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Not your mother's romance novel

Posted: Monday, Nov 28th, 2011

Brookings librarian Nita Gill reads the latest Larissa Ione novel, “Immortal Rider,” during her break from work Tuesday. Ione writes paranormal romance, one of many romance sub-genres. / A selection of paranormal romances at Cover to Cover bookstore includes the House of Night series, written for juveniles by P.C. and Kristin Cast. Photos by Charis Ubben/Register

• Local women standing up for the modern romance genre

If you had asked Brookings residents Ashley Ragsdale and Nita Gill about romance novels just a few years ago, both would have turned up their noses.

“When I used to think of it, I would think of the Harlequin books with Fabio and all that kind of stuff,” Ragsdale said.

“I had the same prejudices against romance that I guess a lot of people do: They’re unintelligent, they’re all the same, they’re just smut," added Gill.

But now, these women have joined the reported 74.8 million people who read at least one romance novel in a year (the statistic is from 2008, recorded in "Business of Consumer Book Publishing 2011"). And they hope that when people know how the romance genre has evolved, they'll be more open to giving it a try themselves.

‘Bodice rippers’

Gill said she believes the romance genre of years ago earned its reputation, though she hasn't read many of the older books. They seemed to feature weak heroines and dominant heroes.

“There was a reason they were called bodice rippers,” Gill said. “It was kind of coercion on the male’s part.”

Not to mention the steamy covers. Which, by the way, have changed but not changed. Mention a romance, and people picture a sappy book cover, Ragsdale said. A perusal of romance novels in Brookings' Cover to Cover bookstore shows some still sport a scantily-clad couple locked in a lustful embrace, but others feature only a female with perhaps a fierce looking tattoo on her shoulder. There are also a lot of men’s bare chests and abs, Gill said, but she's noticed that covers tend to obscure the face of the male character.

According to a 2009 story in USA Today by Dierdre Donahue, romance author Mary Bly (who writes under the pen name Eloisa James) said the covers are a kind of shorthand, signaling to readers that the story will be about "a man and woman in a thoughtful, respectful, sensual relationship ... that will end happily." It's also about sales, Harlequin Enterprises CEO Donna Hayes told Donahue.

Modern romance

Gill said there seems to have been a transition in the 1990s toward the romances of today, though the old school examples are still available.

“They’re really quite different now. There’s strong heroes and heroines, and they have to overcome some kind of conflict in order to be together, be it personal conflicts or having to save the world or whatever,” Gill said.

Much of the change comes from the large number of romance sub-genres today: Nine of them, according to Romance Writers of America, including contemporary series, contemporary single title, historical, inspirational, paranormal, regency, romantic suspense, young adult romance and novels with strong romantic elements.

Both Brookings women are into the paranormal right now, and attend the Brookings Public Library book club called “Feathers, Fangs & Fey.” Gill, adult services librarian in Brookings, leads the club.

"I’ve read a lot of fantasy growing up and, about four or five years ago, I started getting into urban fantasy, which has a lot of the same characteristics of paranormal romance, so I gave that a try and found I really liked it, and found I was really wrong about romance," Gill said. "So, I’ve read quite a bit of paranormal romance, which led me to try historical romance, which I also really like."

Real world, modern times

A book she read this week, the latest Larissa Ione novel called “Immortal Rider,” is paranormal. Ione's website gives this description:

“Limos, Horsewoman of the Apocalypse, isn't your average girl. She's immortal, dangerous, and her fiancé is Satan himself. In a moment of weakness, she gave in to her desire and kissed Arik (a human), triggering her fiancé's wrath – and his claim on her. In order to save Arik, and the world, Limos must make a dangerous pact with her recently turned evil brother, Pestilence. A deal that might just cost her her soul … and her heart.”

The book takes place in the real world and in modern times, as do most paranormal romances, Gill said.

“It has some kind of paranormal element, like vampires or werewolves, demons or angels, something like that. Or, the person could have some psychic ability or be a witch or something like that,” Gill said.

Ragsdale began reading romances with the Twilight series, a gift from her mother-in-law. She favors urban fantasy and said that type of book can include real life situations or scenarios that are more like science fiction.

“A lot of urban fantasy nowadays, because of the popularity of all the vampires and science fiction stuff has some sort of mystical, magical,” Ragsdale said. “Nowadays, it’s more about strong characters on both sides, and them mutually figuring out what the problem is, not a woman falling all over a man.”

Why it’s popular

Strong heroines, happy endings and learning what to look for in your own relationship are reasons Gill and Ragsdale gave for enjoying romances. And, they’re just plain fun.

“One of the reasons I like romances is because the heroine, she can be smart and sexy and strong, and perfect for the hero in a way, without being negative. And you don’t get that in a lot of genres, where heroines can be strong like that,” Gill said.

"People have this idea that romances are unrealistic in romance and love. I don’t know where they get these ideas, because usually the hero and heroine have their own personal problems they have to get over in order for them to be together,” she added. “So, it’s just a way of seeing conflict being resolved. If they were all the same, like people think, I would get bored really easily and I wouldn’t enjoy reading them.”

The books are generally a quick read: 300-400 pages in a paperback, which take many readers only a few days to complete, depending on the complexity of the narrative. Plus, many romance writers link their stories in a series, which keeps readers coming back, Ragsdale said.

That’s part of the reason romance fiction was the largest share of the U.S. consumer book market in 2010, at 13.4 percent, according to “Business of Consumer Book Publishing 2011” (second place was religion/inspirational, at $759 million, then mystery, science fiction/fantasy and classic literary fiction).

In 2010, publishers released 8,240 new romance titles, and romance fiction sales are estimated at nearly $1.4 billion for 2011.

Here, Brookings Public Library Director Elvita Landau said the romance genre is mixed in with the rest of the library’s fiction collection, so the library does not keep statistics specifically for it. But, the books are very popular, she said.

By the way, the main difference between literary fiction and romance is that literary fiction is focused on the plot, while romance is focused on the relationship.

A big e-book market

Gill said the e-book market for romances is “huge,” and the romance genre was among the first to embrace e-books. It’s an easy way for readers to avoid the books’ controversial covers and to read discretely.

“You can take your Kindle or Nook on the train and not have to worry about it,” Gill said. “And, if somebody asks, you can say, ‘Oh, I’m reading ‘The Help’ or something that wouldn’t get you a stare like, ‘Why are you reading a romance?’”

Gill herself has both a Nook and a Kindle, and Ragsdale has a Nook. Both said they read a combination of e-books, purchased or borrowed from the library’s “South Dakota Titles To Go” program, and paperbacks purchased or borrowed.

With the revamped romance in its many sub-genres, Ragsdale said everyone could find something they enjoy – if they can move past those preconceived ideas.

“There’s just so many different categories that, I don’t want to say ‘It’s not your mother’s romance novel,’ but it’s kind of true,” she said.

Contact Charis Ubben at cubben@brookingsregister.com.

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