The other day, several folks on Twitter (Jane Litte of Dear Author, Angela James of Carina Press, and a few others) were discussing how long ago a book has to be set before it can reasonably be considered a “historical” romance. Some said the 1920s, others the 1950s, and there may have been other responses I didn’t see. One thing that seemed pretty clear, though, is that everyone agreed a book set in the 1980s isn’t a “historical” romance. My first impulse is to agree with that–the 1980s don’t seem very much different from today. Well, okay, except for the Internet, smart phones, the end of the Cold War, the end of Happy Days, and…well, I could actually go on and on.
And all those things that have changed since the ’80s (which, by the way, I remember quite well) are what make me wonder why it’s NOT proper to call a book set in the 1980s a “historical”? I mean, the 1980s are definitely history; my kids are learning about Ronald Reagan and the fall of the Berlin Wall in history classes, after all.
But it does seem odd to call a book set in the 1980s (or even the 1960s) “historical” because the things we associate with historical romance and historical fiction don’t seem to hold true. Fashion, mores, technology, sexual politics, etc. don’t seem to have changed much in the past 40 or 50 years. At the same time, though, there’s something not quite right about calling a book that isn’t set in the time period in which it’s being written a “contemporary,” because that’s obviously equally untrue.
On a side rant, it drives me absolutely bonkers that most retailers classify Austen as historical romance. To us, her stories are set in a historical period, but when she was writing them, they were contemporaries. (And, of course, romance didn’t exist as a genre with the conventions it currently has, so Austen certainly didn’t think of herself as writing romances, either, but that’s a separate issue.) Either way, it seems ludicrous to me to classify a book as “historical” based on the relationship of the time period it’s set in to now. By that rationale, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea is historical fiction. So is War of the Worlds and Sherlock Holmes. And if a book set in the 1980s isn’t historical, the George Orwell’s 1984 must now be considered a contemporary novel. Does that makes sense? I certainly don’t think so!
All of this is my way of saying that it’s pretty clear that trying to divide what I’ll call “real world” (as opposed to paranornmal/science fiction) romances into two simple categories, historical and contemporary, really is insufficient. Although I’d hesitate to use the term “historical” for a book written today and set in the 1980s (or even the 1990s) because it carries too many false associations, I can’t call that book a contemporary, either. To be a contemporary, the books should be set in the time period in which it is being written. And the book doesn’t become historical at some time in the future because the time period it was written in is now sufficiently far in the past to be considered “historical.” It’s still a contemporary, because the author was writing it as such.
This dividing line seems important to me because writing a story set in your own time period is fundamentally different from writing one set in the past (just as it is different from writing one set in an imaginary world or in an imagined future). Maybe we need some additional terms for books set in the recent past–Modern Historical? Vintage Contemporary (Angela James’ suggestion)–but calling them contemporaries is just wrong, as far as I’m concerned.
And while we’re at it, can we stop lumping Austen in with Historical Romance? Because frankly, after almost 200 years, she’s STILL outselling my ass and messing up my rankings!