SINGAPORE - Julia Quinn, the author behind steamy Regency-era series Bridgerton, laid out a spirited defence of the romance novel in a lively virtual session at the Singapore Writers Festival.
Quinn, 51, was one of the headliners at the 10-day festival, which runs till Nov 14 with the theme Guilty Pleasures.
"I don't think we should feel guilty about reading for pleasure," the American author told moderator Jollin Tan on Sunday (Nov 7).
"We tend to elevate art that does not model and celebrate happiness. If you look at what wins the Oscar awards, it's the dramas, it's the tragedies. We also tend to minimise the importance of things that are defined or perceived as feminine.
"So you have romance novels, which are written primarily by women, primarily for women, edited primarily by women. They're about emotions, which humans tend to think of as feminine, and so we tend to belittle that and say that's not important, but of course it is.
"Our emotions, our mental health, our feelings - why are we saying that's not important? Why is our search for love and a happy ending any less important than the quest?" she added, referring to white male quest narratives in stories like Frank Herbert's Dune (1965).
"Folks are, like, well-behaved women rarely make history. Well, there are a lot of women who didn't make history, but that doesn't make them any less extraordinary. And I think their stories are important and should be told too. You don't have to change the entire world for your life and your pursuit of happiness and peace to be important."
Quinn's best-selling series (2000 to 2006), about the love lives of eight siblings navigating Regency high society, has been adapted for the small screen by star producer Shonda Rhimes and took Netflix by storm last year. A second season is underway.
Many fans were shocked that Rege-Jean Page, one of the first season's breakout stars, will not be returning to the show as the Duke of Hastings. Quinn says, however, that this is in line with the structure of the romance novel.
"His story's done. And even Shonda Rhimes is like, 'We're not going to do 15 seasons of tearing this poor couple apart.' They got their happy ending, that's what a romance novel is.
"Now you have all these people who love the show and say, 'Gosh, I wish there was something else in this world that could give me these feelings.' And that huge sound you just heard was a thousand romance authors going, 'Hello, we have something for you.'"
Quinn spoke about balancing authenticity and accuracy in her historical fiction with the need to be accessible to modern-day readers - "I do my best and my best isn't perfect. There are obvious things, like making sure your characters don't say 'okay'" - and when a sex scene can be too much, or not enough.
She said that in her later novels, she has begun to think more about explicit consent, rather than implied consent, and to be more aware of people of colour in Regency England. "That was something I didn't really look into very much when I started out and now I've been trying to do a lot more research about that.
"I don't know how much that will actually come into my books, because there are certain stories I think other people could probably tell better than I can. I'd rather use my position to elevate them than to try to tell those stories, but I think it's something I do need to have responsibility to learn more about."
The Netflix adaptation is notable for its diverse casting, including Page and Guyanese-British actress Golda Rosheuvel as Queen Charlotte, a character whom Quinn says was one of her favourite additions to the original.
"She's just so amazing. I go back and forth between wishing I'd written her and being glad I didn't write her, because I don't think I would have done as good a job."
The session was marred towards the end by the technical difficulties that have plagued the festival's online programmes over the weekend.
Several events, including a talk with comics writer G. Willow Wilson and a panel on vanishing trades featuring veteran getai host Wang Lei, could not be broadcast live.
The festival organisers apologised for the glitches in a Facebook post on Saturday. "We are facing technical issues on our premises and the Internet is simply not being our best friend today," they wrote, adding that the missing sessions would either be broadcast at a later date during the festival and/or available on video-on-demand from Nov 19 to 28.
For more information about the festival, go to Singapore Writers Festival's website.