The Playboy Sheikh's Virgin Harlequin Reader

By Laura Vivanco on Monday, 4 March, 2013

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.

----

Bindel, Julie. "Detestable Trash." The Guardian. 5 Dec. 2007. [Some of the responses generated by the romance reading and writing community are listed here and here.]

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.

He seems to think she might be an academic in disguise or a committee:

I have heard it whispered about my own profession that some academics write romance novels in their spare time, in order to put some butter in the spinach, as the French say. I must confess that I have been regarding my own colleagues more closely since my experience with The Playboy Sheikh’s Virgin Stable-Girl, and listening to their idle but good-natured banter in our departmental mailroom with an unusually critical ear. More plausibly, I suppose that there are two fundamental possibilities: either this novel was written by a committee, or by an individual. If by a committee, perhaps we can forgive them. Their production meetings must have been either crushingly dull or on the contrary truly hilarious; it strikes me that there is no middle ground here. If The Playboy Sheikh’s Virgin Stable-Girl was written by an individual however, then she or he deserves, at the very least, the bastinado. (121)

 

I did get the impression that he thought he was being witty. Maybe his article appeals to academics who want to have all their prejudices and fears about romance novels confirmed? He probably doesn't know there are academics who study romance. Either that, or he doesn't care about offending us, just as he doesn't seem to care about offending the academics who specialise in television studies; he concludes the essay by stating that, regardless of how bad The Playboy Sheikh's Virgin Stable-Girl is, "Reading is always better than watching television. Or so I firmly believe" (134).

Kathryn (not verified)

Monday, 11 March, 2013

I'd say that "Motte"* doesn't know much about academics who study romances or about romances themselves or genre fiction in general (despite having read mysteries and thrillers as he claims) or even the publishing industry (and maybe not much about popular/cultural studies). I gave the journal a quick look and looks like it's not strictly academic (as in peer-reviewed articles, reviews of current books in the field, etc.) but rather a combination of creative works, interviews, literature translations, and academic-oriented opinion pieces (rather than scholarly articles).

This whole article (really opinion piece not article) reads like some of type of a smart-aleck rift tossed out during a late night bull session in graduate school. Certainly I find it hard to believe that "Motte" would allow his graduate students to produce and hand in such an essay in one of his seminars.

How can one take seriously the comments of someone who apparently doesn't know that in the contemporary publishing world authors have little control over titles, cover artwork, blurbs, back cover material, etc. He simulantenously wants to deny the existence of a person named "Sharon Kendrick", but also wants to ascribe agency and control to "Sharon Kendrick" over things that she would have little control over so that he can assert his own superior judgment and discrimination about literary matters. Lots of moral judging in his piece for those areas of popular culture that he does not enjoy and only a few vague stabs at actually analyzing. Too bad because there are a couple of promising moments in his piece -- but they are totally lost in the over-the-top attack of a whole genre based on one book.

*I would like to believe that "Motte" is simply a construct or committee --after all his article reads just like a cliche of pompous (male) pseudo-academic pronouncements** on the literary poverty of romances, all based on the reading of one, single novel. But sadly I suspect that he is indeed the intential author of this wearisome piece.

**He even plays the "I read mysteries which are genre fiction and some of those are almost like literature (including those written by Sayers, who's female)" card as way of trying to purchase academic pop-studies street cred. And he also does the whole "yes I'm a 50-ish white male but really I'm not being misogynist when I point out that women shouldn't read or produce this drivel" confession as way of trying to negate criticism of his own privileged position.

I would like to believe that "Motte" is simply a construct or committee

Why didn't I think of that possibility myself? It's a brilliant theory and I don't suppose we need let the fact that "Motte" has a webpage on the University of Colorado Boulder's site get in the way of it any more than Sharon Kendrick's site hampered "Motte's" speculations.

someone who apparently doesn't know that in the contemporary publishing world authors have little control over titles, cover artwork, blurbs, back cover material, etc.

Yes, you're right. There's a lot of evidence that he doesn't know much about romance publishing and hasn't bothered doing basic research to find out about it.

Too bad because there are a couple of promising moments in his piece

Again, I agree with you. About the only other positive thing I can think of to say about it is that if anyone doubts there's strong prejudice in academia against romance novels, this provides recent evidence that it does indeed exist.