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At the Back Fence Issue#121

July 15, 2001

Whose Slump Is This, Anyway?

“I am in the biggest romance reading slump I’ve ever been in, and it’s lasted longer than any slump I’ve ever had.” — LLB, last ATBF

Great minds as they say think alike – well, great or not friend’s minds do too. Laurie and I don’t get to talk often but since we have been writing this column we manage to have one or two long telephone conversations a month. Usually it focuses on books (surprise), and it is interesting how frequently our thoughts on romance coincide, though we come at a topic from different directions.


To Laurie’s statement that she was having trouble concentrating on romance I answered a resounding, “me too.” I’ve read some terrific books this year but very few of them have been romance novels. This is from a woman who read about eighty romance novels in the year 2000 and a hundred and twenty the year before. I know that many ATBF readers read far more romance novels than I do, but this year I am hovering around twenty-five. Why? Because so many of the 2001 books I have started have remained unfinished.

Laurie and I were both in the romance doldrums, but we had different thoughts about it. Laurie asked “Why am I in a reading slump?” I asked “Why are so many of the year 2001 romance novels so uninspiring?” Where are all the great books? Why is it that I am more likely to enjoy one with a publishing date of 1996 than of 2001?

And it doesn’t just seem to be me. Check out the AAR Reviews section and look through his year’s crop of contemporary romance novels. There are very few Desert Isle Keepers to be had. Longtime AAR visitor Sandy C made the same observation on our Potpourri Message Board not long ago. Rather than simply bemoaning the lack of recent keepers, as I was, Sandy wondered what actually makes a romance a true keeper in order to determine why they have been lacking of late. She wrote:

“I feel many authors have forgotten why we readers read romance – we read for the story of the character’s romance. I know that many authors have taken a lot of time to write suspense or to develop new twists, but they seem to have forgotten the main purpose of the book, which is to tell us the story of how those two characters meet, fall in love, and the progression of their relationship. A lot of the focus instead is on the plot or suspense or other characters, or setting up the book for a sequel.”

It seems clear I’m not the only one in a slump. Romance publishers are in a slump and I’m simply reacting to it. My reading slowdown began when I decided to increase the number of new books in my monthly reading list. Like many of you, I vote in AAR’s annual Reader’s Poll and wanted to do the fairest evaluation possible. Last year, after the AAR Reader Poll was published, I read Donna Simpson’s 1999-published Regency Romance, Lord St. Claire’s Angel. I could have kicked myself for not being able to vote for this wonderful book! The story in Simpson’s book, of a spoiled aristocrat and a poor arthritic governess was the closest thing to Carla Kelly that I had read in ages. It was the only new regency, published in the last few years, other than Anne Gracie’s Tallie’s Knight, that struck me as being in the same league with books like Balogh’s The Notorious Rake, Jo Beverley’s An Arranged Marriage, and Carla Kelly’s With this Ring. The Regency Romance that I voted for in that AAR Reader Poll was very good, but did not compare with Lord St.Claire’s Angel, or for that matter, the earlier Regencies I liked so much. That may have been a clue. I assumed that my problem was that I had not been reading enough new books – not that the books themselves were going downhill.

Another reason that I wanted to read more new books was that I seldom write reviews these days. I wanted to keep up with recent trends so that I could continue to knowledgeably write this column. The third reason was just general curiosity. I love knowing what is happening in the genre. As a result of all this I have come to some conclusions and I do think I know what’s happening, far more than I did when I was reading so many old books, but more on that later.

After deciding to read more new books I began searching our reviews for new books that I would enjoy. And, as in all years, 2001 has produced some gems. Suzanne Brockmann’s The Defiant Hero was as much fun as I expected it to be. This book begins with a heroine taking the officials of a foreign embassy hostage. This heroine drove me a little crazy. Among other things she suffers from that special heroine disease whereby she doesn’t trust a man who is not only doing his utmost to help her, he is far more qualified than she is to make decisions on her problem. Still, I loved the book and had I been the reviewer, would have awarded a solid DIK. The same goes for J.D. Robb’s Betrayal in Death, the latest Eve Dallas/Roarke mystery thriller. Even when the setting was familiar the characters were fresh and surprising.

