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Vivian Stephens is a name that all romance novel fans should know, but it is one that doesn’t come up enough. I’ve noticed her name popping up over the last few years on romance novel podcasts, blogs, and, perhaps most prominently, when RWA (Romance Writers of America) renamed their top award “The Vivian” in her honor. But even with more people talking Vivian Stephens recently, I still don’t think she gets enough recognition for the work she’s done.
In her career, Stephens redefined the romance novel genre as an editor, helped create the American romance novel market that led to a major boom in the 1980s, published the first known category romance novels by Black authors and other authors of color, helped to found RWA, and more. So let’s talk about her. Who is Vivian Stephens? And how was she able to have such a ridiculously impactful influence on American romance novels?
Vivian Stephens’s Early Life and Career Beginnings
Vivian Stephens was born in 1932 in Houston, Texas. Her family lived in the Fifth Ward, a thriving Black community in the city. She grew up studying art, ballet, debate, and music. But right from the beginning, reading was one of her true loves. She grew up reading Little Women, Nancy Drew, and Western stories. She first started reading romance, not in romance novels, but in serialized stories that appeared in women’s magazines. Faith Baldwin stories were her particular favorite. After becoming the student body president and valedictorian of her high school, Vivian Stephens went on to graduate from Texas Southern University in 1955.
After graduating college, she knew she wanted to leave Texas. But her pathway to becoming a romance novel editor was neither quick nor straight. First, she moved to Los Angeles to try to work in the fashion industry. Next, she worked at American Airlines, and then she made the move to New York City. She moved from job to job until she settled into a position as a researcher for Time-Life Books. Then, on a trip to Massachusetts, she wandered into a used bookstore and made a purchase that would change both her life and the romance novel market forever.
In that used bookstore, she picked up a Harlequin/Mills & Boon style romance novel for 10¢. The next day, she went back to the same store and bought five more. And as she became a fan of reading romance novels, she began to want a job working on them. Even if she was a secretary at a publisher, she thought she’d get to read the books before anyone else did. With that goal in mind, she began looking for jobs in romance novel publishing in New York City.
Vivian Stephens’s quest to get a job in romance novel publishing sounds like something out of a farce. She apparently looked up the human resources director of the publishing company and wrote a letter to her saying they had a friend in common (they did not) and asking for a job. That publishing house wasn’t hiring at the moment, but they suggested she look at Dell Publishing where Stephens repeated the act. Along this journey, several people asked why she didn’t write romance novels herself. But she felt certain that publishing and editorial were the right place for her. Eventually, in the late 1970s, she was called in for an interview with Dell Publishing and given a position as an associate editor in the Candlelight Books imprint.
Candlelight Books & Candlelight Ecstasy
It’s hard to imagine, but at this time no American publisher was a powerhouse within category romance novel publishing. Historical romances (often called bodice rippers) like The Flame and the Flower by Kathleen E. Woodiwiss and Sweet Savage Love by Rosemary Rogers were huge hits from earlier in the 1970s. But category romances, which were shorter and featured contemporary stories, were still completely dominated by Mills & Boon in the United Kingdom and Harlequin in Canada (who merged in 1971…but that’s a whole different story). These books featured younger heroines, who were usually 19 or 20, in the United Kingdom or on vacation, and much older heroes who were usually the cliched tall, dark, and handsome. They were also considered “sweet romances” that didn’t have sex on the page, unlike historical romances and bodice rippers.
When Vivian began her job, Candlelight books was essentially publishing copycats of this style of category romances. But from her own experiences as a woman in her 40s and talking to other romance readers, Vivian thought American women were ready for a new kind of story. Tasked with editing five romance novels a month, she saw beyond the current trends in contemporary and historical romance and began to help create a different kind of romance story.
Vivian Stephens began to create a formula that opened up a market for American contemporary romances and challenged the dominance of Harlequin for the first time. Her heroines were American, older, independent, and had good jobs. There were smaller age gaps between the hero and heroine. And heroes had to be successful and attractive to the heroine. “To the heroine” is an important part of that statement. In an interview on the Black Romance Podcast with Julie Moody-Freeman, Stephens said about her style of romances that, “they are fantasies within the realm of possibility.” She didn’t want them set in far away places or too fantastical.
Sex on the page was another big difference in the category romances she published, in that they featured sex on the page. A Washington Post article from 1981 comments on this, saying her books include sex and (gasp!) oral sex in them and quotes Stephens giving advice to aspiring romance novelists, saying, “I want very sensuous love scenes. Kisses described in depth. I’d like to know about the warm interior of her mouth.” Stephens first tested the water for putting more explicit sex in category romances in the novel Morning Rose, Evening Savage by Joan Hohl writing under the pseudonym Amii Loren. When no one complained, Stephens went on to publish Jayne Anne Krentz’s first romance novel, Gentle Pirate, written under the pen name Jane Castle. This book was even more sexually explicit and sold even more copies.
