Genre Juggernaut: Measuring “Romance”

From Public Books:

Late this past summer, The Ripped Bodice, a dedicated romance bookstore in Culver City, Los Angeles, opened its Brooklyn location, and fans of the genre swarmed in as if for a Taylor Swift concert. Braving 90-degree heat in Park Slope, a diverse mix of mostly millennial readers formed a line all the way down to the corner just to get into the shop. When preparations began for a book signing by bestselling nonbinary romance author Casey McQuiston, readers bearing copies of McQuiston’s books created an even longer line, reaching halfway around the block an hour before the author arrived.

The immense interest in romance fiction and the diversity of authors and readers driving its current success have become increasingly apparent. As Melanie Walsh discussed in this series last year, the publishing industry keeps much of the most important and revealing data about which books people are reading “purposefully locked away, … basically inaccessible to anyone beyond the industry.”

But while the producers of books like to guard their secrets, readers are often willing to share. At the University of Pennsylvania’s Price Lab for Digital Humanitites—where our team studies contemporary tastes and habits of reading—we’ve been using the Goodreads social book-collection site to access data about books and reading from this more open side of the field. Among other things, the reception-side approach lets us classify books the way readers do themselves, rather than simply accepting the genre labels assigned by publishers or librarians. We’ve studied thousands of avid readers and the hundreds of thousands of books in their collections. And what we’ve learned is that romance is not just one literary genre among others.

Instead, romance is the juggernaut of contemporary literature, standing out from all other genres in its sheer scale and in the wild diversity of its subgenres. Scholars and teachers have long dismissed the genre as a narrow, hypernormative form of fiction catering to happiness addicts. But, in the world of the genre’s actual readers, romance is a vital part of the literary system: large, complex, and dynamic.

. . . .

Why look to Goodreads for this kind of information? It is an ancient site, at least by social media standards. And, since its acquisition by Amazon a decade ago, Goodreads has managed to alienate even some loyal users with its cluttered format, creaky site architecture, obtrusive parent company advertising, and persistent vulnerability to bad actors abusing the review system to advance their own careers or trash the careers of others. Even so, its membership has kept growing, recently surpassing 100 million. It remains the world’s richest repository of self-reported information on reading: what people read month by month and year by year; how their tastes become broader or narrower over time; and how they respond as readers to new trends in publishing or to broader social and political developments like Black Lives Matter and the COVID-19 pandemic.

A defining feature of Goodreads is that it lets users organize their books into whatever groups, or “shelves,” they like. Their collective shelving preferences often differ significantly from industry labels. Our team gathered the user-generated shelving data for some 600,000 books, corresponding to the libraries of 3,200 highly active Goodreads users.

What jumps out immediately from this data is the enormous scale of romance. Users file books on their romance shelf nearly as often as they do on the shelf for fiction itself (and far more often than on that for nonfiction).

Table 1: The top six genre shelves on Goodreads, based on user-generated shelf data for 600,000 books.

These numbers count books as, say, fantasy, even if they only land on the fantasy shelves of a few readers who use the shelf feature in Goodreads. To focus on the books that readers associate most closely with a genre, we set a rule only to count books when that genre claims at least 10 percent of their top 10 shelf assignments. That may sound like a low bar, but it actually rules out all but the most strongly genre-related books. In the romance category, for example, Ian McEwan’s sweeping metafictional love story Atonement is excluded, since its romance shelving score is only 9%. Pride and Prejudice, the most canonical of all marriage-plot novels, achieves only 14% romance shelving. Even the purest or least hybrid romances one can think of—books like Emily Henry’s Beach Read or Jasmine Guillory’s The Wedding Date—are only shelved as about 50 percent romance.

Classifying all the books into genres based on this 10 percent rule, we still found that the romance category contains far more books than other leading genres: twice as many as fantasy, and three times as many as mystery. Nothing else comes close.

Table 2: The top six shelves on Goodreads, using the 10 percent filter described above.

Romance is not only the largest genre category but, according to our analysis, the most distinct and well-defined. We constructed a network based on the top 10 genre-shelf assignments of all our books, including everything from Australia and college to gothicroad trip, and football. We then ran a community-detection analysis, which helps us find shelves that tend to cluster together: for instance, college and football connect to each other more often than they connect to Australia. We used a computational tool called Louvain detection to look at all of these connections and cross-shelvings, studying each closely to see what sorts of shelves comprise the detected groups.

Link to the rest at Public Books

6 thoughts on “Genre Juggernaut: Measuring “Romance””

  1. It’s always fascinating when so-called experts in academia discover something in popular culture that every other (female) adult already knows about. How many generations ago did this imbalance appear? (at least 4).

    And… Oh, look! Men like adventure stories and divide them into sub-genres. Who knew?

    At least it’s a well-balanced (gender) popular culture scorn: two huge areas they were apparently blind to. And yet, they feel free to lament the lack of sufficient inclusion and diversity (cuz they’re Experts ™). The confession of ignorance combined with the dismay about how it should be is classic.

      • Though I have major critical thoughts on the author(s)-as-writers/plotters, still I do confess I have read them all.

        I’ve seen the movies you point to, and I do applaud that particular actor as a good choice for Reacher who is, after all, a hard character to portray physically: lots of brawn, gusto, and good cheer, without being “good-looking” in a conventional sense. Men like that can work as romantic leads, but better in books than movies. Movies rely too much on visuals (conventional good looks), where in real life a man like that will impress by sheer physical presence, something visceral that books are better at portraying than movies.

        • Taylor Swift seems to be heading that way.;)

          But I beg to differ on the “conventional good looking guy” in Hollywood: Humphrey Bogart in CASABLANCA? SABRINA?
          John Wayne?
          Spencer Tracy?
          Hollywood has long been about “presence” and only since the 60’s have they relied on pretty boys and not always. Schwarzeneger, Willis, Johnson, Cena… Action stars avoid pretty boys for the most part and go for older guys. A bit too much, lately, if anything.

          Even romcoms haven’t gone too pretty boy: neither Hanks nor Cusack were conventionally good looking in their heyday. And the genre isn’t too abundant on video these days.

          Now, the Chris’es, yeah. But like Cruise and Damon they are aging out of the pretty boy phase. Evans and Reynolds even go with lumberjack beards in public most of the time and most of the HALLMARK romcom guys run with the unshaven mini beards. Maybe in reaction metrosexual himbo fiasco.

          Regardless of the activists, sexual dimorphism sells.

          The female side, though…
          Not much to look for there.
          (Or pop music.Whole different screed there.)

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