Issue #106 (November 15, 2000)

The "Golden Age" of Romance:

"There are still some authors writing great books today, even for people like me who prefer more serious, more angsty stories. And there are some trends that I like (for example, I prefer the older heroines in contemporaries). But for the most part, my keepers come from the early to mid 90's. I don't think it's just because that's when I started reading heavily either, some of them are books I picked up recently that date back to those days. For a long time, I thought that it was just the pendulum swinging, and that it would swing back after the glut of light and fluffy ran its course, and then we'd have more balance. But it doesn't seem to be happening, and I'm not sure why.

"I notice it most in contemporaries. It seems like 95% of single title contemporaries are light and humorous or are primarily suspense or adventure books. Or theyíre baby books. There are exceptions, but itís gotten to the point that I can barely find 1 or 2 contemporary romances to buy a month. I think a lot of people have turned to 'womenís fiction' but I donít find that a really satisfying solution. I like romance, I want romance, and I prefer a book where the focus is on the hero and heroine (and a HEA). Iím just not finding what I want to read in the contemporary section. I really hadnít noticed the situation as much in historicals, maybe because I read quite a few Regencies (which seem to be moving in this direction too, just a few years behind) but my supply is drying up here as well.

"Iím not a huge fan of medievals, and my favorite books arenít straight historical fiction either. I like romance. I want a large part of the focus to be on the characters and their relationship. But I still want a historical to be historical, and I prefer more serious stories, which are in short supply. What I donít understand is why the types of stories which were doing so well in the mid-90ís are suddenly disappearing. Have readers really changed? I know that online readers arenít quite the same as the general population, but it just seems odd to me.

"People were eagerly buying Putney and Balogh and Kinsale and Roberts five years ago. The publishers were putting out lots of other lesser-known authors in the same vein. But today, those authors are still writing similar stories (except for Kinsale) but the publishers arenít following with similar books by lesser-known authors! I donít get it. If Balogh and Putney can go hardcover with straight serious historicals, why are all the paperback historicals light and humorous? If Nora Roberts sells millions with her straight contemporary romances, why is every other contemporary a romantic suspense? Publishing logic escapes me."

Karen Wheless

Was the period from the late 1980's to the early/middle 1990's the "golden age" of romance? When this question was originally raised on the ATBF Message Board, it gave me pause. Reading through all the posts and reading Mrs. Giggles' comments from the last column didn't necessarily clarify things, and I'm not sure I will in this column. Still, I hope to raise some points you may not have considered, and, if you did (already consider them), won't it be nice to know someone agrees with you?

Mine won't be the only voice you hear on this subject in this issue of ATBF - I enlisted the help of two authors who were mentioned by readers during some of the earlier discussion - Teresa Medeiros and Marsha Canham. I hope that, by the end of this "golden age" discussion, a balanced picture will have been presented. Teresa Medeiros, usually who lurks at AAR, gets in some good shots about our reviews, and Marsha Canham, who is not only the recipient of two DIK Reviews but was also the winner in our first Purple Prose Parody Contest, is as irreverent and politically incorrect as ever. As for earlier posts made on the topic to a couple of our message boards, my plan is to create some "comment" pages to be linked to from this column in the very near future.

I started to read romance during 1993 and had always assumed I had so many keepers from it because it was my period of discovery. But this discussion made me wonder - was it possible that I happened to discover the genre at its best time and that, had I discovered it this year or last year or the year before, I would not have amassed so many keepers?

The other part of the "golden age" argument is that, after the golden age ended, we entered the "romance light" phase in which the majority of books pushed by the publishers were lighter and fluffier than they were in the golden age. I gravitate toward lighter romance novels. While I certainly loved the darker books I initially read, discovering Julie Garwood and Amanda Quick was like "coming home" for me. Still, I'm slightly more apt to grant DIK Status to books that are at least a mix of light and dark or are more emotionally dark than I am to books that are seemingly, and often deceptively, frothy. Have I cut off my nose to spite my face in reading so many lighter romances? Is it a coincidence that as I have gotten pickier in what I read and have focused on lighter books, that I've limited my keepers? Because as tough as I am to please, as high as I place the bar for granting DIK Status, I think I'm toughest on humorous books.

I read my first romance in 1993; I probably read between 50 and 100 romances that year, many of which were then new. 1993 remains the year in which the most titles I read landed on my keeper shelf. I granted Desert Isle Keeper Status to seven titles published that year. Four were darkly intense reads (A Dove at Midnight by Rexanne Becnel, Once an Angel by Teresa Medeiros, A Rose at Midnight by Anne Stuart, Then Came You by Lisa Kleypas). Two were quite funny and on the lighter side (Castles and Saving Grace, both by Julie Garwood, the latter of which has some very dark notes, I might add). The seventh title was a strong mix of dark and light, tears and laughter (Bewitching by Jill Barnett.

