One of the earliest romance novels was Samuel Richardson's popular 1740 novel Pamela, or Virtue Rewarded, which was revolutionary on two counts: it focused almost entirely on courtship and did so entirely from the perspective of a female protagonist. In the next century, Jane Austen expanded the genre, and her Pride and Prejudice is often considered the epitome of the genre. Austen inspired Georgette Heyer, who introduced historical romances in 1921. A decade later, British company Mills and Boon began releasing the first category romance novels. Their books were resold in North America by Harlequin Enterprises Ltd, which began direct marketing to readers and allowing mass-market merchandisers to carry the books.
The modern romance genre was born in 1972 with Avon's publication of Kathleen Woodiwiss's The Flame and the Flower, the first single-title romance novel to be published as an original paperback. The genre boomed in the 1980s, with the addition of many category romance lines and an increased number of single-title romances. Popular authors began pushing the boundaries of the genre and plots and characters began to modernize.
In North America, romance novels are the most popular genre in modern literature, comprising almost 55% of all paperback books sold in 2004. The genre is also popular in Europe and Australia, and romance novels appear in 90 languages. Most of the books, however, are written by authors from English-speaking countries, leading to an Anglo-Saxon perspective in the fiction. Despite the popularity and widespread sales of romance novels, the genre has attracted significant derision, skepticism and criticism.
Some romance novel authors and readers believe the genre has additional restrictions, from plot considerations such as the protagonists meeting early on in the story, to avoiding themes such as adultery. Other disagreements have centered on the firm requirement for a happy ending, or the place of same-sex relationships within the genre. Some readers admit stories without a happy ending, if the focus of the story is on the romantic love between the two main characters (e.g. Romeo and Juliet). Others believe the definition should be more strictly worded to include only heterosexual pairing. While the majority of romance novels meet the stricter criteria, there are also many books that are widely considered to be romance novels that deviate from these rules. Therefore, the general definition, as embraced by the RWA and publishers, includes only the focus on a developing romantic relationship and an optimistic ending.
As long as a romance novel meets those twin criteria, it can be set in any time period and in any location. There are no specific restrictions on what can or cannot be included in a romance novel. Even controversial subjects are addressed in romance novels, including topics such as date rape, domestic violence, addiction, and disability. The combination of time frame, location, and plot elements does, however, help a novel to fit into one of several romance subgenres. Despite the numerous possibilities this framework allows, many people in the mainstream press claim that "all [romance novels] seem to read alike." Stereotypes of the romance genre abound. For instance, some believe that all romance novels are similar to those of Danielle Steel, featuring rich, glamorous people traveling to exotic locations. Many romance readers disagree that Steel writes romance at all, considering her novels more mainstream fiction.
Romance novels are sometimes referred to as "smut" or female porn. While some romance novels do contain more erotic acts, in other romance novels the characters do no more than kiss chastely. The romance genre runs the spectrum between these two extremes. Because the vast majority of the romance novel audience are women, most romance novels are told from a woman's viewpoint, in either first or third person.
Romance novels are divided into two sub-sets, category romances, also known as series romances, and single title romances. Many authors write only within one of the formats, but others, including Jayne Ann Krentz and Jennifer Crusie, have achieved success in both formats.
To write a successful novel of this length, the "author must pare the story down to its essentials. Subplots and minor characters are eliminated or relegated to the backstory." Nonetheless, category romance lines each have a distinct identity which may involve similar settings, characters, time periods, levels of sensuality, or types of conflict. Publishers of category romances usually issue guidelines for each line, specifying the elements necessary for a novel to be included in each line. Depending on the current market and perceived reader preferences, publishers frequently begin new lines or end existing ones. Most recently, erotic and Christian lines have been introduced while traditional Regency romance lines have ended.
Despite their name, single-title novels are not always stand-alone novels. Some authors prefer to write several interconnected books, ranging in number from trilogies to long-running series, so that they can revisit characters or worlds. Such sets of books often have similar titles, and may be labelled as "Number 1 in the XXX Series", but they are not considered series romances because they are not part of a particular line.
