In a year of pain, romance nerds embraced radical pleasure

It is a The truth is universally accepted that a congressional committee-owned science fiction writer need have no question as to where all the optimism of the genre has gone. Many born during the early days of cyberpunk (like me) have no recollection of a time when science fiction was inherently optimistic. But there’s another genre that defaults to optimism and is often ignored because it’s traditionally written by and for women: romance novels. As Bell Hooks wrote, “Male imagination is viewed as something capable of creating reality, while female imagination is viewed as pure escape.”

Romance is optimistic only because they have an unwavering belief 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 stands by it. Lucy Honeychurch realizes her desires are legitimate. Anne Shirley overcomes herself. “There is no romance without change,” says bestselling author Sarah MacLean.

Pride, prejudice, crazy crowds or just the wreckage of a first marriage washing up on the Cornish coast: all of this can be overcome in the hope of a brighter future with the partner of choice. The choice gives the imagination its power. In her Brief History of the Romance, librarian Amanda Pagan notes that Jane Austen and Charlotte Brontë “introduced female characters who were ultimately rewarded with successful marriages because they expressed their individuality or their own desires.” This was considered groundbreaking at the time. Not much has changed.

“We read books so we don’t cry,” explained one reader of 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 scholars and has paved the way for all manner of “fandom studies.” Without her, there would be no Henry Jenkins, no Jane McGonigal, and possibly no Marvel Studios. Radway had the audacity to suggest that some women read romance novels not because they are missing something as human beings, but because they are missing something in their world at large.

“What [these] Women, in their quest for the perfect romantic fantasy, seek a man capable of the same perceptive observation and intuitive ‘understanding’ that they believe women regularly offer men,” Radway wrote. “Furthermore, without a happy ending, the romance could not live up to the utopian promise that relationships between men and women can be successfully mastered.”

This “utopian promise” has grown since 1984. The world of romance has changed, as have the worlds of dating, sex, marriage, and relationships in the 21st century. Name-brand commercial publishers are now putting out books with cute covers and funny titles written by and targeted at queer, transgender, polysexual, neurodivergent, and disabled people of all races and genders, including (gasp!) white cis men.

These books contain subplots involving STEM, scripted reality shows, hockey, cupcakes, cowboys, racecars – the genre has more niches than meta micro-goals. As Happily Ever After Books’ mission statement reads, “The modern romance genre is more diverse and inclusive than ever, and we can only improve on these things by claiming a space for romance readers to celebrate the stories that they can find themselves in stories that bring them joy, that bring them peace, that excite them, that show them that they deserve respect and approval and trust in their romantic and/or sexual relationships.”

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