What Fictional Romance Authors Can Show Us About Romance Stereotypes

Lately it seems like every time I try and step away from the internet—for a trip, a wedding, a weekend in bed for my anniversary—there emerges another ludicrous screed against the romance genre and then another valiant defense. In the former, a lot of conventional wisdom about romance novels and their readership gets trotted out under the guise of research, and the more I become involved in the romance industry the more ridiculous appear mass-media stereotypes of romance novels, readers, and authors.

And since everyone including me has done the You Don’t Know Romance Like I Know Romance post already, I’m going to approach from a different angle and talk about how romance authors are portrayed in the media and how that feeds into certain stereotypes about the genre and its fans.

First of all, I could only come up with five of them, and that includes the movie I found a while back on Netflix Instant which seems to have vanished from my queue (any information on what movie this was would be appreciated). So we have a grand total of four examples to look at.

Time for a list!

Fictional Romance Authors:

Joan Wilder, Romancing the Stone

Kathleen Turner as Joan Wilder stands in her New York apartment kitchen, wearing layered shirts and a bulky lavender jacket, hair pulled up in a dowdy bun, holding a phone to her left ear. Her expression is highly concerned.The grande dame of romance authors in fiction—Joan starts off her movie pining for a character she’s made up, weeping over the end of her own manuscript, talking to her cat, hurling miniature bottles of booze into the fireplace, and expressing her phobia of flying. But a mysterious package from her dead brother-in-law and a desperate phone call from her sister send Joan off to the wilds of 1980s Columbia. Once there she breaks a heel, goes down a mudslide in a jungle monsoon, gets stoned to the bejeezus-belt, escapes many an anonymous goon, finds a priceless emerald, meets an intense and intensely well-armed fan of her novels, foils the bad guys, and wraps Michael Douglas (as hot here as he’s ever been) around her delicate little finger.

I want to be just like her.

Trish Murtaugh/Ebony Clark, Lethal Weapon 4

A dark-haired, dark-skinned woman in a turquoise shirt and gold hoop earrings. Her expression is part exasperation, part loving tolerance.

All throughout Lethal Weapon 4, Danny Glover’s Roger Murtaugh flashes obscene amounts of cash to Martin Riggs’ astonishment and concern. But Murtaugh’s not on the take—his wife Trish is just the author of absurdly popular romance novels, such as we see a pregnant Lorna reading at one point. Trish’s romance writing under the name Ebony Clark is actually the one trait that makes her something other than a character who might as well be named Buddy-Cop’s Token Wife.

Also: Ebony Clark, my god.

Charlotte Knight, Remington Steele, “Etched in Steele”

A curly-haired blond woman with pale skin and a sly smile, dressed in flowing white, with bright gold jewelry. She is lounging back on a sofa and looking expectantly to the left.

This may be cheating, because Charlotte Knight’s books sound more like watered-down Erica Jong than anything by La Nora, but if Diana Gabaldon counts as romance then we’re probably safe in including Mrs. Knight. Glamorous, lecherous, and a complete fraud—her bestselling trashy trashy novels are actually written by her husband Mitchell. Mitchell’s increasing insecurity and alcoholism lead to a terminal case of writer’s block: he is murdered by would-be author Tony, who has plans to usurp the Charlotte Knight ghostwriting position (and the millions of dollars that come with it). What’s more, the means of murder is predicted in a scene from the new Charlotte Knight manuscript.

As Laura Holt and Remington Steele investigate Mitchell’s death, they talk about pleasure versus duty, popular reading versus inspired literature, and appearances versus reality—all of which hit very close to home for our main couple, who have secrets and masks of their own.

Jameson Rook/Victoria St. Clair, Naked Heat

A pale-skinned, dark-haired man in a dark indigo shirt with sleeves rolled up sits behind an open black lapop. His expression is intent and slightly excited.

This is where we enter that funhouse mirror set at the end of Enter the Dragon, so bear with me. On Castle, Nathan Fillion plays Richard Castle, mystery author. Castle writes the Nikki Heat series, which includes the character of Jameson Rook, clearly based on Castle himself (just as Nikki is based on NYPD detective Kate Beckett). And some unnamed but very skilled ghostwriter has been publishing Nikki Heat books here in the real world—in the second one, it is revealed that—spoiler!—Jameson Rook also writes romance under the name Victoria St. Clair.

So: it’s a fictional character’s fictional character’s pen name. And he’s (they’re?) very sensitive about it.

Angst and Anxiety

Arguments against romance frequently state that the genre offers harmful fantasy rather than healthy reality, and consider the genre’s sexual content a threat to moral order. It’s plain that there is a similar anxiety at work in the above depictions of romance authors.

