IF YOU’VE NEVER read Daphne du Maurier’s “Rebecca,” you’re in for a surprise. Initially dismissed by critics as women’s romance fiction, this 1938 bestseller delivers plot twists, promiscuity, dark secrets and, best of all, backstabbing servants. But it’s since been celebrated by feminist scholars for its critique of gender roles. On the surface, it tells the story of a mousy young woman—the traveling companion to a nosy American matron—who meets the wealthy and withholding widower Maxim de Winter while he’s on holiday in Monte Carlo, and marries him. When the trembling bride arrives at Manderley, his British estate, she realizes how little she knows about her new husband and his first wife, Rebecca, who died in a boating accident less than a year earlier and is still worshiped by many in the house and the community.
The novel begins in a dream state. “Last night I dreamed I went to Manderley again,” writes our narrator, the second Mrs. de Winter (we never learn her first name) on awaking at a “dull” hotel hundreds of miles away from the stately manor. Though in her nightmare, the house was overrun with “malevolent ivy,” she recalls that Manderley is “no more” and recounts what happened, setting the plot in motion. In this tale of betrayal, du Maurier echoed the tropes of gothic novels: ruined castles, haunted houses and a damsel very much in distress.
Adaptations, like Alfred Hitchcock’s moody 1940 classic, have mined the book’s atmospheric mix of untamed nature and voyeurism. “Sometimes I wonder,” whispers Mrs. Danvers, the conniving head housekeeper, to the newlywed, “if [Rebecca] comes back here and watches you and Mr. de Winter together.” The newest version, a sparkling Netflix take (premiering Oct. 21), surfaces the novel’s glamour and gloom quotient, with Kristin Scott Thomas giving Mrs. Danvers a twitchy dominatrix vibe opposite Lily James and Armie Hammer as the doomed new couple.
In the early Monte Carlo scenes, du Maurier conveys the elation the young narrator feels on the French Riviera. “I remember opening wide my window and leaning out…the sun had never seemed so bright, nor the day so full of promise.” Her mood turns claustrophobic at Manderley, where she feels hemmed in by encroaching woods and the dark sea. A stark contrast to Monte Carlo, Manderley seems as alive as any character in the novel. Its inspiration was Menabilly, a crumbling 16th-century ancestral estate on the rugged south coast of Cornwall, England (shown), where the writer lived for over two decades. Even Mother Nature seems to mock our narrator: At the front door she recoils from the profusion of monstrous rhododendrons, “their crimson faces…slaughterous red, luscious and fantastic.”
Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal (PG apologizes for the paywall, but hasn’t figured out a way around it.)
I can safely say that every time I’ve been asked to speak to aspiring writers, afterward, I’ve had not one, but several come up to me and say, “I can’t believe you did what you said you did. I was told never to do that. I was told never to break that rule.” This does not surprise me, but it saddens me. When I started writing, I too had a set of rules for writing romance (my genre) that I was under the impression were unbreakable. And I wrote within the confines of those rules.
It was only when publishing house after publishing house, agent after agent had rejected my submissions, and I’d decided that no one was ever going to read my books, that I threw the rules out the window. I then simply wrote what I wanted to write, wrote how the stories came to me, was true to them and my characters.
Then I published myself … And I’ve sold more than two and a half million books.
What are the rules I broke? First, I didn’t write what I thought people wanted to read. I didn’t research what might be popular — what might sell — and write that. I wrote stories that felt personal to me, that I enjoyed completely from writing to reading. The first book that I did this with was Rock Chick, and with it and the Rock Chick series, I broke all the rules:
I wrote in first person, and at that time, romance novels in first person were available, but not customary.
I wrote my heroine’s thoughts in a stream of consciousness. I had paragraphs — many of them — that were just one word. I put myself, and what would eventually be my readers, in the mind of my heroine, Indy. Not describing what she was thinking, but thinking what she was thinking as she was thinking it. It’s important to note that not everyone could get into that, and that’s understandable, even expected. It’s also important to note that the ones who did, really did.
I allowed my characters freedom of expression. This meant that if they cursed, if the F-word was prevalent in their vocabulary, I let them use it (and cursing was very rare in romance).
For that matter, I didn’t censor my characters or their behavior. I didn’t think, “Oh, that might make her unlikeable, I need to switch that up, make her perfect.” I didn’t water down my aggressive, but loving heroes. I let them be them — real, imperfect, sometimes annoying, more times endearing (I hoped). They were great friends and good people, but they could (and often did) do stupid things (like we all do).
And my Rock Chicks were — and still are — hugely successful.
Self-published writers are a large part of publishing’s billion dollar romance industry, but they still don’t get the credit they deserve. Here’s why that needs to change.
. . . .
It’s April 2019, and the line to get into Girl Have You Met, a book signing that focuses specifically on Black independent romance novels, is wrapped around the corner in Memphis, Tennessee. Women stand in line chattering, some with large bags they’ll use to hold their mountain of book purchases, others attempting to peer inside the glass windows to get an early glimpse of their favorite authors.
While those who peruse the New York Times to find their next read have probably never heard of most of these writers, the scene in Memphis isn’t uncommon at book signings that predominantly feature independently published romance authors. Pre-COVID, events like Book Bonanza, Behind the Pen, Indie Love and a swath of other events held in cities like Los Angeles, Atlanta, and New York were the same — sold out.
To say that independent romance is a beast in romance publishing is a well-known understatement. Indie romance has actually changed the business across the board, setting trends in craft and marketing strategies. But perhaps most importantly, indie romance has reshaped the narrative of what kinds of stories readers really want.
Take, for example, popular book vlogger, Mina Thomas.
“When I read Something Like Love by Christina C. Jones in 2017, I cried over my first ever experience reading about a bisexual Black woman like me,” says popular book vlogger, Mina Thomas of MinaReads. “Indie romances often provide me with representation that is often slow to show up on the traditionally published market.”
. . . .
“People have such antiquated ideas of what a romance novel really is,” says acclaimed romance author, Marie Force, whose independently published novel, 2013’s Waiting for Love, helped set a new precedent for the enormity of the genre when it became a New York Times best seller. She’s sold a staggering ten million books to date, including over 900,000 books last year, the bulk of them self-published.
“Romance is a dynamic, diverse, billion-dollar-a-year genre that celebrates the act of falling in love in so many different ways,” she says. “Of course, the ‘act of falling in love’ is also associated with sex, so that makes the romance genre taboo or racy or ‘porn,’ a word romance authors hate to have associated with our work. It’s just so disrespectful of the width and breadth of what romance really is.”
Nevermind that indies often have scores of faithful readers who, on average, devour multiple books per week, and have tight, vibrant branding, which means they regularly dominate USA Today and Wall Street Journal bestseller lists (those indies would be New York Times best sellers too, if it still counted ebooks).
If it hadn’t been for the pandemic and the near impossibility of visiting Vivian Stephens in person, I’m not sure I would have been so attuned to her voice. It is gay and mellifluous; she always sounded delighted to hear from me, a reaction most reporters are not accustomed to. But there was something else: she answers questions about herself not in sentences or paragraphs but in pages, and sometimes even chapters, as if she’s been keeping the whole story of her life in her head, just waiting for someone to ask about it.
. . . .
Stephens is 87 now, under self-imposed lockdown in one of those amenity-rich mid-rise apartment complexes that have sprouted all over Houston, this one just north of Hermann Park, in the Binz area. Her one-bedroom unit is cluttered with papers and stacks of books on nearly every surface. There are many romance novels, yes, as well as more-cerebral tomes such as A Nervous Splendor, a history of Vienna in the late 1880s. Family photographs, some dating back almost to that time, populate a small table in a living room corner.
The most captivating photo, though, is the black-and-white one Stephens has pushpinned to the wall above her computer. Taken in 1964, it shows her poised on the steps of New York’s Lincoln Center wearing a sleeveless sheath dress, hands on her hips, ready to take on the world.
. . . .
I was calling about the past, not the future. Specifically, an email she had received in May from Alyssa Day, the president of the Romance Writers of America, an organization based in northwest Houston, not too far from the white and wealthy exurb of Champions. Stephens had been instrumental in founding that group back in 1980.
What is this? Stephens thought to herself when she saw the email, which asked, politely and respectfully, if it would be okay to name the RWA’s highest writing award after her because her “trailblazing efforts created a more inclusive publishing landscape and helped bring romance novels to the masses,” as the press release would later put it.
Well, this is interesting, was Stephens’s next thought.
She wouldn’t put it this way, but it was kind of like getting an email from an old boyfriend who was now trying to make amends. It wasn’t that there was bad blood between Stephens and the RWA—she’d never admit to that, anyway—but there was some hurt that dated back to when she had felt disappeared by the organization.
The timing of Day’s email wasn’t incidental. The RWA had been embroiled in a bitter, and at times very public, racism scandal for much of the previous year. A skeptic might suggest that, good intentions aside—and there were good intentions—the Vivian award could be viewed as just another way to sanitize prior bad behavior on the part of the RWA. Stephens had to decide—again—whether to let bygones be bygones after a forty-year relationship that had been, in its way, a romance, albeit a difficult one.
So Stephens was uncharacteristically ambivalent about the RWA’s offer. After some thought, however, she wrote back to say that she would be honored. And then, being Vivian Stephens, she couldn’t resist adding a metaphorical flourish to the statement they requested. She cited an astrophysicist who explained that as stars explode, they produce the magical, mystical remnant that is stardust. “Since we all live in the universe it is well worth remembering that underneath the outer dressing of ethnicity, color and gender, we are all the same,” she wrote. “Showered with the gift of stars.”
. . . .
Romance writing has always been easy to laugh at, at least for the uninformed. You might imagine that these stories mostly involve a castle on the Scottish Highlands, inhabited by a restless warrior wearing nothing under his kilt. Or maybe you picture the broad and bare-chested phenom Fabio, taking time out from piloting his Viking ship on the high seas to attend to a buxom and bound captive down below.
But if this is your vision of the romance-writing world, you might have missed its evolution into a billion-dollar-a-year business. In 2016 romance made up 23 percent of the overall U.S. fiction market, and the net worth of some of its writers exceeds that of John Grisham (see Nora Roberts and Danielle Steel). According to Christine Larson, a romance expert and journalism professor at the University of Colorado Boulder, 45 percent of the romance writers she surveyed made enough to support themselves without a day job—“that is shocking for any group of writers,” she said—and thanks mainly to their embrace of digital publishing, 17 percent make more than $100,000 a year. Not Mark Zuckerberg money, but far more than the $45,000 median income of American working women.
That legitimacy is due in many ways to the vast social changes of the past several decades. Once upon a time, many romance writers—and their readers—were middle-aged, white stay-at-home moms who got their hair done in beauty parlors. But those women, who were often looking for relief from the doldrums of vacuuming and child-rearing, were more recently joined in the field by trial lawyers and anthropologists and social workers—professional women of all races and creeds—who were themselves looking for a creative outlet away from the pressures of family and career.
As more women joined the workforce, earned their own money, put off marriage (or dumped their loser husbands), and got on the Pill, a different kind of romance writer emerged, one less interested in emotional, sexual, and financial rescue than in self-respect and free will. The books they wrote reflected their world, even if writers set their works in Victorian England or the antebellum South. “If you look at romance now, it’s very much reflective of the current moment,” said Steve Ammidown, an archivist at Bowling Green State University’s Browne Popular Culture Library, which houses an enormous romance collection, including many papers from the RWA and more than forty romance authors.
Whatever controversies are being sorted out in the larger world have also been grappled with in romance novels, sometimes even before the larger world knew what was coming. “The RWA is a microcosm,” said the romance writer LaQuette, one of many who voiced this opinion.
Today, romance novels involve just about any combination of protagonists imaginable. There are books for every color of the human rainbow, every ethnicity and sexual orientation, every religious affiliation—and not just Jewish or Muslim, but Amish too. There are erotic romances for those who are gay, straight, and transgender. There are paranormal romances. Cowboy romances. Romances between humans and space aliens. Romances for those with autism.
Romance is a whole industry, with its own academicians, like Laura Vivanco (Pursuing Happiness: Reading American Romance as Political Fiction), and its alternative historians, as evidenced by Maya Rodale’s Dangerous Books for Girls: The Bad Reputation of Romance Novels Explained. There are influential blogs with names like Smart Bitches, Trashy Books and popular podcasts like Fated Mates, which, according to its Apple Podcasts description, “highlight[s] the romance novel as a powerful tool in fighting patriarchy . . . with absolutely no kink shaming.”
Despite all the changes, the foundation of romance writing remains the same, perpetuating the fantasy that women can find true love, at least for a while (if not an HEA—Happily Ever After, in Romancespeak—then an HFN, Happy for Now). “This type of narrative, by women for women, is the only space where women can seek joy and triumph on the page,” explained Rodale. “We don’t get these stories from Hollywood; they are not in the news; we don’t get them in literary fiction. In literary fiction women have sex and die. In romance they have good sex and live happily ever after.”
Of course, the inhabitants of Romancelandia, as they call their imaginary homeland, still suffer plenty of contempt at the hands of outsiders. The source of this contempt, they say, is that (1) women are still not taken seriously by men and, often, one another; (2) women writers are not taken as seriously as men writers; (3) women who write expressly about romance are not taken seriously unless they’re named Jane Austen; and (4) women who write about sex are really not taken seriously, because that would be way too scary for a lot of men and women.
Those backward ideas help explain why, when a public scandal rocked the RWA late last year, major news outlets were only too happy to cover the story. “Racism Dispute Roils Romance Writers Group,” declared the New York Times. The feminist website Jezebel weighed in with “Inside the Spectacular Implosion at the Romance Writers of America.” The Houston Chronicle: “As racism scandal escalates, Romance Writers of America board president resigns.” Vox: “The influential trade organization Romance Writers of America is tangled in a web of racism accusations, power grabs, and shadow plots.”
But this news wasn’t really news. It has long been an open secret—certainly among women of color—that romance publishing has a race problem. A 2014 survey of four thousand romance writers conducted by Larson revealed that authors of color earned about 60 percent less than white writers. In 2019, research conducted by the Ripped Bodice, in Los Angeles, one of the few bookstores in America to sell romance exclusively, revealed that only 8 percent of leading romance publishers had released novels by women of color. And, not incidentally or coincidentally, the membership of the RWA is 86 percent white, according to the latest data. No Black writer had won a RITA—formerly the RWA’s highest honor—until 2019, and not for want of trying.
Of course, it has also long been an open secret that publishing in general has a race problem. A 2019 diversity survey found that the industry—publishing companies, book reviewers, agents—is 76 percent non-Latino white (compared with 60 percent of the total U.S. population). The self-examination that started years ago with young adult fiction has spread, after the killing of George Floyd in May, to far more esoteric and elitist groups like the Poetry Foundation and the National Book Critics Circle. Over the summer, some concrete changes occurred, with the appointment of two women of color, Dana Canedy and Lisa Lucas, to head the major publishing houses Simon & Schuster and Pantheon Books.
But by that time, the romance industry had already had its own reckoning—several, in fact. This spring, the RWA emerged from the ashes of its 2019 scandal with a new board dedicated to diversity and inclusivity and righting the wrongs of the past. Shortly thereafter, the email arrived in Vivian Stephens’s in-box.
