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That Secret Shame 

You don't have to be embarrassed to read romance novels anymore. With modern themes and better writing, Bay Area authors are helping to make the genre almost (gasp!) respectable.

Wednesday, Jul 25 2001
In the film As Good As It Gets, Jack Nicholson plays a bitter, aging hack writer. His chosen genre is romance novels. Writing 62 of them has made him a very rich man, but, alas, writing love stories has also made him more of a misanthrope. One day, while leaving his publisher's office, he is buttonholed by a secretary who asks him how he comes up with his books' heroines.

"I think of a man," the beady-eyed Nicholson responds. "And I take away reason and accountability."

Ah, romance novels. Gateway to wealth, scourge of the literate.

Bad novels are everywhere, but few receive the derision -- or outright hatred -- that romances do. On the scale of cultural cachet, romance novels hover somewhere between monster trucks and Muzak. Of course, you don't have to read them to know they're bad. Just look at the covers: cheap embossed lettering and a picture of a bosomy maiden clinging to a hulking, shirtless alpha male. We already know what's inside: a sex scene every 20 pages, every last one featuring a pliant, dimwitted girl who'll do anything to find a husband. The people who read romances are no better: every last one a dull spinster who spends her days in curlers and tending to the cats.

Over 2,000 are published every year. Just like slopping pigs.

But ignoring them means ignoring the publishing industry's biggest workhorse, and it also means ignoring a genre that's more relevant than ever. Romance is a billion-dollar industry that is -- by far -- the most popular form of genre fiction available. Money doesn't signify quality, but the past five years have seen an anxious upheaval in romances, in both their content and their presentation. Finding those covers with shirtless hunks and willowy women is a lot harder these days. Fabio's late career is now mainly defined by goose attacks and TV commercials in which he refuses to believe it's not butter. There's a reason for this.

Romances are maturing. In some respects, they're the same as they ever were: They demand a story about a hero and a heroine, and they demand a happy ending. But everything else is up for grabs; the themes can be contemporary or age-old, the writing stylish and elegant or weak and campy. Romances have evolved into a more realistic mirror of modern life than they once were. The industry is even preparing to woo the younger generation of cynics who wouldn't touch a love story.

Despite the derision, the Bay Area is a strong outpost for romance writers, from best-selling Marinites like Catherine Coulter and Penny Williamson to respected second-tier authors like Candice Hern, who quit a well-paying job in the tech industry a few months ago to write full time. Hern is a no-nonsense, brassy, and intelligent 51-year-old who has published seven novels and has garnered a passel of rave reviews. Like every romance writer, she's heard all the jokes and cheap shots; she herself has a problem with some of the crappy covers on the shelves. But those covers belie the realism and quality she sees in the genre. "Every now and then there's an author who's just spectacular," she says, "and I personally feel bad that some of them will never get read by the regular person on the street."

The San Francisco Bay Area chapter of Romance Writers of America meets on the first Saturday of every month at His Lordships Restaurant. Perched on the northern tip of the Berkeley Marina, the restaurant commands a panoramic view of the bay and the distant San Francisco skyline, sparkling in the midmorning sun, which helps relieve the impatience of those waiting in line for brunch. In one of His Lordships spacious banquet halls, about 50 assembled writers -- all of them, to a man, women -- are chatting over strong coffee.

The conversations around the tables are mostly shop talk: shared stories about research and writing woes and tussles with editors, as well as showing off the covers of their upcoming books. In one corner, a pair of assistants gathers the $25 entry fee near a table of new books for sale.

The Romance Writers of America has about 8,000 members nationwide; the Bay Area chapter has about 150. It's not the largest chapter, but it does have a reputation for being one of the more professional groups, in terms of both the writers' day jobs and their approach to their books. The 50 local writers assembled in His Lordships are the hard-core, the ones publishing and moving up the ladder. Each has her own particular interest, her own niche she has staked out. Over there is Lynn Hanna, who has penned a pair of Gaelic-themed novels in the growing field of "paranormal" romance tales featuring ghosts and psychics. There's Pamela Britton, whose Enchanted by Your Kisses, set in 19th-century England, was a best seller on's romance list. Carol Grace, who parlayed her frequent trips to the Middle East into a series of romances featuring hardheaded sheiks, hands out a copy of Fit for a Sheik, a Harlequin novel about a hardheaded oil baron who finds love with a San Francisco wedding planner. "We can't keep that one on the shelves," says the woman manning the sales table, a clerk from the B. Dalton in Antioch.

