I read my first romance novel in 2000. That was 16 years ago. I was a closeted gay male, a freshmen in high school, book nerd, and all my closest friends were female. Even back then I was a bit snobby about the books I read. I had tried to seek out gay literature, but I found almost none.
One of my friends absolutely devoured romance novels: on the order of several a week. One day, she saw my skeptical look when she pulled one out of her locker. She said, "You have to try one before you make fun of it. I'll bring one in tomorrow for you. It will take you two days, and then you'll be back to your normal reading."
She brought in The Wyndham Legacy by Catherine Coulter. In retrospect, I think she tricked me. She gave me a suspense trilogy. She knew I'd need the next one to see how it ended. Also, the sex was ... quite arousing. I couldn't believe these things were written in books they had at the library. And that's how it all started.
I spent the next year reading Nora Roberts, LaVyrle Spencer, Catherine Coulter, and yes, even Danielle Steel. When I got to college, my reading for pleasure greatly decreased, and I pretty much stopped reading romance altogether. I only came back to it with the genesis of the M/M romance e-book.
I've always had a nostalgia for these 90's romance writers, but I've never gone back to see if they hold up. The most obvious way that newer books have evolved is length. The books by the authors I mentioned above are 350-page paperbacks. This means 60,000-word full novels or longer. More often M/M e-books fit into the novella length of 30,000-50,000.
I've fallen into the trap of thinking in terms of these shorter lengths. I really want the novel I'm working on to be a full-length novel, so I decided to take a look into the past and see how these earlier books differed. I grabbed a Nora Roberts I always wanted to read: Jewels of the Sun.
The first chapter surprised me. It was quite long, and pretty much nothing happened. Much of the prose described the internal state of the main character and the setting. She didn't meet the love interest at all (or even in Chapter 2).
This told me a few things. First, I think readers were a bit more trusting back before the instant gratification of smart phones and Amazon previews existed. The opening was much more patient than we've become accustomed to. It didn't need to hook a potential reader in the first 500 words for fear of the Amazon customer deciding not to buy it.
The more I read, the clearer the evolution became. Older romance was all about transporting the reader to a romantic place: a small town, the beautiful Irish countryside, the Regency, etc. A lot more words were devoted to these setting descriptions.
This was my nostalgia. Our e-book age forces books to be focused on fast plots and quickly establishing character. The setting used to be one of the main characters.
Nowadays, at least in contemporary M/M, the setting tends to be a known place like NYC. It's a place everyone can visualize easily without many words. This probably isn't fully intentional or conscious. I'm sure it naturally evolved this way out of the need to have a believable thriving gay culture and the need to quickly get into the story.
There are definitely parts of my nostalgia I wish I didn't expose in this exercise. It might only have been this particular choice, but I think the line-by-line prose style has improved in general. I don't want to trash a book's writing that I generally enjoyed, but there were a lot of "mistakes" I don't think modern editors would let through based on my own experience. One example was an excessive amount of alliteration. But the further I got into the story, the less I noticed it.
Anyway, I've made a firm decision to return to this style that brought me into the genre. It probably means my newest book will be a huge flop. I'm going to spend a great deal of time transporting the reader to my fictional small Connecticut town of Merlin's Grove. The town itself will be a living, quirky character.
I say forget all those people who don't have the attention span to enjoy this. It's what I want to read, so it's what I'm going to write.