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 romances have started edging nearer to the mainstream in recent years. With some of the bigger authors branching out into hardcover, major companies like Harlequin recasting their books, and a boom in lines catering to gay, lesbian, and black audiences, it's become increasingly difficult to explain what, precisely, a romance is.

"One of the things we've been doing is defining our genre more as women's fiction, not as traditional romance," says Harold Lowry, the current -- and first male -- president of RWA, who writes western novels under the pen name Leigh Greenwood. "There's still a plot where boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl, and they live happily ever after, and romance must be the major part. But ... writers are getting more latitude. This is a point of consideration for us: Do we want to change our focus? It's a long-range problem."

At least part of the pressure to change stems from a harsh demographic reality: Romance readership skews older, heavily. Sixty-six percent of romance readers are over 35, and a remarkable 13 percent are between 65 and 74.

Harlequin Enterprises, the leading romance publisher, started to ponder the youth issue seriously a couple of years ago. "We started asking ourselves, "What are we not doing? How can we fulfill that need?,'" says Harlequin editor Margaret Marbury. "Gen-X, Gen-Y ... they're a big group. We know there are more single women out there, and they're making more money than ever. We know there are a lot of readers not reading romance."

Harlequin's market research produced Red Dress Ink, a line of Harlequin novels that launches in November. With a new novel once a month, the company intends to "fill the demand for fun, poignant, and clever editorial for the sophisticated and trendy 21- to 34-year-old female," as its marketing copy says. Nothing inside or outside the books suggests Harlequin is behind them. Shelved in the fiction section, they will be novels about single women in their 20s, set in cities instead of suburbs or remote vistas. Focused more on dating than marriage, Red Dress novels will be presented with artsy, modern covers that wouldn't look out of place next to the Bridget Jones's Diary-type books they're designed to compete with. When Red Dress put out requests for book proposals, however, Marbury noticed that "romance writers were lukewarm about it. Not because of any backlash, but they were unsure what that meant for romance. We made it clear that it's not going to change the way we approach romance."

Cathy Yardley, who published her first Harlequin, The Cinderella Solution, last year, has sold a book to Red Dress Ink. Titled L.A. Girl, it should hit shelves early next year. She's happy to be doing something outside of the category romance mill, but she isn't surprised that the romance industry has taken so long to realize it would do well to appeal to younger readers. "If it ain't broke, don't fix it," is how she laughingly describes Harlequin's attitude, and she's right: Romances seem to weather economic downturns better than other genres do.

But Harlequin has a tough sell to younger readers, a generation where, as Yardley puts it, "in high school, saying your parents were divorced was like saying you had a locker. Selling the happy ending was very hard." But Yardley persists. "Look, there's nothing to be ashamed of in saying, "I believe in love and I believe in happy endings.' Yeah, you're gonna hear a lot of cynics, but somebody's gotta have hope here."

In late May, San Francisco's Moscone Center hosted the annual convention of the American Library Association. The event worked hard to present libraries as hip to the times, though the results were decidedly ... librarian. A party at the Marriott was headlined by Jurassic rock 'n' rollers Three Dog Night and promoted as "Joy to the World ... of Libraries!"

The Romance Writers of America held court at a tiny table in a corner of Moscone's south hall. Candice Hern brought copies of her latest book, Miss Lacey's Last Fling.Hern was scheduled to spend an hour signing them. She was out of books in 20 minutes. Everyone's eager to talk to a real, live romance writer, apparently. One attendee took a moment to enthuse about how much the library's circulation had improved since it decided to stop throwing romances onto racks and actually catalog them.

Hern wasn't shocked at how quickly she got through her stack of books; it happens all the time: Set up a romance book-signing and people come in droves. But she also isn't surprised that romances are still a hard sell among the literary establishment. When she was the president of the local RWA chapter, she tried for three years to get a discussion panel on the genre at the San Francisco Book Festival, but couldn't even get her phone calls returned. Instead, the RWA's booth got placed right across from Good Vibrations', which wasn't quite the image Hern wanted to present. Finally she landed a slot at the 1999 festival, thanks to a clever bit of marketing. "I had to position it as a feminist issue," she says, a bit resentfully, and she tapped fellow author Lynn Coddington as moderator to deliberately exploit Coddington's Ph.D. from UC Berkeley. "We were playing those games to get in the door -- one of the members of the panel having credentials up the butt," Hern says.

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