When I tell people I’ve plunged into the world of popular romance fiction, they react in one of two ways: either they are wildly enthusiastic or they snicker. It’s telling.
The readers and writers of romance novels interest me because I’m drawn to communities of women who are typically dismissed, but whose lives, upon closer examination, allow us to look at our culture (and its history) from new perspectives. In my previous films, A Midwife’s Tale and Tupperware! my audiences and I entered the 18th century world of a midwife/healer on the frontier in Maine, and the mid 20th century world of the first Tupperware Ladies. In both places, we encountered extraordinary ordinary women. And their perspectives allowed us to see history through different sets of eyes than we normally do.
The amateur cultural and social historian in me finds the topic of popular romance irresistable. The subject is fun, and it’s substantive, as well. The impulse to tell stories about courtship, love, and intimacy is universal and timeless. We are bombarded by images of courtship and romance every day: in advertising, music videos, greeting cards, magazine articles offering love advice, reality shows, films, web videos, etc. Even though there are a limited number of basic love stories, the variations are endless. And the visuals and songs are endlessly varied. So tracing the complex roots of the images and tropes one finds in romance novels is an inviting challenge for a filmmaker like me.
When I stepped into the romance world, I quickly discovered that the romance fiction field has exploded. People who don’t read romance novels think of them as historical ‘bodice rippers’ from the 1980s or sappy doctor-nurse stories. But things have changed. Some of the authors I’ve met write about dukes and duchesses and earls, but others write about vampires and shapeshifters, Navy SEALs, 19th century African Americans, gay couples, female police detectives, African missionaries, and contemporary folks in small town America.
One author told me, “Romance writers have incorporated elements from other genres, from evangelical literature on one end to erotica on the other.” The authors and readers themselves also defy the common stereotypes of the lonely romance reader and the overly dramatic, Barbara Cartland style writer. Romance readers and writers come from all income brackets, ethnic backgrounds, races, and regions. They are doctors and lawyers, women who never got past high school, engineers, factory workers, and Shakespeare professors. The novels these women are writing and reading are not your mother’s or your grandmother’s romance novels. The heroines in most of these books don’t wait around to be saved.
Most people don’t realize that romance novels — fiction written by women (approximately 95% of the writers are women), for women (90.5% of the readers are women) — form the foundation of an economic powerhouse. The statistics are staggering: according to the Romance Writers of America, romance fiction generated $1.37 billion in sales in 2011(compare that with $759 million for religion/inspirational, $682 million for mystery, $559 million for sci-fi, and $455 million for classic literary fiction). Romance novels have long held the largest share of the consumer book market in America, and many people in the publishing industry have told me that romance fiction is keeping the rest of book publishing afloat.
Avid readers of romance novels consume anywhere from one to seven novels a week. So I ask them: What do you find so appealing about these books? What are you looking for? A lot of the women I’ve interviewed say, directly or indirectly, that they enjoy reading romances because the heroine is center stage (and women, they point out, are usually relegated to side stage). They also enjoy reading about romance heroines who are smart and resourceful, who ultimately get what they want. They’ve told me that it’s nice knowing when they start a book that the heroine will win the heart of the hero by the end of the story. That way, they can settle in and enjoy the ride, no matter how tempestuous and bumpy it gets along the way. “Any good novel will offer you escape,” one author told me, “but a good romance novel also offers you a little bit of hope.”
I’ve been surprised by some of the things I’ve discovered about the popular romance community:
- The deadlines would kill me. The typical published romance author writes two to four novels per year. And many of these women have day jobs, as well.
- Writing romance novels is an extremely entrepreneurial occupation. Authors have to build their own readership, run their own websites, Facebook pages, and publicity efforts. They can no longer just write their manuscripts, hand them in to publishing houses, and move on to the next book.
- Every romance reader is a potential romance writer. More than 50% of the attendees at the annual conferences of the Romance Writers of America have not been published. The community has a pervasive “pay it forward” ethic. At romance author gatherings, experienced authors offer newbies advice. Publishing house websites offer help. Women form critique partnerships with one another. And most writers mentor others. I’m told the atmosphere at romance conferences is very different from that of mystery, thriller, and sci-fi conferences.
- The romance community is truly global. Romance novels are popular in North America, South America, Europe, Asia, Africa, and Australia. The biggest romance press, Harlequin, translates its books into 30 languages in 111 international markets on 6 continents. Almost all are being translated from English into other languages. So I’ve been asking the authors, editors, and scholars I meet about indigenous communities of romance novel writers and publishers in non-English speaking cultures. Do they write romance novels in their own languages? To my surprise, no one seems to know the answer. I’ve found articles about romance novel writers in Bangladesh and South Africa, and I know of several romance authors in India, but it’s amazing to me that so little is known about indigenous romance communities that (I presume) draw on different cultural traditions of courtship and love. I really want to know more. (If you know about romance novels written in non-English speaking countries, please contact me!)
- Even though reading and writing are both extremely personal, intimate activities, romance readers and writers have created a dynamic, highly interactive community based on their shared experiences of romance novels. Romance readers and writers have been pioneers with new technologies like social networking — and e-books, too.
In the last twenty years, the relationship between readers and writers has been transformed. Readers used to contact writers by writing them letters care of their publishing houses. Now they communicate directly. The relationship is participatory and collaborative. In the parlance of new media studies, convergence has occurred. Readers are involved in the creation of the novels they enjoy reading. Writers get ideas from their readers, who suggest new story lines and even write alternate endings to chapters. Authors form real and lasting friendships with their fans, and help many of them become writers themselves. For many members of the romance community, these friendships, initially built around an online, shared love of books, are as important as any other relationships in their lives.
The convergence culture that new media guru and cultural historian Henry Jenkins has predicted is happening in the present tense in the romance community. In a recent conversation with my humanities advisors, one of them pointed out that producers and consumers of romance novels are now stakeholders and co-creators. The documentary film we’re making, he said, provides us all with a valuable case study for understanding the profound, often subtle cultural changes brought about by new media — changes that are extremely difficult to understand from our vantage point (it’s as if we were trying to understand the impact of the printing press shortly after the printing of the Gutenberg Bible). And I thought, “Wow. That’s certainly not what I set out to do, but it’s true!”
So please stay tuned. There’s lots for us to find out in the months ahead. We’re about to launch the Popular Romance Project website, where we’ll be posting video excerpts from the footage we’re shooting, interview clips, and short scholarly blogs about popular romance, as well. We’d love to have you join us on our journey into the world of popular romance fiction…..
Laurie Kahn is the Executive Producer of the Popular Romance Project, which includes a documentary film, a one-day symposium at the Library of Congress, a nationwide library program with the American Library Association, and a website created by the Center for History and New Media. To find out more, you can visit PopularRomanceProject.org, Facebook.com/PopularRomanceProject, and blueberryhillproductions.com.