Tuesday, April 14, 2009

"Long-awaited cultural recognition"

Via Smart Bitch Sarah and Twitter comes news of another article about the romance genre's seemingly recession-proof success. What's particularly gratifying is the fact that although the article uses the unfortunate "bodice-ripper" label, the focus here is on the fact that the genre is "enjoying long-awaited cultural recognition":

this spring the genre will be the subject of [...] an academic symposium at Princeton University [...]

"Romance fiction is fascinating to look at as a social barometer," says Eric Selinger, co-organizer of the Princeton symposium. "It registers tensions, ideas and debates about gender relations, about love, about marriage, and about the relationship between domestic and public spheres."

Selinger, whose romance scholarship grew out of a personal passion for reading the books — he credits his wife for introducing him to the pastime — extols the genre as "wonderfully unpretentious," with resilient, optimistic characters and "a level of artistry" akin to sonnets in the surprising ways authors play with formula and literary convention.

"It's an art-form that hasn't gotten nearly the attention or respect of other literature," says Selinger, who teaches graduate seminars on romance at DePaul University in Chicago.

The '70s and '80s were hard on the genre. But even leading feminists such as American scholar Tania Modleski, who once dismissed romance as reaffirming patriarchal fantasies, have since come to praise the genre's role in validating female desire.

"There's legitimacy to feminist concern over a certain narrow type of romance narrative," says Canadian scholar Catherine Roach. "But there's a much wider scope to the romance-fiction industry as a whole."

Roach, an Ottawa native and expert on popular romantic fiction, finds it suspect that critics who malign romance novels for their idealistic, happily ever-after tales don't also target equally optimistic messages aimed at men.

"You see James Bond novels and detective stories . . . perpetuating the myth that justice will prevail and bad guys will be punished in the end, which are also false stories," says Roach, an associate professor at the University of Alabama. "But things that are women-dominated tend to accrue less power and prestige in our culture."

The article, by Misty Harris, also includes discussion of the covers of romances and details of a forthcoming exhibition about them:

[Elizabeth] Semmelhack notes heroines of romantic fiction were taking jobs as doctors, travelling alone and creating their own economic advantages long before it was widely accepted to do so off the page. These changes are often visible on the books' covers, which the Toronto-based art historian feels are worthy of close examination.

"The same way Rockwell wasn't considered an artist for many, many decades but has now been added to the art history canon, many of these (romance) artists are very deserving of having their work looked at critically."


  1. Al this is wonderful, but wait ... you're on Twitter??!!

    Great interviews by Selinger and Roach. The bad rep of romance does not stand a CHANCE with these folks, the TMT crowd, and the SBs around.

  2. but wait ... you're on Twitter??!!Not exactly. I'm just reading some tweets via my Google Reader. If someone doesn't have their tweets padlocked on Twitter, then there'll be an RSS feed of them which can be sent to the Google Reader.

    Great interviews by Selinger and Roach. The bad rep of romance does not stand a CHANCEI thought it was a really good interview too. I was thrilled by how much space was given to the comments by Catherine Roach, Elizabeth Semmelhack and last but very definitely not least, Eric. As you say, if more articles about the genre start to include quotes from romance scholars (and others in the romance-reading community - I saw an article in the New York Times which quoted Jane from Dear Author, and the SBs are getting a lot of coverage of Beyond Heaving Bosoms) there's a hope that the genre's reputation might begin to change among non-romance readers.

  3. do you happen to know if anyone summarized Beverly Jenkins' talk about AA romance?

  4. Gina, Sarah Frantz has notes on the conference, but so far she's only had time to post summaries of the first Keynote Roundable ("Romance Fiction and American Culture") and Session 1: Love and Faith: Romance and Religion. She's been very busy setting up IASPR, and she also hasn't had time to post about any of the sessions on romance which took place at the Popular Culture Association conference in New Orleans earlier in the year.

    There is a paragraph on Beverly Jenkins's talk in Karen W.'s summary of the whole conference (posted at Dear Author).

    Joanne Rendell's summary at the Huffington Post only gives one sentence about it: "Beverly Jenkins, a best selling author of African American historical romances, for example, spoke of her book about a free man who goes back into slavery for love."

    Hillary Rettig's summary of (and thoughts on) the conference includes a bit more about Beverly Jenkins. It's also at the Huffington Post.

    I don't think I've come across any other summaries of the conference which mention Beverly Jenkins's presentation.