SOME people escape at the movies, some in front of the television, and others while jogging. For 22 million American women - and possibly a few men - escape is reading romance novels, devouring them like bonbons. ``I'm a different person when I'm near the end of a book,'' says Jean Riva of Wyoming, Mich., in a response typical of avid romance readers. ``It really does put me in a better mood ... knowing this will be a `happily ever after,' that the two people will stay together forever.''
Ms. Riva consumes about 18 romances a month, plus stacks of other reading (history, she finds, nicely complements historical romances). She reads at home and on her night job in a parking lot. ``I read all the time.... I like to learn things.''
A romance novel is formula fiction: quick (takes about two hours to read); predictable (woman meets man, conflicts arise); and happy (the heroine gets the man).
Happy readers mean happy publishers in this $250 million industry of 13 publishers - among them Harlequin/Silhouette, Dell, Bantam - and more than a thousand women writers. (One New York publisher admits that a certain best-selling author is a man, but he must be published under a female pen name.)
According to industry insiders, romance novels account for 25 percent of all paperback sales and are second in fiction sales only to mainstream best sellers by authors like Danielle Steele, Tom Clancy, and Sidney Sheldon.
Every month 120 new paperback romances hit the shelves, according to Kathryn Falk of Brooklyn, N.Y., publisher of the fan magazine Romantic Times. The romances range from historical to contemporary, chaste to carnal. Most sell out and aren't reprinted.
Today half the romances are published by Harlequin Enterprises, the Canadian company that made the paperback romance into a consumer product.
In the 1960s and '70s Harlequin launched the industry's first marketing blitz: It advertised on TV and boxes of detergent; sold books in supermarkets and drugstores; and provided quaint displays in chain bookstores. The publisher threw reader parties, worked with focus groups, and introduced convenient (and profitable) mail delivery by subscription. Harlequin bought competitors Mills & Boone in Britain and Simon & Schuster's Silhouette division in New York.
Now Harlequin publishes in 19 languages and distributes in more than 100 countries. Business is booming from Tokyo to Toledo. But too much boom may be busting the market. Sales were down 2 million last year, from 204 million the year before, says public relations director Katherine Orr.
``The market is glutted these days. There are too many books being published,'' says Ms. Falk. Her monthly magazine is jammed with reviews (the best books get five hearts), interviews, letters, a list of authors' pen names (when writers switch publishers they must write under a new name), and ads for Falk's book, ``How to Write a Romance and Get it Published.''
Marketing is the name of the game, says Falk, who encourages writers to promote their books and booksellers to join her network of ``Bookstores That Care,'' specializing in used romances. Olde Methuen Bookshoppe in Methuen, Mass., is one of these.
Proprietor Aura Fluet sits flanked by rows and stacks of books. With the flooded romance market and prices of paperbacks going up (from less than $3 to $5 and $6), says Ms. Fluet, buyers are more discriminating. ``More and more they're buying by author,'' she says, rather than sticking to a series from one publisher.
A reader is browsing among dogeared 19th-century ``Regency'' romances. ``I consider myself a very romantic person. These suit my personality,'' says Shane O'Neill, a special-education teacher in Methuen.
``I was disappointed to pick up one of the new [Harlequins] and find so much sex,'' she says. ``You don't need that for a good romance.'' She prefers the ``Second Chance at Love'' series, with older heroines who have been divorced or widowed.
Ms. O'Neill reads romances over other books because ``intellectual books ... leave me drained. Romances are refreshing. They make me feel good.''
Why is formula fiction refreshing? Because it's familiar; readers can relax because they have no messy ending to fear, says psychologist Victor Nell, an expert on popular reading, in a telephone interview from Johannesburg.
Why do women choose romance? Says Mr. Nell, ``Women enjoy reading fiction that's consistent with their own age, sex, interest, daydreams. ... They're feeding their desire to escape into the ideal romance.''
Not so, says Teresa Ebert, a post-modern critic, feminist theorist, and professor of literature at the University of Rhode Island. ``These are not innocent fantasy. ... Pleasures and desires are shaped by the narratives.''
The narratives are detrimental to both men and women, says Ebert, because ``they continue to reproduce gender differences required by a patriarchal society.... No matter how capable or assertive the heroine may be in her work, she is still defined essentially as a mate, a sexual other to a male.'' It's an identity women learn as early as their first fairy tale - Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella.
What's needed, says Ebert, ``is a constant `critical reading' of all narratives - texts of culture - so that we can intervene in the way that these narratives shape our desires and identities and end the division and exploitation of individuals according to gender.''
But readers and editors say that the heroines have changed - they're tougher, harder working - and that's feminism enough.
Publisher Falk points to the women who love working within the industry - writers, editors, bookshop owners - as examples of the feminist ideal of supporting oneself with satisfying work. She takes it seriously. The romance industry ``has a passion that no other genre of literature has. We have our own world. Our own little industry. It's lucrative and it's fun.''
It's also habit forming. When the happy feeling at the end of the book wears off, Riva in Michigan says, ``I just rush out to the store and buy another one.''
What if she couldn't buy one?
``I guess I'd write one.''