By Sawyer North
My first literary love was science fiction. When I was a kid, virtually every sci-fi novel was written by men with a few exceptions: Ursula K. Le Guin, Octavia Butler, Andre Norton, etc. However, women writers were barely tolerated in the space. James Triptree Jr. (Alice Sheldon) saw her sales crash when she was outed as a woman. Ursula Le Guin famously eviscerated a publisher who asked her to write the forward for a set of short stories written exclusively by men. Andre Norton and C. J. Cherryh survived on gender neutral names.
Why was this the case? Because in the 20th century, the vast majority of science fiction readers and aficionados were men. Social pressure pushed boys to read science fiction, while girls who did were seen as odd. And the publishing community decided that men would only buy books written by men, or worse, that women couldn’t write decent science fiction, despite Le Guin’s 14 Hugo and Nebula awards. Until the early 21st century, in any given year fewer than 10% of most popular sci-fi novels were written by women, and usually, the number was fewer than 5%. Then came 2008 and The Hunger Games. Suzanne Collin’s smash success had two immediate effects. One, it kicked down the door of publishing houses everywhere to admit women sci-fi writers. Two, it rapidly grew an enormous female audience who craved more science fiction. By 2010, one-quarter of the most popular sci-fi novels were written by women. By 2019, that number crossed 50%, led by the likes of N. K. Jemisin and Martha Wells.
What can the romance genre learn from the science fiction genre? Like it or not, the genre I now read and write possesses many of the hallmarks of science fiction of the last century: an audience vastly of one gender, social cues that dissuade boys from exploring the genre, and a general view by publishers and readers that male writers can’t compete in the space. I’m not sure what it will take to change this, but I have a notion. Although The Hunger Games produced the breakout moment for women in science fiction, it was Princess Leia who planted the seeds in 1977 and Ripley who bioengineered them in 1979. Those characters began the appeal to female audiences that science fiction was not just the playground of men. In other words, they forever altered the social cues of who should be enjoying science fiction. The changing of those cues continues to have ripple effects today. For example, girls who prefer science fiction are more likely to enter STEM careers than those who don’t.
Can a similar phenomenon occur in the romance genre for men? I don’t know. But I do believe it begins with a change in social cues. With the messaging that romance stories are for everyone. With the introduction of young men to stories centering on relationships, including romantic ones. With romantic stories that are built from the ground up with the male reader in mind. A historical social message has been, “relationships are for women; real men don’t do feelings.” That message is robbing men of emotional well-roundedness and constraining our ability to realize the full measure of our relationships. That needs to change for the sake of the future of humanity. Reading romance could become a doorway through which that change begins.
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Lucy Locket, the long lost granddaughter of a duchess, has never been a part of Society. One day, she was living a secluded life as the prisoner of a criminal, and the next day she was an heiress in a world she did not even remotely understand. She does not embody the typical qualities of a well-born lady…at all. She can’t curtsy, she doesn’t hide her emotions, she’s too clever by far. But in three months, she must marry a suitor with a royally-bestowed title, or she forfeits a fortune—leaving her and the duchess in dire straits.
All Henry Beaumont wants is to prove himself to Society and step outside of his half-brother’s shadow. So when the duchess asks him for a personal favor involving her newly found granddaughter—with a hefty thank you reward at the end—he leaps at the opportunity.
It seems as if Lucy is trading one prison for another. Henry has now become a permanent fixture as her charming yet iron-fisted taskmaster and tutor in the ways of High Society. Like oil and water, Lucy and Henry spar in an epic battle of wills—and even rapiers. But Lucy’s past and her surprising, undeniable feelings for Henry may doom their undertaking if he declares his love for her…because without a title, he can never be hers.