How Dell’s Candlelight Romance Line Revolutionized the Romance Fiction Industry
Despite the existence of black authorship and black characters in romance fiction prior to 1980, the romance fiction publishing industry remained largely dominated by white authors, characters, and experiences. In 1980 the industry shifted when Dell Publishing Company’s Candlelight Romance line released Entwined Destinies. Reported by People Magazine to represent the “desegregation of the romance rack,” Entwined Destinies featured a black couple on its cover and black stories within its pages, appealing to an untapped audience of ethnically diverse readers (People Magazine, 1980). Entwined Destinies was an immediate success, and after releasing multiple titles under the “ethnic romance” category, Dell created a new, category romance line under Candlelight known as Candlelight Romance Ecstasy. However, in 1983 Vivian Stephens, the editor of Candlelight Romance, left Dell for Harlequin and the line ceased production a few years later in 1987 (Diaz, 2022). Despite their limited lifespan, Dell’s Candlelight Romance and Candlelight Romance Ecstasy lines revolutionized the romance fiction publishing industry and broadened readership of the romance fiction genre. Perhaps the biggest victory for Candlelight Romances however, was that it provided a platform for diverse representation in a historically monochromatic genre.
This paper examines the Candlelight Romance line within the context of the romance fiction publishing industry. It begins with a brief history of the romance revolution and the presence of black protagonists in romance novels before 1980. The paper then delves into Candlelight Romance and Vivian Stephens’ role in shaping the line to be ethnically diverse. Entwined Destinies marked the unofficial beginning of the ethnic romance era, debuting the first black couple on a book cover in Dell’s history. Candlelight’s ethnic romance debut received both positive and negative attention from the media, but the line’s newfound success was undeniable. Unfortunately, the Candlelight Romance line met an early end, but its legacy remains present in the romance fiction publishing industry and is carried on by Black authors and readers today.
A Brief History of Black Culture in Romance Fiction
Before the romance revolution of the late 1900s, black protagonists and black experiences in romance fiction rarely made it onto bookstore shelves. Originally published in 1924, Jessie Redmon Fauset’s There is Confusion is considered one of the first romance novels ever to be published which featured black protagonists (Diaz, 2023). Despite its stark contrast to the white-centered romance novels at the time, Redmon Fauset’s examination of the struggles against prejudice and discrimination has been described as a literary classic and a jewel within the genre’s history (Random House Group, n.d.). However, it wasn’t until years later in 1968 when The Dahomean, a novel by Frank Yerby introduced another black protagonist in his story about African royalty, betrayal, and slavery (Diaz, 2023). While a few black characters graced the pages of romances published in the years between There is Confusion and The Dahomean, black heroes and heroines remained excluded from romance fiction until 1980 when Vivian Stephens took charge of Dell’s Candlelight Romance line.
New to the romance fiction genre, Stephens sought to incorporate the voices of women of color into the romance industry. “Stephens also made sure that Dell’s Candlelight lines included romances by Indigenous, Latina, and Asian authors, creating almost single-handedly the category that trade publications called ‘Ethnic Romance’” (“The VS Collection.” BGSU Libraries, 2022). When Stephens was hired as the editor of Candlelight Romances, the line was not exceedingly profitable or popular amongst romance readers (Markert, 2016). Since its creation in 1921, Dell had profited from publishing all-white pulp magazines, comics, puzzles, and “smoochies” (romances), a stark contrast from the “quality” and “ethnically diverse” content that Stephens was interested in publishing (Dandridge, 2022). Thus, upon taking over the Candlelight Romance line Vivian Stephens recognized a previously untapped market of readers of various ethnic backgrounds looking for characters of substance and intellect (Swartz, 2020). Thus launched Dell’s new, “innovative publishing program in the Candlelight Romance line, with the publication of the first ethnic romance ever, Entwined Destinies” (Geffner, 1980).
