I am suffering from genre exhaustion.
When someone reads as much as I do (about 3-4 books per week), it is inevitable that I sometimes hit the proverbial reading slump, even amongst the genres I most love (as in Romance or most specifically Historical Romance). And part of it, I think, comes from an affliction that pervades the genre. This post was prompted when I was visiting the “Your Recommendations” page on Amazon looking for new books to buy and I was struck by page after page of very similar titles.
The first thing that comes to mind when looking at these is how very similar the titles and covers are. It is plain for everyone to see that perhaps as an effort from the publishers to create a recognizable brand for these genres. I understand the marketing drive behind the choice of titles and covers that are presented to the public. I appreciate that it is somewhat necessary to create an identifiable face for a genre. A person who picks up this book for example:
knows what she will find inside – a romance. Publishing is a business and it makes commercial sense to make it easier and quicker for the buyer to be able identify the books they want to buy.
During this same quick glance, however, the message that I get when I look at these is that Romance is all about the wicked dukes. Yes, this makes it easier for the genre readers to identify the books, but it also makes it easier to allocate the “formulaic” stamp to genre reading, fair or not.
I know that it cannot possibly by an easy task, that of genre “identification.” I picture the marketing honcho from a big publishing house as a tragic figure torn between expressing creativity and the need to conform. But even though I sympathize with this plight I also think that more often than not, the easy way out is taken; and that, I find rather sad and perhaps even, insulting. In the drive to identify, to brand, it seems that what end up happening, is a procedure that unifies and homogenizes, presenting entire genres based on its lowest common denominator instead of looking for covers and titles that are unique and different. It gets to a point where those are RE-USED. (Jessica of Racy Romance Reviews wrote an interesting post recently about romance titles. Check it out here)
I have been known to moan about this over and over again. Especially where Romance is concerned, the covers are sometimes so silly and repetitive, it gets boring pretty easily.
I complain about covers and titles and their repetitiveness but what about the meat and potatoes of a book, the stories themselves? Is the outward, one-note packaging a reflection of formulaic plotlines and characters? Well, I am torn about that one, in all honesty.
On one hand, YES, genre fiction, Romance in this particular scenario, has well known and overused tropes that appear over and again. I AM getting increasingly tired of some of them. Publishers produce stories that always “ring a bell” – because, frankly, they sell. I can’t help but to think that they are tapping (preying?) on the human psyche and the need for familiarity and comfort, based on the idea that once you find a story you love, you will want to read it over and over again. The idea is “if you liked this, then you’ll love THIS too because it’s the same.” I see a lot of this, especially in the marketing materials we receive with ARCs and review copies (”This book is X meets X! Fans of X will be pleased!”). It is useful information to have for reviewers but I can’t help but to roll my eyes sometimes. It gets to a point where I constantly wonder if a book has been published ONLY because it resembles something that has been done before with success, such as the slew of teenage vampire/angsty supernatural love stories that came out following the popularity of the juggernaut that is the Twilight Saga by Stephenie Meyer (Hush, Hush, I am looking at you).
Mind you, I am not averse to reading stories that employ these genre tropes – I have favorite cliches that I fall back into whenever I am on the lookout for a comfort read (I am a sucker for reformed rakes stories). But the outward, homogenized packaging for Romance makes it HARDER for ME to find something to read in the genre. It doesn’t help ME, at all. Instead of looking at a book and deciding to buy it based on cover and title (do not judge a book by its cover is a harder motto to live by than I originally thought) alone, because it attracts me, I need to add an extra step of perusing, to read the blurb before I make up my mind. And sometimes, even those are so generic as to be completely useless.
I am also very much aware that this is not, by any means, a symptom exclusive to Romance, as for example, if you look at the Urban Fantasy out there, it all seems to be about the powerful chick in tight pants with a gun/sword/whatever to save the world. Or Fantasy, which has always some sort of Quest, or Hero’s Journey. The “sameness” seems to be a malady that permeates most genres if not all of publishing.
So what does that mean to me as, a reader and what is the freaking point of this post you might ask?
It means that I am going back to my roots and this reflects in the types of books I review here. The more I read, the more books I buy, the more I want something different. The comfort reading becomes something special to be visited more rarely as time passes. I was never one to read one genre exclusively and it only seems natural to be expanding and visiting other sections in the bookstore. If you have been around since the inception of this blog you may have noticed this shift in my reading habits. When we started, 99% of what I read was romance. Now, I barely read more than 3-4 titles each month.
In all fairness, I do believe that there are different, unique stories that are being told in the genre but it is VERY hard to unearth them amongst the recurrent covers and the misleading blurbs (it seems it is a vicious circle – what came first? The overused plots or the overused covers?). One such case are the romance novels by Meredith Duran. She is a fabulous writer of romance with different settings and stories and characters that do not quite conform and yet she is stuck with covers such as this one:
It drives me positively mental. It drives me AWAY. Above all, it drives me towards other genres that are presenting unique, refreshing stories with cool, different covers to go along with the great material. This year has seen a shift in my reading habits towards a genre such as YA where I can at least, for now, see more distinctiveness than hegemony:
I am not denouncing nor renouncing Romance and I don’t think I can ever part from it. In fact, a lot of the YA and Fantasy that I read are heavy on romance. I am just suffering from genre exhaustion and I need a break to recover.