Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Little Miss Crabby Pants Fires The Canon

Another day in Romancelandia, another day with a guy trying to tell us what is wrong with the romance genre.  The latest entry to Is This Guy Serious? is brought to us by Noah Berlatsky who wrote this article for Salon entitled: I'm A Guy Who Loves Romance Novels - and Jennifer Weiner Is Right About Reviews.  I know women online who have concocted drinking games to the phenomena of men reading romance novels.  I also know women online who get annoyed with Dudes Talkin' Romance Novels because it implies that the genre isn't "validated" until it's read and discussed by a Roving Band Of Penises.

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 Scripture
b :  the authentic works of a writer
c :  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.

First, no book anywhere is going to be universally loved.  People being people after all.  What canons should do is tell you where you've been and show you where you're going.  Within the romance genre, the canon should be books that hold historical and cultural significance for the genre.  In other words: they're not all going to be books and authors you love.  They're not all going to be books and authors who "stand the test of time."  They should be books and authors who shape, mold, leaving resonance within that genre.  Like the pebble tossed into a quiet stream - there should be a ripple effect.

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.


4) The Gothic Queens.  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.

11) The Erotic Romance Goddesses.  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."

This is hardly an exhaustive list.  I would love to hear your additions to the romance canon (and why) in the comments section.

111 comments:

  1. I love your list. These are influential books. These are canon.

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    1. Jo: And it's really only a drop in the bucket. I probably should have mentioned the Bronte sisters in there somewhere.....

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    2. Yes! Especially Jane Eyre. Loved this post. It made me stop and think and remember how I discovered the romance genre and how it became a genre in the first place. So silly for anyone to suggest there's no romance canon!

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    3. I often say romance authors either descend from Jane Eyre or Jane Austen. Yes, I know, I'm mixing characters and authors. Me? Jane Eyre was the first romance I ever read and I still love it.

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  2. 3.5? Tucked in there might be authors like Emilie Loring and Grace Livingston Hill. Pure virginal heroines from the former, redeemed heroes and heroines from the latter. Prolific authors I devoured when I was 13 before discovering the gothics.

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    1. P.S. This post is AWESOME.

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    2. Phyl: And I'd place inspirational writers like Janette Oke into the category as well. Certainly widely read and influential for a generation of readers.

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  3. Wendy
    Your list rocks!
    Thanks you, especially, for mentioning the 'modern' era Gothic Queens. They often get overlooked when folks talk about the growth of Romance. But I can still remember the thrill of reading those books as a teen and anxiously awaiting each new release. (Why, yes, I AM older than dirt!)
    Keep preaching. Alas, there is always someone who hasn't gotten the message.

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    1. Barb: I think you can also credit those modern Gothic writers with influencing paranormal romance. Certainly many of them wrote paranormal elements into their work, and even smaller sub genres like steampunk have trace Gothic elements, I think.

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  4. Yes! This is a great post. These books were the leaders in change. The themes and roles women played also showcase the changing role of women from the 1960s on. From the gothic heroines and nurse category romance books to where we are today. Thanks so much for this. I will be sharing.

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    1. I think the nurse romances belong on the list somewhere - if only to show the changing landscape of what constitutes "traditional" female careers. That's another +1 for Nora's categories actually. She gave her heroines "non-traditional" careers. They weren't all kindergarten teachers and librarians (not that there is anything wrong with teachers and librarians ::cough::)

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    2. Lucilla Andrews, then, for the nursing sub-genre. Betty Neels in a way (though more fixated on Dutch doctors than on medicine or nursing). Lucy Agnes Hancock on the US side.

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    3. I thougth my name would appear! It's Malle Vallik (like there's more than one Malle!). The entire how category romances changed from the nurse/doctor through the creation of Presents to the 1980s working woman (Supers, Temptation), babies, etc is fascinating.

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    4. Malle: Presents as a whole probably should be included and I think you can make a strong case for Temptation. I read some early Barbara Delinsky titles (last year?) that were simply fascinating. Part time capsule, part still amazingly relevant, part window into second wave feminist movement. Category romance as a way to study social history really should be "a thing."

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  5. Thanks for this! My courses start in the 20th c., so Austen was never an option, but after that? Looks like I routinely teach more than half of these authors / novels, with other authors in the subgenres you mention above (e.g., Beverly Jenkins rather than Kitt). [Breathes sigh of relief, goes back to grading.]

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    1. Eric: Jenkins probably does belong on this list - for giving a voice to a African-American historical experiences. You could also make a case for Brenda Jackson. Hard to argue with either.

