Fiction both reflects contemporary mores and pushes the envelope. It makes for an interesting dichotomy of self-contradiction and conflict. Part of that relational aspect of fiction incorporates building stories relevant to contemporary headlines.
Without getting into my personal opinions regarding the world’s response to COVID-19, I am already seeing book promotions in social media news feeds for pandemic-inspired novels. We’ve always had such novels. Science fiction romance commonly uses the trope of a lethal virus killing off most or all of a population’s females thus forcing the remaining males to either: 1) acquire biologically compatible females of other species/races to repopulate their numbers and/or 2) shift to polyandry. The latter caters especially to “reverse harem” romances.
Even more recently, we have riots and protests that drown concern over the pandemic. Again and without getting into my personal opinions, I will not be surprised to see novels inspired by racial injustice, revolution, civil unrest, etc. pop up in my in my news feed in the coming months. In the USA, novelists have incorporated such themes into their work since the American Revolution and the Civil War. Follow the hyperlink for the Schoolhouse Rock version of that bit of history.
The contemporary social behavior most often reflected in today’s romance is the one night stand, with and without the consequence of a “secret” baby. Many book blurbs entice readers with words like “after a night of passion.” Heroes are usually promiscuous and heroines match their bed-hopping ways. Centuries of cultural prudery revolt against the pervasive reliance upon casual sex, with or without consequences. Western civilization hasn’t been so lax in its standards for self-respect since the Roman Empire fell. Even then, casual intimacy for women was reserved for merry widows, neglected wives, and prostitutes. Men have always enjoyed a more permissive standard of behavior.
Past fiction, including fairy tales, featured young, virginal innocents, girls barely into womanhood who conformed to societal expectations and maintained their goodness and purity for the ultimate reward of a wealthy husband. Except for the “purity” part, romance hasn’t changed much and neither have our expectations. Social expectation conferred the handsome prince or wealthy nobleman upon the virtuous young woman as the ultimate reward or prize. Uphold the virtues society says are ideal and be rewarded with what society says is ideal. That reward is usually a powerful, wealthy husband.
In the modern age with democratic societies, landing a nobleman isn’t seen as quite the coup as it once was. However, I have noticed a recent trend in historical and Regency romances that handsome, wealthy, unwed dukes populate every corner. Occasionally, we must settle for an earl. Rarely do we find a lowly baron or just a plain mister anymore. That’s just not lofty enough to serve as romantic hero material.
As a genre, romance doesn’t really change all that much. We reward our heroines–ideal portrayals commensurate with expectations of contemporary society–with the traditional prize: powerful, affluent men.
We still expect our heroines to rise above the common run of humanity in goodness, if not in chastity. Aligning with today’s headlines, I expect to see even more heroines who tend to the sick, crusade for justice, develop vaccines, engage in interracial (or interspecies) relationships, and the like. Look to see more heroes and heroines as nurses, doctors, research scientists, law enforcement officers, lawyers, etc. in the coming months. I also expect to see more heroines as victims of disease and social unrest, because “woman in jeopardy” always makes for a good romance, especially when the hero is the one who rescues her.
Basing fictional stories on contemporary headlines isn’t original; it’s a marketing ploy designed to capitalize upon whatever’s currently attracting society’s attention. Whether the story stands the test of time depends upon how well it’s written and whether the issue itself resonates beyond our short attention spans.