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An Interview with Susan Elizabeth Phillips
by Eric Murphy Selinger

When Susan Elizabeth Phillips began writing and publishing romance novels in the early 1980s, the American market was dominated by the blockbuster historical romances that followed in the wake of Kathleen Woodiwiss’s The Flame and the Flower (Avon, 1972) and Rosemary Rogers’s Sweet Savage Love (Avon, 1974) and by contemporary-set “glitz and glamour” sagas, a genre of women’s fiction with strong romantic elements associated with Judith Krantz, among others. Phillips’ first half-dozen novels—The Copeland Bride (written in collaboration with Claire Kiehl, under the pen-name “Justine Cole”), Risen Glory, Glitter Baby, Fancy Pants, Hot Shot, and Honey Moon—explored the conventions and possibilities of both genres, and all were well received, but her reputation in popular romance fiction rests primarily on the contemporary-set romance novels she began publishing with Avon in the mid-1990s. Beginning with It Had to Be You (1994), the first of her “Chicago Stars” novels centered around a fictional Chicago football franchise, Phillips has offered an innovative, influential mix of comedy, Americana, and nondenominational narratives of redemption through love. (Her novel Dream a Little Dream may be the only [End Page 1] one set in the allegorically-named town of Salvation, North Carolina, but themes of forgiveness and reconciliation recur across her oeuvre.)

It Had to Be You won the Romance Writers of America’s “Favorite Book of 1994” award, and since then, Phillips has won five more RITA awards from the RWA, as well as the organization’s Nora Roberts Lifetime Achievement Award. Her novels routinely appear on American readers’ and reviewers’ lists of the “best” or “top” romance novels, and her reception by the academy has also been warm.[1] In 1997 Bowling Green State University invited Phillips to give the keynote address at their groundbreaking conference on “ReReading the Romance,” and foundational romance scholar Tania Modleski singled out Phillips as “a true auteur” whose work she “enjoyed enormously.”[2] Papers on her work have been presented at several of IASPR’s international conferences on popular romance culture, as well as at the Romance Area panels of the Popular Culture Association / American Culture Association’s national conferences.

When the PCA/ACA conference came to Chicago, near Phillips’ home, the chance to do a public interview with her was too good to pass up, and she very graciously accepted the invitation to speak with Eric Murphy Selinger and take questions from the audience.

Eric Murphy Selinger: In your essay “The Romance and Empowerment of Women,” published in the Dangerous Men and Adventurous Women anthology, you say that you started reading romance fiction in the early 1970s and that you fell under the spell of the historical romance novel. How did you go from being a romance reader to being a romance writer?

Susan Elizabeth Phillips: I was at home at that point, a former high school teacher with two little children. My best friend Claire [Lefkowitz] is two doors down the street. She has a degree in French, and she’s home with two little kids. This was when The Flame and the Flower and Rosemary Rogers’ books first came out. Claire and I had always been big readers and we read everything—literary fiction, popular fiction. When those historical romance books first appeared, we were just like, “Oh my gosh.” We couldn’t get enough.

Claire and I were both feminists, and those early books, you may remember, were the rape-and-pillage-of-the-heroine books. I still defend those books. I know this will horrify the younger people here, but I think some of you closer to my age will understand why I defend the rape fantasy in those stories. Claire and I were raised to be good girls. Neither of us had suffered from sexual abuse, so that whole idea of a hero taking you against your will meant “You’re still a good girl. It wasn’t your fault. You just happened to be so beautiful and desirable and meek and mild that he couldn’t help it.” It’s interesting to me, looking back on it: Claire and I both have strong personalities, and the heroines of those books are pretty wimpy, certainly compared to today’s heroines. Yet we were so drawn to them.

The Romance Writers of America used to say, “Please don’t go out and tell the public that you started to write romance novels because you read a bad one.” Yet that’s exactly what we did. I remember Claire came to the door one evening, waving a paperback romance that I’d lent her (I don’t know what the book was—I wish I remembered), and she said, “This is the worst book I’ve ever read. We can do better than this. We’re going to write a book.” That night I was unloading the dishwasher. I called her and said, “Claire, I know that we’re not going to write a book, but if we were, I love books where the heroine is [End Page 2] disguised as a boy, and I love the marriage of convenience…” We started writing purely from the viewpoint of readers, writing what we wanted to read. I had a real cranky two-year-old, and I’d put him on the back of the bike—no helmet, of course, in those days—and Claire would get on her bike, and we would just ride and talk about the plot.

Claire’s degree is in French, mine was in Speech and Drama. We were not products of the English department; and there was no RWA at that time, no romance writing seminars, so we were just writing the book we wanted to read. That was 1979, the book was The Copeland Bride. There have been several revisions to that book since. One of them involved taking out the sentence, “He raped her violently.” I remember I stole that sentence from—do you remember Anya Seton? I think it was The Winthrop Woman. I’m not sure. But I just thought, “Oh my gosh, what a sexy sentence.”[3]

Audience member: Wow.

SEP: [Laughing] I know! Don’t ever invite me if you don’t want honesty! And of course over the years that sensibility has changed so much, although I think what we’re finding in the whole erotica movement is the same kind of emotion and experiences that we good girls felt in the late ‘70s when we started reading historical romances.

ES: When Sarah Frantz Lyons talked with Bertrice Small at the IASPR convention in New York City, Small told us that when she was writing The Kadin, she had no idea that she was writing romance. She thought she was writing historical fiction—that the historical romance genre as we now think of it didn’t exist at the time she wrote it. It sounds like you started out right from the get-go with the sense that you were writing romance.

SEP: Historical romance. Bertrice was a real history buff, and while Claire and I liked history, I wouldn’t say our interest was centered on the actual history of the period. We just wanted that male/female conflict that gave us such a rush.

Bertrice was one of the original superstars when I was just starting to write, and I remember an RT convention when Bertrice took a few of us who were newbies up to her hotel room, which had this throne-like arm chair. We sat at her feet, and Bertrice told us, all the things to be careful of with our publishers, and all the things we needed to do. I still remember sitting at Bertrice’s feet like, “Feed me. Feed me.” Yeah, it was good.

ES: You mention the heroine dressed as a boy…

SEP:  The marriage of convenience, secret baby, all of those conventions! You can find them in my books, and I love them. I love them to this day, because there’s such strong built-in conflict to them. That’s the other reason I write the alpha hero. I don’t tend to enjoy romances with beta heroes, because there’s just not enough conflict for me. Usually if you’ve got a beta hero, you have to have a pretty neurotic heroine, and I like books that show the growth of the heroine. With a beta hero, I wouldn’t know how I would pull that off. Although Robyn Carr, a dear friend of mine, has a new book out—women’s fiction—called Four Friends. At the beginning, one of the women’s husband is having an affair. Robyn has this guy groveling for the entire book. What I love about him—a true beta [End Page 3] hero—is that he’s basically a chick in a man’s body. I devoured this book, and glowered at my husband the whole time.

I can’t pull that off, but oh my god, did Robyn ever do it beautifully.

ES: Your books began to come out right at the same time as the first big wave of academic scholarship about romance begins: Tania Modleski’s Loving with a Vengeance (1982), Janice Radway’s Reading the Romance (1984), Kay Mussell’s Fantasy and Reconciliation. Did any of those ideas from the academic discussion of the genre make their way into what you and other writers, authors were talking about? Did you know about them? Were you responding to them in any way?

SEP: Yes, we did know about them, and the truth is we grit our teeth. Now remember: we were extremely defensive. What we were hearing in some of the early scholarship was that women were reading romance because it helped them get through the dreariness of being wives and mothers at home with kids. We were also hearing that we were using clichés in romance and the language was so trite, because our readers were too stupid to understand great language. It became increasingly frustrating for us. So what happened?

One of the best intellects when it comes to romance, especially through the 1980s and the 1990s, is Jayne Ann Krentz. Jayne is very analytical, and after she plowed into the scholarship she gathered a number of us together said, “We are letting academics define us and what we do. We have to define ourselves.”

Jayne understood that if we went on record, writing our viewpoint about what we saw happening with the romance genre, and if this work was published by an academic press, then in all future work, the academics would have to take what we were saying into account. It was extremely calculated. When Jayne got us together, she gave us a simple charge. “Write an essay about the appeal of the romance.” That was it. She was not giving us specific assignments, she was not telling us what to write.

Now, of course, we have a lot of academics writing romance: Mary Bly/Eloisa James, Jennifer Crusie, just to name a few. But during the early ‘90s those women weren’t around. We had to look at what we were doing and figure out for ourselves what was going on both from the writers’ and readers’ point-of-view. Since we had so much face-to-face contact with our readers through letters and book signings, we understand why they were reading romance, and we could see that there was a lot more going on than a bunch of housewives who were picking up our books because they were frustrated with their kids.

When the essays arrived, Jayne has said she was thunderstruck because we all took different approaches. My approach was, as a feminist, to examine why I was responding to the books. For me, it was the idea that the heroine always won. I had to create that strong alpha hero, because that made her victory all the sweeter. So I wrote an essay about the empowerment of the heroine. Since then, honest to Pete, the word “empowerment” has been used for every stripper, every hooker, every… Well, at that time it was fresh.

So that’s how that book came about. It was very deliberate, and it wouldn’t have happened without Jayne. She was the one who saw the big picture while the rest of us were going: “Ahhh, we need to get some respect.” Jayne had a much, much broader viewpoint than the rest of us did. [End Page 4]

We’re so appreciative of the academic work that’s being done now, because it’s so much more thorough and thoughtful than the early work, but that’s to be expected since I’m guessing many of the academics studying romance have grown up reading it. I do hope that current academics recognize Dangerous Men for the groundbreaking work it was.

Sarah Frantz Lyons: I’d like to ask a question about the period right after Dangerous Men, Adventurous Women, in the mid-1990s.

In 1994 and 1995, within about eighteen months of each other, we get a bunch of novels published: your first Chicago Stars novel, It Had to Be You, Nora Roberts / J. D. Robb’s Naked in Death, Dream Man by Linda Howard, Dreaming of You by Lisa Kleypas, To Have and to Hold, by Patricia Gaffney. If you look at lists of “perfect romances” and the “best romance books of all time,” those books show up, year after year, and they all come together in 1994 and 1995. So you must have been writing them around the time that Dangerous Men and Adventurous Women came out. And your novel It Had to Be You (1994) was an obvious switch in your career. It’s a very different book from any of your other books. You started out with historical romance; you then moved to the kind of glitz and glamour epic sagas following generations like the ones Judith Krantz would write: Glitter Baby and Hot Shot and Honey Moon, the big, epic sagas.

Could you talk a bit about It Had to Be You as a turn in your career? How did you go about constructing that book in relation to the context when it came out?

SEP: My background was in theatre, and I am an actress looking for parts to play. So a lot of things that have happened in my career have happened accidentally. Nothing has been logically constructed.

After I did the three big books—Glitter Baby, Honey Moon, and Hot Shot—I wanted to write a shorter book; and for years and years I had this idea: What would happen if woman who knew nothing about sports inherited a professional football team. Remember: I had never written series romance; I had not been indoctrinated by Harlequin; I didn’t know that you were not allowed to write about sports. (You’re not allowed to write about sports, actors, or rock stars, apparently. I only found that out later on.)

By the time I finished It Had to Be You, my career had crashed. I had three books at Dell, then I had three books at Pocket. Pocket published Fancy Pants, Hot Shot, and Honey Moon. They had no idea how to package these books, because they were, fundamentally, big romances, and there was no precedent for covers or marketing. Claire Zion was editing me—just a brilliant editor—and she let me know that my numbers weren’t strong enough for It Had to Be You to get decent support from the publisher. Even though the book was under contract, she was kind enough to plant the seed that I needed to move houses.

So I had the manuscript of It Had to Be You, my agent sent it all over town, and we waited for the auction to start. I’d gone into New York and I remember being taken into a publisher’s big conference room where I was asked about my career plan. I was a schoolteacher at heart! I’d never sat around a conference table in my life! Oh my God, I was so traumatized, but I winged it. I’d already started Heaven, Texas, so I said, “Well, I’m going to write smaller books now and I’m going to be writing more humorous books and I’m going to write another Chicago Stars book.” I just made it up. [End Page 5]

So we had an auction. Nobody came. The first bids that came in—right now these numbers sound good—I remember $35,000 per book—but I had been making quite a bit more with the big books at Pocket, and oh my gosh, I still remember that sick feeling in my stomach. And I remember my agent calling me and saying, “We’re still waiting to hear from Bantam, we’re still waiting to hear from this publisher, we’re still waiting to hear from that publisher.” But they felt the book was too quirky. They didn’t know what it was—the book didn’t fit into their preconceived idea of romance. And then at the last minute, Avon, which was a train wreck at that point, came in and bid $100,000 for that book. “Okay, I’ll take it!” I said. All Avon had at the time was historical romance, and they wanted a book to anchor their contemporary line.

It Had to Be You ended up with a very small print run, but it changed my career forever because of my brilliant agent. He talked to my publisher and said, “Why don’t we give out a thousand free copies of this book at RWA?” Everybody does this now, but it was the first book that was the freebie in such a big quantity. And that’s when I was truly discovered and my career changed.

SFL: What we don’t realize as scholars, I’m now coming to understand, is how much of the history of the genre is about publishing decisions, how much of it is luck, how many books there were that broke out of genre conventions in similar ways and did similar things but just disappeared because they didn’t have the combination of luck and marketing smarts and all of this other stuff behind it.

SEP: There were a lot of authors, yes, who had a very strong vision and experienced more frustration than you can imagine as they strained against the boundaries of series romance.

ES: Moving away from the chronology now to thinking about bunches of books together, many of your books are set in what I think of as iconic American settings. You’ve got Chicago, you’ve got Hollywood, and you’ve got small towns in Texas and rural Michigan and Tennessee. And they feature iconic American characters: a shady TV Evangelist (or at least his widow), star quarterbacks, star golfers, a fifty-year-old rock star who has the perfect symbolic name—

SEP: Jack Patriot.

ES: Jack Patriot! And in The Great Escape, the heroine, Lucy, is the adopted daughter of a former president and the novel’s hero is a combat vet who served tours in both Iraq and Afghanistan. So I’m wondering, do you think of your books as being particularly American romances?

SEP: Absolutely. If I had to describe myself in one word, it wouldn’t be writer or wife, mother, grandmother, it would be a Midwesterner. Despite eleven years in New Jersey where I was a fish out of water, I am a Midwesterner through and through. My family roots go way, way, way back. And I love the small town Midwest. The Hollywood settings I hate doing. I’m not comfortable with them. I want to write the Midwest. I want to write Michigan, although I’m pretty happy writing about Texas and the south, too. [End Page 6]

But what I find really fascinating is that 50% of my income is coming from foreign sales. The books are published in thirty languages now, and I get a lot of email from all over the world, and they love the Chicago Stars books. They love the Wynette, Texas, books. The more American the book is, the more the international audiences respond to them.

I’ve now toured in Germany, I’ve toured in Slovenia, in Croatia—and I’m telling you, romance readers are the same everywhere. I can’t tell you how easy it is talking to readers everywhere. They are the same. They’re responding to the same kinds of emotions, and it’s the same demographic. You’ve got students, you have academics, you have doctors, and you have moms at home with small kids. It’s exactly the same in Europe as it is here.

ES: So are the American settings for them are like, say, Regency England or Scotland for American audiences: settings we tend to think of as being somehow intrinsically “romantic.” Is Chicago like that, elsewhere?

SEP: I don’t think so. I think what appeals is American popular culture, more than the fantasy of a particular place.

ES: I want to talk about one of the Chicago Stars novels: Natural Born Charmer. I’ve taught that book six or seven times at DePaul, including one ten-week seminar on it–

SEP: What the hell do you talk about for ten weeks? [laughing]

ES: We read the book really slowly. We read it a couple of chapters per class day and we would come in and talk about them. And the fun thing was—here, I have a bunch of nicely trained seniors, senior English majors, and I said to them, “All right, you’re smart, you’re English majors, you know what to do with a book. Here’s a book! Do it!” Most of them had no idea where to begin: they didn’t realize that they could do the same things they do with any other book. They could read it closely, they could pay attention to the characters and symbolism and ideas and looking at, you know, pacing and looking at how different scenes play off against each other—all the stuff that they do with any other book. I also sent them over to your website. I said, “Hey, romance authors have websites. Romance authors have Facebook pages. You can communicate with them. You can find out more.” This is a whole other way of being an author than the kind of literary figure that they are used to.

SEP: Especially in romance. I mean, no other genre connects with readers quite the way we do. We love it.

ES: One of the things that I always talk about when teaching Natural Born Charmer is the fact that Blue Bailey, the heroine, is an artist. She’s a painter. She does murals. She does portraits. And it’s always seemed to me that there was some connection between what you say about her paintings and career as a painter and what it is that you’re doing as a romance novelist. Is that connection something you were thinking of as you wrote the book?

SEP: Some of it is just technical. I need occupations for heroines where the hero and heroine can spend a lot of time together. That’s really tough when she’s got an eight-to-five [End Page 7] job, so I do have a lot of artists and people like that. Also, I am an art lover, and I’d much rather write a heroine who’s doing something that I’m passionate about, interested in, than a heroine who’s not, like tracing the history of the personal computer industry as I did in Hot Shot.

I was also influenced by a bunch of things I’ve seen Jennifer Crusie do. And—what was Jenny’s series romance—oh my gosh—it’s one of her early books and I’ve forgotten the name—she described the art work of the heroine so beautifully and that was—

ES: The Cinderella Deal.

SEP: It was always in my head. And I love the idea that Blue’s drawings were domestic, they were almost fairytale—and she was such a tough little critter.

ES: There’s an early scene with Blue and Dean where she presents him with two sketches of him. The first sketch that she gives distorts his features just a little bit—

SEP: —[in sync with ES] just a little bit.

ES: —in a way that gets him thinking. And the second one presents him as he actually looked, and that also gets him thinking, because he looks at it and thinks, “Boy, I look kind of sleazy and slimy in here.”

SEP: He wants the drawing where she’s distorted his features, doesn’t he?

ES: Oh, he’s fascinated by it. But one of the things that came up in the class discussions—you asked what we did with this—was that my students said, “Well, there should really be a third picture, because there’s one that’s worse than reality and there’s one that is the reality—there should be one that’s better than reality, to round out the set.” And that then turned into a really interesting discussion of the way that Blue’s later paintings are a vision of the way things ought to be.

SEP: And she could not have done that at that point in the story. She could not have created that ideal—or envisioned what the future looked like—yes. That was definitely planned.

ES: Nailed it! Which leads to a second question, this time spanning of a variety of books, also focused on romance and the way things “ought to be.” I know that you are not an inspirational romance novelist as such—that is, someone marketed as writing Christian books—and your books don’t go into Christian theology or terminology in an elaborate way. Still, you set one novel, Dream a Little Dream, in a town called Salvation, North Carolina, and you don’t have to be an English professor to get that one. And in The Great Escape a lot of the novel takes place on “Charity Island.” There’s a lot of discussion particularly in the secondary romance in that novel about forgiveness, about redemption, about what it means to live with faith. I’m just curious if you see a connection between the thematic material that interests you in your novels and Christian themes or Christian ideals. [End Page 8]

SEP: You think? I’m attracted to popular fiction because I want people to follow the rules. I want justice. I want fairness. All those ideals that popular fiction delivers. I was the little girl who in fifth grade went up to the new teacher and told her she wasn’t teaching reading right, because she didn’t have reading groups as we’d always had. I like rules and I like order. I was raised in a liberal Presbyterian church, and although I’m not conventionally religious now, I very much believe in redemption. I believe that love is the most powerful force. All that sappy stuff, I believe with all of my heart.

My husband is your white male country club golfer. Got it? We had gone to the accountant to do our taxes. And the accountant pointedly told us how many thousands of dollars we were paying specifically for Obamacare. Pointedly. “So you know this.” And we walked out of there and Bill looked at me—my white, golfing, country club husband—and said, “If that helps somebody, I don’t mind paying it one bit.” That’s why I’m married to him.

So those themes, which are common not just to Christianity, but to all the world’s great religions, are definitely part of my worldview. I don’t like religion that hems us in; I want religion that reaches out, that broadens out. Religion that is love and respect for all people. So those themes will always be in my books—it’s the reason I have trouble writing villains. It would be so much easier to have villains in my books, but I’m not that interested in characters I can’t redeem. That’s why, in Dream a Little Dream—you know, the creepy televangelist, he’s been done a million times. I was more interested in Rachel, his widow, who is basically a healer, yet who totally denies it! Completely denies it, even at the end of the book.

ES: In the Dangerous Men and Adventurous Women anthology there’s an essay by Laura Kinsale which famously says, “The hero carries the book.” This was a huge shot across the bow of academic criticism, which had up until then, largely assumed the idea that female readers were reading to identify with the heroine and that the hero needed to be an enigma and so on and so forth. So I wanted to ask you about heroes. Your latest book is called Heroes Are My Weakness. What kinds of heroes do you most like to write? Are there certain kinds of heroes that you’ve never tried writing but like to read? Do you have a favorite romance hero either from your own books or from the wide world of romance?

SEP: I’m not sure I completely agree Laura on that. I don’t think you can say, “The hero has to carry the book.” Sometimes the heroine has to carry the book. It really depends, sometimes even on the scene you’re writing. In Call Me Irresistible—this is the book with Teddy Beaudine where Lucy has run away from the wedding at the beginning of chapter two and it’s Meg and Ted’s book. I got a lot of flak from readers because I don’t go into Ted’s viewpoint until about three hundred pages into the book. And I wanted to say, “Duh!” The minute you go into his head, the book is over. The book is over. Do you remember in the early days of romance you didn’t go in at all? What was that? In the 70s, 80s? It was all in the heroine’s viewpoint. You never went into the hero’s viewpoint. And making those decisions about point of view on heroes is really tough. If you go into his head at the wrong time, you suck all the tension out of the book. But the readers have gotten so used to having that hero’s point of view presented early some of them had a hard time with the fact that I didn’t do it.

In terms of hero types, I’m always going to write an alpha hero just because that’s the only thing I know how to do. In my books the internal conflict between the hero and [End Page 9] heroine is driving the story. It’s not going to be the serial killer. It’s not going to be so many of the other elements that you have in romantic suspense, so I pretty much have to use the alpha hero unless I want to make my heroine crazy, which I don’t want to do

ES: Although in Natural Born Charmer, to me at least, the great love story there is Dean and his mother April finally reconciling. That turn is crucial to his character development, but also to hers, and to the love story between her and Jack Patriot.

SEP: When you can do a secondary plot with older characters—readers love that. And they’ll frequently say, “Why didn’t you use the older characters for your main story?” Well, the courtship story and the discovery of love is kind of my core story—it would be hard for me to do that. And I never get the feeling that my secondary love story is quite strong enough to carry the whole book. But I have two grown sons, so Dean and April’s story was just catnip to me. I love that story so much. And Jack Patriot, who’s modeled after Bruce Springsteen…though I get email all the time with all these different rockers saying–

ES: Throw a little Keith Richards in there and a little Bob Dylan in there too.

SEP: Yeah, well, maybe. It was Bruce.

ES: But it’s a Telecaster Custom Jack plays—

SEP: My son picks out my instruments. You know, he was probably reading Life [by Keith Richards] at the time. I was reading it too. Uh, did I answer the question? I forget what it was. Heroes.

