For the average person, romance novels bring to mind one word: Harlequin.
Of course, it's not a very illustrious name. It's treated as a punchline, a smutty innuendo. God forbid it pass your lips in literary circles. Despite the company's frankly astounding financial history, generations of journalists have treated any related assignment as an excuse to do their best impression of its novels' distinctive style. (Those impressions are generally abysmal.) People who haven't cracked a book open in years feel fully qualified to sneer at Harlequins.
But very few people seem to have a good grasp on what, exactly, a Harlequin romance novel actually is. I'd go so far as to say that everything you think you know about the company is probably wrong. They're not raunchy "bodice rippers," a dismissive term that more properly refers to the historical romances of the 1970s, which were never Harlequin specialties, anyway. They're not "pornography for women," either—Harlequins were long quite prim, holding the line against premarital sex until the 1980s, and to this day, the company's offerings are often mild in comparison to the gloriously filthy stuff that's readily available on Amazon. To dismiss them as "trash" is lazy and intellectually incurious.
Harlequin's bread and butter has always been a very specific type of book: the category romance, a distinctive corner of the publishing business. Typically less than 200 pages, their print editions are like magazines, with a limited shelf life (though particularly successful titles are repackaged and released). Harlequin sells many clearly branded "lines" of category romance, and editors of each have specific guidelines for aspiring writers. Each book must deliver on its promises about the level of sensuality, the preferred sort of settings, the overall emotional tenor, whether it's angsty or lighthearted. They're formulaic compared to single-title romances, but that doesn't mean identical, and in fact they vary wildly—because when you're so constrained by space, you've got to get creative if you want to stand out. Nora Roberts once compared writing categories to "Swan Lake in a phone booth."
A modern-day Harlequin might be raunchy or sweet; its heroine might be a secretary or a vampire hunter; its setting might be the American West or Manhattan or the Australian Outback or a charming English village or a Greek isle owned by a handsome and enigmatic billionaire. The protagonists might be chasing a murderer, or coping with a SURPRISE BABY, or putting together a fundraiser for Alzheimer's, or chasing a Nazi war criminal, or snowed into a remote cabin. One thing's for sure, though: No matter the obstacles, be they internal or external, the main characters will be mated for life by the final page.
So why Harlequin? How did a humble Canadian publisher—which got its start reprinting other companys' books—become the name most associated with romance? It's a long story, involving a peripatetic former fur trader and his opinionated socialite wife, a Procter-and-Gamble-trained Harvard MBA, some jilted Americans and a whole crowd of damned scribbling women.
Harlequin, born in Winnipeg, released its first title in 1949. Founder Richard Bonnycastle had spent several years criss-crossing the frozen Canadian backcountry as a fur-trading employee of the Hudson's Bay Company. But it was a perilous life for a family man, so he eventually settled down managing a printing firm. Suddenly, he had access to a bunch of printing presses that were perfect if, say, you wanted to create a publishing house specializing in paperback reprints. And so Harlequin was born as a sideline, "a filler for a nice, steady business," Bonnycastle's right-hand woman Ruth Palmour told Paul Grescoe in an interview for his gleeful history of the company, The Merchants of Venus.
It's Palmour and Bonnycastle's wife Mary who deserve much of the credit for getting Harlequin off the ground. At first, the company published a mishmash of genres, with mixed success. Palmour, who ran much of the business day-to-day, noticed "nice little romances" were performing particularly well. Meanwhile, Mary, a socially polished stay-at-home mother, had agreed to read over the company's titles for errors. She began establishing her preferences (she didn't much hold with "sex books," for instance), and soon emerged as de facto editor-in-chief.
Medical romances in particular did well for the company, and over the course of the early '50s, both women noticed that a British firm, Mills & Boon, was churning out good work in the genre. In 1957, Palmour pitched a partnership, sending their reprint rates and suggesting Harlequin would be keen on "some of your doctor and nurse titles."
