Fabio Gets His Walking Papers

A Showgirl for Santa will be released to coincide with the holiday season. Mary-Theresa Hussey, a senior editor, rehashes the plot. “It’s about a grumpy hero who hates Christmas,” she explains, “He gets a job playing Santa Claus and becomes snowbound with the heroine and her two young children. The hero likes showgirls so the heroine’s kids make their mom into a showgirl and show her off to get a dad.”

Despite the fact that A Showgirl for Santa sounds like the most outlandish book to be offered to the reading public this year, no one laughs. The plot of Showgirl, after all, follows the proven Harlequin formula, one that sells millions of books each year. For over four decades the Harlequin heroine has been a plucky but powerless woman who needs to be rescued from poverty, widowhood, divorce, single motherhood, marauding soldiers, evil relatives, a demeaning job, or some combination of the above.

In the very first chapter of every Harlequin, a hero is introduced, usually a misanthropic but secretly kind-hearted man who is himself suffering from some kind of emotional wound. Over the course of the next 300 or so pages, the two flirt, fight, finally fall in love, and marry, whereupon the man is restored to good humor, and the woman ends up financially secure and loved.

Only at the end of the meeting does another editor named Margaret O’Neill Marbury introduce a manuscript that seems to have nothing in common with the others. It’s not set in Texas, there are no single mothers posing as showgirls, and even the happy ending seems in doubt. Marbury explains that she is submitting the manuscript, entitled Burning the Map, to the buying committee. “It’s about three city girls from Chicago who decide to go to Rome and Greece for the summer to work out the kinks in their relationships with each other and in their personal lives,” she explains. “In the case of the main character, she’s about to start work at a major law firm in Chicago. The book deals with that worry that we’re going to sell out and be miserable doing it but at the same time the fear of what will happen if we don’t sell out.”

The editors nod and smile, a reaction identical to the one for A Showgirl for Santa. But whether or not the editors acknowledge the differences between the two manuscripts, they know that Burning the Map may represent the future for Harlequin.

In November, Harlequin launched Red Dress Ink, a new imprint that is Harlequin’s version of “chick-lit,” the single city-girl genre made popular by the British bestseller, Bridget Jones’s Diary. Unlike a Harlequin, which involves both a hero and heroine, a Red Dress book focuses exclusively on the heroine’s story. While a Harlequin conjures up a fantasy of romantic love that ends with wedding bells, a Red Dress book presents a more realistic picture of single life and dating, one that ends not necessarily in marriage but self-discovery. In short, Red Dress is supposed to marry the mass-market appeal of Harlequin Romances with a contemporary sensibility that will attract 21-to-34-year old women.

It’s a tough order, because it requires finding an elusive yet fairly universal formula for female happiness in a post-feminist era—one that most women haven’t entirely figured out. Red Dress’s struggle to find a romance formula for this new era reflects the struggles of young women to find a happy medium between love and independence without having to sacrifice too much of either.

Last October 2000, Margaret Marbury, a 37-year-old mother of three, was tapped to head Red Dress. Up to that point, her main job had been editing romances for Harlequin. A tall, angular woman with straight blond hair and a knack for finding common ground on any subject, Marbury constructed outlines for soap opera serials and acquired historical romances. The shelves lining her small office in midtown Manhattan are crammed with them. “I used to have more,” she confesses, “But I just sent eight boxes to the nursing home.”

That, in essence, is the problem facing Harlequin. As the average age of its readers has grown older, the number of books it is selling has declined. One reason that Harlequin is attracting fewer young readers is that the books espouse a traditional version of femininity, one in which women are still swept off their feet by tough yet tender alpha males and marriage is the ultimate goal. Today, even the books’ titles, The Marrying Kind or Expecting His Child—not to mention the bodice-ripping covers—hearken back to the days of pre-feminist values. Millions of women around the world gobble up Harlequins, but many do so somewhat shamefully; and it is the stigma associated with them that has turned off a younger generation of readers.

This is the problem that Harlequin has assigned Marbury to solve. Red Dress must distance itself from Harlequin in order to escape the stigma associated with its more traditional parent. But at the same time it must find a way to replicate the commercially addictive Harlequin formula in an updated—and upscale—form.

