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It’s hard to avoid a certain defensiveness when insisting on the importance of romance novels, perennially dismissed by critics and laypeople alike. In Laurie Kahn’s documentary Love Between the Covers, defensiveness is hard to separate from pride as authors, fans and aspiring writers beat the romance drum. More than one interviewee points out that the books, a constant stream of bestsellers with unapologetic happily ever afters, are a female-driven multibillion-dollar industry — essentially the tentpole titles of publishing.
Kahn is more interested in personalities than statistics, and opts for a playful tone, with the help of graphics and animation, even as scholars weigh in on the books’ historical context. Her spirited but disjointed film is not likely to change hearts and minds, and will appeal mainly to members of the flock — a sizable group, as book sales indicate.
A central theme of the doc is the strong community that has arisen around romance novels. At annual conferences and bookstore readings, and online year-round, many of the authors are exceptionally accessible to fans and wannabes. With writers critiquing one another’s work and sometimes authoring books together, like Celeste Bradley and Susan Donovan, writing is not quite the solitary pursuit it usually is.
Determined to bust stereotypes about the romance crowd, Kahn and her interviewees emphasize the non-literary professional accomplishments of many authors, as well as their diversity. Writer-publisher Len Barot, aka Radclyffe, began writing lesbian romance stories while in the midst of a career as a surgeon. Mary Bly, aka Eloisa James, was a professor when she penned her first novel, and the perceived lowbrow nature of her undertaking alarmed her colleagues. But as the daughter of a poet (Robert Bly) she’d grown up with an understanding of pop culture’s place in the literary hierarchy.
Author Beverly Jenkins, who took up the pen because she didn’t see heroines she could identify with, and whose 30-odd novels combine romance with African-American history,is especially engaging and insightful. To the argument that romance stories are wish-fulfillment fantasies, she points out that the same can be said of movies starring Schwarzenegger and Stallone. Among the writers in the film, Jenkins is not alone in her exuberance for storytelling, but she has a vivid way of describing the creative process: “I’ve got characters stacked up in my head like planes over LaGuardia.”
Much of what’s covered, though, especially in the film’s second half, is simply the nuts-and-bolts of writing and publishing in general, and the changing marketplace. It’s hardly cliff-hanger material: the reduced hands-on involvement of monolithic imprints, the need for authors to be self-promoters, the role of social media, the pros and cons of self-publishing and e-books. There’s some talk of money but no specifics on the high end of the spectrum, although the wealth of prolific superstars like Nora Roberts, who appears briefly, is understood.
Joseph Friedman’s adept camerawork shift from talking-head glamour lighting to in-the-moment interactions and a photo shoot for a classically steamy book cover. As Kahn jumps from one topic to the next with no rhyme or reason, writerly chapter headings might have helped smooth the transitions.
The film touches on sexism as inextricable from a generally condescending attitude toward books that are by, for and about women. A couple of commenters celebrate the novels’ nonjudgmental treatment of women’s sexuality; as author Jennifer Crusie puts it, “you can have sex without dying horribly.” Intriguingly and all too fleetingly, the documentary addresses the perceived superiority of tragedy as purer, smarter and truer than stories with happy endings.
None of which proves that any of the writing under discussion has notable artistic qualities or lasting cultural value. The excerpts read in the film won’t sway anyone who’s not a believer. But entertainment is the name of the game, and a reader’s embrace of romance novels comes down to nothing more than a matter of taste. Those who love the books will welcome this group portrait.
Production company: Blueberry Hill Prods.
Featuring: Len Barot, Mary Bly, Celeste Bradley, Susan Donovan, Beverly Jenkins, Nora Roberts
Director: Laurie Kahn
Producer: Laurie Kahn
Director of photography: Joseph Friedman
Editor: William A. Anderson
Composer: Gil Talmi
Animators: Sharon Shattuck, Sofia Warren
No rating, 85 minutes
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