Romancing the Reader

Heady doses of love— and lust—keep romance novel fans intensely loyal

John Bemrose September 20 1999

Romancing the Reader

Heady doses of love— and lust—keep romance novel fans intensely loyal

John Bemrose September 20 1999

Romancing the Reader


Heady doses of love— and lust—keep romance novel fans intensely loyal

John Bemrose

Everyone knows how the story goes. Girl meets boy. They fall for each other, but alas, there are obstacles. Finally love prevails, and they stand together at the altar, presumably to live happily ever after. Presumably—because every romance, whether book, play or movie, ends here, just where hope for the future reaches a throbbing crescendo.

The basic romantic plot has scarcely changed in centuries. It was a favourite vehicle for Greek and Roman storytellers, as well as for Shakespeare, Jane Austen and Charles Dickens. It has powered the careers of movie stars from Charlie Chaplin to Julia Roberts. And it has sold more books than any other genre in the history of publishing: an estimated 50 million women in North America read romances, while such novels make up a whopping 50 per cent of all massmarket paperbacks. And Canada—long notorious as a stronghold of everything dowdy, commonsensical and yes, non-romantic—is a major player. The Toronto-based Harlequin Enterprises Ltd., which this year celebrates its 50th anniversary, is the largest publisher anywhere, accounting for half of all romance paperbacks sold on the planet.

As well, Canadian romance writers such as Virginia Henley, Marsha Canham and Jo Beverley are among the most popular in the business. This week, dozens of authors will rub shoulders with thousands of fans at the 16th annual Romantic Times Booklovers Convention, named for the influential New York City-based trade magazine that sponsors it. In a long-overdue tribute to this country’s romance publishing industry, the event is being held for the first time in Canada—from Sept. 16 to 19 in Toronto. The event will feature book signings, costume parties for historical-romance addicts, and even an all-male cover model contest. As well, Newfoundland film-maker Barbara Doran will première her National Film Board documentary, The Perfect Hero, a wry yet sympathetic look at romance writers and their readers—virtually all of whom are women.

The Toronto celebration comes at a time when the romance genre has undergone major changes. True, all romances still end happily, and the market still breaks down almost evenly between bodice-rippers—the traditional historical romances where sex is often stormy and graphic—and contemporary tales where love crops up anywhere the genders meet, from the office watercooler to Internet chat rooms. But now, within those two broad camps, buyers can choose among such categories as time-travel, African-American romances, romances featuring the handicapped, erotic, mystery and suspense romances, comic romances and even Christian romances focusing on God-fearing couples for whom the height of excitement is a shy goodnight kiss.

Heroines, too, have changed. Gone are the prim, modest and decidedly passive young women of earlier decades: the nurses and manicure girls hoping to catch some wealthy Mr. Right. Now, romance protagonists are more likely to be business executives or sky divers, and they know how to demand respect and erotic stimulation in equal measure. There are limits, however. Ottawa writer Claire Harrison, who wrote more than a dozen romances before switching to mainstream fiction, recalls another authors 1980s story in which the heroine had an abortion; it drew an avalanche of negative mail. Since then, abortions are as rare as flabby abs in romance novels. “The heroine has to love children, and even in the hardest circumstances does not do that kind of thing,” Harrison says. “She sees marriage, or at least some committed bond between man and woman as the fulfilment of her life. Even if she has a professional career, she’s still the expert of the domestic zone.”

The same cautious mixture of traditional and liberal values shapes contemporary romance heroes too. Although the men have definitely grown more thoughtful and sensitive—no longer quite what Ajax, Ont.-based author Marsha Canham terms “these big, macho, slam-bam type creatures”—they have not exactly turned into Milquetoasts. In fact, the manly man is still very much in style: mysterious, forceful—but also in need of a little educating in matters of the heart. It is the glory of contemporary romance heroines that they manage to soften up the beast in the manly breast. Or as Romantic Times founder and CEO Kathryn Falk puts it: “The heroine’s whole struggle is to get an alpha male to commit.”

It’s astounding how much variety some romance writers can wring from this simple formula. The British writer Barbara Cartland—at 98, the undisputed queen of the genre—has published 688 romance novels, for a total of 750 million copies in 36 languages.