In historicals I read two books I would have graded A. The first was Anne Gracie’s Tallie’s Knight, the best Regency Romance I have read since Lord St. Claire’s Angel. The second was the wonderful anthology – The Officers Bride, which featured stories by Merlene Lovelace, Deborah Simmons, and Julia Justiss.

After that we get into “B” territory. These books were good solid romance novels. Barbara Samuels’ Night of Fire was a “B” for me. The hero and heroine were young and the hero, who was Italian, had a slightly different personality than the more routine English rakes and rogues. Liz Carlyle’s A Woman of Virtue had a Nick and Nora style heroine that was fun, but I didn’t enjoy it nearly as much as did my colleague, Ellen Micheletti. I would have loved it except for the extra one hundred pages the author tacked on at the start of the story before the plot began. Gayle Wilson’s Anne’s Perfect Husband was pleasant as I was reading it but so unmemorable that I had to hunt up a copy to remind myself of the regency plot. The only truly terrible book I read this year was Ronda Thompson’s Scandalous, a book I promised to read for review.

So, if I only read one really lousy book, what’s the problem?

Part of the problem is this: When I don’t have to finish a mediocre book, I don’t. And the terrible ones I stop reading after a few pages never make it onto my book list. I read lots of so-so books this year, I just didn’t finish them. Many of these books were not really bad. In fact more than one got a pretty good review here at AAR from reviewers whom are every bit as picky as I am. But for me these books just weren’t quite what they should have been. The problem, from my perspective was almost always the same: characterization.

Amy J. Fetzer’s Taming the Beast, was, to me, a good example of this. Laura Cambridge, the heroine, is a woman who used to be a beauty queen who is now a nanny. She is hired by Richard Blackthorne, a man so horribly scarred from an accident that he refuses to allow anyone to see him, including his four-year-old daughter. Now this story had a very good premise. I was interested in part because our review was good and the reviewer – Ellen again – and I often have similar tastes. (Poor Ellen is getting the brunt of it in this column, the ironic result of the fact that I am a huge fan of her reviews.)

But Taming the Beast just drove me crazy. To me, it was suffering from a terrible case of “romance-formula-itis.” What is romance-formula-itis? We’ve all seen it. We all know it. I can’t tell you how many times I have listened to people who don’t read romance tell me that “they are all written according to a formula.” I can’t tell you the number of times I have disputed this, hotly pointing to books that break the mold.

But more and more I am wondering.

Yes, Virginia there is a formula and romance novels today seem to be written more and more to fulfill that formula. The more mediocre the book, the more obvious this formula becomes. In the early nineteen nineties the mold broke apart, but now the romance genre seems to have a case of hardening of the arteries.

Taming the Beast is a good example. The story is set in the present in South Carolina. Oh, you are thinking, Charleston, professional people, good food. Nope. This is romancenovel land. Clearly somebody (the author? The agent? The editor?) thought that South Carolina on its own wasn’t compelling enough. So at every occasion, the author tries to disguise the setting to remind us of a more “formula” one. In this case it was 19th century Yorkshire, England! First we have the name “Richard Blackthorne” (sound gothic enough for you?) Then we have the nanny arriving at the doorstep “Summoned like a serf to a king she had been hired to help Richard Blackthorne’s four-year old daughter adjust to living here. To living with a recluse, a man locked in a castle, shielded from all human contact.”


I don’t know what your experience is with childcare lately but you don’t “summon” a nanny like a surf.” That is, not unless you want to be taking your child to the local daycare real soon.

One problem with spotting a formula in a book is that after you have spotted it, it becomes mesmerizing.

