Hemlines go up and down; carbohydrates are in, then out; Southwest decor is hot, then not. But as Valerie Gray, executive editor of MIRA Books, SPICE Books and Red Dress Ink, tells BookPage, “The romance genre has never gone out of fashion.” She predicts that in the current economic situation these books “will be more popular then ever.” Why? Because they make the reader feel good—a sort of comfort food, one might say, to get people through difficult times.

Though romance as a whole is well rooted, it can be classified into subgenres that ebb and flow in popularity. For the past few years, stories with otherworldly elements have flourished, and Shauna Summers, senior editor at Bantam Books, says, “Paranormal doesn’t show any signs of slowing down.” However, reader buzz and the talk at writers’ conferences are about stories that some are calling “big romance”—contemporary novels that closely mirror real life and real women. Summers says these stories have “layered characters” and a “complex conflict,” while Abby Zidle, senior editor at Pocket Books, describes them as “romance/women’s fiction crossovers” that convey “intense emotional drama.”

Building big romance
Some of these crossover stories take place in highly detailed community settings. MIRA author Robyn Carr has gained popularity and reader loyalty through her stories set in fictional Virgin River (Second Chance Pass, A Virgin River Novel is out this month), just as Debbie Macomber, another best-selling MIRA author, has readers longing to visit Cedar Cove and Blossom Street, two of the locales for her most recent series. Gray says these books give readers the “community of their dreams.” Though most people do not live in a location like those depicted, they want to believe such “places of safety, family values . . . and neighborly nosiness exist.”

But big romance doesn’t necessarily require a small-town setting. Some are more urban, like the contemporaries by best-selling author Lisa Kleypas (her third, Smooth Talking Stranger, comes out in March 2009). Though the characters are still rooted in reality, in this type of novel, the hero and heroine’s dilemmas, not the community, are the star attraction. Lucia Macro, vice president and executive editor of Avon Books, describes these stories as “hard-hitting, with characters facing life changing events and/or moral dilemmas, so the books aren’t all sweetness and light.”

Looking ahead
What’s driving this upsurge of realism? Zidle posits that it’s the “natural evolution of the genre, adding that “paranormal came up so strong that if you aren’t a reader to whom that appeals, you’ve maybe been feeling a little left out.” No longer, according to the editors we contacted. All expressed growing interest in big romance, and Tara Parsons, an editor at HQN Books who works with contemporary favorite Susan Mallery, says that the “authors’ fantastic writing and storytelling” deserve credit.

Yet the trend toward books in which “real women struggle with real problems and relationships” as described by Zidle, is spurred by more than a reaction to paranormal romance’s popularity. Macro reminds us that in life today “we are attached to devices—iPods . . . BlackBerrys. . . . Even our  ‘friends’ are just tiny photos on Facebook.” The increasing popularity of these types of romances makes it clear that readers long for more intimacy. Those who love the place-based books get to feel like a community member who belongs, while in other contemporary stories it’s enough for the reader to identify with the heroine and see her own happy ending reflected in the character’s. That sense of connection with at least one other person, and the hopeful belief that love has the power to overcome difficult conflicts and troubling times, is why romance will never be out of style.

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