Marketing Entwined Destinies and the Subsequent Success of Candlelight
Candlelight’s first few books published under Stephens sold remarkably well, further cementing the line’s new ethnically diverse audience. However, the success of Morning Rose, Evening Savage, and Gentle Pirate (which sold out within weeks and later became a blockbuster) paled in comparison to Candlelight’s first ethnic romance, Entwined Destinies. The book sold 40,000 copies on its first run, attracting significant media attention (Swartz, 2020). Entwined Destinies made it into People Weekly’s Picks&Pans section on June 23rd, 1980, the same month it made its debut. Featured alongside Ed McBain’s Ghosts and Dolly Parton’s “Dolly, Dolly, Dolly,” People Weekly’s review termed Entwined Destinies, “the desegregation of the paperback romance novel,” and described its plot as “appropriately breathy,” and “an elegantly tossed bridal bouquet…maybe not very important but worth catching” (People Magazine, 1980). People Weekly’s rave review was released at the same time of Dell’s own print advertisement, which expressed equally complimentary sentiments about Entwined Destinies. The advertisement featured a photo of the book’s cover, on which the black hero and heroine are locked in a loving embrace (Welles, 1980). To the left of the photo, Dell claims the book to be “a whole new concept in paperback romance publishing” (Dell Publishing. “Print Advertisement for Entwined Destinies”, 1980). Dell also published a press release which featured the same photo of the book’s cover, but this time paired with a longer description of the plot. Clearly intended to capture the interest of readers, the press release introduces the audience to a “new novel of pure passion,” featuring “young, petite, and beautiful” international correspondent Kathy Goodwin and “tall, dark, and breathtakingly handsome,” corporate businessman Lloyd Craig (Geffner, 1980). Sold for only $1.25, the novel was advertised to be accessible for readers financially, but also from a personal, emotional, and experiential standpoint.
Though Candlelight Romance received generous attention from the media, feedback from readers was minimal. However, this was not taken to be a negative sign about lack of readership or distaste for the books at all. In fact, it was seen as a positive sign– readers had no problems with the books. In a recent interview, Vivian Stephens recalled the feedback from black readers of Entwined Destinies. She answered, “‘I got a lot of positive information in the press…But I never got anything negative about [Entwined Destinies] at all’” (Moody-Freeman, 2022). She did receive many calls from readers though. “‘I would get calls from readers of what they would want. They would tell me about the book that they had just read over the weekend, and usually they had read it twice. And they wanted to know when that writer was going to have another book out!’” (Moody-Freeman, 2022). And if the positive response from readers did not speak enough to the popularity of the Candlelight Romance line, sales numbers dispelled any rumors of failure. Stephens capitalized on this new, eager audience and published three more books by non-white authors under Candlelight Ecstasy: Golden Fire, Silver Ice by Marisa De Zavala (Oct. 1981); Web of Desire by Jean Hager (Dec. 1981); and The Tender Mending by Lia Sanders (Feb. 1982). The Tender Mending, like Entwined Destinies, featured a black couple on its cover, and was the first in the Ecstasy line to do so (Ammidown, 2022) (FictionDB, 1982). For the first time in its history, Dell’s Candlelight series was bringing in profits for Dell and gaining popularity among readers (Makert, 2017). By the end of 1982, Candlelight Ecstasy had sold 30 million books (Swartz, 2020).
Negative Sentiments about Romance Fiction
Despite the success of Entwined Destinies, The Tender Mending, and dozens of other romance fiction books, the genre still received criticism that stemmed from the belief that romance “taught women that their highest goals in life should be marriage and child-rearing” (Mary Van Deusen, Ted Koppel Interview, 2017). However, Vivian Stephens, through the Candlelight Series, proved this argument wrong by creating female characters of substance. She asked herself, “‘What does a heroine have to offer a worldly man if she’s not experienced in bed or on the job?’” and fashioned the line around strong, worldly heroines who were “upwardly mobile.” In a CBS interview between Ted Koppel, Vivian Stephens, and associate professor of English at Westminster College, Patricia Frazer Lamb, Lamb described the romance genre to be centered around a Happily Ever After (HEA), which she claimed was “a reality that is not going to be fulfilled in ten million years, and who would want it anyway?” Lamb was not alone in her opinions on the romance fiction genre. In her 1979 essay, writer and scholar Anne Barr Snitow stated that romances “reinforce the prevailing cultural code proclaiming that “pleasure for women is men” (Barr Snitow, 1979). In 1980 Ann Douglas termed romance novels a “totally anti-feminist world,” and claimed that the heroine “neither wins nor wants the vindication of her sex: clearly a lost cause” (Douglas, 1980). In a similar essay, Tania Modleski suggested that the reader of a romance novel “is encouraged to participate in and actively desire feminine self-betrayal” (Modleski, 1980). However, Stephens’s Candlelight Line aimed to rewrite these stereotypes and create storylines that empowered female readers. Stephens stated, “The hero was icing on the cake, because without him [the heroine] could still have a full life… It empowered women. It empowered them very fast” (Swartz, 2020).
