Badass RT: Not a Duke in Sight

In which I offer impressionistic reflections on a trip to New Orleans that I sense will have far-reaching effects on my reading & blogging & thinking about the romance genre

Corner of building in New Orleans with elaborate ironwork balconies, a photo I took in the French Quarter.Every time I turned a corner in the giant convention hotel with multiple floors of massive meeting rooms, there was another huge line of people clutching totes and books and swag. There was a constant restless feeling that you hadn’t correctly figured out where to be and when. The lobby was open and line-free, but like a giant all-day cocktail party where every time you passed through you had to shout to be heard. After easing into the convention with the cozy & cool blogger pre-con on Tuesday, I was definitely overwhelmed by the crowds and noise as the week grew in intensity. But even with the lines and the swag and the relentless promo, RT (the Romantic Times Booklovers Convention) was pretty much a giant love fest of romance readers and authors and, happily for me, bloggers.

I haven’t begun to digest all the ways in which the amazing women I met, and the conversations I was lucky enough to have, will inspire me and challenge me to keep thinking and writing about what I read, and how, and why. For now, I just want to record some early impressions.

Nicola (@alphaheroes) tweeted a pic we took at the first “morning mixer,” and it cracked me up to hear back from my twitterverse that I look a lot less scary than my handle. Heh. Because really nobody at RT really looks like a super badass — we are mainly geeky and charming women of all ages who like books and read obsessively. But badassery was definitely on display. After a couple of days, you grew numb to it, but who can forget stepping in to the elevator for the first time upon arrival?

Very large (over life size) poster covering rear wall of elevator; depicts a bare-chested white man in a kilt with the tagline "good romance never ages"

There was apparently an exercise/fitness meet-up early in the morning (not that I ever found or confirmed this) and they had shirts that look like old school gym shirts and say RT 2014/ Books/Love/Badass. I’m pretty sure I’m not making this up and I saw this on a blurry slide at the front of a cavernous ballroom at the welcome breakfast, so I’m not exactly sure about the first two words, but I know BADASS was the bottom line and I thought that was pretty cool (you know, because I am so incredibly badass).  I kept asking where to get one of these shirts, but I could never find anyone who knew what I was talking about, so I suppose it’s possible I hallucinated it.

What I didn’t hallucinate were the intensity and saturation of the imagery.

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Everyone (including me) has been tweeting pics of the elevator dudes — but it’s not just the elevators. On the main conference levels, no architectural feature had been left unadorned. Floors, walls, even windows! And curious special laminated round table tops.

Occasional table in lobby area, with laminated image of Lacy Danes book covers; images of fantasy heroes with tattoos and leather jackets

It feels like the vast majority of these giant, expensive promo graphics feature the growth-area subgenres: erotic romance, urban fantasy, romantic suspense, contemporary subthemes like sports romance, lots of super badass tats and abs and leather and weaponry.

Wall-size poster in elevator:

And lots of looming imagery that is dark and suspenseful.

Floor-to-ceiling window covering with Jo Gibson book cover that depicts close-up of one side of a white woman's face, with a very wide-eyed frightened expression. The title is AFRAID.

 

Lobby area wall and window posters, floor to ceiling, with fantasy and suspense book covers, looming over conference attendee seated in armchair.

Also well-represented: Contemporary romance, and m/m romance — and note that not a wall area is left un-promo’ed.

Wall-size posters over escalators, including m/m clinch cover.

The salad bowl elevator was so innocuous, relative to the others!

Another elevator wall poster, with torso of casually dressed white man holding a clear glass salad bowl and preparing and/or offering the salad.

All the edgier romance genres were living large,  from rock stars to BDSM.

photo (44)

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In spite of the presence at numerous panels and events of “romance royalty” like Mary Jo Putney, Lisa Kleypas, Eloisa James, Eileen Dreyer, Lorraine Heath and other queens of HistRom, there was nary a duke or duchess in sight as far as the high-impact imagery with which the publishers physically and visually surrounded conference-goers.

I am not whining or complaining about this, nor do I think historical romance was necessarily underrepresented in the conference agenda itself. I just think it’s interesting to look at what is represented, and what isn’t, in the visual culture of RT2014.

