The Romance Reader

The dirtiest books are cling wrapped at the bookshop. This is so the casually browsing reader won’t break their spine opening them on page 73, where the action statistically starts.

Fortunately, my Kindle app includes Free Samples. Back in the 20th century, we used to collect cheap romance paperbacks and read them at parties, in the bath, whatever. And though I stopped reading fiction almost entirely after becoming a librarian in the early naughties, I will make it my business to remind you these books exist.

I am blown away by how much romance novels cater to the reader’s wish fulfillment at every turn, at the expense of a more diverse narrative structure, of human dignity, of everything. And most of all I am amazed by HOW MANY they are. And that anyone would read them for anything but the sex, that’s just sick – why not just open them at page 73 immediately?! I find them a bit too conservative in their gender views and generally too vanilla to serve as outright wank material, but to each their own.

What they do provide for me is a bit of useful cringe therapy – it feels really healthy and seems to be already working, as I was able to read some of the titles out loud without choking editing this piece.

In Swedish, the reading of more or less formulaic literature (mostly meaning romance novels) is called återförsäkringsläsning meaning literally “reassurance reading”– you want to know beforehand what you are going to get, even if the book is new to you. The predictability is an end unto itself. Perhaps, after a life of unpleasant surprises you want to read something that won’t take a disappointing turn. Hence the very specific, the madly specific genre descriptions, provided immediately after the title, at least by Kindle. It is VERY tempting to just consider the long string of genre terms part of the actual titles. 

So, let’s make this about the actual titles? Opening ALL the books seems a bit much. 

You must first select your (highly sexualized) character archetype: Pirate, vampire, werewolf, knight, viking, cowboy, policeman, fireman, nobleman, gladiator, mafioso, librarian, shapeshifter, time traveler, navy seal, Scot (or more specifically, Highlander), pick any Halloween costume. Feel free to also combine two or more of these in the same character. My inner RPG nerd is completely happy, until the lack of distinction between species, ethnicity and vocation hits me. Jobs also seem to be inextricably linked to personal traits, and both can always, always be packaged and sold.

I’ll abstain from making this a rant about gender. (Where is my medal?!) Let’s have a look at, for no particular reason at all, the average Scot books, represented heavily by author Suzanne Enoch:

Return of the Scot
The Scot is hers
Alec Mackenzie’s Art of Seduction
Waiting for a Scot like you
Once upon a Tartan
Caught by the Scot: Made to Marry Book 1

Nothing to see here, so far. Now hammer home the fact that this is a dangerous man:

Taming the Scot
Never tempt a ScotRogue with a Brogue
A Devil in Scotland
The Devil Wears Kilts
Mad, Bad and Dangerous in Plaid

Many titles are piggybacking as puns on other works, The Scot who loved her etc. In fact, the titles by Enoch get increasingly punny, though my long-standing theory that the Gothenburg dad joke was originally invented in Scotland has little purchase here, as Enoch is American.

Some Like it Scot
Getting Scot in Here
Scot under the CoversHit me with Your Best Scot
Drop it like it’s Scot
(the Hots for Scots book 5) 
Too Scot to hold
 (the Hots for Scots book 8)

The series I have chosen to dip into is also available as a box set: A fistful of Scots: The Scandalous Highlanders, the Complete Series. My intended summary is going to be completely superfluous, so never mind. Let’s narrow things down a bit and look specifically at what is apparently the supercharged version of a Scot: the Highlander. Specific Highlander titles include:

Kaitlyn and the Highlander
Highland Fire
Hero in the Highlands
My one true Highlander
The making of a Highlander
The taming of a Highlander
Temptations of a Highlander
The Highlander’s demand
The Highlander’s destiny
The Highlander’s captive
The Highlander’s promise
The Highlander’s Gypsy
The Highlander’s reive

