Romance, Historical, Contemporary, Paranormal, Young Adult, Book reviews, industry news, and commentary from a reader's point of view

Publishing Romance: The More Things Change …

history and cats

Did Kathleen Woodiwiss’ The Flame and The Flower really give birth to the romance genre? Until last week, I’d always assumed the answer was a resounding No. But there seem to be quite a few sources that think it did. Wikipedia asserts that the publication of TFATF marked “the birth of the modern romance novel.” In Beyond Heaving Bosoms, Sarah Wendell and Candy Tan call it “the clearest predecessor we can find for the modern romance novel.” But what do we mean by “modern”? To a great extent we mean “modern European historical romance.” Avon editor Carrie Feron  acclaimed Kathleen Woodiwiss as “the founding mother of the historical romance genre.” This tends to come as a shock to readers of Georgette Heyer, or even Barbara Cartland. And never mind Catherine Cookson, the undisputed Queen of the Clogs & Shawls subgenre of romance (never mind because even in the time of the international internet, apparently we’re all Americans). Nevertheless, Woodiwiss definitely jumpstarted something romance-related. And I would argue that what TFATF jumpstarted is even more interesting than giving birth to romance.

Janice Radway’s Reading the Romance gets pilloried quite a bit in the online romance community. But whatever you think of the literary analysis contained therein, the first chapter, on the impact of Woodiwiss and the bodice-ripper sub-genre she introduced, is brilliant in demonstrating the importance of what she terms a “new category” of romance fiction within larger publishing trends. Radway discusses the rise of the paperback as a new profit center for traditional publishers, the acquisition and consolidation of boutique publishers by media conglomerates (plus  Ã§a change, etc. etc.), and the rise of the paperback bestseller. Publishing companies had discovered the buying power of women readers years before feminist movement took off in the mid- to late-1960s. Looking to replace the decreasing popularity of its mystery category line, Ace Books began a gothic romance imprint in 1960 with a novel by Phyllis Whitney. Other publishers soon followed, including Doubleday through its Fawcett Crest imprint, and Radway observes that they were “almost immediately successful in establishing gothic romance as a particular category and in creating a growing demand for new titles.” By 1971, when the demand for gothic romances was at its peak (first runs were as high as 800,000 copies), Dell was issuing four to five titles a month. Does this sound familiar?

So what happened to gothics? No one seems to have a good answer. Maybe the ingenue-meets-dodgy-hero-in-gloomy-house plot wore out its welcome. Certainly one possibility was the public’s growing appetite for sexually more explicit fiction, which gothic romances did not satisfy. Publishers had realized, both from the popularity of gothic romances and from their own surveys, that women were more than half the book-buying market, and we were increasingly willing and eager to read books with more and more graphic sex. In addition, the financial demands of printing technology in a profit-driven enterprise required a steady stream of books which could be counted on to sell. Gothic romance sales peaked in 1971, but the downturns in successive years made it clear they couldn’t be counted on to keep the paperback ship afloat.

Enter the slush pile. Nancy Coffey at Avon picked TFATF off the heap, took it home to read and couldn’t put it down. So Avon bought it, decided to publish it as a paperback original, and put their marketing might behind it. TFATF didn’t really break new ground, but it put together a winning combination of proven ingredients. It combined the historical sweep of bestselling sagas with a focus on the hero and heroine’s relationship which had hitherto been the domaine of category romances from Harlequin/Mills & Boon. And, of course, it added sex. In his insightful and compulsively readable survey of 1970s bestsellers and popular book publishing, John Sutherland characterizes the bodice-ripper genre as containing “a great deal of accurate sexual and inaccurate historical detail.” And, of course, there is the purple prose, which really was a new departure (perhaps to accompany the purple passion?).

The rest, of course, is history. The European Historical genre that was spawned by the spectacular success of TFATF obliterated the gothic romance and still dominates public perception of the genre today. Is that a bad thing?

Well, obviously the enduring public equivalence of romance=bodice-ripper simplifies and distorts an understanding of the depth and richness of the genre. But even within the community, when we use single books and historical moments to illustrate larger points about romance, we divert attention from the other forces in play at the same time. When we focus on the birth of the modern romance novel in the 1970s, the other critical developments we overlook include:

(1) The publishing innovations of Harlequin Books. Harlequin had certainly figured out the importance of women as readers by the 1950s and 1960s, and they expanded their distribution in the United States in the early 1970s. They commanded a majority of the sales in the romance genre, but because they released books by several authors each month (and didn’t engage in preferential promotion of their authors), the books didn’t get the attention of single titles.

