Reels Review- Reference Resources!

Over on Instagram, I’ve been posting regular reels about items from my collection. A few weeks ago, I went over a few of the print reference resources that I just can’t live without! Check them out below and importantly, let me know if you have any issues with viewing them- this is a test to see if this kind of cross-posting will be useful. Enjoy, and thanks for your help!

Oops, I had an opinion.

It began, as so many things do, with a sleepy tweet on a sleepy Sunday.

I was just stating an opinion- not trying to stir the pot or cause a ruckus. But. What followed was perhaps a predictable nightmare swirl that comes with going viral in romancelandia, particularly if you present as male. “Mansplainer” was bandied about, intentional and unintentional misreadings abounded, I was accused of trying to kill the HEA (Happily Ever After), and I eventually just had to disengage. There was no room for actual conversation, largely because of my gender. A normal person might’ve apologized profusely and deleted the offending tweet.

But here’s the thing.

I’m right. I was then and I am now.

And not just because it was my opinion (which, don’t we get opinions about books anymore?), but because the two books I allude to did play with the HEA tropes of their moment. Yes, tropes. Word choice matters. But more on that in a minute. First, let’s talk about the books.

Nurse Morgan Sees It Through by Rubie Saunders (1971)- The fourth in Saunders’ series of nurse romances focused on the character of Nurse Marilyn Morgan, R.N., this focuses on the nursing adventures of Marilyn as she cares for the sick daughter of a Broadway star and falls in love with the new attending physician who’s assigned to the case. At the end of the book just as in the other three Marilyn and Ed are happily dating but not engaged or married. In this book, the engagement ring that typically appears at the end of a nurse romance is on the finger of Marilyn’s roommate.

Today, we would call this book a Happy For Now, but in 1971 this just wasn’t done. Category romances like the Signet Nurse Romances Saunders was writing ended with an HEA 99 times out of 100. Saunders wrote Marilyn not as a prize for some lucky doctor, but as a fully formed woman whose story couldn’t be contained in one book.

Back in the Day by Katrina Jackson (2021)- The second story in Jackson’s Bay Area Blues series, the book begins with widower Alonzo packing up his house to move in with his son after his wife dies. What follows is Alonzo telling the story of how he and Ada fell in love over a weekend- sometimes told to Amir, sometimes just to the reader- with interludes in the present that show the community that Ada and Alonzo built over their long and happy life together. It’s a brilliantly told and emotional story.

Does the fact that we know that one of the characters is dead at the beginning of the story take away from the fact that it’s a genre romance? I argue no. The narrative may not be as linear as today’s typical story, but all the elements a romance reader would expect are there.

Both of these books are 100% genre romances. The love story is central to the plot, and the central couple is happily together. But in both books, the author has taken the tropes typically associated with the HEA convention of the moment they were written in and subverted the expectations of the reader.

“But Steve, HEA/HFN is a convention, not a trope!” Sure. But be that as it may, the HEA/HFN convention frequently uses the same tropes over and over again. Maybe it’s the last minute reversal of fortune, or the change of heart, or the battle against evil being won, or whatever. How that HEA/HFN finally comes about can be any number of ways, but it often repeats across books within the genre or subgenres. And that’s fine! But it’s also possible to break from the typical tropes and structures and still have that convention. And I would argue it’s a necessary evolution of the genre as stories become more inclusive and the idea of what a “happily” means to one set of people is different than what it means to others. That was the point I was trying to make, and that’s what got lost in all the noise that followed.

I don’t suspect the people who got real mad at me will read this, and that’s alright. And smarter people than me can probably give better and more complete explanations than I did here, and that’s fine too.

TL;DR- You don’t have to agree with me.

But I was right.

Three volumes of The Romantic Spirit arranged next to. each other.

The Romantic Spirit: Pre-internet Goldmine

I want you for a moment to imagine yourself in 1983 (easier for some of us than others, I know!). You’ve just finished Jayne Castle’s Candlelight Ecstasy title from the previous year, Spellbound. You need more of Castle’s distinct writing style, but you haven’t seen her name on the new release shelf at the book store in a while. At the checkout counter, you ask about your favorite author, hoping the clerk has heard something.

