Sunday, January 03, 2010


The new quarter starts Monday, here at DePaul, so I'm hard at work on the syllabus for English 469: Topics in American Literature: Popular Romance Fiction.

At the moment, our Required Texts are:
Susan Elizabeth Phillips, Natural Born Charmer
Laura Kinsale, Flowers from the Storm
J. R. Ward, Dark Lover
Joey Hill, Natural Law
Victoria Dahl, Talk Me Down
Ann Herendeen, Phyllida and the Brotherhood of Philander
Beverly Jenkins, Captured
Nora Roberts, Montana Sky
I say "at the moment" because I've just heard that the Victoria Dahl may have been hard for the bookstore to come by. NOT that I heard this from the bookstore, mind you--but I've called to follow up, and won't rest easy until I know for sure that it's in stock. (If it isn't, I'll use another Dahl--but the topics I wanted to pursue with Talk Me Down don't come up the same way in the next two books in that series, so I'll be thrown off, just a little. "Recalculating," as the GPS unit likes to say.)

Of those, I've taught five before (SEP, Kinsale, Ward, Hill, Herendeen); three are new, although I have a ringer in my class to help with the Roberts: An Goris, who's writing her dissertation on NR, has come to Chicago to work with me this year.

Here's the tentative Course Description:

American academics began to study popular romance fiction seriously in the 1980s, with the publication of Janice Radway's Reading the Romance and Loving with a Vengeance: Mass-Produced Fantasies for Women, by Tania Modleski. The conventions, genres, and readership of romance fiction have all evolved dramatically since this time, however, and critics have not always kept pace with them. In this course, we will explore some of the varieties of popular romance fiction (and of romance criticism) currently published in the United States. Using tools from cultural studies, feminist psychoanalysis, the philosophy of love, and aesthetic analysis, we will learn to read popular romance from a variety of contemporary authors and subgenres; in the process, we will get to know something about the lively, reflective on-line romance community. Our challenge, week by week, will be to make the novels as interesting as possible, by any means necessary.

As for the Course Requirements:

All students in this course will be expected to do three things:

  • Come to class with the books and / or articles read, and contribute to class discussion;
  • Deliver a thoughtful, well-organized in-class presentation on one of our novels—think of this as a succinct mini-lecture, about 10 minutes long, with an accompanying handout of quotations from critics, discussion questions, or anything else that can provoke subsequent discussion; and,
  • Write a scholarly or creative nonfiction essay (12-15 pp.), probably based on the presentation, that uses critical approaches studied in class to analyze one of the course texts.

My next big task is to assemble the secondary texts we'll read in the first couple of weeks.

Week 1: Introduction to the class, to each other, and to the novels we will study. Initial assignment of presentations. Discussion of "romance" as a literary term, especially in American literary history, with passages from Hawthorne, James, and Northrop Frye.

Week 2: Introduction to some of the critical debates surrounding popular romance fiction.

  • Germaine Greer, selection from The Female Eunuch (1970)
  • Tania Modleski, “Mass Produced Fantasies for Women” and “Harlequin Romances” (Loving with a Vengeance, 1982)
  • Janice Radway, “from New Introduction” (1991), “The Readers and their Romances,” and “The Act of Reading the Romance: Escape and Instruction” (Reading the Romance, 1984; rpt. 1991)
  • Laura Kinsale, “The Androgynous Reader”; Linda Barlow, “The Androgynous Writer”; Susan Elizabeth Phillips, “The Romance and the Empowerment of Women” (Dangerous Men and Adventurous Women, ed. Jayne Ann Krentz, 1992)
  • Tania Modleski, “My Life as a Romance Reader” (Paradoxa, 1997)
  • Jennifer Crusie, “Romancing Reality: the Power of Romance Fiction to Reinforce and Re-vision the Real” (Paradoxa, 1997), “Defeating the Critics” (1998), and “Let Us Now Praise Scribbling Women” (1998); available on line at
  • Pamela Regis, “The Romance Novel and Women’s Bondage” and “In Defense of the Romance Novel” (A Natural History of the Romance Novel, 2003).
  • Eric Selinger, “Re-reading the Romance” (essay-review of recent criticism, 2008)
  • Sarah Wendell and Candy Tan, selections from Beyond Heaving Bosoms: The Smart Bitches Guide to Romance Novels (2009).

That's the list I have so far--but it's more or less the same list I used two years ago, which leads me to believe that I've missed a few things. If you can think of anything for me to add, let me know!

After that, we turn to the novels themselves. Here's the order so far:

Week 3: Susan Elizabeth Phillips, Natural Born Charmer (Contemporary)

Week 4: Laura Kinsale, Flowers from the Storm (Historical)

Week 5: J. R. Ward, Dark Lover (Paranormal)

Week 6: Ann Herendeen, Phyllida and the Brotherhood of Philander (Historical—mmf)

Week 7: Victoria Dahl, Talk Me Down (Contemporary)

Week 8: Joey Hill, Natural Law (Erotic—BDSM)

Week 9: Beverly Jenkins, Captured (Historical—African American)

Week 10: Nora Roberts, Montana Sky (Contemporary)

If anything occurs to you about the sequence, let me know that as well. (I've been wondering whether to assign the Dahl before or after the Hill, for example.) I'll begin assembling ideas for secondary reading, topics, questions, etc., as the next week proceeds.


  1. It sounds as though it'll be a fascinating and thought-provoking course, Eric.

    It occurs to me that it might be nice to add in the "Quickie with Kay Mussell (November 1997)" which was published at AAR, both because of its content and because, having been written by Laurie Gold and posted at AAR, it's an instance of the "on-line romance community" being "reflective."

    I wonder if the recent discussion at Dear Author about cultural appropriation might also be useful in that regard, and it brings up some issues around race which I think aren't raised in the rest of the secondary texts you've listed (although I think they're mentioned briefly in Beyond Heaving Bosoms). The post (and attached comments) are interesting in themselves and the post also contains a link to a "video of a speech given by Nigerian author Chimamanda Adichie, titled “The Danger of a Single Story,”" which is very thought-provoking.

  2. There's this great article comparing the emotional arc of Ward's heroes to Austen's Darcy...

  3. Thanks for the suggestions, Laura & Sarah! I'll add them in.

    Am glad to report, by the way, that the Victoria Dahl arrived safely at the bookstore (Talk Me Down, that is). Will let you all know how it goes!