall Conclusions

Mark Lawrence’s sales correlation is very interesting. And it doesn’t necessarily mean that the average rating number by itself isn’t meaningful. I suspect that comparing the combined average rating + number of ratings data to the overall trend line for the relevant genre will tell you more than the absolute average rating alone, in terms of whether the reading community likes or doesn’t like the book. But all of that may be irrelevant to sales.

Just for fun, what does all this say about my books?

Daughter of Mystery has an average Amazon rating 0.5 stars higher than for Goodreads. Plotting the cumulative average Amazon Rating against total ratings over time, I'd say the average rating more or less settled in to a relatively stable number around the 15-20 review mark, but is still highly subject to single inputs. The first 5 reviews were all 5-star.

The Mystic Marriage has an average Amazon rating 0.7 stars higher than for Goodreads. The average Amazon ranking doesn't seem to have stabilized yet and the first 6 reviews were all 5-star. This book is still at the stage where the ratings are artificially high due to low numbers of readers. (Excuse me while I go sob in a corner for a while.)

Both books fall pretty solidly on the normal trendline for Lesbian Romance, but don't have enough data points to compare meaningfully to the Top 100 Historical Fantasy data. As for sales data...let's just say, "Inadequate data for meaningful analysis." (The next related phenomenon I examine may be changes in rating patterns for series books. My knee-jerk hypothesis is that later books in a series will tend to have increasingly higher average ratings because readers will typically continue with the series only if they liked it.)

It's very important to keep in mind that these comparisons and correlations are only meaningful when looking at sets of books with similar potential distribution. A lesbian romance with 200 Amazon ratings isn't comparable to a blockbuster best-seller with 200 Amazon ratings. The latter is only starting to scratch the surface of its most dedicated readership while the former may well have already saturated the market.

In conclusion, much as it pains me to admit it, I do myself no favors in begging my readers and fans to leave reviews if they weren't already inclined to do so. Strongarming existing readers into leaving ratings/reviews does not necessarily generate new readers. It certainly doesn't directly generate additional income. And to the extent that looking at the average rating + # of ratings provides useful data, artificially inflating one's average rating by solicitation to existing fans isn't meaningful.

Instead, the only useful thing to do is beg people to encourage other people to read my books. And the rating stats will fall out of that on their own.

Major category: 
Thinking
Wednesday, May 4, 2016 - 08:00

This post originally appeared on my LiveJournal in this entry, which may include a lively discussion in the comments.

A milestone: one of my tweets about last week's Little Princess blog picked up a troll! Not a very amusing one; it's only the fact of it that's amusing.

The last part of Chapter 6 brings strong foreshadowing of disaster, and provides some useful data regarding the source and nature of Captain Crewe's money. In an earlier entry, I already noted that Crewe's occupation as an army officer seems unlikely to have been the source of his wealth, and now it's confirmed that if it came from his parents being wildly successful in business, he inherited none of their talents in that direction.

As he writes to Sara, there are financial problems with the diamond mines, but "your daddy is not a businessman at all, and figures and documents bother him. He does not really understand them, and all this seems so enormous." Now, allowing for some hyperbole when writing to an eleven-year-old girl, we can easily see how precarious the family fortunes have always been. Crewe spends money extravagantly, admits he has no business sense, and invests what turns out to be his entire fortune in a risky speculation on nothing but the word of a boyhood friend. While Sara certainly doesn't deserve to become destitute, one can't help concluding that perhaps Captain Crewe does deserve it. And yet, in the midst of these financial troubles, he arranges for an extravagant party for Sara's 11th birthday, including a number of expensive presents, for which Miss Minchin is expected to front the money. He knew he was in financial difficulties and he went ahead and asked Miss Minchin to front a large sum for a non-essential purpose.

It's details like this that allow for at least some sympathy in Miss Minchin's response to the impending disaster. It isn't fair of her to take out her anger and disappointment on Sara, but it isn't as if she can take them out on Crewe himself. He will have conveniently died. Touching back to the "moral accounting" theme, the financial disaster is "earned" by Crewe (although not deserved by Sara).

