Discussing The Finer Points Of Cheap Erotica With The Romance Writers Of America

You’re so beautiful,” he murmured, shaping her breasts with his palms. “All creamy and soft and sweet, like a rich, chewy praline.”
She speared her fingers through the pelt of dark hair on his chest. “You’re not so bad yourself. For a number-crunching VP, you strip down pretty good.”

She was aching and on fire when they tumbled to the bed in a whirl of greedy kisses and tangled limbs. . . . Angela didn’t want easy. She didn’t want slow. She wanted to leave her scent all over Jack, and his in every crevice of her body. He filled her hand. Hot. Satiny. As sleek and as hard as a smooth-bore piston. . . . Then he reversed positions and his fingers found the tight center of sensation between her legs. His touch set off small spirals of pleasure. When he bent his body and brought his mouth down to her breast, the spirals spun into searing, liquid delight.

“Now, Jack.” She arched her back, groaning. “I choose now. Here! Ooooh!”

—THE 14TH . . . AND FOREVER by Merline Lovelace (excerpted with permission of the author)

There’s something about people who consume romance novels that perplexes people who don’t consume romance novels, a baffling enigma surrounding these carnal volumes, and that perplexity, that mystery, that blazing befuddlement is: how can you people actually read this shit?

Romantic literature is criticized by everyone from the literary establishment to religious fundamentalists. But one rapidly growing organization, the Romance Writers of America, is striving to bring respectability to the genre. Founded in Houston, Texas, in 1980, the RWA is comprised of 120 chapters and 8,400 members worldwide.

“It’s a struggle as a romance writer,” says Carmen Bydalek, president of the RWA Alaska chapter. “People pigeonhole you and they don’t take your work seriously. But if you take any genre of writing, there’s always going to be standout novels.”

Many people seem to agree: 60 percent of all paperback fiction sold nationally is romantic literature. Romance novels produced $1.35 billion in sales last year alone. According to a 1999 study, one in three women—and one in thirty men—had recently purchased a romance novel. Nearly forty-two million Americans are devout romance junkies, and whether you find this reassuring or terrifying probably hinges solely on whether or not you’re one of those forty-two million.

“A lot of people look down on romance writers,” Bydalek says. “They think it’s cliché. But you can see how, if you’re familiar with the genre, it has evolved. If you look at a book from the 1960s or ’70s, it’s usually something silly and vapid about this nurse and this doctor. But along with the women’s movement, so have romance novels evolved. . . . [Now] it’s a reflection of our society.”

Still, the romance genre has retained its fair share of opponents. For example, Dr. Devoney Looser, visiting professor of English at Arizona State University.

“Some see romance novels as a harmless escape,” Dr. Looser says, “but I am concerned that they may prevent adult women from seeking social change in their own unsatisfactory life conditions, and that they give young women a false sense of what their lives should be about.”

(This reporter is fully aware that quotes from one “Dr. Looser” might seem fabricated in an article about naughty sex books. The reader is assured that Dr. Looser happens to be an actual human being.)

Most people who don’t read romance novels might be surprised at the genre’s diversity. There are historical romances (stories that take place in different eras), teen romances (sex-free stories geared to the young women who constitute 14 percent of the romance market; 71 percent of romance readers have read their first “bodice ripper” by the time they’re sixteen years old), and even religious “inspirational” romances.

“Basically, inspirational romance is when you have one or both of the characters be of an evangelical faith,” says MacKenzie Van Cleef, inspirational romance writer and member of the RWA Alaska chapter. “You have to present them with a difficulty in order to be together. An example of that would be maybe they meet in a traffic accident, and he is a pastor of a local church, and she had been raised in a foster home that was very anti-Christian and she was against anything that has anything to do with Christianity, and they meet in a traffic accident and they’d have to get past her difficulty of facing Christianity in order to be together.”

And would it be safe to assume that there is no naughty-naughty in these upstanding religious romances?

