That Secret Shame

You don't have to be embarrassed to read romance novels anymore. With modern themes and better writing, Bay Area authors are helping to make the genre almost (gasp!) respectable.

In the film As Good As It Gets, Jack Nicholson plays a bitter, aging hack writer. His chosen genre is romance novels. Writing 62 of them has made him a very rich man, but, alas, writing love stories has also made him more of a misanthrope. One day, while leaving his publisher's office, he is buttonholed by a secretary who asks him how he comes up with his books' heroines.

"I think of a man," the beady-eyed Nicholson responds. "And I take away reason and accountability."

Ah, romance novels. Gateway to wealth, scourge of the literate.

Bad novels are everywhere, but few receive the derision -- or outright hatred -- that romances do. On the scale of cultural cachet, romance novels hover somewhere between monster trucks and Muzak. Of course, you don't have to read them to know they're bad. Just look at the covers: cheap embossed lettering and a picture of a bosomy maiden clinging to a hulking, shirtless alpha male. We already know what's inside: a sex scene every 20 pages, every last one featuring a pliant, dimwitted girl who'll do anything to find a husband. The people who read romances are no better: every last one a dull spinster who spends her days in curlers and tending to the cats.

Over 2,000 are published every year. Just like slopping pigs.

But ignoring them means ignoring the publishing industry's biggest workhorse, and it also means ignoring a genre that's more relevant than ever. Romance is a billion-dollar industry that is -- by far -- the most popular form of genre fiction available. Money doesn't signify quality, but the past five years have seen an anxious upheaval in romances, in both their content and their presentation. Finding those covers with shirtless hunks and willowy women is a lot harder these days. Fabio's late career is now mainly defined by goose attacks and TV commercials in which he refuses to believe it's not butter. There's a reason for this.

Romances are maturing. In some respects, they're the same as they ever were: They demand a story about a hero and a heroine, and they demand a happy ending. But everything else is up for grabs; the themes can be contemporary or age-old, the writing stylish and elegant or weak and campy. Romances have evolved into a more realistic mirror of modern life than they once were. The industry is even preparing to woo the younger generation of cynics who wouldn't touch a love story.

Despite the derision, the Bay Area is a strong outpost for romance writers, from best-selling Marinites like Catherine Coulter and Penny Williamson to respected second-tier authors like Candice Hern, who quit a well-paying job in the tech industry a few months ago to write full time. Hern is a no-nonsense, brassy, and intelligent 51-year-old who has published seven novels and has garnered a passel of rave reviews. Like every romance writer, she's heard all the jokes and cheap shots; she herself has a problem with some of the crappy covers on the shelves. But those covers belie the realism and quality she sees in the genre. "Every now and then there's an author who's just spectacular," she says, "and I personally feel bad that some of them will never get read by the regular person on the street."


The San Francisco Bay Area chapter of Romance Writers of America meets on the first Saturday of every month at His Lordships Restaurant. Perched on the northern tip of the Berkeley Marina, the restaurant commands a panoramic view of the bay and the distant San Francisco skyline, sparkling in the midmorning sun, which helps relieve the impatience of those waiting in line for brunch. In one of His Lordships spacious banquet halls, about 50 assembled writers -- all of them, to a man, women -- are chatting over strong coffee.

The conversations around the tables are mostly shop talk: shared stories about research and writing woes and tussles with editors, as well as showing off the covers of their upcoming books. In one corner, a pair of assistants gathers the $25 entry fee near a table of new books for sale.

The Romance Writers of America has about 8,000 members nationwide; the Bay Area chapter has about 150. It's not the largest chapter, but it does have a reputation for being one of the more professional groups, in terms of both the writers' day jobs and their approach to their books. The 50 local writers assembled in His Lordships are the hard-core, the ones publishing and moving up the ladder. Each has her own particular interest, her own niche she has staked out. Over there is Lynn Hanna, who has penned a pair of Gaelic-themed novels in the growing field of "paranormal" romance tales featuring ghosts and psychics. There's Pamela Britton, whose Enchanted by Your Kisses, set in 19th-century England, was a best seller on Amazon.com's romance list. Carol Grace, who parlayed her frequent trips to the Middle East into a series of romances featuring hardheaded sheiks, hands out a copy of Fit for a Sheik, a Harlequin novel about a hardheaded oil baron who finds love with a San Francisco wedding planner. "We can't keep that one on the shelves," says the woman manning the sales table, a clerk from the B. Dalton in Antioch.

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