Forget the throbbing euphemisms: these romantic leads go to therapy
Author Emily Henry refers to her bestselling books not as romance novels, but as “romcoms”.
The 32-year-old has written three novels – Beach Read, You And Me on Vacation and Book Lovers – which have collectively sold more than 2.4 million copies and spent a cumulative 145 weeks on The New York Times bestseller list. Her keenly awaited fourth novel, Happy Place, published last month, is already on track to be another hit.
Like the romantic comedy films of the 1980s and ’90s (You’ve Got Mail; Sleepless in Seattle; anything starring Meg Ryan) one thing is assured in each: a happy ending.
“I talk about them as romcoms because I want romance readers to find them, and also non-romance readers to be open to them,” Henry says on the phone from the United States. “It’s also to communicate that there’s a love story, but there’s always humour as well.”
Things get steamier than anything Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan got up to on screen, but Henry’s love of screenwriters Nora Ephron and Nancy Meyers is there in the snappy banter and classic tropes – friends who become lovers, enemies who become lovers – wrapped in smartly written, contemporary stories; there’s usually a side plot (friendship, grief, parental relationships) and a diverse array of characters. And instead of heaving bosoms and throbbing euphemisms, the sexiest parts of her books are often the whip-smart badinage.
Henry, who lives in Cincinnati with her husband, studied creative writing in Michigan and New York, and began her writing life as a YA author, writing coming-of-age books before she “fell” into romance.
Unlike many successful authors, she lives not far from where she grew up, and seems as friendly and wholesome as a ’90s romantic comedy character.
A lifelong romcom fan – she cites When Harry Met Sally and The Holiday as favourites – she hadn’t read much in the romance genre before writing her breakthrough novel, Beach Read.
That wryly titled novel – about a romance writer and a literary author who think they have nothing in common but their writers’ block, spending the summer as neighbours – was shelved for a couple of years, with no plans to publish it.
“Then I noticed that there was a huge romance renaissance happening,” Henry says.
Henry told her agent that she “might have written something in the genre” – she wasn’t sure as she’d not read any herself. “She read the draft and liked it, and also gave me some reading suggestions and … that’s when I became a romance reader.”
Then Beach Read was published just as the pandemic hit and she quickly became a romance writer.
Henry started writing it as a way to deal with her anxiety and depression. “I felt like it would be a really good use of my time to work on something that brought me joy and made me feel a little … safer in the world,” she says. “It just happened to be that the book came out a month into lockdown, when the whole world was kind of feeling that need.”
The pandemic might have had a hand in Beach Read’s success, but along with other authors such as Colleen Hoover, Henry is part of a resurgence of the genre driven largely by Gen Z readers – and social media.
In the past few years, TikTok has spawned hundreds of sub-communities, including BookTok, where readers – and sometimes authors – share their thoughts on new releases, create literary memes and even film themselves crying once they’ve finished reading. When Henry’s second book, 2021’s You and Me on Vacation, experienced a huge jump in sales unrelated to any events or press, it took Henry and her team by surprise.
Unlike some authors, Henry isn’t on the platform herself – “I’m far too old and intimidated by it!” – but she loves that it’s spawned a reader-led renaissance. And Henry is one of the most popular writers on the platform – videos relating to her name have amassed 344.6 million views.
“I’ve watched publishers try to figure out how to tap into it, and they can’t really because it’s so organic. It was never quite the same thing for Instagram or Twitter – it’s specifically this medium, for some reason. It’s so reader-based, and that’s what makes it really exciting.”
There’s always been a market for romance novels, traditionally with a target audience of women aged between 35 and 54 (a demographic range that has widened significantly in recent years), but there’s also long been a snobbery about the genre. Henry believes it boils down, simply, to misogyny.
“They’re stories marketed towards women, often written by women, usually about women and prioritising women’s joy and their sexuality and their pleasure, which is not necessarily something that has been taken seriously,” she says. “I feel like instead it’s … shame. I don’t know how different the culture is in Australia to us – but there’s so much shame around that here.”
She thinks it can be traced back to Victorian times. “The feeling that women’s sexuality is something to be ashamed of, or even afraid of – that’s been around for a long time. It’s centuries of telling women, ‘this isn’t supposed to feel good for you, you’re not supposed to like it – it’s a thing men like and you owe it to them’. That’s the dynamic. It’s such a weird, wrong, entrenched power play for how we perceive men and women.”
A genre dedicated to prioritising women’s desire is something to be celebrated, she says, “but instead of embracing something that says your love life, your romantic life, all of that should feel good, [it’s] let’s make it shameful that someone would even want to read something that causes that”.