When I was a kid I remember watching Edgar Bergen and Charley McCarthy on television. One day my father told me that Edgar Bergen’s career as a ventriloquist had been killed by television because, though he was very funny, you could see Edgar Bergen’s lips move. I watched the next time and, sure enough, it was true. You could see Edgar Bergen’s lips move! Unfortunately, once I started watching this I couldn’t stop. I also couldn’t concentrate on what Charley McCarthy was saying because I was always watching Edgar Bergen. Then I noticed something. Charley McCarthy and Edgar Bergen didn’t seem so funny anymore. I was too caught up in watching the process.

In discussions based on the last ATBF, Sandy C came to a similar conclusion about what is happening to the genre. As she pointed out, part of the problem is in the obsession with “trends.” She wrote:

“The slump is not in us, the slump is simply that the publishers and the authors have slipped. Why do I think this? Well for several basic reasons. “I have had this feeling with new books for over a year now. I introduced myself on the ‘Net in an essay that stated my concerns with the industry running with ‘trends’ and the defection of some really good writers to mystery/suspense and/or romantic suspense, lite on the romance. Romantic Times saw this trend and jumped on it by adding a mystery section to their magazine. I was crying foul and loud that we were going to have a problem with romance because so many great authors were leaving the genre for more prosperous and/or ‘respectable’ women’s fiction or suspense. I was also not seeing the normal number of really good, creative, and original midlist authors. All of a sudden they were gone; what were left were clones. Along with this was the concept of the ‘editor from hell’ format that publishers are using to contract with writers in the form of ‘this is what we want, this is what sells, write it!’ restrictions they are asking from writers. It was like some editing union went to one of those ‘let’s write a romance’ class and came back with the same idea. The books are shorter in word count, and lite on story and romance and passion.”

When Laurie wrote her piece a few weeks ago asking if some romance writers had “jumped the shark,” I agreed with her that some very big authors do seem to have wound down in terms of quality.

I cannot help but wonder if part of the problem is that some of these very big authors were lucky enough to begin writing romance in a very unusual time for the genre – the late 1980’s and early 1990’s. Had the time not been right, perhaps they would not have been able to write the books that they did. Now that the genre seems to be developing arterial sclerosis, perhaps they feel it is either unwise or unnecessary to write anything else.

Laurie and I have spent a lot of time over the past year talking about the development throughout the past 45 years of the modern romance novel. The only area we haven’t delved into is the time that best explains why we read the kinds of romance novels that we read today. That time was the early 1990’s when, what I will call the “sophisticated romance novel” came into popularity. The transition (for those of you old enough to remember) was not unlike what happened to western movies and television after the book Shane came out. With Shane, people were reminded that western movies did not have to be simplistic. The “adult” western became popular. Similarly, by the early 1990’s, the “adult romance” made its appearance.

I spent a little time this weekend going through my basement and finding the books on my tbr pile that are most likely to make me happy. Make no mistake – I am fairly sure I could break this slump (and probably will) by reading the older books on the pile. Here is just some of what is there: Carla Kelly’s Libby’s London Merchant, Patricia Gaffney’s Wild at Heart, Jo Beverley’s Tempting Fortune and Dangerous Joy, Pamela Morsi’s Marrying Stone, Teresa Medeiros’ Once an Angel, Laura Kinsale’s Uncertain Magic, Deborah Simmons’ The Devil’s Lady, Lynn Kurland’s This is All I Ask, Mary Jo Putney’s Dancing on the Wind, Karen Harbaugh’s Cupid’s Kiss, all four of Gabaldon’s Outlander series – and the list goes on.

Do you notice something about these books? They may not all have been written by blockbuster authors, but they were all written in the 1990s, a unique period that may be slipping away. (For further discussion on the late 1980’s/early 1990’s as the “golden age of romance,” click here for an ATBF column written last year on the subject.)

