Reaping the Wild Rewards of Romance
November 1981
Writing: Jennifer Allen

Writing romance drove William Faulkner bats. When he finally abandoned Warner Bros. after a fitful decade writing screenplays, the staff sent to empty his office discovered in it only two things: a drained booze bottle and a piece of yellow paper. On the paper, scribbled 500 times, were the words "Boy meets girl." The utter simplicity of romance may have stumped the master, but a whole host of less squeamish scribes have made romance--historical and contemporary, not to mention new darlings like "young adult" and "ethnic"--the publishing phenomenon of the past decade. Today an estimated 25 percent of all paperbacks sold are romances, making it the second-largest mass-market genre, bested only by general fiction. Harlequin alone, leading with its skinny 200-page formula novels, sells 188 million copies a year worldwide. U.S. retail sales hover at a giddy $100 million annually at $1.50 to $6.95 a book. And the number of addicted women readers who happily slap down grocery money to buy them may well number more than 12 million. Explains one fan: "Our husbands just write it off to psychiatric bills."


Rosemary Rogers

The languid lady above helped whip up the new national frenzy. Author Rosemary Rogers, shown here in her Manhattan pied-a-terre, wasn't the first writer to spike traditional historical romances with torrid passion in the early '70s, but her Sweet Savage Love, published in 1974, outstripped the fledgling competition in sales (three million copies to date) and loudly sounded a major revival of the lusty historical romance. Her four novels in this genre, the silky-voiced author says sweetly, "filled a lot of gaps in previous historical novels"--gaps that other new novelists have been quick to help her continue to fill. Rogers, 49 now and a grandmother, has softened the sex in her recent contemporaries from near-brutal to playful--as befits readers' current tastes--but, like the seven other successful writers on the following pages, she insists she writes for pleasure. Love Play, her latest, is “a soufflé, one of those fun things." The money's not bad, either. "It is nice," says former secretary Rogers, who wraps herself in monogrammed minks and sips champagne at breakfast, "to be free."


Janet Dailey

The fifth best-selling author in the world--62 books, with sales of 80 million copies and net earnings of $15 million--dashed off most of her romances on the pull-out Formica table in her Silver Streak trailer. When Janet Dailey, 37, began writing Harlequin romances six years ago, she scrapped the exotic locales and instead plunked her heroines on the homelier turf--like Kansas City, Mo., and Randolph, Vt.--that she found canvasing the country in the trailer. With a Harlequin set in every state in the union, Dailey and researcher-manager husband, Bill, have finally put the trailer to pasture in the front yard of their new Branson, Mo., home. Dailey now works at leisure on longer contemporary western romances, producing one book every six weeks. Her quick success has made her a minor celebrity; one country-and-western singer has even written a ballad in her honor. ("I read your latest book today, Janet/ The one where the ink's just barely dry"). She is also an outspoken defender of what she calls "women's books." In lots of romances, she says, "the woman will be stronger than the man. Men can't change and women can. I have difficulty writing about a woman who can't work herself out of a situation."


Valerie Sherwood

"I write in great creative bursts--not every day," trills Sherwood, author of five chunky bestselling historicals, including Bold Breathless Love, Her Shining Splendor and This Loving Torment (six weeks on the New York Times paperback best-seller list). Inspiration strikes "in short bursts of ten or twenty pages or through the night till the dawn comes up"-- with such formidable force that she is forever wearing through her typewriter keys. Furthermore, says Sherwood, she doesn't believe writers who boast in public that they toil daily in disciplined routines: "I think it has something to do with their taxes." Sherwood (a.k.a. Jeanne Hines) and her husband bounce among their five East Coast homes but spend most of their time in a fusty Charlotte. N.C., ranch-style house, surrounded by 11,000 research volumes (among them a sizable collection on witchcraft), "oodles" of never-worn dress-up clothes and six cats, who have a suite all to themselves ("To Fuzzy," reads one book dedication to a passed-away pet, "who smiled at adversity"). Born to West Virginia "landed gentry," Sherwood worked as a reporter and fashion magazine illustrator as well as a writer of gothics before turning to the more lucrative romance business five years ago. "My family thought I'd be just like everybody else, get married and stop," says she. "I'm a real character. I'm not really like anybody I know."


Bertrice Small

"I took care of you," her husband, George (at right), announced when she sold her first historical romance, "Now you can take care of me." And so she has: four books and four years later, 43-year-old Small--Sunny to friends, for her cloudless disposition--now supports their nine-year-old son and George, a former photographer who handles her business affairs from their Long Island home. Small's novels are epics featuring frisky, inexhaustible heroines. Skye O'Malley, her best-selling (600,000 so far) tale, tracks its 16th century Irish heroine through three marriages, a harem, a stint as a pirate, and a nasty grudge match with Queen Bess that leaves Skye to give birth to her fourth child in a chilly Tower of London. When prudes complain about the endless entwining and exploding, says Small, a former convent student, "I just tell them it's all in the Bible." Fans savor the details, down to beribboned underblouses and busks--"If you're going to undress a heroine," says Small, "you'd better damn well know what she's got on underneath."


