Panel discusses landscape of contemporary romantic literature

From Friday April 21 to Sunday April 23, the College hosted a conference entitled “Reading for Pleasure: Romance Fiction in the International Marketplace.” Organized by Julie Cassiday, professor and chair of Russian and German, Leyla Rouhi, professor of romance languages and Emily Johnson, associate professor of Russian at the University of Oklahoma, the conference hosted scholars, writers and publishers from a variety of spheres of romance literature.

According to Cassiday, the conference stemmed from a desire to understand international trends in the genre. “[Johnson and I] became very, very curious about the global trends in romance publishing and the scholarship that’s going on, focusing on different parts of the world and different phenomena,” she said. “So we started to try and connect with people – perhaps the single biggest leap was that we went last July to the conference of the Romance Writers of America and got to meet with a lot of authors and sort of just find out what was going on, and it took off from there.”

In organizing the conference, Cassiday, Rouhi and Johnson worked to bring in a group of speakers who could offer a variety of perspectives on the genre. “We wanted to bring all different people together and have them talk about how they understand what’s going on in romance today,” Cassiday said. “We tried really, really hard to make sure that we were bringing people who are not only scholars of romance, but we wanted writers.”

One such writer was Sonali Dev, who spoke at a panel entitled “New Subjects and Audiences in Romance Literature” about her Bollywood-style romance novels. The two genres, she explained, are similar in their appeal of familiarity. “They’re both accused of being formulaic by non-fans, by people who don’t get it,” Dev said. “But it’s that familiarity that makes us read it, and read it, and read it – there’s exploration in that repetition.”

The conference also featured publishers of romance fiction who offered insights into the business side of producing these novels. “We have people who represent three different types of publishing,” Cassiday said. Len Barot, who writes romance novels under the pen name Radclyffe, spoke about her experiencing heading the largest publisher of LGBTQ romance, Bold Strokes Books. She explained the ways in which niche publishing houses of romance fiction are working in a time of great transition. “I think that we’re really just beginning to emerge into a new contemporary sense of relationships,” she said.

In addition to these writers and publishers, the conference also hosted scholars of romance literature who contributed insights into the trends and transitions occurring in the genre today. Jayashree Kamble, professor of English at LaGuardia Community College, joined the conference via Skype to describe the role of minority voices in romance fiction today. “The genre is inherently white and straight,” Kamble said. “People who are trans-national are entering into that genre and trying to imagine what that means in a world when whiteness and straightness is still the dominant narrative.”

As a whole, the conference offered the chance for attendees to learn about the process of producing romance fiction from the people currently at the forefront of all different facets of the industry. For many scholars of literature, this in a rare opportunity that is fundamentally unique to contemporary literary studies. “As a scholar, I’m someone who’s worked on a lot of dead authors and a lot of books that were published a long, long time ago, which means that you don’t have access to what it is that the people who were writing or publishing had to say,” Cassiday said. “I’m most excited about hearing what’s it like [to be] in the thick of it and having that inform my understanding of what is frankly the most published, the most read genre on the planet.”