Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Forgotten History

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.


Kristie (J) said...

Yep - it rocked my socks from the get go. I'd read a lot of historical romance and everyone was a duke or an earl or a viscount. You get the picture. But this one with Derek Craven was different from most of the books of the time. He was from the lower classes - not just a working guy, but a gutter rat. And some of the jobs he did to get ahead were Very Unusual. And I think because of that first love, it's endured and lasted. If I were to read it for the first time today, I still think I'd love it because IMO the writing is superb. I'm not sure if the love would be quite as great - but I'm thinking it would.
What I do find interesting is the fact that it came in second in the AAR poll. So today's readers are still discovering this one (with maybe a teeny tiny bit of help from me) and loving it also.
I've been rereading a number of older books and the love and joy is still there for them many years later
What this all has to do with your post I'm not sure *g* but I thought I'd throw my 2 cents in.

Wendy said...

Kristie: I think the reason DOY still works for readers today is because Derek never became a "trend." There wasn't an influx of non-titled heroes after that book was released (mores the pity). I think that's the key to a lot of "older" books still resonating today. They somehow managed to buck the trend(s), the market was never flooded with copycats, so the books still read "fresh" today. And how many times have we heard an author say that the book dropped like a stone when it was first published but found an audience AFTER it was out-of-print? It's just too hard to predict sometimes....

Which is why I wish publishers weren't so trend-happy. But that's another blog post altogether.

Anonymous said...

I rolled over the Romance Novel Timeline as if there was going to be a link to it, and was quite disappointed that there wasn't. Has this been done? If not, I'm adding it to your lifetime achievements to do list.
Do you ever feel like the fiction books in the library are great, but they are only half the conversation? They are (mostly) all hardcover, and paperbacks get beat up and tossed out. How will people in the future be able to know what we were reading and thinking about if nobody can find those books that have been recycled/trashed, cuz the only literature that anybody thinks is worth keeping is published in hardcover?
The same kinda goes for video games. You can't even get a game on 5.25" disk from the long ago folded game company, and it's illegal for anyone else to distribute it because of copyright law, but is anyone keeping these games so that there's a record of how games evolved and what we were into back then?
How much do researchers use letters to work out the daily life and motivations of 1800s authors, and where will they be able to access Nora Roberts' emails in 200 years?
Is this history important or not?
Just some questions that came to mind while reading your blog. Thought-provoking is a nice adjective, but I thought you might like some examples.

RandomRanter said...

I think you make a good point. (Several actually.) There are also books that I loved first go-round and went back to later and wondered what had been wrong with me. The reverse has also happened - although less frequently.

Rosie said...

I have a couple of thoughts of my own. First, Kristie, I think some people may have voted for DOY based on their memory of how it affected them and not how they feel about it reading it years later. I'm not saying the book isn't great, but that may account for the votes it got.

Secondly, Wendy, I love that you pointed out that for some older books readers remember fondly it's because of the barriers they broke. Nora Roberts not only got better but she understands the dynamic of her readers.

Wendy said...

Bowling Green University has a Popular Culture Library that houses a variety of popular fiction - including romance. Certainly things get lost over the years, and you make an excellent point about the digital age, but all is not lost. Let's see now if Blogger will let me embed a link. BGSU Pop Culture Library

Rosie and Random: I wish I had more time to reread and didn't suffer from such crushing TBR guilt - because I would love to reread some of my keepers. I wonder if they all would still hold up as well for me? Especially some of my favorite Harlequins....