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The Big Business of Bodice Rippers

The best-selling literary genre in the world: romance novels. We’ll look at the red-hot literature of love.

A collection of romance novels on display. (Courtesy RoniLoren / Flickr)

A collection of romance novels on display. (Courtesy RoniLoren / Flickr)

Once you could tell what people were reading by the cover of their book.  Now, so much is on Kindle and its cousins that you don’t know.  But we’ll tell you.  By raw numbers, the odds are they’re reading romance novels.  “Scoundrel’s Captive.”  “Temptation Ridge.”  “My Fair Viking.”  “Montana Bride.”  Romance novels – what we once called “bodice rippers” – are a $1.4 billion market.  That’s twice the size of “inspirational”.  A billion more than “literary” fiction.  What’s in it?  Well, a lot of sex.  And emotion.  And figuring out gender roles.  This hour On Point:  reading romance, and where the steam is now.

– Tom Ashbrook

Guests

Wendy Crutcher, librarian at the Orange Country Public Library (CA). Romance Writers of America “Librarian of the Year” in 2011. Blogger at “The Misadventures of Super Librarian.” (@superwendy)

Angela Knight, New York Times-bestselling romance and erotic author. (@AngelaKnight)

Jesse Barron, editor at Harper’s Magazine. His piece in the latest issue, “Bad Romance,” [Paywall] details his trip to the first annual Romance Novel Convention in Las Vegas, Nevada.

From Tom’s Reading List

NPR: Romance Novels Sweep Readers Off Their Feet With Predictability — “One thing that you have understand if you’re gonna get into writing romance is that the things that are valued in that genre are not the same things that are valued when we read something like literary fiction. So you’re gonna want to hone your prose until its extremely clear, it’s very, very fast, the dialogue is funny and the plots are really engaging.”

Huffington Post: The Real Men Who Read Romance Novels — “Romance novels are often dismissed as guilty pleasures and something to be ashamed of by both men and women. In fact, as a woman, I often notice people are surprised to learn that I, with my two English literature degrees, write romance novels. While guys reading ‘girls books’ confounds our gender expectations and may lead to an extra element of surprise and snark, it seems that attitude often just comes with the genre — no matter who is reading it.”

Bangor Daily News: Romance Writers name Old Town woman Librarian of the Year — “When Romance Writers of America announced that Whitten had received the award, she received congratulations from members via email from all over the United States. She will be the guest of honor at the organization’s conference in July in Atlanta, where she will address several thousand people. ‘I’m passionate about the romance genre, a strong proponent of it,’ Whitten said.”

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  • Ray in VT

    One of the classic works on the genre is Reading the Romance by Janice Radway.

    When I worked in bookstores romance novels were almost exclusively bought by women, and many seemed to have very particular tastes. Some preferred the historical romances, while others like paranormal romances. Some of the genre descriptors on the spines seemed to start getting really specific, and kind of funny, about a decade ago.

    Some also preferred things of a more saucy nature, and some romance novel readers also bought things like Laurel K. Hamilton’s books, which, I am told, are pretty racy. Then one also gets into the sort of outright erotic fiction that used to get shelved with the “relationship” books.

    • Emily4HL

      Its pretty much the only work on the genre–and was mostly based on her Smithfield readers–which was a very small, non-diverse group or about 20 women. I do think Radway makes some good points, but there’s so much more to be said.

      And at this point, her work is largely outdated. I personally like to play a game where I read the book, guess the publication year, and then check. You can usually tell Radway’s generation from those written in the late ten years.

      • TFRX

        I personally like to play a game where I read the book, guess the publication year, and then check.

        I play the same game with old movies (say, before 1980) I don’t recognize. But in movies there are extra clues: Makeup and hair, couture, lighting, even the wear and tear of the print.

        Speaking of romantic fiction–to go full circle–I’ve read any number of good books which describe why certain romantic and class themes change in movies over relatively short time intervals.

