Lexey A. Bartlett
Hays, Kansas, United States
Fort Hays State University
Dear reader, I have a confession to make: I am not a reader of romance fiction. But do not count me among those who denigrate it, for I have another confession to make: I, too, am a reader of genre fiction (mysteries being my particular pleasure). And as a reader of genre fiction, I am familiar with many, but not all, of the aspersions cast upon romance, and Laurie Kahn’s Love Between the Covers has admirably explored the range of perceptions that romance writers and readers struggle with, as well as showing the value of the genre and the remarkable community that creates and consumes it.
One of the most important ideas that emerges from the film is the one that unites us as readers: We all need a story. We may like different kinds of stories, but the need is real. And one of the aspects I liked most about the authors and readers (often the same people) interviewed in the film is that when the story they needed was not available, they wrote it themselves.
The film includes several interviews with scholars who explain the historical context of the genesis of popular romantic fiction from Jane Austen through nineteenth-century popular domestic fiction and the economic motivation for bashing writing by women. Nathaniel Hawthorne is quoted as referring to these popular writers as “the d—-d mob of scribbling women,” and as a scholar of nineteenth century British and comparative literature myself, I can attest that that comment is pretty PG compared to some of the ways writers like Charles Dickens and Gustave Flaubert talked about women’s writing. Of course, as my mother told me when I was a child, people make nasty comments when they are jealous, and the women who were targets of these nineteenth-century misogynists were often more commercially successful writers than their male counterparts. And let’s not forget simple misogyny: Riptide editor Sarah Frantz Lyn notes, “Romance is sneered at because it’s written by women, it’s written for women, and it’s written about women.” But women continue to buy romance, despite the sneering.
The commercial viability of the romance market serves as one of the first points in the film and is returned to a couple of times in the film. Apparently, the market for romance fiction provides enough income that publishers use it to subsidize less lucrative niche markets, a point underscored by the enthusiasm and voracity of the readers interviewed in the film.
While economics are important in the publishing industry, as a feminist and a scholar who teaches literary theory (and a human being), I was more moved by the ways the readers and writers in the film spoke about their motivations for reading and writing. The film’s greatest strength is the individual testimony of romance readers who became writers or otherwise connected to the industry. I teach in a fairly conservative environment with limited diversity, and although my students are wonderfully accepting of peers who identify as LGBTQIA+, or who have disabilities both visible and invisible, or who are people of color, I wonder whether they have ever really felt the struggle of being someone who doesn’t see themselves represented well in a text, or even represented at all. This representation is one of the film’s greatest strengths.
Two of the most powerful voices in the film in this respect are those of Beverly Johnson and Len Barot. Beverly Johnson speaks about her experience as a romance reader who didn’t see herself represented in the genre she liked to read, so she began writing romances with African American characters. In more than one scene in the film, her fans express their jubilation at seeing characters like themselves in her novels, especially from a reader who notes that a character in a story finally thought a dark-skinned heroine was beautiful. She also has explored the genre of historical romance, including the history of slavery, in which it can be difficult to balance realism with the sacrifices we often associate with high romance, a topic that Johnson addresses in the film. Johnson has undertaken tours of historical sites with her fans, and some of the more poignant moments in the film are clips of Johnson and her fans coming to terms with being the descendants of slaves while visiting sites like a former slave market.
Another thread running throughout the documentary, the story of lesbian writer Len Barot, whose pen names are Radclyffe and L. L. Raand, addresses the difficulty of finding stories representative of her sexuality as a younger reader. She talks about discovering her own sexuality in college but also of discovering Giovanni’s Bookstore in 1973, which stocked love stories featuring characters like her. However, early lesbian romances often featured negative outcomes for characters, a factor that has inspired many writers to write more positive stories that reflect themselves. The interesting trajectory of Barot’s story begins with her writing as a side job while working as a surgeon and ends with her current work managing a publishing house that specializes in LGBT writing, showing a career that spans the full spectrum from fan to writer to publisher.
