A Steamy History
by ABBY BYERS
Romance finds its roots in the novels of Jane Austen, Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights, and Ann Radcliffe’s gothic masterpieces. These books defined a new genre of fiction featuring female protagonists and were written by women, for women, and thus often relegated to a literary subclass.
Then, in the early 1970s, Avon Books’ publication of Kathleen E. Woodiwiss’s epic historical Romance, The Flame and the Flower, redefined the genre. Timed amid the 1970’s sexual revolution, Flame is commonly recognized as the first book in the modern Romance novel era. Woodiwiss skipped over chaste and went right for steam while also establishing HEA (Happily Ever After) as central to the genre.
In the early years, Romance novels were sold at grocery stores and drugstores and were often big, historical Romances like those Woodiwiss pioneered. Later, these epics would be replaced by slimmer series with a wide variety of subgenres. One thing most Romance books featured was sexy cover art. The steamy book covers helped establish a women-only space, which, according to Romance author Sarah MacLean, “increased the likelihood that women would buy these books, and also increased the level of disdain that society would start to have for these books, because if they’re for women, then surely they can’t have value.”
While the genres and quantity of Romance novels expanded, the diversity among its authors did not. For decades, few publishers included nonwhite women authors although millions of Black women were buying and reading books. This remains true today, as a 2014 Pew Research Center survey indicated that one of the most significant book-buying demographics is college-educated Black women.
Beverly Jenkins, author of many bestselling historical Romances, was a rare black voice within the industry. Jenkins wove complex stories of Black lives, Romance, and African American history and solidified her place in the Romance writer’s Hall of Fame. Jenkins has 37 books in print, many are bestsellers with recent trends showing increased interest in her diverse Romance style. Still, the publishing world has been slow to translate this interest into more diverse author offerings.
The rise of eBooks, including Kindle Unlimited Romances, has ushered in a new era of growth and expanded diversity. In June 2021, BookTok pushed a 2015 Sci-Fi alien Romance, Ice Planet Barbarians by Ruby Dixon, to the top of the Amazon charts, beating out critical, bestselling darlings of the Sci-Fi world like Andy Weir and proving again that Romance delivers books people love to read.
Studies from the Romance Writers of America show that Romance’s future is within the hands of a younger readership who don’t have the same qualms as their predecessors about defining “good” reading. These readers are more diverse racially and in sexual orientation, more male, listen to audiobooks, read eBooks on smartphones, and are engaged in online bookish communities. While the success of Neftlix’s adaptation of Julia Quinn’s Bridgerton series has led to a renewed interest in historical Romance, the next generation of Romance readers will undoubtedly push for more diversity in authorship, sexual orientation, and racial representation—delivering Happily Ever Afters for all kinds of readers.