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It doesn't feel like an exaggeration to say that this year has been, by and large, difficult. Unnerved by the unprecedented, rattled by the unexpected, we're looking to anything that can give us comfort right now, losing ourselves in the security blanket of whatever media can provide us with a precious kernel of optimism to make it through the day, to picture a better tomorrow, to envision a hopeful future. For some of us, that means rewatching our favorite TV shows, or pressing play on movies we've seen hundreds of times and can recite all of the dialogue from by memory. For others, it's spending time in the pages of a book and all the stories that are woven within. But if there's any genre in written fiction that seems like it's doing a lot of the heavy lifting lately, it's romance — and in a time of a pandemic, when so much remains uncertain and out of our control, the enduring reassurance of a happy ending means more to its readers now than ever before.
Happily ever afters are, after all, a defining characteristic of the romance genre — literally. Look up the official definition of a romance novel and you'll find the two bedrocks that are the required foundation on which every book is written: a central love story, and an emotionally satisfying and optimistic resolution (these days, it can either be a "HEA," which stands for happily ever after, or "HFN," which stands for happy for now). And it's these necessary ingredients that have made romance one of the most popular genres, not merely in fiction but independent of that category, as well as one of the most profitable industries. One-third of all mass-market fiction sold is romance, and the combined genre of romance and erotica generates the most revenue from books purchased in the U.S., significantly more than mysteries and thrillers, or sci-fi and fantasy.
Considering that the genre is not only this lucrative but also this long-lasting, it's no surprise that it's attracting new devotees all the time. While some have been reading romance for half their lifetimes, sneaking their first novel from a family member's bookshelf or via a curious trip down an unexplored section of the public library, others only found themselves drawn to the genre within the last year or so — and it's mostly because of the respite that reading romance provides from the turmoil of real-world events.
"I just started reading the genre this year ... with audiobooks," said Brianna R., a writer at The Young Folks who shared her story with me via email. But when COVID-19 became an international crisis, she discovered that the pandemic initially impacted her desire to even pick up a book at all. "I noticed that at first, I stopped reading altogether. I kept thinking that there would be time to settle down with a book and I didn't want to rush it. My patience turned into avoidance until I was in a full-fledged reading slump that depressed me. And when I found myself craving reading again, I wanted to read romance — something that guaranteed a happy ending. The fluffier, or more protective the heroes, the better."
Several others who reached out with their own unique romance meet-cutes said that while the genre has been a mainstay of their reading habits for years — even decades, in some instances — they've noticed a shift in the types of books they tend to be drawn to now, especially when personal anxieties and worries can affect the ability to focus on a longer story. Many people told me that picking up shorter books, like novellas, has been especially beneficial, since they provide the benefit of an immediate escape without being as time-intensive as a longer novel. "I've always been a romance reader, [but] ... my reading habits have definitely changed in both format and trope. I love an enemies-to-lovers romance, but I'm finding lots of comfort in gentler setups and tender slow burns," said Amanda D., an event coordinator for indie bookstore Belmont Books who also reviews romance novels. "My attention span has also been super flighty and I've been picking up novellas and anthologies. Though they don't always have the huge emotional payoff I like after reading 300+ pages, they're great for dipping in and out. It's not too taxing on my thoughts and I feel like I've accomplished something."
"I find I am very distracted and catch myself doom-scrolling social media and tweeting instead of reading a lot more than I used to," said Beth, an adult-services reference assistant for a public library who became a more "open" romance reader about three or four years ago, by her own estimate. "I'm trying out more novellas because being able to read something in one sitting helps get me back into a reading groove."
And while Romancelandia (the self-designated name for the community of individuals who consider themselves fans of the genre) has always had a significant online presence, the internet — and social media, more significantly — has been essential in allowing readers to connect with peers and have discussions, especially for those who live in countries under more restrictive quarantine or lockdown. Monthly book clubs that used to meet in a public space have either migrated to online streams hosted on platforms like Zoom or have eventually resumed outdoors — with social distancing rules enforced, of course.
