I’m always delighted to welcome my bestie, Liz Flaherty, to the blog. Liz thinks one of the things that keeps you young when you quite obviously aren’t anymore is the constant chances you have to reinvent yourself. Her latest (and happiest!) professional incarnation is as a Harlequin Heartwarming author!
One of the reasons she loves writing and reading about seasoned protagonists is the most obvious one–it’s a dream she’s living. She remembers early conversations with her husband when they tried to imagine having sex at 40 and beyond. She was utterly thrilled to find out it was not only possible but even better than it had been in their 20s!
That’s as personal as it’s going to get. Liz has three grown children, the three they married and brought home to her, and the Magnificent Seven grandchildren who are, you know, magnificence. She and Duane live in the same farmhouse back a lane they’ve been sharing for 40 years and hope to share for…well, probably not another 40, but a long time more. She also hangs out with me–our 3-hour lunches are the stuff legends are made of. Liz is a multi-published author with Harlequin, The Wild Rose Press, and Carina Press.
Today Liz is sharing her thoughts on seasoned romance, a topic the two of us have taken apart and put together more times than I can count. However much we discuss romance written about and for women in their prime, we inevitably come to the same conclusion–we need it! Take it away, Liz!
Thanks to Nan for having me here yet again. This article is a re-run from a year or so ago on The Pink Heart Society but my feelings on the subject haven’t changed at all. My own seasoned romances are still among my favorites. My women’s fiction title about four girlfriends in their 50s, The Girls of Tonsil Lake, is something I’m embarrassingly proud of.
I’ve been reading romance since long before Janet Daily wrote No Quarter Asked and gave American authors a new place in a genre that belonged almost exclusively to women.
That particular revolution was only one Big Thing—romance and most of its changes have been an embarrassment of riches since its beginning. Multi-cultural romances are widely available, which wasn’t always the case. Indie-pubbing is huge, yet I remember when the very idea of it was pretty close to the f-bomb on the roster of dirty words. Romance used to be the love story of one man and one woman and now gender isn’t even an issue. The traditional Happily Ever After ending can be Happy For Now or, if some supporters have their way, Not Happy At All. Sex has gone from being a heavy-breathing suggestion near the climax of the story to multiple scenes in the same chapter. The use of any kind of swearing or other obscenity has become a non-issue because nothing is forbidden.
It must be admitted that nearly every adjustment has been accompanied by kicking and screaming from its authors, readers, or both, but the biggest blessing of all these changes is that now there is something for everybody. I write sweet romance for Harlequin Heartwarming with no on-the-page sex and no swearing. Inspirational publishers, lines, and imprints are alive and well. Readers don’t have to look far to find books that tell stories of LGBTQ protagonists. A reader can go from chaste kisses to multiple orgasms with the touch to the screen of her e-reader. Contemporary, historical, and paranormal romances have delighted readers waiting for them and no one’s intoning in somber voices that their chosen category is dead.
I’m old enough to be appalled at some of the alterations to the genre I love at the same time I am, as a child of the 60s, completely thrilled that the changes have been made.
Except. Did you see that term in the paragraph above, there where I said “60s.” That’s where I’m at—not the 1960s anymore, but in my 60s. Somewhere past the middle. If we want to be brutally honest or intentionally rude about it, I guess I’m old. I’m retired from a long and happy career at a day job but I still write romantic novels and work part time in a library. I’ve been married to the guy who holds my heart for going-on-47 years and we have seven pretty-much-perfect grandchildren.
Surprising as it is to me, apparently no one wants to read about romance between people who lost their skin tone and their waistlines sometime in the previous decade. Or the one before. Who aren’t necessarily falling in real, true love for the first time, who won’t be pregnant or have children in the epilogue, who answer first and foremost to such pet names as Nana and Grampy-Buttons.
My daughter and daughters-in-law are in their early to mid-40s. They’re bright, beautiful, educated women with professions they’re excellent at and proud of. They’re also great mothers and wives. They’re readers, too, just like me. But no one wants to read about people like them, either. People whose days start in the dark and end in the dark because between their jobs and their families and that little-bit-of-time-before-bed they can call their own, their lives are completely full.
We read, all four of us, but we can very seldom read about women like ourselves because we’re too old, too settled, too married, the wrong demographic all around.
It makes me sad, because as gorgeous and smart and hilarious as everyone born after 1980 is, I don’t want to read about them all the time. I’m not interested in their body art or, for that matter, their body parts. I don’t believe they invented sex or that they’re the only ones who are good at it or that they are the only ones who can experience angst in its truest, most heartbreaking forms. They’re not the only ones who know how to laugh from the deepest parts of themselves or who hide behind closed stall doors in restrooms and weep from those same places.
Do I sound a little bitter there, as if I’m protesting too much? Yeah, probably. Because those of us born before 1980 have been in all those places. What’s more interesting is that we’re still there. We still laugh, cry, and have sex. We love more than we ever have before simply because the width and depth of our lives grow every single day and the love grows right along with it.
Yet we can’t be heroines in romance novels and the men we love can’t be heroes. I mean, we can, but not often. Not many. Not usually ones published by the Big Boys in New York. We can’t have imprints with provocative or heartstring-pulling names. It’s been tried; Harlequin’s Next imprint comes to mind. Its 100 titles are some of the best women’s fiction/romance books ever published and several of them had Baby Boomer protagonists. But think of that—100 titles. Not many in the scheme of things.
When I began to stage this little protest—remember, I said I was a child of the 60s; protest is part of my personal operating system—I looked up the demographics of romance readers. On this particular website, I read that “18 percent are between the ages of 45-54, 11 percent are between the ages of 55-64…eight percent are over 75…six percent are between the ages of 65-74…” Now, the way I read that, 43 percent are 45 and older, so wouldn’t that make you think protagonists “of a certain age” might have more stories in them than are available to read?
Not all statistics read that way, of course—it depends on your source. And not everybody my age or my girls’ ages want to read (or write) about protagonists in their own age groups.
But some do, and I’d love to see statistics on how many of that 43 percent I mentioned up there would like to see more romances about mature people. I’d love to know how many writers would like to write more romances about mature people. (I must note here that using the word mature is making my teeth itch—we’re people and don’t need labels.)
I have friends who write older protagonists—Nan Reinhardt and Jan Scarbrough to name two. I’ve written a few. Many others have, too, and terms like seasoned romance, grown-up love stories, never too old, not their first rodeo populate numerous blogposts and websites. I’m glad to see it, glad to read those stories that are written from hearts scarred and made strong by surviving life’s rodeos.
But I don’t think it’s enough. Until it is realized that we are here “in numbers too big to ignore,” until stories both by and about us are published and marketed with the same respect and enthusiasm awarded virtually everyone else, we’re still going to be the writers and the readers who are left over at the end of the day.
Here are links to Liz’s other stories with characters over 40: