Nora, most popular of all
In the romance community everybody knows—and, if we are to believe the tagline, everybody reads Nora. Nora is of course Nora Roberts, the most popular romance author of our time. The tale of Roberts’ fabulous rise to fame is one of the romance genre’s most beloved success stories. In 1981 she started out as an unremarkable category romance writer—one of the many American authors who were given the opportunity to write by Silhouette’s appearance on the romance scene. Today, 31 years, 200 novels, 175 New York Times bestsellers and 400 million (yes, that is 400,000,000—almost half a billion) sold copies of her books later, Roberts is not only the romance genre’s biggest star but also the bestselling author in the world.
As a scholar of Roberts’ work the Most Frequently Asked Question I face is that of The Secret behind Roberts’ mind-boggling popularity. Fascinated by the individual who manages to entertain so very many, people both inside and outside the romance community unfailingly wonder what tricks Roberts has up her writer’s sleeve that allow her to achieve such unprecedented popular success. There are, of course, numerous factors at work in this process, some of which are fairly self-evident. Roberts is a very prolific writer, producing up to five new novels every year. She writes in a number of different subgenres, which enables her work to appeal to readers with quite different tastes. She’s a very accomplished storyteller with an attractive, very readable voice and an impressive mastery of tone, narrative pacing, and dialogue. Her work is, moreover, often smartly marketed and the efforts that are put into the development of the “Nora Roberts/J.D. Robb” author brand identity are certainly paying off in spades.
Yet that is not all there is to the Nora Roberts phenomenon. Fundamentally underlying Roberts’ remarkable appeal across the romance genre (and beyond) is, I believe, the author’s deep understanding of what romance at its very core is all about. Roberts writes relationship narratives—stories in which not only the romantic relationship but all kinds of human relationships are explored. She is particularly well known for her stories about families and communities—think not only of such early fan favourites as the MacGregor, the O’Hurley and the Stanislaski series but also of stand-along novels such as Montana Sky, The Villa and Three Fates; Roberts’ various trilogies; and of course J.D. Robb’s In Death books. In all of these novels, and very many more in her vast oeuvre, Roberts writes about how people have, develop, and maintain relationships with each other—romantic or otherwise. While Roberts has impressive narrative skills that enable her to strongly vary the contexts in which such relationships are set—from the humble Bronx family home of the Stanisklaskis, to the majestic palace of the Cordinas, the mythic kingdom of Gaell, the fast-paced, crime-ridden New York City of the mid-21st century, and many, many more—all of the author’s novels focus on ways in which characters develop what are ultimately happy, healthy and balanced human relationships.
An important aspect of Roberts’ narrative focus on positive human relationships is her tendency to depict characters after they have reached the romance HEA. Indeed, in Roberts’ novels established couples rarely disappear from the narrative scene after their romance story-line has been concluded; instead, they tend to remain full-fledged, sometimes even prominent characters in the story. While the most obvious example of this trend is of course In Death‘s Eve and Roarke, who reach their HEA in the second of the 34 (and counting) installments of the series, Roberts’ tendency to include extensive depictions of established, happy romantic couples is widespread in her oeuvre.
These various representations of people in (the process of developing) happy and healthy relationships provide, I find, Roberts’ narratives with a sense of existential optimism that to me seems crucial to the romance generic form. Unlike much literary fiction, which tends to favour the exploration of sad and miserable aspects of the human condition, romance is a fundamentally optimistic form that seeks to fictionally portray how people can be happy. This, I think, is one of the secrets of romance—and one that Nora Roberts seems to practice and understand perhaps better than most.
An Goris a postdoctoral research scholar at the University of Leuven, Belgium, and the managing editor of the Journal of Popular Romance Studies.