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.

But times have changed. The "bodice-ripper" of old is all but nonexistent today, says Lynn Coddington, who is both a romance author and a professor at UC Berkeley who wrote her dissertation on the evolution of the romance. Today novels focus on modern issues -- careers, self-image, and family; there are horror romances, thriller romances, paranormal romances, and so on.

"In romance, 75 percent of what you're going to read is kind of "Ehhh,'" says Coddington, who reviews romances for the Contra Costa Times. "It's the same thing anywhere else, but romance is judged by its weakest work. It's an obligatory derision, it's sexism. And not just sexism. There's a real prejudice against sentiment in our taste-setters. ... When you bring in the personal, people say that's cheap."

Romance is a particularly tough sell in the Bay Area and especially San Francisco, which is always sensitive to "-isms" and likes to fancy itself as too progressive and sophisticated to stoop to middlebrow culture. "Bay Area romance writers feel like the Bay Area is not romance-friendly," says Kate Moore. "It's certainly not an area that respects romance writers. It's a literary city."

Cover from Harlequin's upcoming Red Dress Ink line, which will be 
marketed to readers in their 20s and 30s.
Cover from Harlequin's upcoming Red Dress Ink line, which will be marketed to readers in their 20s and 30s.

Literary.Icicles hang off that word when she says it.

The windows of Candice Hern's Twin Peaks home open to a stunning view of the San Francisco skyline. She's watchful about the shades, though, and quick to pull them down in the late-afternoon sun; direct sunlight is hell on her violets. A bespectacled, genial redhead with a slight Texas accent, she is easygoing and quick to laugh. Over time, the house she shares with her longtime roommate has become a veritable museum of English history, the fruit of regular trips to London and her soft spot for Butterfield's auctions. The "docent tour," as she jokingly puts it, includes a collection of vintage silhouettes, embroidery work, purses, perfume bottles, and, as a centerpiece, a painting attributed to the 18th-century neo-classical painter Johann Zoffany.

Until April, Hern got up every morning and took 280 down to Sunnyvale, where she worked as director of marketing for Vitria Technology. It was a well-paying job, with a lot of authority, and it allowed her to make those yearly antique-hunting trips to London. But who needed the soul-sucking commute? Spending four hours a day on the road was, as a friend would remind her, essentially a part-time job.

"Well damn," Hern says, recalling her frustration. "I could be using that 20 hours a week writing." After thinking it over, she found a way to squeeze in even more writing hours: She quit. March 30 was her last day at Vitria. Since then she's been writing in her home office full time. Her seventh novel, The Bride Sale, will be published in January of next year.

Candice Hern writes regency novels. If romance is the box Penny Williamson says it is, regencies are bank vaults in their restrictions. Regencies are set in England in the early 1800s -- specifically the period between 1811 (when King George III was declared insane) and 1820 (when he died). It is also the period when Jane Austen wrote her classic novels on courtly manners, and regencies strive to echo Austen's themes, if not her dense, florid writing style. They're generally the chastest category of romance novels around, but, to hear readers and scholars tell it, regencies are also the most demanding on an author, and the best written.

Hern's career was an accident. One day after work 10 years ago she popped into a mall bookstore to track down books by one of her favorite authors, Georgette Heyer, a British comedic novelist who set her slangy, lighthearted courtship novels during the Regency. Coming up empty in the literature section, she appealed to a clerk. Heyer? She's over there, with the romances.

Who knew? Hern had been reading romance novels all that time, a genre she had never really considered before. "I don't believe I had that kind of snobby thing about it, though I probably did in the back of my head," she recalls. "The covers turned me off, basically, and I never stopped to think about what might be between those covers. I wasn't ashamed to find [Heyer] in romance. I was stunned."

In time, she was buying not just the Heyers, but other regencies as well. After she kvetched one day to her roommate that another regency got a fact wrong, he politely suggested that she might consider writing one.

Hern, 51, hadn't written a piece of fiction in her life. But by then she had all but internalized the romance's style and themes. And if she was going to do it, she was going to do it right. She joined RWA, hired an agent, and by January 1995, two years after she started writing, she had published her first novel, A Proper Companion, under Jove Books' regency line. Unlike some romance authors, she used her own name. "I figured that if it's a fluke, [at least] I got my name on a book," she says.

Her books are brisk, humorous affairs, driven by crisp dialogue. Like most regencies, they're set in the summer season, often in London, and feature a young heroine trying to escape the clutches of something: a domineering mother, abuse, an arranged marriage to a shallow aristocrat. Hern's heroines are never easily convinced that marriage is a solution. Love wins in the end, but the woman always retains her personality and self-respect. If she marries, it's only because the man has proven himself worthy of her.

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