Contemporary Clichés

RB-0811836428-LgI’ve got my cranky pants on today.

First of all, I’ve always loved contemporary romance.  And there are many – many – writers of contemporary romance I love.  Really love.  Welcome to Temptation is my touchstone for all that is perfect in contemporary storytelling.

Still, I’ve been burned a bit lately and I could use a little help in identifying the books I want to read.

In historical romance, we’ve got handy code words to help readers know what they’re going to get when they open a book:  Wallpaper or Not Wallpaper.  Though some may define what constitutes a true Wallpaper a bit differently, I think most of us would agree that we know one when we see it.  (Clue:  If a 19th century heroine uses “whatever” as a snotty response, you’re looking at a Class A Wallpaper.)

In contempories, however, we’re swinging out there in the breeze.  There’s no way to tell between a …say, a Rachel Gibson-smart small town book or a “contemporary” romance featuring a setting straight from the turn of the century.  And I’m talking the 20th century.

You know the books I’m talking about.  The ones where nobody from said small town seems to have had any exposure to television, newspapers, radio, or even American Idol, for heaven’s sake.  And the Internet?  Gosh golly, I’d bet even Ma and Pa down at the farm have dial up these days.

And then there are those books that feature parents of the hero or heroine who are in their 40s or 50s but seem to bear more resemblance to Grandma and Grandpa Walton then any 40 or 50 year-olds I know.

And the ethnic stereotypes.  Italian mothers (in their 40s or 50s, BTW) who haven’t graduated beyond the “my daughter is nothing without marriage” thing and seem to spend all their spare time making pasta.  Irish mothers who say “faith and begora” as if they’d just arrived from Ireland when, in most cases, we’re looking at least at second generation Americans.

What I’m talking about here are clichés based on 1950s TV sitcoms.

And I really mean that.  Leave It To Beaver stereotypes persist.  And, while I haven’t yet come across a book with a malt shop scene, I am convinced it is only a matter of time until I do.

Contemporary romance has been gaining in popularity over the past year or so and it’s a development I’m happy to see.  Still, there is just no way to tell if a book is going to feature a 50 year-old Grandma Walton as the mother of the heroine or a real woman who acts like…well, a real woman of today.  Because, while I’ve had it up to here with the 1950s clichés, I’m always looking for new contemporary authors to try.

So, back to the reason for my rant.  I think we need a code word to identify “contemporary” romances that aren’t.  Contemporary that is.  Any ideas?

- Sandy AAR

35 thoughts on “Contemporary Clichés

  1. The first thing that sprang to my mind was the movie Stepford Wifes, so why not call these pseudo-contemporaries “Stepford contemporaries”

  2. I’m so in agreement about the Italian and Irish stereotypes in contemporaries. I gave up reading Deirdre Martin because of this despite her strong writing skills and sports romance plots which I usually love.

    I also have another complaint about “modern” contemporaries and that’s the alpha bordering on sexist “bulldozer” heroes. You know, the heroes that always know what’s best for the heroine and know what she wants before she does. And I’m very conflicted about these guys, because Kleypas’s Jack Travis walks the fine line on this and I still voted him favorite hero of the year in the AAR poll. I love Christina Dodd’s alpha heroes in the Governess series but I can’t read them in her contemporaries anymore.

    On the small-town topic: I appreciate a good small-town romance as a comfort read, but I expect that they should also deliver on an emotional level with problems that the readers can relate to and Robyn Carr’s Virgin River series seems to do this with every book. But, on the other hand, I also want to read about larger than life characters and glamourous settings. I find that Kleypas and SEP deliver the best combination these characters and settings with the pop culture references and emotion to keep them relatable.

  3. “Mayberry contemporaries”?

    I’ve given up on most contemporary romances because of this issue – Small Towns as bastions of Norman Rockwell purity, where everyone is a WASP and wimminfolk know their only job is cooking and babies.

    • JMM: “Mayberry contemporaries”?

      I love this one, JMM. “Mayberry” is an all-encompassing description of what Sandy is referring to, I think.

  4. I don’t read as many contemporaries as I do historicals and I think it’s largely because of what you mention. I just couldn’t relate to people who seemed to think they were living in 1950.

