Category Romance: A Theory

sinclairI’ve been very busy with work lately and a bit stressed out, as a result.  And then there’s the traditional fall increase in my television watching after the summer drought.  Add to that the fact that I seem to be having a hard time concentrating – and there you have it:  Someone who’s been reading a lot of older categories, thanks to Harlequin’s extensive digitizing of backlists.

I’ve written before about my (kind of inexplicable) affection for the Silhouettes of Tracy Sinclair.  And, yes, it’s true, I’ve been on a bit of a binge lately.  There’s something about a Tracy Sinclair Alpha man that’s comforting to me.

And then there’s the return of the Loveswept line.  How can I resist Iris Johansen and Sharon and Tom Curtis?  Well, I can’t.  And therein lies the  rub.

I’m not dissing categories here.  Well, since I can already hear the screams, let’s be honest and say that I’m introducing a bit of balance here since there is so much love for categories exhibited all over the Interwebs – here and elsewhere.

Truth is, in the past few years, I’ve taken recommendations and tried numerous HPs and other category novels.  Seriously.  I’ve tried.  Really.  And they are just not satisfying to me.  It’s been years since I’ve read a new category I enjoyed.

But the categories of the late 80s and the 90s?  They hit my sweet spot in ways that the categories of today just don’t.

So, here’s what I’m thinking:  Could our affection for categories be more or less dependent on where we are in life when we first read them?

The categories in which I’ve been reveling lately are all books I read before.  I have fond memories of the stories and characters and maybe even where I was in life when I first read them.  I’m emotionally invested in them.  They are, in fact, my ultimate comfort reads.

I’ll be the first to admit that my beloved Tracy Sinclair was a bit of a clumsy writer.  There isn’t anything that happens in her books that isn’t telegraphed well in advance.  She relied on the same character types and they are repeated in book after book.  (After book.)  I think if I came across her today, all these faults – and more – would preclude my developing an affection for her writing.

Now I’m sure there are some great category romances written today, but for every Lightning That Lingers there are a thousand The Billionaire Sheikh’s Virgin Bodyguard.  It takes an honest person to admit that, but there it is.

And, to take that  thought a bit further, sometimes the Harlequin drumbeat gets a bit deafening.  I’m glad that Harlequins are working for you, but they just don’t work for everybody, okay?

I’ve been enjoying my time spent in retro-category land, but I know it’s something I can only take in small doses for short periods of time.  When I’m ready, I’ll be back to my regular reading habits.

So, do you agree?  Do you think affection for categories is relative to where you are in life when you read them?  Are you still reading categories and, if so, how long have you read them?

– Sandy AAR

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18 Responses to “Category Romance: A Theory”

  1. Kim says:

    I definitely think your love of categories is related to when you started reading romance and where you are in life. When I started reading romances in the late 80s I was reading mostly Jude Devereux, Kathleen E. Woodiwiss and Harlequins. My favorite category to this day is one of the first I read, Robyn Donald’s Summer Storm. I’ve since turned almost completely to historical and contemporary single titles and series. However, whenever I crave a quick and easy romantic read, I turn to categories and try to discover the next big author. My keeper shelf only has a few categories (all of Brockmann’s TDD series, a couple of Sarah Mayberry and Karina Bliss titles). I’ll occassionally glom an author or type…though I eventually got rid of all of my Robyn Donald…I still will crave her Kiwi alpha males. I’m now glomming all categories (vintage and new) that have Indian settings or Indian characters. I’m looking at those with more of an academic curiosity rather than for entertainment value. And then there’s the time, I forced myself to read a sheikh romance recently and couldn’t finish it. So, for me, categories are a mixed bag of satisfying quick reads, a place to find great authors before they switch to women’s fiction or mainstream fiction and a place to find kitsch (sometimes hilarious, sometimes the exact opposite).

  2. jml says:

    “Do you think affection for categories is relative to where you are in life when you read them?”

