Too old for romance?
In 2007, I decided to tackle a Masters degree in creative writing with a focus on romance fiction at Queensland Institute of Technology (QUT), in Brisbane, Australia. The research portion of my degree identified a neglected, even invisible demographic of romance reader and heroine: women who are marginalized within the romance genre and industry based solely on age. The creative outcome of the degree was my recently published novel A Basic Renovation, a story that counters the invisibility of a mature-aged romance heroine by presenting a heroine and hero both over 40. I moved on to my PhD absolutely fascinated by the way that romance novels and romance publishers have both neglected older heroines. I wanted to know why, that after the age of 40, so few women are permitted a place in the central love story of romance?
In my research and its companion novel, And She Was (recently accepted for publication by Escape and retitled For Your Eyes Only), I suggest this denial of access is in part due to the publishing industry. Most publishers have specific, mandated guidelines for writers, which in turn shapes what readers have come to expect. Of course, romance novels are just part of a general cultural nervousness when it comes to middle-aged and older women, which we see in all sorts of genre fiction, not just romance. Women over 40 show up across the media as familiar stereotypes: grannies, cougars, menopausal hot flashers, and the occasional Miss Marple-esque sleuth. Yet, there appears to be something quite specifically age-related at work within the romance genre. When I interviewed romance editors at the 2012 RWA conference in Anaheim, I got some insight as to what it is.
According to the editors I spoke with, romance novels are not just about love, but about the “first discovery of love.” Setting aside the question of whether one’s first discovery might not happen after 40—because everyone knows no one over 40 ever falls in love or has sex—this assumption about the genre suggests that the second or third discovery of love is not worthy of a romantic fantasy, especially when the woman in question is past a certain age. Indeed, several editors revealed that the life experience of a mature woman was just too much for a romance novel to bear. You’ve “lived a life by the time you’re 40,” one observed—and the story of a woman with that much life-baggage inevitably shifts away from romance, as a genre, and instead “becomes Women’s Fiction,” the permissible space for woman to unload her bags.
When I turned to study actual readers, however, I found a very different set of assumptions. Not only does the demographic of romance readers include an increasing number of older women, but on blogs and social media this demographic shows a hunger for romance novels featuring older heroines. In some respects this demand reveals that the genre, while still retaining its fantasy and escapist inflections, is being called on to be more “truthful” in its inclusion and portrayal of women across all age demographics.
I am not the only romance author who has challenged the parameters of the central love story so that it is more inclusive of older women. Jennifer Crusie’s Fast Women features a mature-aged romance heroine, as do Nora Roberts Black Rose, and Jeanne Ray’s Julie and Romeo—and of course there are my own novels, A Basic Renovation and And She Was/For Your Eyes Only. The heroines of these novels do not consider their mature sexuality, life experience, and position in society to be baggage to be left behind as they fall in love; rather, the baggage is absolutely central to the love story, just as youth and self-discovery are in the tales of their younger counterparts.
So, does this mean that such novels blur the boundaries between “romance” and “women’s fiction” and if this is the case, would that be a problem? And for whom is it a problem? My research into this will continue, as will my writing to challenge the status quo. I’ll pack as much baggage as I can for my romance heroines, because life can be a long trip and she’ll need a few changes of underwear.
Sandra Antonelli, romance author and independent scholar, takes pride in knowing how to fold fitted sheets. She grew up in Europe, the U.S.A., and Australia. She writes romance novels for smart-asses and grown-ups under the pen name Sandra Antonelli. A Basic Renovation was published in early 2013.