Greenwich Time - A11: Sept. 17, 2003

The Great Escape

Romance novels aren't just about sex

Tara Renee Settembre
Special Correspondent

Have you ever wondered to yourself, who really reads romance books?

Well, according to Romance Writers of America, they are read by 51 million Americans — and not just by bored housewives and grandmothers either. RWA statistics show that romance readers are all ages, 16% being under the age of 24, with the highest percentage of readers being around 38, but even more surprising – 9% of those 51 million readers are male. (Yes, dudes read these books too!)

The next time you are riding a train or are in a crowded place and wonder who amongst you has read a romance, remember this stat: One in every third woman has perused a romance book in the past year alone.

“When I was 14, I picked up my first romance book,” says writer Tara Taylor Quinn, from Phoenix, AZ, author of over 31 romance books.

Quinn was not alone in starting to read romance at an early age, according to RWA, 71% of readers say they read their first romance at age 16 or younger.

Columbia College student, and romance reader, Shirley Li, 20, also says she picked up her first romance when she was just 14.

“The romance genre is like any other literary world. You’ve got plot, conflict, excellent characterization, and a happily ever after,” says Li, when asked why she reads romance. She adds with a laugh, “Did I mention, there is usually a very appealing hero. What more can you ask for?”

Obviously not much more, with a steady increase in young readers, no one’s complaining. Except maybe those skeptics who do not read romance.

In general, there has always been the common misconception that romance equals dirty books, conjuring up images of bodice ripping book covers laden with half naked ladies and bare-chested muscular men. However, Quinn says that romance books are not always about sex, and that there is a big spectrum within romantic fiction.

“There is a short category line where that (sex) is its focus, but they tell you that. They are called Harlequin Blaze, and blaze is the fire. They are very very clear on their covers and on the back blurb so you know what they are. They are not erotica, but sex is their focal point, but for the rest of them absolutely not.” Says Quinn. “It’s about the magic of falling in love,” she adds. “But because it’s about men and women loving each other, it’s where people’s minds go.”

Quinn further defends romance books by linking them to romantic comedies that are out in theaters.
“Most of the stuff you see in movies could be romance novels.” Says Quinn while waving her hand to draw a connection between the film “Two Weeks Notice” starring Sandra Bullock and contemporary romance novels.

Maybe it’s the new attractive covers, with their bright colors, and chic cartoons, that are drawing in the new generations of readers, but whatever the reason, romantic fiction has proved itself to be a profitable industry.

Last year, romantic fiction sales equaled $1.52 billion, and represented more than half (55.4%) of all popular-paperback fiction sales – more than mysteries and science fiction combined.

But what is a romance book exactly? Romance novels are usually about laughter, suspense, self-confidence, inner beauty, outer strength and most of all falling in love. Generally, there are two basic elements that comprise every romance novel: a central love story and an emotionally satisfying and optimistic ending.

Kasey Michaels, a New York Times Best-selling Author, who has written more than 70 books from many different genres of fiction, defines romance reads as “happy stories.”

“There’s trial and tribulations, there’s commitment and there’s love,” says Michaels who started reading and writing romance in an attempt to cope while her son was in the hospital with kidney problems.

“We live hard lives, and sometimes you have to know that things work. If you have to live in a terrible world, and most of us do. Then you need some kind of escape, and I don’t see anything wrong with it. I don’t think someone is going to read a romance and go out and decide to change their entire life. But when they read a romance where someone really overcomes a problem, then they say to themselves ‘maybe I can do that’ and that’s good.”

“At the end of a book like that, your holding onto it and thinking ‘wow’ something good happened here. Good triumphed over evil. You don’t believe that there is no evil in the world anymore, you didn’t buy the fantasy, you just bought hope.”

Historical romance writer Adele Ashworth, from Flower Mound, TX (just outside of Dallas), also says that there are fantasy elements in any romance.

“The majority of romance is fantasy, but you’re reading for entertainment. Nobody wants to read about the garbage you go through each day. And love is universal, it’s the best escape,” says Ashworth.

“I think the majority of people who like romance are fantasy oriented,” explains Ashworth. “They want the happy ending, but they also want something else besides that. They want the conflict and plot, they want the story, and they want stuff like suspense and laughter. But it’s the whole fantasy of finding the one true love.”

Their descriptions of romance novels and their appeal seem harmless, so why is it that people label romance books as erotica and give romantic fiction a bad rap? Michaels says this is because, “These are people who have not read a romance.”

She adds that, “I do not believe women read these books for sex, I believe they read these books to get away ... It’s just perception, nobody makes fun of men who read books about the guy who’s going to save the world with a jar of peanut butter or something.” Michaels’ most recent book, “Maggie By The Book” – part mystery, comedy, and romance – was recently selected for a young adult reading list. With more than 5 million copies of her books in print, she is known both nationally and internationally for her stories.

Carly Phillips, another popular romance author also claims to have a young readership. She says that her books, with their colorful and attractive covers, are read by many young adult readers.

“I’ve been getting letters from 17-year-olds, and they just love the idea of falling in love, and reading fun, happy ending books,” says Phillips, a New York Times Best Selling Author, and former lawyer from Purchase, NY.

Phillips’ work increased in popularity after her book “The Bachelor” was chosen as a Reading With Ripa Book Club selection, and its sequel, “The Playboy” was recently excerpted in “Cosmopolitan” magazine. The final book in her trilogy, “The Heartbreaker,” was released to bookstores earlier this month.

She says, “I think everyone is looking for the happy ending, especially in today’s times, I mean the war just ended and people are still being killed over in Iraq. And I think people just like happy endings and these books are sure to give you that.”

Copyright © 2003, Southern Connecticut Newspapers, Inc.