Sitcom Serenade

Does anyone else think that there are enough crime shows on TV? How about medical investigation shows? And am I the only person on the planet who loathes “American Idol”?

It could be argued that there are more despised forms of entertainment. Mimes are not universally appreciated. Serious poetry will always have an empty seat next to it on the bus. Some people don’t even like rock ‘n roll. But perhaps the largest number of people feel secure in dismissing the conventional half-hour-long television situation comedy as plebeian. I feel pretty sure most of the serious poetry  fans do, anyway.

Not me. Although I’ll be the first to admit that the vast majority of these lightweight vehicles fall far short of that brisk confection of wit and timing, subtly and slapstick, and keenness of observation which raise great comedy to a timeless art, there are times, in the best sitcoms, when all the elements miraculously come together and for a few brief shining moments we can be transported out of this world of woe.

Like many of my generation, I took to television at an early age, when the medium was still rough and raw and all in black and white. Pioneer days indeed. The sitcoms of those days, “The Honeymooners,” “I Love Lucy,” and later, “Leave It To Beaver,” set the pattern for the next few decades, when other shows carried forward the sitcom gene code (Mary Tyler Moore), broke new ground (“M*A*S*H,” “Three’s Company”) and raised the bar (“Cheers,” “That 70’s Show,” and “Seinfeld”).

These days it’s tough to come up with a sitcom idea that hasn’t already had all the laughs wrung out of it. Yet each season plucky writers keep trying, and I salute them. But mostly, I sing of Chuck Lorre. The creator of such long running hits as “Two and a Half Men” was unknown to me until he launched “The Big Bang Theory” a year or so ago. The premise: four geeks live across the hall from a cute waitress. And, as they say, hi-jinks ensue. But the quality of those hi-jinks is a quantum leap from the “Lucy makes a mess of things again” type plot lines of fifty years ago.

To get a glimpse of the brain behind “Big Bang” I tracked down the Chuck Lorre Vanity Page site.

You know how at the end of some shows, after the credits and just before the next ad, a block of text  flashes across the screen for about the time it takes to read the first three words and then it’s gone?  I was driving myself mad trying to read them until I found the site. Then, after reading a dozen or so of them, I felt that warm glow that comes when you find an author whose world view resonates with your own.

Not everyone will agree with me, of course. But for those of you who like a little noir with your Zen, a little crunch in your creampuff, or the occasional soupçon of irony in your viewing regimen, you might find “The Big Bang Theory” a diverting little detour from life as we know it.

Write or Wrong

I can’t relate to Kindle.
The iPad leaves me cold.

I understand that the publishing industry is running scared. Fewer people read books these days. Fewer still buy them. Profit margins are shrinking, and publishers are grasping at any device to lure customers away from movies, television, and video games and back to the printed word.

I have friends who adore their high tech gadgets. But I cannot embrace a future without books. And when I say books, I mean the kind with paper pages that whisper softly as you turn them, that get stained but don’t die when you spill coffee on them.

So, being the deluded optimist that I am, after reading in  The New Yorker how Apple founder Steve Jobs asserted that forty percent of Americans read only one book or less in the last year, I choose to focus on the positive side of that statistic. Math was never my strong suit, but it seems to me that the other sixty percent must be reading at least one book a year. In fact, according to  some sources, the Americans who do read tend to read an average of twenty books a year ( Not too shabby.

However, we all know that statistics were invented to facilitate obfuscation.
What has me worried is the idea of a future in which children don’t sit in their parents’ laps listening to “Goodnight Moon,” or “Where the Wild Things Are,” but instead watch a video played on a flatscreen mounted in the crib. I suppose that seems fairly harmless to the generation whose children have grown up watching videos in the family SUV.

