Isn’t It Iconic: Canonical Logics and the Romance Genre

Publication year
Journal of Popular Romance Studies

This article is part of a quartet of essays on the topic of the romance canon. The other three are by Eric Selinger, by Julie Moody-Freeman and by Sarah E. Sheehan.

Here are some quotes:

Canons are problematic. There is no getting around that. This piece will discuss numerous ways in which canons are problematic: for example, they are inherently binaristic, usually reinforce hegemonic and institutional privilege, and are often not compatible with how a literary field operates and/or how people relate to the texts. But they also have an undeniable appeal: practicality. I am not the first romance scholar to have a student ask me what to read, where to start. Having some kind of list to point to would doubtlessly be extremely handy for higher-degree research students and for librarians developing collections, among many others.


I am not convinced we should allow ourselves to be seduced by the convenience of canonicity. I remain concerned about it as a concept and have doubts about whether applying it to romance fiction would ultimately be productive. There are several reasons for this, but I will outline two of the key ones below.

#1: Canon as colonial project

[...] Using awards as a measure of canonicity, for example, would have clear and obvious problems, given the history of such literary institutions excluding authors of colour (see, for instance, the #RitasSoWhite scandal). Similarly, due to the way capital is concentrated in the global publishing industry, a canon developed this way would almost certainly disproportionately privilege North America at the expense of other Anglophone territories, to say nothing of the rest of the world. Indeed, this raises important methodological questions: Would any proposed romance canon be solely Anglophone? If not, how would that be accounted for?


#2: The logics of category romance vs the logics of canon

All this said, it might be possible to generate a list of canonical single-title romance, even if that list was fraught with problems. However, I am not convinced a notion of canon can adequately account for romance’s other half—category romance—due to a fundamental mismatch in logics.


If we shift our language to the less loaded “iconic”, however, then we can remove some of this baggage and instead identify texts and authors—and, perhaps, in the case of category romance, lines—which have affected the trajectory of romance in important ways.