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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?

Wednesday News: Women keeping boys from reading, men reading Romance, Comcast growing again, and Amazon planning Kindlephone

Wednesday News: Women keeping boys from reading, men reading Romance, Comcast...

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Are Boys Not Reading Because of All Those Women in Publishing? – Forgive my bad pun, but oh boy. Despite the fact that VIDA’s figures don’t support the premise that women control the children’s lit publishing industry, children’s writer and illustrator Jonathan Emmett claims that women are keeping boys from finding appropriate reading material, thereby deterring their acquisition of reading skills and enthusiasm.

Writing for The Times of London, David Sanderson and Fiona Wilson report that author and illustrator Jonathan Emmett believes that “boys are being deterred from reading because the ‘gatekeepers’ to children’s literature are mostly women.” –Publishing Perspectives

I’m a guy who loves romance novels — and Jennifer Weiner is right about reviews – I wasn’t planning on mentioning this article written by Noah Berlatsky on Romance and the idea of a genre canon, but it’s generated so much discussion, both on Twitter and on blogs like Love in the Margins and The Misadventures of Super Librarian, that I decided to mention it, if only because I think the idea that Romance doesn’t have canonical works is curious (and untrue). I think Berlatsky is conflating his own taste with the concept of canon, which ends up placing him — a guy who’s read very little in the genre — in the position of Romance tastemaker. And, not surprisingly, that alienated a lot of female Romance readers. I have, by the way, included the version of the Salon piece, so don’t feel that clicking will send traffic to the site. However, whether or not you do read the article, definitely check out Super Librarian Wendy’s fantastic response, which includes some IMO indisputably canonical Romance works.

Oh, there are rafts and rafts of romance novels out there; teetering drifts of Harlequins and historicals and contemporaries, filled with plucky heroines and dashing or dastardly young men. I know that. But the question was, where to start? A friend recommended Nora Roberts at one point, and I gave that a try … but I couldn’t hack the dreadful prose — and this is from someone who rather enjoys “Twilight” and can even manage the occasional Robert Ludlum thriller. I’ve poked around online to find “best of” lists or other recommendations, but it soon became clear that there wasn’t even a provisional consensus on which books were the best or essential romance novels. Jane Austen showed up consistently, as did “Gone With the Wind,” but there was nothing that gave me a sense that certain books were clearly central, or respected, or worth reading. The genre is so culturally maligned that there has been no concerted effort to codify it. There is, in short, no romance canon. –Salon

Comcast earnings up 30% as it adds video subscribers – This Comcast thing is really starting to scare me. In their attempt to take over Time Warner (over whom they’re competing with Charter, and that’s a whole other set of problematic issues), Comcast is positioning itself to become so large that the question of whether consumers will actually have choice when it comes to cable providers is seriously imperiled. There’s just a lot of stuff here about which to be very concerned.

On a conference call, Chief Executive Brian Roberts said Comcast is studying the wireless market and is “encouraged by it.” With the wireless assets Comcast has, long term “we are in a position to think about where wireless is going and how we can participate in a way to build value and whether that is through our existing products or it’s a new product,” Roberts said.

By adding video subscribers in the past two quarters, Comcast is bucking a trend. In recent years most cable operators have been losing video subscribers to phone and satellite-TV companies. –Market Watch

Amazon smartphone could be controlled by tilting this way and that – Speaking of monopolies and competition, here’s more news on Amazon’s purported smartphone (Kindlephone). You can click on another link for a “roundup” of news related to the Kindlephone more generally, but this article focuses on the rumor that the phone will be controllable by physically manipulating it in a tipping or tilting motion. CNET is not enamored by this idea.

Is it just me, or does this sound like a terrible idea? Very novel, certainly, and an interesting way of clawing back screen space so the interface isn’t cluttered with menus or icons. But it would require the phone to be very, very good at tracking which movements are intentional gestures and which are cack-handed wobbles of the wrists — or there’ll be menus sliding in left, right and centre when you’re just trying to send a text. –CNET