The promise of transformative change leaves Stephens understandably dubious. No one knows better than she that the issues that threatened to destroy the RWA go all the way back to its beginning.
Link to the rest at Texas Monthly and thanks to Krista for the tip.
PG found the OP to be a very interesting and informative read. The subject of the article, Vivian Stephens, had many accomplishments, but one PG hadn’t known about was that she was one of the main forces behind the creation of the RWA.
Since 2012, traditionally published romance has been in “a steady decline.” Much of this, of course, parallels the rise of self-publishers’ entry into the velvet-roped arena.
If there’s a category in which self-publishing can claim to have walked away with the goods, it’s in low-priced romance ebooks, consumed by enviably loyal readers often at a rate of several titles per week.
The COVID-19 lockdown stage in the United States, however, “helped to lift the category’s ebook sales,” McLean’s report says.
“Unit sales for romance ebooks,” she writes, “increased 17 percentage points from January through May 2020. In all, 16.2 million romance ebooks and print books were sold during this time period.”
Total romance book sales in the trade–which had declined 11 percent in January 2020 over January 2019–began trending upward in March.
The category showed strong growth through the acute COVID-19 shutdown period, with print and ebook sales closing slightly higher–0.1 percent–in May, because of an impressive rebound in ebook unit sales.
Those unit ebook sales rose 17.4 points from January through May 2020. This meant that ebooks made up 60 percent of romance category sales, and romance ebook unit sales increased 10 percent between January and May 2020.
. . . .
In breaking out growth subjects, McLean sees historical romance in the lead on a unit basis, both in print and ebook formats, “but top-selling ebook titles differed from print sales leaders.”
Golden in Death by JD Robb (Macmillan/St. Martin’s Press, February) led ebook sales in the overall romance category, followed by Hideaway by the dependable Nora Roberts (Macmillan/St. Martin’s Press, May) and Chasing Cassandra by Lisa Kleypas (HarperCollins/Avon, February).
Print sales were led by Window on the Bay by Debbie Macomber (Penguin Random House/Ballantine, February), followed by Every Breathby Nicholas Sparks (Hachette Book Group/Sphere, October 2018), and Country Strong by Linda Lael Miller (Harlequin, January).
In her comments, McLean says, “With brick-and-mortar retail bookstores closed in the States this past spring, ebook sales–which have always been stronger for romance than in other categories–really took off.
. . . .
“Print romance also rose slightly, as newly housebound readers looked for fun and immersive germ-free reads while waiting out the pandemic.”
On the heels of its second-quarter report on the American book market, which we covered here on Monday, the NPD Group today (July 21) has released new data showing that ebook unit sales in April rose by nearly a third over the previous month: a new indication of how consumers reached for digital retail under the constraints of COVID-19 mitigation efforts.
Year over year through April, NPD PubTrack Digital saw trade ebook sales decline by 6 percent, a total 55 million units sold. But Kristen McLean, who leads book industry analysis for NPD, says that when she looks only at April—in many parts of the States the first full month of stay-at-home measures—ebooks made that 31-percent jump in unit sales over March, selling an additional 4.2 million units.
“With brick-and-mortar retail bookstores shut down in the United States this spring,” she says, “the ebook format became more popular during the COVID-19 crisis. Ebooks are easy to purchase, can be read instantly after being downloaded, and eliminate any concerns over infection or availability.”
. . . .
Sales growth for adult ebooks was led by general fiction, which rose 23 percent in April compared to March according to data from NPD BookScan.
The leading general fiction title in April was Celeste Ng’s Little Fires Everywhere. . . The film tie-in was released in March, the same month that Liz Tigelaar’s Hulu series adaptation with Reese Witherspoon premiered.
The romance category posted 22-percent growth in April compared to March, led by First Comes Scandal by Julia Quinn . . . .
Adult nonfiction title unit sales grew 37 percent in April compared to March 2020.
What if we remembered Jack Kirby not for Captain America or Galactus, but for the romance comics that he and Joe Simon produced during the late 1940s and early 1950s in their wildly successful titles Young Romance and Young Love? Kirby’s work in the genre, which he and Simon invented, are marked by Wellesian compositions and subtle character studies. They’re the equal of Kirby’s best superhero stories. Twenty thousand romance comics were printed in this period. One billion copies were sold.
Imagine an issue of What If…, Marvel’s late 1970s series imagining alternative timelines for their characters, in which the romance genre’s fans never disappear. In the 1960s, Kirby moves to Marvel and he and Stan Lee create a universe not of superheroes and mutants, but of heartthrobs who dress like Steve McQueen and strong women who look like Jean Seberg. In the mid-1980s, Frank Miller and Alan Moore produce gritty, revisionist graphic novels that revive the genre for a more cynical era. Moore’s Watchwomen tells the story of a dystopian America in which Richard Nixon vanquished the Vietnamese thanks to a romantic intrigue involving a Minnesota housewife and Võ Nguyên Giáp. Romance, the culture understands, is best suited to the comics medium, and supermarkets don’t sell romance paperbacks.
In the early 2000s, Hollywood, after several false starts, produces lush big-budget spectacles based on classic romance comics. Franchises are born. Film snobs compare the current crop of blockbusters unfavorably to the saturated melodramas of Hollywood’s Golden Age. “Where is our generation’s All That Heaven Allows? Our Written on the Wind?” they write in The New Yorker. “Cinema is dead.” But ticket buyers don’t worry too much about the elites’ complaints. The movies sell toys and video games and they do well in China. Comic-cons are dominated by fans who think they’re rebels for performing romance cosplay.
Academics hold conferences where they argue for the cultural legitimacy of the romance comics genre. Professors teach Chris Claremont’s classic run on Heart People alongside Pride and Prejudice. Salman Rushdie declares himself a fan of romance, and Michael Chabon turns his own fandom into a career. Romance comics face a reckoning in the 2010s, when a disgruntled fan base points out the genre’s long history of racism and sexism. The major publishing houses introduce a new set of romance comics heroes and heroines who are more representative of the country’s demographics. An alt-right backlash ensues, but Marvel, to its credit, keeps the new characters. Ta-Nehisi Coates and Roxane Gay contribute story lines about classic romance comics’ few black protagonists. Fantagraphics and Drawn and Quarterly, meanwhile, publish indie superhero comics read by only a select few. The spring box office in 2019 is dominated by the Russo brothers’ Young Romance: Growing Older and Closer to Death. Think pieces in The New York Times, NPR, Slate, and the Los Angeles Review of Books point out connections to the #MeToo movement, Black Lives Matter, the war on terror, and climate change. Alan Moore declares the romance comics genre morally indefensible. Martin Scorsese makes superhero films.
In fact, it’s even more complicated than that. A society in which the culture as a whole reads romance comics is also a society more interested in women’s stories, and thus a society slightly less dominated by men. The industry includes more women creators. It is Margaret Atwood and Zadie Smith, not Rushdie and Chabon, who champion mainstream fare. Hillary Clinton is elected president in 1992 and proves just as inadequate as her husband did in another reality.
. . . .
In our own world, only a very small percentage of vintage romance comics have been reprinted. And the few that you can find are advertised as exceptional, either for their aesthetics or their ideology. In 2003, Fantagraphics released Romance Without Tears, a collection of work written by Dana Dutch for the independent publisher Archer St. John. Several of these comics are drawn by Matt Baker, a gay, black man who was one of the few African-American artists of the comics’ Golden Age. John Benson, who spent years compiling the volume, argues in his introduction not so much for the stories’ aesthetic brilliance as for their proto-feminism. “Dutch’s protagonists,” as opposed to those in other romance comics, “were lively, active young women who, though often naïve and inexperienced, had character, a sense of self worth [sic], and a great deal of common sense.” In 2012 and 2014, Fantagraphics published Young Romance and Young Romance 2, a selection of Kirby and Simon’s work. In the introduction to the first volume, Michelle Nolan calls Kirby and Simon’s issues “some of the most dramatic and emotionally powerful comics of their time.” She also commends the creators for their qualified progressivism, noting that “[t]o this writer’s best knowledge, Simon and Kirby dealt with virtually every type of social issue except the still-forbidden interracial romance.” Twenty-first-century readers accept, even celebrate, this sort of didacticism. Comics should be nutritional, they say. They should make us good, or at least less bad.
. . . .
Romance, by definition, is a genre in which women live to find love. If they didn’t, these stories would not exist.
Demand for Jane Austen far exceeds supply. When the novelist died in 1817 at the age of 41, she left only six full-length novels, plus three unpublished works and a collection of juvenilia. Yet in the two centuries since, Austen has become, as the British writer Alexander McCall Smith once put it, “a movement, a mood, a lifestyle, an attitude, and perhaps most tellingly of all, a fridge magnet.”
She got her first screen adaptation in 1940, with Laurence Olivier playing Fitzwilliam Darcy and the Bennet sisters dressed in American-antebellum corsets and huge frilly skirts. This Pride and Prejudice set the template for what an Austen adaptation was supposed to look and sound like: primly romantic, with both clothes and characters firmly buttoned up.
The 1990s were a boom time for that approach. Think Gwyneth Paltrow’s Emma peeking out from under a bonnet, or Kate Winslet daintily suffering a chill in Sense and Sensibility. The BBC’s 1995 adaptation of Pride and Prejudice stuck closely to its source material, and ended with a single, chaste postnuptial kiss between Elizabeth Bennet and Darcy.* The 2005 version, with Keira Knightley, veered into nauseating rom-com tweeness: A special ending for the U.S. market features the couple on the steps of Pemberley, joking about how keen Elizabeth is to be called “Mrs. Darcy.” The next fashion was to transplant Austen’s stories to new locations: Bollywood for 2004’s Bride and Prejudice, Pakistan for 2017’s Austenistan.
Today’s adapters, though, are tired of seeing the writer dismissed as a narrow chronicler of middle-class domestic gentility, and are turning to her unpublished fragments to make the case for another Jane Austen—sharp, satirical, and proto-feminist.
. . . .
Both Sanditon—which is being broadcast on Britain’s ITV and on PBS in the U.S.—and The Watsons, Laura Wade’s new play, take unfinished texts and canter off with the characters. Along with Austen’s abandoned novel Lady Susan, these pieces are spikier, more difficult, and more resistant to the bonnets-and-breeches treatment than her published works are. (Lady Susan, which was turned into 2016’s Love & Friendship, starring Kate Beckinsale, focuses on a widow trying to secure husbands for herself and her daughter. It is quietly radical: Imagine how different Pride and Prejudice would be told from the perspective of Mrs. Bennet.)
These new adaptations make a simple case: Costume dramas are not about wallowing in nostalgia, and Austen was not writing straightforward romances. Sanditon, for example, has an “acerbic, screwball tone,” according to its director, Olly Blackburn—in it, Austen was trying something new. “It’s like [Bob] Dylan going electric,” he told me.
At first glance, the plot of The Watsons, which is showing at the Menier Chocolate Factory in London, is classic Austen—a young woman who has fallen on hard times tries to find a husband. As soon as Wade was commissioned to adapt the fragment for the stage, though, she realized that she had to take liberties with the material. The playwright was enough of an Austen fan, she told me, “to not want to do yet another Pride and Prejudice or whatever.”
In her play, the characters are self-aware—and notice a strange figure, named Laura, creeping around the period setting. Laura is a stand-in for the playwright herself, unable to resist seeing what an Austen story looks like from the inside. Realizing that they are actually in a play, the characters rebel against the confines of the narrative—two begin a lesbian relationship and set sail for India, and the heroine, Emma, rejects all the options available to a genteel but poor young woman in the early 19th century.
The play is funny, surreal, and full of affectionate iconoclasm. Wade sees Austen as a “brilliantly witty friend,” and was fascinated by why she abandoned The Watsons. Perhaps, Wade speculated, its premise was too close to Austen’s own life: The heroine’s father is dying, as was Austen’s when she wrote it. And after Austen discarded The Watsons, there was a gap of several years before she wrote her final three novels. (During this period, she also received a marriage proposal, which she turned down, but her reasoning is unknown, as her sister Cassandra burned her letters.)
Or maybe, Wade suggested, Austen abandoned The Watsons because she couldn’t work out which of the male characters would be a suitable match for her protagonist. “Maybe she couldn’t finish your story in the way she wanted,” the playwright-character Laura tells Emma. “She might have wanted to … make you some kind of amazing, bold, revolutionary feminist, but she thought her readers weren’t ready, or she was scared of it.” Wade said that the end of her script, which lets Emma explore the world without getting married, “felt like the more feminist thing that Jane Austen might have done if she were alive in a world where there were those possibilities.”
Difficult. It’s a word that rests on a knife-edge: when applied to a woman, it can be admiring, fearful, insulting and dismissive, all at once. In 2016, it was used of Theresa May (she was “a bloody difficult woman,” Ken Clarke said, when she ran for Tory leader). A year later, it gave the US author Roxane Gay the title for her short story collection. The late Elizabeth Wurtzel took “in praise of difficult women” as the strapline for her feminist manifesto in 1998. The book’s main title was, simply, Bitch.
The word is particularly pointed since it recurs so often when women talk about the consequences of challenging sexism. The TV presenter Helen Skelton once described being groped on air by an interviewee while pregnant. She did not complain, she said, because “that’s just the culture that television breeds. No one wants to be difficult.” The actor Jennifer Lawrence told the Hollywood Reporter that she had once stood up to a rude director. The reaction to the incident left her worried that she would be punished by the industry. “Yeah,” chipped in fellow actor Emma Stone: “You were ‘difficult’.”
All this is edging towards the same idea, an idea that is imprinted on us from birth: that women are called unreasonable, selfish and unfeminine when they stand up for themselves.
. . . .
So what does it mean to be a difficult woman? I’m not talking about being rude, thoughtless, obnoxious or a diva. First of all, difficult means complicated. A thumbs-up, thumbs-down approach to historical figures is boring and reductive. Most of us are more than one thing; no one is pure; everyone is “problematic”. Look back at early feminists and you will find women with views that are unpalatable to their modern sisters. You will find women with views that were unpalatable to their contemporaries. They were awkward and wrong-headed and obstinate and sometimes downright odd – and that helped them to defy the expectations placed on them. “The reasonable man adapts himself to the world: the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself,” wrote George Bernard Shaw in 1903. “Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.” (Or, as I always catch myself adding, the unreasonable woman.) A history of feminism should not try to sand off the sharp corners of the movement’s pioneers – or write them out of the story entirely, if their sins are deemed too great. It must allow them to be just as flawed – just as human – as men. Women are people, and people are more interesting than cliches. We don’t have to be perfect to deserve equal rights.
. . . .
The idea of role models is not necessarily a bad one, but the way they are used in feminism can dilute a radical political movement into feelgood inspiration porn. Holding up a few exceptions is no substitute for questioning the rules themselves, and in our rush to champion historical women, we are distorting the past. Take the wildly successful children’s book Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls, which has sold more than a million copies. It tells 100 “empowering, moving and inspirational” stories, promising that “these are true fairytales for heroines who definitely don’t need rescuing”. Its entry for the fashion designer Coco Chanel mentions that she wanted to start a business, and a “wealthy friend of hers lent her enough money to make her dream come true”. It does not mention that Chanel was the lover of a Nazi officer and very probably a spy for Hitler’s Germany. In the 1930s, she tried to remove that “wealthy friend” from the company under racist laws that forbade Jews to own businesses. In the name of inspiring little girls living in a male-dominated world, the book doesn’t so much airbrush Chanel’s story as sandblast it. Do you find her wartime collaboration with the Nazis “empowering”? I don’t, although admittedly she does sound like a woman who “didn’t need rescuing”. The real Coco Chanel was clever, prejudiced, talented, cynical – and interesting. The pale version of her boiled down to a feminist saint is not.
