A few days ago the New York Times Books posted a season's round-up of romance novels that veered far from the season and included language that belittled the accomplishments of the authors mentioned therein. Radhika Jones, after defending their choices, has asked for feedback on topics we romance readers would like to see covered. I have revised parts of the Gottlieb article to show that while humor and critique are fine, alluding to an author's sexuality based on what she writes on the page, or including being birthed to her father among her achievements, or telling a black author that her characters aren't black enough, go beyond what I would expect to read in the New York Times in 2017. Below is my revision of the article. The passages in purple are my own. I was unable to highlight some offensive terms that I deleted, so here is a link to the original article for comparison. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/09/26/books/review/macomber-steel-james-romance.html
He: Simon Arthur Henry Fitzranulph Basset, Earl Clyvedon, Duke of Hastings, whose face “put all of Michelangelo’s statues to shame” — “the perfect specimen of English manhood,” whose “opinion on any number of topics” is sought after by men and at whose feet “women swooned,” yet whose tragic childhood has left him determined never to marry and, above all, never to father a child who might suffer as he had.
She: Lady Daphne Bridgerton, daughter of a viscount, beautiful, witty, sympathetic, bored by her conventional suitors and yearning to have children — she’s one of a happy brood of eight.
They: Meet at a ball, banter, begin to fall in love. Yet so many things keep them apart! Will he be able to conquer his demons? Will she be able to help him to? You’ll have to read Julia Quinn’s THE DUKE AND I (Avon/HarperCollins, paper, $7.99) to find out.
This book, originally published in 2000, introduces the reader to the seductive world of the Bridgertons, full of familial teasing, the oh-so-proper expectations of the ton, and young men and women who thrive and find love in spite of them. This tremendously popular series, written by Harvard graduate Julia Quinn, has all the hallmarks of the genre. A hero and heroine, who seem polar opposites in both desires and temperament, who find themselves attracted despite these obstacles, and who then spend the rest of the book gleefully overcoming them on the way to their happily ever after. Long dismissed as pap or trite, the romance genre has enjoyed decades of steady sales because of their steadfast convenant with their readership. We may take you on an emotional roller coaster, but it will always end happily. Amidst the doom and gloom of many popular fiction titles and the flood of depressing current event/non-fiction titles, romance provides the one place in popular fiction where a woman can read a book and be assured the heroine will not be killed off and will enjoy a satisfying resolution to her problems. No mean feat.
He: Carver is a top F.B.I. agent, determined to protect the woman he loves from a killer who’s stalking her.
She: Zoe is an ex-New York cop, fed up with the corruption of the police force and now a successful private eye, not at all happy at being protected. “I don’t need you to take care of me.”
They: Are caught up in a spiraling thriller, danger from a psychopathic killer looming everywhere. Will she survive? More important: Will she let Carver back into her life? Go straight to Cheris Hodges’ DEADLY RUMORS (Dafina/Kensington, paper, $7.99) when it releases Oct. 31 to find out. While this book suffers a mismatch of pacing between the romance and intrigue plots, many will enjoy watching two African American characters tackle a conflict that does not revolve around the struggles of being black in America. Yes, race relations are a huge problem in this country right now. No, they do not have to be the central conflict of every book with black characters.
Thanks to a groundswell push for more inclusion, more novels featuring one or more main characters of color are being published outside of isolated lines like Harlequin’s Kimani line, which the romance behemoth announced in May, 2017 it will be closing. Many in the industry have worried that this will be a big blow for writers and readers of color. Seeing work like Ms. Hodges’ and others coming out of the Kensington house is promising. There is more work to be done in this area, including an expansion of editors and other publishing professionals of color, but that is fodder for another article.
Romantic suspense is a popular sub-set of the genre, replete with all of the tropes you’d expect to find in the latest Grisham or Brown, with a satisying romatic arc overlaying the intrigue. In fact, most other genres of popular fiction, including sci-fi, mystery, suspense/thrillers, and crime procedurals, all have their romance counterparts. Only in these you’ll find a heroine with agency who doesn’t have to die just to increase the male lead’s angst or backstory for future installations.
