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What Makes A Romance Novel Endure?

Specifically, what makes a Romance novel endure? Think about the hundreds of Romance novels published each month –  in a multitude of subgenres and formats – and the thousands that adds up to each year. Where do all these books go, and what makes one book remain in our collective memory over hundreds, even thousands, of others?

I started thinking about this when I was re-reading The Windflower for my conversational review with Sunita. Here is a book that in so many ways is indicative of its time (1984)—an innocent heroine with tons of bravado who pretty much grows up on page; a jaded hero who becomes emotionally in touch when he falls in lust and then love with the spirited but innocent heroine; and plenty of melodramatic urgency and extremity to make the hero and heroine’s journey to happiness both arduous and long. And yet, readers can still pick it up for the first time, years after its publication, and be immersed and enchanted. Is that what makes a “classic Romance”? And if so, what sets that book apart in providing that experience from all the others published along side it?

This question was raised in a sideways manner a few months ago when the idea of a Romance canon was raised. Wendy wrote a very good wrap-up of that particular controversy, with many suggested authors and books for a Romance canon.  And still, for every Anne Stuart, Lisa Kleypas, Joan Smith, Victoria Holt, Kathleen Woodiwiss, Nora Roberts, Christine Feehan, Bertrice Small, and Charlotte Lamb, there are dozens of names not only all but forgotten, but out of print to the point where their books are essentially out of circulation. And even for those authors whose names have not iconic, was their success presaged in their early works? Although the first few Lisa Kleypas books are among my favorite of her historicals, the writing is far weaker than her later books. And some of Charlotte Lamb and Anne Stuart’s books are just so chock full of crazy that some may wonder why they have remained so influential in the genre. And then there are writers like Bertrice Small, who, in some ways, are still writing in a similar vein to their earlier books, and whose work still seems to sell pretty robustly.

And then take a look at today’s market and how all over the place it seems. From the far extremes of erotic stories to the popularity of MC books and the upswing of New Adult, to the downslope of historicals, readers are complaining about poor writing, horrible editing, derivative plots, copycat themes, covers, and titles, and more chock full of crazy (can we just accept that that’s an ongoing theme in the genre?).

Italo Calvino has constructed a pretty famous checklist for designating a book as a classic. His list is pretty extensive, but here are a few key criteria:

The classics are books which exercise a particular influence, both when they imprint themselves on our imagination as unforgettable, and when they hide in the layers of memory disguised as the individual’s or the collective unconscious.

A classic is a book which even when we read it for the first time gives the sense of rereading something we have read before.

A classic is a book which has never exhausted all it has to say to its readers.

The classics are those books which come to us bearing the aura of previous interpretations, and trailing behind them the traces they have left in the culture or cultures (or just in the languages and customs) through which they have passed.

‘Your’ classic is a book to which you cannot remain indifferent, and which helps you define yourself in relation or even in opposition to it.

Salon’s Laura Miller took on the same question, pointing to Calvino’s list, as well as to a Goodreads discussion that raised the same issue.

Miller complicated the formula, pointing to the fact that individual taste plays a huge role in how a book is received:

This is why we will go on arguing about what constitutes a classic book for as long as we read books at all: While the label is bestowed by the culture at large and we tend to judge it by an unquantifiable impression we have of how much prestige has accumulated around a particular book, that prestige is still built from the idiosyncratic experiences of individual readers. The fact that many readers hate “The Scarlet Letter” can’t disqualify it as a classic, but only because many more readers have loved it, or at least found it profound. Yet that doesn’t mean the opinions of the rejecting readers don’t count or that they can’t at some point overbalance the novel’s admirers and cause it to drift into obscurity. No wonder those Vonnegut novels keep migrating. Whatever a classic book may be, it doesn’t ever seem to stand still.

And yet, there are books within the Romance genre that we almost universally recognize as classic. These are not even books that would qualify as pristinely written (Woodiwiss, for example, or Small), but they somehow rise above other books around them. Some books seem to have conflicted status – Judith Ivory’s books, for example. I know many readers who would not include them as classics and other readers who would. What qualifies or disqualifies her work from that title? Are Laura Kinsale’s books classics? How do her books compare to, say, Tracy Grant’s historicals? Or Christine Monson’s? When I was thinking about what character in genre Romance was most like The Windflower’s Cat, Samuel from Kinsale’s The Shadow and The Star was the first hero I thought of, except that Samuel had a big head start in terms of a loving family and a clear life path compared to Cat. Fallen Professor compared Cat to Dain from Loretta Chase’s Lord of Scoundrels, a book that feels so much lighter in tone to me that I cannot compare them at all.  In fact, for me, Lord of Scoundrels is a book the appeal of which I have never fully understood. Is it because I did not read it at the time it was written? And yet, one of the supposed qualifications of a classic is that it speaks both of its time and beyond it. Is this a book that transcends, and if so, why?

Even if we discard the idea that every genre has the same qualifications for a classic book, there does seem to be some uniformity within genre Romance about which books have had lasting impact. Heck, there are some books that are still being read, thirty, forty, fifty, even a hundred years after publication. But why those books? Why are people still reading LaVyrle Spencer, or re-reading her, at least? What about Jennifer Crusie or Julia Quinn or Laura Lee Guhrke? What kind of endurance do we expect these authors to have?

