I stayed up late last night to finish reading Time Out by Jill Shalvis. Not because it was amazing or I needed to know how things turned out, but because it was short.
Before I do a review, let me tell you a story.
A few years ago, I started watching As The World Turns. I had never watched soap operas before, the same way I have never read romances before. My mom watched Perry Mason in black and white in the afternoons. I remember a friend’s older sister had a poster of Paul from The Young and the Restless on her wall. (I didn’t know his name, only that he is a blonde, blue-eyed guy, and I still see him on the show, flipping past the channel, so I went for Wikipedia’s List of longest-serving soap opera actors.) She and their mom were the only soap opera fans I knew growing up.
And when I say I started watching As The World Turns, that’s not quite true. I started watching the Luke and Noah storyline, which people had edited out of the show and posted on YouTube. I caught up on years of daily episodes in a single night and could keep up in ten minute chunks with sometimes weeks between. The Luke and Noah storyline was something to be commended on network daytime television, but it wasn’t a priority for the producers. So the way I watched soap operas is still not how other people watch soap operas.
I draw this comparison to explain how out of my depth I felt watching a soap opera then and still feel reading romance novels now. I have no background in how they operate, the archetypes and the tropes. Soap operas look terrible to me. The acting is painful. Let’s not talk about the writing. Everything I know about both, I learned first through a disdain for the genre.
My mom read romances when she was a teenager, but only ever when she was babysitting. The mom of one of her regular charges had whole shelves of the books, and my mom would read one in an evening while the kids were asleep. We didn’t have them in our house when I was growing up.
When I worked my factory job, I’d see the other ladies reading paperback romances. There was a box of them in the locker room, a kind of primitive book swap. I would pick them up, skim through, but there was nothing about the long-haired, kilted men on the cover which enticed me. I wanted to read “real” books. I went through all the obnoxious literary phases in high school: Greek myths, Catcher in the Rye, Shakespeare, the Beats. I read a single V.C. Andrews on a dare from a friend.
Today, I’m more likely to be found reading a non-fiction book about salt or Robert Kennedy or 50-year-old family-run diner. I keep writing love stories, but the harder thing is finding ones I like to read.
Apologies to Jill Shalvis, but Time Out isn’t it either. I enjoyed how she bucked the stereotype of dudes with weird names and named the hero Mark and the heroine Rainey. There were many wonderful and interesting supporting characters. I loved Mark and Rick’s dad, Ramon, who was living in his new house (rebuilt after it burned) with no furniture because he hadn’t found anything new he wanted to buy. I loved Pepper, one of the teenage girls on the softball team and the keeper of Mark’s swear jar. They didn’t all get a lot to do in such a short book, but they made the world real.
But when you make a fictional world real, non-fiction problems can’t be ignored. Late in the story, at a fundraising bachelor auction, where Mark puts up his NHL players for bidding, he also ends up on the stage. Rainey tries to buy him, in some kind of misguided proof of true love, but is quickly outbid by the celebrities, socialites, and one “woman producer.”
This one line, one description of a character with no name, no dialogue, and no purpose beyond plot obstacle, poked me at the back of my brain for the rest of the book. It’s unnecessary, to begin with, to define a producer as a “woman producer.” The word “producer” works fine. English can be helpfully efficient when it wants to be. To quantify this producer as female assumes that people reading the book will read a producer as male. Which is even more offensive, because the majority audience of a Harlequin book is female.
But when you put this one sentence (one sentence, folks, and I’m already onto my third paragraph ripping it apart) into the context of a bachelor auction, to quantify this producer as female is also homophobic. Because it says only women are allowed to bid on dates with men. Not only says, but in a wholly prescriptive way, it prevents any reader from reading otherwise.
It’s a little thing. I imagine most readers would pass it by, the same way the writer and the editor passed it by. Because they’re probably used to it. If this isn’t their first romance novel, they’ve seen this kind of thing before. Time Out isn’t my first, but I’m still new enough to the genre that something as small as “woman producer” stops me up short.
I don’t know enough to let it go as “just one of those things.”
It’s a little thing. But in a book by a woman, written for women, and read under the covers by the daughters of women, don’t tell me the little things don’t count. Don’t tell me this cover isn’t racist. Don’t tell me we don’t deserve better love stories. I’ll tell you you’re wrong.