Ms. Austen has not changed nor has the content of her books but, as with great creations of any era, they resonate with people living in much different settings and circumstances than the author did because they deal with timeless human characteristics and traits. Per the topic of the OP, Austen’s handful of books include difficult women of a different era.
Miss Bates and Parson Collins have no shortage of social and intellectual analogs in 2020 nor will they in 2120 (in PG’s pompously humble opinion).
“Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever, and rich, with a comfortable home and happy disposition, seemed to unite some of the best blessings of existence; and had lived nearly twenty-one years in the world with very little to distress or vex her.” So begins Emma, one of Jane Austen’s most beloved books. But not everyone is carried away by Emma’s charm. To some readers, her decidedly unhandsome actions—meddling in love affairs and acting like an entitled brat among them—are cause for vexation and distress in and of themselves. And, writes English scholar Barbara Z. Thaden, that could even be the point. “Emma was not intended to be or become a sympathetic character,” she writes—and, she suggests, Miss Woodhouse might not even be her eponymous book’s own heroine.
Unlike Austen’s other heroines, Emma is beloved and seemingly blessed. Well treated by her family and well regarded by everyone around her, she flies in the face of heroines like Pride and Prejudice’s Elizabeth Bennet, who is charming but without social cachet, Sense and Sensibility’s stoic Elinor Dashwood, or Persuasion’s forgotten spinster Anne Elliot. She resembles others in the Austen world, though—but as Thaden suggests, it’s the condescension, pride, and social security of plenty of Austen’s villains that she shares.
. . . .
Thaden dissects Emma’s supposed charm—a quality that, she argues, pulls the wool over readers’ eyes. Meddling, cruelty, and entitlement are interpreted by other characters, and readers, as evidence of her superiority, but unlike other charming and wealthy Austen characters, Emma never has to prove her worth. Instead, she manipulates other people’s lives and romances, and seems unlikely to change her ways after snagging Mr. Knightley, a longtime friend she has encouraged another woman to love.
The enigmatic Jane Fairfax, on the other hand, is given none of her foil’s intrinsic tools. Forced to seek a post as a governess because of her orphan status, she is the only woman Emma envies. But she is nothing like her: Where the richer Emma can do as she pleases, Jane must “endure silently while a flirt of high social standing plays with the man she loves.” Jane Fairfax, argues Thaden, is more like Jane Austen than most of her heroines.
How do couples show their love? Some do it with flowers, because nothing screams romance like a handful of dying vegetation. Others send cute notes to one another, especially at this time of year. And in noir world, a lucky few get the chance to die together in a hail of high-velocity bullets.
Yes, romance in noir almost always starts out well, only to descend into death and despair (if you want to get truly pretentious and Greek about it, the characters’ eros, or love, just can’t overcome their thanatos, or death impulse). With that in mind, and in celebration of Valentine’s Day, here are seven films about lovestruck couples who truly go the distance—sometimes right into a police roadblock.
. . . .
Double Indemnity (1944)
Boy (Fred MacMurray as Walter Neff, smarmy) meets girl (Barbara Stanwyck as Phyllis Dietrichson, ice-cold). Boy helps girl kill her husband and dispose of the body in a way that looks like an accident, so they can score an extra-large helping of insurance money (the “double indemnity” of the title). Boy and girl try to escape the subsequent investigation’s ever-tightening noose, even as boy begins to suspect that girl is a murder-crazed lunatic. Boy and girl turn on each other, adding to the body count. It’s the perfect Valentine’s Day movie—right before you deliver the breakup speech.
. . . .
Bonnie and Clyde (1967)
Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde (1967) is the ultimate act of cinematic transformation: It took a pair of dirty, doomed bank robbers—barely more than kids when they were ambushed and gunned down by law enforcement in 1934—and transformed them into extremely photogenic, almost relentlessly suave icons of American rebellion. At least, that’s the hot take; the film has far more layers than you might remember, if you haven’t seen it in a decade or two (or if you’ve never seen it at all, which is something you need to fix).
As portrayed by Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway, Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker not only look good—they know they look good. But at crucial moments throughout the film, a far uglier reality intrudes. Friends, family, and innocent bystanders die messily; Clyde and Bonnie panic at the idea that there’s no way out. They don’t look quite so photogenic once the law has its way with them.
What the cinematic Bonnie and Clyde share with their historical inspiration is an all-consuming love, however doomed. One wonders how the real-life robbers, who were intensely aware of their media image when they were alive, would have regarded the 1967 film. They probably would have enjoyed being played by Beatty and Dunaway… and lamented the lack of a happy ending.
It’s exhausting to live in a world of constantly swirling social interaction, in which you never know who you’re going to hear from, or how you’ll live up to the pressure to respond. It’s uncomfortable to know that you can be assessed and measured by very public metrics, which amount to a transparent calculation of your worth. It’s stressful to hew to the standards of public discretion, knowing that any violation of propriety will be held against you forever.
These are the pains of living in the social-networking era—but they are also the pains of living in the world described by the nineteenth-century novels of Jane Austen. That’s why her well-loved books are worth revisiting at our particular moment, in search of wisdom on how to cope with the pressures of the digital age.
. . . .
The parallels between our world and Austen’s jumped out at me when I recently returned to her works after many years. When I first read Austen’s Pride and Prejudice at the age of fifteen, the World Wide Web had yet to be invented. When I picked up her next novels in my mid-twenties, it was still many years before the advent of blogging, Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube.
But I recently yielded to a sudden and acute Austen craving, which plunged me into six weeks of gorging on her work, this time in audiobook form. Austen’s words poured over me as I puttered through my daily tasks: Emma gossiping as I glanced at my morning email, Eliza Bennet whispering in my ear as I plugged my devices in to charge each night.
. . . .
Indeed, as I plunged into Austen’s England from the very device that normally connects me to Facebook and Twitter, her world and ours looked more and more alike.
The similarities begin with the sheer volume of social interaction required of both English gentry and social media users. In addition to their month-long visits (does anyone want an Airbnb guest who stays that long?), Austen’s characters indulge in a daily exchange of “calls.” In “Jane Austen’s Speech Acts and Language-Based Societies,” Candace Nolan-Grant describes this practice as
the convention of calling on one’s acquaintances, which requires either conversing with the members of the household for at least fifteen minutes if they are home, or leaving a card if they are not. Calling on acquaintances typically does the following: announces that the caller deems his or her host worthy of notice and feels some obligation to call; obliges the host(s) to receive the caller and to return the visit; and opens (or closes, depending on the tenor of the visit) doors for further social intercourse.
At first, I envied Austen’s characters this daily face-to-face social interaction: I often go weeks without seeing even my closest friends in person, staying in touch via Facebook or SMS instead. But I soon found myself wondering how the inhabitants of Austen’s world put up with this constant pressure to socialize—until I realized that we face just as much demand for interaction, albeit in digital form. Austen’s characters may face a nonstop parade of callers, but at least they don’t have to deal with Facebook friend invitations and an endless series of requests to connect on LinkedIn.
Of course, if our inboxes are overflowing, it’s often because we’ve followed the many admonitions to build up our professional networks and attract social media fans. This is another way in which social media replicates the dynamics of Austen’s world: both place great emphasis on the value of introductions, and both quantify the value of each new friend or connection.
As of today, January 10, 2020, here’s where we are with the implosion of RWA:
Damon Suede has (finally) resigned…
after the recall petition filed by C. Chilove, the President of CIMRWA, Laurel Cremant, President-Elect, and Diana Neal, Treasurer, was certified and
after every major publisher pulled out of RWA Nationals
Executive Director Carol Ritter also resigned, except according to RWA’s January 9 statement, she’s staying on to assist with transition to new leadership.
. . . .
So things are sort of resolved: we got the first thing we asked for (repeatedly) which was that Suede step down and the leadership take some responsibility for the mess. They sort of did, and I think that is part of what makes this semi-resolution so unsatisfying for me.
There’s a lot of “sort of” in the RWA statement, too. There’s the continued presence of many of the people who contributed to the mess in the first place, such as remaining board members who were appointed by Suede, coupled with the onomatopology (term coined by author NPR host Linda Holmes) which doesn’t do nearly enough to address the valid concerns of the membership. I’m exhausted from mishegas that didn’t need to become as bad as it did, and dispirited as I ponder the next step.
Also: it is a lot easier to convince a publisher NOT to spend money than it is to convince them to spend money. So the loss of publisher participation and sponsorship is a BFD to the conference, the organization, and the future of writers who relied on RWA’s advocacy on their behalf when dealing with those same publishers.
. . . .
while discussing the destruction of RWA’s reputation over the past two weeks with people who aren’t part of the community, I was asked this question: Who does the organization serve?
That question is referenced in the RWA onomatopology released yesterday:
We know we have a lot more work to do to restore the trust we have lost – and we are going to do whatever it takes to get there so that we can focus on the mission of this organization: to promote the professional and common business interests of romance writers. Our goal is to ensure the successful future of this association so it can be an even stronger, better and more inclusive professional home and advocate for romance authors.
We hope you will join us – collaboratively and productively – in rebuilding an RWA that serves its diverse and talented members well into the future. We believe this community is worth saving. (Emphasis mine.)
I see a very large and tangled problem with that goal, to rebuild RWA into a “professional home and advocate for romance authors…that serves its diverse and talented members.”
Whom does RWA serve specifically?
“Diverse and talented romance authors” is not clear enough as a definition.
. . . .
In other words, if an organization wants to change, current members often represent the past, the status quo, or perhaps the opposite of that change.
People who aren’t members, and a portion of the current membership, might represent the future, the wished-for changes, the possibility that hasn’t happened yet.
Setting aside the question of leadership for a moment (and again, the current RWA board should be removed and re-elected in its entirety) it’s important to ask over and over: whom does this organization serve?
Who is the priority?
Because it cannot be both.
If RWA serves the current membership of RWA, well, that membership contains a substantial number of people who:
openly embrace and promote racist ideologies
post on RWA Facebook pages and in internal message boards about their homophobia and racist views on people of color
write transphobic and racist articles for and letters to the Romance Writers Report
…and I could keep going but it’s depressing.
A substantial part of the current membership of RWA is a substantial part of the problem with RWA.
If the organization wants to serve any marginalized writers, it can’t also serve that portion of the current membership. It’s impossible. One side has demonstrated in PAN forums, email messages, and social media posts that it refuses to recognize the humanity of the other, and refuses to recognize their culpability in maintaining a White supremacist, classist, heteronormative, racist culture inside RWA. Nor can it commit to changing that culture.
The organization also can’t serve marginalized writers if the leadership has a documented history of not acknowledging ethics complaints from marginalized individuals, and of publishing and allowing screeds against those individuals in print and online. RWA can’t serve anyone if the organization doesn’t fully reveal what happened in the specific case of the ethics complaint and process against Courtney Milan, and what happened to the complaints from every writer who has reported a problem.
RWA can’t maintain its current membership nor its leadership and at the same time say it’s going to rebuild. Rebuilding requires people in leadership positions who are trusted by current and prospective members. And it requires trust in fellow members of the community.
As Olivia Waite and others have pointed out, the January 9 statement from RWA was a word assemblage that scarcely resembled the appropriate level of apology, acknowledgement, and intent to act. It lists as next steps several actions they’ve already performed multiple times. More consultants, more town halls, more discussions are not going to fix RWA.
PG is 100% an outsider in this mess, but he suspects that RWA is mortally wounded. Although he has actively participated in some non-profit legal organizations having nothing to do with writing and publishing in the past, he is not in any way an expert in this field.
However, such experiential shortcomings have never prevented PG (and many others) from expressing an opinion on all sorts of subjects.
He thinks it would probably be easier to build a new organization rather to deal with past complaints, slights, insults, leaders, stakeholders, etc. In metaphorical terms, RWA is a dirty slate which will require cleaning and reconstruction before it can begin to build a compelling new identity. It will require thoughtful and energetic work to demonstrate that all the bad/embarrassing/nasty pieces are gone and only a positive and energetic group remains.
An organization which is a clean slate can start working on structure, governance, solicitation of membership without having to spend any time or energy on past mistakes, bad feelings, etc. Those authors who have become angry and vowed to never have anything more to do with RWA would seem to be low-hanging fruit for a new organization.
In suggesting that a new organization is a better idea, PG is not minimizing the hard work necessary to build a successful non-profit with enough resources – leadership, financial, membership numbers, marketing and promotional talent, etc., to succeed. Any group thinking about starting a new organization will have to worry about competition from other groups that want to replace RWA as well.
The Romance Writers of America ended 2019 reeling from the backlash to its handling of a racism accusation. It is beginning this year by canceling its 2020 awards for romance novels, known in the industry as the Ritas, after it said that several contestants and judges had already pulled out.
The awards, which recognize “excellence in published romance novels and novellas,” are typically given during the trade organization’s annual conference in the summer. But in a statement released on Monday, the R.W.A. said that many had “lost faith” in its ability to conduct a fair contest, leading participants to withdraw.
“The contest will not reflect the breadth and diversity of 2019 romance novels/novellas and thus will not be able to fulfill its purpose of recognizing excellence in the genre,” it said in the statement, adding that it planned to recognize 2019 and 2020 books next year. The organization declined to comment further.
Romance books are a lucrative part of the publishing industry, with a deeply engaged fan base, but the lack of diversity among the genre’s writers has been an ongoing topic of debate. Many readers, writers and others in the community followed the turmoil that engulfed the R.W.A. late last month, when the organization suspended Courtney Milan, a former board member and chair of its ethics committee, and banned her from leadership positions in response to an ethics complaint. Ms. Milan, a romance writer who is Chinese-American, had criticized the depiction of Chinese women in the novel “Somewhere Lies the Moon,” prompting its author, Kathryn Lynn Davis, an honorary R.W.A. member, and Suzan Tisdale, who employs Ms. Davis at a publishing imprint, to file ethics complaints against Ms. Milan.
. . . .
The R.W.A.’s punishment was widely criticized on social media and by other writers, and the organization quickly reversed course on its decision. Still, eight board members resigned in protest, as did the former president Carolyn Jewel, and a petition calling for the resignation of the R.W.A.’s new president, Damon Suede, has been submitted to the organization.
It began, like so many contemporary racial kerfuffles, on social media. Courtney Milan, a bestselling romance novelist and former chair of the Romance Writers of America (rwa)’s ethics committee (which sounds like fun) called “Somewhere Lies the Moon”, a historical novel by Kathryn Lynn Davis, “a f****** racist mess”. Ms Milan, who is Chinese-American, objected to physical descriptions (“slightly yellow” faces and “slanted almond eyes”) and to a character who said that Chinese women were “demure and quiet, as our mothers have trained us to be” and “modest and submissive, so they will make good wives.”
