Here’s some news: Harlequin romance novel heroines have been owning their sexuality since the 80s—perhaps before, but my first-hand knowledge doesn’t go back further so I can’t confirm.
I know this because I started reading them in the 80s precisely because the women had interesting jobs and stood up for themselves and had hot sex with orgasms even before they got married, which was not something I saw in books other than those written by Jackie Collins (the late, always great, awesome Jackie!). I’m not a romance scholar, but I am a long time reader and a multi published writer in the genre with a passion for it and a lot of loud opinions I don’t feel like stuffing down anymore. I’ve not been published by Dare, nor in print by Harlequin (although I do have two Escape titles), so I have no skin in this game except the aforementioned passion about romance writers and novels, which both still seem to be copping the relentless, tedious, fucking endless putdowns dished out by mainstream media.
The more I read the Globe and Mail article about Harlequin’s new Dare line, the more livid I get. And so, smart, sensible or not, I’ve decided to break down everything that’s fucking wrong with it, because when I’m pissed off I write. I have no wish to offend anyone involved, and I hope I don’t. But hell, I’m offended. So I didn’t start this shit. So here goes.
12 things wrong with the latest article sneering at romance
1. FABIO. IN THE FIRST PARAGRAPH. FFS get a new reference to illustrate how samey same you think all romance covers are. Suggestions: Clinchy McClinch Artwork, 8 Pack Abs Torso shot, OK Cupid Website Header or Single Expensive Object on Dark Silky Background. These are all more recent and more common romance novel cover staples than anything with Fabio on it, seeing as he gave up modeling for covers in the 1990s
2. “The forward heroines are a new look for Harlequin, which has been peddling women’s fantasies for nearly 70 years.” No. Forward heroines are not new (more on that in the following points). And the folks at Harlequin HQ must be tired, what with all that peddling of women’s fantasies. What does that even mean? Don’t reduce a fulfilling, meaningful profession that brings many readers joy and happiness as mere ‘peddling’, like we’re all snake oil saleswomen. It’s insulting.
3. “Euphemisms have been ditched for graphic terms and rose petals and candlelight have been replaced by blow jobs in moving cars.” Also “the shift to more explicit sex is long overdue.” It’s not overdue. This all happened in the 1990s with the advent of the Harlequin Blaze line. Authors, and characters, have been using the words ‘fuck’ ‘pussy’ and ‘cock’ at the very least since 2008, if not before (the book I remember ‘fuck’ and ‘cock’ first appearing in was published in 2008—thank you Sarah Mayberry). Also I read sex in moving vehicles in the 1990s, I’m damn sure, although I cannot name the book. I read a book about a woman who pretends to be a stripper so she can seduce a guy she liked the look of (written, I’m sure, by the terrific Julie Elizabeth Leto). I’ve read countless novels where heroines have casual hot sex with men they want, just because they can and not a euphemism in sight.
4. “Harlequin is following a raunchy (and highly lucrative) indie romance market.” LOLOLOLOL…my sides… they’re splitting… The indie romance market wouldn’t exist in its current form if it didn’t already have a huge segment of existing avid romance readers to supply to–a market in very large part created and cultivated by Harlequin, and to another large extent, by small press erotic romance publishers like Ellora’s Cave and Samhain (full disclosure, I wrote for both those publishers in the past 10 years). To suggest Harlequin are ‘following’ Indies is like saying millennials are entirely responsible for the current backlash against sexual harassment and abuse brought into prominence by #metoo. Just because it’s happening now, does not negate all the work that has gone on before now to build a foundation on which people can build a platform. Many Harlequin writers were trailblazers who cleaved a path through resistance and ridicule from mainstream media and non-romance readers who believed the genre’s bad reputation without digging into why it has that reputation at all. Those writers got us to this point, where we can write pretty much whatever we want and publish it traditionally or through self-publishing. Where we are beginning, finally, to be taken seriously as authors and business people (although not by the Globe and Mail, apparently).
5. The overall tone sucks. ‘peddling’, ‘churn out’, ‘pumps out romance novels at night’, as though authors are catching onto a stupid craze like fidget spinners and trying to cash in, instead of crafting meaningful, articulate stories about relatable people trying to find love, while the entire world outside Romanceland is pointing and laughing at them all the goddamn time. Emotional love stories that readers connect with aren’t ‘peddled’ or ‘pumped out’. Frankly, it’s diminishing and infuriating that anyone would say so.
