Last Saturday, I attended a screening of a film about romance writing called ‘Love between the covers’ at the Tuggeranong Arts Centre. (You can watch the trailer and learn more about the film – here.)
Beforehand, we had the opportunity to ask some published Canberra romance writers questions, such as why they use pseudonyms (which seems to be the norm for this genre).
I love the idea of mild-mannered public servants by day transforming into romance writers by night. But apparently they’re not always keen for co-workers to know what they get up to in their spare time (and, understandably, they want to protect their privacy).
The panel also fielded cheeky questions about how they get in the mood to write romance novels after writing ministerial briefs all day. And how what they create differs from pornography.
The film gave a face to the many millions of women who read, write and love romance fiction but are normally invisible. It challenged many outdated ideas and assumptions and emphasised that this genre is responsible for the majority of books sold worldwide.
“Romance fiction is sold in 34 languages on six continents, and the genre grosses more than a billion dollars a year – outselling mystery, sci-fi, and fantasy combined.”*
While the range of romance characters, writers, and readers is incredibly diverse, these novels are still predominantly written by women for women.
Not surprisingly, romance fans enjoy reading stories about women they can relate to – be they petite or plus-sized, caucasian or other, heterosexual or other, and able-bodied or differently-abled.
Gone are the insipid helpless female characters who waited to be rescued or ravished by a handsome strong overbearing male.
Modern romance heroines are accomplished confident women who know what they want and go out and get it (or they at least realise what they want and how they need to change during the course of the book). These compelling protagonists expect to be treated as an equal and to be appreciated for whoever and whatever they are.
Although it is more acceptable nowadays for feminists to read and write romance novels, they are still frequently criticised for their literary preferences.
E-books have therefore become popular as they avoid scrutiny and offer an almost endless selection of crime, sci-fi, paranormal, historical, contemporary, western and other settings and sub-genres.
This vast array of romance novels caters to most sexual preferences and fantasies across the full spectrum of intimacy levels from ‘not before we’re married’ to hard core erotica.
They provide a safe place where women’s sensuality is respected in all its various guises and the characters are rewarded for taking a chance on love – whether they are seeking a marriage in a monogamous heterosexual relationship or some other form of liaison.
Many authors also tackle social issues such as workplace, gender, and racial inequality and hang-ups about body image.
There seems to be a very natural progression from romance reader to writer – especially when an aspiring writer sees a gap in the market.
For example, writers featured in the film included: an English Literature professor who says writing is one of the few remaining meritocracies; and a former surgeon who now writes lesbian fiction full-time, set up her own publishing house, and runs writers’ retreats with her partner.
And an inspirational woman who decided to write historical novels with African American lead characters. She addresses confronting issues such as slavery, oppression, and discrimination and was shown hosting a bus tour that visited locations mentioned in her books.
Other writers included housewives and mothers who were bored and/or needed to bring in some extra cash (resisting the pressure to go out and get a ‘real’ job).
Successful authors in this genre can well and truly become the breadwinner – but few make it big.
Others may choose to self-publish, while they continue to read, write, and dream about a publishing contract.
The authors that manage to break through have to be prepared to run serious businesses with huge fan clubs. They almost become heroines in their own right.
I was really impressed by the genre’s strong ethic of paying it forward and the commitment of its leaders to mentoring and encouraging other writers.
Strong communities have also developed between: the authors; authors and their readers; and the readers via web forums, book clubs and blogs.
A number of interviewees claimed that romance writing and these communities had given them the strength to deal with cancer, breakups, financial disasters, and tragic loss.
Some enterprising fans have even set up businesses that provide administrative services to authors. Helping with websites, newsletters, mailing lists and other tasks, frees up their favourite writers to do what they love to do most (i.e. write).
Despite the numerous changes and ongoing evolution of the genre, it was reassuring to discover that readers still demand a Happily Ever After (HEA) ending. The message was very clear that stories like Romeo and Juliet are tragedies, not romances.
Photo credits: Pip Marks