ANNE GRACIE had a serious case of cold feet. The fledgling romance writer had been invited to a lunch in Melbourne with half a dozen writers already established in the genre. With little background to go on but the stereotypical "type", she expected her peers to be fluffy, Barbara Cartland clones wearing too much make-up and carrying small dogs. And pink. There would be a lot of pink.
"I turned up and found some very forthright, feminist, intelligent women who included a marine biologist, a statistics lecturer, a librarian and a cancer research scientist," says Gracie, a former teacher, now a published author and president of the Romance Writers of Australia.
"People have such a barrier about romance - I know, I had one - but once you get through it you discover what a great area it is. I'm never going back to my dreary old Great Australian Novel. Romance is escapist, it's uplifting, it's a really positive and fun genre."
Romance isn't dead. Quite the opposite; its vital signs show it's in rude health. It is the biggest genre in publishing; in the US it accounts for 53 per cent of paperback fiction sales and one in four of all book sales. Romance titles now occupy five of the top 10 on the New York Times paperback fiction bestseller list.
Australian statistics aren't readily available, but consider this: more than one in five paperbacks sold in Australia are published by Harlequin, the owner of Mills & Boon, which pumps out an incredible 48 titles a month.
It's also an unwitting articulation of why, despite its ubiquity, romance fiction is not likely to get a mention in Australian Book Review. Because the genre's parameters demand the development of a relationship and an optimistic ending, certain things are a given when picking up a romance novel. It will involve lust, and awkwardness in the presence of the lust object. It will involve trembling, breathlessness, and varying degrees of sexual activity, from a single kiss to sex infused with techniques plucked from The Karma Sutra. There will be heroines with names such as Damask, Serena and Hope, and heroes called Dane, Sebastian and Hunter.
She also points out that, beyond the prerequisite story arc, it's literary anarchy, albeit with a good snog along the way.
One need only visit Melbourne's specialist romance bookshop, Rendezvous, to witness first-hand the expansion of the rubric of romance. Its ever-widening roster of sub-genres spans everything from historical, inspirational and sweet (in which there is typically no action below the shoulders), to erotic (in which there is plenty), to suspense, gothic, sexy (millionaires and Arabian princes), paranormal (vampires and werewolves) and time travel.
"Because romance is popular fiction it reflects changes in society as much as any form of entertainment," Clarke says.
While titles such as The Rancher and the Amnesiac Bride might do nothing for the genre's credibility, rejecting romance fiction as a whole over only one or two samples is as short-sighted as rejecting ice-cream because of a dislike for chocolate ripple, its adherents argue.
Then there are its feminist credentials - "written by professional women for professional women", says Gracie. "You won't find a heroine these days who's an innocent girl who wants to get married and be a housewife."
The problem for Australian writers of romantic fiction is that it is largely ignored by Australian publishers, save for the odd outbreak of its younger sibling, chick lit. The global centres for romance publishing are New York, London and Toronto.
Yet Australians are among the romantic fiction elite, who, rare for writers of fiction, can actually make a good living from their work. Take Marion Lennox, the former University of Ballarat statistics lecturer who has sold more than 15 million books, or Stephanie Laurens, a former cancer research scientist whose historical novels have topped the New York Times bestseller list more than a dozen times.
Gracie, whose 11 historical titles have been translated for markets as diverse as Norway, Russia, Japan, Korea, the Czech Republic and Portugal, says, "My writing supports me. I'm not rich, but I'm independent."
The Harlequin managing director, Michelle Laforest, says she expects the romance market to continue broadening its appeal. "One thing that's happening at the moment is
that there's a much more contemporary slant, with second marriages, working mothers and the like."
Nor is the evolution confined to the subject matter. While the typical reader is aged 42 and upwards, at Australian Fashion Week in May the Fleur Wood runway show featured a tie-in with Harlequin, resulting in backstage shots of the models with their heads bent over the latest Mills & Boon titles.
"It was very gratifying seeing young people at the fashion show get into the books," says Laforest of the move to shift the public perception of romance readers away from the florid excesses of Dame Barbara to the skinny insouciance of the 18-year-old fashionista.
But the reality of the romance market, Gracie laughs, is far more normal than those two extremes would suggest.
"I might be the only romance writer who actually owns a feather boa, but that's because I used to be a teacher and I used it as a prop in school plays," she says. "Now I sit down to work in my tracky dacks.
"That's one of the fabulous things about being a romance writer - you don't have to get dressed up to go to work."