Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Confession of a Secret Romantic by Sandy Lu

For the longest time, I have specifically stated that I am not interested in representing romance. As an agent, I feel that I can only properly represent a certain genre if I also read it for pleasure, and I have not read a romance novel since my early teen years.

My first encounter with romance novels was when I was about thirteen, when a Harlequin salesman came knocking on our door in Taiwan and somehow convinced my father that getting a subscription was a good way for me to be exposed to American literature. Not knowing any better, since the covers of these novels usually featured classically looking, fully dressed couples in perfectly respectable poses, I had no idea what I was getting into.  Imagine my shock and thrills when I discovered what really happened behind closed doors between the lady and the duke! Growing up in a traditional Chinese family, our parents never gave us the birds and the bees talk. In fact, whenever there was kissing on screen, my mom would tell us to cover our eyes, and I, obediently, never peeked.

Needless to say, these Harlequin novels became my sex-ed primers. With no one else to turn to, I shared my new revelations with my best friend, and they became our obsession. We would read them under the cover with a flashlight way past our bedtime and sneak peek at passages under the textbook in class. Soon the subscription was not enough, and we started finding more in the neighborhood book rental store (that was actually a thing in Taiwan— for a nickel each, you can binge on all the manga and “trashy” novels the library wouldn’t carry), each one more scandalous than the last, and the lovers’ passions were appropriately reflected on the cover.

One night I didn’t turn off the flashlight fast enough when my mom came into my room and she snatched the book out of my hand, took one look at the cover, and almost had a heart attack. I was in serious trouble—the kind that required my father to deal with when he came home. It took all my wits to get out of that one: After she left, I buried the books with half-dressed heroines on the covers under a pile of fully clothed ones, hid the ones with the most debauched covers in bed and lay on top of them (my mom might come back to search under the mattress, but not under my sleeping body), then proceeded to wait. It was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do—lying there as the hours went by, heart pounding, pretending to be sound asleep when my dad finally got in and my mom showed him the evidence of the crime. He picked up the books from the top of the pile and laughed. These are nothing! They’re the Harlequin books from the subscription I got her. Whew!

But my mom was not so easily fooled. After that night she started looking at me like she knew what I was up to, like she knew I was no longer her innocent little girl. I suspect that was another reason why she sent me to an all-girls boarding school the next semester, as the school had a strict policy against any extra-curriculum reading materials. That was the end of my love affair with romance novels.

Perhaps it was the suppressed trauma caused by that sudden breakup, or I simply grew out of the puberty curiosity, or maybe because sex is so prevalent everywhere in America (we moved to New York when I was sixteen and it was quite a culture shock), I never renewed my passion for romance novels. On the contrary, as a lover of crime novels and male-center books like American Psycho and Lolita, I adopted the same prejudice many such readers have for romance novels and thought them too formulaic to be satisfying reads. I especially despised the love-at-first-sight convention, since I never believed in it. Therefore, after I became an agent, I proudly stated on my submission guidelines: no romance, please.

That is, until my recent conversation with Louise Fury, a big romance lover who never stopped trying to entice me to take on romance (and trust me, she can be very persuasive.) I don’t know how it started, but at some point she made me realize that despite my claims, many of my favorite YA authors—Robin LaFevers, Sherry Thomas, Laini Taylor, Morgan Rhodes, are all romance writers. And even though their YA novels are not necessarily romance in genre, they are romance in essence. This gave me pause.

I started to ponder why I love these authors so much. They write in very different styles, but what they have in common is that they are all experts at building mounting tensions between their characters with clever, twisty plotlines and misdirection that have me biting my knuckles, breathlessly turning the pages until the misunderstandings are elegantly resolved in the final act and the impossible conflicts give way to a happy ending I in principle don’t believe in but root for in secret anyway. Essentially, I love them for the same reason I love my favorite suspense writers. In that sense, I realize, romance is really not that different from mysteries and thrillers. In fact, given the restrictive story arc, romance writers have to be just as smart and innovative as suspense writers in order to come up with new and original stories.

And who was I to look down on romance as a lesser genre? After all, aren’t Jane Eyre and Pride and Prejudice classic literature just like Crime and Punishment and Dracula? Didn’t I adore them just as much, if not more? It’s about time I put aside my bias and open myself up to romance. So, romance writers, send me your submissions! I am ready to be seduced.

Please contact me at sandy@lperkinsagency.com