Love's Cold Calculus

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Since its first organizational meeting at the home of LaVyrle Spencer, the group has grown to almost 100 published and unpublished writers, including a number of names known to virtually anyone familiar with the romance genre.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.  

"So what is the fantasy?" Doreen Owens Malek asks in the same book. "Simply this: a strong, dominant, aggressive male brought to the point of surrender by a woman." In her Reading the Romance: Women, Patriarchy, and Popular Literature, Janice Radway concludes that "it is tempting to suggest that romantic fiction must be an active agent in the maintenance of the ideological status quo because it ultimately reconciles women to patriarchal society and reintegrates them with its institutions."

Janis Reams Hudson, a romance novelist and current president of the Romance Writers of America, doesn't get the feminist backlash. "To me," she says, "ours is some of the most feminist literature in existence. The woman always wins, she tames the most dangerous creature on the face of the earth, the human male."

"Woman likes to believe that love can achieve anything. It is her peculiar superstition."

--Frederick Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil

A friend of mine, discussing what he considers to be his girlfriend's weakness for romances, observed, "People don't always know what's missing, but they know something's missing, and they'll always finger romance." I remember many years ago sitting through a painful and interminable family encounter session at a residential treatment center in the Midwest, listening to the harsh, pitched litanies of the damaged.

"We never talk any more."

"When's the last time you kissed me?"

"You get so mean and helpless and hopeless."

"You gained so much weight."

"Where did all the good times go?"

Dim revelations are a dime a dozen in a place like that, and I remember thinking how all those sad stories essentially boiled down to little more than the failure of romance in every sense of the word, one sparkler after another burning down into darkness. I remember also walking the halls at night and seeing a group of women sitting quietly in the lounge, their legs curled up beneath them, smoking and reading romance paperbacks, the men among them staring at the television screen.

The Love and Relationships and self-help sections of bookstores are jammed with books promising answers to the age old question of how to keep love alive or, conceding hopelessness, how to cope with loneliness or failure. Everyone of us could compile long lists of friends or acquaintances who just can't seem to get "it" right, but who nonetheless keep trying. Hallmark, Hollywood, pop music, and the television industry--all the usual bastions of American sentimentality--have found massive success working the same basic theme that has long been the bedrock of the romance fiction industry. Virtually everyone is the business of making money realizes that "happily ever after" is perhaps the most nagging and tenacious dream of all.

"Even as all Mercia falls victim to Saxxe's raw, beguiling charm, the proud princess vows to resist the scoundrel who has breached the battlements of her sheltered world. But a passionate, irresistible yearning entreats Thera to surrender her heart and her kingdom to this sun bronzed warrior who would vanquish her enemies to win her steadfast love."

--Betina Krahn,

The Princess and the Barbarian (jacket copy)

Eagan-based writer Betina Krahn, the author of The New York Times bestseller The Perfect Mistress, was 30 years old, married with children, and living in Oklahoma when a friend gave her her first romance novel.

"Things were dreadful," she remembers. "I was bored out of my mind and feeling like my vocabulary was shrinking down to monosyllables. At the time I was reading Margaret Mead's Male and Female, and I kept picking it up and putting it back down, and I was just thinking 'Why am I reading this?' But I was something of a book snob, and I just felt that those were the sorts of books a college-educated person was supposed to read. A friend kept recommending this romance to me--it was Kathleen Woodiwiss's Shana, and I just thought, 'I don't read those things,' but one afternoon I was absolutely brain dead and I had managed to get my two boys to take a nap, and so I just picked up that book that had been lying around for several weeks. I started to read it, and by page 70 I was hooked."  

That's a familiar story, and Krahn knows it. "Oh, absolutely," she says. "Kathleen Woodiwiss is the first romance writer a lot of people read, and she's responsible for hooking so many longtime readers. She was one of the real pioneers of the popular romance." "Kathleen Woodiwiss broke down the doors in this country," Hudson says. "Prior to her the American romance market was relatively small, and dominated by British writers. Her Flame and the Flower was the first real historical romance, and the first book that anyone can point to that had romantic, full-blown love scenes. Very intimate love scenes, with strong emotional appeal. She has a lush, rich style of writing that has been extremely influential. I still keep her books on my shelf, and I go back to them again and again."

