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At the Back Fence Issue #186

From the Desk of Laurie Likes Books:

September 1, 2004

Welcome to At the Back Fence. This time I continue our multi-column segment on beloved romance characters with my discussion on heroines to love (last time we talked about heroes; next time we’ll do couples). Then AAR reviewer Leigh Thomas, our resident series romance expert, weighs in with a defense of series romance.

Heroines to Love

It was a lot simpler to devise my list of favorite romance heroes than it’s been to come up with my list of favorite heroines. My sense from reading the ATBF MB leads me to believe that’s likely the case for many a reader, and it begs this simple question: Why?

I think Laura Kinsale  answered this correctly in an essay she wrote forDangerous Men and Adventurous Women many years ago, and it’s one of a few essays from the book I often turn to for answers. And I’m not alone in this; we’ve excerpted or otherwise written about Kinsale’s essay a few times in the past, but most recently in August 2002,in a segment by Anne Marble entitled “Vikings & Knights & Indians, Oh My!” In her segment, Anne wrote: “In her article [Kinsale] talks about placeholding and reader identification, which are not one and the same. When a reader puts herself in the heroine’s position she is placeholding – she has the same experiences of the heroine, but does not accept the heroines’ reactions, words, or emotions as her own. Reader identification, on the other hand, occurs when the reader becomes the character, feels what the character feels, and is somehow under the control of that character. Because in a romance, Kinsale argues, the hero carries the book, readers identify with the hero even as they are also the ‘placeholder heroine.'”

Although this makes good sense to me, I know it’s not a universally held belief among readers, so let’s consider the basic question again at the end of the column. But there’s also something more elemental at work – good old-fashioned chemistry. Romance novels are written primarily by women, for women, and as most women are straight, it stands to reason that we would find heroes of primarily interest in our reading of romance novels. As much as I love my women friends, they simply can’t compete with the male of the species in terms of attraction excitement, and lust. Then too, most women find men as mysterious as men seem to find women; they may not be Mars to our Venus, but men and women are different.

As Robin reminded me on the phone last week, one of the joys of reading a romance novel is the fantasy of being able to fall in love with a hero. With that said, however, in order for me to enjoy a romance novel, I’ve got to eventually like both the hero and the heroine. I need to know why she fell in love with him, and vice versa. If I don’t like either (or both) and/or can’t figure out the attraction, the book is going to fail for me.

So what kind of heroines do I gravitate towards in my romance reading? I’m kind of on both ends of the spectrum here. I adore intelligent and snarky heroines but equally adore women who must constantly prove themselves – either to the world, or simply to their heroes – and I think that’s reflected in my list of absolute favorite romance heroines.

As with my list of favorite heroes, I worked solely with my DIK-only reads, and as a result some heroines who are no doubt wonderful were left out. But when considering the group of women below as a whole, they are intelligent (albeit sometimes quirky), most often independent, and have a strong sense of humor, the absurd, and honor.

Heroine Romance Type
Born in Fire *
Castles *
A Family for Gillian
Love Lessons
My Dearest Enemy *
Sea Swept *
Then Came You *
Velvet Bond
The Vicar’s Daughter
A Well Pleasured Lady

Most of the heroines from my list are strong women. Some engage in activities and/or behaviors not generally associated with romance heroines. Where does this inner strength and fortitude come from? Often its basis is an underlying personal struggle. Adversity is a wonderful motivator in life, but it also does its damage to self-esteem, which can push people toward greatness, or at least into proving themselves.

When I interviewed Anne Stuart a few years ago, she commented that although she would likely have been a writer had her childhood been happy instead of “nasty,” she doesn’t discount what those difficult years did for her creativity. Maggie (Born in Fire) would no doubt have been an artist anyway, but can we discount the importance on her incredible glass art of her torment at her mother’s hands?

The fact is, what we as individuals endure growing up plays an important part in our adult persona, and this in itself works into the whole fantasy aspect of romance novels. What fairy-tale heroine didn’t endure some level of hardship before earning her HEA? What romance novel heroine doesn’t have to eventually fight for what she deserves, whether in childhood, or in love? Can’t we all relate to that?

Heroines may suffer from low self-esteem, or suffer from being held in low esteem by their heroes. I’ve never endured this kind of treatment from my husband, but I did grow up believing my family didn’t approve of me, so it’s no surprise this type of fantasy resonates so strongly in my own psyche. Not all of the heroines on my list are held in low esteem, but many do feel like outsiders. Who among us has never felt on the outside looking in?

It’s harder to pin down just what draws me so strongly to some of these women, but I greatly admire inner strength and stubborn tenacity, even when it leads a heroine to fight something that might make her happy in the long run. As someone accustomed to needing the last word, I love the “good fight” some of these women put up, and understand the intensity and personal code of ethics that drives them. So there’s a relatability factor of sorts at play regarding most of the heroines I love. But that’s not always the case; at times it’s simply a matter of fantasy. I may fall in love with a heroine even if I cannot relate to her; it’s her beauty, wit, goodness, or even her sexuality that makes her lovable.

