Romance Novels Embrace Diversity : Books: Think bodice rippers are only about the young? Think again. New stories cater to multicultural and mature loves.

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In the treacherous world of romance fiction, a reader could always count on a few certainties:

Bodice-ripping covers of the latest releases would smolder alongside the incendiary tabloid headlines at the supermarket checkout.

The hero would be tall, dark and handsome.

The heroine would have the body of Cindy Crawford and the maturity of the Olsen twins.

Point of view? Feminine.

Ending? Happily ever after.

But now, even in the entrenched realm of romance that accounts for nearly half of all paperback sales, things are changing.

In August, Pinnacle Books introduced a line in which the storyteller's voice drops into the masculine register. Named after its first entry--"A Man's Touch," by Debra Falcon--the series will release a new title each quarter, unless readers clamor for more.

Then there's that heroine thing. Invariably, she was an 18-year-old virgin with cleavage you could get lost in. But two years ago Zebra Books debuted the To Love Again line--contemporary tales of love between heroines and heroes for whom the bloom of youth--if not the hormonal imperative--has long faded.

Starting with "To Love Again" and "The Time of Her Life," the publishing house produces two books a month about women who are divorced or widowed or have been supplanted by younger women. They deal with underachieving adult children, suffer breast cancer and doubt their ability ever again to engage in meaningful sexual relations.

And the men? While romance-novel heroes have always tended to be tall and handsome, until recently they were rarely very dark. Although people of color have popped up in romance novels--say, a Native American integrating a historical Western romance or an exotically good-looking stranger of mysterious but clearly mixed heritage--the featured players generally have been as white as a Des Moines housewife in January.

Last summer Pinnacle rewrote this rule as well, colorizing the genre with Arabesque, a line that publishes two books each month featuring multicultural characters and situations. So far, all have concerned African Americans, but Pinnacle plans to introduce Latino heroes and heroines next year, and Asian characters later.

The romantic fiction industry, it seems, finally recognizes that passion--nay, even true abiding love--is not limited to a homogenous population of young white naifs in which only women show emotion and only men take action.

All these changes are making the fantasy world look a bit more like the real one.

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The genesis of A Man's Touch, says Pinnacle Senior Editor Jennifer Sawyer, was a staff suggestion to portray a single man in the cover illustration.

"We put out a few books like that, but they didn't really catch on," she says, although the stories followed the romance formula. "For whatever reason, the traditional clinch scene always seemed to work" on the cover.

About a year ago the magazine Romantic Times was touting a male model with the traditional credentials and Pinnacle decided not only to employ the studly specimen on the cover, but to tell the story within from his point of view.

"We wanted tall, dark and mysterious," Sawyer explains. "Essentially, A Man's Touch is historical romance, but it's not traditional historical romance."

The To Love Again stories, says Zebra Books Executive Editor Ann LaFarge, involve more than sexual reawakening and the thrill of coupledom. They are about finding "a whole new life--a new career, a new man . . . making a move."

New love, she says, is only a part of the story.

Although LaFarge reports receiving positive letters from readers as young as 18, To Love Again is aimed squarely at an older audience. The books are printed with larger type, and cover models often fall to the high side of 40.

"We knew we were publishing into a strong and growing market--older women with the time and money to enjoy life," she says in the promotional magazine produced by Kensington Publishing Corp., of which both Zebra and Pinnacle are imprints.

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Publishers have fiddled with the formula before, but never have whole series dared to depart from the beloved norms responsible for 48% of all paperback book sales, says Kathryn Falk, owner of Romantic Times.

Falk notes that Silhouette (an imprint of the renowned Harlequin books) has published male point-of-view romances, but that Pinnacle is the first to offer a dedicated line. Likewise, Zebra is first so dedicated to the mature perspective.

Silhouette, Avon, Doubleday and Dell have all broken the color barrier in single-title releases. Tiny Odyssey Books of Maryland has published African American romances since 1990 and will release four titles this year. But Arabesque is the first major line dedicated to multicultural stories.