There are meetings like this -- for both readers and writers -- all over the country. The industry is enormous; the 2,289 romance novels published last year fueled sales of $1.37 billion. They accounted for 56 percent of all the popular paperback fiction sold in North America in 2000, and 18 percent of all books sold. To serve that large a fan base -- 41 million people read a romance last year -- cottage industries have sprung up. Reading groups. Book clubs. Magazines like Romantic Times.

Candice Hern, former president of the local RWA chapter, sitting now near the podium in the banquet hall, sees the result of that ferment in the way fans talk about her books. Her readership "is not dissimilar to Star Trek fans, or science-fiction people," she says. "In a way, I tend to find them hypercritical. Sometimes the real die-hards will get sidetracked by an author's inadvertent mistake, something extremely minor, and lose the fact that this is a fabulous story, and that the writing is extraordinary."

Despite that claim, romances still can't get respect. The San Francisco Bay Area has frozen them out. No respectable independent bookstore stocks them, so they're relegated to corners of the chain stores and supermarkets. The Chronicle book section doesn't review them. What's to review?

There's a perception that taking romances seriously is practically immoral. Indeed, they've been accused of setting feminism back decades. In a well-traveled 1995 op-ed piece that originally ran in USA Today, psychologists Judith Sherven and James Sniechowski went so far as to accuse romances of keeping women in abusive relationships. Romances, they wrote, offer only "the hope and thrill of being "saved' by a strong, dominant male -- who will take care of them and make them feel secure."

"We're feeling like the abused child," says Kate Moore, current San Francisco RWA chapter president.

Inevitably a big part of Moore's job as president involves moral support. At the chapter's monthly meeting, the first thing she does is offer a rose to each person who has a success story to tell. She brought a dozen. She ran out.

The women in attendance joined the chapter because breaking into the romance world is no different from breaking into print anywhere else: You have to know who's out there, what they're looking for, how to get an agent, how to promote, how to write. Attacks from others about their work are old news, and they're essentially armored against it. They can have a good laugh about that familiar shaggy dog story, about the person who figures she can make some easy money banging out a Harlequin over the weekend. What's so hard about it? Just hack out some dumb plot set in wherever -- hey, how about Scotland in 1508, who's paying attention? -- throw in a few purple sex scenes, get it published next month.

The advance for the average Harlequin novel is around $2,000. First novels, produced after months of work in critique groups, get rejected all the time. Editors and readers can smell cynical prose a mile away, and they're sticklers for historical accuracy. You do it because you love it.

When Penny Williamson, the featured speaker, walks to the podium, five dozen notebooks emerge from five dozen purses and tote bags. Dressed in a burgundy outfit, her blond hair covered by a black, wide-brimmed sun hat, she swivels her right foot on its heel as she speaks, keeping a rhythm. She spent 15 years on the ladder. Like a lot of people in the audience, she started out writing "category" romances, the short novels Harlequin publishes as part of a series ("Sexy Single Dads," say, or "Virgin Brides"). While a lot of writers are comfortable in categories, most hope to get out. Writing category romance has its humiliating aspects: The advances are minuscule, royalties nil, and the shelf lives of books short -- they are removed after a month or less to make room for the next batch.

So Williamson expanded into writing longer, "single-title" books, bought and sold on the author's name instead of the plot. Today, she has moved away from romance and into detective thrillers. So the question-and-answer session after her speech -- the topic was writing strong opening chapters -- is as much a discussion of Williamson's career as it is of writing. Why, they want to know, did she stop writing romance?

"It's a box," Williamson says. That's not necessarily an insult, and nobody gasps in horror; everybody understands. Romances are built around specific codes and structures, the same way any horror, mystery, or science-fiction novel is. "Maybe literary fiction tells a different story, but popular fiction always tells the same stories over and over, because we need to hear them," says Kate Moore, an English teacher at the upscale Branson School in Ross who has written a handful of single-title historical romances set in England. "Women need to hear that a woman's choices are important, that she needs to think carefully, that she's valuable, that she's going to have obstacles but she can overcome them."

Such enlightened themes in romances haven't always been in vogue, however. In the early '70s, at the start of the genre's boom, romances were rife with rape stories and "sweet savages" that passive maidens couldn't resist. That effectively cemented romance's reputation as at worst sexist and at best a genre in which no book is any different from any other.

