For the love of love
For far too long, romance novels have been pushed aside as fodder for lonely women – lusty tales of “salacious” sex. But despite the negative connotations, romance continues to be the best selling genre of fiction in the world – and several Northwest authors are at the heart of it’s success.
For New York Times bestselling author – and Seattle resident – Jayne Ann Krentz her love affair with literature started as a child.
“It was Nancy Drew that made me shell out my hard earned allowance,” Krentz says.
But it wasn’t until later in life, when she started to feel like something was missing in the books she read, that romance writing sparked her interest.
“Most of [the books I was reading] had male characters,” the author explains. “There were not many female leads.”
When the compulsion to tell the story her own way took over, Krentz decided to take the leap. With more than 20 years – and 35 million copies of her novels in print – Krentz has established herself as one of the most popular romance authors.
Romance vs feminism
In the past, romance novels were labeled as counterproductive to feminism. Yet Krentz suggests the genre actually serve to empower women, explaining at the core of every romance story is a strong woman.
She adds that many of the stereotypes given to Romance novels are based on the traditions of British romance novels. In these tales, popularized by publishers such as Harlequin, the plot often finds a young maid-type character running away with and marrying a powerful man. Krentz says this is generally not the crux of American romance novels – especially those in the suspense and mystery sub genres. She says romances written in this tradition relate more closely to the independent females like Audrey Hepburn and Vivien Leigh.
Author Jane Porter agrees that women in romance novels are strong, but disagrees with the negativity associated with “damsel-in-distress” plots. Porter, who recently relocated to Southern California after living in Bellevue for 17 years, is an award-winning novelist with over 5 million books in print.
“Really strong women often enjoy stories where the heroine is vulnerable,” Porter says. “They like the idea of being swept away by a strong male.”
She says just because women read stories that paint them as defenseless, it doesn’t mean that’s their reality – or that they want it to be.
“It’s fantasy,” Porter says.
Another factor that has contributed to the adverse perception of romance is the idea people are embarrassed to read them in public. Krentz says this has a lot to do with racy covers, many of which have been done away with as a result of evolving ideas and the presence of e-readers.
Porter says these perceptions also come from the assumption that romance novels are salacious and anti-intellectual.
“But is happiness anti-intellectual?” Porter asks. “The media likes to slam women for reading stories with happy endings.”
Porter says the plots of romance novels – in all sub genres – have evolved. Specifically, Porter says the “bodice ripper” type stories characteristic of the 1970s and 1980s, don’t have an audience today.
“There’s an incredible amount of female empowerment,” Porter says. “They are no longer ‘heroic stories’ – they are ‘heroine stories.’”
In these stories, the plot revolves around the female lead getting what she wants – physically, emotionally and spiritually.
Krentz adds that another characteristic of modern romance novels is that they tend to focus on the importance of building relationships.
Speaking to the trends flooding the romance market currently, Krentz and Porter acknowledge a lot of attention is being given to the paranormal-romance sub genre – stories about vampires, and werewolves and magic. Series like “50 Shades of Grey” have also spiked interest in erotica. According to the authors, these trends are nothing new.
“What goes around comes around,” says Krentz.
She cites the popularity of books like “Frankenstein” and “Dracula” as evidence that themes are frequently recycled. Porter cites Anne Rice’s venture in to erotica, writing under the pseudonym A. N. Roquelaure, as another example.
However, both say the paranormal genre is on it’s way out.
“It doesn’t have the same fire as it did five years ago,” Porter says.
As far as what’s looking to be the next big trend in romance, Krentz says there is a lot of buzz around “community relationship” books. She says these stories generally focus on a romantic relationship coming to be in a small American town.
These tales – popularized by authors including Debbie Macomber, Robyn Carr and Sherryl Woods – generally revolve around a community full of secrets. The town, Krentz says, often serves as a character itself. She says stories about returning home from war have also been an up-and-coming trend in Romance.
“This always happens at times of war,” Krentz explains.
What sets these modern war novels apart is that, often times, the person coming home from war is a woman
(ex: Kristen Hannah’s “Home Front.”)
Despite the misperceptions, Krentz and Porter find comfort in the fact that their readers – generally well-educated, independent women looking to escape – keep coming back for more.
“In our society, smart women aren’t allowed to be too happy, too sexual, too intellectual,” Porter says.
She thinks this ideology needs to change – and that women need to continue to take control of what they want to read.
“In the end, were just trying to make the reader happy,” Porter says. “We’re just trying to release endorphins.”
If Krentz and Porter’s success are any indication, it’s a recipe that seems to be working.