At the Back Fence Issue #242

October 23, 2006

From the Desk of Robin Uncapher:

Texas Candidate Fred Head: Still Reading for the Good Parts

Romance novels have been good for Texas and good to it as well. When romance readers pick up a book they don’t look for a character from New York, Maryland, Rhode Island or Idaho. They look for Texas. A tall, strong man from Texas who loves his country and his woman – that is what they want to read. Thousands, maybe millions of Texas women read romance novels and hundreds write them. Texas in a romance novel is the quintessentially American location. Texas heroes shoot from the hip, defend their women, and love their country. When romance writers conjure up a Texas born hero, something they do with astonishing regularity, the guy’s a keeper. Handsome, masculine, strong, kind, honest, trustworthy, heroes from Texas are also sexy, very sexy. Upsetting as this probably is to a lot of Texas men, there are women all over the United States, indeed all over the world, dreaming about them.

I would never have guessed this but apparently for some men, this is too hard burden a to bear. Some guys who read Texas style romance novels can’t be content to read about a feisty woman who meets a handsome cowboy, falls madly in love, and gets married. Some guys don’t have the patience to read that old story. Fred Head, for example – the Democratic Candidate for Texas State Comptroller – likes to skip to the good parts. You know what I mean, the mushy parts with all the kissing and other stuff – yeah what my twelve year old self would have called the dirty parts.

I understand how Fred feels. In the sixth grade, someone in my class came to school with an old copy of Knock on Any Door, a potboiler from 1947 with some subtle sex. The author used the word “breasts” and, as a result, the book was passed from kid to kid who read nothing but the marked pages. Like everybody else I read the sex pages while sitting in class one day, holding the book under the desk and squinting. In short, I read it for the good parts. I have not done that since I was twelve.

Fred Head, age 67 and Democratic Candidate for Texas State Comptroller is still reading books for the good parts.

 Like those boys who came to my 6th grade class with the “dirty pages” clipped together for easy finding, Fred Head has posted the “good parts” of A Perfect Match, a 1990 romance novel by his opponent, Republican Candidate Susan Combs, on his website.

Fred, Fred, Fred! What would Mom say if she knew you had gone into her sewing drawer and found a grown-up book?

Here’s a little clip of what Fred has to say:

Susan Combs claims to be a person of high moral standards. Her record of writing, having published and selling a pornographic book clearly shows that Susan Combs is a two faced, hypocrite who was obviously more concerned with her literary career and seeing her name in print than the morals of the young People of Texas who are exposed to her 222 page book, A Perfect Match, which has her name at the top of every other page – – – a clear testament to Susan Combs’ insatiable ego and desire to see her name in print.

Putting aside (for just a moment) the issue of the insatiable arrogance of Susan-Combs-ego-maniac-romance-writer (who somehow forced her publisher to put her name on every other page of her book), there are those who say that the smartest thing for romance readers to do is to ignore Fred Head. His candidacy is low on money and this is a tactic to stir up controversy and alienate some of Susan Combs most conservative backers. Talking about how outrageous and obnoxious, not to mention sexist, Fred Head’s comments are – simply gives him publicity which is exactly what he wants. If we want Susan Combs to win goes this argument, the best thing to do it to avoid giving free publicity to Fred Head and quietly encourage romance readers in Texas to vote.

For this reason, the Romance Writers of America sent the following statement in response to my inquiry on Fred Head:

Romance Writers of America is aware of the comments made by Fred Head against his opponent Susan Combs. Head has very little money to fund his campaign; with Election Day nearing, his only hope is to garner free publicity and get his name in the papers by personally attacking Susan Combs. RWA has taken the position that issuing an official statement will likely draw more media attention to Head’s statements and possibly further his campaign. While we are offended by his baseless and ignorant statements, RWA is not going to inadvertently further Head’s campaign. Instead, RWA encourages all Texas voters to make their opinions known by voting on Election Day.

There is only one problem with this argument: I don’t care if Fred Head wins and I don’t think that RWA should care either. As for free publicity, couldn’t romance novels use a little?

I don’t care who wins the State Comptrollers race in Texas even though I would probably not vote for Fred if I were a Texan. His comment about Susan Combs’ name being on every other page of her book tells me that he doesn’t read anything at all. Fred just doesn’t seem bright enough for the job. Despite this I can’t help but regret that Fred seems doomed to lose the race. His comments could provide a perfect entrée to a discussion of real romance novels and their popularity with all kinds of women. With enemies like Fred, who needs friends?

Not being a Texan I’m not going to be choosing their comptroller, which is fine with me. So I don’t really have to worry if my attack on Fred will inadvertently help his campaign.

What I care about, and what RWA should care about, is whether romance readers should go undefended when some nitwit calls them pornography readers.

