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Kennedy Center - Fool Moon
Michael Dirda

Sunday, February 7, 1999; Page X15 


 By Ruth Glick writing as Rebecca York


244 pp. Paperback, $3.99


 By Ruth Glick writing as Rebecca York


244 pp. Paperback, $3.99

 O.K., so here's where I completely lose any credibility I might ever have had as a critic. These two novels are both paperback romances; they have soppy covers; Shattered Lullaby, published last month, is even the 500th title in the Harlequin Intrigue series; worst of all, their author, Ruth Glick, has produced more than 70 books since 1982, using such pseudonyms as Alyssa Howard, Tess Marlowe, Samantha Chase, Alexis Hill Jordan, Amanda Lee and, of course, Rebecca York. Need I add that Glick has also written for such lines as Dell Candlelight Ecstasy, Silhouette Desire and Harlequin's Super Romance? Talk about dreck, kitsch, schlock, the detritus of literary culture, etc. etc. Right?

 Actually I quite liked both books. We're not talking Tolstoy, but within the limits of commercial popular fiction, they were a pleasure to read. Nowhere Man -- in which a psychologist finds herself drawn to a strangely innocent soldier/assassin named Hunter -- is at least as exciting as your average Dick Francis thriller. And if you enjoy violent TV cop shows, you'll surely take to Shattered Lullaby, set on the dangerous streets of Baltimore. Glick's prose is smooth, literate and fast-moving; her love scenes are tender yet erotic; and there's always a happy ending: Jessie wins Miguel, Kathryn saves Hunter. So what's not to like? Now and then I may have grimaced at a gooey phrase -- "her breast quivered in his hand like a soft, frightened bird" -- but, on the whole, I was impressed with how well crafted these books were. One reviewer described Glick's work as offering "blistering romance and heart-in-your-mouth suspense." Spot on.

 Of course, Ruth Glick, who lives in Columbia, is a real luminary of contemporary series romance, having already been honored with a Lifetime Achievement Award from Romantic Times, the premier journal of the genre. Her books have been translated into 17 languages, including Icelandic, Japanese and Serbo-Croatian. Each of the more recent titles sells roughly 100,000 copies. The woman herself has an MA in American Studies, travels widely, also writes cookbooks, and works very hard: She puts in long days at her computer, critiques chapters with friends (early on she co-authored books with Louise Titchener and Eileen Buckholtz), and listens attentively to the advice of her editor. One could hardly be more professional.

 But romance writers get no respect, few reviews outside the specialty magazines, and very little say in the paintings -- of mostly hunks and clinches -- that grace (or disgrace) their covers. Moreover, a Harlequin paperback is the literary equivalent of a mayfly, possessing a shelf life of a month at best. So if you want to read Shattered Lullaby -- in which a divorced social worker falls in love with a doctor on the run from a murderous Central American crimelord -- you'd better hie yourself over to the bookshop right away.

 Though long intrigued by the popularity of romance -- as a senior in high school I wrote my honors English thesis on True Confessions stories -- I was nonetheless amazed to learn that the genre boasts 45 million readers in North America (two thirds with college degrees), brings in $1 billion a year in sales, and accounts for roughly half the paperback fiction sold in the United States. Jayne Ann Krentz (aka Amanda Quick) co-edited a collection of essays on the field called Dangerous Men and Adventurous Women and there persuasively concluded that "Romance novels empower women. In a romance novel, the woman always wins." As the (repugnant) phrase goes, the heroine "tames" the hero. When I called up Glick to talk about her work, she took a similarly feminist slant:

 "Romance as a genre is produced by and for women -- and is therefore not taken seriously by society at large. It will only be accepted the way the mystery and suspense genres are today when women's concerns are taken seriously. In fact, I'd go so far as to advise men to read a few romances if they want some insights into what women consider important.

