Romance Novel Essays

Vivienne Charles has a problem: the heroine of Lilah Pace’s erotic romance Asking for It (2015) can experience sexual satisfaction only if she imagines herself being raped, which causes her endless shame. Enter the rugged, mysterious Jonah Marks, who ‘looks as though someone took the macho ideal of a masculine form and brought it almost to the breaking point’.

Jonah instantly arouses Vivienne’s wildest fantasies, filling her mind with visions she abhors yet which excite her tremendously, ‘visions of him bending me over the back of my car, pushing up the skirt of my sundress. Of him pulling me into the backseat, putting my hand on his cock, whispering, Time to thank me.’ When Jonah finds out about these fantasies, he offers to fulfill them; like a true gentleman, he wants to ‘rape’ her in a way that will be safe and comfortable. But will Vivienne be able to overcome her own self-loathing to enjoy the consummation of her darkest desires?

The true hero of Asking for It is unmistakably Doreen, Vivienne’s intelligent, sympathetic psychologist. ‘Rape fantasies are among the most common sexual fantasies women have,’ she tells Vivienne (and the reader). ‘The fantasy isn’t your problem; it’s the extremity of your fixation on it.’

With Doreen’s careful guidance, Asking for It takes the reader on a journey through the gap between fantasy and reality, celebrating the deep arousal lingering at the borders of consent. These are ideas that implicitly inform many books in the romance genre. While most aren’t as explicit as Asking for It, the trope of the domineering, protective and well-endowed (physically and financially) alpha male is still a staple, as are power differentials between the hero and heroine. And though it’s not as common any more, questionable consent – even rape – haunts the genre’s recent past.

Evidence of the enduring hold of these tropes on the female imagination can be found in the runaway success of E L James’ Fifty Shades of Grey (2011), about virginal Anastasia, and Christian, the billionaire who wishes to own her. Selling more than 125 million copies worldwide, the series remains hugely popular despite being panned for its writing. It also contains scenes of explicit sadomasochism.

The Fifty Shades phenomenon manifested an uncomfortable paradox, one that gets only starker with every gain of the women’s movement. Why do women who have never been so free, so empowered, and so highly aware of the importance of consent continue to enjoy these retrograde tropes?

‘I am of the opinion that a genre that is written by women, for women, about women, about the female experience, even if that experience is codified and structured within patriarchal, established boundaries, is inherently feminist,’  says Sarah Wendell, co-founder of Smart Bitches, Trashy Books, a US-based website devoted to reviewing romance novels through a critical lens.

Wendell grants readers of all socioeconomic and educational backgrounds permission to enjoy their fantasies – be they feminist, sadomasochistic, paranormal, or male-on-male. For Wendell, this permission is the genre’s beating heart. ‘With romance, you are placing a centrepiece, a focus, on women’s sexuality as a healthy and important thing,’ she said. ‘Her orgasm is important! And so is her security, and so is her ability to access birth control.’

Unlike other spheres where female consumers are ignored, here women are everything. These readers populate a unique subculture. Devoted and voracious fans, they are catered to by an industry that recognises their value and by authors grateful for their interest. Unlike other genres, which treat women as accessories or plot devices to motivate a male hero, here women are the plot.

The very contradiction at the heart of romance fiction is a lesson: within feminism lies the permission, even the imperative, to enjoy, even if the fantasies you enjoy are not very feminist.

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Romance novels have long been derided by the literary establishment as bodice-rippers manufactured to engage the lurid fantasies of frustrated housewives. Often, their authors suffer public disdain, viewed as the sordid peddlers of a mysterious and unfortunate contraband – female desire.

But many books that are cornerstones of literary history are essentially romances. Take what’s considered one of the first novels: Pamela, Or Virtue Rewarded (1740) by Samuel Richardson. It follows the melodrama of a 15-year-old maid who resists the aggressive sexual advances of her master, only to be rewarded with a marriage proposal. Pamela possesses all the hallmarks of a romance – a heroine you can root for, an alpha male to fall in love with, and a happy ending, or H E A as it’s known in the industry, for ‘happily ever after’. Today, Pamela is regarded as a classic of literature, but at the time it received its fair share of mockery, including a spoof, Henry Fielding’s Shamela (1741).

