The Trouble with Historical Romance

Image courtesy of Phaitoon / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of Phaitoon / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

This was a comment on Dear Author’s latest post about historical romance, which was written to address AAR’s Lynn Spencer’s lament about the decline of historical romance, but I didn’t want to hog the comments section.

But first my comment from last week’s Dear Author:

…I think the only way for the sub-genre to shake itself up is if we have a Fifty Shades of Grey phenom: something that originates outside of the genre and trickles down to us. Contemporary romance, erotic romance, and New Adult exploded over the past year when ex-romance readers, non-romance readers, and even romance haters devoured the trilogy and wanted more. Self-published authors and e-publishers first filled the void, and then publishers sat up to repackage backlists and sell new content from the superstars of these genres (Sylvia Day, Maya Banks, Beth Kery, et al) for these voracious new readers.

Historical romance can’t even ride the wave of popular period dramas like Downton Abbey, Hatfields & McCoy, Vikings, et al, because it’s still surfing the Jane Austen break of the 90s. Which is the sub-genre’s main issue: it has no “gateway drug” to attract new readers who will push for something different. Someone who enjoys suspense/thrillers can easily slide over into romantic suspense; someone who enjoys vampires/werewolves/etc can easily slide over into paranormal romance and urban fantasy; someone who enjoys chick-lit or women’s fiction can pick up Victoria Dahl or Robyn Carr. We aren’t going to see historical fiction readers–or even Downton Abbey fans–traipse over to the romance section and pick up books with half-naked cover models, seemingly dubious historical content, and titles like “Sins of a Wicked Rake at Midnight.”

Another issue–regarding the self-pub market–is that newly self-published authors are selling books NY did not want (not a slur on the quality, but the reality of submitting your work). If an aspiring HR author decides to put up those four books NY rejected, it’s a given that they are Regency Historicals–that’s what’s selling and you write what’s selling (and what you read). Why would an author determined to sell to a traditional publisher write books set in 1840s New York or Dark Age Britain? It’s freaking scary to be an outlier. It also requires a lot of balls to stick out your neck with unusual settings/plots/characters, and more than a little hubris, when your chances of garnering attention, readers, and a steady income is safer if you color inside of the lines.

I love history, period, and–for the sake of the romance genre–believe a deeply romantic, HEA story can happen in any setting or era, and for all types of people. However, perhaps many others don’t–the Regency setting is “safe” from the elements many feel are not conducive to a blithe HEA. Move into the Victorian era and everyone has Dickens, repressed sexuality, and grimy poverty on the brain. Move into the Edwardian era and everyone has the horrors of WWI in mind. And then the Great Depression of the 1930s if you move further into the 20th century. Move backwards in history and everyone thinks about lice, rotting teeth, smallpox, etc. Move over to America and everyone thinks about slavery, Native American oppression, and racism. The Regency setting is not exempt from its own horrors, oppression, and turmoil, but via the works of Austen and Heyer, it has been shaped into a soothing “fairy tale” period of history.

This perception of history is the challenge non-Regency authors must face (or perhaps Regency authors who cull from history rather than rely upon Heyerisms), and is probably why books set in 1840 or 1755 or 1893 still read like “Regencies”. Having just completed a romance set during WWI, I certainly kept this challenge in mind because I don’t want to scare readers away, lol. That said, I did have many moments where I second-guessed myself over whether the book fit inside the boundaries of the historical romance market (Sherry Thomas mentioned this in last Friday’s post). But I had the time to experiment with what to add and what to extract because I am not traditionally published; a published author juggling multiple deadlines does not.