Candlelight Romances also empowered romance readers to become writers. While working at Dell, Vivian Stephens held popular writing workshops for readers and author hopefuls. She recalls husbands accompanying their wives to the workshops, confused and skeptical of their wives’ writing abilities. From an interview with Stephens, “The husbands felt like [their wives’ writing] was infringing on their work as a wife and mother.” Stephens said, “His wife had become alive in something that he had no part of and no control over” (Swartz, 2020). Candlelight’s empowerment of romance readers and writers of all races proved to the public that women and the romance audience were intelligent enough to know the difference between fantasy and reality. Romance novels in fact do not have a “pernicious influence” on audiences, and romance reading and writing “does not interrupt the daily life of the average American woman,” who, after all, “was not stupid” (Mary Van Deusen, Ted Koppel Interview, 2017).
The Legacy of Candlelight and Vivian Stephens
Because of the great success and popularity of Candlelight Romances, Vivian Stephens accepted a higher paying position at Harlequin in 1982. Dell continued to publish books under the Candlelight Romance line and even expanded by launching the Candlelight Ecstasy Supreme line, which featured novels slightly longer than Ecstacy Romances with more in-depth plotlines and deeper emotional content (Diaz, 2022). However, in 1986 Dell was acquired by Bantam Books which had its own category line titled Loveswept. In 1987 all Candlelight Romance lines ceased production (Diaz, 2022).
Vivian Stephens was pushed out by Harlequin after only two years with the company. Less supportive of Black and ethnic romances than Dell, Harlequin wanted American plots without “burgeoning American ethnic diversity in the plot” (Dandridge, 2022). As a European-based publisher, Harlequin’s audience was international, and as a result Stephens was instructed not to buy a book that was “too American,” because “we don’t have the language to translate that” (Moody-Freeman, 2020). Harlequin pushed back on the vernacular of America’s ethnic groups due to the difficulty in translating across cultures and languages (Dandridge, 2022). Stephens complied, and in the following year she published multiple novels under Harlequin’s request for non-ethnic American romances. However, in 1984 Stephens was told to leave, and was cut off from contact with Harlequin. She was never given a reason for being let go, and unfortunately, ethnic romance left Harlequin just as Stephens did (Swartz, 2020).
The Indelible Mark Left by Candlelight Romances
While the Candlelight Romance line and Vivian Stephens’ efforts to incorporate diversity into the romance fiction industry were short lived, the industry was positively altered following the events of the 80s.
Entwined Destinies did not break all the barriers for Black women in romance. In fact, it wasn’t until 1994 that a significant publisher would establish a line dedicated to Black voices. Even now, category romance is still predominantly authored by white writers featuring white protagonists. The annual State of Racial Diversity in Romance Publishing Report regularly shows that few publishers have more than 10% authors of color (BGSU Libraries, 2020). However, Entwined Destinies and Candlelight Romances of the early 80s marked a crucial step for Black authors and readers. The success of Candlelight’s ethnic romances demonstrated to Black authors and readers that their stories deserved to be read. Despite the racial obstacles that still exist within the publishing industry, Black authors have capitalized on the rise of independent and self-publishing to share their stories and connect with devoted readers. Although there is still much progress to be made, Vivian Stephens and the Candlelight Romance lines took the first critical steps toward equality and demonstrated that progress was possible (BGSU University Libraries, 2020).
Original cover art of Entwined Destinies by Rosalind Welles, published by Dell in 1980
Original cover art of The Tender Mending by Lia Sanders, published by Dell in 1982.
Ammidown, Steve. “Black Romance.” Romance Fiction Has a History, April 5, 2022. https://romancehistory.com/category/black-romance/#:~:text=1982%3A%20Lia%20Sanders%2D%20Friends%20Angela,Black%20couple%20on%20the%20cover.
Barr Snitow, Ann. “Mass Market Romances: Pornography for Women is Different.” Radical History Review 20 (Spring/Summer 1979): pg. 150.
