Mindy Hung’s previous work for The Toast can be found here. Most recently: Public Access: On Romance Heroines and Fame. Hung is a member of RWA and published by Crimson Romance under her pseudonym, Ruby Lang.
The First Rule of Romance
During the “Bollywood Basics” panel at the 35th annual Romance Writers of America meeting (July 23-26, New York City), Sonali Dev (A Bollywood Affair), Suleikha Snyder (Opening Act), and Nisha Sharma (My So-Called Bollywood Life, forthcoming) play a clip from the 2013 film Goliyon Ki Raasleela Ram-Leela. A gloriously ripped and shirtless Ranveer Singh, clad in diaphanous pants, smolders at Deepika Padukone as she prowls toward him carrying a steaming goblet. Audience members titter and fan themselves.
Then a panelist mentions that the story is based on Romeo and Juliet. A groan — loud and disappointed — emerges from the crowd.
This audience doesn’t trade in tragedy and thwarted love. They believe in happily ever after — or at least, happily for now.
This is a romance crowd.
“For Women, By Women”: A Brief Recitation of Statistics
The annual RWA meeting is equal parts professional development, networking, and fantasy camp. This year, over 2,000 romance novel writers, editors, agents, publishers, and enthusiasts meet to sign and buy books, attend and host panels, hug, stay up late, and drink too much coffee and alcohol. RWA is one of the two big meetings held every year. (The other, the Romantic Times Booklovers convention, was held earlier this year in Dallas, Texas.)
With over 75 million readers in the U.S. (compare this to, say, the 210,000-strong segment of the population that reads Harper’s Magazine), romance is the largest fiction market by far — more than double the size of the next nearest genre. As historical and contemporary romance writer Maya Rodale notes in the fascinating Dangerous Books for Girls, around 9,000 romance novels are published each year. More than 80% are read by women. More than 90% are written by women. Most of the agents and editors are women.
The happily-ever-after crowd is mainstream fiction, and within it is contained all the seediness and all the glorious awesome that popular culture has to offer. And because it is a female-dominated community, it is in many (but not all) ways a feminist community, especially when members find themselves pitted against a sneering, mostly male literary establishment.
Romance is frequently dismissed as “mommy porn.” Despite its status as a publishing behemoth, the genre is not reviewed in most general-interest media. (NPR and the Washington Post have only recently stepped up their efforts to cover it.) And yes, members of the romance community talk about sales and money a lot — because in the absence of open-minded, critical reception of the genre, the numbers are often the only reasonably objective measure of its impact.
For women, by women is an oft-repeated mantra in Romancelandia, and a glance around the convention reveals that this is overwhelmingly true. Of course, this look also reveals that the face of the community is still mostly white, confirmed by a peek in RWA’s swag bag and its selection of books about white, heterosexual couples.
More Voices, More Sales, More Stories
“The pie is gigantic,” Rebekah Weatherspoon tells me. “Supporting new authors doesn’t take away from authors you love. You just buy more books.”
Weatherspoon, whose braids are a festive white for her first full RWA, is founder of the WOC in Romance Twitter, Tumblr, and Facebook accounts. Weatherspoon herself has amassed an impressive body of work, including a series of multicultural New Adult lesbian vampire romances for Bold Strokes Books — the newest of which, Soul to Keep, will be released in Spring 2016. She’s also self-published lesbian New Adult romance, as well as the FIT trilogy, heterosexual BDSM novels that won a recent RT Book Reviews award.
“One of the things I wanted to do was help women of color get paid,” Weatherspoon says. “They’re doing phenomenal work in YA with We Need Diverse Books,” she adds, referring to the movement in Young Adult literature that has already helped crowdfund scholarships for diverse writers. “But there are a lot of people in romance who say, We need something for us. One of the things I was hearing was that the books weren’t there, which I knew wasn’t true.”
“There’s already diverse romance out there,” Alyssa Cole tells me. “I’m fine with anyone writing diverse characters. The majority of my characters are not African American — they majority of my characters are Asian. But I do think that there can be a sense of saviorism.”
Cole is another first-time attendee, but she has received notice for her post-apocalyptic romances from Harlequin’s digital imprint (Carina Press), romantic suspense, and her self-published historical romances — including the excellent novella Let It Shine, which appeared in The Brightest Day: A Juneteenth Historical Romance Anthology. (The Toast featured a roundtable with Cole and her fellow anthology authors, Piper Huguley, Lena Hart, and Kianna Alexander here.)
