Someone I know just completed viewing all of the movies on acclaimed critic Roger Ebert’s list of the best movies ever. At my library book club, each year the librarian gives us copies of nationally compiled lists of the best books to read. And at this time of the year, most magazines, newspapers, e-zines, blogs, and more will trot out lists of the latest items we should know about, buy, watch, experience, etc. In that spirit, I’d like to contribute a list of the top romances every romance fan should read.
But I am not going to. Why not? Because everybody’s lists are skewed. Either they’re skewed towards too much new material, for instance, listing 25 vampire-and-werewolf paranormals in a list of 100 all-time best romances (!), or they’re skewed in an old hat direction, giving Jane Austen, Georgette Heyer, and Margaret Mitchell far too much prominence. Not only that, but fans of historicals tend to want to overpopulate the list of romances with historicals. And the same with fans of contemporaries. It’s not just us, though. I was looking at two different lists of the top ten popular songs of the year and I did not recognize any of the titles or artists. Even though I compulsively listen to the radio and switch channels constantly to find new and different music. Everybody is in their own little world, it seems, and it doesn’t often intersect with mine.
So my list, if I ever compile one, is going to include my picks for the most influential romances, not the “best.” This might mean that the bestselling romance by an author does not get on the list because an earlier book by her was more influential. A good example would be the Gothic novel by Victoria Holt, Mistress of Mellyn. This book was a bestseller when it came out in 1960, and it continued to sell well for many years. It might even be in print today somewhere, although its author, Eleanor Hibbert, is long dead. She published many more novels under other names, and some of her Jean Plaidy historicals are now back in print because of the resurgence of interest in the Tudors. I don’t know which of her books sold the most copies and I certainly can’t predict which will eventually sell the most, given the current reprinting program. But Mistress of Mellyn was the influential classic that brought the Gothic novel to stardom.
Similarly, although Shanna, by Kathleen Woodiwiss, was a landmark book in 1977 because it was the very first trade paperback historical romance and was an enormous bestseller, her previous book, The Flame and the Flower, published in 1972, was the breakthrough, the book that started the bodice-ripping (for once the phrase is apt!) historical romance trend. Also ran Rosemary Rogers, who wrote Sweet Savage Love, published in 1974 (which had even more bodice ripping), likely sold more copies of her second and third novels, too, but nobody even remembers their titles anymore.
And the definition of what is a romance keeps shifting, too. Suspense elements okay? Or not? Comedy okay? Or not? Additionally, there’s the issue of determining whether a romance was influential as a romance, or as a work of literature, or more. Take the romance classics of literature, for instance. Most of these will be mentioned in college if you take any English Lit courses. But I can’t recommend them as best all-time romances. For instance, Pamela, by Samuel Richardson, published in 1740. It’s considered the first English novel, but it is a weird, lascivious, morally bankrupt tease of a poor-girl-holds-out-for-the-ring story that today is only worth reading because it’s so way over the top. And because it elucidates 18th century British morals and lack thereof, which is more of historical interest than romantic. After you’ve gotten the initial flavor, feel free to skim to the end. Just don’t miss the good part when the lecherous master gets pretty Pamela to spend time in bed with him on some pretext or other, and the spunky gal has to Fight for Her Virtue. A hoot.
And what about all those lovely Jane Austen novels? Yes, they’re romances, but they are also comedies of manners. We’re in a period of Austen imitators that owes very little to verisimilitude to the truth of her times, or to comedy of manners, and much to a kind of prurient interest in Darcy’s sex life. Like most fan fiction, these novels are destined for obscurity. Meanwhile, should all of Austen’s novels be on the list? Or just Pride and Prejudice (1813), the one that is preeminently a romance? Some lists trot them all out.
Georgette Heyer was in part an Austen imitator, though she actually started off owing more to Jeffery Farnol (The Broad Highway, 1910) and the Baroness Orczy (The Scarlet Pimpernel, 1905) than she did to Austen. Without both strains of influence, though, we wouldn’t have had the wonderful The Grand Sophy (1950), Heyer’s romantic comedy of manners par excellence. So, surely Heyer rates. But which of her dozens of books is the epitome of romance versus comedy of manners? Or should there be a distinction drawn?
The Sheik, by Edith Hull, is a “forcible seduction” (aka rape) saga from 1919 that started an entire popular romance trend and was the basis for Rudolph Valentino’s movie career as the first American heartthrob. Many writers rushed to imitate this kidnapped-and-raped-by-a-sheik story, and most sheik stories today still involve an alpha male who holds a western woman captive, even if forced sex is no longer part of the standard plot. A very influential book even though most romance readers of today, myself included, have not read it. It should be on the list, for sure.
Would my list include any recent romances? Yes, but here things get trickier. It’s almost impossible to be sure of how influential, and thus how classic and important, a novel is until it has aged a while. Outlander, for instance, by Diana Gabaldon (1991), was not written as a romance and author Gabaldon has specifically denied that it is one. But romance fans found the book and call it one anyway. But is it? See if it keeps showing up on lists 20 years from now.
Which paranormal vampire romance is the breakout book? Which werewolf romance is the one every other writer imitates? MaryJanice Davidson’s humorous vampire tales, such as Undead and Unwed (2004), have spawned imitators. But nobody would call Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897) a romance. Where’s the intermediate novel that pushed this into a major subgenre?
Does Anne Rice get credit for the erotica subgenre? She wrote erotica as A.N. Roquelaure. Or should it be Laurell K. Hamilton’s Guilty Pleasures (1993), introducing her Anita Blake series? But Anita Blake doesn’t get to experience any sex until the sixth novel in the series, according to my buddy, Wikipedia. So is this series paranormal or erotica? Or paranormal turned erotica?
Or is it current fave J. R. Ward, who writes paranormal erotic romances (it says so on her own website)? Lots of people in the romance world are talking about her hunky vampire heroes and hot storylines. Right now, anyway.
And the jury is still out on how influential the vast number of evangelical Christian romances may be. Does anyone consider them part of the main stream of romance? Or are they just an offshoot that goes nowhere? Who is writing the romance that is influenced by an inspirational but that is not an inspirational?
You see why I couldn’t compile a list. I know too much about the past, and I can’t tell the future.
On the cusp of the change from this year to the next, we all try to make peace with the one and look forward to the other. If a list helps, make your own, or read somebody else’s. But don’t sweat the choices. The only books that should be on your list of influential romances are the novels that mean a lot to you.