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.


Joni Rodgers said…
I do get what he was going for in his effort to send up her writing style, but...yeah, that's offensive. And saying he enjoyed her book while disclaiming how waaaaay too smart for it he is dishes up this strange amalgam of sucking up and hypocrisy.

The sad thing is, there are so many interesting angles to her story! Unfortunately, he was too involved in his own cleverness to see any of that.

What a jackass.

PS ~ Good to see you've got some of your fiesty back, Colleen!
Anonymous said…
Posted on behalf of Skip Hollandsworth:
Hey, Colleen.

I tried to post on your blog, but I think I screwed it up somehow.
Anyway, here is what I wrote in response to your great item if you want to
stick it in.


Hello out there to Colleen and Joni and everyone else who thinks I'm a

It's Skip Hollandsworth writing. First off, the last thing I was trying
to do when describing Brown's looks was to be demeaning. That is
exactly how she would describe one of her female heroines in her books, and
the fact that she looks just like her heroines was, in my mind, worth
noting. Obviously, I was trying to be funny by using her very own lines
from her novels to describe her. And obviously, it didn't work for you
guys. My deepest apologies. The only thing I want you to know is that I
had no intention of using that intro as a way of diminishing who she

And now, on to your next criticism: that I couldn't stand admitting
that I enjoyed reading her. Wrong, wrong, wrong. I said it over and over.
My whole point was that despite all the venom that the literary critics
aim at Brown and other writers who work in that genre, what cannot be
denied is the way she can create a page turner. I also go to great
lengths to quote the famous editor, Michael Korda, about what she is able
to do that other writers cannot do.

Finally, if you want to read more about what I think about Sandra
Brown--and why I did the story the way I did--go to our website, where I do
a Q&A about the story.

You can find it at: http://texasmonthly.com/2007-08-01/webextra2.php

Lastly--(sorry, is that a word?)--I want you to know that the reason I
like Sandra Brown a lot is that she doesn't take herself seriously.
Yes, she's very serious about getting her books knocked out year after
year--she certainly has a dedication to her craft that I don't have--but
she is hardly one who feels like she must be treated as a diva. I let
her know exactly how I was going to open the story, and she didn't seem
ruffled at all.
Mr. Hollandsworth:
Thanks for your thoughtful response. I usually enjoy your sense of humor just fine, and I'm glad to hear that Sandra Brown did. Yes, the piece seemed condescending and hacked me off royally, but I'm glad to hear that you had better intentions.
Joni Rodgers said…
She's serious about "getting her books knocked out"?

'Nuff said.
Lynne Marshall said…
I definitely get the feeling Skippy is trying to show how easy it is to write "Just Like Sandra Brown"

That's my take, and I took it as an insult. Sorry Skipster, you're charming excuse didn't win me over.

Colleen, I'm glad to hear you are on the mend!

Lynne Marshall
M. J. Sager said…
Colleen, Nope, you're not thin-skinned. I was offended by his opening paragraph, too. His excuse that he was 'trying to write her as she writes her heroines' falls flat. He was writing about how much she must be lusing after him and how instead of wanting to have a serious talk about her Best Selling books, she'd rather he had her right then and there on her desk. That's insulting to any writer.

It reminds meof Lisa Kleypas's (another best selling writer of romance) speech at the luncheon in Dallas, where she related how the radio commentor had the last word during their interview with "Maybe some day, she'll write REAL books."

Honestly, I think we need to start calling Tom Clancey a false dreamer of dreams. Because do those computer nerds who read his books really think they're going to save the world from nuclear diaster? Why are those books okay to read and fantasize about, but romance isn't? Oh, yeah, what the husband said to someone (I don't recall who told me this)....I don't want my wife to read those books because then she'd expect THAT of me. What? Loving her? Respecting her? Telling her you love her? Geez!

Nope, Skip, you haven't seen a woman mad until you've pissed off a romance writer...just ask that Fred guy who was running for comptroller last year.....

