Love's Cold Calculus

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

"The daughter of an exquisite London courtesan, beautiful and candid Gabrielle Le Coeur is determined to make a different life for herself staid, respectable... married. But her mother plans to see Gabrielle linked to a suitable protector, a wealthy and powerful man who can provide her with a lush and indulgent though illicit way of life. "Pierce St. James is an openly libertine viscount who intends to stay single and free of the hypocrisy of Victorian society. For Gabrielle he is the perfect man to help her with her own plans to outwit her mother. They will create the appearance of sin and scandal, as the virginal Gabrielle plays the mistress of London's most notorious rake. But love proves a disastrous complication to their perfect scheme...."

Betina Krahn,

The Perfect Mistress (jacket copy)

In 1994 Krahn switched publishers, moving from Avon Books to Bantam. Her first book for Bantam, The Last Bachelor, came out in 1994. The book did well and garnered enthusiastic reviews in all the right places, poising her next book, The Perfect Mistress, for a breakthrough run at the big time. Early in 1995 she found herself on The New York Times bestseller list.

It was a bittersweet experience for Krahn, and a difficult time to be on top of the world. While her book was making its move, her husband Donald was dying, and she was making arrangements to move him home from a hospice. "That's called perspective, I guess," she says. "It really grounded me, but it also served as a sort of validation for what I was doing. I've always tried to present men in a realistic light. Yes, women have always had societal restrictions on their behaviors, but men certainly have too.

"Within that natural framework of us vs. them, romance is finding the things we have in common, and respecting and understanding our differences. I had a wonderful marriage to a man who was very much a feminist. It wasn't always the most glamorous situation, but he was a good man, and that's what I try to share with readers, that these men really do exist, the possibility that love can work, that we can be good for each other, that we can help each other become better people and make something positive together, whatever the circumstances."

"It's not easy to stay businesslike and romantic."

--from a sample Harlequin romance tip sheet

"More than any Minotaur demanding human sacrifice, [readers] want virgins."

--romance writer Doreen Owens Malek

The 1980s brought an infusion of young, idealistic editors into the industry. Perhaps not surprisingly, a number of them tried to update the conventions of the genre--to introduce more of contemporary reality to the books. There was a push for political correctness.

It's a staple complaint of romance writers that too many of their editors are in entry-level positions in the publishing industry, and have little or no understanding of the genre and its appeal.

What the '80s generation of editors did understand were all the usual criticisms and stereotypes that branded romances as retrograde trash, and they were zealous in their efforts to overhaul the genre's reputation. The virginal heroine became an endangered species, replaced by older, more experienced women: self-reliant careerists, often with children, who knew exactly what they wanted and weren't bashful about pursuing it. Prince Charming gave way to a more practical Mr. Right, a fellow who, after careful inspection, measured up well enough. The new heroes were limper fellows, vulnerable, more sensitive and emotional, cast from the Alan Alda mold. One cover from the period shows a man in the kitchen wearing oven mitts as he embraces a woman in a slinky, red dress.

There was an explosion of sex, money, and dysfunction. Mary Jo Putney brought a sort of grim realism to the genre, introducing alcoholic heroes, epileptics, and incest victims. And still, through the murk of all that '80s reality, love conquered all. But there was a huge reader backlash. "The effort to make romance novels respectable has been a resounding failure," Jayne Ann Krentz writes in Dangerous Men and Adventurous Women. "The books that exemplify the 'new breed' of politically correct romances, the ones featuring sensitive, unaggressive heroes and sexually experienced, right thinking heroines in 'modern' stories dealing with trendy issues, have never become the most popular books in the genre."

Many readers, it seemed, valued especially the heroine's virginity, and anticipated her loss of it as the novel's payoff. "In a romance novel," Krentz writes, "the heroine puts everything on the line and they win. Virginity is symbolic of the high stakes involved."

"A mixed blood Lakota Sioux, Zane Lone Bull spent long years fighting on a distant foreign battlefield and in his own country and has vowed to fight no more. Now a tragic crime has brought Michelle Benedict into his life. A beautiful woman seeking the truth, it is her courage and indomitable spirit that rekindle the lost fire in Zane's heart, drawing them into a decades old mystery of a lost boy, a dark place, and a daring passion. For in the beautiful, terrible secrets of a shrouded past, another love holds the key to their destiny together and a promise of devotion, desire, and honor that must stand for all time."

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