How Romance Novelists Got Such a Silly, Sappy Rap

In Depth

Romance Writers of America—the trade organization of the romance genre—just wrapped up its 35th annual conference. 2,400 attendees, most of them women, descended upon the Marriott Marquis in Times Square for panels, networking, networking, drinking, and more networking.

Folks in the romance business often talk about how supportive it is. Which seems to be the case in many ways—every year big-name, bestselling writers teach workshops on craft to rooms packed with relative newbies, patiently answering any questions about tropes or plot twists or characterization. There was a lot of socializing happening in the hotel bar and at the Junior’s next door. And there’s a strong sense of comradeship against a world that’s all too willing to dismiss the genre.

But it’s not a simple lovefest, either. Don’t be fooled by all the abs; these women (and it is largely women) come ready to do business. The conference closed with a dressy ceremony for the RITA awards, romance publishing’s highest honor; waiting on every seat as the takeaway gift was a business card holder, emblazoned with the RWA logo. RWA is a professional organization, with annual dues of $95, and the hotel costs alone for the national conference ain’t cheap. Attendees line up for talks with titles like “The Skinny on Police Procedurals” and “Blog Your Way to Better Sales” and “Book Launches: From Zero to Wow! When You Have No Established Audience.” RWA has been pretty closely linked with traditional publishing, and so major imprints hold open houses on manuscripts they’d like to acquire and throw schmoozy parties for their authors. But after years of shifts in the business, there were also a number of panels on hybrid and self-publishing, which were, if possible, even more entrepreneurial. One two-hour workshop—”C-Level: Acting as the Executive”— featured a detailed Powerpoint Presentation and a six-page handout detailing how to draw up a business plan, market analysis, and marketing plan.

And yet, as the attendees gathered, an article appeared on a New York Times blog, considering the perspective of the authors who, frankly, get dumped upon:

“This community of authors is all about being egalitarian and inclusive,” Gregson said in a phone interview. “You see New York Times bestselling authors teaching brand-new authors how to write a query letter, how to get an agent.” Their group emails and listservs are peppered with “all kinds of smiley face emoticons.”
Yet for many of these women, “the most distinctive feature of their professional lives,” Gregson writes, is feeling “belittled.”

It’s true that romance is often depicted as fundamentally silly, with—of course—Fabio as the crowning absurdity. But why is this particular form of entertainment so consistently a punchline? Why are these women treated as a such a joke? Even thriller writers and Tom Clancy wannabes don’t get so much shit. It’s fairly obvious at a basic level why books written by women about such gendered topics as feelings and relationships wouldn’t be taken even remotely seriously—sexism—but to get a deeper understanding, it makes sense to start with the great romance publishing boom of the early 1980s.

Said boom kicked off with the 1972 publication of Kathleen Woodiwiss’s hugely successful The Flame and the Flower. It was the Fifty Shades of Gray of its time, easily matching E.L. James’s novel in sheer impact. The years that followed brought big sales, the growth in first historical then category romance, the creation of RWA for writers and Romantic Times magazine for fans, and the debut of American mainstays like Nora Roberts, arguably the genre’s biggest success story, with enough instant name recognition to appear in airport bookstores across America. Romance became a big business, which draws media attention. This corner of the publishing industry got coverage in places like the still-prestigious Life, complete with photos by Mary Ellen Mark. This 1979 Washington Post profile of Sweet Savage Love author Rosemary Rogers, who describes her writing process, gives you a good feel for the tone of a lot of that coverage:

“Well, that’s exactly what it’s like in my mind movies. I can see backgrounds, pick out tiny gestures, hear the characters breathing. When I’m having one, it can last the whole night, I can’t type fast enough. I make a lot of typos.”
All this is said in measured, faintly exotic cadences. The narrow, angular, olive-toned body — braless and clothed in a suit of pure milk-chocolate silk — falls along the sofa, one spiked heel tucked beneath the other, an arm slumming elegantly down her hip. The other hand plays with a lime drowning in a glass of Perrier: Cleopatra on a new burnished barge.
“I love the feel of silk on my skin,” she says, shivering with delight. “Oooh.”

To be fair, the whole piece reads like Rogers was playing the role of “Princess of Passion Pulp” to the hilt. But many journalists assigned to cover the trend played up the purple prose and threw a spotlight on the loudest characters. One popular trick was to parody (badly) the distinctive style of a Harlequin category romance. Reporters sent to cover RWA itself always seemed to emerge a little shocked at how businesslike the atmosphere was. For instance, here’s the lede for a 1997 Knight-Ridder News Service piece:

The Marriott World Center resort complex in Orlando rises up out of the Earth like a space colony in the cloudless night, its 28-story tower glowing with white lights and throbbing with air conditioners. The caressing air wafts past the balconies of this glittering monument to human leisure; fountains drip endlessly into azure pools while young men in wine-colored uniforms open limousine doors for women in black sheaths…. By the time their convention ended this week, more than 1,400 romance writers had gathered to exchange business cards bearing pansies, spend an allotted eight minutes pitching heroines to prospective agents, stay up until 3 a.m. like sorority sisters and nibble enough heart-shaped gingerbread cakes and chocolate mousse to send all of Miami into a coma.

