More than 10,000 romance novels are published in the United States each year.
“Romance is a genre with a tremendous amount of reading, writing, editing and publishing by women and for women,” says English Professor Eric Selinger. “But not many in academia take romance seriously. I and others would like to change that. ”
As executive editor of the Journal of Popular Romance Studies (a peer-reviewed journal with rigorous standards) and founding member of the International Association for the Study of Popular Romance, Selinger is promoting scholarship around the romance novel, with a particular focus on the literary merits of certain works.
“Other popular genres—mysteries, detective fiction, horror, science fiction and westerns—have been part of the academic conversation since the 1960s. Why not romance?” Selinger asks.
“People just don’t put ‘romance’ and ‘literature’ together; in fact, the genre is typically defined only by its worst examples. But stereotypes to the contrary, writers and readers of romance are smart, sophisticated people, and popular romance fiction is situated within a long and enduring tradition of literature about love.”
Selinger also acts as a board director and contributor to the Popular Romance Project, a multimedia forum for sharing contemporary scholarship on popular romance novels, films, comics, advice books, songs and fan fiction. Funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities, the project collects and shares analyses, interviews, discussions and other resources important to scholars and teachers of popular romance studies.
“At any given time on the website, you can find a blog post about scholarship next to a video interview with an author next to an editor commenting on what she looks for in a first manuscript,” he says.
The pillars of the Popular Romance Project are four integrated programs:
- A documentary, “Love Between the Covers,” from Harvard historian and director Laurie Kahn-Leavitt, about the global community of romance readers, writers and publishers
- A content-rich website created by the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media, which positions romance novels in a context across time and place
- An academic symposium hosted by the Library of Congress Center for the Book
- A nationwide series of library programs dealing with the past, present and future of the romance novel, organized by the American Library Association
When Selinger himself first discovered romance, he was surprised.
“I’d always thought of myself as someone with catholic tastes—I read a lot of different kinds of fiction, and I’m not what I’d call a high-brow reader. Yet, it had never even crossed my mind to read a romance novel,” he says. Then, a few years ago, he picked up Bridget Jones’s Diary and was hooked. Looking for more of the same, he found other engaging romances, such as The Boyfriend School by Sarah Bird and Crazy for You by Jennifer Crusie. While he was doing research on the Man Booker Prize-winning novel The Possession by A. S. Byatt, which is coincidently subtitled A Romance, something clicked.
“Romantic love is a subject that’s of absolute, universal interest: Everybody wants to know more about it, and everybody’s got a theory about it. Romance is how we understand our lives: How do we talk about falling in love, being in a relationship, or breaking up? All these core, personal experiences are mediated by culture. We think about and make sense of our own lives in part by drawing on and comparing ourselves with the scripts found in love poetry and, yes, in popular romance fiction.”
In 2010, Selinger proposed to the English department a course on popular romance, and he’s been teaching it ever since. In his class, popular romance novels are treated like any other work of literature. “My students come to understand that anything and everything they’re reading should be considered in a thoughtful way,” he says. “And they don’t have a hard time accepting that the line between ‘serious literature’ and what they read for fun can be very fuzzy.”
Photo: Zachary Sigelko