The modern popular romance novel, as a form of fiction which has “a central love story and an emotionally satisfying and optimistic ending” (RWA, “About”), has many recognised subgenres, including historical, paranormal, religious, science fiction and suspense, not least because the plot of the romance combines extremely well with those of many other forms of popular fiction.
Georgette Heyer, for example, has been described as “the creator of the Regency genre of historical romance” (Kloester, Regency World xvi) but, particularly in her early period, one can detect the influence of Baroness Orczy and Jeffery Farnol’s historical novels of adventure (Kloester, Biography 61). Moreover, throughout her career she wrote detective fiction and some of her romances include an element of mystery. It is perhaps Mary Stewart, however, who “is listed in Twentieth Century Romance and Gothic Writers as well as in Twentieth Century Crime and Mystery Writers” (Friedman 6) who can more rightly lay claim to being the originator of the romantic suspense subgenre. Barbara Sharon Emily’s
‘Star Trek Romance episodic novel was originally published in the 1970’s before the popular category publishers had begun to publish Science Fiction/Futuristic Romances […]Perhaps Barbara Sharon Emily did not invent the genre of Futuristic Romance, but she was surely one of the very first to mix such wildly separate genres as Science Fiction, Romance, and Christian Inspirational writing’. (Showcase)
More recently fantasy author Mercedes Lackey has had fantasy romances published by Harlequin and prolific romance author Nora Roberts publishes futuristic suspense novels as J. D. Robb.
Like other popular genres, romance has evolved over the decades, often in response to social change, and so although romance protagonists, at least in the English-language markets, are still predominantly young, white and heterosexual, the genre, as Ramsdell asserts:
‘continues to expand and diversify, and while firmly clinging to its basic tenets, it has broadened its scope to include a wider variety of stories within its established subgenres, sometimes almost redefining the boundaries, as well as venturing into new territory. Characters, settings, themes, and plot situations have evolved with the times (e.g. more military heroes, GLBT and multicultural characters […]) and sensuality levels and paranormal creativity continue to test the genre’s limits’ (Ramsdell xvii).
For many years in the US it has been the case that:
‘Writing romance while black means you get a sub-genre of your very own – no matter what the content of your novel. […] Your marketing will likely be different than the white author in your chapter, even where your books are shelved in some bookstores’ (Jackson).
A recent survey found that “For every 100 books published by the leading romance publishers in 2016, only 7.8 were written by people of color” (Koch). With regards to LGBT romance:
‘we do not see queer romances in quantity until queer publishers begin producing queer works. And queer publishers emerged from the nascent queer activist movement in the second half of the twentieth century. […] Naiad Press, cofounded in 1973 by two couples […] was a new phenomenon: the first large-scale, popular lesbian press producing almost exclusively lesbian genre fiction, mostly romance’ (Barot 392-93).
Romance is not solely published and read in English, or in translations out of English. There is, for example, “a northern Nigerian body of popular fiction currently referred to as Kano market literature and known to Hausa speakers as Littattafan Soyayya (books of love)” (Whitsitt). In Malaysia “market trends were long inclined towards romance novels peppered with nuances of sex and erotica before the emergence of popular Islamic novels” (Rani 419) and currently “romance and Islam are the two key ingredients in popular fiction that are perfectly attuned to the tastes of the general reading public” (431). With regards to the Spanish-speaking world, Mario Vargas Llosa has stated that romance author “Corín Tellado, the Asturian author who died just before her eighty-second birthday in 2009 was, in all likelihood, the most significant sociocultural phenomenon in the Spanish language since the Golden Age” (vii).
It is clearly never going to be possible for a single individual to read more than a tiny proportion of all the romances ever published. In the USA in 2003 alone, for example, “2093 new titles were released by US publishers” (Devereux 84) and in 2007 the number of new titles published was 8,090 (Milton); the numbers have no doubt increased with the surge in ebooks and self-publishing. In 2003 “33.8% of all fiction sales” were romance while “science fiction accounted for 6.0% and mystery 25.6%” (Devereux 84) and in 2015 the romance’s “share of the U.S. fiction market” remained relatively unchanged at 34% (RWA “Statistics”). Mills & Boon, the biggest UK publisher of romance, reports that each month it issues “120 new titles, with manuscripts from 200 authors living in the UK and a further 1,300 worldwide” (Mills & Boon). The romance market, then, is huge, and the sheer quantity of novels poses a challenge to those wishing to study the genre.