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Most contemporary romance novels contain elements which date the books, and the majority of them eventually become irrelevant to more modern readers and go out of print. Those which survive the test of time, such as the works of Jane Austen are often reclassified as historical romances.
Over half of the romantic fiction published in the United States in 2004 (1468 out of 2,285 books) were contemporary romance novels. Contemporary romance novels have twice been chosen by Kelly Ripa to be featured in her Reading with Ripa book club.
In 2001, historical romance reached a 10-year high as 778 were published. By 2004, that number had dropped to 486, which was still 20% of all romance novels published. Kensington Books claims that they are receiving fewer submissions of historical novels, and that their previously published authors are switiching to contemporary.
Like all romances, romantic suspense novels must place the development of a relationship between the protagonists at the heart of the story. The relationship "must impact each decision they make and increase the tension of the suspense as it propel the story. In turn, the events of suspense must also directly affect the relationship and move the story forward." Romantic suspense novels tend to have more "clean" language, without the "emotional, intimate" descriptions often used in more traditional romances. Because the mystery is a crucial aspect of the plot, these novels are more plot-driven instead of character-driven.
This blend of the romance and mystery was perfected by Mary Stewart, who wrote ten romantic suspense novels between 1955 and 1967. Stewart was one of the first to seamlessly combine the two genres, maintaining a full mystery while focusing on the courtship between two people. In her novels, the process of solving the mystery "helps to illuminate" the hero's personality, helping the heroine to fall in love with him.
These novels often blend elements of other subgenres—including suspense, mystery, or chick lit--with their fantastic themes. A few paranormals are set solely in the past and are structured much like any historical romance novel. Others are set in the future, sometimes on different worlds. Still others have a time-travel element with either the hero or the heroine traveling into the past or the future. Between 2002 and 2004, the number of paranormal romances published in the United States doubled to 170 per year. A popular title in the genre can sell over 500,000 copies.
Many paranormal romances rely on the blend of contemporary American life with the existence of supernatural or magically-empowered beings, human or otherwise; sometimes the larger culture is aware of the magical in its midst, sometimes it isn't. Some paranormal romances focus less on the specifics of their alternative worlds than do traditional science fiction or fantasy novels, keeping the attention strongly on the underlying romance. Others develop the alternate reality meticulously, combining well-planned magical systems and inhuman cultures with contemporary reality.
Like fantasy romance, science fiction romance is a romance novel that takes place in a story that would otherwise be classified as a science fiction story. A classic example of science fiction romance is Johanna Lindsey's Warrior's Woman trilogy or the first edition of . The heroes of science fiction romances are often invaders from another planet or space pilots.
The first line of series inspirational romances debuted shortly after the 1980 U.S. presidential election, when Silhouette launched their Silhouette Inspirations line. The books were aimed at born-again Christians and were marketed in religious bookstores. The Silhouette Inspirations line was closed after Harlequin acquired Silhouette in 1984 because it was not profitable. However, Christian publishers continue to produce romance novels, including historical and contemporary.
In 1999, Kensington Publishing launched the first line of Latino romance novels - ENCANTO. The ENCANTO novels were originally released in two ways - a bilingual Spanish/English version and a Spanish only version. Two novels were published every month until late 2001 when the line went into hiatus. Despite the demise of the line, several of the ENCANTO authors have continued writing novels with Latino protagonists namely, Sylvia Mendoza, Tracy Montoya, Caridad Pineiro, Berta Platas, Lara Rios and Lynda Sandoval.
Although romance novels featuring African-Americans and Hispanic protagonists are becoming more popular, those featuring Asian or Asian-American characters are rare. Author Tess Gerritsen believes this is due to the fact that there are fewer Asian-American women who read romances: "We read romances because we want to feel good about love...in order to do that, the reader must identify with the heroine."
Erotic romances lengths run from short stories to single-title novels. Some of these are published as part of a category, such as Harlequin Blaze, while others are published as part of an anthology and are only novella length. Even single-title erotic romances may be as short as a novella, however. There are several publishers currently producing erotica including: Black Lace, Samhain Publishing, Avon Red, Spice, & Ellora's Cave.