Today, it would take a few clicks to find the information you need. Not so in 1983! But you’re in luck! The clerk tells you to hold on for a moment, and they turn around to grab a thick trade paperback off the shelf behind them. This may help, they tell you. It’s a brilliant new resource that lists all of the authors you can think of along with their books. The Romantic Spirit, it’s called. In a few seconds you learn that Jayne Castle (real name Jayne Ann Castle Krentz) has also written for Silhouette as Stephanie James, and McFadden as Jayne Bentley. A whole new world of books opens up in front of you as you can now follow your favorite authors as they change name from publisher to publisher.

Three volumes of The Romantic Spirit arranged next to. each other.
My (incomplete) collection of volumes of The Romantic Spirit from 1983, 1984, and 1990.

First published in January 1983, The Romantic Spirit was the self-published debut for an author named Mary June Kay. Appropriately for a book about pseudonyms, Mary June Kay was the pseudonym for three San Antonio women- Mary Hotchkiss (1921-2004), June Manning (1923-2008), and Kay Garteiser. Hotchkiss and Manning were sisters who had retired from federal service and operated a romance-focused used bookstore called The Second Edition in San Antonio. They knew their stock, but didn’t have any printed reference resource for themselves or readers to use in finding, or more particularly, cross-referencing more romances. Garteiser worked with word processors at an accounting firm, presumably bringing the technical know-how to the project.

Lovers of genre fiction have long relied on bibliographies- collectors of science fiction and mystery novels used them to not only show off their own collections of pulp magazine and novels, but also to be able to cross-reference authors, publishers and titles. As romance exploded in the 1970s and 1980s, no one had yet made an effort to gather information about the genre in one place. Mary, June, and Kay were the first to take on this mammoth task.

The book itself is utilitarian and no-frills. After a brief three page introduction by Romantic Times publisher Kathryn Falk, the books sets straight to business. Authors are listed in alphabetical order, along with their known pen names [in brackets] and real name if known (in parens). Their books are then listed, with the publisher identified and book number if applicable. In some cases, sub-genre information is provided- for example, <RS> for romantic suspense. In the back, numbered lines are listed together, with titles and authors. The information appears to largely be drawn from the published books themselves, though in some cases authors are listed without books; presumably those names were taken from resources such as Romantic Times, which was still in its infancy at the time.

The book was enough of a success that Mary, June, and Kay kept at it for several years. They published updates for 1983-1984, 1985-1986, and 1987-1988 focused only on the books from those individual years, alongside corrected errors or omissions from earlier editions. The original volume earned an award from Romantic Times, presented by Barbara Cartland herself at the 1983 Booklovers’ Convention.

In 1990, Kay Garteiser announced in the pages of Romantic Times that she was retiring from working on The Romantic Spirit due to her health. She passed the torch on to occasional RT reviewer Lisa Miller, also a San Antonio resident, who put out a revised full edition of the book in 1990. The revised volume used the same format as the original, adding books and new entries where appropriate, though it lacks the line indexes of the original.

The Romance Reader’s Handbook (1989)

At the same time as Mary, June and Kay were working on The Romantic Spirit, reviewer Melinda Helfer was writing a column for Romantic Times identifying authors and their pseudonyms, calling herself “The Pseudonym Sleuth”. Helfer began writing the column in 1981, taking an alphabetical approach. By 1989, she had only reached the letter “P”, which tells you the scope of the task. In 1989, Helfer’s work was combined with that of Kathryn Falk and Kathe Robin in The Romance Reader’s Handbook, published by Romantic Times. This spiral-bound volume took a less comprehensive approach than The Romantic Spirit, listing only the pen names and known real name of authors but not their books. Also included was a guide to RT’s “Bookstores that Care” network, a nationwide group of independent bookstores that welcomed romance readers (and generally sold RT as well). The Second Edition in San Antonio isn’t listed- near as I can figure it was gone by then. There’s also contact information for authors and publishers, and a delightful collection of author ads in the back.

Ad from The Romance Reader’s Handbook (1989) from Dorothy Garlock, where she wishes her readers “health, happiness, and good eyesight”.

The five editions of The Romantic Spirit, alongside The Romance Reader’s Handbook, are not essential resources for collectors in this day and age. The vast majority of the information about authors found here can be found elsewhere. But- not everything can be found on the internet! There are author listings here that can connect you to authors you may never have thought of as romance authors, such as mystery author Jane Haddam, who wrote romance as Nicola Andrews and Ann Paris. And the bookstore section of The Romance Reader’s Handbook is an exploration waiting to happen all on its own! Or maybe you’re just like me, and a random name pops into your head at 9:30 at night and you don’t feel like looking at a screen. It can be tricky to find all of these volumes, but to me, the joy of a nicely done bibliography is well worth it!

