I am in the biggest romance reading slump I've ever been in, and it's lasted longer than any slump I've ever had. Yesterday I took two huge boxes of unread books to the UBS to trade because I doubted I'd ever read them. I got a horrible feeling in the pit of my stomach because it's such a drastic step to take.
When I awarded Desert Isle Keeper status to Anne Gracie's Tallie's Knight a couple of months ago, I was thrilled because it was the first romance novel in more than a year that I'd absolutely loved. I've gotten used to awarding only two or three romances DIK status per year, but having had more than a year go by without one was truly frightening. Had it not been for the non-romance DIK I awarded to Joy Fielding's The First Time late last summer, I'd have felt even worse about the state of my reading.
Yes, there have been more than a handful of good romances read in-between, but my attention has been diverted for too long by non-romance novels not to get worried. Why, just a couple of weeks ago I inhaled Morgan Llywelyn's The Wind from Hastings - it's an historical novel with a strong romantic component about a real historical figure, but since it flaunts the romance convention of an HEA, it certainly doesn't have me less concerned about my slump.
This year has been the most difficult for me personally since my father died fourteen years ago. A series of close personal crises forced me into having to act totally like a grown-up, and in one instance, to take the lead, long-distance, on an event that I hope no one else ever has to live through. I'm not surprised, really, therefore, that I took the fork in the romance road in February, and began to read the Anita Blake series by Laurell K. Hamilton - I really needed to read about a woman who takes no prisoners. While none of the individual books were DIK's for me, taken as a group, this series has been amazing to read, and I continued to stray from the romance genre by glomming several Joy Fielding suspense novels. Only one was particularly good, but I realized all of them were quicker to read than most of the romances I was reading at the same time. Don't get me wrong - I have read more than a few good romances this year, but all of them were flawed in some way, some more than others. Not only that, but a couple were tremendous stinkers, beginning with a release from next month - Maybe Baby by Elaine Fox.
The cover quote on the first contemporary release by this author comes courtesy of Nora Roberts, who is one of my own favorite authors. If this is the type of romance considered good these days, I'm in serious trouble. Maybe Baby is a secret baby book built on a series of lies so contrived that rather than being clever, they are simply stupid. And the heroine's behavior never comes out of character - it is solely driven by the plot, a sure book-killer in my eyes. Let me tell you about it.
After a one-night stand with Jack Shepard and a failed condom, Dr. Delaney Poole becomes pregnant. Even though she knows he's a high-school teacher, a profession most people grant a certain amount of responsibility, she assumes he's nothing but bad news. So when she returns to the small town of Harp Cove, Maine to assume her position as town doctor, she plans to pass herself off as a divorcee. Why not just make it easy and be a widow? Either way, the husband would be out of the picture, but why be logical when a plot is at stake, particularly when - you've guessed it - Jack turns out to be Delaney's new landlord.
All of a sudden, Delaney isn't divorced at all. She and her "husband," whose name is either Jim or Joe, are simply living apart for the time being. And the lies begin to pile on and continue to pile on, and this supposedly intelligent scientist instead is small-minded and basically not only too stupid to live, but too selfish to live as well. At one point in the story, Delaney's baby's favorite day care worker at an overly-crowded day care center leaves and Jack offers up his aunt, an ex-nurse and long-time baby-sitter. Although mothers will do anything to assure their children are properly taken care of, Jack has to fight to convince Delaney that his aunt will be an improvement; her first instinct is to leave the baby where she is even though she knows the care won't be particularly good. Roberts' cover quote that these are "characters you take into your heart" didn't help matters much; in fact, reading that has me quite concerned that maybe I can't tell good from bad any more when it comes to romance novels.
As I mentioned earlier, my romance slump has caused me to stray more and more from the genre. In the interim, I've enjoyed historical fiction, fantasy fiction, and mainstream/women's fiction - Dorothea Benton Frank's Plantation, which I read this spring, was a very good character-based book. On the other hand, highly-touted romance authors like Lori Foster have failed to intrigue me in the least. Foster's Sex Appeal had such a lame ending I was sorry to have wasted 200+ pages leading up to it.
