BEHIND THE WHITE COLUMNS and wrought-iron gates of her mansion near Galveston, best-selling author Judith McNaught has momentarily come out of self-imposed seclusion—having been consumed for months with writing her forthcoming novel, Night Whispers —to discuss the enduring appeal of romance. Settling into a Louis Quatorze—style chair, the elegant blonde could easily be mistaken for one of her heroines, and her palatial home, with its chandeliers and white marble floors, its sweeping waterfront views and staircase worthy of Rhett’s ascent to the bedroom with Scarlett in his arms, could be the backdrop for one of her wildly popular romance novels. In these gauzy, soft-focus surroundings, there is no mention of men’s failings or love’s disappointments; instead, fantasy, with its endless possibilities, lives on—and has made the 54-year-old McNaught a fortune, with more than 20 million copies of her novels in print in the U.S. alone and nine New York Times best-sellers to her name. Indeed, her books’ popularity has led some to consider her an authority of sorts; a male reporter once asked her, “Ms. McNaught, what is love?” She responded with the kind of élan that has made her legendary among her fans. “I said, ‘If you don’t know already,’” she recalls with a regal laugh, “‘I don’t have enough time today to teach you.’”
To those who aren’t loyal readers of romance novels, McNaught’s name is probably not a familiar one, although she has outsold other celebrated Texas writers, such as Cormac McCarthy and Mary Willis Walker, by the millions. Such relative anonymity comes with the territory, since McNaught inhabits a largely ignored, often scorned niche of the publishing world that happens to be flourishing in Texas. The romance novel, with typically formulaic plots and florid prose, has long been reviled by literary critics, feminists, and moralists alike, mocked as much for its beefcake book covers as for its torrid scenes of passion. But as the publishing industry downsizes and fiction editors wring their hands over declining readership, no one is scoffing at the genre’s success: With revenues of $1 billion a year, the romance novel accounts for 49 percent of paperback sales, outselling the mystery, suspense, and science-fiction categories combined. No longer merely a relic of less liberated times, it has become a mainstay of the publishing business, with readers buying 182 million romance novels a year.
Just as romance novels have lent vitality to the publishing industry, Texas has become the new lifeblood of the genre as novelists have moved away from the urban glitz-and-glamour themes of the eighties to the simpler, down-home stories of the nineties. Editors, taking note of the particular allure of the Texas-based romance, are introducing new series this summer, such as Texas Brides, and reviving old ones like Texas Men (a briskly selling 1996 line about hunky Texans seeking love in a personals magazine of the same name). Explains Debbie Macomber, the Washington State—based author of Harlequin’s best-selling new Heart of Texas series: “It’s a well-known fact in the industry right now that if you put ‘Texas’ in the title, your book will sell.”
In books like To Tame a Texan’s Heart, by Amarillo’s Jodi Thomas, and Texas Destiny, by Plano’s Lorraine Heath, there are no freeways clogged with traffic, no lackluster sunsets, and no men who would prefer watching the Cowboys to roping steers themselves. Instead, this is a land populated by willful beauties and the rugged, broad-shouldered men who love them: brash wildcatters and roguish wranglers, ranch hands who wear faded blue jeans and the sweet smell of hay, and sheriffs who smile admiringly at the heroines from beneath the brim of a Stetson. Texas romances have both urban and rural settings, but tales of small-town life, such as Macomber’s Heart of Texas series, a six-book saga about the fictional Hill Country town of Promise, are more common. In the first installment, Lonesome Cowboy, local wallflower Savannah Weston struggles to keep the Yellow Rose Ranch going after her brother, a “ne’er-do-well charmer,” makes off with the family inheritance; she finally blooms under the attentions of Laredo Smith, a drifter with a mysterious past and a talent for breaking wild horses. Typical of the urban romance is McNaught’s latest novel, the 1996 best-seller Remember When, which tells the story of Houston magazine editor Diana Foster, a recently jilted oil heiress whose evening at a River Oaks charity ball eventually lands her in the arms of stableboy-turned-billionaire Cole Harrison. “To me, there’s nothing romantic about the smell of a stable,” says McNaught, “but give me an oil tycoon and a scene at the Petroleum Club, and I’m hooked.”
“The idea of Texas has always been seductive,” says Harlequin editor Birgit Davis-Todd, the editor of the Texas Men series, “but it wasn’t until fairly recently that we realized what a huge selling point it was, particularly abroad. We’ve been astounded by these series’ popularity.” One would expect erotic imprints like Silhouette’s Desire line and Harlequin’s Temptation series to be big sellers, but even “sweet romances” are hot now: The Heart of Texas series, which features little more than meaningful glances and the occasional chaste embrace, has generated up to two hundred fan letters a day. In a genre that inspires extraordinary loyalty, such outpourings are not uncommon. “At my grandmother’s funeral in Oilton, Oklahoma, a woman was waiting outside the cemetery for me with a copy of every book I had ever written,” says best-selling San Antonio romance writer Pamela Morsi. “I actually ended up signing books on the hood of my grandmother’s hearse.”
Some might argue that Texas looms large in romance novels simply because several hundred romance writers live here—among them some of the biggest names in the field, such as McNaught, Arlington’s Sandra Brown ( Texas! Sage ), Cedar Hill’s Laura Kinsale ( Flowers From the Storm ), and Morsi ( Sealed With a Kiss ). Even Susan Combs, a conservative Republican candidate for agriculture commissioner, was recently revealed to have penned the steamy 1990 novel A Perfect Match,