The typical Harlequin romance reader is a middle-aged, married woman from small-town America. A whopping 69 percent of Harlequin readers are married. Sixty percent of them live in towns with populations under 50,000; and 36.7 percent, the largest chunk, are located in the South. Harlequin readers are about evenly split between working-class and middle-class women. The majority has some college education but there is also a sizable percentage, 32 percent, who completed their education with a high-school diploma. In launching Red Dress, Harlequin is hoping to change those demographics.

The company is not only hoping to attract a younger romance reader but the type of sophisticated, urban post-feminist woman who probably never would have considered buying a Harlequin romance.

While Harlequin had recently introduced a new, sexier line of romances, Blaze, aimed at younger readers in its traditional demographic, the company decided to go urban and upscale with Red Dress because it believed city women were willing to pay top dollar. The success of Bridget Jones’s Diary suggested that there was a healthy urban market for romance-based women’s fiction.

Marbury envisions the typical Red Dress reader as a young, single, working woman who lives in an urban center—though she also claims that rural or suburban young women who want to keep up with cultural trends will make up a percentage of the audience. Although her household income may not be that much higher than the typical middle-class Harlequin reader, the Red Dress reader has more purchasing power as a single, childless woman. Unlike the average Harlequin reader, who picks up her latest romance at Wal-Mart, the college-educated Red Dress reader is used to buying higher-priced women’s fiction at tweedy bookstores.

In order to expand its demographic, Harlequin decided last fall that Red Dress would be its own imprint. Nowhere on the books will the Harlequin name or logo appear. In comparison to the 70 romance titles published by Harlequin each month, Red Dress will publish only one. The books are trade paperbacks, larger, with better quality design and higher-concept cover art than the pocket-sized, mass-market Harlequins. The price reflects this distinction: Harlequins sell for $4 to $6 a pop whereas a Red Dress is priced at $12.95.

But the challenge facing Red Dress to capture the hearts of a new generation of female readers goes far beyond the cosmetics of trade paperbacks. Its struggle to define what the modern woman wants in a book is a metaphor for the struggle facing its readers, women in their twenties and early thirties, who are also trying to reconcile pre- and post-feminist sensibilities. Young women at the turn of the 21st century are encouraged to go out in the world, have a career, put off marriage and children: and, for many women, there is still a stigma associated with wanting otherwise. But at the same time, thirty years after the start of the feminist revolution, it seems nave and out-of-date to disparage traditional choices or conceptions of femininity.

What both Red Dress editors and their target readers are trying to do is establish a new, inclusive formula for love and romance—one that acknowledges that women’s lives have changed, while recognizing that young women no longer see commitment and independence as mutually exclusive. The Red Dress editors, as well as many young women in their target audience, want to reintegrate romance into post-feminist life in a way that departs from the traditional marriage prescription with all its patriarchal shackles but that still satisfies the emotional need for companionship.

Marbury chalks up the changes in women’s lives to what she calls “the cultural shift” that has made her own life so different from her mother’s. Her mother married at 19 and stayed home to raise Marbury and her three brothers while her father ran an asphalt company in Champaign, Il. After college, Marbury spent two and a half years in Chicago working for Merrill Lynch before getting an MA in journalism from Syracuse University. She didn’t marry until 29 and is a working mother. “In my mother’s and grandmother’s generations, women got married for financial reasons,” she explains. “But now a woman can say I’m making more money than a man, so what can he bring to the relationship?'”

Marbury wants Red Dress books to be up-to-date portrayals of women’s lives, but ones that evolved in a seamless and non-threatening way out of the romance tradition. But the person most skilled at reconciling different generations of women’s literature—and arguably of women’s lives—is Isabel Swift, vice president of editorial for Harlequin Enterprises. Swift, who is 47 and has worked at Harlequin for 20 years, is the type of quirky intellectual who has spent her life marrying high and low culture. A Madiera and Harvard graduate from a well-to-do Washington, D.C. family, Swift has four pierces in her left ear, not to mention a mullet hair-do—and collects action figures.

