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?
I don’t think its unique to romance.
Have you ever tried to read LotR? Its THE classic fantasy novel, but as the years go on, I think there are less and less new fantasy fans who can actually slog their way through it. (I love it, but Tolkien was a far greater innovator than an author.)
The golden ages of both SF and comics are full of the unreadable, the downright silly*, and the cringe inducing. And later groundbreaking moments in both don’t always hold up well in retrospect.
*Golden age Flash got his powers from exposure to hard water. One water softening system, and he would have stayed a regular Joe.
Could it be how we romance writers craft our stories? Engaging emotion is job one for romance writers. To do that, we try to put as few barriers between the reader and the point of view character as possible. That means the reader basically becomes that character. There’s little distance.
So when people change (as they do constantly – I’ve been published for five years and during that time, our thinking has evolved – Look at the everyone as celebrity phenom. That has SIGNIFICANTLY altered the way we think), readers find it more challenging to become a heroine from an older story.
I no longer try to make my stories timeless. I accept that, in five years, perhaps even in one year, my contemporary romances and perhaps my SciFi romances will be dated. I still write the best stories I can but I don’t worry about issues like ‘will readers be texting a year from now?’ or ‘will this brand name still exist?’
I don’t see romance being any different than any other genre. I’ve read a bunch of mysteries and some hold up better than others. Many of the ideas especially dealing with forensic technology are dated. The ideas of these stories are still relevant and strong but they may not be as pleasant to read now with the evolution of technology if that makes sense. That’s just one aspect. Many of the mysteries from the past era have a lot of -isms (racism, sexism, etc) that make them hard to read now. So, no, I don’t think classic romance novels not being relevant now has anything at all to do with romance but more or less to do with the change in times/attitudes. With that said, some works are timeless but those are the rare ones.
For me, I think reading any type of book is an evolution. Some of the Kathleen Woodiwiss books still are dear to my heart because that was where I discovered romance. Even though people hate (!) Fifty Shades, it was a gateway for me. For that reason alone I feel I will always re-read parts of it even when it feels dated. Today I would never pick up “The Flame and the Flower” off the shelf but because it was part of my history I feel fondly about it (negatives and all).
I think it comes down to evolving as a reader. The books we read ten years were read then because they were (1) available (2) appealing to us. Now the book is no longer appealing to our newer reading styles. I used to read only mystery. Now I read mostly romance. The mysteries are still regarded fondly but I’ve moved on in my habits.
I sort of think of it as children’s books. We all read some of those when we were kids but if you read them now, they don’t hold nearly the appeal they used to. The language is simplistic and the magic isn’t there anymore. Now it is just a comfortable book read for nostalgia. How many people do you think are wondering about the re-readability of “Go Dog Go” or “Nancy Drew and the Hidden Staircase”? We’ve moved on. That just leaves some of these books out there for the next generation or for the stories to be retold later. Instead of seeking out “The Flame and the Flower” new generations might seek out modern day forced marriage books. The stories are timeless. The writing and makings of the book are not always.
@Keishon: It’s funny, Keishon, because in the original conversation that gave rise to this post, mystery was offered up as a genre where the classic books stand up much better to time. Maybe depends on what people are reading?
@Robin/Janet: Interesting. Which classics? I do believe it all depends on what you’re reading.
I have two points. Things don’t have to last a long time to have value; a sandcastle, a butterfly are both beautiful and valuable.
Even if we no longer like older novels, they served as a springboard for our current novels. I like the quote (Sir Issac Newton – from 11th century monk John of Salisbury) “If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.”
I think we’re too quick to call things classics. There are certain books that everyone has read — it doesn’t mean they are good or will stand the test of time. Literary classics have generally lasted a good hundred years. How much literary fiction will? Is anyone going to read Franzen in 100 years? Was Jane Austen appreciated above Fanny Burney when she was writing?
