Can a Genre Die?

Courtesy of Wikicommons

Courtesy of Wikicommons

My little corner of the writer’s world was all in a tizzy last week after an article published at Dear Author that suggested that the Historical Romance genre be allowed to die.

Oh horror!

Of course, when you read the article you see that what the author of Dear Author was getting at is that right now there are just so many Regency novels out there with plots that feel stale and recycled, that it’s time to move on to something else. I believe her argument is that if Historical Romance has nothing more to offer than Regency after Regency, everyone will get bored and go home.

Compounding that problem are the cringe-worthy reports from some of my author friends that the traditional publishing agency is caught between disinterest in signing new authors who write Regency, but being unwilling to take a gamble on non-Regency authors, especially new authors, because Historical Romance in general just isn’t selling right now. Of course, there are exceptions to every rule, but from what I’ve seen this seems to be more true than not.

Again, oh horror!

On a personal note, it really irks my taters that we authors are told over and over to write what we love, to write what we want to read, and to stay true to ourselves on the one hand, but also told that what we love and what we want to write won’t sell on the other. Way to give mixed messages, publishing world! And of course I personally feel as though it’s all so much blustering to begin with.

I’m in the middle of running a promotional special for my Western Historical Romance Our Little Secrets (which is free just about everywhere right now – have you got yours?), which means I’ve been obsessing over charts and rankings and ratings. Well, I’ll tell you this much, Romance is still pretty much the top-seller in terms of genre fiction, but Historical Romance accounts for about a third of the books on the top charts. But when you’re “only” a third of the genre that is dominating, is that really a failure?

But I digress.

woman readingBack to Dear Author’s comment. Should Historical Romance be allowed to die?

I think that’s the wrong question to ask. The far more interesting question, to me at least, is “Can a genre die?”

Now let’s think about this for a second. The literary form known as a novel has been around, in theory, since Robinson Crusoe was published in 1719. That’s close to 300 years’ worth of novels. At the time that Robinson Crusoe – and 7 years later in 1726 Gulliver’s Travels – was published, biographies were all the rage. Up until Robinson Crusoe these biographies were true stories, albeit dramatized. What Daniel Defoe did that was so revolutionary was to write a fictitious biography. So did Jonathan Swift. But people believed they were true, at least for a while. But that’s a different story. Many, many more fictitious biographies followed, and over time they morphed into a more narrative structure.

So did the genre of biography, fictitious or otherwise, die? Not really. I mean, how many of the most popular books on the market today are first-person narratives? I can think of several right off the top of my head.

In the mid-19th century, folks like Dickens made the serialized novel an art form. Literary journals were sought-after prizes. They were also a dime a dozen. Some of the great works of the English language were first published this way, bound into volumes after the fact. Even in the mid-20th century, literary magazines full of short stories were still popular.

Do we see serialized stories and literary magazines today? Oh sure! In fact, a lot of authors are once again experimenting with the concept of serialization, especially now that digital publishing has grown so prominent.

What about Romance?

Barbara Cartland - Now that's what a Romance writer should look like! Courtesy of Wikicommons

Barbara Cartland – Now that’s what a Romance writer should look like!
Courtesy of Wikicommons

Wherever you mark the beginning of the genre, whether with Jane Austen or the Brontes or with the likes of Georgette Heyer and Barbara Cartland, Romance pretty much started out as Historical. In the 1980s you couldn’t go more than three inches in the Romance section of the bookstore without falling all over Histories. When I first started reading Romance in high school in the late 80s, early 90s it was all pirates all the time (at least for me).

Nowadays, what do we have? Well, for the last few years we’ve had a glut of vampires, werewolves, and, for a while, angels. Right now it seems to be all about billionaires who are into BDSM (and I repeat, oh horror!).

So does that mean that Historical Romance is or should be dead?

Of course not!

In case you haven’t guessed what I think by now, genres don’t die. There will always be stories to tell in every genre, in every facet of every genre. Are there a lot of Regencies out there on the market right now? You better believe it! Are they tired and overdone? Well, some of them. But I don’t think it’s the time period. I think it’s the plot.

Like I said, I’ve been obsessing over charts since I’m running this promotion of Our Little Secrets, and part of that involved reading the blurb for about 50 books. Sadly, a very, very large proportion of them had the exact same description: Years ago, hero offended heroine and missed his chance with her. Now, independent heroine has sworn to be independent and never to fall for a handsome face again. Hero must make amends for his past wrongs and win heroine.

About a quarter of the blurbs I read fit this model. And guess what, folks? They were from all sub-genres, including Contemporary. It’s not a History problem.

