One day I stopped by the romance aisle at the bookstore. Incredible! Cover after cover of muscular torsos bursting out of lumberjack shirts or British redcoat uniforms, bulging biceps, six-pack abs! Often with real models, like Cristian Letelier. Where do all these vampires, dog breeders, and time-travelers from 18th century France get access to Nautilus machines?
The intended audience consists of heterosexual women. The protagonist, always female, spends hundreds of pages falling for, kissing, thinking about, breaking up with, and reconciling with a man who has the sculpted physique of a Greek god, but has a dark secret or is afraid to love. The fun for readers is in seeing the same basic situation played out in new, unusual settings, such as in a small-town travel agency or in the world of competitive dog shows.
To find out, I read two novels by Linda Howard, a well-recognized master of modern romance (her covers don't have any beefcake, so I'm substituting others).
Dream Man, which tied for first place on the Romance Reader website’s list of Top 100 Novels, stars Marlie Keen, a sweet-natured clairvoyant who longs to lose her gift and embark upon a “normal” life, that is, find a man. When she starts seeing through the eyes of a serial killer, she must team up with a macho detective named Dane Hollister.
Though the setting is present-day Orlando, Florida, there are no gay characters, and gay people are mentioned only twice. Dane denigrates a house for being painted in “ice cream colors, which only women and gays knew the names of”; and the killer explains that he prefers female victims because he isn’t “queer.”
Daisy has a male best friend, antiques dealer Todd Lawrence, whom she seeks out for hair and makeup tips. She suspects that he is gay, but he turns out to be straight. Macho cop or fey antique dealer, conventional or rebellious, guys are guys, all waiting, without exception, to be redeemed through the love of a woman.
Romance novels account for a fifth of all books sold in the United States. And they present a world where gay people do not exist.