When I walked into the biennial conference of a local chapter of the Romance Writers of America, I expected to learn something but also find lots at which to snicker. I expected to find breathy-voiced women with long nails talking about fine young stallions looking to sweep willing young women off their feet. Romance writing isn’t taken seriously. Even though I, along with my wife, had been writing and successfully selling romance fiction for several months, I didn’t really take it seriously either.
I didn’t find anyone who fit the above description at the conference. There was the woman who seemed to drink champagne wherever she went, and a token male in a kilt, but most of the attendees wouldn’t have looked out of place picking up their kids from soccer. And increasingly, as I listened to the speakers, I started to feel that I was at a feminist event, possibly the most feminist event I’d ever been to. I started to think that writing romance fiction was a feminist act.
I am an unapologetic feminist. One of my first feminist acts was storming out of a third grade “careers” class in the late 1970s. The teacher kept expounding on various jobs and then explaining why girls couldn’t do them. I grew up to take part in college campus protests. I camped in the woods and listened to folk music. I attended feminist gatherings, even getting myself kicked out of one. (I forget why.)
The overall theme of feminism, for me, is not about having it all. It’s about having what you want and being honest about who you are. It’s about respecting who you are and what you do. This was exactly what the women at this convention were doing—and they were doing it well.
Romance novels are read by women, written by women, and published by women. The convention that I attended, the 2014 Spring Fling Writers Conference, organized by the Chicago-North chapter of Romance Writers of America, was filled with so many women and so few men that the men’s restroom closest to the meeting rooms was designated for women only. A sign directed the small number of men in attendance to walk to a restroom at the front of the hotel. The women at this conference were independent, but so supportive of each other that I mistook several pairs for lesbian couples. Nope, they were just writing partners.
The main argument I hear for romance writing not getting any respect from the literary establishment (or anyone else) is that it sticks to a formula, but I learned that this is no longer true, if it ever was. There are some basic tenets, as with any other genre of writing, that must be followed. Romance fiction features a love story with a happy ending. Other than that, have fun with it.
And the fact that everyone gets a happy ending, that even the most downtrodden characters who might traditionally come to bad ends can fall in love and live happily ever after, is another element that makes romance fiction a radical act. In romance fiction, the lesbian werewolf with a thing for raw meat and three-ways underneath the full moon can get a date. The cross-dresser in 18th century England will find true love with a prince or a princess.
I believe that the lack of respect for the industry has much more to do with pure sexism than anything else. What could be more frightening to the establishment than an organized group of women with the intelligence and the financial leverage to say what they think? And they think that love wins. How dare they? How terrifying. We must subject them to ridicule.
This lack of respect is certainly not a reflection of the genre’s finances or size. According to the National Romance Writers of America, romance fiction generates $1.4 billion in revenue and comprises 17% of the book publishing industry.
But by far, the ultimate act of feminist defiance by romance writers is that they don’t care whether the literary establishment gives them respect or not.
“As romance writers you bring happiness to people. Never apologize for what you do,” said Mary Balogh, a keynote speaker at the conference and the author of nearly 100 novels and novellas set in 19th century Regency England. (Some of these books have hit the New York Times bestseller list.) She then urged the audience to “have the courage to take yourself seriously.”
None of the speakers at the event, including Balogh, said anything about asking anyone else to take them seriously or to give them respect or anything else. The literary establishment can snicker all it wants. Romance writers have readers. They do what they love. They get letters from readers saying how a particular story with its guaranteed happy ending got them through cancer treatment or the death of a loved one.
“Being able to tell a story is a gift, and it’s a gift the world is waiting for,” said Balogh. She received a standing ovation
Romance writers may even save lives. One author who writes gay male young adult romance explained that she doesn’t fight pirated downloads because she suspects that many who download without buying a book are gay teens who don’t have access to a credit card. (Or if they do have access, they can’t use it to buy gay books.) When I came out in the late 1980s, I clung to any positive representation of gay life I could find. She thinks she’s saving lives, and she probably is.
Romance writers do what they love, and they get paid for it. They hone their craft, like any other writer. They value their work, and they speak with an honest voice, telling the stories that they want to tell.
I can’t imagine anything more feminist.
And, I’d like to add, I got my own happy ending. My wife and I wrote an interracial gay male BDSM love story of which I’m very proud. Five Easy Chocolate Pieces has recently been published by Dark Hollows Press.
Photographs provided by author.