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Professor embraces genre

Besides teaching the greatest hits of American literature for 20 years, McDaniel College Professor Pamela Regis spent more than a decade researching a genre she calls "the Rodney Dangerfield" of fiction.

She has become something of an expert on romance novels. And she says they get a bad rap.

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"We think now of romance novels as a kind of escape, but they once had a far more profound meaning than we now lend them and I would argue that meaning still exists," Regis said. "Somebody had to say the truth about the genre."

Regis is the author of A Natural History of the Romance Novel, published last month by University of Pennsylvania Press. She is scheduled to make her case to America today, when she is to appear on National Public Radio.

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She described her book as a literary criticism of the work of romance novelists spanning more than two centuries. She looked purely at the work, not its marketing, its Fabio-esque cover models or the background of the writers.

It is a book that representatives of the genre embrace.

"We value the research she's done," said Charis Calhoon, communications manager of the Romance Writers of America. "She's academic, very learned and has taken the time to make our genre as credible as possible. It's this kind of academic seriousness that will help make romance the legitimate genre it should be."

Romance Writers of America studies show that it is a billion-dollar industry that captured 54 percent of fiction paperback sales in 2001, and one-third of popular fiction sales.

Regis says the genre includes a wide range of writing talent, but authors such as Nora Roberts, Jayne Ann Krentz -- who also writes under the pseudonym Amanda Quick -- and Mary Jo Putney are "as good as anybody writing popular fiction. Character development, witty dialogue, pace, interesting plots, shaping a scene -- they do that as well as anybody."

She is to appear with Putney on Diane Rehm's talk radio show this morning.

At McDaniel, Regis, 50, gives students a foundation in the work of Edgar Allan Poe, Herman Melville and Frederick Douglass.

"She has such a wide and deep knowledge of literature," said LeRoy Panek, chairman of the English department. "She's talked about romances to my popular fiction class and she has put the genre in the context of traditional literature." He said she even brought Nora Roberts in as a guest speaker once.

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Regis, who lives in Frederick County, said that her appreciation for romance novels began in graduate school at the Johns Hopkins University, where she received a doctorate in English literature. She and a colleague who wrote romance novels talked about the genre analytically -- and concluded that its writers should be taken more seriously.

"These people get no respect," she said. She set out to research and write a book that would set the matter straight.

She read more than 200 books during the past decade in her efforts to define the romance novel and identify its elements.

Regis dates the romance novel to 1740 with the publication of Pamela by Samuel Richardson. It was shocking -- but not for sexual explicitness.

"The lady's maid married the lord of the manor," Regis said. "This was very subversive for that time."

Regis identified eight elements that she said are basic to all romance novels, starting with a scenario that illuminates a flawed society that needs fixing. The meeting of the protagonists establishes their mutual attraction and sets off the forces that conspire to keep them apart.

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The climactic moment of every romance, Regis said, is what she calls "the point of ritual death" -- the moment when the heroine leaves her past life and its restraints behind. This moment is followed by a revelation that allows the heretofore forbidden union to move forward. Finally, the happy ending of a marriage or the promise of one caps the romance reading experience.

She said that critics who say romance novels promote subordination to marriage and giving up free will have it all wrong.

"Freedom and life -- that's what these books are about," Regis said. "Readers respond to that with joy."


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