Why Can’t Romance Novels Get Any Love?

Why Can’t Romance Novels Get Any Love?

mett, 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:

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.

“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.”

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

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.

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 romance novel Noruega mujeres buscando marido 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

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.

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