Interview with Laura Clawson, Daily Kos Contributing Editor

Laura Clawson; photo by Mona T. BrooksAfter seeing Laura Clawson‘s article about romance novels on Daily Kos, “Romance Reader, Unashamed” (and seeing the most awesome comment thread ever in terms of knowledge and enthusiasm) I had to get all nosy and beg Ms. Clawson for an interview. Behold!

Laura’s a contributing editor at Daily Kos, and a senior writer at Working America. Even better, she’s a romance fan – wait until you see her favorites list.

So what made you write this article about romance, sexual politics, discrimination and misogynist myths about romance?

Laura: I think that when the second Twilight movie came out I’d seen a resurgence of discussion of those books, with a lot of glancing comparisons to romance of the kind we’re all familiar with. There wasn’t one big moment where I said “I have to write about this,” but as I saw all these little slams I got progressively annoyed and it started marinating in my head to write something. It might almost be worse that people don’t feel like they have to go into detail about what’s wrong with romance, that the word alone can be used to discredit.

On Sundays at Daily Kos we step away from the news cycle a little bit for longer pieces that can broaden the ways we usually approach politics. Among other things it’s our place for more personal pieces, for trying to draw connections that might take more elaboration and a different type of discussion.  I’m always on the lookout for good topics for that, I’ve been encouraged to write more about culture there, and this was a natural fit. 

It was also pretty easy to write because this is a topic I’ve thought so much about.  In fact, my senior honors thesis at Wesleyan was about romance and sci-fi, and how academics tended to treat sci-fi as literature and romances as a cultural phenomenon to be explained. You know, there were actual academic journals of articles about sci-fi, and people writing about how they used it in teaching political science courses, and meanwhile the books about romances were basically wondering why do women read this crap, oh, maybe it’s an escape valve from their miserable lives, etc. Whereas to me, the books just didn’t seem that different.

I continued writing about romances in grad school. We had to write a quantitative research paper and my initial idea was that I was going to look at the shelf space bookstores give to different genres, because I’ve mostly lived in college towns where there are these wonderful independent bookstores with knowledgeable staff and interesting books…and no romance section. So I wanted to take aim that that, but luckily my teachers convinced me that driving around New Jersey with a tape measure comparing the shelf footage given to romances vs. mysteries and so on was probably a recipe for disaster, and instead I brought in my interest in religion and did a comparison of gender roles in Christian and secular series romance. The upshot is that this is one of those topics where it doesn’t take much to set me to talking or writing kind of indefinitely.

What romances are your absolute favorites, the ones that shall not leave your house without a tracking device?

Laura: I have a core of a couple dozen books that I just reread and reread. They include a lot of Mary Jo Putney—most recently I’ve reread The Bargain and The China Bride.  Jude Deveraux was probably my first big favorite, and of hers I particularly love Sweet Liar and A Knight in Shining Armor. Amanda Quick, Reckless and Ravished in particular. I reread Kathleen Gilles Seidel’s Summer’s End practically every time there’s a lot of figure skating on tv.

Susan Elizabeth Phillips, This Heart of Mine in particular. Joan Wolf, The Pretenders and The Gamble. Jennifer Crusie’s Bet Me and Fast Women—I actually started cooking chicken marsala regularly after reading Bet Me. Two that aren’t genre romance but that fit my view that we need to try to pull down some of the walls between the genre and “literary” fiction are Elinor Lipman’s The Inn at Lake Devine and The Way Men Act.

I’m probably forgetting a lot, because I do so much rereading—I can’t really bring a book I’m reading for the first time to bed with me or I’ll never go to sleep, so I pretty much always have something going that I’ve read multiple times. That’s why this list is heavily books several years old, because I don’t yet know what are going to be the more recent ones that stick with me through this process.

Which was the first, or earliest that you remember reading? (I have a theory that most of us romance readers can recall our first romance that we read.)

Laura: Ah, I was afraid you’d ask that. I mean, I read a lot of Victoria Holt in junior high, and in grade school I’d read those Sunfire teen romances—the ones titled with a woman’s name and on the cover she’d be standing in the foreground with the two men she had to choose from in the background. I think Susannah was the first of those I read, but Amanda and Joanna were my favorites.

