The Queen of Romance in AI

PG promises this is the last of today’s AI writing posts.

Prompt: Provide a fictional plot outline in Danielle Steel’s style and themes.


Title: “Shadows of Yesterday”

Plot Outline:

  1. Setting and Introduction:
    • The story unfolds in modern-day New York City.
    • Introduce the protagonist, Isabella, a young, ambitious, and successful magazine editor facing personal and professional challenges.
  2. Isabella’s Background:
    • Isabella comes from a wealthy, but emotionally distant family.
    • Flashbacks reveal her struggles with her demanding and critical mother, shaping her relentless drive for perfection.
  3. Career Challenges:
    • Isabella is up for a major promotion, but faces stiff competition and workplace politics.
    • Her professional life is a whirlwind of high-profile events, glamorous parties, and celebrity interviews, masking her inner turmoil.
  4. Romantic Entanglements:
    • Isabella’s love life is complicated, caught between a comfortable but unexciting relationship with a longtime friend and a passionate, unpredictable affair with a charismatic entrepreneur.
  5. Family Crisis:
    • A sudden family tragedy forces Isabella to reevaluate her life choices.
    • She returns home to confront unresolved issues with her family, particularly her mother.
  6. Self-Discovery and Growth:
    • Through these trials, Isabella embarks on a journey of self-discovery.
    • She begins to understand the importance of balance in life and starts to question her relentless pursuit of success.
  7. New Love Interest:
    • Amidst her personal growth, Isabella meets a new love interest – someone who challenges her perspectives and offers a more authentic and supportive relationship.
  8. Climactic Decision:
    • Faced with a pivotal career decision, Isabella must choose between her lifelong ambition and a chance at genuine happiness.
    • This decision is complicated by a surprise revelation related to her family’s past.
  9. Resolution:
    • Isabella makes a bold decision that prioritizes her personal happiness and true self over societal expectations.
    • The story concludes with her embarking on a new path, finding a balance between her career ambitions and personal life.
  10. Themes:
    • The narrative weaves through themes of self-discovery, the complexity of family dynamics, the pursuit of success, and the search for love and personal fulfillment.
    • It highlights the often difficult choices women face in balancing career, family, and romance.

This fictional outline is inspired by Danielle Steel’s style, known for her emotionally rich stories that explore family, relationships, and personal growth set against the backdrop of contemporary life. The plot combines elements of romance, drama, and self-discovery, typical of Steel’s bestselling novels

End of ChatGPT4

Since PG is not an expert on the works of Ms. Steel, he’ll leave comments on the accuracy of the plot outline to those who are.

For PG, this series of “Provide a fictional plot outline in (well-known author’s) style and themes” AI experiments is the first indication that AI might be a potentially-useful tool for authors.

It strikes him that AI might be helpful for beginning authors writing in various genres. PG checked the Romance Writers of America website and this is part of what he found:

The Basics

Romance fiction is smart, fresh and diverse. Whether you enjoy contemporary dialogue, historical settings, mystery, thrillers or any number of other themes, there’s a romance novel waiting for you!


Two basic elements comprise every romance novel: a central love story and an emotionally satisfying and optimistic ending. 

A Central Love Story: The main plot centers around individuals falling in love and struggling to make the relationship work. A writer can include as many subplots as they want as long as the love story is the main focus of the novel.

An Emotionally Satisfying and Optimistic Ending: In a romance, the lovers who risk and struggle for each other and their relationship are rewarded with emotional justice and unconditional love. 

Romance novels may have any tone or style, be set in any place or time, and have varying levels of sensuality—ranging from sweet to extremely hot. These settings and distinctions of plot create specific subgenres within romance fiction. 

The same types of expected elements can be found in all the genre fiction that floats into PG’s mind – fantasy, sci-fi, YA, horror, mysteries, etc. His is impression from his personal AI experiments is that one of the things AI can do is generate some interesting ideas for rules-based subjects.

Genre Juggernaut: Measuring “Romance”

From Public Books:

Late this past summer, The Ripped Bodice, a dedicated romance bookstore in Culver City, Los Angeles, opened its Brooklyn location, and fans of the genre swarmed in as if for a Taylor Swift concert. Braving 90-degree heat in Park Slope, a diverse mix of mostly millennial readers formed a line all the way down to the corner just to get into the shop. When preparations began for a book signing by bestselling nonbinary romance author Casey McQuiston, readers bearing copies of McQuiston’s books created an even longer line, reaching halfway around the block an hour before the author arrived.

The immense interest in romance fiction and the diversity of authors and readers driving its current success have become increasingly apparent. As Melanie Walsh discussed in this series last year, the publishing industry keeps much of the most important and revealing data about which books people are reading “purposefully locked away, … basically inaccessible to anyone beyond the industry.”

But while the producers of books like to guard their secrets, readers are often willing to share. At the University of Pennsylvania’s Price Lab for Digital Humanitites—where our team studies contemporary tastes and habits of reading—we’ve been using the Goodreads social book-collection site to access data about books and reading from this more open side of the field. Among other things, the reception-side approach lets us classify books the way readers do themselves, rather than simply accepting the genre labels assigned by publishers or librarians. We’ve studied thousands of avid readers and the hundreds of thousands of books in their collections. And what we’ve learned is that romance is not just one literary genre among others.

Instead, romance is the juggernaut of contemporary literature, standing out from all other genres in its sheer scale and in the wild diversity of its subgenres. Scholars and teachers have long dismissed the genre as a narrow, hypernormative form of fiction catering to happiness addicts. But, in the world of the genre’s actual readers, romance is a vital part of the literary system: large, complex, and dynamic.

. . . .

Why look to Goodreads for this kind of information? It is an ancient site, at least by social media standards. And, since its acquisition by Amazon a decade ago, Goodreads has managed to alienate even some loyal users with its cluttered format, creaky site architecture, obtrusive parent company advertising, and persistent vulnerability to bad actors abusing the review system to advance their own careers or trash the careers of others. Even so, its membership has kept growing, recently surpassing 100 million. It remains the world’s richest repository of self-reported information on reading: what people read month by month and year by year; how their tastes become broader or narrower over time; and how they respond as readers to new trends in publishing or to broader social and political developments like Black Lives Matter and the COVID-19 pandemic.

A defining feature of Goodreads is that it lets users organize their books into whatever groups, or “shelves,” they like. Their collective shelving preferences often differ significantly from industry labels. Our team gathered the user-generated shelving data for some 600,000 books, corresponding to the libraries of 3,200 highly active Goodreads users.

What jumps out immediately from this data is the enormous scale of romance. Users file books on their romance shelf nearly as often as they do on the shelf for fiction itself (and far more often than on that for nonfiction).

Table 1: The top six genre shelves on Goodreads, based on user-generated shelf data for 600,000 books.

These numbers count books as, say, fantasy, even if they only land on the fantasy shelves of a few readers who use the shelf feature in Goodreads. To focus on the books that readers associate most closely with a genre, we set a rule only to count books when that genre claims at least 10 percent of their top 10 shelf assignments. That may sound like a low bar, but it actually rules out all but the most strongly genre-related books. In the romance category, for example, Ian McEwan’s sweeping metafictional love story Atonement is excluded, since its romance shelving score is only 9%. Pride and Prejudice, the most canonical of all marriage-plot novels, achieves only 14% romance shelving. Even the purest or least hybrid romances one can think of—books like Emily Henry’s Beach Read or Jasmine Guillory’s The Wedding Date—are only shelved as about 50 percent romance.

Classifying all the books into genres based on this 10 percent rule, we still found that the romance category contains far more books than other leading genres: twice as many as fantasy, and three times as many as mystery. Nothing else comes close.

Table 2: The top six shelves on Goodreads, using the 10 percent filter described above.

Romance is not only the largest genre category but, according to our analysis, the most distinct and well-defined. We constructed a network based on the top 10 genre-shelf assignments of all our books, including everything from Australia and college to gothicroad trip, and football. We then ran a community-detection analysis, which helps us find shelves that tend to cluster together: for instance, college and football connect to each other more often than they connect to Australia. We used a computational tool called Louvain detection to look at all of these connections and cross-shelvings, studying each closely to see what sorts of shelves comprise the detected groups.

Link to the rest at Public Books

Lessons in Love: Romance Authors and the Power of Labor Solidarity

From Publishers Weekly:

Love is in the air for publishers. As I write, five of the top 10 New York Times fiction bestsellers are romance. In the first half of 2023, print unit sales of romance titles soared 34.6% over the same period last year, while in 2022, romance unit sales grew 52.4% over the previous year, according to Publishers Weekly.

Publishers are scrambling to explain love’s new bloom. Is it the BookTok bump? The Colleen Hoover effect? The Big Five’s belated recognition that characters of all races, sizes, and sexual orientations deserve their happily ever afters?

Maybe. But after studying romance authors for nearly a decade, I believe the surge is driven by romance writers themselves, and their unique solidarity as a labor force.

It might seem counterintuitive to think of romance writers—or any authors—as a labor force. Writers work alone. They don’t have a regular employer or paycheck. Nevertheless, romance writers realized long ago that there’s strength in numbers. In the late 1970s, these writers—mostly women, mostly white, almost universally disrespected by the book world—sought each other out by letter and phone call to share scarce industry intel.