The Romantic Spirit (1983, 1984, and 1990), and The Romance Reader’s Handbook (1989)

Some updates!

It’s been quiet here, but I promise I’ve been busy. I created a new Instagram account called the Romance Historian, where I’ve been sharing shorter content about some of the random romances and reference books in my collection. Some of it will mirror content you’ve read here, but I’ll try to make sure there’s lots of new bits and bobs to enjoy.

The Summer 2022 edition of Fine Books & Collections, featuring my article on romance collecting!

I also recently wrote an article for Fine Books & Collections Magazine, which is in their Summer 2022 issue! I was able to speak with some of my favorite people in the romance collecting community- Funmi Brown, Jennifer Wielt, Rebecca Romney, and Rebecca Baumann- about their approaches to collecting, and how they’d like to see collecting in the genre grow. It was great fun talking with these awesome people, and I’m really pleased with how the article came out. You can order print editions of the magazine directly from their website, or you can find it at select bookstores.

I hope you’re having a great start to your summer, and look for more content soon!

Eva Rutland (1917-2012)

The vast majority of category romance writers in the 1980s and 1990s did not create beloved characters or become household names. From their relative anonymity, they turned out book after book, year after year, of happy endings that brought readers happiness. When they pass away or stop writing for some other reason, they often end up forgotten by the reading public. In many cases, those authors were fascinating people in their own right, whose personal stories deserve to be remembered.

There is no more shining example of that than Eva Rutland.

Head shot of Eva Rutland
Eva Rutland (credit: IWP Book Publishers)

Eva Rutland was born in 1917 in Atlanta, the daughter of a pharmacist and a school teacher. Her grandfather, Isaac Westmoreland, was a former slave who worked as a shoemaker to ensure that each of his children attended college. Eva attended Atlanta’s segregated public schools, and graduated from Booker T. Washington High School, where she appeared on stage with classmate Lean Horne, and went on to Spelman College, where she graduated in 1937. After marrying Bill Rutland, a civilian Air Force employee, the couple moved to Tuskegee, Alabama and Columbus, Ohio before settling in Sacramento, California. While stationed in Tuskegee, Eva underwent an operation that ended up severing her vocal cords, which led to her needing a tracheotomy tube in order to speak.

Rutland was a lifelong writer, with her first story appearing in an Atlanta newspaper when she was 12. While raising her children in Columbus, Ohio in 1952 she wrote the first of a number of pieces for women’s magazines about the experience of raising Black children under segregation. Those magazine pieces formed the basis for her first book, The Trouble With Being a Mama: A Negro Mother on the Anxieties and Joys of Bringing Up a Family, published in 1964.

After her first book, Rutland turned to fiction and began writing stories. She had begun to lose her sight due to retinitis pigmentosa, but did not let that stop her. In a 2011 interview with AARP, Rutland described her early process- she would dictate a story into a tape recorder and then slowly transcribing using a regular typewriter.

Cover of the book Matched Pair
Matched Pair (1988) by Eva Rutland

In 1988, after years of trying, Rutland’s first book was published by Harlequin. To Love Them All debuted in the Harlequin Romance line in March of 1988, just two months after Eva turned 71. It was followed in November 1988 by another contemporary, At First Sight.

A year later, the author whose favorite book was Pride and Prejudice would become the lead author for Harlequin’s new line of Regency category romances. Matched Pair (1989) is a classic “sweet” fake relationship Regency with, not to give it away, a surprising deus ex machine twist at the end. For several years, Rutland would go back and forth between contemporaries for Harlequin Romance and Regencies for Harlequin Regency Romance, until the latter line’s demise in 1993- after that she only wrote contemporary stories. Among her Regency romances is 1991’s The Willful Lady, which I mention mostly because it has one of the most delightful covers in romance history, featuring a man falling down while trying to hold on to a Macaw.

Cover of the book The Willful Lady
The Willful Lady (1991) by Eva Rutland

Of the 18 titles Eva Rutland wrote for Harlequin only the last, 2005’s Heart and Soul, published when she was 88, features a Black main character. In a 2000 profile for the Orlando Sentinel, she says that she had once considered writing an earlier book with a Black character, but had been dissuaded by a friend. During the time Eva was writing for Harlequin, the publisher put out only a handful of stories with Black main characters, so one can imagine a writer who wanted to keep working with the publisher not wanting to mess with success. Even authors like Sandra Kitt and Chassie West, who had in the early 1980s written groundbreaking books with Black characters for the publisher, were mainly writing white protagonists for Harlequin.

