Friday, March 9, 2012

Romance Fiction’s Hall of Fame

March is Women’s History Month, and my posts for three of the next four weeks will be a celebration of women. It seems fitting that the first of the celebrations on this blog dedicated to the reading and writing of romance fiction should focus on romance writers.  Almost four years ago, this post appeared on the Romance Vagabonds, but with a few updates, everything I wrote in 2008 holds true in 2012.

Halls of fame are an American tradition. Every sport imaginable has its hall of fame. Most of us know the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York and the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio (and a separate College Football Hall of Fame in South Bend, Indiana), but there are also halls of fame for the best in soccer, hockey, tennis, cycling, bowling, swimming, motorsports, and so on. The same holds true for music. Whether your preferred genre is rock, country, classical, gospel, or blues, you can find a hall of fame dedicated to the genre’s high achievers. Inventors have their own hall of fame; so do songwriters, cowgirls, astronauts, ukulele players, and Texas Rangers. So why is there no Romance Writers Hall of Fame?  

Now before you accuse me of sloppy research, let me add that I know the Romance Writers of America does have a Hall of Fame. But membership is based on a single criterion: “Upon receipt of her/his third (formerly the fourth) RITA Award in the same category, an RWA member is inducted into the RWA Hall of Fame for that category.” Some of the brightest lights in the romance writing galaxy are on the list that includes Justine Dare/Justine Davis, Jennifer Greene (Alison Hart), Francine Rivers, Cheryl Zach, Nora Roberts (the first inductee and the only three-time, multiple-categories inductee), Kathleen Korbel/Eileen Dreyer, Jo Beverley, Susan Elizabeth Phillips, Jodi Thomas, Kathleen Creighton, and Julia Quinn. But surely a genre that boasts a long history and more than 6000 published books annually in recent years has more than ten writers who merit special recognition for their legacy of excellence in writing romance fiction and sustained contribution to the genre.

RWA’s Lifetime Achievement recipients are a fuller recognition of those who have contributed significantly. This award didn’t acquire its distinguished title until 1990. For the first seven years, writers recognized for their body of work were awarded the Golden Treasure. Perhaps the name seemed purple-tinged and too closely tied to the heaving bosom books of the past. At any rate, in 1990 the award that recognizes annually a living romance writer whose record of excellence extends over fifteen years or more and whose contributions to the genre are notable was renamed the Lifetime Achievement Award. In 2008, in honor of the romance writer who is arguably the highest achiever in the history of RWA, the award was rechristened the Nora Roberts Lifetime Achievement Award. Vicki Lewis Thompson was the first recipient of the award under its new name.

Studying the list of winners provides an encapsulated history of modern romance fiction. The first winner was Virginia Nielsen McCall, who had published more than thirty romance and YA novels by the time she received the Golden Treasure in 1983. Three years later, Roberta Gellis, author of the popular Roselynde Chronicles, a series of meticulously researched Medieval romances published from 1978-1983, was the winner. Kathleen Woodiwiss, whose 1972 novel The Flame and the Flower is credited with revolutionizing romance fiction and inaugurating the modern romance, was the honoree in 1988. RWA paid tribute to the queens of the “Gothic Revival” and early romantic suspense over the next four years as in turn Eleanor Burford Hibbert (aka Victoria Holt)*, Phyllis Whitney, Barbara Mertz (aka Barbara Michaels), and Mary Stewart were recognized. 

In 1995 and 1997 respectively, Jayne Ann Krentz and Nora Roberts were the recipients of the LAA. Both writers were prolific and successful within category fiction and groundbreakers in single-title romance fiction. Krentz’s 1986 novel, Sweet Starfire, combined elements of romance with science fiction to create a new subgenre, the futuristic romance. Roberts’s success with interconnected tales of friends and family in series such as the MacGregor books began one of the most firmly entrenched trends in romance fiction, and her success with reissues of popular books transformed the shelf life of paperback romance novels. Both women also proved themselves able and eloquent defenders of the genre. The Krentz-edited collection of twenty-two essays by romance writers, Dangerous Men and Adventurous Women: Romance Writers on the Appeal of Romance (1992) received the Susan Koppelman Award for Feminist Studies.  Roberts vocally defends the genre and argues for romance’s unique ability to incorporate elements of other popular genres into its fluid form.

Krentz and Roberts, along with other LAA winners such as Ann Maxwell, aka Elizabeth Lowell (1994), Anne Stuart (1996), Linda Howard (2005), Susan Elizabeth Phillips (2006), Linda Lael Miller (2007), Vicki Lewis Thompson (2008), and Debbie Macomber (2010) continue to produce books that keep us happily reading. Last year, Sharon Sala became the twenty-seventh honoree on this list that includes writers who have shaped the genre over half a century or so, but even twenty-seven seems too few to do justice to the genre’s rich and extensive history.

