Spicing it up

The once formulaic romance novel, in which all the action happened in sidelong glances and behind closed doors, has gone explicit in new and racier books by old stalwarts like Harlequin


Romance -- or rather, reading about romance -- just isn't what it used to be.

In the old days, girl met boy, her heart would flutter and there would be fireworks. They would overcome enormous obstacles, realize their love for each other and embrace with unbridled passion. Everyone, including the girl, the boy and the satisfied reader, knew the couple would live happily ever after. These days, girl meets boy but the fluttering and obstacle-overcoming may instead just lead to them jumping in bed and tying each other up.

Be warned, ye of tender heart.

Today's romance novel has shaken off its demure, old-fashioned notions of courtship and replaced them with graphic plot lines involving multiple partners, threesomes, romps outdoors and even bondage. What's more, these new tales of love offer no promise of fidelity or the once-obligatory happy ending that readers have become accustomed to.

What is guaranteed, however, is plenty of ooh-la-la action that's no longer hidden behind suggestive book covers and bedroom innuendo.

"Women have been starving for this for years," says May Chen, editor for HarperCollins' line of romance novels, called Avon. "There's a huge demand for it."

Just about all the big-name players in romance novels have spun off racier imprints recently to appeal to this growing market: Last May, Penguin launched its Berkley Heat line, and Kensington Books introduced Aphrodisia in January. Avon begat Avon Red, which issued two books this month, and the grande dame of the romance field, Harlequin, started Spice last month.

Ellora's Cave Publishing Co. even trademarked this new sub-genre of the romance novel, calling it "Romantica" for its combination of romance and erotica.

"Obviously, this isn't for everyone," Chen says. "If you pick up an Avon book, you know you're in for a wild ride. Readers are still looking for the fantasy of a good story, but they're also looking for that extra tidbit. I think it's the evolution of women being open and honest about what they read, being unafraid to say, `Yeah, I like sexy fiction,' and being unafraid to read it on the subway instead of downloading it at home on the computer."

The move is not entirely new for the industry. Romance novels have long offered something for a wide range of readers, whether they are fans of paranormal love with interest in time travel, werewolves and witches, or devotees of historical love, set in, say, the Wild West or 19th-century Japan.

Such broad appeal has made romance novels bloom over the years to generate more than $1 billion in sales in 2004, according to the Romance Writers of America. Romance books made up 39.3 percent of all fiction sold and 55 percent of paperback sales in 2004, according to the writers' group, with many authors, such as Lisa Jackson and Maryland's Nora Roberts, often landing on best-seller lists.

But recently, publishing houses say erotica, the fastest-growing niche within the romance genre, has readers hollering for sex, sex and more sex.

Amazing response

"The response has really been amazing," says Susan Pezzack, editor of Harlequin's Spice line. "The fact that we've all started erotica lines shows that there's a big enough market for all of us. Compared to five years ago, erotica is growing by leaps and bounds.

"In the past, there was always a stigma associated with reading romance novels," Pezzack says. "But these books are not old-fashioned, corny romances. It's also not some random pizza guy showing up and everyone's going at it. This is a sophisticated level of sex for women who are not embarrassed to say they enjoy sex and celebrate it."

Some say the push toward more permissive sexual impulses in romance novels was inevitable.

With books and movies like Bridget Jones's Diary and TV shows like Sex and the City -- not to mention the proliferation of sex columnists in many magazines and even college newspapers -- chaste romances increasingly seem like a quirk from the past.

After all, female characters began embracing their strength and independence in other parts of their lives long ago. By the '70s and '80s, heroines were already holding high-powered jobs in law, medicine and big corporate industries -- giving them equal footing with their male counterparts, says Kay Mussell, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at American University.

But the sexual revolution took a bit longer to go mainstream in romance novels.

"One of the Harlequin series actually had a premarital sexual encounter in the 1980s," says Mussell, who has studied the increase of explicit sex in romance novels. "Mind you, it ended up with a resolution and marriage, but that really unleashed the whole bit."

Before that, sex scenes were couched in euphemisms, such as a woman's "heated desire" or "rich experience" -- with her husband, of course.

In the new erotic novels, such delicate language is mostly gone, replaced by words such as "thrusting" and "grinding" and others too risque to mention.

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