There's a discussion going on at Smart Bitches Trashy Books about a canon for romance fiction. Anything I'd write as a response would take up way too much space on their site, so here it is on my blog.
One of the very first pieces of writing that I ever had published was a brief article in "Authorship," the newsletter of the National Writer's Club, back in 1980 or so. The title of my essay was "Whatever it is, it isn't trash," in which I pointed out that romance fiction, and in particular historical romance fiction, had a long and very honorable literary history.
My definition of "romance" at that time -- and pretty much through to today -- is a story that focuses on a relationship between lovers (gender and number non-specific) and how other events that the characters experience affect that relationship. In some cases, the relationship does NOT end with happily ever after, but the ending is consistent with the story and does not compromise what the lovers have endured.
Charles Dickens wrote historical romance in A Tale of Two Cities. Shakespeare wrote historical romances, meaning romances set in a time before his own. Henry Fielding's Tom Jones is a romance; Tom's love for Sophia Western -- and hers for him -- drives many of the book's actions and complications. Certainly Jane Austen wrote romances, and so did Charlotte Bronte. Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights may not have had a happy ending, but it was a novel driven by a romantic relationship and the ending was consistent with characters.
Alexandre Dumas' The Count of Monte Cristo was probably the first adult romance novel I ever read, in a junior high illustrated version. Edmond's love for Mercedes provides the motivation for all his many adventures.
Lorna Doone by R. D. Blackmore. The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne.
Mark Twain's time traveling A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Cour features a romance, even if that isn't the main focus.
Bring the whole genre forward into the 20th century with Rafael Sabatini, Noel B. Gershon, Thomas B. Costain, Margaret Mitchell, Kathleen Winsor, Laverne Gay, Jan Westcott, Mary Stewart, Norah Lofts, Victoria Holt, Samuel Shellabarger, Frank Yerby, Gwen Bristow, Edison Marshall.
One of the authors who wrote historical romance both before and after the Woodiwiss milestone is Roberta Gellis. Knight's Honor was first published in 1964, reprinted in 1976 when the historical romance craze was taking solid hold. She now writes fantasy.
I think it's important to understand, as Sarah and Jane in the Dear Bitches, Smart Authors podcast point out, that there are different purposes of a romance fiction "canon." Certainly if one is looking for suggestions for reading material for someone who has not read romance before, there are a lot of other considerations. Does the reader prefer contemporary or historical? Reality-based or paranormal? Sexy or sweet? And these have pretty much been the basis for determining reading lists anyway.
But do you want to recommend the books you've liked, or the books you think the reader will like? The books that are the best of the genre or the most typical? The new or the classic?
Because all of that is a far cry from suggesting a list of the influential books of romance fiction.
As a writer of historicals, I was much more influenced by Dumas and Yerby and Shellabarger and Sabatini than I was by Margaret Mitchell. Does that mean all writers of historical romance in the 1980s shared the same influences? Of course not! But the writers whose books were published in the 1970s and 1980s were writers who had grown up on the books of the previous generations, and in turn those books of the 70s and 80s would influence the new writers of the 90s and onward.
I don't know how many of the early writers of 1980s and 1990s paranormal romance were influenced by Elswyth Thane's Tryst, or Thorne Smith's Topper (the movie or TV incarnations thereof) or The Ghost and Mrs. Muir. The point is that there were influences, and many of them. How much of the magic in today's paranormal romances derives from the authors' encounters with heroic epic fantasy of William Morris, E.R.R. Eddison, H. Rider Haggard, and Edgar Rice Burroughs?
So whether the purpose of this "canon" is to bring new readers to the genre or to explain the genre to its existing fans, that purpose will be reflected in the list itself.
Were there names missing from the podcast discussion? Oh, my goodness, yes.
Where was Janet Dailey? Regardless how tragic a figure she became after the plagiarism was revealed, she did make an indelible mark on the genre as the first American writer to be published by Harlequin. For a while she was writing a book every two weeks, but she went on to write historicals as well as contemporary category romance, and single title contemporaries as well. Janet Dailey was "there" before Nora Roberts was.
Laurie McBain wrote one of the earliest (in terms of post-Woodiwiss) continuing series, with Moonstruck Madness (1977), Chance the Winds of Fortune (1980), and Dark Before the Rising Sun (1982). The first of Jude Deveraux's Velvet series wasn't published until 1981. But again, were those authors building on the tradition of Elswyth Thane's Williamsburg series? Or back to the Musketeer series of Dumas? How much does the current trend such as Robin Carr's Virgin River series or J.D. Robb's "in death" series owe to the original serialization of novels in magazines? Not to mention, of course, the chronicles of Angelique.
I think it's only fair to examine the romance novel of 2012 -- or of any other contemporary point -- in relation to the entire genre's history. These novels do not spring up like mushrooms (and even mushrooms come from spores). And I believe that understanding the traditions from which the current romance types emerge will not only establish the romance as an important art form but also as one that transcends gender restrictions.
There were other issues brought up in the podcast that I think justify further investigation:
Tracing hero archetypes. And I'd add heroine archetypes. . . villain archetypes. . . . other woman archetypes. (Hey, didn't you smart bitches ever read Joseph Campbell, Clarissa Estes, or Christopher Vogler?)
The hero pursuing the heroine as a new trope? You need to read more, girls!
Another author barely mentioned if at all: Jayne Ann Krentz. Prolific in a variety of subgenres, she is one of the first of the post-Woodiwiss generation of romance writers to venture into futuristic romance in the 1980s. Was this in response to the popularity of the Star Wars and Superman movies?
It's not just other cultural artifacts that influence writers. Krentz was also somewhat notorious in the 1980s for her references to the use of condoms in sex scenes. Even though unplanned pregnancies had been a staple of romance at least since Woodiwiss, the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s brought an awareness of the risks of unprotected sex. What was radical and scandalous in 1989 barely rates a notice in 2012.
Angsty romances? I think LaVyrle Spencer was a strong early author in this sub-genre, as well as for using more ordinary people as her protagonists instead of the wealthy and powerful and adventurous. Her early books feature heroines who are caught in emotional dilemmas that could destroy the romantic relationship. Candace Camp's superbly angsty The Rainbow Season was published the same year as Spencer's The Fulfillment. Both books feature ordinary people as protagonists and heroines with conflicted emotional attachments.
The wide variety of types of romance is the reason I personally get so bent out of shape when "scholars" publish papers on what they think a romance novel is or does or says and their research is based on a sampling of 20 or 30 novels. I consider that a gross insult. They wouldn't be able to get away with it if the genre being studied were science fiction or pulp westerns or police procedurals. They'd be expected to examine and analyze not dozens but hundreds of representative novels; it's only with romance that they think they can get away with a couple dozen at most. They're all alike, right? WRONG.
Personally, I think of a "canon" more in terms of a collection of writings that not only exemplify the genre but that best promulgate the ideology of the genre. Until there is established such an ideology, I think it's futile to try to assemble a definitive canon.
But that's just my opinion.