In 1980, Black romance editor Vivian Stephens formalized this grassroots network into Romance Writers of America. For 40 years, the group dramatically improved conditions for romance writers, pushing for better contracts, transparent royalty statements, and on-time payments.

Sadly, not all writers benefited equally: RWA’s failure to fully include diverse authors contributed to the group’s spectacular implosion in 2020. Nevertheless, for four decades, RWA spread an ethic of mutual support that still infuses the romance writing community. My research found that an astonishing 74% of romance authors connect with each other online, over the phone, via email, or in person at least once a week. Half connect every day. This tradition of close, frequent connection means that advice and innovation spread like wildfire among romance writers.

Labor law forbids solo contractors, including authors, from sharing compensation figures: it’s considered price-fixing. Indeed, to avoid antitrust suits, RWA devotes a page of its website to explaining antitrust law and discouraging members from discussing rates.

No matter. Romance writers have openly shared royalty rates and contract terms for decades. Today, on social media, email chains, and elsewhere, romance writers frequently share best practices for promotion, marketing, and reader relations. Other genre authors tell me this kind of openness is unusual. One SF writer said getting others to share income data is “like pulling teeth.”

Of course, other author organizations lobby for better contracts. But these groups typically restrict membership to traditionally published authors, which limits innovation. Romance writers famously welcome newcomers: RWA admitted unpublished authors from the very beginning. And a commitment to training new authors still pervades Romancelandia’s countless online groups and the many smaller romance organizations that splintered off from RWA.

This sense of solidarity benefits established as well as aspiring writers. Based on guidance from newcomers (often authors of color shunned by the publishing industry), traditionally published authors adopted the tactics of self-publishing, helping drive the indie romance explosion. The boom drained revenues from mass market publishing and empowered romance authors to demand better treatment from publishers.

Link to the rest at Publishers Weekly

PG doesn’t know if “labor solidarity” is an entirely accurate term to describe RWA and similar organizations. Authors are not employees of romance publishers. They are independent actors who are not protected by labor laws, nor are they under any obligation to show up at a workplace designated by a publisher, spend any specified days or times writing for a publisher, etc., etc.

Typically, if a business entity is hiring someone to perform work as an independent contractor, the business cannot tell the contractor how to produce the goods, services, etc., that the contractor is delivering to the business entity AKA Principal.

If someone hires a carpenter to build and install a set of cabinets in a garage, the carpenter buys the wood, nails, screws, etc., to be transformed into cabinets and uses his/her own tools to build the cabinets, makes the decision to hire, whatever additional help the carpenter believes will help finish the job more efficiently or complete the job without any additional help.

If the homeowner hires the carpenter as described, the carpenter does not become an employee and the homeowner is not subject to the various laws and regulations that an employer undertakes when an employee is hired, including filing wage reports with government agencies, deducting and paying state and federal taxes from the employee’s compensation, etc., etc.

PG has gone on too long, but romance writers, for all their many virtues and accomplishments, are not laborers working for an employer. They are self-employed entrepreneurs creating a product and selling it to the highest bidder or otherwise utilizing their creations in any way they think best.

Labor solidarity got PG thinking of some of the classic working-class songs Woody Guthrie wrote.

Would You Turn the First Page of this Bestseller?

From Writer Unboxed:

Trained by reading hundreds of submissions, editors and agents often make their read/not-read decision on the first page. In a customarily formatted book manuscript with chapters starting about 1/3 of the way down the page (double-spaced, 1-inch margins, 12-point type), there are 16 or 17 lines on the first page.

. . . .

Here’s the question:

Would you pay good money to read the rest of the chapter? With 50 chapters in a book that costs $15, each chapter would be “worth” 30 cents.

So, before you read the excerpt, take 30 cents from your pocket or purse. When you’re done, decide what to do with those three dimes or the quarter and a nickel. It’s not much, but think of paying 30 cents for the rest of the chapter every time you sample a book’s first page. In a sense, time is money for a literary agent working her way through a raft of submissions, and she is spending that resource whenever she turns a page.

Please judge by storytelling quality, not by genre or content—some reject an opening page immediately because of genre, but that’s not a good-enough reason when the point is to analyze for storytelling strength.

How strong is the opening page of this novel—would it, all on its own, hook an agent if it was submitted by an unpublished writer?

Henry’s eyes are burning into me from across the living room. “Your summer is going to suck.”

There’s an echo of snorts from my teammates, the loudest coming from Mattie, Bobby, and Kris, who all told me something similar when I said no to joining them in Miami this summer.

“Inspiring words, Turner,” I shoot back at my unimpressed roommate. “You should become a motivational speaker.”

“You’ll be sorry you didn’t listen to me when you’re stuck doing manual labor and team-building activities at staff training next week.” Henry continues to flick through the Honey Acres brochure, his forehead creasing with a frown the further he gets into it. “What’s night duty?”

“I have to sleep in a room attached to the campers’ cabin twice a week in case they need anything,” I say casually, watching Henry’s eyes widen in horror. “The rest of the time I sleep in my own cabin.”

“It’s a no from me,” he says, throwing the brochure back onto the coffee table. “Good luck, though.”

“Could be worse,” Robbie muses from across the living room. “You could have to move to Canada this summer.”

Were you moved to want more?

This novel was number one on the New York Times paperback trade fiction bestseller list for October 22, 2023. Were the opening pages of the first chapter of Wildfire by Hannah Grace compelling?

My vote: No.

This book received 4.2 out of 5 stars on Amazon. Considering the “merits” of this opening page, I’m guessing it’s the author’s fans who propelled this to the number one spot. But would it have passed an agent’s muster if by an unknown writer?

Link to the rest at Writer Unboxed

Link to the rest at Writer Unboxed

PG was about to opine, but was brought up short by the fact that he knows nothing about the romance publishing world after Romeo and Juliet, which he read when he was in college. William Shakespeare was a surprise guest lecturer and was terrific once you got past his heavy accent.

ChatGPT Analysis of the Typical Structure of a Danielle Steel Novel

Danielle Steel is a prolific author known for her romance novels and family dramas. While the specifics of her novels can vary, there is a typical structure and formula that she often follows to create her compelling stories. Here’s an analysis of the typical structure of a Danielle Steel novel:

  1. Introduction of Main Characters: A Danielle Steel novel typically begins by introducing the main characters, often with a focus on the female protagonist. These characters are usually well-developed with distinct personalities and backgrounds.
  2. Setting: The novels are often set in glamorous and affluent locations, such as New York City, Paris, or San Francisco. The setting is used to create a sense of luxury and escapism.
  3. Conflict and Challenges: Early in the story, a major conflict or challenge is introduced. This could be a personal tragedy, a romantic setback, or a family crisis. The conflict is what drives the plot and keeps the reader engaged.
  4. Romantic Elements: Romance is a central theme in Danielle Steel’s novels. The protagonist typically encounters a love interest or has a complicated romantic history. The development of romantic relationships and the obstacles they face are key components of the story.
  5. Family Dynamics: Family plays a significant role in Danielle Steel’s novels. The protagonist often has a complex family background, and family relationships and dynamics are explored throughout the story. Family secrets and conflicts are common plot points.
  6. Overcoming Adversity: As the story progresses, the characters face various challenges and adversities. These challenges could be personal, professional, or related to their relationships. The characters often demonstrate resilience and strength as they navigate these difficulties.
  7. Resolution and Happy Endings: Danielle Steel’s novels are known for their feel-good, optimistic endings. After overcoming the obstacles and challenges, the characters typically find happiness, whether in their personal lives, careers, or relationships. The novels often conclude with a sense of closure and hope.
  8. Themes of Love and Friendship: Themes of love, friendship, and the importance of human connections are prevalent in Danielle Steel’s novels. The characters often rely on the support of their friends and loved ones to overcome their challenges.
  9. Epilogue: Many of Danielle Steel’s novels include an epilogue that offers a glimpse into the characters’ lives after the main events of the story. This provides readers with a sense of closure and satisfaction.
  10. Prolific Output: Danielle Steel is known for her prolific writing, and she has a dedicated fan base. Her novels are typically not very long, making them easy to read, and she has released multiple novels each year throughout her career.

Overall, Danielle Steel’s novels follow a formulaic structure that combines elements of romance, family drama, and personal growth. While the specific details and characters may vary from book to book, her signature style and focus on themes of love and resilience remain constant, making her novels popular among readers seeking heartwarming stories with happy endings.

OpenAI disputes authors’ claims that every ChatGPT response is a derivative work

From Ars Technica:

This week, OpenAI finally responded to a pair of nearly identical class-action lawsuits from book authors—including Sarah Silverman, Paul Tremblay, Mona Awad, Chris Golden, and Richard Kadrey—who earlier this summer alleged that ChatGPT was illegally trained on pirated copies of their books.

In OpenAI’s motion to dismiss (filed in both lawsuits), the company asked a US district court in California to toss all but one claim alleging direct copyright infringement, which OpenAI hopes to defeat at “a later stage of the case.”

The authors’ other claims—alleging vicarious copyright infringement, violation of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), unfair competition, negligence, and unjust enrichment—need to be “trimmed” from the lawsuits “so that these cases do not proceed to discovery and beyond with legally infirm theories of liability,” OpenAI argued.

