Romance Novels Are A Bad Influence

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.

Incorporeal, by J. R. Barrett

Discovered: via conversations with the author

Purchased on Amazon for my Kindle, January 17th, 2012, $.99


21 responses

  1. I hate to tell you this, but I may be the only one out there going retro. If somebody else is indie publishing well-written, emotionally-driven, thoughtful, impossible romance, bring it on. Mostly, it seems to me, even in the Land of the Indies, it’s all about the sex.
    You see, I miss my saddle shoes. I miss wearing my saddle shoes even though I wasn’t alive during the height of saddle shoe-wearing days. I still wore ’em. And you can’t even buy them anymore. This is what’s wrong with America. No saddle shoes. This is what’s wrong with romance novels, a shortage of romance.
    I fell in love with romance novels late, very late. I always thought they were written by idiots for idiots. I was so very wrong. When the story, Incorporeal, came to me, and I decided to write a thinking-woman’s romance, I was shot down by three publishers. “No turning back the clock, that’s not what the audience wants. The audience wants two pickles with a side of beefcake.” Heh!
    I decided to go it alone.
    I am so glad, and so very relieved, that a woman I admire likes Incorporeal! You have such exquisite taste in books!

  2. Oh, and if you decide to write romance again, I am on board. You are the epitome of a great romance writer.

  3. Ah, Julia, if I do write another romance, the dedication will read: “This is all Julia’s fault. She called me an epitome and I fell under her charms.”

    I wonder if we are the only ones who yearn for old-school romance? What if there are a lot like me who gave up on the genre, but also like me seeks out the love stories wherever she can find them? Even if there are only a few yearning readers, with self-publishing it’s possible to find them.

    And no more cops wearing cowboy hats. Ever.

  4. I do not read romance (old or new). Not because of any perceived low-brow notion, but just because I like big stories that include and go beyond romance. But I think it is horrible, for any writer, to have to force what they write to meet demand. What’s that advice you see everywhere: write what you would want to read? Or something like that?

    Anyway, I’m glad you feel the spark again, and I look forward to your next romance, Jaye. And your zombie story. I’m waiting to read that in full when you put it out on Kindle.

    (By the way, I read this phrase: “a woman who’ll get up in a horny guy’s face”, in an entirely different way than you intended. 😉 )

  5. Ha ha! You KNOW how much I love cops in cowboy hats! Actually, I’m just partial to Reb Tremaine. Sigh.

    As an author, you know you have a GREAT character when, after all this time, a reader doesn’t need to go back to the book and refresh her memory.

    I just bought Incorporeal, so it’s next on the list. Thanks for making it so easy!

  6. Okay, Nila, you have the makings of a true romance fan. Such a dirty mind. Heh.

    You’re welcome, Sandi. I love Reb, too. You’ll like Incorporeal, I’m sure. Lots of naughty bits and tons of the really good stuff.

  7. Sorry, Nila, I didn’t answer your question. Great books come from what the writer truly believes and feels and understands (or is trying to understand). The trouble with genre fiction publishers is they get tunnel-vision. They want stuff they know sells (it’s all about the bottom line). Risk is, you know, risky. So genre fiction writers aren’t actually writing for readers, they are writing for the editor. That can cause genuine conflict between what the writer thinks is a good story and what the editor thinks will sell.

    Why so many indie-publishers appear to be following traditional publisher guidelines, I have no clue. Maybe they’re too afraid to take chances.

  8. I believe this – as Indies we have so many opportunities. We can invent ourselves and then reinvent ourselves as writers. We don’t have to write fast food.
    Yes, fast food sells, but writing it does not satisfy me.
    My readers deserve better. Maybe they don’t want better, but they deserve better.

  9. Readers may be satisfied with hamburgers. But set a plate of filet mignon in front of them and see what happens.

  10. I have a friend with a drawer full of “non-traditional” romances. I’m going to make her read this blog. And then I’m going to make her indie publish. :p

    I don’t read romance novels, Jaye, but the so-called old-fashioned romances that you name might be the kind I *would* like. In the right hands, anyway.

    But don’t give up on the UF stuff! You’re good at that, too.

  11. Yes, Marie!

    Reminds me of a conversation I had with a guy who loved Tess Gerritsen’s medical thrillers. He was telling me about one of her titles and I said, “Oh, that’s an Intrigue that HQ reissued after she hit the NYT list.” I thought he was going to faint. He read a ROMANCE NOVEL! And liked it!

    1. Hee hee 🙂

      Here is a fantasy romance (but not called romance) that I loved:

      Tigana, by Guy Gavriel Kay.

      Ripped my heart out and stomped it into the dirt. (Sadly there is no Kindle version.)

      1. Sounds good, Marie. I’m putting it on my library list. Thanks!

  12. I read another book from Julia and LOVED it. I shouted it out to everyone I know. I hope to read more of her work in the future.

  13. I know, Ciara. Julia is very lucky I have a modicum of restraint or I’d be poking her daily about In The Flesh, saying, “Are we there yet? Huh? Are we there yet?”

  14. I have such a hard time switching gears. Going from a ‘series’ to a ‘single’…or changing genre…it’s almost painful. I mourn the loss of a truly good book (or series) when I’ve finished reading it. I just finished “Morgue Drawer Four” (which I think was a ‘daily deal’). It was written from the perspective of the ‘homeless’ spirit of a murder victim…whose body resided in morgue drawer four. Imagine how easily I stepped from that book into “Incorporeal”. Almost spooky, huh?

  15. I actually know exactly what you mean, Sandi. I have a habit of finding an author I like, then going on a huge binge of everything I can find written by the author. After I run out, I pick up a new author and there is a moment of shock when my internal story ho’ goes, WTF? This isn’t what I was reading!

  16. And lookie here what I just found:

    5 of the Best Romance Novels On Kindle. I am gonna go check these out. Yeehaw! OCD triggered. Check. Launch!

  17. We author/publshers are such a vocal community, it’s sometimes a surprise to realize that most writers out there, published or otherwise, still write for editors because they believe that’s the only way to validation. Their tunnel vision arises from their need to publish “real” books with “real” publishers, so in a cruelly ironic twist, they stop writing anything real.

    Julia, here are your saddle shoes:

    1. Excellent point, Bridget. The psychology of writers (of any creative type) is so complex, it’s difficult to weasel logic and reason out of the bramble of hope, fear, desire and notions. I personally have been there, done that, acquired some scars. It’s taken me a long time to truly believe that I DO NOT NEED either permission or approval FROM ANYBODY to write.

      Speaking of approval, I read “Hole in the Wall” last night. What an odd and interesting story that was. I liked it very much.

  18. Thanks, Jaye–I’m glad you liked “Hole in the Wall.” More where that came from, and I’m putting up another this weekend: “The Little Things.” I like to call it my splatterfairy story.

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