Visit theallusionist.org/covers-i to read more about and hear this episode, and for photos of the Ripped Bodice.
This is the Allusionist, in which I, Helen Zaltzman, swipe right on language.
Coming up in today's show: the loving embrace of books. Or, books of loving embraces. BOTH?
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In Culver City, Los Angeles, California, there is a bookstore unlike any other. Step over the threshold, and a doormat that says “L♥ve”. There are brocade sofas. Books suspended from the ceiling like a flock of birds. A one-eyed dog, Fitzwilliam Waffles. And bookshelves crowded with sports, vampires, regency, Victorian, erotica, shifters, Highlanders, historical fantasy, cowboy contemporary. This is The Ripped Bodice, and it’s the only bookstore in the USA to sell exclusively romance books.
LEAH KOCH: I'm Leah Koch and I'm one half of the owners of The Ripped Bodice.
BEA KOCH: I'm Bea Koch and I'm the other half of the sister duo.
HZ: Leah and Bea Koch are longtime fans of romance novels. Bea even wrote her graduate thesis on them. They opened The Ripped Bodice in March 2016.
BEA KOCH: So it kind of came out of both our love of romance, and the fact that there is no other romance bookstore in the United States. We also thought it would help bring legitimacy to the genre. So many other sub-genres have bookstores: comic bookstores, mystery bookstores, science fiction bookstores - and the one female-dominated genre did not have its own bookstore.
HZ: According to the Romance Writers of America, around 15% of readers are male. The Koch sisters estimate that, aside from any who might be writing under a female pseudonym, perhaps 5-10% of romance authors are male - although it is also often the case that a romantic novel written by a male author will be marketed as literary fiction rather than romance. Put a different cover on One Day by David Nicholls and say it was written by, I don’t know, 'Valerie Rose', and watch the respect for that book immediately evaporate. Romance readers often find themselves in a similar predicament.
LEAH KOCH: There is a certain amount of defense in being a romance fan; if you're going to be a vocal romance fan, unfortunately, you're going to have to spend some of that time explaining to people why what you like is valid and why their opinion is stupid.
HZ: Do it.
LEAH KOCH: OK! The most basic response is: "Why on Earth do you care what I am reading?" I never say that, but that is the honest question - it's like, why do you care? I like it! But let's get slightly more academic than that. Romance is primarily written by women for women. Let's not diminish the contributions of men, but let's set them aside for a second. It's a female-dominated genre.
BEA KOCH: And historically it's associated with a female readership, which is very important in the critical perception of the genre.
LEAH KOCH: Right. So it's books where women's thoughts, emotions, sexuality, take centre stage; and there's a lot of other stuff that happens around it, you know, that's what subgenres are. So it's surrounded by carriages and dresses or surrounded by vampires and werewolves or surrounded by FBI guys on the run, whatever: that's all secondary. The thing at the heart of it is a woman's experience.
LISA MILTON: Mills and Boon, home of romance, books by women for women. And what better definition of feminism than by women for women, in terms of romantic fiction?
HZ: This is Lisa Milton, executive publisher of Harlequin, and as such, she is responsible for the notorious romance imprint Mills & Boon.
LISA MILTON: Everyone knows it. You've heard of it, I've heard of it. You go into the street and you ask anybody over the age of forty five: they've heard of Mills and Boon.
HZ: Even if you’ve never read one of their books, you might have an idea of what Mills & Boon represents: a quivering naive heroine, hair blowing in the sea breeze as her lantern-jawed lover, smelling faintly of the glistening chestnut stallion he just galloped in on, sweeps her up in his strong, sexually confident arms... That’s actually not the whole story with Mills & Boon at all. Throughout its history, the company has been a real innovator. It was ahead of the curve with ebooks, and with selling books outside of bookshops - we’re now used to supermarkets being big deals in book sales, but Mills & Boon was on the case decades earlier, distributing books at newsagents and petrol stations. And, of course, marketing books to women was an unusual tack for them to have taken. Albeit with somewhat cynical motivation.
LISA MILTON: We might have been by women for women, but it was a marketing conceit. This is some men who saw a way of making money out of women.
HZ: Gerald Rusgrove Mills and Charles Boon founded the company in 1908, but not to publish romances specifically.
LISA MILTON: It was traditional publisher. The intention was to be like any other trade publisher. They were based in London. They published Jack London; they published some academic texts -
HZ: They had PG Wodehouse.
LISA MILTON: They did have PG Wodehouse! It was fascinating. But what they realised in the 1930s is that there was in the UK a generation of women who were now working - they probably hadn't worked before; previous generations hadn't worked.
HZ: The other factor Mills & Boon recognised is that opportunities for real-life romance weren’t plentiful, because so many men had died in the First World War.
