Local romance author Sandra Antonelli and I have been in touch over Twitter and through the site for a while now, but first properly connected over an interview I did late last year with author Maggie Dana about middle-aged protagonists and their representation in fiction.
This is, as it turns out, Sandra’s area of expertise, and is something that she looks at not just in her fiction, but also in her PhD research. Needless to say, I leapt at the chance to hear Sandra’s thoughts on the subject.
In a recent interview about her debut novel A Basic Renovation Sandra commented on not relating to younger heroines in contemporary romance fiction due to their relative “inexperience”. I was curious to hear Sandra flesh out a little more what she means by inexperience, and what the incorporation of an older character into a book might bring to the table.
“What I mean by inexperience is a limited life history, which I equate to a lack of life experience and less interesting emotional baggage,” she says. “Of course there are powerful stories of twenty-somethings with heavy psychological issues, but I like reading about someone whose ride in life has had a few more rough patches.”
Sandra prefers reading about a character with “a little more experience with work, relationships, spirituality, food, sex, parents,” but points out that what was important for someone just starting out in life may still be important to someone who is 50.
“Such as finding that person who will love them unconditionally,” she adds.
Interestingly, Sandra notes that older protagonists have always had appeal for her: even during her teens she had no interest in reading about other teens.
“To me, older people had much more interesting things happen to them, besides high school and sexual awakening. Older people had more history and I always loved history. The Pantheon in Rome is far more intriguing to me than the Taipei 101, the tallest building in the world. Hence my bias.”
So if older protagonists have the potential to add emotional depth and the weight of past experiences to a narrative, why is it that romance heroines tend to be so young?
From her PhD research Sandra has found that editors of romance fiction have indicated that romance heroines “skew younger”–as young as eighteen, in fact.
When I ask whether this might have something to do with “virtue” or sexual inexperience, Sandra says that this has nothing to do with a desire from readers to see virginal heroines.
“A younger heroine can have some sexual experience, since virgins are now not the norm,” she says.
And nor is it an issue of a younger heroine being more easily “dominated” by the traditionally alpha male hero.
“There is that pervasive notion that a romance hero must dominate the heroine on some level, be it sexually, financially, or socially, but the oppressive nature of the patriarchy has pretty much gone on to suck eggs about that. Power is on a much more level playing field in 21st century contemporary romance fiction.”
Is it perhaps that the genre is attracting younger readers?
Not at all, says Sandra. “In fact in 2007, The Romance Readers of American Literature Statistics on Readership showed that 57% of female readers were between the ages of 44 and 74. The 2010 report showed the core readers are aged between 31 to 49.”
Curiously, romance editors seem not to have been able to explain why this skewing was occurring, or why it was particularly noticeable in ebooks—although Sandra has some ideas of her own.
“Women of a certain age do appear in Women’s Fiction and Hen/Matron/Boomer Lit–the over 40 forms of Chick Lit–but I should explain something first.”
Editors tend to to classify “Women’s Fiction” as a genre separate to romance, she explains.
Although the term is used as an umbrella for fiction written mostly by and for women, Women’s Fiction is also a form of its own. It is typically commercial or literary; it can be here-and-now contemporary or a multigenerational saga, such as Rosamund Pilcher’s books.
“While the woman is the star of the story and there may be a romantic element, her changes and emotional development are the driving force of the narrative,” says Sandra.
The upshot is that women over forty are rarely given a role as a romantic lead. Why is this, I ask? Is there a perceived risk of alienating readers?
“I don’t think there’s a risk involved in giving a 40-plus woman a role as a romantic lead. Romance is all about the fantasy. Your fantasy is not my fantasy. Romance has the capacity to have something for everyone. That is why we have Historicals, Contemporaries, Paranormal and Sci-Fi romances, Romantica, and so on: because we’re talking a fantasy.”
And alienation, points out Sandra, is a two-way street.
“A 21 year-old reader might feel alienated when reading about a 46 year-old heroine as much as a 46 year-old reader might feel alienated when reading about a 21 year old heroine. Or it might not make any difference to the reader at all. The bottom line is that people fall in love at 15, 25, 35, 25, 55, 65 and so on. To limit that vital, human desire to connect, to belong, to be loved to a particular age range is wrong and ageist.”
With A Basic Renovation Sandra sees herself not as pushing the traditional boundaries of romance so much as advocating for romance fantasy being accessible to all ages.
“A Basic Renovation follows the form of most romance novels. If I was successful, and I like to think I have been, the age of the protagonists is not what the reader focuses on, but rather the path to the romantic entanglement, the journey to the Happy ending or happy for now.”
Though it would have been simple to make everyone in the novel younger, Sandra says that the characters would have then lacked the life experience needed to take the novel where she wanted it to go.
“The characters would not have had the emotional baggage the leads them to behave as they do.”
A Basic Renovation is published by Harlequin’s digital imprint Harlequin Escape, and Sandra has high hopes that the growth of digital publishing will usher in some changes.
“When I read I look for innovation,” says Sandra. “I enjoy when an author can take a tired old trope like the secret baby–which I have mentioned I dislike in another interview–and surprise the hell out of me with it. To me that is a successful novel.”
Sandra wishes to see more “big fat multilayered, character-driven romances with characters who are not stereotypes,” and with e-publishing this may be becoming a reality.
“E-publishers are willing to take more risks, and as a reader I appreciate that there has been a return of the big fat book. I hope seeing them again in electronic format is a trend that is here to stay.”
A Basic Renovation is published through Escape Publishing