"Women think there must be something I don't do as well as another woman," says Harold Lowry. He catches himself. "I mean, as a woman." He pauses. "You know what I mean."
Tall, dark, and gender-neutral
The men of category romance
Harold Lowry's gender is beyond debate, but the same cannot be said of Leigh Greenwood, successful writer of romance novels, who is the same person as Harold Lowry. It is a dilemma shared by Vince Brach, who is the same person as Fran Vincent, and by Mike Hinkemeyer, who is also Vanessa Royall. They feel secure with their manhood. They just don't want to broadcast it.
Male writers of romance novels have a tough job, as Tom E. Huff (Jennifer Wilde, Edwinna Marlowe) was the first to discover. Huff was in the vanguard of historical romance in the 1970s, when the romance industry boiled down to "eight women known as `the Avon ladies' and a guy from Texas named Jennifer," says Bertrice Smalls, who was one of those eight ladies.
Huff, whose novel Love's Tender Fury heads the canon of old-style bodice-rippers, left this advice for those who would come after: keep it quiet. Female readers feel uncomfortable having men write their fantasies.
How to become a romance novelist
The men of category romance
Romance on the Web
Few men have come forward to take Huff's place since his death in 1989, though some have attempted it. One romance publisher recently launched a whole series written by men, but its first wave of readers immediately picked up on tonal discrepancies, says Carol Stacy, publisher of Romantic Times magazine.
"The readers nailed it," says Stacy. "It's not that men aren't talented writers. It's just that what a man considers romantic is not what a woman considers romantic. Women don't trust that a man knows what romance is."
One of the few who has broken this barrier is Lowry, a 55-year-old father of three who has published 17 historical romances. In the feminine world of romance, men -- as both characters and colleagues -- have an ambiguous status: sometimes brutal, often benighted, and always in dire need of female assistance. "It's funny. The man is the adored object, but he is also the enemy," says the former schoolteacher. Walk into a room of romance enthusiasts and "you are basically a foreign item."
The numbers tell the story. At a romance-writers convention last year, Vince Brach was one of three men in a crowd of 2000.
Brach, a Texan, read his first romance novel by accident, and developed an anomalous enthusiasm for the form. One day in a bookstore, a member of the Romance Writers of America was so impressed by his ardor that she approached him and invited him to a meeting. That's when he became Fran Vincent. But the rationale for the charade occasionally wears on his patience.
"They think men don't know what women want in love, which is absurd, because men marry women all the time," he says. When all is said and done, though, Brach will remain Fran, at least for the time being. "It's not a serious prejudice, but it's enough to make their hand hesitate when they're reaching for a title," he says. "Why put a hobble around your leg?"
-- Ellen Barry
Ellen Barry can be reached at email@example.com.