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  6. I would add Sweet Savage Love by Rosemary Rogers. Yes, I know she was "second," but must admit I enjoyed her work more than Woodiwiss and, thus, she was the "game changer" for me. And the entire Laura Kinsale canon, but, especially, Flowers from the Storm, which proves that even a stroke victim who cannot speak can be a hero. And the Angelique series, by Sergeanne Golon. These early, more episodic books might not be strictly "romance" by today's definition, but they certainly cast the woman as the center of the book. Which makes me think of Forever Amber...ah, well. Must stop now.

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    1. Blythe: So true about Rosemary Rogers. All those series/trilogies we're seeing now featuring the same romantic couple? I mean, hello Steve and Ginny! And d'oh - yes Forever Amber and more than likely yes to Kinsale, if only for her influence on other writers. Certainly she's an inspiration to many working within the realm of historical romance.

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    2. I would add Rosemary Rogers, too, and Forever Amber. Those greatly influenced me, along with Kathleen Woodiwiss and Shirlee Busbee. And I agree with you about Amanda Quick. She took a different approach to Regency historical that brought a lot of readers rushing back to it. Hers are different because of that light mystery component.

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  7. Absolutely fantastic post. And two great big amens on Krentz & Roberts.

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    1. Krentz probably should be recognized more for her Castle work. Those were really out of the box at the time when she started publishing them.

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    2. No, I think you were spot on with the Quick books.

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    3. I remember how fascinated I was with those Castle books, especially Gift of Gold and Gift of Fire. And that was back in the 80's when they came out. I still have them, so you know they were well-loved.

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  8. Great post! I would also add Mills and Boon to the list of highly influential publishers/books in the romance canon. Also to Berlansky's point of romance novels not having a canon because they're denigrated and despised and have no critical reviews, has he ever read PW or Kirkus Reviews or any number of sources of authoritative book reviews that include romance?

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    1. Hannah: I almost put Harlequin Presents on this list, I really considered it! Also, Silhouette - which was HUGE for the American marketplace and really changed the way Harlequin/M&B approached acquisitions from that point forward.

      To a certain extent I think he has a point about critical reviews - but only prior to 5-10 years ago. Coverage has increased dramatically during that time. Prior to that it was pretty slim, but recent history? Yeah, no shortage. There can always be more - but that's a given.

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  9. Very interesting! Especially since your list is extremely US based! It's interesting because up to Katherine Woodiwiss, the UK and the US list would be very similar. But Woodiwiss never hit in the UK, and few people have even heard of her. We had Joanna Trollope, Helen Fielding, plus all the big saga writers like Lynn Andrews, Catherine Cookson and Jessica Stirling. A completely different direction. The sexy books were provided by Sergeanne Golon and Juliette Benzoni, as well as Jilly Cooper. I wonder why that divide happened? We've come closer in recent years, but when I was first published in the UK I had to read a shedload of writers I'd never come across before. I'd put Elizabeth Goudge, Denise Robbins and even Daphne Du Maurier on the list.

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    1. Lynne: Helen Fielding definitely should be on the list - if only from an influence stand-point. You can certainly argue she isn't "romance" - and maybe she isn't - but the influence of her work on the genre was huge.

      That divide between UK and US is very intriguing. Here in the states we know Cookson, Stirling and Cooper - but nowhere near as big as they were in the UK. I think a lot of that has to do with the times? These days the Internet and digital makes the publishing world seem smaller - it really opens up a lot of exciting possibilities!

      Oh Lord - and yes, yes, yes for Du Maurier. Also, I debated Barbara Cartland. I think you could probably make a case for her.....

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    2. I was certainly influenced by Barbara Cartland, but only because I had no access to Heyer books (I lived abroad, and the Cartland books were new when I was growing up). For most readers, Cartland was a Heyer wannabe. I would say, however, that although she didn't have Heyer's wit, she did know what sexual tension was, and was much better at that.

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    3. I was going to put up a timid hand for Cartland and Forever Amber. Both were books my Nana read and then my mum read and then me, so even though we laugh at all Cartland's heart-faced heroines with football-stud nipples now, I'd say she was the first mass market Romance writer in the UK and influenced far more people than Heyer - in the sense of sheer volume.

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  10. A few more from around the same time as Hull: Ethel M. Dell with novels like The Way of an Eagle (quite a bit of adventure); Florence Barclay's The Rosary (inspirational); Berta Ruck.