When they received Ms. Palmour's letter, Mills & Boon was 50 years old, with a tried-and-true recipe for light romantic fiction, the company specialty. In his history of the company, Passion's Fortune: The Story of Mills & Boon, Joseph McAleer outlines two rules established by co-founder Charles Boon in the 1930s that reverberate even today: There was "Lubbock's Law," which said to write from the heroine's perspective; and there was "the Alphaman," which insisted heroes be strong top-of-the-heap types, paragons of stereotypical masculinity. The company also pioneered lasting sales tactics: uniform covers playing up the Mills & Boon name over the author's, dedicating the back pages to promoting their other titles.
During the Depression and World War II, Mills & Boon had done a brisk business with Great Britain's commercial lending libraries: Blockbusters for books, where working class readers could rent a book for a small fee. They'd also formed a cozy postwar relationship with the English women's magazines, selling serial rights for upcoming titles. It was great marketing that benefitted Mills & Boon editorially; because the magazine editors often demanded substantial changes, the romances became even more commercial reads. After all, the two businesses weren't that different: "You have to know who your reader is, be identified with him, know how to attract and hold him in bondage to the almost unbreakable habit (and habit is everything) of buying your product," Woman's Own editor James Drawbell told McAleer.
But by the time Harlequin approached Mills & Boon, the commercial lending library market was dying, and the magazine arrangement was as confining as it was lucrative. Editors like Winifred "Biddy" Johnson at Woman's Weekly wielded a great deal of influence over Mills & Boon's books. Credit for the "marriage in name only" (or MINO) goes to Mrs. Johnson—which allows you to put a couple in close quarters without anybody getting naked. (Harlequins from the 60s are lousy with MINOs.) "She had a good idea of what appealed to the public, which was always a strong romance, with never any suggestion of sex," Charles's son Alan and later editor at the company told McAleer. Author Esther Wyndham described the ideal Johnson heroine: "It was her character rather than her looks that attracted; she became beautiful only at rare moments, preferably when the hero was looking at her without her knowing it." Heroes were to display "glamourous unapproachability." Johnson once made Wyndham remove a scene where the hero excused himself from a party by claiming illness, because "Who can have respect for a man who feels ill at a party?"
Harlequin was offering Mills & Boon not just a crack at the North American market, but a chance to move aggressively into paperback publishing—as well as bigger sales. "We saw the opportunity to put the Mills & Boon book into the mainstream," Alan Boon told McAleer. So the deal was struck, and Harlequin began reprinting Mills & Boon books, starting with Anne Vinton's Hospital in Buwambo and Mary Burchell's Hospital Corridors. In 1958, the Canadians reprinted 16 Mills & Boon novels; the next year, 34. The British firm accounted for a greater and greater share of Harlequin's list and according to McAleer, 1963 was the last time the company republished anybody other than Mills & Boon.
Harlequins from the 1960s—in other words, repackaged Mills & Boon novels, blessed by Mrs. Bonnycastle—have a very distinct tone. One imagines them narrated by the sort of smooth-voiced receptionists who pop up in B movies from the period. In my casual survey of books from the period, the heroine comes across as rather put-upon, sometimes to the point of spinelessness. She is never vulgar, never flashy and wholly virginal. Generally around 19, she's forced to shift for herself and generally must work. If she's a nurse, she's fairly capable; if she's a paid companion, she's likely fairly hopeless. Things happen to the midcentury Harlequin heroine; she does not happen to things. She encounters a wealthy man whose moods she cannot read, whose motives remain mysterious until the last few pages when it's revealed that he's been desperately in love with her the entire time and they must marry immediately.
I'm simplifying, but not that much. Here's an excerpt from Maggy, a 1959 Sara Seale title about a girl who works as a lady's companion for a miserable woman until she's rescued by a paralyzed man who's basically settling down to die but figures he'll do one last good turn by providing this sweet child a better life. (He eventually recovers, of course). He tells her he's bringing her on as a paid companion but has to marry her for it to work, because Ireland. She does not seem to understand that he has basically made her a very rich woman and all she has to do is kick back:
It soon became evident to Maggy that her services as a companion were not required. Garth wrote his own letters and attended personally to such matters arising out of the estate. Mrs. Duffy ran the house and as yet, Maggy hadn't even penetrated to the kitchen regions. There was nothing in the world for her to do at Floyne and with each day that went by, she experienced a feeling of guilt. There appeared to be no good reason whatever for her presence in Garth Shelton's household and her tentative efforts of help seemed to irritate him.
