Love's Cold Calculus

Notes on the least reputable and most profitable literary genre in American publishing: the romance novel.

Romance: 1) A love affair 2) A kind of love between the sexes, characterized by
high ideals of devotion, strong ardor, etc.
3) Adventurous, heroic, or exotic nature:
the romance of faraway places
4) Something that lacks basis in fact
(as an extravagant story or account).

"His words died to incoherency, passion was released in him and there was no restraining it swept over both of them, and distant yet close Julia heard the sea as it came and went in the groin of rock."

--Violet Winspear, Desire Has No Mercy

"I've been feeling really right brain," one of the women of the Midwest Fiction Writers reports at the group's monthly meeting at the Creekside Community Center in Bloomington. "So I've been in a real editing mode." Someone else is working on a historical romance set in central Missouri, and another member announces that "my manuscript has now been to New York many more times than I have, and I'm working on another new manuscript with my critique group." There is applause for new members and baby announcements, and a member passes around a handout on using modern firearms in fiction.

Already making the rounds in the room is a copy of Soiled Doves: Prostitution in the Early Years, as well as a photocopied article from Writer's Digest, "How to Write a Sex Scene." Sheila Van Houten, an "intuition arts specialist," will be speaking to the group this month, addressing among other things how to rid a room of negative energy. "Latch on to some sage and burn it," Van Houten advises. "Or if you really need something major I'd recommend an egg cleanse. Eggs absorb negative energy."

"What happens if you eat those eggs?" someone asks.

"Oh," Van Houten shudders, "That would be awful."

The Midwest Fiction Writers group ("The Voice of Romance for the Heartland") was founded in 1981 as the North Central Romance Writers of America, a regional branch of the RWA. Since its first organizational meeting at the home of LaVyrle Spencer, the group has grown to almost 100 published and unpublished writers, including a number of names known to virtually anyone familiar with the romance genre. In 1995 members Tami Hoag and Betina Krahn both placed books on The New York Times bestseller list.

The MFW brochure boasts, "Within our group we have accountants, business owners, programmers, social workers, and even an ex-spy." The group holds meetings and workshops, hosts conventions, publishes a newsletter, maintains a web site, organizes critique groups, and provides promotion and support for its established and aspiring writers, most of whom are working to create interesting and marketable variations on one of the oldest stories in the world: boy meets girl.

"You can learn a great deal just by studying the titles and blurbs on these books. They give you a clue to the types of characters, the kinds of backgrounds (foreign or domestic), and the essence of the plots. You can be sure these were carefully approved by experienced romance editors and it is likely that they are fairly close to the sorts of stories those editors are still looking for."

--Helene Schellenberg Barnhart,

Writing Romance Fiction for
Love and Money

The romance paperback is the largest single segment of the publishing industry, accounting for more than half of all paperbacks sold in the United States. It is reported that over 100 million romance novels are sold every year (177 million in 1992, according to Publisher's Weekly). Eighty-four percent of all mass market fiction titles published in 1994 were romances, and the big names in the genre routinely crowd The New York Times bestseller list.

Industry demographics suggest that readers are well-educated (over 50 percent are college-educated) and well-adjusted (63 percent are married, and Psychology Today reports that romance readers make love with their partners 74 percent more often than nonreaders). So why is it, exactly, that the genre is a victim of such scathing and almost universal disrespect? Why is it that romance writers and readers alike seem to share a certain defensive self-consciousness when they talk about their books?

It's possible that all the elements that make the books so popular with generation after generation of readers--from the "clinch" covers of buff, stubbled studs wrestling the breasts right out of the tight corsets of enraptured women to the seemingly unerring adherence to plot conventions--are the same elements that make the books such broad targets. To one who's blind to the appeal of the genre (one who, the romancers will argue, is unable to read the genre's subversive codes), the books appear unfashionably garish, laughably formulaic, gracelessly archetypal, and built around the most conventional fairy tale promise of a guaranteed happy ending.

That, everyone in the business will agree, is romance's promise: a happy ending. And romance writers are sworn to never break that promise. A woman may be ravished by a rogue, a rake, a brigand, or a blackguard; she may be kidnapped by a savage or a pirate, or find herself subjected to an Earl or a Lord; a pure nurse or a mail order bride may butt heads with a brooding doctor or a glowering rancher. But always, with never an exception, the woman will "gentle" her man, tame him, teach him to love. "All of this male's dangerously exciting darkness is seen as the result of never having truly been loved or of having had his own love thwarted," romance writer Stella Cameron writes in Dangerous Men and Adventurous Women: Romance Writers on the Appeal of Romance.

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