ES: Heroes. Any favorite hero by someone else?

SEP: I love the hero in Laura Kinsale’s Flowers from the Storm. He does drive the book. But, you know, these alpha heroes are just kind of one big blur in my head—I love them all.

ES: One of the things I do when I teach your book, when I teach any romance novel, really, is send my students over to the author’s website, and to look at Twitter feeds and Tumblrs and anything that might give the students a sense of how the author’s presenting herself. Could you say something about how being on the web, how the social media side of being an author changes things? Also, on your website you have a few things that are right there on the splash page—when readers land—you know, one of them is right under your name, it says, “Life’s too short to read depressing books.”

SEP: [in sync with ES] “Life’s too short to read depressing books.”

ES: And then you have a little letter to the reader that says, you know, “I know some things about you—you look for a sense of recognition and you want a tear.” So say a little if you will about what happened as you made your way into having to have a web presence, having to [End Page 10] interact with readers there. How has it changed things for you? How has it changed things for other writers?

SEP: It’s changed everything.

Over the course of my career, I’ve lived through the time when the publishers controlled everything in terms of publicity and promotion. Now we’re pretty much expected to do that. Truly, half of my work time is business, social media, and half is actually writing. Guess which is more fun?

Authors have to think about how to use social media well. When I first started to use Facebook, I noticed that writers were using it as a promotion device 100%, and I wanted to make it much more personal. So we’ve discussed my difficulties wearing a bra long-term, and Mr. Bill is now a familiar character to everybody. (He’s not on Facebook so he doesn’t know half the stuff I put on there!) I feel a personal connection with the readers, and Facebook nurtures that connection.

At the same time, I need those email addresses, because the publisher is not going to be doing all that. So I’m running contests, I’ve started this “member’s lounge”: It’s all a huge, huge, huge time sink. We know our readers better now, one-to-one, and we have made personal friends with them through these long-term contacts, like my old website message board and now the Facebook page. Avon is amazing with their social media technology now, but when they first started, this might have been ten years ago, they had a meeting at the RWA conference for all of their authors. They started the meeting by telling us how to use the Internet. We laughed them out of the room! They were very good-natured about it, but we laughed them out the room. It’s like, seriously dude? We have been doing this a lot longer than you have. They have now made leaps and bounds over us in terms of the way they collect data and deal with it, and they’ve helped us with all of that. But yes, it’s just a whole new ballgame.

Keep in mind, within the course of one year all of my fan mail stopped. It all went to email. It happened so quickly that I complained to my editor. I said, “Something’s going on in your mailroom. I’m not getting any of my fan mail.” I didn’t understand. It happened that fast. And I’m just so grateful for every reader I have. I’ve had a career collapse on me, and I know how precious every reader is, so I want them to know that. I talk about the sense of recognition in my splash-page letter, and that is the emotional recognition they get with the books.

Academics are not seeing our reader email—so I’m going to try to fill that hole without just drowning you in it and let you see this emotional connection the readers have with the books. And that is what I’m referring to when I talk about the sense of recognition.

ES: “Life’s too short to read depressing books.” Say more.

SEP: You know, that’s certainly an overstatement—and oh my gosh, some people love Nicholas Sparks. They love, you know, that good cry. But in some literary novels, every drop of juice has been sucked right out so, God forbid, the writer doesn’t use the dreaded “purple prose.” Well, there’s a reason for that purple prose. It’s a coded language. It produces an emotional response on the part of the reader. If you haven’t read the essay in Dangerous Men that Linda Barlow and Jayne Ann Krentz did—they take a back-cover copy, [End Page 11] rewrite it plainly, and then present it in purple prose, and you just see right there where the emotion is coming from. In so much of literary fiction, you have to enter the book intellectually, as opposed to the romance novel where you’re entering the book emotionally.

ES: Speaking of which, time for a little emotional or intellectual interaction! Questions from the PCA house?

Audience Question: I’m from Mississippi, and I’ve read many, many books set in the south that are very cringe-worthy, but your Ain’t She Sweet isn’t, at all.

SEP: Ain’t She Sweet is an interesting book, because you don’t think you can redeem this heroine. I mean, she’s accused the hero of rape—she’s done all these horrible things. That’s my very favorite kind of book, because you can really do the redemption arc.

Audience Question: I had a question about the changing relationship with readers. My instinct is just to embrace this as a completely positive thing, but I was wondering: are there ways in which being responsive to the readers might make it feel harder to branch out and do something new or something you suspect they might not like?

SEP: Yes. It messes with your head like crazy. So do Amazon reviews. Jayne tells me to stay off Amazon. And, you know, every once in a while I disobey and almost get sick. Writers never remember positive reviews, and any book you write is going to hit somebody’s hot button. So I have to consciously get that out of my head.

My favorite reader story was this: I’d written Heaven, Texas, and I loved it. Bobby Tom Denton was one of the easiest heroes I’ve ever had to write. I felt like he was channeled. After that I went on to write Kiss an Angel, and I decided, you know, “My career’s over. This book’s going to kill my career,” which would become a repeating theme in my head. So Kiss an Angel comes out and all I can think about is, you know, “It’s not as good as Heaven, Texas—it’s not as good as Heaven, Texas.” I go to my first signing and this reader comes up to me and she says, “Oh, I just loved Kiss an Angel.” She says, “I didn’t love that Heaven, Texas book, but this one I love.” And I went, “Ohhh. Thank you.” And that’s where I learned the most important lesson of my career. No matter what book I write it’s going to be someone’s favorite and someone’s least favorite. I always have to remember this, stay off Amazon, and write the book I’m going to write.

Those reviews can wear you down after a while. It’s not coming into my reader email. I get hardly any negative email. But some of the romance websites are nasty—they’re just nasty. And I’m not talking about myself—some of them aren’t even reviewing me. I know the blood, sweat, and tears that have gone into a book, and to watch these lame-ass critics dismiss a book and dismiss a human being’s work… I would be a terrible reviewer because that kind of negativity makes me nuts. I want to send out into the world words that make people better, that make them grow, that nourish people. Ugly reviews don’t do it. [End Page 12]

Audience Question: I have a question about volume. How much fan email do you get? Can you quantify it all? Like in an average day, there would be—

SEP: It depends on how close I am to having a book come out, if a newsletter is going out, etc. Ordinarily there’s going to be one or two every day. But when a book comes out or a newsletter goes out, there could be ten or twelve, something like that, every day. It’s a lot of volume. I try to type a personal message in addition to a form response, but it does take away from the writing.

Audience Question: Do you do that personally?

SEP: I have an assistant who helps.

Audience Question: I have a question about the publishing side. Has there been any particular issue or character arc that an editor or publisher has been cautious about your doing, or about what it’s going to do in term of your career or your readers?

SEP: I have never sold a book on proposal. I’ve never written a proposal, so for example, when I was going to write the golf book, I didn’t have to say, “I’m going to write a book about golf.” Instead, they got the beginning of the book, a hundred some pages, so they could see what I was going to do. After that, they pretty much let me have free rein. I’ve heard horror stories from some of my friends who write series romance. Some of them have had great relationships with editors, but with others, it’s been: “You can’t do this, you can’t do that.” If I had said ahead of time that I was going to write about football, golf, a rock star, an actor, I would have been discouraged from doing it. I’ve been fortunate not to have to deal with that.

Audience Question: Your new book has a combat vet in it, and I know that since the Iraq war there have been a lot of combat vet heroes in popular reading. I’m wondering if you could tell me a little about writing a combat vet.

SEP: There’s not a lot of reference to it in the book. There are a couple of sentences here and there, and you’ve got the scene with the shrink at the end who’s also a combat vet. I’ve done PTSD in my novels—I did that in Glitter Baby early on, and everybody’s doing it now. But I needed the wounded hero. I tried every other way I could think of to approach his character, but the traumatized vet really did work. And I like the idea of the psychiatrist who could specifically identify with wounded vets because I have read about the difficulty of these guys coming back with PTSD and working with a shrink who has never been in combat. That was interesting to me.

Audience Question: Every time I read—I can’t remember the title—but Molly and Kevin—

SEP: Yes, This Heart of Mine. [End Page 13]

Audience Question: Every time I read about Molly’s stories about the bunnies—I keep thinking, “You should turn these into children’s stories.”

SEP: I’ve gotten so many requests Molly is a children’s book author with the Daphne the Bunny series. Molly is really Daphne, and Kevin, the hero, is Benny the Badger. I thought about writing an accompanying children’s book, but my editor wasn’t enthusiastic because that’s a whole different publishing animal Children’s books are tough! Everybody says, “Oh, I always wanted to write a children’s book.” But it’s a lot harder than people think. Still, This Heart of Mine should have had a companion children’s book, for sure.

SFL: From the publishing point of view, now, we would look at that and say, “Absolutely. Go right ahead. It would be perfect.”

SEP: A children’s book division is completely separate from a publishing company’s adult division. I don’t know if you know much about children’s book publishing, but it is a bunny-eat-bunny world. It takes forever to get things through, and coordination would have been very difficult. Plus, I’d have had to write the darned thing, and I’m not sure I could have.

Audience Question: Have any of your books been auctioned for a film or a television show?

SEP: There have been numerous requests. Early on I would get so excited about that. But as I’ve watched what’s happened to authors who’ve had their book turned into film—in most cases it’s brought them nothing but grief. Readers want a film of the book that’s in their head, but they’re such different media. So now I just say, “No, no, no, no.” The only one I’ve agreed to sell is when Bollywood bought This Heart of Mine. When Bollywood called and said, “We’d like to buy This Heart of Mine,” it was a reputable studio, they were going to pay decent money, and I thought, “This is perfect, because it’s Bollywood. Nobody is going to expect the exact book.” I don’t know exactly what the timing is, but they did give me production money.

Audience Question: I taught First Lady this year—

SEP: Did you?

Audience Question: They adored it. They really adored it. They were surprised to get sucked into what struck them as too much of a “family” romance. The thing they’re falling in love with in the book is the family that’s going to be created. That’s the happy ending they’re hoping for—that beautiful family.

SEP: The end—you noticed how I tried to straddle political parties in there—

Audience Question: That did come up in discussion.

SEP: That was deliberate. We’re so fragmented politically—no matter what side I chose, it was going to be a mess, so I took the coward’s way out and I’m happy I did. [End Page 14]

SFL: Suzanne Brockman sometimes has an unhappy love story in her books, or an arc that goes through six or seven books so that the characters have a series of unhappy encounters and finally get their HEA six books later, and she says that the tragedy helps to highlight the beauty of the other story. All of your secondary romances end happily, and they mirror and foil the primary relationship—

SEP: I always say, “If one love story is good, two’s better.” Why not? Plus, I get to write about a non-traditional couple. An older couple. In Dream a Little Dream, I’ve got Ethan, the minister and his little clerk, his assistant. There wasn’t enough conflict to carry that through their own book, but I loved writing that story.

SFL: Have you thought of doing a different type of non-traditional couple? Same-sex couple?

SEP: Um, same-sex couple? Well, yeah. The Great Escape. But that’s kind of a spoiler alert. Spoiler alert!


[1] See, for example, the All About Romance reader poll from 2013, in which she has eight novels listed (http://www.likesbooks.com/top1002013results.html), or the 2015 National Public Radio list, drawn from readers’ nominations and curated by romance bloggers and authors, which includes her seven Chicago Stars football romances—each a standalone volume—among its “swoon-worthy” romance recommendations (http://www.npr.org/2015/07/29/426731847/happy-ever-after-100-swoon-worthy-romances).

[2] See Tania Modleski, “My Life as a Romance Writer,” originally published in Paradoxa: Studies in World Literary Genres 4, no. 9 (1998); reprinted in Old Wives’ Tales and Other Women’s Stories (New York: NYU Press, 1998), 71.

[3] On investigation, the sentence turns out to be adapted from Seton’s Avalon (1965): “And then he raped her brutally.” Anya Seton, Avalon (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1965; 1993), 128. [End Page 15]

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Writing the Happy Ever After: An Interview with Anne Gracie
by Lisa Fletcher

Anne Gracie is one of Australia’s most awarded popular historical romance writers and a past president of the Romance Writers of Australia (2006 – 2008). Her first novel Gallant Waif, published by Harlequin, was a finalist for the RITA Award for best first book in 2000 and won the Romance Writers of America (RWA) National Readers Choice Award in 2001. Her second novel for Harlequin, Tallie’s Knight, won the Australian Romantic Book of the Year (awarded by the Romance Writers of Australia) in 2002 and The Romance Journal’s 2001 Francis Award for Best Regency. An Honourable Thief, released in the UK in 2001, the USA in 2002 and Australia in 2003, won the 2002 RWA National Readers Choice Award for Best Regency. In 2005, Anne published her first novel with Berkley, The Perfect Rake, which was a finalist for American and Australian romance awards. Originally intended as a stand-alone title The Perfect Rake became, to Anne’s great surprise, the first book in her much-loved four-book Merridew Series. Romantic Times awarded the heroes of the second and fourth books K.I.S.S. awards (Knight in Shining Silver). The final Merridew novel, The Perfect Kiss, was a 2008 RITA finalist. Her five-book Devil Rider’s series was published by Berkeley between 2008 and 2012. The first book, The [End Page 1] Stolen Princess, won the Romance Writers of Australia RuBY Award for Romantic Book of the Year in 2009 and the fifth, Bride By Mistake, was a 2012 RITA finalist for best historical romance. The first book of her new Chance Sisters series, The Autumn Bride was published in 2013, and was a RITA finalist.

Lisa Fletcher: I want to begin by discussing the distinction between popular fiction and literary fiction. The Australian academic, Ken Gelder, argues that popular fiction and Literature (he uses a capital L to distinguish it from the broader category of literature which includes both popular fiction and Literature) are distinct, even opposed, fields. He goes so far as to say they’re antagonistic. For Gelder the distinction between popular fiction and Literature only makes sense if we realize or recognize that these fields value different things; they’ve got different values.[1] In other interviews you’ve said that, for you, the purpose of romance is entertainment and you’ve stated quite emphatically that it is not literary fiction. So, can you explain what you mean when you say that popular romance novels are not “literary”?

Anne Gracie: I’d actually like to adjust that claim. I would say that the relationship between popular fiction—in my case genre fiction romance—and literary fiction is best illustrated with a simple Venn diagram. I would class some writers, for instance Barbara Samuel, absolutely as literary fiction in terms of my idea of what literary fiction is: ideas are explored and beautiful language is encouraged. She also tells a good story, which would place her in the overlap part of the Venn diagram. In genre fiction, there must be a good story. In popular romance, which is what I understand best, I think storytelling trumps language every time. Think, for instance, about the big fuss over Fifty Shades. People have said that it’s clunkily written, but clearly the storytelling has worked for many, many readers. I would say another difference is the relationship between the reader and the text. In romance, the reader has to be emotionally engaged in the text. They have to be emotionally—not necessarily committed to—but empathetic towards the heroine, particularly, and barracking for the hero and the heroine to earn their happy ending.[2] Romance readers want to go on that emotional rollercoaster ride and, if they don’t care about the heroine, they won’t bother finishing the book. For readers of literary fiction whether you like or dislike the main character is irrelevant, whereas I think it’s crucial in romance.

LF: When I teach my students about the difference between popular fiction and literary fiction, I show them a very simple Venn diagram with two intersecting sets. One set represents literary fiction, the other popular fiction, and there is a zone of overlap in the centre.  I then like to ask them, what about if I want to put the word “classics” in this Venn diagram? Where do I put it? The point of asking such questions is, of course, to suggest the potential for texts to shuttle back and forth between the two sets.

AG: Absolutely, and if you asked a bunch of romance readers about “classics,” they wouldn’t be talking about the same texts as your students, except maybe Pride and Prejudice and Jane Eyre. Mostly though, they’d be talking about different classics: books such as Laura Kinsale’s Flowers from the Storm and Loretta Chase’s Lord of Scoundrels, or [End Page 2] her Mr Impossible which regularly top readers’ lists of all time favourite romances. Of course there are many more.[3]

LF: I think you’re right: different literary fields have different canons. Popular romance has its canon, which might include the novels fans call “keepers,” and literary readers have their canon and they rarely intersect. Where they do intersect is with the literary antecedents of today’s romance genre romance novels. You’ve already mentioned Jane Austen and the Brontës; both names which have come up many times at this conference.

AG: However in the nineteenth century they didn’t distinguish between popular fiction and literary fiction in quite the same way we do today.

LF: Do you think it’s a twentieth-century distinction?

AG: Yes, it’s a twentieth-century distinction. In fact in my talk tomorrow, I’m actually quoting Dickens, who I think of as the ultimate popular fiction writer, but now has a firm place in people’s minds as a literary writer.[4] Or at least, a ‘classic” writer.

LF: I want to focus a little more closely on the question of popular romance and literary fiction by talking about your latest novel, The Autumn Bride.[5] The novel begins in London in 1816. The heroine, Abigail Chantry, is a governess and she is running late after spending her half-day off in a bookstore, “lost in a story—The Monk—deliciously bloodcurdling.”[6] Reading, and in particular the pleasures of reading, strike me as key theme in this book. Not only does Abby love to read, but also she introduces other characters to the pleasures of “thrilling tales” and establishes a “literary society for people who don’t want to be improved.”[7] I love that quotation! What do you think? Were you deliberately playing with ideas about reading and pleasure in this novel?

AG: In a way. I think these moments in the novel are, partly, my reaction to something that has developed in society. I read very widely—romance and other genres as well as literary fiction—but I think there’s a cultural belief in Australia that reading needs to be serious, reading needs to be hard. I was in a bookstore in Bendigo a couple of months ago with a friend who was looking for a book.[8] I was just waiting around and browsing, when three young women came in to the store. They were clearly having trouble choosing a book. One of them said, “I like the books we do in book-club, of course, but for once I just want to find something that’s fun to read.”  It’s like people think that reading needs to be difficult and ‘worthy’, but we don’t tend to have the same ideas about watching movies. Sure, we distinguish between art-house movies and pure bits of fun, but people have no shame about saying they went to see a light-hearted romantic chick flick. Many Australians would rather die than admit they’d read a romance. So The Autumn Bride does include a little bit of tongue-in-cheek poking fun at the hiving off of novels that are worthy to read from the great variety of literature.

LF: One of my thoughts reading the book was that you were using it, in part, to making an argument for romance; it seems to me that you’re speaking up for the genre within the pages of the novel. [End Page 3]

AG: Yeah, sort of… [laughs] It’s also just fun and you know I’m not really taking it all that seriously.

LF: Nevertheless, I would argue that this novel uses the subplot of Abby’s success with a “fun” reading group to make a case for the value of the genre to which it belongs. I especially like the scene when a book literally saves Abby’s life: she’s carrying a novel when attacked in an alley and her assailant’s knife cuts into the book’s cover rather than her body.

AG: I never thought of that [laughs]. Completely unplanned. I needed her winded, not stabbed and the book was the obvious solution because she’s a reader, and like most readers, carries a book wherever she goes.

LF: It’s also a comical scene.The hero, Max, teases Abby, “And they say an addiction to novels is bad for you.”[9] Popular romance has always impressed me as an extremely self-reflexive genre, even when it doesn’t know that it’s doing it. Heroes often protest that they are not romantic; heroines reflect on the failure of real life to live up to their romantic dreams; and so on. Do you agree, and do you think that this type of self-reflexivity is one of the appeals of the genre?

AG: Yeah, I think it is. I think a lot of the readers of romance think this and enjoy novels that play with the conventions of the genre, but I didn’t deliberately plan to have a literary theme in this book at all.

LF: Do you now agree with me that it’s there?

AG: Oh yeah. As you were speaking and reading the quotations, I was thinking, “Gosh, yes, wow! [both laugh] I didn’t know I did that!” but I’m often surprised by readers’ interpretations of my novels. I have a reader in America who writes to me after every book and tells me my themes and it’s very interesting because I frequently have not intended or noticed them myself. There may be some thematic things that I’ll deliberately emphasise, but I don’t sit down and think, “What’s my theme?” or anything like that. When writing I’m just trying to make the story work and make it fun, but there are clearly things happening in the brain that are pulling it all into line.

LF: I guess as a literary critic, my job is to find patterns in and between texts, which is partly about identifying themes, and as a writer your job is to make patterns.

AG: I studied literature at Melbourne Uni, [laughs] so I do get it. And I remember arguments in tutorials about whether writers intended particular themes and now I’m on the other side! [both laugh]

LF: I’ll be fascinated to hear if you intended any of the other ideas I’ve identified in your work. I would like to talk a little more about the representation of reading in your novels. For more evidence that The Autumn Bride presents readers with a defense of romance I’d turn first to the minor character of Sir Oswald Merridew, who tells Max that what Abby and her friends [End Page 4] have created is “not like the usual sort of literary society—all allusions and metaphorical whatsits and epigrammatic thingummies—frightful bore, that kind of thing, too clever for me by half.”[10] At moments like this it seems to me as though the novel is issuing an invitation to readers to evaluate their own views about reading and types of reading; of course, readers are not required to accept the invitation to engage with the text at this more intellectual level, but I do think the option is there. Do you think that this is a valuable approach for scholars of popular romance fiction—to look within the novels and consider what they might be saying about the genre?

AG: I don’t know. It is about supporting the notion that people can just read for pleasure without having to justify it by entering into an intellectual discussion – literary salons were around in the Regency and there’s a parallel with today’s book clubs certainly, but it’s also a subtle reference to some of my earlier novels. Sir Oswald is a character from previous books. In the series with “perfect” in the title, he is the great uncle who the sisters fled to in order to escape their violent grandfather.[11] A lot of people loved him as a character and I wanted to make that connection, but another reason why I’ve included the literary society is historical. During the Regency, much of highborn society tended to scorn education. Girls, in particular, were valued for being more ignorant and they didn’t go in for any of that book-reading nonsense. So it’s obvious fodder for comedy.

LF: So you were playing simultaneously with a historical idea about attitudes to gender and reading during the Regency and a contemporary idea about the romance genre.

AG: Yeah, but I wasn’t playing deliberately with the modern idea of the romance novel. I was just really playing with historical notions about reading and it turns out to be in a romance novel. It’s also relevant that The Autumn Bride is loosely based on Pride and Prejudice. Each book in this series is going to take one of Austen’s texts as their cue, but it’s meant to be very, very subtle. Loose, even. [laughs]

LF: The Austen reference is right there in all the epigraphs. Every chapter begins with a quotation from a different Austen novel.

AG: Yes, but the fact that this novel takes its cue from one Austen story is less obvious. There are only a couple of lines from Pride and Prejudice that are actually quoted.

LF: So there are layers of intertextuality in the novel.I wonder how this relates to the three categories of readers you identified in a romance-writing workshop in 2002: “A passive reader will easily put down a text. An active reader will reluctantly put it down. A challenged reader all too often tosses it across the room.”[12] Can you explain in more detail how an “active reader” engages with a romance novel, or rather how you imagine the active reader that you’re writing for engaging with the novel?

