There’s never been a more exciting time to be a romance reader

There’s never been a more exciting time to be a romance reader
Kat Mayo (photo by Kristyn Maslog-Levis)
Photo credit: Kristyn Maslog-Levis

The following is a transcript of Kat Mayo’s speech at the Australian Romance Readers Awards dinner, based on her written notes. The actual speech has minor differences. Links and notes (in italics) have been added for reference.

Disclosure: Kat attended this event as a guest of ARRA.

Good evening, romance readers, authors, publishers and supporters.

I’d like to begin by paying respect to the traditional owners of the land on which we’re gathered tonight, the Gadigal people of the Eora nation, and by acknowledging the valuable and irreplaceable contributions of Aboriginal Australians to our literary heritage.

I’d also like to thank the Australian Romance Readers Association for inviting me to speak tonight — and thank you, Shannon, for that wonderful introduction.

I have a soft spot for ARRA and the ARRA awards, because I have met some amazing people through this organisation, and particularly the first reader convention in 2009. That was the year I learned that Stephanie Laurens was Australian, and that my 6-book to-be-read pile was absolutely pathetic when compared to the hundreds of unread paperbacks that some readers have!

I made some enduring friendships at that convention, and over the past 7 years, I’ve had the privilege of following the trajectory of some amazing Australian authors who have gone on to write one bestseller after another.

And in 2016, as we acknowledge our favourite books and authors over the last 12 months, it’s clear to me that there has never been a more exciting time to be a romance reader (note 1).

My love for romance began when when I was around 6 years old and I was given a copy of The Ringmaster’s Secret (BT | Amz), one of the books in the original Nancy Drew series. I LOVED Nancy Drew, but I was oddly frustrated by the lack of detail regarding her relationship with the dashing and oh-so-perfect Ned Nickerson. I wanted to be a detective, just like Nancy Drew, but I also wanted to know what she and Ned got up to when she wasn’t off sleuthing. At the age of 9 or 10, I found an abandoned Mills & Boon with an orange cover in my grandmother’s garage. I can’t remember what it was about now, but in the last chapter, the hero and heroine kissed. It was a revelation.

My first sexy romance was a Charlotte Lamb Mills & Boon featuring kissing cousins (note 2), which I read when I was 12, just before I started high school. Although Mum suggested that the book was too grown-up for me — probably due to the scene where the hero gives the heroine oral sex in the car — my family generally doesn’t believe in censoring books, and it wasn’t until I was an adult that I realised how precious a gift that had been. When I signed up for a library card at St Clair Library, my mum opted not to put age restrictions on my card, and I remember visiting all the different Penrith City library branches until I exhausted their romance paperback catalogue.

Mills & Boon had a huge influence on my teenage self. My best friend and I used to read them, hidden between textbooks, during class. If Cosmo or Dolly had a free Mills & Boon novella, I would buy it in a heartbeat. I’m pretty sure the first check I ever wrote was for a Mills & Boon subscription — the Temptation line, if memory serves. I learned that if I open the book to page 110 there should be a major sex scene within a few pages of that point in the story. Most of my books fell open very close to page 110.

Romance fiction also featured in my relationship with my Mum. Through her, I discovered Anne Mather, and Catherine Coulter, and Kathleen Woodiwiss — we share a great love for The Wolf and The Dove (BT | Amz). I would sneak-read her copies of Jean M Auel’s books, and for a while sex between woolly mammoths was a thing of wonder and beauty. As problematic as the Clan of the Cave Bear (BT | Amz) and its sequels might seem to me now, those books had some incredibly sex-positive messages for my teenage self.

As a romance reader herself, my mum never made me feel ashamed of my reading choices, and that’s an incredibly powerful gift, I think, though I will say that I still hid the Black Lace freebies under my mattress, just in case. I’m still looking for that one about the heroine whose car breaks down, so she has a picnic with two hot strangers, and her dress lifts up in the breeze, and they have a lovely time on the picnic blanket but there was no food involved (note 3).

My interest in romance fiction waned in my twenties, probably because I was going through my own romances at the time, but I came back to it when I had my first child. Mills & Boons are the perfect length when you’re feeding a newborn, and I have photos of each of my kids chewing on a romance book. From there, it wasn’t long before I was rediscovering Avon historicals, and romance blogs (note 4), ebooks, and eventually this community of readers and specifically ARRA.

