Ponderings on the Golden Era: Perspectives of a Seasoned Nerd and a Nerdy Novice
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Janet: Reading through the comments on the Dear Author Golden Era poll, they seem to reflect the split in the voting between the 1990s and the 2000s. Those who chose the 1990s seem more like Historical Romance readers, while a number of those favoring the current decade have pointed to the online community and the way that has opened up awareness of many more books.
Jaili: Hm, when I think of the 1990s, I think of category romance novels – from authors such as Sandra Canfield, Anne Stuart, Judith Arnold, Marilyn Pappano, Linda Howard, Jennifer Cruise, Sharon Sala, and many more – and romantic suspense as well as speculative romance (vampire romances, futuristic romances, ghost romances and many more). Historical romances of the 1990s were different from the 2000s, too.
Janet: I’ve read Stuart, Howard, Crusie, and probably others, but most of my reading, I think, has been in historicals of the 90s. But now that I think about it, Howard is very much of the 90s, at least the books I’ve read of hers. Some Stuart books, too, like Ritual Sins. I think part of it is that there’s just a ton of books to read. I’ve only been reading Romance for about six years, and I’ve managed to get through hundreds of books in that time, and many, many of them are oldies but goodies, but my reading is of books selected for me. Consequently, I have a very positive regard for those decades as judged through some truly outstanding books, from the Laura London Regencies to LaVyrle Spencer’s inaugural Harlequin Temptation, Spring Fancy, to almost all the books of Laura Kinsale and Judith Ivory, as well as the Jennifer Crusie categories. An embarrassment of genre riches, you might say.
Conversely, my reading of books published in the past six years has been much more “of the moment.” Instead of carefully copying down a list given to me by the friend who got me reading Romance (who is herself a long-time genre reader), I got recommendations from friends and acquaintances, from reader blogs and message boards and even from browsing shelves and online bookstores/publisher sites.
Jaili: Lucky you! At the beginning of my reading career, it was pot luck. At the time there was no internet and there weren’t many romance novels available for sale in my area. I could only get my paws on whatever were available including those from Topaz, Leisure, Tapestry, Mills & Boon (Silhouette included), Onyx, and old Avon. There were no guide or anything like it.
I think I relied on book covers alone. I picked up books by Penelope Neri, Karen Robards, Jude Deveraux, Mary Spencer, Johanna Lindsey and many others this way. (Those original covers were awesome. Today’s covers haven’t a patch on those.) My purchase decisions were heavily tied to what were available and book covers and eventually, authors’ names.
Janet: How do you think the Internet has affected the genre. Not necessarily in terms of making it easier for readers to pick books, but do you think the online community has affected the books being written and published?
Jaili: I think so, yes. It’s funny because some authors – such as Susan Johnson and Bertrice Small – took historical research rather seriously, but there were quite a few authors who clearly flipped the bird at such an idea. Some readers wrote to the Letters of the Romantic Times magazine to complain about those historical errors, but authors still wrote with a form of editorial freedom. And now? Pfft. Some authors will have to have the guts to keep flipping the bird at the idea of taking historical research seriously.
Actually, there’s another thought rattling around in my clearly empty skull that I’m trying to articulate. I think there is a sense of innocence – or optimism? – in those old historical romances. It feels as if old historical romances were written for authors’ own pleasure, rather than for money and audience.
Janet: Writing for the sake of the book? Or maybe a book for the sake of the writing? Yes, I have an intuitive sense of exactly what you’re talking about, but I can’t really articulate it, either. There does, though, seem to be an awfully strong emphasis on the commercial aspects of genre fiction these days.
Jaili: I can’t tell if it was because those books were more detailed than today’s books that make it feel as if authors were writing for pleasure, or that authors today seem more business-like than authors of the yesteryear were. Perhaps the shortened length of today’s romances may have something to do with it? Detailed books mean leisurely pace, which equals to a sense of luxury or comfort, perhaps.
To be honest, I can’t articulate what I am trying to say well. Perhaps readers of this article will understand what I mean and explain somehow.
Anyroad, I think authors have more pressures than authors in those days because not only they have to work against shorter deadlines and shorter word counts, they have readers breathing down their necks as well as having to resist the temptation of going online.
Janet: I wonder how much pressure authors put on themselves and how much is put on them from editors, publishers, agents, and readers, though. And did publishers offer more freedom in earlier decades and did the lack of reader feedback in electronic forums, for example, encourage more or less diversity in the genre? It feels to me like there’s a lot of subgenre diversity, but maybe not so much diversity within those subgenres. Which is too bad if you’re a reader who doesn’t like a lot of different subgenres of Romance.
