Going to Extremes

virginriver I love going to RWA nationals for a variety of reasons. However, one of the major thrills for me comes from getting to hear about upcoming books and forecasts for various subgenres of romance. This year, hearing about the various trends in publishing really struck me because many of the types of books listed seemed to hit at opposite ends of the spectrum.

On the one hand, we seem to be inhabiting a period of sweetness and light in book choices. Small-town romances with home and family themes seem to sell quite well. Indeed, some authors with small-town series such as Robyn Carr and Debbie Macomber have almost a cult following among readers. Similarly, unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ve seen stories about the astounding popularity of Amish/Mennonite romances. Their focus on the simple life and strong family ties again seem to speak to a lot of readers. And in historicals, the light, wallpaper Regency/Victorian is not exactly hard to find either.

However, several publishers also mentioned a trend toward the dark and gritty. Strong, butt-kicking urban fantasy heroines are rather easy to find, and paranormals featuring epic battles between good and evil aren’t exactly thin on the ground either. According to the publishers, they expect these types of books to continue appealing to a wide audience. In addition, I’ve noticed while there may not be as much romantic suspense on shelves as in prior years, many of the books out there aren’t exactly blending romance with cozy mysteries, but seem to have a darker tone, such as what one might find in Karen Rose or Leslie Parrish’s books, or in books like One Scream Away by Kate Brady. Lastly, darker, grittier historicals such as Libertine’s Kiss by Judith James or Pieces of Sky by Kaki Warner seem to be coming back into fashion, albeit somewhat slowly.

As a reader, I cannot help trying to figure out why readers might be looking for these extremes and my mind instantly goes to current events. After all, the economy is in upheaval and readers in the United States and many other countries have been dealing with war and the threat of terrorism for years. Against this backdrop, both extremes in reading choices make sense. When times are rough, escape into a cozy and secure world can be very tempting. The world of many of my books is warmer and cozier than what I see in the papers and on the job every day. A place where people know and care for their neighbors, where life seems a little safer, or the tone a little lighter definitely holds some appeal.

Likewise, the beauty of love in the face of hardship or darkness can show that events cannot get the best of us and that love, ultimately, brings hope. Love can bring light to darkness as well as meaning to lives thrown into turmoil. In addition, tales of heroes and heroines conquering the evil of terrorists, serial killers, cult leaders, or soul-eating monsters empowers readers. After all, if the characters we enjoy reading can emerge victorious, why shouldn’t we?

Is there a certain amount of idealism in these views of the world? Certainly. After all, in real life it’s an unfortunate truth that the good guys don’t always win. That small towns can be prisons just as easily as they can be havens would be another unfortunate truth. And having grown up not far from conservative Mennonite communities, I can tell you that life among the bonnets and buggies has its dark side, too. However, just as many people tend to remember the happy times more fondly than the bad, it makes sense that readers would want to visit the happier parts of small-town life in their reading or to see their heroes and heroines emerge victorious in their fights against darkness. Just because bad things happen doesn’t mean the glass must always be half-empty. I find it very interesting that both ends of the spectrum in terms of tone each have something positive to offer readers; It makes for an interesting look at the shelves.

As a reader, I think my preference would lie more frequently with the darker stories. I’m sometimes in the mood for a very sweet, homey read, or I would like to smile and be charmed by a light historical. However, more often I like the thrill of seeing the good guys win, seeing the leads overcome long odds and major obstacles, and reading about love triumphant. How about you?

– Lynn Spencer

17 thoughts on “Going to Extremes

  1. I cut my romance teeth on Georgette Heyer (yes, I am that old, lol), so when I read any type of romance, I usually look for something on the light side. Darker works appeal to me in some moods, though and my daughters like to read them when they’re down, so I understand the appeal. Overall though, I am an ‘escapist’ reader…my other favorite genre is fantasy/sci fi!

