You know them as bodice rippers. The kind of books where a damsel in distress waits around for a hero to come rescue her and then they live happily ever after. But during the last 10 or so years, that perception has started to shift, thanks to the nuanced, fiercely feminist, and yes, sexy stories that have emerged.
“Often people hear romance novel and have a very specific picture in their minds: maybe a historical novel, perhaps with a specific cover model, and lots of fuchsia and teal and flowing hair,” says Sarah Wendell, founder of the website Smart Bitches, Trashy Books and co-author of Beyond Heaving Bosoms. “They may also think of recent blockbuster erotic novels, or variations of the same. And much as there are more space movies than Star Wars, there are so many different, wonderful novels that could be classified as romance fiction.”
The stereotypical picture Wendell is describing is, in fact, a bodice ripper: the first contemporary iteration of romance novels that were published in the early 1970s to the mid 1980s. After Kathleen E. Woodiwiss’s The Flame and the Flower was published in 1972—the problematic love story between the innocent Heather Simmons and lusty adventurer Captain Brandon Birmingham—a new generation of sexually explicit, pulp-y romances exploded onto the market. And while bodice rippers birthed our modern era of romance novels, over time these stories have evolved beyond their ’70s origins. As with any other form of entertainment, they’ve caught up with the times.
Still, when you ask someone what they think of romance novels, they’re likely to make a crack about horny housewives, say that the books perpetuate unrealistic expectations of love and sex, or call them a guilty pleasure. These attitudes are so pervasive that romance novels are mostly overlooked by the literary world. Despite the fact that romance is a billion-dollar industry—and that these novels consistently out-perform all other genres—NPR and Entertainment Weekly are the only two mainstream sites that have a monthly romance column. And the New York Times, whose best-seller list frequently features romance authors, only just introduced a quarterly column on the topic last year.
Still the genre persists. In 2016 romance made up 23% of the overall fiction market. And these novels, whose readership is 82% female and has created a rabid fandom, are more progressive and relevant than ever. “Whatever is going on in the world, and whatever is happening to women or marginalized people, is happening in the pages of romance novels,” says novelist and Washington Post columnist Sarah MacLean, cohost of the Fated Mates podcast. “But with the promise that everything will be okay. That no matter how bad it gets, happily ever after will come.”
Some of today’s issues we’re currently seeing on their pages include "stories about immigrants starting businesses in small towns in New York State, or women surviving domestic violence to rebuild their lives. Romance fiction is also becoming more inclusive, with more queer protagonists in different subgenres, more characters of color, from different ethnic and cultural backgrounds, and of different religions,” says Wendell.
So this week we’re celebrating these novels in all their glory. From a surprise summer smash hit—the queer love story Red, White & Royal Blue that took over Twitter and beach blankets across America—to the books that should be required reading for those looking to portray sex scenes that are hot and consensual. Or the new crop of novels that look at relationships post happily ever after. And even an exploration of why sexy male models will always have a place on the cover of a romance novel.
Whether you’re a die-hard fan, a skeptic, or just in need of a good book, follow along as we honor the women and novels dismantling the very idea of a bodice ripper and making romance one of the most exciting and thoughtful spaces in fiction today.
Samantha Leach is the associate culture editor at Glamour. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram @_sleach.
Originally Appeared on Glamour