Today’s ask is a suggestion from AAR reader BeckyK. (It’s a great one!)
How has romance changed since you first started reading it? What changes do you feel are for the better or worse?
I love this question. I’ve been reading romance intently for the past twelve years. From my perspective romance has changed for the better in several key ways.
- It’s more diverse in every way imaginable.
- There’s way more of it and it’s become a much less predictable genre.
- It’s slowly but steadily gaining acceptance from the mainstream culture.
How about you? How have the books you read changed? Are you happy with the current state of romance? What have we possibly lost you wish we still had?
Impenitent social media enthusiast. Relational trend spotter. Enjoys both carpe diem and the fish of the day.
In junior high and high school in the U.S. in the 1960s, I read Georgette Heyer, Victoria Holt, Mary Stewart, Elswyth Thane, Emilie Loring, Robert Neill, Gene Stratton-Porter, Gone with the Wind, books about King Arthur, and George Eliot and Jane Austen. There were also some historicals written in English but set in France by an author whose name escapes me. Love stories were part of the plots, but what stuck in my mind were the trigger-warning-worthy descriptions of executions, particularly one in which a woman saw her lover’s execution. There were also paperbacks with candy stripers and nursing students, and a very explicit pirate bodice-ripper based, as I recall, on Anne Bonney.
I have read romances for almost 60 years and am in my 70s now. I have read thousands of romances, still own hundreds of romances, and have discarded hundreds if not thousands of romances over the years.
The two most consistent features of the romances I read back then and the romances I read now are that the ending is HEA or HFN and the writing reflects the social undercurrents (mostly U.S. or U.K.) that exist while the author is writing, either because the heroines are escapist or are aspirational or both.
The other consistent feature is that the male heroes are strong and fit physically in almost all cases, even if they are maimed in war or otherwise disabled. Heroes seem to have an enviable blend of very good fine motor skills and excellent large motor skills. I think romancelandia has yet to grapple with ableism in any substantial way, and given the storytelling tropes of humans from ancient times to the present, I am not sure humans generally want heroes and heroines to be below average and unfit even for Lake Wobegon.
The unspoken rule of romance is that no matter how opaque the thoughts of the hero are and how dense he is at interpreting the feelings of the heroine, he is always sensitive in bed and often skilled enough to induce orgasm during sexual assault or rape. Inexperienced kissers mostly kiss well, virgin guys are great in bed, and experienced guys seem to be able to make love in a field without acquiring grass stains, make love on the beach without getting sand in the wrong places, and make love in bed without leaving their partner to sleep in a puddle. (And sorry, but I have not read hundreds of m/m, poly, or f/f romances, so my observations are limited to m/f.) Very few romances show virginal characters having challenges in timing and responding to each other, discomfort, or other less-than-ideal issues unless sexual difficulties are a plot point.
People have already commented on lack of agency, rape culture, diversity, and other changes that I have seen. Underlying all those changes are the changes in economic assumptions that writers and readers of romance make. Jane Austen had a very pragmatic view of the worth of a marriage that could provide financial security for a woman. In many romances now, even in the Harlequin Presents line where economic security is an essential component that the hero brings to the romance, the emotional security the heroine and hero develop is now much more the focus of the plot and characterization.
I have always lauded romance for its insistence that women have a good time in bed. You explain this so well. Thank you.
The historicals set in France? After poking around the internet, I realized they were books in The Accursed Kings series by Maurice Druon. The first book, The Iron King, was published in translation in 1955. The publisher claims it was the inspiration for Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin. I thought GoT was too bloody to read or watch, so it is not surprising that even Druon’s relatively tame (relative to GoT, that is) but unpleasant milieu left me with a few nightmares.
I wondered if you meant the Angelique series by Anne Golon. These were really popular with my young teen friends in the late sixties. I don’t recall the Druon series.
Maurice Druon did not write romance novels, there are some love stories in Les Rois Maudits series, but they do not have happy endings, as far as I remember. They are very entertaining historical novels, I recommend all of them as some of the best and more easy to read in that genre. Well, all but the last ones, the seventh, Quand un Roi perd la France, which was quite boring for my taste.
I remember enjoying that Duron series very much – I was also surprised at the claims it was the inspiration for GoT!
I read my first romances as a teenager in the 70s and was frustrated by (what I now think of as) the lack of agency of most of the female characters. (I didn’t know anything about Georgette Heyer at the time. It was mostly Barbara Cartland for me.) The biggest change when I came back to romances in the mid-2000s was agency, and a much healthier attitude about sex. The authors/titles l gravitated to had women (and other MCs) who were fully fleshed out characters who didn’t need a partner to live a happy life. Not only were MCs allowed to be smart and resourceful and able to support themselves by all manner of profession/career/work but they liked sex. This is a HUGE GENERALIZATION but when I came back to romances, MCs knew what sex was, they knew what they needed to be satisfied, they weren’t afraid to ask/tell/show their partners what they wanted, and those partners were happy to provide it.
I’m no expert but I think those “rapey” heroes and plot lines from previous decades had everything to do with American society’s prudish strictures against women knowing anything about their own bodies and sexual pleasure. (I just finished Julia Bennet’s Worst Woman in London and the reason the MCs marriage fell apart was that she expected to enjoy sex with her husband and he was horrified by the thought. Only mistresses were supposed to enjoy sex. I think that pretty much describes what a lot of people – including women – thought about women in the US during most of the 20th C.)
If we had had healthier attitudes about our bodies and biological functions, “rape”/dubious consent/persistent heroes as a gateway to being able to eventually enjoy sexual pleasure might have been a much smaller part of the primary canon. (Like today, it might be a “kink” trope.) Hopefully, slowly but surely those “old skool” titles are being relegated to history as a transitional thing between “no physical contact until engaged” to “sex is a perfectly normal biological urge, and let’s see what role it plays, if any, between these two consenting characters”.
Very important! Thank you !
The well brought up – read clueless & repressed – heroines of those books would not engage in any sex – and never learn about the possibilities of fun in sex unless the hero „forced them“. I never saw that so clearly.
Virtuous females were supposed to „allow“ their husband to raise their nightgown to the waist and do what was necessary, but definitely no more than that. Otherwise, if they invited more, or enjoyed it, they were sinful! So being forced would be the only way to preserve virtue ( not well, see all the horrible punishments for women who really got raped, including forced marriage to their rapist) but at least within marriage, „letting him do dirty things to her because her demanded them“ would preserve her virtue.