Throughout the 18th century, the ‘literary’ novel was shaped largely in opposition to romances by authors such as Eliza Haywood. Haywood was riotously popular. She wrote about women of great sexual appetite, who go so far as to masquerade as others for a single night in bed with the men they desire. But like today’s romances, Haywood’s work was regarded by the literary establishment as salacious, unrealistic and feminine. As William Warner, a professor of 18th-century studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara, has argued, in order to gain legitimacy, ‘real’ novels – such as Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe (1719) and Fielding’s Tom Jones (1749) – coded themselves as moralist, realist and – perhaps most crucially – masculine. Their authors gained credibility by creating false dichotomies between themselves and their female counterparts. It was only in the 1990s that feminist scholars began to chip away at the mythology that Haywood’s work was so different from Defoe’s or even Fielding’s, resurrecting authors such as Haywood and revealing their importance in the history of the novel.

The modern romance novel is usually dated to 1972 with the publication of Kathleen Woodiwiss’s The Flame and the Flower, a Victorian-era story featuring Heather, a penniless virgin who is mistaken for a prostitute and raped by Brandon, a landowner and captain of a ship. When Brandon is forced to marry the now-pregnant Heather, they set sail from London for the US, and the long voyage to their H E A begins.

‘What would it take to make you feel safe?’ Jonah asks Vivienne when they sit down to plan her ‘rape’

In Beyond Heaving Bosoms: The Smart Bitches’ Guide to Romance Novels (2009), co-authored with Candy Tan, Wendell explains that romances from the 1970s and ’80s tended to feature a brutal hero who more often than not would rape the very young, virginal heroine, through whose exclusive point of view the book is represented.

But in the early 1990s, all that started to change. Romances quickly began to evolve into their current form – books that feature more emotionally complex heroes whose point of view is also represented, as well as what Wendell calls ‘the kick-ass sexually experienced heroine’. Rape was replaced by ‘forced seduction’, where the heroine’s love for the hero stems from an initial encounter in which consent is ambiguous rather than absent. These days, even forced seduction is out. Consent – and contraception – are now par for the course in most romances, with societal norms infiltrating the plots to reflect what readers want to read. In romances such as Asking for It, where power play and non-consent are themes, significant portions of the narrative are devoted to negotiations between the partners so the play will be mutually enjoyable. ‘What would it take to make you feel safe?’ is the first question Jonah asks Vivienne in Asking for It when they sit down to plan her ‘rape’.

Today’s romances have lots of variety, too. There are subgenres – historical, contemporary, inspirational, young-adult, romantic-suspense, and paranormal-romance. They feature, among other things, older women, rich women, women CEOs, women who are clan leaders, women who are political leaders, and more often than not, full-figured women. While women of colour still struggle with issues of marginalisation in the overwhelmingly white industry, the past four years have seen exponentially more writers – and more characters – of colour, due in no small part to the opportunities for self-publishing offered by the internet.

In 2013, Americans spent $1.08 billion dollars on romance novels, which represented a whopping 13 per cent of the adult-fiction revenue – double what literary fiction brought in the same year. And unlike many other forms of entertainment, romance sales were undisturbed by the economic downturn of 2008, a year in which reportedly one in five Americans read a romance novel.

From an industry perspective, this slice of the pie has not gone unnoticed. ‘Every publisher wants a piece of that readership,’ says Cindy Hwang, vice president and executive editor at Berkley Books, an imprint of Penguin. ‘There’s a realisation that romance readers are voracious readers who are always looking for new books. It’s a very engaged readership that will always spread the word and talk about new books that they love, and it’s absolutely a readership to be respected because they have a lot of influence on what booksellers sell.’

To truly understand the power of the romance industry, there’s one place you have to go: the Romantic Times Booklovers Convention (RT), a week-long extravaganza for romance readers featuring workshops, costume parties, books, swag, and signings with authors. This year, RT was held at the Hyatt Regency in Dallas, Texas, and the variety of women present matched the genre’s heroines: lawyers, cops, engineers, mothers, teachers, booksellers, waitresses and city employees walked around in groups of three and four, chatting excitedly about cherished books, beloved characters, favourite authors.

RT is a universe unto itself. Its 3,000 attendees represent a subculture free from the male gaze. Mostly in their 40s and 50s, these women sported naturally coloured hair and comfortable-looking clothes and shoes. It was a place where not only are older women not ‘invisible’, as countless Daily Mail surveys suggest, but they are valued and respected, and a few are even millionaires.

