No damsel in distress
Columnist Kristin Ramsdell on why the romance genre matters
BY MONIQUE BEELER
Kristin Ramsdell, romance reviewer. It’s a saucy-sounding title for a woman who spent her professional days ensconced in the library stacks, training students to conduct bibliographic research, and doing her part to legitimize a marginalized genre.
It wasn’t the steamy storylines or heaving chest clichés, though, that prompted Librarian Emerita Ramsdell to take the romance genre seriously. It was the numbers.
With $1.37 billion in annual sales, romance is the top selling genre in the consumer market. About 75 million readers devoured at least one romance title in 2008 alone. Ramsdell, a former Romance Writers of America Librarian of the Year, has kept romance lovers abreast of the best available for 16 years through a bi-monthly review column she pens for the national Library Journal. She also edits Romance Fiction: A Guide to the Genre, a reference guide found on public library shelves nationwide. In a recent Cal State East Bay Magazine interview she shared her insights into the genre.
What elements are essential to a good romance?
Romances are character-driven, so you have to write really good characters that readers can empathize with.
In addition to reflecting what goes on in society, it helps transform readers. Romances show people solving problems of all different kinds. Romances aren’t just sweetness and light. You’ve got people with diseases and marital problems. In romance, it shows people somehow working through these things. There’s a satisfying ending. It’s not a downer.
Who reads your Library Journal column?
It’s a review column to educate librarians on what romance fiction is and all the different authors.
I only review (books) that are published the month the column comes out or after. The range would be 18 to 24 books reviewed per column.
Editor’s note: Reviews each month revolve around a theme, such as westerns, romance suspense, Gothic, gay and lesbian, multicultural, and alternative reality –– which includes paranormal, time travel, and futuristic plots.
How did the column evolve?
Happily Ever After: A Guide to Reading Interests in Romance Fiction (Libraries Unlimited, 1987) was the first book I wrote. That led to my being part of the development of What Do I Read Next, which is an index for popular fiction.
I started the column at the instigation of another librarian, who … said, “You need to do this,” so I wrote a proposal to Library Journal in 1993.
I just laid it on the line and said romances in libraries have not been treated equally with other genres. Mysteries and science fiction were getting reviewed, but romances were not getting reviewed, even though they were outselling everybody.
What societal need does romance fiction meet?
It fulfills a lot of needs. Romance fiction is very empowering for women, because women win … It shows women taking charge of their own lives. The days –– at least in the United States –– of a woman waiting for her prince have changed. The heroine will just as likely save the hero as the other way around. Generally, they end up working together.
Sketch out a brief history of the genre. What are the earliest mentions of romances?
Love stories have been around forever, going back to the oral tradition.
Go back to the Biblical romance stories or early mythology or go back to the Greek (classics). In Medieval literature, there’s Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. They weren’t necessarily romantic in the love (story tradition). They were more about chivalry with the knights and fair ladies.
Generally, Pamela (1740) by Samuel Richardson is considered the first English language romance novel.
How many romance fiction titles do you read annually?
If you come to my house, you’d see stacks and stacks. I get galleys – advanced review copies (from publishers). They come in all forms; some look like books and some are just (unbound) pages. In 2008, there were over 7,300 new romance titles published. There’s no way you can read everything. I skim a lot, and I read fast. Of course, I read those I review.
In 2009, I got 932 galleys.
What distinguishes ethnic or multicultural romance fiction from traditional romances?
The biggest presence among multicultural romance is African American. A lot of the writers have gone mainstream. They are certainly selling. Lots of books have Asian and Latino characters.
There is much more of a mainstreaming of all groups of people. Maybe that’s just my California bias; we’re very multicultural here. There are gay and lesbian romances, too.
How has the genre changed in the past 50 to 100 years?
I don’t think it’s changed. Women have been reading romances as long as women have read. The (first romance) books they were reading were about home and romance and … family sagas.
The pair bond is very important. It’s such a primal need. It’s such a strong emotion, the need to bond and establish a family and keep everyone safe. They call them romances, but it’s about a whole lot more than that.
Any author suggestions for first-time romance readers?
There are a lot of good ones and more coming up all the time.
Contemporary: Susan Elizabeth Phillips, Nora Roberts (aka, J.D. Robb), and Elizabeth Lowell
Historicals (pre-World War II): Sabrina Jeffries, Loretta Chase
Regency: Georgette Heyer
Paranormals: Christine Feehan
Multicultural: Sandra Kitt, Francis Ray
Futuristics: Susan Grant, Robin Owens
Were you ever embarrassed about championing the genre?
No … I write reference books about them, which is what’s given them credibility.
Romances are what they are. They’re entertainment. Some are written better than others. There’s junk in all of the genres, and romance has some excellent writing in it. They don’t pretend to be literary fiction. They don’t want to be.