Now, I even remember old old historicals where the heroine thought like that, or had older family members admonishing her like that.
Yes, that is how things really were, related to female virtue – so a heroine in a romance having good sexy times needed to be „pushed“ and the rapey hero was a necessity..
Such a good point to remember, thanks!
When I talk to women of my mother’s generation, they talk about how, prior to marriage, they were taught to see sex as BAD. Then, they get married and were immediately supposed to see sex as GOOD. I hear things like “I had been raised to be a prude and suddenly I was supposed to be a bad girl.” “It took me two years to enjoy it.” That generation really was often glad that men had experience because the women had been taught absolutely nothing about pleasure.
It’s always made sense to me that many women have enjoyed love stories where pleasure and sex are initially forced on them–it is a mental shortcut to believing that the heroine would find joy in bed even though she was taught not to.
Started reading in the early 90’s when I was in junior high school. In that time historicals have changed for the better (bye rapemance!) and the worse (please research stuff. You can be historically accurate AND write about characters who are independent of mind and spirit!). Contemps have gotten more broad of base and moved beyond secret babies/do it for our country and yes, full approval. Double approval for more queer romance, which did not really exist at mainstream pubs back then.
Ok I’m late to the romance party, in my teens I read a lot of classics and then I went for fanfic and Japanese manga so even though I’ve been consuming romance since I was 12 or so, they weren’t romance novels as such, at 17 I read some new adult books that a friend recommended to me but I didn’t finish hooking until I discovered Julie Klassen and the juvenile saga of Marissa Meyer lunar chronicles.
I would say that the evolution of the half-rapist idiot hero to the kind and understanding hero is something that has also been seen in Japanese manga. As for the West, I have fallen in love with the old gothic genre and some authors like Amanda Dewees and Jaime Jo wright love that “elegant” gothic terror, but the amazon goths now more than similar to the old ones are more of the “totally terrifying and bloody” so I’m afraid that apart from increasing the sexual content the scary level of goth has gone through the roof to where more than goth is horror romance?
By elegan “gothic” understand the one based on setting, psychological factor and conspiracies, not so much: murders! bood! VIOLENCE!
Did you read Verity? It is described as a gothic but, after I read it, I realized if it is one, I’m not really sure what that moniker means.
I think it’s trying to be a goth but no…I found out a lot about it but I didn’t dare to read it because it gave me the impression that no character can be exactly classified as a good person and that the author puts a spin on it final that to make matters worse gives you to “choose” if the supposed villain of the story was the villain or the victim of her unfaithful husband and the protagonist… eh not my type of book.
Most of the changes in romance have been positive, but I feel that historicals have really gone off the rails. The mainstream historicals are so thin and wallpapery. I still love a good historical when I can get one — K.J. Charles, Allie Therin, Alexis Hall, Aster Glen Gray, Emily Tesh — but I generally can’t get past the first chapter of most recommended historical romance.
I think there are some great ones still. That said, I find them harder to find. I just DNF’d a new release by an author whose early work was excellent. This was…. not. Again, if you see HR as just a vehicle for fantastic love stories, then books where none of the context and/or conflict really hold up, there are lots of fun books being written. But oh how I miss books like The Forbidden Rose and The Duke of Shadows!
Agreed. I read very few historicals right now, and sadly, I can’t see that changing. If newer writers are influenced by the authors who have been writing for the last 5-10 years, then they’ll think that ignoring actual history and writing characters with modern mindsets is the way to go. I think real historical romance – where the historical part is just as important as the romance part – has probably gone for good.
Hopefully there will still be people willing to do the research and write romances that are firmly set in a real past. But it could also be that more readers are fine with the anachronistic historical romances being written. I don’t think it helps that so many authors fixate on one time and place, Regency England. And I honestly think there are only so many Duke stories that can be told.
Yes, perhaps I should have said “mostly” or words to that effect because there are still a few authors – KJ Charles the shining example among them – who do take a great deal of care to get it right.
The plethora of dukes has recently been joined by a plethora of anachronistic, activist heroines. I have never denied that there were trailblazers out there – but like dukes, they weren’t ten a penny.
It’s an inverted progression — Pride and Prejudice had no dukes even though Mr. Darcy was from an affluent, well-connected family. Georgette Heyer used a duke or two, and more titled characters than Austen. Jo Beverley and Mary Balogh have a few dukes and a lot of titles. Eloisa James, tongue firmly in cheek, makes dukes more common than baronets or squires, to the point where one wonders if England somehow expanded to have enough acreage to support all of them.
Heyer’s books weren’t as Duke-heavy, but most of her her heroes were far richer than typical for Austen. It’s a very odd inflation when you know both authors well!
I’ve read and enjoyed some wallpaper historicals, but I do miss the ones where I felt the costumes, the settings, and – most important – the social structures were reasonably close to what actually existed at the time the book is set. To see how women expressed agency when legally and socially they had little or none is quite fascinating. It’s one reason I liked Imogen Robertson’s Westerman & Crowther mysteries set in late 18th C England. Harriet Westerman is married, but her husband is a sea captain and away for long periods of time. She knows how to manage their estate and their money, but she has to be very careful that operates within the rules set for women of her time and class, rules that she often finds frustrating. There are several mysteries in the series, but sadly the author doesn’t seem to be writing any more.
Yes, to me one of the whole points of reading a historical is to see what authors do within its constraints. If you act like they don’t even exist, what does any of it matter?
Absolutely agreed. I recently read a historical where the hero worried and worried that people wouldn’t accept the thumbs-her-nose-at-silly-archaic-rules heroine. Well, the heroine did exactly as she pleased throughout the story, and in the epilogue, society marveled about how brave and unique she was. So not only was this anachronistic, the hero looked something of a fool for his endless fretting over something that wasn’t a problem at all.
I just read one where the heroine literally has, as a young unmarried woman in Gilded Era high society, f*cked around for fun. The hero thinks that’s great just because he does and it doesn’t really do much to change how society treats her.
(I’m probably wrong) but in my head, gilded era high society was equally if not more morally restrictive than the regency or victorian eras – at least in public. The few gilded era books I’ve read had heroines who regularly and publicly flouted societal conventions just because without any sort of repercussions and that has definitely made me stop reading books set during that time.
