Part 2 

A Fine Romance

[image-1](Stephen Salpukas / Style Weekly)Carolyn Greene

Personal: Married for 23 years to a fire battalion chief in Henrico County; two teen-age kids; claims to be 36 years old but laughs suspiciously when she says it.
Latest book: "Marrying Mr. Right" (Harlequin Romance); next book due out November 2001
Claim to fame: Has published six traditional romance titles, two of which were up for coveted RITA awards
In a former life she was: a little bit of everything, including a secretary at a men's maximum-security prison, and a feature writer and columnist for Powhatan Today
When she's not at a computer, she's most likely to be: with her family or serving as assistant youth leader at Old Powhatan Baptist Church
Response to romance bashers: "I'm not writing to try to impress anybody. I'm writing to help readers feel better and maybe offer some life lessons." "I just tell them, 'Too bad. Looks like you're going to have to try harder.'" To that end, the name of the game is foreplay — for the writers as well as the characters. Romance writers spend a lot of time creating emotional and sexual tension before the big consummation scene. And when they finally do let the characters make nooky — somewhere at about page 100 — it's described with an unusual combination of flowery prose and gory detail. The passages hold none of the crude language that might repulse (think Penthouse), but will feature phrases like "his tongue slipped past her lips into her deep recesses." The scenes leave the heart (and maybe other body parts) aflutter. After all, these aren't passion scenes with men who occasionally pass gas, get under your skin, or have bad breath. No, these guys are strong men with broad shoulders and manly stubble. They are attentive lovers with a capital A. Nobody's done in five minutes (unless you're a speed-reader.) Surprisingly, the writers feel that the sexual aspect of the characters' relationship is actually not what's turning women on. "It's not just body parts," Maxwell insists. "It's the relationship between the hero and heroine that makes the reader sizzle." The hottest thing about these men is that they put the heroine at the center of the universe. That's where Carolyn Greene says she steps in. "Part of the typical woman's fantasy is that she wants to be the center of her partner's attention. She wants to feel loved. The rich and powerful hero is so popular because he represents someone who can take care of her. He's a solid place to fall. I guess it goes back to caveman mentality. But still, we want to make sure the man we marry is someone you can rely on physically and emotionally." A good example of her theory might be in her 1998 release, "Heavenly Husband." Here's the back jacket copy: Kim hardly recognized her ex-fiance. Jerry had the same delicious looks and body, even the same mannerisms, but ever since the accident, there were things about him that made him seem like a completely different man! Now he was the perfect angel — instead of a womanizing workaholic — who wanted to be with her twenty-four hours a day! …But although he might seem heavenly now, what if the old Jerry were to return? Silly? OK, maybe. But who hasn't from time to time, wanted to hit their spouse with a frying pan to realign his priorities? Several literary critics see nothing wrong with mining women's fantasies. Jennifer Crusie, a literary columnist for the Columbus Dispatch in Ohio, will be the keynote speaker for next spring's Virginia Romance Writers conference in Williamsburg. Right now she's working on a doctoral dissertation on women's fiction. For her, romance fiction is actually the most feminist fiction we've got. "It puts the woman at the center of the conflict, she struggles, and she wins," Crusie says. "It's the only genre where you know that the woman will win." Fantasy isn't the sign of weak or stupid women, according to Crusie. Instead, it's a sign of normal women engaged in social struggles. She offers an example. Just look at the huge number of books featuring heroes who are fathers or who are willing to be step-daddies for the heroine's child. (This includes, incidentally, Banks' novel "Having His Baby" and Maxwell's "A Scandalous Marriage.") Readers scoop up by the armloads stories about men who dig babies. "A woman marrying today has a fifty-fifty chance of raising her kids alone," she says. "A fantasy about a man who loves children, a man who is a good man and father is an extremely potent fantasy. Romance fiction is unique because it re"A woman marrying today has a fifty-fifty chance of raising her kids alone," she says. "A fantasy about a man who loves children, a man who is a good man and father is an extremely potent fantasy. Romance fiction is unique because it reflects women's fantasies to rise above the issues that plague them." [image-2](Scott Elmquist / Style Weekly)Mary Burton