LISA MILTON: So there were many spinsters and there are many widows. And actually there was some money because these women were working but there wasn't really any happiness; there wasn't joy. And what they created were portable cheap romantic fiction novels, that were more like bookazines or magazines that you could consume in a weekend. And the idea was you'd get your wages at the end of the week, you'd buy a Mills & Boon; you'd read it over the weekend and you would escape your life, this grey life of going to work and not having your romantic relationship or your partner or not having the possibility of finding one. And it was very much boy meets girl, something happens, relationship doesn't quite work, boy and girl separate, boy and girl come back together again happily ever after. And that grew every decade for years and years and years and years.
HZ: Every four seconds, someone in the world buys a Mills & Boon book. Each month, Mills & Boon publish ninety new novels in physical book format, and more than that number again in ebooks. They have some 1,500 authors around the globe, writing for the sixteen different Mills & Boon lines, such as Nocturne - paranormal and science fiction romance; Spice - Mills & Boon’s most sexual imprint…
LISA MILTON: ...we've got Historical; we've got Modern, which is the biggest series; we've got Cherish, which is babies and marriage. It's babies and marriage but no sex. Because some people don't want sex.
HZ: Although, a lot of readers DO want sex - sex with doctors is perennially popular.
LISA MILTON: Really popular - it's our third biggest series in the UK. So sex with a CEO comes first. Possibly a prince or a sheikh.
HZ: So CEO is the modern prince or sheikh?
LISA MILTON: Yeah. And billionaires. Billionaires galore.
HZ: I wonder whether the USA’s new president and his cabinet have taken the sheen off the billionaire fantasies…
LISA MILTON: Certainly puts me off! Yeah, it would be interesting to see how that evolves.
HZ: It'll be Greenpeace activists; they'll be the new romantic interest.
LISA MILTON: That would be so fabulous.
HZ: For now, as you probably noticed, fantasy favours jobs that are high status and high earning - but don’t forget the billionaires, the doctors, they can be the women in the story...
LISA MILTON: There was an assumption that the books were always about powerful men and women. That is not at all what our books are about: our heroines are feisty, they're in control. They're making the decisions. Yes, they want a sexy guy; it’s very important these are women who are consenting to, enjoying and being very aware of their own sexuality, and that's really empowering. That's what our stories are: these are stories of women who know what they want, go out and get it and have it.
HZ: But it hasn’t always been this way.
LISA MILTON: The books definitely reflect their generation. The books reflect the times in which they are written and the books have evolved. When they started, there wasn't any - shall we call it - action. The bedroom door would close and you wouldn't see anything. You might have a heaving bosom and some sighs and a lengthy snog - probably wouldn't be called a snog, it'd be called a kiss.
HZ: An osculation.
LISA MILTON: Exactly! But I think in the 70s, they were a difficult time and there are titles that were published then that I wouldn't consider feminist, that in the 21st century are not appropriate at all.
HZ: During Mills & Boon’s long existence, women’s lives have changed considerably: in society, professionally, sexually. And the books reflect that. But it’s also the case that reading a romance from forty or fifty years ago - even twenty years ago - can be pretty problematic, if you apply present-day mores to what was considered normal at the time of writing - the female character being subordinate to men, say, or consent being reluctant or non-existent.
BEA KOCH: We try to be very upfront about the origins of this genre. We included it in our name: romance novels used to be called 'bodice rippers', and it was a derogatory term to shunt them to the side. But we're trying to reclaim the history of the genre. And those books were written in a different time, by women living in a different time.
LEAH KOCH: No. She's dancing around it a little bit, but a lot of romance novels from the late 70s feature rape in some form between the hero and heroine - not, like, she gets raped and then goes and meets the true love of her life; but because that was the way that they could explore women's sexuality. Yes, romance really reflects the society at any given time. And we're always looking for the books that are sex positive: that's in our manifesto over on the wall.
HZ: Point two on the manifesto: “At The Ripped Bodice, we believe in being a sex positive, feminist business.”
LEAH KOCH: Especially in a big city, where we have such a diverse readership and customer base, we feel a responsibility to make sure that they are getting good information, especially our younger customers. We want to sell them books that are going to encourage a healthy view of sex and relationships. There are people who still write the slightly old school -
BEA KOCH: It's called dubious consent. Dubcon. It's not something that we read. We don't really read dark romance, stuff that's on the edge of that, because it's not our particular cup of tea; but everything can't be everyone's cup of tea. We try to say "Don't yuck other people's yum." Let people like what they like. However, we have a limited amount of space and we have to make editorial choices in this bookstore, and I think that's what Leah's getting at. If we have a certain shelf space, the books we want to sell are the ones that portray healthy relationships.
HZ: They also want to sell books that portray relationships that aren’t white gender-binary heterosexual couples. These are in short supply, but the ones The Ripped Bodice can get sell out fast. Publishers, take note.
BEA KOCH: It's totally realistic to read all about ice planet barbarians, but God forbid you read about two black people falling in love! I mean, come on publishing, get with the frickin programme!
