Accumulation or: The Problem With Too Many Dukes
At our recent m/m roundtable, Sunita and I had a bit of a discussion in the comments about the Out for You and Gay for You tropes in m/m romance. That discussion and various others around the internetz got me thinking about Problems in Romance and the nature of them.
I’ve come to the conclusion that for the most part, the issue is not so much that a particular thing exists – it is more that there exists too much of it. That is, it is more the frequency of the thing which has a cumulative effect and that then becomes the problem.
Apparently in Regency England there were 27 real life dukes. (Earls were a lot more common). (I think there must be at least one more now because William is Duke of Cambridge and I recall that title was newly created, but I stand to be corrected on that). One historical romance story which is about one duke is not in itself a problem. Arguably, 27 stories (let’s be egalitarian and say they’re all from different authors but it probably doesn’t matter) featuring one duke would also not be a problem because the representation of dukes vis a vis the rest of the population was about right. I haven’t done any empirical research but I expect that most historical romances don’t feature more than 27 dukes in any one book. So, the representation in one example of a historical romance is probably not that big a problem. That is to say, if one reader read one (or possibly up to 27) historical romance(s) featuring a duke she would probably not have a skewed version of reality (at least as it pertains to their number within the population).
But, as we all know, there are way more than 27 dukes in romance. A simple Amazon search on “duke” comes up with 29 pages of historical romances – and that is just the tip of the iceberg.
Sunita pointed out:
And I don’t think manufacturing hundreds of dukes never hurts anyone. Basically we’ve turned Georgian and Victorian England into a romance amusement park. We’ve erased the politically active working class, we’ve made Chartists and Luddites and agricultural workers into comic relief and/or people to be saved by the aristocracy. Sure, none of them are alive now, but their descendants are.
I think it is the same in Gay for You and Out for You. There are real life versions of these stories. They’re nowhere near as common as the representation of either trope in m/m romance would suggest however.
I could go further. How about the Alpha hero? Or the Billionaire? Infidelity in New Adult? The problem, it seems to me, lies not in one book, or even a handful. But at some point (and I don’t know what that point is exactly), one more romance tips over into too many and the accumulation of them as a group becomes the problem.
There is another side effect. Some may say that any Alpha is one too many but I think that the bigger issue is not so much that there are books which contain them, but that there are so many of them, they can make discoverability of other books more difficult.
The first person who ever wrote the “sassy gay friend” probably based that on a real person. I’m sure in the population, at least one exists somewhere. But a stereotype becomes a stereotype because it is copied and copied and copied. And, all of a sudden, the “sassy gay friend” is seemingly everywhere and appears to make up a large proportion of gay representation. (There is also the issue of the stereotype becoming a kind of “shortcut” and therefore being only shallowly drawn – it is almost as if authors expect readers to “import” characterisation from numerous other books to round out what is missing in the story at hand. But that is an issue for another day).
It is all well and good to say that fiction is fiction and readers are savvy enough to know what is not real – but, are we really? Or, are we always? If I read a book set in Africa – a place I’ve never been and know little about, I’m likely to suck that information up like a sponge and assume it to be true. When I read a book set in our world, my default is to assume what it says about the world is true. Unless I know it is not or unless what is incorrect is pointed out to me, I would never know.
When I saw the movie The Duchess, I was taken aback by how apparently heartless and awful the Duke of Devonshire was. I think I knew that not all dukes were romance heroes but I had to have a bit of a conversation with myself about Ralph Fiennes’ performance and what must have seeped into my consciousness from so many books about dukes who love passionately and with fidelity, dukes who would never dream of merely bending their new wife over the marriage bed (sans foreplay and afterglow) and just sticking it in to get the job done. And The Duchess was still a fictionalised version of events; I haven’t forgotten that either. Even so, Ralph’s portrayal is likely much closer to the truth than what is in most romance novels. I hadn’t realised I had taken so much of the romance genre mythology in.
And there can be an insidious effect from the problem of too many. Perhaps it is that a large portion of the LGBTQ community is under-represented or worse, absent, from the romance genre. Perhaps it is that the romantic, emotionally compelling stories about people who are out and proud are pushed aside in favour of a trope like Gay for You. Perhaps it is more subtle – maybe it is that authors/publishers believe that a historical romance without a duke won’t sell, so we don’t get the stories we might love about the Chartists and Luddites. Or those stories that do exist are hidden behind 150 dukes and so are hard to find. Perhaps an author, looking at the proliferation of dukes thinks her Chartist book won’t sell and therefore writes a book about a duke which may not be as good as the one she really wanted to write.
The discussion is difficult when it comes down to a particular book though. Because ONE book about ONE duke isn’t, in itself, wrong, is it? And why should book 254 (say) be the book that makes things problematic? Where is the tipping point? What if the very first duke book a reader reads contains fictional duke number 1543? For that reader, it is her first duke. How does the individual reader who is exposed to very little of each individual “problematic thing” fit into all of this?
And who’s to say that the 1468th book about a duke won’t be an absolute cracker which brings something new and fresh to the genre? Should a queer person whose own lived experience is “Gay for You” not be able to write a fictional book based on that experience? Should the straight person who writes an Out for You book which deals with the challenges of coming out and the risks and pitfalls that might present to a relationship be not allowed to write that? Is the woman who is married to an Alpha Carer not allowed to write an Alpha hero? Because there are already too many? Do we ban billionaires? That doesn’t seem right either.
Perhaps the challenge for a reviewer is to judge the book on its own as well as within the wider context of genre. But even that is difficult. My own experience of Motorcycle Club romance represents about .003% of my personal reading library. I know there are many, many more MC books out there but I haven’t read them. So how do I judge the wider context?
In a general sense, I think it is okay to like problematic things. But I also think that those things should be talked about and critically examined.