That said, I stopped reading anything much resembling romance at a certain point in my teens, and I do remember the book that was kind of my conversion moment as a college student. I just wish it had been something else—it was The Nightingale Legacy, by Catherine Coulter, and I no longer read her books for a number of reasons. I do kind of want to dig that one up and reread it, though, out of nostalgia if nothing else.

Thank you, Laura, for taking the time to answer my nosy questions! I love that her reading list of favorite romances makes me nod my head and shimmy.

Am I alone in wanting to read her senior thesis?

Also: did you guys know that the cover for each Sunfire book was a spoiler? I think I may have mentioned this before: whichever guy the heroine is pictured with is the one she does NOT end up with. So match the description, check out the mini clinch going on in the background, and behold: Not The Hero. Once I figured that out, massive bummer.

Comments are Closed

  1. Am I alone in wanting to read her senior thesis?

    No. I couldn’t find it online, but I did find out that it’s called “Covering genres: romance, science-fiction/fantasy, pleasure, and respectability.”

    I brought in my interest in religion and did a comparison of gender roles in Christian and secular series romance.

    I couldn’t find a record of a thesis or dissertation on that topic (in case anyone’s concerned that this sounds stalker-ish, the reason I’m trying to track down the items is so that I can add them to the Romance Wiki’s bibliography of research done on the genre. Did at least part of that research end up as “Cowboys and Schoolteachers: Gender in Romance Novels, Secular and Christian”  in Sociological Perspectives 48.4: 461–479? That one is available, at the link above.

  2. Tina says:

    Not Gonna lie, I managed to write a senior history thesis based on the idea of the Sunfire romance Susannah.  I found it used at a library sale when I was in high school and loved it.  My advisor at the time called my research into marriage as affected by the Civil War “Groundbreaking” so I guess I spun it pretty well.  Its good to hear of someone else who loved the Sunfire series

  3. Mama Nice says:

    Sigh. I love, love LOVED the Sunfire Romance novels! I believe I was in 5th grade when I read them ALL. I have them in a box somewhere in my basement…I think…now I need to dig em out and get all nostalgic!

    My senior seminar for my B.A. in English was about the the Literature of the Wild West, and my thesis involved Romance novels placed in the “wild west” – archetypes, trends,and themes in common with more “traditional” cowboy tales.

  4. emdee says:

    Bitches, thanks for interviewing this amazing woman!  Laura, thank you, thank you for your insights and for getting the message out.

  5. Christine says:

    Ahhh Sunfire Romances.  Talk about memories.  I read all of them when I was in sixth and seventh grade.  I think there might still be two or three of them on my book shelf buried behind my Nora Roberts collection (and I’m almost 40 now).

  6. Awesome interview, thanks for that!

    Ahh, Sunfire Romances… I read a handful before moving on to Mills&Boon;, and can still remember the plot of ROXANNE.

  7. How did that semicolon get there? It wasn’t in my original comment. I checked. *eyeroll*

    although59: although, who cares?

  8. Annmarie says:

    Great interview.  I loved Laura’s article and after reading this interview I want her to talk books on a regular basis. 

    Why is it no one this interesting lives anywhere near me?  Can someone answer that?

    I’d also like to say that I recently ended a 20+ year ‘friendship’ because the woman continued to ridicule romances after I asked her not to.  I’m at a point in my life where I refuse to hide my reading choices and I refuse to tolerate mockery of a genre I love.

  9. Love this interview! But, help me out here—WTF scares people so much about what women like to read? They’ve gotta be scared or they wouldn’t react with generations of put downs!

  10. help me out here—WTF scares people so much about what women like to read? They’ve gotta be scared or they wouldn’t react with generations of put downs!

    I don’t know that I’ve got the definitive answer to that question, JoAnn, but I have written a blog post about the long history of attacks on women’s reading choices.

  11. Julia T. says:

    Add me to the list of people who wrote about romance novels in college. That’s actually how I stumbled upon this site initially, doing research. I wrote a research paper (one of those “practice” ones that they make you do in the beginning writing class, which I didn’t really need the practice being a computer science major and all but I digress) on the phenomenon that is the romance market. I got an A. My friend, who ridiculed my choice of topic, did not get an A.

  12. Barb Ferrer says:

    I never read the Sunfire romances, but did anyone read the Silhouette Teen romances?  There were a couple that I absolutely loved and regret that my mother purged them after I went to college.

    Anyhoo… tangent, much?  Great interview, Sarah and thanks for the lovely defense, Laura!

  13. Heather says:

    Sunfire romances?! *swoon*

    I’d forgotten all about those. Well, more like I don’t think I ever knew they had a series title. My favorite was Caroline about the girl who goes to California dressed as a boy. One of my favorite tropes! lol And I liked Heather because, well, it’s my name. 🙂 I wonder if they’re still in one of the boxes at my folks’ place. Hmmm…

    I don’t think all the covers were spoilers. The first several don’t have a clinch. (I was just looking at them.)

    I didn’t write a thesis on romance—hard to do in science—although I wrote an admission essay to Stanford based on a quote from a Nora Roberts book. (But didn’t get accepted.) And my first grad school paper on the Little Mermaid.

  14. Heather says:

    Adding to previous post…

    @Barb Ferrer I totally read the Silhouette Teen Romances. I think I still have one called Land’s End. It made it through my mom’s purges. 🙂

  15. Susan says:

    Thanks, SB Sarah, for posting this interview. As often happens at SBTB, I found myself thinking, “Yeah, what she said!”, and seeing many simliarities to my own life-experience.

    I was the only girl in my 4th and 5th grade class whose mom let her buy Sunfires from the Scholastic Book Club. I read Roxanne at least 100 times, along with Caroline and Marilee, before turning to my mom’s Jude Deveraux and Johanna Lindsey books in the 8th or 9th grade.

    We are fortunate to have public, articulate woman like you and Ms. Dawson out there advocating for romance readers.

    spamword: south69. Please tell me I’m not the only one in whom this inspires naughty thoughts…

  16. Vera says:

    The whole literary genre wall is so ridiculous, anyway.

    Anyone seen AVATAR?  We all know it’s a giant romance novel come to life, in the end!

  17. Great work, Laura!

    I’ve never heard of the Sunfire books, but based on the passion and volume of the collective ahhhhing and swooning, I’m assuming Hugh Jackman delivers them with his shirt off. Is thirty too old to appreciate these books, if I tried to track them down?

  18. Susan says:

    GAH! it’s Ms. Clawson, not Ms. Dawson. *blushing* *sigh*

  19. Sarah V. says:

    Awesome interview, and wonderful article by Clawson.  Very timely, after having an almost out and out fight with my ex on this very subject.  And still peeved about it, since I know it’s never ending.

    “You haven’t even read a romance novel!  You have no idea what you’re talking about.”
    “I read part of one!  That’s all I needed.”

    Need I say more?  There is also an author in my small town who owns a bookstore, and does not sell romance on principle.  Sigh!  Though she has Mercedes Lackey’s Fairy Godmother in the fantasy section.  It’s my silent ha-ha.  I don’t think she has any idea.

    Next time someone starts up yet another discussion about this(and oh, do they), I will have to reference “Romance Reader, Unashamed”.

    Take that, @#$%^es!

  20. Laura Clawson says:

    Thanks, everyone, for the great reception. The piece I wrote Sunday is now officially one of my favorite things I’ve ever written, because of the incredible conversations it’s produced.

    I’m glad I’m not alone with the Sunfire thing! Though did anyone else go online and buy some used copies of old favorites that had been lost?

    @Laura Vivanco The Cowboys and Schoolteachers article was the only thing I’ve had published on romances; that was basically my masters qualifying paper, but my dissertation was on another topic. Honestly that paper is compromised in a ton of ways and isn’t my favorite thing I’ve ever written.

    I really wish I’d gone back to my senior thesis and done more with that, but at this point I don’t even have it on disk, I don’t think. I’m considering getting the hard copy scanned so I at least have a PDF to share, but that’ll be something of a project, too.

