When American filmmaker Laurie Kahn set out to make Love Between the Covers, a documentary about the women who read and write romance novels, she was struck by how often she heard the same story. It wasn’t a tale of beefy bodice rippers or love at first sight; it was a story about snobs. “I can’t tell you how many people I interviewed,” says Kahn, “who told me that people will walk up to them on a beach and say, ‘Why do you read that trash?’ ” Apparently, where lovers of romance novels go, contempt follows. Sometimes it’s subtle contempt—a raised eyebrow from a colleague, or a snarky comment from a friend (usually the kind of person who claims to read Harper’s on a beach vacation). Other times it’s more overt, even potentially damaging. When Mary Bly (pen name Eloisa James), an academic and New York Times bestselling author, began writing romance, she was advised to keep her fiction writing secret or risk not making tenure at the university where she worked.
For some reason, argues Kahn, perhaps because its subjects are female, romance novels are perceived as fundamentally silly, when other popular “genre fiction”—namely, fiction by and for men—is not. “Nobody,” she says, would walk up to “a man reading Stephen King, or a mystery or sci-fi novel” and scoff. And she’s right: Stephen King may write circles around romance novelist Nora Roberts, but mystery-thriller buffs James Patterson and Dean Koontz most certainly do not. Yet Roberts is the butt of jokes—a universal default example of “bad writing,” while her equally schlocky male contemporaries get a free pass.
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The amazing thing is that this historically derided genre is not only wildly successful (it regularly outsells both mystery and sci-fi; Romance Writers of America estimates the genre made $1.08 billion in sales in 2013) but also preternaturally friendly.
In an age where women are constantly encouraged to “lean in” at predominantly male workspaces, there exists this frequently ignored, yet massive and diverse, woman-steered industry where writers literally tutor their competition. As Bly says early on in Kahn’s film, the romance industry may be one of the last meritocracies left on the planet.
And it’s a very functional one. The annual Romance Writers of America conference, where thousands of authors offer detailed advice to newbie writers on everything from where to pitch to how to find an agent, is unique in a publishing world in which authors are typically discouraged from discussing their contracts openly. Kahn attributes this friendly, inclusive atmosphere, in part, to the recent popularity and acceptance of self-publishing (formerly known as “vanity publishing”).
A common criticism expressed about major romance publisher Harlequin (which declined to comment for this story) is that it promotes the “line”—the type of romance novel, be it “historical” or “intrigue” or other—over the author. Apparently this has been an issue for a long time. “Because of this practice, romance authors have to hustle their own books and find their own markets,”writes Leslie W. Rabine in her 1985 essay, “Romance in the Age of Electronics: Harlequin Enterprises.” They can also have a difficult time getting royalties from publishers, they report, with waits of up to two years, Rabine adds. Today, many romance authors have turned that liability into a strength. If they’re going to do the hustle on their own, many writers figure, why not reap the bulk of the financial reward? Ironically, the entity that’s allowed them to do this is the biggest publishing behemoth of them all—Amazon. Kahn says that, in the three to four years in which she worked on the film, “There’s been a revolution in publishing, and it has upended everything. It used to be that the power was completely in the hands of the publishers, and authors were like hitchhikers waiting by the side of the road, hoping some agent would pick them up,” Kahn says. “When I was shooting, Amazon started Kindle Direct Publishing. That radically changed the picture.”
Link to the rest at Maclean’s and thanks to Julia for the tip.