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An Interview with Susan Elizabeth Phillips
by Eric Murphy Selinger

When Susan Elizabeth Phillips began writing and publishing romance novels in the early 1980s, the American market was dominated by the blockbuster historical romances that followed in the wake of Kathleen Woodiwiss’s The Flame and the Flower (Avon, 1972) and Rosemary Rogers’s Sweet Savage Love (Avon, 1974) and by contemporary-set “glitz and glamour” sagas, a genre of women’s fiction with strong romantic elements associated with Judith Krantz, among others. Phillips’ first half-dozen novels—The Copeland Bride (written in collaboration with Claire Kiehl, under the pen-name “Justine Cole”), Risen Glory, Glitter Baby, Fancy Pants, Hot Shot, and Honey Moon—explored the conventions and possibilities of both genres, and all were well received, but her reputation in popular romance fiction rests primarily on the contemporary-set romance novels she began publishing with Avon in the mid-1990s. Beginning with It Had to Be You (1994), the first of her “Chicago Stars” novels centered around a fictional Chicago football franchise, Phillips has offered an innovative, influential mix of comedy, Americana, and nondenominational narratives of redemption through love. (Her novel Dream a Little Dream may be the only [End Page 1] one set in the allegorically-named town of Salvation, North Carolina, but themes of forgiveness and reconciliation recur across her oeuvre.)

It Had to Be You won the Romance Writers of America’s “Favorite Book of 1994” award, and since then, Phillips has won five more RITA awards from the RWA, as well as the organization’s Nora Roberts Lifetime Achievement Award. Her novels routinely appear on American readers’ and reviewers’ lists of the “best” or “top” romance novels, and her reception by the academy has also been warm.[1] In 1997 Bowling Green State University invited Phillips to give the keynote address at their groundbreaking conference on “ReReading the Romance,” and foundational romance scholar Tania Modleski singled out Phillips as “a true auteur” whose work she “enjoyed enormously.”[2] Papers on her work have been presented at several of IASPR’s international conferences on popular romance culture, as well as at the Romance Area panels of the Popular Culture Association / American Culture Association’s national conferences.

When the PCA/ACA conference came to Chicago, near Phillips’ home, the chance to do a public interview with her was too good to pass up, and she very graciously accepted the invitation to speak with Eric Murphy Selinger and take questions from the audience.

Eric Murphy Selinger: In your essay “The Romance and Empowerment of Women,” published in the Dangerous Men and Adventurous Women anthology, you say that you started reading romance fiction in the early 1970s and that you fell under the spell of the historical romance novel. How did you go from being a romance reader to being a romance writer?

Susan Elizabeth Phillips: I was at home at that point, a former high school teacher with two little children. My best friend Claire [Lefkowitz] is two doors down the street. She has a degree in French, and she’s home with two little kids. This was when The Flame and the Flower and Rosemary Rogers’ books first came out. Claire and I had always been big readers and we read everything—literary fiction, popular fiction. When those historical romance books first appeared, we were just like, “Oh my gosh.” We couldn’t get enough.

Claire and I were both feminists, and those early books, you may remember, were the rape-and-pillage-of-the-heroine books. I still defend those books. I know this will horrify the younger people here, but I think some of you closer to my age will understand why I defend the rape fantasy in those stories. Claire and I were raised to be good girls. Neither of us had suffered from sexual abuse, so that whole idea of a hero taking you against your will meant “You’re still a good girl. It wasn’t your fault. You just happened to be so beautiful and desirable and meek and mild that he couldn’t help it.” It’s interesting to me, looking back on it: Claire and I both have strong personalities, and the heroines of those books are pretty wimpy, certainly compared to today’s heroines. Yet we were so drawn to them.

The Romance Writers of America used to say, “Please don’t go out and tell the public that you started to write romance novels because you read a bad one.” Yet that’s exactly what we did. I remember Claire came to the door one evening, waving a paperback romance that I’d lent her (I don’t know what the book was—I wish I remembered), and she said, “This is the worst book I’ve ever read. We can do better than this. We’re going to write a book.” That night I was unloading the dishwasher. I called her and said, “Claire, I know that we’re not going to write a book, but if we were, I love books where the heroine is [End Page 2] disguised as a boy, and I love the marriage of convenience…” We started writing purely from the viewpoint of readers, writing what we wanted to read. I had a real cranky two-year-old, and I’d put him on the back of the bike—no helmet, of course, in those days—and Claire would get on her bike, and we would just ride and talk about the plot.

Claire’s degree is in French, mine was in Speech and Drama. We were not products of the English department; and there was no RWA at that time, no romance writing seminars, so we were just writing the book we wanted to read. That was 1979, the book was The Copeland Bride. There have been several revisions to that book since. One of them involved taking out the sentence, “He raped her violently.” I remember I stole that sentence from—do you remember Anya Seton? I think it was The Winthrop Woman. I’m not sure. But I just thought, “Oh my gosh, what a sexy sentence.”[3]

Audience member: Wow.

SEP: [Laughing] I know! Don’t ever invite me if you don’t want honesty! And of course over the years that sensibility has changed so much, although I think what we’re finding in the whole erotica movement is the same kind of emotion and experiences that we good girls felt in the late ‘70s when we started reading historical romances.

ES: When Sarah Frantz Lyons talked with Bertrice Small at the IASPR convention in New York City, Small told us that when she was writing The Kadin, she had no idea that she was writing romance. She thought she was writing historical fiction—that the historical romance genre as we now think of it didn’t exist at the time she wrote it. It sounds like you started out right from the get-go with the sense that you were writing romance.

SEP: Historical romance. Bertrice was a real history buff, and while Claire and I liked history, I wouldn’t say our interest was centered on the actual history of the period. We just wanted that male/female conflict that gave us such a rush.

Bertrice was one of the original superstars when I was just starting to write, and I remember an RT convention when Bertrice took a few of us who were newbies up to her hotel room, which had this throne-like arm chair. We sat at her feet, and Bertrice told us, all the things to be careful of with our publishers, and all the things we needed to do. I still remember sitting at Bertrice’s feet like, “Feed me. Feed me.” Yeah, it was good.

ES: You mention the heroine dressed as a boy…

SEP:  The marriage of convenience, secret baby, all of those conventions! You can find them in my books, and I love them. I love them to this day, because there’s such strong built-in conflict to them. That’s the other reason I write the alpha hero. I don’t tend to enjoy romances with beta heroes, because there’s just not enough conflict for me. Usually if you’ve got a beta hero, you have to have a pretty neurotic heroine, and I like books that show the growth of the heroine. With a beta hero, I wouldn’t know how I would pull that off. Although Robyn Carr, a dear friend of mine, has a new book out—women’s fiction—called Four Friends. At the beginning, one of the women’s husband is having an affair. Robyn has this guy groveling for the entire book. What I love about him—a true beta [End Page 3] hero—is that he’s basically a chick in a man’s body. I devoured this book, and glowered at my husband the whole time.

I can’t pull that off, but oh my god, did Robyn ever do it beautifully.

ES: Your books began to come out right at the same time as the first big wave of academic scholarship about romance begins: Tania Modleski’s Loving with a Vengeance (1982), Janice Radway’s Reading the Romance (1984), Kay Mussell’s Fantasy and Reconciliation. Did any of those ideas from the academic discussion of the genre make their way into what you and other writers, authors were talking about? Did you know about them? Were you responding to them in any way?

SEP: Yes, we did know about them, and the truth is we grit our teeth. Now remember: we were extremely defensive. What we were hearing in some of the early scholarship was that women were reading romance because it helped them get through the dreariness of being wives and mothers at home with kids. We were also hearing that we were using clichés in romance and the language was so trite, because our readers were too stupid to understand great language. It became increasingly frustrating for us. So what happened?

One of the best intellects when it comes to romance, especially through the 1980s and the 1990s, is Jayne Ann Krentz. Jayne is very analytical, and after she plowed into the scholarship she gathered a number of us together said, “We are letting academics define us and what we do. We have to define ourselves.”

Jayne understood that if we went on record, writing our viewpoint about what we saw happening with the romance genre, and if this work was published by an academic press, then in all future work, the academics would have to take what we were saying into account. It was extremely calculated. When Jayne got us together, she gave us a simple charge. “Write an essay about the appeal of the romance.” That was it. She was not giving us specific assignments, she was not telling us what to write.

Now, of course, we have a lot of academics writing romance: Mary Bly/Eloisa James, Jennifer Crusie, just to name a few. But during the early ‘90s those women weren’t around. We had to look at what we were doing and figure out for ourselves what was going on both from the writers’ and readers’ point-of-view. Since we had so much face-to-face contact with our readers through letters and book signings, we understand why they were reading romance, and we could see that there was a lot more going on than a bunch of housewives who were picking up our books because they were frustrated with their kids.

When the essays arrived, Jayne has said she was thunderstruck because we all took different approaches. My approach was, as a feminist, to examine why I was responding to the books. For me, it was the idea that the heroine always won. I had to create that strong alpha hero, because that made her victory all the sweeter. So I wrote an essay about the empowerment of the heroine. Since then, honest to Pete, the word “empowerment” has been used for every stripper, every hooker, every… Well, at that time it was fresh.

So that’s how that book came about. It was very deliberate, and it wouldn’t have happened without Jayne. She was the one who saw the big picture while the rest of us were going: “Ahhh, we need to get some respect.” Jayne had a much, much broader viewpoint than the rest of us did. [End Page 4]

We’re so appreciative of the academic work that’s being done now, because it’s so much more thorough and thoughtful than the early work, but that’s to be expected since I’m guessing many of the academics studying romance have grown up reading it. I do hope that current academics recognize Dangerous Men for the groundbreaking work it was.

Sarah Frantz Lyons: I’d like to ask a question about the period right after Dangerous Men, Adventurous Women, in the mid-1990s.

In 1994 and 1995, within about eighteen months of each other, we get a bunch of novels published: your first Chicago Stars novel, It Had to Be You, Nora Roberts / J. D. Robb’s Naked in Death, Dream Man by Linda Howard, Dreaming of You by Lisa Kleypas, To Have and to Hold, by Patricia Gaffney. If you look at lists of “perfect romances” and the “best romance books of all time,” those books show up, year after year, and they all come together in 1994 and 1995. So you must have been writing them around the time that Dangerous Men and Adventurous Women came out. And your novel It Had to Be You (1994) was an obvious switch in your career. It’s a very different book from any of your other books. You started out with historical romance; you then moved to the kind of glitz and glamour epic sagas following generations like the ones Judith Krantz would write: Glitter Baby and Hot Shot and Honey Moon, the big, epic sagas.

Could you talk a bit about It Had to Be You as a turn in your career? How did you go about constructing that book in relation to the context when it came out?

SEP: My background was in theatre, and I am an actress looking for parts to play. So a lot of things that have happened in my career have happened accidentally. Nothing has been logically constructed.

After I did the three big books—Glitter Baby, Honey Moon, and Hot Shot—I wanted to write a shorter book; and for years and years I had this idea: What would happen if woman who knew nothing about sports inherited a professional football team. Remember: I had never written series romance; I had not been indoctrinated by Harlequin; I didn’t know that you were not allowed to write about sports. (You’re not allowed to write about sports, actors, or rock stars, apparently. I only found that out later on.)

By the time I finished It Had to Be You, my career had crashed. I had three books at Dell, then I had three books at Pocket. Pocket published Fancy Pants, Hot Shot, and Honey Moon. They had no idea how to package these books, because they were, fundamentally, big romances, and there was no precedent for covers or marketing. Claire Zion was editing me—just a brilliant editor—and she let me know that my numbers weren’t strong enough for It Had to Be You to get decent support from the publisher. Even though the book was under contract, she was kind enough to plant the seed that I needed to move houses.

So I had the manuscript of It Had to Be You, my agent sent it all over town, and we waited for the auction to start. I’d gone into New York and I remember being taken into a publisher’s big conference room where I was asked about my career plan. I was a schoolteacher at heart! I’d never sat around a conference table in my life! Oh my God, I was so traumatized, but I winged it. I’d already started Heaven, Texas, so I said, “Well, I’m going to write smaller books now and I’m going to be writing more humorous books and I’m going to write another Chicago Stars book.” I just made it up. [End Page 5]

So we had an auction. Nobody came. The first bids that came in—right now these numbers sound good—I remember $35,000 per book—but I had been making quite a bit more with the big books at Pocket, and oh my gosh, I still remember that sick feeling in my stomach. And I remember my agent calling me and saying, “We’re still waiting to hear from Bantam, we’re still waiting to hear from this publisher, we’re still waiting to hear from that publisher.” But they felt the book was too quirky. They didn’t know what it was—the book didn’t fit into their preconceived idea of romance. And then at the last minute, Avon, which was a train wreck at that point, came in and bid $100,000 for that book. “Okay, I’ll take it!” I said. All Avon had at the time was historical romance, and they wanted a book to anchor their contemporary line.

It Had to Be You ended up with a very small print run, but it changed my career forever because of my brilliant agent. He talked to my publisher and said, “Why don’t we give out a thousand free copies of this book at RWA?” Everybody does this now, but it was the first book that was the freebie in such a big quantity. And that’s when I was truly discovered and my career changed.

SFL: What we don’t realize as scholars, I’m now coming to understand, is how much of the history of the genre is about publishing decisions, how much of it is luck, how many books there were that broke out of genre conventions in similar ways and did similar things but just disappeared because they didn’t have the combination of luck and marketing smarts and all of this other stuff behind it.

SEP: There were a lot of authors, yes, who had a very strong vision and experienced more frustration than you can imagine as they strained against the boundaries of series romance.

ES: Moving away from the chronology now to thinking about bunches of books together, many of your books are set in what I think of as iconic American settings. You’ve got Chicago, you’ve got Hollywood, and you’ve got small towns in Texas and rural Michigan and Tennessee. And they feature iconic American characters: a shady TV Evangelist (or at least his widow), star quarterbacks, star golfers, a fifty-year-old rock star who has the perfect symbolic name—

SEP: Jack Patriot.

ES: Jack Patriot! And in The Great Escape, the heroine, Lucy, is the adopted daughter of a former president and the novel’s hero is a combat vet who served tours in both Iraq and Afghanistan. So I’m wondering, do you think of your books as being particularly American romances?

SEP: Absolutely. If I had to describe myself in one word, it wouldn’t be writer or wife, mother, grandmother, it would be a Midwesterner. Despite eleven years in New Jersey where I was a fish out of water, I am a Midwesterner through and through. My family roots go way, way, way back. And I love the small town Midwest. The Hollywood settings I hate doing. I’m not comfortable with them. I want to write the Midwest. I want to write Michigan, although I’m pretty happy writing about Texas and the south, too. [End Page 6]

But what I find really fascinating is that 50% of my income is coming from foreign sales. The books are published in thirty languages now, and I get a lot of email from all over the world, and they love the Chicago Stars books. They love the Wynette, Texas, books. The more American the book is, the more the international audiences respond to them.

I’ve now toured in Germany, I’ve toured in Slovenia, in Croatia—and I’m telling you, romance readers are the same everywhere. I can’t tell you how easy it is talking to readers everywhere. They are the same. They’re responding to the same kinds of emotions, and it’s the same demographic. You’ve got students, you have academics, you have doctors, and you have moms at home with small kids. It’s exactly the same in Europe as it is here.

ES: So are the American settings for them are like, say, Regency England or Scotland for American audiences: settings we tend to think of as being somehow intrinsically “romantic.” Is Chicago like that, elsewhere?

SEP: I don’t think so. I think what appeals is American popular culture, more than the fantasy of a particular place.

ES: I want to talk about one of the Chicago Stars novels: Natural Born Charmer. I’ve taught that book six or seven times at DePaul, including one ten-week seminar on it–

SEP: What the hell do you talk about for ten weeks? [laughing]

ES: We read the book really slowly. We read it a couple of chapters per class day and we would come in and talk about them. And the fun thing was—here, I have a bunch of nicely trained seniors, senior English majors, and I said to them, “All right, you’re smart, you’re English majors, you know what to do with a book. Here’s a book! Do it!” Most of them had no idea where to begin: they didn’t realize that they could do the same things they do with any other book. They could read it closely, they could pay attention to the characters and symbolism and ideas and looking at, you know, pacing and looking at how different scenes play off against each other—all the stuff that they do with any other book. I also sent them over to your website. I said, “Hey, romance authors have websites. Romance authors have Facebook pages. You can communicate with them. You can find out more.” This is a whole other way of being an author than the kind of literary figure that they are used to.

SEP: Especially in romance. I mean, no other genre connects with readers quite the way we do. We love it.

ES: One of the things that I always talk about when teaching Natural Born Charmer is the fact that Blue Bailey, the heroine, is an artist. She’s a painter. She does murals. She does portraits. And it’s always seemed to me that there was some connection between what you say about her paintings and career as a painter and what it is that you’re doing as a romance novelist. Is that connection something you were thinking of as you wrote the book?

SEP: Some of it is just technical. I need occupations for heroines where the hero and heroine can spend a lot of time together. That’s really tough when she’s got an eight-to-five [End Page 7] job, so I do have a lot of artists and people like that. Also, I am an art lover, and I’d much rather write a heroine who’s doing something that I’m passionate about, interested in, than a heroine who’s not, like tracing the history of the personal computer industry as I did in Hot Shot.

I was also influenced by a bunch of things I’ve seen Jennifer Crusie do. And—what was Jenny’s series romance—oh my gosh—it’s one of her early books and I’ve forgotten the name—she described the art work of the heroine so beautifully and that was—

ES: The Cinderella Deal.

SEP: It was always in my head. And I love the idea that Blue’s drawings were domestic, they were almost fairytale—and she was such a tough little critter.

ES: There’s an early scene with Blue and Dean where she presents him with two sketches of him. The first sketch that she gives distorts his features just a little bit—

SEP: —[in sync with ES] just a little bit.

ES: —in a way that gets him thinking. And the second one presents him as he actually looked, and that also gets him thinking, because he looks at it and thinks, “Boy, I look kind of sleazy and slimy in here.”

SEP: He wants the drawing where she’s distorted his features, doesn’t he?

ES: Oh, he’s fascinated by it. But one of the things that came up in the class discussions—you asked what we did with this—was that my students said, “Well, there should really be a third picture, because there’s one that’s worse than reality and there’s one that is the reality—there should be one that’s better than reality, to round out the set.” And that then turned into a really interesting discussion of the way that Blue’s later paintings are a vision of the way things ought to be.

SEP: And she could not have done that at that point in the story. She could not have created that ideal—or envisioned what the future looked like—yes. That was definitely planned.

ES: Nailed it! Which leads to a second question, this time spanning of a variety of books, also focused on romance and the way things “ought to be.” I know that you are not an inspirational romance novelist as such—that is, someone marketed as writing Christian books—and your books don’t go into Christian theology or terminology in an elaborate way. Still, you set one novel, Dream a Little Dream, in a town called Salvation, North Carolina, and you don’t have to be an English professor to get that one. And in The Great Escape a lot of the novel takes place on “Charity Island.” There’s a lot of discussion particularly in the secondary romance in that novel about forgiveness, about redemption, about what it means to live with faith. I’m just curious if you see a connection between the thematic material that interests you in your novels and Christian themes or Christian ideals. [End Page 8]

SEP: You think? I’m attracted to popular fiction because I want people to follow the rules. I want justice. I want fairness. All those ideals that popular fiction delivers. I was the little girl who in fifth grade went up to the new teacher and told her she wasn’t teaching reading right, because she didn’t have reading groups as we’d always had. I like rules and I like order. I was raised in a liberal Presbyterian church, and although I’m not conventionally religious now, I very much believe in redemption. I believe that love is the most powerful force. All that sappy stuff, I believe with all of my heart.

My husband is your white male country club golfer. Got it? We had gone to the accountant to do our taxes. And the accountant pointedly told us how many thousands of dollars we were paying specifically for Obamacare. Pointedly. “So you know this.” And we walked out of there and Bill looked at me—my white, golfing, country club husband—and said, “If that helps somebody, I don’t mind paying it one bit.” That’s why I’m married to him.