“Most inspirational romances will not have premarital sex,” Van Cleef says. “They will not have kissing for the most part.”

They don’t have kissing?

“For the most part, they do not have kissing. On occasion they will have a goodnight kiss. And the book closes when [the characters] get married. . . . When you get into the inspirational romance, you know in no uncertain terms one or both of those characters will be an active, practicing Christian. It’s just accepted in the story.”

The RWA Alaska chapter meets on the first Monday of every month at Anchorage’s Barnes & Noble Booksellers. Although the annual fee of ninety dollars is admittedly steep, the members agree that the group has helped improve their writing tremendously. In fact, some of them have even managed to sell manuscripts to major publishers after joining.

“I made a commitment and started into it about three years ago,” author Wendy Ferguson says, referring to her novel Shades of Gray, which was recently sold to a romance publishing house. “I wanted to write romance for a long time.”

Ferguson, a fifteen-year veteran of the RWA and twenty-five-year Alaska resident, plans to publish her novel under the pseudonym “Wendy Douglas,” because it “sounds more like a romance writer than ‘Wendy Ferguson.’” She says it’s customary for romance writers to use pseudonyms because publishers once required the aliases; if an author wanted to get out of her contract, whatever pen name she used had to stay with her publisher.

Yes, “her.” The romance genre is almost completely dominated by women. Every major romance writer is female and, according to RWA research, so are 91 percent of romance readers. One might wonder why more men aren’t drawn into the action, and our old friend Dr. Looser has a theory.

“Though family and work patterns have changed dramatically in the past thirty years, our cultural ideologies about love have not changed as quickly,” she explains. “A man’s success remains firmly tied to his professional achievement and advancement. . . . Of course, men face great pressures to be ‘successful’ with women, but this notion of success is tied up with sexual conquest. A man caught reading a romance novel puts his masculinity at risk; he may be labeled a ‘wimp’ or a ‘sissy.’ This standard reaction tells men that romance is not their business.”

“Our children are prohibited from boy/girl friend speculation or gossip even to the extent of Christian romance novels and other various movies or stories. It’s not that they are not allowed to read books that have romance in them, but romance shouldn’t be the theme of the book nor the major point of interest and discussion by the children. Because we know that nothing is neutral and that, therefore, romance novels only serve to waste time and stir the hearts of young girls at an early age. Our children are not allowed to read romance novels, even so-called Christianized ones.”
—“THE WAR OVER SEXUAL PURITY” by Pastor Patrick Hurd, Heritage Covenant Church, Weatherford, Texas

Nobody accepts these books, it seems, except for the same people who compulsively read and write them in the first place. The literary intelligentsia (who believe romance novels lower America’s cultural bar a few notches), Christian fundamentalists (who believe the books glorify the pleasures of the flesh), and academic feminists (who believe the books depict women as being solely dependent on their ability to gain the affection of men) equally loathe the romance genre, and these groups normally don’t agree with one another on anything.

But the women who write romance novels certainly don’t consider themselves culturally illiterate, hedonistic, and anti-woman. Ferguson (or Douglas or whatever) finds the hedonism argument to be especially unfounded. “That’s what people don’t get about romance,” she says. “The sex part is important, as it’s important to any relationship, but it doesn’t stand alone. If it stands alone, it’s erotica, not romance.”

Sure, it’s pretty easy to write the entire romance genre off as cheap, meaningless smut mass-marketed to lazy simpletons—the RWA estimates that 40 percent of romance readers are unemployed—but after speaking with the women who read and create these volumes, you begin to see there’s something deeper going on here. They are committed with a fierce loyalty that most soldiers would appreciate.

As Bydalek, president of RWA Alaska, puts it: “Writing is one of those things you do your whole life. It’s something you constantly have to practice. It’s like a musical instrument or something.”

Perhaps those who criticize romance readers for wasting their lives might do well to ask themselves how theirs are so much better.