My Quest for (a) Romance

By Poison Ivy,

When I used to read thirty romances a month (yes, I really did), I knew exactly which stores had the newest books, and what day of the month they were delivered. And I knew which books had been hanging around for months, and which were hot off the presses. I’m a little out of practice now, because I have a tendency to browse online. I read excerpts and reviews. If I find a book I’m interested in, I usually buy it online or—don’t hate me, fellow writers—see if there’s a nearby library system from which I can borrow it.

Recently I was on a mission to find a contemporary romance to read. I’ve been hearing on other sites that contemporary romances are falling out of fashion and losing market share. I wanted to find out if that was true. Since I didn’t have time for leisurely online shopping, I thought that I would be most efficient if I went to my nearby book outlets, to check out what they had.

There was no point in checking out the biggest romance publishers, because they always have space in their publishing programs for contemporary romances. Some even have whole lines of same. Reading one of theirs would not give me a sense of where the market is going. It takes a lot of time for a big publisher to change gears. No paranormals, either. Only a straight contemporary romance would do. You’d think it would be easy. But, constricted as I was by the requirements of my quest, I was soon in the romance reader’s version of hell: Books everywhere, and nothing I wanted to read.

To my surprise, I had to visit six stores to find even a few possibles. Six stores. Two were book superstores, two were big box stores, and the last two were a grocery and a drug store. You might think that I should have gone straight to the big bookstores, but actually there was a method to my madness. Bookstores carry back stock. They carry reissues, because they have lots of space. They can keep older titles on the shelf longer than a small venue can. I assumed that it would be easier to find a brand new romance at a store with a very limited area for books. That idea was clever enough, but I finally realized that it would never work, and here’s why: that rumor about the contemporary romance being out of fashion is true. And smaller book sections only have whatever is at the height of fashion, because, duh, that’s what is most likely to sell quickly. Bestsellers by mainstream authors, or by romance authors like Nora Roberts who have gone mainstream, dominated those shelves.

I could have bought any number of historical romances featuring women semi-garbed in great sweeping pieces of shiny cloth. But no, that wasn’t my mission. I almost succeeded at a big box store. Set the Dark on Fire by Jill Sorenson says on the front cover that it is “A Novel,” but the back cover sales copy calls it “erotic romantic suspense.” As you can see, it’s a clinch cover, but with lots of purple swirling around, indicating that this story is full of action as well as passion. It sounded just fine until I read the author’s foreword, in which she thanked experts for their expertise about rattlesnake bites. Oh, ick. I kept looking. Show No Fear by Marliss Melton was a serious candidate until I realized that the hero and heroine would be slogging through a depressing and deadly South American jungle, dodging vicious bands of quasi-military types. Nah. Not for me.

Doggedly, I continued to pursue my goal. I picked up Sliding Home, by Kate Angell, but even though I love baseball, I don’t usually enjoy romances about “bad boy” star athletes. (In fact, the best baseball scene I’ve ever read in a book was in Chaim Potok’s The Chosen. Really. Those Yeshiva boys kick butt on the baseball field.) I looked at Lucky in Love by Carolyn Brown several times, but it was a ranch book, and I wasn’t terribly interested.

By now you’ll have realized that I was being very, very choosy. I’ve played this game before, and so have you. Bored with the same old same old, I’ve looked restlessly for…Something Different. For years I might have been perfectly happy reading whatever was the most popular subgenre flooding the bookshelves. But then, I’d get a yen to read…Something Different. That’s how I found some extremely interesting books. Books that it took guts for the authors to write and faith for the publishers to attempt to sell. Maybe an unusual time-period historical when historicals were in one of their frequent troughs. (They seem to be doing fine right now. There are plenty to choose from.) Or maybe I would have picked up a paranormal when that was still a subgenre-to-be. When it was daring. Or I could have found a contemporary romance about an older woman with a subplot about a lesbian cowgirl (I did read that one; cool book).

I will be frank and admit that I have zero interest in paranormal romances featuring vampires, werewolves, fairies no matter how they’re spelled, elves, Keebler elves, ogres, demons, angels, guardians, shapeshifters…I’m getting exhausted here, and needlessly alienating those of you who love a rousing vampire tale. So let me explain that I am not interested in tales of the-undead-and-the-dread because mostly they operate at night. And I am a serious lover of sunlight. I don’t even like to go into my basement during the daytime because I’ll miss some daylight. All those dark nights in dark paranormal books just don’t do it for me. I keep thinking that if they’d just tuck into bed around midnight instead of cruising dangerous bars, they wouldn’t have to fight off the undead so often.

I almost gave in and bought an Amish romance, since I’ve heard so much about them. But most of them seemed to be historicals. And nothing called.

Then, finally, I hit paydirt. I found a book whose title tickled my fancy: What Would Jane Austen Do? by Laurie Brown. It’s a time-travel that involves the modern-day heroine with the real Jane Austen. Is it a contemporary romance? A mystery? A historical? I don’t know yet. But I want to read it. There wasn’t anything else that was brand new and yet fulfilled that yen for a thoroughly modern point of view and the potential for romance. I’m hoping for kisses and a happy ending. I’ll let you know how it turns out.

As my extended shopping trip proved, something is up with contemporary romances. Yes, they’re out there, but they are currently being crowded off the shelves by other romance subgenres. And many of the offerings tend to feel like retreads; you know, “been there, done that.” Which makes me wonder what happens next with contemporary romance as a genre. Because obviously, women want to read romances based on their real (contemporary) lives. But we must be at one of those moments when something key in the mix has to change. I wonder what it will be?