Emma Teitel of MacLean’s had a fascinating study of romance novels and their writers. She makes the case that it’s an astonishingly friendly, yet frequently overlooked, field of popular literature. Lessons, I’d suggest, could be taken from it.
When American filmmaker Laurie Kahn set out to make Love Between the Covers, a documentary about the women who read and write romance novels, she was struck by how often she heard the same story. It wasn’t a tale of beefy bodice rippers or love at first sight; it was a story about snobs. “I can’t tell you how many people I interviewed,” says Kahn, “who told me that people will walk up to them on a beach and say, ‘Why do you read that trash?’ ” Apparently, where lovers of romance novels go, contempt follows. Sometimes it’s subtle contempt—a raised eyebrow from a colleague, or a snarky comment from a friend (usually the kind of person who claims to read Harper’s on a beach vacation). Other times it’s more overt, even potentially damaging. When Mary Bly (pen name Eloisa James), an academic and New York Times bestselling author, began writing romance, she was advised to keep her fiction writing secret or risk not making tenure at the university where she worked.
For some reason, argues Kahn, perhaps because its subjects are female, romance novels are perceived as fundamentally silly, when other popular “genre fiction”—namely, fiction by and for men—is not. “Nobody,” she says, would walk up to “a man reading Stephen King, or a mystery or sci-fi novel” and scoff. And she’s right: Stephen King may write circles around romance novelist Nora Roberts, but mystery-thriller buffs James Patterson and Dean Koontz most certainly do not. Yet Roberts is the butt of jokes—a universal default example of “bad writing,” while her equally schlocky male contemporaries get a free pass.
A filmmaker whose previous work includes the Emmy-winning documentary A Midwife’s Tale, and Tupperware!, a film about American women of the 1950s who made small fortunes throwing Tupperware parties, Kahn wanted to explore not only the double standard faced by romance authors, but the wild success and collaborative nature of the romance community itself. Love Between the Covers, which premieres at Toronto’s Hot Docs festival at the end of the month, explores life from the perspective of the genre’s giants and veterans—the Nora Robertses and Beverly Jenkinses of the field (the latter a pioneer of African-American romance writing)—and its millions of readers and aspiring writers, some of whom work full-time jobs, yet write more than a thousand words every evening. (When Lenora Barot, pen name Radclyffe, began writing what would become groundbreaking lesbian romance fiction in the ’90s, she was a full-time plastic surgeon.) “It’s these untold stories of women that really appeal to me,” says Kahn. “Here is this community that is huge. It’s a multi-billion-dollar business and the women in it are writing a huge range of romantic fiction and no one gives them the time of day.”