I decided to look at the New York Times’ coverage of romance for some answers. (FWIW, I did the same search on USA today and found basically the same coverage). I have no big thesis, just a lot of quotes and random observations.
I enjoyed this little trip through time. I hope you do too.
A 1982 article on the genre’s growth, and on the Romantic Times and RWA conferences, is very respectful and neutral on readers. (OT: This article raises questions about the commonly accepted notion that romance coverage is improving all the time.)
In this article, the journalist speaks for readers, for example:
Now there’s something for every kind of reader, from the teen-ager to the woman who uses a walker, from the high-school dropout to the Ph.D. Both Harlequin and Silhouette are starting lines to provide longer reads and a more sophisticated treatment of sexual encounters.
In a 1987 review of the documentary on the romance industry Where the Heart Roams, Vincent Canby refers to romance novels as “paperback junk”. To our great misfortune, and his, Mr. Canby speaks if not for, at least about, us:
Mr. Cicsery doesn’t make fun of the women – he doesn’t have to. That’s the sad part. It’s ineffable because the sight of so many people devoting themselves so earnestly to such easily parodied wish-fulfillment leaves one nearly speechless.
This review hands down the nastiest thing I have ever read about the genre. Don’t click on the link unless you want to get annoyed.
A 1996 article in the NYT (in the NY Region section, not in books) entitled “Swooning Women, Bare Chested Men: A Magazine for Romance Novels and the Women Who Love Them“. It profiles Romantic Times founder (and Fabio discoverer) Kathryn Falk.
Others who speak for readers in this article are an Avon editor (who says romance readers are “voracious”, a word used in nearly every article I read for this blog entry. I’m thinking there’s some unconscious association there with “sexually insatiable”), the CEO of Kensington, two RWA communications directors (one former and one then current):
”One faction would like romance to be respected as women’s fiction,” said Maria Ferrer, former communications director for Romance Writers of America, an organization of 8,000 writers and aspiring writers.
The other faction?
”Well, they have the bodice-ripping covers, the Fabio covers, the pageants for cover models.”
In other words, they have Ms. Falk: a discoverer of the model Fabio, founder of male cover-model beauty pageants, in which muscular men pose in abbreviated Viking or pirate or cowboy costumes in front of hundreds of hooting women. ”I hate to use the word degrading, but it’s all I can think of right now,” said Catherine Carpenter, communications director for the writers’ group.
[OT, but Harlequin CEO Donna Hayes make the exact same “2 camps” comment in a 2009 article in USA today on the Princeton Romance Conference]
Here’s another interesting quote:
”The writing in some will knock your socks off,” said Helen Holzer, who reviews romances for The Atlanta Constitution, one of several mainstream publications now reviewing romance fiction.
[Note: It doesn’t appear to me that they ever reviewed much romance. And the AJC fired its book review editor in 2007.]
Edited to add: That was wrong. I’ve had an email from Ms. Holzer which clarifies that she wrote a regular romance review column for the Atlanta Journal Constitution. I very much appreciate that she took the time to correct the record, and share a bit about her own fascinating career:
I have been a journalist since 1972 and began reading romance novels when I lived in Paris in 1989-90.
You mentioned my interview with the New York Times. I had started my monthly romance review column for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that ran for 3-1/2 years in print (1996-2000) and six months online in 2002 before I left the paper.
[Here is a review snippet from a 1998 review of Elizabeth Thornton’s You Only Love Twice.]
I also was a mainstream book reviewer and have reviewed most all genres over the years, but romance is my passion. I now write book covers and press releases for a worldwide book publisher, Strategic Book Group, among my many other freelance jobs.
Just so your blog is correct, there was indeed a romance column in the AJC for many years and I wrote it. It was called Heartbeat in print and Love Bytes on the paper’s Web site.
In a 1999 article covering that year’s RWA entitles “Romance Novelists: Profits without Honor“, readers are not represented except through authors and editors, but it is another example of a respectful article (with the exception of the use of the word “cattiness” to describe the air of desperation among aspiring authors at RWA.)
There was even one seminar called ”Defending the Genre,” in which the novelist Valerie Taylor listed the most frequently heard insults of the genre: it’s anti-feminist, it presents too many woman as needing to escape abusive relationships, all the books are the same, it’s just pornography for women, it’s unrealistic, it’s fluff, and it can’t be serious if half the population doesn’t care about it. She offered advice on how to respond. For instance, for insulters who read literary fiction, she advised her listeners, ”Give them well-written books that deal with slightly darker things.”