“Discoverability for multicultural books is very low,” notes Falguni Kothari (Bootie and the Beast), during the “Multicultural Romance: When Keeping It Real Goes Wrong, and How to Make It Right” panel. “We’re still segregating multicultural books, as if it’s a genre. Paranormal romance gets a different shelf, and so will multicultural books. We’re writing contemporary or historical, or fantasy, or whatever.”
“If you go to the multicultural tab on Amazon, you can find anything your heart desires. There are billionaires. There are werewolves. There are probably werewolf billionaires,” Cole adds. “Multicultural just covers the ethnicity of the characters.”
And because romance is so popular and presents an optimistic narrative, multicultural writers feel the urgency to harness its power. K. M. Jackson (Through the Lens), founder of #WeNeedDiverseRomance on Twitter, says, “[Many] don’t see people of color in the sort of romantic relationships that they would more easily see Caucasian characters in. We have to fight that stereotype that shows us as downtrodden.”
“I think it’s important to include characters of all sexual orientations and races in our stories because it normalizes it,” says Farrah Rochon (Yours Forever) during the “50 Shades of Love: Writing the Multicultural Romance” panel.
RITA-nominated Rochon goes further to make an explicit link between racial tensions and the media we consume, mentioning the June 2015 incident in McKinney, Texas, when a white police officer handcuffed and manhandled an African American teenaged girl. “If [residents] maybe had read books years ago that had black people or Hispanic people in them, maybe they would not have felt that they had to call the cops on these people at a swimming party that they were not invited to.”
At the same panel, Piper Huguley (The Preacher’s Promise), who teaches at Spelman College in addition to penning romance, notes, “It’s more important than ever that the fiction that we write be and represent a variety of the humanity that exists… Not to lay a heavy social trip on how people behave but just to impart how crucial it is to have those images out there.”
A Selection of Some of the 150+ Seminar and Panel Names at RWA 2015
Treasures, Artifacts, and Curses: Archeology 101
Nuts and Bolts: A Build-a-Hero Workshop
Making Scrivener Work for You
Book Launches: From Zero to Wow! When You Have No Established Audience
Beginner’s Guide to Utilizing Your Foreign Translation Rights
Who Needs a Publisher?
Writing Through Depression: A Candid Chat
Forensic Anthropology and You
Happy Endings of All Kinds
“I don’t worry at all about writing authentic queer characters,” says Radclyffe (Fated Love), president of Bold Strokes Books and lesbian romance-writing superhero of more than 30 novels. “I worry a lot more about writing authentic secret service agents, or cops, or doctors.”
There is guarded optimism at the “Tried and True…With a Twist: Goal/ Motivation/ Conflict in LGBTQ Romance” panel, as writers and editors gear up for the what marriage equality in the United States means for romance stories. Panelists discuss the “post-gay” or “post-queer” novel, in which a character’s sexuality is no longer the central conflict of the book — as opposed to to what are called “out for you” or “gay for you” books, which Sarah Frantz Lyons, editor in chief of Riptide Publishing, notes are “stories prevalent especially in YA where characters are still trying to figure themselves out.” Lyons also mentions that Riptide will publish an asexual romance next month.
“The lived experience of gay people is changing so fast,” says writer Christopher Rice (The Flame). “Fifteen years ago, two firemen in a small town falling in love — that’s a fantasy. [But] there’s a plausibility there now.
“The increasing popularity of LGBTQ romance across the board I think is is indicative of the fact that there was a time when the gay book was defined as a very narrow thing. It was more visible gay, white, male cisgender authors and it was their sexual memoir. It usually ended with the AIDS crisis — and that’s what a gay book was. That’s indicative of a broader audience, a diverse audience, an audience that says, I like happy endings — of all kinds,” he adds, getting a laugh.
Lyons says that as an editor, even if the central conflict is related to being queer, she is more interested in seeing stories about lived experience as opposed to “the huge gay bashing that left them in the hospital[…] There’s enough queer kids out there that have to deal with microaggressions. The looks that they get when they walk down the street. Conflict about being queer doesn’t have to be huge to be life-changing.”
Writer K.A. Mitchell (Bad Influence) adds, “Now you have lesbian characters who really want a baby. One really wants a baby, the other is not as committed, marriage of convenience stories! Now all these stories are opening up to us as queer authors.”
Rice hops over microphone cords to hand out swag — candles and eye masks — to the people who ask questions. An audience member tells the panel that she’s writing a polyamorous story, but that her editor keeps referring to it as a menage story. “For me there is a difference,” she says. “One is like having sex, the other one is having a real relationship.”
“I think [calling it menage] is more of a marketing angle,” Mitchell responds. “It’s easier to market that way.”
