Sex, love and passion – the appeal of romance novels
Ultimo Library put together a panel with a good cross-section of the romance community represented by romance author Annie West, academic Sandra Barletta and reader-blogger Kat, moderated by librarian Vassiliki Veros, to talk about why they love to write, read and discuss romance.
First, the disclaimer: I’m not fast enough to have been able to type everything that was said precisely word for word, so this is a slightly paraphrased transcript as I tried to keep up. I made an effort to get everything that was said in its context, but any mistakes are mine.
When I arrived there were glasses of pink lemonade and mini pink cupcakes, but I couldn’t resist an adorable chocolate mini cupcake with cute little red and pink hearts on top of the chocolate icing. Pairs of books bundled together with curly, shiny ribbon called from a nearby counter.
The event was booked out, but got off to a late start to accommodate people coming straight from work.
Vassiliki: Why do you do what you do in romance of all genres?
Kat: To get review copies of the Black Dagger Brotherhood books. I discovered Mills & Boon when I was a teenager and when they kissed it was so good! But I found that most of the info out there was about US release dates and covers. There was nothing for Australian readers.
Sandra: Very few authors write age appropriate romance; there are few heroines over 35. I was interested in why this happens and in my masters degree I examined this. I started reading romance with Jane Eyre when I was 13.
Annie: I write romance because I’m an avid reader. I don’t know any writers who aren’t avid readers because you’re writing in a genre you love. One of my earliest memories was Dad reading Wind in the Willows a chapter a night. I also remember going to the library and feeling so grown up picking my first book without pictures. I love losing myself in a story and seeing how the characters react in it. Romance is something I’ve come back to again and again. It gives solace in bad times. It gives a high and it feels good.
Reading is not a passive activity, like vegging out in front of the TV. I don’t know if it’s therapy, but it’s addictive. It’s about people fighting for love and family and the good things in life.
Vassiliki: What have you observed as differences between romance in the past decade as opposed to romance in the 80s?
Kat: I was very young in the 80s so I didn’t read that much. They used to end with a kiss and if a romance ends with a kiss today, people would be all, ‘Ugh, is that it?’ They’re more explicit now and graphic when it comes to bedroom scenes, especially paranormal romance. Ebooks cross over between erotica and romance. Paranormal romance readers would have noticed there is a lot of paranormal around now and urban fantasy, which has a strong heroine with two potential romantic leads. It doesn’t have the promise of a happy ending, but a lot of readers are happy to read without that. A lot of Mills & Boon lines have disappeared, e.g. Temptation. I read Blaze, which is similar, but I’m noticing that the characters are more real. They feel less manufactured and could be your neighbours. I appreciate that more now and look for it more.
Sandra: If you want to look at how the heroine has changed, there is less emphasis on marriage and domestic life. You could be a kickass vampire hunter, you can do what you want. There is a convention in romance where it doesn’t necessarily have to end with a wedding and baby. I might sound clinical, but that’s how I’ve investigated it.
Some subgenres have exploded, but they die down. You don’t find much straight contemporary outside category. Paranormal romance and historical is huge.
Annie: The heroine has changed a lot since then. She used to be a virginal, slim English girl who was looking after horses or grandparents. They were going to foreclose on the family estate and the hero steps in and says awful things and she’s all, ‘How could you?’ Then suddenly he’s all, ‘I love you.’ The hero was the active party. Now you’re more likely to get gung-ho and active heroines.
The other thing I’ve noticed since the late 70s and 80s is that it was all from the heroine’s viewpoint and she and the reader would see these enigmatic men and spend a lot of time having to interpret each gesture and deciphering what they wanted. They were strong and distant because you didn’t get their point of view. Now you get a mix, which I enjoy. Male characters are more rounded and real. It’s the changing role and expectations of women.
In the old days, a multi-published historical author said, we read a lot of romance set in places like Russia, Scotland, India, all over the world. Now they’re mostly set in Britain and the world has shrunk, although Mills & Boon will publish the occasional Viking. According to my friend, in the last ten years the range of setting has shrunk considerably until someone writes a huge Russian blockbuster.
Kat: The first historicals I read were by Kathleen E. Woodiwiss and my mother recommended them. My favourite is Laura Kinsale. In their books, the timeline is a lot longer. The historicals published over the last decade are mainly Regency and span a few months. The old Kinsales were sweeping, several-month epics where someone gets lost at sea, that take longer to read. Some blogs were complaining about the books getting shorter. They’re becoming a more homogeneous type of book.
Annie: Publishers like to do what is successful, so they’ll keep doing the same until someone comes along with a blockbuster. Writers see Regencies being published and think that’s what they should write.