This whole series has not worked for me which is a bummer because it’s by a super talented author.
You’re not wrong about that – if you’ve read any Edith Wharton, that’s exactly how she depicts the high society of that era.
It’s a pity there aren’t more written contemporary to that time because they stand a better chance of “getting it right”. I’ve always thought the reason I couldn’t get more into Regency Romances is because I spent my early years reading Emilie Loring. Her romances were written contemporary to the Great Depression through WW2. And they were very much high society with many themes similar to Regencies like marriages of convenience.
I saw this post and thought it looked interesting. Then I read through the comments and thought, whoa, would I be the oldest one commenting? Eek. Maybe I’ll just keep quiet then. Of course, that’s never been my strong suit. Neither has short comments.
Sigh. Okay, I’ll try to keep it short(er) but to do that I’m going to cheat first and link to a series of posts I created over 10 years ago about this very topic, sort of – Ten Nights of Love.
Here’s the short version, though. A friend of mine online had asked me how the “sex content” had changed in romances. To add context, she was a science fiction fan who had relatively recently discovered romances through some of the crossover sci-fi/romance books. As I collected my thoughts on how to answer an outline started to emerge that was almost a decade by decade revisit of the types of books I read through the years. It was an enlightening experience to say the least. Mainly because what started as an examination of how the portrayal of sex had changed morphed into one of how the heroines had. And, wow, have they.
At the end, though, I tried to go back and give her an answer to her question. Not sure I succeeded.
How does that apply to the changes in the heroines? Well, when I started reading romances all those decades ago, the pair normally spent very little time together. Many of the stories were told almost totally from her point of view. She was the focus. And yet in some strange sense she wasn’t. Oddly, the story wasn’t always focused on him either. The Relationship definitely wasn’t the focus. Until maybe the last page of the book. (Don’t ask me what the real focus of the story was. An emotional journey that happened, sometimes inexplicable, to end with a romantic HEA? Maybe?)
Anyway, for me, if I had to name one major change that affected romances and let heroines reach their full potential I would say that it’s the dual perspective. Getting into both of their heads, pretty much at the same time, opens up an entire palette of their thoughts and feelings. And the same is true of how sexual content is explored. With the dual perspective things changed from being stories told “about her” to being stories told “about them” and The Relationship. Now, she has just as much power as him. And the reader is in on the internal journey of how they figure it all out in ways that could never be done before.
It’s a major change within the genre that made a huge difference. This was something I knew already, sure, but looking back over the years highlights how the heroines, in particular, also change with the different perspectives used. I also didn’t realize just how much dual perspective affected the “storytelling” of romances, either.
P.S. The one thing I think might be for the worse in romances is series… especially ones that go on forever. And ever. And even longer. I mean, come on, grandchildren? Oye.
What you say about PoVs is definitely something I’ve noticed in older books – for example, the handful of Mary Burchell books I’ve read for the TBR challenge. They’re incredibly heroine centric; we never get into the hero’s head at all, and he’s pretty much a secondary character a lot of the time. That’s a great point!
I didn’t recognize Mary Burchell so I’ve probably never read her. But when I looked her up on Goodreads I definitely recognize the types of books she wrote. And could very easily have read one of them in the early years of my romance reading. Just looking over her titles and covers my “travelogue romance” antennae started tingling. Now, travelogue romances are definitely something I miss in modern romances. Of course, they may actually still exist in categories, which I don’t read any more. Too many books, too little time.
Betty Neels is the other one where we know nearly nothing about the thoughts and the feelings of the hero. I just stumbled over one of her books I hadn’t read years ago und read it now. But if I remember correctly about romances before 2000 these heroes we didn’t know much more about than that they were rich, dominant and a bit of a mystery for the heroines were very common. The young, innocent and inexperienced heroines and the wordly well experienced heroes dominated many books of the genre.
Ah, Betty Neels. The first Mills and Boon romance I ever read (in my teens) was one of hers, although I’m buggered if I can remember what it was called, now!
Thank you for using my question, Dabney. Being fairly new to romance, I am really enjoying everyone’s answers. I started reading romance about 4 or 5 years ago after a pretty steady diet of mostly literary fiction and women’s fiction. I was going through a rough patch and needed something lighter and gentler for my bedtime reading. I first found Georgette Heyer, then Mary Balogh, and now I read all kinds of authors and genres. I surprised myself by becoming a fan of m/m romances since I didn’t even know that was a thing. And fantasy and sci fi and paranormal and…. It’s definitely been fun to discover the richness and diversity of the field.
I haven’t been reading romance long enough to notice changes or trends, but I was curious about them. Thanks to everyone for sharing your thoughts!
Interestingly, I had a similar path to romance – I read a lot of classic lit, historical fiction, lit fic, chick lit and WF before I got into romance, and one of my gateway authors was also Heyer :)
I love that you used the word “gateway” because Heyer is super addictive, and you just keep craving that high she gives, so you binge her books, then you go in search of that high elsewhere. I may need to reread one soon. Although some things are dated, her wit is unsurpassed.
My mom just went on a Heyer binge and the only other romances she’s ever read, to my knowledge, are Austens. She LOVED Heyer.
I started reading romances a lot later than most people, I think. In high school I read some fantasy and mysteries, but mostly whatever my dad handed me that he’d just finished (which is how I ended up reading a decent number of classics I wasn’t given in school). As an adult I continued to gravitate towards mysteries. I didn’t start reading romance as a genre until my early 50’s. Other than Heyer, I mainly read contemporary romance, especially mysteries or RS. I jumped on SF and fantasy/UF romances as soon as I found they were a thing. I think it all plays into the fact that I’ve always loved mystery and suspense.
The biggest change I’ve personally experienced is the increase in diversity, especially the increase in well-written LGBTQ+ romances, whether they are contemporary, historical, fantasy, SF, or suspense. After a few years of reading romances, I was pulling away from it as a genre because I felt like too many of the m/f relationships were weighed down by gender politics and stereotyping. I found a few m/m romances and enjoyed them, but they weren’t widely accepted at the time. About 8 or 9 years ago I was reviewing for Speaking of Audiobooks and Audiogals and brought up the possibility of reviewing an m/m romance. The powers that be decided they didn’t want to go in that direction. I think we can all tell that situation has changed dramatically, and reviews for LGBTQ+ books appear on most major romance book review sites.
