HOT DOCS ’15: Two authors from ‘Love Between the Covers’ discuss romance, sexism in fiction

Susan Donovan and Celeste Bradley on set

Last week, I covered Love Between The Covers, an inspirational documentary about the passionate and powerful community of romance authors and romance fans who fight to legitimize their craft in a literary field that scorns them. I was lucky enough to interview two women featured in the film, New York Times bestselling writing partners Susan Donovan and Celeste Bradley, about the romance industry, sexism and what they hope viewers take away from the film.

Read the full interview below and for future showtimes for Love Between the Covers, head here.

A really great point brought up in the film is that, while romantic novels are fantasy, so are Hollywood action movies. Do you feel like much of the prejudice towards romance novels is rooted in sexism towards a genre that’s aimed at women?

SUSAN DONOVAN: Let’s ask ourselves this: if romance was written by men and for men, would it be relegated to the back of the literary bus? Think about other genres in popular fiction: westerns, spy thrillers, mysteries, police procedurals, ghost stories. Are they somehow more ‘real’ or ‘important’ than tales of love?

Most genre fiction novels feature sexual tension between characters, or a love interest of some kind, whether the novel is set on a Montana ranch, Cold-War Russia, or the planet Mars. And most romances contain a little mystery, suspense, crime, or adventure with the main love story, no matter the setting. So why do romance novels prompt more eye-rolls and snickers than stories about CIA operatives and haunted pet cemeteries? It could be worth thinking about.

CELESTE BRADLEY: I do think there is a gender issue here. Is there anything sillier than a James Bond film? Or the latest potty-humour teen film? But these will get four page spreads in Entertainment Weekly and USA Today and happy-talk time on Good Morning America. Why? Because they appeal to men. Romance novels, and often female-centered romantic films, will get eye rolls and snickers. Women who feel pressure to be taken seriously will join in, often even when they keep a secret stash of romance novels at home.

I am an intellectual woman. I have a university education, a high IQ and a solid basis in literature. I grew up on Dickens and Poe and Shakespeare. Every time I was assigned a classic in school, I raised my hand to say I’d already read it. For fun.

I know about those shamed women because I was one. I was 30 years old when I discovered the modern romance novel. I had two tiny children at home and I’d had to park my career as a professional artist because I didn’t make enough to cover the cost of child care. I found escape in the historical romances of Amanda Quick.
When I began to read them, I got them from the library. I remember being sneered at by the male librarian who checked my books out. I was so ashamed I told him that I was doing research on why women would read such things!

Even when I wrote my first novel and sold it, I didn’t take myself seriously. It wasn’t until three books into my career that I felt I had the right to call myself a ‘real’ writer. Once at a neighborhood block party, a male neighbor opened up one of my books and began to read it aloud in a very mocking tone. I was humiliated, but this time I stood up for myself. I told him when his book was published, he could make fun of mine.

Can you imagine someone doing that to a mystery author or a sci-fi author? Can you imagine a library patron being sneered at for checking out Stephen King, or George R.R. Martin? Why not? Aren’t horror and fantasy lacking in realism? Aren’t movies like Superbad or Zack and Miri Make a Porno intended to appeal to the lowest common denominator of society at large?

But the majority of male readers like Stephen King (as do I!), so it must be all right. Many men like comedy films with boobies. Even if they don’t–or claim they don’t!–they still don’t seem to express the same automatic scorn that they do for a genre that is written by, for and about women.

Luckily, I don’t have to ask anyone’s permission to read what I want to read. Yes, there are some bad romance novels out there. There are some wretched mysteries and sci-fi as well. Even Stephen King doesn’t bat a thousand!

Do you think the romance industry is getting better at writing stories for women of colour and queer women?

SD: Well, ‘the romance industry’ doesn’t write stories. Authors do. And I believe publishers became more willing to give book contracts to novelists writing about a variety of cultures, colors, and sexual preferences once they realized there was money to be made. Certainly, the success of self-published books in these subgenres has increased the variety of romance novels out there for everyone to enjoy.

