I went to the same RWA event that Ciara debriefs in her post yesterday. I've said before that she and I share much the same taste, and apparently that extends to the kind of things that get us excited about the genre. She zeroed in on almost exactly the same comments from Jayne Ann Krentz a/k/a Jayne Castle a/k/a Amanda Quick that I did. Still, I can't resist editorializing a little bit, so I'm going to cover the same ground here anyway.
Slightly paraphrased, Ms. Castle (her birthname, but probably her least known penname) made a statement that just stunned me: Popular fiction, especially romance, is rooted in the ancient heroic epics -- why did I never see that before? Of course it is. It's all about the hero, baby.
More so, it's about values. Popular fiction, Castle maintains, values ancient heroic virtues of courage, honor, integrity, and love. These kind of tales have been popular throughout history because, among other things, they have enormous survival value -- I have to admit, I never thought of it in these terms before, but yes! Although often dismissed as "escapism," which implies cowardice or an unwillingness to face reality, happily-ever-after books promote optimism.
She boils down contemporary literary fiction as deriving from modern psychology, existential philosophy, political theory [and some other stuff!], in a "masculine style that abhors sentimentality and strong emotion."
Castle says further, we need both kinds of literature in our lives, but which we prefer has more to do with our values and beliefs than our intelligence or education.