At the Back Fence Issue #319

October 6, 2008

From the Desk of Abi Bishop:

The One Where Abi Is All Bark, No Bite and Living in the Caribbean

In this episode Abi spends five lackluster minutes in her local bookstore searching for a romance book on the romance shelf. All she can find is some Zane, several Nicholas Sparks, an understandably mislocated Carl Hiassen (title: Skinny Dip; cover: pink) and the literary compendium of Danielle Steel.

She asks herself why she even bothers and heads over to the only romance bookstore on the island, a thirty minute drive away. It is a closet romance store. Mystery and horror titles take up three quarters of the space but there are always at least four women butt-brushing in the cramped romance aisles while a lone gentleman can peruse Dean Koontz unmolested and at his leisure.

As she enters the store, Abi hopes Loretta Chase’s Your Scandalous Ways has arrived. If she has to wait one more day she will throw credit card debt to the wind and purchase it on Amazon. Alas…it has not arrived. Abi browses for about forty minutes. She narrowly misses out on the latest and last Julia Quinn because the lady to her right has eyes like a hawk and hands faster than Usain Bolt’s feet. Damn it!

Abi rents four books: Susan Elizabeth Phillips’ Nobody’s Baby But Mine, Kathleen O’Reilly’s Nightcap, Sherry Thomas’ Delicious and Marjorie Liu’s Soul Song. She’ll buy them later if she likes any but appreciates the opportunity to borrow now. On her way home Abi stops off at the bank. It’s month-end so the queue will be hideously long. She tucks her Blaze into her purse, a nifty travel companion and decides to bring Soul Song along too. There is a hot, presumably naked man on the Liu cover but Abi is really not bothered. Who cares? She certainly doesn’t. She’ll read what she wants, when she wants, where she wants!

She wonders whether she should keep Soul Song for at home and take the SEP instead. Not that the generic yellow cover and barely discernible graphics of the SEP have anything to do with this. To prove her point, she will take Delicious, undone corset and all, strangers in the bank bedamned. No, she will stick with her original choice. Naked man comes with her.

The bank queue rivals that for Space Mountain at Disney World. Abi recognizes her excellent foresight in bringing along two books to while away the hour. She takes out her O’Reilly. Gee, is there any other book in the world more recognizable than a Harlequin? The Bible. Maybe. She folds the cover back tightly and as far as it can go because it’s easier to read that way, not for any…other…reason.

Gosh, that heroine Cleo sure has some vivid sexual dreams. The word “impaling” seems extra stark against the white of the page, what with it being in black ink and all. It even looks larger than the other words and – Abi stops reading and glances to her right – is that man looking over her shoulder? How rude! She wonders if he can see the words stallion large, fluid stroke, potency, and well endowed. They are in flashing neon lights so if the color red didn’t clue him in, the smut talk would for sure. Most importantly however, he needed to mind his own damn business.

Abi flips past the rest of Cleo’s dream and continues to read. Cleo and Sean are turning out to be quite sexually active. But most importantly, she cannot read with that man breathing down her back! She is forced to return the O’Reilly to her purse. As she slips it in, the Liu falls to the floor, face up. Sweet Jesu. Not that it matters! So what? She can read what she wants, when she wants, where she wants! The woman in front of her offers assistance where it is not needed and retrieves the Liu. Abi is not imagining it; there is a smirk on her stupid, ignorant face. Long walk, short pier okay, lady?

Abi returns the naked man to her purse and decides to watch the TV instead. BBC America. She is au courant with world news and intensely interested in all the going-ons.

Finished with the bank, Abi walks back to her car. Inside, she pulls out all four books, gives them a few random flips and reads their blurbs again to decide on appropriate reading order for when she is home. The O’Reilly will be good for a lazy Friday night and she is mentally quibbling over leaving Delicious or the SEP for last when someone knocks on her window. An acquaintance! Friendly but not friends, you know how that goes.

Hello, hello. Today was just too hot! TGIF. Indeed. What books are those? Oh, just some romances I picked up for the weekend. Ha ha, ha ha. I must lend you my Great West Indian Author, seminal work! Ok, sure, thanks.

Acquaintance moves on. Abi searches for her backbone because it is missing. She thinks of all the romances she’s read and compares the best of them with the best of the Great Authors. Romance more than holds its own. She does not care what the critics say.

Or so she says?

I read romance in public all the time but there are occasions – many more than I like – when I become self-conscious and choose to hide my choice of reading material. It may depend on the cover (anything starring Fabio), the title (Sex, Straight Up for example), the sexual content (I had a hard time reading Mine Till Midnight by Lisa Kleypas while standing in a line) or simply my surroundings (do I know anybody in the queue? Are people close together or is there a comfortable amount of personal space?) but notwithstanding my desire to be romance-reading and proud, I can’t say I’ve reached the position where I am 100% confident in 100% of situations, flashing my books around.

In the example I gave above, I disparage romance novels by prefacing them with the descriptor “just,” as in “nothing imporant.” However, I also have moments where I enter a defensive mode. On those occasions, I hold my book directly in front my face and dare anybody to say anything, anything at all about that half dressed woman atop silk sheets or that book called Burning Desire. In defensive mode, I am also extra happy and very loud. If that acquaintance had met me in the bank queue I would have said for all of town and country to hear: “I’m reading a Harlequin Blaze, you know, a romance, like Mills & Boon. So far, so good. I’m enjoying it, particularly the hot sex scenes,” or something similarly obnoxious.

Disparagement and defensiveness are two sides of the same coin of shame. I look forward to that day when I can answer a “what are you reading?” question with a factual answer, devoid of any emotion. “A romance,” I will say, as indistinct in inflection from “a medical suspense” with no compunction to give a wry, accompanying smile; no urge to chuck the book to the side and disavow ownership.

I enjoyed Jane G’s column last week and aspire to that level of pride in my reading choices. I’m not interested in being a romance activist to the wider world so much as activating my own sense of self however. I truly believe some of the best writing in modern literature can be found within the romance canon and yet, yet – too often I lose my backbone. I have found it of infinite more ease to bark about the quality of romance than to follow up with an explanatory bite. Or in a more relevant cliché, unrestrained public support for romance novels is easier said than done!

Do you ever chicken out while reading your romance books in public? Do you have a jacket cover for example or are your spines horribly bent in your quest to hide all six of Fabio’s packs from the man opposite you on the train? If you don’t suffer through any of these personal crises, please offer words of wisdom to those of us that do.

Abi Bishop