There’s No Such Thing As An Apolitical Romance Novel

Romance fans have long loved the genre for its unapologetic celebration of female power and sexuality. Now more and more writers are beginning to consider the ways in which their work can offer not just a happy ending, but a powerful statement.

The alpha hero is a stalwart archetype of romance novels: aggressively masculine, in the traditional sense, powerful, stoic, and usually rich. In contemporary romance he’s often a billionaire; in historical, often a duke. He is Darcy and Rochester and, yes, Christian Grey. And he is almost always the starting point of a redemption arc — where a façade cracks, a cold heart melts, and a man who is an island unto himself discovers that, well, love trumps hate.

In November 2016, Sarah MacLean was about a month away from turning in the manuscript for her newest novel, a Regency-era romance featuring one such alpha hero (a duke, of course). She had about a hundred pages left to write and a clear vision of the ending — the hero would realize he loved and needed his estranged wife, that his life was only meaningful with her in it, that her happiness and success meant more to him than anything else. He would become, in MacLean’s words, an alpha feminist.

Romance depends on the happy ending, after all, and an alpha can’t have a happy ending without change. But on Nov. 9, 2016, MacLean found she suddenly had much less patience for her hero’s personal evolution. She couldn’t even stand to think about him. As she described in an essay for the Washington Post, “This dude wasn’t just aggressively masculine. He was toxic. Indeed, I suspected he would have voted for Donald Trump. And I wanted nothing to do with him.”

For so many people, the 2016 election was a broken promise. As the night progressed — the quivering needle of the New York Times election-o-meter slipping farther and farther, impossibly, to red — the happy ending that had seemed to MacLean like the only possible conclusion (He can’t actually win, can he?) was snatched away. And that shifted things for her novel’s hero, she wrote. “Suddenly, there was no promise that he would change.”

MacLean overhauled her novel, making the Duke of Haven an alpha feminist from the start. When The Day of the Duchess was published in June of 2017, it was with a hero who, from page one, is devoted to his estranged wife, who uses his power and resources for the single goal of earning her love and forgiveness — not extracting them from her, but becoming worthy of them so that she freely gives. And of course, at the core of the story is a woman, loved and valued and whole. She gets her happy ending; that’s the promise of a romance novel.

MacLean’s choice might look like a sign that romance has become a hotbed of #resistance overnight. And it’s true that many in the industry — from authors like MacLean to the owners of the Ripped Bodice, a romance bookstore in Los Angeles — are more visibly engaging with hot-button political and social issues within the genre than a year or two ago. But rather than a sea change, this is more a time of heightened awareness and reckoning for a genre that has always been deeply attuned to the social and cultural politics of its time. And many authors have spent years, even decades, writing books that push mainstream commercial boundaries simply by virtue of the authors’ (and characters’) identities.

You might think romance novels are at best fluff and at worst horribly regressive. Hillary Clinton even characterized them in an end-of-2017 interview as full of “women being grabbed and thrown on a horse and ridden off into the distance.” That’s not far off from where things started in the ’70s, but the genre — which is by and large written by women, for women — has evolved along with women’s social and political concerns, providing a space for women to explore and respond to the shifts happening around them and in their lives. In the ’80s, office-set romances were a site for playing out power struggles that many women were, for the first time, experiencing. Post-9/11 paranormal romance offered heroes who could literally save the world. And after the 2008 financial crisis came the billionaires; Fifty Shades of Grey was not an ahistorical fluke.

And now romance is responding to Trump. In some ways, this is just another case of romance responding to the social climate, in line with decades of evolution and change. But just as Trump’s presidency feels less like another political oscillation and more like a potential breaking point, romance’s response feels different, too. Romance is political because all art is political, but also specifically because of what it is and who makes it. As the genre grapples with its place in the resistance, it confronts the structures of privilege and exclusion that have shaped the genre for decades. It is a reflection of America, after all, in more ways than one.

