Why adjust The WILLA Literary Award categories?
Romantic fiction has been around since the 18th century, but it was Jane Austen who set the world on fire with a new form of fiction focusing on the lives and everyday struggles of female protagonists–particularly their romantic lives.
Pride and Prejudice, published in 1811, did not identify the author, as was common with novels of the 18th and early 19th century. The title page only indicated that the book was written “By a Lady.” Jane Austen’s name never appeared on any of her novels during her lifetime.Charlotte Bronte’s romance, Jane Eyre, published in 1847 under the pen name Currer Bell, became an instant bestseller and gained the reputation as a “naughty book.”
Both of these classics became templates for romantic literature that followed. It evolved and separated from other genres by having the unique distinction of primarily being written by women, for women, about women.
Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind (1936) reawakened public interest in romance novels. Soon Rebecca (1938) by Daphne du Maurier followed. It was considered women’s literature—a gothic romance. It is now classified as one of the best psychological-thrillers ever written and has never been out of print.
In the 1950s, romance trended in stories of exotic locales, featuring women who worked outside of expected careers as housewives or mothers. Stewardesses and nurses led exciting lives.
The 1970s introduced the subgenre known as bodice rippers. Eventually these were replaced by narratives that didn’t involve violence and abuse, but they left a heavy lingering perception of romance novels.
In the last twenty years, romance novels have shifted toward accuracy, displaying the wide diversity of their readership and the challenges in overcoming personal struggles. The category has exploded into seven publishing subgenres: contemporary (since WWII), historical, romantic suspense, erotica, religious/spiritual, paranormal/sci-fi/fantasy, and young adult.
By the 2000s romance has become the most popular genre in modern literature. A whopping 29 million people read these subgenres with 84 percent of the readers being women.
And who writes romance? Primarily women.
The debate about whether romance is a worthy genre goes back to it’s advent. Not just romance, but women’s writing as a whole has been questioned. From its beginning, WWW has pushed back against the attitude that a work is judged by the gender of the author.
All genres of literature, including romance, will continue to grow and change with the times. WWW promotes writing about the North American West with emphasis on experiences and sensibilities of women of that region. This includes stories of romance. We welcome people of all genders in their writing endeavors. We learn, strive, cry, and congratulate each other as a community.
Our rubrics strive to evaluate books based on the quality of the writing, regardless of genre. And we thank the authors who came before us, challenging and changing attitudes, so that NOW a title page can bear our name.
I believe Women Writing the West would make Jane Austen smile.
NOVEMBER 1ST—The WILLA Literary Awards open for submissions. Eight categories. Romance is one of them.
Our thanks to members who asked for this adjustment and the 2021 Board, pondering, listening and supporting our members.
~ Barb Froman, WWW President 2020-2021~
Photo credits: joanna-kosinska-b6ydtys2igy-unsplash