It hasn’t been a good stretch for me in my romance reading. I haven’t read anything since Love Lettering that I expect to re-read, which for me is the real sign of success: since I found my groove as a romance reader (nearly a decade ago, now!), romance has filled a nice niche for me as my go-to genre for incidental reading, books that divert, distract, and cheer me when I don’t have the time or am not in the mood for heavier options. I don’t mean to belittle the genre at all with this characterization. I have always read and reread books in that spirit, but they used to be mostly ‘light’ mysteries (Dick Francis, for instance) or relatively undemanding but satisfying general fiction (Anne Tyler, Joanna Trollope). I still reread old favorites in those genres too, but now my interstitial reading (as I have come to call it) also includes Georgette Heyer and Loretta Chase, Courtney Milan and Kate Clayborn.
What is it that makes rereading–sometimes frequent rereading–pleasurable? Why do some books invite and reward it and others not? I reread for a living, of course, and for the books I teach the answer usually has to do with complexity: with layers of meaning and intricacies of language or form. Books teach well that don’t reveal themselves completely on a first try–otherwise what is there to talk about, after all? The better you know a book like that, the more you appreciate on each reading: the pleasure itself gets more complicated and multidimensional. That’s not (or not quite, or not usually) the same with the mysteries or romances I reread, though–or with writers like Anne Tyler, whose novels are many good things, including smart, touching, and subtle, but not particularly layered or complicated. You might notice more details on rereading, or see some connections or patterns that you missed the first time through, but for me anyway, rereading these books is about familiarity, not novelty, about confirmation rather than revelation. The pleasure comes from watching things unfold again as you already know they will, and enjoying again what you enjoyed before, whether it’s witty banter, angst-ridden suspense, sparky sexual tension, or whatever genre tropes the novel is built around.
But not every romance novel inspires rereading for me, even if I enjoyed it just fine the first time. Sometimes there’s an obvious problem–stilted prose, unconvincing characters, a plot that feels too utterly contrived, leaden dialogue–but others fall flat for no reason I can really put my finger on. The recent string of books that prompts this post included just one of the first kind (Tessa Dare’s The Wallflower Wager, which felt creaky from the get-go and then lumbered predictably along while trying to be spritely and witty, which is the worst effect for me) but mostly books of the second sort, where nothing was overtly wrong but they still didn’t do much for me. Get A Life, Chloe Brown was like that–it was perfectly fine, sometimes even charming, but when I was done, it went straight into the ‘donate’ pile. Ditto Mhairi McFarlane’s Don’t You Forget About Me, and Lucy Parker’s Headliners, and Alyssa Cole’s A Duke by Default. This morning I finished Linda Holmes’s Evvie Blake Starts Over and overall I enjoyed it the most of this recent batch–though I’m not 100% sure it qualifies as romance. (It sits on the fuzzy line between contemporary romance and “chick lit” or “women’s fiction,” especially as it doesn’t quite serve up the requisite HEA–its ending is a very nice happy-for-now one.) If I went back a couple of months, I could give a much longer list of titles–very few of them actually bad but also few of them particularly good. (In romance as in all reading, of course, YMMV, and these are all books others have enjoyed a lot. Love works in mysterious ways, I guess! As we say on Twitter, “don’t @ me.” 😉 )
When I mentioned my discouraging string of “meh” romance reads on Twitter, Liz (who, more than perhaps anyone else, got me into reading romance in the first place!) commented that she “might be off romance for good.” It’s not (I am sure she meant) that she has lost respect for or interest in the genre overall, but that it gets tiring (and boring) having to read through so many to find the ones you like. This is certainly true of my own experience of romance, at any rate. There are lots of contributing factors to the skewed hit-to-miss ratio: the sheer quantity of books, for one thing, and the equally wide-ranging variety of readers and tastes they serve. Marketing–covers, blurbs, hype–makes useful discernment a challenge (this is true of all the genres I read, but the problem feels more pronounced with romance), as does the (perfectly understandable) desire of romance readers and writers to support each other and the genre they love, which is so frequently reviled and misrepresented.
Although my relationship with romance has come a long way since my first skeptical and ill-informed attempts at reading in the genre, I do sometimes get fed up. As I mentioned in that Twitter conversation, I “DNF” romance novels far more often than books of any other kind, and while it’s possible that this result is mostly about me (as a reader or a person, who knows) it’s hard not to think it also says something about the genre, though what exactly that is, I’m not sure. But it’s also true that most romance novels are relatively fast reads, which is why I can get through so many of them in such a short time. Perhaps, proportionally, the hits and misses are not really that out of line with the rest of my reading–they just stack up more quickly! That also means that each romance novel on its own is a fairly low risk endeavor (certainly compared to, say, Ducks, Newburyport, which so far I dislike much more intensely than any of the romances I have picked up and put down without finishing, and which will require a vastly greater investment of time and effort to get the rest of the way through). Moreover, when I do find a romance novel I really like, the pay-off is disproportionately large because of how often I am likely to end up rereading it. I have now read all three of Kate Clayborn’s ‘Chance of a Lifetime’ trilogy three or four times each, for example, and will no doubt reread them again before too long; the same is true of Cecilia Grant’s ‘Blackshear Family’ series, the first one of which, A Lady Awakened, I recently reread with great pleasure. There are even some individual scenes that make the whole exercise worthwhile! Sometimes I pick up Heyer’s Devil’s Cub just to reread the chapter in which Mary, all unwitting, tells the Duke of Avon about her misadventures with his wayward son Vidal: it’s the perfect antidote for a fit of gloom, a reliable dose of “restorative pork jelly” (an allusion other Heyer readers will appreciate!).
