The genre remains the largest single sector of the adult paperback fiction market. But its subject-matter is no longer one that Barbara Cartland or Mills and Boon would easily recognise. Yesterday the pounds 5,000 Romantic Novelist Of the Year Award was won by a university lecturer, Sue Gee. Her novel contains a staple of traditional romantic fiction, a virginal young woman pining after a rugged, handsome farmer. But from there it moves swiftly to fin-de-siecle romance. The Hours Of The Night contains no love scene for the virginal poet heroine, but a passionate one between the man she desires and his homosexual partner.
Gee, who teaches writing and publishing at Middlesex University, plans to donate pounds 1,000 of the pounds 5,000 prize money to the English PEN Committee for Writers in Prison. She beat a shortlist that included Lisa Appignanesi, former deputy director of the Institute of Contemporary Arts. She has swapped putting on radical exhibitions and organising talks for the defence of Salman Rushdie for writing romance.
Yet their inclusion on a romantic fiction shortlist comes as a surprise to both of them. Perhaps that is a sign of growing pains within the Romantic Novelists' Association, which even as it gave the award, was balloting members about a change of name for its association. Or perhaps it is just a sign that romantic fiction is being belatedly redefined.
Gee said yesterday: "I was fairly astonished to be told that this was romantic fiction. This is the least romantic book I have written. It's about a woman who falls in love with a homosexual man, and there's a strong homosexual relationship. It's about different aspects of love. It's nice to win, but I didn't see it as a romantic novel and I didn't even know it had been submitted."
Appignanesi, who used to teach European literature, based her book A Good Woman on observing people in Paris. "I never think of myself as writing romantic fiction. But quite often there's sexuality and desire at the core of it, all those ICA words. Every woman of my generation is a feminist, simply can't help but be."
Lizzie Buchan, who won the award in 1994, said then: "The shoulder-padded female with her belt notched with orgasms has gone, along with Porsches and Margaret Thatcher. Books that debate and emphasise some kind of values are coming back into fashion."
Mrs Buchan, who is married to the grandson of John Buchan and who now chairs the Romantic Novelists' Association, says romantic fiction has too often been confused with romance, which is nearer to the Mills and Boon novel. Romantic fiction, she says, follows in the tradition of Jane Eyre and works by Hardy. In Far From the Madding Crowd, his heroine goes through three men. Out of that he sets a study of character and landscape which informs and enriches the personal drama played out.
"There are writers on our shortlist who could begin to emulate Hardy or Bronte if they wished to. The change now is that by and large the 19th century romantic novels stopped at the altar. The romantic novel today is much more willing to look at marriage. They also incorporate our preoccupation with human consciousness and psychology. But they still tend to have a strong narrative drive, whereas other writers are interested in words and mood." Writers and readers of romantic fiction largely continue to be female. There are few men among the association's 400 members. But yesterday's shortlist did include a man. Andrew Greig wrote The Return Of John Macnab, a sequel to a work by Buchan.
He too says that he did not think of himself as writing romantic fiction, but is happy to be labelled a romantic.
The romantic market accounts for a large share of total book sales: figures for 1996 show that the genre made more than pounds 1.6 million for publishers during the 12-month period, writes Becky Lloyd.
Sales on the general market for the first 12 weeks of this year total 43,000 copies, to a value of pounds 188,645.
However, this figure does not take into account supermarket sales, which, if included, would at least double the amounts involved.
The romantic bestseller list for week ending 12 April 1997:
1. Judith McNaught - Remember When (Pocket Books)
2. Marilyn Tracy - Code Name Daddy (Silhouette Books)
3. Betty Neels - Sister Peters in Amsterdam (Mills and Boon)
4. Sally Wentworth - Guilty Wife (Mills and Boon)
5. Betty Neels - Promise of Happiness (Mills and Boon)
Figures courtesy of BookTrack
Edward lay in his lover's arms and watched him sleeping ...
Rowland, sleeping, heard it, and shifted, and opened his eyes.
"Ssh. Don't move."
He shook his head, reached for the watch on the table. Four o'clock.
"Time for me to go, I'm afraid."
He kissed Edward's head, and made to get up.
"Not yet," said Edward. "Please, not yet."
"You can't mean it."
"I can. All this time without you."
"It's only a week."
An extract from The Hours Of The Night by Sue Gee