Here are my descriptions of these wonderful fictional women:

  • Maggie from Born in Fire is a brilliantly talented glass artist living in Ireland. Though loved by her father, she has a difficult relationship with her mother, and because she saw no love between her parents, she’s determined to live her life alone. She’s consumed by her art, she’s sexual, she’s selfish, and she can be quite the bitch…what’s not to love? Truly, though, I don’t love her only because she’s written unlike 3/4 of all romance heroes, I love her for herself, for her torment, for her talent, and for her independence. An interesting aside – my sister recently asked for contemporary romance recommendations. This was the first book I put in her hand and she loved it, and not only because of her own difficult relationship with our mom.
  • Alesandra from Castles is the epitome of the Julie Garwood heroine. She’s beautiful, clever (even clever enough to know when it’s to her advantage to hide her intelligence), quirky, and lovable in the extreme. She can be exasperating because, at times her logic is understood only by herself, but she’s resourceful and kind. Yet she’s no Girl Scout; she’s passionate and fires the blood of her hero. She can create chaos in an instant, but that’s because she inspires such strong feelings of adoration from others that they immediately leap about to help her in her quests. In my fantasies, I am Alesandra. And as a list-maker of the highest order, I cannot help but adore a woman who keeps a list of her lists.
  • Gillian from A Family for Gillian is not the sort of “wild child” readers associate with a heroine who will (pretend to) ruin herself to avoid marriage, but that’s precisely what she does…and ends up married regardless. She moves into a strange house in a strange land to live among people who really don’t want her there, and manages to become so integral to their existence with her common sense and caring that they fall in love with her. She breathes life back into a husband whose insides died along with his first wife, and helps his children get on with their lives without fear. That she’s lonely and dying for love and deserving of love adds poignance, but she remains true to herself throughout.
  • Though Love Lessons is a short story, Linnet makes my list because we all know that good things come in small packages. This is a short story, but it packs a wallop, as does Linnet herself. She breaks through all the defenses of a very stubborn man not for herself, but to convince him that her sister is as deserving of happiness as his brother even if they’re not of the same class. She doesn’t do this by being a mealy-mouthed wimp; she matches him in personal fortitude and intellect, and goes him one better, at least initially – she isn’t judgmental about those she loves. Without her strengths her hero would never have grown to match her even on that level.
  • Somehow three Lily’s made my list of favorite heroines, and Lily from My Dearest Enemy is first of the three. We’ve all read Victorian romances featuring suffragette heroines, but rarely has one felt as real as Lily, who, rather than being an “abstract” suffragette, had real reasons to feel as she did about the treatment of women – and married women in particular. My Dearest Enemy was published in the same year as Sea Swept, and I remember how difficult it was to fill out my ballot for favorites that year. In the end I voted Lily as my favorite feisty heroine and Anna Spinelli as my favorite heroine, but both remain close in my memory.
  • My list’s second Lily is featured in Scoundrel, my very first five heart review when I was at The Romance Reader. Lily falls in love with a hero who tells her to stop looking at him with love in her eyes. Yes, he’s the hero done wrong by the evil first wife who knows all women will eventually betray him, but Lily proves him wrong. Yes, he takes a long time to come to this realization, and she suffers for it along the way, but she endures it with grace and humor, and proves herself more than worthy of his love. Watching Lily go from a beautiful young woman everyone believed was brainless into a woman confident enough to save both herself and her hero was a delight, and seeing her break through his cynicism and coldness little by little by loving him did it for me.
  • Most readers who loved Sea Swept fell in love with its maleness, the dirty socks, beer, pizza and burps shared by the three adopted Quinn brothers. I did too, but I also fell in love with the woman who tamed Cam Quinn, so much so that by the time the two appeared in Chesapeake Blue, set years and years later, I still believed in their love, which never would have happened had Anna not been the woman she was. She turned a selfish womanizer into a family man by demanding he be a better man. Anna is one of the most “adult” heroines I’ve read, and I love her for it.
  • Lily from Then Came You was, at the time I read it, a most unique character. She wasn’t a virgin, behaved outrageously, fiercely protected those she loved, and was desperate to find her kidnapped child. But she was also alone, with no one to turn to for help, and felt her reputation made it impossible for her to trust others with her secrets. It takes a special kind of man to fall in love with such a unique woman, but it takes a very special kind of woman to bring out such love in a straight-laced man that he would eventually accept and even revel in her outrageousness.
  • Catherine from Velvet Bond is forced to marry a man who blames her for their being compromised. Though the attraction is strong, he will not give an inch, and she is forced to seduce him into providing satisfaction for their marital bed. I have a fondness for romances featuring heroes who are the only ones obtuse about how wonderful their heroines are, and this may be the granddaddy of them all. What makes it work is that after everyone else has come to love Catherine, he still refuses to see her as she really is…until eventually she confronts him about his actions and behavior and forces the point. It’s a powerful scene, one I still remember nearly a decade after first reading it.
  • Charlotte from The Vicar’s Daughter makes my list for reasons altogether different from these other women. She’s not got their moral gravitas, but she’s just so delicious, so beautiful, intelligent, and unaware of her own allure. Other than being a klutz, about the only imperfect thing about Charlotte is that she doesn’t know how perfect she is, and so doesn’t assert herself into getting what she wants. Luckily fate intervenes. I say this as a straight women who lusts only for men; if I were a man, I’d want to do her. Initially that’s just about the only thing the hero wants from her, until he realizes that by turning his world upside down she’s brought joy and contentment into it.
  • After what she sees as a emotional, girlish mistake, Mary from A Well Pleasured Lady became a wet rag, a martinet, and a stickler for propriety. She presents a stony veneer that seems impenetrable, until she meets up with the hero, who determines to break down her walls. Given the explosive reaction to this book it may seem odd that she’s on my list of favorite heroines, but I love characters who live by a moral code so strong that it makes them seem inhuman. Mary is eventually forced to realize that the premise upon which she built her moral code was flawed. This might prove devastating to many, but not our Mary, which is why I love her.

