The new romantics
A local couple are passionate about publishing love stories for gay men
Some gay men may want to get married, and some may just want to have a little romance. But what about those who want to read about it? That's the idea behind Romentics, a fledging enterprise started by a South End couple who believe readers of romance novels needn't be limited to women.
Scott Pomfret, a 35-year-old lawyer, and Scott Whittier, a 29-year-old advertising copywriter, had an especially romantic meeting themselves, they say -- Pomfret wryly calls it "that hallowed night" -- and they believe other gay men would enjoy reading fiction centered on that kind of experience.
"Everything in gay bookstores is self-help," Whittier says in an interview at the condominium he and Pomfret share. "How to come out to your parents, how to deal with AIDS, or it's hard-core erotica."
Whittier adds that one bookseller told them: "People come in and ask, `Where are your romance novels?' and we say, `There aren't any.' "
The question is, can a genre traditionally geared toward women appeal to gay men any more than straight men? If so, "Scott & Scott," their joint nom de plume, may be in on the ground floor.
Romance fiction is by far the leader in non-educational book sales. Nineteen percent of all such books sold last year were romance novels, according to Ipsos BookTrends, an industry research firm. General fiction was second, with 14.6 percent, and every other category was below 10 percent.
For years, the romance universe has been dominated by Harlequin Enterprises, owned by Canada's Torstar Corp. Harlequin last year sold 160 million romance novels -- that's 5.5 books a second. The company's website (www.eharlequin.com) says that 50 million women worldwide read Harlequin romances.
Pomfret, who works on fraud cases for the Securities and Exchange Commission, is from Wellesley. After college, he coached high school football in Massachusetts and Maryland, then went to law school. He practiced law at Ropes & Gray before moving to the SEC. He also wrote fiction and has published short stories in literary magazines.
In 2001, he met Whittier, who grew up in Poland, Maine, graduated from the University of North Carolina, and came to Boston to join the advertising business. Whittier was the one with the big idea.
"My mother and grandmother got shipments of romances," he says, "and read them cover to cover, making notes in the margins -- `This one's good, this one's romantic.' I asked, `Why do you do this?' and they said it has nothing to do with literary merit. They're just so much fun, so easy to read. It's an entertaining story, you know the characters will end up living happily ever after. You can read them while you're watching TV or on a bus, and they make you feel good."
Whittier and Pomfret thought many gay men would enjoy such fiction -- especially contemporary men, whose lives are less shadowed by mourning and oppression than those of previous generations.
"Gay men have created a community," Whittier says. "They want to have families and relationships. It's not about partying or coming out to your parents -- these are people who want to have true love and settle down. That's our audience."
They picked the name Romentics, set up a website (www.
romentics.com) last November, and got busy. So far, they have collaborated on four novels, three of which ("Razor Burn," "Spare Parts," and "Nick of Time") are available through the website. Before writing, they studied the romance format, plowed through stacks of novels, and decided they could do this kind of writing if they were disciplined. "The whole line has the same point," says Pomfret: "romance and true love. We want a consistent product. The story has to end in a certain way. You can't kill off your main character . . ."
". . . and they can't fall out of love and leave," Whittier says, continuing the thought. "They can't cheat on each other. You have to have characters who are instantly attracted to one another but can't be together. The rest of the book is about overcoming the obstacles so they can be together by the end."
Knowing how is one thing; doing it is another. "To a certain extent," says Whittier, "I outline the book before I write, by chapters. I can't let myself go and get artsy. I might get interested in some plot element and not remember that, no, they need to have a fight in chapter five, and by chapter nine they need to have a major jealous episode. Or I'll realize, `You've gone four chapters without a sex scene. Stop! Put one in!' "
They also consulted expert consumers -- Whittier's mother, aunt, and grandmother. Tania Whittier, the author's mother, is a beautician with a shop in the family home in Poland. She and Scott Whittier's father have two other sons, both younger. Speaking by telephone, she explained her pleasure with the romance genre.
"I think all women love romance," she says, "and when you've been married for a long time, there may not be a lot of romance in your life. It's routine and mundane and filled with children and making ends meet, and that ruffles the romance feathers. I like the romance -- the girl who likes the guy but doesn't dare say, the anticipation, the description of tender romantic feelings, and always a happy ending. They're very unrealistic, but you live the other life -- who wants to read about it?"
She sees no reason why gays could not enjoy the same thing. "It's that sympathetic tenderness that everybody wants, gay or straight. Scott is a fabulous writer -- he's written ever since he was a child. He realizes the need for this kind of thing for gay men."
She says sexier romances aren't her favorites. The Romentics books have plenty of sex, although the authors say it's secondary. "They're a little steamier than my mother's novels," Scott Whittier acknowledges. His mother hasn't read them yet, though she said she's ready to. "Steamy is good," she says. "Maybe not descriptive steam."
The Romentics site is up to 150 hits a day, and Pomfret and Whittier say books are selling (they don't say how many). Meanwhile, fan inquiries are coming in from around the country and as far away as Indonesia.
The authors have been surprised at how many fans are straight women. Kimberly Prynce, 29, of Fort Benning, Ga., originally bought two of the books for her brother and his longtime partner, who had expressed a longing for romantic fiction.
"I ended up reading them myself, and really enjoyed them," she says. She liked them so much, in fact, that she read portions aloud to her Atlanta book club. The club has both men and women and had focused on African-American authors, but Prynce says they liked what they heard. Since then, the women members -- but not the men -- have ordered the books.
"I'm not a romantic-type person," says Prynce, who is married with a daughter. "I like horror and mystery, but these books are good. They have a lot of humor, and they've opened my mind to a world I never knew."
Pomfret and Whittier's plan was not to operate on their own but to sell the line to a major publisher so they could concentrate on writing. They found New York agent June Clark, who succeeded in selling one novel, "Hot Sauce," to Warner Books, a division of Time Warner. The book, which is not on the Romentics site, is due out in 2005.
Clark says that after a burst of gay-oriented fiction and nonfiction publishing in the 1990s, mainstream publishers have backed off lately. One large publisher, St. Martin's Press, closed down its gay subsidiary, Stonewall Inn Editions. Clark believes the falloff was partly due to a lack of fresh content.
"We saw a plethora of coming-out stories, issues with families, people dying, stereotyped melodramatic stuff, a huge number of memoirs, a lot of it basically interchangeable," Clark says. "People got worn down by it. When I saw this idea, I thought it was fabulous: The name is catchy, it's funny, sexy, romantic stories: Boy meets boy, boy loses boy, boy gets boy again. It's upbeat and positive, real life, gives you a glimpse of how gay couples can feel the same passion and pain as any other couple."
Despite their enthusiasm and efforts, it's far from clear that romance will find the market Pomfret and Whittier hope for. John Aherne, the Warner Books editor handling "Hot Sauce," says the publisher is interested in the idea of a full Romentics line but adds, "We want to test the waters a little before we commit to a whole series."
John Mitzel, owner of Calamus Bookstore, a 20-year-old gay and lesbian store on Boston's South Street, says, "That niche is open. I wish them well." Even so, he has his doubts.
"The demand in the gay male market for romance is there, but it's not large," Mitzel says. "Romance is not a male genre; it's a female genre. Men are interested in lots of things, but romance does not top the charts."
David Mehegan can be reached at email@example.com.
© Copyright 2004 Globe Newspaper Company.