They: Are young Cameron, a single father, and young Kirstin, who works like a dog on the family ranch. We’re in Montana, where we often are in books like these, unless we’re in Wyoming or Colorado. The American west evokes a timeless sense of grit and determination in a beautifully wild setting. The setting lends itself to rough and tumble heroes and women with strong wills and stronger shoulders. This tale is no exception. Clearly, Cam and Kirstin are made for each other, and we’re not kept in suspense over their fate. The real romance is between Cam’s mother, Maddie, a famous detective-story writer who’s just come through a successful bout with chemo, and Kirstin’s cantankerous, aggressive and overprotective father, Sam. She’s 67, he’s 68, but who’s counting? A lot of people, it turns out. In a genre that so often focuses on the narrow age range of 18-28, this story of a mature couple finding love stands out. Many readers are clamoring for a wider age range of heroes and heroines to better reflect the realities of finding love later in life, and Ms. Anderson delivers. Not much suspense here either, but lots of comfortable detail about food. Rugged Cam “loved to create different dishes from scratch and had an uncanny sense of what flavors complemented others.” In fact, the first time Kirstin tastes his cucumber salsa she exclaims: “Recipe, please. … It would be great as a veggie dip.” Everyone’s problems are resolved at the big holiday dinners they all share. This cozy romance is called THE CHRISTMAS ROOM (Berkley, $19) and is by the popular Catherine Anderson. Her pleasingly written books have sweetly pretty covers, and this one has an extra added attraction: the author’s recipe for Russian tea cookies.
Note, I could write an entire article on the messaging inherent in romance covers and how savvy readers use that hidden language to find the books they love, but I shall save that for another day.
The hundreds of romance novels — perhaps thousands, if you include the self-published ones that constitute their own phenomenon worthy of an article— just published or due to appear in the next few months essentially fall into three categories.
Category One: Historicals
There are the historicals which have enjoyed a resurgence in the last five years after fears that the sub-genre was dying. Many fall into the Regency era, building on the legacy of the superb Georgette Heyer, whose first one, “Regency Buck,” appeared in 1935, while exploring new avenues in terms of the heroines’ agency and the hero’s response and pushing sexual boundaries. But the historical romance lover is not limited to learning about Regency England alone. New series have been released featuring Victorian England, Colonial America, Gilded Age New York, and Colonial Cape Town, as well as new Medieval series which have long been staples of the genre.
Category Two: Contemporaries
And there are the contemporary young-woman-finding-her-way stories that are the successors to the working-girl novels that for decades provided comfort and (mild) titillation to millions of young women who dreamed of marrying the boss. This formula reached its apogee in 1958 with Rona Jaffe’s “The Best of Everything,” whose publishing-house heroines find either (a) business success at the price of stunted love, (b) true love and wifey bliss, (c) death. But almost 60 years have gone by since the virgins of “The Best of Everything” hit the Big Apple, and real life has had its impact not only on modern romance but — as we shall see — on modern Romance. The major change I’ve seen in the near sixty years that I’ve been reading romance is that feminism is alive and well between the pages. While a woman may still lust after a co-worker, she no longer sees marriage as the end game of her career. In Sally Thorne’s THE HATING GAME (Harper Collins, paper, $14.99) our own reviewer Sophie Gilbert remarked There's not even an infinitesimal flicker of doubt about where the story is headed, but along the way Thorne reveals an astute command of office politics and the often demeaning realities of workplace dynamics for women. The chemistry between Lucy and Joshua is also gratifying, with both seeming like fully conceived characters rather than passive stereotypes. If there's nothing new to discern here, it's at least a vibrant take on an old standard. For more on politics and feminism and their intersection with the romance genre, please see the writings of Sarah MacLean or the writing duo of Christina Lauren.