The chapter ends up with another episode showing the special friendship between Sara and Becky. Sara's school-fellows will be delighted to share in enjoying Sara's birthday presents, but Becky is the only one of the girls who thinks to actually give Sara a present herself: a pincushion made with her own hands, from scraps and remnants. And Sara responds to both the thought and the effort with gratitude and love, somewhat to Becky's startlement. "It ain't good enough for that!" she says, but I think we know better. As I mentioned in an earlier installment, Becky is the only one of the girls that gives back to Sara rather than only taking. I don't think Sara would characterize it that way--after her fall, she certainly values the willingness of Ermingard and Lottie to continue associating with her. But that's a more passive support than what Becky will give.

In many ways, Becky's "moral accounting" arc is as strong as Sara's, which is why the difference in their eventual rewards will seem a bit unfair. But I get ahead of myself.

Tuesday, May 3, 2016 - 08:00

Usually I like to focus this blog on the creative part of the writing process, but I'm in an unusual pause at the moment so I thought I'd talk about the analytic end. I know the common wisdom in mainstream publishing is that an author should pay no mind to reviews and ratings. At most, we should do comic readings of our one-star reviews to show how little we care. (Only cry in private behind locked doors.) So this essay isn't really for anyone whose book came out from a major publisher. But I have this weird bi-cultural existence, suspended between what I consider my "home" writing community (mainstream SFF) and the community in which I was published (small-press/self-published lesbian fiction), so I get a lot of opportunities to compare and contrast. This essay is for people who don't have mainstream publication and for people who may be bewildered by some of those cultural differences.

There is major anxiety within the LesFic community (quite possibly within all marginal publishing communities) around the crowd-sourced rating-and-review sites like Amazon and Goodreads. A big reason for this anxiety is that it's what they (we) have: they don't get a big publicity blitz, they don't get bookstore placement, they don't get advance reviews in all the highly-respected sites. What they do get is an aggregate of individual reader opinions when those readers are motivated enough to post them.

In my experience, this anxiety is expressed in two major ways. There is a strong community pressure that readers--that is, readers "within the community"--should only ever review and rate books that they absolutely love, and therefore that they will rate highly. This philosophical position is expressed explicitly by many LGBT review sites, and in social media forums for LGBT book communities. This anxiety walks hand in hand with the second: the tendency to react to less-than-perfect reviews as a personal attack. Given a supposed "community standard" of only reviewing/rating books you love, there is an interpretation that to rate a book badly (where "badly" is anything less than a four-star review…or sometimes less than a five-star one) must have been done out of personal malice against the author. That either the reviewer is deliberately giving a false opinion (because, of course, the book must be objectively excellent!), or that, even if they genuinely didn't care for it, the act of publicly expressing that opinion could only come from personal malice.

Viewed from within the community (and it is very much an expression of the assumption that the reader/writer/publisher nexus is a community whose purpose is to support each other against the world) this can look a lot more reasonable than it does from outside the community--where it tends to look fairly toxic.

But beyond the damage to the usefulness of ratings/reviews when only glowing opinions are authorized, there is a damage to authors' perceptions of their own work. Express skepticism of the usefulness of all-five-star ratings and some authors will loudly proclaim that their book is so great that of course it earned all those five-star ratings.

No. I believe that almost every book can earn some genuine and sincere five-star ratings. But no book is universally beloved. Let me repeat that with emphasis: NO BOOK IS UNIVERSALLY BELOVED.

Because I wanted to throw some data at this essay, I took a look at Amazon for the top 100 sellers in Historical Fantasy and the top 100 sellers in Lesbian Romance. You know who has spent a very long time in the top 10 books sold in Historical Fantasy? Diana Gabaldon's Outlander. Do you know how many one-star reviews Outlander has on Amazon? 749. Seven hundred and forty-fucking-nine one-star reviews (4% of the total). No book is universally beloved.

