Must Reads: Scholarly works on the romance genre


Romance novels have a long and fascinating history, all the way back to the beginning of the novel in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. While there isn’t very much scholarship about romance novels (yet!) there are a few outstanding books focusing on the genre, its readers and its development from a few lady authors, like Jane Austen, scribbling stories in their drawing rooms to a billion dollar industry today. Here are must Must Reads for the romance scholar or the romance reader who just wants to know more about her beloved books.

reading the romance

Reading the Romance by Janice Radway

This is one of the first academic works on romance novels. Janice radway explores how the romance genre developed, the history of the mass market publishing industry and why it’s so appealing to so many women. She gets close with “The Smithton Women” a group of avid romance fans in a small town who are devoted fans of the long historical and bases her book on on this very small audience and a very small selection of works (one of the common criticisms of it). Confession: I loathed this book when I first read it in college, but I found it fascinating the second time around, particularly her chapter on the development of mass market publishing in America. In fact, my copy is heavily highlighted—right up to the point Radway applies a Freudian/Oedipal interpretation to the love story (Sometimes a romance novel is just a romance novel).

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Dangerous Men

Dangerous Men, Adventurous Women by Jayne Anne Krentz

This collection of essays was edited by bestselling romance author Jayne Anne Krentz and includes contributions from numerous romance superstars. The book is slightly outdated in parts (essays on particular books don’t age well) but overall, it’s a fascinating take on different aspects of romance novels. There’s Krentz on the taming of the romance (those East Coast editors!) or Laura Kindle and Linda Barlow about the androgynous reader and writer, or how romances empower women by Susan Elizabeth Phillips.While other books focus on the history, numbers or readers of the genre, DMAW explores the enduring appeal of certain themes and tropes within the genre.

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Merchants of Venus

The Merchants of Venus: Inside Harlequin and the Empire of Romance by Paul Grescoe

For many people Harlequin is synonmous with romance novels and this book shows how that powerful association came to be. First owned by the Bonnycastle family, Harlequin found success reprinting English Mills &  Boon romances in North America. In the 1970’s, the company brought in executives with backgrounds not in publishing, but in marketing and sales for Proctor and Gamble, and they deliberately started marketing romance novels like soap, or any other consumer product. They did free product (book) sampling and got into supermarkets and then their growth was exponential. This is an amazing look at the rise and faltering steps of a publishing and marketing powerhouse described as “the McDonalds of multinational publishing.”

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The Natural History of the Romance Novel

The Natural History of the Romance Novel by Pamela Regis

This classic text fromMcDaniel College professor Pamela Regis traces the origins of the genre from—what else—Pride and Prejudice and Pamela to the twentieth century romance. She defines the genre, identifying eight key moments, from the first meeting to the betrothal. She also provides an analysis of some criticism against the genre.

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Beyond Heaving Bosoms

Beyond Heaving Bosoms: the Smart Bitches’ Guide to Romance Novels by Sarah Wendell & Candy Tan

This book is crafted with love, but doesn’t take itself too seriously, which makes for a funny read about the romance genre. It includes a brief history of the romance novel, and a thorough examination of both heroes and heroines (hehe). And there is much sex talk. When discussing man-titty on the covers or “cringe-worthy” plot devices the Smart Bitches are tough but loving. This is a fun introductory book for someone studying the genre.

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The Reading Nation

The Reading Nation in the Romantic Period by William St Clair

This was required reading in my graduate studies, and OMG if you’re into this kind of thing it’s amazing. This is an exhaustively detailed and comprehensive look at the development of the publishing industry and reading public in England in the 18th and 19th centuries. Who knew that copyright law, the length of a ream of paper or taxes had so much of an effect on the stories we read? While it doesn’t focus specifically on women and fiction, it does devote a significant amount of attention to the lady author and reader and her books, and also places them in context with all the other developments in literature, publishing and the reading public.

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The Woman Reader

The Woman Reader by Belinda Jack

This is a fascinating book on the historical relationship between women and reading. For the longest time women weren’t even allowed to read–“women’s access to the written word has been a particular source of anxiety for men—and indeed some women—almost from the very beginning,” Jack writes. One exception: women who went into convents in the middle ages were educated and had access to extensive libraries. Once female literacy became more widespread, there were concerns about what they were reading and conduct books immediately appeared…along with stories of love and romance.

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All The Happy Endings

All The Happy Endings by Helen Papashvily 

I found this book quite by accident when I browsing the stacks at NYU’s epically huge Bobst library. And then it turns out my great-grandparents were friends with the author! Ah, what serendipity. Anyway, this is a smart book about popular fiction by American Lady Authors and the circumstances in which it was written and read. It is also about how “the quiet women revolted…and their handbook of stratagey was the sentimental domestic novel.”  Some of the books she writes about were early bestsellers and all but forgotten today—but still worth a read. Check out The Wide, Wide World by Susan Warner, The Lamplighter by Maria Susanna Cummins or the works of Mrs. E.D.EN. Southwark.

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 Other books to check out:


dangerous books for girls romance novels maya rodale

I relied extensively on all these books when researching and writing my own work, Dangerous Books For Girls: The Bad Reputation of Romance Novels, Explained which is about the secret history of romance novels, why readers are made to feel ashamed about it and why they absolutely should not feel guilty about reading books by women, about women, for women.




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