Last year I wrote a column asking romance readers to examine their feelings about age and sexuality. The romance publishing world is grappling with an uncomfortable problem. Young women haven’t been buying romance novels with the same voracious enthusiasm as their mothers. The audience for romance novels is growing older. The question I asked was whether publishers find this alarming, not only because they will lose readership as romance readers die, but because they find it creepy that women over “a certain age,” like to read about love and sex.
And, I asked, aren’t we all a bit guilty of feeling the same way?
When I wrote that column, many readers commented about the ages of the heroines and heroes that they like to read. Some readers were fine reading about heroines of any age but others privately wrote that early 19th century heroines in their 40s were somewhat creepy. (Would they still have their teeth?) Many readers said that they enjoyed young heroines in historicals, but strongly preferred older ones, late 20s at least, for contemporaries. The reason they gave was simple, in 1815 getting married at 18 was a far more reasonable and typical thing than it is today.
Recently I have wondered if custom is all there is to our rejection of young heroines in contemporary romance. I understand the feeling. Like many older readers I find myself uninterested in a contemporary hero or heroine under the age of 26. This might seem reasonable – until you examine my history. At 26 I had been married for three years! Why could I not identify with a heroine who met and married at the same age?
The answer is this. The age in my head is tied to the shared experience of my generation. What is “too young,” is not really age. Fall in love with a hero who grew up watching Barney? Eweee! Fall in love with an 18 year old hero who’s protesting the war in Vietnam? No problem.
When was the last time you read a romance novel where the twenty-something characters really sounded young? Sometimes its tough for even the most well meaning of writers to write about a generation to which they do not belong.
Even people who are uniquely attuned to trends can be out of touch with language of a younger generation. A few months ago, my daughter Lizzy and I were watching an old rerun of What Not To Wear. A 23-year-old woman received a makeover, changing from what Clinton Kelly and Stacy London referred to as “Goth,” to what they deemed “young professional (though I think Clinton dubbed one of her new outfits “sexy secretary” – groan.)
Lizzy agreed with the What Not to Wear hosts that the girl needed new clothes for the office, but every time they used the word “Goth,” she groaned. “She’s not Goth,” said Lizzy, “She’s Emo. And she’s bad Emo. They don’t need to change her to boring cloths. They just need to change her from bad Emo to stylish Emo.”
What, I asked, was Emo? (Up until then I thought that Emo was a bright orange Sesame Street character.)
Emo, explained Lizzy, is a certain sensibility. Emo kids like sad poetry and clothing which shows discontent, sensitivity and seriousness-but they might also have cute touches, such as purple hair. Emily Dickinson, said Lizzy, is very Emo.
Ah, I said, Emo is the 21st century version of girls who used to wear black turtlenecks and read Sylvia Plath.
“Well,” said Lizzy, “maybe. But some Emo boys wear girls jeans.”
At this point I stopped trying to interpret Emo but I will say this: Emo is one of those terms that belongs to a generation. An Emo heroine grew up watching Barney, and not Captain Kangaroo.
Which brings me to my point. When was the last time you read a contemporary romance novel where the characters, hero or heroine, really sounded young?
I thought of this while reading Rachel Gibson’s latest, Tangled Up in You. The book’s hero and heroine are in their thirties. The heroine listens to George Thorogood. The Dukes of Hazzard is mentioned as a childhood TV show. A friend is described as a member of the class of 1990. And yet, somehow I am not sure I believed it. It’s not that the hero and heroine seemed older, or younger, than people in their thirties. They just didn’t seem to be any age in particular. Tangled Up in You, like many romance novels, takes place in a small town, where much of the culture seems timeless. A roadside bar has banned women throwing panties. A local divorcee seems to be going for the town slut award. These things might seem youthful and they are, but they are youthful in a general way, not in a specific way.
At one point the heroine smells something and thinks it’s Dippity-do. Do they still make Dippity-do, she wonders? Hmm. I smiled at the joke and then wondered if the question might strike younger readers the way a question about Moxie soda would strike me. After all, I grew up in the age of Dippity-do, but I am fairly sure I would not remember the smell. Would someone 20 years younger than me even know about Dippity-do?