    Absolutely, and not just where I am in ‘life’ but where I am that day or week. Timing has so much to do with whether a book resonates with me or not. There are times when I look at a new book from a well-loved author and think ‘I can’t deal with that right now’! That’s when I’ll reach for one of the category books that is on the keeper shelf or download one of the backlist books.

    Just this past week I went to my book cabinet and (randomly) grabbed 6 Betty Neels books. I was in the mood for Cinderella stories with a setting that had nothing to do with my here and now. For me, no author ever did that kind of down-trodden heroine/tall, rich hero better. If she were a new-to-me author, no matter what my mood, I would have tossed the books across the room. Because of my “history” with the author (can it possibly be almost 40 years?!) I enjoyed reading them and now I’m done with fairytales for a while.

    One of the reasons I never minded (but I did laugh at) those Harlequin titles is because categories are quick reads and the titles told me exactly what I was getting. I knew that the TYCOON was not going to lose all his money or that the VIRGIN was not going to actually be a prostitute. I generally got what I paid for – for better or worse!

    Excellent post Sandy, thank you.

  3. I so understand this post! Those 80′s-90′s catagories were no holds barred in the angst – alpha holes and the women who love them, huge misunderstandings that last deliciously for the whole book – and I know I gobbled them up – still have the stash on my keeper shelf for those days when I need some comfort.

    I never read Sharon and Tom Curtis in my early romance reading years and I picked up Lightening That Lingers and it just didn’t work for me. really wordy and slow – but for everyone one of me there’s ten readers who are THRILLED to pieces that the book is back out. I think it’s great that all these books are coming back out – books we read when we were just starting to read romance – my comfort keeper shelf is getting huge!

  4. Leigh says:

    I think that enjoying any book always depends on what is going on in our lives, not just series. Some series books are shorter in length, so it makes it easy to pick them up after work, and finish them by bedtime, which is an added advantage. And many series books are formulaic, which requires less concentration, and because of this, I can skim.
    I can go months without reading a series book, and then suddenly I am reading four or five a month. I think it has more to do with a positive experience, than the timing. After finding books that I enjoy (Harlequin Superromance seems to be my favorite line) I look for more. I hit a bunch of average or below average books, and then I back off for a while.

  5. Carrie says:

    Since I just started reading romances a few years ago, I can’t really decide yet if my tastes are going to be influenced that way. I do know two things: I’ve resisted category romances because of an ingrained prejudice against them that predates my romance reading days; and the relatively few I’ve read have mostly confirmed my dislike. In my admittedly limited experience I find them poorly constructed, hurried, and shallow. Even those categories by authors whose longer works I’ve enjoyed have been mostly lacking.

    That said, I find myself being drawn to the shorter novels when life is stressful and I don’t want to to think overly much. If I read categories, it’s generally the Blaze or Superromance lines. Authors that I’ve really enjoyed include Sarah Mayberry and Carla Kelly. I’ve also enjoyed some of Jill Shalvis’s category romances, as well as the re-releases of Suzanne Brockmann. I enjoyed the early Wingman Warrior books by Catherine Mann, as well.

    Other winners:
    Snowbound by Janice Kay Johnson
    Dancing in the Moonlight by RaeAnne Thayne
    Mistress in Private by Julie Cohen

    I generally buy a category romance based on reviews, here and on goodreads. I’ve also picked a few up on paperback swap shelves or at used book stores for a couple of dollars when they looked interesting. Some have been good, others horrible, but usually they are just mediocre.

  6. bungluna says:

    I have a shelf dedicated to my 70′s and 80′s categories. I also have the categories of my favorite authors, such as Jennifer Crusie and Brockman, but for the longest time I just couldn’t connect with the newer novels. I still grabbed them when I needed something quick, but they weren’t as satisfying. And then I discovered Carina Bliss and my attachment to categories has been reborn. I’ve been searching for other authors, but so far only Ms. Bliss has made a place for her stories in my shelf, though.

