The Genre Conundrum Part 3: Age and other issues in Romantic Fiction #amwriting

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When I was looking for a literary agent and publisher for my first novel, Change of Life, nearly ten years ago, one of the rejection reasons I was given was the age of my main characters. I was told nobody wanted to read a romance where the prospective couple were in their late forties and especially where they had to deal with awkward teenage children and cope with one of them falling seriously ill. It seemed realism was out and hearts and flowers happy-ever-after romanticism was in.

Things have moved on a bit since then. There are romantic novels, where difficult issues are included in the story. However, romance does still seem to be dominated by the ‘Cafe in the Seaside Village’ type stories with their matchstick female figures on their pastel-coloured covers. But even although the covers are clichéd, and the stories follow a formula, they can be very enjoyable in a hearts-and- flowers, young love, happy-ever-after sort of way.

But it seems to me that romantic fiction with older lead characters is still in the minority – even although the biggest part of the population in the UK is over fifty. I don’t believe it’s because people don’t want to read such novels and I think maybe the big publishers are missing a trick here.

I should also say before going any further that what follows is merely my impression and  my opinion. It isn’t based on any scientific research.

And my final disclosure is one of vested interest – I am 61 and three-quarters years-old.

Oh and PS – I should also say that I’m in no way anti romantic fiction with   characters. I’ve recently read and thoroughly enjoyed three excellent  romances with protagonists in their twenties and thirties. These were June Kearns two historical romances: The Englishwoman’s Guide to the Cowboy and The 20s Girl, the Ghost and All That Jazz. And my most recent read is Kate Field’s The Magic of Ramblings which truly is magic – and poignant and beautiful.

But I also enjoy reading about older characters falling in love. I like romances where the protagonists are in their forties, fifties, sixties and beyond. And I like a bit of realism. I like to see the prospective couple facing up to the issues, complications and challenges that come with age. I like it when there are several generations of a family involved in the story.  And I like to see there’s hope and fun and love to be had by us all – regardless of age.

Authors in other genres – crime for example – have created hugely successful older lead characters. There’s Detective Rebus in Ian Rankin’s Novels and there’s the wonderful Vera in the series by Ann Cleeves – to name just two.

And there are some fabulous romance writers who are  nailing it in this regard. Books by Maggie Christensen, Christine Webber, Gilli Allan and Hilary Boyd spring to mind. Do check them out if you like more mature, romance-plus fiction. You’ll be in for a highly enjoyable read with any of their books.

Which brings me to the age of the readers of books – I don’t as an author aim for a particular age group. I have young and old readers. Indeed my children’s novel The Silver Locket seems to have been read by as many, if not more, adults as children.

I don’t get the impression that Crime or Sci-Fi or Fantasy are particularly appealing to one narrow age group – Harry Potter is not just read by children, and I’m guessing the Outlander books appeal across the adult age range to those who like the genre.

Why should romance be any different? Although I do get that someone in their twenties might not want to read about people the age of their parents/grandparents falling in love and you know… But it doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen and it doesn’t mean that older readers shouldn’t be able to read romances centred around people their age.

So I suppose what I’m saying is let’s have romantic fiction that’s a bit more relaxed about age, a bit more inclusive.

As a writer I enjoy writing about characters nearer my own age, facing up to life-changing challenges and dealing with all sorts of issues – as well as finding themselves falling in love. Other writers prefer writing about younger characters regardless of their own age.

As a reader I enjoy all sorts of romances and other genres too – and the characters ages are incidental – what matters to me is that it’s a good story, well told, and with a satisfying resolution.

And in conclusion – I’m no further forward with nailing this genre thing – but it’s been fun thinking and writing about it. I know my books aren’t chick-lit or ‘pure’ romance. But I don’t think ‘love-at-the-last-chance-cafe-for-the-chronologically-challenged-with-baggage’ classification is going to work.

Help!

As always please do leave your thoughts and comments below.

The Genre Conundrum in Fiction: Categories and Keywords

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Part 1 of 3

As the publication date for my next novel draws ever closer, my thoughts are now turning to how to ensure it catches the eye of prospective readers both online and in book shops.