"Before the pandemic, I ran a local Boston-area romance book club at Porter Square Books and we've transitioned to meeting digitally once it became clear things weren't going to end anytime soon," Amanda D. told me. "We still get a lively crowd and sometimes the discussion is 'Listen, I didn't read the book, but here's what I've been reading and I just need some face time with readers.' Totally get it and we always have a little time after the book talk to kvetch about the state of things."
And it isn't just readers getting in on the discussions, either; with in-person book events essentially on hold, online tours are becoming the new means of allowing authors to promote new releases and connect with their audience. Recently, Bookstore Romance Day, which was established in 2019 by bookseller Billie Bloebaum in order for indie bookshops to celebrate the genre on the third Saturday in August, dedicated an entire day to online panels hosted by participating bookstores and publishers, many of which were made available to watch for free afterward. "One good thing about this pandemic is that it's really leveled the playing field for events," Amanda D. added. "Romance authors often didn't get a huge tour schedule, if at all, so this has really helped get more romance events to wider audiences."
"One of the few sources of joy for me during the pandemic has been my book club, Really Reading Romance," said Elizabeth H. "We normally meet once a month in East City Bookshop, a D.C. bookstore. During quarantine, we've been meeting more often online. We've opened our meetings up to people across the country and had an amazing group of authors — Alyssa Cole, Courtney Milan, and Talia Hibbert, to name just a few — join us for discussions. These conversations have been a lifeline during a really lonely and stressful time. It's so nice to come together to talk about something happy and joyful. It's made me appreciate the romance community — authors, readers, reviewers — so much."
"The best part of the pandemic has been all the virtual romance events. I hope we keep this format even when we can gather in person. I'd gladly pay to livestream or get a recording of an event there would be no way I could get to," Beth shared. "Plus, as a library program planner, patrons embracing virtual events has really kicked open the door of opportunities and presenters I can ask for help in putting on programming."
In many ways, the community's dedication to putting on events for readers, authors, reviewers, and those even just a little curious about dipping their toe into romance is truly indicative of the genre's strengths — offering a bright light in an otherwise dark time. All of the individuals who took the time to share their thoughts with me, even briefly, emphasized the positive impact that reading romance has had on their state of mind.
"It's often the pick-me-up I need. To be blunt, the world sucks right now, more so than usual, and the last thing I want is for the fiction I consume to be a downer too. So that's meant romance books, rom-com movies, vaguely questionable sci-fi TV, classy AF period dramas — basically, all the things that make me happy and give me something to smile about for a little bit," said Amanda P., a freelance writer/editor and playwright. "But it's tough to not be able to go out into the world, meet new people, see my friends, and just exist outside of my own home without being afraid, so it's like a mental and emotional vacation to spend some time in fictional stories that are free of those fears."
Given the subjects that romance writers make a conscious point to illustrate with sensitivity and care — the importance of communication, of showcasing emotion, of consensual and unapologetically enthusiastic sex (whether it occurs on-the-page or behind closed doors) — it's no surprise that there are yet even more valuable takeaways for readers to glean from these fictional narratives to apply them within their everyday lives. "Thank goodness for romance novels and romance authors! They are a lifeline to me right now," Beth said. "I am definitely, as the saying goes, leaning away from the pandemic in my reading. I've also found that as more romance writers embrace discussing mental health in normalizing ways, I finally decided to take the step to seek out some therapy, which is huge."
"I work for my state’s department of labor, and to say our workload has increased substantially is the understatement of the decade. Returning to familiar novels has helped give me a sense of normalcy," said reader Becky P. "I can’t control the wildness of the world, or even what I’ll deal with in the office day-to-day, but I can retreat to a book where at least some things are certain."
"Romance has helped during these trying times because it shows that no matter what, people come out on top," a reader named Kenny S. told me. "There's going to be a happy ending after all of this. We're just at the 'all hope is lost' moment of the story."