So, this is me, talking about a problem of accumulation. I’ve no answers, only a lot of questions and thoughts – but it’s at least the beginning of a conversation.
It’s something I’ve always found puzzling, as well: where are all the other titles? What’s wrong with a “Mr” or “Mrs”? There’s a reason there are so few titled characters in Austen (even Lady Catherine was only a Lady), and that’s because it was representative of the period. People can still be wealthy and aristocratic without them!
You’re right, though, I won’t hold it against the author. It really has become a genre unto itself. I will, however, continue to look out for (and write) fiction that is closer to that reality, and pay a bit more attention to other titles. If nothing else, that attention to accuracy and detail will at least make it stand out from the 29 pages of the rest.
Except for a few autobuy/auto-read authors I have given up on historical not so much because every hero is a duke, but because every book seems to be set in England or occasionally France. I know there are other time periods and settings being published, but I am just so tired of Regency books I no longer read historicals regularly.
So I think there is a tipping point, but one that each reader reaches in their own time and way.
As for too many dukes being historically inaccurate, though I have learned things from reading romance I do not view fictional books as true history.
I think an added wrinkle to this may be the number of romance readers AND writers who are ‘learning’ about other lives via other romance novels rather than academic or primary sources. It’s lazy research and leads to a proliferation of mistakes, but it also leads to a strange situation where the ‘truthiness’ of the literary conventions overwhelms the actual truth.
In historical fiction, I think we expect women to behave with more agency than women of the time would have. If they accept their arranged marriage or don’t push to expand their minds, we think they’re weak, rather than conforming to the standards of their day. Partly this is because we’re ascribing modern expectations to them, but partly it’s because, I think, so many historical novels feature women defying convention that we don’t really understand how horribly difficult it would have been for these women in their historical milieu.
And with modern m/m, there are tropes that are hard to fight not because of their place in reality but because of their place in, as you say, the accumulation of stories. Anal sex as the ultimate sexual practice is definitely one of them. I recently wrote a book where the couple would not, realistically, have had anal sex during their time together – one of them was a virgin and they were grabbing quickies as they travelled through the mountains with a large group of men who would seriously disapprove of their relationship – and I was aware that I would have to find somewhere for them to have anal before the end of the book or risk leaving readers, not characters, unsatisfied.
Yes, part of this is because we’ve imported ideas about PIV sex from m/f lives, but I really think a lot of it is because every OTHER m/m novel (including many of mine) uses anal sex as the ultimate sex act, and this has built up an false understanding of ‘real’ gay lives.
You can add in the endless debates about lube, with parties on both sides, mostly women, beating their chest about how either anal sex without lube is unthinkable, or anal sex that requires lube is the sign of an amateur. Warring versions of truthiness, neither side based on actual experience.
When an actual gay man enters the m/m community, he’s treated with all the wonder and awe that historical readers would have for a time traveller from their preferred historical period. But even then, these are just individual men, not sexologists who can speak authoritatively about anything but their own experiences. And, of course, in the online world, sometimes the men aren’t men. We had that silliness a few years ago with a female author who hired a male model to stand in for her at book signings, and she also took part in a panel of gay men putting the record straight about gay male sex practices for the silly women.
Well, this got a bit rambly. But I’m mostly agreeing that accumulation is a problem, and adding that the accumulation can be self-sustaining, because once the standards are set they become a version of the truth, at least as far as many readers and writers are concerned.
The plethora of romances involving dukes doesn’t bother me because, despite wanting a certain authenticity in the setting, I view historical romances as somewhat fantastical right from the outset. There’s an element of suspension of belief regardless of the time period or social background of the characters. Dukes, cattle ranchers, medieval knights, whatever–they’re just a familiar kind of shorthand for the historical genre. (Like Greek shipping magnates, Navy SEALS, bikers, and pro athletes in contemps, right?) As long as the story’s good, I don’t really care if the hero is a duke or a barrister.
BTW, I think there are about 32 dukedoms in the UK today. That includes the members of the royal family (Prince Charles has two dukedoms). I believe that the understanding is that no new ducal titles will be created except for members of the royal family. (Of course, lesser titles are handed out like party favors.)
I have a problem with cowboys and small town romances. I mean, puh-lease. I have an easier time believing in the pretend island monarchies and sheikdoms of Harlequin Presentsland than I do thinking there are really a million rich, sexy cowboy/ranch owners or hot guys living in financially thriving small towns. And yet there are gazillions of these out there and apparently someone is gobbling them up like candy. Not me. No matter how good the story sounds, I almost always pass on these because I just can’t put myself into the story without feeling sick to my stomach at the thought of being stuck there. Ever notice that the feed store owner is never hot and sexy? Well, IRL he probably has a lot more money that that sorry cowboy everybody is drooling over. I guess if I’m going to read fantasy, I’ll choose something different, because to me, this entire genre is pure fantasy and I just can’t even go there. It’s a romancelandia mythology as common as Greek billionaires and Regency dukes, IMO.
@Kim: Having grown up in Oklahoma with two uncles who own feed stores, I couldn’t agree more. LOL The most realistic cowboy/small town story I’ve ever read was by Jane Graves “Cowboy Take Me Away,” where the hero’s hopes for a stable income are hung on winning a bull riding championship.
@Susan: I agree. I really don’t care how common a hero type is. I care only about how well it is used in a particular book.
After all, every genre has its common types. Peter Wimsey was hardly the only gentleman amateur detective around any more than the Lone Ranger was the only knight errant of the West. Most of them fade from memory as soon as the book is closed, but a few remain in the memory.