  21. I really wish I’d gone back to my senior thesis and done more with that, but at this point I don’t even have it on disk, I don’t think. I’m considering getting the hard copy scanned so I at least have a PDF to share, but that’ll be something of a project, too.

    I’m sure Sarah and I aren’t the only ones who’d love to read it.

    I know it would make the project even bigger, but do you think it might be possible to condense the thesis or extract part of it and turn it into an article? The Journal of Popular Romance Studies should be launching its first issue early in 2010, so there’s definitely an academic journal interested in publishing articles about the genre.

  22. I managed to write a senior history thesis based on the idea of the Sunfire romance Susannah.

    Oh, that one is on my keeper shelf! Plan on passing it on to the bratlet when she’s a little older. She’s still (thankfully) in the ‘romance is gross’ stage.

    Laura, I loved reading your post at Daily Kos.  It was awesome.

  23. Tina says:

    I guess I am too young to have read them new but I definitely found a whole bunch at library sales and then discovered some on Ebay…including one (Kathleen) going for over $20 at times…and yes I still re-read them from time to time

  24. rigmarole says:

    I’d still be buying Sunfires today if they were still printing them. I have my copies of Caroline and Elizabeth and a few others and will probably never give them up.

  25. Suze says:

    Anyone seen AVATAR?  We all know it’s a giant romance novel come to life, in the end!

    It totally is!  And I enjoyed it immensely.  I wonder if that’s why some critics didn’t like it.  It apparently wasn’t “meaty” enough, too fluffy, for some of them.

    Romance denigrated because it’s mostly for women.  Women in traditionally male jobs are written off as not good enough.  Men in traditionally female jobs are assumed to be superior.  Argh.

  26. Tricia says:

    Oh, how I love Amanda from the Sunfire series! That was my first romance I read when I was 12 🙂

  27. Allie says:

    Ah all this talk of Sunfires and I had no idea what any of you were talking about until someone mentioned Roxanne and a light lit in my brain.  I adored that book and I’m pretty sure if I looked in the dusty recesses of my bookshelves I’d find it there still.  I know it survived many many purges as we shifted around.  Funny how we all remember our first romance isn’t it?  Mine was either a Sweet Dreams or Wildfire (I can never remember which books were in which line) called P.S I Love You and as soon as I read it I was hooked on romance.  I found a whole bunch of those old teen romances at my parents’ house recently and spent a happy time reliving my childhood.

  28. Christine says:

    Mine was either a Sweet Dreams or Wildfire (I can never remember which books were in which line) called P.S I Love You

    I read that!!  It made me cry!

  29. Cora says:

    Am I alone in wanting to read her senior thesis?

    Add me to the chorus of people wanting to read Ms. Clawson’s senior thesis. My own PhD thesis is on the intersections between romance on the one hand and SF and fantasy on the other, so any research done in that area is of interest to me.

    So should you ever get around to scanning your thesis, I’d definitely be very interested.

  30. PetiteJ says:

    I just found this site tonight and I think I must devour the whole thing much like a new Nora Roberts book. 

    Sunfire!!  I had completely forgotten about those books but the description of the book covers brought them all back.  I think Joanna was my favorite though I’m sad to admit I don’t remember who she chose in the end.  Guess I can just look at the book cover.

    I quickly graduated from category romances in 8th grade to Jude Devereaux (favorites: A Knight in Shining Armor, The Awakening), Johanna Lindsey (Warrior’s Woman), and Catherine Coulter (The Sherbrooke Bride).  I also enjoyed the Orphan Train and Corbin series by Linda Lael Miller.  Nora Roberts rules my heart now but I’m inspired to branch out and re-discover the brave new world of romance novels out there.

    Truth be told I think my first romance novel was Mistress of Mellyn and I included it in my English thesis about romance novels. 

    Gah, this all takes me back!  Thank you for a wonderful interview and site.  Immediately going into my favorites.

  31. Laura Clawson says:

    @PetiteJ The Awakening and Joanna? You must share my love of romance novels with union/strike plots!