Do you know what unfavorable reviews and ratings mean? They mean that your book is engaging readers who are outside your narrow inner-core target audience. Not just that it's reaching them, but it's engaging them sufficiently to express their opinion in public. And up to a certain point (I'll talk about that point later) the more reviews you get, the lower your average rating is. Because the more people you engage, the more likely you are to engage people who may have liked your book but didn't absolutely love it. Sure, that hurts. It would be nice to be universally beloved. NO BOOK IS UNIVERSALLY BELOVED.

Ah, but I'm a data person, so I ask myself, is it possible to quantify to what extent a less-than-perfect average rating reflects getting your book in the hands of people outside your core target audience? Let's see.

I went through the top 100 Amazon sellers in the Historical Fantasy category and recorded the number of reviews and the average star rating. Then I calculated the average number of reviews at each rating. I mention Diana Gabaldon above because I ended up pulling her out as her own little category for the analysis. And then I plotted those pairs of data.

graph of ratings vs number of reviews for historic fantasy

I had to put Diana Gabaldon on a separate y-axis that differed by nearly an order of magnitude from the rest of the data. But here's the take-away: from around an average rating of around 4.3 on up, a lower rating correlates with a larger engagement (expressed as overall number of reviews). This holds true for the overall average of that top 100 and it holds true in the specific case of Diana Gabaldon. The books that had only five-star reviews? (And keep in mind, these are ones that are currently in the top 100 sellers of the category.) None of them had more than four (4) reviews. Your first, most engaged reviewers are quite naturally going to be people from your core target audience. But an extremely high average is a sign that you haven't expanded far beyond that (yet).

Now let's take a look at the same sort of data for the Amazon category of lesbian romance. (In this case, I looked specifically at Kindle sales because for small press books the dynamics of e-book versus paper are peculiar.) I also cut the data off at a rating of 4.0, not only to compare better with the historical fantasy data (for which that was the lowest average rating) but because the values below that represented only one or two books each and so are less reliable for trending purposes.

graph of ratings vs number of reviews for lesbian fiction

And what do we find? Pretty much the same thing. In this case, a rating of 4.4 and up correlates very closely with the average number of reviews at that rating. No book that had an average five-star rating had more than five (5) reviews. Interestingly, if you look at the plot for the maximum number of reviews at each average-rating point, you get the same effect: a very strong correlation between number of reviews and a lower average rating.

Now, of course, at some point this effect breaks down. At some point a lower average rating does start to reflect people's opinion of the specific book, even in the aggregate. And that seems to start somewhere in the lower 4's depending on the data set. And these trends are looking at aggregate behavior. It doesn't mean that there's no difference at all between a 4.4 rating and a 5.0 rating. What it means is that the meaningful difference between a book that has a 5.0 rating with X number of reviews, and a book in the same marketing category with a 4.4 rating and 50X number of reviews is not necessarily one of quality. What it means is that the second book is reaching outside its core audience. And is engaging them.

As someone who has been working very hard to reach outside what my publisher believes to be my core target audience, this is what I keep reminding myself when I get a "meh" rating or review. It means that I've succeeded.

Major category: 
Thinking
Wednesday, April 27, 2016 - 12:30

This post originally appeared on my LiveJournal in this entry, which may include a lively discussion in the comments.

Following the “moral accounting” scheme of plotting, it should be obvious that the element introduced in Chapter 6 “The Diamond Mines” is setting Sara up for her fall. After all, what greater moral debt could one accrue than to fall into the opportunity for the fabulous wealth associated with investment in a diamond mine? And what better example of how wealth and privilege breed greater wealth and privilege than to contemplate just who would be in a position to have an old school friend casually offer them the opportunity for such an investment?

As the story notes, it isn’t even so much the business aspects of the investment as the sense of glittering enchantment that the phrase “diamond mines” conjures up. Sara plunges into expanding on this image in her story-telling for her friends…and here she has an uncharacteristic failure of empathy.

