Friday, April 11, 2014

So You Want to Write a Ph.D. Thesis on Romance...

--Eric Selinger

A few days ago I woke up to an email inquiry about how to turn a research interest in popular romance fiction into a dissertation.  The inquiry came from a Turkish graduate student, but the set of problems that she faces--wondering where to start; a supervisor who doesn't know the genre or the field, etc.--seems pretty common all around the world.  
If you're in her shoes, what should you do?
The first thing I'd suggest is to keep reaching out to others in the field.  In the "Academic Links" column on this page, for example, you'll find a set of organizations you can join, starting with the RomanceScholar listserv, which will put you directly in touch with a range of professors, independent scholars, graduate students, librarians, romance authors, and others, all around the world.  Queries get answered, and offers to help are common. You can also find leads to other scholars, established and emerging, by looking at the romance blogs listed on this page, and by reading through the interviews and blog posts at the Popular Romance Project, which I help to edit.  If you're a social media person, you can follow me on Twitter (@JPRStudies), and join the Facebook group of IASPR, the International Association for the Study of Popular Romance.

No matter the mode of contact, we're a pretty friendly community, and it's not uncommon for us to get messages out of the blue.  Go ahead and reach out--what can you lose?

There are also a number of online scholarly materials that both you and your supervisor can peruse, to get your bearings.  I'd encourage both of you to take a look at the Romance Scholarship Bibliography, which will let you see what has already been published on any number of topics in popular romance fiction studies, with links to all of those that you can jump to and read online.  (Many dissertations are linked here--take a look, especially at the recent ones!)  Spend some time reading over at the Journal of Popular Romance Studies, the free, peer-reviewed journal of cutting-edge scholarship on love in global popular media.  And look through Teach Me Tonight for notices about and links to new or freshly available journal articles.  A lot of good work has come out in the last five to ten years, and that should be the context for your research.
In that column you'll also see three books by contributors to Teach Me Tonight:  Pamela Regis's Natural History of the Romance Novel (2003), Laura Vivanco's For Love and Money: the Literary Art of the Harlequin Mills & Boon Romance (2011) and New Approaches to Popular Romance Fiction: Critical Essays (2012).  These are not the only useful books on romance fiction, by any means, but if you're interested in the ways that the genre can be read from a literary studies perspective, as opposed to sociologically or historically or politically, they will be helpful to you.

  • I got my own start as a romance scholar by reading Pam's book, and others have found it equally useful, especially the first couple of chapters, which set forth her basic conceptual model of the genre. 
  • My courses on popular romance fiction are currently built around Laura's book, which provides an expert guide to finding the literary artistry in popular romance novels--it does a fine job tracing the history of their reputation as formulaic or thoughtless fiction, too.
  • As for the third book, which I co-edited, it contains over a dozen very helpful essays, but the most important material for you as a new scholar might be the Introduction, which traces the history of popular romance studies as an academic field from the 1970s through about 2010, with some attention to how that study has developed differently in the US, UK, and Australia.  (For non-Anglophone romance scholarship, you'll probably need to consult the online Bibliography.) 

The next step I'd suggest is for you to think long and hard about what subset of romance fiction you want to study.  There was a time when you could aim to write about "the genre" overall, but that time has probably passed, and your supervisor is unlikely to give the thumbs up to a project that's too general.

Is there a particular trope or convention that you want to look at, the way that historian Hsu-Ming Teo looks at Orientalism and popular romance in her fine book Desert Passions?  Do you want to focus on a particular romance subgenre, like the Regency romance, or paranormal romance, or Amish romance?  Do you want to look at a particular publishing house--Avon, or Harlequin Mills & Boon, or Bold Strokes Books--or a particular author?

Several romance scholars, including Lisa Fletcher and An Goris, have written about issues of corpus selection:  how to choose the books that you plan to address.  Get to know what they say, ask questions of those already in the field, and be prepared to face tough questions from your supervisor about why you've chosen these books out of the thousands which are published every year.

I'm sure there's more to be said, and I hope to rustle up some voices in the comments to add to this post, or to reply with posts of their own.  Watch for those, good luck, and welcome to the field!


  1. On Twitter Jodi McAlister said she'd "add - talk to grad students currently in the field! They've done the same stuff very recently, & can offer useful advice."

  2. And be bold. Challenge the field to go in new directions. The Roundtable on Regis's book, for example, offers suggestions on where the field has been and where it might go.