The Curious Disappearance of Judith McNaught: What Happened to ‘The Sweetest Thing’? | Features | LIVING LIFE FEARLESS
SIMON & SCHUSTER

The Curious Disappearance of Judith McNaught: What Happened to ‘The Sweetest Thing’?

…publishers began concentrating more on quantity than quality… Inevitably, the market became saturated, and – equally inevitably – disenchanted readers began expressing dissatisfaction with the quality of the books.

Judith McNaught, Q&A with All About Romance, September 1990

The promise of another Judith McNaught novel and my belief in romance died in the same breath. Here’s how it happened:

About eight months ago Judith McNaught, mother of the historical romance, founder of my relationship dreams, announced her first book release in twelve years. The Sweetest Thing, a novel that apparently changed titles and plots a dozen times was, at last, formally announced with a release date of October 23rd, 2018.

It’s May 2019 and there is no book in sight. Not only is there no book, there is no announcement of a book. No apology or explanation to disappointed fans and, bizarrely, no confirmed release. A book that has been written and the legendary author who wrote it seem to have both disappeared.

After a patient and utterly polite six-month interval, I decided to investigate this phenomenon with all the vigor born of my adolescent reading habits. I reached out to McNaught’s publisher Simon & Schuster, to journalists who had interviewed McNaught shortly before the “release”, I even rooted names from her novels’ acknowledgements and contacted anyone I could find. I did everything short of drive to her hometown in Texas and yell her name out the car window. My efforts were answered with a few occasions of blunt refusal and a lot of cryptic silence.

Why would any publisher fail to bring this romance author, one of the first to ever receive a multi-million dollar contract, back into the light?

Simon & Schuster’s lack of concern for Judith McNaught’s audience, combined with my fruitless attempts to find words of news or praise about her, is, in a word, infuriating. While a perfectly understandable reason for the quiet may exist, no one is willing to tell. It’s as if McNaught’s return would rekindle a plague fire. As if her brand of romance, so different from current top sellers, is anathema to the romance industry.

Why would any publisher fail to bring this romance author, one of the first to ever receive a multi-million dollar contract, back into the light? Why hasThe Sweetest Thing been abandoned to the black hole of Amazon pre-order, with a release date of – get this – December 2045?

Ladies and gentlemen, I have a theory. It all comes down to the difference between Judith McNaught and, to put it bluntly, everyone else.

McNaught is the mother of all romance. Whitney, My Love , published in 1985 quite literally established the popular genre of historical romance. Prior to Whitney, the 19th century was considered a big snooze and a feminist’s nightmare. Now 84% of the romance novels read are from that same “historical” sub-genre. If this decades old success were all she accomplished the vanishing act would be understood. But McNaught did so much more. She wrote a number of successful historical and modern romances, many of which appeared on the New York Times Bestseller List, dabbled brilliantly in suspense and crime driven plots, and even wrote a novel in support of adult literacy.

The works of McNaught were never mere bodice-rippers. They were unique then and are even more unique now. Several things separate her from the competition, including the sophistication and intelligence of the writing, but the biggest difference between her and, say, most of the romances at Barnes & Noble can be summed up in one old-fashioned word: sentiment.

“Reading or writing a romance novel constitutes a public declaration of sentimentality…women possess an inexhaustible abundance of determination and courage. Sentimentality has enabled us to civilize and soften the other half of the population of the planet.”

Judith McNaught, Q&A with All About Romance, September 1990

In this case, I don’t define sentiment as lovey-dovey, gushy-mushy stuff. That you can find (literally) anywhere on the romance shelf. The kind of sentiment Judith and I are talking about is transformational, and it can be applied to any and all of her heroes. McNaught men begin as alphas, arrogant and a bit domineering. By the end they’re still strong, but they’ve surrendered themselves entirely to the women they fell in love with. This is very emotionally evident to readers and is the proven McNaught guarantee.

