Classic Romances Part 3: Romance Novels 101

largelectureclassLast month I blogged about class romance authors I wish would come back; in particular, I mentioned Judy Cuevas’ Bliss, which I’d recently read, and how it would be on my reading list for Romance Novels 101, assuming such a course ever existed (and that they would pull me out of the ranks of peons to teach it, of course).

So I decided to do some digging, and Googled “romance novels course.”  And lo and behold, they exist!  Kind of.  The London School of Journalism, NYU, and Ryerson (in Toronto) offer romance novel creative writing, and some popular lit courses have romance components.

Even more exciting was seeing that Lauren Willig and Cara Elliott, aka Andrea Pickens, actually taught a seminar on historical romance novels at Yale in 2010, from Jane Austen and Heyer through Woodiwiss, McNaught, Kleypas, Chase, and Quinn.  I can only imagine the finagling, sweet-talking, scowling, and outright determination that led to the course, but all I can say is I wish I could have been there.  (One class even had an expert panel with Eloisa James.  Dang it.)

Anyway, all of this got me thinking: If I taught an introductory university course on romance novels, what would I put on my reading list?  I had to remember that as a course meant to highlight the general development of the romance novel, readings would be exemplary, representative, or seminal.  So I might not like the book, and it may not even be very good, but it was probably important somehow.

I got some ideas from Willig and Elliott’s syllabus and list of required texts (scroll down) and also from Pamela Regis’ A Natural History of the Romance Novel. After hemming and hawing, here’s what my Romance Novels 101 Reading List would look like, in approximate chronological order:

The Classics

Modern Mothers

The 80s and 90s: Refining a Genre and Breaking the Rules

With the exception of the last, I’m stopping in the mid-90s for two reasons.  The first is that this list could get veeeeeeery long.  The second is that I’ve deliberately omitted the more recent years, which includes not only historicals and contemporaries, but also the paranormals, M/M, inspirationals, etc. etc.  I can’t decide, and even if I could, I wouldn’t in this space.  (See reason #1.)

So I’ll turn it over to you.  What do you think of my list so far?  What else would you contribute?  And would you ever take such a course?  (My answer: Hell yes.)

- Jean AAR

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23 Responses to “Classic Romances Part 3: Romance Novels 101”

  1. Alexandra says:

    I definitely echo that hell yes!

    Glad to see Nora Roberts’ Carnal Innocence on your list. While it’s by no means my favourite of her romantic suspense novels, I think it’s a very good example of her ‘breaking the rules’ to what is expected of the ‘bad guy’ in the genre. I wrote a spoiler-filled review here: http://randommusingsmanicramblings.blogspot.co.uk/2012/02/carnal-innocence-by-nora-roberts.html

    • Jean Wan says:

      Alexandra: I definitely echo that hell yes!Glad to see Nora Roberts’ Carnal Innocence on your list. While it’s by no means my favourite of her romantic suspense novels, I think it’s a very good example of her ‘breaking the rules’ to what is expected of the ‘bad guy’ in the genre. I wrote a spoiler-filled review here: http://randommusingsmanicramblings.blogspot.co.uk/2012/02/carnal-innocence-by-nora-roberts.html

      Actually, my intention was to put it under Refining a Genre :) . But that’s okay. I read your review though, and your mention of Margo reminded me that I should I have put her book down as an example of breaking the Good Girl Heroine rule.

      • Alexandra says:

        Jean Wan:
        Actually, my intention was to put it under Refining a Genre .But that’s okay.I read your review though, and your mention of Margo reminded me that I should I have put her book down as an example of breaking the Good Girl Heroine rule.

        I love Margo :)
        I think Carnal Innocence contains a mixture of elements that both break/refine the genre as well as perpetuate it – I regard pretty much all of the rest of the book as pretty standard of what you would expect of a Nora Roberts/romance novel. I’d say that the ‘breaking’ part only really applies to the killer, so your argument that the book refines rather than breaks makes a lot of sense.

  2. Maili says:

    Is there any chance for you to explain how those books of the 80s and the 90s redefined the genre or broke the rules? Thanks!

    • Jean Wan says:

      Maili: Is there any chance for you to explain how those books of the 80s and the 90s redefined the genre or broke the rules? Thanks!

      Under Breaking the Rules, I’d put the Harbaugh, Kleypas, Quinn, and Howard. And maybe even the Edwards.

      Harbaugh – One of first Signet Regencies to incorporate unusual paranormal elements (Greek mythology, vampires).

      Kleypas – It was still unusual to have non-virgin single mothers, and one who was as wild as Lily.

      Quinn – First wallpaper superstar.

      Howard – I debated about this one, but I think a late 30s female assassin is pretty unusual in the canon.

      Edwards – I think this would go under both refining a genre and breaking the rules, but the simple fact that she stuck to her guns and wrote Native romances (even if they were Awful) is highly unusual.