OpenAI claimed that the authors “misconceive the scope of copyright, failing to take into account the limitations and exceptions (including fair use) that properly leave room for innovations like the large language models now at the forefront of artificial intelligence.”

According to OpenAI, even if the authors’ books were a “tiny part” of ChatGPT’s massive data set, “the use of copyrighted materials by innovators in transformative ways does not violate copyright.” Unlike plagiarists who seek to directly profit off distributing copyrighted materials, OpenAI argued that its goal was “to teach its models to derive the rules underlying human language” to do things like help people “save time at work,” “make daily life easier,” or simply entertain themselves by typing prompts into ChatGPT.

The purpose of copyright law, OpenAI argued, is “to promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts” by protecting the way authors express ideas, but “not the underlying idea itself, facts embodied within the author’s articulated message, or other building blocks of creative,” which are arguably the elements of authors’ works that would be useful to ChatGPT’s training model. Citing a notable copyright case involving Google Books, OpenAI reminded the court that “while an author may register a copyright in her book, the ‘statistical information’ pertaining to ‘word frequencies, syntactic patterns, and thematic markers’ in that book are beyond the scope of copyright protection.”

“Under the resulting judicial precedent, it is not an infringement to create ‘wholesale cop[ies] of [a work] as a preliminary step’ to develop a new, non-infringing product, even if the new product competes with the original,” OpenAI wrote.

In particular, OpenAI hopes to convince the court that the authors’ vicarious copyright infringement claim—which alleges that every ChatGPT output represents a derivative work, “regardless of whether there are any similarities between the output and the training works”— is an “erroneous legal conclusion.”

The company’s motion to dismiss cited “a simple response to a question (e.g., ‘Yes’),” or responding with “the name of the President of the United States” or with “a paragraph describing the plot, themes, and significance of Homer’s The Iliad” as examples of why every single ChatGPT output cannot seriously be considered a derivative work under authors’ “legally infirm” theory.

“That is not how copyright law works,” OpenAI argued, while claiming that any ChatGPT outputs that do connect to authors’ works are similar to “book reports or reviews.”

Link to the rest at Ars Technica

As PG has mentioned previously, he believes that using a relatively small amount of material protected by copyright along with far larger amounts of material not subject to copyright protection for the purpose of training an AI and not for the purpose of making copies of the copyrighted material qualifies as fair use.

Even absent fair use, such use is not a violation of copyright protection because the AI is not making copies of copyrighted materials.

PG has mentioned other analogies, but one that popped into his mind on this occasion is an author who reads hundreds of romance novels for the purpose of learning how to write a romance novel and then writes a romance novel using tropes and techniques that many other romance authors have used before.

From Wikipedia:

Precursors of the modern popular love-romance can also be found in the sentimental novel Pamela, or Virtue Rewarded, by Samuel Richardson, published in 1740. Pamela was the first popular novel to be based on a courtship as told from the perspective of the heroine. Unlike many of the novels of the time, Pamela had a happy ending.

. . . .

Women will pick up a romance novel knowing what to expect, and this foreknowledge of the reader is very important. When the hero and heroine meet and fall in love, maybe they don’t know they’re in love but the reader does. Then a conflict will draw them apart, but you know in the end they’ll be back together, and preferably married or planning to be by page 192.

Joan Schulhafer of Pocket Books, 1982

A great many of the most financially successful authors PG knows are romance authors.

From Friends to Lovers: The Fanfic-to-Romance Pipeline Goes Mainstream

From Vulture:

Ali Hazelwood, a New York Times best-selling author of the romance novels The Love HypothesisLove on the Brain, and Love, Theoretically, found her literary agent in January 2020 in an unusual way. Instead of the long process most authors undertake that involves sending out countless letters seeking representation, it was an agent who reached out after reading stories Hazelwood had written on Archive of Our Own, a popular fan-fiction site. Her stories focused on a relationship between the saber-crossed Star Wars duo Kylo Ren and Rey Skywalker, a pairing often abbreviated to Reylo. Once Hazelwood posted that she was considering reworking her fics to publish them, Thao Le from the Sandra Dijkstra Literary Agency sent a message encouraging her to submit. They’ve worked together since, and today, Hazelwood’s career comes full circle with the publication of From a Certain Point of View: Return of the Jedi, an official collection of Star Wars short stories that includes one by her.

That pathway to representation was an inversion of the one experienced by Lauren Billings and Christina Hobbs almost a decade prior. Back in 2011, the author pair — who publish as Christina Lauren — felt they needed to hide from their agent the fact that they had met while writing Twilight fan fiction. At the time, E.L. James avoided emphasizing that her blockbuster erotic novel, Fifty Shades of Grey, had begun as a Twilight fanfic titled “Masters of the Universe,” which gave Billings and Hobbs the impression that the publishing industry wouldn’t take fan-fiction works as seriously as original content.

When they finally told their agent, Holly Root, she was delighted and took a book based on one of their fics, Beautiful Bastard, to publishing houses. It sold in just 12 hours. The pair have since published nearly 30 novels, and they’ve hit the New York Times best-seller list multiple times.

Once considered a frivolous endeavor undertaken by sex-obsessed amateurs, fan fiction is now fully in fashion, enabling romance writers — and their publishers — to celebrate (and capitalize on) their Archive of Our Own roots. In July, Julie Soto, who writes Harry Potter fan fiction envisioning a relationship between Hermione Granger and Draco Malfoy, published her debut novel, Forget Me Not. The upcoming titles My Roommate Is a VampireYou, Again, and The Hurricane Wars, as well as multiple 2022 releases, have their origins in Reylo fanfic; so prevalent is that pairing that it’s become a meme in romance fan spaces to imagine Adam Driver walking into a bookstore and seeing himself on the covers of dozens of titles.

Top publishing houses including Hachette, HarperCollins, and Penguin Random House are making a clear push in the space, with proper package and promotional rollouts. Marketing materials have embraced — critics might say too much — fanfic-style tropes such as “enemies to lovers,” “only one bed,” “fake dating,” and “fated mates” that match the tagging system found on Archive of Our Own. (The odder yet nevertheless popular “male pregnancy” trope hasn’t achieved quite as much mainstream traction.) The Love Hypothesis even features fan art on the cover.

The appeal is understandable: Fic writers bring knowledge of how to market a story and build an audience, a boon for editorial houses. The fans authors have gained writing fic will buy books, in some cases carrying them to the best-seller list. For writers who demonstrate a facility for telling a certain kind of story, the process of transitioning into writing traditional books is as much a matter of format and structure as anything else.

Not that those are trivial elements. Romance novels rarely run longer than 100,000 words and typically have a three-act structure. Fan-fiction stories can run hundreds of thousands of words and take a meandering approach to plot. There’s a learning curve. “When you’re writing a romance, there’s a beginning and an end. You have a plot and emotional beats,” explains romance author and fan-fiction reader Adriana Herrera. “With a fic it’s more episodic. There’s a different flow to it.”

Beyond the structural nature of adapting their work, fanfic writers often have to reskin IP-based elements. Some fanfic writers, Hazelwood and Christina Lauren included, rewrite their fics before publishing them. It’s a process known as “filing off the serial numbers,” which involves more than simply changing the names. That’s how Hazelwood’s Reylo fanfic became The Love Hypothesis: While her fic “Head Over Feet” put Kylo and Rey in an academic setting instead of a galaxy far, far away, when it came time to revise the story for book publishing, she also added an antagonist, condensed characters, combined scenes, and raised the stakes with a tight timeline, all changes that gave it a more traditional narrative arc.

Hazelwood describes rewriting her fiction as “harrowing,” explaining that it was far more difficult than writing an original book. Christa Tomlinson, an indie romance writer, says it took her months to transform a fic based on WWE into a story about a SWAT team. Building original characters — their quirks and distinct traits — proved more difficult for her than developing a plot. She chose the law-enforcement world because it allowed her to keep the sense of “camaraderie and brotherhood” from her original fic while moving it out of a wrestling milieu. Some of the plot had to change as a result, though Tomlinson kept the bones of her story the same.

Not all fic writers are benefiting from the boom — yet, at least. Publishers have made some progress diversifying their love stories, but disparities remain. In a dynamic that mirrors traditional publishing, white fic readers don’t widely consume stories about characters of color written by people of color. That leads to fewer opportunities for those writers — even as they embrace the same styles and stories as their white peers. Similarly, queer love stories, especially those featuring two male leads, are wildly popular in fan-fiction libraries, but the Big Five publishing houses haven’t repackaged these stories the same way they did for Hazelwood or Billings and Hobbs.

Link to the rest at Vulture

8 Books That Deliver Behind-The-Scenes Drama

From Electric Lit:

I don’t know about y’all, but I love rewatching a performance after I learn that something catastrophic has gone down behind the scenes. Whether it’s the iconic 1997 Fleetwood Mac performance of “Silver Springs” in which you can watch Stevie Nicks put a curse on Lindsey Buckingham in real time, or a film like What Happened to Baby Jane, which featured an on-set rivalry between Bette Davis and Joan Crawford so legendary that Ryan Murphy had to make entire tv series about it.