Take, for example, A Kingdom of Dreams, published in 1989 and McNaught’s only medieval novel. The novel concludes with the hero taking his wife, and mother of his child, out onto the parapet of the keep and literally lifting her in the air, he lifts her higher and higher in triumph and adoration. The common folk below cheer wildly, and this is her “kingdom of dreams.”

The same principle applies to the modern romances. Take Someone to Watch Over Me, a mystery/suspense romance published in 2003. An utterly fantastic read. The originator of my pen name, Valente, and I say that with no shame. This novel’s hero is targeted by corrupt police and government officials, accused unjustly of every crime from manslaughter to driving five miles over the speed limit. And yet the heroine, an actress, marries and stands by him, making a point to change her surname to his on a Broadway marquee. This gruff man of mystery is melted into a puddle of sentimentality as he sees the name unashamedly light up the sky — “an unfamiliar constriction tightens his throat” and he embraces her in front of every camera and body on the street.

The Curious Disappearance of Judith McNaught: What Happened to ‘The Sweetest Thing’? | Features | LIVING LIFE FEARLESS

That is some powerful sentiment. As McNaught herself once said, it takes bravery to read and write this stuff. Bravery implies vulnerability and that is the last thing modern audiences want. Let’s take a look at recent releases, shall we?

I logged onto the website for Avon Books, #1 romance publisher, and studied the authors of their advertised releases. I went to the bookstore and read several synopses, I even peeked at their endings. Comparing these men to McNaught’s is like holding “Baby Shark” up to Beethoven. Both endearing in their own way, but one is clearly superior.

In discussion with the founder of McNaughtized, now the only place on the internet where one can find McNaught news, I asked what separates McNaught’s novels from all the rest. “She writes the most swoon-worthy heroes EVER,” Jessica said, “It really does bear repeating: BEST. HEROES. EVER!!  Other authors try to create this…but then you get into said hero‘s viewpoint and the allusion shatters—either because he has the emotional range of a 19 year old frat boy, or because the author simply doesn’t seem to know how rich, commanding men think. NO ONE writes a hero the way JM does.

Comparing these men to McNaught’s is like holding “Baby Shark” up to Beethoven. Both endearing in their own way, but one is clearly superior.

Most of the released advertised by Avon include heroes of questionable magnitude: a self-made man desperate to improve his status, a second son, a scientist, or, most commonly, a man who doesn’t even want to have a title but (poor thing!) is forced to have power. In the scant few years in which I neglected the romance novel world, the industry developed an allergy to powerful men. Without powerful men, there is no opportunity for sentimental transformation. So Judith McNaught’s moving endings are replaced with sexy couples that barely resemble Georgians sneaking away to show each other the “parts they like”, a heroine expressing “very bad thoughts about a certain duke,” and finding “the passion she’d only written about.” Because that’s the sum of female happiness, (she writes sarcastically).

Even the less sexual endings struck me as unsatisfactory. In their effort to showcase womanly independence, the women are invulnerable, the men remain the same. They kiss and say something sweet and that’s the happily ever after. It’s the pithy conclusion at which critics scoff. It’s proof that romance novels are now, officially, what their detractors claim: unrealistic, uninspiring, — hollow.

Many readers expressed their dissatisfaction by refusing to buy new authors at all, or else only in used bookstores… I can only suggest that you make your preferences known in the time-honored tradition of a capitalistic society: Complain to the retailers who aren’t providing you with the products you want…

Judith McNaught, Q&A with All About Romance, September 1990

Well, Judith, here I am — complaining!

I’m doing just what you advised. Your publisher, Simon & Schuster, is not focused enough on romance to bear mentioning their latest publications. Their newest books are not yours, nor do Avon’s books hold a candle to your meaningful plot weaving and character development. We may never know what happened to The Sweetest Thing, but from what I know of current romances I can imagine what went down. Simon, and perhaps Schuster, didn’t bother to mention whatever delayed your book release because, as I can see them remarking, “No one’s interested in her books anymore. They don’t empower women.”

But I and several others are very interested. More than interested. Here’s just a few posts I found on McNaught’s Facebook page.