So those themes, which are common not just to Christianity, but to all the world’s great religions, are definitely part of my worldview. I don’t like religion that hems us in; I want religion that reaches out, that broadens out. Religion that is love and respect for all people. So those themes will always be in my books—it’s the reason I have trouble writing villains. It would be so much easier to have villains in my books, but I’m not that interested in characters I can’t redeem. That’s why, in Dream a Little Dream—you know, the creepy televangelist, he’s been done a million times. I was more interested in Rachel, his widow, who is basically a healer, yet who totally denies it! Completely denies it, even at the end of the book.

ES: In the Dangerous Men and Adventurous Women anthology there’s an essay by Laura Kinsale which famously says, “The hero carries the book.” This was a huge shot across the bow of academic criticism, which had up until then, largely assumed the idea that female readers were reading to identify with the heroine and that the hero needed to be an enigma and so on and so forth. So I wanted to ask you about heroes. Your latest book is called Heroes Are My Weakness. What kinds of heroes do you most like to write? Are there certain kinds of heroes that you’ve never tried writing but like to read? Do you have a favorite romance hero either from your own books or from the wide world of romance?

SEP: I’m not sure I completely agree Laura on that. I don’t think you can say, “The hero has to carry the book.” Sometimes the heroine has to carry the book. It really depends, sometimes even on the scene you’re writing. In Call Me Irresistible—this is the book with Teddy Beaudine where Lucy has run away from the wedding at the beginning of chapter two and it’s Meg and Ted’s book. I got a lot of flak from readers because I don’t go into Ted’s viewpoint until about three hundred pages into the book. And I wanted to say, “Duh!” The minute you go into his head, the book is over. The book is over. Do you remember in the early days of romance you didn’t go in at all? What was that? In the 70s, 80s? It was all in the heroine’s viewpoint. You never went into the hero’s viewpoint. And making those decisions about point of view on heroes is really tough. If you go into his head at the wrong time, you suck all the tension out of the book. But the readers have gotten so used to having that hero’s point of view presented early some of them had a hard time with the fact that I didn’t do it.

In terms of hero types, I’m always going to write an alpha hero just because that’s the only thing I know how to do. In my books the internal conflict between the hero and [End Page 9] heroine is driving the story. It’s not going to be the serial killer. It’s not going to be so many of the other elements that you have in romantic suspense, so I pretty much have to use the alpha hero unless I want to make my heroine crazy, which I don’t want to do

ES: Although in Natural Born Charmer, to me at least, the great love story there is Dean and his mother April finally reconciling. That turn is crucial to his character development, but also to hers, and to the love story between her and Jack Patriot.

SEP: When you can do a secondary plot with older characters—readers love that. And they’ll frequently say, “Why didn’t you use the older characters for your main story?” Well, the courtship story and the discovery of love is kind of my core story—it would be hard for me to do that. And I never get the feeling that my secondary love story is quite strong enough to carry the whole book. But I have two grown sons, so Dean and April’s story was just catnip to me. I love that story so much. And Jack Patriot, who’s modeled after Bruce Springsteen…though I get email all the time with all these different rockers saying–

ES: Throw a little Keith Richards in there and a little Bob Dylan in there too.

SEP: Yeah, well, maybe. It was Bruce.

ES: But it’s a Telecaster Custom Jack plays—

SEP: My son picks out my instruments. You know, he was probably reading Life [by Keith Richards] at the time. I was reading it too. Uh, did I answer the question? I forget what it was. Heroes.

ES: Heroes. Any favorite hero by someone else?

SEP: I love the hero in Laura Kinsale’s Flowers from the Storm. He does drive the book. But, you know, these alpha heroes are just kind of one big blur in my head—I love them all.

ES: One of the things I do when I teach your book, when I teach any romance novel, really, is send my students over to the author’s website, and to look at Twitter feeds and Tumblrs and anything that might give the students a sense of how the author’s presenting herself. Could you say something about how being on the web, how the social media side of being an author changes things? Also, on your website you have a few things that are right there on the splash page—when readers land—you know, one of them is right under your name, it says, “Life’s too short to read depressing books.”

SEP: [in sync with ES] “Life’s too short to read depressing books.”

ES: And then you have a little letter to the reader that says, you know, “I know some things about you—you look for a sense of recognition and you want a tear.” So say a little if you will about what happened as you made your way into having to have a web presence, having to [End Page 10] interact with readers there. How has it changed things for you? How has it changed things for other writers?

SEP: It’s changed everything.

Over the course of my career, I’ve lived through the time when the publishers controlled everything in terms of publicity and promotion. Now we’re pretty much expected to do that. Truly, half of my work time is business, social media, and half is actually writing. Guess which is more fun?

Authors have to think about how to use social media well. When I first started to use Facebook, I noticed that writers were using it as a promotion device 100%, and I wanted to make it much more personal. So we’ve discussed my difficulties wearing a bra long-term, and Mr. Bill is now a familiar character to everybody. (He’s not on Facebook so he doesn’t know half the stuff I put on there!) I feel a personal connection with the readers, and Facebook nurtures that connection.

At the same time, I need those email addresses, because the publisher is not going to be doing all that. So I’m running contests, I’ve started this “member’s lounge”: It’s all a huge, huge, huge time sink. We know our readers better now, one-to-one, and we have made personal friends with them through these long-term contacts, like my old website message board and now the Facebook page. Avon is amazing with their social media technology now, but when they first started, this might have been ten years ago, they had a meeting at the RWA conference for all of their authors. They started the meeting by telling us how to use the Internet. We laughed them out of the room! They were very good-natured about it, but we laughed them out the room. It’s like, seriously dude? We have been doing this a lot longer than you have. They have now made leaps and bounds over us in terms of the way they collect data and deal with it, and they’ve helped us with all of that. But yes, it’s just a whole new ballgame.

Keep in mind, within the course of one year all of my fan mail stopped. It all went to email. It happened so quickly that I complained to my editor. I said, “Something’s going on in your mailroom. I’m not getting any of my fan mail.” I didn’t understand. It happened that fast. And I’m just so grateful for every reader I have. I’ve had a career collapse on me, and I know how precious every reader is, so I want them to know that. I talk about the sense of recognition in my splash-page letter, and that is the emotional recognition they get with the books.

Academics are not seeing our reader email—so I’m going to try to fill that hole without just drowning you in it and let you see this emotional connection the readers have with the books. And that is what I’m referring to when I talk about the sense of recognition.

ES: “Life’s too short to read depressing books.” Say more.

SEP: You know, that’s certainly an overstatement—and oh my gosh, some people love Nicholas Sparks. They love, you know, that good cry. But in some literary novels, every drop of juice has been sucked right out so, God forbid, the writer doesn’t use the dreaded “purple prose.” Well, there’s a reason for that purple prose. It’s a coded language. It produces an emotional response on the part of the reader. If you haven’t read the essay in Dangerous Men that Linda Barlow and Jayne Ann Krentz did—they take a back-cover copy, [End Page 11] rewrite it plainly, and then present it in purple prose, and you just see right there where the emotion is coming from. In so much of literary fiction, you have to enter the book intellectually, as opposed to the romance novel where you’re entering the book emotionally.

ES: Speaking of which, time for a little emotional or intellectual interaction! Questions from the PCA house?

Audience Question: I’m from Mississippi, and I’ve read many, many books set in the south that are very cringe-worthy, but your Ain’t She Sweet isn’t, at all.

SEP: Ain’t She Sweet is an interesting book, because you don’t think you can redeem this heroine. I mean, she’s accused the hero of rape—she’s done all these horrible things. That’s my very favorite kind of book, because you can really do the redemption arc.

Audience Question: I had a question about the changing relationship with readers. My instinct is just to embrace this as a completely positive thing, but I was wondering: are there ways in which being responsive to the readers might make it feel harder to branch out and do something new or something you suspect they might not like?

SEP: Yes. It messes with your head like crazy. So do Amazon reviews. Jayne tells me to stay off Amazon. And, you know, every once in a while I disobey and almost get sick. Writers never remember positive reviews, and any book you write is going to hit somebody’s hot button. So I have to consciously get that out of my head.

My favorite reader story was this: I’d written Heaven, Texas, and I loved it. Bobby Tom Denton was one of the easiest heroes I’ve ever had to write. I felt like he was channeled. After that I went on to write Kiss an Angel, and I decided, you know, “My career’s over. This book’s going to kill my career,” which would become a repeating theme in my head. So Kiss an Angel comes out and all I can think about is, you know, “It’s not as good as Heaven, Texas—it’s not as good as Heaven, Texas.” I go to my first signing and this reader comes up to me and she says, “Oh, I just loved Kiss an Angel.” She says, “I didn’t love that Heaven, Texas book, but this one I love.” And I went, “Ohhh. Thank you.” And that’s where I learned the most important lesson of my career. No matter what book I write it’s going to be someone’s favorite and someone’s least favorite. I always have to remember this, stay off Amazon, and write the book I’m going to write.

Those reviews can wear you down after a while. It’s not coming into my reader email. I get hardly any negative email. But some of the romance websites are nasty—they’re just nasty. And I’m not talking about myself—some of them aren’t even reviewing me. I know the blood, sweat, and tears that have gone into a book, and to watch these lame-ass critics dismiss a book and dismiss a human being’s work… I would be a terrible reviewer because that kind of negativity makes me nuts. I want to send out into the world words that make people better, that make them grow, that nourish people. Ugly reviews don’t do it. [End Page 12]

Audience Question: I have a question about volume. How much fan email do you get? Can you quantify it all? Like in an average day, there would be—

SEP: It depends on how close I am to having a book come out, if a newsletter is going out, etc. Ordinarily there’s going to be one or two every day. But when a book comes out or a newsletter goes out, there could be ten or twelve, something like that, every day. It’s a lot of volume. I try to type a personal message in addition to a form response, but it does take away from the writing.

Audience Question: Do you do that personally?

SEP: I have an assistant who helps.

Audience Question: I have a question about the publishing side. Has there been any particular issue or character arc that an editor or publisher has been cautious about your doing, or about what it’s going to do in term of your career or your readers?

SEP: I have never sold a book on proposal. I’ve never written a proposal, so for example, when I was going to write the golf book, I didn’t have to say, “I’m going to write a book about golf.” Instead, they got the beginning of the book, a hundred some pages, so they could see what I was going to do. After that, they pretty much let me have free rein. I’ve heard horror stories from some of my friends who write series romance. Some of them have had great relationships with editors, but with others, it’s been: “You can’t do this, you can’t do that.” If I had said ahead of time that I was going to write about football, golf, a rock star, an actor, I would have been discouraged from doing it. I’ve been fortunate not to have to deal with that.

Audience Question: Your new book has a combat vet in it, and I know that since the Iraq war there have been a lot of combat vet heroes in popular reading. I’m wondering if you could tell me a little about writing a combat vet.

SEP: There’s not a lot of reference to it in the book. There are a couple of sentences here and there, and you’ve got the scene with the shrink at the end who’s also a combat vet. I’ve done PTSD in my novels—I did that in Glitter Baby early on, and everybody’s doing it now. But I needed the wounded hero. I tried every other way I could think of to approach his character, but the traumatized vet really did work. And I like the idea of the psychiatrist who could specifically identify with wounded vets because I have read about the difficulty of these guys coming back with PTSD and working with a shrink who has never been in combat. That was interesting to me.

Audience Question: Every time I read—I can’t remember the title—but Molly and Kevin—

SEP: Yes, This Heart of Mine. [End Page 13]

Audience Question: Every time I read about Molly’s stories about the bunnies—I keep thinking, “You should turn these into children’s stories.”

SEP: I’ve gotten so many requests Molly is a children’s book author with the Daphne the Bunny series. Molly is really Daphne, and Kevin, the hero, is Benny the Badger. I thought about writing an accompanying children’s book, but my editor wasn’t enthusiastic because that’s a whole different publishing animal Children’s books are tough! Everybody says, “Oh, I always wanted to write a children’s book.” But it’s a lot harder than people think. Still, This Heart of Mine should have had a companion children’s book, for sure.

SFL: From the publishing point of view, now, we would look at that and say, “Absolutely. Go right ahead. It would be perfect.”

SEP: A children’s book division is completely separate from a publishing company’s adult division. I don’t know if you know much about children’s book publishing, but it is a bunny-eat-bunny world. It takes forever to get things through, and coordination would have been very difficult. Plus, I’d have had to write the darned thing, and I’m not sure I could have.

Audience Question: Have any of your books been auctioned for a film or a television show?

SEP: There have been numerous requests. Early on I would get so excited about that. But as I’ve watched what’s happened to authors who’ve had their book turned into film—in most cases it’s brought them nothing but grief. Readers want a film of the book that’s in their head, but they’re such different media. So now I just say, “No, no, no, no.” The only one I’ve agreed to sell is when Bollywood bought This Heart of Mine. When Bollywood called and said, “We’d like to buy This Heart of Mine,” it was a reputable studio, they were going to pay decent money, and I thought, “This is perfect, because it’s Bollywood. Nobody is going to expect the exact book.” I don’t know exactly what the timing is, but they did give me production money.

Audience Question: I taught First Lady this year—

SEP: Did you?

Audience Question: They adored it. They really adored it. They were surprised to get sucked into what struck them as too much of a “family” romance. The thing they’re falling in love with in the book is the family that’s going to be created. That’s the happy ending they’re hoping for—that beautiful family.

SEP: The end—you noticed how I tried to straddle political parties in there—

Audience Question: That did come up in discussion.

SEP: That was deliberate. We’re so fragmented politically—no matter what side I chose, it was going to be a mess, so I took the coward’s way out and I’m happy I did. [End Page 14]

SFL: Suzanne Brockman sometimes has an unhappy love story in her books, or an arc that goes through six or seven books so that the characters have a series of unhappy encounters and finally get their HEA six books later, and she says that the tragedy helps to highlight the beauty of the other story. All of your secondary romances end happily, and they mirror and foil the primary relationship—

SEP: I always say, “If one love story is good, two’s better.” Why not? Plus, I get to write about a non-traditional couple. An older couple. In Dream a Little Dream, I’ve got Ethan, the minister and his little clerk, his assistant. There wasn’t enough conflict to carry that through their own book, but I loved writing that story.

SFL: Have you thought of doing a different type of non-traditional couple? Same-sex couple?

SEP: Um, same-sex couple? Well, yeah. The Great Escape. But that’s kind of a spoiler alert. Spoiler alert!


[1] See, for example, the All About Romance reader poll from 2013, in which she has eight novels listed (http://www.likesbooks.com/top1002013results.html), or the 2015 National Public Radio list, drawn from readers’ nominations and curated by romance bloggers and authors, which includes her seven Chicago Stars football romances—each a standalone volume—among its “swoon-worthy” romance recommendations (http://www.npr.org/2015/07/29/426731847/happy-ever-after-100-swoon-worthy-romances).

[2] See Tania Modleski, “My Life as a Romance Writer,” originally published in Paradoxa: Studies in World Literary Genres 4, no. 9 (1998); reprinted in Old Wives’ Tales and Other Women’s Stories (New York: NYU Press, 1998), 71.

[3] On investigation, the sentence turns out to be adapted from Seton’s Avalon (1965): “And then he raped her brutally.” Anya Seton, Avalon (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1965; 1993), 128. [End Page 15]

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Creating a Popular Romance Collection in an Academic Library
by Sarah E. Sheehan and Jen Stevens

[End Page 1]

Introduction

 “Who will we be studying in 100 years?”

– question from the audience at the opening keynote panel presentation at the 2013 Popular Romance Author Symposium (Princeton University, October 24, 2013)

Over the past few decades, there has been a growing critical mass of scholarly interest in the study of popular romance as a literary form in its own right. Scholars such as Pamela Regis, Laura Vivanco, Sarah S. G. Frantz, and Eric Selinger, among many others, have begun to publish scholarly and/or literary criticism of popular romance novels in the last two decades. Other indications include the establishment of the Journal of Popular Romance Studies, several symposiums, the Popular Romance Project, and the fact that schools and universities such as the University of Wisconsin Milwaukee, DePaul University, and George Mason University have begun offering courses that focus and/or incorporate popular romance novels (“Teaching Popular Romance”).

As Crystal Goldman argues in her 2012 article “Love in the Stacks: Popular Romance Collection Development in Academic Libraries,” access to research materials is vital for romance scholars and students:

With no cohesive vision for which materials to collect and little justification for fiscally supporting popular romance studies materials, vital monographs, papers, and articles are not being preserved by libraries for future researchers’ use and may, indeed be lost from the record entirely (2).

Although Goldman does mention primary sources, her main focus is on secondary materials, i.e. materials about romance and related fields, and the issues that have previously prevented many academic libraries from systematically collecting them. Goldman also identified a list of 37 core secondary sources for popular romance scholarship (17-18). Secondary materials are definitely important, but the systematic collection of primary sources, the actual popular romance novels and short stories themselves, is vital.

Identification of Need

Academic libraries have long had an uneven record of collecting so-called popular contemporary literature. Although historical collections of items such as dime novels are not uncommon, popular contemporary literature is often not collected until it is, so to speak, no longer contemporary. Academic libraries that do collect it have often done so as part of so-called “leisure reading collections.” As Pauline Dewan notes, leisure reading collections have been making a comeback in recent years: [End Page 2]

Three recent trends in university and college libraries have prompted academic libraries to rethink their ideas about popular literature collections….Trend towards user-focused libraries, revitalization of the library as place, and promotion of literacy and lifelong reading (45).

These are all worthy goals and purposes, but they do not necessarily align with the systematic collection and preservation of primary source materials. Leisure reading collections are often leased from companies such as McNaughton. Based on the library’s desired profile, McNaughton sends a selection of books that the library may choose to purchase at the end of the lease period. Materials retained from such collections can be a source for popular fiction such as romance, but as in the University Libraries’ case, this often results in spotty collections – a title from one author’s series, two from another, and so forth. Moreover, materials that might work best for a leisure reading collection (and attract student attention) may not necessarily be those desired by future researchers.

As more colleges and universities begin to offer popular literature courses, there are indications that some academic libraries are starting to change or adapt their practices. In a 2007 exploratory study, Justine Alsop found that a majority of her literature librarian survey respondents did collect some popular contemporary literature. In addition to student “need” for light reading, her respondents cited reasons such as supporting the curriculum (most reported that their institutions offered courses in popular fiction), faculty requests, and preserving primary sources for future scholarly study (Alsop 583). However, there were still many barriers, including “budgetary constraints, the expectation of having ‘canonical authors’ in the collection, and lack of demand,” as well as an expectation that public libraries, rather than academic libraries, should be the ones collecting contemporary fiction (Alsop 583).

Lack of space and money are very real issues for many academic libraries, especially given the vast amount of popular fiction that is published. According to the Romance Writers of America, the romance genre alone generates 1.08 billion dollars in sales from over 9,000 titles in 2013 (“Industry Statistics”; Bosman). In a 1987 book chapter, Charles W. Brownson suggested one way of dealing with the mass influx of popular contemporary fiction for those collecting at a “Research Support” level:

Selection criteria are seldom based on the quality of the literature, so that statistical methods can be used. Wanting a sample of romances, for example, which the industry produces at the rate of about four a day, one might decide to buy those published on the first day of every month. They are alike, after all (or rather, their differences are statistical) (105).

Leaving aside the question of whether romance novels really are all alike, buying materials in this fashion, while it might result in good representation of the romance genre as a whole, would make it very difficult for researchers to study individual authors or even subgenres such as paranormal romance since there would be little continuity aside from date of publication.

