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LOVE BETWEEN THE COVERS (2015) review

July 14, 2016

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written by: Laurie Kahn
produced by: Laurie Kahn
directed by: Laurie Kahn
rated: unrated
runtime: 95 min.
U.S. release date: April 23, 2015 (Boston Independent Film Fetival) and July 12, 2016 (VOD/iTunes)

 

Here’s a documentary on romance novels and the women who read and write them. Not a subject that would ordinarily catch my attention or draw me in, but I found myself committing to it nevertheless, drawn by pure curiosity with the understanding that there’s a subculture present of which I know very little about. Written, produced and directed by Laurie Kahn, “Love Between the Covers” who gives the film a title that would befit a romance novel revolving around a savvy female writer, the documentary may seem like a who’s-who for viewers already immersed in the industry, but it also winds up being quite informative and eye-opening for the folks out there who grew up thinking these are trashy novels read exclusively by bored housewives and old biddies in senior homes. The goal here is uncover the stigma of romance novels and showcase the passion and devotion both the readers and the writers 

There’s an unavoidable defensive tone present throughout the film as authors and fans defend their respective occupations and fandom. It’s not a defensiveness out of anger, it’s more out of pride and enthusiasm for these books, that for decades top the top fiction sellers each year. What’s most interesting about Kahn’s film is how these immensely popular writers got into the profession and what their process is like. Again, it may be a film that caters to viewers who are aware of names such as Rachel Gibson, Nora Roberts, Sarah MacLean, Beverly Jenkins or Eloisa James, but unaware virgins will at least have a few prejudgments disassembled after watching “Love Between the Covers”.

 

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Kahn takes an easy-going approach to covering the subject, delivering a breezy pace that incorporates charts, animation and informative texts to balance the inevitable talking heads. Remaining behind the camera, the director stops in at various locations that open our minds to just how immense this billion dollar industry is. We visit densely populated conventions, such as the Romance Writers of America National Convention and scan through lines trailing outside small-town bookshops for signings, where we see shy and bubbly female readers meet or reunite with their favorite authors.

There’s much to learn over the course of “Love Between the Covers”, from stats like how 75 million Americans read at least one romance novel in 2014 and the term, H.E.A. or “Happily Every After”, which is used to describe the approach many of the stories take. Much of the film is dedicated to emphasizing the massive community  – online and in-person – that has developed over the years, where friendships have developed between fans and authors through book clubs or emails. The accessibility that the fans and aspiring writers have to the authors is impressive and encouraging, many of them becoming dear friends and, sometimes co-workers.

It seems to me, such an openness and acceptance is especially identifiable in a fandom populated by women. At workshops and conferences, there are scenes where we see writers (pros and/or newbies) sitting down together to catch-up or critique one another’s work. Often times, kindred writers who’ve found success individually will come together to co-author books, like Celeste Bradley and Susan Donovan, making a fulfilling experience for both the writers and the readers. Being a writer, who often struggles with the solitary process, I found this quite heartwarming.

 

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We also hear how these writers view the significance of their  profession, such as when James (real name: Mary Bly) shares that she believes that all literature recycles the same human emotions over and over – “loyalty, love, loss, courage and cowardice” – offering assurance that readers can learn and relearn from these books that include these emotions. Sarah Wendell, co-author of the book, Beyond Heaving Bosoms: The Smart Bitches’ Guide to Romance Novels (and co-founder of Smart Bitches Trashy Books.com, one of the most popular blogs examining romance fiction) shares that romance novels are “a place where woman’s sexuality is treated fairly and positively”.

Kahn goes out of her way to give us an indepth behind-the-scenes look at who some of these diverse writers and readers are in an effort to debunk whatever stereotypes audiences may have. In doing so, we learn how for many of them this occupation started as a second job. Some of them were either doctors (Len Barot aka Radclyffe) or literary professors (James), often had to use pseudonyms once a publishing deal struck (or once they self-published), due to the public’s long-standing lowbrow stance on romance novels. As the daughter of a poet (Robert Bly) James states she’d grown up with an understanding of where pop culture stood in the snooty world of literary professionals.

 

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Author Beverly Jenkins started writing stories because she didn’t see any heroines she could identify with. Her countless novels include African-American characters, often in an engaging and exciting historical setting. She stresses, first and foremost, she’s writing for herself, offering stories she would want to read.  Over the years, as critics pointed out how these romance stories were simply female wish-fulfillment fantasies, Jenkins counters that the same could be said of the action flicks that made Schwarzenegger and Stallone movie stars. Jenkins, who was married for years until her husband died of cancer, can be seen pulling hand-written ideas and roughs for stories on notebook paper, stored in a large case, stating, “I’ve got characters stacked up in my head like planes over LaGuardia,” making her exuberance obvious.

Much of the fandom and popularity of the medium is not too surprising to me since I’m a comic book geek and know all too well what it’s like to be a part of a massive and fervent group of fans. Seeing thousands flock together at conventions isn’t a new sight either, but I understand how some viewers may scratch their head in confusion just as I understand how there are still folks out there who scoff when the see someone read a romance novel on the bus or train – it used to happen with comics as well!

One aspect of this particular fandom that I wasn’t aware of were these readings that occur at nightclubs or salons (for lack of a better word). Apparently, readers get together and cram these joints as they listen to writers take the mic and read their material.  This was really interesting to me, since I would normally assume such an event would prove to be rather awkward considering how intimate the stories tend to get – but, women aren’t like that apparently. I can see such an event drawing them closer. I can also see lonely guys and girls honing in on such an event with hopes of finding the right girl. The scene where we watch a group of women listen to a book being read by its writer in-person winds up being yet another scene that confirms the tight sisterhood on display.

 

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As the film continues, we see more talking heads (only a couple of dudes, no surprise) with transitions represented by chapter headings that offer certain distinctions and there’s also a stop at a photo shoot for the kind of predictably steamy cover these books are known for.  It was again kind of cool to see how even this aspect of the industry is heavily propelled by women, as we see woman photographers, hair stylists and directors.

“Love Between the Covers” also touches on how sex is represented in these books and how that aspect of the story tends to differ when a woman writes it.  It’s a place where woman isn’t a victim, marginalized or criticized for having sexual desires. A nonjudgmental treatment of women’s sexuality is mentioned when author Jennifer Crusie confirms, “you can have sex without dying horribly.” You can even have sex without getting too descriptive apparently, which is probably why there’s an audience for these books in the Christian and YA categories.

The film reminded me that fiction is embraced because it’s not real. It can be escapism, wish-fulfillments and fantasies – all these things and more. It just so happens that romance novels – while subjective to taste – generally happen to cater to a certain gender, yet they are not that far removed from that collection of Jane Austen novels on your shelf.

 

lovebetweencover

 

RATING: *** 

 

 

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