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  11. I loved this post. Especially this:

    "It does exist - it's just not required by law to be validated by your personal tastes and preferences."

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  12. Wendy, I'd definitely add Barbara Cartland to this list. She was very influential to new writers and to mid-list ones as well. I cannot emphasize Laura Kinsale's contribution to the genre enough for its highly imaginative, emotionally complex storytelling.

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    1. Kinsale's influence on other writers especially. Also, specifically with Flowers From the Storm, we start to see this movement towards "wounded" heroes come much more into play. Certainly that was a thing before Kinsale, but with that book it was almost like a light-bulb coming on for readers and other writers.

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  13. I love this column!

    Even though I didn't like this book, I would totally add Whitney, My Love to the canon list. That book marked a real turning point in how readers looked at Regency historicals. I still call it "Twitney" but I know it was a landmark.

    I'd also add Lavyrle Spencer for her Americana historicals. She kicked off that big Americana historical trend that went huge when I was in college.

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    1. Lynn, I'd agree with that 100%. I always loved LaVyrle's historicals more than her contemporaries (I was in college then as well)

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    2. Lynn: Yeah, McNaught should be represented. I think she definitely belongs in that wave of writers working post-Woodiwiss, who were influenced by her.

      I brain-farted on Spencer. Her contemporary work, I think, is significant - but not quite on the same level as those Americana stories.

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    3. I would actually consider McNaught to be more of the founder of the "wounded hero" than Kinsale. She was earlier and her heroes were more profoundly wounded. But maybe that's just me.

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  14. I cannot say enough how much I love your rants. Because you don't rant--you are articulate and educated, and boy, do you know whereof you speak!

    So, thank you.

    I would also include Barbara Cartland--her influence is immense, and I would argue that she brought category and genre romance to many other countries--back in the late 1960s and early 1970s, hers were the only romances easily found translated in Latin America. By the mid 1980s, Harlequin was flooding the magazine stands with poorly translated (and wildly popular) translations of category titles, from Mexico to Argentina.

    (If we were discussing genre romance in other languages, I would insist on including Mexican writer Caridad Bravo Adams (best known for her novel Corazón Salvaje, which was adapted for television soon after release and pretty much set the standard for Latin American soap operas))

    As for Jayne Ann Krentz, I'm with you on both her early Amanda Quicks (the one word titles, certainly) and to this day I love her Crystal Flame (I just realized it's the second in a trilogy, by the by).

    Yes, on Nora Roberts' early categories. I recently reviewed her Playing the Odds, and one of the things I loved the most is how truly capable her heroine is. At the risk of spoiling the ending (yes, I know it was written in 1985, I only read it in September 2013), Serena rescues herself all the way to the end--thirty years ago, people!

    I would definitely add Laura Kinsale, not only because of her beautiful writing, but for making an unconventional (mentally handicapped) hero so incredibly sexy and unforgettable.

    I would love to see Maggie Shayne in the list--she started writing sexy vampires with unique worldbuilding in the early 1990s, with Twilight Fantasies (the first in the Wings in the Night series) coming out six or seven years before Christine Feehan's Dark Prince.

    Thank you again!

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    1. And I would include Corín Tellado, who is perhaps the most popular and prolific Spanish romance author, and who popularized the genre in that market.

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    2. Great list and +1 on Corín Tellado. Hugely influential.

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    3. That's a very good point re: the translation market. Also, yes - Maggie Shayne!

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    4. Brie and Ani, I cannot believe I didn't include Corin Tellado--she WAS the Spanish language Barbara Cartland.

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    5. You introduce a very interesting topic here -the romance canon in other languages.
      Corín Tellado was a hit not only in Spain but also in some Iberoamerican countries. Many popular authors wrote 'novela rosa' in Spanish in the 1930s & 1940s - LInares Becerra or Carmen de Icaza, for instance.
      But we should not forget other languages. In Italy there's the 'romanzo rosa' with authors like Liala (1897-1995). But I have my doubts about the different literary traditions having a common canon. Do writers in Spanish or Italian follow the previous writers in their own languages? Or are they following Woodiwiss steps? That's my doubt.

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  15. As I said on Twitter, I'd add Laura Kinsale. She was doing brilliant things with historicals and is in a class by herself. Also the way her books were marketed, targeting readers interested particularly in the heroes, was unique.

    And as someone mentioned: LaVryle Spenser! Yes! Her SPRING FANCY launched Harlequin Temptation, and her MORNING GLORY is stunning and should be on all canon lists. :)

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    1. Oh man, yes, LaVyrle Spencer--Morning Glory, definitely, canon.

