The Serious Readers Who Never Moved On

harlequins Most readers who come here often probably know that this blog has more than one author, and we tend to have more than viewpoint on things. On some issues, it seems like we need to do a bit of point and counterpoint because there are plenty of areas in romance that are great fodder for debate.

As I read the blog last Friday, I could feel myself nodding along at times. Yes, I’m not always on the “majority opinion team”, I like historical detail but I don’t need all my historicals to be dark and super-gritty, and even if Fifty Shades of Grey isn’t my cuppa, I’m not into bashing the people that read it. Heck, that book has made romance converts of more than a few of my offline friends. But then I reached the sentence,“I have moved past the Harlequin love and I am mystified by serious readers who haven’t,” and stopped dead. It just didn’t make sense to me to defend those who might like Fifty Shades and then turn around and bash all of us who enjoy Harlequin.

Sometimes I wonder what makes a “serious reader.” The literary snob crowd would probably write off all of us romance fans, but it seems to me that anyone who enjoys reading is a serious reader. Given that I read for work, read for pleasure, and read for review here at AAR, I think my habits certainly qualify as serious reading. And you know what? I’m one of those serious readers who never left Harlequin behind. In fact, I buy at least 2-3 series books from them every month, not including what I read from Harlequin imprints such as HQN, Carina Press, or Mira.

Series romances work for me and I don’t consider them a stage one grows out of, so I have to respectfully disagree with my colleague about category novels. I’ve read mind-blowing single title books and I’ve read some that are pretty ordinary. If you don’t believe me, just go to the power search and start digging around. You’ll find all of us at AAR discussing books that do and don’t work for us. However, the same goes for series books. I’ve read some series romance novels with plots and characterizations so thin that one can’t help but have that, “I think I’ve read this many times before” feeling. However, I’ve also read some books that play with convention or which use the limited space of a category novel to focus almost solely on the emotions of two people without the need to tend to subplot or armies of secondary characters. The use of a short page limit to tell a spare, stripped-down story with intensity is not something to underestimate.

I get that plenty of people aren’t into category books, but the fact that category romance doesn’t work for a person does not somehow make series romance inherently crappy nor does it make readers of it stunted by their failure to grow up and read big-girl single titles. People just have different tastes. For example, in my experience, small towns aren’t always Mayberry; sometimes they’re meth-addled hellholes. So, while one reader might equate a small-town tale with comfort, and perhaps even fantasize about the traditional sheriff hero, it’s not always my first choice. And it doesn’t have to be, but it’s there for the people who want it.

There also seems to be an assumption that it’s primarily the single title market that offers variety. Contrary to the opinions of some, series romances also span a variety of settings, tones, and character types. Just in recent memory, I’ve read everything from a China-set historical by Jeannie Lin to a couple of Sarah Mayberry Blazes peopled with complex characters and great sexual tension to a very funny and light Jessica Hart novel to a much more serious Janice Kay Johnson book with exquisite characterizations and unpredictable conflicts. None of these had that unoriginal, “Now the hero and heroine need to meet cute, they will kiss by the end of Chapter 2, have sex by page 100, have a Big Mis, etc…” feel to them. And because of the rather short page counts, these authors, who are all top notch, wrote their stories choosing words carefully for maximum effect. Writing a complicated 400-500 page novel with multiple plots and subplots woven together in an intricate dance of language takes talent, but writing a 200 page novel which tells its story vividly in a way that engages the readers’ emotions and makes characters jump off the page in that brief reading is a talent as well.

There are certain books that generate lots of buzz and there are certain books that find themselves reviled by almost all who read them. However, there’s a world of difference between deciding that a particular book just doesn’t work and proclaiming that an entire subgenre is simply not worth a reader’s time. I have my likes and dislikes, just as any reader does, and I’m one serious reader who has not moved past the Harlequin love.

– Lynn Spencer

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28 Responses to “The Serious Readers Who Never Moved On”

  1. Excellent post, Lynn! I’ve seen lots of changes in category romance over the past few years. Some fabulous authors writing amazing stories with new and interesting and current storylines. Readers who diss the ‘category romance’ line of books as a whole are missing out!

  2. Tracie says:

    Excellent post. I’ve read some clunkers in both category and single title books. I’ve also read some excellent category books. I rediscovered my love of categories a little under 2 years ago. Now I find them a perfect in between book for when I just want a quick read. I know that I can usually finish one in 2-3 hours. With the limited word count there isn’t much wiggle room for extras so I know that I’m going to get right to the relationship stuff.

  3. Mo says:

    Hear, hear!

  4. Thanks! I know – that sentence irked me, as well. I like the HQ books. They’re light and easy reads. I always go back to them because I know what I’m going to get & I know I’m going to enjoy it.

