Hello and welcome to #RomBkLove Day 11: Old School! My friend Ana Coqui is hosting a month of romance recommendations on her blog, Twitter and elsewhere and asked a number of other bloggers to take on topics that interest them and host a day during the month. In a move that should be unsurprising to no one, I nabbed old school/vintage romance. My love for old romances is pretty well documented. I started reading them after returning to romance after a long hiatus, reading romance classics that most people read as teens or young adults. I have a particular fondness for old category romance (which most people think of as Harlequins and maybe Silhouettes if they’ve been around long enough), but there used to be many, many category lines. Plus there are the old historical romances that get a lot of play even now, older single title contemporary romances, and romances in the LGBTQ fiction space that fit the Romance Writers of America definition of romance.
While we’ve called the prompt for today “old school” romance, for me, the term old school really resonates most for a certain subset of older books, mainly but not exclusively old historicals like The Flame and the Flower and vintage Harlequin Presents–books where the heroes are over-bearing, the heroines are virginal, the sex is rapey (usually only to start, but still) and the handling of any character who isn’t cis-gendered, heterosexual and white is likely problematic, if those characters exist at all. What I’m going to talk about instead is “vintage” romance, mainly books that I’ve read or discovered recently that meet the criteria for vintage, which is more than 20 years old. And for certain, not all vintage romance is old school. In fact, some of these books are decidedly new school in their treatment of marginalized characters and consent-affirming sex despite the fact that some of them are nearly 40 years old.So now that I’ve introduced my topic by telling you that I’m not going to write about my topic, let’s get to the books!
Corey Alexander, @TGStoneButch on Twitter, is a terrific reviewer whose tastes happen to frequently align with mine and who has a much deeper knowledge of older LGBTQ romance than I do. They graciously agreed to help me out with some older queer romance recs since most of my reading in the LGBTQ space has been very recent.
By way of introduction, I would say that old school m/m romance and old school f/f romance come from very different places and publishing histories, they also differ quite a bit in feel from old school m/f romance. (And for romance with trans and/or non-binary characters, old school is on a different timeframe altogether. I’d place it as pre-2015, myself.) Groundbreaking 80s queer romance books include the gay leather classic Mr. Benson, Naiad Press’ most popular romance, Curious Wine (1983), and the early YA romance Annie on My Mind (1982) (the first queer YA where the girls end up together at the end, unlike the queer YA I grew up reading where queer MCs often experience terrible fates).
Instead of talking about classics, I’m going to share a couple romances from the early 90s that I have great affection for, and have reread several times, and would recommend to readers in 2018.
B-Boy Blues by James Earl Hardy (1994) centers two out black gay men who have very different class backgrounds and who fall hard and fast for each other, though it takes them a while to admit it’s about more than sex. It’s funny and hot and the characterization is just wonderful. It’s credited as one of the first Black gay romances, as the story that ushered in Afrocentric gay literature. E. Lynn Harris, another author of Black queer fiction, called it the “first gay hip hop love story.”
Tell Me What You Like by Kate Allen (1993) is a BDSM lesbian mystery romance novel. Its charm for me is the way it is steeped in lesbian culture, and very much grappling with the lesbian sex wars and their impact on lesbian leather communities. I love that we are asked to imagine a city where there are two kinky lesbian sex workers who only work in the lesbian BDSM community, and I adore the meet-cute butch/femme kinky romance arc that builds slowly between the MCs, who initially bond over quilting.
Elisabeth again! In 1980, Vivian Stephens, the editor of Dell Candlelight and a black woman, published Entwined Destinies (1980), the first category romance novel about a black couple by a black woman. The author, Elsie Washington, was also a journalist for Newsweek. Stephens went on to found RWA, edit for Harlequin and discover many other amazing romance writers who are still writing today. Sadly, Entwined Destinies is the only romance novel Washington wrote. But if you can find a copy (it’s out of print and currently very expensive in paperback), definitely pick it up. It’s interesting in all sorts of ways, which I detailed in my full-length review of it. Briefly, it reads just like an old school Harlequin Presents with a black couple, great sexual tension, a mysterious hero and a unique and welcome twist on the standard rapey sex scene. I really wish someone would bring it back into print in ebook.
On the strength of Entwined Destinies, Stephens went on to turn a sub-set of the Dell Candlelight Ecstasy line (Dell Candlelight’s sexier younger sister) into what I’ve been calling their own voices line, per an RT article in this tweet from the Bowling Green State University Pop Culture Library. The term Stephens actually used was “ethnic romances”. But if you read the article linked above, what she was describing really was an own voices line at a major New York publisher approximately 40 years ago. The other books that were definitely in the line were The Tender Mending by Lia Sanders (1982), Web of Desire by Jean Hager (1981) and Golden Fire, Silver Ice by Marisa de Zavala (1981). I also wondered about Desperate Longings by Frances Flores (1981), but I haven’t yet been able to confirm for sure that this was intended as part of the same line. Now, I’ve been calling it a line, but really it wasn’t. It was books about characters of color by women of color within the Dell Candlelight Ecstasy imprint right alongside books about white characters by white authors like Jayne Castle (Jayne Ann Krentz), Rachel Ryan (Sandra Brown) and Bonnie Drake (Barbara Delinsky). A closer examination of more titles from around the same time period might yield more books, but this is an on-going project for me. All of these are out of print, but if you click the Amazon links, some can be had fairly cheaply.
