Smut Reporting

Heroes! Historical vs. Contemporary

It’s no secret that Erin loves powerful alpha heroes. Without getting bogged down by history, there is a reason that, at the time of this writing, my picture on the bio page is a portrait of the Duke of Wellington (for the record, Holly chose it). In a recent piece, we noted that “We have different tolerance levels for alphas, but extreme alpha-holes need not apply.” So I did a quick search of alpha-hole book lists, and I’m chuckling to myself at the number of books I’ve read on this list. Of the three of us, I have – by far – the most inclination toward this type of hero. 

Even so, I enjoy a variety of HEAs, and now that I’ve branched out in my sub-genre reading space, I’ve noticed that there are certain trends where heroes are concerned, depending on the sub-genre. Painting with a broad brush, I have found that heroes in popular historical romance (histrom) are more likely to be alpha-ish, emotionally constipated, and domineering while heroes in popular contemporary romance are more likely to be, well, cinnamon rolls. 

Because I like to make arguments based on more than feelings, I evaluated my own reading on our blog tracking list (about 120 books), omitting paranormal romance, f/f, and so on. I broke down the reading to confirm that my suspicions were not just in my head. Spoiler alert: they weren’t. I also looked at the publishers for these books to see if I could spot any trends there as well, because when I looked at that alpha-hole list, I had an inkling.

Obviously these heroes are not all the same by any stretch, so my categorization of each hero was based on the overall impression created by both the hero’s actions on the page and his backstory. I opted not to use the term “alpha” because not all of the heroes with the stereotypically masculine behavior we’re examining can be categorized as “alpha” heroes, but they still engage in behaviors that include (but are not limited to): paternalistic, overprotective or controlling behavior, possessiveness, emotional constipation, displays of power, withholding information, and other sorts of toxic masculinity. These heroes are, for the sake of brevity, labeled “domineering.” By contrast, a hero that I labeled as “not domineering” would present an overall impression opposite of a domineering hero: respectful of the independence and personhood of his partner, with whom he communicates openly and whom he treats like an equal partner.

What we get when we break heroes down by contemporary vs. historical when evaluating “domineering” vs. “not domineering” is:

When we break down my reading in this way, it becomes clear that there’s one trend in histrom while we see a different trend in contemporary romance. Concerned about the pub dates of the books I read? Even if I cut out all the older books that might skew in favor of a “domineering” hero (by filtering down only to ARCs), the trend is still apparent, although we do see “not domineering” heroes becoming slightly more popular in histrom. (Holly and Ingrid tend to read more self-pub ARCs than I do, so that could influence the results. But maybe not the way you’d think. Keep reading.)

The world of romance is both enormous and diverse, and reading preferences are extremely subjective, so I can only unpack this based on my conversations with Holly and Ingrid and my ingestion of greater Romancelandia on Twitter or other media. But I don’t think there’s a particularly strange underlying reason for these trends. A straightforward explanation is that histrom allows us to be far enough removed from our current reality that we can allow for the fantasy without guilt. We are able to make excuses for domineering behavior that we know is objectively unhealthy in a relationship because we know that, from a social and legal standpoint, it was worse to be a woman then than now, and expectations of men were different then. When we read those behaviors in a contemporary novel, it’s harder to extract ourselves from the present and the knowledge of what we would accept in a romantic partner, and the ick factor increases. 