  5. AAR Sandy says:

    Lynn, you seem to have taken my “serious” reader jibe a bit to heart. I apologize if I offended you or anyone.

    Here’s my perspective. I’ve been at AAR for over 10 years now and the relentless Harlequin drumbeat has been deafening for all of those years. To the point that, frankly, I have felt that if I don’t read Harlequins, I am not on the same wave length as everybody else. Maybe even ostracized a bit. It gets to you after a while.

    And, yes, I have moved on from Harlequins and other series romances. I’ve invested enough money in trying and I’ve now given up. Often when the Internet goes bonkers over a title, I’d give in and give it a try. They just don’t work for me and I’ve finally admitted that and moved on.

    I was, as I hoped was clear, comparing Harlequin love to the 50 Shades bashing — which is a LOT harsher than my “serious” reader remark.

    I am glad that you and the legions enjoy your Harlquins, Lynn. I’m just done with feeling like I have to be forced to love them.

    • Ridley says:

      Spot on, Lynn. There’s no need to pass judgement on the readers of books we don’t care for. Books are targets for criticism, not the people who read them.

      AAR Sandy: I was, as I hoped was clear, comparing Harlequin love to the 50 Shades bashing — which is a LOT harsher than my “serious” reader remark.

      How could you have been doing that when you wouldn’t even acknowledge that you were doing to category readers what had been done to 50 fans?

      No one was “bashing” you for not liking categories. They were annoyed at your hypocrisy.

  6. Thanks for this post, Lynn.

  7. PatH AAR says:

    As I said after Sandy’s post, I see Harlequin as a training ground for new authors and as a reliable home for B-list authors whose publishers go out of business. Because the turn-around is shorter for these books in many cases, it’s an easy way to keep up with current trends in plots and hot topics.

    • PatH AAR: As I said after Sandy’s post, I see Harlequin as a training ground for new authors and as a reliable home for B-list authors whose publishers go out of business.Because the turn-around is shorter for these books in many cases, it’s an easy way to keep up with current trends in plots and hot topics.

      Pat, at least one A-list romance author disagrees. Here’s part of an essay Jennifer Crusie wrote about category romance:

      Every now and then, well-meaning friends congratulate me on having broken out of category romance. I love the image this evokes–the sirens, the lights raking the sky, my desperate plunge toward the wall, Birgit and Malle holding onto my ankles–but the truth is, I didn’t break out of category, I was evicted. I love category romance. I think it’s an outstanding although very difficult form of fiction. [...]

      you can’t critique a fiction by its form any more than you can by its subject matter; that is, saying “Category romance is a lesser form of romance fiction,” makes as much sense as saying “Romance is a lesser form of fiction in general.” [...]

      Category is an elegant, exacting, exciting form of fiction. It requires precise pacing, tight plotting, and exquisitely brief characterizations. It is truly as fine a form for fiction as the sonnet is for poetry.

    • AAR Lynn says:

      PatH AAR: As I said after Sandy’s post, I see Harlequin as a training ground for new authors and as a reliable home for B-list authors whose publishers go out of business.Because the turn-around is shorter for these books in many cases, it’s an easy way to keep up with current trends in plots and hot topics.

      I just don’t see these books as a training ground or a B-list. Some authors debut in single title, some debut in category. I’ve read writing of greatly varied levels of quality in both markets, and I think for writers, they probably cater to slightly different skill sets much as writing a short story or novella differs from writing a 500+ page epic. They’re different, without one being superior in form to the other.

    • Leigh says:

      PatH AAR: As I said after Sandy’s post, I see Harlequin as a training ground for new authors and as a reliable home for B-list authors whose publishers go out of business.Because the turn-around is shorter for these books in many cases, it’s an easy way to keep up with current trends in plots and hot topics.

      Oh, I wouldn’t say B list at all. Some of my favorite authors write for MIRA and I don’t consider that they only put out B books. I just recently read one (which I think you will love too (grin). I am going to re-read it but as of right now it will be a DIK.

  8. AAR Sandy says:

    Laura, why isn’t she still writing categories? (I am not being sarcastic, I truly don’t know.)

    • AAR Sandy: Laura, why isn’t she still writing categories? (I am not being sarcastic, I truly don’t know.)

      This is something from her blog about her shift to single-titles:

      HQ and I parted company because of a contract dispute and my brand new agent, Meg Ruley the Fabulous, said, “Okay, we’re going to take you single title, do you have any manuscripts we can sell to keep the wolf from the door while you’re working on Frog Point Wallow? (That one got changed to Tell Me Lies. Thank god.) I said, “Well, The Cinderella Deal,” which I had been working on off and on for awhile because I still loved that story and because I’d had to cut a good 85% of it to please the HQ editors, and I wanted that 85% back. So Meg called Beth de Guzman at Bantam and said, “Have I got a book for you, baby,” and sent her TCD and Beth said, “Absolutely,” and gave me a two-book wolf-repelling Loveswept contract, and I looked at the last rewrite of TCD and thought, “Hmmm.”

