Pick up your skirts, tighten that corset, and get ready to throw off the shackles of propriety because I am about to spend six days at the Romantic Times Booklovers Convention in Atlanta, GA. This event attracts 3,500 fans, 600 authors, and offers over 200 workshops with titles like, “Happily Ever After Bad Boy,” “Fighting and Frenching” and “Shifters Between the Sheets.”
The convention agenda is absolutely packed from 7:00 a.m. – 11:30 p.m., and there isn’t even a lunch break on some days. There’s a male cover model meet and greet, exercise classes that “follow the arch of a romance novel plot” (???), and multiple costume parties every day ranging from a Rockabilly Street Festival to the Pioneer Hearts Hoedown. It honestly sounds like the most ridiculous experience of my life, and I can hardly wait.
I must admit that outside of Charlaine Harris, Beverly Jenkins, and Sherrilyn Kenyon, I don’t recognize a lot of the big industry names attending. But I’m not there to get my favorite books autographed or ask authors where they get their ideas. I’m going because I want to be surrounded by people who take these types of books seriously and understand there’s nothing wrong with wanting a happy ending. I’m going because I’ve been writing a romance novel in my head for years but have only recently put it down on paper. I’m going because I really want to get a grasp on the genre, understand reader expectations, and get a feel for the publishing world. I’m going because the bottom of my name badge will be printed with the words “Aspiring Author,” and for once in my life, I feel like it’s true.
I’ve had my ups and down with the genre – I was a fan of romance novels in high school (I LOVED the cheesy covers!), but then I went to college and learned in my creative writing classes that (surprise!) they were actually drivel. Romantic stories were not real writing, and people who read them were unsophisticated frumps. And if I ever wanted to be a real writer, I only had three choices: I had to write literary fiction, poetry, or creative non-fiction essays. So I chose to put my energy into creative non-fiction essays and didn’t touch a romance novel again for fifteen years.
When I finally picked up a romance novel again, I was looking for an escape. I was working in a job where I was exposed to terrible accounts of violence against women, and I just wanted to read something where a woman found her happy ending. I was browsing the clearance table at Books-A-Million when P.C. Cast’s Goddess Summoning series caught my attention, and I bought them all on a whim, chuckling that this was a strictly ironic lark into a long-outgrown interest.
As I worked my way through the series, there were some installations I enjoyed and some I didn’t, but when I finished them all, I found I didn’t want to stop. I liked reading stories about strong women who loved men who were masculine but not misogynistic. Books where the only horrible thing that happened to a female body was a twisted ankle after running in a meadow or light neck bleeding after a consensual vampire bite. And so I bought more. I found authors I liked and read their entire catalog. I read books that I disliked and didn’t bother to finish them. But sometimes, when I read books with clumsy plotting or hokey dialogue, I began to wonder if I could do it better.
I started daydreaming about a romance novel that I would like to read. I began to notice what elements I liked in a book and what annoyed me. In boring meetings at work, I would visualize scenes in my ideal novel. While stuck in traffic, I would run through dialogue. I never had any plans to actually write it all down, it wasn’t real writing, after all, and I don’t write fiction. It was just a little dalliance for me to indulge in for fun, maybe even a coping mechanism at times. But it wasn’t something I could ever develop outside of my head or tell anyone about. It was too lowbrow, too tacky, too… embarrassing.
It wasn’t until last summer I saw a Facebook post about a documentary on romance novels called Love Between the Covers, that I started to seriously think about writing down my novel idea. I dutifully gave up my $4.99 to Amazon to watch the film, fully expecting a light Trekkies-style romp into the deluded world of single cat ladies and their unfulfilled fantasies. I did not expect to have my mind blown with an inclusive, feminist look into a female-dominated culture worth billions. Here are a few of my favorite quotes from the film.
“And it’s a fantasy, yes. But so are the Arnold Schwarzenegger movies. Arnold’s never killed at the end of his movies. So why beat up women because they’re reading an HEA (Happily Ever After)? And guys have the same kind of HEA. Sylvester Stallone never dies.”
— Beverly Jenkins, author
“We don’t see Ernest Hemmingway as formulaic, but every single one of his novels ends exactly the same way. So why does one get coded as realistic and the other gets coded as hopelessly optimistic?”
— Deborah Chappel Traylor, Arkansas State University
“This is the one place where you will consistently see women’s sexuality treated fairly and positively. Everyone is going to experience some sort of sexual exploration or satisfaction. The women will always win, and everyone will be happy in the end.”
— Sarah Wendell, founder of the Smart Bitches, Trashy Books website
“Why does romance get sneered at? I’m going to give you the same answer everyone else has given: romance is sneered at because it’s written by women, it’s written for women, and it’s written about women.”
— Sarah Frantz Lyons, Editor, Riptide Publishing
Oh man, that last quote was like a slap face. Of course, that’s why it’s mocked; why had I never seen it before? It all goes back to sexism. Devaluing things that women enjoy. Ridiculing women for wanting to read stories about women. Scorning them for looking to escape into worlds where women overcome the odds to find love and happiness. And I had bought into it.
So that was it. It took a shot of feminist rage to spur me into action, but here I am now, almost a year later and three chapters into my book. I really don’t care what anyone thinks about my affection for romance books or my aspirations to write them. Women’s stories – all types of women’s stories – matter. And for my money, I prefer stories where women come out on top (no pun intended).