Most serious students of literature believe women who read romance novels are trying to fill a hole in their lives.
The title of an essay by Canadian scholar Lillian S. Robinson sums up this contempt for romance novels. It's called "On Reading Trash."
But escape isn't the main motive for most women who read the Christian romance novel, according to a Kansas University doctoral student in American studies, Rebecca Barrett Fox.
In a defense of Christian romance novels that appeared last year in the Journal of Religion and Popular Culture, Fox concluded that their effects are largely positive.
She had contacted several hundred readers in chat rooms, through e-mail and by phone.
She also interviewed 27 novelists who later gave her access to fan mail.
Fox, who is from Lancaster County, Pa., first came across the Christian romance novel as a middle school student. Amish romance novels were marketed where she grew up.
The majority of the readers of Christian romances, she said, are conservative and born-again.
They are highly sensitive to accusations that they are "escaping" by reading the novels, Fox said. In fact, some initially mistrusted Fox because of how some academics have depicted conservative believers.
Though a few readers agreed that escape was a motive -- the phrase "edifying entertainment" came up -- others said the books had a more profound effect.
They reported that as they experienced God's love of the characters, they also experienced that love as directed toward them.
Many reported to Fox that reading the books changed their lives and feelings.
Some found ways to forgive husbands who cheated, while others took clues from the books about how to tell their husbands they'd been cheating.
The books became a source of community.
"I talked to a lot of young mothers, to military wives whose husbands were abroad and to older widows," Fox said. "The community they find on Web sites and at conferences got them into a network they might not otherwise have."
Moreover, the women often expressed pride about reading books in their leisure time.
One of the surprises to Fox is that masculine heroes in contemporary Christian romances often display feminine qualities, working in the helping professions, for example, or caring for children.
Fox said that Christian evangelist Grantley Morris, arguing that real men don't act this way, assails the novels for not depicting man-woman love accurately. Morris alleges the books are actually about lesbian love in disguise.
Fundamentalists aren't alone in assailing the novels. There's also a scholarly dismissal of them as harmful to the image of women. So Fox hasn't had the easiest time working this ground.
I admire her for enduring both the mistrust of scholars and of fundamentalists.
Attempting to stake out turf between warring parties is a thankless job, but it's also the only path to peace I know.
Roger Martin is a research writer and editor for the Kansas University Center for Research and editor of Explore, KU's research magazine Web site, which can be found at www.research.ku.edu. Martin's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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