Romance Novels Still Fighting for Respect
Last week I received an uncomfortable honor, the kind I'm not sure I should include on my résumé. At their annual conference in Washington, the Romance Writers of America presented me with the Veritas Award. It's "given annually for the article that appears in print or in another medium that best depicts the romance genre in a positive light." Not surprisingly, there are years in which the Veritas award is not given. Positive light, it would seem, falls fairly rarely on this genre.
Okay, I felt a little silly accepting this award for a blog entry about my daughter and friends reading a Harlequin romance. But what surprised me was the scent of frustration that hung in the air at the conference attended by 2,000 romance professionals at the Marriott Wardman. Despite all their success, despite accounting for one out of every four books sold, despite weathering this devastating recession better than any other segment of the publishing industry, this is still a group in need of some serious self-esteem building. And that, more than all the other workshops and breakout sessions, may be the real purpose of their annual conference.
At the winners' luncheon, I sat next to an affable Australian named Rosemary Potter, who had been crowned Bookseller of the Year. She's one of the few bookstore owners in the world who sells just new romance novels. Her beautifully appointed store in Brisbane - antique furniture, heirloom tea sets - brings in $40,000 (AU) a month, but when she started off seven years ago her accountant dismissed her dream as ridiculous. She even catches her own father telling friends that she runs a bookstore. "It's a romance bookstore, dad!"
Across the table from me, Deborah Schneider, the Librarian of the Year, told us that her husband gets ribbed at work about her side career as a romance writer. "How's your wife do her research, huh?" these dunderheads ask. "Is that guy on the dust jacket her boyfriend?" She tells her embarrassed husband to remind his friends that "it's not who's on the cover that matters, it's who's between the covers." That oughta put them in their place....
Readers apparently feel a little embarrassed about romance novels, too. An editor at Harlequin told me that in the Bible Belt, inspiration and romance are the bestsellers -- strange bedfellows indeed. "They buy their inspiration at the bookstore, and they order their romance novels online."
In a sense, romance still labors under the burden that used to weigh on all fiction. Puritan sermons in the 17th century were spiked with warnings about reading novels. Thomas Jefferson railed against novels, too, claiming they were "a great obstacle to good education...a poison [that] infects the mind. The result is a bloated imagination, sickly judgment, and disgust towards all the real businesses of life."
The keynote speaker at the Romance award's ceremony was clearly trying to rouse the assembled writers from a lifetime of discouragement. Eloisa James confessed that she used to tell people she wrote romance novels "for the money." How else could a Harvard-Oxford-Yale-trained Shakespeare professor justify publishing these meretricious books? She's the daughter of Robert Bly, for goodness sakes! He read her Beowulf at bedtime; Eloisa and her siblings learned Christmas carols in Latin. Her mother never read one of her novels. "You know I don't read that sex stuff," she told her. On her deathbed she said she was sure Eloisa would write "a real book" someday. This to a woman who's published 18 historical romance novels, 14 of them bestsellers, with 3.5 million copies in print. But her family's derision is reflected in the world at large. "Shame can kill the imagination," Eloisa said. "It's hard to keep writing in the face of that."
Two thousand women had stopped eating their chicken and rice; most of them weren't famous, but they all seemed to know exactly what she meant.
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P.S. To see a brief video of Nora Roberts's recent visit to the Post, click here.
By Ron Charles |
July 22, 2009; 5:16 AM ET
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