In a Painful Year, Romance Nerds Embraced Radical Pleasure
It is a truth universally acknowledged that a science fiction writer in possession of a convention panel must be in want of a question as to where all the genre’s optimism went. Many born during the inception of cyberpunk (like me), have no recollection of a time when science fiction was inherently optimistic. But there is another genre that does optimism by default and is often ignored because it has traditionally been written by and for women: romance. As bell hooks wrote, “Male fantasy is seen as something that can create reality, whereas female fantasy is regarded as pure escape.”
Romance is optimistic purely because it believes unwaveringly in the possibility of growth, change, happiness, and pleasure—often in the face of poverty, illness, trauma, hate, or mainstream values. Mr. Darcy does wrong and owns up to it. Lucy Honeychurch realizes her desires are valid. Anne Shirley gets over herself. “Without change, you don’t have a romance novel,” says bestselling author Sarah MacLean.
Pride, prejudice, madding crowds, or simply the wreckage of a first marriage washing up on the Cornish coast: All of these can be overcome in hope of a better future with one’s partner of choice. Choice gives the fantasy its power. In her brief history of the romance novel, librarian Amanda Pagan notes that Jane Austen and Charlotte Brontë “introduced female characters who were ultimately rewarded with successful marriages for expressing their individuality or their own desires.” At the time, this was considered groundbreaking. Not much has changed.
“We read books so we won’t cry,” is how one reader explained it to researcher Janice Radway in her 1984 book, Reading the Romance: Women, Patriarchy, and Popular Literature. In the four decades since, Radway’s research has become required reading for cultural studies scholars, paving the way for all manner of “fandom studies.” Without her, there is no Henry Jenkins or Jane McGonigal, and quite possibly no Marvel Studios. Radway had the audacity to assert that some women read romance novels not because there is something lacking in them as people, but rather something lacking in their worlds at large.
“What [these] women are looking for in their search for the perfect romantic fantasy is a man who is capable of the same attentive observation and intuitive ‘understanding’ that they believe women regularly accord to men,” Radway wrote. “In addition, without its happy ending, the romance could not hold out the utopian promise that male-female relations can be managed successfully.”
That “utopian promise” has expanded since 1984. The world of romance has changed, much as the worlds of dating, sex, marriage, and relationships have in the 21st century. Name-brand commercial publishers are now putting out books with cute covers and punny titles written by and aimed at queer, trans, poly, neurodivergent, and disabled people of all races and genders, including (gasp!) cis white men.
These books feature subplots involving STEM, scripted reality shows, hockey, cupcakes, cowboys, race cars—the genre has more niches than Meta has micro-targets. As the mission statement at Happily Ever After Books reads, “The modern romance genre is more diverse and inclusive than it has ever been, and we can only continue to improve on those things by claiming a space for romance readers to celebrate the stories they can find themselves in, stories that bring them joy, that find them peace, that excite them, that show them they deserve respect and consent and trust in their romantic and/or sexual relationships.”