Confessions of a Romance Virgin

Harlequin heats up a new market with its kickass Bombshell heroines

Confessions of a Romance Virgin
Illustration By Jason Stout

At the HEB on 41st Street, near the pharmacy counter, there's a rack of flowery muumuus. It's in the odds-and-ends section of the store, where you're likely to find smelly-lotion gift baskets, holiday boxes of chocolate, or dollar Tupperware, depending on the season. Behind these displays are three small racks of paperbacks with titles like Bought by Her Latin Lover. That's where my research brought me one Wednesday night around 10:30 or so, with a giant pack of Charmin under my arm for protection. I'd hoped to find the quintessential romance novel, but I hadn't counted on being quite so embarrassed – hence the toilet-paper-aisle detour – and I also hadn't counted on there already being a me at the racks. There were two of me, in fact: twentysomethings reading the titles to each other, laughing at the book-jacket descriptions, and no doubt thinking that I was a genuine, Charmin-family-pack buying, Nora Roberts-loving romance reader.

Women my age, especially if they're some combination of urban, single, and professional, don't buy their books at HEB. And Harlequin, the world's largest and most successful romance publisher, knows it. In fact, they know that women my age aren't necessarily buying books, much less romance, at all compared to the way twenty- and thirtysomethings have in the past. They're instead turning to television for their escapist entertainment, to a world where the heroine might still fall into her lover's tender embrace, but usually not before she kicks someone's ass. And so it's come to pass that the publishing industry's most prolific purveyor of hugs and kisses – 30,000 and 20,000 of them, respectively, over the past 40 years – has taken inspiration from the female spies, slayers, and warrior princesses of TV to introduce Bombshell, the first-ever fully realized line of action-adventure books for women.

Harlequin subsidiary Silhouette launched Bombshell last July, but the first Bombshell novel was written 15 years ago. At the time, romance publishers wouldn't take it because it was too violent, while other publishers said it had too much romance. But for its writer, Cindy Dees, formerly the youngest female pilot in the Air Force and a Cold War-era spy who'd been held at gunpoint by the KGB and arrested by the East German secret police, Killer Instinct merely reflected her life.

"The market was still caught in that very traditional model of ... woman as damsel in distress. And I wasn't a damsel in distress," says Dees, who now lives outside of Fort Worth. "It was me and 450 guys in my squadron, and I was a commander of crews of 20 to 25 men on a regular basis. I didn't want to read about damsels in distress; I wanted to read about strong women who could hold their own with the guys." So why, then, did she write a romance? "I just wrote whatever came to me," says Dees. "It's very standard when men and women are in high-stress situations together that intense relationships form, and none of the spy novels that I was reading at the time went there." Now that Dees will finally see her book on shelves this month, as No. 16 in the Bombshell line, she says, "It's been a fun process to watch the market come to that book."

Confessions of a Romance Virgin

Whether readers will follow is still an open question, despite the fact that Harlequin is no dark stranger to courting new audiences. They've launched series, lines, and imprints for suspense, history, comedy, and fantasy readers. They have Christian romance; hip, modern, savvy Christian romance; and hip, modern, savvy chick lit. There's even the Harlequin Medical Romance series, with the tagline "Love is just a heartbeat away." By following a moving readership target closely, romance has remained the bestselling genre in category fiction since the 1950s. And every title lives and dies by its formula.

"You don't kill off children, and you don't kill off dogs," explains Bombshell writer Sandra K. Moore from her home in Clear Lake, Texas. "It's a rule." But now Bombshell, already a potent combination of mystery and romance – two of the most popular genres in the history of modern mass-publishing – is altering the traditional romance formula dramatically, pushing mystery and suspense to the forefront. The line also frees writers from the usual limitations inherent in category fiction, allowing some fantasy, paranormal, thriller, and spy fiction into the mix, as well as darker elements, as Moore learned at last summer's Romance Writers of America conference (an event held annually by the Houston-based association). Inspired by Bombshell's rule-breaking inclinations, Moore asked, "Can I kill off a child?" Though the question caused "a horrified gasp throughout the entire auditorium," the seminar speaker merely looked thoughtful for a moment, then replied: "Well, yeah. I guess you can."

Bombshells still promise readers "a satisfactory romantic subplot" – one of Harlequin's oddly dispassionate and oft-repeated catch phrases – but every book guarantees a "world of suspense and adventure where strong, sexy, savvy women save the day." This pledge above all demonstrates Bombshell's real innovation: hinging each book's outcome not on the success of the relationship between hero and heroine, or on the hero saving the day, but on the heroine overcoming all obstacles, love interest be damned.

Thanks to television and film, this kind of role-reversal has become so commonplace that it's almost old-fashioned to call it a reversal at all. But books reflecting a similar trend – like those by Janet Evanovich and Sara Paretsky, or, perhaps most similar of all, romance publisher Dorchester's 2176 series – though successful, still very much count as exceptions to the rule. Romance has, in fact, featured some strong, ass-kicking women throughout its history, as has fiction in general (think feisty Western dime novel heroines), but Harlequin is the first publisher to bet its money on an entire line of women's action-adventure – meaning four new titles every month – rather than a particular character, writer, or series. While this step demonstrates Harlequin's devotion to its readers, it also testifies to the company's frightening business savvy.

