Historical Romance – Lament, or Let it Die?

As a new blogger, an important piece of my learning curve is keeping up with the buzz on Twitter and on established romance and book blogs, and participating in discussions in order to exchange ideas and get to know some other bloggers.  I’m posting here at “home” now because there’s so much interesting content about this topic, and my own musings are growing too lengthy for commenting on other pages.

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For about a week I’ve been following a wide-ranging discussion about historical romance that’s happening on several of the major romance blogs.  (And before I go further, let me just say to my currently quite petite band of Badass Romance followers — if you haven’t checked out the blogs at All About Romance and Dear Author, you are really missing out on the best the romance community has to offer in the way of cross-cutting dialogue and commentary about everything from book covers to publishing trends to literary criticism, along with INDISPENSABLE book reviews.)

Lynn at All About Romance asked Where Have All the Historical Romances Gone?  Since the intersection of history and romance fiction is my personal reading sweet spot, this caught my attention right away, and I jumped in to comment, along with a host of other readers and — this is one of the (many) super cool things about AAR — a bunch of historical romance authors, including the actual people who are actually responsible for some of my favorite recent reads in this genre. (!!!) A squee!! moment — ok, and here I am just trying out this term frequently employed in romance bloglandia for when you sort of interact with an author and get all “fangirl” about it….

7756458So I don’t mind if you skip the rest of this post — if you are looking for an actual good new book to read, go right now and find yourself a copy of Libertine’s Kiss, by Judith James. A non-Regency historical romance that is not to be missed.  I have been meaning to make a review post about this book for weeks! A Restoration tale, it earned DIK status at All About Romance, and features one of my favorite romance tropes: second chance at love.

OK, back to the Big Picture.  Anyway, this week I also started more actively following some of these folks on Twitter.  So that’s how I “met”  Evangeline Holland,  an author of historical romance who also blogs about Edwardian history. Her post offered another angle on The Trouble With Historical Romance, and another blogspace to talk about this with, again, readers as well as writers.

Over at Dear Author, this morning Jane says We should let the historical genre die. Which is a bold statement, but I realize I agree with what she’s saying.  Or at least with what I think she might be saying.  Can I just say that I agree with my own interpretation of this bold post?  How ridiculous, but here is what I want to say:  although I have been commenting in a very lamentatious fashion on many of the blog posts this week, I realize that the books I have been feeling nostalgic about are mostly NOT the current crop of historical romances, which, as everyone has noted, are almost exclusively set in the British Isles of the 19th century (or feature expatriate English lords of that era who may find themselves elsewhere on the globe but for all intents and purposes are Regency or Victorian characters).

It’s not that I haven’t enjoyed recent books from Liz Carlyle, Elizabeth Hoyt, Julie Anne Long, Tessa Dare, Anne Stuart, Anne Gracie, Jennifer Ashley, Meredith Duran, and at least a dozen others.   And there are standouts like Joanna Bourne’s exquisite Spymaster novels.  But what really got me feeling nostalgic about historical romance was thinking about great reads from a decade or two ago — an early Loretta Chase book like The Lion’s Daughter or Mr. Impossible, my first time reading Anya Seton’s Katherine, or a favorite “old school” historical like Elizabeth Lowell’s ONLY series. Why are there so many middling books about Regency lords, while it’s truly hard to find a gem like The Black Hawk, about a thief from St. Giles turned spy for the crown?  I’ve also really liked Pamela Clare’s MacKinnon’s Rangers trilogy, at least in part because of the alternate setting that appeals to my love for colonial American history — but, again, it’s hard to find a lot of books that do romance well in this setting.

Which I guess leaves me agreeing that if historical romance continues to occupy such a incredibly narrow band of history, a fairytale version of England overpopulated with aristocrats, I’m OK with the declining sales.  Jane/Dear Author is probably right that the genre needs to reinvent itself.  Why do we keep reading and buying books about the ton, and then complain about there not being enough historical accuracy, or variety?  Many readers in the AAR discussion suggested reading backlists and newly available e-books from the ’90s and earlier. Romantic Historical Fiction defines itself as a distinct genre these days, and I wonder if that’s another place readers are going…? And I suspect many historical romance readers are also quite happily reading newer titles in erotic, m/m and/or paranormal romance, particularly those well-crafted novels that also feature fundamental themes of honor, loyalty, kinship, defiance, courtliness, and characters who battle the odds to end up on the right side of history.