    • TFRX

      “[x author's] books, I am told, are pretty racy”

      Awfully specific denial, Ray.

      • Ray in VT

        Yeah, “people” tell me. Actually a number of my sci-fi/fantasy friends have specifically mentioned her books, and a couple have quite frankly said that it was a reason that they started reading them. They don’t really appeal to me. I guess that I’m more of a visual person.

    • keltcrusader

      I worked for Borders Book for several Xmas seasons and it was always interesting to see what people were reading. Loved it when I was able to find what customers were looking for and, in turn, was introduced to books that I normally wouldn’t have read and really enjoyed. Great learning experience!

      • Ray in VT

        I worked at Waldenbooks and Barnes and Noble for several years, and I had a great time. Trying to connect someone with the book that they really thought that they would like was really gratifying. I used to get asked questions in book stores where I didn’t even work, because, people said, I looked like I worked there. There are worse things in life than looking like one should work in a book store.

        • J__o__h__n

          That happened to me too. I didn’t work in a book store but worked in a library.

          • Ray in VT

            Maybe there’s a common “bookish” look for both groups.

            I always liked the fact that librarians weren’t selling anything. I figured that if I was going to sell something, then books would probably be the best thing to sell.

          • J__o__h__n

            I was mistaken for an economist once while waiting for the subway. I was puzzled and asked why and he told me it was because I was using my time wisely by reading while waiting.

          • Ray in VT

            The only other thing that I have been mistaken for is Jewish. That I credit to my “Gallic” nose.

  • J__o__h__n

    Did the Kindle put Fabio out of work?

    • Kathy

      It’s more like the Kindle put him to work nudge nudge!

  • keltcrusader

    The only books I read in this “genre” are the “Outlander” series by Diana Gabaldon. They are well researched and very well written by an author who has degrees in zoology, marine biology, and quantitative behavioral biology, and was a university professor that wrote scientific articles before moving into fiction writing. The series is a mixture of historical, romance, and fantasy. They are funny, provocative, and compelling reading. Many men read them too if the comments sections on her FB are any indication. Otherwise, not a fan of this type of books.

    • Ray in VT

      Those are pretty much the only romance novels that I ever saw men buying. To the best of my recollection I don’t even recall men buying romance novels around the holidays.

      • keltcrusader

        who would down vote this comment? Sorry that I like intelligent writers?

        • Ray in VT

          Yeah, who knows with the down votes. I really enjoyed getting a down vote when I posted a comment ridiculing a Holocaust denier group.

          • keltcrusader

            there it goes again – my guess: well -I can’t even bring myself to write his absurd and totally untrue moniker – we aren’t friends and I prefer it that way.

          • Ray in VT

            Haters gotta hate, right? Somebody probably just doesn’t like you and down votes you on sight.

        • myblusky

          Probably because your statement comes off as very arrogant “I don’t buy these romance novels except for the ones written by so and so because that writer has “x” amount of degrees and they are so intelligent, just like me”. The finishing touch was letting us all know they are okay because men read them -ugh! The statement made me cringe the minute I read it. So judgmental towards a genre of writing and the people who read it. So yeah, I’m guessing that’s what the down votes are for.

          • keltcrusader

            lol spare me

    • skelly74

      I’m fixing to pick up a copy of “120 Days of Sodom” sometime soon. I have never been a fan of romance novels or erotic fiction, except a forced dredge through Jane Austen in college. However, I still read physical books and I fear those who know the work of De Sade will judge me as a sick pervert and throw me in jail.

      I guess I’ll start choosing paper at the grocery store before I buy the book.

      • keltcrusader

        The Marquis was a very interesting guy, to put it nicely.

        • skelly74

          He would have gotten along well with Quentin Tarantino.

  • MarkVII88

    My wife just loves the books by Nora Roberts and her pseudonym J.D. Robb. She loves them because they are always fun to read. We must have at least 100 of these on our kindle.