(2) The focus on a single book overlooks the larger market context in which the book was launched and received. So we don’t carry the larger lessons forward. Yes, TFATF was an important benchmark. But it was a benchmark for publishing as much as for the genre.

(3) We neglect the rich diversity of the genre. Is TFATF a good place to start in the genre as a reader? Not if you want an idea of what today looks like. But also not if you want to look at continuity within romance. Reading a 1970s bodice ripper doesn’t tell you much about European historicals today, however much fun a blast from the past can be. Reading Georgette Heyer gives you a better sense of the debt today’s Regencies owe to their predecessors, especially the historically rich ones. Similarly, the less gothic Mary Stewart novels shed light on the path the Romantic Suspense sub-genre took. And of course, any number of past category authors went on to write single-title contemporary bestsellers.

One final lesson we should be sure to learn from the 1970s experience: it was a time of technological and economic upheaval. Then it was industry consolidation and the emergence of the paperback as bestseller. Today it’s industry consolidation and the rise of the ebook as major seller (I’m betting an ebook bestseller is not that far away). And yet, Harlequin once again is at the forefront of innovation; it the first major print publisher to take advantage of   the ebook revolution with its Carina imprint. Apparently Avon is about to take the plunge. But will the NY publishers really exploit the opportunities of the technology? Will they see the expanding international reading public as comparable to the expansion of the reading public in the 1970s? And will they just produce more of the same, the way many publishers in the 1970s figured out how to turn hardbacks into sustained paperback profits, or will they put their marketing muscle behind a whole new genre, the way Avon did with bodice rippers? If they do, I think the smart money would be on m/m or erotic romance as sub-genres that are poised for the mainstream. But that’s a whole ‘nother post.

Sunita has been reading romances almost as long as she has been reading. Her favorite genres these days are contemporary, category, and novels with romantic elements. She also reads SFF, mysteries, historical fiction, literary fiction, and the backs of cereal boxes. As of January 2015, all the books she reviews at Dear Author are from: (1) her massive TBR, (2) borrowed from the library, (3) received as gifts from friends/family, or (4) purchased with her own funds.


  1. Ros
    Mar 08, 2011 @ 04:08:01

    Great post! I’ve always thought it odd that people think the romance genre started in the 1970’s. My first exposure to genre romance was Barbara Cartland who was writing long before that and of course Mills and Boon who were around for a long time as well. I love Heyer as well, but I was interested to find out that at least some of her books were initially published as adventure/thriller stories rather than romances, per se.

    The bodice ripper and the shift towards sexier romances certainly was a big change but I think it’s very hard to argue that it launched the genre as a whole.

  2. Karen
    Mar 08, 2011 @ 06:30:24

    Another way Woodiwiss and other authors changed the genre was a stronger focus on emotions and what the characters were feeling. It wasn’t completely different from what had come before, but I started out reading Woodiwiss, and when I went back and tried Heyer, I felt like I was being held at arm’s length. I missed that emotional connection. Woodiwiss also brought in the hero’s thoughts and feelings a lot more (although her books are more heroine-centered than books today). I think that’s what doomed the gothics – most of them were in first person and I think romance readers got used to hearing more from the hero.

  3. Lynne Connolly
    Mar 08, 2011 @ 06:31:37

    What an absolutely fascinating and thoughtful post!
    I’d add Victoria Holt (aka Jean Plaidy, Philippa Carr) to your predecessors.
    I think you’re right. Sometimes one key book will crystallise the way the market is going. Early in the 20th century, despite the existence of Jeffrey Farnol and Rafael Sabatini and Thorndyke, Baroness Orczy swept the board of the swashbuckling romance with “The Scarlet Pimpernel.
    There isn’t really any one Heyer, Cartland, or Robbins, though. That just grew, along with the RNA and Harlequin (get the recently published history of the RNA – “Fabulous at Fifty.” Very important to the development of the historical romance novel.
    I think, when the history of moving from print to ebooks is written, Harlequin will feature strongly as an innovator. It was the first big publisher to take digital publishing seriously and to invest serious money in it.
    Sometimes it’s a publisher.

