Guest Post: Romance Sociology on the Feminine Culture of Romance Authors

It should surprise no one that some of us here at Wonkomance fangurl the ladies of Romance Sociology, Joanna Gregson and Jen Lois. I mean, really…it doesn’t get much more deliciously meta than sociology professors who study the culture of romance authors. For today’s post I asked them to talk about some of the positives they’ve seen in their research [and their response immediately made me recall John Scalzi’s reaction to attending the 2013 RT convention, so I’ll just link that here for anyone who’s interested].

Take it away, Joanna and Jen!


For the past three years we’ve been conducting sociological research on the romance-writing community. Our work has taken us to romance writers’ conferences, writing groups, and author and reader events. We’ve also interviewed over 50 authors, agents, editors, and reviewers.

At the first RWA conference we attended, we were struck by how different it felt from other professional associations we’ve encountered. Virtually every person we’ve spoken to about the romance community has expressed a similar observation—that there is something distinctly different about this group. We attribute that difference to the predominant influence of women in the subculture. Social research of single-sex social groupings shows they tend to take on and magnify the stereotypical characteristics of that gender. Thus, men’s prisons are hypermasculine, while sororities are hyperfeminine. The same can be said of occupational groups dominated by one sex, and it’s certainly true of the romance community.

The driving force in the romance-writer subculture is the emphasis on “being nice.” Though Sarah Wendell and Candy Tan deftly explain the downside of this directive in their book Beyond Heaving Bosoms, we’ve been most interested in the source of this subcultural code. As sociologists, we examine how the code arises from female gender socialization—the messages girls and women receive from the larger culture. Girls are taught first and foremost to “be nice”: to the new kid in class, to adults and authority figures, to people in general. As part of that code, girls and women are also encouraged to cultivate a sense of self through relationships; they’re rewarded for playing well with others, expected to seek compromise over conflict, and bear the onus of managing social relationships. Boys, in contrast, tend to be taught that a sense of self comes from setting themselves apart from others—from standing out in the crowd on the merit of their accomplishments. Although many people receive both of these messages, research has shown that they are weighted differently for women and men. Therefore, it’s no surprise that the romance-writing subculture, a subculture dominated by women, would reflect an emphasis on being nice as the means to developing relationships.

We’ve observed several ways in which these codes are infused into the culture. First, being nice is equated with professional behavior. Two agents on a panel at a regional conference provided examples of this in their response to the question “What do you look for in an author?”:

Agent 1: “The work comes first. Then not having a negative platform, like flaming on Goodreads, taking part in a Twitter argument, or commenting back on Amazon.”

Agent 2: “No matter what medium, professionalism at all times… Nothing can happen in mudslinging except getting dirty.”

A second aspect of being nice is being inclusive. For example, writers often reassure newcomers that they should never feel intimidated to approach “famous” authors (who are often described as “totally accessible”), and that this community is special because no one ever feels excluded. One writer expressed this on a listserv in anticipation of an upcoming regional conference:

“The conference is small enough that NO ONE ever feels left out unless it’s their choice to fly solo. You’ll be pleasantly surprised how many new friends you’ll make in just the first few hours.”

Finally, we believe the be-nice ethos in RWA can be seen in the incredible support writers find here. In fact, one of the characteristics most people offer when we ask them to describe RWA is “supportive.” Support takes the form of mentoring, of cheering, of being there for the trials and tribulations of the career. It means taking time from one’s own work to read someone else’s, offering advice to a newcomer, and doing other things that emphasize the human relationships at play. As one author told us:

“There are not a lot of environments where women who have been successful will routinely come back and keep helping women be more successful. So even though there’s a very big competition there’s also an incredible amount of support and generosity that is just staggering.”

With over 10,000 members, RWA is one of the most successful professional writers’ organizations. As we analyze the be-nice culture among romance writers, we see sociological significance in the fact that it is an outgrowth of a female-dominated community. Just as significant, we think, is how the culture seems to help writers compensate for the difficult experiences in this industry: the constant rejection built into a writing career and the stress of constantly defending the romance genre against the negative perceptions of uninformed outsiders. The be-nice culture has its downside, to be sure, but it also functions in a tremendously positive capacity by providing the community cohesion that romance writers need to meet the challenges of the career.