"Amuse yourself how you like," he said on one occasion. "I'm afraid you must find it dull, but Floyne is very isolated."
"But I came here to work—in some sort of capacity," she replied indignantly.
A very admirable sentiment, I'm sure, but, counterpoint: Girl.
Let me stress for anybody who's not a romance reader that for those of us who're accustomed to the more modern stuff, this seems alien. Today we expect in-depth insight into the hero's feelings, for instance. Without that inside track, the "Psych! He's been in love with you this whole time!" moment feels pretty out-of-the-blue, and the hero often seems like a prick. Even more frustrating than the lack of POV parity are the villains, who seem disproportionately female, and the heroines rarely seem to have supportive women to whom they can turn. (Lotta instant friendships with junior maids, though.)
Gradually, writers began pushing the envelope, and Mills & Boon, less dependent upon the women's magazines, began publishing slightly racier stuff. (Books by Violet Winspear, for instance, fairly seethe; absolutely no premarital sex, though.) And still, if Mary Bonnycastle didn't approve, Harlequin wouldn't touch it. Via McAleer:
"The feeling was, Harlequin couldn't publish those books because of the 'sex' in them," Alan Boon said. 'Sex,' of course, refers to intense lovemaking of the Mills & Boon variety, not actual intercourse. "So, we were really sitting on the top of a volcano. There were other publishers, I'm sure, who would have been delighted to publish these books. But, we couldn't, because of Mrs. Bonnycastle. We couldn't offer them to another publisher."
Nevertheless, everyone rubbed along together nicely until the early 1970s, when two things happened: The two companies formally tied the knot—they called it a merger, but really Harlequin bought Mills & Boon, sewing up its pipeline of perfectly honed romances—and Larry Heisey arrived to kick the company into beast mode.
Previously, Heisey had spent 13 years at Procter and Gamble, selling things like Tide and Comet, hence the cliche that Harlequins are sold like soap. I don't want to overstate Heisey's impact; Mills & Boon had pioneered the plots, the recognizable covers, the direct-to-consumer business. But Harlequin had an undeniable hot streak under his tenure.
For one thing, Grescoe says, it was the 1970s when Harlequin invaded grocery stores. They'd always had a presence in places that carried paperbacks, like drugstores and newsstands, but distributing their books through supermarkets made them near ubiquitous. At the same time, B. Dalton was expanding aggressively in suburban malls across America, offering another sales channel. And then there was the direct-to-customer Reader Service, launched in 1970. Subscribers got a bundle of the month's new releases sent straight to their homes. It was so lucrative it would make a modern publisher weep.
Remember: this is before big-box bookstores spread across America, before Amazon and long before the rise of digital self-publishing. There just wasn't as much to read, and romance devotees are famously voracious. "For all we talk about how Harlequin flooded the market, which they did, or created the market and then fulfilled it, that was still happening in an area of relative scarcity," pointed out romance scholar Pamela Regis. Harlequin promised consistently entertaining books you could read in a couple of hours, clearly packaged, available for purchase without so much as driving fifteen minutes out of your way. Imagine you're a woman with three kids and maybe a part-time job, on a budget that's far from unlimited, and think about the power of that promise.
And, oh, the marketing! Never has a publishing company gone to such dedicated, batshit-crazy lengths to move its product. They plowed money into TV advertising, sure, running commercials during prime-time programs like Kojak and Laugh-In, which catapulted Harlequin into a household name. But the variety and range of promotional capers is truly astounding. From Love's $weet Return, by Margaret Ann Jensen:
Other promotional ventures done on a contractual basis include a complete romance published in Good Housekeeping that was followed by a coupon the reader could send in to receive a free Harlequin; a romance packed in the large-size box of Kotex feminine napkins and Bio-Ad detergent; romances given away to customers at McDonald's restaurants on Mother's Day; romances given away with purchases of Avon products and Jergens lotion and a free romance given in exchange for a coupon found on the bottom of Ajax cans.