Of course sci-fi writers have been painting ominous pictures of dystopian futures for some time, but the disturbing truth is that reality  has a way of outdoing fiction for flat-out bizarre terror. I recently read a deeply disturbing yet brilliant book about an all-too possible future where the kind of non-stop video and internet info-slush-pile no longer takes place outside the human body in a handheld device. In “feed,” M.T. Anderson’s 2002 prize-winning young adult novel, children are implanted with a transmitter that keeps them continually updated, connected and marketed to in a world which has become toxic through pollution and corporate over-reaching. In the context of Anderson’s imaginative vision, the notion of reading a hand-held book seems laughably out-dated. But the chilling message of “feed” reveals the danger of surrendering our autonomy to giant powers outside ourselves, who decide what stories will be told, and how.

Stories have power. Every religion is founded on a story. Something precious is lost when we lose our ability to give and receive the spoken and written word. I’m not saying there’s anything inherently wrong with the iPad and the Kindle and the Nook, and whatever comes after them. But I hope in our rush to “improve” the technology of the book we don’t lose sight of what really matters.

Written books are the notes we pass in the classroom of human history. Pssst. Pass it on.

Glee Fool

Glee is one of those odd words which conveys in one short syllable both a giddy positivism and its twisted darker side. It’s a slightly psychotic word.

Perhaps that’s why it’s so apt as the title of the latest Fox network hit, which revolves around the bright hopes and delusional romances of a group of musically gifted high school students and the Machiavellian machinations of the cheerleading coach determined to destroy them.

Gosh. If that’s not good TV, I don’t know what is.

Well, truly, I don’t think I would ever make the cut as a TV programmer, since every show I like tends to get cancelled after one season. “Freaks and Geeks,” for instance. Now there was a brilliant, funny, subtle show about the American high school experience. The cast in that show hardly every broke into song without irony. Ah well, at least many of them, such as James Franco and Seth Rogen, have moved on to illustrious or less lustrous careers in show biz.

The cast of “Glee” has already won a Golden Globe for its first season, which suggests that the actors may be stuck in high school for a bit longer than the customary four years. And I must confess, I do like “Glee,” in part because it’s so far removed from any reality I experienced in high school back in the pre-tech age, when a student could be sent home for wearing sandals, or a skirt which didn’t reach the knee. Back when “classic” rock was cutting edge.

But I digress. “Glee” is put together with the clear-eyed marketing savvy of a soft-drink campaign. Suffice it to say that in my day no member of the football team, much less the star quarterback, would have also been singing and dancing in the glee club. But in “Glee” the cast is a triumph of precision political correctness, with representatives from a rainbow of ethnic groups, as well as a token gay member, a few handicapped and a misunderstood diva in the Barbra Streisand mold before it set.

What prevents the show from being as insipid as a Pepsi ad is the gleeful venom of the antagonist, the cheerleading coach Sue Sylvester, played with verve and crisp conviction by Jane Lynch, an actress who for years has added panache to standard sitcom fare such as “Two and Half Men.” It’s great to see Lynch enjoying herself in this nasty role. Without her, “Glee” would sink from the weight of its relentless power pop numbers and flashy dance routines. I mean, seriously, what are these kids doing in high school when they obviously belong on Broadway?

The answer, of course, is that they aren’t in school. It’s make-believe as far removed from reality as any “reality” show, only a lot more fun to watch.

That said, it can’t last. If I like it, it’s doomed.
Mwah hah hah.

The Big Tease

Rainy Day Tulips
Rainy Day Tulips

They’re doing it again.

Up there in Skagit Valley, where the land flattens out for miles and the snow geese arrive in feathered clouds each spring, the tulips are tempting.

I succumbed to the call when I first moved to Seattle four years ago. I thought what could be more thrilling than acres and acres of tulips in bloom?

I can laugh about it now.

Veterans of the Pacific Northwest know all too well that only an idiot would expect to tiptoe through the tulips in early April, when the annual Skagit County Tulip Festival gets underway. The sadder but wiser tulip enthusiast wears full-body Gore-Tex and carries a sturdy full-size umbrella. For, although it is true that when the tulips bloom, the fields light up, it is also true that the sun is under no obligation to make an appearance.

The year I went, the temperatures were hovering in the low forties, wind gusts were in the teens, and a bracing drizzle completed the ensemble. Before I’d managed to shoot my compulsory two dozen snapshots, my nose was red, my lips were blue, and my teeth were chattering. Good times.

