Why so few Jews in romance novels? This author and bookseller is leading a charge to change that
“Mad & Bad: Real Heroines of the Regency” is one book you can judge by its cover, which depicts aristocratic men, faces covered by pink splotches, and aristocratic women … holding cans of spray paint.
The non-fiction book, released earlier this month, is about the female artists and scientists, women of color, queer women and Jewesses of the Regency period (that’s England, in the early 1800s) whose stories are underrepresented in romance novels about that time and place, perceived by many as synonymous with the entire genre.
Which is why author Bea Koch, a Jewess herself, wrote a book to introduce such feisty ladies as Judith Montefiore, née Cohen, a diarist, traveler and cookbook author; Mary Darby Robinson, a royal mistress who wrote seven novels and astronomer Caroline Herschel, among many others.
Indeed, the publication of “Mad & Bad” (Grand Central Publishing) is a big event for a small but determined group of Jewish romance novel mavens: the authors and bloggers and readers who adore yet sometimes still feel spurned by this $1 billion segment of the publishing industry. Their quest: to get themselves and others like them inside so that they can tell their own stories in their #ownvoices, which is their hashtag and their rallying cry.
Koch was at the center of this movement even before writing the book. In 2016, she and her sister, Leah Koch, started the country’s first romance-only bookstore, The Ripped Bodice in Los Angeles. Click here to buy her book from the source.
Born in Chicago, Bea, 30, and Leah, 28, now live in southern California near The Ripped Bodice.
I talked with them over Zoom about the store, Bea’s book, Leah’s business acumen and #ownvoices in romance publishing. Below is our conversation, edited for length and clarity.
You two seem like really good friends. Are you?
Bea: Our parents, in that morbid Jewish way, told us that your siblings are the only thing you have; you will support them and love them unconditionally.
Leah: We’re extremely close, maybe bizarrely close. When we were teenagers was maybe when we were less close. There were hormones going on.
Who brought romance novels into the family?
Leah: Definitely Bea, by virtue of the fact that she was older.
Bea: My mom was into self-directed reading, and I always loved history. I found historical romance very organically. I didn’t know it was actually romance instead of history.
Leah: I didn’t like the historical stuff. I wanted modern. I have the more typical story — you get into romance from an older female relative. In the way of younger sisters, I pilfered stuff from Bea’s room.
Why did you take to romance novels so passionately?
Bea: I went to romance to find that centering of women’s interior life. There’s something amazing about how romance doesn’t laugh at you for having emotions and teenagers can have really over the top emotions.
Bea: It’s still always providing a blueprint for how to have healthy relationships and conversations in those relationships. They’ve influenced who I have ended up; he’s different from the people I’ve dated in the past.
I always think there’s something radical about the fact that the happy-ever-after is non-negotiable. Without it, a novel can’t be a romance.
Leah: Absolutely, it is radical. You can’t keep politics out of romance. There’s no way to exist in the world without being political.
Bea: There is so much sadness in the world and when I pick up a book I want to feel happy.
In your work at the store and in the industry you’re very focused on making it possible for more people to write these books, even down to publishing your own racial diversity report. Why have there been so few Jewesses?
Bea: I think there is a kind of through-line in romance that people draw from Jane Austen to Georgette Heyer. Heyer is very influential in romance still today, and there is very deep anti-Semitism in her books.
On the other hand, Jews often enjoy racial privilege denied to other groups.
Bea: Leah and I talk about this regularly. Like most people who are raised Jewish in America, we talk about where we fall in that spectrum of privilege. I think we’re very high on that spectrum, because we’re white and well-off and raised with a lot of education. And I don’t think we’ve faced anti-Semitism because of the way we look in the same way that people of color face discrimination.
Leah: For me it’s not a question, I’m definitely white. The tough thing with romance is this: It’s not what’s written, it’s what assumed. If a character’s religion is not expressly stated, they’re presumed to be Christian. The default is white. There’s arrogance in that assumption.
Bea: In historical, there’s been this idea that Jewish women were not so happy, and so how can we write a romance about it? Any time period can be terrible, but people are falling in love and having happy moments. People can be finding their soul mate and fighting injustice together, and that can be something that brings people together. I’m ready to just see more of that.
The Ripped Bodice was the first romance-only bookstore in the country, and even now there are only two. Were you terrified to start something new?
Bea: I think this goes back to our parents who were just like, you can do whatever you want if you really believe in something. I don’t think we were that scared. We were excited. We knew that the romance community needed a bookstore and we were as good to start it as any.
Leah: We believed in our concept.
Bea: And Leah is the person I believe in the most. I trusted her as a business partner. Leah is the more entrepreneurial one, so she has taken the reins on the behind-the-scenes stuff. She is really the driving force behind the day-to-day operations.
How has the pandemic affected your business?
Leah: It’s been evolving. We were fully closed for the state order. We reopened and now we’re scaling back a little bit. It’s been hard because we don’t want a bunch of people to rush out and come to our store especially when the management of this virus has been transferred to everyday people and not the government. There has been an increase in our online business.
Bea: Yes! Leah realized that this was going to be a moment when people need extra help, and had the idea to offer self-care boxes of novels and tea and other good things. We had a waiting list for those for months; they were so popular.
And what about you two and being Jewish — what does it mean to you?
Bea: We were raised Reform. Very liberal. We went to Temple Sholom in Chicago. We were both bat mitzvah’ed; our mother, too, as an adult, which I think really affected my relationship with Judaism. It’s one of the most important parts of my identity, I would say, I was literally just talking to my father about what we are doing for High Holy Days.
Leah: I’m now an atheist. I am not wild about organized religion in any form. I don’t know how our mother would feel about that. If she felt like I had a good enough explanation and could defend the position well enough, I think she’d be fine with it.
Bea: We’ll be doing the holidays over Zoom. Our temple in Chicago is doing a Zoom service, so we’ll all be logging into that.
Leah: We had a very comical Zoom Seder.
Bea: I truly loved it, I thought it was so beautiful to see the ways people still continue to practice their religion and share their beliefs with their families in those truly difficult times. Come hell or high water, we will still do it.
Bea, “Mad & Bad” is non-fiction. Are either one of you ever going to write a romance?
Bea: I did, it’s historical with a Jewish family in the center. It’s such an incredible process to go through, if you love romance, to realize how hard it is to write one.
Leah: I have no desire to write anything. I’m personally happy as a bookseller and an admirer of other people.
Bea: I don’t think my romance is quite up to being published, though.
Leah: I do. I think it’s good. You should definitely publish it. Definitely.