The Curious Disappearance of Judith McNaught: What Happened to ‘The Sweetest Thing’? | Features | LIVING LIFE FEARLESS

“‘This title will be auto-delivered to your Kindle on December 31, 2045.’ Something is terribly wrong. Yes, I and many of you have been waiting so patiently and with enthusiasm for the next book written by Ms. McNaught. What is the issue? Would like an honest and straightforward answer.”

…how can women possibly feel empowered when publishing companies carelessly decide what’s important and what isn’t, what readers want and don’t want?

“My dear favorite author … how come when I go to buy the book on Amazon they only promise to deliver when I’m 91 years old, that is December 31st, 2045?????? I found this offensive to your fans.”

“Judith McNaught – I hope you are alright. Could you please come out of hiding and tell your loyal, extremely patient fans where the book THE SWEETEST THING is and when it will truly be published or not. Your cover photo says it was supposed to come out last October 23. Then, it was scheduled to come out January 8, 2019. Still another no show. Now, I see it listed coming out in 2045. How do you expect to keep your loyal, extremely patient fans to continue coming back when you are continually lying to them?”

How indeed? And how can women possibly feel empowered when publishing companies carelessly decide what’s important and what isn’t, what readers want and don’t want? I used to feel empowered, back when I had hopes of another Matt Farrell or Michael Valente, when McNaught proudly announced her first release in twelve years and I excitedly marked my calendar. As long as her books remained prominent, I believed that a strong man could fall in love, the kind of love that lifts women up in the air and applauds their ability to, as Judith put it, “soften the other half of the population.”

Supposedly, that’s not what readers want.

My belief in romance died the day I assumed this book was never coming. It vanished with Judith McNaught. Rest assured, I won’t be picking up another romance novel any time soon. That is, unless Simon & Schuster finally deigns to speak up.

* Update *

Click here to add your name to an online petition, requesting information from Judith McNaught’s publisher Simon and Schuster.

The Curious Disappearance of Judith McNaught: What Happened to ‘The Sweetest Thing’? | Features | LIVING LIFE FEARLESS

  1. I think Judith Mcnaught is ill, either physically or mentally. That is the only reason I can think of for the silence. I’ve given up all hopes of a new book coming out and wish her the best.

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    1. I agree. She is well into her senior years at this point so hopefully she is enjoying life with her family. Will miss the adventures of the Westmorelands.

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  2. I started to read JM’s books in 2021. I cannot find “The Sweetish Thing” and
    “Can’t take my eyes off of you”. Were they ever published? JM has no peer in the written word world. I do read others but miss her written words. No one has her way of expressing the world of words. Hope to find the two novels I am looking for.

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    1. I just saw in kindle store that you can pre order Judith McNaught book The sweetish thing for 13.99 …. To be delivered in 2045…..What’s up with that

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  3. I began reading Johanna Lindsey’s books before I did Judith Mcnaught at the age of 16. Before that, I was reading Harlequins. I began sharing these books with 3 of my 6 sisters and a couple of friends. So, we had to find other books to read. I found Judith Mcnaught’s book “Double Standard in the public library and began looking for other works of hers. found “Whitney My Love.” I became so engrossed in Judith’s books that I would bug the local bookstore if she’d written another. You see, no other author uses imagery and other figurative languages as she does. I cry; I get angry; I become excited, I laugh,etc. What ever way that main character is acting or feeling,get the picture through Judith’s words. No other author is like her, even though I do enjoy Johanna Lindsey, Amanda Quick (and her other pseudonyms), Jude Deveraux, Julia Quinn,Julie Garwood, Sandra Brown, and Lisa Kleypas. I have read many of these authors’ books. Yet, I always reread Judith’s books. My favorite Mcnaught historical romance novels are Almost Heaven A kingdom of Dreams, Whitney My Love, Something Wonderful and Once and Always. My favorites of the contemporary books are Paradise, Perfect, Double Standards,Night Whispers and Tender Triumph. However, the best of all of her books, in my opinion is Every Breath you Take. All of them are tastefully written and gives hope for a true romantic soul.

