Rosie and I met for lunch yesterday, and while I was stuffing my face with cheesecake (for the record, it was caramel pecan turtle and yes, it was better than most of the sex I had when I was still single), we had a great conversation about Nora Roberts' category backlist.
Recent readers of this blog will recall that my brief foray into Nora's considerably older category titles didn't go all that well. I largely chalked this up to the fact that the books were 25 years old, hadn't stood the test of time, and Nora is a better writer now than she was 20-odd years ago (only natural).
Then Rosie brought up an interesting point. I've only been reading romance seriously since 1999. There was a brief flirtation in high school, but it lasted about as long as my first crush. Rosie has been reading the genre longer, and fondly recalled reading Nora's category titles right around the time many of them were first published. The appeal for her was that Nora was the first (or one of the very first) category writers to give the heroine's interesting careers/lives outside of the romance. It wasn't all secretaries, nurses or elementary school teachers (not that these aren't "interesting" careers - but they are rather traditional). Nora wrote about Olympic gymnasts, heroine's who work in publishing, chefs, actresses, reporters, photojournalists, and hotel managers (just to name a few). None of these career paths are particularly revolutionary today, but back in the day? I imagine category romance readers were overjoyed to read a story that didn't fit the boss/secretary or nurse/doctor mold.
I can appreciate the trails that authors like Nora blazed "back in the day" but it's on a different level than the long-time romance reader. Long-time readers remember the revelation. They remember the sheer joy they experienced when they read that meaty, epic historical romance or about the take-charge heroine who wanted it all. I look back and see the evolution. I appreciate that evolution. But it's not the same for me as it is for those readers who experienced it first-hand.
When I read Dreaming Of You by Lisa Kleypas this summer I appreciated the hero, Derek Craven. A non-titled, gutter rat hero is still pretty revolutionary even today and I can imagine it just rocked everybody's world back in 1994. That said, I did find the rest of the story a bit conventional. Had I read it in 1994 I'm sure I'd be a gushing fangirl a la KristieJ. Kristie has unabashedly loved this book for many years. I bet if we asked her she could recall how she felt when she first read this book and what she felt over the course of her many rereadings. It was different. It was refreshing. It rocked her socks. Me reading it over 10 years later? I could understand why it's such a beloved book to many readers, and think it goes on the Romance Novel Evolution Time Line, but I didn't love it to bits. It was "pleasant." Why? Because over ten years later, elements that Kleypas put into that story have made their slow steady trek around Romance Novel Land. Case in point? How many Evil Other Woman villains have we been subjected to since 1994? Too many to count! This is hardly the author's fault, but reading the book for the first time, many years after the fact, it's easier to be jaded.
With genre fiction, a lot depends on the space the reader is in at the moment of the first reading. There are books I loved as a teen that probably wouldn't work for me if I was reading them for the first time at age 32. And this is largely where I think a lot of genre fiction falls. Certainly a lot of "contemporary" genre fiction falls in this category. What was contemporary in 1985, is going to be vastly different from contemporary 2007. Which is why I believe so many readers point to historical romances as their all-time favorites. Certainly trends come and go, plot devices get beat into the ground, but historical implies "time capsule." 1812 was just as "historical" in 1985 as it is today. That never changes.