Being Picky About Romances

From Pamela, the first English romance!
I'm a big believer that any genre, topic, hobby, however monolithic it may look to an outsider, appears
riddled with differences to the insider. Granted, I'm preaching a given here. But fans are more likely to defend this principle with their beloved "whatevers" than with someone else's beloved "whatevers".

Case in point: a conversation I had in my master's program when I argued that country music is just as wide-ranging as classical music. The professor grinned at me (he had proposed that country music all sounds the same; I pointed out that many country music lovers think classical music all sounds the same) and said, "Oh, you like country music!"

"No," I said, which is true. I like Reba as a singer, but actually, country music all sounds the same to me. And so does classical music. I just know that fans see extreme differences within their genre of choice.

Romances are another case in point. Here are my entirely personal criteria regarding paperback romances which I do not see as all the same:

1. The romance has to be well-written. 

This is actually not as big an eliminator as critics sometimes imagine. Your average paperback romance writer has a decent grasp of language and style. In general, genre writers have more skill (and get more practice at writing) than supposed literary writers.

2. It can't take place in Scotland, the Wild, Wild West, or the Middle Ages.

I also read few contemporary romances. But that's not an established criteria (yet).

Any historical romances I read must start around the 1700s and end around the 1900s; everything else is too cold (Scotland), too scratchy (Wild, Wild West), or both (Middle Ages).

Subsequently, I read a lot of Regency romances.

3. It has to be historically plausible.

Not accurate--because let's face it, not many fiction books are. And I don't mind some anachronisms. However, I dislike historical romances where the setting is just that: just setting. Like little kids playing dress-up, the characters could be anywhere--the rules and problems and expectations of THIS society don't matter.

Considering my own aversion to setting, I may sound kind of hypocritical here--but hey, a need for historical plausibility is why I generally avoid writing historical fiction! And when I do, I research the time period and place to the nth degree. And I try to remember that my characters are bound by certain limitations. 

An indifference to the potential conflict of an accurate Regency setting is a recurrent problem with chick-lit historical romances; the female characters are way, way too flippant and modern.

4. The plot needs to focus on the growth of the relationship, not on the final declaration of love.

Again, too many chick-lit novels focus on the latter, not the formal. Even if the characters sleep together, the end of the novel feels like the first date. Oh, now, we love each other; I guess we should go out. 

What is the rest of a chick-lit novel about? Mix-ups. Misunderstandings. Misappraisals. Misery. "He loves me. He loves me not. He loves me. He loves me not."


A sub-set of this type of novel is the heroine versus the other woman, both vying for the hero's attention. It's downright tiresome.

If I'm going to read a romance, I'm doing it because I want romance--to watch the couple figure each other out, learn to enjoy each other's company, forgive each other if necessary, etc. Sure, there has to be conflict, but this is Scully-Mulder conflict, stuff that draws people closer together, not "I thought he went out with my cousin, so I decided to pay him back by dating his best friend" pointlessness. (For a good example of romance, not ridiculous soap opera, check out Finch and Grace--played by Emerson's real life wife Carrie Preston--in Person of Interest.)

A Heyer "rake" novel: it is very funny,
but I prefer Heyer's Venetia (see below)
since I don't really believe in Dominic's
reformation at the end of this novel.
Consequently, I'm actually quite fond of the "reformed rake" motif because it forces some kind of personal growth. Of course, it helps if the writer . . .

5. Exhibits some understanding of human nature. 

Instant reformation doesn't work anymore than instant forgiveness or instant understanding.

The most common problem with romances (though an understandable one) is the same problem faced by mystery writers: a series of things MUST happen in order for the plot to unfold; how does the writer get those things to happen without completely distorting the characters' fundamental personalities?

When I first started out with romances--the read-and-discard part of whittling down preferences--I encountered a number of "Ooooh, I hate the domineering hero with his sultry looks and pushy ways. Oh, wait, in this one scene, I guess I totally understand him. No, he actually makes me SOOOO mad. Oh, look, he helped a puppy. I guess I love him."

Insert rolling-of-eyes.

As Jane Austen shows, the move from (imagined) aversion to (true) affection is possible and delightful. But Austen does it carefully (far more carefully and cleverly than the light tone of Pride & Prejudice suggests). Darcy and Elizabeth always behave within the probabilities of their personalities. (So do Pamela and Mr. B; unfortunately, Mr. B's initial crime of kidnapping kind of overshadows all the other hints that Samuel Richardson gives about his personality.)

Some Romances with Reformed Rakes 

Classic: Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte: the beginning and end are more biographical fiction, but the middle focuses on Jane and Rochester's growing relationship. Rochester isn't really a rake, but Jane doesn't know that.

Sweet--"Straw Into Gold" by Vivian Vande Velde, one of the best, sweetest short stories ever written; can be found in The Rumpelstiltskin Problem. The main male character isn't a rake but, rather, a classic fairytale villain re-envisioned.

Mild--Georgette Heyer's Venetia which focuses very nicely on the relationship between the heroine and reformed rake. The heroine is also refreshing (even for Heyer) since she is innocent but not coyly innocent.

Spicy--Deanna Raybourn's Julia Grey suspense series. These are interesting from a romance perspective because the kissing scenes are, in fact, far less detailed than even in Heyer. But they are written in such a way to imply a great deal of spiciness; it is cleverly done. The books are not as focused on the relationship as I like--the suspense takes center stage--but at least the hero and heroine work together. The hero isn't exactly a rake, but he does have baggage.

Hot--The Changeover: teen contemporary fantasy romance with dangerous male witch hero.

Steamy--Devil in Winter by Lisa Kleypas: Regency setting, plausible reformed rake.

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