A few weeks ago, two sisters launched a Kickstarter campaign for a romance bookstore in LA. (If by some chance you missed it in the huge launch media blast, their pitch video is here.) They’ve currently reached about two-thirds of their goal of $90,000.
A couple of days after they launched, I posted this on Twitter:
“Am I the only one who loves [the] idea of [a] romance bookstore but dislikes [The] Ripped Bodice & ‘fine smut’?”
…and tagged a few writers whose opinion I generally value.
It was one of those amazing conversations you are occasionally graced by the universe to have with people who disagree with you but argue intelligently without making you feel disrespected. (I love the romance community!)
They didn’t completely change my mind—though they brought up some thought-provoking and compelling points—and I didn’t change theirs. I probably would've dropped the whole thing, except for that Washington Post blog. You know, that one. The one that is basically a series of quotes and attributed snippets from the Guardian article on plagiarism in the romance community. (In case you also missed that, both articles concern the accusations that a self-published author plagiarized another romance writer’s book, sticking closely to her story but making the main couple gay instead of straight.)
Apparently the only original thought Washington Post journalist Justin Moyer had in writing his piece that borrows heavily from the Guardian article is that he couldn’t resist introducing his version of the piece with just a bit more disrespect; he just had to pull out the tried-and-true romance snickering and bashing, introducing his piece with these lovely lines:
But a romance novel isn’t exactly "Infinite Jest." Though some bodice-rippers are dirtier than others, there is a formula—at some point, the wealthy heiress or the lady-in-waiting hooks up with the horse wrangler or the errant knight, and jeans come off or, well, bodices get ripped....But the fill-in-the-blanks quality of some romance novels seems to have been quite the hurdle for Laura Harner.
There are a number of great comments on that idiotic post, and one, made by Dana Willhoit, caught my attention:
Highly patronizing, lazy reporting consisting mostly of cutting and pasting previously written material, and displays an utter ignorance of the genre. "Bodice rippers?" Really? A cliche that went out in the 1980s.
Apparently, it didn't. Apparently, this phrase is still capable of simultaneously diminishing the romance genre in a slipshod article and celebrating it in the name of the first-ever romance bookstore.
A dilemma. (And I’ve had a number of conversations with writers about this, some who agree, some who fiercely disagree, and some who are fairly neutral.)
I want to support a pro-romance bookstore, but the name The Ripped Bodice turns me off, as does their first tagline: “Purveyors of Fine Smut.” Their second tagline, “Smart Girls Read Romance,” I definitely approve. At the end of Read-A-Romance Month, I sold shirts with that message, too.
So three lines in, after "ripped bodices" and "smut," we get to "romance."
Meanwhile, in a respected national paper, romance is being belittled with the usual diminishing shorthand used by ignorant intellectuals and journalists: "fill-in-the blanks," formulaic bodice rippers.
So here, based on some personal chats, phone calls and a Twitter conversation with some really fascinating engagements, are the Pros and Cons as I see them:
- Using terms like “bodice-ripper” and “smut” reclaims them for women, celebrating female sexuality and passion—a huge part of romance novels—and a reality that society has tried to repress and/or shame for centuries
- “Bodice-ripper” is a term that celebrates and is representative of the history and evolution of romance novels
- Not embracing the term bodice-ripper is actually turning your back on the amazing women who were pioneers in the field, who changed publishing forever, and who were the first romance superstars—and actually wrote bodice rippers! These books electrified readers, and our revisionist feelings about those books that were so successful and impactful (and for some readers, life-changing) dishonors the genre. (Skye O’Malley was a huge bestseller for a reason.)
- It’s a playful, eye-wink nod to both the history and the disparagement of romance, and embracing it is a subversively contemptuous response to being dismissed.
- Ignorant people are going to use it anyway in dismissive ways; we may as well stop trying to change that and turn it into a term of pride.
- “Bodice-ripper” is disrespectful and dismissive of something that is pro-woman.
- The romance arm is the most successful segment in the history of publishing, yet it gets the least respect (arguably even within some major publishing houses)—and using dismissing terms like “bodice-ripper,” “smut,” and “trashy” reinforces negative mindsets about the genre. If we embrace the term ourselves, we’re letting ignorant, disrespectful people control the verbiage of the conversation.
- Romance novels are about far more than sex. Why not embrace the romance/positive change/power of love/healthy relationship aspects of romance novels, rather than the sexual aspect?
- Bodice-ripper refers to a specific type of book, mainly prevalent before the late 1980s, and is not at all representative of the broad spectrum of romance subgenres that exist today (especially any leaning toward the sweet or closed-door variety of romances)
- Romance novels have moved so far beyond bodice-rippers that representing the genre with that term is inaccurate, and highlights underlying negative stereotypes of poor quality, rape storytelling, “fill-in-the-blanks”/cookie-cutter plots, etc. (*see WashPo journalist Justin Moyer)
- Specifically regarding the name of the bookstore: good grief, why are we contributing lots of money to a bookstore “for the romance community” which has taken its first step by alienating half the people who read romance? I mean, they can call it whatever they want, but why not be inclusive rather than divisive?
I have to say, I have not yet contributed to this campaign. This is due mainly to my own personal concern over (aversion to?) the name, but also due somewhat to the fact that Bea and Leah seemingly used a high-end book publicist who (at least in my interactions) didn’t seem to have a clue as to the romance community but contacted me for support without doing any research as to who I am or my own advocacy (it would have been nice to see a little due diligence), and Bea and Leah never responded to me personally when I expressed concern over their title and tagline choices.
That’s a choice too.
According to the Kickstarter campaign page today, Leah and Bea have raised $61,310 from 422 donors. That averages about $145 per donation.
In the video they’re asking romance readers to contribute “the average price of one romance novel, $7.35,” and despite the (in my opinion) awful name, they do make good, if basic, pro-romance arguments in the video.
So what do you think?
Most of the media coverage of this bookstore has been very supportive, but only 422 people have donated. So this post reflects my conflicted feelings about this project—positive toward the idea of a romance bookstore, negative about the name. (And hey, it’s their store, they call it whatever they want, but in my opinion, many more people would contribute if they, too, weren’t conflicted about the name. But maybe that’s just me?)
Please comment. If you’d like to see this store open but are concerned with the name, tell me. If you love the name, the phrase, and everything it represents to you, tell me.
If Bea and Leah want a store for the romance community, but the romance community isn’t buying in because of the name, here’s the opportunity to let them know that.
And if you LOVE the name and think it’s a spot-on representation of everything romance-awesome, please say so. I sincerely want to know what you think. Maybe the time has come to discuss this?
Looking for some true-blue bodice-rippers? These are pretty much politically incorrect these days, but they’re titles that plenty of us loved then and still love now. Check them out:
Skye O’Malley by Beatrice Small
Captive Bride by Joanna Lindsey
Whitney My Love by Judith McNaught
The Flame and the Flower by Kathleen Woodiwiss
Sweet, Savage Love by Rosemary Rogers
Feel free to share some more of your bodice-ripper favorites, too!