At the Back Fence Issue#164

Treat Yourself to the AAR Bookbag!

August 1, 2003 

This time around we announce the winner in our seventh annual Purple Prose Parody Contest. We veer off the romance road but stick with the humor highway (don’t you just love a cringe-worthy pun?) in a Q&A with Time writer Joel Stein. Then we bring things back to romance with a look at how well American authors “get” foreign settings, brought to you by AAR reviewer Jennifer Schendel.

2003 Purple Prose Parody Contest (LLB)

Fourteen intrepid romance readers (and authors) entered our seventh annual Purple Prose Parody Contest. Three authors entered and three other entries were submitted by previous contest participants – Cheryl Sneed, who was one of last year’s winners, Blythe Barnhill, who’s entered the contest six out of the last seven years (and writes more hilariously each year), and Rachel Potter, who’s participated three years in a row.

Of the 14 entries, two jumped out to an early lead while three others took positions behind them. The remainder of the entries received far fewer votes. Early voters indicated slim pickings, but once the threat of cancellation for this contest was made, the votes poured in, as well as many pleas to continue the contest. I acquiesce to these readers/authors; the contest will continue.

Here’s a quick run-down of this year’s entries:

  • The TSTL Story is a romance synopsis featuring such time-honored clichés as the character’s names and physical attributes, a cross-dressing heroine saved by the hero, and the oft-used “heroine running into the hero in the library late at night wearing only her shift.” The comparison/contrast between this as a traditional Regency or as an historical set in the Regency was dead-on: “He sees her legs through her nightie, gets uncontrollably carried away and they have a snog and a grope, but don’t go All The Way. (Here’s where you can tell what kind of Regency this. If he sees a patch through her nightrail, that makes it a historical. If his gaze strays no higher than her thighs, it’s a trad).”
  • For the second year in a row an homage to Christine Feehan’s Carpathian series was submitted. In Dark Parody the parodist captured the hero’s deaf-to-denial attitude toward his heroine, and when he refers to her “creamy breasts,” wouldn’t you know she actually lactates. The heroine isn’t exactly thrilled with the fact that her hero can read her mind – he knows, for instance, that the fungus growing between his toes disgusts her, but she sticks around in hopes that one day she’ll actually experience the mind-blowing orgasm she knows is coming… if only he didn’t suck her neck so badly she keeps passing out from a lack of blood.
  • In The Debut Author, a love scene is chronicled and opens with the hero standing outside the heroine’s bedroom door. He’s unable to sleep because he could hear her breathing from the other room “(maybe a sinus problem),” and as he’s about to enter the room, she opens the door, “her usual alabaster skin flushed from sleep, her eyes, normally so wide, so innocent, heavy with slumber, and he wondered if she would look like that after his glorious, stupendous, lovemaking (not to be confused with plain stupid).” In the end, though, the hero and heroine are left frustrated, he with his heavy erection and she with her pebbled nipples, when the lights go out – the author is done writing for the day and won’t resume writing until the next morning.
  • In The Audition, an author looks for a villain; her hero and heroine, left to their own devices, have resolved their “issues” by page 150 and a villain is necessary to muck up the works. Characters with names such as “Yura Badeigh” and “Evie L. Beech” try out for the role but are eliminated; the latter because she doesn’t boil bunnies or anything more nefarious than being “younger and more beautiful than the heroine.” All that’s needed to make her work, says Evie, is to put her “in a couple of skanky sex scenes” so she can be established as the villain. The author hits pay dirt when who should show up but a man who “morphs” into the hero’s form in the latter half of the book. Because nobody can tell it’s him, he can do whatever he wants to the heroine, “rape her, smack her, spank her, berate her, mistrust her, whatever,” to generate “plenty of conflict” to keep the book going “well past the point of natural ending.” The man turns out to be none other than Clayton Westmoreland, who’s no longer with Whitney because they “just couldn’t seem to communicate.”
  • The Ballroom Encounter is a contemporary entry that could well have been set in Regency England, except that the author screwed up the titles. Hunt, the third son of the Earl of Boredom, approaches Miss Carrington-Smythe for a dance. She acquiesces because, of course, “it takes two to tango,” even though the Patronesses of Almack’s have not given permission. Later on, after the heroines faints, Chase, the younger and evil twin brother of the Earl of Boredom, pretends to be Hunt in order to create a scandal. Beau Brummell refuses to come to the aid of the lady as he does not wish to rumple his clothes, and says that he will “whisper in Prinny’s ears that he should change the law so that Chase Beveldom inherits the castle and all the wealth.”
  • As with last year, there’s another homage to horror writer Laurell K. Hamilton’s Anita Blake series, only in Anita Blake, Vampire Humper, Anita’s randier than ever. As “the passion of the ardeur” spills over her body, she realizes that even Jason’s toe jam is sexy. She has her way with him so many times he lapses into unconsciousness, but the ardeur rises again, and as she leans her head over him, drool, as it is “wont to do,” spills onto his groin. She next stops at Micah’s house and is greeted by his “huge member,” even though he’s in the next room. He fills her as “only a man the size of a mini-van could” and she leaves for her office. Later that day, she humps three customers and a zombie – “the vacant stare from it’s dead eyes was such a turn-on,” then, at vampire Jean-Claude’s house, she realizes how intriguing the candlestick on the dinner table is, “so long, and red, and… waxy,” and she could tell “by the way it flirtatiously flickered at me that it returned my passion. Sometimes a candlestick wants what a candlestick wants.” Later she notices how the new doorknob on his bedroom door grew harder in her hand, and as daybreak arrived and Jean-Claude turned into a corpse, it occurred to her that as a corpse, he’s a… “stiff.”
