NO MORE GUILTY PLEASURES
Romance and the Rise of Unapologetic Readers
by ALLISON FISCUS
I have a confession to make. I’m an unapologetic Romance novel reader.
Unapologetic, you say? Confession? Why the proclamations?
For as long as they have been in existence, Romance novels have been at the receiving end of many a joke. Often portrayed as “fluff” or “smut” or other words that imply feminine impropriety, the genre has become the bread and butter of the publishing economy while also suffering the ire of those who feel they are too good to read its pages. There’s even an entire episode of “Friends” devoted to mocking Rachel and her “dirty book” about the vicar. Romance, society would have you believe, is not for “serious” readers. (See a history of the Romance genre on page 6.)
And yet, in recent years, the tables have been slowly–then not so slowly–turning. Beginning with the popularity of e-readers and subsequent self-publishing, followed by the Fifty Shades of Grey phenomenon, and culminating in the current TikTok/BookTok force where women recommend reads to women, Romance has quickly become queen of the industry: driving sales, television, films, fandoms, and more.
In the height of the panic and stress that was 2020, I dove into Romance headfirst. I needed something that would take my mind off being at home and encourage my hand to loosen its grip on my phone and the constant stream of anxiety-inducing updates that flooded through it. As I have done most of my life, I picked up a book. But, the fact-driven nonfiction and hard-hitting literature I had gravitated toward in the past just wasn’t hitting the mark. I couldn’t concentrate and clearly needed something different.
“ Romance has quickly become queen of the industry: driving sales, television, films, fandoms, and more. “
So, I opted for a lighter choice. Normal People by Sally Rooney is a critically acclaimed novel that also happens to be a Romance. It tells the story of Connell and Marianne, modern-day teenagers in Ireland who try to find and hold onto love through the trials and tribulations of high school, college, social media, societal expectations, family strife, and their own darn stupidity. I was hooked from page one, and it quickly snowballed from there.
I hopped on TikTok (another pandemic-driven distraction point) where their amazingly accurate algorithms quickly pushed content to me that pulled me further into the world of Romance titles. Woman after woman appeared on my screen telling me to read something called “ACOTAR” and to NOT GIVE UP AFTER BOOK ONE OR ELSE! A Court of Thorns and Roses by Sarah J. Maas was touted as a Beauty and the Beast retelling, but in the end was so much more. I read all four of the subsequent books in the series followed by the author’s other series of eight novels and every single read-alike I could find. Be it escapism or obsession, I couldn’t stop.
And the snowball continued to roll down the hill.
Next up was Red, White, and Royal Blue by Casey McQuiston, a Romance about Prince Henry of Wales and Alex Clairmont-Diaz, First Son of the United States and their enemies-to-lovers story that was truly unputdownable. BookTok told me about this one too, a story that was admittedly out of my wheelhouse, but that I have come to force into the hands of anyone who is within my reach.
That was quickly followed by The Hating Game by Sally Thorne, a cult favorite and a classic office Romance trope that spoke of women’s empowerment right alongside the power of passive-aggressive flirting. And oh what’s, that? Netflix launched a regency Romance based on the bestselling Bridgerton books by Julia Quinn? Guess I must read all ten thousand of those, too. And on it went.
“ Romance takes the most fundamental of human experiences—to be in love—and makes it accessible to everyone in countless forms. “
There were YA Romances like The Cruel Prince by Holly Black that seamlessly blended traditional fae folklore with a violently twisted story of love between a human and a fairy prince. There was the dark Romance of Kate Stewart’s Flock which has become a series I go back to when I need something familiar and comforting that is guaranteed to get me in my feels. Get a Life, Chloe Brown by Talia Hibbert is there when I need something fun and modern with a heroine that is as relatable as a best friend. And don’t even get me started on Colleen Hoover and her ability to turn me into a puddle of sad, sappy, uselessness with every single thing she writes.
Which brings me to my next realization…
As a librarian, I’ve never been shy about what I read. Nor have I been one to judge others for their choices as I fall distinctly into the camp that any-reading-is-good-reading. That is not always the societal message we hear though. I once helped a family member find a book that had her turning bright, tomato red upon admitting to me what she was seeking. The Romance she sought was already a smash hit, a bestseller topping several charts that had spurred four sequels. And yet, she was made to feel silly or inappropriate for wanting to read it.
But this year—finally!—people (and I do mean people, not just women) were requesting many of the same BookTok-recommended Romance titles I was. Customers were striking up conversations openly about “spice levels” (the amount of sexual content in a book) and what trope was their favorite (the aforementioned enemies-to-lovers being mine.)
Now, a year and a half after my own Romance awakening (Kate Chopin pun totally intended) the Library has launched a Romance Book Group dedicated to exploring this ever-evolving world of love and happily-ever-afters. I’ll be at the Book Group as will my fellow love-obsessed readers as we celebrate Romance’s long-deserved prominence in the literary world. And it’s about time. Romance takes the most fundamental of human experiences—to be in love—and makes it accessible to everyone in countless forms, be it serious or fun, flirty or devasting. No wonder it’s so easy to become entranced by its wiles, the rake…
Are you sick of being shamed for loving romance? Do you like your books with a side of steaminess? From enemies-to-lovers and the regency era to fantasy and fake relationships, we’ll discuss and read across the romance genre with a new Romance Book Group!
Learn more at toledolibrary.org/romance
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.
A Trope for Any Occasion
by ALLISON FISCUS AND ABBY BYERS
Tropes are a Romance tradition just as important as the plots and characters. Here are some of the most well-known Romance tropes and our favorite examples.