This community has led me to places, and books, and ideas that would have been pretty inaccessible to me otherwise. When I think about some of the discourse we’re having around what women read and write, I’m filled with optimism about the future of romance, and I’d like to talk about some of the most interesting things I’m seeing in the genre right now, particularly in Australia.

 

1. We’re seeing romance represented in broader literary communities.

I think we’ve now seen at least one romance panel in each of major writers festivals across Australia, and there is a lot of interest in what romance publishers are doing. This is because romance has been one of the genres at the forefront of innovation when it comes to publishing. Romance readers were reading on Palm Pilots before the first Kindle was sold, and authors began self-publishing when doing so was still kind of a disreputable thing to do in literary circles. When you look at emerging platforms such as Wattpad, Smashwords, Radish, Crave…romance fiction makes up a huge chunk of the body of work they publish.

But I also think that it’s incredibly important that our authors and readers aren’t excluded from these huge events that give legitimacy to the types of books that we consider as representing our culture (note 5). When I sit in on some of the panels in these writers festivals, it’s clear that the exclusion of romance fiction means that some of the conversations around gender politics, sexuality, feminism, and the role of the reader in literary culture have huge gaps or are set back five, ten years, because romance readers and authors have been discussing these in online forums and blogs, but no one has thought to include us in the larger conversations (note 6).

 

2. Romance is considered worthy of serious academic work.

In Australia, we have scholars like Jodi McAlister, Lisa Fletcher, and Beth Driscoll, who are doing fascinating work around the romance genre, its themes, and its readers. And around the world, I think the quality of academic work that looks at romance fiction is becoming more sophisticated and more robust, partly because we’re seeing a lot more scholars who themselves are actual romance readers.

This is important because it helps combat the stigma of being a romance reader or author. More importantly, when romance is seen as nothing but trivial fluff, we lose cultural capital over the years. If libraries and universities aren’t collecting and cataloguing our books, they become lost over time (note 7).

But also, despite the fact that many readers will admit to reading romance purely for the romantic fantasy, this should not in any way devalue the contribution of romance authors and publishers to literary culture. Literary snobs have it wrong: the popularity of the romance genre doesn’t make it trashy. The romance genre is important because it’s popular (note 8). We can leave the reasons to the scholars.

 

3. Romance authors are being recognised for their work.

I won’t lie; this is going a lot slower than I think it should. But the good news is that the romance community has created our own ways to recognise our favourite authors and books, including, of course the ARRA awards.

And this has a flow on effect. For example, last year’s winning piece for the Romance Media Award was a feature on the Australian Romance Readers Convention written by Danielle Binks. The results of the RITAs, the RUBYs and the ARRA awards are now mentioned as news by publications like Books+Publishing, and even the mainstream media.

There is so much work still to be done around recognition, though. And if you’ve heard me talk about the Stella Prize, you’ll know about my frustration around Australia’s prize for women’s writing being all but inaccessible to romance authors. I’m waiting for the day when the judging panel has one hardcore romance reader. At this point, we might achieve recognition faster if we just send Annabel Crabb and Leigh Sales a Sarah Mayberry book.

 

4. Romance readers and authors are finding each other.

When ARRA first formed, I think there were maybe a few listserv-type groups for Australian romance readers, and a smattering of monthly book clubs. Now, not only do we have the ARRA convention, but we have events like the Readers & Writers Down Under, Fictionally Yours, Melbourne, and the Sydney Author Event. And when I look at the authors and readers who attend these events, the overlap is surprisingly small. What that tells me is readers love to connect with their favourite authors, and that even though Australia is fairly isolated, and our market relatively small, we have the potential to run the types of conventions that even 5 years ago would have felt impossible, and I think this provides some great opportunities for ARRA, especially when the convention returns to Melbourne next year.

 

5. Romance readers are not betraying the sisterhood.

There is place for the romance genre in feminism, because our genre has reflected the concerns of women over generations. I won’t claim that our books are always at the forefront of gender politics, but they form part of the way in which women have internalised, reflected and pushed back on both patriarchal and feminist values, within Western culture and outside of it (note 9).

Put it this way: Mills & Boon has done its fair share of sex education among teenage girls around the world.

