Two brave and sensual members of Jezebel staff (Kelly Faircloth and I, hello!) have come to Dallas to rub elbows with blockbuster romance writers, steely cover models, and wolf-whistling fans at the Romantic Times’ annual convention. Now in it’s 32nd year, the RT Booklovers convention takes all the typical tropes of mass fan gatherings and turns them on their heads.
Here, instead of booth girls, we are given hunky ab-blasted men to leer at; instead of a genre’s greats being separated from the proles who gobble up their work, we two-step with bestsellers, whether you like bonnet ripping Amish-themed romances or pulling a train with a bunch of bikers in a Mad Max landscape. All are welcomed here at this female-driven, female-run, multi-million dollar industry.
Throughout the week we will be bringing pipping hot coverage of all things romance: from the next kink trend, to author interviews, to whatever goofy antics we get into.
I’m new to romance. I have only skimmed a few books waiting to find the dirty words that make my animal parts squiggle. Kelly, on the other hand, has an Ivy League understanding of the genre and various smutty (and not-so-smutty) sub-genres. So, we shall begin with a quick primer on what the hell we have gotten ourselves into.
Natasha Vargas-Cooper: Kelly, why are romance novels Important?
Kelly Faircloth: Well, do they have to be Important?
NVC: OH SHIT!!!!!!
KF: Okay, non smart-ass answer: They are one of the only corners of culture that is not only dominated in its creation and consumption by women, but concerned with female characters and things generally dismissed as “feminine.” Women are the heroes of these stories, which makes for a nice palate cleanser compared to, say, summer blockbusters, where execs write about how female superhero movies aren’t worth making and Black Widow gets erased from her own scenes when they’re trying to sell plastic offshoot toys to boys.
NVC: What don’t people get about romance novels?
KF: It’s not all the same book and there’s a fucking million subgenres and that’s what’s so fun.
There’s contemporaries. There’s Westerns. There’s romantic suspense with military dudes, and romantic suspense with cops. There’s firefighters. There’s Regency historical romance and there’s Victorian historical romance. There’s BDSM romance and there’s menage romance and there’s erotic romance. There’s paranormals (vampires, werewolves, fae, bear shape shifters). There’s sweet romances, there’s inspirational sweet romances, and there are specifically Amish romances. I could keep going. Trying to draw an tree-of-life-style taxonomy would send you around the bend, too, because these can all be combined in different ways.
NVC: OK. And what if I want to fuck a bunch of biker dudes in a apocalyptic landscape WITH MY MIND?
KF: Amazon is pretty much swimming in biker novels lately. (I guess the dudes in the Beyond series are practically bikers, though they are really tattooed bootleggers. Victoria Dahl wrote a good romance with a biker hero recently. Cara McKenna has a biker series, I believe.
However! If it’s going to be a romance novel, it’ll end with some sort of relationship (though it certainly doesn’t have to be a relationship that looks like the 1950s nuclear family).
NVC: BIKERS ARE SO NEEEEEDDDY!!!!!!!! Ok, why do *you* love romance novels?
KF: Well, for starters, for my money, they are wildly entertaining. They are much more self-aware than non-readers give them credit for being. In part it’s that I like a complete narrative arc I can enjoy in a couple of days. And they’re books that give a shit about the female experience, insomuch as that’s even a discrete thing? As many romance writers have observed, this is a genre where the heroine is the hero, and I’m into that.
I also like various subgenres for different reasons. Historicals often have a good combo of banter and ANGST, I find. And when you’ve read enough of them, you start to be able to enjoy the tropes in a new way. Just when you think you’ve read the last interesting cowboy + secretary, somebody pulls off a triple backflip execution and you’re like, damn.
Plus, I don’t want to overplay the importance of sex (it doesn’t have to be raunchy to be a romance) but it is a place of pretty radical sexual exploration by largely women.
NVC: It’s said that the White Male Canon can’t swing a good sex scene. Not Updike. Not Mailer. Not Franzen. Is it just impossible to write good sex? Would you say that the sex in romance novels is well written?
KF: I think it’s like any other genre—there’s a bunch of books, plenty of them aren’t any good, some of them are good, sometimes the sex is blah. That said: I think romance writers write good sex on their own terms. I don’t think they’ll be adding a category to the Pulitzers any time soon, and if you were determined to make fun of even the best-written sex scene in a romance novel, you certainly could. But that’s probably because you can always find some way to mock sex, like anything else where people make themselves vulnerable.
I think romance novelists probably do a better job than many writers at portraying sex. And that’s because they take it seriously. Not in the sense that it always has to be intense or solemn, but they generally consider sexual satisfaction part of fulfilling relationship, and they are interested in what makes a fulfilling relationship.
Plus they’re not skeeved out by sex. And you read some literary writers and you start to wonder!
NVC: And being into good sex is considered corny, right? Or, at least, that sex you find in a Franzen novel or in Updike is regarded as dirty and shame-filled.