I’d love to see an International Romance Writers Hall of Fame, something along the lines of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Hall of Fame that from 1996-2004 inducted four writers annually based on “their continued excellence and long-time contribution to the science fiction and fantasy field.” I would hope to see contributions of romance writers before the 1970s honored as well as those since that turning point.

I already have my four nominees for the first inductees prepared.

Jane Austen
Not only do many, many romance readers suffer from advanced cases of Austen-mania, but romance writers, even some like Charlaine Harris who appear to have little in common with Jane Austen acknowledge her influence. Regency writer Carla Kelly acknowledged her debt to Austen in an AAR column (August 2001): "In the odd moments when I manage a witty bit of dialogue or tweak a plot until it begs for mercy, I can wink and think to myself, 'Thanks, Jane.'" Such tributes are too numerous to catalog, but they provide abundant evidence that Austen continues to contribute to the genre.

Georgette Heyer
Think of almost any character type or plot device that we associate with Regency-set historicals, and Heyer readers can point to a book where Heyer used it. The intelligent, independent heroine, the arrogant lord, the marriage of convenience, the innocent disillusioned, the heroine disguised as a male—all these and more are handled with skill and wit in Heyer’s books. Mary Jo Putney calls Heyer the inventor of a genre and Putney along with Judith McNaught, Catherine Coulter, Leigh Greenwood, and surprisingly Robin Schone acknowledge debts to Heyer.

Faith Baldwin
Not many of today’s romance readers know the work of Baldwin, but she was the Nora Roberts of her day, perhaps the most famous and financially successful American romance writer of the early twentieth century. A New York Times critic wrote in 1939, "There ought to be some sort of literary or at least book prize for Faith Baldwin. She can turn them out a mile a minute, all readable . . . all tops in her field."  (Sounds like a description of NR, doesn’t it?) Baldwin wrote eighty-five novels, several of which were turned into movies. She created a popular series, the Little Oxford books that spanned generations. The series included Station Wagon Set (1939), Any Village (1971), No Bed of Roses (1973), Time and the Hour (1974), and Thursday's Child (1976). Although the H/H in these books get their HEA and the sensuality level is sweet, Baldwin did not shy away from issues such as infidelity, divorce, and career and family conflicts.

Nora Roberts
Do I even need to explain this choice? The Witness (April 2012) will be Roberts’s two hundredth novel, more than 175 of them New York Times bestsellers. More than 400 million of her books are in print, and she is the public face and voice of the genre to those outside it. Her MacGregor books made history when The McGregor Grooms became the first Silhouette original title to hit # 1 on The New York Times bestseller list, Perfect Neighbor became the first category romance ever to hit The New York Times bestseller list, and The McGregor Brides became the first Silhouette single title to hit The New York Times bestseller list. Her success with series has been a major influence on the popularity of connected books, and the sales of her reissued titles helped to extend the shelf life of romance novels before digital books were thought of.

Do you think we need an International Romance Writers Hall of Fame? Keeping in mind the criteria of excellence and significant contribution to the genre, who would you like to see included?


Anne said...

I have another one for you, Janga -- an Australian writer called Lucy Walker who wrote in the 1950s, Her books were international bestsellers, and she's still remembered with fondness today.

Her books were set mostly in the Australian outback, and typically the heroine was an English girl or an Australian girl of sheltered upbringing, sent for whatever reason to an outback sheep or cattle station, hundreds of miles from anywhere.

The heroes were the strong, silent type — station owners, cattlemen, outback aristocracy, and very rich.

My eldest sister used to love them, and when as a young teenager, I used to visit her, I'd devour her collection of Lucy Walkers.

quantum said...

Interesting! Yes,I would like to see an International Romance Writers Hall of fame .... as long as political considerations are strictly forbidden!

I would also like to see a romance writers 'Centurion Club'. An exclusive club where members have published 100 novels or nearly 100. I nominate Catherine Cookson as the first English member. I would also add her to the hall of fame.

With the Indie revolution, membership might also need to consider number of books sold!

I must try a Lucy Walker. Her books sound a little like Elizabeth Lowell's Western books that I love.

Janga said...

Anne, I remember reading Lucy Walker books in the 60s and 70s. I can even see the look-alike covers with her name in the same font. Wasn't one titled The Man from Outback or something similar?

Thanks for adding her to the list.

It sounds as if you read Walker the way I read Emilie Loring and Grace Livingston Hill. Their books don't stand the test of time well for me, but I trace my love of romance fiction to my tenth summer and the stack of books I read by those two authors.

Janga said...

Q, the last time I visited my local library, the lady ahead of me in checkout had an armload of Cookson's books. That was the first time I had thought of her in a long time, but clearly she still has devoted readers here as well as in the UK.

The Centurion Club sounds interesting. Who would qualify? Hmm--Barbara Cartland, Nora, of course, and Mary Balogh. Who else?

Janga said...
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