My boyfriend loves video games. My coworker is obsessed with sports. My best friend watches endless amounts of television. Me? I read a lot of romance novels. And I LOVE them. I can remember the first romance novel I fell in love with: Savor the Moment by Nora Roberts, the third in the Bride Quartet series. While I did fall in love with the main romantic interest Delaney, a dreamy, successful lawyer, Laurel and Parker were really the characters who drew me in. They were best friends since forever and, along with their other two best friends, started a wedding planning company, each using their own skills and talents to bring something to the company. The way these strong women worked together, grew, and found themselves throughout the series was so empowering, I don’t see how you couldn’t fall in love with them. Despite my passion, I can count on one hand the amount of times I’ve mentioned romance novels and gotten a non-judgmental response. As a lover of this genre, I constantly have to defend myself. Why might a genre that drives $1.08 billion a year in revenue and accounts for 34% of the total fiction market in the United States have such a negative stigma around it?
Perhaps this has something to do with the fact that the romance genre is mainly written by and for women. A recent study found that 82% of romance readers are female. (While this does seem very high, I would like to point out that another study found that women are the majority in most genres: 69% in thriller, 86% in mystery, 88% in general, and 52% in science fiction). But why should this matter to how the genre is viewed? Well, Consuelo Francis, a professor who studies romance novels, said it best: “Because romance novels are so equated with women and femininity, and because we train boys and men to avoid as much as possible being associated at all with femininity, romance novels become something that is completely off limits. It just falls outside the realm of what is accepted.”
When people think of romance, what generally comes to mind is bodice rippers, sexy covers, and non-consensual acts. While there are plenty of romance novels that include the above, there are infinitely more that touch on a wide range of topics dealing with mental illness, disease, family matters, love, and hard times. Real life experiences. Most of these novels center around women’s desires, feelings, and experiences. The women in these novels don’t just find love, they find themselves along the way. They gain strength, confidence, and independence. Something that isn’t usually the center of attention in society, pop culture, literature, politics – you name it. The romance genre is a place that women can call their own.
Another common critique of the romance genre is the predictability of it. According to the RWA, there are two basic elements within a romance novel: a central love story and an emotionally satisfying and optimistic ending. There is no correct answer or path, however, for the journey to that ending. This issue is not specific to romance, every genre has its own tropes and formulas. In addition to the predictability critique, people often say they have no interest in reading a girly love story. What those people don’t take into account is that romance novels come in many sub-genres including paranormal, comedy, drama, science fiction, mystery, and more. As long as the romantic relationship is at its core, it’s still a romance novel.
Even though I am a fan and will defend this genre for the rest of my days, romance novels have a long way to go. Currently, many of the novels in the genre are focused on heterosexual, cis-gendered, white, and monogamous relationships. According to a 2017 report, out of 100 romance novels, only 7.8 are written by people of color. The Rita Awards, essentially the Oscars for romance authors, has had predominantly white nominations and winners. From 2000 through 2017, less than 1% of all finalists were written by women of color and not a single woman of color has ever won. Since this, the genre has been more proactive and taken steps to combat this, like authors of color joining the board and calling out publishers who intentionally exclude black authors.
Rising romance author Jasmine Guillory, with 4 books to date and one more on the way in 2020, often writes about race. The Wedding Date begins with a man and a woman getting stuck on an elevator. After chatting for a while, one promises to be the others date to an upcoming wedding. Flirting, flying, and fights ensue for the duration of the novel. Written by a woman of color about a woman color, this novel really focuses on race and how it affects the characters. Very real problems related to race are brought up and discussed throughout the book, sometimes in awkward, but necessary conversations. Another book that is pushing the boundaries on romance novels is one of my personal favorites: Red, White, & Royal Blue by Casey McQuiston. This novel follows Alex, the First Son of the United States (a mixed race boy from Texas) and his secret romance with Henry, a prince in England. All the while, Alex is coming into his sexuality as a queer man in the national (and now international) spotlight. Set in an alternate universe where a female democrat won the 2016 election, this novel touches on politics, the LGBTQ community, modern communication (chunks of the story told through group chats, texts, snapchats, and emails), and being true to yourself. In addition to all of that, Henry and Alex have one of the cutest relationships I’ve ever read – literally, I had to stop reading sometimes because I was smiling and giddy over the two of them.
While I wouldn’t call an LGBTQ+ novel or a novel written by a woman of color about a woman of color rare, it is more unique to see, particularly in the romance genre. While there has been progress, there’s more that needs to be done. I am hopeful that there will be more romance novels with plots and characters like the ones I mentioned above, written by people of all colors, ages, and sexual identities. The romance genre will only get better and stronger as more and more diverse perspectives are allowed to shine.