Romance is a genre about women, by women and pored over by women – in the United States, 84% of readers of the genre are female, according to Romance Writers of America (RWA).
It’s a US$1bil (RM4.1bil) industry, and 35% of romance book buyers have been reading them for 20 years or more, according to RWA.
So after a year when persisting and resisting have been the norm, what does this world of fiction look like? Have romance novels evolved given the current social/political climate? The answer to that is yes, but not in a “big boom” kind of way, says Joanne Grant, editorial director of the Harlequin series of books.
“I think this is something that will continue to shape romance over time, but I also feel strongly that this is a conversation we’ve been having over the course of years,” she says. “It’s not a new thing for us to pause and look at our male/female dynamics: how we portray sex, consent, how do we keep the fantasy alive while making sure that the heroine is relatable in the 21st century?”
Author Beverly Jenkins, who has made her name in African-American historicals, says such work is ongoing. Jenkins, whose first book was published in 1994, says current writers of romance are “bringing a different mindset, a different focus to the story”, where consent is the thing. But she also mentions that, as things evolve, the main purpose of romance is consistent.
“Romance offers that comfort read, but it also offers resistance. You have a lot of feminists who are writing romance – Alisha Rai, Alyssa Cole, Sarah MacLean, and they’re all putting that kind of thread through their books. Resistance has always been there. Women have always had to resist in order to get what they want out of life,” Jenkins says. And resistance comes in a variety of forms – from young adult novels with gay characters by Audrey Coulthurst to political romances from Emma Barry to interactive romances from Larissa Zageris and Kitty Curran, where a reader can choose a preferred happily-ever-after ending and sexuality.
Resistance also comes in the form of more voices in the mix – like Sonali Dev, whose work has been referred to as Bollywood-style love stories, and Farrah Rochon, a self-published author of over 30 African-American contemporary romances who sits on the RWA board of directors. Resistance can be found not only in hashtags, but in the history of romance itself, as Washington Post columnist and romance novelist MacLean attests.
From the 1972 book The Flame And The Flower by Kathleen E. Woodiwiss, the romance genre was born on a mass market scale, and from its pages of forced seduction came the metaphor for the women’s movement, she says.
“Most scholars of romance will tell you the arc of this book is kind of a metaphor for the women’s movement in general, meaning, if you look at the hero as society and the heroine as women, ultimately, equality is the goal between them,” MacLean says.
What followed, says the author of The Day Of The Duchess (2017), were workplace romances of the 1980s; romance of the 1990s, where the good guy was born amid cultural satisfaction; and the world after 2001’s 9/11 terror incidents that saw the rise of paranormal romance. By the late 2000s, there was the economic crash, and we saw the rise of Fifty Shades Of Grey (by E.L. James, 2011) and the billionaires, MacLean says.
“Literature likes to see women martyred, and they like to see people of colour martyred, and queer people martyred and disabled people martyred, but romance doesn’t do that,” she says.
“Romance has often been the only place in media where women can see themselves at the centre of the story triumphing…. There’s a lot of power in happily ever after.
“In 2017, I think many of us came to a place where we realised that the best way for us to resist was for us to tell stories where we win, and the best way to show the other side that we will survive them is to show ourselves in happiness … because happiness is torture in its own way.”
If resistance is a mainstay for romance novels, what are the changes that are taking place on the page? Authors all attest to making sure consent and agency are front and centre in the genre of the female gaze.
“I think that women, in general, have been galvanised over the past year, kind of ready to fight – whether it’s somebody that’s going to go out there fighting or somebody who’s going to use their wits, they have agency; they’re helping propel the story forward by making their own decisions, whether bad or good,” says Of Fire And Stars (2016) author Coulthurst.
Change on the romance front in 2018 will also entail more diverse voices – from authors to the characters they envision.
“There was something about 2017 and the pushback of diversity and inclusion that I think propelled those issues more to the forefront. They’ve always been there, but there was something about 2017,” Rochon says. Sarah Wendell, of the blog smartbitchestrashybooks.com, is looking forward to reading more of the exploration of female rage and anger, and the catalyst that anger can provide.
“Seeing feelings of frustration and marginalisation represented alongside action is inspiring, both in fiction and in real life,” she says.
The genre has a solid foundation, and according to fans and professionals, that base will only get stronger. Authors are now thinking of how the genre will push the conversation of female empowerment and equality forward in 2018.
“All art or writing is meant to be fun,” says Zageris. “I think if you don’t show acceptance in a variety of experiences in what is our ‘poppiest’ of pop art, then what are we saying about our life? It has to be there.”
“Romance didn’t just turn feminist. It’s been,” says Dev. “You have all the agency, and the protagonist is female. But at the heart, romance is about what women want. It’s about how they want to go about getting it, in their voices – if that’s not feminism, I don’t know what is.”
“Here’s to 2018 and women changing the world again,” MacLean says. “We can’t trust anyone else to do it.” – Chicago Tribune/Tribune News Service