By day, Mary Bly is a tenured professor of Shakespearean literature. But millions of readers may know her better by her nom de plume—Eloisa James, bestselling author of more than 25 romance novels.
Bly is one of the subjects of the new documentary Love Between the Covers (view trailer here)—a positive, stirring and ultimately uplifting film that peels away viewer’s preconceived notions about the romance genre, providing a candid look at the writers who pen these love stories and the passionate readers who consume them.
In addition to Bly, director Laurie Kahn follows a diverse array of successful scribes in the genre, including former surgeon turned lesbian romance writer Len Barot, pioneer of African-American romance Beverly Jenkins, as well as inaugural Romance Writers of America Hall of Fame inductee Nora Roberts. The documentary shows that more than simply a classification of fiction, romance is a community.
In lieu of the movie’s release—now available on iTunes and on-demand—Kahn took some time to talk about the film with WD. (Make sure you scroll to the bottom of the interview to see an exclusive clip!)
The film revealed far more complexity and nuance to the romance genre, its writers and readers than most people realize. How did you know this subject was ripe for documentary?
I’ve made quite a few films about women’s communities. I’m committed to telling stories that other people aren’t telling. Women’s stories don’t get told very often. They’re underrepresented. Any time I hear about a huge community of women who are successful, and that no one takes them seriously, that’s a green light for me. I went to a Romance Writers of America conference in 2009 knowing next to nothing, plunged into the deep end, and realized it wasn’t at all what I expected. Which means it wasn’t what the public expects either.
You follow such an interesting range of romance novelists. How did you determine which writers to feature?
It was really hard. There are so many interesting characters and authors in the romance community. I pre-interviewed many of them. I actually interviewed about 50 on camera. I wanted to show the range of people who are writing. I also wanted to show the range of books—the types of books, the subgenres in romance—those were my two sort of guiding principles. I also had to really like them. I wanted people my audience would also like a lot. That was tough. There were many more people than the ones I ultimately chose on my short list. That was painful. I showed clips of my interviews to friends and colleagues and asked, “Who grabs you?” That helped me make a decision.
Why do you think such tightly knit communities are built around romance novels?
Women are really good community builders. And this is a female community, by and large. I also think they feel beleaguered because people look down their noses at romance novels. It’s something they love and they then find each other—not because they feel beleaguered, but because they love the same books. Whether that’s paranormal or historical regency romances or African-American romance, chances are they’re going to like the author and the other readers devoted to that author. These really strong bonds get created. These online relationships become real and lasting. That doesn’t happen as much in other genres. I mean, people get dressed up and they have fun, but you don’t make lifelong friends necessarily—the ones that will help out when your kid is sick or your mother is dying. They take trips together. These women see each other outside of a romance setting.
As you say, the greater writing community has traditionally looked down their nose at romance writing. Why do you think romance has been seen as lesser in that way?
It’s interesting. People often say to me, “Oh, those books are trashy. So formulaic.” But, you know, all genre fiction is “formulaic” in the sense that there is a guaranteed happy ending. Things will resolve. That’s what genre fiction is—about these deep archetypes. In a mystery, there is a dead body at the beginning. By the end it’ll be solved, guaranteed. In all sorts of genre fiction that’s how it works. When I say that to people—[people that] love mystery let’s say—they kind of catch themselves and say, “Wow, you’re right. These other kinds of books are also formulaic in that there is a satisfying, positive ending where justice is served.” Or the main characters get there because they become more tenacious, loyal or courageous. They’re exciting, meant to be page turners.
So then why the condescension about romance? Partly because people snicker at the covers. Partly because the books used to be much more “purple prose” than they are now, and most people haven’t read one in the last 30 years and they make pronouncements. And as you know from the film, there are a huge range of romance [subgenres] now—African-American, Christian, BDSM, suspense. There’s this huge range. Some of the writing is really good. It’s not going to be the kind of writing of someone who spent 10 years working on a book, because [romance novelists] have got to produce at least two or three novels a year. I couldn’t do what they do. I think it’s amazing what they’re able to do.
Ultimately, the deepest answer is anything by women, for women, about women is devalued in our culture. And I also think women’s desires are scary to most people. And women’s desires are celebrated in these books.
The documentary reveals a somewhat surprising feminist component to the romance genre. Can you explain how romance novels may actually empower women?
They frequently give romance novels to women in battered women’s shelters to say, “Look, here’s this character who went through all kinds of horrible things and ultimately made her way through it, and you can do it too. You deserve a partner who is not violent, and who is respectful. That’s not beyond what you can expect. Look what happened in this book. That could be you.”
Fundamentally, romance novels are about hope. They’re about possibilities. About imagining what could be. I think that the sort of passive, virginal heroine which everyone assumes romances are about—the stereotype, all these heroines waiting for someone to sweep them off their feet and take them off on a horse—most heroines in romance novels are really strong women these days. It’s changed with the times. There are women who are main characters who are surgeons and executives and actresses and race car drivers, or who own knitting shops. It’s a huge range. The passive female characters, there are some, but not many.
But you also can’t generalize. The percent [of romance readers] that have been in long term, happy relationships is actually bigger than the percentage [of the general population] at large. The idea that these are pathetic, overweight white women in the Midwest sobbing as they eat bonbons is not actually born out. There are a huge range of readers, just as there are a huge range of writers. One thing that they have in common is that they’re often optimistic. At a battered women’s shelter, they’re giving romance novels to people that aren’t already romance readers. But people who already are just want to know that things can resolve well. The same thing that someone reading a mystery wants to read: that someone can solve the crime, even though in life they frequently don’t. It’s all about how it’s done. How does this person come to be a better person? How does this couple come to bring out the best in each other? How does the detective solve the crime? That’s the key question. It’s all about how. That’s the excitement. It’s like a roller coaster ride—you know it’ll be bumpy, but I’m willing to go on for the ride because I know I’m going to land safely.
Len Barot, who writes under the pseudonym Radclyffe, writes three romance novels per year—and other writers depicted in the film are equally productive. How do romance writers manage to be so prolific?
They’re really disciplined. The ones that write that many books are really disciplined. When Nora Roberts is asked how she does it, she says to get your “ass in the chair.” You’ll write more books if you keep your ass in the chair. She goes and exercises in the morning, then writes for eight hours a day. Then she takes a break and lives life with her family.
A lot of the women who are really prolific have so many stories they want to tell. They’re real storytellers, and their fans are always saying, “When’s the next one coming out?” They’ll finish a book and be at a book signing and fans will ask, “When is the next one coming out?” These are voracious readers. [So the writers] are motivated by readers, by their own storytelling instincts and the fact that they have stories running around in their heads that they want to put down on paper. And, also, are just disciplined. There’s just a kind of going with the flow, and I think you can’t be a perfectionist. These authors won’t hand in [a novel] until they’re proud of it, but they also won’t be perfectionists.
Love Between the Covers — Exclusive Clip