 "A romance novel," further explains Glick, "is the story of the development of the relationship between one man and one woman. Yes, it's part of the reader expectation that there will be a happy ending -- just as the mystery reader expects that the crime will be solved and the killer brought to justice. Romance readers want to identify with the characters and feel uplifted and fulfilled by the outcome of the relationship.

 "Readers are drawn to these books because they're about women's lives and women's concerns (home, family, bonding, love, marriage, making relationships work). They're also books that touch the emotions. The reader laughs and cries with the hero and heroine. She becomes involved in their lives for a short time. She gets to experience the creation of a deep, abiding love that leads to a lifetime of commitment. If a romance novel is an affirmation of women's most basic values, it's no wonder that fans inhale so many of them." Serious addicts may read a dozen or more romances a month.

 According to psychologists, says Glick, "The most basic fear of women is abandonment. A romance novel is the antithesis of abandonment. The female protagonist always gets what she wants at the end of the book. She forges a lasting relationship with the man she loves. The male protagonist gets what he wants, too -- a lasting relationship with her. The difference is that at the beginning of the book he doesn't know that's what he wants! Part of the satisfaction for the reader is in seeing the heroine set her sights on an alpha male and winning him.

 "The suspense comes from the uncertainty . . . the successful romance writer keeps the reader in doubt until the very end of the book." That said, Glick quickly points out that "the strongest conflicts are internal conflicts, conflicts that arise from within the character which seemingly make it impossible for that person to forge a lasting relationship." In Shattered Lullaby, Manuel is afraid to allow himself to love Jessie because he wants to protect her from the gunmen on his trail. Once Kathryn learns Hunter's secret, he is convinced that she can only regard him as a kind of monster.

 Of her own work, Glick emphasizes, "I'm not trying to write literary fiction. I'm trying to write popular fiction -- books that entertain people, books that tell a story and touch the emotions of readers." She also maintains that there is no standard romance formula, though being realistic she admits that "every writer who is writing for money is . . . constrained." Harlequin pays close attention to what readers want, frequently conducting focus groups, studying fan letters. "The field is more reader-driven than you might think." Since Glick specializes in romantic suspense, her editors are always urging her to put in more emotion, to remember that "the most important thing to the reader is the romance."

 That romance may, in its turn, be "sweet" or "sensual." Naturally, Harlequin -- like Dell, Penguin, Leisure or Kensington -- offers a line for every taste: Besides Intrigue, there's Temptation (torrid sex), Love & Laughter (screwball comedy), Super Romance, Historical, and several others. In recent years, a passel of romances have been set in the old or new west (see the books of Kathleen Eagle or Elizabeth Lowell). Diana Gabaldon's already classic Outlander, about a 20th-century woman who travels back in time to late medieval Scotland, inspired a raft of time travel novels. New series, like Arabesque, with African-American protagonists have recently taken off, even as that once standard subgenre, the Regency romance, is currently suffering an eclipse. The course of true love never did run smooth.

 Glick's two most recent titles are part of her own private mini-series, "43 Light St." -- all the novels feature heroines (or heroes) associated with the companies and special services in a building with this Baltimore address. Consequently, as in Balzac's Comedie humaine, the major characters of one book (the former spy Jed Prentiss, the inventor-millionaire Cam Randolph) reappear as walk-ons in another. When, in the middle of Shattered Lullaby, a desperate Jessie calls for help from her multi-talented Light Street friends, among her rescuers is none other than the formidable Hunter.

 Kathryn Falk, editor of Romantic Times, once dubbed the contemporary romance "an adult fairy tale." Certainly, Glick's plots recall various strongly archetypal stories. Yet while her main characters may be roiled in powerful emotions, their thoughts and feelings being central to the action, her secondary figures tend to be mere surfaces, reflections of familiar types from television or movies. In other words, don't expect a category romance to display the depth of Jane Eyre or Persuasion. But as popular entertainment, these books -- or at least those composed by an accomplished author like Ruth Glick -- deliver what they promise: Excitement, mystery, romance. Surely 45 million women can't be wrong. 

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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