However, leaving popular romance collecting to public libraries is not necessarily the best alternative. Public libraries have very different missions than do academic libraries. Aside from public library systems that include research branches such as the New [End Page 3] York Public Library, most public libraries do not collect for the long term needs of researchers and students, but instead, focus on the present reading interests of the populations that they serve. Collection development policies of public libraries should be guided by local reading tastes that may favor certain authors and sub-genres versus others. In Amy Funderburk’s 2004 Masters’ paper reviewing the number of award winning romance novels in North Carolina public libraries, she found that the relatively small number of reviews in standard library review sources of award winning popular romance novels resulted in a smaller number of titles being collected compared to the other popular fiction genres (19). Many standard library review sources, such as Library Journal, only publish popular romance on a quarterly basis. In 2008, the American Library Association publication Reference and User Services did publish an article on collecting romance genre fiction in public libraries, but it only listed five titles per romance sub-genre (Wyatt et al. 120).

In public libraries, as titles become less popular or simply wear out, they are often withdrawn in order to make room for newer titles. Again, the role of most public libraries is not to preserve items, but rather, focus on current patron needs. In fact, the growing adoption of e‑book databases such as Overdrive makes it even less likely that public libraries will be able to offer long term preservation of romance fiction since those e-book database titles are often leased rather than owned. In the early 1990s, collection development in public libraries underwent a shift from collecting “the best” to a collection philosophy of “give them what they want,” as articulated by Charles Robinson, the director of Baltimore County Public Library system. Robinson’s philosophy encouraged public libraries to purchase multiple copies of popular titles, fiction or non-fiction, to meet the current reading needs of the county library’s patrons. These multiple copies would be kept until they wore out or the library needed the space for the “next” hot titles. The expectation that public libraries will have research-worthy collections of popular romance novels just is not realistic in these days of shrinking budgets, public demand, and a now longstanding collection development philosophy (Baltimore County Public Library).

There are a few academic libraries that do systematically collect popular romance materials, mostly through their special collections. A prime example is the Browne Popular Culture Library at Bowling Green State University, which currently holds over 10,000 volumes of category romance series. Another is the University of Melbourne Library in Australia, which began collecting romance novels as early as 1997, with an emphasis on authors from Australia and New Zealand. One of the arguments used for establishing the collection at the University of Melbourne Library was that other Australian libraries were already collecting other genres of popular fiction (Flesch 120). Other schools, such as the University of Wisconsin, have focused on specific sub-genres such as nurse romances. These collections have an immense value in regards to long-term preservation of these materials. However, all three of these collections are housed in their respective library’s Special Collections, which means that the materials can only be used on site. While locating these materials in Special Collections may be desirable from a preservation standpoint (especially in the case of mass market paperbacks), it does limit student and researcher access. Moreover, these collections are set apart from the “main” circulating literature and literary criticism collections.

Circulating collections provide greater physical access for faculty and students as well as researchers and students at other institutions who have Interlibrary Loan access. [End Page 4] They can also enhance access to related secondary materials since most academic libraries in the United States use the LC (Library of Congress) classification system, which results in books both by and about a given author being shelved together.

The authors of this article would argue that there is value in systematically collecting popular romance fiction for circulating academic library collections. As no established collection development model exists specifically for this type of collection, the authors created a strategy using other genre collections such as science fiction as a model, and their skills as established liaison librarians in crafting the collection. Stevens’ long term experience as the English Liaison Librarian and Sheehan’s knowledge of the popular romance genre as both a reader and researcher (she had previously published Romance Authors: A Research Guide, which focused on primary and secondary sources for popular romance writers) was a unique combination that allowed this collection to be created in a relatively short time. In this article, the authors will describe how they established a popular romance collection at George Mason University Libraries, as well as discuss various issues that were encountered.

Process of Creating the Collection

George Mason University is a highly diverse, state-funded, growing institution, and has recently become one of the largest universities in the state of Virginia. The University Libraries encompass four libraries, in addition to a separately managed Law Library. Two of the libraries are on the large Fairfax Campus while the other two libraries serve the research and service needs of our distributed campuses. The Fenwick Library is the largest library and is generally considered the main research library of the University. The majority of the 1.27 million volume collection, including most of the literature and literary criticism books, is located in Fenwick Library.

Like many academic libraries, the University Libraries had sporadically collected romance novels, mostly through a leased McNaughton collection, gifts, and faculty requests. It had also collected secondary sources to support the courses in the English Department and other programs, and had 78 per cent of the core popular romance scholarship titles identified by Goldman (Goldman 17-18).

Sheehan and Stevens decided to begin systematically collecting popular romance novels at George Mason University in response to several campus developments. The first was an English department class: “Why Women Read Romance Novels,” created by Professor Jessica Matthews. Matthews created the course partly in response to the degree and depth of engagement that she observed on web-based forums devoted to reader discussion of popular romance novels (Ramage). First offered in 2011, it was successful enough to be offered again in 2013, with 38 students registered (George Mason University). In addition, Professor Matthews regularly teaches a “Marriage Plots” class that also incorporates several popular romance novels as part of the class’ required readings.

The second was the creation of the Popular Romance Project web portal, hosted by the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media at George Mason University with funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities. Part of the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media’s mission is to “encourage popular participation in [End Page 5] presenting and preserving the past” in a digital environment (Roy Rosenzweig Center). In addition to the documentary film Love Between the Covers, the Popular Romance Project included a symposium hosted by the Library of Congress Center for the Book. Given that the Library of Congress is ready to highlight popular romance novels, academic libraries now have an opportunity to acquire resources that may have been previously considered fringe or not appropriate for scholarly study.

After learning about the Popular Romance Project, Sheehan contacted the coordinators and arranged to become a blogger for the site. One of the faculty members involved with the Popular Romance Project turned out to be Jessica Matthews. Over the summer of 2013, Sheehan met with Professor Matthews to discuss ways the University Libraries could support her research and teaching and whether there were specific popular romance titles that the University Libraries should acquire. As a result Sheehan asked Stevens to order several titles by Diana Gabaldon, an author Matthews studies.

Based on these developments, Sheehan and Stevens began discussing how they might best support faculty and students by acquiring a representative sample of additional popular romance titles, with the knowledge that this could never be a truly comprehensive collection. They decided early on that they wanted it to be a “teaching collection” that students and faculty could readily access and check out. Because of the way that Library of Congress Classification (the schema used by most academic libraries) treats literary materials, both the primary and secondary sources for a given author (i.e. books by and about Georgette Heyer) would be shelved together, which would facilitate browsing for secondary sources. Although anthologies with items by multiple authors may be shelved separately, libraries using Library of Congress classification generally shelve literary works by single authors by language, historical period, and then alphabetically by the author’s name, with the aim of keeping all of the literary works by a given author together, regardless of their genre (Literature Classification). The Library of Congress classification does have a specific subject heading, Love Stories, for any titles that involve romantic themes or stories, but that subject heading does not determine the shelving position – it facilitates finding the information in the catalog.

Sheehan and Stevens also decided that the materials should be accessible via Interlibrary Loan in order to facilitate access to students and researchers at other institutions. Libraries can choose to limit Interlibrary Loan access to materials in order to prevent loss; few if any Special Collection materials tend to be accessible via Interlibrary Loan.

After Sheehan and Stevens had a preliminary discussion with the Head of Collection Development, Sheehan wrote and submitted a formal proposal (see Appendix 1). This proposal included the following elements:

  • rationale (the academic programs, curricula, and faculty that would be served)
  • parameters (types of materials that would be collected)
  • who would make the selections and have control of the funds
  • the criteria used to select materials
  • materials and formats that would be excluded.

The proposal was accepted and a temporary fund was created that would allow both Sheehan and Stevens to purchase romance novels for fiscal year 2013/2014. Although [End Page 6] Stevens, as the English librarian, would have signing authority after the first year, selections would continue to be made by both Sheehan and Stevens. This way, the continued growth of the collection would not be dependent on one librarian. Instead of being a short term “special project,” it would become a standard part of the collection development process for literature. Once the proposal was approved by the University Libraries administration and Sheehan and Stevens were given a budget, they began the selection process.

As with literature as a whole, the question of canon is a vexed one for popular romance. The flurry of blogs and twitter posts in response to Noah Berlatsky’s Salon article about the need for a popular romance “canon” is a wonderful example of the difficulty of establishing a one-size fits all collection of popular romance novels (Berlatsky; Crutcher; Selinger). Although this discussion occurred well after the authors’ initial proposal, it exemplifies the types of questions that academic libraries face in selecting in romance and other popular genres. Sheehan and Stevens knew that it would probably be impossible to determine a “single” group of “best” authors for researchers and students, but decided that for the purposes of teaching and research, they wanted a collection that would reflect the historical development of the genre, as well as its range. Judging the quality of writing or story can be very subjective. By using their established knowledge of collection development skills, they anticipated creating a collection that, while not answering the question of canon, will contribute to the ongoing discussion. Sheehan and Stevens also knew this was a long term project, and that purchasing the foundation or historical collection would take many years to accomplish.

Sheehan and Stevens were fortunate, however, to have something of a head start. Since Sheehan’s work on Romance Authors: A Research Guide had itself involved selecting a group of authors to include, she had already done quite a bit of research in the area. Updating the resources was easily accomplished and provided the initial list of authors and in many cases identified works that would help demonstrate the variety and changes found in popular romance novels. Another important source was Jessica Matthews’ “Why Women Read Romance” syllabus (Matthews). As part of the proposal, Sheehan and Stevens had determined that the initial purchases for the first several years would focus on the “classics,” which they defined as winners of the RWA Nora Roberts Lifetime Achievement Award. These “classic” novels represent authors and works that made a long term impact on the genre and continue to be highly regarded by readers and writers. These are the authors that helped define the genre for the last 30 years. Likewise, authors who produced current works that made “notable lists” such as the New York Times Best Sellers list or Library Journal’s “Best Books: Romance” would be collected. In November 2013, the website All About Romance released an updated Top 100 Romances Poll which also helped identify popular titles and specific authors to purchase (Top 100 Romances).

A number of authors overlapped on all the collecting criteria, which suggested places to start. Sheehan and Stevens also decided to focus the collection on individual authors rather than publisher series (i.e. the Harlequin Intrigue or Silhouette Special Edition series), which would help set Mason’s collection apart from what the Bowling Green Browne Popular Culture Library was already doing.

As with almost all other collection development done by academic librarians, reviews from trusted sources played a large role in the decision making process of what to buy. Often times the reviews are written by specialists in the field, such as RWA’s Librarian [End Page 7] of the Year winners, Kristin Ramsdell reviewing for Library Journal, and Wendy Crutcher on her own blog, The Misadventures of Super Librarian. Additionally, online resources such as the well regarded Smart Bitches, Trashy Books, Read-A-Romance Month, and the long running All About Romance websites provide non-traditional (for the academic librarian) resources for identifying upcoming authors and reviews for titles.

Diversity of characters is an ongoing concern in what has historically been the white, heteronormative nature of much of popular romance genre. Recently, there have been several efforts, such as the Love in the Margins and the Queer Romance Month websites, that strive to publicize diverse authors and works. As they move forward with the collection, Sheehan and Stevens will continue to monitor the changing nature of the romance genre, including new sub-genres, and will adapt the collection appropriately. Faculty and students research interests at Mason will also help in crafting the collection based on what diverse authors are being studied.

Considering the prolific nature of many popular romance novelists, Sheehan and Stevens decided to vary the collecting levels for various authors – for some authors, collecting would be limited to a well curated selection, while in the case of other authors, their entire body of work, as available, would be included. In some cases, this was decided partly on a pragmatic basis. For instance, authors such as Jayne Ann Krentz and Julia Quinn had recently published new titles that were from a series of connected books, so Sheehan and Stevens decided to purchase all books in those specific series. Jayne Ann Krentz’s Arcane Society and Harmony series titles have the added benefit of encompassing the three current pseudonyms used by Krentz – Jayne Ann Krentz, Amanda Quick, and Jayne Castle. This allowed the University Libraries to readily collect works across a wide variety of romance genres, i.e. romantic suspense, historical, contemporary, futuristic, and paranormal, within one author’s body of work.

Format is an ongoing issue. For the foreseeable future, Sheehan and Stevens decided to select items in print format instead of e-books. This decision may seem counterintuitive for a 21st century library, but in the case of popular romance novels, few academic e-book vendors actually include romance in their collections (most academic libraries collect e-books as part of larger databases; libraries may purchase or subscribe to individual titles depending on the vendor and the title). In fact, most of the e-book vendors that include fiction, such as Overdrive, are actually based more in the public library market, and often lease rather than sell their collections. While some academic libraries such as Texas A&M (Clark 147) have experimented with using e-book readers for their circulating collections, the University Libraries have not undertaken such a project. That means that popular romance novels available via Kindle, Nook, or self-published on other electronic formats cannot be collected at this time by the University Libraries. The decision to stick with the print format may be reconsidered as technology changes and the University Libraries updates its collection development policies. For preservation purposes, Sheehan and Stevens also decided to acquire hardbacks instead of paperbacks as much as possible. Although paperbacks may be less expensive to purchase initially, they often ultimately cost more because of binding and/or eventual replacement costs.

These decisions, especially the print-only decision, do have larger ramifications for the University Libraries’ ability to collect popular romance genre novels. Many authors and publishers have begun to reissue older (and difficult to find) titles as e-books. Some authors, such as Eileen Dreyer, have even issued titles in e-book format only (i.e. Dreyer’s It [End Page 8] Begins with a Kiss). In turn, hardbacks can often be more difficult to find than paperbacks, especially once they are out of print. In many cases, there is no hardback edition available since the title was only published in mass market format. Fortunately, many publishers are reissuing major authors’ books in hardback.

Informed serendipity also played a role in what authors’ works were collected this first year. In a recent Library Journal’s “Romance Reviews” column by Kristin Ramsdell, Sheehan noted in the “Second Time Around” section that Carla Kelly’s Reforming Lord Ragsdale was being reissued (Ramsdell). A quick look in the online ordering tool GOBI from YBP Publishing Services identified several titles by Kelly, long out of print, that had been reissued. This allowed the University Libraries to then collect those popular romance titles far more easily. While Carla Kelly was not originally on their “short list” for the first year, Sheehan and Stevens decided that her “classic Regencies” would be a worthy and welcome addition to the collection.

Serendipity also played a role in what titles were purchased by specific authors. If a specific title by a given author was available as a hardcover in the online ordering system GOBI, that title was selected for purchase. For author Loretta Chase, the obvious title collected is the number one ranked book on the All About Romance website, Lord of Scoundrels. As Lord of Scoundrels is part of a series of connected books, the titles Lion’s Daughter, Captives of the Night, and The Last Hellion were also selected for purchase. As that series was checked in GOBI, both titles from Chase’s latest series The Dressmakers, Scandal Wears Satin and Silk is for Seduction, were also identified as available in hardcover, albeit in large print format. While that latest series had not initially been a high priority for purchase, the fact that the titles were available as hardcover upgraded its position. The fact that they could be ordered as part of the regular ordering process also meant less work for the Acquisitions department. As the semester unfolded, authors who met the initial criteria and had released new titles, especially in hardcover, were purchased, including Elizabeth Lowell, Jayne Ann Krentz, Debbie Macomber, and Sandra Brown.

The final way that serendipity played a role in building the popular romance novel collection was through gift books. The remainder shelves at local book stores became very useful collecting tools as well. Many popular authors’ current but not latest releases can be found on these remainder shelves for under $5.00 for a hardback book. While this might not be a consistent long-term collection development strategy, it did provide an initial cost effective way to add books to the collection. The books were purchased and then donated to the University Libraries as a gift. Jayne Ann Krentz, J.R. Ward, and Suzanne Brockman’s recent but not latest titles were purchased and then added to the collection as gifts. Several Susan Elizabeth Phillips titles were obtained at thrift stores for $1.00 each in hardcover and then added to the collection as well. Although remainder shelves and thrift stores are non-traditional sources for building an academic library collection, they will likely continue to be utilized in the future as a cost-effective way to add more titles to the collection. Similarly, as word of the collection was shared, fellow librarians and others began asking if their romance novels would be useful for the collection. Nine Kathleen Woodiwiss titles, all hardback, were donated as gift books to the University Libraries by a fellow librarian.

During the period that Sheehan and Stevens were selecting these initial titles, Sheehan contacted another institution that was also building a popular romance collection, the Hoover Library at McDaniel College in Maryland, only 65 miles away from George Mason University. As part of the establishment of the Nora Roberts Center for American [End Page 9] Romance, the Hoover Library received funding to build a collection of popular romance novels. After Sheehan talked to Hoover Library Director Jessame Ferguson, the authors decided to try to avoid duplicate efforts in such a close geographic region. Thus, during the first year of the project, they chose not to purchase materials written by Nora Roberts due to McDaniel’s focus in collecting Roberts’ works. Although they do plan to eventually collect Nora Roberts’ titles, Sheehan and Stevens will probably leave the more exhaustive Roberts collecting to McDaniel. As the collection grows, additional collaboration between the Hoover Library at McDaniel College and the George Mason University Libraries may be appropriate. If other academic libraries choose to collect romance novels, broader collaborative efforts could be useful for avoiding duplication and allowing libraries to collectively acquire a greater number of authors’ works. A complete list of authors and titles collected by the George Mason University Libraries during the first year is available in Appendix 2.

One issue that Sheehan and Stevens also wanted to address was bibliographic access. As mentioned earlier, the Library of Congress classification can enhance “browsable” access to related secondary materials. However, since authors are generally shelved by nationality and chronological time period rather than by genre, they can be difficult to browse for, especially in larger collections. Unlike public libraries, there is no “romance” or even “popular genre” section – instead, romance authors may be scattered throughout the literature collection. In order to make it easier for students and faculty to at least find items in the catalog, Sheehan and Stevens requested that their colleagues in Cataloging add the phrase “Popular Romance Novel Collection” as part of the MARC field record, field 710, so that students and faculty would be able to use it as a keyword search string in the catalog.

Future Considerations

Although it is too early to assess the results of the first year efforts via means such as circulation records, faculty and student reactions have been positive. Sheehan and Stevens also plan to monitor Interlibrary Loan request statistics. One title that had been previously purchased prior to establishing a systematic popular romance novel collection has already been quite popular on the Interlibrary Loan circuit. In 2009, while writing Romance Authors: A Research Guide, Sheehan had needed to consult Laura London’s 1984 The Windflower, a title that had long since been out of print. Since it was not available via Interlibrary Loan, Stevens ordered the title for the University Libraries collections as a faculty request. From 2009 through 2013, The Windflower was requested 14 times through Interlibrary Loan, with five of the requests coming from college and university libraries. The University Libraries was actually unable to fulfill five of the Interlibrary Loan requests because the title was already checked out. Demand for The Windflower may go down in the future since it was re-released in 2014 (RT Book Reviews). However, the large number of Interlibrary Loan requests for The Windflower does suggest that there could be interest in the popular romance collection outside of the boundaries of the George Mason University community.

Future steps for the collection include [End Page 10]

  • Developing a formal collection development policy for the romance collection that includes author selection criteria and preferred formats as part of the overall literature collection development policy. This is important partly for the sake of continuity for future selectors.
  • Outreach to faculty and students. This could include an InfoGuide, similar to ones that the Mason Libraries already has for the Juvenile Collection.
  • Usage assessment via circulation records and Interlibrary Loan requests. Since this collection is intended to serve the long term needs of future researchers and students, it may take some time to see results.
  • Discussion with the University Libraries’ Special Collections regarding the possibility of pursuing primary source materials from popular romance authors (i.e. manuscripts, correspondence, and other materials).

For those who would like to start (or help their librarians start) an academic romance collection, here are some suggestions:

  • Look at your curriculum and programs. What classes and programs might use or need these materials? What authors and/or sub-genres are they focusing on?
  • Assess what you already have. What can you build on? (The University Libraries already had a strong secondary collection with some scattered primary sources).
  • Look at Interlibrary Loan requests data. Have many popular romance novels been requested? Is there a larger author or sub-genre pattern that you can identify?
  • Identify colleagues and other allies that can help you make a case for establishing a collection.
  • Consider what the purpose of the collection would be. What special format issues might come up? Would you allow the titles to be requested via Interlibrary Loan?
  • How can you help patrons access the collection? Are there notations that could be added to the catalog records?
  • Look to see what other libraries in your area are doing (including public library research branches), and how their efforts might overlap, or, alternately, complement yours.

