As if Harlequin Wasn’t In Enough Trouble

Pardon  Harlequin seems to be tripping over itself lately with one public relations blunder after another. First, they start up a vanity press program and use the editors of their traditional publishing imprints to recommend it to all their rejected authors. As if that wasn't bad enough, they've just re-released a series of vintage pulp paperbacks from their archives…but edited out anything they thought might be too sexist, racist, or politically incorrect for a contemporary audience.  The editor of the project, Marsha Zinberg, says:

Remember, our intention was to publish the stories in their original form. But once we immersed ourselves in the text, our eyes grew wide. Our jaws dropped. Social behavior—such as hitting a woman—that would be considered totally unacceptable now was quite common sixty years ago. Scenes of near rape would not sit well with a contemporary audience, we were quite convinced. We therefore decided to make small adjustments to the text, only in cases where we felt scenes or phrases would be offensive to a 2009 readership.

Naturally, this idiotic censorship hasn't gone over well, especially considering how sexually explicit, violent and sexist Harlequin titles can be nowadays. Vintage paperback collector Steve Lewis, a well-known historian of old pulps, was justifiably outraged. He wrote:

This business of sheltering our eyes from things you think might offend us now is absolute nonsense. Who do you think we are, a bunch of weak-kneed sissies? Even if it makes us uneasy every once in a while to look at our past, history IS history, and it’s ridiculous to try to cover it up.
Please do us a favor, and keep publishing your X-rated romance novels, and leave the mystery and noir genres well enough alone. You say you’re delighted to have been able to reprint these books. I think you should be ashamed of yourselves, trampling on the work of others, especially when (as far as I can tell) it’s been done without their permission.

Another collector of vintage paperbacks wrote:

Are these slap-happy bitches kidding? So I suppose it might be fine to edit out, or even re-shoot, scenes of guys smackin’ dames and dolls in The Big Sleep or a Robert Mitchum classic? How about The Big Valley, that S/M TV western?
Does this also include spanking? Do no Harlequin romances contain rough sex where women like to be slapped during a hard bang, or have rape fantasies in the dark hearrt of the urban sprawl?

Yet another collector wrote:

Had Harlequin finally decided not to reprint material it deemed offensive, I wouldn't have minded – more adventurous publishers might have taken the relay and it was just fine.
But this is not what Harlequin chose to do, instead they decided to butcher books from another era to make them palatable to modern readers deemed too stupid or too sensitive to tackle "hot stuff" from the past.

Why bother reprinting vintage paperbacks if you are going to butcher them first? Isn't the charm, popular appeal, and historical significance of the books that they do reflect that grammar, writing styles, and social attitudes of a different time? Did they really think that censoring the books would be a selling point? Oh, wait, I get it.. they were hoping to tap that vast, under-served audience that has been waiting for somebody to publish censored, vintage paperbacks.

Between the vanity press venture and this censored book line, I have to wonder… is Harlequin truly oblivious about why people object to censorship and unethical conflicts-of-interest? Or are they fully aware of the the issues… and just don't care?

13 thoughts on “As if Harlequin Wasn’t In Enough Trouble”

  1. Thankfully, when they reprinted the early Hardy Boys books (in replica, not the redacted ones), they kept all the original, now-offensive stuff intact. Reader beware, but historians rejoice.

  2. Absolutely ridiculous. I love to spend hours in second hand bookshops picking up old history and anthropology text books because it is fascinating to read what was considered academic gospel in different eras: the racism; the sexism; the creationism! We have to be able to look back at where we’ve come from or we’ll forget not only THAT we have evolved but HOW TO evolve.

  3. Let them keep this up.
    If I want pc pulp, they’re your guys.
    Make mine Hardcase.
    I published a pulp-styled webzine for two years, and never would I place censorship on the writer if they wrote a story that was politically incorrect, know why? Because I was publishing PULP. I’ve read the genre, liked the genre, so why would you GUT the historical document of a highly creative era, for your “modern” ‘sensibilities’?
    Is it me, or are we REGRESSING more than advancing from the 30’s 40’s & especially the 50’s into more prudish mentality that, by HQ’s standards, we should NEVER evolved from Holmes & Christie?
    I blame world war 2. Darn war and its’ reality, invading my pretty little world! Good show HQ. PROTECT THE CHILDREN!

  4. Hate to break it to you, but this is not a new trend. Beagle Books did the same thing in the 1970s with old soap opera novels from the 1920s and 1930s. And Barbara Cartland put her name on a line of reprinted classic romances a few years later–Bantam published those–including The Sheik, and Elinor Glyn novels. They also were (ahem) censored/edited/updated. And folks, Nancy Drew novels have been similarly bowdlerized for decades. You have to buy an old edition to get the roadsters and the crazy cool old dialogue tags.

  5. So now, in the year 2009, a publisher is going to determine what I can or cannot read? An editor (most likely in the mid 20’s), is going to decide how and what I can read?

  6. Blunder is right! Instead of either/or thinking (either they publish the original or they publish an update), they should have done both. If they want to publish the update, then they should have a file online where the purchaser can read the original and also see a list of the changes that were made. There could be a password the purchaser only can access. Then purchasers, themselves, could decide what they wanted to read instead of HQ editors. It’s a simple solution, but a nice one! Doesn’t HQ know that the age of arrogance is over? And that arrogance will only provoke a response of outrage?

  7. Forgot to mention this before, but Harlequin also has changed passages (usually, those dealing with sexual terms, by the way) from their British to their American editions. Back in the days of film repro (decades ago), you could see the changes because the type size did not quite match. When confronted, Harlequin people at first denied doing it and then claimed they were merely changing idioms that Americans would not understand, e.g., “knock up.” Fair enough, but then we’d never learn how Brits really talk, would we? Harlequin might still do this, but since everything’s an electronic file today, you won’t see the changes.

  8. The book featured above is portrayed as written by “Dale Bogard.” If he is the original author of the book, no one can change it to a different form, however slight, and represent to the public that it is by him. If someone wants to change it, they need to change the author too, e.g., “based on a book by Dale Bogad.” Otherwise, the reader thinks s/he is getting a piece of history when that isn’t the case.

  9. Remember, never ascribe to conspiracy what can be attributed to stupidity.
    I’m sure some readers’ noses would be bent out of joint if they read what went on back then, but you know what? They NEED to be educated, if only to understand why some women started gagging at the near-rape scenes and the sexual roles that were played back then. You need to understand the past in order to understand and appreciate the gains we’ve made in the present.

  10. The whole mess is in many ways a reflection of the awkward relationship the publisher has with its own past, including that strange show in SoHo this May. In short, they pay lip service to the first fifteen or so years of their existence, pointing to a small number of westerns and the milder crime novels, while ignoring the less palatable.
    It’s all so clumsy, with no one really able to stay on script. Thus we have editor Marsha Zinberg writing that they changed phrases and scenes that “would be offensive to a 2009 readership”, while each title includes a message from President and CEO Donna Hayes that “it is such fun to be able to present these works with their original text and cover art”.
    It is all a shameful mess.

  11. I think what they want is clear. They want to sell the books to people who want to read old pulps but are not going to check to see if this stuff is edited. I think most readers won’t check or know. That way they can sell books to the market they are targeting and not run the risk of the PC police crying foul. It’s called having your cake and eating it too, and it’s not an uncommon strategy for people or companies to attempt.


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