So here’s the history. I’ve read a bazillion romance novels (and wrote quite a few, too). A few years ago, I got burned out and stopped reading (and writing) the genre. Much of the reason for the burn-out, I’m sure, is because the genre was so popular. The trouble with popularity is that it makes publishers more conservative, more inclined to keep publishing the same thing over and over again so then writers have to hustle to fit within the increasingly restrictive conventions while trying to write fresh stories. (which sadly, is not a phenomenon unique to the romance genre) The results of which are stories that have a formulaic feel and similar casts of characters, but are at the same time filled with tricks and gimmicks in an effort to keep readers interested. I don’t like tricks and gimmicks or stock characters. Quite frankly, the trend toward sexier and sexier novels puts more and more emphasis on the sex and less emphasis on the emotion. At the risk of bringing a lot of shit down on my head, in my opinion the current crop of romance writers know a hell of lot about sex, but not much about romance. Without a powerful core of emotion, it’s not romance, it’s a sex book.
I grew up reading Mary Stewart, Victoria Holt, Frank Yerby, and Daphne du Maurier. Classics like The Scarlet Pimpernel, the Count of Monte Cristo, and The Hunchback of Notre Dame, were grand adventures, but at their core, they were pure romance. I gobbled up the Bronte sisters and Gone With The Wind. I read the Angelique novels and Forever Amber. I remember vividly when bodice rippers hit the shelves (and yes, m’dears, they were bodice rippers in the most literal sense and I absolutely adored every purple-tinged word). Kathleen Woodiwiss’s, The Wolf and the Dove was the novel that made me want to write a romance novel of my own.
Despite giving up on the romance genre, what always grabs me by the throat when I’m reading other genres, are the love stories. Charlie Huston’s Joe Pitt novels are bloody, violent, and profane, but what holds the entire series together is the love story between Joe and Evie. I can’t imagine any romance hero more romantic than a guy who’ll start a war for the woman he loves. I’m a huge fan of Andrew Vachss’s Burke series. I like Burke for his smarts, for his angst and obsessions, but I love him for his doomed romances with Flood and Belle. I read Larry Correia’s Monster Hunter novels for the monsters and action and craziness, but what really hook me are the love stories between Owen and Julie, and Earl and Heather. And what about Steven Brust’s Vlad Taltos and his very tough love affair with Cawti?
Give me a guy who’ll battle gods for his lady and a woman who’ll get up in a horny guy’s face and state, “Prove you’re worthy of me, buck-o,” and that, my friends, is true romance.
That’s a rather long-winded intro to what I truly want to talk about. See, I’ve been having conversations with a friend of mine, Julia Rachel Barrett. She writes mostly erotic romances. I’ve never been a fan of erotica. Lady Chatterly’s Lover and Robin Schone’s, The Lover, are the only erotic novels I count as faves (and they’re faves for reasons other than their eroticism). I like to read on intellectual and emotional levels, and I don’t particularly care for novels that have a physical effect. That’s not a judgment, just a preference. Anyway, despite Julia’s and mine divergent tastes, turns out we’re both hard-core romantics. I sent her some of my Harlequin Intrigues and she sent me a novel of hers, which wasn’t erotica, but a paranormal romance. Turns out she really liked one of my books, but the other is scaring the piss out of her (I’m very sorry, Julia). I really liked her book. Only it had one of those unintended consequences. It gave me a lightbulb moment. Or, more accurately, a “duh” moment.
Indie publishing is where I can find romances I love.
The novel Julia gave me was Incorporeal, a paranormal romance she indie published. In it she asks a most intriguing question: Is happily ever after possible when you fall in love with a ghost? Such a question goes straight to what makes writing and reading most fun for me: Dangle hope in front of characters, and then when they grab it, squash them like bugs. Heh. When I finished reading the novel, I had two thoughts. One, I really liked the story and I’m glad she’s writing a sequel, and two, no traditional publisher would have touched this because it doesn’t have stock characters and it doesn’t fit within the conventions. It is a very sexy book, but it’s emotionally charged and the emotion drives the story and that makes it a most satisfying romance.
Because romance has been on the back-burner, it hadn’t occurred to me to seek out self-published romance novels. But there have to be writers out there who are writing old-school romances (old-school, for lack of a better word). Stories that focus on emotional issues instead of sexual hijinks. Stories that ask intriguing questions and contain true suspense that rises from what look like impossible or unbearable situations. Maybe I can find heroes who battle gods for love and women who are womanly enough to insist those guy-guys act like real men.
(sidenote: as the romance genre rose in popularity and gained power in the marketplace, it was attacked and derided from almost every quarter to the point where many fans were shamed into using book covers so people couldn’t see them reading those books. My theory for the real reason behind the visceral reaction is that in romance novels the women always win. Chauvinist and sexists do not like that one little bit.)
So where does the bad influence come in? I thought I’d given up on writing romance novels. Truly. That ship had sailed. I’m writing other things, exploring other forms and genres. Only now, between the discussions with Julia and reading some romances, the fire has been rekindled. It wasn’t the genre I was sick of, it was the battle to fit my square ass into publisher defined round holes.
I don’t have to do that anymore. I can write old-school romances of the type I love and maybe, just maybe there are readers out there who’d like it. I can find old-school romances to read, too, in the ranks of the self-published.
So thanks bunches, Julia. You’ve exposed my inner romantic and kicked her out of the closet and back into the world.
Discovered: via conversations with the author
Purchased on Amazon for my Kindle, January 17th, 2012, $.99