Smugglers Ponderings

Smuggler’s Ponderings: I, Reader

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.

Behold….The Sameness

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.

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  • Jessica Kennedy
    November 10, 2009 at 7:31 am

    I love YA! And I’m all about the romance in them too.

    I’m reading Beautiful Creatures by Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl and it’s awesome. It has the teen love aspect and it’s chock full of awesome paranormal activity!

    It’s pretty long at 563 pages but I think that’s awesome. I’m on page 324 after 2 days and can’t get enough!!!

    But I’m with you. I switch up my genres between YA/YA Fantasy, Paranormal Romance, and Urban Fantasy.

  • Lori Brighton
    November 10, 2009 at 7:57 am

    Sometimes you just need to take a break, read something totally different. At least I do.

    As for similiar plots, the thing that drives me nuts is editors say they want different, but they really don’t. Perhaps they want a different take on the same plot, but they certainly don’t want unique, imo.

  • Diana Peterfreund
    November 10, 2009 at 8:35 am

    I know folks writing historical romance for THE house that does historical romance, and word is those titles can make a huge difference when it comes to sell in. There are keywords you MUST use like: Duke, Rogue, Sin, Wicked. we’re talking tens of thousands of copies. And that it’s gotta be a duke. Not enough to be a lord or, god forbid, a gentleman. Must be a Duke. Unless it’s Mr. Darcy.

    I think genre exhaustion happens everywhere though. I’ve been reading exclusively YA this year and I’m totally feeling it now. I don’t htink I can read another book about a shy/overlooked girl who meets an insert-paranormal-boyfriend here who loves ONLY HER.

    Also, one word titles. When I came up with RAMPANT in 2006, I thought I was plenty clever. Now it’s just one of a slew of endless one word titles.

  • Ana
    November 10, 2009 at 8:49 am

    Jessica – I can’t wait to read Beautiful Creatures! My copy is somewhere over the Atlantic right now and I can’t wait until it gets here. Heard only good things about it. 😀

    Lori – I completely agree. I do need to take this break right now. And it is so sad to hear that about editors….

    Diana – I haven’t reached an exhaustion point with YA BUT if I see another “shy/overlooked girl who meets an insert-paranormal-boyfriend” story I will run the other way.

  • AnimeJune
    November 10, 2009 at 9:03 am

    HERE HERE! I do declare these following words FORBIDDEN for Historical Romance Titles:


    ARGH! I remember when “The Rakes Guide to Pleasure” and “The Rake’s Guide to Seduction” came out within months of each other!

    And for brilliant writers with terrible covers and titles, we don’t have to go farther than Jo Goodman. AWESOME writer – TERRIBLE covers and titles that have nothing to do with the book at all. Like “The Price of Desire” (two random people hugging) and “When His Kiss Was Wicked” (random fugly dude’s face).

    The title of the novel I’m working on right now is titled The Duke of Snow and Apples – it does have “duke” in it, so maybe it’ll pass publisher muster while still being original.

  • Diana Peterfreund
    November 10, 2009 at 9:07 am

    Also, DARK!!!!!! Haven’t they run out yet of paranormal romances where they put DARK in the title? The Carpathian series did it and now the BDB is doing it, not to mention all the other series that do it, too.

    I realized what hot water I was in with one word titles when we tried to find a title for the second killer unicorn book and discovered about five of our choices were already taken.

  • Ana
    November 10, 2009 at 9:09 am

    AJ – WORD! Jo Goodman IS another fabulous writer stuck with godawful covers and titles. She deserves much better of those – as do Meredith Duran, Victoria Dahl (The Rake’s Guide to Pleasure is AWESOME and yet….awful cover and title) , Joanna Bourne ( GOD, the cover of The Spymaster’s Lady is horrendous) and so many others.

  • Vorvolaka
    November 10, 2009 at 10:44 am

    I’ve been reading seriously since I was about 12. At that age I loved all things crime: Patricia Cornwell, Ian Rankin, Jonathan Kellerman. I completely burned out though. I’m 22 now and still can’t bring myself to read another book by those three authors. I have gotten into crime novels again, particularly those set in Scotland (where I’m from). At the moment it’s Lin Anderson, Quintin Jardine and Stuart MacBride that I love.

    I got into reading Nora Roberts a few years ago and now I’m getting the same apathy whenever a new book by her comes out.

    I did the same with fantasy after the crime binge and it wasn’t until I read Scott Lynch’s debut that I realised why I loved the genre in the first place.

    For that reason I now try to alternate genres every few books. I’ll read pretty much anything so it’s not too hard. I think that when you find a new author or genre, the temptation to read evrything in it is hard to ignore because there’s just this huge (usually false) sense of freshness to it. It’s not until you’re five book down the line that you start to realise it’s often the same story again and again.