It gets murky after that, trying to remember when I read which books. For instance, I didn't read Elizabeth Lowell's emotionally draining Too Hot to Handle until a few years ago, but it was first published in 1986. However, I can say that I granted DIK Status to these other romance titles with the following pub dates:

1986two titles1987two titles1988three titles
1989three titles1990two titles1991two titles
1992two titles1993seven titles1994two titles
1995three titles1996two titles1997three titles
1998two titles1999three titles2000one title

This is not a particularly revealing table except for what it doesn't reveal. Aside from that first year of romance reading, the number of keepers doesn't vary all that much from pub year to pub year. This pub year has not been a good one for me with only one 2000-published romance keeper. To be fair, however, much of my reading this year has been of older romances, non-romance titles, and series romance, which I rarely find as good as the best single title releases.

What about readers in general? Let's take a look at the results of our recent Top 100 Romances poll.

  • Eleven of the titles on the list were published in 1995 - that's the most represented year of the poll.

  • 1997 and 1998 are tied for second place - each contributed nine titles to the list.

  • 1991, 1993, 1999, and 2000 come next - eight titles appear on the list for each of these years.

The results can be read to mean a variety of things. On the one hand, 45% of the titles on the list were published during the seven years of the so-called "golden age." On the other, 40% of the titles were published in the shorter, 5 year period which followed this "golden age." And yet, eight of the top ten titles on the list were published between 1989 and 1995, which lends some measure of legitimacy to the theory. What I find more interesting is that two authors account for four of the top ten titles - Susan Elizabeth Phillips and Laura Kinsale - if these authors are not among your favorites, the top ten would be considerably different.

Though there is evidence to support the golden age theory, it's not conclusive, and an informal poll of AAR's staff garnered disagreement - other issues mucked up the waters. When did we start to read romance? Which authors did we fall in love with initially, were they up their way up, at their peak, or already on their way down? What types of romance do we gravitate toward? Other than SEP, single title contemporary romances are not to be found in the top ten. Only one series title placed there. Those on our staff who had something to say about this stated that some of their favorites were writing their best books during the so-called golden age, but we've also had others step up and take their place as they fell (if they fell) in quality.

What is clear from the Top 100 Romance results is that readers are still finding lots of romances to love. What's less clear is the "romance light" part of the equation. I have several ideas that I'd like to pose here that may clarify the situation. The first is easiest - publishing, like television, popular music, and filmmaking, is cyclical. Just as in the 1980's we were told about the death of the sit-com until Bill Cosby reinvigorated it, the medical drama was given a code blue in the 1990's until E.R. resuscitated it. Who would have thought that the first round of "boy bands" in the 1980's, eventually eclipsed by rap and grunge in the 1990's, would be back today with such a vengeance as The Backstreet Boys, 'NSync, 98 Degrees, etc? And in film, the early 1990's were the era of the action movie while the last few years have seen the growing importance of the small indie film, Pulp Fiction notwithstanding.

When something is successful, everyone jumps on the bandwagon. While in the 1970's, Kathleen Woodiwiss, Rosemary Rogers, and Jennifer Wilde ushered us into the age of the bodice-ripper, the 1980's changed the romance landscape. Nora Roberts, Judith McNaught, Jayne Ann Krentz/Amanda Quick, and Julie Garwood expanded the types of romances available. Not only were intensely emotional romances now available, but quirkily humorous ones could now be read, as well as those without the "alpha heel."

Just as we seem to have an overabundance of cowboy and baby books in the series lines, many readers now complain of a dearth of intense romance. Look at the Avons on sale each month, some say - they are filled with lighter fare by authors like Elizabeth Bevarly and Julia Quinn - even Judith Ivory has gone apparently gone "light!" While it's true that Avon has had great success with authors who tackle romance from the lighter side, they also champion authors like Karen Ranney, Neesa Hart, and Lisa Kleypas.

I'd also like to point out that even the authors known for their light touch very often include darker sub-themes that are layered with and suffused by humor. While Bantam's Amanda Quick was at one time the master of this, many authors of today's "romance light" do this with quite a deft hand. Yes, these books won't make necessarily make you cry, but the characterizations and plotting are tight and the books ultimately quite satisfying.

If we are indeed in the midst of a cycle, that could mean in several years we'd be having this argument in reverse. I might be hearing from lots of readers decrying the lack of humorous romances. The shelves would be full to bursting with "two-hanky reads" instead. How likely is this?

If you don't agree with the cycle theory, we cannot dismiss the reality that many of the writers of darker romance have crossed over into the darker realms of suspense and romantic suspense. Consider Catherine Coulter, Tami Hoag, Iris Johansen, Karen Robards, and Shannon Drake/Heather Graham. How big a part does this play in the "romance light" equation? For every reader who followed a favorite romance author, there's another, like AAR Reviewer Christine Peterson who would prefer authors like Judith McNaught to "go back to writing love stories that are just love stories!"

Since the beginning of the written word, there have been both comedies and drama - there are those who most love Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream while for others, only Othello will do. Lovers of comedy have always faced an uphill battle from drama-lovers. There seems to be more to the "romance light" argument than comedy versus drama, however; there's that whole "Barbie and Ken" notion Sandy C. put into play in her Where have all the Wulfgars Gone? essay in the October 15th issue of this column.

