Lifestyle & Culture

The Romance of Romance Novels

February 11, 2017




















Valentine’s Day is tomorrow, but if you don’t have a hot date, how about a hot novel? According to a story on CBS’s Sunday Morning about the allure of romance novels, “Almost always—like, virtually always—you can have a big alpha hero.” But at the end, the person in charge is the heroine, end of story. We’re cool with that! Below is a repeat of our own post on romance novels. 

IMAGINE A WORLD created by intelligent, plucky women.

Imagine a world where fantasy is played out on a secure stage, where pleasure and principle are not at odds.

Welcome to the world of the romance novel.

Are you reading them? A whole lot of people are.

According to a recent story in the New York Times, romance novels are so popular that sales in 2013 exceeded $1 billion and are expected to keep growing.

I’m contributing to those sales, selecting the latest release from the rack above the magazines at CVS to add to my red shopping basket, and I’m rereading the Bröntes in thick hardback editions borrowed from the library.

A coverless 1970 Harlequin on the Cleveland Park library’s giveaway shelf hooked me. At the time I was trying, in a dutiful English-major way, to slog through contemporary literary fiction about cheerless people in tedious situations.

When I found myself setting aside a trade paperback with its hushed cover image to dip instead like a water ouzel into the polychromatic mass market paperback Big Girl Panties by Stephanie Evanovich, I had to wonder: What exactly is the appeal of romance to readers?

So I asked a few romance writers.

“What appeals to women about romance is it always works out,” says Maryland-based author Robin Covington. “We live in a world where women have so many hats they wear. They have so many responsibilities in and outside the home. We worry, ‘Are my kids going to grow up okay?’ We worry about our own relationships. A lot of us are taking care of our parents.”

“My day job is as an attorney,” Covington adds. “I watch the news and some days it’s not so great to be on planet Earth. But in a book it’s always a happily ever after. If I want to be depressed, I’ll pick up the newspaper.”

This happily-ever-after aspect — HEA in romance-novel lingo— gets the genre into hot water with literary critics because it often means simple domesticity. Heroines who’ve had careers, first marriages and children, who independently overcame setbacks, gladly extend their left hands to receive the hero’s gold band. They relocate, often have more babies and bake cookies in the remodeled kitchen of an expansive ranch house, or plant daffodils in the garden of their waterfront home.

Beloved by some, reviled by others. Some reviewers on Evanovich’s Amazon page suggest her stories set back feminism. Reading the posts, I thought of my personal triad of feminist role models: my mother and two grandmothers.

I grew up watching my mother roll on pantyhose in the predawn to hop a Metrobus to work where she tapped her hard-won hammer against the glass ceiling, cracking it enough for the next generation of women to break through. On her return home, she’d stop at the corner store for ingredients to prepare the evening meal. Weekends, she potted begonias and baked cookies. (Okay, my mom was baking quiche – this was the ’80s – but baking nevertheless.)

Oh, yeah, she had it all: except time for herself. Only when our dad took my brother and me camping for a weekend did mom have a few hours to hole up with an onion sandwich and a glass of wine to read mysteries, her mass-market novel of choice.

Her mother and my father’s mother worked with pride while supporting passage of the Equal Rights Amendment and volunteering for the League of Women Voters. Both single parents, they were evidence that life holds no guarantee of that HEA. Their lives were more about having steel backbones than (Danielle) Steel books.

Divorce ran like a fever through my parents and the parents of my Gen-X peers. I know not everyone meets her soul mate. Some of my friends have sworn off marriage. Others are on round two or three.

Against the advice of just about everybody, I got married at age 24 to someone I’d known a little more than a year. During my husband-to-be’s sole visit from California to D.C. to meet my family and announce our engagement, my mother heard my doubts about the “I do” as we rode the elevator to my grandmother’s apartment. My mom asked a pivotal question.

“Do you love him?”

I recalled the instant I first set eyes on my heartthrob at a small-town newsroom in the Golden State’s Gold Country. “Yes.”

“Well, then it will be okay,” she said.

The HEA, along with a plot that has a love story as its central feature, defines the genre, according to Romance Writers of America. But as I read more and more of these page-turners, I’ve come to believe it’s not the ending that matters, but the struggles along the way. These are struggles mirrored in my own long marriage: lean times, illness, ill will, misunderstandings, followed by the making up.

