Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Fractured Fairy Tales and a Turning Point of a Genre

Between preparing for a number of romance-related presentations, various Twitter conversations, and the continued realization that I'm old, I've found myself musing on the state of the romance genre of late.  As usually happens when I start musing on something, it takes me a while to put together my thoughts.  What typically ends up spurring me to some sort of epiphany?  A brouhaha.  A kerfuffle.  Drama llamas.
Sinner's Creed by Kim Jones is the first in a new MC series and published by Berkley.  MCs are really a romance genre "thing" right now, there are endorsement quotes by Joanna Wylde (this book) and Katy Evans (upcoming second book) and, you know, just look at that cover.  If it looks, acts and walks like a duck, you'd think - hey, a duck romance.  For gory (literally) details - Mandi from Smexy Books has a spoiler tagged review over at GoodReads. (ETA: Mandi has now posted a longer review over at her blog.)

I'll wait.

OK, now you're back.  Here, have a cookie, a blankie and a puppy dog.  Feel better?

The spin (because, of course, there's always spin) is that it's a "non-traditional HEA."  Now I've been guilty of using this phrase more than once in my life.  Back in the Stone Ages I would use this term to describe some Black Lace novels (which were marketed as erotica) that featured "happy endings."  Just not in the traditional Let's Get Married And Now The Heroine Is Pregnant With Quadruplets happy endings.  It was my way of calling out "Happy For Now" books back in the day when we really didn't know what that term was yet.

This book though?  I'm sorry, it's not a "non-traditional HEA," it's just not happy.  "Non-traditional HEA" still implies that YOU'LL GET SOME DARN HAPPY!  So not only does it not have a HEA, it's completely hijacked the concept of a "non-traditional HEA." Naturally some romance readers are displeased.  And by "some" I mean anyone who identifies the genre strongly with the HEA.

I can here you thinking, "WHA?!?!?!  Are you INSANE Wendy?!?!?!?  ROMANCE = HEA!!!!!  ALL READERS SHOULD KNOW THIS?!?!??!  IT'S LIKE THE ONLY RULE OF THE GENRE!!!!"

And I'm hear to tell you - all readers don't.  At least, I don't think they do.  And this is the theory I've been musing about for the last several months.

Unless you've been living under a rock you'll have noticed that self-publishing has changed the publishing industry - but nowhere so much as within the romance genre.  As far back as the early days of this blog (2003), I would state quite emphatically that the number of romance readers online is actually quite small.  GoodReads has changed that somewhat, but the truth of the matter is that there are plenty of "shadow readers" out there.  Folks who buy their books at WalMart, check them out from the library, read said books, and then don't talk to anyone about them.  They read in a vacuum.
Ebooks and self-publishing have just exacerbated this phenomenon.  These Vacuum Readers now troll around Amazon, snap up 99 cent or free books because they look interesting or they're cheap, but not necessarily because they are romance.  Or else they hopped on the Fifty Shades bandwagon, having never read a romance, or having not read one since Sweet Savage Love, and discovered they liked it.  But here's the corker - they don't necessarily identify themselves as "romance readers."  They aren't waving a Romance Freak Flag high in the air.  Self-publishing has led to more fluidity in the genre which has led to more fluidity among readers.  What was verboten ten years ago is now fair game and for some readers this isn't a big deal because they aren't lugging around the Genre Baggage.  They aren't lugging around The History.  In fact, if they've stumbled across this blog post they're now Googling "Sweet Savage Love."  In short, they're not weighed down by the trappings of the genre (the HEA) that other readers expect and demand.

These readers may read romance (sometimes occasionally, sometimes more often) but don't necessarily "identify" themselves as romance readers.  They're reading the book because it sounded good or was cheap or was free or they were bored or it's a Wednesday or whatever - but not necessarily because it's a romance novel.

