Friday, February 27, 2009

Sociologist Seeks Romance Readers

Laura Vivanco, relaying information obtained via Smart Bitches Trashy Books

Andrea Barra is
a PhD student in Sociology at Rutgers University [...] writing my dissertation on the romance novel industry. While I’m thrilled at the increase in academic work on romance that exists, a good amount of it is focused in English lit and Communications, and tends to focus on the books themselves. Not as much is analyzing from a social perspective. Hopefully that’s where I will help fill a gap.
Of course, from my perspective as someone who thinks there's been hardly any proper literary criticism done on romance novels, I'd suggest that there's really not been very much "academic work on romance that [...] is focused in English lit" but I think it's typical of academics that we all think our own area is (a) the most interesting and (b) the one that needs the most work done on it. I suspect we have to think that, or we'd start to feel our work was relatively uninteresting and added nothing much that was new to the sum of human knowledge. However, I'm willing to admit that, although I think there's been quite a lot written about romance readers, much of the work with this focus concludes that we read because we're looking for "nurturance" or "porn for women," that romance-reading is addictive (like a drug) and/or damages our ability to form healthy relationships and/or makes us "cultural dupes." Some of the academics who reached these conclusions did actually interview romance readers first. I should add that of course there have also been some academics who interviewed romance readers and reached rather more positive assessments of our psychological states and mental abilities.

Barra is wanting to interview romance readers in the "NJ, metro NYC, and Philly area" and at "this year’s RT Convention."

Smart Bitch Sarah "asked for more information about her project, and here are the details":
I am analyzing the relationships between four key sectors of the romance novel industry: 1. Readers (Consumers) 2. Authors (Producers) 3. Books (literally the novels themselves) 4. Social World (US society and its culture)

The dissertation will look at the interactions between all of these different segments and how they create an entire picture of an industry. To get a better idea of what that means, I’ll give you a main theme in some key relationships:

Relationship between Reader and Book: What are the major emotions/reactions elicited from reading a romance novel? What of themselves do readers bring to the act of interpreting and accepting (or rejecting) a book?
Relationship between Book and Social World: How do prevailing ideas of gender and relationship equality come to bear on the content of novels?
Relationship between Author and Reader: How has the increase in technology altered the way authors understand and respond to their readers?
Relationship between Social World and Author: How does an author’s particular demographic situation (age, race, geography, gender, etc) affect what they produce?
For more details, see the post at Smart Bitches, Trashy Books.


  1. Looks like 4 dissertations to me.

  2. I want to apologize, actually, for making it seem as though there was an excess of study in other disciplines. It was supposed to be a nod to the fact that I'm aware of what is going on in other areas. There is always that need to speak about your "unique contribution" in academia and I wanted to acknowledge that I'm hardly the only person out there doing scholarly work on romance, but that I am looking at it from a specifically sociological angle. I apologize if it didn't translate that way.

  3. Andrea, it's lovely to see you here and there's absolutely no need to apologise. I was poking fun at my own reaction to your comment, because I immediately homed in on that part of your email to SB Sarah and started mentally scrolling through the bibliography of items on romance, because I was sure there hadn't been enough done from a literary-critical perspective. And then I stopped for a minute and realised that your assessment of the genre was like a mirror-image of mine, with each of us emphasising the particular gap that's of most interest to us. As you say, 'There is always that need to speak about your "unique contribution' in academia." But perhaps the self-mocking element of my post didn't come across so well.

    My reaction to your email to SB Sarah reminded me of some of the teachers at my secondary school, at the point when we (the pupils) had to drop quite a lot of subjects in order to concentrate on a smaller number of them. Each of the academic departments tried to encourage us to continue with their subject. I can't remember their precise words, but the chemistry teachers suggested that chemistry was the most important subject, because it was vital to understanding the building blocks of life, the biology teachers said that biology was the most fascinating subject, because it was the study of life itself, and the physics teachers said that the laws of physics held the key to understanding the universe. And they were all making very good points. Of course, I wanted to study literature, because I thought it helped to understand human emotions and culture, which are what give life meaning! ;-)

  4. Andrea, your inquiry sounds very useful and interesting to me. It's a bit like the approach to the genre taken by Glen Thomas at Queensland University of Technology, down in Brisbane. He's given some papers on what he calls a "creative industries" approach to the genre and the feedback loops that connect readers, authors, and publishers. I believe he has an essay on this in Sally Goade's anthology _Empowerment vs. Oppression_. He's on Facebook, but can be hard to reach via email; I have the essay in hand if you can't locate a copy. You may be able to reach some other resources via the RomanceScholar listserv.