Thursday, January 14, 2010

Romance Writers of the Decade

What do Johnny Depp, Beyoncé, and J. K. Rowling have in common? They, along with Tina Fey, Peter Jackson, the women of Sex and the City, and nine other “crazily talented people” were named by Entertainment Weekly as Entertainers of the Decade. If you’ve visited here or read my blogs at Romance Vagabonds, you know I love lists. I read every profile in the EW article (Dec. 11, 2009), commending or chastising EW as I read. Then, I started thinking about the romance genre and wondering which writers I’d include in a list of fifteen Romance Writers of the Decade. I wasn’t interested in naming my personal favorites or those with the highest internet buzz factor, although I knew there probably would be some overlapping with these groups. However, it seemed to me that a “Writer of the Decade” required that the author not only be “crazily talented” and have sold a lot of books over the past ten years but also have helped define the romance genre in some way, either by representing it within the larger area of popular culture, by changing and extending it in some way, or by serving as a model of how gifted writers use and sometimes defy conventions.

With these criteria in mind, I checked bestseller lists. The number of romance writers who can legitimately call themselves “bestselling authors” is impressive. RWA’s Honor Roll alone lists 140 active members whose novels (not including anthologies) have made one or more of the following best-seller lists: New York Times (top 20 as of 9/23/07), Publishers Weekly (top 15), USA Today (top 50). Many of them hit multiple lists multiple times in the first decade of the twenty-first century. But who among them also met the second criterion? That turned out to be a more difficult question to answer.

After lengthy consideration, here are my candidates (as usual in alphabetical order to save myself the agony of deciding upon rank):

1. Mary Balogh
By 2000, Mary Balogh was already the author of some of the classic stories in romance, including A Precious Jewel (1993), which predated the trend for the prostitute/courtesan heroine and several novels (Dancing with Clara, Lord Carew’s Bride, and Silent Melody) that featured protagonists with disabilities. In A Summer to Remember (2002), she created a family of arrogant, idiosyncratic aristocrats to give the heroine trouble, and the Bedwyns entered the annals of romance. Captivated by her own creations, Balogh proposed a six-book series for the Bedwyn siblings. Her editor agreed, and in April 2004, the first of the Bedwyn books, Slightly Married (Aidan’s story) was released; five more followed in record succession, culminating with Wulfric’s story, Slightly Dangerous, in June 2004, a hardcover release that fans complained about but nevertheless bought in sufficient numbers to put Balogh on the NYT bestseller list. After twenty years, more than sixty novels, and almost half that number of novellas, Balogh was anticipating semi-retirement, writing perhaps one book a year. But a quartet of lady teachers at Miss Martin's School for Girls caught her imagination, and the Simply books, loosely connected to the Bedwyn saga and other of Balogh’s stories, were published between 2005 and 2008. Then, a new family, the Huxtables, was clamoring for attention. Their books were released in 2009with Cousin Con’s book set for 2010. Balogh has at least seven more books planned. Should semiretirement beckon in the next decade, she also has a legion of admirers who would love for her to give lessons on sustaining creative energy and longevity.

2. Suzanne Brockmann
Brockmann is another writer whose connected books have earned her a large and loyal following. Both of her best known series feature alpha heroes who are Navy SEALS, “warriors who are mainly used to prevent war,” according to Brockmann. The Tall, Dark, and Dangerous series was introduced in the 1990s; only three of the eleven-book series were published after 1999. But fifteen Troubleshooter books were published between 2000 and 2009. The eighth book in the series Hot Target (2004) is a groundbreaking romance novel. The central relationship is between a filmmaker working on a WWII movie about two gay soldiers and her bodyguard, a SEAL with a cold façade, a hot bod, and a sensitive soul. This fairly conventional plot is overshadowed by the secondary plot, a love triangle involving Jules Cassidy, a gay FBI agent and already a popular character in Brockmann’s fictional world. Brockmann was both praised for her courage and derided for having a too obvious agenda. Love her or hate her, and there are readers in both camps, one cannot deny she changed the idea of what could be written about in mainstream romance fiction.

