Much Ado About You, by Eloisa James

To paraphrase Jane Austen, there are few romance novelists whom I really love, and fewer still of whom I think well. Eloisa James is one of the few writers whom I both love (well, more or less) and think well of—at least well enough to shell out the full cover price for, an honor that I reserve for a mere handful of authors. Her eight romance novels are fresh, well written twists on old favorites. But despite my considerable affection for Ms. James's work, I'm afraid that she and I have an issue that needs discussing: I don't think that Ms. James realizes the importance of her current position.

Eloisa James has suddenly been elected as the Unofficial Spokeswoman of romance writing, a position that, until recently, appeared to be held by Jayne Ann Krentz. Ms. James has been interviewed by NPR, made several TV appearances, even written an op-ed piece for The New York Times. This puts me in a quandary: Ms. James is a far, far better writer than Ms. Krentz, but she doesn't have one tenth of Ms. Krentz's confidence in the inherent worth of a well-written romance novel. I used to wince whenever I read a newspaper interview with Ms. Krentz, thinking that anyone who picked one of her books as their introduction to romance novels was bound for disappointment. But I wince just as much when I read an interview with Ms. James. Her "defense" of the romance genre is distressingly likely to be a textbook example of damning with faint praise.

Now, I realize that nobody consulted Eloisa James about this Unofficial Spokeswoman business, so she's not exactly under an obligation to defend the romance genre tooth and nail. It's just that I really, really, really wish she would. In her non-writing life, Eloisa James is Mary Bly, a professor of Shakespeare and Renaissance culture at Fordham University. The dichotomy between her oh-so-respectable day job and her moonlighting career as a romance writer is the kind of story that makes for great newspaper articles, and her website,, is full of links to articles with titles like "Bawdy Shakespearean Comes Clean" and "Love's Labors: A Shakespeare professor confesses a terrible secret: She writes romance fiction, pseudonymously". While these articles are clearly a little facetious, and Ms. James has made statements (and written op-ed essays) disparaging the lack of respect for romance writing, she's simply not the cudgel-swinging champion that the genre so desperately needs. For every positive statement about romance writing that Ms. James makes, there's another about how her mother dislikes her writing, or an anecdote about how her husband suggested that she wear her glasses and talk about Shakespeare during TV interviews so she wouldn't embarrass him in front of his colleagues, and (most irritating of all) the statement that none of her friends read romance novels. (Right, because romance readers are limited to... what? The great unwashed? People who really enjoy "General Hospital"? Britney Spears?) Statements like these, as anyone who's had the misfortune of saying something similar in my presence knows, are guaranteed to set me off. I'm sorry, Ms. James, but if your friends say they've never read a romance, they're either lying, or they've somehow missed out on thousands of years' worth of really excellent books. So they've never read an Austen novel? The Scarlet Pimpernel? Anything by Georgette Heyer? These people are missing out.

Look, I understand that openly loving romance novels isn't exactly top-drawer. When certain of my relatives ask pointed questions about what I've been doing with my oh-so-useful literature degree while looking askance at my proudly displayed collection of battered Georgette Heyer novels, I tell 'em about Chaereas and Callirhoe, this extremely silly Greek romance novel that was written roughly seventy years before the birth of Christ. There's plenty of evidence that the intellectual elite of Greece despised Callirhoe. I'm sure they used whatever the ancient Greek word was for "schlocky" a lot. They probably bemoaned the death of true art. But you know what remains of those ancient book critics? That's right! Nothing but their nasty little digs, reprinted in the most recent edition of Callirhoe, a novel that, for all its shlockiness, has been around for more than two thousand years. And you know why it's been around for two thousand years? Because people like to read about themselves, and while the details change, you're really pretty likely to fall in love someday, and you're likely to have some trouble with your in-laws, and things are bound to get messy sooner or later. You may not be a Grecian princess or an English governess or a cat burglar, but the highlights of your life story will probably have more in common with the main characters of the average romance novel than, say, Captain Ahab. I'm not trying to denigrate books like Ulysses, or Bartleby the Scrivener, or even Metamorphosis, but there is a place for stories about the happier aspects of the human condition, too. If the romance novel in question is fundamentally a good book (and while plenty of them stink, I suspect there's an equal ratio of bad-to-good books in other genres) then there is absolutely no reason not to be proud of reading it or writing it. I only wish that Ms. James would express that sentiment more clearly in her various interactions with the media.

That said, I mean it about Ms. James being a fun writer. If you're a fan of historical romances, she is a consistently solid bet. Her most recent book is Much Ado About You, a sweet, thoughtful romance that's as much about the relationship between sisters as it is about the fires of passion. Much Ado About You is the first in a series of four, and I had a lovely time speculating about which characters will end up together in the future books of the series. (I hope obnoxious drama queens Imogen and the Earl of Mayne end up together. They deserve each other.) It's another solid contribution to Ms. James's already very respectable body of work, and I hope that she's very proud of it, and that she remembers that a well-written romance novel has just as much worth as any other well-written novel, regardless of genre, and that anybody who says differently is a fatheaded snob.
Posted by: Julia, Last edit by: Julianka


The Angry Carrot
The Angry Carrot
29 Mar, 2005 08:43 AM @ version 0

While I like and respect this author very much, and her comments on romance writing have been... interesting, why don't these major papers, news magazines, etc., review some of the real major stars of romance? Where are the Jenny Crusie or Lisa Kleypas-penned editorials? I mean, James is good and all, but her best book has yet to approach the level of Kleypas's worst.

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