Swift argues that the common ancestor of both romances and chick-lit books is the 19th century comedy of manners, epitomized by the novels of Jane Austen. Like Pride and Prejudice, Harlequin romances are dramatically propelled by the goal of a happy and financially secure marriage, one that is invariably reached by the book’s end. Swift still sees this goal as a valid one. “Pretty much everyone I know is trying to find someone they can be with,” she explains. “And yet we all look at romance and say it should be off in a corner, it’s a girl thing. I think that makes a lot of women uncomfortable.”

Although Canadian publishing executive Richard Bonnycastle founded Harlequin in 1949, it wasn’t till 1964, on the suggestion of his wife, Mary, that the company began focusing exclusively on the romance genre. The word “Harlequin,” which shares a derivation with the “harlequinade” or the English “Punch and Judy” shows, is a fitting name for the low-brow, mass-market version of Jane Austen’s comedies of manners. Although Swift would never suggest that A Showgirl for Santa is a direct literary heir of Pride and Prejudice, she believes that Harlequin offers its readers entertaining and comforting variations on that standard romance tale.

Swift says that chick-lit also has its roots in novels like Pride and Prejudice. She points to the plucky optimism that chick-lit heroines share with Austen’s heroines as well as the fact that in both chick-lit books and Austen novels, romantic realization hinges on self-realization. Swift’s argument is supported by the fact that the hallmark chick-lit novel, Bridget Jones’s Diary, is a contemporary retelling of Pride and Prejudice, one whose hero even shares the surname of Austen’s hero, Mr. Darcy.

Bridget Jones, which was published in England in 1996 and in America two years later, spawned countless books about the dating lives of urban, single women. TV shows like “Sex and the City” and “Ally McBeal” also sought to capture the lifestyle and attitude of the city girl on the prowl. In 1998, Melissa Bank published another influential chick-lit book, A Girls’ Guide to Hunting and Fishing, which became a U.S. bestseller. That same year, Samantha Bell, a 31-year-old editor at Harlequin’s London office, shared her enthusiasm for the new genre with Swift. By February 2000, when Swift, Bell and other editors met at Harlequin’s world headquarters in Toronto to discuss how to attract younger readers, the idea of creating a chick-lit line seemed a natural solution, and Red Dress Ink was born.

Bridget Jones’s Diary, as well as shows like “Sex and the City,” explores the thirtysomething man crisis, the ticking of the biological clock and the hunger for marriage, or at least love. For urban professional women, their thirties is an acceptable age to seriously consider marriage and to start feeling that single and career life is not all it’s cracked up to be. Harlequin wanted to tell the Bridget Jones story, but they also wanted to attract a slightly younger audience, women in their mid-and late twenties. The question was, what do women this age want? Would they accept a Bridget-Jones-like heroine who is lonely and overtly craves marriage but is only 25? Or would the demographic that Harlequin wanted to attract find the narrative too “retro?”

Swift wanted the Red Dress books to capture positive changes in women’s lives but also to delve into certain timeless anxieties about love and identity. Although Red Dress heroines work outside the home and value their careers, Swift, like Marbury, shies away from calling the books feminist because she believes that feminism disparages the more traditional elements of women’s lives, such as the desire for marriage and motherhood that Harlequin romances stand for.

But the bottom line is that Swift needs to sell more books. In 1990, Harlequin sold 194 million of them worldwide. Ten years later, this number had declined to 153 million. In the 1990s, Harlequin raised the prices of its books and also began selling more stories in anthology form so that, despite the decrease in sales, profits are still growing. But with the average age of a Harlequin reader now at 47, Swift must prepare for the future. Besides, it’s not only the readers who are getting older, but the writers. “There was this realization that we weren’t finding an incredible new crop of twentysomething romance writers,” explains Swift, “But when we started talking about Red Dress, young women were getting really excited, saying, I can write that, that’s my life.'”

One of these women was Sarah Mlynowski, a 24-year old assistant product manager in Harlequin’s Toronto headquarters. After hearing that Harlequin was looking for manuscripts about city-girl life, Mlynowski began her debut novel in April 2000 and finished it eight months later. Milkrun, the story of a 25-year-old romance-book editor who tears around Boston looking for a date after being dumped by her boyfriend, hit stores in December. Mlynowski was paid $7,000 plus 7.5 percent of royalties for Milkrun. This past June, she signed a deal with Red Dress for two more books.

