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Guide to the evolving genres of women's fiction: as the lines blur between romance and "chick lit," how does a reader tell the difference?

Since the release of Terry McMillan's Waiting to Exhale (Viking Press) in 1992 and the launch of Arabesque's line of black romances in 1994, readers have been enjoying both women's fiction, now frequently dubbed "chick lit," as well as romance fiction. As romance novelists become mainstream best-sellers and mainstream bookcovers look more like titillating romance titles, many readers could be confused as to what genre is what. How's a reader to know the difference?

When the Cover Shouts "Desire"

Packaging is one way for a savvy reader to tell the difference between her favorite author's romance title and another author's mainstream novel. Romance titles such as The Lady in Red by Deirdre Savoy (BET Books, May 2004) often show an illustration or photograph of a man and a woman in a tender embrace or in a near kiss. The images evoke romance, passion or desire. Most romance novels are mass-market titles, costing around $6.99; titles by popular authors often graduate to trade paperback price, $15.

Mainstream titles often feature an illustration or photograph of a solitary woman or a group of women (in some variations, there is a man on the cover as well, such as with If Only You Knew by Alex Hairston, BET Books/Sepia, February 2004). Titles can be either romantic or sassy like Mary B. Morrison's sexy Somebody's Gotta Be on Top (Dafina/Kensington Publishing, August 2004).

Romance: True Love Triumphs

Traditional contemporary romance titles follow a certain formula. Its most important element is that the hero and heroine wind up "happily ever after together." The thrill for the readers is that they can follow the couple through their ups and downs to a final destination where the two profess their true love for each other.

Mainstream titles "allow the reader to experience even more dramatic circumstances, but without the certainty that the heroine will end up with the man she's fallen in love with. They also allow the reader to follow more than just the heroine's romantic life. "They draw on all aspects of a woman's life," says Cherise Davis, senior editor of Simon & Schuster. "Work, motherhood, friendship ... they are not driven primarily by romance."

Romance also permits just the right amount of fantasy to season a realistic tale. The hero is handsome, accomplished, confident but wounded in some way that can only be healed by the love of the right woman. The heroine is beautiful (although she may not realize it), accomplished (although she may not appreciate it), considerate and hurt; she often finds the right missing pieces to her life with the love of the right man. The stories can be comedic, or with a mystery, an adventure tale or a slice of life. Sexual currents are palpable, but subtle. Told in an intimate style so that the reader can place herself in the story, the romance novel is a quick reminder of a woman's power, courage, intelligence and gentleness--and it shows how necessary those characteristics are to a successful romantic relationship.

Mainstream: Heroine Triumphs in the End

Although both romance and mainstream titles show how conflicts can be overcome, mainstream titles are often funny, gossipy, dramatic, weepy or scandalous. These novels offer readers less formulaic story lines, so the language can include profanity, sexuality can be fully explored, and emotions such as jealousy and vengeance can be examined in a way that won't violate the reader's expectations. The satisfaction for the reader comes when the heroine finds all her battles are won, all her lessons are learned, and she feels strong enough to shape her life the way she wants.

The good news for publishers is that romance readers often read mainstream titles and mainstream authors often read romance. The story of a good woman who can't be brought down is a good book on anybody's bookshelf.

Don't Forget:


Enchanted Heart by Felicia Mason Dafina Books, July 2004 $15, ISBN 0-758-20571-6

What We Did for Love by Teresa McClain-Watson BET Books/Sepia, July 2004 $15, ISBN1-583-14461-7

He Had It Coming by Camika Spencer St. Martin's Press, October 2004 $19.95, ISBN 0-312-32334-4


Tropical Heat by Loure Bussey Arabesque/BET Books, August 2004 $6.99, ISBN 1-583-14518-4

Kindred Spirits by Alice Wootson Arabesque/BET Books, May 2004 $6.99, ISBN 1-583-14537-0

A Happy Life by Charlotte Harris Genesis Press, June 2004 $9.95, ISBN 1-585-71133-0

Monica Harris is a founding editor of Arabesque romance. She is currently an editorial consultant in New York City.
COPYRIGHT 2005 Cox, Matthews & Associates
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2005, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Title Annotation:the love scene
Author:Harris, Monica
Publication:Black Issues Book Review
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 1, 2005
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