I love the way Rachel Gibson writes, and I have no problem with the situation. The love and the humor are timeless. Maddie, the heroine, is a true crime writer whose mother was murdered. The mother, by the way, comes across a very much a child of the 60s. She’s a woman whose diary says she fell in “luv.” Now there is a word that can only be from the early 70s.
Rachel Gibson’s characters have at least some features that mark them as thirty-something. Many romance novels have few or none. The quintessential romance small town doesn’t seem to exist in any discernable time and many characters seem blandly thirty-something with no unique memories of a childhood in the seventies and eighties.
Why are many twenty-something readers bored with romance novels? Maybe they are bored because they don’t see much in them that reflects their generation – its slang, its music, its fashion, its habits. Twenty-somethings these days hold many more jobs, get more graduate degrees, live with parents longer, and date a more diverse group of partners than their parents. They text message constantly. They use cell phones constantly. When was the last time you read a book where a Caucasian heroine dated an African American, or an Indian-American or Chinese American…and it was no big deal? That is the twenty-something generation and it’s seldom shown in romance novels.
Chick Lit has done a far better job of producing books that seem rooted in a given generation. Shake your head if you like, but concepts like Emo are what Chick Lit thrives on.
If I think back to my own twenty-something years, today’s romance world seems bland. In the 70s my friends were falling in love and…gasp…living in sin! (Laugh if you want but our parents used that phrase without irony.) Our parents were appalled at the lack of morals, horrible language (lots of swearing) and downright contrariness of the new generation. There was an immense amount of intergenerational arguing – which explains why most of my friends would rather have lived with twenty roommates than live at home with their parents. In the 70s a 25-year-old woman lived in a different world than one who was 35. Many 35-year-olds, after all, were home taking care of children, while twenty-somethings were entering a world where young men did not expect to support a wife. You really could not write a book where it was unclear as to which generation the heroine belonged.
In the last column about age I asked, “What age are you when you dream?” If you are 50 you may dream of being twenty, but the odds are low that you will have purple hair. On the other hand if you are 25 now, will you believe that a heroine who never uses her cell phone is your age?
So here’s my suggestion to romance publishers: if you want younger readers romance publishers, its time to write heroines who really seem to be young themselves…even if some of them are Emo.
Questions To Consider:
AAR’s readership – and review staff – reflects readers of many ages (two of our reviewers, for instance, currently attend college). If it is true that younger women are not reading romance in the numbers that women who came of age earlier read romance, why do you think that is so? Do you think publishers should try to capture this younger readership, and if you think they are trying to do so, where and how do you see it?
Do heroines in contemporary romances seem to be their ages? Does your own age affect how you feel about them?
Is there a difference between the way you identify with a historical heroine or a contemporary one? Does age enter into this?
Do you think you will continue to read romance throughout your life? Do you think your perspective on it will change as you grow older? How?
Let’s talk about feminism. Many say that the perhaps overly-strident efforts of the first and second wave of feminists led to the feminist backlash that continues today, but without them, the opportunities now available to women would not exist. Curiously, though, many young women do not identify themselves as feminists, even though they have reaped the benefits of feminists in their mother’s generation. And, of course, the notion that romance is anti-feminist continues to be a widely held belief – even though it’s been thoroughly debunked both by study and anecdotal evidence. Where do you weigh in on this complicated subject?
A recent documentary on TV, focused on 25-year-old women and the so-called quarter-century crisis many believe they are living through. Forbes ran a similar cover story on new college graduates. People in their twenties often see group dating, “job-hopping”, and “one-night stands” differently than their parents. The same is true of dating people of different races and cultures. How much do you see of this in romance? Does there need to be more?
Would it make a difference to you if a heroine twenty years younger than you was of your generation? Would you be able to identify with her more easily?
How young were you when you first fell in love? Are we all the same inside when we fall in love?