All fiction has its time. I’ve been wondering when To Kill a Mockingbird will be retired. It’s a story that celebrated Atticus’s tolerance of murderous racism in his hometown. It says you can be a good man at heart, even if you happen to be leading a lynch mob at the moment. At some point, we will point to it and be as horrified as we are by Petunia, Be Keerful, with its depiction of a cute, but dimwitted pickaninny caricature.
Real classics are the ones we’re still reading long after the culture they commented on is gone.
Oh, and what can I no longer read? Gone with the Wind. How I loved that book! I first read it at age 11 and reread and reread it. I longed to be Scarlett O’Hara.
Now I wonder how I ever managed to stomach the casual racism.
I agree that this can be a problem in all genres, but I notice it the most in romance because that’s pretty much all I read these days. I also find that over the years, as my life experiences change and perspectives mature/change, my ability to enjoy/tolerate certain novels from ten or twenty years ago also changes. For example, I read all those 80’s “no means yes” and forced sex-turns-to-love books and hardly blinked. I was a teen and it just didn’t occur to me that that was problematic in a so called romance. When I first looked at Lord of Scoundrels, I also couldn’t understand how anyone could base a romance on this passive aggressive bully. But now that I know more about childhood abuse, trauma and the varying ways folks survive/deal with those types of childhood experiences, I am much more tolerant and accepting of Sebastian in LofS. And the fact that he appears to finally learn how to love and express himself at the end makes me feel hope, hope that someone with a traumatic childhood can have a HEA. We know that in real live that can be a challenge.
Yes, Gone With the Wind is one I can no longer stomach. And I loved that book when I was a kid, I read it and reread it and pined for a happier ending until my librarian finally got tired of my moping and directed me to Scarlett. Now I just find it appalling. Also, Lonesome Dove, I read that book a half dozen times the first summer I found it, and then reread it every summer thereafter until i moved off to college. I tried to read it again last year and thought WTF was I thinking?
Other things that aren’t holding up for me anymore, Feehan’s Carpathians and Kenyon’s Dark Hunters, have started slipping away from me. There are also some really old school Linda Howard that leave me with a sick feeling in my stomach now.
@T.S.: You hit it exactly with “I think it comes down to evolving as a reader.”
Romance, more than other genres, has some very specific structural requirements that have evolved over time. Readers who have expectations developed by reading a great many recently-written romances are more likely to be put off by older romances that did not follow all of the same conventions.
I re-read The Windflower (one of my all-time favorites) last year for the first time since the early 1990s, and my experience was very different this time around. I had a hard time believing in the central romance; it seemed incidental to Merry’s growth as a person, and Devon did not seem like a real human being. I still found the book enjoyable as women’s fiction, but not as romance. So, I think there is something to the notion that literary fiction and other types of genre fiction hold up better, simply because we have more flexible expectations for those books. Classic romance novels are still worth reading, but some of them may not qualify as romances nowadays.
If I had taken a 20-year hiatus from reading romance, I probably would have enjoyed The Windflower in much the same way I had the first few times I read it. I expect more from romance heroes now, and after enjoying the works of authors like Laura Kinsale, I would expect Merry to leave Devon and elope with Cat instead.
I may as well out myself as an anonymous email correspondant.
My point about mystery wasn’t so much that it doesn’t date at all (there are plenty of dated attitudes in Golden Age mysteries). It was more that, well, there IS a “Golden Age” that’s referred to that way. While many individual readers have fond memories of older romances, and some find they hold up on a re-read, there is also common rhetoric among many readers disowning elements of the genre’s past (“They aren’t bodice-rippers anymore! We’re past that!”) and I don’t see that with mystery. My library has tons of Agatha Christie but not much 70s-80s romance. And sure, that can relate to genre prejudice and how those affect what is still in print/available as an ebook, but it also reflects what patrons want to read. The library does follow current genre trends–lots of New Adult ebooks, for instance.
I’d add that I was speculating/asking questions and certainly not making any firm claims about romance vs. other genres and readers’ attitudes to their pasts.
