Friday, November 9, 2012

Lists and Canons and Other Things

It’s not even mid-November and Publishers Weekly has already announced their top five romances of 2012. I have read four of the five and enjoyed them all, but I was surprised to see Mrs. Drew Plays Her Hand on the list. Don’t misunderstand. It’s a wonderful book, one that has been on my top 100 romance novels list since I first compiled it a dozen years ago. But it was first published in 1994 and Cedar Fort’s 2012 reissue is not even the first time it has been reissued. I’d vote for Mrs. Drew Plays Her Hand as a classic romance, but I would not include it in my Best of 2012 list.

The question of which romance novels merit the label “classic” is another topic that usually evokes lively discussion. A more academic approach is to consider what novels belong in the canon of romance fiction. As romance scholar Jonathan A. Allan noted in a recent Teach Me Tonight post, there is no list of the "central texts of romance fiction that all scholars of popular romance should have read." Even if there were such a list, I wonder if romance readers would agree with scholars’ choice of “central texts.”

Several years ago, in one of those serendipitous moments that make me love research, I came across an article in which librarians knowledgeable about the romance genre generally and also fans of a particular subgenre selected five books that in their opinion “highlighted the features of that subgenre.”  I am an inveterate maker of lists myself, and I am always intrigued by other people’s lists. Librarians listing romances had particular appeal since before I became active in online romance-reading communities I had never encountered a librarian who admitted reading romance. Because these lists serve as recommendations for other librarians interested in building their libraries’ romance collections, these romances might be considered the “classics” in the various subgenres.

Traditional Regency
1.     Hern, Candice. A Garden Folly. New York: Signet, 1997
2.     Kelly, Carla. Mrs. Drew Plays Her Hand. New York: New American Library, 2003
3.     Lane, Allison. The Rake's Rainbow. New York: New American Library, 1996
4.     Metzger, Barbara. A Debt to Delia. New American Library, 2002
5.     Richardson, Evelyn. Lady Alex's Gamble. New American Library, 1995

1.     Beverley, Jo. Forbidden Magic. New York: New American Library, 2005
2.     Putney, Mary Jo. The Wild Child. New York: Ballantine Books, 2000
3.     Wiggs, Susan. The Lightkeeper. New York: Mira, 2002
4.     Quinn, Julia. The Duke and I. New York: Avon Books, 2000
5.     Schone, Robin. Scandalous Lovers. New York: Kensington, 2007

1.     Crusie, Jennifer. Bet Me. New York: St. Martin's Pr., 2004
2.     Gibson, Rachel. See Jane Score. New York: Avon, 2003
3.     Greene, Jennifer Blame It on Cupid. New York: HQN Books, 2007
4.     Phillips, Susan Elizabeth. Natural Born Charmer. New York: William Morrow, 2007
5.     Roberts, Nora. Born in Fire. New York: Jove, 1996

Romantic Suspense
1.     Brockmann, Suzanne. Unsung Hero. New York: Ivy Books, 2000
2.     Brown, Sandra. Chill Factor. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2006
3.     Garwood, Julie Heartbreaker. New York: Pocket Books, 2001
4.     Lowell, Elizabeth. Always Time to Die. New York: William Morrow, 2005
5.     Stewart, Mary My Brother Michael. New York: Morrow, 2001

1.     Feehan, Christine. Dark Prince. New York: Dorchester Leisure Books, 2005
2.     Krentz, Jayne Ann. White Lies. New York: G. R Putnam's Sons, 2007
3.     Owens, Robin D. HeartMate. New York: Berkley, 2006.
4.     Sinclair, Linnea. Gabriel's Ghost. New York: Bantam, 2005
5.     Stuart, Anne. Cinderman. New York: Harlequin, 1994

I have read eighteen of the twenty-five titles; that’s 72%, not a very impressive score. Certainly if I were making such a list, my choices would be different. I’d add a Mary Balogh title to the trad Regency list for starters. Not only did she write an impressive number but she also introduced a level of sensuality that was rare in the genre at that time. And how can Loretta Chase’s Lord of Scoundrels be omitted from the Historicals? The Contemporary list (the only list that I have read in its entirety) seems weighted toward lighter fare. I’d add a Kathleen Gilles Seidel or a Deborah Smith or Robyn Carr title to give it more balance. I’d also balance the 21st-century titles with more 20th-century titles, particularly since the reissue of many books in electronic format means that once OOP books are now available.

So what do you think of this list of classics? How many have you read? What changes would you make to the list? What books published in the last five years have the enduring value that will make them classics? And do you think a book first published in 1994 belongs on a best-of-2012 list?

Note: An earlier version of this post appeared on The Romance Vagabonds blog in June 2008.

Citation for the article: Wyatt, Neal, Georgine Olson, Kristin Ramsdell, Joyce Saricks, and Lynne Welch. "Core Collections in Genre Studies: Romance Fiction 101." Reference & User Services Quarterly 47.2 (Winter 2007): 120(7). 


quantum said...

I would expect that a list of 'classics' would find there way into the audio book collection. I checked at audible UK for the 5 trad regency authors and alas none were represented! All of the authors except Richardson are on my TBR to try, but I haven't got around to it yet ..... just added Richardson. LOL

I think that a 'Best of' list needs a precise definition, particularly of period. Is it a 'best of all time' or 'best of the last 5 years' or best of 'the past year'.

Whatever. My list would be better called 'Q's Favourites' .... if I made lists that is.

I know. I don't deserve the illustrious title of 'romance reader'. LOL

irisheyes said...

Like most lists, Janga, I agree with some of their choices and not with others.

I have read 10 of the books on the various lists. I do agree that Mary Balogh should be on the Regency list. I can't think of Regency without thinking of Balogh.

I think maybe Barbara Samuel/O'Neal should be mentioned somewhere.

I know there's a gem among the books I've read over the past 5 years but my brain is not working this morning. LOL Maybe Sherry Thomas' NOT QUITE A HUSBAND.

I definitely think that a book written in 1994 should not be on a 2012 favorites lists. When I read those lists I always assume it is just for the books released that year, unless otherwise noted.

Janga said...

I remember that you don't do lists, Q. I suspect that X's Favorites would often be the most accurate description of best lists if we are being totally honest. So much is subjective, as I was reminded today when I read a detailed one-star review of a book that I loved and gave five stars. I wondered how two readers could read the same book and see it so differently not just in terms of characters or plot that appealed--or failed to--but also in terms of the quality of writing and the logic of construction.

Janga said...

Irish, you know I'd support adding Barbara Samuel to any best list. :)

I know Not Quite a Husband earns high praise and is the favorite ST book of many readers. For me, it's one that I admire without ever feeling the strong emotional connection that I feel for Private Arrangements and Ravishing the Heiress. There's that subjectivity again.