According to my list above of 11 favorite romance, a nearly 2/3 majority are featured in dark romances. Unlike my favorite heroes, each of whom was written by different authors, Nora Roberts contributed two heroines to this list. Perhaps most interestingly, (see asterisks) five of the heroines listed are “matched” with heroes listed last time (and two of those were in Nora Roberts romances); I guess this gives me a heads-up for next time when we tackle favorite couples.

I mentioned last time how it never ceases to amaze me how relatively few light romances I’ve granted DIK status in comparison with dark romances given how much I enjoy the lighter side of romance. Fewer than 40% of my DIK’s are light romances. And just about 2/3 of my favorite heroes and heroines are written in dark romances.

(Type Romance) % of All DIK’s % of Fave Heroes % of Fave Heroines
Light Romance 38% 25% 18%
Light/Dark Romance 6% 8% 18%
Dark Romance 56% 67% 64%

I can’t wait to hear about your favorite heroines, whether most are in light, dark, or combination romances, and why it is you love them. Did their behavior inspire you, were they women you’d choose as friends, did they make you laugh, or perhaps some other reason altogether led you to choose them? And finally, does your list look differently if you include only DIK reads than it might if you include all the romances you’ve read?

AAR’s Leigh Thomas is about to take over the column with a segment “in defense” of series romance. But I’ll preface the discussion with this: I think there are three different groups of romance readers, the first features readers of all kinds of romance. The second primarily read series romance while those in the third and final group don’t read series romance at all. It’s from the first and third group that the following questions arise over and over: Is the best series romance as good as the best single title romance? Is the grading scale for series romance the same as it is for single title romances? Leigh argument is made well, but think about these questions both before you read the following segment, and then again after. I can’t wait to hear your answer.

In Defense of the Series Romance (Leigh Thomas)

This may be an odd time to write a defense of the series romance, since series books in general are weaker than they’ve ever been. It’s generally accepted that the future of romance novels lies not with series books, but single title releases. Despite Harlequin’s furious attempts to spin new lines targeting everything under the sun, the number of series lines out there has consistently shrunk over the years. No other publisher even bothers with them anymore, Loveswept having given up in 1998 and Zebra more recently. More importantly, the quality that once could be found in series titles is in increasingly short supply. But there is a very big difference between what a series romance can be and what the vast majority are these days. It may be more important than ever to examine what a series title can be. Perhaps if more books were like that, the format wouldn’t be dying.

I enjoy the series romance format, and I read a ton of them. A check of my Reviewer’s Favorite page will reveal that many of my favorite romances ever are series books. I love the compact length of them, which, when done right, can be perfect for telling a great story. While I know this is a comment that would be (and has been) met with horror and disbelief in some quarters, I believe a series book can be just as rich, just as satisfying, as a single title release.

I know all the criticisms of series books –

I know all the criticisms of series books –

  • They’re too short to develop a good story.
  • They’re all the same.
  • They’re not well-written.
  • They’re unrealistic.
  • They’re dated.
  • They’re fluff.
  • They’re piffle.
  • They’re disposable crap.
The fact is, these criticisms are true about many series books. It is not true about all of them. Are most series romances mediocre, if not downright terrible? Yes. The same can be said about romance novels in general. Many are mediocre – some are terrible. But the same can also be said of fiction in general. There’s a lot of mediocrity out there. Most romance readers will defend the genre to its detractors despite the presence of a lot of crap on the market.
The Linda Howards and Ruth Winds and Carla Kellys of the romance world don’t deserve to have their books called garbage just because they’re working in a genre that produces many bad books each year. So why should the books of truly great series authors be disdained simply because the authors are working in the same medium as many not-so-good ones?

