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Romancing the Academy

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Tomorrow, the Romance Writers of America convention will kick off in Washington DC. Known to insiders as the "RWA" or simply "the Nationals," the convention brings together nearly two thousand romance writers, wannabe writers, fans, and industry professionals. Attendees will swoop into DC's Marriott hotel for four days to hear panels, pitch story ideas to agents, talk industry talk -- oh, and party.

Maybe surprising to some, literary professors will also be in attendance at this week's convention. They won't be there to judge romance or to talk about the often supposed "inadequacies" of the genre. Like the writers and fans convening in DC, the professors will be there to enjoy the romance festival and to take romance novels seriously.

Their presence at the conference marks a growing shift in the way the ivory tower sees romance -- the stuff of Harlequins, happy endings, and handsome heroes. It also marks a fascinating relationship which is evolving between professors studying romance novels and the romance world itself.

Love has always been the food of literary scholars, of course. Ovid's Amores, Shakespeare's Sonnets, Goethe's poor young Werther, Tolstoy's doomed Anna and Count Vronsky, Kundera's philosophical meditations on love in The Incredible Lightness of Being. All have been the subjects of voracious academic study. Each has taken its place on college curricula throughout the ages.

Yet for all the scholarly appetite for love, popular romance fiction has long been shunned, ignored, and seen by many in the ivory tower as the errant and sex-craved stepdaughter of "real" literature. One in five books sold may be a romance novel, the romance industry brings in over a billion dollars in revenue each year, but academe has remained for the most part uninterested.

"Academia has been reluctant to study all popular genre fiction," explains Pamela Regis, Professor of English at McDaniel College and author of The Natural History of the Romance Novel (2003). "I think it arrived at romance last because it is the most gendered popular form -- mostly written by women, mostly read by women."

Most other scholars looking at the romance today tend to agree with Regis that academic interest has been slow because the genre is associated primarily with women. Professor Eric Selinger, who teaches poetry and popular romance fiction at DePaul University, adds that other popular genres such as mystery and science fiction "have been seen as popular forms that evolved toward literature," whereas romance has been seen as "the mass-market, kitchy version of something that was literary in the past: a devolved or in-bred genre, rather than a vigorous evolutionary upstart."

Feminist responses to romance in the seventies and early eighties didn't help the genre's chances of being taken seriously by academe. Germaine Greer famously chastised romance writers as "cherishing the chains of their bondage." But in spite of the backlash, some scholars did take on the genre. Although published back in 1984, Janice Radway's Reading the Romance remains the most widely known study about romance fiction. The book presented a mostly ethnographic investigation that asked why women chose to read romance novels. She concluded that romance fiction offered readers an escape from their lives as mothers and wives. According to Radway, the novels also showed admirable heroines who were nurtured by loving heroes; a nurturance which the readers lacked in their own lives.

Reading the Romance did not overtly chastise romance (although at certain points Radway does appear unfairly frustrated that romance novels fail to provide readers a "comprehensive program for reorganizing" their lives) and her study did take the genre seriously. Yet the book has proved somewhat of a hindrance to the genre -- and the scholarship concerned with the genre. Radway only surveyed a very small group of women who read a specific kind of romance: the supposed "bodice ripper" historicals like Kathleen Woodiwiss' The Flame and the Flower. Furthermore, the women interviewed all came from a very specific socio-economic group. In short, they were housewives living in small town middle America.

Intentionally or not, Reading the Romance played its part in maintaining the old stereotype that only bored and lonely housewives read the genre. It also kept the focus on "why" women choose these books or whether they were good or bad for readers. Romance scholars would have to wait almost twenty years for a book that would really help shake off some of these stereotypes and offer a new direction for popular romance study.

Pamela Regis' The Natural History of the Romance Novel, published in 2003, charts the course of the genre and places it firmly within a literary history, starting with Richardson's Pamela and moving onward to Austen, Forster, and E.M. Hull's The Sheik. Regis became interested in romance novels through her friend Kathleen Gilles Seidel, a romance writer. Siedel invited Regis to a writers retreat and as Regis met these women she realized that the kind of books they were talking about "had not been invented in the 1950s by Harlequin." She began to "think about the form's earlier texts" and subsequently identified "elements of the form" that are shared by older literary works as well as the popular romance novels of the current era.

Professor Selinger describes Regis' work as having a "huge impact on subsequent scholarship," including his own. Radway's study showed that romance could be taken seriously, but Regis did the important work of giving the genre a literary history. The book helped open up the idea that romance novels, in and of themselves, were worthy of rigorous academic study.

Regis' book was vital. But what would happen a year after its publication would prove even more important for the emerging field of romance fiction studies. In 2004, the Romance Writers of America (the foremost association for romance writers with over ten thousand members) initiated an academic grant program that would offer $5000 a year to scholars studying the genre.

The President of the RWA, Diane Pershing, explained that the association was "tired of seeing the same old sneering references to 'bodice rippers' and the generally immature way the genre was treated in the press." The RWA realized that the media was "using the same database over and over again" and there was a dearth of "new" or "insightful" articles being written about romance fiction. The RWA implemented the grant program in hope that the new studies and new scholarship would inspire articles and books with a "broader appreciation and outlook on the genre." To date, six RWA grants have been awarded.