Sara is perfectly capable of recognizing and disapproving of how hard the school scullery maid is worked. But in her stories about “labyrinthine passages in the bowels of the earth, where sparkling stones studded the walls and roofs and ceilings, and strange, dark men dug them out with heavy picks”, it never seems to occur to her to consider that her anticipated wealth will come at the cost of the sweat and blood and often lives of those “strange dark men”. Although we seem to be led to believe that the diamond mines are in India (where Sara’s father is), it’s impossible not to visualize the origins of the De Beers diamond empire and its founder Cecil Rhodes.

I don’t know that Burnett intended us to factor in that associated moral debt. Probably not, since the question is never really even alluded to. (And eventually when the mines retrieve themselves and the wealth is realized, the exploitative nature of the industry is never touched on.) This (although with the issues of orientalism) is one of the foundations for me considering my love for this story “problematic”. Stories about how virtuous people are rewarded with fabulous wealth rarely acknowledge that most sudden wealth is created at a great cost to some set of unfortuante people behind the scenes.

At any rate, it is in the context of the school Mean Girls stirring up jealousy of this new development in Sara’s life that they turn the “princess pretend” into a weapon and start taunting her with it. And this section of the chapter brings in two major bits of foreshadowing: Sara’s fascination with the French Revolution (showing her immersed in a book about the freeing of the prisoners from the Bastille), and a demonstration of how Sara uses the “princess pretend” as a self-control mechanism. I love that Sara isn’t automatically good. She gets angry and feels spiteful. She has self-centered impulses (as when she resents having to come out of her book to soothe Lottie). She responds to Lavinia with sharp words. But she brings herself back to her center by reminding herself that she is a princess, and princesses don’t slap each other like “gutter children” and fly into rages.

Sara has an oddly idealized image of what it is to be a princess—something that particularly comes out in her historical hero-worship for Marie Antoinette—but that’s a discussion for a later point in the book. Suffice it to say that the “princess pretend” is not about actual royalty, but about an idealized image that Sara has associated with the role of princess. Princess as a job, rather than an inheritance.

Friday, April 22, 2016 - 08:00

Yeah, ok, lots of spoilers in this review because I WANT TO WARN EVERYONE NOT TO SEE THIS FUCKING MOVIE!!!!! This is the platonic ideal of the Tragic Lesbian Boarding School Story.

* * *

This is a series of reviews of lesbian-themed movies originally inspired by a request for recommendations of "good movies involving lesbian romances that don't end up with the protagonists deeply unhappy, dead, or both." To this set of criteria I’ve added the question, “Is the story primarily about coming out?” This set of index questions can involve some spoilers, but I will usually only hide them for new releases.

Many of these movies are not currently in print. I'll link each to their imdb.com entry for reference. But for those currently available, Wolfe Video [https://www.wolfevideo.com] is the go-to distributor for lgbt movies.

* * *

Lost and Delerious (2001) is basically Dead Poet’s Society with girls. Except with the Bury Your Gays trope more explicitly gay. There's also a strong Psycho Lesbian trope, in that a thwarted lesbian relationship drives one character to increasingly bizarre and violent behavior and suicide. Hey, I told you there would be massive spoilers. Don't blame me if you're still reading.

This movie belongs to the genre of hot-house boarding school stories, in which same-sex relationships bloom and are cut off well before their prime. Mary, the new girl at an upper-crust all-girls boarding school ends up rooming with two girls, Tori and Paulie, who are involved in a hot-and-heavy relationship. All three have problematic relationships with mothers: Paulie’s birth mother gave her up for adoption and she is currently trying to track her down and contact her. (When she eventually succeeds in locating her, the woman refuses to allow contact.) Mary’s mother died three years ago and she feels she’s being sent to school to make room for her stepmother. Tori’s mother is trying to make her over into her own image as a socialite. A running subplot involves two of the school's teachers who are widely rumored to be lovers.

While Mary figures out she’s ok with pretending not to notice the sex going on in the next bed over, the balance is upset when Tori’s sister barges in one morning when the lovers are still naked in bed together. Tori freaks out about the potential for being outed and throws Paulie under the bus, claiming she was the sexual agressor and that she (Tori) is perfectly straight. To support this, Tori takes on a program of public heterosexuality, sneaking out to date and have sex with a random boy, selected due to a chance meeting. When Mary chooses to be supportive of Paulie, she takes the risk of being labelled a lesbian herself.