Harlequin/Silhouette does produce more bad books than any other publisher. That seems like an expected consequence when you produce vastly more books than anyone else. I don’t believe that means there’s anything inherently inferior in the format. It means it’s not being executed to its full potential. I’ve read series books that demonstrated all that the form can be – when done right, a series romance can be tremendous and tell a story with depth and feeling. A series romance can create memorable characters and stir the emotions. A series romance can be groundbreaking and unique.

Some say they’re too short to develop a good story. I say they’re short enough to keep the author from losing track of her story and having something go horribly awry. Bigger isn’t always better, and shorter doesn’t necessarily mean weaker either. That’s like saying literary short stories or novellas aren’t literature because they’re short and don’t have the scope and size of an epic tome. I simply don’t believe that’s the case. A short story can resonate with a reader just as well as a long one. Just think of all the fairy tales, and myths, and legends that have survived for centuries. They’re short, often simple, but they’ve lasted because they deliver stories that still manage to fascinate and resonate with people. A story doesn’t need to be long or overly complicated to strike a chord within a reader and be memorable. As long as it taps into a core human emotion, as long as it delivers a story that people can relate to on a basic level, as long as it is just plain compelling, a short story, and a shorter novel, can be just as powerful as a long one.

I know there are many readers who want to really wallow in the characters’ lives and emotions, and only by spending several hundred pages with those characters do they feel that they really know them. Obviously, those readers aren’t necessarily going to be as satisfied with a shorter book that doesn’t afford them that opportunity. But even if a series book doesn’t let the reader spend eons of time with characters, the alternative isn’t necessarily weaker. When it comes to literary fiction, I do tend to read shorter works than massive novels. I’m used to reading stories where a single moment can illuminate a person’s entire personality. Those moments can be incredibly powerful, and often I wouldn’t exchange them for all the carefully measured, gradually advanced character development in the world. When the hero in Bethany Campbell’s A Thousand Roses breaks down and bears his soul to the heroine, and all his prior behavior clicked into place, I knew everything I needed to about him.

Think series books are simple, stupid stories without any depth or meaning? Sorry, but lines like Harlequin Superromance and Silhouette Intimate Moments were exploring real people and the issues they deal with long before single-title contemporary romances entered the same terrain. A check down the list of RITA winners in the Long Contemporary Category shows a long history of hard-hitting stories. This year’s winner, The Top Gun’s Return by Kathleen Creighton, was about a woman whose husband returned home after being held captive in Iraq for seven years. While I personally thought the book’s intentions were more admirable than the final product, it’s hard to argue that’s the stuff of disposable crap. Are these stories inherently weaker than a 400-page piece of fluff simply because they’re shorter?

Meaty stories can be told in the series format. My favorite romance of 2002, The Night in Question, may have only been 248 pages, but those were 248 pages of raw, gut-wrenching emotion, the sheer impact of which was more powerful than any single-title I read that year (or last year. Or this year). Often these books are meaty precisely because they are series books. The shorter length of a series book can heighten the intensity of the story in a way single titles cannot. There are only so many pages in which to tell a complete story, and one way to make it believable is to have the characters swept up in overpowering emotions. And romance novels are all about emotion. The Night in Question takes place in only a few days, but the depth of feeling the main characters experience in the course of those few days leaves no doubt that they’ve experienced an emotional journey together and come out united on the other side. It would be hard, if not impossible, to sustain that emotional level for an entire book. Instead, extending the same story likely would have diluted the effect. Terri Herrington’s Flashback is a very simple time-travel story that is powerful because of the short time the characters have together and the urgency that gives their relationship. It could have been fleshed out more in a longer book, but it would have lost much of what gives it its power in the process.

To me, there’s something pure about the series format. The shorter length leaves less room for digressions. Increasingly I read single-titles that don’t develop the romance any better than a series book does. Instead, the extra pages are simply filled with extraneous material. More secondary characters. More subplots. Side romances. Extended suspense elements. Padding. In general, I find that series books do a better job keeping the focus where it should be: on a few specific characters and their story. That’s what I want to read about. To be caught up in the lives of these people and their story. Bigger books often don’t – or can’t – give the people at its core the attention they deserve. Series books do. I’d take most of Suzanne Brockmann’s series books, which focus on telling an actual romance, over one of her overly busy, how-much-can-I-cram-into-one-book single-titles.

