By Joy E. Held
The RWA Academic Research Grant has extended monies to independent scholars for projects related to romance writing, reading, and cultural impact for the past fifteen years. Since its inception, the committee has awarded close to $80,000 in the United States and internationally. Twenty-seven individuals have received funds to date and applied them to a diverse collection of thought-provoking questions.
Past RWA Board member Lynn Coddington was among the first to suggest creating a grant. Mary Bly, Madeline Hunter, and Kristin Ramsdell, some of the earliest committee members, followed Coddington’s lead for the grant to “provide seed money, hoping a romance research community would grow from it.”
Six previous winners—Eric Selinger (2006), Pamela Regis (2010), Jonathan Allan (2015), Kim Wilkins (with Beth Driscoll and Lisa Fletcher, 2015), Kate Brown (2017), and Jodi McAlister (with Claire Parnel, 2019)—talk about how the grant affected their careers and about the future of romance in academic research.
Joy E. Held: Briefly describe the project to which you applied the RWA Academic Grant.
I come to romance from literary studies—I wrote my first book about love poetry, and I used to think of myself primarily as a poetry scholar. I was used to reading poems as individual aesthetic objects, and used to paying attention to how poems about the same subject were different from each other, so I’ve never been satisfied with scholarship on romance that tries to talk about the genre in general. I wanted to write essays—I think my project said three of them—on the aesthetics of particular romance novels considered as radically individual works of art.
Support for writing a history of the American romance novel, mostly to purchase eighteenth- and nineteenth-century American romance novels.
What I set out to write, and what I ended up writing, were very different. Originally, I wanted to think about the happily ever after that is so essential to the genre. I wanted to make use of affect theory, to think through the promises of happiness. But very quickly, I realized what I was interested in were the heroes, and so my attention shifted and focused on heroes.
Our RWA Academic Grant, “The Genre World of Romance in 21st-Century Australia,” investigated the relationships between authors, publishers, and other intermediaries that form the “world” of Australian popular romance. It was a pilot study of our “genre worlds” theory about popular fiction, with a focus on romance fiction, that laid the foundations for a successful Australia Research Council Discovery Project, which was awarded AUD$316,000 for three years in 2016. A genre world is a collection of people and practices that operates according to established and emerging patterns of collaborative activity in order to produce the texts that make popular genres recognisable. Our RWA project developed this study through three text- and interview-based case studies of romance novels by Australian authors: The Winter Bride by Anne Gracie, Darkening Skies by Bronwyn Parry, and Chaos Born by Rebekah Turner.
This is how I described the project in my proposal: There exists an unacknowledged benefit to reading the modern historical romance: readers become unwittingly well-versed in the intricacies of English law. Legal terms-of-art like “entail” and “dower” appear in the historical romance, as do complex circumstances involving inheritance, guardianship, and the civil rights of single and married women.
Because so many historical romances are set in places like England, Ireland, Scotland, and America, these novels are furtive primers on English common law. Readers who enjoy the work of authors ranging from Jane Austen to Lisa Kleypas become familiar with the complicated ways in which significant swathes of English substantive law and judicial process structured the eighteenth and nineteenth century societies inhabited by many historical heroes and heroines. This general acquaintance with land-law legalese, as well as the laws of inheritance and marriage, suggests the enduring importance of English law to the historical romance genre.
Our project is an exploration of #RomanceClass, a community of mostly self-published authors writing English-language romance novels in the Philippines. We’re investigating how they work together as a community to produce their novels, and how they are situated within local and global literary marketplaces.
Held: Why did you apply for the RWA Academic Grant?
It was money to do something that I really wanted to do—a chance to spend my summer working on research and getting paid for it, as opposed to doing summer teaching and putting my research on hold. Keep in mind that the program was only one year old at the time, so there was no track record to it and virtually no community of scholars working on romance. (Everyone who did felt somewhat isolated, then.) I had no confidence that I’d get the grant, as my project was so different from the one that had been funded the year before, but I figured I didn’t have anything to lose.
Grant support for the humanities is far less available than support for, say, science. Winning grants counts toward demonstrating to your college or university that you are active in your field.
The RWA Academic Grant is one of the few—only?—grants I know of that explicitly funds research on popular romance. And I had admired many of those who had previously received the award, many of whom are leaders in the field: Jayashree Kamblé, Catherine Roach, Eric Selinger, Pamela Regis, Conseula Francis, Heather Schell, An Goris.
We recognized that the enormous commercial significance of the romance genre in Australia stands in strong contrast to a striking, widespread lack of understanding of the cultural significance of Australian romance fiction both nationally and internationally. We were convinced that some of this lack of understanding stemmed from an overreliance on studying the genre through close textual analysis, and [we] wanted to create new ways of studying romance that appreciate its industrial and social importance. We saw that an RWA Academic Grant would enable a pilot study to test the ideas and methods that interested us and show—through the link to RWA—that we recognized the value of scholarly work on the genre beyond the academy. We wanted to interview a small number of romance writers, along with their publishers, agents, and/or writing buddies, to test our theory that genre novels (in this case romance) bear the traces of influence of the various other participants in the genre world.