Although we've discussed this pretty thoroughly before, I wanted to share with you some additional comments Christine Peterson. When I'm trying to tackle a big issue, I rely on our staff for input to round out the ideas expressed. In an email entitled "Put on your thinking caps," I asked AAR's staff for their thoughts on the "golden age of romance" idea, including the dark versus light angle. While I'll get into the rest of their responses later, Christine's comments seem to echo Sandy C's idea that too many of today's romances do not feature richly developed characters, that there's a need to create perfection so as not to turn off readers in this politically correct climate.

Christine has been reading some older series titles recently and noticed a difference between them and newer series titles. She told me, "the newer ones have undergone some kind of sitcomization. Characters don't have much soul and writers seem extremely reluctant to let them do anything remotely unflattering. They are nice all the time - no one smokes or swears or litters." She asked, "Is it that they are afraid foibles will make characters unlikable or is it that they assume readers expect certain things when they buy a series romance?"

On the one hand we have the recent success of new author Madeline Hunter. On the other hand, we've heard that Isolde Martyn, whose first book received DIK status from AAR, has not been able to find a North American publisher for her second book. And I recently heard from an author who is well represented on our DIK page that she has been dropped by her publisher. According to her agent, the publisher seems to be headed in different directions, which means, according to this author, "they are trimming out the heavy historicals and concentrating on the light fluffy shorter books."

Is this scary stuff? There is certainly cause for alarm, but there is another possible theory about the direction the genre is headed. Yes, there has been some lightening, but pendulums swing from one end to the other before heading back to the middle. And, as alluded to earlier, sometimes lightening is deceptive. This is a controversial idea, but I think it has some value. I often ask authors who have been published for a long time what has changed most about the genre. Most often, the response is that the writing is better today than it used to be. Could there be a connection between light and dark and "better writing?"

When I look back at the older romances on my keeper shelves, I find that the darker ones are very dark indeed. When I look at some of the newer romances represented there, many of the darker ones are more a mixture of dark and light than they are unremittingly dark. The balance in tone I saw developing in the romances published in the early 1990's seems to have continued and grown stronger. I believe this hybrid type of romance is still developing and represents what is best in our genre.

Is there any glimmer of truth to the notion that this balance of tone represents the "better quality" of writing so many authors talk about? When I look at some of the earliest romances out there, many ladled on the angst with a two-cup measure when a tablespoon would have sufficed. It seems as though many of the romance authors lauded today may see the possibilities of this - Judith Ivory, Suzanne Brockmann, Jo Beverley, to name but a few, are writing books with dark themes that also contain strong humorous or other lightening elements. We should also remember that we all tend to look at history through rose-colored glasses - are the old days really as good as we remember them?

Let's take a look at the romances published this year that made it onto our Top 100 Romances list - can most of the titles be neatly categorized as "light" or "dark," or are they more of a mixture of both?

Devilish by Jo Beverley
The Duke and I by Julia Quinn
Tears of the Moon by Nora Roberts
Welcome to Temptation by Jennifer Crusie
The Unsung Hero by Suzanne Brockmann
Mr. Perfect by Linda Howard
Get Lucky by Suzanne Brockmann
Where Dreams Begin by Lisa Kleypas

When I look at these titles, I don't see "light, dark, light, dark,. . . ." Instead, I see mostly books that are a mixture of light and dark elements, books that had a balance of tone. Editor Nora Armstrong said that many of the books on the list from this year are "filled with moments of sheer delight and humor, but some also tackle very weighty issues." She added that the terminology might be a problem; for her, a dark read calls to mind a somber read, which many of these titles were clearly not. Neither are these books "heavy," they are most often easy to read.

The "light/dark" question is one that readers interpret differently. AAR's Teresa Galloway looks at the characters and how much redemption is involved. And, as Managing Editor Blythe Barnhill noted, "funny is not the same as light, and dramatic does not necessarily mean dark." Truer words were never spoken - as out-and-out hilarious as Mr. Perfect was, it also detailed three grisly murders. Blythe also had some thoughts on the cyclical nature of publishing that we can probably all agree with, to some extent. Those of us who came to the genre in the early 1990's got there at a great time; it was the heyday of many romance authors, some of whom have moved on, and some of whom have gone downhill. For the most part, however, newer authors have ably filled their shoes, including Hunter, Adele Ashworth, Lisa Cach, and Tina St. John, to name but a few. And while not new, other authors who have been around for awhile, are currently peaking, including Connie Brockway, Barbara Samuel/Ruth Wind, Maggie Osborne, and Lorraine Heath.

Still, I never resist an opportunity to mention, in Cassandra-like fashion, the continuing mid-list crisis. The continual move of authors out of historical romance into contemporary romance, romantic suspense, suspense, and/or womenís fiction requires new blood to flesh out the ranks. If publishers continue to trim their romance lines and/or limit their focus, we will eventually run out of authors to replace those who have been moved out, those who have moved on, or those who perhaps should have moved on.

