When the New England Chapter of the Romance Writers of America holds its annual conference in Burlington next week, a range of workshops will be on the menu.
Some are mainstays of writers’ conferences: a class on effective marketing, a panel with agents and editors. Others are more specific to the romance genre: “Titles, Customs, and Manners of the Regency” or “Mastering the Meet Cute.”
And then there’s this one: “Making Consent Sexy: Creating a Trigger-free Love Story.”
Put another way, how does a genre commonly dubbed “bodice-rippers” stay relevant in an era when the ripping of bodices sounds more like cause for a lawsuit than a display of passion?
Romance writers in the Boston area and across the country have been giving this a lot of thought lately.
“Traditionally, the hero of a romance novel was an alpha male. That’s what readers were accustomed to reading and that’s what authors were told to write,” said Jackie Horne, president of the New England chapter. She writes historical romances under the name Bliss Bennet and has a blog called “Romance Novels for Feminists.”
“Romance novels created a way of safely exploring a situation where the male was dominating the heroine or making her act against her will but she was turned on by it. Today that’s old school. Younger authors and younger readers don’t want that kind of thing.”
But some romance writers maintain that when you get beyond the stereotypes associated with their genre, a significant element of empowerment is already woven into the fabric of the text.
“I think that if more women had read romance fiction over the past several decades, the #MeToo movement might have happened much sooner,” said Barbara Keiler of Sudbury, who writes contemporary romance for Harlequin and other publishers under the name Judith Arnold.
“A lot of people who have never read romances assume they are about helpless women who are desperately looking for a man to make their lives complete. But in fact, much of romance fiction is stories about female empowerment in which the heroes have to find a way to accommodate the heroine’s needs and wishes.”
Moreover, it’s a genre that has continually evolved with the times. Keiler points out that one of her best-known books, “Barefoot in the Grass,” features a breast cancer survivor who has had a mastectomy. The man who falls in love with her learns a lesson about distinguishing beauty from physical perfection.
Alexa Rowan, who writes from a suburb west of Boston and also holds a day job as an attorney, draws an analogy to the conversation that unfolded among romance writers a couple of decades ago about contraception.
“In the earlier romances, no one talked about birth control,” Rowan said. “Now readers see it as something that has to be talked about. Romance writers have already faced the challenge of learning to write characters who talk about condoms or the pill or HIV testing in a way that can still be sexy. Now we’re doing the same thing with incorporating the idea of consent into romance.”
And even those relatively new to the field admit they have room to grow.
Kristen Strassel of Kingston, who will chair the upcoming New England Chapter of the Romance Writers of America conference, has self-published over 30 novels.
“I always considered myself somebody who was very aware of the issues of consent and boundaries,” she said. “But recently I’ve looked even more closely at my heroes, what they want and how they went about getting it, and what my heroines wanted from them.”
For writers who have been at the genre longer, this new attitude might not come quite as intuitively.
Carol Opalinski, who writes for the Harlequin imprint as Carrie Nichols, confesses that she checks herself now as she writes — as in a recent scene she drafted.
“Two characters are bantering back and forth, and I was going to have him lean in and give her a kiss,” Opalinski recounted. “Upon second thought, I said to myself, ‘Well, maybe not.’ Instead, he leans in and says, ‘Show me that you are feeling this too.’ And she leans forward and then they kiss.”
But Kim Imas, whose first historical romance will be published by City Owl Press this summer under the name Willa Ramsey, maintains that this may not be as new as it sounds.
“Contrary to the reputation our genre has, romance writers have been writing about women’s wants very well for a very long time. We are going to continue seeing writers explore a more broadly understood definition of consent, one that is verbal and enthusiastic and ongoing.”
Like Opalinski, Imas recently rethought a work in progress. “In an early draft, I had the heroine telling the hero pretty explicitly that she wasn’t interested in being courted. But he still pursued her. And then as the #MeToo discussion was playing out, I had to reconsider and bring in a lot more nuance and communication between my characters. I wanted to show them falling in love through the ways they support each other, talk to each other, and respect each other.”
“Romance was never about a man taking advantage of a woman, sexually or otherwise,” concurred Beverly Breton of Bedford, a longtime member of the Romance Writers of America. “Bodice-ripping isn’t romance. I like to write romance that is about relationships and what grounds us and what makes home, home.”
As an agent representing romance writers, Nalini Akolekar, Vice President of Spencerhill Associates, gives a lot of thought to the evolving world of the romance novel — and its readers.
“Everyone wants to see stories driven by strong, capable heroines, not a damsel in distress and a rescuer. Shrinking violets are not attractive,” said Akolekar, who will participate in an agents’ panel at the conference in Burlington.
“Readers want to see two people who both possess strengths and weaknesses but are able to complement each other and learn from each other. That may still be hard to find in the real world, but it is certainly nice to read about.”
The New England Chapter of the Romance Writers of America holds its annual conference April 27-28 at the Boston Marriott Burlington, One Burlington Mall Road, Burlington. For registration or more information, go to www.necrwa.org/conference/.
Nancy Shohet West can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.