The romance novel industry, someone announces early in the new documentary Love Between the Covers, is both “a female industry” and a “multi-billion dollar industry.” Plenty of other genres — sci-fi, horror, fantasy — are continually re-appraised by critics and celebrated for their literary worth, but romance novels have never received anything close to mainstream acceptance, even though romance novels, by any metric of popularity or commercial success, are the mainstream; one title card in Covers informs us that in the past year, “75 million Americans read at least one romance novel.”
So why does the most popular genre in publishing, by far, never get any respect? Look back to that first quote: the many romance authors, publishers, and fans interviewed in Covers suggest that it’s because romance novels are by, for, and about women. Quite simply, they say, it’s sexism. They argue that the charges levied against romance fiction — that they’re more about quantity than quality, that they’re formulaic — could easily be aimed at superhero comics, say, or mystery fiction.
Director/producer/screenwriter Laurie Kahn uses Covers to dismantle those charges by investigating the diversity of the romance scene. Much of the film takes place at a Romance Writers of America national convention, where we meet enthusiasts for the various subgenres of romance; Amish romance, lesbian romance, historical romance, African-American historical romance, steampunk romance. And so what if most of these books are obsessive about their quest for the HEA (an industry acronym for “happily ever after”)? It’s the journey, not the destination, where the art happens.
Covers does a fine job of representing the many levels of the industry, from an interview with bestselling romance author Nora Roberts to frank discussions with self-published authors and a blue-collar author who “had written 53 books” before she could finally quit her day job. (Too-precious authors of literary fiction would undoubtedly weep on hearing how many books romance authors are expected to turn out in a year, and they might be in danger of going comatose when one fan admits to an astonishing 30-book-a-week reading habit.) And it ably documents the upheavals the industry has gone through in the time since the invention of e-books and the dawn of self-publishing.
Kahn builds her argument well, poking around the romance industry for its most eloquent and ardent defenders. But the film does suffer from an aura of amateurishness; the edits are clumsy, the soundtrack is generic, and the occasional romance-cover animations that break up the talking-head monotony are awkward as hell. And a few of the experts don’t really bring anything of note to the conversation. Did we really need, for example, to be informed that a good romance plot is like a roller coaster? And did we really need that metaphor to be spelled out in excruciating detail as black-and-white footage of a real roller-coaster ride plays over the monologue? Were you to cut all the cliche and lazy thought out of this sub-90-minute film, it would likely be about an hour and ten minutes long.
But if you can get past the frugality and the occasionally spotty filmmaking, you’ll find plenty of interesting stuff in Covers. The novelists are charming nerds, glowing with pride about their accomplishments. The experts bring nuance and historical context to the tradition of romance novels, redefining them as artistic statements by strong women for empowered audiences. As a close examination of the most misunderstood bookstore category, Covers seeks to rehabilitate the genre that has dominated American literary culture for the last 100 years. You'll never look at a romance cover in quite the same way again.