Monday, January 19, 2004

Romance novelist Penelope Neri has written several best-selling novels in a 20-year career.

Isn’t it romantic?

The genre might get little respect,
but readers remain true
to romance novels

There is a world in which all bosoms are heaving and bodices rip without fail. Where heroines are the epitome of feminine beauty and virtue yet are strong-willed, with minds of their own; where the "heroes" are arrogant, powerful, d-r-r-ripping with testosterone and inevitably built with chiseled cheekbones and granite-like chests.

Welcome to the world of romance -- only found, darn it, between book covers illustrated with smoldering embraces.

The electric tug of war between said men and women is enough to keep readers of romance novels hot and intrigued enough to keep turning the pages into the wee hours ... until they get to the fairy-tale ending in which the hardened hearts of the heroes are softened by their One and Only True Love.

Millions of readers are hooked on, if not addicted to, romance novels, or "bodice rippers" -- a term coined in the 1970s when graphic sex scenes became common as an outgrowth of the women's liberation movement. Romance novels add up to more than half of ALL popular fiction sold. That's almost a quarter of all books sold and a publishing phenomenon, according to statistics compiled by Romance Writers of America, based on 2001 American Bookseller Association reports and other industry tallies.

Romance novels generated $1.52 million in American sales and drew 51.1 million readers that year, says the RWA. Time magazine declared in an article on Feb. 3, 2002, "Bodice rippers are more popular than ever."

These novels have become so popular that local and national organizations such as Romance Readers Anonymous have been formed by addicts. The original group was formed in 1992 by two librarians who felt the "anonymous" was appropriate for readers who were embarrassed to reveal their passion for "those trashy books."

The "trashy" label is partly due to their covers, which invariably depict torrid images of a beautiful, buxom heroine locked in the savage embrace of an exquisitely masculine rogue (remember Fabio?).

Although some covers now have a more dignified image, the passionate bosom-and-pectorals pose is still the norm. Many an easily embarrassed reader has been prompted to seek cashiers who don't recognize them when they are ready to pay.

Paulette McConoughey, left, and Margaret Mizuta are part of Penelope Neri's Romance Readers Anonymous group that meets monthly at Borders Books & Music in Waikele.

The romance genre remains the Rodney Dangerfield of the publishing world. Writers and readers have long complained that they get no respect, though they tend to be intelligent. (According to RWA 2001 statistics, 63 percent of romance readers attended, though did not necessarily graduate, from college -- whisked away by suitors on white horses, perhaps?)

But those who have not glanced at a romance novel in a while will discover that plot lines, historical accuracy and writing quality have improved considerably from the dime-store dramas churned out in the early '50s.

Hawaii has its own version of Romance Readers Anonymous, with no affiliation to the national organization. It was started six years ago and given the same name quite unknowingly by romance novelist Penelope Neri, a Hawaii resident since 1970 and writer of several bestsellers over 20 years.

Neri's latest, "Obsessions," is dedicated to her "wicked wahine" group at Borders Books & Music at Waikele. The name was chosen tongue in cheek because, far from seeking recovery from romance, the group "embraces the addiction," she said.

The English-born romance writer, at 52, playfully dons the persona of a saucy tavern wench of centuries past. She's quick with her wit and a wink of her eye. Gales of laughter often punctuate the group's discussions, thanks to Neri's playful repartee.

Neri said people who look down on writers and readers of romance say fans are addicted to the genre "because our lives lack romance, but that's like saying people read mysteries because their lives lack murder ... or that they want to solve murder cases."

Neri said her group has varied in number from 20 (mostly military wives who've moved on) to a "very faithful" core group of eight that meets monthly.

Romance readers "are by no means desperately seeking romance," she said. They just want to be entertained or use it as a pit stop (as in respite) in their day. They read other types of books, too, she said.

Most of the group's members are women of about Neri's age who are married or attached and read six or more books a month. The ones who spend "nothing less than a hundred (dollars) a month" on books -- such as Margaret Mizuta, of Kailua -- admit they are "addicted," but happily so. Paulette McConoughey, of Makakilo, said she was spending at least a couple of hundred a month, but it got too expensive, so she now uses the library as much as possible.

Mizuta's rationale is simple: "Romance gets me away from everyday life," she said. "It gets you away from your kids. It's a stress reliever, an escape."

Carol Kahalawai said when she's in the middle of a good book, everything gets put aside. "That laundry can stay in the washing machine. ... I can read till 2 or 3 in the morning."

One romance reader not in Neri's group, who dubbed herself "Lady L" to save herself from embarrassment, said she read Johanna Lindsey's steamy "Captive Bride" under her bedcovers using "one of those miner's lights" wrapped around her head. Her husband had initially given it to her because she had a penchant for reading in bed when he wanted to sleep.

"Lady L" has her favorite authors and "lives for the next book to come out."

She has been an addict since 12, saying the men in the novels were substitutes for the ones she was too shy to meet in real life. She said she wasn't really looking for a romance novel kind of relationship, being well aware of fantasy vs. reality. But she knew she had found the love of her life when the man she eventually married left a single yellow rose on her desk every day for a month.

What she loved about romance novels was the "buildup of sexual tension" between a strong man and a strong women. "The woman was not an easy conquest. They didn't jump into bed right away," as they seem to do on television and in the movies, she said.

McCONOUGHEY, Kahalawai and Mizuta said they have read "thousands" of books. Mizuta records every one in a steno book so she doesn't make the mistake of buying one she's already read. She even checks the dates at the front of books to see if they've been reprinted or reissued under a different title, an author's pseudonym or by another publisher.