To a certain extent, these beliefs are based on historical fact. Property ownership, suffrage, job prospects, and so on have changed dramatically for women in the past two centuries (and beyond). But, while it’s fair to say that social expectations of men have also shifted in the past two centuries, men didn’t suddenly collectively realize that treating their partners with respect was the thing to do, and now here we are. Thus, to a certain extent, the histrom domineering hero is both a fantasy based on real historical context and a product of generic verisimilitude

For example, we expect that Highlanders are enormous, kilt-wearing, alpha men with oceans of emotional reserve and tree trunk thighs. There is very little difference between the characterization of Highlander romance published by Julie Garwood in the late 1980s and early 1990s and that published by Maya Banks or Monica McCarty in the 2010s. Or Lynsay Sands today, for that matter. On this blog, we can point to a Highlander series started by Maya Banks in 2011, that included actual bodice ripping and (minimum) dubious consent. But Highlanders aren’t the only heroes that fall into a generic category. We have similar expectations of dukes and other aristocrats (see Holly’s Duke Project for further consideration of our fascination with dukes), largely thanks to the writings of Georgette Heyer in the mid-20th century. These expectations are based on generic verisimilitude, and they allow us to plug into the fantasy we want. 

By contrast, contemporary romance is inextricably linked to the world we’re currently living in. Historical knowledge is not required, so we don’t need to rely on expectations of the genre for context. Within the realm of contemporary smut, we can drill down to certain categories that create expectations of content similar to histrom, such as books about motorcycle clubs. But, by and large, contemporary romance reflects the big, messy present. That said, individual fantasies don’t necessarily change just because of temporal setting. I don’t suddenly stop melting for domineering heroes just because I’m reading contemporary smut. But I do struggle much more with enjoying it. 

I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve seen voices in Romancelandia declaring they’re so tired of horny, alpha heroes with boundary issues and emotional constipation. And as Holly has noted, it can be wearying to be presented with the same type of emotionally constipated hero all the time. But given the divergence between heroes presented in histrom and contemporary smut, the issue seems to be more than just the reader’s hero preference. It’s easy to feel like we shouldn’t like things that we know are bad. Or if we do, it’s like a dirty little secret and we can’t in good conscience recommend them to other readers. Just this month on Twitter, @JenReadsRomance started talking about sex in smut and brought up Christine Feehan (who apparently writes a lot of questionable sex). If you read the whole thread, you’ll see that Jen posts screenshots of texts discussing Feehan’s work, and she’s read a lot of these books, some of which fell in a catnip category for her. But when asked by someone else in the thread to recommend a book, she said she didn’t think she could because of the objectionable content.

Now, Feehan writes paranormal romance, which I would argue falls into a fantasy bucket similar to histrom (lots of domineering heroes in PNR!). But the conversation illustrates that we all draw lines about what we’re okay with reading, and if all (or most) of those domineering traits I described above are a turnoff for a reader, it’s important to know where to look for new reads. When the idea for this post started percolating in my brain, I felt like the popular, widely marketed and praised contemporary romance I had been consuming consistently presented cinnamon roll-esque heroes. I’m referring to books like The Kiss Quotient and A Prince on Paper and Get a Life, Chloe Brown, which are all absolutely fantastic. And they all have heroes who behave with emotional intelligence and who demonstrate respectful behavior, not only to the heroines, but to everyone. But…nearly all of our 2019 recommended contemporary reads included these cinnamon roll-ey heroes. Not an alpha-hole or domineering hero in the bunch! Meanwhile, we’ve recommended histroms with heroes that I’d cheerfully strangle if I were married to them (though, to be fair, no alpha-holes there either). What was the deal with that? 

Which brings me to that niggling suspicion I had where those publishing trends were concerned. I’ll be honest – I was surprised at the number of contemporary domineering heroes I saw on my first pie chart of all heroes. Then I looked at the books involved. I can’t say I pay all that much attention to publishers except to know which of the big imprints publish smut, but at a glance, it sure looked like the domineering contemporary heroes were self published. So I checked.

If we break down my reading by traditional publishers (by which I mean a corporate entity that provides traditional publication services to a 3rd party author) vs. self-publishers (which includes authors who have set up publication LLCs or the like solely for themselves), the results are a bit staggering. Where contemporary romance is concerned, trad publishing clearly demonstrates a preference for a non-domineering hero. If we dig deeper, examining the domineering heroes in the trad publishing category, about half of the books were Harlequin category romance, like The Maid’s Spanish Secret, which has a hero reminiscent of an aristocrat in a histrom. There is no denying that these category romances serve a specific purpose, just like those generic historicals. It’s the reason they exist.