    I will see if I can get a scan of my thesis. Obviously as an undergrad thesis it’s…well, undergrad work, and even at the time I knew I should have pushed it further. But since in reading all the comments in this thread about other people’s theses, I’ve been thinking “oh, I want to read that”…

  32. Holly says:

    Thank You!  I love this blog – I read about it in the Chicago Tribune and have been an avid read for the past couple of months.  It’s nice to find other people who have read many of the same books and can introduce me to other authors and blogs. 
    I never read the Sunfire Romances but the Silhoutte “First Love” series – I think I picked up the very first one published when I was in 4th grade and was hooked.  After reading these comments, I had to google them and sure enough – one look at the covers and I remembered the whole plot. 
    I would love to read Ms. Clawson’s thesis – I’m an avid Sci-Fi and Romance reader.  Although in my experience – I’ve gotten more flack about the Sci-Fi than the Romance from my friends.

  33. Susan/DC says:

    Thank you Ms. Clawson.  I live near an independent bookstore that is a favorite meeting place and home away from home for me and many of my friends, but I hate that they refuse to carry any romance novels.  Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum series is so profitable they can’t ignore it, but those can be shelved in Mystery and so no sensibilities are ruffled by having to call them Romance.  As you note, it’s fine to be an eclectic reader and move from literary fiction to SF/Fantasy to mystery to whatever, but heaven help you if you admit to reading romance novels. 

    And thanks for giving me an excuse to go to Daily Kos.

    P.S.  My spam filter is section69—perhaps it’s something to do with the name Susan?

  34. Mary G says:

    Hi Laura
    What an awesome post you wrote!! Now if I could just have the courage to read whatever I want at work. I still have a “books to read at home” pile” & “books I can take out in public” pile depending on the covers. I don’t care if people know I read erotica. I just don’t want to be bugged during my precious reading time.

  35. Dragoness Eclectic says:

    The stigma associated with romance novels actually kept me, an avid reader since early childhood, from trying romance novels as a genre for about 30 years. I’m not sure what I was afraid of—being bored, I guess, since my tastes ran toward the weird and exotic (science fiction, fantasy, horror) and I felt mundane people with normal lives would be boring. I would have loved paranormal romance if it had been around in my childhood.

    As it is, I still just dabble, and wait on reliable recommendations before I read a book. I’ve learned that I like just about anything Nora Roberts writes, especially the Eve Dallas stories, and that a lot of storiesI thought were something else were really romances in disguise. I was reading Elizabeth Peters “Amelia Peabody” mysteries as mysteries for years before I realized they are also romances.

    My husband pointed out another thing about romances—they dominate men’s genre literature too, except it’s not called that when it’s marketed for men. It’s called Western, Science Fiction, Action/Adventure, anything but romance for guys. Yes, there’s a lot of genre fiction that’s not romances, but most of the really enduring classics are, or have strong romantic elements. 

    Half of Louis L’Amour’s westerns are romances. Almost all of Zane Gray’s were. Every book Edgar Rice Burroughs wrote was a romance. Doc Smith’s classic space operas somehow manage to get all the major male characters paired up with (and married to) the major female characters.  Most of Leigh Brackett’s classic pulp scifi stories featured a rough, tough guy taking insane risks because of a gorgeous girl he just fell for.  C. L. Moore’s stories had strong romantic elements. (Though sometimes the girl is a succubus, not a girl…)  Even Tom Clancy’s thrillers have romantic subplots now and then. (Weak ones—he’s a good story-teller, but not so good in the romance department).

    Why? Because guys actually like stories about being the noble hero saving the beautiful girl and falling in love with her and living happily ever after. Love and family are fundamental to being human.  So why is it that stories about such an essentially human topic are denigrated when they are aimed at women, but considered great when aimed at men?