  4. HeatherK
    Mar 08, 2011 @ 06:54:28

    Victoria Holt! When I was a teen/tween, my Mom gave me Victoria Holt because she felt I’d outgrown most YA and Holt was a good transition to romance, with appropriate amounts of sensuality for my age. I ate ’em up…and then read her Bertrice Small novels on the sly. Sorry, Mom. ;-)

  5. DS
    Mar 08, 2011 @ 07:20:14

    Avon did do something new. They offered a newsletter to people who had read their offerings. I remember sending in for it– I think it required a stamped self addressed envelope. It was about 4 to 6 pages (I wish I had kept mine) that advertised upcoming books and (I think) had some brief news articles about the publisher. I’ve often wondered if this wasn’t one of the wellspings of the community of romance readers.

  6. Laura Vivanco
    Mar 08, 2011 @ 07:32:07

    Avon did do something new. They offered a newsletter to people who had read their offerings.

    That wasn’t new. Mills & Boon had been doing it for years. I’ve seen adverts in the back of their books published in the 1950s (when a lot of their readers got the books via commercial lending libraries) which read as follows:

    No more waiting for library books

    “Since I’ve had your catalogue,” writes Mrs. Parker, “I’ve found it so much easier to get your books. Now I can ask my library to reserve the ones I want for months ahead. I have them sooner that way, and I don’t take out books I’ve read before. What a help it is, and it costs nothing! Every reader should have it.”

    You, too, can have a free copy of our special catalogue for library readers. Like Mrs. Parker, you will find it an immense help in choosing and reserving just the books you really will enjoy reading. Besides telling you everything you want to know about our books, it is full of fascinating news about the authors.

    Simply send us a postcard with your name and address, wherever you live, at home or abroad. There’s no charge or obligation … and we’ll see that you get your copy without delay.

  7. Christina B.
    Mar 08, 2011 @ 07:36:56

    Very interesting post! I’ll admit that I always have a mental huhrrr? moment when I hear someone say TFATF is the mother of modern romance, but I figured my reaction was due more to the fact that I came of age as a romance reader in the last ten years. I think I missed the heyday of the “bodice-ripper” altogether.

    As to publishers starting new digital first imprints, like Jane I hope they’re willing to embrace the technology and what makes digital-first publishing so exciting in the first place. Avon saying their new digital imprint grew “organically” out of their print program makes me wary–will this mean DRM, lower royalty rates, high prices, and other counter-intuitve (to the ebook medium) policies like capping library loans? I find this prospect unattractive both as a reader and a writer.

    It seems to me that NY publishers looking to start digital-first imprints should approach it with something of a blank (or at the least extremely flexible) slate, asking what are the best ways to make digital publishing work, rather than what are the best ways to implement current policies in new digital imprint. Carina Press seems to have taken the former approach, getting digital pioneers like Angela James on board who embrace innovation. Or at least that’s my take on it, though I don’t have any insider knowledge.

    All I know is that as a reader buying primarily ebooks these days, I find Carina Press exciting– no DRM, reasonable pricing scheme, forward digital thinking. I don’t write for them, but these are some of the same reasons they might be attractive to me as a writer too.

  8. SAO
    Mar 08, 2011 @ 07:54:08

    I’ve assumed the lower costs of e-publishing will spark much smaller niches. Romances with handicapped heroines, Romances with mixed race couples, Romances with the main characters above 50, etc. And, I would hope, some break out of the current straitjackets where, in general, if you aren’t overloading your book with faith and praying, you’d better have some sex.

    I’m not sure this will come out of the traditional publishing houses. I’d guess reader forums.

  9. Lisa Hendrix
    Mar 08, 2011 @ 08:25:27

    There’s no doubt there were romance novels prior to TFATF, but it really did mark a sea change.

    I grew up reading Holt, Heyer, M&B medical romances, a bit of Cartland…but when I picked up my first Woodiwiss, the earth shifted on its axis. It was more than the fact that she opened the bedroom door. There was a depth of emotion, grand conflict that went beyond The Big Misunderstanding, and yes, the purple prose (though hers wasn’t as purple as what came after). I’m not sure anyone who came of age in an era rich with romance and all its sub-genres can truly appreciate how world-rocking Woodiwiss was.

    So, did she invent romance? Absolutely not. But did she invent the type of book that most of us think of when we say the words Romance Novel? Hell yeah.

  10. Sunita
    Mar 08, 2011 @ 08:37:40

    What great comments!

