In researching my piece on the history of Harlequin, I spent quite a bit of time trawling old newspaper coverage. And I noticed a recurring theme: Reporters tend to treat Harlequin as a joke (despite the fact the company has historically made shitloads of money), and they often think it would be very funny to try imitating the distinctive style of a category romance novel.
Well, joke's on them because their impressions are generally fucking awful. Not to mention it's the most cliched approach imaginable. Let the Globe and Mail take a crack at turning Harlequin's president into a Harlequin hero (all these excerpts via LexisNexis). From 1983:
Square-jawed David Galloway felt a perverse tingle of excitement. His handsome features resolved themselves into a mask of pure joy as the electrifying news sank into every fibre of his being: his company finally had a book on the New York Times bestseller list! Harlequin Enterprises Ltd., eager to please but scorned by publishers of more sophisticated titles, had finally found acceptance between the sheets of the wise, worldly Times.
Seconds later, a dark thundercloud of anger chased away the exultation as bitter memories crowded in. His company had toiled hard and profitably for years, and for what? To spur the derision of high-hat but low-profit houses that sneered at Harlequin as a publisher of simple-minded "romance fiction" with no redeeming literary value!
Michiko Kakutani, come on down! Here's her lede for a 1980 New York Times piece on the company:
Simone had inherited the Schuster charm. Since her first passionate debut in May, she had already set the hearts of several hundred thousand readers aquiver with her fervent and always exotic adventures. She possessed a certain ingenue innocence that her readers could easily identify with, and she always fell deeply, hopelessly, repetitiously in love with hot-tempered and mysteriously moody men, who bore a remarkable resemblance to Ricardo Montalban. For all the tormenting pangs of desire she suffered in holding off his initial advances, she inevitably found, in those last few pages, happiness always and forever. Yes, she was everything the most extensive market-research campaign in publishing history had proved romance readers liked. Liked? - Wholly wanted and desired!
SIMONE, of course, does not really exist, but she could well be the model for all the heroines of Silhouette Romances, a new line of massmarket paperback novels created by Simon & Schuster and Pocket Books.
Here's The Toronto Star in 1990, writing about how the incredibly successful Janet Dailey came to write romance novels:
Something snapped in Bill. He loved her so much his heart could break but he couldn't stand to hear her complain about those books. He was aware she was smart. After all, she'd been his secretary for years and long before his admiration had blossomed into love, he knew she could write well, even if they were nothing more than business letters.
His eyes flashed in uncharacteristic anger. "Dammit, Janet," he said, "How many more times are you going to say that? Either do it or shut up."
She looked at him in surprise. Now she was angry. "How dare you speak to me that way," she retorted. "I'll just show you what I can do."
Pink lips trembling, tears welling in her gray-blue eyes, she knew she could write a book. She'd have to, to prove it to herself and more importantly to prove it to the man she loved.
Sorry, where's the emoji for "jack-off motion"? Please note that the newspaper and Harlequin were owned by the same company for many years and Harlequin generated a boatload of money for their parent company. But let's let the Globe and Mail take another crack, from 1999:
Happy Valentine's Day, darling. It's me, the Man of Your Dreams. The New Man of Your Dreams. I still have linebacker shoulders and a belly like ribbed steel, but they're hidden behind this baby carrier. If I take it off, it might wake your little daughter and I just got her to sleep. I still have long, lean, well-muscled legs, too — but they are hard to see under my chef's apron. Did I mention I'm making breakfast? No, darling, I won't get into bed, despite these flames of raging desire. Not yet. When I feel that you have learned to really trust me, oh, then we'll make the Earth move. For now, how about we just talk about that job of yours? . . .
Then there's this, which is part pastiche, part just good, old-fashioned sexism. From the Miami Herald, 1983:
You never know. Why, out there in this audience of apparently perfectly ordinary housewives and mommies and matronly ladies there could perhaps be another Janet Dailey awash in swoons and vapors, there could be another Jennifer Wilde burning with fever dreams, there could be a Rosemary Rogers, there could be a Flora Kidd; there could be pride, passion, swollen fury; there could be torrid need beating in those breasts, there could be ... forbidden desire, roiling and fuming like ... like ... um ... a volcano.
Agh, the tumult. Women feel things so ... deeply.
BITCHES GOT FEELS, RIGHT?
The tenor of coverage of romance novels generally and Harlequin in particular—which has improved since these examples were written, but not enough—is especially annoying when you consider that there's an entire ecosystem of tech publications dedicated to fawning over the latest nothing fundraising rounds by startups that'll disappear off the radar within five years at best. Even if categories aren't your thing (which is perfectly fine! to each her own!) you'd think people would take such an industry player just a tad more seriously.
Anyway, if you ever find yourself in the position to write about romance, you'd be better served letting one of the industry's outspoken authors do the talking. Props to this 1992 Washington Post piece:
When people ask romance author Sandra Brown if she's still writing "those little books," she said she's always tempted to answer:
"No, after 55 books, numerous good reviews, numerous writing awards from Waldenbooks, B. Dalton and several professional organizations, a condensation in Cosmo magazine, a national television commercial, several book club sales . . . , audio deals, three movie options, scores of bestseller lists, including seven appearances on the New York Times bestseller list and translations into more languages than you could name, Bozo, I gave it up."
Get it, Sandra.