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    2. Sarah: I was thinking about Kinsale further and ruminating on Flowers (specifically) and this movement towards wounded heroes we see so much of now. I think she's a direct link to that particular trend, especially.

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  16. Thank you for a great post, Wendy. I would agree with your selections though there are quite a few that I have not read. I would also add Janet Dailey. I know that her plagiarism of Nora Roberts puts her at arms length when we speak of pivotal authors but her position as the first and only American author to be published by Mills and Boon in the UK was the impetus for American publishers to create imprints for US category romances.

    Charlotte Lamb is another author I would add to canon. She wrote on a number of issues from rape, violence and sexual liberation and she also had a feminist commentary happening particularly in her 70s and 80s books.

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    1. Dailey is problematic for that reason, but you're correct - it's hard to deny her place within genre history.

      I'm a real late-comer to the Presents world, but I see Lamb's name mentioned quite a bit as far as category history goes. Very interesting! Thank you!

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  17. I think I would slip in the Nancy Drew, Cherry Ames, and Vicki Barr type "girl adventurer" series from the 30s, 40s, and 50s. I think that they helped set the stage for series romance by introducing younger readers to socially acceptable girl-aimed pulp fiction. The main characters tended to have multiple romantic interests but the publishers knew that as soon as the heroine picked her man, it was all over. So, they allowed the protagonists to have exciting, adventure filled careers in traditional roles but still novel in a time when girls were mostly expected to graduate High School and get married. I would say that they run slightly ahead of and/or parallel to the nurse romance.

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    1. I loved me some Nancy Drew growing up - and it's fascinating how that series, in particular, has spun off, changed, and been reworked over various decades. I liked them as adventures stories, and for the mysteries - but I know just as many romance readers who read Nancy for her various romantic entanglements ;)

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    2. Have you read "Girl Sleuth:Nancy Drew and the Women Who Created Her?" I may have read it on your rec so perhaps it's redundant to now be suggesting it. ;-) But, it was a fascinating look at the interplay between publishing and changing social norms/feminism.

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    3. Becky: Not on my personal rec, because while I *know of* the book, I haven't read it. Thanks for the rec, I know for a fact I can score a copy at work :)

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    4. And I'd add the Sue Barton nurse series into this. I read this in my early teens and I'd say it was probably the first romance I loved - and needless to say, it made me want to be a nurse too, until I remembered the whole thing about blood and guts that went with it.

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  18. I absolutely love this list. It would be - what would someone new to the romance genre really need to read? I had a dear friend who sent me boxes of books when she realised I was a novice to the US market. She sent me Laura Kinsales (yes!), Mary Jo Putneys, Jo Beverleys and Mary Baloghs (I was well into historicals then). Good introduction!

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    1. Lynne: What I love about romance readers is that once you wind us up and getting us going we LOVE to talk books. I think most of us active online can point to at least one other reader who took us by the hand, gave us recommendations, helped us find books/authors we might like.

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  19. Thank you, Wendy! I find your response very empowering. I hate that the romance community suffers man-splaining so frequently, but I'm proud that attacks always become celebrations of the general awesomeness of romance.

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    1. Kath: And I love that we can all look at books and authors influential on genre history and "admire" their importance while not necessarily "loving" the work. Woodiwiss, for example. Not for me. Not my thing. But I can understand the importance of her work in the scope of the entire genre.

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  20. I would add The Windflower by Laura London aka Tom and Sharon Curtis, because pirates. And BTW it will finally be available digitally and in a new paperback edition on 4/29.

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    1. Donna: I debated The Windflower. In the end, probably should be on there - just for the fact that so many authors and readers continue to single it out. I really probably should read it myself. The Curtises tend to be pretty fast and loose with the purple prose, but I read Lightning That Lingers a few years ago and could still appreciate it on many levels.

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  21. You know, I hate saying this, but I do think 50 Shades should probably be on the list of romance canon. It was a gamechanger, by virtue of its route to publication, its breakout success, and its influence on the genre. It's only been a few years, so it's possible that it's too soon to say, but I'd be surprised if historians of romance in 100 years time don't give it a mention.

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    1. Ros: I really did think about it. Truly. In the end I felt like it may be "too soon." But yeah, in another 5-10 years? Fifty could very well be on "the list" for all the reasons you state.