Historians seek support from grants partly to fund the research (practical reasons) but also to test-run their ideas by others (to see if there is support for or interest in your research questions).
It offered an excellent opportunity to undertake work in a way that we wouldn’t have been able to without that funding. It allowed us to travel to Manila and interview #RomanceClass community members and to attend one of their live reading events, FeelsFest 2019.
Held: What do you think your research contributed to the field of studying romantic reading and/or writing?
Before I got to writing those essays, I started the RomanceScholar listserv, and people from the listserv created an online wiki bibliography of romance scholarship. And reaching out through the listserv, Darcy Martin and I rebooted and vastly expanded the Popular Culture Association Romance area. At the PCA conference in 2007, I met Sarah Frantz Lyons, and we started the International Association for the Study of Popular Romance (IASPR) and the peer-reviewed, open-access Journal of Popular Romance Studies. Then, I reached out to a grad school friend now teaching at Princeton, William Gleason, and we put together a romance conference there that got a lot of media buzz. And then IASPR organized the first international conference on popular romance down in Brisbane, Australia.
I wrote and published two essays based on my research project: “How to Read a Romance Novel (and Fall in Love with Popular Romance),” which was published in New Approaches to Popular Romance Fiction: Critical Essays
, and “When I Paint My Masterpiece: Bob Dylan, Ekphrasis, and the Art of Susan Elizabeth Phillips,” which was published in Romance Fiction and American Culture: Love as the Practice of Freedom?
One non-publishing result of the grant was that I was able to start teaching courses on popular romance fiction at DePaul University here in Chicago, and since 2005, about half of my teaching load has been courses about popular romance at the undergraduate and graduate (MA) levels.
Articles (so far) that reflect what I have learned about the place of the romance novel form in the history of the American novel.
I hope that my research has helped to expand our understandings of the hero and popular romance, but I’ll be the first to admit that there is a great deal of work to still do. My work has been introductory, designed to open the discussion.
Our research contributed a new way of looking at romance, and popular fiction novels more broadly, that moves beyond defining or defending them in relation to high literary fiction. From the grant, we published an article in Journal of Popular Culture
called “Genre Worlds and Popular Fiction: The Case of Twenty-First-Century Australian Romance” that introduces our new theoretical model. This article shows that the romance genre world, in its contemporary Australian iteration, has three defining characteristics: “a simultaneous national and international orientation; a professionalizing function; and an embrace of historical, living, and fictional participants.”
Eventually, I would like my article to suggest how history (rather than, say, literary analysis or pop culture studies) can intersect with the study of romantic reading. In particular, legal history—which is not just the purview of lawyers—has an outsized influence in historical romance.
Also, I am always interested in fighting the stigma attached to romance novels—that they are “trash,” or that it is okay to treat them as only a semiserious genre. Also, while I love the feminist aspect of romance novels, I think that some dismiss romance novels as “women’s” books—in the condescending sense that books for women must be inferior work. By studying the intersecting of this “women’s” genre with traditional legal/political history, I hope to convey one of many arguments for why romance novels should be taken seriously as literary/cultural works.
There’s not a huge amount of scholarship looking at romance novels coming from outside a Western (and especially a North American) market. By looking at romance from the Philippines, we’ve sought to broaden understandings of romance fiction and publishing. There’s also not a huge amount of work that looks at self-publishing, and the ways in which #RomanceClass handles this is fascinating.
Held: What surprised you about the results of your research?
In terms of what surprised me? I’d say just how far things have come in the past fifteen years, in the United States and around the world, where the study of romance is concerned.
How available the older works were—romance has been popular throughout the history of the American novel, and those books are still around. It was lovely to have them come to me in the mail from used booksellers, often with their original owners’ names written on the flyleaf, with a date. It made me wonder what those readers had seen as I read their copies of those novels.
I’m surprised and amazed at how much remains! I am continuing my work on masculinities and popular romance. I am interested in how heroes are written, so I am thinking here about what heroes wear, but also about their politics.
We were not particularly surprised that our broad hypothesis held, nor were we surprised by the detail and richness about the romance genre that emerged from our interviews with writers and publishing professionals.
I don’t actually have results yet, because I tabled my romance research in order to (1) switch universities (and then subsequently developing all the new courses that accompanies this switch) and (2) to finish writing, and see published (this summer) an article on my second book-length project.
The research is still ongoing, so this is hard to answer. One thing that really jumped out at us, though, was how interconnected all the community members were.
Held: Were there any negatives to your experience of research and compiling the results?
Just the usual—finding time to actually do the research—nothing that the RWA grant could address!
