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Romancing the Convention

By (September 1, 2015) 8 Comments

RWA2015The week following the annual conference of the Romance Writers of America (RWA) in New York City involved much soul-searching. Blogs and twitter streams examined race, class, and heterosexist dynamics in this nearly all-female field and the related articles that followed—like NPR’s 100 Swoon-Worthy Romances list—generated tons of feisty commentary about literature vs. pornography, cover art, gender expectations, and, of course, stereotypes about the books and their community. In many ways the aftermath of the convention has resembled nothing more than a close reading of a text—and these women are excellent readers.

Romance fans read a lot and they read carefully. They pick up on subtle characterizations and post eagerly to Facebook and Goodreads, wanting to compare notes with other readers, or the author herself. The contentious coverage of the NPR’s list of romance novels included visual analysis of many covers, and a complaint against one of them that was countered by its author. In other words, these are highly-engaged, highly-sophisticated readers—so why don’t they get more respect? Especially from a literary world that continually bemoans the decline of reading?

Well, we know why—and so does the romance community. Romance novelist and literary scholar Maya Rodale has concisely summarized the history and implications of the stigma against romance novels in her recent book Dangerous Books for Girls. There are a lot of sexist assumptions behind the devaluation of the genre and its community (read her book for details!), but here I’m most interested in the fact that these readers dangerous books for girlsknow all this already, they’ve heard it all before, and their pens are primed with rebuttals. The RWA convention made their self-awareness visible and explicit. These are women who know exactly what they are doing, who mean what they say, and who are willing and able to defend themselves. As one participant in the NPR comments section put it, “You really don’t want to bring up any of the old clichéd attacks (clinch covers, porn for women, abundance of tropes, etc.) [on this forum]. You will not win any argument. Anything you have to say has probably been dissected and discussed in depth.”

I attended the conference wearing three hats—scholar, reader, and writer—and one name-tag. I intended to write about how and why academics seem particularly interested in romance. Several highly successful romance novelists—including Eloisa James, Katharine Ashe, and Madeline Hunter—are college professors and scholars as well. But reading Rodale’s book after the conference shamed me: too often I felt I was stepping right into the very traps she had exposed through her research. Why do I assume the presence of academics in the romance field is curious enough to investigate? That implies that romances are not serious enough for highly-educated readers and writers, when I know otherwise. Why do I write romances myself under a pen name and go out of my way to keep my social media accounts separate? It created a lot of hassle for me at the conference, in which I had to remember which me was talking to whom and who should respond to which posts or tweets. When I explained defensively that I do this because the academy is particularly snobby, isn’t that kind of patronizing and offensive to the people I’m talking to? As if their fields are somehow lower status and thus won’t be tainted by association like mine would be? When they sympathize and nod understandingly I now realize they may just be too nice (as romance folks tend to be) to call me on my bullshit. How deeply then have I internalized the stigma surrounding romances? The conference and its aftermath of commentary were eye-opening.

The juxtaposition of academic scholarship and popular romance novels shouldn’t be surprising, and it’s only one paradox in a field as full of ironies as any Jane Austen novel. It’s a world where women advance their careers by writing about love and explore their sexual desires through a set of conventional tropes, like “friends to lovers” or “reformed rakes.” The tension between the rules and the exceptions was apparent at the conference. Susan Elizabeth Phillips and Jennifer Crusie, both authors of very successful contemporary romances, gave presentations on character development and plot structure (respectively) that began with an insistence that they would discuss guidelines, but one could always break them. Historical romance writer Madeline Hunter’s talk on “Taking Your Writing to the Next Level” advised writers to bend and disrupt the genre’s expectations (sometimes scorned as “formulas”– as if other genres don’t have conventions too). It’s a message that in her book Rodale suggests hard-working, multi-tasking women want to hear—they have played by the rules (of patriarchy, for example) and are eager to bend them without losing what they’ve already gained.

callmeirresistibleCrusie emphasized turning points in the romance plot, like the Dark Moment before the Happily Ever After (HEA in industry terms) can be realized. And Phillips discussed how conflict drives characters as well—whether internally as their values change or externally as they compromise with a partner who is almost always defined as an opposite in some way. These may be classic storytelling goals, but in romance they tend to be insistently gendered: the central conflict is usually between a heterosexual couple and their masculine/feminine traits. Often this plays out as a “good girl” heroine and a “bad boy” hero who fight and negotiate until they both meet in the middle—learning from each other and taking on some of the other’s qualities. It’s that compromise that enables the HEA, the narrative resolution to all that conflict and difference. As Rodale put it to me in an email, “romance writers are constantly negotiating those tensions, in the books we are writing and the business we are in. Most of us do not shy away from that challenge—and it is a challenge—because that’s when the story gets good, and that’s the only way to get something like an HEA.”

