Why Can’t Romance Novels Get Any Love?

The genre is long overdue to be the focus of serious study from academics

It's time for the Romance Novel to get its due as an influential genre in the literary canon. (Flickr user Stephen Coles)
smithsonian.com

Novelist superstars Dashiell Hammett, Agatha Christie and Arthur C. Clarke have a few things in common: they are all canonized writers of popular genres that, for decades, have been critically devoured by popular media and literary scholars alike. English professors from Yale to the University of Alaska have long mined hard-boiled detective novels, science fiction and fantasy, identifying the tropes and memes as revelatory and significant markers of their respective eras -- the femme fatale, the sordid luxury of the Orient Express, or a singing computer in 2001:A Space Odyssey.

Missing from the popular genre discussion is romance fiction, both its evolution and contemporary state, a glaring omission that Sarah Frantz Lyons is so determined to fix that she has it tattooed to her right arm. Mixed in with quotes from the likes of Jane Austen and Roland Barthes is this line, selected ironically, from Germaine Greer’s 1970 feminist call to arms, The Female Eunuch:

“Cherishing the chains of their bondage.”

Greer was skewering the authors of romance novels, and the readers who made them bestsellers, suggesting they were submitting to nothing short of serfdom to their heaving, rippling fictional heroes: alpha males with giant pectorals, important lives, patriarchal views and very little interest in love…until just the right petite, witty heroine comes along.

But two years later, readers responded by making Kathleen Woodiwiss’s bodice ripper The Flame and the Flower a ravishing success. The romance novel burst open the field, bringing a controversial eroticism and sex into the narrative along with all the tropes that Greer’s contemporaries would soon further denounce, including the guaranteed happy ending of loving coupledom.

Frantz Lyons, for her part, is tired of the debate.

“We’ve been talking about this for 30 years: since the 1980s at least, it’s been about empowerment versus oppression. Is this narrative empowering or oppressive to women?” she says. “We need new approaches to romance fiction.”

Frantz Lyons is one of a new breed of literary scholars who are throwing open the velvet curtains behind which romance fiction has long been cloaked (or these days, behind the leather pages of Kindle cases), turning their highbrow spotlight on one of the most popular and underrated lowbrow pastimes (a genre so beloved that it is often pegged for floating the publishing industry—more than half of the mass market paperbacks sold in the US are popular romance novels).

“In fact, if you look back at the 18th century reaction to popular fiction for women, it’s the same exact argument as we’re having 250 years later. At some point, you’ve got to say, this is so ridiculous,” says Frantz Lyons.

Over the past seven years, Frantz Lyons and these unabashed scholars of romance and its many subgenres—Regency, paranormal, gothic, time-travel, fantasy, science fiction— across the United States have been exhorting their colleagues, and funders, to help them give romance novels some much needed academic love.

In 2007, Frantz Lyons started the International Association for the Study of Popular Romance along with Professor Eric Selinger, a scholar of American poetry who teaches popular romance at DePaul University in Chicago. The IASPR has hosted conferences worldwide and in 2010 launched a peer-reviewed journal, The Journal of Popular Romance Studies.

Their hope is for a scholarship foundation at a PhD-hosting institution and—so far a long shot—a full-fledged graduate program. “Popular romance is not high on the list when colleges are having to fight for their Renaissance and Shakespeare courses,” says Frantz Lyons of this era’s economic troubles rippling through the higher education system.

The association, though, has injected the genre with legitimacy in the eyes of academic institutions and romance fiction is now being debated and dissected in classrooms from George Mason University to the illustrious classrooms of Princeton, where William Gleason teaches a course on American Best Sellers, a syllabus on which Nora Roberts is a staple.

“By the time we get to Nora Roberts, students are attuned to the ways that popular stories like Last of the Mohicans and Uncle Tom’s Cabin often place matters of the heart at their center, even if the love affairs of the central characters are thwarted or doomed,” says Gleason, who allows his students to vote on the final novel for the semester. In 2011, Fifty Shades of Grey was the resounding choice. “After these earlier novels, students have a better sense of what it means, culturally, for a narrative to permit love to flourish.”

