Who among us, even in the dyspeptic climate of Capitol Hill, does not yearn for the HEA?
For the cool of heart and the calculating of temperament, the Happily Ever After is the delicious denouement expected — nay, demanded — by romance fiction readers, writers, publishers and scholars, 200 of whom gathered this week for the first conference on the literature of love at the Library of Congress. Yes, that Library of Congress, devoting time to what the Center for the Book’s John Cole deemed “the most popular and least understood or appreciated genre.”
Filmmaker Laurie Kahn, who proposed the conference, offered a sneak preview of her documentary of the $1 billion industry, “Love Between the Covers.” Says Kahn, who also helped launch a Web site on popular romance, “This is a large, devoted group of female readers, and no one takes them seriously.”
For at least two days, they were taken as seriously as a pectorally endowed Regency duke astride his valiant steed.
Academics from Princeton, Duke, Johns Hopkins and Northwestern universities discussed science, history, sociology, digital technology and male potency as they apply to the romance genre. A remarkable number of the passionate readers and writers in attendance possess not only an unwieldy number of paperbacks whose covers are graced with leonine-tressed lovers (their own Libraries of Romantic Congress) but also doctorates, often in English literature. Jane Austen and the Brontes are apparently the gateway drugs to a lifetime of HEA yearning.
Debated were such seminal topics as “Where is romance fiction heading in the digital age?” (great places!) and “Is it possible to have romance after menopoause?” (Why, yes.)
It is entirely plausible that orgasm and sex have never been so felicitously discussed within the confines of the nation’s biblio palace, erected from the library of Thomas Jefferson, who many years after his death would himself become an improbable hero of historical romance.
In recent decades, romance fiction, which constitutes 21 percent of the adult fiction market, according to Harlequin Vice President Margaret Marbury, has exploded into multiple genres serving long-ignored audiences. Author Beverly Jenkins dates African American romance fiction to the 1980s, while Len Barot, who quit surgery to write romance under the pen name Radclyffe and has her own imprint, says that lesbian and gay romance is about a half-century old. “Before that, lesbians tended to die in suicide in the river,” she said. The HEA seemed to be for other people. So both women began writing to create the books they yearned to read.
There are subgenres of science-fiction romance (including interspecies hook-ups), mystery romance, Christian romance, Amish romance, teen romance, postmenopausal romance, urban romance, steampunk romance, vampire romance and, as if it doesn’t already get enough attention, zombie romance. If an appetite is overlooked, romance writers, big on self-publishing, will fill the void. Many writers make little money, but a few, like Liliana Hart, are CEOs of successful imprints where they are the sole author.
Noting a dearth of Hanukkah love stories, Sarah Wendell, who blogs at the Web site Smart Bitches Trashy Books and is the author of “Everything I Know About Love I Learned from Romance Novels,” wrote last year’s novella “Lighting the Flames.” She is a particular fan of the “contemporary snowbound romance.”
Sarah Frantz Lyons of Fayetteville, N.C., who describes herself as “queer, kinky, poly,” is editorial director of Riptide Publishing, which specializes in LGBTQ books, releasing one or two each week. Romance readers tend to, um, ravish books, polishing titles off in a matter of hours and consuming multiple volumes in a month, if not days. They’re literary gluttons, frequently satisfied yet always hungry.
Frantz Lyons has a penchant for BDSM romance (bondage, discipline, sadism, masochism). Her right arm is entwined in tattoos of favorite lines from romance literature and French semiotician Roland Barthes (possibly a first).
“I like romance books that have a lot of sexuality and because they’re affirming,” she said, hope being a favorite romance trope.
But most essential to success is the HEA, the constant that runs through all subgenres. As Nora Roberts, the queen of pop rom (214 titles with “The Liar” due in April; 400 million copies sold), proclaims in the film (she was sadly not in attendance): “At the end of a romance, I want love to conquer all. ‘Romeo and Juliet’ is about two stupid teenagers who committed suicide, and it’s not romantic.”
Readers appear to agree. Much like Supreme Court justice Potter Stewart on another subject in the 1960s, they know romance when they see it. One dismissed that Fifty Shades of Whatever book (gray is anathema in romance fiction, which favors covers drenched in explosive color or dreamy pastels) as “porny BDSM-y fan fic that too closely resembles certain virgin vampire books.”
Even with academics, documentary filmmakers and the Library of Congress taking notice, snobbery persists. Mary Bly, a graduate of Harvard, Oxford and Yale universities, initially told almost no one about writing Regency romances under the name Eloisa James, because she was a relatively young Elizabethan scholar at Fordham and didn’t want to jeopardize her chances at job security. “I was on the bestseller list when I got tenure,” said Bly, who was wearing a long jacket that looked suspiciously like a Georgian military coat — albeit one accented in shocking pink.
Though her many titles (“I think 23,” but she’s not sure) are rooted in fairy tales and the Georgian and Regency eras, Bly noted that “if you don’t change with the times, you die.” Bodices stopped ripping in the 1980s. A few years ago, there was a surge in working-class, motorcycle alpha dudes, but that’s over. Strong, independent women now thrive, which isn’t easy when duchesses are your livelihood. “So I create well-born women that have a career,” said Bly, who made Lady Xenobia India an interior decorator.
Kim Castillo, a former industrial sewing machine operator in Elkhart, Ind., fell in love with Eloisa James and all her duchesses, identifying with the character Josephine Essex, “who is a little plump. I told Mary that you cannot make her lose weight in the next book. She has to stay the same. The only thing that can change is her self-confidence.”
The literature prof and the Indiana seamstress became “great friends. For two years, we never talked on the phone until she offered me a job,” said Castillo, who is featured in Kahn’s movie and was a conference panel participant. Now, she works as an assistant for James/Bly,“making more than my husband and I did combined before, with insurance and benefits,” managing the Web site and reader relations and mailing out all kinds of insistently feminine swag.
Fan relations are enormous in the romance world, and romance readers come in all shapes and sizes, from all backgrounds. But they’re almost never male. “The last thing popular romance needs is a man in a suit ‘mansplaining’ what belongs in the canon,” said DePaul University professor Eric Selinger, the rare man at the conference who actually adores romance fiction. Selinger has taught multiple courses on the genre and edits the Journal of Popular Romance Studies.
“There are not a lot of us who read these books,” he admitted. “There’s this thinking that men are not interested in love, which doesn’t make a lot of sense when you look at popular music. For many of the men, they find the books tremendously intimidating.”
And why wouldn’t they, when Bly mentions getting a letter from a man worried that he was expected “to have this equipment the size of the Hubble Space Telescope?”
Or when Wendell exclaims, “I thought I was the only one who liked gravity-defying sex scenes?”
Or when author Brenda Jackson hears from men after their wives and girlfriends have read “Delaney’s Desert Sheikh,” and “my characters have this big kiss, Delaney has the Big O, and passes out” (page 73, to be specific)? And now their women crave a similar osculatory sensation?
This is what women appear to want, and they haven’t even mentioned the glistening pecs.