Romance Scholarship & Collections- Where We’ve Been, Where We Can Go

On June 10, 2021 I was part of a panel at the RBMS 2021 conference titled “Happily Rarer After: The Radical Act of Taking Popular Romance Fiction Seriously” with my fantastic friends Rebecca Baumann of the Lily Library at Indiana University and Rebecca Romney, co-founder of the rare book firm Type Punch Matrix. We conceived of this panel as a way to get our colleagues in the rare book and special collections spaces to think differently about the romance genre. Rebecca Romney’s remarks situated the genre within publishing history, while Rebecca Baumann gave some great examples of ways romance novels can be used in book history instruction. I focused on a brief look at the history of scholarship and collecting related to romance within the academy. Below is an annotated version of my scripted remarks.

The academy and its libraries have long had a fraught relationship with romance fiction. It has been seen as an oddity to be studied, not literature to be enjoyed and appreciated, let alone collected in the library’s stacks. Over the past 50 years there’s been a change in these attitudes, but there remains much work to do. Today I want to talk a little bit about the history of studying and collecting romance from an academic point of view and how those of us in libraries and rare books can be a part of the genre going forward.

Several developments of the late 1960s and early 1970s would have long-lasting effects on the academic reception of romance fiction. The first was the development of Harlequin from a Winnipeg-based reprinter of fiction for the Canadian market to a Toronto-based romance juggernaut that sold millions of books across North America. Secondly, libraries began experimenting with special collections, which led to the inclusion of popular texts, including romance, in academic libraries. The rise of second-wave feminist theory gave scholars language, however derisive, that they would use for two decades to critique romance fiction. And finally the publication of Kathleen Woodiwiss’s The Flame and the Flower in 1972 turned romance fiction from a curiosity to a publishing and cultural force.

Harlequin’s growth as a publisher was fueled by marketing and savvy distribution methods, which saw the company’s books become synonymous with romance novels in the same way we think of Band-Aids as synonymous with bandages. Ubiquity made it an easy target for critics. Germaine Greer included Harlequin Romances, with their compulsory heterosexuality and dominant men, in her 1970 book The Female Eunuch as a key tool of enforcing patriarchal norms around love. Greer’s attitude became the standard when academics considered romance fiction, at least on the rare occasion it was considered, through the early 1980s.

In 1969, just a year before Greer’s book, Dr. Ray Browne opened the Center for the Study of Popular Culture at Bowling Green State University, which included a special collection library devoted to all things popular culture. It included everything from Mickey Spillane to Sears catalogs. Dr. Browne saw a library filled with popular texts as key to the development of popular culture studies and it was through this bold idea that the first romance texts began to make their way into an academic library, albeit almost accidentally and not as part of an intentional collecting policy.

As romance fiction exploded in the 1970s, there was little change in how the academy handled it. You won’t find many, if any, articles or chapters devoted to the millions of books sold by authors like Woodiwiss, Janet Dailey, or Rosemary Rogers. Instead, critics continued to focus almost exclusively on Harlequin’s books, and mostly in the abstract. In 1979, Ann Snitow published an article titled “Mass Market Romance: Pornography is Different For Women”. Snitow essentially builds on Greer’s arguments about romance, but takes them a step further, arguing Harlequin’s books are pornographic and actively harmful to women.

At the time of Snitow’s article, historical romances were frequently appearing on paperback bestseller lists, and category romance editors like Vivian Stephens at Dell/Candlelight and Carolyn Nichols at Jove/Second Chance at Love were expanding the form beyond the Harlequin stereotypes of meek heroines and brutish heroes. In these new style books female main characters had fantastic jobs and back stories that included past relationships, and male main characters began to be less domineering and more supportive. Yet until the mid-80s scholars stayed focused on the low-hanging fruit of Harlequin while the genre continued to evolve.

For the most part, libraries continued to share that dismissive attitude towards the romance genre. Public libraries rarely stocked romance novels, and academic libraries ignored the genre almost entirely. Meanwhile, academic libraries saw the publicity generated by Dr. Browne at Bowling Green, and slowly began to acquire popular culture collections of their own, though these were frequently more focused on single topics, almost never including romance, while BGSU continued to cast a wide net.

Around 1984 a shift in romance research towards social science approaches began. Janice Radway’s Reading the Romance (1984) and then Carol Thurston’s The Romance Revolution (1987) are some of the earliest academic studies of actual romance readers and the texts they love. Radway embedded herself with a group of Midwestern readers and discovered that the women she spoke with used romance as a way to separate themselves from patriarchal pressures. Thurston used content analysis as well as interviews with readers and authors to show that the romance genre was constantly evolving to match the changing place of women in modern society.