The Highlander’s second chance (more on this later)
Taken by the Highlander
Highlander’s temptation
Highlander’s sin
Highlander’s warrior bride
Highlander’s enchantment
Highlander’s secret vow
Highlander’s redemption
Highlander’s Highlander,
sorry, just slipped on the keyboard there:
One author that stands out in particular in the narrowed-down Highlander-specific genre is Alisa Adams, with: 

Highlander’s daring escape
Highlander’s trusted traitor
Highlander’s burning desire
Highlander’s betrayed princess
Highlander’s sacrifice
Highlander’s rage
Highlander of the woods
Highlander’s lost daughter
Her Highland captain
Seduced by her Highland prisoner

Sorry, I left out Journey back to the Highlands and Liberated Highland might – my now title-churning mind slides off to imagine entirely different types of books: Where’s the Highlander, Highlander at Sweet Valley High (INAPPROPRIATE), Big Friendly Highlander, Highlander’s Treehouse, Highlander’s first day at school, Max Potta…  Hell, I am just copy pasting these now, much like the authors probably do when writing these titles in the first place. I get word-image blind! There’s just a blurry patch where it says “Highlander” on the page.

Note: there is definitely a heightened state of undress in the cover art whenever the title includes the word highlander. And again, it is important to stress that we are dealing with dangerous men. My Highland warrior. A lot of these books are written by Ava McArthur, who, with her Macname ought to know what she is talking about? 

Atonement for a Highland sin
Stolen scarred Highlander
Highlander’s misfit lass
(a taste of the eternal Scottish underdog motif?)
Provoked Highland brute
Threatened Highland husband
Awakened by his Highland fire
(I was hoping for a slight rephrase, Woken up by – and a new addition to the Halloween costumes in the form of “arsonist”.

Further, there is the category of criminal Scots:

To have a Highland thief
To covet a Highland criminal
To save a Highland sinner
Surrender of a Highland smuggler

Another specific motif is the conquered bride theme:

Conquered by the Highlander (Conquered bride series Book 1) – do these titles concern different brides, or is it just the same one being conquered in turn by various NPC:s presumably other than the one she intends to marry each time?

The conquered bride motif takes an unexpected turn with Highlander’s Unwanted BrideA Steamy Scottish Medieval Historic […] Romance.

There is a crop of romance novels with less genre-specific cover art and less blatantly indicative titles, represented by authors such as Jayne Castel. These titles do not always specifically state they are about Scots, but you can sort of work it out anyway. The cover art is flirting a bit with Regency style and some Austenesque features, and you get the sense that this is the type of novel these books wish to be:

Nessa’s seduction
Fyfa’s sacrifice
Breanna’s surrender
The widow and the Highlander
The enemy and miss Innes
The innkeeper and the fugitive
The gentleman and the maid

But let’s get more specific and add a few more element of Halloween costume into the mix! In the category of “reasonable crossover” with no more than two flavours in the same cone are:

How to abduct a Highland lord (the Maclean curse book 1)
Highland jewel: a royal Highlander novel
His stolen bride: a breathtaking Scottish Medieval historical romance
One hot Scot: a scandalous Highlanders holiday story
(same thing, but it’s Christmas)
The seduction of the glen: a steamy, enemies-to-lovers, Scottish romance
Highlander’s wounded beast: a Scottish Medieval historical romance
Beware a Scot’s revenge (The school for heiresses book 3)
The Rock (The Highland Guard book 11)
The Ghost
, by Monica McCarty, where the cover if not the title tells you it’s really about a specifically Scottish ghost.  
Highlander’s Sweet Poison: a Scottish Medieval historical romance
Highlander’s ransom (The Sinclair brothers trilogy book 1)
A Scot to the heart: desperately seeking duke
Mad for the plaid (the Oxenburg princes book 3)

With To kiss a Highland rose (Kiss the wallflower book 6) – we introduce the aspect of specific traits in the heroine to facilitate self-insert. I am sad to report that only a few properties seem to be allowed so far: these are “curvy” (meaning fat) and “second chance”, apparently meaning the same peoples get another shot at each other, not the washed-up post-divorce romp I would be more inclined to read. Some circumstantial repeats are also in play, such as the genre of “Evil stepmother.”

