Romance Scholarship & Collections- Where We’ve Been, Where We Can Go

On June 10, 2021 I was part of a panel at the RBMS 2021 conference titled “Happily Rarer After: The Radical Act of Taking Popular Romance Fiction Seriously” with my fantastic friends Rebecca Baumann of the Lily Library at Indiana University and Rebecca Romney, co-founder of the rare book firm Type Punch Matrix. We conceived of this panel as a way to get our colleagues in the rare book and special collections spaces to think differently about the romance genre. Rebecca Romney’s remarks situated the genre within publishing history, while Rebecca Baumann gave some great examples of ways romance novels can be used in book history instruction. I focused on a brief look at the history of scholarship and collecting related to romance within the academy. Below is an annotated version of my scripted remarks.

The academy and its libraries have long had a fraught relationship with romance fiction. It has been seen as an oddity to be studied, not literature to be enjoyed and appreciated, let alone collected in the library’s stacks. Over the past 50 years there’s been a change in these attitudes, but there remains much work to do. Today I want to talk a little bit about the history of studying and collecting romance from an academic point of view and how those of us in libraries and rare books can be a part of the genre going forward.

Several developments of the late 1960s and early 1970s would have long-lasting effects on the academic reception of romance fiction. The first was the development of Harlequin from a Winnipeg-based reprinter of fiction for the Canadian market to a Toronto-based romance juggernaut that sold millions of books across North America. Secondly, libraries began experimenting with special collections, which led to the inclusion of popular texts, including romance, in academic libraries. The rise of second-wave feminist theory gave scholars language, however derisive, that they would use for two decades to critique romance fiction. And finally the publication of Kathleen Woodiwiss’s The Flame and the Flower in 1972 turned romance fiction from a curiosity to a publishing and cultural force.

Harlequin’s growth as a publisher was fueled by marketing and savvy distribution methods, which saw the company’s books become synonymous with romance novels in the same way we think of Band-Aids as synonymous with bandages. Ubiquity made it an easy target for critics. Germaine Greer included Harlequin Romances, with their compulsory heterosexuality and dominant men, in her 1970 book The Female Eunuch as a key tool of enforcing patriarchal norms around love. Greer’s attitude became the standard when academics considered romance fiction, at least on the rare occasion it was considered, through the early 1980s.

In 1969, just a year before Greer’s book, Dr. Ray Browne opened the Center for the Study of Popular Culture at Bowling Green State University, which included a special collection library devoted to all things popular culture. It included everything from Mickey Spillane to Sears catalogs. Dr. Browne saw a library filled with popular texts as key to the development of popular culture studies and it was through this bold idea that the first romance texts began to make their way into an academic library, albeit almost accidentally and not as part of an intentional collecting policy.

As romance fiction exploded in the 1970s, there was little change in how the academy handled it. You won’t find many, if any, articles or chapters devoted to the millions of books sold by authors like Woodiwiss, Janet Dailey, or Rosemary Rogers. Instead, critics continued to focus almost exclusively on Harlequin’s books, and mostly in the abstract. In 1979, Ann Snitow published an article titled “Mass Market Romance: Pornography is Different For Women”. Snitow essentially builds on Greer’s arguments about romance, but takes them a step further, arguing Harlequin’s books are pornographic and actively harmful to women.

At the time of Snitow’s article, historical romances were frequently appearing on paperback bestseller lists, and category romance editors like Vivian Stephens at Dell/Candlelight and Carolyn Nichols at Jove/Second Chance at Love were expanding the form beyond the Harlequin stereotypes of meek heroines and brutish heroes. In these new style books female main characters had fantastic jobs and back stories that included past relationships, and male main characters began to be less domineering and more supportive. Yet until the mid-80s scholars stayed focused on the low-hanging fruit of Harlequin while the genre continued to evolve.

For the most part, libraries continued to share that dismissive attitude towards the romance genre. Public libraries rarely stocked romance novels, and academic libraries ignored the genre almost entirely. Meanwhile, academic libraries saw the publicity generated by Dr. Browne at Bowling Green, and slowly began to acquire popular culture collections of their own, though these were frequently more focused on single topics, almost never including romance, while BGSU continued to cast a wide net.

Around 1984 a shift in romance research towards social science approaches began. Janice Radway’s Reading the Romance (1984) and then Carol Thurston’s The Romance Revolution (1987) are some of the earliest academic studies of actual romance readers and the texts they love. Radway embedded herself with a group of Midwestern readers and discovered that the women she spoke with used romance as a way to separate themselves from patriarchal pressures. Thurston used content analysis as well as interviews with readers and authors to show that the romance genre was constantly evolving to match the changing place of women in modern society.

