Mr. Passion

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

The hero is not unwilling to marry; romance heroes are never commitment-phobic, but simply waiting for The Right Woman. The men are mostly decent types, if downright selfish lovers. Their common flaw is oversensitivity, which can cause them to behave churlishly. There are a few progressive types (e.g., the Good Dad), and some retro types cleaned up a bit for the '90s (notably, the Cowboy). There are even rakes and womanizers, although they are rakes and womanizers willing to be reformed by the love of a good woman. Whatever their type, the hero is never a sports junkie; romance heroes do not swill beer and watch ESPN.

She doesn't use birth control. (Neither, for the most part, does he.) Hers is a curiously pre-Shere Hite world-view; the sex in romance books is breathtakingly phallocentric. (In one of the more fantastic elements of the genre, she is never disappointed.) In fact, on more than one level, romance books hinge on the premise that the primary female sex organ is between the ears. Nevertheless, they do concern themselves with what many consider "women's issues": illiteracy, handicaps, wife and child abuse, eating disorders, beauty, even animal treatment.

All in all, though, the world of the romance novel is not a feminist Utopia. And in this respect, Fogelman may be right: The genre may approximate the reality and concerns of most women's lives. Indeed, the discipline that comes closest to explaining the phenomenon of the romance novel is socio-biology (or, as many a wag has dubbed it, so-so biology).

As the so-so biologists would have it, male and female fantasies are not just culturally based, but genetically hard-wired to ensure the ultimate goal: passing on the individual's DNA. Accordingly, thousands of years of evolution have predisposed the female to seek out the one-woman man, who is not only a better bet for sticking around and seeing junior into adulthood, but also through grad school and into the family business. Men, on the other hand, simply want to get into women's genes--and the more women the better, reproductively speaking.

Seen this way, the romance novel is one in which a woman triumphs over a biologically and culturally hostile world.

Of course, Fogelman is acutely aware of publishing's birds and bees. "One of the saddest things that has happened to me was when I couldn't sell Mortimer Adler's biography," says Fogelman. "It was a defining moment in my career." Adler, a famed University of Chicago professor of philosophy and law who's now in his 90s, masterminded the undergraduate curriculum at the University of Chicago and is the author of such classics as How to Think About War and Peace. For a good part of this century, he was one of the world's most influential literary critics, a sort of modern-day Samuel Johnson. The book proposal came from a philosophy professor at Notre Dame, a former student of Adler's with credentials and writing ability. Fogelman has been shopping the book proposal for months, without a bite.

"Everyone says, 'He's such an intellectual, he'll never appeal to a contemporary reader,'" Fogelman recounts. "I haven't given up yet, but my failure has taught me something about the business I'm in. I've learned that in many ways, the book-buying public is a bunch of people with their noses pressed up against the glass. The closer you can relate a book to pop culture, the better. Unfortunately, whether Faye Resnick had a lesbian affair is just more interesting to most buyers. And there's something truly lamentable about that."

A few days later, from his room at the Oakbrook Hyatt in suburban Chicago, where he will address a gathering of the Romance Writers of America, he broods on the meaning of his apparent failure. "It's funny," he says, noting he's just watched William Bennett debating Naomi Wolf on one of the Sunday-morning news shows. "In many ways, both [Harold] Bloom and Bennett approach the ideas of Adler. Their books are Adler's spiritual legatees. But Adler's not on Meet the Press these days, so it's as if he doesn't exist.

"It was my chance to consider myself a commissioned officer in the forward march of culture," he says. "Unfortunately, I'm still non-com." Like the optimist he is at heart, though, Fogelman shrugs it off. "I haven't given up yet" he says--and at that, peruses the weekend's headlines. "I'm really interested in Roberto Goizueta," he says, scaling back his ambitions for the time being. Goizueta, who died last Saturday, was a Cuban-born Horatio Alger story who rose to head Coca-Cola. "I wonder how many copies of that might sell?" he muses.

Given today's literary facts of life, Fogelman's approach seems a defensible philosophical position. And for those who question his sincerity, consider this: He is a cousin of Aaron Spelling, the (in)famous producer of such definitive pop-culture series as Dynasty and Falcon Crest.

"I've never sold anything to him," says Fogelman, who rather defensively tries to hide rather than trade upon the connection. "In fact, I've never submitted anything to him. He's only a relative through my stepfather, and the fact is, he's in an area of the business that does not option books."

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