Globe and Mail

I am strong, I am domestic, I am man

And in 1999, he's the man that women want, if $1-billion in Harlequin book sales are any indication.

Saturday, February 13, 1999
VAL ROSS
Publishing Reporter, The Globe and Mail

Happy Valentine's Day, darling. It's me, the Man of Your Dreams. The New Man of Your Dreams. I still have linebacker shoulders and a belly like ribbed steel, but they're hidden behind this baby carrier. If I take it off, it might wake your little daughter and I just got her to sleep. I still have long, lean, well-muscled legs, too -- but they are hard to see under my chef's apron. Did I mention I'm making breakfast? No, darling, I won't get into bed, despite these flames of raging desire. Not yet. When I feel that you have learned to really trust me, oh, then we'll make the Earth move. For now, how about we just talk about that job of yours? . . .

When Manitoba businessman Richard Bonnycastle launched Harlequin Publishing 50 years ago, readers were predominantly stay-at-home wives. Now, according to the romance-novel giant's latest reader profile, the average swoon-book junkie is 41, with a median household income around $40,000. A majority work outside the home -- 58 per cent of them -- and almost 60 per cent have a college-level education.


These women spend almost $1-billion a year on paperbacks that recount the courtship of couples who are star-crossed but destined for love everlasting. Harlequin is the Toronto-based leader in the field, and it sells 5.5 books a second. While romance readers remain absolutely adamant that the traditions of the genre be upheld -- no stealing another wife's husband, no unhappy endings -- more and more they are demanding heart-stopping changes in what they want from Mr. Right.

Fading away is the wealthy, titled landowner of 40, a man of few words, all of them cold and proud -- the brooding, domineering older man who employs the plucky virgin governess who submits to his iron will. You'll still find plenty of these Mr. Rochesters among the 1,700 romance titles published each year. But increasingly, the romance hero of 1999 is a stud of a different colour.

He may have less money and a less-prestigious job than the heroine has; he may be a hockey player in love with a lady engineer (No Limit to Love by Kate Freiman) or a Toronto elementary school teacher who has fallen for a movie actress (Kayla Perrin's Again, My Love). He may even be impotent (A Diamond in the Rough by Selina Sinclair) or -- be still, my beating heart -- a virgin (No Sweeter Heaven by Katherine Kingsley).

But he is almost invariably a terrific father figure, even with other people's children. He is more chatty, empathetic and introspective, probably because the authors are inserting more scenes told from his point of view.

Domestic competence is big; there are scores of novels starring carpenters, electricians and plumbers on the Romance Writers of America website (http://www.rwanational.com) -- imagine Martha Stewart with chest hair. A contemporary hero encourages his mate's career. And, when it comes to sex, he's the one who wants to take it slow.

"Welcome to the world of fiction, eh?" cackles Kate Duffy, one of the triumvirate of editorial directors at Zebra, a New York-based, mass-market publisher. "The big fantasy now is a guy who talks to the heroine, who is verbal and caring. Just like all the men we meet every day, eh?" Another gust of laughter from Duffy. Newly separated, she admits she is a little cynical about men. "But who wouldn't like to meet this guy?"

Not U.S. psychologists Judith Sherven and James Sniechowski, apparently. They made headlines in the United States four years ago when they wrote a widely syndicated story linking romance-novel heroes to domestic abuse: "Prince Charming, the secret lover in many women's fantasies, is very dangerous. He is always far more than reality, so most guys don't stand a chance against him," they wrote. "And he leaves women in a perpetual state of unsatisfied yearning, from which frustration and rage can erupt into the violence of those whose 'sweet dreams' have been destroyed."

Sherven and Sniechowski, who seemed to be implying that women bore the responsibility for being battered, outraged their readers. A typical letter was Sonia Simone-Rossney's in the San Francisco Chronicle; she responded, "Romance novels are about women's power and women's sexuality. They are in fact used by therapists to model positive love relationships to battered women and their abusers. . . . [To] fix the blame on the most feminist form of popular culture we have is sexist nonsense."

The most feminist form of popular culture? That is precisely what many romance writers claim for their craft. "It's a woman's genre whose secret messages escape hardline feminists," says Kate Freiman, a past president of Romance Writers of America, Toronto chapter. She says that these days, romance-novel covers are more likely to show men playing with kids and dogs than playing with the stays of a swooning lady's bodice -- because female readers find the former more intriguing than the latter. "The critics of romance writing aren't aware of the female empowerment that goes on," says Freiman. "The main thrust is that women deserve respect, equality and honourable behaviour."

