(An allegory for all romance fandoms?)
I, like many, many romance readers, very much enjoy a Lisa Kleypas novel. They work for me. Even when I was not awaiting each next release with bated breath and only read her books casually as I came across one, I knew they were reliably satisfying.
Enter Holly, for whom Lisa Kleypas just does not work. You might recall that we duelled about Marrying Winterbourne, and even before that she told me that Cold-Hearted Stranger was meh (which I generally agree with, because whiney heroines are not my jam). So when I finished Kleypas’s new release, Devil in Disguise, and I was cooing over Sebastian Challon, Duke of Kingston and formerly of courtesy title St. Vincent – again – Holly asked me (paraphrasing for the sake of brevity),
What is the deal with the LK fandom? Are her heroes* really that great?
Which, honestly, I think could translate to just about any fandom I have encountered in Romancelandia. There are authors that I personally think do not understand, like, words, but they’ve got 50,000 squeeing 5-star reviews on your friendly neighborhood Goodreads. Conversely, there are authors I totally enjoy reading who get reviews from other readers critical much like I was in that last sentence.
So let’s examine the LK fandom as an allegory for any romance fandom.
Certain characterizations push my buttons, and that’s just how that goes
I am not at all shy about acknowledging that I like emotionally constipated, traditionally powerful heroes and anti-heroes. Give me a morality chain romance in which the only reason protagonist 1 has any morals at all is because protagonist 2 told him to, and I will eat that up.
After many, many conversations about my romance hero proclivities, our best guess is that these archetypes scratch an itch for me rather than bother me because I never went through a bad boy phase, or even a “the dating world is full of assholes” phase, and I am married to a very nice man. I can get gooey for a cinnamon roll struggling with relatable issues, sure, but my lizard brain wants more drama and less emotional astuteness.
Enter the (sometimes problematic) hero who gets the absolute shit kicked out of him by love and pushes all my flutter buttons. And, you guessed it, most of Lisa Kleypas’s backlist is populated by these kinds of heroes. And if he’s pining but knows he’s no good for her, so much the better. (There is a reason that Derek stealing Sara’s spectacles is so affecting!)
You get what you get, and you don’t get upset
Lisa Kleypas has a huge backlist and is a very consistent writer. Her storytelling doesn’t always follow the exact same formula, so it doesn’t get boring like you’re reading the same book over and over (which, I’ll admit, has its own appeal sometimes). There’s not a huge mystery as to how her characterizations will be, what the setting will evoke, and how much and what kind of sex we’ll be reading. What the reader can also expect is sweeping romance and dramatic tension because she’s also got solid plotting chops. Whether you enjoy what she’s writing or not, she is good at what she does.
Beyond that, her series are (mostly) built on an interconnected Victorian world. Some are more linked than others, but it is not at all unusual to see some character mention or crossover from series to series. (Most notably Cam Rohan is introduced as a secondary character in Devil in Winter of the Wallflowers series and then becomes a protagonist in Mine Till Midnight of the Hathaways series. And the Ravenel series is chock full of Wallflowers content.) Once the reader is immersed in this world, part of the fun of reading becomes identifying how these characters or places that appeared in other books exist in the greater Victorian Kleypas world. Writers who are able to subtly create these links are usually fun to read.
I love finding awesome new authors who tell great stories probably more than the next person (I know a shocking number of people who don’t read), but there’s something soothing about knowing what you’re going to get, knowing that it’s available to be gotten, and feeling immersed in a big, imaginary world that is already familiar.
There are some books that strike a constantly resonating chord
We hesitate to talk romance canon (read what you want!), but it’s undeniable that some books are simply famous. You might notice that Kleypas’s numerous publications are variously discussed and reviewed, but the two that people go the most gaga for are Dreaming of You and Devil in Winter.
Dreaming of You was written in 1994 and readers are still swooning over Derek stealing Sara’s spectacles. Even with some elements that didn’t age well over time, the romance between a modest and bookish gentlewoman novelist and a hulking former guttersnipe who rose to wealth and power was crafted so well that Fated Mates podcast managed to institute a freaking Craven Day that has been observed in Romancelandia for several years now on February 4.
And then there’s Sebastian, Lord St. Vincent. He’s so deliciously bad. At the author talk I attended with Kleypas as a speaker, she said that the publisher couldn’t believe she was going to try to redeem St. Vincent as the hero of Devil in Winter after making him the villain of It Happened One Autumn, but his character arc and the way that shy, innocent Evie destroyed him just grab the reader by the guts. They almost never leave the gambling club for the whole book, and there are worlds in that story.
Some books just have these moments that stick in the reader’s mind for years afterward. Maybe we even forget the title of the book, but there was that one scene that was so memorable that we take it out and turn it over, examining it for a moment before tucking it away again until the next time. The one scene that might make us reread the book years later or over and over until the spine falls apart.
Anyway, it seems to me that the fandom probably stems from a melting pot of good storytelling, narrative constructions and settings that feel comfortingly familiar, and a few books that created a tipping point so new readers can constantly get excited about both the new and old books, which creates a sense of community surrounding that author’s works (a.k.a. a fandom).
*I’m going to refer to heroes and M/F romance primarily because that’s where this dynamic tends to occur the most.