I'd like to say women's empowerment made the difference in romance novels, but that has been happening since the 70s and through the 80s and 90s contemporary romantic female protagonists, unless widows, were largely virgins, and their occupations were traditional: secretaries, teachers, or nurses. Today's woman protagonist can be leading scientists, CEOs, doctors, pilots, military officers, private investigators or police investigators, truck drivers, madams; you name it.
I think one of the biggest influences was the emergence of e-books, although romance elements have always been present in other genre. One well-known male author I read back in the 90s said all novels contain a hint of romance since most stories involve at least two characters of the opposite sex. Now, it's even with the same sex. Still, the romance genre held that the romantic relationship was the predominant element. It seems many print publishers failed to notice changing reader interests, which for several years made e-books the only growing market in publishing. Cross-genre plot lines (take the genres of romance, erotica, historical, mystery, horror, western, suspense, fantasy, and science fiction, and mix two or three together in one story and you have a another genre) stories that would not be accepted by the print publishers found homes with on-line publishers, and then found audiences.
During the last decade sex scenes as well as women's occupations have changed in romance novels. In today's novels, even those not labeled erotic, most contain very explicit sex. Women, the majority of romance readers, are people who enjoy sex; although, they still seems to search for the one-and-only man, which considering divorce and breakup rates might be a mythical concept. The HEA (happy ever after) plot is also changing to include happy for now.
One new event is the emergence of the 'new adult' genre, supposedly for the out of high school to early twenties reading audience, although some male protagonists have been in the early thirty's. These stories usually contain very explicit sex scenes. I do have a problem with the 'new adult' moniker being so close to young adult, which is for preteen and early teen readers. I think uninformed purchasers could easily buy new adult for the younger crowd, which could create problems.
I'm also interested in how new sex orientations will affect future romances. We already have gay romances. Will we also have asexual, demisexual, and transgender novels? I think so. Everything changes and to stay interesting, traditional plot and genres need to reflect changes in society.
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