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Yann Martel is one of my favourite authors. In an interview once, he was asked what advice he would give to an aspiring writer. "Read beyond what you want to write," he replied. "So if you want to write romance … read science fiction, read classics. If you aspire to be a literary writer … to be the next John Updike, read Harlequins."
I don't aspire to be the next John Updike, but if Yann Martel, winner of the 2002 Man Booker Prize for Life of Pi, thinks reading a Harlequin or two is a good idea, who am I to disagree?
I decided to follow his advice. But how to obtain a Harlequin? I was not about to buy one or borrow one from the library – that would be embarrassing. I could have borrowed one from my mother, but that would have been embarrassing, too.
Unable to proceed without incurring significant personal shame, I was at an impasse.
Salvation arrived when I received the gift of an e-reader. I won't say what kind it is (rhymes with hobo), but it is a popular, touch-screen, dedicated e-reader. In its online store, I found a section with free books. There were Harlequin romances, including some from the steamier "Blaze" series.
I downloaded some classics by Dante and Flaubert, among others, then threw in two Harlequins: one garden-variety romance and one Blaze title (in the interest of a more complete study of the genre and its variations, of course).
The e-reader displays the covers of the most recent books you have added or read. If you are reading War and Peace or The Divine Comedy, you may want people to see your screen so they will know what a sophisticated, literary type you are. If you are reading Once a Cowboy or Slow Hands, both with stereotypical bodice-ripper cover illustrations, you must keep your screen hidden at all costs.
Fortunately, Harlequins read easily. I finished both quickly and deleted them from my device. Having carried out Yann Martel's advice, I was ready to return to reading the vast canon of Western literature. Or at least to have parts of the vast canon of Western literature appear on my e-reader screen.
The next time I connected the e-reader to my computer, a software update resulted in a new main-screen view that included personalized recommendations. Small book covers appeared across the bottom of my screen under a "Recommended for You" banner.
All of them were erotica, with appropriately provocative covers. The recommended titles included Forbidden Lust 2: Jake's Return. I could not find any way to prevent the books from appearing on my screen. Needless to say, it is hard to look like a member of the literati when your e-reader screen shows a picture of a blonde in a teddy.
I am no prude, but I was puzzled and slightly offended. Why all these recommendations for erotica? My device contained 50 titles, mostly classics. Why no recommendations for other classics? What did this e-reader company think I was? And why would they recommend Forbidden Lust 2 when I haven't read Forbidden Lust 1?
I decided to give the e-reader a rest and check my e-mail. Surprise! The e-reader company had sent an e-mail with more recommendations – all erotica.
After some frustrating research, I learned that I could change my recommendation preferences on the e-reader website. For each recommended title, I could select Buy Now, Already Read It, Get a Preview or Not Interested. So, to make them disappear, I had to go through the recommended books one by one and select Not Interested.
Forbidden Lust 2? Not Interested. Foreplay? Not Interested. Hot Tales 2: Three on a Cruise? Well, okay, a little bit interested – but there was no way I was giving them the satisfaction, so, Not Interested.
After many iterations, I purged my recommendations of all erotica, which left a sparse set of titles, most concerning Africa. I have no idea why.
I was relieved when the next e-mail's recommendations did not include anything with Lust or the number 2 in any of the titles. However, the one after that again brought recommendations for erotica, including, but not limited to, gay erotica.
It was clear they would not leave any erotic stone unturned in their efforts to entice me. So, back to the website I went to modify my recommendation preferences again.
Rough Road to Happiness: A Gay Erotic Romance? Not Interested. The ABC's of Erotica: A is for Anal? Not Interested. And so on.
Recently, the e-reader company updated the software again, and now recommended titles do not automatically appear on the screen. However, they are still there in a different section, and I still get e-mail recommendations. A recent one that is memorable: Elliot's Banana. (Spoiler alert: It's not about an actual banana.)
In summary, I followed Yann Martel's advice and have apparently been labelled a porn addict by my e-reader supplier. I say this not to dissuade you from following the author's advice, but to let you know that if you ever need to get hold of a Harlequin or two, you should disguise yourself, go to a used bookstore in another city and pay cash.
Or swallow your pride and borrow one from your mom – she would never embarrass you the way targeted marketing will.
James Drummond lives in Surrey, B.C.