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."
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.
"'Formula' has become such a bad word in literary circles," says McDaniel senior D.L. Santos. "People really shy away from it. But, the formula is one of the things I like about romance fiction. It's what a writer does with the formula that makes it interesting."
Santos, 22, of Rockville, read her first romance novel when she was 12. Since 2008, she has been writing the blog, The Romance Girl's Guide to Fiction.
"My view is that the world sort of sucks, and when I pick up a book, I don't want to be reminded of it," she says. "I want to be uplifted."
But though all genre fiction is formulaic, some formulas are more equal than others.
Horror and science fiction gets the most respect from the literary gatekeepers, Regis says, followed by mysteries and detective novels. Authors from Mary Shelley ("Frankenstein") to Kurt Vonnegut ("Slaughterhouse Five") to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle ("The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes") have managed over time to vault out of the genre ghetto. Their novels now are classified simply as literature.
"Romance has had the hardest time making that leap," Bendel-Simso says.
She once tried to obtain a seminal romance novel for a course she was team-teaching, only to discover that copies simply weren't to be found. They weren't available in libraries, or online, or in bookstores.
"I think the academic minor is especially important for romance fiction," she says. "Because in the past romance hasn't been valued, these novels notoriously go out of print very quickly, in a way that the other genres do not."
Laura Lippman, a former Baltimore Sun reporter who has written 11 novels featuring a reluctant private investigator named Tess Monaghan, is pleased that popular fiction is finally starting to get the academic cred — and shelf space — it deserves.
"There are outstanding works of literature that belong squarely in the genre camp," Lippman writes in an email. "I've been lucky enough to work in a genre that is, overall, treated pretty well. I think romance fiction, in particular, is degraded by people who have no idea how good it can be."
As Regis puts it: "I have colleagues in the critical romance community who have walked away from the field of romance because they wanted to get tenure."
Spokesmen for both the English departments association and its parent organization, the Modern Languages Association, declined to comment on McDaniel's plans for an academic minor in genre fiction. The organizations say they have no opinion on the merits of teaching best-sellers.
The McDaniel professors think that romance fiction is the victim of snobbery based on class and gender.
According to Bendel-Simso, readers of detective fiction tend to be male, professional, educated and wealthy. The stereotypical romance reader holds the lowest status — the "bored housewife."
"The problem with romance fiction is that it's written by women," Regis says. "Men don't read romances. They put the book down after three pages and say, 'Nothing is happening.'"
But perhaps the real problem is the polar opposite of this professed lack of a plot. Something very particular is indeed occurring in romance fiction, but it's pretty much guaranteed to make even the most liberated and intrepid of men run for cover.
Think of the common derogatory term for the genre: "bodice-rippers." Think of the notoriously lurid covers, which feature attractive people with bared chests and swelling bosoms.
Before McDaniel senior Sara Krome enrolled in Regis' course on romance fiction, she'd never read a single one of these novels. But, the 22-year-old resident of Union Bridge was immediately hooked.
"I liked that these books were by woman and for women, and that the characters were very outspoken and strong," she says. "They're career-oriented and successful.
"And why wouldn't I want to read about a woman who gets to have good sex?"
Krome identified what is perhaps a salient characteristic of romance fiction. Granted, the amount of sexual content in these novels runs the gamut. Some contain extremely graphic scenes, while others limit physical contact to a single squeeze of a gloved hand.
But sexual tension and the sensations that tension engenders run through every last romance novel, from start to finish. In fact, it's hard to think of another type of literature that so consistently, and with so little apology, devotes itself to female sexual pleasure.
As Regis puts it delicately, "Women do report feeling empowered by these books."