Dandridge, Rita B. “Vivian Lorraine Stephens: Romance Pioneer.” Journal of Popular Romance Studies, May 16, 2022. https://www.jprstudies.org/2022/05/vivian-lorraine-stephens-romance-pioneer/.
Dell Publishing. “Print Advertisement for Entwined Destinies.” BGSU University Libraries. Digital Gallery, Published June, 1980, Electronically published August 17, 2020. https://digitalgallery.bgsu.edu/collections/item/39352.
Diaz, Jacqueline. “A Closer Look at Dell Publishing.” Sweet Savage Flame: Old School Romance from Avon to Zebra (blog), September 25, 2022. https://sweetsavageflame.com/a-closer-look-at-dell-publishing/.
Diaz, Jacqueline. “Hidden Gems & Crown Jewels: The Rise of Black Historical Romances in the 1990s.” Sweet Savage Flame: Old School Romance from Avon to Zebra (blog), February 14, 2023. https://sweetsavageflame.com/the-rise-of-black-historical-romances-in-the-1990s/.
Douglas, Ann. “Soft-Porn Culture,” The New Republic, 30 Aug. 1980, pg. 26. https://people.uleth.ca/~daniel.odonnell/files/Douglas1980.pdf.
“Entwined Destinies: Elsie B. Washington, Vivian Stephens, and 40 Years of Black Voices in Romance.” BGSU University Libraries. Digital Gallery, 2020. https://digitalgallery.bgsu.edu/exhibits/show/entwineddestinies/introduction.
“Fandom – Patricia Frazer Lamb Interview – Romance Novels – Ted Koppel.” YouTube video, from an interview between Ted Koppel, Vivian Stephens, Janet Dailey, and Patricia Frazer Lamb televised in 1983 by CBS news, posted by “Mary Van Deusen FanVids,” August 5, 2017, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=I7ACIHpJlck.
Geffner, Isabel. “Dell Press Release for Entwined Destinies.” BGSU University Libraries. Digital Gallery, published June 10, 1980, electronically published August 17, 2020. https://digitalgallery.bgsu.edu/exhibits/show/entwineddestinies/item/39350.
Markert, John. Essay. In Publishing Romance: The History of an Industry, 1940s to the Present, pg. 86. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers, 2016.
Modleski, Tania. “The Disappearing Act: A Study of Harlequin Romances.” Signs 5, no. 3 (1980): 435–48. http://www.jstor.org/stable/3173584.
Moody-Freeman, Julie E. “’Dance between Raindrops’: A Conversation with Vivian Stephens.” Journal of Popular Romance Studies, May 16, 2022. https://www.jprstudies.org/2022/05/dance-between-raindrops-a-conversation-with-vivian-stephens/.
Moody-Freeman, Julie, host. “Vivian Stephens-Part one.” Black Romance Podcast, 8 September 2020, https://blackromancepodcast.libsyn.com/vivian-stephens-part-one.
Original Book Cover of The Tender Mending. FictionDB. Published 1982, Accessed April 10, 2023. https://www.fictiondb.com/covers/0440190371.jpg
People Magazine. “People Weekly Picks & Pans, Entwined Destinies Review.” People Magazine, pg.13. Published June 23, 1980, Electronically published October 14, 2020. https://archive.org/details/people-magazine-1980-06-23-john-travolta-red/page/n7/mode/2up.
Random House Group. “There Is Confusion.” Random House Books. n.d. Accessed April 10, 2023. https://www.randomhousebooks.com/books/633969/R3/D74/.
Swartz, Mimi. “Vivian Stephens Helped Turn Romance Writing into a Billion-Dollar Industry. Then She Got Pushed out.” Texas Monthly, August 19, 2020. https://www.texasmonthly.com/arts-entertainment/vivian-stephens-helped-turn-romance-writing-into-billion-dollar-industry/.
“The Vivian Stephens (VS) Collection.” BGSU University Libraries. Updated May 5, 2022. Accessed April 10, 2023. https://www.bgsu.edu/library/pcl/named/stephens.html.
Welles, Rosalind. Entwined Destinies. Original cover art of Entwined Destinies. June 1980. Image cited from: Romance Fiction Has A History. Accessed April 10, 2023. https://romancehistory.files.wordpress.com/2021/10/img_0294.jpeg
 See Appendix A
 See Appendix B