  • Joan Wilder is clearly the outlier: she’s the main character in her story, she’s a woman, she writes under her own name, Columbian gang leaders (guns and Jeeps=manly) love her books. But even Joan is not all she appears at first glance—though a bit of a wet noodle at first, when times get tough she is strong, sexy, confident, capable, and powerful.
  • The money Trish brings in causes people to doubt Roger’s integrity on the force. Her career is a threat to his, even though her career is a secret.
  • Charlotte Knight is only a pretty face that makes her husband’s sex-filled stories more palatable to the public. At the same time, her sex appeal is what inspires him to write, and her lover is ultimately the one who murders her husband in manner identical to a scene from the new manuscript.
  • Jameson Rook’s reputation is one of high masculine adventure—daring forays across enemy lines, friendships with well-known mobsters, connections with all the important political players in the city. Yet his pseudonymous works are sexy historical potboilers—feminine, domestic, and supposedly trivial.

There is also a deep theme of sexual shame that runs through these depictions:

  • Joan Wilder’s love life does not live up to either her fantasies (exemplified by her character Jesse) or the more normalized, modernized expectations of her editor. There is a sense in these early scenes that Joan’s work is at odds with her chances for happiness. (Though ultimately she ends up with someone very like her ideal, and on her own terms. That’s just how Joan Wilder rolls.)
  • Roger Murtaugh is ashamed to tell his partner what his wife does for a living, and only does so in a moment of extreme crisis. Riggs’ immediate reaction is to congratulate Roger for “boinking” someone who writes such filthy books.
  • Mitchell Knight’s book is described by publisher Russell Forsyth as “pornography,” but the same book, with Charlotte standing in for the author, is “erotica.” Forsyth also strongly implies that Charlotte offered him sexual favors to publish the first book—at which point Charlotte, an openly, eagerly sexual woman, flinches and drops her eyes to the carpet. It’s a pretty vile example of a good old-fashioned slut-shaming by a dude who was involved in precisely the same activities he implied the lady should blush about.
    Also, Laura Holt has read all the Charlotte Knight books but has difficulty admitting it, and the murderer has literary aspirations and often makes vicious, venomous remarks at the expense of the sexual content of the books—even before he is revealed as the killer.
  • Jameson Rook’s romance authorship clashes with his Pulitzer-winning, swaggering, supermanly image. Feminine sexuality is considered a taint or corruption of this ideal. At best, it waters down Rook’s masculine purity; at worst, destroys it. He goes so far as to cartoonishly hide his face in an elevator, lest someone from his publisher recognize him.

Two of our fictional authors are actually men writing under female names—which does happen, though not as frequently as, say, women writing under female names. Lastly, all four of our fictional authors are wildly successful:

  • Joan Wilder has many nice clothes and an excellent New York Apartment with a fireplace.
  • Trish Murtaugh provides eye-boggling wads of cash to her husband. Which is totally how romance royalties work. (Please?)
  • Charlotte Knight seems to have servants and strawberries and champagne on hand at a moment’s notice in case anyone sexy drops by her thirty-fifth floor apartment. Her books sell, according to her publisher, “three million copies” each.
  • Jameson Rook’s pen name is well-known enough that even a NYPD homicide cop recognizes it.
Pink background, a smiling, blond, pale-skinned woman in a very pink dress, and flowers absolutely everywhere.
We can't all be Barbara Cartland, thank god.

Too Long; Didn’t Read

  • Romance author as sex object: Joan Wilder (sort of), Trish Murtaugh, Charlotte Knight
  • Romance author ashamed: Trish Murtaugh, Charlotte Knight, Victoria St. Clair/Jameson Rook
  • Romance author actually a man: Charlotte Knight, Victoria St. Clair/Jameson Rook
  • Romance author as ludicrously wealthy: all four authors

It goes without saying that none of these depictions match the day-to-day life of any of the romance authors I know. (If someone out there is totally Joan Wilder, though, show me how you do it?). Trish Murtaugh comes closest—she’s a working wife and mother whose job just happens to be writing romance—but it’s a throwaway note in a series that focuses entirely on masculine exploits and problems.

In reality, we work hard. We go to meetings with other authors and figure out how to do our job better every day. Some of us are best-sellers; others not so much. Some of us are queer. Some of us have husbands and children; some of us are husbands and children. Personally, I feel about twelve today—which will hopefully change once I get to the sex scene I’m supposed to be writing instead of this lengthy post.

All of us are doing this out of love.

And that’s what’s really missing from the list, and why Joan Wilder really stands out for me: she’s the one who does it out of love, the one we see at work on her typewriter with headphones on and tear tracks on her face. Sure, she passes over a lot of real-world guys because they can’t compare to the imaginary Jesse—but on the other hand, those particular real-world guys looked like complete chumps. And if my choices are A) reading/writing romance, or B) dating chumps, I’m gonna go with option A every time.

Because romance is not separate from our life—it’s a part of it. There is not a big black boundary drawn between Fantasy and Reality because we have this thing called a mind that is designed to smash those two things together. Sometimes real life is what sparks our fantasy, such as when we see a photo of a far-off place and wonder what sort of stories happen there. Sometimes our fantasy informs real life, such as when reading a romance set in the Napoleonic war (or the Civil War, or the zombie apocalypse, or WWIII) helps me understand the nature of soldiership and trauma a bit more than I did before.

Fantasy and imagination are part of what make us human. And romance doesn’t threaten our scare-quote “real” lives any more than doing laundry threatens our ability to appreciate a story richly told.

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