  • Dear Author offers a series of letters between a prospective author and an editor for a publishing house. At first it seems that there’s too much story and not enough sex – “There are only four love scenes in the novel, and they are all frankly too plain vanilla for this line.” The author diligently makes changes in her manuscript based on the editor’s input, and endeavors to be creative in her use of metaphor; unfortunately, neither the hero’s thrusting of his “love banana into the heroine’s warm melted marshmallow” nor the depiction of the hero’s penis as a “rigid wooden spoon stirring the heroine’s creamy alfredo sauce” works for the editor. In the end, the manuscript is rejected as having too little plot and too filled with sex, and, oh yeah, that line of romances has been discontinued.
  • Homage is paid to Mary Balogh in Once a Ho, as the heroine stops her wedding to the hero to inform him that he’s not getting the sweet, virginal young thing he believes her to be. You see, on Tuesday she learned her father had debts that needed to be paid and decided to sell herself to satisfy them. The hero has a tough time coming to grips with this as he returned Thursday and could have paid the debts at that time. And after the heroine’s father informs them he didn’t have any debts and he too was coming home Thursday, the butcher, the household servants, and the local dancing master all indicate they would have either waited or waived their charges. As he hears the story, the hero becomes upset, reminding his heroine that “he was f_cking come home Thursday.” And though he tends to agree with the heroine when she cries that he deserves a better wife (and that his former mistress “not only gave the world’s best blow jobs but was completely conversant in enlightenment thinkers”), he realizes “someone had to take care of this girl and keep her away from pointy objects and complicated machinery,” and marries her anyway.
  • In the next entry, a young woman discovers Pandora’s Button and is incredibly enthusiastic about it. So enthusiastic that when gorgeous Greek god Aries watches her make her discovery from across the room (he’s in invisible form), he worries that “if this gets out, women everywhere will figure out their own buttons.” He determines he will replace this memory with one of him locating the button of Pandora Tightbox, but when she smells the aroma of B.O. as it wafts across the room, she’s not all that happy about it. When Aires reveals himself to her in all his gorgeous but smelly glory, she rejects him and he turns into stone right there in her living room. As excited as Pandora is about her button discovery, she wonders how long it’ll take for the B.O. smell to leave her small house.
  • In Across the Room, the heroine spies the man she wants. He’s “short and dumpy” and wore a “puce green jacket with a yellow shirt.” When a tall, muscular, and very handsome man asks her to dance, she gives “him the direct cut,” but he refuses to take no for answer, grabs her, and kisses her right there in the assembly hall. He kisses her until “she felt her dress grow wet,” “walked off with the smell of sex on her dress to her true love… who smelled more and more of onions and garlic as she walked across the room.”
  • The Virgin Widow Sex Kitten shocks the hell out of her hero when, as they have sex, he realizes she’s a virgin. He’s perplexed that she was married for so long without ever having consummated her marriage, but her much-older first husband was too kind to press. When he asks how she knew how to thrust her tongue down his throat when they kissed at Vauxhall, he’s shocked even further to learn it was her first kiss. She tells him: “that was an accident! I didn’t mean to! I tasted a bit of strawberry on your lips, and I couldn’t help myself. I love strawberries and so I…. I licked it off. You didn’t seem to mind then, why do you now?” And when he asks why she brushed up against him on another occasion and fondled him, she answers, “You had muffin crumbs on your waistcoat and I brushed them away, but they fell down toward your breeches and so I followed them…” She shocks him further when they do it again and her behavior is that of a wanton woman; she fondles herself, pleases him with her mouth, and drives him so crazy his last thought upon completion is, “God save him from Virgin Widows.”
  • In Love’s Burning Itch, the heroine decides she deserves one night of “throbbing passion” before entering into a marriage of convenience with her clammy cousin. The hero’s footman leads her into the room of his master, Roderick Horne, Duke of Lech, and tells her not to break the bed. She’s surprised that the duke is not alone – “On his left lay a busty blonde; on his right, a striking redhead. A mysterious brunette sprawled over his feet.” When he asks if she’s interested in a “menage a cinq,” she shakes her head no, and when he offers to call in a “couple of footmen undressing in the next room,” she can’t believe “sevensies” could even be legal. He has the doxies leave, but nothing seems to be working as she’d imagined. She’d figured he’d be so entranced by her virginal charms that he’d force her to marry him. He answers, “Why would I do that?” he asked. “You got tits made of gold or something? Secret past as a sultan’s harem girl? Extraordinary skills with a whip?” The Lech leaves and Letitia, resigned to her fate, decides that perhaps someday she can learn affection for her cousin.
  • In The Pitch, Jane Austen goes to a publisher with her idea for the book we know as Pride and Prejudice, only she faces a far different reaction than presumably Jane did. In order to provide the action and sex required to have her book published she must change the name of her characters (Darcy becomes Devil, Lydia becomes Lustier), add several sequels, including one called Sex and Sensuality, re-write the first line of her story, add ravishings, kidnappings, and Big Misunderstandings (other than the one in which Elizabeth believes Wickam over Darcy). Darcy’s ten thousand pounds a year becomes the ten thousand women he’s slept with, and when Lizzy tells Darcy thank you for rescuing her sister, Austen is told the scene should include a moonlight skinny-dipping so the heroine may thank the hero with her body. This entry sent collective shudders through our readers, who could all too easily envision what might happen if Jane Austen entered the offices of a New York publisher today.
  • The final submission in this year’s contest is an homage to Julia Quinn’s Bridgerton series entitled The Further Annotations of Lady Disallclown. Written as one of Lady Whistledown’s society chronicles, it satirizes much of what readers adore about this series. The Bridgertons are the “prolific, alphabetical, look-alike Spannertons” (there are eight eligible brothers “who have been otherwise known to avoid” society crushes “with remarkable perseverance” in order to avoid the entrapment of marriage), Mr. Bert Spannerton is “not to be confused with his elder brother, Viscount I-Shoulda-Been-A-Duke Albert Spannerton,” and younger sister Daffodil is “fondly referred to as Daffy” (other sisters in the family include Flora, Lilac, Hydrangea, and Zinnia, “who is as yet just a zygote).”

