This past week, the Center for the Book at the Library of Congress (LOC) hosted a one-day symposium on popular romance fiction. Kiersten Hallie Krum has accumulated all of the #poprom tweets on Storify.
Whether or not you’re familiar with the genre, I bet the thought of it brings to mind a host of book covers—men sans shirts, well-defined chests on display; women mid-swoon, shoulders bare, necklines plunging. These covers can prompt the unfamiliar to make assumptions about the genre. Romance novels, traditionally, aren’t taken seriously. You won’t find a Courtney Milan or Eloisa James book reviewed by The New York Times. Yet romance sales are among the top in the industry, and I, for one, love them.
I wasn’t sure what to expect from the conference. To my delight, it was filled with smart discussion, smart women (and the occasional man), humor, and camaraderie. Panel discussions ran the gamut from what belongs in the romance canon (if there even is one) to the scientific analysis of love, the changing popular perception of love throughout history, and the future of romance publishing in the digital age. I had a chance to meet Eloisa James/Mary Bly after the sneak preview of the fantastic documentary “Love Between the Covers,” and she is kind and gracious. I also spoke with Beverly Jenkins and she is a fabulous lady.
One of my favorite moments at the conference came during the first panel, What Belongs in the Romance Canon? Ms. Jenkins was talking about African American romance novels and how they only began to gain traction in the industry over the last few decades. To paraphrase, “If you read romances with vampires and werewolves, why not African Americans?” That question made me realize that I hadn’t read any. I’m not often in a bookstore anymore, and their stock overall has declined. There are fewer books available in all sections of my local bookstore. In fact, I think they’re fast coming to carry more stock in toys than books (though I love them still). I don’t think I’ve intentionally avoided this sub-genre of the market, but Ms. Jenkins pointed out an oversight in my own reading that I’m now determined to rectify, and I look forward to it.
I came away from the conference impressed by the attendees and panel members, and admiring the Library of Congress for hosting the event. One Washington Post journalist may have noted that “a remarkable number of passionate readers… also [possess] doctorates,” but those of us who read the genre are not at all surprised to find that these books with their happily ever afters and their messages of hope appeal to women—and men—of all backgrounds.
My very first romance novel was Jude Deveraux’s The Princess. It captured my attention in a way that no book had up to that time (I was thirteen) and started my long-term relationship with HEAs. What was the first romance novel you read?