Ana Markovic, 31, was waiting to meet her favourite writers, Charlaine Harris and Kresley Cole, both Number 1 New York Times bestselling authors of fabulously popular urban fantasies and paranormal romances. She had travelled from Iceland to attend RT. Originally from Serbia, she works as a draftsperson, and in her spare time consumes more than 150 romance novels a year.

‘A certain percent are making a ton of money, and a lot of other women are making basically a living wage’

Ana is unwavering in her devotion to romances. ‘I like to swoon,’ she explained. But it’s not really about the sex scenes. She’s in it for the tension, the drama, and most importantly, the ending. Other genres have tension and drama, but only romance guarantees the H E A – an implicit promise that the payoff will be worth it, that the pain will transform into pleasure. When an author once broke the implied contract of romance and killed off a main character, there was such reader outrage that, in the next volume, the character was brought back from the dead.

The romance industry is one in which women carry clout, and lots of women can become financially independent, explained Mary Bly (pen name Eloisa James), a New York Times bestselling author, over breakfast at RT. ‘A certain percent are making a ton of money, and a lot of other women are making basically a living wage,’ she said. And although it’s a competitive market, it’s also a very nurturing one: Bly said she needs to help as many writers as she can, because their books sustain her readers while she writes the next Eloisa James novel.

Bly writes historical romances that tend to feature smart, resourceful heroines who steal the hearts and minds of powerful, alpha royals. In Four Nights with the Duke (2015), Mia has a secret, successful career as a romance novelist, but for altruistic reasons involving a favourite nephew, she must get married. She blackmails Vander, a local duke, into marrying her, albeit planning to dissolve their marriage after six months. Not if Vander can help it, for he has grown attached and, now that they are married, must possess her, body and soul. In A Kiss at Midnight (2010), Bly’s retelling of the Cinderella tale, Kate has been forced by a greedy stepmother to masquerade as her stepsister to please a prince. Bly’s books use historical constraints, not scenes of degradation, to highlight the heroine’s struggle for equality. They crackle with wit, almost like a raunchy Jane Austen, and Bly manages to marry historical plausibility to contemporary – and very sexy – pacing and dialogue.

Somewhat ironically, today’s historical romances are a bastion of progressive stories. As the historical romance writer Heidi Bond (pen name Courtney Milan) put it to me: ‘I don’t think I have fantasies that stem from disempowerment. I think I have fantasies that stem from empowerment. But in many ways, that empowerment only has meaning if you can show its lack, and so I think I write about overcoming disempowerment.’

‘The dominatrix is a huge facet of male desire, but we only call it “anti-feminist” when women have it’

Other books are less straightforwardly progressive, and the old tropes persist. Cole’s popular novels in particular play with questions of consent. In her book The Master (2015), the fast-talking, sensuous Catarina becomes an escort out of sheer desperation. Her first client is mob boss Maksimilian, who tends to favour tall, slim, blonde Russian escorts, not short, curvy Latina ones like Cat. But the sex between Maxim and Cat is so explosive that he can’t resist her, nor she him, even when he imprisons her in his penthouse. In another, The Warlord Wants Forever (2006), the beautiful Valkyrie Myst is hunted down by Wroth, the vampire who can’t forget her. Wroth manages to break Myst’s supernatural chain, forcing her to obey his commands – some of which involve spontaneous orgasms. The scenes of dubious and questionable consent often pit the heroine’s own desire against her agreement to the sexual encounter.

What to make of such books? Asking for It author Lilah Pace – whose name is a pseudonym for a best-selling young-adult novelist – resists the idea that desire is somehow political. ‘We always have moral panic when it comes to female sexuality,’ she told me. ‘God forbid a woman should know what she wants sexually and it should be different from what a guy wants to do.’ There’s power in asking for your fantasies, no matter what they are. ‘I’ve been really disturbed since Fifty Shades came out and everyone was saying: “Is this what women want? To be treated badly?” as though no one ever heard of a dominatrix. That’s a huge facet of male desire, but we only call it “anti-feminist” when women have it.’

Bly is the rare author who allows that a story about securing the love of an alpha male is indeed less than feminist. She sees it as a reflection of a biological, rather than a psychological, imperative. ‘You’ve gotta accept physiology at some level,’ she said. At some very basic, biological level, women are looking for someone who can protect their progeny.

