How Romance Novelists Are Mobilizing Voters in Solidarity With Stacey Abrams

How Romance Novelists Are Mobilizing Voters in Solidarity With Stacey Abrams

Illustration: Chelsea Beck/GMG

It’s both fitting and unsurprising to me, as somebody who has spent years reading and covering the genre, that a romance novelist was deeply involved in the long, patient efforts to flip Georgia blue. While outsiders to the romance genre seem perpetually surprised to learn about Stacey Abrams’s writing career as Selena Montgomery, insiders see perfect symmetry. Romance writers are driven, unbelievably productive, and regularly craft clockwork-tight plots that maintain suspense even when we all know that the main characters will ultimately live happily ever after—a skill set that translates to all sorts of other spheres, including grassroots organizing. What’s a plot, if not a plan?

And so it’s also fitting that this year the romance community has shown up en masse to support Abrams’s efforts with both phone banking and a massive fundraising effort. It’s the culmination of a journey inside “Romancelandia,” as those within the genre frequently refer to its community, as readers and writers have been ever-more explicitly engaged with progressive politics in their books, on social media, and in their community. Happily ever afters have always been political, of course, but the conversation has ratcheted up several levels in recent years. As a genre traditionally marginalized within the literary universe and even within popular culture—all those Fabio jokes—romance is accustomed to sticking together and fighting anybody who would trash them. With two recent efforts, they’re turning that spirit and their frankly intimidating organizational skills toward American electoral politics.

One of these organizing efforts, a phonebanking initiative dubbed “Fated States,” was born from the blow of losing Ruth Bader Ginsburg as Supreme Court Justice. Romance novelist Sarah MacLean and critic Jen Prokop run Fated Mates, a podcast dedicated to the genre. It got its start with a reread of the sprawling, utterly wild 18-book paranormal romance series Immortals After Dark by Kresley Cole, which features the common paranormal trope of couples who are destined for one another, despite any number of major barriers to their happily ever after—hence the title. But now MacLean and Prokop range further afield, from specific tropes to special episodes in the wake of the Kavanaugh hearing and Ginsburg’s death, basically raging about politics. “I don’t think Jen and I have hidden our politics… really ever,” MacLean told Jezebel over Zoom; Prokop agreed dryly: “We’ve probably not cultivated an audience of apolitical people.”

As MacLean explained, they said to themselves: “We can’t wake up on November 4th and think, we didn’t do enough, and we’ve got this platform.” Prokop has a close friend who volunteers frequently with the organization Indivisible Action and connected them to the organization for phonebanking. And so began “Fated States,” where they invited listeners to join them in essentially a virtual phonebanking party. “You’re on a Zoom with 30 faces,” explained Prokop. “Everybody phonebanks on mute, but in the chat, you can type ‘somebody just cursed me out,’ or ‘I just talked to a 91-year-old lady who said I can’t wait to vote for Biden.’ It was that sense of doing it together that really made it fun.”

Except, as MacLean hastened to add, with a romance twist: “But plus— ‘Hey, has anybody read a really good secret baby romance recently?’”

When it was all said and done, they’d enlisted 200 phonebankers total, who’d called seven states over six weeks and made more than 300,000 calls. (Which doesn’t mean they spoke to 300,000 people—that includes wrong numbers and calls that weren’t answered—but it still constitutes many, many conversations.) Authors donated books for participants; at one point, Julia Quinn (whose Bridgertons series is slated to debut on Christmas as the first Shondaland project for Netflix) stopped by with her husband, an infectious disease specialist who answered several questions about covid. When I spoke to MacLean and Prokop, they were getting ready for runoff efforts, preparing to phonebank for Abrams’s organization to fight voter suppression, Fair Fight—which required a separate training in making nonpartisan calls—and organizing a postcard party that would incorporate a live taping of a podcast episode. Nor are they done after Georgia; MacLean and Prokop are already looking forward and thinking about 2022.

Meanwhile, in the moment of agonizing suspense before the election was called for Biden, another effort took shape: Romancing the Runoff, an auction to raise money for progressive organizations working on the ground in Georgia. As they told it in a Zoom call with Jezebel, Bree Bridges texted her co-author, Donna Herren—together, they write as Kit Rocha—about whether it would be feasible to do something in support of the runoff in Georgia. There was a precedent: In 2019, the romance blog Love in Panels raised more than $20,000 via auction for the immigrant rights group Raices and the Young Center for Immigrant Children’s Rights. By roughly the next morning, Bridges and author Courtney Milan basically had the whole project ready to launch. They put up an ActBlue donate link in case anybody wanted to go ahead and drop some money in the hat—and before their auction ever even launched, they’d raised $93,500 for Fair Fight, Black Voters Matter, and the New Georgia Project.