This is not to say romance authors skimp on research, but the parameter for historical fiction is bound by “what happened” (or what is perceived to have happened), whereas speculative fiction (paranormal romance, romantic urban fantasy, SFF romance) is freed by “what if?”, and contemporaries by “why not?”. “What happened” combined with the expectations of the romance genre means things must be fudged, or at least spiffed up to reassure readers that the HEA means the h/h will live in bliss, in prosperity, and in chrysalis (I was intrigued when Kate Noble’s latest release, Let It Be Me opened with a prologue set in the 1890s where the Regency heroine was now elderly and the hero had been dead for many years–wonder if that upset some readers). This unique desire for historical romance readers could also be why novels inspired by the writer’s ancestors are written as historical fiction–perhaps many are too close to the reality of the past via their grandparents or aunt or great-great uncle to think of the 1940s or 1910s or 1870s as fodder for fun historical romance, whereas the Regency setting is far away enough and quite glamorous.

Overall, I don’t think historicals are going anywhere, but for new and emerging writers, I feel the clue to revitalizing the genre is not to look to what has happened–look at what is to come. Young Adult fiction is shaping how many read and consume fiction, and this audience is going to seek fiction akin to what they grew up on (hence why New Adult/Mature YA is–in my controversial opinion–meeting the needs of YA readers who wouldn’t “get” adult romance [YA romance is plentiful, so why riffle through mom’s Harlequins as you grow up? Very unlike how it seems many current romance readers were introduced to the genre]). Readers like Liz, Jessica, and Robin/Janet have mentioned needing to acclimate themselves to the language of the romance genre when they discovered it, and I think this is a vital and important element when musing about the future of the genre. I don’t claim to have fully hashed out my own thoughts or even reconciled my own writing with these ponderings, but I can’t ignore that they exist and will influence whether my writing career will sink or swim.

Thoughts? Rebuttals? Opinions?

13 comments

  1. Melissa Marsh says:

    This: “We aren’t going to see historical fiction readers–or even Downton Abbey fans–traipse over to the romance section and pick up books with half-naked cover models, seemingly dubious historical content, and titles like “Sins of a Wicked Rake at Midnight.””

    There is still a bias against historical romance precisely because of this – the heaving bosoms, the rather outlandish titles, the cover art that makes it look like all the book is about is sex. And that’s really not true. The relationship is at the heart of the book. But of course, this is only part of the perception problem.

    I know the cover argument has gone on for a long time – the clench cover vs. the non-clench cover, and while there are a lot of readers who don’t mind the clench covers, I think if we truly want to revitalize the genre, we need to move away from it.

    But on a larger scale, I also think that those who read historical fiction do not look at historical romances as BEING historical fiction. There is still a perception that it is fluff and not to be taken seriously. The history is mere window dressing for the characters.

    • Evangeline Holland says:

      I also think that those who read historical fiction do not look at historical romances as BEING historical fiction. There is still a perception that it is fluff and not to be taken seriously. The history is mere window dressing for the characters.

      This is so true. And a smidgen ironic since when you look at Woodiwess and Rogers’ novels, they are direct descendants of books like Gone With the Wind, Forever Amber, and other sweeping historicals published between the 30s-70s. The novels of Woodiwess, Rogers, Small, et al were merely marketed as blockbuster MMPB romances instead of mainstream hardcover historical fiction–perhaps because the market had shifted away from those types of books? I don’t know if moving away from clinch covers will help because the content of the books will remain the same–it isn’t difficult to run into reviews of romantic historical fiction where the reader complains it was a “disguised Harlequin romance”. And after all of this time (30 years or so), historical romance fans have been trained to associate clinch covers or women in pretty dresses as historical romance. You notice that the practice of giving super best-sellers covers with flowers or satin pillows (with a clinch in the more discreet step-back) has largely disappeared!

  2. Emma says:

    Yes to all of this. I particularly appreciate your point that within romance, the Regency period has been de-historicized so that readers can now pretend that it’s free of political unrest, disease, discomfort, shocking racial/gender/social inequity, violence, etc. I always laugh whenever I hear people complain that a book is too political when the issue is truly what politics get noticed. The smoothing and Disney-izing of the past is political work. But I digress.

    I’ve only been reading romance for a few years, but it seems like other sub-genres were revived/defamiliarized by the unexpected, massive success of a few nonconforming titles. Twilight, in the case of young adult; 50 Shades of Grey for contemporary/erotic. Whatever you think of the writing in those books, they changed the perception about what readers would read and opened up the marketplace for lots of new books.

