Romance novels — plus one documentary film — by Princetonians
Ricardo Barros
For these alumni authors, there is always a happy ending

Many people think of romance novels as formulaic stories where a powerful man finds true love with a delicate young thing. The cover no doubt features a shirtless hunk or a lot of cleavage — or both.

But the Princeton alums who write romances are much more inventive than that. Ann Herendeen ’77’s Pride/Prejudice is a takeoff of Jane Austen’s novel in which Mr. Darcy and Mr. Bingley have mind-blowing sex — with each other. Granville Burgess ’69’s Stone in the Crick is about a young Amish woman who falls for a good-looking outsider — and there’s no sex at all. Anna Muzzy ’92’s First To Burn is a paranormal suspense story about a sixth-century Viking who is immortal.

Most of the half-dozen Princetonians who write romance fiction or work in the field do have one thing in common: They grew up reading romance novels. “I started reading romance over my aunt’s shoulder at the beach at 8 years old,” recalls freelance editor Krista Stroever ’97. “I learned to read fast. I had to finish the page before she turned it!”

After years of reading romance novels — and careers as lawyers, librarians, and computer programmers — these alums decided to try their hand at writing them.

Often derided as poorly written or tacky, romance novels are major moneymakers for the struggling book business: Sales reached $1.08 billion in 2013, 13 percent of adult-fiction book sales. Each month, romance publisher Harlequin releases about 110 titles in 34 languages. “The revenue from romance is what allows publishers to publish literary fiction — if you buy a romance, you’re supporting literary fiction,” says author Nancy Herkness ’79.

And yet romance is the Rodney Dangerfield of literature — it gets no respect. “I get comments like, when are you going to write a real book?” Herkness says. Many in the field think their genre is disrespected because most of the novels are by women, for women, and about women. The rejection from most literary quarters has fostered tight bonds among those who write and read these works. “The New York Times isn’t reviewing us, so we’ve developed our own support systems,” says author Mindy Klasky ’86. Like many of her peers, she often helps writers who are just starting out: “We spend a lot of time tooting other people’s horns.”

The books’ covers — and the sexual content of some of them — lead many to consider it embarrassing to read a romance. “People would crochet covers for their novels,” says producer and director Laurie Kahn ’78, who spent four years researching and filming her 2015 documentary Love Between the Covers, which looks at the community of women who create and read romance novels. “Most people’s stereotype is the lonely, pathetic woman living out her fantasies by reading and writing romance novels, but nothing could be further from the truth.” Her film profiles a surgeon who writes romance novels, as well as authors who are earning millions of dollars a year.

Romance novels today encompass an incredibly diverse set of subjects and styles. “It’s not your grandma’s romance,” says Kahn, who lists a few of the dozens of subgenres that have sprouted up in the last few decades: paranormal, Western, vampire, time travel, lesbian, science fiction, Christian. (The well-worn tropes still exist too, such as billionaire meets ingénue, May/December relationship, the lost heir.) The sexual content ranges wildly, from sweet (read: chaste) to spicy to BDSM (bondage, domination, sadism, and masochism). The books treat women’s sexuality positively, countering the many negative depictions in our culture, Kahn points out.

And though their characters run the gamut, the stories’ destinations are the same: They all have an HEA, a happily ever after.

The last decade has brought increasing academic attention to romance, with several scholarly conferences (two held at Princeton), the debut of the Journal of Popular Romance Studies, and the Popular Romance Project, conceived by Kahn, which studies romance and has received funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities.

The Internet has revolutionized the genre. E-readers provide privacy and less expensive e-books, with some titles selling for as little as 99 cents. Low prices are a boon to romance readers, who are some of the most voracious consumers of fiction. Romance Writers of America says these readers usually finish a novel in one week, and some try for the “century challenge” — reading 100 in one year. Self-publishing has offered a way for the novice writer to get her work seen and perhaps snapped up by a big publisher, which happened to Herendeen. (Fifty Shades of Grey, the biggest-selling romance in decades, initially was self-published.) Some of the alumni writing romance are selling tens of thousands of books and making a healthy living, while others are sticking with their day jobs as they work on building an audience.

Anna Muzzy was inspired to write First To Burn, her first published novel, by Beowulf. She ran across a couple of books about the fictional Scandinavian warrior from the sixth century while serving as the librarian at her children’s preschool co-op. “I started thinking, who are these guys in the back of Beowulf’s boat?” Her next thought: What if they were immortal? Her novel is a paranormal suspense story — a popular romance genre — in which immortal Vikings “fight each other and fall in love along the way,” says Muzzy, who writes under the pen name Anna Richland.