Oh, and just for the title, and even more specifically niche in that it’s also adding a kink; Burning for the Baron (Lords of Discipline Book 3).

I want more! I want an impossibly specific crossover, with all the options piled on each other like pancakes!! I want ironclad guarantees that nothing unexpected whatsoever will happen, and that all my desires to read about supernatural shit, time travel, and past divorce are fulfilled!

The soup of boxes ticked on the form gets so thick at this point, that the Scottish theme is just a blip at the edge of my vision. Who cares where a protagonist is from, if they are also a vampire librarian time traveler ex-con cop? The genre specific stuff helps too:

Married for a highland debt: a steamy Scottish Medieval historical romance
An enemy at the Highland court: an enemies to lovers Highlander romance
Getting Scot and bothered: a ridiculous secret-baby Medieval romance
Scot on her trail: a hilarious enemies-to-lovers Medieval romance
Worth the wait: a single mom small town slow burn romance

Claw and Crown: a gay viking fantasy shifter Mpreg romance. By Richard Lunch
Obey your viking: a curvy girl & viking vampire romance
Redeemed by the alien viking; book seven in the galactic vikings mail[…]
(this is where the Kindle preview cut off the genre details in my preview.)

I can’t stop!!

His Fire (The complete trilogy): a gay viking dragon shifter Mpreg romance
Knock out: an alpha male, curvy woman instalove opposites attract romance
Indebted: an enemies to lovers mafia romance (King Crime Family)
Recon Bear: a bear shifter romance (B. E. A. R. S. Book 1)
Redneck Daddy’s little: an age play, DDlg, instalove, standalone romance
Pens and needles: a secret springs small town Mpreg romance
Owl be bear for you: Big misunderstanding fated mates romance
Lone star ex-con: a reverse age gap/curvy girl romance
(“saddle” something something)
Dirty wolf: a curvy girl and wolf shifter romance (Alpha Wolves series)
Joss and the countess: a steamy, sexy bodyguard Age Gap romance
Change on the fly: a single dad hockey romance (Totally pucked)
Bearly a Viking – (Paranormal Werebear Shifter Romance)
An Erotic fairy tale double feature!: Slave to the Ogre Magi & Fever Dream […]
(again with the breakoff!! Will I have to actually pay for this?)

It’s fine laughing at others, until I realize my own vocation is just as packaged and sold as the many others. A full disclosure here: the MA:s in BS, English literature, and Library & information science respectively make me hopefully at least partway qualified for ranting, but also up for romance novel framing.

The Librarian (The rules of Darkness MC Book 1)
The Librarian (The librarian chronicles Book 1)

And on, and on with the increasingly convoluted, super-specific crossover. I am apparently also magical. And a mercenary. And maybe a top, or a bottom.

Deal with the devil: meet the mercenary librarians by Kit Rocha
The Librarian’s spell: School of magic #4
Daddy’s little librarian (Daddy series book 17)
(BOOK SEVENTEEN???!?!?!?!)
The author’s lady librarian
The devil you know: a mercenary librarians novel
The librarian’s journey: 4 historical romances
The librarian and the Orc: a monster fantasy romance

The librarian and the beast: a mintar romance (I misread that as “minotaur”)
Librarian bear: Virtue shifters book 2
Stud in the stacks
by Pippa Grant
Booked for kidnapping (vigilante magical librarians book 2)
Bigfoot and the librarian (Mystic springs book 1)
The Librarian’s vampire assistant
Sexy librarian daddy: an age play, DDlg, instalove, standalone, romance

Pardon my copy paste, we must not forget the permitted flaws, and I am so fucking called out by now as an apparently thirsty, fat librarian waiting for vampire-assisted relief that it just hurts:

Wild at the library: a curvy woman romance
Wicked at the library: a curvy woman romance
Willing at the library: a curvy woman romance

In contrast to the ridiculously specific there is the surprisingly plain (seemingly written by retired porn stars?) – Hot Cop (by Laurelin Paige & Sierra Simone), and the downright mysterious in its brevity: Divorce Horse (Walt Longmire Mysteries), by Craig Johnson.

