Why I research Queer Romance Novels

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A selection of queer romance novel covers

Current University of Birmingham PhD Student, Lucy Hargrave, introduces her research on queer romance novels and outlines how you can get involved.

The twenty-first century has seen a proliferation of queer romance novels, as well as growing interest in queer theory and culture. Authors such as KJ Charles, Jay Northcote, C.S. Pacat and Rebekah Weatherspoon have gained readers for the publication of contemporary, historical, paranormal, and fantasy queer romances. However, there has been no full-length exploration of how the traditionally heterosexual romance genre has been queered. My research aims to address this omission, analysing how queer romances have been written, produced and received in the twenty-first century.

I’m interested in how queerness is explored and portrayed in these novels. How has the production of queer romances influenced the genre’s development? And how are queer romance readers and writers engaging with their LGBT+ communities?

This research is important as it analyses how queer lives are portrayed, produced and engaged with, in one of the most commercially successful genres. It explores previously neglected identities, in particular bisexual, transgender and asexual. In doing so it expands the existing field of romance scholarship and queer studies which have not, to date, engaged with romance scholarship.

Establishing a history of queer romances, my research explores ideas of the queer body. Do queer romance heroes/heroines uphold or challenge hegemonic ideals of the masculine and feminine body? How is the trans, non-binary and/or intersex body portrayed in queer romance novels?

I’m also interested in the idea of family. The found or chosen family is an enduring concept for LGBT+ individuals, particularly those who have been rejected by their biological families. This concept is particularly interesting when compared with the importance placed on the biological family in some heterosexual romance sub-genres.

Finally my research seeks to explore how the Happily Ever After (HEA) has been queered in the twenty-first century. It focuses on how queer romance novelists campaigned for and engaged with the legalisation of same-sex marriage. It also explores the rise of polyamorous and non-traditional relationships and the challenge they can present to the HEA.

My thesis draws upon literary critical and social science methodologies to analyse how queer romances rework heteronormative structures and expands on established critical popular romance scholarship. Janice Radway’s Reading the Romance (1984) remains the only key scholarly text to focus on readership. My project expands on Radway’s early example, using surveys, focus groups and individual interviews with not only readers, but also authors and publishers. A complementary structuralist approach, drawing on the widely used framework Pamela Regis outlined in The Natural History of the Romance Novel (2003), will analyse how the structures of queer romances compare to heterosexual romances.

Why do I research queer romance novels?

People will often ask me why I wanted to do a PhD, what I was hoping to get out of it and crucially what I want to do after the PhD. As a PhD student, these are questions you will get asked over and over again, particularly from people not familiar with academia. Yet, they rarely ask me why I wanted to do a PhD on queer romance novels.

The truth is I didn’t want to do a PhD for a long time. I took five years away from higher education after getting my BA in English Literature because I couldn’t imagine studying ‘classic’ novels for another 4 – 5 years. It wasn’t until my mum – don’t they always know best – asked me why I didn’t just study the books I loved to read: romance.

I have been reading romance novels since I was fourteen years old. Ever since I randomly picked up To Sir Philip with Love by Julia Quinn from my local library, I was hooked. I quickly returned and borrowed the whole Bridgerton series, which is still one of my all-time favourite romance series today. Soon I was reading Mills & Boon novels on the way to school, at school and home when I should have been doing homework. I would scour the charity shops for romance books, spending nearly all my monthly pocket-money on them. Yet it wasn’t until I turned 17 and was given a Kindle for my birthday that I discovered the world of queer or LGBT+ romances. For a teenager who didn’t completely identify with the word ‘straight’, this was heady stuff. Suddenly I had access to all these novels that featured characters who felt like me and who importantly got ‘Happily Ever Afters’ just like everyone else.

Yet until my mum asked me that question, studying romance at university hadn’t even entered my head as an option. I was convinced that to do a PhD I would have to research canonically approved writers, like William Shakespeare, Elizabeth Gaskell and George Orwell. As a result, I had dismissed the very genre I loved to read. Luckily my mum’s question lit a fire inside my mind, and soon I was researching romance novels in a new way.

I quickly stumbled across the Journal of Popular Romance Studies, and the rest is history. After completing my MSc at the University of Edinburgh, I started my PhD on queer romance novels at the University of Birmingham.

Given the impact, queer romance novels had on me and the sense of community I’ve found within the romance genre, I couldn’t imagine researching anything else. I fully acknowledge that my thesis is being written by both a romance academic and a long-time romance reader. I’m an advocate for the romance genre who often corrects my friends, family and colleagues on their outdated opinions about the genre I love.

How can I get involved?

If you’re a reader or author of queer romance, you can participate in my research by completing either the reader or writer survey before 31st January 2021. The survey is anonymous and will ask about your reading or writing practice. It should take around 15 minutes to complete.

Queer Romance Novels Reader Survey

Queer Romance Novels Writer Survey

For more information on participation, you can download the Participant Information Sheet:

Participant Information Sheet – Questionnaire

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