I find the distance of scores of years from the creation of the work to the present has painted a patina of “historical” on the Golden Age mysteries and as a result I don’t find them anachronistic or dated in comparison with modern times. I find mysteries from the 80s dated and often times unreadable. Heyer stands the test of time but contemporary romance written in the 90s can be more miss than hit. Then again, some authors have a timelessness to their stories that make no difference to when they were written–Kinsale is always readable.
@SAO: I suspect TKAM will remain a classic, in part because it does a very good job portraying the many layers and forms of racism, and also because it investigates the relationship between class, race, and gender. Then there’s the use of Scout as a narrator, a classic literary device employed very effectively in the book (that is, the “innocent” child becomes the window through which the more sophisticated reader views the book, providing the illusion of immediacy between reader and the goings on in the story). That the society in which the book was written was also immersed in racism is important, too, and I think it’s definitely a relevant aspect of the book’s analysis. I’d argue that the book is in the same category as The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and for many of the same reasons.
@Liz Mc2: You know, I wasn’t actually thinking about your comment specifically, but I apologize if I misrepresented anything you said. I tried to stay away from any one person’s comments because I didn’t want anyone to feel exposed or like they needed to confess their participation, lol.
I agree with everyone here that books in any genre can and do feel dated to later readers. I just want to clarify that I’m really trying to get a handle on the comments I see from readers (many, many comments) that some of the most influential books in Romance often become unreadable or un-re-readable over time. It may just be that not enough time has passed for these books to become classic in a larger sense, or that Romance is unique in certain ways. I think that the perception, for example, that the genre is progressing, somehow, is interesting in and of itself, and may speak to certain expectations readers have for Romance. I see the genre as moving in multiple directions at once, and not in any forward or backward motion, but then I tend to see a lot of the work being done in the genre as more symbolic than literally connected to actual people and relationships.
One thing I have noticed is that I feel that I can read many books and authors from the seventies so long as they are set in a completely different time period. The Regency or Medieval romance I read that were from the 1970’s and 80’s don’t tend to bother me as much as the 70’s and 80’s contemperaries. Maybe that is just because the romances from that era that are still in print or ebook format have stood up well to the test of time. I will also say that people who say that old-style asshole heroes aren’t around anymore haven’t ever read the recently popular billionare romances or the recently popular motorcycle gang or mob enforcer romances, or any BDSM romances at all.
I find it easier to read the most talked about mysteries from the past than the most talked-about romances, especially historical romances (I agree that some older SFF can be hard to revisit as well). They’re dated, and they reflect the attitudes of their time, but I can immerse myself in their worlds. Not all mysteries; the more mediocre noir/hardboiled and soft/cozy books aren’t enjoyable for me now. Maybe it has to do with the extent to which the authors are dealing with universal character traits and themes, and/or the quality of the world-building. The more that’s the case, the better the books hold up, and that goes for all genres.
The classic Loretta Chase romances, including Lord Of Scoundrels, have held up very well for me. They are comfort re-reads. I still love To Have And To Hold.
But some of these old school romances like Whitney My Love for example – they make me cringe now.
I wonder how much of it has to do with our immersion in things social media that expound at length on all the isms and such? Would we really be as aware of the pitfalls? I look at people who don’t spend their time reading blogs and they don’t seem to have the same ‘does it hold up’ problems that we do. Or at least with the same frequency. :)
@Evaine: You may be onto something here. I tend to be oblivious to things until they’re pointed out to me. But, once seen, they cannot be unseen!
I started reading romance at about age 12 and most of the early books I read were full of rape (by the hero, as well as by others) and I really had no clue what I was actually reading at the time. My tolerance for rape by the hero has significantly decreased since then. I can still revisit some of those older books and I can even enjoy some of them but that enjoyment (for me) is often more about remembering the moment in time when I first read the book and loved it. I find I do stumble over those bits of the book which I see as very problematic now – things I didn’t really notice as a teen/newbie romance reader.