We were delighted by the RWA’s support for us to work together on this project. We found interviewing romance writers and industry professionals fascinating and enjoyable. Our submitted article was accepted for publication by our first choice of outlet. In all, we had pretty much a dream run.
When I was actively reading romance novels as research (instead of just as fun fiction reading), I did not enjoy the experience as much. I found this to be a hazard of researching/writing about Alexander Hamilton, too. When topics you enjoy become subjects of work (intense, peer-reviewed research), some of the enjoyment gets sucked out the experience.
Probably the biggest negative is that we were planning to go back to Manila and visit the community again to do a second wave of fieldwork. Given the current situation [COVID-19], that doesn’t look like something we’ll be able to do for a while.
Held: Did the research and results act as a springboard to affect or change your career in any way?
I’ve traveled the world to talk about romance; I’ve helped direct a Belgian dissertation on Nora Roberts; I’ve brought contemporary romance scholarship to the American Comparative Literature Association and the Modern Language Association and a bunch of other unlikely venues; and I’ve been editing a peer-reviewed journal about romance for the past decade. I had no idea any of this would happen, and I still can’t believe that RWA gave me the grant when I had no track record of writing about the genre. I’ve just tried to live up to their faith
No. I was lucky enough to be already established as a scholar of the American romance novel.
The work we did in preparing the RWA award helped us write a more competitive grant application to the Australian Research Council, who funded us with AUD$316,000 for a large study of popular fiction genres in Australia that we have recently completed. We have published extensively from this larger project.
Since winning the grant and formulating the project, I was hired at Western Kentucky University. I recall, as part of the interviewing process, discussing a possible “reading the romance” contribution to the pop culture studies offered in our history department. Also, I was invited to give the keynote address at the April 2018 Researching the Romance Conference at Bowling Green State University. My presentation was called: “Women, Power, and the Essential Place of Law in the Historical Romance.”
This project built an important international collaborative relationship. Our research team consists of two Australian scholars (Claire Parnell and myself) and one Filipino scholar (Andrea Anne Trinidad), and we all brought different skills and knowledge bases to the table, which has enabled us (and I hope will continue to enable us) to produce some really rich scholarship. It really opened my eyes to how beneficial collaboration can be, and it’s something I’m planning to engage in a lot more in the future, both with this research team and with other scholars.
Held: What are you working on now?
I’m currently wrapping up a co-edited project (with Jayashree Kamblé and Hsu-Ming Teo) called The Routledge Research Guide to Popular Romance Fiction
. This is the first systematic, comprehensive resource on romance fiction: it gives a history of the genre, an overview of disciplinary approaches to studying romance fiction, and a set of chapters surveying existing scholarship on important subgenres, themes, and topics. Basically, it’s the one book you need (or your dissertation advisor will need) to get started as a scholar of popular romance—it covers what’s been done so far, from a variety of angles, and it talks about gaps that need to be filled.
I’m a dean just now, but the book-length manuscript that the RWA grant [supported] needs to be revised.
I am in the very early stages of a project that will look at men’s fashion, style, and clothing in popular romance novels.
We are just in the process of submitting the monograph Genre Worlds
, which arose from the larger ARC grant. We are also the co-editors of a thread, “21st-Century Bestsellers,” in the Cambridge University Press Elements series, Publishing and Book Culture
, for which we are each writing volumes.
Staying afloat during the pandemic and switching to online teaching (this spring, and perhaps in the fall). For the rest of the semester, I have no research agenda. In the summer, I will probably devote some attention to both the romance research as well as some case-law research for the Court of Errors
This project! Our first scholarly article on #RomanceClass has just come out, and we’re in the process of preparing two more, with more planned for the future.
Held: Do you have any predictions about how or why the RWA Academic Grant may be used by future applicants?
Gosh, no—not really! I’m pleasantly surprised every year; there’s so much good work being done, from such new angles, and in so many places. I never know what’s coming next, and that’s just fine with me.
I do not, other than the hope that younger scholars can benefit from this grant—I hope that they will apply.
No idea, but I’m certain it will be exciting!
We would hope it was used to fund the kind of research that reveals new things about post digital writing and reading culture, with an inclusive vision.
No predictions. But I would love to see more scholarly monographs about romance novels!
Romance scholarship is a broad church: there’s the potential for this grant to be used in a myriad of fascinating ways by future applicants.
for more information about the grant, this year's competition, and other past recipients.
Joy E. Held is a freelance author of nonfiction and fiction as well as an adjunct instructor of college English. Her book
Writer Wellness: A Writer’s Path to Health and Creativity, 3rd edition is available from Headline Books, Inc. Writing as Liz Arnold,
Saving Marietta, a historical romance, is forthcoming from Boroughs Publishing Group. Getting a master’s degree in writing popular fiction from Seton Hill University is one of the best decisions she’s ever made. Access her website at http://www.joyeheld.com.
Originally published in the August 2020 RWR