So, since we’ve established that a genre can’t die, what do we do to bring out little piece of the dream back to the top of the bestseller lists? My answer is that we keep track, we pay attention, and we pass on writing plots that have already been told and focus on coming up with original ideas. Sooooo much easier said than done, right? Sure it is. But one key to making a stab at writing an original idea – in any time period, even Regency – is to read each other’s work and be aware of what’s being written. I sometimes wonder if the same ideas are popping up over and over because we writers are not paying attention to our peers. Just a thought.

And of course, it wouldn’t be me if I didn’t make a plug for self-publishing. After all, if the industry is dragging their feet in getting stories from a lot of different time periods out there, why not take up the torch and do it yourself? In my experience as a reader and as a writer, all it takes is a well-written book and it doesn’t matter when it’s set. Write well and you will have an audience.

So what do you think about dying genres and resurrection? Can we bring Historical Romance back? What will it take?

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23 thoughts on “Can a Genre Die?

  1. My favorite point is that they say write something unique and we’ll buy it — not quite true. You write your dream novel and then they don’t know how to sell it so won’t buy it. There are too many conflicting thoughts being tossed out to the authors. I write historicals that are set in the west right after the gold rush. My stories aren’t westerns, but because they are set west of the Mississippi River, according to a well-known editor, they are considered westerns. The theory is that life is a hardship and that makes it a western?? I am sorry, I fight it. I write historical west PERIOD. I found an editor who likes my stories so I can continue to write them. I love historicals. I ask people what their favorite genre is – historicals. When they told us everyone wanted to read erotica, I asked people and they said they wouldn’t read an erotica. It gets so confusing after a while that I decided to just stick to my historical west stories and let it go at that. Whether they sell or not, I am writing from my heart and that makes me happy.

    • I love that attitude, Paisley! Keep doing what you love, no matter what. That’s a large part of the reason why I self-publish. And I hope that as the publishing world changes, we have a greater and greater ability to write what we love AND to see it in the hands of readers. Thanks!

  2. Well done, Merry. I fully agree with you. I also keep hearing that the Western Historical doesn’t sell. While I’m not on the NY Times Best Seller list, my western historicals do okay. Well enough for me to make PAN with both a self pubbed book and one with my publisher. My February 8th release, Emma’s Journey (a wagon train story) stayed in the top ten for hot new releases the entire time it was on the list. Well written good stories, whatever the genre, will sell. Today Vampires rule, Tomorrow, who knows? But as far as I’m concerned, historicals will always be a selling genre.

    • I agree, Callie. It sort of makes me wonder what standards are being used to measure whether a book is successful.

      Congratulations on PAN, btw, whether that was long ago or not. I technically qualify right now thanks to my Medieval books, I just haven’t gotten around to doing the paperwork. It’s all just proof that writing what we are passionate about DOES sell.

  3. Wonderful post, Merry. I think it’s important for everyone to remember that though historical romance may no longer dominate the romance market, 1/3 market share doesn’t exactly spell extinction. With all the methods we now have to get books into the hands (or devices) of readers, I’m not worried. Tell a great story and readers will find it.

    • Thanks, Ally. Yeah, like I said, I really do wonder what standards some people consider a success. There will always be people who want to read Historical Romance. And you never know, there will undoubtedly be a day when it is on top again.

  4. Terrific article, Merry! I personally think that one of the problems with Regency romance is that the social conventions of the time were so restrictive. If you’re going to write a Regency that’s believable and has characterization that’s realistic to that time period, you have characters who are more or less penned in by the rules. I’ve never been able to write Regency, even when it was the hottest thing around, because I simply can’t wrap my head around a heroine who plays by the rules. I love the Victorian era, American Civil War, Gilded Age, and, of course, Westerns. I’d also love to write something set during World War II and the Jazz Age…all of these eras were times when women were breaking free of convention and breaking rules, which in my opinion, makes for a much more interesting heroine and story.

    • Thanks Tara! You kind of hit the nail on the head of what I hope to do with my career too: write in many different time periods. I do enjoy the Regency, but those constraints make me a little wary of writing in it (although, yes, I do have a series that more or less qualifies as Regency in the works, but with a twist). Besides, History has so much to offer that it would be a shame to settle for just one era.

  5. I totally agree with the post–a couple of historical notes, though. Stories told around campfires and in longhouses or centuries were technically historical fiction–lots of them what would be called ‘Historical paranormals’ in todays market: For Pete’s sake, how many cultures’ folktales begin with some version of ‘Once upon a Time?’ They deal with giants, dragons and other assorted monsters, hopeless loves with tragic or exalted endings–did you know there was an ancient version o Cinderella in which a hawk steals a woman’s sandal while she’s bathing at an oasis and drops it into Pharaoh’s lap, so he sets out to find her, and the rest, as they say…?

