Madeline Iva is her pen name, and you won’t find a trace of her real-life identity anywhere.
Iva is an emerging novelist who, as she puts it, writes “lady smut.” Her first novella was published last year by HarperImpulse, and it focused on sexsomnia, an actual condition in which people have sex in their sleep and wake up not remembering anything about it. The story’s protagonist is a young economist who has the hots for a strapping biologist, and starts waking up in the morning on the floor wearing different clothes. She has to solve the mystery of what she’s doing at night—and whom she’s doing it with.
I met Iva for the first time in 2013 during a social outing with several other authors. She told me how much she loves writing smut. She calls romance novels “happiness machines”—they guarantee that you’ll be happier after reading the novel than before.
Only later did I discover Iva has an MFA in creative writing from a top-tier program in the U.S., where she studied under one of the most respected literary writers today.
Iva is part of a growing number of authors with serious literary cred who are finding greater financial success—and a welcoming community—in the romance business.
It’s not exactly news that the literary establishment looks down on genre fiction; rarely is it welcome within creative-writing degree programs—and god help the student who tries to workshop his genre work. While I was earning my BFA in creative writing, there was one student in the degree program who loved Doctor Who (before it was cool) and role-playing games, and brought fantasy fiction to workshop. A vague embarrassment would fall over the group. If the writer wasn’t seeking to emulate Fitzgerald, Hemingway, or Woolf, we didn’t know how to critique it.
Indeed, as far as careers go, the publishing world often sets up genre writing as an all-or-nothing choice: you’re either a literary novelist, or you dive head-first into the commercial side of the business. You can’t have one toe in each swimming pool, can you?
But for many authors, the separation between literature and genre isn’t so clear. The choice to write genre is often about money, yes, but authors like Iva are also weighing the costs and benefits of less tangible perks like community, mentorship, and audience response.
Put another way: can romance writers really have it all?
How the Romance Genre Has Evolved
Iva has joined one of the bestselling genres in the publishing industry—and one of the most lucrative for authors. Fans of romance often read voraciously, consuming multiple books per week, so there is continuing and high demand for people who can write it.
“Romance” tends to be an umbrella term for many types of novels that, according to Romance Writers of America, are defined by (1) a central love story and (2) an emotionally satisfying and optimistic ending. Beyond that, they vary tremendously. Some are contemporary stories; others are historical. Some are sweet (no explicit sex), while others are more steamy. Romance novels can also take on the attributes of other genres (paranormal romance, romantic suspense, young adult romance). The hottest of the hot is erotic romance: It’s more explicit, there’s more sex, and there may be kinky elements. As with sex itself, what’s erotic is in the eye of the beholder, and readers will find varying definitions in the market. Then there’s erotica, which is not usually centered on romantic love and doesn’t follow any conventions of romance novels, but rather is material intended solely for the purpose of arousing the reader.
Since the rise of ebooks, it’s easier than ever for readers to download the newest titles immediately to their e-reading device without being subject to the judgment of family members, store clerks, or fellow commuters. The ability to leave behind chunky pink paperback covers and keep your romance habit a secret has benefited the market, and the outstanding success of Fifty Shades of Grey points to very large audience potential. Very, very large.
Romance writing is also an accessible way for new authors to get their start in publishing. Houses like Harlequin allow unsolicited, unagented submissions and offer online communities that can help writers improve their craft, understand the requirements of the genre, and get published.
In addition, since the advent of Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing and other digital self-publishing platforms, authors can take an experimental approach and see how they like the fit of romance—while earning money in the process. Last year, two young women received extensive media coverage when their self-published dinosaur erotica series was discovered to be making the authors a significant income. Even something on the fringe of mainstream romance has the potential to earn authors thousands of dollars per month; author Virginia Wade claimed her Bigfoot erotica was netting her $30,000 per month during peak sales periods.
To be clear, the genre has changed a lot over the last 30 years. If Fifty Shades of Grey didn’t tip you off, it’s gotten more explicit. Back in the 1980s, if the heroine had sex with someone she didn’t love, the sex couldn’t be consensual. Women weren’t supposed to enjoy non-monogamous sex. But whether writing decades ago or a few months ago, romance authors may not want their bosses, colleagues, or even family members to know what they’re up to—thus the prevalence of pen names in the genre. And there’s the other main reason some authors have to be coy: aside from creating brand confusion for an author who wants to write outside the romance genre, too, a successful career writing lady smut might negatively affect her reputation in other markets, especially the literary market.
Not long after Iva finished her MFA, she tried writing a literary novel. She had a top agent interested in her short story collection, but as is often the case, the agent also wanted a novel to sell. Under pressure to produce and disheartened by the negativity she encountered inside the literary community, Iva found herself unable to write. She fell into depression for two years. It was the act of writing romance, and discovering the romance community, that she says transformed and revived her career. Although she came from a prestigious literary background, genre fiction wasn’t entirely new to Iva. She grew up reading romances because that’s what was in the house. “I had Kurt Vonnegut in one hand, and these bodice rippers in the other,” she said.