    The historicals that will/could do that are out there, I hope, waiting to be discovered.

    • Evangeline Holland says:

      The smoothing and Disney-izing of the past is political work.

      You’ve hit the nail on the head! What is exasperating about this is that Jane Austen scholars and fans regularly discuss the socio-political background of her novels–from the text, not merely theories–but Austen adaptations, Heyer’s novels, and then Regency romances, have ironed them out. I have to read the latest Heyer biography because I am now curious as to why she was so drawn to the Regency period, and how her own background shaped her image of the period. A few years ago, Pam Rosenthal wrote about silver fork novels of the 1820s-1840s, which seem more of a direct line between the Regency setting–>Heyer–>modern Regency romances than Austen’s novels, and I wonder if even then the Regency period was Disneyfied to cope with the changes and uncertainties of a modernizing society.

      The historicals that will/could do that are out there, I hope, waiting to be discovered.

      I second this hope! And, haha, am not self-deprecating enough to hope that my novels are part of this revolution. ;)

  3. Anna Bowling says:

    I’ve always found it interesting that we don’t get more readers into historical romance from historical influences in other media. I remember the speculation, when the Pirates of the Carribbean movies first came out, if this would spark a pirate renaissance in romance (and wishing it would) but that didn’t happen. I’d love to see more Vikings, but are we going to get more new romance readers from that, because hey, romance has Vikings? Would love to see that, but as things currently stand, I think it can be a tough sell.

    A large number of those who don’t already read historical romance do, without having looked into the books, consider this genre to be all about the sex, when that’s not true. There can be sex, but the relationship is the star in a romance novel, and in a historical romance novel, the history is going to shape the relationship and provide built in challenges to the happily ever after.

    I love, love, love, love, love the big, sweeping historicals, and in the early days of the genre, novels like Small’s The Kadin were first shopped around as hardcover historical fiction. With the popularity of female-centered historical fiction in the current market, historical romance should be a natural avenue for readers who already like the historical fiction to explore…but that’s not happening, or not as much as it could.

    Were I to come into posession of a publishing house (and hey, in the world of indie and self publishing, that’s not entirely out of the question) one of the first things I would do would be to bust out of the Regency/Victorian box. Yes, there are great stories set in those time periods, and I want readers who love them to always have enough, but maybe it’s time for the hybrid vitality of the earlier ages of romance to return. I remember reading Romantic Times magazine (as far back as when it alternated with Rave Reviews, which focused on fiction in general) and anticipating what era my favorite authors would choose for their next books. That last western was fabulous, but what’s next? Priates? Cool. After that, Edwardian? Awesome. Tudor after that and then 1920s? Yes, yes, and yes.

    I’ll save further for a post of my own, but I think we may be onto something here. Is it time for a historical romance renaissance? Might be.

    • Evangeline Holland says:

      I think historical romance has been a steady, stolid staple for so long, publishers, writers, and readers just think: “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” while other romance genres ebb and flow with changing tastes, changing audiences, and changing values (look at how quickly Harlequin’s contemporary romance lines shift and morph based on audience response, whereas Harlequin Historical–once in danger of being axed completely–shifts at a comparatively glacial pace).

      I remember reading Romantic Times magazine (as far back as when it alternated with Rave Reviews, which focused on fiction in general) and anticipating what era my favorite authors would choose for their next books. That last western was fabulous, but what’s next? Priates? Cool. After that, Edwardian? Awesome. Tudor after that and then 1920s?

      Ahhh! This aggravates me to no end! :) What if Julia Quinn wrote a romping Restoration romance? Or Stephanie Laurens took her sexy, dangerous writing and equally sexy and dangerous heroes to WW2 setting? I can imagine this practice of changing time periods with every book or every other book took a toll on deadlines and mental fortitude, but this has contributed to many equating their love of a writers’ voice and characters to their love of the setting.