And thus, Vivian Stephens launched the careers of two prolific romance novelists and went on to create a new line within Candlelight: Candlelight Ecstasy. This new line was a success both in terms of sales and by presenting the first real challenge to Harlequin in the market. Candlelight Ecstasy initially published two books a month, but soon that expanded to eight books a month. And before long there were several other publishers trying to copy the Candlelight Ecstasy formula for romance novels.
Making Romance Novels More Diverse
In her position at Candlelight Books, Vivian Stephens published the first known romance novel that was by a Black author featuring Black characters. This was Entwined Destinies by Elsie B. Washington, writing under the pen name Rosalind Welles. Washington was a journalist and a friend of Stephens from her job at Time-Life. The book was successful and acclaimed in the press, although it didn’t get the print run Stephens pushed for. Next, Stephens would publish romance novels featuring Native American characters, Asian American characters, and Hispanic characters. She believed these books should be written by authors who belonged to the same communities or they might unintentionally create harm. In publishing these books, Stephens was responsible for creating a whole new category of romance novels called, at the time, “ethnic romances.” This diversity went along with her ethos that romance novels should reflect modern American women from many different identities and walks of life. Along with ethnicity, Stephens made waves by publishing romances with disabled and divorced characters as well.
Founding the Romance Writers of America
Vivian Stephens helped found the Romance Writers Association (RWA) when she returned to her hometown in Houston, Texas, to attend a writing conference. Stephens noticed that most of the aspiring romance writers felt ignored or looked down on by other editors at the conference, and suggested they form their own professional association. In 1980, she founded the RWA with 37 romance novel writers. Stephens continued to attend their conferences and advise authors and aspiring writers on what she and other editors were looking for in a romance novel. She also used her position at RWA to scout talent and recruit writers for her expanding romance imprint. Stephens later had a falling out with original RWA president Rita Clay Estrada and felt pushed out of the organization. It’s impossible now to talk about RWA without many reports of racist activity within the organization that led to a huge number of authors resigning from the organization. Following the scandal, RWA renamed their biggest yearly award the Vivian in an effort to give credit to Stephens’s undeniable impact on their organization and, perhaps, also to diversify their image.
Vivian Stephens Opens the USA Office of Harlequin Romance
Because of Stephens’s clear success and the threat she posed to Harlequin Romance, they were determined to poach her from Dell publishing. Stephens was reluctant because she liked the independence she had with Candlelight Ecstasy and didn’t want to move to Canada. But eventually, in 1983, they made her a financial offer she couldn’t refuse and gave her the opportunity to open their brand new New York City office that would publish American books. She continued to push publishing romances written by authors of color, including Adam and Eva by Sandra Kitt, thus launching another romance legend’s career and publishing the first Harlequin romance to feature Black characters. But then, just when Stephens was truly on top of the romance novel world in 1984, Harlequin acquired Silhouette books from Simon & Schuster and laid off Vivian Stephens in the reorganization. She worked as a romance novel editor for less than ten years, but she completely changed the genre forever.
Vivian Stephens as an Agent, Book Packager, and Author
Post-Harlequin, Vivian was reeling. She had lost her position without any explanation. She tried to get new positions and create a line of just Black romance novels, but was never picked up by any publishers. She continued to teach writing workshops and support Black romance novelists as an agent and book packager. In fact, she worked with Rochelle Alers and Shirley Hailstock, who both went on to have very productive writing careers. And she was the first agent of Beverly Jenkins and helped her get her first book, Night Song, published with Avon. Vivian Stephens is also the co-author of two romance novels, despite her earlier protests that she was meant to be an editor, not a writer. The first was Final Summer, cowritten with Angela Dews under the pen name Angela Vivian in 1988. The second was Second Act, cowritten with her sisters under the Sedema Group in 2014. With Second Act, Stephens planned to break into the Boomer/Senior Citizen market by showing love stories for characters who are older.
After reading this, I hope you agree with me that Vivian Stephens should get so much more recognition for all she’s done for romance novels. Romance novel history is so important, but it isn’t as well recorded or documented as many other genres of literature. I’ve really only scratched the surface of her fascinating life and the amazing impact she had on contemporary romance novels. Personally, I fell in love with romance by reading the contemporary romance greats of the 1980s (thanks, Mom!) including many that were discovered by Vivian Stephens.
If you want to learn more about Stephens, I recommend starting with her interview on Black Romance Podcast, a discussion of her influence on Fated Mates Podcast, and this amazing profile on her in Texas Monthly by Mimi Swartz. For more information on the business side of the romance novel industry I couldn’t recommend Publishing Romance: The History of an Industry, 1940s to the Present by John Markert more (chapter five is all about Stephens and Candlelight Ecstasy). All four of these sources were invaluable researching and writing this article. And for laughs, you can watch Ted Koppel interview Vivian Stephens about romance novels in the 1980s.