While we're celebrating Women's History Month, it's interesting to look at that most female of genres, the romance novel and its role in the lives of readers. Half of all paperbacks sold today are romances. They've been around for over 70 years in their present form and are conquering e-book markets and new formats such as 'chunking'- delivering the novels in short episodes via mobile phone - with ease.
The term 'romance' originally referred to tales of adventure in medieval literature, which had their origins in ballads performed by minstrels. Both were about chivalrous heroes slaying dragons and monsters to win their beloved, and were mainly for men's entertainment.
Modern romance was born with Samuel Richardson's 1740 novel Pamela, told from the heroine's viewpoint and featuring the first happy ending. Later heirs include Jane Austen, Charlotte and Emily Bronte and Georgette Heyer, doyenne of the Regency novel. Today's love stories are set in any time, place or universe, with women taking the sexual initiative as often as men. The idea of Mr. Right, or at least Mr. Right-for-the-moment remains popular, as does the happy ending as it becomes ever more elusive in real life.
To me, four reasons explain the genre's enduring popularity:
1. Just as crime fiction readers expect the crime to be solved, romance readers expect a couple, a conflict to be solved and a happy ending. This may explain the persistent myth of a 'formula', although every couple arrives at their happy ending in their own way.
2. The heroine is loved as she wants to be loved, with the experience entirely under her female power. The intimacy and consideration most women enjoy is a hallmark of the sex in romance.
3. In our busy lives, we often yearn to be 'taken away from it all', the novels providing a welcome mental break from real-life pressures.
4. All popular fiction taps into mythology to some degree, allowing readers to recognize and connect with the characters on an instinctual level. Romances may speak to our survival as a species, with the strongest males providing the fittest offspring. Not politically correct, but our genes don't care.
The novels may also celebrate women's masculine qualities, subversively making her as much hero as heroine. Whatever the truth, there's a lot more to this genre than simple boy-meets-girl.
Valerie Parv has an MA in Creative Writing from QUT, is the author of 50 romance novels and 24 nonfiction titles, and has sold over 30 million books in 26 languages. Her latest book is With a Little Help (Harlequin Superromances, March 2011, Australia May 2011). In April 2011 she will speak at the Romantic Times Book Reviews convention in Los Angeles.