When Is Contemporary Romance No Longer Contemporary?

I’m still pursuing my quest to find decent contemporary romance to read.  So far the “body” count is up to 7.  I did make the realization that many of the paperbacks I’ve pulled to read from my collection were picked up at the used bookstore who knows how long ago and many are rather dated, published back in the days before easy internet research and fact checking, when authors had a bit more latitude about getting things right.  But either way, as I tossed this morning’s victim on my pile of rejects, I got to wondering about something.

See, this book was published in 1990.  That was over 20 years ago.  I was particularly struck by the fact that there were no cell phones.  Not that I am particularly attached to cell phones as being part of a story, but I was VERY struck by how dated the whole thing felt (heroine breaks down on side of road, is rescued by rancher on horse–which could happen today, I suppose, in an area with no cell service, but it was one of those small details where I expected her to be holding her phone up looking for a signal or something).

Contemporary romance, according to wikipedia,

is a subgenre of romance novels, generally with the setting after World War II.[1] The largest of the romance novel subgenres [I wonder if this is still true?], contemporary romance novels are set in the time when they were written, and usually reflect the mores of their time…

Most contemporary romance novels contain elements that date the books, and the majority of them eventually become irrelevant to more modern readers and go out of print.

Which, frankly, makes me want them to call it something other than contemporary romance.  Because I’m out there looking for smart, modern heroines and getting stuck with stuff I can’t relate to.  I know, I know.  I should apparently check the publication date before checking out or picking up.  Still, it felt both sad (that all these books are no longer relevant to most people) and weird because, for most modern readers, a world without cell phones is as alien as the old West or Regency England (and if it isn’t, it will be in another decade).  And is seems like these books should get somehow re-classified once their publication/setting date is more than a decade or two old to make it easier for people to find what they want.  To what, I have no idea.  Not like bookstores will suddenly start shelving stuff by decade.  And probably these aren’t actually available in bookstores other than Amazon.  So it’s irrelevant I guess.

I’ve got a pile of more recent offerings from the library on my hold list, but there’s a fair waiting list (indicating their continued popularity as a genre, I’d say), so I guess I’m just SOL on what I want to read for a while.

11 thoughts on “When Is Contemporary Romance No Longer Contemporary?

  1. Modern historical romance? Antique romance? I think a car is considered antique after 25 years. LOL There’s also a situation where there’s a series that takes awhile to write, but the time frame for the actual characters is different. The series may be written in a ten year span, but the stories may only span a few months or a year. Then the author has to write situations that are already out of date. I’m trying to think of where I encountered that situation. I think it was the Sue Grafton novels, “A is for Alibi”, etc. They are set in the eighties, I think. Btw, the lack of cell phones in a story bugs me too. 🙂

  2. I’m running into a similar issue writing my Red Slaves series: It’s set in the early 90s… So is it historical paranormal or contemporary? As you say, the lack of cellphones and other infrastructure makes it feel dated… but the story has to have happened then, and it also feels odd to call what I remember from within my lifetime “alternate history”. So we’re all up a creek on stories set 20-30 years ago. 😉

  3. “published back in the days before easy internet research and fact checking, when authors had a bit more latitude about getting things right” – but but but… Diana Gabaldon was writing then, and she got 99% of her facts right! And what about the classics? They got everything right, with minimal to none typos. I wish more authors in the past 20 years had followed their examples!
    Sorry, ranting a little… That’s my inner copy editor getting huffy 🙂

    1. Certainly there were authors who did their homework, but it wasn’t nearly as easy back then. I think a lot of category length contemporary romance and much of the genre in general was not held to as high a standard. A lot of it was predicated on cliched set ups to begin with and a lot of the cliches weren’t accurate. Like portrayal of ranch life, for example. In this type of novel, all the heroes were ranchers, rich as Midas, who all rode stallions or whatever. Not so much an accurate portrayal of what ranching is actually like (and don’t get me started on the screw ups they make with horses). Some of it is just being thin on the details. It’s just…a different time.

      1. Ah, okay, see I wouldn’t know. I’ve only read a few 1970s and 80s romance novels – Harlequins that my mom had. Oh man, sooo heavy on the gender and class stereotypes…

  4. Yes, I would say contemporary romances from 10-20 years ago are not going to read like contemporary romances now. Not just because of technology changes, but because of style changes. If you’re looking for good modern contemporary romances, looking at that pub date is going to be important. Most of the contemporaries I read are erotic contemporaries (since that’s what I write) but I know that the non-erotic contemporary romance authors that I hear the most good things about are Jill Shavis, Lisa Kleypas, Rachel Gibson, Kristan Higgins, Victoria Dahl, Susan Elizabeth Phillips, and Carly Phillips. Maybe look for some of the more recent releases from those authors. Good luck!

  5. I was surprised by how much I like Meg Cabot’s romances for grown ups. Not only do her heroines carry cell phones and lust after Marc Jacobs handbags, she even has a series with a size 12 heroine (the Heather Wells series.)

  6. After interviewing Karen Rought about antiques & collectibles, I learned that items between 20 and 100 years old are “vintage.” These are therefore VIntage Romances. It should be a new category. 🙂

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