The main character, hotshot Special Forces Sgt. Wulf Wardsen, once battled alongside Beowulf and now serves in Afghanistan, where he falls in love with inquisitive Army Capt. Theresa Chiesa, who went to Princeton. Muzzy drew from her own experience for that part of the book: She was in ROTC at Princeton and served as an Army lawyer for eight years, deployed to Macedonia and other countries (but not Afghanistan). To create dialogue that followed the original Beowulf — an epic poem written in Old English sometime before the 11th century — she produced her own translation for parts of the poem.

Muzzy, whose books are published by Carina Press, a division of Harlequin, went in a different direction with His Road Home, which won the 2015 RITA award for best novella from the Romance Writers of America. The book, a contemporary military story, is about a Special Forces medic who loses both legs and the ability to speak after stepping on a mine in Afghanistan. Muzzy, who is white, made the main characters Korean American and Mexican American. “I was interested in writing a book where everyone wasn’t Caucasian,” she says. In online forums, readers praised the book for its interracial romance and matter-of-fact exploration of sexuality for people with disabilities; several asked her to write a sequel, which she is working on.

“There is a powerful feedback loop between writers and readers in romance,” says William Gleason, the chair of Princeton’s English department, who studies American genre writing and has students read a romance novel in his course “American Best Sellers.” He wants students “to take romance seriously, in the same way they might take a detective novel or a mystery. And to learn that unlike any other cultural industry, this is almost exclusively written by women for women, which many critics think is one reason it gets denigrated. It’s remarkable when you realize how powerful and successful the industry is.”

Gleason co-organized the two academic conferences on romance novels at Princeton. The first, in 2009, was billed as “the first national conference to focus on the multiple ways that romance novels — long the most maligned of literary texts — can provide rich critical insight for the study of American culture, politics, and society.” Gleason says an increasing number of professors are making romance their academic specialty.

“There can be so much stigma in admitting that you read it or like it,” he says, “but it’s one of the most powerful genres in the world, certainly in American culture. This is the genre of stories about love, one of the most powerful human emotions we have.”

Nancy Herkness loves romances for their emotion. “Falling in love is one of the most intense things you do in your life, and if you’re married, you can’t keep doing that unless you read a romance.” She studied poetry at Princeton, and after running the cosmetics department at Abraham & Straus on Long Island, she got a job writing software programs. She married and had children, and decided to try writing romances. So far, she’s published eight novels. Her newest, The CEO Buys In — about self-made billionaire Nathan Trainor, who makes a bet that he can find a woman who loves him for who he is, not his money — has sold 100,000 copies since July.

A major part of Herkness’ success, she says, is thanks to Jeff Bezos ’86, the founder of Amazon. Her books are published by Montlake Romance, a division of Amazon, which sent traditional book publishers into a panic seven years ago when it moved from selling books to also publishing them. Amazon gives authors a better royalty rate on e-books than most traditional publishers and a greater say in marketing decisions such as cover designs, Herkness says — and authors benefit from Amazon’s marketing prowess. The cover of The CEO Buys In was a screensaver on some of Amazon’s Kindle e-readers the week it was published, which sent it to No. 6 on the Kindle bestseller list.

Herkness loves writing, but for her, the pursuit is as much about being an entrepreneur as about being an author. “I write to be read,” she says. “I have to put on my entrepreneurial hat and sell books.” When she noticed small-town romances were selling well, she thought, “I grew up in small-town West Virginia. I can pick up that market, no problem.” The result was her Whisper Horse novels, which are set in the fictional town of Sanctuary, W.Va., and have won numerous awards.

The changes to the book business wrought by the Internet have benefited romance writers. Self-publishing — once a small part of the business called vanity publishing — has exploded, producing more than 458,000 titles in 2013, a 17 percent increase over the previous year. For several hundred dollars, an author can submit a manuscript to a company that will produce a cover and list the book for sale on Amazon and other venues. Many of these exist only as e-books, while others can be printed on demand.

Ann Herendeen is a cataloging librarian at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City who decided to give writing a try in her 40s. She self-published her first novel, Phyllida and the Brotherhood of Philander, in 2005, when it was rejected by traditional publishers. The novel is a Regency romance — a popular subgenre setting the story in early 19th-century England — turned on its head. The penniless and curvaceous heroine achieves happiness when she strikes a deal to marry Andrew Carrington that gives them both freedom — he lets her write gothic romance novels, and she lets him continue his liaisons with men, including the dashing Matthew Thornby. Library Journal called the novel “a brilliant exploration of love, sexuality, class, and gender.”

