Saturday, April 12, 2014

Funding for Studying Romance: "Unwarranted"

Pamela Regis has described romance as "The Most Popular, Least Respected Literary Genre" (xi) and for years romance readers and authors have been mocked. Now, though, our genre is being used to attack Government spending.

I've been watching the story unfold over the past few months. On the 17th of December, under the headline "Federal government has spent nearly $1 million on romance," Yahoo News reported that funding for the Popular Romance Project had been
highlighted in the 2013 “Wastebook,” an annual report released by Oklahoma Republican Sen. Tom Coburn that highlights taxpayer-subsidized programs that he argues are questionable or unnecessary, especially during a time when lawmakers are viciously debating spending levels and how to trim the nation’s $17 trillion debt.

The Romance Project is just one of nearly 100 programs targeted by Coburn’s report, which also includes a documentary on superheroes, promotion of a Green Ninja character to educate children about climate change, and a zombie-themed video game for math education.
Someone obviously has their doubts about the seriousness of popular culture (and possibly doesn't believe that climate change is happening). But what strikes me is that out of "nearly 100 programs," the one which gets the most attention involves romance. Presumably that's because romance is seen as a particularly frivolous subject.

Details of the "Wastebook" report were also published at The Blaze under the headline "Here Are the Top Six Most Ridiculous Things the Gov’t Spends Tax Dollars On." Their selection of programs was different but yet again, romance was on the list and Breitbart's Frances Martel decided to focus almost entirely on romance.

Romantic Times immediately attempted to stage a fight-back, with Elisa Verna arguing that
romance is important. It's important to readers, to the publishing industry and to how we connect with and make sense of our culture. It's important because it promotes female sexual agency in a positive way.
Specifically addressing the funding for the Popular Romance Project, Eloisa James was quoted as saying that
The National Endowment for the Humanities recognized the importance of documenting women’s lives [and] women’s industry. Documentaries are expensive … especially if you’re following people for three years. It’s a huge, huge project capturing an industry. The website is merely the vocal piece for what will be the film. It’s a very intellectual pursuit and study of a huge business.
On the 19th of December, however, Fox News was reporting "'50 shades of no': Critics slam taxpayer-funded romance novel website." While it included a rebuttal from the NEH, it also quoted Matt Philbin, managing editor at Culture and Media Institute's Media Research Center, who felt that "This is a perfect example of an unaccountable government arbitrarily wasting our money. A $1.4 billion private leisure industry obviously doesn't need federal assistance." Of course, it wasn't the whole of the romance publishing getting a subsidy, but I suppose that's just an inconvenient detail.

Debates about government funding will probably continue indefinitely but I had hoped that this would be the end of the story as regards the funding of the Popular Romance Project. No such luck.

At the end of January USA Today published an article by Windsor Mann: "Romancing Uncle Sam: Nothing is Too Stupid for Washington to Subsidize" and that article was quoted on 10 April 2014 when:
U.S. Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL), Ranking Member of the Senate Budget Committee, [...] released a letter sent to National Endowment for the Humanities acting chairman Carol Watson regarding certain projects her agency has funded, including an expansive “Popular Romance Project.”
Sessions asked the NEH to
identify any additional romance projects and the amount of funding for each project NEH has funded the last five years. In addition, please explain how these films or projects have deepened the understanding of the humanities or contributed to public support and confidence in the use of taxpayer funds.
I can't help but wonder if romance being used as a weapon to humiliate the NEH has potentially serious implications for popular romance scholarship.

Adams, Becket. "Here Are the Top Six Most Ridiculous Things the Gov’t Spends Tax Dollars On." 17 December 2013. The Blaze.

Mann, Windsor. "Romancing Uncle Sam: Nothing is Too Stupid for Washington to Subsidize." 30 January 2014. USA Today.

Martel, Frances. "Feds Spent Almost $1 million on Romance Novel Website." 17 December 2013. Breitbart.

McKay, Hollie. "'50 shades of no': Critics slam taxpayer-funded romance novel website." 19 December 2013. Fox News.

Moody, Chris. "Federal government has spent nearly $1 million on romance." 17 December 2013. Yahoo News.

Regis, Pamela. A Natural History of the Romance Novel. Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania P, 2003.

United States Senate Committee on the Budget Republicans. "Sessions Questions National Endowment For The Humanities Over Dubious Expenditures." 10 April 2014.

Verna, Elisa. "In Defence of the Popular Romance Project." 17 December 2013. RT Book Reviews.


  1. Heather Schell13 April, 2014 00:48

    This is so vexing! In addition to the critics' assumption that popular romance has no value, I see several related factors at work in US culture right now: an ongoing American distrust of intellectual pursuits, especially the humanities; a strong dislike of government spending on anything, even such basics as poverty relief, education, or health care; a powerful desire to curtail anything that empowers women; that same powerful desire raised to crazy desperate determination when it comes to women's expression of sexuality, incl. measures one would think could raise no controversy, such as access to affordable birth control, Plan B, etc.

    Laurie Kahn's brilliant, collaborative project is a challenge to every one of those closed-minded prejudices. I hope this fracas won't harm her project, and that the NEH weathers it as they have similar challenges in the past.

  2. I agree with Heather, I'm also annoyed, but not surprised. Yet, I cannot help but think to myself, "Popular romance has arrived!" I know that may sound ridiculous, but if the news is discussing popular romance studies it will get people talking. On a completely selfish note, this is excellent material for my term paper. :)

  3. Wow, I feel like a dunce for not knowing that PRP was gov-funded, lol. I thought it was another promo site, lol... I don't know if it's absolutely critical, but I know 1mil is a drop in the bucket. That's not what's running up the deficit, let's be real, it's Defense.

  4. The sad thing is that this Republican critic towards romance is making fun of and criticizing something that some feminist seem to hate as well -romance novels. With the same prejudices and the same lack of knowledge about the genre.
    And in the end here we are millions of readers from all around the world, buying books from very powerful publishing companies from North America, and those few that try to study and understand this phenomenon without prejudices find these very unjust critics.
    I think the citizen of any country should have a word in what the money the government gets from taxes is spent. But please don't talk about a very very little part of the budget. Talk about all the budget and who is taking the main part of it. Only then we can have a real perspective & knowledge of how our money is spent and ask our governments to spend it in this or in that.

  5. Brings to mind when Governor Bobby Jindal mocked the funding of volcano monitoring, as if it were some sort of frivolous expenditure for scientists to monitor active volcanoes on our own soil.

    If I only read the Yahoo article or saw the news bit on Fox, maybe I'd say the same thing--what a waste! However, I saw the researchers in person at RWA Nationals last year. They are doctorate level researchers conducting a sociological survey which touches into gender issues, gender inequality, social norms, etc. It is a very female-centered study that goes far beyond "Let's ready sexy books!" In one hour they could barely cram in all the data they'd worked up and they'd only just started the project.

    This is low-hanging fruit for politicians to direct attention to while more serious issues are overblown. Honestly, are we really that surprised that a female-empowering study is getting heat from them when some of those same politicians think women shouldn't have the right to birth control? These are troubling times.