State of Age Diversity in Romance Novels
By Christine Farrell (2016)
In February of 2016, the RWA released an “Open Letter Regarding Diversity” affirming its commitment to promoting books that are considered diverse in regards to “race, ethnicity, or sexual orientation” (Kelly). One category of diversity that was missing from this letter, however, was age. The average age of romance readers is 44.6 and 57% of all romance readers are between the ages of 44 and 74 (Jaili). Despite the fact that the readership is skewed towards the higher age brackets, the average age of heroines in U.S. romance novels is only 24-26 years old (Jaili). Clearly, the age of heroines in romance novels is not reflective of the age of the women reading the novels. In a list compiled by All About Romance from December 2004-August 2013 of all romance novels published before the year 2013 that contain heroines above the age of 35 (categorized as Mature Romance), there were only 112 novels (Older Couples). This demonstrates the scarcity of romance novels that contain older heroines. Heroines who are 35 years old or older are underrepresented in romance novels due to the historical precedent of Mature Romance novels being unprofitable. This has forced Contemporary Mature Romance novels to be reclassified as Women’s Fiction while other sub-genre Mature Romance novels are simply not written. Previous attempts to market Mature Romance most likely failed due to poor marketing strategies and the lack of positive reader identification with the older heroines. [CLF]
Recognizing that the majority of their readership was 35 years old or older, in 2005 Harlequin, the leading publisher of romance fiction, contracted Harris Interactive to conduct a nationwide survey about romance fiction on women who were 35 years of age or older (Harlequin Enterprises Ltd). In this survey, they attempted to identify the prevailing views of this age bracket to see if they could design a new imprint that catered to their interests. After identifying that 56% of women over the age of 35 see their inner age as being thirtysomething, 80% of women agree that age is just a number, and that 55% of women would date a man with personality over looks, Harlequin launched the Contemporary Romance imprint NEXT. NEXT stories were advertised to be “warm, entertaining and sometimes even inspiring and will feature women facing a wide variety of life stages…The books are complex, diverse and reflect living and loving in today’s complex, diverse world” (Write for Us Harlequin NEXT). [CLF]
After 3 years and 100 titles, the imprint was discontinued for having fewer sales than anticipated (Market). The reasons for NEXT’s failure have been debated. Some bloggers, such as Gwendolyn Osborne, blamed the imprint’s failure on poor marketing strategies such as its chick-lit covers, four-book- per-month subscription packages, and 45-day category romance shelf life (Osborne).
Examples of the chick-lit covers on NEXT novels.
Other bloggers, such as Candy Tan, claimed that both older and younger women did not buy the novels because they were unable to positively identify with the stories of 35+ year old heroines. Older romance readers, especially those who read romance novels as a means of escape, avoided buying NEXT novels since they did not want to read books that reminded them of their current situation (McCausland). This opinion was expressed by Avon Executive Editor Lucia Macro who stated, “In my book group we read a romance where the heroine was forty-five and my friend said ‘I know I’m forty-five, I don’t want to be reminded of it!’”(Barletta, 50) Younger romance readers also failed to positively identify with older heroines in the NEXT imprint. Unlike a woman who is 50 and can identify with both a 40 year old heroine and a 20 year old heroine since she has been through both stages of life, a 20 year old reader will struggle to identify with a 40 year old heroine as she has not yet been through that stage (Tan). The NEXT imprint, therefore, was unable to achieve substantial readership as its novels’ content failed to attract the age range they sought to represent while also alienating a younger demographic of readers with their un-relatable storylines, a situation that was made worse by the fact that the novels were poorly marketed. [CLF]
Harlequin’s NEXT imprint was not the first over-40 line of books that was discontinued for having fewer sales than anticipated. In 1982, Ballantine Books attempted to target over-40 readers with their Contemporary Love and Life imprint. This imprint focused on an “older romance heroine with life experience as the focus of the narrative” (Barletta, 45). After one year the imprint was discontinued. As with Harlequin, some critics such as Carol Thurston blamed the imprint’s failure on poor marketing strategies. Ballantine Books attempted to target non-traditional romance consumers using traditional marketing techniques such as category romance-style covers and displays. Unsurprisingly, these techniques failed to reach their target audience. However, as explained by Candy Tan, Love and Life’s failure could have been due to the content of the books. Mature romances’ lack of sales could have been due to the failure of their storylines to positively resonate with both older and younger readers. [CLF]
Currently, there are no Mature Romance imprints within major romance publishing companies. There are also very few novels, in any sub-genre, containing heroines who are 35 years of age or older that are published by these companies. The lack of published Mature Romances could be due to one of three factors: writers are not writing these types of storylines, romance publishers are not publishing these storylines, or the novels are being published under another genre. In the 2012 RWA Conference workshop titled Never Kill the Puppy and other Unwritten Rules, panelists (bestselling author Wendy-Corsi-Staub, Avon Executive Editor Lucia Macro, and Avon Associate Editor Esi Sogah) were asked if limiting the heroine’s age to under 40 was unwritten rule in having your work published. Sogah responded that:
“I rarely see [a Mature Romance] story. I would say people aren’t writing it, but they might not be writing it because they think publishers don’t want to see it, don’t want to buy it because they don’t think readers will buy it, so it could just be that vicious circle. But I do think [Contemporary Mature Romance] stories tend to head more to the Women’s Fiction side….there is so much going on there, that it sort of becomes this larger story…the important thing with romance is that they are so much about that relationship, that I think once you start getting into all those other things you get into when you talk about things like second chances, it becomes a story that’s bigger than just that relationship, so I think that’s when they tend to go more into the general fiction side of things. (Barletta, 51).