Another writer featured in the film is Mary Bly, daughter of poet Robert Bly, a Shakespeare scholar and romance writer under the pen name of Eloise James. While Bly’s own story is interesting, since she defied her family’s preference for poetry over narrative literature and began moonlighting as a romance writer to supplement her academic salary in her early career as an assistant professor, the story that emerges of her business partnership with reader Kim Castillo offers a greater insight into the relationships between writers and readers in the romance genre. Their relationship began when Castillo wrote to Bly thanking her for creating a character with a plump figure, and Bly wrote back to Castillo to see if she were representing that character’s feelings accurately, as well as the kind of comments she might have heard about herself. Castillo wrote back that she was being too kind, since she’d heard much worse herself, and a relationship was born. When Bly realized Castillo’s own talent for writing and her business sense, the two created a partnership in which Castillo helps to handle fan correspondence, newsletters, and shipping autographed books, and through Bly’s recommendations to other authors, Castillo now runs a business helping authors with social media and other aspects of fan correspondence.
This story highlights the message of female empowerment that runs through the film in a number of ways, from romance’s economic empowerment of women to sexual empowerment and identity politics. These examples highlight just a few of the writers and scholars interviewed in the film, including celebrities like Nora Roberts and writing teams like Celeste Bradley and Susan Donovan, as well as writers just getting started.
This documentary has much to recommend it for a variety of pedagogical purposes, whether the course in question is about theory, creative writing, genre or traditional literature, or popular culture. As noted, the film addresses issues of diversity in literature and publishing in a variety of ways, such as the quite poignant connection between Beverly Johnson and her readers on their historical tour of sites related to the history of slavery, as well as diversity in terms of sexual preference, body size, and even different levels of conservatism regarding sex. The presentation of these ideas is very even-handed, but it is moving to see the way women talk about how they recognize themselves in literature for the first time. These topics would be relevant in a course introducing literary theory, but the film has much to offer on the mechanics of writing and the publishing industry, too—writers talk about their processes and what it’s like to work with publishing houses, which also shows publishers’ processes and what they are looking for from writers. Popular culture scholars and faculty could use this film as an excellent example of the interface between fans and authors and the overlap between those two groups in the field of romance. The film would also be relevant in addressing fan fiction and the ways that social media and online communities represent a reciprocal relationship between writers and fans—one key example is the focus on the business developed out of the fan-author relationship between Castillo and Bly. Even for more traditional literature classes, many scholar interviews make connections between modern works and the canon in clear and thoughtful ways, so this film could have wide application in a variety of courses (the film’s website, http://www.lovebetweenthecovers.com, includes more in-depth information created by Eric Selinger, president and co-founder of the International Association for the Study of Popular Romance (IASPR), about these connections with traditional literature).
One insider term mentioned early in the film is the acronym HEA, which stands for “happily ever after,” the stereotype of the ending of most romances and the reason so many look down upon the romance genre. However, if you are a reader, you read because you need stories, and stories fulfill some kind of specific function for each of us. As a reader of detective fiction, my desire is fulfilled when justice is done, and in a fictional world, I can relax into a story and see the writer make that happen, when in the real world, I know justice may never be done. Thus, I can sympathize with my fellow genre literature readers’ desires to get the happy ending they want. As one reader/writer notes in the film, it takes energy to imagine a happy ending, and these stories give their readers hope that they, too, could have a happy ending. It seems churlish to deny anyone that hope, and the ultimate message we take away from this film is a hopeful one in which everyone’s desires are reflected and fulfilled and readers and writers have created a supportive—and commercially viable— community.
Lexey A. Bartlett is an Associate Professor of English at Fort Hays State University. Her primary research and teaching interests lie in British literature from Romanticism to the present and critical theories, but she also teaches courses in writing, mythology, and world literature. She currently serves as Area Chair of the SWPACA’s Mystery/Detective Fiction and Disability Studies areas.
Bartlett, L. (2016). Review of Love Between the Covers by Laurie Kahn (Blueberry Hill Productions, 2015). Dialogue: The Interdisciplinary Journal of Popular Culture and Pedagogy. http://journaldialogue.org/issues/review-of-love-between-the-covers-by-laurie-kahn-blueberry-hill-productions-2015/
Bartlett, Lexey. “Review of Love Between the Covers by Laurie Kahn (Blueberry Hill Productions, 2015).” Dialogue: The Interdisciplinary Journal of Popular Culture and Pedagogy, vol. 3, no. 2, 2016, journaldialogue.org/issues/review-of-love-between-the-covers-by-laurie-kahn-blueberry-hill-productions-2015/.