Vassiliki: Some people think that reading the last page first is sacrilege. Do you?
Kat: We say on Twitter that every time you read the last page, a fairy dies. I read Gone With the Wind and everyone said it was the best romance, but when I got to the end, I was like, ‘What? I spent a weekend on this and they’re not together.’ It was only five years ago that I realised Mills & Boon always end happily. I’ve missed a lot of the plot because I’ve been so wrapped up in my need to see that it ends happily. I’ve been mopey after reading one without a happy ending. I don’t like that you can’t do that with ebooks, but there’s usually someone on the internet to spoil if there is a happy ending.
If the blurb says ‘bittersweet’, ‘heart-rending’ or ‘tragic’, I need the spoiler. I need my emotional armour. My librarian and my favourite literary author, Melina Marchetta, read the back of the book first.
Sandra: I take the ending as it comes. I don’t want to find out if there’s a happy ending until I get there. I let myself get swept away in the story.
Annie: I know if I’m reading a romance I’ll get a happy ending. There was one that stung me. He worked hard to manipulate the plot to ensure there was no happy ending. Have you seen You’ve Got Mail? At the end, he took over and her independent store closed, but suddenly she’d always wanted to be a children’s author, but they never mentioned that earlier. I would have been okay with it if it had been mentioned earlier in the story, but all the way through she was focused on keeping her store open, so to me that wasn’t a happy ending. I don’t read the back though.
Kat: If I trust the author, I don’t. There was a Mills & Boon in the 90s and a romantic suspense a few years ago. She gets tortured and didn’t get the guy. She was all, ‘It was better for me not to be in a relationship,’ but it wasn’t better for ME. I don’t read suspense or literary without reading the end, but I do in SuperRomance.
Vassiliki: Now about male leads. Why do we love rakes, rogues, cowboys, tycoons, sheikhs?
Annie: There’s quite a few styles you’ve mentioned. As a romance reader I love to read about an incredibly sexy man. For me it’s someone who’s competent at what he does, whatever he does, even if it’s unclogging a toilet. I just melt thinking about it. Readers like to read about heroes who can look after themselves. Sheikhs, tycoons, etc. are very, very good at it. I love a romance with the tussle between the hero and heroine, and the heroine is in a bad place. The hero has all the power and she doesn’t. It’s not about men dominating submissive women. Romance is about empowering women, against odds and not giving in. Finding common ground in a partnership at the end. I love the rollercoaster ride. It’s like Emma Darcy said, put the heroine up a tree and throw rocks at her. She may be vulnerable but she finds her strength. He could be the guy next door, but it’s all about the characters and we can imagine the issues amplified where the heroine pits her strength in an exaggerated situation.
Sandra: I like the beta hero. They’re constructed differently, without a tower of strength. They find their competence with the heroine and together they become empowered.
Annie: To clarify, I didn’t mean that because he’s ultra dominant, he stays that way. In the story he changes into someone she deserves.
Kat: Alpha, beta, I like them all. There’s this book by the Smart Bitches, Beyond Heaving Bosoms, with the magical hoo hoo that cures the playboy hero. I like that, because it’s like having a crush on the popular guy in high school and recreating those moments where he saw me as the goddess I was. It’s an emotional thing for me and why I like terrible alphas like the Black Dagger Brotherhood. I also like the beta guy next door. The power thing is interesting, and the concept of emotional justice where she gains her emotional equilibrium without the hero imposing it. It’s the thrill.
(To clarify: I meant that it was like reconstructing those high school crushes in my head so that they would suddenly see me for the goddess that I am (ha!). They didn’t actually do this in real life. –Kat.)
Q: Kat, you said people get bored with just a kiss, but the obvious exception is Twilight. Can you discuss why it was successful?
Kat: I think because Twilight was aimed at a younger readership, it couldn’t be too much. It was more constrained by the genre. I read the first book and saw why people loved it. I think I would have as a teenager. It didn’t have the same effect now because I’ve read so many romances. Non-romance readers think it’s a guilty pleasure or not much of a romance, but the romance is not typical of the genre, not as well developed as we expect. Also, Sweet, Inspirational and Amish lines don’t go far.
(This was a difficult question for me because I don’t really understand how Twilight became as successful as it did, but I was trying to be tactful in case there were Twilight fans in the audience. –Kat)
Sandra: Sexual tension.
Annie: I think she did a good job of drawing out the tension and the elements that make a great romance. I don’t like when an author mistakes sex for sexy. Twilight drew readers in well. People older than me who’ve read romances for years were drawn in.
