Some dismiss them as worthless women’s chatter, but romance novels, crossing class and economic boundaries since the 18th century, have given creative and economic opportunities to thousands of women. Overcoming old ethnic and cultural limitations, these hugely popular novels are now featuring Latinas, African- Americans, and middle-aged heroines. Increasing numbers of themes and protagonists are Jewish, carrying stories that were sometimes hidden between the lines out onto the covers.
Often derisively mislabeled and misconstrued, a look at current plots and historical samples shows that the romance novel has consistently highlighted women’s self-reliance and self-respect since its first publication in 1740. Yet, it has taken 250 years to overtly add cultural diversity to its fictional world.
Historically, Jewish romance authors seem to have separated their Judaism from their writing, but each writer seems to have negotiated the divide in her own way. While Carly Phillips, whose recent novel, Under the Boardwalk (Phillips Warner, 2004), involves a Greek family in Vermont, chooses to keep her faith a private matter, Sari Robins says she approaches her “entire career from a Judaic home outlook.” Yet, Robins, whose One Wicked Night (Harper Collins, 2004) is an “Atlanta Woman Magazine” Favorite Book, avoids writing about “any specific religious practices…[I want] nobody to feel excluded.”
Asked to take Jewish content out of her first novel, The Fictitious Marquis (Avon, 1995), Alina Adams (nee Sivorinsky) writes, “My editor didn’t want to offend anyone. So, like my heroine, I decided that the next time I wrote a book featuring Jews, I would keep it a secret.” Since then she has masked the Jewish identities of her characters using “subtle hints scattered in the story—such as both characters agreeing to go to work on Christmas Day—to clue in the observant reader.”
Lately the door does seem to have opened wider for explicitly Jewish protagonists and storylines. “Jewish” titles themselves signal the breakthrough, like Melissa Senate’s The Solomon Sisters Wise Up and Laurie Gwen Shapiro’s The Matzo Ball Heiress, two recent romance comedies about independent Jewish women.
Best selling author and self-proclaimed “old hippie” Judith Arnold says, “Other cultures are interesting to me. Why shouldn’t my culture be interesting to others?” Sweet Light (Harlequin American, 1992) is a snowbound Hanukkah romance. Love In Bloom’s (MIRA, 2003) and its sequel. Blooming All Over (MIRA, 2004), feature a Jewish family running a Zabar’s-like deli on the Upper West Side in New York.
Rather than being sidelined, recent “Jewish” romance novels are widely marketed and recognized. Arnold’s Love in Bloom’s was a finalist for a 2003 RITA Award. The highest award in romance publishing, it is offered by the professional organization Romance Writers of America (RWA). Brenda Ray’s novel The Midwife’s Song: A Story of Moses’ Birth (Karmichael Press, 2004) received the Inspirational Reader’s Choice Award from Faith, Hope & Love, Inc, an RWA chapter of religious—primarily Christian— orientation.
Cultural diversity aside, is this literary genre “worthless women’s chatter?” With women in control as producers, sellers and consumers of a 1.63 billion dollar business, its strength and value are clear. Yet, romance authors have suffered the fate of women artists in every generation: their work, historically undervalued, is seldom reviewed or preserved.
RWA statistics show that more than 2,000 new romance titles are published each year; 34% of all popular fiction sales in this country, 54% of paperbacks. Doctors, teachers, athome mothers, women of every profession and background, including former Air Force Colonel Merline Lovelace, are writing for this genre. Nearly 9,000 have joined RWA.
A closer look at the field reveals more about its ideological underpinnings and appeal. Teri Sprackland, economic journalist and winner of RWA’s 2003 Veritas Award, sees the genre as “carrying forward a vast history in the women’s subculture…a ritual retelling of stories [to deal with] perennial issues not really resolved, such as the compromises of marriage.”
It is “women speaking to women about things that matter to women,” says Arnold. Her romance Barefoot in the Grass (Harlequin Superromances, 1996), for example, is about a woman grappling with the loss of her breast to cancer.
The novels contain two basic elements, according to RWA. One is the inextricably intertwined storyline and love interest; Two, is “an emotionally satisfying and optimistic ending.” Perhaps surprising is that “happily ever after” does not necessarily mean marriage in romance, especially in the Chic-Lit sub-genre, but “based on the idea of an innate emotional justice,” the only love worth having is a healthy, nurturing one of respect and mutual compromise.
The field itself seems to support a tremendously nurturing atmosphere for both writers and readers. A professional incubator, RWA mixes start-ups with multi-million dollar successes who literally instruct their competition at conferences, meetings, critique groups and Internet conversations. Veterans teach writing along with marketing skills.
Authors are in direct contact with readers via website contests, round robin writing and local events. This may explain the phenomenal growth and success of the romance genre as an art form and a business. It is a longstanding conversation creating and maintaining community as women regularly do
Jessica Davis Stein, a former psychotherapist turned author observes that “Women from vastly different cultures connect more easily than a man and a woman from the same background.”
Joyce Goodman is an artisan jeweler in New York, an avid reader of contemporary fiction, and supporter of LILITH’S annual fiction contest.; Anna Sugden lives in New Jersey where she writes contemporary, English romance novels and is an active member of her RWA chapter