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Interview with Romance Book Professors: Dr. Frantz, Fayetteville State University...

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!)

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Jane Litte is the founder of Dear Author, a lawyer, and a lover of pencil skirts. She self publishes NA and contemporaries (and publishes with Berkley and Montlake) and spends her downtime reading romances and writing about them. Her TBR pile is much larger than the one shown in the picture and not as pretty. You can reach Jane by email at jane @ dearauthor dot com


  1. Emma
    Apr 16, 2007 @ 06:08:29

    This is a fabulous interview; thanks so much.

    I have one question for Sarah and Eric. It seems as though you’re mainly soliciting articles from practitioners (agents, writers, editors), not formal theorists. This makes me curious about your target audience for the book. I’m appalled by the elitism within the academy toward romance, so I say this with reluctance, not approval — but it seems to me that because of the nature of your contributors’ qualifications, academe is more likely to treat the volume as ethnographic evidence than as a solid theoretical contribution.

    Is your target audience the romance reader, then? Or, to put it another way: what do you hope to achieve with the book within your discipline?

    Also, maybe I missed it, but I’d love to know who’s publishing the volume. I’d feel very warmly toward the academic press that took this.

  2. LinM
    Apr 16, 2007 @ 06:25:10

    Wow – I started reading this groaning at the length and I’m still groaning because this was too short – there are so many points touched on but not explored. One highlight (out of many):

    My theoretical interest, however, is in examining how women write their male characters, an interest which transcends the centuries.

    The biggest criticism has come from the male students, actually, and it's about the heroes: they say that they're “caricaturesâ€? of masculinity, not enough like real men.

    The majority of the books I choose to read are written by women in any genre – both because of the portrayal of the female characters and because of the focus & development of the storyline. Crusie’s experiment with co-authoring may address issues with characterization but doesn’t address differences in plot development.

    BTW: Glad to see DearAuthor back. Will the preview feature come back? (I’d say that I don’t want to complain but that’s a lie.)

  3. Jane
    Apr 16, 2007 @ 06:38:54

    Thou asks and thou receives. ;) I had forgotten. When I read the interview answers, I felt like there were a hundred and one follow up questions to ask. We might have to cobble together another interview.

    Emma – you have a good point that so many of the papers are from educators, authors and so forth. I think that one of the problems may be that readers are intimidated and think that their works aren’t to the caliber of the other included papers. But as a reader, reading other reader’s thoughts, particularly in a collection like this, would be fascinating.

  4. Devon
    Apr 16, 2007 @ 06:53:29

    Great interview. A lot of what I find completely fascinating about romance was touched on–what they say about social mores and female sexuality, and the utter diversity of the genre, bound together by certain conventions and the HEA. And the why of it all, why are romance so perenially and widely appealing. I do find romance novels inspire a certain amount of self-examination: what is it about this sub-genre, hero or particular story, that worked so well for me? What is it about this particular fantasy that appeals to me and why? What does that say about me (if anything).

    I love 19th century domestic novels too, Prof. Frantz! Good luck to you both on your academic ventures.

  5. Sarah S. G. Frantz
    Apr 16, 2007 @ 08:25:36

    Actually, at this point, we’re soliciting article proposals from *anyone* and we hope to have a wonderful mix of theorists and what Emma terms “practitioners.” Two articles I can say with confidence that will be included are one by Glen Thomas and (hopefully!) one by Mary Bly/Eloisa James that are both very theoretical in nature (you can see a summary of Glen’s paper here and a summary of Mary/Eloisa’s here. And Mary/Eloisa is wearing both her academic cap and her romance author cap. Ideally, the book will BECOME the new theoretical foundation for understanding romances–that’s our ultimate ambition. The thing is, WE’RE also appalled by the elitism of most of the academy toward romances and we’re hoping to start changing that with this book.

    Publishers are usually solicited for academic books after it’s been written. We’re going to start hunting after we’ve accepted proposals and we’re starting with the top academic presses. So I guess our audience IS academic, but we’re also hoping that interested romance readers will take a look at the volume.

    LinM, I’m actually writing an article for Eric’s OTHER book about Jenny Crusie that addresses her collaboration with Mayer and how it affects the characterization of the male characters. We’ll let y’all know about that, too, when it comes out.

    Devon, thank you!

  6. Eva Gale
    Apr 16, 2007 @ 10:00:53

    LinM, I'm actually writing an article for Eric's OTHER book about Jenny Crusie that addresses her collaboration with Mayer and how it affects the characterization of the male characters. We'll let y'all know about that, too, when it comes out

    I’m very interested in reading that one. (It goes along with my magic hoohoo theory :) )

  7. EC Sheedy
    Apr 16, 2007 @ 10:10:28

    Fabulous interview, great questions–and answers!

    Now I am really looking forward to reading Dr. Frantz and Dr. Selinger’s book. I’m guessing we can count on this blog to inform us of its release date? :-) Thank you, Jane, and all for some very informative and interesting reading.

