In some ways, romance novels are the dirty little secret of the literary world. Largely ignored by mainstream critics, regularly maligned by academics, and sometimes hidden away even by their readers, romances are nevertheless responsible for as much as 50 percent of annual mass market paperback sales in the United States. Now, the organizers of the Popular Romance Project (PRP) are trying to rewrite the narrative, bringing romance to the attention of those who might not already pay attention to the genre by showcasing its diversity and depth and the community of authors and fans that drives its enduring popularity.
The PRP is the brainchild of filmmaker Laurie Kahn, who is helming a documentary about romance novels, writers, readers, and how they interact. Love Between the Covers looks most closely at the community of readers and writers that has developed in the romance industry. Without much of a background as a romance reader to draw on, Kahn dipped her toe into the pool by attending fan conventions—only to be taken aback by its depth. “There’s a huge spectrum of the kinds of books that are in the genre, and the kinds of women that write and read them,” said Kahn, citing subgenres like African American romances, sf romances, lesbian romances, and historical romances. Those set in the modern-day range from evangelical romances to BDSM romances and everything in between. “The people who are reading and writing those are a varied group,” said Kahn. “But they all hold together in their commitment to these stories that follow these archetypal structures.”
From the start, Kahn and her collaborators always envisioned the PRP as more than a documentary. That meant not just building the PRP with four main aspects—Kahn’s film, an accompanying website, an academic symposium organized by the Library of Congress (LC), and programming for libraries courtesy of the American Library Association (ALA)—but ensuring that those aspects really played off of one another, resulting in a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. That’s already started, with the PRP website playing host to interviews conducted by Kahn in the course of her research that may not make the final cut of the movie.
Kelly Schrum, director of educational projects at the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media, manages the web end of the PRP. She told LJ that close cooperation between her and Kahn guarantees that material has a lasting, meaningful home. “For a lot of films, the website is ancillary. Being on the ground floor and collaborating from the beginning meant we could work on both together,” Schrum said. “There are ways in which the film is telling a story, and the website lets us fill in different pieces because we’re not bound by a two-hour format.” The site also hosts blogs from authors, academics, and librarians, offering a home for everything from discussions on the evolving publishing business to ruminations on researching historically accurate undergarments. “We want it to be a conversation,” said Schrum. “A place that people can come with whatever questions they want and interact with readers, writers, publishers, and scholars.”
In addition to the film and website, the PRP will partner with LC and ALA to sponsor a series of events to bring romance readers, writers, and researchers together. ALA hasn’t laid down concrete plans for its program, but public programs officer Susan Brandehoff said the PRP was a natural fit for ALA, owing to the consistent popularity of romance novels among library patrons. When they take shape, the ALA offerings will likely include screenings of Kahn’s film in the company of historians and scholars who can help to moderate discussions about it, as well as more generalized resources that will help local libraries showcase their own romantic offerings.
Where Scholarship meets Passion
LC’s Center for the Book is planning a symposium to explore the past and future of the romance novel form, scheduled to coincide with the release of Kahn’s film around Valentine’s Day 2015. Despite a small and growing body of academic literature on the genre, romance novels remain largely ignored in academia—when they’re not being used as an easy punching bag.
Eric Selinger, an English professor at DePaul University, Chicago, and an editor of the Journal of Popular Romance Studies, became interested in romance novels after studying love poetry and started studying the subject only to find there were not many other secondary sources with which to engage. Despite some very sophisticated analytical works, the field had never reached a critical mass academically. “Everyone who was working on this as a scholar thought they were working on it alone,” said Selinger. It’s a sense of isolation that may seem familiar to many romance readers—or at least it once would have.
In recent years, social media has helped to strengthen and build the community of romance readers. While it hasn’t necessarily brought the genre increased acceptance, it has proven fertile ground for enthusiasts to rave about—and nitpick—the books they love. Sarah Wendell, who runs the blog Smart Bitches, Trashy Books, says the burgeoning online community has helped many readers like herself feel less alone. “I underestimated how many people as romance readers felt isolated and were looking for a community of readers to share and connect with,” said Wendell. “We’re still growing, and I still get emails from people saying ‘Where have you been all my life?’”
Romance authors have also taken advantage of services like Twitter and Facebook to engage more closely with their readers. “It used to be that a reader who wanted to communicate with a writer had to make a big effort,” said Kahn. “Now, writers are in touch with their readers all the time, and to be successful, they have to build relationships with their readers.” Social media is increasingly a two-way street between writers and readers, sharing everything from pointers on period accurate language to publishing advice, since many romance readers are also aspiring writers. “These women are not hoarding the secret of how they’re doing this,” said Kahn. “They’re sharing with anyone who will listen.” That trend has only increased as self-publishing grows in popularity in the genre, both among established authors looking for a bigger piece of the bottom line and neophyte writers
Organizers hope that the PRP can build on that existing community to create a space where fans, authors, and academics can come to interact, sharing their thoughts not only on the current state of the industry and what they’re reading but on wider ranging issues like the historical origin of romance, the place of the genre in popular culture, and what its future might hold. While it certainly won’t supplant the thriving online community, it could offer new opportunities within it. Rather than just interacting with favorite authors, fans would be able to offer their insights to researchers whose work could benefit from the thoughts of readers who may not be credentialed but qualify as experts in the field nonetheless. Readers and authors, meanwhile, would finally get a chance to interact with academics and researchers who take their passions seriously, rather than offering the dismissals that have led fans and writers alike to largely ignore the academic world.
Mary Bly knows well how academia and romance can force a double life on those interested in both worlds. A Shakespeare scholar and professor at New York’s Fordham University, Bly also writes romance novels under the name Eloisa James, a fact she didn’t divulge to her employer until she’d been tenured there. While she understands the concerns it could have raised at the university—“I would be very wary of a young professor coming up who had a second career,” Bly said—she also points out that her alter ego has been a boon to Fordham. She’s sometimes sent to meet with VIPs who are much more likely to be familiar with James’s Regency-era romance novels than Bly’s Shakespearean scholarship. ”The university loves it,” Bly said. “Having Eloisa James has turned out to be a very good thing for them.”