A genre of Literature that has become popular starting in the early 20th century. While romantic subplots have existed in fiction since fairly close to the beginning, romance as a focal point and driving force hadn't really been explored in depth until the last few centuries. Romance novels as an industry started in The Thirties with the company of Mills and Boon releasing hardcover romance novels. The genre changed significantly with the distribution of The Flame and the Flower, which is noteworthy for showing that buyers of romance novels are more than happy to read about sex. The genre has since evolved over time, gaining a number of subgenres in the process.
A couple of companies such as Harlequin (Mills and Boon in the U.K.) have started a business model of releasing relatively short (~55,000 words), Strictly Formula paperbacks. These are known as "category" or "series" romances because they are divided into series, each of which has its own requirements for setting, tone, and level of sensuality and is visually distinguishable by consistent cover design. It's usually these that most people think of when the genre is brought up. Almost all listed authors of such books are female, although many are written by men using female pseudonyms, since the reader base expects the author to be a woman. Also, the main character is usually female - romance stories featuring a male main character are either rare or non-existent.
"Single title" romances -- those released as stand-alones rather than associated with a category -- are usually longer, sometimes come out in hardcover, and have more overlap with mainstream fiction. Particularly successful series romance writers often move up to writing books of this type.
The genre has always had a bit of a stigma to it, generally getting critically dismissed as "not literature" for most of its existence. They are often derisively known as "bodice-rippers" (particularly the historic ones) or "trashy romance novels" though it's obviously a stereotype that they all have gratuitous sex scenes. Some cynical souls have observed that the stereotypical "romance" book or movie shares a trait with most porn fiction, in that both stories end before the point where the natural consequences of the foolish or irrational choices and actions of the characters would arise.
- The "Harlequin Presents" line focuses on glitzy settings and wealthy, often foreign heroes, and has the cover art framed in a circle against a white background. The "Steeple Hill Love Inspired Historical" line consists of inspirational (i.e., Christian) historicals and has the series logo on a maroon band across the top. The "Silhouette Special Edition" line has contemporary settings and, often, career-woman heroines, and has the logo in a curved blue band down the left side of the cover.
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