@Cynthia Sax: Maybe I’m in the minority but I don’t read as a placeholder. I don’t put myself in place of the heroine. I’m more voyeuristic than that – I “watch” it. In that vein, “classic” books hold up about as well for me as “classic” movies.
(Also, I haven’t actually read many classics of any variety because I am a Philistine.)
I wonder if another aspect of the rereading problem may have something to do with the fact that it’s not just the books that are aging–we readers are as well. I know that I look at life itself very differently now than I did even 10 years ago, and that makes it harder for my mind to travel to the same place I was in when I read a treasured novel 20 or 30 years ago. I’ve changed, the world has changed, and the genres I read in certainly have changed, to the point where maybe my old favorites are just not the same books anymore. Books that spoke to me when I was a teenager or a college student or a young married woman may no longer resonate in the same way, and my focus may have changed to the point where something I skimmed past years ago may stand out so glaringly that I can’t just UNSEE it. After a bad experience of rereading Woodiwiss’s The Wolf and the Dove I’m now very hesitant to pick up other old favorites and risk the possibility that I may end up wondering why I loved them so much in the first place!! I’d rather let them sit on the keeper shelf and just remember how they made me feel when I originally read them.
@Robin/Janet: Actually, I don’t reread much or at all. I read what I read when it came out and enjoyed it and moved on. I saw one reader DNF a Balogh novel that I loved (Heartless) a few months back. Guess that one didn’t quite make it.
@Keishon: It makes it for me! That’s my very favourite Mary Balogh and it’s a complete comfort read for me. I’m not a big re-reader but that’s one I’ve gone back to time and time again. I refuse to see any flaws in it. I just stick my fingers in my ears and sing “la la la” when people criticise it! LOL. (sorry, off topic – I saw it’s being released digitally in July. Be. Still. My. Heart.)
I find it strange that I have a hard time re-reading mysteries – once I know who did it, I know. However, I re-read my romances all the time, maybe because I know in any romance the heroine and hero always end up together and I love the journey. But I think the key to a romance staying relevant, is to echo what @Cynthia Sax said, a romance that lasts over time is one that emotionally engages the reader. Just like Jane Austen, Sarah’s Child by Linda Howard will always draw me in. I find, generally, that my Fantasy books such as Mercedes Lackey Valdemar series or Lois McMaster Bujold’s Miles Verkosigan, seem to remain relevant a bit more than any other genre.
Maybe it is the romance genre.
DianeN’s comment stuck out at me, with regards to what she enjoyed as a young married woman differing from what she enjoys today.
Maybe because the genre is so wrapped up in its own concept of romantic relationships, the books don’t stand the test of time because our own concept of romantic relationships change as we enter into them, get married, divorce, separate, are widowed.
The ooey gooey stuff a 12 year old loves isn’t likely to hit her the same way when she’s 18; the stuff she loved at 18 doesn’t attract her at 32, and so on and so forth. Life experience demands different things from romance. We see this with the aging up of romance heroines over the past two decades. Those dewy 18-21 year old virginal ingenues are difficult to find, even in historical romance.
Then there’s also the ever shifting cultural zeitgeists that have, particularly in more recent years, pulled the genre all over the place. Within the past decade we’ve seen the rise and fall of the vampire or werewolf hero; nowadays, the morally ambiguous, “non-PC” stuff most declared was the reason for PNR’s popularity, now exists with human men (MC gangs, kidnappers, etc). There’s also a growing taste for “regular joes” existing simultaneously with the alpha billionaires. And what about the relative disappearance of the Navy SEAL hero?
Because the genre relies so heavily on personal romantic fantasy–as opposed to mystery, which is about solving crime, or SFF, which explores social issues in made-up worlds–it’s incredibly easy for wildly popular texts to make readers ten years later go ????
Which is why I find it sooo interesting that books that exist outside of romance more readily endure (Outlander, Jane Austen, etc). I can’t say I’ve seen masses of readers recommending FFTS or LoS unless they’re trying to convert non-romance readers with the “smart” books available.
(FWIW, LoS reads like a satire of Regency tropes! So I’ve never gotten it as The Best Romance Ever.)