  4. pamela1740 says:

    I have also been circling back and pondering this so much lately, and especially since reading Lynn’s AAR post and all the good comments. I’m happy to find another great post with more fresh angles.
    I read all across the spectrum of history and romance (historical fiction, romantic historical fiction, historical romance, other types of romance fiction, erotic romance, etc.). I’m a lifelong reader of historical romance, and in many ways it is still my go-to comfort zone. Truth is, I think when I was a teen and first read both Jane Eyre and GWTW, I didn’t really pay attention to the canonical literary distinctions between them, as “classic” vs. “genre fiction” — nor did I really care about the even lower status of other books I really loved (Phlippa Carr, Anya Seton, along with Woodiwiss, Bristow, etc.). I was reading all of them for the same reason, and there was huge variety in the historical settings in which they immersed me. I am pretty sure this is how I really learned European history, and plenty of American history too. I read plenty of historical fiction where romance was only suggested, or peripheral, but in my mind the perfect read was a romance-y book set in a distant time.

    Love this: “…the Regency setting is “safe” from the elements many feel are not conducive to a blithe HEA. Move into the Victorian era and everyone has Dickens, repressed sexuality, and grimy poverty on the brain. Move into the Edwardian era and everyone has the horrors of WWI in mind. And then the Great Depression of the 1930s if you move further into the 20th century. Move backwards in history and everyone thinks about lice, rotting teeth, smallpox, etc. Move over to America and everyone thinks about slavery, Native American oppression, and racism. The Regency setting is not exempt from its own horrors, oppression, and turmoil, but via the works of Austen and Heyer, it has been shaped into a soothing “fairy tale” period of history.”

    Exactly! So well said. And makes me think about some of Christina Dodd’s earlier books, where you kind of lose track of whether it’s a historical Regency or a fairytale Prince/Princess story with characters from a picturesque make-believe Alpine kingdom. There are some Regencies I might characterize as “darker,” since they have more suspense and danger, and sometimes even the feel of a wartime romance — and here I am thinking of Joanna Bourne’s exquisite Spymaster series. But you’re so right that the iconography of historical romance — those symbols publishers use to signal “historical,” which they believe readers expect to see — mey be a big part of the narrowed focus on 19thc Britain. The covers can still convey variation in the tone and “heat” of the novel (eg. bosom-spilling gown vs. teacups and posies, or a dagger and a rose), but they’re still calculated to equate “historical” with the comfort zone of an 1800-something England with an astonishingly over-populated peerage.

    I think the Regency prison historical romance seems to be caged in is actually pushing me to read in two different directions, both outside of mainstream romance. On the one hand, I’m reading historical fiction avidly, with an intensity I haven’t felt since my own YA days, when I spent my time reading everything from James Michener to Anya Seton and Mary Renault. On the other hand, in recent years I’ve also succumbed to the bite of the vampire/PNR bug too, along with steampunk and other sort of hybrid genres like time travel. I’m still pretty picky, and I won’t read a poorly written or completely derivative Outlander or Black Dagger wanna-be book. But I sometimes think another reason for the enormous success of some of the really innovative and well-crafted paranormal series is that they actually incorporate and evoke many archetypal themes — honor, loyalty, kinship, courtliness, brotherhood — that are a big part of the underlying appeal of historical romance, for me.

    • Evangeline Holland says:

      When I discovered historical romance I too did not recognize any distinction between the big, sweeping historical sagas of Seton, et al and the big, sweeping historical romances of Beverley, et al. They were all published as hardcovers in my library, and I grabbed anything with looked “historical”. On a tangent–perhaps a change in format would do historical romance some good: experiment with trade paperback or hard cover to attract a crossover audience.

      But you’re so right that the iconography of historical romance — those symbols publishers use to signal “historical,” which they believe readers expect to see — mey be a big part of the narrowed focus on 19thc Britain. The covers can still convey variation in the tone and “heat” of the novel (eg. bosom-spilling gown vs. teacups and posies, or a dagger and a rose), but they’re still calculated to equate “historical” with the comfort zone of an 1800-something England with an astonishingly over-populated peerage.