Kathleen Woodiwiss

She collects china figurines, cooks a tasty lasagna, rides a John Deere tractor to mow her lawn and, from her fastidiously neat rural home in Minnesota, reigns as high priestess of the historical romance. (She's with her son Heath, 11, at right.) Woodiwiss's The Flame and the Flower, published in 1972, told of how its 18th century heroine got seduced--a lot by Captain Brandon Birmingham before the two finally wed at the end--and ignited the public's infatuation with the "bodice ripper." Fans contend that the appeal of her four best-selling books has at least as much to do with an "elegant" style ("Somewhere in the world, time no doubt whistled by on taut and widespread wings") as it does with the "sensual" passages. Says the soft-spoken Woodiwiss, whose heroines always stay faithful to their seducers: "We like to fantasize about what we believe in, and I do believe in commitment."


Shirlee Busbee

"I'm just middle-class Americana and overweight. And very insecure," says California author Busbee. Also, she adds with a jolly laugh, she stumbles a lot. "My husband says I'm the only person he knows who can stand still in the middle of a room and fall down. I guess my ankles just get tired and give out." Busbee, 40, couldn't have less in common with the saucy minxes and maidens in Gypsy Lady and Lady Vixen, her two historicals, but she's probably smarter. Only four years ago Busbee was a secretary--for the same parks department that once employed Rosemary Rogers. Inspired by her friend's success, Busbee turned out her first saga; its 725,000 in sales were enough for Busbee and her husband, Howard, to quit their jobs. Now he helps type and serves as her "Honey, do this, do that." But Busbee still frets about her fans' feelings ("My ladies don't like their heroines having affairs") and about never-met deadlines. "If stupid Shirlee had gotten her act together," she berates herself, "her new book would be finished by now. Being a writer is a very hard thing."


Danielle Steel

Perched here in a neighbor's San Francisco town house, Steel says she had "your basic poor little rich girl" miserable childhood stashed in strict Swiss boarding schools, shuttled from one continent to another, married unhappily at 18. No matter Steel, 33, has survived to tell the tale, over and over. Her 11 romances--seven were best-sellers--feature well-to-do heroines who slog through calamities: parents commit suicide, heroes die and heroines suffer paralyzation and worse. "I've done everything from handicapped people to men in prison," says Steel. "It makes me mad as hell when people say I've found a formula." So speedy (a book in six weeks) is Steel that she works only eight months a year, leaving plenty of time to read ("I'm very fond of Colette"), collect designer clothes, concentrate on her two children and, most recently, to marry a fourth time. She used to socialize heavily but now says, "I'd rather stay home with the kids. I've been to eight million opera openings."


Jennifer Wilde

No, Jennifer's the one with the cigarette. Texas novelist Tom Elmer Huff, posed here with his mother, Beatrice, in his first public portrait, became Jennifer Wilde five years ago when he took to writing historical romances. Huff, 43, is only one among many male writers who have wooed romance readers by adopting prettier names, but he is by far the most popular of the bunch. Love's Tender Fury has had 41 printings, and Dare to Love had 11 weeks on the New York Times paperback best-seller list. "In college I wrote trenchant, deep, profound epics," says the soft-voiced, cordial author, whom friends describe as a witty "Noel Coward type." Then, he says, "I grew up." The former high school English teacher, who spent nine years writing gothics under other female pseudonyms before becoming Jennifer, makes his arch, sharp-tongued heroines the first-person chroniclers of their exploits ("I forced a lilting, flirtatious tone"), but he insists that the books "aren't the real Tom Huff. I don't take the genre seriously--but I take my work seriously." He researches laboriously and writes and rewrites in a tidy workroom in the Fort Worth home he shares with his mother. "Each book took longer and longer. I've become more painstaking, more professional." There are "mandatory heavy-breathing scenes," of course, "but I don't write down to readers. I'd rather take the time and do it good."

No Longer Bashful About Their Secret Vice, Romance Fans Can't Get Enough of That Sexy Stuff.

Last June they stormed Houston, 670 strong. All were women except a handful, all rabid romance readers or readers turned neophyte writers gathered for the first convention of the Romance Writers of America. In speeches and seminars and standing ovations and elevators and late-night chats in hotel suites, they pledged their everlasting pride in their genre. The mood of the conference, according to one pleased participant, was "Look, it's us against the world. It was like a sisterhood."