      Everything else I would consider refining the genre, so books that become exemplary of their time or sub genre (e.g. Signet Regency, contemporary series romance, etc.)

      I’m glad you asked me this question, Maili. Originally, this blog was twice as long, because I’d developed a whole course syllabus with annotations and comments. But then I looked at it and thought, “I’m nuts. It’s unreadable.” So voice the pared down version.

      • Maili says:

        Jean Wan: Edwards – I think this would go under both refining a genre and breaking the rules, but the simple fact that she stuck to her guns and wrote Native romances (even if they were Awful) is highly unusual.

        I’m on a fence with this one. Native American romances – along with Medieval romances and US deep south romances – were extremely popular during 1980s and 1990s, and Edwards just happens to be one of the dwindling number of authors who kept penning them throughout 2000s. How does this make her a genre-redefinder or rulebreaker? Aside being stubborn? :D

        I’m glad you asked me this question, Maili. Originally, this blog was twice as long, because I’d developed a whole course syllabus with annotations and comments.But then I looked at it and thought, “I’m nuts.It’s unreadable.”So voice the pared down version.

        Oh, I wish you didn’t pare it down! I’d love to read the entire thing as this sort interests me. I also enjoy taking part in a discussion, a debate even, with readers on this, too. Many thanks for answering my question. I love your response. :D

  3. Jean, the academic study of romance novels has made a huge amount of progress in recent years. As Eric Selinger writes in the editor’s note for issue 2.2 of the Journal for Popular Romance Studies:

    Five years ago, at a hotel bar in Boston, Sarah S. G. Frantz and I sat down with a half-dozen scholars from the U.S., Australia, and elsewhere to plan a new era in popular romance studies. We needed a professional organization, we decided, and an international conference, to get new conversations started among those who study love in popular fiction, film, and other media. Most of all, we needed a journal, rigorously peer-reviewed and easily accessed on line, to make the best new work on popular romance available to our colleagues and our students.

    Five years on, each goal has been met beyond our wildest expectations.

    Eric himself has been teaching courses on romance for quite a number of years now, and there was lots of discussion about the teaching of romances at the recent Popular Romance in the New Millennium conference. There’s also been a report in JPRS on “teaching Georgette Heyer’s Sylvester in a unit on historical fiction offered at the University of Tasmania in 2010.”

    That’s probably more than enough links, but if anyone is still wanting more, the posts at Teach Me Tonight about teaching romance fiction are here.

    Oh, and to answer one of your questions, I think at least one novel by Jennifer Crusie would have to be on the list. There’s a whole special devoted to her in the current issue of JPRS. You haven’t got any category romances on your list, yet they’re a major part of the genre, so I might choose a Crusie category romance.

  4. Vol Fan says:

    You really must add a history of actual bodice rippers. They changed the whole market. So many good arguments to be made for the pros and cons, but you have to include Sweet Savage Love!! Somewhere, anyway. LOL

  5. JFTEE-Auburn says:

    Very interesting. Yes, I’d sign up. Being somewhat new to the genre and having only read a couple of the books, you’ve help me structure my next month or two of reading. Thanks. I’m off to find my books.

  6. Laura Vivanco beat me to the punch here, Jean, but I just wanted to say that since 2005 I’ve taught about 25 undergrad and graduate courses on popular romance here at DePaul University in Chicago: historical surveys, special topics courses, and even a 10-week seminar entirely on Laura Kinsale’s “Flower’s from the Storm,” which was amazing!

    We need more courses on this genre, and if there’s anything I can do to help anyone put one together, I’d be happy to help, including sending out or posting syllabi, paper topics, you name it.

    I had a webpage up with them, for a while, but as DePaul has updated its website, that seems to have vanished–I’ll see if I can dig up a version and re-publish it myself. So glad to see your post on this topic!

  7. maggie b. says:

    I think I would go a different route with my course simply because I believe people have read romances for hundreds of years and it is only our fairly recent obsession with labeling things that has broken them out from the crowd. “Ivanhoe” for example, was to me primarily a romance. Much of the plot circles around Rowena and Rebecca. This is different than many other novels of that time period, which centerred around the adventure.

    Then we act as though between the Austen/Eyre period romance died for a hundred years. Grace Livingston Hill wrote romances that sold and sold well in the early part of the 20th century. Emilie Loring did so as well. I am certain there are many others. So if I did do such a class I would want to look at romance through the ages and highlight which popular novels were really romances.

    • maggie b.: Then we act as though between the Austen/Eyre period romance died for a hundred years.

      I’ll add Faith Baldwin to the mix. Do Fannie Hurst and Edna Ferber count? What about Frank Yerby and Anya Seton? Don’t forget the true grandmother of gothic romance: Victoria Holt.

      If you watch a lot of old movies from the 30s and 40s, many of them were adapted from popular (and sometimes not so popular) books that could be considered “romance”.