@Evangeline: I think there may be something to the idea of a reader’s expectations changing with age and time. I know the romances I read at 16 didn’t hit the same way romances I read now do. (Though in my case I hated 90% of the romances I read as a teenager, many of which were Mills and Boon of varying ages in my grandmother’s house, and while I’m still picky, I find the genre at large much more satisfactory now.)
I also think part of it may be that romance novels engage so closely with things like gender roles, relationships, the family, etc. and sociocultural ideas about those things very much change with time. I think things in all genres date but when it’s things like what constitutes a healthy, desirable romantic relationship, or what’s considered desirable in a romantic hero, that undergoes tremendous cultural shift in relatively little time. So even though the distance between the late 90s and now feels like little time to me, it only takes me reading romances from that time to realise how much has changed. I think when people are thinking of things as not having changed that much in that time period it can also throw people off?
But also things like certain prose styles go out of fashion, etc.
@Evageline. Lord of Scoundrels reads like parody to me too. I’ve tried, multiple times to read it in the last few years. Nope.
Loretta Chase is a talented writer and maybe if I read it when came out, it would resonate. But Dain is so over the top, I kept rolling my eyes. I don’t care how gorgeous and macho he is, guy is a jerk. And he has a tragic back story, so that makes it all okay?
And it’s great Jessica is smart and not a doormat, but does she have any flaws? Does she have to grow at all to make the relationship work? I’m truly asking because I couldn’t finish it. I had about 25% left and had to stop.
Glad other people enjoy it. Different strokes and all that.
I prefer stories where both characters are somewhat flawed and they both have to grow and change and meet somewhere in the middle. I think it’s always challenging to do that well, but so satisfying.
@Jill K. Q.: No, she doesn’t grow at all. Her main arc is using her many talents to lay siege to Dain’s defenses – Dain does all the growing. I think it was a Jennifer Crusie post somewhere that made me realize that LoS has the same basic set up as the movie Moonstruck (where Nick Cage spends the movie laying siege to Cher’s defenses). Not my favorite structure for a romance.
I’m sort of thinking your question only applies to readers seeking the transcendent and I imagine there are any number of readers who wouldn’t touch a book written last June, let alone last century. Also, it should be difficult to find romances that transcend, otherwise the word loses its meaning.
I can understand the desire to recommend Lord of Scoundrels to non-romance readers because Chase has considerable writing skills and the book is clever. But if you’re looking to convert someone to the romance genre, I think your non-romance reading friend is going to be confused because the book is fatally flawed as a romance. And when addressing transcendence, shouldn’t the book actually work as a romance first?
FOR THOSE OF DELICATE SENSIBILITIES – SPOILERISH STUFF AHEAD
Chase is a bold writer and creates bold and challenging characters (I love Alistair “went up a hill and came down a mountain” Carsington), but at the point in Lord of Scoundrels where Jessica shoots Dain and he thereafter experiences hysterical paralysis, I had to give up on doing anything with the reading experience other than admiring the scene construction. The story collapsed under the weight of all this farcical behavior being shoehorned into what one is supposed to believe is an appropriate romantic pairing. God save their fictive children is all I am left with when it comes to these two.
Looking for a romance that actually transcends, I would suggest The Forbidden Rose by Joanna Bourne.
Yes. But some of these didn’t do much for me even when they were new. For example I read Lord of Scoundrels five years after its publication, and disliked Lord Dain even then. I liked Jessica, but didn’t get the fuss over the book. The same is true of Nora Roberts’ first couple Born In books (I read them the year they came out).
Then there are the ones that once resonated but no longer do. Laura Kinsale was my favorite author in the genre for over a decade. I read and reread her books many times, but the last time I revisited The Shadow and the Star and For My Lady’s Heart, two of my favorites, they fell flat for me. I’m afraid to reread The Dream Hunter because of that.