  36. Ten years ago, a good friend and excellent romance writer told me, “You have to be better than romance to write romance.”  Now, what I may have taken as a slam was not meant as one.  As I was just beginning my writing career and had the notion, as many novice writers do, that writing romance was a low rung on the ladder, my friend wanted me to know that there’s much more to writing bodice rippers than bodice ripping.  She was so right.
      This Christmas, I ran into a former business colleague in Orlando who told me he’d heard I was now writing romance novels.  “I think I’ll give that a crack,” he said.  “It’s a simple formula.  How hard could it be?”  I smiled at him and decided I’d let him live with his delusions.  Let him see just how easy it isn’t to create believable characters and make his readers’ hearts pound.  Let’s see how he navigates point of view.  And I can’t wait to read his sex scenes.  They’ll undoubtedly drone on like an anatomy lesson.  But let him have his fun.  If he’s astute (and serious), he’ll pay attention to the rejection letters.  He’ll realize the “simple formula” of writing romance isn’t so simple.
      How do you suppose he’ll handle conflict?  Heaven knows, he’ll probably have his h/h dueling it out with antiquated pistols.  Of course, he’ll be proud of himself because he’d have researched the correct firearms for the job.  But would he put us in the head of the duelers?  Would we feel their anguish?  Would our finger twitch and our heart beat in our ears as we squeeze the trigger?  Oops, he just killed off the heroine.  Now what?
      Not that accuracy isn’t important.  This is particularly true for historicals (I spent several years researching the Mayan civilization for my time travel), but contemporaries aren’t exempt.  For my first print book, Love Fang, I asked a dentist friend to read over the scenes where my dentist heroine was practicing endodontics.  I didn’t want any hygienists, dental assistants, or dentists to call me on inaccuracies as my heroine performed a root canal.  My friend was happy to oblige.  He returned the scenes to me with his stamp (or should I say drill) of approval.  I hadn’t told him previously that the book was a romance, so this was the point at which I recounted the plot.  He guffawed.  “Oh, a romance?  Why would you care whether it was accurate?”  I guess I wouldn’t be thanking him in the credits.
      As the lovely Sarah at Smart Bitches/Trashy Books says, educating the public about the quality of romance has to be done in baby steps.  Sure, there’s still bad writing out there and there are writers who don’t do their due diligence, but that’s true in any genre. 
      We can change the public’s perceptions.  The more we write quality romance, write about the attributes of good romance, and celebrate the writers who excel in this genre, the more people will realize how wrong they’ve been.  Won’t you take a few minutes to blog your views?  Or, the next time you’re in Barnes & Noble, how about siding up to someone with one of your favorite romance novels in hand and expounding on its exceptional prose?  You might enlist a convert.

  37. joykennedy says:

    Clearly we all love to talk and think about romance and contrast them with other category reading.  Years and years ago I did a massive annotated bibliography (I’m a librarian) on the imagies of women in genre fiction just as they were changing to a more independent modern view of women’s roles.  I brought in those adult westerns—Longarm, I mean how obvious—as contrast.  I think its listed in ERIC somewhere as I presented it at a public library conference.  Interesting as I wrote it decades ago just as roles were changing.  Looking forward to the new academic journal on popular romance.  Mostly stuff on romances at that time showed up in the Journal of Popular Culture.

  38. Jinni says:

    Ok, my senior thesis in college (1993) was about romance novels, as well.  Mostly about the recurring themes and paradigms and their reflection across other literature.  It seems like a bunch of us worked hard to incorporate what we loved into our academic lives.  Mine was ‘groundbreaking’ as well.  Most senior seemed to write about Christian themes in literature or did comparative studies.

  39. PetiteJ says:

    I don’t recall the exact title of my thesis or really the main theory.  I remember writing about Jane Eyre, Mistress of Mellyn, and Nora Roberts and trying to show the progression of romance novels from readily accepted canonical works to the category genre that is belittled by the mainstrem.  I think that was it because what I really remember is writing an 80-page paper blindingly fast, two weeks, because I’m a major procrastinator.  Oh, and that I loved romances and that’s what I wanted to write about.  Now I’m inspired to dig it out and look at it.  I know I’ll be horrified that I didn’t really do it justice.

  40. I am SOOO glad I’m not going crazy. I swear that romance novels aren’t allowed in this city. The ONLY book store that carries them is the chain. Ug. Thank you to all the wonderful women who write and write about romances.

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