A Billion-Dollar Affair by Karen Valby

Posted October 17, 2014 by Meoskop in Magazines, Media Reviews / 0 Comments

A cover of Entertainment WeeklyThis morning my Twitter timeline was full of excitement about Entertainment Weekly‘s multi-page coverage of the romance genre. Over breakfast I made myself a bingo / drinking game card. Over lunch I decided I’d be too inebriated to finish my day. Here’s why A Billion-dollar Affair left me cold. If you’ve been in the genre long enough you know these articles come around every few years. Karen Valby opens with the standard disclaimer.  “I found myself at an event I hadn’t even known existed a few months earlier…”  (Why does analysis of the genre consistently start with an admission of ignorance?) Ms. Valby gets all credit from me for approaching her assignment with sincerity. I’m sure she’s a very nice person, etc.

Valby talks about the excitement, optimism, and respectability of those at her conference dinner. It’s a standard lead, but since these articles only get written occasionally it’s possible no one at EW knew that.  We meet “A 29 year old erotica writer who dished about meeting her real-life boyfriend in a kink dungeon, a shy gay man who specializes in male-on-male paranormals, a serious woman who left her law enforcement career to write sexy crime procedurals and a middle aged woman whose niche is Scottish Highlanders.” We don’t get their names, because they’re types. Notice how the first one who writes erotica also has kink sex? She dishes, which makes it all so gossipy, doesn’t it? She met her real-life boyfriend… does she also have a fantasy one? An inflatable? (How did John Green meet his real-life wife? Oh wait, no real life disclaimer needed? Why is that?)

The article moves on to report romance isn’t respected. (I’m tired of hearing that as well, but she’s new here so I give her a pass. A certain section of the readership never gets over the lack of external validation for the field so whatever. We’ve got the money, the TV channels, the publishers, the conventions and a Quill award so who cares? Like Stephen King and John Saul sat around worrying about acceptance in the 70’s / 80’s.) Enter 50 Shades of Grey. Because of course. WE CAN’T HAVE NICE THINGS. “most seem to think her take on a BDSM relationship was disappointingly tame” Yes. That’s the issue. Never mind the 11,000 articles on how 50 reinforces domestic violence norms, is an eroticization of another author’s original work, is repackaged fanfic or… or… or… No. It had tame sex. Because duh. Valby alludes that perhaps our dislike stems from jealousy “Sour grapes” but she’s already so wrong it hardly matters. She claims that “sales for romance novels exploded in it’s wake.” I wanted to check her math, but no one showed their work. Exploded compared to what? In which genre? Across the board? Erotica? What? By how much? Compared to which years? Bueller?

Stories propelled by erotic sex used to make mainstream publishers squirmy” Since when?? Has she even read the last four decades of popular fiction? OMG. Let’s just leave that there. There’s a good bit about how romance has consistently pushed boundaries and led innovation that makes me like Valby quite a bit. We slide by marketing with some MacLean quotes before touring her new Post gig. But it’s the same condescendingly cute tone that so many articles have used. We “get off on some full-hearted fetish” books, we say things like “Oh my, Mr. Darcy.” Both in the side bar and in the main text authors “churn” books out. Just when I thought Valby was going to ignore racial inequity she brings in Beverly Jenkins and Avon’s “failure of marketing, distribution and reader imagination.” Hand me a pom pom, I’m going to cheer. Let’s point out some… wait… that’s it? Jenkins and you’re done? Oh. Valby is like all the other reporters. (Check your cards. They interviewed Jenkins and said Roberts churns them novels out! Add that to 50 fetish and giggly innuendos – you’ve got to be drunk by now!) The rest of the article is dedicated to how Belle Andre became a self publishing powerhouse. You can scan over that.

The care that went into researching this article is apparent in the graphic sidebars. If we’re taking the genre seriously now, is this side bar a top ten of the best authors? No, it’s of the most prolific. Who “churned” the most books out in their career? Then we get to focus on numbers. 16% of romance readers are men. (None are interviewed for the article.) 59% of us are in relationships, which compares to… what? (How many viewers of Game of Thrones are in relationships?) On average, we’re college educated. Which is totally different than readers of… oh wait. That metric is only used for the romance genre. Silly me.

What really set me off was the graphic called Not Your Mama’s Book Covers. (Need a refill?) This profiles a prolific cover artist who is paid $2,500 to $4,000 per cover, more than some authors make for the contents. He assures us that “if the guy’s abs don’t look good, that’s not going to work. That’s why women are buying this stuff.” I can’t discuss that calmly, but I can discuss the header. The would be insulting if it wasn’t so expected header.

A panel spread from Entertainment Weekly of different eras in romance covers

What jumps out at you first? Maybe how Kathleen E. Woodiwiss’ 1979 title Ashes in the Wind is used to represent the 1970’s with it’s 2007 cover? I bought that book in 1979. I read it in public with matching nail polish. I know EXACTLY what the cover looked like. It may have had “big typography” but it wasn’t “solo men, solo women.” If you can’t get something that basic right, why should I put up with the rest of your bullshit? Their Sleeping Beauty cover is correct, but it had a clinch step-back. As did Devil in Winter. A larger point is that not every book in the 00’s got a landscape. All of these cover trends listed by decade could be found in any of those decades. Any of them can be found today. While the 80’s did bring us the Fabio cover, the clinch cover was already standard.The original cover of Ashes In The Wind

Whatever. Get as excited as you want about finally being covered in a mainstream magazine like a real genre. Meet me back here next year or the year after and we can get excited again about all the same stuff. It’ll be like that romance movie where they can only get together at certain times of year because plot device. Maybe one day we can have AOC as something other than a tiny niche to be tucked away after interviewing Beverly Jenkins. Maybe we could have a graphic that, when painting the stars of the romance sky, doesn’t assign AOC to a branch that excludes them from all the others.  The stories of non-white leads are not historicals, comedy, military, mature, medical, sci-fi, paranormal, or regency. They’re just Multicultural. The most important thing about them is someone isn’t white. (Maybe the next box on how covers have changed could feature a black man?) If this is all you want from an article, that we get yet another snickering startled half-assed look then god love ya. I’ve been here too many times before. I’ll get excited when we stop acting like the least is the most they could do.

a graphic from EW of genre subtypes as a star constellation

*This post originally appeared at Love In The Margins.