The first night I was there, someone tweeted a pic of herself or a friend literally straddling one of these super-size floor heroes in  a prone embrace. And then there are the cover models, some of whom I saw carrying around life-size stand-up cut-outs of themselves, for photo ops with fans — but that’s a whole long digression I won’t do here/now.

photo (42)

It’s not that badassery and historical romance are mutually exclusive categories. At Wednesday’s grand Author Chat session with several of the aforementioned Queens of HistRom, Eloisa James talked about her forthcoming book’s hero – a “rough duke, a boxer.” There was a lot of discussion about the challenge of making, and keeping, historical romance “relevant.”  And then there was the excellent and thought-provoking conversation at Zoe Archer’s “Beyond the Ballroom” panel discussion of “Gritty Historicals” with Courtney Milan, Lorelei Brown, and Carrie Lofty. I’m planning to write more in future post(s) about the substance of discussions around historical romance these days — it’s a fluid and important conversation I like to keep having. But back to the imagery…

Here are the promo posters that happened to be stationed outside the Historical Author Chat breakout room.

Freestanding lobby posters for contemporary and urban fantasy romance imprints.

So I started to actively search for representations of historical romance there at the New Orleans Marriott this week.

I found this high-impact floor-to-ceiling wallcovering featuring Blushing Books’s erotic historicals.

photo (34)

An earl! I also found some spots in “Promo Alley” which featured familiar Regency imagery and other historical evocations.

Table-top tri-fold display of Regency book covers, with promo swag including pens and bookmarks.

The Promo Alley tables seemed to feature mainly small press and individually curated author displays, with swag.

Promotional table top display for Norwegian historical romance author Kris Tualla

The Hansen series: “Norway is the new Scotland” !

But you can tell where this is going.  Not one giant supersize ballgown cover to rub up against. Again, this is not a lament.  I’m never really sure what the ballgown covers are all about, though I admit, they’re lush and gorgeous and I love their brilliant use of color trends. And there are plenty of historicals with swashbuckling or Byronic man chest covers. But of the 8 elevators, the only one which referenced historical romance is the leather-kilted dude with the swords I posted up top — and he could easily be a fantasy hero.

I’m not sure what this all means, but I’m mulling it over.  Certainly the big promo dollars are going where the industry believes there is potential to grow audiences. Historical romance has a strong vanguard of established authors with loyal readership. But it doesn’t seem to function in the way it used to, to attract new readers to the romance genre. Among HistRom devotees, there seems to be a lot of talk about newer historicals being “lite” while some readers yearn for more angst-y, substantive reads.  On the other hand, just because a book has a ballgown on the cover, doesn’t mean nothing of substance is on offer.  But as Carrie Lofty pointed out in her panel remarks, for those seeking depth and challenge in historical romance, discoverability can be quite difficult since all the ballgown covers tend to blur, and unhelpfully to elide authors who may be writing with very different tones and voices.

As I’ve said in other posts, I don’t think the historical romance is dead or dying…but with most trends over time there are cycles. Will the effects of the trends in other romance subgenres, especially with regard to “grittiness” and badassery, counteract the frothy historical trend? What can historicals offer in the way of challenge and substance that other subgenres can’t? For me, this is an especially interesting question, and the “Gritty Historicals” panelists offered some intriguing ideas I’m still pondering, especially about exploring and problematizing issues of gender, class, and race, at particular historical moments, as a way of bringing depth and substance to the story, and creating space for heroines with agency.  So this is a To Be Continued, but I loved my time at RT.  I’m deeply grateful to everyone who took the time to talk with me and offer me so much food – and drink — for thought.

photo of RT pub crawl logo fan and street outside Pat O'Brien's bar.

Outside Pat O’Brien’s, abandoning the pub crawl in favor of dinner and conversation…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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26 thoughts on “Badass RT: Not a Duke in Sight

  1. piperhuguley says:

    I’m looking forward to your additional explorations of the historical. I am in the midst of launching my “Gritty Historical” at an unpopular time period and I would like to know more about where you think the genre is going. Thank you for this post!

    • pamela1740 says:

      Sounds intriguing! I want to hear which unpopular time period you’re working in, and I also do think it’s worth asking whether it really is that readers have difficulty connecting with alternate (non 19thc, non European, etc.) historical settings (which, I’ve heard, is what publishers seem to assume (?)).