I would not be at all mad at more Kotex gifts with purchase. It's pretty clear these sorts of (wildly successful!) shenanigans are largely responsible for both Harlequin's fame and its reputation as a cultural punchline. It offends delicate literary sensibilities to see words packaged and sold so nakedly like a TV dinner, no matter how successful a moneymaking strategy. And too, Harlequin was unashamed about going where its customers were—and its customers were women, often housewives. They knew they were selling to women, and they chased women's dollars without embarrassment or apology. And let's face it, being associated with women is often the shortest route to being dismissed in the broader culture as fundamentally unserious.
But it damn sure worked financially. After the TV advertising push, sales jumped 30 million books in two years, hitting 72 million in 1975. Grescoe says that by the mid-1970s, the company printed 450,000 copies of every single fucking book. By the end of the decade, Harlequin had spent several years perched atop a golden goose. In the book business, stores can return unsold inventory for a refund, which often screws with publishers' balance sheets. Harlequin's returns were the envy of the industry. Their market share was unrivalled. The world was theirs.
And they'd done it all without especially dramatic changes to the books. True, the settings had grown more exotic and further-flung, and the blood was pumping a little bit faster: In 1973, the company launched Harlequin Presents as a way to package and sell the Mills & Boon books formerly deemed too racy. Via Grescoe, here's author Violet Winspear explaining her approach:
I put all these cruel manly words into these men's mouths… and then work so as he makes a grab for the girl. And then she's half fainting, you know what I mean, with a burning desire, which she doesn't even understand herself. And then he's bruising her mouth with his urgent, demanding kisses, and he's got this strange steely light in his eyes. And I get it so the girl says to herself, 'What does it mean, what does it mean?'"
Even outside Presents, it was increasingly explicit that the tension simmering between hero and heroine was sexual in nature, even if it was never consummated outside the bonds of holy matrimony: these were the glory days of the punishing kisses. In The Romantic Fiction of Mills & Boon, onetime editor Jay Dixon characterizes this period like so: "In the plots of the Mills & Boon novels during the 1970s the hero is the one in command. His power over the heroine is exercised mainly through sexual domination, but he is also the richer and more powerful of the two; often, he is her boss."
There are always exceptions when you talk about something so diverse as Harlequin, but I think it's fair to say the 1970s were peak jerk. The absolute low point of reporting this article was reading a 1973 Harlequin Presents by Anne Hampson, in which the "hero" kidnaps the heroine and tells her either they get married or he rapes her. I couldn't even make it halfway through.
But despite increasingly aggressive worldwide growth, all Harlequin's books were still coming from the relatively tiny London offices of Mills & Boon. While they published authors from around the Commonwealth (lord, the Australian romances!), they didn't particularly give a flip about chasing the American market with American authors. They turned Nora Roberts down multiple times; in a 1997 interview with the journal Para-Doxa, she said: "I received my manuscript back with a nice little note which said that my work showed promise, and the story had been very entertaining and well done. But they (Harlequin) already had their American writer."
Roberts means Janet Dailey, who wrote hugely popular westerns. For Harlequin, Dailey was all they needed. They'd gotten a little too comfortable.
Harlequin's monopoly on the market was a state of affairs too good to continue forever, and it was inevitable that other publishers would take notice and start angling for their own cut. In the late '70s, Harlequin made it easier for everyone by shooting themselves in the foot. They decided they could handle American sales with their own team, cutting ties with Simon and Schuster's Pocket Books, previously their distributor below the 49th parallel. S&S, out tens of millions of dollars in lost revenue, took the sales force they'd built up selling Harlequins and, with great fanfare, launched Silhouette Books, a serious competitor and a giant middle finger to their former colleagues in Toronto.
Silhouette debuted May 1980, according to The Globe and Mail, accompanied by $3 million in North American advertising including—I swear to God—television commercials featuring Ricardo Montalban. (If you have this on VHS somewhere, I am begging you to send it my way.)
Silhouette had plenty of manuscripts to pick from, because there were scads of American women who wanted to write romance but didn't have a snowball's chance with Harlequin and their Brit-controlled editorial department. Company politics made the situation even worse: Grescoe reports that a Canadian-based editor had made multiple attempts to launch an American line, commissioning manuscripts that would ultimately get scotched. Guess where agents went to sell those finished but homeless books? You guessed it—Silhouette.