I’ll always remember that day for another reason, too. When I got home with my frozen feet and chapped face, I was drinking a restorative cup of cocoa when I opened my email and found a gushing note from my then-publisher, who was halfway through reading my second novel and loving it. She assured me she would be contacting me soon and that I could “expect good news.”

Pucker Up
Pucker Up
Hah, hah. Yes. I can laugh about it now.

Still, I’m glad I went to the tulip festival, if only because now each year when the forecasters begin the tulip drum roll, I don’t feel the urgency to salute. Been there, survived that. I’d do it again. Probably not this year, though. After we had the warmest January on record it seems we shot our wad for warmth. Since then it’s been back to the good old forty degrees with intermittent showers that we all know and love so well. It’s not so bad as long as you can find a nice warm bookstore or cafe to while away the wet hours. And of course it makes it easier to stay inside at one’s desk and work on that next novel. The one that’s sure to find a loving home somewhere.

The sun will come out eventually. I’m still expecting good news.

The Beauty in The Beast

The spirit of the wolf lives on in every dog.
The spirit of the wolf lives on in every dog.

Beasts: how we love them. Love to fear them. Love to hate them. Love to hunt them. Love to tell tales about them.

Since before the dawn of printed words, stories of wild animals whose actions blur the line between species have fascinated humans. To talk to the animals, to know what they think and feel, remains a subject of vivid interest. And of all animals, dogs have shown the greatest ability, and desire, to bond with humans, to serve, follow, and work for them. But . . . inside every dog, from the tiniest Chihuahua to the burliest mastiff, lurks genetic memory code of its ancestry — the wolf. Not exactly man’s best friend.

Wild inside.
Wild inside.

The romance of this idea has been exploited for centuries. And while modern teenagers may think, judging by some of the gushing postings on the web, that werewolves were reinvented solely by the author of the “Twilight” series, the truth is more complicated. The concept of the man/wolf, or the beast within us all, has been the subject and/or inspiration of many imaginative works, both literary and cinematic. When the “Twilight” generation were still wearing Pampers, Jack Nicholson astounded audiences in 1994 with his riveting portrayal in “Wolf.” One of the things that made Nicholson’s performance so impressive was that his convincing transformation from man to wolf was produced without the aid of digital enhancements or fake fur. It was all in the eyes, the attitude, the snarl.

Last week Benicio Del Toro joined the ranks of fine actors who have taken a walk on the wolf side in the new film, “The Wolfman.” It’s a grittier rendition than, say, Hugh Jackman’s pimped-out Wolverine character in the X-Men movies. But that’s part of what makes the genre entertaining. In literature and film, you really can teach a dog new tricks.

In Toby Barlow’s brilliant 2007 debut novel “Sharp Teeth” the myth of the lycanthrope is given a terrific noir spin. Set in modern LA, with a cast of characters that include a down on his luck dogcatcher, some female werewolves with sharp teeth of their own, and some competitive bridge players with more than cards up their sleeves, the story deals with issues of loyalty, justice, compassion and community without ever slipping into sentimentality. And, did I mention the entire thing is written in blank verse? I know. I wasn’t sure I was going to be able to hack it. But the clarity and occasional poetic power of the language, the nimble pace, and the fine-edged tone of the whole is such that you forget about the form and get swept away by the wonder of a good story well told.

Allen Ginsberg would have loved it.

What the Frack?

I have succumbed to “Caprica.”

I didn’t even put up a fight. As a former fan of “Battlestar Galatica,” the smashing Sci-Fi Channel series which set pulses racing with its taiko drums and noir attitude, I didn’t stumble unwittingly upon “Caprica.” I saw the slick ads in The New Yorker. I allowed myself to hope that the show might measure up.

And, so far, it’s not bad. The writers have a lot of compelling themes to work with – the uneasy alliance between artificial intelligence and humanity, the contested zone between religion and science, the limits of love and friendship in a world gone mad. The show is stylish, layered, and occasionally has the foreshadowing of those addictive drums.