For me, classic status is more an academic question than an emotional one. I like the idea of putting books in a certain order, identifying influences, looking at how the genre develops and evolves through certain books, and seeing a variety of tropes reinterpreted within different historical contexts, both inside and outside the books themselves. Perhaps it comes down to appreciation over adoration for me, although a combination of both is ideal. I would not venture to say this is true for all, or even most, Romance readers, though.

What, for Romance, make certain books unforgettable, and is unforgettable the same thing as classic? Can notoriety alone create a classic read, or is there some standard of merit that must stand behind it? And if so, what standard? How do we define merit in a genre that may be more about emotional satisfaction and catharsis than wordsmithing? Even those books that may be deemed “bad” by current standards can be appreciated and even enjoyed as a nostalgic trip to the past. I’m not sure this is the same thing as a book “transcending,” though, if it doesn’t seem to retain a consistent standard of excellence. Still, what are the characteristics of excellence when we’re cataloguing Romance’s strengths?

I would argue that classic status requires more than popularity or memorability, but I’m not sure what. Is it the prose, and if so, what about it? Is it the tropes, and if so, why? Is it the character types, and if so, what type is more enduring or “classic” than another? Is it the tropes or the settings or the subgenres or the notoriety of a book? How many people think that readers are going to be picking up Fifty Shades in 30 years – or even thinking of is as a defining moment in the genre’s development?

Thinking back as long as you’ve been reading Romance, what are the books that stand out to you as genre classics and why? And thinking ahead as far as you can, what books published today do you think people will be reading? What books would you want them to be reading, and why?

isn't sure if she's an average Romance reader, or even an average reader, but a reader she is, enjoying everything from literary fiction to philosophy to history to poetry. Historical Romance was her first love within the genre, but she's fickle and easily seduced by the promise of a good read. She approaches every book with the same hope: that she will be filled from the inside out with something awesome that she didnʼt know, didnʼt think about, or didnʼt feel until that moment. And she's always looking for the next mind-blowing read, so feel free to share any suggestions!

41 Comments

  1. LJ
    Jun 17, 2014 @ 04:27:42

    The one author whose books I can reread with the same feeling of wonderment and discovery is Sharon Shinn, especially her earlier works. I think it’s because the stories are so much bigger than the hero/heroine themselves. Always the yes something else to think about – social justice, what equality means, how to define love….something to think about.

  2. Zara Keane
    Jun 17, 2014 @ 04:35:35

    I started reading romance when I was twelve. After twenty-three years and thousands of books, only a few have a permanent spot on my Keeper shelf. When I look at the titles, I notice that these are the books that either introduced me to a particular subgenre or trope, or that tried something original and pulled it off.

    My Keepers include Maggie Osborne’s ‘The Promise of Jenny Jones’ (an atypical Western historical), Madeline Hunter’s debut medieval trilogy, starting with ‘By Arrangement’ (a refreshing change from the plethora of historically inaccurate medievals on the market at the time), Jane Feather’s ‘V’ series (‘Vice’ is my favourite), and ‘A Rose at Midnight’ by Anne Stuart (my introduction to ultra dark heroes).

  3. Noelle
    Jun 17, 2014 @ 05:39:46

    I’m reposting this because my first one got trapped in spam and for once I remembered to copy before I posted. I don’t know why Dear Author always thinks I’m a spammer! :) I hope it doesn’t end up getting posted twice.

    I completely agree that it takes more than popularity and memorability for a piece of literature to endure. I don’t even think the quality of the craft is the main factor (although craft certainly has to be basically under control). I got laughed out a numerous graduate seminars for saying this, because the idea is so out of style in academia now, but I still think literature will not endure unless it speaks powerfully to what it means to be human.

    I think we’re too close in time to accurately assess which romance novels will endure beyond a hundred years. We’re so heavily influenced by what engages our particular culture. We can definitely start to identify influencers and genre leaders, and we can evaluate quality in craft. But none of that is going to tell us which romance novels people will be reading a hundred years from now. I think there will be some, but I have no idea which ones. We can have a better sense of which romance novels will not endure (based on poor craft, shallowness, unauthentic portrait of human nature, etc.).

    When I was in graduate school, I did some work on Charlotte Yonge, who was a very popular Victorian novelist who wrote explicitly religious fiction. I love Yonge, even with all of her crazy, didactic plot manipulations. She writes better and with a fuller sense of human nature than most of what I read today. But I know that my enjoyment of her is mostly because she is doing my thing. I’m naturally inclined in the direction of her writing. And I would never argue that Clever Woman of the Family should endure the way Jane Eyre and David Copperfield have. Despite how popular Yonge was in her own time, she just isn’t saying as much as powerfully, I really think a lot of the better romance novels will end up in a similar situation.

    I have a draft of a classic romance review on Patricia Veryan’s Love Alters Not, which is one of my favorite romance novels. I’ve been hanging onto it for weeks now, instead of sending it to Jane, because I can’t seem to make it say what I want it to say, which is about how the book is powerful because of its humanness. The romance novels that are “my classics” are the ones that speak to me humanly that way. It takes longer–many more decades–before we can know which ones will continue to speak humanly to readers beyond their time and place.

  4. Kati
    Jun 17, 2014 @ 07:21:14

    What a fabulous column!

    I think alot about what constitutes a classic romance. One of the measuring sticks, I think is not necessarily what bends a genre, or what is “best received” because there are so many romance readers, and so many different tastes. But, I think we can all agree Austen wrote classic romance. But Woodiwiss? Rosemary Rogers? Catherine Coulter? Barbara Cartland?

    In my own tiny world, a lot of the romances that I would consider classics were actually published in the 90s.

