Despite its popularity, romance is still a largely—perhaps willfully—misunderstood genre. But determining whether a book is a romance is simpler than the Bechdel test, with only one question: Does this story end happily? If the answer is yes—as in Pride and Prejudice, the Bridgerton series by Julia Quinn, or pretty much any book you saw on TikTok with a hockey player on the cover—then welcome to the club. In the nomenclature of the genre, that happy ending is referred to as either the HEA (happily-ever-after) or the HFN (happy-for-now). The Fault in Our StarsThe Notebook, and Me Before You are great novels, but they are not genre romance.

Romance fiction has changed dramatically in recent years, but readers tend to get a little twitchy at talk of “transforming the genre.” These words are usually spoken by people who want to eliminate the HEA, the part of romance that we like the best. What’s your next bright idea—taking yellow out of the rainbow and Barbie out of her Dreamhouse? No thanks. Rather than transformation, expansion might be a better word to describe the growth of the genre. If we think of Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth Bennet as our Big Bang, with tons of romance energy packed into a tiny kernel of a story, romance has proven to be a constantly expanding universe in the intervening 200 years. Just as human hearts have an infinite capacity for love, so too is there an infinite capacity for the romance genre to tell those stories.

One of the best ways to expand the genre is to bring new readers to the fold, and Emily Henry might be the most powerful crossover author that romance has ever produced. In Beach Read, literary author Augustus and romance author January are both struggling with writer’s block. They make a deal: Each will try writing in the other’s genre, but in the process, of course, they fall in love. The book was published in May 2020, just a few months into the pandemic, when Americans were taking Zoom calls in their basements and canceling their summer vacations. The novel perfectly captured the zeitgeist of pandemic life, as millions of readers realized they, like Augustus, could recharge themselves with a romance. Henry has been a hitmaker ever since, her books successful both critically and commercially. People We Meet on Vacation and Happy Place continued to play with the juxtaposition of joy and loss, powerful themes that speak to modern readers.

There’s always been inherent tension between the portrayal of teenage romance as written (and often read) by adults and the actual lived experience of teens themselves. The end result is that YA romance sometimes just feels off: the plots strangely sanitized, the characters suspiciously mature, and the relationships laughably low stakes. Author Camryn Garrett realizes there is nothing low stakes about the first time you fall in love, maybe because she published her remarkable debut when she was still a teenager herself. In Full Disclosure, Simone Garcia-Hampton thinks her interest in Miles might be reciprocated, but escalating their relationship means she’ll have to reveal her secret: She’s HIV-positive. Simone has loving dads and a supportive friend community, and her medical diagnosis isn’t a tragedy; it’s just a fact. Garrett’s follow-ups are equally assured, including Friday I’m in Love, about a girl who decides that instead of a Sweet Sixteen she’d rather have a coming-out party. Garrett isn’t writing teen characters as adults wish they would be; they’re real people, grappling with the fear and joy of falling in love for the first time.

For years, there seemed to be a gap that romance readers had to cross: age out of YA and hurtle straight into adult romance, likely featuring characters in their late 20s or early 30s. Although the term “new adult” existed, it didn’t seem to get much traction until the arrival of Casey McQuiston’s Red, White, and Royal Blue.The book featured a romance between the son of the American president and a British royal prince, and readers couldn’t get enough. McQuiston lit the torch, and BookTok picked it up and ran with it. Now, many of the genre’s bestselling books feature characters in their early 20s. On the other end of the spectrum are romance readers clamoring for “seasoned” characters in their 40s, 50s, and beyond. Falling in love isn’t only for young people, and authors such as Cathy Yardley are eager to answer the call. In Role Playing, Maggie is a 48-year-old woman challenged to be more social by her college-age son. She joins a gaming guild and falls in love with 50-year-old Aiden, who games to relieve the stress of caring for his aging mother.

One of the greatest expansions currently underway is the wholesale embrace of queer identity across subgenres. Vincent Virga’s 1980 gothic, Gaywyck, is widely regarded as the first gay historical romance, and it was revolutionary at the time for two men to live happily ever after on the page. Although queer love stories continued to be supported by small indie presses such as Bold Strokes Books, traditional publishing went back to ignoring queer romance for decades. For many readers, the rise of self-published e-books made queer romance easier to discover and obtain. Largely self-published by choice, KJ Charles has been making space for queer characters in historical romances for the past decade. And what dazzling characters they are, running the gamut from Regency aristocrats in Band Sinister to a Victorian taxidermist in An Unseen Attraction and a post-WWI archaeologist in Spectred Isle. A hallmark of her work is characters who thrive on the margins of society, often making fools of the same people who have sidelined and silenced them. In other words, Charles has never met a con man she doesn’t like, and her con men are the best in the genre. The most recent series, starting with The Secret Lives of Country Gentlemen, serves up the brilliant, incisive writing and complex characters readers expect when they pick up a book by Charles.