Radway’s work would in a few years inspire a unique project that further changed the conversation about romance. In 1992, romance author (and former librarian) Jayne Ann Krentz gathered a group of fellow authors, many of whom were also academics, to publish Dangerous Men and Adventurous Women through the University of Pennsylvania Press. The authors responded point by point to the various accusations lobbed at the genre by critics over the decades. This put romance authors into conversation with their critics and underlined the determination of the genre’s defenders to have their voices heard.

That DIY attitude would intersect with libraries in the early 1990s. Romance author (and former librarian- see a theme developing?) Cathie Linz became the Romance Writers of America’s first library liaison in the early 90s and immediately made inroads with public libraries, including bringing romance authors to the ALA and Public Libraries Conferences. At one of those conferences she met a BGSU alum who encouraged her to reach out to the Popular Culture Library, and in 1996 a partnership began. Linz worked with other authors to accumulate materials, and soon the library became home to the Romance Writers of America’s historical records, complete runs of the few genre periodicals, as well as dozens of manuscript collections, and thousands more romance novels. The university would also host academic conferences in 1997, 1999, and 2018 that brought authors like Susan Elizabeth Phillips, Jayne Ann Krentz, and Beverly Jenkins to campus as speakers.

Genre scholarship continued to evolve during this period. More academics who read romance themselves began to integrate the genre into their work, particularly in English departments. Pamela Regis’ A Natural History of the Romance Novel (2003) gave scholars a vocabulary to analyze romance as literature, and in 2005 the Romance Writers of America created its research grant program. The genre’s first dedicated journal, the Journal of Popular Romance Studies, was created in 2010 under the auspices of the International Association for the Study of Popular Romance, which also began to hold biennial conferences.

During this time, academic libraries finally began to notice the popularity of romance novels, and several small collections cropped up. In 2011, author Nora Roberts endowed the Nora Roberts American Romance Collection at McDaniel College, which includes her own works as well as award-winning and notable texts by other authors. In 2012, Harvard acquired several collections of nurse romances as part of their Women in Medicine collections. University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee has a similar nurse romance collection, which they used for an excellent online exhibit last year. Brown University includes romance novels as well as a handful of manuscript collections in its popular culture area, and Duke’s Rubenstein Library sometimes host talks as part of the University’s ongoing series of romance author talks. The collections at BGSU remain unparalleled in this area for both their depth and volume. Despite all this, and considering romance is the best-selling genre in America, these collections are few and far between.

And therein lies a tremendous opportunity for libraries, I think. There are thousands of romance collectors and authors out there who would be happy to see their collections find an institutional home. It’s not uncommon to find romance readers with storage rooms filled with romances from the 1980s- these folks want those collections to live on. And in many cases, they have accompanying ephemera collections that are just as fascinating.

Academic libraries can also find value in connecting with the broader romance community. As Radway discovered nearly 40 years ago, there is far more to romance than just the authors and publishers. There are plenty of folks outside of academic structures who are doing remarkable research. For example, last week at the Popular Culture Association conference the romance track included Andrea Martucci, host of the podcast Shelf Love, presenting her demographic research on the attitudes towards romance expressed by readers brought to the genre by Netflix’s Bridgerton series. The Fated Mates podcast, hosted by critic Jen Prokop and author Sarah MacLean, frequently explores the symbols and tropes of romance novels in ways that outsiders to the genre simply could not. DePaul University’s Dr. Julie Moody-Freeman hosts the Black Romance Podcast, an oral history project featuring some of the romance’s legendary Black voices. Those interviews will be published as part of a special issue of the Journal of Popular Romance Studies this year. 

During my time at BGSU I worked with Maura Seale from the University of Michigan to include these kinds of works and dozens more like them in web archives so that they can remain available to researchers for years to come. By actively reaching out to these bloggers and podcasters, we were also able to get them thinking about the long-term preservation of their work, something few had considered. So there’s a lot we can offer that can help build good relationships with these non-traditional researchers and potential donors.

I’ll close by saying that romance fiction has tremendous research potential- as literature, as a physical object, and as a social object- and now is a great time to work on growing your own collections. Thanks.

Men Writing Romance- Tom Huff (1938-1990)

A short time back, friend of the blog Katrina Jackson raised a question that comes up every once in a while- what’s the history of cishet men writing cishet romance?

It’s a good question, with no simple answer. Most of the cis men whose names I’ve come across use(d) female pseudonyms for their romance books, and historically, only a few have owned up to doing that work. Some have obfuscated this past work by crediting books to their female partners, and some have denied any attribution to them. And in many cases, we’ll never know because the records were sparse to begin with. The rise of self-pub and indie publishing has made this a less common practice today- you pretty easily find men writing historical and inspirational romance using either their own names or male pseudonyms. That definitely wasn’t always the case.

