No longer confined to the half-empty bins of second-hand bookstores, their dog-eared pages yellowing with age, the covers bearing linen-haired heroes on horseback, their buxom protagonist hanging limply in his bulging arms, romance novels are more popular than ever – and it’s even the app we love to hate.
TikTok has launched a thousand micro-communities. From cottagecore to clean girl beauty, from one-pot recipes to 30-second therapy sessions, this is where Gen Z thrives and where millennials are going to feel their relevance slipping away by the second. Like it or not, TikTok is where trends are born (Instagram is where they happen and Facebook is where they die). For romance readers and writers, he can make or break a book, and he’s particularly fascinated by romance-driven fiction. Why? In a word: women.
Romance novels in all their forms – historical, comedy, drama, fantasy and science fiction, young adult novels… the list goes on – are perhaps the last true media created by, about and for women. This is where the female gaze reigns supreme and leading ladies have the space to think, feel and grow on their own terms. They struggle with family issues, friendship breakdowns, work discomforts, self-esteem and mental health crises, and more, and they do it in a way that doesn’t degrade them or hurt them. neither dismiss nor minimize them for the sake of a (male) hero’s journey.
Their brooding, silver-tongued love interests exist to serve the protagonist, and by extension, us. They are funny and sensitive and adore our girls for free. In 15 years of exhaustive research, this writer/dater/waking dreamer can say conclusively: these men do not exist in reality. It’s pure feminine fantasy, and that’s how we like them. Mark Darcy, the main love interest of the Bridget Jones series that was played to perfection by Colin Firth wearing a snug sweater, wouldn’t slide right over Bridget, and she wouldn’t stand her denial and patronizing in 2022. It’s a genre you can hang your disbelief in just enough to indulge in the delicious fantasy of it all. Isn’t it comforting to believe, for just about 300 pages or so, that the accessible, feminist-leaning love of your life wears cardigans but is actually ripped despite never going to the gym has been under your nose all the time?
Let’s not act like women’s stories haven’t been subcategorized since the dawn of media. Write to your favorite female author and ask her what she thinks of the term “women’s fiction” (hint: she probably hates it). If the book is classical literature (Pride and Prejudice, Little woman), or genre-changing historical fantasy (Foreign by Diana Gabaldon), if it is commercial fiction (normal people by Sally Rooney) or shameless fluff (book lovers by Emily Henry), these are simply stories about one woman’s experience. For many of us, regardless of our gender identity, the pursuit of love and family is an important and holistic journey. Their popularity has never waned: we were just convinced that there was something to be ashamed of.
Of course, the covers didn’t help: pastel New York skylines and a cartoon stylus to let you know the book you’re flipping through at Dymocks is about a modern girl struggling to have it all in the big city. . The squeaky slogans: “Late night, best friends and bad boys…” Gag. Reimagined in bright colors and catchy titles, today’s viral rom-coms are cute props and heartfelt stories you don’t mind reading on the train.
But BookTok, as it is called in these regions, doesn’t care. He sees your cheesy covers, your deliciously frothy shots, your complex women and your tried-and-true tropes, and devours them with all the hunger and enthusiasm of a rabid Marvel fanboy, and asks – no, demands – more because it is the faithful don’t share your restless disdain and internalized misogyny.
And as uncool as it sounds, BookTok is one giant book club. It’s word-of-mouth worldwide. In a plethora of different formats, covered in filters and dreamy pop songs, stuck in memes and viral soundbites, people are desperate to talk about the fantastic book they just read. They share their opinions, frustrations, and delights with plots, themes, and styles in an open forum, in an easy-to-digest format. They have crushes on fictional characters. They launch their dream line-up for imaginary adaptations. They bring romance novels out of the shadows – the scorching, forbidden shadows, where bodices rip and loins burn – and put them in the spotlight they so deserve.