The other difference that I’ve noted is the rise in authors publishing independently, which has also helped improve diversity.
Romance reader since I was a preteen in the early 1970s. I miss the Gothic Romances from the 60s and 70s. I don’t miss some of the bodice rippers from the 70s and 80s, although I enjoyed them at the time (bye bye Rosemary Rodgers, Shirley Buzbee, and Johanna Lindsey). Nowadays, you don’t see the super alpha males as much (the rapey super alpha male included). I’m not sure if romance writers are now aiming to create more realistic Heroes, or just more well rounded.
In the 70s and 80s, the emphasis was not so much on the relationship and more on the story. So you could get books where adventure was part of the reason for reading the book, and the h or H might go through multiple romances/partners (not at the same time) before they circled back to or found “the one”. Now, romances are all about the one relationship and less about the story/adventure, so the focus has narrowed. Even the definition of what constitutes a romance has narrowed. I know this is sacrilege, but I find the concept that a romance must have a HEA to be limiting. Yeah, people have been very creative within those limitations, but would the romance genre crumble if a writer occasionally had the H and h go their separate ways? It could make for some poignant endings. But we read romance for the fantasy so the HEA rules. Anyways, some of those books I read and loved back in the 1970s, that were marketed and sold in book stores, and shelved in Libraries, in the Romance section, would not meet the current definition of Romance. Alas, poor Anya Seton, Dragonwick and Katherine have been shoved over to the Historical Fiction aisle.
I mainly read Historical Romance or nonfiction, with the odd mystery or sci fi/fantasy book thrown in. Its been a long time since I read a Contempory Romance. My wish for Historical Romance writers is that more of them would explore other eras or places, not just Regency England. I love a good Georgian, English Civil War, or Tudor era story. Renaissance Italy and medieval Europe have lots of story potential, as does Asia, Africa, and South America during any time period. And do we need another story about a Duke?
I have to add that in the 70s, sex was mostly implied. Now, writers take you behind the door and it can get explicit. I think its a double edged sword. Some sex enhances the story and should be an expression of the relationship. If the author includes too much sex, I find myself starting to skip the sex scenes especially if the sex comes at the expense of the story or character development.
I love a good spicy sex scene, but I admit I skim quite a few these days because it can get repetitive. Plus, since I read a lot of mystery/suspense/action type books, the sex scenes can sometime break the tension building in the plot, which doesn’t always work for me.
Someone here once used the term “love stories” for books that don’t fit the HEA criteria now used for romance novels, but are still very much about love and relationships. I’m personally glad for the HFN/HEA requirement, but I understand what you’re saying. There are still book listed as romances that I don’t think are, like Rebecca and Wuthering Heights. Every time I read a list of the “top 100 romance novels of all time” there are a lot of books listed that I don’t feel meet the criteria.
I don’t read tons of historical romances, but I’ve definitely read many I love. I’ve especially enjoyed Lucinda Brant and Stella Riley for romances set in the 1700’s.
I don’t know how new – or otherwise – the romance genre requirement for the HEA/HFN is, but it is the ONE ‘rule’ of genre romance – just as mysteries need to be solved. What you say is not sacreligious but if a book is labelled a romance, then it needs to have a happy ending. (Which I’m sure you know.) Of course, authors can write whatever they like – stories that have romantic elements but which end with the leads NOT together are fine, but you can’t call them romances. It comes down to terminology and reader expectation, because the fact that the HEA is a given is very important for many readers. I’d feel very cheated if I picked up a romance novel and it ended with the characters apart (unless it’s part of a series in which they get together in the end!) and would be unlikely to read that author again. There’s absolutely room for everything – but genre romance has to have an HEA.
A few years ago, I took part in a discussion about HEAs with some other writers. One of them said she had written a romance with an HEA, because at the end of her manuscript, the hero died but continued to love the heroine in the afterlife, like in the movie Ghost. Meanwhile, the heroine came to terms with his death, and while he would always mean a great deal to her, she was ready to begin a relationship with another man. Everyone was happy, therefore HEA.
Another writer asked, “Are you saying that if the hero and heroine are happy together for 399 pages, but he gets run over by a truck on page 400, it’s not a romance?” Some romance writers and readers pointed out that no one reads this genre to get a horrible gutpunch on the last page, but the writer still felt that the “constraints” of the HEA stifled authors’ creativity.
So basically, if there’s no HEA requirement, expect to see at least a little of this sort of thing, especially since there are quite a few writers who would love to have their books classified as romances to tap into this large readership, but the books end with the characters separating, dying, etc.
I want the HEA/HFN. This is why one of my all-time favorite love stories—Taylor Fitzpatrick’s heartbreaking THROWN OFF THE ICE—can’t actually be classified as a romance. It follows 18 years in the relationship between two professional hockey players, but it does not feature an HEA. In fact, when you finish the book, you realize the entire story—up until the last chapter—was the couple’s HFN.
One of the few “romances” I can remember that tried to get away with a gut-punch ending was Natasha Knight’s dark mafia romance, SERGIO. As I was reading the book, I truly kept thinking Knight was going to somehow pull a rabbit out of a hat and not take the story in the direction it was going (having read the previous books in the series, I knew what had happened to Sergio). She didn’t. I was gobsmacked as I read the ending. She really went there. Noooo!! I don’t read romance for that!
I actually found it difficult to enjoy Pamela Morsi’s modern-day Marrying Stone romance, because I liked her historical Marrying Stone romances so much. But in the modern-day one, I kept thinking that the characters I loved were all dead. That kind of punctured the “ever after” part of the HEA for me.
There was a Silhouette pair — maybe in the Intimate Moments series — that featured a very hot romance. People loved the couple in the first book. Then the author killed off the hero but brought him back from the dead, and either gave him a new spouse or put them through the trials of the damned until they were reunited. Both books were excellent, but readers were very, very angry about the HEA violations. This would likely have been in the 1980s.
So curious what books those were.
I misremembered some details, but I am pretty sure the books are in Dallas Schulze’s Remembrance, Indiana, series for Silhouette Intimate Moments. The books are the second and third titles in the series.
The Vow, 1989, SIM 318:
“Brittany never got a chance to tell Dan about the baby. Now it was too late, and with no one to turn to, she faced a desperate future. Until Michael Sinclair offered a solution. As Dan’s best friend, he told himself that helping Brittany was temporary, just until she was on her feet again.”
