The Rise of Competence Porn

Books about talented, hardworking nerds in love

Modern matchmaking isn’t a matter of clicking personalities but clicking smartphones, and Mr. Mr. Right Swipe has replaced Mr. Right. While some romance novelists have embraced dating in the digital age—Alyssa Cole’s A Princess in Theory offered a swoony spin on the Nigerian prince e-mail scam, while Alisha Rai’s The Right Swipe was an enemies-to-lovers tale of rival dating app inventors—other authors are reacquainting themselves with that rom-com cliché, the random “meet cute,” and reinventing it for the Tinder era. Their characters fall in love the old-fashioned way: zany chance meetings followed by gradual bonding over shared passions as much as sexual attraction.

Stores may be shelving these books under Contemporary Romance, but their proper genre is Competence Porn. Sure, the sex is hot, but what’s even more thrilling is the all-too-rare spectacle of mutual respect between two grown-ass adults at the top of their personal and professional games. Even when the lovers’ emotional states and employment prospects are low, they see (and bring out) the best in each other.

Jen DeLuca’s Well Met—Shakespeare-speak for “meet cute”—pairs up a high school English teacher and a onetime English major against the colorful backdrop of a small-town New England Renaissance Faire. In Ruby Lang’s Playing House, a serendipitous encounter between two urban planners at a historic home tour blossoms into that time-honored trope, the fake relationship, here designed to fool fancy New York realtors into letting them poke around high-end open houses as a couple. And, in Kate Clayborn’s eagerly anticipated Love Lettering, an Instagram-famous Brooklyn calligrapher and a stuffy (but foine!) Wall Street analyst cross paths when she designs the stationery for his soon-to-be-cancelled wedding. If a happy ending is what you’re after, these charming, funny books suggest, it helps to start with a happy beginning.

In contrast to the artificially accelerated timeline of algorithm-aided speed dating, these slow-burn romances unfold at an analog pace. Their very subjects—Elizabethan poetry, pre-war architecture, handwriting—have built-in Luddite appeal, yet these tools of seduction are so old they’re new again. When Meg Mackworth, the heroine of Love Lettering, gets a package from ex-client Reid Sutherland, she wonders: “Did he address it himself? Seeing his handwriting—the possibility feels at turns exciting and unnerving. Intimate. It’s rare to see people’s handwriting these days. Surprising as it may sound, no one ever really sees mine, since what I draw isn’t really similar to my natural writing.” For someone who makes her living translating emotions into squiggles of ink, each stroke of the pen is a window to the soul.

If the “chick lit” genre too often depends on the heroine making a damn fool of herself in order to get the hero’s attention, competence porn reminds us that smart is sexy, independent of material success. These books aren’t about billionaires or designer-stiletto-clad “girl bosses”; just talented, hardworking nerds in love. Instead of high-stakes manufactured conflicts, the couples grapple with relatable relationship-killers: the fear of failure, the awkwardness of office romance, or the elusive work-life balance.

Lovely Letters
Competence Porn
Love Lettering: The face of Competence Porn

In Love Lettering, Meg and Reid are, if anything, too good at their jobs. He’s trained to spot patterns and codes, and he’s just found big one: in the program for his called-off wedding, Meg hid the letters “M-I-S-T-A-K-E.” Years of working with engaged couples have given Meg an instinct for these things; she may not be able to put the reasons into words, but they creep into her calligraphy. “The letters, they work on me sometimes. When I’m stressed, when I’m tired, when I’m lonely. When I’m blocked. . . I can’t draw at all or when I try—I end up saying too much.” Meg, too, sees the world in patterns and symbols. When Reid tells her he hates New York, “it almost makes me recoil, the way he’s said this. Bold, sans serif. No caps, but italics for the hate.”

Together, they get their respective grooves back by exploring the city on foot, looking for unique lettering; Meg needs inspiration for her work, and Reid needs a distraction from his. “Union and Sixth, a good corner for signage,” Meg muses. “A veterinary clinic with a slim sans serif, clean and safe-looking. A market with a lime green star to replace the A, a standout against the black background—it’s hip, it’s expensive, it’s probably got a bunch of food you’ve never heard of but you’d definitely be hip, too, if you tried it.” We see them fall in love with their jobs, with New York, and with each other, in that order.

Spouse Hunters

Playing House, too, is a ménage à trois between the characters and the city. Here, it’s the heroine, Fay Liu, who’s reeling from a divorce while struggling to adjust to her new apartment and singlehood. Her career is the one constant in her life—she’s a partner in a boutique urban planning firm—but her ambition derailed her marriage. Freelance consultant Oliver Huang’s looking for a stable job, not a relationship, real or fake. But he and Fay unexpectedly discover a shared love language as they play at being house hunters.

Even if you don’t speak it, their geeky joy is contagious; if you’re a fan of HGTV, so much the better. The two also share the burden of high expectations from their Asian parents. Among his accomplished siblings, Oliver is “the underachiever making obscure improvements around the city”; Fay’s parents are happy to let their friends assume that her “firm” is a law firm. Predictably but deliciously, their fake relationship grows into a real one.

Love Is Merely A Madness

Well Met

“I didn’t choose the wench life,” insists Emily Parker, the heroine of Well Met. “The wench life chose me.” For lack of better options, she spends her summer slinging tankards of beer at the local Renaissance Faire. “My afternoon and the rest of the weekend were pretty much an open book. Much like my entire future. I didn’t like it. I liked plans.”

She’s moved to tiny Willow Creek, Maryland, to live with her sister in the wake of a marriage of true minds gone wrong. “With Jake I’d had a plan. We’d met my sophomore year in college at a fraternity party, two like-minded intellectuals that were too good for beer pong. We’d talked all night, and I thought I’d found my soulmate. He was smart, focused, driven. I’d like that streak of ambition in him that matched mine.” But after dropping out of college to support her fiancé through law school, Emily finds herself well dumped. “What I hadn’t realized was that, while my ambition had been for us both, his was only for himself. When he got that high-powered job he’d been shooting for, he left old things behind.”

At first, Emily finds Faire organizer Simon Graham annoying and uptight: “more adultier than me, even.” Then she gets to know his tragic backstory—and his leather-pants-and-eyeliner-wearing Faire alter ego, Captain Ian Blackthorne. Before you can say “huzzah,” they’re quoting sonnets to each other. The course of true love doesn’t exactly run smooth, but all’s well that ends well—and begins well.

Kimberly Chrisman-Campbell

Kimberly Chrisman-Campbell writes about fashion, art and culture for the Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic, and Book + Film Globe.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *