What’s Wrong with Mama?
A couple of weeks ago the Brookings Register ran an article titled “Not your mother’s romance novel.” The article spoke to two women who have recently become interested in romances. Two women who had not read older romances, but had formed negative opinions regarding those older romances:
Gill said she believes the romance genre of years ago earned its reputation, though she hasn’t read many of the older books. They seemed to feature weak heroines and dominant heroes.
Entangled Pub* announced on October 24, 2011, that it was launching Lori Wildes’ Present:
What sets Lori Wilde Presents: Indulgence apart, however, are the fresh and hip voices. “These aren’t your mother’s category romances,” says Lori Wilde. “They’re quick paced, exciting contemporary stories, whether funny, sexy, mysterious, edgy, or emotional, that showcase what it’s really like to fall in love in the twenty-first century.”
Allie Boniface writes:
In the late 1970s and early 1980s, publishing houses like Avon, Harlequin, and Mills and Boon were the kings of the industry. They released books with titles like A Pirate’s Love, Kept Woman, and Rebel Vixen. These stories, mostly historical romances, were pretty formulaic.
There is an implied insult that the mother’s romances were some how terrible. It’s true that the 70s, 80s, and some of the 90s, book covers show a nearly naked woman with a long haired man looming over her. Who can forget these iconic Johanna Lindsey books with the heroine placed at the foot of the hero, like a supplicant. These days, we just get the nearly naked woman. It is also true that there were rapetastic books publishing in the early period of mass market romances and probably a greater number of them that are generally published today (although it seems like we will never completely escape them).
Laura Vivanco writes in her scholarly analysis of Harlequin Mills & Boon books that “every romance novel thus combines elements of the old, the new, the borrowed, and the blue.” Vivanco, Laura. For Love and Money. Penrith: Humanities-Ebooks LLP. 2012, p. 21) This was true in 1981 and it is true in 2011. The way in which authors have mixed those elements are due, in part, to the author’s own sensibility as well as the time period in which they lived.
Books published in the 80s and 90s were rich in diversity of characters and tropes. I think of the late 80s to mid 90s as one of the golden periods of romance. Harlequin Temptation was one of my favorite lines and it featured heroines that were business owners, professors, lawyers. They were women with agency.
However, I don’t know many long term readers who don’t have a love for books published in the 80s. From category books to full length historicals there were women who were strong. Take the wretchedly politically incorrect Savage Thunder (p. 1989) featuring the native American hero who falls in love with a wealthy (virgin) widow traveling around the West looking for fun, adventure and a good roll in the hay. Lady’s Choice (p. 1989) featured a nearly six foot redhead who owned her own tea house and had plans to build a tea empire. Teller of Tales (p. 1993) had a cross dressing heroine who had adopted a mannish persona and the man who loved her and was willing to flaunt his supposed sodomy to all of society. A London Season (p. 1981) had a strong, young woman whose strength of will determined not only her course, but that of a young stablehand and all those around her. Blaze (p. 1986) isn’t my favorite Susan Johnson but she wrote about the Absarokee clan in a way I’ve rarely seen others do since. Proud, wealthy, powerful.
While it’s an easy slogan, it suggests that whatever was old was bad and our mother’s had bad taste. In many cases, the readers are the mothers. I doubt I am the only one on this blog that could have a child old enough to be reading these books.
I started reading romance the middle 1980s which is over twenty years ago. I have fond memories of books I read in my early years and many of them included the same themes and tropes and archetypes that I read today. One author I find fascinating is Charlotte Lamb. I’ve read about 60 of her books. I think that her bibliography would make an interesting academic study. Lamb published from 1973 through 2001. She clearly struggles with the male and female dynamic in her books wavering between the all too forgiving wife in The Marriage War (p. 1997) to the dedicated film director heroine (and sister of the heroine in the former book) in the sequel Hot Surrender (p. 1999). There is the unforgettable Vampire Lover (p 1995) wherein the heroine ties up the hero, uses him, and then leaves him unsatisfied.
There’s no question that romance as a genre has evolved and changed. I think the growing interest by readers in other genres has led to greater cross genre hybridization and more fully developed fantasy worlds that are focused on romantic development of its leads. There are fewer secretaries and more female business owners, although not enough. In fact, you could argue that the limited way in which the genre has changed in terms of writing females with agency is more of a criticism of the current state of the genre rather than a derision of the old school romance books.
Romances were not one monolithic genre where every book written was in lock step with its sister publication. Books that predate the current release list aren’t automatically filled with rape and oppression. By using the saying “not your mother’s romances”, the person insults both the mother and any one that enjoyed a book that the undefined mother may have liked. The slogan is old and should be retired unlike the books of the 80s and 90s, some of which are classics that will endure.
I’d love to hear your old favorites. I’d like to compile a “Must Read” list of books from the 80s and 90s. Please include a snippet about the book you recommend so I can put it in the list. Long live my mama’s romance books.
*Weirdly on November 14, 2011, Entangled introduced a new editor who wanted “bodice rippers.”