The Baby Bargain, 1991, SIM 377:
“When Kelly Russell slipped away from her cruelly strict father one New Year’s Eve, she never expected to give herself to Dan Remington, a man who offered her the warmth and loving she’d never known.”
If they want to tap into the large readership they need to give the readers what they want, and HFN or HEA. It’s that simple. I might pick a mystery, or historical fiction, etc, without a happy ending, but I know what I’m getting and I read them for a different experience. When I read a romance, I want to experience the happy ending. Tell your writer friend to stop the book before the guy dies, because if the guy dies on page 400, then you’re damn straight it’s not a romance, It’s a tragedy. Different genre.
I feel this way too. Don’t ask to get the perks, if you’re not willing to work within the genre’s limits.
Another comment was “there wouldn’t be much of a story if you always know how it ends”. Though that particular commenter was open-minded and understood our explanation that romance novels vary in the journey rather than the destination.
A more annoying non-romance reader then took umbrage with the HEA as well, because she said it implied that the romance was complete once the couple were committed to each other. She said this restriction gave people unrealistic expectations and “limited ideas of how relationships work”, and that she’d seen such people in her work as a therapist. Why couldn’t romance novels be about established couples who were already in love but who had to work through problems together, as so many couples do in real life?
Finally someone pointed out, “We are not defining what romance in the real world is. We are defining what a Romance NOVEL is.” After that she piped down.
In fairness, I’ve read several books where people are married, and the romance centers around them working out the relationship. Lord of La Pampa by Kay Thorpe, my first official romance at age 12, was about two strangers making a marriage of convenience work. Another old favorite is A Ghost of a Chance by Casey Claybourne. I’m not much into farcical romance but that one tickled my funny bone no end. Recentish titles: Love Her or Lose Her by Tessa Bailey, Not Quite a Marriage by Bliss Bennett, The Bromance Book Club by Lyssa Kay Adams, Play by Karina Bliss, – we have a multi-page list under troubled relationships. So “established couples who were already in love but who had to work through problems together” is definitely a trope within the genre.
The only one of those novels I’ve read is the Lyssa Adams one, but I get the impression that marriage-in-trouble romances are ones where the marriage is in serious difficulty, on the rocks for some reason. Not so much where the couple are in love and have a strong relationship, but they need to rekindle the spark or work through some other issue together. But it’s possible there are such romances and I haven’t come across them yet.
I didn’t interpret the statement as couples having strong relationships. IMO, you can be in love and definitely not have a strong relationship simply because you don’t have the tools to bridge the differences between you. That was the case with Love Her or Lose Her and also with Play, where they love each other but have reached a boiling point with not knowing how to work through the problems they have. They have genuine feelings but not a good way to express those feelings. Robyn Carr has a secondary romance like this in A Summer in Sonoma. So the ones I’ve read meet the criteria the counselor was looking for, I think. Also, if people are coming in for counseling, like the RL couples she would see, they would have some real issues communicating. You don’t typically involve a third party unless the problems are overwhelming. Just my .02, others might see it differently.
Yes, that’s a good point. I think marriage-in-difficulty romances cover a spectrum from books where the couple has fallen out of love and are on the verge of separation (or have already separated), to books where they’re having difficulties but still love each other to books where the relationship is strong but the couple have to deal with something like a diagnosis of illness (which is women’s fiction rather than romance to me). In the middle might be more of a gray area.
I think another issue in the discussion was that romance was defined as people falling in love, or falling back in love. If this is the case, a romance where the couple start out being in love with each other might feel like an outlier, though I can see how it would fit into the genre.
Also, it can be people who fell into lust/love, and then have to find out whether they can manage once the initial madness fades.
A lot of series with the same couple in more books seem to live off that situation.
Well, according to the Romance Writers of America, “two basic elements comprise every romance novel: a central love story and an emotionally satisfying and optimistic ending.” So falling in love isn’t in the criteria, the characters can start the book in love, the novel just has to centralize the relationship and end it happily. Brockman did a couple of novels that really played on this theme, Over the Edge is probably my favorite of them. I’m pretty sure Debbie Macomber has as well. Again, just my .02, but I think the genre is pretty elastic.There’s a lot of room in the storytelling, you just have to focus on the romance and end it happily.
When did RWA say that? They tend to be pretty adamant that a romance has to have an HEA/HFN.
I think emotionally satisfying and optimistic ending is the new way of saying HEA/HFN.
It’s easy to massage into other endings though. I’d argue that the end of The Time Traveler’s Wife is emotionally satisfying and optimistic but it is definitely not a romance. Same for my adored His Dark Materials.
Here’s the link to the definiation. Even back in the day when the term HEA was used in the definition people were still electing Gone with the Wind and Rebecca for romance awards, so I’m not sure the definition is the problem so much as what people perceive. I didn’t find Time Travelers Wife either a romance or romantic – to me the hero groomed the heroine to be his, rather than the love forming organically between them. It was disturbing but obviously I’m in a minority opinion on that. It’s a tough call because I think a lot of people feel if their favorite book has a romance in it that makes the book a romance novel. Obviouly those of us in the romane community disagree.
For me, it’s a wonderful love story, but not a romance. It doesn’t seem to me to be a big deal to say a romance has a clear definition. I really don’t get why that is controversial.
I think the discussion on the writing board might have reached this conclusion too if we’d had such examples. I prefer romances where the couple fall in love during the course of the story rather than ones where they’re in love at the start, so I’m not the best person to bring up this sort of romance.
I did check out the blurb for Over the Edge on Goodreads, though, and the blurb doesn’t make the story sound like there’s a couple with an established relationship. Unless the couple working through a relationship problem is actually not the couple mentioned in the blurb…?
I like them.
The plot device of the marriage of convenience has that sometimes- where they end up married due to some foolish insta-lust (regency= she is ruined, omg) or in HP where they had an affair, or a one night stand (and of course = super-sperm, secret baby, marriage..)
For me, falling into true sustainable love as the main romance plot, with the insta-chemistry thingie in a flashback, maybe, I like it, it works well.
I also like the “this tired old marriage, let us separate” as a starting point. Again, often in series romance.
While I tend to dislike the college fling 10 years later becoming true love, in general.
All of them definitely undoubtedly romances, though.
