A convention for romance book enthusiasts in Canberra sought to break through the common misconceptions surrounding a genre that's essentially "women writing women, for women", writes Danielle Binks. Photo: Stocksy
Picture a typical romance-reader, somebody who enjoys Harlequin or Mills & Boon titles. Have you got an image of them in your head? Chances are it's of the bored housewife or lonely cat lady persuasion. Of course it is, because romance readers are routinely characterised and patronised as such. If the genre is ever discussed by mainstream arts media, it will be in condescending articles that throw around the words "mummy porn", or give back-handed compliments over the extravagant "purple prose" in such books, or feed into the cliché of lightweight trash about lonely sheikhs and pirate tycoons.
That's why it was so wonderful to attend the biennial Australian Romance Readers Convention (ARRC), which was held in Canberra recently. The convention happened to fall on the same weekend as International Women's Day, which was fitting since the celebration of women was an overarching theme of the weekend and indeed the genre itself.
Sarah Wendell and Candy Tan are the authors of Beyond Heaving Bosoms: The Smart Bitches' Guide to Romance Novels, and founders of Smart Bitches, Trashy Books, one of the most popular blogs examining romance fiction. In Beyond Heaving Bosoms, Wendell and Tan explored the romance reader misconception and found that, "Even though repeated surveys conducted by independent research reveal that an astonishingly diverse and often affluent population reads romance novels, in popular depictions, we're all the same." Indeed, this was my first time attending ARRC, and I was struck by the diversity of women present: ranging across age, race, and socio-economics. It was wonderful to hear romance authors discussing their craft and the genre critically – since they are so rarely given the opportunity to do so by arts media or literary festivals.
A vintage Mills & Boon romance from the '90s. Photo: Pinterest
Australian romance author Helene Young was one of four keynote speakers at ARRC 2015 – along with Canadian author Kelley Armstrong, and American authors Sylvia Day and Victoria Dahl. Young's opening address talked about the romance genre's greatest unsung strength – that it is women writing women, for women. Fresh off her appearance in Judith Lucy is All Woman, Young spoke about how her early childhood as a tomboy - and admiration of female protagonists like Anne Shirley, Trixie Belden, Elizabeth Bennet and Joanna Lumley's Purdey from British television series The New Avengers - helped to meld her future in writing romantic suspense. Then in 1979, a teenage Young watched Deborah Wardley take on Ansett for the right to fly and was herself inspired to a career in aviation – one that has now spanned 26 years, and often provides inspiration for her award-winning novels.
Listening to Young and all the authors speak, I couldn't help but wonder why romance authors and readers aren't given more opportunities to engage critically with their genre, through other festivals and media opportunities. ARRC is an entirely volunteer-run convention, organised by the Australian Romance Readers Association – and many of the women I spoke to (both readers and writers) expressed their appreciation for the convention, because it's one of the few opportunities they have to hear their favourite authors speak and to interact with fellow readers. And this, despite staggering figures – romance book sales in the US reached $1.08 billion in 2013 – which show what a powerful literary force the romance genre is.
Perhaps because romance is "women writing women, for women", it is a maligned genre that finds both readers and writers having to combat literary sexism. Certainly at ARRC there was talk about the sexist obituary written by The Australian newspaper for Colleen McCullough, beloved author of seminal Australian historical romance book The Thorn Birds (which remains Australia's highest-selling book).
Bestselling American romance author, Victoria Dahl. Photo: Twitter
Authors discussed the ways they come up against sexist assumptions when people find out what they write for a living. Erotica authors Viveka Portman and Delwyn Jenkins spoke about the frustration they feel whenever a new (usually male) acquaintance discovers their occupation, which often leads to predictably lascivious questions of "Where do you get your research done?" (wink-wink, nudge-nudge). "I say I also kill off characters in my books, and would they like to know the kind of research I do for that?" is Jenkins' sure-fire rebuttal.
There was also talk about the recent boycotting of the film adaptation of Fifty Shades Of Grey, which has been seen as promoting domestic violence. "Most people who don't read romance still see our books as 'bodice rippers'," says Kat, from the popular Book Thingo blog and editor of Booktopia Romance Buzz (Booktopia was an official sponsor of ARRC). "I think a lot of anti-feminist criticism springs from looking at older books, or a limited reading of a very diverse genre. I also think that in many cases, the anti-feminism argument puts too much emphasis on the hero. For me, a lot of the subversive elements in heterosexual romance are in how the heroine reacts to the hero, and how the hero changes because of the heroine. I also think that these arguments often forget that a humble Mills & Boon can be considered hugely transgressive in certain contexts. Think of readers in cultures where women's sexuality is repressed, or where women have no freedom to explore romantic love."
Indeed, there was a discussion in the Young Adult Romance panel that I chaired about how reading romance can be seen as quite radical for young women – a move away from pornography and hypersexual advertising, and instead an emphasis on romantic-love that's grounded in mutual attraction and satisfaction. "I think there's something exciting about discovering that you enjoy romance books, whether you're a teenager or an adult, and then discovering how many other readers enjoy similar books," says Kat. "We need to stop shaming women, young and old, for wanting some joy and sexy times with their fiction."
Bestselling American romance author Victoria Dahl - who gave a final day keynote address - introduced herself as a complicated, unsympathetic, perhaps even unlikeable protagonist in real life; a woman who likes alcohol, doesn't do housecleaning, thinks about sex a lot, can't apply eye-makeup and dislikes babies. She spoke about the similarly complicated and unsympathetic female heroines she enjoys writing about in her books – for example, Jane Morgan from her Tumble Creek series, a character that rebelled as a teenager and was sexually active from a very young age, and as an adult is still punishing herself for the mistakes she made in her youth.
Dahl spoke about the way many readers vehemently disliked Jane and thought she didn't "deserve" her hero or happy-ending. And yet, Dahl pointed out, if she were to write a tortured hero with a similarly sordid past, readers would fall for him and cheer the heroine on in her bid to win his complicated heart. "Why do our heroines have to be the ones to do the emotional saving?" she asked. She concluded her deeply moving speech by encouraging readers to be kinder to those unsympathetic heroines they're reading about and for romance writers to say "Screw it all!" and write about all the women, even (especially) the complicated ones.
Dahl's keynote was the perfect way to end the convention (and International Women's Day, too) – an important discussion centred on the internalised misogyny among the romance reading community. It may seem odd that a talk that offered harsh truths and criticisms of romance readers was so universally praised by those in attendance, but contrary to popular belief, romance authors and readers revel in any opportunity to think critically and laterally about the genre they love. They are not the cat-lady cliché, and they don't consider the erotica they read to be 'mummy porn'. Indeed, amidst the fun of Smutty Buzzword Bingo games and discussions about prehensile penises in shapeshifter romances, I encountered thought-provoking literary discussions and truly talented women, who write women, for women.