Discussion

Why Romance? Why Vintage?

Mary Anne’s Story

I love to read. I love stories. And right now, my kind of story is vintage romance fiction. 

By which I mean romances published in the twentieth century. In particular certain varieties of the genre, with features that were once popular but have since gone out of style. That’s why I’m grateful for a blog like Sweet Savage Flame. Here I can get info and opinions about my favorite body of fiction. And share my own!

Why romance? Why vintage? To answer both questions, I must start with who I am as a reader.

“Her First Romance” by Charles Edward Chambers. September 1922 issue of “The Ladies’ Home Journal,” Curtis Publishing Company.

A Lifelong Love of Reading

I’m an American and a Baby Boomer. I was born the year Eisenhower was elected. And exposed to the cultural influences of my generation. I liked some kinds of art and entertainment, tolerated others, rejected some. I wasn’t picky at first, but the years made me pretty selective.

I’ve been in love with reading ever since I could read. In the beginning, there was Dick and Jane. Then books assigned by my teachers or given to me by my parents. Well, my mother; my dad wasn’t much of a reader. Then lending libraries—oh, was I ever a bookworm! 

One unusual aspect of my reading for enjoyment was that it was primarily nonfiction. When asked what was the book I loved the most when I was a child, my reply is, “The Golden Book Encyclopedia.” I was, and remain, an info junkie.

I couldn’t and didn’t get into fiction until I was old enough to read adult-level fiction, which for me was around age twelve. Of course, I couldn’t understand it fully. But I got enough out of it to make it a meaningful part of my life.

There were plenty of romances available, but I was so preoccupied with other genres that my interest in romance didn’t begin until I was 25. My first romance read was A Kiss for Apollo by Janice Gray, Harlequin Romance #2029, 1976, which I picked up at a rummage sale the following year. I had no idea what it would start! 

A Kiss for Apollo,” Janice Gray, Harlequin Romance #2029, 1976, Bern Smith cover art (From Open Library)

Of course, I was hooked. Over the next several years, I read lots of romances in all the subgenres then available. I liked some types better than others. 

My favorite romances tended to fit one of two descriptions. One was short contemporaries in which the principal characters were mostly pretty nice. And except for the hero, middle-class. The author depicted them realistically; their stories proceeded along logical, believable lines. The aforementioned Harlequin is one such romance. 

The other was what I called “life in the fast lane” romances. Long contemporaries that presented dramatic, often over-the-top romantic sagas of the rich, the famous, and the miserable. The hero and heroine were professionals at the top of their glamorous fields or just plain wealthy. Many characters were under no obligation to act nice or even logically. They were too rich and powerful for that.

The former offered a comfortable vicarious experience in a world I felt at home in. The second, an exciting experience in a world I was NOT at home in. And never would be. But which fascinated me.

It’s been a while since I’ve read an example of the second type of romance. But I still read and love the first one. All the books I’ve reviewed for Sweet Savage Flame have been this type.

At least so far. I plan to branch out. But you never forget your first love!

Internet Meme

Why romance?

What did reading romances offer me that other genres didn’t? Love was and is important to me. I have a long history of being unable to find the kind of love I want. Or any kind, period.

But where real-life failed, fiction stepped in. I could experience vicariously that which I couldn’t otherwise.

What about movies and television? Wasn’t there plenty of romance there? Not when I was young. Romance, as a genre, had flourished during the Golden Age of Hollywood, but by the sixties, it was an endangered species. Not realistic enough for the new generation. Or maybe the decision-makers were more comfortable aiming at an audience that had something in common with them. It was male. And pretty cynical.

What could I find, and can I find, in pop culture that focuses on romantic love to the extent romance fiction does? Nothing. That’s it, folks.

Cartoon by Steve Bestie

Why vintage?

So why vintage romance? I mean, today, there are all sorts of varieties that didn’t exist a generation or two ago. The number of titles has exploded. And everything is accessible thanks to the Internet.

But, there are the buts. Some changes haven’t gone over well with me. Which ones?

I’m in dangerous territory here. I don’t like to yuck on someone else’s yum. I’m active in the Facebook romance fiction community. Many of my friends there write romances. Even more, read them. I don’t want to get unfriended.

But there’s little point in my writing this article if I’m not honest. So here goes.

Problem One: Strong Heroines

You read that right, folks. I don’t like today’s typical strong heroine. I can’t identify with her. And yes, I MUST identify with a heroine. I’m reading romance for the vicarious experience, remember?

I know, I’m supposed to go for strong heroines. They’re the only kind we get nowadays, in fiction and movies and TV and everywhere else. But I don’t. 

I can’t see myself in such a figure. What I CAN see is a bossy, pushy, angry woman. One who has to control everything and everyone around her. With the focus on her biggest challenge: a bossy, pushy, angry man who’s trying to control her.

Two control freaks. They deserve each other. But I don’t want any part of them!

Much of the unhappiness in my life has been caused by people like that. After all these years of suffering because of them, I’m supposed to identify with them? And root for them? No, thank you!