    The emotional wallop of Woodiwiss et al. is definitely a big selling point, I think, quite apart from the explicit sex. Between the high emotion & the historical sweep they epitomize the “Calgon take me away” feeling.

    Thanks so much for that RNA book recommendation, Lynne. I will definitely hunt it down.

    I also agree that the newsletters and other promotional efforts that publishers undertook for romance helped foster the community. Radway’s interview subjects come from one such group, and her description of how she found them is illuminating.

    I hope that the ebook opportunities will not result in more of the same, or at least will give us both more of the same (some of which we like) and more of something different.

  11. Sunita
    Mar 08, 2011 @ 08:44:58

    @Lisa Hendrix:

    So, did she invent romance? Absolutely not. But did she invent the type of book that most of us think of when we say the words Romance Novel? Hell yeah.

    See, this is where we part company. I too was reading romance by the time TFATF was published (and many of the same authors and genres as you). But I could not get through TFATF or the books that followed. I found them overwrought, purple, and awful in terms of their history. That doesn’t mean my take on them was the “right” one; I like plenty of books in the genre that others don’t. But they weren’t formative for me, and when I think of Romance Novel, I don’t visualize one book, but rather a bookshelf with all kinds of romances on it.

  12. rigmarole
    Mar 08, 2011 @ 08:49:09

    Man, I really miss those gothics. I wish they’d make a comeback.

  13. Gennita Low
    Mar 08, 2011 @ 08:55:03

    TFATF was the first of its kind that had more emotional pull. Not only does the reader read what happened behind the closed doors (the sexy stuff), but the heroine’s journey continues, always perilously and sometimes alone, without the male. Also, the hero’s role was given more attention; the reader got to focus on the taboo (at that time)–male sexuality.

    Lastly, TFATF introduced me, the young reader back then, to the epic romance, where the heroine traveled to multiple exotic locales, not just as some titled traveler, but in fantastical predicaments, like a slave, or pirate’s abductee, or cowboy’s mistress. The elements aren’t politically correct, but PC wasn’t in existence back then and reading those books were guilt-free pleasure. Today, I’ve to properly admit that they were/are my guilty pleasure.

  14. Gennita Low
    Mar 08, 2011 @ 08:56:17

    Boo, no edit button to correct bad tenses and typos. My apologies.

  15. Carolyn Jewel
    Mar 08, 2011 @ 09:05:45

    I’ve always heard that Woodiwiss is credited with writing the first Romance novel that did not close the door on the sex. She started the trend of Romance that included sex, not the Romance genre itself. It’s been a while since I’ve read Beyond Heaving Bosoms, but my recollection is that they didn’t claim she started the Romance genre, but that she did start the Modern Romance.

  16. Jane
    Mar 08, 2011 @ 09:06:23

    @Gennita Low

    TFATF was the first of its kind that had more emotional pull. Not only does the reader read what happened behind the closed doors (the sexy stuff), but the heroine's journey continues, always perilously and sometimes alone, without the male. Also, the hero's role was given more attention; the reader got to focus on the taboo (at that time)-male sexuality.

    Regarding the emotional pull, that sounds like it is very subjective. Heyer really resonates for many readers (and authors).

  17. Joy
    Mar 08, 2011 @ 09:44:47

    I think when we look at, at least, the origins of sexy historicals, we need to look at another author named Kathleen–Kathleen Winsor. Although I have not read _Forever Amber_, I think it was probably to my grandmother’s generation what TFATF was to my mother’s generation. And going back even farther, Elinor Glyn was writing these kind of melodramatic, emotional, sexy (for the times) romances (although not, IIRC, historicals) from 1900-1940–for my great-grandmother’s generation. (I have read a Glyn–_The Man and the Moment_, which is also a secret baby story. I picked it up for 75 cents hardback at a used book sale. It was printed in the 1930s and was in good condition). I’m not sure you can trace the roots of this particular sub-genre any farther back or not, but it really does go back farther than Woodiwiss.

  18. Sunita
    Mar 08, 2011 @ 09:54:31

    @Carolyn Jewel:

    It's been a while since I've read Beyond Heaving Bosoms, but my recollection is that they didn't claim she started the Romance genre, but that she did start the Modern Romance.