    Flowers from the Storm by Laura Kinsale – Unusual hero, beautifully constructed story
    Mr. Perfect by Linda Howard – Not my favorite Howard, but I think probably the most universally loved Howard.
    All Through the Night by Connie Brockway – But this could just as easily be As You Desire or My Dearest Enemy
    To Have and to Hold by Patricia Gaffney – I loathe this book, but a lot of readers adore it.
    Whitney, My Love/A Kingdom of Dreams by Judith McNaught – Love W, ML or hate it, it’s a classic. As is A Kingdom of Dreams
    Welcome to Temptation by Jennie Crusie – Not a favorite of mine, but also very well loved and routinely recommended

    What I have a harder time with is PNR. What constitutes a “Classic” PNR? Feehan is where I got my start reading paranormal romance, so perhaps her Carpathian series?

  5. Emma Barry
    Jun 17, 2014 @ 07:58:47

    I think the word “classic” gets used to indicate two separate but sometimes interrelated things: one is the pronouncement that a text is influential, that it has shaped or changed the genre in some way and the other is that a text has spoken to readers over the course of many decades, centuries, millennia, etc.

    This second point isn’t just one of reception as you say, Janet. If a book goes out of print, it doesn’t matter if the reader response is enthusiastic–and while presumably the two would be related, i.e., popular books should stay in print, I don’t think this is always the case. Taste is shaped by editorial decisions, quirks of marketing, discoverability, etc. The cream doesn’t always rise to the top. The books that endure often do so through happenstance.

    Also a text can be enjoyed by a small number of influential critics or readers and change the writing or culture in some way even if readers don’t discover it widely. Charles Brockden Brown is a good example; he had very few readers in late 18th-century America, but many Europeans writers and intellectuals read him and his books shaped the works of William Godwin, Mary Shelley, Walter Scott, etc. Herman Melville is another; Moby-Dick sold 2500 copies and then went out of print for 60 years. But I think Moby-Dick is undisputedly classic in terms of what it says about humanness (to your point, Noelle) and in terms of its formal innovations.

    In romance, a recent example for me would be the Blackshear series by Cecilia Grant–which I thought was just beyond brilliant but which I almost never see readers discussing. (Full disclosure: I’ve talked to CG on Twitter, but I don’t really know her.) While that book was lauded by a small number of critics, it didn’t seem to penetrate the wider romance readership as much as I think it should have given both its formal experimentation and its commentary on how and why people fall in love and what love means for us.

    At the end of the day, classic is one of those words like “good” or “bad” that I wish people would define every time they use it because it seems like a kaleidoscope rather than a term with predictable meaning and usage.

  6. hapax
    Jun 17, 2014 @ 08:35:47

    I’ve been thinking recently about “classic” categories; more specifically Mary Burchell’s Warrender Saga, which in my youth (back in the Dark Ages) was considered THE must-read romance.

    I still have fond memories of it, and can remember many scenes and bits of writing vividly. Yet how many romance readers today have even heard of it? (Compared to, say, the original “bodice rippers” of the Rosemary Rogers ilk.)

    I think that for all her “old-fashionedness”, Burchell would be much more readable to modern romance readers than the Sweet Savage type. But is “readability” a better yardstick for Classic status than “influence”?

    Of course, I’m a public librarian, and as such have much more practical standards for most labels. Just as I consider most genre designations more about marketing (cover, format, blurb, even typefont) than about intrinsic content of the book, so I also have a simple test for what I label a “Classic”: “Is it on the local high school required reading list?”

  7. oceanjasper
    Jun 17, 2014 @ 08:44:26

    I think it’s really difficult to determine classic status for the romance genre in the same way as one would for other fiction, even other genre fiction, because the appeal of romance novels is so much influenced by social attitudes to gender and relationships. If a classic 1930s mystery novel, for example, contains hints of attitudes that make us cringe today, it doesn’t interfere much with the main appeal of the story, the mystery.

    But romance novels can easily become dated in their attitudes, and this can render even groundbreaking, highly acclaimed in their time and oft-referenced novels unreadable years later. I’ve revisited many a formerly enjoyable read and been beyond impatient with it the second time around. This has happened with historicals by Woodiwiss, Kleypas and Gaffney (To Have and to Hold was fascinating the first time, but repellent on second reading) as well as contemporaries like early Linda Howard. Society has changed n the interim, but I have as well, and I can never recapture the pleasure of the first reading back when I was a different person. I don’t know that some of those famous earlier romances would appeal much to a brand new romance reader either.

    So if a classic is a simply a trendsetter in its own time then there are plenty of romance novels that qualify, but if a classic should stand up to repeated re-readings and be able to appeal to successive generations, I’m not sure of any except Austen and Heyer. That’s not to say there are no romance novels from the past worth reading; people just have to find what appeals to them, which often has nothing to do with objective standards of quality.

  8. Kim W
    Jun 17, 2014 @ 08:45:11

    A Knight in Shining Armor by Jude Deveraux is my all time favorite. My sister and I read it probably 20 years ago and to this day if it ever comes up we both just kind of sigh with happiness. I have thought about re-reading it but I’m afraid it won’t hold up and will spoil my memories of that great story. I suppose it wouldn’t be a classic if it made me roll my eyes today but I’m afraid to find out.

  9. Fallen Professor
    Jun 17, 2014 @ 10:41:08

    Having taught literature, the idea of a canon is something that’s been always in my mind whenever I read. When I started seriously wanting to explore classic romances, I looked around to see what novels would be considered canonical, and why. I ran into very different opinions, but eventually started building a reading list for myself.