AG: As I said earlier, one of the big things about popular fiction is that readers engage emotionally with the text, and invest in the world of the text. I gave that workshop at one of these conferences. It focussed on writing techniques for encouraging active reading and for writing a page-turner. For instance, planting “questions” throughout the novel prompts [End Page 5] readers to make hypotheses about how the story will unfold and then to read on to find out whether their guess was right. Readers use their imagination to engage with novels. When I write, I can only go so far; the rest of the story building happens through the link to the reader’s imagination and a really good reader has a really good imagination. More imaginative and committed readers become deeply involved in the story; they make connections within the world of the story they’re reading and pick up the references to other texts. For some readers, Sir Oswald Merridew is just a funny old bloke who attends the literary society, but to a whole lot of people who have read those other books he offers, just for a moment, a return to a world with which they are already familiar.

LF: You’re talking about a couple of different models of reader engagement, I think. The appearance of Sir Oswald in The Autumn Bride is an example of cross-referencing within your own work, which allows dedicated readers to more actively immerse themselves in an imaginative, inhabitable world, but the earlier type of engagement you were talking about is more about the structure of individual novels. While you were talking, I began thinking about the mid-twentieth century clue-puzzle crime novel or “whodunit,” most associated with Agatha Christie. The writer plants “clues” to actively encourage forward reading and keep the reader moving through the text. Is this prioritising of forward momentum—of page-turning—opposed to a literary kind of writing which encourages readers to pause, think, reread passages?

AG: Yes. I want to engage my readers on as many levels as possible. There’s no reason why you can’t read popular fiction in that more reflective way, and some novels lend themselves to that more than others. When I’m writing I’m conscious of the danger that if people have to work too hard to engage with my novels, they may put down the book and not come back. The same if they get bored.  The main purpose of reading romance fiction is not to ponder and think; it’s to be entertained.

LF: The Autumn Bride is a story, not a book of ideas.

AG: Exactly. There’s no reason why there can’t be ideas in a story, but the story has to work primarily. Of course, I’m basing my comments on my own expectations when I read romance. I tend to read popular fiction when I’m stressed and I just want time out, when I want to stick my head in a book and just read without having to think too much. That kind of pleasure is for when I’m more relaxed and when I just want to sink into a text and not escape from the world. It is a different reading experience.

LF: Is Abby, in The Autumn Bride, an active reader?

AG: Yes.  But the term ‘active reader’ is more about how the writer writes, not how a reader reads.

LF: She also teaches others how to read actively—how to engage their heads and their hearts in their reading. [End Page 6]

AG: She uses books and then the literary society as entertainment, but her initial aim with the society is as a devious scheme to introduce her marriageable sisters to society, when they’ve been expressly forbidden to go into society. She brings society to them. So, to an extent the literary society is just a plot device.

LF: But she’s also genuinely passionate about reading.

AG: Yes, she loves her stories.

LF: She loves a good story and she knows how to tell a good story, so she’s both an active engaging storyteller and an active reader herself. I’m also interested in the hero’s aunt, Lady Beatrice, who Abby rescues Aunt Bea from cruel servants. One of the main ways she helps her to recover her love of life and sense of humour is by reading novels to her, aloud. I think I’ve found characters that model active reading in some of your other novels as well. In The Stolen Princess, for example, the heroine, Callie, adores “frivolous reading matter.”[13] She learned to love stories from her beloved nanny, Miss Tibthorpe or “Tibby”, who “was an avid reader of novels and romantic poetry” and so ignored Callie’s father’s opposition to stories and “Filling girls’ heads with nonsense.”[14] Why did you make these characters lovers of novels?

AG: Callie had a cold and heartless upbringing with her father and she needed someone to teach her that there are other ways to live. Romantic literature was a bond between governess and pupil. But I also wanted to have fun with Tibby and her man. I wanted to play with a romance between an older spinster governess and a big hunky illiterate man-of-action and that became the subplot romance between Tibby and Ethan. Their story went over two books and Ethan learnt to read in that time.  I’ve taught literacy all my life, since I was nineteen at university and took on a volunteer role. Reading has brought me so much pleasure in my life and so I teach adult literacy; my thinking about the two things came together in The Stolen Princess. I also liked the dynamic of using the subplot romance to balance the main plots of this book and the next.[15] And I had a lot of fun playing out the “Young Lochinvar” thread. Also, I do think that, in that era and still now, people escape from the grimness of their lives into genre stories of some kind.

LF: I want to ask you about escapism and romance. My sense is that, even when your characters don’t explicitly state their passion for gripping fiction—when they’re not readers like Tilly, and Callie, and Abby and so on—your novels speak up for the genre in other ways. In particular, it seems to me that your heroines understand the value of escaping into fantasy narratives and worlds. For example, Nell, the heroine of His Captive Lady feels that she has lost everything, so she “live[s] on fantasies, dreaming her life was different. It was foolish she knew, but sometimes fantasy kept hopes alive. She needed that more than anything.”[16] In an interview with Kate Forsyth, you linked the genre’s popularity to its, in your words, “Pure, feel-good escapism.”[17] I can see a similarity between the “escapism” that you say your novels offer readers and Nell’s fantasies in His Captive Lady, Isabella’s daydreams in Bride By Mistake[18], the stories Prudence tells her sisters in The Perfect Rake, even in Grace’s immersion in renovating Wolfestone Castle in The Perfect Kiss. I’m wondering whether I understand what you mean by “escapism.” Can you explain your understanding of this term, [End Page 7] and do you agree that the pleasures and other benefits of escaping into stories might be a theme within your novels?

AG: My heroines often fantasise and dream of what things might be. I think that’s a very human, perhaps very female thing to do. Creating fantasies to escape into is a way of keeping hopes and dreams alive, keeping you going in difficult circumstances. My heroines’ tendency to daydream also helps readers to connect with them; they can empathise and sympathise with her fantasies.  It’s a way to encourage emotional engagement with the character and her story.

LF: This connects with what you were saying earlier about positioning the reader to barrack for the heroine; to do this, the reader must know the heroine’s hopes and dreams.

AG: Absolutely, ensuring that readers understand the protagonist’s goal is quite an important process in writing popular fiction. Many writers will argue that the goal needs to be tangible, but I also think that dreams and hopes must count in romance fiction. As a romance reader myself, I want to know what the heroine’s dreaming and hoping for.

LF: I want to turn now to the question of defining the genre, which is a pressing issue in popular romance studies. In an article for WriteOn magazine, you wrote, “romance must have a happy ending.”[19] As a literary scholar, my job is to interrogate ideas that are taken for granted. I’ve become increasingly fascinated by the cultural and political implications of romance’s insistence on the Happy Ever After. What is a “happy ending”? What are its requirements? And why do you think is it a requirement of the genre?

AG: Booksellers and publishers often present books as romances that I would call “romantic fiction.” The difference between “romantic fiction” and “romance” is that romance fiction ends happily. Romantic fiction can be all about love, can even tell a love story, but if a main character dies at the end a dedicated romance reader will feel gutted. The happy ending is not particularly narrowly defined … well, no, it is! A happy ending will mean that the hero and heroine will be together. They don’t have to be married, but the reader has to feel convinced by the end of the story that these two people will go on into the future, and live a happy life, and remain committed to each other.  In some romances the achievement of “happy for now” is enough. Another important genre expectation is that the hero and heroine must go through a fair bit of difficulty to achieve that happy ending.

LF: So the happy ending is a reward? The characters have to work for it.

AG: The happy ending is the reward. This is not inconsistent with the demand for a satisfying ending in other popular genres. For instance, I often make a comparison between the conventions of romance fiction and other classic popular genres. At the end of a traditional crime novel, justice is delivered. And in adventure fiction, characters take physical risks, and they are rewarded …

LF: In adventure fiction, the hero typically receives some kind of monetary reward. He often also gets the girl, but romance isn’t the main through-line. [End Page 8]

AG: No, often it’s just a placeholder girl, a token female, because finding love is not the hero’s principal objective. In romance fiction, by contrast, emotional justice is delivered. Romance heroes need to take emotional risks. They may face physical risks as well, but, in order for the romance to succeed, they must confront some of their inner demons, especially the kind of inner demons and hang-ups that have prevented them from being able to make a successful relationship in their past.

LF:The Happy Ever After then, if you think about it in terms of the temporal structure or chronology of the story, is both the reward for the way that characters overcome obstacles depicted in the plot, but it is also recompense for the pain or loss of past events or relationships.

AG: Yes, the back-story is crucial to understanding the Happy Ever After.

LF: So, just as the Happy Ever After makes readers a promise about the future of fictional lovers, there are always also lines of causality going in the other direction as well, towards the characters’ imagined pasts.

AG: Sure, absolutely.

LF: I think scholarship on the Happy Ever After sometimes forgets that the conventional structure of romance requires that the narrative reach out in both directions—towards the imagined future and the implied past.

AG: Yes, the back-story in popular romance is crucial, because what has happened to the characters in the past, and how they’ve interpreted the past, is almost always what is blocking them from getting that happy ending. I often tell people about my mum and dad, who met on the steps of the 1888 Building[20] when they were both nineteen. They fell in love then and there, got married a few years later and were happy right to the end. Terrific real-life romance. Crappy story. It was too easy. Characters overcoming difficulties to achieve true love and happiness is what makes a romance story interesting. In a classic genre romance, the relationship is the story.

LF: Of course, happiness only ever makes sense in relation to unhappiness. Does this explain why, if a story has a “happy ending” that is not balanced by the possibility or experience of unhappiness, it’s not a romance?

AG: A romance must have drama in the story and everyday banality, no matter how pleasant it is, is not drama. Romance writers and readers want their books to depict more than everyday life, as do readers of most genre fiction. So our characters have more things happen to them, more bad things happen to them, than truly happy couples like my parents.

LF: In her book, The Promise of Happiness, the cultural theorist Sara Ahmed examines how happiness is defined and understood in contemporary culture. She says, “Happiness is often [End Page 9] described as a path, as being what you get if you follow the right path,”[21] which is effectively what we’ve just been saying. The hero and heroine have to behave in the right way to be rewarded with happiness. The reverse is also true: the villain in a romance is often a character who is stuck in the past and cannot move forward.

AG: There is, however, a growing tendency amongst some authors to make the villain of one book in a series the hero of the next. I think this is a really interesting development, which relates to the importance of the back-story. The villain can be reinvented as a hero because, in the moral world of popular romance, to understand all is to forgive all. Mary Balogh wrote a terrific novel, Courting Julia, in which the anti-hero, Frederick Sullivan, kidnaps the heroine, who is his distant cousin.[22] He is desperate and plans to marry her for her money. Frederick is not the classic villain, but because he behaves badly, his plan fails. In the next novel in this series, Dancing with Clara, Frederick is even more desperate for money and he marries a disabled heiress for her money.[23] The heroine is quite aware of Frederick’s motivations and understands that, in a way, she is buying herself a beautiful man. She knows he doesn’t love her, but he pretends he does. Then she calls him on it and he’s just mortified and it’s wonderful!  It’s the beginning of his transformation, as he learns to live with what he’s done, and treat her honestly. And in the process, he falls in love.

LF: For Ahmed, happiness is an extremely difficult concept to define, but one that researchers should take seriously. What do you think “happiness” means in the context of the popular romance genre? If you were to write an emotional primer for a budding romance writer, what does happiness mean?

AG: In the case of most of my books, happiness is being loved—being loved truly and unconditionally. Happiness comes from meeting—not necessarily a “soul mate” —but a partner who can laugh along with you, and share things, and with whom you will make a family. Almost all of my books are about the relationship between happiness and the family. I tend to write heroes and heroines who are outsiders. Through their relationship they become part of a family, whether it is a “made-up” family like in The Autumn Bride, or an actual family that welcomes outsiders. In the Merridew Series, the heroines are sisters and the heroes are all outsiders.So, in my books, an important part of happiness is belonging somewhere.

LF: Happiness then, as you depict it in your novels, is both tied to the experiences and feelings of individuals and a social concept.

AG: It is absolutely a social concept. And yes, it’s both.

LF: The happy couple can’t exist or function in isolation, but must be integrated into a broader social structure.

AG: Yes, yes… Being unable to interact in society would be a kind of prison, don’t you think? [End Page 10]

LF: I’m noticing that social or familial connections are becoming a more significant aspect of romantic happiness as the series starts to dominate the genre and industry. Do you think this is the case?

AG: Yes, I think so. When I first started writing in the genre, I noticed the prevalence of “happy family” themes in successful novels. I remember wondering whether the appeal of romance’s focus on family might be explained by increased divorce rates, or perhaps by the fact that people are physically scattered, not just across the country anymore, but also across the world. In my own life too, I noticed people making their own families, moving beyond the biological family to create a family of friends. And I especially like writing stories about outsiders who find love and a home. My heroes and heroines are rewarded with security, which can be interpreted in many ways, but for my characters often includes financial security. I have a friend who has read my books, but is not a natural romance reader at all. She says, “These people are always so rich! Why can’t she just live in a cottage?” But that’s not the fantasy! The fantasy is being rich, or at least financially secure for the rest of their lives. A lot of my characters have had difficult beginnings at some stage and been without money and so understand poverty and powerlessness and unhappiness. Being financially secure may not be the goal, but it is the icing on the cake. Happiness is defined by them, by the characters.

LF: While there is a broad definition of happiness, happiness also means different things for different characters and sets of characters.

AG: Of course, happiness is individual, for each of us. We each have to define and seek our own happiness. That works for fictional characters as well, I think.

LF: In my book, Historical Romance Fiction, I offer an alternative definition of romance, which I’ve never tested on a romance writer before so you’re my guinea pig.[24] In short, I argue that the genre is defined by the necessity of the utterance “I love you” to each and every romance. I actually think the conclusion of your novel Bride By Mistake makes this point: “He was as hungry as she was for the words, Bella saw. She kissed him, moving lower each time. ‘I. Love. You. Luke. Ripton.’/ ‘I like your punctuation. Do it again.’”[25] What do you think about my idea that a romance must include a sincere declaration of love, usually in the words “I love you”?

AG: I think that is one of the “beats” that we look for in a romance. What is the difference between two people living together, getting married, building a family and never saying those words, and a couple who does all of the same things, but openly declares their love? I think it is about commitment. To actually say the words is an act of emotional courage. It is an important step towards the happy ending.

LF:  Emotional courage ties back to what you were saying about emotional justice. Is saying “I love you” evidence that a character has negotiated the obstacles in the path of true love, deserves the reward of the happy ending? [End Page 11]

AG: Interestingly, in popular romance fiction, it is particularly the hero who we look for to state their commitment. Usually, the heroine finds it much easier to say, “I love you.” The man’s declaration is always right towards the end of the novel. It can’t really come much earlier because if his declaration is made in chapter three [laughs], the story’s over.

LF: Yes, the hero of romance novels is often extremely reluctant to say, “I love you”; the heroine must hear these words for the novel to end. A good example of this is Harry in His Captive Lady: Nell knows he loves her physically, but she “crave[s] to hear the words from him.”[26] Similarly, in The Autumn Bride, Aunt Bea tells Max that, if he wants to keep Abby, he must say “I love you”: “‘My dear boy,’ she said gently, ‘women need to hear the words. They don’t need the world conquered for them, but they do need a man to speak the words that are in his heart.’”[27] So obviously you agree that female characters in romance are typically more comfortable—at least at first—with declaring their love, but why do you think this is the case? Do you think this is just a representation of what is a gender actuality or is it part of the conventions of the genre?

AG: A bit of both, I think. I do think that women are generally more comfortable than men in talking about feelings. In romance novels it is part of the convention because, to some extent, the heroine is a placeholder for the reader. I don’t mean that the reader must identify with the heroine in every detail, but identification is part of the reading process. Fiction is, of course, about characters changing and often in romance the character who needs to change the most is the hero. The story is powerful and moving because it depicts the journey towards his final commitment to the heroine.

LF: In your novels, I think it is fair to say that the reader knows from the beginning (unless, I guess, they are entirely new to the genre) that the reticent hero will declare his love by the end. This takes me to another question about the appeal of romance reading, which I think is fraught territory for romance scholarship, but something that we still need to think about: the predictability of romance. One way to think about all of this is to say that, because the reader knows how it will turn out in the end, there must be quite particular pleasures in the predictability of plots. Reading The Perfect Rake though, I started to think about this a little differently. In that novel, the hero and the heroine are so poor at interpreting each other’s words and actions that their relationship becomes comical. The reader of this novel, I think, is therefore both offered the pleasure of predictability and placed in a position of superiority to the characters; that is, the novel assumes the reader will recognize and understand signs of love and desire when the characters themselves are clueless. The reader is positioned in a similar way in The Perfect Kiss, I think, but through the play with Gothic literary conventions, rather than through the more obvious comedy of The Perfect Rake. Is this a deliberate strategy to encourage active reading, or do interpret it in another way?

AG: No, I just enjoy it! And misunderstandings between people — especially lovers or potential lovers — is fine fodder for comedy.

LF: But isn’t the reader positioned to think, “I know what’s going to happen to these characters and I know what’s going to happen long before the characters do.” [End Page 12]

AG: In that sense, it is an example of active reading, but I don’t think I deliberately planned it as such—I was just having fun. Active reading, as I think about it in relation to my actual writing practice, is more important to me during the editing phase. When I teach writing I say, “First comes the draft, then comes the craft. Just tell the story the best you can and then use craft to make it better.” I didn’t deliberately highlight the predictability of the plot as an active readership technique, but playing with the conventions is something that I enjoy.

LF: The predictability of the plot, or the reader having greater insight?

AG: The predictability of the plot. I think romance writers walk a bit of a tightrope. We need to please readers who love the genre, so there are certain predictable elements in the plot, but with every novel the aim is to make it fresh and unique. There is a really interesting tension in romance between predictability and freshness. Tweaking the predictable plot to surprise the reader: that’s the game really.

LF: I want to talk about sex now! You once wrote, “If sex belongs anywhere, it’s in a romance novel.”[28] I’ve been thinking lately about the conventions and the meanings of sex scenes in romance novels. Analysing the representation of sex should begin, I think, by paying attention, not to the sex scene itself, but to the scene when the hero and heroine first meet, because I think that actually establishes the promise of a physical relationship.

AG: Yes, it introduces the sexual tension, though it’s not always the promise of sex-to-come, if that’s what you mean. Plenty of non-explicit romances follow the same conventions.

LF: I’m really interested to know how you would describe the conventions of this stage of romance: the first encounter.

AG: It’s one of the beats that we anticipate and enjoy. There’s a real pleasure in recognizing the hero and the heroine and their first encounter.

LF: You mentioned the “beats” readers expect earlier. Are you talking about the rhythm of the text?

AG: A lot of what is really useful for talking about writing popular fiction comes from screenwriting, which works in “beats,” so I’ve just pinched that term. One of the beats that readers love and anticipate is the “enter the hero” moment in which eyes might meet across a crowded room, or the heroine overhears a Darcy-like figure describe her as too plain, or sparks fly after a carriage accident. These scenes should depict instant sexual tension. Reading them, we just know that we’ve started the adventure, the journey towards the happy ending. The anticipation is part of the pleasure.

LF: The “enter-the-hero” moment, to use your term, often focuses on the power of the hero’s gaze and, in particular, its capacity to breach the distance from social space to intimate space. There are countless scenes depicting a heroine trembling or shuddering as the hero’s eyes rake over or lance through her body. These moments clearly anticipate sex scenes. [End Page 13]

AG: This is also another example of the necessary difference between romance and reality. Romance novels must build anticipation from the very beginning, but it doesn’t necessarily have to do with sex. It’s one aspect of the fantasy we were talking about earlier, but don’t forget I’m writing in the Regency era when they didn’t just say, “Hey babe, how about it? Wanna get laid?”

LF: Sure, and that relates to my next question. I want to ask you about the metaphoric link between desire and violence in first encounter scenes. When in The Stolen Princess Gabriel sees Callie’s face for the first time—on a moonlit path on a cliff-top—his reaction reminds him of the dozen times he’s “had the breath knocked out of him” and the time he was “kicked in the head by a horse”: “Seeing her face in the moonlight was like all of those rolled into one. And more. Gabe’s breathing stopped. He forgot how to speak. He was unable to think.”[29] Similarly, in The Autumn Bride, the first time Max and Abby are alone (another “beat”?), he can’t decide if he wants to kiss or “strangle” her, but he recognizes he finds her “damnably arousing.”[30] What do you think?

AG: The first encounter is cataclysmic. The French call it the coup de foudre and the metaphors of violence are a way of prompting readers to imagine the power, the impact, of “love at first sight.” The characters don’t necessarily recognise their feelings as “love” at this stage.

LF: No, the characters’ inability to name or interpret their emotions enables the reader’s active engagement. The reader is able to recognise the signs of love immediately, as a kind of flash-forward. The characters can only interpret them retrospectively, often near the novel’s conclusion.

AG: But that’s like life anyway. Most of the time we don’t reflect on our own lives terribly well, but it’s really easy to analyse other people’s. [both laugh].

LF: I still want to keep taking about sex, because there’s one thing I keep noticing that I’m very curious about. Romance heroines always “shatter” at the moment of climax. I think I’ve read the verb “to shatter” in this context in every romance novel I’ve read in the last six months. In fact, two Australian academics are currently editing a book about popular erotic fiction called Shattering Releases, so I’m not the only one who’s been thinking about the connotations of this word.[31] I’ve got a theory about this, which I’d like to test on you. The beats I’m interested in at the moment—if we keep with this idea of beats—are the “enter-the-hero” moment (which relates to the moment of first touch, the moment of first kiss), the first sex scene, the first orgasm, and the Happy Ever After. I think there is a chain of causality in your novels that runs from the moment the hero and heroine first meet through the sex scenes—strengthening in scenes depicting orgasm—to the Happy Ever After. In simple terms, the overarching narrative arc described by this chain is one of tension to release. This helps explain all of the shattering: the heroine is disassembled—she is blown apart—so that she can be reassembled as part of a couple.

AG: Yes, it’s a phoenix metaphor. Clearly I haven’t thought about it enough if all of my heroines are “shattering” (laughs). [End Page 14]

LF: There’s “shattering” and there’s “cataclysmic brightness”…

AG: I may have had a few heroines shatter but I have never used“cataclysmic brightness.” But it is a really hard experience to describe isn’t it? And I don’t want to use the word “orgasm,” partly because it is not a term that would have been available to my characters. The term that was often used, “the little death” (from the French) is not what many modern readers would understand either. Or think romantic. It depends partly on point of view. When depicting the heroine’s point of view, I try to limit myself to the kind of words and images that she would use. The heroine of my second book Tallie’s Knight, is very young and naïve, so she would describe climax very differently from another more experienced heroine.[32] Also, the words that I use for orgasm are often metaphorical, because I write historical fiction about people who didn’t have the language we do today, and these scenes should evoke their thoughts and feelings.

LF: Orgasms in historical romance are almost entirely described through metaphor. They’re not described anatomically really very much at all.

AG: Anatomical descriptions are not appropriate – they’d sound horribly scientific or clinical. When we’re in the throes of sex and orgasm, do we think anatomically? We probably don’t think at all, but somehow I have to try and convey that state. There are some “ripples” and “shudders” … but my characters are never going to “shatter” again! Probably. You are making me think, that’s for sure, about how I write. [laughs]

LF: Do you agree with me that there is a link between conventions for representing of orgasm and the expectation of a Happy Ever After? It seems to me that the depiction of orgasm as an experience of absolute sensual plenitude lays the foundations for the reconciliation of the heroine’s warring mind and body, which in the terms of romance, is one precondition for being happy in love.

