|ARTICLES by Stephanie
The following is a transcript of the Keynote Address Stephanie delivered at the Librarians' Day Luncheon at the Romance Writers of America National Conference in San Francisco, July 2008.
In her non-author persona, Stephanie has a BSc(Hons) in Immunology and a Ph.D in Biochemistry, and in earlier times spent two decades engaged in biological research in institutes in Australia and the UK.
Should you feel so inclined, feel free to direct others to this site, or to extract and quote from the following with attribution to Stephanie Laurens.
Read Romance or Perish: A Biological Perspective on Romance Novels
As some of you may know, I'm a biological scientist, and so I tend think of things from a biological perspective.
Today I'd thought I'd share with you a biological perspective on romance novels - which in large part underscores the importance of the work you, as librarians, do day to day.
Many societies, especially technologically advanced societies, have a habit of forgetting that humans are a biological species - we prefer to think that we are masters of our destinies, and not subject to a slew of biologically imposed, Mother Nature-dictated rules and regulations that we can't break. We forgot that, as a biological species, we are critically dependent on our environment, so now we're facing catastrophe on that front.
When talking about a biological species, generalizations are what counts - there is no value in citing exceptions to a rule. What counts is how the group as a whole - a tribe, society or nation - acts. It doesn't matter what, or even if, they think. The only relevant aspect is how the group overall moves.
Now, biological species have learned behaviors, ancestral memories, instinct, inherited adaptive behaviors, call it what you will. In humans this is particularly strong - it's one of our species' survival strengths. If a threat to our survival that was frequent in our ancestral past recurs, then we recognize it, know what do, and act - often entirely unconsciously. In survival terms, we never waste time reinventing the wheel. Neuroscience is currently uncovering just how many of our "decisions" we first make instinctively, and then justify later, if at all.
We negotiate a lot of species survival threats without being consciously aware of it. It's important to grasp that biologically we do a lot of things without consciously knowing.
In terms of unconsciously dealing with survival threats, Entertainment - of which Genre Fiction is a large part, and Romance is a large part of that - is one of humankind's oldest and most remarkable achievements.
We've been working on Entertainment for more than 40,000 years, possibly more than 90,000 years. Constantly and consistently. No society has ever thrived without Entertainment. As a species we have sunk untold time, effort and capital into constantly evolving Entertainment to suit our needs. Today, Entertainment comprises a rich, vibrant, dynamic, ever-evolving range of products - including Genre Fiction - and each of us spend a significant part of every day with some form of Entertainment.
Biologically speaking, there is no such motivation as "just for fun." Anything a species spends dozens of millennia perfecting, and consistently uses every single day, has to be something that is doing something vital for the survival of the species.
Biologically speaking, Entertainment is an incredibly well-honed, amazingly powerful and wonderfully responsive species survival support system.
So how does it work?
The obvious, and usually only, benefit most people ascribe to Entertainment is escape. And it's true that all forms of Entertainment provide escape, and that escape is critical for those living stressful lives-as we all do today-and by providing escape Entertainment contributes to overall mental health and therefore survival, but…that doesn't explain the immense importance we've always attached to Entertainment, even when our lives were a lot less stressful.
People turn more to Entertainment in times of stress and threat, but they don't stop using it in good times. Escape is more an incidental benefit than a principal biological purpose.
Some might say that one Entertainment product, Genre Fiction, contributes to our survival capabilities by underpinning our creativity through exercising our imaginations.
And that's true, too - Genre Fiction is the only product we have capable of exercising and expanding our imagination to the extent, breadth and depth that it does - because it works like no other product of any sort does.
With Genre Fiction, for a reader to gain the experience they want and expect, they must engage and exercise their imagination. While the author's imagination created the story, and the author's voice carries it to the reader, it's the reader's imagination that recreates the story in the reader's mind, for the reader to experience.
No other type of fiction demands, or is so dependent on, the reader's imaginative input to anything like the same degree.
