New CHNM Project Takes a Scholarly Look at Romance

By Tara Laskowski

Bogie and Bacall. Scarlett and Rhett. Romeo and Juliet. Baby and Johnny. Superman and Lois. Heathcliff and Catherine. Pac Man and Ms. Pac Man.

From book to movie, fan fiction to comic book, television to theater, romance is everywhere. Love stories are at the heart of many works of art, and it is one story that never gets old—and never fails to sell.

And yet, ask the average person on the street his or her opinion of the romance genre, and chances are you’ll hear some familiar stereotypes all centered on the idea that romance is for women and isn’t to be taken seriously.


Scholars and academics have been looking at the romance novel as literary text for a long time, and a new project hosted by the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media (CHNM) may revolutionize the way this genre is considered. The center is involved with the Popular Romance Project, a four-part endeavor involving a documentary, a traveling exhibit, a panel discussion, and a website exploring the origins and influences of popular romance.

Kelly Schrum

Kelly Schrum

“Popular romance goes far beyond Harlequin. For hundreds of years, these stories have been told—dime novels, women’s fiction, Shakespeare, chick lit—and many retell stories from ancient mythology. Romance is a huge, complex world, and yet there are themes that emerge time and again,” says Kelly Schrum, Popular Romance Project co-director and the CHNM educational projects director. “It’s a powerful genre with a significant commercial impact. We wanted to explore this community, to highlight the incredible diversity of readers and writers of popular romance.”

The researchers on the project, who have been funded by numerous organizations including the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) and Romance Writers of America, are using deep scholarly roots to present the subject. They believe popular romance tells deep truths about people and cultures, fantasies and fears.

“I’m always interested in stories that are hidden or brushed aside,” says Schrum. “Stories about courtship, love, and intimacy resonate across time and culture and teach us about the past and the present. For romance readers and nonromance readers alike, there are interesting conversations happening both about and within the romance community.”

Romance, indeed, is not just about the splashy Harlequin romances. Splintered within the romance genre are all kinds of new ways to tell a love story—paranormal romance with vampires or ghosts, gay and lesbian romance, historical romance, thrillers, young adult, Christian, and even those shocking novels without the HEA (or happily ever after) ending that has come to be so expected.

Above all, romance is a $1.4 billion-a-year industry. Love sells, and sells a lot. And romance readers and fans are smart, savvy, and hardcore about their passion.

Jessica Matthews

Jessica Matthews

“It’s a genre with such phenomenal selling power, and a genre where the writers and readers are predominantly female,” says Jessica Matthews, a professor of English at Mason who researches the romance novel and teaches a course on it. “People dismiss it, but there are cultural connections within these texts that are worth looking at and exploring.”

The Popular Romance Project website takes a global approach to romance. It is rich with content, providing author and reader video interviews and essays. The expanded website, currently in production, will include interactive games and a mobile interface The website is for readers, authors, and scholars, all at once. And it’s all about the community—one of the most striking pieces of the whole project for Schrum.

“There is such a supportive, strong community around this genre,” says Schrum. “Veteran writers helping and mentoring new and upcoming writers. Authors interacting directly with fans—it really is amazing.”

In addition to the website, the project will include a feature-length documentary by Laurie Kahn for international television broadcast, focusing on the global community of romance readers, writers, and publishers; an academic symposium on the past and future of the romance novel hosted by the Library of Congress Center for the Book; and a nationwide series of library programs dealing with the past, present, and future of the romance novel. A traveling exhibit, organized by the American Library Association, will also be included.

“I have to pinch myself nearly every day to remind me that this project is being supported by such great institutions as the NEH,” says Matthews. “And that it is all housed at Mason! I couldn’t be happier. It gives legitimacy to research that is being done and has already been done.”

To read more stories about Mason, check out the university’s News site.

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