“Romance is a very character-driven genre,” Covington says. She maps each of her characters’ lives by asking throughout the writing process, “Who are these people and how do they grow?”

Linda Lael Miller, a doyenne of the romance novel, says, “I like to write about the strength of the human spirit, choosing to go on.”

In the course of Miller’s Dylan, the title character uncovers the truth of his mother’s suicide and his father’s alcoholism while arranging custody of his daughter, rescuing a dog and persuading his high-school sweetheart to trust him again.

“Big things have to be at stake, things like survival or the wellbeing of a child,” says Miller. “Otherwise you might as well play with your iPhone.”

Miller hopes readers remember the quality of courage in her characters. “They stand up and deal with whatever they have to deal with,” she emphasizes from her home in Spokane, Washington. “We all face challenges.”

Challenges vary depending on the book.

“Romance is one of those mass market fiction genres that has something for everyone,” Covington points out. “If you like alpha males or more beta gamer software designers, we’ve got that for you.”

Characters may be gay, lesbian, straight, bisexual or transgender. Settings include historical, contemporary and paranormal with socially provocative themes or suspenseful plots.

Romance writers are unabashed about serving a market.

“If you’re going to be successful in this business you have to deliver on your promise to your customers, and my readers are my customers,” Covington says.

“All I ever wanted was to be a writer, from the time I was 10 years old,” says Miller, who sold her first book in 1983. “I wanted to write historical novels, but with new writers it was a matter of what sells, and that was romance.”

Miller taught herself the genre by buying a grocery sack full of romance novels at a used book store and figuring out how they were done. She hears from male fans as well as female; men especially like historical settings, she says.

Covington’s readers know: “I deliver sassy, intelligent heroines who make their own place in the world. I like a little antihero.” Her readers also get “sizzling romance.”

“The books wouldn’t be complete without the sex,” Covington explains, “because when you enter into a sexual relationship with someone you’re going to push all your boundaries. You are making yourself vulnerable.”

Sex, she adds, “is a way I get to know my characters best.”

Miller agrees on the genre’s breadth. “There’s everything from sweet romances and Christian romances with no sex at all to stuff that is more sizzling than mine, like erotica.”

A feature of the genre is tension between physical attraction and emotional commitment between characters, and the conflict of societal expectations and heart’s desire within a character.

“In anything I’m writing, the purpose is to give the reader an emotional experience,” Miller explains. If sex scenes don’t fit the storyline, she refuses to add them, even at a publisher’s request. “Just like violence, sex shouldn’t be gratuitous.”

In my own reading habits, I’m tending toward contemporary, easy-going, animal-loving characters with senses of humor who relocate from the big city to a small town, the sort who have heartfelt conversations and make love under the stars. Just sayin’.

After talking with novelists, and reading criticism about the romance genre on popular blogs and in books like Smart Bitches, Trashy Books and Beyond Heaving Bosoms, as well as in academic texts like Dangerous Men and Adventurous Women and Dangerous Books for Girls, I’ve concluded something. The appeal of romance novels boils down to three P’s:

  • Pleasure (relaxing into a well-told yarn while emails glow unanswered and laundry wrinkles in the dryer).
  • Privacy (entering an imaginary world insulated from analysis; staking out personal space, curled up in a chair with a fresh title or perched on a Metrorail seat with an e-reader).
  • Participation (sharing in the human desire to be happy, however that looks in a chosen story; taking part in the power of women to belong freely, in mind and body, to themselves, with each other and beside a lover).

“I don’t care where you come from,” Covington says. “Everyone deserves to be loved and know that they’re loved. So many people don’t get it in real life, but they get it in the books.”

Remember the elevator ride with my mom? Exiting that Otis and walking down the hallway to tell my grandmother my nuptial news was the scariest part of the adventure for me. She was a woman who – when I asked why she was so demanding – told me she was harder on me than she was on my brother because life is tougher on women and I needed to be prepared.

I listened.

Plan for the worst, expect the best. A winning formula for romance novels and real life.

— Alexa Mergen
Alexa Mergen teaches small group and private lessons in yoga, meditation and writing in Harpers Ferry, W.V. and Washington, D.C. and edits Yoga Stanza

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