It’s obvious to readers of romance that the genre is comprised of endless variation. To outsiders, every book looks the same: naked chests, clinch covers, sometimes flowery titles, and sometimes uniform color schemes. So let’s break it down:
These are the basic umbrellas under which romance falls:
- Contemporary Romance
- Historical Romance
- Paranormal Romance
- Romantic Suspense
- Erotic Romance
There’s also the Inspirational/Christian romance market, which, encompasses all major romance sub-genres; however, since these books are forced to follow specific content guidelines, they are often treated as a genre in and of itself. Some Inspy authors exist outside of this rigid market (Piper Huguley and the ladies of Black Christian Reads, or “edgy Inspirational” author Deeanne Gist).
Science Fiction romance is sometimes lumped beneath the Paranormal romance sub-genre: see The Galaxy Express, the mother of sff romance Linnea Sinclair, Ann Aguirre, Cathy Pegau, and Alyssa Cole’s Off the Grid series.
Should we consider LGBTQIA+ romance its own sub-genre? Either way, it exists: Rebekah Weatherspoon, KJ Charles, and Joanna Chambers are some great authors to begin with. Riptide Publishing is another source for great works.
These sub-genres of romance shout who they are on the covers, which is why non-readers never “get it;” they aren’t attuned to the specific language these covers express.
A shirtless man in breeches and a lady with a ballgown about to slide down her back is–you guessed it–historical romance.
Got a sword? A tattoo? A broody color scheme? Tough looking characters? Paranormal or SFF romance.
A couple in contemporary clothing, gazing deeply into one another’s eyes–contemporary romance, of course!
Romantic suspense is where things can get murky. Usually, if there’s a man or a couple on the cover, the book is going to be about 60/40 of romance to suspense. If it’s just a woman and the cover seems kind of vague, the suspense plot is going to dominate the story.
Fifty Shades of Grey’s simple, textured book covers made a huge impact on how erotic romance was packaged. You can clearly see the before and after with the cover for Sylvia Day’s Bared to You.
Romance readers discover what they like to read like everyone else: by reading. Some love road romances, while others loathe them. Some readers will read anything that features a marriage in jeopardy, while others prefer characters to be strangers when they first meet. Military heroes may be your catnip, while for another reader, they only want blue collar handymen.
All About Romance has a long-running list of popular books by trope, but thanks to Amazon, you can type in whatever trope you like and find a variety of books to purchase.
Non-romance readers love to mock the genre by reading snippets of the prose. Taken out of context it does sometimes read breathy, overwrought, and hit-you-over-the-head. But the function of romance prose is to immerse the reader in intense sensation: you feel the hero’s anguish when he’s lost the hero. You feel the heroine’s triumph when the man of her dreams lays his heart at her feet. Romance is supposed to stimulate your emotions as well as your mind.
Don’t worry if you squirm while reading sex scenes–some authors have admitted they squirm whilst writing them! Yet, their existence is consistent with the genre’s adherence to creating intimacy between the reader and the text.
And can you honestly sit there and say you haven’t ever perched on the edge of your couch while watching TV, urging your ‘ship to Do It!!?
Lest you think the romance community gulps down what it sells uncritically, and that it isn’t a “serious” genre, I point you to the amazing scholarship being done in Popular Romance studies. For a more accessible overview of the genre, Sarah Wendell and Candy Tan of Smart Bitches published Beyond Heaving Bosoms: The Smart Bitches’ Guide to Romance Novels in 2009. Top romance authors of the 1990s published the still readable and thought-provoking Dangerous Men and Adventurous Women: Romance Writers on the Appeal of the Romance.
And hey, if you want to watch something, find (or set up) a screening of Love Between the Covers, starring Beverly Jenkins, Eloisa James, Celeste Bradley, et al.