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Reading the Romance: Women, Patriarchy, and Popular Literature

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Originally published in 1984, Reading the Romance challenges popular (and often demeaning) myths about why romantic fiction, one of publishing's most lucrative categories, captivates millions of women readers. Among those who have disparaged romance reading are feminists, literary critics, and theorists of mass culture. They claim that romances enforce the woman reader's d Originally published in 1984, Reading the Romance challenges popular (and often demeaning) myths about why romantic fiction, one of publishing's most lucrative categories, captivates millions of women readers. Among those who have disparaged romance reading are feminists, literary critics, and theorists of mass culture. They claim that romances enforce the woman reader's dependence on men and acceptance of the repressive ideology purveyed by popular culture. Radway questions such claims, arguing that critical attention must shift from the text itself, taken in isolation, to the complex social event of reading. She examines that event, from the complicated business of publishing and distribution to the individual reader's engagement with the text. Radway's provocative approach combines reader-response criticism with anthropology and feminist psychology. Asking readers themselves to explore their reading motives, habits, and rewards, she conducted interviews in a midwestern town with forty-two romance readers whom she met through Dorothy Evans, a chain bookstore employee who has earned a reputation as an expert on romantic fiction. Evans defends her customers' choice of entertainment; reading romances, she tells Radway, is no more harmful than watching sports on television. We read books so we won't cry is the poignant explanation one woman offers for her reading habit. Indeed, Radway found that while the women she studied devote themselves to nurturing their families, these wives and mothers receive insufficient devotion or nurturance in return. In romances the women find not only escape from the demanding and often tiresome routines of their lives but also a hero who supplies the tenderness and admiring attention that they have learned not to expect. The heroines admired by Radway's group defy the expected stereotypes; they are strong, independent, and intelligent. That such characters often find themselves to be victims of male aggression and almost always resign themselves to accepting conventional roles in life has less to do, Radway argues, with the women readers' fantasies and choices than with their need to deal with a fear of masculine dominance. These romance readers resent not only the limited choices in their own lives but the patronizing atitude that men especially express toward their reading tastes. In fact, women read romances both to protest and to escape temporarily the narrowly defined role prescribed for them by a patriarchal culture. Paradoxically, the books that they read make conventional roles for women seem desirable. It is this complex relationship between culture, text, and woman reader that Radway urges feminists to address. Romance readers, she argues, should be encouraged to deliver their protests in the arena of actual social relations rather than to act them out in the solitude of the imagination. In a new introduction, Janice Radway places the book within the context of current scholarship and offers both an explanation and critique of the study's limitations.


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Originally published in 1984, Reading the Romance challenges popular (and often demeaning) myths about why romantic fiction, one of publishing's most lucrative categories, captivates millions of women readers. Among those who have disparaged romance reading are feminists, literary critics, and theorists of mass culture. They claim that romances enforce the woman reader's d Originally published in 1984, Reading the Romance challenges popular (and often demeaning) myths about why romantic fiction, one of publishing's most lucrative categories, captivates millions of women readers. Among those who have disparaged romance reading are feminists, literary critics, and theorists of mass culture. They claim that romances enforce the woman reader's dependence on men and acceptance of the repressive ideology purveyed by popular culture. Radway questions such claims, arguing that critical attention must shift from the text itself, taken in isolation, to the complex social event of reading. She examines that event, from the complicated business of publishing and distribution to the individual reader's engagement with the text. Radway's provocative approach combines reader-response criticism with anthropology and feminist psychology. Asking readers themselves to explore their reading motives, habits, and rewards, she conducted interviews in a midwestern town with forty-two romance readers whom she met through Dorothy Evans, a chain bookstore employee who has earned a reputation as an expert on romantic fiction. Evans defends her customers' choice of entertainment; reading romances, she tells Radway, is no more harmful than watching sports on television. We read books so we won't cry is the poignant explanation one woman offers for her reading habit. Indeed, Radway found that while the women she studied devote themselves to nurturing their families, these wives and mothers receive insufficient devotion or nurturance in return. In romances the women find not only escape from the demanding and often tiresome routines of their lives but also a hero who supplies the tenderness and admiring attention that they have learned not to expect. The heroines admired by Radway's group defy the expected stereotypes; they are strong, independent, and intelligent. That such characters often find themselves to be victims of male aggression and almost always resign themselves to accepting conventional roles in life has less to do, Radway argues, with the women readers' fantasies and choices than with their need to deal with a fear of masculine dominance. These romance readers resent not only the limited choices in their own lives but the patronizing atitude that men especially express toward their reading tastes. In fact, women read romances both to protest and to escape temporarily the narrowly defined role prescribed for them by a patriarchal culture. Paradoxically, the books that they read make conventional roles for women seem desirable. It is this complex relationship between culture, text, and woman reader that Radway urges feminists to address. Romance readers, she argues, should be encouraged to deliver their protests in the arena of actual social relations rather than to act them out in the solitude of the imagination. In a new introduction, Janice Radway places the book within the context of current scholarship and offers both an explanation and critique of the study's limitations.

