When I went down to Durham, North Carolina, for a reading at the Barnes and Noble sponsored by the Durham County Library, I met the Librarian of Awesome, Jennifer Lohmann. She mentioned while we were having lunch that she often talks to libraries and library students about the romance genre – what romances are and what they’re not. I asked if she’d be willing to talk about her presentation and her experience as the Local Romance Expert Librarian.
Having read her responses, I can’t tell you how proud I am to know her. Go Jennifer!
Tell me about your Intro to Romance Presentation?
Jennifer: It’s not really a presentation about what to stock, it’s more an introduction to what romances are and what they aren’t (Pride and Prejudice= romance and Romeo & Juliet=two kids who are dumb enough to commit suicide). I talk about the difference between category and mainstream and then a lot of the subgenres (historical, Regency, paranormal, contemporary, romantic suspense) and the hero and heroine, why I think people read them (fantasy, baby) and why, as a librarian, we should always be respectful of others’ reading tastes and talk a bit about how difficult it was for me to “come out of the closet” and the crap I’ve gotten for it and the people who have adjusted their thinking a bit about romances.
How did you get started doing this introduction? Where have you presented outside of UNC?
Jennifer: I guess this starts with my husband telling me I should “come out of the closet” about my romance reading before I entered my library program. He said if the stereotypes of romance readers pissed me off so much, the only way to fight them was to be honest about my reading. When I got to SILS (School of Information and Library Science at UNC-Chapel Hill), I was already upfront and honest about my reading choices. I read them openly and with no hiding of covers. Dr. Moran, who taught the Popular Materials class, asked if I would come talk to her class about romances. My reply, “Of course!” I put together my presentation with lots of romance covers and tried to cover what I thought were the basics for a three hour class. She’s asked me to come back every other time she’s taught the class and another professor asked me to lead his class discussion on romances when he taught the class. It’s fun to be the local romance expert for librarians.
Outside of UNC, the database of fiction called NoveList (see if your local library has it—NoveList is AWESOME!!!) is headquartered here in Durham. They asked me to come talk to their catalogers about romance so they would better understand the genre as they cataloged the books. I’m happy to talk to more public libraries (especially within driving distance) and library schools. I love to talk about romance and am happy to promote the genre.
What are some of the more awesome questions/comments you’ve received? Most awful/shocking/eye opening/hilariously insane?
Jennifer: I think the most awesome is just how many people did not expect to like the books they read. One professor asked everyone to read Outlander and a lot of the class was surprised how much they liked the book, especially since there was the scene where Jaime beats Claire. When the class got to choose their own romance, many of the women were really shocked that they were entertained by the romance, no matter what they choose.
Most of the men didn’t seem to be so entertained, but I think a lot of them tried to get “a sample romance,” which to them meant horrible cover, purple prose, etc, rather than thinking that a sample romance would be something like Lord of Scoundrels or Jennifer Crusie. A sample romance still means Old Skool to most people, as you and Candy point out in Beyond Heaving Bosoms. Despite giving out a list with Jo Beverley, Mary Balogh, Jennifer Crusie, Suzanne Brockmann, etc., some students were still looking for a book with a ripped bodice and heaving bosom.
In the classes, no student will say anything awful. Whether or not their stereotypes of romance have been shattered, no library science student wants the teacher to think they are disrespecting someone’s reading tastes. That’s a BIG librarian etiquette no-no, especially now. Library school now usually teaches (and—hopefully—librarians promote) a “given ‘em what they want” attitude towards reading. People read for different reasons and all reasons and all choices should be respected.
The idea that the role of the librarian is to move the reader from Georgette Heyer to Jane Austen to Charles Dickens is now considered poor librarianship. Of course, it’s still practiced and many librarians still subscribe to the “improving” idea of reading and role of the library, but you don’t want to admit to it in front of the teacher. That’s a quick way to a nasty look from the teacher.
In the student break room though, it was a different story. Without professors it was acceptable for students to say that romances have poor writing, are just a simple formula, they rot your brain, etc. The basics stereotypes still apply. Most students did not spout such crap, but there were those that did (and probably still do). At a certain point, you just have to give up. Some people are just mules. If you pull harder, they will just sit in the mud and refuse to go in any direction.
As for a short answer to your question, the comment I remember most was about Jennifer Crusie’s Welcome to Temptation. One person described it as a “one-handed read,” which made a lot of people giggle. Especially since she meant it as a compliment.
