The thing I love most about romance is that it’s a huge world that’s simple to explain. It’s built on one idea — everyone deserves love and a happy ending. Everyone. No exceptions.
But is there an age limit on this happiness we’re entitled to? Is there an age at which it’s no longer amazing for someone to find true love? Of course not, right? That would be absurd.
Except that it isn’t. Turns out that the wide wonderful world of romance has an ageism problem.
I never thought about the age of characters in romance novels until I wrote my first book. In my case, I started writing two months after I turned 40. What can I say? I’ve always been a late bloomer. I was determined to own my 40s. I wanted to kick some ass. I wanted to challenge myself to write an epic love story.
I’d had an idea in my head for nearly a decade, about a woman meeting and falling in love with the rock star crush of her youth, only it’s years later, after his heyday. I made my heroine 39, on the brink of 40. My hero? 45 and aging absurdly well.
Writing that first book, Bring Me Back, was a transformative experience. I sat in front of my computer and laughed and sobbed and thought harder than I have ever thought. When I finished months later, I was immensely pleased. Like lots of first-time authors, I was sure somebody, somewhere, would love it. I started querying. That was when I first learned that romance gets really touchy about age.
You can’t write a romance about a forty year-old woman. That’s women’s fiction. There’s no sex in women’s fiction.
Readers don’t want a romance about a heroine that old.
No one wants to read about forty year-olds having sex.
These are actual things editors and agents said to me in emails or at pitch sessions. Of course, I felt defeated. But I was also dumbfounded. I was 40 and looking at my life and nothing the publishing world was saying meshed with my reality. My husband and I had a great sex life. I didn’t feel old. Hell, in my head, I was still 22.
The romance world, however, was telling me over and over again that 40 year-olds are done with love. Their sexy parts are closed for business, and if they’re still daring to get it on, please don’t talk about it. People beyond 40 should not only remain on the sidelines, they should definitely not allow any other people their age onto the field.
Which left me thinking, “WTF, romance? Are we seriously putting an expiration date on people?” I knew I couldn’t be the only one who felt this way.
I eventually found a small publisher to put out Bring Me Back. Soon after publication, I started getting emails from readers, and they all said the same thing: they loved reading about a heroine their age. They loved reading about a 40 year-old woman having hot sex with the super sexy British guy of her fantasies. They loved that she was a mom and life was complicated, but it was not passing her by. I can only venture to guess that readers loved those things because they were either a reflection of their life, or a reflection of a life they wanted to escape into.
I knew I’d done the right thing, even when publishing said I’d broken an unwritten rule. I then set out to discover who else was being subversive, which led me to tons of incredible authors, including the woman who is now one of my dearest friends, author Margaret Ethridge (aka Maggie Wells). Margaret and I knew these books were resonating with readers and we also knew that a lot of authors writing older characters needed help connecting with this audience. There was no good label for these books. Why? Because terms like “mid-life” and “mature” have some negative connotations. That had to change, too.
That led Margaret and I to start a Facebook reader group we call Seasoned Romance. Margaret came up with the term “seasoned”. It’s not about the age, she insists. It’s about the experiences that have kept characters from love in the past, and what’s different now. Our hope was to connect readers with books they wanted, and authors with those willing and waiting grabby hands, all while we dared to talk about sex and love as we age. Three years later, we’ve passed 2,000 members. We talk about everything. That’s one of the awesome parts of getting older. Your filter fades away.
So why does a genre based on reflecting life and love have such a bias against characters finding love later in life? There is no simple answer, other than the fact that ageism is one of the few –isms that people continue to buy into. We’re told that we’re at our peak in our 20s and it’s downhill from there. I believed it when I was 22. When I turned 40, I realized what an utter and complete lie it is. It’s caveman thinking and it has no place in romance. It holds people back. It holds love back. That’s the exact last thing the world of romance should be doing.
Getting older can be amazing and falling in love is one of the true joys of life. So why wouldn’t we want to read about it? I think an awful lot of us do. The good news is that the Seasoned Romance Facebook group is growing like a weed. RWA (The Romance Writers of America) just approved a Seasoned Romance chapter. The Book Industry Study Group, added the BISAC code category Romance> Later in Life last year, and romance publisher Entangled, introduced a line called August last year, featuring romance with characters who are beyond their 20s.
If you’re interested in reading romances about characters with some serious life experience under their belts, here are just a few to get started with:
Or join the Seasoned Romance reader group on Facebook at http://bit.ly/seasonedromance