    Interestingly enough, though, I’m seeing more modern references in inspy contemporaries than mainstream ones lately. The sexual mores are very different, but then again so are the values of much of the Christian inspy audience. However, I’ve been reading inspys where people send each other text messages, have gay friends with actual developed personalities who are not props or tokens, listen to music I would actually listen to in 2010, dress in something other than what my mom wore in the 1980s, have tattoos (gasp!) or hold down jobs other than just being a billionaire. It’s relatable and I find it refreshing.

  5. You make a strong point on bringing modern sensibilities into contemporary novels. On the other hand, I have a problem with pop culture references thrown in without relevancy just for the sake of modernity. Too many musician/fashion/movie references tends to date a book, and limit its appeal across time. There’s a reason so many characters listen to the Beatles and like Cary Grant– people will always like the Beatles and Cary Grant, whereas opinions on Ke$ha and booties (or even “shooties”) may shift in five or ten years. I know I frequently get pulled out of contemporaries that are even 7 or 8 years old; the mentions of pre-breakdown Britney and the obsession with Winona Ryder don’t quite fit with contemporary pop-culture, even if the role of women in the workplace, family, or town are still accurate.

    Also– what does Mayberry mean/refer to? I’ve never heard of it.

    • Jane AAR: Also– what does Mayberry mean/refer to?I’ve never heard of it.

      It was the fictional place where the Andy Griffith show took place. That was never a favorite of mine, but it was a well-known show. Can I really be that old, or is the show old, or are you really that young, Jane? It’s probably yes to all those questions, but it truly doesn’t feel as though it’s been that long ago. I see reruns of it when skipping thru the channels with the remote.

      I’ve attached a link from Wikipedia that explains it a bit further without going into too much detail. It was basically a slice of easy-going home-town life in the south.

      [url]http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mayberry[/url]

    • Jane AAR: Also– what does Mayberry mean/refer to?I’ve never heard of it.

      It was the fictional place where the Andy Griffith show took place. That was never a favorite of mine, but it was a well-known show. Can I really be that old, or is the show old, or are you really that young, Jane? It’s probably yes to all those questions, but it truly doesn’t feel as though it’s been that long ago. I see reruns of it when skipping thru the channels with the remote.

      I’ve attached a link from Wikipedia that explains it a bit further without going into too much detail. You may need to cut and paste it in. It was basically a slice of easy-going home-town life in the south.

      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mayberry

  6. @ Jane – Mayberry is the town where the Andy Griffith Show took place and it’s one of those traditional, slightly too-perfect little small towns of yore. At least that’s what comes to my mind when I hear the term. If you check out a few reruns of the show, you’ll see what I mean.

  7. OK, thanks for explaining the Mayberry thing. I thought you were picking on one my favorite contemp. authors, Sarah Mayberry, whose books aren’t at all like the ones described in the post (she writes for Hqn Blaze and Superrommance). I was about to get my back up :). We don’t know anything about the Andy Griffith show down here in Australia.

    As for code words, I’m not good with those, sorry. Over the years I’ve learned which authors to steer clear of, and newbies I always give at least one chance before they’re out.

  8. I suggest “pastoral contemporary” since pastoral as a noun means “a work of literature portraying an idealized version of country life” and pastoral as an adjective includes the meanings “associated with country life” and “(of a work of art) portraying or evoking country life, typically in a romanticized or idealized form” [quoting from OAD].
    As much as “Mayberry” or any other specific cultural reference appeals, the responses here show how time and space limited such references can be.

    • Mark:
      As much as “Mayberry” or any other specific cultural reference appeals, the responses here show how time and space limited such references can be.

      Yes, that was an eye-opener for me. I guess I just presumed that everyone on this good earth is on the same page and it just “ain’t so.”

  9. Ooo, Mayberry describes it perfectly!

    In fact I thought of Mayberry when I was trying a new author in a free Kindle book. It was so nauseatingly retro in the setup, yet I knew that it was supposed to be a hot read. The hero was the sheriff and the heroine was an elementary teacher. I kept thinking if Sheriff Andy and his lady love Miss Helen. I simply could not deal with the idea of them having hot sex and had to quit reading. Besides, the book sucked.

  10. I’ve been reading contemporary romance since the ’80s and have learned to either go with the flow or totally ignore all the references to designer goods, pop culture icons, music of the moment or new (or the lack of )technology. For me, it’s the plot and characters. The other stuff doen’t matter to me. I can suspend my belief in historicals and paranormals. I can also believe in a contemporary wirtten in the early ’90s where everyone didn’t have a cell phone… especially since in the early ’90s everyone didn’t have a cell phone. It’s an age thing, I guess….

