Very Little Romance at the L.A. Times Festival of Books

April 22, 2013

Festival of Books at USC.  Photo from The Los Angeles Times.

I love the Los Angeles Festival of Books with a passion that I usually reserve for head massages at the hair salon and Henry Cavill's heterochromia.  This free (me gusta el precio) annual event takes place one weekend in April on the campus of the University of Southern California.  I am a UCLA graduate, and I love the Festival of Books so much that I don't even complain about having to step foot on enemy territory.  Okay, maybe I complain a little.

I have good memories of attending the festival, which tends to attract some mighty fine literary star power.  I remember seeing S.E. Hinton and Francesca Lia Block speak; I remember getting my books signed by James Ellroy, who was a little frightening, and Robert Pinsky, who was not nice.  The panels provide readers with opportunities to hear authors speak about the craft of writing and the pitfalls of publishing.  Needless to say, the Festival of Books turns me into a frothing lunatic fan girl.  And proudly so.

Festival of Books at USC.  Photo from The Los Angeles Times.

This year was the first year I attended as a romance reader and aspiring romance writer.  One of the panels I attended bore the captivating title Body Heat.  It took place on Sunday afternoon in the Norris Theater.  The romance novelists on the panel were Donna Young, Jennifer Haymore, and Charlene Sands; the conversation was moderated by Kassia Krozer.

Among other topics, the authors addressed the common accusation that romance novels are formulaic.  They stated that formula is not the same a structure.  The structural framework of a traditional romance novel is not easy to create because--especially if it is published by Harlequin--it must deliver the beats that readers have come to expect (happily ever after, a dark moment, etc.).    

It's structure, not formula, bitches!
I have attended many, many panels over the years and while most authors are engaging and interesting people, no where have I seen a group of authors take so much time discussing their responsibility to their readers.

Regency author Jennifer Haymore discussed her role as an entertainer.  At the risk of sounding populist, I agree that all good writers are entertainers, and, like stage performers, should constantly consider their audience.  I find it hard to envision authors at more academic, esoteric panels caring about whether or not their readers were entertained or satisfied, emotionally or intellectually, when the book is done.

Thinking about what Haymore said, I feel that a good romance writer is like a good sexual partner--someone who understands what the audience craves and expects before delivering just that.  The very best romance writers do this. Then they deliver a little bit more.

There were only a few booths selling romance novels at the Festival of Books.  I saw a couple of paranormal romance and steampunk romance titles at the sci-fi sellers' booths and a table featuring the Fifty Shades' trilogy next to a few copies of the Story of O.  But that was it.

I don't understand this underrepresentation.  Charlene Sands mentioned that half of the paperback books sold in the United States are romance novels.  With numbers like that, the Festival of Books is ignoring a significant segment of the book-buying public.  Even those haters who denigrate the romance genre can't reasonably argue that readers and writers who follow the romance genre should be excluded from such a lively and important festival.