We're delighted to have Dr Ria Cheyne talk to us about the RWA funded #DisRom Project...
What is it?
In a nutshell, the Disability and Romance Project aims to generate new knowledge about disability in romance novels and in the romance community by gathering information from readers, writers, and other industry professionals. The project launched in April 2017, and the first stage focuses on romance readers—at the moment we’re gathering data via a reader survey.
A key aim of the project is to engage the romance community with the research and its findings—to build upon existing conversations about disability and inclusion, and hopefully to start some new ones. This means that as well as doing the things academics usually do (like writing articles for academic journals and presenting at conferences), I’ll also be sharing the results with the romance community via blog posts, social media, industry events, and pieces like this one. The goal is for romance readers, writers and industry professionals to be able to see and make use our findings—and tell us what they think!
How can I support the project? Can anyone take part?
I would love for Pink Heart Society readers to take part! You don’t have to have a particular interest in disability, or identify as a disabled person—we want responses from a broad cross-section of romance readers. Basically, if you read romance, it would be great if you would complete the survey. (There’s a prize draw for an Amazon.com voucher as a ‘thank you’ for taking part.)
Later stages of the project will gather data from writers and other industry professionals, so if you’re a writer, editor, agent, or otherwise professionally involved in the romance industry, please get in touch if you’d be interested in taking part.
More broadly, any signal boosting of the project is really helpful, so please consider following us on Twitter, or sharing the project website or survey link on social media.
What has the response been like?
I’ve been blown away by the response to the project so far—I’ve had so many positive comments from people who want to support the project, or are excited to see work on this topic. In some ways I think it’s an extension of the growing focus on diversity in the romance community, visible in things like the #WeNeedDiverseRomance hashtag, or diversity-focused websites like Romance Novels in Color. Sometimes disability is left out of conversations about diversity, so it’s been great to get such a positive response.
I’m also absolutely thrilled that Romance Writers of America have awarded the project their Academic Research Grant. This will allow me to attend the Romance Writers of America Conference and the Romantic Novelists’ Association Conference in the UK, to gather data from writers and industry professionals. (I would have loved to come to Brisbane for the Romance Writers of Australia conference too, but sadly the budget won’t stretch that.
What made you want to research disability and romance?
I’ve actually been doing research on disability and romance for several years, but most of my work has focused on examining how disability is represented in particular romance novels. (Here’s an open access version of one of my academic publications, on disability in the work of Mary Balogh.) That sort of work is important, but there are a lot of questions it can’t answer. For example, how do readers respond to depictions of disability in romance? Might readers who identify as disabled respond differently to certain depictions of disability than nondisabled readers? What motivates authors to depict disabled characters in romance? These were the sorts of questions I wanted to investigate in the Disability and Romance Project.
More broadly, I believe that that romance is a hugely important and still under-researched aspect of popular culture, and that it has unique potentials to shape attitudes towards disability and disabled people. For example, romance novels featuring disabled characters are one of very few places where we find stories about disabled people finding love, developing satisfying sexual relationships, and living happily ever after. Despite over five decades of disability activism, many people find it hard to think of disability as anything other than a tragedy, and view a life with disability as a lesser life. Romance is uniquely positioned to challenge some of those negative attitudes.
It’s also worth mentioning that I love romance—reading about it, talking about it, and writing about it. In one way, this project is a way of giving something back to the romance community for the countless happy hours I’ve had from the genre.
What’s next for the project?
For the next few months, I’ll be focusing on analyzing the survey data, and developing the website to include a blog and resources for readers and writers interested in disability issues. There are lots of fantastic resources on disability and romance online (especially on the Love in the Margins blog, now on hiatus) but there’s nowhere that gathers them together—no obvious place to go if you’re a reader interested in reading romances with disabled characters, or a writer interested in writing disability romances. My goal is for the website to be that resource.
As well as sharing the findings of the project on the website, I’ll also be using them as the basis for a workshop, Writing Disability: Potentials and Pitfalls, at the Romantic Novelists’ Association conference in July. I’m also planning a social media campaign to help readers and writers identify romances with disabled characters, and get people talking about disability romances—more on that soon!
Are there any books you’d recommend to readers who’d like to read romances with disabled characters?
My all-time favourite romance novel with a disabled character is a Harlequin Superromance called A Man Like Mac, by Fay Robinson. A paraplegic hero coaches an Olympic-level runner as she recovers from a life-threatening injury: both primary and secondary characters are fantastic, and it’s a gorgeous love story that depicts disability unsentimentally. Another older category romance I love is Ruth Wind (or Barbara Samuels)'s Reckless—it’s a PTSD romance, but unusual in that both the hero and the heroine have PTSD. In M/M romance I really enjoyed Annabeth Albert’s Connection Error. I’d also highly recommend Ridley’s piece on disability-themed romance novels at Love in the Margins as a starting point.
For more information about The #DisRom Project, check out the project's website, and follow them and Ria on Twitter.