  11. That’s just it. It’s the characters and the plot. I can read romances written years ago and ignore things like technology. (I started a thread on that a few weeks ago.)

    I can’t get into contemporary romances in which the characters act like those in an Anne of Green Gables book. Except for the hero and heroine having wild monkey sex.

  12. To Jane’s point, I think too many contemporary references to pop culture does tend to date a book too quickly. But there is a big difference between referencing Lady Gaga and portraying cliched characters who simply don’t exist anymore. If they ever did.

    And I like these suggestions!

  13. I don’t care for many historical romances except for Georgette Heyer because way too many are full of 21st Centruy characters dressed in period clothing. Sort of like going to a Renn Faire, only I really enjoy Renn Faires.

    I read a lot of contemporary romances and romantic suspense. What I hate are the backwards small town settings populated with hateful, narrow-minded people. Please, let’s get past Deliverance here, and the southern good ole boy stereotype. Narrow-minded bigots exist, but these days they seem to be spread pretty evenly around the country.

    No matter what, however, people are always going to disagree about what’s good and what isn’t. I’ve tried twice to get through Welcome to Temptation and found it boring. However, three other Crusie novels are in my top 10 or 20 contemporary favorites (like The Cinderella Deal). I enjoyed the first Virgin River books, but my reviews have been going downhill since then, and I gave the last one I read 1 star. Part of the reason is that I see her town as totally cliched and artificial, and the people unbelievable. I felt like Lake Wobegon had been transplanted to northern CA.

  14. Actually, Heyer’s world is more VICTORIAN than Regency. Too many authors consider her the leading authority on Regency mores and morals.

    Most of the small-town romances I read are full of lectures on how Small Towns are Moral and Good Where People care about one another, as opposed to the Big Cities – which are full of Evil Career Women.

    Only a few are full of hateful narrow-minded people who the heroine nonetheless pines to win over – for whatever reason.

  15. JMM~ Believe me, in romantic suspense books set in small towns full of hateful people abound. Just one of many examples: The Stillwater Trilogy from Brenda Novak. But I can list 6 or 8 other books off the top of my head, and msny more if I consult my book list. It doesn’t mean I didn’t like any of the books, but the setting gets really tiresome. Oh, and with books like The Witness by Sandra Brown we get the cliched crazy southern bigots as well. It’s just as irritating and insulting as the Evil Career Woman, the pasta-cooking 50 yr old Italian grandmother, or the “women aren’t anything if they aren’t married” stereotype.

  16. I read the Brenda Novak trilogy. I could never understand why the characters didn’t run screaming from that miserable place. In fact, several of them MOVED there intentionally! Ick.

    As for the “pasta cooking Italian grandma”, avoid Millie Crisswell. Argh.

    I read once that some Italian anti-defamation group protested The Sopranos. I think there should be a “Mediterranean Anti-defamation group” protesting romance. All those Italian/Greek/Spanish arseholes who rape and bully heroines…

  17. It’s a good thing contemporary romance novels come in a variety of forms ’cause, having grown up in a small village outside NYC, I love small towns. I worked in NYC summers during college and wouldn’t live or work there again under any circumstances. Too big, too impersonal, too noisy. My sister is the opposite: loves big cities and hates small towns. Today my small village is no more. It has grown and grown and grown. So, in reality I can’t go home again. Through fiction I can. ;-)

    Oh, and I also wouldn’t pay hundreds of dollars for a pair of designer shoes. I often start to read a contemporary romance and discover that the heroine, a female I should admire, has just bought or already owns or longs to acquire a pair of very expensive, cost-equaling-my-monthly-food-bill designer shoes. Usually that book is set aside as I think, “What a twit.” Eventually it finds its way to the bottom of my TBR mountain. ;-) It’s that diversity of experience thing again…

  18. Tall Tales and Wedding Veils by Jane Graves (really liked all of her books but this one) is one that really set me off. Heroine’s parents were the very definition of “yes, dear” throwbacks. The entire plot was driven by heroine catering to and “protecting” her clueless and criminally insensitive mother from the truth. Successful CPA heroine gets drunk in Vegas and wakes up married to a guy from her home town she had been lusting after. Okay, this is a pretty awful cliche but I went forward because Graves had proven herself a deft writer in earlier books. Heroine calls mom to tell her and before you know it, mom is so thrilled that daughter has finally bagged herself a live one that she doesn’t care what kind of man she’s married because getting married is THE ONLY THING DAUGHTER HAS EVER DONE TO MAKE MOM HAPPY. It gets worse from here. The rest of the book is h/h going ahead with sham marriage to keep the truth from mom for three months and then they will split. Gee, that makes a lot of sense. Ridiculous plot.