Possibly, I just did not enjoy university / college myself, and that is why…
Brockmann would set up her couples over multiple books, which caused quite the brouhaha with some of the latter stories where she played a switcheroo on h/h. In this case, the two main characters were in silent love with each other and everyone around them knew it. The build up that takes place in a lot of romances occurred over the course of several books prior and we jump pretty quickly into the deep end of the relationship at the start of this novel because of that. Brockmann is a mess of a writer and I probably shouldn’t have used one of her stories as an example since she worked with her publisher to (According to her) sell books and according to fans, trick readers. People unfamiliar with her work could easily pick up a book and not know the backstory had run through all the previous novels in the series.
The audience knowing how the story ends didn’t do Apollo 13 (the movie) any harm!!
(Not a romance, sure, but the point still stands :P)
I’ve been asked why read romances when you know how the book is going to end; and I regularly point out that we know a crime is going to be solved at the end of mysteries/thrillers, and a “good” guy is going to save the town/ranch/farm in genre Westerns and/or sf space operas. It is no different with romances. The story is in how the author delivers the”promised” ending – two people who love and trust one another enough to make a commitment.
And I’m totally up for lots more relationships between existing couples in romances. Why limit the stories to people who don’t really know one another that well? The book does not need to end the first time a couple makes a commitment – hence the success of many, many series (Gregory Ashe, Kaje Harper, CS Poe, etc.). In the stand alone, m/f canon see: Pamela Morsi’s Suburban Renewal, Susan Wiggs The Ocean Between Us, Laura Guhrke’s The Marriage Bed, Sherry Thomas’ Not Quite a Husband and Private Arrangements. . .
I love marriage of convenience stories that occur years after the marriage. They truly are many of my favorite romances. I think I love that not only do they have more mature protagonists, but that many of the things couples need to do to connect are things I value in my own ancient marriage.
The therapist could have asked Berkley how that worked out. The published the Second Chance at Love series, which I felt had an amazingly successful run in the 1980s, and they added a series where the couple was already married and had hit a road bump.
The series was To Have and to Hold. I believe even Sharon and Tom Curtis (aka Laura London) wrote a book for the series, but I may be misremembering. The series came and went quickly. Even if it was a good idea, Ms. Therapist, the readers did not warm up to it. If the market share isn’t there, it isn’t there.
The Testimony, by Robin James aka Sharon and Tom Curtis. To Have and To Hold #1, 1983
Years ago. probably mid 1980s, there was a “romance” I will never forget but it was so bad I’ve completely blocked out the title or author at the same time. Now this was when romance publishers were just dabbling their toes into adding fantasy or science fiction elements into romances. I want to say it was an early Loveswept title but that may be wrong.
Anyway, it’s in a fantasy setting and the heroine spends the entire book in a well fleshed out RELATIONSHIP with this general during a war their country is in. Then very close to the end of the book she leaves him for a man she’d met once! Because apparently that was her true love. Or she was really one of the new guy’s people. Something telepathy or other.
I mean, seriously?!?!
I couldn’t decide which outraged me more. The relationship bait and switch. Or… the idea that for it to be a fantasy there has to be this mystical connection between them that overrode everything else.
I honestly think the reason I can’t remember the title/author is because that ending shortcircuited my brain.
But here is the real kicker – the first guy she spent most of the book interacting with? He was not a bad guy. He was very much an alpha hero of that era of romances but he was an honorable one. And their story was not bad at all even if it did not rise to a “soul mate” level.
It’s even possible he was killed off too and I just don’t remember it. Which says a lot about just much the bait and switch seared my brain.
Could the book have been published by Avon as part of the Finding Mr. Right series? Those books were all about women being attracted to two different men and having to figure out which one she wanted. My recollection is that both guys were usually potential HEAs, rather than an artificial good guy/bad guy dilemma.
It’s possible but I seriously doubt it. Mainly because it wasn’t at all about figuring out which one she wanted. Plus I’m pretty sure it in a line that was an early effort at “speculative” romance. At least I think that’s what they were calling it at the time but what they meant was “let’s experiment with some fantasy or science fiction elements” and see how it goes. There were some good ones that came out, too. This one just was not one of them.
I want to say the word “green” was in the title. But, honestly, I could be confusing it with one that I actually liked from that line/time.
“Another writer asked, “Are you saying that if the hero and heroine are happy together for 399 pages, but he gets run over by a truck on page 400, it’s not a romance?” Some romance writers and readers pointed out that no one reads this genre to get a horrible gutpunch on the last page, but the writer still felt that the “constraints” of the HEA stifled authors’ creativity.”
It’s not just the gutpunch although that’s a huge part of it. I think what so many miss when they focus on the HEA/HE/HFN requirement for romances… and believe it stiflles creativity… is that that ending is supposed to be the culmination of the romance that the author chose to construct in the first place.
Not suddenly the beginning of possibly another story for one of the characters.
Show me the creativity of making me believe the character’s relationship has earned that HEA and I’ll also believe it’s a romance. It’s really that simple.
I am very reductionist / super simplistic:
Write whatever you want, but if you want to use a label, what you call it needs to be what the label says.
I do not want to buy “milk”, and discover it is soy “milk”.
I can decide to read Nalini Singh’s mysteries, and be fine. If she labeled them Contemporary romance, then I would not be fine with the book. If she sold it without a label, I would need to make a decision and any surprises would be on me – fine, too.
So, I honestly do not get the debate, since the author can choose the “box”- or at least has a say.
Like others, I resent people who want to label incorrectly and blame me for relying on the label.
And to me, “romance” is a clear label : relationship centric, love story with HEA, or at least HFN.
Absolutely. I really don’t understand why this definition is an issue!
I suspect it’s an issue because some writers tend to look down their noses at “romance novels” but still want to jump on the romance novel money train, built-in audience, access to a huge reader cohort, etc. Rather than put in the work required to include the ONE SINGLE THING romance readers require in their reading, they’d rather change the definition of romance. Heavy sigh.
Absolutely agreed. It’s especially common when writers who don’t read romance have an idea that involves a couple’s relationship (which may or may not end happily) and then ask, “Could this be a romance?” I always ask them to pick up a few genre romances, read those, and see how they compare to the manuscript.
