Mr. Passion

Meet Dallas literary agent Evan Fogelman, the brains behind the bodice-rippers

"I'd really like to expand into serious biography," he says. "But so far, no luck."

Given his level of taste, he is curiously unembarrassed about trafficking in that strange form of $4.99 paperback soft-porn dubbed the romance novel. With no apparent hesitation, Fogelman offers up the fact that 50 percent of his clients--and more importantly, 62 percent of his revenue--come from bodice-rippers.

Of course, as someone somewhere once quipped, rationalizations are infinitely more important than sex, for who among us has gone a whole week without a rationalization? So he at least has a coherent excuse system: "I like great stories, period. I don't like all of anything. I like the good ones."

And if some rationalizations are more plausible than others, they all provide a glimpse at how he manages to hoodwink poor Manhattan editor-types into giving six and even seven figures for romance novels. He is passionate, intense, argumentative, even slightly outrageous--not unlike the hero in a modern romance: "Shakespeare was the definitive romance writer of his day," says Fogelman, neglecting his salmon steak in order to argue. "And today no one thinks he's a hack."

Perhaps--but Shakespeare's comedies are back-handed compliments to love, at best (and that's not even considering the "dark" comedies). On the other hand, romance novels do borrow heavily from the Bard's more absurd plot twists; disguises, mistaken identities, and misunderstandings abound, as do gallantry, melancholy, and, of course, the deus ex machina.

Like the Bard, romance writers dabble in all sorts of subgenres and historical periods. There are medieval romances, Revolutionary War romances, and Regency romances (set between the years of 1811 and 1823); Victorian romances, Elizabethan romances, and even present-day romances. Whatever the period, they have one thing in common: They bear the same relationship to actual historical conditions as Six Flags' Boomtown section does to Beaumont, Texas, the year after Spindletop came in.

Whether they work as art is another question. For one thing, they are so lacking in humor, irony, and wit that they alternate between a painful hyper-sincerity and uproariousness. The worst have an embarrassing habit of opening chapters with lines from Great Books: Melville, O'Connor, Fitzgerald, Lord Byron.

And then there is the matter of dialogue.
From the fool, listening at the bedchamber door: "He's the lucky one, Bron is. Getting himself a good swiving."

From the matron to the maid, on men: "I know that they can speak words of love and leave you with a babe in your belly."

The noble-but-tortured hero: "After all, what sort of man was he? One unable to defend her, and now even helpless against the edicts of the church. He could not even arrange a marriage, for God's sake! He had despoiled her and now would leave her without the honor of marriage, something he had sworn he would never do. And what if she were with child? Oh, Lord!"

Ironically, Fogelman's most apparently absurd argument may turn out to be his most compelling. He maintains that romance novels aren't retrograde fantasies, but a form of feminist literature for the masses.

"Romance novels do not deal with sexual fantasies," he asserts. "They deal with reality. In romance novels, love triumphs. In reality, it often does too. At least, we all hope so."

As his own recent divorce and remarriage attest, he's willing to put his marital status where his mouth is. "It had been suggested that I worked my first marriage into oblivion," he says, "that I was much more attentive as a bookseller than a spouse." It isn't a charge he's eager to admit. "I suppose it's in part true. Let's put it like this: I have a happy obsession with what I do."

Apparently he's not convinced that peddling romance and having one are mutually exclusive. Just two months ago he remarried, this time to a "homemaker" named Anna with two teenage sons; thus he's in no shape to criticize Cupid. "You show me someone who's been in a happy marriage for 25 years, and I'll show you someone who's not real critical of romance novels. You show me someone who's been divorced three times, and I'll show you someone who is."

Whether out of an excess of endorphins or out of hypercompetitive salesmanship, he'll even try to sell the notion of the romance novel as feminist literature.

"Many romance authors will tell you their work is the opposite of what it's criticized as being. Janis Reams Hudson, the president of the Romance Writers of America, last year put it like this: Romance novels are the most feminist literature there is. The woman always wins."

It's a tough sell. In the romance novel, marriage is the Holy Grail. Still, the heroine isn't a girl who has mastered The Rules; she has her pride, thank you very much, and indeed usually displays a stunning lack of artistry when it comes to bagging her man. Though there are some Good Mother types and saintly divorcees, virgins constitute the majority of heroines, albeit virgins without excess reverence for their unspoiled state. Instead, they are typically lusty wenches, willing to follow the dictates of their hearts, or at least of their inflamed loins.

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