3. Loretta Chase
Chase wrote Lord of Scoundrels in 1995. It quickly became one of the most popular romances of all time, appearing on almost every list of favorite romances. But after the publication of the less successful The Last Hellion (1998), Chase took a hiatus from romance fiction. She returned in 2004 with Miss Wonderful, the first of the Carsington series. Miss Wonderful was greeted with elation by Chase fans, but in the eyes of most readers, it suffered in comparison to LOS. But the next two books Carsington books, Mr. Impossible (2005) and Lord Perfect (2006), had all the wit, charm, and sexiness readers desired. If Dain and Jessica in LOS gave readers a standard by which many would measure subsequent heroes and heroines, the Carsington books and the two books that followed them showed that Chase had lost none of her skill in creating unforgettable characters who engage in verbal battles that sparkle and delight and love scenes that remind the reader that what happens in the head and the heart is as important as what happens with the body.

4. Jennifer Crusie
If Crusie had written nothing between 2000 and 2009 but Bet Me, she would still be on my list. Bet Me, the first book Crusie wrote (it was rejected), became her thirteenth published novel and her first NYT bestseller. It won her the RITA Award for Best Contemporary Single Title, earned a spot on nearly every list of all-time favorite romances, and prompted Crusie to say she may never write another classic romance because Bet Me is her best. It’s my candidate for Romance of the Decade. But Crusie went on to make collaboration a bestselling gig as well. She wrote three books with adventure writer Bob Mayer (Don't Look Down, Agnes and the Hit Man, and Wild Ride), one humorous paranormal about three witchy sisters with Eileen Dryer and Anne Stuart (The Unfortunate Miss Fortunes), and one quirky tale of ancient goddesses in Southern Ohio (Dogs and Goddesses) with Lani Diane Rich, and Anne Stuart. All this and she still has one of the best author blogs in cyberspace, offers wise and intelligent essays about the genre on her website, and remains fearlessly and genuinely herself in the face of adulation and attacks.

5. Julie Garwood
Garwood is one of those writers responsible for untold numbers of readers falling in love with romance fiction. Perhaps best beloved for her historical novels, which include Medievals, Regencies, and American Westerns, Garwood switched to contemporary romantic suspense in 2000. Her gift for unforgettable characters and emotionally engaging stories translated effectively into her new subgenre. Over the next decade, she wrote eight novels in this new subgenre--from Heartbreaker (2000) to Sizzle (2009), and eager fans paid hardcover prices and put her on bestseller lists. Over thirty million Garwood books are in print.

6. Linda Howard
Howard entered the 21st century as the author of thirty five romances, the beloved Mackenzie quartet and the ever-popular Kell Sabin books among them. In the first decade of the century, she wrote another fifteen books, most of which appeared on the NTY hardcover bestseller list. While she writes light-hearted stories (the first half of Mr. Perfect has some laugh-out-loud exchanges), she has become best known for weaving darker suspense and equally dark humor with a sexy romance and an über-masculine hero, as she does in Dying to Please (2003). Most remarkable is that she enjoys this level of popularity happily ensconced in her native Alabama, writing and reading and ignoring all the conventional wisdom about the necessity of self-promotion.

7. Eloisa James
Another major development in romance from 2000-2009 was the increased attention academia devoted to the genre, beginning with the publication of Pamela Regis’ A Natural History of the Romance Novel in 2003 and ending in 2009 with a romance conference that included academics, editors, and writers—held at Princeton University no less. No one represents this development better than Eloisa James, a Shakespeare scholar, university professor, and romance writer, who won the RWA’s Veritas Award (given for the article that appears in print or in another medium that best depicts the romance genre in a positive light) in 2006 for her article “A Fine Romance” (New York Times, February 12, 2005). James published her first book, Potent Pleasures, in 1999 and has spent the past decade growing her readership and appearing with increasing regularity on bestseller lists. Well known for her ensemble romances, James reached an admirable balance between recurring characters engaged in an overarching plot and a focus on the central love story in her six-book Desperate Duchesses series.She writes a monthly column on romance fiction for Barnes & Noble’s online site, a feat that has earned her the tag “the Lionel Trilling of romance critics.”