AG: Yes, yes. But sometimes sex actually makes things worse between the hero and heroine – bringing up more problems. It’s not a quick fix, by any means. But part of the Happy Ever After promise is the promise of fabulous sex. Or in non-explicit romances, the implication of it.

LF: The conflict between mind and body is one of the things that fascinate me about depictions of romance heroines, certainly in historicals. When the heroine first meets the hero, she is typically overwhelmed by her bodily responses and sensations. She doesn’t know how to interpret them, but the experienced romance reader does. The reader knows exactly what’s happening.

AG: Yes and there is a pleasure to be had in that recognition, because it connects to readers’ experiences of love and sex. I hope. And with orgasm, it is also like her bonds are shattering. At least, it’s a metaphorical shattering. Clearly it is, otherwise there wouldn’t be a happy ending. [End Page 15]

LF: That’s another dimension of the metaphor, isn’t it? The heroine is being emotionally, psychologically, physically shattered or undone, so that she can be rebuilt anew into her Happy Ever After and her future as part of a couple, which is a new unified unit.

AG: Yes, but it is also a simple metaphor of just letting go, letting go the bonds and opening up to him, to everything, to all the new possibilities. It’s also a sign that he is responsive to her, which is important.


Lisa and Anne would both like to thank Jennifer Kloester for introducing them.

[1] See Gelder, Ken. Popular Fiction: The Logics and Practices of a Literary Field. London: Routledge, 2004. Print.
[2] The verb “to barrack for” is the Australian equivalent for the American “to root for.”

[3] Kinsale, Laura. Flowers from the Storm. New York: Avon-HarperCollins, 1992. Print; Chase, Loretta. Lord of Scoundrels. New York: Avon-HarperCollins, 1995. Print; Chase, Loretta. Mr Impossible. New York: Berkley-Penguin, 2005. Print.

[4] Gracie, Anne. “Rockpools: The Power of Detail.” Riding the Waves: Romance Writers of Australia Conference. Esplanade Hotel, Fremantle, Australia. 18 August 2013. Breakout Session.

[5] Gracie, Anne. The Autumn Bride. Melbourne: Michael Joseph-Penguin, 2013. Print.

[6] Gracie. The Autumn Bride. 8.

[7] Gracie. The Autumn Bride. 175-6

[8] Bendigo is a regional city in Victoria, Australia.

[9] Gracie. The Autumn Bride. 195.

[10] Gracie. The Autumn Bride. 248.

[11] The Merridew Series: The Perfect Rake. New York: Berkley-Penguin, 2005. Kindle; The Perfect Waltz. New York: Berkley-Penguin, 2005. Kindle; The Perfect Stranger. New York: Berkley-Penguin, 2006. Kindle; The Perfect Kiss. New York: Berkley-Penguin, 2007. Kindle;

[12] Gracie, Anne. “Active Readers” Notes for Workshop conducted at Romance Writers of Australia Conference, Melbourne 2002. Anne Gracie. Web. 26 July 2013.

[13] Gracie, Anne. The Stolen Princess. New York: Berkley-Penguin, 2008. Print. 17.

[14] Gracie. The Stolen Princess. 40.

[15] Gracie, Anne. His Captive Lady. New York: Berkley-Penguin, 2008. Kindle.

[16] Gracie. His Captive Lady. n. pag.

[17] Gracie, Anne. Interview by Kate Forsyth. Kate’s Blog. 14 February 2013. Web. 26 July 2013.

[18] Gracie, Anne. Bride by Mistake. New York: Berkley-Penguin, 2012. Print.

[19] Gracie, Anne. “Romantic Myths.” Anne Gracie. Web. 26 July 2013. First published in WriteOn, the Magazine of the Victorian Writers Centre, Melbourne, Australia.

[20] Historic building on Grattan Street, Parkville, in the state of Victoria, Australia. Formally known as the Melbourne College of Education and later as the Melbourne State College, the 1888 building has been part of the University of Melbourne since 1989.

[21] Ahmed, Sara. The Promise of Happiness. Durham: Duke UP, 2010. Kindle.

[22] Balogh, Mary. Courting Julia. New York: Signet Regency, 1995. Print. [End Page 16]

[23] Balogh, Mary. Dancing with Clara. New York: Signet Regency, 1995. Print.

[24] Fletcher, Lisa. Historical Romance Fiction: Heterosexuality and Performativity. Aldershot: Ashgate, 2008. Print.

[25] Gracie. Bride By Mistake. 306.

[26] Gracie. His Captive Lady. n. pag.

[27] Gracie. The Autumn Bride. 289.

[28] Gracie. “Romantic Myths.” n. pag.

[29] Gracie. The Stolen Princess. 15-6.

[30] Gracie. The Autumn Bride. 110.

[31] The editors of this book are Kristen Phillips and Claire Trevenen. See http://blogs.curtin.edu.au/elizabeth-jolley-conference/2013/05/cfp-shattering-releasesthe-pleasures-and-politics-of-popular-erotic-fiction-edited-collection/.

[32] Gracie, Anne. Tallie’s Knight. New York: Harlequin, 2000. [End Page 17]

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Romantic Love in Mexico and Latin America: An Interview with Enrique Serna
by Michael K. Schuessler

Enrique Serna (Mexico City, 1959) is one of Mexico’s most celebrated living writers. Although he is best known for his novels of historical fiction, for example, El seductor de la patria (1999) and Ángeles del abismo (2004), Serna’s literary career began in 1987 with the publication of Señorita México, a crude portrait of an erstwhile beauty queen whose life as told to a reporter is a pretext for much deeper (and biting) social criticism. This inclination flowers most brilliantly in El miedo a los animales (1995), a piercing satire inspired by the author’s own experiences within the perplexing mafia of Mexico’s intellectual and political underworld. Not only a novelist, Serna is also one of Latin America’s most talented short story writers, and his first collection, entitled Amores de segunda mano (1991), foresaw the publication of El orgasmógrafo (2001) and his most recent book, entitled La ternura caníbal (2013).  In 2002, the literary review Nexos included Serna in a list of the top ten Mexican short story writers of the last twenty-five years. Given his enormous success in Mexico, it is at once surprising and discouraging to consider that of his twelve works, only one of them (Fear of Animals [Aflame Books, U.K. 2008]) has been translated into English. In this interview, Serna discusses his ideas regarding romantic love in Latin America, an underlying theme to be found in many of his literary creations, where the sheer tawdriness (and cheesiness) of many intimate relationships experienced by his literary characters is imbued with the saccharine verses of Mexico’s romantic ballads, soap operas, films, and other manifestations of popular culture. [End Page 1] 

Michael K. SchuesslerEnrique, I’d like to talk with you about the concept of romantic love in the literature and culture of Mexico and Latin America. I have assembled some questions and I would like to start with this: In what ways has romantic love been portrayed in cinema, literature, television, and popular music in Mexico and in Latin America, now and in the past?

Enrique Serna: In my opinion, the 1930s were the golden age of Mexican popular culture. This period came before the intensification of mass popular culture, with its wide range of marketing strategies, all designed to evaluate the reaction of the consumer… that is to say, to prevent the reaction of the consumer. This was the era of XEW radio broadcasting, and the owners of the station believed that by hiring the best composers and singers, they would corner top ratings. So, it was understood that the owners would allow free artistic license, which was necessary, of course, and they gave us the works of Agustin Lara, for example…

Starting in the 1920s, Lara began to frequent the brothels of Mexico City, and, in fact, most of his songs were composed based on his experiences there. It is curious how music composed in bordellos became the popular music of the day, listened to by housewives, whose fantasy was to be treated like “adventuresses” or “loose women” invoked in his songs.

MKS And I believe that this phenomenon also occurred in Mexican cinema of the period. The 1932 film Santa, for example… Does this movie have anything to do with what you are describing?

ES Of course it did. First there was the silent version and then the “talkie” version that included a soundtrack and Lara’s song (of the same name). It was perfect for the movie. The song is about a prostitute, and it is likely that Lara got his inspiration from the special type of love he came to know in the brothels.

There is a difference between this type of ballad and that of the Yucatecan trova, the songs composed by such artists as Guty Cárdenas, whose style has been kept alive by artists such as Armando Manzanero. The trova-type ballad is more in keeping with conventional morality. These kinds of songs can be sung to your girlfriend and her parents can enjoy them, too. There’s no strong erotic content, as in the compositions of Lara and later in the works of another famous songwriter: Roberto Cantoral. He was the author of Reloj and other songs like Soy lo prohibido. In this era, we also have Ranchera music. This type of music is more dramatic and exalts lost love. In this sense it is similar to the music of other countries, like the Blues of the US or the Argentine tango. These genres also elevate failure as an emotion: it hurts, but it gives you pleasure.

MKS Might one affirm, then, that Mexican popular music begins with the compositions of Agustin Lara in the 1920s, and that subsequently what was originally conceived as a literary manifestation enters the world of cinema, as well as a music that modifies the way love and suffering are portrayed?

ES Not precisely. Lara had literary abilities; as a youth he studied in the French Lycée. He had read the works of Baudelaire, for example. He created sumptuous metaphors inspired by the modernistas, that is, the Latin American symbolists. These metaphors were complex: “eyes made drunk by the sun”… they were not common clichés. What he did was to mix [End Page 2] these metaphors with lines that were more easily understood. And in this way he kept the public from being frightened away (or confused) by these unusual images.

MKS How do you compare these romantic composers, along with parallel representations in cinema and literature, with others presented to the general public? How have they been used to serve the aims of national, state, and regional political figures of the time, and how did they affect political change?

ES Well, for Ranchera music, the center of action was the Mexican state of Jalisco. In fact, it was the image of the “charros cantores – singing cowboys” that Mexico first exported to the world. The first hit was Allá en el Rancho Grande, and the second was ¡Ay Jalisco no te Rajes! As a result, this style becomes known as the epitome of Mexican music. The original mariachis were poor Indian farmers who wore plain cotton clothing, while the charro costume of the time was worn by the hacienda owners. Consequently, the mariachi groups settled on outfits that were considered elegant apparel of the time. In turn, the musical groups that traveled to Mexico City to play at elegant parties also wore this signature outfit.

There are old photographs where the mariachis appear in plain clothing, but then stars such as Jorge Negrete and Pedro Infante came onto the scene wearing the elegant traje de mariachi costume. As I have said, without doubt they became symbolic of Mexican music and were warmly embraced by the population at large. The songs are representative of an age; they also clearly were identified with the criollo (white) hacienda owners. In all honesty, this is the music that really touched the Mexican soul. Ranchero music is similar to styles such as Flamenco – it is a plaintive music very similar to cante jondo (of Andalucía). This is one of the reasons that Mexican mariachi music was so well accepted in Spain. The mariachi are heroes there. Their music can be heard everywhere.

MKS And does this concept of romantic love–painful and cruel–make Mexican romantic music stand apart from the romantic music of other countries?

ES I don’t think there’s much difference. After all, the Blues, the Tango, the Ballenato from Columbia, and the Cante jondo of Spain all generally speak to failure in love. I think it’s a universal tendency. But in Mexico, the particular mournful style has enriched the genre worldwide. But what has made the huge negative difference and degraded Mexico’s image is mass-marketing. It has tried to take the musical artists away from the people. It has attempted to dictate and manipulate their tastes while seemingly giving the public what it wants. That is not to say that since the 60s, everything produced has been garbage, but I venture to say that we have moved away from the excellence of the earlier times.

MKS  And how do you relate these concepts to romanticism in literature, for example, in that of Mexico. This Romanticism, is it too related with romantic love? Is there continuity from the 19th to the 20th century?

ES Well, I don’t know if the Bolero is very faithful to the concept of romantic love without analyzing romanticism in literature of the 18th and 19th centuries: the German school or that of French Romanticism. It is more of a sentimental type of music than a melodramatic one. It has been called Romanticism, but this is an oversimplification. This music has, of course, had a great impact on Mexican literature during the second half of the 20th Century. Titles such as “Arráncame la Vida” by Ángeles Mastretta come to mind, and the Bolero is [End Page 3] still the fountain of inspiration. This is logical because many of us were educated listening to music. In my case, this was the music my parents listened to, and I liked it. I continued listening to it, and I think this is the characteristic of Mexican popular music: its longevity. And we can see that now, the music of Agustín Lara has outlasted the music of the 70s, for example, which has been more or less forgotten.

MKS How are such stereotypes as that of the Latin Lover developed in countries like the US?

ES Well, I think this is a stereotype promoted by people from the United States. There they see the Latin Lover as someone exotic and attractive. Probably they see this figure as someone like Rudolph Valentino. In the US, the figure of the Latin Lover was converted into that of a sex symbol, whereas in Mexico it is the reverse. Here the sex symbol is the blond – we Mexicans have always found them attractive. Moreover, the blonde gringas are seen as the ultimate sexual conquest. And we see this a lot in the novels of José Agustín, Ricardo Garibay, a little in those of Carlos Fuentes, such as Frontera de Cristal, in which bedding a gringa is the maximum sexual conquest that a Mexican macho can aspire to. I think this comes from the way many gringas come to have sexual flings with the beach boys in Acapulco. And of course, the gringos do the same…

MKS Are there expressions of love, of romantic love, in Mexico’s gay culture, as well? Is there transference or a rejection of these heteronormative phenomena?

ES Actually, these are not gay songs, but the gay community has appropriated them. There are legends, and you probably have heard them; for example, there is the story that the song “Usted es la culpable de todas mi angustias,” written by Gabriel Ruiz Galindo, was originally entitled “Daniel” and written for a man by a man. The song’s author apparently sold the rights to the person who is now credited as being the composer, a composer from Chiapas, I believe, but I forget his name. And then in the 70s, things started to become much more liberal. There are strong insinuations in the songs. For example, the one by José José that says: “I have rolled around from here to there, everything within reason… with this one (éste y aquel) and that one (ésta y aquella) with everything (con esto y aquello).” It’s a great song!

MKS Now, to finish up, I’d like to know if you think there’s an enormous difference between “high culture” and “popular culture” in Latin America, and if this distinction is gradually becoming blurred?

ES There is a difference in the different countries of Latin America. I think that in countries where a cultural elite exists, you will find a distinction between “high culture” and “popular culture,” and for this reason, the “higher class” rejects “the popular class.” However, this has been changing. For example, the national writers’ guild contains in its roster many composers of Boleros: they include Lara, Álvaro Carrillo, Luis Alcaraz, and others. This indicates to me that this music is considered among the best in Mexico. And I think this trend will continue. But still there is a tendency to maintain separate worlds. There are other countries where great poets also write music. In Brazil, for example, there is Vinicius de Moraes, a member of the country’s avant-garde, as well as Chico Boarque. Both were great poets and composers. In these cases we have no distinction. And then we have the tangos… [End Page 4] 

MKS And what to say about the television genre that Americans see as wholly Latin American – the telenovela? How do you relate the telenovela with this concept of romantic love?

ES The telenovela is a form of entertainment that has borrowed much from the Bolero – in fact, many telenovelas are named after songs. I remember in the 1960s there was a telenovela called Fallaste Corazon, just like the famous song by Cuco Sánchez. And so we can see that the songs have outlived the telenovelas. This phenomenon began towards the end of the 1950s. The first telenovela was Sendas Perdidas, written by Fernanda Villeli.

MKS These were women scriptwriters? Did they write to express their point of view, their personal experiences?  How do you see this?

ES Well, I think it was always a purely commercial enterprise. I don’t think anybody has written a telenovela as a means of expressing themselves. That didn’t exist before, and I don’t think it exists now. But now there is more creative freedom. There was not in the beginning. Early scriptwriters like Caridad Bravo Adams lived these dramas authentically; they believed in the drama and they transmitted it to the public. For this reason, they were so effective. Normally these dramas were based upon the story of Cinderella. That’s why there have been hundreds and hundreds of telenovelas about the poor girl who overcomes bad treatment by her employer and ends up marrying the son or the boss and consequently has the last laugh. In the end, the producers want to exploit the same successful formula, over and over, until they “kill the goose that laid the golden egg.”

MKS It certainly is a theme that is repeated time and again in the telenovelas of Latin America in general and those of Mexico in particular.

ES Well. It’s the same every time because in Mexico and Latin America you can’t have love without passion. And this love includes ardent sexual desire. So I think in the most representative Mexican popular songs we find this fervent, blood-boiling passion of Latin America that is identified with the region, thus it is seen by the world as a characteristic of Latin America, for better or worse. [End Page 5] 

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Francophone Perspectives on Romantic Fiction: From the Academic Field to Reader’s Experience, by Séverine Olivier (Interview with Agnès Caubet, Romance Reader and Webmaster of Les Romantiques, fan website and webzine)

Although Francophone romance scholarship dates back to the 1980s, the scholars who write it are not generally familiar with the genre. They identify romantic fiction exclusively with Harlequin category romances or Barbara Cartland’s romance novels, and when they try to understand romance readers and why they read romantic fiction, Francophone romance scholars are, with few exceptions, condescending and partial. In the words of one scholar, they try to explain “why romance readers read what they shouldn’t read” (Bettinotti 1998, 173). Despite the ethnographic model offered by Janice Radway and others, French readers have rarely been interviewed. This paper will examine why contempt for romantic fiction and for romance readers remains predominant in the French academic field, bringing to light the differences between the dominant construction of the genre and its readership in the French critical context and romance readers’ own perceptions of the books they like to read. One particular reader’s experience will be central: that of Agnès Caubet, Webmaster of lesromantiques.com. In 2001, Caubet created the first and currently only Francophone website about the romance genre. It is a flourishing community of French-speaking (mostly romance) readers, with 60,000 visitors and 1.5 million pages viewed a month. Although she is not “representative” of all the romance readers, her own experience as reader, the importance of the website, discussion boards, and webzine she managed to launch, and the contacts she established with French romance publishers open new perspectives on romantic readers and romance reading, in France and, potentially, elsewhere.

Romantic Fiction and the French Academic Field

Since the 1980s, when the first Harlequin novels were translated into French, only a dozen Quebec and French monographs about romantic fiction have been published (See Spehner and RomanceWiki). Even though the French-speaking romance market is smaller than the English-speaking one, this is a small number of studies in comparison with Anglophone scholarship. To situate Caubet’s experiences as reader and editor, this paper will first go back over the construction of Francophone romance criticism: it will outline the dominant views about romance readers and romance reading in the academic field, underline how Francophone scholars generally consider popular romance readers, and explain why condescension remains predominant.

Harlequin published its first romance novels in French in 1978. Scholars in Quebec and France soon took an interest in the genre, especially in Harlequin romance novels written in, or more often translated into, French (see Cadet; Graner; Helgorsky 1985 and 1987; Richaudeau; Rihoit). As a rule, they analyzed these texts through the lens of narratology, i.e. Genette and Greimas’s theories of narrative discourse. In 1983 a special issue of Études Littéraires, followed by La Corrida de l’amour: le roman Harlequin, edited by Julia Bettinotti, defined and described the narrative “formula” and standard characters of Harlequin novels. In these accounts, five narrative steps—still often quoted in French studies—characterize category romances: the meeting (la rencontre), the conflict (la confrontation polémique), the seduction (la séduction), the confession of love (la révélation de l’amour), and the wedding (le mariage). These approaches to romantic fiction developed out of real curiosity and these essays are never disdainful of the genre. But the 1980s were also years of condemnation. According to Michelle Coquillat and her feminist Romans d’amour, romantic fiction develops and illustrates a “psychology of dependence and submission”: the heroine would be tamed and humiliated by a brutal hero. Coquillat identified romantic fiction (in fact, a very few Harlequin romances and some books by the early 20th century Catholic author “Delly”[1]) as dangerous novels for readers who were assumed to be naïve and socially poor women. Her essay crystallized the condemnations of romance fiction. Outdated, this essay is nevertheless interesting, since the condemnations Coquillat expressed continue to influence the Francophone academic field.

By the end of the 1980s, new horizons began to open. After the first and so-far only Francophone conference entirely dedicated to the genre, held in Limoges in 1989, the number of essays and articles increased: some Francophone scholars tried to examine the so-called “paraliterature” (la “paralittérature”) without prejudice; at times pursuing questions posed during the Limoges conference by Ellen Constans. But although scholars’ approaches changed, their use of the word “paraliterature” to describe romantic fiction continued to imply a hierarchic vision of the literary field: one in which popular romance novels could not be assimilated to “Literature.” (After all, “para” literally means “close by” or “next to,” and ”paraliterature” is implicitly inferior to what it cannot simply be.) A more significant departure from scholarly precedent came in 1991, when Bruno Péquignot published La relation amoureuse: Analyse sociologique du Roman Sentimental Moderne, the first (and so far only) French sociological essay focusing on romance readers: specifically, readers of Harlequin novels. According to Péquignot, category romances describe an initiatory quest and represent for readers a guide to the ideal relationship. Romantic fiction illustrates a dream, a utopia wherein a man and a woman, both equal, finally communicate. To understand the readers who were drawn to this utopian quest, Péquignot interviewed female romance readers he met on trains between Lyon and Grenoble. They were in their thirties, employed, married and generally ashamed of the books they read.

As the first attempt to understand French romance readers, Péquignot’s essay remains important in romance academic history. Unfortunately Péquignot did not record or transcribe his interviews with readers, leaving subsequent scholars to wonder what the role of this scholar was in potentially altering readers’ discourse about their reading. Moreover, since La relation amoureuse is the only essay in French about French-speaking romance readers, and since it focused on Harlequin readers, the information we have about French romance readership exclusively concerns readers of category and contemporary romance novels. This reinforces the assumption, in the Francophone academic field, that all popular romance fiction can be identified with Harlequin romance fiction, and especially with the novels published in a single category line, Harlequin Presents. Scholars generally are not aware that single-title romances and multiple romance subgenres exist, and they have generally failed to take an interest in the range of romantic fiction published by one of Harlequin’s most important competitors in the French market, J’ai lu.

J’ai lu entered the French romance market in 1991, translating into French what Harlequin did not: Anglophone historical romance novels. The decision to focus on these texts was strategic and market-driven. In the 1980s, when Harlequin entered the French market, many publishing houses published romance novels but Harlequin, with its American and English category romances and its commercial strategies, rapidly overshadowed its competitors. Rather than directly competing with the international conglomerate, J’ai lu left the translation of contemporary category romances to Harlequin and focused instead on historical single-title romances, building its historical line “Aventures et Passions” on such titles as Jude Deveraux’s The Velvet Promise (Les yeux de velours) or Johanna Lindsey’s So Speaks the Heart (Esclave et châtelaine).

