Chalk One Up for the Good Guys

(November 1997)

Author Marsha Canham put me in touch with Boston Globe staff writer Alex Beam, who had written a piece for the November 5 edition of the Globe. Alex has given his permission to re-print the article, noting that, of course, it is copyrighted to the Globe.

This article was originally posted as my Letter of the Week. But because there is lots of time and space given on both this site and the 'Net in general to articles negative about the genre, I think it is important to leave this article up as a reminder that not everything written in the mainstream media is bad.

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The Soft-Focus Feminism of Romance Novels - By Alex Beam

Clare approached him slowly and, pressing the other pistol against his temple, fired. He slumped down in front of her and lay still.

That's how battered woman Lady Clare Dysart dispatches her abusive husband Lord Justin Rainsborough in Marjorie Farrell's romance novel Sweet Awakening. ''You read about domestic violence in the paper every day,'' says Farrell, a literature professor at Lesley College. ''So I asked myself what it might be like in 19th-century England.'' Not to worry for Lady Clare, by the way. She beats the murder rap and makes a smashing marriage with her childhood friend Lord Giles Whitton.

Welcome to the brave new world of romance fiction.

For decades, romance novels have been the laughingstock of what passes for American literature. Formulaic plots; the notorious ''clinch'' covers; books ''written'' by lunkheads like Fabio. Authors and readers alike were derided as curler-clad laundromat queens, holding a flask of Wisk in one hand and a Regency romance in the other.

Sales were strong, but reviews derisive. ''Nobody ridicules Tom Clancy, but everybody ridicules us,'' says romance writer Barbara Keiler, who has written more than 60 books under the name of Judith Arnold. Farrell agrees: ''Because it's a woman's genre it doesn't get much respect. Nobody jumps on science fiction writers and says, 'Hey, you're not writing about real life.' ''

Suddenly, much has changed. The steamy covers, which female editors say were forced on them by male marketing executives, are largely a thing of the past. Walk down the plentifully stocked romance aisle at Waldenbooks, and you see subdued floral designs. Sales continue to climb. Romances are now a $1 billion industry, accounting for 45 percent of American mass-market book sales. No longer limited to paperbacks, romance novels now regularly appear on The New York Times hardcover bestseller list. ''Basically, we're supporting the publishing industry,'' says Keiler.

Small wonder that the genre - written by women (the two best-known male romance writers have adopted feminine pseudonyms), edited and published by women, and read almost exclusively by women - is experiencing a sense of empowerment. Slammed by feminists in the 1980s as purveyors of escapist, addictive, patriarchist pap, romance writers are writing more about contemporary issues, and apologizing less for how they do so.

At the end of Susan Elizabeth Phillips's Hot Shot, the freshly married heroine takes over a business, and broadcasts her intention of turning the executive dining room into a day care center. In Barbara Delinsky's Shades of Grace, a daughter wrestles with her mother's debilitating Alzheimer's disease. Keiler's Barefoot in the Grass describes a passionate love affair between a man and a recent breast cancer victim who has had a mastectomy. ''My editor said, 'I don't want to publish a book about chemotherapy,' and I told her, It's not about chemotherapy - it's a love story,' '' says Keiler.

Farrell, Keiler, and many other romance writers describe themselves as feminists and point with pride to their assertive female protagonists. At the same time, they honor the ironclad conventions of the romance genre. First and foremost: all happy endings. (One reason - the other being male authorship - that Bridges of Madison County wasn't a romance novel.) Second, no adultery. Male readers may find adultery titillating, but women don't.

Some subjects - AIDS, for instance - remain taboo. And some writers heatedly debate whether allusions to birth control spoil the romance of Romance. ''It may be irresponsible not to practice birth control, but mentioning it in a work of fantasy read by adults is not a necessary duty,'' writes veteran romance writer Kathleen Gilles Seidel. ''My readers know where babies come from.''

Romance writers know they aren't going to change the world, but they're content to make it a more enjoyable place. Marjorie Farrell remembers when a friend gave one of her novels to his mother on her deathbed, and reported back on her intense enjoyment. ''That gave me tremendous satisfaction,'' Farrell says. ''After all, nobody read my dissertation.''

 




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