Spoofing romance novels: there’s a wrong way to do it, and there’s a right way.
I have a sense of humor. I love comedies and happily watch stand-up. I recently heard comic Lewis Black’s favorite joke: “If a man speaks in a forest and there’s no woman to hear him, is he still wrong?” Okay, that’s funny.
Spoofing romance novels: The Bad
When it comes to romance novels, I often find jokes made about them to be unfunny. New York Times journalist Jonathan Mahler, reporting on the sale of Harlequin to Rupert Murdoch on May 2, 2014, opened his article: “When News Corporation announced on Friday that it was buying the romance-novel publisher Harlequin Enterprises, cheap jokes inevitably started to fly. It was, needless to say, a bodice-ripper of an acquisition.”
See also: Bodice Ripper: Thoughts on the Terms
See further: The December 17, 2015 NYT crossword had the clue “Racy books named after a Victorian garment” for which the answer was “bodice rippers.” It was a Thursday puzzle, and there was a trick with how the answer fit the grid. I didn’t mind this use of the term in a crossword.
Mahler’s lazy joke is unfunny because it’s uninformed and sheds no light on a typical situation or human foible the way a good joke does. By using the term of abuse ‘bodice ripper,’ Mahler pits an in-group (those who know romance novels are crap) against an out-group (poor, benighted readers and writers of romance novels). In a word, his joke is cheap, as he himself acknowledges. Strange that he couldn’t censor himself.
Spoofing romance novels: The Good
Not all treatment of romance novels in the media is bad. Just this week I saw a really good treatment in Chapter Fifteen of The CW’s Jane the Virgin. The show itself is a spoof of a soap opera that hits just the right note between making fun of the form and embracing it with enthusiasm. It has a wild array of crazy characters, even crazier plotlines, and it’s all done with great fun and great heart.
The episode in question features romance novelist Angelique Harper, author of Frontier Lust, issued by Lattimore Publishing. The title character, Jane, is an aspiring author, and Angelique Harper is one of her idols. Angelique is scheduled to give a private reading at the Marbella Hotel in South Beach, Miami, which is run by one of Jane’s love interests, Rafael.
Rafael arranges for Jane to attend the private reading, and Jane is thrilled. When Angelique begins to read, Jane hears not a passage from Angelique’s latest novel but rather hears Angelique talking to her, which turns out to be the lead-in to a proposal of marriage from Rafael. The scene is funny, because at first Jane – and the TV audience – imagines that she is having a flight of fancy. Such flights are not uncommon in this show. So, the pay-off comes when both Jane and the TV audience realize that Angelique really is speaking to Jane and that Rafael has enlisted Angelique’s help with his proposal.
Rafael’s proposal is clever, romantic, and involves an amusing twist on the narrative style of his show. I won’t spoil more of the plot by telling you whether or not Jane accepts him.
In the episode romance novels appear in other scenes and are even called, at one point, “cheesy” – and I had absolutely no problem with this particular adjective in the context of this episode.
The reason is the show knows and loves romance novels, telenovelas, absurd plot twists, gorgeous villainesses, glitzy/glam Miami, and all the rest. It laughs with, not at.
I’ll quote from Bob Dylan’s The Times They Are A-Changin’: “Don’t criticize what you can’t understand.”
If you know and love romance novels, have all the fun you want spoofing romance novels. I’m sure I’ll enjoy it.
Otherwise, do a prejudice check on your literary tastes.
All images belong to the CW and Jane the Virgin
For a related blog post, see: The Mindy Project and Abby the Romance Writer.
This post was written by Julie Tetel Andresen