There was a time when I enthusiastically bought every contemporary romance I saw in the bookstores. Then, so many publishers decided to cash in on the popularity of these romances that they started publishing huge numbers of them. At one point there were 150 contemporary romances being published a month. More than I could afford to buy. More than I could read comfortably in a month and still have a life. I had to start thinking about the authors. Did I know who they were? Could I trust the new names to have written halfway decent books, or were they just writing limp copycat tales? I got burned many times, which soon made me resist new names and stick with the tried-and-true originators of the genre. And that’s how a genre loses momentum and trails off. The readers lose their enthusiasm and their trust. Eventually, they start looking for something new and different.
Every time a new subgenre of romance builds, we have that enthusiasm, that secret zest when checking out the bookstores. Will there be another book like the one I read last month? Has anybody else figured out that this is what I’m excited about reading? (For that matter, have I?) What’s available? What’s coming? For the paranormal and erotica subgenres, the last several years have been one excitement after another. Vampires. Werewolves. Three-ways! Demons! Men/men & women/women. Succubi. Is it getting hot in here, or is it just Satan showing up as an antagonist? Or have I checked into a bordello? Shapeshifting, here I come. And lately there has been some notice taken of the Amish romances that even Amish women are reading. That’s a different trend because it’s not about more and more sex, or more and more outlandish fantasy worlds. It’s about a safer and cozier world that we’d like to think already exists right here in America.
But neither is quite right for suburban, sometimes urban, sometimes country me. I’m still looking. My major enthusiasm right now seems to be historical novels of the renaissance told from a female point of view. These are the types of stories I read as a teenager, that caused me to fall in love with the Tudor era. They are (usually) historically accurate and about real people. Although sometimes the authors invent twists (Philippa Gregory being the main perpetrator of questionable historical revisions), even these twists tend to be extrapolations of real historical events. Or plausible additions to what is, after all, a very sketchy record of what happened 500 years ago.
Contemporary romance, though, is my first love. These are the stories of today’s women that can be so empowering because they speak directly to situations we might encounter. I keep looking for something new. The Billionaire’s Bought Bride and that ilk are not it. I no longer find the fantasy of the overpowering male—even if the heroine brings him to his knees—much fun. I admire heroines with the strength to fight the good fight, and all. If you want some escapist fantasy, fending off the attentions of a billionaire certainly qualifies. So go for it. But I’m still looking for contemporary romances that offer insights into women’s lives that aren’t so filled with the battle of the sexes. If that’s possible. Chick lit at its best often conveys such possibilities. But when chick lit hit, the same thing happened to it that has happened to so many genres: overkill by the under-interesting writers. The bloom is also off the rose with paranormal. What little enthusiasm I could dredge up about that subgenre has been bludgeoned to death by lengthy battles between nonhumans. Who are these people and why should I care if the half-demons win against the shapeshifters? Or vice versa? Maybe such battles are metaphors for our country’s confused battles against terrorists and worldwide haters. But I am not feeling the romance in the paranormal genre.
I feel as if I am wandering in a very crowded place—the romance shelves of bookstores are spacious and crammed with new releases—without seeing what I want. Enthusiasm. That’s why most of the art I’ve used today doesn’t feature people. Instead, it suggests possibilities. Come on, romance writers and publishers. Try something new.