I haven't tried some earlier "tried and true" methods of getting out of my slump because I'm frankly too desperate. What if I pick up a book everyone has raved about and I don't love it? Those "insurance reads" may have worked in the past, but I've got my head under the covers right now, afraid of the monster under the bed. About the only thing I haven't tried is re-reading a favorite romance; that will come next.
Even going back to earlier releases hasn't necessarily helped. After enjoying a reissue of T.L.C. by Barbara Delinsky, I bought several other Delinsky reissues. The Outsider, written in 1992, was quite enjoyable and very inventive, but 1982's Search for a New Dawn was horrendous, as was Jayne Ann Krentz's Man with a Past, written in 1985, and tied as the worst JAK I ever read. If you've never thought it possible that Krentz could write a raping hero, this one comes thisclose.
Among other romances I have read and enjoyed so far this year are:
With the exception of Phantom Waltz, none of these books came close to being spectacular - they were more or less B/B- reads. As you'll notice, the list contains very few historicals and quite a few series titles, although I didn't give you the list of romances I didn't like, which contains even more historicals. All of which leads me to believe I'm burned out on, at the very least, historical romance. What's happened - is it me or is it the authors I've come to rely upon?
When was the last time Julie Garwood wrote a spectacular historical romance? I think the last one was Saving Grace, published back in 1993. Mary Jo Putney? Her last truly great historical, for me, was written back in 1996. Catherine Coulter, whom many of you have already given up on, has written some good books recently, but her last great one for me was written back in 1992. Lisa Kleypas has apparently returned to her previous state of excellence, but I wouldn't know after having been burned too many times in recent years after having fallen in love with her in 1993. There hasn't been a great Amanda Quick or Judith McNaught in several years either (most readers I know consider Perfect, published in 1993, to be her last great book. And for those who love Jude Deveraux, it's the same story, although her allure has always escaped me, so picking the book when she "jumped the shark" is more difficult. (Jumping the shark is the defining moment when a favorite television show peaked, named for that Happy Days episode when Fonzie waterski-jumped a shark.)
These are just a few big historical authors who are no longer auto-buys for me. Patricia Gaffney has gone the way of women's fiction (for that I'm actually thankful - I very much like her voice in women's fiction), and Laura Kinsale, whom I don't read, takes years between books. Other authors whom I've never particularly cared for, but whom have been reader favorites of many in the past have also, seemingly, passed their prime, including Karen Robards, Virginia Henley (although her new book did just receive a B- from us), and Bertrice Small, among others.
Let's go through some other major authors and see what's up with them:
There are newer stars like the ones we mentioned earlier this year in our column about buried treasures, but the old reliable authors just don't seem to be there anymore - at least not for me. It seems they've all moved on and left me behind. Some brand new authors have entranced me, but recently I heard that a favorite author of mine is without a contract for the first time in 12 years. She is one author who continues to put out terrific books, but she is by no a superstar, and to hear about her loss while forcing myself to slog through Maybe Baby was incredibly disheartening.
I think it's time for a shift for me - since the old "auto-buys" are no longer there for me, I must find new "auto-buys." I've tried to do that in a limited sense, but not whole-heartedly enough, apparently. The consistency I crave just isn't there. How has this been with you? Do you need to make a shift as well? How can we go about making this shift? Do we first need to simply come out and ask which romance authors have "jumped the shark," and which books took them on that fatal ride? Did Julie Garwood do it with Prince Charming in 1994? Did it happen with Mary Jo Putney before or after One Perfect Rose? Or at all?
The major sort of shift I'm talking about is made more difficult when going by synopses of books on sale; it seems the story lines and characters are getting more and more narrow. My co-columnist, Robin Uncapher, mentioned how many recent romances seem to pick and choose from a limited choice of options, like numbered dinners at the Chinese restaurant you ate at when you were a kid. So, where's a romance reader to turn?