This struggle with balance—between obeying and resisting conventions, between self and other—is also erotic within the books themselves. The push-pull between hero and heroine is the central story, wherever or however that is played out. This too, then, relies on careful negotiations: between stereotypes of masculinity and femininity, between self-assertion and self-denial. It’s no coincidence, then, that Fifty Shades of Grey and its BDSM successors have sold so well. The dynamics of power between a couple have always been eroticized in romances, but now that has just become more explicit (in both message and content). The best authors (in any genre) set up complicated characters and situations and then find unexpected ways to resolve them. The fact that there are some non-negotiable constraints (ha!) within the romance genre (like the HEA) makes the books harder to write, not easier, and it forces readers to be more attentive to subtle variations.

The sophisticated and careful romance reader goes against stereotypes of the romance industry as all about quantity, about voracious consumption in a mass market. The sheer volume of product generating a billion dollars in sales each year makes the community paradoxically less valuable to outsiders. And the HEA makes them seem less smart. If the books focus on love and end happily (so the stereotype goes) then they must be written by and for simple (ie. female) people who live in a Hallmark world.

confThe conference responded to that, characteristically, by sponsoring sessions on both business and craft, by taking themselves and their work seriously despite the abundance of silly swag in the “Goody Room.” Romance writing is a business first, as Eloisa James reminded the audience in her career-oriented session, quoting author Linda Lael Miller to that effect. In session after session women exhorted other women to “put yourself first,” “make time for your work,” “remember you are in charge”…. While there were occasions when a speaker was introduced as a “mommy” or a writer referred to her c-section, there were no children and few husbands in sight. One could see the challenge the RWA faced down: to be professional without losing the fun in what they do, to be as “business-like” as men without losing the warmth of a woman-centered community.

There was indeed a strong feeling of female camaraderie at the convention, but not because these are “silly novels by lady novelists” (to quote George Eliot, who mocked the romance writers of her day). Rather, it’s a community that prides itself on the stereotypically female values of sharing and support, both emotionally and professionally. Writers with business backgrounds, like Cristin Harber, led sales-oriented sessions on how to cross-promote books with fellow authors and collaborate together on anthologies. But more surprising was the offer author Tessa Dare extended when she accepted a RITA award for her historical novella: “if you can’t find that person who believes in you, send me an email and I’ll be that person.” It was an extraordinary moment of generosity to a huge audience, many of whom were watching the livestream from home. Again the community pulled off a delicate balancing act between the personal and the professional, the individual and the public.

tessadareI met Tessa (everyone in the romance world is on a first-name basis with everyone else) at a meet-up for published and wannabe Avon authors. She was just as helpful as she later promised to be: brainstorming whom I should talk to for this article and canvassing everyone perched on an overstuffed sofa for more suggestions. At another event Candis Terry, a longstanding Avon writer I had never met, saw me hovering uncertainly, unable to break into a conversation, and promptly drew me in. “You look lost!” she said, and introduced me to her editors. The supportiveness the community values, then, is real. It’s not just talk, it’s not faked, and it works in both directions.

Another main event of the conference were book signings where authors manned tables with piles of free books and chatted with authors. Some authors had long lines and others had no one and I repeatedly saw readers approach the less popular writers to engage with and support them. Relationships between fans and authors can be quite personal and close. Many big-name authors have “street teams” of readers who fan the flames for them in advance of new releases and are rewarded with special perks or freebies. Amazon and Goodreads reviews are hugely important for sales and mostly niceness reigns. While some bad reviews are unavoidable, one editor went out of her way to point out a silver lining: that they actually sell more books than good ones.

Storm into sunshine. Clouds into silver linings. The risk is that the insistence on happy endings and silver linings will whitewash over real problems or differences –and, in fact, some kinds of otherness are often excluded from the romance world. When the convention ended romance writer Suleikha Snyder blogged in Dickensian terms about her “two conferences”—the warm and open one everyone saw up front and the private and nastier one women of color and LGBTQ activists in the field encountered, where editors told her that ethnically-diverse characters were “not a priority” for them. On the one hand, there was sisterhood and fan-girling. On the other, there was side-eyeing and microaggressions. Snyder was also one of several bloggers who took up the protest against an “inspirational romance” between a Jewish prisoner and her Christian guard in a Nazi concentration camp that was a finalist for an industry RITA award (it did not win). As she put it, strongly and succinctly: “Do we really need, in this day and age, to have a Jewish person tell us that concentration camp romance is deeply fucked up? Shouldn’t that be, like, COMMON KNOWLEDGE?” In the aftermath of the conference the RWA Board of Directors set up an ad hoc diversity committee and published a formal response to the complaints about the Christian romance, citing the slippery slope of censoring books for content. But Snyder’s main argument can’t be resolved simply through bureaucratic changes in language or policies. She, along with RWA members of all backgrounds, wants full integration into the field: “Representation and inclusion are not just empty buzzwords. We’re here so let us really be here.”

theyearwefelldownWhile I attended the conference I happened to be reading a book by Sarina Bowen, a white author whose Ivy Years series is unselfconsciously diverse. The first book begins with a paraplegic heroine, the third switches to what the industry calls “M/M” romance between two male athletes, and the fourth (which I was reading at the time) was between a white heroine and a Latino hero. The Latin hero goes way back to the first Harlequins I ever read: those dark, heavily-accented heroes who wore silk shirts and gold chains and tended to bully the pantsuit-wearing virginal blond heroines. In those days many “Mediterranean” heroes were Greek tycoons, Arab princes, or Latin pop stars—whereas Bowen’s Latino hero is a Dominican soccer player from Washington Heights. Bowen writes in the New Adult genre, mostly set on college campuses and often involving sports teams, which allows for the development of an extended community that should be realistically diverse. That is, if the small-town romance may plausibly be homogeneous (though that becomes less and less realistic these days) the college campus should be a place where people encounter difference. And in Bowen’s books they do.