 

6. There is a huge appetite for diversity in romance.

Look, I love a good sheikh romance, and let’s face it, those Greek tycoons and Italian playboys are like catnip to readers like me. At one point in my life, my dream was to be shipwrecked on a Portuguese island and be rescued by a tall, dark, haughty man who flaunts his fake mistress while I befriend the villagers and flaunt my virginity, until he finally confesses his devotion to me by calling me the equivalent of ‘precious kitten’ in a sexy foreign language.

But sometimes we also want romance to be close to our own experiences. To find characters whose emotional journeys evoke our own search for love and meaning and acceptance. I think that we’ll be seeing a lot more diversity in romance, not just because people are now calling it out, but because we’re seeing a crop of emerging writers for whom diverse cultures and sexualities are just so naturally a part of their own lives that to NOT write them would be difficult. And in this space, I would love to see more romances with Aboriginal characters, and historicals set in Australia, and even, you know, people who live in the suburbs.

 

7. The happy ending will endure.

The romance genre is in flux at the moment. At least, it seems that way to me. In self-publishing, in particular, authors are once again experimenting with form and structure and style. And a consequence of this is that the promise of a happy ending feels imperilled.

But I don’t think we will ever lose that core — and significant — readership who believes in and expects a happy ending — and yes, I mean together and alive at the end. I might have to resort to reading the back of the book first, or trawling Goodreads for spoilers, but I will find those books. And the even better news is that I think we will never lose that core — and significant — group of writers whose desire is to write those happy endings.

 

So tonight, as we celebrate the authors and publishers who have brought us books that have just generally made our lives more pleasurable, I say again: there’s never been a more exciting time to be a romance reader.

I’d like to end with a quote from Kelly Faircloth’s amazing article on Jezebel about the history of Harlequin. This is what she wrote:

It’s very easy to forget how hard women had to fight over the course of the twentieth century to feel they had a right to sexual pleasure. And so, while romance is often treated as a static genre, I prefer to think of it as a sprawling, decades-long intergenerational discussion…among women about what constitutes love… Scenes that disturb the modern reader nevertheless paved the way for the more sex-positive genre we enjoy today.

The books and authors nominated tonight are part of this intergenerational discussion. They are important, and I’m so delighted that they are receiving the recognition they deserve.

 

Additional notes

Note 1: For non-Australian readers, this is a reference to an Australian political slogan.

Note 2: This was probably Secret Obsession (BT | Amz). Thanks to @SweetHeartsRB for finding the title of this book. 

Note 3: I’m not even kidding. This was a Black Lace extract published in Cosmopolitan magazine in the early 90s. I have never managed to find the title, so if you recognise this book, PLEASE let me know!

Note 4: Not an exhaustive list, but those blogs included Karen Knows Best, Dear AuthorIt’s Not Chick Porn, The Book Binge, Smart Bitches, Trashy Books.

Note 5: This notion of literary gatekeepers was introduced to me by @Beth_Driscoll. We talk about this in an upcoming podcast episode. This News Ltd article also has some relevant quotes.

Note 6: This idea of gaps in the collective knowledge was introduced to me by @MerrianOW as we discussed our reactions to some of the panels at the 2015 Melbourne Writers Festival, which looked at genre fiction, taboos, and consent. This is a long round-up of that weekend, but if you scroll to the headings related to the MWF panels, you should be able to find the relevant discussions.

Note 7: The importance of including romance in library collections was introduced to me by @VaVeros, who blogs at Shallowreader. Here’s one of her posts on library collections. I didn’t mention it in my speech, but Vassiliki’s point to me in our early discussions about this issue is that when libraries don’t properly catalogue romance paperbacks, readers can’t find specific titles in the catalogue, and authors can’t collect the public lending royalties due to them. This is only one of the issues related to library collections. It’s a fascinating subject with a lot of different cultural and economic consequences.

Note 8: The notion of popularity being the marker for cultural importance was introduced to me by Dr William Reddy, through this podcast with Sarah Wendell, in which they talk about the idea that ‘if something is popular, it must be meaningful.’

Note 9: This is just one example, but it’s one of my favourites: In which Barbara Cartland was mentioned on the First Tuesday Book Club by Ayaan Hirsi Ali.

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