Romance as Resistance: How the happily-ever-after genre is taking on Trump
Sherry Thomas never expected to be a part of the Resistance.
The acclaimed romance novelist, who immigrated to the U.S. at 13, was accustomed to keeping her opinions to herself. She “barely participated” in social media, didn’t bother scrolling through others’ Twitter feeds, and rarely talked politics. It’s a practice that was instilled in her when she was young: “In China, ‘disaster comes from the mouth,’ goes one famous axiom,” she explains. “So it went against every fiber of my being to be openly political.”
Then the election happened, and now Thomas has taken her shock, anger, and sense of urgency over Donald Trump to her readers, both on social media and in her books. She’s hardly alone, which means that the romance industry — which rakes in $1 billion a year — is poised to become more politically relevant than ever. Just consider the statistics: The genre’s readership is densely concentrated in the South — an area that voted heavily for Trump — and mostly made up of women, a potent combination of demographics and reach.
Romance works on an accelerated timetable, which means authors can react more quickly to cultural shifts than what’s typical in publishing. There’s no better example than Sarah MacLean, the best-selling romance novelist. In a recent column for the Washington Post called “How Trump Killed Off My Romantic Lead,” she explained why her main character, a “classic alpha” just like the new president, no longer felt right for her summer 2017 release The Day of the Duchess. “My hero, he was on a path to enlightenment. He’d certainly get there by the end. And then, Nov. 9 came,” she writes. “I opened my manuscript — all 270 hard-won pages — and I had a problem.” In response to Trump, she ripped up her manuscripts and rewrote her hero so that he attained “enlightenment” at the novel’s start, rather than learning it gradually.
Against the backdrop of the Trump presidency, of course, is a pivotal moment in the women’s movement: The election spawned the largest single-day protest in American history, the Women’s March on Jan. 21. “The larger arc of the romance novel is the arc of the women’s movement,” MacLean says. “Women fighting against a dominant, gendered misogynistic culture, and ultimately triumphing.” It’s why, for many writers in the genre, romance now means resistance.
Lauren Billings, who writes with Christina Hobbs under the pen name Christina Lauren, says, “It gets to a point where you no longer can be silent. To be silent is to be choosing a side.” She now feels a “responsibility” to represent groups of people attacked by Trump’s coalition. She says that the very nature of romance makes it easy to do: “You don’t necessarily choose who you love, and a lot of things that happen to us without our choosing are things that push the boundaries of society. Men falling in love with men, women falling in love with women, somebody falling in love with somebody from a different culture — those kinds of things are reflected really well in romance novels.” Thomas has also leaned in to her feminist sensibility — a label so foreign to her it used to leave her “astonished” when applied to her work — and is striving to better understand her role as a prominent romance writer of color.
Nancy Yost, a literary agent who mostly represents romance, finds that politics is naturally bleeding into authors’ work — both because the genre is tackling questions of “consent” and “coercion,” and because it’s selling visions of the ideal. Writers “really are kind of rewriting history in [their] way,” she explains, “to make the characters relevant and create the people that [they] can conceive of as being heroes and heroines.” The business side, Yost adds, is also picking up on the genre’s ability to tackle progressive causes; her agency and many others have tapped into cultural shifts of the past year, changing keywords in book submissions and altering coding algorithms for ebooks accordingly.
Just as romance writers are motivated to insert political themes into their work, readers are increasingly motivated to find them. Yost’s successful selling of an upcoming mystery-romance by Victoria Thompson was unexpectedly driven by its setting: the women’s suffrage movement. The book was bought right around the time of the election, and the subject of women’s voting power “was one of the things that helped really drive its acquisition,” she says. The election even informed its cover. The original plan was to feature the White House in the background, but, as Yost describes the post-election sentiment: “No way are we putting a bunch of women standing in front of it.”
Some authors are facing a backlash from conservative readers. Billings notes a common retort to her social-media posts — “I’m here for your books, not your political opinions” — and it’s one that MacLean, Thomas, and others are familiar with. However, Billings notes, “we share our opinions in our books in every word we write.” Readers may balk at the sharper language of Twitter and Facebook, but they’re more willing to absorb commentary that doesn’t, as Yost puts it, “rub your nose in it.” And among both readers and writers, there’s an increased demand for empowered women, queer people, and people of color telling and being centered in romances. The mere act of writing about these communities falling in love is no less political than scribing a Trump-slamming tweet.
That’s why MacLean views the romance genre as a primary vehicle for change. Queer romance, she explains, was a subgenre that started finding its footing in the early 2000s before gathering steam. “[Most] traditional romance readers were happy to pick up a queer romance and read it,” she says. “In real life, those of us who are political and progressive were putting on our shoes and marching for gay rights — and romance was quietly in the background, delivering queer romance to readers who’d never read it before.”
Romance novels are a powerful way to cope with stress, a way to turn toward an ideal fantasy in tough times. Leah Koch, co-owner of the country’s sole romance-only bookstore The Ripped Bodice in Culver City, Calif., says, “The day after the election it was just like a non-stop sob-fest — I mean literally people would come in and just cry … In times of unrest, romance is always there for people to turn to when they need it.”
MacLean could not agree more. “What we strive for is not tragic love — we strive for happy-ever-after, every one of us,” she says. “The best way to stick it to these men and women who have made such an immense mistake in the world is to show all of us how we can be happy — to live out our happily ever after.”
Additional reporting by Isabella Biedenharn