Love Between the Covers
LOVE BETWEEN THE COVERS, documentary, not rated, Jean Cocteau Cinema, 3.5 chiles
For years, Mary Bly led a double life. By day, she was an English professor and Shakespeare scholar with degrees from Harvard, Yale, and Oxford. She also boasted a literary pedigree, as the daughter of poet Robert Bly. By night, she became Eloisa James, blockbuster bestselling author of steamy Regency romance novels. She closely guarded her secret identity, fearing that her academic overlords would not grant her tenure if they knew of her unseemly other career.
The smart, fun documentary Love Between the Covers delves into the quirky world of romance novelists, neatly summarizing Ms. Bly’s quandary with its opening salvo, which declares that this is a story of pride — and prejudice. That pride is palpable throughout the film’s interviews: As Albuquerque residents and writing partners Celeste Bradley and Susan Donovan put it, “We pay the bills for all of popular fiction.” Indeed, romance has proved itself as a genre with timeless appeal, one that evolves and thrives through e-book, social-media, and self-publishing innovations. Several women in the film cite romance as a safe space, the only literary genre to guarantee that women’s sexuality will be treated fairly and positively. Titan romance novelist Nora Roberts stresses that as a reader, she needs and deserves her H.E.A. (happily ever after, in romance parlance).
The film offers a trove of fascinating lore, diving into the extreme backlash the genre has met with since its origins in the domestic fiction and marriage plots of the late 19th century. Nathaniel Hawthorne, jealous at its sales figures, dismissed the burgeoning genre as a “damned mob of scribbling women.” Black author Beverly Jenkins and lesbian novelist Len Barot emphasize their attraction to romance as an inclusive world in which they are celebrated for telling stories outside mainstream fiction. The effect of ghettoizing the genre is to create strong ties between its celebrants. In scenes from the annual Romance Writers of America convention that spotlight the friendships created by shared passions, the sheer delight that comes from reveling in these tawdry tales is evident and moving.
From Amish romances to BDSM bodice-rippers, time-travel tales to shape-shifter sex, the genre’s creative breadth is impressive, as are its sales figures (and cover photo shoots). Yet these authors still go to great lengths to defend their craft. After Bly got her tenure at Fordham University, in 2005, she came out as Eloisa James to her supportive friends and colleagues — and penned an op-ed in defense of romance in The New York Times.
An inspirational thread of feminist idealism runs through this film and the genre itself. As one interviewee puts it, romance devotees are stuck on having and creating their H.E.A.s for a self-fulfilling purpose: “To imagine a world in which women can win, in which their desires are front and center, takes a great deal of energy — and it’s actually a kind of utopian energy.”
Sexy scribblers: Eloisa James, far left, and fellow authors