Romance is a much-maligned genre in fiction. I'm not talking about the Romantic era in literature - that's a different kettle of fish. I'm talking about mainstream romance novels. The ones that feature hunks with shoulder-length hair and muscles from Brussels leering suggestively from the covers and are, yes, mostly read by women.
The kind of slightly trashy stuff that many intelligent, well-travelled and opinionated women secretly read at home while soaking in the tub after a long, hard day at their high-flying corporate jobs but are secretly ashamed to bring out in public because, let's face it, there's still a huge stigma attached to females who read romance.
It's somehow perceived as a lower form of fiction. Never mind that, for most readers, reading is about escapism and what better escape from the humdrum of daily life than into the brawny fictional arms of a man who exists only to serve your pleasure? It's the perfect love affair - completely imaginary, with no real-life consequences.
I went through a teenage Flowers in the Attic period and devoured Mills & Boon novels in early high school. But I haven't picked up a romance novel in years - so I thought I would pose the question of what exactly people find so appealing about romance novels to New Zealand's own New York Times-bestselling author of paranormal romances, Nalini Singh.
She's at home when I call, and is more than happy to chat about the connection between smart women and trashy books.
"I think the stereotype about there being a certain 'type' of women who read romance gets blown to smithereens at reader events that I've been to. There is such a huge variety of them, from young women coming out of high school and uni to professional women, stay-at-home mums and grandmas."
Singh is a pretty smart cookie herself - she has a law degree and worked in a law firm for a couple of years before choosing the uncertain life of a fiction writer.
"Romance is dominated by women. The writers, editors and readers...they're all female. A lot of times, what's important to females is somehow denigrated. You don't get the same kind of negative reaction about mysteries or thrillers, for example, because they cater more to males."
What about the perception from some quarters of society that women who read romance are somehow being sold an unrealistic view of men and relationships? Singh pooh-poohs that.
"That's a load of rubbish. Pretty much all of my friends who write romances are happily married. I think romance makes you more aware of how women should be treated by a man. Not in terms of a fantasy figure, but more in how well they treat the women in their lives. That's why they're heroes. I think women who read romances are more aware of what's good in a relationship, what they should expect."
Singh says that a huge driving force in her books, which have been translated and sold into 22 territories and locations, is relationships. Falling in love with the characters is a crucial part of the romance genre, as is the happy ending.
"I mean, the plots for any genre fiction are loosely the same - there's a mystery you have to solve, a happy ending, but the journey, how you get there, is what is important. A lot of writers have trouble with editing but I learned to edit very early with my first book. I learned to be quite ruthless with myself in terms of what you really, really need to tell a storyline. There's no filler in my books."
Do you see reading romance as a guilty pleasure, or are you out and proud? Post your comments below for a chance to win one of three copies of Nalini Singh's latest Guild Hunter novel, Archangel's Storm - in stores now, RRP $24.99.
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