One room in her house is covered "from floor to ceiling in books, and every room has bookshelves," even though she regularly gives away her least favorites.

At a recent monthly meeting, the readers discussed the fact that heroines in romance novels often fall for a certain type of character deemed "the bad boy" today but referred to in historical novels as "the rogue" or "the rake."

He's usually done something "sorely misunderstood by society," Neri said, but is eventually redeemed by the love of a good woman.

The bad boys are ruggedly handsome, arrogant and extraordinarily masculine, and therefore are more exciting and hard to get than the nice guys. The plot usually focuses on the way the heroine manages to wear down his defenses, becoming the one who unlocks his heart.

It's a struggle that may seem familiar to many a contemporary woman, no matter how liberated she may be, judging by the vast number of popular self-help books with titles such as "Women Who Love Too Much" and "Men Who Hate Women and the Women Who Love Them."

Penelope Neri, left, talks to Karen Spangler about how she finds the inspiration for her novels.

WHY DO WOMEN want a "bad boy" in the first place?

Because they are "more exciting" is the group's obvious, unanimous verdict.

"But the best husband is a former rake," Mizuta said. "They may start out as devils, but they end up as pussycats," under the influence of their wives.

"Maybe women like to read about them, but they don't want to be married to them," Neri said. "Maybe it's a wish fulfillment. The heroines say and do things we'd like to do if we had the courage."

In her meticulous English accent, she intones sexily that she "went for the exotic" by marrying her Hawaiian-Chinese husband, who shall remain unnamed to save him the embarrassment of being asked if he is the model for her heroes.

Kahalawai jokes: "Penny has a very vivid imagination. When she starts writing, I think (her husband) gets a workout! I know because I live several houses down, and I think I hear them!" Everyone screams with laughter.

Neri said her publishers once had to order her to insert more graphic sex scenes. "They think sex is exciting -- what's wrong with that?"

Women have a right to express their preferences, too, she said, adding, "The smart men learn more about women from reading my novels!"

She receives many letters from men, and according to RWA statistics, 9 percent of romance readers are men; the other readers are mostly married women with children.

Neri said many romance novels are distributed in shelters for abused women to give them role models -- because the heroines are so assertive and stand up for themselves.

Romance Readers Anonymous meets at 6:30 p.m. on the second Thursday of each month at Borders Waikele; call 627-8453.


Novels a healthy expression
of many women’s fantasies

How do women who have been taught not to rely on a man for happiness or fulfillment reconcile their beliefs with the world of the romance novel, where the universal theme is finding happiness through love?

Are feminism and romance mutually exclusive?

University of Hawaii women's studies professor Ruth Dawson, who teaches a literature course on "Women, Ideas and Society," among others, said romance novels "give women readers a kind of rich sexual fantasy life" which is "so very important" even though some might denigrate it.

"We don't put men down for their fantasies. It's not a harmful kind of sexuality," she said. A lot of literature provides a fantasy life anyway. "Look at crime fiction. It's exciting and different from our everyday world.

"Most of us are more sophisticated readers than to confuse fantasy with reality. We know we're reading a book, not a road map for our own lives."

Most of the women who read romance novels are "working, educated women," and "I rejoice in this development -- that women characters are so much more independent, autonomous and bright" than they were depicted in earlier stories, she said.

"Romance novels are to women what football is to men ... yet football is not trivialized or treated as something shameful," she said. These "novels are treated as trivial junk, but they are clearly serving a function. Maybe it's because our work lives are so unpleasant, alienating and masculine."

Dr. Mitzi Gold, of the Mars & Venus Counseling Centers, who has been trained in the principles made famous by author/speaker Dr. John Gray, said, "Everyone is looking for a soul mate ... a connection with another person on a deep level. Most of them believe there's someone out there for them, and are looking for at least one person to fully open up to and love and be loved by."

Gray wrote the best-selling "Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus" and a subsequent series of books expounding the theory that men's and women's basic needs are very different, so each must interpret what the other wants in order to achieve a fulfilling relationship.

Gold said the women who come to her for counseling do so because they are not getting the emotional support they need from their partners. They need to share and discuss their lives in detail with someone who truly listens, she said.

Romance novels are usually written by women; they are "wordy" and include a lot of details about feelings, something women really appreciate, Gold said. In contrast, what they get from a "macho type" of partner is a list of solutions instead of a sympathetic ear, and that causes them to "shut down."

Gold is all for reading romance novels if women find their lives lacking romance. "It's good to stay in touch with your sensuality," she said, "but it's better to create it in real life. You've got to get out and practice it, go where the attraction might be.

"You don't have to have a partner in life, but if you want one, it behooves you to create space for a relationship to come in. Women are so busy now. ... They've become so self-sufficient." But men also "like to feel needed and important to their partners," she said.

"I talk a lot about romance and the need to continue to create it" once a relationship has been going on awhile. That means showing caring, respect, listening and being observant of the other partner's needs.

She said men know the basic rules for making women feel special when they are courting, such as buying flowers and planning romantic dinners. But once they are married or the relationship has progressed, she said men "get amnesia. ... They don't continue to do the things that worked to get the women in the first place."

Romance is "so important" to a relationship. "The reason we all dream about romance is the sensuality of it. ... It gives us such a great feeling," Gold said.

So are feminism and romance mutually exclusive? No, women seem to want it all.

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