Please welcome my guest Andrea Barra, PhD candidate in Sociology.
Romance, Academia, and Me by Andrea Barra
I would be lying if I said I went into graduate school with any sort of idea of what I wanted to study, let alone what I wanted to write a dissertation about. As fate would have it, however, I hit upon a topic fairly early in the process. (This may seem like a benign statement, but as anyone who has ever pursued a PhD will tell you, it’s a huge deal.) I took a class on the Sociology of Culture and was left with the ever-plaguing, open-ended research paper to complete by the end of the semester. I whined and moaned about it for most of the semester, not sure which of my many popular culture obsessions I should write about. One afternoon, in the middle of procrastinating by reading a romance novel, I finally thought…well, there you go! Problem solved. I was reading my topic.
Through that paper, I was first introduced to the famous (infamous?) study by Janice Radway, Reading the Romance: Women, Patriarchy, and Popular Culture. As I read it, all I could think was, she is not talking about the romances I know and love. When I delved deeper, I realized that in Sociology romance novels and reading were poorly neglected subjects. It’s as though after Radway and others of her time (most notably Tania Modleski and Ann Barr Snitow), the discipline said, ‘yup, that’s it…case closed’. But, as nearly twenty-five years have passed since the publication of Reading the Romance, I am working on showing that there’s another case to be tried and more to be debated about the place of romance in society and the women (and men) who read it.
Fast forward nearly four years from that first revelation about the scholarly lack on romance novels to a dissertation in progress. Again, I would be lying if I told you that proposing to write a dissertation on the romance novel industry was the easiest thing I’ve ever done. I am (and have been) extremely lucky in my advisors for the amount of support I’ve received to pursue this line of research. There are many (and certainly some within my own department) who would poo-poo such inquiry as less than sociological or less than important. The easy answer I’ve learned to this is… “Romance is the largest market share of paperbacks in this country. Millions of people read it. How is that NOT sociologically important?”
The first academic conference at which I presented some of my early findings, people snickered. Yup, they snickered that I was researching romance novels. I’ve gotten the ‘bodice-ripper’ comments, the Fabio comments, the ‘my mom reads that trash’ comments. In that way, I can sympathize wholeheartedly with you romance authors out there. It is a difficult and exhausting process to defend the ‘worthiness’ of such a maligned piece of popular culture. I joke that sometimes it might be easier to tell other academics that I kick puppies for fun rather than tell them my dissertation is about romance novels.
But, what I’ve learned is that there can never really be ENOUGH research about romance novels and what they mean to our lives. And yes, I say “our” because of course romance has played a huge part in my own life and journey. While it may sometimes be difficult to reconcile the romance lover and the academic in myself (especially as I discover some aspects of the romance industry and culture that I wish were different or more progressive), I no longer feel those two parts of myself have to be mutually exclusive.
I learned that valuable lesson through my interviews. The most fantastic part of embarking on this project has been the interaction with authors and readers. Listening to romance lovers talk about reading, authors they love, the writing process, the problems and pitfalls of the genre, and their own passionate defenses of romance has been both intriguing and inspiring. It has helped me keep going when I was certain I could not think or process another darn thing about this industry. The dissertation process is long and arduous and often without a lot of reward. Knowing that I’m attempting to not only tell, but to understand the (excuse the pun) love affair with romance has encouraged me to keep moving forward. I research and write about romance because it’s where my heart is. If I manage to bring some academic legitimacy to it at the end of the day, that’s nothing but an added bonus.
Tomorrow, as part of Snippet Saturday, I’ll have an outtake from The Duchess, Her Maid, The Groom, and Their Lover.