It is worth taking a moment here to point out that while we know that Eva Rutland was one of the few Black authors writing for Harlequin in the 1980s and 1990s, we cannot definitely say how many others there might have been. Many authors published under pseudonyms, and would’ve been either implicitly or explicitly told to stick to writing white characters for their books, which may have led them to write very little or later disavow what they did write. We just can’t be certain. Rutland’s status as the first Black author to write a Regency romance for Harlequin is undeniable, however.

Eventually, Eva would team up with Sandra Kitt and Anita Richmond Bunkley to write novellas with Black characters, this time for Signet- 1996’s Sisters and 1999’s Girlfriends. Rutland’s stories in these books- Guess What’s Cooking in Sisters and Choices in Girlfriends– would end up being her only romances to feature Black couples.

In her later career, Eva published the semi-autobiographical women’s fiction story No Crystal Stair for Harlequin’s Mira imprint in 2000, and updated her 1964 book, giving it the new title When We Were Colored: A Mother’s Story in 2007. Eva’s daughter Ginger has adapted When We Were Colored for the stage as well. Eva and Ginger appeared on NPR in 2007 to discuss the book and Eva’s career. Eva also recorded an oral history interview with the Center for Sacramento History in 2009, the transcript of which is available through the Internet Archive.

Eva Rutland passed away on March 12, 2012, at the age of 95. She lived a remarkable life despite the challenges she faced, and is well worth celebrating as part of the history of the romance genre.

Covers of four books written or edited by Carolyn Nichols.

Carolyn Nichols (1939-2017)

As American romance publishing boomed in the early 1980s, editors frequently played an outsized role in shaping the direction of the genre. Avon’s Nancy Coffey famously retrieved Kathleen Woodiwiss’s The Flame and the Flower off of a slush pile in the early 1970s for a weekend read, liked what she read, and changed the historical romance game forever. Vivian Stephens took over Dell’s moribund Candlelight Romance line in 1979 and injected it with relatable characters and locales, upped the heat level, and made it the first line to seriously challenge Harlequin’s dominance of the category romance market. Today I want to add a new name to that list- one that we don’t often mention, but who had just as important an impact.

Around the same time Vivian Stephens was joining Dell, a new face appeared in the offices of Berkley-Jove in New York. Carolyn Nichols came to publishing from journalism, having been one of the earliest writers for WETA television in her hometown of Washington, D.C.. Like Stephens, she felt something was missing from Harlequin’s tried and true romance formula that could be exploited. According to John Markert’s Publishing Romance, Nichols submitted a memo to Berkley-Jove management in 1978 outlining an idea for a contemporary romance line with increased sensuality that could compete with Harlequin Presents. Management didn’t like the idea, but after the arrival of Stephens’ Candlelight Ecstasy line in 1980, Nichols was finally given the green light and went about creating the line that would become Second Chance at Love (Markert, 94).

Carolyn Nichols may have been new to publishing, but she wasn’t new to romance. Born Carolyn Iona McKnight in Lafayette, Louisiana in 1939, she grew up in Washington, D.C., attending Wilson High School and then George Washington University before working at WETA, one of the first public television stations in the country. In the mid 1970s, she partnered with WETA colleague Stanlee Miller Coy for a series of gothic romances- definitely five, possibly six- under the pseudonym Iona Charles. In 1978 and 1979, not long after she had joined Berkley-Jove, Carolyn published two books under the pen name Carolyn McKnight, including Gravetide for Vivian Stephen’s Candlelight Romance! Nichols understood the romance market as both a consumer and author, a viewpoint she’d use to her advantage over the next few years.

The Reluctant Lady (1976) by Iona Charles (Carolyn Nichols and Stanlee Miller Coy), and Gravetide (1978) by Carolyn McKnight (Carolyn Nichols).

More than a copy of Harlequin Presents, the identifying feature of Second Chance at Love- as the name suggests- was that both main characters had experience with love. They may have been married- to each other or someone else- and divorced, or widowed, or otherwise driven apart. This naturally meant that characters were older and typically were no longer virgins, a marked departure from the older formulas, and more in line with the direction Candlelight Ecstasy was taking. The line launched in June of 1981 with Susanna Collins’ Flamenco Nights, and found success in a contemporary romance market that was not yet oversaturated- although it was getting there.