The rules to this contest allow AAR staff to enter, but if they win, they are ineligible for the prize. That occurred two years ago when then-reviewer/editor Marianne Stillings shared the title for Parody in Death with reader Andrea Geist. This year AAR’s Managing Editor, Blythe Barnhill, shares her title for Once a Ho with author Amanda Grange, whose entry was The Pitch.

Watching this contest progress over the past seven years is one of my greatest joys as AAR’s publisher. What began as a very basic idea has turned into a feature keenly anticipated at the site, a feature that has showcased the creativity, humor, and playfulness of our online community. I’ll be adding comments to the contest page not only from the winners, but from past winners and others who voted in a few days, but please join me now and congratulate Amanda and Blythe for their brilliant entries. It takes a lot of courage to put yourself out there as all 14 who entered this year did, and I’d like to extend my thanks to them as well.

A terrific prize awaits Amanda; possibly our most intriguing advertiser, Timeless Message, has donated one of their elegant messages in a bottle for her to send to someone she loves. Her message will be sent in a gorgeous European crafted bottle of her choice within a wooden crate designed to give a Renaissance feeling.

Laughter (LLB)

My relationship with my daughter is complex, but when she doesn’t hate me for being too strict or embarrassing her by breathing, she actually thinks I’m pretty cool. She knows it’s not everyone’s mom who indulges in sloth days with her child, arranges “family video game night,” stays current on pop culture of interest to 11-year-olds, and is not-so-secretly pleased when her daughter stays up late at night reading. And it’s not just any mom who introduces her daughter to the joys of watching old sit-coms.

In between the end of the school year and sleep-away camp, we had lots to do, including daily walks, shopping for camp, packing for camp, reading the books assigned for summer, and doing the summer math homework. But all work and no play makes for a whiny kid, and so we engaged in a little television R&R, watching seminal episodes of The Nanny and The Addams Family.

It didn’t take her long to notice that Gomez and Morticia had it going on: “Mommy, why is he always kissing her arm?” and “Do you see how nice he is to her?” were the two questions she had after watching a few episodes.

And she couldn’t believe how the hypochondriacal, sickly Gomez turned into such a wide-eyed, head-standing/Zen-Yogi practicing Latin Lover once he spied the lovely Morticia shortly before his arranged marriage to her daisy-haired older sister Ophelia.