For me, it's time to stop being, as my husband calls it, "a whiny tittie baby." I've simply got to accept that my old favorites just aren't writing favorites for me any more, and if I want to continue to read romance, it's time to clean the slate. I think I'd rather not read "the next Julie Garwood;" I'd rather read someone who seems completely fresh and new. Again, that's easier said than done - it seems to require starting all over again on the genre and basically forgetting what has come before. Does it need to be that drastic?
One of the forks in the romance road that I've noticed belongs to what our readers have termed "Brit chick lit." I read Bridget Jones's Diary earlier this year; it's the book many point to as the start of a new sub-genre to feature 20 to 30-something women and a strong dollop of romance.
With the recent success of the movie version of BJD, a thread to our Potpourri Message Board takes on particular resonance at this time. Reader Kimberly, who is excited about our upcoming ATBF (look for it on August 15th) devoted to Jane Austen as a branch of our romance family tree, asked the following:
"In the last decade we've seen several film and literary adaptations of Austen novels. The publishing of BJD, its sequel and the recent opening of the film adaptation has created an influx of Brit chick lit, much of which borrows liberally from Austen plots and characterization and indeed makes subtle and sometimes blatant allusions to the novels themselves.
"I must say that I've jumped on the bandwagon with this Brit chick lit craze. In the last week I've read Bad Heir Day by Wendy Holden, Making Minty Malone by Isabel Wolff, and Confessions of a Shopaholic by Sophie Kinsella. I've also read Amanda's Wedding by Jenny Colgan and Jemima J. by Jane Green. Although BJD still remains my favorite in the genre, I enjoyed the Kinsella and the Colgan very much.
"What I'm getting at here with this sampling of recent additions to the BJD variety of lit is that this publishing phenomenon has signaled both a retreat to the romantic ideals, and shall I say the quietly feminist ideas, of Jane Austen and a nod to the neurosis and angst of the modern woman.
"I somehow wonder if over the last two centuries whether or not her brand of feminism has been lost in the romanticized versions of her novels. For example, Bridget Jones in the film adaptation has trouble with her career and the hero is instrumental in providing the necessary assistance to pull them out of it. I suppose that in these modern Austenian tales the heroine is saved by the hero with the promise of a HEA and a career! The Austen heroines settled for the HEA and the lucky ones a nice estate to run.
"How does this popular new literary fiction (if loosely defined, that is) effect the average romance readers like us? I'd like to think that it simply offers us more variety. I'm very happy to have found this wealth of books to sample. It also reflects the here and now daily anxieties and romantic yearnings of many twenty-somethings (like myself) and thirty-somethings. Most contemporary romances - I'm thinking Nora Roberts to some extent and most category titles - don't have the pop culture references we find in the new chick lit novels. I suppose this makes them timeless in their own right.
"I, personally, find it easier to identify with the average chick lit heroine than the average contemporary romance heroine. The Mark Darcys and the Luke Brandons in the British chick lit are terribly appealing, however much they subvert the feminist message of the novels they appear in. I mean, really, did Prince Charming off Snow White the option of a career before they rode off into the sunset? No, that's the whole point. It's a fairy tale. And I'm willing to admint as a professional rare book librarian dedicated to my career that part of me is waiting for my Prince Charming (who looks and speaks something like Colin Firth, of course!) to sweep me of my feet. But I can make or break my own career, thank you very much!"
While I've not read many of these "Brit chick lit" books myself, I thoroughly enjoyed the "love triangle," as it were, between Bridget, her boss, and her very own Darcy in BJD. The ending, in fact, and I hope this isn't a spoiler at this point, when Mark comes back and sweeps Bridget off her feet after disappearing to apparently save the day, is incredibly romantic. It is also very similar to the wonderful ending of Tallie's Knight.