The knock against self-publishing has always been that it lacks "gatekeepers."  Without editors and publishers telling readers what they deem is worthy it will be anarchy!  And to a certain extent?  It kind of is.  Because the simple truth is that anything goes in self-publishing.  There's nobody telling you that you can't write something.  That readers won't accept it.  Readers might not accept it - but you'll find that out from the readers, directly - not from an agent or editor acting as gatekeeper.  So to a certain extent?  Readers are the new gatekeepers.

Which is why, I think, we're now here.  Readers who don't necessarily define themselves as "romance readers" who wade on the fringes of the genre are open to more to this sort of fluidity.  Don't believe me?  There are plenty of early four and five star reviews for Sinner's Creed over on GoodReads to suggest otherwise.  This is exciting or terrifying depending on what school of thought you belong to.  Which is how we've arrived, I think, to this moment in time where a major romance player like Berkley would publish a book like Sinner's Creed and wrap it in all the trappings and signal cues of romance.  Because for the all the readers who will want to drive a stake into the center of this book?  There will be just as many readers who want to sleep with a copy of it under their pillow.

I have my own baggage when it comes to self-publishing (remember, I'm a librarian), and over the years my opinion on the subject has changed dramatically.  Yes, I now think self-publishing is a great thing and I would not want to turn back that clock.  The benefits, for me, outweigh, any of the negatives.  And right now I think the biggest negative is that the genre is starting to splinter into various factions.  It wasn't that long ago that the HFN (Happy For Now) was given the major side-eye by some readers.  I don't think we'll ever get away from the genre defining itself by the HEA, but I do think we're going to see more authors and publishers playing around in the minefield that borders Happy Ever After Territory and cloaking those stories in romance cues to snag more and more romance dollars.  And for readers who demand the happy ending?  Who want the happy ending?  It's interesting times ahead.

I've never been an end-reader, but I'm wondering if I need to rethink that policy.


Amber said...

Spoilers ahoy:

I'm so disappointed right now. Both in the author and in the publisher. (And in RT Book Reviews). I came to the romance genre to avoid the tragic books that I'd been forced to read in college. Killing off people who find love and calling it a "love story" is a cheap way to try to give your fiction weight and "legitimacy" in a world that values tragedy over happiness.

I think the big difference is that people who are fine with this aren't romance readers. They are NA/YA or 50 Shades readers. And that's great that they're happy with the way the book turned out. BUT... I think the packaging and cues and marketing (such as RT Book Review putting a romance label on it in their magazine) is a cynical attempt to trick romance readers into purchasing it. Many of my romance reading friends aren't in the romance groups online, but they would be horrified by this book. They seek out romance for its optimism, and books like this one break that trust.

Erin Burns said...

On the other hand, lately I have found that my own perspective on what I constitute a happily ever after has shifted, probably because I am reading more weird stuff. I read one not long ago where what happens in the after life played a big part of the story and the heroine sacrificed her life to preserve that and the hero without the magic that kept him young would be dying soon and would be able to go to her. I don't know if I am making that clear enough, but anyway, it felt like an appropriate ending for them.

Definitely interesting days ahead, and I will be going back to my ending checker probably, because while my ability to accept has cracked open a bit, it hasn't cracked open that much.

Barb in Maryland said...

Well, just read the spoiler review--shades of Lurlene McDaniels! I would say it might appeal to Nicholas Sparks fans, except that they would probably be appalled at the violence (as would, of course, McDaniels' fans).

Wendy--perhaps you meant 'cues' (as in hints) rather than 'queues'(as in waiting lines)?

Wendy said...

Amber: It's the publisher that shocks me more than anything in this instance. If this were self-published and had "romance trappings" I think there would still be an uproar - but not quite on the same level.

One thing I didn't hypothesize in this post - I'm wondering if these sort of shenanigans will be limited to the "darker" sub genres. The fact that this is an MC book is the least surprising thing about this incident. Will this "edginess" stay on the fringes of MCs, "dark romance" and NA? Or will we begin to see it creep into small town contemporaries and Regency historicals (gah, I hope not!)