      • piperhuguley says:

        Thanks pamela1740! My self-pubbed series (coming out in July) is takes place in the Reconstruction-era. In Georgia. With African-Americans. Having a romance. *gasp*
        I’ve always been a big believer that it was love for one another and belief in one another that allowed African Americans to survive this (as well as others) “gritty” time period. Some are ashamed of these time periods. (I encountered a naysayer yesterday who does not want to read about “back then”) I am not ashamed. I love royalty, but I’m about done in reading about their romances. So that’s why I’m launching this series, which is a gamble for sure, but I believe in it.

      • pamela1740 says:

        Linking to Jill’s comment about what kind of heroes and settings are popular in other media, I am compelled to mention two recent shows I’ve really been enjoying, both of which are set during Reconstruction — Hell on Wheels, of course, and Copper. These gritty historical shows are huge right now, so it really will be interesting to see if and how that translates into the romance genre.

  2. Tamara says:

    From the posts and photos about RT I’ve seen in the past couple of days, it’s been my impression that they’re working overtime to establish in-your-face sexiness virtually everywhere you go (maybe it’s the New Orleans atmosphere?) It’s more of a challenge to go the blatant-sexy route visually with historical romance–at least, with historical romance that isn’t of the wallpaper historical variety.

    If you think it’s tough with m/f historicals, just imagine what it’s like for writers of m/m historicals. We’re all but invisible and seldom-read unless we’re the most aggressive marketers in the world.

    And sweet historicals… Ha. Forget it.

    Thanks for all the comments and photos, though. It’s interesting to see what goes on at romance conventions.

    • pamela1740 says:

      Thanks for adding this perspective – it’s true, some of the dominant images at this event were super-sexy. But I was also struck by the ones that were dark and edgy in different, not necessarily directly sexy, ways — suspense, weapons, demons, dark angels, etc., and also rock stars and sports themes (these things are also intended to be sexy to particualr audiences of course, but there is an added edge of violence/danger). So yes, I think it’s partly about pushing the heat level up even higher (hence the big historicals poster being for an erotic historical imprint), but it’s also about the contemporary cultural references and subcultures that are being fetishized in these big ad campaigns. Also, I thought LGBTQ romance authors/fans/publishers were a definite presence at RT, but perhaps not as evident in the wall art — but what appears in large format on the walls is really just one way to look at what was going on at the conference. So I hope I haven’t given the wrong impression — I was actually incredibly impressed by the diversity of panels and participants and the actual CONTENT of the convention. Here, I was really only looking at what felt like an overwhelming visual culture. Which says something about what is going on in the genre, but just captures one angle.

  3. Miss Bates says:

    As always, a great post and thank you for including the pics for those of us who … sniff … were not able to attend.

    Like you, I love historical romance and consider it the “grande dame” of the genre, the “Dowager Countess of Grantham.” 😉 Nothing makes me happier than to read and relish any historical romance that is set in places other than England and Scotland, though I’ve loved those too and would still read them. I don’t like the socalled “wallpaper” historical at all; at the same time, I find strictly historical fiction somewhat dry and slow-moving.

    I want the romance to dominate, but I want the “feel” and atmosphere of the period and place in which it is set. This is why I loved, thus far this year, two historical romances: one is, of course, Jade Lin’s sublime JADE TEMPTRESS and Duran’s FOOL ME TWICE. Neither went “overboard” on unrelenting historical *cue card* insert detail mode, but still made me feel as if I was there in that time and place. The key, I think, to great historical romance is to make the characters believable in their time and place (something, for example, though I love their writing, that I have trouble with in Mary Balogh and Carla Kelly. It “feels” as if the agenda dominates the romance and the time and setting.)

    So, again, a great post and *great* of you, as always, to let Miss B go on and on with pretty scattered thoughts and one-too-many *feels*.

    • pamela1740 says:

      Miss Bates could never go on and on long enough for her many many fans! I am really looking forward to reading both the books you mentioned here, and especially because of your wonderful reviews.

  4. Last year RT was in the midst of the “is the historical dead” discussion and there was a lot of pushback against the possibility. And of course it’s not dead. But I think you put your finger on it when you observed that the money goes where there is potential to attract new readers, and HistRom may not be that gateway anymore.

    I don’t think gritty, angsty, issue-oriented books will “save” the genre, although I’m essentially a reverse barometer of what works in romance, so take that with a grain of salt. I enjoy reading some of them, but when the issue is too strongly foregrounded I feel as if the author is sometimes more present than the characters.

