Vivian Stephens Helped Turn Romance Writing Into a Billion-Dollar Industry. Then She Got Pushed Out.

From Texas Monthly:

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.

The first newsletter from the Romance Writers of America, featuring Stephens’s headshot, published February 15, 1981.
Romantic Times Collection/Browne Popular Culture Library/Bowling Green State University

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.

Reading the OP is highly recommended.

1 thought on “Vivian Stephens Helped Turn Romance Writing Into a Billion-Dollar Industry. Then She Got Pushed Out.”

  1. As publishers lose fiction market share, and independents gain market share, how will all these stats be compiled? If someone finds the stats for independents selling through KDP unseemly, who will be blamed? What if we find ourselves in a fiction world where we don’t know the pigmentation of the author?

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