    I’ve got a 30 year old daughter. If my kiddo had called to tell me she woke up married in Vegas, I’d be on a plane as fast as I could to help her get out of it. So would every other mother I know. I would not be squeeeing.

  19. Ooooh, don’t get me started. LOL! I hate when contemporary romances read like time travels back to 1965! I think it takes an author who can look outside her own box to write one that rings true. So many things bother me about a contemporary “time travel” (to Mayberry) but the on of my huge beefs is references to clothing. One big name author (who I won’t name) has never gotten it right, because she is writing herself…all dressed up in a pantsuit. gah! Here you have a 27yr. old heroine who dresses like her 60yr. old auntie. Not the picture you want of a contemporary heroine.

  20. Diana, Yes…I remember that book! I can’t think of one mother who would be jumping with joy if they got that phone call. It would be more like…”You did what??!!”

  21. Thank god I’m not the only one!! I have a hard time finding contemporaries I enjoy for exactly for this reason. While I get that too many details will date a book, I still prefer for the characters to live in a world I recognize and behave in ways I can relate to. I love Crusie’s “Bet Me” but a 30 yr old heroine obsessed with Elvis was never believable.

    I sometimes feel as if authors may be infusing their contemporary characters with the social mores they themselves grew up with. Whatever it is, I’m with Sandy and am tired of the ridiculous cliches and characters stuck in time-warps.

    My friends and I have always referred to them as “village contemps”. Whether set in city or small town, you get the feeling that laptops and cell phones are new fangled devices of the devil.

  22. My advice to writers of contemporaries is remember that sweet-faced, cookie-baking mom may have been at Woodstock. The original.

    And her cookies are probably really good, if you know what I mean.

  23. I came thisclose to going to Woodstock! Quite a few of my friends went. I passed because the idea of camping out in the mud did not appeal.

    Brownies. We made special brownies.

  24. I have lost faith in contemporary authors living in the present. I still read them, but so many don’t match what is the year they are writing in. So many don’t make the effort, but I have the impression that most readers don’t care. So…why bother.
    Anyway….My neighbor went to Woodstock. He’s still crazy now, but has a lot of cool stories about it all.

  25. I’ve always hated those. When questioned about what kinds of romances I like my standard reply is “just about everything except those psuedo-contemporaries”

  26. I have a hard time finding contemporaries that sound true to me. I’m in my 30s, live in the “big” city and hang out the most with 30-somethings and 20-somethings. Actually, some of the category novels I’ve read come the closest to sounding like we do/having the same cultural touchstones.

    I’ve always wondered if the Mayberry feel came from the fact that most contemporary romance authors are much older than their heroes and heroines, and they’re writing about what courtship was like in their 20s.

  27. “I also have another complaint about “modern” contemporaries and that’s the alpha bordering on sexist “bulldozer” heroes. You know, the heroes that always know what’s best for the heroine and know what she wants before she does. And I’m very conflicted about these guys, because Kleypas’s Jack Travis walks the fine line on this and I still voted him favorite hero of the year in the AAR poll.”

    Kim T – agree with you totally. Jack Travis was also my favorite hero – alpha – but was saved by the fact that he really liked women and not just in the sexual sense.

    Another problem I have with contemporaries is the fact that, in a majority of contemporaries I’ve read, the heroine is 30 years old and a virgin. Don’t want to open a can of worms here but that is just a bit ludicrous to me. Or the author really stresses that you know the heroine has had only one previous lover – just to assure us she doesn’t sleep around. And it’s usually the a guy who treated her bad. Don’t mind this scenario in historicals because it was probably true. However, in contemporaries it bothers me. I’d like to find a heroine who who has a past sexual history, enjoys sex, and is not condemned for it.

  28. Most of the contemporaries I’ve read have sexually experienced heroines. Other than series romances and books like Robyn Carr’s Virgin River series, I think experienced heroines are the norm. I read lots of romantic suspense as well as other contemp authors like Rachel Gibson, Susan Donovan, Susan Andersen, Jill Shalvis, Jennifer Crusie, etc. I rarely come across a virginal heroine, or even an inexperienced one, with these authors.

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