More than simple lust is necessary to romance; a good sense of humor also seems a requirement, which likely explains why I enjoy humorous romances so much (and why we have a picture of Don Knotts as Barney Fife on our list of Spies, PI’s and Warriors along with Mel Gibson as William Wallace). As for real life, not only is my own husband one of the most handsome men I’ve ever seen, but his dry, caustic wit cracks me up. It may seem odd, but one of my fondest memories of laughing with him is the night we thought up the most horrendous insults for each other. To this day one of the ones he came up with is so bad it’s not suitable for mixed company, and yet just thinking about it still makes me laugh.

Laughter is almost as important to me as breathing, and when I was in graduate school and discovered the writings of Calvin Trillin, I was in heaven. I followed his columns for The Nation (where he was “paid in the high two figures”) as they appeared in a number of hardcover anthologies, and watched his appearances whenever he was on late night TV. As each new book was released, I bought it – in hardcover! – and except for that book of humorous poems he published in the mid-1990s, I’ve loved ’em all, whether he riffed on politics, obsessed about food (and cereals “stinky with riboflavin”), wrote lovingly of his family and the odd assortment of characters he has known, or satirized Rudolph Guliani in a book that had the unfortunate luck of being released after September 11, Tepper Isn’t Going Out.

His column for The Nation was eventually syndicated, and while sitting in a doctor’s office waiting room one day some years ago, I picked up Time and realized he was writing a small column for the magazine, at which point I immediately subscribed even though I’d been (and continue to be) a longtime Newsweek reader. Imagine my surprise when I discovered that he was sharing column space with some pretender named Joel Stein.

Imagine my surprise when I read this pretender’s column and liked it! It was surprisingly snarky, self-reverential/self-mocking, and funny. Joel Stein, as I later described him to a friend, was like the funniest Jewish guy you knew in college. Whip-smart, and “fast” funny, he was the person who always had a scathing one-liner you wish you’d made, but would never have thought of until an hour later.

It’s no secret that I’m a tremendous fan of Entertainment Weekly, and when EW began to run The Joel Stein Show on their back page last December, it quickly replaced Jim Mullen’s Hot Sheet as the first page I’d flip to when I picked up the magazine. A few weeks ago there was no The Joel Stein Show; neither was there the following week, but when I read one of his articles for Time (they can be accessed via this archive) about programming a week’s worth of evening programs for Trio, I figured he was on hiatus (even though, yes, that programming probably occurred some time ago). But then, when my next issue of EW arrived in the mail and his column was again missing, I started to panic, and when I read a throw-away line in the magazine’s TV section referring to him as “former EW columnist Joel Stein,” I decided it was time to find out what happened.

And so I googled him, found his website, and emailed him. He responded to my email entitled “Oh, no – Say it ain’t so, Joe(l)!” and confirmed that he’d been let go. Since my entire writing career on the Internet is predicated on using the Internet to learn about books, people, and places of interest to me, I asked if I could interview him. He agreed.

I’m a “fangirl” of few people – I would be a Calvin Trillin groupie if I could, and would follow Dale Chihuly shows at galleries and museums around the world like a Dead-head were it possible. I think I’m a Joel Stein junkie too, and the thought of interviewing him raised a cold sweat. How could I possibly interview this man and keep up with his quick wit? I’d be left behind in no time and come across looking like an idiot. As Robin counseled, I decided to play “straight man” as best I could, and over the course of a few days, we engaged in a lively discussion about his career, his life, and pop culture that I’d like to share with you now. But be forewarned, I don’t think I ever actually got the chance to talk with the “real” Joel Stein, even though I don’t believe, as he wrote, that “I am not that interesting. I will fake it.”

LLB: I’ve referred to you in my blog as a “younger Joe Queenan.” I’d probably add to that at this point a “younger Jon Stewart.” Whom do you find you are most often compared to, and whom do you think is a better “match?”

Joel Stein: I wish I were compared to either. I’m more often compared with my cousin Howie, who makes a lot of money as a lawyer.

LLB: Were you intimidated at “sharing” space with Calvin Trillin in Time?

Joel: I was really excited about it. I figured even if people hated me they’d think I was good since someone thought I was good enough to share space with Trillin. It almost worked.

LLB: I tuned in to your My Trio gig this week. The first show I watched was Idiot Savant, that MTV game show that reminded me more of Win Ben Stein’s Money than anything else. How did you know the answer to that health question on “the gout?” I read a lot about English history and lots of old, fat Englishmen had “the gout.” Are you a hypochondriac or is history just one of the things you know about?

Joel: Ben Franklin had gout and I thought that was funny when I was a kid. I still think its funny that your legs get bloated from eating too much.

LLB: At Stanford (and even before) you wrote in the same mocking style you utilize today. Did you ever write “straight” news?

Joel: Yes. Time makes me. It’s no fun.

