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."

Eloisa James.jpgThe 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.

-- Ron Charles

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By Ron Charles |  July 22, 2009; 5:16 AM ET Ron Charles
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An excellent article, and thank you. You know, you should put this on your resume, in big, bold letters! Great job.

Posted by: TeresaDAmario | July 22, 2009 12:18 PM

Despite the interesting depictions of romance writers cringing as they guiltily pen their stories, most romance authors are not ashamed of what we write. Come on. Let’s try for a little logic here. Why would thousands of authors willingly do something they consider shameful? Hair shirts are uncomfortable and the money, for the most part, just isn’t that good. No one’s chained us to a computer forcing us to do something we find degrading in order to hold body and soul together. Most of us started out making just enough money to pay for our laptops.

The banal truth is most of us don’t have issues with what we do. We are reasonably intelligent women who work very hard to produce entertaining fiction. Entertaining fiction. Which includes romance, adventure, danger, sex and (hopefully) witty repartee. And while we might be unsatisfied with individual results, we are generally very proud of what we produce, because not many people can. Likewise, our readers are reasonably intelligent women who have chosen this form of entertainment over others and generously and very vocally encourage their favorite authors. I would venture to guess that most of them are as tired of being told they feel ashamed as I am.

CONNIE BROCKWAY

Posted by: connie8 | July 22, 2009 3:27 PM

I appreciate your posting a blog entry about romance authors that avoids the common slurs used to describe the novels that incorporate the best of all other fiction genres. However, I do believe you misread the room when you attended the RWA conference luncheon. The self esteem of romance authors is just fine. What you were sensing was the frustration with the negative romance-genre comments of book critics, the media, and those who've never tried a romance novel. Our readers know the emotion, humor, adventure, and entertainment contained in our novels. I honestly feel sorry for those who denigrate these feel-good books.
-- Marcia James

Posted by: ACMarcia | July 22, 2009 11:01 PM

Charles, of course you should include this award in your resume.
I agree with Marcia James that you misread the room. Of course all the speakers and award winners had negative comments that had been directed at them personally and all I can say is LETS END THEM NOW!!!! We are all very proud to write, read or sell Romance. Remember TOGETHER WE ROCK!!!!
Rosemary Potter Bookseller of the Year

Posted by: info88 | July 23, 2009 12:58 AM

How can they be Fighting STILL for respect. I hear they are the #1 selling genre. Are all of these people wrong???

Respectfully,
A devout Romance reader who has no shame.
AKA Daneli

Posted by: Daneli656 | July 23, 2009 2:47 PM

Thank you for inadvertently becoming an advocate for our genre. I am proud that I am a romance writer and share that information freely. The same way I read, unabashedly, my beloved romances where ever I am - and why shouldn't I?

What we write and read about in this genre affirms the best things in this world.

Love. Honor. Courage. Strength.

And a guaranteed happily ever after. In today's world, given these times, it's what can help carry us through.

Santa O'Byrne

Posted by: hvb63 | July 24, 2009 10:33 AM

Excellent article, though I have to agree that you misread the room--yes, we've all been subjected to denigrating comments (I never read that trash!) but I doubt many of us are all that concerned by the lack of respect or we wouldn't continue to do what we do. My genre--erotic paranormal romance--tends to be the butt of a lot of jokes, but I'm very proud of the stories I write and I'm convinced I have some of the best readers in the world--men and women who appreciate a good tale that leaves them smiling when they finally close the book. Critics can say what they wish, but as my books continue to go into extra printings, I'll take my cue from the readers and continue to write those sexy, "feel good" stories. Success really is the best revenge, and there's no shame at all in doing what you love and doing it well.

Posted by: KateDouglas | July 25, 2009 10:33 AM

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