Category romance is the literary equivalent of tract housing. The units line up, one after the other, in perfectly matched symmetry, completely known and quantifiable. And, certainly, there is no reason to fault category for succeeding in doing exactly what it sets out to do: offering the reader the comfort of sameness and the certainty that what is expected will be delivered upon. But, all too often the trade off that comes with this familiarity is a lack of originality. It would seem the plots points of category romances have the same limitations as three bedroom two bath ranch homes in that there are only so many ways the principle elements come together and remain true to the original intention. In both cases what’s so easily jettisoned to form is creativity.
The primitiveness of 1136 Scotland can make the modern mind shiver. Those pesky Romans were gone from England but the Normans had come and conquered and subsequently left their mark on: the English language (the beginnings of its modern version anyway), the monarchy, and well, sufficed to say, Western history. Outside of the political arena the daily lives of average folks were pretty tough. There was no Costco back then. Which might not matter as there was also no refrigeration to keep five gallon tubs of mayonnaise fresh. For that matter, there were also no cell phones, TiVo, internet, cars, or anything approaching modern convenience. It actually gets much worse than no electricity, there was also no public sanitation (that’s for humans or livestock). It would be another seven or eight hundred years before people started to bathe regularly (and by people, that means: people with money; and by regularly: that doesn’t mean daily). Given the harsh and unhygienic conditions, it’s no surprise that the life expectancy was only in the early thirties. All things considered, it was a dicey time.
One of the most perplexing trends to take a hold of romance is the demonization of the press. Through category and single titles alike, journalists have become the easy go-to villain. In contemporary romance, being part of the media is as telling a character trait as the black hat in westerns of old. The reader need not be given anything beyond that one word: press. Authors who utilize this characterization shorthand might as well substitute Satan for press for all the evilness the press has come to symbolize in romance. What is, perhaps, even more perplexing is why. Really, why? Do the average romance author and the average romance reader really share the common enemy of the media? Since neither readers, nor writers, of romance show up in mainstream media or are the subjects of gonzo paparazzi the common enemy theory seems unlikely.
Some books, like JR Ward’s Lover Awakened, are eagerly anticipated with pre-orders numbers that one would expect from a New York Times best seller veteran. Other books, the sort in a superstar stratosphere unto themselves, like the Harry Potter books, are obsessively waited for: countdown clocks are made, lines form, the devoted sleep on sidewalks for the chance to be the first with the book in their hands. And then, there are books like Teresa Medeiros’ The Vampire Who Loved Me, a book, like the others, awaited, but with sanity and patience. A book fans of After Midnight (Merdeiros’ first look at the Cabot sisters) are certainly interested in, but one unlikely to inspire camping out for. As it turns out, The Vampire Who Loved Me isn’t a book to sit nicely on the to-be-read pile, but demands to be read immediately and without interruption.
There are some books written to be savored and pondered, thought about and argued over long after the final words have been read. There are others that do not aspire to such lofty heights. Instead they seek to momentarily entertain, asking only that the reader step into their pages and go along for the ride. Most of romance is the momentary variety; disposable even. Read it once, enjoy it or not, and then there isn’t a need to think on it again. Cheryl Holt’s newest historical romance, Too Wicked to Wed, should be of the fleeting sort. The romance is engineered to be light reading, the plot is not complicated enough to inspire deep thought. The result is strongly crafted diversionary entertainment. On that front, Too Wicked to Wed succeeds at what it sets out to do. On the whole, however, it is not as ephemeral as it should be. Holt makes story choices that feel uncomfortably like moral judgments and the discomfort generated lingers beyond the fiction and ultimately overshadow the romance.
The greatest strength of paranormal romance is the opportunity it provides for diversity in the genre. The boy-meets-girl-loses-girl-wins-girl-back formula can be told with infinite variations when things such as five-hundred-year-life-spans are thrown into the mix. Unfortunately, paranormal has largely proved more homogeneous than hetero: he’s a vampire too noble to drink blood; she’s a good witch; he/she is a werewolf willing to chew off his/her own paw rather than bite a human. Limiting paranormal to a few constructs, a few worn out mythologies, constricts the subgenre to the strangling point and robs it of its most interesting aspect. One niche of paranormal romance that has yet to be winnowed down is science fiction. The opportunities for worlds with alternate histories, futures and presents that are populated with humans – or human like characters – are infinite and authors like Nalini Singh make a fantastic argument for more sci-fi romances.