Woodiwiss and a few of her contemporaries forever changed the face of the romance genre in the 1970s, ushering in the "Savage Surrender" years. Prior to these books of pioneering sensuality, the romance market had been relatively small and extremely conservative, and was dominated by the slim series romances that Harlequin had introduced in the United States in the 1950s. Those books, with their trademark "hardcore decency" and their ultrabaroque style, were the romance genre's version of the British invasion. Primarily "nurse novels" produced by British writers, the early Harlequins featured chaste and often naive young heroines usually in the employ of dark, brooding doctors. There wasn't even a suggestion of sexual activity, and the happy ending was always marriage.

The 1960s saw a boom in Gothic and Regency romances also British imports, and also sexually modest, modeled usually on Jane Eyre or Rebecca. The audience for most of the earlier "sweet" romances, Hudson says, was made up predominantly of younger girls and older women. The "Savage Surrender" historicals of the '70s were generally heftier than previous romances--many point to Gone With the Wind as the model--and they were sexually emboldened by Jacqueline Susann and Erica Jong and the first currents of feminism. These books depicted a fever-pitch version of the war between the sexes, complete with kicking and screaming heroines, ruthless heroes, and intense physical relationships that often included rape, sexual domination, and captivity.

"I sure remember the first romance book I ever read," Hudson says with a laugh. "Joanna Lindsey's A Pirate's Love--pirate kidnaps beautiful young woman, ravishes her. I was hooked." In all such books there is very much a cake-and-eat-it-too fantasy at work: If only the woman can endure the abuse and ravishing she suffers at the hands of the hero, she may yet impress upon him her virtue, she may "teach the devil to love," and in so doing she may transform him.

"Taming tigers is what it's all about," romance writer Daphne Clair has written, and in every book the hunter is always captured by the game, the tables are always turned, the masculine is always dismantled. The Byronic hero becomes, in the words of Linda Barlow, "the ripped-up, torn apart, brought to his knees Alpha male." And the heroine makes the tender step from virgin to lover to mother. And everyone lives happily ever after.

"Waiting in a welfare line isn't a fantasy that many romance readers would care to participate in. Stealing a pair of breeches and hiring yourself on as a stableboy to an earl who will fall in love with you the instant he knows you are female is a far more engaging way to confront your fears about poverty."

--Kathleen Gilles Seidel,

"Judge Me By the Joy I Bring"

Krahn wrote her first romance in 1983. She had finished her master's degree in counseling, married a physicist, and taught school.

"I had always written stories," she says, "going all the back to high school, but in those days I'd always reach a certain point and just quit. Part of that is the maturity factor. It requires a certain amount of maturity to finish something, to see it through. By the time I was 30 and I had read that first historical romance, I was intrigued enough with the idea of romance, and I was perhaps naive enough to think that there was room for me to do something different. Everything was really changing, in society and within the genre. You could really sense that readers were growing somewhat tired of all those stereotypes, the truly archetypal characters."

So she started writing her own book, with absolutely no aspirations of ever getting it published; she just wanted to see what she could pull off. "It was fun and engaging. I was hugely interested in the historical part of the equation, and the opportunity it afforded me of exploring the whole, wide world through a different venue. Through all the research that's necessary to pull off a really convincing historical romance, you can really learn a lot.  

"Writing these things is not an easy chore," Krahn says. "Believe me. The distance between the writer and reader is almost nonexistent. You have to be engaged when you're writing, in the characters, the action, and the conflict. You have to really care about these people and their situation, because you're inviting your readers to to come right into the story, to partake of the emotions involved in the relationship. You're not only supposed to feel for these people; at some point or some level you're supposed to be these people. That has to be true for the writer as well as the reader. In romance writing subjectivity is everything. It's a very intimate form of writing."

Since that first book in 1983, Krahn has churned out 19 historical romances, and over the years her persistence has paid off in steadily increasing sales and respect within the industry. One of the perks of success in the romance publishing industry is the chance it affords writers to move away from the "clinch" covers that are such unavoidable stigma for writers and readers alike.

"Sure," Hudson says, "there are many readers who are embarrassed to be seen carrying those books around, because they get teased." Once a writer has established herself as a recognizable name in her own right her books are often published with what are called "step back" covers, in which the clinch is overlaid with a more tasteful, mainstream-looking cover, allowing the book to stand out in the romance section of a bookstore.

That's nice, writers agree, but it can also be scary. "You figure you have maybe three seconds to hook the reader in a bookstore," Krahn says. "And the covers are a big part of that hook."

