The BIG idea

<em>Digital illustration: Judy Green</em>

Digital illustration: Judy Green

There was a predictable sneer when E.L. James topped Forbes' annual list of highest-earning authors, raking in a hot $95 million for her Fifty Shades erotic S&M trilogy.

Scholars of popular romance regularly cop the same sneer. But they may have the last laugh.

Their heavy-breathing, bodice-ripping genre is developing as a reputable subject for academic attention in the same way science fiction and detective genres have. There are conferences, a journal and a professional body with 130 members, the International Association for the Study of Popular Romance.

As the US Chronicle of Higher Education recently detailed, popular romance is a female-driven, wildly successful global enterprise (with estimated US sales of $1.44 billion last year) with a passionately devoted, closely connected and unusually democratic author-reader-critic-scholar community.

In any new academic field, an early preoccupation is to define the boundaries. Pamela Regis' A Natural History of the Romance Novel (2003) specifies eight common narrative elements.

They are: a backdrop of a corrupt society that the romance eventually conquers; the meeting between the heroine and hero; an account of their mutual attraction; an explanation of the barrier between them; the breaking point that renders their romance impossible; the recognition that fells the barrier; the declaration of love; their betrothal.

Theses will be written on whether the Fifty Shades trilogy fits those criteria, or whether it is a new genre disparagingly dubbed mummy porn. Broadly defined, popular romance already goes beyond the bodice-ripping stereotype, with set-ups including but not limited to S&M, paranormal, lesbian/gay/bisexual/transgender and even Amish.

But a recent analysis of 20 winners of the annual RITA Awards for best romance novel found the form was as predictable as the sneers it attracts.

It found 86 per cent of heroines and 77 per cent of heroes perfectly fitted the stereotype of attractive, Caucasian, heterosexual, single and young. Their sexual encounters were most often initiated by the males and overwhelmingly followed a conventional progression from kissing and touching through to vanilla intercourse, with nothing ''kinky'' occurring.

Further reading:

Journal of Popular Romance Studies, jprstudies.org
Chronicle of Higher Educationchronicle.com