Nichols’ success did not go unnoticed. A year after the premiere of Second Chance at Love, she was hired by Bantam in 1982, ostensibly to save their newly launched line, Circle of Love. A Harlequin Romance clone, Circle of Love turned down the heat at a time when its competitors were turning up the heat, and it was struggling to stay afloat. Luckily for Bantam, Carolyn Nichols had a better idea.

The many lines launched between 1980 and 1982 were starting to create a glut in the romance market. Highly specific tip sheets, like the one Nichols herself created for Second Chance at Love, had created too formulaic of a product. Worse still, publishers with little experience in romance and no interest in hiring talent who did were throwing sub-par books onto the market, hoping readers would snap them up anyways. The quality of a new line had to be something special.

At the same time, a nascent fan culture was emerging in romance. The reader-oriented Romantic Times had launched in 1981, and held its first Booklover’s Convention in 1982. As they had done with historical romance, readers were starting to identify authors they liked and not just the lines they wrote for, and wanted to know more about the people behind their favorite books. Nichols saw all of this and developed a plan that would make her new line stand out in what was now a very crowded field.

With Loveswept, Carolyn Nichols threw away several parts of the old category romance formula. Gone were the tip sheets and guidelines for authors. Also gone were the pseudonyms and relative anonymity of the author. Each book would be under the author’s real name, and the inside of the front and back cover would include a picture of the author and a note from them about their lives. By giving authors the chance to write the stories they really wanted to write, and readers the chance to get to know their favorite authors better, Nichols was betting Loveswept would work.

Loveswept’s free sampler (undated, but late 1982 or early 1983).

The other new thing about Loveswept was how it launched- with a free sampler. About the size of a category novel, somewhere around 200,000 of these were printed featuring a chapter from each of the first six books in the series, along with a biography of each author. Importantly, Nichols’ editor note at the front of the book identified each author as well as the pseudonyms they’d already published under as well as their prior publishing houses. The six authors in the book- Sandra Brown, Helen Mittermeyer, Noelle Berry McCue, Fayrene Preston, Carla Neggers, and Dorothy Garlock- had to that point used some combination of sixteen pen names, but here they were standing on their own.

Sandra Brown from the inside cover of Heaven’s Price, Loveswept #1.

The line was a hit. Nichols’ instincts payed off, and both authors and readers came to love Loveswept over its sixteen year existence before it was shuttered in 1999 (it was resurrected as an ebook-only line in 2011). As she had predicted, authors preferred writing without limits, and readers loved seeing their favorite authors at their best. Nichols continued to innovate- 1986 saw the launch of The Delaneys, one of the earliest attempts at a category romance cross-author series, featuring superstars Kay Hooper, Fayrene Preston and Iris Johansen all writing in the same world. Within each of the books was an ad for Clairol hair dye, including colors that matched that of each of the female main characters.

Nichols would go on to a long career as an editor and publishing executive at Ballantine and New American Library before retiring from NAL as Vice President and Executive Director, Editorial in 2001.

Carolyn Nichols died on October 21, 2017 at her home in Portland, Oregon. Former employee and writer Elizabeth Barrett wrote a lovely remembrance of Nichols after her passing. While we don’t talk about her much now, there can be no doubt that Nichols played a crucial role in the development of American romance. Her innovations as an editor centered readers and authors in ways that shaped the genre to this day and she belongs in any conversation about the most important romance publishing figures of the 20th century.

Image of shrine with two candles and an image of Ernest Borgnine from the movie RED

Archives Month: Tips for romance authors (and others!)

October is always American Archives Month, which is of course when archivists don their colorful costumes and dance in the stacks after assembling their shrine to Henry the Record Keeper, as portrayed by Ernest Borgnine in the classic film RED. May his cozy cardigan keep us warm in the year to come.

Shrine consisting of two candles and a picture of Ernest Borgnine from the film RED
My Henry shrine (no lighting the candles, though- fire hazard!)

Am I the only one who’s ever actually created a shrine to Henry? Yes.

Will I ever stop trying to make it a thing? No.

After the celebrations, we take time to talk with our friends and family about what it is we do (no, we’re not anarchists, well not all of us at least). Given my connections to the romance community, I always like to talk about how authors can preserve their own literary papers. Thus the topic of today’s post!