Rene, another reader who is not only a Pride and Prejudice but a BJD fan as well, responded to Kimberly by bringing up the HBO series Sex and the City, a show I've been hooked on since the very first episode. Mark’s helping Bridget’s career in the movie doesn’t bother Rene. As she sees it, "the fact that Mark Darcy helped her career is more a reflection on him as a character rather than her reliance upon it. Lets face it, even with his aid, her career is still not that great."
While Rene doesn't compare Brit chick lit to Sex and the City, she does point out that none of the four characters on that show need men to boost their careers, although three of the four are consistently looking for Mr. Right and an HEA. She likes the show but finds it sad that there is such an equation of men and happiness. She admits this is rather an odd comment coming from a romance reader, but adds, "heroines in romance novels usually don't have that edge of desperation."
Personally, I like the show for its irreverent outrageous attitude. Whenever Samantha, who uses men and spits 'em out like many men who are serial daters do, says or does something really outlandish, the interplay between her character and Charlotte, who is the most traditional of the group, is guaranteed to be lively. I find Carrie's character perhaps less interesting than Miranda's because Carrie seems to be able to land any man around without any effort at all. Miranda, on the other hand, is a very successful and abrasively cynical lawyer who a couple of weeks ago went on a relationship strike and ended up eating chocolate cake out of the garbage can. She seems more endearing to me than her three friends because she loses at love more often than anyone else. In this year's season opener, for instance, she attracted a hunky guy at her gym when she was all grunged out and they had a great first date. He thought her insecurity was sweet and sexy, but when they had their second date and she was confident because of his compliments, he got turned off.
In Rene's post, she also mentioned that Harlequin is apparently interested in the new sub-genre of fiction we've seen so often in England over the past few years, siting their upcoming "Red Ink" line. Red Ink is described thusly at Harlequin's web site:
"Urban women 20-something and up who are discovering themselves, sharing apartments, meeting men, struggling with jobs. These books are pragmatic, relevant, and have a unique tone: They show life as it is, but with a strong touch of humor, 'hipness,' and energy. Red Dress Ink books are about how single urban females really are. We see life in all its messy details - meddling moms, rivalries at work, unfaithful boyfriends. But driving the story is the heroine's development into a strong woman, supported by close friends. And if she finds love along the way, what a bonus! The style of writing is light, highly accessible, clever, funny, and full of witty observations. The dialogue is sharp and true-to-life. These are characters you can immediately identify with in a story you just can't put down!
"These books are Ally McBeal meets Sex and the City, Bridget Jones's Diary meets The Girls' Guide to Hunting and Fishing."
There have been some interesting threads on our message boards and canwetalk discussion list about the state of romance novels this year. It seems I'm not alone in being in a slump, although slump levels vary widely. The questions are - are we stuck back in the mid-1990's or have the authors lost it? Have they moved on and left us behind? Do we need to "get over it," as we often want to scream at heroes who continue to look for betrayal because of one bad experience, and find new authors to love? How do we go about doing that? Has there been a paradigm shift of major proportions, and do we, as readers, need to make a similar shift? Should we simply spend more time looking at off-shoots of traditional genre romance, such as Brit chick lit to satisfy our cravings?
Not long ago I realized in horror that there were tiny holes in several of the stacks of books I keep by my bed. Our new kitten, Baby, had apparently been teething on them. For someone who keeps her books in perfectly pristine shape, this was an awful discovery and Baby got in big trouble.
As a confirmed bookaholic, I'm used to my own odd behavior when it comes to books. I cringe whenever I watch my husband crack the spine of whatever paperback he's reading, and have lectured my daughter numerous times about not losing the jackets hardcovers come in. If you saw what she had done with the first four volumes of Harry Potter, you'd cringe too - I finally gave up and bought a second set which I am hiding in a closet, to give her as a gift many years in the future. Books are meant to be cherished, cared for, and look as though they've never been read, as far as I'm concerned. They should never be dog-eared, left open on the floor or table, or taken anywhere near water, unless they are a second or third copy, picked up at the UBS.
