I used to roll my eyes at the stack of paperback romance novels on my mother’s nightstand, the ones with the funny covers of half-naked men with odd, fragmented titles. I remember trying to read one when I was 8 or 9. After only a couple of pages I got bored and stopped. I confess that as I got older and my tastes shifted from comic strips to science fiction to “serious literature,” I developed a knee-jerk snobbery towards romance novels. But after watching Laurie Kahn’s Love Between the Covers, I feel I might have to re-evaluate my prejudices. And can a documentary ask anything more of its viewers?
Love Between the Covers is an unexpectedly compelling exploration of the romance novel industry, examining the authors themselves, the historical development of the genre (as well as its constant struggle for legitimacy within and without the literary intelligentsia), and why it has developed into a multi-billion dollar industry. The answer for this last question is, as romance blogger Sarah Wendell explains: “This is the one place where you will consistently find women’s sexuality treated fairly and positively.” The industry is run almost exclusively by women for women. One of its greatest strengths is its willingness to diversify. Many of the authors interviewed came to prominence pioneering previously untapped niches. Dr. Len Barot helped invent the modern lesbian romance novel using the nom de plume Radclyffe. Incredibly, she wrote her first novels in between shifts as a plastic surgeon. Beverly Jenkins was one of the first African-American romance novelists to gain prominence, her fiction being one of the first times many black women found themselves presented as beautiful or sexually desirable in any form of media.
The film also dives into the sausage-making of the industry: how writers plot their novels (hint: it frequently involves walls covered with notecards), how they break into the industry (frequently via fan conventions where they get one-on-one counseling and mentoring from published professionals), and how they make the infamous novel covers (lots of photoshop and awkwardly posed models). Perhaps the most remarkable part of the industry is its willingness to foster and accommodate fledgling talent. One interviewee remarked that, along with professional chefs, romance novelists exist in one of the last true meritocracies. Anybody can become one and potentially make a successful career out of it.
Watching Love Between the Covers, I felt the last bits of my contempt towards the genre wither. Yes, romance novels have guaranteed happy endings. But that’s the point. The readers know it’s a fantasy and that whirlwind romances rarely happen in real life. But for many, just having the dream is enough to help them cope with an unfair reality. It gives them the power and desirability so many women feel cheated of in our patriarchal society. Besides, another interviewee mentioned, it really is hypocritical to disregard romance novels since they all end the same way. The same could be said for Ernest Hemingway, couldn’t it?