Hotter than ever: How TikTok is reviving the steamy romance novel

No longer confined to half-off bins at used bookstores, their dog-eared pages yellowing with age, covers bearing flaxen-haired heroes on horseback, their buxom protagonist hanging limp in his bulging arms, romance novels are more popular than ever – and it’s all down to the app we love to hate.

TikTok has launched a thousand micro-communities. From cottagecore to clean girl beauty, from one-pan recipes to 30 -second therapy sessions, it’s where Gen Z thrives, and where Millennials go to feel their relevance slipping away by the second. Like it or not, TikTok is where trends are born (Instagram is where they get played out, and Facebook is where they go to die). For romance readers and writers alike, it can make or break a book, and it’s particularly fascinated with romance-driven fiction. Why? In a word: women.

Romance novels are having a resurgence on Tik Tok.Credit:Robin Cowcher

Romance novels in all forms — historical, comedies, dramas, fantasy and sci-fi, young adult romance … the list goes on — may be the last true media created by, about and for women. It’s where the female gaze reigns supreme and leading ladies are given space to think, feel, and grow on their own terms. They battle family issues, friendship bust-ups, career malaise, self-esteem and mental health crises, and so much more, and they do it all in a way that doesn’t degrade or dismiss them, nor minimise them for the sake of a (male) hero’s journey.

Their love interests, brooding and silver-tongued, exist to serve the protagonist, and by extension, us. They’re funny and sensitive and adore our girls for free. In 15 years of exhaustive research, this writer/dater/daydreamer can conclusively say: these men do not exist in reality. They are pure female fantasy, and that’s how we like it. Mark Darcy, the main love interest in the Bridget Jones series who was played to snug-fitting sweater-wearing perfection by Colin Firth, would not swipe right on Bridget, and she wouldn’t put up with his negging and condescension in 2022. This is a genre in which you get to suspend your disbelief just enough to indulge in the delicious fantasy of it all. Isn’t it comforting to believe, just for 300 pages or so, that the approachable, feminist-leaning, wears-cardigans-but-is-actually-ripped-despite-never-going-to-the-gym love of your life has been under your nose the whole time?

Let’s not act like women’s stories haven’t been sub-categorised since the dawn of media. DM your favourite female author and ask what she thinks about the term “women’s fiction” (hint: she probably hates it). Whether the book falls under classic literature (Pride & Prejudice, Little Women), or genre-bending historical fantasy (Outlander by Diana Gabaldon), if it’s commercial fiction (Normal People by Sally Rooney) or unabashed fluff (Book Lovers by Emily Henry), these are simply stories about a woman’s experience. For many of us, regardless of our gender identity, the pursuit of love and family are important and all-encompassing journeys. Their popularity never waned: we were just convinced they were something to be ashamed of.

Sure, the covers didn’t help: the pastel New York skylines and a cartoon stiletto to let you know the book you’re flipping through at Dymocks is about a modern gal struggling to have it all in the big city. The cringey taglines: “Late nights, best friends, and bad boys …” Gag. Reimagined in bright colours and snappy titles, the viral rom-coms du jour are cute accessories and heartfelt stories that you aren’t embarrassed to read on the train.

But BookTok, as it’s known round these parts, doesn’t care. It sees your cheesy covers, your delightfully frothy clichés, your complex women, and your tried-and-true tropes, and eats them up with all the hunger and enthusiasm of a rabid Marvel fanboy, and asks – no, demands – more because its congregants don’t share your squirmy disdain and internalised misogyny.

And as uncool as it sounds, BookTok is one giant book club. It’s word-of-mouth on a global scale. In a plethora of different formats, overlaid with filters and dreamy pop songs, wedged into memes and viral soundbites, people are desperate to talk about the fantastic book they’ve just read. They’re sharing their opinions, frustrations and delights with plots, themes and styles in an open forum, in a format that’s easy to digest. They’re forming crushes on fictional characters. They’re casting their dream line-up for imagined adaptations. They’re taking romance novels out of the shadows — the steamy, forbidden shadows, where bodices rip and loins burn — and putting it into the spotlight it so deserves.

All hail the unabashed romance genre. Long may she reign.

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