Covers Covered by Carol
Why Don't They Just Call It Fiction?
An Attempt to Differentiate
Contemporary Romance & Women's Fiction
September 26, 1999
I think I've been reading women's fiction for years, calling it mainstream fiction, whereas I've only been reading contemporary romances for the last year. What's the difference? My version may differ from others' but basically it is this. Women's fiction could be called mainstream fiction except that it is likely to be read only by women and concerns characters and subjects which generally only appeal to women as well. There is often more attention given to secondary characters and more intricate plotting yet there is still usually a romance with a leading lady and man. Most women's fiction has happy endings.
Contrast all of this with a contemporary romance. It has two strong leads who dominate the story with their conflict. Whatever other conflicts are present in its plot, the chief conflict is whether the two of them will come together by the end. The end is always a happy one. Much less attention is given to secondary characters and the plot turns almost entirely on the lead characters' uniting. (I am not covering romance novelists who have turned to romantic suspense in this column.)
Some people feel that women's fiction is far more "legitimate" within the world of novels. Probably because the word romance is not used. Some also might feel that a work of women's fiction is by nature better than a work of (single title) contemporary romance. I could not disagree more with that assumption. Both have the potential for excellence. The quality of an author's writing and her control over its narrative trajectory determine the excellence of the novel itself, not which of these two formats she chooses to follow.
Perhaps what makes both women's fiction and contemporary single title romance not the type of fiction that appeals to men in general is that both deal with emotion. The romance focuses intensely on all of the emotions between a man and a woman falling in love whereas women's fiction may focus on that but also covers the emotions running between the leads and other characters. In some cases, there is even a third romantic figure who a lead character must leave behind in women's fiction, such as a woman who must choose between two men.
Taking The Plunge With A Contemporary Romance
The first contemporary romance I read was Susan Elizabeth Phillips' Nobody's Baby But Mine. This novel had won so many awards, including the RITA, that I figured if I didn't like it, I could move swiftly back into historicals, having given contemporary romances their chance. Big mistake if I really didn't want to get involved with contemporaries; I was hooked from the very first page. What's more, the hero is a southern football player for a Chicago team and I'm a northerner who hates football. I should have been turned off, but I wasn't. SEP, as she is known in the romance world, got to the top of the heap because she writes a compelling story with fully fleshed out characters. She can also be absolutely hilarious on one page and then have you in tears on another page, her poignancy is so acute.
Cal Bonner is a thirty six year old star quarterback who won't face the fact that he is getting too old for football. One way he doesn't deal with his age is to date women who are about twenty years old. Jane Darlington, a world renowned physicist in her 30's, poses as a football groupie so as to have Cal act as "sperm donor" unknowingly for the baby she wishes to conceive. Her theory is that her super IQ will combine with Cal's lower, football player-type IQ resulting in her having a child with a normal IQ. Cal, however, is not as dumb as he seems to her. I couldn't put the book down from this setup until its conclusion, making for a very late night and immediate next day trip to three bookstores to buy SEP's entire backlist.
I can honestly tell you that I would have never bought this book from its cover. It smacks of every cliche I could possibly imagine. From its flocked wallpaper type background, to its baby's crib, to its flying cupids, it epitomizes everything in a story which usually makes me cringe. However, I found it one day in the used bookstore and, having run across its title as award winner in virtually every romance resource I consulted, bought it. The novel is so well known at this point by romance readers that I doubt its cover is any bar to its being bought. However, I would expect to see it carried in greater quantities than I have, given its fame. Most bookstores usually have one copy shelved.
Hollywood As Shown by Women's Fiction & Contemporary Romance
SEP has written a variety of fiction; her first two books, in the early 1980's, were historical romances. After a break of several years, she turned to women's fiction, and a few years after that she began to write contemporary romance. The first such book of hers I read was Honey Moon about a teenager who rises to TV stardom and falls in love with two different men, both of whom want nothing to do with her romantically. As she ages, however, and becomes a woman, each respectively changes his mind. This novel also covers her considerable journey from a childhood spent in a North Carolina amusement park with a restorative ride known as Rolling Thunder, to Hollywood as an actress, and back again. This novel has more narrative sweep than a contemporary romance and it gets that sweep by not focusing on one hero throughout the book. The character who dominates throughout is Honey. It is usually the woman character who is the central focus throughout a women's fiction novel. Is it a better novel than Nobody's Baby? Absolutely not. They are both terrific examples of what each form of literature does best. SEP can write both equally well.
The cover for Honey Moon is slightly better than Nobody's Baby. It achieves this by omission rather than by doing anything well, however. It shows a small landscape of a moon over Hollywood set against a background, printed title and author name, all rendered in feminine pastels. It is an utterly innocuous cover. The best thing that can be said about it is that it offends no one. I'll take it over the flying cupids with baby crib, however. The publisher for Nobody's Baby is Avon while the publisher for Honey Moon is Pocket. Neither publisher credits the illustrator or designer.
Suzanne Brockmann's cover for Heart Throb, published by Fawcett, visually conveys a much better idea of a film business oriented romance. I've seen splices of film used on other covers but this one also puts both leads into each frame of film. This tells you exactly what the novel is about in a very stylish way. Fawcett lists no credit for the artist/illustrator/designer. This cover has been nominated for our 1999 Cover Ballot.
The story in Heart Throb is great as well. Jericho is a recovering drug addict, a former heart throb leading man in the movies who has been in rehab for awhile. Kate is his producer for the new film he's going to make, his first after release from treatment. Unlike Honey Moon, this is romance, so the two lead characters are front and center for the entire book. The central conflicts are: can she really trust that he's off drugs for good and that he's not putting on an act about loving her (since he's such a terrific actor). Kate has to act as Jericho's bodyguard for part of the production since no once else is available while they are on location. This heats the situation up nicely. I thought an intriguing point Brockmann brought into play was how could you ever really tell where you were with a great actor since he could very well be acting with you? I'm sure this is a very real sticking point in many movie star marriages. Brockmann has been involved in theater and film with her children and the tale rings with first hand authenticity.
The difference between Honey Moon and Heart Throb is that the former has more narrative sweep. It covers more characters and and has several more threads sub-plots. Heart Throb, by contrast, is far more direct with two leads directly connected to the central conflict. As a result, Heart Throb's intensity is really cranked up because there is no sideline for diversion. This is one thing a romance writer really has to be strong at: constantly escalating the tension between the hero and heroine. Brockmann delivers. Honey Moon, when it does go off on a new tangent, does it very well and the reader follows right along. It goes in many different directions with marriages, locales, changes in circumstances, a death and so on. Many authors have lost themselves when they try to bring disparate threads of a story like this together, however, but not SEP. Thus, it is not a question of one of these novels' being inherently any better than the other. What it does mean is that these two authors had two different jobs to do with very similar material. They did them; one with women's fiction and the other with contemporary romance. Note that both have achieved Desert Isle Keeper status.
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