  2. @Chez – I’ve seen some Amish/Mennonite books in Steeple Hill(category) and a few have crept into more secular romance. However, the trend is really huge in inspirational. There have been a number of articles in various newspapers/magazines about it, but if one checks the shelves in the inspy section of a bookstore, I’ve been noticing Amish/Mennonite books galore. They took up 2 whole shelves at my local Borders!

  3. I’m feeling a little lost here as I don’t recall seeing a single Amish/Mennonite book anywhere. I can only think they are the category type books and as I’ve gotten older I also admit to steering clear of category/series. Totally loved them in my teens and 20′s, now … meh. I’m in my 40′s and am loving the dark urban fantasy or paranormal books. In my 30′s it was light historicals like Julie Garwood or Catherine Coulter.

  4. Historical Romance: I love books set during the 18th century. If I can find a book set in 18th century Paris then I’m in heaven. I’m not a big fan of novels set during the late 19th century.

    Contemporary: Nora Robert’s is my goddess. I prefer non virginal heroines and heros that’s not jealous all the time.

    Paranormals: I like strong heroines who can kick ass. Favorite? Karen Chance’s books about Dorina Basarab the damphir.

    Guilty Pleasure? – Harlequin Presents

    • Nathalie T: Historical Romance: I love books set during the 18th century. If I can find a book set in 18th century Paris then I’m in heaven.

      Nathalie,
      Have you read Joanna Bourne’s “The Forbidden Rose”?

      • elainec: Nathalie,
        Have you read Joanna Bourne’s “The Forbidden Rose”?

        You can also check out Anne Stuart’s latest, “Ruthless” (1760s), and Susan Squires “Time for Eternity” (Revolution).

  5. The publishers may be working on the assumption that the books on each end of the spectrum have a firm reader base of people who really like that kind of book and know what they like.

    Given the increased level of carping about “standard” or “mainline” romances by people who absolutely do/don’t want a book where the heroine is a virgin, do/don’t want a book in which the hero or heroine had a prior serious relationship, do/don’t want a book in which the heroine is feisty, etc., I can see why their marketing departments may be reaching the conclusion that there’s no such thing any more as a book that a significant portion of their middle-of-the-road readers will enjoy.

  6. Lynn,

    Your commentary was very interesting. The readers’ comments have been, too.

    In the past week I’ve read a Martha Grimes mystery, “Dust”, “Wicked Intentions”, “A Kiss at Midnight”, and “Last Night’s Scandal”. “Dust” was cerebral with the roots of the murder going back to the SS and Jews in Germany. “Wicked Intentions” was a dark historical and a bit sexy for me. “A Kiss at Midnight” was a fairy tale , but with great, down-to-earth characters. “Last Night’s Scandal” was very humorous and left me feeling quite wonderful! This was a fantastic week for reading for me.

    I guess I like historicals with characters who find the “light”. even when most of the story is dark.

    Earlier in my life, I read every depressing classic there was to read. Then I settled on mysteries and non-fiction. I’m relatively new to romance. I started reading them ten years ago when I retired and they are my most frequent and most enjoyable reading choices.

    Right now I’m concerned about publishers moving from print books to ebooks. The blogs and Internet articles on that have been distressing.

  7. I tend to prefer the meatier stories. This often means dark but not always.

    When I was in my teens and early 20s, I loved the fairly tale type books. I read lots and lots of category (presents, desire, special edition, intimate moments and some superromance) and lots of fairy tale type historicals or contemporaries. I loved Judith McNaught!!

    As I got older, I read a lot less category (mostly just superromance) and started to understand the appeal of non-fairy tale stories. For example, I didn’t “get” Nora Roberts until my mid-20s. I even avoid the fairy tale type stories now.

