One of the criticisms often aimed at romance novels is that they’re escapist – as if that was a bad thing. Let’s face it, life has never exactly been a barrel of laughs. From the cave days when practically everything was out to eat us – the reason we developed a flight or fight instinct – to the rat race of today, survival is literally impossible. After all, one hundred per cent of vegetarian fitness fanatics also die. Taking what comfort we can in our entertainment makes more sense to me than miring ourselves in misery and despair. If we aren’t going to get out of this world alive, why not make the most of the ride?
For me, romance novels fit the bill perfectly. Sure, the characters go through every kind of trial we writers can inflict on them. In the writing business, this is called getting your characters up a tree and throwing rocks at them. But we also have an unspoken deal with our readers that everything will end happily, or at least satisfactorily. Modern romances don’t have to end with a proposal of marriage, but there’s always the promise that things will turn out for the best, even if writers sometimes swap Mr. Right for Mr. Right-For-Now. I have a lot of trouble watching movies or reading books where everybody I’ve come to like dies in the end. That’s real life, and it isn’t what romance novels are all about.
Romances cross all cultural and political barriers. My books have now sold over 30 million copies and are published in dozens of countries and languages as diverse as Icelandic, Bulgarian, Chinese and Korean. They’re sold in “chunks” on mobile phones, as Manga in Japan (adult novels in comic book format). They’re roaring onto ebook readers faster than you can say download. I even have a pirate edition of one of my books from Thailand. Why that excites me I’m not sure, unless it puts romances up there with Gucci and Nike. As far as I can establish, readers in all these languages and formats want much the same thing – an uplifting story that they know will end happily.
This doesn’t mean readers are living lives of quiet desperation. I think it’s more likely we need escape from a too-hectic everyday life where women take care of everybody’s needs except their own. That may explain why virtual babies are so popular, demanding no time or care. Romance heroines frequently inherit property, giving them instant freedom from mortgage stress. The heroes are rich and powerful. Not hard to see the appeal in a world where women may well be the family’s sole breadwinner, or one partner can be out of work for months at a time.
Then there’s the sex. No matter how they’re written, love scenes portray closeness, intimacy and consideration, correlating with what women often say they want from a relationship. Love scenes can be anything from tame to torrid, as long as they emphasise these elements of caring and commitment. When Jennifer Byrne was my publisher at Reed Books, she asked me why women in romances are always attracted to bastards. The answer is that winning against a wimp is no triumph. There are no emotional stakes in loving a saint. Taming a tiger is way more satisfying. And a tame tiger is guaranteed not to trigger your fight or flight instincts.
Why do you read or write romance novels? I’ve love to know.
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