"'Formula' has become such a bad word in literary circles," says McDaniel senior D.L. Santos. "People really shy away from it. But, the formula is one of the things I like about romance fiction. It's what a writer does with the formula that makes it interesting."
Santos, 22, of Rockville, read her first romance novel when she was 12. Since 2008, she has been writing the blog, The Romance Girl's Guide to Fiction.
"My view is that the world sort of sucks, and when I pick up a book, I don't want to be reminded of it," she says. "I want to be uplifted."
But though all genre fiction is formulaic, some formulas are more equal than others.
Horror and science fiction gets the most respect from the literary gatekeepers, Regis says, followed by mysteries and detective novels. Authors from Mary Shelley ("Frankenstein") to Kurt Vonnegut ("Slaughterhouse Five") to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle ("The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes") have managed over time to vault out of the genre ghetto. Their novels now are classified simply as literature.
"Romance has had the hardest time making that leap," Bendel-Simso says.
She once tried to obtain a seminal romance novel for a course she was team-teaching, only to discover that copies simply weren't to be found. They weren't available in libraries, or online, or in bookstores.
"I think the academic minor is especially important for romance fiction," she says. "Because in the past romance hasn't been valued, these novels notoriously go out of print very quickly, in a way that the other genres do not."
Laura Lippman, a former Baltimore Sun reporter who has written 11 novels featuring a reluctant private investigator named Tess Monaghan, is pleased that popular fiction is finally starting to get the academic cred — and shelf space — it deserves.
"There are outstanding works of literature that belong squarely in the genre camp," Lippman writes in an email. "I've been lucky enough to work in a genre that is, overall, treated pretty well. I think romance fiction, in particular, is degraded by people who have no idea how good it can be."
As Regis puts it: "I have colleagues in the critical romance community who have walked away from the field of romance because they wanted to get tenure."
Spokesmen for both the English departments association and its parent organization, the Modern Languages Association, declined to comment on McDaniel's plans for an academic minor in genre fiction. The organizations say they have no opinion on the merits of teaching best-sellers.
The McDaniel professors think that romance fiction is the victim of snobbery based on class and gender.
According to Bendel-Simso, readers of detective fiction tend to be male, professional, educated and wealthy. The stereotypical romance reader holds the lowest status — the "bored housewife."
"The problem with romance fiction is that it's written by women," Regis says. "Men don't read romances. They put the book down after three pages and say, 'Nothing is happening.'"
But perhaps the real problem is the polar opposite of this professed lack of a plot. Something very particular is indeed occurring in romance fiction, but it's pretty much guaranteed to make even the most liberated and intrepid of men run for cover.
Think of the common derogatory term for the genre: "bodice-rippers." Think of the notoriously lurid covers, which feature attractive people with bared chests and swelling bosoms.
Before McDaniel senior Sara Krome enrolled in Regis' course on romance fiction, she'd never read a single one of these novels. But, the 22-year-old resident of Union Bridge was immediately hooked.
"I liked that these books were by woman and for women, and that the characters were very outspoken and strong," she says. "They're career-oriented and successful.
"And why wouldn't I want to read about a woman who gets to have good sex?"
Krome identified what is perhaps a salient characteristic of romance fiction. Granted, the amount of sexual content in these novels runs the gamut. Some contain extremely graphic scenes, while others limit physical contact to a single squeeze of a gloved hand.
But sexual tension and the sensations that tension engenders run through every last romance novel, from start to finish. In fact, it's hard to think of another type of literature that so consistently, and with so little apology, devotes itself to female sexual pleasure.
As Regis puts it delicately, "Women do report feeling empowered by these books."