The evolutionary explanation for the female attraction to alpha males extends to the question of rape fantasies, which between 31 and 57 per cent of women report having. In The New York Times Magazine article ‘What Do Women Want?’ (2009), Marta Meana, a professor of psychology at the University of Nevada, told the journalist Daniel Bergner that women’s desires are not relational, but rather narcissistic. Bergner reported that to understand Meana’s scientific approach, one should envision a scene of a woman pinned against an alley wall being ‘ravished… Here, in Meana’s vision, was an emblem of female heat,’ Bergner writes. ‘The ravisher is so overcome by a craving focused on this particular woman that he cannot contain himself; he transgresses societal codes in order to seize her, and she, feeling herself to be the unique object of his desire, is electrified by her own reactive charge and surrenders.’

But this scene, in some ways so evocative of romance fiction, is also off in crucial ways. For one thing, today’s heroines are a lusty lot. Her desire doesn’t stem from the hero’s attraction but her own. Rather than a man ravishing a woman in a dark alleyway, the archetypal scene of today’s romances would be a man and a woman negotiating over the parameters in which they will enjoy each other’s bodies, a negotiation that occurs especially if the sex depicted is going to involve ravishing.

What romance novels teach us is that the answer to the question of why women enjoy fantasies involving an alpha male and power differentials must be a narrative one, not a physiological or evolutionary one. The problem, after all, is a narrative one. As Doreen says in Asking for It: ‘The fantasy comes from… a culture that eroticises violence against women, and leftover puritanical guilt about sex that tells us we’re not allowed to choose it and want it for ourselves and from God only knows where else.’

The sociologist Eva Illouz at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem has a theory. In her book Hard-Core Romance: Fifty Shades of Grey, Best-Sellers and Society (2014), she portrays the fantasy of female disempowerment as a plot point in the larger script of romantic love. Women don’t fantasise about disempowerment for its own sake so much as they fantasise about the kind of love that is predicated on their disempowerment, in which the rituals of love are more straightforwardly in the hands of men. Like Courtney Milan, Illouz believes that what women enjoy is the spectre of empowerment that’s promised to them if they engage in courtship rituals that give power to men. And historically, they are justified in believing this. Traditionally, women were entirely disenfranchised in all areas – socially, legally, financially. There was one domain where they were adored and worshipped, at least at the level of cultural representation – the domain of love.

‘It was the only place where women would hope to be worshipped and in a way escape their general social condition,’ Illouz told me. The fundamental script of traditional romantic love, found in most poetry and literature, is of men adoring women, reversing the usual disempowerment of women, even compensating for it. In the Western world, until the 1970s, this was romantic love: men adored women, and at the same time deprived them of social and economic power. ‘That’s why I think love has been historically so damn important for women,’ Illouz said. ‘Because it was the only moment, the only experience where they were important.’

Romances resolve the constant tug-of-war in modern life by reconciling feminism with surrender

Fast-forward to consumer culture and the women’s movement, and this model collapses. Women are still far from achieving true equality, and they still do more of the housework and childrearing. This duality, according to Illouz, has them hearkening back for the kinds of adoring love that compensated for their inequality – the kind of adoration they find in romances.

This is also how Illouz makes sense of the popularity of Fifty Shades of Grey. ‘The equality that has been promoted by 40 years of feminism demands ongoing, ceaseless negotiation,’ she wrote in a 2012 article for Der Spiegel. But Fifty Shades stops the endless bargaining by ‘setting up and freezing caricatured and exaggerated roles and positions’. The narrative makes ‘inequality acceptable because it is consensual, contractual and pleasurable’.

Romance might touch so many because it resolves the 21st-century tug-of-war between feminism and surrender. After all, if the modern romance heroine is desired by a dominant man, she also sets the parameters by which she fulfils her own desires. At the crossroads of the conflict and the key to working it through is the issue of consent.

In a workshop at RT called ‘Walking the Line of Consent’, the author Jeffe Kennedy reviewed the continuum from non-consent (‘Non-Con’) to questionable consent, or even dubious consent (‘Dub-Con’) – situations where the heroine agrees to sex, and even enjoys it, but has been trapped or pressured into it. This is what happens in Kennedy’s novel Under Contract (2015), where a financially destitute woman agrees to have kinky sex in exchange for paying off her debt. ‘Not a real thing at all, right?’ Kennedy said, laughing. ‘At least, nobody’s ever paid me.’