There’s a subplot where Paulie finds an injured Harris Hawk and secretly rehabilitates it in the woods. (I will now forego discussing the logistics of bird of prey rehabilitation as the event is clearly meant to be Deeply Symbolic and practicality need not intervene.) Paulie is the hawk, a fierce wounded creature. She makes bold symbolic gestures, including a chivalric declaration of love in the library while wearing her fencing gear and carrying an epee.

But both the girls are terrified to name their sexuality. Relevant quote, “I’m not a lesbian! I’m just Paulie in love with Tori and Tori’s in love with me.” In a late night encounter, Tori confesses she’ll never love anyone but Paulie but that they can never be together.

Paulie has always played the role of Bad Girl, which initially masks her acting out of her emotional crisis. As in Dead Poet’s Society, poetry and Shakespeare and drama are the medium through which strong emotions are expressed within this shrine of classical learning. This framing drives Paulie to challenge Tori’s boyfriend to a literal duel on the night of the big school formal (at which all the parents are present) and to cut in when Tori is dancing with her father, threatening a confrontation where she declares her love. Tori, terrified, rejects her. Mary is having her own issues, as her father fails to show up for the dance and Paulie taunts her into confessing that she hates her father, using Lady Macbeth’s “Unsex me” speech, and then recruits Mary as her second for the duel.

They meet the boys in the woods with swords, and the duel ensues, but Paulie’s using an unblunted sword and actually stabs her rival in the leg. The scene cuts to Mary running across the field where all the students and teachers are gathered in a picnic to find Tori, and we see the hawk flying up, called to Paulie where she stands on the rooftop of the school. We see Paulie begin to fall, then see the hawk flying away, and we see all the girls staring up at the roof in horror. But Mary, our viewpoint protagonist, is ok, because now we get a voiceover about the lesson she learned from the hawk and how now she’ll always remember her dead mother’s face.

This version of Lesbian Tragedy (the plot that Emma Donoghue classifies as “Rivals”) always marks out the butch character for death while allowing the femme character to recant and be redeemed. At the beginning of the movie, I don’t recall there being an obvious butch/femme distinction between the Paulie and Tori. But as the emotional crisis progresses, Paulie’s presentation becomes more and more masculinized, culminating in her wearing a suit at the school dance, envisioning herself as Tori’s knight, and more explicitly with the “Unsex me” speech. Tori drags herself by force into a normative female role by her pursuit of a heterosexual sexual experience. So rather than their gender perfomances locking them into the fates of their respective roles, once those fates were set in motion, the gendered roles claimed and assimilated them.

Given the context of the inspiration for this review series, this is definitely a Do Not Recommend. We hit all the bullet-points: Tori recanted, Paulie came out and died, everyone is unhappy. This is the sort of movie that could convince an entire generation of young lesbians that they are doomed. The fact that movies like this are still being made in the 21st century is a crime.

Wednesday, April 20, 2016 - 13:30

This post originally appeared on my LiveJournal in this entry, which may include a lively discussion in the comments.

The scene when Sara returns to her opulent suite of rooms after dance practice, wearing her diaphanous pink gown, and finds Becky asleep in her easy chair before the fire, is a jewel of characterization. At various points Burnett insists that Becky isn't skilled at "imagining" and needs Sara to guide her through the process, but it seems to me that when Becky sits down in that chair and contemplates what it would be like to live that life and be that person, she's doing every bit as much imagining as Sara's fanciful tales. We see Becky's hunger to be taken into another life and her willingness to accept Sara's offer of friendship as genuine. But we also see her reflexive cringing terror at "forgetting her place", allowing her guard to slip, and "taking liberties" that could get her thrown onto the street.

I could wish that we were shown a little more of Becky's interior life in this context. There's always a veil between the outward performance of cringing servility and the desperate, constant calculation that you know must be going on behind it. It would be easy to get the impression that Becky's behavior is an ingrained characteristic rather than a survival tactic. We see a lot of careful code-switching in her interactions, as in how she interacts differently with Sara and Ermingarde much later in the banquet-in-the-attic scene. But the author doesn't seen to acknowledge this as the result of analysis and calculation, the way she does Sara's struggles with questions of behavior later in the book. Of course, this is Sara's story, which accounts for some of the difference.

The main thing we see in Sara in this chapter is a very practical empathy and the negotiation of the gulf between them. She understands Becky's plight, knows why she's frightened and addresses those causes in trying to calm her, and recognizes Becky's incomprehension of some of her more philosophical thoughts. But most of all, in making offers of friendship, she targets the things that Becky herself would find valuable: food and stories. ("Bread and roses" if you will.) Even before she makes the offer of private storytelling sessions, she offers her a piece of cake. And the later storytelling is accompanied by shared food as well--practical food as well as luxuries. This is one of the characteristics that makes Sara most sympathetic to me: that she has the empathy to figure out what other people need, rather than simply focusing on what she has to give.

It is the interaction with Becky--and the recognition of how enjoyable it is to give people things they need--that sparks Sara's "pretend" about being a princess. And in the next entry, I'm going to examine the oddly idealized concept of royalty that drives and sustains her through the rest of the book.

Monday, April 18, 2016 - 07:00

 

I've been on something of a book-buying and library spree lately for the Lesbian Historic Motif Project--not that I didn't already have plenty of material on my own shelves to last for another couple of years already! But it's always nice to have choice, and after covering a whole string of entire books, I wanted to fit in some shorter articles. By the time I finished with Castle's book last week, I'd actually expected to have the new front-end for the LHMP (and my blog as a whole) up and running, but the combination of an intensive project at work (for the last five weeks) and the push to get Mother of Souls out to the beta-readers meant that I've fallen down on my end of the necessary work. (My web masters are being very patient.) So I'll keep teasing you with the knowledge that Something New is coming Real Soon Now.

Publications: 
Mother of Souls
Full citation: 

Jay, Karla & Joanne Glasgow (eds). 1990. Lesbian Texts and Contexts: Radical Revisions. New York University Press, New York. ISBN 0-8147-4177

Publication summary: 

 

This is a collection of literary studies relating to the theme of lesbianism, whether of the author or content, and specifically within the framework of lesbian/feminism. There are 22 papers in all, however I’ll be holding strictly to my pre-1900 scope. Literary critism is already marginal to the purpose of the Lesbian Historic Motif Project, except to the extent that the articles highlight literary works that themselves are of interest.

Friday, April 15, 2016 - 08:00

This is a series of reviews of lesbian-themed movies originally inspired by a request for recommendations of "good movies involving lesbian romances that don't end up with the protagonists deeply unhappy, dead, or both." To this set of criteria I’ve added the question, “Is the story primarily about coming out?” This set of index questions can involve some spoilers, but I will usually only hide them for new releases.

Many of these movies are not currently in print. I'll link each to their imdb.com entry for reference. But for those currently available, Wolfe Video [https://www.wolfevideo.com] is the go-to distributor for lgbt movies.

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The Secret Diaries of Miss Anne Lister is a BBC costume drama (with all the production values and gorgeous location work that usually entails) based on the diaries of a wealthy early 19th century Yorkshire woman who--at least in the privacy of her diaries and her bedroom--was an open and self-aware lesbian. This movie necessarily condenses the details of her life down to a manageable hour and a half. In doing so it retains the major themes of her experience, but strips out the agonizing and tedious years of confusion, depression, and uncertainty that are laid out in the diaries themselves.

The movie opens on an idyllic picnic on the moors, where Anne frolics with her two closest friends: Marianne, with whom she is deeply and passionately in love, and Tib, who is more in the way of a fuck-buddy. Anne’s fantasies of eventually sharing her home with Marianne (currently made awkward by the fact that she shares the ancestral manor with her unmarried sibling aunt and uncle) begin to crack that evening when Marianne’s engagement to a rich older man is announced.