Ms Davis and Suzan Tisdale, a writer who also runs a romance-publishing imprint that employs Ms Davis, accused Ms Milan of violating several sections of the rwa’s ethics code. The rwa’s ethics committee dismissed all of Ms Davis’s complaints save one: that Ms Milan’s comments violated “the organisation’s expressed purpose of creating a ‘safe and respectful environment’” for its members. The committee recommended a year’s suspension of Ms Milan’s rwa membership, and a lifetime ban on holding any rwa leadership position.
. . . .
The romance-writing world was already roiled by issues of race and representation. In 2017 just over 6% of books released by major romance publishers were written by non-white writers, according to a study by The Ripped Bodice, a romance-only bookstore. HelenKay Dimon, a former rwa president, believes that one of the reasons this dispute raised such strong feelings was that “coming out of last year…there was a little bit of hope” that things were getting better, and that using the rwa’s ethics code to punish a non-white writer for calling out what she saw as racist stereotypes “felt like a violation”. LaQuette, a mononymous African-American romance writer, says that before the row blew up, “we were one step closer to finding that…support” for non-white romance writers. But that “this event in a matter of days destroyed all that.”
At this point, romance readers might wonder several things. Is it really unimaginable for a fictional woman in the 19th century—even a Chinese woman, with all the attendant stereotype warnings—to praise demureness and modesty? Why did Ms Davis not simply apologise for having given offence? Is there any fight more bitter than one among well-intentioned, decent people who are trying to convince each other that they are best intentioned and most decent?
. . . .
Tone-deaf racial representations in bodice rippers may rank fairly low on the hierarchy of America’s social ills. Yet if a trade group that has done well by numerous writers sunders over it, romance authors of all backgrounds may find themselves bereft. Tone-deaf racial representations in bodice rippers may rank fairly low on the hierarchy of America’s social ills. Yet if a trade group that has done well by numerous writers sunders over it, romance authors of all backgrounds may find themselves bereft.
Let’s talk about the power of romance. There’s power in the written word, even in a genre that we tend to consider — because of sexism — less intellectual than some others. And it isn’t just about hearts and flowers and candy; this is cold hard cash: Romance as a literary genre represents a quarter of all fiction sales and more than half of all paperback sales, and it brings in over a billion dollars in sales annually.
The impact of romance books on the culture is outsize because everyone is interested in romance, whether they admit it publicly or not.
The business of selling books about love is often handled through the offices of the Romance Writers of America, or RWA. It’s the largest writers’ organization in the world, with nearly 10,000 members and 150 chapters. Because of those chapters and their dues-paying members, it has about $3 million in the bank, according to its latest publicly available tax filings — which should, in theory, mean that the RWA would be around for years to come.
Yet it’s been roiled by a series of scandals around inclusion and representation for most of the last decade, all of which have seemingly come to a head since shortly before Christmas. As outlined by The New York Times, that’s when the organization’s board voted to sanction a prominent Chinese American romance writer and former board member, Courtney Milan, for criticizing on Twitter the novel of a white writer, Kathryn Lynn Davis, as a “racist mess” for its stereotypical portrayals of Chinese women.
. . . .
The sanctions apparently were considered as part of a secretive process outside the organization’s normal ethics procedures, and they would have resulted in Milan’s being barred from a board position ever again. As a result of criticism after the incident became public, the sanctions have been suspended, but the firestorm has led to calls to recall the board president, as well as accusations that most ethics complaints go unheard — particularly those by non-white writers — and of favoritism by RWA staff and board members toward white and straight writers.
. . . .
Romance, like much other niche literature, interests readers from all walks of life — and the RWA membership, which is made up of writers, agents and publishers, almost reflects that reality. It should be one of the most democratic professional organizations in the publishing industry, working to grow the genre’s readership, especially in a time of flagging fiction sales. You can’t, however, do that without appealing to more diverse readers, especially as America itself is changing demographically.
. . . .
But whenever the topic of more inclusion in an industry comes up, it feels like there’s always someone insisting that diversity means lowering standards — or that calls for inclusion are bullying, which is essentially what Milan was accused of when she pointed out the racism of Davis’ portrayals of Chinese women.
. . . .
Having been involved in these debates myself, I find it hard not to notice that the people making the most noise against inclusivity are often those who have already put out racist or homophobic work and who strenuously object to their work’s being characterized as offensive at all. And though some other authors, when criticized, do pull their books off the shelf for rewrites, most shrug off the criticism or apologize and keep writing books.
Take Nora Roberts, one of the biggest names in romance: In a long statement backing Milan and criticizing the RWA’s long history of non-inclusivity, she also makes it clear that she doesn’t think her history is perfect, apologizing for the possibility of offensive imagery in a catalog of hundreds of books.
. . . .
But there’s inevitably a small contingent of writers who simply can’t handle being criticized, whether directly or indirectly. Vitriolic responses to critics are hardly limited to well-known writers; those who aspire to become household names are equally prone to them. Having your work dissected, discussed and sometimes even demeaned, however, is part of putting it out into the world. All writers know this — or at least they should — and writing romance novels is no exception.
Writers who want to make money, then, often hire sensitivity readers to help them sidestep pitfalls, especially if they don’t feel that their agents, editors or publishing houses are up to the challenge.
. . . .
Well, that’s where the cash comes in. Not only is romance big business for those already in it, but the possibility of attracting more readers — and their money — can also make those who think they deserve an audience regardless of the quality of their work antsy about competition from those trying to raise the quality of the industry overall. The complaint against Milan was fundamentally that her criticisms — accurate though they were — had cost other writers opportunities by drawing attention to their flaws.
. . . .
This is about writing, but it is also about our culture and whether we want the people who have traditionally influenced it to continue to do so without engaging with the consequences their work might visit on other communities. Everybody wants a little romance; what most people of color who read about it don’t want is romance novels written by white authors filled with stereotypes about people of color.
A dispute over a racism accusation and how it was handled have upended the romance writers’ community, with best-selling novelists speaking out against the Romance Writers of America and most of the powerful, 9,000-member trade organization’s board resigning in the last days of the year.
The R.W.A. on Monday said it was hiring a law firm to “to conduct an audit of the process and these events to provide a clear report of the facts.” The dispute arose over the group’s treatment of Courtney Milan, a former board member and chair of its ethics committee who last summer criticized Kathryn Lynn Davis’s novel “Somewhere Lies the Moon” on Twitter as a “racist mess.”
Ms. Milan, who is Chinese-American, took issue with the depiction of 19th-century Chinese women in the book, including a description of “slanted almond eyes” and a quote from a character describing them as “demure and quiet, as our mothers have trained us to be.” “The notion of the submissive Chinese woman is a racist stereotype which fuels higher rates of violence against women,” Ms. Milan wrote on Twitter.
Ms. Davis, who is an honorary R.W.A. member, disagreed with Ms. Milan’s assessment, saying her book was historically accurate and based on years of research. She filed an ethics complaint with the R.W.A., saying that Ms. Milan’s comments were “cyberbullying” and cost her a publishing contract.
“I would not have filed a complaint if she had been more professional,” Ms. Davis said of Ms. Milan.
In her response to the complaint, Ms. Milan said that the R.W.A.’s ethics code does not cover discussions on social media accounts it doesn’t operate, and said of her criticism: “I am emotional about these issues. Negative stereotypes of Chinese women have impacted my life, the life of my mother, my sisters, and my friends.”
. . . .
As a result of that complaint and one from another writer, Suzan Tisdale, who employs Ms. Davis at a publishing imprint and said she had lost potential authors as a result of the controversy, the R.W.A. told Ms. Milan earlier last week that her membership was suspended and she was banned for life from holding leadership positions within the organization.
Ms. Milan called the judgment “a form of betrayal” and shared the documents associated with the complaint with her friend and fellow romance writer Alyssa Cole, who posted them to Twitter.
“If it was now R.W.A.’s policy that talking about a book and specifically saying negative things about a book as a marginalized author was going to get you banned from the organization,” Ms. Milan said, “I felt that other marginalized people in the organization needed to know that.”
Once the documents were on social media, other writers, including best-selling romance novelists like Nora Roberts and Cynthia Eden, voiced their support for Ms. Milan. The R.W.A. quickly reversed course on its judgment, but eight board members resigned as well as the former president Carolyn Jewel, and a petition calling for the resignation of Damon Suede, the R.W.A.’s new president, began circulating online.
I started reading romance novels when I was 12 or 13. I remember reading them and thinking they were enjoyable but they weren’t about people like me. Nearly all of the characters were non-disabled, as well as being white, cis and heterosexual, and the few characters that were disabled were villains. When I did finally find romance novels with disabled leads, they were either cured of their disability or their significant other was portrayed as a saint who was willing to look past their disability.
Both of these tropes are so harmful. I was born disabled and I will always be disabled. There’s no option of being cured for me and even if there was, I wouldn’t take it. Being disabled is an intrinsic part of my identity and I wouldn’t be me if I wasn’t disabled. I also don’t think being disabled is anything to be ashamed of and the idea that a partner would have to look past my disability in order to love me is incredibly hurtful.
These attitudes, of course, are a reflection on how society views disabled people. I hear stories all the time from other disabled people who have had complete strangers tell their partner that they must be a wonderful person in order to be with a disabled person. This attitude is dehumanising and suggests that being in a relationship with a disabled person is an act of charity. Most disabled people are surrounded by negative opinions on disability from the moment we’re born, it’s impossible not to internalise that and it’s easy to convince ourselves that we aren’t deserving of love or that we have to minimise our disability in order to get our happily ever after. Ableism is a daily reality for most disabled people but for me romance novels are supposed to be an escape from reality, an idealised version of what life can be like with the right person or people. Romance novels are supposed to be emotionally satisfying for the reader and that includes disabled readers.
The second romance-only bookstore in the country opened in Tinley Park in mid-June. Love’s Sweet Arrow is owned and operated by mother-daughter team Roseann and Marissa Backlin, who were inspired to open the business by their love for romance novels.
“Romance is one of the most widely read genres in publishing, and yet there were only two exclusively romance bookstores in the world before we opened. And the only other one in the country is on the west coast,” Marissa Backlin said. “We wanted to do our part to change that and give romance readers a place to find their favorite books in the Midwest judgement-free.”
Developing the store from idea to actual opening took about a year.
“We had to do a lot of research into authors, publishing houses, form a business plan and attempt crowdfunding,” said Roseann Backlin, who also works as a food service manager at a local elementary school. The Backlins did a Kickstarter campaign that raised more than $12,000 and are now accepting donations on Patreon. “We reached out to friends who had spare bookshelves, went to a resale shop [for furniture] and were lucky enough to get some of our used stock from a retiring bookstore owner.”
. . . .
In the age of impersonal ordering on Amazon, Love’s Sweet Arrow aims to be more than just an independent bookseller offering new and used novels. Marissa and Roseann hope to make it a community space, with events centered on bringing local residents together.
“In part of our research, we found that independent bookstores that focused on that community space feel and provided events for the community at large were more successful and were embraced by the community,” Marissa said.
Love’s Sweet Arrow hosts its own book club every other month, but encourages other local clubs to host meetings at the store.
PG went to school and lived for several years in the Chicago area. While he vaguely remembered the name, Tinley Park, he had no idea where it was located.
A quick search revealed that Tinley Park is a village of 56,000 in South suburban Chicago east of Joliet.
While 56,000 people sounds a bit large for a “village,” if PG recalls correctly, under state law, Illinois has Cities, Towns and Villages. They are each forms of municipal government and PG seems to remember that no more Towns are being created, just Cities and Villages.
Shy and retiring creature that he is, PG just learned about The Ripped Bodice.
From The Bustle:
If you’re something of a bookshop connoisseur, you’ll know all about The Ripped Bodice Bookstore in Culver City, CA — a shop entirely dedicated to selling books that fall squarely within the romance genre. Founded by sisters Bea and Leah Koch, the shop opened in 2016 after their super-successful Kickstarter campaign raised over $90,000 and quickly became a go-to destination for romance novel events and readings. Now, just two years later, the Koch sisters are taking their expertise from the shelves to the small screen.
Earlier this week, it was the announced that the duo have inked a deal with Sony Pictures Television to develop romance-based projects for TV, based on their unique position of expertise within the industry. And something tells me I’m about to have a lot more television marathon-watching in my future. According to an article in EW, the Koch’s were first approached by Sony employees at their store (apparently Sony is only blocks away from The Ripped Bodice storefront) and a partnership grew organically from there.
. . . .
After all, the romance genre has pretty much always been primarily created by and for women, but the film versions of these stories haven’t always followed suit. In 2017, most major film producers, directors and writers were still overwhelmingly male, according to statistics collected by Women & Hollywood.
In all my years of romance reading, the only hero I recall who was described as overweight was Henry Tewskbury-Hampton of Carla Kelly’s delightful vintage Signet regency Miss Billings Treads the Boards.
Over twenty years.
Hundreds, if not thousands, of books.
Precisely one slightly saggy midsection. Which tightened up by the end of the story.
It’s always difficult to find a cause from looking at end products alone, and I’m sure this state of affairs reflects varying degrees of reader preference, author choice, and editor or publisher requirement, depending on the book. And I’m not saying your Navy SEALs or your shapeshifting werewolf warriors can’t be in peak physical condition, or even that you shouldn’t want your Regency ducal sundae topped with a six pack, however historically implausible that mixed metaphor is. Just because I happen to like bigger men (in fiction and in real life) doesn’t mean everybody has to write it (although I’d be delighted if somebody did, and I welcome recommendations in the comments).
I’m not demanding fat heroes, but I’m done – I’m beyond done – with fat losers.
. . . .
I originally intended to put quotes in this post in which authors used weight to identify their duds and deadbeats, but I realized quite quickly that it wasn’t going to work. There are just too damn many examples. It didn’t seem fair or productive to call out a few authors arbitrarily when the entire industry is taking the same cheap shot.
So as a thought exercise, I wrote some quotes of my own.
Such is the power of male weight in romance novels that I can invent descriptions of male characters and transform them from heroes to zeroes just by changing the words describing their bodies.
Imagine if you read:
Mrs. Gates’s son Robert was moving back into his mother’s house across the street. His sweaty t-shirt clung to his sculpted abs as he carried a television down the steps to the basement.
Your immediate take would likely be that Robert is going to be this novel’s hero. He’s a good guy, probably home because his mom is sick, or he’s between deployments. You probably can’t wait for the other protagonist to meet him.
But what if the author changed that description, just a tiny, tiny bit? Now, instead of the previous quote, you read:
Mrs. Gates’s son Robert was moving back into his mother’s house across the street. His sweaty t-shirt clung to his pudgy belly as he carried a television down the steps to the basement.
Nothing has changed about Robert except his stomach, but that’s enough to tell you he’s going to be a loser. The television, the mom’s basement – it means something totally different when the hero is fat. This Robert isn’t a caretaker or Marine on leave, he’s an unemployed man-child addicted to video games and internet trolling. That sweat is probably yellow, and it definitely stinks.