Romance is one of the last fiction genres to find a place on college syllabi at a time when the academy seems to be welcoming serious scrutiny of everything from The Wizard of Oz to Beyonce and Miley Cyrus. And while there’s all the fervent intellectual wrestling of any academic discipline, these romance scholars are writing a post-feminist narrative in which the anti-romance second-wave feminism of the ’70s and ’80s is over, along with all the dissing and belittling that came with it. 

“Greer was one of the first early influential naysayers,” says Pamela Regis, a professor of English at McDaniel College, with a tone of delight in her voice. Regis’s book, "A Natural History of the Romance Novel" is seminal for contextualizing this new wave of scholarship. “Germaine Greer… inaugurated the modern criticism of the romance novel in 1970, striking a theme that becomes a commonplace in subsequent criticism—that of the romance novel as an enslaver of women.,” Regis writes.

That the only influential scholarship arose more than four decades ago is the primary motivation for today’s romance heavyweights.

“We’re going to look at these [romance] books like any other literary text, as a product of the creative imagination,” says Franz Lyons.

In many of these scholars’ happily ever afters, romance fiction would be the object of scrutiny across the academic spectrum. “Be still my heart,” says Selinger at the idea of a degree program in romance studies. In their ideal world, romance fiction’s illustrated book covers and archetypal characters would glow provocatively from the desks of social scientists, theologists, feminists, historians, anthropologists, philosophers and the wonkiest of literary scholars.

The Journal of Popular Romance is the breeding ground for this future: “a peer-reviewed interdisciplinary journal of scholarship on romantic love and its representations in global popular culture,” explains Selinger. In recent issues, scholars have meditated on the work of Nora Roberts for sure, as well as “Sapphic Romance in Mexican Golden Age Filmmaking” and “disability and romance” in vampire fiction.

The genre is slowly infiltrating other disciplines: there are medical professors looking at the ways that doctors and nurses are portrayed in romance fiction and professors of Middle Eastern studies flipping the pages of the sheik-hero romance subgenre.

Such a pan-disciplinary study was on full display at the recent “What is Love?” conference at the Library of Congress where John Cole, the director for the Center for the Book announced, “Romance fiction arrives center stage.”

It was standing room only in a mahogany auditorium filled with romance enthusiasts across the spectrum. Several silver-haired men in blue suit jackets and bearded 30-somethings sat amid young women in cat-eye glasses, older women in gold accessories (and just a few pairs of Mom jeans.) 

On a panel featuring social scientists, historians, psychologists and anthropologists, the discussion centered on the lack of happy endings in the real world. “Throughout history, marriage was not the happy ending but the unhappy ending. It was when you needed to leave the person you loved,” said Stephanie Coontz, a professor of history and family studies.

“I have to say, the science is dreary,” said Eli Finkel, a professor of social psychology at Northwestern University, citing studies that show romance inevitably dropping in marriages. “But, then again, the science says that the alpha male is, well, kinda hot. It turns out that everyone likes someone who is hot and ambitious.”

But before the larger world of academia can dissect romance novels for their larger themes, the more niche group of literature scholars must also come to terms with the genre’s broad reach and popularity—as well as the disdain that endures.

“The stereotype has been overweight women eating bonbons in bed, reading alone,” says filmmaker Laurie Kahn whose forthcoming documentary Love Between the Covers follows romance authors, fans and scholars as a booming subculture of women that is either disrespected or ignored. “The truth is that people from every conceivable socioeconomic background are reading this fiction. And the authors are surgeons, lawyers, professors.”

“Women write and read romance heroes to examine, dissect, subvert, discuss, revel in and reject patriarchal constructions of masculinity,” said Sarah Frantz Lyons. “They're not just cherishing the chains of their bondage. They're figuring out what they are, figuring out how they fit.”

“Love is my religion - I could die for it,” one canonized romantic, John Keats once wrote. In romance fiction, death is not an option, “We need a happy ending,” says Selinger. Today’s scholars, like all good romantics, are figuring out how the genre in which love conquers all can get its own fairytale ending.

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