Looking magnificently overdressed in a pink suit and gobs of flashy jewelry, the British author archly delivers her opinions on romance writing in The Perfect Hero. The great lady, Doran says, was a headache to film. When she politely asked Cartland to remove her pet dog from her lap—“it was breathing all over the sound track,” the director recalls—the author snapped back at her, “Id rather have you leave the house.” The dog stayed.

Another star of Doran’s film is the Canadian author of 16 historical romances, Virginia Henley, a 63-year-old grandmother whose distinct combination of hot sex scenes and vivid recreations of past eras earns her close to $ 1 million a year. Twenty-three years ago, Henley was a frustrated Scarborough housewife looking after two sons, her husband and widowed father—who to Henley’s dismay spent hours watching sports on TV. “I thought, ‘Oh God, I’ve got to have something for myself or I’m going to go crazy.’ ” Reading a historical romance by the popular American writer, Kathleen Woodiwiss, Henley realized: “I can do this.” Having no room of her own to work in, she began writing and researching on the living-room coffee table, concentrating ferociously to block out the sounds of the TV. A year later, she had produced her first novel, The Irish Gypsy (later republished as Enticed). Several Canadian publishers turned it down, before Avon in New York published it. Today, the best-selling author makes her home in Florida, where she works 14-hour days and relaxes with walks on the beach. Her husband, Arthur, a retired Ontario civil servant, cleans and cooks.

Henley’s romances have an almost primitive appeal. “For my hero, I usually pick a dark, dominant and dangerous man,” she says. “And then I create a woman who is a match for him—or, in most cases, more than a match,” she adds with a chuckle. She then creates situations where the sexual tension between hero and heroine mounts steadily. Her 1996 novel, Enslaved, focuses on Lady Diana Davenport, a young, single society woman frustrated with the restrictions of 18th-century England. When she tries on an antique Roman helmet, she is catapulted back in time to Aquae Sulis—the old Roman name for the English city of Bath. There, she becomes the prisoner of the general, Marcus Magnus—described on the novels jacket as “powerful, arrogant and infuriating. A real man.” Marcus tries to makes Diana his sex slave, and though she postpones surrendering to him, ultimately the sexual action—fuelled by a growing love between the two—explodes. “I like to put the reader in bed between the hero and the heroine and let her in on all their secrets,” declares Henley, who likes to call body parts by their blunt, Anglo-Saxon names.

i • « i 1 here is a wide range of sexual explicitness, from demure to blunt

Henley’s sexual candour is a far cry from the poetic vagueness that surrounds the lovemaking in many romance novels, where genitals are evoked by such awkward euphemisms as “her feminine nest” or “that hot, hard, straining part.” In fact, romances offer a wide range of sexual explicitness, from what people in the industry call the “sweet” end of the scale all the way to the “sensual,” which is really a form of soft porn. Readers can judge the books by the paintings (thought to be more romantically suggestive than photographs) of the love-struck couples on their covers. The more fervent and suggestive their poses, the sexier the contents.

If fans of these novels like to vicariously enjoy a good love affair, many of them are falling in love with the idea of writing a romance themselves. All through the western world, thousands of would-be authors are toiling away on manuscripts they hope will spirit them to a new way of life. The Toronto crime writer Rosemary Aubert, who has both written and edited romance novels, thinks there are profound similarities between the desire for romantic love and the desire to be a published author: “In the case of romantic love, people have this fantasy that if they can just find the right person, all the problems of their lives will be solved. Well, would-be writers have the same idea; they imagine that if they can just turn out a successful novel everything will be fine from then on. Of course, it’s not true.”

One reason it’s not true is that the odds are so steep. Marsha Zinberg, a senior editor at Harlequin, estimates that the company publishes only one out of every 200 manuscripts it receives (unlike most romance publishers, Harlequin still reads all unsolicited novels). Yet she has watched many writers persist and improve through several unpublishable manuscripts before one is finally accepted. Most of these authors, though, never become rich.

“When authors start out with us, they’re definitely going to keep their day jobs,” Zinberg says. Harlequin authors typically receive advances in the $2,000-$3,000 range, and may go on to earn up to $20,000 for a single title. Since Harlequin publishes more than 70 new romances every month, each novel only has those four weeks to grab attention at the front of the shelves. “Yet the good thing about writing for Harlequin,” Zinberg says, “is that it’s a worldwide company. So even after a book is taken off the stands in North America, it may be picked up in Spain or Greece. Two years down the road, it could still be earning royalties.”