Jaili: So true. On the other hand, the internet makes it much easier for readers to express their thanks and gratitude to authors who wrote books they enjoyed. The internet also opens up the once-enigmatic world of romance publishing to readers, thanks to authors and editors’ willingness to share their knowledge. Meanwhile, readers give the feedback, supply the support when it’s needed, and a bit of cheerleading to keep some authors’ stamina up. It works both ways along with the pluses and minuses.
And the best of all, the online romance community. After ten years, I still think it’s bloody awesome to meet readers and authors from all walks of life. I sometimes wondered what it would be like if the internet was widely available back then. I think if it existed then, it would affect the genre in many ways. How so? I don’t know. It’s fun to speculate, wouldn’t you think?
Janet: Definitely! Personally, I think the Internet is slowing blowing the idea that readers are of a certain type, that they are of a certain age and like certain things. And as much as there still seems to be a collective set of values within the genre, I really think that’s going to change more as the reader community shows itself to be more diverse and more diversely engaged with the genre. And I think that’s really exciting.
As for reading books pubbed in the past six years, since I have been online, I’ve had many more reading ups and downs, although I have some powerful favorites from this decade, from Shana Abe’s The Smoke Thief to Loretta Chase’s first two Carsington books to Meljean Brook’s demon series, Sherry Thomas and Meredith Duran’s historicals, Jo Bourne’s The Spymaster’s Lady, Kresley Cole’s Immortals After Dark series, and books present and future from many authors who I think are really coming into their own (Victoria Dahl & Julie Ann Long, for example). I recently started a Jill Shalvis glom, finding the way she draws relationships to be extremely well-nuanced. Roxanne St. Claire’s new Romantic Suspense was a real winner for me. And the upcoming Jo Goodman release is one of my favorites in her multi-decade body of work. I don’t think Lisa Kleypas’s writing has ever been stronger than in her recent contemporary Travis family saga. And then there are many authors (some of whom have upcoming releases) whose books I haven’t even read yet: Carolyn Jewel, Tessa Dare, Courtney Milan, Ann Aguirre, Carrie Lofty, most of Nalini Singh’s Psi series, and many I’m forgetting at the moment (sorry!).
This doesn’t mean that I think the books published today are the same as those published previously. And maybe if I only liked meaty epic historicals I’d be pining for the 90s. But as I said in my shorter books post last week, I’m not convinced that shorter books are of lesser quality, at least not because of the lower word counts. But I wonder if that’s because I’m reading all these books within such a short period of time. Had I started as a teen or even in my 20s, would that change my opinion? Would it be different if I read all the clunkers from every decade, too? I don’t know. Maybe. It seems that the real long-time readers often have strong decade-specific preferences.
Jaili: That’s the thing; the 1990s didn’t have just meaty epic historicals. To me, this type belongs to the 1980s and the 1970s. Historical romances of the 1990s were actually shorter than those from the 1980s and 1970s.
What the 1990s had were similar to today’s historical romances, but different settings – such as Viking, various American settings (Gold Rush, the South, Alaska, Americana, Western and so on), different time periods (Tudors, Medieval, etc.) of different countries (UK, Russia, South America, Australia, etc.) – and different reader expectations.
Readers today, I think, expect characters to have similar sensibilities and values to theirs, whereas readers of the 1990s expected something between the 1980s and the 2000s. Romances of each decade generally reflect the readership’s mentality and attitudes, I think.
Janet: This is an interesting point, and I fear it’s true. In fact, if there’s one thing I wish there was more of in the genre it’s a diversity of cultural, racial, ethnic, and religious values. Religion, especially, outside of Inspy books, would be great, IMO, and I’m not all that religious, lol. But I so loved Gaffney’s To Love and To Cherish and Kinsale’s Flowers From the Storm and Samuel’s Bed of Spices that I would love to see more Romances that tackled spirituality and faith issues, especially as they relate to erotic relationships.
And, of course, as someone who has a keen interest in post-colonial issues, I’d love to see more reconsiderations of those older colonial/imperial Romances, or at least of the cultural clashes. Meredith Duran’s first book, Duke of Shadows, took on the India setting, but that part of the book felt choppy to me and it felt like there should have been more of that part of it. Loretta Chase uses Egypt as a setting, but I’d love a deeper look there, too. One of the things I loved most about Judith Ivory’s Untie My Heart was the way Stuart had experienced all of these different cultural values and had sort of cobbled together a multi-national, multicultural personality. Even though we didn’t really see beyond England in the novel, the book didn’t feel to me like a colonialist/imperialist gesture. Oh, I’d love more of that kind of thing. Also, more diversity of class/economic position. Still a big taboo, in my opinion, as is race, which, as we know, is terribly marginalized and sentimentalized in the genre, even today.
Jaili: There are so many good books from that period are forgotten today. I can reel off a long list for you to check out. I’m willing to bet that readers who voted for the 1990s have had the same experiences I had: fewer expectations and a willingness to read anything available. I remember buying two romances and when I got home, I was shocked to find one was a time travel romance and the other was a bloody Irish medieval (my least favourite time period). I knew there wouldn’t be any more available until the following month, so I forced myself to read both. Luckily, I enjoyed both.