LLB: In trying to describe you, I referred to you as being like “the funniest smart-ass Jewish friend you had in college.” Almost all my male friends growing up were funny smart-ass Jewish guys, and so is my husband. I know you grew up in New Jersey – were you a princeling in your family? Describe your family and home life.

Joel: You’re married? Why am I bothering with this?

My parents and sister (7 years younger) would talk a lot and argue at the table and I’d be quiet. But they did treat me like I was the second coming of Christ. That’s why I act this way.

LLB: Define your role in your world through each decade of your life. And, why the mullet?


  • 1-10: First child on both sides of the family. I was a genius.
  • 11-20: I was a wannabe burnout. I never smoked pot, but I had a huge mullet and more concert T-shirts than Fred Siegel. Then I got into Stanford.
  • 21-30: Struggled for a job, worked for Martha Stewart and then got a job at Time Out and then Time. I was a prodigy. I also get married.
  • 31-40: My career falls apart.

I cannot defend the mullet. But in a perfect world, where style was not judged and your look didn’t identify your class, I would have a mullet and dress like a pimp with a codpiece. Because it’s inherently cool.

LLB: What is it about your make-up that you remember lines from Chumbawumba songs or television shows that first aired before you could possibly have seen them? Did you have someone take you in hand (as I’m doing with my daughter) and introduce you to “classic” TV comedy and movies (musicals and comedies, of course) or were/are you simply addicted to Nick at Nite?

Joel: This is how you’re educating your daughter? You should really look into the whole “reading” thing.

LLB: Hey, reading and stealing my make-up are at the top of her list of recreational activities. But since I listen to Eminem and watch Hilary Duff with her, she watches re-runs and old movies with me. Seems fair enough.

So, how did an East Coast snarky Jewish boy wind up at Stanford?

Joel: My parents said I could go if I got rejected by Harvard, Princeton and Yale. It worked out well.

LLB: Let’s do a sort of word-association game. I’ll ask you a series of TV-related questions and you answer with the first thing that comes into your head.


Favorite episodes of your favorite shows Jim’s Inheritance from Taxi
The finale of Cheers
Homer meets his mom from The Simpsons
The finale of The Mary Tyler Moore Show
The Contest episode of Seinfeld
Hank’s Sex Tape from The Larry Sanders Show
Funhouse episode of The Sopranos
Best TV Mom Mrs. Brady
Best TV Wife Mary Tyler Moore in The Dick Van Dyke show
Most Annoying TV Child That red-headed kid on Facts of Life *
* (Neither Tootie nor Natalie nor Blair nor Jo was a red-head, but a red-haired Mackenzie Astin played “Andy,” a character in the last year or two of the show.)

LLB: You’ve been quite successful (we’ll get to EW later) poking fun at pop culture, from Liza and David to Snoop Dog to Adam Sandler. Do you see yourself doing this forever? What dreams of writing did you have while growing up that you would like to fulfill?

Joel: I’d like to write a book, but that sounds hard.

LLB: Aside from collecting glass unicorns, what are your guilty pleasures?

Joel: I feel guilty about nothing.

LLB: As a kid, what did you want to be when you grew up?

Joel: An actor. Then a writer once I found out that actors don’t get to write their own stuff.

LLB: One of the things I did earlier this week was to re-read all your EW columns and grade them on the “snark-meter.” Did your snarkiness eventually cost you the column? I loved the Adam Sandler column, but did it cross the line? Do your editors ever have to pull you back or is what we read pretty much as snarky as you originally write? How do you get away with being so snarky, and with being paid for it!? (Unless you are an EW subscriber or look at the physical magazine for a different weekly access code, you won’t be able to read Stein’s EW columns online.)

Joel: I don’t usually get away with it. And I have no idea why they pay me.

I can’t believe you read all those articles and graded them. You are some journalist. I guess I was better at the beginning. Weird. I hated the Jimmy Kimmel one.

They only cut a joke or two per article, so it’s as snarky as I want to be. Adam Sandler’s manager loved the Sandler piece, so it couldn’t have been that snarky.

LLB: Why were you let go from EW?

Joel: I don’t know. It’s like any breakup. They say something nice when they let you go, but you never know the truth. I’ll write for anyone that will run my column. We’ll see.

LLB: Of the shows you programmed for Trio, I can understand Battle of the Network Stars and Good, Clean Porn (The Devil in Miss Jones and Debbie Does Dallas sans the sex and nudity), but Pink Lady and Jeff?

Joel: Yeah, that was a mistake. I was curious. I’d heard so much about it.

LLB: No one knows as much “stuff” as you do without reading a great deal. Are you and were you always a “bookie?” And, what do you like to read?

Joel: I watched an endless amount of TV growing up, but I also read a lot. The trick is to be very unpopular and not waste your time on “friends.”

