Boycotting the Dukes, and Other Reading Choices

Inspired by Jane’s review of Sophia Nash’s Between the Duke and the Deep Blue Sea, I am declaring my personal reading boycott of any book with “Duke” in the title. Or maybe it’s any book with a Duke in it? Or possibly it’s High Concept Regency Mistoricals with titles based on songs/movies/other pop culture phenomena? I’m not sure where to draw the lines.

I admit I have enjoyed at least one book that broke these rules, Julie Ann Long’s What I Did for a Duke. But even there the historical implausibilities/inconsistent world-building kept disrupting my enjoyment of the story. I’m tired of Dukes, tired of crazy implausible plots, tired of books that are not set in anything resembling real history but not set in a truly fairytale/fantasy world either. I think it’s time for this trend to die.

I usually don’t read controversial books just to satisfy my curiosity or form my own opinion about the controversy. They often just don’t sound like books I’d like, and I don’t think I can read them with an open mind. Plus, when I have so many books I want to read waiting for me, why try one I think I’ll dislike? I’m really tempted to read Joan Swan’s Fever after Jane’s live updates on Goodreads, though. Is the author’s characterization of a white supremacist realistic, or exploitative overkill? I think a lot depends on how the narrative treats this character, not just on the language he uses. And to decide what I think about that, I really have to read it myself.

This is totally a dashed-off placeholder post. I just finished a really good book, Madeleine E. Robins’ latest Sarah Tolerance mystery, and hope to get a review up this weekend; right now, I’m back to the grading pile.

What will make you read a controversial book? What trends have you had enough of?

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21 Responses to Boycotting the Dukes, and Other Reading Choices

  1. DS says:

    Wait, wait is this a new Sarah Tolerance mystery? I would be so happy to have a new one to read.

    • lizmc2 says:

      It is! It’s called The Sleeping Partner and came out in November. I think she found a new publisher. Hope there will be more to come.

      • DS says:

        Oh, I am happy. I’m going to go buy it now.

        Problem with boycotting Dukes is that I don’t read those books anyway so I would have zero effect.

  2. willaful says:

    I will sometimes be drawn to a controversial book of the “train wreck” variety for potential amusement value, but in this instance the probability of being amused seemed extremely small. Since I feel no need to form an opinion of the book, I’m not tempted to read it. If the issue were more personally relevant to me, I would probably be much more curious.

  3. My reading hours are precious, and unless the controversial book sounds interesting and is legitimately ground-breaking, I’ll shake my head on the sidelines.

    As for the second part, my historical romance reading has declined because of what your post detailed, but as an author I sympathize with the how and whys of Regency “Mistorical” high concepts and the obsession with dukes (namely, the very tight HR market) even though I couldn’t ever write them.

    • lizmc2 says:

      I think a lot of the cutesy Duke titles are from one publisher, and it makes sense as a branding thing. It may say Stay Away to some of us, but it must be working for a lot of readers.

      You highlight something I don’t really get about romance publishing. I would think a tight market would lead to more diversity, not to more of the same from another author. Publishing seems very timid; these days, I guess I can see why, but I think fear is the wrong way to respond to all the ways they are under threat. I’d like to see more innovation instead.

      • Whenever I gnash my teeth over the market, I figure that if people did want different, we’d see more of it in non-traditional avenues. But alas alack alas, both epubs and self-pub historicals rarely release the “different” many online readers say they crave.

        As for the taking of risks, money talks. I’ve heard that it’s become difficult for publishers to launch new HR author, hence the playing it safe with Regencies and high concepts. Plus, we see the industry shrinking back across the board (agency pricing, DRM, Overdrive, etc), so this response to their actual product is understandable. Do I like it? Nope, but I can see their POV, and the only thing I can control is my work (and FWIW, my agent and I decided to shop my work as Historical women’s fiction because of the non-traditional setting :-/ ).

      • lizmc2 says:

        I think you’re probably right, though I don’t want to believe playing it safe is necessary. Good luck with getting your book published. I, for one, would seek out something with a different historical setting!

  4. I used to love Amanda Quick’s historicals. They had mystery subplots, academic studies, paranormal investigations. Fluffy, maybe, but they seemed well-researched. The characters had interests outside of the ballroom and bedroom.

    I admit that I stay away from cutesy duke titles. I can’t criticize the content, but the covers remind me of cake with too much frosting.

    The furor over Fever is interesting. Some of the slurs and quotes from the book struck me as personally offensive. It reminds me of the reaction I had to one of Victoria Dahl’s books, Lead Me On. The heroine had a lot of insulting thoughts about the blue-collar hero. She didn’t want to be attracted to a low-class guy. Like she was slumming it, that sort of thing. It’s hard to articulate why this bothered me, because class issues abound in romance. The treatment just made me uncomfortable. It felt personal. I think this is the reaction many readers are having to Fever. Unless you’ve had a slur/insult directed to you or a family member, the power of those words might not sink in on a gut level.

    I picked up Heat, some rapey alien book, based on a DA review, so I guess there is an appeal to controversy. Not sure I’ll actually *read* it, though.

