By every definition, romance novels are known for the battle cry of “HEA or GTFO,” or rather, “Happily ever after or get the f**k out.” It sounds ridiculous but it’s true: the two basic elements that comprise every romance novel are a central love story and an emotionally satisfying and optimistic ending. Readers gravitate to these stories, and the romance genre is a billion dollar industry.
While many critics have mocked romance novels over the course of the years, Germaine Greer went as far as to say, “romance nourishes disappointed women, creates unattainable fantasy, and is cause and effect of women’s oppression.” Others have argued that the genre is not progressively feminist and implies that a woman must find love in order to be happy. Others still believe that the critics are only as vocal as they are because the stories are about women.
A deep dive into romance
When diving deeper into the genre, the message in the stories is about more than finding love, it’s about the characters who find themselves in a raw and authentically human way that resonates with the readers. In an interview with Smithsonian Magazine, literary scholar Sarah Frantz Lyons argues that “women write and read romance heroes to examine, dissect, subvert, discuss, revel in and reject patriarchal constructions of masculinity. They're not just cherishing the chains of their bondage. They're figuring out what they are, figuring out how they fit.”
Further, the genre gives a voice to female protagonists who were otherwise talked over in the literary world. Cailey Hall, a professor at UCLA, argues that “While critics may shout that the genre is ‘unrealistic,’ the optimism of these novels not only depict relationships that involve negotiation and growth, but also allow female protagonists to experience a kind of personal, sexual, and professional fulfillment that does not feel like an unattainable fantasy.”
In the case of feminism, these books seek to restore a sense of emotional justice. “Romance novels contain stories of women reaching their dreams with the support of those around them and finding love in addition to that. For some women, finding love and starting a family is their goal, and feminism is supposed to be about giving women a choice,” says Lauren Cameron in The Romance Publishing Industry and Its Reputation.
The romance novel has a long history. Chaereas and Callirhoë, by the Greek novelist Chariton, is the first known and surviving romance novel, written in the first century. The story, preserved on papyrus, tells of a married couple who undergo the trials and tribulations of love, life, and adventure in Egypt, Persia, and Sicily. This work is where we first see evidence of a quintessential romance novel trait — a happy ending. In the following years, we see other romantic stories from authors such as William Shakespeare, Garci Rodríguez de Montalvo, and Thomas Loge.
The rise of the romance genre
Romance became its own genre in 1741 when Samuel Richardson wrote Pamela; or Virtue Rewarded. A problematic work in today’s lens, the protagonist avoids her employer’s sexual harassment but is ultimately rewarded with marriage and elevated social status. The novel exploded in popularity and created “a riot of consumeristic exploitation, comparable to Superman or Minnie Mouse.”
In the early 19th century the genre evolved with popular romance writers such as the Brontë sisters and Jane Austen, who wrote novels centered around protagonists breaking societal norms and displaying individualistic characteristics. In breaking the norms and staying true to oneself, they were rewarded with love and marriage. When it was expected by society to be complicit, these progressive authors gave voice to the women who did not want to bend to the whims of societal expectations.
Gothic romance rose to popularity in the late 18th and early 19th centuries thanks to works such as Jane Eyre and Rebecca. These stories blended romance and horror by putting female characters in somewhat dangerous situations instead of sitting around embroidering and waiting for a male caller.
In the 1970s came the sexual revolution and the publication of Kathleen E. Woodiwiss’ The Flame and the Flower. Romance novels were not previously sexually explicit until this subgenre, and these “bodice rippers,” as they were known, became popular. According to the New York Public Library, this genre was notorious for featuring sexual abuse as part of the love story. They were eventually replaced by works that did not promote sexual violence in their narrative, but bodice rippers “remain a relic of their time,” and in part paved the way for the explicit scenes we see in many contemporary romantic subgenres today.
The genre still has work to do
In contemporary romance literature, we see stories of women rising through the professional ranks to break the glass ceiling and work alongside their male colleagues and falling in love along the way. With the rise of the #MeToo movement, readers want heroines who challenge male counterparts, achieve their dreams, and find success in their professional and love lives.
Throughout the last decade, subgenres of romance literature have grown exponentially, particularly due to the rise of self publishing and the sheer desire of the market. There are titles to fit almost any preference: Amish vampires, alien abductions, paranormal pregnancies, and even orcs are featured in narratives with the characters finding their happy ending. Unfortunately, the titles being released at major publishing houses still lack diversity and are predominantly written to fit the white, heteronormative agenda.
If the romance novel has, up until this point, progressed with societal norms of giving a voice to women, and continues to attempt to break the misconception that it is unrealistic, there must be equal representation of diverse characters and authors. If one thing today is clear, the romance publishing world has work to do.
So what is it about romance novels that make them so popular with readers, aside from love and sexuality? The romance novel gives readers something that doesn’t always exist in real life — an emotionally satisfying, optimistic ending. Diving into their pages is a way to escape to a world where life isn’t as heavy. When things are at their darkest, one must look towards simple pleasures to experience light.