The Romance Novel Convention in Harper’s

January 23, 2014
Harper's (Feb., 2014) contains an essay about the romance-novel business. Harper’s (Feb., 2014) contains an essay about the romance-novel business.

Just in time for Valentine’s Day, the February issue of Harper’s features an essay about the hopeful fringe of the romance-novel industry.

In “Bad Romance: One Genre and a Billion Happy Endings,” Jesse Barron describes attending the first annual Romance Novel Convention in Las Vegas — the perfect city for these dream-peddlers and hopeful scribblers. The convention is a five-day smattering of trite classes, cheesy entertainment and a costume ball — all designed to prey on the aspirations of people who imagine that writing fiction is an easy way to wealth. “The $1.4 billion romance-novel market,” Barron reminds us, “is the most lucrative in US publishing.”

Newly engaged after knowing his fiancee for just six weeks, Barron knows something about being swept away. But in this alternately poignant and satiric piece, he’s aiming to capture the absurdity of a strange subset of the book industry.

Encouraged by the testimonies of (exceedingly rare) writers who make $40,000 a month, the conference attendees pay hundreds of dollars to listen to the banal, self-serving advice of convention founder Jimmy Thomas, who has appeared on thousands of paperbacks. At the climax of one presentation, a hunky cowboy rips off his leather vest and sets his underwear aflame. (Don’t try this at home.)

It’s easy to agree with Barron’s suggestion that these poor schmucks are being taken advantage of. The students eagerly copy down “secrets” to success like this: “Three turning points and one ‘dark moment’ per twenty-four chapter book.”

“What’s always true about a gold rush is this,” Barron notes: “Better to be the person selling the pan than the person panning the river.”

But there’s a note of condescension in this essay that sometimes strikes outside the target. Barron describes one instructor as “a large woman who seems warm and un-sass-able; if she weren’t doing this, she could be working afternoons on a cowboy bar.” Another, we’re told, “is preppy, with the self conscious mischievous attitude of a woman who knocks back a few too many Chardonnays at the PTA fund-raiser.”

Barron frames his essay provocatively with reference to an AMBER Alert: the desperate search for James Lee DiMaggio, who kidnapped a 16-year-old girl last summer. As students at the Romance Novel Convention are learning how to write about idealized romance, the police are trying to stop a ghastly perversion of romance from being consummated in the woods.

That makes for an unsettling reflection on our attitudes about eroticism and danger.

Ron Charles is the editor of The Washington Post's Book World. For a dozen years, he enjoyed teaching American literature and critical theory in the Midwest, but finally switched to journalism when he realized that if he graded one more paper, he'd go crazy.
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