Romance novels can be seen as a creative field in which readers work out life's issues, a kind of psychological kitchen where the ingredients that go into relationships and good mate material can be tested. If so, it appears that for women at the end of the 20th century, while brains, power and money are of interest in men, their absence "is no longer a taboo," says Carol Stacey, editor of the Romantic Times of Brooklyn, N.Y.

"It's not so much that men are being reduced in status but that the women characters are being raised up," Toronto romance writer Rebecca Rosenblat says. "My heroines want a man as a partner." In Rosenblat's novel Broken Promises, recently divorced Jade Roberts, who owns her own successful ad firm, begins to feel stirrings of passion for her assistant, James.

"I don't care so much that my hero should be wealthy because that's not my experience," says Toronto writer Kayla Perrin. "Women want to achieve whatever they can without a man."

The hero of Margot Early's Mr. Family is Kal Johnson, a single father of 30 and a lowly Hawaiian tour guide, who is smitten by 36-year-old Erika Blade, a professional artist. This heroine's seniority is not so unusual in contemporary romances. "Gone is the father figure in romance writing," says Freiman. "If women have learned to look after themselves, why would they want someone to treat them like a child?"

When readers were predominantly stay-at-home wives, perhaps that's what they did want. But now they are single mothers and working women, "The heroes have changed with the times," observes Stacey. The old power imbalance, in which the male had all the money, age and power, is disappearing.

Consider this passage from The Cowboy's Seductive Proposal, by Sara Orwig. Jared Whitewolf, 25, a native American rodeo rider and single father, falls head over cowboy boots for blonde graphic artist Faith Kolanko, 30: " 'I ran away when I was 16, so I didn't finish high school,' he said, giving her a level look. 'And why do I suspect that you have more than one college degree?'

"Surprised that he had guessed, she shrugged. 'I didn't think it showed,' she answered lightly. 'I have my MBA and a degree in graphic art.'

" 'So our lifestyles and our backgrounds are different,' he said, putting his fork down. He leaned across the table, putting his hand behind her head. She inhaled, his touch bringing a tingling awareness to her whole body . . ."

But Jared Whitewolf is a Rhodes scholar compared to the hero of one of the most popular romances of recent years, Simple Jess by Pamela Morsi. Jess is a hired man whom Morsi's feisty heroine marries in order to keep her ranch. Then she discovers his other charms -- a little like Kathleen Turner telling William Hurt, in the film Body Heat, "You know, you're really stupid. I like that in a man."

"Jess is not Forrest Gump level," explains Charis McEachern, head of research for the Houston, Tex.-based Romance Writers of America. "But he sure isn't the brightest apple on the tree. The thing is, he's strong and he's good to the heroine's child." And although Duffy's Zebra imprint did not publish the book, she too is one of Jess's many fans: "Oh man, was that a romantic story."

While brains aren't necessary, a hero simply must be great with kids. This is true even in historical romances, where accuracy demands that men of the past be portrayed as the brutes they presumably were. In The Norman's Heart, Toronto writer Margaret Moore wrote about a man she describes as "an uber-Norman, stoic and stern. But when a village kid throws a ball at him -- actually it's an inflated pig's bladder -- instead of drawing his sword, he starts playing ball, an early kind of soccer." Heroes have to show humour, says Moore, who will teach a workshop on historical romance writing today at Chapters bookstore on Bloor Street in Toronto. "Your hero can no longer say, 'Excuse me, I have to go and brood now.'"

The rule is strict. Duffy has just rejected an otherwise interesting manuscript involving a man who regains custody of his children after having abandoned them to their alcoholic mother. "This character was irredeemable in my eyes. I didn't want to go there. If you're not a good father, there's nothing remotely heroic about you," Duffy says.

Odd how the desires of men and of women are starting to converge. We all seem to want someone who is young and hopeful, comfortable with domesticity, good with kids, understanding about one's career ambitions. In other words, a wife. Are these impossible images (Norman warriors playing soccer, rodeo riders wearing baby carriers) the pathetic projections of frustrated divorcees? A preposterous printed byproduct of increasing single parenthood?

Or are they a sign that women are reinventing what they want in a mate because they are in the process of reinventing themselves?

. . . Darling, I'm back. The Man of Your Dreams. You can see by the amused curl of my sculpted lips that I think you're worrying about this far too much. You may be better educated than me -- hell, I'm just a simple handyman -- but I know one thing: You can't fight what your heart's telling you. Now, relax while I rub that special place between your shoulders with my firm, probing fingers. Who cares if I'm not real? I'm here for you. I'm going to give you all the strength and comfort I can. You can count on me. Always.

Copyright © 1999 The Globe and Mail