Genre Fiction is the only truly effective means we have of exercising imaginations - and best of all, users exercise willingly.
And creativity is 100% dependent on imagination. You cannot figure out a better way to do something without being able to imagine that better way. If we can't imagine, we can't create, we can't develop, we can't innovate-we can't evolve.
We will not be able to deal with new threats to our species - such as human-generated global warming - without a massive exercise in creativity.
So Genre Fiction exercises imagination, which increases creativity, which is essential for species survival.
Consider this: the US, now the primary home of Genre Fiction, reads 10 - 100 times more Genre Fiction than any other society. And the US is globally recognized as the most entrepreneurially successful, most innovative and effectively creative, society on the planet. Coincidence? I don't think so. As a group, you read Genre Fiction, you exercise your imaginations and you reap the creative rewards.
However, while having well-exercised imaginations is critical for dealing with new, not previously experienced threats, it's more a value-added in terms of the biological purpose of Entertainment.
The primary purpose of Entertainment resides in, or more properly within, story. Shamans are widely credited with inventing story - the Entertainment form of story: a collection of invented incidents expressly designed to entertain - way back when the first tribes formed.
I use the word shaman in the widest sense - medicine men, wise women - they were the second most important person in a tribe, and entrusted with the health of the tribe in the broadest terms-they were often healers, but their role was much wider. They quickly became repositories of tribal history-essentially the survival lessons already learned.
A major part of a shaman's role was to pass on those lessons, which meant repeating them again and again, because that's how humans learn. Advertisers know this. But you can't repeat something as dry as a lesson and expect people to pay attention, let alone remember. So the shamen added a sugar coating, one that would attract listeners, and could be readily changed to make the same lesson repeated look different.
That sugar-coating was story - our collection of invented incidents designed to entertain - and that's what story is to this day. A sugar-coated capsule around the active ingredient of a biological survival lesson. Fables are one example of this, but tend to carry less crucial lessons. Story - especially Genre Fiction today - is what carries the most powerful and important biological survival lessons we - as the audience - have determined we need today.
Genre Fiction is the most potent form of Entertainment because it interacts with the audience over the longest time and at an emotional depth other forms - films, TV for instance - cannot match.
I want you to picture your Genre Fiction section in your library - now think of it as a biological survival lesson pharmacy. Those things on the shelves may look like books, but you know they're really capsules. Let's make the crime capsules brown, the fantasy green, and the romance - well, cherry red.
Different authors in one genre are just different brands of capsules - among the red capsules you'll find the brands of Stephanie Laurens, Jayne Ann Krentz, Jayne Castle, Amanda Quick, Nora Roberts, Victoria Alexander, Julia Quinn, Linda Howard and many, many more - all with the same single critical active ingredient, but with slightly different mixes of other ingredients, and with different tasting coatings, too-meaning different story types. Romantic suspense, historicals, comedies - but all have that one critical active ingredient.
So, you're now a survival pharmacist - if a reader comes in wanting to be reassured that Justice always triumphs, you might steer him to a brown crime capsule, say of the Grisham brand.
If someone comes in worried about how they're going to cope with possible redundancy, perhaps you'd give him a green capsule, from the Tolkien brand. After he's seen what Frodo goes through, he might feel that perhaps he might survive what life sends him, too.
And what if a woman comes in, with two toddlers hanging on her skirts, worn to the bone - and wanting reassurance that all she's going through is worthwhile, is valued, is to be lauded - you'd hand her a cherry red capsule because that's what romance delivers.
Today, Genre Fiction especially delivers reassurance, reaffirmation, illustration and demonstration that the things our audience thinks are important in their lives - are.
Entertainment - and Genre Fiction - are never propaganda. They work the other way around. They are reaffirmation of how we think our world should be.
Entertainment and Genre Fiction are responsive to the audience's needs. Genre Fiction trends are not started by authors, but are audience driven. We might put a book on the shelves, but we can't force anyone to want it and read it, much less enjoy it.
