Sneaking It In at the End: Teaching Popular Romance in the Liberal Arts Classroom

Publication year

I opted [...] to incorporate a romance novel into another course, initially a senior seminar course on canonicity and literary aesthetics. We read a series of literary pairings [...]. We ended the semester with Pride and Prejudice and Georgette Heyer's regency romance, Frederica.
I dutifully and systematically pointed out the similarities in narrative structure [...]. I hoped to show students that in this one example at least, romance fiction could be a rich repository for social critique. [...]
Unfortunately, Heyer's novel was received with only derision and contempt. (81-82)

I gave up the idea of including romances on my syllabi for several years. But when I taught a course on the historical development of the marriage plot narrative, beginning with Richardson's Pamela, I took a risk and ended the course with Susan Elizabeth Phillips's Nobody's Baby but Mine. Students liked Pamela better, an opinion I found frankly astonishing. (82)

I [...] taught The Sheik in a unit on Orientalism. That went over well, but it is perhaps not surprising, since the point of the course was to critique western authors who systematically misrepresent nonwestern cultures and peoples. We weren't criticizing The Sheik any more or less than we were criticizing Heart of Darkness, so the fact that the novel was something called a romance passed largely unnoted.
This gave me an idea to test out what we might call the "don't ask, don't tell" method. Last year I taught Nora Roberts's The Search in a new course titled Animals in Literature and Culture. [...] I merely presented the text as a contemporary book with animals in it. And nobody scoffed; nobody made dismissive comments. (83)

I decided next to use a romance novel in my section of our undergraduate literary theory course. I assigned Jennifer Crusie's Welcome to Temptation [...] as a "touchstone" text, a text students read at the outset of the semester and then return to repeatedly throughout the term; as new schools, paradigms, theorists, or essays are introduced, students are asked to consider the touchstone texts in the light of these new theoretical ideas. [...] This was by far the most successful approach to teaching popular romance in my experience. To begin with, students were stunned that they could actually find something in Crusie to discuss during each new theoretical unit. (84-85)

Crusie's Welcome to Temptation became a surprisingly valuable workhorse, a way to introduce students to a whole array of critical issues: feminism, canonicity, popular culture, patriarchy, sexuality, and more. (88)