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.
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!
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!
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.