Mlynowski, who is pretty and petite, grew up in an anglophone family in Montreal. After graduating from McGill University with a degree in English literature, she took several jobs in publishing with the goal of someday writing a book. Mlynowski, who describes herself as a feminist, sees the chick-lit genre as validating women’s voices and experiences.

The real question, though, is whether a book like Milkrun, can really validate women’s experiences when it fails at the most basic level—as a good read. The book is written in a hyperbolic, stream-of-consciousness style and though there are a few funny passages, the overall feeling of reading it is like hanging out with a wisecracking yet irritating friend. The sitcom-like descriptions of bad dates and bar scenes never add up to anything.

Unlike a romance—or even a successful chick-lit book like Bridget Jones’s Diary—Milkrun lacks a dramatic arc. The heroine never moves towards a pivotal moment when she will discover who she is and in doing so, make better romantic choices. There is something disheartening about the fact that after 279 pages, the sum total of the heroine’s personal growth is that she no longer wishes her ex-boyfriend “a slow and excruciating death.”

This, however, may be precisely why Harlequin chose to publish a book like Milkrun. With its avoidance of the marriage question and litany of bad dates and meaningless sex, Milkrun would never run the risk of being deemed “retro.” But it does run the risk of turning off the demographic that Harlequin has traditionally appealed to: women from non-urban areas who tend to marry at an earlier age and enjoy a little more romance in their narratives.

What is unsatisfying about Milkrun is also what an increasing number of women today find unsatisfying about life after feminism. Feminism has encouraged women to experience the world and make their own places in it. It has enabled women to do what men have long done: go on a quest through the world, take risks, and enjoy sexual freedom, building an identity in the process. But taken to an extreme, this type of questing, like that of the heroine in Milkrun, can easily become a kind of permanent adolescence: tiring, solipsistic, and ultimately stagnating—not to mention that it’s hardly the stuff of page-turners.

More importantly, as much as Red Dress has sought to avoid being tagged as a “feminist” press, by focusing solely on the heroine, Milkrun has repeated the very problem with feminism that today’s younger women are wrestling with: It’s left out the men. While feminism can solidly advise on how to get rid of a man—obtaining a fair divorce or a restraining order against an abusive spouse—it’s fairly mute on how to actually find, love, and live with a decent man.

Feminism can’t tell us what romance might look like once women don’t need—or want—to be rescued from anything except their own loneliness. That vacuum cries out to be filled with a new type of narrative that acknowledges the desire of women, even those with feminist ideals, to indulge in a little happy-ending fantasy.

To that end, in May 2000, a Harlequin editor, Joan Marlow Golan, approached 36-year-old Melissa Senate, who had spent ten years editing Harlequin romances, and asked her if she wanted to try her hand at a Red Dress book. Although Senate had drawn up story arcs for the Sweet Valley High and Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen books, she had never written a novel.

In just over two months, Senate, who grew up in a working class family in the Bronx, Queens, and New Jersey, wrote See Jane Date. Jane, an ambitious yet insecure 28-year-old assistant editor from Queens, like Senate herself, lives in an Upper East Side studio, struggles to quit smoking, and is desperately in search of a good date. In August 2000, Red Dress bought the manuscript for more than $8,000 plus 7.5 percent of royalties and published it in November.

See Jane Date is no literary masterpiece. It makes incessant pop-culture and product references (characters long for DKNY clothing, buy In Style magazine and look like Nicole Kidman) and is populated by stock characters (the annoying but kind aunt, the prissy friend, the gorgeous rival). As in Milkrun, the narrator is yet another twentysomething woman in publishing.

But it is a good read, balancing romance-novel fantasy and post-feminist realism. Like a romance character, the heroine, Jane, is an orphan who needs to find a date for her cousin’s wedding at the Plaza, where Jane’s father imagined her getting married before he died.

Although the book does not end Harlequin-style with a marriage, it does end with Jane finding a steady boyfriend and the likelihood of long-term commitment. This Cinderella story provides plot and dramatic tension, but what makes it more than a fairytale is that Jane’s daily life—reading The New York Times wedding pages alone on a Sunday morning, trying to get noticed at work, looking at other women trudging home alone at the end of the day on the subway—captures the very real loneliness of being a contemporary, urban single.