One of the reasons is that the world of paperback originals during the mid-20th century was a mercenary game. Big names aside, working authors- male or female- would write anything for anyone if they thought it would make them a buck, and acquired and shed pseudonyms the way some of us change socks. Sometimes this name-hopping was due to publisher contracts, and sometimes it was a way for the author to keep their distance from work that they may not have wanted to be linked to them. In the case of a publisher-enforced pseudonym, that pseudonym may have then been used by multiple authors over decades (Nancy Drew author “Carolyn Keene” being the most well-known example). All of this means that it can sometimes be nearly impossible to identify or verify who wrote what, so be sure to take everything in these posts with a grain of salt.

Quick side-note: In the world of romance, Harlequin was particularly notorious for its enforcement of pseudonyms. It wasn’t until the early 2000s that Harlequin authors were allowed to take their pseudonyms with them to work with other publishers.

To start this exploration (which I now realize is going to take multiple posts!), I want to start in the 70s, with one of the best-known male writers of romance, Tom Huff (1938-1990). Huff began his writing career in the late 1960s, adopting the pen names Edwina Marlow, Beatrice Parker, and Katherine St. Clair to write gothics for multiple publishers. He even put out two under the androgynous moniker T.E. Huff. But in 1976, as the historical romance boom begun by Kathleen Woodiwiss and Rosemary Rogers was well underway, Huff jumped from gothics to historicals hoping for success. And he found it. Adopting the name Jennifer Wilde, Huff published Love’s Tender Fury in 1976 for Warner Books and it sold like gangbusters. Reports were that it went through more than 40 printings in its first five years, and if the cover of this edition is to be believed, more than 2 1/2 million copies.

Cover of Love’s Tender Fury by Jennifer Wilde (Tom E. Huff). (Image taken from Goodreads)

A second Jennifer Wilde book, Dare to Love, arrived in 1978, and spent 11 weeks on the NYT paperback bestsellers list. Jennifer Wilde was on a roll, but few knew her true identity.

And then in 1981, something rather rare happened. Huff had become friends with Romantic Times publisher Kathryn Falk, and in the second issue of her brand new periodical, he revealed himself to be Jennifer Wilde. While he told Rosemary Guiley in Love Lines that this had always been something of an open secret, this revelation could have been career suicide- what if women decided to stop reading his books because he could be seen as “inauthentic”? What if he were to now get pigeonholed as a romance writer, unable to get work writing anything else?

Instead of running from his association with romance fiction, Huff leaned into it. He made public appearances, and even took part in a 1981 article in Life Magazine about romance authors, with photographs by Mary Ellen Mark that truly have to be seen to be believed. He’d go on to publish six more books as Jennifer Wilde before his death in 1990, all of which sold well. For a time, he even wrote the “men’s column” for Romantic Times, and earned a Lifetime Achievement Award from the magazine in 1988.

Tom Huff had just turned 52 when he died of a heart attack on January 16, 1990. His works have been republished numerous times since his death, including a series of very confusingly attributed Open Road Media editions. This one for Marabelle, the only book he wrote under his full name, is listed as “Jennifer Wilde writing as Tom E. Huff”.

Huff’s revelation as a male author inspired several other to do the same. Next time, we’ll turn again to Rosemary Guiley’s 1983 book Love Lines to learn more. Stay tuned!

This post by Forth Worth history blogger Mike Nichols is a goldmine of biographical information about Tom, including pictures from his high school yearbook! Definitely take a look.

Towards an Accurate History

Or, Why I’m Always Carrying on about Janet Dailey.

If you follow me on twitter,

  1. I’m sorry.
  2. You’ve likely heard me banging on about inaccuracy and Janet Dailey’s first book, No Quarter Asked.

So what’s that all about, anyways? Well, it’s a story about misinformation, half-truths, and what’s missing from the study of the genre. Intrigued? You are? Strange birds.

Alright, sit down, this may take a second. According to lore, Janet Dailey began her writing career somewhere around 1974 when her boss and husband, Bill dared her to write a book like the Harlequins she enjoyed reading. Dailey took the challenge, banged out No Quarter Asked, sent it off to Mills & Boon in London for reasons I’ve never heard adequately explained, and had her manuscript accepted with, according to her, no changes. A publishing miracle if I’ve ever heard one.

