At the Back Fence Issue #248

December 11, 2006

From the Desk of Robin Uncapher:

Are You Feeling Claustrophobic?

When I first came to AAR I read a column Laurie wrote about long separations and the itchy fingers they caused, meaning that readers were notorious for skipping ahead to find the place where the hero and heroine were reunited. Long separations were common in old books. They usually occurred after the hero and heroine had a long delayed love scene. There was a passionate kiss and a desperate declaration by the hero (such as Darcy’s first proposal in Pride and Prejudice.) The hero fled the scene leaving the heroine to wonder what was going to happen. We’ve all read long separations in books, especially in books where the romance is only part of the story. I pointed out in another column that in Gone With the Wind every time Rhett kisses Scarlett he disappears for a few hundred pages.

How long has it been since you read a book like that? If you are anything like me it’s been quite a while. There are some great things about author’s abandoning the long separation as a plot device. Romance readers want to watch the hero and heroine of a romance interact for long periods of time and the newer books give us that option. This close-up of their time together lets us see a romance build. The couple starts out arguing, then talking, and pretty soon we get to see the hero teasing her. We see her asking about his past. We hear about his broken heart and we read all of the sensuous and erotic thoughts that arise, even before that single kiss explodes. Road romances and cabin romances are famous for this kind of interaction. From the readers’ point of view it can be a story with no meat and potatoes – all or almost all cake and frosting.

But lately I have been wondering if we are all suffering from too many sweets. A downside of a constant diet of cake and ice cream is that you may stop being offered roast beef and mashed potatoes – and when you want them they aren’t there. The one upside of long separations is that the main characters interact with important secondary characters who fill out the story. Those kinds of characters seem to be disappearing. In romance the roast beef and mashed potatoes may be a story that is larger than the couple, or characters that make up the world inhabited by the couple. When was the last time you read a book with a well described shop keeper, butler or governess – one who was not destined to show up in another book but was memorable just for his or her humanity?

 Not long ago an experienced author, one who has written some fabulous books and loves good history as much as I do, sent me a copy of a rejection letter that she had received from her publisher. My friend, whom I will call Jane, pitched an idea for, a dramatic story set in the American West at a critical historical juncture. The proposal included a hero, a heroine and a secondary romance. The editor who reviewed the proposal felt that too much time in the story was spent on the secondary romance. Jane was invited to rewrite the proposal excluding the secondary romance.

Jane wanted me to give her my thoughts on the proposal’s failure. She did not send me the actual proposal, just the rejection, but it hardly mattered, I have read all of this author’s books and had a pretty good idea of the kind of story it was. Seeing that the story was set in the West, I initially jumped to the conclusion that setting was the real problem. Publishers are not buying many Western manuscripts these days. But, after reading the rejection letter more carefully I concluded that I had been mistaken. This publisher still buys Westerns. It’s possible that Jane’s story would have sold as a Regency historical, but the problem cited by her editor was too much of a focus on the secondary love story. From the letter I got the impression that she felt that readers did not have the ability to concentrate on more than one story at a time.

Had this letter been sent to me by a fledgling author or an aspiring author, I probably would have concluded that the editor meant exactly what she said. But Jane is an author whom I know to be extremely skilled at balancing any story. What exactly was the problem here? What was the editor getting at, or assuming that Jane knew?

I thought a lot about this. Jane doesn’t read much romance so I felt the need to fill her in on some of what I heard at RWA last summer and some of what I had been observing myself. Jane let me know that she believed that she could have sold her idea as a Regency and so the first thing I did was to address that issue:

You are absolutely right about being able to sell your stories as Regencies. That is because there are a lot of spots for historical regencies right now. Your biggest problem is that Westerns are not selling, so there are very few spots for them. This means the book you pitch has got to be exactly on target – for Publisher X this would mean a very simple, straightforward book focused on the hero and heroine. There is always more flexibility in sub genres in demand. This changes all the time and I have learned not to get to excited about what I hear unless the trends last three or four years. At RWA in Dallas two years ago, we were told that all Historicals were dead, absolutely dead and Medievals were on there way out and would soon be obsolete. According to the prevailing wisdom even Regency Historicals would never, ever sell again. Successful best selling historical authors like Author Y were being pressured to change to Romantic Suspense. According to the “experts”, nobody but Julia Quinn was selling and everybody had to be like her. (High concept, character-driven with a lot of witty dialogue.) Everyone was told to jump on the Romantic Suspense bandwagon or, failing that, write Chick Lit. Oh yes, they also wanted Contemporary comedy – wacky, wacky comedy.

Guess what? Uh, yeah, you guessed it. Forever lasted about a year. This year in Atlanta we heard that Romantic Suspense is no longer hot (or else they have such a glut of manuscripts written by terrified writers that they no longer need them) – Contemporaries are better but not really hot. Regency Historicals, Scottish Historicals, Paranormals and Erotica/Erotic Romance [and the term “Romantica” was bandied about by editors who don’t work at Ellora’s Cave, which owns the term’s trademark] are big – oh and Inspirational is selling well too. For the first time in years and years Avon is looking for Medievals. Americana is dead and Westerns are on life support. Chick Lit is either stable or dead, depending on whom you talk to. (I suspect the anti-Chick Lit people were doing some wishful thinking because there are tons of Chick Lit books on the market.) Avon is looking for contemporaries that are funny – but not wacky comedy, just kinda funny. One Avon editor said that when they asked for wacky comedy they got a lot of books that were not funny at all. (Well, duh.)