30 review for Reading the Romance: Women, Patriarchy, and Popular Literature

  1. 5 out of 5

    Claire Reads Books

    4.5 ⭐️ Outdated for sure and limited in scope, but still a FASCINATING look at romance reading and an invaluable consideration, more broadly, of how to read popular fiction / mass-produced cultural objects. Also provides an opportunity to look at how far romance, as a genre, has come since 1984.

  2. 5 out of 5

    KimberlyRose

    Ms Radway believes the romance novel (heterosexual; from the '70s and '80s) is not truly a novel; rather, she says, it is a myth. Like Joseph Campbell's hero monomyth (The Hero With a Thousand Faces), she attempts to track the path of the romance monomyth. She separates her analysis into two section: the act of reading the romance and the narrative structure of the romance. One major theme Radway presents centers around the idea that a reader not only enjoys her escapism, but she receives import Ms Radway believes the romance novel (heterosexual; from the '70s and '80s) is not truly a novel; rather, she says, it is a myth. Like Joseph Campbell's hero monomyth (The Hero With a Thousand Faces), she attempts to track the path of the romance monomyth. She separates her analysis into two section: the act of reading the romance and the narrative structure of the romance. One major theme Radway presents centers around the idea that a reader not only enjoys her escapism, but she receives important emotional nurturance that is lacking in her reality. Also, she improves her understanding of herself and her world. Another major theme is a feminist one: the romance novel-myth is a paradox. At the same time women are reassuring themselves of the validity of their social role (wife, mother, homemaker: the typical end of an "ideal" romance during the era that she wrote her book) in patriarchal society, they are also expressing passive-aggressive discontent. Her field work is limited to a small group of homogeneous women, so her theorizing is seriously hindered. That said, she doesn't attempt to portray her study group as all encompassing either, so I could respect her study. I came away from this book excited, full of questions. The basic narrative structure of the romance--regardless if it is M/M, F/F, or M/F--has not changed, but many of the significant details have. (In her essay "Better Than Romance? Japanese BL Manga and the Subgenre of Male/Male Romantic Fiction," Dru Pagliassotti writes about Radway's break down of the romance's narrative elements, showing how they still apply today to the two literature forms of BL manga and M/M fiction [Boys' Love, pg 63].) How have the readers of romance changed? What motives them now? What are their desires? Their pleasures? How have the structures of the romance narrative re-defined themselves? Why did M/M novels burst onto the scene in the late '90s? What needs do they fulfill? Are romance novels still predominately following Radway's monomyth theory? Or...? Although I disagreed with many of Radway's assertions, she consistently maintains a balanced personal perspective toward her work; she never minimizes the importance of acknowledging the individuality of each reader.

