Pmission is partition. Online, especially on TikTok, romance novels are being categorized by their fans. People used to read just one category called “Books”, now they read categories called #friendstolovers, #enemiestolovers and #academicrivalstolovers. There’s #spicytok and #smuttok; there’s #forbiddenlove and the slightly creepy #forcedproximity. Feminism is not the movement’s strong suit. There is a category called #billionaireromance; there is no category called #earningsparity.
Progressive or not, hashtags are changing books. Thanks in part to TikTok memes, sales of romance and romance novels in the UK have risen 110% in three years to £53m ($64m) a year, the highest figure in a decade, according to Nielsen BookData. Publishers have started to take notice. For years, the industry scorned romance fiction like Darcy, but now its pulse is picking up. Bookstores are no longer stashing pink-covered books in the back of the store, but on tables near the checkout; publishers are learning to use the word “heartwarming” bravely without embarrassment.
The rise in romance is thought to be due in part to the pandemic. “We’re looking for escapist fiction,” says Molly Crawford, editorial director at Simon & Schuster U.K.. But it could also be because the type is great for filtering and personalization. Ancient poets may have claimed that love is as infinite as the stars, but romance novels, no matter how good they are, are always prone to tropes. Plenty of older fiction has fit these new paradigms perfectly: online, Pride and Prejudice is now classified as #enemiestolovers. As novelist PD James once observed, Jane Austen’s novels are nothing more than “Mills and Boone written by genius.”
Mills & Boon itself was marketed by a genius. Long before most Tiktokers were born, the romance publisher cornered the category market. Its website offers gorgeous drop-down menus with entries for “history,” “medical,” and “desire.”
The Mills & Boon Search Bar is a census of women’s desires. Type “Italian” and you get 338 titles; “Sheikh” brings up 282; and “Welsh” four. “Brooding” returned 66 results, while “Cheerful” returned zero results. “Billionaire” gives you 754, “Surgeon” 206, “Doctor” 380 deserves such reverence). “Middle Manager” returns the relentless phrase: “Sorry, there are no products that match your keywords.”
Aside from middle management, tastes vary when it comes to romance novels. Elisabeth Kendall is the mistress of Girton College, Cambridge (a title that feels eerily apt) and a world expert on jihadist girl ignited. In “I’m in Love with a Jihadist,” two distant cousins are thrown in the same house during the Syrian civil war (#forcedproximity). Somewhat unexpectedly, the hero’s death is accompanied by smoldering stares. Happily, all is not lost because, as Dr. Kendall explains, “the woman decides she wants to join him,” so the rest of the novel is about “her metamorphosis into a suicide bomber.” Smoldering recovery.
The novels across the UK romance bestseller lists have a different tone. Many are modern and American; all have tight-jawed heroes and a fondness for exposition. One of the #billionaire checking out his “Patek Philippe watch”.Limited Edition, Watertight Sealed, Stainless Steel Timepiece Set [him] Come back with a cool twenty grand. It’s almost like reading Austin. In another, a surgeon hero has a habit of uttering such improbable sentences as: “I’m going to have a very rare… craniotomy on Monday” and “I think I like you too much” and “By the way One line, your mom is awesome” (Of course, he turned out to be a monster.)
Not every title is modern. All-time bestsellers featured glamorous women in shawls on their covers; their plot threads included pirates, bastards, and plenty of scoundrels. As the synopsis for one explains: “Marcus gets excited about Amy’s virginity and kidnaps her, but Amy hits him in the head and escapes.”
Romance is a genre with a lot of continuity. But as Sharon Kendrick, author of the bestselling Mills & Boon, points out, the past few years have left their mark. The Black Lives Matter movement undercuts the appeal of the regency rake because, like the National Trust, everyone wants to know “how this enormous fortune was acquired”. Even though women still love master heroes, #MeToo means “The Chief is not as popular as he used to be…” (a bit too master). Billionaires now far outnumber millionaires because of “the cost of living…I mean, look at the price of stamps.” ■
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