  • Meghan
    November 10, 2009 at 11:00 am

    I totally agree. This is why I could never be a single genre reader. I love romance, but if I read too many romance novels in a row, the stories start to feel very same-y. Like you, historical romance is a favorite, but I generally stay away from new releases until I hear that they push boundaries in some way. They all look the same when I see them in the store. =( YA can really be all genres, so it’s much easier to find the variety and originality that you’re craving. I tend to switch genres often these days, waiting until I really crave one specific kind of book to read it.

  • Adrienne
    November 10, 2009 at 11:17 am

    I agree that it is the same formula over and over; gets so old. I limit myself to what I read during the month which sounds wierd, but it helps with burn out. Only so much YA, so much vampire, so many historical, mystery. If I start to get bored (reading V.D. right now and it’s so boorrringgg) then I will switch to old favorites; Harry Potter, Douglas Preston, Stephen King (old, not new) Jane. It will remind you why you blog and why you read.

    If you are looking at something “off the wall”, even though they are paranormal, the Daywatch, Nightwatch, etc. (there are 4 books now) are good if you haven’t already read them-the author is Russian so you have to stick with it but once you get the “language” of the book, they are great.

  • Karen Mahoney
    November 10, 2009 at 1:12 pm

    Wow… as I said earlier, great post! 🙂

    I think I reached a level of genre exhaustion a while back with urban fantasy (adult UF). I’ve read a LOT, and after a while I started to feel a little burnt out on the tough-but-vulnerable protagonist and the love triangles, and the grumpy-but-morally-upstanding police detective that the main character has to deal with re. paranormal crimes… I mean, this stuff is done well – often brilliantly – but I think I read too much.

    That’s why I like things that are a little different in UF these days. Like Vicki Pettersson’s books and Devon Monk’s.

  • Tiah
    November 10, 2009 at 1:13 pm

    How funny you bring up book covers. Just the other night my husband was teasing me about all my books covers. He calls them “tramp stamp books” because he claims all my books (mostly urban fantasy) have chicks wearing leather or the have tattoos. He proved it to me, almost every book he pulled off the shelf had a bad ass chick on the cover with tattoos or a leather halter top. 😀 Time for a change I think.

  • katiebabs
    November 10, 2009 at 1:51 pm

    I am also finding myself turned off from some romance books. Everything I read lately has been pretty ho hum reads. Nothing is blowing my mind. I keep having a sense of deja vu when I read anything.


  • Angie
    November 10, 2009 at 2:16 pm

    Sigh. What is it lately? There must be something in the water. I have been in a terrible slump and I really do think a ton of it was genre exhaustion. Though not romance. 🙂

    I switched it up with a nice mystery and am feeling back in the game. But, man, that was a bad spell.

  • Rhiannon Hart
    November 10, 2009 at 2:49 pm

    I hereby swear to use only made up words in titles! I hear ya about these paranormal romances with shy girl/paranormal girlfriend. Blurgh.

  • Rhiannon Hart
    November 10, 2009 at 2:50 pm

    I hereby swear to use only made up words in titles! I hear ya about these paranormal romances with shy girl/paranormal boyfriend. Blurgh.

  • Shannon C.
    November 11, 2009 at 12:19 am

    I came to the realization months ago that I had to switch genres or I’d make myself crazy. And I hear you about romances, too. I read so many of them over the last year and a half that I got burned out. I’m trying to slip back into reading more of them–slowly–but I haven’t read one lately that I’ve adored, and that discourages me.

  • Jessica
    November 11, 2009 at 5:09 am

    I keep coming back to this post, wondering what to comment. I totally agree with you (and thanks for the linkage!). But … the titles are based on what publishers think works for sales. For which readers are these titles working (and thank you AnimeJune for that great list of banned words)?

    One thought — maybe totally incorrect — is that most romance novels are bought by people who don;t buy that many of them, and in that case the titles works as a good shorthand. then for the rest of us “discerning” readers… we know not to judge a book by the title, so we’ll buy it if it looks interesting, although we have to work harder to see if it is.

    I keep coming back to this disjunct between our online criticism of titles and covers, and the uniform lockstep insistence on them by every single publisher in the genre for every single book. Since I am just a romance reader, and they are in the business, I can’t help but wonder if they know what they are doing — sales wise– even if I hate it.

  • Dishonor
    November 11, 2009 at 4:47 pm

    Oh, I have exactly the same problem, Ana, with Romance and Epic Fantasy and any of my favorite genres. It just seems like there’s nothing left to see.

    Perhaps, for romance, you could give some classics, like Laura Kinsale’s Flowers from the Storm a try?

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