How do you feel about making the hero a vampire?

Those were my initial thoughts about Jane’s letter but the longer the problem rattled around in my brain, the more I wondered if I was correct. Jane’s proposal was for a good story, a romance with the camera pulled back so that the screen took in the entire scene. Her reader would envision a world set in the West including soldiers, wives, sweethearts and Indian men, women and children. Readers would hear the tale of two couples who found love even as they muddled through America’s drama.

It sounded like a great book to me, better than most I pick up. The setting would be an issue for any editor. Not only are Westerns unpopular but the subject of relations between American settlers, soldiers, and Indians is touchy, to put it mildly. But even if Jane’s setting had not been such a challenge, I could see big problem was that Jane’s book was too big a story to fit the current romance formula. What I have been reading in the last few years are not big stories, but little ones with a few characters seen in close up.

Jane hadn’t proposed a huge story, the kind of eight hundred page multi-generational saga that dominated the seventies. But she had proposed a story with a number of characters and two important couples. I don’t know about you, but I don’t read many books these days that fit that description. Suzanne Brockmann is one of the few authors I can think of who is doing it. Most of the romance novels I read have just a few characters in close up, the hero and the heroine. If there are other characters, a brother say, or a best friend, they often have love problems similar to those of the main characters, love problems which I strongly suspect will be addressed in later books by this author. Characters who are not going to be the stars of later books find other ways to be re-cyclable. The cranky grandfather or haughty dowager (like Lady Catherine DeBurgh of Pride and Prejudice) or eccentric old lady with a hidden heart of gold is sure to show up in later books in series like these.

In the past five years, romance novel stories seem to have shrunk until the reader’s internal camera sees only the faces of the hero and heroine. The page number is the same, or almost the same, but the stories are smaller. Thinking of most of the romance novels I have read this year, my mind’s eye views them in close-up.

It’s not that romances don’t include secondary love stories. I recently finished Rachel Gibson’s 2005 The Trouble with Valentine’s Day, which included a secondary love story between the hero’s mother and the heroine’s grandfather. That story was sweet, but it was not a full blown love story. Most of it happened off stage and since it was between the hero’s sixty-something mother and the heroine’s seventy-something grandfather, it was more cute than sensuous. No one reading The Trouble with Valentine’s Day would be preoccupied with wondering if the secondary romance was going to come through.

I enjoyed Gibson’s book, and I also liked Julia Quinn’s recent On the Way to the Wedding. If anyone is the absolute master of the 21st century focus on conversation between the hero and heroine, it is Julia Quinn. Quinn’s characters can keep a conversation about next to nothing going on forever. One good reason for this is the author’s ability to make her characters laugh about universal traits, characteristics that are not tied to one century or another. When I remember a book like Quinn’s To Sir Phillip, with Love, what comes into focus are just hero and heroine close up. The book is neither a cabin nor a road romance but it doesn’t matter. With the exception of the arrival of the heroine’s family (all of whom are part of the series and therefore are recycled into other books) no characters except the heroine and heroine seem important. Compare that, for a moment, with some of the beloved minor characters in Carla Kelly’s Regencies – the charming butler in Miss Milton Speaks Her Mind or the kind Employment Agent in The Lady’s Companion. These characters provided more than another person with whom the hero or heroine could discuss problems relating to the troubled romance. They enhanced the setting and made the world of the book seem more real. In Dicken’s David Copperfield there is a memorable scene where little David goes to the tailor to be fitted for a suit for his mother’s funeral. David is stunned that his mother has died. His stepfather and his stepfather’s sister treat him coldly. Kindness comes in the unexpected gentleness of the tailor and his daughter. The scene is not long, but David never forgets it…and neither do you.

Lately I find that when I look back on many historicals it feels as though the hero and heroine are living in big empty houses by themselves. There is so little description of rooms, servants and the nuts and bolts of life that the characters might almost be living in London flats. Servants might well be robots for all the space they take up in stories. Carriage drivers, ladies maids and dress makers all seem to come from central casting. This seems a bit surprising to me. Most of the movies I watch feature two, even three stories. The television shows, such as Grey’s Anatomy, Rome and The Sopranos all feature multiple stories and lots of supporting characters. It’s surprising that in books, where no additional actors need be hired, detail is fading and the numbers of characters are shrinking.

I am curious about what all of you think of this trend. It’s not that I don’t enjoy the focus on the hero and heroine. I do. I just wonder if we need a little more meat and potatoes now and then.

Questions To Consider:

  • During what decade did you start to read romance? What scope was in style at that time? Is that the style you prefer today?
  • Do too many of today’s romances feel claustrophobic? Does it seem as though it’s all about the hero and heroine, and unnaturally so? Does it seem that the only aspect of a romance – particularly historicals – that isn’t all hero and heroine all the time is a mystery?
  • Would you like to see an expanded scope in what you’re reading today? Discuss some of your favorite romances that do have a larger scope…is that why you liked them as well as you do? Also talk about some of your least favorite romances that are larger in scope and why you didn’t like them? Did the hero and heroine get lost in everything else, and if so, why do you think that happened?
  • Are most other inhabitants of today’s romances either included so they can be set up in future books or do they seem to have come directly from Romance Novel Central Casting? Talk about some authors who create rich worlds for their characters that include three-dimensional secondary and bit players.

Robin Uncapher

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 (AAR uses BYRON for its romance reference needs)

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