The romance book has always had a basic pact with its reader; I’m going to take you on a wild, emotional ride and at the end of it they’re going to live happily ever after.

The HEA is the distinguishing feature of the romance genre.

By this definition alone many argue that Jane Austen was a romance novelist. But the romance genre we know today has its genesis in the 1970s.

Kathleen Woodiwiss had a husband who read adventure novels. She’d read the adventure novels that he brought into the house and found that she didn’t understand one thing: why none of the books had a woman as the adventurer.

So, she sat down and wrote her own romantic adventure story with a female protagonist called The Flame and The Flower.

And she added something that would become the distinguishing feature of the romance genre: sex on-page.

The heroine of Woodiwiss’s story has real sex on the page and achieves orgasm. In long-form.

But it’s also a highly problematic book and it set the tone for the coming decades in romance.

In The Flame and The Flower, the hero rapes the heroine four times in the first 100 pages of the book.

The heroine, in her own POV, names it rape, loathes the hero for doing it, calls him a rapist and punishes him for doing it. In the end, she marries him and lives happily ever after with him.

There’s a reason the early romance books have been titled “bodice rippers”.

Woodiwiss’s book opened the floodgates for other similar books by selling 2.3 million copies in the first four years.

When publishers woke up to the fact that women were buying books, they started bringing more of these books to market.

Specifically, historical romantic adventure stories frequently including dynamics of sexual violence.

Despite including a lot of rape, we can’t completely dismiss this era of books, even if they did saddle us with a lot of consent issues that persist to this day.

The one thing that has always been true of romance books is that women are the heroes of their own stories; the heroines take action and claim their own happiness.

And these books were the only place where women could see the trauma women in the world had to deal with on-page.

They were also where women saw themselves in happiness and in love, triumphant, full of hope and in charge of their own destinies.

These are powerful, provocative ideas.

The romance genre exploded in the 1980s.

And the covers got more eye-catching.

You’ll be familiar with the covers if you’ve ever stolen glances at that rack of books with half-nude men holding women with gravity-defying hair.

These are called clinch covers.


1 : to hold an opponent (as in boxing) at close quarters with one or both arms
2 : to hold fast or firmly


Johanna Lindsey was the big name in romance in the 80s and her books have some of the most epic clinch covers.

This is back when models would pose for photos and then artists would illustrate the cover, adding backgrounds and details.

Her 1985 book Tender is the Storm (below far left) is really about as epic as it gets; a fully nude man clinching a woman that’s completely swooned (and gravity-defying locks).

It was also Lindsey who introduced the world to Fabio (below far right).

Nobody knows exactly how many covers he appeared in during his career, but it was hundreds. Today’s readers mostly resent how long his association with the romance genre has endured because it only serves to diminish what the genre looks like some forty years later.

The explicitly steamy covers helped to distinguish the romance genre as a women-only space, it was a visual message to the reader.

Author Sarah MacLean said that it, “increased the likelihood that women would buy these books, and also increased the level of disdain that society would start to have for these books, because if they’re for women, then surely they can’t have value.”

Society has found many reasons to look down on romance; it’s formulaic, predictable and badly written.

Julia Quinn, the writer of Bridgerton, said, “Other genres get judged on the very best of their writing and romance gets judged on the very worst of it often.”

I think romance gets ragged on for a lot of unfair things which are mostly rooted in patriarchy; fear of women having strong emotions, being in control of themselves and having agency, among other things.

Changing covers signal a change in content.

Throughout the 70s and 80s romance novels primarily featured white, heterosexual, cis-gendered couples on the covers.

Today the most typical romance cover you’ll find is a heavily edited photo, rather than photos turned into illustrations.

They also don’t feature a clinch by default anymore; it can often just be a single figure on the cover. Or several if we’re talking reverse harem.

The newest entry into the cover art is illustrated covers that are more cartoon-like or abstract in appearance (not to be confused with the classic covers painted from real people).

This is, in part, due to the increase in variety in the type of stories available today.

It’s also an effort to get romance books to infiltrate the general fiction section by looking less like a steamy book.

Take books like Beach Read by Emily Henry or Hook, Line and Sinker by Tessa Bailey; the vibe in them is more cute than sexy and they look more like any other contemporary fiction book.

[Beach Read] sat on the ‘New York Times’ list. It’s a straight up romance novel, but it really lingered on those lists because the cover doesn’t look like a romance novel cover at all. This is a way to get romance in front of the eyes of people who might not ever walk into the romance section.

– Sarah MacLean

Some readers worry that the coding of the old romance covers, which lets the reader know what kind of book to expect, is lost with illustrated covers.

Cover art has also come under fire in recent years from readers as being outdated or just cheap—especially, when the characters in the books are anything other than white and thin, you can often find that the cover is illustrated.

Whether this is due to cost savings on the publisher’s behalf or something else, I don’t know.

This critique excludes self-published authors and is specifically aimed at publishing houses that have considerably more resources than a lone author.

It’s a cry from fans for publishing to do better, to put more effort into being inclusive and representative of both the modern reader and modern writer.

In romance, we are not ashamed and we do not feel guilty.

Though there is still a lot of derision for romance books and those who read them, the modern reader is unapologetic in their love of reading romance.

We aren’t ashamed and we don’t see this as a guilty pleasure; we’re actually really proud of it.

The characters are unapologetic in seeking out and seizing their own pleasure and they don’t feel guilty for enjoying themselves, so why should we?

In a lot of older literature, the heroine often died after having sex, as some kind of punishment for a woman daring to enjoy herself so freely.

But in romance novels, the characters set out to have a great time, learning more about themselves and their desires in the process, and living happily ever after.

Could it get any better than that?