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Under the Covers of Desire: Inside the Romance Novel
July 10, 2012  | By Eric Gould

Romance novels have been the subject of ridicule for decades. If you judge a book by its cover, there's no wonder: Air-brushed, model-beautiful characters — sometimes in period costumes, yet always revealing significant bare skin — are entwined in impossibly passionate embraces. Images like this make it easy to discount the entire genre. Heck, even the overwhelming commercial success of the blockbuster Fifty Shades of Grey has not protected the erotic romance series from endless skewering.

The new PBS POV documentary Guilty Pleasures takes a different approach. It not only opens the covers of these books, but finds surprising and very touching stories about the people who write them, market them, and of course, read them.

The hour-long documentary, by writer and director Julie Moggan, premieres Thursday, July 12 at 10 p.m. ET (check local listings) and will be available online the day after. Moggan's take is — has to be — a humorous one. But it's also a deftly gentle and deeply charming look at our basic need for passionate connections.

Almost as quickly as furtive lovers' clothes fall to the floor, Moggan throws the covers off those suspiciously theatrical romance author pseudonyms by introducing us to titles authored by the gender-neutral Gill Sanderson. (Pronounced 'Jill' in the U.K.)

Turns out "Jill" is actually Roger Sanderson, a graying, retired pensioner living in a mobile home park. He has written just under fifty novels that have been translated into 12 languages.

Sanderson is a modest, well-spoken English gentleman at the top of his game, often running workshops for emerging romance writers. He freely realizes the irony of his position. He also has a genuine affection for his brand of literature and his readers, and knows what works. "Could you have a red-headed hero? Never done one. Never will," he says with a definitive air.

Moggan also introduces us to three avid romance readers who are scattered around the world: Hiroko, a Japanese woman and happily married wife and mother with fantasies of George Harrison and ballroom dancing; Shumita, (top photo) an Indian woman who is separated from her husband and reads romantic fiction as a way of buzzing her spirit; and Shirley, an English woman who left an abusive relationship for a satisfying one, and now loves reading about love.

Both Hiroko and Shirley's husbands are attentive, loving partners. They happily accommodate their wives' romantic obsessions, and may be more than a little relieved that their partners' fantasies are well met with paper and ink. Both are practical types, and romance comes haltingly and awkwardly for both.

We also meet Stephan, a romance novel model who has appeared on over 200 Harlequin covers in the U.S. We see him shirtless, embracing a beautiful model for a new cover. "You're either wearing nothing … or you're decked out in ruffles and puffles and truffles," he muses. "I'm a cowboy a lot. Lot of swords. Shirtless with a sword."

As ripped and tanned as he is, Stephen is love-lorn as well. The documentary finds him living single, divorced, and still looking for the right match after having been deeply disappointed in his first marriage.

That Moggan found people who willingly talk about their marriages and their fantasies is one of the better parts of Guilty Pleasures. Apparently many women were happy to talk about their love for the books, but virtually no one wanted to confess their personal desires on camera. It took Moggan the better part of a year to find just the right cast.

Once Moggan found the right mix, she used a tender hand to capture quiet, introspective and illuminating moments that show how readers' hearts yearn for the ideal, while daily life delivers the ordinary. It's an endearing snapshot of desire.

Best of all, Guilty Pleasures ends with an endearing snapshot of its own. It's an old love song played to a montage of the couples finding something more, something beyond the inner lives that tend to separate them. It's a song that none of us will admit to loving. But, of course, we all do.
Shirley's husband Phil, who likes to read about repairing cars, picked it. He loves it, but just like a guy, can't really explain why.

Roger Sanderson adds, "I love happy endings. There's nothing wrong with them. I think it's a great idea."

Oh, and feel free to leave a comment to let us know if you found Guilty Pleasures a sweet portrait of true love literature, and whether the closing scene evoked at least a small smile.

Anonymously, of course.

Guilty Pleasures is also available for viewing online from July 13 to August 12, 2012.

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