At the Back Fence Issue #306

June 9, 2008

From the Desk of Anne Marble:

That’s So Dated!

Since publishers started to reprint older romances, readers have found some of them dated. Books can become dated so easily. When was the last time you read a contemporary romance with characters who smoked or didn’t use cell phones? Or where the characters used the phone book instead of Google?

Chances are it was a reprint. Kayne played a game of Guess the Author on the boards. “Female lead (from older books) has Dorothy Hamill style wedge haircut, sometimes wears pant suits; male lead has a thick pelt of hair (on his head), OK, if you haven’t guessed it yet the female leads always have flared hips.” Answer? Jayne Ann Krentz.

Some readers can accept that older books become dated. xina doesn’t mind reading older books but likes to know that it’s a reprint. I guess like many readers, she hates settling down with a new book, only to come across a scene where the characters watch the latest episode of Dallas. The things that date the book for xina are “mustaches, music choices, and also playing 8 tracks in the cars, clothing choices on women (jumpsuits come to mind, peasant skirts) and of course the lack of cell phones and computers.” Oh, and smoking. She remembers one popular author who had her hero smoke a cigarette and then jog five miles. Yeah, like that’s gonna happen. Although, of course, doesn’t Roarke smoke like a fish in 2060 New York?

Oh, yes. Smoking. Remember that? In 1989, I adored a book called Night Magic by Charlotte Vale Allen. It was a contemporary take on the Phantom of the Opera story. Her disfigured hero smoked. Oh boy did he smoke. The smoking was a part of his character, as if the author had “blocked out” an actor’s stage business by having him smoke. However, what strikes me the most when looking back was that the heroine fell in love with this reclusive thirty-something hero when she was sixteen and married him when she was barely eighteen. And her father allowed them to date! If I reread that book, I wouldn’t mind the smoking as the author wrote it to fit the character and his movements, but I’d have major issues with the age difference. At the time, I accepted it because huge age differences were so common in romances.

Sometimes the premise of a book can seem dated. I finally found a copy of an old Silhouette Intimate Moments I’d wanted to read years ago – In Defense of Love, by Kathleen Creighton (published in 1987) – and sat down to read it over the weekend. It’s about a judge and courtroom artist in Los Angeles who fall in love. Even when the book came out, courtroom artists were considered a dying profession. Can you imagine any high profile trial in L.A. relying solely on courtroom artists? Yet of course, this book came out in 1987, so there were no cameras in the courtroom. Only a sketch artist who fell in love with the judge when they were thrown into danger together. I was also amused when she found a beach towel with the logo from the 1984 Olympics on it. Yet it didn’t bother me. The suspense plot was neat, and how often do you get a glimpse into the life of courtroom artists? Let alone a hero who is a sexy judge. In comparing Creighton’s book against an even older book, I glanced through an Anne Mather Harlequin Presents from 1982, I was startled when it looked as if she had just received a text message, only to read the page and realize she had received… a telegram.

Last night, I was reading an even older book – Betty Neels’ 1973 Enchanting Samantha. The heroine is a nurse, and a Dutch-speaking woman who knows no English ends up on her ward. They can’t communicate with her until her employer, a Dutch doctor (yes, of course he’s the hero) shows up. At one point, he writes a list of Dutch items next to the English translation so that the Dutch woman can point to the item she wants, and the heroine can buy those things for her while she’s out. Today, I wonder if the hospital wouldn’t just hire a translator while she was a patient. Then again, the heroine does have a carpet sweeper…

Being dated is about more than characters who smoke or wear Dorothy Hamill haircuts and pant suits (or leg warmers) and drink Tab while listening to tape players or watching a movie on a VCR. It’s about changes in culture and attitudes as well. So many “barely legal” heroines were paired with heroes who were in their thirties, and even older. Heroines were often nurses, nannies, companions, and sectaries, while heroes could be businessmen, professors, scientists, and of course, tycoons. The heroines in some Gothics, at least those by Elsie Lee and Barbara Michaels, come across as less dated than heroines of most 1970s contemps, even though the Gothics were published a decade or so before.