LEAH KOCH: Ice Planet Barbarians is a real book, by the way.
BEA KOCH: It's great. I'm not denigrating Ice Planet Barbarians at all. It is thoroughly enjoyable.
LEAH KOCH: I think the publishers that are going to do well in the next few years are the people who are listening to their readers. The people that can respond to the desperation for more representation are going to thrive. The people that are starting to put out the books that people have been waiting for - we have seen such a growing demand for diversity in romance in all forms, whether it's race, whether it's sexual orientation -
BEA KOCH: - Couplings, nontraditional pairings, nontraditional heroines nontraditional heroes...
LEAH KOCH: Yeah, it's so incredible to see a genre that we've loved for so long responding to the world as it is today.
HZ: And Mills & Boon just published its first novel featuring a protagonist who uses a wheelchair. But progress is slow; publishing still has a long way to go to offer better representation. But even if you’re not a publisher, you can push things forward. If there aren’t books which portray romance and sex and relationships the way you see them, get writing: romance is a genre where self-published authors have had great success. And Mills & Boon have an open submissions process - you don't need an agent, this is what you need:
LISA MILTON: There are a few things that Mills & Boon has to be: has to be great dialogue, has to be great sex and has to be happily ever after.
HZ: So no one can die at the end.
LISA MILTON: No you really can't. Happily ever after is absolutely what we are.
HZ: Especially during these tumultuous times. Who needs fictional dystopias when you have the news?
LISA MILTON: Readers respond to events in a very honest and straightforward way, I think. And when times are great, you can read stories of misery and you can read stories of things not going well, and you can read stories with difficult endings or stories that don't even end - the story ends but you want more. You can read those when times are good, because you as an individual are perhaps comfortable or confident, or you feel safe, might feel secure. When times are turbulent or difficult or you're dealing with uncertainty, you have to find certainty in your reading; as readers we're looking for fun, happiness, laughter, escapism.
HZ: Which is what romance novels are all about.
LEAH KOCH: I think the very simple answer is they make people happy. They make they're fun to read. They're fun.
BEA KOCH: We try to have a good time with all of this. It's supposed to be fun. That's the whole point of this subgenre. It's about being joyful.
HZ: The Ripped Bodice is a joyful place indeed; it’s a gorgeous shop. There’s every kind of romance novel your heart desires - including a stash of vintage Mills & Boons - and they run regular book signings and comedy nights and other events. Even if you can’t go to the store, you can get book recommendations every couple of weeks if you sign up to their mailing list. It’s all on their website, therippedbodicela.com. Thanks to Bea and Leah Koch for appearing on the show - and to Lisa Milton from Mills & Boon. Visit millsandboon.co.uk to order their books, join their book club, and submit that romance manuscript. Although, everyone says it’s much trickier to write one than you’d expect. Maybe because a lot of us have trouble putting sex and love into words?
LISA MILTON: I haven't yet got the language of sex or romance; if I use the word 'erotic' I think it's a total turn off for everybody and I get that. But what are the words I'm going to use? That's what I'm wrestling with.
HZ: It's really difficult because the words tend to be too medical.
LISA MILTON: Yeah. shall we say them?
HZ: Well, the vagina word.
LISA MILTON: Labia.
HZ: Or slangy, you know, deliberately ridiculous; or very much too florid. You have to find somewhere somewhere in the middle.
LISA MILTON: And I haven't found it yet.
HZ: It's a lifetime's work.
LISA MILTON: It is. And I'm not going to give up till I've found it.
HZ: This is what I’ll be trying to find in the next episode. I can’t promise that I won’t give up before I cringe so hard I sprain every joint in my body.
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The Allusionist is a proud member of Radiotopia from PRX, a collective of the finest podcasts around. One that makes me laugh whilst simultaneously chilling me to the marrow is Benjamen Walker’s Theory of Everything. Last summer, Benjamen visited me in London, and because you can rely on me to show you all the top tourist sights, I took Benjamen into University College London to see the preserved corpse of Jeremy Bentham, the late 18th early 19th century social reformer who conceived the panopticon prison. And I was not expecting this result at all, but in front of the corpse of Jeremy Bentham, Benjamen Walker was a man transformed! I was just trying to kill some time before we went for dinner, whereas Benjamen was conjuring up a multi-episode series about surveillance. It is nearing completion; there are several episodes out already, which like all Benjamen’s work are witty and weird and could have sprung from no other brain but his. Listen to Benjamen Walker’s Theory of Everything, and all the Radiotopian shows, at Radiotopia.fm.
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This episode was produced by me, Helen Zaltzman, theme tune is by Martin Austwick, thanks to Nikesh Shukla, Kevin Smokler and Kimon Daltas for their help. You can find me at facebook.com/allusionistshow and twitter.com/allusionistshow, or stop by at theallusionist.org.