Friday, May 23, 2008

RWA Academic Research Grant: The State of Romance Scholarship

As a requirement to receive disbursement of the RWA Academic Research Grant, I had to write a description of the "State of the Scholarship" in romance criticism. I jump-started myself at Romancing the Blog, but took a while longer to finish the essay. I thought I'd post it here (slightly edited), to let y'all see the exciting times we have ahead of us in romance scholarship. So, without further ado:

The Future's So Bright, We'll All Need Shades

I can say without reservation that romance scholarship has never been better and the future is even brighter.

Since the early 1980s, there has always been a steady trickle of academic books and articles about popular romance fiction. Every year or two another book would be published or dissertation written that seemed either to excoriate or defend popular romance fiction. Recently, however, two noticeable changes have occurred in the publishing field. First, the trickle is now a steady stream of books and articles. And secondly, rather than the general tendency to hold one of two polar positions about popular romance fiction, current academic research into popular romance fiction has the critical mass now to be generally much more nuanced. It is generally accepted now that romances are worthy of being studied, as any cultural artifact is. As such, we recognize now that popular romance novels are themselves contested cultural artifacts, potentially reactionary and revolutionary at the same time. Current academic study teases out the different narrative strands of ideological influence in popular romance fiction, while respecting the texts, and while recognizing that the authors and readers that make up the romance community are knowledgeable, desirous, autonomous subjects.

One example of the critical mass of study is the exponential increase in a serious presence of popular romance fiction at academic conferences. The Romance Area of the Popular Culture Association, chaired by Eric Selinger and Darcy Martin, had ten panels at the PCA national conference in April 2008, up from no panels in 2006. Eric Selinger is organizing a one day invitational conference on popular romance and American culture to be hosted by Princeton University in April 2009 and the First Annual International Conference on Popular Romance will be hosted by the Queensland Institute of Technology in Brisbane, Australia in August, 2009, in conjunction with the annual conference of the Romance Writers of Australia. Additionally, a group of scholars hope to present two or three panels at the annual conference of the Romance Writers of America in July 2009, to demonstrate to the romance writing community what it is that academics actually do, and to emphasize the fact that we are fans of popular romance fiction as well as critics.

One thing the recent conference panels on popular romance fiction have demonstrated is the caliber of work being done, not only by full-time academics, but by graduate students. An Goris, Shruthi Vissa, Severine Olivier, Glinda Hall, Jayashree Kamble, Joanna Fedson, to name a few, are doing intensely theoretical graduate work on popular romance fiction that provide brilliant promise for the next ten years of academic study of romance. Goris is tackling formal genre theory in her dissertation, while Vissa and Kamble examined popular romance in light of postcolonial theory and racial and gender categories in theirs. Olivier uses sophisticated translation theory to examine European translations of romance novels, while Fedson provides much-needed analysis of inspirational romance. Hall's dissertation expands romance criticism into Heritage Studies, while Hsu-Ming Teo, a lecturer in Australia, is an historian. While the current crop of academic critics of popular romance fiction studied in other topics and then came to romance after they wrote their dissertation or well into their career (Pamela Regis is an Americanist, Eric Selinger is a critic of poetry, I am an eighteenth-century scholar, for example), the current graduate students are writing their dissertations on popular romance and will hopefully get hired with that specialty, raising the profile of popular romance as a legitimate topic of study across academia.

One thing I thought of after I sent off the document two days ago is the truly international status of romance scholarship. It's not solely grounded in the USA, but is strong in the UK, in Europe, and especially in Australia and the surrounding island nations. This international focus is particularly exciting, because the readership for romance is so international, that it's important that the criticism is as well.

Online romance communities are both cause of and contributing factor to the increase in quality academic work on romance novels. Reader blogs like Smart Bitches Who Love Trashy Books and Dear Author, communities like All About Romance, individual writer blogs like Jenny Crusie's Argh Ink, and joint author blogs like Fog City Divas and Goddess Blogs, to name just a few, all contribute to an intelligent, respectful, and analytical conversation about popular romance. On the academic side, there is an active Romance Scholar listserv for up-to-the-minute discussions of issues affecting romance scholarship, a continually updated bibliography of Academic Romance Scholarship on the Romance Wiki, as well as Teach Me Tonight, a joint academic blog about popular romance fiction.

Finally, the three larger romance-related projects I will be pursuing this summer (in addition to the three individual articles about romance I plan to write) reveal the ever-expanding scope of current romance scholarship. The anthology of academic essays I am editing with Eric Selinger, The Mind of Love: New Perspectives on Popular Romance, has just been accepted for publication by McFarland, for a September 1, 2008 delivery date and publication (hopefully in soft-cover) in 2009. While editing the volume, I am also working to launch the International Association for the Study of Popular Romance (IASPR), attached to which will be the online, peer-edited Journal of Popular Romance Studies (JPRS). Finally, Eric Selinger, Pamela Regis, and I will be working hard to complete a proposal for a Cambridge Companion of Popular Romance Fiction, which, if accepted, will provide a volume that will be marketed for classroom use across the English-speaking world, as well as providing the study of popular romance fiction much-desired academic legitimacy.

As an academic, it is literally a one-in-a-million chance to be able to build a field like this from the ground up, but that's exactly what's happening right now. The opportunity to be involved in that process, and to guide it to a certain extent, is both terrifying and exhilarating. But I believe that I and my colleagues are more than up to the task.

The image of the pink sunglasses is from


  1. As a fellow academic and romance author, I applaud your efforts. It is long overdue. Maybe someday people will stop asking me if I'm ever going to write a "real" book.

  2. This is all very exciting. I'm especially looking forward to the online journal. As I said at the PCA conference, if you need any help or extra hands on the project, I'd be more than happy to pitch in.
    --Angela Toscano

  3. Angela, we'll definitely be taking you up on that! You'll hear from me within the month.

  4. Lovely work, Sarah, thank you for putting this up here. Will this essay be published more formally?
    Like Angela, I'm also interested in working on the journal, so let me know what, if anything, I can do.