The Best of Times?

By Poison Ivy,

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to heaven, we were all going direct the other way…
Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities
English novelist (1812 – 1870)

This is a wonderful time for romance novels, and for books in general. Sales of romances are way, way up. In recessionary times, cheap entertainment always does well. The ebook world has exploded. I know people who do all their reading on Amazon Kindles, or Sony Readers. I know a man who is making a fortune doing Print on Demand of books in the public domain. I know someone whose zombie stories are taking off at last, fueled by the (to me) puzzling love of zombies in today’s young generation. Even though people keep worrying that kids don’t read, the Harry Potter and Twilight phenomena have proved that they do read what they like, that they are still interested in good stories, well told. Or even bad stories, poorly told, that strike a chord.

This is a terrible time for romance novels, and for books in general. Sales of printed books in general are way, way down. Publishers are laying off dedicated, experienced staff. Some are closing shop completely. The future of the conventional publisher is in doubt. The future of the conventional “dead tree” book is in doubt, also. Thousands of trained editors with deep experience in helping birth good writing are scrambling to get a toehold in whatever new media will fully replace the old, dying media.

Although movies are flourishing because they are cheap entertainment, this is a tough time for the arts. In an economic downturn that affects people of all economic levels, the typical patronage of the arts has dried up. The gifts that are the lifeblood of the arts are not available. As a result, opera and repertory companies all over America are being forced to tighten their belts, drop planned productions, furlough employees, and, sadly, in some cases declare bankruptcy. The Shakespeare Theatre Company in Washington, DC, is auctioning the handsome Art Deco-inspired costumes and sets from their recent production of Noel Coward’s “Design for Living” on eBay. It’s like the world is coming to an end.

And where is the place of romance in this new world? Women are no longer sitting on cushions sewing a fine seam, waiting for a knight in shining armor on a white steed to come knocking at the castle door. Women are on the battlefield themselves, in all areas of our culture. They may still need to break down the boardroom door of the big corporations, but they are on their way, even as the classic corporation crumbles and begs the Federal government for support. A Latino woman, Judge Sonia Sotomayor, is a nominee for the Supreme Court. What kind of man can be a strong hero when women are already such heroines?

Yet kick-ass heroines who fight hordes of demons seem to always find a guy who has complementary demonic powers, or who is a vampire, or a werewolf, or whatever, who wants to spend time with her despite (or because of) her demonic tattoos, her succubus powers, her vampiric tendencies, or worse. It’s just becoming difficult to tell who the good guys are.

Except that it’s not. The good guys are always the men with hearts, the men who are willing to risk everything to help the heroine save the universe. Or multiple universes. The heroines are always women with hearts, too, who are willing to risk their lives to do the right thing, even when the path forward is confusing and filled with pain. And despite all the darkness and misery inherent in an age in which vampires and demonic possession tales sell romances, we have comedy, too, as witness Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. Not only is Fitzwilliam Darcy the hero of many straight romantic fantasies written today, but he is proving himself to be a man for all seasons, dealing effectively with the zombies who dare to invade the proper evening party that Elizabeth Bennet was only mildly enjoying. In short, heroes are everywhere.

Now, I admit it, I would rather not have my romance served up with blood splashing everywhere. But apparently, many of today’s romance readers are made of sterner stuff. Which is pretty amazing considering that for the past few decades, girls have been brought up to be excessively girly, dressed in pink, white, and lavender, living in princess bedrooms, and being taught to show off their bodies in a sexy manner at a very early age. The result? The kick-ass, tramp stamp heroine whose wardrobe appears to be dark tank tops and black leather pants. The heroine of Destined for an Early Grave has added stilettos to the mix. And notice that she’s got a navel ring, too.

The best of times, the worst of times…romance is all around us, surviving even in confusing times.