How romance novels are getting a makeover in the Trump era

Since the election of Donald Trump, romance writers are rethinking the kind of heroes they want to celebrate. Some have decided it's time to get overtly political.

Some romance novelists are rewriting their work to better reflect feminist ideals in today's political climate

Sarah MacLean is the New York Times bestselling author of the romance novel 'The Day of the Duchess' and the upcoming 'Wicked and the Wallflower.' (CBC)

Since the election of Donald Trump, even some romance writers have decided it's time to get political.

The genre's brooding Heathcliffs are getting makeovers and storylines are being tweaked to better reflect feminist values around sexual equality and inclusiveness, as writers work to recast the heroes into characters they want to celebrate.

A day after the 2016 U.S. presidential election, bestselling New York-based author Sarah MacLean said she vowed to use her "very considerable platform" to step up and speak up, as she wants to "make a difference in the world."

MacLean said she realized the book she was writing "had 275 pages of a character who probably would have voted for Donald Trump," so she deleted the entire manuscript. "I threw it all out and started over."

I wanted him to be that alpha feminist from the very start.- Romance author Sarah MacLean

MacLean was originally writing about "a man who was intractable and impenetrable, and didn't understand that his actions hurt people and his actions had repercussions." 

Thinking that description sounded a lot like Trump himself, she decided to create a new hero who wouldn't take the entire novel to become enlightened. The result is her more recent novel, The Day of the Duchess. 

"I wanted him to be that alpha feminist from the very start. I wanted him to believe in his heroine, I wanted him to believe in hope, I wanted him to believe in change, I wanted him to believe in passion and partnership and equality." 

Toronto geophysicist-turned-romance author Laura Davis says she also felt that given the current political climate, readers needed lighter, funnier stories. She switched from writing erotic romance to romantic comedy.

Toronto novelist Laura Davis writes romantic comedy, like 'Grumpy Fake Boyfriend' under the pen name Jackie Lau. (CBC/ Salimah Shivji)

She also chose to pen a broader, more diverse range of characters.

"Overt racism seems to be a lot more acceptable [since Trump's election]," said Davis. "So I particularly wanted to write and tell stories about heroes and heroines who aren't white, and show that they deserve to have happy endings, too."

Romance rules

While the romance genre has seen its share of derision, there's no arguing it has passionate fans. 

It's a billion-dollar industry that makes up close to one-third of the U.S. fiction market. And with e-book purchases also on the rise, it's a market that even the respected New York Times Book Review has acknowledged by hiring romance columnist Jaime Green.

Green says it's time to take this form of literary escapism seriously.

"Women are just sick of being made to feel embarrassed about what they love and what they enjoy reading," she said.

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According to the Toronto Public Library, romance is its single most popular fiction genre; romance novels represent 15 to 20 per cent of its total e-book downloads.

The hotter the cover image, the longer the holds list, according to library officials. Without the romance genre, they say the library's e-book collection wouldn't be viable, and they couldn't offer the more expensive literary and non-fiction e-book titles.

The TPL is planning to hire a romance novelist for its writer-in-residence program this fall — the first time the genre's been selected for it since 2009. 

Literature snobs should take note: romance is now being openly embraced by readers — most of them women. And MacLean says it's about time.

"For many years, the genre has kind of sat in the dark — in the back corner of the bookstore or the library — and nobody's known how subversive the texts are and how feminist the texts are. I'm really very proud to be writing it now in the light," she said.

"Romance centres women; it places women at the centre of the story," she said. "At the end of a romance novel, the women win. And there's a great deal of power in that." 

A romance reading list (from our experts):

Sarah MacLean's suggested reading list: Luck of the Draw by Kate Clayborn; Dating You/Hating You by Christina Lauren; and Wanted, A Gentleman by KJ Charles. (Kate Clayborn/Gallery Books/Riptide Publishing)

Sarah MacLean, bestselling author of The Day of the Duchess and the upcoming Wicked and the Wallflower, recommends:

  • Luck of the Draw by Kate Clayborn.
  • Dating You/Hating You by Christina Lauren.
  • Wanted, A Gentleman by KJ Charles.

Two of Jaime Green's recommendations: Unmasked by the Marquess by Cat Sebastian; and A Scandalous Deal by Joanna Shupe. (Avon Impulse/Avon Books)

Jaime Green, romance columnist at the New York Times Book Review, recommends: 

  • Unmasked by the Marquess by Cat Sebastian.
  • A Scandalous Deal by Joanna Shupe.
  • Hurts to Love You by Alisha Rai.
  • The Kiss Quotient by Helen Hoang.
Green also suggests: Hurts to Love You by Alisha Rai; and The Kiss Quotient by Helen Hoang. (Avon Books/ Penguin Random House)

Laura Davis recommends: A Princess in Theory by Alyssa Cole; and After the Wedding by Courtney Milan. (Avon Books/ Courtney Milan)

Laura Davis, (pen name Jackie Lau) author of Grumpy Fake Boyfriend, recommends:

  • A Princess in Theory by Alyssa Cole.
  • After the Wedding by Courtney Milan.
  • One and Only by Jenny Holiday.
  • Better at Weddings Than You by Mina V. Esguerra.
Davis also suggests: One and Only by Jenny Holiday; and Better at Weddings than You by Mina V. Esguerra. (Forever/ Bright Girl Books)


Alice Hopton

National Environment and Climate Change Producer

Alice Hopton is a national Environment and Climate Change producer for CBC News.