Not your mother’s novel on the nightstand

There’s a day or national month for everything. August is National Romance Awareness Month! I could take this in so many directions as a sex coach. When I think of romance, several things come to mind, especially the paperback books my Mom has read my whole life. I have vivid memories of seeing her curled up next to her bedside lamp, the yellowed pages, crinkled spines, cover art of ladies with their bodices loosened, hair and layers of fabric blowing in the wind, and Fabio. –>

 

I had the pleasure of attending the Romance GenreCon hosted here in Kansas City August 2nd and 3rd. I had no idea what to expect other than there would be authors there to sign books, give readings of their work, and maybe I could learn more about the industry. I was blown away by the event! There is so much more to the Romance writing genre than what I conjured up when I thought of my Mom’s Harlequin and Silhouette books.

 

My reasons for attending were many. Since I am a relationship, dating, and sex coach, I want to learn more about a genre filled with fictionalized sexual encounters, love, relationships, pleasure, and fantasy. I heard over a year ago that there is this thriving community of romance writers right here in Kansas City from a friend of mine, who happened to be one of the event organizers, so I wanted to meet said authors and support my friend. Lastly, as part of my entrepreneurial dreams, I want to write books, and maybe, just maybe the Romance genre is the way to go for me. I had no idea how prolific the industry is, or that I would laugh so much, and clap so hard for authors about representation, the need for change, the hopes they have, and what readers and authors can do.

Romance accounts for 25% of all book sales, which equates to $1.08 billion a year, and there’s a wide variety among the subgenres of romance. The Romance Writers of America lists Contemporary, Erotic, Historical, Paranormal, Romance with Religious or Spiritual Elements, Romantic Suspense, and Young Adult as it’s classifications.

So what is the distinction between a fiction story about love and a romance novel? RWA says that all you really need in your story for it to be a Romance novel is to “have a central love story and an emotionally satisfying ending.” Writer Cherry Adair highlighted this as one of her favorite aspects of Romance – the happy ending! Who wants to read a story where everyone dies and no one gets what they want, was her question to the audience one afternoon.

Am I the only one that thought all romance novels had some eroticism in them as an element? “When I thought about Romance before, I would think about sexy stories, like ones that turn you on,” said attendee Ruby Montoya. “I didn’t realize it was so broad.” See, I’m not the only one who thought erotica was just a part of the formula for Romance.

One other point that was made about Romance from one of the authors was that “identity is not a genre.” Damon Suede drew cheers from fellow panelists and audience members as he said this on stage during one panel. I was glad to hear this kind of talk, especially because by my count, 99% of us in the audience were white cis-gendered women, and we all needed to hear that, every last one of us, whether we were just readers and fans or aspiring writers listening to his impassioned statement, that almost felt like a plea.

Problems in the industry

Whether it’s people of color, gender identity, or orientation, there is a real need for more diversity in the industry is what I kept hearing from the authors themselves. Most of the readership is white heterosexual females. Is that because voices from women other than that aren’t being written? (Nope.) Is it because publishers are pushing certain narratives? (Perhaps.)

A 2018 NPR story by Lulu Garcia-Navarro highlighted a Pew Research study that found “the most likely person to read a book in any format is black woman who’s been to college. So serving that readership with books that match their lives should be something that these publishers want, shouldn’t it?” Garcia-Navarro lamented to her guest. From the looks of the awards process for the industry, maybe not.

There’s an award for Romance writers called The RITA, run by RWA. But the award, described as The Oscars of the genre, and who it’s going to every year, has been a source of controversy. Even a 2018 NPR story covered this issue, highlighting how no black authors have won the RITA in its 40-year history. Few black writers even final for RITA. In 2019, the RWA issued an apology in 2019 when no black or LGBTQ authors were finalists.

What’s really next for Romance as a genre?

