“I don’t care what the critics say,” is a refrain you hear often when it comes to popular media, be it movies, TV series, musicians, and yes, even books. When it comes to the literary world, no one gets more grief than those who write or enjoy the works of the romance genre. In the snooty world of books, even the literati need someone to look down their noses at, and sadly, romance is the bottom of the food chain.
The documentary Love Between the Covers aims to shake those assumptions though. Probably every reader in their time has made a joke at the expense of the romance genre, but Laurie Khan wants to look at those kinds of books in a new way, as she asks us: what if we celebrated them?
Admittedly, this reviewer’s been occasionally snide so far as romance novels are concerned. Purely for their artistic merit of course because, as a business, you have to respect the genre’s ability to cash in and build a machine with an efficient and exhaustive engine. If you’ve worked in books then you know the power of the romantic press, the fans that’ll show up like clockwork to get the next edition of a series, and the sheer volume in output that these publishers release. They’re not kidding when they call it an industry.
As for Love Between the Covers, there are a couple of approaches that Khan could have taken. She could have gone educational and told you why the genre deserves your respect. She could have been polemic and tried to convince the viewer that romance should be as equal to cultural observers as tragedy and drama. Or she could have gone infotainment and produced what would be, in essence, a 90 minute commercial for her favorite authors or publishers. There may be a little of that in the doc, but Khan’s trying something even more bold here.
A few years ago, a nerd cabal that included Joss Whedon, Stan Lee and Ain’t It Cool News’ Harry Knowles created a tribute to the fans of San Diego Comic Con called Comic Con Episode IV: A Fan’s Hope. Love Between the Covers is almost a companion piece to that doc, but dedicated to those who love Nora Roberts over Marvel Comics. It’s sharp, it’s charming, and it manages to sell the appeal of the romance novel to even those that turn their nose up at it.
Like Comic Con Episode IV, there’s a great swath of time dedicated to the ones wanting to break into the field, aspiring writers looking to make a name for themselves in an industry that’s at once incredibly welcoming but at the same time can be difficult to make any money in. Other large portions of the movie are spent with established authors, talking to them about how they work, how they carved their niche, how some of them have embraced social media and the necessities of self-promotion, and how others have branched off and gone into business for themselves.
The aim here, I think, is to re-establish the romance genre as something that’s okay to get geek-y about and to show us that it’s as right a form of wish-fulfillment as comic books featuring strong men with super-powers are. Why should tragedy be acknowledged as “literature” while romance is called “trash” just because one ends in tears and the other ends in tears of joy?
If there’s one thing missing from the film it’s that head-on cultural debate it alludes to, the social engineering function of romance novels, along with the wish fulfillment and sexual liberation aspects of the genre. Perhaps Khan thought that all went without saying, or maybe she wasn’t interested in trying to justify a love for romance novels with semi-intellectual arguments. But if there was no interest at all then the film shouldn’t have “gone there” with clips of The Scarlet Letter. For maligned forms of entertainment to try to gain legitimacy, they must eventually try to explain why they fit in with the larger cultural context beyond, “we just like them.”
Still, Love Between the Covers is hardly an infomercial for romance novels, and that’s good. I’m not altogether more likely to go out and buy one now having watched this movie, but I happily view them in this new context thanks to filmmaker Khan and all the wonderful authors, publishers and fans that gave her access. The film is well edited and well structured to make even the most cynical literary snob put down their latte and say, “Well, I guess it’s okay to read an occasional romance then.” It may not win minds, but Love Between the Covers could definitely win some hearts.
Even if you've never even though about reading a romance novel in your life, Love Between the Covers will make you a believer, if not make you fall in love, with the much maligned genre.