In magazines from the period like McCalls, you'll see giant full-color advertisements for Harlequin and Silhouette practically side-by-side in the same issue, jostling among the consumer packaged goods and the coupons. Silhouette eventually sweet-talked Dailey onto their list and made her their star attraction, parking her square in their TV commercials and magazine ads, too. Yet another giant fuck-you to the Canadians:
Meanwhile, other publishers were piling on; seemingly every company decided to launch its own category line. Dell had Candlelight Ecstasy, whose covers alone are enough to tell you these were sexier, more explicit reads. Berkley launched Second Chance at Love. Bantam had Circle of Love, which, judging by the ads, were sweet enough to make your teeth hurt. Fawcett made a crack at the model with historicals sold as Coventry Romance. You get a category romance line! And you get a category romance line! Everybody gets a category romance line!
The Harlequin/S&S faceoff proceeded like a fight scene from a pirate movie, two ships locking onto one another and hammering until one crew gave way. The fight was vicious but brief. In 1984, Harlequin purchased Silhouette. By the late '80s, several competitors had folded (RIP, Candlelight Ecstasy, your covers were too fine for this world). In 1987, president David Galloway was back to trumpeting the company's 75 to 80 percent "series" romance market share to the Financial Post.
The "romance wars" of the '80s (this is a real term adopted by the business press to describe the bitter industry brawl, it is not my coinage) fragmented the market into a million bosomy pieces. Silhouette, now a Harlequin subsidiary, still retained substantial independence. Bantam's Loveswept had survived the reckoning, as did Zebra. Avon had emerged as a major single-title publisher and exerted increasing influence over the genre. With so much more competition, things got interesting again.
For one thing, the Americans had stormed the gates, and they wanted to experiment with new characters and plots and settings and dynamics. Nora Roberts, talking to Para-Doxa:
When Silhouette opened in 1980, looking specifically for new American writers to tip at the Harlequin format a bit, it opened a new era for romance and offered an entire generation of writers a chance…. Silhouette took the Harlequin framework, the constants such as the one man/one woman love story, the sexual tension, the emotional commitment, the conflict and happy ending, then let its new and American-based writers give it all a modern and very American spin.
This is the primary reason, I believe, that category romance, and the entire romance market, has grown and evolved over the years. The American market was poised for the change, for stronger heroines, less domineering heroes, for more contemporary themes. For myself, and many of the writers who started during the early 80s, we were readers of the genre first. We knew what we wanted to read. So we wrote what appealed to us. And it worked.
As Roberts describes, this maligned corner of the business—so often treated as the same book over and over and over—turned into a laboratory for innovation. "Because of the way the books were sold and the way the books were marketed, it enabled us to take risks with some of the storylines, because you have that protection of the line," explained Avon editor Lucia Macro, who worked at Silhouette from 1985 to 1997. "You knew that you were going to get a certain number of books out, because the booksellers or the stores were buying a package of six or four or eight. So you could put in a book that was a little wacky and see if it worked." For instance, category editors were playing around with paranormal elements years before it became a trend. "We could do some pretty interesting stuff along with the very straightforward he's-a-rancher-she's-a-virgin kind of story," said Macro, reminiscing about one title where the heroine thought she'd been abducted by UFOs.
Categories also became the place where many big names got their start. Women like Roberts, Dailey, Linda Howard, Sandra Brown and Elizabeth Lowell, who'd go onto tremendous success, launched their careers in categories, in the midst of the change prompted by the romance wars; later writers like Lori Foster and Jennifer Crusie would follow the same path.
Another development in this period: Harlequins weren't so chaste anymore. The world had changed since Mary Bonnycastle was handpicking doctor-nurse romances. Peyton Place was published in 1956; Woodstock happened in 1969; Deep Throat hit theaters in 1972. Other romance publishers were getting raunchy, too, and this is where the "bodice ripper" comes in. Though I hate this snotty term, it's useful as a way to point to a different strain within the romance genre—a type of book totally distinct from Harlequins. The term sprang from the sweeping, sexed-up historical romances of the mid-to-late 1970s, a boom that kicked off when Avon editor Nancy Coffey fished Kathleen Woodiwiss's The Flame and the Flower out of the slush pile. These books were the farthest thing from innocent, chock full of bedroom scenes. (Honestly, I find some of them tougher going than the syrupy doctor-nurse romances of the 1950s, because they traffic heavily in "forced seduction." If you're a newcomer to the genre, you'd probably find them alarmingly flippant about consent.)
