While on lockdown and teaching from home this week, my Media Issues class discussed the idea of “canon” in literature and they asked me if I would give them a list of things I think should/could be canon. Immediately I said the only list I could really give them were my own thoughts and they said that was fine, so here we go.
So if we think of canon as kind of a generic form of exposition, then the purpose, as my friend Billie Bloebaum put it, would be to “maybe gain an understanding of what some of the tropes are and to give a list of influential authors whose work shaped the ideas of what a genre is or broke the mold.” In other words, these are by no means an exhaustive list, nor meant to be any type of gatekeeping.
So what I’m going to attempt to do (And I let you know I’m going to do it poorly), is give you a list of books, limited to 10 in each category, some of which I may not like nor even have read, which I feel are foundational to the genre as it stands today, books which might have changed or are continuing to change the conversation (and some are just books I like) paying special attention to diversity. I’m going to try and stay away from the books already recognized and known as “classics,” and I’m going to miss some stuff. You may not agree with any or all of these suggestions, but regardless, in no particular order, here goes:
- When Gravity Fails by George Alec Effinger
- The Demolished Man by Alfred Bester
- Medusa Uploaded by Emily Devenport
- The Three-Body Problem by Liu Cixin
- The MurderBot Diaries by Martha Wells
- Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel
- Ancillary Justice by Anne Leckie
- Ready Player One by Ernest Cline
- All the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders
- The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Leguin
- The Broken Earth Trilogy by N.K. Jemisin
- Magician by Raymond Feist
- Shambleau by C.L. Moore
- The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss
- The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon
- Kindred by Octavia Butler
- Ready Player One by Ernest Cline
- Johnathan Strange & Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clark
- The Anubis Gates by Tim Powers
- Who Fears Death by Nnedi Okorafor
Comic Books/Graphic Narratives
- Uncle Scrooge by Carl Barks
- Red Sonja by Gail Simone
- Sandman by Neil Gaiman (et al)
- Saga by Brian K. Vaughan & Fiona Staples
- Where We Live ed. by J.H. Williams III & Wendy Wright-Williams
- Lumberjanes by Noelle Stevenson
- X-Men: God Loves, Man Kills by Chris Claremont & Brent Anderson
- Fun Home by Allison Bechdel
- Batman: The Killing Joke by Alan Moore & Brian Boland
- Wonder Woman-The Hiketeia by Greg Rucka & J.G. Jones
Romance – Recommended by Billie
Romance is a huge umbrella that covers a lot of subgenres and trying to pull together a definitive list that doesn’t go on for ever and ever is a nearly impossible task. And, like any art form, what is “good” or “bad” is highly subjective. If you love something, whatever flaws it may have, that’s what matters at the end of the day. And something can be objectively “bad”–poorly researched or written, full of offensive stereotypes or hackneyed cliches–and still be highly influential, so this list is much more about influence than quality.
Follow @BGSU_PopCultLib and archivist/librarian @stegan on Twitter. The Browne Pop Culture Library has a huge collection relating to the history of Romance fiction and Steve’s the dude who puts the displays together and talks about them.
Old Old School
Persuasion by Jane Austen (also Sense & Sensibility and Pride & Prejudice and even Emma, but Emma Woodhouse is an asshole)
NOT the Brontes, though people will claim otherwise. Wuthering Heights is a highly co-dependent and unhealthy relationship and Jane Eyre’s Rochester locked his first wife in the attic, which does not a hero make.
Early 20th Century – Not-Quite-As-Old School
Georgette Heyer (A lot of her work has some really racist shit, but her books heavily influenced what became known as Traditional Regency Romance, as well as current Historical Romance)
20th Century Old School (These are mostly authors from the 80s and 90s)
A lot of these authors and books would be considered problematic due to issues with race and consent, but they hugely influenced authors who are writing today.
- The Hawk and the Dove by Kathleen E. Woodiwiss (anything by her, really)
- The Windflower by Laura London
- Johanna Lindsey (I have a fondness for Silver Angel, which is a highly-problematic harem novel. HIGHLY problematic. But I love it.)
- Victoria Holt
- Phyllis A. Whitney
- For My Lady’s Heart by Laura Kinsale which employs internal rhyming conventions consistent with the time period in which it is set.
- Flowers from the Storm also by Kinsale
Later 20th Century/Early 21st Century (We’re Getting There)
- Nora Roberts’s Chesapeake Bay and In the Garden series(es) and High Noon (contemporary, paranormal trilogy, romantic suspense)
- Indigo by Beverly Jenkins, the grande dame of Black historical romance
- Jennifer Crusie’s Bet Me for one of the first attempts at body-positivity in Romance and a protagonists whose Happily Ever After doesn’t mean married with kids
- Bridget Jones’s Diary which was the precursor to a lot of today’s rom-coms and is actually a really good example of how the concerns and themes of Austen can be relevant to a modern story and reader
- Lord of Scoundrels by Loretta Chase which was published in ’96 but doesn’t have some of the issues that other Historicals published during this time do. It’s much more in keeping with what Historicals will become.
- The Duke & I by Julia Quinn is the first Bridgerton novel. The Bridgertons is going to be a Netflix series, produced by Shonda Rhimes, and airing later this year.
- The Madness of Lord Ian Mackenzie by Jennifer Ashley, which was one of the first Historicals to feature a neurodivergent hero.
(I am putting this in parentheses and would literally hold my nose as I typed if that were physically possible: Fifty Shades of Grey by E.L. James. Ugh. I feel tainted. But it was highly fucking influential, as shitty a book as it may be. And I have only read excerpts because the prose was so bad. So, so bad. I just couldn’t “take one for the team” and read the whole thing. Shit like this is why Romance gets a bad rap. <shudder>)
Recent-ish Titles/Authors That Show What Romance Can Be
- Courtney Milan
- Tessa Dare
- Sarah MacLean
- Jeannie Lin
- Sherry Thomas
- Joanna Bourne
- The Hating Game by Sally Thorne
- Anything by Helen Hoang
- The Forbidden Hearts series by Alisha Rai
- Red, White, and Royal Blue by Casey McQuiston
- The Reluctant Royals series by Alyssa Cole
- The Wedding Date by Jasmine Guillory, which kind of brought a new spotlight to rom-coms, especially those not about thin/conventionally-attractive white people
Romance Adjacent Books for Those Reluctant to Dive Head-First Into the Genre
(These books all employ a lot of traditional Romance tropes, but are not necessarily considered Romance novels.)
- The Glamourist Histories by Mary Robinette Kowal
- The Vorkosigan Saga by Lois McMaster Bujold
- The In Death series by J.D. Robb (who, admittedly, is just Nora Roberts in a black leather duster)
- The Amelia Peabody mysteries by Elizabeth Peters, the Lady Emily mysteries by Tasha Alexander, and/or the Clare Fergusson/Russ van Alstyne mysteries by Julia Spencer-Fleming (a lot, though not nearly all, of long-running Mystery series by women have ongoing plotlines heavily influenced by and employing Romance tropes)
- The Winter Sea by Susanna Kearsley
- Anything by Jill Mansell (British “chick lit” at its finest, in my opinion)
- Outlander (the first book, at least. They kind of start veering from the Romance track as the series goes on.)