My favorite books are probably The Sound and The Fury, Ulysses, The Waves, and Catcher in the Rye. As far as what I just read, I really liked Everything is Illuminated. And Infinite Jest blew me away. But that was a good while ago. I just finished my old boss’ new book, Benjamin Franklin, by Walter Isaacson. It was really good and I’m proud of reading it. I hadn’t done nonfiction in a good long while.

LLB: What are you like when “the Joel Stein” becomes plain old Joel Stein?

Joel: Nicer and more boring. But with strange super powers I can’t reveal publicly.

Those of you who live in Canada might want to check out Hey Joel, an animated comedy series originally created and produced by Joel Stein for VH-1. It airs on Tuesday evenings on the Bravo Channel in Canada; so far no word on when it may air in the U.S.

It was announced on Thursday, July 31st that a column written by Stephen King will now appear on the back page of EW. While I enjoyed his “review” of the latest Harry Potter novel, I’ll certainly miss Joel’s column and will have to limit myself to his writing for Time.

Do They Get it Right? (Jennifer Schendel)

At the beginning of this year I went to England. I’m not one of those people who makes travel decisions based on books they’ve read, but I’d often find myself standing inside a medieval castle or a Tudor house and wonder:

  • Did the characters of Deveraux’s Velvet series live in a castle like this?
  • Did Francis Crawford of Dunnett’s Lymond Chronicles stay in a place like this?

While authors can bring a foreign locale and characters to life, are they giving readers an authentic portrayal? AAR’s foreign readers weighed in on this question of how their homeland and culture is portrayed in romance novels.

I was fortunate enough to hear from readers around the world, from Australia, Austria, Finland, France, Germany, Great Britain (although some readers prefer to be considered English or Scottish rather than British), Haiti, Ireland, the Middle East, Northern Ireland, and Uruguay. Not everyone has read a book set in their specific country, but their homelands have been mentioned, modeled into fictional nations resembling their homelands, or been “next door” to nearby, similar countries written about in books. While some authors merely use a foreign setting like wallpaper and background color, others actually make an active effort to get things right from – whether it’s the inclusion of small facts, local attitudes and/or mores, or even “just” the typical tourist spiel.

Almost universal amongst foreign readers is that authors do not get foreign phrases right. This annoys foreign readers because language is a fairly simple thing to research unless you’re talking about dying dialects in the Arctic or New Guinea.

When asked what she wishes authors would try to learn about her country Rosario, who lives in Uruguay, responded, “At the very least, the language. No I don’t mean they should learn to speak fluent Spanish, but if they’re going to throw in random Spanish phrases, they should at least have someone proofread them.” Examples she gave of when authors get it wrong is the over use of the endearment “cara,” which is actually Italian, and direct translation from Spanish-English dictionaries that prove indecipherable by native speakers.

Or there was Liz from Austria’s response to the question “what do authors get wrong?” She answered, “I usually cringe if there is German in romance novels. Most of the time it is wrong. It is the kind of false German I really resent – especially since I taught German at an American university this past year and know there are people [in America] who speak German very well. It just seems a bit lazy to assume no-one will notice the mistakes.”

Amani from the Middle East also noted language as an issue when asked about what authors get wrong. She said, “it’s the small, glaring mistakes that I pick up on that really irritate me. For example, in the Arabic language all nouns have genders, there is nothing worse than when the author tries to use an Arabic word and used the wrong form or gender.” She does, however, acknowledge that there may be so many errors in Arabic found in novels because Arabic is spoken differently in different regions. She added, “as a result the names for things vary immensely from country to country, but also from city to city and individual groups.” She can forgive those errors, but when she catches an author pretending Turkish or Greek is Arabic, it’s simply unacceptable.

While an author might use a word correctly, she may not use it appropriately. When Maili from Scotland sees the use of “sassenach” as a term of endearment in Gabaldon’s Outlander series, she cringes because it’s inappropriate: “A ‘sassenach’ refers to anyone who does not speak Gaidhlig. And it’s not a nice reference – it’s a racist slur. It was a racist slur back then and it is still a racist slur today. It is like affectionately calling an Italian girlfriend a ‘wop’ or a French girlfriend a ‘frog’.”

Aside from the misuse of language, foreign readers aren’t happy about the overuse of stereotypes.

Each of the German readers whom I contacted wished authors would have German characters who weren’t Nazis. Antje said, “My impression is that authors often focus on the Nazi aspect of Germany and don’t really see [German] history before WWII. I think it’s important that we don’t forget, you must know we’re raised here in constant remembrance and WWII is still quite a topic in school here and visible and ‘alive’ in our daily life. But there is so much more and only national and European authors seem interested in this.” Antje pointed out that Germany gave birth to such historical figures as Beethoven, the Brothers Grimm, and Tsarina Catherine the Great. Their history was rich and varied long before the world wars. Kerstin also pointed out that in post-WWII Germany there were many American/German unions because of the American occupation of Germany: “All those lonely solders away from home… and the nice German Fräuleins who were so supportive and fed up with the grumpy Wehrmacht soldiers who came back defeated and disillusioned. Victorious soldiers who gift girls with chocolate and nylons are just more sexy. LOL. Yet you never ever see a romance about German girl and an American soldier!”