Harlequin is less about romance than about the business of romance, and it's enjoyed the rapturous caress of lots and lots of money for decades now. In the early Seventies, it abandoned the publishing industry's romantic and decidedly impractical notions of literature, deciding to operate on the assumption, as Janice Radway wrote in her seminal work Reading the Romance, "that a book can be marketed like a can of beans or a box of soap powder." In practice, this meant the advent of such now-familiar tactics as advertising one book on the inside of another and prominently featuring the Harlequin name on every cover. Other romance companies followed with sophisticated marketing campaigns and focus-group research, and the outcome of their collective effort is obvious today: More than half of all paperback fiction sold in the U.S. is romance.

Confessions of a Romance Virgin

Now Harlequin has again taken its cue from outside its industry, this time to deliver an endless supply of ass-kicking heroines – unless, of course, they don't sell. Despite the success of these heroines onscreen, they still have a few obstacles to overcome on the page – namely the publisher itself and the stigma attached to its name, to romance, and to category publishing in general. Harlequin has acknowledged this stigma in the marketing of its chick lit imprint, Red Dress Ink, whose book covers are absent of the "H" word and whose retail outlets don't traffic in muumuus and Tupperware. Bombshell, on the other hand, still screams category fiction.

Bombshell books are meant for romance and general readers alike, but new readers might not be prepared for the ridicule old-school fans have endured. (To read their tales of woe and revenge, visit AngryRomanceGrrl.com, helmed by Cleburne, Texas, Bombshell writer Sharron McClellan.) Each book features the distinct Silhouette Bombshell logo in the upper left-hand corner of every cover, ensuring recognition from 15 feet away. Typically clocking in at either 295 or 298 pages exactly, these novels are still formula fiction and often suffer from the lack of subtlety familiar to it. Several of the books echo a kind of overeagerness, reminding readers ad nauseam of the same gender-reversal theme, as if to prepare them for a quiz: "Amanda's dad had been the last man to hit her and live," reads Body Double's prized refrain, mercilessly repeated in ever more macho versions. "That was a record she intended to keep intact." This sort of repetitive overcompensation tends to serve less as an affirmation than as a reminder that strong women are an exception.

Despite some clumsiness, however, Bombshells do develop the kind of inspiring characters and stories that linger in the imagination, as in Maureen Tan's richly nuanced A Perfect Cover, about a Vietnamese-American investigating a string of murders in an immigrant community, or Evelyn Vaughn's A.K.A. Goddess, which chronicles the adventures of a mythology professor who battles pillagers of ancient artifacts. At heart these are purely escapist books, so action-filled and idealistic they're like reading TV – just not so easily accessible. The brilliant convenience of the romance stand, placed in the Woolworth's and Safeways where women once so dependably convened, no longer trumps the living room television, which reflects women's lives and fantasies more accurately than before.

"The bodice-ripper or the rape saga ... were a way for women to experience sexual freedom without being responsible for it," says Dees. "As the romance genre has grown up and women have become more comfortable with being more assertive with not only sex but in their relationships as well, then the days of that novel – the big brutish men and the weak helpless woman – are long, long gone. And, of course, the Bombshells are probably the final evolution of that and the completely empowered woman."

Though the romance reader has changed, the bodice-ripper stereotype has remained, and I have to admit that I'm a smirker, just like the women at HEB. That night, I went home with Bought by Her Latin Lover, No. 2412 in the Harlequin Presents series. Unlike the Bombshells, Latin Lover is pretty one-track-minded: She thinks about him, he thinks about her, she thinks about him some more, and then they do it. Transparent misunderstandings deter the beautiful, wealthy couple from harmonious perfection until the end. The high point of my experience was the following line: "Desire was already shimmering between them like petrol vapour. It would sheet into flame the moment he induced flashpoint!" I both love that line and believe it to be the reason I don't read romance. It's just too silly.

"I don't ever want to apologize for romance novels," says Dees, who confesses to having flung the last bodice-ripper she read against a wall, vowing never again to read that author. "Love conquers all is the message of a romance, and that's a great message. ... I just think some of them have class and some of them don't."

As A.K.A. Goddess author Vaughn points out, as a genre devoted solely to women's issues, romance has placed the biggest one front and center: whom a woman marries. For most of history, this decision simply has not had the make-it-or-break-it power over a man's life that it has had over a woman's. From that perspective, Harlequin's stagnating sales and aging readership – which prompted the launch of RDI and Bombshell in the first place – seem like a very good sign. The romance novel's dramatic evolution over the past few decades, expanding to include the scope of women's issues – single motherhood, breast cancer, a growing confidence in physical capability – must reflect a dramatic evolution in its readers. But if fiction really does begin to keep pace with women's lives, it will take more than one fiction category – no matter how many hybrids it spawns – and more than one category publisher to reflect them. In which case Harlequin's new corporate vision statement – "world domination of women's fiction" – might more accurately describe where it's been than where it's headed. end story


Thanks to Harlequin and Romance Writers of America for providing some of the statistics found in this article.

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