Room 119 in the Jefferson Building of the Library of Congress in Washington is an architectural marvel: high ceilings, lush burgundy appointments, exquisite woodworking. Despite the grand impression it leaves, the room is known simply by its number.
“It doesn’t have a sexy name or anything,” says filmmaker Laurie Kahn.
But it could use one, at least for tonight , when scores of romance novelists and several hundred of their avid fans gather to celebrate the shared intimacies of the publishing industry’s biggest — and least respected — genre. To kick off a daylong conference on the subject, Kahn hosts a sneak preview of her documentary “Love Between the Covers” in the building’s Coolidge Auditorium, preceded by an invite-only reception upstairs in Room 119.
The feature-length film takes an affectionate look at the vast, unheralded community of women who have effectively kept the publishing industry afloat by sales of romance novels (more than $1 billion in 2013 alone, according to BookStats). It’s part of a multimedia platform — including the Popular Romance Project website, the scholarly conference titled “What Is Love?: Romance Literature in the Digital Age,” and an extensive rollout of public library programs — that Kahn and her small team have been preparing out of her home office in Watertown for the Library of Congress’s Center for the Book.
Kahn, who got her start in film as a researcher on the landmark civil rights series “Eyes on the Prize,” produced and directed the quirky 2004 documentary “Tupperware!” It told the unlikely story of a Massachusetts inventor and the home-sales parties for his product that came to define the suburban domesticity of the 1950s.
“It was a huge group of women nobody looked at seriously,” Kahn recalls, sitting at her desk in an office converted from an old one-car garage. Just as those Tupperware parties gave many stay-at-home mothers a measure of financial independence, she says, she was drawn to the mutually supportive community of romance writers and readers. She’s hoping to premiere the film at a major film festival, then arrange for broadcast or streaming.
“Whenever a large group of women is dismissed, my ears perk up. I think, there’s something there — there’s got to be.”
To nonreaders of the genre, romance novels are often disparaged as “bodice-rippers” — historical novels featuring vulnerable heroines in complicated garments. But the genre is actually widely inclusive, as Kahn notes, with authors specializing in African-American, lesbian, paranormal, and even Evangelical romance, not to mention the hardcore erotica of BDSM (bondage and discipline-sadomasochism).
“That’s a pretty big spectrum,” says Kahn, who calls her production company Blueberry Hill (as in, “I found my thrill. . .”). In junior high school, she says, she read Gothic romances such as the Victoria Holt books. Though she fell out of the habit as an adult, she has since come back to the genre for business, and for pleasure.
The conference will feature panel discussions with romance writers and scholars from such high-minded institutions as the International Association for the Study of Popular Romance. Also planned: workshops on writing about a first kiss and other prompts, and a panel of science professors explaining the nature of physical attraction.
“Love Between the Covers” focuses on a select group of authors and their close relationships with their fans, many of whom end up publishing their own work. They include Mary Bly, a Shakespeare scholar (and daughter of the “men’s movement” poet Robert Bly), who publishes romance novels as Eloisa James; Beverly Jenkins, an award-winning writer of historical romance featuring African-American women; and Len Barot, a former plastic surgeon who founded a high-volume LGBT publishing house and has written dozens of lesbian romance titles under the pen name Radclyffe.
The romance community welcomes any effort to dispel the stereotypes, says Myretta Robens of Medford, who is president of the New England chapter of the Romance Writers of America.
“We appreciate it. It’s kind of a hard sell. I think, in general, non-romance readers tend to look down on us. They think anybody can write it.”
Kahn launched the Popular Romance Project and began shooting her film about four years ago. Her timing turned out to be impeccable: While filming her subjects at readings and book signings, the publishing industry has undergone a major shift toward digital readership, led in large part by romance readers.
“There’s been a huge revolution I actually captured on film, not intending it,” says Kahn.
Yet when the Popular Romance Project’s funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities neared a total of $1 million a year ago, Kahn’s work received some unwanted attention, as budget-conscious congressmen and commentators singled it out as a flashpoint for “pet-project” spending. With her government funding dried up, Kahn recently conducted a successful Kickstarter campaign, raising an additional $58,000.
The Blueberry Hill team includes two production assistants, both 22. Kahn hired them after posting the positions on local university job boards.
“It really caught my eye. I thought it was awesome that this is about powerful women running their own industry,” says Julia Hines, a film and TV major from Boston University. Among other duties, she handles the project’s lively social media presence on all things romance-related, where the New England Patriots’ championship run has made the erotic fantasy “A Gronking to Remember” a hot topic of discussion, in more ways than one.
In a winterized addition off the side of Kahn’s rambling old house, editor Bill Anderson has just finished color-correcting the feature film. It’s now being burned onto a Blu-ray disc for the trip to Washington.
Anderson, who has worked on several PBS series, has a long-running working relationship with Kahn, beginning with her 1998 adaptation of Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s Pulitzer Prize-winning “A Midwife’s Tale.” In between their projects together, he rounds up other gigs as a freelance editor.
“I stand on the streetcorner and show a little leg,” he jokes.
That’s a mental image Kahn also conjures as she describes the changing face of romance publishing. In the old days, she says, an author was “like a hitchhiker — hoping, hoping, hoping a publisher would pick her up.”
Now, however, the romance genre is in the driver’s seat, a leader in the self-publishing revolution. Once derided as “vanity” publishing, the fast-growing field of e-books and print-on-demand has been legitimized.
“I do think romance is leading the charge there,” says Robens, who writes historical romance (“I’m a Jane Austen person”). “There are a ton of what we call ‘indie’ writers doing very well, and a lot of writers who made their name in the general publishing industry who have left to publish independently. There’s more money in it.”
Kahn’s film borrows from the title of Jane Austen’s famous romance novel in the opening title cards. “This is a story about pride,” the first one reads. “And also a story about prejudice.”
The genre, in fact, explores one of the most universal of all human stories, says Kahn.
“What could be more basic than love?”