But last night for the first time I heard one of the characters use the word “frack” as a verb to suggest—well, what we all assumed it meant in BG—a word that can’t be uttered on major networks. And it sounded natural in the fictional context. However, my own understanding of the word has irrevocably changed since I came across a story on the news wires earlier this week. The story by Associated Press Writers Marc Levy and Vicki Smith dealt with a drilling technique that has been used since the 1990s to tap natural gas fields.

The technique is called hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking.” And all this time I had thought how clever the writers of Battlestar had been to get around the confinement of obscenity rules by inventing a brand new euphemism which had the virtues of being both explosive on the tongue and somehow suggestively smutty. Yet, it turns out, the drilling technique, which involves pumping millions of gallons of water, sand and chemicals into wells to fracture the shale where the gas is trapped, produces a salty, foul wastewater too loaded with chemicals to be restored by conventional sewage and drinking water treatment plants. Hmm. Maybe the term is more obscene than I thought.

Of course, we all want energy to run our TVs and video games, not to mention the robots who will be doing our dirty work in the glorious future. But if our energy experts don’t figure out a better way to manage the millions of gallons of polluted water that fracking leaves behind, at some point in the not too distant future we may find ourselves well and truly fracked.

Yellow Gunk on My Pancake Heart

The Simpsons celebrates twenty seasons of satirical splendor tomorrow.marge0291

I’ll be tuned in.

Yet when it all started, more than twenty years ago, I had no time for television. I was working thirty hours a week at a newspaper in addition to taking college courses and raising three kids. Spare time was a fantasy.

Even so, The Simpsons seeped into my consciousness, in part because the half hour during which the show aired once a week was one of the only times my three children and their father would sit down and watch something together. The sound of them all laughing would float up the stairwell to the kitchen where I was cooking dinner. And that was good enough for me.

The Simpsons lexicon — Homer’s “d’oh!,” Nelson’s “hah, hah,” Flanders’ “okely dokely”, etc., crept into daily conversation. I knew what they looked like. I had a vague sense of the show’s skewed humor. But seriously, I had no idea how truly cool The Simpsons were until I got hooked on the reruns.

This was long after my kids had left home and gone out into the world to forge their own paths. That’s when the house got quiet. Too quiet. So, one evening, I turned on the tube and after flipping through the channels in vain for a few minutes I settled on The Simpsons. What the hell, I figured. My son had always urged me to give them a try. My daughters assured me I would like them.

How right they were. It didn’t take long for me to identify with Marge, to feel for Lisa, to forgive Bart for all his mistakes, and to love Homer in spite of his many flaws, because his heart is true. I make no mention of Maggie because, let’s face it, she’s an adorable baby; there’s no getting around it.

When I grew up, kids were expected to like cartoons. Saturday mornings were prime time. And the cartoons were lousy. No doubt there are people somewhere who thrilled to the antics of Tom and Jerry, Bugs Bunny and the Roadrunner. But I never saw the point of repeated gags about violence, greed and petty cruelty. The Simpsons’ “Itchy and Scratchy” segments are hard for me to watch only because they remind me of the inane antics that were provided as appropriate childrens’ fare in the late fifties.

The advent of more sophisticated shows like “Rocky and Bullwinkle” heralded a change in the culture, but there has never been anything like The Simpsons. In its ability to both mirror and mock the world in which we live, to inspire emotional connection without being sappy, and to provide insightful commentary on current issues, The Simpsons stands alone.

Here in Seattle, many locals point to the episode in which Springfield votes to build a monorail to boost its economy as an example of telling cultural criticism.

I’d be hard-pressed to pick a favorite episode. I’m not even sure if I’ve seen them all yet. But I think one of the Top Ten for me would have to be the episode titled “That 90s Show,” in which Homer starts a grunge band called Sadgasm after he thinks he’s lost Marge to a college professor.

I’m sure there will be college courses on The Simpsons in the future, if there aren’t already, and theses may be written on such tormented characters as Comic Book Guy and Moe the Bartender. But if I were still writing those kind of papers I could write a book about Marge. There’s a world of complexity underneath that blue tower of hair. As Homer put it so well in his timeless song “Margarine”: “Country churned girl in my grocery cart/ I paid for her dreams, she taught me to cry.”