    Yes, the quote I used is verbatim from p. 11 of the trade paper edition of BHB. They use the term “modern” to distinguish Woodiwiss onward from the 19th century and earlier, but that leaves a lot of open space in the 20th century. They also explicitly distinguish bodice-rippers from gothics, but it’s a bit of a throway line so it’s not clear what they think the relationship between the two is.

  19. Gennita Low
    Mar 08, 2011 @ 10:16:28

    Yeah, it is subjective, as someone also mentioned feeling Heyer as “distant,” which as a very young reader back then, I agree, since my level wasn’t quite that, hmmm, not sure of word to use…adult? All those “adult” conversations bored me then, as did Jane Austen, which I love now.

    As a young reader, I remember avidly taking in all the gasping and screaming and emotional upheavals, and when it got too explicit, I’d smack the book close and hop around the room yelling, “Noooo! Argghhh! Eeeek!” Admittedly, my kind of “emotional pull” was very visceral. Today, sadly, I get the equivalent high watching TV shows. It’s been a while since I read a book that has me pacing the floor, thinking madly about the characters and their actions.

  20. DS
    Mar 08, 2011 @ 10:46:09

    @Laura Vivanco: You could get catalogs for lots of publishers. I ordered my Heyers from ACE’s catalog in the 60’s. But this was more news and info about upcoming titles than a list of books.

    TFATF was the first of its kind that had more emotional pull. Not only does the reader read what happened behind the closed doors (the sexy stuff), but the heroine's journey continues, always perilously and sometimes alone, without the male.

    I was (and remain) a big fan of historical novels and this reminds me of one of my favorite series– the Angelique books by Sergeanne Golon. There was another series or two by Juliette Benzoni that I also read prior to TFATF. Of course these were both in translation and the assumption was that books published in Europe– like European movies, were a lot sexier.

  21. Isobel Carr
    Mar 08, 2011 @ 11:19:36

    Heyer is certainly far more seminal to me than Woodiwiss (but I’ve never been able to finish TFATF for the same reasons as Sunita). I certainly think that Heyer showed the emotions of the heroes brilliantly and there were other books out there (Dorothy L. Sayers comes to mind) who were writing books with strong romantic emotional pull, even if they weren't “romances”.

  22. Daisy
    Mar 08, 2011 @ 11:37:10

    Jessica at Read, React, Review did a very interesting post on this subject last week, which spawned a very interesting dialogue.

    Read it here:

  23. Sunita
    Mar 08, 2011 @ 11:46:25

    @Daisy: Yes, Jessica’s post made me think more deeply about the 1970s and romance novels, in part because my experience was different from the one she was highlighting. When I reread Radway and read the Sutherland, the importance of the publishing context and the parallels with today really struck me, and that’s part of what inspired the post. I linked to her post in the second sentence above.

  24. Christine Rimmer
    Mar 08, 2011 @ 13:10:06

    What a great post. A trip down memory lane. And we mustn’t forget Rosemary Rogers. I always found her much more, er, seminal, than Woodiwiss, who struck me as wimpy, for some reason. I know many decry that in a Rogers novel, the “forced seduction” trope was almost always included. But the sheer emotional wallop and raw energy of her early books…well, it was really something. Or I thought so at the time. I lived in NYC then and I’ll never forget getting on the subway and seeing ten women in one car (not kidding, I counted) with their hair done like Farrah Fawcett and their noses buried in Sweet Savage Love.

  25. DM
    Mar 08, 2011 @ 14:23:19

    I’ve always thought of TFATF as the Jaws of romance. Jaws is always cited as the first real blockbuster. It changed how movies were marketed and the manner in which they made their money, shifting the emphasis from long theatrical runs to big opening weekends. So the studios looked for other movies that could be sold to the public like Jaws. Simple concept, big opening weekend. Likewise it always seemed to me that publishers looked at the success of TFATF and said: sex and exotic travel sell. Let’s find more of those. So in that sense, I think it can be argued that TFATF birthed the genre, if we use the term genre to talk about how books are acquired by publishers and marketed and sold to readers.

    But in terms of authors and the content they create, I don’t know anyone writing today who points to Woodiwiss as a major influence. Lots of writers cite the Dorothies (Dunnet and Sayers) and as mentioned above, many owe a debt to Heyer. And there isn’t a captive romance out there that doesn’t channel Edith Hull, knowingly or not. But if there’s a major romance writer out there today who credits Woodiwiss as her guiding star, I’ve yet to hear of it.

