I love reading; I wish someone would pay me to do it full-time. In case you hadn’t already guessed, I particularly love the romance genre and am a sucker for a Happy Ever After. I fall in love with books (and therefore their authors) very easily – far too easily for my already overburdened bookcases and the health of my bank account (see my blog on The 11 Stages of Reading an Author Out).
But I’ve also recently experienced falling out of love with a favoured author. And it’s not just one author either, it’s several of the timeless greats of my book shelves. Normally my bookshelf staples’ new releases are automatically purchased without much thought; now I’m putting more consideration into some of them, whilst others I’ve just stopped buying altogether. I don’t like falling out of love with an author; after all, we’re fans of this genre precisely because we love the idea of love.
Initially, I thought that perhaps I’d fallen out of love because it’s been a good 20+ years since I picked up my first HEA and maybe my reading tastes have evolved as I’ve matured. Then I thought that perhaps some of these authors, having published scores of books during very long and successful careers, had just run out of any decent ideas to write about. However, their publishers are still interested because they’re an established brand name. Another reason could be repetitive plot arcs throughout all that writer’s novels; for example, a lord who doesn’t want to marry but realises he has to, so does his duty and falls in love despite himself. This gets boring when it’s exactly the same plot on the 20th novel and is thus indistinguishable from the rest of the author’s books. Same goes for identikit male heroes. Perhaps all of these things are true in some cases but it still wasn’t a sufficiently satisfactory explanation for me.
The advent of more than one ceased author-reader relationship made me really think about why I was falling out of love with these wonderful writers, practically all of whom have been publishing since the late 1980s/early 1990s. With some serious bookcase review and a bit of backlist re-reading, I realised that I hadn’t fallen out of love with their older titles, just their more recent releases. The writing, plot arcs, character development etc. in their older titles were still as enjoyable now as they were when I first read them all those years ago.
It was whilst browsing Goodreads reviews for a particular novel (published in 1990) that I really enjoyed by an HEA author I have now fallen out of love with that I stumbled across some the following: it sums up everything I’m currently feeling about the HEA genre. An equal number of reviewers loved and hated the book (there didn’t seem to be any middle ground). This book is one of my all-time favourites and this review from Plethora so perfectly sums up exactly why:
“Part of the pleasure I derive, from my many re-reads of it, is due to the fact that this book could not have been written today. Or rather, it is derived from imagining how it would look had it been written today. It would have been utterly, boringly awful, without any of the pleasure the book generates. The Norman lord would have been kind and charitable to all, it’d have never occurred to him to help himself to the women around him (only the villain of the story would have done that), he would have asked for permission every time he wanted to speak to the heroine, he’d have apologised to her every time he raised his voice above a whisper, or their fingertips accidentally brushed; he would not have married the legitimate daughter of another lord, as his king ordered him to do, he would have never had any illegitimate issue (left, right and centre) and if he did, he would have been a very loving father to them all; he would not have had the heroine married off to one of his men – and then promptly claimed ‘le droit du Seigneur’, nor would he have had the heroine flogged in public, telling his man administering the flogging, ‘don’t break skin’. Nor would we have been gifted with such a super-naughty scene of al fresco male masturbation (since even the sex scenes in [recently written] historical romances, while explicit -more so than those in this book- are utterly devoid of delectation, following, as they do, 21st c. gender etiquette to the letter).
So, if you want everything to make sense in the plot of your historical romances, this is not for you. But if you want a book in this genre that manages to get a more accurate picture of the relation between lords and the conquered (it is still terribly idealised and prettified, of course, but not completely false), and a male character who manages to convince as a Norman lord, then you could do worse than read this book. I personally love it, find it scrumptiously titillating and erotic, in a way that I don’t find more recent historical romances.”
It was like an epiphany: the older titles were more historically accurate and realistic and all the more gripping for it; the newer ones are just… boring. Our 21st century morals and values are now pervading and corrupting our fictional writing of the past. As someone who loves history, I believe we are all the poorer for it.