6. “Since the Dare books are shorter than other Harlequin titles”. Desire, Presents, Hqn Romance and Hqn Medical Romance submissions also suggest a top word count of 50,000 words, the same as Dare. Not sure why the books are being pushed as ‘short’ reads but granted this info probably came from Harlequin *shrug*
7. Harlequin is “sorely late to the game with its explicit romance line. ‘The independent market has been putting out these books for a long time,’”. Sure…on the backs of the work Harlequin already did tapping into and supplying a market for sexually explicit books with its Blaze line, and to a lesser but no less significant extent with its Temptation line which stretches back to the 1980s.
8. “The publishers are catching up and wanting to get some of that money.” Again, not catching up, but diversifying, rebranding in a market that is moving incredibly fast, which seems like a logical business decision. Also is there something wrong with a business trying to enter a viable market (*cough* which they created in the first place *cough*) in order to make money? Isn’t that called…Capitalism?
9. “Damsels in distress have been traded in for careerist heroines”. The first romance I ever read in 1986 was a Harlequin Temptation starring a heroine who was a successful professional photographer who trekked through the woods as well as the hero did and took none of any shit he dished out. Careerist heroines have been common in Harlequins since then at least, because careerist heroines are the type I’m most interested in reading about and I’ve perhaps read 1000+ romance novels since then, all featuring women supporting themselves with jobs that mean something to them. The Damsel in Distress hasn’t been a thing since, well, before Fabio left the scene. I’m surprised the article didn’t throw in the term ‘bodice ripper’ to win the shitty ill-informed cliché trifecta.
10. The remarks about feminine jobs like party planner and matchmaker are interesting. Let’s unpack them. While there certainly are fantasy elements to romance, contemporary novels are not written in a vacuum. In real life, many women do enter ‘feminine’ careers, and just because someone is a children’s party planner, that does not mean she is not a tough or strong woman. Nor does it have anything to do with how assertive she is as a sexual being or how submissive she is in romantic relationships. And it certainly doesn’t mean she isn’t smart or doesn’t work hard (have you ever planned a childrens’ party? EGADS. Operating a jackhammer on a busy freeway is probably easier). Additionally, there are many examples of heroines in Harlequins dating back decades where they had more ‘masculine’ jobs. Nora Roberts’ early category romances often featured heroines with traditionally male occupations, like pilot or chef (not cook, chef), not to mention police detective and private eye. Sarah Mayberry wrote a female professional boxer in 2008 (Below the Belt). I know I read a Harlequin where the heroine was a bodyguard (I can’t remember the name, but I wish I could!). Romance heroines have a vast range of careers and have for thirty years or more, so basing an assumption about Harlequin’s feminist sensibilities on the four books featured in one article is poor research. I also find the judgy attitude about which careers are worthy of respect and which are too ‘girly’ to be taken seriously problematic in the extreme. What is inherently wrong with ‘feminine’ professions anyway? Why are these jobs ridiculed in this article? If a woman is a secretary, is she automatically not a feminist because that’s a traditionally female job? Is her feminism compromised by the likelihood that her employer is a man? Is a character not worthy of starring in her own book if she’s, say, a beauty therapist who waxes bikini lines for a living? I’ve written waitresses, naturopaths, a nanny, a personal stylist, two English teachers…is English teaching too ‘feminine’ to be feminist? Do I get points because I once wrote a lawyer heroine…and get them taken away again because she gives up her career at the end of the story (her reasons were good and not just about the peen, I swear).
I seriously … can’t …. even with this job criticism bullshit.
11. I agree with the problematic nature of many employer/employee books in terms of them possibly constituting sexual harassment that was pointed out in the article. The entire genre, both traditional publishing AND indie, is liberally peppered with workplace romances, many of which ignore the potential for the relationships to be misconstrued as a crime rather than true love. This is not an issue exclusive to Harlequin, you need only glance at Amazon’s top 100 in romance to see how many hot alpha never-takes-no-for-an-answer billionaire bosses there are out there. I’ve not done the numbers, but I’d be willing to bet the indie publishing authors are just as, if not more guilty, of indulging this trope and ignoring the legalities, simply due to the fact they have nobody telling them they can’t cross certain lines (it’s true, I’ve self-published too and I know I got away with some dicey sex stuff in a coupla books because I had no one telling me to be a good girl–it was damn FUN). Unlike Harlequin authors, who must pass muster with scrupulous editors intent on examining the ‘gray areas’—something expressly stated in the article.
12. “Often, climaxes are instant, with heroines screaming in ecstasy at the slightest touch of a man, much like they do in mainstream, male-directed porn. The romance genre is fantastical, but these female writers should know better.”
