Reading Popular Literature Interlude 1: The Romance Problem

This article is part of my series Reading the History of Popular Literature.

While I've made an effort to be inclusive about the genres I read in this series, you may notice one obvious omission: Romance novels. So why would I exclude a whole genre? You'd think any attempt to cover the history of popular fiction would have to include one of the most popular categories of books of them all.

I guess I just never got past the stereotype of the romance genre as porn for middle aged suburban house wives (as opposed to erotica, porn for the more adventurous, urban woman). When a pre-teen, before the Internet exploded, I used to sneak into the romance section of the library and page through the books looking for the sex scenes, simultaneously getting horny and giggling at the language ("his turgid manhood thrust into the triangle of my femininity" etc.).

And yet, it's not as if I don't like romantic story lines; I actually like them quite a lot. And I certainly don't have anything against a good sex scene. I've also read people talking about romance as a real genre, one every bit as respectable as mystery or science fiction. But I don't know where to start. Barbara Cortland and Danielle Steel, who are both on the best-selling all-time writer list, seem kind of execrable.

So I turn the matter over to you, my readers. If you've been reading my essays so far, you know something about my taste. Recommend me something in the romance category. Fantasy or paranormal romance are perfectly acceptable, as are more realist fare. Just as long as there are characters with more than one dimension, a premise and plot that aren't insulting to my intelligence, and a style that doesn't make me want to claw my eyes out. Prove to me, if you can, that my long held prejudices are wrong.

Any suggestions?


um, the princess bride?

um, the princess bride?

Does that count? As I recall

Does that count? As I recall it's not usually put in the romance section of the bookstore.

I'm really looking for things that are part of the conversation and development of the genre. I don't know if William Goldman has ever so much as read a romance novel.

The Witching Hour by Ann Rice

The Witching Hour by Ann Rice

Again, isn't that usually

Again, isn't that usually found in the horror section? Though maybe I should read some Ann Rice for the series...

(And I do believe Ann Rice has read some romance.)

yeah, it's "horror" but it

yeah, it's "horror" but it really is "romance with supernatural shit." There's nothing scary that's ever happened in an Anne Rice book.

Also the Witching Hour is

Also the Witching Hour is almost a thousand pages.

Got anything shorter I can cut my teeth on rather than dedicating that huge amount of time to an author I haven't read and am skeptical about liking?

also, you should read some

also, you should read some Louis L'Amour westerns and look for a few more western titles to include. You're past the era where they were introduced, but you're rapidly approaching their heyday.

Duly noted. Yeah, the only

Duly noted. Yeah, the only western on my list was the Purple Sage. I don't typically find myself with a lot of enthusiasm for the genre, though I'll give L'Amour a read...

Romance readings

Absolutely read Georgette Heyer. Start with _These Old Shades_, _The Masqueraders_. In addition to being the originator of, gold standard of, the Regency Romance, she pretty much codified the rake-with-a-secret-heart-of-gold and nurturing-alpha-hero tropes.

Try Smart Bitches, Trashy Books or Dear Author blogs for recommendations - they have some insightful things to say about the Old Skool period books, which can really run the line of socio-political squick if you're not careful. Kathleen Woodiwiss and Rosemary Rodgers probably being good exemplars of the period.

Loretta Chase is a contemporary author writing historical romances, full of sparkly dialog, _Mr. Impossible_ is a good start, so is _Lord of Scoundrels_.

Jennifer Crusie writes very good contemporary romances, that are quirky, funny, human; _Welcome to Temptation_ and _Bet Me_ are good.

Thank you, that's helpful.

Thank you, that's helpful.

Wikipedia suggests Catherine

Wikipedia suggests Catherine Cookson


I would say try out Lynn Flewelling, Tanya Huff and Mercedes Lackey. While not full on trashy romance novels, their stories always seem to combine a romance with other styles of stories. They are also all very gifted at making the romance an intrinsic aspect of the greater whole. Lynn Flewelling writes fantasy intrigues. You will have to commit to several novels in either of her series to really get into the more romantic turns to her stories, but I promise they are worth it. Tanya Huff spans science fiction, fantasy and horror. The Fire's Stone is a personal favorite. Mercedes Lackey does mostly fantasy, but has dipped her pen in a few other areas as well. Her Elemental Masters series seems to have a romance intertwined in each book. The Last Herald Mage Trilogy was fantastic. These ladies are all really good romance writers, but are mainly identified as science fiction or fantasy writers so their works have appeal other than the naughty bits :)