But times have changed. The "bodice-ripper" of old is all but nonexistent today, says Lynn Coddington, who is both a romance author and a professor at UC Berkeley who wrote her dissertation on the evolution of the romance. Today novels focus on modern issues -- careers, self-image, and family; there are horror romances, thriller romances, paranormal romances, and so on.

"In romance, 75 percent of what you're going to read is kind of "Ehhh,'" says Coddington, who reviews romances for the Contra Costa Times. "It's the same thing anywhere else, but romance is judged by its weakest work. It's an obligatory derision, it's sexism. And not just sexism. There's a real prejudice against sentiment in our taste-setters. ... When you bring in the personal, people say that's cheap."

Romance is a particularly tough sell in the Bay Area and especially San Francisco, which is always sensitive to "-isms" and likes to fancy itself as too progressive and sophisticated to stoop to middlebrow culture. "Bay Area romance writers feel like the Bay Area is not romance-friendly," says Kate Moore. "It's certainly not an area that respects romance writers. It's a literary city."

Literary. Icicles hang off that word when she says it.

The windows of Candice Hern's Twin Peaks home open to a stunning view of the San Francisco skyline. She's watchful about the shades, though, and quick to pull them down in the late-afternoon sun; direct sunlight is hell on her violets. A bespectacled, genial redhead with a slight Texas accent, she is easygoing and quick to laugh. Over time, the house she shares with her longtime roommate has become a veritable museum of English history, the fruit of regular trips to London and her soft spot for Butterfield's auctions. The "docent tour," as she jokingly puts it, includes a collection of vintage silhouettes, embroidery work, purses, perfume bottles, and, as a centerpiece, a painting attributed to the 18th-century neo-classical painter Johann Zoffany.

Until April, Hern got up every morning and took 280 down to Sunnyvale, where she worked as director of marketing for Vitria Technology. It was a well-paying job, with a lot of authority, and it allowed her to make those yearly antique-hunting trips to London. But who needed the soul-sucking commute? Spending four hours a day on the road was, as a friend would remind her, essentially a part-time job.

"Well damn," Hern says, recalling her frustration. "I could be using that 20 hours a week writing." After thinking it over, she found a way to squeeze in even more writing hours: She quit. March 30 was her last day at Vitria. Since then she's been writing in her home office full time. Her seventh novel, The Bride Sale, will be published in January of next year.

Candice Hern writes regency novels. If romance is the box Penny Williamson says it is, regencies are bank vaults in their restrictions. Regencies are set in England in the early 1800s -- specifically the period between 1811 (when King George III was declared insane) and 1820 (when he died). It is also the period when Jane Austen wrote her classic novels on courtly manners, and regencies strive to echo Austen's themes, if not her dense, florid writing style. They're generally the chastest category of romance novels around, but, to hear readers and scholars tell it, regencies are also the most demanding on an author, and the best written.

Hern's career was an accident. One day after work 10 years ago she popped into a mall bookstore to track down books by one of her favorite authors, Georgette Heyer, a British comedic novelist who set her slangy, lighthearted courtship novels during the Regency. Coming up empty in the literature section, she appealed to a clerk. Heyer? She's over there, with the romances.

Who knew? Hern had been reading romance novels all that time, a genre she had never really considered before. "I don't believe I had that kind of snobby thing about it, though I probably did in the back of my head," she recalls. "The covers turned me off, basically, and I never stopped to think about what might be between those covers. I wasn't ashamed to find [Heyer] in romance. I was stunned."

In time, she was buying not just the Heyers, but other regencies as well. After she kvetched one day to her roommate that another regency got a fact wrong, he politely suggested that she might consider writing one.

Hern, 51, hadn't written a piece of fiction in her life. But by then she had all but internalized the romance's style and themes. And if she was going to do it, she was going to do it right. She joined RWA, hired an agent, and by January 1995, two years after she started writing, she had published her first novel, A Proper Companion, under Jove Books' regency line. Unlike some romance authors, she used her own name. "I figured that if it's a fluke, [at least] I got my name on a book," she says.

Her books are brisk, humorous affairs, driven by crisp dialogue. Like most regencies, they're set in the summer season, often in London, and feature a young heroine trying to escape the clutches of something: a domineering mother, abuse, an arranged marriage to a shallow aristocrat. Hern's heroines are never easily convinced that marriage is a solution. Love wins in the end, but the woman always retains her personality and self-respect. If she marries, it's only because the man has proven himself worthy of her.

