Just Don't Mention Fabio

Novels with titles like Ecstasy and Desire have always inspired much eye-rolling and elbowing. But as more and more fly off the racks at bookstores, the romance novel is gaining respectability. After all, there's no reason to laugh at a $1.52 billion industry that accounts for more than half of all fiction paperbacks sold today.

Would you be surprised to hear that Houston has played no small role in getting this booming industry rolling? The Romance Writers Association was born here back in 1978, when five frustrated romance novelists attending the Southwest Writers Conference at the University of Houston decided they were sick of being taken less seriously than poets and literary and nonfiction authors. They founded the RWA in 1980, and today the group has 8,400 members, more than 160 North American chapters and headquarters right here in town. There's hardly a published or aspiring romance writer in the country who isn't a member.

Almost from the very beginning, the RWA was a success. Around the early '80s romance exploded, and people couldn't get enough. "One of the many reasons romance novels are popular is because people enjoy having their beliefs -- in love and in justice -- affirmed in what they read for fun," says Charis Calhoon, a spokeswoman for the RWA. "In a romance novel, the reader is guaranteed that good will win over evil, and love will prevail."

Even though the genre has moved toward respectability, there's still a ways to go. Romance writers hate it that people think the books haven't changed since the early '80s. Many of them cringe at the "clinch" cover and its most famous hero, Fabio. The industry is developing more "prop" covers, swapping the muscular man cradling the swooning heroine for something more symbolic, like a jewel, a shell or a goblet.

The stories themselves have changed as well. Instead of the 17-year-old innocent, quivering virgin and the older, arrogant landowner, the protagonists these days are on much more equal footing. Even in historical romances, the leading ladies are portrayed as running things behind the scenes, balancing account ledgers and speaking three languages. These are the heroines modern readers want.

The RWA has three chapters in Houston, and its members get together every month to exchange ideas. Unfortunately, these meetings are for members only, and the only RWA events open to the public are its annual conferences, which haven't been held here in a couple of decades. As Calhoon says, "there's not a facility here big enough to hold us."

But if you're thinking of trying your hand at romance, Houston is a good place to be. "It is hard to learn craft and industry without exposure to other writers," says Robin Popp, president of the West Houston RWA chapter, referring to the community here. "Writing is a skill that must be honed and perfected -- before it hits the editor's desk. A writing group does this."

For $100 a year, you too can join the RWA. You'll be welcomed with open arms -- but no Fabio jokes allowed.

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Claire Theriot Mestepey