Why Are We So Quick To Dismiss Romance Novels As Rubbish?

Image: Via Love Between The Covers.
I have a dear friend who loves a romance novel — the wilder the cover, the kinkier the content, the more whimsical the confessions of everlasting adoration, the better. When we meet for coffee, which is often, we discuss which author she's moved on to most recently (there are hundreds, thousands of people penning these endeavors, and new romance writers seem to crop up by the day). Then we dissect them as we would any other piece of writing: by the style and shaping of characters, structural issues and plot points, passages we loved, and threads that are left a little too loose for our liking. I mostly listen: My required reading list is long, and not typically of the romance persuasion, though stimulating in other ways, of course.
But the funny thing about my friend is that — no matter how much she loves a romance novel — she is quick to hide the cover if she sees someone notice what she's reading. Despite her dedication to the genre, the truth (which she has readily admitted in so many words) is that she's embarrassed to be seen in public taking pleasure in a literary tradition that typically gets written off as trash.

But why are we so reticent to embrace a genre of literature that so many millions of readers insist is a source of great happiness and fulfillment? The answer is complicated, more than a little mired in sexism, and at the center of a new heartfelt documentary about the genre and the women who create and consume it. Directed by Laurie Kahn, Love Between the Covers investigates emotional attachment to romance narratives, the women who read and write them, and the shifting industry itself. It also points out that, in a world where so many stories are toxic for women, this is one avenue that puts women's needs and desires first: It's a place where sexuality, whatever form that might take, is honored and explored.

Covers is a fabulous little film, even if you don't have strong feelings one way or another about romance novels. It will also show you that there's much more to them than you might think. Consider first the fact that we live in a world where white men remain the most prevalent and celebrated novelists of this generation and every one that came before it — but not when it comes to tales of the heart. "Romance is sneered at because it is written by women, for women, about women," one author explains to the camera. She doesn't have to explain why the female-dominated industry and the sneering go hand in hand, because we already know: Women's work and interests are typically taken less seriously than those of men — and women's pleasure is taken less seriously than all of the above.

Romance is a bizarrely democratic corner in an overall industry that's typically regarded as anything but.

Not so in the realm of romance novels. Female pleasure is the name of the game. The women who write these books are surgeons by day, typing away by night; they are Shakespeare professors and stay-at-home moms; they are readers who write for their own pleasure, and in the process sometimes become authors themselves. The diversity of their backgrounds is reflected in the diversity of what their novels explore. Sometimes that means imagining Colonial-era BDSM; sometimes it translates to probing the subverted same-sex desires of 1950s New York (see: Carol, based on Patricia Highsmith's The Price of Salt).

Furthermore, because there are so many authors, titles, niches, and pleasure perspectives, it's not difficult to track down a novel or writer that speaks to the soul of what you as an individual reader are seeking out. There is a reason that romance novels are the best-selling segment of paperback fiction in North America, and I would argue that the breadth of authors and subject matters (along with, of course, the promise of a happy payoff) reflects the consumer market creating and supplying its own demands.

Which is all to say: There is something for everyone. It's a bizarrely democratic corner in an overall industry that's typically regarded as anything but. Covers reminds us that last year alone, 75 million Americans read at least one romance novel. That's just under a quarter of the nation at large — and it includes readers like my friend, who is as up to speed on Nora Roberts' latest as she is on this week's New Yorker.

There are myriad fascinating insights into the romance industry in Love Between the Covers. But perhaps my favorite one is this: Romance writing binds women into community with one another. The week of July 11, the Romance Writers Association annual convention will converge in San Diego. Thousands of writers, overwhelmingly female, will attend workshops and lectures, speak with authors they admire, shape new narratives, and find release in being among a tribe of their choosing. In the final scene of Covers, two women who have become writing partners and friends sit and enjoy a glass of wine together while watching the sun go down. They talk about their hopes and passions, professional goals and desire to do the work that fulfills them. That's not trash. It's beautiful.

Love Between the Covers will be available for streaming iTunes and Amazon July 12, 2016.

This summer, we're celebrating the biggest movie season of the year with a new series called Blockbust-HER. We'll be looking at everything film-related from the female perspective, interviewing major players in the industry and discussing where Hollywood is doing right by women and where (all too often) it is failing them. And now…let's go to the movies!
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