I'm not going to sit here with a straight face and say today's romance is better than it was ten years ago. Twenty years ago? Absolutely. What I am here to say is that the genre is evolving, and that authors are evolving as well. Are some favorite authors changing their style? Yes. Are there less-known authors who are writing dark books? Of course - we publish reviews of them nearly every day and probably once a week I buy an extra book based on a review we've written, like today when I added Julia Justiss' A Scandalous Proposal. If you prefer more meaty historicals, or romances with darker writing, you not only need to support the authors writing them, such as Hunter and Ashworth, but you might have to seek out the unknown, the lesser reviewed. Take some chances and buy and read some darker-themed books published by the perhaps "second-tier" romance publishers. Publishers publish what sells, if lighter romances and/or hybrid romances outsell darker and/or more meaty romances, it's up to the reader to change that equation.

I sought out the responses of Teresa Medeiros and Marsha Canham for two different reasons - it's been said that Medeiros has "gone light" while Canham has stayed dark. I think you'll find both their segments illuminating.

The Golden Age of Romance?

Was the late 80's-early 90's a Golden Age of Romance? Yes, I think it was. I know that many of the romance classics on my own shelves were amassed during that time. Does that mean classics, even those in a lighter vein, haven't been written since then? Absolutely not. I think the key here is variety. Sometimes I'm in the mood for a darker epic romance; sometimes I'm in the mood for a frothy fairy tale of a romance. It's the lack of variety I think we're all really bemoaning. (I mean, when Roberta Gellis was struggling to get a contract from a traditional romance publisher, you knew there was something wrong with the world!) The best idea I have is to encourage the readers to write the publishers and demand more "meat" with their "pudding." That letter could be the impetus they need to take a chance on some new author who's just written a dark but brilliant eight-hundred page epic of a romance set during the French Revolution. Another thing we need to consider is that many of us, myself included, starting reading romances during that Golden Age and there is a tendency to "romanticize" our first love. Some of the readers who are just coming to romance may feel the same way about the current crop of books ten years from now.

Some readers prefer the darker books. Some readers prefer the lighter books. I've always included comedy in my books. There was certainly plenty of it in Laurie's personal fave, Once an Angel. (Remember when Emily set the lobsters loose at the Victorian supper?) But yes, there was also more pathos in those earlier books, and one could argue, more depth. In defense of lighter books, I do think people tend to underestimate the effort it takes to be funny. Well-done comedy should feel almost effortless, which is exactly why comedies are so frequently snubbed at the Oscars. As one of the old-time comedians said, "Dying is easy. Comedy is hard." We also have to take care not to project our own likes and dislikes onto every reader. My fan mail demonstrates that for every reader who thinks Once an Angel was my best book, there is another reader whose favorite is Breath of Magic or Nobody's Darling. If all the readers are yearning for deeper, darker epics, then how do you explain the fact that one of my "lightest" books to date (Charming the Prince) is also my best-selling book?

So who is to blame for this dichotomy? Is it the writers? The publishers? The readers? I mean, what do readers really want? Whether they realize it or not, readers have the greatest power in this little triangle because they have the power to vote with their wallets.

I don't mean to offend anyone, but I also think part of the problem may very well stem from the expectations of "political correctness" and the overwhelming tide of Internet literary criticism. I recently read a brilliant post by one of AAR's regular visitors entitled, "Where Have All the Wulfgars Gone?" that addressed this issue from a reader's point of view. From a writer's point of view, it's nearly impossible to create something beautiful and original and dangerous with thousands of people looking over your shoulder during the very act of creation. If you partake of it very often, it becomes an insidious poison that kills every original and thought-provoking idea before it has a chance to take root. Not only do you start second-guessing what the Internet critics will think of the book that's about to hit the stands, you also start second-guessing what they'll think about the book you're just attempting to start. Will they find the heroine TSTL (Too Stupid to Live)? Will they brand the conflict that used to be called a plot simply a BM (Big Misunderstanding)? Will they find the hero too cruel, the heroine too sweet? Do they hate pets in books? Do they hate cutesy children? Will they misinterpret the hero's seduction of the heroine as a forced seduction or even (horrors!), a rape? Before long, you find yourself sitting paralyzed in front of the keyboard, unable to write a single word without hearing their voices in your head.

Does this mean I'm advocating a ban on marvelous sites like All About Romance and Of course not! Readers have every right to come together and discuss books in any forum they like. As a writer, I'm thrilled that our books stir their passions, both positive and negative. But writers also need to exercise their right to stop listening to and butting into that discussion. We need to log off the Internet and get back to writing the stories we want to tell instead of the stories we think the readers want to read. I genuinely believe that's the only solution that will satisfy both reader and writer in the long-term.