    There’s a book by literary critic Harold Bloom (and Bloom is really a love-him-or-hate-him kind of guy for many people) titled The Western Canon, where he discusses what makes a work of literature canonical (or, a “classic”). Unfortunately, most people went straight to the back of the book, where he gave a list of works he considered important; he later said he’d regretted making that list, and that it had been a request from his publisher because it would make the book more accessible. But the meat of the book is in the introductory chapters, where he argues (and I’m paraphrasing here) that a canonical author is one who “haunts” later generations of writers. The canonical author is the one you, as a writer, have to confront and come to terms with. So for example, generations of playwrights have had Shakespeare’s oeuvre hanging over their heads, so to speak, when they write their own plays. This doesn’t mean they love, accept, and copy; on the contrary, their own work can be a complete rejection of Shakespeare. But he’s there, in the background.

    So that might be one way of looking for canonical romance authors. Who do current authors have looking over their shoulders? If you’re a Regency writer, is it Heyer or Balogh? Maybe someone as far back as Austen (and Austen seems to have been Heyer’s particular spectre, just as Balogh was inspired by Heyer)? These genealogies of influence are interesting to me, especially when descendants start to veer away and reject the influence of their literary ancestors. So, for example, at what point did writers take the “forced seduction” trope and start composing romances that rejected this technique? That’s also influence.

    Anyway, I’m sure I’ll come back with a few more ideas, since this is a topic I’m especially interested in as I make my way through many of what are considered classic romance novels.

  10. Wendy
    Jun 17, 2014 @ 10:45:30

    I’d like to see some classic category romances on this list. However, with categories I tend to think of authors.

    Janet Dailey: Her American-set Harlequins were hugely influential. She was one of the first to redeem a villainess character (Land Called Deseret); she had a blind heroine (The Ivory Cane).
    Linda Howard: Years ago, everyone was talking about Mackenzie’s Mountain, which was a Silhouette Intimate Moments book.
    Beverly Sommers: Underappreciated author. Some of her romances come across almost as “chick lit” or women’s fiction.
    Alicia Scott: We know her now as Lisa Gardner, but I’ll never forget stumbling across her category romances and thinking Whoa! This is different.

    You could also look at early category romances from several authors who moved on to longer books: Nora Roberts, Janet Evanovich, Suzanne Brockmann, Jennifer Crusie.

  11. Amanda
    Jun 17, 2014 @ 10:49:43

    Kleypas’s historicals stand out and even though I only started reading Julie Garwood’s historicals last year they stand out as well. I think Loretta Chase’s Lord of Scoundrels will endure and anything by Tessa Dare. I would also like to see some m/m by authors like Sean Kennedy, Amy Lane, and Tamara Allen to still be around and talked about

  12. Janine
    Jun 17, 2014 @ 12:55:18

    A factor that hasn’t been mentioned but which made a big difference (in the pre-digital days especially), is print run size. I think if a book got a big marketing push from the publisher as well, that really helped. Not that it would guarantee the book’s endurance or classic status, but certainly it would help. Because if so few copies of a book existed that few people could discover it, how good or satisfying it was to read could not as easily propel it to classic status.

  13. Fallen Professor
    Jun 17, 2014 @ 13:19:41

    @Janine: Yes, I agree that availability and marketing are factors in success (and, as you point out, this was especially true before e-reading and social media). When there’s an entire wall of a bookstore dedicated to a specific book or even author, potential readers take notice. This still happens, though I’ve noticed that with so many more books competing for attention the space allotted for each in the store’s showcase sections have decreased.

    But, as you also say, that’s no guarantee, and in the end it’s largely in the hands of the readers to propel a book to “enduring title” status. I wonder, too, how the cover art factors into this equation. I remember going to friends’ houses as a teen and seeing many of the same romance titles on their parents’ shelves; and I noticed because of the cover art. An iconic enough image can also leave a lasting impression, and I read some of my first books because I’d seen their unique covers over and over in bookstores, libraries, and homes.

  14. Nancy S Goodman
    Jun 17, 2014 @ 13:43:11

    I also vote for Flowers From the Storm. I would add my favorite Woodiwiss, Shanna, as well as Rosemary Rogers, Sweet Savage Love. Among the more recent are Lisa Kleypas, Devil in Winter. I too would like to see MM authors included, In addition to Amy Lane’s Promise series, I put forth Mary Calmes, Matter of Time series, and Josh Lanyon’s Adrien English series. All classic and enduring

  15. Isobel Carr
    Jun 17, 2014 @ 13:48:06

    Classic or canon status is something that time and staying power determine. I’m not sure most (any?) of the books under discussion have been around long enough for such a designation. We’re too close to them to be able to determine if they’ll make a lasting impression or fade away. Heyer is certainly in the running for “canon”. Cartland, too. I can easily see a Heyer/Cartland discussion in a hundred years mirroring current Austen/Bronte ones.

  16. Sunita
    Jun 17, 2014 @ 13:49:13

    I second everything Noelle said. Books that endure speak to people outside the culture in which they were written, both spatially and temporally, even if they’re minute observations of a very specific time and place. And I especially agree that we’re probably too close to be able to know which books those are, given we’re steeped in the environment in which they’re written.

    That said, I was struck by our reread of THE WINDFLOWER, Kati’s review of ALL THROUGH THE NIGHT, and my reread and review of NIGHTFALL. Those all feel like they could be seen as classics in the future.