      Loveswept, for those of you old enough to remember, was Bantam’s category line. When I sold to them, it was on its last legs which meant we all knew that nobody was going to read my Bantam books.

  9. Ruby says:

    Thanks for the great post, Lynn.

  10. xina says:

    Just an aside…”Frog Point Wallow”? LOL! “Tell Me Lies” title is a huge improvement…also a darn good book.

  11. Lynnd says:

    @Lynn Spencer – great post. Thank you.

    @PatH – II was going to just let this whole kerfuffle go by without comment until your assertion that category authors are “B list” because IMO it is just wrong and offensive. I don’t read many categories, but many of those that I have read have had far more depth and are much better written than much of the work being published as single title today. Really, Sarah Mayberry, Karina Bliss, Jeannie Lin, Carla Kelly (and I’m sure there are many others whom I haven’t read) tell wonderfully emotional stories with great depth, good plot and excellent characterization. I only wish that many single-title writers published by the Big N.Y. publishers were half as good. Categories are a specific form of writing, just like the cozy mystery or the potboiler or the short story or the epic novel. IMO, it takes much more skill to tell a wonderfully moving story with good plot and good characterizatiion in a shorter form such as category than it does in the big epic novels. To denigrate any form of writing and suggest it is inferior to another form is just plain offensive to readers and authors, just as it is offensive for readers of any genre of fiction (or non-fiction) to denigrate any other genre as “inferior” or B list.

    • AAR Sandy says:

      Lynnd: IMO, it takes much more skill to tell a wonderfully moving story with good plot and good characterizatiion in a shorter form such as category than it does in the big epic novels.To denigrate any form of writing and suggest it is inferior to another form is just plain offensive to readers and authors, just as it is offensive for readers of any genre of fiction (or non-fiction) to denigrate any other genre as “inferior” or B list.

      But aren’t you denigrating writers who don’t write categories? And by using the term “offensive” you make it personal — more personal than it has to be, IMO.

      We all have books we love.

  12. Danielle says:

    This and Friday’s post make me miss At The Back Fence even more by demonstrating the difference between perceptive critical discussion and tweet-like opinionating. While AAR has made perfectly clear that ATBF will not be revived that column set a standard that raised the bar for intelligent debate in the romance community. The current blog format has its upside and, as today’s post shows, doesn’t render considered pieces impossible, but quick-fire posts invite quick-fire commentary, and the cumulative result is not what I had come to respect AAR for over the years.

    • Danielle: This and Friday’s post make me miss At The Back Fence even more by demonstrating the difference between perceptive critical discussion and tweet-like opinionating. While AAR has made perfectly clear that ATBF will not be revived that column set a standard that raised the bar for intelligent debate in the romance community. The current blog format has its upside and, as today’s post shows, doesn’t render considered pieces impossible, but quick-fire posts invite quick-fire commentary, and the cumulative result is not what I had come to respect AAR for over the years.

      Well said, Danielle. My thoughts exactly, but I won’t gild the lily by adding more ;)

  13. Blackjack1 says:

    I enjoyed them when I was really young but the disadvantages of such a short story and one that is typically overly formulaic works against Harlequins for me. I’m pretty clueless about the debate between Harlequins and single title romance novels though and didn’t realize there was tension among readers. I wouldn’t necessarily attack readers as that could be interpreted as personalizing a debate and generalizing about the multitude of reader responses to a work of fiction, but I would feel free to critique the books, which I generally don’t find very good. In this respect, I agree with Sandy’s earlier post.

    • willaful says:

      Blackjack1: I enjoyed them when I was really young but the disadvantages of such a short story and one that is typically overly formulaic works against Harlequins for me.I’m pretty clueless about the debate between Harlequins and single title romance novels though and didn’t realize there was tension among readers.I wouldn’t necessarily attack readers as that could be interpreted as personalizing a debate and generalizing about the multitude of reader responses to a work of fiction, but I would feel free to critique the books, which I generally don’t find very good.In this respect, I agree with Sandy’s earlier post.

      I’d say there’s a world of difference between “works against Harlequins for me” and what Sandy wrote.

      I also feel I should point out that not all categories are Harlequin and not all Harlequins are categories. Loveswept is publishing again, with some amazing books by Ruthie Knox, and Harlequin has numerous other lines with great authors like Kristan Higgans. And then there are the Harlequin category historicals, with Carla Kelly, Cheryl St.John, and so on.

