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.
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.
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?
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?