Calling All Readers: What Do We Call It and How Do We Do it?

For years, I’ve been writing for an overlooked audience. Now, finally, I’m writing for a slowly emerging market, one a few publishers are, after years of ignoring, only just beginning to cater to. Despite the presence of a target audience, that is readers over 40,  two stumbling blocks remain when it comes to marketing romance fiction to readers over 40: WHAT to call this subgene, and HOW to market romance with older couples.

The WHAT: The front-running suggestions for this romance subgenre (Thank you, Laura Boon Russell for reminding me to mention that this is a subgenre), from those of us who write romance fiction with lead characters over 40, have been Adult Contemporary Romance, Seasoned Romance, Mature Romance (MatRom), and Silver Romance. The new category line from Entangled is called August, which is a charming moniker, but the line is limited to stories of characters 35-45. Now, here’s where you come in. Do you have any ideas of WHAT to call romance fiction with both lead characters who are over 40?

If you do, leave a comment. Better still leave a comment about the search terms you use when you go looking for romance tales where both characters have been around the block a time or two? You as a reader have the power to pick the name that REALLY sticks.

Groovy, say we come up with a consensus on a name for this subgenre, for Romance of a Certain Age, Granny Lit or Hag Lit, (Can we agree now NOT use any of those?), but what about the HOW?

HOW to market these books is fraught with the same issues Hollywood has when it comes to marketing any film featuring a woman over 40 as the lead. Artwork and advertising, which in the publishing world means book covers, can be tricky for a tale with younger leads. A book cover, like a movie poster, is supposed to be shorthand for the story presented. Marketing departments for Romance fiction have always found a way to work around finding cover art for troublesome novel, usually steering clear of the stereotypical clinch cover in favour of something benign, such as a pair of shoes, a dog, an empty Adirondack chair sitting on a beach. In Hollywood, the usual thinking is:

  1. If the older woman appears on the advertising, be sure the image includes an object that obscures her age, such as a coffee cup in front of her face;
  2. If the older woman appears on the movie poster, ensure only a small percentage of her body is shown, no full body shots;
  3. Reduce the size of the woman’s image, place her in the background in a setting, such as on a dock, on a boat, behind Bruce Willis or Morgan Freeman. Seriously. Go look at this poster for Red, right now.

Obviously, in fiction and film there’s a similar workaround showing the ageing body, which is primarily horrifying because ageing and the bodies of older people are continually presented as ugly and something to fear. These images lead to an unconscious bias against older people, particularly older women, and that bias keeps women from appearing roles other than mother, granny, harpy, crone, or keeps them from appearing at all. ON book covers and movie posters.

The chief antidote to treating ageing as a disease is to present it as normal, as everyday, but creating a new standard and breaking down pervasive image stereotypes of age—or any stereotype—takes time. People need to ‘get used to’ something new. I understand starting small, put the aged female face behind that coffee cup a few times, or reduce the size of Mary-Lousie Parker and Helen Mirren on the poster for Red. Use those benign beach-front images that suggest peace, use the dog, the shoes. Then, slowly, because, people need time to adjust to change, get rid of the coffee cup, enlarge the size of the woman, move her to the foreground, right beside the acceptable male silver fox in that Adult Contemporary-Seasoned-Mature-Silver-August Romance.

Seeking Role Models for Women Over 40 in TV and Romance Fiction

In the Hollywood Reporter, Inkoo Kang’s Critic’s Notebook: For Women Over 40, TV’s Feminism Is Flawed has interesting things to say on TV and the meaty roles for women over 40, but questions, like I do, why these women of a certain age remain bizarrely flawed and dysfunctional, why these women, more often than not, remain morally ambiguous, less-than-positive role models of older women. In other words, why women of a certain age are still cast as something wicked.

Kang, praises the inclusion of older women (as do I), yet points out that ‘Moral ambiguity is the currency of today’s prestige and middlebrow small-screen projects, and ethical transgressions can indeed make for a more compelling protagonist.” Kang also notes out how “There’s not a powerful and pure-hearted Buffy Summers, Dana Scully or Jane Villanueva among them,” and cautions “let’s not make the mistake of confusing goodness for a lack of complexity.” This confusion is where the danger lies because it relies on continuing to present older women as stereotyped cranky old ladies, kooks, and harpies.

On one hand, we have to applaud television’s inclusion of the older woman, since old broads have been invisible for so long. On the other hand, and yes there are a few TV series that offer positive, complex, moral-hearted representations and role models of women over 40 (Grace & Frankie, Madame Secretary, The Fall, The Night Manager), yet too many still rely on the stereotypes and assumptions about older women.

Which brings me to my usual plug for the older romance heroine. The 40+ romance heroine is perfectly placed to combat the confusion, the moral ambiguity, the stereotyping. Yes, it’s time for 40+ romance heroines to step in and BE models of strength and poise, to BE valued for their potential, to BE powerful, ‘powerful, pure-hearted,’ and complex, not merely bizarrely flawed and dysfunctional. After all, Romance fiction has been at the forefront of social change for women for decades–but romance publishers have been a little…intractable with seeing women 40+ as viable romantic leads (because falling in love only happens to young women and sex over 40 is icky), or as a valuable money-making audience. Romance publishers are beginning, slowly, to come around. Like television has.

The key to changing the biases we have, and changing the stereotypes fiction and Hollywood clings to is, as Kang suggests (and I shout), offering NEW tales featuring women of a certain age, and presenting these women as something to aspire to be. We need to re-train our brains to accept a new status quo.

One last note. It may be my imagination, but I think the UK is frequently better at NOT relying on and challenging the portrayal of older women as kooky, dysfunctional stereotypes in TV and film roles.

Kang, I. (2017, June 13). Critic’s Notebook: For Women Over 40, TV’s Feminism Is Flawed. The Hollywood Reporter.  http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/news/critic-s-notebook-women-40-tv-s-feminism-is-flawed-1012782