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Romancing society
There's a quiet feminist revolution taking place in romance novels
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by Pamela White (

Harold Lowry used to judge books by their covers.

His wife was an avid reader of historical romances, and the novels took up space all around his house. When his wife would curl up with a historical romance-often graced with a cover of a man and woman half naked and embracing-Lowry would tease her about her poor choice of reading material. After all, Lowry himself read real literature-Dickens, Hemingway, Austen-while his wife read "sin, lust and passion" books.

Then one day, his wife lost her patience.

"She threw (a romance novel) at me and hit me right in the forehead," Lowry recalls. "She told me to read it, or shut up."

Lowry read the book-Georgette Heyer's These Old Shades-and loved it. Soon he was devouring as many romances as his wife. Realizing that romance was big business, he suggested to his wife that she write one. She turned the tables on him and told him to write one.

Almost 20 years later, Lowry has published 29 romance novels and four novellas under the name Leigh Greenwood. Lowry is now finishing his term as president of Romance Writers of America, an 8,500-member organization for published and aspiring romance writers.

Lowry was one of more than 2,000 RWA members who gathered in Denver last month to learn more about the business end of their craft and to raise money for literacy. Between workshops like "Taxes and the Writer" and "Writing More, Writing Better," authors discussed the biases that still face their industry.

And make no mistake. Romantic fiction is an industry. Romance novels, which account for 18 percent of all books sold and a whopping 55.9 percent of the paperback fiction market, brought in $1.37 billion in sales in 2000, more than any other paperback genre.

Romance writers and readers say that, despite romantic fiction's status as a cornerstone of American publishing, romance gets little respect and less ink. Best-selling authors who routinely make the New York Times best-sellers list find it all but impossible to have their books featured or reviewed in mainstream publications. And media coverage of the romance industry, when it happens at all, relies heavily on negative stereotypes that view romance novels as formulaic, poorly written and little more than a collection of sex scenes.

These stereotypes couldn't be further from the truth, say romance industry professionals-publishers, agents, and writers. Romance novels deal with serious social and emotional issues, they say, and may be the most radical and liberating form of fiction on our bookshelves.

Women on the bottom
Carol Larsen, Leslie Ann Sartor and Audra Harders sit down with glasses of iced tea to talk romance-romantic fiction, not personal lives. The three, Boulder County residents and RWA members, discuss media stereotypes of romance novels.

At the top of the list is the idea that romance writers and readers are bored housewives with too much time on their hands or single women pining away.

"The thing about these women," says Sartor, "is that they are so smart."

Among RWA's published authors are hundreds of women with graduate degrees in non-fluffy fields ranging from economics to engineering to archaeology. Current membership boasts a former NASA engineer, a commercial airline pilot, a retired Air Force colonel, and more than a few former journalists. Most are dedicated workaholics, churning out novel after novel for years on end. The average RWA author writes 1.5 books a year.

The other thing about these women is they're not all women. Of the estimated 41 million people who read romances, an estimated 3.5 million are men.

Still, most readers are married women with jobs and kids-the average supermom who lives next door.

"So much of what we have to do is defend ourselves -," begins Sartor.

"- against those who should be helping us," finishes Harders.

The three often finish one another's sentences. They've been friends for years and have been supporting one another in their efforts to write and to publish. Harders' manuscript Rough Ride won, placed in and was named a finalist in several romance novel contests. Sartor has been hired to write a screenplay, titled Cry of the Dove, based on the novel Mother of the Pound by Dr. David Kazzaz.

On their minds today is a recent Chicago Tribune article, in which best-selling romance writer Nora Roberts was referred to as "the best-kept secret in publishing." The article, the women agree, was silly.

Roberts, a consistent New York Times best-seller with 145 novels to her credit, last year outsold all other paperback authors in America, including John Grisham, Stephen King, Michael Crichton and J.K. Rowling, of Harry Potter fame. Roberts is only a secret, the women say, because the mainstream media ignores romantic fiction.

At it's heart, it's an issue of sexism, many agree.

"Science fiction isn't denigrated like this," says Sartor. "Mystery isn't denigrated like this."

So what's the difference?

"Women are down at the bottom," says Larsen. "We're down there with cats and dogs and penguins."

The women theorize that the very qualities that women love about romance novels-the emphasis on emotions and relationships and the inevitable happy endings-cause some in today's cynical society to snub the novels. Yet the conflicts in romance novels revolve around all the things society claims are important: fidelity in marriage, commitment in relationships, healthy families and strong communities.

"I feel good when I read them," says Sartor. "All things are possible. Love always prevails."

Larsen suggests that the male-dominated media might feel uncomfortable with a genre of literature they instinctively know is holding men to a higher standard. After all, romance heroes don't hit women, have affairs or spend too much time in front of the television watching football. They're loving fathers and faithful partners who put their families first. And they're good in bed-when the story includes sex, that is.

Part of the problem, Harders says, is that people assume romance novels are only about sex. But there is enormous variety among sub-genres in romance and among writers themselves. Inspirational romances, like Harders', have strong spiritual themes and feature no sex. Many authors take readers only as far as the bedroom door. Other authors do include spicy sex scenes, but most "spicy" novels limit sex scenes to three or four. In a 400-page narrative, sex is not the focus of the story.

"But you can tell people this -," Harders begins.

"-until you're blue in the face," the three women finish in unison.

Sartor sums it up: "Romance is so much more than sex. It's about women who rise above adversity and the station people want to keep them in."

