We can plainly make the case that romance writing must be stopped. But this would prove as useful as an order to ladies to set aside their scant attire. Firstly, large numbers of people are already of the view that any feminine display is shameful, so there’s really no need to reprise it. Secondly, truly shameless women won’t even hear our commands. Like the unapologetic teen, the romance novelist will go about her business unaffected. If you ask her if she cares for broad respectability, she will tell you, “I couldn’t care about it any less”.
This is the response, at least, of Stephanie Laurens, a former biochemist whose many, many works on love populate the New York Times bestseller list. Captain Jack’s Woman, The Lady Risks All and Temptation and Surrender are among the widely read titles that moved her from the realm of dry fact into the more profitably humid one of romance fiction. Along with more than 300 published, unpublished and unrepentant writers, Laurens attended the Romance Writers of Australia annual conference in Melbourne last weekend.
There are two things that strike a romance observer on initial descent to the Park Hyatt ballroom. The first is that no one is wearing a ripped regency carriage gown, which I found a bit disappointing. The second, not unrelated, surprise is that these broads have no time for nonsense. They are far too busy making deals, delivering pitches and ordering scene cards to bother with chignons. Their billion-dollar industry, which commands more than 50% of all Australian paperback sales, is growing far too fast to consider mainstream reviews. If there is pause in this business-minded conference to ask “what do people think of me?”, it is entirely made for the romance reader.
“I am absolutely led to write by my readers,” said Laurens. She has a list, she says, of secondary characters for whom fans demand, and receive, entire novels. And she has a commitment to converse. If a romance reader wants something badly, she’ll probably get it. If there’s a place from which to view the slow death of the author, it’s the platform of romance fiction.
Many romance authors build market value through conscious self-diminishing. Often their readership increases as their inclination to absolute authority drops. A process that honours the romance reader has unfolded informally for decades; through newsletters and private correspondence, the reader critic has defined and expanded a category that outsells any other. These days, the market conversation happens openly and at speed online and is formalised in many of the workshops throughout the weekend. Readers judge, authors respond and a relationship between reader, author and text of such complexity is revealed that a romance naif is moved to wonder if someone shouldn’t call Roland Barthes.
Silly me. Someone has. And, often. Dr Beth Driscoll of Melbourne University is one of several lettered ladies on hand to describe the interplay between reader and writer in the terms of literary theory. “The dynamic relationship between romance reader and writer has a long history and its one that has only intensified and finds its expression on the page.” With Dr Lisa Fletcher from the University of Tasmania, an editor for the Journal of Popular Romance Studies, she is here to theorise a population that wields more power, and produces much more creative deference, than even Star Wars fandom.
You don’t get away with a Jar Jar Binks-sized error in romance fiction, and you don’t succeed in simply thinking of readers as fans. They are creators and their passions become the predominant passions for romantic heroines, who are currently covered in a good deal of dust. Rural romance, aka “Chook Lit”, feeds the greed many Australians, including men — whose readership of the genre is estimated at around 20% — have for an idealised view of their nation. With print runs that exceed the dreams of most literary novelists, these works, sold often in discount department stores, drape a tarp over Voss’ discomfort with the outback and use it for a snog outside a B&S ball.
Although a consumer of Chook Lit, novelist Alli Sinclair elected to give herself over to the world of dance for her debut Harlequin outing, Luna Tango. Like most successful romance writers, the former copywriter knows her way around the alphabet and that her growing relationship with an audience is central to creative and commercial success. What she also knows, even amid a conference that is easily the biggest and most practical business-oriented event for Australian writers, is that love is real.
If you don’t know love, you have no business here or elsewhere in an industry, however much it is mediated by market need, than runs on emotion. A cynic cannot write romance for cash — I’ve tried and, like many arrogant writers tempted by the thought of “easy money”, I’ve failed. It’s not enough to be a postmodern business-minded girl to succeed. You need to be truly sentimental.
This is a weekend of workshops on matters so practical and budgetary, it even draws experienced writers from other genres. I spot forensic medicine bestseller Kathryn Fox, whose heroines are less likely to wear a bodice than they are a blood-spattered lab coat. These women — and they are nearly all women, notably excepting a small group of men referred to as “the husbands” who keep the pitch sessions running to time — may write to a fantasy, but they don’t write from within one.
But they do have time for a sentimental coda. Jennifer Kloester, biographer and champion of the genre, is moved to weep about a dozen times when she speaks of the newly celebrated romance novelist, Georgette Heyer. The late Heyer, whose living fans are several and often posh, was recently honoured with one of the UK’s blue literary plaques. Stephen Fry was present, admitting that he had been “hooked” on the regency romance of Heyer since his school days, and so was Kloester who, despite her important role in the ceremony, was unable to recount it through her tears. Sinclair, herself overcome, tried to explain to me why a room full of very sensible women were now sobbing. She gave up and told me to look it up online.
There is love here. And I suspect it’s not chiefly for well-oiled heroes in buckskin. It’s for the achievements of women who read and write and work in a mutual service.
*This article was originally published at Daily Review