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Isn't It Romantic?

Love surprises, arriving brazenly on the sinewy curves of youth. Or more mysteriously, in the stooped shoulders and deeply lined face of an old friend.

And sometimes, love stalks in like a snarling wolf.

That’s how it happened for romance writer Maria Simson ’83, anyway. Under the pen name Maria Vale, she’s authored a trilogy of paranormal romance novels.

“I wanted to create a world that was not human,” says Simson, “to get away from the trope of shape-shifters as loners subduing their inner beast and focus more on wolves as social beings.”

The long-time New Yorker says she likes to address themes sideways, rather than head on. Her books The Last Wolf, A Wolf Apart, and Forever Wolf explore not only love, self-discovery, and survival, but also societal order and the reception of  “the other.” The wolf-meets-human theme is her own sly way of addressing the power necessary to accept strangers into the pack. Any tittering aimed at the romance category annoys Simson, who is married and has two sons.

“So many books use violence—often against women—to ratchet up emotional intensity,” she says, “but there is special disdain reserved for the use of consensual pleasure to the same end, usually from people who don’t read romance.”

As a literary genre, romance fiction is often both celebrated and maligned.

“For all its millions of readers for hundreds of years, it has been dismissed as sentimental, sappy, trashy, as well as mad, bad, and dangerous to read,” says Australian gender-studies expert and romance writer Elizabeth Reid Boyd. “Yet romance fiction, predominantly written by women, published by women, and read by women, remains one of the most popular and powerful genres on the planet.”

As of 2016, romance made up 23 percent of the overall U.S. fiction market, second only to general fiction at 27 percent, says Jessie Edwards, marketing and PR manager for Romance Writers of America. It’s a billion-dollar business that’s no longer limited to problematic variations of “boy meets girl.”

Today, romances reflect an endless diversity of race and sexuality while offering commentary on politics, ideology, and society. Genres have spawned subgenres—Western, military, vampire, Gothic, time travel, even Quaker. Happily, the book list on lust is becoming a rich tapestry. The best romances—however packaged—celebrate love, offer a temporary escape … a sense of hope … representation … and a guaranteed “happily ever after” or “happy for now.”

The Last Wolf was chosen as an Amazon Best Book of the Year So Far, and A Wolf Apart was named one of five romances in Publishers Weekly’s Best Books of 2018.

Susan Roth ’04, who specializes in historical romance known as Regency, has published eight books under the pen name Rose Lerner, including her Lively St. Lemeston series—named to Publishers Weekly’s Best Books of 2014.

Roth, who got engaged to her wife at WrestleMania 2017, took an interest in romance novels in her youth.

“I had a friend in middle school who read Regency romances, too,” says Roth. “We used to trade books, spend hours in the used bookstore together, and write ‘Regency Romantics Anonymous’ newsletters.”

Once, at a sleepover, she recalls, they practiced writing each other in-character letters as heroines.

“There’s a strong tradition of banter, comedy of manners, and bossy heroines in Regency romance that really appeals to me,” says Roth, who counts celebrated Regency author Jane Austen among her influences. Plus, writing historical romance allows her to wade deeply into research. At Swarthmore, the math major took a favorite childhood folk song, “The Cruel War Is Raging,” and turned it into an area of expertise. “I tracked down ballads about women dressing as men for my show on WSRN,” she says, “then went to McCabe and checked out half a dozen books on the reality behind the songs.”

Roth drew on that knowledge while writing the novella “Promised Land,” included in the collection Hamilton’s Battalion (inspired by Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical). In the story, a Jewish woman fighting as a male soldier in the Revolutionary War falls, once again, for her ex, a spy.

Simson has also been a reader of romance novels since she was a teenager and is committed to extensive research for her books. A medieval studies major at Swarthmore, she found inspiration in an Old English class with Craig Williamson, who holds the Alfred H. and Peggi Bloom Professorship of English Literature.

“I remember him singing out the rough and beautiful cadences of Cædmon’s ‘Hymn,’” she says, “and thinking, If wolves could talk, this is what they would sound like.

