The old ripped-bodice trope that dominated the romance-novel genre, exemplified by Johanna Lindsey books with Italian model Fabio Lanzoni on the cover, have been replaced with more modern, diverse takes on love and lust from a feminist perspective. Photo: Maureen Donaldson/Getty Images
Summer of Love
The romance novel, once derided as fluff, is gaining credibility – and fans – with diverse voices and feminist points of view from authors like Farah Heron and Jasmine Guillory / BY Athena McKenzie / August 18th, 2021
One of the post-summer rituals I remember clearly from high school was sharing the books we had read over the holiday or writing an essay on the subject for English class.
As a voracious reader who happily scavenged my mother’s bookshelves – she was a former literature major – I made sure to include titles that were meant to impress.
There was the summer before Grade 10 when I blew through Robertson Davies’ Deptford Trilogy, and the year of John Steinbeck’s epic East of Eden. These were the books that elicited approving smiles and eager questions.
Always mindful not to appear too virtuous to my classmates, I’d also include the Stephen Kings and P.D. Jameses that I devoured like potato chips. Some teachers would give a patronizing nod. Others would ask to borrow them.
But I never shared my predilection for the “mind-rotting,” “exploitive,” “empty-headed” “nonsense” or “fluff” also known as romance novels – all descriptors I had heard adults use to describe the genre. From experience, I knew teachers would shame me and my peers would scorn me, even though they were highly entertained by my dramatic readings of erotic passages at sleepovers. But these books have always been a highlight of my summer reading.
Every year, my parents, my two brothers and I would head back to Newfoundland to visit my grandparents and extended family. Along with the lobster boils and late nights playing cards, one of my fondest memories is the lazy afternoons I spent curled up on an overstuffed couch, reading Harlequin romances. Several of my aunts subscribed to the publisher’s book club, receiving monthly mailings of the slim paperbacks with their twee and heternormative depictions of couples falling in love. (Founded in Winnipeg in 1949 and now owned by HarperCollins, Harlequin has sold over 6.8 billion books around the world.)
There were also the weightier historical romances, many with salacious covers depicting Fabio Lanzoni, with hairless chest and flowy mane, in all his glory. I remember my scandalized delight upon discovering the linked series of books by Johanna Lindsay, whose stories revolved around fearless heroines eventually seduced by pirates, English invaders, Vikings or cowboys.
More often than not, I’d sneak a few of the more tantalizing ones into my suitcase, the soothing familiarity of their premise – girl meets boy, fireworks of attraction, minor conflict, passionate love and committed relationship – ready for comfort reading when needed. (I’m pretty sure my copy of Hearts Aflame, a Lindsay bestseller that featured Fabio in his first ever major cover, is still in a box at my parents’ cottage.)
As I entered my 20s, I left my juvenile reading habit behind. And for two decades, I never really talked about my “shameful” secret: that I had been a closet romance fan.
From Romance Reader to Writer
Toronto-based author Farah Heron, also an insatiable reader as a child, had a similar journey, although her first encounters were with the books aimed at early teens in the 1970s and 80s, such as the Wildfire and Sweet Valley High series.
“But then as I grew up, I became kind of a snob with my reading,” says Heron, who writes romantic comedies and women’s fiction featuring big South Asian families. “I didn’t read adult romance. I was all over the Chick Lit renaissance of the 90s, like Bridget Jones’s Diary and the books by Marian Keyes, but those didn’t feel fully like romance—they were very much women’s fiction.”
Heron returned to the genre when she discovered Regency romances in her 30s, and realized she was basically getting a Jane Austen story in a new book. She was hooked. That led to more contemporary titles, and before long she was writing them herself.
“Sometimes I think I was too much up in my head when I wasn’t reading the genre,” she says. “But it actually worked out quite well, because around the time I started reading romance again was the time that there was finally more diversity in romance.”
Her most recent book, Accidentally Engaged, is a romantic comedy that centres on Reena Manji, a Muslim woman who fakes an engagement to the boy next door in the hopes of winning a couples cooking contest.
“Romance definitely has a lot more diversity in more recent years, especially compared to other genres like mysteries,” she says. ‘But I still don’t think it’s anywhere near where it should be. A lot of the biggest hits in the last few years have been by authors of colour, which is fabulous, but it may give people the perception that the genre is more diverse than it actually is.”
One of those authors is Jasmine Guillory, who sparked my own return to the romance genre. (As a professional curiosity, I did read 50 Shades of Grey, but it didn’t connect like the romance novels I read in my youth and falls more into the erotica genre.)
It happened two years ago on a regular Saturday afternoon wander through my neighbourhood bookstore in Victoria: a red-covered paperback beckoned, siren-like, from the bestseller table, the silhouettes of a man and woman’s head framing the flowing script of the title: The Wedding Date. Most intriguing was the blurb on the front: “What a charming, warm, sexy, gem of a novel.” It was from Roxanne Gay, the author, memoirist, outspoken femininst and contributing editor at The New York Times. Gay often recommends romances in her yearly round-ups. “I also read romance novels, because they are fun, and they are sweet, and they’ve got a happy ending, most of the time,” she said in a 2018 interview in The Guardian. “The world is sh*t, so – I need that happy ending.”
On a whim, I grabbed The Wedding Guest and was hooked before the end of the day. In an ingenious marketing ploy, the publisher had also included the opening chapter of The Proposal, another book in Guillory’s linked series. And so I read them all. As with many romantic comedies, each revolves around an unexpected couple, but the heroines here are professional Black women.
This time, I didn’t keep quiet about what I was reading. I’d pass them along to friends – but just the ones who I knew wouldn’t be too judgey. Their responses ranged from pleasant surprise to delight.
“The woman has curves, enjoys sex and eats donuts!” said one when she returned it. “If I’d known there were romance novels like this, I would have read them long before.” The biggest eye-opener came when I posted a picture of The Proposal on Instagram, with a sheepish confession about spending a Friday night eating potato chips and reading a romance, implying that I was indulging in a guilty pleasure. But then a surprising range of friends began to weigh in.
“What If I told you I have read them all?”
“Loved that book for an easy, heart warming, distraction read!”
Apparently, they were all just waiting for someone to be the first to confess.
The Bridgerton Effect
The romance genre may have received its biggest image makeover with the recent success of Netflix’s Bridgerton, the Shonda Rhimes-produced adaptation of Julia Quinn’s series. Each book in the eight-book series follows the amorous entanglements of one of the eight Bridgerton children and each season is expected to primarily focus on one sibling. A record-breaking 82 million households around the world chose to watch the first season in the first 28 days, according to a January 2021 post by Jinny Howe, Netflix’s vice president of original series. Even my partner, who is always trying to get me to rewatch movies like The Godfather, binge-watched the first season with me over one weekend.
“A lot of people were coming forward, admitting they liked romance – suddenly it wasn’t uncool,” Heron says. “Obviously, romance writers have never been shy about it. But literary people outside of romance, I could actually see making that transition: ‘now it’s okay for me to admit that I like romance,’ which I find funny.”
Heron thinks the increased diversity, while still a work in progress, is also key to romance’s newfound popularity. While in the past, mainstream publishers generally pushed romance novels centred on white, heterosexual characters, it’s now possible to find diverse couples, as well as gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people in leading roles.
“Romance is being seen as being for everybody,” she says.
So, as with many things, the forbidden temptations of my youth now seem quaint, and what was once a vice is now a perfectly pleasant way to spend an afternoon.