When classic Romance novels don’t remain relevant to readers
This past weekend I was involved in a great email discussion about the question of whether Romance fiction faced a unique challenge that other types of fiction, including other genres don’t. Namely, does Romance reflect contemporary issues and culture in a way that makes it easy to identify the genre’s most important, trendsetting books, but more difficult to find those books transcending the moment in which they were written?
Just look at some of the books that mark major moments in the development of the genre, from The Flame and the Flower and Lord of Scoundrels to It Had To Be You and Fifty Shades, there are so many landmark Romance novels that, given some time, we could sort into a pretty coherent semblance of a genre canon. Through this exercise we would see how Historical Romance evolved and changed, how traditional Regencies gave way to longer and more erotically charged historicals, how Erotic Romance emerged through the work of writers like Robin Schone, Emma Holly Joey Hill, and others (remember when Lisa Kleypas’s historicals started getting really steamy?), and how contemporaries have ebbed and flowed and split off into PNR (Feehan’s Carpathians, Laurel K. Hamilton), Romantic Suspense (Linda Howard, Nora Roberts/JD Robb), Urban Fantasy, and even New Adult. Although we may debate the respective merits of those books we remember for being “first” in some way, or game-changing in regard to subgenre or tropes, I think there are definite clusters of books that are most often identified as influential in one way or another.
But here’s my question: how re-readable are these books?
I see so many readers complain that either books don’t stand up to a years-later re-read, or that they just can’t connect to some of the “classic” early Romance novels that veteran readers regard as among the most important books in the genre. Is this a Romance issue, a commercial/genre fiction issue, or something else (like all these readers don’t know what they’re talking about)?
Lord of Scoundrels is my go-to example for what I call the problem of transcendence. I did not read the book for he first time until maybe 8 or even 10 years after it was first published in 1995. I had heard so many recommendations for this book, but when I tried to read it the first time, I DNF’d it early on. I HATED Sebastian (whiny, passive/aggressive bully) and thought Jessica deserved better. Yeah, she was a tough heroine, but by the time I read the book, tough heroines were much more the genre norm. And even though the book was technically a historical, the sexual politics felt more modern, more of the 90s, in fact, than the 19th century. And so the book felt somewhat dated to me, even though it was not ostensibly representing contemporary culture. By contrast, I can read some of the old Harlequin and Silhouette categories, like Dark of the Moon by Maura Seger, or Spring Fancy by LaVyrle Spencer, or even some of the early In Death books, and ignore the more dated elements of the book because the stories feel like they could have been written right now.
So what is that? Why do some books hold up better than others when we read them years after they were written, or re-read them years after we first enjoyed them? Is it, as a friend recently suggested to me, that we’re too close to books written within 10 or even 30 years ago to appreciate them like we do a book like Pride and Prejudice? If Dickens was writing in the 1980s, would I be unable to choke down A Tale of Two Cities because it felt too dated? Or what about Agatha Christie or Ray Bradbury? And why is it that some readers discover these books decades after they’re written and find them fresh and new and completely relevant? I see this with Lord of Scoundrels all the time and it continues to mystify me (and I have nothing against Loretta Chase’s books – I read Miss Wonderful when it was published and absolutely adored it).
But still I wonder why it is that so many Romance novels seem to be difficult to re-read, even when, objectively speaking, they have an obvious sense of importance in the genre’s development and evolution. And why isn’t this necessarily the case with, say, literary fiction. A book like Slaughterhouse Five, for example, is a book about a very specific moment in the not-too-distant-past, but it doesn’t feel dated in the same way so many older-but-not too-old Romance novels do.
I definitely think there are a lot of books-as-phenomena examples in Romance (Twilight and its various offshoots), and while those books may enjoy great popularity at a certain moment, they may or may not have enough substance to last beyond a certain limited time period. And part of me wonders whether the sexual politics in Romance can limit the relevance of certain books, because even when a book is set in another time, it’s engaging with contemporary issues in ways that readers recognize as connected to another time (or disconnected from the time in which they end up reading the book, which is basically the same thing, even if it’s not recognized as such). Or is it more personal than that? Is Romance a genre that engages readers in a more personal and emotionally driven way, and therefore it’s not so much the timeliness of a book as it is issues that individual readers find relevant? Or does it just come down to a basic difference in taste?
Are there Romance novels you have no interest in reading or re-reading, or books that haven’t held up to your expectations, even though they’re touted as classics? Do you have the same experience with other genres, or is there something about Romance that makes it more difficult for books to transcend their original moment?