There’s nothing wrong with an HEA that features nice, polite, handsome heroes and heroines, of course. If the sexual chemistry and writing are spot on, this still makes for a great read. But generally, I want, no, need, something more from my HEAs. Historical accuracy and real, earthy characters make for delicious tension, interesting plot arcs and can be ‘titillating and erotic’ too – all components of a successful novel (for me).
So why does the historical HEA genre seem to be becoming more formulaic and bland? Books seem to be shorter for one thing; I note one particular publisher’s submission guidelines have very strict word limits which I understand is at least partly due to being able to sell foreign rights. But a crude word count of the above mentioned book tallies around 166,000 words – unheard of today for a HEA. But this story would have been far poorer if the author had to cut and scrimp and reword to lose 66,000 words. If the book’s not repetitive, slow or badly written – why cut? It seems like a cruel punishment for such wonderful creativity.
The modern reader’s sensibilities seem to be another factor. I note amongst the more unfavourable reviews for the above mentioned book that the parts readers most objected to were the historically realistic attitude and conduct by the hero. One reviewer says: “I have to give [the author] credit for not following the same cookie cutter pattern. [But rape scenes] have no place in a romance novel… [I found the novel] dirty, dingy, disgusting.” She’s not alone in feeling this way; regency HEA author Susan Ellis has blogged about her 12 romance plot deal-breakers here, which feature adultery and sleeping with one’s servants as no-nos. But she also acknowledges that when done right, an author can break all the rules they like. And it was the these very “taboos” that made the above mentioned novel for me because I found the hero likeable despite his actions because he grew as a character and, being a HEA, it all came right in the end. I think I would find gratuitous rape much more difficult to accept though; context is everything.
So are authors choosing to be more PC of their own volition or is the industry demanding this? If the latter, it rather seems like they’re castrating the plot. Does the industry have a perception that readers only want the PC version? Plethora, other positive reviewers and comments on my recent blog 15 Things About HEA Historical Romance That Make Me Scowl tell me I’m not alone but are we in the minority in wanting something more? I honestly don’t know the answers to this and would appreciate constructive input.
I accept that some HEA readers today want the newer offerings from these novelists precisely because they won’t be offended. But then they won’t learn anything about history either, which is another facet that I enjoy from my reading. An historical romance novel featuring a hero with 21st century morals and values, with all his respect for women, is actually a jarring, spell-breaking moment for me and I find it more difficult to suspend disbelief. A fantasy seems less of a fantasy if you’re aware it’s even more unrealistic than it could be. Some historical attitudes certainly need careful handling so as not to (try to) offend a reader, but I think, done right, topics like rape, pillage and violence offer rich bases on which to build a realistic and interesting plot arc in an historical romance novel. There are still plenty of things that need to be glossed over or ‘prettified’ when writing historical romance (like a mouthful of rotting teeth due to lack of dentistry) so as not to completely gross out one’s reader, but I’d say these things were minor, whereas I consider the above to be major.
Is historical romance split into sub-categories?
These days, I find myself reading fewer new books from what I would call the ‘traditional’ HEA category. Instead I’m reading more books that I’d still describe as HEA historical romance but seem to be viewed differently by the industry and are perhaps, as author Terry Tyler recently phrased it (in a discussion we had on the topic), ‘proper’ or ‘serious’ historical fiction. The latter are given different printed book formats, are less likely to feature semi-dressed swooning heroines in the arms of the bare-chested hero on the cover and are more likely to be under a mainstream imprint than a genre specific publisher. I can’t determine any difference between older ‘traditional’ novels like the one I’ve mentioned above and the mainstream published ‘historical romantic fiction’ apart from, perhaps, less sexually explicit content in the latter. In many instances they’re both character driven and the plot arc centres around the romance, not the history, but the history is realistic and mostly accurate in both. All of it leads me to wonder – is there an unspoken line between these two types of romance and it’s just taken me years to notice? Or was this line always there and now it’s becoming more prevalent? And which is more important: the romance or the history? Are more sexually explicit titles now mutually exclusive of more accurate and realistic history? Personally, I don’t think I can separate the two; I want accurate, realistic history and a grand romance with flawed characters that are still likeable – a line I can only hope to emulate in my novel.
© This blog is an original rambling of Eleanor Small