Erin: Paranormal romance has had a history of blurring these lines since it's very existence. Some folks yesterday were bringing up A Knight In Shining Armor by Jude Deveraux - but compared to this MC book, that does end happily. Sort of. Kind of. To this day readers are really divided over that book (I loved it - but I read as a teenager, so that probably explains why...)

Barb: Ha! Yes, I did mean cues (of course). What inevitably ends up happening after I hit "post" is that I then go back at least once or twice to correct some spelling or grammatical error. I'd already had to go in once before because I mucked up hear/here. Seriously, this blog is a minefield of bad spelling/grammar and slang.

May said...

I totally agree with you especially about the readers do not identify themselves as romance readers. And that is fine to target them with tragic books.

What make me mad about the whole thing is the lie. You don't identify yourself as romance readers, it is your preferences. You do not expect HEA in your books, IT IS YOUR RIGHTS. BUT Ialso have rights to expect happiness wgen I pick up my "romance".

A lot of self-pub books with dubious ending disguised as Romance. They may not say out-loud as Romance but package look loke romance. The review in GR seemed to be with the tragic ending.

I read some of those books & love some of them because I picked it up to read without the expectation of romance.

This whole Sinner's Creed incident is different. For me it is the betrayal trust that I will never forgive. I purchase this book sight unseen because of the genre (MC is kind of a thing for me) TOGETHET with the quote from Joanna Wylde, whom I love her MC book. Joanna Wylde wrote romance so my expectation from recommendation is the book should be romance. And this book is published by Berkley, an established publisher, whom I trust. It is not like I troll Amazon and buy this book on a whim without any research.

I feel betrayed.

I compared this to JR Ward's The Shadow. At least the author the gut to warn about the ending. And I think Ward excluded herself from romance for quite a while. In this case up until now all markketing still target at romance readers.

I saw FB/twitter post from supposely Romance Authors encourage their followers to buy this books. This is the lesson I learned to never trust those authors, in their words or their books.

Brie said...

The getaways to romance keep expanding, so yes, new readers will come with different set of expectations and that might, in turn, impact the genre or a least a subset of it. But I don’t think this is the end of the genre/HEA as we know it or anything like that (not that you’re implying such thing) I mean, if we’re catering to readers who don’t think HEA is the one genre convention romance must follow, then why be so cagey about it? Why the “unconventional HEA” euphemism? Especially considering online genre readers, the ones who believe the HEA is a must, are not opposed to reading—and promoting—love stories with unhappy endings as long as they are properly labeled (Mandi mentions the Jojo Moyes book, for example). I think this time we’re just seeing a publisher that very well knows romance=HEA being deliberately deceptive.

That said, I do think there are many readers who don’t know the difference between genre romance, general non-genre romance, and love stories, and who believe it’s all the same thing. And that’s probably a discussion worth refreshing, especially since sometimes even seasoned romance readers can’t agree in what constitutes an HEA/HFN. Although we can all agree that Sinner’s Creed is most definitely not an HEA book.

Lynne Connolly said...

I'm with the rest of you. If it says or claims to be a romance, then it has to have a happy ending of some sort. That's why I'm an end reader. These days, with Amazon, we can't read the end until we've bought it, so it's more problematic than it used to be.
I have a literature degree. I ploughed through years and years of reading books where lovers were separated at the end, where one or both of them died, where everybody was miserable all the way through (I'm looking at you, Thomas Hardy!) and in the books I read to relax, I don't want the miserable ending.
A few years ago in the UK there was a brief fad for what was called "mis-lit." It died very quickly. Let's hope this dies too, or rather, is published as a non-romance novel. "Love story" would do fine to describe this kind of book.

~ Mad ~ said...

I'm fine with a HFN ending but this? This is a joke. How do they even begin to think it's ok to dupe romance readers with this book? That both characters die in it? Are you kidding me?

Wendy said...

May: Author endorsements are a tricky, tricky thing to navigate to the point where I ignore 99% of them. There are a few authors whose recommendations I do trust because I know they'll give me the straight scoop (Lynne Connolly is one, Jill Sorenson is another...) - but yeah, it's a small list!