I also want to add that you never know what's going on in the writer's personal life. For the past six years, my 60-year-old mother has been dying a slow, agonizing death from Pick's Disease, a neurological disease similar to Alzheimer's. This monster has already destroyed her mind and will soon begin destroying her body. I've had to watch my bright, beautiful, funny, soft-spoken mother disintegrate into a wild-haired, wild-eyed stranger who screams obscenities at me every time I walk onto her hospital ward. During this time, it's been my personal choice to write with a lighter touch. If you're sitting in the lonely waiting room of an ICU somewhere with one of my books, waiting for a doctor to come out and tell you if your family member is going to make it through the night, I don't want to make you cry. I want to make you smile. I have enough pain in my life right now, thank you very much, which might explain why I haven't thrown any of my heroines off a cliff (A Whisper of Roses) or murdered any dwarves lately (Lady of Conquest). Do my "lighter" books lack meaning? Are they devoid of the redemptive themes that resonated through my earlier works? No - they're just executed with a lighter touch. Perhaps someday when my mother's torment is over, I will once again have room in my heart for fictional angst and pain.

I'm a big believer in the cycles of life...and publishing. Here's to hoping that all of us who love romance, both readers and writers, will be around to usher in another Golden Age.

That Pesky Pendulum

How ironic this discussion should crop up just as I am hunkering down to edit one of my older books: The Wind and the Sea. It was initially published in Ď86, had a shelf life of about ten minutes before the publisher went bankrupt and it disappeared from sight.

Not from mind, apparently. Every so often I get a letter or an E-mail asking me how someone might go about getting a copy of TWATS (lovely acronym, isn't it?) I've heard rumors that copies show up at auctions every now and then, rarely lower than ten dollars, and once as high as sixty - a far cry from the original cover price of $3.95. It was also one of the longer books I wrote, coming in at 531 pages, full of swashbuckling pirates, villains, doublecrosses, and sea battles, not to mention almost twenty main characters as lustily developed as I could make them. It was my homage to all the old Errol Flynn sea hawk movies, and quite frankly, books like that just aren't written anymore. Not even by me.

It wasn't quite a "bodice ripper" but it was poised on that tricky cusp. The pendulum was already swinging away from books heavy on historical detail, drenched in purple prose, and focused around heroes who did a lot of chest-beating, knuckle-dragging, forced lovemaking with heroines who, in turn, did a lot of protesting, brow clutching, swooning, hate-you-love-you-hate-you theatrics only to fall inevitably under the hero's swarthy spell after which, together, they saved the world and lived happily ever after.

I credit a good deal of that shift to the fact that domestic violence and date rape were being acknowledged, and deservedly so, as criminal offenses. Knuckle dragging heroes were no longer as appealing as they once were, and books where the hero raped the heroine vanished almost overnight. Once the dust settled, readers and writers alike became a little embarrassed by the label "bodice rippers" and more conscious of moral issues, seeming to almost need a reason to justify why they enjoyed writing romance novels instead of, say, "real literature."

I for one, make no apologies and never did. Like everyone else who started writing (or reading) romances in the mid-seventies, I cut my teeth on those meaty, juicy offerings by Kathleen Woodiwiss, Shirlee Busbee, and Roberta Gellis. Not co-incidentally, I also overdosed on old black and white movies featuring those larger than life pirates, swashbucklers, and blood-and-guts adventure heroes. I must have seen Indiana Jones twenty times when it came out and I hooted as loud as my young son when we went to see Silverado on the big screen.

For me, that was the only kind of book I could see myself writing: one that Errol Flynn would enact with that big cocky grin, the crooked up eyebrow, and every sin I could imagine gleaming in his eyes. There was no way I could picture Errol playing the part of Mr. Darcy, no way I could write him in a top hat and tails out for a carriage ride in Hyde Park. The characters he played were bare chested and gritty, ready to leap through fire to save the woman he loved, with cannons booming in the background, the smell of sulfur stinging their lips while they kissed...and those were the kind of books I wanted to write.

Old habits die hard and I still try to get that gunpowder and grit into the books I write today, but sadly I feel as if I am in the minority. I find it nearly impossible to keep a book below the 400-page mark, something editors are become more and more sticky about. Allow me to digress a moment and tell a small horror story about the editor who wanted to chop 100 pages from The Blood of Roses when it was being reissued two years ago. In complete amazement I asked: "Where the heck would you cut so many pages when I had trouble chipping away at extraneous adjectives and adverbs?" Her answer? "Oh, we'll just cut out all the battle scenes. Readers don't want that kind of realism these days."

It had been obvious to me long before that insipid phone call that there had been a drastic increase in the number of "light, fluffy" romances. Books that are mostly character driven, mostly Regency/Georgian/Victorian period historicals that, with the exception of one or two pointedly obvious references (usually a telling date above the heading of Chapter One) could be substituted for any period, contemporary or historical. This is not meant in any way to take away from the appeal of these books. Some of them are very well written, funny stories, terrific romances, with characters and emotions that come alive within the pages of the book. Others, sadly, as someone said on the boards, are 200 page books expanded to 300 pages with a lot of white space and large fonts. Or worse, they are what I refer to as "bandwagon books." I remember quite clearly another discussion with an editor back in 1986 when I mocked up a proposal for The Pride of Lions. She said to me: "A Scottish romance? No one is reading anything based in Scotland; it will be a hard sell." A decade later, Scotland has been overdone to the same degree as the Civil War in the Ď70's, and the period of choice has now become the single title regency-set historical. Pick up any ten books at random and I'd be willing to bet more than half would involve the Duke and Duchess of Manners. And not always by the author's choice.

