My heroine has just turned into an insipid twit, someone totally out of place in a fast-paced, ’90s romance novel. I think it’s because I named her Ivy, wanting to suggest whimsy, caprice, imagination. Instead, I’m starting to associate her with the more annoying qualities of that vine: She’s clingy, decorative and totally green. My hero, a self-made computer geek millionaire in his 30s, is not stirring lust in her heart or mine, possessing, as he does, not just David Duchovny’s gorgeous face but Bill Gates’ icy soul. But if he’s not cyber-rich, how else can I plunk him down into a small town when he has no visible means of support? Making him a serial killer is an obvious, but unworkable, solution.
Deciding I can think more clearly about this with latte at hand, I drive to the local book superstore/cafe, where the magazines are all abuzz over a plagiarism scandal in the romance world. “There IS a reason all romance novels read alike,” trumpets the Associated Press. The Washington Post: “Heaving bosoms and throbbing loins are all very well, but if you really want to make a romance writer breathe heavily, try pinching her prose.” And from Newsweek: “Plagiarism? How can you tell when all this stuff sounds the same anyway?” I read on. Janet Dailey, the one-time queen of the romance novel, has admitted stealing words and ideas from bestselling writer Nora Roberts, and now blames the whole thing on a personality disorder caused by the deaths or illnesses of several family members, including her dog.
With a heart sinking harder and faster than that of any stereotypical romance heroine, I realize there is no way that the media is going to delve very deeply into this complex story about rivalry, jealousy and the cult of victimization. Instead, given that they’ve depleted their supply of jokes and jibes about cover-boy Fabio, they’ll be grateful for fresh blood. So why — considering the unflattering media attention to the genre, the giggles, the snickers, the people (including friends and relatives) who refer to these books as “crotch novels” and “soft porn” — do I keep writing them?
It’s not, as many think, because penning romances is the equivalent of a license to print money. Truth is, I can make bigger bucks with less effort doing the thing I’m trained to do: translating engineering gobbledy-gook into readable technical manuals for people who refuse to read them. But if not cash, that universal motivator, then what is it? Here’s where I trot out my nervous, defensive little speech: “Well, I read literature and I always wanted to write literature and I won lots of awards in college for creative writing but this market was open and they wanted new writers and I had a knack for it, and …”
Oh, hell. Who am I kidding? I read romances. I’ve always read romances. And not just for market research or to see what settings are popular or so that I can understand any conventions of the genre. I read them because I enjoy them.
When I picked up my first Harlequin American book in high school, 15 years ago, the virginal heroines and ripped bodices so often cited in clichis had already given way to new kinds of romances. The first one I read had a heroine who gave cigarettes to homeless people so she wouldn’t be the only person in Manhattan smoking; she meets the hero when he mistakes her for a bum and tosses her some spare change. The chance to read about funky, bright women making interesting lives for themselves was one I wasn’t finding in other popular fiction, and I ate it up.
It’s no longer difficult to find novels written from a feminine viewpoint, using the female experience as the jumping-off point for all kinds of stories. Today there are bestselling mysteries featuring women detectives, historical novels that don’t drag their female characters through five generations of war and famine in the name of plot and a growing number of excellent women comic novelists, writers like Cathleen Schine, Sarah Bird and Elinor Lipman. If the romance industry hadn’t proven that women’s fiction appeals to such a wide audience, currently accounting for almost two-thirds of all fiction sold, would there be so many female authors on the shelves?
But is it healthy, highbrow critics ask, to keep feeding women a steady diet of Love Conquers All? What they don’t understand, especially if they’ve never read romances, is that that’s never the central thesis. Any good romance heroine could tell you love is just the beginning of her problems. Resolution comes with how she fits love into the rest of her life, and with realizing she’s better off being true to herself than in settling for the first boy-next-door, good provider, Joe Schmoe who comes along. In the romance, the heroine never just gets the guy. She also gets the great job, the rent-controlled apartment, self-actualization and sweet revenge on the proverbial pointy-head boss.
And great sex. Except in the more traditional romance lines, women are bedding down heroes with a zeal that some find shocking. Although steamy scenes in a book can make you reluctant to loan it to your Great-Aunt Agatha, many applaud this frankness. Romance writer Jennifer Crusie, who made the genre the subject of her doctoral dissertation in English, has said, “For the first time I was reading fiction about women who had sex and then didn’t eat arsenic or throw themselves under trains or swim out to the embrace of the sea.”
There’s no question that women writing about sex and relationships makes some people uncomfortable. I don’t think it’s any coincidence that the one genre written mostly by women mostly for other women is the one that it’s fashionable to denigrate. I’m not suggesting a conspiracy, only that our culture has a long history of considering the things that mostly interest one sex as somehow lesser, sillier, than those things that interest the other. If activities more stereotypically associated with men were ridiculed publicly — things like fly fishing, football and big-budget alien invasion movies — you can bet they wouldn’t giggle into their hands, blush and take it. I think they’d resolve to kick some media butt.
I’m going to as well. No more excusing myself as a starving lit major, no more hiding books with “bride” or “hunk” in the title, no more artful scattering about of Modern American Library titles when the local newspaper takes my picture. I’m proud of what I do. And although I have two characters at home who are in danger of turning into the ditz and the dork before I straighten them out, I can promise there will be no heaving bosoms, tossing of the hair, stamping of the feet, or cries of outrage in this book. But I can’t promise I won’t engage in those activities myself, the next time the media decides to discover romance.