      Yes, exactly. Which is why, though I appreciate the romance stock cover websites popping up to serve the needs of self-publishing authors, I shake my fists at the air–they continue to follow the pattern set by New York publishers with clinch covers instead of forging a new path (i.e. the aforementioned Fifty Shades trilogy and the shock it gave to erotic romance covers). A funny thing though–I saw a major publisher copy the silhouette-type covers of Ellen O’Connell’s Western romances for some digital-first published Western romance titles, which proves that self-published authors can lead the way.

      But I sometimes think another reason for the enormous success of some of the really innovative and well-crafted paranormal series is that they actually incorporate and evoke many archetypal themes — honor, loyalty, kinship, courtliness, brotherhood — that are a big part of the underlying appeal of historical romance, for me.

      A very astute observation. It reminds me of why I was initially drawn to medieval romances!

  5. Caz says:

    I’m particularly intrigued by your comment in the last paragraph about readers having to accustom themselves to the language of the romance novel, which I think is absolutely true. And it’s not just that, there’s the need to gain the sense of period through the language in historicals, and becoming used to the social mores and conventions. I’ve read a large amount of 19th century fiction – Austen, Trollope, Dickens, Collins etc, I love them, but I recognise that there’s a degree of familiarity needed if you’re going to read more than one or two and be put off! Having read and re-read Austen before I read any Heyer, I found it a very simple matter to immerse myself in Heyer’s world and language because I was already familiar with the boundaries of the society she was writing about.
    My daughter (almost 14) who is an avid reader and devourer of historical fiction found it more difficult to connect with the Heyer novel she read recently which I suspect was partly due to her youth and partly due to the fact that while she’s read Pride and Prejudice, she hasn’t yet acquired the vocabulary (and I don’t just mean the words, I mean the sense of place and period) to do Heyer justice.

    And that brings me to your comments about Young and New Adult fiction. Again, I’m agreeing with you that because these genres are catering for a specific audience, there is no incentive for those readers to look beyond it and to learn a new vocabulary (again, not just the words). And that worries me. As I say, my eldest daughter adores historical fiction and she’s racing her way through everything I can lay my hand on that’s YA HF. Of course, when I was her age, there was no such thing as YA, so once I’d been through the entire children’s section of the local library – twice – I moved onto Jean Plaidy, Victoria Holt, Norah Lofts and Anya Seton etc. at the age of 11 or 12. Whilst I think teens today are incredibly lucky to have books aimed specifically at them and there are undoubtedly a lot of talented writers working in the field, I can’t help but worry that there will be no incentive for them to move on.

    And now we’ve got “New Adult”, which purports to be for the market between YA and Adult. I’m not sure whether, if I was in the age group it’s aimed at, I’d be insulted or not. Am I an adult or not? Do I need books that will hand-hold my transition from teens to twenties? What’s next? “Nearly New Adult” for 25-30s?

    • Evangeline Holland says:

      Yes!

      Even though, I grew up in the 90s, all we had were books that are now classified as Middle Grade (gasp!), Sweet Valley, and the Baby-sitters Club. The breadth and growth of the YA genre astounds me. Since I too did not have the choice or opportunity to wallow in a sea of books targeted to my age group, and made the leap from Sweet Valley to Victoria Holt and then to Catherine Coulter, Jo Beverley, et al. So many longtime readers came to historical romance through Heyer, Barbara Cartland’s extensive backlist, stealing their mom’s Harlequins, inheriting grandma’s stash of romances, passing around the latest Woodiwess novel in school, etc. That’s pretty much disappeared because YA is so robust.

      I admit to worrying a fair bit about this in terms of my writing–if I hope to capture those readers, ought I learn that “vocabulary” of YA fiction?

      And LOL at “Nearly New Adult”–since most teenagers read “up,” I’m sure the fanbase for NA are readers in their late teens.