Maya Rodale, who in addition to writing historical romance is the author of the nonfiction book Dangerous Books for Girls: The Bad Reputation of Romance Novels, Explained, told me, “Romance has been hugely revolutionary and feminist from the beginning, because it empowers women by giving them the space to tell their own stories, to talk to one another.” Romance, more than any other genre of fiction, is a place where women’s stories are centered, in books that are a direct conduit of communication from woman to woman. Not every romance novel is feminist; plenty of women authors write happily within patriarchal structures. But that doesn’t erase the fact that the genre empowers women as authors, as readers, and as characters.

The broadest shape of a romance plot is generically defined. In fact, there’s an actual definition from the Romance Writers of America: a novel with “a central love story and an emotionally satisfying and optimistic ending.” But focusing on a love story does not have to be an act of submission to the patriarchy — and just because you know roughly where a story will end, doesn’t mean there won’t be a journey getting there.

Romance, more than any other genre of fiction, is a place where women’s stories are centered.

The heart of that journey, of course, is change. The way that usually plays out in a romance plot involving two straight, cisgender people (which, while hardly the only kind of love depicted in the genre, still dominates) is this: The heroine comes into her own, and the hero becomes worthy of her love. Perhaps she strengthens and he softens; maybe one or both of them reconcile with a traumatic past. But the heroine’s arc is central. More than one author told me that they write books so that, in their minds, the heroine at the end of the story would be fine with or without her man.

In so much of the literary canon, what happens to women who pursue lives as more than mothers and wives, who seek autonomy or even just full romantic partnerships? They walk into the ocean, jump in front of a train, get branded, shunned, or murdered. Or they exist simply as signposts in a male protagonist’s story, which is another kind of death.

“I think part of why we come to romance, especially as young women, is because it centers us — at a time when the rest of the world doesn’t,” MacLean told me. “The male gaze is everywhere, but romance is the female gaze.”

When MacLean went to college — at Smith — her dorm had a romance collection, books passed down from class to class. She told me about the marginalia in the paperbacks: “It was always like, ‘smash the patriarchy’ and ‘look at the way that this is subverting the hegemonic structure.’ Even then we saw the power in the books.” In those books, MacLean said, “we saw women triumph, and we saw women have pleasure, and we saw women have parity. And it was all done between the covers of these ridiculous-looking books that men discounted instantly.”

Romance is political in the broader meaning of the word, in that politics isn’t simply a tally of votes, but an accounting of power. It is about how we care for one another, how far our circles of empathy extend, and whose voices are privileged or heard. It is about who is seen as a full human being, worthy of respect and narrative interiority. And as long as women’s bodies are legislated and circumscribed and shamed, romance will also be political because it is, often, also about sex.

Romance is political in the broader meaning of the word, in that politics isn’t simply a tally of votes, but an accounting of power.

Not every romance novel includes sex scenes, but lots of them do. And this is part of the politics too: women caring about sex, on the page and in the reader’s chair; heroines having amazing sex with devoted partners who care, above all, about their pleasure; readers embracing the truth that women are sexual creatures, more than objects of desire or baby factories. Romance reminds us that women want, and it celebrates this fact. How sad that that’s subversive, but it is. Also subversive: the idea of women reading books that are escapist delights instead of “bettering” themselves via the male-adjudicated canon or, honestly, doing housework or tending to their kids. Romance novels are political because of, not despite, the fact that they are usually really fucking fun.

That fun, of course, has also been seen as at odds with a political project. And with romance’s incredibly broad readership and commercial orientation, authors have long been told that they should keep politics — meaning any divisive values — out of their books. You don’t want to offend anyone, you don’t want to distract anyone, and you don’t want to bring anyone down. No politics, and don’t kill the dog.

When MacLean started writing romance, she said, “it was politics is verboten. Because this is the biggest genre, you’re gonna have readers who come from all walks.” But that has become less and less the case — or less and less MacLean’s concern. “Look, if you don’t agree with me politically, and you read my books and you like them, great,” she said. “But it’s hard to believe that you wouldn’t know my politics from my books.”

