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.

There are meetings like this -- for both readers and writers -- all over the country. The industry is enormous; the 2,289 romance novels published last year fueled sales of $1.37 billion. They accounted for 56 percent of all the popular paperback fiction sold in North America in 2000, and 18 percent of allbooks sold. To serve that large a fan base -- 41 million people read a romance last year -- cottage industries have sprung up. Reading groups. Book clubs. Magazines like Romantic Times.

Candice Hern, former president of the local RWA chapter, sitting now near the podium in the banquet hall, sees the result of that ferment in the way fans talk about her books. Her readership "is not dissimilar to Star Trek fans, or science-fiction people," she says. "In a way, I tend to find them hypercritical. Sometimes the real die-hards will get sidetracked by an author's inadvertent mistake, something extremely minor, and lose the fact that this is a fabulous story, and that the writing is extraordinary."

Despite that claim, romances still can't get respect. The San Francisco Bay Area has frozen them out. No respectable independent bookstore stocks them, so they're relegated to corners of the chain stores and supermarkets. The Chroniclebook section doesn't review them. What's to review?

Candice Hern, regency author, in her Twin Peaks home.
Paul Trapani
Candice Hern, regency author, in her Twin Peaks home.
Candice Hern, regency author, in her Twin Peaks home.
Paul Trapani
Candice Hern, regency author, in her Twin Peaks home.

There's a perception that taking romances seriously is practically immoral. Indeed, they've been accused of setting feminism back decades. In a well-traveled 1995 op-ed piece that originally ran in USA Today, psychologists Judith Sherven and James Sniechowski went so far as to accuse romances of keeping women in abusive relationships. Romances, they wrote, offer only "the hope and thrill of being "saved' by a strong, dominant male -- who will take care of them and make them feel secure."

"We're feeling like the abused child," says Kate Moore, current San Francisco RWA chapter president.

Inevitably a big part of Moore's job as president involves moral support. At the chapter's monthly meeting, the first thing she does is offer a rose to each person who has a success story to tell. She brought a dozen. She ran out.

The women in attendance joined the chapter because breaking into the romance world is no different from breaking into print anywhere else: You have to know who's out there, what they're looking for, how to get an agent, how to promote, how to write. Attacks from others about their work are old news, and they're essentially armored against it. They can have a good laugh about that familiar shaggy dog story, about the person who figures she can make some easy money banging out a Harlequin over the weekend. What's so hard about it? Just hack out some dumb plot set in wherever -- hey, how about Scotland in 1508, who's paying attention? -- throw in a few purple sex scenes, get it published next month.

The advance for the average Harlequin novel is around $2,000. First novels, produced after months of work in critique groups, get rejected all the time. Editors and readers can smell cynical prose a mile away, and they're sticklers for historical accuracy. You do it because you love it.

When Penny Williamson, the featured speaker, walks to the podium, five dozen notebooks emerge from five dozen purses and tote bags. Dressed in a burgundy outfit, her blond hair covered by a black, wide-brimmed sun hat, she swivels her right foot on its heel as she speaks, keeping a rhythm. She spent 15 years on the ladder. Like a lot of people in the audience, she started out writing "category" romances, the short novels Harlequin publishes as part of a series ("Sexy Single Dads," say, or "Virgin Brides"). While a lot of writers are comfortable in categories, most hope to get out. Writing category romance has its humiliating aspects: The advances are minuscule, royalties nil, and the shelf lives of books short -- they are removed after a month or less to make room for the next batch.

So Williamson expanded into writing longer, "single-title" books, bought and sold on the author's name instead of the plot. Today, she has moved away from romance and into detective thrillers. So the question-and-answer session after her speech -- the topic was writing strong opening chapters -- is as much a discussion of Williamson's career as it is of writing. Why, they want to know, did she stop writing romance?

"It's a box," Williamson says. That's not necessarily an insult, and nobody gasps in horror; everybody understands. Romances are built around specific codes and structures, the same way any horror, mystery, or science-fiction novel is. "Maybe literary fiction tells a different story, but popular fiction always tells the same stories over and over, because we need to hear them," says Kate Moore, an English teacher at the upscale Branson School in Ross who has written a handful of single-title historical romances set in England. "Women need to hear that a woman's choices are important, that she needs to think carefully, that she's valuable, that she's going to have obstacles but she can overcome them."

Such enlightened themes in romances haven't always been in vogue, however. In the early '70s, at the start of the genre's boom, romances were rife with rape stories and "sweet savages" that passive maidens couldn't resist. That effectively cemented romance's reputation as at worst sexist and at best a genre in which no book is any different from any other.

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