      • pamela1740 says:

        I keep coming back to this/these discussions….! This week I’ve been thinking a lot about how I came to historical romance/fiction even as a middle grade reader, via Patricia Beatty, Lois Lenski, Witch of Blackbird Pond, etc. Then it sounds like I discovered the same rich vein of books that you did — Victoria Holt, Barbara Cartland, Anya Seton, Mary Renault, etc. I read both Jane Eyre and GWTW the same summer, and that pretty much sealed the deal in terms of wanting my nose in historical fiction and/or romance all the time.
        Fast forward to 2013, and I am now mom to two very bookish middle grade girls who REFUSE to read historical fiction, and insist that only “books with some magic and fantasy elements, mom” are satisfying and “interesting enough.” I try to tempt them with some of the amazing newer MG and YA historical fiction that has exploded in the intervening decades, but the explosion of MG and YA fantasy has been even more epic, and casts a much more powerful spell on them.
        The other factor is, as you noted, the language and style of the writing itself. They are accustomed to more dialogue, less description, and faster pacing, and I wonder if they find it harder to connect with older books that they perceive as having a more formal or stilted tone. They wouldn’t express it this way, but they frequently abandon books like A Wrinkle In Time in favor of something like The Mysterious Benedict Society, and for some reason they vastly prefer the new Sixty Eight Rooms (a clever fantasy novel about the Chicago Art Institute miniature period rooms) over the classic Mixed Up Files. Party this is the headiness of magical realism but I think it’s also about the language.

        Over on my recent post about favorite Regencies (speaking up for historical romance, etc.), a friend who teaches a college-level history of romance fiction commented

        “But reading your post makes me wonder if the heightened language of Regencies, a trait that I adore but my students patently did not, works against the genre now.

        I thought my students would love Lord of Scoundrels, and I have a colleague who thought Heyer’s The Grand Sophy would be the hit of the course. We were both wrong. Our students (ages 18 -22) want their romance novels told in simple and direct language, a la J. R. Ward.”

        I thought this was pretty fascinating.

        http://badassromance.com/2013/05/14/never-say-die-speaking-up-for-badass-regencies/#comments

        • Evangeline Holland says:

          Ouch. Not interested in Mixed-Up Files! That’s sacrilege! ;)

          I think the rise of social media (dreaded text speak) has led to a desire for more simpler language combined with spectacular effects. Not so much “dumbing down”–or that the younger generation does not appreciate lovely prose–but a shift in how they consume the written word. And how important they consider the written word when it’s so ephemeral–a tweet, a text, a Facebook status, an Instagram description.

          It’s interesting that your daughters prefer fantasy over historicals. I’d read a few of the top selling YA historicals (like the Luxe series) a few years ago, and winced over the simplistic presentation of history and the wallpaper characterization that served up drama over substance. So the love of YA fantasy, which paints a colorful world packed with adventure and action, is funny!

  6. Caz says:

    I thought my students would love Lord of Scoundrels, and I have a colleague who thought Heyer’s The Grand Sophy would be the hit of the course. We were both wrong. Our students (ages 18 -22) want their romance novels told in simple and direct language, a la J. R. Ward.

    This is a fascinating comment – and something that has occurred to me, too. My daughter definitely prefers historical fiction to fantasy – she’s got no patience with sparkly vampires! I gave her what I thought was one of Heyer’s funniest books – Friday’s Child – to read last year, and although she read it and quite liked it, she was less enthusiastic than I’d hoped, and I wonder if that’s due to the fact that she’s not yet attuned to the conventions of the time OR if it’s as that commenter said, and she found the language too complex and the pacing too slow. (Even though she’s very articulate and reads a lot.)

    And it then got me thinking. I read and review a lot of books, and something I am continually coming across what I regard as simplistic language and motivations in some of the work by newer authors I read. Of course, it’s not all newer authors, I don’t mean that much of a generalisation, but I am definitely seeing a lack of complex characterisations, structures, motivations. At first I just thought I was unlucky with the books I had chosen and that it was bad writing. But I’ve begun to think more recently that perhaps this “dumbing down” is more to do with a desire for simplicity and an unwillingness on the part of some readers to do any of the work for themselves.

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