But this is where the story gets hazy in some tellings. According to Paul Grescoe’s book The Merchants of Venus: Inside Harlequin and the Empire of Romance (1997), it was 1976 when the Boon brothers, who were based in London and held a stranglehold on the content of Harlequin and Mills & Boon despite being fully part of Harlequin Enterprises by this point, decided to break with tradition and publish an American author, putting out No Quarter Asked as Harlequin Presents 124. Dailey’s official publisher bio uses this date, as did the New York Times obituary published upon her death in 2013. Coincidentally, Kensington is still publishing new books by Dailey, and her family runs a Facebook page in her name that’s written as though she hasn’t been dead for almost a decade. It’s a trip. But I digress.

You see, the problem is that Paul Grescoe is wrong. And so was Janet Dailey when she repeatedly told reporters that her first book came out in 1976.

Huh? How’s that possible?

Good question! You see, the agreed part of the story is that Dailey did in fact send her first manuscript to Mills & Boon in 1974. We don’t know if they did request any changes (Mills & Boon’s editorial practices were notoriously lax), but Mills & Boon turned around and published No Quarter Asked in 1974.

No Quarter Asked first edition cover
Cover of Mills & Boon first edition of No Quarter Asked (1974) by Janet Dailey. (image via Goodreads)

In fact, Dailey would go on to publish 7 more books for Mills & Boon before her work was shipped to Harlequin as part of the Presents line in 1976. Dailey was in fact the first American woman (who we know of at least) to write for Mills & Boon since the company’s founding in 1908. A not insignificant moment for American romance authors!

Cover of Harlequin Presents edition of No Quarter Asked (1976) by Janet Dailey (image via Goodreads)

What Janet Dailey was not, despite her claims to the contrary, was Harlequin’s first American author. Prior to 1964, when Harlequin began exclusively reprinting Mills & Boon books, the company regularly published American authors of romance and other genres. The very first Harlequin title in 1949 was in fact a reprint of The Manatee, by American author Nancy Bruff. And earlier on this blog, we talked about Auburn, New York’s Lucy Agnes Hancock who in 1955 was responsible for fully 1/3 of the titles Harlequin published that year.

This raises two questions- how did all this become so twisted, and why does it matter? Let’s take each in turn.

From the very start, Janet and Bill Dailey styled Janet as the All-American Girl. They framed her early books as an attempt to write a book about every state in the US, and often posed with the Airstream trailer that they used to travel the country to soak in the atmosphere of the place Janet was writing about. Bill put Janet in front of reporters at every opportunity, making her American romance’s first superstar author. If most Americans had never even heard of Mills & Boon, where was the benefit in mentioning the weirdly named British company? In the mid-70s, every romance reader in the US and Canada knew what a Harlequin was to the point of near-ubiquity. I can see them making the calculus that it was easier to go with what people knew when talking about her origin story. And given that it’d been a decade since the Canadian publisher had put out work by an American, where was the harm in claiming the mantle of the first American. It’s all-around good marketing.

If it was the Daileys driving this misinformation, why does any of it matter? In 1976, it didn’t matter. Romance was an ephemeral genre unworthy of more than the occasional mention in the media or academia. But academic study of the romance genre has grown exponentially since then, which brings us back to Grescoe.

Paul Grescoe’s book is a corporate history written by a journalist. It isn’t an academic text, nor does it claim to be authoritative. However, it still stands as the most recent monograph-length writing about the company. Romance researchers, most of whom are performing textual analysis of romance texts on shoestring budgets during time borrowed from other academic tasks, don’t have much time to do original historical research and so will turn to the most authoritative text they can find.

When it comes to the history of Harlequin, Grescoe is that source. Quotes about the company from his book are found in Pamela Regis’ A Natural History of the Romance Novel, John Markert’s Publishing Romance, Maya Rodale’s Dangerous Books for Girls, and many more. The Regis book is particularly influential in the academic space, with its long view of the history of the genre and groundbreaking identification of elements that compose the structure of a romance novel. Unfortunately, Regis directly quotes Grescoe’s incorrect 1976 date when discussing Dailey. Given the reach of this book into the classroom, that means this erroneous information can make it into papers and dissertations without being questioned. A game of academic telephone down the lane begins until the error becomes, however unintentionally, canon.

A Natural History of the Romance Novel, by Pamela Regis (image via Goodreads)

The story of No Quarter Asked is not, in the big picture of romance fiction, that important. But it should serve as a cautionary tale for researchers of the genre, and for those reading that research. Misinformation always starts small and innocuous, until it is repeated frequently enough that it is either accepted as fact or causes significant confusion for those seeking the truth.

The academic community around romance fiction has long been almost exclusively focused on the text and the work the text is performing, so much so that it has left historiography to journalists and random archivists on twitter (ahem). This is, I think, a grave error. As a commercially focused genre, romance fiction is never just the text on the page. It is the author, the editor, the cover designer, the publicity staff, and above all the publisher. Romance fiction must be placed also in its historical context. For example, can we really discuss the phenomenon of The Flame and the Flower in 1972 without also discussing the changing laws and mores around censorship at that moment? (that’s a blog post for another moment)

I urge the romance scholarship community to engage with and support projects that relate to the history of the genre. We’ve got to be able to relay an accurate history before we get into debates about historical accuracy.