Despite this surge in Francophone romance publishing by J’ai lu, in the 1990s academic essays continued to focus on Harlequin or on specific French writers like Delly, Max du Veuzit or Magali[2] (Bettinotti and Noizet; Paulvé and Guérin). Many books published on romantic fiction in the 1990s condemned the genre. Category romances were perceived to reinforce patriarchy and were considered as an ideologically dangerous fiction for female readers, even though readers were never interviewed for this research (Noizet; Préfontaine). However, after Péquignot, some scholars tried to describe the reading process. Nicole Robine took an interest in the cultural practices of “young workers” (young adults who began working at 18 or 19), and observed that young working girls generally chose to read Harlequin novels. According to Robine, category romances, short and easy to read, symbolize a cultural compromise for these young girls, torn between their family situation and educational background. Thus, romance reading was socially determined or, if romance readers didn’t come from working class backgrounds, psychologically determined: according to Robine, only working class women or teenagers would be attracted by romantic fiction. While Nicole Robine presented a sociological vision of some romance readers, Annik Houel published a psychological essay influenced by the “nurturing theory” proposed in the early 1980s by American scholar Janice Radway, in which readers are said to be drawn to texts where the romance hero nurtures the heroine like a mother, and consequently nurtures the reader, who identifies passively with the heroine. Despite these efforts to take readers seriously from sociological and psychological perspectives, however, scholars’ prejudice against and disdain for the genre remained evident. Readers were repeatedly compared with drug addicts—this even happens in Houel’s essay, alongside the talk of nurture—and the novels themselves were considered to be commercial product without artistic quality, written to seduce naïve teenagers and culturally inferior housewives.

Although they didn’t focus on romance readership, the 2000s saw an evolution in the reception of the novels themselves. In her 2000 study Parlez-moi d’amour: Le roman sentimental: des romans grecs aux collections de l’an 2000, for example, Ellen Constans tried to link romance novels with the French literary canon, comparing some of the major French classics (Tristan et Iseult, La Princesse de Clèves, Le Diable au Corps, etc.) with modern popular romantic fiction. Implicitly, of course, Constans’s work was also a major step forward in legitimating romance readers; alas, the deaths of Constans and Canadian scholar Bettinotti in 2007—both scholars seriously interested in romance novels—seem to have brought an end to these more positive developments, even as romance subgenres have proliferated and evolved into new popular genres. (For example, no book has yet been published in French on chick lit.)

In the French academic culture, which still sees the “book” as the “conservatory of cultural legitimacies and hierarchies” (Collovald and Neveu 15), Francophone popular romance fiction has thus faced a number of distinctive challenges. A hierarchical vision continues to shape Francophone literary study, so that “high literature” (or simply “literature”) remains defined by its opposition to “low literature” (or “paraliterature”); in this context, romantic fiction remains condemned as bad literature, both literarily and culturally poor. The genre is also tarred by its association with the mass market, and worse still, with the American mass-market: there are few French authors, and publishers don’t want to risk publishing an unknown French author when they can translate a famous American, English, or Australian one at little cost. The novels are thus seen as second-rate imports, mass-produced on an industrial scale, without aesthetic quality or individual interest. Finally, the genre is socially disqualified since it is associated, not just with lower-class readers, but specifically with female lower-class readers, who are presumed to be in need of scholarly protection. Despite the work of Richard Hoggart, Michel de Certeau and many others (Owen; Collovald & Neveu) which amply demonstrate that “popular” readers are not the victims of the books they like to read, romance readers are persistently characterized as passive and subject to ideological manipulation. No wonder, then, that the Francophone study of popular romance fiction continues, as a rule, to act as a sort of cultural watchdog or guardian, focused on the need to disqualify the genre and to denounce the dangers it represents. Romantic fiction is a “mauvais genre” (bad genre), linked to “mauvaise lecture” (bad reading) and to “mauvais lecteurs” (bad readers).

But are romance readers really passive and naïve? Are they really bad readers? To answer this question, I spoke with Agnès Caubet, founder and webmaster of lesromantiques.com.

Interview with Agnès Caubet

Born in 1967 in Clermont-Ferrand, Agnès Caubet attended business school and is a computer trainer. She began reading category romances in the 1980s when she was sixteen, and in the 1990s, she fell in love with historical romance. Frustrated because it was difficult to get the books she liked, let alone any information about their authors, she turned to the Internet, where she found many American websites dedicated to romantic fiction, but no comparable French site. To fill that need, in 2001 she launched “Les Romantiques” (See http://www.lesromantiques.com).

Agnès Caubet may not be a representative Francophone romance reader—but then, representativeness is a problematic concept when speaking about romance readers, in France and elsewhere. (Were the Harlequin-reading commuters interviewed by Péquignot, the ones who were so ashamed of the books they read, representative? Not enough research has been done to say.) Certainly her education and experiences demonstrate that not all French romance readers are teenagers and desperate housewives buying their books at the supermarket, a persistent stereotype in French academic research and popular media. It is also inarguable that, via her website, Caubet is uniquely positioned to discuss the experiences of an extended Francophone readers’ community; in fact, thanks to her website, she has become an interlocutor between that community and French romance publishers, able to offer to those publishers, and to JPRS, a variety of new perspectives about the genre and its readers.

Séverine Olivier: Agnès, you are a romance reader and the Webmaster of “Les Romantiques,” a French website dedicated to romantic fiction. Before answering questions about your own romance reader’s experience, could you answer some questions about your experience as a Webmaster? Why did you decide to launch the website?

Agnès Caubet: Romance reading was, for me as for many others, a very solitary hobby. It was impossible to find any information about the authors, the new releases, the sagas and sequels. That was a very frustrating experience. In Paris where I lived, I would sometimes spend an entire Saturday afternoon visiting every supermarket I could think of to find out if they had new books on their shelves. Often I found none. Did I say frustrating?

Then my husband, my newborn son, and I left the capital and went to live in a small village in southern France where there was no supermarket at all. But a big change was taking place at the time: it was at the beginning of the year 2000 and Internet access was growing fast in France. So all of a sudden, I was able to buy hundreds of historical romances, the subgenre I preferred, on Amazon! Great! Except, until then I would choose my books by reading a few pages in the supermarket. Now the only thing I got was a very short back cover blurb that didn’t say a lot.

I began surfing the Internet and found American websites such as “The Romance Reader” and “All About Romance,” that told me about the books I wanted to read, but of course I had to link the American title with the French one first. So I got the idea of creating a database… and why not share it on the web? There was no French website about romance, and so “Les Romantiques” was born at the beginning of 2001, initially as a buyer’s guide for readers who wanted to shop on Amazon.

A few days later, I received an email that said more or less: “Hey, I just found your website, it’s great! I thought I was the only one in France reading that kind of book. I know no other readers. Would you care to add this author? I could send you the information you need.” I received a lot of these emails over the months and the site grew and grew. Then at the end of October 2001 the message board was created [See http://lesromantiques.yuku.com/directory]. A community of readers was building up. Until then, most of them had never been able to talk to anyone about their love of romance, and there they found other readers who understood them. It was a very exciting time for everyone. Today “Les Romantiques” is a great readers’ community. In 2004 we launched our annual short story contest. And, in September 2007, we released the first issue of our monthly webzine.

SO You know that romance readers are often embarrassed by their reading practices. Often “alone,” they don’t speak much about romance reading and generally hide their romance novels. So why do they access your website and why do they log in to the message board? Could you explain what makes the social network linked to your website so different? Do romance readers feel free to speak even though they generally hide their books at home and from their relatives?

AC It’s exactly that. They finally find people who understand them, who won’t laugh at them when they talk about the book they just read and loved. I think the main appeal of the website and its message boards is that we can talk with other readers and find new authors and new books that we will enjoy. But for some of our readers, it has also set them free. They were afraid of reading on a bus, of letting their friends and family see the books they were enjoying, of saying they liked that genre. Speaking with unashamed readers has given them the strength to speak up for themselves. Seeing that they were not alone has been a kind of relief for them. They don’t feel strange or silly anymore and if someone challenges their choice of literature, they have enough self-confidence now to answer them proudly.

SO As a “great readers’ community,” does “Les Romantiques” have an impact on the French romance market? I know readers extensively discuss publishers’ practices on the website, lines, translations, clinch covers, ebooks…

AC Compared to the American one, the French romance market is rather small. There are only three or four publishing houses that sell romance. The ebook revolution has not reached us yet, so there are no ePublishers. The main publishing house is Harlequin. The second one is J’ai lu, with a strong historical romance line called “Aventures et Passions”. J’ai lu also publishes contemporary romance, romantic suspense, paranormal romance and romantica. And then there is a fantasy and Sci-Fi publisher called Bragelonne who recently took an interest in the new paranormal romance and urban fantasy wave and publishes titles by Laurell K. Hamilton and J.R. Ward. Bragelonne’s original target audience was teenage boys, and by publishing paranormal romance, it aimed to target more women readers. Finally, the Presses de la Cité publish some best-selling romance authors such as Jayne Ann Krentz and Julie Garwood, but they tend more towards women’s fiction.

Romance is a “bad genre” in the publishing industry as well as in the academic field in France. There are numerous publishing houses, but none would think of publishing romance as such, they think that having a romance line is demeaning. Why? Because it’s not literature, of course… I think this attitude comes in fact from the nineteenth century, when women were considered as having an inferior intelligence. We are interested in reading about emotions, and this alone is for many men the ultimate proof that what we read is not intellectually satisfying, just emotional garbage, inherently inferior. And even if a publisher overcame its prejudice and said: “Hey, women want to buy that kind of thing, why shouldn’t we give it to them and make money?”, there would be another prejudiced person that wouldn’t let it happen, called the bookseller. Harlequin and J’ai lu romance lines aren’t sold by booksellers in France, only by supermarkets. The other publishers I mentioned have the “good idea” not to write on their books that they are romance, so they have some space on booksellers’ shelves.

SO These books are generally hardcover books or trade paperbacks. Furthermore, in order to be sold on booksellers’ shelves, Harlequin and J’ai lu publish some of their books in trade paperback and hardback.

AC But even so, there are limitations. Once I was talking with the editor who had bought the rights for Someone to Watch Over Me by Judith McNaught. Readers had been waiting for five years for a new Judith McNaught book, and we knew that the Presses de la Cité had bought it. Three years later, I asked the editor why they hadn’t published it yet! She answered that there was not enough space on their schedule (they publish two women’s fictions a month, which is not a lot), so I said: “but it’s Judith McNaught, can’t you just publish a third book any given month, for her?” Her answer was illuminating but very sad: “Oh but we can’t. The booksellers won’t put it on the shelves, they have limited space for women’s schlock, they don’t want to be burdened with too much.” That’s sad, because I am quite sure women read more, on average, than men and would love to buy these books from those who are unwilling to put them on their shelves. So we have a genre that’s regarded as demeaning by French booksellers as well as publishers and only two of them dare acknowledge they are publishing romance.

We are in contact with all the publishers, but it’s not always easy to open a dialogue with them. They will all tell you that they “love” hearing from the readers, but what they like, in fact, is receiving fan mail. They are often reluctant to give us information and listening to what readers have to say is a pretty new experience for them, it basically came with the Internet. It took us many years to establish a real relationship with J’ai lu. We met for the first time with this publisher in 2002. At first, what we told them of our likes and dislikes was so far away from what they thought that they just dismissed us as not relevant. They told us we were not the average readers, that we were fans and thus did not have the same profile as their “true” readers. Their true readers, they perceived, were the ones who would once in a while pick up a book in a train station to kill time during a journey. But little by little, the way they saw us changed, until finally two years ago, we had a major breakthrough when they acknowledged that changing the covers would be a good thing for their historical line. That’s the first thing we had told them eight years ago, but their answer was: “Our salesmen say that the supermarket department heads say, that we absolutely need to have a couple on the cover, otherwise the books won’t sell.” We answered: “Well, we buy your books in spite of the covers, not because of them, trust us.” It took six years for them to follow our little piece of advice, but last year we were happy when the director of J’ai lu met us in person and told us that the change of covers had been a great success in terms of sales. They then proceeded to change the covers of all their romance lines, which we are so happy about. We now have an appointment every year with J’ai lu’s editors to show them the results of our annual poll on the releases of the previous year, and chat about what they have in store for the upcoming year.

SO The publishers’ strategies you detailed and the clinch covers outline how publishing houses view their romance readers… sometimes with prejudices that could explain scholars’ attitudes towards romance readers. In fact, clinch covers reinforce the visibility of the genre, easily picked up without thinking much about it. In the publishers’ mind, readers seem to be more passive than active. But the contacts you established with them seem to prove your website and the readers it represents can have an impact on publishing practices. In the romance market, books are made for their readers and readers have a voice, even though this voice contributes to the condemnation of the genre. Romance novels are commercial novels made to please romance readers and, thus, cannot be “great literature.” Nevertheless, although J’ai lu changed its mind and followed your advice about the book covers, this evolution is also linked to transformations decided in the United States. It seems to me that the French romance market is only a pale copy of the American one: new series and new subgenres (erotica, paranormal romance, etc.) launched in France are first of all tested on American readers. What do you think about the evolution of the romance genre? Do you think it fits with French readers’ expectations?

AC You are absolutely right, nothing new is created in France, as everything comes from the American market. As an aside, the ebook revolution will certainly change that, but time will tell… Right now, French publishers of course follow the trends of the American market, as the massive attack of the vampires and werewolves proves, but they also select trends they think will appeal to their readership. For example, they won’t publish military romance, because in Europe patriotism is not as popular as in the USA, perhaps due to two rather recent and ugly conflicts on our soil. On that one I think they might be wrong, because many French readers who read in English are fans of Suzanne Brockmann. I loved every one of her books, and I don’t think I’m a big war enthusiast. They also won’t publish inspirational romance, because in Europe religion is a charged subject. On that one I tend to agree with them, I’m a practicing Roman Catholic and am not at all keen on inspirational romance. So every new trend in the US is not automatically fed to the French market: it’s more complex than that.

SO In fact, even though romantic fiction is an international mass-market product and romance readers of all countries want to escape and fantasize, escapism and fantasy depend on national imagery. Therefore, French publishers only select romance novels that they think will sell (Paizis).

Since romantic fiction has evolved, sex has become more “important.” Although romance novels are identified by the French academic field as akin to Barbara Cartland’s romances, they can be very sensual. While reading some press articles about Harlequin for example, I have sometimes found that romance reading has been considered as feminine “masturbatory” reading (“lecture masturbatoire”). What do you think of sex in romance novels? Given that publishers have proposed erotic series (“Spicy” by Harlequin or “Passion Intense” by J’ai lu), do you think that sex in romantic fiction is more and more important?

AC Well, sex is really an issue in French. In fact, US romance has become more and more explicit and the sensuality level is often sustained by rather crude expressions or words. These are very difficult to translate into French, because crude words are not often written and give a really vulgar undertone. That’s why translators use euphemisms to tone down the vocabulary a bit.

I remember when J’ai lu published their first books in their “Passion Intense” line. They sent advanced reading copies to us and we were dumbfounded. There was a historical, Beyond Seduction by Emma Holly, and because the translator didn’t know what to do with the very crude vocabulary, he went to find seventeenth-century words and expressions à la Marquis de Sade, that were totally ridiculous or impossible to understand without a dictionary of ancient French. We had a lot of fun reviewing the book, but when I saw the editor on our next meeting in Paris, she was furious.

Anyway, this kind of ancient vocabulary was dropped forever and now translators try to use contemporary vocabulary, but it is not easy, and they are often tempted to cut a sex scene or two, because they are such a pain for them.

I think sex is more and more present in romance. Readers often say that the story is more important to them and complain when there are too many sex scenes and not enough character development, but the fact is that when a novel is not sensual enough, they feel cheated. They have come to expect sensuality in a romance, but it must not overwhelm the characters or the story: a difficult balance to find for authors and translators.

SO Even if many French scholars and sometimes publishers consider romance readers to be passive readers, what you’ve said proves that they are, more than ever, active readers. That’s why I tried to reevaluate French and some American theories (like the “nurturing theory”) about popular romance reading in my doctoral dissertation on Francophone romance readers. I interviewed readers aged between 20 and 91 in 2007-2008 through a survey placed in libraries, second-hand bookstores and rest homes, and also via ads in TV magazines or via the website “Les Romantiques.” Readers generally came from the middle classes and were employed or retired. Some of them were ex-romance readers. My sample was not representative, but the readers were drawn from diverse backgrounds and the readers I interviewed read all kind of romance novels (contemporary or historical, romance novels published by Harlequin or by J’ai lu…) What I discovered, which seems very important and interesting to me is: just as there are numerous and varying kinds of romance novels, there are numerous and varying readers and numerous and varying reading preferences. However, in research, and especially in the French academy, romance readers are generally considered to be a single, homogeneous group. Agnès, what do you think about this? As Webmaster of “Les Romantiques,” you’ve met many readers.

AC I totally agree with you. The thing that many “outsiders” fail to understand about the romance genre is that it has been one of the fastest evolving in the past twenty years. They often imagine it as small and simple, limited to short novels about boy-meets-girl, as if only Harlequin Presents existed. They are totally unaware of the numerous subgenres that have appeared along the years.

We were recently contacted by four Psychology students who were assigned a study by their teacher. The question was: Is Harlequin ethological? They wanted us to give them three or four books titles that were representative of Harlequin. Our first answer was: but representative of what? Are you aware that there are more than fifteen very different Harlequin lines? They were not, and neither was their teacher apparently.

So yes, I think that there are very different novels in the romance genre and thus of course different readers who are looking for very different things. Although there are of course trends, like in anything else.

We launched a challenge at the beginning of 2010: we asked our readers to write down every book they read, romance or anything else, even nonfiction. The idea was to have an objective view of what a typical romance reader read in a year. Well, after six months, the conclusion was: there is no typical romance reader!

37 readers registered the books they read. They read an average of 10 books a month per reader, but beyond this figure lay a great diversity. The minimum seemed to be 3-4 books a month (16%), whereas the big readers tended to read 15 to 20 books a month (24%). I would like to point out that these figures match almost exactly what the rest of the French population reads per year, as shown in a 2008 poll by the magazine Livre Hebdo: 1-5 books a year for small readers (35%) and 20 plus books a year for big readers (9%). [See: http://www.livreshebdo.fr/actualites/DetailsActuRub.aspx?id=1552].

Romance readers tend to read much more than the rest of the population, but there is also a great diversity of reading habits among them. Finally, I would like to add that 20% of the books listed by our readers were not romance.

SO You seem to suggest that romance readers don’t necessarily read all the romance novels they find: they choose the romance novels they read from among romance subgenres and they don’t necessarily read every novel they find. Romance readers can be selective and they don’t exclusively read romance novels. It seems obvious but in the academic field it doesn’t seem to be recognised. Additionally, all the readers I interviewed said romance novels were safe and easy to read. Scholars have assimilated them to passive readers who get “vampirised,” dominated by their novels (Coquillat; Houel); however, I think readers accept a passive role and know the romance reading codes very well. Some of the readers I interviewed wrote short romance novels. Agnès, can you tell us more about this and about the reading process?

AC When I think of the effect romance has on me as a reader, it always reminds me of a story I read when I was a child in All Creatures Great and Small by James Herriot. As a veterinarian, he explained that sometimes an animal suffered so much physical pain that it lost its will to live. He had had some success in those cases by injecting it with a massive, almost lethal, dose of narcotics that made it sleep for several hours. When it awoke, it was able to fight again for its life and hopefully get better.

To me, romance works a lot like that. I am lucky enough not to experience insufferable pain in my daily life, but from time to time, I become so weary, so exhausted by the day-to-day routine, that I have nothing left with which to fight back, to find new solutions, or even to simply go on. Those are the times when I feel the urge to scream: I need fiction, and I need it now! After a few hours immersed in a romance where everything goes well, I feel much better and able to cope with anything that comes my way.

So of course reading romance may seem passive, and as you say I accept this, because I know that it will refill my batteries for many days to come. I think romance readers are rather more active and dynamic people, because the genre is empowering. For example, I hate thrillers, because after reading one I tend to feel terrified at night, looking under my bed to see if there is a serial killer waiting to kill me and my whole family. This does not happen with romance I am sure I will feel happy and confident after reading a good one. As you mentioned, many of us also write. It’s very different from reading, but I think it’s the genre that gives us the confidence to do so.

When we first met publishers, they were very surprised by us and they equally surprised us. We realized that they did consider romance readers as passive readers, who would read anything that was put on the shelves for them. They did not realize that we had favorite authors. They imagined that we would just look at the picture on the cover, realize—that’s a romance book!—and then read the back cover blurb and buy the novel for the story. Well, I’m sure some readers do that, but there are also many readers who have favorite authors, who look for their backlists, who are ready to go out of their way to read what they want and not just what’s given to them. For this reason, more than 20% of our members have decided to read in English. Most of them were not at all fluent at first; they had only learned English in school and had never spoken or read it for 10 or 20 years. I guess their attitude towards reading is not a passive one…

SO Nonetheless, not all romance readers have this attitude. Maybe that’s why, according to some scholars, romance novels could be dangerous: romantic fiction would propose an ideal or corrupted vision of love and romance readers wouldn’t be able to distinguish between fiction and reality. They would identify with passive heroines awaiting Prince Charming and tamed by a domineering hero (Rochman). However, in 1992, Laura Kinsale argued in Dangerous Men and Adventurous Women (35-37) that readers identify with the hero too. Romance novels don’t recount only the adventures of a woman but the adventures of a man and a woman. And the readers I interviewed often identified with both characters. But some of them didn’t identify at all: to quote Michel Picard and his essay La lecture comme jeu, they rather identify with “situations.” Romance readers don’t assimilate themselves to the characters of the novels but they experience what the characters experience and particularly what they feel. Since what the characters feel is real even if the story is a paranormal story, romance reading is first of all an emotional reading. Agnès, what do you think about the identification process? Could you describe for us your experiences and your feelings when you are reading a romance?

AC Well, I think there are all kinds of identification processes, depending on the reader. I know that I am rather “old school,” because I tend to identify more with the heroine. In the 1980s, romance was written solely from her point of view. I can remember clearly the first book I read that gave the hero’s point of view; I found it refreshing and new at the time.

Today, a romance written exclusively from the heroine’s point of view would clearly lack something, because the reader wouldn’t be able to understand the hero or share his emotions. But personally, I tend to identify more with the heroine and like a book with a good heroine even if the hero is not as well defined or as interesting. However I know many readers for whom the hero’s point of view is more important.

As for the danger of identifying with a frail young heroine, I would like to share something that surprised me a lot. Some romance novels have really rough heroes, who might even bully a little the poor heroine. I tend to dislike that kind of novel, I prefer beta heroes, who are man enough not to need to punch their chests to prove it. But some readers love these big bad alpha males, and to my astonishment, I discovered that those who love them the most tended to be active women, with responsibilities in their jobs and who were pretty much in charge in their professional life as well as in their personal life: strong women, in short. I was baffled at first, and then it occurred to me that they probably liked to feel like a frail little thing once in a while, to be taken care of, as a change from their real life, where they had to be strong all the time. So much for the myth of the debilitating romance novel.

Finally, I am curious to know what the scholars you tell me about think about reader identification in M/M romance: i.e. romance novels where the heroes are male homosexuals. It’s a strong subgenre of erotica and is written and read exclusively by women. There’s a big lack of a frail heroine there… That shows the identification process is much more complex than they imagine.

SO In fact, the identification process is a complex process, whichever book we read. And fiction isn’t reality. Even “popular” readers who like to immerse themselves in a fictional world know that it differs from real life. Although the identification process differs from one reader to another and although readers are different from each other, romance readers nevertheless share some characteristics. When I interviewed some of them, I noticed that, for both old and young, the first romance reading was generally linked to important life experiences like adolescence or retirement. And I think that perhaps romance reading could be linked to identity development.

