third-wave romance

according to the people who like to talk, coffee culture is up to its third wave. So in a completely unrelated aside, I decided that I have a theory about romance writing, and where it’s up to.

(I’m obliged to say that “third-wave” is considered a highly pretentious, silly term by actual coffee people. But it works for my theory, so it stays.)

There is old-school, bodice-rippers-of-the-70s romance. This is what lingers, and gives people the impression they have of the genre. This is what we snuck into the library and read as teenagers, with its “quivering mound of venus”s and “purple-headed warrior”s.

As skilful and beloved as Stephanie Laurens is, I think she’s an example of first-wave romance. Her heroes are alphas, her heroines are plucky, and whilst the heroine never finds herself suddenly turned on in the middle of being raped, she does quite often “leave the mortal plane” for hours on end after sex, before coming back to herself.

To me, that says old-school.

The second wave are the intelligent, funny, sexy and wise writers like Eloisa James, Elizabeth Hoyt, Lisa Kleypas – even Susan Elizabeth Phillips. Their books are complex and peopled with flawed, human characters. Sex isn’t always perfect. The writing is that epitome of genre writing: entirely transparent, like a window that draws you into a scene, without making you aware at any time that there’s glass between you and what you’re watching.

Then there’s third-wave.

I admit to only having read a tiny corner of what’s out there, but for what I’ve read, there are three writers bringing in the new generation of romance: Sherry Thomas, Meredith Duran and Julie Anne Long.

Third-wave romance has characters that don’t only have three dimensions and believable motivations, and aren’t just sympathetic and flawed. They feel human. To the point where sometimes you feel like you’re intruding on a private moment between them and their beloved.

These writers are also pushing the kind of language that romance novels are written in. They’re using unique, fresh images and startling turns of phrase. Their characters are so well-drawn that we are only ever seeing the tip of the iceberg, in the best writerly fashion. Language is becoming a facet of the novel, in and of itself.

I wouldn’t say third-wave is best. In a way, second-wave makes for a more enjoyable read, because of its transparency – it doesn’t unsettle you, or leave you wondering.

I aspire to be the best writer I can be, but I maybe secretly aspire to the third wave as well.

Comments 2 Responses

  1. decadence

    To be completely honest, I haven’t read any of the authors in your third wave, so I can’t really comment on that. In the last 3 months, I’ve read 1 romantic suspense, a few Ellora’s Cave romanticas and a whole heap of paranormal romance and urban fantasy. I’m reading a historical now, but it’s my first since July or August.

    I’m not sure I’d agree with Stephanie Laurens being included in the first wave because even if her heroes are alpha (the original Bar Cynster at least) and the heroines are plucky, the heroes treat the heroines MUCH better than in a bodiceripper and there’s less of the Great Misunderstanding and need to completely deconstruct the characters (eg. through rape or captivity or some combo of the above) before they can end up together.

    From what I’ve heard about her writing, Anna Campbell’s books would be a better first wave fit and it’s why I haven’t read them.

    Since I didn’t feel especially qualified to respond intelligently, I’ve outsourced the informed, perceptive part of the comment:

    Structuring the theory in waves makes it sound time-dependent, but the descriptions sound like the differences are defined by their tone. The first has more of a dark, fantasy tone, the second is more light and humourous while the third seems to be more dramatic and literary. The argument is that writers can’t always be confined to just one wave.

    As an example, Laura Kinsale has written some first wave books, but although her writing style is a facet of all her works, not all of them would fall under the same category as Kathleen E Woodiwiss.

    I would say that if the third wave is more literary, Eloisa James straddles the fence between waves 2 and 3.

    1. superaniistar Post author

      ah, yes, the problem with broad, sweeping theories being that they’re most likely underresearched! 🙂

      Whoever you outsourced the comment to is entirely correct: I’m going more by tone than by time. However, I think if you put the groups of authors I’ve picked together, the do tend to also follow a general time scale… (my third-wavers are all relatively recent)

      Stephanie Laurens doesn’t have all those really questionable elements in her work – I think it’s really just the “leaving the mortal plane” thing that I can’t get over… that still seems like such old-school romance sex. (And evidently a lot of people love it! Just not my cuppa tea)

      Thanks for checking my theory out, though. What are your theories as to the way romance is evolving?

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