This nasty bit of reality struck me two years ago when I was negotiating a new contract. I had just finished Pale Moon Rider - a story about a highwayman that had been riding about in my head long before the Regency setting became the flavor of the day. I handed the book in and was told that the publisher was insisting on another regency-set historical; that it was actually being negotiated as a condition and written into the new contract: Book One, Full Length Regency Historical Romance.

I had, at that point, never heard of an author being told what he or she had to write. And certainly not this author. I'd always had editors who trusted my instincts, let me run with my imagination, even encouraged my action/adventure/swashbucklers. One editor, who shall remain nameless, trusted me enough that when she asked me for the outline for one of my books (to fulfill contractual obligations) and I sent in a blank sheet of paper with a traced outline of a book with a title - The Last Arrow - scrawled in the middle, she not only accepted it and paid me for it, but it took her another month or so to ask if it was a medieval or a western!

That kind of trust, I fear, has gone swinging off with the pendulum. I could no more imagine sending a pencil sketch of a book to an editor now than I could an outline for a romance written in the time of the Spanish Armada ("It would be a hard sell."). Or another sweeping medieval ("Would it be as dark as your others, and would there be blood involved?"). Or another pirate adventure ("Mmmm. Too outdated. No market for that kind of story anymore.")

So what is left for an author who has built her career on "old fashioned" swashbucklers? More painful questions might be: Why in heaven's name did it take so many years for Roberta Gellis to find a publisher willing to print A Mortal Bane? Why has Isolde Martyn's follow-up book to the excellent The Maiden and the Unicorn not been released in North America? Why is it that ten years ago, the average length of a historical romance was 400+ pages and today it's closer 300, when the average cost has gone from $3.95 to $7.99? ($9.99 here in Canada) How can a publisher bandy around the word "epic" when trying to flog a 200 page hardcover? And how can a hardcover be sold these days with so many errors in research and historical details that the book has to be edited before the paperback is released?

I have always maintained that I never entered into this profession to become rich and famous, and it certainly looks like I won't be joining the Forbes list any time soon. But all I ever wanted was to be able to write my stories and hopefully give the reader a taste of the same excitement that always thrilled me when I lost myself in the pages of a rousing good adventure. I must confess, when Laurie E-mailed me and pointed me in the direction of the ATBF Message Board, I smiled when I saw the question "Where are all the Wulfgars?" and that a reader had mentioned me by name. If at least one person - who isn't directly related - remembers that I once wrote a pretty good book, then I guess I've accomplished what I set out to do and can retire happy.<g>

I am, co-incidentally, at the end of another contract and have planted my feet firmly in the sand: no more regency settings for me. The book I just turned in - Midnight Honor - is the third book in the Scotland series, full of bloody battles and larger than life characters, with nary a teacup or top hand in sight, and you know what? I feel damned good about it. I may be fast becoming a dinosaur in this business, but every now and then when I get an E-mail from a reader saying she "just discovered" one of my books and couldn't get to sleep before she'd read it through to the last word, well...I have to wonder where all the Wulfgars have gone too.

They're out there. We just have to look a little harder and wait for that pesky pendulum to come swinging back.

A Pet Peeve:
If you've read our reviews, you'll remember that a pet peeve for many of our staff is the Gay Misogynist Villain. Recently, AAR Reviewer Candy Tan mentioned yet another historical romance she'd read featuring such a villain. Since this is one of my own pet peeves (and many thanks to Mary Jo Putney for creating a sympathetic gay character in her contemporary The Burning Point), I asked if she'd be interested in writing about it. Both she and Mary Novak decided it was worth a shot. I present their views below:

The Completely Despicable Gay ‹ber-Villain

A few months ago I read The Ladyís Tutor by Robin Schone. The book itself was pretty good, and I was puttering along enjoying its vanilla kinkiness when I was stopped cold almost towards the end. I encountered a species of depravity so vile, so unnecessary, that all I could do was gasp and turn red. The rest of the book passed in kind of a blur as I skimmed the rest while fuming silently.

Schone, in a book about freeing and exploring oneís sexuality, created a Completely Despicable Gay ‹ber-Villain.

Make no mistake, this guy is not just your average homosexual pedophile so beloved to Romance Villainy. Heís into threesomes. His lover is a man with a penchant for shaving and womenís underwear. The villain himself has a list of vices and depravities as long as my arm. Heís a pedophile, heís a sexual predator, he molests his two sons, he hates all women and he emotionally abuses the heroine - even attempts to kill her. All this, on top of being gay! This man has issues.