  7. dick says:

    I like some categories. After getting started reading romance with Brown’s “Unspeakable,” I read through my wife’s entire collection of categories, some of which were atrocious. But one can read them in a couple of hours or less. Some of the authors are very good writers, e.g., Kylie Brant and Justine Davis. In fact, I think some of the really big names of single title–Nora Roberts, for instance–wrote far better in the Harlequins than they do in the single titles. I’m particularly fond of Intrigues, Suspense, and Historicals.

  8. Karenmc says:

    I’ve never read many categories (other than Carla Kelly), having come to romance reading less than four years ago and having a TBR pile the size of a bull moose. I DID buy Lightning that Lingers, having read so much gushiness about Sharon & Tom Curtis, but it’s still in the moose pile.

    And Sandy, the whole busy-ness and lack of concentration is one I completely relate to. I think it comes from trying to mentally do what I was able to do easily in my twenties and thirties. I still get info into my head, but retrieving it can sometimes take waaay too long.

  9. kathy says:

    Great post as uaual Sandy!! And I totally agree. Everyone is always complaining about the books of the 70s and 80s but they are my kind of books. I love the alfa male who saves the damsel. These kick ass heroines of today are not my cup of tea.

  10. PatF says:

    Similar to JML, I can grab Betty Neels out of the “book closet” when a certain mood comes upon me. I have checked her backlist and know for a fact that I own all her books published in the United States. She has gotten me though some difficult times when all I wanted to do was lose myself in that Cinderella world.

  11. Erika says:

    I heart the older categories. The newer ones often leave me cold but the older ones draw me in w/all the angst plus it’s more the heroines journey to hea with little to no hero thoughts.

  12. Nana says:

    Is it possible that you’re conflating length with content? What I hear you saying here is that you’re disappointed that categories today don’t seem to include sweeping drama, alphas, and angst the way they used to. In that case, your issue could be with the content and the fact that publishers today aren’t putting the books you like in category lines.

    I’ve been reading categories for about 10 years. I have keepers from every decade, 60s-10s, and do not notice that I like one decade better than the others. On the other hand, I do see a strong trend matching keeper content by publishing decade. My 80s-keepers are often business settings with manly bosses and career women, whereas my 90s keepers tend to be Nora Ephron-style romantic comedies, and the 00s keepers are historicals or contemporary city girls. I can see how if I really wanted to read romantic comedies, for instance, I might find the recent publishing decade lacking. But that doesn’t mean the recent books haven’t been good; just that they’re not what I want when I pick up a category.

  13. AAR Sandy says:

    Nana, I don’t believe it’s content that’s the point. I am the first to admit that I wouldn’t like Tracy Sinclair if I read her today. It was something about the point in my life when I read them that still makes them comfort reads for me.

    And thanks to everyone for your comments! I’m glad to know I’m not alone in this.

  14. Leslie says:

    I read categories because they have happy endings, that said they have made me laugh and cry. i don’t read many of the new ones. I tend to go back to old favorites some of whom are no longer writing. I love the early Iris Johanson and Kay Hoopers. I have a hard time with their newer books. The same with Nora Roberts. I don’t want blood and gore. That doesn’t give you a comfortable feel when you are needing to be comforted. I still love Betty Neels and Essie Summers even if they are a little dated. So may of our current reads got their start in the Categories and we have fond memories so we search for the old books in used book stores, used book sales, or rereleases because they remind us of better times.

  15. Kayne says:

    I enjoy the categories and just read a library digital Blogger Bundle Volume VI, picks by Sara Craven, on my Kindle that I enjoyed. I see that different reviewer websites have put together some favorite blogger packages that are sold at Amazon. Any chance AAR will put together a package? There were 5 books for $9.99. I like short stories alot so the categories are a good fit for me. Time has a lot to do with it.

  16. wendy says:

    The old categories that I read and loved and kept forever were mostly by authors that moved on to become popular authors of full length novels, like Deborah Smith, Linda Howard, and Anne Stuart. So in my case, no, it wasn’t the time in my life that I started reading them, or the feeling of nostalgia when I pull them back out, but the fact that most of them are excellent books in their own right, category or not. I haven’t read a category in a long time that the author displayed that kind of talent. I’ve picked up several, fairly recently, that got some buzz, but they all left me cold.

