An Examination of the Romantic Fiction Community
If you happen upon a video about reading on TikTok, there’s a good chance you’ll be recommended a romance book. Romance is one of the most popular genres on BookTok, a hashtag with over 110 billion views that’s heavily influential in book sales. In 2021, romance’s print sales increased 52.4%, and it was the best-selling genre of 2022. All of this means that romance novels are under a much brighter spotlight, bringing up age-old debates about the merits of the genre. Is it too shallow? Too vulgar? Too exclusionary?
Romance is historically a genre about and written by women, often following a straight, white, female main character as she falls in love and finds her happy ending. Despite its proven popularity since its roots in the 18th century, romance novels are critiqued for being unserious in their subject matter, overly predictable in their tropes, and unrealistic in their happy endings. Romance writers have long been battling these belittlements, including Leah Johnson, author of young adult rom-coms like “You Should See Me in a Crown.”
“To be a person who writes romance—specifically to be a woman or a femme who writes romance—is to know that there is a big percentage of the population who, despite the records you break and the number of copies you sell, will always dismiss your work as empty or corny or undeserving of the shelf space they take up,” Johnson wrote in Cosmopolitan in 2021. “[Romance novels] are exercises not only in centering and uplifting women’s and femme’s desire but also masterful, emotional storytelling.”
Dawn Kline, associate dean of the Ithaca College School of Business, who has been writing queer romance novels under the pen name Aurora Rey since 2013, also commented on the stigma surrounding the romance genre based on its association with women.
“I think that’s one of the reasons that the romance genre gets so much flack—even more than other genre fiction, like mystery,” Kline said. “It’s by, about, and for women, so it’s very easy to dismiss it, even though it makes up 30% to 40% of all book sales in the country. It keeps the lights on in publishing.”
After studying English throughout her undergraduate and graduate career, Kline saw how the genre can be brushed aside in higher education circles. Some critics say romance fiction relies too heavily on predictable tropes, for instance.
Kline, however, had the perspective that tropes can be helpful guidelines.
“Using tropes and what some people call ‘formulas’ isn’t cheating or taking an easy way out,” Kline said. “It’s working within what readers like, and it helps people connect with the kinds of stories they like.”
Tropes act as the basic conventions of romance stories, and writers can build on them to make something new, she explained. Also, for identity groups underrepresented in fiction, predictability isn’t something to be taken for granted.
“Especially when it comes to queer romance, there are still people growing up now that don’t feel comfortable in that identity,” Kline said. “They’ve not seen that they can embrace that identity and be happy. I think it’s still a little bit revolutionary, even now, putting those stories on the page.”
For Melissa Saavedra, CEO and founder of romance fiction subscription service Steamy Lit, romance was a genre she had dabbled in for quite some time before becoming an even more avid reader throughout the initial COVID-19 lockdown. While launching Steamy Lit, which aims to promote authors of color as well as genderqueer and non-binary authors, Saavedra was excited about taking part in conversations about diversity and representation, along with de-stigmatizing sexuality.
“I’m Latina, and I grew up in a household that didn’t talk about sex,” Saavedra said. “They didn’t talk about orgasms or what pleasure was. Really being able to have those conversations was so refreshing.”
Romance’s frequent exploration of sexuality is another potential source of the stigma attached to the genre that both Kline and Saavedra noted.
“Through romance, there’s so much you can learn—not only experiences different than your own, but also what you may like or not like,” Saavedra said. “Maybe you’re reading something with a praise kink you all of a sudden find yourself gravitating to. I feel like there’s so much to explore there that we don’t talk about because anytime women in particular talk about sex, it’s forbidden or it’s dirty, which is a whole reason why the genre has such a bad stigma in society.”
Many readers and writers find these kinds of discussions about romance fiction foster connection and community. Some parts of the writing community in particular have been found to be supportive and collaborative, with writers mentoring each other and sharing information on the writing and publishing process. Creators like Jake Maia Arlow, an author who made their young adult romance debut in 2022 and has 1.2 million likes on TikTok, use their platform to promote their own work, share resources, and highlight other romance authors.
Kline is part of a queer literary nonprofit that runs a conference and awards, and she communicates with other authors affiliated with her publisher.
“On the whole, it can be super, super welcoming and super supportive,” Kline said. “People are always willing to share knowledge, experience, and expertise.”
At the same time, she cautioned that the community isn’t perfect, explaining that certain groups have struggled with diversity and inclusion.
One factor she thinks may contribute to the lack of diversity in BookTok recommendations is how the app’s algorithm functions. TikTok content creators have pointed out the algorithm’s racial bias, especially against Black creators, often heightened by users being shown creators with similar backgrounds and beliefs.
Saavedra talked about how users can change their social media experience by branching out from their targeted For You page if they do find it not-so diverse.
“If you’re on social media, who are you following?” Saavedra said. “If everybody looks like you, maybe research some new hashtags. And, honestly, Google is your friend.”
Before taking these steps herself to be intentional about choosing books, Saavedra noticed she was reading a lot of romance by white authors.
“I really started doing more research about the books I was reading, who they were by, what communities were being talked about, and what representation was there,” Saavedra said. “When I switched that, for me, there was such power in reading about stories that were not only similar to my own, but also different.”
It can be difficult to find diverse romance novels for several reasons. For one, Saavedra mentioned, there’s a widespread issue of equity in publishing—89% of fiction writers published in 2018 were white. There’s also a history of disparity in how marketing money is spent. Writers of color, including Shirley Hailstock, bestselling author and past president of the Romance Writers of America, have discussed the unequal treatment they faced in the past when “the only marketing publishers would do for Black romances was to simply send the books to Black bookstores,” CNN reported.
Still, people today like Saavedra are helping bring visibility to a wider range of authors. And Kline has noticed more buzz from romance readers about diverse stories being published, which excites her for the community’s future.
Representation and diversity in romance is important because, if there’s one thing the genre always promises, it’s a happy ending. Readers can feel empowered and uplifted from seeing characters similar to themselves experience that happiness—growing as people and finding love along the way. As Saavedra said, “I think there’s nothing more powerful than being able to see yourself represented in literature.”
Lorelei Horrell is a senior writing major who loves a good rom-com. She can be reached at [email protected].
Art by Ruth Ada Ayambem.