To my way of thinking, the last 40 years of romance novels led up to what we have today. In the 1950’s and 1960’s we had lots of secretary-boss romances (such as Agnes Turnbull’s The Wedding Bargain), doctor-nurse romances, Gone With the Wind wannabes, historical gothics from Victoria Holt, Jane Hodge and Mary Stewart, and contemporary suspense (such as Mary Stewart’s The Moon Spinners). Then in the 1970’s and 1980’s everything got hot. Rosemary Rogers and Kathleen Woodiwiss turned up the heat and introduced politically incorrect bodice rippers such as Sweet Savage Love, The Flame and the Flower and Jennifer Wilde’s Love’s Tender Fury. These books had little to do with history and a lot to do with women’s fantasies. I didn’t care for them, but that hardly matters. They were a lot of fun for a lot of women and they changed the genre. On the contemporary side “glitter books” became popular. Judith Krantz, Sidney Sheldon and Jackie Collins didn’t write romance but their books had romance in them.

It seems that in the latter part of the 1980’s, things changed once again, and continued to morph for the next several years, leading into the early 1990’s. Historical romances moved out of the medieval period and the American South and into Regency England with Judith McNaught, Julie Garwood, and Catherine Coulter, among others. Historicals began to portray more sophisticated, multi-faceted characters whose problems had psychological origins. Traditional Regency Romances, which had been around for years as sweet drawing room romances inspired by Georgette Heyer, came into their own. The stories became more intense. Heroines might be married or “ruined,” (not just rumored to be ruined.) Sex was described, yes, it was far subtler than elsewhere, but it was there, in Regencies written by Mary Jo Putney and Jo Beverley, and later, in the mid-1990’s, by Karen Harbaugh. Single title contemporaries and the hybrid romantic suspense novel began to appear in this period as well. Nora Roberts, who had previously written only series titles, began to publish full-length contemporaries. Susan Andersen, known to many as the author of humorous contemporary romance today actually began her career writing straight romantic suspense at the end of the 1980’s. By the time – in 1994 – that Susan Elizabeth Phillips’ first contemporary “romance,” It Had to be You, was published, the single title contemporary romance was embraced; this was the same year, btw, that Roberts’ Born in Fire was published.

In other words, this was a period in which the mold was broken, and for a short time, it was a free-for-all as publishers scrambled to supply what readers demanded, which was romance and more romance.

Now things seem a whole lot less free. Most people see this when they notice that virtually every book on the series shelf is about a cowboy, a secret baby, and/or amnesia. Beyond that the “hometown plots” with the stock characters “bad boy,” girl with a “reputation” (almost always undeserved), or an old boyfriend now a sheriff are pretty obvious.

But what seems a far more serious problem is the lack of interesting people in romance novels. This is a problem that crosses all sub-genres. In most of the books being written today the hero and heroine are not based on real people that the author has met – i.e. a combination of someone’s husband, next door neighbor and the captain of the high school football team. The characters seem now to be based on other romance novels.

Which brings me to the books I really have enjoyed this year. You can say what you will about Bridget Jones, the hapless, weight-obsessed 30-something heroine of Bridget Jones’s Diary and Bridget Jones, the Edge of Reason, but one thing at least is true, you won’t find yourself confusing her with any other heroines. The same is true of Eve Dallas. I know some people find her cold but no one will confuse her with anyone else. The four heroines in Patricia Gaffney’s terrific women’s fiction book, The Saving Graces are each unique people. It is not just that one is beautiful, one is single and needy, one is older and divorced, etc. When these four women get up in the morning they eat different things and watch different morning shows. There are different books on their night tables and they fall in love with different kinds of men. Wonder of wonders – they all have flaws – and as a result, I remember each of them like an old friend.

Not long ago in a discussion with my colleagues here at AAR, I mentioned that it seemed to me that many characters were simply being “built” from a stock list of attributes. Ellen Michelletti agreed. She wrote:

“Your description of the same old same old characters really got to me. I got Lisa Kleypas’ new book (and already I have forgotten the title) and was really looking forward to it. After I finished it (the title, btw, is Suddenly You) I thought it was as if she had been going by a list.

