Welcome to Read-A-Romance Month 2016!
If you’re a new visitor to RARM, I hope you’ll come back every day in August to read all the wonderful pro-romance posts this year. Check out the full calendar here. You can also find links to the last three years’ posts from the boxes in the sidebar, and if you’d like, you can follow RARM on Facebook. Enjoy August!
Wonderful, Worthy Romance
It’s just before 1 in the afternoon on a muggy summer Monday in Chicago. I’m sipping iced coffee in a gem of a classroom—a corner of wood and glass and sun—on the top floor of DePaul University’s Arts and Letters Hall. As my students straggle in, I check my printout of notes on The Brightest Day, the Juneteenth-themed anthology of historical romance novellas by Lena Hart, Kianna Alexander, Piper Huguley, and Alyssa Cole that came out this time last year. I’ve never taught this book before, and I’m itching to get started.
Up till now, the class has been pretty routine for me. We started with a showing of Love Between the Covers, the award-winning documentary film I worked on as a “scholarly advisor,” and for which I worked up a set of multimedia resource guides. Last week we studied Homecoming, the college-set f/f contemporary by Nell Stark. I’ve had that book on my syllabi for years, paired with Stark’s Very Useful essay (co-written, as Katherine Lynch, with Ruth Sternglantz and Len Barot of Bold Strokes Books) on “Queering the Romantic Heroine: Where Her Power Lies.” The Brightest Day, though? It’s almost as new to me as it is to my students. We’re in this one together, feeling our way forward, figuring out the right questions to ask: the contexts and approaches that will make this book, as our classroom slogan goes, as interesting as possible.
There aren’t a lot of us teaching courses on popular romance. When I started, back in 2005, I heard tell of two or three others here in the States, a couple more in the UK, and another few down in Australia. Add the folks who put romance alongside other forms of popular fiction, or who mix it into a course on race or gender or women’s studies, and the number grows, and keeps growing, a few more every year. At the Journal of Popular Romance Studies you can read pieces on romance pedagogy from some of the seasoned professionals: Julie M. Dugger’s ““I’m a Feminist, But…”” looks at teaching popular romance in an American women’s literature context; German scholar Karin Heiss takes students in Bavaria on a semester-long, in-depth inquiry into British Regency and desert romances; down in Melbourne, meanwhile, Beth Driscoll introduced her students to the study of authorship, genre, and textual analysis through Nora Roberts’s Spellbound.
These courses matter—but not, I think, to romance. Romance fiction does just fine without academic attention, just like SF/Fantasy, detective fiction, and, frankly, every other kind of writing. (Vachel Lindsay once wrote that the best thing you could do for poetry in America was to kick it out of the classroom entirely, letting it flourish as the alternative to required reading. As a poetry scholar by training, I’m not sure that he’s not right.).
No, if these courses matter, and I think they do, it’s to students, and to us faculty. To keep romance novels out of the classroom is to teach students there’s something radically unworthy about both these books and their readers. Sometimes it’s not even subtle. I had a senior colleague, now retired, who used to ask his intro to literature students if they’d ever read a Harlequin romance, and if anyone raised her hand—and it was usually a “her,” as you might expect—he’d say, in a withering tone, “You should be ashamed of yourself.” I had a student—a junior, a philosophy major, in our honors program—who couldn’t bring herself to buy the books for my seminar. “It’s just too embarrassing,” she told me. “I’m not the kind of person who reads books like these.”
I teach my classes for students who already love romance, and finally get the chance to say so. I teach my classes for students who’ve never thought about the genre, but are willing to give it a go. But most of all, I teach romance for students like that philosophy major: the students who think—or who’ve been told—that they’re too gifted, too jaded, too literary, too skeptical, too smart; too happily single, or married, or poly; too feminist, too radical, too queer, too male, and so on, to bother with “books like these.”
I don’t win them all over to the genre. Tastes differ, and that’s not my job. But I do win them all over, year after year, to taking romance seriously—and, by extension, to questioning what they’ve been taught, often since grade school, about what makes a book “good” or “important” or “interesting.”
As I told Bobbi when she invited me to Read-a-Romance-Month, I don’t think of myself as a romance advocate. I’m a romance scholarship advocate. I read these books slowly, one at a time, then I teach and talk and write about them.
It’s nice work, if you can get it, and it’s how I #LoveRomance.