I don’t read as widely in other genres as I do in romance, so that question is hard to answer. I think I’m only likely to pick up books in other genres if they garner a lot of praise, whereas with romances I don’t vet them as much unless the author is new to me. So it isn’t a level playing field.
I loved The Hobbit as a kid but can’t read it now. I’ve tried. Never got into LOTR; even in the early 1990s it was too long winded for me. In contrast, Ursula Le Guin’s A Wizard of Earthsea held up for me the last time I read it. I really don’t know what the answer is.
@Liz Mc2: I think there was a Golden Age of romance, or at least, of romance published in North America, and it was 1990-1997. A lot of the books considered canonical were written then. Of course, there was crap published then, too, just as at any other time, and there were good books published in all eras. But I think there were more books that longtime readers consider among the best or the favorites published then than in other 7 year periods.
In mainstream contemporary romance, authors like Nora Roberts, Linda Howard, Susan Elizabeth Phillips, and others, wrote some of their most enduring works. Lesser known authors were also producing books readers still seek out (I for example remain a fan of most of Kathleen Gilles Seidel’s books from this timeframe).
The same is true of historical romance authors of that time — whether the now-on-the-outs ones like Jude Deveraux, Johanna Lindsey, Mary Jo Putney and Judith McNaught (I’m no longer a fan but their fans love the books they wrote then more than the ones they are wriitng today) — or those who wrote historicals in a more literary vein (Judith Ivory/Cuevas, Patricia Gaffney, Penlope Williamson, Laura Kinsale). Or in a lighter vein — Amanda Quick comes to mind.
In the trad regency genre, this was when Mary Balogh and Carla Kelly produced some of their most beloved books, too.
I’m less confident where contemporary categories are concerned because I only read them regularly for three years, but I know some of my favorites like Linda Howard’s Kell Sabin series were written then, and that authors who would go on to bestselling status in other genres like Sandra Brown, Jayne Ann Krentz, Elizabeth Lowell, Iris Johansen, Jennifer Crusie, and Anne Stuart were writing them at the time.
I think there was a sweet spot during those years, more publisher investment than there is today, and less bean-counting at the publishing houses, too. This was just before the publisher mergers of the late 1990s, so there were more markets than in the early 2000s, but the insistence on rapes and such was on the wane. Many authors had a year to produce each book. Unless you were Nora Roberts, you weren’t expected to write four books in a year.
Also, the genre was new enough that there was a spirit of innovation and excitement about reading in it.
@Luna Harlow: The changing social norms is indeed a major element. But there’s still my question of why books with romantic elements endure more so than genre romance–Gone with the Wind, is a major example.
Is it because romance readers themselves have narrow expectations (agendas?) when choosing a romance, whereas when approaching a novel with romantic elements, it is approached as just hoping for a great story? Does romance’s adherence to tropes and/or delivering a certain experience over and over again make the books interchangeable, therefore never able to transcend time?
@Evangeline: I think it has at least partly to do with the way the genre is marketed and also with the prejudices of readers who don’t read romance, and who will pick up a general fiction novel like GWTW or Outlander, but not a romance novel.
There is so much not-love for Lord of Scoundrels I feel compelled to say I loved it and I listened to the audiobook only last year and loved that too! :D
I love Lord of Scoundrels too, Kaetrin. I read it for the first time 4 yrs ago and it set me off on a Loretta Chase glom. Although I actually prefer Lord Perfect, I am always happy when Lord of Scoundrels wins the number 1 slot in AAR’s top 100 romances. Well deserved!
@Janine: I meant within the romance reading community. :) Like how Robin said early game-changing romances are often uninteresting to readers discovering romance today. Yet, a book like Outlander continues to enthrall readers who discover it in 2015 in a similar way it did to those who discovered it in 1991. It seems the list of romance novels that have this effect is very short.
@Kaetrin: Ha! I’m sure my experience is colored by having reads tons of Regencies published in 00s before I got around to LoS. So, it felt like a satire of everything I’d read up to that point. But I do love Chase’s traditional Regencies. I can reread The English Witch or The Devil’s Delilah without them ever getting old.