Indeed, the typical strong heroine doesn’t even fit my definition of strong. A strong woman, or man, isn’t one who can control everything. It’s one who can endure anything.

So if I don’t like strong heroines, which kind do I go for? Weak ones? No. Relatable ones. Likable ones. Believable ones. Interesting ones!

“The Compleat Angler” by Arthur Hughes, 1884.

Problem Two: Redemption

Okay, I realize redemption has been a romance-fiction staple for a long time. Jane Eyre saved Rochester from himself and all that. We can find plenty of examples in any period.

But not like today. Never before has it been such a big deal. It’s the overall theme in countless romances nowadays. Can the heroine redeem the hero? That’s what the story is all about.

Not, say, do they love each other? Is their love for real? What do they do for love? No, it’s about how the miserable hero who gives everyone a hard time becomes Mr. Nice Guy. Why? Because he has mind-blowing sex with a woman he otherwise can’t stand!

I realize fans of redemption romances don’t see this theme the way I do. And I don’t think I have to go into how I can’t find it believable. Or even enjoyable. 

It’s not even part of what I read romance for. To me, there’s nothing inherently romantic about redemption.

And I question why it’s a major theme in any genre or medium. Redemption is a matter for religion. Not pop culture.

Circa 1914, photographer unknown

Problem Three: Sex, Sex, and More Sex

Listen, I’m not a prude. I’ve seen it all, I’ve heard it all, I’ve read it all.

But I don’t enjoy it all. I typically find sex scenes boring. What goes on in the characters’ hearts and minds is much more interesting than what goes on farther south.

However, I represent a minority. The romance-fiction industry nowadays is geared to sex. More and more sex scenes, longer ones. And kinkier ones. Vanilla is SO twentieth century!

Sure, there are plenty of so-called sweet romances. Sometimes termed clean romances, but that’s controversial. Some (not including me) say it implies romances with sex are dirty.

But whatever label you use, today’s sweet romances still feature my other two issues, strong heroines and an emphasis on redemption. Speaking of redemption, a concept that, as I’ve already indicated, belongs in religion, a huge segment of the no-sex romance market consists of inspirational romances. Which are for Christians only.

And I’m a Buddhist.

“Forbidden Books” by Alexander Rossi, 1897

So In Conclusion . . . .

Sure, if I look hard enough, I can find current romances that represent exceptions to the rules. Heroines I can identify with. Less emphasis on redemption, or no redemption at all. No sex scenes. Or if there must be some, at least they get the hero and heroine into the bedroom, then out at the speed of someone going to a McDonald’s.

But I don’t want to spend that much time searching. My time is valuable, and I’d rather spend it reading. Or writing. My kind of romance, of course.

So why not pick romances from the same period as those I got hooked on? Sure, some embody my pet peeves. But it’s still far easier to find those that don’t.

And vintage romances are just as accessible as current ones. There’s eBay, there’s Amazon, there’s Etsy. There are countless independent booksellers online. There’s the yard sale down the street next weekend. 

And there’s the Internet Archive, the big online lending library. With hundreds, if not thousands, of vintage romances available for “checking out” free and legally. Probably similar websites I haven’t discovered yet. The Web is growing faster than I can keep up with it.

Yes, nowadays there’s something for everyone. Including those of us who look to a time other than nowadays.

12 replies »

  1. Hi, Mary Anne.

    I had to read your story several times in order to properly formulate what I wanted to write, so here goes.

    First, thank you for sharing your story. I do truly appreciate reading your journey as a reader. Although there are areas where we diverge-I love strong heroines and have no issues with most sexual content in books-I respect your opinions and hope you can respect mine. What we do share is a love of vintage books, although my vintage comes from the 1980’s and 1990’s as I was born when LBJ was in office.

    Although your entire article stands out, this comment in particular is powerful to me:

    “Love was and is important to me. I have a long history of being unable to find the kind of love I want. Or any kind, period.

    But where real-life failed, fiction stepped in. I could experience vicariously that which I couldn’t otherwise”.

    This, for me, is both incredibly powerful and also very relatable. Without going into too much detail, I too have had similar experiences, and romance novels have filled that void. I didn’t realize that-or maybe i did but just couldn’t find the right words to articulate it-until I read your article. I cannot tell you how much clarity you have brought me with that statement, so thank you for that and for sharing your story as a whole.

    • Dear Blue Falcon and Mary Anne,

      How profound on both your parts. Thank you for sharing those sentiments.

      Romantic fiction can be a balm or an outlet for so many reasons. For me, romance has always been a source of comfort. When I read my first romance at age 12, the ink was drying on the papers of my parents’ divorce. Throughout certain rough periods of my life romance, like other fiction, has been there.

      I wish I could take more delight in contemporarily written romances, but I have trouble relating to many of them. Yes, there were many a feisty-in-a-bad-way heroines in 1970’s-1990s romance, but there were also women of indomitable spirit. I enjoy a strong heroine, but perhaps the word “strong” isn’t the right word.

      As Mary Anne stated:

      a strong woman, or man, isn’t one who can control everything. It’s one who can endure anything.