Thank you, Matt Groening.

Write Stuff

When I first read Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird, a wise and wonderful book of advice for aspiring writers, I was encouraged by the author’s gentle nurturing approach. So many would-be authors falter after a few pages, daunted by the overwhelming task of building whole worlds out of mere words.

With humor and grace, Ms. Lamott reveals the simplest path to success. One step at a time. One word at a time.

It’s a lovely idea, and soothing in its way.

But although I’ve used that method, in the last couple of years I’ve also been trying a different approach. The organizers of National Novel Writing Month ( encourage hopeful authors of all ages and genres to throw caution and spelling to the winds, and write as if someone’s life depended on it.

The goal is fifty thousand words in thirty days. It helps to be slightly insane.

For some reason this system speaks to me. The craziness of it. The self-induced panic. The steadily mounting pressure. I find it strangely tonic.

Last year I managed to crank out a mediocre murder mystery in the time allotted. This year I started out with a kind of memoir idea. But one week into it I realized it was a mistake. I had to start all over. This meant fifty thousand words in twenty-three days.

Today I crossed the finish line. The book isn’t done. But it’s got muscle, bones, and some raw personality.
I can’t wait to see what it will do when it grows up.

Adios, Fabio

Dear Fabio,

I will never forget the breathless nights we spent together. You with that chest, those eyes, that chin, that hair. Me imagining us galloping off toward some castle in the air where you would do all those things implied in the covers of thousands of romance novels.

I can almost laugh about it now. Maybe, after my tears have dried, I’ll look back on our brief wild fling and be thankful to have known you at all.

But not yet. Though the passion that once burned so brightly still smolders, I can no longer pretend I don’t know that it’s over.

When, a few years ago, in a desperate and calculated move to improve the odds of getting published by a traditional publishing house I joined the Romance Writers of America, I was, as usual, naive about romance. I thought you would understand. To me, romance meant Jane Austen novels, in which no one ever embraces, much less gropes, on the page, and every discourse is civil and literate; yet, in spite of, or perhaps because of this, the reader is keenly aware of the passions cloaked by good manners.

But as I came to know you, and learned of the millions of romantic conquests you have made, I realized it would be a challenge to hold your interest with good conversation and manners. How quickly I learned the folly of my illusions.

I could blame my foolishness on the countless fairy tales I read when I was a young girl, stories from which I absorbed the idea that to make great sacrifices for love was thrilling. However, as I grew older, I learned that in real life happy endings are temporary at best.

Sentimental fool that I am, though, I still believe in true love and still fight tears during weepy reconciliation scenes any astute observer of current culture could have predicted from reading the liner notes. But I am growing weary of the lust for…well…lust.

Do I protest too much? Perhaps. I only know that I can no longer pretend I’m one of them – the romance writers. I tried to read their books. I tried to engage with heroines whom, quite honestly, I found either unsympathetic or unbelievable or both, who were pursued by or pursuing male characters who struck me as either arrogant jerks or charmless oafs.

I guess I should have known this would be the case. Sometimes you really can judge a book by its cover, and I should have realized that if the majority of romance readers yearn for a man like you, I’d be a fool to stand in their way.

I’ll always be a romantic, wishing the world were a bit kinder and gentler. But I’m through trying to pass myself off as one of the thousands of women who churn out “blazing hot reads” for the rapacious editors and agents who are convinced that, in order to succeed in these challenging times of decreasing literacy, they must entice readers with soft porn. Their heroines do it in the elevator. On the road. On horseback, at the castle, on the misty moor. But you and I, Fabio, will never do. I can see that now.

I want you to know that I will always remember what we never exactly had, and wonder what on earth I was thinking.

Don’t take it personally, my love. It’s not you. It’s me.

Adios, Fabio.

How I Became A Romance Writer

Whenever people ask me about my book, I hear the words coming out of my mouth before I can stop them, “Oh, it’s just a romance.”