Category Three: Specific Sub Genres
Futuristic, Sci-Fi, Urban Fantasy, Romantic Suspense, Paranormal, LGBTQA, Thriller, Inspirational, Erotic, and more. Any subject you care to read about, I promise you there are books to match your appetite beneath the romance umbrella. In another phenomenon worthy of its own article is the explosion of online communities that readers of romance have created in order to share their love of a genre that so often gets met with censure or derision in real life. Smart Bitches Trashy Books is a mainstay of the romance blogging scene that offers reviews and book recommendations for anyone who emails the site. Facebook is another avenue that romance readers have begun to use for recommendations. Much in the way that Pantsuit Nation began as an underground meeting place for Hillary supporters, Closed and Secret Facebook groups have been popping up like wildfire as safe places for women to share their love of love without shame or judgment and ask for more of what they want. Some manage it better than others, but by and large these groups are empowering their members to reach for their own pleasure between the pages of whatever book they choose. And if you are stuck trying to find just the right book, or can’t remember the one with the yellow dress on the cover that was so angsty and good that you must reread it immediately (THE HIGHWAYMAN by Kerrigan Byrne who’s long awaited fifth book in The Victorian Rebels series THE SCOT BEDS HIS WIFE, Macmillan, $5.98 releases October 3, 2017) these women and men have the answers. And yes there are men there, too, who talk and share freely without fear of stigma. Yet another article for another day.
The Regencys, however, have barely altered their formula. You may be Georgette Darrington — of Bridget Barton’s A GOVERNESS FOR THE BROODING DUKE (Amazon Digital, 99 cents) — who’s left penniless by her improvident father and perforce becomes governess to the adorable wards of the taciturn, unfeeling Duke of Draycott, suffering such humiliations as being served burnt toast by the antagonistic upper servants. …
Or Lady Honora Parker, who’s struggled for years to wrest autonomy from her father (“the eighth Earl of Stratton and a bunch of lesser titles not worth repeating at the moment”) and is the heroine of Joanna Shupe’s A DARING ARRANGEMENT (Avon/HarperCollins, paper, $7.99), set in the late 19th century, though Regency in all but chronology. Honora takes New York by storm, entering into an agreement with the notorious rakish financier Julius Hatcher to pretend to be engaged — his entree into top society, her strategy in her war with the earl. Following the popularity of Downton Abbey, which is built on the premise of American heiresses returning to England, this is a delightful new twist on the trope, taking readers into a new glittering society in which many similar societal restraints will feel familiar…
Or Emma Gladstone, a vicar’s penniless daughter in THE DUCHESS DEAL (Avon/HarperCollins, paper, $7.99), by Tessa Dare, author of “Romancing the Duke,” “Any Duchess Will Do,” “One Dance With a Duke” and “Say Yes to the Marquess.” (Not everyone can be a duke.) The young Duke of Ashbury is traumatized by the terrible scarring that one side of his face has suffered in battle. He doesn’t want love, he doesn’t want a real wife, he wants an heir. Emma is working as a seamstress (though every inch a gentlewoman), and when the duke proposes at their very first meeting, what choice does she have? “She would be a fool to refuse any duke, even if he were a bedridden septuagenarian with poor hygiene. This particular duke was none of those things. Despite his many, many faults, Ashbury was strong, in the prime of life, and he smelled divine.” In this regency romp, inspired by a modern day Deadpool, readers will find laugh out loud descriptions and banter that make even this well-worn rags-to-riches trope shine.
Or Wilhelmina Ffynche, the most beautiful girl in London, who has rejected 14 proposals of marriage and has no intention of being “won.” But when she encounters Lord Alaric Wilde, second son of a duke, who’s just back in England after becoming a Byronic legend through his fabulously successful books about his adventures around the world, she agrees to rescue him from the crazed attentions of female fans. She’s funny, she’s sexy, and as Eloisa James, author of WILDE IN LOVE (Avon/HarperCollins, paper, $7.99), puts it, “In the last half decade, he’d seen an enormous white whale, the Great Wall of China and the aurora borealis. And now he’d seen Miss Willa Ffynche.” Robust sex and amusing plotting follow with elements from this author’s formidable knowledge of Shakespeare’s work thrown in, as we would expect from a writer who in her other life is an Oxford scholar and a professor of English literature at Fordham.