For purposes of comparison, here is the publisher information for our histrom bucket, and we can see that trad publishing overwhelmingly leans toward domineering heroes.

When all’s said and done, the important thing to consider is what sort of hero you might be interested in reading. If you like histrom but you don’t swoon for a domineering hero like I do, it might be beneficial to check out some indie romance or queer romance, which doesn’t tend to have the same dynamics as non-queer m/f smut (to be clear, if at least one party in the relationship identifies as queer, this can include m/f pairings). Try Cat Sebastian or K.J. Charles (or go check out our tag).  If you’re totally hooked on trad publishing, there are some authors playing with gender roles or writing more beta-ish heroes in romance, like Eva Leigh or Grace Burrowes. If you like contemporary romance but like a domineering hero, a Kindle Unlimited subscription might be just your cup of tea (although there are quite a few self-published authors who aren’t on KU who sell books for about $4). Or delve into category romance. Just note these sorts of books aren’t likely to be at the library (Amazon doesn’t sell books or e-book rights to libraries). 

Of course, if you like to read anything and everything, it might just be beneficial to know what the publishing gatekeepers are promoting. Have you noticed any trends in sub-genres lately?

14 thoughts on “Heroes! Historical vs. Contemporary”

  1. This was a very interesting, well researched post. I equally enjoy both a cinnamon roll and an alpha hero. I find that my problem is more with the level of consent in a book. I had no idea that Christine Feehan has some issues in that department and will definitely keep that in mind.

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    1. I expect that Erin will be exploring the differences in expectations around what consent means in contemporary vs. historical romance in the future, because it’s definitely an area where there’s a lot of variance between romance genres. And it makes sense! Spousal rape wasn’t legally a thing until really recently, so it makes sense that issues of consent were different in the 19th century than they are now.

      My experience is that consent is the most questionable in paranormal romances (the whole fated mates thing makes things blurry), but I haven’t read any Feehan so I can’t confirm what her books are like.

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  2. I love this post so much! (Also, all the charts!) I actually encountered this a couple of days ago but I bookmarked this so I could read it when I had more time. Like Erin, I enjoy reading both cinnamon rolls and alpha heroes, but I struggle with my fascination for the latter. I find that I can recommend cinnamon-roll heroes to all my friends (e.g., Kiss Quotient), but HRs and paranormal romances are my “dirty little secret” – no one even knows I read them! PNR romances, especially, can be so much worse than HRs – I’ve encountered a number of explicit rape scenes, which I promptly DNF’ed – but like HR, they’re justified because of the fantasy element, and the link to animal nature. Somehow it’s understandable because the guys are, well, literally half-beast, and they don’t have complete control over themselves.

    I’m still trying to puzzle out my fascination with alpha heroes. I suspect it’s something to do with power more than anything. I look forward to your future posts that might unpack this, and also your post on the issue of consent.

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    1. Yeah, the PNR thing adds a whole new element – the fantasy disconnect becomes even more pronounced. I will admit to reading and still enjoying a particularly ridiculous PNR with a rape scene, because it was a Mer-Angel and a Vampire-Demon, so how else could their relationship go? And I’m not even that in to alpha heroes!

      I do think it’s interesting what we’ll tolerate in a hero depending on the subgenre. Erin has recently discovered motorcycle romances, which sound like they’re next level ridiculous (like, alphas plus drugs plus guns).

      One of the best parts about doing this blog is having space to really think about some of the stuff that’s going on in romance. And the other best thing is doing it with Erin and Ingrid, because while we have similar tastes, they do deep dives in such different ways than I do, so it makes me think about things from a completely different angle.

      Sorry for writing you a mega response. Glad you enjoyed the post!

