Monday, January 15, 2007

My New Romance Class

This quarter at DePaul I'm teaching a brand new class on popular romance fiction. It's a "Senior Capstone Seminar," a very grand title for a very odd course meant somehow to connect the broad general education learning that students have done with their work inside a particular major. In practice, this means that I have 25 soon-to-graduate English majors charged with the duty to find some way to connect their studies in history, philosophy, religious studies, the sciences, and so on, with readings in popular romance fiction. For the first half of the course, more or less, we'll be reading a set of novels I've assigned; to finish the quarter, I'll turn the class over to the students, who will workshop and present their research in novels of their choosing. The best work from the class will go up on DePaul's website of "Resources for Teaching Popular Romance Fiction."

In a curiously appropriate twist, my course competes for students this quarter with another Senior Seminar for majors: a course on James Joyce's Ulysses. It's as though my colleague Jim and I had agreed to divide the literary world between us, with one course focused on what is perhaps the most highly-regarded novel of the 20th century (indeed, the book voted "best novel of the century" a few years back) and the other devoted to the most popular genre of the 20th century. By some odd coincidence, the students in my course are all women. I guess the boys have better things to do.

But I digress.

After worrying for weeks about what novels to teach in the class, I decided to keep things tightly focused, not least to make the course as helpful as possible for my own research. The first half of the class, therefore, is a "case study" in the work of a novelist you all know that I love: Jennifer Crusie. We start this week with Bet Me, along with secondary readings from Pamela Regis (on romance fiction), Northrop Frye (on romance more generally), and Bruno Bettelheim (on fairy tales, natch). So far, however, on the class website, the most provocative posts have been from students who have not even tried to use the secondary texts; instead, they've jumped right in to criticize the novel, in a variety of ways.

For some, it's "predictable." As one student put it, "The minute bets are made you can sort of guess at the plot. Girl or guy finds out about said bet, fights ensue, they realize they love each other despite of how it started and they end up together. " Echoing this, another weighed in: "The story was entirely predictable, and if you're reading romance just for the story, then why bother?"

For others, the book seemed littered with extraneous material. "I could have done without the references to shoes, food, and Elvis," one woman wrote. "They all seemed like oddly placed references that did nothing to advance the story, they were just fluff. I figured it would end up connecting someway but I never got the connection or point to those references." (Hmmm... do you think, in that class on Ulysses, students are posting lists of all the "fluffy" references that do nothing to advance the story?)

One student objected to the novel on a variety of grounds, in an anxious post that rambles a bit, but is still worth quoting at length:
Crusie says in "Romancing Reality" that outside of academia, most people read for the story alone, that language doesn't factor in. That may be true, but that also doesn't mean that's right, i.e. acceptable. In a world full of pop culture escapism, I don't think it should be encouraged more than it already is. [...] Not to mention, the story was entirely predictable, and if you're reading romance just for the story, then why bother? Yes, Min is not passive, she is in control of her life and she is true to herself...but all that is obsolete when in the end it's just about winning the prince. She's very angry at life before Cal, and only after she gets him does she become satisfied. It makes me wary that a man is her catalyst for self-realization. Women already grow up with that idea (which can be valid, mind you) but I just don't feel it can be used to write off romance as "reality." A woman's desire for love is realistic, but implying it ultimately happens only with a man is scary. Self-love must come first. In Min's case, she needs Cal. He's the one who makes her realize she dresses like she hates her body, for instance.
The range of issues here, tumbling one after another, is really quite remarkable: internalized anxieties about literary authority (what teacher or professor drilled into her that reading for the story wasn't "acceptable"?), about "escapism," about reading "predictable" plots, and finally about love and female self-realization. I find the annoucement that "self-love must come first" utterly fascinating, and asked a number of follow-up questions on it. What psychological theory does that derive from? (Of course, we are in the USA, a country whose epic poem is "Song of Myself"!)

I'll post more on Wednesday, after our first real seminar discussion--or perhaps a bit today or tomorrow, as I gather my thoughts on the novel. I'll also keep track of the Christian romance subplot that has already begun to emerge. You see, as I introduced the students to the various subgenres of romance fiction, a good half-dozen perked up and looked particularly interested as I described Christian / Inspirational romance. When it came time to tell the class which topics and genres most interested them, however, these students hung back, some of them visibly. It's far less embarassing, evidently, to confess your love for erotic romance than for the Christian sort!

And, indeed, one of the first posts to the class website was a request for more information about inspirational romance. Any suggestions I should pass along, about inspirationals or about ways to address the obvious anxieties that this course seems to be triggering in students, will be greatly appreciated!


  1. For stories about women who come to self-love first, who, in fact, through out the hero because they come love themselves so much and then he has to grovel to get in good with them, you gotta try the mighty SEP: Susan Elizabeth Philliphs. My favorite, and the best of the above genre, is Heaven, Texas, but most of her books follow a theme of self-realization for the woman and groveling for the men.

