As a treat today, one lucky commenter will win a copy of Emma Holly's "All U Can Eat!"
Professore, the podium is yours...
Good morning, class! Welcome to the special "Back to School" week at Romance by the Blog. I'm Eric Murphy Selinger, and here at DePaul University in Chicago, I teach undergraduate and MA courses on romance fiction. It's a tough job, but someone has to do it. Michelle thought you might like to hear about what happens in those classes, and about how this very male, very married professor of poetry ended up a fan of romance.
Most of the time, ENG 286 and 469 are just like any other English classes. We study the pre-history of the genre, from ancient Greek romances, with their pirates and shipwrecks and star-crossed lovers (think Skye O’Malley in togas), to the great debate between “romance” and “realism” that runs throughout the 19th century (quite helpful to know when you read Sarah Bird’s The Boyfriend School), to E. M. Hull’s The Sheik, which introduces us to our old friend, the alpha male. (I had a student once who wrote about the “alfalfa male” hero all through a midterm exam, but that’s a whole other story.)
As the novels get racier, my students often get a little giggly—picture thirty-four young women, three guys who don’t know what hit them, and me, discussing the bondage-with-donuts love scene at the close of Bet Me. But humor gets us through the rough spots, and I always let them discuss the books anonymously on line, as well as in class, so that the shier folks can have their say.
Twenty years ago, academics who studied romance did so as outsiders, often with an axe to grind. Times have changed. In my classes, we may read with psychology in mind, or philosophy, or history, especially women’s history, but mostly we talk about these books as books: “little worlds made cunningly,” to paraphrase John Donne.
Romance novelists play with the conventions of their form just as poets play with the conventions of the sonnet, or musicians with the givens of the twelve-bar blues. As my students read essays by writers like Jennifer Crusie and Laura Kinsale, they realize just how smart, self-conscious, and artful these novelists can be. The best new academic work on romance fiction, like Pamela Regis’s A Natural History of the Romance Novel, gives us a precise vocabulary to talk about that artistry, and in my class, we learn to use it!
When the course begins, most of my students are embarrassed to buy the books. By midterms, they bristle when the guy at the register snickers. By finals, when their roommates, classmates, and boyfriends call romance “soft-core porn for women,” they smack them upside the head with questions like this:
As we have seen in class, Hunting Midnight by Emma Holly isn’t just an “erotic romance”; it’s a novel about Eros, desire in the broadest, most philosophical sense. Write an essay that explores at least three different sorts of desire in Hunting Midnight: for sex, for knowledge, for freedom, for community, for mutual recognition, and more. Show how these desires end up related to one another, whether as versions of one another, as complementary or supplementary to one another, or even as contradictory, or mutually exclusive.
John Milton described "fit conversation" as the test of true love and companionate marriage. Write an essay about the various sorts of conversation in Julia Quinn’s The Viscount Who Loved Me. Why does Quinn have her hero and heroine talk in precisely these ways in this order across the novel? Be sure to think about the final, more "one-sided" conversation in the final chapter, in which Anthony speaks and Kate mostly just listens. Why might Quinn end the novel that way, rather than with an actual exchange between the two?
Here’s what one student wrote me, late in the quarter:
After being in this class for eight weeks I have found that I no longer shy away at telling people that I am reading romance novels. At first I would carry the book to work and stuff and kinda hide it or tell people that yah, it's for class I have to read it. But tonight I found myself carrying it around and not caring. Someone asked what book I was reading and I was like, yah, it's a romance novel, it's pretty good. In fact, I am now proud to say, yes I read romance novels...and like it!”
They’ve learned to take romance seriously, and just how good it can be.
Reading romance has changed my life, in big and little ways. When my daughter walks around the house belting out Dusty Springfield, when I actually notice women’s shoes, when my trusty research assistant hands me a book and suggests a little private, follow-up investigation, I have these novels to thank. (Twenty-two years after we first clashed in a sophomore Lit seminar, my wife and I finally agree about some books! Believe me, studying postmodern poetry was never this fun.)
These books have also introduced me to a world-wide network of writers and scholars, especially via the RomanceScholar listserv, the Wiki bibliography of romance criticism, and the jointly-written academic blog, Teach Me Tonight.
Since I’m still getting to know the best that romance fiction has to offer—the texts that a thoughtful, celebratory class really ought to include—let me ask you all this question:
What romance novels, new or old, do you think a course like mine should cover?
What are your “must reads” for my next romance syllabus?