The piece goes on to describe the atmosphere at the organization’s 17th annual convention—the year’s superstar Janet Dailey was accused of plagiarizing superstar Nora Roberts. “You see, even in the midst of drama, romance writers are hard-working and prolific, and more than a little interesting.”

All this coverage (plus years of aggressive advertising by Harlequin, of course) meant that by the mid 1980s, Americans were very well acquainted with the genre—or at least some depiction of it. And so it quickly surfaced in pop culture. For instance, this 1983 spoof commercial from HBO’s Not Necessarily the News:

The figure of the romance novelist also began popping up in the movies. You’re probably familiar with the 1990 film adaptation of the Stephen King book Misery, starring James Caan as an injured author trapped inside the isolated home of his biggest (and most deranged) fan Annie Wilkes, played by Kathy Bates. But did you know that Caan is not (as I’d always assumed) a horror novelist, but in fact the author of bestselling series historical romance novels starring a woman named “Misery Chastain”? And boy, is he cranky with the sacrifices he’s made on the altar of commercial success! Caan looks impossibly weary in a flashback meeting with his agent, played by Lauren Bacall. “I haven’t been a writer since I got in the Misery business,” he tells her morosely, before she rattles off all everything it’s brought him, like the box seats at Knicks games.

It’s a weird choice, really. There’ve always been a few male writers knocking around the business at any given time, and Nicholas Sparks is proof-positive a man can break into James Patterson-level bestseller-dom writing “love stories” for women. (Not that he can bring himself to avoid being a total turd about it.) But they’ve always been the exception, not the rule, and in the historical market of the ‘80s they seem to have taken pen names, generally. Then again, a couple of strangers trapped in cabin together, establishing intimacy, is a classic romance plot. And it’s pretty clear that Stephen King was working through his own thoughts about being a commercial success constantly dismissed by the critics—plus, book signings are awkward enough without any of your fans getting the idea you think they’re an Annie Wilkes.

Oh, Annie Wilkes. It’s a testament to how fantastic Misery truly is that I wasn’t madder at this stereotype of a romance obsessive. You know, a dumpy, dysfunctional loner weirdo with a pet pig who thinks Liberace records are the height of culture. (Which of course they are!) But Kathy Bates is just so damned good that she takes those basic characteristics and twists them into something specific and amazing and absolutely good-God-almighty terrifying. (And of course let’s not forget that Stephen King was really writing about drugs, anyway.)

The movie She-Devil, on the other hand, is more preoccupied with the genre specifically. Made in 1989 and directed by Desperately Seeking Susan’s Susan Seidelman, it stars Rosanne Barr as dumpy, put-upon housewife Ruth, who goes on a revenge campaign when glamorous and successful romance novelist Mary Fisher (played by Meryl Streep) steals her accountant husband Bob. (Who is a shithead, by the way.) It is a very funny movie. But it’s got a distinctly “cherishing the chains of their bondage” second-wave feminist attitude to romance novels.

Meryl’s Mary Fisher, the bestselling romance novelist/husband stealer, is a ridiculous creature. She lives in a giant pink seaside monstrosity of a house (on Long Island, no less), sleeping in a pink bedroom that looks like a love hotel. She wears nothing but cream and pink and absurd hats and entirely too many floral accents. She speaks in a breathy voice and waves her manicured hands around helplessly while saying things like, “I have absolutely no head for money matters, at all. I just find it all so terribly, terribly confusing.” She says her fans, with the help of her books, “find ways to make make their man feel important, and comfortable. To let him know that he is the man, you know, so there’s no confusion.”

Mary Fisher is a classic example of romance novelist as patriarchal stooge. Which is funny, when you consider how many people seem to fret that romance novels give women “unrealistic expectations,” like how they’re entitled to an orgasm every once in a while.

Speaking of orgasms, let’s not forget this gem from She-Devil: “I guess you’ve gotta have a very vivid imagination to write these romances, don’t you?” accountant Bob says to Mary. “Yes, I do. But I also do a lot of…. research,” Mary replies, before they lunge into each other’s arms. This is another theme, one that cropped back up in teen classic 10 Things I Hate About You in the form of Allison Janney’s oversexed high-school counselor. (Though I’ll admit when I was a kid Janney’s character seemed comical, as an adult she seems downright aspirational.)