    @Fallen Professor: I would not choose classics according to which books authors today are engaged with. Some might genuinely be classics, but others could be the object of faddish or bandwagon attention. And once again, it puts the focus on authorial oeuvres and authors rather than specific books. Authors aren’t classics, books are. So I’d rather pay attention what readers (writing and non-writing readers) say.

  17. Moriah Jovan
    Jun 17, 2014 @ 14:25:37

    @Wendy:

    [Janet Dailey] was one of the first to redeem a villainess character (Land Called Deseret)

    This book was hugely influential to me, on both a personal level and the way I now construct characters and why.

  18. Fallen Professor
    Jun 17, 2014 @ 14:25:54

    @Sunita: Absolutely, I agree, although I’m not always sure about the author/reader divide. Authors are (or should really be) readers, too, and are thus in the consumer end of things as well as the production end. My comment was just an (admittedly clumsy) attempt to address one half of the equation (the writers); because, if a work/author/style is referenced repeatedly by various authors down the line, then there’s some interesting bit of influence happening there. I like to make “reading genealogies” for myself this way, because of the connections.

    The other side, as I wrote in my second comment above, is very much in hands of the readership; the people who talk about, gift, lend, hand down, and otherwise spread knowledge of these books. And yes, I agree that if we go by popularity alone, we’d have to accept 50 Shades of Gray as being right up there with Pride and Prejudice, and I’m not sure I can go there. ;-) But then, I wonder whether 50 Shades will still be read in a hundred years or two. As @Isobel Carr says, time is also a factor. Many of the works we now consider classics were, in their time, ignored or downright rejected; and I wonder about the inverse of this: books that were greatly read and appreciated a couple of centuries ago but are now either considered insignificant or completely unknown.

  19. Fallen Professor
    Jun 17, 2014 @ 14:33:22

    @Sunita: Absolutely, I agree, although I’m not always sure about the author/reader divide. Authors are (or should really be) readers, too, and are thus in the consumer end of things as well as the production end. My comment was just an (admittedly clumsy) attempt to address one half of the equation (the writers); because, if a work/author/style is referenced repeatedly by various authors down the line, then there’s some interesting bit of influence happening there. I like to make “reading genealogies” for myself this way, because of the connections.

    The other side, as I wrote in my second comment above, is very much in hands of the readership; the people who talk about, gift, lend, hand down, and otherwise spread knowledge of these books. And yes, I agree that if we go by popularity alone, we’d have to accept 50 Shades of Gray as being right up there with Pride and Prejudice, and I’m not sure I can go there. ;-) But then, I wonder whether 50 Shades will still be read in a hundred years or two. As @Isobel Carr says, time is also a factor. Many of the works we now consider classics were, in their time, ignored or downright rejected; and I wonder about the inverse of this: books that were greatly read and appreciated a couple of centuries ago but are now either considered insignificant or completely unknown.

    I’m really enjoying the discussion, and adding titles to my TBR list.

  20. jamie beck
    Jun 17, 2014 @ 16:03:39

    I’m sure I’m not qualified to determine (or even venture a guess at) which contemporary books will one day be considered classics, but I have to agree with the other commentators who identify the ability of the author to speak to what it means to be human as a key factor. Those types of stories make us feel connected, make us laugh at ourselves, identify personal and social hypocrisy, and so on. Basically they make us “feel” deeply. They go above and beyond the simple formula of “swoon-worthy boy meets girl + trope = HEA,” and that is probably one reason we remember them longer.

    As to authors mentioned in your piece and the comments, I can say that, for me, many of Lisa Kleypas’s historicals are memorable because not only did she create some wonderful characters (Sebastian St. Vincent, Beatrix Hathaway, Leo Hathaway, etc.), but she also created a wonderful sense of family and friendship in those books. They seemed “bigger” because of all of the developing relationships within each book and series.

    As for the Fifty Shades question you posed, it certainly has been influential and stirred much debate, regardless of the vast difference of opinion on the quality of the series. But I don’t think it will be a classic. A best seller, certainly. But because it does not reflect anything remotely typical about modern society (it lacks the “human” element) and relied, instead, on extreme characters and circumstances to generate tension and titillation, I can’t ever imagine calling it a classic. Then again, I opened my response by acknowledging I’m no expert…

    Thanks for another interesting discussion!

  21. Evangeline
    Jun 17, 2014 @ 16:11:17

    My romance reading “career” has been a bit off the beaten path, so I don’t really know what I’d consider canon from that list or in the future.

    In general, I think romance canon comes from game-changing books–those that sparked new trends and conversations with readers and authors. However, sometimes these conversations and/or trends created by canonical texts don’t bear fruit for a number of years because of external forces (e.g. Sandra Kitt’s Adam and Eva (1985) is considered the first mainstream AA romance, but this niche wasn’t well served until the early to mid-90s); or, as someone mentioned above, great books with small print runs/no publisher push disappeared before they had the opportunity to catch on, which further complicates the creation of the canon. The consumption and packaging of romance also, IMO, creates complications because it can be at times disposable and extremely focused on the individual’s emotional response to the text.

  22. Robin/Janet
    Jun 17, 2014 @ 18:57:10

    As I was reading Emma Barry’s excellent comment, I realized how many fine distinctions there are to draw here. For example, a book that endures may not be canonical, but it may be classic. Or vice versa. Clearly, a book needs to endure to some degree to be either of the other two, but I do think there’s a difference between “classic” status and canon. I’m not sure what it is, yet, and I’m really enjoying the discussion here around how we define those terms and how we then classify books within them, in part because I think the project of canon may be much more difficult and future-oriented than the classic project.