  • You have your outsider hero – check
  • He’s come from a hellish childhood to a prosperous adulthood – check, but boy is he still insecure – check
  • Your have your insecure, bookish heroine – check
  • She’s successful but remains an outsider – check
  • She and the hero clash – check
  • They are really soulmates – check
  • And after some plot stretching to provide tension, they live HEA – check

“In the meantime, some potentially interesting secondary characters bob around on the sideline while the reader (me) wishes they would push the hero and heroine away so we can get to know them. Kleypas drops enough hints to make me want to know more about these interesting people, but does not satisfy my curiosity at all.

“I was so disappointed!”

(Suddenly You, btw, was given a grade of B by another AAR Reviewer.)

What is most sad about this comment from Ellen is that Lisa Kleypas’ Dreaming of You contains two of the most memorable romance characters I can think of. Derek Craven is a self-made hero worthy of an early twentieth century American novel. No, he isn’t an aristocratic baby whose pure superior “blood” makes him rise to the top. He’s a brilliant, scrappy ruthless man who has built a gambling club for gentlemen, a club where prostitution is openly practiced. Derek finds himself completely captivated by Sara Fielding, a rather ordinary woman who happens to be a successful author. Is she an aristocrat? A prostitute? A governess? No, she hails from the English countryside, has many friends and even (wonder of wonders) loves her middle-class parents! If ever there were two characters not from romance central casting, they would be Derek and Sara. Dreaming of You was published in 1994 and I haven’t seen the likes of them since.

This problem of stock characters is not specific to romance. All of us have read our share of hard-boiled detectives a la The Maltese Falcon, strong principled space ship commanders a la James Kirk and misguided dysfunctional white trash families a la the Oprah books. But more and more it does seem to me that lately almost all the heroines (and heroes) I read are the same person dressed in different clothing.

I thought of this when I read Nancy Beth’s comment on the Potpourri Message Board regarding the characters she has been reading about in romance novels.

“I just don’t feel ‘touched’ by the characters and plots in the books I have read lately. The characters are not developed, they are just ‘shorthanded’- she: bluestocking, feckless father, friends with servants blah, blah, blah He: sexual dynamo, hero of Napoleonic Wars, never loved by parents, mother was a slut blah, blah, blah. “Additionally, the books I’ve been reading don’t seem to have many climactic scenes, the really powerful, moving scenes that draw me back. And what about some superb declarations of love, like the one in Anne’s Perfect Husband!? Or a truly gratifying grovel? Recent stuff seems bland, muted.”

Reader Elizabeth had a similar thought, and wrote that she too has read “too many formula characters, emotions, and back-stories” as well. She compared this year’s Aphrodite’s Kiss by Julie Kenner with 1995’s After the Night by Linda Howard and Kenner’s book came up wanting. Both featured characters who grew up in foster care. Whereas Kenner, she wrote, “needed to give the hero something to ‘get over,” his reactions/motivations were rote.” She found his life in foster care “very formulaic,” with “nothing relevant or touching” about it. Contrast this hero with heroine Faith Devlin from Howard’s book, where the foster care experience quite was “unique to the character” in that it affected all of her life.

Elizabeth added that:

“Romance is very archetype driven – same old plots, similar character types (cowboy, bad boy, financier, scholar, schoolmarm), but the joy is in the details and life and specialness of this schoolmarm or bad-boy or girl-makes-good. Lately few books have done that for me. DIK’s have some special something about them that makes this bad-boy (or whatever) resonate for me. He is more than just a leather-jacket wearing poster boy. When I can remember the names of the characters for a year afterwards (Bob, Sarah), I know it was a good book. When I remember their types (Millionaire, Spunky heroine), it wasn’t.”

