I recently found an old half-filled journal (all my journals are started with great intentions then abandoned halfway through). This one accounted for my romance reading from April 2003 to January 2006, though the entries were sporadic. I have to snigger now as I reread them because, looking back, I seemed so negative, so very critical. Why did I keep reading books I found "disappointing" and "ridiculous"? Because of the exceptions, of course, but I also wonder if my standards have changed (not lowered!) I still read romances voraciously but in 2015 I also started writing them and that might make a difference. Maybe I read more tolerantly when I know how hard it is to write a really successful book. (I also think, honestly, that I'm happier now than I was fifteen years ago and that's good to know too!)
Case study: Lisa Kleypas
Kleypas has been one of my favorite authors for many years. I recently wrote a BookBub recommendation revisiting Dreaming of You (1994) and, like recent readers on Smart Bitches, Trashy Books and Twitter, found it held up very well despite some dated tropes. Sara Fielding (a writerly name!) is especially endearing as a novelist who learns how to come out of the margins and become her own character. That's a trope romance readers love for obvious reasons and it's one that Kleypas develops over and over, as in the Wallflowers series that began in 2004. In fact, Sara is a sort of fore-mother of Annabelle, Evie, Lillian, and Daisy because Ivo Jenner, a character who pursues Sara in Dreaming turns up as Evie's father in Devil in Winter.
I re-read the first Wallflower book, Secrets of a Summer Night, recently and enjoyed it even though it had never been my favorite (which was It Happened One Autumn because Lillian and Westcliff clash so dramatically). I saw Secrets mostly through the lens of Dreaming: like Derek Craven, Simon Hunt is a self-made man who is both supremely confident and yet also anxious about his class status. In Secrets the class gulf between Annabelle and Simon becomes central to the story: they both navigate on the edges of the ton and that drives what separates them and later what connects them. Their story really picks up when they marry but overall I found the book fresh and engaging. It took their complicated social situations seriously, which impressed me.
I was surprised, then, to discover that when I read it in February 2005 I had put it in the "disappointing" camp. I noted that Annabelle's desperation to marry into the aristocracy turned me off and it was hard to believe Simon wasn't turned off too. She seemed to me then exactly as "superficial" as Lord Westcliff, Simon's friend and the hero of the following book, claimed. Simon's rise from a family of butchers seemed particularly improbable and Annabelle's Wallflower friends struck me as undeveloped. Clearly I re-read the book now with more background and context in mind: I probably filled in gaps about the Wallflower heroines because in between I had read their stories. Or maybe, like Westcliff, I simply misjudged Annabelle at first and had to learn better.
That's just one of the shifts in my taste I can track over time. I love Eloisa James but can now trace an arc from disliking some mid-career books I began with to being won over by the early Pleasures series. In re-reading the journal I also rediscovered some authors I admired back then and haven't read in a while, like Anne Gracie. Over the past fiteen years I've also become more tolerant of adjacent genres: the journal was filled with disapproving comments about "too much sex" at the edges of erotica and impatience with silliness in rom coms. That's good to hear about myself, if embarrassing to see how much more judgmental I was back then than I am even now (and I am still judgmental and I do still complain about "too much sex"...see this recent blog post. Sigh.)
The takeaway? Finding the journal validates the importance of *writing things down* that we all know as reader-writers but still needs underlining (and takes work!) I had forgotten so much of my own history, so many of my own opinions as they were overlaid by new ones. So the moral of this story is: track your reading! (and be tolerant of your past misreadings)