Conclusion

Many academic libraries are already starting to collect literary scholarship on popular romance novels. This is a significant development. However, only purchasing the scholarship and not the primary texts themselves does a disservice to the researchers and students studying the genre. Imagine a library, for instance, that collected literary scholarship written about Eugene O’Neill, but not The Iceman Cometh. Such a situation is currently the case for popular romance at many academic libraries. Although there is a vital place for popular romance Special Collections (just as there is for Eugene O’Neill Special Collections), circulating popular romance collections can also play a vital role in promoting [End Page 11] teaching and scholarship. In effect, it would mean treating popular romance novels like any other literary genre currently in circulating collections. Popular romance would not be the first popular genre to be treated so; over the past several decades, science fiction and other popular genres have slowly become more readily available in libraries as their scholarship has developed. The same should be true for popular romance.

Although it is unlikely that any one research library would have the funds, let alone the space, to comprehensively collect all of the popular romance authors that might be needed by future researchers, libraries can at least collect a limited number of authors based on their own curricular and faculty needs. Alternately, they could choose a few local authors to focus on. Groups of libraries could also work together in a complementary fashion. Doing so will ensure future researchers access and enable future scholarship. [End Page 12]

Appendix 1: Popular Romance Novels Collection Development Proposal

To:       Head, Collection Development & Preservation

From:  Sarah E. Sheehan
Liaison Librarian, College of Health & Human Services

Re:       Popular Romance Novels Collection Development Proposal

Date:   October 30th, 2013

I propose that the University Libraries collect popular romance novels in a considered and systematic way. As with all genre fiction, the study of popular romance novels has been increasingly recognized as a serious scholarly pursuit. Examples of this, include classes taught at multiple universities, consistent and ongoing programing at the Popular Culture Association conference, a scholarly, peer reviewed, open access journal (Journal of Popular Romance Studies), and at least three scholarly symposia held in the last four years.

The English Department currently offers several classes on popular genres including a class on marriage plots and a 200 level survey class on popular romance novels. Professor Jessica Mathews has been very supportive in suggesting titles and is an active scholar studying the popular romance novel genre. As more faculty find popular romance novels a valid area of study, it becomes important that the University Libraries be able to support that research.

In addition, the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History & New Media in partnership with Library of Congress Center for the Book, the American Library Association and others is sponsoring the Popular Romance Project (http://popularromanceproject.org/). The Popular Romance Project will include a feature length film funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities, Brandeis University and others, as well as a website supported by the Center for History & New Media. In 2015, the Library of Congress Center for the Book will host an academic symposium on the past and future of the popular romance novel. Moreover, the American Library Association will host a traveling exhibit and a series of programs about the popular romance novel in conjunction with the Library of Congress programming.

Scholarship on the popular romance genre is a growing field and providing the actual romance novels to study the genre is important in moving the scholarship forward. The English Department, the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History & New Media, the Cultural Studies Department, and the Women & Gender Studies Department could all use this collection for faculty and student research.

There is an overwhelming amount of popular romance novels published every year, and some of the most popular authors are highly prolific. Using a well-established criteria and focusing on faculty research are steps that can be taken to establish a collection that [End Page 13] provides a good representation of the genre. I would like to propose that I work with Jen Stevens, Humanities Liaison Librarian, in creating collection development criteria in order to build a research appropriate collection of popular romance novels.

Elements of the criteria will include,

  • Novels published by American and International romance novel authors from the 20th and 21st century.
  • Select novels from all the RWA Nora Roberts Lifetime Achievement Award winners.
  • Collecting influential novels listed on the All About Romance and The Romance Reader Top 100 lists.
  • A limited number of category novels. Category novels are the short novels that are written for a specific book line. An example is the Harlequin Romantic Suspense novels will focus much more on mystery and adventure than other Harlequin lines.
  • Hardback or trade paper formats are preferred, but novels that are only available in mass market paperback may also be added to the collection. [End Page 14]

Appendix 2: Popular Romance Novels Purchased for 2013/2014

Author Title
Amanda Quick Second Sight
Jayne Ann Krentz White Lies
Jayne Ann Krentz Sizzle and Burn
Amanda Quick The Third Circle
Jayne Ann Krentz Running Hot
Amanda Quick The Perfect Poison
Jayne Ann Krentz Fired Up
Amanda Quick Burning Lamp
Jayne Castle Midnight Crystal
Jayne Ann Krentz In Too Deep
Amanda Quick Quicksilver
Jayne Castle Canyons of the Night
Jayne Ann Krentz Wildest Dreams
Balogh, Mary At Last Comes Love
First Comes Marriage
Secret Affair
Seducing an Angel
Simply Love
Simply Magic
Simply Perfect
Simply Unforgettable
The Arrangement
The Escape
The Proposal
Then Comes Seduction
Brown, Sandra Deadline
Led Astray
Low Pressure
Standoff
Crush
Envy
Fat Tuesday
French Silk
Not Even for Love
Where There’s Smoke

[End Page 15]

Chase, Loretta Captives of the Night
Last Hellion
Lion’s Daughter
Lord of Scoundrels
Scandal Wears Satin
Silk is for Seduction
Crusie, Jennifer Agnes and The Hitman
Anyone But You
Bet Me
Charlie All Night
Crazy for You
Dogs and Goddesses
Don’t Look Down
Faking It
Fast Women
Getting Rid of Bradley
Manhunting
Maybe This Time
Strange Bedpersons
Tell Me Lies
The Cinderella Deal
The Unfortunate Miss Fortunes
Trust Me On This
Welcome to Temptation
What the Lady Wants
Wild Ride
Dare, Tessa Any Duchess Will Do
Lady by Midnight
Romancing the Duke: Castles Ever After
Scandalous, Dissolute, No-Good Mr. Wright
Twice Tempted by a Rogue
Week to be Wicked
Kelly, Carla Carla Kelly’s Christmas Collection
Double Cross
Enduring Light
In Love and War: A Collection of Love Stories
Marian’s Christmas Wish

[End Page 16]

Miss Billings Treads the Boards
Miss Grimsley’s Oxford Career
Mrs. Drew Plays Her Hand
Reforming Lord Ragsdale
Safe Passage
Lowell, Elizabeth Autumn Lover
Blue Smoke and Murder
Dangerous Refuge
Death Echo
Enchanted
Forbidden
Innocent as Sin
Only His
Only Love
Only Mine
Only You
Pearl Cove
Untamed
Winter Fire
Macomber, Debbie Blossom Street Brides
Back on Blossom Street
Christmas Letters
Christmas Wishes
Good Yarn
Hannah’s List
Knitting Diaries
Shop on Blossom Street
Starting Now: A Blossom Street Novel
Summer on Blossom Street
Susannah’s Garden
Turn in the Road
Twenty Wishes
Miller, Linda Lael A Lawman’s Christmas
A McKettrick Christmas
High Country Bride
McKettrick’s Choice
McKettrick’s Heart
McKettrick’s Luck

[End Page 17]

McKettricks of Texas: Austin
McKettricks of Texas: Garrett
McKettricks of Texas: Tate
McKettrick’s Pride
Secondhand Bride
Sierra’s Homecoming
Shotgun Bride
The McKettrick Way
Women of Primrose Creek (anthology)
Phillips, Susan Elizabeth Ain’t She Sweet
Breathing Room
Call Me Irresistible
Dream a Little Dream
Fancy Pants
First Lady
Glitter Baby
Great Escape
Heaven, Texas
Honey Moon
Hot Shot
It Had to be You
Just Imagine
Kiss an Angel
Lady Be Good
Match Me If You Can
Natural Born Charmer
Nobody’s Baby But Mine
This Heart of Mind
What I Did for Love
Putney, Mary Jo Angel Rogue
Dancing on the Wind
One Perfect Rose
Petals in the Storm
River of Fire
Shattered Rainbows
Thunder and Roses
Quinn, Julia The Sum of All Kisses

[End Page 18]

Rogers, Rosemary Bound by Desire
Bride for a Night
Dark Fires
Lost Love, Last Love
Savage Desire
Scoundrel’s Honor
Sweet Savage Love
Wicked Loving Lies
Singh, Nalini Angel’s Flight
Kiss of Snow
Tangle of Need
Stewart, Mary Airs Above the Ground
Madam Will You Talk?
My Brother Michael
Nine Coaches Waiting
Rose Cottage
The Gabriel Hounds
The Ivy Tree
The Moon-Spinners
The Prince and the Pilgrim
The Stormy Petrel
Thornyhold
Thunder on the Right
Wildfire at Midnight
Wind off the Small Isles
Stuart, Anne Black Ice
Breathless
Chain of Love
Cold as Ice
Fire and Ice
Heart’s Ease
Ice Blue
Ice Storm
Nightfall
On Thin Ice
Reckless
Ruthless
Shameless

[End Page 19]

Silver Falls
To Love a Dark Lord
Ward, J.R. Dark Lover
Lover at Last
Lover Avenged
Lover Awakened
Lover Enshrined
Lover Eternal
Lover Mine
Lover Reborn
Lover Revealed
Lover Unbound
Lover Unleashed
Weiner, Jennifer Fly Away Home
Whitney, Phyllis A. Amethyst Dreams
Daughter of the Starts
Domino
Feather on the Moon
Golden Unicorn
Lost Island
Rainsong
Seven Tears for Apollo
Silverhill
Snowfire
The Quicksilver Pool
Thunder Heights
Woman Without a Past
Wiggs, Susan Just Breathe
et al More Than Words: Stories of Courage Anthology
Woodiwiss, Kathleen A Rose in Winter
A Season Beyond a Kiss
Ashes in the Wind
Come Love a Stranger
Everlasting
Forever in Your Embrace

[End Page 20]

Petals on the River
Shanna
So Worthy My Love
The Elusive Flame
The Flame and The Flower
The Reluctant Suitor
The Wolf and The Dove

[End Page 21]

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“About.” Roy Rosenszweig Center for History and New Media. n.d. Web. 30 April 2014.

“Laura London’s The Windflower to Be Reissued in 2014.” RT Book Reviews. 12 November 2013. Web. 18 April 2014.

“Literature Classification: General and Canadian.” Queens Library University. 20 April 2004. Web. 17 November 2014.

“Teaching Popular Romance.” Teach Me Tonight: Musings on Romance Fiction From an Academic Perspective. n. d. Web. 22 April 2014.

“Top 100 Romances Poll November 2013.” All About Romance. n.d. Web. 30 April 2014.

All About Romance: The Back Fence for Lovers of Romance Novels. n.d. Web. 30 October 2014.

Alsop, Justine. “Bridget Jones Meets Mr. Darcy: Challenges of Contemporary Fiction.” The Journal of Academic Librarianship 33.5 (2007): 581-585. Web. 2 April 2014.

Baltimore County Public Library Blue Ribbon Committee. Give ‘Em What They Want!: Managing the Public’s Library. Chicago: American Library Association, 1992. Print.

Berlatsky, Noah. “I’m a Guy Who Loves Romance Novels – and Jennifer Weiner is Right About Reviews.” Salon. 21 April 2014. Web. 21 April 2014.

Bosman, Julie. “Lusty Tales and Hot Sales: Romance Novels Thrive as E-Books.” New York         Times. 8 December 2010. Web. 20 November 2014.

Brownson, Charles W. “Contemporary Literature.” English and American Literature: Sources and Strategies for Collection Development. Eds. William McPheron, Stephen Lehmann, Craig Likness, and Marcia Pankake. Chicago, IL: American Library Association, 1987. 102-126. Print.

Burcher, Charlotte, Neil Holland, Andrew Smith, Barry Trott, and Jessica Zellers. “The Alert Collector: Core Collections in Genre Studies: Fantasy Fiction 101.” Reference & User Services Quarterly 48.3 (2009): 226-231. Web. 2 April 2014.

Clark, Dennis. “Lending Kindle E-book Readers: First Results from the Texas A&M University Project.” Collection Building 28:4 (2009): 146-149. Print.

Crutcher, Wendy. “Little Miss Crabby Pants Fires The Canon.” The Misadventures of Super Librarian. 22 April 2014. Web. 22 April 2014.

Crutcher, Wendy. The Misadventures of Super Librarian. n.d. Web. 30 October 2014.

Dewan, Pauline. “Why Your Academic Library Needs a Popular Researching Collection Now More Than Ever.” College & Undergraduate Libraries 17 (2010): 44-64. Print.

Flesch, Juliet. “Not Just Housewives and Old Maids.” Collection Building 16.3 (1997): 119-124. Web. 18 April 2014.

Funderburk, Amy. Romance Collections in North Carolina Public Libraries: Are All Genres Treated Equally? MA Paper. University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, 2004. Web. 18 April 2014.

George Mason University, Banner Registration System. George Mason University. n.d. Web. 18 April 2014.

Goldman, Crystal. “Love in the Stacks: Popular Romance Collection Development in Academic Libraries.” Journal of Popular Romance Studies 3.1 (2012). Web. 24 April 2014.

Love in the Margins. n.d. Web. 30 October 2014.

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Matthews, Jessica. “Why Women Read Romance Syllabus.” n.d. Web. 18 April 2014.

Queer Romance Month: Because Love is not a Subgenre. n.d. Web. 17 November 2014.

Ramage, Lexie. “Students Read Up on Romance In Unique English Course.” Fourth Estate. 21 March 2011. Web. 8 April 2014.

Ramsdell, Kristin. “Romance Reviews: Second Time Around.” Library Journal. 15 February 2014. Web. 8 April 2014.

Read-A-Romance-Month: Celebrate Romance. n.d. Web. 31 October 2014.

Romance Writers of America. “Industry Statistics.” n.d. Web. 24 April 2014.

Romance Writers of America. “NWA Nora Roberts Lifetime Achievement Awards.” n.d. Web. 24 April 2014.

Selinger, Eric. “The Berlatsky Affair, Part 2.” Teach Me Tonight: Musings on Romance Fiction From an Academic Perspective. 27 April 2014. Web. 27 April 2014.

Sheehan, Sarah E. Romance Authors: A Research Guide. Santa Barbara, CA: Libraries Unlimited, 2010. Print.

Smart Bitches, Trashy Books: All of the Romance, None of the Bullshit. n.d. Web. 31 October 2014.

Smith, Rochelle and Nancy J. Young. “Giving Pleasure Its Due: Collection Promotion and Readers’ Advisory in Academic Libraries.” The Journal of Academic Librarianship 34.6 (2008): 520-526. Web. 2 April 2014.

Wyatt, Neal; Georgine Olson; Kristin Ramsdell; Joyce Saricks, and Lynne Welch. “The Alert Collector: Core Collections in Genre Studies: Romance Fiction 101.” Reference & User Services Quarterly 47.2 (2007): 120-126. Web. 2 April 2014.

[End Page 23]

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Writing the Happy Ever After: An Interview with Anne Gracie
by Lisa Fletcher

Anne Gracie is one of Australia’s most awarded popular historical romance writers and a past president of the Romance Writers of Australia (2006 – 2008). Her first novel Gallant Waif, published by Harlequin, was a finalist for the RITA Award for best first book in 2000 and won the Romance Writers of America (RWA) National Readers Choice Award in 2001. Her second novel for Harlequin, Tallie’s Knight, won the Australian Romantic Book of the Year (awarded by the Romance Writers of Australia) in 2002 and The Romance Journal’s 2001 Francis Award for Best Regency. An Honourable Thief, released in the UK in 2001, the USA in 2002 and Australia in 2003, won the 2002 RWA National Readers Choice Award for Best Regency. In 2005, Anne published her first novel with Berkley, The Perfect Rake, which was a finalist for American and Australian romance awards. Originally intended as a stand-alone title The Perfect Rake became, to Anne’s great surprise, the first book in her much-loved four-book Merridew Series. Romantic Times awarded the heroes of the second and fourth books K.I.S.S. awards (Knight in Shining Silver). The final Merridew novel, The Perfect Kiss, was a 2008 RITA finalist. Her five-book Devil Rider’s series was published by Berkeley between 2008 and 2012. The first book, The [End Page 1] Stolen Princess, won the Romance Writers of Australia RuBY Award for Romantic Book of the Year in 2009 and the fifth, Bride By Mistake, was a 2012 RITA finalist for best historical romance. The first book of her new Chance Sisters series, The Autumn Bride was published in 2013, and was a RITA finalist.

Lisa Fletcher: I want to begin by discussing the distinction between popular fiction and literary fiction. The Australian academic, Ken Gelder, argues that popular fiction and Literature (he uses a capital L to distinguish it from the broader category of literature which includes both popular fiction and Literature) are distinct, even opposed, fields. He goes so far as to say they’re antagonistic. For Gelder the distinction between popular fiction and Literature only makes sense if we realize or recognize that these fields value different things; they’ve got different values.[1] In other interviews you’ve said that, for you, the purpose of romance is entertainment and you’ve stated quite emphatically that it is not literary fiction. So, can you explain what you mean when you say that popular romance novels are not “literary”?

Anne Gracie: I’d actually like to adjust that claim. I would say that the relationship between popular fiction—in my case genre fiction romance—and literary fiction is best illustrated with a simple Venn diagram. I would class some writers, for instance Barbara Samuel, absolutely as literary fiction in terms of my idea of what literary fiction is: ideas are explored and beautiful language is encouraged. She also tells a good story, which would place her in the overlap part of the Venn diagram. In genre fiction, there must be a good story. In popular romance, which is what I understand best, I think storytelling trumps language every time. Think, for instance, about the big fuss over Fifty Shades. People have said that it’s clunkily written, but clearly the storytelling has worked for many, many readers. I would say another difference is the relationship between the reader and the text. In romance, the reader has to be emotionally engaged in the text. They have to be emotionally—not necessarily committed to—but empathetic towards the heroine, particularly, and barracking for the hero and the heroine to earn their happy ending.[2] Romance readers want to go on that emotional rollercoaster ride and, if they don’t care about the heroine, they won’t bother finishing the book. For readers of literary fiction whether you like or dislike the main character is irrelevant, whereas I think it’s crucial in romance.

LF: When I teach my students about the difference between popular fiction and literary fiction, I show them a very simple Venn diagram with two intersecting sets. One set represents literary fiction, the other popular fiction, and there is a zone of overlap in the centre.  I then like to ask them, what about if I want to put the word “classics” in this Venn diagram? Where do I put it? The point of asking such questions is, of course, to suggest the potential for texts to shuttle back and forth between the two sets.

AG: Absolutely, and if you asked a bunch of romance readers about “classics,” they wouldn’t be talking about the same texts as your students, except maybe Pride and Prejudice and Jane Eyre. Mostly though, they’d be talking about different classics: books such as Laura Kinsale’s Flowers from the Storm and Loretta Chase’s Lord of Scoundrels, or [End Page 2] her Mr Impossible which regularly top readers’ lists of all time favourite romances. Of course there are many more.[3]

LF: I think you’re right: different literary fields have different canons. Popular romance has its canon, which might include the novels fans call “keepers,” and literary readers have their canon and they rarely intersect. Where they do intersect is with the literary antecedents of today’s romance genre romance novels. You’ve already mentioned Jane Austen and the Brontës; both names which have come up many times at this conference.

AG: However in the nineteenth century they didn’t distinguish between popular fiction and literary fiction in quite the same way we do today.

LF: Do you think it’s a twentieth-century distinction?

AG: Yes, it’s a twentieth-century distinction. In fact in my talk tomorrow, I’m actually quoting Dickens, who I think of as the ultimate popular fiction writer, but now has a firm place in people’s minds as a literary writer.[4] Or at least, a ‘classic” writer.

LF: I want to focus a little more closely on the question of popular romance and literary fiction by talking about your latest novel, The Autumn Bride.[5] The novel begins in London in 1816. The heroine, Abigail Chantry, is a governess and she is running late after spending her half-day off in a bookstore, “lost in a story—The Monk—deliciously bloodcurdling.”[6] Reading, and in particular the pleasures of reading, strike me as key theme in this book. Not only does Abby love to read, but also she introduces other characters to the pleasures of “thrilling tales” and establishes a “literary society for people who don’t want to be improved.”[7] I love that quotation! What do you think? Were you deliberately playing with ideas about reading and pleasure in this novel?

