An open letter to the Sydney Writers’ Festival

An open letter to the Sydney Writers’ Festival

Dear Sydney Writers’ Festival,

For a few years now, I’ve been eagerly scouring your program, looking for the right panel to suit my romantic heart. I’ve attended quite a few events and I’ve got to be honest — they were underwhelming. But don’t worry, my reasons aren’t without cause.

Last year, I experienced a frustrated rage like no other when a few friends and I braved the rain and storm to bundle into a gigantic warehouse where we sat at what was meant to be a romance panel on popular romance fiction.

What we got was a group of very talented authors who didn’t write romance. And didn’t really have any interest in talking about it.

What they had to say was interesting in its own right, but come on, I was there to talk about the romance. I wanted to listen to authors who were passionate about the genre, champions for this much maligned cluster of books that in no way deserves the constant derision and scorn it receives. These authors were so reluctant to even be labelled as romance authors that each of them insisted that they only wrote books with romantic elements — their books were much more than mere romance.

Caja Romance
Photo: Mara de las Mercedes via Flickr

Now, as an avid reader of romance, to hear the genre oh so subtly dismissed was rage inducing. I sat, helpless, as minute after minute passed and we were pushed further and further away from the very idea of romance. I’m not sure what the other audience members were feeling, but my friends and I were fuming. It was like walking into a secondhand bookstore only to find out that they don’t sell romance novels (which happens quite often but it just means that I don’t go to those places because they have poor taste). When Kat asked a question about Mills and Boon, the panel members were kind enough to explain the difference between category and single title romance. To a romance reader.

So, as a romance reader, let me tell you what I know about the genre.

According to our good friend Wikipedia, over 20% of all fiction books in the UK are romance. In North America, romance generated sales of $1.438 billion and the books continue to top bestselling lists in New York Times, USA Today and Publisher’s Weekly. And directly from the Business of Consumer Book Publishing in 2013, it stated that romance fiction was the largest share of the US consumer market in 2012 at 16.7%. Our very own Marion Lennox — Mills and Boon author extraordinaire — has sold over 20 millions books worldwide. She’s not the only one either. Take a look at Stephanie Laurens’s sales.  I’ll give you a moment.

Then we have the phenomenon of rural romance. Started by Rachel Treasure and carried on by countless authors, almost all rural romances were selling upwards of ten thousand copies — according to the Sydney Morning Herald, most Australian novelists can expect to sell around five to seven thousand. And I’m sure you’ve heard of Nora Roberts. You know her? She’s worth around $30-$60 million a year and has published over 200 novels. She started out writing for Mills and Boon. And just so you know, more than one in five paperbacks sold in this country are published by Harlequin (oh, they own M&B, guys).

And please, don’t get me started on digital publishing.

To hell with it, I’ll tell you anyway.

When the Australian market saw a shift from print to digital publishing, the romance industry’s response was insane. We had publishers rapidly converting thousands of backlist titles to supply to their readers whilst working towards simultaneous releases on both print and ebooks. It was a massive task, but they understood what needed to be done to keep their readers satisfied.

Not only that, but digital sales have started to beat print and we’ve seen the creation of some amazing Australian digital-first imprints like Momentum, Escape and Destiny to cater to this need. These guys deal purely in ebooks and I’m telling you, there are some absolute GEMS amongst them. The subgenres have just exploded, with boundaries being pushed as publishers take risks they never have before.

For Amazon, romance accounts for the largest category of genre fiction sold and, according to Publishing Perspectives, ‘romance buyers are buying ebooks to a greater extent when compared with other major fiction subgenres and ebook sales of romance books have proportionally doubled in one year, from 22% in Q1 2011 to 44% in Q1 2012’.

So tonight, with your big program reveal, you’ve disappointed once more. You’ve managed to completely remove romance from the festival. Sure, you’ve included two panels that feature erotica authors, but they’re only there to talk about sex. Not love. Because love is gross and tacky, right?

If you don’t believe that this genre is taken seriously, then please take a look at some of the popular romance scholarship that is being written right here. It’s incredible and thought-provoking and relevant — which is exactly what you’re asking for in your letter from artistic director Jemma Birrell.

And please, listen to the publishers. SWF is an event for writers to connect with other writers and even publishers. Last year (and even before that), publishers were talking about how romance is a genre that they’re pushing and watching keenly.

Your refusal to acknowledge this genre as a force within both the publishing industry and readers’ hearts is blind and foolish. You’re falling behind in a world that has drastically changed its mind about romance fiction, and the fact that you choose to turn the other way makes your snobbery all the more ridiculous. There is no place for that in publishing. Listen to your readers and writers. Take a look at some of the amazing talent you have in your backyard — the dozens (even hundreds) of authors eager to speak to readers and future writers about their craft and the genre that they love so much. Step down from your insane pedestal and realise that romance is a genre of worth. Then maybe reconsider your position and come back to us next year with a properly thought out program that takes into consideration the thousands of women who consistently work to make romance the best genre it can be.

