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.
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?