Most of the women, like romance readers in general, were between 25 and 40 years old, and they threw themselves a banquet, with roast beef and crème de menthe, and dressed for it in evening gowns, rhinestones and corsages. Three promising new writers received gold heart-shaped pendants. But the spirit of the get-together was much grittier. The women-- had trooped in from every state but 10; one sold a saved-up supply of food stamps to pay the $165 fee. They scribbled in notebooks, as editors ladled out advice ("I want very sensuous love scenes," commanded Vivian Stephens, editor of Dell's Candlelight Ecstasy romances, "kisses described in depth. I'd like to know about the warm interior of her mouth"). Fans collared established writers and proffered all sorts of their own advice ("They'll give you the entire plot of your next book," groaned one author). And they nabbed agents, publishers and editors with demands that they spot-read proposals, outlines, manuscripts. One band of editors resorted to a buddy system for bathroom visits. ("You're not getting out of here," a would-be writer only half-kiddingly informed an editor paying a solo call on the ladies' room, "until you read my proposal.")

Welcome to the world of romance. For its aficionados-granted, RWA represents its hardest-core fans, but the madness is mushrooming the fluffy, frivolous part stops with the stories. The women read them with a vengeance, many devouring at least 20 a week, or about $150 worth a month (RWA president Rita Estrada took a part-time job to support her habit and says lots of other compulsive readers have done the same). Vivien Lee Jennings, president of a bookstore chain in Kansas and Missouri, says, "We don't even have to take the books out of the boxes" when shipments arrive. As many as 50 customers stand sentry on delivery days. "I've seen them with these huge shopping bags," says Carolyn Nichols, editor at Jove Publications, "going down the racks grabbing them, boom, boom, boom."

And they read with single-minded intensity. Barbra Wren, an employee at B. Dalton's Independence, Mo., outlet and its ad hoc adviser to its romance readers, says one nurse takes only moderately compelling romances to read when she has emergency room duty, for fear of neglecting the patients.

They possess, it seems, an unslakable thirst. Four volunteer-staffed newsletters ("Barbra Critiques," edited by Wren, is the largest, with 150,000 readers at $60 an annual subscription) dish out authors' biographies, horoscopes, favorite recipes and flowers ("If you see a 'white tornado' accomplishing impossible tasks, such as writing six books...that whirlwind isn't Mr. Clean! It's our own Parris, doing her thing!"), collectors' queries (some women possess all but a few of Harlequin's 2,509 titles) and--precious information, "like finding gold," says Estrada- the various pseudonyms of favorite authors. Estrada and a few pals trek hundreds of miles for overnight get-togethers like their recent Margarita-Sippin'Sleeping-Bag-Slumber Party. "Our husbands have to stay home and watch the kids while we go trotting," says Estrada. "We sit down and drink beer and chew the fat."

Hardly oblivious to the phenomenon, publishers are courting readers more energetically than ever. Harlequin holds "bridal luncheons" in hotels around the country, introducing authors to 200 women selected via questionnaire for the honor. The luncheons feature bridal bouquets tossed to the guests and Harlequin personnel assuring them that the company "understands how you feel about love." So it seems: there are now two Harlequin clones, Silhouette Romances and the slightly more "sensuous" Candlelight Ecstasy. Other category books, tailored to specialized audiences, are sprouting up too. First Love from Silhouette, Bantam's Sweet Dreams and Scholastic Inc.'s Wishing Star and Wildfire series all aim at the teenage crowd; Jove Publications has recently introduced Second Chance at Love--six books a month for divorcees and widows. Two ex-editors of the National Enquirer have launched tabloid-size Rhapsody Romances to be sold in supermarket checkout lines. And in February, Pinnacle Books will publish Love's Leading Ladies, the first Who's Who of romance writers.

All the recent visibility of the genre has only made its defenders more forthright. Wren and her friends have forbidden husbands to harass them about their habit. "We've lost our defensive air," says she. "It's not quite defiance but it's close." Barbara Keenan, editor of Affaire de Coeur, a California newsletter, reports that she and her friends have quit buying their romances in grocery stores whose long receipts conveniently camouflaged their purchases. "Women are recognizing that their favorite fiction is just as acceptable as what their husbands read," says Romantic Times publisher Kathryn Falk.

The army of readers has also begun to exercise considerable clout with publishers. When they don't care for a book, they howl, loudly--in letters and boycotts. Thanks to their protests, what one reader calls "wimpy little girl" heroines have been replaced by pluckier women; rape and brutality are out, humor and career women are in; and heroes are curbing their carefree promiscuity. "Women want fidelity from their heroes," says Jennings. "They want men to cut that other stuff out."