Personal: 38, married, two kids, lives in the West End
Latest Book: "Bride for McCain" (Harlequin Historicals); Upcoming is "The Colorado Bride" (July 2001, Harlequin Historicals)
Claim to Fame: Completed four novels while chasing two active preschoolers
Favorite Book: "Hidden Riches" by Nora Roberts
In a former life, she was: marketing director for Draper Aden Associates, a civil engineering firm.
When not at the computer, most likely to be seen: working out at Shady Grove YMCA
Response to romance fiction bashers: "Have you read a good romance novel lately? Most critics haven't taken the time to read good romance, and they base their opinion on old stereotypes."Local fans seem completely comfortable with the fantasy/escape arrangement. Take Pamela Mercer, assistant manager at The Book Rack in the Westbury Shopping Center. The shop's primary business is used paperbacks, and romances are extremely popular. She has customers who come in weekly to fill shopping bags with romances. She herself is an admitted romance addict. She feels absolutely thrilled when one of the authors stops by. " I love my lords and ladies, my sheiks and Greeks. I love all those strong women and stronger men. I love the chase, the conflict. I have hundreds of books in my bedroom, all in boxes. They're all romances." She estimates that she reads at least two romances a week, and she has no intention of changing her habits. She doesn't tell anybody else what to read. Nobody should tell her what to choose either. "Oh, we're all old enough to know this stuff isn't real. It's an escape. That's all. If you want to be depressed, you can read an Oprah book or — these days — just read the paper," she says. Innocent escape? Try dangerous escape and denial according to critics. The attacks on romance literature are almost too many to list. The most memorable — and justified — attack on modern romance happened in the 1970s when women screamed "Foul!" at rape scenes peddled as hot sex. Today, rape is utterly taboo in most romance publishing houses. Still the lingering issues of sexism and cheesiness come up everywhere. Just think of the words we use to describe these works. Bodice-ripper, dime-store book, trashy novel. Even fans, like Kim the artist, lovingly call them smut books. Are these words deserved? Here's a smattering of recent complaints from book critics, academics, and women's studies experts culled by Dr. Beth Rapp Young, an assistant professor of English at the University of Central Florida. Critics charge that romance plots are contrived — the literary equivalent of the paint-by-number. Guy meets girl. Guy and girl are attracted to each other. Obstacles. Moderately hot scenes. They get together. Really hot scenes. The end. Even on a technical level, romance fiction scores low. Critics charge that the writing itself is lousy all the way around. Simple sentences, simple words, simple ideas. That's to say nothing of the hand wringing that goes on over the continued and infuriating focus on women finding a dashing Mr. Wonderful. Work on making your real life better, the experts warn readers, instead of spending so much time with this drivel. But Young is also representative of a new kind of moderate critic. She is mostly interested in deciding whether those criticisms are based on anything real or whether it's just thoughtless slamming. Yes, the novels come with titles like "The Spender Stud" and "My Dashing Earl." But, she asks, is it ethical to slam a genre outright (ridiculous titles notwithstanding), especially when it appeals so widely to women? If we don't think all literary fiction is great, then where do we get the idea that all romance fiction is bad? Part of the romance-bashing problem, she cites, may just be a bad habit that dates back at least to the 18thcentury. Basically, it became easier to print and own books, and women suddenly took up their pens. The social and academic elite freaked. Even literary giant Nathaniel Hawthorne complained loudly about having to compete with extremely popular women's "trash." Hawthorne may have called it scribbling, but even modern-day scholars think that at least some of it was pretty liberated stuff. Cathy Ingrassia, associate professor of English at VCU specializes in women's fiction of that time. "This was writing before the novel was formed, and for me personally, it was more liberating. Typically, a woman was seduced, impregnated and abandoned. But these works were much more edgy in how they suggested the heroines live their lives. Many women in these early romances resisted the idea that marriage is a desirable end. Instead women lived alone, with other women, even in a convent." Modern romance? That's another story. She acknowledges that the genre is less overtly sexist than it once was. But it has a long, long way to go. "Yes, it's true, heroines are more independent today," she admits. "But how are they still rewarded? With a man." She's quick to point out that not all romances are bad. But she winces at the thought of women buying into a fantasy … whether it's when they leaf through a Victoria's Secret catalogue, tune into the Romance Channel on cable, or pick up a novel. "If you're invested in the books' message, it can suggest that women embrace the roles that encourage them to read these books in the first place. It seems to affirm that the relationship with a man should be, and is, the most important thing for women … above career, above self-fulfillment, above everything. That's not to say that relationships are a bad thing. But these men aren't the kind of men who actually surround us! It builds unrealistic expectations for the uncritical readers." For the writers, the debate seems irrelevant. Not one of them is going to lose sleep over whether they are damaging the female psyche. Instead, when they wake up tomorrow, they'll sit at the computer and click away a tale that is, for them, a voice for their creativity, a respite for readers, and a part of a long and valuable school of literature. Maxwell puts it best: "The mythic school has been with us since time began. This is where we have Greek tales, fairy tales, Westerns, horrors, thrillers, romances. This is where we have that feeling that good will triumph over evil, that love will conquer all, that the bad guy is going to get his. We read — and write — these books for those reasons." Jump to Part 1, 2,

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