On the same July weekend pop culture’s ardent gaze was trained upon the geeks and superheroes strutting around San Diego Comic-Con, I found myself at an event I hadn’t even known existed a few months earlier, sitting in a hotel banquet room in San Antonio being gently schooled on the vagaries of love and sex and the magic of pineapple juice. Every year, the authors of anguished affairs and potboiler passions gather for the Romance Writers of America convention, now in its 34th year, to schmooze with top editors and agents, polish their craft in workshops, and generally come together in the name of love. This afternoon hundreds of writers were excitedly poking at their chicken breasts and congealed chocolate mousses while listening to New York Times No. 1 best-selling erotica/romance author Sylvia Day deliver the day’s crisply inspiring keynote address. ”There are millions of people who think that romance isn’t real writing,” Day said. ”But the only person who can make you real, make your books real, is you.”
Nothing makes you feel more like perhaps you’ve been doing it wrong all these years than sitting around a table with a bunch of romance writers. My table was a delightfully eclectic one: There was a 29-year-old erotica writer who dished about meeting her real-life boyfriend in a kink dungeon, a shy gay man who specializes in male-on-male paranormals, a serious woman who left her law enforcement career to write sexy crime procedurals, and a middle-aged woman whose niche is Scottish Highlanders. (”A man in a kilt,” she offered. ”What’s not to love?”) My lunchmates enthusiastically enlightened me on the endless variety of romance-novel subgenres, from shape-shifters to the Amish, and clued me in on the hot new trend: chiseled heroes who belong to mixed-martial-arts groups or motorcycle gangs. (What’s not to love?)
The history of the romance novel is mired in glib judgment and literary ill-repute. Somehow in our culture men who read comic books are hip, while women, similarly drawn to stories of heroes and fantasies, are written off as pathetic. ”Romance readers have always been the one category of reader that has experienced shame when they’ve gone to the bookstore,” says Angela James, editorial director for Harlequin’s digital-first imprint Carina Press. ”Not because they’re ashamed of what they’re buying but because of the person selling it to them. Whether by the look on their face or sarcastic, snarky comments. If you speak to any romance reader they will tell you that there have been times on the train or the subway where people see the book cover [and say,] ‘Oh, you read that?”’ Romance has long been the leading innovator in the book industry, and has become the second-largest book genre, just behind thrillers. Sales of romance novels, in all their permutations, exceed $1 billion annually in the U.S. There is a treasure trail of reasons for that, including e-books and Fifty Shades of Grey.