Oh, this is a doozy. I think this was where I totally lost my shit and decided to embark on this 2000 word diatribe. With at least fifteen intensely erotic published romances under my belt, not to mention the sweeter ones where the heroines also got a happy ending in more ways than one, I’d like to have a good run at this comment.
These women should know better?
These female writers DO know better. Being one myself, I’ll tell you exactly why we write (amongst other types of sex) sex that results in fast, intense and incredibly satisfying orgasms: achieving an instant climax is the ULTIMATE FANTASY for a woman who works all day, maybe has kids to fix dinner for, and/or other family members and friends monopolizing her time, traffic to commute home in, school piano recitals and sports days to attend, pets to feed, a house to clean, bills to pay and numerous and sundry chores accompanied by the constant, nagging worry that she is doing it all wrong somehow. The average romance reader is between the ages of 30 and 54 (according to a study conducted by Maya Rodale) is likely time poor and distracted and maybe not achieving quick intense orgasms on the regular (if you’re doing all that and still getting it on wild style 6 nights a week…more power to you, girl). It may take hours just for her to relax her stressed out self enough to even let the idea of sex tantalize her, but does she have that kind of time? NO. So sex can be difficult enough to achieve for a working family woman, an intense and thoroughly satisfying orgasm even more elusive. THANK GOD ITS POSSIBLE IN ROMANCE NOVELS, AMIRIGHT? Women like quick hot sex in romance novels because it’s the only time they DON’T HAVE TO WORK SO FUCKING HARD TO GET ‘THERE’. OKAY?
A fast downhill run to the sex finish line does not make a sex scene porn and men aren’t the only ones who want it fast. These books are written by WOMEN, for WOMEN who consume them in large quantities and rarely if ever (never in my experience) write to authors and complain that the sex isn’t like the sex they have in real life. Don’t you DARE tell romance readers their fantasy sex has to adhere to the sometimes humdrum standards set by reality. Nuh HUH. Romance novel heroines get off as often and as fast as they want, goddammit. And I for one won’t be shamed for ‘peddling’ unrealistic fantasies because I’ve never written a hero who farts or leaves his socks on during sex.
Also, just FYI, for a young person without kids who is sexually confident and assertive as these Dare heroines are, achieving an orgasm in a short space of time with a person she finds incredibly hot is totally, completely doable. It just is. Not for everyone for sure, every woman is different, every man is different and sadly they’re not all made of book boyfriend material. Heh. But in general, women do have orgasms (gasp!). Sometimes, if circumstances are right (like they are in romance novels, for example) they can happen quickly and be fully awesome and satisfying. Sometimes women even WANT satisfaction quickly so they can get off and still have time for an episode of Game of Thrones before lights out. If this is so completely unrealistic, I don’t really know what women in their 20s are doing with their Thursday nights. If you are a woman in your 20s with no kids and access to a hot guy, I recommend you DO THIS RIGHT NOW. Sex. Pizza. GoT. Your time is now, ladies. Don’t let anyone tell you having good, orgasmic hanky panky is unrealistic, because they are trying to lower your expectations. FFS. If anything women need to raise their relationship expectations, not lower them.
So that’s it. I’m done. Exhausted. Prolly too much on my mind to have a quickie up against a wall even if seduced by a sexy motorcycle rider who looks exactly like Jensen Ackles, but just a bit badder, with a scar and a heart of gold….
Ahem. Maybe I’ll go download a sexy, feminist romance instead.
Sami, you’re a goddess. SO WELL SAID.
haha Goddess. I like that.
This is an awesome response, Sami. I had most of those same thoughts.
A couple of things – you mentioned a female bodyguard – I’ve read a couple as well (and can’t remember the titles off the top of my head), but Leah Ashton had one out last month with Harlequin called The Prince’s Fake Fiancee: http://www.leah-ashton.com/book/the-princes-fake-fiancee/
Also, when you mention Blaze and Temptation, don’t forget Spice and Spice Briefs. https://www.harlequin.com/shop/brand/spice.html They were really pushing the envelope back when this imprint was launched.
Yes, I realised after I published that I forgot to mention Spice. I may add a note.
I wrote this in a pique after a day at work & it was all very visceral & based on my personal experience. I never actually read much of the Spice range so it didn’t pop into my mind, but I was aware of it & I should have thought to mention it. I believe Megan Hart wrote some for them, amongst others…? Very good erotic books.
I research better when I’m not mad
I have been reading Harlequins for over 40 years…. they ware wonderful….and those RAGS that put it down are ignorant.