But they featured a feistier brand of heroine, they were more overt and, increasingly, explicitly tied sexual pleasure to the happily-ever-after. Take this passage from Woodiwiss's The Wolf and the Dove, published in 1974, which follows the post-Conquest travails of dispossessed Saxon Aislinn and conquering Norman Wulfgar (the very first romance I ever read):
Her heart trembled under his demanding passion. It touched a quickness deep within her, a glowing spark that grew and grew until it seemed to shower her with burning embers. A thousand suns burst within her and spread their surging heat in ever flooding tides to the very limits of her senses. With a gasp she rose against him, her eyes widening and staring in amazement into the gray ones bent upon her.
Purple as hell, sure, but unmistakably an orgasm. (Did I mention at one point the hero chains the heroine at the foot of his bed, where she sleeps in a pile of pelts? Kinky!)
The result was ultimately more empowered heroines and more frank, unembarrassed sexuality. Unfortunately, within Harlequins—at least at first—this more liberated sexuality was less often claimed freely by the heroine than taken forcibly by "heroes" who sometimes read today like simulacra crafted from used condoms and wadded-up guitar tabs for "Blurred Lines."
They didn't necessarily go over so well at the time, either. In Reading the Romance, published in 1984 and one of the better-known academic texts on the genre, one of the interviewees complains: "I get tired of it if they [the heroes] keep grabbing and using sex as a weapon for domination because they want to win a struggle of the wills. I'm tending to get quite a few of these in Harlequins and I think they're terrible."
But the long history of Harlequin does a lot to explain why "no no no OK actually yes" became such a popular trope. It's very easy to forget how hard women had to fight over the course of the twentieth century to feel they had a right to sexual pleasure. And so, while romance is often treated as a static genre, I prefer to think of it as a sprawling, decades-long intergenerational discussion (sometimes polite, sometimes a bare-knuckle brawl) among women about what constitutes love, how one finds a partner that's worth putting up with the occasional tantrums and dirty socks. Scenes that disturb the modern reader nevertheless paved the way for the more sex-positive genre we enjoy today.
There are also critics who put the dynamic into context. Dixon, for instance, argues that:
Mills & Boon authors of the 1970s and 1980s create men, that are, in the guise of the hero—"other": sexualized, feared and fought against, the heroine battles to make the hero see her as an autonomous individual, while also fighting to bring him into her sphere, where she has supreme power. Conflict, both between the sexes and between men, in the Mills & Boon world, is necessary to make the hero suffer and thus become, through his suffering, fully human and fit to enter the female world.
This dovetails nicely with romance novelist Sarah MacLean's feminist theory of romance as a broader genre. "If you look at it as heroine as hero, hero as society, at its core it's the story of the feminist movement," she told me. Which provides another way to read the novels of the 70s and 80s as products of their time: "You're in the heroine's head, even though it's third person, and the hero is closed off to her. She has to break him open, like he's a world she can't be a part of," said MacLean. "The heroines come at the hero in a distinctly 'female' way. They unlock the 'female' part of him," and "when she's doing that, she's imbuing the hero with femininity. Right? She's saying, it's OK for you to love. It's OK for you to care. it's OK for you to cry."
Starting around 1983, Harlequins suddenly look a lot more modern. Heroines have careers and ambitions and personalities. They're older, and even the young women no longer seem quite so wet-behind-the-ears, so helpless. Maybe the hero's still ultimately forgiven for being a dick, but the text is likely more self-aware about the fact that he's being a dick. While you'll still find Alphamen roaming free in the romance aisle generally and the Harlequin display specifically, outright brutishness increasingly had to be curbed or explained more convincingly or capped off with a really good grovel—or all three. You get the sense that bad behavior is deployed in the service of eventual emotional catharsis, rather than excused.
