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The politics of happily-ever-after: romance genre fiction as aesthetic public sphere

Abstract

How does the romance reading community understand the genre in relation to sociopolitical concerns? This paper draws on interviews, observations of romance writers’ conferences, and a variety of text data to explore how popular romance fiction functions as an aesthetic public sphere, a site of political discourse. While I find that romance novels and the romance community address a range of sociopolitical issues, readers and writers debate whether they should address these issues. Some think romance should only provide entertainment, while others embrace the genre’s potential for active engagement with sociopolitical issues. These expectations play out in both romance novels and in community relations. Despite debate over the ideal purpose of romance, there is widespread agreement among readers that the genre is fundamentally about hope and the belief that love—and romance reading—can transform the world. This research extends the aesthetic public sphere concept to popular genre fiction, showing that romance is a particular kind of reading experience that allows readers to engage with serious sociopolitical issues with the promise of a happily-ever-after.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    The acronym DEI was the term preferred by RWA’s external diversity consultant and board members during the 2019 national conference. Community conversations about DEI go back to the earliest days of RWA (founder Vivian Stephens, a Black woman, advocated for more diversity in romance publishing). However, I maintain that the sustained discussions and institutional responses (however inadequate) mark a new phase.

  2. 2.

    For studies that do focus on relational or industry dynamics, see Greenfeld-Benovitz (2012), Lois and Gregson (2015), Moody (2013), and Markert (2016).

  3. 3.

    RWA’s status is now in flux, but they were influential in the American community during the period under study (2015–2019). Current membership is likely below the documented 9000 figure—in late December 2019 RWA plunged into crisis due to mishandling of diversity issues. See section Entertainment and Engagement: Expectations for Reading and Community for more discussion.

  4. 4.

    Though the share of male and non-binary readership has grown in recent years, romance is still primarily consumed by women (Appendix 3).

  5. 5.

    This respondent was not comfortable discussing erotic romance with her young child at home.

  6. 6.

    Both of these are Colleen Hoover novels included as Goodreads winners. Several respondents said they felt Hoover was more of a women’s fiction or new adult author, and speculated that her books win the “Best Romance” category because a majority of Goodreads voters are general fiction readers, not regular romance readers who are invested in the genre definition.

  7. 7.

    Milan’s tweets were part of a larger conversation about bias in the romance publishing industry after others noted former Borders book buyer Sue Grimshaw “had liked racist/white-supremacist-adjacent tweets” (Grady 2020). See also Noori Farzan 2020 or Wendell 2019 for more coverage of this case.

  8. 8.

    Brockmann, who is white, is referring to commonly cited exit poll statistics suggesting that 53% of white women voted for Trump in 2016.

  9. 9.

    This article was widely shared and praised on romance community social media.

  10. 10.

    “Non-substantive” comments did not directly state a reaction to the book or the review, such as comments seeking or suggesting other novels.

  11. 11.

    That is, of course, if you share McQuiston’s politics. One SBTB comment complained that the Democrats were portrayed as “too good” and the Republicans “too bad” to be multidimensional characters, but no one otherwise commented on the partisan depictions.

  12. 12.

    Most people observed at conferences are not identified by their real names; I make an exception for speeches made publicly available. Armentrout’s speech is publicly accessible on RWA’s YouTube channel.

  13. 13.

    I thank an anonymous reviewer for raising this important point.

  14. 14.

    RITA award year is year following publication, i.e. the 2018 publication Lady in Waiting is the 2019 RITA winner

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Acknowledgements

Thank you to the Editor and anonymous reviewers for their constructive comments. I also would like to thank Wendy Griswold, Jun Fang, Emily Handsman, Mallory Fallin, and the members of Northwestern University’s Culture and Society Workshop for their helpful feedback on various stages of this article. Portions of this research were supported through grants from the Romance Writers of America and the Sexualities Project at Northwestern.

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Correspondence to Anna Michelson.