AG: In a way. I think these moments in the novel are, partly, my reaction to something that has developed in society. I read very widely—romance and other genres as well as literary fiction—but I think there’s a cultural belief in Australia that reading needs to be serious, reading needs to be hard. I was in a bookstore in Bendigo a couple of months ago with a friend who was looking for a book.[8] I was just waiting around and browsing, when three young women came in to the store. They were clearly having trouble choosing a book. One of them said, “I like the books we do in book-club, of course, but for once I just want to find something that’s fun to read.”  It’s like people think that reading needs to be difficult and ‘worthy’, but we don’t tend to have the same ideas about watching movies. Sure, we distinguish between art-house movies and pure bits of fun, but people have no shame about saying they went to see a light-hearted romantic chick flick. Many Australians would rather die than admit they’d read a romance. So The Autumn Bride does include a little bit of tongue-in-cheek poking fun at the hiving off of novels that are worthy to read from the great variety of literature.

LF: One of my thoughts reading the book was that you were using it, in part, to making an argument for romance; it seems to me that you’re speaking up for the genre within the pages of the novel. [End Page 3]

AG: Yeah, sort of… [laughs] It’s also just fun and you know I’m not really taking it all that seriously.

LF: Nevertheless, I would argue that this novel uses the subplot of Abby’s success with a “fun” reading group to make a case for the value of the genre to which it belongs. I especially like the scene when a book literally saves Abby’s life: she’s carrying a novel when attacked in an alley and her assailant’s knife cuts into the book’s cover rather than her body.

AG: I never thought of that [laughs]. Completely unplanned. I needed her winded, not stabbed and the book was the obvious solution because she’s a reader, and like most readers, carries a book wherever she goes.

LF: It’s also a comical scene.The hero, Max, teases Abby, “And they say an addiction to novels is bad for you.”[9] Popular romance has always impressed me as an extremely self-reflexive genre, even when it doesn’t know that it’s doing it. Heroes often protest that they are not romantic; heroines reflect on the failure of real life to live up to their romantic dreams; and so on. Do you agree, and do you think that this type of self-reflexivity is one of the appeals of the genre?

AG: Yeah, I think it is. I think a lot of the readers of romance think this and enjoy novels that play with the conventions of the genre, but I didn’t deliberately plan to have a literary theme in this book at all.

LF: Do you now agree with me that it’s there?

AG: Oh yeah. As you were speaking and reading the quotations, I was thinking, “Gosh, yes, wow! [both laugh] I didn’t know I did that!” but I’m often surprised by readers’ interpretations of my novels. I have a reader in America who writes to me after every book and tells me my themes and it’s very interesting because I frequently have not intended or noticed them myself. There may be some thematic things that I’ll deliberately emphasise, but I don’t sit down and think, “What’s my theme?” or anything like that. When writing I’m just trying to make the story work and make it fun, but there are clearly things happening in the brain that are pulling it all into line.

LF: I guess as a literary critic, my job is to find patterns in and between texts, which is partly about identifying themes, and as a writer your job is to make patterns.

AG: I studied literature at Melbourne Uni, [laughs] so I do get it. And I remember arguments in tutorials about whether writers intended particular themes and now I’m on the other side! [both laugh]

LF: I’ll be fascinated to hear if you intended any of the other ideas I’ve identified in your work. I would like to talk a little more about the representation of reading in your novels. For more evidence that The Autumn Bride presents readers with a defense of romance I’d turn first to the minor character of Sir Oswald Merridew, who tells Max that what Abby and her friends [End Page 4] have created is “not like the usual sort of literary society—all allusions and metaphorical whatsits and epigrammatic thingummies—frightful bore, that kind of thing, too clever for me by half.”[10] At moments like this it seems to me as though the novel is issuing an invitation to readers to evaluate their own views about reading and types of reading; of course, readers are not required to accept the invitation to engage with the text at this more intellectual level, but I do think the option is there. Do you think that this is a valuable approach for scholars of popular romance fiction—to look within the novels and consider what they might be saying about the genre?

AG: I don’t know. It is about supporting the notion that people can just read for pleasure without having to justify it by entering into an intellectual discussion – literary salons were around in the Regency and there’s a parallel with today’s book clubs certainly, but it’s also a subtle reference to some of my earlier novels. Sir Oswald is a character from previous books. In the series with “perfect” in the title, he is the great uncle who the sisters fled to in order to escape their violent grandfather.[11] A lot of people loved him as a character and I wanted to make that connection, but another reason why I’ve included the literary society is historical. During the Regency, much of highborn society tended to scorn education. Girls, in particular, were valued for being more ignorant and they didn’t go in for any of that book-reading nonsense. So it’s obvious fodder for comedy.

LF: So you were playing simultaneously with a historical idea about attitudes to gender and reading during the Regency and a contemporary idea about the romance genre.

AG: Yeah, but I wasn’t playing deliberately with the modern idea of the romance novel. I was just really playing with historical notions about reading and it turns out to be in a romance novel. It’s also relevant that The Autumn Bride is loosely based on Pride and Prejudice. Each book in this series is going to take one of Austen’s texts as their cue, but it’s meant to be very, very subtle. Loose, even. [laughs]

LF: The Austen reference is right there in all the epigraphs. Every chapter begins with a quotation from a different Austen novel.

AG: Yes, but the fact that this novel takes its cue from one Austen story is less obvious. There are only a couple of lines from Pride and Prejudice that are actually quoted.

LF: So there are layers of intertextuality in the novel.I wonder how this relates to the three categories of readers you identified in a romance-writing workshop in 2002: “A passive reader will easily put down a text. An active reader will reluctantly put it down. A challenged reader all too often tosses it across the room.”[12] Can you explain in more detail how an “active reader” engages with a romance novel, or rather how you imagine the active reader that you’re writing for engaging with the novel?

AG: As I said earlier, one of the big things about popular fiction is that readers engage emotionally with the text, and invest in the world of the text. I gave that workshop at one of these conferences. It focussed on writing techniques for encouraging active reading and for writing a page-turner. For instance, planting “questions” throughout the novel prompts [End Page 5] readers to make hypotheses about how the story will unfold and then to read on to find out whether their guess was right. Readers use their imagination to engage with novels. When I write, I can only go so far; the rest of the story building happens through the link to the reader’s imagination and a really good reader has a really good imagination. More imaginative and committed readers become deeply involved in the story; they make connections within the world of the story they’re reading and pick up the references to other texts. For some readers, Sir Oswald Merridew is just a funny old bloke who attends the literary society, but to a whole lot of people who have read those other books he offers, just for a moment, a return to a world with which they are already familiar.

LF: You’re talking about a couple of different models of reader engagement, I think. The appearance of Sir Oswald in The Autumn Bride is an example of cross-referencing within your own work, which allows dedicated readers to more actively immerse themselves in an imaginative, inhabitable world, but the earlier type of engagement you were talking about is more about the structure of individual novels. While you were talking, I began thinking about the mid-twentieth century clue-puzzle crime novel or “whodunit,” most associated with Agatha Christie. The writer plants “clues” to actively encourage forward reading and keep the reader moving through the text. Is this prioritising of forward momentum—of page-turning—opposed to a literary kind of writing which encourages readers to pause, think, reread passages?

AG: Yes. I want to engage my readers on as many levels as possible. There’s no reason why you can’t read popular fiction in that more reflective way, and some novels lend themselves to that more than others. When I’m writing I’m conscious of the danger that if people have to work too hard to engage with my novels, they may put down the book and not come back. The same if they get bored.  The main purpose of reading romance fiction is not to ponder and think; it’s to be entertained.

LF: The Autumn Bride is a story, not a book of ideas.

AG: Exactly. There’s no reason why there can’t be ideas in a story, but the story has to work primarily. Of course, I’m basing my comments on my own expectations when I read romance. I tend to read popular fiction when I’m stressed and I just want time out, when I want to stick my head in a book and just read without having to think too much. That kind of pleasure is for when I’m more relaxed and when I just want to sink into a text and not escape from the world. It is a different reading experience.

LF: Is Abby, in The Autumn Bride, an active reader?

AG: Yes.  But the term ‘active reader’ is more about how the writer writes, not how a reader reads.

LF: She also teaches others how to read actively—how to engage their heads and their hearts in their reading. [End Page 6]

AG: She uses books and then the literary society as entertainment, but her initial aim with the society is as a devious scheme to introduce her marriageable sisters to society, when they’ve been expressly forbidden to go into society. She brings society to them. So, to an extent the literary society is just a plot device.

LF: But she’s also genuinely passionate about reading.

AG: Yes, she loves her stories.

LF: She loves a good story and she knows how to tell a good story, so she’s both an active engaging storyteller and an active reader herself. I’m also interested in the hero’s aunt, Lady Beatrice, who Abby rescues Aunt Bea from cruel servants. One of the main ways she helps her to recover her love of life and sense of humour is by reading novels to her, aloud. I think I’ve found characters that model active reading in some of your other novels as well. In The Stolen Princess, for example, the heroine, Callie, adores “frivolous reading matter.”[13] She learned to love stories from her beloved nanny, Miss Tibthorpe or “Tibby”, who “was an avid reader of novels and romantic poetry” and so ignored Callie’s father’s opposition to stories and “Filling girls’ heads with nonsense.”[14] Why did you make these characters lovers of novels?

AG: Callie had a cold and heartless upbringing with her father and she needed someone to teach her that there are other ways to live. Romantic literature was a bond between governess and pupil. But I also wanted to have fun with Tibby and her man. I wanted to play with a romance between an older spinster governess and a big hunky illiterate man-of-action and that became the subplot romance between Tibby and Ethan. Their story went over two books and Ethan learnt to read in that time.  I’ve taught literacy all my life, since I was nineteen at university and took on a volunteer role. Reading has brought me so much pleasure in my life and so I teach adult literacy; my thinking about the two things came together in The Stolen Princess. I also liked the dynamic of using the subplot romance to balance the main plots of this book and the next.[15] And I had a lot of fun playing out the “Young Lochinvar” thread. Also, I do think that, in that era and still now, people escape from the grimness of their lives into genre stories of some kind.

LF: I want to ask you about escapism and romance. My sense is that, even when your characters don’t explicitly state their passion for gripping fiction—when they’re not readers like Tilly, and Callie, and Abby and so on—your novels speak up for the genre in other ways. In particular, it seems to me that your heroines understand the value of escaping into fantasy narratives and worlds. For example, Nell, the heroine of His Captive Lady feels that she has lost everything, so she “live[s] on fantasies, dreaming her life was different. It was foolish she knew, but sometimes fantasy kept hopes alive. She needed that more than anything.”[16] In an interview with Kate Forsyth, you linked the genre’s popularity to its, in your words, “Pure, feel-good escapism.”[17] I can see a similarity between the “escapism” that you say your novels offer readers and Nell’s fantasies in His Captive Lady, Isabella’s daydreams in Bride By Mistake[18], the stories Prudence tells her sisters in The Perfect Rake, even in Grace’s immersion in renovating Wolfestone Castle in The Perfect Kiss. I’m wondering whether I understand what you mean by “escapism.” Can you explain your understanding of this term, [End Page 7] and do you agree that the pleasures and other benefits of escaping into stories might be a theme within your novels?

AG: My heroines often fantasise and dream of what things might be. I think that’s a very human, perhaps very female thing to do. Creating fantasies to escape into is a way of keeping hopes and dreams alive, keeping you going in difficult circumstances. My heroines’ tendency to daydream also helps readers to connect with them; they can empathise and sympathise with her fantasies.  It’s a way to encourage emotional engagement with the character and her story.

LF: This connects with what you were saying earlier about positioning the reader to barrack for the heroine; to do this, the reader must know the heroine’s hopes and dreams.

AG: Absolutely, ensuring that readers understand the protagonist’s goal is quite an important process in writing popular fiction. Many writers will argue that the goal needs to be tangible, but I also think that dreams and hopes must count in romance fiction. As a romance reader myself, I want to know what the heroine’s dreaming and hoping for.

LF: I want to turn now to the question of defining the genre, which is a pressing issue in popular romance studies. In an article for WriteOn magazine, you wrote, “romance must have a happy ending.”[19] As a literary scholar, my job is to interrogate ideas that are taken for granted. I’ve become increasingly fascinated by the cultural and political implications of romance’s insistence on the Happy Ever After. What is a “happy ending”? What are its requirements? And why do you think is it a requirement of the genre?

AG: Booksellers and publishers often present books as romances that I would call “romantic fiction.” The difference between “romantic fiction” and “romance” is that romance fiction ends happily. Romantic fiction can be all about love, can even tell a love story, but if a main character dies at the end a dedicated romance reader will feel gutted. The happy ending is not particularly narrowly defined … well, no, it is! A happy ending will mean that the hero and heroine will be together. They don’t have to be married, but the reader has to feel convinced by the end of the story that these two people will go on into the future, and live a happy life, and remain committed to each other.  In some romances the achievement of “happy for now” is enough. Another important genre expectation is that the hero and heroine must go through a fair bit of difficulty to achieve that happy ending.

LF: So the happy ending is a reward? The characters have to work for it.

AG: The happy ending is the reward. This is not inconsistent with the demand for a satisfying ending in other popular genres. For instance, I often make a comparison between the conventions of romance fiction and other classic popular genres. At the end of a traditional crime novel, justice is delivered. And in adventure fiction, characters take physical risks, and they are rewarded …

LF: In adventure fiction, the hero typically receives some kind of monetary reward. He often also gets the girl, but romance isn’t the main through-line. [End Page 8]

AG: No, often it’s just a placeholder girl, a token female, because finding love is not the hero’s principal objective. In romance fiction, by contrast, emotional justice is delivered. Romance heroes need to take emotional risks. They may face physical risks as well, but, in order for the romance to succeed, they must confront some of their inner demons, especially the kind of inner demons and hang-ups that have prevented them from being able to make a successful relationship in their past.

LF:The Happy Ever After then, if you think about it in terms of the temporal structure or chronology of the story, is both the reward for the way that characters overcome obstacles depicted in the plot, but it is also recompense for the pain or loss of past events or relationships.

AG: Yes, the back-story is crucial to understanding the Happy Ever After.

LF: So, just as the Happy Ever After makes readers a promise about the future of fictional lovers, there are always also lines of causality going in the other direction as well, towards the characters’ imagined pasts.

AG: Sure, absolutely.

LF: I think scholarship on the Happy Ever After sometimes forgets that the conventional structure of romance requires that the narrative reach out in both directions—towards the imagined future and the implied past.

AG: Yes, the back-story in popular romance is crucial, because what has happened to the characters in the past, and how they’ve interpreted the past, is almost always what is blocking them from getting that happy ending. I often tell people about my mum and dad, who met on the steps of the 1888 Building[20] when they were both nineteen. They fell in love then and there, got married a few years later and were happy right to the end. Terrific real-life romance. Crappy story. It was too easy. Characters overcoming difficulties to achieve true love and happiness is what makes a romance story interesting. In a classic genre romance, the relationship is the story.

LF: Of course, happiness only ever makes sense in relation to unhappiness. Does this explain why, if a story has a “happy ending” that is not balanced by the possibility or experience of unhappiness, it’s not a romance?

AG: A romance must have drama in the story and everyday banality, no matter how pleasant it is, is not drama. Romance writers and readers want their books to depict more than everyday life, as do readers of most genre fiction. So our characters have more things happen to them, more bad things happen to them, than truly happy couples like my parents.

LF: In her book, The Promise of Happiness, the cultural theorist Sara Ahmed examines how happiness is defined and understood in contemporary culture. She says, “Happiness is often [End Page 9] described as a path, as being what you get if you follow the right path,”[21] which is effectively what we’ve just been saying. The hero and heroine have to behave in the right way to be rewarded with happiness. The reverse is also true: the villain in a romance is often a character who is stuck in the past and cannot move forward.

AG: There is, however, a growing tendency amongst some authors to make the villain of one book in a series the hero of the next. I think this is a really interesting development, which relates to the importance of the back-story. The villain can be reinvented as a hero because, in the moral world of popular romance, to understand all is to forgive all. Mary Balogh wrote a terrific novel, Courting Julia, in which the anti-hero, Frederick Sullivan, kidnaps the heroine, who is his distant cousin.[22] He is desperate and plans to marry her for her money. Frederick is not the classic villain, but because he behaves badly, his plan fails. In the next novel in this series, Dancing with Clara, Frederick is even more desperate for money and he marries a disabled heiress for her money.[23] The heroine is quite aware of Frederick’s motivations and understands that, in a way, she is buying herself a beautiful man. She knows he doesn’t love her, but he pretends he does. Then she calls him on it and he’s just mortified and it’s wonderful!  It’s the beginning of his transformation, as he learns to live with what he’s done, and treat her honestly. And in the process, he falls in love.

LF: For Ahmed, happiness is an extremely difficult concept to define, but one that researchers should take seriously. What do you think “happiness” means in the context of the popular romance genre? If you were to write an emotional primer for a budding romance writer, what does happiness mean?

AG: In the case of most of my books, happiness is being loved—being loved truly and unconditionally. Happiness comes from meeting—not necessarily a “soul mate” —but a partner who can laugh along with you, and share things, and with whom you will make a family. Almost all of my books are about the relationship between happiness and the family. I tend to write heroes and heroines who are outsiders. Through their relationship they become part of a family, whether it is a “made-up” family like in The Autumn Bride, or an actual family that welcomes outsiders. In the Merridew Series, the heroines are sisters and the heroes are all outsiders.So, in my books, an important part of happiness is belonging somewhere.

LF: Happiness then, as you depict it in your novels, is both tied to the experiences and feelings of individuals and a social concept.

AG: It is absolutely a social concept. And yes, it’s both.

LF: The happy couple can’t exist or function in isolation, but must be integrated into a broader social structure.

AG: Yes, yes… Being unable to interact in society would be a kind of prison, don’t you think? [End Page 10]

LF: I’m noticing that social or familial connections are becoming a more significant aspect of romantic happiness as the series starts to dominate the genre and industry. Do you think this is the case?

AG: Yes, I think so. When I first started writing in the genre, I noticed the prevalence of “happy family” themes in successful novels. I remember wondering whether the appeal of romance’s focus on family might be explained by increased divorce rates, or perhaps by the fact that people are physically scattered, not just across the country anymore, but also across the world. In my own life too, I noticed people making their own families, moving beyond the biological family to create a family of friends. And I especially like writing stories about outsiders who find love and a home. My heroes and heroines are rewarded with security, which can be interpreted in many ways, but for my characters often includes financial security. I have a friend who has read my books, but is not a natural romance reader at all. She says, “These people are always so rich! Why can’t she just live in a cottage?” But that’s not the fantasy! The fantasy is being rich, or at least financially secure for the rest of their lives. A lot of my characters have had difficult beginnings at some stage and been without money and so understand poverty and powerlessness and unhappiness. Being financially secure may not be the goal, but it is the icing on the cake. Happiness is defined by them, by the characters.

LF: While there is a broad definition of happiness, happiness also means different things for different characters and sets of characters.

AG: Of course, happiness is individual, for each of us. We each have to define and seek our own happiness. That works for fictional characters as well, I think.

LF: In my book, Historical Romance Fiction, I offer an alternative definition of romance, which I’ve never tested on a romance writer before so you’re my guinea pig.[24] In short, I argue that the genre is defined by the necessity of the utterance “I love you” to each and every romance. I actually think the conclusion of your novel Bride By Mistake makes this point: “He was as hungry as she was for the words, Bella saw. She kissed him, moving lower each time. ‘I. Love. You. Luke. Ripton.’/ ‘I like your punctuation. Do it again.’”[25] What do you think about my idea that a romance must include a sincere declaration of love, usually in the words “I love you”?