The first award went to Jayashree Kamble, a graduate student at the time, who used the grant to explore Indian readers of romance novels and what an Indian perspective brings to reading these texts. Eric Selinger was the 2006 recipient of the award. Sarah Frantz, professor of English, Fayetteville State University, NC, was awarded the 2008 grant. Together, these latter two scholars have become the Marx and Engels of the burgeoning domain. An Goris, a grad student in Belgium (who's been awarded a 2009 Fulbright grant to continue her work on romance fiction at DePaul with Selinger), describes Frantz and Selinger as a "formidable organizing force."

They are an unlikely duo. Selinger is a Jewish American man with three books on poetry to his name, as well as five National Endowment of the Humanities grants for teaching poetry. His love of romance novels emerged only when he was in his thirties and after his wife gave him her copy of the chick lit classic, Bridget Jones' Diary. South-African born Frantz would sneak her mother's romances when she was just twelve, but romance would not become her area of scholarly interest until she'd finished her dissertation on eighteenth century women novelists. Selinger is interested in romance heroines; Frantz, the heroes.

With the help of their RWA grants, Frantz and Selinger have written essays on the genre. They have also devoted much time building the field. Selinger initiated a romance scholars' listserv (which now has 300 subscribers) and kick-started the extensive "romance scholarship" bibliography on the popular Romance Wiki website. Both scholars are regular bloggers at Teach Me Tonight , a collaborative academic blog on romance fiction, and this year Frantz established the International Association for the Study of Popular Romance. A journal devoted to research on popular romance across all media, edited by Selinger, will be launched in 2010.

These resources have proved highly effective in bringing together scholars from as far afield as India, Korea, the U.S., and Australia and from disciplines ranging from English and American Studies, to Psychology, Communications, and LGBTQ studies.

The online presence of romance scholars (not just Frantz and Selinger, but others too) has also brought the interest and support of romance writers, reviewers, and industry professionals. Frantz explains that, via the academic blogs and listservs, romance authors and professionals have been able to see "that the new crop of academics are as much fans as they are, that we're not all out to put them under a microscope and sneer at them." This has led to a fruitful partnership. "Having the support of the writers you're thinking about, rather than having them actively working against you because they think you're attacking them and their communities," Frantz explains further, "is invaluable."

The coming together of romance scholars and the romance community is not just occurring online. This year, with additional funds from the RWA, Professor Selinger co-organized two romance fiction conferences. The first took place in the spring at Princeton University and was more than just an academic affair.

"I made it a priority to mix every panel," says Selinger. "No matter the topic -- romance and religion, romance and sexuality, romance and race, etc. -- the voices heard came from scholars and authors, scholars and editors, scholars and bloggers. The effect was, I think, really transformative."

The international conference on popular romance fiction being held in Australia this summer promises to be similarly diverse and will again bring together romance scholars, authors, reviewers, and professionals from across the globe. The RWA are providing more monies and the online romance publisher, Samhain, have made a generous donation too. An online campaign spearheaded by Frantz and Selinger garnered even more donations from romance authors, readers, and publishers and has made it possible for two Indian scholars to make the trip to Brisbane.

While the romance community are supporting and taking part in these scholarly symposia, in return, academics are leaving the ivory tower to speak at conferences for romance writers. Pamela Regis and Sarah Frantz will be participating in panels at this week's RWA convention. Regis has spoken at such meetings before and describes the romance audiences as "the best audiences I've ever addressed -- enthusiastic, happy to hear what I have to say."

Friday's keynote speaker at the conference will be Eloisa James. James is a bestselling romance author. She is also Mary Bly, an associate literature professor at Fordham University, who kept her romance writing life a secret until a few years ago when she "came out" to her stunned faculty colleagues. In her academic capacity, Bly is a Shakespearean scholar. However, she has shown a keen interest in the emerging work on popular romance and serves on the RWA's academic grant selection panel. She was also a keynote contributor at the Princeton symposium earlier this year.

With a foot in both academic and romance camps, James sees the benefits of the growing partnership between scholars and the romance community. Romance writers with their deep knowledge of the industry can give scholars a "reality check" when needed, James points out in a forthcoming article for the Romance Writers Report. In return, today's academics are steaming ahead with articles, blogs, books, and conferences and these have prompted "an incredible explosion of positive press" about the romance genre.

The New Yorker recently ran a ten page profile on Nora Roberts, the grand dame of romance writers. Although Roberts grosses sixty million a year in sales, before this article her books had never made it into the pages of The New Yorker and only once in the review pages of The New York Times. The profile speaks here and there of Roberts' "inelegant" style. But on the whole it takes Roberts and the romance genre seriously. The term bodice ripper is used only once and buried within the longer piece.

Although it would be hasty to attribute the appearance of The New Yorker profile solely to work being done by popular romance scholars and their collaborations with the romance community, the new symbiosis between the two worlds undoubtedly played a part. Today's scholars, with the backing of powerful romance insiders, have shown the value of the texts themselves. Furthermore, they are showing how romance novels might, in Frantz's words, help us "understand our world."

According to the RWA website, all romances must have a happy ending to be considered a true romance novel. It seems the story of scholars and the romance world coming together, through grants and mutual support, is having its own very happy ending. As Diane Pershing, the RWA president, concludes, "It's working quite wonderfully."

Joanne Rendell is the author of The Professors' Wives' Club and the forthcoming Crossing Washington Square (NAL/Penguin). Visit her website at www.joannerendell.com.