And unitl you've written, pitched and sold a romance novel, don't try to second guess how 'easy' it is.

M. J. Porter
Diana Groe said…
When I was younger, Hollywood went through a period of super-depressing movies--the villain always won, the hero was imprisoned or killed. We were being beaten over the head by the nihilistic hopelessness of those screenwriters. Of course, it was considered smart and edgy and sophisticated.

One of the things critics hate most about romances is our 'happily ever after' contract with our readers. They think it makes the stories unrealistic. I say, it makes them hopeful. The last time I did a radio interview, I was asked if I ever considered writing "another type of book"--read "a real book"--instead of romance.

Why would I want to do that? What's more complicated than exploring a relationship? What's edgier than putting your heart on the line? Skip obviously is worried that he will seem less sophisticated if he flat out admits a romance can be an enjoyable read, hence his snide little caveats. We must pity him.

Glad you're feeling better, Colleen!

SILK DREAMS, "Lushly sensual, sumptuously written historical romance."--The Chicago Tribune
TJ Bennett said…
Colleen, glad to see you are on the mend. Regarding Skip's comments...sigh. While I think we as romance writers can be overly sensitive sometimes to perceived slights of our genre, only because we've received so many undeserved ones in the past, that doesn't make Skip's "tongue in Sandra's cheek" approach any less reprehensible. Until he can learn to write like Sandra, I would prefer he avoid doing so entirely. I "got" what he was going for, but because it objectified Ms. Brown as opposed to Ms. Brown's writing, the approach fell flat.

Why? Because Skip missed the point between romance and raunch, which men often do when they try to interpret romance. Intimacy, for them, is sometimes uncomfortable, whereas anonymous sex with a stranger is a fantasy Playboy, James Bond, and Hooters alike celebrate in male culture. I'm not criticizing; I'm simply pointing out the differences between men and women and how they relate sexually. That's why, generally, romances are written for women by women, because we understand it isn't just about instant sexual attraction, or the desire to "do it on the desktop" with the first hot guy you meet. As my hero in The Legacy says, "A man can worm his way into a woman's heart just by talking to her. Women are odd that way." The erotic response has an emotional trigger, a trigger that many male reporters misunderstand completely when they review our books or talk about romance writers in general. They look for a hook to hang the story on, and of course, the most obvious hook is sex. Let me say it clearly for any reporter, male or female, who would like the secret to writing a story on the romance genre: look deeper. Therein lies the treasure you seek.

And ladies, let's not get too bent out of shape when someone doesn't "get" us. Millions of readers do, and as long as they keep buying our books, we can laugh all the way to the bank.

ShanaGalen said…
I agree with TJ. Skip just didn't get it. The description of Ms. Brown came off as lewd and icky.
Siren Cristy said…
Let me count the ways in which I disagree with Mr. Hollandsworth's article...

1. While he may have intended to imitate Ms. Brown's style of writing, I simply found his intro nothing but a detailed depiction of her physical attributes. (To say nothing of the implied sexual attraction). Mr. Hollandsworth needs to ask himself if he would've chosen the same tactic if the author did not look "just like one of her heroines", but more closely resembled his grandmother. Would he have paid the same attention to physicality if his profile subject was a male writer?

2. To call Ms. Brown's books "unrealistic" and then infer they are less than Dan Brown or John Grisham - since when have either of those authors been role models for realism? Seriously?

3. Why are books written by women with strong women characters instantly catagorized as 'women's fiction', yet male authors are 'general fiction'? There is a very strong (male) generalization that people of both genders want to read about men, but only women want to read about women. This type of article only reinforces this idea.

I'm willing to give Mr. Hollandsworth the benefit of the doubt that he did not consciously intend to pen an article is insulting both to Ms. Brown, and women writers and readers. However, his ignorance of his sexist tendencies only reaffirms that male writers (and apparently editors since they let this one slip by) need to open their eyes to the world beyond their own experience.

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