MANY WOMEN readers, in their private moments, prefer to indulge in the soft seduction of romance. Who, I wonder, has the right to begrudge them this pleasure?
Romance fiction is being accused of many crimes. Critics denounce the genre as formulaic trash, soft-core porn, erotic escapism and food for junk-book junkies. They bewail the taste of the reading public, the state of publishing and the decline of literature. They are, it seems, convinced that the increasing popularity of romance novels indicates a rot in the core of our intellectual apparatus, and that 20 million romance readers are in desperate need of being saved, not from a fate worse than death, but from a harmful desire for fantasy.
I write romance novels for fun, for money and increasingly for the challenge. The traditional romance novel of the '60s and '70s as exemplified by the early Harlequin line has altered drastically since American publishers such as Silhouette, Dell and Jove entered the market. The formula -- sweet virginal young thing travels to exotic locale, meets older, handsome hero and falls in love -- is no longer viable in a society whose mores have been formed by the sexual revolution and the women's movement.
Romance heroines are older, more savvy and equal to the hero in intellect, sophistication and accomplishment. The hero of the Heathcliff variety -- dark, brooding and macho -- has evolved into a man of the "Kramer vs. Kramer" mold -- sensitive, vulnerable and blessed, thank God, with a sense of humor.
Which isn't to say that romance novels deal with reality. They skirt the edges of life, dabbling in issues that face women today without actually getting their hands dirty. The happy endings give a rosy mantle to every serious problem; thorny conundrums are solved by the power of love.
The divorced mother struggling on her own, for example, marries the wealthy hero; a young woman's frigidity melts in the heat of the hero's lovemaking; the choice between career and motherhood is solved with the heroine getting her cake and managing to eat it, too. Real life often lets us down, but romance novels don't. And it's precisely the "niceness" of the genre that appeals to the readers and makes the critics climb the walls. It's fantasy, they say, and it's no good.
For some reason, women's fantasies seem to be reprehensible. Feminist critics particularly dislike those elements of romance novels that depict women as desirous of love, commitment and emotional support. A recent Ms. article stated that "romance offers the lesson that though we may achieve success, financial independence, sexual experience, and maturity, women are still somehow incomplete without the love of a dominant man."
Why are feminists blind to one of the romance novel's most outstanding features? -- that the hero wants love, commitment and emotional support with the same intensity as the heroine. He is, in fact, only half a man without her.
The attraction of the romance novel for women is a complex one. It is an inexpensive form of entertainment in a time of high prices. It is written in an uncomplicated style that allows a reader to be passive. And it has a plot line that avoids controversial and depressing issues such as nuclear armament, abortion, serious illness and poverty.
It depicts the rites of sexual awakening and courtship, experiences that women seem to enjoy reliving, over and over again. In the romance genre, the new and often ambiguous roles for women in today's society have been incorporated into traditionally accepted lifestyles without dislocation.
"You're okay," says the romance novel to the reader who thinks that her family is as important as her job and who, despite the increase in the divorce rate, believes that not only does true love exist, but that marriage is a viable and desirable institution. What makes romance novels "romantic" is the commitment that the hero and heroine make to one another -- their bond is strong, passionate and, above all, enduring.
I cannot understand why the fantasy of the romance novel is considered harmful to women, and I find it odd that other forms of "escapist" literature, such as Westerns, thrillers, mysteries, science fiction and occult novels, are not as subject to heavy critical bombardment.
It would seem that male escapism via violence and bloodshed is far more acceptable than a female fantasy world where sibling rivalry, layoffs, chicken pox and rush-hour don't exist, and where the very air crackles with sensual tension, men are always sexy and intercourse is inevitably orgasmic. What precisely is so threatening about love?
The suggestion that romance novels are subversive to women strikes me as ridiculous and patronizing. As a romance writer, I have a great deal of respect for the intelligence of my audience. After all, I kmow who these women are. I've rubbed elbows with them in the supermarket and shared car-pools. I've sat next to them at the pediatrician's and at professional meetings.
They're not children and are fully capable of distinguishing between reality and fantasy. They would no more begin to act out the role of breathless ingenues than male readers of thrillers would turn into clones of James Bond, driving Ferraris at car-chase speeds down Connecticut Avenue and, at strangers, brandishing Berettas.