Does the now rather tame eroticism of Victorian novels restrict their readership mostly to English majors, culture warriors invested in traditional moralities, and Masterpiece fans? Here’s an experiment for more jaded 21st-century readers: let’s take a quick tour of the love scenes of a famous Victorian novelist, Anthony Trollope, who is more celebrated for his lengthy chronicles of Victorian society and politics than romance, to see if his writings still intrigue or even enflame. Such a tour might help readers decide whether they want to read through all of Trollope’s 47 novels or, say, to work through the 800-ish pages of Can You Forgive Her? to find the one embrace, where, exemplifying both her passion and her shame in that passion, Alice Vavasor still shrinks guiltily from her lover as she accepts him.
Erotic encounters in Trollope can now seem both anachronistic and unintentionally funny not only because the author was a rather standard-model Victorian moralist but also because his novels often are more invested in the social or the political than the romantic. As Trollope admitted in An Autobiography, he shrewdly wrote romance into his novels to attract readers to whom he could teach moral lessons: “dealing with love is advantageous” since “the passion is one which interests or has interested all.” Briefly assessing the lurching forms of hugging and kissing in Trollope, however, will show that his works aren’t just period pieces. Instead, our survey will reveal an intriguing clash between the author’s conventional social views and his impish literary impulses—and, more fascinatingly, between those same views and the quiet stirrings of a few proto-modern ideas. For concision, we’ll restrict ourselves to his two major novelistic series, the six Barchester novels and the six Palliser novels, starting with Trollope at his most literary and moving from there.
1. The Embarrassments of Attraction In Phineas Finn, the eponymous hero, after unsuccessfully romancing three ladies above his station, conforms to garden-variety Victorian values by marrying his hometown sweetheart, Mary Flood Jones, who has pined for him from afar the whole novel. “’Mary,’ he said, ‘will you be my wife,—my own wife?’…When half an hour had passed, they were still together, and now she had found the use of her tongue. ‘Do whatever you like best,’ she said. . . . Then he took her in his arms and kissed her. ‘Oh, Phineas!’ she said, ‘I do love you so entirely!’” Presumably, Mary isn’t using that tongue to kiss him back; she is instead a morally suitable example of Victorian female subservience and restraint. Like many 19th-century writers, Trollope often associates physical attraction with danger and self-control with virtue: his heroines Lily Dale, Glencora Palliser (for a while), and Emily Wharton are all betrayed by their attachments to handsome men who appear to act like gentleman but instead jilt, drink and gamble, and ruinously speculate, respectively. But Trollope knew he was employing a literary cliché here in Phineas Finn. And Mary’s long silent treatment reads like an absurdist expansion of famous scenes like the moment when even 19th-century British literature’s most verbose pixie, Elizabeth Bennett, is briefly silenced and cannot even look at Mr. Darcy right after he proposes. By contrast, Mary is revealed here as a characterological bore, and, presumably admitting defeat, Trollope conveniently killed her off before the sequel Phineas Redux. He often had trouble fully committing to conventional romantic narratives.
I recently went on a romance-related trip to New Orleans, which means basically all my thoughts the whole time there were twofold: romance novels and food. There is a lot of good food in New Orleans, so the only reason I wasn’t drooling over these books was that I was devastatingly full the whole time. But these books are legit appetizing, and you should definitely check them out.
Jackie Lau’s Baldwin Village series (Starting with One Bed For Christmas) is all about eating, and this one is no exception. It starts just before Valentine’s Day, when Josh, the CEO of a local app development company, wanders into Happy as Pie, Sarah’s shop. After having some of the most delightful pie of the sweet and savory kind, Josh comes up with a way to lure his estranged father—a math nerd extraordinaire—to visit him in Toronto and speak to him again: the ultimate Pi Day party, complete with a total smorgasbord of pies. He and Sarah have to meet to figure it all out, but there’s also a chemistry between them. Has been since they met. What can they do about that, while also maintaining their professional relationship?
Eat, that’s what they can do.
Or at least it feels like it. There’s so much hungrifying stuff in the pages of this book, and it makes it all the better for it. The pies are scrumptious (yes, scrumptious!) and there’s plenty of other food to drool over while you’re reading. Which isn’t great if you’re trapped on a two hour flight with pretzels and cookies that you can’t eat because flour. And then of course there’s the people, who both have strong but complicated relationships with their families, particularly their parents. The resolution of the story has more than one resolution, which is great, and more food, which is also great. If that’s not enough hunger, you also want to check out Ice Cream Lover, which just came out! (Much more dessert in that one, but you might also want to find the nearest place that has soup dumplings. Not gonna joke.)
That’s according to a new study conducted by sociologists Michael Rosenfeld and Sonia Hausen of Stanford University and Reuben Thomas of Arizona State University. It looked at data from the multiyear How Couples Meet and Stay Together survey and found that, in 2017, meeting online was by far the most frequent way people met their significant others. Some findings from the study:
In 2017 39% of heterosexual and 60% of same-sex couples met online. That compares to only 2% of couples meeting online in 1995.
Fewer couples are now also meeting through friends or family. In 1995 33% of couples met through mutual friends and 15% met through family. In 2017 only 20% of couples met through mutual friends and 7% met through family.
Even relationship-forming hotbeds like your college years saw a decline in couples meeting during this time. In 1995 9% of couples met in college versus only 4% in 2017. That means in 2017 a couple was as likely to meet in college as they were in church.
There are also fewer couples meeting through or as coworkers. In 1995 19% of couples met via work, but only 11% of couples met via work in 2017.
The only place outside of the internet where couples meeting for the first time grew were in a bar or restaurant. In 1995 19% of couples met in a bar or restaurant. That number shot up to 27% in 2017.
As a preliminary note, PG will remind one and all that he doesn’t necessarily agree with everything he posts on TPV.
From The Guardian:
“How to avoid turning your home into a MANrepeller”, the Daily Mailproclaimed from atop the mountain on Sunday. “Interiors therapist reveals the items that could be making your abode offputting to men.”
It could be forgiven for wanting to jump on the Marie Kondo bandwagon, but the twist obviously had to be that the gaze you must please is not your own, but a man’s.
Femail’s nominated manrepeller was a journalist named Liz Hoggard, and her salvation came in the form of life coach Suzanne Roynon, whose mission is to “clear your past and present clutter to create a new relationship in your life”.
How does it work in practice? Well, there are a number of rules. You should not have too many paintings of “strong, iconic” but single women in your home; cacti are bad because they’re “too spiky”.
. . . .
Speaking of bedrooms – books apparently aren’t allowed in there, as they are a room for “sleep and love”. This raises some questions. Does it mean that if you like reading a book in bed you must then go put it back elsewhere in the house just before falling asleep? Is one book (singular) in the bedroom fine but two or more forbidden? What if you do find a partner thanks to your attractive new flat and he also enjoys reading in bed, does this create a loophole? Should you read this singular book together at the same time? Any word on Kindles?
Roynon doesn’t expand on these particular quandaries, but does offer more advice on books. As it turns out, a single woman in search of companionship should not own novels with “depressing titles” like Little Deaths or The Suspect.
. . . .
Or maybe put Normal People by Sally Rooney in a place where he is sure to spot it. Not only is it a good book, but it will subconsciously tell him that you are, in fact, normal. Just a normal woman, looking for a normal man, so you can be a normal couple together, living in your normal house. Normal, normal, normal. What’s not to love?
As a burgeoning memoirist, Nell Stevens specializes in starting out in the wrong direction. In 2013 she went off to the Falkland Islands to write a novel. She ended up writing a memoir about not writing a novel, published last year as “Bleaker House.” In this year’s memoir—“The Victorian and the Romantic”—she details her efforts to finish her dissertation on the Victorian novelist Elizabeth Gaskell and describes her pursuit of love instead.
In parts of Ms. Stevens’s narrative, former graduate students will recognize the narrow monomanias of early attempts at scholarship: the gnomic comments from advisers, the Sitzfleisch in rare-book rooms, the heart-stopping error in a transcribed quotation. But that’s all really just background for Ms. Stevens’s grande passion: Max. Even as she waxes lyrical about Max’s “tousled black hair,” “the reassuring thickness of his forearm” and the charm of his “chin, or his waist, or his knees,” Ms. Stevens is conscious that “other people’s desires . . . are always hard to comprehend.” As she notes, “former passions of my own . . . seem overblown and embarrassing with hindsight.” And yet she cannot resist the all-too-human desire to see her own feelings for Max reflected everywhere around her. Which takes us to back to Elizabeth Gaskell.
Outwardly, the journeys of Ms. Stevens and Mrs. Gaskell are quite dissimilar. In 1857, Gaskell, the middle-aged wife of a Unitarian minister in Manchester, traveled to Rome with two of her daughters to give herself a vacation after writing what turned out to be a ground-breaking biography of her recently deceased friend Charlotte Brontë. In 2013, Ms. Stevens, a doctoral candidate at King’s College London, took the Eurostar to Paris to meet up with her as-yet-unrequited love interest, a former MFA classmate whom she had gotten to know when she was studying in Boston.
Inwardly, however, Ms. Stevens identifies her own situation with Gaskell’s: embarked on a quest for a marriage of true minds. One member of Gaskell’s Roman circle was a younger man already famous for his gift for friendship, the sunny-natured Charles Eliot Norton. His father had had the distinction of being Emerson’s most disliked professor at Harvard, and he himself was a Harvard professor (in fine arts) as well as one of the co-founders of the Nation magazine. He showed his good literary judgment in writing the first positive review of Walt Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass” in 1855. From across the Atlantic he had already admired Gaskell’s novels, the best known of which today are “Cranford” and “North and South.” “A wonderful story-teller,” Norton had written of her, “never exaggerating and always dramatic.”
. . . .
Here, for instance, is a piece of a letter that Gaskell wrote to Norton four years after their time in Rome: “Oh! Don’t you long to go back to Rome. Meta & I were SO talking about you . . . and about your face as we first saw it,—and this morning comes your letter.” How did Gaskell feel as she wrote this sentence? Ms. Stevens believes Norton’s face was “an object of desire” that made Gaskell’s “heart thud and her cheeks flush.
On June 4th, a group of lawyers shuffled into a federal court in Manhattan to argue over two trademark registrations. The day’s hearing was the culmination of months of internet drama — furious blog posts, Twitter hashtags, YouTube videos, claims of doxxing, and death threats.
The lawyers carried with them full-color exhibits of the trademarks in context. First up, two shirtless men with stethoscopes, embracing a woman, with the words Her Cocky Doctorsboldly printed below. Next: two shirtless men flanking a woman in a too-big firefighter’s jacket, with the words Her Cocky Firefighters emblazoned in the same font.
“What is in the content of Her Cocky Firefighters?” asked the judge, surveying the exhibits.
“It appears to be a male-female-male romance,” said a lawyer for one of the defendants. “Beyond that, I imagine it involves one or two of the male characters is a firefighter.”
The judge looked over Her Cocky Doctors. “Two male figures. One seems to be wearing a stethoscope, indicating he is a doctor, but he is stripped to the waist.”
“Doesn’t look like my doctor, your Honor,” said the lawyer drily.
They were gathered there that day because one self-published romance author was suing another for using the word “cocky” in her titles. And as absurd as this courtroom scene was — with a federal judge soberly examining the shirtless doctors on the cover of an “MFM Menage Romance” — it didn’t even begin to scratch the surface.
The fight over #Cockygate, as it was branded online, emerged from the strange universe of Amazon Kindle Unlimited, where authors collaborate and compete to game Amazon’s algorithm. Trademark trolling is just the beginning: There are private chat groups, ebook exploits, conspiracies to seed hyperspecific trends like “Navy SEALs” and “mountain men,” and even a controversial sweepstakes in which a popular self-published author offered his readers a chance to win diamonds from Tiffany’s if they reviewed his new book.
Much of what’s alleged is perfectly legal, and even technically within Amazon’s terms of service. But for authors and fans, the genre is also a community, and the idea that unethical marketing and algorithmic tricks are running rampant has embroiled their world in controversy. Some authors even believe that the financial incentives set up by Kindle Unlimited are reshaping the romance genre — possibly even making it more misogynistic.
A genre that mostly features shiny, shirtless men on its covers and sells ebooks for 99 cents a pop might seem unserious. But at stake are revenues sometimes amounting to a million dollars a year, with some authors easily netting six figures a month. The top authors can drop $50,000 on a single ad campaign that will keep them in the charts — and see a worthwhile return on that investment.
In other words, self-published romance is no joke.
. . . .
Qhen author Dakota Willink attended the Romance Writers of America conference last year, she didn’t know anything about the “cocky” trademark. She hadn’t heard of Faleena Hopkins, the self-published author who registered the mark, or of Tara Crescent, the other author whom Hopkins is now suing.
The RWA conference is the beating heart of the romance industry, a business-first trade conference with editorial pitch meetings and marketing workshops. It’s also the center of the warm, accepting, and woman-focused culture that the romance community is so proud of. In an episode of This American Life in 2003, reporter Robin Epstein expresses surprise at the environment she encounters at RWA. “What the hell is going on here?” she asks herself rhetorically. “The famous writers are nice, the editors are nice, and this is the publishing business.”
This was Willink’s first time at RWA, and she was spending much of her time with her new personal assistant, Lauren Valderrama.
Valderrama is also the personal assistant for several other successful romance authors — names that frequently dominate the romance charts on Amazon. In the world of self-published romance, a personal assistant does anything from formatting books to handling social media and publicity to sending out advance review copies. It’s enough work that it was a little unusual for Valderrama to be handling so many top-ranking, prolific clients. But that track record was appealing when Valderrama had originally reached out to Willink, professing to be a fan and suggesting that they work together.
According to Willink, over the course of RWA, Valderrama told her about certain marketing and sales strategies, which she claimed to handle for other authors. Valderrama allegedly said that she organized newsletter swaps, in which authors would promote each other’s books to their respective mailing lists. She also claimed to manage review teams — groups of assigned readers who were expected to leave reviews for books online. According to Willink, Valderrama’s authors often bought each other’s books to improve their ranking on the charts — something that she arranged, coordinating payments through her own PayPal account. Valderrama also told her that she used multiple email addresses to buy authors’ books on iBooks when they were trying to hit the USA Today list.
The Bookclicker chat group exists on Ryver, a clone of Slack (internal chat software for businesses). It was founded by a USA Today best-selling author named Chance Carter, known to some as a “notorious Kindle Unlimited abuser.” Carter’s name came up in half a dozen interviews as a pioneer of questionable and highly lucrative marketing practices. In the middle of reporting this story, almost of all of Carter’s very popular books were removed from Amazon, for reasons that remain unclear. A spokesperson for Amazon said that as a matter of policy, the company did not comment on individual cases.
. . . .
It’s not clear if these early book-stuffers moved onto the self-publishing romance scene, or if some of the self-publishing romance authors began to pick up on these tricks. Either way, book stuffing plagues the romance genre on Kindle Unlimited, with titles that come in at 2000 or even 3000 pages (the maximum page length for a Kindle Unlimited book). That’s approximately the length of Atlas Shrugged or War and Peace.
Book stuffing is particularly controversial because Amazon pays authors from a single communal pot. In other words, Kindle Unlimited is a zero-sum game. The more one author gets from Kindle Unlimited, the less the other authors get.
The romance authors Willink was discovering didn’t go in for clumsy stuffings of automatic translations or HTML cruft; rather, they stuffed their books with ghostwritten content or repackaged, previously published material. In the latter case, the author will bait readers with promises of fresh content, like a new novella, at the end of the book.
