I'm a bit more casual about it. I'm fine with men reading and talking about romance novels. Hey, the more the merrier I always say! Where I run into issues is with articles like this one. Berlatsky bemoans the lack of a romance genre "canon." A definitive list of books within the genre. But digging deeper into his article what he is really bemoaning is A Lack Of Canon Featuring Books That I Deem As "Good."
That's not how canons work. Don't believe me? Let's ask our good friend Merriam-Webster:
3 [Middle English, from Late Latin, from Latin, standard]a : an authoritative list of books accepted as Holy Scriptureb : the authentic works of a writerc : a sanctioned or accepted group or body of related works
Notice how the words "good, "enjoyable" or the phrase "shit I'm gonna lurve" are nowhere to be found.
Yes, Mr. Berlatsky - there is a romance canon. Reading and enjoying the genre isn't enough. Bemoaning that it's hard to find shit you personally like isn't enough. It's understanding the history of the genre. And lucky you - here I am to give you Wendy's Starter Guide To The Romance Canon That You Think Doesn't Exist. It does exist - it's just not required by law to be validated by your personal tastes and preferences.
1) Jane Austen. I would actually argue that Austen isn't necessarily romance, but I'm including her on the list because so many others do consider her as such. Where I think Austen's biggest cultural significance lies is that she was writing books, novels, with a strong female perspective. She was writing about shit that women wanted to read about. Bloody revolutionary.
2) The Sheikh by Edith Maude Hull. Published in 1919 and for that reason an extremely problematic book. But a real ground breaker in terms of exploring female sexuality.
3) Georgette Heyer. The Regency-set historical romance as we know it today is about 95% Heyer and 5% Austen. Austen was writing about contemporaries, Heyer was writing "historicals." Her influence among entire generations of historical romance fans and writers cannot be overstated. Love her books, hate her books - there's not denying her importance.
Mary Stewart, Victoria Holt, Phyllis Whitney, Barbara Michaels - the women who gave a voice to genre-benders. Not only is their influence keenly responsible for romantic suspense, their reach goes beyond romance and dips into the mystery/suspense genres as well.
5) The Flame and the Flower by Kathleen Woodiwiss. A true game-changer. A cultural event. It was the Fifty Shades of the time. It started a revolution in romance, the lusty bodice ripper. It gave a voice to women and their sexuality at a time when exploring that sexuality was met with extreme prejudice and derision (you could argue not a whole lot has changed). Yes the language is over the top. Yes rapey-heroes suck. But within historical context (see #2) - its importance should not be overlooked. Raise your glass, bow down before the queen. We all should thank Ms. Woodiwiss.
6) Nora Roberts. Berlatsky finds her prose atrocious (dude, whatever), but you cannot discuss romance canon without Roberts. The problem comes with the fact that she's so bloody prolific. I would argue her place belongs on this list with her category romances and her series books. Nora's category work was revolutionary at the time she was publishing them. The heroines had lives outside the romance. They "existed" outside of the romance. Nora's category heroines didn't NEED the hero - they simply got "better" with the heroes. That's a huge distinction. Also, the influence of her trilogies and connected series books cannot be ignored. There were series before Nora, but certainly I think you can look at her for pushing their importance and desirability among the romance readership.
7) Jayne Ann Krentz. Another tricky one. She wrote some well respected single title contemporaries (I'm specifically thinking of the mid-to-late 1990s stuff) and you can easily make an argument for her Jayne Castle work. But you know what? I'm going with Amanda Quick. Specifically the earliest Quick historicals. I think those books helped bring a lot of readers back to historical romance after years of lusty over-the-top bodice rippers. What Quick was writing was very different for the time and traces of that voice can be found among many of today's newer writers.
8) Christine Feehan. Love her, hate her, she was doing paranormal romance before it was cool. She was doing it when supposedly "nobody wanted to read it." She deserves some respect for that.
9) Redeeming Love by Francine Rivers. The influence of this work on the inspirational sub genre cannot be overstated. Rivers lit the fuse and threw a Molotov cocktail into a market that desperately needed it. Before Rivers? Inspirationals were home to saccharine do-gooders who never stumbled, never felt temptation - in other words, they had no flaws. Or at least, you know, "real" flaws. Ask any inspirational romance author working today, this book makes their list. It's that important.
10) Suzanne Brockmann. Were there military heroes before Brockmann? Yes. But I would argue what Brockmann did was take the military hero and catapult him into super-stardom. She's the reason there are hundreds of thousands of SEALs in Romancelandia - be that for good or ill.
Bertrice Small, Thea Devine, Susan Johnson, Robin Schone. There is NO erotic romance sub genre without these amazing women. Love them, hate them, repeat after me - the sub genre does not exist without the groundbreaking work these women did, especially with "mainstream" publishers. Yes, women have voices, and yes - we like sex.
12) The Color of Love by Sandra Kitt. What Terry McMillan did for mainstream women's fiction, Sandra Kitt did for the romance genre. She gave a voice to African American women. She showed readers that romance heroines could and do look just like they do. We still live in a world (sadly) where interracial relationships are given the side-eye, and this mid-1990s release has influenced many authors who have followed.
I think anytime you read a classic or a "canon" title, you have to approach it from a historical perspective. Would many of these books "hold up" to contemporary readers? Maybe not. But what they do is tell a story of a genre. They tell a story of a genre that continues to be vibrant and interesting, a genre that continues to evolve over time. As women change, as the culture changes, as time marches on - genre fiction (not just romance) reflects that. It's literature (yes, literature) that exists in the here and now. It helps to tell a story of who we were and who we hope to become. That Mr. Berlatsky is canon. Even if it is books and authors you don't necessarily "like."