An attractive cover and an engaging back-cover summary will of course be essential – and by working with my editor and cover designer I’m confident I’ll get both of these things right.

But nailing the precise genre and the single words and phrases that perfectly describe the book’s content are equally – some might say even more – important. And it’s here that I’m not so confident. And here’s why.

In the real world, bookshops and libraries shelve books according to genre. This makes it easier for readers to both seek out and browse the books that interest them. Similarly in an online book store, prospective book buyers will click on genre type or associated keywords in order to find what they might be looking for. It makes complete sense to organise things this way.

And if writers and publishers get it right, you won’t find cookbooks in amongst books on mountaineering and you won’t find detective novels in amongst science fiction. Simple.

Only sometimes it’s not that straightforward. What if the book you’ve written is cookery for mountaineers whilst they’re out on the mountain? Or, what if the seasoned, somewhat cynical detective with the disastrous personal life is part android/ part Martian and investigates crime throughout the solar-system? And no, I haven’t written a book like either of these examples.

But I do find myself in a similar quandary when it comes to classifying my new book, just as I was with the previous two.

All three books have a strong romantic element to them. But they don’t fit neatly into the romance genre. For one thing, the protagonists aren’t young, and besides coping with relationship issues, they are also facing up to other serious challenges.

In my first book, Change of Life, the main characters are a couple who have been married for more than twenty years and who are in their late forties. Their marriage is already under strain as the story begins with the female protagonist, Rosie, suspecting infidelity on the part of her husband, Tom. She is then faced with the even bigger shock of being diagnosed with breast cancer. The couple’s children and wider family too, all have significant parts to play in supporting Rosie and Tom as they confront the challenges ahead.

My second book, Displacement, also centres around two main characters, this time just setting out on a new relationship with each other. There is Jack, a retired policeman, and Rachel, a children’s book author and illustrator. They meet at the beginning of the novel on the Scottish island of Skye. They are both divorced and in their fifties. Rachel has recently lost her son, a soldier, who was killed while serving in Afghanistan. And Jack is recovering from the heart attack which brought about his early retirement. There is a strong political element to the story too, because as part of Rachel’s attempts to come to terms with the loss of her son, and to move on from it, she travels to the Middle East to visit her brother in Israel-Palestine. She wants to explore her Jewish heritage, but she also finds herself facing up to some very difficult questions about conflict, nationhood and humanity’s difficulties in finding ways to peacefully co-exist.

And the new book, Settlement, is a sequel to Displacement. Jack and Rachel’s romantic relationship has deepened, but is under threat. Rachel is returning to Israel to begin work on a book about how ordinary people can be instrumental in working for peace, and Jack is returning to work as a police consultant in the Historic Crimes unit in Edinburgh. This time as well as the social/cultural/ political strands, there is Jack’s experience of being the victim of violence and of suffering from PTSD.

All three books have the romantic love and relationship between two people at their heart, but this ripples out and links into wider families, communities and issues. All three books are romance+ –  i.e. plus other issues. None are conventional romance/love stories. They are not centred around 20 or 30-somethings. The conclusions aren’t happy-ever-after – but are, rather, there-is-hope-for-the-future- as-long-as-they-work-at-it-and-accept-the-rough-with-the-smooth-and-give-each-other-space.

So wish me luck as I try to narrow down my latest novel’s genre and keywords from – Contemporary Romantic Literary (not sure about the literary) Fiction also featuring politics, crime and mental health in several very different settings – to something altogether more snappy. And don’t get me started on whether it should also be labelled Women’s Fiction. Short answer – I don’t know, probably…

As for where it should be shelved…

 

In Part 2 of this three part series of posts on classifying books, I will be looking at the romantic genre and asking what readers want and expect when reading romances.

In Part 3 I will be looking at the issue of age – the age of the main characters and of the target readership – in romantic fiction and in several other genres as well.

 

Please do add your comments below. For example: What genre(s) do you prefer? And what are your expectations when reading books in that/those genre(s)? Or for you, is it story first, genre second?