Niftybergin finds dated attitudes of a different sort in Sandra Brown reprints. The heroines in older Sandra Brown books remind her of Cosmopolitan magazine and Helen Gurley Brown. The heroines not only have jobs, they have good jobs. They’re aware of sex, maybe even sexually adventurous. Yet at the same time, the stories have an undercurrent of sexism, “this feeling of patting the little lady on the behind as you praise her for a job well done. The female characters are very female…very aware of their femininity and how showing just a tad bit of cleavage and a little bit of leg can help them get where they’re going. Except it’s not really so cold-blooded or intentional.” This reminds me of Sandra Brown’s Tempest in Eden, in which the heroine, a nude model, falls in love with a minister. I remember being intrigued by a heroine who was so comfortable with her body that she posed for artists in the nude, but at the same time, uncomfortable with the way she came on to the straight-laced hero, and yet at the same time disappointed with his attitude about her modeling career.

Diana finds lots of sexism and misogynistic heroes in reprints by Brown. She had loved Brown’s Slow Heat in Heaven when she read it about a decade ago, but after a reread, she was appalled. “The men are pigs! What the heck was I thinking 10 years ago giving these books a pass when I’d been out battling sexism in the workplace since the 70s?” I dunno. She also finds misogynists in earlier Elizabeth Lowell and Linda Howard. She likes some of their newer work, but she’s cured herself of the need to reread those older ones. Howard herself, and who knows if Lowell agrees, has referred to her earliest releases as “regressive” and “dated,” and said the story content “has not aged well.”

But attitudes don’t just date contemps – they date historicals, too. Who among us hasn’t opened an older historical and wondered why the heroine put up any of it? The last ATBF talked about applying the “Reasonable Person” test to romance characters. Early in Shirlee Busbee’s The Tiger Lily, when the heroine Sabrina is still a child, the hero, Brett, gives her a “hiding” because she disobeyed him and tried to ride his wild, untamable stallion. They meet again ten years later, when she is 17. Brett calls her “infant” – before long, he is kissing this “infant.” Later, he sees her hug her cousin, and that drives him to a savage jealousy. But despite his throbbing manhood, he keeps calling her “infant” – to which I can only say “Euww.” Later, of course, he calls her a “jade” and a “cheap slut.” But then again, this is the kind of story where after she loses her virginity, the narrative says “She had become a woman that night.” Remember when people used to say that? It makes Johanna Lindsey’s 1980 Viking romance Fires of Winter seem light in comparison, even thought the heroine is enslaved and pushed around, and even though the hero decides to “tame” his slave by bedding her. Of course, she goes from fighting him to wondering “Where was the pain that she feared above all else? And what was this strange sensation that was slowly spreading through her loins?” I think I can answer that for her…

As the back cover copy said, “Everyone loves a Lindsey!” After reading authors such as Rosemary Rogers, I loved Lindsey (and Deveraux and other such authors) because these books didn’t seem so bad by comparison. Looking back, yes, they do make me raise my eyebrows, but they don’t make me want to shoot the hero. Books like early Lindsey strike me as a transition between the utterly nasty men of Rosemary Rogers and more recent heroes. And yes, at one time, many fans thought this sort of story was romantic. Laurie, though, who loved Lindsey’s Prisoner of My Desire (which features some very questionable scenes), reminded me of the author’s Once a Princess, featuring “a hero who treats raping the heroine as part of the courting process.”

Not everyone loved a Lindsey (or a Deveraux or a McNaught), however. Kerstin found many of the heroes’ attitudes dated even when the books came out. She gave up romances because the rape-fest made her cringe. Even then, the stories “seemed absolutely over-the-top and unauthentic.” Kerstin thinks this sort of romance seems more dated because it shows an extreme position of the era in which it was written, which echoes this statement by author Catherine Coulter in a 1998 interview with Laurie about one of her Medievals, which featured a hero who’d raped a woman in a previous book:

Chandra was written in 1982. Let’s not have any revisionist history. This is what you read 14 years ago,” she says. “Back in that time they were like, rape on every continent. Like a box of chocolates – they were wonderful. But everything changes. Everything evolves and the readers and writers have evolved.”

Cora believes that her problem – and Kerstin’s – enjoying 1970s/1980s bodice rippers may be because they were in Europe rather than the U.S. Some think that the bodice rippers were popular because they enabled women to fantasize about sex without having to take sexual initiative. But many Europeans had more liberal attitudes about sex, so the rape-fests did little for them.