Of course, in real life, consent is everything, the gold and only standard. But in fiction, the most important variable is the consent of the reader. ‘You’ve all probably read those books where the heroine is all: “No, no, no!” and the hero is all: “Oh, but you will! I’ll force you!” and you as the reader are going: “Yes you will!” That’s the reader giving consent,’ Kennedy explained. Part of why dubious consent or forced seduction works is because readers also identify with the hero. ‘When the pirate captain takes the shrinking English virgin, we’re doing that too,’ she said. ‘We want to consume her. We want to seduce somebody. We like being on both sides of that, at least as far as the fantasy.’

As readers, we are drawn to what Kennedy called ‘the dark lure of being overpowered’ – by an alpha male as well as by a good story. Rather than exposing something about female desire, compromised consent in romance novels exposes something about narrative: conflict is what makes a great story. ‘Consent in fiction is psychological dynamite. It’s about subconscious desires and sexual fantasies. It’s not about real life,’ Kennedy emphasised.

As if to represent that dark lure of the flesh, RT also had a handful of male models vying for spots on the covers of new books. In a gender inversion of a high-rolling party, they strutted around in shirts with the sleeves cut off, flexing sculpted muscles and flashing brilliant smiles, hoping to catch the eye of publicists and authors. No one paid them much mind, and they seemed symbolic of the tension in romance novels – the centrality of an alpha male in a genre for, by, and about women.

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Batya Ungar-Sargon

has a PhD in the 18th-century novel. Her dissertation is entitled ‘Coercive Pleasures: The Force and Form of the Novel 1719-1740’. She is also a freelance writer living in Brooklyn, New York.

Falling in love has been a prominent theme in literature since people first started recording stories. Romantic love—whether fated, doomed, or happy—has drawn the interest of uncounted generations around the world.

The romance novel, however, is a modern concept. A romance novel is more than just a story in which two people fall in love. It’s a very specific form of genre fiction. Not every story with a horse and a ranch in it is a Western; not every story with a murder in it is a mystery; and not every book that includes a love story can be classified as a romance novel.

Distinguishing a true romance novel from a novel that includes a love story can be difficult, because both types of books tell the story of two people falling in love against a background of other action. The difference lies in which part of the story is emphasized.

In a romance novel, the core story is the developing relationship between a man and a woman. The other events in the story line, though important, are secondary to that relationship. If you were to take out the love story, the rest of the book would be reduced in both significance and interest to the reader to the point that it really wouldn’t be much of a story at all.

In contrast, in other types of novels that contain romantic elements, the love story isn’t the main focus. The other action is the most important part of the story; even if the love story were removed, the book would still function almost as well. It might not be as interesting, but it would still be a full story.

So let’s say you’re writing a story about a woman who’s being chased by the bad guys, and she falls in love with the bodyguard who’s protecting her. Is this a romance novel? Or is it general fiction?

That depends on which elements of the story are emphasized. If the main focus of the story is the chase, what the bad guys are actually up to, and why they’re after the main character, the novel is general fiction. If the main focus of the story is the couple falling in love while they’re hiding out, it’s a romance novel.

The Modern Romance Novel
Though love and romance have long been a part of the literary world, the romance novel as we know it today originated in the early twentieth century in England. The publishing firm of Mills & Boon, established in 1908, brought out the work of such authors as Agatha Christie and Jack London—and also published romantic fiction. The firm soon realized that its hardcover romances, sold mostly to libraries, were more in demand than many of its regular titles. As the years passed, romantic fiction outstripped other book sales by even greater margins, and eventually the firm dropped other types of books in order to concentrate on publishing romance novels.

In the late 1950s, the success of Mills & Boon romances was noted by a Canadian publishing company, Harlequin Books, which began publishing Mills & Boon books in North America as Harlequin Romances. The two firms merged in the early 1970s, with Mills & Boon becoming a branch office of Harlequin. Harlequin began setting up independent publishing offices around the world and started to publish romances in translation. In 1981, the firms became a division of the Torstar Corporation, a Canadian communications company.

For a number of years, Mills & Boon continued to be the sole acquiring editorial office, buying books mostly from British authors. Though it began publishing American author Janet Dailey in the 1970s, Mills & Boon didn’t truly open up to other American authors until the early 1980s.

In the 1980s, Harlequin purchased its main rival, Silhouette Romance, from its founding publisher, Simon & Schuster. Since that time the two companies have functioned with relative independence under the Torstar corporate umbrella, though in recent years the line between the two houses has become less distinct. Other major publishers of romance include Kensington, Avon, Bantam/Dell, Berkley/Jove, Dorchester, New American Library (NAL), Pocket Books, St. Martin’s, and Warner. (Appendix E includes a more complete list of current romance publishers.)

