Romance novels. The term conjures up a paperback with an airbrushed Fabio enclenched with a wild-haired young maiden on the cover. Hardly the stuff of great literature, right?
But, that’s just the image that Yale grad Lauren Willig and, as Willig calls her, “another Yalie-turned-romance-novelist, Andrea DaRif” (pen name, Cara Elliott), are trying to dispel in their “Reading the Historical Romance Novel” course at Yale this spring.
Romance is a rather broad term for a whole genre of books ranging from historical romance fiction, mysteries, family sagas to chick lit. This is purported to be the first such class at an Ivy League school.
And Willig — well, when you read her background, you won’t be surprised — is sandwiching in a book signing, Monday at 6 p.m. at the Yale Bookstore for her sixth novel, “The Betrayal of the Blood Lily.”
The course is part of Yale’s College Seminar Program: classes taught in the residential colleges for full undergraduate credit.
The two best-selling authors submitted their syllabus for review by committees of faculty and students in October, and, after rigorous examination, it was approved in December for the spring semester in Saybrook College.
Willig is not surprised by either the popularity of the course (80 applied for 18 spots) nor the willingness of the university to endorse it. The genre has been embraced by academia for years, early on by Eric Selinger at DePaul and Sarah Frantz at Fayetteville.
“The two of them have been instrumental in the movement to treat romance novels as text in their own right, rather than a sociological construct,” says Willig. “The trend was to treat romance novels only as interesting as to what they told us about the readership. They weren’t being looked at in terms of structure, theme and the usual critical literary apparatus.”
Romance novels or “bodice rippers” in a commonly used parlance, are the most widely read genre in the world. This course is meant to discern the difference between those, modern “chick lit, works of great textual quality or even historical significance, including the vampire gothics. It narrows its examination to the sub-genre of the Regency romance novel (think Jane Austen), “because it’s small enough to trace its origins to multitudinous genres,” says Willig.
“It has a distinct time period, from 1811-1820, but what we call long Regency extends from the French Revolution to the 1820s and even well into the reign of Victoria,” Willig says.
“But it encompasses such a broad range of things, which is what we’re talking about in class this year. We’ve had students talk about how they would define a romance novel. That stretches on one side from great harlequin to great sweeping stories.
“My books, for instance, are hard to classify. My publicist calls them historical fiction, and they’re frequently shelved in mystery or chick lit — I’m all over the spectrum, which I think speaks to the variety of the spectrum.”
This is not like signing up for a conservation course to fulfill your science requirement. This is a rigorous, scholarly two-hour class on Mondays, with Willig and Darif, who has a master’s in graphic design, sharing the teaching chores.
When the semester ends in April, the students will, after first getting a foundation by reading critical works of the genre by academic experts, be expected to read a novel a week for a total of 14 books, and “complete three writing assignments: a book review which needs to be analytical rather than emotive (3-4 pp), a short critical essay (5 pp) and the final project (10-15 pp).”
“We were blown away by the response,” says Willig.
Part of the impetus for the course also came from Willig’s membership in Lady Jane’s Salon, a Manhattan group of romance writers and readers which meets monthly for readings “and to hang out and drink. It’s become in a very short time an institution and a way for various people from various parts of the industry to share their love of romance novels,” says Willig.
Any parent would be happy to have their kid’s interest in romance novels turn into Willig’s career.
Willig, Yale class of 1999, has been reading the novels and trying to write them since she was 6. After double-majoring in Renaissance studies and political science, she entered the doctoral program in English History at Harvard, adding on Harvard Law School in her fifth year of grad school, where, oh by the way, she happened to write her first three novels while she was picking up her law degree at Harvard. She even practiced law at a top New York law firm before finally giving her all to her writing career.
Her Pink Carnation series is a staple on best-seller lists, with a faithful fan base eagerly awaiting the next installment of her latest heroine Pamela Devereaux.
“I started the first book in the series when I was doing my Ph.d at Harvard. It was two years of coursework, then orals, then a dissertation. I promised myself I would take the summer off and write fiction. I started writing ‘The Secret History of the Pink Carnation,’ and finished it two years later.”
She talks of her fiction writing as a diversion, juggling law work with book deadlines.
“I ended up leaving law school magna cum laude with three books. It was an incredible experience,” says Willig, and you don’t even hate her.
Contact Donna Doherty at 203-789-5672 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
MEET THE AUTHOR
- Event: Book signing with Lauren Willig, author of “The Betrayal of the Blood Lily”
- When: 7 p.m. Monday
- Where: Yale Bookstore, 77 Broadway, New Haven - Admission: Free
- Info: 203-777-8440