Romance Novels as an “Addiction”

I was looking for reviews of Mary Jo Putney’s The Rake, when I found a 2004 AAR Interview with her where she makes this interesting comment (emphasis mine):

“[Interviewer:] There’s been a lot of discussion on the message boards about how romances just aren’t what they once were. What’s your take on that?

“[MJP]: I think it’s more that the genre has matured and a lot of the plots and characters have been thoroughly, one might say exhaustively, explored. When I read Georgette Heyer’s The Unknown Ajax, it was the first historical romance I’d ever read with a smuggling subplot. How many smuggling plots have there been since then? Enough so that it’s very hard to do that storyline with a lot of freshness. The same is true of numerous other plots, and the problem is compounded by publishers encouraging authors to write only in the handful of settings that tend to sell the best. This is true in both historical and contemporary romance – the Regency historical and the infamous cowboy/baby/bride books. In the hands of experienced writers, these stories can still sing but it’s hardly surprising that long-term readers are feeling restless. They want the same kind of “hit” that they got from romances when they first fell in love with them, but it’s just not the same after years have passed and hundreds of books have been read. They want books that have the same emotional fulfillment, but are different enough to feel fresh. It’s a difficult challenge.”

MJP used the metaphor of a drug induced high to explain why some readers become dissatisfied with romance. In the romance blogosphere, the language of addiction is pretty prevalent: people join “reading addict challenges”, they grade novels on their potency (considering some romance novels “crack”), they talk about the compulsion to purchase and read.  If you read the NIDA Research Report on heroin addiction, and you have a good sense of humor, you’ll see you can extend the metaphor — and that’s all it is, although it is interesting to wonder why this particular metaphor is dominant —  surprisingly far.

I’m not concerned with whether the “addiction” to romance is harmful, although if you are, you can check out this 2007 op-ed in the online Woman to Woman section of the Atlanta Journal Constitution that suggested that an addiction to romance (actually, even exposure to it) can harm marriages (with a long comment thread in which authors Nora Roberts, Megan Hart, Lauren Dane, and Jacquie d’Alessandro weigh in), and there are certainly plenty of testimonials like this one out there.

Instead, I’m wondering about the phenomenon of reader fatigue, the “slumps” and “dry spells” we are all so familiar with. Has MJP pointed to the cause? Is there a natural cycle where you discover romance, get the initial high, and then get burned out trying to recapture it? Is there a law of diminishing returns on romance reading?

Will I be done with romance in another year?

Published in: on September 4, 2008 at 11:56 pm  Comments (9)  
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9 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Love Your Site!

  2. Hi “Joey”,

    You wouldn’t happen to be sitting across the room from me right now, would you?

    Love ya!

  3. I cycle through all my interests. I have too many to juggle all at once and some lose my interest over time, so I pick up something else to juggle. I may come back to it; I may not.

    With romance, I missed the back half of the ’90s and front half of the ’00s. I wasn’t writing, so I wasn’t reading it, either, plus, I had too much to do in my real life.

    Instead of feeling refreshed coming back to it, though, I felt overwhelmed because I didn’t know any of the authors (“bestseller”? 15 books on the shelves? Never heard of her), and the landscape had changed so drastically. So I fell back on historicals and Susan Elizabeth Phillips. I’m only now beginning to crawl out of that hole and I’m feeling overwhelmed again because there are so many more choices now than there were before.

  4. I started to read romance novels a couple of years ago. Since then, I had times I couldn’t/didn’t want to pick up a romance novel, lasting up to several months. Obviously, I always came back and I not once thought “I’m done with them.”

    With the benefit of hindsight, I think each time it happened when I read too many similar stories (I started with historicals). There are only so many feisty, foot stomping and curls tossing heroines I can stomach before I’m fed up with them (and I didn’t have a high tolerance for them to begin with). I soon branched out and now I read all kinds of romance novels. And I try to vary the sub-genres I read. Again, there are only so many angsty vampires …

    So I would say, it’s not reading romance per se that gets you burned out, it’s reading the same sub-genre or the same type of hero/heroine that leads you there. There’s definitely a cycle there, IMO. But then, having read romance novels for some years now, my tastes have changed (evolved?). Novels I once thought okay don’t cut it any more (and I tend to see this as another kind of cycle). I still find romances that get me my “high” (probably even more because of all the blogs now); and it helps that I’m interested in stories, like why they work or don’t work, so there is something for me aside from the “high.”

    But who knows? Give me a few years, and romance novels per se might not cut it any more. 😉

  5. I agree with you, Moriah, on the “feeling overwhelmed” bit. I read several multi-author blogs which post upwards of a dozen reviews a week, and I have to remind myself that not every person writing on that site is reading all of those books, or if they are, maybe they don’t have jobs and kids, but are in a place in their lives that affords hours a day of leisure (Or maybe maybe reviewing IS their job? Or they are Adderall addicts?).

    Taja, that’s good advice. I think I need to lay off historicals right now, for example, so I just started Ann Aguirre’s Grimspace last night, and I am finding it so different in style and tone that I have to keep rereading paragraphs. (Actually, I am not even sure that book counts as a “romance” at all).

  6. I don’t think I could EVER get burned out from reading romance. I’ve only been reading romance novels for the last two years, but I’ve loved and craved any kind of romance since I was a preteen whether it be the romance in all kinds of movies (not just chick flicks) or even in TV shows. Heck, I even wanted romance in real life! Actually, I still do. And thanks to my husband of 15 years, I have that and I’ll never get tired of romance. It’s fuel for the soul and who could ever burn out from that?

    I think I can echo what MoJo, Taja and Jessica said in that I may get tired of a specific subgenre, like say vampire paranormals. But with the amount of variety in romance subgenres these days, by the time I explore other genres, there will be something new and refreshing in vampire romance again. To have something different to look forward to whether you’ve decided to explore a new romance genre or you’re coming back to one that you put aside for a while, kind of makes being a romance reader rather fun, don’t you think?

  7. Christine, I think having the many subgenres is huge. I personally cycle through historical, contemporary and paranormal.

    And I love the way you put this:

    It’s fuel for the soul and who could ever burn out from that?

    Who could, indeed?

  8. I kind of compare my reading of romance novels to marriage. When I first came back to them after an absence of a few years, it was like the first bloom of being married. Everything was exciting and I discovered so many great books that got me all excited. Years later in my romance reading, it’s more of a comfortable familiar feeling. I still get the occasional real high from reading a spectacular one. But it’s still of great comfort reading them. Just like in a marriage of some years, it’s the comfort of it that is the best part.
    And sometimes reading romance books just looses its appeal (just like in a marriage some days you don’t think you can live with your partner one more day *g*). But then that feeling goes away and the desire for romance comes back.
    Don’t know if any of that makes sense or not *g* but that’s kind of how I see it – a life long love affair with different stages.

  9. Kristie– that’s a great metaphor. Having been married for 12 years, I definitely get where you are coming from. Maybe I should try to use the more positive metaphor of a long, healthy relationship from now on to counteract all the addiction metaphors out there!

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