Not all stories can sustain a single-title length story (at least not without padding from extraneous subplots). They’re too small. Does that mean they’re inherently weaker than more complicated and involved tales? I don’t think so. Sometimes the simplest ones are the most affecting. Flashback is one example. Margot Dalton’s French Twist plays out like one of those movies whose characters are destined to be together, even though the audience knows they won’t unite until the end. The characters both love each other but never quite manage to connect, a plot far too slight for a single-title but so sweet and touching that it deserved to be told. Emily McKay’s Perfectly Sexy is a book with two main characters, a few supporting characters who remain firmly in the background, and no subplots whatsoever. I know some readers may find it boring. There’s no high drama. No action. Just two people talking, connecting, getting to know each other, and falling in love. Would it have been better if there was more extraneous plot interrupting their discussions and keeping them apart? Not to me.

It’s especially difficult to relegate series books to a separate class of romance when an increasing number of single-titles are nothing but longer series romances. Lorraine Heath didn’t move up the ranks from series romance into single titles, but her most recent contemporary, although better written than the average category, screamed “series romance to me,” using the formula from start to finish. The shrinking lengths of single-titles also makes it hard to say they offer room for more story and character development. Some Warner Forevers and Berkley Sensations barely come in at more than 300 pages. And many single-titles are no less formulaic or more original than series books, employing the same gimmicks that have been beaten to death (then stomped on, then beaten some more) in the series world. If the problems found in series books are the same ones often found in single-titles, it hardly seems fair to ghettoize one format as being lesser than the other.

On the other hand, there are series books that manage to stretch the boundaries of the format, that really are longer books than their page counts would lead you to believe. Books like Patricia Potter’s Home for Christmas, Beverly Bird’s Compromising Positions, and M.J. Rodgers’ To Have Vs. To Hold, all of which are keepers for me, clock in at around 250 pages. But the typeface is so small that they’re clearly longer books than your usual 250-page release. The stories bear this out. They have a bigger feel. The first two unfold across a longer length of time. The third is a mystery of dazzling complexity. Yet they’re not single titles masquerading as series books. They’re very much series books because of their tighter focus. They’re each focused on the main characters and the suspense subplots. That’s it. A single title would require much more going on.

Yes, there are series books that take place in a very short amount of time, testing the believability of the relationship. Personally, I’m not bothered by that if the author delivers the emotion to pull it off. In a romance novel, I want to be caught up in the romance of falling in love, not necessarily the minutiae of whether these two people know each other well enough to stay together into their dotage. At the same time, there are series books that take place across a wider range of time. There are books like Kate Hathaway’s Bad for Each Other and Evelyn Vaughn’s A.K.A. Goddess that use complicated flashback structures to expand the breadth of their story. Margaret St. George’s Happy New Year, Darling takes place on a series of different New Year’s Eves across a dozen years. Dallas Schulze’s Together Always is split in two halves which take place fifteen years apart.

One big criticism of series books is that they’re too formulaic. Unfortunately, that’s one criticism I’m less and less able to argue against. Series books are becoming more and more formulaic by the minute (more on that in a while). But not every series book is formulaic. There are authors who have managed to do stunningly creative things with the format. There are series books that have done things I’ve never seen in any genre. Beverly Sommers’s Losing It has a truly unique structure. Jenna Ryan’s The Visitor, and Lisa Harris’ The Tempting are two books that certainly weren’t following any formula I’ve ever seen. More than that, just because a book is formulaic doesn’t mean it’s bad. Talented authors find ways to breathe life into the most standard of formulas, rendering the formula invisible behind the sheer greatness of the story. The Night in Question relies on several formulaic elements common to series romances: the socialite heroine, the FBI agent hero, the key role played by the heroine’s child. It felt like no other book I’ve read that contain the same elements.

Basically, my belief in series books comes down to my main belief in books in general: exceptional writers will produce exceptional stories. Great authors find ways to deliver great stories even in the most restrictive of formats. It’s the mediocre writers who are undone by the genre, delivering all that is required and nothing more.

Often when I finish a particularly satisfying series book, I remember the lesser status they hold in the minds of many readers and I consider, “Would this book be better if it was longer?” Sometimes the answer is yes. Sometimes there were little things that could have been explained better or expanded if the book were a little bit (though not an extraordinary amount) longer. Sometimes it’s simple greed, wanting more of a great thing. But often, the answer is no. If a complete story has been told, even if it’s a short one, and it’s been emotional, or deeply satisfying, or sheerly entertaining, then how can I ask for more? Romance novels really are all about emotion. It can be passion, it can be humor, it can be heartache, it can be longing, it can quite simply be love. If a story can deliver that emotion, telling a story so compelling and relating characters so memorable that they are destined to remain with the reader, they deserve to be judged accordingly, as good books period. There are series books that deliver that. That’s why I read them.

Of course, what I’m discussing is great series books, and those are increasingly difficult to find. It would be easier to convince people that series books aren’t disposable crap if Harlequin would stop putting out so much, well, disposable crap.

