No Thanks, I’ve Had Enough

donotwant 80.jpgThere’s lots to enjoy about romance novels.  The arc of character development.  The layered emotional content.  The rare and welcome sense of success (otherwise known as the happy ending).  A good romance novel is a singular pleasure. 

A bad one, on the other hand, can be excruciating. 

That said, I’m not going to use this column to slag a particular romance novel.  That badly spelled, troll-like niche is overfilled with one-star reviews on Amazon.  And outside of obvious cases of poor writing, ‘bad’ can be subjective.  Just yesterday I was searching for reviews about a new writer whose work has delighted me.  The reviews ranged from “Utterly brilliant!’ to “Meh” – sometimes even about the same scenes.  Besides, I know lots of romance writers, and many of them know where I live.  So instead I’ll look to the general, and take aim at trends.

Architecture;  music;  food;  wallpaper patterns:  all creative endeavours have trends.  Romance is no exception.  Occasionally a trend will grow past its boundary and become a  subgenre in its own right.  Other trends, thankfully, are left behind.  Some trends are mini-skirts and some are stirrup pants.  What follows is a selection of some of the major romance trends in recent years that I’d like to see put into storage.  

The Scottish Romance:   Let’s get this straight: I love Scotland.  The first time I saw the hills of Inverness, I couldn’t sleep for happiness.  A story set against the backdrop of epic Jacobian disaster can be moving and mythic.  But I think we’ve hit the saturation point of bad Sean Connery imitations masquerading as dialogue.  Writers need to do more than hit the marks of plaid, heather and brogue.  Being Scottish is not a plot.   

The Vampire Romance
:   I talked about this a while back and still think a good vampire romance can explore issues of sex and death and loss in a unique way.  Unfortunately, this trend is being sucked dry of what made it so popular.  The very real darkness at the core of the vampire mythos is being replaced by the appearance of it.  And so the endless sorrow of yesterday’s vampire has become the angst of today’s Goth.  Sigh.

catDoNot 250.jpgThe Doctor/Nurse Romance: Once extremely popular, this trend has settled into a quiet corner. It’s still one of my personal peeves, though I’m aware I may be alone in my annoyance.  Many romance writers began their reading careers on doctor-and-nurse books, and that first love stays with you.  Romance publishing giant Harlequin got its start with medical romances.  But really, by 2008 can’t at least half the doctors be female (and half the nurses male)?

The Overreaching Paranormal
:  I read the back cover blurb of a book that featured a vampire/werewolf hybrid, along with, I think, a centaur, some sort of fairy, and a Valkyrie.  I didn’t get around to reading page one.  As longtime fantasy reader, I appreciate the legitimization of the paranormal romance – this trend is a definitely a mini-skirt – but a little restraint, please.  Mythic traditions aren’t herbs to be tossed in by the handful.  Development is key.

The Cowboy’s Bride’s Secret Baby
:   Several years ago, category romance publishers noticed that the most popular books in any given month tended to feature either: A) cowboys, B) brides,  or C) secret babies. You can imagine what happened next.  This trend is over, thank goodness.  Funny thing is, even the writers hated it.  The phrase still floats around writers forums, though, as a term of contempt… and as a testament to the power of the marketing departments.


    Chris Szego used to own a pair of yellow stirrup pants.  Then she graduated from junior high.

6 replies »

  1. What if the cowboy’s bride’s secret baby is really a vampire because the bride had an affair in Inverness with a doctor who was actually a demon-lover–say James Harris–straight out of a demon-lover ballad?
    There would be plenty of flashbacks between 1880 and 1780 as the doctor reflected on his past bleeding people in the highlands. At the climax, the cowboy could choose love over pride and confront the demon with his bowie knife, a la Quincy Morris in Dracula. Or am I just causing trouble?


  2. “And so the endless sorrow of yesterday’s vampire has become the angst of today’s Goth.”
    Just wanted to say that this is an epic line.


  3. It’s interesting to see (for me anyways) how the romance field has embraced the fantasy/science fiction/horror tinge. Respect among equals? And I’m always curious to see what makes a trend durable – surely the vampire romance should be beaten to death by now! – and what makes it fade away. I seem to recall more of a buzz around the romance/science fiction crossing a few years ago… is that still going?


  4. It used to be canonical thought that ‘paranormal’ = ‘zero sales’. This didn’t stop many romance writers from producing some. Sadly, most of them did tank. Jayne Ann Krentz, a genre giant, nearly sank her career with futuristic romances.
    In this, as in so many other things, Nora Roberts may have paved the way. She wrote both time-travel and magical fantasy books, for category publisher Silhouette. You have to understand, if paranormals were frowned upon by single title publishers, they were absolutely unthinkable in category publishing. Nora wrote ’em anyway. Lo and behold, readers loved them (this was before she was OMG!NORA!).
    And Carol: the worst of the cowboy/bride/baby trend was that it also often involved amnesia. (upon the part of the bride or the cowboy – a baby with amnesia would be redundant). Honestly, it was as if the entire southwest was populated with people in either Stetsons or bridal gowns carrying babies and saying “Who am I?” Ugh.


  5. Hi Chris,
    Thanks for the piece. Much snorting of beverage out of nose ensued during reading (Carol’s comment did not help matters). The paranormal romance thing is interesting to me, because it seems like there are so many romance elements in sci-fi and horror fiction that often go unrecognized. The one big example I can think of is Anne Rice. I mean, what is Interview with a Vampire but a romance, except with a man as the seducee?
    I was at a feminist sci-fi convention recently, WisCon, and an author mentioned that she loved paranormal romances, but found she much prefered the ones shelved in sci-fi or speculative fiction rather than the romance section. Aside from some obvious anti-romance prejudice, do you think her preference reflects different genre expections?


  6. It’s likely, Weed. In SFF, the romantic element is usually a subplot; in Romance, it’s the whole deal. That’s part of why Laurell K. Hamilton had such a reader shift over the course of her writing career: she went from dark fantasy with a romantic/erotic subplot to erotica with remnants of a tiny dark fantasy plot.
    But you’re definitely right that there are many, many romantic elements in SF/F/Horror. Readers are humans, and we humans like to read about relationships. Good ones, bad ones; ones both like and unlike any we’ve ever experienced.


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