    Thinking about The Windflower, for example, or Stuart’s Nighfall, or the Deveraux book Fallen Professor reviewed, just to name a few, I don’t have any issue referring to those as classics. I think twenty or thirty or forty years is enough to warrant that kind of label, in part because now that I think about it, I think classic is more a function of what it represents in the genre than of being of such influence that it literally helps shape the direction and future of the genre.

    I’m thinking of classic cars, for example, and how not all classic cars are still being seen in cars today – in fact, some of them may have been duds in their own time, or at least not the influential forms they had ambition to be. In any case, now I’m thinking maybe we really need to differentiate those books that stand the test of time because they somehow speak to readers for many years, or because there is something unique about them, even within the diversity of the genre, that makes them stand out in a defining way. Not necessarily a way that makes them canonical, but in a way we can identify without the comfort of a 100-year retrospective study.

    For example, I’d call LaVyrle Spencer’s Spring Fancy a classic. It was the first Harlequin Temptation, and it was published the same year as The Windflower, and it features a heroine who is engaged to a computer engineer but falls in love with a guy who works on and restores cars (he and his brothers own a shop). There is just so much at stake in that novel — class differences and gender roles (the heroine is a physical therapist and adores her career) and issues around sexual independence (there’s a great scene where the hero walks into the heroine’s bedroom and sees her birth control pills, reminding us vividly that she is in control of her reproductive capacity). The book is in digital circulation, and I still see it talked about, so I know it’s still in the collective reader consciousness. Is it canonical? I’m not sure. But I do think it is “definitional” in a way that for me a classic Romance needs to be — that is, it is definitive of something important in the genre or of a time or a trend or something that we recognize about what the genre is and why its popular and how we relate to it as readers. I’d make a similar argument about Christine Feehan’s Carpathian books, at least the first one. By contrast, I don’t think I’d include JR Ward’s vampire series.

    Thoughts?

  23. Rachel
    Jun 17, 2014 @ 19:07:17

    That moment in the 1990s after reading all the Woodiwiss, Lindsay, Lowell, Rogers, McBain when I read A Rake’s Vow by Stephanie Laurens and realised that men could WANT to fall in love and chase their wife to the alter and, Four in Hand (also by Stephanie Laurens) where all four sisters could be equally beautiful puts Laurens on my list. It’s a line in the sand moment for me because I didn’t read with any consciousness until then.

  24. AR
    Jun 17, 2014 @ 19:50:51

    @Evangeline,
    I like that you brought up Sandra Kitt’s “Adam and Eva,” because I think it’s an interesting example of how a book has endured, and is often treated like the first of its kind or a game-changer when it actually wasn’t. Like you said, it’s often mentioned as the first mainstream AA romance (I just did a Google search about it to see what came up, and one was an critical companion of Terry McMillan that says that before her first book was published in 1989 “only one mainstream romance publisher” had taken the risk of publishing a book with black characters on the front–referring to “Adam and Eva.”) Yet the actual first was “Entwined Destinies” by Rosalind Welles, published in Dell’s Candlelight Romance line in 1980. Two years later “The Tender Mending” by Lia Sanders was published in the Candlelight Ecstasy line. Both were by black authors with black characters prominently featured on the covers. Kitt’s was the first Harlequin by a AA author featuring an AA hero and heroine (though Harlequin published a book featuring a black couple written by a white author a year earlier). Groundbreaking, yes, but not “the” first as it’s often described. Yet her book is remembered while the earlier ones are largely forgotten. Is it because Harlequin is still the big name when it comes to romance, while the Candlelight lines (which stopped being published in 1987) are largely forgotten? Is it because Kitt went on to be a trailblazer in AA and interracial romance, while those are the only books credited to those authors (under those names at least)? Is it because Harlequin kept “Adam and Eva” in print while the others weren’t after their initial releases? Maybe all of the above? I don’t know, but I think it’s interesting in light of this conversation.

  25. Rachel
    Jun 17, 2014 @ 19:51:10

    After all the Mills & Boons, Woodiwiss, Small, Rogers, Lindsay, McBain and Lowell, A Rake’s Vow by Stephanie Laurens was a line in the sand moment for me. That a man could WANT to fall in love and actively SEEK a wife gave me my first conscious Romance reading experience; it made me ask myself ‘what made this book different from every other Romance book I’d read before’. ps. hope this posts, so far I’ve been told I’m a spammer, and then the site locked down on me :)

  26. AR
    Jun 17, 2014 @ 20:11:29

    @Evangeline: @Evangeline,
    I like that you brought up Sandra Kitt’s “Adam and Eva,” because I think it’s an interesting example of how a book has endured, and is often treated like the first of its kind or a game-changer when it actually wasn’t. Like you said, it’s often mentioned as the first mainstream AA romance (I just did a Google search about it to see what came up, and one was an critical companion of Terry McMillan that says that before her first book was published in 1989 “only one mainstream romance publisher” had taken the risk of publishing a book with black characters on the front–referring to “Adam and Eva.”) Yet the actual first was “Entwined Destinies” by Rosalind Welles, published in Dell’s Candlelight Romance line in 1980. Two years later “The Tender Mending” by Lia Sanders was published in the Candlelight Ecstasy line. Both were by black authors with black characters prominently featured on the covers. Kitt’s was the first Harlequin by a AA author featuring an AA hero and heroine (though Harlequin published a book featuring a black couple written by a white author a year earlier). Groundbreaking, yes, but not “the” first as it’s often described. Yet her book is remembered while the earlier ones are largely forgotten. Is it because Harlequin is still the big name when it comes to romance, while the Candlelight lines (which stopped being published in 1987) are largely forgotten? Is it because Kitt went on to be a trailblazer in AA and interracial romance, while those are the only books credited to those authors (under those names at least)? Is it because Harlequin kept “Adam and Eva” in print while the others weren’t after their initial releases? Maybe all of the above? I don’t know, but I think it’s interesting in light of this conversation.