When I began researching my debut novel Do Tell, I already had a longstanding love for the films of classic Hollywood. As I learned more about the backstories of the actors, directors, and studio executives of the era, I found myself revisiting the classics and pinpointing the intersection between performance and personal life. There’s something very satisfying about watching The Long, Hot Summer and knowing that Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward are about to destroy their respective marriages in the name of one of the greatest love stories in Hollywood history. 

Do Tell follows Edie O’Dare, a gossip columnist who thrives in the gray area between personal and public when it comes to the stars of Golden Age Hollywood. Edie’s livelihood is dependent on her ability to piece together what’s happening off-set—which stars are sneaking off together, who’s feuding, or why that last-minute swap of leading starlets had to happen. I love novels that explore the disparity between what the public is meant to see and what really went down. If you’re like me and you live for the drama, here’s a list of my favorites that show us the mess off-camera, behind the curtain, and backstage. 

Playhouse: City of Girls by Elizabeth Gilbert

Elizabeth Gilbert’s story of a rundown New York City playhouse during World War II is a delectable treasure. Vivian Morris has just been kicked out of Vassar, so she heads to the city to live with her eccentric aunt who works in showbiz. Not the Broadway kind of showbiz though—the Lily Playhouse is running on castoff showgirls, recycled costumes, last minute scripts, pennies, and prayers. At the playhouse, Vivian discovers a found family with her aunt Peg and her live-in “secretary” Olive, along with the eccentric cast of characters that inhabit their world. I love how unapologetic Gilbert is with Vivian’s exploits and mistakes, because, of course, she makes the sorts of mistakes any nineteen-year-old would make if given the opportunity to run amok in the bars and clubs of New York with a legion of beautiful actors and actresses. City of Girls is a perfect novel: transportive, entertaining, and empathetic.

Reality TV Show: The Charm Offensive by Alison Cochrun

Have you ever watched a reality dating show and wondered to yourself: Why aren’t more of these contestants queer? I have the book for you! Alison Cochrun’s The Charm Offensive follows Charlie, a high-profile tech developer hoping to do some PR rehabilitation by appearing on a dating show. There are dozens of women who are meant to be competing for Charlie’s affection, but, oops, he seems to have a lot more chemistry with the show’s producer, Dev. While Dev works to create a romantic storyline for Charlie on-screen, he also has to do a lot of one-on-one coaching off camera to get Charlie up to leading-man status. What follows is a tender-hearted story about navigating through love, sexuality, mental health issues—all in the spotlight of the public eye. It’s the perfect romance for anyone who’s ever binged a dating show and thought: maybe the best on-screen chemistry isn’t always hetero. 

Link to the rest at Electric Lit

The Deadly Beauty Regime: Historical Practices of Risky Cosmetics


From the mountainous region of Styria, Austria, to the high society salons in Mayfair, London, the quest for beauty has taken humans on a dangerous journey.

This journey, spanning centuries, has been marked by the use of deadly substances such as arsenic, radium, mercury, cantharidin, petroleum, and X-rays as cosmetics and remedies.

Arsenic: The Austrians’ Potion of Beauty

In the mid-19th century, Styrians in southeast Austria were known for their unusual practice of consuming arsenic trioxide, also known as ‘white arsenic’.

Arsenic was not just a feared poison but was used as a medicine and a beautifying agent.

The Styrians reported increased stamina and enhanced complexion, attributing their rosy cheeks and sparkling eyes to arsenic consumption.

Arsenic’s popularity soared as it offered short-term benefits, including a temporary flush to the cheeks due to capillary dilation.

The late 19th-century cosmetic market saw arsenic-brd products like ‘Dr James P Campbell’s Safe Arsenic Complexion Wafers’ and arsenic-laced soaps that stayed in demand well into the 1930s.

Radium: The Radiant Element of Beauty

Around 1911, Helen Cavendish in Mayfair, London, introduced a line of beauty products utilizing radium, a radioactive element discovered by the Curies.

This line, known as Caradium, contained products like shampoos and face creams made with radium water and herbs.

The theory of mild radium therapy suggested that exposure to small doses of radium triggered a chain of psychological reactions, improving joint movements and boosting the immune system. 

Despite the known dangers of radium, these products reportedly caused minimal harm due to the minuscule amounts used.

Mercury: The Quicksilver Cure

Dating back to the 1300s, mercury or ‘quicksilver’ was used to treat skin issues like psoriasis and leprosy. In the 17th century, mercury was part of the recipe “to procure Beauty” published in Hannah Woolley’s book.

The effects of mercury, however, were detrimental. Its accumulation in the body resulted in tissue damage, stomach ulcers, loosening of teeth, and damage to the nervous system. 

Mercury was finally struck off the British Pharmacopoeia, a register of approved remedies, in the 1950s.

Link to the rest at

Not exactly about books and writing, but potentially of interest to those who write historical fiction.

7 Novels About Falling In (And Out Of) Love in London

From Electric Lit:

London has served as the setting for many a novel—the backdrop to tales of scrappy orphans and drunk, dancing thirty-somethings, of marmalade-adoring bears and magical nannies. It’s also, of course, the setting for so many love stories.

Not quite as romantic as Paris, nor as hustle-and-bustle-y as New York, London sits somewhere in the middle, a charming city with grit, a gritty city with charm. And its greatest love stories often walk a similar tightrope. Sure, some feature the type of happily-ever-after in which the music swells and crescendos at the end; but, like its own identity and character, the majority of London’s love stories are constructed from a combination of toughness and tenderness, of joy and complications. They capture the beauty of falling in love, of course, but they also capture the reclaimed power that comes—sometimes—with falling out of it. 

It’s a balance I’d like to think my own novel, Adelaide, has struck. Set in London, it details the rise and fall of a torrid and toxic relationship between the titular Adelaide Williams and a foppish-haired, emotionally unavailable Englishman named Rory Hughes—a relationship Adelaide eventually (and somewhat disastrously) exits, choosing instead to put herself first. Toeing the line between commercial and literary fiction, Adelaide, like London, hopefully balances light with dark—something so many brilliant writers, and their London-based novels, have done before. 

This reading list features seven books that strike a similar balance—each telling its own version of what it means to fall in and out of love in the British capital.

. . . .

Ghosts by Dolly Alderton

I’ve heard other writers describe Dolly Alderton as a millennial Nora Ephron—big shoes to fill, surely, but if anyone can wear them with confidence, it’s Dolly. And Ghosts, her debut novel, is a shining illustration of why. 

It follows Nina Dean, a food writer in her early thirties living in north London, as she navigates the shifting nature of a number of relationships: with friends, with parents, with ex-boyfriends, and one, notably, with a beguiling man named Max. Alderton brilliantly captures the twists and turns of modern dating—the joy of late-night dancing, the distress of being ghosted—with sharp humor as well as big-hearted tenderness. An Ephron-esque talent, no doubt. 

Maame by Jessica George

Maame by Jessica George is predominantly a coming-of-age story about 26-year-old Maddie Wright, but it’s speckled with romantic adventures (and entanglements) throughout. George tackles everything from the magic of first kisses to the hellish nature of apps (including the fetishization and microaggressions to which Black women are far too often subjected) to the challenges of dating while grieving with unparalleled grace and wit, painting a painfully accurate portrait of one young woman’s love life in London.

Link to the rest at Electric Lit

Writing Action-Adventure for Women

From Women Writers, Women’s Books:

Unexpected female main characters have always held a particular fascination for me. I recently watched Enola Holmes with my daughters, and it fed my soul to see a young woman as a smart, resourceful fighter. and not a helpless creature incapable of saving others. Women can be fierce, active participants in the world around them. I write historical action-adventure for exactly this reason.

I have my doctorate degree in physical therapy, and have spent my entire adult life learning about kinesiology. How people move has always fascinated me. We’re trained to examine body language and how that conveys emotion, so naturally, adventure books called to me. Unfortunately, so few feature women in main roles.

Action-adventure is often geared toward a male audience. A hero’s journey is much more solitary, with women often serving the purpose of being the hero’s conquest, with the all-too-common sexualization of women’s bodies. Writing action for women doesn’t always have the goal of power and conquering. For me, these stories focus on family and sisterhood, bonding women and encouraging them to stand up for themselves. How truly refreshing to use a woman’s body for power and strength and courage, rather than to satisfy a man.

Young women have always been a quiet but persistent force in history, but their stories have been largely ignored. I write historical action-adventure to celebrate women working together as an impetus for change. Women are taught far too often to see each other as rivals from a very young age. I think this might be because women together are a force—dangerous even—to the power systems that keep women passive and quiet. I’d like to believe that when women read about trusting each other, supporting each other, and making the right choices for themselves, we can unlearn some of the toxic beliefs we’ve learned.

So much of women’s history has been hidden and washed away and minimized. Once I started searching, I discovered stories of incredible women who broke all expectations. Female acrobatic pilots and Victorian tattoo artists, women kings from the Middle Ages, survivalists and medieval entrepreneurs. Women who take an active role in their destiny and fight for their dreams have always existed, just rarely celebrated.

Maybe I’m tired of the narrative that women can’t be loud and difficult. The idea that women can’t take up space infuriates me. I want to see those daring women and travel on their adventures. I want to watch them fight and battle for what they want.