Eric Selinger recommends:
I’ve already mentioned two of the books I taught in my summer class: Nell Stark’s Homecoming and the anthology The Brightest Day by Lena Hart, Kianna Alexander, Piper Huguley, and Alyssa Cole. If you’re wondering what else was on the syllabus—and I don’t teach books that I can’t recommend—it was the amazing intercultural historical romance My Beautiful Enemy by Sherry Thomas, which plays out in 19th-century England, China, and Central Asia; Blue Steel Chain by Alex Beecroft, the third of Beecroft’s trilogy of contemporary m/m romances set in Trowchester, “the fourth smallest city in Britain” (this one has a domestic violence subplot, and some of those scenes are pretty rough, but there’s so much kindness and grace elsewhere that the novel leaves me weeping for joy every time); and finally Prosperity, the tour-de-force steampunk novel by Alexis Hall that gleefully mashes up high-art and popular sources from Westerns, Joss Whedon, and Wilkie Collins to H. P. Lovecraft and Charles Dickens, a remix of “romance” as HEA love story and “romance” as sheer narrative extravagance, in all of its ancient, capacious variety.
Questions for the Scholar:
Tell us about a moment in your life when you felt romance surrounding you.
When our kids were young, my wife and I spent a couple of vacations in a cottage in Connemara, right on the coast. No phone, no TV, no radio, no internet, no signal: just a huge bay window looking out on the ocean and sky, a fireplace, and two comfortable chairs where we sat and read our way through stacks of romance novels, side by side.
Tell us about someone special in your life (other than your partner) with whom you share romance.
My students! I’m not afraid to tell them how much I love a novel or poem we’re studying, and every now and then we’ll hit a line or a passage or topic that makes us all fall silent, or sigh. And they share their favorites with me. I’ve been introduced to Buffy the Vampire Slayer, to Bollywood films, to Jeff Buckley’s “Hallelujah,” by students who felt they could let down their guard and talk about what they love.
Do you have a place in the world or a sound that you equate with romance?
Blame it on my crushes back in Jewish summer camp: the sound of sung Hebrew (Israeli, not Ashkenazi, pronunciation) can sometimes send me swooning. If you spot me closing my eyes super reverently at a service, it might be for very inappropriate reasons!
Who is your (or a) favorite romantic couple?
My grandma Glick was the most beautiful, curious, peaceful woman I’ve ever known—but when she was young she was a daring, independent-minded flapper who travelled the country and over to Europe writing reams of amazing letters to her sisters. She ran off with my grandfather and married in secret, and to the day he died, he looked at her with utter adoration, a man who still couldn’t believe his good luck. Now that’s a couple!
If you mean books, gosh… Cal and Min, from Jennifer Crusie’s Bet Me. Quinn and Lori, from Start Me Up, by Victoria Dahl. Most recent fave: Ash and Darian from Alexis Hall’s Glitterland. Those are touchstone couples, to me.
Tell us about your dream date.
Remember my answer to question 1? My dream date is a week or two back at that cottage—this time without the kids! And if it has wi-fi or cell phone service now, turn that off before we get there.
I’ve arranged with Bold Strokes Books , Riptide Publishing and Piper Huguley to give away e-copies of some of the books Eric recommended, and Sherry Thomas will give away a copy of My Beautiful Enemy. One lucky winner will win an e-copy each of Brightest Day, Blue Steel Chain, Homecoming and Prosperity . Two separate winners will win a copy of either Homecoming or My Beautiful Enemy. (US only, apologies to international friends.)
Thanks so much Piper, Sherry, Bold Strokes Books and Riptide!
To enter the giveaway, leave a comment below or on the *Facebook post you’ll find here (or both – Share the Love!) ;o) by 11:59 pm PST August 22, 2016. Good luck!
(*You don’t have to like the FB page, but we do recommend it. It’s easier to contact you if you win. Also consider joining the Read-A-Romance Book Club page, where we discuss romance of all kinds and will have drawings and events throughout the year.)
Eric Murphy Selinger is Professor of English at DePaul University, Executive Editor of the online Journal of Popular Romance Studies, and President of the International Association for the Study of Popular Romance. Since 2005, he has taught about thirty courses exclusively focused on popular romance fiction, at both the graduate and undergraduate levels. Through this work, he hopes to convince academics, and the public, to accept romance novels as literature.
His books include What Is It then Between Us: Traditions of Love in American Poetry, New Approaches to Popular Romance Fiction: Critical Essays (co-edited with Sarah Frantz Lyons), and the brand-new critical anthology Romance Fiction and American Culture: Love as the Practice of Freedom? (edited with William Gleason).
Buy Eric Selinger’s books:
*Please note that the Amazon button, most cover images and many text links connect to a Read-A-Romance Month affiliate portal. Thanks so much for your help & support!