Monday, May 11, 2009

Romance Scholarship: Looking Back with Thanks

2009 is going to be a very significant year for romance scholarship. There has been/will be
This year we're also seeing the launch of the International Association for the Study of Popular Romance (IASPR ) and the Journal of Popular Romance Studies (JPRS).

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. [...]
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.


  1. Laura, if you were interested in a copy of the audio for ARRC, it's finally available. The order form is on the ARRC website.

  2. Thanks for posting this, Laura! I've had several reporters and younger scholars ask me whether the Princeton conference was the first on the genre, and they were all quite surprised to hear about the previous ones. The Paradoxa issue, too, is a chapter we want to remember. This is a field that has been going on, in one form or another, for at least forty years; the more we keep that history in mind, the better off our new work will be.

  3. How funny that you should post this the same day my RtB column posted (, Laura!

    I was thinking last week about the post Jane did at DA regarding the history of the online Romance community,and in particular, about how much longer it is than it may seem to those of us (aka me) who are latecomers. It's the same with academic interest in Romance, isn't it?

    I guess there's just a certain serendipity of circumstances that facilitates a higher level of mainstream awareness. It seems like that time has finally come for Romance scholarship -- and perhaps also for a more openly collaborative relationship between Romance readers and Romance scholarship. As I commented on an SBTB thread recently, I've always felt that these interests were enmeshed, but it's nice to see more positive engagement on both sides!

  4. Thanks, Kat. Having looked at the form, I think one may have to be in Australia to order it.

    I think I prefer reading information to listening to it (particularly if there was any chance I'd want to quote from it in an academic paper) so I'll just live in hope that the academics who were at the conference will publish something soon ;-)

  5. I've had several reporters and younger scholars ask me whether the Princeton conference was the first on the genre, and they were all quite surprised to hear about the previous ones.

    I know about a couple more which I didn't mention, because they were about romance in a much more broadly defined sense. Most of the essays in The Progress of Romance: The Politics of Popular Fiction, edited by Jean Radford,

    were originally presented at the first History Workshop Conference on Popular Literature held at Ruskin College, Oxford, in May 1984. (2-3)

    The Romance Revisited volume of essays, edited by Lynne Pearce and Jackie Stacey

    has its origins in the Romance Revisited conference which was hosted by the Centre for Women's Studies at Lancaster University in March 1993 [...]. An interdisciplinary conference, we believed, would provide the ideal forum in which to re-evaluate feminism's relationship to an institution which, however problematic, still has a major impact on everyone's lives. (9)

    [And, for those interested, if you scroll down to the bottom of this page you can see the call for papers for it.]

    This is a field that has been going on, in one form or another, for at least forty years.

    Yes, Peter Mann's 1969 The Romantic Novel: A Survey of Reading Habits (London: Mills & Boon) is 40 this year. I haven't been able to get hold of a copy of Andres Amoros's 1968 Sociologia de una novela rosa (Madrid: Taurus). Virginia Erhart was working on Corin Tellado in the early 1970s, Rachel Anderson's The Purple Heart Throbs: The Sub-Literature of Love dates from 1974 and Cawelti's Adventure, Mystery, and Romance was published in 1976 and there are quite a lot of other works from that decade.

    So romance scholarship has indeed been around a while and I very much agree that "the more we keep that history in mind, the better off our new work will be." It should help prevent us trying to "reinvent the wheel" and, perhaps even more importantly, it provides reminders of what the genre was like in the past, which gives us a better sense of the history of the genre. It can be easy to get a slightly lop-sided view of it when one's samples are mostly relatively modern works.

    Robin, your post at Romancing the Blog today was also a very good reminder in that respect.

    It seems like that time has finally come for Romance scholarship -- and perhaps also for a more openly collaborative relationship between Romance readers and Romance scholarship.

    I really do hope that the current burst of romance scholarship is a lasting one which brings the genre and its possibilities to wider attention in the academic community as a whole. From what Mussell said in her essay that I quoted above, the 1990s saw more academics who thought of themselves as romance readers, and more romance authors who were writing about the genre in academic ways. I agree with you that it seems that now, with the internet (and Jane's post that I linked to in my OP describes the history of the online romance community) opening things up for romance readers to communicate directly with academics and vice versa, we're seeing interesting and productive developments.

  6. I appreciate this crib sheet re: academic conferences of the past. Very helpful!

    Makes me wish I still lived on the east coast... my critique partner just went to the Princeton conference. I will admit to being a wee bit jealous!

  7. I've just come across details of another academic conference held in the past. It's

    "the Romance and Roses Conference held at Liverpool University in November 1995" (Dixon 183). [Dixon, jay. The Romance Fiction of Mills & Boon 1909-1990s. London: UCL P., 1999.]

    It was

    a day conference [...]. We aimed to hold a small conference which had four strands for papers and workshops: tradition, innovation, focus studies and debates. The Romance and Roses conference focused on Mills and Boon reading, writing and publishing in order to contain and thus sharply define the debates surrounding the fiction. It was hoped that the papers given would raise discussion concerned with teaching and research which would form the basis for a critical Mills and Boon undergraduate reader. Our call for papers asked for considerations of how the success of Mills and Boon marketing and fiction should be situated in the study and teaching of popular culture? To what extent has this mass circulation of material influenced the reading public? In what context should the texts and cultural practices surrounding them be analysed? We were very fortunate to have as plenary speakers Bridget Fowler and Helen Taylor as well as being able to achieve a balance between, researchers, cultural practitioners, writers and postgraduate students. (Association for Research in Popular Fictions)