A Partial Catalogue of Common Ailments and Injuries Sustained During RWA
Bra-induced back pain, upright-posture-related fatigue, smile fatigue, general fatigue, topknot headache, blisters, swag-bag bursitis, swag-bag chafing, hoarseness, forgetting-to-eat-related nausea (it’s real), contusion resulting from getting one’s skirt caught in the escalator, AC chill, hotel room-induced insomnia, depression, social anxiety, generalized anxiety, claustrophobia, hangover, hangover, hangover.
The Social Habits of Romance Writers
In addition to panels, workshops, and opportunities to pitch agents, there are the parties. There are formal affairs, such as the glitzy, invite-only Harlequin Ball and the RITAs, the RWA’s annual awards ceremony which is streamed live on the last night. But small gatherings spring up all over: writers Carolyn Jewel (Scandal) and Megan Frampton (The Duke’s Guide to Correct Behavior), for example, host a donut party in their hotel room. There are meet-ups centered around group romance blogs and regional chapters of RWA.
At one get-together at St. Andrews Bar, down the block from the Marriott, Audra North (In the Fast Lane) tells the crowd about her next releases, which feature race car drivers, followed by fembots.
“God, I love romance writers,” her friend Jenny Holiday (The Likelihood of Lucy) laughs.
Because it’s so vast and peopled and overwhelming, it’s easy to stay in silos at RWA: to meet Twitter buddies, to attend select panels and parties, to find people to agree with. But one is often reminded that RWA is still largely heterosexual and white.
Veteran powerhouse writers Susan Elizabeth Phillips (It Had to Be You) and Jayne Anne Krentz/Amanda Quick/Jayne Castle (Ravished) command a huge, mostly older crowd. A woman seated next to me notices my ribbon indicating that this is my first RWA. She tells me she’s from Colorado. When she hears that I’m a health and medical editor by day, she tells me that her niece is half Asian and in the sciences. Her mother drives her very hard. (The woman makes a clawing gesture with her hand.) I’ll give you three guesses as to which half of niece’s parentage is Asian. I…change the subject because apparently I spell diversity with only the d-i-v-e-r and t.
I get what she’s trying to do; it’s inept, but I get it. This stranger is trying to forge some sort of bond with me — she’s struggling to access what she knows about people who look like me. Romance people are interested in coming together (in all senses of the phrase). Romance novels are social novels. They are about people trying — and eventually succeeding — at connecting. And connection is both a completely ordinary and completely difficult and extraordinary thing to achieve — that’s what we learn in romance novels. That’s what we see in life. But when we lack knowledge — when we lack respect for differences in history and experience — the ties we attempt to make are false.
I don’t feel annoyed in that moment — it could be far, far worse. Also at RWA, there is the audience member from South Africa at the multicultural “Keeping It Real” panel who starts off her comment by saying that Black people in South Africa prefer to be called “colored” and that she includes all races in her books. She says something about you people, colored, something, you people. Under the shit-pile of words, I suspect her point is that publishing is hard for everyone.
Then there is the concentration camp book from a Christian press that is nominated for RITAs in two categories. The romance involves a Jewish heroine and the SS officer who is the head of the camp.
Yeah. I don’t believe this can end well.
Thank Goodness for the Redeeming Moments
It’s a huge conference, and yet there are moments when it becomes small and familiar. Because holy shit, that’s Nailini Singh (Angels’ Blood) and she’s come all the way from New Zealand and is sitting in the back at this Bollywood panel! Shirley Hailstock (Last Night’s Kiss), former president of the RWA — first African American president of RWA! — introduces herself as Shirley (Shirley!) to our table! I tell Laura Florand (The Chocolate Kiss) stuff she already knows about New York chocolate shops! Damon Suede (Hot Head) is chatting by the hotel restaurant! I walk by Jade Lee/Kathy Lyons (Dragonborn) and Kristan Higgins (The Best Man) near the Starbucks! Rose Lerner (Sweet Disorder) is at the front of the audience at the Bollywood panel! Rose Lerner is at this multicultural panel! Rose Lerner is at this other multicultural panel! I may be stalking Rose Lerner (I’m not!).
Best yet, on the second-last day, when I’m feeling tired and unsettled, I run into a fellow Toast-reader who I only know on Twitter, romance writer Melanie Greene (Retreat to Love). No, it’s better than that: I recognize the postcard that Mel has set on a goodie table — the postcard is designed by fellow Toastie Alice Johnston.
Suddenly, the day gets brighter. I tweet Mel to see if she is here. In a few minutes, she descends goddess-like from the escalators.
We run into each others’ arms.
Mindy Hung is a New York-based Canadian writer. Her novel, Trip, was published in 2012 by Outpost19. She also writes romance as Ruby Lang.