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Romance as Resistance in 2017

It used to be I’d read one romance novel a year for my feminist book club. We started this  as a way to cleanse our palates after a particularly harrowing read, and then became a fun February tradition, a way to ease back into our monthly meetings after having a holiday break to read our January selection. This year, after our yearly romance read, I wanted more. I started buying discounted romance ebooks, checking them out from the library, and scouring Goodreads for suggestions on what else to read. I couldn’t really explain it other than reading them made me really happy. To friends, I’d say, “With all that’s going on this year, it’s just like basket of chocolate chip cookies to comfort me.” My best friend – and fellow book club member – was in the same boat. She couldn’t get enough romance either. But it wasn’t just any romances that we wanted to read, it had to be well, feminist romances. So when one of our absolute favorite feminist romance authors, Sarah MacLean, was having an event, we had to go.

Sarah MacLean’s launch party celebrating her newest title, The Day of the Duchess, was at McNally Jackson on June 26, 2017. There were cupcakes. There was wine. There was also a lot of political discussion. In short, this event wasn’t a typical launch party, there were no readings, but instead a lively conversation between authors, followed by audience Q&A and then a signing, all fortified by snacks and drinks. MacLean was joined for a discussion titled Reading Sex: The Power of Romance in 2017 with fellow romance authors Tessa Bailey and Zoraida Córdova and moderated by Eliza Thompson of Cosmopolitan.com.

Tessa Bailey, Sarah MacLean, Zoraida Córdova, and Eliza Thompson in conversation

Bailey, MacLean, Córdova, and Thompson.

Thompson started off the chat with a bang. Why, she asked, do people keep turning to romance after all these years? “I think there’s a lot of hope in romance, and sometimes when the world feels really hopeless you can read a book and go back to this moment where there’s a little bit of light at the end of that tunnel. Especially now, the last year and a half have pretty much been the worst years ever,” Córdova said.

MacLean agreed, but said that there’s another angle to romance that makes it so special and unique: “It’s really nice to see a genre that puts women at the center of the circle, and doesn’t put them there to suffer and die but puts them in the narrative to triumph and live…2017 has become that for me. We just have to triumph and live.”

Bailey says that another strength of romance is the community surrounding it. “Romance creates a sense of community…We’re in this time where it’s like, what else are they going to take from us? But they can’t take away romance,” she said. “Hope, as well as community, is really important, and I think that the romance community has that more than any other community.”

The event poster for "Reading Sex" hanging up in McNally Jackson bookstore.

The event poster hanging up in McNally Jackson.

Sense of hope and community aside, there was still a lot of politics to discuss relating to the genre itself. Thompson wanted to know why romance is especially important in 2017. Bailey told the crowd she asked some friends in a Facebook group why romance is important to them; a lot of them said that it was a way to learn about sex, because they never learned about it properly. Other friends said that the genre taught them both how to be empowered and say what they want and how to be vocal about what they need, sexually, or otherwise. “When heroines talk about what they need or what they want, it gives us permission to do that in our real lives,” Bailey noted. “That’s not a small thing.”

“That’s why [romance has] been so subversive for so long!” MacLean chimed in. She admitted she doesn’t always think of her writing as subversive and doesn’t specifically make a point to subvert tropes in her books. “But on November 9th, I wanted the hero [of my book] to die in a ditch because I was like ‘This guy voted for Trump!’’ So despite being 275 pages into the book, she started over. She felt she had to. Now she’s seeing reviews that The Day of the Duchess is her “most political, feminist book yet.” “It wasn’t a choice to be political. It just happened. We live in a world right?”

Córdova concurred, “We live in a world where being a woman of color and being a woman is…an act of resistance in a way. It shouldn’t have to be that existing makes you political, but it has become that way.” So while MacLean wasn’t necessarily trying to be political, it apparently came through in her post-election rewrite. (Sidenote: I haven’t read the new book yet, but boy I can’t wait.)

So the reasons for reading and writing romance can be political, but what about the books themselves? Can they be political? Yes, of course, even in a regency romance. MacLean said that in her newest book, the heroine starts out by marching into Parliament and demanding a divorce. Dramatic? Sure – but also necessary, at that time. Women could only get divorces if Parliament granted permission, and that happened only under dire circumstances. Lots of my favorite romances feature similar conflicts with the heroines. They’re trying to pave their own way doing something women aren’t supposed to do: own a bookstore, brew beer, get a divorce, run a business. “Social issues are being embedded in our books because we live in a world,” MacLean said.

As I mentioned before, one of the social issues that MacLean fills her books with is feminism. When asked about that, she replied, “There’s a modern perception of the historical time that we invented feminism…and that’s not accurate.” She included examples of female author of the past: “Jane Austen wrote as a lady…. That’s a feminist act.” MacLean also noted that Mary Wollstonecraft, though eventually vilified by history, is another clear example. Going on, MacLean noted, “The idea that feminist characters are antithetical to history is not necessarily true.”

While I’m a relatively new romance fan, I can attest to the community feel Bailey mentioned earlier. McNally Jackson’s event space was standing room only for this event, which is remarkable enough on its own, but even more so considering that this was the bookstore’s  first-ever romance event. Before the event got going, MacLean even walked around to pour more wine for guests and encouraged everyone to get more snacks. I go to a lot of author events, but this was  probably the first time I saw an author serving drinks to the masses. And this wasn’t a crowd of only the authors’ friends and publishers. There were many, many fans, including fellow romance author Eloisa James. Just looking around the room alone was a nice reminder that being in room full of women who read is a powerful and exciting experience. Romance novels are more than the basket of chocolate chip cookies feeling I described to my friends. Being in that room and hearing this discussion made it clear to me that community, hope, asking for what you want, and daring to do something you’re not supposed to is very important. Perhaps now more than ever.

As the event was winding down, my friend and I had The Day of the Duchess and a glass of wine in our hands and we waited in line to talk to MacLean. We told her about our book club and how she was our gateway drug into the genre. She grinned and welcomed us “to the dark side.” She signed our books “To Strong Women.”

For a video of a full event, check out Avon Romance‘s Facebook Live link here

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