8. Lisa Kleypas
Kleypas became a bestselling author in the 1990s, but it was in the decade that has just ended that Kleypas, the creator par excellence of the sexy, self-made hero, showed that she is the same kind of achiever as the characters in her novels. She not only wrote further adventures of her popular Bow Street Runners, but she also produced two new historical series: a new, more light-hearted set about a group of wallflowers (one of which—Devil in Winter-- seduced readers with one of the best villain turned hero ever written), and a gypsy-themed series that left readers eager for more. And she proved her versatility by writing three connected contemporary romance/women’s fiction hybrid novels (Sugar Daddy, Blue-Eyed Devil, Smooth Talking Stranger) that earned her new fans, more bestsellers, and a Romance-Heroes-Hall-of-Fame candidate in Jack Travis who says to his heroine: “I respect you. . . . And your views. I think of you as an equal. I respect your brains, and all those big words you like to use. But I also want to rip your clothes off and have sex with you until you scream and cry and see God.”

9. Jayne Ann Krentz
Krentz is another prolific writer who spent many months of the past decade on bestseller lists. Among her bestsellers are her Arcane Society books that link her historicals written as Amanda Quick (Second Sight, The Third Circle, The Perfect Poison)with her contemporaries written as Jayne Ann Krentz (White Lies, Sizzle and Burn, Running Hot). Her Harmony-set futuristics written as Jayne Castle are also popular. How many romance writers move so successfully from past to present to future? Krentz, whose first novels were published more than thirty years ago, has remained consistent in the treatment of themes the author herself identifies as “the ancient virtues: honor, integrity and a belief in the healing power of love.” Consistent as well has been her defense of the value of romance fiction.

10. Stephanie Laurens
Australian author Laurens could serve as poster girl for the connected-book series that have only increased in popularity over the past decade. Her most famous series, the Cynster books totals sixteen, a dozen of them written since 2000. A Secret Love (2000)and On a Wild Night (2002) rival the earlier books in popularity. A second series, the Bastion Club, has a mere nine books, eight of them published in the past decade. Laurens is equally famous for the variety of settings and positions in which her H/H engage in steamy sex. Let’s see there’s the carriage, the back of a horse, a chair, a tub . . . I think a lot of writers are reading Laurens too.

11. Debbie Macomber
Macomber was already a prolific, popular writer of romance fiction with more than a hundred novels and numerous novellas to her credit when her career reached a new level in the first decade of the 21st century. She began writing the Cedar Cove series, community-based books set in the fictional coastal town of Cedar Cove, Washington, that were hybrids of romance and women’s fiction. The Cedar Cove series included ten novels and one novella by 2009. The fourth book in the series, 44 Cranberry Point, won Macomber the first Quill Award in the Romance category in 2005, and the seventh, 77 Seaside Avenue, earned her a career first when it hit the top of the NYT bestseller list. She also began a second series in 2004, the Blossom Street books, a women’s fiction series that focuses on friends brought together by a knitting class offered by a Seattle knitting store. By the end of the decade, Macomber had over one hundred million books in print worldwide in twenty-three languages, in December the premiere of the Hallmark Channel Original Movie Debbie Macomber's Mrs. Miracle ranked as the highest-rated movie of the week among all ad-supported cable networks, Macomber reached bestseller status on non-fiction lists with a cookbook, and demonstrated that community-based stories, even those that were sweet rather than sizzling were “in.”

12. Susan Elizabeth Phillips
She may be less prolific than most of her compeers, but SEP is definitely one of the genre’s superstars. And she’s a star whose luminosity increased early in the 21st century when she was inducted into the Romance Writers Hall of Fame, the only five-time winner of the Romance Writers of America Favorite Book of the Year Award. Book Page called her “the crown jewel of romantic comedy writers,” a designation affirmed by the hardcover bestselling status of seven titles, beginning with This Heart of Mine (2001), her first hardcover, and including Ain’t She Sweet (2004), with a heroine who merits study by every writer who wants lessons in how to break rules successfully, and Glitter Baby (2009), a “revised rewrite” of an early (1987) book.

