That Old Flame

After sixty years, Harlequin Romance books are still enslaving readers. What’s their secret?
Art by Thomas Allen

“And there he was. Jack Dolan. Her first love. Her last. A waft of expensive cologne filtered past her, over-riding the scent of petrol fumes on the service station forecourt as surely as he’d overwhelmed her with his passion and eventually his indifference, leaving her to cope with her father’s scorn resting squarely and solely on her slender shoulders.”

This passage appears on the second page of Tycoon’s Valentine Vendetta, part of the Silhouette Desire series, a division of Harlequin Enterprises. The protagonist is Lily Fontaine, daughter of the powerful, ruthless Charles Fontaine. Lily has been away for ten years, working as a supermodel, but she’s come back to find that Jack Dolan, her former — and formerly poor — love, is now as powerful and ruthless as her father, and is determined to bring the old man down. The jacket copy outlines the story: “Luring Lily back to his bed was the master stroke in his revenge plot; having the socialite bear him the child he’d long been denied would be a just desert.”

What follows is a Montague-Capulet story of parental disapproval, class differences, misunderstandings (a lot of misunderstandings), and, of course, love. When Jack kisses Lily for the first time (“She tasted of smoky marshmallow and good wine, of the past and of forbidden love”), she is weak with desire. Yet she resists his advances until page 128, when “she wanted — no, she needed to feel his heavy weight over her body, his total possession of her.” Lily succumbs to Jack’s charms, which are eerily similar to her father’s. She is a rich girl who has become poor, and at the end wealthy Jack steps in to rescue her from poverty and ruin. To tie up any loose Freudian ends, her (now insolvent) father is crippled by a stroke.

Well, you can see why critical theorists are having a field day with this stuff. First, there is the consistent popularity of the romance genre: 32 percent of adult mass-market paperback sales are romances, and Harlequin is the dominant publisher of bodice-rippers worldwide. In 2007, it sold 130 million books; since its inception sixty years ago, it has shipped more than 5.6 billion. And its wares are recession friendly — in the last quarter of 2008, with its parent company, Torstar, suffering heavy losses, Harlequin’s profits rose by 11.2 percent.

Especially alluring for the theorists is the natural dialectic: i.e., are these books perversely, even dangerously anachronistic, trapped within a dated, patriarchal framework? Or are they in fact empowering: fiction written by women for women, in which there is always a happy ending for the female characters? If you factor in reader demographics — Harlequin reports that 53 percent of its overwhelmingly female readership has at least some college education, and 45 percent work full time — you have the makings of a feminist studies seminar, the central question of which might be, what is the appeal of these books, and is this a bad (in the critical theory sense of “bad”) thing?

Pardon My Body

ONLINE GALLERY | See a selection of book covers from the history of Harlequin.
Harlequin’s head office is in the Toronto suburb of Don Mills, and driving there, past the dead lawns of November and the modest, well-tended houses, it is easy to imagine women in their housedresses cleaning the toaster oven and dreaming of escape. Next door, the paper boy is masturbating to fantasies of lonely housewives.

It is the vast, barren landscape between these two fantasies that has given rise to separate empires: romance for women and pornography for men. That there is so little intersection between the two helps explain why each has grown into a multibillion-dollar industry. Male fantasies remain inherently adolescent (the paper boy growing into a plumber, the housewife more desperate and inventive), but the underlying premise remains wild sex without responsibility. The Harlequin fantasy is meaningful sex that symbolizes a lasting emotional connection, and often an end to financial responsibilities. The heroine’s only real responsibility is to her man and to love itself, whereas the loveless world of porn is driven by submission and anonymity.

Nevertheless, critics have highlighted similarities between the two worlds. In the Guardian, Julie Bindel recalled the romances of the British publisher Mills & Boon — which celebrated its centenary last year and was an early partner of Harlequin — with alarm. “In every book, there was a scene where the heroine is ‘broken in,’ both emotionally and physically, by the hero,” she wrote. “My loathing of m&b novels has nothing to do with snobbery. I could not care less if the books are trashy, formulaic, or pulp fiction…But I do care about the type of propaganda perpetuated by m&b. I would go so far as to say it is misogynistic hate speech… This is what heterosexual romantic fiction promotes — the sexual submission of women to men.”