In the early 1980s, Los Angeles' Holloway House Group issued Heartline Romances, which featured black characters. But, says executive editor Raymond Locke, "there was no market for them at the time." The company, which publishes fiction and nonfiction on multicultural topics, now releases only three or four historical romances a year.

Romance writer Sandra Kitt, who is African American, says when her first books came out in 1984, "all of my publishers' writers and their characters were white. . . . They knew not all of their readers were white, but they felt . . . if women of color are willing to read romances with white characters, why fool around with it?"

Then, in 1992, came the crossover best-selling success of Terry McMillan's "Waiting to Exhale," a book of popular fiction about middle-class black Americans.

Kitt believes that establishing Arabesque, for which her book, "Serenade," was one of two premiere titles in July, "was absolutely a business decision, but with good statistical reasons." She says nearly a quarter of romance fiction readers are not white and have money to spend on books.

"We know a lot of women of color read (romance) books," Falk confirms. "As the population ratio changes you're going to see more books with Spanish (-speaking) heroines and Asian heroines and heroes, and that's just reflective of the reader."

Falk points out that the average reader devours 20 to 40 romance titles a month, and that about 120 are published monthly. Diversity is essential, which is why, she says, romance fiction has so many sub-genres (historical, Western, women in jeopardy)--of which the mature, male and multicultural perspectives are the latest.

"These books cater to the reader with a voracious reading appetite, and like fashion, she doesn't want to read or wear the same thing all the time," Falk says, noting that the next big romance trend is erotica.

Laura Shatzkin, director of advertising, promotions and publicity for Kensington Publishing, says that the company's considerable promotional effort, particularly for Arabesque, reflected more than the launch of a new line.

"It's a recognition of the size and power of the market."

Monica Harris, editor of the Arabesque books, says she "hopes to bring in people who never considered reading romance fiction because they could see it doesn't offer what they're looking for; it doesn't have someone who looks like them on the cover."

As a teen-ager, Kitt devoured romantic fiction.

"It was my first introduction to what male-female relationships were like," she says. "And even though the characters were all white, that didn't bother me--I was tied in to the love story."

Although she never read a story where the characters looked like her, Kitt always wanted to write about her culture. Now manager of library services for New York's American Museum, she sold her first book when the romance market was at its peak in the mid 1980s, and was the first African American writer to publish with Harlequin.

Asked what makes a black romance different from a white romance, Kitt says that "the whole concept of love relationships--marriage, conflict--is pretty universal. What makes ethnic romance different is the subtleties, the texture of the story."

The hero of her "Serenade," for example, is a musician whose roots in jazz inform the tale of love found, lost and found again.

Kitt doesn't write in dialect, but her characters do communicate in identifiably ethnic ways. In the black community of her youth, she says, women often expressed exasperation by sucking their teeth. "I grew up with that, and every black woman I know understands that (gesture). I described it in one of my books, and the white editor didn't understand it because she didn't have the (same) experience."

That's a major reason, Kitt suggests, that the publishing industry's executive ranks should be culturally diverse. "There has to be someone who understands the experience. . . . That's the only way you can decide if it's authentic to the culture you're writing about."

It's not necessary to be African American, Kitt believes, to write a compellingly black story, but it's the unusual white person whose exposure to and understanding of the culture can impart authenticity. Kitt's more skilled at writing stories with white characters than most white writers are in a black milieu, she says, because "as an African American, I've had to adjust to a society and culture that's predominantly white."

But in the (happily-ever-after) end, color is a decidedly tangential issue. Does the heroine get the guy, or what?

"My responsibility as an African American writing romances with black characters is to stay true to the culture and the tradition, but to remember . . . what my audience wants," Kitt says. "No matter how I texture the story, what they're primarily interested in is the love story between the hero and heroine. Everything else is dressing."

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