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Sunday, July 7, 1996 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Romance & R-E-S-P-E-C-T -- Bestsellers Are Nice, But What Seattle Writer Jayne Ann Krentz Really Wants Is A Little Less Condescension About Her Brand Of Popular Fiction

Seattle Times Arts Writer

You are looking at a picture of what should be the most famous woman in Seattle. Yes, that one, pictured there with the ladder and that casual bunch of flowers, with the "most likely to succeed" smile on her face.

But unless you are among the 50 million women in North America who read romances, you probably don't know her name.

Jayne Ann Krentz looks at her latest interviewer, smoothing back a single strand of brown hair that keeps swinging across her cheek. Her gaze, through a pair of narrow-rimmed oval glasses, is a bit wary.

Is this going to be an interview, or an ambush? Another hostile and condescending piece about romance fiction, of which Krentz is one of the undisputed queens? Another sneering analysis of heaving bosoms and burning passions?

Krentz has good reason to wonder. Here she is, a Seattle writer who has more than 22 million copies of her 22 novels in print, with 17 New York Times bestselling titles. That includes more bestsellers over the last four years than John Grisham and Michael Crichton, combined.

So why is Krentz, despite all her success, still having to work so hard to get a little respect?

She will tell you why, succinctly and articulately and at length. She will discuss sexism, realism, literary standards, the history of the novel, and the nature and demographics of the publishing business.

And after a conversation with Krentz, no matter whether or not you are a romance-novel fan, one conclusion is indisputable: This woman is as smart as a whip. Anyone who thinks romance authors are dummies, writing for clueless bonbon-stuffing couch potatoes, hasn't met Jayne Ann Krentz.

"I am writing," Krentz says, "in the only genre in which not only the books get slandered, but also the readers."

And why?

"Romances and their readers are so easy to stigmatize," she explains. "The books are sentimental, optimistic . . . well, romantic. A lot of reviewers get nervous around positive, romantic relationships in books. They're not sure they should be liking this."

Yet the same critics who slam romances for being formulaic are often respectful of mystery fiction, most of which is equally predictable: The mystery gets solved. The sleuth wins. The butler did it.

Not what you'd call realistic, in many cases. Krentz says romance fiction is the last literary category - maybe the last category of any of the arts - to be judged by the standards of realism. We don't expect our paintings, our operas, our poetry, our literary novels, to be strictly realistic, but romance novels are attacked more often for their lack of realism than for any other reason.

A sexist bias

Warming to her theme, Krentz leans forward.

"I think there is a sexist bias here, against a category of fiction that is written, edited and read almost exclusively by women," she says.

"But the bias also is more broadly based, against popular fiction in general. The whole pool of fiction needs to be viewed as a pond, with very powerful wellsprings coming from the bottom. Ripples at the top blend these influences together, but there are big rushing forces from beneath. The writers who have a real voice, who sustain their vision, are diving down to the pure water beneath and bringing it up. Readers know this and recognize it."

Even writers who are very successful, but not very good? Like glitz author Judith Krantz?

"I don't enjoy Krantz," Krentz admits. "But I understand intellectually what she's doing."

She's diving down to those wellsprings, that's what. And so, in her own different way, is Jayne Ann Krentz. With her two books a year - one contemporary romance under her own name, another historical romance (usually of the Regency era) under the most recent of her many pseudonyms as Amanda Quick - Krentz has settled into a pattern best described by the title of a University of Pennsylvania Press book of essays Krentz edited: "Dangerous Men and Adventurous Women."

The first half of the title shouldn't be taken too literally. Krentz's heroes are not usually dangerous in the legal sense; they aren't desperados or criminals, and they most certainly aren't rapists or abusers. Krentz has defended her genre vigorously, on the editorial page of USA Today, against attacks in the media on the romance novel as a factor in promoting domestic violence (because they promulgate the image of the dominant male who "saves" them).

No shrinking violets

Krentz's heroines are not shrinking violets, swooning into the arms of their rescuers. They are attractive (though not always conventionally gorgeous), tough (though vulnerable underneath), smart women who have lives of their own: innkeepers, artists, researchers, writers. They are not languishing around, waiting for Prince Charming to arrive, though they are pretty good at recognizing him when he shows up.

In short, they're a lot like Krentz. She is happily married to Frank Krentz, a retired engineer who doesn't read her books and does not enjoy being asked whether he is the model for the sex scenes that are in fairly generous supply throughout Krentz's oeuvre. She may look like an all-business type - in fact, like the corporate librarian she was before she sold her first book in 1979 - but it is not hard to sense that there is another Jayne lurking beneath the tailored teal blazer.

"My own voice as a writer is hard for me to define," she says, "but it involves the distilled essence of a philosophy, a world view. There is humor; there are questions of honor and trust. There is passion, sexual passion. Most important for me is the intellectual connection between the man and woman."