Brie: I'm just going to +1 your whole comment. What you said. Brie just said what I was thinking people!

Lynne: I know, right?! Reading a Kindle sample isn't going to do you any good since the sample never includes the ending.

Most of us online have developed trust circles - reviewers and bloggers we've come to rely on - and I just see that becoming more and more important.

Mad: It just occurred to me that this whole incident blows the whole "gatekeeper" argument out of the water that traditional publishers still occasionally like to use. If we can't trust Berkley to "gatekeep" the HEA - who the heck can we trust, exactly?!?!

In the end I think this makes it harder for newer authors. Readers get more gun-shy, less willing to take a chance on an author they don't already have a "relationship" with.

azteclady said...

Blast you, Miz Wendy, I had just finished writing about this--the post is scheduled for tomorrow morning.

(I'm publishing it anyway, though I'm sure there will be those who think I cribbed from you.)

I agree with a lot of what you say about offline readers, or readers who don't identify as 'romance readers,' but (as Mad and Brie point out), the problem here is that the 'romance' label was used with premeditation.

Romance readers + 'trusted' publisher of romances + 'trusted' romance books magazine review = easy money.

And it will work for them, at least this once--in the long term? Not so much.

When Ward played the 'fresh/original/unconventional HEA' card with The Shadows, there were plenty of voracious romance readers who said, "yeah, this is why I stopped reading (author who killed off a protagonist) ten/twenty/however many years ago."

We remember, and we talk about it, and there are many, many readers who lurk, and take heed.

Christine Rimmer said...

Oh, have mercy! I already bought this and I didn't know. I liked Jones's Clubwhore. Wendy, you can get a real whore in that one AND an HEA, though I found the heroine hard to like at first--she was so messed up that her issues had issues--she did grow on me. I'm so far not able to get through the first Dallas book, but when I saw Sinner's Creed got a 5-star review from RT...yeah. I just bought it. Now I'll probably never read it. Grrr.

PK the Bookeemonster said...

I have so many rambling thoughts:

-- Does something like this get written because -- similar to movies and television -- they have to keep upping the ante? The audience has become so jaded ... it takes the envelope and rips it apart rather than just pushing it or having the "twist".

-- You come across a similar concept in crime fiction sometimes -- the criminal goes unpunished. There is no satisfaction to the investment of our attention. I read genre for the pay off -- save the world/kingdom, get the girl, solve the crime.

-- This probably should have been marketed as straight up fiction. It very may well become a sub-genre itself but really to market it as such you're giving away the ending every time.

-- Well, in Twilight he was ALREADY dead.... :)

Much love,
PK the Bookeemonster

Wendy said...

AL: I've been kicking around the theory that the genre is splintering into "factions" for (I'm not even kidding) for a few months now. This Sinner's Creed thing just sort of pushed it all together a bit for me. Finally.

Christine: OH NO!!!!! Mandi has since posted a more in depth review over at her blog. I need to edit my post to include the link....

PK: Oh good Lord - you might be on to something with that first one. And yes, I've read crime fiction like that as well and it's....not terribly satisfying. I like justice in my crime stories BECAUSE we don't always see it done in Real Life. Sigh.

Nikki said...

I've seen this book all over Twitter and other websites. Thank you so much for posting the link to Mandi's review. I would have been so pissed if I had bought that book expecting it to have a HEA or HFN. I'm really disappointed with some of my trusted sources who have touted this book. And truly: shame on Romantic Times and others who call this book a romance.

S. said...

I don't have anything useful to say but just wanted to leave my thoughts...
I didn't even know this book existed as Motorcycle clubs stories aren't my thing. I don't run from them but don't look either. I think what is problematic here is that they labeled this a romance and it isn't. For those well established readers, people who have loved it since they were young this looks like a betrayal of all the things we always knew about reading. But for a new reader, someone who is now starting to enjoy books instead of wild parties, someone who won't read 100 books a year, can this become the sort of book people will think it's how it's supposed to be?