Consider the recent upsurge of Paranormal romance. There was an earlier brief surge in the early 90s, but it quickly died. Just like the 1st Gulf War. Then at the end of the millennia, things started to get militarily angsty - and paranormal romance reappeared. Then came 9/11, Afghanistan, Iraq, and more Afghanistan and so on-and paranormal romance soared.
Look at what's common in all the paranormal romance bestsellers: a core couple within a community, an extended family of sorts, all flying under the general radar because these guys are really really scary. BUT these are the good guys, and the reason they are really really scary is because there are bad guys out there who are even more scary and who are plotting to end the world as we know it. And wider society is totally oblivious to all of this.
For bad guys, can we say terrorists? The really scary good guys - special forces? And are Suzanne Brockman's Seals popular reading these days?
The central message is the good guys always win in the end, family is protected, and life goes on. The terrorists won't win.
Superhero movies carry the same message - note how many more of those we've had in recent years?
What you are seeing with Paranormal romance and superhero movies is a biological support system in action. The audience demands and Genre Fiction supplies.
But what about Romance in general? Romance today carries the essential message that love, marriage - and by implication children and family - are valuable and desirable goals. To what threat would Romance respond? What threat does it counter?
Children? Extinction is the ultimate threat to any species. So let's look at birthrates and see if there was any threat in recent times.
For a healthy, stable Western nation, with good health care, you need a birthrate of 2.1. With 2.1, your society will not grow, will not shrink, and most importantly will remain age-stable - you won't face the problems of too many old people, or too many young children.
In the 50s and 60s, in the aftermath of WWII, all western nations had birthrates in the high 2s and 3s, replenishing after the losses of the war. All well and good.
But at the end of the 60s, two independent changes occurred. The contraceptive Pill became widely available, and modern feminism was born. Those who were around at the time, and yes, I was, will remember that early feminism had a very clear message: that a woman didn't need a man, marriage or children to be fulfilled. While no one would question the value of either the Pill or feminism, together they posed a potent biological threat if too many women followed the strict feminist path and gave up having children altogether.
Biologically, societies would be doomed.
The Pill and feminism hit at the end of the 60s. By the middle to late 70s, the birthrate of all western nations had fallen to 1.7. Governments took serious notice, but 1.7 for a short time isn't reason for panic - the birthrate had been much higher in the previous decade - so most countries decided it was a case of a biological pendulum - if left alone, it would swing back.
I'll mention 7 western nations - Italy, France, Germany, Netherlands, UK, Australia and the US-chosen purely because I know what went on in those countries. Six of these countries decided to sit back and let Nature take its course, including Italy, which felt comfortable that its religion would save it.
France, however, being France, decided it wasn't going to risk reaching 2100 with no Frenchmen, so the government instituted a massive program - both of propaganda and direct assistance - pushing the message that getting married and having children was important. That program came out of the 70s and is still in place today.
The only other relevant happening was: in response to the upsurge of feminism, 6 of those countries also suppressed romance novels.
Feminists, of course, saw romance novels as an outrage, because the message was diametrically opposed to theirs, so in Italy, France, Germany, Netherlands, the UK and Australia, publishers bowed to pressure from the intellectual elites and suppressed romance.
I can explain how it was done, but the essential thing to know was that it was done. In every country bar the US, romance novels were - not banned, not eradicated, not outlawed - but their availability was deliberately held down and a massive taboo was attached to reading them. And I do mean massive. Even if women wanted romance novels, they couldn't find them, and even if they found one, they - as a group - felt inhibited from reading them.
The only country that truly left the entire biological system alone was the US.
So what happened?
Current birthrates are: Italy 1.3 and steadily sinking. Religion doesn't work on birthrates. Germany 1.4, Netherlands 1.6, UK 1.6, Australia 1.7.
France has inched and inched and clawed its way up to 1.98 - almost 2.0. Still not at 2.1 even with such a massive investment.
