Heating Up the Stacks
Recently, my 17-year-old daughter and her friends went out to dinner and then over to Barnes & Noble. They bought a Harlequin romance novel by Jill Shalvis called Flashback and spent the rest of the night in our basement reading it aloud, laughing their heads off and eating ice cream.
For me, it was a reminder that the country's Important Book Review Sections don't review the most popular books in the world: romance novels. I don't think that's a bad thing, but I'm curious about this massive publishing phenomenon that rumbles on beneath the purview of most book critics.
Flashback seemed as good a place to start as any. It turns out that Shalvis's novel is No. 416 in Harlequin's sexiest imprint, a line called Blaze that publishes six novels a month. Yes, that's one every five days, and Blaze is just one of Harlequin's many imprints. With more than 1,300 authors, Harlequin sells more than 100 million books a year.
The senior editor of Blaze is a friendly woman named Brenda Chin. I spoke with her recently by phone at the Harlequin headquarters in Toronto.
Blaze books aren't "a bad education," Chin assured me, "because women learn how they should be treated. It's not erotica. That's Spice," a different Harlequin line, each of which is color-coded on the bookstore shelves. "What makes Blaze Blaze is that they're sexy and they have a strong heroine. They have a high level of sexuality, but the sex means something. The language is what you'd hear among your friends. The situations are situations that people in our target audience could get into. They're very real and very identifiable."
In the Blaze book my daughter and her friends read, a "dangerously sexy" firefighter named Aidan Donnelly, who "has always battled the flames with trademark icy calm," falls for a sizzling soap opera star.
Clearly, I must move to Canada.
But Chin insisted that verisimilitude is the key to her books. "You have to be able to jump into the heroine's shoes and go along for the ride. You have to convey the experience of falling in love. There has to be an emotional connection, even if they aren't getting married immediately. It's all about the romance, the happily after, and for Blaze that means a hell of a lot of good sex."
"What women identify with," Chin went on, "are weaknesses, not strength. The strongest woman in the world isn't going to think she's strong. Give me a woman who thinks her thighs are fat and you've got me. Men write a heroine who goes into a boardroom and wows them; no woman can identify with that. Romances are like the early Westerns: You become the person you need to be. You take the journey you need to take."
But what about these chiseled heroes on the book covers who are always getting ready for a shower or a dip in the moonlit lake?
"Our heroes are extraordinary ordinary guys," Chin says. "It goes back to the whole identifiable thing. You could end up with the firefighter, a cop, a Texas Ranger, a baseball player, a carpenter, a construction worker. It's not that they have powers, it's not that they have wealth, it's who they are."
Chin has been married to an accountant for 17 years.
The secret to Harlequin's success, she told me, is the publisher's ability to satisfy all romance interests. "For any type of fiction there is," Chin said, "we're thrown romance with it. If you want something sweet, we have it; paranormal, we have it; suspense, we have it. We don't have any serious competition. Once you're a Harlequin reader, you're a Harlequin reader for life."
And they read happily ever after. The End.
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