2009 is going to be a very significant year for romance scholarship. There has been/will be
- romance scholars at the Australian Romance Readers Convention (20-22 February)
- the Popular Culture Association conference (April 8-11)
- the Love as the Practice of Freedom? Romance Fiction and American Culture conference held at Princeton from April 23-24
- romance scholars giving presentations at the Romance Writers of America conference (July 15-18)
- and yet another romance conference will be taking place in Brisbane, from August 13-14.
So, the future's looking bright for romance scholarship, but how did we get to this point?
There have been conferences on romance in the not-so-distant past: "During the years 1996-1998 and 2000, the MVRWA and Bowling Green State University's Popular Culture Library sponsored two conferences, 'Re-reading the Romance' and 'Romance in the New Millennium' (Browne Popular Culture Library). In 2005-2006 Pamela Regis hosted "Conversations about Romance" at the Smithsonian Institution with authors Suzanne Brockmann, Diana Gabaldon, Mary Jo Putney, Carly Phillips and Jennifer Crusie.
The Romance Wiki's section on romance scholarship includes a lengthy bibliography which demonstrates that in this area, as in so many other areas of academic endeavour, we are "standing on the shoulders of giants." We wouldn't be where we are today were it not for the work of those earlier scholars who, many decades ago now, began to establish the genre as one that was worthy of study.
Romance scholarship has evolved over the years, as was discussed in a 1997 volume of Paradoxa (and the discussion continued in a 1998 volume of the same journal). Kay Mussell began this discussion by explaining that when she first started writing about the genre "in the early 1980s, popular culture had not yet evolved into cultural studies, and women's entertainment forms were still marginalized in the academy"(8), and
In the late 1970s and early 1980s, when the first feminist studies were being conducted and published, readers, writers, and scholars appeared to be different people. Romance writers wrote novels. Romance readers read them. Scholars - particularly feminist scholars - studied the romance readers, writers, and novels and interpreted them, usually for an audience of of other scholars. [...]and
By 1993, divisions among these roles had blurred. (7)
Perhaps most surprising [...] and certainly most interesting to me, was a marked change in the way some feminist critics presented themselves in their scholarship on romances. Instead of automatically assuming the role of outsider, of a presumably dispassionate judge and interpreter of a socio-cultural phenomenon, a few scholars admit up front their own predilection for romances. (8)Mussell notes that an important feature of the 1997 Paradoxa essays is that four of them are "single-author studies [...] and thus demonstrate the value of examining the work of a single author in terms of depth of understanding as well as delineation of change " (10) and "the approaches of these contributors [...] recognize, understand, and celebrate the individual creativity and art of romance writers" (11).
These two trends in romance scholarship, namely critics of the genre identifying as romance readers and a greater emphasis on distinguishing between individual romance authors and novels, continue in the 21st-century scholarship, though as discussed here at Teach Me Tonight, the newly formed IASPR will not be insisting that all members be "romance lovers." I think this is important because critics who do not love the genre, or academics like Tania Modleski who wrote about her ambivalent relationship with the genre, may provide thought-provoking critiques, even if those romance scholars who do identify as "romance lovers" vehemently (or partially) disagree with them.
In a year when we're looking forwards, to the expansion of this area of scholarship, I think it's also important to look back and recognise the positive contribution that many of the earliest critics made. It's worth bearing in mind that the genre about which they were writing has evolved, and criticisms of it made in earlier decades may have been more valid then they would be now if applied to all modern romances. Even if we disagree with some of their methodology, focus and conclusions, we wouldn't be where we are now if it wasn't for their efforts in opening up the genre to detailed academic scrutiny.
I should perhaps mention at this point that the 1997 volume of Paradoxa is rather difficult to find in libraries, but it's still available for sale directly from the Paradoxa website, and when I bought my copy I promised I'd mention this at Teach Me Tonight, in case it was of help to people wondering how to get hold of their own copy of the volume.
A brief history of the online romance reading community was recently posted at Dear Author by Jane and also looking back in order to place the present in its historical context, Robin's written a post about "some of the literary and cultural traditions influencing the genre [...] and its relevance to a long and robust history of Western literature." She focuses on captivity narratives and "those many novels of sentiment and sensation that comprised women’s fiction in the 18th and 19th centuries."
- Mussell, Kay. "Where's Love Gone? Transformations in Romance Fiction and Scholarship." Paradoxa 3.1-2 (1997): 3-14.