“The choices each author makes in their work, or chooses not to make, is in some way a reflection of their politics,” author Alyssa Cole, who writes historical romances that often feature black and LGBT characters, told me. “This is not a good/bad thing, but romance doesn’t exist in a vacuum.”

One thing that’s become clear in the past year is that writing a happy ending for women — or for anyone — in American culture will require more than empowering stories. It will require reckoning with the structures of privilege that undergird everything, even these empowering, feminist books, and the industry behind them.

Some writers have been fighting for decades to get inclusive stories in front of a broad audience, on the lists of major publishers. The genre has always been and continues to be overwhelmingly white. Straight, cis, beautiful, upper-class couples are at the center of most romance novels, especially those from major publishers. (The Ripped Bodice put out a damning report on this topic.) With the advent of ebooks, self-publishing became a force in romance perhaps more than any other genre — romance readers are voracious and willing to take risks. And this has allowed writers who can’t find a home in traditional publishing to still reach readers, but without the institutional support and cachet that traditional publishing provides. It’s hardly a sufficient solution.

Tracey Livesay, who writes interracial romances that mirror her own marriage to a white man, said, “For so many years, the normative was a white, hetero story. And we love our stories. We eat it up and we can internalize that. And then that’s the norm, or that’s how things should be.” White authors who write white, straight, cis couples and say, I’m keeping my politics out of my work, hardly are.

White authors who write white, straight, cis couples and say, I’m keeping my politics out of my work, hardly are.

If centering women in narrative is a political act, then centering marginalized women is doubly so. Granting women of color fulfilling love stories with happy endings; writing queer and trans characters who are happy with themselves, out, and loved; depicting interracial romance where race isn’t the main issue — those choices in fiction are revolutionary to the women who write it and read it. Writing, centering, and promoting stories about white, straight, cis, beautiful couples falling in love may have seemed like the neutral default to some, but it never was. And in the world of romance, writers from marginalized backgrounds have never been able to tell themselves their work is apolitical.

When I asked Indian-American author Alisha Rai if romance is political, she said, “If you'd asked me five years ago, I would've said no, that doesn't make any sense. But now I think we're at a point where politics isn’t just free trade and taxes — it's come to a point where a lot of people's existence has become political. I know mine has sometimes.”

Beverly Jenkins, whose historical romances with black heroes and heroines broke ground in the mid-’90s, said, “Writing, for me, is truth. I couldn’t write a novel set in the 17th-, 18th-, or 19th-century America and pretend that reality played no part in [my characters’] lives. My work is political in the sense that any story featuring African-Americans in a historical setting has to be played out against the challenges of the times: Jim Crow, segregation, lynchings, Dred Scott.”

Cole writes romances set throughout US history, with main characters who are civil rights activists, suffragettes, and spies trying to take down the Confederacy. She said, “My work is explicitly political. I write love stories that reflect the diverse world I grew up in, but that wasn’t reflected in the books on the shelf at the bookstore; this shouldn’t be political, but sadly it is.”

The same is true in queer romance. Vanessa North told me, “I try and just explore the aspects of what it means to be bisexual or gay or lesbian or trans in small-town America, like where I grew up and where I live now. You’re living in a time when somebody [going] to the bathroom is a political act ... My antidote to the political side of that is to show that there are trans people who really are happy and living fulfilled lives.” Queer romance is a vanguard of progress, but it’s hardly a unified genre — as one reader told me, it is “frontier and faultline.” Queer romance by queer authors is a powerful emerging force, but there is also queer romance — usually male/male — written by and for straight women, which is often an entirely separate subgenre.