  14. Liz says:

    New poster here, but frequent reader. For a long time, I turned my nose up at Harlequins, primarily based on a couple of lousy ones I’d read years ago and the titles. Not being a fan of Cindrella/pregnant/virgin/ secretary heroines, arrogant billionaire sheiks, etc. I dismissed any book with one or more in the title. Which covered a lot of books.
    But as an aspiring writer trying to get the hang of love scenes and sexual tension, I’ve been reading them and have been pleasantly surprised. I’m in the midst of an older Blaze title, Karen Kendall’s “Midnight Touch” featuring a male manicurist hero. It’s hilarious, sexy and very well written. Also loved Carla Capshaw’s inspy gladiator books and surprisingly, a horribly titled Presents (“His Christmas Love Child”) with a Russian billionaire hero, and pregnant secretary heroine. Who knew?

  15. xina says:

    Is it offensive for an author to be called “B-list”? I think there are different levels of success and popularity in all art forms. Actors are put on certain lists determined by their work, and I don’t see the B-listers as necessarily bad actors, just not as popular or sought after as the A-listers.

  16. Alissa says:

    Can we take a step back and talk about our own preferences, which we might be able to assess less controversially than any author’s skill? I love short stories, but not usually short romance stories in anthologies. For me, it takes a rare writing talent to make a believable HEA in a short story, or even a novella. My mother won’t read short stories, because she only likes to read stories into which she can sink for hours. I’ve read some wonderful category romances, and some wonderful single titles. Sometimes I wish a short book were longer, but at least as often I’ve wished a thick novel had been ruthlessly pruned! I think different authors shine in different formats — some can make good use of 400 pages, others are brilliantly brief. You can probably think of examples, but they might be different from mine. Thank God for all the variety!

  17. Jessica says:

    Thanks for this post Lynn.

    Sandy wrote, “I’ve been at AAR for over 10 years now and the relentless Harlequin drumbeat has been deafening for all of those years. To the point that, frankly, I have felt that if I don’t read Harlequins, I am not on the same wave length as everybody else. Maybe even ostracized a bit. It gets to you after a while.”

    I find that whenever I talk about romance to non-romance readers, they are shocked that they aren’t ALL published by Harlequin. I wonder what market share of romance is actually published by Harlequin? Wikipedia says more than half. And that’s a *lot* of books, given the sheer numbers of romances published each year.

    My sense is that Harlequin publishes a larger percentage of romance than any comparable genre publisher in any other genre, but I am more than willing to be corrected. So, while I personally don’t pay attention to publishers (I often don’t know until I am writing a review who published a book I am reading because I read them on my Kindle) I really do understand the fatigue angle.

    • AAR Sandy says:

      Jessica: Thanks for this post Lynn.Sandy wrote, “I’ve been at AAR for over 10 years now and the relentless Harlequin drumbeat has been deafening for all of those years. To the point that, frankly, I have felt that if I don’t read Harlequins, I am not on the same wave length as everybody else. Maybe even ostracized a bit. It gets to you after a while.”I find that whenever I talk about romance to non-romance readers, they are shocked that they aren’t ALL published by Harlequin. I wonder what market share of romance is actually published by Harlequin? Wikipedia says more than half. And that’s a *lot* of books, given the sheer numbers of romances published each year.
      My sense is that Harlequin publishes a larger percentage of romance than any comparable genre publisher in any other genre, but I am more than willing to be corrected. So, while I personally don’t pay attention to publishers (I often don’t know until I am writing a review who published a book I am reading because I read them on my Kindle)I really do understand the fatigue angle.

      I’d be interested to know that stat, too, Jess. It seems as if across all their lines, at least 30 books a month are published.

  18. Sue says:

    Fifty Shades and Harlequins. Opinion against opinion. Word choice faceoff. Annoyance, irritation, disgruntlement, offense. Women against women. High dudgeon over reading choices not womens rights or inequalities. Meanwhile romance is looked down on and some are shocked or surprised.

  19. Anne says:

    That Harlequin, Loveswept etc are or have been a training ground for many single title authors is (IMHO) undeniable when you look at a very partial list of authors who got their start in category… Suzanne Brockmann, Linda lael Miller, Debbie Macomber, Elizabeth Lowell, Iris Johansen, Barbara Boswell, Merline Lovelace (now writing a very successful mystery series), Sharon Sala, Carla Neggers, Jennifer Crusie, Emilie Richards, Candace Camp, Justine Davis, Lynne Michaels, Anne Stuart, Maggie Shayne, Nora Roberts, Linda Howard, Catherine Coulter… just to name a few… ;-) I have enjoyed the categories by all these authors as well as the single titles they later wrote and I’ve enjoyed both over the years… (and I mean years)

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