It may sound odd, but beneath surface trappings of daggers vs. claymores, sizzling sex scenes vs.  stopping at the bedroom door, the badasses of J.R.Ward’s Black Dagger Brothers and Lynn Kurland’s medieval De Piagets and MacLeods have a lot in common.  And it’s these underlying heroic tropes – a lethal combination of boldness, badassery, vulnerability, flaws, charm, and wit – that I respond to as a reader.50718

So perhaps historical romance as it’s currently being published is reaching an ebb that’s organic, cyclical, and necessary. Maybe it’s time to lament, but move on. What do you think? What is your most recent historical romance read? Or have you been reading something else entirely?

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Other links -

This topic has been taken up on many individual blogs, and in several review posts this week, too.  I’m including links here for several interesting posts that turned up in my recent reading, but this is by no means comprehensive.

Courtney Milan, Digital Strategy in Historical Romance (author, 19thc historicals)

Elise Cyr, Why Historical Romance? (author, medieval romance)

Dear Author’s  Review of Jack Absolute.  (Interesting discussion in the Comments here, about romance readers reading more straight historical fiction as we search out more interesting settings.)

19 thoughts on “Historical Romance – Lament, or Let it Die?

  1. elisecyr says:

    Thanks for tackling this. As a writer of a non-Regency romance that I’ve been trying to get published, it’s been a long slog. I’d consistently get variations on “great writing, can’t sell it.” I gave up for awhile, started writing in another genre, came back read the story and still loved it, so I went the small press route. I know it won’t make me famous or put me in the same category as the big names in historical romance. But it’ll get out there.

    I hope it’s cyclical as you said, and until traditional publishing gets caught up, epresses and others will take up the slack.

    The lack of variety is a huge deal. My story isn’t bucking the English-centric trend there. But I think there’s a demand for more representation of races and time periods. I remember Jeannie Lin’s debut and how big a deal that was, but she’s an exception.

    • pamela1740 says:

      Thanks so much for coming over to comment! I do really believe that those of us who really love historical romance when it’s good, will continue to find it, wherever and whenever we can — sometimes that means reading outside the confines of traditional romance publishing, either via small presses/indie authors or via re-discovery of romance in other genres.

  2. MacPudel says:

    Pamela, excuse me for not putting as much thought into my reply as you obviously put into your post. I am pretending we are having a conversation. What I would say in conversation is, is it about feminism? Historical romances always seem to be dancing around the anachronism of a woman who is free to make her own relationship choices. She has to be a wayward heiress, or a healer, etc. That’s how Claire (Outlander) came to be a time-traveler (I happen to be reading a Lynn Kurland right now and time travel is one of her favorite tools too). The contemporary romances I’ve been reading lately all have some position about the role of women. Either she’s a super successful whatever, with power suits and a BlackBerry, or she’s an adorable bookstore or bakery owner, or a proud stay at home mom (possibly empowered through love to be one of the first two women through the story). Romances written in the past get a pass, like authors of less enlightened times writing about race or class: as long as it’s not egregious, we forgive them. But who hasn’t read a creepy historical romance where the hero has forcible sex with the heroine (for some legal plot reason) and then they fall in love and have great sex? Jane Eyre: hugely romantic. But could it be written today? No. Jane has to suffer, suffer, suffer to get to the place where the story would open if it were written today, and even so, there’d be a long explanation about how the master of the house falling for the governess wasn’t exploitive, the governess was actually a heiress on the run or something.

  3. pamela1740 says:

    Such a smart post. I’m so happy you jumped in! You’re right about Jane, of course, and I know you know how special she is to me… ;-) I really don’t know the answers here… why is it that I find such stories so incredibly appealing? Seriously, I totally have a thing for governess stories, and yet there’s always this problem of the heroine either being completely subservient with no means of independence, or being an anomalous anachronism (runaway heiress or impoverished gentlewoman). There’s a great post about looking hard at the feminism question, for romance readers, here, at Bad Necklace. http://badnecklace.com/2013/04/05/plugging-the-alphahole/#more-2270

    • HollyC says:

      I love how MacPudel says ‘Could Jane Eyre be written now’, as it right away brings to mind a book I thought would be so good – The Flight Of Gemma Hardy by Margot Livesey, a modern retelling of Jane Eyre, set in the Orkneys. And it wasn’t. It all unraveled in the end, imo because whatever plot devices you try – you are left with the creepy feeling that this older man has no business falling for this young inexperienced girl who depends on his family for her livelihood.

