After an emotionally exhausting year brought on by the coronavirus pandemic, a contentious election, and racial justice uprisings, people everywhere are desperate for an escape. To cope with all the feelings of uncertainty that 2020 has brought, many have been turning to one place guaranteed to bring a happy ending and sense of optimism: romance novels.

Sarah Wendell, an author, podcaster, and co-creator of the romance community blog Smart Bitches, Trashy Books, has seen a 75% surge in traffic on her website since the pandemic began in March. Her site was so overwhelmed, in fact, that she had to upgrade to a new server.

“I think the major attraction to romance is that it centers womens’ stories and the stories of people who are finding emotional fulfillment through courtship narratives,” Wendell said. “Romances are stories about happiness. If you pick up a romance novel, you’re going to read a courtship story where no matter what goes wrong in that story—and it could go wrong in a million different ways—it’s going to be okay.”

The certainty of a “happily ever after” in the face of adversity is one of the major aspects that draws readers into the genre, but even apart from the feel-good ending that romance novels provide, the genre itself can be both powerful and influential. Romance is the publishing industry’s most reliably popular genre, raking in billions of dollars each year. For some people in the romance space, that level of engagement and popularity can come with a sense of personal responsibility. For years, creators and readers have leveraged the genre’s popularity to promote social change, both within the industry and outside of it.

More than just ‘fluff’

Despite its wild success, the romance genre is often dismissed as “fluff,” which means writers don’t always receive the accolades they deserve. Romance novels are about relationships, emotions, and sex—all targets that are easy to denigrate.

“Our genre is treated with a disdain at times because it is a genre that is mostly run by women,” said LaQuette, a romance author and president-elect of the Romance Writer’s of America (RWA), a trade organization that represents thousands of romance writers. “It teaches women to be independent and that it’s okay to ask for orgasms—and to expect them. It also teaches women that it’s okay to decide whether to be with someone or not, and it’s okay to define who you are. Those are all things that slap patriarchy in the face.”

Writing a good romance story involves much more time and detail than many critics realize. Creating strong primary and secondary characters, intimate scenes, a good setting, and a satisfying ending are just the basics. Then, not only does the story have to be intriguing, but it also has to be realistic enough to be believable. Romance, similar to other genre fiction, can also be a microcosm of society at large and has the power to sway hearts and minds.

“I definitely think romance has the ability to change the world,” LaQuette said. “People dismiss [romance authors] because of what we write, but they often don’t recognize who they’re dealing with. Many of us have had really amazing, professional careers and are very well educated in the traditional sense. We brought all of those skills to romance. It makes us kind of dangerous in a way because we not only have the skills and the experience to make change, but we also have the passion to make it happen.”

A call-to-action by romance novelists

Romance authors have a reliable fanbase and have leaned on readers when trying to garner support around a cause. The most recent example took place in November, when romance novelists Alyssa Cole, Courtney Milan, and Kit Rocha (the pseudonym used for writing duo Donna Herren and Bree Bridges) teamed up to raise money for Democrats in the Georgia runoffs. The “Romancing the Runoff” auction raised funds for three Georgia organizations: Fair Fight, The New Georgia Project, and Black Voters Matter. Bridges told Prism the idea for “Romancing the Runoff” manifested from her own “anxiety, rage, and hope” in the days after the election.

“At the time when we started this, there were no other auctions of this type that were prepared to leverage the full might of the romance community,” Bridges said. “And to be honest, since we’re frequently unwelcome and almost universally underestimated, there was never any thought of sitting around and waiting for someone to invite us to the party. We knew what we wanted to do, so we set out to do it.”

The auction ended up raising nearly $400,000.

“At every goal we smashed through and every milestone we reached, mostly I just kept thinking, ‘Wow, the romance community is amazing,’” Bridges said.

The authors have said they were inspired by the work of 2018 Georgia gubernatorial candidate and fellow romance novelist Stacey Abrams. Abrams authored eight romance novels between 2001 and 2009. She participated in the auction by donating a copy of one of her books, signed with both her real name and pen name, Selena Montgomery. After the fundraiser’s wild success, Bridges says that even after the Jan. 5 runoff, their activism won’t be over.

“We’re definitely all focused on meeting the deadlines we put on hold in the short term, but I suspect we’ll be back to shine a light on other grassroots voting organizations that could use some help,” said Bridges. “And next time Stacey Abrams decides to run for office, we’re definitely getting the band back together.”

