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Romance Novels: A National Resource
by Dr. Vicki Hinze

Let’s celebrate the magic of books!

Books are magical. They must be. What else could explain our reading words on a page and those words firing our imaginations, transporting us into living an adventure being carried out in a novel’s pages?

Reading encourages us to dream, it entertains us, and if we’re lucky--and the author has done his or her job well--then books also fulfill a secondary purpose. They allow us to experience something that offers us new insight or a fresh perspective. At the end of the novel, we see something in a different light than we did before we’d read the book.

Regardless of whether a novel is literary, mainstream, or genre fiction--single title or category--good writing is good writing. What defines the type of novel isn’t the quality of writing, but on what novel element the writer chooses to focus and place emphasis. In a mystery novel, of course, the focus is on the mystery. In romance, the emphasis is on the development of the relationship between the lead female and male protagonists.

I could remind you that romance novels hold the lion’s share of paperback sales--55% of the market. It’s a billion-dollar-a-year industry. These novels have expanded into hard cover under auspices of being tagged mainstream women’s fiction, and combined with single title and category romances, they hold a respectable number of slots on bestsellers’ lists. But if you’re involved in this business, then you already know those things. Just as you know that romance novels’ strong sales provide publishers funds to publish important and valued but less commercial works.

I could also tell you the demographics of the average romance reader. That she’s around forty, a professional career woman with some college education. But considering that you encounter readers on a daily basis, you already know this, too.

So what can I tell you that you might not know?

Well, I can offer you a writer’s perspective on why, in the eyes of many readers and writers, romance novels have become a valuable national resource.

Historically, our society has largely been shaped by our political leaders. Today, our culture remains as dynamic as ever and it’s still in a constant state of evolution. But, unfortunately heroic political leadership is scarce. In short, we need heroes. Whether female or male, we need heroes desperately.

Heroes help us form our attitudes. Help us define the boundaries of what we consider acceptable and unacceptable, including in behavior and conduct. They are people we admire. Not people like us, but like the people we want to be. People who do the right thing—or who do the wrong thing for the right reasons.

For example, to save the life of an innocent child. Heroes are not perfect. They struggle, just as we do, and yet they hold deep convictions, high standards, and a strong code of personal ethics that enables them to prevail over their challenges.

Those human qualities--honor, integrity, courage, dignity--are found consistently in romance novels. And I believe they account for its popularity in the market. In these novels, we find leaders we feel comfortable following. Worthy role models.

As a society we resent moral decay and deplore the exhibition of a lack of true character. True character, I think, more so than any other reason--including our innate fascination with love--has enabled romance novels to stretch the boundaries established in the genre’s infancy and encouraged it to grow into the versatile market romance novels is today.

How versatile is the romance novel market? Well, I’ve personally written political thrillers, techno-thrillers, suspense, mystery, fantasy, time travel, paranormals, psychodrama, military thrillers, espionage, and psychological suspense novels--all within the romance genre. I’ve explored philosophy, religion, spirituality; issues such as abuse, alcoholism, child neglect; crimes involving biological, chemical, psychological warfare, environmental terrorists, kidnapping, treason, and murder.

That’s a pretty versatile market. And I think it proves that the romance genre remains fluid and agile, reflecting the current concerns and challenges of people in our society. That agility offers readers the ability to peek into characters’ lives and see how they resolved similar challenges--constructively.

A few years ago, I co-created what’s believed to be romance’s first open-ended, continuity series of single title novels. The name of the series is Seascape. I wrote three Seascape novels back-to-back and each of them dealt with some facet of abuse. Men, women, children--emotional, physical, or spiritual. Each main character struggled to overcome the affects of abuse. In the books, the characters realized they had to confront the demon to heal. To love themselves before they could be capable of loving someone else. This is the only way to break the cycle of abuse, and the characters met the challenges and did it. They broke the cycle constructively.

I can’t tell you exactly how many letters I’ve received from fans about these books. Fans citing that I’d written the story of their lives. I can tell you those letters fill a box meant to hold ten reams of paper. In these letters, there’s an echoing refrain. Readers stating that until they’d read the books, they hadn’t been able "to find a way out" of the abusive situation. After reading these romance novels, they saw "light at the end of the tunnel." A way out existed. If the characters could find it, then the readers could, too.

The readers, like the characters, realized that change must come from within. These books offered hope. In my humble opinion, offering hope and this type realization is utilizing a valuable a national resource.