As the plot implies, class differences come up in Bowen’s book as well, though the characters don’t really struggle with it. And class divisions reveal another irony that attendees debated after the conference: as Jessica Tripler pointed out in a blog post on “Socioeconomic Class at the RWA,” the conference was very expensive to attend, which inevitably limited access. The award ceremony was broadcast on the RWA’s website but all other sessions required registration that ranged from $450 (early) to $600 (last minute). And then there was the cost of lodging in New York City, food, transportation, and whatever one might be paying a caregiver at home. There seemed to be an implicit understanding that the convention was a sort of glamorous alternate universe, where writers participated in the sort of role-playing that they sometimes write about. It was like having an alter ego who dressed up and wore high heels all day (how many times did I see women changing back and forth between heels and sneakers?). Maybe all conferences function as a sort of temporary escape from real life, but this one was complicated by the fact that the books traffic in fantasies that are both fun to indulge and perhaps difficult to confront.

whenascotlovesaladyThis tension may encourage a kind of double-consciousness (to borrow a phrase coined by W.E.B. DuBois). Katharine Ashe, a prolific historical romance writer and professor of history, includes a personal meditation on her website about role-playing: how she tried out different career paths, while writing romance on the side, then found herself incorporating characters with double identities into her stories. In an email to me, she explained that “my characters and stories reflected the complicated, conflicted life I was living. When I wrote those characters, I really knew how hard it was to have two incompatible identities. Unsurprisingly, when I ‘came out of the closet’ as a romance novelist, I almost entirely stopped writing characters with secret identities.”

Masks and false identities within the stories—from meetings at masquerades to the hero or heroine-in-disguise trope–are one way to negotiate these contradictory identities of real life. In her Wallflower series Rodale experiments with the same issues in a more meta-fictional way: she writes three contemporary romances about a historical romance novelist named Jane Sparks who falls for a tech billionaire named Duke Austen. Then, for each of the contemporary romances about Jane and Duke she writes a parallel historical romance supposedly by Jane (who, yes, will be Jane Austen by the end of the series…). In this way Rodale plays with being both author and heroine herself, while writing about a character who is doing the same thing. It’s kind of genius, really—and demonstrates the sort of creativity and innovation the genre and its writers are capable of.

The overriding fantasy seems to be to transcend a single, limiting identity: to be both English nobleman and Arab prince, both ruined gentlewoman and prim governess, both “the lady in the streets and the freak in the sheets” (to quote the latest pop culture version of another time-honored dualism) To be not either/or, but both. It’s easy to see how transcending identity can be an especially appealing fantasy for those whose identities create problems in real life—whether through gender, race, class, sexual orientation, or any narrow label—and so romance is going to have to find ways to incorporate those stories and characters without sidelining them into their own genres. In other words, diversifying the romance world is not just the “right thing to do,” it allows enduring fantasies to continue intersecting with new realities. Viewed this way romance novels are not simply escapist or irrelevant; rather, they do a lot of psychologically and socially complicated cultural work for women, for us all.

ConvIs it possible I’m reading too much into the conference? Might romance fans read too much into the books? Is it possible to read too well or too much? It seems a pretty ironic question these days, but I admit there are risks here, as with all interpretation. I listened to Julia Quinn’s keynote session one morning and heard it as a romance writ small: with Julia as a self-deprecating, plucky heroine who weathered storms of bad reviews and nasty emails before earning her HEA. Maybe I, reader, heard only what I wanted or expected to. My second reading of Ashe’s bio, for example, made me question my first interpretation of it—enough so that I emailed her to ask her what she meant (and she emailed back to correct me).

Even worse, reading the RWA conference as if it were a romance novel comes perilously close to the most elementary mistake of interpretation: confusing fiction and real life—and there is no more patronizing assumption about romance than that its readers and writers can’t tell the difference. The RWA conference proved what should have been obvious from the beginning—that romance writers are highly-skilled professionals who take their work (and their readers) very seriously, and their books are highly-crafted, complex reflections of their realities. To pull this off they (I mean we) have to walk a tightrope, navigating fantasy and reality, contradictory identities, and the competing demands of writing and publishing. Only very careful readers and writers get their HEAs.

Victoria Olsen teaches expository writing at New York University and writes nonfiction and fiction, including romances sometimes. Her previous essays for Open Letters Monthly include “Looking for Laura,” on Virginia Woolf’s half-sister Laura Stephen, and “Hot and Cold,” a review of Rebecca Solnit’s The Faraway Nearby.