At first I was kind of mentally dismissing the idea that too many dukes was a real problem since this is all fantasy but about a third of the way down the article I thought of a trope that makes me grind my teeth every time I read it: foster kids. It’s like authors don’t need to write another word and suddenly we know the entire painful, loveless backstory of our hero. It’s lazy writing and it makes me angry. It perpetuates this idea that all foster parents are heartless and in it for the money. There was one story I read recently where the mc was in foster care and he made some offhand comment about his foster parents being fine and the story moved on and I could relax my jaw and continue reading.
There are so many foster kids in books it makes me crazy. And don’t even get me started on how many orphans there are in Disney movies!
I agree that these stereotypes can subtly influence our perceptions of the real world. The repetition of the stereotype builds up over time until we forget that it isn’t the way the real world is.
Well, to be honest, I’m willing to bet that upwards of 95% of all human beings who have ever lived did not personally follow a “narrative arc” that would make for a “satisfying story.”
Most people are just that; ordinary people who live ordinary lives, filled with their moments of piercing joy, sweet warmth, quiet anguish, weary resignation, but mostly just keeping on keeping on.
Nobody wants to read the story of MY life, or the story of anyone I know (well, with a few exceptions; I *did* have a genuinely Sassy Gay Best Friend, and another friend who met a Spanish millionaire on a plane trip, who flew her out to Barcelona to take a bubble bath… but that’s a story for another time, “twas in another country, and besides, the wench is dead.”)
Anyway, my point is that real life genuine HEAs are pretty rare; we all have to die some time, after all. So if I’m reading for the fantasy of a couple who will stay beautifully and radiantly in love for all eternity after I close the book, I’m not sure why I can’t throw in a ducal title, rock-hard abs without exercising, a billion dollar company by the age of twenty-five, retractable wings, and whatever else rocks my world while I’m at it.
@Lil, @Susan, I agree. I don’t care about genre stereotype heroes as long as they are well-written. At this point I realize that there are many more fantasy dukes than actual dukedoms. What bothers me much more are racial stereotypes–the mysterious Native American, the saintly ex-slave. That drives me nuts.
Stereotypes bother me because they’re lazy writing. How many times have I seen a mention of a heroine’s red hair, and realized that I already know everything about her entire personality? I am irritated more than anything by such authors’ betrayal of craft, the one thing truly under their control.
Admittedly, racial and ethnic (and sexual orientation and body shape) stereotypes are more offensive, basically because they’re “punching down” — reinforcing the mistreatment of people who are already marginalized in our society.
But anyone who thinks that ALL of these fictional shortcuts don’t affect real people, should try dyeing her hair bright red and observe the change in the way others treat her.
And of those 27 dukes, how many of them were old men or children or married during the entire Regency period, which didn’t span all that many years? So the number who were sexy eligible bachelors is even lower than 27, I’d think. It wears on suspension of disbelief after a while, because I want to imagine that the characters of this book really existed, and so did the characters of that book, and so on, and at a certain point you just can’t anymore. And I don’t think there can be only 27 duke books, because I’m not going to read all the books. But maybe everybody doesn’t need to be a duke.
I kind of want to go through lots of Regency-era romances with Google Maps and just pinpoint exactly where all of these dukes were living in town, who were neighbors, etc. I suspect a lot would wind up living practically on top of each other.
I have been reading a lot of Regency-era romances lately and the plethora of dukes mostly gets me muddled as authors will use the same titles, especially if the titles actually existed, so I get all turned around as to who is from what book. Especially as the NAME of the duke might be different, but they’re all called by their titles (holdings? Duchies? I’m not sure. “Call me Ashbourne, everyone does.”).
I get that it is wish fulfillment, much like princes are to Disney — it’s likely one of the most powerful men at the time (questionable to the wealthiness, but grand holdings and flocks of servants are guaranteed), or Billionaires now. I don’t think wealth and power are necessary for a good romance, especially if the power imbalance isn’t addressed (in most of the ones I enjoy it is, at least for the sake of the story). But if people want princes, and dukes, and billionaire bikers, that’s fine. I have read plenty of books that did not involve a duke and I like them quite well too, and don’t just see “duke” in the title and think it will be a better book.
Kate Sherwood mentions authors learning from other authors and I think this is bang on. There was a conversation a while back (here or on Twitter) about hymens and how they’re not uh, halfway up the vaginal channel. Several people said in embarrassment that they wrote it that way because OTHER authors wrote it that way, so they assumed that was the case (it’s also not something that’s generally covered properly in sex ed, so I’m not blaming anyone). It’s just funny that something as simple as anatomy can get mucked up if people are playing broken telephone, and it’s not necessarily something you’d think to fact check once you’ve read it enough times!
For me personally, if an author is using “duke” as shorthand for “man who had a sad upbringing and wasn’t loved but is wealthy and powerful and just needs a woman to nurture him and fix him” I make a face, even though it’s a fairly common story in Romancelandia.
I think there are fads in reading that come and go, and the staying power in books tends to be in their stories and characters and less if it’s just one of the duke of the month club books. I’m on a Carla Kelly glom and her characters are captains and doctors and they’re a breath of fresh air. But I’m not going to discount a book just because there’s a duke in it… I just need more if it’s going to satisfy. Same with billionaires. I’d rather they NOT be, but if the story’s good and the characters are lovely I’ll suspend disbelief, and maybe it’s scratching a different itch for someone else.
For me the discoverability issue is key. There are a couple issues. One, there are some things that I really hate in romance that are hard to avoid (asshole heroes, magic cures). It’s much easier to avoid Dukes or vampires or gay for you, but assholes aren’t as well tagged, plus not everyone defines them the same way.
Two, sometimes I don’t know that I want to try something new, because I don’t know it exists. I didn’t know that I wanted to read historical romance set in China until I read a review of Jeannie Lin’s series.