Whichever of these heroines you may be, you are guaranteed to end up in marital (often ducal) heaven, after dealing with one or another of the ingenious obstacles that create whatever suspense the genre can generate. As has often been noted, the Regency romance is a cross between “Pride and Prejudice” and “Jane Eyre”: Either the lovers discover their true affinity through their intelligence and humor or, as mousy Jane does with fierce Mr. Rochester, the heroine tames her man by helping cure him of his anger, depression, self-loathing, trauma. Or both. One new element in the genre these post-Heyer days is the addition of highly specific sex scenes featuring his “hardened rod” and her orgasm that “went on for what felt like hours but was probably only a minute or two.” Bodices no longer need to be ripped — your bosom happily meets his abs halfway. Twenty years ago, a Regency would not have ended, as “The Duchess Deal” does, on this rapturous note: “They reached a toothache-sweet climax together, as if simultaneous bliss wasn’t a rarity but the most natural thing in the world. The sun rises; the wind blows; orgasms arrive in tandem.” The idea that a heroine’s consent is now paramount is a welcome change from the rape filled tales that led to the now-obsolete moniker “bodice rippers.” This is one area where modern conversations of rape-culture and misogyny have had a true impact, making certain old tropes no longer enjoyable to a modern audience. Now that’s Romance. A study comparing authors like Kathleen Woodiwiss and Bertrice Small who vividly portrayed sex on the page back in the 70’s with those who do it now, and the societal changes that have occurred along the way would be interesting to many.
No orgasm, solo or in tandem, we should note, graces the pages of the most prolific and successful romance queen of all time, Barbara Cartland, step-grandmother of Princess Diana and author of 723 novels, 160 of them unpublished at her death (just before her 99th birthday) in 2000. Her son is still doling these out, one a month, as “The Pink Collection,” and they are without benefit of sex. The formidable Barbara knew where her readers wanted the line drawn: No Cartland heroine ever came into contact with a hardened rod. In the plethora of available sub-genres, readers who enjoy this style can still find closed-door reads where sexy happens off the page or “clean” romances which remain more chaste. There are also inspirational romances that have well defined religious themes that range from generally faith-based to very specifically Amish, and everything in between.
Cartland’s successor as Queen of Romance is America’s Nora Roberts. And she deserves to be. Roberts is not only extraordinarily industrious — 215 or so novels, including 45 futuristic police procedurals under the pseudonym J. D. Robb, also big best sellers — but her books are sensibly written and on the whole as plausible as genre novels can be. I remember being struck some years ago by her common sense about what women want, need and deserve. Unlike her leading competitors’ heroines, for whom the ultimate goal remained scoring the ideal mate, a Nora Roberts heroine was encouraged not only to score him but also to find a satisfying career path in life: It wasn’t either/or, it was both — and he’d better adjust to it!
Today, indeed, a plot limited to catching a man would seem an anomaly. Not only do young heroines work hard and well, they may even be the boss. Consider Maggie and Owen — both bosses — who grew up together in adjoining mansions on the Jersey Shore in Caridad Pineiro’s ONE SUMMER NIGHT (Sourcebooks Casablanca, paper, $7.99). The famous retail chain that Maggie and her father run together is faltering, and real estate tycoon Owen has reappeared in her life — they’ve drifted apart since that one magical summer night on the beach when they were kids. (Standing in the way of their mutual attraction was the mortal enmity between their fathers, New Jersey’s Lords Montague and Capulet.) Owen has all the standard appurtenances — he’s “the epitome of male perfection — raven-black hair, a sexy gleam in his charcoal-gray eyes, broad shoulders and not an ounce of fat on him” — plus the sensitivity today’s heroines demand in their men: He wants to help Maggie, not dominate her. Even so, it’s not Owen but his equally sexy and macho brother, Jonathan, who’s taken some cooking lessons in Italy and makes them all dinner, the pasta “deliciously al dente while creamy at the same time.” The sex between Maggie and Owen is equally delicious: “When he danced his tongue across perfect white teeth, she playfully chased it and then lightly bit his lower lip, jerking a groan from him,” shortly before he’s caressing “the swollen nub.” Maggie also has the support of today’s de rigueur group of women friends, wise in the ways of romance. (I’m absolutely certain that lawyer Connie is going to end up with Jonathan of the Bolognese.)
