I write Regencies, a genre with fairly rigid genre conventions. Originally they were supposed to be witty, short, cheerful – the romance equivalent of the “cosy” mystery. By the end of some 200 pages the illusion of a picture-perfect reality is achieved, no matter what minor troubles the protagonists have undergone in the meantime.
The longer ‘historicals’ (successors of the romance genre’s seminal bodice-rippers) could have tragic themes, but for a long time devotees of the Regency did not have to confront life’s unpleasant realities in their favourite and quite addictive genre.
That changed when a handful of writers like Edith Layton, Carla Kelly and especially Mary Balogh began to write characters with true depth and anguish, even in the short regency format. They were not afraid to tackle grim subjects like rape, illicit pregnancy, prostitution, grinding poverty, or severe ill health. Some readers recoiled in shock, but with excellent writing and triumphant endings – no matter what harrowing experiences the protagonists had to overcome – these innovative authors convinced the majority to go along.
In hindsight I wonder, however, if this mixing of the two parallel traditions did not contribute to the overall decline of the Regency as a separate genre. There used to be several dedicated Regency publishing lines, the Signet editions being the most popular. Yet if the Regency became merely a shorter version of the Historical, why would readers not go straight to the longer, meatier works by those same authors, which offered steamy sex scenes as a bonus?
As a result of this blurring of lines, readers now want the circle squared: if a book sticks to cheerful, minor mishaps and mostly virtuous behaviour some will feel the characters and story lack depth; yet if the protagonists are exposed to grim realities others will resent that their expectation of an uncomplicated, soothing story were not met. One can never please everyone, but a genre in flux makes it even harder. Not to mention the incompatible demands of more sex scenes/no sex at all, and in many cases, of no sex at all before marriage.
Of course we write not only for our readers, but first and foremost for ourselves. Most authors write in different keys according to inspiration and mood.
This morning I had an idea for a novella with a very dark backstory indeed. I shall have to be careful to give a trigger warning in the blurb, and use a darker cover than usual; but even so, there will be some who dislike the subject. Others may like it and then be disappointed that my longer series, The Amberley Chronicles, is tame in comparison.
But at least these days we only have to please ourselves and our readers, and no agents, editors and traditional publishers. Every decently written book and story can find at least some appreciative readers, even if it deviates from the strict limits of its genre. I never cease to be thankful for that.