We see the slow, agonizing fracturing of their relationship as Anne clings to the hope of eventually realizing her dreams with a widowed Marianne, while Marianne tries to eat her cake and have it too, misleading Anne about the steadfastness of her feelings. But braided among this are Anne’s continued sexual relationship with Tib, Anne’s flirtation with an innocent and bewildered young woman she meets at church, and Anne’s personal and professional conflicts with another local landowner over developing coalmines on their properties, which leads him to begin slandering her over her sexuality. (Well, ok, I guess it’s not actually slander because the core of what he says is true.)

Around about the time that the final fracture with Marianne occurs, Anne has befriended another neighbor (Ann Walker), an unmarried young woman who recently inherited her own family estate and who shares her interest in developing their coal resources. This professional friendship develops into romance when the other woman is confronted with accusations of how her friendship with Anne Lister is being interpreted and decides to make the rumors into reality. The movie closes with a “what happened to them all” summary, noting that Marianne’s husband outlived Anne Lister, who died of a fever while on holiday with her new love in the Caucasus mountains.

So how does this measure up on the four key questions? When you’re dealing with a biopic that deliberately follow people to note how and when they died, I don’t think that counts as a movie-death. So no death, certainly not as “punishment” for being queer. Marianne recants, but she’s the only one who does. Anne spends a fair amount of the movie unhappy but ends up happy, which I think is what counts. Of the various woman-loving-women in the film, Ann Walker is the only one we see having a coming-out experience, and it isn’t a major focus of the plot. So all in all, I’d say this movie comes up a plus on all four categories.

Wednesday, April 13, 2016 - 07:45

This post originally appeared on my LiveJournal in this entry, which may include a lively discussion in the comments.

Chapter 5 introduces Becky, the scullery maid. I think it’s a virtue of Burnett’s writing that she is able to portray Sara as being less essentialist about Becky’s nature and character than Burnett herself seems to be. While the narrative descriptions of Becky regularly focus on her timid and fearful personality (well, duh! when she could be dismissed from her position on a whim) and portray her as worshipping Sara as a near-goddess, not merely a princess, in Sara’s interactions with Becky, she treats her as nearly as an equal as their respective positions allow. And Sara’s kindness and charity to Becky are usually sensitive to what Becky herself wants and needs, not simply what will make Sara feel good. Still, there are a lot of wince-worthy moments around Becky.

The chapter begins by returning to Sara’s love of storytelling and how it was one of the behaviors that gave her social status among the other students. She not only makes up stories but acts them out in the telling, drawing the listeners into her imaginative fantasy worlds of fairies, mermaids, kings, and queens.

And then, in the midst of this, we switch to Sara’s observation of a new servant at the school, seen from a distance as Sara is getting out of her carriage “wrapped in velvets and furs”. Becky is working around the area steps (the lower front entrance to a townhouse, used by servants) and staring at her as if she were a vision from another world--which, in fact, Sara might as well be.

The first of the cringe-worthy moments comes in the first description of Becky as “a dingy little figure”, but more to the point, in that first descriptive paragraph, Becky (whose name we don’t know yet) is referred to as “it” three times. Now, this isn’t a matter of gender uncertainty--clothing is highly gendered in this era and even if Becky’s face were obscured it would have been instantly obvious that she was female. There seems no useful reason for this “it”-ing, especially given that the narrative switches to female pronouns in the next paragraph. If I were looking for deep meaning, I’d suggest that the change in pronouns represents the near-instant process of Sara recognizing Becky as a unique and individual human being, but if so, it still feels like a slap in the face to do that by means of literal objectifying at first.

Becky’s initial reticence is played as humorous in the narration, by virtue of noting that Sara does not laugh at the way she pops out of side like a jack-in-the-box, because she feels pity instead. And this is only the beginning of the divergence between Sara’s attitude and the narrative position. Later that day, while Sara is telling a story to a group of other girls, Becky comes in to tend to the fire and becomes so enraptured by listening to the story that she stops working to listen. Sara, noticing this, projects her voice more clearly to make sure that Becky can hear the story too and, when Lavinia (who, as usual, represents the archetypal Mean Girl) also notices and scolds Becky out of the room, Sara defends her right to listen.