The overall point was that the romance genre is large and various, its pulpiness and sugar-coating offered in a range of doses, its plots and settings vastly differentiable, its sentences not necessarily execrable. Not unlike, say, science fiction, horror fiction or mysteries, all of which have well-known practitioners whose work is often treated with seriousness by readers and reviewers
A bit OT, but I found Jennifer Crusie’s remarks so interesting I had to include them:
Genre fiction, she said, is defined by reader expectations.
”In literary fiction, the expectation is for the language,” she said, ”but if you are a genre reader you will put up with a lot of bad writing if you are interested in the plot and the characters. The primary thing I have to accomplish on the page is character, and I will sacrifice language for it.”
Another difference is that ”literary fiction looks ahead” and ”genre fiction tells us what everyone was thinking five minutes ago. We’re reactive. We don’t challenge as much. In my last book, I challenged the assumption that a woman should lead her life for the expectations of other people. Well, that’s kind of a ‘duh.’ ”
Ms. Crusie does despair that commerce drives romance writers to minimize their artistic impulses. What, after all, to make of a seminar that urges writers to deepen their characterizations by learning more about the eight female archetypes? (For the uninformed, they are: the nurturer, the crusader, the librarian, the waif, the free spirit, the spunky kid, the survivor and the boss.)
In an August 2001 article called, “Forecasts of an E-Book Era Were, It Seems, Premature“, romance is again linked to the ebook revolution:
Janice Goodfellow, a 47-year-old former office manager who lives in rural Michigan, usually devours about a half-dozen paperback thrillers and romance novels a week. But her home is about 15 miles from the nearest bookstore, in Novi, Mich. She heard about electronic books from a romance readers Web site. So on a snowy winter’s night a year ago she tried downloading a novel from a site, and she liked it.
“I’m lazy and sometimes I don’t want to drive,” Ms. Goodfellow said. In the last year, she has read about 20 electronic books sitting at her desktop computer. “I’d buy all my books this way if they were available from major publishers and they weren’t expensive.”
But Ms. Goodfellow has not yet bought any from the major publishers because they usually charge more than $15 ? generally asking more for the electronic book than the paperback.
Instead, she buys her electronic novels from a tiny start-up called Hard Shell Word Factory for about $3 to $6 each. She buys them for the same reasons she usually buys paperbacks instead of hardcovers: they are cheap, she can buy several at once, and she can throw them away when she is done. “Even if you buy a novel you are not loving, it is just three bucks,” she said.
In yet another RWA article, this one from 2003, several readers are quoted. Some examples:
”[Suzanne Brockmann] is a wonderful author,” said Danielle Hessel, a keeper at the Bronx Zoo who lives in Westchester. ”She does a lot of research, and it shows.”
Jill Land, who lives in Manhattan, pronounced Ms. Brockmann ”awesome” and blushed when asked about the sex scenes in her novels. ”She had a really outrageous one in her second book,” Ms. Land whispered. ”It had to do with chocolate and handcuffs.”
Tatia Totorica, a calculus teacher and mother of three from Boise, Idaho, bought 12 books to add to her collection, already over 1,000. ”My husband doesn’t like them,” Ms. Totorica said, ”but he’s supportive.”
”Harvard’s Education,” which follows the lives of an African-American couple, helped earn Ms. Brockmann a loyal black following. ”I couldn’t believe she wasn’t black,” said Lynette Holder, an African-American lab technologist from Brooklyn, who stood in line for nearly an hour to meet Ms. Brockmann.
In a 2004 article that predicts a “slow death” for Harlequin and romance in general (ROTFLMAO!), “‘Sorry, Harlequin,’ She Sighed Tenderly, ‘I’m Reading Something Else‘”.
Many readers say they are seldom wed to a single genre or publisher. Anne Curtis, a Manhattan resident who said she had been reading romance fiction for more than 20 years, looks for a new book not on the Harlequin racks but throughout the romance shelves.
”Sometimes it can be a mystery, others a straight romance,” she said, but the story is always more important than the publisher. When she chooses an author, she said, it is often a former Harlequin author, like Janet Dailey or Nora Roberts.