  3. 4 out of 5

    Ana

    Yes, this book is thoroughly academic and a little out of date, as one might expect from a book published in 1984. But when I reached "CHAPTER 2: The Readers and Their Romances", things go more smoothly. Mass market romance novels took off in the 70's so, by this time, a firm fan base was established among Midwestern housewives. On the surface, I have little in common with the test group, but it was interesting to see where our interests intersect. Content: INTRODUCTION Writing Reading the Romanc Yes, this book is thoroughly academic and a little out of date, as one might expect from a book published in 1984. But when I reached "CHAPTER 2: The Readers and Their Romances", things go more smoothly. Mass market romance novels took off in the 70's so, by this time, a firm fan base was established among Midwestern housewives. On the surface, I have little in common with the test group, but it was interesting to see where our interests intersect. Content: INTRODUCTION Writing Reading the Romance CHAPTER 1 The Institutional Matrix: Publishing Romantic Fiction CHAPTER 2 The Readers and Their Romances CHAPTER 3 The Act of Reading the Romance: Escape and Instruction CHAPTER 4 The Ideal Romance: The Promise of Patriarchy CHAPTER 5 The Failed Romance: Too Close to the Problems of Patriarchy CHAPTER 6 Language and Narrative Discourse: The Ideology of Female Identity Conclusion

  4. 5 out of 5

    Jessica

    It's possible this is so dated by now as to be nearly irrelevant, but it's still very, very dear to my heart, by which I mean this vulnerable, untamable organ thumping passionately beneath my soft, pale, untouched, perfectly rounded breast. This book made the point awhile ago that the pantsuit-wearing masses don't just passively consume popular culture, but actually do create their own meanings in ways that aren't always immediately obvious to the fancy-pantser degree holders who think they know It's possible this is so dated by now as to be nearly irrelevant, but it's still very, very dear to my heart, by which I mean this vulnerable, untamable organ thumping passionately beneath my soft, pale, untouched, perfectly rounded breast. This book made the point awhile ago that the pantsuit-wearing masses don't just passively consume popular culture, but actually do create their own meanings in ways that aren't always immediately obvious to the fancy-pantser degree holders who think they know everything. Yeah, screw you, Adorno and Horkheimer! Okay, this book isn't at all perfect, but it made an impression on me early on, and I'm very fond of it.

  5. 4 out of 5

    Gwenyth

    This book is an ethnography of romance readers in the earlier 80s. The author doesn't come out and say so, exactly, but my impression is that these are women who were reading, like, crack-addict levels of books. It's great. The author gets into why they were reading, what they liked and didn't like, what the romances were potentially giving them in terms of enabling them to interpret and negotiate their own marriages and kids, etc. I love it so much. I don't even know why. I love that it takes t This book is an ethnography of romance readers in the earlier 80s. The author doesn't come out and say so, exactly, but my impression is that these are women who were reading, like, crack-addict levels of books. It's great. The author gets into why they were reading, what they liked and didn't like, what the romances were potentially giving them in terms of enabling them to interpret and negotiate their own marriages and kids, etc. I love it so much. I don't even know why. I love that it takes the romance novel seriously. I love that the author seems totally engaged with the whole thing and never comes across as condescending in her approach to the readers. As a lay reader I can't be certain, but my sense is that the literary and feminist theories the author was trying to apply, are at this point sometimes outdated. It's charming, you can see how the author's own interpretations of things come out of the time period, as much as the romances themselves did.

  6. 5 out of 5

    A

    Let's just begin with the often mentioned phrase that this book is outdated. It certainly is. Or at least I definitely hope so. What I found striking is that I didn't find it very critical. The conclusion seemed to be the most critical part of the book. I would have preferred more criticism throughout the individual chapters. Also, I kept waiting for a more general approach to the whole topic. The inclusion of the Smithon women was alright, but not enough in my opinion. What is a romance? I stil Let's just begin with the often mentioned phrase that this book is outdated. It certainly is. Or at least I definitely hope so. What I found striking is that I didn't find it very critical. The conclusion seemed to be the most critical part of the book. I would have preferred more criticism throughout the individual chapters. Also, I kept waiting for a more general approach to the whole topic. The inclusion of the Smithon women was alright, but not enough in my opinion. What is a romance? I stil ldon't know. I wasn't expecting a clear-cut definition, no, but more than I was given. In the part where the narrative was examined I was almost appaled at the lack of criticism; women reading (and enjoying!) men treating them badly, but then finding out the man only did it because he didn't know how to show his love? Maybe it's my contemporary view of things, but that almost made me sick. to be honest, I am not quite sure if I have ever read a true "romance". I am fairly certain to have read romantiv novels, but romances? Not sure. All in all the book was rather imformative and I will read one of the mentioned romances just to hopefully what the whole fuss is about. I am quite curious as to how studies nowadays differ from this one. Has anything changed, and if so, what? Are romances nowadays still as fomulaic as they were in the laste 70s and early 80s? Do they still subtly preach the same gender stereotypes and patriarchal power? It's a really interesting topic, I think.

