Bestselling romance novelist Johanna Lindsey has died at 67. Perhaps best known for her pirate romances—including Gentle Rogue, which boasts what might be the single most recognizable and iconic Fabio cover—she was beloved by fans and sold something like 60 million books over the course of her career.
Her New York Times obituary unfortunately devotes little effort to understanding what appealed about Lindsey, effort that she deserved as one of the most famous romance novelists of her era. She was on the younger end of what you might call the bodice ripper generation, though I prefer the lesser-used term “bodice buster,” because it captures the sheer exuberant explosiveness of these books. Novelists like Lindsey, Kathleen Woodiwiss, Rosemary Rogers, and Jude Deveraux wrote big, sprawling, utterly unconstrained adventure stories full of explicit sex and passion.
Against a variety of exciting backdrops, these women’s characters fought and fought and fucked and then fought some more and then fucked some more. The outside world has often focused on the details of those sexual encounters, criticizing them as rape (which, to be clear, is often accurate, particularly in the case of Rogers and Woodiwiss) without considering the broader context of the books and what the readers might be getting out of them. These books were sold at grocery stores and mall bookstores across America; their readers were often working middle class—Rogers and another early romance novelist, Shirley Busbee, were both working as secretaries when they got their start—and often included a generation of women who’d grown up with a very different set of messages about what they were allowed to enjoy. They offered adventure and glamour and wildness and pleasure and agency and a vacation from everyday life in more ways than one.
Lindsey wrote pirate books, and science fiction, and Viking books, and medieval-set books; like many others of her generation, her mandate for adventure sometimes led her into offensive territory like tropes from E.M. Hull’s The Sheik and “Indian” romance. But modern romance writers have built a more enlightened genre on the foundation that Lindsey and her contemporaries laid out.
The Times did speak to her editor, who offered this snapshot of Lindsey as a shy, retiring woman:
“On several occasions, her mother would accompany her, which was really sweet,” Ms. Perl said by phone. “Her mother was quite outgoing, so Johanna would sign the books, and her mom would stand next to her and tell fans anecdotes about Johanna when she was young.”
She added, “When she turned her books in, she wouldn’t celebrate by buying a car or going to Paris, but by buying a video game and playing it for 12 hours before starting her next book.”
For more on Lindsey’s work and its longstanding appeal to readers, you can check out the romance podcast Fated Mates and their discussion of her classic, Gentle Rogue, as well as this thread from the Browne Popular Culture Library at BGSU. But it’s pretty simple, really: What could be better than a hot pirate, some bluer-than-blue eyeshadow, and the open seas before you?