KF: Death and violence are serious; sex and love are cornball. Think about how Game of Thrones is treated like America’s weekly poli sci class. People pore over it like it’s a John Stuart Mill treatise. Sure, it’s a good opportunity to have some interesting freshman common-room convos about governance, but let’s face it, I’m never going to run a small country and decide whether to kill my enemies or show mercy. Most people are going to be in relationships of some sort.
NVC: What is the difference between romance novels and self-published fiction like Fifty Shades?
KF: There are many romance novels that are now self-published, and many of them are quite good. Self-publishing is at this point a thriving corner of the romance market. Often, they are more experimental or niche or just off the beaten track somehow.
Fifty Shades specifically is a matter of some debate. I don’t find it particularly compelling as a romance novel, though I suppose it fits the technical definition. But it does demonstrate the degree to which fanfic and fandom and romance are cross-pollinating. They have for a long time, of course—there were a lot of Buffy enthusiasts writing and reading all those vampire novels. But it’s getting more intense, I think, because now so much of this lives online, jostling up against each other.
NVC: But is the romance publishing industry over? Or at least on the ropes by all the rogue self-publishing smut writers? Or is it keeping pace with the onslaught of self-published 5,000-word single stories on Amazon?
KF: The industry is not going anywhere. Sure, maybe some publishers might struggle with the sea change more than others. I really wonder how Harlequin’s category lines will fare in the next ten years or so. But I think there are so many readers buying so many books that it’s just not as apocalyptic a climate as the rest of the book industry sometimes feels. It’s not zero-sum. Plus, it’s really tricky to pull off an emotionally satisfying romance—quickly downloaded shorties aren’t going to replace something longer, written with more effort. It’s not like online media where the almighty Facebook algorithm has created entire companies churning out viral quickies. Romance readers read constantly, and they are very opinionated. Anybody who continues to serve up things that hit has a shot, whether that’s a traditional publisher or a self-published author.
NVC: It seems like boundary between writer and reader in here is much more porous than what’d you expect at, say, a Sci-Fi convention.
KF: Definitely. There are plenty of people who’ll try to get a romance novel published and fail, but there are so many published every month that a not-insignificant number will succeed. And that’s traditionally where a lot of the talent has come from—fans who thought “I can do this” or “I can do this better” or “I bet this element of my life experience would make a good romance setting.” I don’t think the people who’re like, “This is dumb, I can do this, even though I’ve literally never read one” will generally succeed. (Nor should they, because screw that attitude.)
NVC: While romance readers are not a monolith, who is your *typical* romance reader these days?
KF: You know, I’m really not sure, to tell you the truth. The stereotype has always been basically middle-America, middle-class moms. But I think it’s a broader group than that. I think there are a lot of young women reading them.
NVC: What should a romance noobie like me do if I want to dip into these slutty waters?
KF: Well, you have non-raunchy options, too! Sex is a big part of the genre, but if you’re not into explicit stuff, there’s plenty of chaster options. I spent a lot of the winter reading older novels by Carla Kelly, who’s written a lot about Napoleonic veterans who aren’t viscounts or dukes. There’s more crying than sex in those books, and I love them.
I think you’ve gotta hone in on what you like. If you’re really into Outlander or Merchant Ivory or Downton or Jane Austen adaptations, you’re a likely historical reader, and I would suggest starting with Eloisa James, Julia Quinn, Sarah MacLean, or Lisa Kleypas. If you like modern-day romantic comedies or you’re fascinated by The Bachelor, you’re probably more of a contemporary type. I’d go maybe Jennifer Crusie or if you’re into the sexier stuff, try Victoria Dahl.
NVC: What if I am raunchy and love butt stuff and criminals?
KF: Well, you’ll have more luck searching for “bad boys.” I’d do maybe Kit Rocha’s aforementioned Beyond series or try something by Cara McKenna. Once you do find a writer you like, follow them on Twitter and see who they’re reading, which I find pretty reliable. Also, find bloggers who like the stuff you like. Discovery on Amazon for this stuff is a NIGHTMARE. Lots of one-off self-published stuff turns up in search results and it gets really difficult to sort the wheat from the chaff. (Half the time I get frustrated and just reread an old favorite.)
NVC: Will romance ever be taken seriously by Great Writers?
KF: Probably not, because it’s a popular literature controlled by women. But I don’t think it needs to be taken seriously. I think when you’re a reader or a writer there’s a lot of pressure to defend the genre, and that always bugs me, because why should I have to defend it? Dudes don’t get called onto the carpet to defend their secret Tom Clancy addiction. A love of mysteries isn’t treated as some sociological issue that must be unpacked. There was a piece in The Awl a few years ago that argued for romance as an underground literature, something that exists on its own terms. And that really spoke to me as a fan. I don’t need the approval of the New York Times Book Review to think that Lisa Kleypas is a fucking fantastic writer of popular fiction. I don’t need anybody’s permission, and neither does romance.
Stay tuned for more dispatches from Dallas.
Images via Author / Amazon / RT Convention Flickr