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Embracing Romance

By Sinnamon Harris

Romance novels comprise the most-read fiction in the United States. Some local Northwest authors discuss why the genre remains so alluring.

"She was honeyed wine, and he feared he would drink too deeply before he could let her go...His hiss possessed her like the sunlight, shooting sparks right down to her toes" from The Maiden Bride by Linda Needham.

"Bodice rippers," and similar names of disdain , have always stung the romance novel genre, implying that such writing hardly qualifies as real literature. Because such a negative shadow has been cast, few readers will admit that they have ever cracked a romance novel. Yet, according to 1999 statistics from the Book Industry Study Group and the American Booksellers Association, romance fiction comprises 58.2% of all popular fiction sold. One in every third woman has read a romance in the past year, while one in every 30 men has followed suit.

Why are so many people embracing romance novels? Opinions vary. Perhaps it's due to the emotional connections typically forged between the hero and heroine in such books, or the appeal of all of the many sub-genres into which romance novels have now delved-such as historical, mystery, Gothic, and science fiction. According to Oregon romance author Linda Needham, regardless of the genre, a romance always forms the core of the story.

"The most important outcome ending that allows the reader to be sure that these two heroic people will survive together for the rest of their lives, no matter what joy or sorrow comes their way," Needham said.

Women's lib. Imbues genre

Needham, who lives in North Plains, Oregon has won a host of awards associated with the romance industry and has been on the USA Bestseller lists. She credits her B.A. degree in theater for her understanding of character development, dialogue, scene-shaping, and plotting techniques. Needham believes that Romance is hotter than ever precisely because women have been liberated from relying on such authority figures as fathers, mothers, and husbands. She argues women are freer to define who they are and what they choose to read, watch, do, or think.

"That same liberation has allowed women to openly celebrate the sensual and the nurturing," Needham explained. "Romance today is about family; about the heroine finding herself in her independence and learning to blend that healthy self-concept with the needs of the heroically-motivated man who will stand beside her in joy and in sorrow."

Women love romance

Another Oregon author, Cheryl Holt, surmises that the popularity of romance novels among women stems from childhood differences between boys and girls.

"I think 'romance' is a gender-based preference, that transcends time period eras. Fads," said Holt. "Women have 'always' loved romances, and the taste starts at an early age. Think back to your favorite fairy tales when you were a little girl-like Rapunzel and Sleeping Beauty. My son has never watched [the film] The Little Mermaid a single time, because he thinks it's the stupidest story ever written. My daughter, on the other hand, has seen the video a million times, and even though she is only six years old, there's something about the magic of a great love story that already appeals to her."

Holt lives in Seaside, Oregon, and like many romance writers, took up writing after leaving the workforce to start a family. She holds a law degree from the University of Wyoming, and has worked as a teacher, labor attorney, and Deputy District Attorney. Holt's novel, MY ONLY LOVE, was recently nominated by Romantic Times Magazine as one of the best historical romances of 2000. Her latest release, MY TRUE LOVE, is the companion book.

Holt believes that a true "romance" story must center on the hero and heroine and whether they'll end up together, while the mystery or adventure story serves only as a subplot.

"There are sub-plots that helps get them to where they are going," Holt says. "For example, they may be in the middle of a murder investigation or being chased by bad guys or harangued by crazy family-but the impetus is on their budding relationship and how it will win out at the end."

Defining romance

Author Judith B. Glad, who lives near Powell Butte in outer east Portland, is a trained botanist who writes both western historical and contemporary romances. She claims that actually coming up with a definition for "romance" literature is probably the most debated topic in RWA. For example, she considers most of famous western writer Louis L'Amour's books romances, even though they typically won't be found in the romance section of a bookstore.

"What matters most is the male and female protagonists must have that emotional connection and that there is a promise of it lasting," said Glad. "If a book doesn't touch reader's heart, even if it contains a love story, then it probably shouldn't be labeded romance...There is a lot more to be said, but to me, this is the bottom line-a story about lasting love and emotional satisfaction gained from reading it."

Impact of feminism

In light of the influence of feminism, the romance booksellers have started to rely less on book covers depicting the quintessential "clutch scene"-that steamy, passionate drawing of a woman whose dress is sliding off her shoulder held in the arms of a ruggedly handsome, bare-chested male. The current trend is to use an embossed title with the author's name on the front cover with the "clutch" scene on the back, or missing altogether. In its place are found images of flowers, brightly-colored cartoon-like drawings, and objects meaningful to the story, such as a dagger and a kilt. This makes it easier to hide the fact that people are reading "one of those" books. More importantly the female protagonists in romance novels have developed into stronger, more independent women who "make" their own "happy ending."

Rose City Romance Writers

Once a month, the approximately 100 members of the Rose City Romance Writers (RCRW) gather at the Sylvania campus of Portland Community College to find the support, exchange of ideas, and advice that can help take the frustration out of writing for profit. Most of the successful romance writers also belong to Romance Writers of America, of which this is a chapter.

The authors praise Oregon for providing the perfect setting for writing. The rainy weather keeps writers indoors, concentrating on the manuscript at hanc. At " " the group's website, you will find links to many of the Northwest's most favorite romance authors. The chapter also publishes a monthly newsletter for its members called "Writers' Serenade." All in all, the membership works hard to maintain its mission statement, "to educate, support, and mentor published and unpublished members in the profession of romance writing."