  7. 5 out of 5

    John

    Read only part of this for a course. An ethnography of women in a fly-over state who read romance fiction. Looks at why they do it, why romances, how they use reading as a way to cope with patriarchal relationships and expectations. Some of the conclusions are iffy, but a milestone text for ASKING people why they do what they do, rather than ASSUMING you can figure it out because you're such a smarty-pants intellectual.

  8. 4 out of 5

    Roxana Chirilă

    An interesting book, really worth reading, even though the study is done on a relatively small number of women, and despite the fact that you can feel the way Janice Radway looks down on her subjects. Otherwise, it contains a number of really neat things, such as the ordinary structure of the romance, the effect of romance novels on women's lives, considerations on escapism... Quite interesting, quite fun.

  9. 5 out of 5

    Sarah

    This paper was for a class and a little more academic than most of my reviews, but it's still a book review, so it's getting included here. Janice Radway received her BA (with highest honors) in and 1971 and her Ph.D. in English and American Studies in 1977 from Michigan State University, and her M.A. from the State University of New York at Stony Brook. When Reading the Romance was published in 1984, she was an associate professor in the American Civilization Department at the University of Penn This paper was for a class and a little more academic than most of my reviews, but it's still a book review, so it's getting included here. Janice Radway received her BA (with highest honors) in and 1971 and her Ph.D. in English and American Studies in 1977 from Michigan State University, and her M.A. from the State University of New York at Stony Brook. When Reading the Romance was published in 1984, she was an associate professor in the American Civilization Department at the University of Pennsylvania. While at Pennsylvania she was editor of American Quarterly, the journal of the American Studies Association. She is currently the Frances Fox Professor of Humanities and chair of the Department of Literature at Duke University. Her second book entitled A Feeling for Books: The Book-of-the-Month Club, Literary Taste and Middle Class Desire, was published in 1997 and continues her interest in popular reading habits. Reading the Romance is Radway’s report of her study of a group of approximately 50 romance novel reading women in a suburban Midwestern community she calls Smithton. The first three chapters of the book outline the romance publishing culture, the community and social situation of the women Radway interviews, as well as an explanation of her interview procedures. The final three chapters explore the results of Radway’s surveys and interviews. She shares the Smithon women’s favorite and least favorite romances and draws conclusions about what these preferences and the act of romance reading mean. Radway’s argument is interesting, especially for the time that it was published, because it places as much significance on the interpretation of the act of romance reading as it does on the content of romance novel. Many of the Smithton women faced at least mild disapproval of their romance reading habit and Radway explains that this disapproval is proof of the slightly rebellious nature of romance reading. Her analysis of the text further explains that the women are rebelling, albeit subtly, from their role as the primary nurturer in patriarchal society by taking time for themselves to read about heroines who fall in love with masculine, yet kind and caring, heroes. Her argument is interesting to read because she cites several sources that both support and disagree with her. While the works of Nancy Chodorow and several other researchers support her claims of the nutritive effective romance reading has for the Smithton women, she also makes sure to point out the flaws in the arguments of those such as Ann Douglas, whose works claim that romance novels are simply female pornography that shows the desire of some women to be mistreated by men (p. 77). While her take on the importance of romance reading was new at the time, Radway finds more than sufficient evidence to support her claims by piecing together research on general reading habits, the role of popular entertainment in culture, studies of housewives, as well as the significant assistance of “Chodorow’s feminist reinterpretation of Freud” (p. 13). With the assistance of Dot, the bookstore clerk who helped the Smithton women find appealing romance titles, Radway was able to distribute a pilot questionnaire to approximately 50 of Dot’s customers, as well as conduct two initial focus groups with 16 of Dot’s most loyal customers, and individual interviews with Dot and five of her most enthusiastic and articulate customers. After analyzing this data, she sent a revised questionnaire for Dot to distribute to roughly the same number of regular customers as the pilot. Radway returned to Smithton to spend time observing Dot’s interactions with her customers and to conduct more personal interviews to test the validity of the conclusions she had begun to draw. Dividing her data collection into two distinct periods allowed Radway the flexibility to adjust to problems in the pilot questionnaire, as well as returning to her sources after beginning to draw conclusions from their original input gave her a chance to test the validity of her possible argument before publishing (pp. 47-8). After examining her data, Radway concludes that the reason the Smithton women hunger for the opportunity to temporarily leave their lives for the nurturing experience of reading romances is because these women subconsciously desire a return to their initially nurturing relationship with their mother. While this claim initially appears far-fetched at best, Radway managed to find sufficient evidence (mostly from Chodorow) to explain how women’s desire for a nurturing relationship with a male hero actually has to do with an adolescent girl’s wish to disassociate from her mother, requiring her to find emotional fulfillment in a member of the opposite sex. The popularity of Green Lady by Leigh Ellis, a romance in which the heterosexual romance is significantly overshadowed by the attempt for a reunion of the mother and daughter, seems further evidence that Radway’s claim is at least plausible. The safer argument still appears to be the more general assertion that the Smithton women read romance novels to achieve emotional fulfillment not possible in their daily routine. The study of reading habits is always of interest to Library and Information Science as understanding our patrons’ reading habits ensures that we will supply them with books they will read. Radway’s choice to research the reading habits of those reading popular literature at time when such research wasn’t popular, also reminds librarians of the importance of understanding that our patrons should play a central role in defining our collections, even if we think they really should be reading something else. While some of the arguments made in Reading the Romance may be dated by their Second Wave Feminism and preoccupation with psychoanalysis, the trailblazing role it played in the study of popular reading habits, as well reevaluating reasons for female romance reading make it an important book in its field. Radway’s account of her study of the Smithton women is also very readable, partly because her explanation of the appeal of romance reading forces a reexamination of the patriarchal structure of our society, something of interest to a much wider audience than just literary scholars. This book is a fascinating look at the way a patriarchal society affects some of its most undervalued members.