Though “Romancing the Runoff” received the most national attention, it hasn’t been the only activism by romance novelists. This year, The New York Times bestselling romance author Sarah MacLean and romance critic Jen Prokop—the hosts of the romance podcast, Fated Mates—partnered with Indivisible.org to hold multiple phone banking sessions to increase voter turnout for the 2020 general election. Their efforts brought in 250 phone bankers who made hundreds of thousands of calls to several states. The pair has also been active in phone baking for the Georgia runoffs.

“I am so blown away every week by our listeners, who give up precious time to phonebank with us,” MacLean tweeted.

But this year wasn’t the first time people in the romance genre have tried to wield their influence for a cause. Since 2015, romance authors Ginger Scott and Kennedy Ryan have hosted LIFT 4 Autism, an annual auction to rally the romance community to raise funds for families and individuals on the Autism spectrum. Also, in September 2019, Love in Panels, a database and blog site that covers the intersections between romance and comics, hosted an auction to support undocumented immigrants with proceeds going to RAICES Texas and The Young Center.

“Like many creatives, romance authors use our talents, skills, and platforms to enlighten, uplift, and imagine a better existence and experience for our fellow human beings,” said LaQuette. “Whether through our writing or activism, we labor to right wrongs and bring a happily ever after to all.”

Advocacy within the genre

In addition to their activism outside of the genre, romance writers and readers have been advocating for years for more diversity in the publishing space and have pushed to bring more Black, brown, and LGBTQ+ stories into the mainstream. Despite improvements in access to publishing for romance writers through self publishing and ebooks, the publishing industry as a whole is still overwhelmingly white, with only a small fraction of books being published by Black and brown authors. When it comes to the romance genre, that number is even smaller.

The Ripped Bodice, a romantic bookstore in Culver City, California, has released an annual report the last few years called “The State of Racial Diversity in Romance Publishing Report,” which tracks the number of romance books being published by BIPOC authors and details which publishers have been the most inclusive in terms of race. Their most recent 2019 report found that for every 100 romance books published that year, only 8.3 were written by writers of color. That number is only a 0.4% increase over the last four years.

“While many groups are still woefully underrepresented in the romance genre including people with disabilities, marginalized religious groups, and members of the LGBTQ+ community, we had to start somewhere,” the owners of the store wrote on their website. “This is a difficult subject to discuss, but racial discrimination is one of the largest to barriers to equality in any professional industry. Publishing, unfortunately, is not immune.”

After the racial justice uprisings in the spring and summer, calls for people to “decolonize” their bookshelves took off, encouraging readers to push back on the dominant narrative that limits who is loveable, worthy, and desirable. Wendell says there is “absolutely no question” romance novels can create societal change, especially when writers make their books more reflective of their readers.

“When writers center on people from different cultures and backgrounds, that’s really powerful because the root message of romance is empathy, and empathy is a deeply powerful tool,” Wendell said. “When you write stories about who gets to have access to happiness, who gets to be seen and loved and sexually desired exactly as they are—that’s radical.”

Last year, the romance world was shaken after novelist Courtney Milan was suspended from RWA after tweeting screenshots from Kathryn Lynn Davis’ 1999 romance novel Somewhere Lies the Moon. In the tweets, Milan—who at the time was RWA’s ethics committee chair—called out some of the anti-Asian language and descriptions as “standard racist trope[s].” Soon after, ethics complaints were filed against her with RWA, including one from the author accusing Milan of cyberbullying. Milan’s suspension and eventual expulsion caused outrage and renewed calls for more diversity in the genre, eventually resulting in the resignations of RWA’s president and executive director. RWA was also called out publicly for its record on racial representation, prompting authors to speak out about their experience with discrimination and racism in the romance space.

“I don’t know exactly what went down at RWA but I know what it looks like: another manifestation of the ways in which organizations invested in white supremacy would rather destroy themselves than benefit from inclusivity,” tweeted romance novelist Alyssa Cole.

Eventually, Twitter threads critical of RWA, boycotts of RWA’s annual conferences, and the resignations of eight nonwhite RWA board members followed. But despite the criticism, LaQuette, a Black woman who will officially assume her role as RWA president in March 2021, said the organization is committed—and has always been committed—to telling more diverse stories and increasing publishing access for more writers of color.

“RWA, much like every other institution in this country, has had its challenges with respect to diversity and inclusion,” said LaQuette. “That is something we completely acknowledge and are working really, really hard to change. But I really wish more people understood that change is not something that’s going to happen overnight. We have to keep fighting. We have to keep pushing forward. The more we do that, eventually we will get to that destination where I hope where we are one unified body and where romance authors are embracing and protecting each other, and uplifting each other.”

Carolyn Copeland

Carolyn Copeland is a staff reporter and copy editor at Prism. She covers racial justice and culture. Follow her on Twitter @Carolyn_Copes.