As an avid romance genre reader, I’m often painfully aware of how popular it is to mock my reading material. Often to my face (virtual or real.) People who know nothing else about me assume that I’m uneducated, mentally lazy (if not outright stupid), unhappy, fat, ugly, and a host of other unflattering and insulting stereotypes, because I admit to reading romance and liking it.
The theory goes that if I were anything but uneducated, stupid, lazy, fat, ugly, etc., I would read proper fiction (or, depending on the snobbery of the other party, non-fiction) instead of ‘that trash.’
This derisive view of romance readers–and writers–is truly prevalent.
This fact was driven home to me today when I saw that, despite the fact that when Ms Small’s death was announced on facebook late on Tuesday, by Kathryn Falk (founder, Romantic Times magazine) there were hundreds of tweets about it–and not just by native English readers and speakers, and not only in English either–within the hour, and dozens of posts to facebook in remembrance, I could not find any obituaries.¹
As I write this, a full twenty four hours later, there is a pitiful paragraph in USToday–written, unsurprisingly, by another romance writer–with a handful of ‘reaction’ tweets tacked on at the end.
Bertrice Small (1937-2015) wrote and saw published–at a time when there was no self-publishing or social media–over fifty novels.
Sit down and ponder that accomplishment for a moment.
Her first novel, The Kadin, sold first to Putnam, and then to Avon Publications (now Avon Romance, a division of Harper Collins), which released it in 1978,
From its inception to that time, Avon had mainly reprinted, in the now ubiquitous mass market paperback, fiction that had originally come out in hardcover. Until 1972, when a determined (female) editor pushed to have an original historical romance published by them. That novel was The Flame and the Flower, by Kathleen Woodiwiss (1939-2007) and the romance genre was never the same.
Written in the middle to late 1970s, Bertrice Small’s The Kadin and later on, Skye O’Malley, were just as groundbreaking as anything you can see in fantasy or science fiction. A meticulous scholar, she researched the Tudor era extensively in preparation to writing her novels set there.
In 1975, Ms Small researched and wrote a novel set in the Renaissance, about a gently reared and sheltered English lady who was sold to a harem, wherein she befriended the concubines and became The Kadin.
Ms Small wrote a female pirate as a heroine of a historical romance novel in 1981, had her command a fleet of pirate ships, and but heads with Queen Elizabeth I herself. From its publication, Skye O’Malley and the rest of the books in the series became the gateway romance read for many a generation of teenagers.
Her heroines were never helpless about their fate, their hearts or their pleasure–in many ways, Ms Small was one of the first feminists in romance fiction.
Her novels have been in every bestseller list there is.
Her books were packed with historical fact, sexual tension, drama and intrigue–and not all of that intrigue relating to whether the main characters would get it on either.
It can and has been argued that Ms Small’s oeuvre is the precursor of today’s erotic romance.
Last year, Ms Small was awarded the Nora Roberts Lifetime Achievement Award by Romance Writers of America, an organization of which she was a founding member. Already ill, she was sadly unable to attend the ceremony. On Wednesday, upon learning of Ms Small’s death, RWA has posted the presentation ceremony to YouTube:
Even someone like me, who came to romance fiction in the United States from a different country, culture and language, and who had never read Ms Small’s novels, knows just how influential her work is in the genre, and how many writers today take risks because Ms Small and the other original Avon ladies took risks with their writing almost forty years ago, bringing about a new era in fiction.
The romance genre, that ‘trash’ I read, brings about the lion share of fiction revenue in the world. In the case of large publishing houses, this means that romance writers help subsidy those non-fiction literary works that sell for shit but for which the authors get hefty advances and plenty of press.
So while it doesn’t surprise me that mainstream media is virtually ignoring Ms Small’s passing, it does sadden me to see her work reduced to a joke about racy covers and bodice ripper plots.
She was a true lady, generous in spirit, and deserving of every good word said about her.
Godspeed, Ms Small, and thank you for being a true feminist, fearless, determined, stubborn and generous.
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