Here’s an article on ebooks in the technology/books section from the ancient days of 2004, which highlights the importance of romance readers to the then emerging technology:
Both Cargill and Compson represent another surprising shift in the e-book market. Retailers say that the market, which used to be dominated by computer-savvy male readers of science fiction, has expanded in the past year or two to include a growing number of female readers. And while science fiction remains a top seller, female romance readers now compose one of the fastest-growing markets for digital books, perhaps because many are voracious readers who race through all the sequels in a series.
One such reader is Rebecca Kroll of Scotch Plains, N.J., a live-in caretaker for an autistic teenager, who says she burns through three or four books a day and purchases 50 to 100 a week, an expensive habit that she says costs her up to $400 weekly. ”Storage is a big issue with me,” Kroll says. Before she discovered e-books a little over a year ago, 12,000 books crammed her apartment from floor to ceiling, leaving her desperate for more shelf space. Although Kroll says she was initially ill at ease with computers, she now does most of her reading on a laptop and stores thousands of romance and science fiction fantasy novels on two computer disks. Another advantage of the laptop, she says, is that it permits her to listen to e-books that are formatted with a text-to-speech option while she’s cooking or knitting.
Kroll also likes the relative anonymity of purchasing e-books from Web sites that specialize in female-oriented erotica, some of them available only in electronic form. ”It’s a lot nicer, especially if you’re embarrassed to go into a bookstore,” she says.
In a 2004 article in the Circuits section, a librarian is quoted on the subject of digitizing the collection.
E-books’ short history has already begun to yield some lessons. At the Cleveland Public Library, Patricia Lowrey, head of technical services, thought technical manuals and business guides would be in greatest demand.
“We were dead wrong on that,” Ms. Lowrey said. “There are a lot of closet romance readers in cyberspace.”
A 2004 article on ebooks called An Idea Whose Time Has Come Back:
When heading for the doctor’s office, Janet Cargill, a 75-year-old retiree in Westbrook, Me., loads several romance novels into her hand-held Garmin G.P.S., or global positioning system, which she also relies on to give her voice-activated driving directions.
In her 2005 Op-Ed with which I am sure most readers are familiar, Mary Bly (Eloisa James) speaks for readers, both criticizing them for eschewing literary fiction, and defending their reading tastes via defending the genre.
In a 2007 story on the Harleqin/NASCAR teamup in the Books section (imagine that!) , reps from Borders, Harlequin, and Kensington, as well as a PR guy from NASCAR, speak for readers. (Perhaps not shockingly, Kate Duffy from Kensington — who passed away this year — was skeptical of the venture, while the HQN and NASCAR folks were very optimistic).
This 2007 article in the Your Money section on how to make a bestseller is the first time I see bloggers mentioned:
The hunt for the key has been much more extensive in other industries, which have made a point of using new technology to gain a better understanding of their customers. Television stations have created online forums for viewers and may use the information there to make programming decisions. Game developers solicit input from users through virtual communities over the Internet. Airlines and hotels have developed increasingly sophisticated databases of customers.
Publishers, by contrast, put up Web sites where, in some cases, readers can sign up for announcements of new titles. But information rarely flows the other way — from readers back to the editors.
“We need much more of a direct relationship with our readers,” said Susan Rabiner, an agent and a former editorial director. Bloggers have a much more interactive relationship with their readers than publishers do, she said. “Before Amazon, we didn’t even know what people thought of the books,” she said.
Although the romance industry is often criticized for not paying better attention to readers on issues such as cover art and diversity, apparently we’d be even worse off with other publishers, who do even less market research:
An exception is the consumer research gathered by the Romance Writers of America, a writers’ association that publishes a regular market study of romance readers. It reports survey information on, for example, demographics, what respondents are reading, where they are getting the books and how often, and what kind of covers attract them. Romance authors and publicists use the information to create promotional campaigns.
Bloggers and academics are the two big additions to the group of those who speak for readers in the past 3 years, although bloggers tend to speak more authoritatively and directly for readers than academics. So, for example, on the slew of articles over the past 18 months on romance novels as recession proof, you have comments like this one:
“Given the general dismay and gloominess,” said … an avid romance reader who runs a book blog under the pseudonym Jane Litte at dearauthor.com, “reading something like a romance with a happy ending is really kind of a relief.”
Litte’s comment is alongside the usual crew: book buyers, publishers, librarians, etc.
