There’s been a lot of talk the last week or so about the decline (in numbers, quality, new authors, readers) of historical romance. Jane’s suggestion at Dear Author that “We should let the historical genre die” has generated a lot of discussion (both there and on Twitter).
I agree with a lot of what Jane says about how stale the subgenre has become and how few new authors are breaking out (forget talking about why this is so, which only seems to lead to arguments among people who basically agree that variety would be nice). I don’t want to launch a campaign to save historical romance in its current narrow form, but I would like a campaign to reboot it. What can I do?
Today’s discussions led me to this post by Evangeline Holland, and one of the things she suggests is that historical romance needs a Fifty Shades, a breakout book from outside the genre, to shake it up. I’m not sure that’s the only way to change, but it’s one way. Evangeline also got me thinking about the rise of New Adult, a genre for which there was supposedly no market, which no publisher would buy. Authors wrote books, they self-published, and they created a market (I suspect by building on the strong online community of YA readers/writers/bloggers, from which some of them came).
Is it risky? Yes. But I think it’s a way forward for new kinds of historical romance if writers want to take that risk. There’s an online romance community, many of them are saying they want change. Is it a giant-best-seller-size audience? Perhaps not, but it could be a sustain-your-career-size audience. That audience needs to do their–our–part. Romance-readers discovered New Adult because a few hardy souls started reading it. They read a lot of not-great books to discover a few they felt were gems. And other readers followed them. There are some unusual historicals out there. And I think there would be more if authors and publishers believed there were an audience, if they saw readers talking about such books. (I might be arguing that if we build it, they will come. What other clichés can I spout?)
I don’t want to read a lot of crap. But I will read some “good C+” books. The good C+ is what happens when a writer takes a risk that doesn’t quite work. (I see it in student papers all the time). There are C+ books where everything is kind of “meh” and there’s not much hope for better, and then there are C+ books that are really just a step from a B+/A, once the writer has better mastery of her craft. Books with some real flaws, but also some great stuff. I think that will be what the best “different” historicals mostly look like, at first. They’ll be from new writers.
So here’s what I’m going to do: I’m going to pay more attention to small (probably e-only) press and self-published historical romance, and to historical fiction that might have a strong romance plot but isn’t being labeled “romance” because it’s not Regency. When I find books that are somewhat out of the frothy-Regency-Duke mold and make it to at least the “good C+” level, I’m going to talk about them.
I don’t hate Regencies. I’ll still read them. I just want more variety in my historical romance. Too much of the same thing (and packaged/marketed to elide any differences) = jaded reader= focusing on the bad in books rather than the good.
Feel free to suggest the new and “different.”