    Stories capture our imaginations and open our minds to other possibilities. There seem to have been “Historical” romances as far back as racial memory. (How about Hero and Leander, for one? Even in classical Greece, that was set in a pseudo-historical past.) So is it any wonder our imaginations are swept away by tales of the past? Or the future? or alternative worlds and realities?

    Keep writing your own stuff. Stay true to your muse. I would say, ‘Do your research,’ but then there was that ridiculous Heath Ledger movie…

    • That’s a really good point about old legends and myths being Historical Romance. They really were.

      And funny that you mention “that ridiculous Heath Ledger movie” (which I happen to love). I modeled the style of my Medieval Romance series (The Noble Hearts – *points to the right*) on the style of that film. I love the deliberately anachronistic, hip, modern music playing in the background flair that A Knight’s Tale had. And yes, I’ve been dinged for it by reviewers who didn’t “get” that that’s what I was going for. But others have caught on and loved it. So much comes down to personal taste, but that’s not going to stop me from writing what I want the way I want to write it.

  6. Oh Merry, this is such a good article! My take on all of this is that with the advent of digital publishing the old saying of write a great story will now work! We writers just need to listen to our hearts, write what’s in our heart, get great critique buddies and an excellent editor and we can do just about anything now.

  7. I don’t know, Merry. I write American Civil War and Victorian romances because that’s the era I love and know the most about. But I can’t seem to find a wide enough audience for the genre I love. An editor advised me to try contemporary and I’m considering it, but haven’t started on a new WIP just yet. Still waiting to hear on my latest submission–a post Civil War romance.

    • In all honesty, I’m a little uncomfortable with the idea of an editor telling a Historical Romance writer to “try contemporary”. To me that’s sort of like saying “Your nose isn’t quite right, have you thought of getting a nose job?” Sure, people do, but at what personal cost? I’ve attempted some contemporaries myself and they never seem to work, very possibly because my mind just doesn’t operate that way. But that’s just me. In the end I guess it all comes down to what your goal is in writing and what your personal measure of success is. I say write what you love and look for a way that makes it work for you.

  8. When I went to BEA, the huge publishing conference last year, no one buying paranormals, not even those houses who published them almost exclusively. Regencies, we discovered were down. However, 1-2 years previously they were up. As one of the senior editors at Random House said, “Regency is bread and butter. It will always be with us.”

    That said, yes I have run across some plot lines from CPs to published authors that are very similar. I think it’s just something in the air. Or maybe they all saw the same movie or TV show. These things happen. The publishing industry has it’s ups and downs. Many wonderful books are never published because marketing can’t figure out how to do their jobs. But we still continue to march. Tweeted.

    • Thanks for the tweet, Ella! I totally believe in that “something in the air” concept. I think a lot of it is subconcious and that there’s something we’re all seeing that settles into our writing before we know it. That’s why I think it’s so important to be on top of what’s going on in our genre. We should all be reading to support each other and ourselves!

    • Good point, Susana! I should have specified that Robinson Crusoe is the first novel in English. Although there’s also a LOT of debate about that too. In fact, it’s sort of inaccurate to pick out just one book and call it the first novel. But for the most part, scholars generally go with Robinson Crusoe as the first English-language novel. Thanks for pointing that out!

  9. Great post. I know sometimes when I tell people I write romance novels they act like I’ve said I stomp on baby bunnies. Romance is 51% of the entire literary market both fiction and non-fiction. Knowing that how can historicals be dead?

    I also enjoyed the part about reading blurbs. I think I will try that. Thanks for sharing.

    • Thanks Morgan! Ooo, and don’t get me started on the lack of respect that some people give to Romance authors! Some of the most talented and original authors I know write Romance!

  10. Historical romance dead or dying? Never! Not as long as we keep writing them . . . and reading them. I write western historical romances with an aura of the supernatural. Are they unique? I hope so, but even if they aren’t it my voice, my writing style that should make them stand out in the crowd. I believe that’s what every author ought to strive for . . . and let the genres surge and recede as they will. Historicals will not die because history just keeps on keepin’ on. There will always be people who want to read and learn about other periods.

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  12. I am arriving late to your wonderful post, but just want to echo other commenters in applauding your use of literary history to tackle the debate about historicals in romance! As for westerns, I just recently realized that all the ones I really love are actually also historicals… ;-)

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