When I first started reading romance several years ago, I was oh-so-meticulous about organizing my books. Everything I bought was entered onto a database I created. I included a field for the title, the author's name, the publisher, the year published, whether or not it was part of a series (and I used a romance reference book for that), and what sub-genre it fit into. Then I would put the book away in alpha author order in the "unread" section of my personal library. When I finished the book, I added a grade, the date I'd read the book, and whether or not it was a keeper. The book would either then be put away in the "already read" section of my personal library or taken to the UBS for trade.
Every month when the new Romantic Times came out, I would pick which books to buy, check them against my database and reference book to make sure I didn't already have them or that they were or were not part of a series I was collecting, and then would create a computerized list to give to the bookstore for ordering.
I'm reminded of Phil Hartman's hilarious Anal Retentive Chef/Handyman skits from Saturday Night Live when I think about this, but, hey, everyone deserves at least one obession, right?
All this, of course, was what I used to do when I had the time to do it. Because I don't have that time anymore, things have gotten messy. Rather than one alphabetized library for my unread books, I have several, which makes looking for books difficult. With close to a thousand books unread and shelf space for only a third that many books, I have to stack them, one on top of each other instead of standing next to one another, which means that to do properly get things in order would take time I simply don't have. The result? I've bought some reissues at least twice, and have not bought some other titles because I kept thinking I'd already bought them.
About the best I can manage these days is using BYRON for the books I've already read. After I finish a book, I enter a grade for it on BYRON, and also indicate whether or not it's a book I'm keeping or trading. I also indicate the year I read the book - just because. Then the book either goes into the closet in my study, where my "already read" library is kept in alphabetical order or into a bag to be brought to the UBS for trade.
Because I am in a slump, I'm going to take some uninterrupted time - hey, I'm not reading anyway - to get my books in order. Having them every which way makes me feel uncomfortable, and if you knew my housekeeping skills, that would shock you. I am someone who invites people over to the house every month or so just because it forces me to straighten things up - other than that, it's pretty much "anything goes." But while you might find mismanaged mail in my kitchen or dustbunnies the size of puppies under my couch, you won't find mistreated books - well, except for those that Baby munched on. Whenever I take a sack of books to the UBS, the owner never fails to remark on how nice my books are. For some reason, I take great pride in that. We won't even get into why I keep all my Julie Garwoods in a decorative hatbox, although I have shared before that I keep a second set of certain favorites so I can lend them out without fear of them being kidnapped for good.
AAR Reviewer Jennifer Schendel was glad to know she's not the only anal romance reader around. She admits that some of her books are so well read that they fall open to certain passages while others are held together with rubber bands and tape from so many re-readings, but she tries valiantly to keep her books in mint condition. No dog-eared pages or notes in the margin for her. She struggled mightily in college when she had to underline textbooks. She groups books on her shelves by author and in chronological order.
While I'm not sure where my anal book behavior comes from, Jennifer can trace hers back to the first grade where it's tradition at Crest Hill Elementary the first week of school to take each new class to the library. The librarian would bring out a new book and an abused book and lecture the impressionable little kids on how to treat books. While Jennifer can't remember the librarian's name, she remembers her voice to this day - it was one of those that never had to be raised, that could make you feel guilty without much effort.
Jane Jorgenson, another AAR Reviewer, and one who also happens to be a librarian, says that she is another condition-obsessive reader. She admits to never lending a book to anyone unless she doesn't care how it comes back, and when she buys a book, she carefully examines several copies to determine that she's getting the "best" one. With well over a thousand books in her personal library, though, she's given up trying to truly organize them. AAR pollster Shelley Dodge, on the other hand, won't give up on this; she's saving for a new shelving system and looks forward to the day when she can "cuddle and organize all my books."