  26. Estara
    Mar 08, 2011 @ 14:33:07

    For German women, Romance novels started with Hedwig Courts-Mahler, who sort of was an earlier version (she was born in 1867, started publishing from 1904 on) of Barbara Cartland – her girls were mostly waiting for the hero to help them. She had the habit- like Cartland – of writing about minor aristocracy (well, Cartland writes about dukes a lot). Her girls were usually in a predicament or not the social equal of the hero, but he fell in love and married them at the end regardless of what intrigues stood in their way. She sometimes had a gothic vibe and sometimes just pure romance.

    Her books were sold as pulp novel format (Romanhefte) and I think are still available – my grandma had huge amounts of them so I got into reading them there.

    She was quite popular and some of her stories were filmed by German TV as historical romances in the 70s. Her daughter Elfriede Birkner also became a successful writer of romances. The German Wikipedia entry has more info.

  27. Sunita
    Mar 08, 2011 @ 15:10:45

    @Christine Rimmer:

    I lived in NYC then and I'll never forget getting on the subway and seeing ten women in one car (not kidding, I counted) with their hair done like Farrah Fawcett and their noses buried in Sweet Savage Love.

    Oh my goodness, the visual of that made me laugh so hard. I can just see it.

    @DM: I think that’s a good way to think about the contribution. TFATF was clearly very important and we should acknowledge that, but not at the expense of shunting aside other important developments.

    @Estara: Wow, that’s early. I wonder how she would compare to 19th- and early 20th-century fiction for women in the US and UK?

  28. Merrian
    Mar 08, 2011 @ 15:12:58


    After taking part in the discussion over at Read React Review and readin this post and comments I am more firmly convinvced that your cna’t talk about romance and its beginnings as a genre without including Marie Corelli and her late Victorian spiritualist romances as a key key progenitor of our romance genre today in terms of style and ideas – she invented fated mates for one. Corelli was wildly popular and just as slighted by the critics as romance is today.

  29. Merrian
    Mar 08, 2011 @ 15:13:41

    I need the edit button my fingers always type everything transposed! Sorry for that.

  30. wendy
    Mar 08, 2011 @ 16:26:16

    I imagine the huge sales of Woodiwiss was the catalyst for the growth in the market of historical romances as we know them today.
    I, like the people above, read a range of different authors and although I always loathed gothics I read them because the library stocked them and they could be bought in paperback. I will throw Hebe Elsna into the heap of people we read because at least it was a love story.
    Keep in mind for this discussion that only Cartland would have had more than one book a year published, and not all of us liked her – as a teenager I thought that Cartland’s stories were childish but read them because they were readily available. What a difference there is between A Civil Contract and whatever Cartland published that same year. The only mention I recall of sex in Heyer was in ACC when she wrote that the hero was no longer his wife’s lover because the wife was pregnant.
    I remember reading TFATF on the train to and from work, and for me it was a revelation – maybe it was the sex, maybe the emotional pull, but it was a far more satisfying read than all the Plaidy’s, Holts, Golons etc.

  31. Jean
    Mar 08, 2011 @ 16:27:05

    I’ve always enjoyed Edith Hull’s work – she wrote “The Sheik” and “The Sons of the Sheik” in the early 1920s. Talk about purple passion! Those books are the basis of all the sheik romances written since. Besides, they made Rudolf Valentino a star!

  32. Michelle
    Mar 08, 2011 @ 20:36:24

    I’m trying to think back to the first “romance” novel I read…I know I read a lot of Victoria Holt and Phyllis Whitney back in the day, but I think one of the first romance books I read was a 70’s novel called “The Mirror” by Marlys Millhiser. Time-travel Romance (*swoon*), 1978 style. I must have re-read that book a dozen times, and tried to use the mirror to go back in time. Didn’t work. Heh.

    I will say, though, that the first book I read by Kathleen Woodiwiss changed how I looked at romance novels. I read “Shana” first, then went back for TFATF and The Wolf and The Dove. I had been also reading the old Mills & Boon category romances (which I disliked because at that time, all the heroes were rich 35 year olds and the heroines were 18 year old nymphs who needed to “learn” something. Yuck). From Woodiwiss, I went to Rosemary Rogers, Jackie Collins, and to the mid-80’s category romances at Silhouette (Nora Roberts/Jayne Ann Krentz/Sandra Brown). It amazes me the way stories called “romance” novels have morphed over the past few decades. Just writing this makes me want to find that old copy of “The Mirror” and read it again for old times’ sake.

