Friday Fragments: TSTL and Other States of Mind

Goodbye and Hello

Some of my very favorite Romanceland bloggers/tweeters have decided to take at least a temporary hiatus from most online interaction. While I completely understand why, I miss them. I’ve been trying to scale back a bit too, but I’m also resolved to keep refocusing on the parts of Romanceland I love–talking about what’s in the books–and to try to stay away from a lot of the controversial stuff around books, the noise that makes people want to retreat. It’s a work in progress, obviously.

On the plus side, here are two new blogs I’ve been enjoying:

Radish Reviews is by Natalie and Donna, former reviewers for RT Book Reviews. Their Friday links posts, like this one, are great, and their thoughtful reviews range around fantasy, sci fi, romance and mystery.

Romance Novels for Feminists is by Jackie C. Horne, a children’s lit scholar whose name I recognized from her professional life. I know the issues around feminism and romance can feel stale to long-time readers, but I’ve found Jackie’s posts fresh (and non-polemical) because she mostly focuses on specific books, not generalizations. Her literary-critical background shows in her style of interpretation, but she’s writing as a romance-loving reader, not an academic.

About that TBR . . . .

I got some good suggestions on ways to whittle down the pile. So far, I’m trying to rotate genres and reading “platforms” (Sony, iPad, dead tree) without a more specific challenge/strategy. Since I still seem to be over my reading slump, it’s working. Except, um, then my hold on Ben Aaronovitch’s Whispers Underground came in at the library (yay!). And my husband went to the comics shop and got me the graphic novel of Northanger Abbey. Meanwhile, I took my daughter costume-shopping at the second-hand store, where I found My Sweet Folly by Laura Kinsale and Jack on the Box by Patricia Wynn. So at best I’ve broken even. Another work in progress.

I had an all-day work retreat last Saturday, and a meeting tomorrow that requires leaving home at 5:30 am to catch a ferry. Ugh. I love ferry travel, though, and it will mean plenty of listening and reading time en route.

Too Stupid to Live?

This week I read Laura Griffin’s Untraceable, the first of her Tracers romantic suspense series. (Short take: I liked but didn’t love it; well-paced suspense, somewhat underdeveloped romance; I’d read more but the e-books are $10 in Canada, so I may be cherry-picking the best or looking for used copies). At the same time, I was listening to Michael Connelly‘s The Lincoln Lawyer (short take: I really liked the twisty plot and morally complex hero; I’ve already borrowed the next in the Mickey Haller series and the first in the Harry Bosch series, which I’m listening to now). I’m usually reading and listening to more than one book at a time, but I try to keep them in different genres. These were a little too close; every time I settled down to read or listen, I had to think, “Is this the one with the possibly murdered possibly battered wife and the PI, or the one with the definitely murdered woman and the defense lawyer?”

Reading them side-by-side did make me think about when and why we label women in romantic suspense “too stupid to live” (TSTL). I know I’m not the first to observe that though the phrase is gender-neutral, it’s typically applied to female characters. And while TSTL moments are really a failure by the author to imagine another way to move the plot forward, in Romanceland discussions it’s often the heroine who gets the blame and vitriol, as if she were a real person.

Reading these two suspenseful books, I didn’t see a lot of stupidity difference between Alex Lovell, Griffin’s heroine, and Mickey Haller, Connelly’s hero. While both have special skills, they aren’t law enforcement officers, particularly strong, or trained to defend themselves. They both work alone. They both take some risks in pursuit of their vision of justice. They both get hurt. They both make mistakes. But while Alex is described in some reviews as having “TSTL moments,” Mickey is not. Hard-boiled detectives often blunder through their books, doing things that put them in jeopardy, but no one calls Philip Marlowe TSTL (do they?).

The characters in Untraceable are interesting in this light. I appreciated that Alex was a PI, not someone who accidentally stumbled into the suspense plot, and that both her skills and those of the cop hero, Nathan Deveraux, were required to solve the crime. Nathan and other characters respect Alex, and the two make a good team. On the other hand, she is made to be somewhat blindly stubborn at times to help advance the plot, and she does need rescuing by Nathan. I like how the novel addresses this tension directly, because his desire for her to give up the case at the center of the book–and his preference that she work at something safer–is one of the conflicts in their relationship.

I think gender roles are typically a vexed issue in romantic suspense, which often features a hero in law enforcement or the military and a civilian heroine. The archetypes at the heart of so much romance–the knight in shining armor; the damsel in distress–can be in conflict with or undermine the desire to write a strong, skilled suspense heroine. It’s hard for both writers and readers to escape the pull of those archetypes. If the hero can only be a manly man when he’s stronger than the heroine, well, she has to be made vulnerable. But look at how we often talk about characters: if he takes risks, it’s the alpha male thing to do; if she does, she’s TSTL. What if we used the same yardstick to measure both?

