Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Taking myself seriously: A defence of romance


There’s been some discussion recently about what makes a #seriousacademic. That discussion, sparked by this Guardian article, centred on academic and public engagement, particularly on the use of social media tools to talk about research. That discussion has prompted some of my own musings about seriousness and academic research – in particular, why it sometimes feels like my research field isn't taken so seriously.
 
Next week, I’m doing an Edinburgh Festival Fringe show about my research. It’s called ‘Can Anyone Write a Romance Novel?’ and it’s part of the Cabaret of Dangerous Ideas, where academics are invited to discuss ‘dangerous’ ideas from their research. There are some pretty controversial topics in there. For example, Should we let extremist speak? Are children an environmental threat? Should we still have zoos

And then there’s my dangerous idea: Should we take romance novels seriously

Initially, I thought that my dangerous idea was pretty benign, certainly when compared with some of the other topics on offer. But the longer I work in higher education and the longer I read, write, and publish on romance, the more I’ve realised that the idea of taking romance seriously, particularly in higher education, is anything but benign. 

The problem is that being someone who researches romance sometimes isn’t really seen as serious at all. I’m a #seriousacademic (who also happens to blog from time to time but that’s another issue). I’m a medievalist. I’m trained in gender studies, in literary studies, and in cultural studies. I’ve published my research, including a book on medieval literature, gender, and race. But – and this is the part that people can get stuck on – I also research popular romance. 

I've been asked in a job interview by the head of an English department how I can conduct legitimate academic research on romance novels that are clearly (in his opinion) terribly written. Only after I patiently and carefully explained that the romance genre is diverse and creative and worthy of study did he reply: “I should probably read one”. Casting shade on an entire literary genre without ever having engaged with it is something that happens curiously often with romance. 

On another occasion, when discussing teaching romance to English students with a senior colleague, I was challenged on wanting to include such texts on the curriculum. I suggested that the popularity and diversity of romance, in addition to their ability to inspire discussion about what ‘good’ literature is, should be justification enough. Yet this colleague could not get past the idea that ‘they’re just not good enough to be canonical’ and therefore not worthy of sharing with undergraduates. 

To be fair, it’s not just modern popular romance. Medieval romance has been at the sharp end of criticism from literary critics for hundreds of years, not least from the ‘father of English poetry’ Chaucer himself, who (in the voice of the host of the Canterbury Tales, Harry Bailey) declared romance “nat worth a toord [turd]”. In fact, it’s only recently that medievalists have recognised that medieval romance is a great way to find out more about the medieval imagination (plus there are some amazing plots). 

I’m not blaming my colleagues for their particular views on what constitutes good literature. There’s clearly a wider discourse at work that isn’t just (or even mainly) about romance scholars. Romance readers have, for decades, been teased, ridiculed, and even abused for their reading choices. In fact, it’s gotten so bad, that many romance readers have moved to reading romance electronically using ereaders like Kindles (on a Kindle, no one can see you’re reading a romance novel). So, you might ask, why should I expect to be taken seriously when I research something that isn’t taken seriously by anyone?

Leaving aside the arguments for why wider society doesn’t take romance and its readers seriously (spoiler: it’s because it’s written and read by women - Laurie Kahn’s recent film Love Between the Covers does an excellent job of setting this out), I want to focus on a different point – why we should take the academic study of romance seriously. 

Academia is supposed to be a place where we analyse and expose the kinds of discourses that surround romance novels, not where we, either subconsciously or knowingly, replicate them. When any discussion around romance is shut down – when we don’t teach undergraduate students about literature and value and choice – we are sustaining that narrow-minded attitude that doesn’t take romance seriously. 

We study other popular literary genres all the time; I have seen modules, journals, and funded research projects devoted to thrillers, crime fiction, detective fiction, and adventure novels. What’s ironic is that we study and research popular romance all the time, we just don’t call it that (I’m looking at you, Pride and Prejudice, Pamela, 50 Shades of Grey). 

So, as I plan to set out in my show next week, I think it’s time that we start taking romance seriously. It’s time that we recognise (and value) its position as the most popular form of genre fiction in the world. It’s time that we showcase the rich, evolving history of romance that stretches from ancient literature to the most contemporary publications. It’s time that we stop blindly criticising something we haven’t read, and instead invest our energy into finding out what makes this fascinating, diverse and, yes, popular genre tick. In short, when it comes to romance, it’s time we start acting like academics.

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