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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.

Wednesday, Jul 25 2001
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Making enough money to write full time means climbing out of the 200-page category regency and expanding into the longer, 300- to 400-page historical romance; there, the print runs leapfrog into six figures, and the advances are in the $50,000 range. Jumping from Signet to Avon, Hern recently finished her first long regency -- in industry parlance, a historical single-title. For The Bride Sale, which is set in Cornwall, she went into deep research, calling upon her collection of history books and all but wallpapering her basement office with photos, maps, and drawings from the time and place. Her previous novels were comic reads, full of verbal sparring between the hero and heroine, but The Bride Sale is almost the opposite, opening with a woman being auctioned among the poor masses at a Cornwall market, watched by James, a noble:

"Give us a better look at 'er, then!" a man's voice shouted.

Old Moody tugged on the halter attached to the woman's neck, causing her head to jerk up for a brief moment. "C'mon, dearie," he said. "Show 'em wot yer offerin'."

She looked younger than James had expected, perhaps in her mid-twenties. Darkish hair was just barely visible beneath her bonnet. Her eyes appeared to be dark as well, though James was not close enough to be certain. She again lowered her gaze, and appeared to be terrified. No, not quite terrified, he decided as he studied her further. Fear drained her face of all color, but there was also the merest hint of defiance in the tight jaw and in the square set of her shoulders when Moody pulled on the halter. And in the way she jerked her neck and pulled right back, causing Moody to bobble, unbalanced, for a moment. Good for her, James thought. Good for her.

Writing a longer book often means assuming a darker tone, though not the boorish savagery of the old days. With so many books demanding new and interesting twists, even the regency has had to push a few envelopes. Upping the sensual ante is one way -- Miss Lacey's Last Fling featured a lengthy sex scene, relatively rare for a category regency -- or incorporating themes that are more reflective of contemporary life. A character in The Bride Sale comes out of the closet in the later stages of the book; though Hern can't recall a regency with a gay or lesbian hero or heroine, these characters have begun cropping up in secondary roles, if only to point out that in the Regency era, homosexuality could get you hanged.

Currently, Hern's working on her next novel, tentatively titled The Busybody. A sort of Miss Lonelyhearts for the regency set, it's about the man charged with writing the advice-to-the-lovelorn column for a London women's magazine. There's no guarantee that she'll sell it, though she's not too concerned yet. She has a good reputation among regency readers and enough money saved to concentrate on writing and finishing the book.

"Hopefully I can get through a year," she says. "Boy, once you quit doing that [commute] every day, it's hard to go back. It would kill me to have to do that again."


In some ways, the romance novel hasn't matured. The infamous "clinch covers" have diminished, but they're still there, and the romance world's reporting on itself can be intensely boosterish. Romantic Times, the leading magazine for romance readers, has a tendency to accentuate the positive (star ratings range from "acceptable" to "exceptional"), and advertisements for books have a nasty habit of appearing adjacent to their rave reviews. Every year, Romantic Times also hosts a convention in Florida for romance fans; each morning begins at 8 a.m. sharp with a "power walk" led by a male cover model.

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."

About The Author

Mark Athitakis

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