In Defense Of The Popular Romance Project

Earlier this morning Yahoo News reported that the U.S. federal government has spent nearly $1 million "on romance" since 2010 — specifically in the form of funding for The Popular Romance Project, which aims to "bring together disparate groups of scholars, writers, readers, editors, romance fans, and the general public, to launch an entertaining, substantive, lively discussion about how popular romance is created, who consumes it, and how it helps shape private lives and public cultures." They strive to do this by creating a documentary exploring the cultural significance of romance novels, launching an academic conference on romance novels and starting nation-wide library programs and an informative website. Currently, according to the PRP website, the film is currently still in production.

This fiscal discovery was part of an annual report put together by Oklahoma Republican Sen. Tom Coburn called the "Wastebook," which highlights how, in the Senator's opinion, the federal government is wasting taxpayer money. Among the other "wasteful" public projects that are benefitting from federal funding include a PBS documentary about superheroes and a zombie-themed video game that promotes math education.

A closer look at the Popular Romance Project reveals that they are partially funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities (a federal organization funded by Congress to provide grants to humanities projects) and Mass Humanities, a state affiliate of NEH. They also appear to recieve private funding from organizations like Romance Writers of America and individuals who donated through a Kickstarter campaign. Some notable board members of The National Romance Project include author and academic Eloisa James and Sarah Frantz, president of the International Association for the Study of Popular Romance.

Is The Popular Romance project a national priority? That is, of course, debatable, but I'm sure most people would answer that question with a "no," given that there are countless pressing public issues that could benefit from national funding. But is the tone of this Yahoo News article and Senator Tom Coburn kind of, maybe a little chastising and dismissive of romance? Absolutely. Is the romance community familiar with this type of judgement by now? Sadly, yes, but authors and readers are starting to push back against the criticism. Notably, Bobbi Dumas' 2012 NPR article "In Defense of Romance," which encourages romance fans to be proud of the genre they love, despite decades of romance novels being publicly considered "trash."

According to RWA, as cited by The Popular Romance Project, romance fiction generated $1.37 billion in sales in 2008. I know I'm preaching to the choir here, but romance is important. It's important to readers, to the publishing industry and to how we connect with and make sense of our culture. It's important because it promotes female sexual agency in a positive way. If the federal government doesn't want to fund it, well, that's a shame, but it certainly won't mean an end for romance.

UPDATE 12/18/13 1:13 pm:

In case this week needed more romance-shaming, a writer over at International Business Times is amazed that women still read romance novels and decided to write about it. Can you hear my eyes rolling? Also, normally I wouldn't encourage reading the comments, but the replies from romance authors and readers have been fantastic so far!

UPDATE #2 12/18/13 4:06 pm:

Yesterday I reached out to Eloisa James for more information and commentary on The Popular Romance Project and the recent romance-shaming that's cropped up on The Internet this week. Today we spoke, and James defended the federal funding of The Popular Romance project, saying: "They made it sound like all the money went to the website, that’s not the case. The money went to the documentary. It’s been following readers, writers … it’s a proper documentary. The National Endowment for the Humanities recognized the importance of documenting women’s lives [and] women’s industry. Documentaries are expensive … especially if you’re following people for three years. It’s a huge, huge project capturing an industry. The website is merely the vocal piece for what will be the film. It’s a very intellectual pursuit and study of a huge business. If you choose to mock something and scorn it, you can." James also told me that the film will screen at the Library of Congress in 2015, an event likely to be attending by many academics who are interested in the cultural significant of romance. The film will then do a nation-wide tour and screen at libraries.

Regarding the romance-shaming tone in the Yahoo News article, and the outright scorn for romance in the IB Times piece, James wasn't surprised, "It’s a feminist issue … if the genre of romance, if the business was not written for women, by women it would not be viewed in such a disreputable light. Women and women’s business [are] always an easy target."

What do you think of the public funding of The Popular Romance Project? And does this Yahoo News article need to check its tone? Let me know in the comments!

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