This letter isn’t for them, because they know all this stuff. This letter is for you to realise that with each passing year, you’re creating a culture of resentment and anger in a community that only wishes to support the work that you do. You reinforce this idea that romance isn’t worth talking about and interrogating. But you should know better. We’re not asking for a pure program of romance. A panel or two would do. If not, then there are so many romance authors who are more than capable and qualified to speak on fiction panels that aren’t romance-focused. Their prolificacy is ridic, in the best way possible, so they definitely know what they’re talking about when it comes to craft and writing. All I’m saying is that you have this amazing group of women just waiting to be mobilised for events exactly like this. For inspiration, look to your Melbourne and Brisbane counterparts — consider romance.

Love,

Gabby

PS Thanks for taking out the serious discussion of fanfiction that represented the fanfic community. I attended the session last year and it was actually really great since you included some scholars and publishers. Don’t mess with a good thing, right?

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Twenty-three-year old postgrad student who has now read too much erotica to know what's appropriate to say in every-day conversations. Likes: romance, food, musicals. Dislikes: sad endings, loud chewing, spoilers.

37 comments

  1. Sally E says:

    Having never read romance myself, this really opened my eyes to my own snobbery. Would love to see them respond by having a panel ABOUT the history of dismissing romance and how / why it continues today…

  2. Lisa Heidke says:

    Woo HOO! You go, girl! Great letter, Gabby. Thought provoking. Real and intelligent.
    And then there’s Chick-Lit, which is what I write…
    Will share on FB and twitter.
    Lisa x

  3. Well said, Gabby! The elitist snobbery in the SWF is astounding. If this attitude continues romance writers will stop supporting it, and since we are the biggest genre that means a lot of empty seats, and even auditoriums.
    I’m not wasting my time attending this year’s festival.

  4. Laura Taylor says:

    I am so very impressed with “Gabby’s” insistent and fact-based grace!  The letter is marvelous!  Bravo from a USA multi-published romance writer! 
    Proud to call you a sister!
    Hugs to all,
    Laura Taylor – Romance Writer 

  5. Kat says:

    A point of clarification: My question on last year’s panel was, if my memory serves, to do with rural romance and its appeal to overseas markets…or maybe it was internationally published authors and their appeal to the local market. For some reason, the response went to the subject of category romance!

    On Twitter, Lisa Dempster has hinted that the Melbourne Writers’ Festival will have something great for romance readers this year. And the Brisbane Writers’ Festival is very genre-friendly. So there’s no reason why a mainstream literary festival can’t accommodate readers of all kinds.

  6. Fabulous, articulate letter Gabby. As a romance writers, I thank you from the bottom of my heart and I hope that you are rewarded with a response and in the future we do see more romance in the major literary festivals!

  7. Cassandra Samuels says:

    Gabby
    Thank you for saying what we all felt when we looked at the program for the SWF this year. So disappointing to see. I hope this letter gives them a bit of a shake up. We have such a wonderful selection of romance Authors in this country who would love to represent their genre on a panel.

  8. Fantastic letter, Gabby. So wonderful to hear someone picking up the romance flag and waving it loud and proud. I’ve been writing on a number of blogs lately about my love of the romance genre and why it is essential to me (and so many other people). As a writer of the genre (and one of those authors you spoke of recently published with Destiny Romance) and a member and volunteer committee member for Romance Writers of Australia, I would love to see better representation of the romance genres at festivals. We are grossly under represented and it is one of the main reason I usually don’t attend these big writing festivals – they make me feel like an undervalued lesser class citizen for writing and reading what I love. It is time for those organising these festivals to see just how valuable a contribution romance writers could make, if only they would open their eyes to see our worth. I know many romance writers who would love to present or be on a panel, and many more who would come to see them talk. I hope they listen to your letter, Gabby. It would be wonderful if they did.

  9. Anna says:

    Sign up to have a booth at the festival next year and invite romance authors to be on panels and/or sign books. Maybe work with the local romance writers’ chapter to represent. 

  10. Thank you Gabby, for this wonderful letter. What disappoints me is that organisers of these sorts of festivals just don’t see that much of our romance world overlaps and is part of most, if not all, of the other genres anyway. It just depends on how much focus the author gives it. It’s about time they stopped being so Holier Than Thou and realized that we all want the same thing – to develop our craft to the best of our ability, to touch a reader’s heart and mind, and to tell a damned great story! They could certainly learn a lot from the other writer’s festivals, and newcomers like GenreCon. 
    Cheers!