Many of the publishers of erotic romance are either small press publishers or electronic book publishers. Writers often have more leeway in what types of erotic acts can be included when working with an electronic publisher than they would have working with a print publisher. The market for erotic romances has been growing rapidly, leading some publishers to create new lines for these types of books.Some subjects are still considered taboo, even with erotic romance. Themes such as pedophilia, incest, and bestiality are discouraged by all publishers.
The market for erotic romances has been growing rapidly. Ellora's Cave, an electronic publisher which focuses on erotic romance, became the first electronic publisher to be recognized by the Romance Writers of America as a legitimate publisher.
Jane Austen is widely considered to be one of the masters of the romance novel genre, with Pride and Prejudice, published in 1813, considered "the best romance novel ever written. Critics, however, lamented that Austen's works reinforced the sexist stereotype that women must marry. The Brontë sisters built upon Austen's work with their novels. Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre, published in 1847, introduced the orphaned heroine. Incorporating elements of both gothic novels and Elizabethan drama, Jane Eyre "demonstrate[d] the flexibility of the romance novel form.
The genre continued to be popular into the twentieth century. In 1919, E.M. Hull's novel The Sheik was published in the United Kingdom. The novel, which became hugely popular, was adapted into a movie, which established star Rudolf Valentino as the top male actor of the time. The hero of this book was an iconic alpha male who kidnapped the heroine and won her admiration through his forceful actions. The novel was one of the first to introduce the rape fantasy. Although women were gaining more independence in life, publishers believed that readers would only accept premarital sex in the context of rape. In this novel and those that followed, the rape was depicted as more of a fantasy; the heroine is rarely if ever shown experiencing terror, stress, or trauma as a result.
The first historical romances appeared in 1921, when Georgette Heyer began writing romances set during the English Regency period (1811-–1820), when the Prince Regent ruled England in place of his ill father, George III. Heyer was inspired by Austen's novels. Although Austen had also written romances set in the Regency period, hers were contemporary novels, describing the times in which she lived. Because Heyer's writing was set in the midst of events that had occurred over 100 years previously, she had to include more detail on the time period in order for her readers to understand. Unlike the other romance novels of the time period, Heyer's novels used the setting as a plot device. Her characters often contained more modern-day sensibilities, and more conventional characters in the novels would point out the heroine's eccentricities, such as wanting to marry for love. Heyer was a prolific author, and write one to two historical romance novels per year until her death in 1974.
A Canadian company, Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd., began distributing in North America in 1957 the category romances published by Mills and Boon. Mary Bonneycastle, wife of Harlequin founder Richard Bonneycastle, and her daughter, Judy Burgess, exercised editorial control over which Mills and Boon novels were reprinted by Harlequin. They had a "decency code" and rejected more sexually explicit material that Mills and Boon submitted for reprinting. Upon realizing that the genre was popular, Richard Bonneycastle finally decided to read a romance novel. He chose one of the more explicit novels and enjoyed it. On his orders, the company conducted a market test with the novel he had read and discovered that it outsold a similar, tamer novel. Overall, the novels were short and formulaic, featuring heroines who were sweet, compassionate, pure and innocent. The few heroines who worked did so in traditional female jobs, including as nurses, governesses and secretaries. Intimacy in the novels never extended beyond a chaste kiss between the protagonists.
On October 1, 1971, Harlequin purchased Mills and Boon. By this point, the romance novel genre "had been popularized and distributed widely to an enthusiastic audience" in Great Britain. In an attempt to duplicate Mills and Boon's success in North America, Harlequin had improved their distribution and marketing system. By choosing to sell their books "where the women are", they allowed many mass-market merchandisers and even supermarkets to sell the books, all of which were exactly 192 pages. Harlequin then began a reader service, selling directly to readers who agreed to purchase a certain number of books each month.