With the company occupying a plum position in the marketplace, Harlequin's array of offerings multiplied at a dizzying rate in the late 80s and into the 90s. Lines divided and subdivided. Within various lines like SuperRomance and Silhouette Intimate Moments, they began carving out thematic series, denoting what was inside with stickers like "Count on a Cop" or "Hope Springs." Many heroes were downright sensitive; single dads and dudes willing to co-parent fatherless kids or surprise babies are common. There was the great romantic suspense craze, which survives in the form of Harlequin Intrigue, and then the paranormal boom, which inspired the creation of Harlequin Nocturne.
That wild diversification was enabled, in part, by the advent of computers. "It started out with Waldenbooks, being able to break down which individual titles were hitting their romance bestseller list more than others," said Macro. "We were better able to track it and we were better able to get reader feedback." Of course, Harlequin also treads carefully when it comes to something like the boom in really, really raunchy romance, driven by digital publishers such as Ellora's Cave. You're not going to spring butt sex on somebody who's been reading Harlequin Presents since 1982; that requires the creation of a new line. But if readers wanted more mystery, or more babies, or more vampires, well—coming right up. "I would go to conferences and people would always ask me, what do you see the next trend as being? And I'd say, well, the trends come from you guys," said Macro.
Today the company's offerings are so diverse it's well-nigh impossible to generalize. (When I called Regis, one of the first things out of her mouth was a warning that, "Almost any statement you make is going to have to be qualified.") Even after some streamlining (RIP the Silhouette brand name), there are scads of individual category lines, like Blaze:
You like it hot! Harlequin Blaze stories sizzle with strong heroines and irresistible heroes playing the game of modern love and lust. They're fun, sexy and always steamy.
Harlequin Kimani Romance stories feature sophisticated, soulful and sensual African-American and multicultural heroes and heroines who develop fulfilling relationships as they lead lives full of drama, glamour and passion.
And, yes, they even still publish their medical romances:
Harlequin Medical Romances are stories about dedicated (and delectable) professionals who navigate the high stakes of falling in love in the pressured world of medicine. Harlequin Medical Romance titles are printed in slightly larger font (point size 13).
They've broken firmly into the single-title business with MIRA and even experimented with nonfiction. While they still have plenty of primmer offerings and haven't exactly chased the very wildest corners of the erotic romance market—a 2011 Harlequin Blaze with an anal sex scene felt like enough of a landmark that it rated a flabbergasted post from Sarah Wendell at Smart Bitches—there's plenty of steaminess. For instance, Harlequin HQN (another single-title imprint) is home to Victoria Dahl, whose heroines are self-confidently sexually aggressive. And the company's digital-first initiative, Carina Press, offers BDSM and ménage as "browse by niche" options, in addition to Amish and "cozy mystery."
"As mores have shifted, so has the content," said author Lori Wilde, who started at Silhouette and wrote several novels for Blaze before turning to single title. She suggested that the sexier books are actually part of a broader shift toward relatability. "The focus became more on what's the life really like for people and it's not just a travelogue or a clothing log. It's more emotional, more realistic, more reflective of society but still keeping the core values and emotions."
"As women have become stronger and more independent and more able to embrace their sexuality, so have the books," she added.
At the same time, though, Harlequin continues to offer something for those with chaster tastes. Their Love Inspired line promises stories which "show that faith, forgiveness and hope have the power to lift spirits and change lives—always." Well hello to you too, First Corinthians.
If Harlequin often seems more interested in responding to demand than breaking new ground content-wise, the company's creativity in marketing and distribution remains astounding. "What's impressive really is their global appeal," said British author Sarah Morgan, who got her start writing medical romances sold mainly in the UK, moved over to Harlequin Presents and now writes for the single-title label HQN. According to Harlequin's website, they publish in 34 languages in 110 international markets. "I'm off to the Paris Book Fair in two weeks to sign," Morgan said, as well as rattling off various experiments she's participated in. There are the Japanese manga editions (some of her favorites), and an interactive reading app produced in partnership with the Japanese company Taito. She's written a Cosmo Red-Hot Read, and she pointed to the company's partnership with NASCAR in the States, as well.