13. Julia QuinnQuinn’s eight-book series (2000-2006) featuring the popular Bridgerton siblings made her the definitive author writing humorous historical romance. Not only were the Bridgerton books critically and commercially successful, they also gave readers scenes and characters that became part of the language of the romance community. One only has to say “Lady Whistledown” to see delight and understanding in the eyes of a fellow romance reader or to type “Pall Mall scene” to elicit “LOL” in response. Quinn also led the way in the use of technology with her popular website that offered fans soundtracks for her books and recommendations for other authors’ books. She had readers who had never read an ebook downloading the second epilogues to some of the Bridgerton books, available only in electronic format. Not content to coast on an established reputation, Quinn experimented in 2008 with a pair of books, The Lost Duke of Wyndham and Mr. Cavendish, I Presume, which view the same events but from a different perspective.

14. Nora Roberts
Roberts is practically a permanent fixture on best seller lists. Every book released under her name (as Nora Roberts or as J. D. Robb) during the decade appeared on the most prestigious NYT bestseller list. That’s 54 new releases—33 as Roberts, 20 as Robb, and one with a story written under each identity. And this number does not include all the reissues of earlier releases that made the bestseller lists. She added another five Ritas to an already impressive collection, and she won the Quill Award for Romance of the Year in 2006 and 2007. Angels Fall won as Book of the Year in 2007. But Ms. Roberts is more than bestsellers and awards. For many, within and without the romance community, Nora Roberts's name has become synonymous with romance fiction in American popular culture. Forbes lists her among such luminaries as J.K. Rowling and Dan Brown in the five writers they included in the magazine’s Top Ten Celebrities for 2005. Her opinions are solicited by the media, and she represents the genre with class and clout.

15. J. R. Ward
The paranormal bandwagon was large, colorful, and noisy during the past decade. Vampires ruled, and none created more buzz than Ward’s erotic series revolving around the Black Dagger Brotherhood. The books became extremely popular almost immediately upon publication, becoming among the most frequently discussed texts in online romance communities. Ward’s books departed from the conventional vampire tale by making the vampires the victims, and the slayers the unscrupulous hunters. Characters with names like Phury, Wrath, and Tohrment evoked a lot of jokes, but the series from Dark Lover (2005) to Lover Avenged (2009) also captured many readers and sent Ward, looking her coolest, to the bestseller lists and to the bank.

Did you commend or chastise me as you read my list? :) Who do you think are romance fiction’s Writers of the Decade?


MsHellion said...

I'd add Sherrilyn Kenyon to the list. She opened the door, I think, to the paranormal craze. She also has the alter ego: Kinley MacGregor who writes historicals.

cheryl c said...

I agree with all of your choices. What an impressive group of authors!

Deb said...

What a tough decision to make because there are some really awesome authors out there, aren't there?
I agree with Julia Quinn, Debbie Macomber, Julie Garwood, Lisa Kleypas, and Stephanie Laurens.
20 years ago, Diana Palmer would have been on the list, I think.

TerriOsburn said...

This is a pretty good list, Janga. Great research on each of these women and I learned some things I never knew.

Looking at my shelves, the only one I might add to this list is Jo Beverly. But I'm guessing maybe more of her breakthrough stuff was released in the 90s. I know I found her late and spent the first half of the decade searching high and low to collect her backlist.

Maggie Robinson w/a Margaret Rowe said...

Mary Jo Putney and Jo Beverley can take any decade, as far as I'm concerned! But your list is pretty much perfect. I am always amazed that you have such a handle on the romance genre (it's actually kind of scary, LOL).

Keira Soleore said...

I'd substitute Jo Bev for JR Ward for me, otherwise, I agree completely.

Santa said...

Late, as usual, but I have to agree with everyone here. This list is spot on. For once, I've read nearly every author on your list which is a rare occurance for me.

You have an uncanny knack for taking a list that could easily extend another ten names and narrow it down to fifteen. I'll echo adding Jo Beverly and Mary Jo Putney and maybe Christina Dodd. Or Connie Brockway.

See, I'd have a very hard time creating a list as brilliantly spot on as the one you've created here.

Keira Soleore said...

I agree with Santa. I'd replace Debbie Macomber with Connie Brockway for me.

PJ said...

Excellent list, Janga! I think you've come up with an outstanding group. I'd probably have needed to extend it to twenty. Like Hellion, I also would have included Sherrilyn Kenyon.

quantum said...

I was beginning to consider myself fairly well read and then you produce four giants that I haven't yet tried!

Its good to have the photo-portraits as well.

I'm now going to get some books by Howard, Garwood, Brockman and MaComber, and then perhaps I can say that I have read some of all of the best.