There is a custard heart behind that rather prim exterior, a heart that yearns toward that glorious moment when the romantic chase reaches its culmination - if only on paper. After all, one of Krentz's precepts is that you have to love the genre in which you're working in order to be a success as a writer. Her own past has not been one of tranquility; her parents divorced when Krentz was a teenager, and her father, a decorated hero of Iwo Jima, suffered war-related trauma that affected the rest of his life. The author knows that not all real-life romances have happy endings.

Glimpses of a less buttoned-down Krentz can be hard to catch if you don't know her well. But when Seattle Times photographer Betty Udesen shows up with a bouquet of flowers to be used as a rather ironic prop - we are, after all, debunking some myths about romances here - you can see beneath the scholarly exterior. Krentz sheds her demure glasses, along with the librarian persona and about a decade in age, and gives the camera a cheeky grin.

She is decidedly photogenic, and yet you have to look hard to find a shred of vanity. She isn't one for primping and fussing and worrying. The glasses go off because they reflect light in photos. Krentz tried contact lenses, but found them bothersome, and quit when she discovered Frank didn't really care whether she wore glasses or not.

A disciplined life

You could call her a workaholic. Certainly discipline is a large part of Krentz's lifestyle. For the past 17 years, she has been writing hard and fast: four books a year at first, as a romance series novelist under a variety of pseudonyms (most prominently, her maiden name, Jayne Castle, and Stephanie James), settling back to two longer hardcover books a year in the 1990s.

Krentz spends about eight hours each weekday behind her IBM laptop, turning out around 10 pages, and she combats middle-aged spread (she's in her late 40s) with vigorous and regular exercise. That petite, dark-haired woman sweating next to you in aerobics class or hoisting those barbells might be the queen of romance fiction, especially if you happen to be exercising in a gym near the Pike Place Market. Jayne and Frank are in the process of moving from one luxury condo in the Market neighborhood to another nearby.

A certain amount of travel is not only a reward for Krentz's labors, but also a good chance to scope out a setting for a future book. Recently back from Hawaii (watch for an upcoming Honolulu location!), the author has spent some time enjoying the work of her colleagues, including Robert Parker ("Chance") and Elizabeth Peters ("The Hippopotamus Pool"). She is a voracious reader, and for every book she loves, there are many hurled to the floor in disgust.

"I'd say I have a one-in-six chance of really enjoying a book I start to read," she says, "and I'm selective. How many books did you really enjoy in the past year?"

Hmmm. Good question. This leads to another question: whether there are more bad romance writers at the bottom of the heap than in other genres. In interview after interview, in nearly every profile of romance authors, they all tend to say the same thing: I was reading this really bad romance, and I hurled it to the floor in disgust. I told my husband: George, I can do better than this. And he said: Why don't you try?

Aren't there more floor-hurlers in romance fiction than elsewhere?

Nope, says Krentz, it's just that there are so many romances (48.6 of the mass-market paperbacks sold, in fact). The same percentages of mysteries and of mainstream fiction are also of the floor-hurler category.

Fighting for respectability

Although most of the past two decades has been an uphill battle toward that commodity immortalized by Aretha Franklin, R-E-S-P-E-C-T, Krentz feels the tide of victory is turning in favor of her and her peers.

Once doomed to hide behind covers featuring a lust-crazed Fabio-muscled hero and a swooning heroine whose bodice is just about to explode, romances by established authors finally are beginning to appear in normal-looking plain covers - and in hardback. That has happened, Krentz says, only because established authors like LaVyrle Spencer "started screaming" about the covers.

Largely because of Krentz's efforts (with the more scholarly tone of "Dangerous Men and Adventurous Women"), the romance genre also is beginning to be examined in a more serious manner on the university level, an honor that has long been accorded the mystery novel and other examples of popular fiction.

Recently Krentz was invited to speak at her alma mater, the University of California at Santa Cruz. Ph.D. candidates are beginning to write about her heroines in the context of feminism.

Krentz is giving them more fuel in her 12th Amanda Quick novel, "Mischief" (published last month by Bantam, $22.95), involving an intrepid Englishwoman who is a scholar of the ancient Zamarian culture, a treasure map, several murders and the dashing and handsome Earl of Colchester, whose respect for the heroine's scholarly prowess is matched only by his passion for her nubile body.

Only Krentz would choose as her hobby . . . more writing.

"I am interested in a blend of the futuristic and the paranormal," she says, "and I used to be a sci-fi reader. I like the extra level of intimacy involved in paranormal perceptions. And so I am writing under my maiden name, Jayne Castle, so my readers will know to expect something different from the Jayne Ann Krentz and Amanda Quick books."

The new hobby is already well under way: "Amaryllis," the first book, has been written and will appear in due course.

"It's Seattle with a twist," Krentz says with a grin.

"Everybody has paranormal powers."

Batten down the Space Needle! Secure the skyscrapers! We will all be drinking lattes, and we will all know what everybody else is thinking. This sounds dangerous, more dangerous than any romantic hero. Here's betting that there will be one of those around, however, along with an adventurous woman who will recognize him as her soulmate - with or without ESP.

Copyright (c) 1996 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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