IMO, the genre is permeated with middle/lower-class concepts of wealth, lol. Dukes, CEOs, cowboys, et al are complete fantasy versions of real life figures because to the typical middle-class and working-class American, millions in the bank means you never have to work again! ;)
I’m with you Sunita about the overall erasure of social change in the Regency/Victorian settings. It’s funny how in a lot of old traditional regencies, the socio-political upheavals hover in the background. Could the rise of the single-title, where the modes and manners of the period decreased in importance, have a hand in this change? Or, is it, as this post posits, the recycling of plots, descriptions, etc until everything is diluted into one amorphous, ahistorical shortcut?
That said, historical romance writers walk a tightrope between the demands of the genre and the demands of history. Slipping realism between the satisfying elements that attract readers to the genre can be tricky–especially if a reader comes to historical romance with preconceived notions about the past they hope to escape (the assumption that all women were downtrodden and oppressed, therefore we must write hoydens who go against the grain, drives me batty!). The only thing one can do is write–if you’re a writer–and take more chances–if you’re a reader.
“Perhaps it is that the romantic, emotionally compelling stories about people who are out and proud are pushed aside in favour of a trope like Gay for You. Perhaps it is more subtle – maybe it is that authors/publishers believe that a historical romance without a duke won’t sell, so we don’t get the stories we might love about the Chartists and Luddites. Or those stories that do exist are hidden behind 150 dukes and so are hard to find. Perhaps an author, looking at the proliferation of dukes thinks her Chartist book won’t sell and therefore writes a book about a duke which may not be as good as the one she really wanted to write.”
Readers and reviewers have an impact, as do publishers who respond to what readers and reviewers seem to prefer. I know DA has reviewed out-of-the-ordinary books, but the greater number of reviews here and at most review sites still focus on the duke stories and the gay for you and the MCs and dystopian or college NA. Do you look for the “emotionally compelling stories about people who are out and proud” and the books about non-dukes? Do other reviewers? Do you want to read those books? Or do you really prefer the gay for yous and the duke stories?
A writer pays attention to what sells, especially when personal circumstances make it necessary. Like anyone in any other career, you want to turn your skill into dollars, if you can. Even L.M. Montgomery wrote what she called “potboilers” in order to make the money that would keep her going while she wrote the stories of her heart.
If the books that are selling are the conventional stories about innocent heroines and alpha males or vampires or men on motorcycles, you’re going to see more of them. If readers really want that Luddite or that less-than-loveable heroine or that shy, non-alpha hero who makes minimum wage, is it reflected in book sales? Will you read those books and review them? Will you choose them over that tasty little duke book sitting in your ereader, waiting to be read?
I’ve written stories that were rejected by editors because “readers aren’t buying this.” You guys are the game changers. You have more power than I think you realize. Sure, we can self-publish, but that only increases the likelihood that we won’t be read or reviewed.
We understand that you’re going to read the books you’re excited to read. But if those books are gay-for-you and Dukes and teenagers finding their way in the world, it’s okay to be upfront about it and just say so. You can’t rightly bemoan the fact that there aren’t more original stories to be found if you’re just not that interested in reading them.
I simply don’t think of my dukes crossing over with Julia Quinn’s dukes or Heyer’s dukes or Elizabeth Hoyt’s dukes, etc. They each exist in a discrete universe (I have yet to actually write a duke hero, because I think given the reality of the period, they should be rare and special, even in one’s own discrete universe). But the reality is, dukes sell. They sell enough that it’s an effective key word for your book. They appeal enough that publishers cram that info into the title rather than risk it languishing in the blurb. I can certainly see how it would feel like a Jasper Fforde novel though if you think of them as all existing in the country of Regency Romancelandia though. As others have noted, this is much like picturing the colleges littered with emotionally stunted twenty-something billionaires or going to Sturgis looking for hot, dangerous bikers who are members of criminal organizations but who secretly have hearts of gold and just want to paint your toenails on a Saturday night.
@Kate Sherwood: My problem IMO isn’t that it’s historically inaccurate for women to defy the expectations of their era (many did, and those are the ones I want to read—and write!—about), it’s that books so often gloss over the actual consequences of doing so (which could be GREAT plot fodder!). So the heroine acts just like a modern woman in fancy dress (and often her motivation for doing so is lacking) and the way the people around her react doesn’t feel authentic. Sort of like LOST IN AUSTEN, where no one seems to notice Amanda’s strange clothing or hair or anything else.
@Mara Allen Co-sign, co-sign, co-sign!
I don’t mind 10³ dukes in 10³ different stories. I don’t mind 10⁶ alpha billionaires either.
What I do mind is when every blurb calls a story “refreshingly new”, and “a hero like you’ve never seen before”. There’s nothing wrong with writing within a formula that sells well, but I do hate it when the standard duke is called “refreshingly new” and the “out-of-the-model” hero (a barrister in a regency, for example) is tagged with “for all lovers of historical romance”.
Is there a term for the… unbuzzword? What Mara Allen said, the terms that publishers and authors will look at and go “No one will ever buy this”?
It would be nice to see what’s on that list, and why it is there. Maybe the problem is not that people won’t read non-English historical romance, but that the books that have been published didn’t do the research, or had an alp*ole for a hero, or had a TSTL heroine.
Raises hand to answer Mara Allen :). I do do do look for unconventional m/m and for not alpha guys in the stories,I mean I will read all kind of stories with all kinds of themes and percentage of what topics I won’t read is significantly low in comparison to what I will read. But if I have a choice what to review, I will absolutely choose the story which will go off the beaten path at least somehow. Also the more I review the more I find that percentage of the stories I request as arc decreases. I mean I always bought most of my books for my personal reading and when I started writing reviews on Amazon vast majority of what I reviewed was what I bought. When I reviewed for Wave and when I started for DA, I requested quite a few books, but now this percentage goes down very significantly. I am so mightily tired of the most blurbs I read _ because a lot of them signal to me same.tropes and same characterization. Do not want! I know what I want to read for myself and because there are so many writers I like I often able to find what interests me and share it with DA readers – by no means I am tired of the genre and do not plan to stop reading it. But yes, it is hard to find stories off the beaten path especially when I want to be a conscientious reviewer and find new good authors as well that I may like. Thanks for the great essay Kaethrin.
