McDaniel College will dive into the world of romance fiction and analyze why the multibillion dollar industry is so often met with scorn with a screening of the award-winning documentary "Love Between the Covers," on April 26.
The film, shot over a period of three years, follows romance novel writers and readers and takes viewers from their private homes to conventions throughout the country. The event will start at 6:30 p.m. with a discussion with filmmaker Laurie Kahn in WMC Alumni Hall, followed by a screening of the film.
Kahn is a documentary director who said she focuses her works on the lives of women in order to tell stories that are often overlooked. Her previous film "A Midwife's Tale" depicts the 18th century diary of a midwife named Martha Ballard, while "Tupperware!" tells the story of the product's executives and dealers in the 1950s.
"I don't think women's lives make their way onto the screen often enough," Kahn said. "When I thought about this remarkable community of women who nobody had taken seriously, who have made a multibillion dollar industry out of this huge community, I couldn't resist."
Pam Regis, chair of McDaniel's English department and president of the International Association for the Study of Popular Romance, makes a brief appearance in the film, as one of a series of romance literature scholars discussing the genre's importance in the culture at large. Regis said she was thrilled to become a part of the film and bring the finished project to campus.
"I've been studying romance for a long time, and I understand the romance community reasonably well, although it's big and diverse," Regis said. "It's badly, badly, understood by the general public. Unless people are romance readers, they tend to dismiss the books and are mistaken about what their appeal are. What Laurie is trying to do is address that lack of information."
Regis said there are a number of misconceptions about the genre. Some of the most prominent, she said, are beliefs that they are easy to write and all the same, that readers only read them for erotic enjoyment or escape, and that they can't possibly have any literary motive.
"It's scorned in part because it's written by women. Of all the popular genres, from science fiction, detective fiction and even the western which was popular at one point, the one that gets the least respect is the romance," Regis said. "The irony of that is that it's the most popular. Because it's popular, people think it must not be very good, even though there's a whole lot of popular stuff that is high quality."
Kahn said romance is a genre just like any other, with its own set of structures and contrivances that serve to enhance the stories, rather than detract from them. She said a romance story is no more formulaic than a mystery, which opens with a dead body, and by the end of the story the answers are all revealed.
"All genre fiction is about these archetypal virtues," Kahn said. "How do you get your happy endings with truth and justice and love? Why is it that women are sneered at, when people reading Stephen King or David Baldacci are not?"
In the film, Kahn follows a variety of women from various backgrounds in an attempt to show the diversity of both readers and writers in the genre. The film follows writers Mary Bly, a tenured Shakespeare professor and bestselling romance author; Len Barot, who writes lesbian romance fiction in her spare time while working as a surgeon; Beverly Jenkins, who writes historical African-American romance stories; aspiring Australian writer Joanne Lockyer, and writing partners Susan Donovan and Celeste Bradley.
"Romance reading crosses all income brackets and educational levels," Kahn said. "The average romance reader is more well-educated and well-read than your average American. These are people who are reading a book a week or even a book a day."
According to Nielsen sales charts, romance fiction made up roughly one-fifth of all adult fiction sales, coming in just behind thrillers on the top 10 fiction genres.
Kahn said romance writers and readers have been some of the first to embrace technologies like social media, e-readers and self-publishing. She said there have been a number of reasons these women have been on the forefront.
"In the case of social media, it's because they are community builders. All of their books are written about building relationships," Kahn said. "They're also such voracious readers, that being able to download books onto a Kindle instead of storing them in the garage or attic is a real advantage. They're much more tech savvy than people think."
The film captures an explosion period for self-publishing in romance and in fiction in general. Kahn said she was thrilled to be there as history was being made. According to Kahn, romance fiction is particularly suited to the self-publishing boom, inspired by print-on-demand technology, because of the close-knit community.
"They have this attitude that is summed up with 'come on in, sister,'" Kahn said. "They mentor one another. It's a very unusual meritocracy. If you can do it, come on in and we'll help you out. It's been a radical shift."