Another book of the vintage but not old school variety (except for some purple prose and a punishing kiss or two) is Lightning that Lingers by Sharon and Tom Curtis (1983), also known as Laura London. A few years ago, Hachette released a new edition of The Windflower, a historical pirate romance by London. Aside from some really terrible pacing issues, that one is also surprisingly not all that old school–for a pirate romance. But around the same time, ebook editions of the pair’s old category romances for Loveswept also appeared. If you have never ever read a vintage romance before and you’re wondering what it’s all about, this is one I recommend. Not only is available in ebook, the hero is more of the beta variety (he’s a stripper and has a pet owl!), the sex isn’t coercive and the heroine takes no crap. It’s paced like a modern romance and if you love their quirky prose, you’ll be a fan forever.
Sandra Brown is a name known to many these days. She has gone on to a long and glorious career, but she was discovered by Vivian Stephens at Dell. I’ve read a couple of those early Candlelights and they’re good, but the book that has stuck with me since I was a teenager is one she wrote for Loveswept, Fanta C (1987). The heroine is the widowed owner of a lingerie boutique and the hero literally makes her dreams come true. Yes, those kinds of dreams. I reread it fairly recently and it’s not as pacey as I remember it being from my teen years, but for a good Catholic girl the book was a revelation. Rather than sex being something embarrassing and possibly painful perpetrated by boys looking to take advantage, it was a suddenly a lovely, desirable thing that could be had with a man who was clearly head over heels. Everyone has a nostalgia pick and this is mine. It’s still in print, but only available in paperback.
After Vivian Stephens left Dell and went to Harlequin, she acquired some of Sandra Kitt’s first books. Serenade (1994) launched the Arabesque line. It’s the story of a couple reunited after a decade apart. The hero is a famous musician and the heroine teaches music to children as she tries to make it as a singer. There is an extended flashback of their early time together that worked so well for me. In it, the heroine is very young, the hero very experienced. The hero especially made some mistakes when they first met, mostly out of insensitivity and self-centeredness. He is well and truly redeemed though, showing in both word and deed how he has grown, changed and matured. The book is also set in DC, with several scenes at local spot Blues Alley, which I frequented in college so that was fun a personal level. This one was really delightful and romantic and really low angst with the exception of the heroine’s career struggles. I read an old paperback, but it’s also available in ebook!
Vivian Stephens was also Beverly Jenkins’ agent for a time. I haven’t read those first two books that Jenkins published while Stephens was her agent, unfortunately. I have enjoyed many of Jenkins’ recent books, but the only one I’ve read from the period I’m covering today is Indigo (1996). It’s a historical romance that clearly critiques the racism and erasure of people of color in most old school historical romances, but it’s much more than that. The hero is powerful and wealthy in the manner of a Duke, but he also helps people escape slavery. He’s also incredibly sexy and seductive. The thing is, the heroine is virginal, but not naive or innocent. She started life enslaved and now operates a station on the Underground Railroad. Their flirting is top-notch and the story is riveting. The book is as good as all the historical romances that get mentioned over and over and over again as everyone’s favorites, and better than most. If you do the Audible Romance Package thing, I noticed Indigo is included so you could potentially get this one now, today, for free (kinda)! And it’s available in ebook. Which makes it a rarity in this post.
With that in mind, I’ll just close with some tips on finding vintage romance. By far, my favorite places to look are thrift stores/charity shops and sometimes estate sales. Unfortunately, used bookstores generally only buy what they know will sell, which in the category romance space tends to mean Harlequin and maybe Silhouette. My ubs will occasionally pick up a Loveswept by a recognizable name like Sandra Brown. But thrift stores take nearly everything. Used bookstores can be good for finding older titles by black romance authors, but outside of Jenkins (who will generally be found in historical romance), many books seem to find their way into urban fiction or African-American interest, which is where I found books by Sandra Kitt. If I’m looking for specific titles, sometimes Amazon, Abebooks and other internet retailers are helpful. However, for pricing and selection, I like Thriftbooks. Most titles are around $3 and while they have a $10 minimum for free shipping, the advantage over Amazon is that instead of dealing with multiple independent sellers that will each have their own have shipping fees (few accept Prime), you’re buying from just one place. That link above will get you 15% off your first order (and disclosure: I also get a 15% off coupon if you use it).
I hope this trip into the old-school-but-not history of romance has been interesting! What are your favorite old romances?
May 11, 2018 at 7:55 pm
I’ve used discoverbooks.com as well as Thriftbooks. Same idea but free shipping in the US. If you want a referral code for 15% let me know!
May 12, 2018 at 1:37 am
Wonderful post! I didn’t realize that Vivian Stephens discovered Sandra Brown or that Barbara Delinsky wrote categories. I grew up on my mom’s categories so I don’t remember a lot names, I do remember the covers. I saw that Sandra Kitt will be at RT this year and am disappointed that RT hasn’t publicized this at all.