And, what’s this? Someone actually passed by an opportunity to use the word “voracious”??? Yup, this is from the article author: “Romance readers have always tended to buy in much higher volumes than people who read other genres like literary fiction.”
[OT, I felt very conflicted about the spate of articles on romance being "recession proof." They often included claims to the effect that people read more romances when times are bad. I never felt I was given any evidence for that claim, and it fed into the idea that people only read romance for escape -- like, if your life was going well, you wouldn't be reading this shit.]
There are two broad categories of academic participation in romance news articles: (1) the social scientist trying to figure out why women read them, and, (2) a newer phenomenon, the literature professor talking about romance novels as … wait for it … literature. Coverage of the Princeton Romance Conference earlier this year featured the latter group, whereas the this week’s LA Times article on m/m romance featured the former.
This bit is typical for the LA Times piece:
Why are straight women turned on by watching two men having sex?
“Why not?” counters UC Santa Barbara’s Professor Constance Penley. “That’s really the question. Would you ask men why are they so turned on by two women together? We take it for granted that guys love their girl-on-girl. Why shouldn’t women have an appreciation for guy-on-guy? It is as deep-seated a fantasy as the male fantasy of putting two women together.”
Here’s a New York Post article with another blogger, Sarah Wendell, who did a lot of press promoting her book (co-authored with Candy Tan), Beyond Heaving Bosoms: The Smart Bitches Guide to Romance novels
It’s not your Aunt Suzie who can’t miss “her stories.” These are smart – and often feminist – women. Like superfan Wendell, who is emceeing the next Lady Jane’s Salon on April 6 at Madame X.
“There’s always a rock-hard chest,” she concedes. “These men are manly. And there are times when the heroine might throb. And, you know, heat will flood. Things like that.”
Here’s Alison Kelley, Executive Director of RWA:
According to Allison Kelley, executive director of Romance Writers of America, “If you ask readers of romance why they read it, they all say the happy ending.”
Thanks probably to a number of things — the popularity of their blogs, Litte’s special knowledge of epublishing, Wendell and Tan’s book coming out in 2009 — they have done the lion’s share of readers speaking for readers in the past year or so. There are a few really good things about this. The first is that the major news outlets are writing about romance at other times of the year than when a big romance conference is held. Conference attendees provided the bulk of reader perspective prior to the late 1990s The second is that, like any true fan, they know what they are talking about. The third is that they are unlike the stereotypical image of the romance reader.
Just recently, a CNN.com story on vampire romance included a quote from Sandy Coleman of AAR:
Coleman said there is no longer a stigma about being a romance fan. Her site has been online for 11 years and has about 360,000 visitors a month, she said.
The site is often a place where intelligent women come to discuss their favorite romance novels, Coleman said.
“There’s nothing to be embarrassed about when it comes to reading romance anymore,” Coleman said.
I was glad to see Coleman quoted, and would like to see even more bloggers in the mix, as well as different readers, not just the gals at the RT convention, and not just the bloggers, but all kinds. I don’t agree with Coleman 100% (I still think there is a stigma, although it is lessening), or Wendell (her recent Huff Post article defending the genre, while terrific in other respects, included a line “Books that rest the conflict of the relationship upon sexual congress are not romance” with which I disagree, and I already gave an example of a Litte quote about romance and recession I don’t endorse. But it’s our differences that give lie to the stereotypes and I’m glad for them, because they give us so much to talk about here in Romanceland.
I looked to see who was speaking for other genres, such as sci fi and mystery, and I found basically nothing, which reflects, I think the different kind of coverage those genres get, and the sense that romance is the most market driven and least “literature-like” of the genres. In some ways, I think even asking one person for a quote about “what romance readers want” is slightly problematic as it reflects the idea, on some level, that we are all alike, and it also tends to feed into the notion that NOT reading romance is the default normal position, such that reading it needs “explanation”. The readers quoted above from the conventions were speaking for themselves only (although the journalists probably meant them to represent other readers, so maybe there’s no getting around the problem). I would just love it if a journalist would quote an opposing reader viewpoint — to get that diversity within the article itself.
More and more, I see recognition that the genre itself is diverse, and, although a bit more slowly, the same recognition that its readership is similarly diverse.
Whew this is a long post. I’d better stop now. Hope you’ve enjoyed this little tour!