No Quarter Asked first edition cover
Cover of Mills & Boon first edition of No Quarter Asked (1974) by Janet Dailey. (image via Goodreads)

(note: this post was edited on May 3, 2021 to remove images taken from the Browne Popular Culture Library twitter account, at their request.)

You Just Never Know…

For me, a research rabbit hole can come from anywhere or anything. It can start with a line in a newspaper article, the off-hand mention of a name in a YouTube video, or even a book in the free bin. The free bin is where I came across one of my favorite serendipitous research subjects, Roberta Leigh. It was a 1969 U.S. printing of her 1968 book Pretence, and boy howdy does it stand out in a crowd.

Cover of US Harlequin edition of Pretence, by Roberta Leigh.
Cover of Pretence by Roberta Leigh

The vibrant color! The level of detail! The strange inclusion of the hero’s behind! There’s no way I couldn’t snap this up and try to learn more. This was an era when Harlequin was only republishing Mills & Boon authors, so I knew Roberta Leigh had to be British, but that was all I knew. It turned out there was more to her than I could’ve ever imagined.

Roberta Leigh was the assumed name of Rita Shulman Lewin (1926-2014). Born in London to Russian Jewish immigrants, Rita knew from an early age that she wanted to be a writer, and published her first novel, In Name Only, at the age of 24 in 1950, having adopted the pen name Roberta Leigh. She continued to write for Mills & Boon over the next decade but in 1957 expanded her work to include children’s television, writing and producing the marionette-based shows The Adventures of Twizzle and Torchy the Battery Boy for ITV. Most of the episodes of these two shows are lost to history, but this video provides an entertaining look at their production.

In 1963, Leigh had a huge hit with the show Space Patrol, a futuristic science fiction show that again used marionettes, predating Thunderbirds by two years. In addition to writing and producing the show, Leigh wrote the show’s electronic theme music. By this point, Leigh had stopped writing for Mills & Boon and was producing television full-time. She was one of the Directors of National Interest Pictures, making her the first woman in England to control her own production studio. All in all, Leigh produced something like 275 TV shows and short films before the market for marionette-based TV began to dry up and she returned to writing romance in 1972.

Roberta Leigh was incredibly prolific as a romance author, writing more than 100 titles under the Leigh name as well as Rachel Lindsay, Janey Scott, and Rozella Lake. According to her obituary in the Telegraph, in 1977 Leigh wrote 24 books in total, at times dictating 2,500 words an hour to two secretaries (Barbara Cartland used a similar method). Her last book was published in 1994, but it was reported she was still working on manuscripts around the time of her death in 2014.

One last fun fact about Roberta Leigh- in 1963, she lent her voice to the audio version of the sex education book The Wonderful Story of How You Were Born!

Today we’re used to knowing every last biographical detail about our favorite romance authors- who is/was a lawyer and who is/was a librarian, etc. So it’s easy to forget that not so long ago, authors were a mystery, no matter how amazing they were in their other identity. And you just never know what you’re going to find out, or when.

Video: Romance in Graphic Novels and Comics Panel

On February 18, 2021 I had the great pleasure of appearing on an amazing panel for the Escondido Public Library with Sarah Kuhn, Sydney Heifler, and Johnnie Christmas, talking about two of my favorite things- romance and comics. It was great fun, and I always love hearing really smart people like Sarah, Sydney, and Johnnie talk about what they do best. You can watch the video on the library’s YouTube channel!

Thanks to Jessica Buck for inviting me to take part and to the Escondido Public Library for hosting.

I’m always happy to talk about romance fiction history with library audiences or on podcasts! Send me an email if you’d like me to talk with your group and we’ll figure something out.

Lucy Agnes Hancock (1877-1962)

The nurse romance- the story of a woman committed to caring for others finally finding love for herself- has long been a popular sub-genre, going back to the early part of the 20th century. Today, Harlequin publishes these stories though its Medical Romance line, but for many years they were simply integrated into the Harlequin Romance line. The company’s love affair with nurses can be traced back to 1953 and the publication of General Duty Nurse (Harlequin #235) by Lucy Agnes Hancock, one of two nurse stories by the author Harlequin published that year. Just 2 years later in 1955, Harlequin published 8 books by Hancock, fully 1/3 of their output for the year. But who was this budding romance superstar?

