I received a press release from Harlequin a couple of weeks ago about the online version of the Romance Report that I made fun of last year. The theme was confessions. This year, though, I figured it would be just too easy and I would just be repeating the myself. But my recent reading of category books got me thinking. How many romance readers view category romance reading a dirty secret? But how many read the sheiks and billionaires need to come clean and make a confession?
Let’s face it. Of all the names in romance, the one that gets hit the biggest is Harlequin. Harlequin writers take blows to the face from all corners, including its own genre. Some romance writers have been known to say something akin to “not all books are Harlequins” in defense of the romance genre as if to be a Harlequin writer is worse than, well, self publishing.
I remember as a young teen reader that I devoured those Harlequin Presents but as I got older my tastes matured and I turned away from the category book. They weren’t representative of the genre and mostly dealt with secretaries falling for their insufferable bosses. Having had an insufferable boss more than one time, I simply could not relate. Truth is, though, I had been reading categories all the time but kept thinking that the ones I chose were the “exception” rather than the rule.
I read categories by authors like Judith Duncan, Ruth Wind, and Kathleen Gilles Seidel. I have books on my shelf with numbers on their spine and names on the front like Nora Roberts, Jennifer Crusie, and Linda Howard. I’ve read any number of big name authors in their category form and sometimes, I have preferred their categories to their single titles. While Welcome to Temptation is probably my favorite Crusie novel, I’ve read and re-read Getting Rid Of Bradley, What The Lady Wants, and Manhunting so many times, it is a good thing I now have them in “e format” lest the pages wear down to little balls of pulp from the constant handling. Linda Howard’s Kell Sabin series have ranked right up there in favorite books of all time. Seidel wrote about progressive women and their relationship problems at the cusp of the women’s power suit emergence.
Of course, the question is whether Duncan, Wind, Seidel, Howard, Crusie and Roberts are the exception or the norm? Or another way to say it is whether good writing with the category genre is the exception or the norm? Because if good writing is the norm within the category genre, then Harlequin being the ugly reheaded baseborn stepchild is simply wrong.
There are any number of reasons that those books sold at the grocery store and discount retailers are viewed with great disdain. I can point to the titles: The Sheik and the Virgin Secretary, The Billionaire’s Bidding, Millionaire’s Calculated Baby Bid, Willingly Bedded, Forcibly Wedded. How can you not mock books with those titles? The packaging tends to invite speculation that the books are interchangeable or factory assembled.
Many arguments about Harlequin center around the restrictive guidelines for the lines. To write a book within those restrictions, I would argue, takes a great deal of talent, not less talent. So the category romance sub genre is full of good writers. Is anyone really willing to state otherwise? Sure, there are bad apples among the bunch. Given that there are 104 books released each month, there is no possible way that all books are going to be of the same quality.
What I have found is that there are surprisingly level headed, strong willed heroines in these books. That while the Black Dagger Brotherhood and its progeny is all about the boys, many of these category novels are all about the girls. The Sheik and The Virgin Secretary is really the story about Kylie. Beyond Breathless is a story about Jamie. Billionaire Next Door is about Lizzie Bond.
As for reflecting a more modern sensibility, of all the category books, I’ve read, I would say that less than 50% of them end in a marriage proposal. In fact, in the Million Dollar Secrets series, I just finished reading Tall, Dark and Filthy Rich* and neither of the two mentioned previous couples are married. One couple is living together and one couple is dating. In the “Red Choo Diaries”, there is no marriage proposal at the end of Beyond Breathless for Jamie and Andrew. In fact, the proposal takes place in book 2 of the “Red Choo Diaries” and I think the marriage takes place in book 3. There is a also a surprising lack of fecundity in these books. I do admit to picking books that DO NOT feature a baby on the cover so some self selection might be taking place.
I guess what I am trying to say is let’s talk about the pre conceived notion that readers may have about categories and see if they ring true. It might be that the books are too sappy or that there is something about them that will always turn you off. I admit that I haven’t read a book from the Harlequin Superromance line because of the number of babies appearing on the covers and that I’ve stopped reading Nocturne after five disappointing books in a row. But I am ready to step up with my confession.
Hello, my name is Jane and I read category romance . . .
*The title is kind of misleading because the hero is not really filthy rich.