  • Sue Leroux

    I am looking for likable characters that make me laugh and empathize. Nora Roberts and Susan Elizabeth Phillips do this so well. And ultimately, I need a happy ending. I live in the real world. Romance novels are my antidote to that.

    • Pirate Wench

      I personally read Roberts when she’s writing under J.D.Robb I’ve always been more a murder mystery girl, and her In Death series mixes that with well written sexual interludes between the main character and her husband.

      • TFRX

        Do you follow the exploits of Anna Pigeon?

  • J__o__h__n

    I’m reading a disturbing romance novel at the moment – Days of Fire: Bush and Cheney in the White House.

  • ian berry

    Is this really a new thing?- there was always a huge romance section in any grocery or drug store. HUGE. Has that not been the case in the last 10-20 years?

  • Coastghost

    Looks as if a generation or two of high-brow feminist literary critical pirouetting has paid off: women’s reading tastes have attained the values of the proffered critical gravity: thus, vapid sex, titillating escapism, conventional emotional sappiness, membrane-thin characterizations, flat lexical content and diminished semantic purport, intellectual pretense (if there is one!) or considerable intellectual disengagement. –Oh, and the outbreak of wholly oneiric thought: the female protagonist’s inevitable conquest of the feminist male ideal, viz., the Submissive Alpha Male.

    • Sue Leroux

      You need to read some of these books before you judge. Romance novels are where you find really strong, dominant men. Women WANT that. But they want more. They want strong, dominant men who meet their equal and are big enough to show their hearts and share their innermost feelings.

      It’s tough to find that in real life.

      • The poster formerly known as t

        Maybe because we see that as form of weakness in non alpha-male men in real life.

    • Ray in VT

      While I think that romance novels have few, if any redeeming values, I think that they still rank higher than, say, Hayek’s statements regarding the nature of National Socialism and its supposed equivalence to the government of Great Britain in the 1920s. At least everyone knows that romance novels are fiction.

      • Coastghost

        Funny: I myself rank Hayek’s Nobel Prize for Economics MUCH higher in value than the dipsy Nobel Peace Prize awarded to Barack Obama. At least Hayek doesn’t threaten to blunder his way into World War III as we speak.

        • geraldfnord

          Neither of their prizes were for a ‘hard’ science—economics’ pretensions thereto are cute in the way an average five-year-old’s essaying a Shakespearian soliloquy were cute, though that comparison holds less well for neuroeconomics, and much of modern economics were fine when considered solely as a branch of mathematics and of philosophy with no well-defined objective correlate—so neither prize were relevant to a judgement of the practical talents of the men winning.

          At least Obama had the decency to not hide his views on war’s sometime-necessity in his acceptance speech, and Hayek the decency to write (before his dotage and adfiction to the love of his fam-boys supervened)

          The successful use of competition does not preclude some types of government interference. For instance, to limit working hours, to require certain sanitary arrangements, to provide an extensive system of social services is fully compatible with the preservation of competition. There are, too, certain fields where the system of competition is impracticable. For example, the harmful effects of deforestation or of the smoke of factories cannot be confined to the owner of the property in question. But the fact that we have to resort to direct regulation by authority where the conditions for the proper working of competition cannot be created does not prove that we should suppress competition where it can be made to function. To create conditions in which competition will be as effective as possible, to prevent fraud and deception, to break up monopolies— these tasks provide a wide and unquestioned field for state activity.

        • Ray in VT

          It’s a good thing the that good people at the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences looked at Hayek’s economic theories rather than his take on history, as that could very well have been a deal breaker, based upon how some of those pretty well don’t align with reality.

          We’re on the verge of World War III? Who knew. I thought that we were all supposed to be serfs by now, based upon how we were all supposed to lose our freedoms at the expense of growing activities of the state. There seems to be plenty of political freedom throughout the western world despite the existence of the social welfare state.

        • Ray in VT

          “Sound historical analysis”. Feh. The part that I read had precious little of that.