Mariette, Sara’s French maid, fills her in on the details of Becky’s life, including her name, and communicates that she considers Becky to be unusually put-upon and burdened with all the hardest work of the school. (I rather suspect the nature of Becky’s position wasn’t at all unusual.) And after this, Sara makes a point of noticing and observing Becky around the school and turns her into a character in a story (presumably one she doesn’t share with the other girls) in which Becky is an “ill-used heroine”, presaging the role they both will share later in the book.

Wednesday, April 6, 2016 - 12:30

This post originally appeared on my LiveJournal in this entry, which may include a lively discussion in the comments.

As chapter 4 is titled “Lottie”, we naturally expect that we will be introduced to this character, previously described as “the baby of the school” at age four. I have to confess that Lottie is one of my least favorite characters. While it might be forgiven that at this tender age (and given her described upbringing) she manages the world about her with temper tantrums and emotional meltdowns. It is harder to forgive that, at the end of the book at age nine (two years older than Sara was when she arrived at the school), and after five years of Sara’s allegedly improving influence, Lottie is essentially unchanged in behavior and personality.

This is an issue I have with most of the secondary characters – that they show extremely little change and development as characters, but are rather fixed “types” who provide the backdrop for Sara’s journey. Lottie is, perhaps, only the most extreme. She exists in order for Sara to be seen to be “motherly” and to demonstrate Sara’s gift for empathy and storytelling. It’s interesting that in the first chapter it is said that Sara “did not care very much for other little girls”, although this may simply be another inconsistency between the early material and the rest of the book, like the claim that she didn’t like other people to listen to her telling stories. But in another sense, as I noted in a previous entry, Lottie is one of several examples of how Sara’s closest relationships are all unequal.

Ermengarde is Sara’s intellectual inferior, Lottie her emotional inferior, Becky her social inferior. Sara doesn’t have any close relationships with true peers. (I’ve spun out some personal speculations about how she might end up interacting with the older Carmichael girls after the end of the book.)

At any rate, we are introduced to Lottie (aside from a few mentions of her in passing) when she’s having a complete screaming meltdown over being asked to wash her hands for lunch. The two Minchin sisters are at wits’ end trying to quiet her, alternately with bribes and threats. Sara, having had a few friendly interactions with the girl previously, offers to try to calm her down and they leave her to it. Sara’s technique begins with simply being quietly present and letting the tantrum wear itself out a little. Then when Lottie starts up again with her most potent weapon, “I haven’t any Mama”, Sara points out that she doesn’t have a Mama either, then begins spinning stories about what their mothers are doing together up in heaven. Their bond is confirmed when Sara offers to be Lottie’s pretend mother at the school, cementing Lottie’s status as her adoring fan. It’s a relationship that will involve constant tending and nurturing, and which provides very little return to Sara. Later, after Sara’s fall, it continues to be the case that her interactions with Lottie are about Lottie’s emotional and scholastic needs, not about Lottie being thoughtful and supportive of Sara.

Given that, it’s hard (at least for me) not to see Lottie as primarily a device by which Sara earns moral credit.

I should note that it isn’t that I find Lottie’s personality unbelievable. Even without losing one’s mother at a very early age, and being dumped at boarding school by a family who provided no functional emotional support, it’s possible for a child to have difficulties with emotional balance and with finding productive ways of communicating emotional needs. Just as my private theory is that Ermengarde has an unrecognized learning disability and uses comfort-eating to address the disapproval she gets because of it, my theory about Lottie is that she may have some sort of autism-spectrum sensory overload/emotional processing issue. But that doesn’t mean I have to like her as a character.

In fact, it's interesting how Burnett makes the characters so three-dimensionally real that I, as a reader, find it easy to dissociate myself from Burnett's apparent attitude toward the characters and my own reception of them. This is even stronger with regard to the titular character of the next chapter, Becky, who I like a great deal more than Burnett seems to want me to.

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