The other gripe German readers have is the idea that they run around in Lederhosen eating sauerkraut and drinking beer. These are common in the southern region of Bavaria, but, as Ute pointed out, “Bavaria is but part of Germany as Texas is of the USA.” Inga, Antje, and Kerstin all mentioned, contrary to popular thought, that Germans do have a sense of humor and aren’t anal about organization. And Kerstin wishes authors would realize there are more names in Germany than Fritz, Otto, or Carl, and that “not all German women are named Gretchen.”

Germans aren’t the only readers complaining about being stereotyped. Rosario is tired of seeing any country south of the Rio Grande being portrayed as “a banana republic with lots of jungle, run by brutal, corrupt, tinpot dictators.” She points out that Latin America is a large continent full of diversity. Her native country, for instance, has a “couple of big cosmopolitan cities” but is otherwise mostly grassland (pampas) used to graze cattle. There are no jungles in Uruguay. Rosario acknowledges that “corruption is a big problem, and will be for a long time, but does every single Latin American politician have to be corrupt (and a power-hungry maniac, at that)?” Along these lines, Haitian reader Islandelf would like Americans to realize that “Haiti is not all poverty and political unrest.”

As far as stereotypes, Amani points to a big one, and one that’s a huge pet peeve for her: the Western fascination with the middle-eastern harem. “The West is so fascinated by the notion [of the harem] that it dominates historical works. [But] the harem as an institution was not as common as perceived. Of course, royal princes and other important rulers did have them, but only a small percentage of men could have them, or even afford them.” She’s also tired of the cliché sheikhs popping up all over the place and is offended by characters who are half-Arabic and half of a Western nationality like English. Islandelf has a similar complaint about heroines who are half-Polynesian or Caribbean and half-American; both she and Amani believe this implies that a non-Caucasian character isn’t good enough or that Western blood is needed to overcome the baser side of what is generally seen as less civilized cultures.

And then there’s Ireland. Caoimhe points out that over the past 20 years, Ireland has changed tremendously – nicknamed the “Celtic Tiger” for its progressive economy – but many writers continue to depict Ireland as it used to be. She said, “Over the years a picture of quaint little Ireland has been presented through various media and I think despite the amount of research authors do some of that still shows through.” Both Caoimhe and Joanne point to Nora Roberts portrayal of Ireland as viewed through rose colored glasses. Caoimhe points out that the vast majority of Irish speak English and would not sprinkle Irish words and endearments throughout their speech and are not as spiritual (devoted to faerie legends) as portrayed.

English readers like Kay would like to see the end to what she calls the “Celtic Myth” where the English are always the bad guy while the Scots and Irish are all trustworthy and noble. In her opinion it would be like a majority of American set historicals dwelling on slavery and the genocide of Native Americans without acknowledging these activities were not practiced by every American.

At this point you’re probably thinking no American author gets anything right and foreign readers are upset. They’re not. They have quibbles like any other reader, but if they didn’t like American authors they wouldn’t be reading them. They do occasionally get it right.

Two of our Finnish readers acknowledge Nora Roberts’ portrayal of Helsinki in Three Fates is accurate – from a tourist’s point of view. Danielle was even more impressed with Carole Bellacera’s East of the Sun, West of the Moon where she managed “to give her Norwegian character a name that is appropriate and avoid the stereotypical,” noting that authors and scriptwriters “happily give Norwegian characters Swedish names and Swedes Danish names.” Danielle added: “Bellacera also manages the much more challenging task of giving him a character and personality that are quite at home in Norway/Scandinavia.”

Bellacera also wins brownie points with Irish reader Caoimhe for her book Border Crossings, who found it quite accurate. She was amazed that the author got so many of the details right; “few authors would have bothered to research” so thoroughly. Her reference, for example, “to needing a non-Catholic doctor to get a prescription for birth control pills,” reminded Caoimhe of conversations between her aunts about that very thing. “There were some sympathetic doctors who would prescribe it to ‘regulate your cycle’ or ‘other medical reasons,’ but apparently unless you knew their views for sure you never asked a Catholic doctor!” She also recalls an American married to an Irish woman who complained about how hard it had been for him to find a job in Ireland. “Once they heard his accent, suddenly there was nothing available. So her description of the American heroine finding it hard to get work was apparently quite valid as well.” Caoimhe only wishes Bellacera would “write something a bit lighter,” reading Border Crossings was “a bit too much like watching the news.”

