Getting Ready for the Romance Writers of America Conference with Vivian Stephens Award Winner Bette-Lee Fox

What better time to enjoy a luscious, steamy romance than on a luscious, steamy summer’s day, which may be one reason why the Romance Writers of America (RWA) holds its annual conference in July. This year’s conference in peachy Atlanta, July 17–20, will give 2,100 published and aspiring romance writers, editors, agents, librarians, and other industry professionals the opportunity to network about the genre. As always, the conference should be a rousing affair, but it will be especially exciting because the 2013 winner of the Vivian Stephens Industry Award is Library Journal’s own Bette-Lee Fox.

Given to an industry professional “who has contributed to the genre or to RWA in a significant and/or continuing manner,” the award is tailor-made for Bette-Lee, longtime managing editor of of the magainze and longtime editor of its romance column. In that capacity, she’s been able to soak herself in the genre she loves while serving as its able advocate. “The most fun thing about doing the column is handling all the galleys and seeing the potential books for me to read,” she explains, “as well as chatting with the publicists and with the columnist [Kristin Ramsdell, now in her 20th year.] I feel that I am immersed enough in the genre to have valid opinions worth sharing.”

She certainly does. Talking with Bette-Lee about the romance genre is an excellent education for start-up readers and seasoned romance fans alike. She nails precisely the essence of the genre by explaining that “the protagonists will end up together. If the very next day they break up, it doesn’t matter. That page isn’t there.” In contrast, the broader field of women’s fiction may include romantic moments but doesn’t necessarily offer a happy ending; often, “the woman goes in another direction and finds her own path.” That can be satisfying reading, but it creates a different mood. Heart-wrenching isn’t heartfelt, and if romance sometimes shows us broken hearts, it’s there to stitch them up.

It’s the Language
In addition, says Bette-Lee, romance is defined by its language. Now, you may be thinking she means dreamy, sexy, touching, hot, glowy, golden, delicious, salacious, or, well, romantic, but Bette-Lee explains that reading romance is really about “the wit, the banter, the internal dialog.” For her, the very best romance writing is typified by the kind of intelligence that clarifies the joyous or even riotous moments (to the point of being “laugh out loud”), as well as plot-turning “pain and past secrets,” so that the characters develop fluidly, becoming “engaging and realistic.” Take that, naysayers; an expert tells us that romance readers aren’t looking for starry-eyed stick figures to hang their dreams on but real women and men working toward that glorious moment of hope that—one hopes—we have all experienced.

Today’s romance offers subgenres to everyone’s taste, and Bette-Lee’s preference runs to historical romance—especially treatments of the enduring Regency, Victorian, and Georgian eras, as well as America from the 1870s forward, with all those rugged cowboys and pioneers. Though she concedes that “some people swear by the Scottish lairds,” she can get impatient with the dialect, and she argues that some contemporaries are wonderful but that sometimes the language isn’t. “I hear that on the subway; I don’t have to read it,” she explains. She also dislikes sex for sex’s sake, more evident in all romance writing today. For Bette-Lee, the romance genre is about relationships, and it’s “how the relationship develops that matters.”

Of course, when it comes to romance writing, sex is here to stay, as Bette-Lee smartly acknowledges—she points out that on a down-to-details level, the number of sex scenes can even be contractual. Another trend that’s here to stay: paranormal romance, which has blown up like firecrackers in recent years, and its offshoot, steampunk. While Bette-Lee is no fan of science fiction (“People write science fiction because they can’t spell”), she finds some steampunk cool and intriguing, recalling the inventive weirdness of the old TV series The Wild Wild West, “the original steampunk.” She also cites a general trend toward returning to books written 15 or 20 years ago both to revivify the text and to delete stereotyping not appreciated today.

How She Got Started
Bette-Lee has been a devoted romance reader since grabbing a hardcover book off the ever-groaning LJ bookroom shelves and finding it exactly to her taste. She roared through the author’s backlist, then started trolling the discard piles of both LJ and its then sister publication, Publishers Weekly. Invited to a book signing at the 2003 RWA conference in New York, where she encountered 500 to 600 authors, she found she was in “heaven.” By 2004, she had taken over editing LJ’s romance column.

Bette-Lee started editing the column as a “wide-eyed sycophant.” Now she is, deservedly, an award winner for her concerted efforts on behalf of romance, which often has her reading two books a week on top of her demanding LJ work. (“When I have lunch at my favorite diner, I try at least never to have the same book from weekend to weekend,” she says.) Winning the Vivian Stephens Industry Award has its fun side—“having authors whose books I read email me was just thrilling”—but she understands that the real value lies in helping her “to get people to appreciate [romance’s] value—and make them less likely to use the term bodice ripper. If I can do that, I’m more than happy.” And, Bette-Lee, we’re happy for you.


Barbara Hoffert About Barbara Hoffert

Barbara Hoffert (, @BarbaraHoffert on Twitter) is Editor, LJ Prepub Alert; past chair of the Materials Selection Committee of the RUSA (Reference and User Services Assn.) division of the American Library Association; and past president, treasurer, and awards chair of the National Book Critics Circle.


  1. Sarah says:

    “Take that, naysayers” – but “People write science fiction because they can’t spell”??

    Isn’t that the pot calling the kettle black?