“maybe it is that authors/publishers believe that a historical romance without a duke won’t sell, so we don’t get the stories we might love about the Chartists and Luddites.”
Isn’t this essentially the case, as Mara Allen attests in comments? Correct me if I’m wrong, but I recall reading that one reason Courtney Milan moved into self-publishing was that it enabled her to write heroes who weren’t aristocrats. (If anyone’s ever going to write a Chartist hero or heroine, I bet it will be her.)
The only traditionally published writer of historical romances I can recall who has had non-titled heroes is Carla Kelly. I’m not sure how she got away with it, but she’s certainly not the norm.
I reviewed “Enlightened” series by Joanna Chambers – historical m/m. I never communicated with her in any capacity so of course I cannot say why decided to write it and how much she was thinking about how well it will sell. I totally understand by the way that the writer wants and needs her book to sell. I also have no idea how well it sold. My point is that she took the risk and wrote the story where one of the characters is not an aristocrat, but a lawyer who has to make a living the hard way and another guy is an aristocrat, but the things they are occupied with are not typical for so many romances. Somehow she managed to include the issues of the working class in the organic way in the story and still do romance really well imo. I guess what l am saying that if not typicAl is the kind of story the writer wants to do it is possible to write it. Can I or anybody guarantee that it will sell? Of course not, but at least you ( I am not responding to o Mara now but in general) will know that you tried. Imo of course and speaking strictly as a reader/reviewer.
One more thing and I will stop talking :). Kate Sherwood , I so agree about anal sex be the ultimate be all of all sex in m/m stories. And I just want to ask why, Note that for a straight woman like me it was not hard to find out that not all gay couples enjoy anal sex and even those who do often don’t make it the bigger deal than everything else. So yeah I totally agree that this came straight from m/f romance and I personally wish it would go away asap – not anal sex itself, but the huge deal every second mms book I read seems to make of it. I noted that it became a little better lately – in some books characters who for one reason or another cannot have anal sex yet have a talk that some couples never have it and they can deal with it if need be, but it never happens – till they have anal sex it is as if their relationship is lacking something. Sigh. I am not of course talking about the books which don’t have explicit sex scenes in the first place. But those who do I may have read one or two where characters end up not having anal sex but I honestly don’t remember on the top of my head.
Maybe a few, new romance book review sites are needed that DON’T review duke-filled books or by-the-guide-book m/m romances or the I-know-the-plot-characters-and-country by-heart historicals? From reading the last few comments on this thread, Deity knows, those hypothetical review sites are needed and would get swamped.
Like Isobel Carr, I think of different authors’ dukes as residing in separate universes. In a sense, all historical fiction takes place in an alternate universe; I’m perfectly happy to believe that in The Foundling’s universe, there’s a Duke of Sale who doesn’t exist in the universe of The Last Hellion; maybe there are 28 dukes in that Regency era, or maybe there’s a Duke of Sale instead of a Duke of St. Albans — I don’t really care. I don’t think the problem is so much one of accumulation as of the Romance-genre applicability of Sturgeon’s Law — i.e., there are vast numbers of mediocre romances out there that use tropes and stereotypes in lazy, thoughtless ways. That makes finding the good stuff harder, but I certainly wouldn’t want to foreclose a good writer from doing what she wants with dukes, alphas, and Gay for You. Heyer had a very good reason for making Gilly a duke; his extremely elevated position is an integral part of the story of The Foundling and the characterization of Gilly himself (who is not at all your stereotypical duke as portrayed in run-of-the-mill 21st-century Regencies). Courtney Milan has created a couple of dukes whose stories just wouldn’t be the same if they’d been Earls or Viscounts, let alone plain untitled gentlemen. It hasn’t prevented her from grappling with a broad range of characters and concerns. Likewise Sherry Thomas and Meredith Duran. I’d hate to see writers like that discouraged from creating ducal heroes simply because there are many more fictional dukes than actually existed in English history.
@Susan: “Of course, lesser titles are handed out like party favors.”
In my lifetime (I’m 40) I can think of ONE non-royal newly created hereditary peerage and that was given to a man late in his life who had no heirs (Willie Whitelaw). Wikipedia tells me there have been two others, Viscount Tonypandy in 1983 (who also had no heirs) and the Earl of Stockton (Harold Macmillan) in 1984.
If you’re thinking of life peerages, then yes, there are many of those, but they have a very different social function. And, since they are not inherited, the creation of new ones needs to continue in order to maintain the numbers.
There was a Duke of Cambridge during the Regency. The title was created by George III for his 7th son and reverted to the Crown in 1904 when the second Duke died without legitimate male issue. The first Duke’s daughter, Princess Mary of Cambridge, was the maternal grandmother of Edward VIII and George V (and the great-grandmother of the current Queen).
Being a history nerd, I am also annoyed by the proliferation of fictional dukes in romancelandia. I have resisted putting any dukes in my own novel. Hopefully, it will still find an audience with a mere earl for a hero.
My personal tolerance was reached in a book where the hero introduced “my friend Bob, the duke of Yada, and his brother Bill, the duke of Whosis.”
Interesting how that’s all I can remember from that book.
I agree with hapax, that readers (and maybe even more so, writers) like the IDEA of realistic heroes and story arcs more than the actual execution of that. It takes an awful lot of talent to make the ordinary interesting, after all. But even when someone does, like Megan Hart, it’s not the fantasy escape that voracious readers are looking for in their regular reading.
