"Is Fabio here?"
It was a male voice. Conversations stopped. Heads swiveled. Eyes narrowed. Had there been a piano player in the pressroom at the Romance Writers of America convention, he would have hit the floor. It was either the ultimate faux pas or a flaccid, dated swipe. Charis, the events helpful media attache, collected herself and explained to the hapless New York Post cub that "this really isnt that kind of conference." She said it as coldly as a Romance Writer of America possibly could.
Which is about as cold as an apple pie fresh out of the oven. Even for a community whose business is love and tenderness, romance writers are shockingly nice ladies. Down-home, caring nurturers all, they are the women foreigners have in mind when they tell pollsters they like Americans but hate our government. Book-loving, Dove Bar-nibbling diplomats from Oprah Nation, the 8,400 members of the Romance Writers of America strongly believe in the power of positive thinking. They will squeeze your hand and encourage you to write a romance novel, even before you express any interest in doing so. They are generous with their time and their candy. They are the ideal American Mother made flesh, and you love her. Even as you marvel at her collection of saccharine and sentimental softcore pornography.
Romance novels have long been soft and shiny objects of ridicule. The puffy paperback covers of men in ruffled pirate shirts and women in torn bodices sometimes sit next to the Bigfoot tabloids at Kmart, and for many they also sit next to one another at the bottom of the nations hierarchy of letters.
But the out-of-touch snobs who peer down at romance fiction through their bifocals are the alienated and hurtful minority, as any proud member of the RWA will tell you. Theyll also tell you that they dont care a hoot what anyone thinks about their love stories, and that Jane Austen and Charlotte Bront were the best-selling romance novelists of their time. Theyll remind you that nobody dismisses horror or mystery genre fiction with the same snorting ease. Theyll tell you that to stereotype romance is to ignore the more sophisticated, upmarket genres like chick-lit, mommy-lit and the mushrooming, often nonsexual field of so-called "womens fiction." Some will even compare Dickens and Shakespeare to the popular romance writers of today.
Yet it would be a mistake to interpret such statements as signs of bitterness or insecurity. Instead of defending itself, the romance fiction community has spent the last two decades on offense. Since its founding in 1980, the RWA has built itself into a self-enclosed counterweight to the dismissive attitude of the East Coast publishing and critical establishments. Exercising the power of sisterhood, the organization has constructed a fully operational heart-shaped Planet Romance, upon which romance authors and readers live happy, autarkic lives, replete with commercial networks and their own critical establishment. Part trade organization, part support group and part never-ending writers workshop, the RWA could easily stand for Romanz With Attitude.
"We have rights," says Heather Graham, a specialist in vampire genre romances and winner of this years RWA Lifetime Achievement Award. "Romance is a totally legitimate and viable product. It used to be that women read romance novels in a brown paper bag, but the RWA has changed that by being smart, organized, professional and savvy."
Whatever gripes about the perceived reputation of romance, the fact is that the industry is big money getting bigger, and romance authors are increasingly clogging the bestseller listsNew York Times included. As overall book sales have stagnated or declined, romance fiction alone has consistently bucked the trend, currently averaging five percent growth a year. In 2002, more than 51 million Americans read romance fiction, generating $1.52 billion and totaling more than half of all paperback fiction sold in North America. The 2000 romance titles released this yearincluding To Love a Scottish Lord, My Big Old Texas Heartache, The Cajun Sheriff and All Men Are Roguestogether will constitute more than a third of total fiction sold. Thats six times more than science fiction and more than double general literary fiction. Whos laughing now?
When the Houston-based RWA set up shop at the Hilton in Midtown last week, it was an unselfconscious return to a city the romance community has learned to thrive without. With only 16 percent of romance fiction consumed in the Northeast, the spiritual and official homes of romance fiction are rooted in points far south and middle west.
At least for now. "I just got to New York this morning from Orlando," effused Kresley Cole, the 30-year-old author of The Captain of All Pleasures. "And I dont want to leave! I love it!"
Most romance authors agree that the Ur text of the genre is Margaret Mitchells Gone With the Wind, and that the modern form as we know it began with Kathleen Woodiwiss 1972 novel The Flame and the Flower, which followed the principals into the bedroom. While contemporary authors acknowledge their foremothers of the 70s and early 80s, most are uncomfortable with the anti-feminist thrust of the older stuff. In particular, the sex in the early books often resembles rape more than seduction. A mirror of social change, romance heroines today worry less about protecting old-fashioned virtue.
"The books have gotten more PC in that respect," says a veteran author. "It used to be that the man would just push and push until the woman caved. Now its more mutual."
While the romance formula has developed over the years, the core elements havent changed. The RWAs official definition dictates that every romance must have both a central love story and an emotionally satisfying and optimistic ending. There can be unromantic subplots and tragic subtexts, but the basic dialectic is holy. All adversity and romantic conflicts must be resolved in a happy-ever-after way; joy must be delivered to the heart of the reader.
The delivery vehicles for this joy have diversified in recent years. Among the current subspecies of romance fiction are inspirational (i.e., Christian, no sex), paranormal (magic, science-fiction), regency (set in early 1800s England), suspense (mystery, intrigue) and time-travel romance. The more modern subgenreschick-lit, mommy-lit and womens fictionhave even started to bump against the limits of the romance formula, dealing with antidepressants and Mr. Right Now more than with Mr. Right, but the RWA seems eager to claim these money-making new splinter movements as their own.