AC I don’t know. I have never examined the identification process from this point of view. I began reading Harlequin’s Contemporary Series Romance when I was sixteen and my mother began to buy them for herself at the beginning of the 1980s. I was quite hooked from the start and she was sometimes mad at me because I would find the new books she had just bought and take them to my room before she could even read them. Anyway, this ended when I left home at the age of eighteen to study international business in Paris. I didn’t have much time to read romance and my mother got fed up with it and threw out every Harlequin book in the house.

A few years later I had finished my studies, had a job, and was married. My husband and I had just bought an apartment in Paris, and I remembered those sweet Harlequin romances I used to read when I was younger. I wanted to read that kind of book again. So I went to the supermarket, and found myself drawn more towards historical romance, because I love history and they give me more of a break from real life. That’s when I fell in love with romance for the second time: this was at the beginning of the 1990s.

For me romance reading was more a question of opportunity. The first time, my mother bought the books and made them available at no cost for me. The second time, I think I was at a point in my life where I began to settle down and have time to read. I see retirement as the same kind of opportunity: more time to do something you like, and fewer concerns that you should be doing something more important, to further your career or make a home, for example.

I think romance is an entertainment that takes a rather large amount of time. So you need to have enough time not to feel guilty about it. Of course there are also readers who come to romance when they have had a rough time in their life, like illness or the loss of a loved one. They use romance to escape a day-to-day life that has become difficult to bear, as a breathing space I guess.

I am not sure that romance helps to develop identity, if that is what you mean.

SO I don’t suggest that romance helps to develop identity. But Nicole Robine thought that romance reading could be psychologically determined. And actually, I think that the first reading can be psychologically determined, i.e. linked to some important life experiences such as adolescence, retirement, or illness as you pointed out. However, romance reading cannot be exclusively explained by these kinds of experiences. You began reading romantic fiction at sixteen but, if romance reading was exclusively psychologically determined, you would have stopped reading these books when you became an adult. Therefore, one question remains: why do romance readers read romance novels? It isn’t just a question of opportunity. In interviews, readers told me “I read to relax,” “I read to escape,” “I read to dream.” All of these answers are applicable to other types of fiction (mystery novels, western fiction…). So why do readers choose romance novels to relax, to escape, or to dream? I would argue that romance novels open a door to a world where love and, in particular, life are celebrated: a world where relationships—all types of human relationships—are celebrated and idealized.

AC I think you have summed it up pretty well. The world of romance is safe: the goodies will win in the end, the baddies will get what they deserve. Love triumphs, romantic love of course, but also love in the family. Romance celebrates positive emotions, puts forward the best in humanity: it’s a message of hope. That’s why romance is empowering, I think: no matter how difficult their journey is, we feel assured that, in the end, all will be well for our heroes. We can safely feel optimistic… When you ask readers why they prefer romance, I think the answer you get most of the time is: because of the happy ending.

SO In fact, in romance novels, all conflicts are resolved and all relationships, in the end, are positively established. That’s why romance as a reading choice could perhaps be considered as a “symptom” of a society—our society—where human relationships are difficult to establish and yet are simultaneously considered as a temporary positive solution to this social sickness, since romantic fiction offers a humane vision of the world.

Reference List

Bettinotti, Julia. “Lecture sérielle et roman sentimental.” L’acte de lecture. Ed. Denis Saint-Jacques. Québec: Éditions Nota bene, 1998. 161-176.

Bettinotti Julia, ed. La Corrida de l’amour : le roman Harlequin. Québec: XYZ, 1992.

Bettinotti, Julia and Pascale Noizet, ed. Guimauve et fleurs d’oranger: Delly. Québec: Nuit Blanche Éditeur, 1995.

Cadet, Christiane. “Roman sentimental ou histoire des sentiments.” Pratiques 50 (1986): 101-110.

de Certeau, Michel. L’invention du quotidien: 1. arts de faire, Folio. Paris: 1997. 239-255.

Collovald, Annie and Erik Neveu. Lire le noir: Enquête sur les lecteurs de récits policiers. Paris: Bibliothèque publique d’information/Centre Pompidou, 2004.

Constans, Ellen, ed. Le Roman sentimental. Limoges: Trames, 1990.

Constans, Ellen. “Parlez-moi d’amour: Le roman sentimental.“ Des romans grecs aux collections de l’an 2000. Limoges: PULIM, 1999.

Coquillat, Michelle. Romans d’amour. Paris: Éditions Odile Jacob, 1988.

Études littéraires 16.3 (1983).

Graner, Marcel. “La série rose.” Richesses du roman populaire. René Guise and Hans-Jörg Neuschäfer ed. Nancy: Centre de recherches sur le roman populaire de l’Université de Nancy II et du “Romanistisches Institut de l’Université de Sarrebruck, 1986. 209-222.

Helgorsky, Françoise. “Harlequin ou la quête du grand amour.” Communication et langages 63 (1985): 83-98.

—. “Harlequin: L’unité dans la diversité et vice-versa…” Pratiques 54 (1987): 5-19.

Hoggart, Richard. La culture du pauvre. Paris: Les Editions de Minuit, 1970.

Houel, Annik. Le roman d’amour et sa lectrice: Une si longue passion: L’exemple Harlequin. Paris: Éditions de L’Harmattan, 1997.

Krentz, Jayne Ann, ed. Dangerous Men and Adventurous Women: Romance Writers on The Appeal of Romance. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1992.

Noizet, Pascale. L’idée moderne d’amour: Entre sexe et genre: vers une théorie du sexologème. Paris: Éditions Kimé, 1996.

Olivier, Séverine. “Le roman sentimental. Productions contemporaines et pratiques de lecture.“ Doctoral dissertation, Université Libre de Bruxelles, 2009.

Owen, Mairead. “Re-inventing romance: Reading popular romantic fiction.” Women’s studies International Forum 20.4 (1997).

Paizis George. “Category Romances: Translation, Realism and Myth,” The Translator 4.1 (1998): 1-24.

Paulvé, Dominique and Marie Guérin. Le roman du Roman rose. Paris: JC Lattès, 1994.

Péquignot Bruno. La relation amoureuse : Analyse sociologique du Roman Sentimental Moderne. Paris: Éditions de L’Harmattan, 1991.

Picard, Michel. La lecture comme jeu: essai sur la littérature. Paris: Les Éditions de Minuit, 1986.

Préfontaine, Clémence. Le roman d’amour à l’école. Québec: Les Éditions Logiques, 1991.

Richaudeau, François. “La Galaxie Harlequin, des auteurs et des romans.” Communication et langages 67 (1986): 9-24.

Rihoit, Catherine. “Romans roses: les marchandes d’amour.” Regards de femmes, Paris: Presses de la Renaissance, 1984. 243-261.

Robine, Nicole. “Roman sentimental et jeunes travailleuses.” Guimauve et fleurs d’oranger: Delly. Ed. Julia Bettinotti and Pascale Noizet. Québec: Nuit Blanche Éditeur, 1995. 21-54.

Rochman, Bonnie. “Romance Novels, Filled With Passionate Love and Torrid Sex, Mislead Women.” Time. 2 August 2011. http://healthland.time.com/2011/08/02/passionate-sex-torrid-romance/

Spehner, Norbert. “L’amour, toujours l’amour… The popular Love Story and Romance: A Basic Checklist of Secondary Sources.” Paradoxa 3. 1-2 (1997): 253-268.

Sites

http://www.livreshebdo.fr/actualites/DetailsActuRub.aspx?id=1552

http://www.lesromantiques.com

http://www.likesbooks.com/

http://www.romancewiki.com/Scholarship_in_Languages_Other_than_English

http://www.theromancereader.com/


[1] Delly was the pseudonym of a French brother and sister, Frédéric and Jeanne-Marie Petitjean de la Rosière, who wrote romantic fiction at the beginning of the twentieth century.

[2] Max du Veuzit, Magali, and Delly (see note 1, above) wrote Francophone romance fiction between 1900 and 1960; they were commercially successful until Harlequin sold its first romance novels in French.

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Interview: Joanna Russ, by Conseula Francis and Alison Piepmeier

Noted science fiction author Joanna Russ is perhaps most famous for her provocative novels The Female Man (1975) and We Who Are About To (1977), and her 1983 Hugo Award winning short story “Souls.” Others know Russ primarily for her feminist criticism collected in works like Magic Mommas, Trembling Sisters, Puritans & Perverts (1985), and What Are We Fighting For? (1997). We, however, became interested in Russ because of her involvement in the early days of the Kirk/Spock slash fandom.

As feminists, academics, and slash fans we went in search of what had been written about this phenomenon—women writing sexually explicit, largely homoerotic stories about characters from film, television, and literature. What had others, particularly feminists, made of this? Russ, we found, wrote the first important feminist analysis of slash fiction. Her 1985 essay, “Pornography By Women For Women, With Love” helped to set the terms of the discussion for feminist scholars who followed, and it is widely cited in fan studies. Russ argues that fantasy has to be read in more complex ways than simply seeing it as an effort at one-dimensional wish fulfillment. She posits fantasy as something rich and metaphorical. She reads slash as a genre that tells us new things about women’s sexuality and sexual desire, things that—in 1985—weren’t being talked about except in the very divided feminist “sex wars,” where “pro-sex” and “anti-porn” feminists created ever more polarized stances. We were especially intrigued by this passage from Russ’s essay:

Only those for whom a sexual fantasy “works,” that is, those who are aroused by it, have a chance of telling us to what particular set of conditions that fantasy speaks, and can analyze how and why it works and for whom. Sexual fantasy materials are like icebergs; the one-tenth that shows above the surface is no reliable indicator of the size or significance of the whole thing. Sexual fantasy that doesn’t arouse is boring, funny, or repellant, and unsympathetic outsiders trying to decode these fantasies (or any others) will make all sorts of mistakes. (89)

In the twenty-six years since her piece was published, the slash world has changed a great deal (as has the world of feminist analysis). Academic scholars from a variety of fields—including media studies, literature, history, and education—now examine fan fiction and slash fiction.[1] Within the last decade scholarly texts and academic journals have considered the legality of fan fiction,[2] have presented it as a space to explore girls’ online cultures and literacy,[3] have argued that fandom is a queer female space[4], and have questioned the dividing lines between pornography, erotica, and romance.[5]

We wanted to talk Russ, to have her revisit this idea of sexual fantasy, to have her discuss the phenomenon of a community of women writing erotica for the pleasure of other women, and get her take on current efforts to “decode” slash and slash fans. Though she is a bit of recluse and has published little in recent years (she suffers from chronic fatigue syndrome), Russ graciously agreed to be interviewed at her home in Tucson. The following conversation took place in May 2007, in her living room, among her books, movies, and a largely ignored (though nonetheless cool) rocketship on a wooden base that turned out to be her Hugo award.

JR I remember when I first got a phone call from a friend. She told me about slash, and I didn’t get mildly interested, my hair stood up on end! I said “What? Can I get that?” “Yes,” she said, “you can,” and I began collecting them, and finally when the collection began to get utterly unwieldy and huge, I sent them to Bowling Green University, the Popular Culture Institute there. I wanted them to go somewhere they would last and not just be thrown out or whatever.

AP Does that mean that you don’t have your slash anymore?

JR I don’t have them with me, no. I have the few stories I wrote, copies of those, but that’s it. I’ve found that because they’re so erotic, after I finished one of them I would have this terrible thud as I came back to reality, and I decided I just didn’t like that. So, sorrowfully, I sent them away, where they would be loved. I might think they are.

CF We’ve been particularly interested in not only the slash stories women are writing but also the kind of community they’re building around these stories and the kinds of bonding that they have been doing, and also the language that they have come up with to be able to talk about the bonding. The women in the various slash fandoms clearly think of this as a female community, as a place where women can come together, where we can bond, women can sort of express desires that they can’t normally express.

JR Oh yeah, they’re very much aware of that. Some of them have to keep it secret that they read this stuff, certainly from their employers and often from their husbands. I think what happened, the way I have heard it, is that when Star Trek began, a lot of women who had not been interested in science fiction came to be interested through it, although it really is not that much of a female fiction. And what happened was, I suspect, that the Trekkies, the Trek fans, started going to conventions. Now science fiction fans have always done that, but these were specifically Trek conventions, and they got together, they got to know each other. And [slash] began, and I think about that time there were stories hinting that [Kirk and Spock] were in love, and then there were stories about one of them having died and the other saying “Oh God, now I realize it, why didn’t I know it before,” and [these women] kind of got into the subject.

AP One of the sets of questions that we have for you was about what the community of slash readers and writers was like before the internet. We can tell you some of what it’s like now, because now there certainly are still cons, but so much of the community is happening on the internet and it is very immediate.

JR Yeah, I would think so. I don’t have much experience in that.

AP Right, we didn’t think that you did, so we were going to show you some of what is going on now if you’re curious.

JR I know that before, the science fiction fans—and there are always some women, not a majority, but quite a few—one of the things that motivated them, that probably still motivates the community, is that they feel very isolated. You don’t easily get in touch with people who are other fans. And every once in a while, I don’t know how many times in the past twenty years, maybe three or four times, I would get a letter addressed to my publisher saying, “Help! I am a science fiction fan and I am out here in nowhere land. I cannot find another fan, what should I do?” And usually what I tell them is get the magazines, because in the back they have announcements of cons, and go.

AP So when you were reading slash, you found out that it existed because a friend of yours said “Hey, look at this thing that I found?”

JR Yes.

AP And did you go to cons?

JR No, I didn’t. By then, the universities I was working for did not give out all that much money for travel. When they had I had gone to a lot of places, not SF cons, but I had all sorts of things going on, conferences about this, that, and the other, technology in the future, and who knows.

AP So did you have other female friends who read and/or wrote slash?

JR Only this one. I did write to several of the women whose stories were published, and one of them got to be quite a nice friend, and quite interesting. I don’t know where she is now, though, or what she’s doing. But no, I never really got into the community. There is a woman, an academic, who wrote a book about the community [Camille Bacon-Smith’s Enterprising Women: Television Fandom and the Creation of Popular Myth (1991)]. It’s not so much about the stories per se, although she certainly does a lot of that, it’s about the kind of people who are in the community and what they feel and what is the kind of emotional center of the stories. I found it just fascinating.

AP Is she coming at it from a feminist perspective?

JR I think she gets to the center of the thing there. She’s interested in the topics, the themes they’re exploring, and it rang true to me, it really did. There was a guy in academia who did another book about it which is, I think, very schematic.

AP Was it Textual Poachers by Henry Jenkins?

JR I think so.

AP He’s actually come a long way since that book, but that has become a touchstone book in the field of fan fiction studies and fan scholarship more broadly. It’s a book that everybody refers to.

JR It’s not nearly as good as this one [Enterprising Women], I think, not nearly. He’s somewhat schematic, and a little rigid. She’s not interested in that. She says at one point that the material is like the stories of King Arthur—many, many different writers saying many, many different things, but that’s all.

AP Could we ask you some questions about writing slash? I know that you don’t do that now but in your essay “Pornography by Women for Women” you allude to the fact that you’re writing it, and we didn’t know if that was a literary device or if that was actually true.

JR No, I actually did.

AP We would love to hear about that, particularly because you are a professional writer.

JR Some of the others are too. Don’t assume they’re not. One of them is a lawyer, as far as I know, one is living on disability and worked for a while as a social worker. They turn up all over the place, and there are all sorts of theories about why. I think, to put it in a nutshell as far as I can remember, they’re writing about issues that concern women very much, but they’re doing it undercover in a way. These [the characters the writers create] are sort of men but they’re not really, you know? So [the women writers] can treat things that they could not do at all.

CF Did you enjoy writing slash?

JR I don’t know, that brings up a question of writing, do I, quote, enjoy writing. In a way, yes, and in a way no. It’s very hard, I mean, it really is. On the other hand I liked it immensely. I’m never happier than when I’m sitting in a corner typing. Yeah, I enjoyed it.

CF Was writing slash different in some way?

JR Yes, there was one way in which it’s very, very different, and that is that the characters are givens. You don’t have to stop and say “oh, by the way, this character is so-and-so and had this sort of childhood and blah, blah, blah,” because everybody knows who they are.

CF Some people argue that fanfic writers aren’t really writers or they can’t ever be very good writers because they’re just sort of playing in somebody else’s yard.

JR Many of them, yes, that’s true, but some of them are good writers. I don’t know, it’s hard to say. If you don’t know the show, you can’t really pick up what’s going on, and that in a way makes it easier, that you don’t have to create everything from scratch. The base, the foundation is already there. I couldn’t talk about anybody else, but that’s the way I felt, and it’s kind of freeing in a way. It sort of is like talking about King Arthur and his knights; well you know who they are, come on, I don’t have to tell you. Especially when you’re writing science fiction, everything is new, and that’s hard. And of course the other thing I think that got writers into [Star Trek] was that it’s character-driven. It has ideas and it’s character-driven. And that’s Buffy too. What many of them do in other kinds of fan fiction is to say “you know all the public stuff, I’m going to give you their private lives, filling in what isn’t there.”

AP Did you read any Buffy slash?

JR No. I have been told it exists but I don’t really feel that I’d want to. As I said, I’m too tired.

AP Well, we brought you some Smallville slash, just in case you want to see it but you don’t have to take it if it feels like that would be too much.

JR Most of it is sort of pornography.

AP Well, we definitely want to talk about that.

JR If it doesn’t turn you on, it’s kind of indifferent.

AP And that was one of the great points that you made in your essay about slash, the fact that people who don’t get it, who are not turned on by it, are not the right people to criticize it because they’re missing some crucial elements, and I thought that was exactly right.

JR I think that applies to all kinds of fiction and all kinds of drama. If it doesn’t affect you, then why read it?

AP And are you going to be able to have really useful insights about how it does or doesn’t work if it doesn’t work on you? So were your slash stories sexy? I mean, your regular novels are sexy, did the slash allow you to be more explicit?

JR Yes, and make my scenes longer. Yeah, it did I think. And yet there’s a good deal of slash where that doesn’t happen, but even there it’s full of emotion and emotional intensity. I know from secondhand that many of the male fans of Star Trek who don’t write this kind of thing were very offended by it. “That couldn’t happen in a million years.”

CF Many male fans are still not just offended, but incredibly vocal and hostile to slash.

JR “You’re playing in my field, get out, take your little red wagon and go home.” Yeah, something like that. I don’t really know, apparently it’s really threatening stuff.

AP And what is the threat? I have thoughts, we have thoughts on why it is so threatening but . . .

JR Tell me your thoughts.

AP Well, for one thing, I think part of what these slash stories are doing is making explicit a subtext that’s already very much there, and so I think that is threatening; the fact that if we took off the blinders of heterosexism, the amount of homoerotic tension that is going on in mainstream American media all the time is incredibly visible. And slash makes it visible, and I think that’s threatening.

JR I think so.

CF I think slash, too, makes visible female desire, and I think that freaks men out. Recently in the fangirl community someone had just read your How to Suppress Women’s Writing, and she was very moved and excited, and she wrote this really long post about your book in relation to fanfic. The title of the post was “How Fanfic Makes Women Poor.” She wrote this thing and basically what she said is that fanfic keeps women poor and silenced and marginalized because we are sort of over here doing our own thing out of the way and not competing in mainstream culture with men. And so regardless of what she actually said in the post, what it did is that all sorts of people came out of the woodwork to comment about fanfic, and why women do it and why they don’t do it, and whether or not fanfic violates copyright law, and there have been weeks and weeks of this stuff, and “you didn’t understand what Joanna Russ actually meant,” and weeks and weeks of this stuff. And one of the posts that came out of it was by a male academic who thought that all of this uproar was completely silly, and discussed people who write fanfic, particularly people who write slash. He said that fanfic was horrifying and that fanfic writers were pathological, that fandom as practiced by women represents a regression to adolescent, juvenile, child-like modes of expression, and that fanfic writers were bad readers and demonstrated their childlike nature by being unable to engage. He even to some extent recognized the ways in which that critique was completely gendered, that here were a bunch of women doing a bunch of silly things, over, in private, giggling, and that there was something deeply, deeply wrong about that, and that instead of doing that what we should be concerned with is creative art with a capital A.

JR Oh, that again. That’s an old one, oh my god, several centuries old. [Samuel] Delaney once pointed out that in the nineteenth century the number, the amount of fiction written, began to just grow like crazy. And it got to the point where nobody could read all of it, and what happened was that it first split into two, there was high art and there was slush, so you knew what you should be paying attention to. Rider Haggard’s book She, I don’t know if you know the novel; it’s a fantasy, it’s the kind of thing that today if you saw it, it would have a swordsman and an incredibly buxom lady on the cover, and you’d say it’s just trash. It is, actually, but he was considered absolutely on par with others. I mean, he might not be as good as they were, but this was serious fiction. And now we’ve been living with this split for so long, that that’s the automatic thing you can defend yourself with. “Oh, but this isn’t art, it isn’t serious, it isn’t real. It’s juvenile.” Anyway, I don’t know. I hope there are a lot of young men growing up who don’t hear of this and who don’t think about it and won’t do it anymore.

AP I think that the value, the categories of evaluation that we so often use to say this is pornography, versus this which is art, are suspect at best. I also think those judgments tell us a lot more about the culture itself and its assumptions than they do about the works they judge.

JR Yes, I would agree. You notice that some of the stuff by men that I would call certainly pornographic, Henry Miller, for instance, is taken very seriously. It’s all so obvious. When women do it, it’s silly, when men do it, it’s serious.

AP It’s either silly or it’s horrifying, you know? It’s either “oh, that’s trivial, we can laugh that off,” or it’s that this is deviant. I think slash is an interesting space to look at in terms of that, because it is so erotically-driven, it is so explicit, it is so sexy. I mean, to me, when you said “my hair stood up on end,” that was absolutely my response when I started reading slash, it was like “oh my god.” The first thought was “oh my god,” and the second thought was “how have I gone this long without having read this stuff,” you know? I think it’s really interesting that this sub-culture of literature exists and in thriving, but I also think it raises a lot of questions about our culture and female desire, which of course is one of the big things you talked about in your essay in 1985. We wanted to talk to you about to what extent those things are still happening and still true today. Do you feel that our cultural approach or cultural understanding of female desire is about the same now in 2007 as it was in 1985?

JR Well, it’s a little different than it was in 1958. If I look really far back, yeah, a lot has changed, but it’s weird, it’s as if the guys are still running television and the movies, and they’re trying very hard to keep it the way it was.

CF Do you think that shows like Buffy and Xena make a dent?

JR Yes, I think they do, and there’s something interesting that a writer friend of mine, a man, told me; he lives in Pennsylvania I think. He said he and his wife went on a tour of one of the studios, and one of the things that they had for people, who were pretty largely young people and children, were two actors, a woman costumed as Xena and a man costumed as Hercules. He said the younger people were fascinated by Xena and they had lots and lots and lots of questions, but they weren’t terribly interested in Hercules. This is irrespective of the sex. I think this is because in the Xena shows there is a lot of emphasis on personal feeling, and motives, and things like that; it’s character-driven again. I think some of them said they’d like to have a mother like Xena. I have been reading a lot of sludge, just stuff like collections of mystery stories and science fiction collections. The mystery stories are very interesting because again, often the ones that women write are as good as or not as good as the ones the guys write, but the women write about personalities, about characters, and what is character-driven. The men tend not to; they are more comfortable apparently with technical problems. I think the best writers are the kind who do both at the same time.