Writing regencies, as with all category romances, is no way to make money. The highest advance for a category regency is $5,000, with a small royalty attached (usually about 6 percent). There's no promotional budget; Hern has paid for all the advertisements she's taken out, and organized all of her own signings. It's quite easy to get lost in the shuffle, but Hern's books have sold through their print runs -- usually around 30,000 copies -- and she has received good reviews from the more discriminating outlets. Her books have also done well overseas.

But the category regency is currently in decline. Where once eight publishers were putting out regencies regularly, there are now three; where the print runs 20 years ago were upward of 90,000 copies, they're now as low as 20,000. Hilary Ross, the longtime éminence grise of the regency genre, attributes the drop to a series of factors: the consolidation of distributors, the lack of innovative stories, and a lack of promotion for regencies, which are still considered the province of older readers who don't want anything too sexy. Hern sees that lack of promotion as the industry's Achilles' heel. "It's assumed that the audiences will never grow, that it's just there, which I think is a stupid thing," she says. "To treat the regency subgenre in that way has hurt them, because they completely missed the Jane Austen bonanza that hit the movie screens in the past few years. If they'd jumped on that bandwagon, they would've gotten a bigger audience, but no, they kept their print runs the same."

Making enough money to write full time means climbing out of the 200-page category regency and expanding into the longer, 300- to 400-page historical romance; there, the print runs leapfrog into six figures, and the advances are in the $50,000 range. Jumping from Signet to Avon, Hern recently finished her first long regency -- in industry parlance, a historical single-title. For The Bride Sale, which is set in Cornwall, she went into deep research, calling upon her collection of history books and all but wallpapering her basement office with photos, maps, and drawings from the time and place. Her previous novels were comic reads, full of verbal sparring between the hero and heroine, but The Bride Sale is almost the opposite, opening with a woman being auctioned among the poor masses at a Cornwall market, watched by James, a noble:

"Give us a better look at 'er, then!" a man's voice shouted.

Old Moody tugged on the halter attached to the woman's neck, causing her head to jerk up for a brief moment. "C'mon, dearie," he said. "Show 'em wot yer offerin'."

She looked younger than James had expected, perhaps in her mid-twenties. Darkish hair was just barely visible beneath her bonnet. Her eyes appeared to be dark as well, though James was not close enough to be certain. She again lowered her gaze, and appeared to be terrified. No, not quite terrified, he decided as he studied her further. Fear drained her face of all color, but there was also the merest hint of defiance in the tight jaw and in the square set of her shoulders when Moody pulled on the halter. And in the way she jerked her neck and pulled right back, causing Moody to bobble, unbalanced, for a moment. Good for her, James thought. Good for her.

Writing a longer book often means assuming a darker tone, though not the boorish savagery of the old days. With so many books demanding new and interesting twists, even the regency has had to push a few envelopes. Upping the sensual ante is one way -- Miss Lacey's Last Fling featured a lengthy sex scene, relatively rare for a category regency -- or incorporating themes that are more reflective of contemporary life. A character in The Bride Sale comes out of the closet in the later stages of the book; though Hern can't recall a regency with a gay or lesbian hero or heroine, these characters have begun cropping up in secondary roles, if only to point out that in the Regency era, homosexuality could get you hanged.

Currently, Hern's working on her next novel, tentatively titled The Busybody. A sort of Miss Lonelyhearts for the regency set, it's about the man charged with writing the advice-to-the-lovelorn column for a London women's magazine. There's no guarantee that she'll sell it, though she's not too concerned yet. She has a good reputation among regency readers and enough money saved to concentrate on writing and finishing the book.

"Hopefully I can get through a year," she says. "Boy, once you quit doing that [commute] every day, it's hard to go back. It would kill me to have to do that again."

In some ways, the romance novel hasn't matured. The infamous "clinch covers" have diminished, but they're still there, and the romance world's reporting on itself can be intensely boosterish. Romantic Times, the leading magazine for romance readers, has a tendency to accentuate the positive (star ratings range from "acceptable" to "exceptional"), and advertisements for books have a nasty habit of appearing adjacent to their rave reviews. Every year, Romantic Times also hosts a convention in Florida for romance fans; each morning begins at 8 a.m. sharp with a "power walk" led by a male cover model.

But romances have started edging nearer to the mainstream in recent years. With some of the bigger authors branching out into hardcover, major companies like Harlequin recasting their books, and a boom in lines catering to gay, lesbian, and black audiences, it's become increasingly difficult to explain what, precisely, a romance is.