  • Jordan

    Surely “erotic romance” has become a huge industry, especially in the
    ereader world. What fascinates me is the hypocritical way Amazon treats
    these titles. On the one hand, Amazon is making big, big money from
    these books; on the other, they exclude many of these titles from their
    genre and key word searches. If one doesn’t know the title or the author
    name, the prospective reader will simply not find that which she or he
    seeks.

    • Coastghost

      Ahhh, but Jeff Bezos (by virtue of his management of Amazon and his acquisition of WaPo) has become a key supporter of National Public Radio: NPR is not about to badmouth one of its critical supporters.

  • Michael

    It’s interesting how pornography has twisted young men’s expectations about sex… wondering if there’s any evidence that erotic fiction has had the same insidious effect on women.

  • J__o__h__n

    Vampire Knights of the Round Table? At least Abe only killed the zombies.

  • Coastghost

    Does Mr. Barron only admit that male publishers are quite pleased to sell mass market pulp by the ton for at least as long as women’s tastes in reading matter are so discerning, so elevated? (Surely women in publishing are just as eager to see this stuff sell.)

  • Emily4HL

    Bear in mind that Pride and Prejudice, and in fact all of Austen, is in the romance genre.

  • TFRX

    Sylvia Day’s “Bared to You” has been described as “the book Fifty Shades wants to be when it grows up”.

  • geraldfnord

    I am not at all surprised that feminist ideologues would deceive themselves into thinking that something many women like were ‘actually’ feminist, ideology being functiomally equivalent to the desire to avoid proper observation and thinking, and so to be deceived…the genre offers women nothing better than ‘topping from below’, a world in which Good and Evil are defined by who does or does not love the Mary Sue (author’s or reader’s or both), but real agency were still in the hands of the powerful male love-object.

    Perhaps there are exceptions—but I would bet that for every such there wrre fifty shades of “Twighlight” or “Atlas Shrugged” (original title: “Love’s Rape-y Übermensch II”).

    • Emily4HL

      There are lots of exceptions, especially in the last 10 years. Powerful, authoritative men still exist in the genre, but the way female characters react to them is very different. The “fiesty” heroine who fights the man for the sake of fighting is going out of fashion.

      Curious about what you’ve read…I read Twilight to see how little agency Bella had, so I could criticize it. I must say that while I don’t like the book, I was pleasantly surprised.

  • Emily4HL

    One of the other interesting arguments about the romance genre is that
    it is an incredibly safe genre, not just because of the happy ending.
    Horrible stuff happens to women constantly in most forms of media and
    entertainment. How many murdered rape victims do your favorite crime dramas rely on every night? There is some violence against women in the genre, and occasionally heroines that were victimized, but they triumph and recover. More frequently, we don’t go past the threat of violence against women.

    I must admit, that after a steady diet of romance through a long illness, I am somewhat afraid to step into more “literary” fiction or even fantasy/action where horrible degradation and violence may confront me at the turn of any page.

  • TFRX

    I didn’t hear all the show, but wonder if Lori Gottlieb’s name came up. Her latest hackpiece is gracing the NYT Magazine, and writes a lot of checks her “scholarship” can’t cash.

    I won’t link to it–find it yourself.

    But if you want your researcher to come up with a concluion with real thin evidence to support it, mostly anecdata from her own patients, then put a big CavutoQuestion title on it, then the NYT and Gottlieb are for you.

    Big shout-out to NYT Mag trolling its readers with fiction that passes as non-fiction.

  • myblusky

    Thanks for having Angela on. I read her book Passionate Ink which was a great read for any aspiring writer. She made a very valid point about romance books supporting literary fiction and that it shouldn’t be shunned or discounted. Jesse and Angela also made a great point that romance writers aren’t seeking validation from reviewers or critics.

    Life is short and often hard. If a book provides some entertainment, escapism and an emotional connection then I’m all for it.

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