  4. MacPudel says:

    Pamela, thanks for sending me to Bad Necklace. That *was* a thoughtful post. It has me re-imagining 50 Shades of Grey as a historical romance…

    • pamela1740 says:

      HollyC and MacPudel – I do love that we keep coming back to Jane and Rochester. I posted a comment elsewhere yesterday in which I talked about my love for this book over Wuthering Heights, and contrasting Jane, who insists she is his equal — in conversation if not in society — and knows her own mind, with the privileged yet chaotically senseless Cathy. So from an early age I think I viewed Jane as autonomous, but of course she suffers for it, and is then further punished for it, before she gets her HEA. I highly recommend this post about a BDSM erotica retelling called Wuthering Nights, over at readingwith analysis: http://readingwithanalysis.wordpress.com/2013/05/04/author-i-j-miller-and-i-look-at-erotica-from-both-sides-now/

  5. I don’t mind the Regency setting at all. Many of my comfort reads are set within that time period. My bone of contention is that readers/authors/publishing industry conflate an author’s success with the setting and not with their storytelling/voice. Case in point: one of those comfort read authors is Catherine Coulter–when I discovered her books I willingly followed her from Viking era to Medieval England to Regency England and to mid-19th century San Francisco. Why? Because I loved the way she told a story.

    There are so many great historical romance writers out there, but I sigh in exasperation when I look up their backlist or their upcoming releases and see that once again, they’ve packaged their voice in that Regency/modern high concept/cutesy concept mold. That is the reason for stagnation: how much “what if?” can you do if your next book is about the sister of your ducal hero, and the next book after that is about another Regency debutante, and the next after that about another earl? Especially when the history is just a backdrop instead of being a character in its own right.

    • pamela1740 says:

      Thank you so much for visiting, and this good point about the good Regencies! I think it’s not so much that I mind the Regency setting, either, but I do feel I am suffering some Regency Fatigue, along with others…. I completely agree that the underlying storytelling is what makes the reading experience work for me, and I will also traipse around through history to follow an author whose characters work for me.

      • I think some are caught up in feeling posts like these are criticizing *them* for reading or writing Regency Historicals, they forget that the exasperation is borne from a desire for fresh storytelling.

  6. pamela1740 says:

    It’s true, these online discussions can seem harsh when something you love is being picked apart. I hope no one would be upset by my somewhat glib reference to Regency Fatigue, which is said with a great deal of love and affection for a subgenre in which I have spent many many happy hours of utter immersion! My read on the main message running through so many of the posts and comments is that there is a sense of frustration with risk-averse publishing gatekeepers, not with fellow readers and/or writers. And just speaking for myself, there is also a smidge of self-directed exasperation when I find myself buying a reading a book just because I have read the 18 or so by the same author that came before it, and then wondering why I spent the time when the story feels exactly the same…. this speaks a little bit to the “addiction” metaphor so many romance readers use to talk about their inability to stop reading a particular type of book. Interestingly, the romance community has reinvented addiction as a positive label, but it still retains an ambiguous undertone, imo.

  7. […] expect Jane to keep cropping up all over the place this week, but it’s been a week of Big Thoughts about romance and history, and my bedtime reading has put me in a shadowy Jane Eyre mood.  Silent in the Grave is a […]

  8. […] all this talk about historical romance over the past couple of weeks. Last week I tossed around my own musings on the provocative yet substantive discussion launched by the influential All About Romance and […]

  9. pamela1740 says:

    Oooh! CAN A GENRE DIE? Just found another intriguing post on this topic, at Merry Farmer’s blog: http://merryfarmer.net/2013/05/15/can-a-genre-die/

  10. […] Which one of your posts/book reviews was the most fun to write? Historical Romance: Lament, or Let it Die? […]

  11. […] in the fate of historical romance and met some amazing reviewers and bloggers via my newbie post: Historical Romance: Lament, or Let it Die?  It’s by no means the most eloquent or my last word on this topic, but it was fun and I loved […]

  12. […] Have All the Historical Romances Gone? Dear Author’s We should let the historical genre die Badass Romance’s Historical Romance–Lament, or Let It Die Little Miss Crabby Pants Resurrects Historical Romance Discovering the Good C+: How Readers Could […]

  13. […] romance, both of which were then picked up by myself, Lauren Willig at History Hoydens, Pamela of Bad Ass Romance, 2013 Golden Heart nominee Piper Huguley at the GH Firebirds, Diane Gaston, Carolyn Jewel, and […]

  14. […] I’ve said in other posts, I don’t think the historical romance is dead or dying…but with most trends over time […]

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