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Popular new literary genre mixes romance and fantasy


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

Amna Nawaz: TikTok's popular BookTok channel has been buzzing about a new genre called romantasy, and it's spawning whole sections in bookstores.

Jeffrey Brown visited the stacks and talked to author Rebecca Yarros to see what's driving this trend.

It's part of our arts and culture series, Canvas.

Woman: Ninety-second warning!

(Cheering and applause)

Jeffrey Brown : It was nearly midnight at a Los Angeles bookstore last November, and fans couldn't wait to get their hands on "Iron Flame," the hotly anticipated second novel in a series that began with the breakout bestseller "Fourth Wing."

Together, the two books have now sold more than six million copies worldwide. Author Rebecca Yarros had been writing and publishing for 10 years, but had no idea what would ensue when she turned to a story that mixes dragons and magic with romance.

Rebecca Yarros, Author, "Iron Flame": It was shocking, to say the least. My publisher was prepared. I was not. I was not prepared for any of it, not the platform growth or being recognized or seen out in public. That completely shocked me, to say the least. It's still shocking.

Woman: I rated it four stars, which is saying something considering I'm not really a fan of romance and fantasy books.

Jeffrey Brown : Now she and her books are everywhere, alongside authors like Sarah J. Maas, Jennifer Armentrout and others who create romance dramas in the midst of epic, fantastical worlds, romance and fantasy, now a full-blown subgenre with its own name, romantasy.

Rebecca Yarros: It's basically fantasy with — written in a romance vein, right? I just think it speaks in whole to women, and then it also brings men in, because men love dragons, I'm finding out.

I think it's just the market is cyclical and it was ready.

Leah Koch, Co-Owner, The Ripped Bodice: We have like all romance.

Jeffrey Brown : Leah Koch is co-owner of The Ripped Bodice.

Leah Koch: Do you find everything OK?

Jeffrey Brown : A romance-focused independent bookstore she and her sister first opened in Los Angeles in 2016 and more recently here in Brooklyn.

Leah Koch: Fantasy romance is sort of the ultimate escapism. You have both the romance element and then you have a literal different world, sometimes outer space, sometimes some sort of kingdom that's been invented.

Jeffrey Brown : Yes.

Leah Koch: We sell a lot of contemporary romance where people have to pay their taxes and have a parent dying and do all sorts of…

Jeffrey Brown : This is more likely to have, like, dragons and — yes.

Leah Koch: Exactly.

Jeffrey Brown : In fact, The Ripped Bodice is part of a small but growing network of romance-specific bookstores around the country.

How do we define romance novels?

Leah Koch: Excellent question. Basically, there's only two criteria that you need, central love story, happy ending.

Jeffrey Brown : Central love story, happy ending, musts.

Leah Koch: That's it, yes. That is one of the things that people love so much about romance novels. It's the comfort of knowing that everything is going to work out.

Jeffrey Brown : And these days, romance works out in a whole lot of ways, including contemporary, queer, erotica, fantasy, and still the traditional historical section.

It's a genre that may once have occupied a small out-of-the-way section in a big bookstore and, Koch acknowledges, had a stigma of light second-rate literature attached to it. Now, she says:

Leah Koch: I think that attitude has changed a lot throughout my lifetime, throughout even the amount of time we have been doing this. But it definitely still persists.

The thing that I have noticed is people in general, but especially younger people, are getting much better at identifying how things like misogyny, sexism, racism, homophobia are impacting the stories that they're being told. So older generations were told, this is trashy, this is silly, this is — should be read under the cover of darkness.

Well, why do you think that? Like, who's been telling you this? Like, what has led to you having this belief? Because romance is a huge genre.

Jeffrey Brown : And it's a genre with a nearly-100-year mass market publishing history studied by scholars such as Jayashree Kamble, a professor at LaGuardia Community College in queens.

One area of interest for her, how romance novels reflect their times.

Jayashree Kamble, LaGuardia Community College: I often say that mass market romance fiction and novels, they change dramatically, but not traumatically.

Jeffrey Brown : Dramatically, but not traumatically.

Jayashree Kamble: That's right, yes.


Jeffrey Brown : Meaning?

Jayashree Kamble: By which I mean, there's always movement, there's always change in what are popular themes, what kinds of couples, what kinds of understanding of sexuality, what kinds of understanding of gender presentation is sort of valued over time. So, as society changes, the genre sort of changes along with it.

But because it has this stable core, this hopeful idea that…

Jeffrey Brown : The happy ending.

Jayashree Kamble: … people can be happy together, there's no trauma with the change.

Jeffrey Brown : Yes. Yes.

The latest focus on romantasy, she says, also reflects the way the genre has come in and out of public awareness.

Jayashree Kamble: The house of romance has many rooms in it and fantasy has always been one of those rooms, at least in the American mass market.

So I think there's always these interesting moments of technological change or a bestseller suddenly starts to appear in — because there's a major P.R. push around it.

Jeffrey Brown : And now, of course, we have TikTok.

Jayashree Kamble: Now we have TikTok.

Jeffrey Brown : At The Ripped Bodice, Leah Koch has no doubt about its impact.

Leah Koch: I cannot deny the tangible financial impacts that TikTok has had on my business.

Jeffrey Brown : You feel it?

Leah Koch: Absolutely.

Jeffrey Brown : Yes.

Leah Koch: And even in a literal way. I don't mean like — I mean, people talk about a book on TikTok and then they come and they buy the book.

Jeffrey Brown : Oh, and you see the immediate response?

Leah Koch: Absolutely.

Jeffrey Brown : Yes.

Leah Koch: In a way that we didn't with Instagram and Twitter and Facebook.

Jeffrey Brown : Rebecca Yarros credits BookTok, TikTok's book community, for the popularity of her series and she loves the direct connection to readers.

Rebecca Yarros: But by doing them solid black, we could get this book into your hands by November.

BookTok is why "Fourth Wing" took off, without a doubt. I think BookTok is one of the last areas where readers are really in control of what's put out there. Publishers can't control the marketing or anything they say. It's all word of mouth on BookTok.

So, if a BookToker loves a book, they take it and they make it their own, and off it goes, and videos go viral. And it is really such word of mouth marketing that you can't get anywhere else, because it is true just love of books over there.

Jeffrey Brown : And Yarros thinks romantasy is speaking to this very specific moment in time, one she, of course, hopes will last.

Rebecca Yarros: I think you're coming out of a post-pandemic world and I think a lot of reading really shot up during the pandemic. So you have people who are coming into reading fiction that weren't there before.

And now we have all these wonderful readers that we get to — we get to give our stories to.

Jeffrey Brown : Next up, she's writing book three of the series, eagerly awaited by readers here at The Ripped Bodice and around the world.

For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jeffrey Brown in Brooklyn.

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