The villain in The Ladyís Tutor, unfortunately, is merely one of the latest in a long line of psychotic homosexual villains. It seems that almost every time I pick up a romance, most of the really sicko bad guys turn out to be gay. I, personally, am fed up with the constant and pretty much consistent association of homosexuality, bisexuality and almost anything other than regular heterosexual sex with everything evil including (but not limited to) pedophilia, psychosis, misogyny, incest, sociopathy, bestiality, abusive tendencies and bad personal hygiene.

First of all, I donít see anything wrong with homosexuality. In fact, I donít see anything wrong with bisexuality, transvestitism, and all those other bogeymen that are featured so often in non-heterosexual romance villainy. If all parties involved are consenting adults, they can do whatever the heck they please in bed. However, if one randomly picks a romance with a homosexual character in it, especially an historical, chances are the gay guy (or gal) is going to be the most vicious psycho since Hitler.

I think itís the lure of Instant Depravity - "For Immediate and Complete Evilness, Just Add Homosexuality!" Thereís almost a kind of sordid show and tell quality to the whole thing: ďLook, the villain isnít just any olí child molester - he molests little boys."

Homosexuality has been pathologized for so long, any deviancy from the Straight and Narrow path (pun definitely intended) seems to immediately presuppose a whole host of ugly vices. Apart from the whole "all gay men are pedophiles" tenet beloved to so many romances, the second most popular is ďall gay men are misogynists," both of which are completely illogical correlations. The average gay guy is about as attracted to little boys as the average straight guy is attracted to little girls. And most of the gay men I know (and I know quite a few) love women. They just donít want to sleep with them. Saying all gay men are misogynists is as logical as saying that all straight women are misogynists.

The fact of the matter is, making the villains non-heterosexual is usually gratuitous. Actually, why should the villainís sex life come into play in a romance at all? When I pick up a romance, I donít mind if thereís tons of sweaty sex between the hero and heroine. Tons of sweaty sex between the bad guy and someone else strikes me as pretty much extraneous to the story. It might be cool to show us how kinky in bed the bad guy is on top of being Evil Incarnate, but I really donít think an interesting sex life is an indication of evil.

Apart from the laziness afforded by Instant Depravity, I think the lure of the non-heterosexual villain lies in the super-conservative values that underlie mainstream romance. I would be the first person to say that romances are in their own way subversive because theyíre so gynocentric, but if you look at the underpinnings that make a romance work, youíll come away with morals and values that are essentially orthodox. Mainstream romances tell a love story about a heterosexual man and a heterosexual woman who start a family. Some fooling around and sexual experience is accepted, especially in contemporaries, but bisexuals as protagonists are usually strict no-noís. The hero and heroine are normally happily engaged or married at the end of the novel. Epilogues inevitably show the heroine pregnant, about to give birth, or surrounded by a whole passel of kids. Romances are dictated by social conventions and heterosexual reproductive modes almost as much as the idea of true love. People who donít subscribe to those conventions and modes are basically outcasts and itís always much easier to create a bad guy from someone who has outsider status already.

Many gay villains are obviously created so the characters, particularly the heroine, can live up to some weird romance writing convention or ideal. The "one woman for one man" ideal, for one, is pushed so far in our genre that I think many sadistic gay or bisexual villains are created just so the heroine can have a miserable sex life that the hero can completely overturn. I couldnít help but feel that the bad guy in The Ladyís Tutor, for instance, was created solely to give the heroine a reason for having low self-esteem (those udders! those flabby hips!) and an easy way out of her marriage ("look at what the pervert has done to my sons!"). In many cases, a villainous husband is gay so the heroine can retain her virginity after she marries him, which is the distinct feeling I got from Kinsaleís The Hidden Heart, an otherwise wonderful book.

Is a well-balanced view of homosexuality and other so-called "alternative" lifestyles too much to ask for? I donít want non-stop sugary depictions of kooky gay hairdressers who are the heroinesí best friends; thatís almost as bad as making every gay guy a sexual predator. I just want more gay characters that are - well, who are three-dimensional, honest-to-God human beings.

If itís absolutely necessary to create a psychotic killer/child molester/general meanie who kicks little old ladies and kittens, why not be more statistically accurate and make him heterosexual? Please, please letís put an end to this disproportionate association between all non-traditional, non-heterosexual sex with moral baseness of the worst kind. Itís an assumption unworthy of all reasonable, thinking readers of romance.

The Multi-Pervert Gay Villain clichť

I share Candyís distaste for the Multi-Pervert Gay Villain clichť. I donít have a problem with gay characters that are obnoxious or even evil - obnoxiousness and evil are traits available to all classes, creeds, and genders. I do object, however, to the wholesale bundling of every pathology under the sun, particularly misogyny and pedophilia, with homosexuality. And Iíd like to take this chance to point out to authors the danger of getting too comfortable with that stereotype: It may already be hurting your sales more than you think.