  8. Every now and then I want something light and fluffy, but most of the time I enjoy the darker, grittier or emotionally charged stories. What matters most, IMO is good writing. I am also a sucker for good humor interspersed in the writing, and I do not think humor and stronger emotions are incompatible. I have started to steer away from Regencies unless it is an auto-buy author. The market is so saturated with them that they begin to all blend together. I LOVE Medieval books. There is just something about basic survival that brings a sort of purity to the romantic relationship.

  9. The only thing that’s changed for me as I’ve gotten older is my Believability Quotient. When I was younger, I’d buy into things a little more easily. Now that I’ve been around the block a few times, I can’t get on board w/stupidity. Whether it’s a TSTL heroine that goes running off into the night to inspect a murder scene on her own or an airheaded heiress that thinks handbags are the key to world peace; it doesn’t matter what the setting, I need to believe!

    I’ll read any setting if an author is a good writer and can coax me along for the story. In the midst of this recession, I don’t need a small town setting any more than a grittier setting, I just need quality. Sometimes I think the forecasts from conventions are just the Emperor’s new clothes. I remember reading a convention synopsis from two years ago that Steampunk was the next Big Thing….they’re still saying that, I think they just want another Big Thing that they can fit into a convenient box so it’ll be easier to market and cultivate. I just want quality, why can’t they put that in a box?

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  11. @JML – Interesting. In my 20s, I was all over the place and read all kinds of stuff. I read a lot of both suspense and Americana historicals in my teens, but then it branched out a lot from there. I’m in my early 30s now, and I find myself drawn to dark suspense, big good vs. evil paranormal battles and the..er…not exactly fluffy historicals.

    One of the stores near me does a display of their in-store bestsellers and it’s a weird patchwork of very sweet smalltown books (think Macomber and Robyn Carr) and then some really dark suspense thrillers, usually with a historical or two landing in there somewhere. It seems apparent that both ends of the tone spectrum are selling well; I’d be REALLY curious to know if it’s the same readers buying both. I know that I buy from both ends, but I also realize that like most online readers, my habits are a little outside the norm.

  12. Guess I’m a mood reader–except when I’m reading a review book, of course. My DIKs range from fun and perky to very dark, and I’d categorize all of them comfort reads.

    On a slightly related topic, I’ve always hated how publishing is an all-or-nothing business. Instead of producing a few of each type, publishers go overboard on vampires or Amish or fill-in-the-blank, all the while saying that the readership for vampires or Amish or whatever trend they’ve stopped publishing has fallen off. It seems like an endless chase for the newest fad, a chase where publishers who can’t produce a book overnight are doomed to fail.

    Wouldn’t it be nice to see publishers set the trends instead of chase after them? They’d be able to do this by having a bit of everything available, it seems to me. (My 2 cents worth!)

  13. Overall, I prefer the darker books. I especially like darker books when I’m having a bad day or things are not-so-great in my life. When I’m down, reading a perky book just annoys me, but reading a dark book where the hero and heroine find love despite their problems leaves me feeling uplifted. When I’m feeling happy and upbeat, I can enjoy a lighter book. (This seems to be the opposite of most people, who like lighter books when they’re feeling down.) But a good book is a good book, no matter what my mood is!

  14. I’d be interested to know if your readers change their preferences as they change in age and/or circumstances.

    When I was in my 20s I loved the Prince Charming (Duke, Tycoon, Viscount etc.) to the rescue stories. In my 30s I loved the Small Town romances and Friends into Lovers stories. At different stages in my life I’ve looked for different tropes.

    Now I prefer historicals (they make me feel sooo young!) or romances that have a balance of power between the hero and heroine. A Cinderella story will still call to me from the book shelves but then I always look at the makeovers first in most magazines which may mean I prefer fantasy.

    I’m no longer as curious about how other people live so religious romances of any type (Mellonite, Christian, VooDoo, etc.) don’t generally make my shopping list.

    With the exception of favorite authors (Briggs, Robb, Meljean and a few others) the kickass heroine just make me tired.

    Any era with a good story that has a little laughter in it could be in my TBR.

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