“It’s an addiction,” whispers Andrea, a pretty blonde in white pantyhose,
gesturing to the stack of brightly-colored paperbacks on her lap. Andrea
and I are listening to best-selling author Jill Marie Landis speak about
her craft at the Romance Writers and Readers Conference in Omaha, Nebraska.
The audience — 99% female — bursts into applause as Landis calls out the
mantra of her industry: “Romance writers believe in the power of love to
heal.”

I’m in Omaha to give a lecture on Jane Austen, taking a brief hiatus from
my doctoral research in New York City. My black leather jacket stands out
like some macabre bull’s eye in a sea of pastels. I feel unnervingly like a
double agent in this crowd — torn between the desire to take pop culture
seriously and the fear of intellectual “slumming” among the romance-reading
faithful. I’m mulling over this strange position as I ask Andrea about her
addiction. She’s studying French at a local community college, and prefers
exotic heroes in her narratives. “Sheiks and Arab princes,” she confides,
showing me the cover of her latest find. It features a young blonde
secretary kneeling before a dark, bare-chested man in a turban. “I’ve gone
out in the middle of the night just to get something to read. There are
stores that sell them twenty-four hours.”

Selling romances in supermarkets and drugstores was a major breakthrough
for Harlequin in the early 1970s. The strategy continues to serve its
readership well. The women here are almost never without a novel, and spend
much of the conference getting stacks of newly-purchased paperbacks
autographed by the many successful writers who are present. They read as
they wait on line.

Romance novels have long been the second citizens of pop culture. Science
fiction and mystery novels have spawned numerous highbrow crossover hits
(think William Gibson and Raymond Chandler), while the bodice-rippers
remain confined to the lower echelons of popular taste. Being low on the
cultural feeding chain, however, seems to have no visible effect on their
commercial success: romance novels regularly outsell their sci-fi or
sleuthing competitors, and the genre accounts for 35 to 40 percent of all
mass-market paperback sales.

For many years, romance publishers helped perpetuate this lowbrow status,
by marketing the novels by brand (Harlequin, Silhouette, Candlelight)
rather than by author, and even best-selling writers often had several
pseudonyms. These days, the writers are celebrities and demand that their
books be taken seriously. Over the years, romance readers’ tastes have also
become more refined. At the conference, many readers express marked
preferences in terms of subgenres (regency, civil war, medieval,
contemporary) and “sensuality” (level of sexual content). Others speak
earnestly about historical accuracy and the propriety of rape scenes.
Apparently all romances are not alike.

At a panel on political correctness, Lydia, a young married woman in a pink
Peanuts sweatshirt, objects loudly to a romance she recently read. “It was
filled with things like swearing and drunkenness,” she tells the group.
“Why did they have to go and put that sort of thing in? It was just too
strong.” Lydia appears so disturbed by this offensive novel that the
moderator has difficulty keeping her quiet. But over brunch, Lydia is very
open with me about her enjoyment of sexy scenes in novels. “I like them
with some spice to ’em. I don’t like a book without any sex. I read gothics
— there’s a really good vampire series come out just now. The hero is a
vampire, all tall with white skin and fangs. He bites the heroine and she
falls in love with him. They have great vampire sex,” she giggles. She has
over a thousand romances stored in her basement. “I’m a nut,” she says,
smiling.

Controversy rages over the racy cover illustrations of many romances,
revealing readers’ conflicted responses to their sexual content. The cover
of Millie Criswell’s Phantom Lover pushes both the titillation and outrage
buttons: aboard a pirate ship, a bare-chested man in a black mask clutches
a dagger in one hand and a damsel in the other. Her cleavage heaves and her
skirt is hiked to expose a creamy white thigh. Several women at the Omaha
conference claim to be embarrassed to read books with such erotic covers in
public. These buyers champion the novels for their historical content, and
argue the sexy pictures undermine the credibility of both readers and
writers. Best-selling author Dorothy Garlock has long fought to promote her
novels without scantily clad heroines and half-naked heroes fondling each
other beneath the titles. She only gained her point after several years of
continued popularity.

Still, the cult of the male cover model is flourishing. At the annual
Booklovers’ Convention, readers can dance with the models and have their
picture taken with Fabio. The convention also hosts a “Mr. Paperback Cover
Model” beauty contest.

Penguin USA capitalizes on the selling power of a well-known cover model
with TOPAZ, its imprint of historical romances. Steve Sandalis is THE TOPAZ
MAN: a brunette model with high cheekbones and a perm. The line’s marketing
approach includes stand-up cardboard images of Sandalis dressed in high
boots and an unbuttoned peasant shirt. Magazine ads feature him completely
undressed, though partially submerged in water. His image is featured on
all the novels in the line, plus bookmarks, posters and what Romantic Times
calls “the sexiest calendar ever to be unveiled.”



Beneath these covers women in the culture of romance are imbibing a double
message. Feminist critics like Tania Modleski and Janice Radway have
claimed the novels and the near-compulsive way they are read constitute
forms of protest against the patriarchy. They have also tried to understand
romances in the way that many readers do: as chronicles of female triumph.

Others argue that the sexual stereotypes portrayed in the novels extend
into readers’ lives. Critic Helen Verlander, author of The Love Factory,
denounces romance reading as a “potent sedative used against women.” She
sees the books as generating hope for a better life while discouraging any
action or activity on the readers’ part. Women like Lydia and Andrea appear
to illustrate this point; they devour hundreds of romance novels each year
and dream of Prince Charming without a hint of irony.

Yet what neither Verlander nor the more sympathetic scholars have
considered is the ambition flaming in the heaving bosoms of these romance
readers. A huge number of the women attending the Omaha conference have
been inspired by their love of the genre to write manuscripts, and their
dreams of being published are not so unrealistic. Many best-selling
authors, Garlock and Landis included, began their careers in romance as
dedicated readers. Because so many titles are published each month, this is
an industry where inexperienced fans can find financial and popular success
as artists. Women who have never written before are going to the typewriter
with dreams of success, and some are even achieving it.

Successful romance writers also have an unusual level of support from the
men they live with. Larry Lind, husband of romance author Judi Lind, has a
column for men in Romantic Times that is devoted to helping their wives’
careers. When Judi started to write, says Lind, “I was proud that she was
an author… But secretly, I was frustrated by her frequent inattention,
weekly meetings, endless phone calls…” He gives advice to men whose wives
are striving to be on the bestseller list: “All of us can help around the
house and maximize the amount of time our personal star has to apply to her
craft. Maybe we can keep our curtain-climbers off her back as she attempts
to meet a deadline.”

The romance industry may indeed be manufacturing pop art tranquilizers for
a mass audience. But anything that gets a man into the kitchen so his wife
can pursue her career can’t be all bad.