In my latest romance novel, How to Catch a Queen, my heroine finally achieves her lifelong dream of becoming a queen following an arranged marriage—only to find herself in a country where the voices of women aren’t respected, and queens are powerless.
The “happily ever after” comes only after Shanti and her king, Sanyu, navigate toxic masculinity, a government made of old men who refuse to respect fresh ideas from younger generations, and a community of marginalized people who organize in the back of a bookstore to help drag their country into the future.
There’s also mutual masturbation against a giant vase. Romance novels, like their writers, contain multitudes.
The novel, which was written in the wake of the 2016 Presidential Election, the 2018 Gubernatorial Election, and during the lead up to the 2020 Presidential Election, was supposed to be a lighthearted adventure romp. Instead, it ended up being a meditation on the ways the world treats competent women who actively seek power. How a government can treat the dearth of a marginalized group in high-level decision-making as business as usual, instead of a disturbing reflection of society’s unspoken but rigidly unforced rules. While it’s set in a fictional kingdom, How To Catch A Queen, like so many romance novels, was clearly shaped by the politics of the world around me and—specifically, America today.
Touching on politics in romance novels isn’t new to me, or to the genre itself; I’ve written love stories focused on Civil War spies fighting Confederates, and Civil Rights activists on Freedom Rides. And recently, a group of romance novelists—myself included—made headlines for our efforts to fundraise for the Georgia runoff elections.
Somehow, despite a history of politically engaged books, some of them written by political stars like Stacey Abrams, people still see romance novels as apolitical fantasy fluff. (That would make for a delicious Ben & Jerry’s flavor, wouldn’t it?) The fact that so many assume the romance genre can’t be political—that it isn’t inherently so—is, well, political in itself.
What do you imagine when you hear the term “romance novel?" What kind of protagonist do you picture? Who do you expect will fall in love with them?
Take a minute.
Okay, now that you have your answer, I won’t guess what or who you envisioned, because this isn’t some kind of card trick. Or rather, the trick is that anything you answered is, in fact, political, too. If you think the books are written and read by bored housewives rather than savvy business people (or that authors can’t be both), that’s political. If you imagine the protagonist as a helpless white woman waiting to be rescued, that’s political. If you can’t imagine a helpless Black woman, or a queer person, waiting to be rescued, that’s political. If the word “hero” conjures images of a straight white man waiting to do the rescuing, that’s, well…you get it.
Romance novels are, in a sense, a reflection of who is allowed to be seen as desirable by the media, as well as whose lovability (which is different from existence as a sexual object) is validated by pop culture. There’s a reason romance novels have primarily featured white cis-hetero people, despite marginalized authors fighting for recognition and representation for decades—and it’s certainly not that Black or Asian or queer people love or are loved less than white, straight people. It’s that publishing is steeped in the American political pastime of institutional racism, like everything else. According to the New York Times, of the most widely-read English language books published between 1950 and 2018, 95 percent were written by white authors.
Though romance novels have primarily been written by women who have to struggle in a patriarchal society, they have largely reflected white women— women who don't move through the world having their humanity constantly questioned. Meanwhile, the people who have to protest in the streets for the right to marry, to vote, and to breathe have also had to fight just to get a chance at a Happily Ever After, or HEA—and have been doing so for years. Even in a genre that is seen as a respite, many of us have had to become activists just to be able to read and write about people who look like us.
If that’s not political, what is?
The last decade or so in particular has seen sectors of romance publishing fighting for their right to exist on the page, with calls for diversity in traditional publishing and marginalized authors who successfully self-publish their own books. The shift is helping both readers and writers better understand that romance fiction doesn't have to exist in a vacuum—that it can occur in a world where there's a need for universal healthcare, the fight for queer rights, and relatives who “aren’t racist but voted for Trump.” In considering just how many people have been prevented from on page HEAs, readers and writers have had to be more introspective about what they are reading and not reading—and why. And this introspection has either strengthened their preexisting political ideals, or been part of the evolution of their view of the world outside the pages.
The nature of the romance novel is generally misunderstood by non-readers. Even people who have no interest in the genre should be able to understand that they are fantasies, just as mystery, thriller, and literary fiction are fantasies. But the problem arises when people assume what the fantasy is. People read the phrase “Happily Ever After” and then deride romance novels as pure fantasy, though no one says the same of mystery readers who are excited to get to “Case Closed,” despite the hundreds of thousands of real life crimes that remain unsolved.
A happily ever after isn’t puppies and rainbows (though that actually sounds like a lovely book ending to me). The happily ever after is an emotional reckoning, and the fantasy that one can happen in a world that often makes us do without one. This type of ending has given many romance readers and writers alike a particularly keen sense of justice—in books where characters often aren’t perfect, but are at the very least trying, we know which actions are brave, and which are cowardly—what makes someone the heroine or the villain.
In the days after the national election, my friends Courtney Milan and Kit Rocha (also known as the writing duo Bree Bridges and Donna Herren) and I pulled together Romancing the Runoff. The effort is an auction and donation drive that thus far has raised almost half a million dollars for grassroots voting organizations in Georgia, where there is a runoff election that could flip the Senate and determine the future of America. The auction took a massive amount of effort to organize, and wouldn’t have been possible without help from multiple dedicated volunteers who donated their time and energy and ingenuity. It was an incredible feat—and it wasn’t very different from a scenario in the books all three of us write. You know, the books that are seen as apolitical fantasy fluff?
At the end of the day, the kind of romances I write and enjoy reading are not only about love, but community. Politics, whether in a romance novel or the real world, is a community effort, and when it’s not, it’s doomed to fail.
My favorite romances are also about the expectation of good will, understanding, and trust. That a romantic partner or friend, even if flawed, will ultimately be good, and will repent heartily for the brief period when they weren’t. Why are romance writers a political force? I can’t speak for everyone, but I think it’s because we expect as much from our government as we would a repentant rake. And we won’t stop until we get our happily ever after.
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