AG: I think that is one of the “beats” that we look for in a romance. What is the difference between two people living together, getting married, building a family and never saying those words, and a couple who does all of the same things, but openly declares their love? I think it is about commitment. To actually say the words is an act of emotional courage. It is an important step towards the happy ending.

LF:  Emotional courage ties back to what you were saying about emotional justice. Is saying “I love you” evidence that a character has negotiated the obstacles in the path of true love, deserves the reward of the happy ending? [End Page 11]

AG: Interestingly, in popular romance fiction, it is particularly the hero who we look for to state their commitment. Usually, the heroine finds it much easier to say, “I love you.” The man’s declaration is always right towards the end of the novel. It can’t really come much earlier because if his declaration is made in chapter three [laughs], the story’s over.

LF: Yes, the hero of romance novels is often extremely reluctant to say, “I love you”; the heroine must hear these words for the novel to end. A good example of this is Harry in His Captive Lady: Nell knows he loves her physically, but she “crave[s] to hear the words from him.”[26] Similarly, in The Autumn Bride, Aunt Bea tells Max that, if he wants to keep Abby, he must say “I love you”: “‘My dear boy,’ she said gently, ‘women need to hear the words. They don’t need the world conquered for them, but they do need a man to speak the words that are in his heart.’”[27] So obviously you agree that female characters in romance are typically more comfortable—at least at first—with declaring their love, but why do you think this is the case? Do you think this is just a representation of what is a gender actuality or is it part of the conventions of the genre?

AG: A bit of both, I think. I do think that women are generally more comfortable than men in talking about feelings. In romance novels it is part of the convention because, to some extent, the heroine is a placeholder for the reader. I don’t mean that the reader must identify with the heroine in every detail, but identification is part of the reading process. Fiction is, of course, about characters changing and often in romance the character who needs to change the most is the hero. The story is powerful and moving because it depicts the journey towards his final commitment to the heroine.

LF: In your novels, I think it is fair to say that the reader knows from the beginning (unless, I guess, they are entirely new to the genre) that the reticent hero will declare his love by the end. This takes me to another question about the appeal of romance reading, which I think is fraught territory for romance scholarship, but something that we still need to think about: the predictability of romance. One way to think about all of this is to say that, because the reader knows how it will turn out in the end, there must be quite particular pleasures in the predictability of plots. Reading The Perfect Rake though, I started to think about this a little differently. In that novel, the hero and the heroine are so poor at interpreting each other’s words and actions that their relationship becomes comical. The reader of this novel, I think, is therefore both offered the pleasure of predictability and placed in a position of superiority to the characters; that is, the novel assumes the reader will recognize and understand signs of love and desire when the characters themselves are clueless. The reader is positioned in a similar way in The Perfect Kiss, I think, but through the play with Gothic literary conventions, rather than through the more obvious comedy of The Perfect Rake. Is this a deliberate strategy to encourage active reading, or do interpret it in another way?

AG: No, I just enjoy it! And misunderstandings between people — especially lovers or potential lovers — is fine fodder for comedy.

LF: But isn’t the reader positioned to think, “I know what’s going to happen to these characters and I know what’s going to happen long before the characters do.” [End Page 12]

AG: In that sense, it is an example of active reading, but I don’t think I deliberately planned it as such—I was just having fun. Active reading, as I think about it in relation to my actual writing practice, is more important to me during the editing phase. When I teach writing I say, “First comes the draft, then comes the craft. Just tell the story the best you can and then use craft to make it better.” I didn’t deliberately highlight the predictability of the plot as an active readership technique, but playing with the conventions is something that I enjoy.

LF: The predictability of the plot, or the reader having greater insight?

AG: The predictability of the plot. I think romance writers walk a bit of a tightrope. We need to please readers who love the genre, so there are certain predictable elements in the plot, but with every novel the aim is to make it fresh and unique. There is a really interesting tension in romance between predictability and freshness. Tweaking the predictable plot to surprise the reader: that’s the game really.

LF: I want to talk about sex now! You once wrote, “If sex belongs anywhere, it’s in a romance novel.”[28] I’ve been thinking lately about the conventions and the meanings of sex scenes in romance novels. Analysing the representation of sex should begin, I think, by paying attention, not to the sex scene itself, but to the scene when the hero and heroine first meet, because I think that actually establishes the promise of a physical relationship.

AG: Yes, it introduces the sexual tension, though it’s not always the promise of sex-to-come, if that’s what you mean. Plenty of non-explicit romances follow the same conventions.

LF: I’m really interested to know how you would describe the conventions of this stage of romance: the first encounter.

AG: It’s one of the beats that we anticipate and enjoy. There’s a real pleasure in recognizing the hero and the heroine and their first encounter.

LF: You mentioned the “beats” readers expect earlier. Are you talking about the rhythm of the text?

AG: A lot of what is really useful for talking about writing popular fiction comes from screenwriting, which works in “beats,” so I’ve just pinched that term. One of the beats that readers love and anticipate is the “enter the hero” moment in which eyes might meet across a crowded room, or the heroine overhears a Darcy-like figure describe her as too plain, or sparks fly after a carriage accident. These scenes should depict instant sexual tension. Reading them, we just know that we’ve started the adventure, the journey towards the happy ending. The anticipation is part of the pleasure.

LF: The “enter-the-hero” moment, to use your term, often focuses on the power of the hero’s gaze and, in particular, its capacity to breach the distance from social space to intimate space. There are countless scenes depicting a heroine trembling or shuddering as the hero’s eyes rake over or lance through her body. These moments clearly anticipate sex scenes. [End Page 13]

AG: This is also another example of the necessary difference between romance and reality. Romance novels must build anticipation from the very beginning, but it doesn’t necessarily have to do with sex. It’s one aspect of the fantasy we were talking about earlier, but don’t forget I’m writing in the Regency era when they didn’t just say, “Hey babe, how about it? Wanna get laid?”

LF: Sure, and that relates to my next question. I want to ask you about the metaphoric link between desire and violence in first encounter scenes. When in The Stolen Princess Gabriel sees Callie’s face for the first time—on a moonlit path on a cliff-top—his reaction reminds him of the dozen times he’s “had the breath knocked out of him” and the time he was “kicked in the head by a horse”: “Seeing her face in the moonlight was like all of those rolled into one. And more. Gabe’s breathing stopped. He forgot how to speak. He was unable to think.”[29] Similarly, in The Autumn Bride, the first time Max and Abby are alone (another “beat”?), he can’t decide if he wants to kiss or “strangle” her, but he recognizes he finds her “damnably arousing.”[30] What do you think?

AG: The first encounter is cataclysmic. The French call it the coup de foudre and the metaphors of violence are a way of prompting readers to imagine the power, the impact, of “love at first sight.” The characters don’t necessarily recognise their feelings as “love” at this stage.

LF: No, the characters’ inability to name or interpret their emotions enables the reader’s active engagement. The reader is able to recognise the signs of love immediately, as a kind of flash-forward. The characters can only interpret them retrospectively, often near the novel’s conclusion.

AG: But that’s like life anyway. Most of the time we don’t reflect on our own lives terribly well, but it’s really easy to analyse other people’s. [both laugh].

LF: I still want to keep taking about sex, because there’s one thing I keep noticing that I’m very curious about. Romance heroines always “shatter” at the moment of climax. I think I’ve read the verb “to shatter” in this context in every romance novel I’ve read in the last six months. In fact, two Australian academics are currently editing a book about popular erotic fiction called Shattering Releases, so I’m not the only one who’s been thinking about the connotations of this word.[31] I’ve got a theory about this, which I’d like to test on you. The beats I’m interested in at the moment—if we keep with this idea of beats—are the “enter-the-hero” moment (which relates to the moment of first touch, the moment of first kiss), the first sex scene, the first orgasm, and the Happy Ever After. I think there is a chain of causality in your novels that runs from the moment the hero and heroine first meet through the sex scenes—strengthening in scenes depicting orgasm—to the Happy Ever After. In simple terms, the overarching narrative arc described by this chain is one of tension to release. This helps explain all of the shattering: the heroine is disassembled—she is blown apart—so that she can be reassembled as part of a couple.

AG: Yes, it’s a phoenix metaphor. Clearly I haven’t thought about it enough if all of my heroines are “shattering” (laughs). [End Page 14]

LF: There’s “shattering” and there’s “cataclysmic brightness”…

AG: I may have had a few heroines shatter but I have never used“cataclysmic brightness.” But it is a really hard experience to describe isn’t it? And I don’t want to use the word “orgasm,” partly because it is not a term that would have been available to my characters. The term that was often used, “the little death” (from the French) is not what many modern readers would understand either. Or think romantic. It depends partly on point of view. When depicting the heroine’s point of view, I try to limit myself to the kind of words and images that she would use. The heroine of my second book Tallie’s Knight, is very young and naïve, so she would describe climax very differently from another more experienced heroine.[32] Also, the words that I use for orgasm are often metaphorical, because I write historical fiction about people who didn’t have the language we do today, and these scenes should evoke their thoughts and feelings.

LF: Orgasms in historical romance are almost entirely described through metaphor. They’re not described anatomically really very much at all.

AG: Anatomical descriptions are not appropriate – they’d sound horribly scientific or clinical. When we’re in the throes of sex and orgasm, do we think anatomically? We probably don’t think at all, but somehow I have to try and convey that state. There are some “ripples” and “shudders” … but my characters are never going to “shatter” again! Probably. You are making me think, that’s for sure, about how I write. [laughs]

LF: Do you agree with me that there is a link between conventions for representing of orgasm and the expectation of a Happy Ever After? It seems to me that the depiction of orgasm as an experience of absolute sensual plenitude lays the foundations for the reconciliation of the heroine’s warring mind and body, which in the terms of romance, is one precondition for being happy in love.

AG: Yes, yes. But sometimes sex actually makes things worse between the hero and heroine – bringing up more problems. It’s not a quick fix, by any means. But part of the Happy Ever After promise is the promise of fabulous sex. Or in non-explicit romances, the implication of it.

LF: The conflict between mind and body is one of the things that fascinate me about depictions of romance heroines, certainly in historicals. When the heroine first meets the hero, she is typically overwhelmed by her bodily responses and sensations. She doesn’t know how to interpret them, but the experienced romance reader does. The reader knows exactly what’s happening.

AG: Yes and there is a pleasure to be had in that recognition, because it connects to readers’ experiences of love and sex. I hope. And with orgasm, it is also like her bonds are shattering. At least, it’s a metaphorical shattering. Clearly it is, otherwise there wouldn’t be a happy ending. [End Page 15]

LF: That’s another dimension of the metaphor, isn’t it? The heroine is being emotionally, psychologically, physically shattered or undone, so that she can be rebuilt anew into her Happy Ever After and her future as part of a couple, which is a new unified unit.

AG: Yes, but it is also a simple metaphor of just letting go, letting go the bonds and opening up to him, to everything, to all the new possibilities. It’s also a sign that he is responsive to her, which is important.


Lisa and Anne would both like to thank Jennifer Kloester for introducing them.

[1] See Gelder, Ken. Popular Fiction: The Logics and Practices of a Literary Field. London: Routledge, 2004. Print.
[2] The verb “to barrack for” is the Australian equivalent for the American “to root for.”

[3] Kinsale, Laura. Flowers from the Storm. New York: Avon-HarperCollins, 1992. Print; Chase, Loretta. Lord of Scoundrels. New York: Avon-HarperCollins, 1995. Print; Chase, Loretta. Mr Impossible. New York: Berkley-Penguin, 2005. Print.

[4] Gracie, Anne. “Rockpools: The Power of Detail.” Riding the Waves: Romance Writers of Australia Conference. Esplanade Hotel, Fremantle, Australia. 18 August 2013. Breakout Session.

[5] Gracie, Anne. The Autumn Bride. Melbourne: Michael Joseph-Penguin, 2013. Print.

[6] Gracie. The Autumn Bride. 8.

[7] Gracie. The Autumn Bride. 175-6

[8] Bendigo is a regional city in Victoria, Australia.

[9] Gracie. The Autumn Bride. 195.

[10] Gracie. The Autumn Bride. 248.

[11] The Merridew Series: The Perfect Rake. New York: Berkley-Penguin, 2005. Kindle; The Perfect Waltz. New York: Berkley-Penguin, 2005. Kindle; The Perfect Stranger. New York: Berkley-Penguin, 2006. Kindle; The Perfect Kiss. New York: Berkley-Penguin, 2007. Kindle;

[12] Gracie, Anne. “Active Readers” Notes for Workshop conducted at Romance Writers of Australia Conference, Melbourne 2002. Anne Gracie. Web. 26 July 2013.

[13] Gracie, Anne. The Stolen Princess. New York: Berkley-Penguin, 2008. Print. 17.

[14] Gracie. The Stolen Princess. 40.

[15] Gracie, Anne. His Captive Lady. New York: Berkley-Penguin, 2008. Kindle.

[16] Gracie. His Captive Lady. n. pag.

[17] Gracie, Anne. Interview by Kate Forsyth. Kate’s Blog. 14 February 2013. Web. 26 July 2013.

[18] Gracie, Anne. Bride by Mistake. New York: Berkley-Penguin, 2012. Print.

[19] Gracie, Anne. “Romantic Myths.” Anne Gracie. Web. 26 July 2013. First published in WriteOn, the Magazine of the Victorian Writers Centre, Melbourne, Australia.

[20] Historic building on Grattan Street, Parkville, in the state of Victoria, Australia. Formally known as the Melbourne College of Education and later as the Melbourne State College, the 1888 building has been part of the University of Melbourne since 1989.

[21] Ahmed, Sara. The Promise of Happiness. Durham: Duke UP, 2010. Kindle.

[22] Balogh, Mary. Courting Julia. New York: Signet Regency, 1995. Print. [End Page 16]

[23] Balogh, Mary. Dancing with Clara. New York: Signet Regency, 1995. Print.

[24] Fletcher, Lisa. Historical Romance Fiction: Heterosexuality and Performativity. Aldershot: Ashgate, 2008. Print.

[25] Gracie. Bride By Mistake. 306.

[26] Gracie. His Captive Lady. n. pag.

[27] Gracie. The Autumn Bride. 289.

[28] Gracie. “Romantic Myths.” n. pag.

[29] Gracie. The Stolen Princess. 15-6.

[30] Gracie. The Autumn Bride. 110.

[31] The editors of this book are Kristen Phillips and Claire Trevenen. See http://blogs.curtin.edu.au/elizabeth-jolley-conference/2013/05/cfp-shattering-releasesthe-pleasures-and-politics-of-popular-erotic-fiction-edited-collection/.

[32] Gracie, Anne. Tallie’s Knight. New York: Harlequin, 2000. [End Page 17]

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“Crusie and the Con” by Christina A. Valeo

As Crusie’s romantic leads evolve from chasing the con (Trust Me on This), to abandoning the con (Welcome to Temptation), to embracing the con (Faking It), they highlight the ways in which romance is like a con and the sometimes slippery distinctions between these two kinds of intimate, interpersonal relationships. The outcomes of both romantic relationships and con games depend on trust and trustworthiness, intention toward the other person, and ability to deliver on promises made. To highlight these elements is to call into question aspects of the romance novel that have come to be considered categorical absolutes, notably the “declaration” of love, identified as one of the eight essential elements of the genre by Pamela Regis in A Natural History of the Romance Novel. How can characters or readers trust a declaration of love made by a con artist who has a pattern of lying to both family and friends? More important, do readers trust such a declaration, or are they just charmed by the writers and the generic promises of romance?

To talk about Crusie and the con is to enter into at least three existing critical conversations. First, Crusie’s writing is of interest to romance scholars, as this edition of JPRS attests. Herself a literary critic as well as a novelist, Crusie has weighed in on the long-standing debate of whether romances are “bad” for readers or “good” for readers (see, for example, Radway, Modeleski, Krentz et al, Regis, Crusie herself). My consideration of the con in Crusie’s work, and my argument that the exchange between romance writer and romance reader itself resembles a con, focuses on the agency of the reader in the exchange, on her willing participation in this literary shell game. If we extend the conversation beyond the moral debate, the author’s intent, or the text’s effect, we can consider more completely the reader’s role in constructing the meaning and negotiating the impact of the text.

The second conversation that informs this study of Crusie’s cons is research that has been conducted by communication scholars and those who study criminal justice. Con games rely on old and established patterns of interpersonal behavior like flattery and concession, well documented in a variety of scholarly and practical publications. I rely on several of these sources to illustrate the criminal behavior and highlight the precise parallels between a con and a romance.

Finally, Crusie’s con artist characters are part of a tradition in American literature, most famously dramatized in Herman Melville’s last novel, The Confidence-Man: His Masquerade (1857). Although Crusie alludes to that story and its steamboat setting in the opening lines of Trust Me on This, her con artist characters are more in the spirit of Horatio Alger, Jr.’s Ragged Dick (1868). Karen Halttunen identifies this character as part of a late nineteenth-century shift, when the figure of the confidence man changed from threat to model. She argues that “Dick’s rise depends on three qualities new to American success ideology: aggressiveness, charm, and the arts of the confidence man” (202). In the three Crusie novels about cons, there is only one con man who plays the part of a (not very villainous) villain. Instead, “aggressiveness, charm, and the arts of the confidence man” are apt descriptors of the romantic heroes and heroines in the novels.[1]

As the characters who con become increasingly central to the romance story, their paths to Happily Ever After endings are complicated by the shifting terrain of trust, intent, and capacity. In fact, the very qualities that make a character a capable con artist make him or her unlikely to be successful in other, more lasting interpersonal relationships. To trust that such characters will arrive at their HEA regardless of such history or tendencies may be a well-established genre expectation, but it also requires a reader response well worth our critical attention.

Part I: Trust Me on This–Chasing the Con

As its title suggests, Crusie’s 1997 Bantam “Loveswept” novel Trust Me on This examines the ways that trust is essential to a Happily Ever After ending in a romance. If hero and heroine can learn to trust each other, the novel hypothesizes, they are well on their way to their HEA. Only in its broadest strokes, however, does the novel support that reading. The devilish details suggest instead that the appearance, statements, actions, and intentions of the “heroic” couples and the “villainous” one are disconcertingly similar. According to one criminal investigator, “Successful con artists are charming, manipulative, and able to exploit the innate trust and greed of many people.”[2] By that definition, protagonists Dennie Banks and Alec Prentice, as well as their “sidekicks” Harry and Victoria, are as guilty of conning as the alleged con artist in the novel. All four of those characters are rewarded with a happy ending, though none of them is unconditionally trustworthy.

Crusie’s heroine, Dennie Banks, is a reporter trying to get a story, and her hero, Alec Prentice, is an undercover cop trying to get the conman. Alec attends a literary conference taking place, with a nod to Melville’s Confidence-Man, at the “Riverbend Queen Hotel,”[3]hoping to catch Brian Bond, a con artist who is there to perpetrate what seems to be a real estate scheme. Alec also hopes to apprehend the mysterious brunette who is Bond’s partner in crime. Interestingly, there is initially nothing in Alec’s appearance, actions, or statements that would encourage Dennie to trust him. His manner and appearance are much like those of Brian “Bondman,” the name the con man uses in this caper. His interest in Dennie stems primarily from his suspicion that she is the “mysterious Brunette” who often helps Bond perpetrate his schemes. In his effort to trap, or entrap, Bond, the romantic hero lies to the heroine, the villain, and several secondary characters, charming and manipulating them all into a situation where Bond is likely to step across a criminal line.

Likewise, Dennie’s trustworthiness is frequently called into question, despite her ostensible role as the novel’s romantic heroine. Her appearance is not a reliable indicator of her trustworthiness; her brunette hair makes her fit the description of Bonds’ partner-in-crime. Furthermore, Dennie changes her clothes to change her appearance of reliability, choosing a gray suit to be “serious” and showing cleavage when she’s trying to manipulate someone. Neither are Dennie’s thoughts and actions trustworthy. Dennie fakes a personal interest in Alec to secure an introduction to his aunt; she fakes a personal interest in Bonds to encourage his fraudulent behavior.

