After a small hiatus from the genre, I started reading romance novels again in December, and I have some new thoughts.
The reason for my burnout: the constraints of the genre had palled. Instead of soothing through familiarity, they scraped across my nerves because of their sameness. I found myself skimming over scenes of first meetings, scenes of realization, scenes of sexual intimacy–skimming in novels by authors whose work I love, whose prose is skilled and creative. Everything began to seem clichéd.
I was overcome by ennui. I went through my To Be Read boxes and culled a couple of dozen romance novels I’d acquired but not yet read. Then I drew out some recent novels by favorite authors and moved them to the top of the pile, in the hope of reigniting my interest; I also pulled out some classics I hadn’t yet read. (One exception was the new Marjorie Liu novel, which I read almost immediately after purchase. I think, in my mind, her romances skew more towards science fiction/fantasy; for me they weren’t subject to my burnout.)
From the Oxford English Dictionary definition of cliché:
a. fig. A stereotyped expression, a commonplace phrase; also, a stereotyped character, style, etc.
b. Used as adj. Stereotyped, hackneyed.
I revived my interest in Romance with older novels by Patricia Gaffney (Crooked Hearts) and Anne Stuart (Devil’s Waltz). What I found engaging about the two novels is how strongly the authors’ voices were present in both the way the stories were written and in the progress of the stories themselves. While remaining firmly within genre boundaries, both authors used humor and specificity of detail, in their own particular ways, to enliven their stories. Both novels were rich in unforced banter arising from characterization that did not feel pasted on. Both novels took unexpected turns, which is tricky when you have to follow an overall romantic arc.
Also, both novels had a sort of meta-commentary on Romance as a concept, whether directly or indirectly. Whether in internal monologue or dialogue, the protagonists of the Gaffney and Stuart novels reacted against societal expectations of what romance ought to be. For example, in Crooked Hearts: “Unhand me, I said.” Hazily, she wondered why she was talking like a heroine out of Sir Walter Scott. In addition, both hero and heroine are atypical; they are criminals. In Devil’s Waltz, the hero is an atypical representative of the Rake stereotype because he maintains his self-centered behavior throughout almost the entire novel, instead of instantly shedding his Rake behavior as soon as he meets the heroine. Stuart invites the reader to be in on her joke.
I think that’s a way to make it work, the way to explore overwhelmingly common ideas without losing the reader’s interest: imbue the hackneyed with unique individual detail that comes from your own personality, not mechanically, but organically. It works for description, it works for characterization, and it works on a larger scale.
Another thought I had is that these were both older books, so their genre constraints were a little different from books that are coming out now. Totally aside from these being books written by skilled authors, these books felt different because they were different. I had enough distance from their conventions that they felt new to me.
For that reason, I’m finally reading Laura London’s The Windflower for the first time, widely acknowledged to be a classic. More on that later.