Why are romance readers seen as a group so powerless, so worthy of being ridiculed, that somebody can call them pornography readers and there is nobody to defend them? And why aren’t women screaming in Texas, a state that loves romance novels and gets wonderful publicity from them? The number of romance readers in Texas must equal or outnumber the number of people who think romance is pornography – why all the silence? Are Texas women considered to be more understanding than people so ignorant that they would assume that a Kismet book with the clichéd romance title of A Perfect Match is pornography?

Like it or not, conservative or liberal, religious or atheist, haven’t we all seen pornography? Hasn’t Fred Head seen it? If he hasn’t he is surely too sheltered to assume statewide office anywhere. Come on! Real pornography is hard to avoid even for those of us who do our best to avoid it. Without a spyware program it pops up uninvited on my computer. It stares at me from magazine shelves right next to Oprah Magazine and Ladies Home Journal.

To her everlasting credit Susan Combs herself, who has now moved on to a career in politics, has praised romance and romance writers, and said she is proud of the book she wrote. Good for her.

In preparing this article I called Fred Head’s office and asked to speak with the Communications Director. I left my name and told the person who took the call that I was preparing a column for All About Romance. What I did not tell her was that I wanted to know the names of the last five books Fred has purchased. I was told that the candidate himself would return my call that afternoon, so I figured that I would ask him myself.

Fred Head never called me, which refutes – at least a bit – the idea that he is dying to get into a tussle with romance readers.

There are some romance novelists who have spoken out. The Houston Chapter of the Romance Writers of America sent me this statement:

Fred Head, Democratic Candidate for State Comptroller of Texas, contends that, because his opponent published a novel depicting premarital sex, she is hypocritical in her Abstinence Only stance regarding sex education.

If that were the bulk of his statement, the romance writing community might not have taken issue with his contention. However, he has labeled Susan Combs “a pornographer,” and suggested on his web site that a woman cannot be moral, fulfilling the duties of a public servant, and also write or read romance novels.

Houston Bay Area, Chapter 30 of the Romance Writers of America®, has no opinion on the State Comptroller position or whether the candidates are qualified for the position, nor does it endorse or oppose either candidate.

HBA does, however, object to Mr. Head’s characterization of Ms. Comb’s romance novel as “pornography.” In attempting to smear his opponent, he has misrepresented romance as porn.

As a result, he has alienated romance writers and readers regardless of their political persuasion.

Romance novels celebrate two people who overcome obstacles and engage in personal growth to create a monogamous, committed relationship; these novels often, but not always, include descriptions of physical acts. Pornography celebrates physical acts apart from any emotional context, which can result in the exploitation and denigration of women.

Romance readers purchase over 50% of all mass market paperback novels, spending 1.2 billion dollars annually. Ironically, Texas, the state Mr. Head wants to serve, is also home of the Romance Writers of America, a 9,000-strong writers group that promotes the romance genre and encourages its members to pursue excellence in their work. Out of the 144 RWA chapters across North America, Texas has 11.

Mr. Head should rethink his campaign against Ms. Combs. He has misstated the facts, and he should not engage in a smear campaign against an entire genre to make a point about his political opponent.

There are also individual authors who have made statements. Author Adele Ashworth, who lives in Texas was so outraged by Fred Head’s comments that she posted on Potpourri to let us know about them. Adele had a lot of great things to say in her post, which we’ve saved for posterity in this faux pop-up, but my favorites were her comments about other writers. I doubt that Fred is a big reader. His webpage seems to indicate otherwise, but surely he has heard of Dean Kootz and Larry McMurtry. What I’d like to know is this: where are Dean Koontz and Larry McMurtry when we need them? If someone called them pornographers, wouldn’t they expect other writers to jump to their defense and to the defense of their readers?

As I said earlier, I don’t live in Texas and I don’t really care who ends up being Texas State Comptroller. I do care that a huge group of female romance readers have been used as a battering ram and almost nobody seems to be doing anything about it. Fred Head doesn’t seem too astute, but what if somebody else takes up his cause? Shouldn’t romance readers be letting somebody know that they too are an interest to be considered in an election.

bumperstickerthumbnailTo the romance readers of Texas, I have no suggestions on voting. But I suggested to Laurie that we create a bumper sticker, and here is a thumbnail version of it. If you click it, a new window will open for its purchase at Shop AAR.

How do you think romance readers should respond to Fred Head?

Does Fred Head’s statement reveal anything about the feelings of the general public about romance novels?

Is Fred Head a gift horse? Could he be used as a way of publicizing the best of romance, or its widespread popularity? If so how?

Is Fred Head a Texas only phenomenon? Do you know of any other politicians who have used Fred Head’s tactic of calling romance novels pornography? If so who, and how have they done this?

What do you think of the bumper sticker – I READ ROMANCE AND I VOTE?

Robin Uncapher

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

(AAR uses BYRON for its romance reference needs)

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