      I also really thought about LGBT and m/m - but in the end couldn't settle on one book or one author that really stood out. Admittedly, my knowledge base isn't quite up to snuff. I thought about JR Ward and Brockmann, just because they wrote gay characters/romances in mainstream - but that didn't feel quite "right." I'd love for someone to chime in with who they feel would be influential LGBT writers from a romantic perspective.

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  22. I'd add Mary Balogh, who is credited by many as the one who brought sex scenes to the prim and proper trad regency.

    Great rebuttal, Wendy and great list. So glad you're in our corner!

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    1. Manda: I was discussion Balogh with someone on Twitter yesterday. What I find interesting about her is the move away from trad Regency into these bigger, longer, "sexier" Regency historicals. It was like taking the sex out of the bodice ripper and putting into that "proper" Regency world.

      Also, I think in a few years it will be interesting to look back on the huge Regency historical boom of the late 1990s/early 00s. Authors like Julia Quinn, Stephanie Laurens, Eloisa James - hell, let's just say Avon. Wouldn't that be fascinating? Just tackling the genre from the perspective of Avon historicals?

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  23. I love the list and agree with every single selection. I would also give Jayne Ann Krentz a special nod for tackling sci fi romance.

    I would, however, add Wuthering Heights, 50 Shades and Outlander. Broody heroes, handcuffs are kilts are now staples of romance.

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    1. Ani: For me it was a toss up between her Jayne Castle scifi work and those early "one word title" Quick historicals. I know at the time her scifi romances sank like a stone, but history has been kinder to her for their influence on the genre.

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  24. I'd add to the list the a few authors who shaped the young adult romance market. Cribbing from Carolyn Carpan's "Rocked by Romance: A Guide to Teen Romance Fiction", I'd add:
    * Maureen Daly's "Seventeenth Summer" which started the subgenre in 1940s
    * Judy Blume's "Forever" for being the first to realistically deal with sex in a teen romance
    * Francine Pascal's "Sweet Valley High" series - the first soap opera romance, and read by a generation of girls

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    1. Forever by Judy Blume - definitely. The ending is probably not "traditional," but I think it reinforces the idea that women can have multiple romantic relationships, fall in love more than once in their lives, and you know what - that's OK. Not a concept that the romance genre has always readily embraced - but we're getting better with that :)

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  25. But isn't a canon a list of specific titles rather than a list of contributing authors? That is, one would readily include say Shakespeare's "Hamlet" in the canon, but probably not "Coriolanus." What specific romance titles would you put in the canon?

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    1. I would argue that Coriolanus is still worth reading.

      The problem with genre (not just romance mind you) is that I think authors tend to be more important that specific books. Stephen King has The Stand, but I would argue Carrie is just as important. John Le Carre has Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy - but what about The Spy Who Came In From The Cold? I think in the case of genre, more often than not, the backlist is where the real significance lies. Yes, break-out books happen (see The Flame and the Flower, Redeeming Love) - but body of work, I think, is where the real meat and potatoes are. And I don't think you need to read everything (gah, I can't imagine getting through all the Nora's!), but a cross-section is more than enough to appreciate the genre's history, present and future.

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    2. I would agree. But, if someone were to ask me what things he should read in order to have perused most of the canon, I wouldn't suggest it.
      The canon of literature is, to me at least, those works which any person who wishes to call himself educated has at least some familiarity with. I think a canon of romance should be similar. Furthermore, trying to decide which of the many romances a reader who wishes to be as knowledgeable as possible about the genre should have read and know, would be an interesting subject to quarrel about. The "canon" of "literature" isn't really very extensive In its essentials. Readers of romance should be able to decide, I think, on a list of say 35 titles every romance aficionado should have read. And, since the "literary" canon usually avoids including works younger than say 50, the romance readers might establish the same kind of (shorter) cut off.

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  26. Jane Eyre? "Reader, I married him..."

    Romeo and Juliet? Or Pyramus and Thisbe?

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    1. Pat: Yeah, I dropped the ball on the Brontes. I think you need to include them in the pantheon, just as you would Austen. Like Du Maurier, they are pretty much responsible and greatly influenced the height of the Gothic trend.

      I find themes very interesting as well - since Romeo and Juliet is directly linked to this idea of "star-crossed lovers." Romance writers have been taking that idea for years and putting "happy ending" spins on it. Also, Pygmalion. These themes have existed (probably) since the dawn of storytelling time - but it's how they continue to influence us that is fascinating.....