A gang of girlfriends also rushes to the support of their friend, Pallas Saunders, who loves her work running Weddings in a Box, a “theme wedding” venue. Sparks fly between Pallas and world renowened artist Nick Mitchell, but he’s finding it hard To Commit. The real conflict, however, is between Pallas and her domineering mother, who is determined to have Pallas join her in running the family bank. What’s a girl to do? Luckily, the she has plenty of girl power to back her up in Susan Mallery’s YOU SAY IT FIRST (HQN, paper, $8.99).
And then there’s Catherine Bybee’s Lori, in FOOL ME ONCE (Montlake Romance, paper, $9.99 ), a flourishing attorney who works with a small elite marriage-for-hire service for the rich and famous, marriages designed to be temporary that include an uncontested and lucrative divorce. Lori takes three of her recent divorcées off on a European jaunt to help them re-enter a husbandless existence, and they bond: “First Wives Club or bust.” “Girl power.” But what about gorgeous Reed, some mysterious kind of private investigator? Whom is he working for? Can he be trusted? No matter: “His kiss was an inferno in under a second,” so no surprise that “a lick, a nibble and a suck, and Lori was lost.” But Reed still must earn her trust. The lesson: A lick and a nibble are all to the good, but complete honesty is essential. All truths must be told, especially by the man.
The empowerment of women, abundant sexuality steamily reported, female bonding rule the current roost, yet the biggest phenomenon in recent romance is atypical. Originally published privately in Australia, the E. L. James “Fifty Shades” trilogy, with its saga of a nice college girl giving herself over to the S &M predilections of a tormented (but gorgeous) zillionaire, has sold over 125 million copies in half a dozen years. James has been derided for her less-than-sterling prose, but mostly by readers — Salman Rushdie is one — who I doubt are familiar with the standard romance literature. Many readers who are familiar with the burgeoning erotic romance market will tell you Fifty Shades is not a romance. There are many other well-written options to match whatever your kink may be, and we will happily recommend a few excellent ones in yet another article with no judgements passed on you dear reader for daring to read what you like.
Does this mean that what vast numbers of women are really looking for is bondage, not bonding? Or is this just a daring momentary flirtation with one extreme possibility of romantic relationship? If this season’s crop of romances is anything to go by, there’s no general rush to the whip: E. L. James and other erotic romance authors may have both stirred up a vast market and satisfied it. We shall see. Not unexpectedly, her books, while breaking the rules in some areas, hew slavishly to others. Yet again we have the girl of modest circumstances winning today’s equivalent of the duke, the multimillionaire — the Lizzie Bennet syndrome. And yet again we have the girl of empathy and generosity curing the tormented man: Jane Eyre redux. BDSM apart, it’s the same old song.
You can’t get farther away from quirky E. L. James than Debbie Macomber who writes sweet contemporaries (200 million copies sold). In her recent IF NOT FOR YOU (Ballantine, $27), not only does piano teacher Beth defy her controlling mother to mate with superior garage mechanic Sam, but she reunites her beloved Aunt Sunshine (yes), a highly acclaimed artist, with the man she loved when they were young, pulling off this miracle through a canny ruse featuring fish tacos. In Macomber’s current ANY DREAM WILL DO (Ballantine, $27), she brings together tragically widowed Pastor Drew Douglas with just-out-of-prison Shay (she embezzled only to save her brother’s life). Best line of dialogue, spoken by Sadie, Shay’s co-waitress at the cafe where they work: “You got the hots for a man of God?” And in Macomber’s just-off-the-press annual Christmas book, MERRY AND BRIGHT (Ballantine, $20) — she’s MERRY Smith, he’s Jayson BRIGHT, get it? — handsome, rich but deeply despondent boss and pretty, warm, life-loving temp fall in love through the Mix & Mingle dating website, unaware that they’ve crossed swords (and looks) in the office. (Yes — it’s “You’ve Got Mail,” fully acknowledged.) Crucial to the story is Patrick, the light of Merry’s life: her enchanting 18-year-old brother, who has Down syndrome.
And finally there’s the redoubtable Danielle Steel, who according to Wikipedia is the fourth-best-selling writer of fiction in history, right behind Agatha Christie, Shakespeare and Barbara Cartland. She writes glamorous women’s fiction with no guarantee of a happily ever after ending, and would tell you herself that she is not a romance writer. Surprise! Yes, Danielle Steel has given us the best-selling THE DUCHESS (Delacorte, $28.99)!