Rai said she doesn’t really worry about turning readers off with her politics. It’s not that she’s chosen not to care, but rather that she never sees herself as having had a choice. She told me, “I can’t pretend to be something I’m not. And when politics includes whether people who look like me or have similar names to mine can stay in the country or deserve to have a happy ending or belong here … I think I have a level of safety in talking about politics. If [readers] don’t like what I say on Twitter, they probably won’t like my books — they probably won’t even pick up my books.”

Rai writes contemporary romance that falls into the unofficial subgenre of “angsty.” As she told Jezebel, “People think of romance as this happy, wonderful place, but I think of it as, you figure out how to get to the happy place.” Rai wrote her latest book, Wrong to Need You, after the election. She told me, “When I pitched it, it didn’t really occur to me that the heroine is Muslim and the hero is the grandson of Japanese internment camp survivors. I was writing the book during the whole Muslim ban thing. [It was] a poor choice if I wanted to escape into my own fiction! It’s not primarily a treatise on [those issues], it’s a sexy romance, but those are their identities and I can’t really get around that. It’s a path they both have to deal with and share.” The way her writing has changed most since the election is in her empathy and care for the reader’s experience. She said, “The world is hurting enough, and I want to make it not hurt for the few hours that somebody is reading my book.”

In some ways, 2017 has brought white writers to confront the choice to do what writers of color (and queer writers, and other authors from marginalized backgrounds) have always had to do by default. Established, successful white authors are in a position to use their power to knock down walls that writers in more precarious positions want to write beyond. Not all of them use that power, but some do.

Suzanne Brockmann sold her first novel, a contemporary romance, in 1992. Her editor told her that one of the “small” revisions she’d need to make (in addition to euphemizing the word “penis”) was that the small-town sheriff, a peripheral character, couldn’t be gay. Brockmann took the phone call while her son and daughter played in the other room — her son, who she’d been pretty sure since he was 3 or 4 was gay. She recalled, “Here I was on the phone with someone who was telling me that people like my son couldn’t even show up as minor characters in romance novels, for fear of upsetting who?”

As a new author, Brockmann didn’t have the power to push the issue; she gave the character a wife conveniently offstage in Paris. But she promised herself that she would get that power. And in the meantime, she decided that she would write a gay character in every book, and if her editors forced her to change them, they’d have to live with that shame.

In 2001, Brockmann introduced a gay Navy SEAL character named Jules to her Troubleshooters series, and in 2004, he got to meet, and chastely kiss, his future Mr. Right. In 2007, the two got their own book, but only after Brockmann prepared her agent, editor, and the powers that be at her publisher (she’d moved to Ballantine Books around 1999) with a massive binder of the emails she’d been getting from readers. Not from the smattering of offended parties, but the hundreds of readers who’d written in with love for Jules and demands that he get his own book — and, thus, his own love story.

Brockmann told herself she wasn’t bringing forbidden politics into romance. She had just changed the framing, writing under the assumption that civil rights for queer people aren’t political. But that outlook made Trump’s election even harder to reckon with. She told me, “My blinders were ripped off last November, because it’s very clear that Trump is not new.” She said that she’s experienced “a slam-to-my-face realization that what I thought were common, decent, universally shared human values — based in kindness and caring — actually are, instead, highly political beliefs.”

Brockmann now sees her writing, and romance in general, as fundamentally working in opposition to intolerance. “They — my political adversaries — define ‘other’ as anyone not white, male, cis, abled, and allegedly Christian,” she wrote in an email. “Romance, on the other hand, is and has always been about opening oneself to the risk of the ‘other.’ Whether (from the traditional heroine’s point of view) that ‘other’ is a pirate, a Viking, the lord of a manor, or a war-hardened Navy SEAL, a connection cannot be made without accepting one’s own vulnerability, and opening oneself up to intimacy.”