AP Do you attribute this difference to just sort of continuing gender role socialization that puts women in the position of being the caretakers?

JR Well that certainly exists, and I don’t know if it’s quite enough to explain it, but it’s a hell of a lot. I don’t really trust biological research as it’s going on now, because when it gets into the mass media, again, you have to get into new scholarly stuff before you find this, but if you have two groups of people and you’re testing them for something, there’s about a five percent chance that the results you get will just be chance. They’re necessary because they’re statistics, and yet when you see stuff in places like Newsweek or Time they’re taking one and a half percent, for instance, as being terribly important. I also happen to know again from some of these sources that articles and books which talk about how different men and women are get reviewed and get talked about. Those which don’t come up with that just disappear. It’s obvious that this culture is extremist on the subject.

AP I have a whole unit in my Intro to Women’s and Gender Studies course where we talk about that very issue because I think that that’s incredibly true, that our culture loves to find biological justifications for gender-power differences.

JR Every culture will find justification for everything they believe or want to believe. I still think that a lot of the world is still in shock, and I think probably what brought it on was easier birth control. The sort of, where are we, what do we do now?

AP And our culture I think may be among that group.

JR Oh yes, definitely.

AP Conseula and I have been talking a lot about female desire and the fact that it seems to us that the lessons that we have been taught as girls and women about what desire was, what it meant, what it felt like, what shapes it took, that those lessons were all profoundly, profoundly wrong. In ways that as a thirty-four year old woman who has been a feminist for years and years, who teaches Women’s Studies, I’m surprised at how surprising this is to me, because I should know this by now, but it’s like, it’s even more wrong than I thought. So I just think that our culture, that we don’t know anything about female desire.

CF And yet, here’s this world of slash where this is all these women are doing, talking about it and asking questions.

JR But they’re in disguise. They’re disguised as a man. I once noticed that in slash there are so many references to these characters’ penises that it’s like a little label that says “Hello, I am” and the name. “I have a penis and I’m therefore male,” but clearly that’s not what’s happening.

CF Why do you think that women can’t have these conversations about their own desire through female characters?

JR I think it’s something like this. As I said, the characters are not exactly male. They’re disguises of some sort, kind of like “I have the proper genitals so I am male, please remember that.” I have written a couple of stories myself in which women are disguised, literally disguised as men. You try to write about women and you don’t have the cultural tropes that you could use, there’s very little there. It’s kind of like disguising yourself as an upper-class person, as an aristocrat. It counts, it matters that they’re male. It makes what they do serious. Apparently the real message does get through, because you said a lot of the fans hate it. They don’t think it’s about men, they know better. [Writing about male characters] kind of frees your imagination or your memory or something. This had happened in the nineteenth century, quite a few women who were novelists would write stories about women who were disguised as men or they would write them from a male point of view, and that is saying “if I were only a man, I could do this or that, or be this or that.” Some were not like that, there’s an early detective novel, 1890 or something like that in which a young woman is a detective, and there’s a lovely illustration from the first publications of this thing in a magazine then, and there she is with her skirts and her parasol and her hands are teeny. A drunken lout is about to hit a woman, and she is saying, “stop, sir,” and she doesn’t look as if she could hit a cream puff, but that’s her. That did happen. But in many of them, no, it didn’t.

I think [writing about male characters] has something to do with one’s sense of oneself as an active person, as free. I mean, we have sense, we look around and we see those guys who are doing all sorts of stuff, even if they can’t do it right, they’re thinking about it. They’re making fantasies about it, there are movies about it. So this becomes not only “we will show you the personal life of these people, which is left out of the mass media, but we will write about them as we know people on the inside, and they will ring true to us, to the writers and readers in a way they would not if they were women.”

AP And I guess that’s the part that interests me and that I have not found an adequate explanation for. That reading the stories about Clark and Lex for instance, in the Smallville slash, is really sexy, I mean, that stuff is hot, and works for me in a way that the stories about the female characters in Smallville don’t work at all. Is that some sort of compensatory thing, because my identity as a woman is not solid enough?

JR No, I think that nobody’s social identity as a woman is solid enough. And when you’re doing this, you’re inventing, you’re fantasizing. It’s still very much a different world for men and women. I remember somebody, a feminist at Cornell, once said to me, “I was talking to this audience and they were looking rather unconvinced, especially the guys, and then I said, how many people here put only their initials in the telephone listing in the telephone book?” And the women’s hands all went up, and the men went, you do? They didn’t know. They hadn’t noticed. Yeah, they do. And that makes a big difference. It’s like gay friends of mine who went to the March on Washington, and said we were all over the place, we got into a subway and it was nine tenths gay people. And she said you don’t realize what a burden you carry until it’s gone. Everything just went, it was wonderful, and I think that’s true whatever the burden is. Whatever the minority burden or the sex burden, whatever it is, when it’s gone you go, oh my god.

AP The social identity of a woman is such that sexual stories with women are not . . .

JR It’s not real unless men do it, something like that, I think.

CF And so do you think that this new generation, the next generation of women are continuing to write slash like the women who were writing before? So many of the people in the Smallville fandom, for instance, are college students, twenty-year-old girls, so their social identities [are also not well-formed]? We would like to think that a generation later . . .

JR It’s less than it was, because when I was an adolescent which was in the 1950’s, nobody would have imagined [slash], let alone written it. And that’s why when Patricia, my friend, said it’s a world in which Kirk and Spock are lovers, and I said, “Where do I find that?” I remember once I was having one of the [fanzines] duplicated, and the illustrations I had forgotten about, and I was there watching them do it in this Xerox place. This elderly man kind of stood next to me and he saw one of the illustrations, and he went gray—shocked, very shocked. Yet I took [these same pictures] to a feminist group and I remember one woman saying “I don’t want to see that,” and I showed it to her and she said, “they’re not there for us, they’re there for each other,” which was very subtle, it was true, in the illustration.

AP And yet I don’t know that’s true of the stuff that I read. In fact, I would say it’s the exact opposite, that the characters are not there for each other, they’re entirely there to create erotic bonds between the women who are writing and reading the stories. They’re explicitly there for us.

JR Yes, I would say so, yes.

AP Not for each other.

JR Yet the woman I heard this from, my friend, is definitely heterosexual, and she loves [slash] too. I think it’s fairly flexible stuff. You don’t have to identify with this character or that, you can do both or neither; writing can do that. It’s only after thinking, like today, about this that I realize how male-identified most science fiction is, especially since I’ve been reading anything from the sixties on, in science fiction. It’s that idea of disguise that I find myself coming back to. You can really, in a sense, be anybody or anybodies, plural, in writing. I used to write in the sixties, in the early sixties; I was writing stories, not science fiction then, in which the main characters were men. One day I sat myself down and began thinking, and I just tried to write a story about a thief and pick-pocket and that kind of person you keep finding in those books, who was female. I couldn’t. And then I started writing and when I wrote I realized that it was a creation story, and the creation story for this particular world was that men were made from the sixth finger of the first woman, and that is why women only have five fingers on each hand. That worked, and suddenly I did this whole series about Alex, but she is still an exception in that world. And by the time I got to The Female Man, they aren’t, in the whole population.

AP And yet, characters like Alex, and characters like Janet, and Gyl, in The Female Man are not necessarily exceptions now in that fictional world, but are still exceptions in the world of public discourse.

JR That’s a good phrase to think of when you’re asking, why did they write about men? That’s what we have in the public discourse. And in those terms, if you like things that go into those terms (which probably, obviously you do), that’s what you have to do. Work in the public discourse’s terms. Some [slash writers] I think have been drifting away from that, but as I said, I am way out of the loop now.

AP Did you or do you see slash as potentially a kind of activist writing? Is it, for instance, a kind of writing that could challenge compulsory heterosexuality?

JR The second thing, no, I don’t think so; the first, maybe. I think the women who write it were, at least in the eighties, aware that they were doing something they probably should not tell people about, especially their employers. I remember Syn Ferguson, who is a good writer, saying to me at one point “my readers need this, they really need it, and I know women who are keeping this a secret from everybody, including their husbands.”

AP Why do they need it?

JR Because, as you say, this is a public discourse in which female sexuality really doesn’t exist. I lived that out. I can still remember riding in the subway at about the age of seventeen, and I remember thinking oh my god, sex is so common, it’s all over the place. I didn’t think it was because I learned what the movies taught me.

CF Do you think that these women who are writing slash are doing a disservice by keeping it out of the public discourse? I think this is part of what that fury was about the woman who wrote about your book, that we’re doing ourselves a disservice by keeping it secret. I write slash and I certainly don’t publish it under my actual name.

JR Most of the women don’t, they write it under pseudonyms.

CF Should we be? Should I go out tomorrow and publish it under my own name? Would that be better?

AP Is the secrecy actually serving the interest of the patriarchy that wants to keep women’s desire under wraps?

JR It’s probably doing both. I don’t think you can separate the yes and the no on that, absolutely. Think of what it would do for you. What would be the consequences? I think that women who wrote it in the seventies and eighties had some idea of what they were doing, because I did see one group of slash writers in the eighties at a science fiction convention, and some guy came over and said “who are you?” which is a perfectly reasonable thing to do at a convention, and one of the women looked at him and said “we’re a knitting society,” or something along that line, and one of them called themselves the Women’s Terrorist Society from Hell. Everybody laughed, and he laughed, but I think there was some truth to it. If you believe the public discourse then you have to also believe that female sexuality is a dreadful thing and must be squashed at all costs, and so on. I just hope there are many, many more young people who are growing up without that, without all of it, anyway. I think that’s true. Let me tell you an anecdote about that. When I was in my teens I do remember reading Forever Amber, which was the scandalous book of the time, and the sex scenes always ended with three or four dots. I got to the point where if I saw three or four dots, it would turn me on, and now you think of it and it seems so absolutely asinine, three dots.

AP I do think that we’re a lot more open about sexual desire in general, and female desire these days, but I think often female desire now is configured as something that is sort of a visible commodity for other people’s consumption. The whole Girls Gone Wild phenomenon, that women are supposed to be sexy but not . . .

JR Sexy but not sexual.

AP Right, it’s not about what do you feel, it’s about what do you perform.

JR I think so too, I don’t know what’s going to happen with this. I would hope that the openness would leave a little more room. Some woman was commenting in somebody else’s book about some event in her parents’ group, where they went to see their daughters perform, and their daughters were imitating the sexy women from I forget where, and they were eleven and twelve. And the parents didn’t like it and I thought I don’t like it either. I really don’t like it. This is not about being sexual. I don’t know, I think it’s a lot easier for men to find out who they are this way than it is for us, but still. One thing I have tried to do when I write, and Samuel Delaney was clever enough to pick it up at one point, was take the sex in my stories and simply make it part of the whole fabric. It’s not special, it’s not sacred, it’s not demonic, it just happens. It’s as much an ordinary part of life as heating your dinner up, or something, and I always worked very hard to get that over. That’s the antithesis, the three dots, I guess.

AP Well right, because if something is so highly charged that you can’t even write and you just have to put the three dots . . .

JR It’s sacred and demonic.

AP I think that’s exactly right.

CF Sam Delaney said about science fiction that it was a rich symbiotic environment that talks about what you desire. Someone was asking him about sexuality in his work and whether he thought the genre of science fiction allowed him to play, and he said that there was something, not just about science fiction books, but about science fiction culture, about going to cons, and about that being a unique place in allowing people to articulate what they desire and what they fantasize about, whether or not it was something they would actually do, that this freed them up in a way.

JR I think it’s true. I remember talking to a young woman I knew when I was teaching in Seattle, who was a science fiction fan and I got to know a little group of fans there. She at one point said she had been a Mormon, and was no longer, she insisted on being thrown out, and she said what began to free her in her life was science fiction. I said how do you mean, and she said not necessarily the characters, who were very recognizable, not necessarily the plots, which were sort of imperial America stuff, but she said the landscapes, and the aliens. They give the feeling that things could be different. I think it did that for me too, when I was a teenager, and that’s why I held on to it so. Things could be otherwise.

AP Which is a pretty radical notion.

JR Yeah, it certainly is.

CF Octavia Butler talks about the same thing in her interviews. About reading science fiction as a young kid and that what drew her to it was the possibility, even when the stories might have been hackneyed or imperial America, there was still something about it that suggested possibility.

AP It seems to me that, and I don’t know if there’s anybody to quantify this, but the number of people who are writing fan fiction now, the number of people who are involved, for instance, in the Harry Potter fan community . . .

JR Yeah, that surprised me a little.

AP It’s stunningly large.

CF Incredibly large, and active, and prolific.

AP People just are writing novels and novels in response to these novels, and so it seems to me that although maybe it still feels subcultural for the people who are involved, it seems like it’s got to be at some point, it’s got to be less of one. Even though it’s a secret, it can’t be a subculture if it’s the majority of people participating, right? It feels to me like maybe it’s on this borderline of not being subcultural anymore.

CF Yet we might be walking down the street with tons of people who are reading and writing slash, but they’re publishing it under pseudonyms. So that even if it’s this ground-swelling stuff, it’s still a secret.

JR They’ve got to keep it secret because they’re violating copyrights, and so are the others.

AP Right, but that’s another whole gendered issue that some folks have talked about, the fact that parody is looked on by the courts and by copyright holders much more favorably than slash. So people who are writing parodies that aren’t sexual, who are often men, are not as liable as people who are writing slash, who are usually women. So it’s an interesting gendered thing about what’s considered copyright violation and what isn’t.

JR There’s something legal there, too, which is that parodies are making fun of the object, and they’re not trespassing, really, on the same territory.

AP Well, it’s considered a first amendment issue, which I think is right, but slash is not.

JR It’s serious, that’s why.

AP It’s also, I think, because of all the stigma around women being into this dirty stuff.

JR I know there are women, some have told me, who don’t want to sign their names because they’re quite sure they’d lose their jobs, and they might. It’s a pity, it is a pity. And there is very explosive stuff in there, I know. And one of the reasons I gave my collection away is I was spending too much time and energy on it, and it costs a bundle.

AP Well, this is a bad sign for us, Conseula. The fact that she’s actually had to give it up, cause we have constant conversations about, is this bad that we’re spending this much time reading slash?

JR It wasn’t a matter of it being objectively bad. It was that every time I finished a [fanzine], the exuberance would carry me across the apartment and then I’d go, oh no, it’s over.

AP And I think that may be one thing that’s somewhat different with the internet communities, because now you finish the stories and you write to the author, and then you write to your girlfriend and you say “oh my god, go read this story,” and then you excerpt, “here’s a really sexy passage.” This is what Conseula does to me all the time, “here’s something really sexy,” so that you won’t be able to resist reading the story right now. And so it’s sort of like, we don’t have that thud because of the community.

JR I know, the characters have sort of become community personas, and I did not have that.

AP It would be a thud, I think, to finish the story and not be able to say “oh my god, Conseula, you have to read this.”

And one of the things, too, that just reminds me of this that you mentioned in your “Pornography” essay, you said, “I mentioned just the premise of slash to eight women, and all of them shrieked,” and I thought yes, there’s something very true in that. I mean, obviously it’s true because it was your experience, but there’s something about the female community and the shrieking. Conseula and I have these conversations about how we feel like we have tapped into our fifteen-year-old selves, and the shrieking, and the delight.

JR Possibly fourteen.

CF And I think that part of the guy who called fanfic horrifying and pathological, I think in part that’s what he’s reacting to, because if you see one of the stories posted online and the comments that come after it, a lot of it is sort of shrieking with words, and this whole sort of fangirl language that has developed to communicate that shriek, but on the screen, and it is like we’re fifteen years old, or fourteen.

JR But we never got this when we were fifteen and fourteen, and that’s the difference.

AP Yeah, it feels like it’s tapping into some, I mean, I’ve been using words like “unruly” and “insurgent” sort of energy in myself that got disciplined out of me when I was a teenager.

JR It must be very different between you and me since I was a teenager in the God/Elvis 1950s, and there are women now [writing slash] who are younger than you are, who are fourteen and fifteen. I don’t know what I would do with that. I do know that in feminist writing there have been women writing books and things like that in which they recount what happened to them in their teens, and what it meant to them. What I think of the mystification I was exposed to, it was just hard. I’m seventy, but this must have started when I was eleven or twelve, being squashed. Somebody was saying that for gay women to come out, they usually do it a good bit later than gay men, because you can’t get a picture of yourself at all, one way or the other.

AP And that is one thing that I think, to a certain extent, I hope maybe has changed from when you were a teenager. I think at least teenage girls now, regardless of the distortions that our society puts around female sexuality, maybe know that having sexual feelings is a normal thing, and also I think know that gay and lesbian identities exist.

JR That is where I think it’s really big and different, a big difference.

Coda: After the interview concluded, we gave Russ some slash stories we had printed out for her. While at the time she seemed to accept them more out of a desire to be polite rather than a genuine interest in the love affair between Clark Kent and Lex Luthor, those stories actually began a year-long correspondence with Russ. She wrote to us (in letters that she composed on the typewriter—she doesn’t own a computer), commenting on the stories we’d given her and on slash and women and sexuality generally; we wrote back and sent more stories. When we met her she had opted out of the slash community (to a certain extent, she had never been part of that community), but we introduced her back into the community, and that community of female desire seemed to delight her as much as it has delighted us and other women who read and write slash in the communities that proliferate online today.

Russ is now 75 years old, but she is still a rigorous thinker—creative and critical—whose writings have been important to science fiction and feminism. Although we didn’t agree with everything she said in our interview, we were struck by how thoughtfully she engaged with a world that she now mostly views from the outside. We also remain impressed with how relevant her writings still are. Although much has changed from the world she intervened in with her fiction and her critical essays, too much remains the same, and her arguments and visions—about women, about gays and lesbians, about a society that allows everyone the space to enact their full humanity—still need to be acknowledged.

Works Cited

Russ, Joanna. Magic Mommas, Trembling Sisters, Puritans and Perverts: Feminist Essays. Trumansburg, NY: The Crossing Press, 1985. Print.


[1] In particular, see Rhiannon Bury’s Cyberspaces of Their Own: Female Fandoms Online (New York: Peter Lang Publishing, 2005) and Karen Hellekson and Kristina Busse’s edited collection, Fan Fiction and Fan Communities in the Age of the Internet (Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, 2006). The academic journal Transformative Works and Cultures is also an important resource for slash scholars.

[2] For instance, Abigail De Kosnik, “Should Fan Fiction Be Free?”, Cinema Journal 48.4 (2009), 118-124; Anupam Chander and Madhavi Sunder, “Everyone’s a Superhero: A Cultural Theory of ‘Mary Sue’ Fan Fiction as Fair Use,” California Law Review 95.2 (2007), 597-626; and Rebecca Tushnet, “Legal Fictions: Copyright, Fan Fiction, and a New Common Law” (Loyola of Los Angeles Entertainment Law Journal, 17.3).

[3] See the work of Rebecca Black, who has written several academic articles as well as a monograph, Adolescents and Online Fan Fiction. New York: Peter Lang (2008). Also see Angela Thomas, Youth Online: Identity and Literacy in the Digital Age. New York, Peter Lang (2007) and Catherine Tosenberger, “Homosexuality at the Online Hogwarts: Harry Potter Slash Fanfiction.” Children’s Literature 36 (2008), 185-207.

[4] For instance, see Eden Lackner, Barbara Lynn Lucas, and Robin Anne Reid’s “Cunning Linguists: The Bisexual Erotics of Words/Silence/Flesh” (Fan Fiction and Fan Communities in the Age of the Internet. Hellekson, Karen, and Kristina Busse, eds. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, 2006, 189-206), and Kristina Busse, “ ‘Digital Get Down’: Postmodern Boy Band Slash and the Queer Female Space,” eros.usa: Essays on the Culture and Literature of Desire (eds. Cheryl Alexander Malcolm and Jopi Nyman. Gdansk: Wydawnictwo Uniwersytetu Gdanskiego, 2005: 103-125).

[5] See Catherine Driscoll, “One True Pairing: The Romance of Pornography and the Pornography of Romance.” Fan Fiction and Fan Communities in the Age of the Internet (Hellekson, Karen, and Kristina Busse, eds. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, 2006, 79-96) and “Annihilating Love and Heterosexuality without Women: Romance, Generic Difference, and Queer Politics in ‘Supernatural’ Fan Fiction,” by Monica Flegel and Jenny Roth, Transformative Works and Cultures 4(2010).

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Interview: Beverly Jenkins, by Rita B. Dandridge

The African American historical romance developed in nineteenth-century America but did not gain popularity as a genre until the twentieth century. Set in a specific historic time—usually during slavery, Reconstruction, or post-Reconstruction—the African American historical romance emphasizes tensions between two opposing forces, as it employs romantic elements of adventure and love. Because slavery and racism denied Blacks full political and social inclusion in American society, conflict in African American historical romances is often presented as opposition between Blacks who strive for sociopolitical freedom and the national majority who denies them full participation rights. The romance element centers in courtship and marriage that usually develop from the couple’s mutual involvement in racial uplift missions to advance the status of the colored community.

The first wave of African American women’s historical romances began with Frances Harper’s Iola Leroy, or Shadows Uplifted (1892) and continued with Pauline Hopkins’ Contending Forces: A Romance Illustrated of Negro Life North and South (1900) and Zara Wright’s Black and White Tangled Threads (1920) and Kenneth (1920).[1] These novels contain colored protagonists[2] and have varied plots, settings, characters and romantic combinations, including interracial entanglements; each aims to disprove myths about Blacks’ moral degeneracy and their ill-suitability for assimilation into American society. For this purpose, their protagonists possess attributes that middle and upper-class Caucasians deemed worthy. Well-educated, temperate, frugal, and virtuous, they contribute to community uplift and marry respectably. As professionals, they represent the rising middle class, a rank above the Black masses. Properly armed, they possess the necessary weapons to battle the war against racism in order to assimilate into American society.

Of the novels in the first wave, Frances Harper’s Iola Leroy, or Shadows Uplifted dramatizes the black woman’s initiative in the freedom struggle and establishes a paradigm that other first-wave novels alternately adhere to and modify. Iola Leroy, Harper’s titular character, comes from a stable family, is educated, marries well, and works for the racial uplift of her people. A respectable family background, education, marriage, and community service were hallmarks to aspire to in attempting to dismantle racial injustice. For this reason, romance in the man-woman relationship in first-wave African American women’s historical romances is subordinate to sociopolitical struggles. Nevertheless, the romance paradigm is present—man and woman meet, fall in love, marry, and live the rest of their lives together. First-wave historical romance writers, as I have written elsewhere, “found the historical romance a useful and timely genre in which to encase unresolved sociopolitical issues regarding African American rights and status in nineteenth-century American society” (Black Women’s Activism 3).

Beverly Jenkins is the twentieth century’s (and, so far, the twenty-first century’s) best-selling African American historical romance writer.[3] She launched the mass-market second wave of African American historical romances with her first novel Night Song, published by Avon Books in 1994. Similar to first-wave novels, Jenkins’s historical romances evolve from particular moments in nineteenth-century American history and are shaped by confining conditions of race, gender, and class. With a strong revolutionary impetus, Jenkins’s novels reveal African Americans in the freedom struggle to secure their civil rights and assert their gender and class privileges in American society. Despite some similarities to the works of her foremothers, however, Jenkins’s eighteen published historical romances[4] extend the paradigm found in first-wave African American women’s historical romances in several ways.