German readers Antje and Inga were impressed with Suzanne Brockmann’s portrayal of Germans in Out of Control when Rose von Hopf recounts her trip to Germany. Austrian reader Liz had “no qualms” about Brockmann’s portrayal of Hank von Hopf as a character, except that his name is inaccurate for an Austrian royal.

Scottish reader Sylvia thought Gabaldon’s portrayal of Scotland in Outlander was so well done she was surprised to learn Gabaldon was American. Maili disagrees, though – while the portrayal was good, it wasn’t accurate for a Highland Scot.

Maxine, who lives in Australia, is impressed by how well Elizabeth Lowell generally handles her Australian settings. “Elizabeth Lowell gets it right, she knows exactly where to put ‘no worries’ in her books. I just finished Die In Plain Sight and this [phrase] appears any number of times through the book, but always in the right context of the story.” She added that Pearl Cove was “wonderful, not just for the plot and romance, but because it’s set in Australia, in a place called Broome. This is up north and it’s in the tropics, I loved reading this book, I felt like I was there, between the fierce sun, the humidity, and the sand that got into everything.” Not that Lowell always gets it 100% right. Maxine found that Lowell went over the top in Chain Lightning: “A mother who calls her children in for dinner yells ‘all roos fall in for tucker.’ You don’t find your average Australian using this word all that often.” Another criticism regarding the slang in Chain Lightning was Lowell’s apparent overuse of the term “Sheila,” which many consider out-dated these days.

Amani appreciates the research Mary Jo Putney put into her books set in the Middle East, and the fact that MJP relies less on the “iconic stereotypes.” Kay feels that Carla Kelly and Judith Ivory get the English voice right. Maili believes that Loretta Chase and Laura Kinsale do a good job with the British setting.

While foreign readers have their quibbles, most agree the good far outweighs the bad, although, as Genevieve (a Frenchwoman who now lives in Canada) said, “with the Internet, and a profusion of video about countries, cities, nature, etc., it is possible for an author to do a thorough research and totally immerse herself so she actually feels like being there.” In other words, there’s no excuse for getting it wrong. Foreign readers are happy to see their homeland mentioned, but would ask that authors do their research and try to avoid clichés.

Some of those readers contacted for this segment offered the following books/author for information or a bit of authentic foreign flavor:


  • FinlandBrigitta, a novella by Adalbert Stifter
  • Books by Stefan Zweig, Arthur Schnitzler, and Marie von Ebner-Eschenbach
  • Tightrope Men by Desmond Bagley
  • Cloudsketcher by Richard Rayner Kalevala
  • The Egyptian: a Novel by Mika Waltari (described as a great book for insight into the Finnish mentality)
  • Wonderful Woman by the Water by Monika Fagerholm
  • Anything written by Kaari Utrio, “Finland’s Queen of historical romance”


  • Jean Giono
  • Henri Pourrat
  • Marcel Proust
  • Andre Gide
  • Andre Mauriac
  • Colette
  • Romain Duhamel
  • Roger Martin du Gard
  • Jean Giardoux
  • Francois Morand
  • Henri Troyat
  • Andre Malraux
  • Antoine de Saint-Exupery
  • Albert Camus
  • Emile Zola


  • Kristin Lavransdatter trilogy by Sigrid Undset

Middle East

  • Cairo trilogy by Naguib Mahfouz
  • Season of the Migration to the North by Tayeb Salih
  • Guests of the Sheikh by Elizabeth Warnock Fernea
  • Orientalism by Edward Said
  • Lady Mary Wortley Montagu’s book about her time at the Ottoman court


Time to Post to the Message Board

histbut What is it about the Purple Prose Parody that you most enjoy/appreciate? Over the years, which have been your favorite entries, and why? What changes would you like to see for next year’s contest? Have you ever considered entering but didn’t?

histbutHow annoying is purple prose to you as a reader? Is it in the top five of your pet peeves? If you had 10 minutes to talk with a publisher, would it be one of your complaints? If not, what would you complain about?

histbut Which newspaper and/or magazine columnists/writers do you regularly read, and why?

histbut What is your definition of pop culture, and what’s your level of interest in it? If you were a groupie, whom would you follow?

histbut Has the setting of a novel ever inspired you to visit a foreign country? If so, what novel, and which country? And, what foreign countries would you like to see as settings for romances?

histbut What are your favorite romance novels set outside the U.S.? Conversely, what stereotypes or possible factoids do you see in books set in foreign countries that you’d like to verify or further study?

histbut Which romance novels set in your neck of the woods got it right? Which ones got it wrong? Either way, please explain, and share the biggest misconceptions or stereotypes about your city, state, or nationality.

histbut Post your comments and/or questions to our Potpourri Message Board

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