  11. azteclady says:

    Not being on that side of the world, I cannot say this with any certainty, but I wonder if there’s an element of misogyny in their decision to eliminate even a whiff of romance in their program. After all, it’s a genre written mainly for and by women, which for many immediately means “lesser than.”
    And if memory serves (I think it was mentioned in this podcast) the romance genre sells about 40% of all books in the good USofA. Beaucoup dinero, if anyone is paying any attention whatsoever, so it would make sense to pay attention to it, wouldn’t it?
     

  12. Kat says:

    AL — I’ve heard a counterargument that romance is omitted from festival programs because there’s a perception that there are other festivals and conventions that cater to genre, and they don’t need the extra help from mainstream literary festivals.

    This is, of course, a flawed argument. Individual genre authors still struggle to make a living out of writing and could certainly use the publicity, and genre readers deserve to be represented in arts festivals that are at least partly funded by the government. 

    But the most compelling reason to have romance authors at the festival is that they they are damn good writers and deserve their place in the literary community.

  13. Kat says:

    Anna — Are booths free? Because paying our way into the festival defeats the purpose. This is a community event with government funding and it should represent the broadest section of the community possible.

  14. Absolutely brilliant letter Gabby. Articulate and to the point. I have a great dislike of the literature-romance divide that occurs in a lot of academic circles and I really appreciate you defending the genre. I’ve often wondered why Crime fiction and Fantasy authors (who still have a tough time of it at big conferences) get representation on panels far more often than romance authors.
    Almost every literary novel I’ve ever read contains romantic conventions, it would be nigh on impossible to omit them, and quite frankly, I think I couple of authors who otherwise write beautifully could do with a bit of “Mills and Boon” reading to sharpen that element of their craft. Awesome stuff. Keep up the good work ;) 

  15. Great letter Gabby. Kudos for calling out the invalidation that’s happening and great to read the perspective from a romance-lover.  Yes, let’s not go quietly into the night. 
     

  16. Bona says:

    I know: it’s a battle that we all have to fight. Writers and readers. To defend the genre. To show that -at least- it exists. Sometimes I ask myself if it’s worth the battle. But then I say that you only lose the war when you give up.
    So I, as a romance reader, will not give up. And I love to see examples as this incredible letter.
    You could think that, perhaps, the festival is dedicated to serious brainy academical literature and not popular books. I could accep that. But if they dedicate two pannels to a popular genre as erotica, then it’s clear that it’s not a matter of literary quality but of prejudiced blindness. They really don’t see romance novels.
    And it’s a pity, because I think, now more than ever, that the genre must be studied -the history, the numbers, the canon, the best of. Because, yes there are many romance novels that are crap. But many others that are great. And I’d like the genre to be studied. Other popular novels, as Westerns or Procedural ones or sci fi are gentrified now, some of them are accepted by academics. But romance genre? Not yet.
    But it will be, sure.

  17. Excellent letter Gabby. I think those thoughts should be extended to the Perth Writers’ Festival too. We have many wonderful romance writers in Australia who are fantastic to listen to, why can’t they be included? Or are HEAs completely uncool?  I enjoy reading M&B – the dialogue is witty, the pace is quick and I know I’ll have a smile on my face at the end.
    I think people running these festivals need to look at what people are reading. There’s no shame in enjoying romance/sci-fi/crime novels instead of literary fiction – you can be a decent member of society and enjoy romance!

  18. Efthalia says:

    Hi Gabby,
    Yay you! Excellent letter! 
    I, like you, find  the Sydney Writer’s Festival program immensely lacking. Hope this makes them sit up and take note.  
    We have a plethora of amazing romance authors in this country.  It’s time the literati took them seriously.
     

  19. These people who run these things are very slow. They’re years behind America. It wasn’t until Kandy Shepherd and I invited the publishers from all the major houses to our Romance Writers of Australia conference  that they started acquiring our wonderful authors. I loved Bernadette Foley. She didn’t know much about the genre but she was willing to learn. Her authors have gone from strength to strength. The recession forced Australian publishing houses to try something different. They knew there was money to be made in romance and they were prepared to try and get their share. New hungry editors Joel Naoum, Hayley Nash, Kate Cuthbert and Carol George, ones who understood the changing world book market, started to acquire romance authors. They’ve bought brilliant authors like Frances Housden who is a Rita finalist and Kylie Scott achieving best seller status in the States and many others. One day the people in charge of the Sydney Writers Festival will understand the force of romance, but not this lot in charge and not now.
    Patience Gabby. These people are slow.
    Best
    Cathleen Ross

  20. Gabby says:

    @Cathleen
    I wish I could be patient! Kat made a plea to them two years ago to include romance and then last year they carried through but in the worst way possible. Maybe it’s my idealism,, but I definitely expected more from them.
    @Bona
    The genre is definitely being studied now. Take a look at New Approaches to Popular Romance Fiction which was edited by romance scholars Sarah Frantz and Eric Sellinger. It has some great essays about romance from academics about a range of topics and authors including JR Ward and Joey W. HIll. Then in Australia we have Jodi (fellow blogger at Book Thingo) who’s currently doing her PhD which heavily involves narratives of virginity in Mills & Boon novels. The scholarship is out there and it’s growing. We just need them to pay attention.

