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Forget Fabio: A modern view of romance novels

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A selection of romance novels
Romance novels always feature a couple, filmmaker Laurie Kahn said, but that could "be a vampire and a person, two men, two women, whatever."
Courtesy of Love Between the Covers

"Everyone loves a love story," the saying goes — but not everyone loves a romance novel.

The romance genre is one of the most derided forms of fiction, even though it's a powerhouse in the publishing industry.

According to Romance Writers of America, romance novels make up 13 percent of all adult fiction sales. Those sales generated more than a billion dollars in 2013.

Despite the books' successes, they get very little respect. A new film is trying to change that.

Documentary filmmaker Laurie Kahn met romance fans who would be reading "on a train or on a beach, and a complete stranger will walk up to them and say: 'Why do you read that trash?'"

They would never do that to someone reading other genre fiction, like sci-fi or thrillers, Kahn said.

Romance writer Beverly Jenkins with a fan
Romance writer Beverly Jenkins meets a fan. The moment was captured in the documentary "Love Between the Covers."
Courtesy of Love Between the Covers

Her new film, "Love Between the Covers," explores the global community of romance writers and readers, and pokes holes in people's assumptions about the genre.

People have "stereotypes of romance readers and writers as white women in bed, sobbing into their pillowcases and voraciously reading a book, and not living lives," Kahn said. "Nothing could be further from the truth."

Kahn's film will be shown Thursday evening at the Heights Theater in Columbia Heights, Minn. The screening was organized by Midwest Fiction Writers, a local chapter of the Romance Writers of America.

Kim Owen, who writes under the name Dylann Crush, is a member of the Midwest Fiction Writers. She's excited for people to see the film and actually learn about the genre. "I think it gets a bad rap," she said. "A lot of people don't think of it as real fiction.

Romance writer Kim Owen
Kim Owen, who writes under the name Dylann Crush, joined the Midwest Fiction Writers group in 2014. The group is a chapter of the Romance Writers of America.
Courtesy of Kim Owen

"Today's romances differ a lot from what I used to grab from my mom's bookshelf. It's not just half-naked, heaving bosoms on the cover and Fabio. ... The heroines people are writing — they're strong, they're independent, they're not wishy-washy, just in search of a man."

And writing them isn't easy, Owen said: "They think you have to sit down and follow a formula, and then rake it in. It's not that way at all." Romance writers have to write two and four books a year to make a steady living, filmmaker Kahn said.

"Love Between the Covers" profiles five successful romance writers and an aspiring author hoping to break into the industry. Kahn followed them for three years over the course of filming, capturing the reality of life as a romance writer.

Romance writer Eloisa James
Eloisa James is a Shakespeare professor by day and bestselling romance author by night. She is one of several authors profiled in the documentary "Love Between the Covers."
Courtesy of Love Between the Covers

There's Eloisa James — a Shakespeare professor (named Mary Bly) by day, romance novelist by night. And Lenora Barot, a full-time surgeon who also manages to write three lesbian romance books per year under the name Radclyffe. 

There's also Beverly Jenkins, a pioneering author in the world of African-American romance novels, and Susan Donovan and Celeste Bradley, best friends who formed a bestselling writing team. 

Finally, there's Joanne Lockyer, the Australian hopeful trying to publish her first novel.

Kahn hadn't read a romance novel since middle school when she started making her film. She jumped straight into "the deep end," she said, visiting an RWA national conference with more than 2,000 attendees. Everyone gave her reading recommendations.

The sheer variety of sub-genres in romance was stunning:  There's "everything from evangelical romance novels to suspense romance novels. Time travel, African-American, erotic, all the way to bondage, discipline, sadomasochist romance," Kahn said. "That's a pretty big reach, from evangelical to BDSM."

A DIY romance novel shoot
Joanne Lockyer, an aspiring author featured in the documentary "Love Between the Covers," stages a DIY romance novel cover shoot.
Courtesy of Love Between the Covers

And there's more: paranormal romances, Amish romances and an entire series just about Navy SEALs.

Then there are the "spice levels." Owen herself writes "steamy contemporary," but said the scale goes all the way from "sweet to super hot — four blazes or five blazes."

With such a wild range of topics, there are two key things a romance novel must have to be part of the genre, according to RWA: a central love story and an emotionally satisfying and optimistic ending. It doesn't have to be "happily ever after," Kahn said. Just "happy for now."

Len Barot, a romance novelist
Len Barot is a surgeon, farmer and romance writer who uses the pen names Radclyffe and L.L. Raand. She is one of several romance authors profiled in the documentary "Love Between the Covers."
Courtesy of Love Between the Covers

Kahn's film explores not just the genre's variety, but also the community that romance fans have forged.

"They meet up because they love the same books, and then they turn those online relationships into real friendships," Kahn said. "That's a really interesting model for how one can live in an internet age. I don't think very many other groups do that in the same way."

Owen echoed the sense of community in what she's experienced with the Midwest Fiction Writers group. It started in 1981 with a group of 17 people, and is still going strong now, with more than 75. Owen joined just over a year ago. The group meets once a month to talk craft, and to hear from guest speakers for research purposes. They've hosted a circus performer, a medieval weapons expert — even a beekeeper.

"You never know what you might need to know for your book," Owen said.

A wider release for Kahn's documentary will happen this summer. For now, local groups like the Midwest Fiction Writers are hosting screenings across the country. Kahn said that so far, she's seen audiences leave the theater questioning their perceptions of the genre.

"People realize how really deep our gendered assumptions and prejudices are," Kahn said. "Even women who think that they're really feminists are surprised at themselves: 'Yes, I've never had the same attitude toward mysteries that I have toward romances, and what's that about? Why is that?'"  

If you go: "Love Between the Covers"

What: Screening of the documentary "Love Between the Covers." A panel of local romance writers will follow the screening.

When: Thursday, April 21, from 6:30 to 9:30 p.m.  

Where: The Heights Theater, 3951 Central Ave. NE, Columbia Heights

  More details: Tickets are $10. Full details are available on the Midwest Fiction Writers website