  2. For Christian romance, I highly recommend Beth Pattillo’s _Heavens to Betsy_, which won the Romance Writers of America’s RITA award. It’s a humorous look at the plight of a single female minister battling a sexist congregation, while trying to date without giving rise to gossip. Anyone who has been active in a church will sympathize and have a good chuckle. And it should blast quite a few stereotypes about what a Christian romance is. Or what a Christian is, for that matter.

    The main component (aside from the romance plot) in the Christian romance is what’s called the spiritual or “faith” journey. That faith journey varies from book to book, and can address where one’s faith is lacking, or other aspects of a protagonist’s moral or ethical self-examination. It is, by the way, about _self-examination_ not someone else’s failings.

    As for your student’s reactions to Crusie’s book—good heavens. They really need to think outside of their fear-bound boxes. They really won’t get girl cooties if they drop their Puritanical “has to be good for you like medicine and green vegetables” attitude and actually read romances for fun. (Remember girl cooties in elementary school? They’re what you get if you touch a girl or a girl’s belongings. However, if you say the right ritual words, you will be cleansed of all girl cooties and the attendant shame of having them on you.)

  3. When it came time to tell the class which topics and genres most interested them, however, these students hung back, some of them visibly. It's far less embarassing, evidently, to confess your love for erotic romance than for the Christian sort!

    Believe me, that was no isolated incident. As a writer of inspirational romance who constantly rubs elbows with other romance readers and writers, I've seen that reluctance to speak up many, many times. It isn't that inspirational fans are ashamed of what they believe and what they enjoy reading. It's simply that, particularly in the online community, they've been pounded again and again by readers and writers of steamy romance who portray them as Bible-thumping banshees on a mission to stamp out erotic romance novels. (What the accusers fail to realize is that it's hardly in the best interests of inspirational romance fans to tear down another subgenre. If we did that, we could hardly expect any support when our subgenre was threatened.)

    I love it that you're including inspirationals in your discussion of romance subgenres. If I can answer any questions about inspies, please give me a shout. Also, your students might be interested in the following posts at my blog:

  4. Thanks for the suggestions, Karen and Brenda! I'm very new to the subgenre myself, so these come in very handy, and my students looked pleased to hear that the Teach Me Tonight community had my back, as they say. (Sorry--the "girl cooties" reference seems to have provoked a manly backlash!)

    More on the class and their choices as things develop. A good and lively discussion last night!

  5. (Chuckling) I was wondering if there might be a strong response to the idea of “girl cooties” vis a vis romances. I've been in a provacative mood lately.

    One other thing regarding Christian romances: when approaching them, keep in mind that there is huge diversity in Christian culture and so this will be reflected in many of the books. The media (especially movies and TV) tends to depict Christianity and believers monolithic in belief and attitude, and it is anything but. The culture and rituals of Roman Catholicism will bear scant resemblance to those of a non-denominational Protestant evangelical church. An African American Baptist church will have different rituals and attitudes than a predominantly white Baptist church, even though both have the same doctrines of belief. One book presenting a particular slant on Christian belief doesn’t represent all Christian romances. Even within one denomination, the church services in one church can be very contemporary and evangelical with lots of rock music, in another traditional with the traditional hymns, and another still may be new-agey. The romance characters will reflect this, more or less. And, you might just find Christian jargon in them, which may need explaining. If you have students who are Christians, they might be able to decode the language. Some non-Christians may find such phrases as “washed in the blood of the Lamb” icky.

    That said, MOST Christian romance is Protestant-based, because the Christian-only publishers that do publish romance are Protestant.

    By the way, a good informative blog about Christian publishing and fiction is

    Sorry to go on about something you probably already know, but I’ve encountered so much ignorance about Christians and Christianity that I can’t assume the above info is known or how important it is to understanding this subgenre.

  6. j as in jennifer19 January, 2007 04:04

    Sounds like a great course, Professor! I confess that "Bet Me" isn't my favorite of Crusie's novels. And I think it's because of all the movies I've seen that hinge on a bet that the male protagonist can turn the female into a hottie (or vice versa) in 60 days or less . There's "My Fair Lady" for goodness sake! So we pop-culture vultures already have an inkling of what's in store. The average college student would probably not know all the Regency Romances published over the ages in which the hero and heroine meet due to a wager, which is the trope I think Crusie is playing with. Perhaps it would have been better to start with an actual fairy tale that corresponds to the novel to enhance that aspect of the story. I confess it also went over my head for the most part until I read some of the analysis on this blog.

    You might also point out that the feminist "learning to love myself is the greatest love of all" theme is actually a product, in great part, of modern popular movies and "chick lit" and feminist manifestos. It's pedigree isn't much more academically serious than the romance novel HEA.
    But, obviously, today's grrrl would likely have a problem with some Prince Charming showing up at her door with a shoe. If he didn't pay enough attention to her face at the ball to recognize her, Cinderella should plant that shoe in his behind!

    Anyhow, in my experience, it's easier to write a thorough, impassioned essay on a novel you dislike or don't agree with than one which you thought was a "fun read!" Keep that in mind. :)