Lucy Agnes Hancock was born in Brooklyn, New York in 1877 (I haven’t been able to find an exact date). At some point in her early life, the Hancock family moved to Auburn, New York, where Lucy would live until her death at the age of 84 or 85 in 1962. Hancock appears to have worked for International Harvester for at least 25 years, though again, exact dates are elusive. Her first novel, Gay Pretending, was published in 1936, when Hancock was 60 years old.

Cover of Gay Pretending by Lucy Agnes Hancock (1936) (image via Pintrest)

From that point on, Hancock published around 1 novel each year, all in hardcover, and mostly with nursing-related themes. The dust jacket cover art for these editions is pretty great, and makes the subject nurses look like go-getters who are also quietly glamorous, such as this Triangle edition of Pat Whitney, R.N.

Dust jacket for Pat Whitney, R.N. by Lucy Agnes Hancock (image via Amazon)

From its founding in 1949, Harlequin had primarily been a re-printer, as many paperback houses were at the time. Given this and Lucy Agnes Hancock’s popularity and prolific back catalog, it’s not surprising that in 1953 they reissued 1945’s General Duty Nurse as Harlequin #235, with a cover highlights the love triangle held within:

General Duty Nurse by Lucy Agnes Hancock
Cover of 1953 Harlequin edition of General Duty Nurse by Lucy Agnes Hancock (image from National Library of Medicine collections)

Between 1953 and 1957, Harlequin published or republished 17 books by Lucy Agnes Hancock. In 1958, Harlequin and Mills & Boon reached an agreement that made Harlequin the exclusive North American distributor for M&B titles and their exclusively Commonwealth author list, effectively shutting out American authors. Hancock appears to have published three books for another publisher in 1958 that appeared only in the UK, but I haven’t been able to confirm that they were new works and not just retitled earlier works.

Lucy Agnes Hancock passed away on April 29, 1962. Harlequin revived several of her works in 1980 as part of their Harlequin Classic Library, and several have been republished more recently under the Medical Romance line (though they are not currently available).

1980 edition of General Duty Nurse
Cover of 1980 Harlequin Classic Library edition of General Duty Nurse by Lucy Agnes Hancock (image via Amazon)

Though not the first or most popular or most prolific writer of nurse romance, Lucy Agnes Hancock holds a special place in romance history as the one who made the sub-genre popular at Harlequin.

The biographical info I’ve been able to find on Lucy is from the Vintage Nurse Romance Novels blog. You can learn more about the popularity of the nurse romance as well as its impact at the excellent Angels and Handmaidens: Beyond Nurse Stereotypes digital exhibit from University of Wisconsin- Milwaukee.

(note: this post was edited on May 3, 2021 to remove images taken from the Browne Popular Culture Library twitter account, at their request.)

A Black Romance Timeline

I want to start by saying that this will not be a static post. I’ve been piecing together the history of Black authors in romance for something close to five years and I feel like I’m constantly turning up something new. My goal with this post is to get the names, titles and publishers down in one spot, and then keep going back to edit. After all, we have to start somewhere.

It was a conversation with Beverly Jenkins back in 2017 that got me started trying to find all the threads of Black romance history. She mentioned names I hadn’t yet come across- Joyce McGill, Sandra Kitt, Elsie Washington, and more. As an archivist, missing information is something I cannot abide! So I dug, and dug, and continue to dig. While this post goes up to Kimani Romance’s creation in 2005, rest assured that Black romance continues to grow to this day.

UPDATE: 04/13/2020- I’ve added Anita Bunkley’s 1989 publication of Emily, The Yellow Rose of Texas to the list. Bunkley went on to become a successful mainstream romance author, but self-published this first book. This predates Beverly Jenkins’ historical Night Song by 5 years, so it’s significant. Given the rejection of Black romance by major romance publishers, there are likely other self-published authors I’m not aware of (in fact, I know there are) during the last half of the 20th century who belong on this list. I’m going to try and add them as I find them.

This list is in rough chronological order. It is NOT COMPREHENSIVE! Please let me know if there are names and publishers I’m missing and I’ll be happy to update it!