In 1988, I wrote a paranormal novel titled Maybe This Time. Back then, there was no paranormal sub-genre in the romance market so, of course, I faced the challenge of explaining to editors what the book was before I could explain what the story was about. Predictably, the book was then considered too risky to be commercial. It sat on my office shelf for six years--until 1994, when an editor who had read and tried to buy it in 1990 asked me who had published it. By this time, paranormal romance had been established. When I explained its place of honor on my bookshelf, she bought the novel.

The LIBRARY JOURNAL compared this novel to The Outlander, though I can’t personally say it’s similar for fact as I’ve never read Outlander. (I know that sounds strange, so I’ll explain. I do think it’s important for a novelist to keep up with developments. Writing is a dynamic market--which is great news. Because industries that aren’t dynamic become stagnate. And what happens to stagnate industries? They die.) Anyway, I’d written Maybe This Time years before The Outlander was published, but its publisher had reviewed my novel in 1990 when it was named a finalist for the Maggie Award and too many people stated similarities between the books. I’m not suggesting wrongdoing on anyone’s part. This type thing happens often. I’m not sure why, it just does. But if ever asked, I wanted to keep my integrity above question. For that reason, I did not read The Outlander, though I hear it’s an excellent book.

What is important in all of this, is that eight years after I’d written it--in 1996--Maybe This Time was published and I became intimately aware of just how deeply books can affect people’s lives. I received a letter from a fan--a woman--and I have to say that reading it was heart-wrenching.

Her nephew had committed suicide. Being more of a mother to this teen than an aunt, the woman was inconsolable. In her letter, she poured out her fears and doubts. She was overwhelmed by grief and guilt because she hadn’t seen the signs of suicide coming. She hadn’t stopped her nephew from killing himself. She felt she had failed him.

We all know that whether or not it’s fair or warranted, grief and guilt can be merciless. And it was clear in this letter that to this women both were totally without mercy.

I wasn’t surprised by this letter. The book explores what happens after you die. I’d written it to mourn the death of my father, so I understood the depth of this fan’s despair. But something she said in the letter did surprise me. It illuminated me, actually. And that is what made me realize how deeply books can affect lives.

It also drove home an author’s responsibility to write with passion and compassion, to remember that responsibility isn’t a coat. You can’t take it out of the closet and put it on when it’s convenient. You’ve got to wear it all the time, and you’ve got to feel comfortable wearing it.

What did this fan say? She said that in reading this book she’d found her way back to life. It had given her the opportunity for her own beliefs and values to reemerge. That, is a profound impact. And if it isn’t a reason to celebrate books, I don’t know what is.

I wrote back to this fan, inviting her to phone me to talk over her feelings. She desperately needed a friendly ear. She did call late one night. We talked for over an hour, and during the course of our conversation, I realized I was acting as a conduit, as a means to offer this woman a way to work past her pain. Her nephew was dead and that couldn’t be changed. But she could honor him by helping other teens in crisis. I suggested she consider getting the credentials needed to do that.

Just before Christmas this year, I received another letter from this fan. She had returned to college and gained the necessary credentials. Now, she’s working with teens in crisis.

She had found her way out of the grief-and-guilt abyss and her journey started by reading a romance novel.

Reading the book didn’t, of course, get her anywhere. What it did do was open her mind to possibilities. She then had to choose to act on them. And she did. Still, that my romance novel had opened her mind to possibilities was a gift that meant a hundred times more to me than anything that could be placed under a Christmas tree.

I learned romance novels do deeply impact lives. And I learned that romance novels do not invest in things, they invest in people.

I like that. And it proves to my satisfaction that romance novels are a valuable national resource.

After I’d written the third Seascape, I was about to start on the fourth. I went to the commissary. That’s a huge grocery store on a military base. Anyway, I paused to get something off a shelf and I overheard an airman and his wife debating between buying a can of tuna and a jar of peanut butter. They couldn’t afford both.

This stunned me. And made me feel ashamed. I’d been a military wife for nearly fifteen years at that time, and I had no idea that some military families were struggling so. My instinctive reaction was to offer to buy the stuff for this family, but that damages pride and doesn’t resolve the problem. I went home depressed and appalled. Here is a man who puts his life on the line for us, and a woman who takes up the slack when he’s gone, putting his life on the line for the rest of us, and they must debate between buying a can of tuna and a jar of peanut butter.