    This is a really terrific post, and the photos bring home how thoroughly the visuals of covers permeate RT. When I stayed in the hotel last year, I was really taken aback by the elevators and all the posters. I don’t pay attention to covers much, but I couldn’t avoid them here, and as someone coming from an academic conference background it was striking.

    • pamela1740 says:

      I so agree that it is a real balancing act for authors to deliver a romance with challenging themes where the theme/issue doesn’t take over the romance such that you feel the author is speaking too much through her characters. I do welcome historicals that dig into issues, or provide a story that generates a good conversation. It goes back to looking at whether a novel incorporates elements of conflict or issue areas in order to explore them, or whether problematic elements are there in a …. problematic way, I guess (eg. whether the author is in on it, perhaps?).

      I do wonder if my strong interest in and reaction to all the large-scale promo at RT has a lot to do with the fact that I don’t think I’ve ever been to a real industry convention with a consumer focus before. My usual conference scene is either an academic symposium, or a practitioner conference/training kind of thing.

  5. LOL, the salad bowl elevator. Boy, did that guy show up to the wrong party.

    • pamela1740 says:

      Seriously. That one “read” to me a lot like the elevators at any hotel, where there’s a poster ad for the restaurant, with colorful enlarged food photos. It was definitely the ho-hum elevator.

  6. Great post, Pamela. I’ve only been to one RT and I found it similar to RWA (the other “big” romance conference) but maybe a little more fun. My impression is that erotic romance authors/pubs have a bigger role at RT vs. RWA. And there might be more ads at RT because it’s open to readers, not just writers. I think the “sexy” had been toned down in the last few years. Maybe it’s back? 🙂 I loved the straddling photo and totally would have done the same thing for a laugh if I’d been there.

    I don’t know if historical romance is really in trouble or not, but I’m really excited about the resurgence of romantic suspense and “gritty” books. If that means fewer dukes and vampires, I’m okay with it. I’d love to see RS get popular again. It’s been a long time.

    I think historical romance will always be popular with thoughtful bloggers and reviewers. I wish RS got a fraction of that attention, but I’ll settle for a quiet upswing.

    • I think romantic suspense exists in a curious position within the romance genre. It emerged from gothic romances/”woman-in-jeopardy” novels of the 60s and 70s. I think that its decline, so to speak, is the direct result of W-i-J themes moving to paranormal romance.

      The fears and anxieties of the 90s and first half of the 00s (end of Cold War, terrorist attacks, conflict in Eastern Europe/Middle East, etc) that fuel romantic suspense are “safer” to deal with in vampire/werewolf/fae form–and the heroine ends up being some type of special, which enables her to take part in vanquishing foes, as opposed to being a normal woman rescued by the Navy SEAL/FBI/police officer/whatever hero. I also think readers are used to romantic suspense being a secondary plot in their romances, since suspense sub-plots helped flesh out smaller single-title plots.

      Also, when many veteran RS began moving towards less romance and more suspense, a lot of readers probably got burned and grew wary of the genre, since they had no way of telling if the book was heavier on romance than the suspense, or if the author would switch it up on them (publishers also played a role in this, since female RS authors who beefed up their suspense at the expense of romance could cross over to male readers).

      • I think the economic downturn played a role also. “Gritty” was the kiss of death for a few years despite Hunger Games being a huge hit. Self-publishing is helping to bring this element back. MC books and angsty NA might take the place of heroine-in-jeopardy PNR and continue to edge out RS though. I’ve seen traditional RS (Navy SEALs and serial killers) growing again. It will be interesting to watch what happens.

    • pamela1740 says:

      Sorry for the comment-fail concern; so glad it didn’t actually get eaten! It was in moderation for some reason and I have not been able to get back online much this weekend. I agree that the fun element of all the large-scale imagery all over the place is not insignificant, and not unappealing! I liked all the buzz, and it certainly made for interesting elevator conversations with total strangers.

      I think a quiet upswing of interesting discussion about romantic suspense would be a great tribute to Mary Stewart. I need to think more about the suspense element in romance, and where my comfort level is with W-i-J themes… it’s sort of related to thinking about uses of violence (onscreen or offscreen, etc.) in romance, which I’ve been focused on lately. I think there is a good deal of suspense in some of the darker historicals, especially wartime Regencies, which really don’t read like Regency Regencies (I’m thinking Joanna Bourne, for example).