What about the US?
The US birthrate hit 1.7 in 1976. It then turned right around and started climbing. All through the 80s it steadily climbed and climbed. In the 90s it was close to, just below, 2.1 and hovered there for the whole decade, then in the new millennia it started moving up again. In 2006, your birthrate reached 2.1 again, and isn't expected to fall.
In December last year, when the 2006 figures came out, there were newspaper articles papering the globe with experts pointing to the remarkable achievement of the US in being the only developed western nation to have a healthy and stable birthrate. Every expert, every western government wants to know: How?
How did you do this? How did you recover so easily from 1.7 to 2.1 when no one else can even shift their rate upward? Except for France, and even after decades of massive propaganda and assistance, they aren't there yet.
Why is it that the US is biologically thriving, yet all these other nations are sinking into extinction?
No expert could answer. They've analyzed everything-religion, economics, racial groups-no factor they can see satisfies even them as the explanation.
But you know what happened. You know that romance novels came into the 70s at a relatively low level - because they weren't needed. There was no threat to marriage and birthrate through the 60s. But then came the Pill and feminism, and women heard the feminist's message - but most of them thought, well, yes, but that's not how I feel. I want love, marriage and the whole nine yards - so they reached for reaffirmation. It wasn't Kathleen Woodiwiss writing the Flame and the Flower that sparked the modern growth of romance - it was women wanting to hear the message that book contained. They grabbed it, and started looking for more. The publishers saw all those cherry red capsules disappearing off the shelves, and promptly supplied more. And more brands. And…
On through the 80s, romance readership grew exponentially - just like the US's birthrate. In the 90s, it hovered, just like the US birthrate, but never really slid back - most likely while women were subconsciously assessing whether the threat was gone, but it wasn't. Over the last decade, romance has gradually pushed up again.
The US sales of romance novels directly parallel the US improving birthrate.
The romance readership is now at a level supporting a birthrate of 2.1. As proved through the 90s, it can't drop - it will need to stay at least at this level to counter the continuing existing threats. Any more threats and it will need to expand again.
If you want women to have children, you need to ensure they view finding love and marriage as worthy goals. The US also has a marriage rate more than 50% greater than any of those other countries.
Not one so-called expert thought of romance novels - the one thing - the one and only thing - that directly and effectively reaffirms love, marriage and family as being desirable goals. Just as we forgot about the environment, we've forgotten what Entertainment, particularly Genre Fiction, and most especially romance really is.
Our 7 western nations have run a real time, real people, 35-year long experiment on the value and power of romance novels. The results are in.
The US did nothing, but allowed romance novels to respond to women's need to hear the biologically, socially critical lesson that love, marriage and family are worthy and desirable goals. And the US thrives.
Australia, the UK, Germany, the Netherlands and Italy, facing the same threats, also did nothing, but specifically removed romance novels from the equation. These societies are facing social extinction.
France replaced romance novels with government propaganda and assistance. It might survive, but by the skin of its teeth and only at great financial cost. Propaganda is never as effective as reaffirmation.
The conclusion is obvious. It's read romance or perish.
That's an inconvenient truth a lot of people won't want to hear. But as with that other inconvenient truth, perhaps it's time we stopped closing our eyes to the incredibly potent, survival support system we've spent the last 40-plus millennia perfecting. As we've just seen, pretending that system doesn't exist, and isn't important, can be socially fatal.
As the guardians of genre fiction in your communities, I hope you take back with you a strengthened belief in the social and biological importance of keeping a wide range of genre fiction, and of romance in particular, on your shelves.
Not only will it improve mental health and enhance your communities' creativity, but it will also insure that your country continues as a biologically stable nation.
So the next time someone asks you why you have so much romance on your acquisition list - look them in the eye and say: Haven't you heard? It's read romance or perish.
I'll leave you with that thought.
Thank you for your attention - I hope you enjoy the rest of your day.
(c) Stephanie Laurens 2008.