  • 1969- 1971: Rubie Saunders– Saunders wrote four books between 1969-1971 chronicling the life and loves of Nurse Marilyn Morgan, R.N. The books were published by Signet/New American Library under their Nurse Romance line.
  • 1980: Elise B. Washington– Elsie B. Washington, writing under the pen name Rosalind Welles, penned a single fiction work, 1980’s Entwined Destinies, published by Dell’s Candlelight Romances under the guidance of editor Vivian Stephens. The book received significant media attention, including a review in People Magazine that declared it the “desegregation of the romance rack”.
  • 1982: Lia Sanders- Friends Angela Jackson and Sandra Jackson-Opoku teamed up to write The Tender Mending under the pen name Lia Sanders for Vivian Stephens’ Candlelight Ecstasy line in 1982. The title was the first Candlelight Ecstasy to feature a Black couple on the cover. The book was promoted as part of Ecstasy’s “ethnic romance” push, led by Stephens and meant to include more diverse voices in the romance genre. Shortly after the first few books in this effort were published, Stephens moved to Harlequin to start the publisher’s American line, and Dell dropped all of the ethnic romance authors.
  • 1982: Tracy West- Acclaimed mystery author Chassie West began her publishing career in 1982 with Lesson in Love for Silhouette’s First Love line of YA romances. The book was the first in the line to feature a Black couple. While West wrote several other titles for First Love, they all featured white couples.
  • 1984: Heartline Romances*- In 1984, Los Angeles publisher Holloway House, who specialized in books and magazines aimed at the Black community, announced the start of their Heartline Romances books, their attempt to capitalize on the Romance Wars raging among all of the major publishers at the time. This entry earns an asterisk because as Kinohi Nishikawa points out in the book Street Players: Black Pulp Fiction and the Making of a Literary Underground, most of the Heartline writers were Holloway House’s male staff writers writing under women’s names. Nishikawa suggests that two of the credited authors- Yolande Bertrand and Felicia Woods- may have been Black women, but the biographical information on both is scant.
  • 1985: Sandra Kitt– In 1984, Sandra Kitt became one of the few known Black writers for Harlequin. Her second book for the company, Adam and Eva, was published in 1985 and was the first title by the publisher to feature a Black couple.
  • 1980s: Doubleday Starlight Romance- Doubleday’s Starlight Romance line featured contemporary romances by several Black authors over the course of the 1980s, including Sandra Kitt, Valerie Flournoy, Rochelle Alers, and Angela Vivian (Angela Dews and Vivian Stephens). The line was sold primarily to libraries, and was not sequentially numbered as many lines were, making it hard to find much information about it.
  • 1989: Anita R. Bunkley- In October of 1989, Anita R. Bunkley self-published her first novel. Emily, the Yellow Rose of Texas is a historical romance set in the 1830s, about Emily D. West, the mulatto woman purported to be the subject of the song “The Yellow Rose of Texas”.
  • 1990: Odyssey Books- Leticia Peoples began independent publisher Odyssey Books as a way to fulfill what she saw as an unmet need in the market for Black romance. The company lasted just a few years, but launched the careers of authors such as Francis Ray and Donna Hill, and included previously published authors such as Rochelle Alers and Sandra Kitt.
  • 1992: Joyce McGill- Once again we run into Chassie West, who wrote adult romances under the name Joyce McGill for Silhouette’s Intimate Moments line. Her 1992 romantic suspense title Unforgivable was the first adult Silhouette title by a Black author, with Black main characters.
  • 1994: Arabesque- Walter Zacharias, founder of Kensington Publishing, created the Arabesque line in July 1994 under the company’s Pinnacle imprint. The first line dedicated to Black authors telling stories of Black love, legendary editor Monica Harris opened the line with books by established authors Sandra Kitt (Serenade) and Francis Ray (Forever Yours).
  • 1994: Beverly Jenkins- The same month as the launch of Arabesque, Beverly Jenkins made her debut with the historical romance Night Song, published by Avon. Jenkins has gone on to publish more than 50 titles in both historical and contemporary settings.
  • 1994: Maggie Ferguson- Looks are Deceiving by Maggie Ferguson was the first Harlequin Intrigue written by a Black author. Ferguson wrote four books for the line.
  • 1995: Brenda Jackson- In 1995, Arabesque published Brenda Jackson’s first book, Tonight and Forever. In 2002, Delaney’s Desert Sheikh became the first Silhouette Desire book to be written by a Black author. Jackson has been incredibly prolific over the course of her career, publishing more than 100 books.
  • 1995: Genesis Press- Begun in 1995, Genesis Press published some original romance titles but specialized in reprinting out of print titles by Elsie Washington, Donna Hill, Gwynne Forster and more. The company also printed the 1999 edition of Kathryn Falk’s book How to Write a Romance for the New Markets, which was the first edition of the book include segments written by Black authors. Genesis Press suffered financial woes and filed for bankruptcy in 2013.
  • 1998: BET Books- In 1998, Robert Johnson’s BET purchased the Arabesque line from Kensington. While Kensington continued to publish the books, BET provided the promotion, and adapted several books into TV movies that aired on the BET network.
  • 2000: Dafina- Because of an agreement Kensington signed when selling the Arabesque line, they were prevented from publishing Black romance. When that provision expired, they started the Dafina line. The line continues today and has published authors like Donna Hill, Cheris Hodges, Rebekah Weatherspoon, and Kianna Alexander among many others.
  • 2002: Shirley Hailstock– From 2002-2003, Shirley Hailstock served as the first Black president of the Romance Writers of America. Hailstock was one of the original Kensington Arabesque authors, with her first novel, Whispers of Love, appearing in September 1994.
  • 2006: Kimani Romance- In 2005, Harlequin purchased BET’s publishing arm and formed Kimani Press as a new arm to publish romance, women’s fiction, and non-fiction aimed at Black readers. Kimani Romance was the first dedicated Black romance line to exist at a major publishing house. Kimani Romance was discontinued in 2018.

