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The Sophistication of the Romance Novel

By Cheryl Bolen

Just as an adolescent with a foul mouth and too much makeup can blossom into a fine adult, the fledgling romance novels of the early eighties have refined and evolved into a respected fiction genre as we approach the Y2K. Some of the early romance writers who relied more on raging hormones than talent would be hard pressed to find a publisher in today's sophisticated romance market.

Take a look in the romance section of your favorite bookstore. The once-popular bodice ripping covers have given way to tasteful "icon" covers sporting a single rose or a medieval sword over a drape of lace.

Nearly every single romance editor I queried said there is no rule governing "requisite" sex scenes at their houses. In fact, at my own house--Harlequin Historical--there is absolutely no sex scene required at all though many authors include sex scenes to fully explore the relationship between the hero and heroine.

If you're like I used to be, you have a vision of the typical romance reader as an oversexed, bored housewife who sits around reading smaltzy love stories. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Statistics show that 68 percent of romance readers are college educated, and 55 percent of them have jobs outside the home.

In an effort to dispel the bad rep given romance novels, the Romance Writers of America--an 8,000-plus member organization--has launched an advertising campaign which shows real people from real life reading romance. These real people include a male airline pilot, a female pediatrician who is the mother of three, a Harvard cell biologist, a Superior Court Judge, a petroleum engineer, and NFL lineman Mark Smith.

Why do all these people read romance? One of every two books purchased is a romance. There is a reason for it.

While all romance novels revolve around the relationship between the hero and heroine and all feature a happy ending, the similarities end there. Subjects can range from contemporary to historical, from religious inspirational to paranormal which run the gamut from vampires to time travels.

All of the novelists know the essentials of craft, of honing a good story. Some have a message, some purely provide entertainment.

Perhaps what makes the popularity of romance continue to increase is that in romance novels--as in the classic cowboy movies--good triumphs over evil. While neither the hero nor heroine are without flaws, they always end up being noble.

Heroines are never promiscuous. Sex is used only to strengthen the relationship between the hero and heroine.

I would estimate half of the 182 million romance books sold in 1996 did not have any sex scenes in them. If I had a 12-year-old daughter I would not hesitate to allow her to read one of the squeaky clean lines like Harlequin Romance. She'd learn about people from all walks of life, she'd learn about making the right choices, and she'd learn about relationships where there is true commitment. And, lastly, her hunger for happy endings would be indulged.

This article was first published in Houston Writer in February 1999.

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