“There were a ton of people who were on Twitter who wanted to do something, and all we could do was watch numbers get bigger,” Milan explained of the immediate enthusiasm. “I feel like people were like, Okay, here’s a number we can make get bigger, but I have a lot more control over.”

The auction quickly turned into a massive effort, with numerous volunteers and hundreds of auction items ranging from manuscript critique by leading genre names, to rare books, to a consult with a baby sleep specialist, to consultations with TV writers, to an absolutely beautiful baby quilt. They even added “buy it now” items such as signed books, so people who wanted to participate at a lower price point could. When the auction finally concluded on Tuesday, November 24, they’d raised a whopping $398,866.80. From “a 2l bottle of diet coke, a bunch of nerds, @courtneymilan, AND A PLAN,” as Bridges tweeted, to almost $400,000 in less than three weeks—that’s romance for you. In a final touch, while they made a deliberate decision not to reach out to Abrams—because they didn’t want to create more work for someone already doing so much—Abrams donated a signed hardcover of her first book, Rules of Engagement, for an “epilogue” auction.

Neither group was surprised to see romance turn in out huge numbers to support progressive political causes. For one thing, there’s a strong DIY culture in the romance genre, where authors are expected not just to produce quickly—“we have to craft multiple books a year generally, we have to be able to turn on a dime, we have to be able to adapt to shifts in society,” Alyssa Cole pointed out—but to take ownership of their own marketing and publicity tasks in traditional as well as self-publishing. And, frankly, romance as a genre is accustomed to going it alone in a broader sense: “It’s not like anybody is coming to defend romance. We’re out here, on our own, alone, defending ourselves, doing the work,” said MacLean.

The stereotypes about pink-swathed romance writers waxing poetic over Fabio are simply a million miles away from the reality of the genre; the fact is, the genre really does look a lot more like tax attorney and open Star Trek nerd Stacey Abrams, who people are still surprised to learn is a romance novelist. “All these people imagine that romance authors are like these stereotypical women who don’t know any better who just write about hot men because blah blah blah,” said Milan. “They don’t think about it in terms of people who get stuff done. People in Romanceland know that like 98 percent of us are lawyers. And so we’re not surprised about Stacey Abrams. It’s just the people outside, and we just want them to keep being surprised.” Cole also pointed out that all sorts of structural organizing work is routinely put upon marginalized peoples; this is an example of turning all that skill toward their own purposes.

Cole, too, says that the last four to five years of increased political consciousness in romance have prepared people in the genre for this moment: “I do think romance novels have been preparing people for this in a way,” or at least what she and Herren referred to as the “liberation wing” of the genre, borrowing a phrase from writer Racheline Maltese. “Particularly the last four to five years of more overtly political romances that were not, hey, let’s get along with the person from the other side,” she added. Trump’s election only accelerated an existing awakening, as readers and authors fought to make the whole of the genre, from the content of the books themselves to the professional environments in which they were crafted, shaped, and sold, more genuinely inclusive. It’s not the whole genre, as Herren pointed out; “I’m sure there are a lot of people who really enjoy romance and consider themselves major romance fans who are either completely oblivious to what we’re doing or giving us massive side-eye, but we don’t bother with those people.”

The efforts also neatly match the plot beats of the genre itself, which frequently runs on the tension between the impossible dark moment and the triumph of pulling off something positive. While it feels like eons ago, the year in romance began with an enormous blowup at the heart of the romance genre over diversity and inclusion—essentially over who was valued and whether it was more important to do the difficult work of justice or be “nice” and not to rock the boat—in which the genre’s professional organization was nearly destroyed. That fight is very old and it will continue for a long time, but these efforts have the feeling of the last page in one installment of a sprawling, multi-book series. “Happily ever after is not just falling in love,” Cole suggested. “It’s coming together with your community to do something.” By that metric, they nailed it.

Senior Editor, Attic Haunter, Jezebel

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DISCUSSION

itsnotaboutthepasta
itsnotaboutthepasta

I have leaned really heavily on romance (ok, technically fanfic, but I only read the risque stuff, no tame Gen fic for me thx) during this pandemic because I have needed some guarantee of a happy ending. The fact that these authors raised $400K in three weeks is incredible, as all eyes focus on Georgia for the next two months.