What do the most beloved romance novels teach us about love for the genre?
In the aftermath of the The Great New York Times Book Review Romance Scandal of 2017 -- by which I mean reviewer Robert Gottlieb's puzzling and dismissive three-page roundup of the genre, the fierce and righteous Twitter backlash, the many thoughtful rebuttals, and most recently, the Times' non-apology -- I have been thinking a lot about romance novels.
Specifically: Why are they so incredibly galvanizing? Why do they engender so much passion and so much hatred? And why do those of us who love them so much feel the way we do?
More erudite scholars than me have posited many theories as to the cultural meaning and literary quality of the genre. My own opinions on romance novels can be roughly summarized as:
- I love them, and always have.
- Even if you disdain them, the intensity of the feelings they generate and the revenue they produce suggest they have great meaning to the culture that produces them. They are important, period.
- As with literary fiction and detective stories and souther-gothic-coming-of-age memoirs, some are excellent, some are terrible and most are somewhere in between.
But when I try to answer the question of what they are doing when they are very good, what they are failing at when they are very bad, and what gets under my skin when they are dismissed as "trash" or "pulp" or "porn for women" --- I end up with a number of arguments that are not entirely satisfying: "Made for and by women." "Optimistic." "Feminist." "Escapist." I think all of these things are true to varying degrees, but for me, they are not the answer.
And so, in an effort to better understand exactly what this feeling is that wells up in me whenever the merits of the genre are debated -- a mix of passion, frustration, and a physical tingle at the back of my neck that asserts something BIG is at stake -- I decided I wanted to take a closer look.
Specifically, I wanted to read, or re-read, the "canon" -- the most beloved, iconic books in the genre -- to see if that helps me better understand my own obsession. But that raised the question: where to start?
As the amazing #RomBkLove discussion on Twitter has shown us, opinions on what makes a "great" romance vary, and I did not want to rely on my own taste as the lens through which to make the call. Many sources, from Goodreads to The Guardian, have touted "best of" lists over the years, but I wanted to find one that included both recent and older books, that encompassed as many sub-genres as possible, that reflected some degree of diversity in terms of authors and stories featured, and that took into account popularity among readers as well as critical assessment by professional reviewers. The closest I found was this 2015 list of the "100 Swoon-Worthy Romances" by NPR, crowdsourced from thousands of reader suggestions and curated by two of my favorite romance authorities: Woman Who Literally Wrote the Book on Romance, Sarah Wendell, and Author Who Always Makes Me Cry, Sherry Thomas.
So here is my new challenge to myself: I am going to read 100 classic romance novels -- arguably some of the best romances of all time -- and react to them one by one. My aim is not to review them, but to try to identify what makes each book special and resonant, and what it might say about the genre as a whole. Over time, I hope this will better inform my thinking about romance, broaden my knowledge of sub-genres I don't often read, and perhaps also sharpen my writing.
Want to play along? Please do! I'm starting at the top of the list, with Loretta Chases's LORD OF SCOUNDRELS. As I go I'll use the hashtag #100Romances. I'll try to post at least one a week, on Fridays. And from time to time I'll pause to reflect on what I've learned so far, keeping track of a few metrics like Goodreads and Amazon ratings and frequency of tropes, to see if there is anything to be learned about what makes a romance especially beloved.
But really, I want to better understand what makes them beloved to me.
Once upon a time, when I wasn't paying attention, I was a girl who fell in love with romance novels. Maybe it's time, once and for all, to get to the bottom of why. One classic book at a time.