First, Jenkins manifests a fuller view of history. Approximately a century removed from the historical periods of slavery, Reconstruction, and post-Reconstruction that she writes about, Jenkins carefully dramatizes that history and documents it, appending a bibliography to each of her novels. In Vivid, for instance, Jenkins revisits the post-Reconstruction era and details the difficulties that confronted Black female physicians, as illuminated in the life of Dr. Viveca Lancaster, the novel’s heroine. Dr. Lancaster enters the medical profession at a time when the racist theory of “negritude,” proposed by physician Benjamin Rush (1754-1813), was still prevalent. Rush’s theory, which Jenkins mentions in Vivid, hypothesizes that the color of black skin is a form of leprosy. As a result, Black physicians were limited to medical practice in the Black community. Another difficulty facing young Black physicians was the shift in the medical profession from bleeding patients in order to rid them of diseases to using antiseptics in order to prevent disease. This medical change is represented in the violent confrontation between Dr. Wadsworth Hayes, the elder white county physician who applies Benjamin Rush’s bleeding technique to a young Black child, and Dr. Lancaster, who applies the more modern cleansing methods of Dr. Joseph Lister (1827-1912) and fights to remove Dr. Hayes from his patient. Other details in the history reveal Dr. Lancaster’s engaging in difficult tasks outside her profession. She buries the dead, locates relatives of the ill, and performs household chores of her female patients; for her services, she often receives pay in the form of vegetables and farm animals. Dr. Lancaster is the fictional representative of Caroline Still Wiley Anderson, a black woman who received her medical degree in 1878 from the prestigious Woman’s Medical College in Philadelphia, but, because of her race, was restricted to a limited practice in the Black community.[5]

Second, Jenkins’ historical romances consistently celebrate nineteenth-century Black women who engage in racial uplift efforts in the public sphere. Jenkins depicts Black women in cohesive plots rather than in the digressive and episodic intrigues of her literary foremothers, offering a more comprehensive and sustained view of the Black woman engaged in racial uplift efforts. Sequential plotting aids the depiction of heroines in their tireless efforts; in their urgent and constant endeavors, Jenkins’s Black heroines seem to take their cue from Maria Stewart, a Black feminist who goaded Black women to action. In her 1832 “An Address Delivered before the Afri-American Female Intelligence Society of America,” Stewart urged Black women to “possess the spirit of men, bold and enterprising, fearless and undaunted” (53). Stewart’s message was heeded throughout the nineteenth century as African American women assumed public positions as abolitionists (Harriett Tubman), preachers (Jarena Lee), and teachers (Anna Julia Cooper). Black women in Jenkins’s second-wave historical romances engage in constructive activism as they assume responsible public positions as abolitionist (Hester Wyatt in Indigo), teacher (Cara in Night Song), and physician (Viveca Lancaster in Vivid).

Third, Jenkins revises the image of the mulatta heroine found in first-wave novels and depicts the darker-hued heroine who triumphs in public spaces. The darker-hued beauty in second-wave novels possesses masculine vigor and often dons pants. She is the antithesis of Frances Harper’s mulatta Iola Leroy who, despite her public service as nurse and teacher, relies on her husband to make decisions. Jenkins’s heroines also differ from the weakened heroines which African American male historical romance writers create. Clotel in William Wells Brown’s Clotel, or The President’s Daughter (1853) commits suicide by jumping into the Potomac River, and Desiree Hippolyte, the quadroon mistress in Frank Yerby’s The Foxes of Harrow (1946), depends on the handouts of Stephen Fox, her white lover who abandons her during her pregnancy.

Fourth, unlike first-wave novels, second-wave novels present Black women fighting for self-determination in romantic liaisons with Black men. These men were often unwilling to concede public space to black women. As I have noted elsewhere, “Black men who [were] equally oppressed by race claim[ed] domination of women as their right” (“The Race, Gender, Romance Connection,” 185-186). The woman-man conflict is evident in Night Song, wherein Chase Jefferson, Cara Henson’s paramour, consistently intrudes upon her public space until she loses her teaching position.

Fifth, unlike first-wave novels that avoid sex in romantic relationships, Jenkins incorporates the more explicit treatment of sexuality found in the works of white European and American women writers. In part, she does this to indulge her ardent readers; in part, to satisfy her publisher’s demands. Avon Books, Jenkins’s publisher, broke new ground in the 1970s by publishing such erotically explicit historical romances as Kathleen Woodiwiss’s The Flame and the Flower (1972) and Rosemary Rogers’s more violently sexual Sweet, Savage Love (1974). The passionate sex scenes in Jenkins’s novels, however, always take place between consenting black men and black women; there are no rapist heroes or “forced seductions” in her work.

As I sum up the genre in Black Women’s Activism: Reading African American Historical Romances, second-wave historical romances “offer a fuller view of specific historic moments, an expanded look at Black womanhood, a more complex and emphatic involvement of Black women in historic settings, and heated romance” (4). In addition to Jenkins, other Black woman historical romance writers in the second wave include Francine Craft (The Black Pearl, 1996), Roberta Gayle (Moonrise, 1996), Gay G. Gunn (Nowhere to Run, 1997), and Shirley Hailstock (Clara’s Promise, 1995).

My interview with Beverly Jenkins came in stages over the past eighteen months. I first sent a written copy of my questions to her in August 2008. She responded weeks later with a telephone call; we continued the interview by telephone and email in December and January of 2008-9. In preparation for this interview’s inclusion in the Journal of Popular Romance Studies, I emailed Jenkins a final set of questions in late January 2010, which she answered and returned a few days later.

RBD Why did you choose to begin your writing career with the historical rather than the contemporary romance?

BJ It wasn’t my choice really; it was the publisher’s choice. The first manuscript I sent out was a contemporary that was rejected, but the historical Night Song sold. Ironically, that rejected contemporary was published many years later as Edge of Night.

RBD How difficult was it for you to publish Night Song?

BJ It took me fifteen years to publish my first novel, which has since gone through six printings. The start was rough. My editor, Ellen Edwards, then Executive Editor of Avon, sent me a fourteen-page revision letter. She said she didn’t know if I could do the revisions. I did the revisions. The draft went from the editor to a freelancer. Scenes were changed. The scene where Cara’s grandfather appears, “nigger, nigger” replaced his name. Characters were depicted as “black as coal.” I was devastated when I received the galley. I called Vivian Stephens, my agent, and told her that she should return the advance on the book. I did not want the book published like that. The editor called. She cried and apologized. For four and a half hours, the editor and I were on the telephone going over the revisions. There should be trust between editor and author.

RBD There are so many more contemporary romances published than there are historical romances. Why is that?

BJ Money drives the publishing business just like every other business. Back in the seventies and eighties, historical romances held the biggest share of the market, so publishers pushed that genre. But over time, the tastes of the readers changed, the times changed, and contemporaries began to be embraced. Now contemporaries rule. Romance can be very cyclical, though, so, who knows where the genre will be ten years from now.

RBD You are more than a century removed from the nineteenth century that you write about. How do your historical romance novels bring this era alive for your twenty-first-century readers?

BJ I bring the nineteenth century alive—I think—by placing my historical characters in the context of their everyday lives. Our bittersweet history in America is just that, but it didn’t stop us from building colleges or raising families or continuing to get up every day and put one foot in front of the other so life could be better. All the bullshit America threw at the Ancestors, we as a race survived, and by showing how we bent but didn’t break, how individuals coped in spite of [oppression], gives my readers a truer look at how we got over. Telling history through the lives and actions of a story’s characters as opposed to beating folks over the head with dates and boring lectures makes the history more accessible. It personalizes. Whether I’m dealing with the Exodus of 1879, the Seminole scouts, the Black Civil War vets, or the Black and Brown lawmen of Indian Territory, breaking the history down into stories seems to work well with the readers.

RBD How do your historical romances link to those of your nineteenth-century literary foremothers, Francis Harper and Pauline Hopkins?

BJ I do know that what these illustrious foremothers stood for—justice, equality, education, a commitment to community and the desire to push the envelope on race and gender—is something I consciously place in each of my heroines. I “borrowed” the concept from the great historian Dorothy A. Sterling. Her book, We Are Your Sisters: Black Women in the 19th Century, is my bible. In it, she states that nineteenth-century Black women had three gifts: a strong work ethic, a commitment to community, and a penchant to push the envelope on race and gender. Whether it’s schoolteacher Cara Lee Henson, journalist Kate Love, or banker Grace Atwood, I try to bestow at least one of Sterling’s gifts on them. Nineteenth-century Black women changed the world not only for themselves and the race but for women of other races as well. Women like Black abolitionist Maria Stewart, who in 1832 became the first woman in America of any race to lecture to a mixed audience; Rebecca Lee and other pioneering Black doctors of the late 1860s were often not only the first Black doctors, but many were the first doctors of any race in their communities. Their experiences helped shape crusading Dr. Viveca Lancaster, the heroine in my second novel, Vivid.

RBD The neo-slave narrative, another African American historical genre, has gained prominence. Toni Morrison’s Beloved and Sherley Anne Williams’s Dessa Rose come to mind. What is your opinion about this kind of historical novel? What are your thoughts about the relationship of your historical romances to this body of work set in the same period as your novels and deal with similar issues of race, gender, and sexuality?

BJ I have read both of the titles referenced. Our novels are similar in the sense that all touch the African American experience. Mine differs in the model upon which it is based. Genre romance novels are based on the gothic tradition set forth by authors Daphne du Maurier[6] and Georgette Heyer,[7] and American authors Kathleen E. Woodiwiss[8] and LaVyrle Spencer[9]; but I have taken that model, given it a new spin that makes my work FUBU—for us, by us. I also include a bibliography at the end of each novel to help readers further their knowledge of the historical event/s featured in each novel, be it the Great Exodus of 1879, the Brown and Black outlaws and deputy marshals of Indian Territory, or the gens d’coleur of antebellum Louisiana, etc.

RBD By gothic model are you referring to the romance template in which an inexperienced young woman meets and falls in love with a mysterious older man, marries him, and then encounters awesome circumstances that potentially jeopardize their union?

BJ Yes. Your description was closely followed during the early days of romance, but now the model has advanced. Man-woman conflicts are the main elements. The man can now be younger than the female, and the woman no longer has to be a virgin. The genre has morphed with the times.

RBD What do you think of other African American authors’ use of genre fiction in pursuit of, perhaps, comparable goals (i.e., to revisit the past and accumulate cultural memory)? Octavia E. Butler’s Kindred, for example, is a time-travel science fiction narrative that takes the heroine, Dana, an African American, back in time to nineteenth-century Maryland, a slave state.

BJ Genres. It has been interesting watching African American writers flip the switch, so to speak, on the traditional genres from romance to horror and begin to be accepted and successful in areas where we were not allowed to be fifteen years ago. L. A. Banks[10] is a prime example. Her Minion series has a vampire theme that is FUBU. Anytime small, evangelical/fundamentalist African American churches in the south embrace a vampire series, and they have, as said to me, Ms. Banks has hit upon something that in its own way speaks to the race and is viewed with value.

RBD While your novels contribute to the historical romance tradition in African American literature, they also break new ground. Would you comment on this point?

BJ I only see it as breaking new ground in the sense that you can now buy my books, and books by Brenda Jackson[11] and L. A. Banks and others, all over the world. FUBU books have been around since before the American Revolution, but being accessible to the market is the thing. Not sure if this is what you mean, but this is my first thought on the question.

RBD Global mass marketing certainly plays a big role in a book’s accessibility to the public, and I agree that in this sense your books have broken new ground. Moreover, some nineteenth-century Black women’s historical romances were serialized in small magazines such as The Christian Recorder, that had a small readership. But, I was also thinking about how you have expanded the concept of desire in your novels to embrace not only the agape longing to participate in racial uplift but also the erotic craving for one’s mate. The public and private manifestations of desire give your audience a fuller appreciation of Black women’s lives in the nineteenth century. Could you say more about erotica?

BJ Erotica is what romance fiction is all about. Romance started with erotic gothic and Kathleen E. Woodiwiss’s The Flame and the Flower. Erotica is required to have romance fiction published. I read some of the romances by writers in the white canon, and I flipped the paradigm man-woman sex conflict to include relevant Black history. Our history puts meat into the novels. People outside the genre have no idea how important all books by African American authors are to their readers. Finally a whole slew of books about us—in every genre.

RBD Who buys and reads your novels?

BJ Black women. They love erotica. Before my books were published, they read white women’s erotica.

RBD Do Black men read your novels?

BJ Not many. A brother once told me that he didn’t read romances. He didn’t believe in romance. I told him, “You’re here! There must have been romance. Something must have been going on.” (Chuckle)

RBD What do you think are your major contributions to the historical romance genre?

BJ My contribution/s. It seems that I have been given the charge of telling our history in a way that is new and different, but also fills our racial soul.

RBD Thanks to you and your contemporaries Francine Craft,[12] Gay G. Gunn,[13] and Shirley Hailstock,[14] the African American historical romance has made considerable progress since the nineteenth century. Why do you think literary critics have not given more attention to your work?

BJ It’s that old double edged sword—and in our case, the sword has three edges: one, we write romance—which critics sometimes don’t look at as a “serious” genre; two, we’re female writers of romance, and the big one—we’re Black female writers of romance. Makes for a lot of crap to wade through sometimes.

RBD Most of your historical romances have strong public-service–oriented Black women characters: Cora Lee Henson, teacher, in Night Song; Dr.Viveca Lancaster, physician, in Vivid; Sable Fontaine, contraband camp worker, in Through the Storm; and Zahra Lafayette, Civil War spy, in Winds of the Storm. These women find themselves in conflict with outside forces, but they manage to resolve their problems with their self-esteem intact. What message do these novels send to your reading audience?

BJ The message is: Don’t tell a Black woman there’s something she can’t do. Goes back to Sterling’s gifts—particularly pushing the envelope on gender and race. Never tell us there’s something we can’t do.

RBD Your male-female characters express love for each other in your novels, but they also long for and celebrate freedom. Could you comment on the intersection between love and freedom?

BJ To be able to love is freedom. Poet and essayist bell hooks, who I’m looking forward to meeting one day, is a big romance fan and has written the best take on the intersection of freedom and love. I’ll have to run it down and get back to you on this one.

RBD Since our last correspondence, have you had an opportunity to read bell hooks’ essay “Love as the Practice of Freedom”? If so, do you have a possible interest in or reaction to bell hooks’ ideas about love as a “practice of freedom”?

BJ Rita, I apologize, but I still have not had time to read Ms. hooks’ work. The example I always go back to about love being the “practice of freedom” is a reference in the book Bull Whip Days[15] to “a man named Wyatt who was free and sold himself into slavery for the love of a woman.” It was a reference that took my breath away. The power and commitment of Wyatt speaks to a love that is both astounding in its depth and heart-breaking in its ramifications. He freely chose to make this decision and to me it is the ultimate example of love as the practice of freedom. I’m not sure if this is what Ms. hooks meant, but this is what it says to me.

RBD Does your position as an Episcopal lay minister have any bearing on the values and responsibilities evident in the characters you depict in your novels?

BJ Other than that the church [African Methodist Episcopal] is at the center of the community in many of my books, no.

RBD You have written more than a dozen historical romances from 1995 until the present time. Explain the evolution of your writing in terms of character development and relationships.

BJ Golly. Not sure how to answer this. The character development and relationships. There is no real evolution in the sense that the two factors have changed over the years. Both have [been] and continue to be strong—I hope. Sounds like a question for the readers.

RBD If there is one lesson that you wish the present generation to obtain about male-female relationships in reading your novels, what would that lesson be?

BJ Cherish each other—tomorrow is not promised.

RBD What do you consider to be the three most important themes in your historical romances?

BJ Love. Legacy. Endurance.

RBD What do you expect your legacy as an African American historical romance author will be for those historical romance writers who succeed you?

BJ Hopefully that I supplied my readers with edutainment. Education and entertainment.

Works Cited

Dandridge, Rita B. Black Women’s Activism: Reading African American Women’s Historical Romances. New York: Peter Lang, 2004. Print.

—. “The Race, Gender, Romance Connection.” Doubled Plots: Romance and History. Ed. Susan Strehle and Mary Paniccia Carden. Jackson: UP of Mississippi, 2003: 185-201. Print.

Stewart, Maria. Maria W. Stewart: America’s First Black Woman Political Activist: Essays and Speeches. Ed. Marilyn Richardson. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1987. Print.


[1] I discuss first-wave African American women’s historical romances in greater detail in Black Women’s Activism: Reading African American Women’s Historical Romances (New York: Peter Lang, 2004), 2-4.

[2] Prior to Frances Harper’s publication of Iola Leroy, African American women novelists published romances with white protagonists. These writers and their novels are Emma Dunham Kelly’s Megda (Boston: John H. Earle, 1891) and Amelia E. Johnson’s Clarence and Corinne; or God’s Way (Philadelphia: American Baptist Publication Society, 1890).

[3] In addition to her historical romances, Beverly Jenkins has published contemporary romances, romantic suspense novels, romance novelettes, and juvenile fiction. She has won prestigious awards, including the distinguished Golden Pen Award (1999) from Black Writer’s Guild; the 2008 Emma Award for Romantic Suspense, Favorite Hero, Book Cover, and Book of the Year for Deadly Sexy; and Author of the Year Award at 2008 Romance Slam Jam for Deadly Sexy. She is also the recipient of six Best Seller Awards from the Waldens/Borders Group and two Career Achievement Awards from Romantic Times Magazine. Jenkins has her own website at www.beverlyjenkins.net.

[4] Producing one novel, sometimes two, each year, Beverly Jenkins’s historical romances include Night Song (New York: Avon Books, 1994), Vivid (New York: HarperCollins, 1995), Indigo (New York: Avon Books, 1996), Topaz (New York: Avon Books, 1997), Through the Storm (New York: Avon Books, 1998), The Taming of Jessi Rose (New York: Avon Books, 1999), Always and Forever (New York: Avon Books, 2000), Before the Dawn (New York: Avon, 2001), A Chance at Love (New York: Avon Books, 2002), Something Called Love (New York: Avon Books, 2005), Winds of the Storm (New York: Avon Books, 2006), Wild Sweet Love (New York: Avon Books, 2007), Jewel (New York: Avon Books, 2008), and Captured (New York: Avon Books 2009). Her historical romances for juveniles are Belle and the Beau (New York: Harper Teen, 2002), reprinted as Belle (New York: Kimani TRU, 2009), and Josephine and the Soldier (New York: Avon Books, 2003), reprinted as Josephine (New York: Kimani TRU, 2009).

[5] For a discussion of Dr. Caroline Still Wiley Anderson, see Darlene Clark Hine, ed. Black Women in America. Vol. 1 (Brooklyn: Carlson, 1993): 28-29.

[6] Daphne du Maurier is a British writer who wrote about adventure and romance in Cornwall, England. Her historical romance Frenchman’s Creek, first published in 1942 and reprinted with Virago in 2003, was made into a film with the same title in 1944. A television version of the novel was made in 1998, in which Tara Fitzgerald starred as Dona, the novel’s protagonist. See Richard Kelly, “Daphne du Maurier: Overview.” Twentieth-Century Romance and Historical Writers. Ed. Aruna Vasudevan. 3rd ed. New York: St. James P, 1994. Twentieth-Century Writers Series. Literature Resource Center. Web. 10 Feb. 2010.

[7] Georgette Heyer (1902-74), a British romance writer, authored thirty-eight historical romances, most of which were set in the years of the Regency (1811-1820), the reign of the Prince of Wales who became George IV.

[8] Kathleen E. Woodiwiss authored The Flame and the Flower (New York: Avon Books, 1972), a novel whose content and marketing transformed the romance publishing industry. “Launched in 1972 as an Avon Spectacular, with all the promotion and advertising support usually given to bestseller reprints,” Carol Thurston explains, this novel “not only proved the commercial viability of paperback originals but also opened the door to a new American publishing enterprise”: specifically, “the erotic historical romance as a mass entertainment phenomenon.” See Carol Thurston, The Romance Revolution: Erotic Novels for Women and the Quest for a New Sexual Identity (Urbana and Chicago: U of Illinois P, 1987): 48.

[9] LaVyrle Spencer is an American novelist whose historical romances and other romances have made the New York Times best seller list a dozen times. Her writing career began with the publication of The Fulfillment (New York: Avon, 1979), a historical romance which her inspiration Kathleen E. Woodiwiss read and sent to her own editor at Avon. Spencer’s other well-known historical romances include, but are not limited to, Hummingbird (New York: Jove, 1983), Twice Loved (New York: Jove, 1984), and The Gamble (New York: Jove, 1987). Emphasizing family situations rather than male-female relations, Spencer has published twenty-four books and is a five-time winner of the RITA Award, the highest award Romance Writers of America gives to romance writers. Spencer’s 1988 induction into the Romance Writers of America Hall of Fame distinguished her at that time as one of twelve women to have received that award. See Carol Thurston, “LaVyrle Spencer: Overview.” Twentieth-Century Romance and Historical Writers. Ed. Aruna Vasudevan. 3rd ed. New York: St. James P, 1994. Twentieth-Century Writers Series. Literature Resource Center. Web. 10 Feb. 2010.

[10] L. A. Banks is one of several pseudonyms for African American author Leslie Ann Banks. Banks has written more than three dozen novels in various genres including contemporary romance, suspense thrillers, and paranormal. Minion (New York: Griffin, 2003) is the first of twelve novels in the Vampire Huntress Legend Series. (Rita B. Dandridge, email interview with L.A. Banks. 7 February 2010).

[11] Brenda Jackson began her writing career with the publication of Tonight and Forever (New York: Kensington Arabesque, 1995), and to date has published more than sixty novels. Best known as a multicultural writer, she is the first African American author to publish under the Harlequin/Silhouette Desire imprint. A full-time writer, Jackson “is the first African-American writer to make the New York Times best-seller list with a romance.” See Patrick Huguenin, “African American Romance Writers Come into Their Own.” New York Daily News, 23 May 2009.  http://www.nydailynews.com/entertainment/arts/2009/05/24/2009-05-24_africanamerican_romance_writers_come_into_their_own.html

[12] Francine Craft has published only one historical romance The Black Pearl (1996) with the imprint of Pinnacle Books, a subsidiary of Kensington Publishing, with whom she signed a contract.  She now owns the novel outright and plans to reissue it.

[13] Gay G. Gunn has published only one historical romance to date and that is Nowhere to Run (Columbus, MS: Genesis, 1997).

[14] Shirley Hailstock has written only one historical novel to date, Clara’s Promise (New York: Pinnacle Books, 1995), about Blacks’ settlement in the Old West. For this novel, Hailstock was given the Utah Romance Writers Heart of the West Award. Hailstock’s idea for a second historical romance about cosmetology for Black women in the 1890s has not yet materialized. At the time she wanted to write the historical romance, Arabesque decided to accept only contemporary romances, the genre that Hailstock has been publishing since 1995. See Gwendolyn Osborne’s interview “Meet Author Shirley Hailstock.” The Romance Reader.com. 1 Dec. 2000. http://www.theromancereader.com/hailstock.html

[15] This reference is to Bullwhip Days the Slaves Remember: An Oral History, ed. James Mellon (New York: Quill, 1990), 445.

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