Just When You Thought It Was Safe to Go to the Newstand
A few days ago, I watched the movie North Country on DVD. Despite the overblown and highly improbable (dramatic as they were, they legally couldn't have happened that way) court scenes and the way the lily was gilded by piling on one too many dramas in the heroine's backstory, it was still worth watching for its terrific acting and, more importantly, the depiction of the kind of crude sexual harassment that way too many women have been subjected to in the workplace.
I remember some of similar abuse (though milder than that depicted in the movie), and I'm thrilled that women don't face nearly as much as they did even a couple of decades back. But a lot of the condescending, limiting attitudes are still in place, and in the literary world, I see this antiquated bullshit applied all too often to the women who write romance novels.
Take this article from the August issue of Texas Monthly, by Skip Hollandsworth. In it, New York Times bestselling romantic suspense author Sandra Brown is profiled in a piece called "The Woman on Top," which highlights Brown's massive success in the marketplace. Yet Hollandsworth opens with:
"As I walked into her office, she rose elegantly from behind her desk. In heels, she was nearly six feet tall, her body slender but curvy. Her reddish hair with blond highlights was perfectly tousled, and her lean face contained both well-defined cheekbones and soft, full lips. She was wearing a silky beige top that was cut just low enough for me to catch a tantalizing glimpse of a bra strap, and her spectacularly long legs were covered in form-fitting linen slacks that accentuated her pert posterior.
"'Hello,' I said softly, my breath making a hissing sound as I inhaled through my teeth. For a moment, she stared back at me, her brown eyes unblinking, and I could not help but wonder if she too felt something stirring deep inside. Was she, perhaps, already fantasizing about me pushing my way hungrily toward her and pinning her to the desk…"
Excuse me, but what the hell, Skip? And what were the editors of Texas Monthly thinking, to run this article as it was written? Sure, the magazine's known for its irreverent take on a lot of public figures, but I can't imagine a male author would have received this kind of physical scrutiny. More insulting still was the way in which Hollandsworth was lampooning her writing style with this personal affront, the way he counterbalanced each mention of Brown's fifty-five NYT bestsellers, her upcoming first printing of 650,000 for Play Dirty with assertions that critics (in spite of the positive PW review I read of this book) have "always been unimpressed by Brown," claiming her books to be "chock full of ... over-the-top characters, implausible if not impossible plot twists...and cliched happy endings."
For "balance," he goes on to describe his own (shocking) enjoyment of a Brown book he picked up (again, Play Dirty) while writing the article. Mostly in terms of how it wasn't Cormac McCarthy "nor even, really, Dan Brown or John Grisham"), but he kept turning the pages anyway, propelled by the many surprising plot twists, "even if many of them were unrealistic.") It's as if our boy can't quite bring himself to admit that sometimes, a fast, fun, entertaining read is all the reader asks.
I won't argue the fact that not all authors are created equal. I won't defend Brown's prose or tell you people don't have a right to choose their own books. But I will say that the tone of this article, and so many others written about female writers -- particularly writers of work meant for a largely-female audience -- is fueled by ugly, sexist attitudes as well as a desire to keep women in their place.
Though I usually enjoy Skip Hollandsworth's article and Texas Monthly's irreverent take on many subjects, I'm calling you both on this one. And wishing Sandra Brown a #1 NYT slot for her upcoming release.