Romance novels are much maligned by their critics, who complain about the genre’s flaws: The only thing that seems to change from one story to another is the setting, and the endings are always happy (and sappy). The authors aren’t known for their writing, either — you won’t find a single romance writer in the list of National Book Award winners. The lurid paperback covers seem more fittingly displayed in a window at Victoria’s Secret than at Elliott Bay Books.
But none of this dissuades fans, who are many. According to Romance Writers of America, 26 percent of all books sold in the U.S. are romance novels. While studies such as the National Endowment for the Arts “Reading at Risk” survey point to a dwindling number of U.S. readers, the romance fiction business is booming, with scads of titles out every year and a growing fan base ready to devour them. One out of five readers chooses romance novels for her fare.
Here’s one reason why: Romance writers always put a woman at the center of the story. By contrast, there’s no guarantee you’ll get a leading female character in literary fiction. A quantitative study of The New Yorker’s fiction picks conducted in 2004 revealed that the magazine more often published works written by men, and these authors were more likely to feature male protagonists with supporting female characters.
The romance novel’s main character isn’t just a woman — she’s a strong woman. While the bodice-rippers of the past may have rendered male fantasy in female garb, what you’ll find in contemporary romance is a story driven by the modern ideal of a loving relationship that is also an equal partnership. The sex scenes can be as explicit as some pornography, but the remarkable difference is, these couplings are charged by the characters’ love and desire for lasting commitment. What romance novels deliver consistently that no other genre does is simply this: hot sex between two people who care deeply for one another and always overcome their obstacles by the book’s end.
Here, three Seattle romance writers tout their craft.
THE CORE STORY: JAYNE ANN KRENTZ
Jayne Ann Krentz is a New York Times best-selling author whose latest book, Sizzle and Burn, (Penguin Group, 2008) is set in a fictitious Washington town and features Raine Tallentyre, a psychic who must discover the secret to her aunt’s murder and her own past. Using a psychic ability to hear the killers’ voices in her head, she helps police hunt them down. However useful, her ability makes her feel very much alone — until she meets fellow psychic Zachary Jones.
Sizzle and Burn is part of the Arcane Society series, a set of related stories born of Krentz’s current obsession: the paranormal, a newer subgenre that is gaining strong ground. “This is a perfect storm of a romance market for me,” says Krentz. “I am grabbing the opportunity to take the elements that I love best — romance, suspense and the psychic thing — and combine them in a way that allows me to build a fictional world that extends across all three of my landscapes.”
The highly prolific Krentz has published 25 novels under that name, another 24 as Amanda Quick, and still seven more as Jayne Castle. The three pen names correspond to three slightly different categories: contemporary romance, historical romance, and romance with a paranormal component, respectively. She was a trailblazer in the paranormal romance category; in fact, her first try at it preceded market demand and didn’t sell. “I took out the alien creatures and the woo-woo factor and moved the story back to earth,” she says. “What I had left was a novel of romantic-suspense. I set it in Richland, Washington, instead of on another planet and it sold, eventually.”
Krentz is overjoyed that the market for paranormal romance has since developed. “My core story was, is, and, I think, always will be romantic-suspense with a strong paranormal twist,” she says.
What’s striking about Krentz’s fiction is how authentic and even mundane she renders the psychic elements of her world. “I can’t do that for a vampire story,” she says. Owing in part to TV shows like “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” romantic-suspense stories with vampires, werewolves, and other such creatures are the best-sellers in the otherworldly category. “Any author can write only to the extent that the author can step into her own world,” she says, explaining why she can’t write a creature-feature. “With romance especially, sometimes it seems like you can take the numbers and line it up, but it has to be the author’s core, the author has to enjoy it.”
OUR CONTEMPORARY JANE AUSTEN: JULIA QUINN
Julia Quinn writes in the romance category that is truest to the genre’s roots: historical romance set in Jane Austen’s era. Pride and Prejudice is widely credited as the first great romance novel, and Quinn’s latest book, The Secret Diaries of Miss Miranda Cheever (Avon Books, 2007) is a paean to the 19th century author’s work: Lead character Miranda Cheever keeps a journal and lusts after books as much as she lusts after the dashing Turner Bevelstoke. Quinn, whom author Jill Barnett dubbed “our contemporary Jane Austen” even before The Secret Diaries was published, cleverly references Pride and Prejudice itself deep in the novel, weaving the opening line of that story into her own plot.
Quinn shies from the comparison, however, saying that she’s no Jane Austen. But the feelings evoked by Austen’s work are the same feelings contemporary readers of romance novels have, she argues, pointing to the popularity of movies based on Austen’s novels. “It’s acceptable somehow in film, but not in a book. There are bad books in every genre,” she says, in defense of romance’s sullied reputation. “Bad romances are really bad, but the good ones are very good. If you can discover the good ones, it can open up fiction to you in a way that you haven’t experienced in a long time.”
Seattleites know Quinn by her given name, Julie Pottinger. A graduate of Harvard and Radcliffe, Pottinger dropped out of medical school when she realized, with four books already under her belt, that she should be a romance writer, not a doctor. Her schooling prepared her for the technical aspects of writing, she says, as well as the intellectual. Indeed, her stories are literate and well-researched, her voice strong. She learned from a professor, the celebrated biologist and science writer, E.O. Wilson, that we are social creatures. “Most of us want to fall in love, to live happily ever after,” she says.
For Pottinger, the descriptors “escapist” and “well-written” are not mutually exclusive. Citing John Irving’s A Prayer for Owen Meany as a chief example, she argues that while commercial fiction is about the story, and literary fiction is often about the writing itself, she’s more interested in works that do both well. “The best literary fiction also tells a good story, and the best commercial fiction pays attention to the writing,” she says.
GUARANTEEING A HAPPY ENDING: SUSAN ANDERSEN
The protagonist in Susan Andersen’s latest novel, Coming Undone (HQN Books, 2007) is Priscilla Jayne (“P.J.”) Morgan, a country-western singer whose career is taking off after many years of hard work. She leads her band, grapples with an abusive mother, pushes on despite a threatening stalker and, of course, falls in love.
Andersen’s readers may remember P.J. from a previous book, Hot & Bothered. “She was only supposed to be a walk-on character,” says Andersen, “but that little girl simply grabbed hold of my imagination and wouldn’t let go until I wrote her a bigger part.”
A hallmark of Andersen’s books is that the male characters are every bit as developed as the women. Andersen grew up with brothers, names her father as an important influence, and is now the only female in her household. “Being surrounded by men gave me a feel for the male mind-set,” she says. She recalls her older brother saying that all men need is laughter, sex, a set of Craftsman tools, and a big screen TV. “Well, most of the men I know are actually big readers, have smallish TV screens and are more interested in hiking and skiing than watching sports,” she says. “But I stand by the good laugh and plenty of sex part. Ask one. If he’s not a fairly new acquaintance who’s trying to convince you he’s a New Age sensitive guy, I’m betting he’ll tell you the same.”
Andersen is not much bothered by the stereotyping of romance as a lesser art. Not every book in her chosen genre is perfect, she admits, but neither are the books in other genres, including literary fiction. “I read Ethan Frome and want to open a vein,” she says. “I don’t believe a book that’s grim and ends up grimmer is inherently more valuable than a book that makes you smile and guarantees a happy ending.”
©2008 Caliope Publishing Company
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