The blurred lines between heroic and criminal behavior continue down to the level of the secondary characters. The conman, Brian Bond, spends most of the novel telling the truth: he is sincerely romantically (or at least sexually) interested in Dennie and he really does have some land in Florida to sell. By contrast, Alec’s Aunt Victoria, initially a model of forthright speech, eventually joins Dennie in the series of falsehoods and lies that will lure conman Brian Bond into a legal trap. Victoria also lies to her would-be suitor Donald, a secondary character whose only purpose in the novel is twice to play the gullible, romantic fool. Victoria expresses a romantic interest in him when she in fact sees no such potential; instead, her objective is to enhance the trap that Alex and Harry are setting for Bonds.

Because the romantic principals do not trust each other for much of the novel, and are not reliably trustworthy for the rest of it, their potential for a happy romantic ending actually comes to rest on their intent. Alec and Dennie address this issue explicitly more than halfway through the novel, as it is clear that Dennie still does not trust Alec.

“Do you think I’m a crook?” Alec smiled his open, honest boyish smile at her.

“I think you could be.” Dennie stared back, unsmiling. “I think you’d probably do just about anything if you thought the reason was right. And I haven’t known you long enough to know what reasons you think are right.”[4]

Once Dennie understands Alec’s reasons for his behavior, she does come to trust him. For his part, Alec learns to trust Dennie when she finally joins him in Chicago to marry him and live with him after she has the career success she has been pursuing all along.[5]

Trust Me on This serves as a good introduction to the discussion of the shared ground between a romance and a con. It posits and then dismisses the idea that trust is easy to give or to come by. It rejects the notion that trustworthiness can be ascertained by appearance, actions, or statements, and insists that trust is only established once characters know each other well enough to ascertain intent, an issue fundamental to Crusie’s next con novel, Welcome to Temptation.

Trust Me on This likewise raises the issue of the reader’s response in accepting the supposition that situational trustworthiness and honorable intent are necessary to secure a happy ending, even in the world of a romance novel. Brian Bond, for example, goes to jail at the end of the novel, despite the fact that he turns out to have been behaving in a trustworthy manner and had, in this case, honorable intentions, until Dennie bared enough cleavage to entrap him into lying to her and promising something he could not legally deliver. His erstwhile assistant Sherée, in contrast, goes free and seems rewarded for her stupidity and mendacity by a new relationship with a man who will “take care of her” (Victoria’s silly but sincere suitor Donald). Is the reader’s sense of justice not engaged in her reading of the novel? Is it served well enough by the happy endings doled out to the two romantic leads and their loved ones? Is the reader’s pleasure instead in the seeming irony in the details of the ending? In these complications and contradictions Crusie’s novel asks not the question of what the reader’s response might be, by why she might respond the way she does to the various outcomes of the novel.

Part II: Welcome to Temptation—Abandoning the Con

Crusie’s single-title release Welcome to Temptation (2000) includes a hero who is trusting and trustworthy, while the heroine, for most of the novel, is neither.[6] In terms of a discussion of the parallels between romance and a con, Crusie’s inclusion of a con artist as one of the romantic principals complicates the question of trust and suggests that it is not as essential to romance as it might seem. As they were in Trust Me on This, issues of trust in this novel are ultimately trumped by the question of intent. In the later novel, however, the happy ending depends not on clarifying characters’ intents but in changing them.

The romantic hero is Phineas T. Tucker, the mayor of a small Ohio town, who has very little to hide. The heroine, Sophie Dempsey, has by contrast very little she is willing to reveal. Phin is a life-long resident of Temptation, who has reluctantly followed in the footsteps of his great-grandfather, his grandfather, and his father in serving as mayor, despite the fact that he would rather be spending time with his daughter Dillie, working in his bookstore, or playing pool. Sophie and her sister Amy are makers of wedding videos who have come to Temptation to make a “comeback” film for a former resident, Clea Whipple, who used to star in porn films and B-movies and used to be married to Sophie and Amy’s brother Davy. When Amy and Sophie end up on the wrong side of a town ordinance prohibiting the filming of porn, Sophie and Phin’s burgeoning relationship is threatened by her uncertain allegiances and the damage to his reputation as mayor. The conflict is resolved when Sophie charms and cons the town council and populace, restores Phin’s reputation, and agrees to stay in Temptation and marry him.

Issues of trust and intent are predictably crucial in a romance between a con artist and an upstanding mayor. Sophie arrives in Temptation intending to go straight, but she’s quickly sucked into her sister Amy’s agenda to make a (possibly illegal) soft-porn film and to exploit the participants by simultaneously shooting a documentary about the filmmaking. Sophie’s relationship with Phin begins as one of satisfying, casual sex, so she does not have many qualms about using their real-life dealings and dialog as fodder for her film script. Having previously been burned by the rich scions of Small Town, USA, Sophie neither trusts Phin nor expects him to trust her. Further, Sophie is hardly unique in her lack of full disclosure; at one point in the novel, Phin observes to his friend the police chief Wes Mazur that everyone is lying to him (including Phin himself).[7] In short, almost no one in town is entirely trustworthy. Because the sheer number of lies and liars negates temporarily the issue of trust, the crucial qualities of the characters become instead one of intent: what are their reasons for lying? The reasons are as varied as the characters—self-defense, sex, money, political gain, family, love— but only the last two are ultimately established as acceptable reasons.

From the start Sophie is a somewhat capable if reluctant con. She deploys her share of the family’s gift for the game in order to protect herself, her sister, and later her brother. As her feelings for Phin change and grow, so do her conflicts. Phin says with certainty that Sophie isn’t playing him, when in fact she is.[8] When a disgruntled citizen broadcasts the soft-porn film Sophie and her sister have made, Phin confronts her about her lying, and about the fact that she used some of their conversations for dialogue in the film:

“You’re not supposed to betray the people you sleep with,” Phin said.

“By the time I realized there might be something to betray, it was too late,” Sophie said. “I owed Amy, too. And we didn’t think anybody would ever know.”[9]

If Sophie’s trustworthiness were the first and last issue, this confrontation might well signal the end of the relationship. Instead, the novel introduces the relevance of intent. Phin ultimately recognizes that Sophie has been lying to him to protect her siblings; his own inclinations have been to protect his family, including his meddling mother. Sophie’s Happily Ever After is a result of her willingness to redefine her family, to abandon her siblings to their own devices, and to make Phin and his daughter the family she’ll do anything to protect. She reassures Phin as she decides to take his name, and his “Tucker for Mayor” posters, that there is “Nothing but good times ahead.” After watching the lengths to which Sophie will go to protect those she loves, readers leave the novel reassured that Phin and Dillie, as well as most of the town of Temptation, are in the slightly shifty hands of a woman who wants the best for them, and is likely to be able to deliver.

Sophie and Phin have both been intensely loyal to their families of origin, so their happiness seems secured when they shift that loyalty to the new family they will form with each other and Phin’s daughter Dillie. Even Sophie’s brother, who benefited from his older sister’s protection, encourages this shift: “Listen to me: Marry the mayor and keep the dog and live happily ever after in this house. That’s what you want. Forget about me and Amy and go for it.”[10] With her brother’s blessing, Sophie does shift her allegiance to Phin and his daughter and her newly-adopted town. The novel rewards not her trustworthiness but her good intentions.

As if to accentuate the fact that trustworthiness is not enough and intentions are what dictate outcomes in the fictional world of Temptation, even Phin, who has been trustworthy throughout, must reconsider his intentions. His loyalty to his mother must be tempered if he and Sophie are to build a successful and independent family unit.

“She’s corrupted you,” Liz said, almost spitting in her frustration. “She’s—”

“Well, it runs in her family,” Phin said. “The rest of your grandchildren are going to be half-degenerate.”

Liz froze.

Phin nodded at her sympathetically. “Yeah, I have to marry her. I’m sorry, Mom. I know this wasn’t what you had planned. Any last words before you disown me?”[11]

Liz’s initial reaction may be one of intense distrust and concern, but she too is able to shift her loyalties to include Sophie once she understands that Sophie has been the target of another town matriarch who has been trying to clear the way for her own daughter to marry Phin. She warns Virginia Garvey, “Don’t ever come after my family again,” and then adds, “And that includes Sophie.”[12]

In an overall analysis of the parallels between romance and con in terms of trust, intent, and ability, Welcome to Temptation makes a strong case for the importance of the characters’ intents. Sophie comes from a family of cons and will probably always be somewhat of a con, but once her schemes are used to help Phin and the town, the fact that she is usually lying or misleading seems to stop being an obstacle to her Happily Ever After. The final scene of the novel includes Phin’s proposal and Sophie’s agreement to marry him, but that standard element of the genre[13] segues quickly into Sophie’s decision to become a politician and run for mayor once Phin retires. With an eye toward the four thousand Tucker for Mayor posters still available, Sophie announces

“I think I’ll take your name,” she said, smiling up at him sweetly. “Sophie Dempsey Tucker. It sounds…” She looked at the ring again. “…powerful.”

“Why do I have a bad feeling about this?” Phin said, and she said, “Because your life just changed, but it’s okay. You can trust me.”[14]

This exchange captures several con elements that might well undermine Sophie’s assertion in the last line of the book, “Nothing but good times ahead.” A married woman could be expected to take her husband’s name, but a con artist also changes her name to suit her purposes. Phin is at least somewhat uncomfortable with Sophie’s oblique reference to some future plans, a reminder that she had lied to and manipulated him through most of their courtship.[15] Sophie’s acknowledgement that Phin’s life has drastically changed is quickly followed by her reassurance that he can trust her, but on what would that trust be based? For Phin, and for Crusie’s readers, to believe that there are nothing but good times ahead for these two characters requires them to accept Sophie’s word and/or to believe that she has changed as much, and even more, than he has.

Part III: Faking It—Embracing the Con

In the sequel to Welcome to Temptation, Crusie takes the romance/con connections one twist further. She has established by the outcomes of the two earlier books that even a romance hero or heroine may not be entirely trustworthy when it comes to what he or she says or does; she has argued, by way of granting limited “Happily Ever Afters,” that love and family are the best of the good intentions. In Faking It (2002), she introduces the Goodnights, who revisit all those same questions and add one crucial question more: does the character have the ability to deliver on the promises that he or she has made? Because Sophie and Phin had demonstrated their abilities to keep their promises to their families of origin, no matter how misguided those promises may have been, the ways in which their romance was a con are presumably curtailed once they are each other’s first loyalty. Faking It presents some characters for whom that presumption falls flat.

In the newly-introduced Tilda Goodnight and her love interest Davy Dempsey (Sophie’s brother), readers find a heroine/hero pair who are suspicious of everyone, for very good reasons. Each has something—in fact, many things—to hide. Further, they, like some of the characters in Crusie’s previous work, seem better off establishing some healthy boundaries from their families of origins rather than falling into martyr roles that would have them protect the family at too much cost to themselves. The way each character must determine his or her loyalties going forward, raises, as it did in Temptation, the issue of intent. Finally, Davy and Tilda have been playing their con games for so long, they are unwilling or unable (or both) to stop. Their relationship—both emotional and sexual—works best when they embrace their own, and each other’s, authentic selves, complete with criminal pasts and a penchant for performative play. The end of the novel, which acknowledges their mutual shiftiness even as it posits a Happy Ever After ending, calls in to question whether these characters have the ability to keep the promises they will make.

Davy and Tilda’s paths first cross when they are both chasing Clea Whipple. Tilda is trying to recover a painting she forged, Davy is trying to recover some money Clea took, and they work together to recover the other five “Scarlet” paintings so Tilda can put her fraudulent past to rest. Davy moves in with Tilda and the Goodnights initially to be close to Clea, but he eventually stays because of his affection for them and his inclination to be their protector.

Taking literally the old con cliché of “honor among thieves,” Crusie establishes trust between Davy and Tilda in the opening scene of the novel when they simultaneously break into the house where Clea is staying, Tilda to get her painting, Davy to get his money. Tilda kisses Davy and asks him to steal the painting for her, but importantly she does both in the anonymity of a dark closet. He moves her physically into the light before he agrees to the crime, but the metaphor only serves to accentuate how little about Tilda can actually be “seen” at this stage of the story. Tilda is disconcerted when Davy follows her home, but she continues to trust him with her agenda of acquiring all the Scarlet Hodge paintings, without revealing to him that she is the artist/forger. Davy initially will not disclose his criminal agenda at all. Their second “breaking and entering” adventure includes another closeted kiss, but it culminates in an unsatisfying sexual encounter back at the gallery/apartment building where Tilda is, as the title forecasts, “faking it.”

As partners in crime who trust each other as much as they trust anyone, Davy and Tilda embark on a series of performances to con or steal back the six Scarlet Hodge paintings. But the performances themselves serve ironically to reveal the various truths of Tilda. As she takes on the roles of the sexy Vilma, the sweet Celeste, the talented Scarlet, the shy Betty, the virago Veronica, she is actually showing, rather than hiding, aspects of her personality. Tilda’s sister Eve serves as a foil in this respect as she has two separate personalities: “Eve,” Nadine’s mild, schoolteacher mother, and “Louise,” the erotic singer who performs at her gay ex-husband’s nightclub. Eve/Louise makes clear that a healthy relationship is not about having multiple personalities, as both of her romances end painfully (her marriage, and her fling with Davy’s friend Simon). Instead, Crusie argues through the implications of these various performances, a healthy relationship seems to depend on the partners’ ability to embrace—both literally and figuratively—all of the existing and developing facets of the person they love. In Davy and Tilda’s relationship, that success is dramatized by their last and best sexual interaction, on the bed Tilda has painted in “Scarlet’s” style, as Tilda regales Davy with family tales from a long tradition of art and fraud, “naked and unashamed.”[16] In this scene Tilda finds the self-confidence to reveal everything, and Davy accepts and loves her not in spite of those long-hidden depths but, in many ways, because of them.

Because Crusie establishes “trust” among these thieves so quickly, that element of their relationship does not function according to romance genre expectations. Both Tilda and Davy seem to give and take trust on credit they have not yet earned with each other. Crusie also complicates the question of “intent” in this novel, calling attention to the power of charm, and the need to distinguish somehow between charm and a con. Davy’s father, Michael Dempsey, provides a foil for Davy in this regard as he, like Davy, needs a place to stay and establishes a “romantic” relationship to secure lodging. While Michael is presumably having sex with building resident and painter Dorcas Finsterto secure a place to sleep, Davy is not having sex with Tilda in order to acquire the same. Michael is a charmer who cons people to get what he wants, and the Goodnights recognize those qualities quickly. Gwen acknowledges that Michael would probably “sell everything they have including [the dog] and then leave with the money.”[17] Crusie uses limited omniscience as this novel’s narrative voice, so any character assessment of Michael is based on what he says and does, and on the other characters’ opinions of him. Readers gain no additional information and Gwen’s assessment of Michael proves accurate.

In contrast, Davy’s intentions are revealed by his thoughts, which the narrator does provide. At one point after he has established himself at the gallery and among the family he thinks, “This family needs a keeper,”[18] and he proceeds to fill that role. While Michael secretly takes money, Davy secretly gives money, paying off the mortgage on the building to free Gwen and Tilda and Eve from that responsibility and restriction.

On multiple occasions, Davy’s intentions seem unarguably good, which is why his argument with Tilda over whether or not to tell Simon that Eve and Louise are the same person raises such effective questions about the value of intent.

“Face it,” Tilda said. “You want to tell him because it’s the right thing for you to do, not the right thing for him to hear.”

Davy frowned at her. “So I’m a selfish bastard for wanting to do the right thing.”

“Yes,” Tilda said.

“I know that’s wrong.” Davy stood up. “Let me get back to you on why.”

“Well, until then, keep your mouth shut,” Tilda said. “You honest people can make life hell for everybody else.”[19]

This exchange highlights a variety of ways that Crusie is complicating concepts like trust and intent, and consequently subverting the expectations of genre romance. First, Tilda’s instructions for Davy to “Face it” resonate nicely with the title’s suggestion to “fake it,” which is exactly what Davy will need to do if he keeps this knowledge from his best friend. Often in this novel, “faking it” is an efficient idea and sometimes even a moral one. Second, Tilda suggests that doing the right thing might not always lead to the right result; that the truth, in cases like this, is not always welcome. This subversion of a seeming good, like “truth,” suggests a rather complicated morality. Tilda’s assertions here seem valid for two reasons: in this scene, Davy cannot rebut them; and in a later scene, Tilda’s prediction about Simon’s reaction to the “truth” about Eve/Louise proves accurate and heartbreaking. Finally, Tilda is encouraging Davy to “keep [his] mouth shut,” in order to spare others pain. In a genre that may be assumed to expect truth and declarations, this exchange nicely constructs the possibility of a greater good, and one that is far more difficult to achieve and maintain.

In Faking It, Davy is one of a series of characters in a variety of situations whose good intentions are doomed. Gwen’s intention to protect the family and the gallery has actually kept her and her daughters trapped in unfulfilling lives. The Giordano/Goodnight family ancestors intended to leave valuable fakes for their descendents’ profits, but those locked-up paintings are actually a major source of Tilda’s pain. Nadine may intend to follow in her progenitors’ footsteps and choose a career that can take care of the family, but those paths are not choices that any of the people who love her would be happy to see her make.

Crusie’s con novels all interrogate whether characters have good intentions and whether good intentions lead to good outcomes, questions which seem more suitable to ascertaining whether someone has been conned than whether a romance will succeed. The lying, greedy assistant to the villain of Trust Me on This is rewarded by a relationship (however unsatisfying to the other characters or the reader) which perfectly fulfills her desire to be taken care of by a wealthy man. Sophie Dempsey’s good intention in Temptation, specifically to protect her siblings from their own suspicious behavior, leads to seeming disaster before she begins to effectively use her conning skills to help Phin instead. Michael Dempsey has the best of intentions when it comes to visiting Sophie and meeting his grandson, but every involved character, except for him, clearly sees how such a visit could be ruinous.

In his desire to have close relationships with his grown children, Michael Dempsey manifests the final, telling parallel between romance and a con: he is incapable of realizing that kind of relationship. Whether characters are trusting or trustworthy, whether their actions and iterations are sincere, and whatever their intentions might be, they have to be able to “deliver the goods.” If they cannot, because they do not own the land they are selling or because they are making interpersonal promises they will not be able to keep, there can be no “Happily Ever After.”[20] Although he is a secondary character in the Dempsey character stories, Michael serves a crucial role, and he may be the best indicator of the work the reader is doing in crafting her response to the romance and its standards. Like the grown Dempsey children, Michael believes himself trustworthy to his family, though not to strangers. He intends to love and support his children, although references to their unsettled childhood provide evidence to the contrary.[21] Most important, Michael Dempsey lacks the ability to sustain any of the good impulses he may feel. When he heads to Temptation to see Sophie, Davy calls her husband Phin to intervene:

Phin picked up.

“What’s wrong?” he said. “Dillie says it’s an emergency.”

“It is,” Davy said. “Dad figured out where you are. He’s heading your way. Hold the fort until I get there and remove him. Do not let him alone with Sophie and do not give him money.”

“I’m not stupid,” Phin said.

“Neither is he,” Davy said. “I like to think of him as washed up, but the man can talk anybody into anything.”[22]

Davy’s use of military jargon (“hold the fort,” and later in the scene, “Head for high ground”) suggests that Sophie’s family is under siege during her father’s visit. He has been presented as the foil to Davy and the exception to the new Dempsey family rule of love, trust, good intentions, and long-term commitment, but he haunts the pages as a reminder of the kind of toll one person can take on another if his charm is a cover for his con abilities rather than the surface demonstration of a real ability to effectively love. To believe that Davy Dempsey and Sophie Dempsey will get their enduring HEAs, readers must either ignore the specter of Michael Dempsey and his destructive impulses or convince themselves that he is now the exception to the new Dempsey family rule.