The modern romance genre was born in 1972 with Avon's publication of Kathleen Woodiwiss's The Flame and the Flower, the first romance novel "to [follow] the principals into the bedroom." Aside from its content, the book was revolutionary in that it was one of the first single-title romance novels to be published as an original paperback, rather than being first published in hardcover, and, like the category romances, was distributed in drug stores and other mass-market merchandising outlets. The novel went on to sell 2.35 million copies. Avon followed its release with the 1974 publication of Woodiwiss's second novel, The Wolf and the Dove and two novels by newcomer Rosemary Rogers. One of Rogers's novels, Dark Fires sold two million copies in its first three months of release, and, by 1975, Publishers Weekly had reported that the "Avon originals" had sold a combined . The following year over 150 historical romance novels, many of them paperback originals, were published, selling over .
The success of these novels prompted a new style of writing romance, concentrating primarily on historical fiction tracking the monogamous relationship between a helpless heroines and the hero who rescued her, even if he had been the one to place her in danger. The covers of these novels tended to feature scantily clad women being grabbed by the hero, and caused the novels to be referred to as "bodice-rippers." A Wall St. Journal article in 1980 referred to these bodice rippers as "publishing's answer to the Big Mac: They are juicy, cheap, predictable, and devoured in stupefying quantities by legions of loyal fans. The term bodice-ripper is now considered offensive to many in the romance industry.
In this new style of historical romance, heroines were independent and strong-willed and were often paired with heroes who evolved into caring and compassionate men who truly admired the women they loved. This was in contrast to the contemporary romances published during this time, which were often characterized by weak females who fell in love with overbearing alpha males. Although these heroines had active roles in the plot, they were "passive in relationships with the heroes." Across the genre, heroines during this time were usually aged 16–21, with the heroes slightly older, usually around 30. The women were virgins, while the men were not, and both members of the couple were described as beautiful.
In 1980, Simon and Schuster formed Silhouette Books to take advantage of the untapped talent of the American writers. They published several lines of category romance, and encouraged their writers to create stronger heroines and less dominant heroes. Authors were also expected to address contemporary issues where appropriate. Silhouette soon saw their market share expand, and in 1984, Harlequin acquired them. Despite the acquisition, Silhouette continued to retain editorial control and to publish various lines under their own imprint.
Harlequin had also failed to adapt quickly to the signs that readers appreciated novels with more explicit sex scenes, and in 1980, several publishers entered the category romance market to fill that gap. That year, Dell launched their Candlelight Ecstasy line with Amii Lorin's The Tawny Gold Man, becoming the first line to waive the requirement that heroines be virgins. By the end of 1983 sales for the Candlelight Ecstasy line totaled $30 million. Silhoeutte also launched similar lines, Desire (sexually explicit) and Special Edition (sexually explicit and longer stories, up to 250 pages), each of which had a 90–100% sellout rate each month.
A 1982 survey of romance readers confirmed that the new styles of writing were attracting new readers to the genre. 35% of the readers surveyed had begun reading romances after 1977. An additional 31% of those surveyed had been readers for between 6 and 10 years, meaning they had become interested in the genre after 1972, when Woodiwiss's revolutionary novel was published. This means that two-thirds of those surveyed joined the genre after it had begun to change.
The number of category romance lines increased at a rapid pace, and by 1985 there were 16 separate lines producing a total of 80 novels per month. The sudden increase in category romance lines meant an equally sudden increase in demand for writers of the new style of romance novel. This tight market caused a proportionate decrease in the quality of the novels that were being released. By 1984, the market was saturated with category lines and readers had begun to complain of redundancy in plots. The following year, the "dampening effect of the high level of redundancy associated with series romances was evident in the decreased number of titles being read per month. Harlequin's return rate, which had been less than 25% in 1978, when it was the primary provider of category romance, swelled to 60%.
In the mid-to-late 1980s, contemporary romances began to feature women in more male-dominated jobs, such as offshore oil rigs and the space program. By the early 1990s, the pendulum had swung back to feature heroines who were self-employed. The age range of heroines also began to expand, so that books began to feature women who had already reached 30 and even 40. Heroes also changed, with some authors veering towards a more sensitive man. Despite the broadening of some aspects of the plot, other taboos remained, and publishers discouraged authors from writing about controversial subjects such as terrorism, warfare, and masculine sports. Romance novels began to contain more humor beginning in the 1990s, as Julie Garwood began introducing a great deal of humor into her historical romances.
