The Cultural Gutter

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"We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars." -- Oscar Wilde

Squeeze Play

Chris Szego
Posted October 2, 2008

and sports don’t mix. That’s the conventional wisdom, anyway.
It’s one of those weird rules, hidden and unarticulated, that seem
to underly any given genre. It’s a tenet that gets passed down to
new writers, not as gospel so much as in the form of a mild warning.
It’s not that books about athletes are uninteresting, the wisdom
would have it; it’s that they’re unsellable. Readers won’t
care about them, so editors won’t buy them.

Unlessyou’re Susan Elizabeth Phillips. Then all bets are off.

didn’t set out to become a New York Times bestseller. In fact, her
whole career was a bit of a fluke. Hers is one of the stories that
make new writers, contemplating their filing cabinets full of
rejection letters, bitterly envious. A former theatre major with a
BFA from Ohio University, Phillips began her professional life as a
high-school teacher. She quit her job when her first child was born.
Her neighbor, also a stay-at-home mom, was a good friend and reading
buddy. They passed so many books between them that they eventually
decided to write one. Having no idea what they were doing, and with
only half a book under their belts, they phoned an editor to see if
there might be any interest. After reading their synopsis, the
editor bought the book. It’s the kind of thing that could only
have happened in the early 80’s, when the Romance genre was growing
at light speed from a small, successful sideline into the publishing
powerhouse it is today.

The Copeland Bride, published under the pseudonym Justine Cole, came out
in 1983. Shortly afterwards, her writing partner moved away. Susan
slowly persevered on her own. She sold two more novels. The first
was an American Civil War historical, which has since been reworked,
renamed, and reissued. The other was Glitter Baby (also recently
reissued), which was a substantial success and brought her
international attention. She followed that up with three breakout
books from Pocket, all of which were contemporary, quirky and
different than anything else on the market at the time. In the
rising tide of her popularity, no one seemed to notice that the hero
of the first (and best-selling) of those, Fancy Pants, was a PGA championship golfer.

After that, she moved to Avon, which really kicked her career into high
gear. That was due in part to some savvy planning on Avon’s part.
Phillips has never been a speedy writer. Unlike most Romance
writers, she delivers a book once every two years, maybe three. When
she switched houses, Avon waited until they could deliver three
titles to the shelves within an eighteen-month period. Her North
American sales soared.

It Had To Be You was the first of these, and with it, Phillips began
climbing the bestseller lists. It’s a tremendous story of
overcoming predjudice, triumphing over past pain, and learning to
live the life you want, rather than the one others want for you.
And, because the main characters are a woman who inherits an NFL team
and the team’s head coach, it’s also about football.

But it wasn’t really a sports book, said that same conventional
‘wisdom’: it was a relationship book. And the next title,
Heaven, Texas, despite being about the team’s quarterback, wasn’t
really a sports book, it was a spinoff. But by the time her most
recent book, Natural Born Charmer, arrived in 2007, even the most
stridently protesting voice had been silenced. Phillips wrote seven
books featuring various characters from the Chicago Stars, her
fictional NFL team. She wrote about stars, retiring players, and
even an agent. She also wrote another book about championship golf.
They were all hugely popular. Readers loved them, and editors did

So conventional wisdom was wrong. But it was also right: Phillips books aren’t really about sports but about relationships. The
relationships between women and men; between family members; and yes,
occasionally the relationships that we form, however one-sided, with
athletes. The sports aspect simply provides a framework for Phillips
to use. After all, the nature of professional sports offers a unique
set of challenges. Athletes have a finite work life. If age doesn’t
get them, injury will. In Phillips’ books, a sport is what a
character can do, not what he is. The latter is what her books are
about, and why they’re so successful.

It’s a success Phillips earned doing everything wrong. Though ‘wrong’
implies error: say rather that her choices have been
‘untraditional’. And so she remains: writing far more slowly
than the market would like; delivering books about athletes – and
actors, artists, and politicians – all professions that conventional
wisdom would hold are poor choices; blocking every pitch from
television producers (and there have been dozens). Phillips is not
trying to upset the status quo: she’s just doing what she loves,
and doing it brilliantly. She is, to stretch the sports metaphor as
much as possible, at the top of her game. And her readers can’t
get enough.


Chris Szego likes football, but only the kind you play without a helmet.


2 Responses to “Squeeze Play”

  1. Liz
    October 7th, 2008 @ 5:07 pm

    I like that distinction – that the book is about relationships. That is my rule of thumb if I want to divide what I consider romance from other genre fiction. I’m mostly thinking about the blurring line between paranormal romance and science fiction/fantasy.
    If the story is primarily focused on the relationship between the two main characters then it’s a romance. So Linnea Sinclair (enjoyed her early books) writes romance novels to me rather than sci-fi (regardless of where she’s shelved). She’s universe building more as a setting for her two main characters than she is universe building to look at the neat things you can do with a new universe.
    But that’s just me.

  2. Chris Szego
    October 8th, 2008 @ 11:15 am

    You’re spot on about the divide between paranormal romance and fantasy. I recently re-read a series, the first books in which were romances with fantasy elements, while the most recent is a fantasy with romance elements. The shift is in the focus: from relationship to world building.

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