Henry’s books all feature sex scenes (after long, slow builds, during which protagonists experience hammering hearts, hot and unsteady limbs and tingling nerves), but her male characters are not the ripped, Alpha males of romance novels past – they’re funny, they’re flawed, they might go to therapy. And, OK, sometimes they’re ripped as well.
It’s this vulnerability, a key component of romance writing, that Henry’s fans have seized on.
“I think Gen Z’s willingness to embrace the romance novel shows some huge improvement in the way that women and girls see themselves and their place in the world and [that they] don’t feel the need to pretend to like things they don’t like, or to veer away from things other people think are uncool. I think it is progress,” she says.
TAKE 7: THE ANSWERS ACCORDING TO EMILY HENRY
- Worst habit? Overcommitting and procrastinating. A very bad combination.
- Greatest fear? Losing someone I love.
- The line that stayed with you? Weirdly, the one line that comes to mind is from Lord of the Rings. I think a lot about Bilbo saying, “I like less than half of you half as well as you deserve”. It just tickles me.
- Biggest regret? It sounds cheesy but I really don’t believe in them. Even when you make the wrong decision, usually you learn something important or something important to you comes out of it.
- Favourite room? Probably either my own living room, with its big window overlooking the yard, or the Milstein Family Hall of Ocean Life in the American Museum of Natural History.
- The artwork/song you wish was yours? I wish I’d come up with Taylor Swift’s Last Great American Dynasty. I also wish I’d written Naomi Novik’s Uprooted.
- If you could solve one thing … Well, I live in the US, so it’d be hard to choose between ending gun violence and guaranteeing healthcare for all. It’s commonly reported that medical bills are the No. 1 cause of bankruptcies here.
When she was growing up, she snubbed anything traditionally feminine or marketed towards women. “To be cool, you needed to like the things that tended to be preferred by men and boys – those are the cool things, those are the smart things, and anything that’s being made specifically for girls and women: not cool.”
It took her many years to become the romance evangelist she is now. “I grew up thinking that romance as a genre was embarrassing,” she says.
“If you saw women reading it, it was like: ‘oh what a sad, lonely woman, she must be unhappy in her life’. For some reason, the criticism of that isn’t like, what’s going on in her life, that she’s looking for something better, the criticism is she’s sad and lonely, for prioritising this piece of her.”
And when she studied creative writing, she was taught that the best kind of writing was “devoid of emotion”.
“It all had to have subtext, and if there’s sex in that kind of story, the sex is kind of depressing and gross or meaningless. Why do we think that stories can only matter, or only be valuable art, if they’re just sort of … detached from emotion? I don’t really understand that.”
She’s happy to claim the romance space, even if she feels that much of it comes down to marketing. Genre, she says, is something of a “necessary evil”.
“If you look at something like [Sally Rooney’s] Normal People, it’s usually classified as ‘literary fiction’, and that is such a flimsy genre – all I know for sure [from that] is that the writing is good.”
And Rooney’s novel is, surely, a romance – just a miserable one?
“Right? It’s just an angsty love story. I love that book, so that’s not an insult to that book, but I think … the genres just don’t matter much – it’s just marketing, and if you’re marketing a love story that doesn’t have that guaranteed happy ending, it won’t be marketed as a romance.”
However, there has been a major shift in the cover design of romance novels. Once easy to spot by their cheesy imagery, or long-haired Italian model Fabio, who featured on hundreds of covers in the 1980s and ’90s, his bare, oiled pecs prominently displayed, contemporary romance books such as Henry’s now come with bright illustrations and uniform, clean typefaces. They don’t look like traditional romance novels, but at their core, they still deliver the same message.
Henry thinks her fans – of which there are many, and many very devoted ones – have embraced her love stories because the world is so uncertain; happily-ever-after stories are a reminder of hope.
“I think that’s a part of what’s missing in a lot of the movies that are coming out – that vulnerability. If you look back on something like You’ve Got Mail, it’s such a tender movie and it’s so … earnest, in a way. And it’s not cynical, but it’s clearly coming from a realist.
“It’s happy-sad. It’s like, life isn’t perfect. That vulnerability and the willingness to go on the emotional ride is something that Gen Z has embraced.”
Hardcore fans already know this, but Henry might have kick-started a new wave of romcom movies herself – her first three novels are all being adapted into feature films. Even before this was announced, her fans, many of whom post videos showing their well-read Henry books, were “fancasting” her stories: sharing who they thought might play her characters in movie adaptations on Instagram and BookTok.
“I am so excited,” Henry says of the films. She has “some involvement” (no, she won’t have a say in casting) on each of the projects, but she’s “one of many voices”, happy to hand her stories over.
“I think what Gen Z has been connecting with is that Nora Ephron style: a realist trying to find hope in a broken world,” she says. “That makes complete sense with the world they’re inheriting.”
Emily Henry’s Happy Place (Penguin) is out now.
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