      The strength that appeals to me is that of a woman with fortitude, not one who is trying to force her will upon others. I suppose that’s why I enjoy historical romance, especially the bodice ripper niche. You’d have a heroine go through harrowing experiences, yet come out all stronger for it, and along the way she’d fall in love and gain a partner for life. Not every book was like that, but the best ones were.

      • And thank you, Jacqueline! BTW, what happened to you when you were 12 happened to me when I was 17. Romance fiction didn’t help get me through that rough time. But it has for many others.

        And will do so in the future.

      • Hi, Jacqueline.

        Thank you for sharing a bit of your story. It inspires me to share a little of mine.

        I grew up in a single-parent household (my mother, my older sister and me), and my childhood was not fun on many levels. Reading was my version of “Calgon, take me away”. (I’m dating myself horribly with that, I know).

        I also agree with you about contemporary romances of today. The last three books I’ve read-including the one I’m currently reading-were published this century, and I’m finding I’m not really liking the style of writing. It feels like a Facebook/Instagram/Twitter style of writing, with the characters’ every thought described in minute detail, and I’m not really loving it. I’ll read them because I paid for them, but I can’t say i’m as enthusiastic about them as I am about a Harlequin Temptation series I read back in the 90’s, have just repurchased and have coming to me in the next two weeks.

        • Hear hear, Blue Falcon! Social-media-style writing is great for social media. But for a medium such as fiction, in which writers can get more profound, they SHOULD get more profound!

  2. And thank you, Blue Falcon! I very much respect your opinions. And enjoy reading them!

    I think you and I are far from the only ones who read and in some cases write romance for the reason we discussed. I’ve read a little about the motivations behind readers and writers. But only a little. I’d love to read much more. I’m on the lookout for it. I think this blog is a great place to start!

  3. Great article and love the story of your reading life and journey, im with you on the vintage romances, how far can you possibly push the envelope any further as in modern romance novels? Some still are good…I love the vintage covers also, nostalgia for another time

  4. Mary Anne, thank you for sharing your story with us! I am considered a millennial and although I started my romance reading journey with books published after 2000, as soon as I read my first pre-1990 Harlequin Presents, I was hooked. From then on I was at every library sale, Paperback trading store, or thrift store I could find, searching out these gems!

    I can definitely appreciate both vintage and non vintage Romance books but, when there is a choice, Vintage will always be my go-to. I love the connection with the characters that is usually established before any bedroom action takes place. I love the intense plots, ridden with angst or sometimes a bit of playfulness. I have to admit, I love a good strong heroine, strong enough to not be a pushover, but still retain the feminine grace that stops her from seeming shrewish or being pushy herself.

    I usually read at least 1 Romance book everyday to relax, but during lockdown, I quickly depleted my stock and all my usual haunts were closed, but I was blessed to find a place to read vintage Romance online. https://www.adonaipublishing.com/product/100vintageromanceebks/

    I will be forever grateful for this discovery, because it allowed me to continue reading the stories I love at a time when I needed them most.

    But since I also love the thrill of fingering through titles, and the squeak as I turn the revolving bookshelf at the library (even though I find myself ducking behind said shelf so noone knows I was responsible for disturbing them), I was so glad when my favorite library bookshop opened again in August!!! Now I can enjoy the best of both worlds!😁

  5. I’m sorry I missed this great post and discussion when it happened.

    I love the vintage categories as well but with a difference I think…as a reader I’m not personally concerned with relatability, in fact given some traumatic experiences in my tweens the timing of which coincided with my discovery of harlequins I’ve always found the sweet virginal heroine rather alienating. There was no ignoring the implication that what I wasn’t was what I needed to be in order to achieve Hqn’s conception of success for women. And yet I loved them and bought them by the bag full at the used book store around the corner. They were familiar and comforting definitely, but at least as important they were a safe place where I could think through the unequal dynamics, formulate different arguments, yell at arrogant aholes when necessary, ponder what behaviors and actions were acceptable to me. These were not “conversations” I could have had with any actual person in my life but I learned a lot from them.

  6. Also the cover illustrations of vintage Harlequins and M&Bs are so beautiful and engaging and sometimes just wonderfully weird. I like to imagine the cover while I read, even if it’s on my kindle, and the non vintage photographed covers are so dull and unimaginative.

    • This is so true. The covers were so essential to making romance something I love. There are some talented digital artists today, but the field of romances is flooded with so many poor covers with horrific graphics or plain ones.

      My favorite era for covers are the early Harlequin Presents from the 1970s to late 1980s, the Harlequin Romances from the beginning to the 1990s, and the Temptation & SupperRomance covers in the 1980s and early 1990s. Each line had its own style and signature illustrators, and I thank you so much for your vast knowledge of them. I’m learning more every day!

  7. I just started reading this blog and it is nice to find some women after my own heart ! While I like some romances that come out these days , I definitely agree that I don’t think the writing is as strong ( for the most part) as vintage stories and it’s basically for the same reasons you listed. I’m a ( slightly older ) millennial btw.

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