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I Got a Lesson in Gender Equality at a Romance Writers' Conference

I'd promised my editor a funny piece about the people who write and read romantic fiction, but what I found wasn't a joke.

af Maddison Connaughton
10 september 2015, 12:00am

All photos by the author

"The one with penis biting," the woman to my left says, explaining the plot of the romance novel, Shadowheart. "Or is it penis scratching?"

"Penis biting," another woman to my right confirms.

I'm sitting with blogger Kat Mayo at the 24th annual Romance Writers of Australia (RWA) conference.

Kat runs a popular romance novel blog called BookThingo. She explains that while the genre is broad—spanning from biker romance to billionaires with babies—every romance novel needs to tick two boxes: "They have to get together in the end," she says. "And I have to believe they are not going to split up in two months."

More than 300 writers, publishers, and fans of romance mill around the lobby of Melbourne's luxe Park Hyatt hotel. It's almost all women, 95 percent I'm told. The only men I can spot are the photographer and the guy behind the lighting booth.

Everyone is a little worse for wear, mingling over much-needed coffee after last night's gala ball. No fewer than ten people tell me I missed out big time on the gorgeous half-naked buff butlers who were serving drinks.

"The toilets on this level are all women's; we've converted all the toilets to women's," the emcee announces from the stage. "If you're a male you'll need to go upstairs. It's your turn to be inconvenienced."

Glancing around the room filled with writers, editors, and publishers, I realize the idea I'd had of the romance genre was just completely wrong. I'd promised my editor a funny piece about the people who write and read romantic fiction—David Foster Wallace's Big Red Son without the porn and footnotes—but what I found wasn't a joke, nor was it a niche hobby for middle-aged moms. It was a huge business.

Thirty-one million print copies of romance novels were sold in the US in 2014. Demand for new books is so high that publishers at the RWA conference spend much of the weekend sitting with writers in the plush lobby, listening to their story pitches, and often picking up the books on the spot.

Over lunch Deb Werksman, an editorial director at New York publisher Sourcebooks, tells me about Nora Roberts. One of the top-selling novelists ever with over 200 published books, Roberts is worth hundreds of millions of dollars. Every novel she's released since 1999, under both her name and her crime novel pen name JD Robb, has hit the New York Times bestseller list. I've never even heard of her.

There are Australian authors, too, with staggering numbers of titles under their belts: Melanie Milburne, Anne Gracie, Stephanie Laurens, Marion Lennox—even though most Australians, myself included, have never heard of them.

"Why don't Australians know about these authors?" keynote speaker Anita Heiss asks. "Because the books we write aren't seen to have value, literary or otherwise."

This is a sore point for many romance writers, that their work is so often mocked by the mainstream. Romance is dismissed as being badly written and overly descriptive. Formulaic plots just connecting the dots between metaphor-laden sex scenes: "He withdrew his glistening sword from the warmth of her sheath."

Kat says these criticisms are usually leveled by people who've never read romance beyond 50 Shades of Grey. You want originality? She suggests Nicholas by Elizabeth Amber, where the hero has two penises.

"After he comes, this tongue thing comes out and cleans up after itself," Kat explains. "How can you get anymore female fantasy than that?"

Writer and biographer Jennifer Kloester tells me that in literature, "Value is correlated with having male readers."

We've developed ways to talk intelligently about so many parts of pop culture. Why when we can distinguish between "smart" blockbusters and Fantastic Four, does romance all get lumped in together and dismissed as trash?

No one at RWA seems surprised that books written by female authors for female readers are trivialized. Even in a time when feminism is being discussed by more people, in a more nuanced way than ever before, writer and biographer Jennifer Kloester tells me that in literature, "Value is correlated with having male readers."

"We need to make room in our literary culture for something that really values the feminine," conference director Cate Bell says. "We need to be telling women's stories through women's eyes. That's the only way to change a lot of our stereotypical views of what women are and what they can and can't do."

As I head home, backpack full of books "I just have to read," there's one thing I'm still wondering about. Why do romance writers even care what mainstream literature thinks of them?

They make more money and have more passionate fans than most fiction authors. And while mainstream publishers are struggling with dwindling readership and revenue, romance is generating well over a billion dollars a year. The mainstream, it seems, should instead be taking a page out of their book.

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