  8. Carrie says:

    I’d take a class like this, although I’ve read few of the 80″s romances. I only started reading romances a few years ago and I seem to have enough recent books to keep me more than busy. The relatively few 80′s books I’ve read have been a mixed bag for me.

    Personally, I’d add Jayne Ann Krentz’s Lost Colony Trilogy to the list, or at least Sweet Starfire. I believe I read that it flopped in the 80′s and forced her to change pen name to get something else published. (I could be wrong, so forgive me if I am.) However, these three books stand up very well 25 years later, feeling neither dated or cliched. With science fiction romance starting to make it’s mark as a viable romance sub-genre, it seems this trilogy by Krentz was definitely ahead of its time. It would be interesting to see if these books were at all inspirational to present day SFR writers.

    OH, and I just recently purchased “New Approaches to Popular Romantic Fiction” by Sarah Frantz and Eric Selinger. It looks like a great introduction to the world of romance writing and reading in the world today.

  9. bungluna says:

    I’m in the “hell yeah” camp.

    I agree with adding an older romance such as “Ivanhoe”. There are plenty of medieval tales with strong elements of romance in them and one of them should be added to the curriculum. There are also plenty of much older myths, such as Cupid and Psych, which adhere to the ‘modern’ definiton of romance.

    As for categories, there are several things that would need to be addressed:

    1. “Anyone but You” by Jennifer Crusie would address breaking the rules (older woman/younger man and not kids!) It would also illustrate how presend day bestselling authors learned their craft in the shorter format.

    2. Any novel by Betty Neals, Charlotte Lamb or any of the other classic category writers would illustrate the older alpha male / young innocent girl pattern that’s now being carried out in paranormal romances under the guise of “vamp/were/whatever” male and human woman.

  10. Jean Wan says:

    @Laura Vivanco and Eric Selinger – Thanks so much for all the links! This was really my first foray into the academic side of romance novels, and it’s fantastic to see that it is done. And a peer-reviewed journal! Even better.

    @maggie b. – Yeah, the term “romance” has quite a few meanings. There are a lot of courses about romance as the state of the relationship, the artistic movement, and the more modern labelling of “Romance Novel”. I think there are quite a few courses about the first two, which would include Walter Scott, Pamela, and other books in the 18th through early 20th century. But my focus would be on the Contemporary Romance Novel, with its labels and limitations. Just another perspective.

  11. evieb says:

    I was wondering how Julia Quinn made it onto this list but you explained that choice perfectly.

    Got to put Rosemary Rogers on the list though she and K Woodwiss were my introduction to romance novels (mills & Boon aside) after reading them there was no turning back.

    Now that I mentioned Mills & Boon Anne Mather was my favorite she deserves mention too :-) .

  12. Joye says:

    that list looks very complete. However, my all time favorites would have to include LaVeryl Spencer and Sandra Brown.

  13. Nana says:

    JeanAAR,

    Any possibility we could actually host a class like this for fun through the AAR Forums? Publish a reading list and then invite people to come in and discuss the “book of the week” or “book of 2 weeks” etc, with some guiding questions? I would love to help organize.

    • Jean Wan says:

      Nana: JeanAAR,Any possibility we could actually host a class like this for fun through the AAR Forums? Publish a reading list and then invite people to come in and discuss the “book of the week” or “book of 2 weeks” etc, with some guiding questions? I would love to help organize.

      Nana, that’s a fabulous suggestion. We’ll cogitate on it.

  14. Elaine Wethington says:

    I think I would have included one of Louisa May Alcott’s rip-roarers, but I understand why the list needs to be manageably short.

    I was personally pleased to see The Unsung Hero in the list. I was a true genre changer.

  15. Your Alcott suggestion, Elaine, makes me think of “Little Women,” which would be a very interesting book to teach in a class on the romance. It’s got multiple plot lines / love stories, with lots of interesting internal tension between them, and it’s been influential on a number of more recent authors, notably Eloisa James. (Also it’s one of my favorite books, and that always makes things fun in the classroom!)

  16. Elaine Wethington says:

    I agree, Little Women was one of the most influential of American novels — right up there with The Last of the Mohicans, another great American romance.

  17. CJ says:

    I’ve been reading romance novels for over 20 years, since I was 12 and I’m very interested and excited to learn that there are romance writing courses in some schools today.

    For the reading list, I would also include works of Barbara Cartland (I think she was one of the pioneers of te Regency rmance) and Emilie Loring.

    A seminar comparing the different types of series romances over the years, like Mills and Boon, Loveswept, Silhouette etc.

    A short course on the way romance novels have evolved to include heroes and heroines from different cultural backgrounds, a take-off from the predominant Caucasian-type characters that have been the staple in romances from before the 21st century.

    It would also be interesting to include a topic on how romance novels have also been springing up in other countries/other languages. In my own country, the Philippines, there has been a growing market for romance novels written in our local vrnacular, Tagalog, featuring Filipino heroes and heroines.

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