Susan Donovan with the crew of ‘Love Between the Covers’ including director Laurie Kahn (centre)

It’s really wonderful and inspiring that you both kept writing even in the face of personal tragedies. Has the process of writing “happily ever afters” helped you deal with your own struggles?

SD: For me, I think it’s the other way around. At my core, I am a stubborn dreamer. I believe that all things are possible, and it is my optimistic determination that gave me the nerve to try to become a novelist in the first place. It certainly allowed me to imagine happy endings for my fictional characters, and for myself when I faced real-life catastrophe. I’ve always looked at it this way: if I don’t expect the best for myself, who the hell will?

CB: Everyone has personal tragedy. All lives have pain. One of the things that I love about escapist fiction is that I have a chance to go somewhere else, to be someone else. To have a respite, even just for an hour, from a harsh reality can inspire the courage to reach for just a little more strength.

Writing romance is very much like reading romance. I want to lose myself in the story. I want to take a journey with the characters. I want to find out what happens in the end.

Often when I am in the middle of writing a novel, I will start absent-mindedly searching the house for that great book I was ‘reading.’

With the recent mainstream success of books like 50 Shades of Grey, do you think some of the stigma around romance novels has passed?

SD: Some might suggest that 50 Shades isn’t a romance novel as much as a story of domination and submission, sexual dysfunction, and abuse. No matter how you categorize it, the content has definitely brought erotica for women into the mainstream.

The film really demonstrates how the romance lit scene is such a shared experience for fans and creates a great community for women. As collaborators, do you feel the same way about writing romance novels together?

SD: The romance-writing world brought Celeste and I together, but the decision to collaborate on a novel wasn’t born out of a need for community. It just so happened that there was a powerful creative spark between us, and we had to see what would happen if we worked together. Truthfully, our partnership was more of a freak accident than an extension of the romance writing community, and our work is now expanding past the romance genre.

I know comedians often say they don’t watch comedic TV when they’re home because it’s hard for them to relax and switch off the part of their brain that analyzes other comedic work. As romance writers, do you feel the same way, or do you read a lot of romance novels as well? 

SD: I had never read a romance novel when I decided I wanted to write one fifteen years ago. I was a literary snob back then, and even poked fun at the genre. When I started reading romance, the first thing I discovered was that I’d been a complete idiot! I had missed out on some truly great stories, and began to rectify that situation. As I read, I set out to learn two things: what captured my imagination as a reader and what I admired in the storytelling craft of other authors. These days I don’t read much in my own subgenre of contemporary single title, and if I’m reading romance it’s romantic suspense, historical, or paranormal romance. Otherwise, I mostly read historical nonfiction, suspense, mystery, essay, and literary fiction. When I’m in the middle of writing a book, however, I try not to read any fiction at all. I don’t want someone else’s voice to spill over into my own writing.

What do you hope people will take away from this film, and how do you think it’ll change peoples’ perception of romance novels?

SD: I guess the goal of any documentary film is to give people an inside look at a world they didn’t know existed. With that in mind, I hope people take away a new understanding of how the female-dominated industry of romance authors, editors, and publishers impacts our culture and economy. If a filmgoer happens to be like I was fifteen years ago and dismisses the entire genre, maybe they’ll realize what they’ve been missing.

CB: I don’t know it if it is worth trying to convince all the non-readers to give romance a try. If someone really wants to be a snob, they are going to be a snob. I think that says more about them than it does about we readers and writers.
If someone new is open or curious enough to give modern romance novels a try, I think they will be stunned at how clever, funny, sexy and empowering a good romance novel can be!

What I hope romance lovers take away from Love Between the Covers is that it really is about the “love.” We love to write stories of love. We love that you love them. We write them for you, because we are you.

Susan and Celeste in the film

All photos courtesy of Love Between the Covers.

Laura is covering the 2015 Hot Docs Film Festival live from Toronto. Check out more Hot Docs reviews here

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One response to “HOT DOCS ’15: Two authors from ‘Love Between the Covers’ discuss romance, sexism in fiction

  1. Pingback: HOT DOCS ’15: ‘Love Between the Covers’ director wants women’s stories on the page and screen | Cinefilles·

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