Therefore Sogah argued that the lack of published Mature Romances was in part due to all three factors. Publishers are hesitant to accept a category of books that have been unprofitable in the past which has forced writers to abandon the storyline or seek to publish Contemporary Mature Romances under another more profitable genre: Women’s Fiction. [CLF]
The line between the Romance genre and Women’s Fiction has largely been drawn over whether or not the romantic love story is central to the plot (Romance) or merely one aspect of the plot (Women’s Fiction) (Sambuchino). As a 35+ heroine’s past must play a key role in her story due to her age, the storyline of the heroine’s past often overshadows the centrality of the love story. Harlequin’s NEXT guidelines described Mature Romance novels as having storylines “for which romance is a piece of the pie, rather than the whole one” (Write for Us Harlequin NEXT). Many romance publishers have used this “piece of the pie” argument to redirect Mature Romances to Women’s Fiction, a genre that has in the past generated greater sales for these types of novels (Barletta, 51). [CLF]
Contemporary Young Adult (characters aged 12-18) and New Adult (characters aged 18-25) novels (YA/NA) also contain storylines in which “romance is a piece of the pie, rather than the whole one”. These stories often deal with questions of identity and loss of innocence in addition to that of first love (James, Brown). Despite this, two imprints (TEEN and New Adult) exist within Harlequin for the publication of these types of novels. Therefore, the same line of reasoning that has excluded many Mature Romances from being published as Romance is not being applied to novels in the YA/NA categories. This begs the question of whether the “piece of the pie” argument is valid to explain why Contemporary Mature Romances are being directed into the Women’s Fiction category. More telling than the “piece of the pie” argument, are the sales records of these YA/NA books. New Adult novels make up 26% of all Romance novels’ print and e-book sales while Young Adult novels make up 18% of their print and e-book sales (“Romance Reader Statistics”). In 2009, total Young Adult Novel sales exceeded $3 billion (Withers). Clearly, if the books sell it doesn’t matter what percentage of the pie the romance is within the novels, so long as it is a percentage, for them to be published within the Romance genre. [CLF]
Contemporary YA/NA Romances most likely have larger sales numbers than Mature Romances because more readers positively identify with 12-25 year old heroines than 35+ year old heroines. Readers aged 12-25 make a large percentage of all YA/NA readers (“Romance Reader Statistics”). However, the sales numbers of these books are too large (especially in the e-book format) to solely be driven by this age demographic. This means that a significant percentage of YA/NA readers, approximately 55%, are over the age of 25 (Fisher). Readers of all ages are clearly identifying with the coming of age and first love stories of these heroines. This is in part because all readers over the age of 12 have lived through or are living through these types of experiences. The converse of this is not true. The age demographic of Mature Romance readers is almost entirely composed of women who are over the age of 40 with readers less than 40 making up an almost negligible percentage of the readership (Osborne). This is most likely because young readers fail to identify with the older heroines in Mature Romances. As books that appeal to a wider range of ages will typically have larger sales, it is unsurprising that the sale numbers of YA/NA novels far exceed that of Mature Romance novels (Market). [CLF]
Another distinguisher between the Romance genre and Women’s Fiction is the requirement of a “happily ever after” ending. Romance novels require this type of ending while Women’s Fiction novels do not (Sambuchino). Another reason Cotemporary Mature Romances are published under the Women’s Fiction category is because they challenge the “happily ever after” component central to all romance novels. Mature Romances challenge the “happily” aspect of “happily ever after” as many of these stories focus on the heroine’s union with her second true love. Her relationship with her first true love typically ended in divorce or death, indicating that “happily ever after” can cease to be happy over time or end in tragedy (McCausland). Mature Romances also challenge the “ever after” component of “happily ever after” since the union of the older hero and heroine will likely last for only 30-40 years compared to 40-60 years. There is also often no promise of a baby in the future, a symbol of the continuity of the relationship (Barletta, 52). Therefore, as Mature Romances challenge the two basic elements present in all romance novels, as well as having historically low sales numbers, many of their contemporary novels have been classified as Women’s Fiction. [CLF]