I have heard from countless authors that because of their relative level of fame, they don’t think their papers are worth saving. Nothing could be further from the truth. Even if your papers don’t end up at your alma mater or some other institutional archive, as an author, you are a business, and archiving your papers is a good business decision. Beyond keeping a record of your work process as an author, keeping good records can help you be ready for things like rights reversions, contract negotiations, or even chasing that scammer who copied and pasted from one of your books. Also, under the current copyright laws, copyright can last for the author’s lifetime plus 70 years. Keeping good records will help your family protect your intellectual property! What I’m trying to say is, it is not vanity to keep copies of the hard work you’ve done.

So what stuff should you be keeping, whether it’s for posterity or business purposes? I tend to split it into three categories. The first is anything that documents your creative process, such as:

  • Story ideas, notes, and research
  • Query letters and other early-stage correspondence with agents or publishers
  • Contest submissions
  • Drafts and manuscripts
  • Correspondence with publishers
  • Edited manuscripts and foul matter
  • Galley proofs and ARCs
  • Anything relating to cover art such as publisher information sheets, sketches or artworks, and proofs.

The second is promotional materials:

  • Conference/signing swag like bookmarks, buttons, cover flats, promotional postcards. NOTE: It’s okay to throw out perishable stuff or anything that smells. You’ll get tired of having that in your archive real fast.
  • Clippings of reviews, interviews and profiles. If you have recordings of TV interviews or podcasts, those are great to hang on to as well.
  • Fan mail/emails- in addition to making you feel good, it’s great to have for posterity!

The third is business papers. These are less for posterity and more to make sure you’ve got everything in order:

  • Financial records- bank statements, cancelled checks, royalty statements, bills, etc. These should generally be kept for a limited period of time. Check with your tax professional for advice on how long to hold onto these items.
  • Contract materials- given the nature of the publishing history, you should hang onto contract related items permanently, and be sure that your family knows where to find them.

This advice applies to electronic records as well as paper records. If you’re working mostly with electronic records, make sure you’re keeping multiple copies of things- just make sure you’re not relying entirely on cloud storage or hard drive storage. Remember that those things can go away at a moment’s notice!

For paper records, you can find acid-free boxes (and sometimes acid-free folders as well) at Staples and other supply stores. Remember that paper, like digital bits, is decaying all the time whether we like it or not- our goal is to keep it for as long as possible. So keep it out of light and in spaces that don’t have wild swings in temperature and humidity. This goes for print books as well. The ideal temperature for paper is something like 65-72 with a humidity of 40-55 percent, but that’s not always possible- consistency is often a more achievable goal.

This post is far from comprehensive, but it should give you a place to start. Lynne Thomas wrote a more comprehensive post a few years ago for science fiction writers; I highly recommend taking a look. If you’re looking to actually donate your papers, the Society of American Archivists has a helpful outline of what to think about and look for.

If you’re an author and you’ve got questions about your literary papers that I didn’t cover here, I am always happy to try and help or point you in the right direction, just shoot me an email. I hope this is helpful! If there are other topics relating to archives or collecting you’d like me to cover, just leave a comment!

Collecting Romance- Harlequin and manga

Back in January, I was starting to think about collecting some romance novels (everyone needs a hobby, right?) and what I’d want my collection to look like. Anyone who knows me won’t be surprised to learn that what I really wanted was to collect oddballs. Books that might not mean much to most readers, but mark an important point in the history of the genre. This both keeps me from driving myself up a wall trying to find sequential Harlequin Historicals (though that’s an idea!) and it makes me feel better knowing that someone, somewhere is holding onto these books with the knowledge of what they mean.

So where to start? There are so many ways to go that your head would spin for weeks. But I knew where to begin. With Harlequin’s Dark Horse manga.

What? Harlequin manga? You heard me. Let me explain.

As described in this excellent article from Duke’s Unsuitable blog, Harlequin entered the Japanese market in the early 1980s and found success within a decade, becoming a dominant provider of fiction translated from English in the country. As they did in other countries, Harlequin became a hit by hiring local translators who not only adapted the text, but adjusted plots and dialogue to fit different cultural norms. But they saw the potential for more by getting into the Japanese ladies comics market. In 1998, they began partnering with Ozora Publishing House to translate their books into comic form.