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    2. I actually don't think I would include anyone earlier than Heyer in the canon. But there would be a useful list of early influences, since the genre doesn't come out of nowhere. I'd put Austen and the Brontes, and probably even Hull on that list.

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    3. I would count Marie Corelli writing in the late 19th/early 20th centuries as an early influence on the romance genre - especially as she was extremely popular and very derided by the establishment

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  27. I think your list, er, canon is spot on. You hit on some of the best. I am sure I am not alone in saying that it is a list that could go on and on. Susan Elizabeth Phillips for, well, most if her backlist. Lisa Kleypas' Dreaming of You and Loretta Chases's Lord of Scoundrels for their less than perfect heroes and, really, unconventional heroines. As I said our canon is a pretty all encompassing one. Thanks for bringing it to light.

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    1. Santa: SEP is fascinating because her career has taken many different turns. I think when we look back on the single title contemporary movement, she's right in that mix.

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  28. I think your list, er, canon is spot on. You hit on some of the best. I am sure I am not alone in saying that it is a list that could go on and on. Susan Elizabeth Phillips for, well, most if her backlist. Lisa Kleypas' Dreaming of You and Loretta Chases's Lord of Scoundrels for their less than perfect heroes and, really, unconventional heroines. As I said our canon is a pretty all encompassing one. Thanks for bringing it to light.

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  29. Oh, and I should also say "Great post"!

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  30. There ought to be room in there somewhere for Jennifer Crusie and for Loretta Chase's Lord of Scoundrels. Chase's book was the first one that set the wounded hero idea on its ear. The heroine didn't play in to his wounded-ness, if that makes any sense. I'm not sure I can even put my finger on why it was different, but it was, and it influenced many, MANY historical romance writers.

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    1. Sabrina: Certainly that particular Chase title comes up A LOT when you talk to authors and readers alike - and the not playing into his "wounded-ness" does make sense. That a heroine with some sand can "heal" the hero just as much as Mary Sue Sunshine Who Bakes Cookies For Orphaned Children.

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  31. I agree with the original list, and jump up and down over the addition of Du Maurier - she's one of the few who have consistently had movies made of her books, which reaches a whole different group of people (more men?). I think Rebecca, like Austen and the Brontes, has ended up transcending "romance genre" in many people's minds. (I wish Frenchman's Creek had a wider audience, and I rec it highly to anyone who liked Rebecca and hasn't read Frenchman's Creek).

    One thing I see as missing is the contemporary with humor - today that's Jennifer Crusie or SEP, I think, but who is the inspiration for where JC and SEP began? Georgette Heyer had quite a bit of humor, but it's not the humor of JC and SEP. Who/What was their inspiration?

    And I don't know enough about the Scottish subgenre to say what its canon should be, but like saying Lavryle Spencer is the inspiration for Americana historicals (and maybe her influence extends into inspirationals as well - I feel that there are parallels in tone and story in some of those), there must be someone of that stature behind Scottish historicals? Is that McNaught? It's not a huge market, but it's very, very distinct and very loyal - so I think there must be someone who really defined a Scottish historical in the same way Amanda Quick re-defined a certain type of Regency, etc.

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    1. Crusie's written about her sources of inspiration, and they do include Heyer:

      I loved the wit and romance of Jane Austen and Georgette Heyer, but they weren’t contemporary. I loved the angry internal monologues of Dorothy Parker, but she wrote anti-romance. I loved the contemporary romance of Susan Elizabeth Phillips but her heroines weren’t mean enough. I loved romance, but nobody was writing the edgy, angry feminist love stories I wanted to read.

      The combination of what you love in your romance reading and what you can’t find in your romance reading defines the romance you want to write.

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    2. Thank you! That's perfect! So I'm not crazy to have sensed the timing of Heyer repartee somewhere in Crusie ... she says so herself!

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    3. With respect to Scottish historicals, I would say Dorothy Dunnett's Lymond Chronicals would be a contender. it would probably also be a contender for the "bad boy redeemed" trope.

      I also agree with Kinsale being part of the cannon.

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    4. That should Lymond Chronicles - shouldn't type quickly on the smartphone :(.

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    5. I agree on the humour thing, it's a facet that often gets seriously underrated and Crusie does it brilliantly - though I do wish she'd lose the dogs.

