When the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, the romance literature community responded with a million-word anthology.
“Dissent” features short stories from over 150 authors from around the world with all royalties going to U.S. abortion rights funds. It is so large its content spills into three separate hardbacks.
Within a week of its Sept. 6 release, “Dissent” sold 11,000 copies.
It was a massive undertaking. Authors rolled out new content in six weeks. Editors, including Sharpsburg resident Melanie Linn Gutowski, took on 15 stories each in two weeks.
“It’s unheard of to begin a project at the beginning of July and to publish two months later. … No one would attempt that except for these ladies,” said “Dissent” contributor and romantic comedy author Sylvie Stewart, of Cranberry.
Debunking stereotypes, taking risks
The energy poured into the anthology reflects the undercurrent of activism characteristic of the romance genre. In 2020, Romancing the Vote rallied around author Selena Montgomery (real name: Stacey Abrams), raising nearly $500,000 to mobilize Georgia voters. Since June, seven charity romance anthologies for reproductive justice have emerged, sustained by more than 300 authors.
The romance genre is largely written by and for women — an estimated 14 percent of its readership is male — and it represents a quarter of U.S. book sales. Despite its success, the genre is often discounted.
Stewart is well-acquainted with the misconception: “Vapid readers, vapid authors, vapid stories,” she told PublicSource. Stewart said this assumption is disingenuous to the genre, which centers women, choice and autonomy.
In the spirit of those pillars, Stewart was excited to take part in “Dissent.” But she also knew her participation would cost her anti-abortion readers and, potentially, income.
Stewart was with eight other romance authors when she heard about the project. “I remember after saying, ‘Oh that’s awesome, love it, love it,’ kind of looking around the room like, ‘Alright. Can I do this? Do I have time to do it, because it’s such a short deadline? And can I afford to do it, knowing that I’m going to lose readers?’”
Stewart decided she could. When she announced her participation in “Dissent,” she said, “I had the highest unsubscribe rate that I’ve ever had.” That was a shared experience for “Dissent” authors, according to Stewart.
“I just ran out of the will to care if I was going to lose readers. I don’t want those readers,” she told PublicSource. Davis said she knows there is an audience for authors “who are championing bodily autonomy.”
Nicole French, one of the three organizers of “Dissent,” said the romance genre is working on establishing space for abortion stories.
“It’s definitely a taboo subject, even to write about in romance,” she said. “I’ve been in plenty of writer groups where they’ve said, ‘Don’t ever write an abortion in your book.’ Which is ironic because of how much we write about body autonomy otherwise.”
The first series French published, “Spitfire Trilogy,” features an abortion.
“It does not hurt my bottom line to write that story,” she said. “Fear [of losing readership] doesn’t have to guide what we do, although it’s a very real risk.”
Broadening the fantasy
The genre has evolved in the past decade to transcend traditional tropes and majority identities. Davis recalled reading her mother’s romance novels, which featured “dubious consent situations.” As an author, Davis told PublicSource, “I knew I had to be more explicit about consent on the page.”
Storylines that include sexually transmitted infections, pregnancies, characters of color, and differently shaped and abled bodies have gained prominence within the genre, Davis said. Many of her characters have autism and epilepsy, “so I get a lot of comments from readers who are just so relieved to see people … having rich romantic experiences and being disabled.”
Following the overturn of Roe v. Wade, Davis said, “There’s been a great push to talk about abortion explicitly, to talk about choices and repercussions, to have our characters feel the weight of their actions.” Within her own repertoire, Davis added disclaimers to works that included unplanned pregnancies, so readers would not be surprised by the content.
French, a former literary scholar, said the romance genre originated from feminist advocacy. Now, it emphasizes bodily autonomy.
“We’re just writing that story as if it’s a fantasy. I think the big question is: Why does that still have to be a fantasy?”
Sophia Levin is a freelance journalist and former PublicSource intern. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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