The debate about HEA/HFN rears its head regularly on Romance Twitter and I just don’t get it. It’s the ONE rule of the genre. That’s literally IT, and apart from that the author can do whatever they like. it’s all about marketing really and, as you say, people wanting a slice of the romance pie who think they’re somehow “above” writing a simple love story. There is NOTHING simple about writing a good romance. NOTHING. Anyone can write about people shooting other people or blowing shit up – it’s just a matter of choreography and pacing. But writing a really good personal journey, complete with emotions that are well realised and make sense is NOT easy. And that’s probably why those authors who scoff are bad at it.
Heh, that reminds of a thread I once saw titled “What IS a Romance Novel? Is it just about GETTING the guy, or can it be MORE?” The poster, a man, went on to say “I want to introduce a novel into the Romance genre that isn’t about getting the guy so much as KEEPING him, which is as often a worry in life for many women as getting him in the first place.” It just came off so much as him trying to help us out with his greater experience. Of course he hadn’t read any romance novels either.
I’d probably ask him, in all seriousness, what he thinks it means to “earn their happily ever after”? Because that’s romance.
I think it was Picasso that said “Learn the rules like a pro, so you can break them like an artist.”
So, to me, it’s not so much about why the discussion comes up as it is about who’s asking the question. We don’t see established multi-published romance (or any other genre) authors asking it. Because they already know when and how to break the rules. Use different AKAs for radically different approaches. Put stories they want to tell but that don’t quite fit their genre in well labeled anthologies with other potential misfit stories that might all smudge the lines a bit. But the bottom line is that they have put in the work long enough within their chosen genre that they have an unspoken understanding with their readers to respect those rules.
Who we do see asking if things can be different are writers who honestly haven’t learned the rules yet or they wouldn’t be asking the question. They would know that if they want to write whatever they want then they shouldn’t be trying to write for a genre. Any genre. They should just write it and see if they can get it published. Somewhere.
All that with one caveat, however, that applies specifically to romances. I have on the rare occasion run across someone asking the “why do romances have to have a HEA” question in such a way that it makes me suspicious of their actual motive. As I listen to or read what they are saying I start wondering if they are really an aspiring author (or sometimes even just a reader) trying to find their comfort zone. Or if they are actually someone who is trying to “fix” the romance genre because happy endings just aren’t literary enough for them. That’s when I slowly back away. Not banging my head on that wall again.
Exactly. There was one e-publisher of romance which decided to open a separate imprint for love stories which didn’t necessarily have HEAs, but these were branded accordingly so readers knew what to expect. That showed a level of respect for romance readers that I don’t see from writers who, as you said, want to “fix” this genre.
Oh, there are people who would also label incorrectly because they believe romance readers need to expand their limits and try new things (like reading a “romance” which is actually a tragic love story).
Yep, someone bringing up “needing to expand my limits” is usually the phrase that makes me start backing away.
Like a fanatic vegan mislabeling milk so I am forced to expand my limits unknowingly ?
And one of the whole wonders of language is how well we can describe things. A romance is always a love story but not every love story is a romance. Using language to be specific is a good thing–it helps us understand one another.
I started reading genre romance in a big way in the early-mid 2000s, and I’d agree with a lot of what Mark says (I can’t comment on F&SF as they’re not genres I read often). That means I missed – perhaps fortunately! – the old “bodice rippers” and rapey-heroes.
Wallpaper historicals have become the norm and every hero and heroine now seems to have to be looking to change the status quo in some way. I’m not saying the status quo didn’t need changing, just that the genre is now stuffed with 21st century reformers and activists which in turn leads to some utterly ridiculous plots. I’m with Lynne on how hard it can be for anyone with the remotest interest in or knowledge of actual history to read and enjoy.
Self publishing has become a lot more common, which is a double edged sword – it has enabled some truly talented authors to find an audience… and some not so talented ones to burn our eyeballs with their terrible prose!
Social media has become a lot more influential – which isn’t always a good thing; the fact that so many Booktok-ers are reading books purely to be seen to be reading whatever is currently on trend rather than for the pleasure of reading is, well, sad :(
Uff I follow a youtuber who has said that they have come to recommend books to her on social networks just because they have a beautiful cover and edition, then when in a video she reviews why the story was bad, the comments are like “yes, yes but look what nice edit”…I think some people are missing the point.
If I want a beautiful cover and edition, I buy an art book, a book on English country houses, or a lush garden coffee table book. I would be happy to buy a nice hardcover copy of the Rainbow Season if it was printed on acid-free paper, but I don’t see that happening.
I honestly don’t care very much about covers – I read exclusively on my Kindle and have done so for a number of years (thanks firstly to a lack of space for more books in my house, and more recently to poor eyesight!) so the covers don’t make much of an impact on me at all.Even when I could read print books, the cover had no bearing on my decision to read – or not to read – a book.
I started reading genre romances in the 1990s, though many of the F&SF books I mostly read before that included romantic relationships. I started with books by Heyer and others in the Traditional Regency sub-genre, which no longer even exists as a separate mainstream publishing line. The percentage of Historical Romances that are wallpaper has increased. When I started, SFR and PNR were both rare and often sloppy (with poor world-building), now they are both large sub-genres and (mostly) better written. Most sub-genres have increased their sexual content, both as percentage of text and in the acts portrayed. All sub-genres show more author and character diversity now than then. Ebooks didn’t exist (AFAIK) when I started–I first started getting ebooks in 2006, and I am pretty sure they had only been around a few years then. Independent (not mainstream published) authors have become a much bigger fraction of the total market, especially since ebooks made it so much easier to get books out without a big print publisher. Before the current ebook support systems existed, independent publishing required a huge time and money investment and business skills many authors don’t have, or working with someone able and willing to supply those things.
Far less “forced seduction”, thank goodness. Far more inclusion of LGBTQ+ romances. Heroines have a lot more agency. Less purple prose and silly euphemisms for body parts. I do miss the historicals set in non-Regency eras (especially medieval ones).
Agreed, though I think some romances try to get as close to this as possible. Back in the day, if the heroine said no, the hero would rape her. Now, I’ve read a few books/manuscripts where the heroine says no, so the hero invades her personal space, makes suggestive comments, arranges for their paths to accidentally-on-purpose cross, and so on. It’s a difference of degree rather than kind, and still prioritizing the man’s decisions over the woman’s choice.
That said, even this isn’t too prevalent. And I recently saw a literary agent’s wish list where she said she didn’t want to read about “persistent heroes” in romance. I was so pleased about that.