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  32. Oh, adding Laura Kinsale specifically Flowers from the Storm. Yes. Changed everything for me as a reader - that specific book - I've had my original forever, through four states and six moves. It's the book. My novella out in October has a hero with aphasia and I think that Flowers from the Storm is a direct inspiration, that this type of book could exist, because it did. There was no question from my publisher that the hero could have aphasia - it's totally possible. Because of that book. Is it the first book with a main character who has a such a difference from the typical society view of "perfect" and thus the start of the genre that now includes main characters in wheelchairs, amputees, blind MCs, etc? I don't know enough - but did Flowers from the Storm originate that whole aspect of the genre?

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  33. Def. glad to see you added Sandra Kitt. I love that book. I agree with your choices and would be hard pressed to add anything. JAK was terrific under Quick and Castle. Nora Roberts is awesome even though I haven't read anything by her in years. Woodiwiss' Shana was the book for me and I read almost everything Victoria Holt ever wrote and a few Mary Stewart titles. Great post Wendy.

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    1. Keishon: I went with Kitt for the IR and the timing of that particular release. What that book meant, and still means, to so many readers.

      And I really probably should have put Beverly Jenkins on this list somewhere. Just the combination of the history and her heroines (those gals all have gumption - which I adore).

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    2. I've never read Jenkins but yes she should def. be on there.

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  34. I'd liove to add Linnea Sinclair who is the Queen of science fiction romance. She was really the first and still the best at this sub genre. Her books have a great central romance placed in believable and technologically sophisticated scifi settings. Her stories have been included in mainstream scifi anthologies and one of her books has been made into a movie.

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    1. So my young girl self felt the same way about Lessa and F'Lar that I felt about Kathleen E Woodiwiss/Shanna ... just saying maybe Anne McCaffrey has fantasy/sci fi romance elements too. Remember the short story Thorns of Barevi? Hmm... maybe I need to dig that up again.

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    2. Things really begin to open up when you look at influential authors outside of romance (per se), but who were including romantic storylines in their work. McCaffrey is a great example of that. I don't think it's that unusual for writers and readers to come to the romance genre through genre-bending gateway books that one might not necessarily be "labeled" romance. The Gothic movement is a great example of that. Just as many people love those books for the atmosphere and suspense as they do for the romances.

      Very, very exciting possibilities. To this day I'm always fascinated by writers who can meld and blend different elements into stories.

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  35. Terrific response, Wendy. I am not the first to have mentioned it, but Diana Gabaldon's beautifully written, well-researched Outlander seemed to be a game-changer. I know, I know, SHE doesn't think Outlander is romance, but I think it could be argued that it is. It certainly was my gateway to the genre. There are an awful lot of heroes and heroines time-traveling to and from the Scottish Highlands e.g., Karen Marie Moning. And, well, just Highlanders (sigh). Lots of Highlanders...

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    1. JMK: We were debating Gabaldon on Twitter. In the end, Outlander probably does belong on the list - if only for the fact that it's been a gateway book to the genre for so many people. The author might not consider it romance, but certainly the romantic aspects of that story influenced a lot of readers and writers.

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  36. I think Sandra Kitt was the first author I read who wrote IR. Yup. Totally cannon. If we're including publishers that had a major ripple effect on romance, I'd say Arabesque. They started out as a Kensington imprint. Pretty much any big name in MC/AA/IR has written for them, no matter who bought them. lol

    I have a soft spot for Jude Deveraux. Her time-traveling novels stuck with me. Not to mention the somewhat unlikeable, prickly heroines.

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    1. Melissa: I think you can make a strong case for Arabesque - just like we could probably make a strong case for Ellora's Cave.

      I got an e-mail from someone re: Deveraux, and in the end I do think (at least) Knight In Shining Armor belongs on the list. Granted, a problematic book for MANY readers - but it's still mentioned, still discussed and still debated to this day. You could also point to the Velvet series. Certainly we had historical series before that (hello, Rosemary Rogers) - but here we had the family dynamic, the new romantic couple with each new book, the revisiting past couples - all things we just take for granted in the genre now. Not sure Deveraux was the first to do this - but certainly there's no denying she helped popularize it.

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    2. Count me in as another who thinks Deveraux should be part of the canon for the same reasons you mention. And maybe Johanna Lindsey as well, since she's another who popularized the family saga. Although I think Deveraux's Montgomery books started just a bit earlier than Lindsey's Malory books.

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    3. Yes. Knight In Shining Armor was definitely on my mind.

      I think what's interesting is that a family based series crops up in every subgenre of romance. There's a "first" for each one and one that's probably more popular.

      As for Arabesque, I think they gave authors of color a foundation/touchstone within romance. Some definitely had a Harlequin Presents feel with the over the top alpha males. Though they tended to pair them with headstrong, independent heroines. For a very long time that's was the only way to get an AA romance fix. They put AA couples on the cover so you had no doubt what the characters looked like on the inside.