Exquisite Angélique is the 18-year-old daughter of the Duke of Westerfield (cousin of George IV) and Marie-Isabelle, “a Bourbon on one side of her family and Orléans on the other, with royals on both sides.” It was a love match, despite a big disparity in age, and Marie-Isabelle loved Belgrave Castle as much as the duke himself did, “helping him to add beautiful decorative pieces to his existing heirlooms.” Unfortunately, she dies giving birth to Angélique, who is raised in happy seclusion by her doting father, adored by all. But Daddy dies, and her wicked half brother, the new duke, who hates her, exiles her from Belgrave to work as a nursery maid somewhere far away. She can inherit nothing, because of the entail, except for some jewelry of her mother’s. But providentially, as her father is dying, he hands her a pouch containing £25,000 that he has squirreled away.
Bravely Angélique accepts her fate, and settles in to her new life of service. But when she rejects the advances of a salacious young master, she’s fired — without a reference! Therefore no domestic work for her in England, and when she tries France, she has no better luck there. Down and out in Paris and London, knowing no one and with nothing but her pouch between her and destitution, what does this pure, delicate flower of the aristocracy do? Just what you or I would do: Practically overnight, she opens what rapidly becomes the most elegant, successful bordello in Paris (preserving her own virtue, needless to say). Then on to America, marriage to a hugely rich lawyer who dies (of plot), leaving her with a dear little boy and a fortune. Meanwhile, her wicked half brother has overspent, so has to sell Belgrave Castle, which she secretly buys … and so forth.
The entire preposterous story is predicated on Angélique’s not grasping what anyone in her place would certainly know — that £25,000, even cautiously invested in the famous 4 percents, would have provided her with a sizable income for life: no need to be a nursemaid or a madam. But we (and she) would have missed all the fun.
This retro venture into romantic territory, flatly written like all Steel’s books, is just further evidence of how romance can swing any which way. As with any genre there are well written pieces of art and there are poorly constructed disappointments. Regency, psychopaths, wedding planners, ranchers, sadists, grandmas, bordellos, dukes (of course); whips, fish tacos, entails, Down syndrome, recipes, orgasms — romance can absorb them all, which suggests it’s a healthy genre, not trapped in inflexibility. The advent and blossoming of self-publishing has increased the diversity of plot lines ten-fold by eliminating the major publisher bottleneck. On the one hand this increases the likelihood of readers finding their catnip. On the other hand there are a lot more poorly edited, poorly written books to wade through while trying to find the gems. The efforts of the RWA and RT to help self-publishing authors further their craft without the benefit of a NY-employed editor is worthy of an article on its own.
The romance readership is vast and diverse, encompansing men and women and every stop along the LGBTQA spectrum, its satisfactions apparently limitless, its profitability incontestable. And its effect? Staggering. An article on the true impact of romance on the general publishing industry by-the-numbers, would shock the general fiction readers of this fair paper, I would imagine. The fact that this billion-dollar-a-year industry built up largely by women writers who have been dismissed by mainstream review outlets is thriving despite that is newsworthy. The fact that we no longer look at mass market paperback bestsellers in this paper, thereby decreasing another avenue for readers to find the books they will love, is worth questioning. The fact that we would choose to debut a three page segment on romance while trying to change our image and rebrand this segment of the paper with an article that reduces accomplished multi-millionaire authors to adorable spankers who are daughters of famous poets, should really make us think twice about our intent. Why shouldn’t women dream of fair and equal reviews of their work in the New York Times, free from misogyny and mansplaining and without conflating the author with her work? After all, guys have had this priviledge for years in their largely male-dominated corners of genre fiction like mystery and sci-fi. Why should women still be dreaming about being given the respect they deserve for writing damn entertaining pieces of fiction in 2017? Why indeed.
Robert Gottlieb’s most recent book is “Avid Reader,” a memoir. He has been editor in chief of Simon & Schuster and Alfred A. Knopf, and the editor of The New Yorker. This has been edited from its original format by Eva Moore.