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Monday, October 20, 2008

Theory #43: Readerly Theories: on the demise of Next

It's Smart Bitches Day!

Apparently the "Next" line was Harlequin's answer to the popularity of women's fiction, but it's fizzled--even the website is gone. Which doesn't hurt my feelings any. If you've been around here long, you know that women's fiction is not my favorite genre, and IMO, it really doesn't lend itself to Harlequinizing.

That is... and I'm sure I'm going to offend a bunch of people here, though that's not my intention... Harlequin opens the door for newer authors, for shorter fiction, for "smaller" books--by which I do not mean "less valuable." Merely that you can have a simpler story in a Harlequin novel than you can in one from another publisher. You'd never find a simple, 200-page love story anywhere else (except maybe e-pubs). So I very much approve of Harlequin, because we need a place for that kind of story.

Signet's Regencies used to fill that niche, too, as did Loveswept, and some others that are all gone now (Silhouette being wrapped up in the Harlequin net). So Harlequin is it--in print, at least--as far as short, simple romantic fiction goes.

Now there are some Harlequins that are more complex, and some Harlequin lines that exceed 300 pages, but that's not generally what you go to Harlequin for.

Women's fiction, however, needs to be complex, I think, to avoid mediocrity. Maybe I'm wrong--maybe the rest of the Next line was fabulously complex stories that would change my mind about the women's fiction genre in general.

By definition, I think (and I have yet to finish that Theory I started on genres), or maybe that should be "at its best," women's fiction is the exploration of a mature woman's journey (and by "mature" I mean "mature," not, as the ads would have you believe, "elderly". Why and when did "mature" and "middle-aged" come to mean in one's 60s or 70s? Last I checked, life expectancies hadn't increased to 120 or 140. And I'd hope people could be considered mature in their 30s or 40s, Stepbrothers notwithstanding.). And the complex emotions she experiences during that journey are a necessary part of the story.

Now, you can do this in a shorter format, but in general, you need more pages to get all that emotion on the page. The guidelines for Next requested 70,000–75,000 words, so that's definitely a factor, but they also said
  • Stories in this line will have a range of tones — from lighter and more humorous to serious and dramatic — but all will be upbeat, optimistic and brimming with possibility.
  • These stories will be energetic rather than edgy.
which tells me that they're reducing the complexity by asking authors to leave out the messier, more negative emotions that add depth to a good women's fiction story.

Between the tone and length guidelines, it seems that Next precluded anything but trite women's fiction. Okay, maybe I shouldn't say "trite" because that's more of a value judgment. It's established that I'm probably not a very good judge of the genre anyway, because I only tend to like it if it's really meaty and full of emotion--like that written by Patricia Gaffney, Lani Diane Rich, or Lisa Wingate. Maybe fans of the genre dislike those. I find that hard to believe, but I don't know.

Maybe there are a lot of readers out there who like women's fiction-y stories that aren't that long and intense, but apparently not enough to keep the line alive. Or maybe the marketing just wasn't there to reach those readers.

I'm probably way off base. But the line was discontinued, and the book I just read from that line suffered from oversimplification, and connecting the two was irresistible.

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I think the entire publishing industry is scrambling. in response to an overall panic, they are starting and closing branches of their business over and over again. It's an oddity.

I hope Harlequin will make it.
This was something I didn't know nanything about and you really got me thinking!

We were in Vegas...and I saw two women reading...all the time, they even went into the pool and hot tub with their books (they were romance novels)
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