Professor’s study of romance novel helps bring genre respect

September 21, 2009

Romance fiction is the best-selling genre of popular literature, accounting for $1.4 billion in annual sales and outselling both religious/inspirational books and science fiction fantasy, according to the Business of Consumer Book Publishing. Although its 8,000 new titles are read by 51 million people each year, the romance novel has only recently garnered some of the respect that many believe it deserves.

And that, in no small part, is due to McDaniel English Professor Pam Regis.

A leading crusader and an oft-quoted scholar on romance literature, she is the author of “A Natural History of the Romance Novel” – the 2003 landmark book that helped bring acceptance and respect to the genre.

Regis has been quoted in newspaper and magazine articles and invited to speak at conferences, including the July 2009 national convention of the 10,000-member strong Romance Writers of America and a scholarly conference called “Love as the Practice of Freedom? Romance Fiction and American Culture,” sponsored in April by none other than the bastion of academic respectability, Princeton University.

Her expertise and opinions appear in stories in the Los Angeles Times, U.S.A. Today, the Chicago Tribune and in a June 2009 New Yorker piece on Nora Roberts – which Regis points out is a double whammy.

“I’m there (quoted in the article) because of my having made the point that the romance is not ‘just’ trash,” she says, underscoring the significance of a publication such as the New Yorker profiling the top-selling romance writer.

Such was not always the case.

In fact, these are fairly recent developments. In the early years of Regis’ scholarly attention to romance fiction as a form worth studying, she was criticized and all but ostracized from the academic community when she presented a paper noting Jane Austen as a romance writer. Furthermore, the Johns Hopkins-educated professor said in her presentation, the early 19th -century British author of “Pride and Prejudice” and “Emma” was a genius, in her time and today for that matter, the best romance writer ever.

“Austen is THE best – she deploys the structure better than anyone has,” Regis says. “When I teach Austen, I teach, among other theories, my view of her work through my work on romance.”

Although nearly 20 years have passed, Regis will always remember it as her Davy Crockett moment since the paper was delivered in San Antonio, home of The Alamo, where the famed frontiersman and statesman perished.

“Oh, it was ugly. I was under siege,” said Regis last week. “They attacked. They handed me my head.”

In those days, Regis stood essentially alone among academics in believing that romance fiction is indeed worthy of study and recognition as a legitimate, centuries-old form. The harsh criticism rattled the young professor, but she remained undaunted.

A self-confessed "Janeite," as Kipling dubbed Austen fans, she had become interested in romance novels for two reasons. First, a friend in graduate school, Dr. Kathleen Gilles Seidel, pursued a career as a romance novelist instead of a college professor, and the two talked about Seidel’s work.

“And two, the romance criticism that was around when I began my thinking about the form in the early ’80s was so negative, so condemnatory of the form, that I thought, ‘Really!? Can all these women really be choosing to read such toxic literature, and is it really harming them in the ways that these critics claim?’” Regis says.

“My answer to these critics was ‘A Natural History of the Romance Novel.’”

Published by University of Pennsylvania Press in 2003 and available through McDaniel’s bookstore and Barnes & Noble and Amazon online, Regis’ treatise traces romance literature back to Samuel Richardson’s 1740 blockbuster hit, “Pamela.” She defines the romance novel as “the story of the courtship and betrothal of one or more heroines,” and notes eight essential elements of the story.

No matter what obstacles the heroes and heroines encounter along the way, romance novels all have happy endings, Regis says. Critics often claimed that the storyline was “silly and empty-headed,” but Regis sees “serious ideas.” She counters critics who said the genre was about women’s bondage with her belief that it is about freedom and so “popular because it conveys the pain, uplift, and joy that freedom brings.”

At the same time, other literature professors were beginning to take a different view of romance novels. They too were studying it as a literary genre – some inspired by Regis’ book and others on their own. One young professor approached Regis at a conference and told her how much she loved the book and asked if they could talk.

Slowly but steadily, romance fiction was attracting the attention of serious literary scholars. The number of readers was also increasing, Regis says, and they weren’t hiding out in closets devouring these sometimes steamy tales of love. They read Harlequin imprints in plain view on the subway and in the neighborhood park.

Women from Wall Street to Main Street, in laboratories and lavatories, openly consumed such titles as “Vision in White” from Roberts’ Bride Quartet and Jodi Thomas’ “Tall, Dark, and Texan.” And, they unabashedly clamored for more.

That was the tipping point, Regis says, explaining that acceptance grew gradually with multiple catalysts. Serious scholars across three generations are studying what they now recognize as a literary genre. There are not only more readers but they are more than willing to admit they read and enjoyed “Sizzle and Burn” by Jayne Ann Krentz and “The Edge of Desire” by Stephanie Laurens. At the same time, the audience of receptive critics has grown.

Today, Regis is a member of a group of professors from around the country who have a blog – in several variations of hot pink – about romance novels called “Teach Me Tonight: Musings on Romance Fiction from an Academic Perspective.” ( )

Recently, she was named vice president of the newly formed International Association for the Study of Popular Romance, ( ) an organization founded by popular-romance scholars Sarah Frantz and Eric Sellinger to further scholarship in the academic field and to publish the Journal of Popular Romance Studies, which will debut in February.

And these days, when her office phone rings, it could be the New York Times or the online Huffington Post or a morning talk show asking her to give her take on romance novels – and the hows and whys of their acceptance and respectability – or the latest romance title to hit the Top 10 list of bestsellers.