When I come across a particularly ugly gay stereotype in a book, I wonder if the writer is aware of how many of her readers she may offend. I suspect some writers believe that gays and lesbians arenít interested enough to read romance featuring straight couples. My own experience tells me this is not the case - I know homosexual men and women who are passionate romance fans, just as I fall into the demographic of straight people who read gay and lesbian fiction. A good story is a good story, whoever the protagonists are.

But even if gays and lesbians do make an insignificant percentage of romance readers, I can tell you that their loved ones do not. The AAR reviewing staff is a demographically and politically diverse bunch, with a wide spread of ages and reading tastes - we're not even all heterosexual. Among us also are the siblings, best friends, children, and domestic partners of gays and lesbians. My personal experience was that after two of my dearest friends came out of the closet, gay rights became one of my own most passionate issues. I donít believe I am alone in this. It offends me to my core that people make judgements against some of the most wonderful people I know based on a single aspect of their identities.

This isnít to say that every gay villain I read offends me. One example that doesnít bother me is Jack Randall in Diana Gabaldonís Outlander. (Yes, I know the author says heís bisexual, but that doesnít change the central issues here.) Jack Randall is a pretty extreme villain for any romance, but the fact that heís also bisexual doesnít offend me the way some less extreme gay villains have. Why? Two main reasons. One is that itís clear that sadism is Randallís main pathology, and his sexual inclination is relatively incidental. He isnít a sadist because heís bisexual, he is both those things but one is not caused by the other. The second reason is that Jack Randall is a distinctive enough character that it seems clear that his pathologies are his own, not meant to be read as problems common to all bisexuals or homosexuals. There are two other gay characters in the series so far, and all three characters are individuals: sexual orientation is the only trait they have in common. Even if the other two characters didnít exist, thereís enough particularity in Gabaldonís characters that I would be comfortable with Jack Randall as written.

Of course, there are historical examples of gay misogynists who made their wives miserable. In Ellen's Historical Cheat Sheet article about Newport society, she mentioned Ellen found the example of Harry Lehr. As Ellen wrote, Lehr told his wife Elizabeth their wedding night that she was repulsive, all women were repulsive, and that he married her for her money. Elizabeth was devastated, but stayed with him till he died and endured all his insults. But there are also historical examples of partnerships in marriage that worked remarkably well - Cole Porter and his rich, beautiful wife are a famous example who stayed together and took pleasure in each other's company for 40 years.

I would propose a self-diagnostic to writers who are considering creating a gay character. (Especially - oh, yawn - if itís going to be the dead husband whose main function is to keep the heroineís sexual self-esteem well tamped down or better yet, adds to the ranks of the inexplicably fascinating Virgin Widows.) Consider Harry Lehr and Cole Porter. Could you write characters based on each, or would they all come out like one extreme or the other? If there wouldnít be any range - particularly if theyíd all be like Harry--they may be tough going for your readers. The same rule could apply to any marginalized group: are all of the overweight characters mean, piggy, and lazy? Are all of the politically conservative characters dishonest, authoritarian, and immoral? Stereotypes can be handy shorthand, but they quickly move from current to passe to offensive and can render obsolete what might otherwise be an entertaining story.

Time to Post to the Message Board:
Here are the questions we'd like to have you consider this time:

Reader preferences - Do you have a favorite year for romance novels? When you look back at your keeper shelves, what year is most represented? What are the titles/authors from it? Mostly dark, mostly light, or a variety of the two?
All Things Considered, without Rose-Colored Glasses - Looking at my own keeper shelves does not reveal a golden age, although my first year of reading romance, 1993, was a banner year for me. Without "romanticizing" the past, do you find a Golden Age of romance or are your keepers spread fairly evenly over time? What year did you come to the genre, and how many keepers do you think you found in that first year or so? Tell me how many ways I got this wrong!
The "Hybrid" Romance and the Evolution of the Genre - What do you make of my idea that there is a hybrid romance gaining strength these days that includes both light and dark elements rather than focusing solely on the dark (or light)? Can you think of some titles and authors who are doing this well? Are they new authors, authors who have always written this way, or are there some authors who have changed their writing over the years?
The Pendulum Swings - Are we in the midst of a pendulum swing? Will it swing back toward the middle or are the days of the angst-filled romance behind us? Could it be that the authors from that so-called Golden Age either peaked, changed genres, or changed their styles? Tell me how many ways I got this wrong! What can readers do to make sure there is variety in what we read?
What About Teresa Medeiros and Marsha Canham? - What struck you most about the segments written by these authors? Might the impact of the Internet stifle creativity? Are some authors seen as behind the times by publishers for writing in an unabashed "old-fashioned" style?
The Gay ‹ber-Villain - Is the gay villain overdone in romance novels? Have you even noticed this before we brought it up? If you have noticed it before, does it seem to you that this is a sterotype, and, if so, do you find it offensive? Why does it seem as though gay villains are more villainous than other villains? Are romance authors taking an easy way out, perpetuating a dangerous myth? Or are we guilty of requiring political correctness?

In conjunction with Teresa Medeiros, Marsha Canham, Candy Tan, and Mary Novak

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