One myth the RWA is anxious to dispel is that all romance is just softcore porn for housewives. And its true that the amount and explicitness of the sex isnt static across genres. Harlequins American Romance line deals with small-town values and themes (often on military bases), while the Harlequin Blaze series is described as "sizzling journeys to the edge and beyond."
In a new subgenre known as romantica, the line between romance and straight erotica is blurred further, a development that bothers the stodgier members of the romance community. In the current issue of the Romantic Times BOOKclub magazine (published out of Carroll Gardens), one reader complains about romantica book reviews in a "respectable magazine." What sells in Peoria may not sell in Mobile.
The romance formula resonates loudly beyond "red-state" check-out lines and mall chains. Romance is a global phenomenon and, like Hollywood stars, American romance writers have reputations and audiences in 100 countries and 90 languages.
"The stories have appeal everywhere," says Anne Coquet, who runs the French division of Harlequin, the worlds biggest publisher of romance fiction. "The same books are sold in the U.S. as in Japan and Scandanavia and Spain. Except Christian or cowboy stories. Those sell poorly on the international market and are rarely translated."
Twelve million French language romance books are sold each year, putting Harlequin at number-four in French paperback sales. All are translations of American authors.
"We have no native writers," Coquet says. "Its definitely an Anglo-Saxon tradition."
The most popular romances in Europe involve marriage and babies. Coquet attributes this partly to declining birthrates and the increasing primacy of work over families in Europe. While the romance market is growing in France, Coquet admits it is still considered a guilty pleasure.
"There is the sense there that romance isnt intellectual enough, and that writing should be something solemn, something serious."
That romance isnt serious would be news to Robin D. Owens, a very serious star in the growing field of futuristic sci-fi romance. The Colorado author attributes her fame to her real-life cat Mistral, who inspired and was featured in her first book, HeartMate.
"In the book Mistral is a telepathic cat with an attitude," says Owens. "He sold the book. No question."
Mistral did not make the trip to New York.
The biggest romance subgenre at the momentand the one taken most seriously outside of romance fandomis chick-lit, and Jennifer Crusie is one of its rising stars. As the RWA faithful ate strawberry cheesecake, Crusie delivered the conferences keynote address, in which she recounted her flight from academia.
"Im an intellectual damn it," she remembers thinking. "Im not gonna write a cheeseball romance."
But write one she did. And shes damn proud of it.
"The world doesnt need any more writers, it needs storytellers." At this, the crowd of storytellers erupted in cheers.
"Because we live in a chaotic world. We need heroes. Storytellers bring magic, peace, comfort. I love craft, but craft doesnt do it. Storytelling is a calling that answers to our collective unconscious."
Jennifer Crusie doesnt want anyone in the audience to ever listen to the snide comments of others. They must never doubt themselves.
"You must defend your cheeseball stories," she implores. "Because people believe in the power of love. And community. We create joy out of nothing. Thats more than [your critics] can say."
The speech earns Crusie a standing ovation. Later, she elaborated, still on all cylinders.
"Dont trash my genre just because it is about women," she says. "Do they call action movies dick movies? Women have been socialized that romance is trash. I wanna kick some butt and get the genre some respect. We get our books reviewed in Library Journal because librarians are women and they know what people read. But when the New York Times reviews romance, which is rarely, they read it as literary fiction and not romance fiction. They dont understand it."
Crusies last review in the Times, a 2000 write-up of her novel Welcome to Temptation, took the perky Jungian to task for a "preposterous plot and cliched characters." Oddly, it also mentioned the authors repeated use of humor at the expense of small-town Midwesterners, romance fictions largest demographic bloc.
The only RWA event open to the public was a massive benefit booksigning to fight illiteracy. On the floor of the Hiltons Grand Ballroom, authors displayed their books, mingled with fans and drank Diet Coke. Most author tables had bowls of candy for the taking, just like grandmas house. A line of romance fans with bags full of books wound around the length of the giant ballroom, some of them pushing boxes of signed novels with their feet.
And just like grandmas house, there was, every so often, that unique smell. Walking down the aisles and past the fans, there was the occasional whiff of Old Middle Americathat evocative admixture of Gold Bonds medicated powder, White Shoulders perfume and Hummel dust.
Australian medical romance author Fiona McArthur may not have grown up with that smell, but she was sitting next to it, a symbolic juxtaposition of romances past and future. She was happy to explain her specialty.
"Medicals are romances in a medical setting or with a medical character, like a doctor, or in my case a lot of midwives. Because I am a midwife in real life. Medicals are really big in the UK and France right now."
Her most recent book, Emergency in Maternity, is about a small town caught in a flood.
"Its about the administrator of the hospital whos a doctor. And its about a midwife who goes out to help someone out whos having a baby in the flood. "They fall in love even though theyre both really strong people and they dont know if they really want to. But they have to in the end because they cant help it."
A few tables down is Meredith Bond, wearing a powder-blue regency period dress. She represents the authors of the Beau Monde, the regency chapter of the RWA. Why is she drawn to regency romance?
"Because the regency was a very fun period of time. The rich were really rich. They really partied and they really enjoyed it. This was at the end of the Napoleonic war. And so there was a lot of political intrigue and a lot of economic hardship and a lot of really rich people and a lot of strict social codes that people had to follow."
If this sounds like a winning backdrop for emotionally satisfying softcore porn, thats because it is. And unlike the lives of romance readers and those of the rest of us, a happy ending is guaranteed.
Adam Bulger contributed to this report.