Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Romance Writers and Feminism

Last fall, at the Popular Romance Author Symposium, I gave a talk titled "Feminism and the Romance Author," an exploration of the different ways romance authors, in essays and articles that justified the romance genre, defined and embraced feminism. In comparing essays in Jayne Ann Krentz's Dangerous Men and Adventurous Women: Romance Writers on the Appeal of the Romance essay collection (1992), to essays published on the Read-a-Romance-Month web site (2013), I noticed that far fewer of today's authors referred directly to feminism in their justifications than did their 1990s counterparts, even though many of their arguments about "Why Romance Matters" were clearly influenced by feminist theory and thought. I concluded that talk with my plans to undertake new primary research, to try and discover just what the f-word means to romance authors today. Do most romance authors consider themselves feminists? Have feminist principles that in 1992 might have seemed novel become so taken for granted today that for most women, proclaiming themselves feminists seems beside the point? Are romance authors reluctant to declare themselves feminists, out of the fear of alienating potential readers?

At next week's "Let Your Imagination Take Flight" conference, the annual conference of the New England Chapter of the Romance Writers of America (NECRWA), I'll be taking the first step to begin this research project. The NECRWA Board has agreed to allow me to distribute a research survey on romance authors and feminism to all conference attendees. I'll be awarding a $50 gift certificate to one lucky survey answerer, a certificate to a bookstore of the winner's choosing, so I'm hoping to get a good rate of participation. If you're planning to attend next week, look for the survey in your registration packet.

I'm in the process of working up the survey, and would love to get RNFF reader feedback on potential questions and wording. I'd also love to hear from members of RWA local chapters in other parts of the country, as I'm hoping to be able to conduct this same survey at two or three other conferences, to see if the region in which an author lives has any major influence on an author's views about feminism. Please let me know if you'd be interested in helping me coordinate with your local chapter to administrate such a survey at your next chapter conference.

Here are some of the questions about romance authorship and feminism I'm considering:

• How do you define feminism?

• Where/from whom did you learn this definition?

• Do you consider yourself a feminist? Why or why not?

• Do you think romance as a genre is, by its very nature, feminist? Why or why not?

• If a romance author openly declares her/himself to be a feminist, do you think that she/he is likely to alienate potential readers?

What other questions would you ask authors about romance and feminism?

But is it for romance authors?
Demographic information would also be helpful to have, too, I think:

• As a romance author, at what stage in your career are you?
   • Unpublished, searching for an agent or editor
   • Self-published
   • Published by an e-book publisher
   • Published by a print book publisher
   • Published by multiple types of publishers (including self-publishing)

• What is your age?

• In part of the country were you raised?
    • Northeast
    • South
    • Southwest
    • Midwest
    • West

• What is the highest level of education you have reached?
    • Some high school
    • Completed high school
    • Some undergraduate college
    • Completed undergraduate college degree
    • Some graduate school
    • Completed a graduate degree

• On average, how much do you earn from your romance writing each year?

• What is your average family income?

Are there other demographic questions that you think might be relevant?

Thanks, readers, for your input. I'll put up the final survey, as well as the responses to it, sometime after the NECRWA conference.

Illustration credits:
Keep Calm...: Keepcalm-o-matic
Feminism is for Lovers: Dangerous Books for Girls


  1. I wonder if there's some way to break down different elements of romance writing? It might quickly become unmanageable, I suppose, but for me, I'd have trouble answering the question about whether romance as a genre is feminist by its very nature. I know there's a helpful 'why or why not' at the end, there, but... still hard to answer the question, and to me, it might be the most important one of the survey.

    I'm trying to think of ways to break it down a little. Maybe.., is there some way to address the business side of the genre; the core of the genre (romantic relationship at heart of story plus HEA); the tropes of the genre; and maybe the author's own writing, all separately?

    I don't know. I'm trying to think of what questions would get interesting answers from ME, and I think one of them might be whether I'd ever felt that my feminist ideals were in conflict with what I was writing...?

    I'm interested in seeing the results, whatever the questions are!

    1. Thanks, Kate, for sharing your thoughts. I think for this first round, I'm going to leave this question open-ended, and see what people come up with as answers. Perhaps if I see certain patterns emerging, I can refine the question about whether romance as a genre is feminist along the lines you (or others) suggest in later surveys, or in in-person interviews.