      Oh, and I absolutely agree about Ellora's Cave.

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  37. This comment is from Cleo. She was having trouble commenting with her Google account and e-mailed me. With permission, I'm copying and pasting that e-mail here. Enjoy!

    ======

    I love both the list and conversation.

    I'm surprised no one's mentioned Jude Devereaux's Knight in Shining Armor. I think that was as much a game changer as Whitney My Love.

    For LGBT romance, I have a few thoughts. For gay romance, there's Mary Renault, and Joseph Hanson's Brandstetter gay detective series (not a romance but it has romantic elements and it influenced contemporary m/m author Josh Lanyon - who also probably should be in the canon). And there's pulp fiction - Damon Suede's written about reading gay pulp fiction in the 70s and 80s and its influence on him.

    For lesbian romance, there's Patricia Highsmith's The Price Of Salt - 1950s pulp fiction credited as the first lesbian novel with a happy(ish) ending. And Isabel Miller's Patience and Sarah (which is the first lesbian romance I read, although it's categorized as historical fiction, not genre romance).

    I don't know how much of a direct line you can draw from the earlier gay and lesbian romances to today's m/m and f/f romance, since a lot of that grew out of fan fiction and slash and I'm not sure if those authors were aware of it. But I think the history is interesting and worth reading.

    After reading Oliva Waite's blog this month, I also want to add Their Eyes Were Watching Heaven to the romance canon.

    Thanks for starting the conversation.

    PS: And I want to add Gordon Merrick to my comments on the gay romance canon (although I haven't read him) - I looked up the Damon Suede article, and it's specifically about Merrick.

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  38. Wonderful post and great comments! The Scarlet Pimpernel as an early influence on the adventure romance?

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    1. Definitely, and I think Jeffery Farnol should be in there too. Very strong romantic elements and HEAs in the novels I've read, as well as the adventure.

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  39. Sorry, I should have said in my first comment, this is a brilliant post. I love du Maurier, but I'm not sure I'd count her as romance. For me the thing about her books is that they're actually very bleak, and take quite a dark view on love, but maybe that's just my reading?

    But I would like to add one of my all-time favourite romances, and that's AS Byatt's Possession, which may not have been the first but IMHO is the best of the genre of 'split' time' romances, where we have a link between the past and the present. I've read this countless times, and the sheer beauty of the love story leaves me breathless every time, and I never understand why people are so disinclined to categorise it as romance, because that's what's at the heart of it. Okay, I'm off my soap box now. Thank you Wendy for a fab post.

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    1. Call me cynical, but they don't categorize A.S. Byatt's Possession as Romance because it won the Booker Prize and heaven forbid that a Romance Novel should win a major "literature" prize.

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    2. I don't think you're cynical, sadly, I think that's probably true. And pants for being so! But I'm sticking to my guns, before it's anything else, Possessiion is a romance.

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    3. I "don't read romance" because I prefer other genres, but I think I read half the authors on your list.

      Also, never read 'the Sheik' since it was waaaay before my time ;) but it was referred to in the Amelia Peabody romance/mystery series, and it must have been really, really hot. *fans self*

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  40. Fantastic post! I don't think I can add anyone at this point -- even the Spanish author Corin Tellado whose romances I read exclusively from age 10 to 13, and who is responsible for making me a lifelong romance reader, is in this list! I'm so glad Brie mentioned her! By the way, she sold her first romance novel in 1946, wrote over 4,000 novels and sold over 40 million books (translated in different languages).

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  41. I adore reading older romance novels. Until I became more adult like and moved to a larger city with bigger libraries I was always about a decade or so behind on what I could get my hot little hands on. So it's always been natural for me to check the pub date and read and enjoy the book based on that historical context. Some things still translate well, some things not so much. But there are few things I find so irksome as people reviewing but not taking that context into account.

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  42. Brilliant post. I think it's easy to focus on newer book, but the genre is built on the foundation many of those writers put down. Without them we would have the wide and divers selection of books we have now.

    With such a huge selection of books and authors to choice from you'll always have people saying you missed someone who should be on the list, but I love the people you included and feel they are a good representation of the genre!

    Bravo!

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  43. Sandra Kitt just spoke at our local RWA chapter lunch two weeks ago. She as incredible, inspiring -- a woman with great perspective on writing and on life. I became an instant fan before reading a word.

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