Angelina M. Lopez has written an entire pantheon of women who refuse to be pigeonholed by society’s expectations—the type of character who challenges romance readers’ patriarchal notions of worth and likability. Like society itself, romance readers can be remarkably forgiving of the flaws in male characters while criticizing the smallest imperfections in female characters: On the “there be” scale, it’s unlikable heroines right after dragons. Lopez’s debut, Lush Money, presents a thorny, difficult heroine who is firmly in the power position of the relationship, a billionaire who hires a prince to father her child.  In her latest series, Lopez levels up once again. She writes deep, complex women who have been pulled back home, but with interesting dilemmas and nuanced conflicts rather than the commonplace and cliched Hallmark movie–style homecoming. In Full Moon Over Freedom, Gillian Armstead-Bancroft chooses assimilation and social mobility over Freedom, Kansas. Everything seems perfect, she’s the “pride of the East side,” but it’s all a lie. Gillian is a bruja, desperately trying to fix the curse that’s ruined her life. Lopez effortlessly tackles the realities of life in a small town while unpacking Latine stereotypes and exploring the failures and triumphs of the misunderstood heroine.

There is no more idealized and valorized setting in romance than the small town. But sharp-eyed readers will also critique the typical portrayal, where everyone is white, straight, and magically able to keep competing cupcake shops afloat. Jeannie Chin’s Blue Cedar Falls series shows three Chinese American sisters engaging with both the joys and hardships of small-town life. Readers are introduced to the Wu sisters in The Inn on Sweetbriar Lane. June, the eldest, is struggling to keep the family’s bed and breakfast financially solvent. She has dreams of starting a fall festival, but Clay Hawthorne, the new bar owner, isn’t interested in trying to lure cutesy tourists. In the books that follow, middle sister May returns home after years away, traumatized by the painful racist bullying she experienced in high school, and reconnects with the sweetheart she left behind. Chin’s character work is masterful; each sister has a distinctive way of seeing Blue Cedar Falls and her place in it. Chin’s series proves that small towns don’t have to be boring, whitewashed utopias; they are as thorny and complex as the people who live there.

Netflix’s Bridgerton may have been a success onscreen, but historical romance has nevertheless been forced to reenvision itself, finding new ways to excite and surprise readers jaded by Mayfair ballrooms and tired of prim, straight, white, virginal heroines. Adriana Herrera, known for her sexy contemporary romances, is making a glorious detour into the historical space with her Las Leonas series, which takes place during the 1889 World’s Fair in Paris. She adds her voice to the small group of writers (Beverly Jenkins, K.J. Charles, Cat Sebastian) who have long worked to extend the boundaries of historical romance. The deeply researched series places three Latine heiresses and best friends on-site in Paris: Luz Alana Heith-Banzan, a Dominican rum heiress looking to expand the family business; Manuela del Carmen Caceres Galvan, a Mexican artist determined to have one last summer of freedom before entering an arranged marriage; and Aurora Montalban Wright, a Dominican Mexican physician trying to protect her secrets. The three women take Paris by storm, as Herrera playfully deploys and reimagines historical romance’s most beloved tropes and archetypes.

Romance is no stranger to the influence of fanfiction. The first great wave of fic writers emerged from the Twilight fandom and spun off several romance powerhouses, among them E.L. James, Rebekah Weatherspoon, Christina Lauren, and Sally Thorne. At the time, it was Fight Club rules: The first rule of traditional publishing is never talk about fanfiction. Now, a second massive wave of fic writers is once again changing the romance landscape. Led by Ali Hazelwood, most of these writers originated in the Reylo fandom—Star Wars fans rooting for a romance between Rey (Daisy Ridley in the films) and Kylo Ren/Ben Solo (Adam Driver). Hazelwood’s breakout debut, The Love Hypothesis, transplants the Rey and Kylo Ren archetypes to academia. Hazelwood and her brethren are laser focused on character, and they excel at writing snappy dialogue and crackling sexual tension. A rash of Reylo fics have made it onto year-end “best of” lists, while Hazelwood herself is switching it up: Her next book, Bride, matches Vampyre and Were, a classic romance pairing that never goes out of style.

