The Dirty Parts

Romance novelist Connie Brockway wants to know why people can't look past the unbound bosom and love-swollen member

"His engorged maleness pressed urgently against her throbbing delta."

Romance novels are known for such florid, circulation-fixated descriptions of garden-variety rutting. In fact, those unfamiliar with the romance genre often skip directly to the obligatory fucking passage. What young girl hasn't powered through Harlequin paperbacks in a hidden nook at the public library, flipping past key plot points in a preadolescent lather? There are even novelty bookmarks that declare their intention to flag "the dirty parts."

Based on this popular behavior, one might assume that romance novelists would be grateful for the universal crowd-pleaser that is engorged maleness. Surprisingly, romance writer Connie Brockway would sooner see the convention, um, deflated.

Connie Brockway: "I think it's interesting that in romance, the relationships are always totally monogamous. Once the hero and the heroine get together...that's it."
Diana Watters
Connie Brockway: "I think it's interesting that in romance, the relationships are always totally monogamous. Once the hero and the heroine get together...that's it."

"What is it about 15 pages of a romance novel that has everybody focusing on it so much? Is it because it's written by women?" Brockway asks. "I really don't mean to sound defensive, but I think 'the dirty parts' is a vision that non-romance-readers have of romance."

Brockway has published 17 novels, starting with 1994's Promise Me Heaven. This year, she's been nominated for two RITA Awards (the most sought-after prize in romance publishing) and has a chance of being inducted into the Romance Writers of America Hall of Fame. Talking in the kitchen of her spacious and airy Edina home, she's clearly passionate about the romance genre, especially historical romance. She's not reluctant to classify romance as "pop literature"--on the contrary, she believes that it's an insult to the genre to call it anything else. Rather, it's that pesky "paperback smut" stereotype that raises her hackles.

"Terms you hear classically about romance are 'bodice ripper,' 'trash,' and 'porn for women,'" Brockway says with distaste. "People who don't read [romance] always ask me about it. They say, 'That's bad, that's so not feminist, that's so sexist.' Then in the same breath, they turn around and say, 'Women should not write about sex.' The exact same people! You can't have it both ways."

Brockway says that she suspects the romance genre is often derided precisely because it is written and consumed primarily by women. "When I got out of college and I started writing romance, I got very defensive about that," she says. "I always thought it had a lot to do with a patriarchal, ivory-tower mentality."

Brockway attended graduate school at the University of Minnesota and received a degree in creative writing. She gravitated naturally toward romance owing to her passion for history and intrigue, but almost immediately after she began working in her genre of choice, she felt heat from those who felt her considerable talents might be wasted. "I got a lot of flak when I started. People felt like, 'You're leaving the sisterhood,'" Brockway says, alluding to the belief that the genre is sexist by design. "I did a lot of thinking about where the romance genre fits into society. What its function is. Why is it denigrated? Why is it looked down on?"

The prejudice against romance extends to popular media. "The Strib won't review any pop fiction, as far as I know, except mysteries. Why won't they review romance?"

Still, Brockway concedes that the genre functions mainly as high-quality fantasy fodder for its female readers. "It does romance a disservice to pretend it's something it's not. It becomes defensive. Saying it's literary is being embarrassed of what it is."

Despite this admission, the typical romance fan, according to Brockway, isn't a subliterate hausfrau slobbering after her teenage pool cleaner and Tivo-ing Passions. Rather, she reports, most romance readers consume a steady diet of quality literature, supplemented with their guilty pleasure of choice. "Readers are readers," Brockway says. "The one thing I'm always amazed by with my readership is what articulate and intelligent women they are. They're well-read; they're not segmented. They don't just read romance."

This informed readership isn't content reading about ditzy contessas being seized by swarthy pirates, either. Today's romantic heroine is the thinking woman's contessa. "Right now there are so many bluestocking [intellectual] heroines in historical romance novels," Brockway says. "Smart, canny heroines. Bottom line, that's what our readers identify with."

Desdemona "Dizzy" Carlisle, the heroine of Brockway's 1997 book As You Desire, is the very model of bluestocking pluck: The self-described "wunderkind of Egyptology," Dizzy can translate ancient glyphs, outsmart desert captors, and trade barbs with the wittiest of rakes. At the most inopportune of moments, Dizzy finds herself reunited with an old flame, devastatingly handsome scoundrel Harry Braxton. While Harry, a "complete jackal," excels at taunting and infuriating his steely companion, he secretly pines for her.

In a nod to more modern couple dynamics, Dizzy fulfills and emboldens Harry as much as she arouses him. When the pair finally marries at the book's end, Harry is suddenly flush with confidence, encouraged by his feisty new wife. "He'd never felt so empowered. So capable of doing anything. He might well author that treatise Sir Robert had for years been badgering him to do.... Anything was possible now."

Passages like this, depicting women as a source of strength and support, are common in Brockway's work. Dizzy is more evocative of a capable Indiana Jones sidekick than a submissive maiden pleading to be rescued. In fact, she's most often pursued for her translation skills, not her décolletage. And Harry? In chapter 26, the poor chap reveals that he can't read. One might say his accomplished bride has the upper hand in more ways than one.

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