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Romantic fiction has evolved over time but continues to capture hearts of readers

Caitlin Finnearty can remember being absorbed by a few romantic novels in her lifetime.

She liked the Twilight series and Nicholas Sparks’ The Last Song. Maybe it was the unconventional love interests, or the theme that true love prevails that made the stories so much fun to delve into.

“It gives a sort of idealistic version of love, even though we don’t necessarily have it in today’s world,” Finnearty, a senior studying mechanical engineering, said. “It gives us something to look at, and sometimes it gets a little carried away with that because it is so perfectionist, and it’s never going to occur. But I think people look at it as something to strive for.”

Romantic fiction has evolved over time. Its characters, settings and overarching themes have altered, but ultimately, romance has stood the test of time. It continues to entertain readers while providing a kind of literary safe space and challenging gender and sexual tropes in creative ways.

Kelly Choyke, an adjunct professor of women’s, gender and sexuality studies, said one of the reasons romance has continued to attract loyal readers is the escape the books provide from reality into a world that moves away from the archetypal female characters usually portrayed in other forms of media. 

The romance genre provides a space for female authors in particular to create stories that examine not just sexual relationships but emotional connections as well, Choyke said. Romantic novels can talk about only feelings for a few hundred pages, and that’s OK.

“It’s about the construction of emotional intimacy, not just sexual intimacy,” Choyke said. “There’s also a lot of sexual intimacy, meaning sex, attached to emotion. Pretty much everything that we’re confronted with in popular culture that has to do with sex is emotionally detached.”

Romantic fiction has roots tracing back to dated canonical works by authors such as Jane Austen and Charlotte Bronte, but the rise of the modern romance novel came in the 1970s. Since then, Choyke said the genre has expanded into a booming industry of works that feature a greater diversity of characters and plots than it did in its early years.

“I think there are several factors that have leant to the success within romance, and the reason why it’s expanded,” she said. “Our idea of what romance is and who deserves a happy ending has expanded from the '70s, where it was very racist, heteropatriarchal ideas of what romance is.”

As the definition of romance has expanded to include a more diverse cohort of characters, representation of LGBT-identifying individuals has become more visible in media overall. But Edmond Chang, an assistant professor of English, said queer love stories are often marketed as just that. They are made for the niche market of LGBT viewers.

It isn’t a bad thing, Chang said. It’s important for marginalized people to have texts they can call their own. But it’s important for LGBT characters and relationships to be portrayed in a way that is more than simple tokenization. It’s good to make an LGBT character’s sexuality an important element of the plot, but it shouldn’t be their only attribute.

“Heterosexuality is assumed because our world says heterosexuality is important or it’s good or it’s normal,” Chang said. “When you write a story or a script or make a movie or whatever, all of those pieces have to be consequential in some way that doesn’t feel like you’re just sprinkling it in. That’s the main goal, and that’s just good writing or good creating in general.”

Chang said representations of LGBT relationships in media is not only important for LGBT individuals to see themselves reflected; it’s also important for others to see those kind of romances. 

“I think in general, most of our media is being produced for an imagined audience of just certain kinds of people,” he said. “I think that seeing the world and asking people to see the world through different lives is really important, and I think that’s the way you get at a lot of things.”


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