Those who know me well know I sometimes like to kick it old skool. But as I read The Highest Stakes of All and skimmed around — because I also like to do that — I started to feel uneasy. There’s “old skool” and then there’s “what the hell is this?” Even for a Sara Craven hero, this guy seemed extra rapey with potential slaver sauce on top — he not only essentially buys the heroine from her father, but he actually threatens to resell her to someone else when he’s done with her. Okay, there’s a line even a dark romance hero should not cross and unapologetically selling people as sex slaves is definitely on the other side of it.
Then I happened to see this on an inner page at the beginning of the book:
Harlequin Presents is pleased to present this new and exciting miniseries!
Arrogant and proud, unashamedly male!
HarlequinPresents with a retro twist…
Step back in time to when men were men — and women knew just how to tame them!
[For those not in the known, that would be by turning out to be virgins instead of sluts. And developing Stockholm Syndrome on cue.]
It’s totally hypocritical of me, but wow did that put me off. Of course category authors have always written to suit the market — and it’s not that there’s anything wrong with that! Naturally authors want to sell their books. And Harlequin has always been very deliberate about targeting its audiences, which is why it has so many different lines. (And for a time, had such blatantly — if not always reliably — descriptive titles.) That’s what Harlequin does. Considering my brand loyalty to Harlequin Presents, I can’t argue with it as a tactic.
But like this book’s hero, this promotion seems a step beyond. For one thing, it’s kind of insulting to both women and men. I know there are readers who genuinely do believe that old skool romance heroes were “real men” and thus more interesting, but most of us would not touch one with a ten foot pole wrapped in a ten foot condom in real life. And we’re glad to know men who are unashamedly not assholes.
And calling our beloved books “retro,” as if they’re some hip, ironic thing… that grates my cheese. I’m not saying I never read Harlequin Presents ironically, because sometimes they’re just damn funny. But that’s not something I plan — it’s something that just happens. When the The Unfeasibly Tall Billionaire… appeared, I most loved the chapters that conveyed a sense of genuine affection for the line. Kind of like my love/hate relationship with the books of Penny Jordan.
The promotion also doesn’t appear to be very effective. Not only does this book have less than a 3 star overall rating — with 40% 1-2 stars — but many reviewers found it not only offensive but boring on top of it. And there is no worse crime for a Harlequin Presents.
I suspect most of these readers sensed the essential insincerity of this book — that it was being deliberately written to try to appeal to them instead of somehow having that magic chemistry that results in reader consent to serious whatthefuckery. You can’t bottle that stuff. And you can’t write it on demand.