Born to Be Bound

I was intrigued by the description of the novel Born to Be Bound in the New York Times article that I read last month about professionally published Omegaverse romance novels. ABO Batman fic with the serial numbers filed off? Sign me up!

I didn’t realize just how intense it would be. I can’t imagine being a literary agent and being like, Yes! This is absolutely the sort of thing that needs to be on the shelves at Barnes and Noble!!

(Content warning for everything there is to be warned for, probably.)

Starting with the Brontë sisters and moving on from there, the vast majority of het romance involves the subversion of patriarchal power structures by means of the domestication of decent and sensitive straight men who have been socialized to embrace toxic masculinity. What this means is that, at least at the beginning of the story, there is always some amount of bad behavior on the part of the male lead. Depending on how kinky the novel is, sometimes the bad behavior is indeed very bad, but at some point the man realizes that he’s wrong, changes accordingly, and is rewarded with affection.

In Born to Be Bound, the man doesn’t change. He’s an alpha, so he can’t change; that’s just who he is. It’s actually the female lead who needs to change by accepting her biological destiny as an omega. The title of this novel is just about as literal as it gets.

Basically, the male lead drugs the woman, imprisons her, and repeatedly rapes her with the intention of impregnating her against her will. When she resists him, he drugs and rapes her more. She still resists him, so he begins beating her, biting and hitting her in order to punish and mark her. This is the entire novel: drugging, beating, and rape until the woman eventually stops considering suicide as her only means of exerting her agency.

In addition, the author doesn’t come out and say that the female protagonist is fifteen or sixteen years old and “mated” to someone in his forties, but it’s strongly implied. Her youth and vulnerability make it difficult for her to cultivate allies and escape, and this is very sexy, apparently.

There’s an attempt at a plot, but it doesn’t go anywhere that isn’t a justification of why the woman deserves to be imprisoned and raped for her hubris in thinking she’s a full human being. Humans are slaves to their biology, after all, and she should have known that being claimed by the top alpha was the best she could hope for as an omega. The story’s catharsis comes when the woman “learns” to be grateful. There’s a lot of talk about how omegas exist to be dominated and bred, but no real exploration of how this has impacted society – just a lot of the female lead expressing her abject misery, trying desperately to get away from the male lead, and being drugged and beaten for her efforts.

I’m mostly indifferent to romance as a genre, and I’ve never read the giant novels about sexy cavepeople that everyone keeps telling me about, but I’ve always enjoyed the work of authors like Jacqueline Carey who write dark fantasy with strong erotic elements. That being said, Born to Be Bound is on a different level altogether.

I’m not wringing my hands in moral panic like someone whose first encounter with female-authored erotica was Fifty Shades of Grey, and I actually appreciate certain Omegaverse elements like pair bonding and same-sex parenting. Hell, I’ve had to respond to people’s comments on my own stories on AO3 in order to explain that the characters do not deliver academic lectures on safe sex because this is fiction, not a manual intended for educational instruction in the current best practices for whatever community exists to serve a particular fantasy.

I mean, don’t like, don’t read. Your kink is not my kink, and that’s okay. Born to Be Bound isn’t for me, but I’m happy it exists for the people who enjoy it. But just, wow. This is not “soft” Omegaverse by any means. Instead, the author has dialed all the genre’s tropes up to eleven without any sort of explanation, reflection, or analysis. How in the world did this sort of thing become mainstream romance fiction?

Manga Cultures Book Cover

When I was young and stupid, I included a critical comment about a book’s cover in a review I wrote of an academic monograph. Like the fool I was, I blamed the awful cover on the book’s author.

That book was published by Palgrave; and, now that I’m publishing my own book with Palgrave, I know a little more about how this works.

Palgrave has a policy of taking its cover images from stock photograph websites, specifically Getty Images and Alamy. I’m sure this is appropriate for some books, but it’s not particularly suitable for a book about East Asian popular culture.

Getty Images and Alamy are open for anyone to search. If you like, you can try your hand at finding a good cover for a book about shōjo manga and women’s comics in an international context. To save you the trouble, I’ll go ahead and tell you that there isn’t much there.

You’ll mostly find a lot of pictures – generally of poor quality – of manga magazine covers. Almost all of these photos depict manga magazines for boys and men, and some are adult magazines that can easily be interpreted as catering to fetishes that sexualize minors. None of these photographs is particularly visually appealing. Moreover, since many magazines rebrand themselves according to current trends, a photo like this is going to feel very dated very quickly.

There are also photos of people reading manga in convenience stores and bookstores, but (again) they mostly depict men, and their focus seems to be on “wacky Japan” street fashions. Given that this is a book about “the female gaze,” I would feel weird about a photo depicting an actual woman to begin with, especially if it’s a candid photo and the model hasn’t given her consent to have her face appear on the cover a book.

I therefore requested that we use an original illustration commissioned especially for this project. Since this is a book about women reclaiming the way they’re depicted in popular media, I think it would be cool to have a depiction of a female artist in an illustration created by a female artist. This would also be a good opportunity to have a colorful and eye-catching cover, and an illustration would avoid the pitfalls of gender politics inherent in the medium of photography.

This request met with really strong pushback from both my original editor and my current editor at Palgrave, and I had to push back with equal force to even get them to consider using an illustration drawn by a female comic artist for the cover of a book about female comic artists. I’m not going to lie, it was a super awkward conversation to have, and it lasted for months.

Now I feel awful about criticizing that scholar about the cover of her book. It’s so embarrassing, because I was so wrong. Academic publishing is just like this, I guess.

Anyway, I’ve been in touch with one of my favorite artists in the world about this book cover, and hopefully I’ll to be able to make progress soon!

It’s Dangerous to Go Alone

I’ve been learning some things about academic book publishing recently, and I can’t believe I ever had the nerve to criticize any of the academic books I’ve read. This process isn’t easy!

I don’t mean to suggest that publishing an academic book should be as simple as writing something and submitting it. Peer review is important, of course, and academic presses should maintain standards.

That being said, a lot of academic presses seem to expect that their authors will do a fair amount of the formal work of publishing for themselves. I want to discuss this in more detail in future posts, but let it suffice to say that it takes a great deal of time and effort for an author not just to ensure the quality of their manuscript itself but also to act as an editor and agent of the press.

I’m working with Palgrave, which is better than most, but the process of getting my book into print hasn’t been as smooth as I (perhaps naively) hoped it would be. One of the most rewarding aspects of publishing academic writing is working with a good editor, but there doesn’t seem to be a lot of editorial support in academic book publishing. For me personally, this has unfortunately exacerbated the anxiety I already feel about this project.

I therefore decided to hire an independent academic editor. I’ll write more about what this entails in the future, but for now it’s liberating to admit that I really need some help getting this book published. Because I’m already so stressed about everything, I also asked a close friend to help me out and serve as a liaison with the editor to make sure communication remains open (as opposed to me having a panic attack and taking two weeks to respond to an email).

I understand that this is somewhat unorthodox, but I believe in this project, and I want to publish the best book that I can. In order for this to happen, it’s important for me to have access to help and support. Manga Cultures a really cool book project, if I do say so myself, and it deserves to be done right.