Whether it was technically porn or not, Bindel was saying, men came out on top. The late feminist writer Andrea Dworkin, for her part, once wrote that romance literature was “rape embellished with meaningful looks.” But if the romance genre is a form of porn, is it as psychologically enslaving? Certainly the fourteen-year-old paper boy staring glassily at the Drunken Moms website knows, in his dark, pimpled heart, that he isn’t holding the moral high ground.

Harlequin’s beginnings were modest and largely chaste. The company was founded in 1949 in Winnipeg by a consortium that included Richard Bonnycastle, who had been a lawyer and a fur trader for the Hudson Bay Company before taking a job at an outfit called Advocate Printers. At the start, Harlequin supplied Advocate with product, reprinting British and American paperbacks — romances, westerns, detective fiction — for the Canadian market. In 1957, it became the North American distributor for Mills & Boon, which had started publishing hardcover romance novels in the ’30s. Bonnycastle, by then Harlequin’s primary owner, found that the genre was extremely lucrative, and eventually began publishing it exclusively. In 1971, Harlequin bought Mills & Boon.

That same year, the company hired a self-described “soap salesman” named W. Lawrence Heisey as its president. A Harvard mba who had worked for Procter and Gamble, Heisey adapted consumer product tactics to the staid bookselling model. He did market research on the romance reader, featured the Harlequin name more prominently on the cover in order to promote brand awareness, sold the books in supermarkets (“where the women are”), advertised on daytime television, and at one point included sample romances in boxes of Bio-Ad laundry detergent. He developed a subscription system whereby readers could have books delivered directly to them, which enabled rural customers to get the books, eliminated retailers and returns, and provided the company with valuable data about its consumers.

Heisey also launched Harlequin’s first romance series set in the US. Until the ’70s, the company had mostly been selling reprints of British books. The new direction prompted others to enter the increasingly lucrative market, with Simon and Schuster launching Silhouette, and Dell starting its Candlelight Ecstasy series. Silhouette took Harlequin’s marketing ideas even further, soliciting the approval of 200 test readers before it would publish a book. In 1981, Torstar, owner of the Toronto Star and already an investor in Harlequin, bought the remaining shares of the imprint, then began buying up its competitors, including, in 1984, its largest American rival, Silhouette. Since then, “Harlequin Romance” has become all but synonymous with “romance novel,” so dominant is the brand.

The Harlequin empire is housed in a nondescript nine-storey concrete bunker in a commercial zone of Don Mills. Inside are 350 employees, more than a quarter of the company’s global workforce, which also operates in New York, London, and sixteen other cities. I wish I could report that my flashing emerald eyes melted the icy core of publisher and ceo Donna Hayes, but Ms. Hayes was (tantalizingly, heartbreakingly) unavailable. Filling in were Katherine Orr and Marleah Stout of the publicity department, who took me on a whirlwind tour of the company’s extraordinary success. “Basically, it’s a great business model,” Orr says. “Characters meet, fall in love, and start a family.”

The books are written by hundreds of different writers, and are necessarily formulaic in order to maintain consistency. The company receives roughly 1,000 unsolicited manuscripts a month and reads even the worst of them. Harlequin Romances are easy to parody, less easy to write. There have been almost 1,300 successful Harlequin authors, winnowed from hundreds of thousands of aspirants. Those who make the cut tend to be true believers, sympathetic to both the genre and the characters. Laura Shin, a former Harlequin editor, told me her authors were a varied group: Ph.D. students, university professors, lawyers, women who have never worked outside the home, insurance adjusters, music teachers, technical writers for Coca-Cola, and a retired US Air Force colonel who lives in Texas (one of the very few male romance authors; occasionally there are husband-wife writing teams).
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