This goes against all the advice of those in the romance industry, who are constantly trying to find ways to get the media and the public to give romance writers the respect they deserve. It’s an uphill battle. In most literary circles there’s no faster way to inspire a condescending sneer than to admit to being a romance novelist. In the sharp-toothed publishing pecking order romance novelists rank somewhere between the trendy graphic books and the virulent porno market.

My problem, I think, is that I’m a book snob too. Unlike the majority of the women who belong to the Romance Writers of America, I did not grow up reading lusty tales about raven haired beauties who tame the rakes. In my world a rake is a garden tool. My earliest reading experiences, the ones that imprinted my intellectual soul with a hunger for dry wit and happy endings, came from the novels of P.G. Wodehouse. I was eight years old when I first walked to the Jefferson Village public library in Falls Church and stumbled onto one of his divinely silly stories about the antics of Bertie Wooster and his man Jeeves, and I have been reading and rereading them ever since.

In my view, Wodehouse succeeds in putting on paper the kind of comedy of manners which has almost vanished in the current culture. Maybe that’s because nobody has manners anymore. But I don’t think so, although it does seem as if a regrettably large percentage of the population has come to accept rudeness as a kind of fashion statement. One can only hope that it will go the way of the bustle and hoop skirts. However, there’s another quality which distinguishes Wodehouse’s work from the current popular novel. There’s one thing you’ll never find in a Wodehouse novel. Actually, make that two things. There’s no sex. And no death. This is how you know it’s fiction.

Anyway. I mention Wodehouse because when people ask me what kind of book I write, I wish I could say, I write diverting little comedies like those of P.G. Wodehouse. But the market for such material is limited it seems. That was the first thing I learned when I set out to write fiction after leaving the newspaper business. The first novel I wrote was a kind of love letter to Fauquier, though it was set in an imaginary town, and peopled by totally imaginary characters. It was about a lovely young summer intern at a small weekly newspaper who becomes caught up in romance and intrigue when the tiny town gets selected for a visit from the President on his reelection tour.

Those of you who have lived here long enough may recall the delirium that descended on Main Street here when Bill Clinton and Al Gore stopped by for a carefully orchestrated appearance during the 1992 campaign. They were shaking hands on Main Street just outside the door here, and there were secret service men on the roof of Theresa’s Flowers. The memories of that event sparked my writing, but the plot of my novel was thickened with eccentric characters and colorful coots, and it had a happy, if perhaps slightly unrealistic, ending. But this was fiction, I thought. I could let myself go.

Of course, the two dozen agents and publishers who subsequently sent me rejection letters taught me that if you let yourself go as a writer, you probably won’t go very far. I was frustrated and disappointed, and immediately wrote another book based on my experiences as a singer in a party band. But here I was hampered by the fact that my live-in editor, my husband who played bass in the band, was worried that I would alienate all our old friends, so the book which eventually came out of it was a hybrid that now rests in perpetuity at the bottom of a drawer.

By this time, nearly two years had passed since I first decided to throw myself into the fiction business, and I was beginning to dread every social occasion because I knew sooner or later someone would turn to me and ask, “So, what do you do?” If you say, “I’m a writer,” then they ask, “Have you gotten anything published?” And then the long dreary saga unfolds.

Not being a carefree 20-something with all the time in the world, I decided I had to be more strategic with my next book. I started reading up on the publishing industry and learned that in order to market your work, you have to be able to label it. The dominant genres boil down to a handful. You’ve got your crime fiction, your suspense thrillers and your sweeping historical sagas. There’s the occasional genre breaking blockbuster, like The DaVinci Code or literary success, like The Life of Pi.

But, for those of us who don’t feel up to the task of generating drama on a massive scale, the widest road to getting published is the one that’s paved with romances. Romance books account for 30 percent of all books sold in this country. More than 2,000 romances are published each year. And the only unbreakable rule in the modern romance publishing business is that the story has to end happily.

Well, I said to myself, I can do that.