Media coverage of the RWA conference is also disappointing. Despite the presence of Roberts and other prominent New York Times best-sellers, coverage has been scant. A television news program had a few lines about the conference, while an article in the Denver Post claimed women were attending workshops to learn how "to better describe a cowboy's jawline." (The response to that article ranged from howling laughter to outrage.)

Patricia Potter is the USA Today best-selling author of some 32 romance novels. A former journalist, Potter is critical of reporters who write about the romance novel industry without having cracked the cover on a single book.

"To me, that's just bad reporting," she says. "How can you say some of these things and not have read a novel?"

Radical reading
Colorado author Renee Halverson began reading romances in graduate school and found them cathartic. A wife and mother with a masters degree in economics, Halverson published her first romance, Extreme Measures, in July.

Halverson says the heroines in romance novels are great role models for women because they're strong and successful. And while the focus of the stories is on a woman's relationship with a man, the heroine is never dependent on the hero.

"It's an honor to femininity, because it's saying, 'I'm a woman, and I can live without this, or I can choose to have this in my life," Halverson says.

Boulder County resident Alette Hill is a fan of detective novels. She's also a college professor. After teaching a course on detective novels written by women for Metro State's women studies program, she decided she wanted to understand the appeal of romances, which have a much larger audience than detective stories.

Working with books by Colorado author Maggie Osborne, who writes historical romances, Hill broke down the stories and began to see something distinctly feminist in the writing. Osborne's heroines were all strong women who had to overcome difficult obstacles in the course of her stories.

"Heroines in romance fiction demonstrate strong character, bravery and often obstinacy," Hill says.

Hill went on to teach a course on the feminist nature of romance novels for the women studies program, something she enjoyed.

Turns out Hill was on the front edge of a movement that has seen romances enter the university classroom in places like Duke, the University of Illinois at Chicago, the University of Texas at Dallas, Skidmore College, Wheaton College, the University of Southern California, Western Kentucky University and Michigan State. Romance novels have become required reading in literature classes, writing classes, psychology classes, pop culture classes and women studies classes. They're increasingly finding their way into doctoral dissertations.

One university study of romance novels concluded that romance novels deeply satisfied women's emotional needs and desires and are generally liberating for women. The stories revolve around women's concerns and recreate the world from a female perspective, helping to build women's self-confidence and possibly giving them incentive to change their lives, the study concluded.

That impact can be seen in the real world. Colorado Romance Writers, the state chapter of RWA, donates novels to battered women's shelters, which distribute them to residents in hopes the stories will help women view relationships with men from a new perspective.

"I represent romance novels because they're the most subversive thing I do," says Natasha Kern, a literary agent with 24 years of industry experience. Kern represents a wide range of books, including fiction and non-fiction, but has a special interest in romantic fiction.

Romance novels have evolved with women's consciousness, Kern says. In the 1970s, the Gothic novel, featuring a helpless, frightened heroine and a somewhat dangerous hero, was the rage.

"The consciousness among women was that there was reason to fear men," Kern says.

Nowadays, women have male friends, work beside men and have more equal relationships with men. As a result, novels now focus more on achieving healthy, balanced relationships, Kern says.

"It's very woman empowering," she says.

If the personal is political, then romance novels, which relate to their characters on a very personal level, have the potential to be very political-without seeming so. No topic is expressly forbidden in the world of romance. Topics like date rape, domestic violence, drug and alcohol addiction, abortion, religion, physical disability and mental illness find their way onto the pages of romance novels today. The authors' perspectives shape the way those issues are handled, and readers absorb that woman-affirming world view with the story.

"There's a reason Jesus spoke in parables and not bullet points." Kern says. "Fiction goes in on a heart level."

The heart of romance
Romantic fiction is more than feminist, says Kern. "It's a human thing."

Kern notes that romances are increasingly making room for the whole human being. It is perhaps the only genre of fiction in which characters' spirituality and sexuality can be fully explored.

The past 20 years have seen dramatic changes in romance, with the addition of numerous sub-genres and a much broader spectrum of story lines. For readers who like science fiction, the romance industry offers futuristic romances, which combine the two. There are also time-travel romances, which might pair a contemporary business woman with a real Viking from 900 A.D., and paranormal romances, which involve the spirit realm. There are inspirational romances, which focus on a three-some-the heroine, the hero and God-as well as romantic suspense novels, which combine traits of detective stories and thrillers with romance. Add these categories to the traditional contemporaries, both long and short, Regencies, named after the period of English history in which they are set, and historical romances, and you have an industry which publishes more than 2,000 titles each year.

The broad range of options, combined with varying levels of sensuality, help explain why romance readers vary in age from under 13 to well over 80.

What the stories have in common and what draws in so many readers, says author K.N. Casper, is a focus on full stories about real-to-life characters.

"Writing fiction is about emotion," says Casper, a man. "What emotion could be more intense than love? And in romance, we're talking about the emotion of two people who really love each other."

Casper began writing romances after reading romance manuscripts in his fiction critique group. At first he feared he wouldn't be able to write female characters in a way women could relate to. Nine novels later-another hits bookshelves in December-those fears have been laid to rest.

Asked if writing romance has taught him anything about women, Casper replies, "Do men ever learn about women?" Then he says, "I think men who want to learn about women couldn't do better than to read romance novels and see how women feel."

Halverson says there are two things that make romances special for readers.

"They're relationship novels, and I think all of us as human beings are seeking relationships, and so I like exploring two people who have no business falling in love making it work," she says.

The other factor is the inevitable happy ending.

"What I want to do is provide readers with hope," Halverson says. "Romance novels are about people getting it right, and what person in their right mind wouldn't want to read about people getting it right?"


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