Spicing it up

THE BALTIMORE SUN

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.

Another relic of older romances used to be a rape element, says author Jina Bacarr, who wrote The Blonde Geisha, which will be released July 25 as the third novel in the Spice series.

"It used to be, a guy had to force sex on a woman in romance novels for her to enjoy it and awaken her urges," says Bacarr, 43, of Huntington Beach, Calif. "There's a reason why they were called bodice rippers. That, thank God, has gone by the wayside. Now, the woman is ripping his clothes off."

How hot does it get? Take the beginning of this steamy encounter from Spice's Getting Even, written by Kayla Perrin, whose book revolves around three scorned women: "Relax, baby," the heroine's fiance says to her. "You've got two guys here to fulfill your every fantasy."

The sizzling specificity that follows in a utility closet between Claudia, Adam and an overly affable bartender would warrant more than the literary equivalent of an NC-17 movie rating.

"That really is a big change," Mussell says. "Romances have been accused of being pornographic for a long time. A lot of it was discomfort with female sexuality. But in actuality, past romances were pretty tame."

Getting edgy

The more wholesome nature of stories was the result of big publishing houses declaring -- for decades -- that there was no audience for such brazen behavior, particularly because the main characters, and the readers, were women. But several years ago, authors like Baltimore's Zane began self-publishing edgier novels about liberated women loving, losing and living lasciviously. Some, like Ellora's Cave creator Tina Engler, found a fervent following by offering erotica online.

Readers can still buy erotica on the Internet, but now they can also pop into the local Borders or Barnes & Noble to quench their desire for such stories of love and lust.

But some observers, such as Pamela Regis, a professor at McDaniel College in Westminster, say such fare strays so far from its roots, it is simply not romance any more.

These erotic works are love stories but not romance novels, Regis, who has written a book called A Natural History of the Romance Novel, writes in an e-mail interview. "A romance novel is a work of prose fiction that tells the story of the courtship and betrothal of one or more heroines."

While conventional romance stories didn't always end in a marriage every single time, Regis says, there was always a promise between the characters to remain in a relationship.

Modern erotic fiction knows no such bounds. In Getting Even, for example, only one of the female leads ends up with a man, but only after she catches her husband in flagrante delicto, he abandons her for the other woman and she then hooks up with someone who is investigating her husband. It's definitely not your grandma's sweet tale of love.

"I think it's important that the publishing houses do a good job of labeling these books so that readers know what to expect," says author Jenna Peterson, 29, of Bloomington, Ill., who has a short story in Avon's first erotic-romance collection, Parlor Game and Other Stories.

"You don't want to surprise readers, but I've found that readers of my erotic romances are young and old. They're young people who are more in tune with their sexuality, and even 70-year-olds who say, 'Wow. That was really hot.'

"I think it's empowering."

And maybe too ardently adventurous for Middle River legal assistant Kim Bender, who has been reading Harlequins, Nora Roberts and other romance novelists for at least 20 years. Lucky for her, the publishing houses are still pushing the more traditional page-turners.

Seeking happiness

Bender has come to rely on stock characters, often named Brooke or Tristan. She wants the men to be charming, smart and drop-dead gorgeous. She adores the women who are strong, sharp and beautiful. She looks forward to the tension, conflict and obstacles they must overcome. And lastly, she expects a happy ending.

"I just like that everyone always gets together," says the 36-year-old about her love affair with romance. "For me, it's got to have a good story line, it's got to have a happy ending and it's got to have a smidge of sex rolled in."

Innuendo is just fine by Bender, who figures her ability to fill in the blanks is more than enough.

"Sometimes," she says of the romance novels she savors, "you want to go take a cold shower afterward."

dan.thanh.dang@baltsun.com

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