. . . .
Of course, you might be wondering if any readers actually read through all 3000 pages. But authors deploy a host of tricks in service of gathering page reads — from big fonts and wide spacing to a “link back.” Some authors would place a link at the very front of the book, to sign up to a mailing list. The link would take them to the back of the book, thus counting all pages read. It’s not clear whether any of this actually works. A spokesperson for Amazon told The Verge that Amazon uses a standardized page count that won’t take big fonts or wide spacing into account. A June blog post by the Kindle Direct Publishing Team assured authors that the KENPC system (Kindle Edition Normalized Page Count) recorded pages read with “high precision” and that the company was constantly working to improve its “fidelity.”
. . . .
The stereotype of a Kindle Unlimited author is someone who is “pumping out short, pulpy reads,” in the words of best-selling romance writer Zoe York. But even if you write well, write prolifically, and cater to the market, it still doesn’t mean you’ll find success. “That skill set of finding a cold audience, getting them to hook into your product, and then consume through your product backlist, that’s harder than it sounds,” says York. The people who do succeed have that skill set. “They’re not good writers, but they’re great marketers.”
Link to the rest at The Verge and thanks to Kathlena for the tip.
Growing up in Minnesota, Helen Hoang suffered from crippling social anxiety and struggled to make friends. She found refuge in romance novels, frothy stories that allowed her to experience intense feelings that were clearly spelled out on the page, always with the promise of a happy ending. “It was like I found a pure, undiluted drug,” she said.
Many years later, as a mother of two in her 30s, Ms. Hoang began researching autism and realized that she’s on the spectrum, a condition that makes it difficult for her to hold casual conversations, read emotional cues, have an office job and meet new people. She once again turned to romance. But this time, she wrote the story herself.
So far, romance fans have swooned over Ms. Hoang’s debut novel, “The Kiss Quotient,” a multicultural love story centered on an autistic woman who has trouble navigating the nuances of dating and courtship. Readers have flooded the website Goodreads with more than 7,000 positive ratings, and the book, which was published in June, is already in its fourth printing.
The novel’s unexpected success is all the more astonishing given the striking lack of diversity within the romance genre. Romance novels released by big publishing houses tend to center on white characters, and rarely feature gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender people in leading roles, or heroines with disabilities. Even as the genre has evolved to reflect readers’ varied tastes and fetishes — popular subcategories include vampire and werewolf romance, military romance, cowboy romance, time travel romance, pirate and Viking romance — the lead characters are often confined to a fairly narrow set of ethnic, cultural and aesthetic types.
“Publishers aren’t putting out books by many people of color and they’re giving us limited space at the table,” said the romance writer Rebekah Weatherspoon, who has published some novels with small presses and self-published others, including “Sated,” which features a black heroine and a disabled, bisexual Korean-American hero. “It’s definitely not a level playing field.”
. . . .
“Readers want books that reflect the world they live in, and they won’t settle for a book about a small town where every single person is white,” said Leah Koch, co-owner of the romance bookstore the Ripped Bodice in Culver City, Calif. Last year, six of her store’s top 10 best-selling novels were written by authors of color, Ms. Koch said.
. . . .
Romance publishers say that they want to publish books with more diverse characters and settings, but argue that it’s a challenge in part because the majority of submissions still come from white authors. The genre’s largest organization, the Romance Writers of America, which has around 10,000 members, recently conducted a survey and found that nearly 86 percent of its members are white.
The last time PG checked, KDP doesn’t ask for the racial background of an author before publishing a book. He suspects the large majority of traditionally-published authors have never told their agents or publishers their racial identity.
Is there an assumption that, unless an author discloses their racial identity that they are a person of no color? Is there an assumption that an author of color will always mention that fact? From what source does such an assumption arise?
PG is old enough to remember when apartheid (separateness) was the law in South Africa and each person received an official racial designation recognized by both law and tradition – white, black, coloured and Asian. That racial identity was the basis of how each person was treated socially, professionally and legally. Racial identity was the most important part of a person’s identity and underpinned a racial spoils system that distributed favors, prestige, rights and riches based upon a person’s race.
Apartheid was and is rightfully condemned as a violation of fundamental human rights and a deep moral failing of any nation that practices it.
For a very long time, a government and society that was colorblind, recognizing rights and providing favors and opportunities regardless of racial identity was the epitome of fairness and justice, the polar opposite of apartheid.
PG finds a renewal of apartheid in 21st century America and elsewhere to be disgusting and distasteful. The idea that we must always be aware of each person’s race and take steps to adjust individual privileges, talents and desires so that any group of individuals is comprised of all racial groups in the proper proportions strikes PG as apartheid with a data-centric face. There are, of course, exceptions to these rules that apply to almost any group in which persons of color are overrepresented. Overrepresentation of a particular racial group on the basketball team is fine, but overrepresentation on the swimming team is a problem.
If the Romance Writers of America need to pay a lot more attention to the racial makeup of its membership because the racial background of romance authors is an important metric of racial equality, what about the racial background of romance readers?
Should the owner of a bookstore recommend books by Anglo American authors only to white readers and steer African American readers to books by African Americans and Hispanic readers to Hispanic authors? Should a bookstore have separate sections for whites, blacks and Hispanics with appropriate signage and instruct its clerks to direct those walking in the door to books with the appropriate racial pedigree to the appropriate racial section? What is the store to do if it is unable to locate a book about the Balkan Wars written by an Hispanic author to stock in its history section for Hispanics?
PG apologizes for a political take on a topic related to authors and their books, but he finds the idea of a kinder, gentler apartheid and the excessive attention being paid to the racial composition of various groups of people to be insultingly retrograde.
I wasn’t the type of young person to seek out Jane Austen on my own. Period manners and marriage plots? Thanks, but pass; I’d seen Clueless and was pretty sure I got the gist. But with few discernible interests apart from books (and tastes that, I’m mortiﬁed to report, leaned more toward Bukowski than Brontë), combined with an even less developed sense of professional aptitude, my undergrad self ended up settling into a new identity as an English lit major. Austen, naturally, became a part of my new life. My 18th-century British lit professor, an affable young adjunct with a clump of Day-Glo orange hair, put Pride and Prejudice squarely on the syllabus during our semester on the Romantic era. This novel, he told us, signaled a major shift in social values, and was therefore important to understand. Not exactly a ringing endorsement.
Pride and Prejudice famously concerns the courtship of a family of sisters who need to marry into money to preserve the family’s social standing as members of the landed gentry. The new, period-speciﬁc catch is that the sisters should also, ideally, be fond of the well-off dudes they marry—and it’s this new requirement of affability, even maybe something akin to love, that leads to dramatic tension and lessons learned by all. But to me, it barely seemed worthy of being called a predicament.
. . . .
It seemed much less intimidating to accept an eligible suitor on the simple grounds of mutual regard and material security—to say, “I like your bank account and can tolerate your person,” and move on. The clear directive to simply secure an economically advantageous match would have certainly taken the guesswork out of my own romantic future. I’d been brought up with the same expectations of a majority of my straight-leaning female friends: that it was not just possible but preferable to expect everything from one person, forever.
Austen’s era marked a relatively new way of thinking about the role of marriage, one organized on the individualistic notion of personal happiness rather than the participation in a tradition of social and family organization. The Romantic period made way, you could say, for romance. And in Austen’s novels, the folly implicit in the pursuit of romance drives the action. Not that Austen was herself a fool for love; as a writer and thinker she acutely recognized that the ideal relationship is a tough one to come by. (It feels mean but important to mention here that Austen died alone.)
Even considering how she put love on the agenda, the expectations of marriage Austen laid out in her works, by the standards of their 21st-century analogs, verge on the enviably quaint. Contemporary relationship narratives apply unending pressure to settle down without ever settling for. We are told, loud and clear and over and over, that Mr. Right will come along, and he’ll give us butterﬂies and the feeling of home, he’ll be our best friend and the man of our dreams. To compromise would guarantee a lifetime of regret and undermine our self-respect—the opposite of the girl power we’ve grown up with.
Austen’s heroines have been beloved through the ages because they still read as wise, rising above the bullshit that their more tragic foils inevitably succumb to. Elizabeth Bennet only accepts the hand of wealthy suitor Mr. Darcy once she recognizes his strength of character. Her younger sister Lydia, meanwhile, narrowly escapes social ruin by taking up with the moneyless cad Wickham, who then has to be bribed into marrying her. Austen’s heroines do not compromise; they just happen to gravitate toward their most ideal outcome, as though self-interest were commensurate with moral fortitude.
I love romance for the same reasons I love other genres: intriguing characters with problems, who need others’ help to find solutions. In romance, the main romantic couple are generally the intriguing characters, and they help each other to solve the problem, whether it’s loneliness or something more complex, like thwarting that evil old uncle who’s trying to divert your inheritance to his unsavory pals. In fantasy, there may be a couple of main characters, or there may be a larger group with more complex interrelationships.
This post is meant to provide a beginner’s guide for romance readers who’ve wanted to try fantasy but were feeling daunted by all that’s available; hopefully, those who are fantasy readers already might find something new, though I’m focusing on older, ‘classic’ books that one might not come across in casual browsing.
If you’re in search of epic fantasy, Kate Elliott has a couple of series that should appeal. Beginning with Cold Magic , she created a world in which Carthage never fell, with consequent huge differences for Europe and North and South America; there’s an “opposites attract” romance as well, though not until the second volume.
. . . .
Many romance readers already love the addictive work of Lois McMaster Bujold, either her long-running and devourable Vorkosiganscience fiction series, or her more recent fantasy series, Chalion  and The Sharing Knife . Bujold is known for her large casts of likeable characters who face seemingly unsurmountable challenges…until they conquer those challenges in ways you would not expect. Her series are especially fun because they reward re-reading.
I’ve read a fair number of historical romance novels in my day, and though the genre has a wider range than its detractors would have us believe, there’s one thing that remains by and large consistent throughout: 90% of the main characters’ fathers suck eggs. Whether distant and cold, wildly irresponsible, or flat-out abusive, romance novel dads are by and large the absolute pits.
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Since their failings generally fall into familiar patterns, especially where the Regency is concerned, I thought I’d put together some advice for any fictional fathers who might be looking to improve their parenting skills. Especially if they’re dukes.
Don’t raise your highly sensitive child on a dilapidated estate on a remote, howling moor, constantly reminding them of your family’s past glory while the house falls to pieces around your ears.
Don’t encourage older sons to tumble the parlourmaids (or tumble them yourself).
Don’t deliver coldly dismissive lectures or hypocritically pious sermons from behind a massive desk in your well-appointed library or study, an ornate and heavy desk that looks as massive as a ship to a child’s impressionable eyes. If you must deliver such lectures, just be aware that your child will have sex on that desk after your death in order to exorcise those demons. It’s just a thing that’s going to happen.
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Don’t get yourself embarrassingly deep into debt with the local tradesmen and then die.
Don’t be gouty.
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Don’t construct any of the following rooms on your estate: a dark, cavernous dining room far too big for two with a table so enormous it impedes conversation; a cold and unwelcoming nursery with no toys; a study in a constant state of disorder meaning that key financial papers will be lost amongst your voluminous correspondence after your death; a lengthy portrait gallery featuring only your most unattractive and disapproving ancestors and perhaps one haunting likeness of your dead wife. Maybe try a solarium instead? Solariums are nice!
Most of us remember when we first started reading romance, who introduced us to it or how we discovered it ourselves, and – perhaps even – which book we first read. Did we read romance in secret or with a group of friends or other people? Did we hide our reading from others – did we need to? – or were we open about our choices? And overall, what made us fall in love with romance novels?
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As a child and young adult, I received books on cassette tape through The National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped. For the most part, librarians did a good job choosing age-appropriate books to send out to patrons, but one of them mailed me a copy of Velvet Angel by Jude Deveraux. I was around fourteen at the time, and I remember being utterly captivated by my very first adult romance novel. It swept me away to a time long past, and I hated to put the book aside to return to more mundane things like chores and homework. My parents were never big readers, and they never paid much attention to the books the library sent me, so I didn’t have to worry about them disapproving of the novel, and after I sped through that one, I requested a bunch more similar romances. I’m not sure why the librarians agreed to send them my way, but I’m so glad they did. Those historical romances have a special place in my heart, even though I haven’t read a Deveraux book in years.
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When I think about my early days reading romance, there are two experiences that come to mind. Both occurred when I was around thirteen years old. The first was in grade 7, when I shared a locker with a friend. She would bring some of her mother’s Harlequins to school, and she let me borrow them. I remember being thoroughly shocked but intrigued by a Presents plot where a young woman was lusting after an older man who was technically her new step-brother after their parents married. Who knew it was ahead of its time, given the current craze of step-sibling romances!
During those same teenage years, I spent time during the summer at my grandparents’ house in Northern Ontario. They lived across the street from their local library, which had racks upon racks of historical romances, and with (what seemed to me) the entire collection of Barbara Cartland releases. I read as many of them as I could in the two weeks I spent there, and then, the next summer I did the same thing. I was very clever at hiding the romances I was signing out by having some other innocent looking books (like Nancy Drew) stacked on top. I’m sure my grandma knew what I was up to, but she never said anything.
I don’t recall discussing romance books with any of my friends. No one was into reading as much as I was, though we did have some favorite soap operas that we watched, where the romance storylines were clearly the most popular. With the exception of a hiatus I took when my kids were born, romances have always been a part of my life.
Here is a list of just some popular romance novel titles: Cocky Bastard, Cocky Chef, Cocky Biker, Cocky Fiancé, Cocky Cage Fighter, Cocky Client, Her Cocky Doctors, Mr. Cocky, My Cocky Cowboy, The Cocky Thief and, my personal favourite, simply, Cocky.
Notice a pattern? Yes, romance literature loves a rugged, arrogant heartthrob. And a double-entendre.
But with an entire 17-book series based on a pair of, well, cocky bastards, writer Faleena Hopkins decided to trademark not just the title of her series, Cocker Brothers of Atlanta, but the word “cocky” itself.
It’s worth noting that Hopkins’s trademark for “cocky” is as a word mark, meaning a text-only logo treatment of the word. Hopkins has a specific font and style for her use of the word, so if others use that same style, they’d have a problem.
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Despite this, and what looks like a misunderstanding of her own trademark, Hopkins has been sending various romance authors, including Nana Malone, Jamila Jasper and Claire Kingsley, who have used the word “cocky” in their book titles, copyright notices and cease-and-desist letters, even regarding those books that were previously published.
On Twitter, Hopkins defended herself against claims of copyright bullying, saying, “Copying a series to be found in keywords is the money grab. They keep their money and everything if they retitle. I am taking nothing.”
The current buzz in author loops which serve romance: that traditional publishing and agents are ceding the ground to indies because they can’t compete financially. In response, they are steering their stable to women’s fiction, especially bookclub women’s fiction, because these books still command semi-reasonable advances and are comparatively print-centric.
If true, that will be a seismic shift in the publishing landscape.
Also, most romance writers are skeptical about their readers being willing to follow authors to a different genre. So if women’s fiction flops, you can see where things are headed in the next few years or months…
PG is trying to extricate a client from a nasty publishing contract with a large romance publisher. Both the client and the publisher shall remain nameless.
