Thirty-five years ago, a paperback novel called The Flame and the Flower revolutionized the romance genre. Or so the story goes: pre-Flame, slim sappy volumes of cute meetings and chaste courtship; post-Flame, hefty sagas of tempestuous meetings and steamy encounters. Thus, Kathleen Erin Woodiwiss, who died of cancer last month, was saluted as the Mother of Modern Historical Romance by the Romance Writers of America (an organization that didn't even exist in 1972) at their annual convention in Dallas.
Though not as prolific as some-only 12 titles since 1972, with a 13th to appear in October-Woodiwiss was amazingly successful, selling over 36 million copies worldwide. If she herself hadn't invented the sub-genre known as "bodice-ripper," someone else would have. By the early '70s, American culture was pretty well saturated with sex, and such titles as Sweet Savage Love (Rosemary Rogers) represented equal opportunity for women who preferred their adventure violet but vicarious.
A Woodiwiss heroine was young, spirited, and ravishing. The hero was a well-muscled rogue whose chief nuance was a mockingly raised eyebrow. One needn't read the entire oeuvre to know the plot, which has been basic bodice-ripper ever since: Boy meets girl under inauspicious circumstances; boy and girl spar through several chapters of dramatic plot device; boy takes advantage of girl; girl forgives boy once she discover his hidden sensitivity; wedding bells eventually ring (better late than never).
Historical romance has come down from its peak in the 1980s; after a tempestuous youth of passionate sales figures, it's achieved a comfortable middle age of steady market share. Other sub-genres have risen, such as paranormal: Stephanie Meyers' Eclipse, concluding a vampire-lover trilogy that began two years ago with Twilight, is a Young Adult publishing event. All that's necessary to the category, according to RWA, is a central love story and an "emotionally satisfying, optimistic conclusion." It's a simple formula that still accounts for almost half of all genre fiction sales.
And after all, don't Jane Eyre and Pride and Prejudice fit that same basic description? Indeed, but real character development and astute observation raise those classics from genre to literature. Literature confronts; genre diverts. Not that diversion is a bad thing, in moderation. Kathleen Woodiwiss deserves credit for making Hot-Pink Love a force to be reckoned with in the publishing world. What credit she may deserve for helping create desperate housewives, or feeding the illusions of love-starved teens, remains to be seen.