Ironically, the one concern that the Harlequin editors had about Senate’s manuscript was not that it pushed the envelope, but that it didn’t push it enough. So Senate had Jane develop a relationship that results in sex but doesn’t work out. But despite this sex scene, Senate’s book is decidedly unsexy, perhaps because for the post-feminist woman, sex is an easily attainable, feminist-approved goal, one that carries less stigma than admitting to loneliness or desperately wanting emotional connection with a man. While feminists once saw sex as a means of asserting the newly liberated female identity, what makes the chick-lit genre subversive is not the occasional fumbling sex scene but the failure of sex to answer post-feminist women’s longings for real human connection.

Like Swift, Senate believes that women who express loneliness or disappointment at an independent life feel ashamed, and are made to feel like spoiled children complaining that the good life isn’t good enough. Today, she explains, “You’re supposed to find everything in yourself, so if you feel lonely you make other people squirm. Now I’m being interviewed, which is not an everyday occurrence in my life. What do I want to do after this? I want to go out with my boyfriend and tell him about my day and I want him to say, hey, that’s great.’ But you know what I’m really going to do? I’m going to go home alone and watch a movie.”

Like Senate, today’s young women have reaped the benefits of feminism, getting jobs and taking care of themselves to avoid the risk of becoming dependent on men who make them beg for pin money.

But after 30 years of feminism, middle-class young women are now fairly secure in the knowledge that it’s possible to maintain their independence and get married, have children, and keep their careers in the city—an option early feminist pioneers were usually denied. The trouble now isn’t finding the right job; it’s finding the right guy.

Despite the hip, urban trappings of the chick-lit heroines of Helen Fielding and Melissa Bank, the Austenesque quest for the good man is still the central theme of their stories—and what makes those stories compelling. After all, love is supposed to transcend the mundane world of work and money, and a good literary romance offers the hope and vicarious thrill of that transcendence.

The difference between Bridget Jones and her Harlequin predecessors, though, is that what they require in a hero has changed as dramatically as the lives of the heroines. But even See Jane Date, the more successful Red Dress book, only expresses the desire of its heroine for romance rather than giving us a good look at the type of guy who could meet her more amorphous, post-feminist needs. Though it’s clear that the tough-but-tender alpha male with deep pockets is no longer the obvious choice, identifying the formula for the perfect modern romantic hero may be even harder than updating the post-feminist heroine. Red Dress seems to have solved that problem by mostly leaving the heroes out.

Isabel Swift is correct in surmising from the success of such books as Bridget Jones’s Diary that young urban women want a twist of romance in their narratives. But it is still not likely that Red Dress Ink will succeed. With books like Milkrun, which avoids ending in marriage or commitment, Red Dress has strayed too far from its romance roots. In doing so, it is bound to lose its core middle-American audience and will probably fail to capture the Bridget-Jones-loving urban one as well.

Red Dress has done a better job putting theory into practice with a book like See Jane Date, which borrows more heavily from the romance tradition. But although the sensibilities of See Jane Date would resonate with many urban, single, career girls who crave their own Bridget-Jones-like heroines, it’s also likely they would dismiss the book in favor of a more clever, literary read.

Literature requires seasoned writers—Jane Austen, Edith Wharton—and they’re not likely to turn up as 24-year-olds getting paid $7,000 for a formula book. Harlequin’s biggest mistake may be that instead of creating a new chick-lit line for the younger women in their traditional demographic, they are determined to court a new upscale, urban audience.

But even if Red Dress Ink fails to attract the audience that Harlequin intended, the women of Red Dress are on the right quest. It’s not their fault that they haven’t figured out what the new formula for women’s happiness is. No one else has, either.

Washington Monthly - Donate today and your gift will be doubled!

Support Nonprofit Journalism

If you enjoyed this article, consider making a donation to help us produce more like it. The Washington Monthly was founded in 1969 to tell the stories of how government really works—and how to make it work better. Fifty years later, the need for incisive analysis and new, progressive policy ideas is clearer than ever. As a nonprofit, we rely on support from readers like you.

Yes, I’ll make a donation