The romance novel began to expand in other ways as well. In 1989, author Jude Deveraux became the first romance author to transition from writing original mass market paperbacks to being published in hardcover. Her novel, A Knight in Shining Armor, "became a natural bestseller." Several authors found success writing single-title romances set in contemporary times, and publishing houses began to encourage the growth in the genre. Because the novels were set in modern times, they could include more of the elements that modern women could relate to, and soon began to touch on themes such as single parenthood, adoption, and abuse.
By 2000, the covers had begun to evolve from featuring a scantily clad couple to instead showing a view of the landscape featured in the novel.
As women's career options have expanded in real life, so have those of their fictional counterparts. In the earliest Harlequin romance novels, heroines were typically nurses and secretaries. As time has passed and women have entered the workforce in larger numbers, romance heroines have spanned the career spectrum. Modern romance novels now feature more balanced relationships between men and women.
The romance novel market continued to expand, so that by 1991, they comprised 46% of all mass market paperbacks sold in the US. This expansion was due in part to voracious readers, with over half of Harlequin's customers purchasing 30 novels per month. By this time, the romance novel audience had become more educated, with 45% having a college degree, and more than half of the audience worked outside the home.
By the 2000s, romance had become the most popular genre in modern literature. In 2004, romantic fiction generated $1.2 billion in sales, with 2,285 romance novels published. Almost 55% of all paperback books sold in 2004 were romance novels, and this genre made up 39% of all fiction sold that year. Over 64 million people claimed to have read at least one romance novel in 2004, according to a Romance Writers of America study, a 26% increase over their 2001 study. Twenty-two percent of romance readers identified themselves as male, and the romance readers were split evenly between people who were married and those who were single. People of all ages read romance novels, with one percent of readers younger than 13, and forty-two percent of them have at least a bachelor's degree.
Some publishing companies in Germany refuse to allow their romance authors to use their own names, fearing that the German audience will not buy a romance novel that does not have an Anglo-American pseudonym. German readers enjoy reading more erotic romance novels, and some German translations of English romance novels expand or insert love scenes into otherwise tame stories. The alternate scenario also occurs, as other German translators censor the love scenes.
In 2004, sales of romance novels in Australia increased 28% over the year before. Between 1999 and 2004 there was an increase of 40–50% in the number of new titles released. Harlequin received 20,000 unsolicited manuscripts each year.
Despite recent rehabilitation and merging of the genre with other genres, the stigma attached to the romance genre continues to be strong, with some dedicated readers embarrassed to admit to buying or even reading the books. Indeed, the romance genre has over the years generated significant derision, skepticism and criticism. Some critics point to a lack of suspense, as it is obvious that the hero and heroine will eventually resolve their issues, and wonder whether it is beneficial "for women to be whiling away so many hours reading impossibly glamorized love stories." According to fiction author Melissa Pritchard, romance novels "perpetuates something slightly dangerous, that there's this notion, that there's this perfect love out there, and it can distract you from the work of loving yourself."
However, with the growth of popular culture studies, academic attention has turned to the romance genre and other forms of popular entertainment. While not fully rehabilitating the genre's reputation, scholars such as Janice Radway, Nancy Chodorow, and Ann Douglas have looked at the genre in a broader social context, as other scholars have done with soap operas, western novels, science fiction, and other popular entertainment. These studies have contributed to defenses of the genre, such as fans' argument that the perceived stigma is due to the fact that romance is the only genre "written almost exclusively by women for women." Others have recharacterized the romance's fundamental story in ways that positively frame the genre. Romance novelist Jennifer Crusie counters that in the modern romance novel "a woman is rewarded with unconditional love [only] if she remains true to herself", while novelist Susan Elizabeth Phillips believes that romance novels are popular because the heroine always wins, sometimes overcoming great odds so that she is no longer a victim.