    • lizmc2 says:

      I think of Heat as not so much controversial but “difficult.” People who read it all say it is well done, but the content isn’t for everyone (I haven’t bought it, but I’m tempted too).

      Your point about how responses to the language are partly personal is a really good one. A lot of the comments I say saying “I won’t read it” or “I really objected to the way these terms were used” were from people who had had some of that language directed at them. There’s no way it could impact me the same way. It reminded me a bit of the uproar after Smart Bitch Sarah’s discussion of the anti-semitism in Heyer’s Grand Sophy. Several other Jewish readers commented that, like her, they could not just shrug it off as “reflecting her time.” To read that language was personally painful. I think an author really needs to think hard about using such terms, even in the mouth of a villain.

  5. I feel somewhat ignorant saying this, but I really don’t understand the overwhelming preference for dukes, to the exclusion of other kinds of heroes, in the historical-romance canon.

    I get that “duke” is a shorthand way of saying “rich, powerful man, one step shy of royalty,” and that this is assumed to be attractive to the romance reader. But as I write this, I’m seeing commercials for the re-release of the (hugely successful) movie Titanic, which follows the dumbass romantic-fantasy template with which I grew up; namely that poverty=character, and that to choose a wealthy man is pragmatic while to choose a poorer one is truly romantic. (See also swoony teen movies such as The Breakfast Club, in which princess-y Claire gives her diamond earring, and heart, to Hoodlum of the Suburbs Bender.)

    I don’t think chucking your privilege for the sake of True Love is superior, as a romantic fantasy, to marrying into a life of ease. But it does have a long tradition behind it, in high and low literature, and I’m just curious as to why it seems to be so underrepresented in historical romance novels of today.

    • lizmc2 says:

      Maybe Pretty in Pink was their favorite Molly Ringwald movie? (I always thought she should have gone for Ducky).

      More seriously, there is a far wider range of classes in contemporary romance. I wonder whether people (not authors, maybe, or not all authors, but many readers?) just don’t believe it was possible to have a good life “back then” without being rich. The typical Regency tends to depict no one between servants and aristocrats. Like gentry, merchants, shopkeepers, farmers, etc. just didn’t exist.

      • When I was fifteen I adored The Breakfast Club. Judd Nelson as Bender seemed so hot at that age. Nowadays my favorite John Hughes teen movie is probably Ferris Bueller’s Day Off though.

    • I agree that chucking your privilege for love is hugely romantic, though I can think of very few romances where it actually happens that they ride off into the sunset broke (At the moment only Sandy Hingston’s The Suitor comes to mind).

      I don’t know if it’s true but I’ve heard a theory espoused that the wealth of romance protagonists has to do with our own privilege. According to this theory, middle class Americans lifestyles aren’t that far from those of the British aristocracy in earlier centuries, and readers are most comfortable reading about the wealthy for that reason. But I think this theory doesn’t explain all those Harlequin billionaires.

      Maybe it is just as simple as wanting to see the happy ending secure? I think for some readers, the HEA represents not just a happy romantic relationship but no harm befalling the protagonists again during their lifetimes. A lifetime of peace and prosperity, as well as togetherness, if you will.

  6. Robin says:

    Ah, dukes. I’m not even a natural Regency Romance reader and I’m over it. I will recommend Claudia Dain’s Courtesan Chronicles, though, in case you haven’t read any of those. Funny and clever and very heroine-centric.

    I have to say I’m tempted to read Fever, and it was the author’s comment in response to Mandi’s Goodreads review that piqued my interest. Mandi objected to the slurs and the author said something to the effect of ‘too bad you didn’t stick around until the guy died a terrible death.’ Which sent up many flags for me. Like, how does his death relate to his character? Are we supposed to be happy about his death? What does that mean for the portrayal itself? Is the author merely using him to be provocative and then killing him off to serve reader disgust? And is she counting on mostly white readers and assuming they won’t be as offended as non-white readers? And why can we have a character who’s openly racist in the genre but not ever mention abortion? Okay, that’s off the topic — sorta — but I’m still curious about stuff like that. Anyway, I guess I’m most curious about how that character is being used, both inside the novel and in possible relation to reader expectations and perceptions. But that curiosity has not yet incentivized me to spend almost $10 on the book.

  7. Keishon says:

    can’t think of a reason to read a controversial book unless it sounds interesting to me. I go out of my way to avoid reading books that are made fun of or that are hyped. I still haven’t read the last book in the Twilight Saga and I was a fan from the first book (don’t laugh). I’ve heard about Fever. Not even intrigued enough to even give it a try and at that price too (as others have mentioned.)

  8. When I feel like this about a type of book, I switch genres and types for a bit. I haven’t read a romance novel since Meljean Brook’s The Iron Duke, which I loved, but I thought it was time to read something else for awhile. I am reading YA and Historical Mysteries by C. S. Harris. Good luck. BTW: Fever doesn’t interest me, but who knows.

  9. willaful says:

    The Iron Duke — an excellent reason not to boycott duke titles!

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