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Appendices

Appendix 1: Novels included in content analysis

2018 Notable Books (appeared on 2+ industry recognition lists)

Cole, Alyssa. 2018. A Princess in Theory. Avon.

Guillory, Jasmine. 2018. The Wedding Date. Berkley.

Hoang, Helen. 2018. The Kiss Quotient. Berkley.

Loren, Roni. 2018. The Ones Who Got Away. Sourcebooks Casablanca.


2017 Notable Books

Cole, Alyssa. 2017. An Extraordinary Union. Kensington.

Daria, Alexis. 2017. Take the Lead. SMP Swerve.

MacLean, Sarah. 2017. The Day of the Duchess. Avon.

Rai, Alisha. 2017. Hate to Want You. Avon.


2016 Notable Books

Bouchet, Amanda. 2016. A Promise of Fire. Sourcebooks Casablanca.

Jenkins, Beverly. 2016. Forbidden. Avon.

Shupe, Joanna. 2016. Magnate. Zebra.


2015 Notable Books

Dev, Sonali. 2015. The Bollywood Bride. Kensington.

Hall, Alexis. 2015. For Real. Riptide Publishing.

Meader, Kate. 2015. Playing With Fire. Pocket Books.


RITA Best First Book Winners Footnote 14

Tremayne, Marie. 2018. Lady in Waiting. Avon Impulse.

[Take the Lead—already accounted for above with 2017 notable books]

Etchison, Cheryl. 2016. Once and For All. Avon Impulse.

Dunn, Pintip. 2015. Forget Tomorrow. Entangled.


Goodreads Best Romance Winners

[The Kiss Quotient—already accounted for above with 2018 notable books]

Hoover, Colleen. 2017. Without Merit. Atria Books.

Hoover, Colleen. 2016. It Ends With Us. Atria Books.

Hoover, Colleen 2015. Confess. Atria Books.

Appendix 2: Interview respondent demographics

Age Gender Sexual orientation Race/ethnicity
Median age: 44 Female/woman: 28 Straight/heterosexual: 18 White/Caucasian: 22
Range 30–70 Male/man: 2 Gay: 2 Black: 2
   Bisexual: 3 Black/Multiracial: 1
   Demisexual:1 White/Arab: 1
   Other: 2 Latinx: 1
    Hispanic: 1
    Greek: 1
    Asian American: 1
N = 29 N = 30 N =26 N = 30
Relationship status Have children? Highest degree obtained Household income
Married: 20 Yes: 13 Some college:1 < $29,000: 2
Partnered: 2 No: 17 Associates: 3 $30,000–59,000: 5
Single: 6   Bachelors: 12 $60,000–90,000: 5
Widowed: 1   Masters: 11a >$100,000: 17
   JD: 1  
   Doctorate: 2  
N = 29 N = 30 N = 30 N = 29
  1. 32 interviews were conducted but no demographics question received 32 responses. Respondents were able to opt of out questions they preferred not to answer. Most questions were open ended. For example, the respondent who wrote in Greek for race/ethnicity discussed this choice—she felt like she was “supposed to say white” but as a second generation immigrant she did not relate to white American culture and did not identify herself that way
  2. aIncludes one respondent currently pursuing a PhD

Appendix 3: Romance reader demographics

Readership statistics are reported by RWA from "The Romance Book Buyer 2017: A Study by NPD Book for Romance Writers of America” (Romance Writers of America 2019b).

  • Female: 82%

  • Male: 18%

  • Average age of the romance reader: 35–39 years old

  • Ethnicity: 73% White/Caucasian, 12% Black/African American, 7% Latino/Hispanic, and 4% Asian/Asian American.

Sexual orientation: 86% heterosexual or straight; 9% bisexual, pansexual, or other bi+ identity; 2% gay or lesbian.

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Michelson, A. The politics of happily-ever-after: romance genre fiction as aesthetic public sphere. Am J Cult Sociol 9, 177–210 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1057/s41290-020-00126-7

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Keywords

  • Reading
  • Romance
  • Aesthetic public sphere
  • Civil society