It's been years since I've come across comments about romance as scathing as Warren Motte's. In 2007 Julie Bindel stated that
My loathing of M&B novels has nothing to do with snobbery. I could not care less if the books are trashy, formulaic or pulp fiction [...]. But I do care about the type of propaganda perpetuated by M&B. I would go so far as to say it is misogynistic hate speech.
Unlike Bindel, it turns out that Motte cares extremely deeply about whether "the books are trashy, formulaic or pulp fiction" and, also unlike Bindel, Motte focuses all his attention on just one romance: Sharon Kendrick's The Playboy Sheikh’s Virgin Stable-Girl.
The fact that an entire 16 page-article in an academic journal has been dedicated to a discussion of just one Harlequin romance could, in theory, be taken as an indication that, at last, the "continuing assumption that popular romances neither invite nor repay the kind of focused, individual inquiry that academics bring to other texts" (Selinger and Frantz 10) is being rejected outside the field of romance scholarship. Unfortunately, in practice this would seem to be a case which demonstrates that plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose: there would seem to be more than a little sarcasm in Motte's statement that
The volume bears the distinctive imprint of Harlequin Books, a sure guarantor of quality, I had always been told. For I realized that I had never actually read a Harlequin novel, and I told myself that I must repair that yawning lacuna in my literary education. (120)
Not having read The Playboy Sheikh's Virgin Stable-Girl I can't comment on its merit as a work of literature. I have, however, written at length about Harlequin Mills & Boon romances and I can therefore state with confidence that anyone who chooses to judge all HM&Bs by their experience with just one is likely to end up with a very skewed view of them since one novel cannot be representative of the diversity in authorial talent as well as in literary "mode" and subject-matter to be found in HM&Bs. For the record, Smart Bitch Sarah, who has been known to recommend some Harlequin romances very highly, gave this one a D- and was of the opinion that "This book is high entertainment. It’s so ridiculous, you can’t put it down" (Wendell).
Motte's essay is, I suspect, intended to be entertaining but it itself ends up seeming rather ridiculous (and perhaps that's why I feel impelled to blog about it). Let's begin with his statement that,
Seizing upon any objective data that I could find then, I learned that Harlequin Books S.A. [...] had published The Playboy Sheikh’s Virgin Stable-Girl in August of 2009, as the second volume in a series entitled “The Royal House of Karedes,” a series that promises to bring to its readers one installment per month. That’s a heady rate, and one which puts even the most faithful reader to the test: sneeze, and you miss an installment. (120-21)
It must be an extraordinarily long sneeze: how many people take a whole month to read a book which is less than 200 pages long? Next Motte demonstrates an apparent inability to do simple research:
The author of The Playboy Sheikh’s Virgin Stable-Girl is a certain “Sharon Kendrick.” I don’ t know who that is, but she has a website, and that’s a strong claim to objective reality in our cynical age. The section entitled “About the Author” in the back matter of the novel mentions that she had qualified as a nurse and had driven an ambulance “across the Australian desert” before marrying her “dashing doctor” and settling down. And indeed the spelling in the novel obeys British norms, rather than American ones. But that could well be a ruse, of course.
I find that I am reluctant, for some reason, to believe that “Sharon Kendrick” might be a garden-variety Australian hausfrau; thus, I shall continue to enclose her in those skeptical quotation marks. (121)
Kendrick lives in Winchester, in the UK, as is made clear on the Mills & Boon website (and she has an English accent). There's really a lot more information available about her than about "Shakespeare" or "Homer."
Motte finds the experience of reading The Playboy Sheikh's Virgin Stable-Girl "a harrowing one" (124) for he is "scandalized by this novel" (126) and feels that it has "insulted" (126) him with its "inanity" (127). He does, however, eventually note that there is
a nice metafictional touch to her novel: “The world’s media went crazy. THE PLAYBOY SHEIKH AND THE STABLE GIRL, screamed the tabloids” (176). The full-blown specularity of that moment comes as a welcome surprise to the reader diligent enough to have penetrated this far into The Playboy Sheikh’s Virgin Stable-Girl. (132)
A welcome bit of analysis for "the reader diligent enough to have penetrated this far into" Motte's essay.
Motte, Warren. "A Walk on the Sheikh Side." Formes Poétiques Contemporaines 9 (2012): 119-134. [The entire issue can be downloaded free here.]
Selinger, Eric Murphy and Sarah S. G. Frantz. "Introduction: New Approaches to Popular Romance Fiction." New Approaches to Popular Romance Fiction: Critical Essays. Ed. Sarah S. G. Frantz and Eric Murphy Selinger. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland, 2012. 1-19.
Wendell, Sarah. "The Playboy Sheikh's Virgin Stable Girl." 10 Sept. 2009.