By MARIE GILBERT
4:59 PM EST, February 15, 2012
February might be the month of love.
But to millions of people around the world, the pursuit of romance happens 365 days a year.
It happens with smoldering gazes, forbidden embraces and chance encounters with dangerous, mysterious men.
It's a love affair between readers and a genre of literature some elitists like to mock.
It's the romance novel.
Call it fluff. Call it fantasy. And mock all you want.
It's a multibillion dollar business that shows no signs of cooling off.
About half of all paperbacks produced in the United States are romances. And romance is now the fastest-growing segment of the e-reading market, according to data compiled by the Romance Writers of America.
It's huge following has made celebrities of some of its authors, who consistently find their books on the best-selling lists, and has created a whole new world of blogging.
For Sarah Wendell, it's a little of both.
Wendell has written several books that explore the world of romance novels. But she also has found her niche by creating an irreverent website that specializes in all things romantic.
Called Smart B****** and Trashy Books, the website offers reviews and of romance novels and explores the past and future of the genre.
But most of all, Wendell said, you'll find "a community of smart, screamingly funny women all discussing the books we love."
It has become so popular, the site receives between three and six million hits each day.
"I think people come to the site not just because of the entries, but because of the women and men who comment and hang out there," she said. "We are a boisterous and irreverent community of readers from over 150 countries."
Wendell's blogs have made her somewhat of a celebrity — the subject of feature stories in The New York Times, People Magazine and USA Today and interviews on national television shows.
Her legion of area fans will have the opportunity to meet with her in person on Saturday, Feb. 18, when she participates in Turn the Page Bookstore's Valentine book signing event from noon to 2 p.m.
Other participants include Nora Roberts, Mary Burton, Mary Kay McComas, Donna Kauffman and local authors Mary Alice Baumgardner and Michael Douglas Jones.
Wendell grew up in Pittsburgh and calls herself a late reader.
"But once I learned to read, I didn't stop. Once I figured out what I liked to read, it became my favorite thing to do," she said.
Wendell guesses her interest in romance novels began about 1991.
But she never thought reading a romance book would set her on a career path.
Instead, she attended college, went to grad school — all with the intention of teaching English literature.
"That goal changed radically," Wendell said.
It all began after she and friend Candy Tan started up an email correspondence completely unrelated to romance novels.
"But somehow, we found ourselves talking about them, how much we liked them and how tired we were of people judging us for reading them," Wendell recalled. "One of us suggested we start a review blog about them. So we came up with a title, bought the domain in January of 2005 and Candy came up with our original design."
Wendell said the site has been redesigned twice as technology and the size of the community changed.
After her cofounder went to law school, Wendell said, "I kept on going — mostly because it was too much fun to stop."
Wendell said she never expected the site to become so popular.
"But now that I have met virtually and actually so many romance readers in different parts of the world, I realize how important it is for readers of every type of book to have a welcoming place to talk about the books they love," she said. "Now, there are so many excellent romance sites online talking about the different subgenera of romance. There's no shortage of places to go to talk about romance."
Wendell has also penned several books, including "Beyond Heaving Bosoms," a witty guide to romance novels that she co-authored with Candy Tan.
In October of 2011, she penned "Everything I Know About Love, I Learned from Romance," which she calls "a celebration of the genre and the life lessons about relationships romance readers and writers can find within it."
While many people search for romance within the covers of a book, Wendell is a firm believer that romance is very much alive in the real world.
"Absolutely, no question," she affirms. "One misconception about romance readers is that the books we read and promote are an artificial and unrealistic expectation of real life relationships and men in particular. And that's absolutely untrue — and a somewhat sexist assumption as it presumes women can't tell the difference between fiction and reality. Few people question, for example, whether men who read spy fiction secretly believe they are Jason Bourne.
"Romances are about courtship and courtship is the act of expressing in thought, word and deed that you care about someone," she added. "Romance readers don't expect their significant others to roll up in the driveway in a yacht, dressed like a pirate and ready to kidnap them for high seas adventure. But romance readers do value partners who can share responsibility and commitment, work through problems and communicate affection."
In "Everything I Know About Love, I Learned from Romance Novels," Wendell said romance author Teresa Medeiros says "Never stop courting your spouse."
"She's absolutely right — and it's not just your spouse that should receive attention," she said. "Anyone you care about should know how you feel, whether it's saying so or a gesture like bring someone having a bad day a chocolate and a funny comic. So long as people communicate that they care about one another, romance isn't dead."
If you go ...
WHAT: Valentine's book signing
WHEN: Noon to 2 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 18; free tickets given out from 10 a.m to 2 p.m.
WHERE: Turn the Page Bookstore, 18 N. Main St., Boonsboro
CONTACT: Call 301-432-4588 or email email@example.com
MORE: Authors include Nora Roberts aka J.D. Robb, Mary Burton, Donna Kauffman, Mary Kay McComas, Sarah Wendell and local authors Michael Douglas Jones and Mary Alice Baumgardener.
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