Unfortunately, some early critics of the genre seemed unaware of this possibility since they assumed it was sufficient to read a small sample and then extrapolate from those (Regis). However, a considerable degree of variation is possible, thanks to the existence of the different subgenres, differences in length, characterisation, settings, and authors’ personal writing styles. It would therefore be unwise to assume that a small sample, particularly if drawn from a single decade, publisher and/or subgenre, is representative of all romance. Pamela Regis has argued that:
‘We owe the romance novel a good-faith effort to uncover the complexity that our discipline values so highly. A skilled literary critic can see the complexity in any apparently simple text. Another corollary: We owe the romance novel great care in choosing our study texts—more care, not less, than we take in choosing study texts from literary fiction. In writing our criticism, we are creating not only the critical context for the study of the romance novel, we are also creating the romance novel’s canon.’
This is an exciting field for scholars: there are a vast number of primary texts, relatively little existing scholarship (although it has increased considerably in the current century) and thus the opportunity to produce ground-breaking research and shape the field.
Barot, Len. “Queer Romance in Twentieth- and Twenty-First-Century America: Snapshots of a Revolution.” Romance Fiction and American Culture: Love as the Practice of Freedom? Ed. William A. Gleason and Eric Murphy Selinger. Farnham, Surrey: Ashgate, 2016. 389-404.
Devereux, Eve. Love and Romance: Facts, Figures and Fun. London: Facts, Figures & Fun, 2006.
Friedman, Lenemaja. Mary Stewart. Twayne’s English Authors Series, 474. Ed. Kinley E. Roby. Boston: Twayne, 1990.
Jackson, Monica. “What It’s Like.” At the Back Fence Issue #209, All About Romance. 15 October 2005.
Kloester, Jennifer. Georgette Heyer: Biography of a Bestseller. London: Heinemann, 2011.
Kloester, Jennifer. Georgette Heyer’s Regency World. London: Arrow, 2005.
Koch, Bea and Leah. “The Ripped Bodice presents The State of Racial Diversity in Romance Publishing 2016.”
Mills & Boon. “About Us.”
Milton, Suzanne. “Introduction.” Teaching American Literature: A Journal of Theory and Practice 2:2/3 (2008).
Ramsdell, Kristin. Romance Fiction: A Guide to the Genre, Second Edition. Santa Barbara, California: Libraries Unlimited, 2012.
Rani, Mohd Zariat Abdul. “The Conflict of Love and Islam: the Main Ingredients in the Popular Islamic Novels of Malaysia.” South East Asia Research 22.3 (2014): 417-33.
Regis, Pamela. “What Do Critics Owe the Romance? Keynote Address at the Second Annual Conference of the International Association for the Study of Popular Romance.” Journal of Popular Romance Studies 2.1 (2011).
RWA. “About the Romance Genre.”
RWA. “Romance Statistics.”
Sharon Emily. “Contents of Star Trek Showcase.” Showcase.
Vargas Llosa, Mario. “Prologue.” Trans. Duncan Wheeler. Corín Tellado: Thursdays with Leila. Trans. Duncan Wheeler & Diana Holmes. Cambridge, UK: Modern Humanities Research Association, 2016. vii-ix.
Whitsitt, Novian. “Islamic-Hausa Feminism Meets Northern Nigerian Romance: The Cautious Rebellion of Bilkisu Funtuwa.” African Studies Review 46.1 (2003): 137-53.
Bio: Laura Vivanco is an independent scholar whose PhD thesis from the University of St Andrews was published in 2004 as Death in Fifteenth-Century Castile: Ideologies of the Elites. She has been active in popular romance studies for over a decade and her work in that field includes For Love and Money: The Literary Art of the Harlequin Mills & Boon Romance (2011) and Pursuing Happiness: Reading American Romance as Political Fiction (2016).