Every so often I get up the courage to respond to one of those “I’m so tired of the alphas, does anyone have a [teacher/stay-at-home dad/blue collar] hero recommendation” requests, I inevitably see that reader pick up the next billionaire book and love it to pieces. So…in that regard I also agree with Mara Allen.
But I’d suggest that contemporary romance actually has tons of those heroes, and they are being read and enjoyed. They’re just not high-concept enough to justify the limited headline space of a big review blog. The same would probably happen in other sub-genres, which is why professional writers aren’t going to spend a lot of time on those projects when others are more profitable.
@Ros: I could be wrong, but I thought there was an understanding of sorts that no new (non-royal) ducal titles would be bestowed, but that wouldn’t necessarily apply to other hereditary peerages. For example, making the Middletons Earl and Countess of Bucklebury (not saying it will happen, but it theoretically could).
And, yes, the lesser titles I referred to are the life peerages. I understand that they serve a different purpose, but I sometimes find the honors list “interesting.” And even more interesting when the honors are revoked (Fred the Shred). But I realize I veered a little off-topic with my initial comment, so, my apologies.
I’d be okay with reading 150 stories about different dukes, even if there are only 30 or so in real life. My problem is that the regency dukes are about as realistic as the modern Russian billionaires and frankly, you could swap them in most books and not notice the difference.
Lots of different perspectives on this – thx for chiming in everyone.
I guess the thing most on my mind when I wrote the piece is the idea of the “responsibility” of ONE book as opposed to the “responsibility” of the MANY – or at least, that was the *beginning* of it for me.
@Kate Sherwood – Like Sirius, I’d be very happy to read m/m romances which include on page sex scenes but where anal sex isn’t the holy grail. Real life gay guys don’t all have anal sex – why should our m/m romance be so restricted? I do think it’s a hangover from m/f where Penis in Vagina sex is gold standard and I’d love for more m/f where all sexual intimacy was more evenly valued.
@MaraAllen I didn’t see the piece as bemoaning the lack of certain books per se (or at least, that wasn’t the main thrust of it). I see some commenters here (and on Twitter) complaining that there’s too much of thing a or thing b and wishing for more of thing c. I’m kind of an omnivore in this discussion. I’ll still read a book with a duke in it. I’ll still read college set NA and I’ll read loads of other things as take my fancy as well.
I was particularly thinking about Gay for You – which I don’t read much of at all these days. It occured to me that there could be an absolutely wonderful Gay for You book out there, as yet unread by me, possibly not even written yet – and while I think the trope *in volume* can be fairly regarded as problematic, that wonderful Gay for You book deserves to be written and seen, I think. And I don’t want to rule it out of my future reading entirely because the trope *in large numbers* is a problem. It’s a tension I need to manage in a way that suits me – and I’m still working that out. But, for what it’s worth, most of my m/m reading is about people who are already out and proud and I do prefer richly drawn characters – but I don’t know if I represent the average m/m reader. I may well not.
“(If anyone’s ever going to write a Chartist hero or heroine, I bet it will be her.) ”
Actually, Mary Balogh wrote a Chartist heroine two decades ago in her book Longing. Well, she was not an activist, but being a worker in a Welsh coal mine she had some connections to the movement and it was a big part of the story.
(The book is going to be re-released next year, btw)
@Rachel Manija Brown: Kelly gets away with it by writing about military men a fair amount of the time. Other than that, by just being a very good writer.
@Rachel Manija Brown: I’ve read plenty of traditional regencies from the 1980s and 1990s with non-titled heroes, as well as single titles. Nancy Butler had some, Andrea Pickens had a couple, I’m pretty sure Dianne Farr had more than one, and Janet Mullany’s Dedication had quite an unusual hero (not titled, wrote romance novels). As Jane said on Twitter, many of the trad heroes and heroines were aristocrats, but I didn’t find it that hard to find and read books where they were relatively undistinguished gentry and/or were actually seen doing their jobs, whatever those might be (not spying, either).
@AMK: Longing is a very, very good social history of the time in addition to being a romance, as is Truly, which is also set in Wales.
Great post, Kaetrin. Thanks for expanding on our comment discussion in such an interesting way.
I am very tired of the aristocratic, alpha male in historicals, but I think it’s an endless cycle: sell books about dukes; duke books sell; rinse, repeat. So it’s difficult to get something different in there because that’s a gamble for the publisher, not knowing if readers will buy a merchant class hero instead – despite even people saying, I WOULD READ THAT. This is why I think self-publishing can be so great, because authors who are writing outside that small circle of aristocratic, Regency characters can get their writing out to an audience without going through traditional publishing houses and their fears of gambling on a dud book.
Not all new regencies are about Dukes or Earls. I just the other day read one on Kindle, called The Impostor Debutante, where the hero was merely the younger brother of an Earl, while the heroine had no title at all, and dubious antecedents. Being a younger brother without responsibilities was an important part of the plot.
@Sunita: Thanks for the recs!
I prefer heroes who are not enormously wealthy or titled – contemporary billionaire romances especially often have heroes who remind me way too much of real-life people whom I really dislike. My image of a billionaire isn’t someone hot, it’s Donald Trump. One reason I like military romances his that the heroes can verge on the blue-collar, and are unlikely to be independently wealthy.
Holy cow, the kindle edition of Longing is ten US dollars!!!!
@Sunita: Thx for the assist Sunita. It sparked many thoughts. :)
@Rachel Manija Brown: Another overlooked author who wrote lovely, old-fashioned (in the best way) Regencies is Sheila Simonson. When she has aristocrats they work, or at least seem to live in a world of believable responsibility. And she also has books without titled types. I think Jayne has reviewed a number of them here at DA.
Yeah, the reissue’s coming out in trade – I guess that’s why the price of the ebook is high as well.