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17 Responses to Friday Fragments: TSTL and Other States of Mind

  1. mezzak says:

    That is a really interesting point re TSTL in suspense and noir stories and how it is gendered. It does seem to me that often the detecting person stumbles through a mystery and it is their capacity to take the hits along the way that seems to lead to the mystery being solved. It is victory by last one standing; of action not intellect as responses are provoked and responded too.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      I think intellect vs. action (and control vs. vulnerability) is a key difference between the classical detective à la Sherlock Holmes and the hard-boiled/noir version. Romantic suspense heroes are usually closer to the latter, and that might make it harder to imagine an active role for the heroine (noir women are not usually positive role models, after all).

  2. I only follow a few mystery series, and they are all historicals, but I do watch/read a lot of film noir and mysteries from the Golden Age. The common denominator in all is that a “TSTL” heroine exists when the female protagonist’s bumbling actions are created for the dashing male protagonist to swoop in to lecture or rescue her. The male characters may follow dead ends, or may accidentally end up in the villain’s clutches, but they are cool and collected, and use their wits to extricate themselves from sticky situations. It’s quite rare for the female character in mysteries to remain just as level-headed and clever–unless she’s the femme fatale, and she’s always caught or punished in the end.

  3. The only mystery series I’ve read that does not do this is Carole Nelson Douglas’ Irene Adler series–but then her series was created specifically to give voice to The Woman.

  4. mezzak says:

    There are definitely TSTL heroines and most often they are so primarily (I would have said) due to lazy writing. Now (prompted by this post as well) I am thinking about TSTL in light of the trolling/anti-bullying discussions which have pretty much been about what the victims should do/have done as what culturally we do to women and victims as we explain to them and about them what they coulda, shoulda have done differently.

    As we blame women and heroines for not having agency or seeking to act with agency or acting in ways that are solely reaction, we are blaming them because they are scapegoats for the cultural failings of our society. Writers write women and heroines like this because they are swimming in anti-woman and rape culture and can’t see it because it is inside them. I read Jane’s review of the female rock star book on DA as a lament against all this because every TSTL heroine is a refusal to see our society as it is or should be.

    Today on there was a moving article about Amanda Todd and the Reddit awfulness The article talked about the Reddit stuff with its free speech recommendations that women don’t go outside unless they expect to be attacked or creepshot-ed, as part of a war on 12 year old girls. 12 years old is not just Amanda Todd’s age when her persecution began but when young women are at that point between childhood and adulthood where they take control of their own lives and bodies. It is this that is anathema to the misogynists.

    I think it also highlights for me that what a TSTL heroine does is deny women the right of agency. I don’t think we should stop calling out characters as TSTL but really agree with your post that we need to unpack more what is going on.

  5. mezzak says:

    Other thought – just as the Macquarie Dictionary is adding a secondary definition to misogyny to reflect how it is currently understood and used. I am wondering if we are in usage broadening and shifting what ‘Mary Sue’ means? I had this thought pop into my head when I saw some twitter stuff recently, that ‘Mary Sue’ can now have a secondary meaning of ‘an heroine who doesn’t have agency; she reacts rather than acts’.

    So does this suggest that a true romance heroine written in the 21st century is one who has agency or acts to achieve her HEA/HFN in ways that reflect or work around the world (historical, contemporary, UF, etc) she lives in? Does this make a TSTL heroine an anti-heroine?

    Are our strong reactions to TSTL heroines not just that we don’t want someone we are barracking for to be stupid and not usefully reckless but because they remind us of when we don’t have agency because of how our worlds are structured (remembering that authors make the world the heroine lives in)?

  6. VacuousMinx says:

    Great column. I wonder if this ties into holding women more responsible (or blameworthy) for their mistakes, i.e., when a man does something that backfires, it’s because he took a risk that didn’t pan out. When a woman does the same thing, she’s TSTL. But then in fiction at least, women seem to pay more severely for their mistakes. The penalties are greater and the road to redemption is steeper.

    So TSTL is invoked because the heroine has more to lose. It’s a bit like blaming assault and violence on the woman’s choice of clothing, road home, etc., as Merrian suggests. Or, when a man fails to have protected sex and the woman winds up pregnant, he’s unthinking or a jerk, but she’s much worse than that.

  7. jmcbks says:

    I don’t have anything intelligent to add about TSTL as either misogyny or lazy writing.

    But I will note that as I read J.L. Merrow’s Pressure Head, a m/m romance in which one MC is a private detective, I thought both MCs displayed TSTL behavior. The TSTL behavior engineering the face off with the villain at the end, and I thought it was a lazy way to get to the confrontation, diminishing my enjoyment of the book.

    • mezzak says:

      Funny you should say that 🙂 because I had that book in mind when I wrote my first comment above and because I had just watched a TV movie about a Melbourne Lawyer Jack Irish who stumbles into and through a political whodunit with lots of murders. Then I was thinking about what makes Adrien English different to these examples.

      • jmcbks says:

        I had forgotten about Adrien English. I should go back and reread to compare, but off-hand I’d say that Adrien was TSTL in at least two of the books and it bothered me enough to make a note at LibraryThing. Maybe the difference is that I’ve read more from Lanyon and have a bigger trust cushion for him?