Part IV:Conclusions—Buying the Con

By calling attention to these powerful parallels between romance and a con, Crusie is then simultaneously subverting and substantiating the genre. Her books that include cons and con artists can be read as completely undermining genre staples like the “declaration” of love between the two main characters.[23] If, for example, Davy and Tilda’s declaration scene that ends the book uses their nicknames to indicate their mutual familiarity, intimacy, and joie d vivre—Davy calls her “Matilda Scarlet Celeste Veronica Betty Vilma Goodnight,” for example—on the other hand it also highlights the possibility that these two declarations are empty iterations and mere verbal play.[24] In some ways, Crusie demonstrates that romance is always a con, a series of moves one communication scholar interestingly calls “stroking”: “verbal reinforcements that create a feeling of happiness, success, and well-being.”[25] For this ending to be a happy one, characters and readers alike must believe that the statements of these two life-long liars are not just lines, but are somehow utterly and enduringly true.

So are readers of Faking It, readers of Crusie, readers of romance in general, making a leap of faith, or are they themselves being conned? What would such a con look like? What is at stake? Faking It offers a provocative if unflattering comparison in the success Michael Dempsey has in selling the awful paintings of Dorcas Finster.

Davy watched for a moment to see Michael’s newest mark turn to him and expand under the light in his smile and the glint in his eye. That’s wrong, he thought, but she looked so happy as she bought a Finster that it was hard to explain why it was wrong.

Maybe when she woke up the next morning and realized she’d bought a watercolor of sadistic fishermen drowning fish, maybe that was when it was wrong. Assuming she did. Maybe she’d look at it and remember how she felt when she bought it. Maybe it would make her happy.[26]

Readers know Michael Dempsey cannot be trusted in what he says; his intentions are almost exclusively and unapologetically mercenary. His son Davy knows these facts better than anyone, and yet he seems to suggest an interpretation of this con game that lets the outcome, not the intent, determine whether or not a con has occurred. Caveat emptor, indeed.

Crusie declared her intent early in her writing career, as she made the choice to switch from studying romance to writing it: “By the end of the month, I’d skimmed or read almost a hundred romance novels and two life-changing things happened to me: I felt more powerful, more optimistic, and more in control of my life than ever before, and I decided I wanted to write romance fiction. Anything that did that much good for me, was something that I, as a feminist, wanted to do for other women.”[27] But writerly reassurances and genre guarantees aside, one might well wonder to what extent Crusie is romancing, or conning, her readers. She even explains, over the course of Welcome to Temptation and Faking It exactly how she might pull off such a scheme, in her dramatization of the Dempsey family’s five steps to making people do what you want them to do. In the opening pages of Welcome to Temptation, Sophie Dempsey attempts to “con” Stephen Garvey to minimize the damage of the fender bender they’ve just had. As she feeds him the appropriate lines, she holds up the relevant number of fingers behind her back to communicate to her sister Amy, who also knows this game, exactly what she’s attempting to accomplish:

“One: make the mark smile.”

“Two: make the mark agree with you.”

“Three: make the mark feel superior.”

“Four: give the mark something.”

“Five: get what you want and get out.”[28]

Because Amy interrupts the process, Sophie does not succeed at this particular con. Crusie, however, has just given readers an outline to understanding this particular interpersonal relationship, one which shows how the criminal version of this game is played in real life.[29]

In this discussion of the parallels between romance and a con, however, it’s worth taking a meta-cognitive moment to look at the parallels between romance fiction and a con. The opening pages of Welcome to Temptation, for example, up to and including the scene between Sophie and Stephen Garvey, themselves seem to follow the steps of a Dempsey con. Several examples of Crusie’s wit abound in the first few pages to “make the mark smile.” The limited omniscient narrator gives readers insight into Sophie’s thoughts, so while the character is earnest, readers are laughing: “More riotously happy, southern Ohio landscape. That couldn’t be good.”[30] Readers familiar with Crusie’s biography and her own affection for “riotously happy, southern Ohio landscape” are rewarded with an additional layer of humor, as the character’s feeling diverges so completely from the author’s.[31]

An early example of the way these opening paragraphs might parallel the second step in a con, “make the mark agree with you,” involve a wink toward generic conventions. As Amy tries to offer her sister reassurance about their time in Temptation, she asks, “What could go wrong?” Sophie responds, “‘Don’t say that.’ Sophie sank lower in her seat. ‘Anytime anybody in a movie says, “What could go wrong?” something goes wrong.’”[32] Movie quotes are a Dempsey family hobby, but the observation is apt for popular fiction as well; in this case, the fender bender with the Garvey’s Cadillac is literally just around the bend.

The third step in the con process, “make the mark feel superior,” has to be handled delicately in the courtship of both a real-life mark and a romance reader. If the mark feels too superior, she may get suspicious or lose interest. Crusie and other romance writers would lose readers who felt superior to the writers; it might not be worth the reader’s time or money to continue with the text. Similarly, if readers feel too superior to the characters, they may rapidly lose interest. A key ingredient to comic genres, those with happy endings, is the audience’s certainty that everything will work out even as the characters worry about impending disaster. In the opening pages of Welcome to Temptation, readers can sympathize with Sophie’s desire to avoid trouble even as they know with certainty that her story will have a happy ending. A detail like Sophie’s romance with her (ex) therapist, for example, lets readers know that this character has some growing to do on this journey without costing her their attention or their sympathy. Sophie initially feels guilty about her sexual experimentation with Phin, and she calls Brandon, her ex-therapist and current significant other, to confess. He seems unconcerned with the infidelity, misdiagnosing her motivation and reassuring her that “When you get home, we’ll have a long talk and get you straightened out.”[33] Readers may quickly see, as Amy does, that Phin has better potential as a partner than Brandon, but until Sophie sees that for herself, readers may well have the sensation of feeling superior and knowing better than Sophie does.

The last two steps in a con, “give the mark something” and “get what you want and get out” raise interesting questions about reader response, the relationship between Crusie and her readership, and the relationship between romance readers and writers in general. In the first eleven pages of Temptation, for example, Crusie provides snappy dialogue, an engaging setting, a sympathetic heroine, a pesky sidekick, an infuriating villain (or two), and an oblique introduction to a worthy hero. In fact, in Sophie and Amy’s easy and erroneous dismissal of “the mayor” who must be as old as the signs with his name on them, Crusie foreshadows both Sophie’s tendency to misunderstand Phin and her accurate assessment of the importance of town, the Tuckers, and tradition in the story to come. As the first eleven pages deftly serve as a microcosm of the novel they launch, Crusie has in some ways been able to get what she wanted and get out. That is, she has both established and raised reader expectations, and, if the novel’s run on the New York Times Bestseller List is any indication, hooked her reader.

Perhaps the metaphor of romance and romance writing as a con works best when we consider it as a kind of courtship. Generic expectation dictates that romance writers will “stroke” their readers, offer them assurance in the story’s openings that they’ll get what they came for. With an established writer like Crusie, readers can trust the author, can rely on her intent, can have confidence in her ability to “deliver the goods” as she has so many times before.[34] In her capacity to deliver happy endings, Crusie meets genre expectations and readers are rewarded.

While such happy endings may be read as substantiating the genre and all of its potential to please readers, they also can be read as calling somewhat circumspect attention to the genre itself. In some ways those Happily Ever Afters that the genre promises, writers like Crusie deliver, and readers enjoy, are a version of the “three-card monte” at which Michael Dempsey and Davy Dempsey are particularly masterful. Michael teaches Tilda’s niece Nadine how the game is played, but Davy shows her how the game is beaten.

“I love it,” Nadine said. “It’s a sure thing.”

“There are no sure things.”

“Oh, yeah?” Nadine said. “You can’t beat me.”

Davy took a five out of his pocket and slapped it on the table. “Where’s yours?”

Nadine held out her hand to Ethan, and he sighed and dug a five out of his pocket and handed it to her. “You’ll get it back, Ethan,” she said.

“No you won’t, Ethan,” Davy said. “Deal ‘em.” He watched her shuffle the cards, show him the queen, and then palm it while she moved the rest around. For only having practiced a couple of hours, she was damn good.

“Okay,” Nadine said, still moving cards. “Now, where’s the queen?”

“Right here,” Davy said, putting his finger on the middle card.

“Well, let’s look and see,” Nadine said, smug with her queen up her sleeve.

“Let’s,” Davy said, keeping his finger on the middle card. He turned over the eight of clubs to the right and the four of spades to the left. “Will you look at that? Neither one is the queen, so it must be the middle one.” He took the two fives on the table.[35]

Davy beats the game by not looking under the third card, by not showing what isn’t there. The happy endings of romance fiction may work the same way. It might be an over-simplified ending to a category romance where the unworthy criminal and the worthy heroines get the same reward, as in Trust Me on This. It might be the blithe reassurance that a hero and heroine who have only known each other for three weeks, who have painfully different backgrounds and complicated families, will successfully blend into an ideal family unit—parents, child, dog, and Dove bars—as in Welcome to Temptation. Or it might be faith in a promise of commitment from two people with limited experience in keeping promises or commitments, as in Faking It. Trust me on this. Nothing but good times ahead. The happy ending is that queen, the unrevealed card, unless what really lies under that third card might be a Dorcas Finster painting.

If the relationship between a writer of romance fiction and a reader of the genre does share some qualities of the kind of courtship in a con or a romance, readers may never know that they have been scammed. Fraud investigators call this step “losing the mark”; “the victim is separated from the scam operation, often not realizing that she has been victimized.”[36] Double entendre aside, verbal “stroking” is not the only way that a scheme engages a victim’s physiological response: “swindlers commonly employ rewards that appeal to visceral factors when luring potential victims. [ . . . ] The common thread is simply an appeal to basic human desires.”[37]Desire can short-circuit deliberation: “visceral factors are often associated with a feeling of being ‘out of control’.  [. . . ]Thus, rational, considered deliberation is a small part of the decision process. Instead, action is driven by instinct and gut feelings, and careful analysis is abandoned.”[38] When Crusie’s heroes are in a state of sexual arousal, she often describes them as feeling as if they have “no blood left in the head.” This is as much a psychological description as a sexual one: watching Sophie work over the pool table wearing a tight pink dress and no underwear, Phin cannot think “straight,” despite the fact that Sophie is finally admitting that she’s crooked.[39]

Researchers Jeff Langenderfer and Terence A. Shimp observe that “With cognitive resources devoted to reward attention, people under the throes of visceral influence are more likely to ignore the nuances of the transaction and fail to decode the scam cues that a cooler, more cognitive evaluation might uncover” (770). That varying level of cognitive ability to discern a fraud in the face of desire might explain why Michael Dempsey sees immediately that Eve and Louise are the same woman, Davy sees it once his attraction to Eve is tempered by his connection with Tilda, and Simon never sees it at all. Like lust, Langenderfer and Shimp report that “visceral influences tend to produce decisions that are nearly devoid of cognitive deliberation, at least in the traditional sense” (769); Michael sums up the research with his own common-sense version of why Davy couldn’t see through Louise to Eve, “You were distracted. . . . Sex will do that to you.”[40] Perhaps sex will do that to readers, too.

In the ongoing albeit somewhat tired debate about the status and worth of romance fiction, those who argue that the genre is unhealthy, ideological escapism are frequently rebutted by readers and writers who claim that nothing that makes so many people happy can be inherently unhealthy or unworthy.[41] Over and over again the relationship between romance fiction, writer, and readers comes to a mutually satisfying conclusion for the players involved. In highlighting all the parallels between a con and a romance, Crusie has also called to our attention to the similarities between a con and romance fiction. Readers choose writers like Crusie because they trust the kind of book they will get; writers like Crusie have declared their good intentions and demonstrated their ability to deliver the goods: the Happily Ever Afters that work as long as no one gets a closer look under that third card. Romance fiction would then represent an escape in the sense that readers agree not to look too carefully at the endings, which might not be reassuring at all in a real-world context, just as something that looks exactly like a romance might turn out to be a con.[42]

In my opinion, the most important conclusion we might draw from the moral ambiguities of Crusie’s con novels is that readers are, in fact, choosing their part in the play. The overly optimistic endings of romance novels are not necessarily creating unrealistic fantasies in the minds of readers, nor reinscribing the subtle laws of patriarchal fathers. And, despite the declared good intentions of Crusie and other romance writers, not every reader will leave a romance novel uplifted and with a more optimistic outlook on life, certain there are “Nothing but good times ahead.” Some will, as Crusie has acknowledged, walk away. I would like to see our ongoing critical conversations about Crusie’s work and other popular romance embrace a more nuanced approach to reader response.

We can start with an acknowledgement that readers have willingly paid to play. We can consider the pleasures of escape into fantasy[43] without worrying that readers cannot distinguish between the real and the fantastic. We can factor in the physiological responses of laughter and arousal that romance reading may evoke. We can acknowledge that sometimes people find pleasure in being swindled or conned, especially when the stakes are not too high. Romance readers continue to buy in, risking their own five dollars for the pleasures of watching a character like Davy Dempsey handle the cards. Our critical examination of complex writers like Crusie can help us to continue to move the conversation from whether they should, to why they do.

Bibliography

Cawelti, John G. Adventure, Mystery, and Romance: Formula Stories as Art and Popular Culture. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1976. Print.

Crusie, Jennifer. Faking It. New York: St. Martin’s, 2002. Print.

—. “Romancing Reality: The Power of Romance Fiction to Reinforce and Re-Vision the Real.” Jenny Crusie.com. Web. http://jennycrusie.com/essays/romancingreality.php (accessed June 16, 2008).

—. Trust Me on This. New York: Bantam, 1997. Print.

—. Welcome to Temptation. New York: St. Martin’s, 2000. Print.

Halttunen, Karen. Confidence Men and Painted Women: A Study of Middle-Class Culture in America, 1830-1870. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1982. Print.

Hankiss, Agnes. “Games Con Men Play: The Semiosis of Deceptive Interaction.” Journal of Communication 30 (1980): 104-12. Print.

Krentz, Jayne Ann, ed. Dangerous Men & Adventurous Women. Ed. Jayne Ann Krentz. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press,1992.Print.

Langenderfer, Jeff, and Terence A. Shimp. “Consumer Vulnerability to Scams, Swindles, and Fraud: A New Theory of Visceral Influences on Persuasion.” Psychology & Marketing Vol 18 (7). July 2001. 763-83. Print.

Modeleski, Tania. Loving With a Vengeance: Mass Produced Fantasies for Women, 2nd Ed. New York: Routledge, 2008. Print.

O’Neal, Scott, J.D., “Interviewing Self-Confident Con Artists,” FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin (March 2001): 16-21. Print.

Palmer, Diana. “Let Me Tell You About My Readers.” Dangerous Men & Adventurous Women. Ed. Jayne Ann Krentz. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1992. 155-158. Print.

Radway, Janice A. Reading the Romance: Women, Patriarchy, and Popular Literature, 2nd Ed. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1991. Print.

Regis, Pamela. A Natural History of the Romance Novel. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2003. Print.

Walsh, Patrick D. “Scams.” Encyclopedia of White-Collar & Corporate Crime. Web. http://O-sage-ereference.com.libsys.ewu.edu/corporatecrime (accessed August 12, 2008).


Thanks to Eric Selinger, Rachel Toor, and two generous anonymous reviewers for their helpful feedback on earlier versions of this article.

[1] For a list of romance novels featuring characters who are cons, see the website All About Romance: http://www.likesbooks.com/cons.html

[2] Scott O’Neal, J.D., “Interviewing Self-Confident Con Artists,” FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin (March 2001): 16.

[3] Jennifer Crusie, Trust Me on This (New York: Bantam Books, 1997), 1. All subsequent references will be to this edition.

[4]Trust Me on This, 145-46.

[5]Trust Me on This, 207.

[6] On her blog, Crusie recently distinguished her various publications among the genres of “chick lit,” “romance,” “women’s fiction,” “romantic adventure,” and “paranormal romance.” She calls the stand-alone novels published by St. Martin’s Press, “women’s fiction”: “sometimes… romance, but…always about a woman’s emotional journey”

(http://www.arghink.com/2010/04/08/trade-paperback-reissues-the-covers/#more-3002). For the purposes of this paper, I’ll be focusing on the romance elements of the two SMP stand-alones I consider.

[7] Jennifer Crusie, Welcome to Temptation (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2000), 237. All subsequent references will be to this edition.

[8]Welcome to Temptation, 212.

[9]Welcome to Temptation, 343.

[10]Welcome to Temptation, 327.

[11]Welcome to Temptation, 352.

[12]Welcome to Temptation, 358.

[13] See Regis, A Natural History of the Romance Novel.

[14]Welcome to Temptation, 381.

[15] Although Crusie does not identify this line in her list of movie quotes for the novel (http://www.jennycrusie.com/trivia/moviequotes.php, accessed 08/01/2008), this line is resonant of the many declarations of “I’ve got a bad feeling about this” in George Lucas’s screenplays for the Star Wars films. In that way it serves as a reminder that often the Dempseys are, in one way or another, saying a line and/or reading a script. Phin has usually missed such references, but here he is offering more of the same.

[16] Jennifer Crusie, Faking It (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2002), 317. All subsequent references will be to this edition.

[17]Faking It, 291.

[18]Faking It, 247.

[19]Faking It, 264.

[20] In criminal proceedings such situations can be prosecuted as “Intent to defraud.” [Scott O’Neal, J.D., “Interviewing Self-Confident Con Artists,” FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin (March 2001): 18.]

[21] See, for example, Welcome to Temptation, 39.

[22]Faking It, 367.

[23] See Pamela Regis, A Natural History of the Romance Novel (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2003), 14.

[24] Read from one perspective, Tilda is really none of those people, as all of those names (Scarlet, Celeste, Veronica, and so on) are identities she can put on and take off. Who, then, is Davy marrying? From another perspective, however, Crusie is also calling attention to the fact that Tilda is all of those women, and each name or nickname represents an aspect of her whole person that Davy knows, respects and loves. (412)

[25] Agnes Hankiss, “Games Con Men Play: The Semiosis of Deceptive Interaction,” Journal of Communication 30 (1980): 105.

[26]Faking It, 330.

[27] Jennifer Crusie, “Romancing Reality: The Power of Romance Fiction to Reinforce and Re-Vision the Real.” Jenny Crusie website.

[28]Welcome to Temptation, 7.

[29] Criminal investigators and other social researchers have outlined the regular steps of a fraud. See for example, Patrick D. Walsh, “Scams,” Encylopedia of White-Collar & Corporate Crime.

[30]Welcome to Temptation, 1.

[31] See, for example, notes on Crusie’s website: “She lives on the Ohio River where she often stares at the ceiling and counts her blessings.” http://www.arghink.com/

[32]Welcome to Temptation, 1.

[33]Welcome to Temptation, 103.

[34] As an example of Crusie’s consideration of reader expectations, see the discussion on “Reader Rage” on her website, where she reports her own “rage”-filled reaction to being let down by two of her favorite writers and asks her readers what makes them “walk away” from a book; http://www.arghink.com/2009/11/23/reader-rage/#more-2083

[35]Faking It, 281-282.

[36] Patrick D. Walsh, “Scams,” Encylopedia of White-Collar & Corporate Crime.

[37] Jeff Langenderfer and Terence A. Shimp, “Consumer Vulnerability to Scams, Swindles, and Fraud: A New Theory of Visceral Influences on Persuasion,” Psychology & Marketing 18 (2001): 768.

[38]Jeff Langenderfer and Terence A. Shimp, 769.

[39]Welcome to Temptation, 311.

[40]Faking It, 330.

[41] See, for example, many of the entries in Mussell and Tuñón’s North American Romance Writers.

[42] Crusie has used John. G Cawelti’s phrase “moral fantasy” to describe this dynamic. Cawelti writes, “these formulaic worlds are constructions that can be described as moral fantasies constituting an imaginary world in which the audience can encounter a maximum of excitement without being confronted with an overpowering sense of the insecurity and danger that accompany such forms of excitement in reality.” John G. Cawelti, Adventure, Mystery, and Romance: Formula Stories as Art and Popular Culture (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1976), 16.

[43] See, for example, Diana Palmer’s “Let Me Tell You About My Readers” in Krentz et al. Dangerous Men & Adventurous Women (155-57).

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