Cora also hates dated attitudes, particularly sexism and racism. Something acceptable twenty or thirty years ago can be cringe-worthy or even repulsive today. She stopped reading romance in the 1980s because of the sexism, and was never able to accept the “raped into love” plots. And while she can read and enjoy Georgette Heyer, she cringes when she reads the anti-Semitism, such as the attitudes toward moneylenders. Yulie was also bothered by the anti-Semitism in Heyer. “I know many people think very highly of her work, and she does write well – but I can’t enjoy a book with anti-Semitic content, even if it’s not a major part.” She accepts that those attitudes were more common in Heyer’s day, but “it’s one thing for Shakespeare to have done it 400 years ago; Heyer wrote many of her books after World War II and should have known better.”

I had similar problems when reading a book of old Dick Tracy comics. In one panel, Dick talked with a hotel bellhop. The character was drawn in such an exaggerated caricature that it took me several minutes to figure out he was supposed to be Black! After all, no real Black people looked like that. The cartoon was an eye-opener. On the one hand, I dislike it when those distasteful elements are expurgated in reprints because people should know that they once existed, even if it makes them uncomfortable. On the other hand… “Yuck.”

When it comes to dated things, Cora not only accepts them, she expects the technology, clothing, and so forth to be out of date in an older book. In fact, she prefers reading a book that is “rooted in its time,” even if it’s now dated, than reading books where the authors avoid mentioning fashions, pop culture, etc. to avoid dating themselves. Or worse, reissues that are stripped of dated references. (Doesn’t that take some of the fun out of reading an older book?) After all, even the most generic contemps will date themselves simply because characters don’t use cell phones or Google. Cora argues that “if the characters wear chunky plastic necklaces, listen to Depeche Mode, or watch The A-Team, it will at least put a smile on my face, because I remember doing the same things.” Also, she believes that today’s popular fiction will be invaluable resources to social historians of the future, just as scholars learn about Regency life by reading Jane Austen.

Similarly, Pat doesn’t mind dated things, such as having to find a pay phone or characters wearing Nehru jackets (OK, maybe not the Nehru jackets). But she has a harder time accepting attitudes about women’s careers, let alone forced seduction, rape, and bigotry.” Whether or not Pat enjoys the book despite those dated elements depends on how prevalent the attitudes are. If the book isn’t all that great, she is much less forgiving. For example, while it can be distracting when characters look for a pay phone or go to the library to look for a phone number, if the books are terrific, as in Michael Kahn’s legal mysteries about Rachel Gold, then it doesn’t get in the way. She just reminds herself that’s how people did those things in the past. I have the same feeling when listening to old Dragnet episodes in MP3 format. When Joe Friday and his partner are asked to call the station, they have to pull over, find a store with a pay phone, and then call an operator at the police station! The radio episodes even predate the Miranda warnings by over a decade. But they are great, groundbreaking dramas, so I go along with those things.

Then again, maybe I can accept the Dragnet episodes because they were written in the 1950s. It’s easier to accept outdated things in a much older story because we expect the equipment, and even the laws, to be out of date. But it’s harder to accept dated attitudes (or things) in something that was published after we were born, or at least not that long ago. For example, MrsFairfax doesn’t find Mary Stewart’s books to be dated. After all, those books were written decades ago. Old titles from Sandra Brown, Elizabeth Lowell, and JAK, on the other hand, come so close to the present that on the surface, they feel contemporary, but the hair, clothes, and technology “keep tugging the reader back a couple of decades at unexpected moments.” So do the prevalent attitudes in those stories, and she has a harder time with the attitudes than with the cell phones. For example, she read a Victoria Holt historical she unearthed from her parents’ house, only to find that the heroine falls in love with her rapist, a la Luke & Laura. late 70s tradition. As MrsFairfax says, “Ick.”

veasleyd1 sees a parallel to the history of costume. Something that’s just 10 or 20 years out of date is “hopelessly frumpy” and drives people to ask, “How could we ever have worn that?” But a dress that’s 50 to 75 years out of date is now vintage, while a dress that’s a century or more older is “a charming historical dress.” She finds the same true in romance. She doesn’t find older books such as Paul Gallico’s The Lonely or Margaret Widdemer’s Constancia Herself (written in the 1940s) dated because they are books of their era. When we think of a book as dated, it’s usually something written in the last quarter century, because we pick it up “unconsciously assuming that it will be precisely like a book written today, and run into the subtle (sometimes less subtle) changes in the material environment that have taken place (the switch from dial phones to touch-tone phones even before the advent of cell phones, for example; the switch from pull chains to turnable pegs on floor lamp switches).” However, changes in attitudes and assumptions bother her less because “there’s never been a historical era in which everyone shared the same attitudes.”

