I once drove a forklift in a magazine distribution warehouse for a living and got to know romance, action adventure, and western paperbacks of the 1980s and 90s fairly well, since we handled a high volume of grocery store book sales. I read the cast-offs that got damaged in the sorting process on my breaks. The writing was usually atrocious, but it was an incremental education in what readers actually want.
Years later, when 50 Shades of Grey sold 15.2 million copies, I wasn’t shocked. When James Altucher called the book great literature on account of its sales figures, I shrugged. Someone was bound to make the “volume of sales” argument. It fit with what I was packing every day into forklift innerbodies. And it fit with what I knew about the mentality of the publishing industry, where books are “units” and the bottom line runs deeper than all literary pretension.
Recently, I had a long email exchange with a romance writer friend of mine about changes in her genre, which is now almost unrecognizable to me, since I haven’t done a lot of romance fiction editing and it’s been a long time since I’ve had a warehouse-level view of what is being shipped.
I learned some interesting things from her about the how genre fiction publishing is evolving. But I came away with one difficult unanswered question. Why do the main characters in romance novels now all seem to have unremarkable porn names—i.e. names suggestive of bank managers and legal assistants in gray office complexes somewhere in middle America? Ethan Chase. Julie Steel. Laura Woods. Richard Ward. Shannon Green. One gets the impression they should either be overseeing new accounts on the 15th floor or having a highly choreographed threesome in the back of a speedboat somewhere in Florida. Or both.
There are no more 70s porn names. Nobody’s named “Hung Johnson” or Cyndi Squeals anymore (and I suppose there never were in romance writing). Now there’s just boring character names like Sean Parker, Katie White, and Corey Davidson and equally boring characterization to follow. At least the Fabio romance novels of the early 90s had lurid bodice-ripper paintings on the covers to go along with “Pirate Fabio” or “Fabio in Space” or “Fabio Conquers the Cavemen” or “Fabio and the Secret of the Dragon Crystal”—basically all the same book with a different configuration of adjectives. They never called him “Andrew Roberts.” He was always Fabio, the bodybuilder who got his nose broken by a duck on a rollercoaster in Williamsburg, who now wants to ravish you and save the dolphins.
Thinking I might do some research on the evolution of character-naming trends in romance writing and porn and write about it for a magazine, I did some digging and found a news story about how porn sites have seen a dramatic uptick in popularity as a result of Covid isolation. It got me thinking about a Wired piece from 2015 on how social media, cell phones, and the internet in general have disrupted the entire porn industry. I wondered whether there was a relationship between how audiences were being trained to consume online adult entertainment and how they’re reading romance fiction, which often blurs the lines between erotica and tamer forms of storytelling.
I discovered that online pornography seems to be heading toward extreme minimalism in terms of story, characterization, and acting, emphasizing short clips appropriate for “tube” sites as well as smartphones. The companies still making longer “movies” routinely expect to see them cut into more easily sharable segments. This affects everything from the way people are hired to what they’re paid to how long they can expect to legitimately work in the field. But culture magazines like Wired aren’t interested in how this tech shift might have overturned adjacent industries like literary erotica and romance fiction. As a book editor, I am interested in that, especially in the aesthetic changes (some might say aesthetic fallout) that have ensued. My friend didn’t have answers, but she thought it was interesting, too.
She said many of the in-house style sheets currently handed out to low-status and even midlist romance writers now require interchangeable sorts of everyman characters. If Sex and the City’s Carrie Bradshaw had an unremarkable name, at least she distinguished herself through Bushnell’s idiosyncratic narrative first person (and on TV through Sarah Jessica Parker’s ironic Magnum P.I.-esque voice-overs). But even though the TV series ended in 2004, it was still squarely within the female-oriented rom-com story genre—occasionally with a racy B- or C-plot but nothing too far outside the (fairly permissive, though still present) bounds of HBO propriety.
But now there seems to be a blankness creeping in. The protagonists seem increasingly like pornographic blank slates, primarily distinguished by lowly positions on the corporate hierarchy, by what they own and don’t own, and who they have to worry about at work. There’s an unremarkable ex or a lingering, equally blank high school / college boyfriend. And then there’s Christian Grey, who’s going to make everything happen, but who is about as interesting as a self-cleaning oven.
I’m beginning to suspect that the romance genre is actually now about consumerism itself: corporate style, money, granite tabletops, the Ivanka Trump winter collection, and the bourgeois dream of neatly trimmed lawns and not having to worry about paying for your route canal because the arrogant Ferrari-driving CEO wants to take care of it for you.
Maybe it’s all about suburbia, even when it’s about dragon crystals. Maybe it’s the same formula, just more direct: young, shy-and-willowy Victoria Grantwell works for an attorney named Jonathan Charles, who has a lot of money and devilish good looks. Ravishing ensues—somewhere in the vicinity of walnut wastebaskets and corner offices. By the end, Jonathan Charles is so moved he has an emotion. All because her passion taught him how to love.
I realize I may have just described the plot of Jerry Maguire. Maybe it was all porn from the beginning.