(Published on February 14, 2006, in the Business Standard.)
The feel of the keyboard under my fingers is smooth, hard, rippling, my word processor heaves with suppressed emotion and the newly installed UPS lets out a low, long, masculine purr….
Right, I think grimly, that’ll teach me to spend a week in Calcutta raiding my grandmother’s stash of romance novels. She has a remarkable collection. It covers the early phase of exotic romances—taciturn Australian cowboys, mysterious Spanish grandees, excitable Italian artists. It has the bread-and-butter girl-next-door meets boy-next-door love stories, and the hugely popular doctor-and-nurse sagas.
But as Valentine’s Day 2006 socks us in the eye with hearts and flowers, the future of the romance genre seems uncertain. Optimists say that the genre identified with Messrs Mills and Boon is unlikely to ever die out. Romance Writers of America estimates that romance novels account for 49 per cent of paperback sales.
Over the last decade, though, there are signs of a shift in readership. A British library survey showed that crime fiction had become more popular than romance novels for the first time in decades. And the romance market itself seems to be moving towards specialization, with bizarre results. There are romances aimed at “people of colour”; romances for single mothers; romances that crossover into vanilla porn, ie erotica aimed specifically at women; Christian romances; romances for the senior citizen.
There are gay romances. David Levithan’s Boy Meets Boy is one of the first mainstream teenage romantic novels to offer two male protagonists, 15-year-olds Paul and Noah. It has already been pilloried by some conservative Christian groups for “promoting homosexuality”. The one I can’t wait to read is the fourth title from Romentics— Hot Sauce , written by Scott Pomfret and Scott Whittier under the pen-name Scott & Scott (slogan: “Because gay men fall in love too.”) In Japan, there are manga Mills and Boons, the standard romances rendered in comic book format, the classic man-woman covers rendered slightly weird with those anime characters with their glassed-out cartoon eyes. In India, an attempt to Indianise Mills and Boon crashed and burned, but we have our very own arranged marriage-meets-Bridget Jones sagas.
The only way I can deal with romance novels in quantity is to sub-categorise them by title , which is why I read Passionate Impostor, Night of Passion and Passionfruit Summer in one fell swoop. (I’m also haunted by the Desert sequence: Lion of the Desert, Desert Wind, Hawk of the Desert, Stallion of the Desert, Desert Song and Desert Serenade –truly, horribly unforgettable.)
But if there’s one title missing from that colourful catalogue of Harlequins, M&Bs, Temptations, Sweet Valley Highs and Silhouettes, it should be called Queens of the Heaving Bosom . There is little biography of the women who spent their lives churning out passionate pulp. (Men have only occasionally proved that they can rip a bodice as well as any woman—Nicholas Sparks recently became the fifth man ever to be nominated in the 47-year history of the Romance Novel of the Year award.)
This is unfortunate, because the private lives of Queens of Romance are often worth exploring. Barbara Cartland’s passion for pink was justly famous: she left behind 130 unpublished novels at the time of her death—and wrapped every bloody one in a pink ribbon. Then I stumbled across the perfect Valentine’s Day present: the life and times of romance novelist Danielle Steele, whose dreary, predictable, bestselling prose has helped me find sleep on many a long flight.
If I’d only known that her life was the exact opposite of soporific. The woman who serves as inspiration for the world’s lonelyhearts was married five times. Her first marriage was at the age of 18; she had a daughter with Claude-Eric Lazard. Then she married a convicted rapist; then she married a heroin addict and had a son with him; then she married John Traina and had five children with him; then she married Silicon Valley businessman Tom Perkins.
All of Steele’s marriages broke up, but she seems to have had a lasting impact on Perkins. This month, the venture capitalist released his own romance novel, Sex and the Single Zillionaire , in which a wealthy widower meets the TV presenter of reality show Trophy Brides . As the action moves from private jet to private yacht to private ski slope, it’s clear that Steven Hudson and Jessica James share more than just camera time. And I suppose that’s what you learn from being married to one of the world’s most famous romance novelists: happy endings do exist, you just have to write them yourself.
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