It’s the genre that gets no respect but the one that sells more books than any other: the romance novel. Often derided for their formulaic plots and cardboard heroes, romance novels attract an enormous readership, most of whom are women.  The robust sales of romance novels expanded even more this year with the phenomenal success of E L James‘s 50 Shades of Grey trilogy. By September of 2012, James’s books had sold more than 32 million copies in the United States, with global sales close to 60 million.

%0 Shades of GreyYet jokes about the women who read 50 Shades of Grey proliferate in the media, and critics often question why the books were so successful in the first place. Why are romance novels (and readers of romance) the object of ridicule, and why do so many women read them anyway? This course will attempt to answer those questions by examining the evolution of the genre from its origins and exploring recent scholarship that analyzes the romance novel and the romance reader herself.

Jane Eyre Penguin Classics Deluxe EditionThis semester, we will focus exclusively on variations of the Byronic heroes of romance, the alpha male protagonists with a darker side whose powerful masculinity is both intimidating and seductive at the same time. This focus will take us from the mysterious, brooding Rochester in Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre (1847), to the notorious Marquess of Dain in Loretta Chase’s Lord of Scoundrels (1995), to the wealthy but troubled Christian Grey, the billionaire hero of  E L James’s 50 Shades of Grey (2011).

J. R. Ward Lover EternalAlong the way, we will examine the most controversial plot device in romance novels: sexual violence, and the current craze in romances: vampires, in two blockbuster romance novels that bookend the 20th century: E. M. Hull’s The Sheik (1919), and the second novel in the paranormal Black Dagger Brotherhood romance series, J. R. Ward’s Lover Eternal (2006).

(NOTE–there is racism and an implied rape in The Sheik and explicit sex in Lord of ScoundrelsLover Eternal, and 50 Shades of Grey, but these books are still required reading for this course).

Course Requirements: Five 30-minute quizzes (you get to drop one), two papers, and one presentation. There is a required class participation component to the course that involves class discussions and blog posts. Since women (and men!) who read romance novels enjoy talking about them, I hope to make the class as interactive as possible.

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