“I wanted to tell this story as a love story, as opposed to the usual way — ‘my husband is gay, it’s a tragedy, boo hoo,’” Herendeen says. “The hero has a wife and boyfriend, and everyone can accept and like each other.” When the book was published, there were not many romance novels with main characters who were bisexual, she says, especially in historical settings, though this now is a burgeoning corner of romance literature.

Eighteen months after Herendeen published the book, Rakesh Satyal ’02, then an editor at HarperCollins, contacted her, and Harper brought out its own version in 2008. Two years later it published Herendeen’s Pride/Prejudice: A Novel of Mr. Darcy, Elizabeth Bennet, and Their Forbidden Lovers, which revisits the classic novel by uncovering, says Herendeen, the homosexual and bisexual subtext hidden in the original. “Austen created characters who clearly love each other, but there’s no way to discover why Darcy is so into Bingley. To me, bisexuality makes sense. The men could be lovers in the physical sense, and the story would still be the same story.” Elizabeth Bennet and Charlotte Lucas also have a sexual relationship. The book’s explicit sex scenes culminate in an orgy. The novel was a finalist for the 2011 Lambda Literary Award in the bisexual fiction category.

Herendeen researched gay life during the time period, and posited that in a society in which men had intense friendships and people made months-long visits to each other’s homes, such intimacies could take place without causing a scandal. On the website Goodreads, one commentator on the book wrote, “Sometimes I really thought, ‘Oh my God, what if she’s right? What if she interpreted [Pride and Prejudice] correctly and I was wrong all the time?’”

The novel is a form of fan fiction, which features characters from a TV show, movie, or another novel. One of the first examples of fan fiction appeared in the ’60s, when people penned stories in which Kirk and Spock of Star Trek were sexually linked. Fan fiction with same-sex pairings is known as slash fiction, and Herendeen refers to her works as “m/m/f ménage told as a romance, a love story with two happy endings.”

Mindy Klasky, who has written bestselling “spicy” romances — in addition to fantasy novels — says writing a sex scene “actually has a lot in common with writing a sword-fighting scene. You have to keep track of the arms and legs, and make sure it’s physically possible.” Many romance authors “won’t call them sex scenes. They call them love scenes, because you’re writing about the emotion behind those body parts.”

Klasky, a former litigator and law librarian who started her fiction career 15 years ago, writes three to four books a year and says she earns six figures. Several of her books were issued by major publishers, but these days she self-publishes much of her work because it gives her more control and more profit. Her most successful book is Girl’s Guide to Witchcraft, the first in a series of light paranormal romances about a librarian who is a witch and has found a spell that makes her irresistible to men. She’s sold 50,000 copies and given away another 500,000 to drive readers to buy other books in the series, a technique traditional publishers wouldn’t typically use, she says. The latest book in her vampire romance series comes out in June.

While some of Klasky’s novels are quite explicit, other alums are writing romances that are downright chaste: Caroline Coleman ’86, a onetime litigator, wrote a Christian romance about Søren Kierkegaard’s love life, told from the point of view of his fiancée. Loving Søren interweaves an exploration of his philosophical beliefs with the awakening of his fiancée’s religious faith. In Christian fiction, Coleman says, there’s “usually no sex before marriage and no swearing.”

The height of sexual frisson in Granville Burgess’ Amish romance comes when the protagonist, Rebecca — who is engaged to the sturdy but dull Jacob — lets her hair down during a wild horse ride with Gregory, an outsider in town who is looking for his birth mother. The market for Amish romance — a thriving subgenre — is evangelicals and other readers of Christian romance, says Burgess, a playwright and theater producer who self-published Stone in the Crick, his first novel. Writing romance as a man, “I tried to get inside a woman’s skin,” says Burgess, who relied on his wife, raised Mennonite on an Amish farm, for research.

Women always are center stage in romance novels, and those women are guaranteed to find a satisfying relationship by the book’s end, whether it’s with a Viking or a vampire or another woman. “Romance fiction is about hope, and about the possibility of finding a relationship in which you’re appreciated for who you really are,” Kahn says. And if critics find the stories unrealistic, well, that’s what they’re meant to be. “Romances are fantasies,” Herkness says. “We try and make them as authentic as we can, but it’s still a fantasy.”

It’s the uplifting final pages, say many, that draw readers to romance. “I need a happy ending,” Muzzy says. “The world is a dark and grim-enough place. I don’t need to read dark stories.” No matter how difficult the complications of the plot are for the protagonist, the story always ends on an optimistic note. “You know it will be emotionally satisfying,” Klasky says. “There’s a comfort in knowing that, despite everything, there will be a happy ending.” 

Jennifer Altmann is an associate editor at PAW.