Because we’re still collecting data, we’d love to hear from you if you have thoughts about this topic. We’re especially interested in hearing from people who can compare their experiences in the romance-writing world with other professional communities, including male-dominated writing groups.

Jen Lois_Joanna GregsonProfessors Joanna Gregson (Pacific Lutheran University) and Jen Lois (Western Washington University) have been studying the romance author culture since 2010. In 2011, they received an Academic Research Grant from the Romance Writers of America. You can follow their research on facebook (Romance Sociology) and Twitter (@RomanceSoc).

About Delphine Dryden

Areas of wonkery: geek culture, kink/BDSM, science for those who are not mathematically inclined, educational psychology. Read more >
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7 Responses to Guest Post: Romance Sociology on the Feminine Culture of Romance Authors

  1. Audra North says:

    I love the be-nice ethos! Even when my beta readers are critiquing, I’ve found their comments to be supportive. That doesn’t mean they won’t rip apart a manuscript; it just means they’ll do it in a way that helps me create something better, instead of making me want to abandon writing altogether.

    I could talk for hours about the difference between this and being a woman in tech (especially relevant in light of the Tech Crunch debacle), so you’re always welcome to hit me up.

    • I know! It’s the most welcoming professional community I’ve ever experienced, and I’ve never gotten the sense that the niceness is forced or not genuine in any way. I almost don’t care about the “why” of that. And oh GOD Tech Crunch. I accidentally read comments on a few articles about that whole latest brouhaha…and wanted to bleach my brain afterward to forget.

  2. I think being nice sometimes gets a bad rap in other circles as though it’s something you’ve been forced into doing against your better judgement. Part of the pleasure of RWA is how other writers, who are at least theoretically my competition, are so genuinely happy for every success I have. That in turn makes it easy for me to want to celebrate friends’, or even random strangers’, accomplishments.

  3. Cate Ellink says:

    Thank you for a fascinating post. I’m in RWAustralia and I’ve found the same incredible support as described. That’s interesting that same sex groups exhibit the magnification of the stereotype. I’d never thought of it in that way.

    My other life was working in agriculture, which is male dominated. It’s been interesting to notice the differences (and similarities) between the industries, now I feel I’m armed with a little more knowledge about these differences. Thank you!


    • What Cate said. I’ve worked in male dominated industries all my life. My first RWA function did things to my brain. It doesn’t have to be fear, suspicion and compete to the death. Who knew.

  4. Pingback: Links: Thursday, September 12th | Love in the Margins

  5. Fiona McGier says:

    While I’ve never been involved with a group of male writers, I was in a male-dominated sales firm for a while, where I was alternated patronized as the only female allowed in board meetings (expected to act a secretary and take notes until I refused and they had to go back to rotating that function), and ignored as being unimportant. I was told directly that since I didn’t like to golf, I would never get ahead. Also that I didn’t get the proper respect from the “gals” in customer service because I used the same bathroom–when I offered to learn to use a urinal if that would help, I was accused of ignoring that VPs attempt to help me “get ahead”. I have lots of stories like that, all of which culminated in health-affecting stress forcing me to quit, at which time despite not being able to give me a raise, they split my “desk” in half, promoted two men, and gave each of them my salary, while having me train both of them. Sigh.

    No industry is without its stresses and challenges. Education is filled with cliques, as was that office, though the men said only women gossip…I told them they did the same thing, only they called it “talking business”. What a load of BS! As a writer, I’ve been in contact with many women and a few men. I’m not sure if it’s because I write romance as opposed to say, history or sci-fi where more men are writing. But I’ve always felt a sense of community, though I’ve never been able to afford to make it to any conventions. It’s hard enough to hold your head up in any profession, with so many around you trying for your job. It’s a huge relief to know that those around you are supportive, rather than waiting for you to have a weak moment so they can remove you entirely.