Yesterday, one of my favorite political blogs linked to a Bill Maher bit where he chastised Rupert Murdoch in the style of a Harlequin Presents (or at least what he and his audience think an HP is). It wasn’t the first time the blog has used romance as a joke; so I dashed off an email in protest. For your reading pleasure, it’s appears below the fold.
When I saw your story linking to Bill Maher’s segment on HarperCollins (and by extension, News Corps and Rupert Murdoch) acquiring Harlequin, I was not surprised. Romance has been something of a joke on TPM for a while (see this and this). I’ve been reading the blog since I was in college in the early 2000s; I had noted the addition of more female voices and the increasingly nuanced coverage of stories related to gender in the past year. But somehow when it comes to genre romance, all that falls away.Romance sales account for about 17% of the US consumer market, beating out its closest competitor mystery by a factor of 2 to 1. The genre today includes everything from the category romances Maher mocks to sweet inspirationals to science fiction hybrids, literary erotica, GLBT, small town contemporaries, and sweeping historical epics. With annual sales of about $1.4 billion, romance is a big place.It’s also a female dominated one. In excess of 90% of romance readers, writers, editors, and agents are female. It’s been called the pink ghetto of publishing, but when I think about Jill Abramson, I understand the appeal of the sisterhood it provides.In my experience, romance is progressive. The night of Wendy Davis’ filibuster, the romance writers on my Twitter feed were as incensed as the feminist bloggers–perhaps more so. The genre centers itself around women’s desire and pleasure. It explores and validates women’s lives, which is something that broader mass culture hasn’t always done.The perception is that working class women write and read romance. This is reductive and perhaps simply wrong; indeed romance writers seem like a highly educated and privileged group. But any one who wants to denigrate an entire genre of literature at a time when fewer Americans are reading for pleasure simply because it’s not high brow enough (a determination that’s often been reached without ever cracking a romance open), really needs to think about his or her values. Why would it ever be okay to judge someone’s taste? If romance truly were by and for housewives (and again, I don’t think it is), why does that mean it’s without artistic or cultural merit? Are we really that uncomfortable with love and sex still?To be clear, romance is not perfect. Terrible writing can appear in the genre; formally and thematically conservative books too. Romance can be lily white and focused on rich, able-bodied, beautiful, straight people–but in my experience, this is true of both literary fiction or other genre lit. I would be happy to provide you with a list of beautiful, moving, diverse, feminist romances.What does not happen with romance, but does with other categories of fiction, is for it to be evaluated in the media by people who understand and respect it. In the interest of full disclosure, I am published by a division of Harlequin. The acquisition news was met by skepticism within the romance community. And plenty of jokes were made about Rupert Murdoch there too. But if you want to know what questions Maher and by extension TPM should have been asking, look no further than the popular romance blog Dear Author’s essay from the weekend the deal broke.Romance isn’t a punchline, Dr. Marshall. At the very least, if you don’t understand the genre and its function in popular culture, it might be best to leave it alone.
I never did receive a response, let alone a request for a list of kick-ass romances that demonstrate the breath and depth of what’s happening in the genre today, but if I had, this is what I would have provided.
- The Iron Duke, Meljean Brook, steampunk
- Welcome to Temptation, Jennifer Cruise, contemporary
- Written on Your Skin, Meredith Duran, historical
- A Lady Awakened, Cecilia Grant, historical
- Glitterland, Alexis Hall, contemporary/GLBT
- Something About You, Julie James, contemporary
- The Winter Sea, Susanna Kearsley, strong romantic elements
- The Lotus Palace, Jeannie Lin, historical
- The Siren, Tiffany Reisz, contemporary/erotica
- Snowfall, Mary Ann Rivers, contemporary
- Private Arrangements, Sherry Thomas, historical