  27. Tammy J Palmer
    Jun 18, 2014 @ 00:19:08

    @Kim W: I felt the same way about A Knight in Shining Armour. Afraid that reading it again would kill the magic!

  28. Des Livres
    Jun 18, 2014 @ 02:28:42

    I am fascinated by fallen professor’s suggestion that canonical books hover over writers as they write, (I’m paraphrasing) and wonder what any authors reading this thread have to say about what books have influenced them in their work.

    And as for classics, Betty Neels? I’d like Mary Burchell to be classic because I adore her and have a lot of her Warrander books, but have no clue if anyone else still reads her.

  29. etv13
    Jun 18, 2014 @ 03:58:47

    I keep seeing people say that Jane Austen wrote “classic romance,” and that raises a couple of questions for me. (1) Why do the people who think of Austen as romance never think about Much Ado About Nothing, or As You Like It? Is it just because they’re dramas and not novels? Is it because Shakespeare was (gasp!) a man? (2) Am I the only person who gets a completely different sense from Austen than from the superficially similar Heyer? It just seems to me that Austen is morally serious, in a way that Heyer is not, and that that difference is th4e difference between “classic” and “classic romance.”

  30. Liz Mc2
    Jun 18, 2014 @ 09:38:45

    @Robin/Janet: @Robin/Janet: When you talked about the difference between classic and canon, my immediate thought was Gone With the Wind (not as romance, but in general). It’s still read and loved, and it may well influence authors, but it’s certainly not regarded as great literature anymore, and if it’s taught, it would be as a popular rather than canonical work of American lit (it’s no Moby-Dick).

    I’m not sure about romance analogues–I’m not widely read enough.

  31. Ros
    Jun 18, 2014 @ 10:25:48

    @etv13: You’re not the only one. I would argue strongly that Austen did not write romance novels and, therefore, her books cannot be classic romances. Classics, of course, but of a different genre. And while Shakespeare’s comedies are romances – in the sense that not everyone dies at the end – they aren’t genre romance either.

  32. Sunita
    Jun 18, 2014 @ 11:37:41

    @etv13: @Ros: Me three. And I totally get what you mean about Austen v. Heyer. Heyer is to Austen as Thirkell is to Trollope, except that Austen > Trollope. They are superficially similar but that’s it. Not to malign Heyer or Thirkell, they’re both highly skilled writers. But Austen is in a different class.

    @Liz Mc2: I think another thing that makes it difficult to settle on classics in romance is that the type of emotional engagement that is fundamental to a good reading experience is different from other genres. Our emotions are almost always engaged when we read, obviously, but it’s possible in mystery and SFF to appreciate intellectually without having that strong emotional attachment. I find it much more difficult in romance. Which is weird because romance is about a universal emotion, but I wonder if the way it’s given form is inevitably culturally encoded and so romance books reflect their times in a way that other genres don’t. I’m probably wrong about that, but I can’t think of a book that *everyone* agrees works at the highest level, whereas we can find more agreement on canonical works.

  33. Sunita
    Jun 18, 2014 @ 11:42:43

    @hapax: I think that some of Burchell’s books come closer to universality than perhaps anyone else in category romance. For one thing, she wrote really, really well. For another, her ability to create a world with socially precise yet instantly recognizable types is unparalleled in my romance-reading experience. I think she could have written “village England” novels in single-title form and been very successful.

    One of the reasons no one reads her now or talks about her is that her books aren’t available. I have almost all of them in print (I’m missing some of the earliest ones), but they’re not available digitally and I don’t have much hope they will be. DA reviewed a few of them here, years ago, but there’s no real point in telling people about fabulous books they don’t have access to. It’s a real shame.

  34. Janine
    Jun 18, 2014 @ 16:16:56

    @AR: This was fascinating to hear and read, though it makes me sad for Welles that her achievement is credited to Kitt. Not that Kitt doesn’t deserve some credit as well, for her own contribution to pioneering AA romance, but the first to break through a glass ceiling should not be forgotten.

    Catching up on this thread has also made me think about Kathleen Gilles Seidel’s Again, a book I found at least as wonderful as LaVyrle Spencer’s Spring Fancy. Recently a few people I know read the book and discussed it on Twitter. It seemed to stand the test of time for them, and there was a great deal of appreciation of it. Yet it remains out of print and has not been digitized, and most readers don’t seem to have read it, if they’ve even heard of it.

  35. Tessa Radley
    Jun 18, 2014 @ 19:42:25

    I am absolutely with Sunita. Emotional engagement is a central to romance.

    I also believe that reading is an intensely personal experience. The romances that stand out in my memory, like markers on my reading road, aren’t necessarily the ones I *know* are well-structured, well-written books. The romances stories (I can’t say titles because I don’t always remember them-but I remember the story!) that leap into my head are those that connected with me on a deeply emotional level, that I resonated with at *that* time in my life. Not all those stories still have that power today on a re-read, but they still stir emotions linked my memory vault of books I adore–a kind of nostalgia perhaps but still powerful to my experience.

