A Natural History of the Romance Novel

A Natural History of the Romance Novel

A Natural History of the Romance Novel

A Natural History of the Romance Novel


The romance novel has the strange distinction of being the most popular but least respected of literary genres. While it remains consistently dominant in bookstores and on best-seller lists, it is also widely dismissed by the critical community. Scholars have alleged that romance novels help create subservient readers, who are largely women, by confining heroines to stories that ignore issues other than love and marriage.

Pamela Regis argues that such critical studies fail to take into consideration the personal choice of readers, offer any true definition of the romance novel, or discuss the nature and scope of the genre. Presenting the counterclaim that the romance novel does not enslave women but, on the contrary, is about celebrating freedom and joy, Regis offers a definition that provides critics with an expanded vocabulary for discussing a genre that is both classic and contemporary, sexy and entertaining.

Taking the stance that the popular romance novel is a work of literature with a brilliant pedigree, Regis asserts that it is also a very old, stable form. She traces the literary history of the romance novel from canonical works such as Richardson's Pamela through Austen's Pride and Prejudice, Brontë's Jane Eyre, and E. M. Hull's The Sheik, and then turns to more contemporary works such as the novels of Georgette Heyer, Mary Stewart, Janet Dailey, Jayne Ann Krentz, and Nora Roberts.


This book defines the modern romance novel written in English and traces its development from 1740 through the 1990s. The definition and literary history of the romance novel will provide critics with a clearer understanding of the genre’s nature and scope. They will also form the basis for a counterargument to the widespread disdain for and condemnation of this literary genre.

It is a commonplace in works about the romance novel to point to the genre’s popularity. In the last year of the twentieth century, 55.9 percent of mass-market and trade paperbacks sold in North America were romance novels (Romance Writers of America, Website). In 1996 the genre generated approximately one billion dollars in sales of 182 million books. More than two thousand titles were released that year (Romance Writers of America, Welcome). These are astonishing figures. No other popular form—not mysteries, Westerns, science fiction, fantasy, thrillers, horror, or spy novels—is as popular. Nor is so-called “literary” fiction. Nor is nonfiction. Romances are the most popular books in the United States.

Popularity, however, does not mean acceptance. Writers of romance novels appear regularly on the New York Times Book Review’s Best Sellers List. During ten weeks in late 1997 Johanna Lindsey, Kaye Gibbons, Julie Garwood, Sandra Brown, Nora Roberts, Catherine Colter, Judith McNaught, and Jude Deveraux all made the list. During that same ten weeks the Review ran its crime column several times, in which Marilyn Stasio reviewed a short stack of mysteries; and once Gerald Jonas provided a similar service for science fiction. Yet the romance novel went unreviewed, despite its strong presence on the list, despite its dominance in the bookstores.

The newspaper of record simply reflects the usual lack of respect accorded to this genre in the larger culture. Women admit that they cover a romance novel if they are going to be reading in public—on an airplane or subway. They would not feel the need if the book were, say, a mystery.

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