In the last few months, more news has been coming out of the company indicating that it’s making new efforts to reenergize its series lines. But no one at Harlequin has admitted, for obvious reasons, a major reason why: the decline in quality in the series romance format. They simply aren’t as good as they once were. To be fair, it’s hardly limited to series books. It’s harder to find satisfying romances across the board. But it may be because I read so many series books, and therefore am disappointed more often, that it seems more noticeable.
Here’s a breakdown of the 2004 series releases I’ve read and how I graded them:
Grade # Read # Read
A 2 2%
B 28 23%
C 85 67%
D 11 9%
F 1 1%

That’s not a great record, especially when you consider that how many of those B’s were very tenuous B-‘s that barely made it into the plus column. It’s really sad considering how different this is from a few years ago, when I would have several keepers by now and far more solid B-level reads. There are reasons for the decline in the series format. Besides some of the most often mentioned, here are a few that need fixing:

They’re Getting Shorter

A few months ago, a group of Harlequin Intrigue authors were posting on a message board where several of them mentioned that their editors were asking them to make their books shorter. Authors who usually turned in books on the high end of the 70-75,000 word count range were asked to bring them in on the shorter end, if not lower. This really wasn’t news to anyone who’s been reading the line. When the line first began, the stories started on page 5 and ran anywhere up to the 254th page. Now they begin on page 9 and generally run up to page 248 to 250. More than that, the print and margins are generally bigger. The overall set page count for the line hasn’t changed, but it’s very obvious there is less story there, something reflected in the stories themselves.

This is true across the board. Often times I pick up a Silhouette Intimate Moments or a Harlequin Superromance and I’m astounded by how big the print and margins are. The same goes for the Harlequin Americans, some Blazes, and the occasional Temptation. The new Silhouette Bombshell line (Harlequin/Silhouette’s first series line that is not a romance line, btw) debuted with books around 300 pages long, although a look at titles like Justine Davis’ Proof and Julie Beard’s Kiss of the Blue Dragon show that while the books might be that long, the stories aren’t. Of course this isn’t true for every book in these lines. There are still some books that take advantage of every bit of space offered them in telling their stories. But on the whole, whether by chance or by design, the books are getting shorter.

I have to admit, I don’t understand this. When you’re already offering readers a short book, why offer even less story in them? A complete story can be told in series length, but once you start making them shorter, the things being trimmed are going to be more noticeable. The result is that I find myself reading far more frustrating series books, books with good ideas, books that could be satisfying with a little more development that they could receive, but aren’t. Amanda Stevens’ Secret Passage was a book with a great idea and solid storyline that simply needed to be fleshed out more. The amount of white space in that book indicated there was more than enough room to do so. I ultimately graded Carrie Weaver’s The Second Sister, an August Superromance, a C+, because while there were very many wonderful things about it and the right story points were all present, it was too sketchy, zipping by without the development the big moments needed to really have an impact. Again, big print, big margins.

Last month I read two of the July Blazes that perfectly demonstrated both the better side of series romance and what we usually get. In Jamie Denton’s Absolute Pleasure, the author made more of an attempt to develop her characters as people than is often seen. The procedural elements of the suspense subplot were believable, and the book was well-written. It felt like every page with filled with story. For the most part, it was a success. On the other hand, Shannon Hollis’ His Hot Number was shallow and thin, with enough story for a 220-page Temptation but nowhere near enough for a 250-page Blaze. Even if this wasn’t clear enough from the story itself, the large print and huge margins were a dead giveaway. The size of the margins indicated that the book probably could have been repaginated with more normal borders and printed as a Temptation, saving the lives of more than a few trees. Or, even better, the author could have filled up that blank space by giving more development to her characters, who I only knew the barest facts about by the end, and her suspense plot, which was straightforward and dull.

I do believe that a satisfying story can be told in series length. But only when you tell a complete story, not the bare bones of one.

Gimmicky and Good vs. Gimmicky and Bad

I’m not going to argue that Harlequin/Silhouette shouldn’t publish so many baby, cowboy, etc. books. The company obviously believes that the number of readers they gain by flooding the marketplace with these gimmicks far outweighs the number they drive away by offering nothing but the same thing every month. Different readers like different things, so it may be true that the masses are clamoring for more of these plotlines. Whether the short term sales benefits are worth the potential costs of driving people away in the long term can only be decided by the company. But I will contend that the publisher isn’t doing itself any favors by printing so many bad books simply because they contain these storylines.

It would be nice to be able to count on a publisher to print only the very best manuscripts out there, but we can’t. Harlequin in particular has a set number of books that have to be published every month, and those slots are going to be filled whether or not there are good books to fill them. Publishers don’t print what they think is good. They print what they think will sell, and Harlequin will publish a bad book if it has the right hook. I know there are Harlequin editors and authors who will deny it to the end, but I’m not buying it. A few years ago though I stopped reading amnesia books for a while after I read three in a row that were just terrible. Bad characters, bad plots, bad books. The only possible reason I could think of why they were published was because they were amnesia stories.

