Lockdown does strange things to the brain. As many of us enter week oh-dear-lord-who-even-knows-anymore of pandemic panic, we find ourselves looking for ways to remain busy, focused, and entertained enough to drive away the smothering boredom and anxieties of our precarious situation. I myself have turned to crafting and reading, with the former including attempts at wicker wreath twisting and embroidery. My hope is to one day form my own Midsommar-style commune in my flat once I figure out how to crochet a bear skin suit.
Some of us have more energy than others, and I do think it’s worth reminding everyone that it’s okay if they choose this period of lockdown to do little to nothing. Don’t force your stress-addled brain to do things it’s not ready for. I promise you that nobody will judge you for not becoming a culinary genius during these past few weeks. Despite the sudden rise of smarmy pro-hustle ‘motivations’ across the internet, I swear to you all that it truly is okay if you have no drive or desire to turn these many hours at home into your next business venture. Shakespeare may have written King Lear while in quarantine but he didn’t have to spend hours on Twitter making sure our world leaders weren’t trying to start a death cult.
Of course, some of our more enterprising friends have decided to jump on this crisis and turn it into an opportunity. A crisatunity, if you will (thanks, Homer Simpson.) Nobody knows this better in non-evil ways than our dear comrades in the world of romance novels. Yes, that’s right, romance! The oft-maligned corner of literature dominated almost exclusively by and for women, most estimates show the genre to be a billion-dollar-a-year enterprise, and fans know all-too-well how those silly lady sex books helped to popularize both the proliferation of e-readers and the legitimacy of self-publishing in the 21st century. As someone who finds a lot of comfort in reading right now, I can testify as to the importance and healing force of romance during dark times (well, romance and lots of fan-ficcy re-tellings of The Phantom of the Opera because I am a truly predictable woman.)
It took no time at all for romance authors to get to work during lockdown and use this all-consuming and wholly unique situation not only as creative inspiration but as a brilliant branding strategy. Take a gander over on Amazon with the search term ‘quarantine romance’ and you’ll soon be bombarded by an array of very recently released titles to scratch that itch. Think Quarantined with the Billionaire, Quarantined With My Best Friend’s Brother, Quarantined With My Professor, Bend Over, Baby — Dominating My Husband For the First Time: Quarantined With A Cuckold, Quarantined With The Celebrity Who Bought Me, Quarantined in the Office, Quarantined With the Lumberjack, and many more. Searching ‘lockdown romance’ provides another host of titles. Yes, my friends, this is a market that is booming.
If you searched Amazon and saw titles like this before the pandemic, you probably wouldn’t be surprised by the results. The current situation may be a good way to tap into current anxieties but the trope of being stuck alone with the object of your desires is a beloved and well-worn scenario in romance literature. There are so many creative possibilities to exploit with such a simple set-up: What happens when you’re forced, against your will, to spend time up close and personal with the one who gets you all hot and bothered? I’ve read tons of tales like that and greatly enjoyed the results. As you can tell by those very straightforward titles, these authors have no qualms about putting the central hook front and center. They know what you’re here for. Many of these books are also pretty short, more novellas than anything else, but that only further emphasizes the primal force at the heart of this desire. Basically, we want them to get to the hot lockdown sex already.
Romance can provide us with a much-needed escape, and that’s certainly something I can relate to right now as a person with anxiety who lives alone and finds solace in reading. The best romances can also offer a glimpse into our own world and shine a light on or subvert aspects of it that we think about every day. Great historical romances look back at our understanding of history and fill in the gaps left untouched by our straight white male documentation of the past. Sci-fi and fantasy romances create worlds that offer brighter futures or examine the cruelties of the past and present. Moreover, romance is a safe space to understand fears, desires, and that which a patriarchal world has no interest or active disdain for. It’s no wonder that many romance readers see the lockdown/quarantine romance as a way to get through these dark times with some comfort and passion.
This strategy is not without risk or criticism. This is a pandemic that has killed thousands of people, after all. It’s destroying lives and leaving millions of us at risk of social, economic, and personal ruin. The coronavirus will leave behind years, possibly decades is damage that some people will never recover from, and that doesn’t even get into issues like the pervasive anti-Asian racism encouraged by the Trump administration, the active spreading of conspiracies, the mass graves of victims, or the fact that the American President seems happy to let countless individuals die. Releasing a lockdown romance in the middle of this may be good business for some and it may be appealing to others but it’s hard to escape the feeling that this is all too f**king soon. Maybe, just maybe, this is something that shouldn’t immediately be commodified. This is a literal life-or-death situation for so many of us and dropping a sexy lockdown story in the midst of this period of intense precarity can’t help but feel a bit tacky, at best. At worst, it seems downright exploitative.
These feelings of discomfort that been made all the stronger by the knowledge that we all know how many of these stories we’ll end up seeing once this pandemic is over. There’s no way we won’t see shelves stacked full of books on life during lockdown from some big-name authors across genres this time next year. Studios and networks will scramble to put together their own efforts for our consumption. Someone, somewhere, is figuring out how to make this crisis into Oscar bait. What are the odds that the lion’s share of these stories will be told through the white Western gaze? Who gets the privilege of having one of the most devastating events of the 21st century so far turned into the backdrop for their happy-ever-after? Capitalism’s smothering grasp will retain its power once this is all over and the rest of us are left with the clean-up. Perhaps that doesn’t warrant a rose-tinted or comforting perspective.