PG is frustrated. The client is frustrated.
PG has conducted extrications from enough publishers to have come to a conclusion.
Across the broad range of different types of books and different varieties of publishers with which PG has dealt, as a group romance publishers are the worst. Worst contracts, worst behavior, worst attitude towards writers.
A public event PG can talk about began in 2012 when a class action was filed against the company on behalf of Harlequin authors who signed book contracts with Harlequin between 1990 and 2004. The suit was filed in 2012 and settled in 2016. You can find information about the settlement of the class action at Harlequin Class Action Settlement.
The lawsuit was based on Harlequin’s practice of sublicensing e-book rights through a Swiss subsidiary, which resulted in authors receiving 3% to 4% of net profits from their works rather than the 50% Harlequin agreed to pay in its publishing contracts.
PG has previously blogged about this case. You can see prior posts, including some court documents, by Clicking Here
Basically, the story was that HQ didn’t mention ebook royalties in its publishing contracts. Those contracts included a catch-all clause which essentially said HQ could license other rights and split the proceeds on a 50/50 basis with the author. The contracts also included a provision which said if HQ licensed the other rights to an affiliated entity, the royalties paid to the author had to be equivalent to market rates for licensing those other rights to a company not affiliated with HQ.
When ebooks appeared on the scene, rather than asking its authors to sign new contracts or ebook addenda to their existing contracts, HQ decided to license ebooks to a related Swiss company for a royalty of 6% of the cover price. The Swiss company then sublicensed each book to HQ print and ebook companies to distribute, so HQ-Switzerland kept 94% of the ebook proceeds and paid 6% to HQ-SorrySucker.
Under the “other rights” clause in the publishing contract, the author would be paid 50% of the amount of the license fees received by HQ-SorrySucker. HQ-SorrySucker paid the authors 50% of 6%. Even English majors know that results in a royalty paid to the author of 3% of the cover price each ebook.
This was at a time when Amazon would license ebooks from authors under KDP for royalties of 70% of the cover price. If HQ-SorrySucker had taken the normal route taken by other publishers, HQ authors would have received royalties at the rate of 35% of the cover price.
The following is from an Amici (the plural of Amicus or Friend of Court) Brief filed in the case by Romance Writers of America and the Authors Guild:
In the spring of 2011, Amicus The Authors Guild began receiving reports from its members that their e-book royalties from Harlequin were extremely low. These members believed Harlequin was self-dealing by licensing e-book rights to one of its corporate affiliates for 6% of the cover price (i.e. suggested retail price). Because the royalty payable to the author under the “all other rights” clause is 50% of the amount received by the publisher, a 6% royalty to the publisher results in a royalty to the author of only 3% of the cover price – far below the customary range for sales in secondary media. The Authors Guild contacted Harlequin to voice these concerns and to request a copy of Harlequin’s inter-affiliate license agreement. Harlequin declined to provide the document on the ground that it was proprietary.
During the same timeframe, Amicus RWA was also in communication with Harlequin regarding e-book royalty issues. Harlequin provided to its authors, RWA, and other industry participants the following explanation of Harlequin’s inter-affiliate licensing practice:
Our authors contract with Harlequin Books SA (“HBSA”), our related Swiss company. HBSA licenses the right to publish an author’s work in print and digital to our operating companies and to third-party publishers, which then bring books to market in their country (incurring costs of translation, production, distribution, marketing, branding, etc.). In return, HBSA receives a license fee.
The NAR [net amount received by the Publisher] is the license fee. For editions where the author is to be paid 50% of NAR, the author’s royalty is therefore 50% of the license fee received by HBSA. The license fees are expressed as a percentage of cover price. Historically they ranged from 6% to 8%. The author’s 50% share of that fee would then equal 3% to 4% of the cover price.
As noted, the publishing contracts at issue require that in any affiliate licensing arrangement the “Publisher” must receive license proceeds that are “equivalent to the amount reasonably obtainable by Publisher from an Unrelated Licensee for the license or sale of the said rights.” Based on their considerable reservoirs of knowledge and industry data sources regarding royalty rates in the publishing industry, the Amici confidently represent to this Court that the 6% to 8% royalty that Harlequin Enterprises elects to pay to its Swiss “Publisher” subsidiary is a small fraction of the proceeds that the “Publisher” could obtain from an unaffiliated licensee in the open market for e-books.
. . . .
Generally speaking, a book publisher makes money by exercising the rights that it has licensed from the author of a given work, through the sales of books or sub-licenses of publication rights in various sales and distribution channels.
Historically, the primary sales channel for print book publishers was through retail book stores. In the modern era of e-books, publishers sub-license their digital copyright rights to online “e-tailers.” The most well-known e-tailers of e-books are Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Apple, but there are many others in the field.
There is no hard and fast rule or convention in the publishing industry on the royalty rates or license fees paid by e-tailers to publishers for e-books. There are, however, numerous sources ofdata on the market’s behavior. In the experience and collective knowledge of the Amici, publishers are almost universally able to extract from an e-tailer at least 50% of the cover price of an e-book. A 70% split for the publisher is quite common and can be obtained even from industry power houses such as Amazon and Apple.
It is clear to the Amici that if the Harlequin’s Swiss “Publisher” subsidiary operated as a normal market participant, it could readily license the new e-book versions of its backlist for license fees of 50% to 70% of the cover price of each work sold. In this scenario, the 50% royalty payable to authors under the 1990 to 2004 publishing agreements would be 25% to 35% of the cover price of each work sold. Instead, however, the Swiss “Publisher” licenses the e-books to its parent, Harlequin Enterprises, for 6% to 8% of the cover price, and the authors’ 50% royalty is thus only 3% to 4% of the cover price. From the perspective of the Amici, it appears that Harlequin Enterprises has simply siphoned off 42% to 64% of the cover price before the money reaches the Swiss “Publisher” subsidiary, so this amount will not have to be split with the authors.
PG has calmed down now, but he still wonders whether romance authors are treated worse than other authors by the publishing establishment.
PG does know Amazon loves romance authors and it shows its love by paying them money.
PG has never had a client ask him whether he thinks the author can make more money from HQ than from Amazon.
PG was not a math major, but he could probably figure out his answer to that question without a spreadsheet.
It is a truth universally acknowledged that a reader who finishes reading Jane Austen’s Pride & Prejudice is in want of more to read. We already prepared one list of what to read when you want more Pride & Prejudice… and we still want more! What was married life like for Lizzie and Darcy? Whatever became of Mary and Kitty Bennett? Did Georgiana Darcy or Caroline Bingley ever find love… perhaps with one another? How would the story unfold in a contemporary setting? Or with teenage characters? Luckily, there is no shortage of options for the P&P enthusiast. Here are some of our recent favourite Pride and Prejudice sequels.
Interestingly, many storytellers imagine Lizzie and Darcy’s married life will find them solving murders. In this, the first of the Mr. and Mrs. Darcy Mysteries, the newlyweds begin their new amateur sleuthing career with a mystery involving their in-laws, the Bingleys. As the series progresses, the Darcys encounter mysteries involving characters from other Austen novels, too!
Darcy’s younger sister Georgiana played a small but notable role in the original novel; here, she takes centre stage. Embarking upon a concert tour of the continent, Georgiana finds her heart torn between two men she meets in Paris. Set in post-Napoleonic Empire France, this is a riveting love story that enters a world of passion where gentlemen know exactly how to please and a young woman learns to direct her destiny and understand her heart.
The romance genre is a juggernaut that continues unabated.
It’s a billion-dollar industry that outperforms all other book genres, and it’s remarkably innovative, with a strong tradition of independent and self-publishing.
It’s also an industry that’s been grappling with a diversity problem. The RITA Award, the top honor for romance writers awarded by the Romance Writers of America, was awarded this week, and the organization acknowledged that in its 36-year history, no black author has ever won the prize. According to the RWA’s own research, black authors have written less than half of 1 percent of the total number of books considered as prize finalists.
“It is impossible to deny that this is a serious issue and that it needs to be addressed,” said the organization in a statement. “Educating everyone about these statistics is the first step in trying to fix this problem. We know there are no perfect solutions but ignoring the issue is that not acceptable.” There’s certainly no lack of black readership: A Pew Research survey from 2014 found that the person most likely to read a book of any genre is a college-educated black woman.
Alisha Rai, the south Asian author of the three-part Forbidden Hearts series and nearly a dozen other romance novels, has been reading and writing the genre since she was a teenager. She tells NPR’s Lulu Garcia-Navarro about her own experience with readers, publishers and writing about race.
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On systemic issues in the genre
I’ve heard horror stories from other authors [of color] about, you know, sitting at a table at the RWA national conference and people who are there will get up and walk away from them. In a lot of ways, it’s like going to a water cooler and being turned away from that water cooler. And when you’re in this industry, it’s a very solitary life. We write, and we keep to ourselves in a lot of ways; we’re a little bit like hermits. And this is our way to see our colleagues, is to go to these meetings and conferences. When you feel like you’re not a part of it, it’s very demoralizing.
The organization is composed of so many people, it is hard to get everybody together and moving in the same position, and I understand that progress can be slow. … This is the first year that I’ve even joined RWA, because I felt sort of a tentative hope that maybe we are moving forward, maybe I wouldn’t feel so left out constantly.
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On her own experience with publishers
Getting published was pretty tough. My first book was more sort of on the sexier side, and the heroine was south Asian. … You sort of fall into an internalized trap, all of my characters [before] were always white, and my heart just wasn’t in it. So I felt like, this wasn’t a book I hadn’t see anywhere, so I want to write it. … I shopped the book around [with different publishers], and I was told to change the characters’ ethnicities. “We can take this if you can edit it.” … It is disheartening to hear, “Well, we can’t really connect to her, but we can if you make her white.”
PG suggests the problems of the romance industry must be laid at the door of the traditional publishers in the romance industry. They have decided and continue to decide which authors are published and which are not. Which material will be included in those books and which will not.
If asked which segment of the traditional publishing business has treated its authors the worst, without hesitation, PG would name romance. Exhibit A (there are others) would be Harlequin, which settled a large class-action lawsuit by its authors for substantial underpayment of royalties over several years.
Romance publishers are the single best reason for authors to self-publish. There’s a lot of money to be made in romance and indie authors are earning far more of that money than their traditionally-published counterparts.
A big blow to the romance community has surfaced as romance and erotica authors are having their titles on Amazon stripped of their ranks and reviews.
Towards the end of March, the romance community began to notice romance and erotic novels being stripped of their ranks and/or reviews, without an explanation.
Although Amazon has yet to make a statement about what’s going on, it’s clear that any book that contains adult content could be stripped. Of course that’s devastating to both authors and readers. Both of these things allow authors to successfully sell their works and helps readers to find titles they would be interested in.
In an effort to try and save their reviews and rankings, some romance/erotica authors have taken to removing any keywords that might cause their titles to be stripped. For those that have published in the erotica category, it might prove even more difficult to protect their books from these changes.
Since Amazon isn’t being transparent about what is happening, it’s not clear why these novels are being stripped. Many authors believe it could be in response to the FOSTA bill, while others believe it could be an internal update from Amazon to push these books off the ranks.
The Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (FOSTA) was touted as a bill to make everyone safer by creating accountability for internet companies. However, the bill was met with great backlash for many reasons, including the amount of censorship it would allow.
As the Electronic Frontier Foundation explains, the bill will “force online platforms to police their users’ speech more forcefully than ever before.”
One of the first major impacts of the bill was that Craigslist pulled down its personal ads section. And shortly after, the romance community started noticing abnormal activity on Amazon regarding erotica titles, as well as romance titles.
The genius of the Bechdel test is that it doesn’t sound like a challenge. How difficult can it be to write a movie with two named female characters who talk to each other, just once, about something that isn’t a man? Clearly, though, it’s more rare than it sounds. You really have to think to come up with examples of movies that pass the test — and it’s only when we’re forced to provide them that we realize it shouldn’t be this hard.
Such was my experience brainstorming novels without romantic subplots. In January, “Tired Asexual” wrote to Slate advice columnist Dear Prudence, looking for suggestions of books that didn’t include the pursuit of romance. Helpful readers responded with a short list, many from young-adult fiction, but, surely, the list of eligible novels had to be much longer.
. . . .
For my own test, I developed the following criteria:
The novel is not young adult fiction or science-fiction/fantasy. (There are plenty of YA books without romantic subplots, both because intended readers are younger and because recent YA authors are more likely to incorporate characters along the sexuality spectrum.)
The novel is not “about” romance, and romance — or yearning for romance — isn’t a major plot point even if it’s there. So, maybe there’s a couple, but their relationship is taken for granted and the book doesn’t focus on its evolution. Maybe someone goes on a date, but dating doesn’t move the story forward.
The novel has no explicit sex scenes or sexual themes (including sexual assault, even if it’s not described).
The novel doesn’t present romantic love as necessary and central to flourishing. This last requirement is crucial. Even if there are no sex scenes and nobody goes on a date, if the main character is constantly thinking about how he should be dating or what a loser he is without a romantic partner, the novel is disqualified.
For the record, PG is in favor of romance and romance novels.
That said, he does not require romance in books he reads. There is little romance in accounts of the battle of Iwo Jima or the invasion of Gallipoli and even less romance in Title 17 of the United States Code.
Romance is a genre about women, by women and pored over by women — 84 percent of readers are female, according to Romance Writers of America.
It’s a $1 billion industry, and 35 percent of romance book buyers have been reading them for 20 years or more, according to RWA.
So after a year when persisting and resisting were the norm — what does this world of fiction look like? Have romance novels evolved given the current social/political climate? The answer to that is yes, but not in a “big boom” kind of way, said Joanne Grant, editorial director of the Harlequin Series.
“I think this is something that will continue to shape romance over time, but I also feel strongly that this is a conversation we’ve been having over the course of years,” she said. “It’s not a new thing for us to pause and look at our male/female dynamics: how we portray sex, consent, how do we keep the fantasy alive while making sure that the heroine is relatable in the 21st century?”
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Author Beverly Jenkins, who has made her name in African-American historicals, said such work is ongoing. The Belleville, Mich., writer whose first book was published in 1994, said current writers of romance are “bringing a different mindset, a different focus to the story,” where consent is the thing. But she also mentions that, as things evolve, the main purpose of romance is consistent. “Romance offers that comfort read, but it also offers resistance. You have a lot of feminists who are writing romance, Alisha Rai, Alyssa Cole, Sarah MacLean, and they’re all putting that kind of thread through their books. Resistance has always been there. Women have always had to resist in order to get what they want out of life,” Jenkins said.
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From the 1972 book “The Flame and the Flower,” the romance genre was born on a mass market scale, and from its pages of forced seduction came the metaphor for the women’s movement, she said. “Most scholars of romance will tell you the arc of this book is kind of a metaphor for the women’s movement in general, meaning, if you look at the hero as society and the heroine as women, ultimately, equality is the goal between them,” MacLean said. What followed, said the author of “The Day of the Duchess,” were workplace romances of the 1980s, romance of the ’90s, where the good guy was born amid cultural satisfaction, and the world after 9/11 that saw the rise of paranormal romance. By the late 2000s, there was the economic crash, and we saw the rise of “Fifty Shades of Grey” and the billionaires, MacLean said.
