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Romance novels have changed — and so has the community

By Jackie Varriano, The Seattle Times
Published: May 18, 2024, 6:04am
3 Photos
Bookseller Andrea Pangilinan has expanded the romance book section at Third Place Books Seward Park in Seattle. Pangilinan holds several of her current favorite titles on April 2.
Bookseller Andrea Pangilinan has expanded the romance book section at Third Place Books Seward Park in Seattle. Pangilinan holds several of her current favorite titles on April 2. (Ken Lambert/The Seattle Times) Photo Gallery

SEATTLE — I remember blushing over my first romance novel, liberated from my mother’s bookshelf. The clinch cover featured legendary Italian model Fabio in a passionate, shirtless embrace with our heroine. It was a neon sign that screamed “EROTICA.” There was no way I could read it in public or even admit I was reading it. Romance novels were cheesy and embarrassing — even if I enjoyed them.

Decades later I have fallen into a rabbit warren of romance and romance-adjacent novels with glee. I’ve changed, romance novels have changed and the romance reading community has changed. Forget Fabio, being a romance reader now is all about fun — even when the characters are morally gray.

“If you think about the romance genre, the staying power is there. It’s just the shame has been removed,” said Andrea Pangilinan, bookseller at Third Place Books in Seward Park in Seattle. The caveat — and appeal — of a romance novel for her is that “you’re guaranteed a happy ending.”

However, Pangilinan notes the romance world is “so big,” and the idea of what could be seen as a romance book isn’t universally agreed upon. Rebecca Yarros’ book “Fourth Wing,” about an elite school of dragon riders, has spent 47 weeks on The New York Times bestseller list. Today, they span from dark themes to fantastical worlds, making it difficult to get your arms around just how popular the genre is, but easy to find the perfect romance novel for you.

Growth in community

Chelsea Castor’s day job is in health care, but she’s also a social media influencer on TikTok and Instagram, making hilarious, rapid fire book recommendation videos for people who are on the hunt for their next great read, racking up millions of views. A lifelong reader, Castor fell in love with romance novels after picking up “The Cruel Prince,” a young adult (YA) fantasy romance by Holly Black during the pandemic.

“I was looking for the next thing to scratch the itch, but I wasn’t friends with people who were readers. That’s when I heard about TikTok and started making content,” Castor says. “There wasn’t anything to do, I was mass-consuming books and I am now averaging 100 books a year.”

One of the biggest things that has changed for romance readers over the past few years is the community. BookTok and Bookstagram (book-centered content on social media platforms TikTok and Instagram) allowed readers to connect with each other in new ways, helping to remove the stigma that once surrounded “dirty” books like “50 Shades of Grey,” an erotic series that got its start as a spicier fan fiction retelling of the popular YA vampire “Twilight” series.

“Romance readers love word-of-mouth and they’re voracious readers,” said Pangilinan, the Third Place bookseller. It’s only natural that they would flock to one another online. Now instead of hiding your romance book behind a book cover, readers are flaunting tattoos from their favorite reads, wearing sweatshirts that mention fictional places from books and adorning their e-readers with “in my smut era” stickers. They’re all beacons of light, attracting other romance readers and helping to forge new friendships.

Like Castor, Eugene, Ore.-based Kodie Dorman’s introduction to the romance reading community was through BookTok. Dorman was recording funny reaction videos of her husband reading Sarah J. Maas’ “A Court of Thorns and Roses,” which caught the eye of Jordan Day, a Fairfax, Va.-based author and reader. They bonded over their mutual enjoyment of romantasy books and now they’re gearing up for the third iteration of a multiday event they run called Books, Gowns & Crowns, scheduled for Oct. 17-19 in Seattle.

The event is one of a few romance-centered bookish events that have sprung up in the past few years. Like Emerald City Comic Con — the most recent iteration of which included a book signing by popular romantasy author Yarros — Books, Gowns & Crowns allows readers to get up close and personal with some of their favorite authors. There’s a book signing, a cosplay event and a ball where guests are encouraged to dress up in lavish gowns and “fully immerse yourself because tonight, you are the main character in this story.”

They held the first event in Portland in September 2022, followed by a second in Tampa, Fla., in May 2023. “I’ve never felt anything like this outside of these events. It’s pure joy, pure magic and such a sense of belonging,” she says.

Dorman says for her, the welcoming community of romance readers isn’t so tough to figure out — it’s simply a natural progression. “Our generation grew up as Harry Potter kids. We have embraced uniqueness and being true to yourself,” she says.

Day agrees, noting that when she finally picked up “A Court of Thorns and Roses,” “I thought this is so great, the characters are so relatable. Things we loved about ‘Harry Potter’ or ‘Twilight’ just adapted to fit where we were in our stages of life. It had adventure, real arguments and real spice.”

Talking about those books with others was another way to connect with people.

Megan Futej is another Bookstagrammer who has found joy in the romance reading community. Futej, who lives in West Seattle and works in social media management for Starbucks grew up going to midnight movie premieres for the “Harry Potter” and “Twilight” series but now attends midnight book release parties at Pegasus Book Exchange, a used-book store in her neighborhood.

“As you get older it is harder to make friends, but I think books are this language that so many of us can speak. As soon as you meet someone and find out they are a reader too, you know you’re going to be friends,” Futej said. “I have very much enjoyed the community and friendships that have come into my life because of books and reading.”

The first video Castor posted that took off was her playing a character asking for a love story book recommendation. As she tries to hone in on what exactly that means, book covers appear as she’s giving more and more genre-specific recommendations. The caption is “I’m going to need you to be as specific as possible when asking for recs.” It was posted nearly a year ago, but she’s still fielding comments from people who resonated with the video.

For example, if you wanted to read a story about a down-on-her-luck woman who gets an unconventional job at a sperm bank catering to minotaurs, you’ve got it! Just read “Morning Glory Milking Farm” by independent author C.M. Nascosta.

Of course there’s a love story in there — but it’s not just for shock value. Romance novels these days can contain real depth, portraying character growth and healthy relationship fluff as well as smut.

“I went into that book for the ha-ha’s,” Castor says. “I tell you that is one of the most wholesome, Hallmark movie books I’ve read in a long time.”

An adapting genre

As a romance author herself, Pangilinan, the Third Place bookseller, has grown the store’s romance offerings from half a bookcase to three full bookcases of diverse titles to attract all kinds of readers — ones who love legacy romance authors like Nora Roberts and Lisa Kleypas, as well fans of contemporary romance authors like Emily Henry. She also helps point readers to romantic books that might not be shelved in her section.

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Pangilinan has a joke with her book-loving friends, “Is it romantasy or was it (fantasy) written by a woman?” she said. “I’m very discerning about what I put in romance — I don’t put Sarah J. Maas in romance because it’s more of a contained plot with world building.”

Like many, Maas’ books were my entry point into “romantasy” and since then I’ve read dozens of romantasy books, but also books that could slot into general fiction or be further distilled into microgenres of romance like historical, western, fantasy and more.

The moral of this story is that there’s something for everyone in the romance world. If you’re waiting for a sign to pick up a romance novel, this is it. And if you’re reading them secretly — this is also your sign to tell someone about it.