The History of Romance Novels in Library News & Notes

This article, written by OFPL Director Ryan Johnson, was featured in the August 4, 2021 O’Fallon Weekly. Here he shares some thoughts and facts about Romance Novels.

A few weeks ago one of my favorite podcasts, 99% Invisible, had an episode all about romance novels.  I would have listened to the episode anyway, as I never skip one, but being a librarian, I was especially interested.

Here I am, someone whose first library job was way back in 2002, completely unaware of the history and nuance of this pillar of the book industry.  I don’t recall a single portion of my graduate degree in library science touching on romance novels either.  We covered graphic novels, young adult, children’s, reference material and the like, but nothing about romance novels.

Photo by Mark Cruzat on Pexels.com

I also must admit that I’ve never read a romance novel.  After listening to this podcast, however, I’m very tempted to pick one up because the history and culture around them is absolutely fascinating.

Let’s start with the covers.  We all know the iconic image of Fabio or other similarly stylized heroes grasping their love interest in an over-the-top embrace.  That style of cover is actually called The Clinch and it was first popularized by the author Johanna Lindsey in the 1980s.  Look for her titles Tender is the Storm or Gentle Rogue if you need a visual.

Before Lindsey, Fabio, or the The Clinch was Kathleen Woodiwiss.  She is credited with creating the modern romance novel back in the early 1970s.  As the story goes, Woodiwiss looked at the adventure novels her husband was reading and asked herself: where are the ones with leading women, told from a female point of view?  To answer her own question, she wrote The Flame and the Flower which became such a big hit that it launched an industry.

Over the years the covers have grown more complex, using different colors schemes and shots to signal different types of stories (i.e. paranormal, steamy, explicit).  The characters featured on those covers, and in the stories found within, have also grown more diverse.  Beverly Jenkins is perhaps the most prolific author of color in this genre, writing thoroughly reached historical romances featuring black protagonists.  Books featuring same-sex couples, interracial couples, and other underrepresented groups have been around for decades, although they are becoming much more mainstream and accessible of late.

All of this is to say, romance novels have nuance.  The industry has a deeply interesting history and subculture all its own.  I highly recommend you give the 99% Invisible episode aptly titled The Clinch a listen.  It’s 42 minutes long and covers so much more than I could here.  While I’m recommending things, here are two newer romances that come well-reviewed by The Bookpage:

Hana Khan Carries On by Uzma Jalaluddin

In this contemporary romance, a Muslim woman tries to keep her family’s halal business afloat while finding comfort in creating her own anonymous podcast.

Act Your Age, Eve Brown by Talia Hibbert

The author unites many beloved romance tropes in one tremendously fun package, flawlessly and creatively executing all of them. Eve and Jacob are the embodiment of the grumpy/sunshine trope—she’s a delightful, chaotic ray of light, while innkeeper Jacob is an order-obsessed grouch. 

Happy Reading!

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