Wi16 Education: All You Need Is Love: LGBTQ+ Romance

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On Friday, February 19, the 2021 Virtual Winter Institute featured a two-part panel discussion dedicated to LGBTQ+ romance books.

A recording of this session can be found on the Education Resources page on BookWeb.org. Booksellers can find all of the titles recommended during the session in this collection on Edelweiss, and can continue the conversation via the #WiGaygency hashtag on Twitter, which attendees created during the talk. The session also prompted booksellers to create a t-shirt, which can be purchased on Bonfire and speaks to the community of indie booksellers and their advocacy for representation within the book industry and romance genre; all proceeds go to the Book Industry Charitable Foundatoin (Binc). 

From left: Authors Paul Rudnick, Alyssa Cole, Casey McQuiston, Dahlia Adler, Aiden Thomas, Phil Stamper, David Levithan, and ASL Interpreter Brian Truitt.
From left: Authors Paul Rudnick, Alyssa Cole, Casey McQuiston, Dahlia Adler, Aiden Thomas, Phil Stamper, David Levithan, and ASL Interpreter Brian Truitt.

In the first part of the session, the bookseller panelists each noted that they’ve seen a huge increase in sales since introducing a romance section in their stores.

The panel was moderated by Amanda Toronto of WORD Bookstores in Brooklyn, New York, and included panelists Mariana Calderon of Second Star to the Right Children’s Books in Denver, Colorado; Jenny Cohen of Waucoma Bookstore in Hood River, Oregon; and Rebecca Speas of One More Page Books in Arlington, Virginia.

Calderon shared that while Second Star to the Right is primarily a children’s bookstore, children come with adults who also buy books. “We have a very small curated selection of a few titles that staff in our store have loved and read, and for a small store like ours...every sale counts,” she said. “Even if you’re thinking, I’m a children’s bookstore, it’s a money-maker no matter what kind of store you are.”

To see success in selling romance, Speas noted that booksellers should focus on marketing romance titles as much as possible. One More Page Books incorporates romance books into its social media posts, staff picks, and marketing.

Cohen said that romance readers’ enthusiasm is infectious at Waucoma Bookstore. “When not only my customers but my booksellers are really, really in to a particular book, they consistently hand-sell them,” she said.

During the second part of the session, LGBTQ+ romance authors picked up the conversation, where they discussed romance tropes, craft, and how much of themselves they put into their books.

The session was moderated by David Levithan, VP and editorial director of Scholastic Press and author of several bestselling queer YA novels. Panelists included Dahlia Adler, author of Cool for the Summer (Wednesday Books); Alyssa Cole, award-winning and bestselling author of How to Find a Princess (Avon); Casey McQuiston, author of the bestseller Red, White, & Royal Blue and the upcoming One Last Stop (St. Martin’s Griffin); Paul Rudnick, award-winning play and screenwriter and author of Playing the Palace (Berkley); Phil Stamper, author of The Gravity of Us and As Far as You’ll Take Me (Bloomsbury); and Aiden Thomas, Indies Introduce and bestselling author of Cemetery Boys (Swoon Reads).

“As queer romance novelists,” Levithan said, “just as we approach love in a different way and have so many options as to how we approach love and how it intersects with identity, we also have a lot of options when writing about our own love stories.”

McQuiston, author of the upcoming book One Last Stop, said that when it comes to writing, “I’m not so much lifting literal moments from my life, although those do make their way in.”

“It’s more about writing through a queer lens, and [writing] a rom-com that is not only about a queer relationship, but is queer and is in its fabric queer,” McQuiston added. “I experience the world as a queer and nonbinary person, and so the worlds that I write are for those people.”

Adler shared that after writing her first book, Under the Lights, she wrote a blog post about the process of realizing she was bisexual through writing her first LGBTQ+ romance. “With Cool for the Summer,” she said, “I wanted to dive right into that being the center of the story — what happens through that journey of realizing you’re queer, and doing it a little later [in life], and, specifically, not really being able to point back to signs up until you found the one.”

Cole emphasized the importance of world-building. She said that, when writing, she tends to subconsciously recreate the world as she sees it. Like Adler, she’s also learned about her various identities through her writing. “Writing helped me clarify certain things,” she said, noting that writing is also a chance to “create worlds where people, no matter where they’re from, their background, their sexuality, how their brain works, kind of get to have a happily ever after.”

Rudnick added that when writing Playing the Palace, he wanted to explore gay agency and power dynamics in the context of royalty, and he brought his own experience of living in middle class New Jersey into that.

The authors also spoke about the importance of representation and what kinds of stories are available to LGBTQ+ readers.

When doing interviews for Cemetery Boys, Thomas said that they were asked to name the first time they saw themselves represented in media. “After a while, I realized, according to media and publishing, I didn’t exist,” Thomas said. “When it comes to the love story aspect of Cemetery Boys, I really wanted it to be a rom-com. I wanted to have a trans protagonist where the story isn’t centering on him suffering because of his trans identity.”

Stamper said that while writing The Gravity of Us, he built a world that didn’t really have any homophobia on the page. “It was really focused less on identity and more on, like, how quickly can I make these two guys fall in love with each other, while making it believable, so we can have more kissing?” he said. “I wanted to push the boundaries and say, what if you are super confident with your identity, but literally nothing else?”

Levithan noted that tropes are also an important part of LGBTQ+ romance, as there’s power in redefining or subverting stories that, traditionally, haven’t been inclusive.

Adler said that she placed a love triangle at the center of her book, which gave her main character the opportunity to explore her sexuality. Stamper tends to lean toward love at first sight, or “instalove,” which also lets his characters explore their identities. McQuiston said they like enemies to lovers in LGBTQ+ romances because it creates a source of conflict that isn’t intrinsically built around their sexuality.

LGBTQ+ romance authors can also redefine fairytale tropes and magic. In How to Find a Princess, Cole used the bodyguard trope, but centered the story on two women. In Cemetery Boys, Thomas thought about fantasy books with magic systems based around gender, and wondered what it would mean for a trans character. And in Playing the Palace, Rudnick incorporated aspects of the comedy of manners, as well as the Cinderella story.