Kerstin doesn’t mind “weird hairstyles and even weirder fashion outfits” as long as they are true to the period” – although heroes with moustaches do give her pause. But she remembers that heroes’ attitudes often felt dated even when she was reading those books in the 1980s. She gave up reading romances in the 1980s “because the attitudes of the characters made me cringe in those many, many rape-fest books of the eighties and I couldn’t relate to them at all.”

But sometimes, we can accept the dated attitudes, but not the dated things. Sarah read a book recently that wasn’t that old but after something happened, all she could think was, “Why didn’t the heroine call the cops on her cell phone?” It ripped her out of the story until she realized that the story was written before cell phones became prevalent. pinkbubble had a similar problem with the recent reissue of Debbie Macomber’s Country Brides. From the start, she could tell it was a reissue. She was able to forgive the clothes and even some of the attitudes, but she had a hard time dealing with characters who didn’t have a cell phone. “Funny how in less than 10 years that darn phone has gotten to be a part of us. She even mentions it in her letter to the reader and I still got all twitchy about it “

Yet Dick points out that “Although one of the qualifications for making it into the literary canon is timelessness, nonetheless readers of the books that belong to the canon face some “dated-ness” of contents. In most instances, dated attitudes and dated dress don’t detract from whatever it has that gets a book into the canon. If romances of earlier decades are good in other regards, I can’t see why dated attitudes and dated dress would matter that much.”

Having come of age after the sexual revolution and after that first generation of women had come close to the glass ceiling, Laurie doesn’t necessarily see it that way; tectonic shifts in attitude have taken place in recent decades that render some previously “acceptable” premises basically obsolete. And, she argues, “Who’s to say that later in our lifetime we might not see equally seismic shifts? To dismiss the dated argument doesn’t take that into consideration.” She also takes issue with the whole literary canon comparison; by definition a genre novel is not literary fiction; it’s popular entertainment, and though we do things like poll for the Top 100 Romances, very few romances, she suspects, are written to stand the test of time. She adds, “It’s true that Pride and Prejudice and Romeo and Juliet were considered popular entertainments of their day, but as a general rule, romance authors aren’t writing for the literary canon…and readers aren’t reading for it either.” Moreover, she argues, “Because romances are popular fiction, an expiration date is almost a necessity, and since our world is changing faster than ever, that expiration date comes sooner and sooner.”

Still, Laurie – and Xina and Tee – all agree that there is no way authors can write a contemporary and avoid writing something that will some day, perhaps only in a few years, be “dated.” Maybe the real challenge shouldn’t be avoiding inserting dated references and attitudes into a book. The real challenge should be writing a book that’s so good future readers will love it even though the characters drive cars made of steel rather than carbon nanotubes.

Questions to Consider:

How much of an issue is dated material in a romance for you? If it is a problem for you, is it one you notice only in contemporaries, or do you also notice is in historicals – ie, the “rape-fests” of the 1970s, as Anne refers to them? Is one reason you read historicals are opposed to contemporaries because the dated issue doesn’t exist in the same way?

Clothing, music, styles, technology…all were discussed in the column as easily dating a book. Do these admittedly superficial (although not when they impact plotting) things bother you more or less than dated points of view or mores?

What can authors do to mitigate the effect of dated material? Is it more successful, say, to focus on clothes that always seem to be in style – the perfect jean, the little black dress, the well-fitted t-shirt – than to garb a character in what’s hot this summer?

Are there romances you’ve read that, upon later re-reading, come across as having become dated in your mind? What are they, and what popped out at you?

What are the most dated romances you’ve encountered – either upon a first or subsequent reading – and why?

Are there authors who manage to skirt the dated rap, and if so, who are they, and how do they do it? And who are the authors who don’t seem to give a fig…whose 2008-published books could easily have been published 25 or 30 years ago? Is that admirable, or ridiculous?

Finally, take a look at the backlists of some long-published authors who do seem to have changed with the times. Are their earlier efforts cringe-worthy in terms of dated viewpoints and content, or can you look back upon those books with fondness and/or write them off with a sort of “we’ve come a long way, baby” attitude?

Anne Marble