For the past few years, all you heard about were rom-coms, but publishing has now focused its efforts on “romantasy.” Sarah J. Maas and Rebecca Yarros are currently at the top of the romantasy pileup (and the bestseller lists), but it’s Ruby Dixon and her Ice Planet Barbarians who opened the door. Dixon started the series in 2015; it was well regarded by romance readers and even spawned a read-along podcast called Ice Planet Pod. Dixon’s self-published books could only be read via Kindle Unlimited, but when BookTok discovered the Barbarians in 2021, the series went from solid performer to juggernaut. Dixon sold the print rights to Berkley, creating a model where Amazon’s KU superstars use traditional publishers as their print distributors. The most innovative, interesting work in the genre is being written by self-published authors, and traditional publishing is taking note.

Men have always been readers and writers of romance, but until recently men who wrote romance hid their identity, either by using female pseudonyms or writing with a partner. Fortunately, male authors such as Kosoko Jackson can now publish romance novels under names that reflect their gender identity. Jackson is a crossover author who also writes YA, but his two adult romances are well regarded for their frank, funny, and fresh descriptions of gay relationships in the Black community. A Dash of Salt and Pepper features two chefs in a small town, allowing Jackson to use classic romance tropes to his advantage. I’m So Not Over You adds class disparity, often a difficult topic for romance readers, to the mix. The fantasy of a wealthy lover seems appealing, but journalist Kian Andrews can’t help but feel like an outsider when he’s with Hudson Rivers’ wealthy family; when Hudson asks Kian to be his plus-one at a family wedding, Kian feels terribly out of place at the huge society function. Jackson’s bold choice to tell the story only from Kian’s point of view might have frustrated some readers, but it highlights Jackson’s theme that “the everyman” possesses an important voice all on his own.

Romance readers want the feelings dialed up to 11, and no one delivers the angst and drama of falling in love better than Kennedy Ryan. Her novels are grandly epic in scale—Reel is a Hollywood saga that spans decades; Long Shot, an exploration of abuse and recovery—yet minutely tender in their execution. Ryan is carefully attentive to gesture—the small ways people signal their feelings for each other, the weighted glance that hides a maelstrom of emotions, the small touch that portends a change of heart. Before I Let Goexpands the definition of where a romance should start by opening not with a marriage in trouble but a marriage that is over, yet still masterfully delivering a hard-won and heartfelt happily-ever-after.

The cheapest shots aimed at romance are usually about the quality of the writing itself. Romance readers respond by pointing out that we’re the only genre judged not by our most beautiful and incisive prose stylists—Laura Kinsale, Sherry Thomas, Kate Clayborn, or Meredith Duran—but by our worst. Romance refuses to apologize for its flowery language or perceived excess; shouldn’t writing that honors the full scope of human relationships be just as big and bold as the feelings the books are meant to elicit? Tia Williams is one such writer, effortlessly capturing the humor and heartbreak of falling in love. Her most recent novels, Seven Days in June and the forthcoming A Love Song for Ricki Wilde, luxuriate in language, with main characters who are writers, artists, and musicians. In Seven Days,Eva and Shane are both famous authors—Eva for her popular paranormal romance series, Shane for his literary fiction. Hyperaware of the unfair standard that elevates his work while downplaying hers, Eva finally decides to stop worrying about other people and declares, “It’s about me. Occupying all the space I need to. Standing tall in exactly who the hell I am.” Which is really, when you think about it, a pretty good mantra for romance readers as well.

Jennifer Prokop co-hosts the romance podcast Fated Mates


Top row, from left: Adriana Herrera, Ali Hazelwood (Justin Murphy/Out of the Attic Photography), Tia Williams (Francesco Ferendeles), Kosovo Jackson (Sara Nicole Lemon). 

Middle row, from left: Ruby Dixon, Jeannie Chin, Angelina M. Lopez, Emily Henry (Devyn Glista/St. Blanc Studios), Camryn Garrett (Louisa Wells).

Bottom row, from left: Casey McQuiston (Sylvie Rosokoff), Kennedy Ryan, KJ Charles, Cathy Yardley.