When I told my 75-year-old colleague that I wanted to write romance novels for a living, he gave me a knowing smile. “So one day there will be books with scantily clad people on the cover and your name underneath?”

Yes, he actually used the words “sparsely clad”. To make matters worse, I thought it would be a good idea to explain to him that these days it’s the cute cartoon covers that feature the most outrageous stories. But regardless of the awkward silence that ended our conversation, I shouldn’t have been surprised by the image that came to mind. There are many people who, thinking of a romance novel, probably imagine the stereotype of Harlequin: a man and a woman posing suggestively, both attractive and at least one of them half dressed. If that’s not it, then “Fifty Shades of Grey” probably comes to mind instead. The illustrations on the front and back cover make it easy to deduce that their content is entirely sexual and substance-free.

I grew up being told, either directly by people close to me or via the internet, that these books were “trash” and that the only people who read them were sad housewives. But that couldn’t be further from the truth: as an industry in its own right, the romance genre brings in more than $1 billion a year. Despite this reality, romance novels are still considered a “guilty pleasure” by some – things you should be embarrassed to see in bookstores. Given that it’s mostly women who post and read romances, calling this successful business “trash” or “porn mom” is incredibly misogynistic (something I don’t have enough time to talk about). Modern romance novels have much more to offer than sex. They have become so famous that reading them should no longer be considered an indulgence.

Before it exploded into the giant influence it is today, I officially joined BookTok in the summer of 2020. One of my previous videos made fun of the genres I read the most, and romance definitely took first place. Not much has changed since then – in fact, I’d say my time on the app has further solidified my romantic reading habits. It was through BookTok that I met authors like Emily Henry and Christina Lauren, who are now some of my favorites. The characters and scenarios I encountered differ from the traditional idea of ​​the “bodice-ripper”. Female leaders aren’t naive virgins whose only good thing is their purity – they’re career-focused women who aren’t dependent on their boyfriends. The men are not “rapists turned true love heroes”, but family-oriented men who are smart and sarcastic, but who always show a vulnerable side to their love interests. Everyone is so well developed that they really feel like they could be real people.

Writers of novels also create main characters that are not usually represented in the genre. Talia Hibbert’s “The Brown Sisters” series features plus-size women of color – Chloe, a “chronically ill computer geek”; Dani, a bisexual PhD. student working on her thesis; and Eve, an endearing chef on the autism spectrum — and all three books have a great mix of sweet moments, steamy scenes, and character development. Being plus-size, chronically ill, and a woman of color herself, Hibbert has repeatedly stressed the importance of diversity in writing, especially romance. Similarly, Ali Hazelwood, another prominent writer in the genre, also draws from his own life experiences in his characters. She has a doctorate. in neuroscience and recently became a professor, and her specialty is writing women in STEM as its leaders – a minority not only in romance but also in the field. Everyone deserves to be swept away, and these novels prove it.

This is not to say that sex scenes in romance novels are a thing of the past, but the attitude towards them is changing. Especially on social media, there is a more open conversation around coal. On the one hand, it is important to know that the “spiciness” of a book exists on a spectrum. Not all of the books featured on BookTok are particularly detailed (although some are), but users have a ranking system that shows where each romance book they recommend falls on that spectrum. This same variety exists in how users recommend these books. Some accounts convince viewers to read certain books by typing their favorite parts of a spicy scene or posting photos of the pages so you can read the scene for yourself. Other videos are about smut in a broader sense, like making fun of people’s reactions to reading it. Regardless of how each user presents this content, the response they receive is overwhelmingly positive. No one is more embarrassed to talk about sex on the Internet – even if it’s a scene in a book – because millions of people like and comment on how much they liked the book from which this scene is taken. . And yes, once in a while someone will try to call people out for what they are reading, but all of that just brings the online community of readers together. Rachel from “Friends” said it best: “There’s nothing wrong with a woman enjoying a little erotica!” It’s a healthy expression of female sexuality, which, by the way, is something you’ll never understand.

Anyone who regularly reads romance novels knows that you can boil down every story to several basic elements: the “meet-cute”, the building of a relationship, the breakup/80% conflict, and happily ever after. So why bother reading the same story over and over again? Because novels are heartwarming – not always in the sense that they’re an escape for a sad housewife, but they offer hope that we may one day experience the same kind of love we find in the pages. of our beloved books. In today’s society of dating apps and hookup culture, it’s almost embarrassing for me to admit that the books I’ve read set me extremely high standards. But I’m so sick of being told that men like those in romance novels don’t exist in real life. I know they do it, in their own way. I can’t get into a fake relationship that slowly becomes real over time or figure out that my worst enemy is madly in love with me and doesn’t really hate me. I probably won’t date a celebrity, and it’s unlikely that one of my exes will show up out of the blue to tell me they want a second chance (not that I do, anyway). But one day, I’ll find someone who knows my worst flaws and loves me anyway. Someone who complements my personality and pushes me to be a better person. Someone who feels overwhelmed that I exist. I don’t know when that day will be, but until then, you can find me at the romantic comedy table at Barnes & Noble — and hopefully one day my books will be on display there too.

Hannah Carapellotti, writer for the Daily Arts, can be reached at [email protected].