    2. This is an awesome idea. I can't wait to see the results. You could ask about themes from your posts. "If you read historical fiction, do you think of modern gender roles or contemporary gender roles?". "With an an alpha male hero, what role most satisfies you for the heroine?" Do you prefer a hero who is a strong alpha or a caring beta?

      Your dissertation chair called. You're not asking about the gender of the respondent. ;)

    3. Thanks, Dan, for the reminder that not all romance writers are women! Will remedy this on the actual survey...

  2. Jackie, I'm so excited you're doing this! I had two thoughts when reading your survey questions, both in the demographics section. First, when you ask about stage of career, it appears as though the question assumes that there is a chronological and/or hierarchical order to publishing formats. For example, that people who self publish are striving toward a "better" goal of traditional publishing, and that e-pubbing is something you do as you are in your career climb. These choices are implying an ordering that I don't think authors necessarily experience in a chronological (or hierarchical) sense. I would break this into two questions: one about what format(s) authors publish in (you could even ask a follow up about which they did first, etc, or goals to move to another format) and career stage conceptualized more chronologically, maybe in years, maybe in full-time vs. part-time writing. Something along those lines. Second, I'd ask age and gender (just in case), and possibly sexual orientation (if they care to identify, or maybe provide a caveat at the beginning of the demographic questions about why these categories matter). Third, I'd probably also ask about how much time they do/can devote to their writing. Do they have a day job? Would they give it up if they could write full time? And possibly (so much for only two thoughts), I'd think about breaking up the income question into family income without writing and then writing income. Those are my thoughts. Please let me know how it goes!! Good luck!

    1. Was hoping you would chime in, Jen! You're so right about the hierarchy implications of the wording of the publishing formats question--thanks for catching that!

      Any suggestions about how to word the introduction to the survey? I'm in the midst of struggling with that now...

  3. Oh, and how many books they've published! The quantity is not in there technically, and I think you'd want to get at that info.

  4. I think it would be interesting to do comparison surveys as well. Readers, Bloggers, Editors, and Agents.

    1. Oh, yes, definitely. Lots of potential for future research, isn't there? Hopefully I'll be able to find the time to do follow-up surveys in the coming months/years...

  5. "Are romance authors reluctant to declare themselves feminists, out of the fear of alienating potential readers?"

    Sadly, and after interacting with different groups of readers and authors, I'd say yes to that. I'm not American, but (and especially around US elections) so many of the discussions (arguments!) authors and their readers get into on places like Facebook seem to be based around women's rights and different political views about them.

    In a lot of places, feminism is promoted as a dirty word. I've also seen some readers complain that there aren't any real men who are like romance heroes because feminism 'ruined them'.

    I am happy with authors who DO identify as feminists, even knowing they're going to have some readers unimpressed by it.

    1. Sonya:

      I'm guessing that some, if not most, authors will say yes to that question. Will it vary by part of the country one lives in? That's what I'm really looking forward to discovering. So many people talk about romance, and its writers and its readers, as if they are all the same, but I'm also guessing that important differences exist.

  6. Sorry, not helping with your questions (but I can't really help with an American survey!), but I just remembered a book I read recently. The author is very much a feminist, but she had her hero say at one point:

    "God, I can almost sympathise with feminists at the moment."

    I can't remember exactly what happened - the heroine was discriminated against somehow. However, I found it really sad that the author didn't feel she could write a book where a romance hero admitted to supporting gender equality, in case it upset some readers. :(

    The book was a Harlequin Superromance.

    1. Yes, Sarah Mayberry's HER KIND OF TROUBLE. The heroine is talking to the hero about her former long-term boyfriend, who wanted her to give up her career after they married and had kids. She broke up with him over it, an action with which the hero sympathizes:

      "You love what you do. What in their right mind would try to take that away from you?.... I suppose he gave you a vacuum cleaner for your birthday, too," Seth said, shaking his head. "Don't quote me on this, but sometimes I can fully sympathize with the feminist movement" (Kindle Loc 2229)

      Have to go and cross-post this on my earlier column about romances that refer to feminism...

  7. I'm a beginner author (finished first book, haven't started editing it yet) and I very strongly identify as feminist. A main plot point in my book is that the female main character, who is heterosexual, chooses to have a buzz cut. I'm hoping to make an enjoyable book (so I may need to tone the feminism down a bit as I edit) while still challenging a few of the not-so feminist tropes that are standard to the genre.

    1. Congratulations on finishing your first book, Nan! Why is your protagonist's choice to get a buzz cut a sign of her feminism? What not-so-feminist tropes do you hope to be challenging in your writing.