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Pam Regis, a national expert on romance literature teaches a course at McDaniel College. The college has a new minor in writing romance fiction. (Lloyd Fox, Baltimore Sun / February 28, 2012)

Coming unstuck in time, Pamela Regis was investigating the curious incident of the dog in the nighttime. When the clocks struck 13, she dreamt she went to ... to Manderley? — no, McDaniel.

Strange as it might seem, Regis' dream of jumbled-up literary genres will come true this August. In a manner of speaking.

Aided by grants totaling $200,000 from the Nora Roberts Foundation, McDaniel College in Westminster is about to launch what is possibly the nation's first academic minor in genre fiction: horror, sci-fi, romance, fantasy, mystery and Westerns, as well as graphic novels.

"Popular fiction addresses an enormous amount of issues that are relevant to modern culture," says Regis, the McDaniel English professor in charge of administering the grants, and a nationally recognized expert on romance literature.

"High canonical fiction is a far more acquired taste. None of my students will ever pick up 'Vanity Fair' on their own again. But they'll read every book by Nora Roberts."

She has a point.

According to Simba Information, the publishing industry's market research firm, genre fiction, which had $2.6 billion in sales in 2010, outsold classic literary fiction at a rate of more than 5 to 1.

Romance literature is by far the most popular branch of fiction, with nearly $1.36 billion in sales or 13.4 percent of the total consumer market, according to statistics provided by the research firm. Crime and detective novels grossed $682 million in 2010, while fantasy and science fiction combined had revenues of $559 million. In comparison, classic literary fiction brought in $453 million.

But you wouldn't know it by perusing university course titles, which tend to concentrate on medieval literature rather than the work of Roberts, the Maryland author who sold 10 million romances in 2010 alone. In April, G.P. Putnam's Sons is set to publish, "The Witness," her 200th novel.

Roberts declined to comment on the program that her grants will help fund, saying through a spokeswoman that she couldn't take time away from her writing for an interview. But Jason Aufdem-Brinke, the author's son and vice president of her foundation, said that his mother is gratified by the college's plans to offer the five-course academic minor beginning in the fall semester.

In addition to the academic minor, McDaniel will offer a certificate in romance fiction writing for graduate students. The college will also establish a collection of romance literature that Regis will curate and that she expects to eventually contain more than 3,000 titles.

"My mother thinks their program will accomplish everything that our foundation hopes to accomplish," says Aufdem-Brinke, whose mother received an honorary doctorate from McDaniel in 2006.

"What they're doing will bring more focus to the romance market," he says, "and it falls within our mission of increasing literacy."

While it's not unusual for colleges to offer classes in popular culture in addition to traditional course work, McDaniel administrators know of no other universities in the U.S. or Canada that allow students to specialize in westerns and the work of Stephen King.

A spokeswoman for the Association of Departments of English couldn't name another school with an academic major or minor in genre fiction. And an emailed inquiry sent to colleges and universities throughout North America turned up no leads.

"I think our program will bring students to literature who might not otherwise be drawn to it," says Mary Bendel-Simso, a McDaniel English professor who is planning to teach courses in detective and spy novels, as well as in science fiction.

"The minor is ideal for people who aren't anywhere near being an English major, people with their academic sights elsewhere. Now, students in sociology or chemistry can enjoy the liberal arts. They can go beyond reading for pleasure, and learn how it makes life more meaningful."

Despite its popularity, genre fiction has long been treated academically as the unloved stepchild of what Regis refers to as the "canonical fiction" of Chaucer, Tolstoy and Joyce.

The main rap against best-sellers has always been that they're formulaic, which is another way of saying that the process of exploration gets cut short. In genre fiction, the authors (and as a result, their readers) don't wander down a path just to see where it will take them. Unlike life, which is full of unknowns, every character has a predetermined destination.

In fantasies, the hero or heroine completes a quest. In mysteries, readers know by the last page who committed the crime. In romances, a courtship ends with an engagement.