Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Teaching the Romance Genre: Eric Selinger

Issue 35 of the French-language romance webzine Les Romantiques is now out (in a Flip/Flash version and as a pdf) and it includes an article on various men who read romance novels. One of them is Teach Me Tonight's Eric Selinger. If you want to find out more about how Eric became a romance reader, or the various categories into which he places critics of the genre, you'll have to read the original article. But for those who prefer to read in English, here's an English version of what Eric told them about the courses on the romance genre which he's taught at DePaul University.

As of this fall, I’ve taught about twenty courses on the genre, at both the undergraduate and graduate levels—everything from historical surveys (usually starting with E. M. Hull’s The Sheik) to courses on romance since the 1990s to single-author seminars. (I’m teaching a 10-week interdisciplinary seminar right now on Laura Kinsale’s brilliant novel Flowers from the Storm.) Every one of these courses has gotten a wonderful reception both from students (who fill them up whenever they’re offered) and from my colleagues, who seem interested and spread the word to their own students as well. I’m sure there are schools out there where a course like mine would be resisted by faculty or by the administration, but DePaul has been very supportive.

Now, it may well be that I get this response because I’m a man teaching the course, or because I already had a good track record teaching more traditional courses (modern poetry, etc.). But I don’t think so. I know that romance novelist Lauren Willig recently taught an undergraduate seminar on historical romance at Yale, and it was very well received. My hunch is that the times have changed, and the impact of cultural studies on the American academy has opened this door quite wide—it’s just a matter now of having faculty walk through it.

Most of the students in my courses have been women. At first I’d have no men at all, or only one or two. Slowly, though, that’s begun to change. Last spring I had eleven men in my senior seminar on romance, which was almost 1/3 of the class. None of them had read romance before, but a few really came to enjoy it, and would shoot me emails during the term to ask for recommendations. (I had one gay student who wanted me to suggest some m/m paranormal romances, which I found very amusing—he was delighted to discover how many subgenres there were, and to realize that if he wanted to read something, it was probably out there!)

As a rule, my students love the course, and have very positive reactions to it. Many go on to be regular romance readers, and many find this course an opportunity to connect with female relatives—mothers, aunts, grandmothers—who are already readers. Even the ones who don’t go on to be readers have a newfound respect for the genre, and they begin to notice how often it’s made fun of in the media or by other professors. (I have one colleague who’s had to change his usual pitch about how much better literary fiction is than genre fiction, because my students started objecting and telling him, “That’s not what Prof. Selinger says.”)

The authors I teach will vary from course to course, and a lot of authors I’ve only taught one or two times, but the most frequent ones recently would be:

E. M. Hull (The Sheik)
Georgette Heyer
Victoria Holt
Kathleen Woodiwiss
Nora Roberts
Laura Kinsale
Loretta Chase
Jennifer Crusie
Susan Elizabeth Phillips
Beverly Jenkins
Suzanne Brockmann
J. R. Ward
Alex Beecroft (author of the wonderful m/m romance False Colors)
Ann Herendeen (Phyllida and the Brotherhood of Philander)
Victoria Dahl


  1. As a teacher, I think this ROCKS! It almost makes me want to go back and get an English degree so I can teach something like this. (Though I might be able to swing something from a psychological POV, since that's my field).

    For now, though, I'll just have to figure out how long it would take me to commute to DePaul and audit one of these. *grin*

  2. Can I ask why you don't include Austin?

  3. Sure! I certainly thought about it. But she's amply taught elsewhere in my department, both in our core survey courses and in specialized ones, including a course on Austen in lit and film that considers her in the context of popular culture.

    Also, I didn't want to take time away from 20th and 21st century authors and novels, especially the ones that students would assume the worst about (as they might assume the best about Austen's).

    If I had a semester to work with, I'd start earlier--probably back with Greek romances, in fact. But with only 10 weeks to a quarter, I've decided to keep the time frame narrower, and it's worked reasonably well so far.

  4. Noelle, I share your feelings. I'd love to sit in on one of Eric's classes.

    Re psychology and fiction, have you come across the OnFiction blog? It's "a magazine with the aim of developing the psychology of fiction. Using theoretical and empirical perspectives, we endeavour to understand how fiction is created, and how readers and audience members engage in it." Here's something from a post Keith Oatley wrote last year:

    I have turned the Romantics' idea of art as the expression and exploration of emotions into a small set of psychological hypotheses (Oatley, 2003), which Maja Djikic, Jordan Peterson and I (2006) have started to test. We compared the ways in which writers of fiction and physicists talk about themselves and their work in interviews. We found that fiction writers were far more preoccupied with emotions, especially negative emotions, than were physicists. So literary art tends to come from people who are concerned with their emotions—especially negative ones—and they tend to share these emotions with others, perhaps to help allay them.

    Looking at the bibliography they've got here, it seems that the psychology of the relationship between fiction, writers and readers is proving a fruitful area for research.

  5. Well, that makes sense! I just wondered because I often use Austin to "validate" the genre when I'm arguing with those who pooh-pooh romance literature.

    I am an curious anthropologist meandering in a clueless manner about the field of lit critique, so I have to ask for these signposts about every three feet.

  6. I have sat in on three of Eric's courses last year and can attest that they are absolutely wonderful! In fact, one of my main purposes of being a ten-monght Fulbright visiting research scholar at DePaul was to take part in Eric's classes on the popular romance genre. He is doing wonderful things for the romance genre, for his students, and for the field of popular romance studies. I hope many more professors will follow his example.