I second the Sheila Simonson recommendation, love her books. Also Jude Morgan – I think there are some lovely non-titled protagonists in his regencies.
And of course, Lisa Kleypas has plenty od non-aristocratic heroes, although they are always rich & powerful nonetheless.
“I didn’t see the piece as bemoaning the lack of certain books per se (or at least, that wasn’t the main thrust of it”
Oh, I’m sorry. I just meant to address your questioning of why certain tropes proliferate and whether writers are investing time and energy into something that likely won’t sell. I have so much personal experience in that area. I think I was a little too condemning, though, and I apologize for it. I had in mind how DA has reviewed gay-for-you themed novels, but I know there’s a good variety of other m/m reviewed here, too.
“I don’t know if I represent the average m/m reader. I may well not.”
I think m/m romance has begun to move away from its fan fic beginnings, but most of its readership is still very enamored of the tropes that are so popular in fan fic, including gay-for-you, h/c, the over-the-top angst, etc. So even though we’re getting a wider variety of stories (and I think a growing awareness of the thin line between appropriation and respectful storytelling,) the core of longtime m/m romance readers still want those stories that give them the same emotional pay-off they got from fan fic. So I don’t expect those tropes to go away any time soon, if ever.
I don’t expect the adoration of dukes to go away, either. But I think readers are sensible enough to separate reality from the fantasy of romance. I hope.
Such an interesting discussion. I come at this from a slightly different perspective. I have advanced degrees in anthropology and history, so I find it impossible to suspend disbelief with the majority of historical romances. This does not hold true with the historical fiction I read, although much of that seems like work so it’s not very entertaining. I’ve even joked that if ‘duke’ is in the title, I’m never even going to read the blurb. I understand intellectually that I’m supposed to treat it as fantasy and not get tangled up in the convoluted way women have to be written to appeal to modern sensibilities, but I can’t stop recoiling at the absurdities. Perhaps it’s because I’ve deciphered old census records, read journals written by Civil War lieutenants, and cataloged photos of young men serving in WWII who I know never came home because I had to look up their obituaries, but the connection I find with the past is more realistic and gritty than any regency dares to be.
The more I delve into the romance genre as a whole, the more I discover I have A LOT of hard limits.
@Mara Allen: It’s a topic which has many offshoots I think. :)
As far as the difference between fantasy and reality, I’d like to think that I’m a sensible reader but as I said in the post, I still found myself a little shocked by the portrayal of the Duke of Devonshire in The Duchess. I take in a lot of things and I’m sure there are many things I accept as true/real which are, in fact, not. (eg, stuff about Scotland – histrom is rife with misinformation but I only know that from my online conversations. I would have just accepted it as truthful otherwise.)
@Kaetrin: I think that, more than “accepted as truthful” is a matter of not questioning things you don’t have a reason to question.
Yes, we are all aware that we are reading fiction, and most of us are also aware that just because it was printed it doesn’t mean is true, or even loosely based on reality. However, unless one is prone to analyzing every single word one reads, there’s a lot one absorbs without realizing it.
A lot, I think, like the way we absorb the cultural mores of the society we live in. We don’t question them as we live them, only until someone observes how incongruous they are, or something happens that makes us look at them more closely.
@Mara Allen: Good point about fanfic. A lot of times, characters were “gay for you” in those stories because they were always dating women in canon and the author needed to explain why they were suddenly dating a guy. Whereas in original fiction, you don’t need that device because the canon is whatever you want it to be, but some readers may want similar tropes because they were satisfying in the fanfic.
@Kaetrin: I just want to point out that The Duchess took a LOT of liberties with the actual history, so don’t think for a moment that you saw “the real history” there. So much so that I had a hard time getting through it. I was especially bothered by the casting. IRL, the duke was only nine years older than his wife. Fiennes is 22 years older than Knightley. And nothing in the biography the film was based on implied a cold rape. That was part of the fiction of the dramatization.
The duke, the billionaire, the MC president, the alpha werewolf, the oldest and strongest vampire are all the same character trope to me- they are supposed to be the strongest guy who will protect the heroine and who will have the resources and agency to maintain the happy ending.
In historical romance you’re dealing with a setting where lack of money or social ability translates to a life that is decidedly unromantic, so by making the hero a duke the author is setting up her story in a way that means it will never clash with the proletariat who as another commenter there have had their suffering completely erased except to either show how wonderful the heroine is as a humanitarian or provide comic relief.
Queen Lisa Kleypas is of course the ground breaking writer here, starting with Craven, then the Bow street runners and going on with Simon Hunt, and that other dude who ended up with Daisy and then by the time she got to the Hathaways GYPSIES AND GOVERNESSES. She almost went too far there because there is no way marriage to a gypsy would ever be accepted in Victorian England, but the Hathaways were already on the fringe of society. Kleypas got sick of the titles and inherited wealth and created self-made heroes in the historical genre which was pretty awesome, but her heroes still remained wealthy. It would be interesting to see a romance written with working class hero and heroine but somewhat unsustainable, how is the reader to know that after the cosy epilogue there isn’t a drought and the hero and heroine die of starvation?
I think dukes in historical romance are a way of giving us Pride and Prejudice lite … froth and bubbles of regency (which imho was a pretty boring period) without any of the risk. Romancelandia Regency London is like a fairy world populated by rakish dukes and bluestocking wallflower secret babies.
It doesn’t work for me anymore, I haven’t read it in years and years, it’s a good introduction to the genre and you can’t leave without a healthy understanding of some of the major tropes. I’ll never forget standing in the hallway of my catholic girls school age 14 with my best friend and an illicit romance novel wondering what in the hell a ‘rake’ was!