For many years, only one brand of romance novel existed, known generically in the United Kingdom as a Mills & Boon, and in North America as a Harlequin. Despite the lack of brand-name variety, however, the stories published under these imprints were widely divergent. Contemporary, medical, and historical romances were all published as Harlequin Romance or Mills & Boon Romance.

But readers who gobbled up those original romances wanted even more variety, and authors wanted to stretch their wings with different kinds of stories—longer, spicier, more sensual, more confrontational, and including elements that just didn’t fit in the short, sweet, traditional package.

Various types of romances began to split off from the long-established core. Harlequin editorial offices in New York City and Toronto began acquiring new kinds of stories, written by new authors. Radically different cover designs and distinctive brand names helped the reader more easily distinguish between the various styles of romances.

Some of those changes were made in response to other publishers, who had noticed the success of the Harlequin/Mills & Boon machine and started bringing out their own romance novels. But not long after those other publishers launched their romance titles, they discovered that a commercially successful romance novel requires more than a simple handsome male meets cute female formula. Unsuccessful lines and subgenres soon disappeared from the market. Since then, the romance market has been ever changing, as new lines are brought out and foundering lines and subgenres are abandoned.

At any given time there are at least twenty lines, series, or categories of romance novels (we’ll look at the different categories beginning on page 8). The three terms are roughly synonymous, though series can also refer to a set of more closely related books (for instance, a trilogy in which each of three books features a different family member). In this book, however, we’ll use the term category romances.

Category romances are groupings of books that have certain elements in common; for instance, they all involve a mystery as well as the romance, or they are all romantic comedy. Category books are published in sets of a predetermined number of titles each month. Though the characters and story lines are different in each book, romances within each category are packaged with similar covers, and they’re marketed as a group rather than individually. They generally stay on the shelf for a month, sometimes less, before being replaced with the next group of titles.

In addition to the category romances, however, a bookcase full of new single-title romances comes out each month. Single titles are books that stand alone. They are designed and marketed individually, and they stay on the bookstore rack indefinitely.

The one thing all these books—category or single title, suspense or comedy, erotic or sweet—have in common is that, no matter what else is going on, the main focus is on the hero and heroine and their growing love for each other.

Beyond that, almost anything goes. Romances come in almost as many types as there are kinds of readers—from erotic fantasies to inspirational faith-based stories, from historical to contemporary, from dark suspense to light humor, from girl next door looking for Mr. Right to twenty-something city chick looking for Mr. Right Now.

In all cases, however, the love story—not the mystery or the sexual details or the social issues—is the most important part of the book.

Romance novels are the best-selling segment of the paperback fiction market in North America. According to statistics compiled for the Romance Writers of America (RWA), romance novels account for well over 50 percent of mass-market paperback fiction sold in the United States each year. More than a third of all fiction sold in the United States (including mass-market paper, trade paper, and hardcover books) is romance fiction. Paperback romances outsell mysteries, literary novels, science fiction novels, and Westerns. More than two thousand romance titles are published each year, creating a $1.2 billion business in 2004.

Who Reads Romance, and Why?

Why are romances so popular? There are as many answers as there are readers. And there are a lot of readers—RWA’s 2005 study showed that 64.6 million Americans read at least one romance in the previous year.

Half the readers are married; almost half are college graduates, and 15 percent hold graduate degrees. Women between the ages of twenty-five and fifty-four make up more than half the romance-reading audience, but readers range in age from their preteens to over age seventy-five.

A fair number of men read romances, too—22 percent of all romance readers are male, according to RWA—but not many are willing to talk about it. (Some even subscribe to by-mail book clubs in their wives’ names to keep their secret from the mailman.)

Romance is just as popular in other countries as it is in North America. Harlequin Books publishes in 25 languages and in 120 nations, and counts its readership at more than 200 million individuals worldwide.

For readers worldwide, the attraction of romance novels seems to be that they provide hope, strength, and the assurance that happy endings are possible. Romance makes the promise that no matter how bleak things sometimes look, in the end everything will turn out right and true love will triumph—and in an uncertain world, that’s very comforting.