  21. Jodi says:

    @Bona, @Gabby
    Following on from Gabby’s point about Australia’s romance scholarship, I should point out that I’m certainly not the only scholar in Australia who studies it! Lisa Fletcher at the University of Tasmania has written a fascinating book about historical romance, Kim Wilkins at UQ has done some great work on Viking romance, and my PhD supervisor Hsu-Ming Teo brought out a brilliant book in 2012 about the romance novel and Orientalism. If we go back a few years, then we have Juliet Flesch’s book From Australia, With Love, a history of Mills & Boon in Australia – one of the first books to take a serious historical approach to the study of romance. And then there are a bunch of postgrad students doing some fascinating things: Jack Elliott’s quantitative research on Harlequin Mills & Boon, for instance,  is wonderful.
    Basically, Australia is not just a powerhouse of romance authorship at the moment, but of romance scholarship, which makes it doubly frustrating that romance is being neglected by literary festivals like SWF.

  22. This has been going on for too long. Last year, I read Flesch’s From Australia with love. I’m glad you mentioned it. Did you see her research into Lucy Walker/Dorothy Sanders? Despite having written other novels in the 1940s, her romance novels were often criticised. Flesch points out that Sanders’ romance novels prevented her from being taken seriously as a writer. 
    It has been proven there is no substance to the arguments that romance is all the same or that it is poorly written. The perception lingers though and it filters down into the general community. It is backward, as others have said. I completely agree with you Gabby. The sad thing is that it is very hard to break these perceptions. I hope it changes soon but I won’t hold my breath.

  23. Susanne Bellamy says:

    As other commentators have remarked, this is a fine rant and important to make the organisers sit up and take notice. BWF has been reasonably supportive; I attribute my push along the road to publication to the romance workshop I attended nearly four years ago, and the contacts I made through the wonderful writers who ran that workshop led to me joining the Romance Writers of Australia and ultimately, to being published. I hope Sydney can learn from her sister cities and redress this ridiculous literary snobbery.

  24. Valerie Parv says:

    Brava, Gabby, on a well-considered letter. Having championed the cause of romance novels for the 30 years I’ve been published, I know it’s an uphill job.  Romance is not the only target; it’s ANY fiction deemed “popular.”  Bryce Courtenay was lampooned while on a panel at the Melbourne Writers’ Festival until, when he got up to speak, he said something like, “I may have to suffer your slings and arrows, but at least let me keep my outrageous fortune.” Brought the house down. In my experience, most of our detractors have never read a romance novel.  On a TV talk show, I was paired with a media psychologist who’d magnanimously read ONE romance on route to the studio. The presenter, predictably, read out a love scene from one of my books, and asked how I could write “that.” Having been down this road before, I’d prepared several paragraphs from widely differing novels including one of my own books, a couple of action adventure novels, and classic literature. I read the paragraphs out and asked the studio audience to “spot the romance novel.” As I’d expected, most were unable to say what came from where, showing how unfairly romances are targeted. Romance Writer 1, psychologist 0. The fight continues.

  25. Thank you so very much for this rant and I hope it does some good. Romance is elemental to the human condition, we all look for it and treasure it when we experience it in real life, so why shouldn’t that be explored in the realm of romantic fiction.
    Excellent romantic fiction explores the fundamental need to love and connect with a significant other and explores a hero and heroine as they go through that journey together.
    Given it is a common human experience and given that romance stories (love and questing heroes and heroines) goes back thousands of years, it is a rich ground for discussion and more than deserves its place in an event that bills itself as a “writers’ festival”

  26. Daz says:

    Being a romance reader and living right in the heart of Sydney for many years, I have looked at the SWF program with great disappointment for too many years to count. I have always wanted to attend some of their offerings, but nothing has ever interested me, hence almost 10 years of living in the city, within walking distance to the SWF venues and I’ve never attended. Well said!

  27. Hi Gabby, I’m a little late to this, I know. And I’m not interested in Romance fiction at all, but totally agree with your brilliantly argued and well-written letter. Bravo.

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