  8. Anji
    Apr 16, 2007 @ 10:22:10

    The biggest criticism has come from the male students, actually, and it's about the heroes: they say that they're “caricaturesâ€? of masculinity, not enough like real men.

    I found this really interesting, and I’d be interested to hear what students think of books like Nora Roberts’ Seaswept, which is often cited as a books that depicts male interactions realistically. Or other books written from the male POV only.

  9. Monica
    Apr 16, 2007 @ 10:37:57

    Fabulous interview. I look forward to reading the book. I was wondering whether either of you has ever looked at the issue of labeling and how it affects our perception as readers–for example, historical genre romance v. historical fiction. The latter is perfectly acceptable to most people while the former is often dismissed as “trash.” Yet to my mind there is very little difference between Phillipa Gregory, Anya Seton, or Elizabeth Chadwick and many historical-heavy romance writers such as Marsha Canham or Penelope Williamson. I won’t use Diana Gabaldon because although she is shelved in romance and most people I know would characterize her as romance, from what I understand, she doesn’t consider her books to be romances.

  10. Love and Romance » Blog Archive » Interview at Dear Author
    Apr 16, 2007 @ 11:15:01

    […] by Jane Litte at Dear Author. The interview, in all its lengthy glory, can be found here. Notice the 1-6 at the bottom of the screen: if you get two academics at their computers answering […]

  11. Jackie L.
    Apr 16, 2007 @ 13:33:40

    “(Why not actually read the whole poems that characters quote one line from? That's what I do when I hit them in a “realâ€? novel!)”

    Dr. Selinger, I had profs like you back when I was a lit major in college, who considered it fair game to test us on books that were only mentioned in the footnotes of the text that was assigned. ‘Nuf said about that.

    Ann Maxwell who also publishes under Elizabeth Lowell frequently co-writes (or co-wrote) with her husband Evan. I find her male characters are more believable–possibly as a result.

    Interesting article. One problem I have as a fan is that thinking critically about romance “ruins the glow” for me at times. Maybe that old lit major thing again. I wonder if you two experience anything similar?

  12. Sarah Frantz
    Apr 16, 2007 @ 13:42:06

    Monica, while I haven’t thought about that myself, we’d love for someone to propose it for our volume….::whistling innocently::

    Jackie L., I’m now pretty much completely INcapable of reading without analyzing, so I’ve learned to get my glow through the analysis. Mostly, what that means is that if there’s a book I wouldn’t like anyway, I know more WHY I don’t like it. Ditto books I do like. And I can now read and enjoy books as a critic that I wouldn’t normally like as a reader, so I guess that’s a plus.

  13. Eric Selinger
    Apr 16, 2007 @ 14:27:27

    Jackie, I promise, I’d NEVER put something like that on a test! I just think it’s, well, fun–and I always find out new things when I do my homework (grin).

  14. Robin
    Apr 16, 2007 @ 19:40:34

    Okay, totally OT, but I can’t resist: Eric, what do you think of the Dershowitz/Finklestein tenure mess?

  15. Eric Selinger
    Apr 16, 2007 @ 20:34:48

    You know, it’s all too reminiscent of those 70s bodice rippers to me. (Grin.) I’m actually so swamped with projects right now, Robin, that I’m watching it from the sidelines–I don’t have time to go and read Finkelstein’s work to judge for myself, and I’m not about to take Dershowitz’s word for it, so it’s hard for me to say much of any interest. I’ve certainly been approached by faculty to take a stand, and have been practicing my Bogart impersonation: “I stick my neck out for nobody.” Who knows–maybe if I repeat that often enough, Lauren Bacall will show up and make an honest man of me!

  16. Robin
    Apr 16, 2007 @ 21:41:48

    You know, it's all too reminiscent of those 70s bodice rippers to me.

    Ha, but will true love win out in the end??

    Regardless of the players involved, the idea that one scholar would try to intervene in the tenure process of a scholar at an entirely different university scares me on levels I cannot even access all at once. I can only imagine what the pressure is like for faculty on the DePaul campus right now, especially given the real-world political issues involved. Who knew that academic politics would eventually involve something important?? No romance, but passion, nonetheless.

  17. Eric Selinger
    Apr 17, 2007 @ 06:04:44

    It is pretty horrible–and long-planned. I (and other Jewish faculty) were approached a couple of years ago by an outside organization to get us fired up against NF so that we would work to block his tenure case from within. The university is weighing, I’m sure, the black eye of a lawsuit against a wave of publicity that says DePaul is a bad place to send your Jewish kids, because of NF’s presence on campus. Ugly stuff.

  18. Robin
    Apr 17, 2007 @ 10:12:21

    Eric, you have no idea how much I understand about what’s happening on your campus. I have the law school debt to prove it. De Paul is not by far the first or only campus to experience these tensions. Me, I’m firmly in support of academic freedom for everyone — it’s the only winning and ethically imperative “side,” as far as I’m concerned.

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