"One of the things we've been doing is defining our genre more as women's fiction, not as traditional romance," says Harold Lowry, the current -- and first male -- president of RWA, who writes western novels under the pen name Leigh Greenwood. "There's still a plot where boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl, and they live happily ever after, and romance must be the major part. But ... writers are getting more latitude. This is a point of consideration for us: Do we want to change our focus? It's a long-range problem."

At least part of the pressure to change stems from a harsh demographic reality: Romance readership skews older, heavily. Sixty-six percent of romance readers are over 35, and a remarkable 13 percent are between 65 and 74.

Harlequin Enterprises, the leading romance publisher, started to ponder the youth issue seriously a couple of years ago. "We started asking ourselves, "What are we not doing? How can we fulfill that need?,'" says Harlequin editor Margaret Marbury. "Gen-X, Gen-Y ... they're a big group. We know there are more single women out there, and they're making more money than ever. We know there are a lot of readers not reading romance."

Harlequin's market research produced Red Dress Ink, a line of Harlequin novels that launches in November. With a new novel once a month, the company intends to "fill the demand for fun, poignant, and clever editorial for the sophisticated and trendy 21- to 34-year-old female," as its marketing copy says. Nothing inside or outside the books suggests Harlequin is behind them. Shelved in the fiction section, they will be novels about single women in their 20s, set in cities instead of suburbs or remote vistas. Focused more on dating than marriage, Red Dress novels will be presented with artsy, modern covers that wouldn't look out of place next to the Bridget Jones's Diary-type books they're designed to compete with. When Red Dress put out requests for book proposals, however, Marbury noticed that "romance writers were lukewarm about it. Not because of any backlash, but they were unsure what that meant for romance. We made it clear that it's not going to change the way we approach romance."

Cathy Yardley, who published her first Harlequin, The Cinderella Solution, last year, has sold a book to Red Dress Ink. Titled L.A. Girl, it should hit shelves early next year. She's happy to be doing something outside of the category romance mill, but she isn't surprised that the romance industry has taken so long to realize it would do well to appeal to younger readers. "If it ain't broke, don't fix it," is how she laughingly describes Harlequin's attitude, and she's right: Romances seem to weather economic downturns better than other genres do.

But Harlequin has a tough sell to younger readers, a generation where, as Yardley puts it, "in high school, saying your parents were divorced was like saying you had a locker. Selling the happy ending was very hard." But Yardley persists. "Look, there's nothing to be ashamed of in saying, "I believe in love and I believe in happy endings.' Yeah, you're gonna hear a lot of cynics, but somebody's gotta have hope here."

In late May, San Francisco's Moscone Center hosted the annual convention of the American Library Association. The event worked hard to present libraries as hip to the times, though the results were decidedly ... librarian. A party at the Marriott was headlined by Jurassic rock 'n' rollers Three Dog Night and promoted as "Joy to the World ... of Libraries!"

The Romance Writers of America held court at a tiny table in a corner of Moscone's south hall. Candice Hern brought copies of her latest book, Miss Lacey's Last Fling. Hern was scheduled to spend an hour signing them. She was out of books in 20 minutes. Everyone's eager to talk to a real, live romance writer, apparently. One attendee took a moment to enthuse about how much the library's circulation had improved since it decided to stop throwing romances onto racks and actually catalog them.

Hern wasn't shocked at how quickly she got through her stack of books; it happens all the time: Set up a romance book-signing and people come in droves. But she also isn't surprised that romances are still a hard sell among the literary establishment. When she was the president of the local RWA chapter, she tried for three years to get a discussion panel on the genre at the San Francisco Book Festival, but couldn't even get her phone calls returned. Instead, the RWA's booth got placed right across from Good Vibrations', which wasn't quite the image Hern wanted to present. Finally she landed a slot at the 1999 festival, thanks to a clever bit of marketing. "I had to position it as a feminist issue," she says, a bit resentfully, and she tapped fellow author Lynn Coddington as moderator to deliberately exploit Coddington's Ph.D. from UC Berkeley. "We were playing those games to get in the door -- one of the members of the panel having credentials up the butt," Hern says.

And again, the readers showed up. And again, Hern wasn't surprised. The readers are everywhere, if you know what to look for. Just take a trip to the Financial District during lunchtime, where you'll find a showcase of tasteful cloth book covers -- available wherever romances are sold -- in a magnificent array of colors and patterns.

"What cracks me up are the women who cover them," says Cathy Yardley. "They sell those cloth paperback covers specifically for this, and they're not reading Don DeLillo under there.

About The Author

Mark Athitakis


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