  7. jillsorenson says:

    Did my comment get eaten? 😦

  8. I was just discussing in my head–yes, I regularly have conversations with myself! ;)–something similar to this long before RT began. Historical Romance just isn’t edgy or envelope pushing or aspirational for today’s audiences. Attempts to make it edgy (pugilist dukes) only reinforce how…well…old-fashioned the sub-genre is.

    Even though I’m a heroine-centric reader, I still recognize that a primary selling point for romance is lusting after the hero. Generally speaking, newbie romance readers and younger readers aren’t swooning over Colin Firth as Mr. Darcy or Mel Gibson as William Wallace or Daniel Day Lewis Hawkeye or Erroll Flynn in his various swashbuckling roles–ergo the historical romance hero isn’t who they turn to for romantic fantasies. This new generation of readers are coming of age with vampire heroes, motorcycle gang heroes, and anti-heroes in general (i.e. White Collar, Burn Notice, Breaking Bad, et al).

    I’ll even go out on a limb and say the traditional Navy SEAL hero who emerged post-9/11 and was so popular for most of the 00s doesn’t register with them either.

    The frames of reference that made historical romance (the aforementioned actors and their roles) so popular are from a different generation, and wallpaper settings and contemporary hooks to retain its relevance are only going to hurt HR in the long run. HR ought to be celebrate its differences from contemporary, paranormal, and erotic romance, not chase after what’s popular in those sub-genres and attempt to inject them into HR.

    I wish I could have attended RT just for the Gritty Historicals panel. One thing I do say is that HR needs to loosen its stranglehold on the British aristocracy. The fact that the pugilist has to be a duke is terribly frustrating because from that point (and elements like this that are cropping up in new HR), the novel has already lost the element of realism that draws me to the sub-genre.

    • pamela1740 says:

      Thanks for this fantastic comment! I love your analysis of the generational trends in heroes, and linking to actors who we have visual (as well as literary in some cases, eg. Firth/Darcy) relationships with. I agree that HistRom needs to look at what it can offer that’s different — I need to think more about this, but it seems like it’s going to need to be grounded in the history itself, but with something innovative that’s not just injected from other subgenres. Certainly exploring “unpopular” period settings has worked on television – look at a show like Boardwalk Empire. But there you have, as you have noted, also the anti-hero trend, and overarching themes that are the opposite of optimism/HEAs.

      • “it’s going to need to be grounded in the history itself, but with something innovative that’s not just injected from other subgenres.” This x1000!

        And as much as it pains me to say this, lol, it’s going to take more than new settings. That’s why I’m holding out hope that somehow “Romantic Historical Fiction” will take root.

      • pamela1740 says:

        I feel like “RHF” has real roots — eg. the books are there — but it’s not really named as such, nor is it included when people talk about the romance genre. It’s like there is this fluid, maybe invisible, but quite real, boundary between historical fiction and historical romance, and even though there are a lot of great books that sit right in the boundary space, the inclination is to try and peg them as either one or the other. Quite a few of the books I’ve reviewed are in this space – Donna Thorland’s books, and Kathleen Kent’s. Thorland’s are closer to romance conventions because they have HEAs.

  9. […] Not A Duke In Sight – Historicals have allegedly taken the top spot on Romanceland’s endangered list. Pamela from Badass Romance searched RT14 for proof of their existence and came up short. […]

  10. Mary Chen says:

    I’ve long noticed that historical romance has the least upward mobility in terms of readership and the introduction of new talents. While the latter might be due to the heavier demands of this subgenre as opposed to the others (avid readers of historical romance will chew out new authors who utilize too many anachronisms, for instance), and that it is simply hard to beat out those so-called royalties, I, personally, wonder why historical romance is not the favorited form of literary escapism amongst romance novels. Contemporary romance is popular because it is familiar, and realistic in so many ways; paranormal is unrealistic but set in the current time and society. Yet, what makes historical romance less worthy of those, in the eyes of publishers and poster promoters?

  11. […] The next morning I got registered and snapped up my goodie bags before I started hitting the panels. Lunch, I spent with the wonderful Pamela of Badass Romance. She hosted me on her blog awhile back, and I’ve always found her posts to be insightful, in-depth examinations of the genre. Her post on the visual impact the RT conference made is a must-read. […]

  12. […] Historicals”  which also featured Courtney Milan, Zoe Archer, and Lorelei Brown. I wrote a bit about this panel, and the dearth of historical romance hoopla at the convention overall, […]

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