False Perceptions and the Reality of Romance

The detractors of romance novels—usually people who haven’t read any—often say that the stories are simplistic and childish, and that they contain no big words and very little plot—just a lot of sex scenes separated by filler and fluff. A common view of romance is that there’s really only one story; all the authors do is change the characters’ names and hair color and crank out another book.

Critics of romance also accuse the stories—and their authors by extension—of presenting a world in which women are helpless. Romance, they say, encourages young readers to fantasize about Prince Charming riding to their rescue, to think their only important goal is to find a man to take care of them. The books are accused of limiting women by idealizing romantic relationships, making women unable to relate to real men because they’re holding out for a wonderful Harlequin hero.

In fact, rather than trailing behind the times, romance novels have actually been on the cutting edge of society. Long before divorce was common, for instance, romance novels explored the circumstances in which it might be better to dissolve a marriage than to continue it. According to Mills & Boon historian jay Dixon, the books “have always argued, along with some feminists and often against prevailing ideology, for no-fault divorce.”

Even early romances often featured working women and emphasized the importance of economic independence for women. While some heroines are indeed young, inexperienced, and in need of assistance, the usual romance heroine is perfectly competent. Finding her ideal man isn’t a necessity; it’s a bonus.

Modern romance novels tell a young woman that she can be successful, useful, and valuable on her own; that there are men who will respect her and treat her well; and that such men are worth waiting for.

Rather than presenting women as weak and helpless, romance novels show women as holding the ultimate power. The heroine tames the hero, civilizes him, and helps him to embrace his softer and more vulnerable side. As romance novelist Jayne Ann Krentz wrote in Dangerous Men and Adventurous Women, her study of romance novels, “the woman always wins. With courage, intelligence, and gentleness she brings the most dangerous creature on earth, the human male, to his knees.”

When you look at romances on the bookstore shelves, it’s easy to see why people who don’t actually read them might think that all romance novels are alike. Each book published in a specific category, such as Harlequin Presents or Silhouette Intimate Moments, will have a similar cover design, and all the books in a particular category will have exactly the same number of pages. So how, the skeptic asks, can the stories possibly be different?

A soup manufacturer uses the same colors and design on every label to catch the consumer’s eye and assure her that she’s getting brand-name quality, whether she’s buying bean soup or corn chowder or cream of tomato. In the same way, the specific theme of a romance cover design tells the reader that this story will be the same type of story she enjoyed last month.

All the books in a particular category have the same number of pages to allow for economy in printing, packing, and shipping. Because the publisher doesn’t have to adjust the press for each new title, or buy different-sized boxes to ship different books, it can keep costs in check and pass the savings on to the consumer through lower retail prices. But books with the same number of pages don’t necessarily have the same number of words; margins, type size, and line spacing can be adjusted to meet the required number of pages.

So Is There Really a Formula?
Many people believe not only that romance novels are all alike, but that they’re simplistic and formulaic. Romance novels are usually small—they’re shorter than many other kinds of novels. They’re also light—they focus on an entertaining story with an upbeat ending, rather than on such things as the evils of modern society. (Though they don’t ignore reality, they don’t dwell on violence.) They’re also easy to read—the story is told in a way that is effortless for the reader to comprehend.

Because the books are small, light, and easy to read, some critics and even some readers think they are easy to write. Nearly every romance reader says, at one time or another, “I could write one of these.” Almost every romance author has been asked to provide the simple magic formula for writing a successful book.

It’s true that all romance novels have certain elements in common. All mysteries have certain elements in common, too—a crime, a perpetrator, an investigator, and an ending in which the crime is logically and clearly solved. But mysteries aren’t all alike, and neither are romances.

What romance novels have in common is this: A romance novel is the story of a man and a woman who, while they’re solving a problem that threatens to keep them apart, discover that the love they feel for each other is the sort that comes along only once in a lifetime; this discovery leads to a permanent commitment and a happy ending.

That’s it. That’s the formula.

And even then, there are exceptions. For instance, there are gay romances, and there are romances that don’t include a permanent commitment as part of the ending.

Today’s romance novel allows an author wider latitude than ever before. Romance readers—and writers—have their favorite types of books. Just as a reader of mystery expects she will not be getting an Agatha Christie drawing room mystery when she picks up a new Janet Evanovich or Sue Grafton novel, the romance reader knows Nora Roberts, Julia Quinn, and Jennifer Crusie aren’t going to produce the same kind of stories.

Find out more about On Writing Romance.

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