To the outside observer, mainstream romance novels are a kind of softcore porn consumed by an extremely dedicated, mostly female audience. My mom read them in the layaway line at Walmart, and yours probably did, too.
But for Patty Gone, a multimedia artist and poet living in New York City, the books are something else entirely. They're a massive cultural force. Given how well they sell, they basically underwrite the entire production of more "serious" contemporary literature.
Romance novels also offer their readers an escape from the doldrums of daily life. And in Gone's case, they provided a pathway to connect with Gone's true gender identity, as well as a way to communicate with their aging grandmother.
The subject of Love Life, Gone's book-length essay published by Seattle press Mount Analogue, is the romance novelist Danielle Steel, who has sold more books than J.K. Rowling, Stephen King, Dr. Seuss, Tolstoy, or Dickens. Steel is an interesting figure. She writes her novels with an old typewriter on a desk that is a "Jeff Koons–style" sculpture of her own books. She's also a wealthy heiress who's been married multiple times. One of her husbands was a convicted rapist; another was a rich banker.
In Gone's view, Steel doesn't write "bodice-rippers," as my dad called them. Her books aren't pages of milky thighs and throbbing members. Steel's books follow a common formula, wherein an older man seduces a younger woman mostly by being mean to her. The woman eventually tames the man in one way or another, and they end up together in the end. Though there may be other suitors in the story, in Steel's books the real Prince Charming will always be the guy who decides to buy her name-brand clothing and commit to starting a family.
In addition to offering fresh insights into a popular genre, Love Life is also the first book-length critical essay I've read that contains real narrative tension. In the book, Gone alternates their innovative literary critique with fan letters written to Steel.
This device reflects one of the more ubiquitous romance tropes, namely the lonesome WWI wife waiting on a letter from her husband. Gone flips the gendered script, giving Steel the role of the soldier-husband abroad. As you read Gone's increasingly pleading letters, which discuss the relationship between Gone's trans identity and Steel's works, you keep wondering if Steel is ever going to respond. In essence, you're reading a romance novel.
Gone is serving as artist-in-residence for the month of March at Mount Analogue, in Pioneer Square's TK Building. On March 17, they will lead a romance-novel workshop. The class will cover romance novel forms and give students prompts to generate their own writing.
Gone will also perform personal readings of Danielle Steel passages by appointment. (Inquire at email@example.com.) And on March 21, the artist will screen their Painted Dreams video series on a big old projector at Mount Analogue. The series examines American soap operas through academic and personal lenses, combining the soft-focus, satin-pajamas aesthetic of the popular daytime shows with Gone's Bloomingdale window-display style.