“Maria kept the hidden wolfishness of poems like Beowulf and Wulf and Eadwacer alive in her dreams until she could recreate them,” says Williamson. “Her work—full of wolves who love, live complex shape-changing lives, and move from one strange world to another—is what the Old English poets might call a wulf-mathum, a wolf-treasure.”

“There’s a fierce innocence to being wild,” says Simson, who fell so deeply in love with her subjects that she traveled to a wolf refuge to study their behavior, movements, and howling habits. “When they howl, they’re community-building. I find that quite beautiful.”

In her trilogy, Simson wanted her wolves-morphing-into-humans moment to feel like a visceral, believable, lengthy process during which they are deaf, blind, immobilized, and utterly vulnerable.

Building bridges between humans and the world of wolves inevitably leads to sex scenes. Here, the wolves (temporarily “in skin” but never human) reflect fondly on their primal animal-mating tactics—all glistening teeth and dominance—bewildered by the clumsy approach to human coupling they must adopt in smelly cabs, luxury high-rises, and noisy bars. Humans don’t know anything!

This methodical approach to creating dual worlds started with upending the conventional werewolf. Instead of giving precedence to the human half and denigrating the animal, Simson created characters who are first and foremost wolves—who assume a human form to protect their territory, their pack, and their own sacred wild.

“In truth, they are one of the most social of animals,” Simson says. “One of the greatest compliments I’ve received about my books came from a woman who told me she thinks very differently about wolves now.”

Where Simson went outward, investigating the world of the wolves, Roth turned inward.

“I often talk about how important overcoming inhibitions and self-censorship is to good writing,” says Roth, who enjoys the freedom romance novels allow to explore all angles of sexuality. As a student board member of the Queer Straight Alliance at Swarthmore, Roth had the opportunity to participate in honest, open discussions on sexuality and gender, internalized misogyny, femmephobia, love, sex, flirting, masturbation, and other topics.

“As a young writer, I would often moderate my characters’ reactions because That’s weird or That’s not sexy or Readers won’t like her,” she says. “But you have to be open to creative flow.”

A commitment to research helps audiences see that sex hasn’t changed that much in the last few hundred years, Roth says.

“Most of us greatly overestimate how different things were in the past,” she says. “People in Regency England had sex before marriage; separated from their spouses and formed new relationships; were queer; told dirty jokes; were polyamorous or kinky; used birth control and had abortions.”

They argued about gender roles, too.

“They might have used different slang, or worried about different sexually transmitted infections,” says Roth, “but you’d be hard-pressed to come up with purely modern sexual or romantic inventions.”

Elsie Williams Lee ’33 provided her own take on romance in the mid-20th century. A Quaker and member of Mensa who also published as Elsie Cromwell, Jane Gordon, and Lee Sheridan, Lee wrote “fairy tales for grownups, primarily women,” as she was quoted as saying.

“I am better at characterizations than plots,” she noted, “and best with cats who are unanimously adored by my readers.”

A homemaker and grammatically scrupulous author of more than 30 romances, Lee supplemented her income by working as a secretary, librarian, and office manager over the years. She also penned nonfiction, including How to Get the Most Out of Your Tape Recording (and the not-to-be-missed More Fun with Your Tape Recordings and Stereo).

Though perhaps less steamy than more modern affairs, Lee’s love scenes—like this from 1965’s Clouds Over Vellanti—are still capable of turning up the heat today:

For a moment, Megan rested against him, clung to his lips, knowing he was good and he was hers.

“We must get to Tessa,” she murmured vaguely. “I would much rather kiss you, but I expect we can do that later?”

“Si mi diletta,” he agreed, straight-faced. “Later—and forever, or as long as you like.”

Sex, flirtation, drama, setting, science, history, and dialogue all sustain stories—whatever the era. But the essential role of the romance novel is to uplift the reader, the “happily ever after” or “happy for now” validation of passion in all its buttoned-up or feverish forms.

As the heroine Elizabeth Bennet best advises in Pride and Prejudice: “Give a loose to your fancy, indulge your imagination in every possible flight ...”