In my March 30th release, Daughter of the Shadows, 17th century heroine Isabelle mentors under a female Huron warrior, and she in turn teaches others. She fights to save her fellow Protestants from certain death at the direction of her devious husband and Isabelle learns to put her own needs aside to save everyone she cares about. The heart of action-adventure for me is a journey of the body and the mind, driven by empathy and courage.

Action must go beyond the simple pronoun + verb. Movement can show us who a character is by their body language, how they react, what they notice in their environment, and most importantly, what they’re trying to prove. Why are they traveling/fighting/running? If you don’t have an answer for that, the action will feel shallow. Understand their motivation and their adventures will have meaning.

Link to the rest at Women Writers, Women’s Books

PG notes that, once again, the publisher of this book, Black Rose Writing, doesn’t have any preview on Amazon for interested prospective purchasers to examine the first few pages of the book.

As he has mentioned before, PG thinks this is a foolish habit of more than a few publishers. If the author helps promote the book prior to publication, as is the case with this article from Women Writers, Women’s Books, why disable one of the best ways to hook curious readers into preordering by not allowing them to examine a few pages of the book?

Anyone who has spent serious time in a physical bookstore has observed dozens of shoppers open a physical book and read through a few pages while deciding whether to purchase it or not.

Amazon, which has learned a thing or two about selling books online, developed its Look Inside feature to allow shoppers to continue that same book-buying behavior and enjoy it on their various screens.

In this case, Women Writers, Women’s Books, includes a detailed description of the book at the end of the OP, but giving interested viewers an opportunity to check out the actual book could well close the deal for more than a few who planned to take a wait-and-see strategy until they could actually examine what was inside the book to avoid the hassle of trying to return a book they wouldn’t like.

Nobody Knows Marketing Like Romance Authors

From Jane Friedman:

KRISTEN TSETSI: What did you like to read when you first got into book reading, and how did you veer into reading—and then writing—romance, whether paranormal or, as a few of your novels are, darker?

KITTY THOMAS: I used to love the Goosebumps books as a kid. I wanted to be RL Stine. I was a snob about romance for the longest time, even in my Goosebumps days. Even in 8th grade, romance novels weren’t “real books.” I have no idea why. I guess internalized misogyny, which is really fancy talk for… the culture disrespects it because it disrespects the feminine. I picked up on that even though nobody sat me down and told me they weren’t real books. There was just this sneering derision about them. And a lot of eye rolling around Harlequin novels.

And I certainly don’t want to crap on Harlequin novels, but romance is so much bigger than one publisher, and yet they were all lumped in together as one thing.

As a side note, I was also a snob about Buffy the Vampire Slayer (I didn’t realize it was poking fun at itself and such a smartly written show). Ultimately I became a romance author because I couldn’t find the TV remote to change the channel and got sucked in to the Buffy and Spike drama. (I think it was a rerun of season 4.) I was beyond upset that Buffy and Spike didn’t end up together. I mean it was A. Thing. with me.

So when Buffy and Spike didn’t end up together (I know, spoiler, but the show is SO old. You know, Old Yeller dies at the end, too), I ended up writing fanfic to soothe my battered soul over it. Then I realized that I actually DO like romance and that maybe the love story is all I really care about, after all. (Now romance is all I really read: paranormals, dark, romcoms, sometimes alien/sci-fi.)

So I started reading paranormal romance and then writing it. But Pauline Reage’s Story of O was what inspired Comfort Food, my first darker book. It just made me mad that all these erotic books had to moralize, and the couple couldn’t be together in the end because it was “wrong.” Screw that. When you’re an island unto yourself, who cares what society thinks?

What does paranormal romance (PNR) offer that traditional, human-on-human romance doesn’t, both to the writer and the reader?

I think PNR filled the gap for bodice rippers when those started disappearing off the shelves. Publishers decided that because of sexism bodice rippers were no longer socially acceptable. I totally love when an organization makes a blanket decision about what women shouldn’t be allowed to read because it’s sexist. Ummm, did they not pause to self-reflect and consider that maybe policing women’s fantasies and acting as though we can’t handle our own reading choices wasn’t itself sexist?

It’s not as though these books were written by and for men. They were written by and for women, and then roundly rejected by mostly male-led publishing companies.

Of course now there is dark romance, so in some ways that’s the new bodice ripper. But people still do like their vampires and werewolves.

What do you think the new trend (if that’s the right word) in romance might be? Or, maybe, what would you like it to be, if you could choose?

Well, one new trend I notice popping up is reverse harems. This is where you have a story with one heroine and multiple males. But it’s not a triangle. It’s not like she’s going to “pick one.” It’s “Why not have all of them?” And it’s not two guys and a girl. That’s menage. This is usually three or four, sometimes five males who are all in a relationship with the heroine. Though honestly I think three is the perfect number for these books. After that it starts to get unwieldy. Usually this is also a paranormal romance.

A common trope is werewolves who all share the same fated mate, though I’ve seen it done other ways. I’ve also seen it done without the paranormal element. I’ve got one called The Proposal in my dark wedding duet. The heroine has decided she’s tired of men stringing her along and wasting her time when she wants to get married and have kids, so she starts rotational dating. She’s chosen to remain celibate and just date a man harem until somebody gives her a ring.

Amazingly this actually works, but as she upgrades her man harem she doesn’t realize she’s dating three men who all know each other and have decided to just share her, like forever.

I don’t think I have to explain why this sort of thing is a fantasy for women. LOL! I trust the intelligence of your readers to work it out. Though the interesting thing is reverse harems aren’t erotica. They may have sex in them, but they are romance where by the end there is a functioning and happy polyandrous unit, so it’s not just about the sex. It’s also about the feelings.

Link to the rest at Jane Friedman

For PG, the romance category is terra incognita. Mrs. PG has written quite a number of Regencies in years past and prior to closing down his law practice, PG provided services for several romance authors, including some who were very successful, but PG is still a naïf where romance is concerned.

For the record, if PG were to rank his author clients based upon the level of business savvy he sensed during his discussions and email interactions with them, several romance authors would be at the top of his list. They ran their careers very effectively and asked PG questions that most published authors would not have considered.

He had no question in his mind that these women (he knows men write romance as well, but these were women) were operating with more business savvy than any of the numerous traditional publishing executives and lawyers with whom he had held business/legal discussions.

Incidentally, in the OP, PG enjoyed the term, “upgrades her man harem” quite a lot.

Sex, drugs, celebrities, vampires – Just another day in the Regency

From The Austen Connection:

Lately we’ve been thinking way too much about the real life of the Regency.

And what’s got us thinking about this is not only the recent discussions about what’s historic and what’s not in the recent Persuasion film, but also a big book – Robert Morrison’s history The Regency Years: During which Jane Austen writes, Napoleon fights, Byron makes love, and Britain becomes modern.

It appears, friends, that in Jane Austen’s real times it was of course (we know this, but we forget!) not just manners and romance among the privet hedges but also was an awful lot of chaos, and violence, and injustice based on gender, on race, on class, on ability, and on whom we chose to love.

. . . .

Here’s our list of some serious Real Regency things – just a few – that you can often see in the subtext of Austen but that you might not find in the bold glare of the screen version of your favorite Jane Austen adaptation.

. . . .

Lady rakes! 

We have on the side of the Rakes, not only Willoughby, Wickham and Henry Crawford breaking hearts, but we also have Lydia Bennet, and also: Mary Crawford, who in this day and age we’re always tempted to like! We have lady rakes! 

Other Real Regency Lady Rakes, to list just three obvious ones, include Lady Libertines like:

  • Real-life Lady Caroline Lamb, and her novel Glenarvon
  • Real-life Duchess of Devonshire, and her novel The Sylph
  • Real-life Claire Clairmont, half-sister of Mary Shelley, who labored away pursuing Percy Shelley in a love triangle with Shelley and Shelley, and then pursued Byron, with whom she had a child, Allegra. 

Yes, the Lady Libertines might have more at stake and more suffering at hand than their male-identifying counterparts – but like their Libertine male cousins, they do operate from a position of privilege that powers their carelessness.

It’s a class thing: Rakes and Privilege

And Austen for one is not here for any of it.

These rakes like Byron, Shelley, and the Prince Regent himself were able to simply ignore social strictures of their day. They “reveled in almost unfettered sexual freedom” of the “libertine creed,” writes Morrison. “The Regency era was the last great brazen huzzah for rakes” before the Evangelical forces won out for the Victorian age.

Yes these rakes are present in the adaptations, but in the Real Regency they were a dominant force, and part of the power base.

So next time you are enjoying your Austen adaptation’s rolling bucolic countryside drive into an English Great House like Mansfield Park, just remember that Austen was de-fanging, parodying, and turning upside down the immense powers of rakery, privilege, exploitation, and carelessness exemplified by the gentleman sitting on top of it all – whether it’s Mansfield’s Henry Crawford, or the Prince Regent himself, chief rake of the Regency. 

Link to the rest at The Austen Connection

The Sublime Danielle Steel: For the Love of Supermarket Schlock

From The Los Angeles Review of Books:

IN 1978, BILL GROSE, editor-in-chief at Dell, decided to make a star of a young author from San Francisco. Grose was a thumper of novelizations from popular film and television, a fan of media tie-ins, a man with his finger in the air to feel the direction of the wind. Dell, a mass-market house, had recently been acquired by the trade giant Doubleday, which also owned radio and television stations and would in two years buy the New York Mets. Grose and Dell were looking for the next big thing. This woman, Grose thought, was it. She had a made-for-marketing name, too. Danielle Steel.