And why shouldn’t Harlequin publish those books? Most series books don’t sell because the story is good. They sell because the cover and back cover blurb are good. The publisher doesn’t have to worry about bad word of mouth, because there’s no time for that word to spread. Two weeks after a series title hits the shelves, it’s gone, replaced by the next crop. Notice how the Waldenbooks Bestseller List turns over every two weeks.

The reader response to lousy books may not be seen in the short term. Instead, it manifests itself in the long term, as fewer people buy them. As they say, “Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on you.” And what do you know, this is exactly what’s been happening.

One of the more painful examples for me personally is the Harlequin American Romance line. This was one of the very first series I read when I started reading romance. Some tremendous books have been published in this line, including many that are keepers for me. Great authors like Anne Stuart, Kathleen Gilles Seidel, and Barbara Bretton have all written for the line. But in recent years, the quality fell off sharply, and it became more like the Harlequin Gimmicky Romance line. Looking at the books on any given month is like viewing Harlequin’s Greatest Hits. Other than the occasional purchase to see if they’d gotten any better, I stopped reading them once it became clear that the stories being published were populated by clichés and one-note stick figures that bore no resemblance to flesh-and-blood people. Harlequin and its authors like to say that babies sell, brides sell, cowboys sell, etc. The Harlequin American Romance line is built on nothing but babies, brides, cowboys and every other hook Harlequin claims sells so well. It should be Harlequin’s best-selling line. It’s not.

If you think I’m being harsh, keep in mind that even romance writers acknowledge the books aren’t good. It’s been years since a Harlequin American Romance finaled in the RITA competition, judged by romance writers themselves. A check of recent RITA finalists will find every Harlequin/Silhouette line represented almost every year – except Harlequin Americans. Not coincidentally, Harlequin American is the Harlequin line featuring the most shallow and clichéd stories. Also not coincidentally, the company recently stopped acquiring for the line and announced, “Harlequin American is being ‘repositioned’ in the market.” I hope that means, “Made so that they no longer suck.” Wouldn’t it be nice if they started emphasizing quality over clichés?

The Harlequin American Romance example should be taken as a warning by the company. Relying on gimmicks over quality will eventually lead to disaster.

Schizophrenia Within the Lines

On a related note is the lack of consistency within each line. Ten, even five, years ago I could pick up an American Romance or an Intrigue and know what I was getting. Some books were certainly better than others and there were bad books along the way. But there was a certain level of reliability within each line. It’s no longer there. Reading series books nowadays is much more of a gamble. There’s such a wide range within the lines, not in the types of stories being told, but in quality. There is a big difference between an Alison Kent or Vicki Lewis Thompson Blaze and those by many of the other authors, between a Virginia Kantra or Jenna Mills book and those by other Intimate Moments authors. Sometimes it seems that these authors and others like them are operating on a whole other level than their colleagues writing in the exact same lines, so much so that their books shouldn’t even be classified together.

The whole point of the series lines is to give those books an identity and let readers know what they’re getting when they pick up. Yet these days, readers never really know what they’re going to get. Pick up all the books in a line on any given month and the quality will likely be all over the place: a good book, a horrendous one, a mediocre one, and who knows what else. The variations in quality are basically destroying lines from within. When you can read two books from the same line that feel like completely different creatures, it’s hard to define what that line is. Is a Silhouette Intimate Moments a slapdash suspense story with undeveloped characters and an obvious plot, or is it a book that really takes the time to develop its characters and tell a compelling story? Is a Blaze a sexually intense story that pushes the envelope, or is it a string of lame, lukewarm sex scenes connected by a contrived, silly excuse for a plot?

A recent article noted that subscriptions to Harlequin’s series are falling. No surprise there. You’d think the misbegotten Duets line would have taught the company that people are not going to buy extra books without some assurance they’re just as good as the one the reader really wants. People aren’t going to buy two books for the price of one when one is likely better or worse than the other. Likewise, people aren’t going to subscribe to a line when only a few of them are going to be worth the price. Just as publishing good books in general can only help a line’s reputation, publishing varying quality is only going to turn people off the line as a whole, making them less willing to take the chance. Many of the series lines feel like single-title imprints, in the worst way possible: nothing more than a collection of random books with similar premises. If you’re having trouble finding good books, isn’t it better to decrease the number of books published each month (as Intimate Moments is doing) than to publish lesser books and damage the line as a whole?

Xeroxing is Bad

I recently read something that said Harlequin’s market research revealed that the company’s books are increasingly considered stale. Shocking, I know. The reputation is not unearned, but it goes beyond publishing books built on the same ideas over and over again. It’s all in the execution, and often, it’s not there.