So, I did. But before I started I bought a slender little book called You Can Write A Romance written by the mother-daughter duo who founded Romance Writers of America. The book helped me to stay focused on the goal and not wander down any of the goofy sidetracks that frequently derail my train of thought. I wrote the book in three months. Then, I needed a game plan for getting it published. Having failed to get any editor’s attention through the query letters that I had dutifully sent out with my earlier books, this time I wanted to better my chances and the way to do this, the manual assured me, was to join the RWA.

I am not a joiner, but I plunged ahead and sent in my dues because only by doing so would I be eligible for a pitch session with an  editor or agent at the national conference, which was fast approaching that summer in New York. The number of these sessions is limited and they are allotted to writers based on their previous track record. Published authors get the first pick. Then the writers who have won awards in contests. And finally, the unknown, ‘unpubs’ like me are allowed into the game.

You get eight minutes. Eight minutes in which to summarize your years of effort and captivate a total stranger with your spiel about your book in the hope that they will ask to see more of it. The older, wiser pitch artists have it boiled down to one sentence. I worked hours to produce the one liner that would snag the editor’s attention. And then, about a week before I left for New York, I got an email informing me that the editor with whom I’d been granted an audience was from Avalon Books, a publisher whose standards for decency are among the strictest in the business. While many, if not most, romance publishers are looking for hot sexy romance, the kind that makes you squirm in your seat, Avalon will not accept any manuscript with sex scenes, or rough language, or even a hint of immoderate drinking. They allow a little more latitude in their line of westerns. The cowboys are allowed to say damn and hell, in moderation, and visit the saloon on occasion.

But in an Avalon romance, you can hint at hanky panky, but you can’t put in on the page.

Once I learned this I hastily edited my manuscript and removed any four or five letter words which might be deemed offensive. I told myself that I wasn’t selling out. After all, P.G. Wodehouse wrote more than 90 books in his career and never needed profanity to get a laugh so I didn’t either.

I don’t remember much about that first pitch session. It went by so fast. The editor was a girl about the age of my oldest daughter. She was perky and enthusiastic. She said she liked my idea right away and asked me to send her a synopsis and the first three chapters and that was it. I was elated. The excitement wore off  during the two years it took after that meeting before the day when my first book was published.

Since then I’ve had more pitch sessions, at other conferences, and I’ve learned that it’s not that uncommon for an editor to ask to see a synopsis and the first three chapters. It’s getting to the next level in the game that is tricky. And, in part, I think my problem is that at heart I’m not a romance writer. Not that there’s anything wrong with it.

But I’m not one. And I can’t fake it.

I realized this when I attended a romance writers conference in Boston last spring. It was called the Fool For Love conference, and the pitch sessions were scheduled on April 1. I was there, as usual, to meet with an agent to pitch a book. But, though several hundred of the women there had come for the same purpose, they differed from me in that all of them actually read and enjoy the romance genre. This was clearly evident during one of the highlights of the Boston conference, in which the women played a version of Jeopardy about romance novels, featuring questions about the dozens of popular heroines and hunks whose passions inflame those paperbacks you see on the shelves at the grocery store right beside the latest issues of Cosmopolitan.

The difference between me and those women who can play Jeopardy about the works of Georgette Heyer is that, honestly, I have never read any of her works. Nor have I read Nora Roberts, or Sherrilyn Kenyon. I did read a Julia Quinn book on a train once just to get a sense of the current standard for steamy romance, and I felt that queasy sense of embarrassment because the cover depicted a woman whose lush breasts were straining against her plunging satin neckline almost as hard as the bare chested studly dude whose smoldering dark eyes were locked on hers. The plot was one of those where the brooding sexy newly widowed hero hires a governess for his two children and discovers that beneath her modest exterior burns a fiery passion, blah, blah, blah. I gotta admit, it wasn’t boring. I kept having to put it down every few minutes so I could let my heart rate recover. I felt so used.

