A Woman’s Passion — A Review (and then some)

| Feb 11, 2008
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Blogger Corinne Scott

Last month, I challenged someone–anyone–to point me towards some decent TG fiction. Cheryl Sanders picked up the gauntlet, offering up her own novel, A Woman’s Passion for my criticism. Brave indeed, considering the low regard I have for TG fiction in general. So how did it fare?

First, a short synopsis:

Alan is our protagonist. He is unusually curious about how sex must feel from a woman’s perspective. Luck is with him though, as his new girlfriend Cassandra just happens to have a live-in South American shaman who knows the secret to mystical gender-bending. Arrangements are made, the transformation affected, and Alan becomes Allison almost over night (well, actually over a period of days). Cassandra, as you might have guessed, becomes her guide in this new and interesting world.

A Woman's PassionThe long and short of it is this: A Woman’s Passion succeeds well as TG fiction, but not quite as well as a story in its own right. All too often its adherence to the tropes of the former conflict with its pursuit of the latter; it really feels like a book engaged in a tug-of-war with itself. In the end, though, it’s something else that forced my final judgment of the piece.

For the record, I’m not quite sure how to refer to the author, as she uses three names almost interchangeably. I’m going with Cheryl Sanders because, dammit, I prefer the female nomenclature and her nickname “Cassandra” will too easily confused with one of the characters in the novel. If, however, you want to buy this book, the name that appears on it is Alan Barrie.

Technically, A Woman’s Passion is well-written, which immediately elevates it above the rank-and-file of the rest of its kind. There are some grammatical errors — more so as the book goes on. I would’ve preferred fewer, but as a sometime writer myself, I understand the importance of having a good editor. Probably Sanders didn’t have access to one as she moved forward with the publication, and knowing that, I’m willing to forgive a few typos. Unlike most examples of TG fiction, the typos are not significant enough to disrupt the coherence of the text, and that’s what is most important. Apart from that, Sanders can turn a phrase. Certain lines and images reached out and grabbed me just as effectively as in any book I’ve ever read. Furthermore, Sanders has an ear for dialogue; that stuff is hard to write, but Sanders, more often than not, finds a way to make even the most ludicrous conversations seem, if not real, at least easy to indulge.

Cheryl SandersSanders’s structuring of the novel is interesting. I love how she ends the chapters — almost all of them are cliffhangers of a sort. Not crappy ones either; they build to a point where you really want to continue reading. They end with real momentum. Sadly, I don’t feel like they sustain it very well, inevitably taking a break at the beginning of the next chapter to describe a lengthy scene of putting on clothes or makeup, or occasionally an act of sexuality that in context just seems crass. Which is an example of a genre cliche that was probably unavoidable if Sanders wanted to preserve her core audience, but ultimately hurts the writing.

Allow me to digress for a moment and touch on a couple of things I find most distasteful in TG fiction.

Most TG fiction is homophobic. Early on, in most stories, a protagonist will make some dramatic statement professing his heterosexuality. Never mind that he will shortly confound that statement by suggesting he might be curious about having sex with a man or performing fellatio, he is undeniably straight. You don’t have to be a genius to recognize how questionable this is. The problem here is that the whole gay/straight thing is a holdover from the trans-community in general, and Tri-Ess (themselves a common feature of much TG fiction) in particular. We somehow think that by claiming “straightness” it mitigates the shame of wanting to be (or at least look like) a woman. The thing is, there shouldn’t be any shame, and saying you’re straight just sounds like rationalization. It doesn’t ring true, not in life, and not in print; I swear, Shakespeare was talking about trannies when he wrote, “The lady doth protest too much, methinks.* If you’re going to feel guilty, own it rather than cast aspersion on other someone else’s lifestyle.

But that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Another feature of TG fiction is a sort of latent misogyny that nestles up within it. It’s hard to see too, because on the surface, it sometimes seems like homage. But it’s hurtful to women, in a couple of different ways.

The first, and most obvious, is the way transgendered women approach womanhood in these stories (and it must be said, in real life too) as if it’s something that can be quantified and adopted with only a few days worth of effort and experience. As if it’s all makeup and pretty clothes. As if it’s all sugar and spice. I don’t have to tell you how demeaning most women would find this. In that it persists and we really believe it, it’s damaging.