What tired ass stereotypes do you regularly see, and how do you answer?
Jennifer: Formulas and sex. The first stereotype BLOWS MY MIND! The stereotypical librarian has her bun, sensible shoes, glasses and is reading a mystery. Many people who talk about the romance formula are librarians I know are mystery readers and I usually ask if the bad guy got away in the Margaret Maron they are reading, or if he got caught again. The most interesting argument I got into about the romance formula was with a couple my husband and I know. They aren’t librarians, one is a nurse/poet and the other writes short stories.
The poet, a man, talked about how romances were formulaic and there was such a rigid structure. His wife, the short story writer, defended the romance mostly by saying how all fiction is formulaic. If you write short stories, she said, there is a formula. She referenced The New Yorker formula, which I didn’t know existed, not being a New Yorker reader. If you don’t write in the manner of the New Yorker, you can not get a short story published. She said the New Yorker set the formula for “literary fiction” and if he didn’t notice the formula being taught at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, he wasn’t paying attention. If the person telling me about the romance formula is willing to have a conversation, I will usually talk about that conversation with the poet and short story writer.
The second is harder, I think. The person either does not want to read about sex, in which case I can say that their are sweet romances with no sex, or they don’t seem to notice the, often graphic, sex in what they read. I guess it’s different when the sex in the book is not about love. Sex without love is more literary or something. In this case, I usually ask what they read and then ask them about the sex in the books they read, i.e. if child sexual abuse in Toni Morrison, incest in Phillipa Gregory, or rape in The Color Purple are better examples of sex. This is almost always a losing battle. If women are enjoying the sex, clearly it’s trash. Now if it’s forced on them or if they use sex to manipulate men, that’s literary.
What books repeatedly come up in your discussions?
Jennifer: A lot of people have read Jennifer Crusie or Outlander. Jennifer Crusie is popular because her heroines don’t fit the stereotype people have of romance heroines, especially Min from Bet Me. I think for a lot of women who consider themselves to smart and modern for romance, Min is the perfect heroine. She doesn’t want kids, has a biting sense of humor, and is independent. She’s a good gateway heroine for the hipster librarian. And a lot of people have read Outlander but will swear they’ve never read a romance or, if they read it, it can’t be a romance. Other than that, it’s a mixed bag. People choose all kinds of romances for their book.
How difficult was it to “come out” as a romance reading librarian?
Jennifer: Since I’d already made the decision to “come out” before library school, all of my colleagues know what I read and most of them respect it. More difficult than my colleagues or peers are the library patrons. The ones who like romance love me because they know I won’t judge their taste and they love that there are now romance reviews in our annual publication of staff reviews called Season’s Readings, but I have to be careful with the others. I like to help people find new books and a lot of people just won’t trust my suggestions if they know I read romance. It doesn’t matter if I just finished Bleak House or also read biographies, if I admit to reading romance, my suggestions are immediately suspect. Usually if they ask what I read, I just say that I read a lot of different things and wait to get a sense of them before I give more details.
Coming out to my book club was really hard and I waited almost a year to do that. With some other librarians, I run a book club aimed at people in their 20s and 30s and we meet at local bars and restaurants. We try to pick more unusual books (Dark Knight Returns by Frank Miller, God’s Middle Finger by Richard Grant, In Cold Blood by Truman Capote, Magic for Beginners by Kelly Link, etc) and I had to make sure they trusted my taste before I admitted to reading romance. If they didn’t trust my taste, they won’t come, no matter what books I chose. Now I’m open about it and so are a number of the other women who come. The men are still terrified I’ll pick a romance for them to read, but they come anyway so they must have some faith in my taste.
Most librarians I know are accepting of romance; they are just a bit scared of it because they don’t read it. I can understand that—I’m a bit scared of science fiction since I don’t read a lot of it. The stereotypical judgmental librarian is going away, though they still exist. And, I think, more and more librarians who really love readers’ advisory are picking up a romance. I know at least one of the librarians in the audience on Saturday is going to stick her toe into the romance sea to better help her advise readers.
I think it is so cool that part of being a librarian is building a trust network among readers on multiple levels. Thus it is so appalling that just saying you like romance can damage your authority, even if you’re a librarian with, one would presume, a wide and varied knowledge of books.
Thank you to Jennifer for a fascinating interview, and for being a most excellent representative of romance.