How and when did you first decide to base your academic work on the romance genre?
Sarah: Looking back, I can now see that I've always done it without realizing it. My “official–? chronological focus–"in academic speak–"is Romantic Era British women novelists (between 1780-1820), but not Romanticism itself. Rather than the poetry of the time, I'm mostly interested in the domestic novels, which were really the romances of the late 18th and early 19th centuries. I'm also interested in popular literature for women through the centuries: Hannah More's incredibly conservative Coelebs in Search of a Wife (1809) and Mary Elizabeth Braddon's fascinating sensation novels Lady Audley's Secret (1862) and Aurora Floyd (1863) are equally interesting to me, although neither are in any way a precursor of the modern romance genre. My theoretical interest, however, is in examining how women write their male characters, an interest which transcends the centuries. I write about Darcy from 1814 and Zsadist from 2006 and I'm equally happy. And I've come to realize recently that various choices in my academic career mean that I have the freedom now to focus on modern romances rather than having to “make–? my career in my chronological area. And now is such an exciting time to be a romance critic, because of the surge in positive interest in the area, how could I NOT be involved?!
Eric: Well, I've always worked on the literature of love. My dissertation and first book, What Is It Then Between Us? is about “traditions of love in American poetry,–? from Anne Bradstreet to James Merrill and Adrienne Rich. In it, I touched on one love novel, A. S. Byatt's Possession: a Romance, which is probably my favorite book in any genre. In the fall of 2001 I started teaching seminars on that novel, planning to write a book on it, and one of the questions that kept coming up in class was “what's the relationship between the 'romance' in Byatt's subtitle and, like, 'romance novels'? My students didn't know anything about popular romance, or didn't 'fess up, anyway, but I sort of became obsessed with it. So I proposed a class on popular romance, and when I got a quarter off to do research on Byatt, I spent some of the time reading stacks and stacks of romance novels, in all different genres, along with Pamela Regis's wonderful A Natural History of the Romance Novel. (It was a dirty job, but someone had to do it!) The minute I started teaching the books, I saw how sophisticated our investigations could be–"how rewarding the books became when you read them closely, just like any other kind of literature. I decided that the Byatt project was going to be part of a romance novel project, and not the other way around, and told my colleagues. They, in turn, told me about the grant competition from the Romance Writers of America, which I applied for, won (to my utter surprise), and have been trying to live up to ever since.
What have you discovered about the genre as a result of studying it academically?
Sarah: I understand more about my own reading habits. Examining how women write their male characters has illuminated for me why *I* read romances, making finding them a lot easier, because I've become very conscious about what I like and why. I'm forever astonished about how snobby other academics can be about romances. I've learned to appreciate different writing styles and story-lines for their appeal, even if they don't appeal to me specifically. I've learned to appreciate the sheer diversity of romances. I don't think any other genre covers quite so many disparate topics while still having a single focus, and I think that's pretty powerful. I've come to understand the power of the reader and come to appreciate our many, many diverse opinions about the romance.
Eric: To me, the big discovery has been just how artful a romance novel can be. Book after book seems more subtle, more interesting, more deftly structured, more deeply, deeply smart when I read like an academic. It's a thrill, really, to realize that something that gives so much immediate pleasure can also yield such lasting intellectual gratification. Like Sarah, I've read a far wider variety of genres as an academic than I would have as a mere reader, and found books in all of them that fascinate and draw me in. I've also started to see how popular romance fits into the broader history of literature and philosophy about love, which goes back at least to Sappho (7th c. BC), and probably further. Socrates said that the only thing he knew anything about was “ta erotica,–? erotic things, so why not read an erotic romance with him in mind, and see what you find? Why not read the conversations in a Julia Quinn novel using Milton's ideas about marriage as “fit conversation,–? or the descriptions of art or poetry or music in a romance novel in terms of the aesthetics or histories of those arts? (Why not actually read the whole poems that characters quote one line from? That's what I do when I hit them in a “real–? novel!)