In order to succeed, fiction must have story sustaining conflict that keeps characters’ backs against the wall as they fight against the bad guys, against themselves, against god, against whatever can be thrown at them. Conflict needs to rise as the story progresses, but it also needs to rise in believable-in-keeping-with-the-story fashion. A man, for example, who wakes to find a price on his life, might then flee only to have every avenue of escape cut off: his car gone, his back accounts drained, his network of support suddenly vanished. It all follows and makes it harder for the character to fight his way out of a bad situation. What wouldn’t make a lot of sense, or remain in the story vein, would be for that man to then start worshipping the pack of purple rhinos that materialized on the corner of 8th and Main. Purple rhinos would make an interesting facet of another story but this man on the run, trying to save his own life, has his hands full. Conflict is only good if it’s believable and cohesive, and it’s the lack of believable cohesion that plagues Susan Grant’s Your Planet, or Mine.
Trust is a far reaching issue in romance. There are heroes who doubt heroines, and heroines who lack faith in heroes, and authors who don’t trust their readers. Two of those trust issues manage to faithfully resolve themselves before the happily ever after. The third is a real problem. Too often romances are plagued by authors who write down to their readers, over simplify and over explain. Unsurprisingly, the resulting fiction is a joyless chore. Authors who write intelligently, in anticipation of an intelligent readership are a rare, but welcome, find. Romance that trusts the reader not only engages, but begs the question: why isn’t all romance like this? Why isn’t intelligent writing a minimum requirement for the genre? Why isn’t it a starting point from which to improve, instead of an exceptional find?
Susan Donovan trusts her audience: it’s obvious in the way she takes a well used romance setup and treats it as though it hasn’t been done over and over again; it’s obvious from the way she doesn’t pander to the lowest common denominator; and it’s obvious from the way she expects the reader to keep up with her writing instead of spoon feeding every bit of information.
The best writers are not, necessarily, those with the best ideas; they’re they ones with the best execution. Richard Russo’s Empire Falls is simply a re-telling of Great Expectations. Russo certainly isn’t the only one to undertake that very common idea, and yet there is fine-spun brilliance in every line of Empire Falls and that is why the book won the Pulitzer. Jennifer Crusie’s Welcome to Temptation is the story of a big city girl from the wrong side of the tracks and a small town boy whose family runs the town. Romance has seen that setup time and again, yet Crusie slipped magic and subtext into the tale and a finer poor girl/rich boy story cannot be found. The ideas aren’t worth much, but the achievements are priceless
Michelle Rowen’s sophomore effort, Angel with Attitude, sounds like a great idea: the heroine, Valerie Grace is an angel, and the hero, Nathaniel, is a demon. It stacks up to be the ultimate good girl/bad boy story: she’s just wants to get back to heaven and he wants to coax her to hell. This is delicious. What common ground could such a couple have? How far will she fall? Can he be redeemed? The answers don’t really matter. It is how those answers unfold that prove whether the setup succeeds or fails. Like all ideas, Angel with Attitude comes down to the execution.
These days it’s difficult to trip over a pink covered book without hearing talk of chick lit’s death. But, how fatal is this death? Is it the same sort of plague westerns fell victim to, when a genre that was once all powerful disappeared from bookstore shelves? Or, is it more like the nuclear winter Hair Bands of the 80s faced when a glut of pretty boy groups perished under Seattle’s influence with only a couple of bands proving to have talent and staying power?
What hope is there for this admittedly bloated genre of fiction? While the one-thousandth retelling of a plucky single girl in the city, who drinks trendy cocktails and lusts after an obvious cad doesn’t hold appeal, the much boarder spectrum of chick lit does. There are still stories to be told, and, quite simply, there is a need for a fictional medium for irreverent young women and the third wave feminism issues they face.