  33. Lynn S.
    Mar 08, 2011 @ 20:38:18

    The Flame and the Flower was a little before my time but it sounds like it would have suited my early teen reading which was, outside of school, almost exclusively of a sensational/prurient nature. I have fond memories of books read as a child, but for three or four years there nothing stuck. Thank goodness I've evolved since then.

    I do have a general knowledge of TFATF and its plot. I can see that its cultural and economic impact is far reaching. Not having read it though, I am curious as to how it is viewed on its merits as a novel outside its larger-than-life status. It is disturbing to me that the modern, sexually explicit era in fiction aimed towards a female readership appears to have been ushered in by a book featuring rape as a plot device. When it comes to crazy love, I prefer the Devil's Cub variety.

    Thanks for a great post that has given me much to think about and it is going to be interesting to see how epublishing plays out as the major publishing concerns become more and more involved.

  34. Janine
    Mar 08, 2011 @ 22:14:42

    @Lynn S.:

    It is disturbing to me that the modern, sexually explicit era in fiction aimed towards a female readership appears to have been ushered in by a book featuring rape as a plot device.

    I read Woodiwiss and many of her contemporaries (started with Johanna Lindsey in 1983) and I’m convinced that that’s no coincidence.

    Hero/heroine rape was such a common plot device in those days (often, as in TFATF, with the hero mistaking the heroine for a prostitute or woman of “easy virtue,” and raping her for that reason). In fact I remember reading an interview with Jude Deveraux in which she said that she had to battle her editors to allow her to write books in which all the sex was consensual.

    Because of the way rape functioned in so many of these novels, almost always to initiate the heroine into sex, I would argue that in the 1970s and possibly even the early 1980s, a major reason for the presence of rape at all was to signal to the reader that the heroine was a “good girl.”

    In other words, based on my reading of those books, I believe that slut-shaming was so pervasive and powerful in our culture in those days that to write a romantic novel with explicit sex in which the female character consented to sex out of wedlock could have meant turning off many readers.

    Hence at least part of the reason for TFATF’s blockbuster success and for the legion of imitators that followed suit by including scenes in which the heroine’s sexual initiation was unwilling.

  35. DM
    Mar 09, 2011 @ 09:41:10

    @ Janine & Lynn S.

    I think Heaving Bosoms discusses rape as a substitute for sexual agency in the bodice ripper era. In other words, because readers wanted their heroines’ adventures to include intercourse, but felt that female characters who consented to sex outside of marriage were unsympathetic, their encounters were primarily non-consensual.

    You can road test that theory pretty easily with Woodiwiss and Rogers et al by reading their works, and every time you come to a rape scene, substitute a scene of consensual sex. Does the book change substantially? Or is rape a substitute for the consensual sex scene that was thought to be unpublishable at the time?

  36. Jackie Horne
    Mar 09, 2011 @ 09:50:07

    Thanks for a great post, Sunita. I think that Janine’s post above, about rape as a signal to the reader that the heroine was a “good girl” is quite accurate. Take a look at Nancy Friday’s study of women’s sexual fantasies, FORBIDDEN FLOWERS (1975), and the rape fantasy is all over the place. Rape functions as the cover through which women are allowed to indulge in sex (for no good girl was supposed to want to…). The rape fantasy in romance can be considered a historically-specific reaction to second-wave feminism, a desire for women to explore sexuality via romances but to avoid the stigma of admitting to that desire.

    By Friday’s later book, WOMEN ON TOP (1991), the rape fantasy, though still present, is far less prevalent…

    On another topic, I wonder if the search for the “one” mother of the romance stems in part from romance entering the academy? If we teach college classes on romance, we have to teach individual books. Much easier to assign Woodiwiss than to ask students to read multiple Harlequins or Mills & Boon…

  37. Laura Vivanco
    Mar 09, 2011 @ 10:51:01

    On another topic, I wonder if the search for the “one” mother of the romance stems in part from romance entering the academy? If we teach college classes on romance, we have to teach individual books.

    I don’t think there are very many “college classes on romance” yet, though, and I’m not sure that those that do exist would necessarily give the impression that Woodiwiss is the “mother” of the romance genre.

    Eric Selinger’s taught a number of courses on romance (some of the syllabi are here) and although he’s sometimes set The Flame and the Flower he’s often included texts which are older than Woodiwiss, written by E. M. Hull, Georgette Heyer and Mary Stewart. In the course he’s currently teaching Woodiwiss isn’t one of the books on the syllabus.