  17. Grace says:

    In the mid 80′s I read category romance novels- I would check out 10 at a time from the library during the summers and spend the afternoons in the back yard by a tree reading these books. I loved them at that point in time. However, as I found Jude Devereaux and then Mcnaught and Garwood, I moved onto single title novels both contemporary and historical.

    As a teenager, the idea of the powerful hero recognizing the heroine’s true inner beauty despite her unworldliness is really plausible. Though the hero has an immediate attraction to the heroine, may not recognize he loves her, will not admit it for another 200 pages , treat her poorly for most of the novel–is well – just the way to true love. Right?

    Now that I am 40, I pick up those categories and think to myself “Seriously?”
    Why are the alpha males all sheiks or Italian and Greek Tycoons? Have the Harlequin’s editors picked up a newspaper in the last 2-3 years and perhaps glanced at the financial pages especially that of Greece? Why do they keep putting out variations of the same story over and over again? What’s with the titles? I also find the heroines disappointing because they seem so bland.

    I understand that categories are escapism but the true art in categories lies in a certain amount of believability. The hero can be rich but why are most of them tycoons? Why are the alpha males always angry and why do the females put up with it?

    The books that stand out are the ones that make you think that the characters could be real and that the story could really happen.
    Kariana Bliss and Sara Mayberry are the writers I have read recently (after reading recommendations) that make categories worth reading.
    One new find for me is an American, Abigail Strom( a millionaire’s wish). I read the one book recently. It was well paced. The heroine wasn’t a push over. The hero was really introspective and both characters evolved throughout the short length of the book.

    The authors of these books do not get enough credit for trying to make the restrictions of a category novel work for them. Having that limited word count can really derail a good story and take away the development of the characters and relationship and pacing. Depending on the skill of the writer, a category can work no matter the age of the reader.

    I don’t think the categories of the 80′s and 90′s were better. The books of the past were not as great as we would like to believe- as I’ve noticed from the books I downloaded to my Kindle. It is our memory of things past and that feeling of comfort and happiness when reading books that makes us look back at those books with fondness.

  18. Ruby says:

    I just came across this excellent post doing an AAR search – I can’t believe I missed it when it was first posted, because I’ve often wondered the same thing myself!

    I started reading romance in the early 90s as a 12 year old. I was “immersed,” so to speak, by two boxes of category romances left behind in a vacation home my family bought. Bored to tears one weekend, I started sorting through them, and found a few that didn’t sound, well, stupid to a 12 year old, lol.

    Among the books that were there was “Streets of Fire” by Judith Duncan, several books by Anne Stuart, and “Midnight Stranger” by Diana Whitney – I actually kept all three of these, which explains why I remember them so well so many years later, lol. The Diana Whitney book (which was more plausible to a preteen than to an adult, but nonetheless entertaining) aside, I can say that I probably set the bar for myself way too high, because I don’t think that most of the contemporary series romances I’ve come across recently were as good as these books.

    I do, however, have a personal theory as to why we’re less satisfied with the newer contemporaries — the field has narrowed severely. So many of the contemporary (and historical, for that matter) lines that were active in the 80s-90s have disappeared, so there is less room for unusual stories like Anne Stuart’s or Judith Duncan’s. Instead, you get a proliferation of SEALs, ranchers, secret babies and suchlike stuff that evidently sells or else we wouldn’t see so many of them. And I’m positive that good, unusual books do occasionally slip through the cracks, lol, it’s just that if, like me, you no longer look for categories, and only pick one up upon recommendation, you’re likely to miss one of the diamonds in the rough altogether.

    The good news is, the popularity of e-books may get us back to that era when there was room for contemporary series-style books that break the mold. I’m hoping that now that Harlequin has started reissuing their backlist from the 80s and 90s that they will realize how quirky and great some of these stories were, and cede some of the SEAL/rancher/sheik market to these type of books!