The politics of happily-ever-after: romance genre fiction as aesthetic public sphere

Publication year
American Journal of Cultural Sociology

This was reprinted in 2022 in The Cultural Sociology of Reading. Edited by María Angélica Thumala Olave. Palgrave Macmillan, Cham. pp. 453-496. (and there's a small excerpt at Google Books).

Here's the abstract:

How does the romance reading community understand the genre in relation to sociopolitical concerns? This paper draws on interviews, observations of romance writers’ conferences, and a variety of text data to explore how popular romance fiction functions as an aesthetic public sphere, a site of political discourse. While I find that romance novels and the romance community address a range of sociopolitical issues, readers and writers debate whether they should address these issues. Some think romance should only provide entertainment, while others embrace the genre’s potential for active engagement with sociopolitical issues. These expectations play out in both romance novels and in community relations. Despite debate over the ideal purpose of romance, there is widespread agreement among readers that the genre is fundamentally about hope and the belief that love—and romance reading—can transform the world. This research extends the aesthetic public sphere concept to popular genre fiction, showing that romance is a particular kind of reading experience that allows readers to engage with serious sociopolitical issues with the promise of a happily-ever-after.

In Chapter 1 of Michelson's 2022 PhD thesis it is stated that

Portions of this chapter are published in Michelson, Anna. 2021. “The Politics of Happily-Ever-After: Romance Genre Fiction as Aesthetic Public Sphere.” American Journal of Cultural Sociology 9(2): 177-210.


Whereas Michelson (2021) focused on tensions between entertainment and engagement approaches in romance discourse 2015-2019, here I draw on the whole body of project data (1981-2021) to demonstrate how while both approaches have always been present the dominant discourse on the purpose of romance fiction has shifted from entertainment to engagement. (48)


Some quotations from the article itself:

"This project examines both the social imaginary presented in the pages of romance novels and the social world of the romance community in order to understand how genre fans make meaning of romance fiction and its relation to politics."


"I explore the question “How does the romance reading community understand the genre in relation to sociopolitical concerns?” by drawing on 32 semi-structured interviews, observations of three romance writer conferences, 20 notable romance novels, reader response on the Smart Bitches, Trashy books website, and analysis of the Romance Writers of America (RWA) publication Romance Writers Report."


I find that romance addresses a range of sociopolitical issues, from niche topics like football-related brain injuries to broad issues such as feminism and immigration (Prokop 2019a; MacLean 2017; Herrera 2019). However, not everyone agrees that romance is an appropriate site for these topics. The polarizing Trump presidency and prominent diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) conversations have brought debates over the meaning and purpose of romance reading to the fore. Some see romance fiction as a form of engagement with political issues. At the same time, others believe romance should primarily be a source of entertainment and escape from political concerns. All genre fans probably have some expectation of entertainment when they pick up a romance novel. The promise of happily-ever-after offers readers a particular kind of “enchantment,” or “the experience of total absorption in a text, of intense and enigmatic pleasure” (Felski 2008). Readers differ in their expectations, however, as to whether romance fiction should only entertain or whether it should engage with sociopolitical issues.


I examine responses to the 2019 novel Red, White, and Royal Blue from the romance website Smart Bitches, Trashy Books. Red, White, and Royal Blue is a best-selling, award-winning romance novel. Founded in 2005, Smart Bitches, Trashy Books (SBTB) is now one of the longest running and most visited romance review sites; respondents frequently named it as a leading source of reviews and community news. Because Red, White, and Royal Blue deals with explicitly political themes, this novel is a particularly good case study in how different reading expectations—entertainment and engagement—play out in reader responses.


One example given of the political divisions in the romance community is the following:

RWR published a feature article on “how historicals have romanticized white supremacy and what we can do to reclaim the subgenre” (Kingston 2018, p.16). Kingston’s article listed “white nationalist belief system elements found in the subgenre,” including fear of racialized rape, fetishizing Asian women, and positive depictions of colonialism (pp. 16–17).

This article inspired a flurry of RWR letters-to-the-editor, with some expressing solidarity with Kingston’s sentiments and others expressing a conservative response. The most critical letter appeared in the Feburary 2019, submitted by author Leigh Verill-Rhys. She took issue with Kingston’s piece for “address[ing] a ‘social’ issue and ma[king] it a ‘creative’ issue by assuming the right to tell us—their colleagues—what we should be writing” (Verill-Rhys 2019, p. 6).

There is an entry in this database for Elizabeth Kingston's article (which was first given to a romance conference). It seems possible that this Leigh Verrill-Rhys is the same Leigh Verrill-Rhys who described herself as an "author of 11 published novels" and ran as a Republican candidate "for the Montana Legislature, House District 48" in 2020.