Earlier this year in a review of Legally Binding by Ann Voss Peterson, I wrote, “This is a completely by-the-numbers.story by an author who clearly knows all the right elements to use but not how to invest them with any heart or feeling.” The same can be said of the vast majority of the series books published today. Most of the series books I read are competently executed, but that’s it. They’re acceptable. They’re blah. There’s nothing about it that makes it special or memorable. I can remember the details of hundreds of series books I read more than a decade ago. They didn’t all have dazzlingly unique premises that are so much different than series book today. Many of them incorporated the same elements. But they were that vivid. They were that interesting. Going through the list of series books I’ve read this year, I couldn’t tell you a thing about most of them.

Part of the problem has already been mentioned on the boards: the caliber of new writers being signed. It’s like when Friends became a hit all those years ago. Every network tried to copy the template. The copycat shows’ writers had seen the original, but the shows came across exactly what they were: copies. That’s what many series books based on hooks come across as, pale imitations with none of the quality that made their forebears popular. I’ve read so many series books where the author clearly knows the right ingredients to use, but can’t deliver a satisfying meal because it lacks all flavor. She’s regurgitating, not bothering to put her own stamp on the story, not digging into the story to make it her own.

Many times in recent years I’ve found myself wishing every book had to contain a note from the author or publisher explaining why the reader should buy the book. What does this book have that no other romance out there has? What makes it different from all the other books the reader may have read with a similar storyline? Does it take a different approach to familiar material? Are these characters so vivid and compelling that the reader will care about them and want to follow them? Is this love story so emotional the reader will never forget it? Is the plot so clever the reader’s mind will be blown? Is the dialogue so witty or the language so lush the reader will savor every word? Is it incredibly sexy? Shocking and suspenseful? What is the one thing that makes this book stand out from all the rest?

Usually, I can’t see any find anything that makes a particular book different from the thousands of other series stories Harlequin has published. The author doesn’t do anything special with it. She doesn’t make the characters so compelling that the reader cares about them as people, instead of cogs in a familiar plot. She doesn’t throw in any twists. She doesn’t wring the emotions from the situation. She doesn’t invest it with so much heart and conviction that it feels fresh and new. The author needs to make it feel as exciting if we’re reading this story for the first time. Most don’t. But series books would be so much better off if they did. Just because readers like reading a certain type of book doesn’t mean they want to read the exact same story. Otherwise, they may as well go back and reread the originals instead of a pale imitation of it.

Yes, series authors have to write within certain constraints. They may even have to incorporate familiar devices. But new things can be done with old building blocks. They can still do things to make their stories special. They can create compelling characters. They can do interesting twists on old material. They can make their story really emotional or really funny or really gripping. Anything to make it stand out, grab the reader, and make it something she will remember. Most don’t, and that, more than anything else, is why so many of them seem stale. Complacency is a very bad thing.

I’m sure there are some writers, and readers, who think I’ve giving far more concern to books that they believe are intended to be pulp. Their books aren’t supposed to be taken so seriously. They’re just supposed to be entertaining little books to keep the reader occupied for a few hours and nothing more. In other words, disposable. Forgettable. Easily digested and nothing more. Which is precisely what many series books are. But not all of them are, and they don’t have to be. They certainly weren’t in the past. A short book doesn’t have to be shallow or simple or dumb. A short book can be well-crafted. It can be well-written. It can be well-developed and memorable and something a reader can cherish for a very long time. It can be everything a longer book is. There are series authors writing those books. If the format continues down its current path, they may no longer have the venue to do so.

Time to Post to the Message Board

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

Name your favorite romance novel heroines, the books they are featured in, and why you love these characters so much. And, although we didn’t discuss this in the column, which heroines from what books did you most dislike, and why?

How important are your feelings about a romance’s heroine as compared to your feelings about a hero? As important, less important, or more important? Was it more difficult for you to list your favorite heroines than heroes, vice versa, or about the same?

How might your list change if you considered books that weren’t your all-time favorites. In other words, do you have favorite heroines who are not in favorite romances? Who might they be, and if you love them, what kept you from loving their stories?

LLB mentioned how her own personal history plays into story line and character type preferences. Does yours, and if so, how?

Do you read series romance? If not, why not. If so, how long have you been reading them, and how have they changed? Are these changes for the better or the worse?

Consider these questions both prior to and after reading Leigh’s segment: Is your personal grading/rating scale for series titles the same as it is for single title romances? In other words, is the best series romance you ever read on a par with the best single title romance you ever read? Or do you tend to have a different scale for rating series and single titles, and if so, why? Did Leigh’s impassioned arguments change your mind about anything related to the series romance?

If you adore series romance, why do you think it is that they are somewhat of the step-child of the step-child romance is in the publishing industry? Is it the covers, the short shelf life, the titles…?

Leigh listed some problems with today’s series romance. Are these the problems you see, or would you add to the list?

TTFN, as Tigger said to Winnie the Pooh,
Laurie Likes Books and Leigh Thomas

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