Rubie Saunders (1929 – 2001)

One of the great things about writing these blog posts as an independent scholar is the ability to say “I don’t know”. I don’t know much about Rubie Saunders. There is precious little written about her, but she certainly left a mark.

A 1950 graduate of Hunter College, she joined Parent’s Magazine Enterprises after graduation, rising to the editorial staff of the company’s teen magazine Calling All Girls (later Young Miss and YM) in 1955, finally serving as the magazine’s editor from 1963 to 1979. In the 1970s and 1980s Saunders edited several books of etiquette for boys and girls, and two guide books about babysitting. Her 1979 book Baby Sitting: A Concise Guide was even illustrated by the legendary Tomie dePaola.

Young Miss Header April 1969
Table of Contents from April 1969 Young Miss magazine showing Rubie Saunders as Editor as well as the author of a profile of Lucille Ball. (image via tumblr)

Rubie was a board member of The Feminist Press at CUNY, and after her retirement from the publishing world became a member of the New Rochelle, New York school board, eventually serving as that board’s president.

What I’m really interested in is the only four book-length works of fiction Rubie Saunders published. All four feature Nurse Marilyn Morgan, R.N. and were published as part of Signet’s Nurse Romance line. In fact, I first came across Rubie Saunders’ name in an online exhibit titled “Angels and Handmaids: Beyond Nurse Stereotypes” curated by Katie Stollenwerk for the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee’s Special Collections.

Marilyn Morgan, R.N.
Cover of Marilyn Morgan, R.N. (1969) by Rubie Saunders (image via Goodreads)

Saunders’ fiction was groundbreaking- I’m not aware of any other Black authors writing romance fiction for major publishers by 1969 when her first book was published, and never with a Black main character. After the fourth book was published in 1971, it would be nine years before a major publisher would put out a romance by a Black author with Black characters.

Cover of Nurse Morgan’s Triumph, published 1970 (image via Goodreads)

The Nurse Morgan books are not romances as we recognize them today. Marilyn usually has several paramours through the course of the book, but always chooses her career in the end. Atypical for now, but not necessarily for 1969.

Nurse Morgan Sees it Through
Cover of Nurse Morgan Sees it Through (1971) by Rubie Saunders. (image via Goodreads)

Rubie Saunders passed away in New York City in December 2001 at the age of 72. A literary festival in her name is held in New Rochelle every year, honoring her work in the community. But Saunders is all but forgotten in the romance circles.

Cover of Marilyn Morgan, Cruise Nurse (1971) by Rubie Saunders. (image via Goodreads)

Biographical information about Rubie is scant, and I’ve never been able to find any interviews she did about her work. I did find enough to scrape together a wikipedia page about Rubie, but there’s certainly more to be written. I got most of the seeds for my research from this Tumblr post by romance blogger Maria Slozak. If you want to know more about nurse romances, this blog is a great resource.

There’s got to be more out there- if you know of anything, let me know!

(note: this post was edited on May 3, 2021 to remove images taken from the Browne Popular Culture Library twitter account, at their request.)

Romance Fiction Has a History.

Over the past 50 years, romance has gotten relatively little attention from academia, and much of it mirrored the derisive approach of mainstream media towards the genre. This has started to change on both counts, with the development and growth of the International Association for the Study of Popular Romance (IASPR) and its journal the Journal of Popular Romance Studies (JPRS), as well as an increase in the number of journalists like Kelly Faircloth and Carly Lane-Perry who are able to approach romance as readers themselves instead of as outsiders.

While academia has begun to warm to romance, it has primarily been in the area of literary criticism, leaving publishing history and lives of authors for the most part untouched. As I’ve learned more about the genre, it’s became clear to me that the history of the genre was an essential piece to understanding its cultural impact. So I began to dig.

It’s my hope that this blog can serve as a jumping off point for more research into the history of romance fiction. Or maybe it’ll just make for interesting reading, that would be fine too! I’ll also try to share additional resources as I come across them. Who knows where this will end up? But let’s find out together.

(note: this post was edited on May 3, 2021 to remove images taken from the Browne Popular Culture Library twitter account, at their request.)