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Where is the Love? Romance Fiction Gets Cold Shoulder

Duke history professor moonlights as author of historical romance fiction 

Katharine Brophy Dubois writes romance novels under the pen name Katharine Ashe. Her latest book is "How To Be A Proper Lady."

Romance fiction gets a bad name. Even though it's a billion-dollar industry and outsells science fiction, mysteries and historical fiction, it's rare for The New York Times Book Review to review a romance fiction novel.

The success of current bestseller "Fifty Shades of Grey" notwithstanding, romance fiction is generally viewed with contempt as lowbrow, poorly written, cheap, tawdry, worthy of mockery -- especially among academic literary types.

This characterization perplexes Katharine Brophy Dubois, a visiting assistant professor of religion and history at Duke who specializes in medieval religious history. Dubois writes under the pen name Katharine Ashe, and has been named one of the new stars of historical romance by the American Library Association.  

"There is really great writing out there. It may not suit everybody, but they shouldn't dismiss it because of memories of their mother's Harlequins," says Dubois, who has published six books under her pen name.

[Dubois delivered a lecture on the romance fiction industry and read from her most recent book, "How to Be A Proper Lady," on Sunday at the Durham County Public Library.]

Dubois says the genre is broad enough to appeal to a wide swath of folks, including professional women with degrees -- and, despite the stigma, some men. At its core, she says romance fiction is really all about love.

"I like beautiful writing, interesting use of words, unique well-cultivated voices, characters who are carefully drawn and complex, notions of honor and nobility," she says. "The excitement and richness of the language can draw you into a deeply emotional story. Romance allows and encourages depth. The narrator is deep inside the thoughts of the characters."Aligning her academic self with her romance fiction self is not always easy. 

"I have a pen name to keep my two identities distinct. Unfortunately, my worlds of romance and academia rarely meet," says Dubois who does not keep her dual identity secret.

Dubois likes to set her stories in the British Empire during a time period known as the Regency, from 1811 to 1820 when the Prince Regent ruled until the death of his father, King George III. 

"I write adventure," Dubois says. "I have pirates and ships and secret identities and missions."

Ballrooms, English viscounts, dukes, a Jesuit priest and an anti-slavery vigilante figure prominently in her latest novel. Her scholar friends, including husband Laurent Dubois, a professor of French studies and history and co-director of the Haiti Lab at Duke, help inform her stories with historical accuracy. It's no coincidence that in "Swept Away By a Kiss" the hero's best friend is Haitian and the ship they are after is filled with Haitian captives. 

Watch Your Mouth

Katharine Dubois says there are certain terms that should be avoided, or used cautiously, when talking about the romance fiction genre. These terms not only cast judgment and devalue the craft, but also expose our discomfort with discussing sexuality.

  • Bodice ripper (in Dubois' novels, the women voluntarily remove their clothing, though some romance authors do employ domination themes)
  • Dirty
  • Trashy
  • Beach reading
  • Smut
  • Garbage
  • Chick lit

Dubois likes writing about this time period, which she says is hot within the romance fiction genre, because of "the contrast between the wonderful richness of the empire and the constricted quality of the English aristocracy."

And readers eat it up. Her books are released at midnight on the day of publication and she often gets letters from readers who have ordered and read the whole book by noon. One fan in particular made her day by saying she learned about the workings of racism from reading her books. "Some romance fans might not have any exposure otherwise," she says.

While it is a point of pride for her to educate readers, she knows many read for the steamy sex scenes, which Dubois prefers to call love scenes.

"We describe these scenes as sensual, graphic, but not dirty," Dubois says. (See sidebar.) "I think the problem is that we Americans are so eager to conflate romance and sex when, in fact, romance is a love relationship between lovers, sometimes between friends."

She says the overt sexuality and the positive experience of sex for women is part of the stigma of romance fiction, one that makes many men uncomfortable.

"Men have told me they're intimidated by the fantasy heroes and the male chest covers," Dubois says. "But this is an industry run by women and consumed by women. What does it mean that it is stigmatized? I'd suggest it is latent misogyny in American culture."

Below: Covers from several of Dubois' novels.