50 Shades of Love

Members of the All Romance All the Time Book Club: Lauren Napoli, Susan Blexrud, Maria Fire, Linda Knopp, Caitlin Cassissi, and Kitty Kendall. Photo by Matt Rose

Members of the All Romance All the Time Book Club: Lauren Napoli, Susan Blexrud, Maria Fire, Linda Knopp, Caitlin Cassissi, and Kitty Kendall.
Photo by Matt Rose

Everyone loves a happy ending, none more so than the half-dozen or so women who meet monthly at Malaprop’s in Asheville to discuss their favorite reading, the romance novel. The All Romance All The Time Book Club’s membership includes both practicing and aspiring writers of the genre, all of whom subscribe to the Romance Writers of America’s dictum requiring an uplifting concluding chapter, no matter what turmoil has stirred earlier pages.

“A great romance novel offers me compelling, sympathetic characters, a unique plot, a sense of place and a resolution that is satisfying and feels real,” says Malaprop’s co-owner and general manager Linda Barrett-Knopp. Linda has been a member of the club since its first meeting in the fall of last year.

Linda’s criteria could just as easily apply to most popular fiction, but critics of the romance genre sniff that romance novels are predictable, timeworn and often badly written. Nonetheless, considerably more than half of all paperbacks sold each year are romances, and nearly a quarter of the entire population of the United States reads at least one romance novel every year. The publishing industry annually earns some $1.3 billion in sales from the genre. It has a respectable pedigree, too, all the way back to Samuel Richardson’s epistolary novel Pamela; Or, Virtue Rewarded, published in 1740 and considered the first full-length work of fiction revolving around the trials of a female heroine. Nor is it surprising that many romance readers are also fans of Jane Austen, who perfected and popularized the form.

“Yes, they’re real books,” insists the leader of the All Romance All The Time Book Club, Susan Blexrud, who should know after publishing more than half a dozen romance novels of her own in the past five years, among them books with vampire and time-travel themes. Susan began writing after retiring from her fulltime job in Orlando, Florida, as the city’s communications director and settling in Asheville with her husband. “I chose romance as my genre because I’m a romantic and I love a happy ending. My writing mentor, a multi-published Harlequin Romance author, told me years ago that you have to be better than romance to write romance.” Susan points out that among the most successful romance authors are professors of English, practicing attorneys, and generously-degreed graduates of schools like Harvard. “There are no nitwits writing good romance,” Susan says.

It was Susan’s idea to start the club at Malaprop’s when she discovered Linda Barrett-Knopp’s attachment to the genre. Only six months old, the club has a loyal core of five that can sporadically swell to as many as eight or ten. So far, it’s been an entirely female endeavor, although one meeting attracted a male when E. L. James’ hugely popular erotic romance Fifty Shades Of Gray, with its dominant/submissive theme, was under discussion. “We don’t mince words about the sex in romance novels,” Susan says. “We talk about whether or not we find the scenes titillating or flat, hot or cold. Did anything shock us, or make us blush? But any dyed-in-the-wool romance reader will tell you that they don’t read romance because of the sex. They read it for the romantic expression of love between the hero and heroine. That’s what romance readers crave.” The adventurous male — who, it turned out, was the husband of one of the club members — presumably was craving something different and disappeared from the group after they moved on from Fifty Shades Of Gray.

Indeed, women account for over 90 percent of the sales of romance novels, which in turn account for 13 percent of mass-market sales. Most popular are the industry’s “category” romances, which fall into similarly-themed series and account for the hunky males and quivering females on the covers of so-called “bodice rippers,” one of the category lines now reaching the end of its useful life. Only slightly behind the category romances in sales are the single-title books, stand-alone works best represented by the prolific Nora Roberts and her yearly single-title production her publisher calls the “Big Nora.”

Romances embrace all sorts of sub-genres, too, from noir-ish detective stories to historical fiction. Among the most popular writers for the Malaprop’s group is Sherry Thomas, who writes historical romance, along with the Irish writer Marian Keyes and Jennifer Crusie, who both write contemporary romances. Linda’s personal favorite is Diana Gabaldon. “She doesn’t consider herself a romance writer, but her Outlander series features a very hot romance in the midst of first-rate historical fiction,” Linda says. “She’s an incredible storyteller.”

The heroes of romance novels have evolved from overly muscled, testosterone-driven stereotypes to more sensitive, thoughtful types, although rules still apply. “Heroes have to be noble and self-sacrificing,” Susan says. “But they can be geeky, and don’t have to be pirates or Navy Seals.” Similarly, heroines have moved on from the tremulous to the intrepid, more independent and self-sufficient than their older sisters. “Job one is creating characters that readers want to invite into their homes, and fall in love with,” Susan says.

Since most of the club’s members are working writers, the monthly meetings sometimes take on the nature of a writing workshop, with the group’s likes and dislikes of the work under discussion serving as useful tools when members return to their own projects. Linda, who is currently shopping a Young Adult novel she’s written, finds this especially attractive. “I read our books much more closely than my other reads, and I feel I’m improving as a writer as well as a reader from my involvement,” she says. “And besides, it’s just fun!”

The All Romance All the Time book club switched venues in June. Meetings are now held at Battery Park Book Exchange in the Grove Arcade. It will still be a Malaprop’s book club, with discounts to club members.

All Romance All The Time Book Club Meets 7pm, third Tuesday each month Battery Park Book Exchange The Grove Arcade Asheville July Book: Maid to Match, an inspirational romance by Deeanne Gist. It’s about a maid at the Biltmore Estate (circa 1905) who falls in love with a footman. For more information, call 828-254-6734 or visit www.malaprops.com

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