What does Zinberg look for in new manuscripts? Although she says she is irked by bad spelling and grammar, she will tolerate such fixable flaws if the author has real storytelling ability. “There are things like a writer’s unique voice, as well as a sense of pacing, that can’t really be taught,” Zinberg says. But for someone who possesses such gifts, the craft of shaping stories can be refined. Zinberg recommends that neophyte authors join groups that teach romance writing, such as The Romance Writers of America, which has several chapters across Canada. “You also have to know the market,” Zinberg insists, “Read widely, and know exactly what kind of romance you want to write.

This raises the perennial question of formula: there seems to be a prevalent myth that romances are written to exact specifications—as if there were some rule that the first kiss has to come by page 24. This notion raises the ire of many authors. “Formula is not really the right word,” insists Aubert. “I wish there was a formula, because with a formula all you have to do is plug it in and it gives you the right answer.” Aubert says she prefers the word “convention”—romance’s happy ending is one example—and she points out that mystery or science fiction authors have observed the conventions of their chosen genre without enduring the same sort of mockery romance authors have. Yet the most successful romance writers, according to Romantic Times s Falk, manage to “expand the envelope of what’s acceptable. They expand the conventions.” Or as Henley insists: “I’ve always written exactly what I’ve wanted and the publishers have left me alone because it’s made money.”

The genre has its own culture of clubs, magazines and even a convention

The best popular romances—though they may not qualify as high literature— have an addictive appeal for many women. Some devour as many as 12 a week. For Mary Waters of Vancouver, a lifelong fan of Harlequin Romances, the appeal is simple. “It’s nice to have these little daydreams about someone coming

along and taking care of you and all that,” says the 41-year-old single florist. “Truth is, if someone tried to, I’d probably think they are controlling and run away from the relationship. But for an hour or two, which is all it takes to read a Harlequin, what’s the big deal?”

Such loyalty to the genre has spawned its own culture. Thousands of romance readers keep in touch by e-mail, and flock to book signings to chat with their favourite authors. And the authors themselves—hungry to break away from the vast pack of the competition—often post their own ads on the Internet or in Romantic Times, or woo bookstore owners with free handouts such as bookmarks. The culture of romance seems to be particularly fervid south of the border. Canham says she prefers to do book signings in the United States where fans “line up for hours.” And she chafes at the lack of attention the Canadian media has paid to her work, which has won several U.S. book industry prizes. “I’ve had one review up here,” she laments—“In the North Bay Nugget. We re not considered highbrow enough up here. Romances sell well in Canada, but no one likes to admit they read them.”

The promoters of the Romantic Times conference will be working hard to raise the genres profile in Canada. They expect to draw a lot of media attention, not all of it flattering, with their annual cover model pageant. Strangely reminiscent of ladies’ night in a strip club, the contest features handsome, long-haired young men showing off their naked torsos for the romance fans. Standing with a female model inside a large frame that simulates a book cover, each contestant gazes into her eyes as passionately as he can. He also answers such questions as: “What do you think of older women?” Past winners have gone on to lucrative careers modelling for the covers of romances—hoping to follow in the footsteps of Fabio, who parlayed his success as a romance pinup boy into international stardom. Although some romance writers have criticized the pageant as dated and sexist, Falk defends it, saying, “Women like looking at these fellows. They’re tall, larger than life, and they look like they could protect a woman. It kind of goes back to the caveman days when the biggest hunter got the biggest piece of meat and had the healthiest companion and had the best cave.”

In fact, the power at the core of romance writing seems irrepressible. Many feminists have inveighed against the genre, claiming it encourages unrealistic expectations in women. But Virginia Henley insists that “women are too smart to confuse fantasy and reality. They turn to these books when they want to be swept away to a place where they don’t have to worry about the cleaning, or the husband out of work, or the kids on drugs. There are really no messages in what I write. It’s just like a box of chocolates.” Claire Harrison goes further: “These kind of books can show that a man is a wonderful thing. A reader might well look at the man in her life and say, ‘Oh, he’s not so bad. He has some elements of a hero.’ These books encourage hope: surely that’s not such a bad thing.”

With Ruth Atherley in Vancouver

Ruth Atherley