Sarah Wendell points out, additionally, just how early Harlequin hopped on the digital bandwagon. "They've had a community manager longer than most publishers even knew what social media was," she said, adding that when other companies were waffling about the very idea of digital editions, Harlequin was offering ebooks in every possible format. That's long before the ubiquitous smartphone or even the Kindle, for that matter. (Though their digital initiatives have sometimes resulted in tiffs with authors, including complaints about low digital royalty rates and an ongoing lawsuit about the way early digital royalties were doled out.)
But there are questions about the company's future. While many writers continue to publish with Harlequin (that enormous international reach comes to mind as a very attractive benefit), self-publishing likely looks increasingly appealing to a writer who can produce quickly and cleanly and doesn't want to color inside the lines. Of course, readers still buy bushels of books, so Harlequin isn't operating in such an apocalyptic environment as the rest of the publishing business, but it'll present a challenge in the coming years.
And last year, Harlequin's parent company Torstar sold the company to HarperCollins, itself part of the News Corp Borg. What that'll mean is anybody's guess. One fascinating consequence: Avon and Harlequin, in many ways the dueling matriarchs of the genre, are now under the same corporate roof.
The irony is, for all the company's diverse modern offerings (and seriously, those Victoria Dahl contemporaries are really good), my taste in Harlequins remains comparatively old-fashioned. I'm more of an Avon girl, but from the Silhouette stable, Diana Palmer has never written a Jacobsville novel that I won't read, even though the men are often bitter cowboys nursing some years-old grudge against women because of their ex-wives or their mothers or their stepmothers or whatever. And mouthy, Fifty Shades-critiquing feminist that I am, I still enjoy the occasional Harlequin Presents which, yes, is still going strong. (Modern billing: "You want alpha males, decadent glamour and jet-set lifestyles. Step into the sensational, sophisticated world of Harlequin Presents, where sinfully tempting heroes ignite a fierce and wickedly irresistible passion!")
"It's just the escapism, I think, really, because it's glitter and glamour and it takes you out of your own life because most of us aren't sitting on our private jet or a Caribbean beach with some billionaire," speculates Morgan. It's not such a different pleasure from the heightened reality and melodramatic thrills offered by Empire. And modern authors have their own, particularly modern way of defining the "alpha." "I think people have somehow now taken it to mean just some awful moody bully," said Morgan, but she says that's all wrong. "If you've got a guy who's so in control of every other part of his life and then the heroine is the one who actually brings him to his knees, that's the appeal of it. Because this is a guy who's super choosy in every part of his life."
McAleer cites a letter to Boon from one of his authors, Hilary Wilde. It's from 1966, but I think it remains relevant:
"The odd thing is, you know, that if I met one of my heroes, I would probably bash him over the head with an empty whiskey bottle. It is a type I loathe and detest. Yet I can remember (quite a long while ago) practically swooning over the Sheik, and Ethel M. Dell's (was it?) The Way of a Man (Eagle?), so I imagine that in all women, deep down inside us, is the primitive desire to be arrogantly bullied. Personally, in real life I can imagine nothing more distasteful but then we all of us need, at some time or other, to retreat into fantasy and I suppose this is a good way in which to do it."
I vehemently disagree that all women want to be "arrogantly bullied," but she's getting at something crucial, which is that a fantasy isn't necessarily something you want. I don't want anything to do with any billionaire. Rather, a fantasy is something you want to watch. Women are pressured so early and often to pick from a limited set of possible roles; sometimes it's a pleasure to flirt with a life you'll never have and wouldn't want.
There's a persistent tendency to assume that romance fans read only on a single level. Either we're housewives fluttering against the confinement of the patriarchy like moths at a kitchen window, or we're deluded foot soldiers in the backlash to the feminist movement, or we're dowds somehow simultaneously repressed and sex-crazed. What so many critics miss is that it's perfectly possible to roll your eyes at yet another hero with jet, an island and an overinflated sense of his own authority; arch your brow at the fucked-up gender politics of a particular scene; cheer when the heroine reads the hero the riot act; and swoon at the emotional climax.
I find feminist readings of romance, Harlequins included, very persuasive. But I'm sure you could find plenty of women who insist they like their favorite authors or lines because men are men and women are women and by God they know the difference. These books are surprisingly capable of bearing the weight of multiple meanings. "I think people read for different reasons, that's the truth," Morgan added.
Plus: They're fucking fun.
Image by Tara Jacoby.
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