Romance 101: Can romance novels turn non-readers into booklovers?

A conversation about teaching, reading and romance with @RomanceProf Jessie Matthews

In the romance reading community we frequently talk about “converting” people. What we usually mean is getting friends or relatives who don’t read romance — and may even disdain romance — to open minds, to discover and enjoy romance novels. We talk about which books to put in the “conversion kit.”  For those who care about such things, there can be immense satisfaction in converting friends or relatives from uninitiated book snobs to romance aficionados.

But what about people who don’t like to read (fiction) at all?  My good friend and fellow romance reader Jessie Matthews teaches “the basics” of reading romance to undergraduates at George Mason University and many of her students arrive at the course not having read a novel since they were last required to in high school.  To get an idea of how she builds the course and chooses the required reading, check out Jessie’s recent star turn in this video and this one for the Popular Romance Project.

ENGH-202-Banner Liotard

Jessie’s course website banner, featuring Jeanne Etienne Liotard’s painting of Marie Adelaide of France (1753), now in the Uffizi, via Wikimedia Commons

Since I’ve been thinking a lot about my lifelong relationship with the romance genre and the ongoing conversation about how we define what is or isn’t a romance novel, along with musings about how the genre is evolving (younger readers, New Adult, erotica, etc.), I thought it’d be interesting to talk with Jessie about what happens when her reluctant-reader college students meet up with some of the best and/or most widely-discussed novels that romance has to offer.

The truth is I’ve actually been begging Jessie to “visit” Badass Romance since the beginning. Without her cheerleading, pragmatism, and feedback, I’d never have gotten over the hump from thinking about a romance & book blog to actually starting a romance & book blog. Never mind that I had been writing nothing but grants and university administrative wonkery for my dayjob, for nearly two decades. Jessie is one of the true-blue book friends whose encouragement helped me rediscover my love of writing about reading. From the time we met — 10 years ago in an online fan community of booklovers — we have always had the kind of big, exhilarating discussions that get us both excited to read more and do more with our shared love of reading romance.

Jessie jumped in and persuaded her department to support a literature course about romance novels; she’s now a regular at the academic conferences that focus on our genre. It took me a little longer to get around to doing something about romance, but so far, I’m having a lot of fun with the blog and many new friends in the romance twitterverse.  And it is a long-awaited treat and tremendous delight to have Jessie join me to chat about her groundbreaking course.

Pamela: Your course isn’t actually called Romance 101, but are there ways it is kind of like a (mini?) survey course? My (totally guesstimating) sense is that there actually aren’t very many undergraduate courses that teach romance novels in such a concentrated way. At the graduate and post-doctoral level there has been a real explosion of scholarship about romance fiction, from dissertations to documentaries, journals and conferences. But this is using romance fiction to teach undergraduates the fundamentals of textual analysis and composition. What made you decide to try framing a college literature and composition course around the history of the romance novel?

Jessie: I teach best when I am teaching literature that fascinates me, and romance fiction fits that bill. I like the genre’s diversity, its history, and the questions it generates, such as why are romance novels so popular, and, in some circles, still so widely disparaged? But I chose to teach romance novels for a general education literature course, the one–just one–required literature course for undergraduates at my university, to see if studying the genre could change student attitudes toward literature overall.

So many of my students are resistant to anything literary because “literary” equals “difficult” and time-consuming. They proudly boast that they don’t read novels, hate poetry, and rarely, if ever, see a play. I wanted to see if I could change that “group think” and get students reading fiction (as well as poetry—we do a bit of that as well) by choosing a genre whose outsider status in the academy might make it less threatening, and a genre that focuses on a topic that is of great interest to college students: intimate relationships. I guess you could call this a pedagogical bait-and-switch, but so far it has worked.

Pamela: How did you pick the books for the syllabus? Had you read them all when you started out?

Jessie: Aaagghhh!! Choosing texts! It’s the love/hate moment of designing the course. I begin my course planning with maybe 20 novels in mind, all of which I have read and want to teach, and all of which I feel have much to offer my students. Then reality sets in, and I remember that my students will read no more than five to six novels in a 15-week semester, and my buzz vanishes: I know it’s time to get down to business and make the hard choices. In the end, choosing what to teach boils down to novels that are good ambassadors of the genre, novels that showcase a range of literary elements, and novels whose context offers a productive area of exploration for students. Romance fiction offers an abundance of riches for each of these criteria, and having to choose only a few is one of the great drawbacks of teaching the course.

