Romance is the best-selling genre of literature in the United States – for a dying publishing industry, the billions of dollars these novels rake in every year should serve as a beacon of hope. But sisters Bea and Leah Koch believe romance novels don’t get the respect they deserve and that’s why they are opening The Ripped Bodice, which they claim will be the sole romance-only bookstore in America. NERVE spoke to Bea and Leah about their ambitions for the store, sex, and the stigma against literature consumed primarily by women. [Full disclosure: The interviewer has known these sisters for years and is therefore an expert on their unrelenting nerdiness.]
You two have always been sucked into one book or another. But what I don’t remember is when you started reading romance.
B: I read historical fiction growing up. And I kind of stumbled onto romance from there. I also read some straight [Jane] Austen fanfiction, and then I think I found Regencies. But it’s always been historical for me. I just love that setting and the historical details.
L: I started reading romance because Bea did, I think I was probably around 12.
Ok, obvious question: What do you like about romance novels?
B: I love how feminist they are. How they’re about women getting their happy endings. I love that they show so many different kinds of relationships between so many different kinds of people.
L: I really like seeing how different characters react to the same situations that inevitably come up in a relationship.
So, if you had to guess, why do you think romance novels are the best-selling books in the United States?
B: I don’t know that I can speak for anyone else, but I think there’s obviously something about romance that resonates with so many women. Personally, I love happy endings. And just because you know it’s coming, the journey isn’t any less fun. Good romance is all about bringing something fresh and new to love stories.
Do you two have any theories on the bad rap romance novels get? The term “chick lit” comes to mind.
L: I honestly don’t think it’s much more complicated than a patronizing distaste for things that women like.
Guns blazing! Can you elaborate a little on that?
L: Listen, we don’t want to stereotype people any more then they stereotype us, but I have had countless conversations, with both men and women by the way, where they say, gosh romance novels, they’re so trashy/badly written/formulaic/dumb. And then you ask, have you ever read one? 98% of the time the answer is no. Universally saying something sucks that you’ve never experienced would not fly with most things but because romance novels have been shoved into this corner of “women’s things” it is some how okay.
How do your tastes differ?
B: We are very much split into two camps. I reads historicals, Leah reads contemporaries. But we do like to share books and push ourselves to read different genres. Right now, we are making a conscious effort to be reading as many genres as we can, and as many new authors as we can, so our opening inventory for the store will be as well rounded as possible.
L: I tend to get very into a one subgenre at a time. I particularly love books about witches because they tend to be focused on sisterhood and a respect for nature.
For you, what makes the difference between a good romance novel and a bad one?
B: I hate passivity in a romance. I love heroes and heroines who know what they want and fight for it.
L: I 100% agree with Bea. In the contemporary romances that I tend to read you need solid careers for both of your main characters. I know that sounds obvious but you would be surprised. And when it comes to sex scenes: communication, communication, communication!
Romance novels that feature rape fantasies are less in vogue now than they used to be but they still exist. So as lovers of consensual sex, where will you draw the line on what you sell in your stores?
L: It’s pretty simple, we advocate for safe, consensual sex in healthy, adult relationships. If your book depicts something other then that, we won’t sell it.
But let’s be honest — not everyone comes to these books because they want to see happily ever after. Some people read romance because they want to read “fine smut”: the steamy sex scenes you’re sure to find if you flip through many of these novels. How do you feel about the sex portrayed in them?
L: It’s vital to the genre and not only for basic enjoyment reasons. A generation of girls that has grown up reading romance novels is going to be more comfortable discussing sex and birth control with potential partners, have a clear and healthy understanding of what consent looks like, both in short-term and long-term relationships, and hopefully believe that their sexual pleasure is as important as their partners.
Jennifer Weiner once said, “Sometimes we do read to make friends. Sometimes we do read to escape, or find comfort, or to spend time in a world that is a little more fair and a little more kind than the world that we inhabit.” What do you think romance novels specifically provide for their readers? What’s their value add in our modern world?
B: I’d say for me it’s about spending time in another world. I love escaping to Regency England. It’s my fictional happy place.
L: Our world really sucks a lot of the time. For me, romance novels are pure pleasure.
Bea, some people out there may not know that you are a romance novelist yourself. When did you start writing?
B: I started writing my first romance novel the summer after college, but I didn’t finish it. I was in love with the research, but the follow through not so much. I ended up shelving it and going to graduate school. I was still so obsessed with romance novels and was trying to figure out how to include them in my research, so I ended up writing my thesis on the fashion in Regencies. And the summer after graduate school, I sat down and wrote my first, full romance novel.
What makes the romance novels you write special? Of course, I’ll read your debut (out of obligation only…) but assuming I didn’t know you, why would I pick yours out of the 9,999 others in The Ripped Bodice?
B: My book is a pretty traditional Regency, but part of the fun of the strictness of that subgenre is finding ways to make my book unusual and exciting. I love doing research so I gave my heroine a unique scientific passion. There’s also a Duke with a family secret and an academic society where not everything is as it seems.
Check out the kickstarter for The Ripped Bodice here.