As the new century dawned, manga began to become more popular in America and Harlequin saw yet another opportunity for growth. In 2005 the company licensed Dark Horse Comics to translate and distribute their manga titles back to English.

Only six titles were published by Dark Horse before Harlequin took over distribution in 2006, and continues to do so to this day. Inevitably, the manga shifted to the digital space, and they’re available in the US through Harlequin Comics.

As I said though, my interest is really in those Dark Horse titles. They represent a fascinating translation project from start to finish. A book like Debbie Macomber’s The Bachelor Prince (published as a Silhouette Romance in 1994) first had its text translated from English to Japanese, including cultural changes, for a regular text edition. Then the text was translated into graphic form by Misao Hoshiai and published in Japan. Then the text from that graphic form was translated back into English Ikoi Hiroe for the American market. It’s a little bit like a romance version of Telephone Down the Lane, right?

Another interesting element of these six editions is that while the original texts all had different authors, and the manga translation was done by five different artists, they were all translated back to English by the same person. It raises fascinating questions of whose voice is really represented in the books.

Another unique aspect of these books is the way there were presented. Two separate lines were created. The first, Harlequin Pink, was intended for all ages. Typically, these were from the Harlequin or Silhouette Romance lines, so they tended to be pretty chaste. The books in the Harlequin Violet line were Harlequin Presents books, which tended to have a higher heat level, but were still closed-door. The Violet books were marketed as being for readers age 16 and over.

The color of the line the books as assigned to also indicated what color ink would be used in the printing. This was a gimmick that definitely had mixed results.

Interior pages from The Bachelor Prince (2006).

The pink volumes are, quite frankly, headache-inducing after a while. While it’s really more of a dark pink ink, it still ends up being very difficult to read.

Interior pages from Holding on to Alex (2006).

The violet/purple ink for the other volumes is really only marginally better. Not so many headaches, but I have found it hard to concentrate on it for any length of time.

Ultimately, Harlequin eliminated the Violet line for US audiences, and stuck with Pink. Thankfully, the Harlequin Comics volumes you read today are in good old black and white.

These six volumes won’t ever make me rich, and they have no lasting significance to romance history beyond the fact that they were Harlequin’s first experiment into graphic storytelling. But they were easy to acquire, with all six costing me around $35 including shipping despite the fact that I bought them from multiple sellers, and they’re interesting conversation starters that I’m happy to have.

Spines of all six Harlequin Dark Horse manga

What was your starting point for romance collecting? Or are there books you secretly lust after?

Article in Library Journal and a quick update!

Hi y’all. It’s been a very long summer here at the homestead, but I haven’t forgotten about you. I recently wrote a piece for Library Journal that detailed the controversy over the Romance Writers of America award for Best Romance with Religious or Spiritual Elements. Regular readers of this blog will recognize some of the information from my post about the “Indian Romance”.

There are a few additional things in the offing- my second appearance on the Shelf Love Podcast with Andrea Martucci drops shortly, and I had great fun talking “Indian Romance” with Dr. Maria DeBlassie for her class on historical romance, which should be up on YouTube soon. I will share links to both once I have them!

If you’ve got a major national publication, class, or podcast you think I’d be able to add something to, please feel free to shoot me an email and we’ll see what we can work out!

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A Brief History of “Indian Romance”

Like so many things that eventually go wrong in American history, the story of the so-called “Indian Romance” can, I think, be traced back to a white person who thought they had good intentions. In 1881, an east coast social crusader named Helen Hunt Jackson wrote a non-fiction book called A Century of Dishonor, detailing the previous 100 years of federal mistreatment of Indigenous Peoples. Jackson sent a copy to every member of Congress in an attempt to persuade them to treat Indigenous Peoples more fairly. Despite Jackson’s best efforts, the book failed to move public policy. Instead, she felt it was time to turn to fiction in an attempt to win over hearts and minds. 

Cover of an a first edition of Ramona by Helen Hunt Jackson (1884). Image from Wikipedia.

In 1884, Jackson published Ramona, a story about a woman of mixed Scottish-Native American ancestry and the mistreatment she faced at the hands of missionaries and settlers in California. Underpinning the story is a criticism of federal laws that made it easy for settlers to seize lands from indigenous people, but it was the Spanish missions and the doomed love of Ramona and sheepherder Alessandro that drew most of the attention. The book was massively popular upon its publication, and while less well-known now, has never been out of print.

