It was love at first sight — and, reader, it lasted. I first dipped into my grandmother’s vast collection of Mills & Boons as a teenager in late 1980s India; in between Margaret Atwood, Clarice Lispector and Jorge Luis Borges, I was soon devouring romance novels like popcorn, travelling from Greek islands to Australian sheep stations, and through women’s fantasies of sex, love and pleasure.
Literary snobbery kept me away from romances for a while, but in my late forties I returned to the genre to better understand a younger generation who had grown up with more freedoms than me, but also with more online and offline pressures.
As a genre, romance has roots that stretch back to ancient Tamil and Sanskrit epics and the chivalric tales of the Middle Ages. But it flourished in the mid-20th-century when publishers, including Mills & Boon and Harlequin, started to tap into a voracious appetite for romance stories, particularly among female readers.
Books such as Roberta Leigh’s The Savage Aristocrat (1978) and Janet Dailey’s Dangerous Masquerade (1976) helped to set the now well-established rules. A good romance — whatever the sub-genre — still has to centre around two (sometimes three) main characters (this holds true for LGBT, paranormal or monster romances as well); it must track the progress of love through conflicts and obstacles; and it should have a Happily Ever After (HEA) or at least a Happy For Now (HFN) ending.
Today, romance novels are big business. Industry research group NPD Books noted in 2016 that romance accounted for 23 per cent of the overall US fiction market; now, thanks in part to its surging popularity on Instagram and BookTok, romance is “the leading growth category” of print sales in the US, with volumes reaching nearly 19mn units last year. Interest in a genre that offers an escape from the uncertainties of real life — as well as a happy ending — seemingly intensified during the pandemic years. And readers trend young, with many of the most avid followers in the 13-24 age bracket, adding to the legions of older, diehard fans.
It helps, perhaps, that the lives of romance writers seem far more tumultuous than those of their literary fiction counterparts. Last month, romance author Susan Meachen was in the news for allegedly faking her own death; her demise was announced in a Facebook post purportedly written by her daughter two years ago, which prompted an outpouring of grief from her fans. But then, in early January, Meachen reappeared online with a post that alluded to mental health problems and concluded: “There’s going to be tons of questions . . . Let the fun begin!” In June last year, Nancy Brophy, a self-published romance suspense novelist who wrote a 2011 blog post titled “How to Murder Your Husband” was convicted of murdering her own spouse in 2018.
Elsewhere, news stories tend to focus on the commercial success of the American author Colleen Hoover, who self-published her first book Slammed in late 2012, and a decade on has sold over 8.6mn copies of her 24 novels. But the field is vast, and includes writers such as American author Emily Henry, whose smart, funny novels often feature protagonists who are romance writers or literary agents themselves, and Ana Huang, who walks the line between romance and erotica with panache in her Twisted series.
But despite this recent surge in popularity, romance novels are still derided. “No genre receives as much sustained and widespread disapprobation as mass-market romance fiction,” Jayashree Kamblé, Eric Murphy Selinger and Hsu-Ming Teo write in their introduction to The Routledge Research Companion to Popular Romance Fiction (2020).
This attitude stems in part from outdated prudery and a dismissal of women’s tastes and preferences. Some of the disdain comes from justified criticism that romance sticks to a well-worn formula — yet this is also true in genres such as crime and science fiction. It also misses the point that readers turn to romance precisely because they know what to expect, and that the genre has in recent decades been quick to embrace more progressive tropes.
At the recent Apeejay Kolkata Literary Festival, I noticed that the authors who drew the most enthusiasm from a crowd of mainly female 17- to 25-year-olds were Anuja Chauhan, a romance author who writes sharply funny and smart Indian popular fiction and Durjoy Datta, bestselling author of over 20 winsome romances. “It’s a myth that you’re stupid if you enjoy romance novels,” Kritika, a 22-year-old chemistry student in the crowd, tells me. “People who don’t read romance novels have no idea how much range they cover. In these books, I can dream, even if real life is different.”
As for me, literary fiction and non-fiction might remain my truest love, but those years of idly reading romances taught me one thing — a greater respect for those readers and writers who trade in timeless dreams.
Are you a fan of romance novels? Do you feel the genre gets a bad press? Let us know in the comments below this piece
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