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    1. I can’t agree more. You have hit everything I feel about Judith. I have read all the authors you mentioned and a variety of others. I started with Kathleen Woodiwiss. Perfect is one I reread almost every year. I have almost everything she wrote on my bookshelves.
      Where is she?

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    1. I don’t think it is ‘our’JMcN, I googled ‘Judith McNaught death’ and an obituary popped up for a Judith McNaught who died in 2020. This lady’s husband was called Wesley, and she was a mother to EIGHT children.

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  4. Oh no. I just read that Judith McNaught died in early 2020, which explains so much! My condolences to her family and friends.

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    1. Willa, I also read a while ago about a Judith McNaught who died but some details didn’t match with our Judith McNaught. So it couldn’t be her.

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    2. Willa, I can tell you for sure that the obituary online is not the one of “our” Judith McNaught but a person with the same name

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  5. I too love and miss JM. I have read every single one of her novels. I started reading her in 2001 and I swear her books got me through the epoch changing year of 9/11. Here I am 20 years later waiting for another McNaught. I do read others – Kleypas, Julia Quinn and Mary Balogh. Kleypas and Quinn are formulaic – I can just about figure out the entire trajectory once I get going. But what to do in the absence of JM? I’ve seen some names on this list that I will try out, but still I hope we can find out what happened to JM! There’s probably some kind of non-disclosure agreement that’s preventing her from speaking out and I bet her contract prevents her from self publishing. All the best to her and I have so much gratitude for all the years of truly good reads she gifted us with.

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  6. I’ve never stop looking out for stories that Judith Mcnaught wrote. And I certainly would like to read another one. Any news about her is eagerly awaited.

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  7. I, too, have legitimately been wondering about Ms. McNaught. I first picked up “Perfect” about 20 years ago and fell in love with her characters. I have all her books and have read them each multiple times. The idea of getting a new book from McNaught is exciting. Now, if the publisher(s) will just release the darned thing so we can all enjoy it, life would be grand.

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    1. Wonderful article. I would respectfully suggest, however, that Mary Balogh be considered a worthy peer of Ms. McNaught. Both protagonists generally go through some essential change that’s sigh-worthy at the end.

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  8. I feel the same, I would add Kat Martin, Meagan Mckinney to the list. The presence of the romances is too polite, Mrs. Hoyt is distinguished. Do publishers remember the success of 50 Shades of Gray? we like to read about dominant, strong men, maybe not really practical, but in romance … I like to sigh after reading a book and think – how he loved her …

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  9. I have a collection of her historical romance. And I am a fan. I tried other books from different author but I would always going back reading her two books Until you and Something Wonderful.

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    1. In Poland, we love Mrs. Judith’s books. There are no reissues of her books, old editions are very expensive at auctions. Do you know what’s happening to Mrs. Judith? Nobody writes like her now, I miss Judith, McKinney, Deveraux, Lindsey (I’m 37 and the affairs of Mr. Kleypas, Dare are nice but polite). Mrs. Hoyt writes well …

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  10. Judith McNaught, where are you? I’ve read all your books and have waited not so patiently for a new novel. What’s going on? Can I get a reply from you?

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    1. In Poland, we love Mrs. Judith’s books. There are no reissues of her books, old editions are very expensive at auctions. Do you know what’s happening to Mrs. Judith? Nobody writes like her now, I miss Judith, McKinney, Deveraux, Lindsey (I’m 37 and the affairs of Mr. Kleypas, Dare are nice but polite). Mrs. Hoyt writes well …

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  11. The only books I have ever read that I thought compared to and were as good as a McNaught book were the Chesapeake Series by Nora Roberts. I am nearly distraught that Judith McNaught seems to have lost her Mo-Jo! It seems she may have had a couple of false starts, but some how couldn’t make it happen! Judith, say a rosary, and start one more time! PLEASE!!

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