Australia’s steamiest secrets

Dakota Johnson and Jamie Dornan in a scene from film Fifty Shades Freed. Picture: Supplied
Dakota Johnson and Jamie Dornan in a scene from film Fifty Shades Freed. Picture: Supplied

THE age of the alpha hole - the brooding, brutish alpha male that would set hearts aflutter in the bodice-rippers of yore - is over. The nice guys have won.

These days, the men steaming up the pages of romantic fiction are single dads, emotionally vulnerable Regency lords and bikies yearning to swap guns for groceries.

Gone too are the passive damsels with heaving bosoms; the modern heroine is feisty and independent. "Love comes as a secondary thing to their quest for a fulfilling life," says Stephanie Laurens, Australia's romance queen.

Romance author Stephanie Laurens. Picture: Supplied
Romance author Stephanie Laurens. Picture: Supplied

RELATED: Read the steamy new Mills and Boon romance novel Off Limits

Whether the hero is a self-doubting doctor, a struggling farmer or a sheik presiding over an unusually progressive Arabian oil state, romance novels are Australia's hottest secret.

In print, romance is the third biggest genre, but combined with e-books - for which Australia-wide figures are not available - "publishers believe it is the second or even most-read genre," said Adam Van Rooijen from Harlequin books.

Last year, Australians bought 1.4 million hard copy romance books, two thirds of them from genre publishing powerhouse Mills & Boon. They also bought almost 300,000 Mills and Boon e-books.

Aussies still love romance stories.
Aussies still love romance stories.

The typical reader is a 40-plus woman who is married with two teenage kids and lives in the suburbs or in regional Australia. She reads between six and 10 books a month.

She devours her so-called sweet romance in hardback and the raunchy stuff on her tablet; according to Harlequin, women buy four steamy e-books for every sweet one.

"It may be a shock to some people, but women enjoy sex," says Jo Grant, Mills & Boon's global editorial director. "And they like reading about sex."

Sex on the page is so popular that Mills & Boon is launching a new line of explicit fiction called DARE, which is targeted at younger women. "It's the perfect entry into reading romance … for those younger readers who think it's 'not for them'," says Grant.

"The language, attitudes, power dynamics between the characters are firmly 21st century - and did I mention the hot sex?"

Australian writer Clare Connelly is a DARE author. Her heroes are still rich, powerful men - think billionaires in the Bahamas - but her heroines are powerful too. "We are writing women who don't need a man, but when they do take one, it's on their terms."

The brute may have had his day, but with so many subgenres within romance, there's a still hero to suit everyone's taste. There's warriors, vampires, Nascar drivers, aliens, and even the Amish (these books are known as bonnet-rippers).

Clare Connelly is a romantic novelist for Dare, published by Mills & Boon. Picture: Matt Turner
Clare Connelly is a romantic novelist for Dare, published by Mills & Boon. Picture: Matt Turner

Laurens, a New York Times best-selling author, likes her Regency heroes manly, but they still "have to be able to recognise the heroines' qualities and to value them. The hero can't be a testosterone-fuelled jock with no brain."

Rural writer Cathryn Hein prefers beta males. She writes about shy farmers, disability carers, injured war veterans. "I create a hero that I would fall in love with," she says. "I like heroes like my husband, really."

Rebekah Turner, author of paranormal romance (including one about a bikie werewolf with a conscience), wonders whether women are turning to kinder heroes because there are so many real-life "alpha-holes" in the post-Weinstein era.

"It feels [like] every single hero you had is turning out to be a sexual deviant, so you might want something safe and nice and comforting," she said.

In decades past, there has been a whiff of disapproval lingering over the romance genre - perhaps because of the sex, or because it's for women, or because it still carries the stigma of being cheap, "pulp" fiction.

"We are a bit maligned in publishing - it has been historically seen as not worthy," says Hein. But "people are discovering that these are not what they thought they were. They are not your grandmother's romance novels."

(Grant, however, warns against judging a lady's tastes by her age; "Just because she is defined as a grandmother doesn't mean she wants her romances without the hot sex.")

Rebekah Turner write paranormal romance. Picture: News Corp Australia
Rebekah Turner write paranormal romance. Picture: News Corp Australia

Melanie Milburne, a Mills & Boon author, wonders whether the stigma reflects deeper attitudes towards female sexuality. "Somehow [there is a view that] women should not be enjoying sex; that rapacious sexual appetite belongs to men and not women. We come up against that all the time."

Connelly says romance writing is a powerful antidote to the male-dominated porn culture, which rarely takes female pleasure into consideration. "I think Mills & Boon is a great insight into what women want."

Not all authors write sex. Tricia Stringer, who focuses on rural romance, shuts the bedroom door, as they say in the trade. "For me it's about the build-up to the attraction. The rest happens, but I don't go into detail."

Turner shuts it, too. "It's hard when you are trying to write something erotic and your kids are shoving Transformers in each other's eyes."

Yet Laurens would not dream of cutting out sex. "My readers would lynch me."

Sex is more forthcoming from the Mills & Boon authors, although writing it is not always easy. "I do find it really hard if someone else is in the house - if the dogs are barking, or the gardener is mowing the lawn," says Tasmania-based Milburne, who has written 76 Mills and Boon books since 2004.

Connelly has learned to plough through. "I have two young kids and a tiny house, so I have become adept at just putting my headphones in and writing things that would make you blush," she said.

DARE is a new series of Mills & Boon novels. Picture: Supplied
DARE is a new series of Mills & Boon novels. Picture: Supplied

Once the passion is on the page, there are matter-of-fact discussions with editors about whether the sex scene is realistic, or pleasurable, or too adjective-heavy. "She might suggest we hold back on [the orgasm] until later in the scene," says Milburne.

Connelly admits there is frequent blushing in her head office. "The copyeditor will come back with some finicky grammatical errors in words that are quite explicit," she said.

There are no formulas for aspiring romance authors to follow, the writers say. There needs to be a love story, but that doesn't need to be the only plot line - they can be thrillers or fantasies too.

The only rule is a happy ending.

When Harlequin asked Australian women why they read Mills & Boon last year, they replied, "to escape". Knowing the ending would be happy made it a safe, relaxing experience.

Topics:  dareseries editors picks fiction romance writing

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