She wasn’t born with that name, exactly. She cut it from Danielle Fernandes Dominique Schuelein-Steel. Her mother was a Catholic Portuguese American and her father a Jewish German refugee who fled to New York City from Hitler’s Third Reich. They divorced when Steel was eight. She had a lonely childhood living with her father in Manhattan at 45th and Lexington, “a very adult kind of childhood,” she said, attending dinner parties and watching adults flirt or talk politics. She attended the elite Lycée Français de New York, fantasizing about becoming a nun. In her teens, she attended haute couture shows in Paris and fell for fashion. Her grandmother gave her her first couture suit when she was 17. She married a wealthy French banker, Claude-Eric Lazard, when she was 18 and studied at Parsons School of Design and NYU. In 1968, at 20, she gave birth to a daughter, Beatrix, but she wanted more than to be a mother. She saw two women on The Tonight Show talking about their PR firm, Supergirls. The next day she called to apply for a job.

Steel arrived at work looking like Audrey Hepburn: big eyes, short hair, outfitted in the season’s high fashion. She was quickly named director of public relations and vice president of marketing. She buzzed around the office with incredible energy, chain-smoking, making needlepoint kitsch, and typing letters to prospective clients in French, Spanish, Italian, and Japanese (if not always with perfect grammar). One of her clients, an editor at Ladies’ Home Journal, saw promise in Steel as a writer, and told her so.

She took him seriously and wrote her first novel in the summer of 1971. She hired an agent and sold the book to Pocket Books, which published it in 1973. The protagonist is a woman who works for advertising campaigns and women’s magazines, a young divorced single mother who moves to San Francisco from New York to restart her life. There she falls in love with a filmmaker who also works in advertising, a bad boy who gets her pregnant and, when she refuses an abortion, sends her back to New York. But she can’t quit him — until he dies in a freak accident on set. She has the baby, but the baby dies within the day. In the end, our heroine runs off with the art director of the women’s mag where she now works.

It’s a bawdy post-feminist romance, closer to Erica Jong’s Fear of Flying, which came out that same year, than Kathleen Woodiwiss’s chaste The Flame and the Flower from the year before, which helped build a massive audience for historical romance. Steel’s debut bears traces of literary ambition, expressed by her avatar-protagonist who brings a short story anthology with her to set just in case she has time to read and is thrilled by a dinner party where the discussion rushes from “Japanese literature” to “the political implications of American literature vs Russian literature at the turn of the century.” But the novel was primly panned in Publishers Weekly; its protagonist, “for all her beauty, sophistication, and use of the proper four-letter words, is not very interesting, and neither is her story,” read the verdict. The book sold modestly.

Steel, like her protagonist, moved to San Francisco. She had separated from Claude-Eric and lived for a spell in a commune with a band of street musicians. She often visited a friend in the hospital who was imprisoned as a conscientious objector to the war in Vietnam but who had negotiated an early release to participate in a medical study for NASA. The patient in the next room, Danny Zugelder, an inveterate bank robber, developed a crush on Steel, and the two began corresponding, which continued after he was sent back to Lompoc Correctional Institute. He says that they consummated the relationship in the prison’s women’s bathroom. She rented a flat in Pacific Heights and took a job as a copywriter for an ad agency and wrote fiction at night. Zugelder was released in 1973 but was arrested again and sent to the state penitentiary in Vacaville in 1975 for robbery and sexual assault. He and Steel married in the prison canteen that year. She published her second novel, a romance about a socialite and her ex-con, prison-abolitionist lover, in 1977, and her third, about a man falsely accused of rape, in 1978. Both did decently well for Dell, selling several hundred thousand copies.

That’s about when Bill Grose decided it was time to make her famous.

. . . .

When I met Sean Fader, he was wearing a pink tee that said, “Ask Me About Danielle Steel.” His beard was auburn, thick, well trimmed, and flecked with gray. His eyes were cobalt and intensely present. Fader is a conceptual artist working with photography and performance and at the moment he — like I — was obsessed with Steel. “Please,” he said, “come into my studio.”

There, on a small table, sat a typewriter, a bowl of grapes, and a copy of Steel’s novel Daddy. On learning that Steel writes on a 1946 Olympia, he rebuilt the closest he could acquire, a 1954 Smith Corona Silent Super, and used it to type her a very long letter with a strange request. He wanted her to collaborate with him on a photographic project about the original sugar daddy.

In 1990, Steel bought the Spreckels Mansion, a French Baroque chateau in San Francisco’s Pacific Heights, built in 1913 by Adolph Spreckels for his wife, Alma. Spreckels inherited a Hawaiian sugar plantation staffed by Japanese immigrants and the largest sugar refinery on the West Coast. Fader wrote to Steel, “Since he was 24 years older than her and his money came from sugar, she called him her ‘sugar daddy.’” (Fader acknowledges that the couple didn’t popularize the phrase: that happened a few years later with a serialized story in a Syracuse paper and then the still-extant candy, which rebranded after trying “Papa Sucker.”) Alma chose the site for the chateau because of its views of the San Francisco Bay. “Is it still true that you can see six counties from the circular observatory?” Fader asks Steel. “Did you know that she put the pool in her/your backyard to swim naked while drinking pitchers of martinis in order to piss off the neighbors?”

After seven typed pages, including a description of how he worked with a milliner to build a replica of a flamboyant wool-and-ostrich-feather hat of Alma’s, Fader comes to his request: “I want to take a picture in your home with me as Adolph and a twinky boy 24 years younger than me as Alma. I want to model the photograph after several Rodin sculptures and a few early 20th-century paintings that Alma had in her collection.” And he wanted Steel in the background.

Trying flattery, he wrote, regarding her Instagram, “If you find you are getting a lot of followers in the Southeast, it may be because of me.” To be candid, reader, it may also be because of me.

. . . .

It was unexpected. She used to be like Muzak to me, or JonBenét Ramsey: supermarket schlock. I have no memories before she was there, so I assumed she always had been, ageless, outside of time, a brand like little Debbie from Little Debbie is a brand.

But then I started studying the publishing industry. Why, of all possible book worlds, had we ended up with ours? Once I posed that question, I could see that Danielle Steel was a cosmic accident whose story revealed the hidden logic of contemporary publishing, what I call the conglomerate era for reasons I will explain in a moment. This is to say, at first my interest was professional. How long could it stay that way, though, given the life she’s led and the books she’s written? The more I learned about her, the more obsessed I became. Soon she was the only topic I wanted to talk or tweet about. I went out with friends and harangued them for hours: Claude-Eric, Supergirls, the Vacaville wedding; the vault into superstardom; novels with titles such as Message From Nam, The Klone and I, and Toxic Bachelors. Eventually we’d arrive at the difficult present.

Something unsettling has happened to Steel. For the first couple decades, she published one or two novels most years. From 1997 through 2014, she plateaued at a steady three. In 2015, she ticked up to four. Then, in 2016, an alarming six. She’s done six or seven annually since. That’s a novel every 50 days or so for a woman now 74 years old.

Link to the rest at The Los Angeles Review of Books and thanks to K. for the tip.

Don’t Call Them Trash

From The Atlantic:

One of my most enduring school memories is of an austere English teacher urging us—a class of two dozen 13-year-old girls with all the raging hormones of a Harry Styles arena tour—not to succumb to the books of Jackie Collins. “If you read trash, girls,” she articulated, with icy precision, “you will write trash.” Thinking back on this, all I can summon is: I wish. Collins sold half a billion novels during her life, made more than $100 million, and had a Beverly Hills mansion and a gold Jaguar XKR with the license plate lucky77. We should all be so blessed as to write like she did.

Still, for me, the message stuck—not a moralistic warning about the dangers of sexually explicit popular fiction, but an aesthetic one. The idea that “bad” novels could poison someone’s thinking, could plant roots in the recesses of her brain only to send out shoots of florid prose years later, was an alarming one. I read all of Jackie Collins anyway, while feeling slightly embarrassed about it, my initiation into a world where virtually everything that’s pleasurable for women is shaded with guilt. Her characters—bold, beautiful women striding through Hollywood in leopard-print jodhpurs and suede Alaïa boots—embodied a combination of desirability and ambition that was totally intoxicating to a British teenager with a school uniform and a clarinet. And her writing did settle into my subconscious, I can see now, but not at all in the ways my teacher feared it would.

Dip even a toe into the pool of popular fiction by women writers, and you’ll discover that this word, trash, has a long lineage. George Eliot, in her 1856 essay “Silly Novels by Lady Novelists,” excoriated what she interpreted as “the most trashy and rotten kind of feminine literature,” a genre of contemporary fiction that concerned itself merely with “the ideal woman in feelings, faculties, and flounces,” written by ladies in “elegant boudoirs, with violet-colored ink and a ruby pen.” One year earlier, Nathaniel Hawthorne, in a fit of pique, had vented to his publisher about the “damned mob of scribbling women” dominating the American literary market. “I should have no chance of success,” he pouted, “while the public is occupied with their trash.”

