Like many of my classmates, I have spent a large percentage of senior year wondering what my Yale education adds up to and which career paths are still open to me. When I read recently that romance fiction annually generates $1.52 billion in the United States alone and is purchased by over 50 million readers (only seven percent of whom are male), I fell into what regency heroines would call a brown study. What’s an English major to do with the grim fact that more than half of all paperback fiction sold is in the romance category? Rejoice, I decided.
I take inspiration from Julia Quinn, the novelist Time hails as “reinventing the romance novel for the postfeminist generation.” Quinn, whose successful novels include such faux-nineteenth-century titles as Romancing Mister Bridgerton and The Further Observations of Lady Whistledown, is a Harvard art history graduate who began writing romances immediately after graduation and eventually dropped out of Yale Medical School, after three months, to follow her dream. She makes her career sound deliriously satisfying; romance writers, she boasts, get to go to work in their sweatpants, and happy endings are de rigueur. In fact, the official association of Romance Writers of America (RWA—think MLA of the romance world) has recently issued a definition of their genre: “a romance is a book wherein the love story is the main focus of the novel, and the end of the book is emotionally satisfying.” For the RWA folks, who are apparently fond of abbreviations, P & P (that’s Pride and Prejudice to the uninitiated), is the prototypical romance, but of course WH (yes, Wuthering Heights) serves as a fine model for the gothic. Happily for aspiring writers, the genre continues to spawn sub-genres: historical romance, contemporary romance, regency romance, inspirational romance (with spiritual themes), paranormal romance, and my personal favorite: time-travel romance. Publishers thoughtfully provide nearly foolproof blueprints for success, suggesting length guidelines, language guidelines, and moral guidelines (premarital sex is acceptable, for instance, as long as it is clearly pre-marital).
At first I was tempted by Harlequin’s invitation to write 80-90,000 words for their Silhouette Bombshell series, wherein (a favorite RWA word) I would create “a heroine who can really kick ass on the way to her happy ending.” The editors assure me that the required “emotionally satisfying” ending does not necessarily involve marriage, but warn that I need to assure readers of “a new emotional and/or sensual awareness between the couple” -after the heroine has done a sufficient amount of ass-kicking, I assume. I also assume that I would be free to have the heroine kick the ass of the hero a bit before she leads him to his epiphany of sensual awareness. The more I have thought about the Silhouette Bombshell, however, the more I have wondered about other approaches. One publisher is seeking manuscripts that involve “marriage of convenience, secret babies, single fathers, amnesia victims, and weddings.” I wonder if I could create an ass-kicking bombshell who succumbs to a marriage of convenience (having given birth secretly) to an amnesia victim.
Even better, I could create an entirely new sub-genre: humorous romance. Quinn, according to Time, writes exceptionally good dialogue with a fair amount of wit, and I am encouraged by the “All About Romance” Internet site that sponsors an annual Purple Prose Parody contest. These romantics are definitely not lacking in humor. Consider, for example, the 1997 winning entry of the PPP contest: Randy Hawkesnose, having become too ardent, is pushed away by Bliss, who, when she “threw her hands up to stop him, accidently [sic] pushed instead on the marble-hard bulge in his breeches. He groaned aloud as he felt himself swell to a state of turgid tumescence he had never experienced before in all his many years as a libertine and profligate debaucher. But before he could question his response, the buttons on the overstretched seams began to pop one by one, firing into the shadows like small bullets of desire, each `ping’ causing Bliss’s pulse to race a beat faster.” While this writer’s ardent abandon is surely inspirational, I realize that I’ll have to curb my impulse to parody romance with too many “bullets of desire.” Fortunately, “All About Romance” also maintains an Encyclopedia of Silly Sex to combat the overuse of throbbing, turgid, pulsating prose. I’ll be sure to consult it frequently.
As I have contemplated the possibility of wealth and fame in the romance world (Quinn says that mine will always be the most interesting profession at any cocktail party), I have of course had to question my motives. Do I really want to become the next Nora Roberts or Danielle Steele (490 million copies of her books are in print in 28 languages)? Would I bring honor to God and country and Yale, or would I have to adopt a pen name out of embarrassment? Would I be throwing away my training in languages and literature, or would I be a bold adventurer in the post-feminist romance world?
As for this fascination with male-female relationships—is it really so different from earlier romances—the medieval ones, the Shakespearean ones, the modern “serious” ones? After all, Shakespeare’s comedies end with weddings too. Of course, the RWA would have something to say about the emotionally unsatisfying ending of Tristan and Isolde, when, like R & J, they die too young. Harlequin editors might well be shocked by the Romance of the Rose, wherein the Lover, in the midst of the garden of Love, plucks his Rose a little too obscenely. Poor Flaubert might not have gone to trial had he had Harlequin guidelines to shove him to a happy ending. In fact, his Emma Bovary is a perfect example of the dangers of reading too many romances, a moralistic tale for his times. Like Flaubert, I feel an impish urge to do away with my heroines, and I keep stumbling on the requirement that my endings be happy. Would Harlequin have seen Anna as an ass-kicking bombshell if she had boarded that train instead of stopping it herself? And if Tess and Angel had managed to do-si-do a little sooner, would Hardy have made a lot more money? I suppose I’ll just have to avoid the temptation to devise comically unhappy fates for my lovers, but that’s a small concession when I consider the pleasures of going to work in my sweatpants and being the center of attention at cocktail parties. Maybe I’m overconfident, but how hard would it be to devise adventures for young amnesiac bombshells who meet buff orphans and achieve perfect, pulsating harmony? Watch the bestseller list for titillating titles by Archibald von Liebe in the new Brazen Bombshell series: my postmodern heroine, armed with bullets of desire, will surely kick every available ass. My innovative comic approach to my new sub-genre may require further tweaking, but I am confident that America is ready for whatever I dish out, so long as the prose is purplish and the ending is happy.
Here’s a place where you might change the details and add something more about medieval romance?