@Janine: I have to lobby for the 1980s as Romance’s golden age. That’s when the expansion/explosion of new lines really took off, in category, contemporary and historical (the latter including Regency trads). A number of the authors you list had important, well-regarded books published in the 1980s (Roberts, Balogh, Devereaux, Stewart), as did LaVyrle Spencer and quite a few others.
This is not to undervalue the 1990s, I just think the 1980s were at least as important.
@Sunita: I agree too that the 80’s are a significant time in the Golden Age. I just remember reading so many wonderful romances from that time period (mostly in the 90’s). It was a joy to read romance back then.
From reading Janine’s comments, I have to say that I’m glad I don’t reread a lot of the romances I loved from way back when. I would rather have fond memories of my enjoyment of these books than to reread them and discover that I don’t like them anymore. I still enjoy Kinsale’s books and Judy Cuevas early works have held up well, too. I didn’t much care for Lord of Scoundrels but then I’m not a Loretta Chase fan. Her work falls flat for me. At the end of the day, I still miss LaVyrle Spencer and Maggie Osborne.
@Evangeline: Maybe narrow agendas when reading romance do affect this sort of thing! Sometimes what hits big or is influential just happens to be something that pushes a lot of buttons.
I do think that also a lot of classics in other genres aren’t necessarily universally loved, either – for what it’s worth, I didn’t like what I read of Gone With the Wind. I think a lot of the time the classics of any genre are more of interest to readers who are already steeped in that genre and want to figure out what came before and what it meant to people. Romance classics may well be less transcendent than classics of other genres, though. I’m not sure it’s a bad thing, but it’s definitely interesting to think about.
@Evangeline: I see now. Still, I think many romance readers are influenced by what non-romance readers are reading, and books that get respect from them sometimes get a lot of respect from genre readers too.
@Sunita: I almost said 1989-1997 before, so you see I agree the 1980s, esp. the late 1980s, had some terrific books. The whole decade was a huge expansion but i see the genre as still finding its legs then, though — maybe because I remember it as including a LOT of badly written books. If publishers thought it might sell, they put it on the market.
There were some terrific books written then, too, but the question I took Liz to be asking with her Golden Era comment was what number of books from the era still endure today? And I would argue that more books from the 1990s (or at least, a higher percentage) are still beloved by readers and still reread than books from the 1980s. But I could be wrong, or it could be because the 1990s are closer to us in time.
I’m glad we’re arguing which era was the golden era rather than saying there wasn’t one, though!
My personal opinion is that one thing is the canon and a different thing a classic novel.
The canon is made by books that are historically relevant for the genre, while classics are those books that find new readers in each generation.
Please me allow me to differ about Woodiwiss and Loretta Chase’s Lord of Scoundrels. As I can see in different webpages, Kathleen Woodiwiss and Loretta Chase, as Georgette Heyer, keep on finding new readers in younger generations while Barbara Cartland, for instance, doesn’t. So I consider K. Woodiwiss a classic while Barbara Cartland just belongs to the history of this genre.
I’d like to add that I don’t think that’s a unique trend. It’s something that happens to any ‘genre fiction’ as opposed to Literary fiction (and even in the Literary fiction there are books quite quickly forgotten by everyone but the Academia).
The ‘genre books’ are a cultural product created to last a season, so to speak, and then they have to be forgotten to give their places on the shelves to new products of the cultural industry. So very few of them remain and find new readers years afterwards.
Think about detective stories, or sci-fi, or Westerns. We only see those that have been reissued, and we forget the thousands of books read & forgotten. Do you really think that Dan Brown or Tom Clancy are going to be read in 50 years time?
I don’t think so, but I think that a few le Carré and Forsyth’s novels would do it, as we still read Conrad’s The secret agent or William Somerset Maugham’s Ashenden.
I don’t feel comfortable with this idea of romance novels as the worst (o, poor us!) or the best (there’s nothing like it!), they are just as any other capitalistic cultural product, not designed to last.