Prof of English at Princeton, Bill Gleason is one of the nicest guys I know. When I met him, I was 25 and didn't have my degree yet. I remember his still treating me as if I had intelligence and something to say.
Today, he wants to hear what you have to say about romance novels, and is asking some very important questions, the answers to which should be listened to as we define romance for ourselves and the "outside" world.
Oh. One lucky commenting Bella wins Diana Gabaldon's "A Breath of Snow and Ashes!" Another, Toni Blake's steamy "Swept Away." Professore, the podium is yours...
Wow, this has been such a fun week. Can we get a quick round of applause for Michelle for putting this all together? Thanks, Michelle!
Here’s my story: I teach English and American Studies at Princeton University, including courses on the history of American popular literature. For example: I teach an undergraduate course on “American Best Sellers” that runs from the colonial era to the present. We start with a thunderous Puritan poem called THE DAY OF DOOM (a catchy ballad about judgment day) and work our way through some of the most widely circulated American texts of the past couple hundred years, with heavy sampling from the 19th and early 20th centuries.
I try to include examples of the most popular genres—seduction, adventure, romance, the sentimental novel, the western, detective fiction, children’s literature, and so on—and I focus primarily on the massive best sellers, books like UNCLE TOM’S CABIN, LITTLE WOMEN, TARZAN OF THE APES, GONE WITH THE WIND.
In my experience, many of the students come to the course feeling interested in, but also a little superior to these books. (“Well sure, they were popular, but they can’t actually be any good, can they?”). Others take the course because one book on the syllabus—almost always GONE WITH THE WIND, but sometimes LITTLE WOMEN—is their favorite novel of all time. (Interesting combination, no?)
So it’s not a romance fiction course per se, like the ones Eric teaches, although sometimes we do read “real” romance novels. But the idea of romance, and particularly the appeal of the romantic plot, enters our discussions nearly every week. (Did you know that the subtitle of the first Tarzan novel was “A Romance of the Jungle”? Talk about your alfalfa male!)
And so here’s where I could use your help. Whatever the genre, I try to get the students to think about literary and cultural history (what helped make these books so incredibly popular in their particular moment?), about audience (who was reading these books, and why?), and about narrative power.
It’s the middle topic—who was reading and why—that critics and historians of popular literature traditionally have the hardest time figuring out, because most spend no time talking to actual readers. So:
If you could give a guest lecture in my course, what would you tell my students about romance readers and romance reading? What assumptions do you think college students have about this genre, and what myths would you want to dispel?
You could talk about what makes one romance novel better than another for you, or any other details about your reading, from the profound to the mundane:
Where and when do you read? How do you pick your next book? Do you reread your favorites, or prefer to keep moving to something new? Why?
I’m probably not even asking the right questions. Maybe a better question is: What should students interested in romance readers and romance reading be asking you?