@Isobel Carr: Oh, yes, I know that the movie was fiction too – I said it in the OP. I believe Anime June had a great deconstruction of the movie vs. the biography on her blog around the time the movie was released. I think that what was true for sure was that the Duke didn’t love in the romantic sense at least, his Duchess. He had an affair and the woman he had an affair with lived with them in their house and after the Duchess went, he married the mistress and promptly got another mistress. So in that sense, he was very far from the romantic ideal we see in histrom. I expect, the movie duke was more like real dukes even though the movie duke wasn’t real either.
@azteclady: yes, that was the point I was trying to make – we absorb things from fiction/media all the time and a lot of it is not true.
Personally, I prefer normal characters and historical novels that try to be a little bit more realistic than those with your usual dukes. The closest thing to a real duke is the one that appears in ‘The Governess Affair’ by Courtney Milan, I think.
As I don’t share that fondness for the aristocracy, I tend to avoid those titles with a duke or and earl or any other noble as a heroe, unless one of them is highly recommended.
I have made a research in the Fiction Data Base and I found 470 with the word ‘duke’ in the title. 271 ‘earl’. 175 ‘baron’, 95 ‘viscount’. 80 ‘marquis’. So yes there’s indeed an hyperinflation of dukes. I guess sometime it will stop working.
But you point out something more important -the sameness of tropes and characters in different genres of romance. I think there’s a public for new things, new tropes, new countries, new characters. But how great is it? Is it the bulk of romance readers -or just a few of us that are tired of dukes?
I’d like to add that, in my opinion, neither the aristocrats nor the Royal Families are particularly exemplary or virtuous nowadays. Generally speaking, they seem to me like any other people with money or fame, interested only in their own little group. They just want to keep the statu quo even if its unfair, with many social inequalities and corruption. The only difference is that at least, a self-made man or woman has done something himself/herself to have that money or that fame. Aristocracy has done nothing but to be born in a certain family. It’s so outdated an institution that I don’t know why so many people wants them even in Romancelandia.
I’m a bit late (it’s been one of those weeks!), but I wanted to comment anyway. Kaetrin, this is such an interesting subject. The point I’m particularly interested in is when you say:
That’s exactly it. In each particular book, a certain plot point or development can be argued as being purely about those particular characters. The author is not saying that women are not suited to high-profile, competitive careers. She’s just saying that this particular heroine finds such a career exhausting and would rather trade money and prestige for more time to devote to a family. Nothing wrong with that , per se; I’ve got friends who have made decisions all along the spectrum of different work-life balances. But at some point, after book after book after book where the same choice is made, the reader begins to see a message emerge: top-level jobs are not for women. Women can’t handle the pressure. You can’t blame any particular book, it’s the accumulation.
@Rosario: Yes, it’s difficult to hold one book responsible for a problem/issue/thing but as a genre there are issues that could use some more exposition.
Which is exactly why I have so much trouble reading Victorian romances; I can’t help but see all those adorable tots in the baby epilogs dying horribly in the trenches of WWI.
Re-reading the comment thread, I wonder if it comes down to a split between those who read romance as a “comfort genre” — which pretty much by definition is going to reinforce the status quo, by privileging powerful men, heteronormative tropes, etc. — and those who read it as an “inspirational / aspirational genre” — which is more inclined to challenge the status quo?
Of course, since I fall on either side of the line depending on the time of day and the fit of my shoes, it can’t be that simple.
As far as suspension of disbelief goes I have more trouble with series. Using the Bridgerton series for example, really all 8 siblings found incredible romance and a HEA? Since they clearly all exist in the same fictional universe it is harder for me to swallow.
As far as the proliferation of billionaires in contemporaries I wonder if that has increased as there has been a greater concentration of wealth and more likelihood that many young people today will not have a higher standard of living than their parents.
Dukes sell books.:) I’ve talked to readers who will only buy a book if Duke is in the title. :)
And trying to sell anything else in the current market where historical romances aren’t being as successful as they used to be is hard work. I have a series about the clash between the old titled aristocracy and the new and emerging wealthy industrialists (and those who cross over those lines because this is me) and no one seems interested in even looking at it.
But I also feel there are also too many billionaires, biker gangs and perfect small towns and they sell really well too.
Regarding real-life dukes and dukedoms, we can categorise them like this:
Type 1: your ancestor did something really, really nice for the monarch, like lending them a lot of money or winning a battle. These are the historical dukedoms and tend to be the ones written about in romance. There were never very many of them and they often went extinct after a few generations, because aristocrats aren’t very good at having legitimate male children. Most of them are only a few hundred years old, because the older ones tended to commit treason a lot.
Type 2: your ancestor was the bastard son of the monarch. A few of these, because of Charles II, but they suffer the same kind of attrition as Type 1.
Type 3: the royal dukedoms. These are created so the (legitimate) sons and grandsons of the monarch can have a snazzy title. They often aren’t intended to be passed down to the next generation, and of course if the duke then inherits the throne they get folded back into the monarchy.
@Kim: I completely agree, and I’ve said so in reviews :-)
I do still enjoy a small town romance novel, but I regard them as fantastical as space opera romance. And young, handsome, syphilis-free Dukes who like a woman with strong opinions. And pirates with good teeth who treat a noblewoman with respect. And virgin widows. And … well, should I go on?
See, what gets to me is that the choice isn’t “fabulously wealthy and powerful duke” vs. “tenant farmer”. There’s a whole range of society in between the two levels, and avoiding the dukes and earls doesn’t have to mean facing the unpleasant reality of poverty. I’m annoyed by the proliferation of dukes to the point where I don’t bother to look at historical romances anymore, but I’d be happy with stories set in Austen’s upper gentry – rich people and very rich people (and everyone with titles gets made fun of); what I’d really like to see, though, is the shopkeeping class. Affluent enough to avoid starvation, but middle class enough to be more aware of the world, the running of the house, the servants’ lives, etc.