Let’s get a little bit academic during our postcoital smoke: as a Beatles-hysteria levels type fan of Soviet folklorist and scholar Vladimir Propp and his theories about structuralism and the elements of the folktale, I get super excited about all the potential options not mined in the flood of extant romance novels. The vast extent of unplowed, eh, ground. Just from the matrix theoretically generated by the limited parameters in this text, there are plenty of unused combos, that nobody wrote a book about – yet.

Here’s the wiki on Propp which you are too lazy to google.

For starters: where is the Lowlanders porn?? What is this cultural slight? Am I to understand that everyone on the wrong side of the Highland Boundary Fault are walking around looking like a Ken doll? Shush!

Also HELLO where is the curvy viking stuff? Are there all these unwanted crossover categories that no one wants to read? I will admit that the “second chance” + “curvy” combo makes for a very easy self insert in my case, but why does any protagonist have to content themselves with a modern, urban setting unless they are “muscular” and “perfect” (the only two adjectives used in the entire Twilight series)?

I can unfortunately think of so many inappropriate titles for unused, potential genres. Just by staying with the various downtrodden accessory nations connected landwise to the English, we can conclude that apparently nobody wants to bang the Irish, or else where is the Irish potato famine werewolf crossover slow burn third chance romance novel Paddy puts out, the Welsh The love that cannot pronounce its name – or a bit further afield, the modern Norwegian Lusekofte Love story. Any national stereotype, any stereotype, should be mined for thirstcoin, and sold.

I have a lot of theories about Suzanne Enoch and the other romance genre writers, and about the publishing machine behind them. These books are in no way “bad writing” by someone who does not know any better – they are made exactly the way they are, and very deliberately so, because they make a killing. The impeccable proofreading of the four Suzanne Enoch books I have very decently exposed myself to is evidence enough. The machine runs smoothly, churning out glossy, correctly spelled books with eerily repetitive cover art, and a fascinatingly controlled narrative which is so samey between them that you might suspect it is written by an AI selecting 5 or so random factors, later polished by an actual person. Compare this to the AI scripts for Hallmark and Batman movies, or the concept of cloned writers churning out something rather different, as conjured by scifi author Vladimir Sorokin in Blue Lard.

As mentioned above, another observation is that the author pseudonyms for romance novels are walking a perfect line of almost-but-not-quite porn star flavour (Vixen Wade, Lacey Edward, Richard Lunch), and that the styling on the covers indicate a certain age targeting as they are so outdated: slightly older cover art is drawn from scratch and represents a manly ideal that was in vogue precisely when the assumed majority of the readers peaked. Few people styled like these beardless, shirtless Fabio clones slip past the media filter now: particularly noticeable is the absence of beards, adhering to the smoothly shaven 80s and 90s ideal. Newly produced covers frequently feature plenty of ham-fisted photoshopping of stock images, eliminating the need for an actual artist.

“But what about the VIKING CROSSOVER BOOKS”, you scream. “You only touched upon them briefly? We know you and your Iron Age reenactment shit, so why have you left this out? You are an embarrassing example of Scandi-Scot relationships yourself, and must atone!”

I’ll get to it in a sequel, OK? Meanwhile, have a bit of Thor of the Highlands, Saved by his Highland Valkyrie and Celtic Viking: a historical Scottish Highlander romance, neither of which include a curvy second chance Iron Age reenactor librarian translator nor a beardshifting rollerblader Highlander mountainbike mechanic.

And before you start one-upping me with talk of the dinosaur erotica we all know and love, let me treat you to

Taken by the t-rex
T-rex made me gay
Having the dinosaur’s baby
Gay T-Rex Law Firm: Executive Boner.
By Chuck Tingle.

Wanna get rich writing your own?

Some romance novel terminology.


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