The second and more insidious way is how women are portrayed in these stories, as willful accomplices who want nothing more than to make the men in their lives into women. I get that most of us wish that a genetic woman would come forward, take us by the hand, and show us the way to being female — it’s probably the biggest shared fantasy among us, actually. But I can tell you from experience that women struggle with this notion when they’re around us; they don’t want to be thought of as tools to help us along our journey. In a sense, we objectify women just as wrong-headedly as any testosterone-addled buffoon who can’t take his eyes off their chests ever has, and the fiction we write is a living testament to that.

Both of these elements are present in Sander’s book. I think it is page five where Alan, asserts his straightness. By that time his girlfriend, Cassandra, has already been set up as his gate-keeper to the female life. To Sander’s credit, A Woman’s Passion soft-pedals this stuff, even performing a bait-and-switch of sorts. Alan comes into it as a standard character for a piece of TG fiction, and the typical fetish reader would be drawn in because they recognize these familiar qualities in him, but along the way a great deal more emerges.

As the story progresses, Sanders puts forward some interesting insights. Not the ones that the story hinges on, necessarily– I think Sanders makes too much of “love” and its relationship to womanhood, and despite attempts to throw in some feminist thinking, still confounds female sexuality with being female too often — but at certain quiet moments I think it gets into a headspace that if not completely a woman’s, is at least a transsexual’s. It’s thoughtful. At times it’s genuinely sweet.

There’s other good stuff too. The old movie references are great, one and all. Certain setpieces really stand out; the scene on Apple Hill is legitimately tense and scary, and the dream sequences are quite fun (I was really moved by one near the end, involving a boy with “a lock of black hair”). And there are single moments that are splendid; the one at the club where Allison and Cassandra exchange painful looks while in the arms of separate men is excruciating (if, ultimately, of little dramatic consequence). And while I generally abhor the “magical transformation” sub-genre of TG fiction, the mythology at work here is actually kind of cool.

That the book ultimately fails, then, isn’t so much it’s adherence to trans-fic conventions — Sanders does a great deal more with the subject matter than most — but rather its lack of dramatic heft. In fiction, it’s the choices the protagonists make that reveal the story’s thematic grist. In A Woman’s Passion, Allison/Alan rarely makes a choice that affects the narrative; most conflict, in fact, is resolved through outside intervention. From the beginning this is the case; Alan (still a “he” at this point in the story), wants to experience sex from a woman’s point-of-view, but rather than seek out a solution to this quandary, he is handed the opportunity by his girlfriend, Cassandra. When learning to live as a woman, it’s Cassandra who does most of the heavy lifting. When confronted by sexist pigs, it’s Cassandra who saves the day. And at the end of it all, though some conflict is built up around the notion that Alan/Allison may not want to return to life as a boy, her thoughts and opinions are rendered moot as the decision is made for her. It’s less a story and more a written series of encounters and occurrences.

If you skew the perspective, though, it almost becomes a story, and a pretty good one. To do so, you have to think of our main character, Allison, as the viewpoint character, and the girlfriend, Cassandra, as the protagonist. In A Woman’s Passion, it’s Cassandra who makes all the difficult and interesting decisions. If she was just a tad more put-off by the whole process of seeing her boyfriend become a woman; if he had come to her instead of her-to-him, and if she had just been a little more reluctant to indulge his fantasy, Sanders might have had something truly magnificent.

Let’s face it though, no one reads tranny fic for all the pretty words and clever plot devices. They don’t read it for feminist thought or political correctness. They don’t read it for compelling characters or situations or thematic power. They want to read about the clothes, the makeup, the jewelry, the hot girl-sex, and all the rest of that stuff. And A Woman’s Passion delivers that. In fact, the “climatic” moment where Allison finally gets to be with a man is handled deftly, with genuine tenderness, and for my money that’s the best kind of erotica.

Although I have to wonder if the average reader and I would agree even on that point.

* Ironically, Shakespeare was referring to a crossdresser with that quote. Google it.

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Category: Transgender Fun & Entertainment, Transgender Opinion


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  1. says:

    Oh, Corinne, about “the mythology” in A WOMAN’S PASSION that you thought was kind of cool.

    In the interest of full disclosure, I have to report that it’s not really mine. The ideas are cribbed generally from the actual cosmicology of many Native American peoples up and down the spine of the hemisphere from the Rockies to the Andes. This explanation of the universe was explored in a series of bestselling books in the 70s by a UC, Irvine anthropologist … you’ll recognize the name … Carlos Castenada. The best of the series, if I remember right, was something like JOURNEY TO IXTLAN. (And you actually can read and enjoy it without ‘shrooms in your system!)