Radway’s work would in a few years inspire a unique project that further changed the conversation about romance. In 1992, romance author (and former librarian) Jayne Ann Krentz gathered a group of fellow authors, many of whom were also academics, to publish Dangerous Men and Adventurous Women through the University of Pennsylvania Press. The authors responded point by point to the various accusations lobbed at the genre by critics over the decades. This put romance authors into conversation with their critics and underlined the determination of the genre’s defenders to have their voices heard.

That DIY attitude would intersect with libraries in the early 1990s. Romance author (and former librarian- see a theme developing?) Cathie Linz became the Romance Writers of America’s first library liaison in the early 90s and immediately made inroads with public libraries, including bringing romance authors to the ALA and Public Libraries Conferences. At one of those conferences she met a BGSU alum who encouraged her to reach out to the Popular Culture Library, and in 1996 a partnership began. Linz worked with other authors to accumulate materials, and soon the library became home to the Romance Writers of America’s historical records, complete runs of the few genre periodicals, as well as dozens of manuscript collections, and thousands more romance novels. The university would also host academic conferences in 1997, 1999, and 2018 that brought authors like Susan Elizabeth Phillips, Jayne Ann Krentz, and Beverly Jenkins to campus as speakers.

Genre scholarship continued to evolve during this period. More academics who read romance themselves began to integrate the genre into their work, particularly in English departments. Pamela Regis’ A Natural History of the Romance Novel (2003) gave scholars a vocabulary to analyze romance as literature, and in 2005 the Romance Writers of America created its research grant program. The genre’s first dedicated journal, the Journal of Popular Romance Studies, was created in 2010 under the auspices of the International Association for the Study of Popular Romance, which also began to hold biennial conferences.

During this time, academic libraries finally began to notice the popularity of romance novels, and several small collections cropped up. In 2011, author Nora Roberts endowed the Nora Roberts American Romance Collection at McDaniel College, which includes her own works as well as award-winning and notable texts by other authors. In 2012, Harvard acquired several collections of nurse romances as part of their Women in Medicine collections. University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee has a similar nurse romance collection, which they used for an excellent online exhibit last year. Brown University includes romance novels as well as a handful of manuscript collections in its popular culture area, and Duke’s Rubenstein Library sometimes host talks as part of the University’s ongoing series of romance author talks. The collections at BGSU remain unparalleled in this area for both their depth and volume. Despite all this, and considering romance is the best-selling genre in America, these collections are few and far between.

And therein lies a tremendous opportunity for libraries, I think. There are thousands of romance collectors and authors out there who would be happy to see their collections find an institutional home. It’s not uncommon to find romance readers with storage rooms filled with romances from the 1980s- these folks want those collections to live on. And in many cases, they have accompanying ephemera collections that are just as fascinating.

Academic libraries can also find value in connecting with the broader romance community. As Radway discovered nearly 40 years ago, there is far more to romance than just the authors and publishers. There are plenty of folks outside of academic structures who are doing remarkable research. For example, last week at the Popular Culture Association conference the romance track included Andrea Martucci, host of the podcast Shelf Love, presenting her demographic research on the attitudes towards romance expressed by readers brought to the genre by Netflix’s Bridgerton series. The Fated Mates podcast, hosted by critic Jen Prokop and author Sarah MacLean, frequently explores the symbols and tropes of romance novels in ways that outsiders to the genre simply could not. DePaul University’s Dr. Julie Moody-Freeman hosts the Black Romance Podcast, an oral history project featuring some of the romance’s legendary Black voices. Those interviews will be published as part of a special issue of the Journal of Popular Romance Studies this year. 

During my time at BGSU I worked with Maura Seale from the University of Michigan to include these kinds of works and dozens more like them in web archives so that they can remain available to researchers for years to come. By actively reaching out to these bloggers and podcasters, we were also able to get them thinking about the long-term preservation of their work, something few had considered. So there’s a lot we can offer that can help build good relationships with these non-traditional researchers and potential donors.

I’ll close by saying that romance fiction has tremendous research potential- as literature, as a physical object, and as a social object- and now is a great time to work on growing your own collections. Thanks.

Published by Steve Ammidown

I'm a mercenary archivist interested in genre fiction, physical and digital usability in archives, and telling the stories held within the records.

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