    They were stories I related to and connected with on an emotional level. Perhaps it is the relatability of a romance novel to a wide range of readers that defines its status as a classic.

    Fascinating topic–I’m loving everyone’s responses!

  36. Sunita
    Jun 18, 2014 @ 20:50:39

    I think the reason Kitt’s ADAM AND EVA is remembered as such an important book is because she was the first black author to be featured in a mainstream line at Harlequin. Candlelight was a good line, but it was never as widely distributed as Harlequin and it didn’t have the reputation outside the genre, as far as I can remember. To have a romance written by a black author with a black couple on the cover, in the biggest romance publisher’s list, was huge. Think about walking into all the stores in which Harlequin was carried and having that book be featured in exactly the same way as all the white books by white authors. Think of all the subscribers to the American Romance line opening up their monthly box and having Kitt’s book in there. It was a first in many ways.

  37. Michele Mills
    Jun 19, 2014 @ 00:27:05

    @Kati: I think we’re leaning much too heavily on historicals and contemporaries when constituting what’s canonical in romance. Why aren’t paranormals on anyone’s classics list? *sniff* Christine Feehan was certainly a ground breaker and her first Carpathian is a classic already. JR Ward’s first books in her Black Dagger Brotherhood series were cracktastic and will certainly stand the test of time. As will Nalini Singh’s psy-changeling series. Kresley Cole has won so many RITA’s it’s becoming a little embarrassing, no doubt many of her books will be considered classics. These three authors are routinely on AAR’s list of greatest 100 romances.
    Is it tricky to classify PNR as classic because it’s still “new” compared to historical and contemporary? Does that make it still seem non traditional? Or is it because PNR is so series based, it’s hard to pull one book out and say, “this one?” Or is it difficult for some of us to imagine Lord of Scoundrels or To Have and to Hold, standing next to, and considered as canonical as Lover Awakened?

  38. Ros
    Jun 19, 2014 @ 04:48:46

    The more I think about this, the more I think it is just too soon. Robin’s initial question is what makes a romance novel endure. To me, that has to mean ‘endure for a new generation of readers’. But since, on the whole, we’re talking about books written within my lifetime (I’m 40), I just think it’s too soon. Even books from the 70′s were written in a world that’s sort of within my experience. They’re certainly within living memory.

    I suspect that Noelle is right, that it’s the ability to appeal to universal human experience which will make some romances into enduring classics. And yet since all romance is, at heart, about the universal human emotions, it’s not easy to pick out which books will have the ability to translate those emotions to successive generations of readers. I think we have to wait 100 years before we’ll know.

  39. Charming Euphemism
    Jun 19, 2014 @ 12:04:24

    It seems like there are at least four axes on which to measure classic-ness.

    (1) Hugely influential on the direction of the genre
    (2) Hugely popular at the time of release (this one is iffy, except that it does seem to matter to most people’s lists)
    (3) Enduring in popularity
    (4) Quality/emotional resonance/other subjective factors

    I would say The Flame and The Flower only qualifies on (1) and (2). People don’t read it now unless they want to revisit a nostalgic experience or they want to read books that influenced romance. I would guess 50 Shades of Grey will turn out to be the same. Pride and Prejudice qualifies on (1), (3), and (4) – it was fairly popular when released, but not hugely. I definitely consider Pride and Prejudice to be a romance, though maybe not all of Jane Austen’s books are.

    Outlander seems like it will end up qualifying, and it isn’t historical or contemporary. It is hard to be sure, since it is only 26 years old, but so far it seems to be enduring.

  40. Bona
    Jun 28, 2014 @ 08:22:35

    My opinion:

    Romance novels belong to a genre of ephemeral quality. As thrillers or Sci-Fi books do. The majority of them will have just one edition and that’s it. A classic in any of these genres is, as far as I know, a novel that gets reissued and finds new readers in other generations than its own time. It’s like TV series or Hollywood movies. The majority of them don’ go farther than a year before they peacefully go to oblivion.
    Georgette Heyer has beem discovered & enjoyed by new readers. Something like that could happen with late Mary Stewart. Certainly, Kathleen Woodiwiss has done it. So, for me a classic is mainly a survivor – a book that gets the attention of new readers.
    But the point is, why do they attract new readers? First, I think that it has to have a certain literary quality. They must be well written, or at least the author has to have that ambition. Then, as it is a narrative genre, it has to make you travel to another place, to another time.
    And the characters have to be real for you. Cat was a very realistic person in a book in which the main characters could be considered clichés.

    I have to think about your questions before answering them. I could mention some classic novels from these last decades (Lord of Scoundrels, Outlander, It Had to Be You, Flowers from the Storm). But I’m not sure why I do think they are classics.

    And I have a lot of doubts about recent books. I guess some historicals like Courtney Milan’s or Sherry Thomas’, for sure. I’d like everybody would read their books. Meljean Brook. Some Jennifer Crusie novels. On the other hand, I seriously doubt anybody would be reading 50SoG in a couple of years. The thing is that I cannot pinpoint the ‘why’. Why do I think they should read this and forget that? I just don’t know.

  41. Bona
    Jun 28, 2014 @ 08:26:46

    I talked so much about my doubts and I forgot to write about my only certainty – Laura Kinsale is a classic and will keep on being read in the future. Even outside the genre.

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