GMU Bookstore 50 Shades Display Feb 2013

George Mason University Bookstore, Feb 2013

The first time I taught the course, I aimed for representation and some points of connection (e.g., Pride and Prejudice and Bridget Jones’s Diary), but I learned that students dig more deeply into the literary aspects of the genre if there is an element that unites all the novels. So the next time I taught the course, I organized it around a theme. I used the Byronic Hero as the focus, and that made it easy to move from Jane Eyre to The Sheik to Rebecca to Fifty Shades of Grey. (This also made it possible to sneak in a little Byron and give my students at least some exposure to poetry). I would have called it the “Badass Hero” course, but you beat me to the punch on that title!

I want to emphasize, however, that there are many, many ways to organize a course like this.  Since my department requires that the class focus on context as well as literary analysis, I could have chosen romance novels that focus on activism (see Kelly’s recent post about social activism in the romance novel). I could also focus on a specific social issue, such as women and body image, where novels Jennifer Cruisie’s Bet Me and Susan Elizabeth Phillips’ It Had to Be You would work quite well. I’ve thought about designing a course around a specific subgenre, such as romantic suspense or paranormal romance. Of all the romance subgenres I have taught, these two have generated the most interest in students.

In the end, choosing the novels to teach in my course makes me more aware of what I couldn’t include and how those omissions will affect my students’ grasp of the genre. For example, I am always asking myself if “representation” is even possible in a undergraduate course like mine. Have I really taught the romance novel if I haven’t taught a Regency by Heyer or a Harlequin? I can’t really say yet that students finish my course with a good grounding in the genre. All I can say is that they enjoy the reading experience and liked having their assumptions about romance novels overturned.

Pamela: I was fascinated when you told me virtually none of your students fell for Lord of Scoundrels. Can you share a little bit about your students’ reactions to an iconic historical romance novel like that? And Jane Eyre — how did they fare with my beloved Jane and Rochester? Did they actually read the book or was this one of the ones where students “movie-d” the assignment?

Jessie: Literature challenges my students primarily because of its heightened use of language. Why spend so much time untangling the words in a poem or a novel when you can get the “quick and dirty” about it from Sparks Notes? I want them to grapple with the language, but I needed a way to seduce them into the work first so that I could show them why it’s worthwhile to do so.

Because romance novels end happily (a criterion that is becoming more flexible when assessing romance series), they get painted with a broad brush as formulaic and trite, but romance readers and scholars know that isn’t true; romance fiction is very diverse, including its use of language (even Jane Austen and Helen Fielding differ), so I knew I could introduce a range of texts that represented various literary elements and rhetorical moves, and even literary theory (we cover post-structuralism in Dark Lover) in a way that would gently coax students into the world of literature.

Pamela: OK, I’m guessing they didn’t fall head over heels with Jane and Rochester… But do you think over the several years you’ve been teaching this course, any of your students have become romance “converts”? Have you spawned any serious fangirls or fanboys? Are they aware of and/or participating in the online romance community?

Jessie: So few men take my romance novel course, and of those who did, all but one took it because they thought it would be easy, or it was offered at the time they needed, or they just wanted to meet some women. None of them has become a convert to the romance genre.

But I always have a few women in my course who become enamored of some book and begin reading other romances. When I assigned a Nora Roberts novel, a great many of my students began reading her work. They find her writing compact, her plots appealing, and the characters easy to “relate to.” But I don’t see obsession in those who read Roberts; I see comfort in knowing what Roberts will deliver.

Then there are my “bitten” students who fall in love with a series like the Black Dagger Brotherhood. I’ve assigned Dark Lover and Lover Eternal and had plenty of women in the class finish the novel in two days rather than the two weeks I allow for it. Once they’ve embraced the world of the Brothers, they go on to complete three or four books in the series before the semester ends. I can see in their faces that look of obsession, and it’s these students who head to online communities. They come to class telling me facts about the brothers, their shellans, and Ward herself, all gleaned from online communities, and I hear them sharing those facts with each other before class begins. I love hearing them become fluent in the vocabulary of that series (“Because he’s her hellren, that’s why!), but what fascinates me is seeing the joy they experience in becoming an expert about the books. More than a few of them have come up to me several semesters after our course ended to tell me things like, “Hey–The King is coming out in April! Are you going to read it?”

Pamela: I love that. I hope they find their way to some other great series with badass worldbuilding — maybe the steampunk romances of Meljean Brook, or the intense and erotic dystopian Beyond series by Kit Rocha…

I could ask you at least a dozen more questions, but we’ll stop for now since this did turn into yet another longish post. I hope I can convince you to come back for another chat — as you know, I’ve got several topics in mind and I am very keen to get your take on the intersections and exchanges going on between the romance reader/blogger community and academic scholarship about the genre and its readers.  To be continued!

Jessie-Matthews-Romance-Bookshelves-Web

in the office of the romance professor

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