Meanwhile, put-upon housewife Ruth loves romance novels, and Mary Fisher’s novels in particular. She’s got them all over her badly decorated house. (“I’m sure Ruth reads these books for inspiration,” her mother-in-law says.) When she begins her revenge plot by burning down Bob’s house, she starts the fire by throwing her paperbacks in the washing machine with an iron. It’s a case study in how quickly the narrative becomes, “Housewives ugly! Single ladies selfish! CAGE MATCH!”

Though the movie does hand Fisher a zinger when People comes to do a profile: “Some critics charge that your books are nothing more than soft-core porn for bored housewives.” “Those critics are usually men.”

The two movies neatly capture two romance-writer stereotypes that clicked into place over the course of the 1980s and have plagued the genre ever since: sad-sack hacks who do it lazily for the cash, and deluded wacko ladies who sit around eating bonbons while churning out the purplest of prose. Which is the opposite of what I saw attending RWA.

If you’d cruised by the Mariott Marquis during the conference, you’d have seen precious few Mary Fishers swanning around in fancy hats. Nora Roberts—for all that she has more money than God these days—informed the crowd at her talk that, “There is no fucking muse,” then told a story about the phone call where she was informed she’d just sold her first book. Her sons were in the next room fighting, one trying to hold the other down and fart on him. If anything, the business is friendly to the Ruths of the world. Fans read so much that the business is incredibly high volume, rendering agents and publishers perpetually hungry for new material. And generally, it’s those same fans who produce each new crop of writers, especially now that self-publishing exists as an option. Frankly, the whole conference reminded me of something like Mary Kay, or Avon—an empire built on the talents of women hunting a flexible opportunity to bring home some cash doing fulfilling work. It made me wonder just how much of this business, from big-budget crossover hardcovers to $2.99 a pop Kindle titles, is driven by corporate America’s historical unfriendliness to women, and to women with kids especially.

That being said, the business is still friendliest to women who are white, hetereosexual and middle class—to a dispiriting degree, as the Toast’s coverage makes clear. While there are a number of very dedicated people within romance working to change that, but it’s no easy task. The conference offered multiple panels on diversity, but authors of color, for example, are often channeled into “multicultural” lines that may not be shelved with the rest of the romance and certainly don’t get the marketing push for “mainstream” (read those as the scariest of scare quotes) titles. Then there’s the fact that the genre is accustomed to outside sexist attacks, which encourages an us-against-the-world mentality—which in turn can make many resistant to valid internal critiques. But change is absolutely necessary. Despite RITA nods for diverse books by authors including Sonali Dev and Farrah Rochon, the “inspirational” (read: explicitly Christian romance) and first book categories included nominations for an absolutely appalling riff on the Book of Esther, set during the Holocaust and featuring a Jewish heroine. The “hero” of this book? The goddamn commandant of the concentration camp.

But of course, cultural awareness of the genre never gets that deep, staying determinedly surface-level. Witness the coverage that several years of Fifty Shades enthusiasm has brought. One infamous New Republic article from 2014, pegged to an academic study of the Fifty Shades phenomenon, declared that, “Dreck of this stupendous caliber has a particular advantage over literature in that one doesn’t have to read all of it to surmise, accurately and eternally, that it is all uniformly awful and awfully uniform—romance novels, like racists, tend to be the same wherever you turn.” Silly ladies and their silly books, right?

Which brings us to Romancing the Stone, widely beloved by romance types and arguably the most famous depiction of the genre, which follows a successful historical romance writer who takes off to Columbia to help her kidnapped sister.

At first blush, Joan Wilder appears slightly pathetic. She breaks down in tears while finishing her latest manuscript, overcome at her own creation. In fact she cries so often that every Kleenex box in her house is empty. She has a cat, of course, and she wanders around her apartment in a flannel nightshirt.

And yet! The movie was written by a devoted fan of the genre, and in fact it’s a pretty loving portrait. Kathleen Turner plays a competent, charming woman who just happens to be deeply out of her element—but she manages nonetheless. The only romance fan they encounter is a gun-toting local who is so delighted to meet his favorite author (“Joan Wilder? THE Joan Wilder?!”) that he happily rescues them from a jam. Joan figures out where some all-important emeralds are because the situation parallels one of her plots. And one of the ways they characterize her love interest (played by Michael Douglas) Jack T. Colton as basically a good dude is that he’s actually respectful of her writing. “I’m telling you I’m impressed! I am!” he assures her, right before they hop into bed together.

Not only is the movie a fond portrait, it does a pretty great job of deploying the tropes of romance to illustrate why exactly fans keep coming back for more. By the conclusion, when Joan’s publisher is crying over her latest manuscript and declaring it fantastic, you’re willing to grant that actually, yes, it’s wonderful reading something that literally brings you to tears. Joan lives in a modest apartment and writes books people love and files on time and makes a pretty good living doing emotionally satisfying work. Shit, that’s the dream, right?

Contact the author at [email protected].

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