Personally I feel book reviews and friends and established sites with reviews will prove to be holy places somehow. These days I rarely buy things without seeing what people I know have said about it or if they didn't, I read reviews from well known sites to give me an idea...and I also try to read things that appeal to my tastes, not always taking chances on things I don't feel appeal to (like MC stories).
But it feels rather scary people/readers might think romances will become things we can't understand how they got labeled that. Same thing for misleading blurbs...
Of course one can say it depends on the reader, if there is acceptance then it can be justified, but to be misled and betrayed makes me loose faith, yes.

A.M. Bookdragon said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
A.M. Bookdragon said...

Then they need to define a new Genre. Romance's cornerstone is the ending. All genre's have certain aspects that are expected by reader and the reader feels betrayed by the author when they defy these expectations. If an author is not going to write within the genre's confines, this is fine. However, they should not attempt to market their book to a reader base that is invested in the HEA (HFN) and trusts the writers to understand this unwavering commonality through all romance sub-genres.

Romantic fiction does not require a HEA - Bill yourself as that. I avoid sub-genres I dislike. Menages, BDSM, shape shifters, vampires, time travel, and yes MC romance. This is OK because plenty of other people enjoy these sub-genres, and the writers of these books generally market to their particular audience. I know what I am not buying, the lovers of these sub-genres know what they are buying. Everyone is happy and content.

Although publishing has changed the need need for reader trust has never been greater. There are so many authors out there for a reader to choose from. If a particular author breaks the readers trust than they will never give that author another chance, even if their next book fits into reader expectations. There are authors I do not read because they broke my trust. I know many other readers who can list authors they do not buy for this same reason. All authors should feel free to write what ever their muse dictates. They just need bill their writing correctly, market correctly, describe it correctly. Do not betray the reader. Know the the confines of not only romance, but the sub-genre they are writing other. If their muse takes them elsewhere let the reader know. I will say this for those in doubt The absence of a HEA (HFN) does not equal Romance as the correct genre.

Amber said...

I think Hardy was the final straw for many of us who took those lit classes. My own personal limit was hit with Jude the Obscure. :)

@May and Wendy,
The author blurbs aren't worth a lot to many of us jaded reviewers, but I know lots of regular, offline readers who trust them. I had a post a few years ago about how they're basically blurbs for friends and got so much push back from authors about it. How dare I imply they didn't read/love the book blah, blah, blah. This right here is exactly why I don't believe author recs anymore :(

I was kind of annoyed with Novels with Romantic Elements was pushed out of the RWA, but this kind of stunt makes me glad that having an optimistic ending was kept as a crucial part of the genre.

(Still annoyed by this whole thing)

RandomRanter said...

I had been thinking about the mystery comparison, but I would argue that while the perpetrator does not always get punished in mystery, they are (at least in my reading experience) identified. Yes, they don't always get led off in handcuffs, but if I read one where at the end the characters all collectively shrugged their shoulders, I would consider that not a mystery.
I think the romance definition is pretty wide open, the happy ending for the couple is really the last thing left, and again, love story, book with romantic elements, there are plenty of really good descriptors for things that have smooches but are not actually a romance.
And I do get that plenty of folks don't care about the genre parameters, but, who is this marketing for except for the people who do care?

azteclady said...

This, this!!!

And I do get that plenty of folks don't care about the genre parameters, but, who is this marketing for except for the people who do care?

Thank you, RandomRanter, this is, in a nutshell, why the use of the 'romance' label pisses me off so much.

After all, we (self-identified romance readers) are often told, in so many words, that we read trash, that all romances are the same, and all are poorly written, that we have no discernment, and blah blah blah. The only reason to use the label in marketing, then, is to sell to all those 'stupid' yet voracious romance readers.

Wendy said...

Nikki: I need to check the magazine but on the RT web site they do have it labelled as Erotica / Erotic Fiction. That being said, I know plenty of romance readers who blur the definitions of erotica and erotic romance ALL THE TIME and RT's review isn't terribly detailed. Reading between the lines you get no sense that hey - this book isn't a romance.