The intellectual disdain for novels enjoyed by women often went hand in hand with a paternalistic sense of unease about how these kinds of stories might influence the innocent, unsuspecting reader. “Let us go into the houses of the poor, and try to discover what is the effect on the maiden mind of the trash which maidens buy,” Edward G. Salmon suggested in his 1886 essay “What Girls Read.” “We should probably find that the high-flown conceits and pretensions of the poorer girls of the period, their dislike of manual work and love of freedom, spring largely from notions imbibed in the course of a perusal of their penny fictions.”

Salmon might have been onto something. I’m not here to suggest that all, or even most, romance novels aspire to be highbrow endeavors (the works of E. L. James in particular are still the most brain-meltingly awful and regressive things I’ve ever read), or that a novelist’s popularity is a metric for literary accomplishment. Or that no “literary” fiction these days devotes sexually graphic attention to female ambitions and appetites. But it’s worth considering where so much of the anxiety over popular stories written by and for women, especially romances, might stem from. The history of fiction is full of stories about men who do; their deeds, wars, journeys, heroic triumphs are the texture of the tale. In stories about women, by contrast, characters primarily are: The action lies in their inner lives, dreams, conflicts, desires.

“Admiration for the heroine of a romantic novel … is love for an idealized image of oneself,” Rachel Brownstein wrote in her 1982 book, Becoming a Heroine. The subversive potential of so many works derided as trash is that they focus on female interiority, female pleasure, female aspiration. The “notions” sparked by romantic fiction and Nancy Meyers movies alike are that women’s earthly desires—for love, for sex, for chocolate cake, for professional elevation, for pristine Poggenpohl kitchens with white-marble backsplashes—can and should be gratified.

How fitting, then, that many of the ideas this genre draws from were pioneered by a woman whom hardly anyone remembers. So argues the historian Hilary A. Hallett in Inventing the It Girl: How Elinor Glyn Created the Modern Romance and Conquered Early Hollywood. Glyn’s 1907 novel, Three Weeks, about a young man drawn into an obsessive romantic relationship with a married European royal, was more explicitly sexual than a mass-market novel had ever been (the bookseller WH Smith & Son refused to stock it) but also, Hallett insists, more progressive. It made the case, while the Victorian era and its mores still loomed large in the popular imagination, that women’s sexual desire not only existed—a heretical concept—but burned with an intense heat. (Glyn’s female protagonist describes love in one scene as “a purely physical emotion … It means to be close—close—to be clasped—to be touching—to be one.”) Its power was so great, in fact, that it threatened the patriarchal structures that the 20th century was built on. If women experience desire with a fervor equal to men’s, what else might they also secretly be craving? Glyn, in her autobiography, described the furious response to Three Weeks as “a curious commentary on the stupendous hypocrisy of the Edwardian age.”

Glyn enjoyed unprecedented success as a novelist during the early 1900s—by 1917, Three Weeks had sold more than 2 million copies—and went on to become an equally successful Hollywood screenwriter. Yet more than a century later, her radical vision of sexual politics seems to have all but vanished from the screen, as mid-budget movies have waned and audiences for streaming have become more segmented. The romantic comedy, after an ’80s and ’90s heyday that at its best furthered the idea that men and women could meet on equal terms, is essentially dead in the U.S. (with sporadic, gloomy attempts at resurrection—2022’s Marry Me, starring Jennifer Lopez and Owen Wilson, featured an extremely silly odd-couple setup and almost negative sexual tension between its stars). Sex on television is largely relegated to the dead-eyed, joyless teen couplings on Euphoria and the bouncy, intimacy-avoidant bonkfests of Sex Education. Even adaptations of romantic fiction such as Outlander and Bridgerton struggle; sex is lamentably suffused with violence in the former, and was quietly sidelined in the most recent season of the latter. Meanwhile, romance novels, reliably one of the most profitable and well-read genres in book publishing, have for decades featured a degree of diversity and (not always heteronormative) sex positivity that puts mainstream culture to shame, yet are still derided.

. . . .

Three Weeks, written in what Hallett likens to a haze of longing for a recently departed paramour, was an extraordinarily bold work for a writer in 1907 to publish under her own name. The so-called sex novel had already existed for centuries alongside its more sedate cousin, the romance. (John Cleland’s Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure, popularly known as Fanny Hill, published in 1748, was so graphic in its biography of a former sex worker that it was banned in the U.S. until a Supreme Court ruling in 1966.) But Glyn brought the two genres closer than any other writer had managed. Three Weeks is told from the perspective of a well-off young Englishman banished to Europe after a flirtation with an unsuitable local girl. There he becomes sexually enthralled by a woman he notices one night dining in his hotel.

She has—unbeknownst to him—fled the clutches of her husband, a cruel and psychopathic Slavic king; she’s smitten with the Englishman, Paul, and decides to take his sexual and romantic initiation into her own hands. Paul is young and handsome and what we might now call basic. His passions include hunting, clothes, and ogling “perfectly virtuous” young women at the theater. The lady (who is only ever referred to as such) gently mocks him as a “great big beautiful baby.” Before he can be her lover, he has to submit to her authority and accept her terms. “I don’t belong to you, baby Paul,” she tells him when he tries to pay for lunch during one of their outings in the Swiss mountains. “You, for the day, belong to me.”

Three Weeks, in so many ways, predicted the formula for the romance novels that would follow it. The genre tends to be structured around accumulation: of pleasure, of possessions, of status. The protagonist, who is almost always female, begins the novel with next to nothing and emerges having gathered all kinds of capital. In a world in which marriage has been enshrined as “the one great profession open to our class since the dawn of time,” as Virginia Woolf wrote, love and wealth were already tied in the popular imagination. Three Weeks, though, bucks the marriage plot (the lady pursues the man because she desires him, and is more intent on having his child than his hand). It emphasizes the sensuality of luxury, the headiness of comfort, “the redemptive powers of sexual pleasure when performed in the key of glamour,” as Hallett writes.

The novel contains all the tropes of popular escapist fiction: exotic locations, extravagant sumptuousness, an older, experienced person seducing a naive ingenue. But the seducer is, crucially, a woman. And the most rebellious feature of Glyn’s writing is that the lady insists that Paul indulge her, meet her on her terms. “I must try to please you,” Paul learns, “or you will throw me away.” In positioning Paul as the ingenue transformed by his entanglement with the lady, Three Weeks was more subversive than most standard romantic fare. Callow and two-dimensional at the beginning, he grows more intelligent, more sensitive, and more fascinating to the people he encounters.

Link to the rest at The Atlantic

He’s a 10 but …

From The Austen Connection:

{W]e loved your “He’s a 10” threads and found that the Jane Austen and classic literature versions were by far the funniest of the craze. And this is not surprising since Jane Austen is after all the queen of satire, sarcasm, wit, and meme-friendly moments.

So today to kick off our weekend we’re simply compiling and sharing (you might say: curating) some of these moments that you have created for us – thank you! And a huge shout out to the creators here who are cracking us up on social.

. . . .

He’s a 10 but his first name is Fitzwilliam.

Kicking it off here right away with the most romantic hero of classic literature: That’s right, your beloved Mr. Darcy from Pride and Prejudice. Or to be more precise, as Margaret McDeadlines Owen reminds us, it’s: Mr. Fitzwilliam Darcy (do we know his middle name? Please advise!)

. . . .

He’s a 10 but I think his father might have murdered his mother.

Love it that we are getting into the mind of the naive Catherine Morland here, who turns out to be near- if not perfectly correct with her wildly imaginitive musings about the villainous General Tilney, father of our Northanger Abbey hero Henry Tilney. A reminder to use your imagination and keep your wits about you – and a reminder that whatever is going on in the family, a 10 is a 10 girl.

. . . .

He’s a 10 but his first wife is locked in the attic.

Now we are moving out of Austen and getting into Victorian and Bronte Sisters territory where things get rather extreme. Love “the moon wife” for boiling Jane Eyre straight down to the gruesome fact of the matter for us here. Discuss.

Link to the rest at The Austen Connection

A new oral history of the modern romantic comedy

From The Economist

In an enjoyable new book, “From Hollywood With Love”, Scott Meslow, a culture critic, explores the fortunes of the romantic comedy from the late 1980s to today. “No Hollywood genre has been more misunderstood—or more unfairly maligned—than the romantic comedy,” he writes. “Funny, charming and reliably crowd-pleasing, rom-coms were the essential backbone of the Hollywood landscape for decades, and yet they have been routinely overlooked by awards shows and snobbishly dismissed by critics.” Through a series of short essays on films including “When Harry Met Sally”, “Love Actually”, “Crazy Rich Asians” and “To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before”, his aim is to celebrate the genre’s biggest hits and underline their cultural significance.Mr Meslow has interviewed film executives, directors, screenwriters and stars, and each chapter offers a kind of oral history of a particular movie. Readers learn, for example, that Al Pacino was at one point under consideration for the role of Edward in “Pretty Woman” (the part eventually went to Richard Gere). His reading with Julia Roberts was dire; Mr Pacino, shirt agape, “barked out his lines in his inimitable, spittle-flecked way”. Elsewhere, Mr Meslow describes Richard Curtis’s proclivity for dramatising real-life events: one friend complained that the screenwriter observed his nuptials pen and paper in hand. And it was the actor Hugh Grant who suggested that the fight at the end of “Bridget Jones’s Diary” should not be carefully choreographed, “full of right hooks and haymakers”. Instead, the two posh men in the scene, a human-rights lawyer and a publisher, should be left to scrap in a hilariously pathetic way.

