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Aren’t We Ready to Bring Back the Exotic Setting?

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Earlier I sat here at desk, looking out to a window, thinking that it was great the vast expanse of the world is out there with its rich and varied cultures and peoples. If I had the money and the time again, I would travel for as long as possible to enjoy the sights-‘some may be memorable and some upsetting-‘and to gain insights-‘deep and shallow-‘from the surroundings and the encounters with strangers. I think many of us were born for such an existance.

Adventuring is part of my family’s lifestyle; almost a way of life. I left home at sixteen because it was expected of me. All my relatives, at least once in their lives, have travelled abroad and some lived there for months and even years. They have returned home when they have felt ready to hang up their travelling bags.   Some of us remain transplanted. I haven’t yet to return home because I feel like I still have much of my journey left.

As it stands, I don’t have the money or, more importantly, time or opportunity.   I’m deskbound these days. For times like this, the best means of travelling is a book. This is why I read every day. Unfortunately, it’s hard to find a contemporary or historical romance novel with an "exotic" setting these days. If there was one, it isn’t usually stated in a book blurb. I usually find them through the word of mouth.

I don’t understand why the romance genre nowadays is so  restrictive with its range of settings. A book is a window to the world, isn’t it? Why offer just a handful of familiar (and overused) countries? Whenever there is a romance conference, there would be a panel of editors that peddles the same old statement: romance novels with exotic settings don’t sell. I do realise the cause of apathy lies with readers, but I want to know why.

Do we prefer to read stories with familiar settings because it’s easier to imagine and therefore doesn’t   interfere with the storytelling? If we were to do word association with 1820s London, a woman in an Empress dress and a chap with a funny-looking hairdo, speaking Heyerseque dialogue springs forth. 1820s Shanghai? What comes to your mind?

When readers mention Europe, what they really mean is Europe that consists just England, Scotland, France, Ireland (Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland) and Italy.The Harlequin Presents’ categories overcome some of these self imposed and silent geographical restrictions. The settings in HPs include Spain, Portugal, Australia and New Zealand and, of course, the popular Sheik settings. For the most part, the rest of Europe, Eastern Europe and the Netherlands are  frequently ignored. The rest of the world doesn’t seem to exist for romantic fiction.

What strikes me interesting is that romance novels of yesteryear – historical and contemporary – were much more international. It wasn’t unusual to find a contemporary romance set in South Africa, a Medieval-era romance in Germany, or a 19th century historical romance somewhere in Russia. Many historical romances were set during the Gold Rush in the US; some in South America, and on the seas somewhere in the world.

Where did these go? Why aren’t readers interested in them now? Does it mean readers of yesteryear were more adventurous than we readers are nowadays? I’m thinking, yes and no. Paranormal romances, SF romances, futuristic romances and urban fantasy romance novels are quite popular. Aren’t these exotic? Why, if these are welcomed with open arms, aren’t contemporary or historical romances with exotic settings popular as well?

I used to believe long-time romance readers felt they overdosed on those exotic settings and so they opted for something familiar, but it’s been more than ten years. And there’s a new generation of romance readers, too.

Could it be that knowing too much makes it hard to hold the suspension of belief? If this is true, how could anyone enjoy reading English historical romance? 19th century England wasn’t pretty. The most exotic setting some seem to be willing to accept in historical romance novels nowadays is India. No one seems to care about the socio-political implications of using British characters as part of a romance sets in India although Meredith Duran’s The Duke of Shadows touches on those issues briefly.

No one blinked twice when an author made Australia a penal colony once again in a futuristic romance. No one said a thing about a contemporary romance in which the author completely ignored the existence of South Americans to focus on an American couple on a run somewhere in South America. If these readers didn’t care, why restricts the world in the romance genre to a selected few? If readers and authors could be selective with how a country or time was portrayed, why not for the rest of the world?

At least, if there were more choices, I could afford to ignore historical romances with Indian settings (because I don’t feel comfortable with the idea of romanticising the British Raj) and some readers would enjoy those. A bit of something for everyone, so to speak. And with epublishing becoming a commonplace, why not?

Surely it’s time to bring back exotic settings? If now is not the time, then when is the right time?


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