Discovering that, if it’s the right one, a romance novel is the best bookish friend imaginable–always there when you need it and sure to cheer you up–is the happiest result of my now decade-long romance reading adventure. In the end, that’s what keeps me trying again and again even when it starts to seem that the ones I really like are few and far between: when I do find them, the rewards outweigh the accumulated tedium of the many others that weren’t for me. If that balance ever tips too far the other way, I too might go off the genre, though I can’t imagine clearing out my collection of favorites, which is a sign of much I have come to value romance as part of my reading life. It feels apt (if a bit trite!) to point out that my optimistic pursuit of just the right book for me is a bit like the stories romance novels themselves tell–which I guess means it’s rereading that turns out to be the real HEA!
I am with you, and am especially disappointed in the books I have been reviewing in my paid gig lately. The only romances I have really enjoyed and think I would reread are by Lucy Parker, The Hate Game by Sally Thorne, and a few chick lit books like The Flatshare. I tried a few Jasmine Guillory, as she is getting such great word of mouth, and I thought The Proposal was the best of those I read.
It’s hard if you aren’t thrilled about something you are being paid to read so you can’t just close it and move on!
Great post, Rohan. I reread genre fiction too, and I also reread certain types of lit fic, like Trollope. I’ve been trying to keep reading romance novels but failing miserably, and I’m about ready to take a very very long break. I’m glad that there is a market for the new stuff, and I hope that younger readers are enjoying romances so that the genre is sustained. But I have found very few new and new-ish authors to put on my reading list, for many of the reasons you list.
Thanks, Sunita. It’s depressing when it’s a long streak with no winners, but there is that paradoxical way in which the only way to filter out the ones I’ll really like is to keep trying and failing until I find them. Maybe your break will send you back to the genre feeling refreshed.
Terrific post, Rohan. I used to be a great re-reader of romance until quite recently. Now there are too many new books to catch up to that I find myself re-reading far less.
There are some authors I may read once and then never again, when I sense that their writing style is such that their stories are preordained and lurch to the finish on established tracks. I feel these stories are written for their readers and the characters and plots are in service to complete authorial direction.
Supporting the genre by reading and discussing is one thing. Being a cheerleader to authors is a growing Twitter phenomenon that is increasingly distasteful. While I do listen on Twitter for who is writing what, who is getting noticed, etc., I take no notice of all the squee from these cheerleaders, because most of the time, I have my doubts if they have even read the books they are purportedly hyping.
And now I know what I’m going to read tonight: Leaf through and revisit “Devil’s Cub.” It is one of my favorite Heyers.
Why I came to dislike historical romance
I am not snobbish about romance fiction. As a teen, I delightedly read and reread all of Georgette Heyer’s historical romance novels. For a good measure, I also read many Mills&Boon (we used to call them Mills &Fool) romances which were considered so low brow that I would hide them in a 1000-page academic text ‘The Rise and Growth of Economic Nationalism in India’. Eventually, my reading interests changed and I forgot romance fiction for the next forty years.
This year, a foot surgery followed by pandemic lockdown, had me reading Heyer again since all her novels are now available as e-books. To my surprise, I found reviews of all of Heyer’s romance novels at Tor.com (and some on your blog) and discovered the website allaboutromance.com. On the historical romance regency/Victorian spectrum, I discovered contemporary authors such as Mary Balogh, Lisa Kleypas, Sara Maclean, Julia Quinn, Courtney Milan, Sherry Thomas and a few others. I read several books by each author, sometimes a whole series even.
At the end of my reading binge, I really wished that the genre Heyer invented had died with her. Heyer’s novels are not without problems but she got certain things right which made the romances both believable and delightful. None of her successors (Balogh, Kleypas and co) have been able to replicate her formula which make their novels both unbelievable and undelightful.
When reading Heyer one never doubted that her novels were set in certain historic period: it was in the language, lifestyle, sexual mores, social norms and the physical setting. Whereas, her successors had modernized the language and the mores so much, often I forgot that I was reading a period novel; there were factual errors and anachronisms; sometimes, even food and dresses were wrong. If they are going to modernize so much and be so careless about period details, why write them as historical novels?
Heyer’s heroines were intelligent independent thinking women but they were not out to smash the patriarchy. Their radicalism came from the fact they were not all desperate to be married but the novels gave them happy ending with love and marriage. Heyer did not write explicit sex scenes but her witty dialogues made the ‘courtship dance’ sizzle with sexual energy. In her successors’ hands, the 19th century heroines are given much sexual agency; they are either a brilliant author, writer, editor, artist, physician or scientist; they have interior lives where they spend time doubting their self-worth as sexual beings; ultimately, they marry their dream man, have babies and become dull as dishwater.
Yet, the updating of the genre conventions do not make these novels better or more interesting. I found that collectively there is certain failure of imagination in the writings. I will give you just one example from Balogh’s Westcott series. The novella ‘Someone to Remember’ is about a fifty-six year old woman finally getting back together with her childhood sweetheart and it ends with a big wedding that she always wanted. Balogh’s novels usually drip with explicit sex but in this story there is nary a single sex scene. The heroine is a menopausal virgin marrying a sexually active man. While reading the novel I found myself asking: When did they first have sex together, before or after marriage? How did they deal with certain difficulties associated with menopausal sex? The novel is totally silent on their sexual life? If you are going to write a romance about middle-aged couple, why not write imaginatively and honestly about middle-age sex?