Nowadays with the internet and its resources, I can be choosy and focus on those I think will appeal to me, which isn’t necessarily a good thing. Yes, there are many readers’ favourite lists available, which is fantastic for us who have little money and time to spare, but it also makes us less adventurous that would have us losing out on lesser known books published, including those from this decade. It may explain why some readers quickly tire of certain favourite types or premises. Who knows?
Janet: First of all, I’d love a list!!
Jaili: Heh! OK, will do. I hope readers of this article will share their lists, too.
The whole 1990s issue is interesting, because I went through and checked the dates on some of my favorite books. Susan Johnson’s Pure Sin was 1994, Forbidden in 1991. Kinsale’s The Shadow and the Star was 1991. Candice Proctor’s Whispers of Heaven, 2001. I tend to associate those books as meatier historicals, but maybe the epic historicals would be stuff like the Sky O’Malley books or The Windflower (1984) or Monson’s Rangoon (1985)?
Jaili: When I think of epic historicals, I think of Forever Amber, Skye O’Malley and Woodiwiss’s famous (and infuriating) Birmingham couple. Come to think of it, I think if these were published today, they would be classified as Women’s Fiction or Historical Fiction.
The Windflower is a different breed, though, because it broke away from the epic historical romance sub-genre, which is why it was highly acclaimed. I think The Windflower was a turning point of the historical romance sub-genre. I’m trying to remember if it was Karen Robards’s Walk After Midnight that turned the romantic suspense sub-genre round on its head. My memory isn’t that reliable, I’m afraid. I do remember it was Marilyn Pappano’s Passion and Suspicion that hooked me on romantic suspense. Oh, let’s not forget Theresa Weir’s contemporary romances. I’d better shut up before I list some more.
Janet: So here’s my question, Jaili, for someone like you who has been reading Romance for much longer than myself: do you think we sentimentalize books in the genre or different periods, or do you think that some decades are just better for Romance novels?
Jaili: Yes and no. I believe some of us – myself included – sentimentalise certain eras of the genre, but books? I don’t think so. For some, these are remembered with affection because they were part of our journey as romance readers. It doesn’t mean all could stand the test of time. Some may, but not all. This still applies to today. Take Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight, for example.
When it was released a couple years ago, it wowed quite a few romance readers, but I recently caught some of those readers saying that after rereading Twilight a couple of years later, it didn’t stand up well. However, I wouldn’t be surprised if they still regard Twilight with affection because it gave them that unforgettable moment of time.
Janet: That’s so true, and it might be why I don’t re-read a lot. I don’t want to spoil the happy memory. I’m afraid, for example, if I ever try to re-read Dara Joy’s Rejar, it’ll be all over for that book!
Jaili: Heh! I’m too scared to re-read some of old "ohmygodthisisthebestIreadinyears!’ books, such as some of Sandra Canfield’s fantastic category romances and Megan Chance’s Gilded Age historical romance, The Portrait, which features the hero as a "manic depressive".
On the other hand, some are comfort reads, such as Rene J. Garrod’s Western romantic comedy, Her Heart’s Desire (I suspect the glasses-wearing scholar hero may have something to do with my love for it), and Pamela Morsi’s Americana romances, such as Courting Miss Hattie and Runabout.
In fairness, I think some forget that each decade has its share of trends. The 1990s were crammed with Medieval & Viking romances, time travel romances, psychic heroines in romantic suspense, Western romances, Native American romances and a couple of other trends. Some of us were thoroughly sick of those, just like how some of us are sick of Regency and British-setting romances today.
But since you have quite a few old historical romances, have you read any category, contemporary and paranormal/speculative romances from that era as well?
Janet: Yes, at least to some of those. I’ve read all of the Tom and Sharon Curtis books, both as Laura London and Robin James. I’ve read some Charlotte Lamb books, all of the Crusie categories except for Glitter (is that the right title?), some old LaVyrle Spencer, oh! and a bunch of Mary Balogh categories (which I prefer to her single titles, actually). And Kathleen Gilles Seidel, Anne Stuart’s Ritual Sins, some of Susan Elizabeth Phillips’s contemps (Dream a Little Dream is my favorite, I think), Linda Howard’s After the Night, Now You See Her, Dream Man, Shades of Twilght, as well as the whole Kell Sabin series (from Midnight Rainbow to White Lies), and much more that I can’t even remember right now.
Jaili: Kathleen Gilles Seidel! Her books are fantastic. Well worth reading. Same for Sarah Bird’s The Boyfriend School, Marilyn Pappano and other authors I mentioned at the start. I think it’d be good for romance readers to have a look around in used bookshops because there are many forgotten gems waiting to be found.