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      1. No need to apologize – I did write a mega comment too! A Mer-Angel? Now that’s something I haven’t heard of! I remember reading an older HR that could be described as “forced seduction”, but basically had a number of rape scenes, and afterwards I liked it but felt so confused at how much I liked it, and then just refused to unpack it afterwards. I would like to ask you why you liked that PNR, given the rape and the fact that you don’t even like alphas, but that immediately puts us in a stance of justifying such ‘politically incorrect’ choices. So … how did you make sense of your reaction to it?

        And yes, it’s definitely interesting how we wouldn’t tolerate such heroes in contemporary romances. I’ve read one motorcycle romance novella so far and on the spectrum of alpha-holes, they’d fall somewhere above HR heroes but slightly below PNR heroes. Other interesting contemporary subgenres are sports romances and rockstar romances – they’re contemporary, but these subcultures allow for the expression of more traditional alpha forms of masculinity and sexuality.

        I’m glad you have Erin and Ingrid to bounce ideas off of! And I love the products of your conversations in these posts. They also give me space to think about my own tastes.

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      2. I think that particular book (A Mermaid’s Ransom by Joey Hill, in case you ever come across it), I ended up liking the book because the premise was so utterly bonkers that I didn’t really pause to unpack what was going on between the characters. It helped that it was well-written, and that the author does have her hero grapple with the repercussions of his choices. He has to work **hard** for his HEA.

        It’s funny that you mention sports romance. I haven’t read a ton of them, but most of the athlete heroes I’ve read have been so in tune with their feelings.They might be hyper-masculine on the field, but they don’t carry it over into their romantic relationships. Granted, I only learned what a cinnamon roll hero was last summer, and we’ve started talking about this trend of different heroes in different types of books even more recently, so who knows about some of the books I read before I started reviewing. I will say that it was only by starting to review that I noticed that the books that I really enjoy generally aren’t the alphas.

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      3. Putting that on my TBR, since I’m in a bit of a PNR kick.

        Ah, that’s interesting – maybe the sports romances I’m choosing to read reflect my preference for alpha heroes! But now that you mention it, I do remember reading one where the hero is pretty in touch with his feelings. I’ve known about cinnamon-roll heroes for awhile, and I do like reading them, but I think I don’t quite gravitate to them because they seem the most “unrealistic” in the sense that I barely know any guys like them in real life, so part of me is unable to completely buy into the fantasy. I’m noticing, though, that I’m starting to prefer more moderate alphas.

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      4. Makes total sense! Also, FYI, that Mer-Angel book is the third in a series. Book 1 is about her parents (the origin of the mer-angel!) and is called A Mermaid’s Kiss. All 3 are pretty bonkers – I do hope to reread and review someday. I own hard copies and everything!

        Unrelated: would you be interested in writing a guest post here in our “My First Smut” series?

        Liked by 1 person

      5. Yay for interspecies romance(??)! I’ve read an alien-human romance by Zoey Draven recently, which one Goodreads reviewer called a cross between the Dothraki in GoT and Ruby Dixon’s Ice Planet Barbarians series, and she was right on point. Also, it was quite good.

        Oooh, YES!!! I would love to! (I have no idea how guest posts work, but it sounds important and exciting.)

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      6. Oooh, that Zoey Draven sounds fun and ridiculous! Title?

        And I don’t know how other people do guest posts, but basically what we’re looking for is a short narrative about an early / significant romance reading experience. You can email us (smutreport[at]gmail) or, if a Q&A format makes this easier, fill out this form: https://docs.google.com/forms/d/e/1FAIpQLSf3QtrsJ2PzzD9Dhbe80NnpaA8B0I1hzTD9gFdQrNLilHTYXQ/viewform?usp=sf_link

        Timing is flexible – just let me know what your schedule looks like.

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      7. The series is called The Horde Kings of Dakkar, and has two books so far. I pretty much gobbled them up in two days and I’m eagerly awaiting the next installment.

        Alright, the Q&A format looks fun! Hopefully I can turn it in by this weekend. 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

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