Romance readers are a savvy and particular lot, and they know how to read a clinch cover to see what's inside. The cover art is loaded with information, usually providing an indication of the level of sensuality and the book's historical period or locale. How passionate is the embrace? In what stage of undress are the hero and heroine? Is the hero a Native American or a Lord? Is there a castle in the background? The plainer covers don't provide any of that crucial information, and writers often fear that their books may be lost to new readers.

"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."

Kathleen Eagle, Sunrise Song (jacket copy)

Kathleen Eagle has 30 romances in print, and wrote her first book, a series romance, in 1984. She was living in North Dakota at the time, had just finished her master's degree, and had a summer off. "I had always loved to write," she says, "and I just started writing a story for fun. At the time I had never read romances. I liked a big book with a lot of history--Uris, Michener, that sort of thing--and I got into romance writing completely by accident. My husband is Indian, from Standing Rock reservation in North and South Dakota, and I was an Air Force brat who had grown up moving around all the time.

"I had come west to teach when I met my husband, and I just thought, 'Okay, here's a story set a hundred years ago where this woman comes to North Dakota and meets this Indian man.' And I created these two characters and I went from there, never intending this story to be a romance. After I finished it I sent off to an agent in New York and was told that it was a romance. The agent encouraged me to write a shorter contemporary book as there was apparently a huge demand for those at the time, so I wrote a rodeo romance, and that was the first book I ever sold."  

Eagle, who is also the popular fiction reviewer for the Star Tribune, is a sharp, funny woman who makes no apologies for the books she writes; she displays none of the defensiveness so common in other writers in the genre, and her success has allowed her to push the envelope in her own books. Her stories consistently explore relationships between Indian men and white women, one of the enduringly popular themes in the romance genre. But unlike Janelle Taylor, who is often credited with pioneering the "Savage" sub-genre, Eagle works against the usual stereotypes.

"It's what I know," she says. "It's my romance, and I'm very sensitive to all the stereotypical perceptions, and the ways in which some of those have been abused. It was only really after I started writing that I became aware of the whole 'savage/captive' thing. I remember being in a bookstore with my oldest son. He was probably 10 or 12 years old at the time, and he said, 'Look at all these books with Indian dudes and white women on the covers, and look how many of them have the word savage in the title.' And we started looking, and there were a lot."

Sunrise Song is an odd romance in that much of the action takes place in the Hiawatha Insane Asylum for Indians in Canton, South Dakota, a facility operated by the Bureau of Indian Affairs from 1902 until 1934. There, mentally ill (which often meant simply recalcitrant) Native Americans were housed, Americanized, and often sterilized. The book--its narrative strung out over five decades--would seem to signal a first step out of the romance genre, but distinctions don't seem terribly important to Eagle.

"All those distinctions are created by the publishers," she says. "Putting a label on books makes them easier to market. I write the books I want to write, and I'm comfortable with the romance label. I don't mind the constraints, necessarily. You have to work within certain parameters, but that's the challenge with any writing. You know? What's more constrained than a sonnet?"

Eagle also points to the satisfaction of romance's payoff. "I enjoy knowing what I'm ultimately working toward," she says. "It still has to end with the hero and the heroine getting together. You're going to get some kind of positive resolution. That's always the number-one complaint you hear about literary fiction or the movies: You don't get that payoff, there's an unsatisfactory ending. Nothing really happens."

In May of this year Eagle will take the biggest and perhaps scariest step for a romance writer when her next book, The Night Remembers, will be issued in hardcover by Avon.

"The romance novelist has an implicit contract with the reader who buys her book to portray life exactly as it is not."

--Susan Elizabeth Phillips

The Midwest Fiction Writers are back at the Creekside Community Center, celebrating member Tami Hoag's remarkable achievement of having placed her third book in 10 months on The New York Times list. "Chick filler in a Stephen King sandwich," Hoag says, alluding to the fact that at the moment King is hogging up the list with six titles.

"I saw Tami at Target right between Danielle Steel and Kathleen Woodiwiss on the top shelf," someone says.

"I saw Tami at the Total Mart," someone else says. "When your books are in the gas station you know you've really made it."

Hoag announces that the mini series of her book Night Sins is going into production. "The more I work with these people in L.A.," she says, "the more I realize that they're just completely nuts. Also, I learned a lesson. Don't wish for Sandra Bullock when you're likely to get Valerie Bertinelli. I got Valerie Bertinelli."

There is cake to celebrate Hoag's achievement, and a photo circulates of Eagle with Kareem Abdul Jabbar at the annual American Booksellers' Association convention. In the midst of all the celebrating, one woman mentions that her manuscript has just been rejected for the fifty-seventh time.

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