My local library recently had a showing of Love Between the Covers, a documentary on the authors behind the booming Goliath that is the romance novel industry. I was excited to see this for a few reasons. 1) I am an aspiring romance novelist (I do have one complete manuscript and have started on my second.) 2) I love to read them. Any romances – paranormal, romantic suspense, young adult, new adult, regency historical. 3) Because, hey! I got to see it for free and it was on something I am interested in (bonus!).
I came in with expectations, and it met and exceeded them. Hands down.
Many of the authors that were interviewed I did know or had heard of. The Queen Bee, Nora Roberts (who also writes as J.D. Robb). Contemporary romance writers such as Jill Shalvis, Kristen Higgins, and Susan Donovan. African-American historical and contemporary author, Beverly Jenkins. Historical romance novelists, Elizabeth Essex and Eloisa James.
I could go on with the cameos, but for now, let’s just say we get a look at many different authors from all over the romance genre.
They talk about what makes romance such a publishing giant on the one hand, and a genre so frowned upon, on the other.
The plus? The HEA, or Happily Ever After. Beverly Jenkins points this out as being something extremely important to its readers. It’s nice to know that there are such things as happy endings. It doesn’t mean readers don’t understand that it is, and will only ever be, a fiction story. Readers know it’s fiction. They enjoy that it’s fiction. One lady mentions how she turned to reading romance novels as she went through her chemo treatments. Another confesses how unhappy she felt in her marriage so she turned to reading and writing them.
Beverly Jenkins also goes in-depth into being an African-American romance author. That’s something she brought to the table that she saw a lack in, something that brings women to tears when they meet her.
And it’s not only for African-American women. It’s for all women.
Jenkins asks, if you can relate to a story about a paranormal creature (like a werewolf) how can you not find something to relate to with an African-American hero or heroine?
Now, the downside?
The preconceived notions of the romance genre.
They’ve always been there, and they haven’t gone away.
One interviewee summed it up best, why these novels are looked down on: these books are by women, for women, written about women. The “scribbling” women, as Nathaniel Hawthorne was loathe to point out, that have gone on to become bread winners from doing what they love.
Which leads to what the literature that has come before romances and their portrayal of female characters.
Examples such as the “Scarlet Letter” and “Tristan and Isolde” where strong women that go against the grain are punished and brought down. The stories that end in tragedies. One woman states in the documentary that these stories are “toxic” to women.
Nora Roberts, in particular, classifies “Romeo and Juliet,” as something that has been held and heralded as this timeless love story, but what she says is simply a tragedy. It’s not romance.
It’s not how romance novelists and readers see women, see love.
In romance novels, readers want the women to win, to come out on top. Where it’s okay for them to experience sexuality, to be courageous, to act. Readers value that. The strong heroine as well the hero who comes along for her even when “she has all her shit together.”
So, why does the population look down on romances?
Last year, another librarian and I did a Blind Date with a Book display. We wrapped books and placed a quote from that book on the front cover, hoping patrons would grab it and take it home to read. They also took home a slip of paper asking if they had liked the book.
I’m not sure what book this one patron had chosen, but I remember what he or she had written about the book on that piece of paper.
The patron had not enjoyed it.
“It was a romance, and it proved why I don’t read them. They’re stupid.”
And I wished then, as well as now, that I knew what book that person had read, what he or she did not like about it, and if, perhaps, his or her preconceived notion of the genre had influenced that opinion. Did the patron even finish it?
I’ll never know. But what I do wish? That I could get that person to watch this documentary. Not to get them to read a romance. We all have the right to read what we want to read, and no one should be able to tell you otherwise.
That would be censorship.
No, what I want is everyone to experience what I did. That this romance writing world has become a community – a source of strength. It’s inspiring.
Celeste Bradley and Susan Donovan are highlighted. They were introduced to one another, both having come from difficult marriages, and discovered how much they mutually liked and respected the other. Now, they storyboard together regularly.
Another example? Elizabeth Essex, an established romance novelist, and Joanne Lockyer, an Australian aspiring novelist, that had turned into critiquing partners for each other’s work.
By the end of the documentary, I felt as if these women were part of my group. Not only do you get to meet the real people behind the novels, but you meet the real people who have found so much value, so much hope, and so much love in what they do.
And they share it with each person sitting in those chairs watching the show.
And for once, I don’t need my personal space back.