S.: And I think we can lay a lot of this at the feet of self-publishing. The application of genre labels has been pretty fast and loose. Authors using romance genre language and tags for better placement, to catch the attention of romance readers and our open wallets. We buy and read a lot of books. I can't think of a sane author anywhere who wouldn't want access to that. And because this kind of thing has been met with some success in self-publishing, I think appealing to readers who aren't cloaked in traditional romance genre seems only natural that a traditional publisher would try it as well. And mores the pity for those of us who read the genre specifically for the happy ending.

Wendy said...

A.M.: And I think a lot of romance authors "get" this - which is why you see so many of them adopt pseudonyms when they go work in other genres. That said, I've been looking for ways to explain the presence of so many 4 and 5-star reviews. I haven't checked today but really - Mandi's was the only review on GoodReads yesterday that was like OMG THIS IS HORRIBLE. STOP! RUN BACK! SAVE YOURSELF!!!

My theory is that these are readers who don't necessarily identify themselves as "romance readers." Or else they're like countless other people out there who think books that aren't romances ARE romance. For example: Gone With the Wind is the best romance ever. Um, no. No it's not. It's not a romance! It's a common misconception that now seems to be amplified more than ever because - self-publishing, the state of the industry as a whole etc. etc.

But this is just my working theory. I'm with you all. Romance, for me, needs the HEA or HFN or it ain't a romance. It's the promise the genre gives the reader. Outside of making the loving story a central plot point - it's the only "requirement" of the genre.

Wendy said...

Amber: Author blurbs really work on what I call "the casual reader." Like I said, I listen to Jill and Lynne because I feel like their endorsements come from a genuine place. This is probably me doing "this" for too long - but it's getting easier for me to spot honest, genuine enthusiasm for a book. That said, if I were new to the genre, or didn't already have a "trust network" built up? Ugh. I shudder to think.

And I'm still bitter about Novel with Romantic Elements. Those were and are gateway books for a lot of romance readers. I feel like that should be recognized.

RandomRanter: Excellent point. Because if they were only concerned about targeting "non-romance readers" they wouldn't have wrapped it up in so many romance cues.

The problem, as I see it, is that romance readers buy a lot, read a lot, and some of us talk a lot. What grinds my gears is that romance readers will read outside the genre and we will pimp those books when we love them. Case in point? JoJo Moyes. So many romance readers loved Me Before You even though it doesn't fit within the romance genre parameters. Bunches of us read Gone Girl and The Girl on the Train, and Harry Potter and Game of Thrones and so on and so on. And the publisher didn't have to resort to bait and switch by cloaking the marketing in romance cues to get us to read and love any of those books. So to see it done here is pretty annoying.

LibraryMaven said...

OK, this is a bad, bad betrayal. When I pick up a mystery I expect to find out "who-done-it" even it he/she can't be brought to justice. When I pick up a romance I expect a HEA or something with LOTS of romance. I DO NOT want to wind up with a Gone-Girl type novel by mistake.
(Gillian Flynn is a good writer but that is one scary "heroine". I could live with getting back at her husband with a faked disappearance/murder but what she does is just....bad, torture, crazysauce. If it were genre fiction I'd have to kind of label it a horror story for a cheating husband.)
How could RT review this thing seriously as a romance? Did someone use clout or bribery or blackmail or ....wait, that would make a good plotline.

Bona Caballero said...

OK, I'm one of those who does not need to google 'Sweet Savage Love' and still wonders in 'Knight in a Shining Armor' has got a happy ending or not. So, yes, I think the genre requires a happy ending, and by that I mean the two -or three or four- main characters alive and together. I don't need marriage, or children or happy ever after, I'm OK with happy for now. But they have to be together and alive in the end.
If it hasn't got that happy ending is not a romance novel. It does not belong to the genre. It's like a whodonit in which you don't discover who is the murderer. It can be great, but it does not belong to the genre.
But, of course, it can be a thing about age. After all, I'm closer to fifty than to forty.