What are you giving her to read?

In July I attended the Romance Writers of America (RWA)’s 2015 conference in New York City, and as I reflect on that experience, I’m reminded of a scene from the movie A League of Their Own. If you’re unfamiliar with the film, it’s about the first female professional baseball league.

Setting: The bus of one of the league’s teams, the Rockford Peaches

Characters: Mae, Shirley, Evelyn

Mae [helping Shirley learn to read]: Sound it out…

Shirley: Kimm…

Mae: Kimono.

Shirley: Kimono, kimono. Off. And. Gr – Gra – Grabb”d.

Mae: Grabbed.

Shirley: Her. M – mi – mil – mil – milky, milky. White, white. Milky white.

Evelyn:  Mae. What are you giving her to read?

Mae: Oh, what the difference does it make? She’s reading, okay? That’s the important thing. Now go away, go, shoo, shoo. Go ahead, Shirley, you’re doing good.

Shirley: Thanks, Mae. Milky white bre – breasts.

[Gives Mae a surprised look]

Mae: It gets really good after that. Look. The delivery boy walks in…

What does this have to do with the RWA conference? The answer is a two-parter.

Part one: Each year the RWA holds its Readers for Life literacy signing during the conference. Hundreds of authors sign books for two hours; fans (conference attendees and the public) get to meet and chat with their favorite writers. All the profits from the book sales are donated to literacy organizations; since 1990 over $900,000 have been raised.  The need for literacy programming continues to rise as funding for such programming decreases. Thirty-six million Americans read below a third-grade level; sixteen percent of the world’s population are non-literate (two-thirds of these are women). The inability to read is, I believe, life-threatening: health, socioeconomic status, and political and personal freedom are likely to decline for the non-literate. Imagine being unable to read the directions on a bottle of medicine or a sign deeming water unfit for human consumption,  fill out a job application, make use of a bus or train schedule, or be able to vote or understand one’s rights. The movie character Shirley finished  league tryouts but couldn’t find her name on a team roster; another player found Shirley’s name, and a new teammate would eventually teach her to read.

I’d like to applaud the writers of RWA for making such a significant contribution to increasing literacy rates worldwide and bringing greater awareness to the problem.  RWA authors make readers through their generosity, but they also make readers through their novels and stories. And yet romance writers are often considered to be “lesser” writers, their stories less significant and their prose less skillful than those of writers in other genres. I’ve heard romance writers recount such comments as “Oh, you’re just a romance writer” and “I see. You write ROMANCES [insert disdainful tone here].” Here’s a confession: before I began to work with authors of romances, I had a similar attitude. I have since been schooled by authors who write engaging stories and create captivating worlds (both realistic and fantastical) and characters. I’ve also read prose that is impeccable in mechanics and flow.  Romance as a genre has so many subgenres that it’s impractical to list them here. The “We need diverse romances” movement encourages books that reflect society more accurately and the authors who write them.  Romances featuring African American, Asian, biracial, and LGBTQ characters are growing in number.  There are Young Adult and Christian subgenres. There truly is something for everyone in the genre, and its readership continues to expand.

And that leads to part two.  People are reading. In 2013 romance had an annual total sales value of $1.08 billion and a 13 percent share of adult fiction (statistics available at www.rwa.org).  Just as romance authors are undeserving of “lesser” status, so are romance readers.  In all genres there are great books and not-so-great books, and we are free to select those that pique our interest. One person’s great book is another’s not-great-book and vice versa.

They’re reading, ok?