MacLean, too, found her faith in her work shaken after the election. She told her husband she was going to quit writing to go to law school and work for the ACLU. He told her, “You’re bananas.” She told a writer friend the plan, and the friend said, “You’re bananas” and “You have a job and you can use that platform to get shit done.” And now, MacLean says, “I believe it would be irresponsible not to use it.” As Rodale wrote in Dangerous Books for Girls, in writing romance, “women create an idealized, hopeful vision for the future to inspire other women. Fiction and fantasy are the crucial first steps to changing the world.”

With The Day of the Duchess, MacLean was writing more explicitly in response to politics than she had before, and not just politics as in the tidal forces that work on society, but politics as in who was in the White House and why. Readers noticed. When MacLean’s heroine said, “And so, I persisted,” it was pretty hard to miss. Some, of course, objected: I don’t come to romance for politics! I’m never reading your books again! But she has also gotten letters that tell her she is reaching people.

Rodale, who’s written a book entirely on the subversive power of romance novels, wondered, “Do I chuck my writing career and run for office? But I thought about it and decided, no, I’m going to put my ideas and values and joy out into the world, and nobody is going to take that from me.” Jenkins told me, “Historically, I lack the privilege of taking to my bed and pulling the covers over my head. Instead, I curse and pray and write.”

There seems to be more cursing these days, though, while praying and writing get harder. North told me, “We are struggling to write happily and find the joy in writing, and I don't think there's any shame in that because it is work that requires you to be able to find that joy. It's work, though, and it's always been work.”

Livesay agreed. “I feel like the world is going to hell in a handbasket, and, like, where am I supposed to get this positivity from? Where am I supposed to get this optimism from? … But this is something that I can do.” She added, laughing, “I was like, damn it, he is not gonna stop me from writing these stories!”

Romance authors don’t set out to convert their readers’ politics. But they do want to reach readers’ minds.

Authors know that readers find hope and escape and inspiration in romance. And joy, which has seemed all too scarce for many in the last year or so. Now readers may be encountering — or finally noticing — more political messages, too. Writers aren’t necessarily changing their stories in order to sway or cater to their readers. Instead, they’re finding that, since the election, the stories that speak to them have changed.

Rodale told me that in her new series, she is shifting her focus from traditional Regency romance set in England to the Gilded Age in New York, where wealth disparity and income inequality coexist with a strong progressive movement and emerging feminist ideals. Fellow historical writer Rose Lerner is finding herself drawn to Gothics, where it’s “all about an atmosphere of heavy dread that often derives from something wrong in the home, but also in wider society, that allows the sickness in the home to continue without recourse.”

Romance balances between contradictions: It’s not didactic, but it offers readers inspiration and aspirations for their lives. It’s not an impossible fantasy, this crazy idea that women should be loved and happy, but with all those billionaires and dukes with six-packs and tree-trunk thighs, romance isn’t meant to be realism, either. And romance authors don’t set out to convert their readers’ politics. But they do want to reach readers’ minds. North said, “I don’t think reading a book necessarily makes you an ally, but it can open you up to being one.”

Authors speak out on social media, yes. One sign of the abating taboo on politics in romance is authors’ increasing willingness to speak out directly, explicitly, about what’s happening in politics today. But, as author Tessa Dare told me, “My biggest ‘platform’ will always be my books.”

Rodale agreed. She said, “What makes a romance novel so powerful is you are going straight to a woman’s heart and head, and she's spending hours with your ideas, which are conveyed through characters she cares about. It is vastly more powerful than any Facebook post or tweet in terms of having a conversation, changing minds, sharing a perspective.”

That sharing of perspective is a kind of literary whisper network from woman to woman, protected from male meddling by taboo or misguided derision (a whisper network that also happens to be a billion-dollar-a-year industry). While men weren’t looking, women built a genre that tackles love, sex, pleasure, class, money, feminism, masculinity, and equality. As Rodale wrote in Dangerous Books for Girls, “The happy ending of a romance novel is not about marriage at all — it’s about hope for a better future.” ●

Jaime Green is a freelance writer and editor. Her work has appeared in Slate, Longreads, Brooklyn Magazine, and elsewhere.

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