        And now that I’m thinking of Lanyon there’s Fair Game to consider. Am ambivalent about the confrontation there, even with former FBI hero.

  8. Thanks for the links to the two new blogs!

    I enjoyed My Sweet Folly, and I thought the opening sequence of letters was superbly done.

    I also am a fan of Laura Griffin, and while I read Untraceable not that long ago, I don’t remember thinking of the heroine as TSTL. She was stubborn, maybe difficult. But I like difficult heroines. (I know there can be issues with describing heroines that way, since we don’t usually say “difficult hero”, but it seems the easiest way to describe a heroine that is prickly/stubborn/puts off the hero in one way or the other.) I also really liked Alex’s job.

    Anyway, lots of interesting thoughts on gender and how that plays into things; I’ve enjoyed reading them. I do think, too, that if a hero doesn’t throw himself into the way of danger he will, under some circumstances get dinged for not being heroic enough in a way that the heroine won’t necessarily.

    As an aside, in can be technically difficult, and some writers are better than others, at writing clever characters. It’s not always lazy writing, but sometimes not quite accomplishing what is being attempted. (Er, yes, I am in the middle of a troublesome scene, although it’s not about any characters being clever, particularly.)

  9. SonomaLass says:

    The TSTL heroine designation is a tricky one. When we criticize for that, of course we’re criticizing how she’s written, even if we do that in shorthand that makes her sound like a real person. (I find myself lately going overboard that way, since talking about writing comes close to talking about the author, and we all know where that can lead.) For me, it applies when the heroine seems unequipped (by the author who created her, obviously) to survive life on her own. Lots of suspense plots, in detective fiction, paranormal and elsewhere, could be tagged “she’d be dead without him,” but that can result from circumstances rather than character. Male characters take risks, but as long as they get themselves out of the situation, they are de facto equipped for survival. I welcome books where the woman acts to save the man, as well where she has the skills and smarts to save herself.

    I am reminded of a term we used for a while in talking mostly about heroines of historical romance, TSTM (too stupid to masturbate). Another way in which female characters are often constructed not to be able to manage things on their own, so that they make risky choices that put them in bad situations. Risking reputation and social standing usually, rather than her life, because a man showed her how her clitoris works, and and she wants/needs him to do it again.

    These days, I’d rather celebrate the books that work for me than spend time and energy on the ones that don’t. I’ve never wanted to be the kind of reader who only posted positive reviews, but I’m certainly not going to get heavily critical on my personal blog in the current climate, and I’m less and less happy using Goodreads and Amazon as ranking/reviewing platforms. It’s a real dilemma for me. So far it’s making me a lot pickier about what I pick up to read, because of the specter of having no place to talk about the book if I don’t like it. I’m playing it safe, with recommended books and trusted authors, and I don’t think that makes me a very useful contributor to the reading community right now.

  10. Juhi says:

    Hi Liz! I’ve been visiting your blog for a while – found you through Novelreadings. Just wanted to holler a hi and also say thanks for sharing the Romance for Feminists blog (I’m really enjoying it!).

  11. Liz Mc2 says:

    Thanks for the great comments on/examples of TSTL, everyone. Very helpful. I haven’t really figured out what I think, it just struck me reading these two characters (neither of whom I would describe as TSTL) side by side.

    Glad people are enjoying the new blogs.

    • Bee Ridgway says:

      Wow, what a great conversation. I’d love to know what people think about the TSTL heroine’s evil twin — the feisty heroine. It seems to me that — in historical romance, at least — the easy answer to the TSTL heroine is the “feisty” heroine, a dialectical response to the TSTL problem that I find equally annoying. “Feist,” or whatever that quality is, only works if the heroine is forgiven by men at every turn for her individual charm; in other words, she neither sees nor changes the world around her except to charmingly blaze throught in on the path to what she wants. There are plenty of fantastic feisty heroines, don’t get me wrong. But for the most part I find that particular answer to the TSTL unsatisfactory, and I’ve often reprimanded authors in my mind for taking either route. Now I know how hard it is to shake these twins, having written my own novel. I found it very difficult (in art as in life, I guess) to avoid writing a ditzily inactive or a “reactive” but isolatedly “feisty” female lead — and I had thought it would be easy. TSTL me, to think that I could simply and easily (feistily) push back against centuries of generic convention! I could go on and on about fighting that battle (horses and bayonets), but I won’t. Also thanks for the new blog links! Fabulous.

      • mezzak says:

        And you have reminded me of the wonderful (not) combination of the feisty TSTL heroine who also comes with a side serving of Mary Sue FTW.

        I have just read an m/m series that exemplifies this to me. I have been thinking since I overdosed on four books about the same characters that there is also a smugness that goes along with these feisty/TSTL characterisations that I associate with unreflectiveness in both the characters and I think on the author’s part.

        I really like your point about how the feisty heroine like the TSTL heroine is always seen in the particular or individual and not connected with how her world shapes her possibilities and opportunities.

  12. Jackie Horne says:

    Thanks, Liz, for the mention of my blog. I’m glad you’re enjoying it!

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