One more glass ceiling

Jayashree Kamble got her first academic job as a popular romance scholar. According to Kamble, the field was once dominated by the idea that romance novels featured oppressive fantasies. Today, scholars have begun to treat popular romance as a genre with literary merits, like any other.


What was your first experience with romance scholarship?

Well, romance scholarship, when I encountered it was, I started looking at it in 2002, and I thought I would write my dissertation on it. One problem was I couldn’t find any. [. . .]

[. . .] But when I sort of pitched the idea to my department and said, “I want to work on romance,” the only thing people would say was “Have you read Janice Radway?” Like it seemed to be the only text, and that was a little frustrating, but also at the same time, I thought, “Oh, well, this is great, nobody else is writing on it, I’ll do my work.”

And then of course the more I read, the more there seemed to be what I think is the great irony of romance scholarship in a certain period of time, was that it was super generic. The scholarship seemed to say the same thing over and over again. They had created their own genre. And it was essentially that, you know, these are fantasies, it’s oppression and so forth. That seemed to be the dominant strain. And there are people, Radway included, who sort of try to do a little bit more with the text and try to sort of figure out what positive things you can take out of it.

So the strain, I think, is there, it’s not that it was condemned wholesale, but by and large it seemed to be somewhat dismissive and there wasn’t really an understanding that some texts are meaty enough that you could in fact subject them to the same kind of literary criticism scrutiny that you would anybody else. Look at it for its stylistics, look at it for its poetics, and so forth, that people aren’t really doing that as much.

Is popular romance scholarship changing?

Certainly the establishment of the International Association for the Study of Popular Romance has been a large part of at least trying to create a community of folks who are working on it, trying to put them in touch with each other, and then trying to have a bibliography of all this work that is there. That’s just been in weird and obscure places that we couldn’t seem to find and put it all in one place, so that’s been a huge and positive development. So that now when I see new graduate students, or — I get undergrads write to me all the time, I get two or three emails a year from somebody who bumped into my dissertation online who says, “I want to do this, how do I do it?” I say, “Here’s the listserv, here is the romance wiki, here is who you should talk to, here is the conference you should come to.” So that’s been, I think, a really positive thing for the genre. The scholarship itself is, of course, changing too, with the establishment of IASPR, and more people are trying to take it seriously, more people are trying to treat it on its own terms.

I don’t know if it’s a positive sign, but I did get my first academic job as an “out” scholar of romance, right? I wasn’t closeted about it, and I still got a job. So I see that as a positive sign that people are, you know, looking at it and saying, you know, “Okay, let’s see what so-and-so has to offer.” So I think that’s hopeful, because for years before that I would send things out, and it was like, message in a bottle. I had no idea if anybody read it, if anybody cared. It seemed to be sort of just this thing that nobody was interested in doing.

So I think that’s changing. I’m not seeing as much in terms of actually seeing people publish straight up on romance in peer-reviewed academic journals yet. We have our own journal. The Journal of Popular Romance Studies is trying to do that. But I think there’s still, there’s one more glass ceiling that needs to be broken there. To sort of actually go into, if not PMLA then sort of comparable journals—go into Signs, go into—so I think that’s the next push that we’re trying to do.

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