“From Hollywood With Love” offers insights into the film-making process and the influence of tastemakers at major studios. Executives’ views about what constitutes a believable romance, or else a worthwhile investment, can be depressingly narrow. Nancy Meyers recounts male commissioners’ aversion to a reference to menopause in “Something’s Gotta Give” (2003), a film about lovers in their 50s and 60s. Major distributors did not care for the cultural specificity of “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” (2002)—but it went on to become the highest-grossing rom-com of all time. Will Smith has said that, when Sony were looking for his counterpart for “Hitch” (2005), they didn’t want to cast an African-American woman as they thought it would limit the film’s appeal. But nor did they want to cast a white woman lest it anger bigots. (Sony has not commented on the claims.)

Regrettably, “From Hollywood With Love” emphasises anecdotes over analysis. The tale of “Hitch”, for example, raises the question of how much the film industry has changed in the intervening years and how many romantic stories produced today have interracial couples at their heart. Rather than exploring the history of an idea or a trope, Mr Meslow often remains tethered to the specifics of a certain film. He says that there are problems with the “gay best friend” stereotype (as in “My Best Friend’s Wedding”) that are “worth unpacking”—but declines to discuss them at length.

At times the reader longs for more contemplation of what these films say about the attitudes and anxieties of their times. The ongoing debate over whether or not Bridget Jones is a feminist role model is summarised in a sidebar; there is surely much more to be gleaned about 21st-century masculinity in Judd Apatow’s films. Given the loneliness and yearning for human connection precipitated by the pandemic, might studio executives invest in more feel-good rom-coms? Netflix, as Mr Meslow observes, already releases several every year, recognising viewers’ interest.

Link to the rest at The Economist

Love triangles, from King Arthur to Beyoncé

From The Economist

n love, three is a magic number. Depending on the circumstances, that adds up to lies and betrayal, or the possibility of a brave new romantic world. Noël Coward gave us perfect proof of both sums. The first, “Brief Encounter” (1945), revolved around Laura, an English housewife, alienated, unsatisfied and deep in a crisis she can’t quite articulate. The other parts of the equation were Alec, a serious young medic, unexpectedly in love with a married woman, and Laura’s husband, Fred, sitting at home with the crossword unaware that his wife was listening to her doctor friend make a speech about lung diseases as if he were telling her that he loved her passionately, devotedly, hopelessly – because he does, and he is.

The film is now the textbook three-hanky weepie, though the test audience was less enthusiastic. (“Why doesn’t he just **** her?” shouted one dissatisfied customer, according to one of the movie’s producers, Ronald Neame.)

The other sum is illustrated above. Coward, sprawled on the sofa with actors Lynn Fontanne and Alfred Lunt, is laughing the way they laughed a decade before, when they were struggling together in 1920s New York, and Coward promised that one day he would write a play for the couple. It was a clever promise: Fontanne and Lunt were so dependent on each other’s talents that, after 1928, they never worked separately again.

“Design for Living” (1932) is a battle report on the merry warfare between the combatants in a Bohemian ménage à trois comprising a painter, Otto (Lunt), his writer mate Leo (Coward) and Gilda (Fontanne), an interior designer who keeps both men close, but only so close. “It’s a gentleman’s agreement,” we’re told. The play produced such a crackle that parodies soon sprang up: “Duets are made for the bourgeoisie – oh, but only God can make a trio,” sang the cast of a Broadway revue “Life Begins at 8.40”.

The curtain of “Design for Living” falls on a scene much like the image above. What happens next? The play is coy about that. Such trios rarely get played through to the end. And if they are, as the following examples suggest, the final notes are often melancholy.

. . . .

The Round Table didn’t have corners, but it did produce a triangle. It took a while, though. In the ninth-century versions of his story, King Arthur charged around, apparently carelessly single. Guinevere turned up in 1136, as a heroine of Geoffrey of Monmouth’s “History of the Kings of Britain”, in which, disappointingly, her only job was to be a damsel, distressed by the villainous Mordred.

The Round Table was delivered in 1155, in Wace of Jersey’s “Roman de Brut”, with the customary, hr-approved explanation that meetings structured in this way encourage a feeling of equality. Then, a couple of decades later, Sir Lancelot galloped in – from a French source, Chrétien de Troy’s “Le Chevalier de la Charrette” (published around 1170) – to disrupt married life at Camelot. From this point, it all goes a bit “Jules et Jim”. By the time Thomas Malory produced his “Le Morte D’Arthur” (1485), the affair, with an emphasis on Guinevere’s unfaithfulness, had become so conventional that he spiced things up by adding another lover for Lancelot, called Elaine.

. . . .

We needn’t worry about Elaine. Lancelot (virile, young, tempted), Guinevere (regal, untrustworthy), Arthur (ageing warrior, cuckolded) are the fixed vertices of this story. But Guinevere’s bad reputation should give us pause for thought. Much like Eve disrupting the bromance between God and Adam, the Queen of Albion is a very early example of a female figure who apparently makes alliances between men harder.

Not everyone used the Lancelot story to have a go at women. When Dryden and Purcell wrote “King Arthur” (1691), an allegorical work in praise of the joint sovereigns William III and Mary II, they dropped Guinevere and replaced her with a character of their own invention: Emmeline, a virtuous blind girl who gets lost in the forest. Casting aspersions on a mythical queen is one thing – implying to a real one that women aren’t up to the job of royal office has consequences.

. . . .

The Bloomsbury Group, said Dorothy Parker, lived in squares and loved in triangles. But some triangles have sharp edges, and some sexual radicals can be as hurtfully secretive as the generation they rebel against, as the life of mosaic-maker Angelica Garnett shows. In the summer of 1937, when she was 18, Angelica’s mother, painter Vanessa Bell, took to her one side and explained that her real father was not the critic Clive Bell, but her lover and Fitzroy Square neighbour, artist Duncan Grant. This information did not produce a great family realignment: Vanessa advised her daughter not to discuss it with Clive; Angelica never raised the matter with Grant.

A year later, another layer of secrets started to be overlaid. Angelica began an affair with a married family friend, David Garnett, nicknamed “Bunny” after a rabbit-skin cloak he wore as a child. He soon became a widower. In 1942 Angelica became his wife and one of the few people in their immediate circle who didn’t know that the groom had once been the lover of Duncan Grant and had even tried it on with Vanessa Bell. Incredibly, Garnett had been present at Angelica’s birth. When the baby was weighed in a shoebox on the kitchen scales, Garnett wrote to Lytton Strachey: “Its beauty is the remarkable thing…I think of marrying it; when she is 20 I shall be 46 – will it be scandalous?” It wasn’t, because nobody really talked about it.

One of the key stories of Bloomsbury lore asserts that the modern world began on a spring evening in 1908, in a flat on Gordon Square. Lytton Strachey walked into the drawing room and pointed at a white mark on Vanessa Bell’s dress. “Semen?” he asked. “With that one word”, wrote Virginia Woolf, “all barriers of reticence and reserve went down…It was, I think, a great advance in civilisation.” The anecdote remained unpublished until 1976, once everyone in the room that day was safely and unembarrassably dead.

. . . .

Love depends on chance meetings, frail coincidences. So does cinema. “Casablanca” (1942) went into production because Jack Warner wanted his film studio to be aligned against Hitler. Its hero, Humphrey Bogart’s Rick Blaine, a cynical bystander in neutral French Morocco, is on the journey that Warner wanted for America. “I stick my neck out for nobody,” Rick declares, early in the movie. Then his old flame Ilsa (Ingrid Bergman) and her antifa husband Victor Laszlo (Paul Henreid) arrive like a two-person Pearl Harbour.

Rick’s and Ilsa’s song, “As Time Goes By”, was an old Herman Hupfield number that featured in the stage play on which the script was based. The film’s composer, Max Steiner, wanted to replace it. But the piano scenes were already shot and Bergman had cut her hair short to play the lead in “For Whom the Bell Tolls”, so Steiner swallowed his pride and incorporated “As Time Goes By” into his score. One verse hit the floor, in which Hupfield expresses his “apprehension” about the “fourth dimension”. (“We get a trifle weary”, he says, “with Mr. Einstein’s theory.”)

It’s the lost key to the story of Rick, Ilsa and Victor. “As Time Goes By” is a song that rejects both general relativity and moral relativism – in the context of a story that demonstrates that some principles are too important, too fundamental, to compromise. Rick and Ilsa sacrifice their personal happiness for the good of the war effort. That’s what makes the movie so powerful.

But the universe had already rewarded them for their selflessness. In the first year of the conflict, they fell in love in France. (“The Germans wore grey,” recalls Rick. “You wore blue.”) Their memories of that affair are unassailable, eternal, sealed up in that famous flashback sequence. France may have fallen to the Nazis, but Rick and Ilsa will always have Paris.

Link to the rest at The Economist