As a genre, romance gets a bad rep. Valentine’s Day thinkpieces pop up every February—defending romance, ragging on romance, bemoaning the commercialization of romance. Just this month, writer and editor Philiana Ng stirred up a conversation on Twitter when she pointed out that a well-written novel is a well-written novel, and romance is no exception. This comes on the heels of Netflix’s Bridgerton topping most-watched lists and raking in accolades. (Though it’s not without criticism, especially in its takes on consent). “Non-romance readers read romance” has almost become its own article genre. And rarely do these pieces feature readers coming in with an open mind. Or a willingness to put aside any preconceived opinions about the genre.
We can attribute some of the dislike of romance to old-fashioned sexism. Anything considered to be the purview of women, from Beatlemania to harlequin novels, comes under suspicion. And also takes on a tint of shame. Romance as a genre is certainly one of the few in which women command most of the power. Somewhere between 80 to 85% of romance readers are women, and in a billion-dollar industry, that’s a big deal. It’s especially meaningful because, unlike mainstream romance movies—which despite increased racial diversity still trend overwhelmingly heterosexual, white, and able-bodied—the romance lit industry is prioritizing the love stories we usually don’t see on-screen.
“We’ve seen a lot more lesbian, bisexual, nonbinary romances. My hope is that will continue,” freelance book editor Christa Soule Desir said in a 2018 interview. She drew particular attention to Heidi Cullinan’s Carry the Ocean, which features “a gay romance between a character with autism and a character with major depressive disorder, and it’s one of the best love stories I’ve read in a long time. It’s a great demonstration of the evolution of romance.” Queer romance novels like Red, White and Royal Blue, written by queer and nonbinary author Casey McQuiston, have gotten mainstream enough to hit the New York Times bestseller list, and authors like Talia Hibbert (whose Get a Life, Chloe Brown features a main character with fibromyalgia) and Claire Kann (who wrote a romance-loving bi ace black woman in Let’s Talk About Love) are making strides telling the love stories that don’t often get attention.
When it comes to underrepresented, empowered stories, though, one field is doing it more reliably than any other: fanfiction.
Like romance literature, marginalized genders represent a significant majority of creators and consumers of fanfiction. A 2013 census of members of fanfiction destination Archive of Our Own found that more users identified as genderqueer (6%) than as male (4%). Part of this comes down to gendered experiences of fandom. Much has been written about the differences between curatorial and transformative fandom.
“Male fans generally engage in curatorial fandom, where the degree of fandom is noted by how many details of the source material can be collected and/or memorized… Transformative fandom, as primarily practiced by women, involves a deep interaction with the source material, along with the collection of details for transforming the source material into something else,” one blogger wrote.
That difference in perspective—especially when contrasted to blockbuster romances—matters. “The vast majority of what we watch is from the male perspective—authored, directed, and filmed by men, and mostly straight white men at that,” fan culture analyst Elizabeth Minkel wrote at New Statesman. “Fanfiction gives women and other marginalised groups the chance to subvert that perspective, to fracture a story, and recast it in her own way.”
Like every genre, romance tells stories through familiar tropes. From meet-cutes to the Big Damn Kiss, there’s a formula to romance that keeps us coming back. Even when we have a good idea of where the story is heading. (And that matters–the Romance Writers of America guild points out that a defining characteristic of romance is the emotionally satisfying and optimistic ending. Pride and Prejudice? Romance. Romeo and Juliet? Decidedly not).
Fanfiction takes the use of tropes to a new level. Sites like Archive of Our Own use robust tagging systems that let users pick exactly what they’d like to read. A survey of 7,500 fic readers by Fansplaining showed some of the top favorites—including “friends to lovers,” “slow burn,” and “bed-sharing.” “Coffee shop” alternate universes have become such a mainstream go-to when talking about fanfiction that they even make occasional appearances in published novels. (Looking at you, blink-and-you’ll-miss-it scene in Harrow the Ninth).
But unlike movie romances—where tropes are often formulaic to the point of parody—the transformative nature of fanfic keeps stories new. Not because they’re inherently original, but because the individual nature of their creation allows for a personalized experience that mainstream romance simply doesn’t offer.
“Fanfiction is largely removed from the constraints of capitalism,” said Lydia Rogue, who both writes and reads fanfic. “When I write, I don’t have to worry about whether my coffee shop AU is going to be marketable. I don’t have to answer to anyone or justify why I’m writing it—and neither does any other author whose work I’m reading. There is no corporate bigwig who is going to look at the market analysis and tell me the interracial romance of two men separated by fate isn’t marketable. I am free to write and post it as I want.”
It’s unlikely that the mainstream romance industry will take a page from fanfiction’s book anytime soon. But what if it did? What might we see? More queer representation, certainly, but how would the stories change? “One of the fundamental traits of fanfiction is to encourage creators to find corners and crevices in which an alternative narrative might take root,” Lis Coburn writes for Blood Knife, responding to a previous article that charged fandom with “leading us into artistic poverty.” “It allows consumers a voice to powerfully externalize the lifelong call-and-answer of the individual and the society around them.”
Imagine a world where mainstream romances featuring queer people, disabled people, people of color, and those at the intersections of those identities, are not only featured but guaranteed a hopeful ending. That seems like the opposite of artistic poverty. This Valentine’s Day, if you’re looking for something to reignite your belief in the power of love, curl up on the couch, grab some wine and chocolate, pull up a fanfic, and embrace the happily ever after. After all, ’tis the season.