Tag Archives: romance novels

How dare you write that?

Before landing a publisher for my novel Daisy, I had several rejections from editors at various houses who were extremely complimentary about my refashioning of F. Scott FItzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. Their praise, however, was followed by the inevitable “but,” that could be summarized thus: Retelling such a great American classic is a risk.

I paraphrase, but that was the gist of their reaction, and I thoroughly understand their reticence, even if I disagreed with it. If they published a retelling of such a famous book, would they look foolish if it wasn’t extravagantly praised by critics?

Fortunately for me, I found a publisher as fearless as I was in writing this novel. Thank you, Bancroft Press.

Like those rejecting editors, though, I do worry a bit about the reaction to Daisy, if critics will like it, or if they’ll wonder: How dare she take on this sacred text? Who does she think she is?

Actually, for a long time, I thought I was a nobody in the writing world. Though I was often complimented on my writing ability, was making a decent freelance career of writing for various health care organizations and others, and loved writing fiction in my spare time (I penned short story after short story rejected by magazines), I didn’t give myself permission to write fiction seriously until I was in my forties.

For a long time, I thought successful–or at least serious–fiction writers were like Fitzgerald, graduates or attendees of Ivy League colleges who moved in a certain elite set of fellow writers and lived exciting lives.

I came from unfashionable suburbia and didn’t even have a liberal arts degree. (My two degrees are from a music conservatory — I hold a B.M. and M.M. in voice performance.) I was a wife and mother. I hadn’t attended any prestigious writing seminars or workshops. I didn’t know anyone in the fiction-writing world and didn’t know how it worked. I once sent a story to Simon & Schuster addressed to the “Fiction Editor.” That’s how clueless I was.

I’ve told this story before, but it was my sister who encouraged me to give novel-writing a go, investing the time and creative energy into it, and I started in genre fiction. My first adult novel was a romance (or chick lit, as it was labeled at the time) published by Harlequin. And before anyone criticizes romance, you should know I’m a fierce defender of that genre, mostly comprised of women authors who tell wonderful stories using a formula they keep fresh for readers.

My writing heart led me to other stories over the years, and I’ve charted two paths for myself. One is commercial fiction meant to appeal to wider audiences. I landed a film deal for one of those books, a romantic comedy titled Fire Me (no film yet, alas, but it provided a nice payment to me).

The other path I’ve trod is what some call upmarket fiction, stories that appeal to readers looking for tales with perhaps more complex themes and no guarantee of happy endings. My success in that area has included critical praise, some prizes, (BookLife quarter finalist for Death Is the Cool Night) and the Huffington Post including my retelling of Jane Eyre, titled Sloane Hall, in a list of only 14 books they highlighted on the 200th anniversary of Charlotte Bronte’s birth.

That bring us to Daisy, a book that falls into this upmarket category. By the time I got around to writing this story, I was beyond giving myself permission to write. I just wanted to hear Daisy’s story, and since it wasn’t available, I wrote it myself.

I wasn’t thinking about how daring it was to retell this great classic. I just wanted to see and hear Daisy speak. So I gave her words and told her story. Because by this point in my life, I’ve come to the conclusion that it doesn’t matter that I didn’t go to Princeton like FItzgerald, that I don’t pal around with famous literary writers, that I don’t move in the writing seminar crowd. I’m a writer. A novelist. That’s all you need to know.

Recently, I came across the quote below from Neil Gaiman that really speaks to me. This is who I aspire to be now after finally giving myself permission to be a novelist years ago. I strive to write with assurance and confidence. So of course I wrote Daisy, a story of a woman learning to find a new assurance and confidence in her own life.

Daisy by Libby Sternberg will be released digitally in July and in hardcover in September, published by Bancroft Press.

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No, Cokie, Weiner’s no Harlequin hero

by Libby Sternberg

ImageDisgraceful, offensive, insulting to women…No, I’m not talking about Anthony Weiner’s latest sexual peccadilloes. I’m referring to Cokie Roberts’s comments about same. On MSNBC’s Morning Joe program this past week, the ABC News political commentator had this to say: “(his) tweets… were so pornographic, and, by the way, so bad. They were like some Harlequin novel.”

I know Harlequin novels, Ms. Roberts. And Anthony Weiner’s tweets are no Harlequin novel.

Well, let me edit that—I’ve not actually read Mr. Weiner’s tweets, but if they reflect his actions of assuming false identities to talk pornographically or expose himself to women, they are no Harlequin novel. I should know. I’ve been published by Harlequin and I’m familiar with a lot of their books.

Harlequin publishes a wide range of what is called in the book business “women’s fiction,” stories that deal with family, love, children—tales where the target audience is women looking for a good, satisfying read.

In the romance end of this spectrum, books range from sweet “inspirationals” that contain absolutely no sex or cursing (but do contain Christian faith references) to steamy tomes where sexual attraction pulls hero and heroine together, and the authors are fearless in describing it. Romance authors are talented women who know how to tell a story well, are in touch with women’s concerns, and who work hard to convey the enduring strength of requited –and monogamous—love.

And therein lies the reason for the distinction between Weiner’s tweets and romance authors’ expertise: Weiner is no hero.

Already disgraced by similar actions that in 2011 led to his resignation as a congressman, Weiner now faced the public with his wife Huma Abedin beside him, attempting to convey to the world that he’s reformed and forgiven. A real hero wouldn’t do that to his wife, and romance authors write real heroes.

In romance novels, the formula is simple: hero and heroine meet, fall for each other, can’t be together for some reason, decide they love each other, have a “black moment” where all seems lost, and then a reconciliation and HEA (happily ever after).

Before you laugh into your Dom Perignon Rose 2002, let me point out that this formula might be familiar to those who think of themselves as lovers of Great Lit-rah-chure.

It’s the plot of Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, for one. And hundreds of other well-respected novels.

Jane Eyre’s template, in fact, offers a useful analytical tool for determining the difference between a Wiener story and a true romance tale, where heroes might be flawed and tortured but redemption and transformation don’t come cheap.

Rochester literally endures a cathartic fire (in which he attempts but fails to save his mad wife) before his redemption is complete, and his Jane returns to him.

Jane herself is the archetype for today’s romance heroines—independent, feisty, strong. They might forgive their Rochester heroes, their alpha-males gone astray, but they respect themselves too much to be degraded by anyone. And in the end, it is that quality that makes them most appealing to the heroes of these tales.

In fact, Bronte’s heroine had no moral scolds to answer to—her immediate family was either dead or estranged—but she demurred when Edward Rochester tempted her to be his mistress after the “black moment” when it’s revealed he already has a wife, albeit a mad one hidden in the attic. Jane refuses, despite compelling arguments from the pitiable Rochester, now tormented by the thought of losing his one true love. Here is how Bronte writes Jane’s inner struggle:

“…soothe him; save him; love him; tell him you love him and will be his. Who in the world cares for you? Or who will be injured by what you do?


Still indomitable was the reply—“I care for myself. The more solitary, the more friendless, the more unsustained I am, the more I will respect myself. ….”

The heroines in romance novels are all heiresses to that legacy. No hero would dare ask such a heroine to be his prop in a press conference where he’s admitting to continuing the downward spiral that got him into trouble in the first place.

So, no, Ms. Roberts, Mr. Weiner’s “writing” is no romance novel. Far from it. In a real romance novel, he’d be the lecherous villain the hero and heroine together fight off.

This post originally appeared at Liberty Unyielding. Libby Sternberg is a novelist. Her latest book, not a romance novel, is After the War.

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