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'50 shades of no': Critics slam taxpayer-funded romance novel website

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The National Endowment for the Humanities became the center of controversy this week after it was revealed in Oklahoma Senator Tom Coburn's annual "Wastebook" overview that the government-operated body had spent almost $1 million this fiscal year on "The Popular Romance Project."

Coburn's report, which seeks to expose egregious federal spending, pointed out that the project – with its tag line "rethinking love and romance" – has received federal funds for the past three years. But now NEH is biting back at the flood of criticism.      

"The National Endowment for the Humanities takes its use of taxpayer dollars seriously,” Judy Havemann, NEH director of communications, told FOX411. “The NEH project described in Senator Coburn’s report consists of three grants for scholarly study. All three grants received high marks from peer review panels that include leading scholars in history, philosophy, cultural studies, and other humanities disciplines. The grants were recommended for funding by NEH’s National Humanities Council, which includes appointees from both Republican and Democratic administrations."

But some critics aren't buying the argument. Matt Philbin, managing editor at Culture and Media Institute's Media Research Center, is less-than-impressed by the notion of his taxpayer dollars being devoted to a project that promotes the likes of the journal "Sexualities," and posts links about whether or not "The Hunger Games" is a love story and delves into the science behind "Friends with Benefits" relationships versus romantic ones.  

"This is outrageous but, sadly, not surprising,” Philbin said. “This is a perfect example of an unaccountable government arbitrarily wasting our money. A $1.4 billion private leisure industry obviously doesn't need federal assistance.

"If you argue that romance literature is an important part of American culture, fine. But is it more important than, say, science fiction or fantasy? And who gets to choose? As conservatives have long argued, when government gets in the business of sponsoring art, it ends up using tax dollars to subsidize the tastes of some over the tastes of others."

According to the project’s website, romance fiction generated $1.37 billion in sales in 2008 and was ranked as the top-performing category on the New York Times, USA Today and Publishers Weekly best-seller lists. So does it really require a million-dollar study from the feds?

"How about 50 shades of no?” said American Thinker and columnist C. Edmund Wright. “This industry does not require any government help, and it's totally inappropriate for tax dollars to be used even if the industry was in trouble, which it's not."

The Popular Romance Project is primarily a website, but it also hosts events and is filming a documentary titled "Love Between the Covers." It goes on to bill itself as endeavoring to "explore the fascinating, often contradictory origins and influences of popular romance as told in novels, films, comics, advice books, songs, internet fan fiction, taking a global perspective – while looking back across time as far as the ancient Greeks."

The project also receives funding from groups such as Romance Writers for America, various Kickstarter donors and the NEH’s state-based affiliate, Mass Humanities, which is also supported by the Massachusetts Cultural Council.

"There is a role for the government in promoting arts and the humanities. Considering the number of worthwhile projects and the limited government resources, I am at a loss why a romance novel project received funding," said D.C-based attorney Margaret Cone. "It is a bit disappointing and may reflect how insular many in Washington are. Surely there are more pressing programs that could been funded."

While the expose has ignited the ire of many, there are still plenty of people who support the allocation of funds to this cause.

"While funding a study on the development of romance in popular books and movies might not be at the forefront of what we deem necessary as far as funding through taxpayer money goes, it certainly has its place in U.S. culture,” said author and screenwriter Ariane Sommer. “And a rather large place it is. For romance, basic needs aside, is likely the biggest motivator in our lives. As a taxpayer I would rather see my money go to cultural projects and education than, say, invasive body scanning machines at airports or subsidizing the ingredients of junk food."

“After all we could certainly use a little more romance in our lives..."


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