The Boundaries a Romance Novel Can Break

A subversive love story is a great antidote to a stunted imagination: Your weekly guide to the best in books

An illustration of a woman reading in a circle; another woman on horseback springs out of flowers in her hands
Katie Martin / The Atlantic; Getty

In Corinne Hoex’s Gentlemen Callers, sex is a dream. The book’s protagonist floats between abstract, ethereal trysts. When she visits a gas-station attendant in her sleep, she is a soapy sponge in his hands. Caressed by a pet groomer, she purrs; she’s his cat. Her liaisons are absurd and illicit—yet, crucially, never dangerous. Gentlemen Callers is not a classic romance novel or a straightforward bodice ripper, Zoë Hu points out. But it shares a similar affection for unrestraint. The novel’s “urgency and fidelity to naive pleasure are, in their own way, political,” Hu writes. “Reading Hoex, one can’t help intuit the meagerness of our culture’s erotic imagination.”

A subversive romance is a great antidote to that stunted imagination. W. E. B. Du Bois also knew the genre’s gifts. His overlooked novel, Dark Princess, tells the love story of a Black ex–medical student and an Indian unionist princess, both members of an international coalition against white imperialism. At times, Du Bois leans into melodrama, but the syrupy bits are important; they suffuse this narrative of revolution and solidarity with joyful optimism, the kind that realist literature rarely allows. Octavia E. Butler’s Fledgling also finds freedom in fantasy. The science-fiction novel is not interested in conventional romance; the consent dynamics between a Black vampire and the white man she feeds on are complex and unsettling. They also make space for a new vision of how we can navigate power, desire, and mutual dependence in our intimate relationships and larger communities.

The romance genre’s oldest clichés can become modern tools for liberating readers’ thoughts, erotic or otherwise. In 1907, Elinor Glyn published Three Weeks, a mass-market novel about an obsessive affair. Though loaded with sexual innuendo, the book was not simply salacious. By foregrounding a woman’s pleasure and interiority for a mainstream audience, it was radically, wonderfully transgressive.

Jasmine Guillory’s romance novels are eye-opening for the boundaries they celebrate rather than the ones they cross. “The sex scenes are scintillating not just because of the acts they describe, but because of the attention Guillory pays to pacing and communication,” Hannah Giorgis writes. The author imagines a story of love without domination; she frees our minds to do the same.

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What We’re Reading

A painting by Salvador Dali of a shapeless woman floating below the nude legs of a man.

Salvador Dali / Museo Nacional Reina Sofia / Alamy

The conundrum of sexual life in today’s America

“Through these encounters, Hoex’s narrator seems able to perceive the lucid image of her own pleasure, which in real life—surveilled and structured as it is by the male gaze—women rarely get to do.”

collage of different fabrics, a picture of Du Bois, and handwritten text against a pink background

Heritage Images / Getty; Interim Archives / Getty; Sepia Times / Getty; Gabriela Pesqueira / The Atlantic

W. E. B. Du Bois’s forgotten romance novel

“I had believed that romance was a breezy daydream on a hot afternoon, but after reading Dark Princess, I realized that the genre could help us see beyond the limits of our reality, opening our minds to fantastic possibilities.”

Contact sheet of portrait shoot with Octavia E. Butler.

Alice Arnold

The Octavia Butler novel for our times

“[The vampire] Shori’s arc feels especially prescient in this moment, as society continues reeducating itself about boundaries, agency, and the true stakes of living together.”

Illustration based on Fragonard's painting "Young Girl Reading" of a girl in yellow dress reading a book, with a mirror image of the girl appearing out of the book along with flames and smoke

Illustration by Nícolas Ortega. Source: Jean Honoré Fragonard.

The subversive power of romance novels

“[Three Weeks] made the case, while the Victorian era and its mores still loomed large in the popular imagination, that women’s sexual desire not only existed—a heretical concept—but burned with an intense heat. … Its power was so great, in fact, that it threatened the patriarchal structures that the 20th century was built on. If women experience desire with a fervor equal to men’s, what else might they also secretly be craving?”

illustration of two people looking at each other against a background of Cupid's arrows

Katie Martin / The Atlantic

How to write consent in romance novels

“For Guillory, romance novels … help soothe the difficulty of existing in a world that is often hostile to women, and to people of color of all genders. They lessen collective and individual burdens, if not by changing others’ conceptions of marginalized people, then at least by providing a welcome distraction from the chaos of everyday life.”

About us: This week’s newsletter is written by Nicole Acheampong. The book she just started is The Survivalists, by Kashana Cauley.

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