Unlike the Contemporary Romance-Women’s Fiction dichotomy, no other romance sub-genres contain a general fiction correlate that most of their Mature Romances are published under. Additionally, heroines over the age of 35 are even rarer in these other subgenres. On the list created by All About Romance of all Mature Romance novels published before 2013, there were no Paranormal Romance novels, only 7 Historical Romance novels, and 1 Romantic Suspense novel that contained heroines above the age of 40 (Older Couples). The lack of paranormal romances could be due to the fact that most characters in paranormal romance are immortal. Because of this, age is irrelevant in this category of books (Wendell). [CLF]
The lack of older heroines in Historical Mature Romances is most likely due to the marriage politics of the Regency Era (the time period that the majority of Historical Romances take place in). Divorce during the Regency Era was unheard of (only 4 English wives were successfully granted a divorce on the ground of aggravated adultery or bigamous adultery from the church; all were from the upper class) (Wright). Acts such as cruelty, adultery, bigamy, desertion, and drunkenness could only grant an ecclesiastical divorce a mensa et thoro, which meant a separation without the right to remarry. As a large percentage of women were in a binding marriage by the age of 35, the number of older women with the ability to marry was limited. Additionally, if a woman was not married by the age of 25, she was often labeled a “spinster” and taken out of the marriage market, further reducing the number of women 35 years of age or older who were available for marriage (Horn). Finally, in the eyes of the church, the institution in charge of marriage licenses during this time period, the purpose of marriage was for procreation, not happiness (Carroll). Even if a woman over the age of 35 applied for a marriage license from the church, it was uncertain whether it would be granted to her since her child-bearing days were nearly over making her marriage in their eyes, pointless. Therefore, the nature of the Regency Era’s marriage politics significantly constrains the storylines available for Historical Mature Romance writers. This has resulted in there being very limited numbers of Historical Mature Romance novels. [CLF]
The rarity of heroines over the age of 25 in Historical Romance novels lies in stark contrast with the commonality of 25+ year old heroes in these novels (Hunter). Many of the qualities associated with the stereotypical experienced/successful/alpha-male/rake hero in Historical Romance novels can only be attained by the hero being older. In contrast, the innocent/inexperienced/virginal heroine that characterizes many Historical Romance heroines can only exist if the heroine is younger. This often leads to large age gaps between the heroes and the heroines in Historical Romance novels. As readers today believe that these large age gaps were “normal” in historical culture, they are often not commented on. For example, in Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë, Mr. Rochester is 35 while Jane is only 18. This age gap is not mentioned as being “abnormal” in the book, nor in much of the literary discussion surrounding it (Brownell). In contrast, when LaVyrle Spencer had the same age gap in her Contemporary Romance novel Years, the age gap was the focus of the entire book and much of the conversation surrounding it (Wendell). Thus, the characteristics common in the heroes and heroines in Historical Romance novels necessitate an older hero and a younger heroine and the distance between the book’s historical time setting and contemporary society has allowed readers to normalize an age gap that would be considered abnormal today. [CLF]
Within the past 5 years, various readers have become more outspoken about their desire to see more Mature Romances being published. Writers such as Sandra Antonelli have generated extensive 70+ blog comment conversations among romance readers on blogs such as Dear Author and Smart Bitches Trashy Books about the desire for 40+ readers to have more Mature Romances in the romance genre (Antonelli, Little, Wendell). However whether or not the blogosphere’s views reflect the views of all romance readers, indicating that there would be adequate readership to support the re-launch of imprints such as Next or Love and Life, is unknown. As it stands today, heroines who are 35+ are severely underrepresented in romance novels as many of their stories remain unwritten, unpublished, or categorized as Women’s Fiction. [CLF]
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