So, yeah. I can admire the writing skills of some of those authors, but, in truth,  I’m just not drawn to read that kind of stuff.  If I’m in the mood for romance,  my tastes lean more toward the contemporary social context and irony of writers like Helen Fielding, of Bridget Jones’s Diary fame or Anna Maxted, whose Running in Heels was thought provoking and hilarious. Both of those authors write sexy humor without the kind of ‘hero who needs to be tamed’ thing that still seems to be the standard in mainstream romance.

And, I also have gotten fed up with most of the whole chick lit genre. All those pink paperbacks on the tables at Borders. I mean, maybe I’m just over the hill and out of touch, but it saddens me to think that there’s an entire generation of women for whom shopping and sex are like competitive sports. Okay, maybe if I were a single career girl on the make in the city I might  find the antics of these heroines amusing. But really? These books where the heroine has sex with  a fireman in the elevator in the first chapter just leave me feeling, oh, I don’t know. Fed up? Maybe it’s envy. But it’s when the blurb on the jacket describes the author of this same feisty sex kitten as “our own Jane Austen” that I really feel the fire.

If I’m passionate about anything, it’s the sanctity of Jane Austen’s works. As far as I’m concerned, there is no one writing today who comes close to her brilliant insight and compassionate characterization. I’m not sure anyone could in this century, because the times really have changed. More to the point, the times have accelerated. I don’t know whether the fault lies with television, or the internet or the blistering pace of modern film editing, but few authors today are allowed the luxury of contemplative narrative. It’s got to be action, action, and more, faster action, with a side order of violence and/or sex, or you can forget about selling those movie rights. Yet, isn’t it amazing the way they keep making films about Jane Austen’s marvelously slow and thoughtful novels? There’s a new one coming out this month. True, they aren’t luring in that lucrative 12-to-28 year old male market that seems to be ruining everything for the rest of us, but at least it gives me hope.

One aside here just for any Jane Austen fans in the room, if you haven’t read Karen Joy Fowlers’s Jane Austen Book Club, you are in for a treat.

At any rate, now that I am a romance writer of sorts, I’ve met a lot of other romance writers, and I’m here to tell you they are an amazingly diverse group of women who know how to laugh. They are genuinely supportive and many of them are also incredibly talented, courageous and resourceful.So, I’m working on a new response to the questions about my romance book. I call it The Wilder Defense.

Some of you may have seen a movie made sometime in the 80s called Romancing the Stone. It starred Kathleen Turner and Michael Douglas and it was about a successful romance writer who goes off to Colombia on some far-fetched mission to rescue her kidnapped sister and meets a handsome adventurer in the jungle, and guess what? Yes indeedy. They exchange phone numbers and agree to go out for coffee. Not. So, anyway, as things hot up, they find themselves in this remote village surrounded by gun toting drug runners and just as it looks as though the movie is going to end a reel too soon, the heroine tries, like any self-respecting writer would, to talk her way out of it, and the hero taunts her, saying, “Let’s see you write your way out of this, Joan Wilder.” And suddenly the little window in the door behind them slides back like a shot and the drug kingpin sticks his head out and asks, “Joan Wilder? The Joan Wilder?”

It’s a beautiful moment. She smiles and says yes, and the drug lord’s face lights up like a birthday cake. He throws open the door and welcomes her into his well-appointed lair, where he raves about her books, which he has been reading to his men for years. It’s a veritable love fest. He can’t do enough for her. This scene made a deep and lasting impression on my husband, who has, needless to say, never read any romance but mine. Yet, from  the moment he saw that scene, he got it. He grasped the essential value of romance novels. At their best, they tap into the well of kindness and love that lies deep within every human, no matter how menacing or mundane they may appear. We may not all have the potential to be great lovers, or sustain grand romance, but we can all appreciate it when we see it, or read it.

Granted, romance may seem a frivolous conceit in a world so full of suffering and trouble. Yet, imagine a world without romance. I’d rather not.

Romance is the sugar that coats the bitter pill of reality and makes it a little easier to swallow. Life is hard. Love is never easy. But a little touch of romance can work wonders.

So, now, whenever I feel embarrassed to admit that my one and only published novel is a romance, I think of Joan Wilder. Sure, she was a fictional creature. But, so am I.