Well I think partly it’s because all that “forced seduction” dubious consent, non-consent and overbearing heroes have earned their own kingdom in dark romance there goes everything the mainstream doesn’t usually want because even mob readers romance or things like that don’t usually want rape on their books, so while a “normal” mafia romance might not have dubcon or noncon or something like that dark mafia romance does.
It feels like to me forced seduction books still sell hugely AND many of them do not have rape in them as much as dubious consent which is NOT the same thing.
Oh I know, but I mentioned them together because I have seen that they are just as popular in certain sectors.
Historical romance seems to be mostly confined to the Regency/Victorian era. With the exception of Harlequin/Mills and Boon Historical Romance and Dragonblade, the majority of historical romances published seemed to be largely set within that era. As Lynne Connolly pointed out many of the books tend to be wallpaper historicals and while they can be fun, last year I read Lissa Morgan’s fabulous debut for HH, The Welsh Lord’s Convenient Bride and was reminded of just how satisfying richly detailed historical romance can be.
There are also less Gothic romances being published and many contemporary romance authors are now writing women’s fiction.
Within Harlequin/Mills and Boon categories, I’ve noticed in recent years a proliferation of royal romances, particularly in the Harlequin Presents line. In the past, most heroes in Presents tended to be British/Australian, whereas now they tend to be either a Sheikh, a prince of a European principality or Greek and Italian.
If my memory doesn’t deceive me you could read about the Italian count, the Greek shipping magnate or the Spanisch duke already in the 1970ies or 80ies!
Since european Royalty tends to marry commoners the ‘royal romances’ got more and more credibility. Only the now king of Belgium has married a countess, All other european kingdoms have kings and crownprinces with wifes of common origins (Sweden has a crownprincess married to a commoner).
It’s absolutely because of the success of Bridgerton, IMO. I miss historicals set during the Revolutionary War, Medievals, etc.
Historical romance has changed, and not always for the better. I do greet with relief the dropping of the “rape into love” trope that was so popular in the USA in the 90s. But the historical inaccuracies make many of today’s historical romances almost impossible for anyone even remotely interested in history to read with pleasure.
In the UK, the saga has seen a big resurgence. Some of my friends have seen big surges in sales recently.
Could you tell some examples?
My romance reading goes back decades. In fact, if you count historical fiction (like Anya Seton’s KATHERINE) or books with romantic subplots by mid-century writers like Elizabeth Cadell or Mary Stewart, I’ve always read romance. I read SWEET SAVAGE LOVE when it was first released in the 1970s, and thereupon consumed massive quantities of bodice-rippers (most of them utterly forgettable in retrospect, but enjoyable at the time). For me, the biggest shifts in romance are the decline of the “rapey” hero (hopefully gone forever) and the ascendancy of the fully-acknowledged “female gaze” (where women looking appreciatively at—if not necessarily objectifying—men is accepted as a part of romance).
When I think of bodice rippers, I think of a lot of books set in the U.S. South, in New Orleans, the Caribbean, or Central America. Settings during wars or in colonies that were unstable seem to have provided a place where a woman could easily be in peril.
Since the Vietnam War, however, Americans are a lot more squeamish about graphic depictions of war — no more front page photos of napalmed children running down the road or even bloody corpses in earthquakes. Sure, there are gut-wrenching photos, but most are showing the mourners or the searchers, not the bloody dead. I worked for rural newspapers for years, and people loved seeing photos of fires and crashes, but only if they did not see the blood, the burns, or the bodies. The dramatic photos sure sold papers, but there were also innumerable calls to the newsroom from pearl-clutching readers asking us why we had not “thought of the children” when publishing our “family newspaper.” Yeah, you bought the paper with that photo, but didn’t want to answer hard questions like “why do people drink beer if they will crash?” (Sorry… /end rant.)
I wonder if bodice rippers were abandoned not just because of assault and rape, but because more readers wanted a sanitized version of history. Have historicals set in slave-holding societies become unacceptable for now? Are the 1920s in favor not just because of the passage of time, but because of indoor plumbing and increasing independence for women? Can writers portray real, now-offensive historical attitudes toward women or toward despised-at-the-time out groups without tacitly endorsing old prejudices while striving to portray a romance in which characters have more equal agency and economic power?
Wow. Such an interesting set of questions.
One thing that validates your analysis to me is that many dark romances are set in contexts where women are in danger–they live in worlds controlled by the mafia or violent motorcycle gangs or in places where they don’t have easy agency.
I have to think about this some more but THANKYOU!
You make excellent, thought-provoking points. I think another factor I’ve noticed is that amidst our diversity is the sanitation of thought. Characters might have different colored skin, use different phrases and eat different foods, but they live in a bubble where all the good characters think one way and all the evil ones another. This is something that really stands out in historicals, where novel after novel has characters with belief systems that are wildly different from those that would have been prevelant at the time.
…they live in a bubble where all the good characters think one way and all the evil ones another.
It’s also easy to predict who will have which thoughts. I’ve given up on authors who put any group of characters up on a pedestal where the worst flaw such a character has is being too generous towards the designated-evil group.
It’s funny–I didn’t use to watch hardly any TV–it was too simplistic. Now, I watch at least an hour a day and most of the shows I love I love because I can’t predict what the characters will do or say. They are morally nuanced and flawed. I love that in fiction.
Yes, there is a definite predictability to who will say what and how that is presented.
Take a look at reviews and the synopsis of Alyx, by Lolah Burford (Signet, 1977) for some perspective on the extensive changes in mass market romance over the last 50 or 60 years. Trigger warnings galore on this one:
Also, the weird implausibilities in this historical show, I think, that not all older historical novels featured well-researched history. Kathleen E. Woodiwiss opened up a huge market for romance, but it sure is a mixed legacy from my perspective.
When I look at these older books, it is easier to understand why it took readers years to object to things like the drunk heroine’s sexual initiation in It Happened One Autumn in the Wallflowers series by Lisa Kleypas. I originally read right past that scene without blinking — after all, I grew up hearing high school guys talking like it was no big deal about getting their girlfriends drunk to have sex. The scene in the book was not surprising or unacceptable to me at the time, because I could understand why it got used as a plot device.
The current problem in historicals, with implausibly independent heroines and main characters with modern attitudes, may just be a transition phase while writers and readers figure out how to come to terms with the past and how to tell stories from very different eras. For me, it also highlights why there is so much reactionary thought in political and social discourse currently. The changes in my lifetime have been profound.