Janga, you are a magician.
What I would give to spend a week in your keepers library!

irisheyes said...

Great list, Janga. I would concur on most of them. I haven't read Suzanne Brockmann or Jayne Ann Krentz, have read a little of Linda Howard, Debbie Macomber, Stephanie Laurens and Julie Garwood. Even though the authors may not make a "best of" list for me I think your reasoning is sound and pretty spot on.

I can't think of any other authors as prolific or with as much staying power as the ones you mentioned with the exception of Jo Beverly and MaryJo Putney. Even though I've never read her Diana Gabaldon seems to hit a lot of "Best of" lists and has kept Jamie and Claire alive and interesting for many over the years.

I couldn't even begin to pick the book of the decade. Bet Me is a good one. I'd also consider Ain't She Sweet, by SEP - that one just blew me away with all the conventions she broke and still wound up with one incredible book! I'm trying to think of an historical book that pushed the boundaries, created a little controversy and proved a great addition to the genre but am having a hard time.

Janga said...

Hellion, you're right. I should have included Kenyon. She would have been a better choce to represent the paranormal trend than Ward. Her Dark-Hunter series has 27 titles listed! Since I read so little paranormal, I just went with the first one I thought of. That was Ward.

Janga said...

Thanks, Cheryl. They certainly impress me. :) I thought after I had posted that I should have included one of the authors who broke ground with the really steamy stuff. I'm not sure who though.

Deb, I left out some of my favorite authors, and I hated doing it. But I tried to look objectively at what happened in romance from 2000-2009.

Janga said...

Terri, Jo Beverley ranks high on my list of favorites. I started reading her with Lord Wraybourne's Betrothed, her first book. But I think you are right. Her books in the past decade have continued with the excellent writing, the rich history, the theme of honor that characterized her earlier books rather than moved in a different diretion. And I'm not sure her fanbase is as broad as those on the list.

Janga said...

Maggie, any handle I have on the genre should be attributed to my having been a romance reader since shortly after the invention of the wheel. Now, that is scary! LOL!

Keira, I'm a big Brockway fan too, and had I listed favorite authors or best romance writers, she definitely would have been on the list. But I would argue that her greatest influence came with books published before 2000. And while I enjoyed Hot Dish and count Skinny Dipping as an all-time favorite, I don't think either enjoyed the sales or inspired the imitators that Kleypas' contemporaries did.

Janga said...

PJ, twenty sounds good to me. :) Fifteen was just the number that EW used in the article that started my thinking about the topic. I could easily have chosen fifty, but the blog would have been so long no one would have read it. LOL!

Q, I have read at least one book by all 15, but that's all I've read by two of them. And another three are occasional reads these days rather than autobuys. I'm far from an expert on all of them, but I am a research nut. :) Do give them all a try though, but be warned that Macomber writes sweet--not your usual style. (grin)

Janga said...

Irish, Ain't She Sweet is a great choice for Book of the Decade.Your comment has me thinking about which historical I would choose as Book of the Decade. Hmmm.

I'm not a Gabaldon reader, but I know her popularity and influence are strong. I did give her some thought, but I finally decided to take her at her word and not count her as a romance author.

Janga said...

San, had the list been sixteen authors, I would have included Christina Dodd. She had a phenomenal decade with a dozen historicals (including the Governess Brides books), seven contempraries, and six paranormals. The Darkness Chosen books were particularly successful, and I think gained her lots of new readers. She's also a savy marketer and one of the funniest and most gracious writers around--and another personal favorite.

And you know how much I love Mary Jo Putney's books, and I did consider her. But I do think with her, as with Jo Bev, that her recent books have just built on her reputation for excellence established with her The Rake and her Fallen Angels books. The Spiral Path is one of my most beloved reads, but I think most MJP fans list the 90s pubs as their favorites. I know the AAR list of favorite titles by her includes only The Marriage Spell
(2006)among earlier books.

J Perry Stone said...

Terrific blog, Janga. You need a like button a la facebook.

I uber-like this.

CheekyGirl said...

Janga - this is a fantastic list that has me finally understanding some of the allure of bigger name authors. I have to admit to never reading a few of these before. I'll have to remedy that soon.