We have several librarians on our staff, including Rachel Potter, Nora Armstrong, and Ellen Micheletti, and if I could invite any of them over to my house for the weekend to help get my library in shape, I would! Rachel stands at the ready; she recently shared that she's not only obsessive about her books' condition, but their order as well. Apparently she's had her books in alphabetical order or by topic since she was a small child. She shudders when she visits her parents' house. They have a lot of interesting books but are stored by what her father calls the "cram method." She's offered to separate and classify them numerous times, but they have yet to take her up on her offer.
AAR Reviewer Maria K, on the other hand, fessed up to being a resident book-abuser, although she's not proud of it. She's a margin scribbler and has never figured out how to read a paperback without breaking the spine. She usually leaves them open on the floor, has been known to bend covers, and - horror of horrors - has allowed some of her books to get wet. She adds, "If books are holy to me it's because of the content, and it does not affect my enjoyment of the written word if the cover is bent. But I do hide the books in bad condition in the rows behind the visible rows on the bookshelf." And Mary N, who calls herself an "AAR heretic," is another book abuser among us. She loves to read in the tub and says that all of her favorites are waterlogged. Then there is Andrea Pool, who recently signed off in this way, "Hi, my name is Andrea, and I abuse books."
What are your own book obsessions? How big is your TBR stack? Do you treat books with a reverent touch or do they have that well-loved appearance of the Velveteen Rabbit? Do you keep track of the books you read, and, if so, do you use a high-tech or low-tech method? And, how many experiences have you had like the following: someone comes into your house, takes a look around, and with eyes as big as saucers, asks, "Do you really read all those books?"
You may have noticed that this is the shortest ATBF we've had in a long time. Since I'm not only burned out in terms of reading romance but am burned out writing about it, it seems the perfect time to talk about what I'm going through and leave it at that. We have a lot of good stuff coming up here - Robin will continue the discussion of romance slumps and wherein the true problem lies the next time around, and on August 15th you can expect our Jane Austen ATBF. There may or may not be an August 1st issue of ATBF - we haven't taken a break from this column at all this calendar year, and hopefully absence will make all your hearts grow fonder. And, hopefully, by the time I'm back from my vacation to England and Wales in mid-August, I'll be out of my slump and ready to go again here. If not, we'll see; my trip diary may be the last bit of writing you'll see from me for some time to come.
Time to Post to the Message Board
Here are the questions we'd like to have you consider this time:
Romance Reading Slumps - What's the longest and/or biggest romance reading slump you've ever had? How did you get out of it? Did being in a slump frighten you? Are you in one now? If yes, how long has it lasted? Are Your "Auto-Buys" Still Worth It? - Have you noticed, insidiously, that some or many of your automatic buys haven't really been worth it lately? Have you found new auto-buys to replace them? Who has fallen off your list and whom have you added? If you haven't added replacements, why do you think that is? Brit Chick Lit - Have you gotten caught up in reading Brit Chick Lit like many of our readers and review staff? Though it doesn't follow all the rules of genre romance, is it filling a void for you? What do you like about it? What is lacking in it? Time for a Paradigm Shift? - Are those of us who are longing for old favorites simply being whiny tittie babies at this point? Do we need to give up on favorites who haven't been in reality favorites for some time? Do we need to clean the slate and start completely over? Is reading "the next Julie Garwood" really as good as reading Julie Garwood originally was? If we want to continue to read romance, should we simply change our expectations? Jumping the Shark? - Which romance authors have "jumped the shark," and what book took them on that fatal ride? Are others in danger of getting on that waterski with Fonzie? If so, which ones are close? And, are there any which have jumped and yet managed to come back? The Anal Retentive Romance Reader - Do you cringe in horror if you see someone crack a spine of a book or turn down the corner of a page? Do you rejoice in a well-read book? Are you an anal retentive romance reader or a book abuser? Share your crimes and/or obessions with us. Readers Rave About Their Libraries - How do you keep track of your books - either unread or already read? How many books do you have to be read? How do you store your books? As we first did back in 1997, let's rave about our libraries!
Here are the questions we'd like to have you consider this time:
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