    The set texts for Cara Elliott and Lauren Willig’s seminar at Yale included Austen and Heyer as well as Woodiwiss and more recent romances.

    When Sandra Schwab taught a romance course, it was on British romance fiction so, obviously, didn’t include Woodiwiss.

    She wasn’t on the syllabus of this course by Sarah Frantz, either.

    Pamela Regis, in her A Natural History of the Romance Novel (2003) begins with Richardson’s Pamela and though she discusses a number of more recent authors, they don’t include Woodiwiss.

  38. Sunita
    Mar 09, 2011 @ 11:29:39

    I agree with LauraV; popular romance is occasionally taught as a subject in its own right, but more often ignored. If someone were to use a single book, they might use Woodiwiss, but they’re just as likely to use a better written book, if it’s a lit class.

    In addition to Janine, Jackie, and DS’s insightful points about why these books so frequently feature the rape of the heroine, I think that the tension between 2nd wave feminism, the need for middle-class women to work, and conservative views of women’s roles played a big part. It wasn’t so much that the slut-shaming culture was very strong, but rather than slut-shaming was being contested more, and middle-class and affluent women were entering the workforce not only out of choice but also out of necessity. Fiction and non-fiction of the time reflected these tensions. In nonfiction, for example, on the one hand, Susan Brownmiller published Against Our Will, and on the other, Marabel Morgan published The Total Woman. And they both sold well. Rape fantasy books occupied something of a middle ground in this, for the reasons you’ve articulated.

  39. Robin
    Mar 10, 2011 @ 15:36:58

    So, did she invent romance? Absolutely not. But did she invent the type of book that most of us think of when we say the words Romance Novel? Hell yeah.

    Late to the party here, but I have to agree with Sunita in arguing that Woodiwiss cannot claim either honor.

    I have a much more fluid, evolutionary theory about the development of the genre Romance novel, but if I was going to cast a vote for the beginnings of “modern” Romance, I’d most likely cast it for Hull’s 1919 The Sheik, since it seems to have provided the blueprint for the sheikh Romance (and it was, indeed, written in what we consider the Modernist period of literature). In fact, Violet’s Winspear’s Blue Jasmine, published in 1969 by M&B and in 1970 by Harlequin, is a virtual tracing of Hull’s novel. If you set the characters and plots side by side, the similarities are astonishing and the substantive differences few.

    Given increased (some would say unprecedented) British colonial presence and dominance in the Middle East after World War I, combined with the popularity of Hull’s work (and its incredibly successful translation into film with the dashing Rudolph Valentino), it is no surprise, IMO, that sheiks became such popular Romance heroes.

    I would personally trace the evolution of the genre Romance novel back to at least the 17th C, so I would argue that it’s probably most accurate to talk about the development of the genre in terms of adaptations and contributions, rather than inventions. Clearly Woodiwiss is an important figure in the evolution of the genre, but the more I study popular British and American fiction of the past three hundred and fifty years or so, the rich literary legacy of the genre Romance novel emerges pretty powerfully and diversely.

    Even if we’re talking about commercial paperback publishing, I’m not sure Woodiwiss is quite as revolutionary as even Radway sees her, although I agree with Sunita that Radway’s discussion of publishing trends is valuable. I’m just not sure I agree completely with her analysis there, either.

  40. pamelia
    Mar 10, 2011 @ 17:37:20

    I don’t know if you can call TFATF a European Historical since the bulk of it takes place in America. It starts in England and the heroine is English, but like the majority of KW’s earlier works it takes place in America/not Europe (I think The Wolf and the Dove is the exception.)

  41. Sunita
    Mar 11, 2011 @ 15:54:00

    @Robin: I wanted to write more about the rise of the bestseller model but the post was long enough. Sutherland’s book has terrific information about the rise of the bestseller and the importance to the industry. The historical romance crystallized a lot of the features but didn’t invent them, as you say. And now I really have to go find that Winspear novel, the parallels sound fascinating.

    @pamelia: Good point about the setting. I treat Revolutionary War novels as essentially British, but I can see why people would disagree. And the ante-bellum American South books definitely belong in a separate category. Hmmm. I guess the “European historical” is a fusing of the Regency trad and the bodice-ripper-style historical romance?

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