“Literature likes to see women martyred, and they like to see people of color martyred, and queer people martyred and disabled people martyred, but romance doesn’t do that,” she said. “Romance has often been the only place in media where women can see themselves at the center of the story triumphing. … There’s a lot of power in happily ever after. In 2017, I think many of us came to a place where we realized that the best way for us to resist was for us to tell stories where we win, and the best way to show the other side that we will survive them is to show ourselves in happiness … because happiness is torture in its own way.”
Jason Aaron Baca is good-looking, not handsome like the Ryans (Gosling and Reynolds) or rugged like Daniel Craig, who is fetching in a tailored Tom Ford suit. But when Mr. Baca, 42, slipped on a pair of dark aviator glasses recently, he looked remarkably like Tom Cruise in “Top Gun.”
He was dressed for work in a khaki military jumpsuit. And even though it was barely noon, he had already stopped by the gym to make sure his biceps and legs looked combat-strong. His assignment: To be a military helicopter pilot saved in a crash by a female rescuer with whom he once had a torrid affair. Now that they’re reunited, their passions have flared.
Mr. Baca is a cover model for romance novels. He has been on nearly 500 book covers, by his own account — one of scores of men like him vying to be heroic heartthrobs. Not since the flaxen-haired Fabio Lanzoni dominated drugstore book racks in the 1980s and 1990s, with his lion’s mane and bulging biceps, have cover models been in such demand.
“Look at me like you are really mad at me,” cooed Portia Shao, his photographer that day. “Show me your good side.”
. . . .
After a few more clicks of the shutter, he and Ms. Shao paused to examine his work on a 2-by-4-foot television screen. “It looks good because it has everything,” Mr. Baca said. The smoldering gaze. A glimpse of his six-pack abs. Mr. Baca had even thrust his pelvis forward, a trick he learned to make his stomach appear flatter and ensure the ladies looked, well, you know, there.
Romance writers and publishers, as it happens, are among publishing’s most innovative participants. They were early to digital serialization. Booksellers, too, now crowdsource ideas to find fresh writers. And if you want to explore a virtual relationship, you can try a romance-novel app.
. . . .
“I never thought I would say this,” said Liz Pelletier, the chief executive of the romance novel company Entangled Publishing. “But I am so tired of looking at men’s abs. I don’t know if these ones are sexier than those other ones.”
“It used to be that everyone wanted Fabio,” she added. Today, though, individualism prevails. “Readers don’t want every book to have the same face.”
. . . .
Sexy still sells. At Brazen, Entangled’s more risqué fiction line, Ms. Pelletier said book covers with male models sold three times as much as with a woman alone. And for new authors in particular, “the cover is really critical,” said Dianne Moggy, vice president for romance fiction at Harlequin.
. . . .
Unlike the Fabio era, when covers were painted by hand, today they are more assembly line than art. Consider Daemon Black, a space alien with dark curls and emerald green eyes who is the hero of Entangled’s Lux series, written by the New York Times best-selling author Jennifer L. Armentrout. In 2011, Pepe Toth saw a photograph of himself and his then model girlfriend, Sztella Tziotziosz, on the cover of “Obsidian,” the first in the Lux series, published that December.
Mr. Toth, 26, then living in his native Hungary, had been transformed into Daemon Black without his knowledge. “I thought, what kind of book is this?” he said in a recent interview.
. . . .
If covers were hand-painted in acrylic back in the Fabio era, the tool of the trade today is Photoshop. Heads are cut off midface if a model is overexposed. Parts of different photos can be pieced together like a Picasso portrait. Toes, too, are deleted if they clash with the book’s title.
For Mr. Baca’s helicopter-pilot shoot in Santa Cruz, Eileen Nauman, a writer better known by her pseudonym, Lindsay McKenna, emailed a series of guidelines. She wanted to see him looking alert, with a “slight, playful, teasing smile” and, she wrote, with his “flight suit open to sternum, showing off your great body, but nothing too flagrant or obvious.”
. . . .
Few romance models, if any, make enough money to eke out a living. Mr. Baca, for example, works at the Housing Authority of the Santa Clara County, Calif., as a customer-service clerk. And although he has an agent, he said he earned only $20,000 in his best year. This, despite the fact that he is a tireless self-promoter who fancies himself the next Fabio. Industry executives say it will be difficult to topple the king. “Nobody did it better than Fabio,” said Allison Kelley, executive director of the romance writers group. “He really did create the brand.”
Romance publishing has a serious diversity problem and we now have the data to prove it. Readers of the genre know the challenge that finding traditionally published romances by authors of color can be. However, up to this point, there hasn’t been actual data on the issue. Enter the lovely ladies of The Ripped Bodice, the only romance specialty store in the country. Bea and Leah Koch crunched the numbers and published their first “The State of Racial Diversity in Romance Publishing” report, based on 2016 new releases. It’s pretty startling stuff. The report looks at racial disparities in mainstream romance publishing and is accompanied by some pretty rad infographics to show readers just how completely horrifying their results were.
The Koch sisters say that they became “increasingly aware” of the problem of racial disparity in romance publishing through their interactions with customers of The Ripped Bodice. People were coming into the store looking for books by authors of color that were traditionally published, but Bea and Leah were running low on suggestions.
“We have found it difficult to continue the conversation about diversity in romance without hard data,” says report co-author Leah Koch. “For many years the common refrain from publishers has been ‘we’re working on it.’ Every year we will track industry growth and see if that promise rings true.”
“Honestly we were shocked at how abysmal the numbers are,” says Bea Koch. “We thought they would be bad, [but] we didn’t think they would be this bad.”
Twenty publishers were invited to participate in the process. More than half of those invited actively engaged in the process and contributed statistics and information on racial diversity for the study.
. . . .
“While many groups are still woefully underrepresented in the romance genre, including people with disabilities, marginalized religious groups, and members of the LGBTQ community, we had to start somewhere. This is a difficult subject to discuss, but racial discrimination is one of the largest barriers to equality in any professional industry. Publishing is not immune.”
. . . .
“It’s too important. We have to start with laying out the facts. This is the genre we love and have devoted our lives to. We all need to do better. The traditional romance publishing industry is going to collapse if it doesn’t start hiring authors that reflect the current U.S. population. We’re hopeful that by contributing this data to the discussion, we will start to see real change.”
PG says the traditional romance publishing industry is already collapsing because more and more romance authors have learned they can give up their day jobs and/or earn a better living by self-publishing.
And none of the indie publishing platforms discriminate against authors on the basis of race.
Mrs. PG likes Bookbub and, apparently, Bookbub likes Mrs. PG because it’s running a free book promotion for another of her Regency romances.
The title of this book is The Taming of Lady Kate.
What’s this book about? You can read what it says on Amazon, but PG has a unique perspective on Mrs. PG’s books that he will share.
There’s a gal named Kate. She’s dead now because she lived a long time ago.
While Kate was alive, she had a problem. If she wanted to inherit a bunch of money, she had to get married. At about the same time, a guy named Jack had the same problem so they shared a common interest.
You might think that Kate and Jack hired a Hollywood lawyer named Manny to write an iron-clad prenuptial agreement, but you would be wrong. When Kate and Jack really needed a good Hollywood lawyer, there weren’t any lawyers in Hollywood. There weren’t any movie stars there, either. Hard to believe.
So there’s no prenup negotiation drama in this book. And nobody named Manny.
But PG digresses.
Jack is a Marquis and Kate is a Lady (no, not that kind of Lady).
Kate wants to marry some other guy, but her dead father says no (in his will), even if they get a prenup.
Kate is a spunky gal. Jack likes spunky gals. They have that in common even if she’s not a Marquis.
The things that Kate and Jack have in common are piling up.
PG won’t spoil the ending of the story by saying what they do instead of getting a prenup.
Here’s a picture of Kate. PG forgot to ask Mrs. PG if her hair is really that color or if she has it done by Rex of Hollywood.
Here’s where you can get The Taming of Lady Kate. It’s free right now, but you have to read the book to understand why Kate accepts taming.
The PG’s appreciate your support.
PG checked Mrs. PG’s Author Rank and her new book’s ranking in the early evening of today’s Bookbub campaign. He was pleased to find the following:
#5 in Kindle eBooks > Romance > Historical Romance
#10 in Books > Romance > Historical
#81 in Kindle eBooks > Romance
Taming Lady Kate Book Rank
#6 Free in Kindle Store (See Top 100 Free in Kindle Store)
#1 in Kindle Store > Kindle eBooks > Romance > Historical Romance > Regency
#1 in Kindle Store > Kindle eBooks > Romance > Inspirational
Retailer Amazon has removed several abuse-themed e-books from its Kindle Store after a report highlighted titles depicting rape, incest and bestiality.
Titles such as Taking My Drunk Daughter had been on sale.
Amazon and Barnes & Noble both say they are removing books found by technology news site The Kernel, but many others still remain, the BBC has found.
WHSmith and Kobo, which feature titles with similar themes, are yet to respond to requests for comment.
The BBC found that on Amazon’s store, the search function automatically suggested explicit topics to users typing seemingly innocuous keywords – without age verification taking place.
Amazon has not responded to the BBC’s request for comment on the issue, except to confirm that the specific books listed by The Kernel had been removed.
Barnes & Noble said in a statement the titles were “in violation” of its policy on content offered in the NOOK Bookstore and were in the process of being removed.
“When there are violations to the content policy that are brought to our attention, either through our internal process or from a customer or external source, we have a rapid response team in place to appropriately categorize or remove the content in accordance with our policy,” it said.
Justice Minister Damian Green told the BBC “the government shares the public’s concerns about the availability of harmful material.”
Howards End, Manderley, Brideshead – some fictional houses are as unforgettable as the characters who inhabit them. They can provide a sense of identity, as in the novels of Walter Scott, which were set in a time when a man was distinguished by the land and house from which he got his name. They can convey ideas of personality, as Charles Dickens’s living spaces reflect the quirks of his characters. They can offer us symbols of social status, as with Jane Austen’s Pemberley, or some tangible link to the past, as so ardently forged by writers such as Evelyn Waugh.
The house that commands the fictional centre of a story exerts a power over the characters: their behaviour, aspirations and fate. In my research into houses in British literature, I wanted to find out what drove authors, from Austen to Alan Hollinghurst, to home in on a particular house or type of house as the focus of their fictional worlds. The British may not have the monopoly on house-centred stories, but the literature is filled with thinking, writing, and imagining houses in ways that betray a particular consciousness of house and home. Some of the most celebrated novels, such as Howards End or Brideshead Revisited, signal this from the title, while others sneak us in through the back door, as it were, so that we understand the importance of the house only once we’re ambling along the passageways, scrutinising the furnishings. But once over the threshold, fictional houses have us in their spell. As Daphne du Maurier said of Menabilly, the house that inspired her characters’ devotion to Manderley, it possessed her “even as a mistress holds a lover”.
. . . .
Godmersham Park, Kent: Jane Austen
The daughter of a vicar, Jane Austen grew up in a household of more modest means than many in her circle. She attended parties, balls and other social gatherings at plenty of grand Hampshire country houses, writing to her sister Cassandra in 1800: “I believe I drank too much wine last night at Hurstbourne; I know not else how to account for the shaking of my hand today.” But it was Godmersham, in Kent, and the smaller, less spectacular but still impressive Chawton House in Hampshire, two properties inherited by her brother Edward after he was adopted by childless relatives, that helped her to inhabit the world of her more privileged characters.
In Edward Austen’s day, Godmersham had 5,000 acres of land (today it still has 2,000). The house was built in 1732 by the Knight family, who added two wings in the 1780s before Edward inherited the property in 1797. It still has several wings and retains its elegant Italianate style. It is sometimes speculated that the more famous Chatsworth in the Peak District was the inspiration for Mr Darcy’s Pemberley, but it was at Godmersham that Austen experienced living in a large house, with many servants and entertainments. She spent long hours writing letters in the library, and the vicarage – still extant on the property – is thought to have inspired Mr Collins’s house in Pride and Prejudice. The place was luxurious to Austen: “I have no occasion to think of the price of Bread or of Meat where I am now; – let me shake off vulgar cares & conform to the happy Indifference of East Kent wealth.” By contrast, writing in 1798 from the rectory at Steventon in Hampshire, where she grew up, she complained: “People get so horridly poor & economical in this part of the World, that I have no patience with them. – Kent is the only place for happiness, Everybody is rich there.”
. . . .
Rooks Nest, Hertfordshire: EM Forster
Few can read Howards End without longing for a golden afternoon in the garden of an English cottage. The house represents the England of the past, threatened by a modern world in motion where motorcars speed people through a landscape they have no time to appreciate. “Only connect” is the motto of the book, and conveys a possibility for spiritual fulfilment that Forster felt strongly could be imparted through the life of a house. He was very clear about the inspiration for the house of his eponymous novel – Rooks Nest, his childhood home. After his father died of tuberculosis, when Forster was not quite two, his mother decided it would be healthier to move to the country. In 1883 she took the lease on Rooks Nest, near Stevenage in Hertfordshire, where they lived for the next 10 years. The house had belonged to a family named Howard, who had farmed there for three centuries. Forster began memorialising it while still in his teens. “I took it to my heart,” he later wrote, “and hoped … that I should live and die there.”
Shortly after Amazon introduced the Kindle, they put up a page with a ranked list of the most frequently highlighted passages across all the books. It’s not there anymore, but when I first looked at the list in 2013, the opening sentence of Pride and Prejudice was in third place. That was all the more impressive because eight of the other top 10 finishers were passages from the Hunger Games series, which was the hit of the season that year, as Austen’s novel had been exactly 200 years earlier.
“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.”
We can argue about whether that’s the most famous first line in English literature or whether the honor belongs to the opening sentence of Moby Dick or A Tale of Two Cities or 1984. But there’s no other opening sentence that lends itself so well to sampling, mash-ups and adaptation.
If you’re looking to add a literary touch to your article on pension schemes or emergency contraceptives, you’re not going to get very far with “Call me Ishmael.” But “It is a truth universally acknowledged” is always available as an elegant replacement for “As everybody knows” when you want to introduce some banal truism.
. . . .
Yet my guess is that a large portion of the people who adapt that sentence know perfectly well that the original version is anything but straightforward. It may be the single most celebrated example of literary irony in all of English literature. Pick up a paperback of Pride and Prejudice at a garage sale and it’s even money you’ll find the first sentence underlined with “IRONY” written in the margin.
The sentence may look like a truism, but the first part actually undermines the second. In her book Why Jane Austen, Rachel Brownstein points out that if the novel had begun simply with “A single man possessed of a good fortune must be in want of a wife,” we’d snuggle in for a stock romantic story. We might expect the next sentence to describe an aristocratic Colin Firth lookalike galloping full-tilt toward the Bennets’ house at Longbourn.
But prefacing that clause with “It is a truth universally acknowledged” implies that’s only what most people say they believe — after all, if everybody really does accept it, why bother to mention the fact? In fact, as Austen says in the following sentence, nobody really cares what the wealthy man himself thinks he needs. There’s only one truth that matters to Mrs. Bennet and the other families in the neighborhood — that a daughter who has no fortune must be found a well-to-do husband to look after her, which Mrs. Bennet has made “the business of her life.”