What Elizabeth said is very true – except that, for a while there, there did seem to be some different kinds of people on the scene. Gerald, the boring unimaginative prostitute-visiting hero of Mary Balogh’s A Precious Jewel is a good example. It isn’t that he isn’t hero material because he is losing his hair. He isn’t hero material because he isn’t heroic. The book is wonderful because love is wonderful. A book is more, not less, romantic when the people in it are human and flawed and genuinely vulnerable.

And doesn’t romance come from books that are based on characters we believe in? AAR Reviewer Laurie Shallah complained of the overall lack of romance when she wrote: “I’ll I have to add is a resounding ‘me too’! This is my biggest complaint about most of the romances I read. They’re just not ‘romantic’. The characters aren’t well developed. The author spends more time concentrating on a suspense angle when all I care about is the characters and their developing love story.”

Reader Heidi saw the problem in terms of emotions. For her, a keeper is a book that grabs her by her emotions and features a hero and heroine that she can care for. She finds that the books she keeps are those that focus on the emotions of its lead characters, “with the author giving great consideration for the reader to look deep inside that character and to grow with that character.”

The other day, I was reading a book that moved me to tears. The historical hero, a fifty-something, overweight politician who is vain, overly talkative and brilliant receives a letter from his wife, the mother of his six grown children. She is lonely and sad. She worries about him and tries to rationalize her feelings so she writes “Years subdue the ardor of passion but in lieu thereof friendship and affection, deep rooted subsists which defies the ravages of time, and whilst the vital flame exists.”

But the husband is not fooled and writes back, “I am, with all the ardor of youth, yours.”

This husband who at this time holds the unglamorous role of Vice President of the United States is, of course John Adams and the lonely wife is Abigail. The book is David McCullogh’s new John Adams, a book which is every bit as much fun as it sounds in all those interviews you keep seeing on cable.

As I read it I cannot help but wish that more of the romance novels of 2001 were about people, real people falling in love. The 1990’s were a real breakthrough in romance. Let’s hope another such era comes along soon. We are due.



Time to Post to the Message Board

Here are the questions we’d like to have you consider this time:

histbut Is it Them or is it Us? So many of us seem to be in romance reading slumps these days that it’s necessary to ask whether or not the problem lies in the readers or in the publishers. How would you answer that question?

histbut A Change of Heart – When Laurie and I first talked about a “golden age of romance” last year, we resisted the idea but have since come around. Do you think the late 1980’s/early (to mid) 1990’s were the golden age of romance? When did you come to that conclusion? If you’ve never bought into that, let’s hear from you as well!

histbut Where is the Romance Coming from These Days? For those of you who read a variety of sub-genres, which of them feature the best love stories? LLB, for instance, is finding better romances in the less-read Regency Romances of the last few years while I’ve been mostly disappointed in contemporaries of late. What about you?

histbut The Series Romance – Both LLB and I have talked about the dangers in turning to series romances when the pickings seem slim. Yes – they are short and easy to read – but are they, on the whole, also less well written than full-length romances? Have we partially put ourselves into romance reading ruts by turning to series romances rather than searching longer and harder for single titles to read?

histbut Edgar Bergen’s Lips – Do you find that you’re looking for Edgar Bergen’s lips to move when you’re reading romances these days? In other words, has romance formula-itis set in and you’re more aware of the themes and character types that fill today’s romances? Is this becoming a distraction for you in your reading?

histbut You & Your TBR Pile – When you look at your TBR pile, do you see books that you think would get you out of your slump but resist reading them anyway? Why? LLB, for instance (who seems to finally be out of her slump after reading several good Regency Romances), feared her slump was so extreme she wouldn’t even be able to enjoy those romances everyone else did, leaving her nowhere to turn. On the other hand, I had made it a goal to read more new romances. I also resisted finishing the backlists of certain favorite authors so that I could have something to look forward to in the future. What about you?


— Robin Nixon Uncapher



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