Q: Do you think romance has lost its stigma?
Kat: I think it’s getting there. I hang around a lot of romance readers, so it’s hard to judge. I think money talks and with ebooks taking off, there’s such a large market for romance. They branch into erotica, but there’s a lot of romance readers.
Annie: (Asked everyone who is afraid of being seen reading a romance to raise their hands. Someone said it depends on the cover.) Right, clinch covers. Here are a couple of foreign editions. (Holds up two foreign editions of one of her category romances.) The French edition shows a couple in bed, but the Korean has no people on the cover. Sometimes it’s the titles, like The Billionaire’s Bought Mistress or The Desert King’s Pregnant Bride. I have little quibble because it means people know what they’re picking up.
I have no idea whether the stigma is going because I spend time with romance writers and we talk in cafes, getting louder and louder until there’s silence around us and people are waiting to hear what comes next. Since romance is for women by women and women are becoming more assertive about what we want, I think there is less stigma.
And this is a little bit off topic, but an author’s husband travels a lot and reads her books. He reads Sweet romance on the plane.
Sandra: Romance has been looked down on academically, but that’s starting to change. Instead of just being a feminist study of the patriarchal society, it’s being taken more seriously and romance readers have a huge voice in this. Do you cover up your science fiction or crime novel? No. Being a nerd is cool now.
Kat: There’s more academic interest now because there is a growing number of reviewers online. Romance books would never get reviewed in a newspaper or magazine, but blogs are becoming more mainstream, making romance less ‘inferior’.
Q: What books would you suggest to a new romance reader?
Sandra: For contemporary: What the Lady Wants, Agnes and the Hitman, Jennifer Crusie.
Question: How come book stores don’t have a romance section? Where can we buy romance?
Kat: Paranormal: Galaxy has a whole wall. I buy others from Dymocks. I like to support local bookstores, but I’ll buy from the Book Depository if I have no choice. Or you could see if libraries will get them in.
Sandra: Rosemary’s Romance Bookstore (I live in Brisbane), Booktopia, Book Depository. I’ve never had a problem with them.
Annie: Category from Target and Big W. Do you know what category is? It’s where Mills & Boon have books with Sexy in red or Medical in pink or Sweet in blue on them and they’re available for a month. I write Sexy, so I can call myself a Sexy author. The upside is that they’re sold all around the world in different languages. I buy from Book Depository, free postage worldwide. It’s true, I don’t know how. I try to buy local if I can, but there aren’t many bookstores in my area. If you can’t find it in your store, ask them to get it in. I don’t mean Big W or Target, but bookstores. They should know what people want. If you want your books, don’t be shy. Ask.
(To clarify: Kandy Shepherd is an Australian author published by a US publisher. She got her friends to order her book in through Gleebooks and of all the bookshops I checked I was surprised to find it in Gleebooks, which isn’t a shop in which you’d normally find romance books. –Kat)
Vassiliki: You can get a back list of Mills & Boon in ebook form going back about five years.
Question: Fave authors?
Kat: Her back list is too long for me to start. Mills & Boon: Kathleen O’Reilly, both US and Australian editions. If you like alpha billionaire I-want-to-kill-him heroes, Sara Craven. Paranormal: Nalini Singh, J. R. Ward. Her vampires are very gangsta. Historicals: Anna Campbell is an autobuy, Laura Kinsale, Joanna Bourne. Eloisa James is so much fun. Gail Carriger.
We’ve left out gay romance. Don’t read Suzanne Brockmann’s novella—there’s vomiting in the first chapter due to food poisoning. Whistling in the Dark by Tamara Allen is beautifully written, but there’s not much sex. Remastering Jerna by Ann Somerville, but it’s more explicit and hardcore. (To clarify: hardcore BDSM. –Kat)
By then the panel had run over time, so the questions were drawn to a close. The library drew three lucky door prizes to win an Annie West book. Then everyone was allowed to select a book bundle containing a historical and a category romance. It was a good ice-breaker, with people asking each other for recommendations of what was on offer.
By now it had pretty much turned into a Twitter convention where I got to put faces to some names, including someone I sat a couple of chairs down from without realising who she was. How did we live before Twitter enabled us to say to someone in person, ‘Oh, I didn’t realise I knew you!’
We could have kept talking for a lot longer, but unfortunately the community centre housing the library had to lock up for the night. All in all, it was a good evening out on several levels, and the team at Ultimo Library did a great job.
You can see photos of the event at our Flickr album. Thanks to Jen for volunteering to be our photographer for the night!
Annie West will moderate the Category/Series panel at the Australian Romance Readers Convention in March.