I researched and discovered that at that time many in the lowest four pay grades within the military were eligible for food stamps. That didn’t sweeten my mood. Now, I was appalled AND enraged. So much so that I abandoned the Seascape series to write military thrillers with a romantic element. Novels that offer outsiders an opportunity to become aware of what our service members and their families endure for all our sakes. SHADES OF GRAY was the first. After this novel, I hadn’t yet worked my way through the rage or all the ways these service members and families gift others. So I wrote DUPLICITY. And then I wrote ACTS OF HONOR, and then ALL DUE RESPECT. How many military thrillers will there be? I have no idea. Until I run out of outrage and enthusiasm, I’ll be writing this type book. Or until I become outraged or deeply enthused with another issue.

You see, I believe heart and soul that it is that emotional response of the writer writing a book that infuses the novel with the magic. The magic is the striking of a universal chord with which readers identify. A universal chord that invokes a strong emotional response in people. Without it, a novel is flat, lifeless, and without magic.

Authors, particularly of romance novels, are often bombarded with snide remarks regarding writing romance. In the media, we often still see headlines that include negative remarks, such as "bodice ripper" even though that particular device never entered many romance authors’ bibliography of books, including mine. I’m sorry to say that in its infancy, the romance genre likely earned some of those negative remarks. But now the romance novel lives in a different world. It lives in our current world and our readers are far too sophisticated and educated to embrace such unacceptable behavior. Thank heaven for that, because I personally have no desire to read such things--and there’s no way I could stomach writing them.

I have to say, that in my decade of association with the romance genre, the only people from whom I’ve heard these disparaging remarks are those who do NOT and have never read the books. Those who do read them know their value. And those who write them and hear from readers certainly understand their value.

I work twelve to fourteen hours per day and average working six days a week. Sometimes more. Because of long hours at the keyboard, I occasionally suffer physical symptoms. At times, my back, shoulder, neck and face go numb and my facial muscles sag on whatever side is numb. When this first happened, my doctor referred me to a neuro-maxiofacial surgeon for evaluation.

He was a pleasant man and very interested in books and writing. During the exam, I told him some of the plotlines of my novels. He was intrigued, and said he wanted to read my books--so long as they weren’t those "trashy" novels.

In this situation, some authors would feel compelled to defend the genre. I am not one of them. I could have gotten indignant. Actually, I could have justified feeling outraged. The good doctor had exposed his ignorance of the genre and insulted it. But I didn’t stand before this man alone. I stood supported, knowing that psychologists and psychiatrists all across this country use romance novels to show battered women what healthy relationships should be like. I stood braced, knowing good writing is good writing and if I didn’t work hard at mastering my craft I wouldn’t be suffering physical symptoms that had me sitting in the doctor’s office. But most importantly, I stood supported by each of those fan letters in that ten-ream box, and by what they represented. Ten reams’ worth of lives that had been touched by my romance novels.

I felt no need to defend genre. Who would? Instead, I smiled, thwaped the doctor’s arm, pointed to my sagging muscles, and said, "Does this look like the face of a woman who would waste her time writing trash?"

Chagrined, the doctor blushed. I was glad to see that. It’d been some time since I’d seen a man over forty blush. He really looked at me, and then smiled. "No, it does not," he said, and then asked for a written list of my titles.

These are but a few of the reasons that I can say with conviction and complete confidence that romance novels have become a valuable national resource. These novels focus on constructive solutions to current challenges society faces. They offer guidance and comfort to readers who are bewildered and frightened by new turning points in their lives. They give us our desperately needed heroes—male and female.

A novelist’s primary goal in writing is to offer the reader entertainment. If in writing you accomplish that goal and no more, you have succeeded. And before you disagree, think about it. Isn’t offering another human being a few hours’ respite from whatever challenges they happen to be facing a wonderful gift? A blessing?

A fortunate writer fulfills that primary purpose. If lucky, the writer also fulfills a secondary purpose: one of offering the reader that new insight, a fresh perspective that makes the reader more aware of another person’s suffering. That perspective results in arousing a deeper understanding and more compassion for others. It enriches and adds depth to the human psyche, elevating the capacity for sympathy to become empathy.

Such is the true value of a meaningful national resource. Such is the magic of books. And such are the reasons we should celebrate them.


 









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