Helen Hunt Jackson died in 1885, just a year after the book was published. As such, she never got to see the two major unintended consequences of Ramona. The first was the passage of the Dawes Act in 1887, which some credit to Jackson’s work, and broke up the communal lands of Native Americans and forced them to accept American citizenship. While ostensibly designed to avoid the land seizures highlighted by Jackson’s book, it was immensely destructive to Native culture and societies. At the same time, Jackson’s romantic portrayals of Spanish missions and California life became a promotional tool for tourism and real estate development in the state. An open-air play based on the book, called the Ramona Pageant, began in 1923 and continues annually to this day. The name Ramona appeared everywhere in California as a tribute to Jackson’s heroine, from schools to highways.

Advertisement for the pageant version of Ramona, billed as “California’s Official Outdoor Play”.

Ramona’s portrayal of settlers and “noble savages” would became a major pillar of the Western genre in American popular culture. Versions of the love story between Ramona and Alessandro, typically between a white settler and a Native American appeared in books and films for decades. Ramona itself has been made into a film five times, including a 1910 D.W. Griffith adaptation that featured Mary Pickford in the title role.

With the growth of historical romance in the 1970s and early 1980s, it seemed inevitable that Western stories would become part of the genre. Nakoa’s Woman by Gayle Rogers, published around the same time as Kathleen Woodiwiss’s The Flame and the Flower in 1972, features the cover blurb “A fierce Indian warrior, a beautiful white captive- an enthralling love story”. Variations on this setup would become the norm for the so-called “Indian Romance”, which really exploded in 1981 with the publication of Janelle Taylor’s Savage Ecstasy. Taylor and her fellow Zebra/Kensington author Cassie Edwards would go on to be responsible for more than 100 “Indian Romances”, most of which feature “Savage” or some variation in the title. And they were not alone. The subgenre was massively popular, so much so that from 1984-1993, Romantic Times gave awards for the “Best Indian Romance”.

Written almost entirely by white women who pride themselves on the “accuracy” of their research, the books rely on the same noble savage tropes used by Helen Hunt Jackson, with Native Americans portrayed as either fierce warriors or submissive (but strong) women. Their love stories are never between Native Americans, but always involve a white person (or “half breed”) as the hero or heroine. The authors pride themselves on research into ceremonies and dress, but at the same time portray love stories that rarely if ever happened in the time period they are writing about.

The stereotypes portrayed in the so-called “Indian Romance”, however well-intentioned they may have been in Helen Hunt Jackson’s day, are flat-out racist. They reinforce notions of Native Americans as savages who only existed in the past, when they are right here with us, right now. Native men are frequently portrayed as supposedly noble, but also as violent rapists who need the love of a white woman to tame them. The continual use of “Savage” in the titles piles on another layer of insult disguised as a compliment.

It’s really important to know that these books have not disappeared. They are not just some relic of the past. Kensington Publishing still sells the books of Janelle Taylor and Cassie Edwards, which is shocking considering that the company was on the vanguard of publishing the stories of Black and Latinx love. A review of Goodreads will show that people are still reading these old books, and giving them 5 stars. And inspirational publishers like Bethany House have clearly gotten in on this as well, with Kate Witemeyer’s At Love’s Command landing an RWA award this past weekend. Witemeyer’s book doesn’t strictly match the relationships of the books of Edwards and Taylor, with both protagonists being white, but the fact that the plot revolves around a revisionist (and white supremacist) history of the Wounded Knee Massacre and the hero’s involvement in killing Lakota peoples, I see no issues with lumping them together.

I’ve found little organized resistance to the racist tropes and narratives of “Indian Romance” outside of the most recent outrage, and there’s a lot to unpack in why that is that I’m not going to get into today. Let’s suffice it to say that I think the reason we see these books survive today is because few readers, authors, and publishers were interested in standing up against them when they were published, so they continued to stay on shelves for new readers to find. I hope that the renewed awareness brought about by this year’s RWA awards can start to change that.

In all of this, Native American voices have rarely been heard in romance. That is slowly changing. Pamela Sanderson’s Crooked Rock series and Robin Covington’s Redhawk Reunion series are just two examples of Native authors writing contemporary stories of indigenous people finding love without the harmful stereotypes of romance’s past. Let’s hope that more are on the horizon.

Note: I’ve chosen not to link to the offensive titles that I mention above. While I’m happy to link to other works that I discuss on my blog, most of the works I mention here deserve no such consideration. They are readily available, I assure you.