Alyssa Cole, an author who writes erotic, multicultural, historical romances and Farrah Rochon, a contemporary author who writes about black characters were both in attendance and discussed this topic on a panel called Romance State of the Union. Rochon addressed the lack of black authors reaching the finals for RITA. She and Suede discussed how the books are selected, and the process seemed problematic, so it’s good to know they have made a commitment to change the 2020 RITA process to try to ensure that minority voices and stories weren’t just included, but also celebrated.

Both Cole, who was a RITA finalist in 2018 (the ONLY black author who made it that year) discussed how it’s up to readers to read from a diverse group of authors. One audience member asked about whether authors should use characters that are not like them, or from an out-group. The time is now for more writers to step up and share their stories, or share stories that aren’t just from their in-group was the message from the stage. This is ground on which authors must tread lightly, they noted.

Not telling an out-groups story accurately or authentically can lead to the reader in that in-group to feel fetishized, or misrepresented, or as if the representation was an exaggerated caricature. Several emphasized the need for research, accuracy, and having people who are of that group to be a beta or test reader for the content. How do consumers feel about it? Audience member Ruby Montoya said that “If the story feels authentic, then the story needs to be told. There are people who aren’t storytellers who deserve to have a voice. It would be better if it were that person who experienced it, but if that isn’t within their ability, then a writer should tell it.”

The RWA’s website lists insights about younger readers, and the top attributes they list are that these readers are diverse, more men are reading the genre, and they are willing to experiment with new authors. Referencing back to Suede’s comment about identities not being the same as a genre, it’s up to authors to include a wide array of experiences in their stories. Although one aspect of LGBT experiences was brought up specifically by one writer. More bisexual romances need to be told, Sierra Simone, of Kansas City, said. However, care must be used for these stories. “No more of (the characters) doing it to perform, to be a stepping stone until they are gay, or just what white girls do to be fun.”

Diversity of characters and writers wasn’t the only thing authors on the panels brought up. Romance could be used to teach new narratives on consent, asking permission, and negotiation according to Simone. Suede described Romance as being “an underground railroad of feminism. You can convey ideas with men around you telling you what to do.”

On the business side of writing, it was shared that in this genre specifically, many writers felt that there is high pressure to produce content. Some shared they self-publish, so they have no pressure. Some write for multiple publishers, so they have to be mindful of deadlines from many sources. Some push themselves to overproduce, as well. Alyssa Cole published 4 books in the first few months of 2019, and she smiled as she made it sound like it nearly was the end of her sanity. Writer Tracy Brogan said she was lucky that she found a publisher that was really good about letting her put out content on her time. Many writers on the panel agreed that eBooks were a major driving force in the quick consumption of the genre, therefore increasing the demand.

Jennifer Vellenga was an attendee to the Romance GenreCon who came not just as a fan, but someone who wants to get into the business of writing. “The thing that I took away from the panels was about being true to who you are as a writer. Write what you want to write. They were also really honest about how hard it is to make it, but were encouraging at the same time.”

Author Cherry Adair said you just have to “sit your butt in your chair and write.” It was listed in her bio that she writes 5-7 hours a day nearly every day of the week. “There’s no magic to it. Writing is hard work. It isn’t for sissies or whiners.”

 

Indeed. The weekend was filled with strong, passionate authors sharing their wisdom, their time, and their art. If you haven’t read a romance novel lately, maybe it’s time. Montoya said she now wants to go buy a romance book right away. “I want to look into the genre more and see what I connect with. I wonder if there are any Hispanic writers?” I’m sure there are, and how lovely would it be to finish a book with a happy ending about a girl just like you?

Share your favorite romance authors in the comments section.

 

Kristen Thomas is the Owner and Head Coach of Open the Doors Coaching, LLC. She helps people nurture their love lives as a relationship, dating and sex coach. Follow Kristen via Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram. Need help with your sex life or relationship? Striking out on dating sites? Looking to host a private group event or workshop with her as the coach? Email her at Kristen@openthedoorscoaching.com. Of course, comments and questions about this or any other blog are welcome. 

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