I normally adore Bookmarks magazine. While more than half my reading is romance, I read all kinds of other books as well and Bookmarks gives pretty good coverage of the non-romance world. They tend towards covering mainstream fiction without a lot of pretentious B.S., and their historical fiction articles by Sarah Johnson in particular have given me fantastic reading suggestions. However, when I saw their Guilty Pleasures article in the November/December 2009 issue, I was rather taken aback. The article (part I in a series) goes through types of books the author considers “guilty pleasures” and ranks them as Paradise (practically guilt-free, you could even be seen in public with these), Purgatory (nightstand reading) and Hell (books the author says “shame on you” for reading).
Though the entire article is written in a light tone and is somewhat tongue in cheek, one cannot help noticing two things: The writer (1)doesn’t know a whole lot about the romance genre and (2) feels completely free to insult it anyway. The article is divided into several sections, but for Romance, the Paradise reads are literary books such as Possession by A.S. Byatt or Gone With the Wind (though Love Story inexplicably makes the list). Even Georgette Heyer only makes it into Purgatory. And you can guess what’s in Hell. That’s right! Every genre romance mentioned in the piece goes right into that Hall of Shame.
From the genre romances mentioned, one can tell that this author does not know much about romance and doesn’t appear to have made much of an effort to research it. There are no paranormals on the list, category romances and inspirationals may as well not exist and forget about the new(and wonderful) authors of recent years! Instead, the author focuses on a small sample of Nora Roberts’ work, an Elizabeth Lowell series from the 90s, and some 80s vintage Judith McNaught, among a few others. The most recent release on the list is from 2000 (More Than a Mistress by Mary Balogh) and descriptions of the books talk primarily about sex and sappiness. That’s right. “Love means never having to say you’re sorry,” holds a place higher on the respectability scale than the poignant mixture of humor and emotional insight of Julia Quinn at her best, Laura Kinsale’s literary flourishes, or the simple beauty of Carla Kelly’s writing. And what of Jennifer Cruisie, Linda Howard, Meredith Duran, Marsha Canham, Elizabeth Hoyt and…? The list goes on and on. As with any other genre, romance can boast some truly phenomenal writers.
And then there are the sly insults. Must everything be phrased in terms of cliche or sappiness? I can think of a lot of things to call books by Mary Balogh or Connie Brockway, but sappy and cliched?! No, not really. Things do tend to end in happy endings in romance, but that’s no more a sappy cliche than finding out who killed the dead person in one’s mystery novel. The infinite forms of light which can illuminate the infinite forms of darkness speak of art and imagination to me, and the triumph of good over evil strikes a chord far deeper than the author of this article gives credit for. Wallowing in unhappiness and gothic melancholy speaks no more profoundly of the human condition than does having the courage to join with someone, decide you love no one other than that person, and you want to build a future with him or her, come hell or high water. Negative emotions and unhappy endings are not the only things that can cut deeply in a person.
Of Connie Brockway’s My Dearest Enemy, the author mentions that it has sex scenes that may make readers cringe. Wow. If they think that book will make readers cringe, I can think of some good erotic romance novels that might make these folks break out in hives! And if one only thinks of explicit sex in negative terms, I hate to see how the impact of some of the well-written and luscious scenes I enjoy from the likes of Amanda McIntyre, Liz Carlyle or Judith Ivory would be lost on such a reader.
In the end, I have to say that I find it rather sad that this magazine has written very good guides to science fiction, mysteries, historical fiction, seafaring novels, you name it. However, when it comes to romance, they can only offer an out of date listing and mockery. Poorly done – and disappointing, coming from a publication that should be capable of better.