  10. 4 out of 5

    Natalie

    This is my all-time fav feminist media studies book. Radway unpacks the term "escape" beautifully. She argues how reading romance is a harmless activity that women do to fend themselves off from their domestic duties. It provides a grounded account of how this reading practice facilitates the Smithton women to create their own spaces to learn things or travel in their chairs. Women can identify with the heroines in the fairy tale narrative structure to explore the social consequences of romance, This is my all-time fav feminist media studies book. Radway unpacks the term "escape" beautifully. She argues how reading romance is a harmless activity that women do to fend themselves off from their domestic duties. It provides a grounded account of how this reading practice facilitates the Smithton women to create their own spaces to learn things or travel in their chairs. Women can identify with the heroines in the fairy tale narrative structure to explore the social consequences of romance, which otherwise would not be possible in the patriarchal reality. That said, the escape gave her a safe space for these middle-class American women to be conformed to the heterosexual marriage.

  11. 4 out of 5

    ELK

    Radway wrings an impressive amount of ideas out of a modest ethnographic study. Despite this book's age, most of the ideas in this book continue to be illuminating and relevant. Annotations Indeed, it was the women readers’ construction of the act of romance reading as a “declaration of independence” that surprised me into the realization that the meaning of their media use was multiply determined and internally contradictory and that to get at its complexity, it would be helpful to distinguish Radway wrings an impressive amount of ideas out of a modest ethnographic study. Despite this book's age, most of the ideas in this book continue to be illuminating and relevant. Annotations Indeed, it was the women readers’ construction of the act of romance reading as a “declaration of independence” that surprised me into the realization that the meaning of their media use was multiply determined and internally contradictory and that to get at its complexity, it would be helpful to distinguish analytically between the significance of the event of reading and the meaning of the text constructed as its consequence. (pg. 7) This genre framework would focus attention on interdiscursive formations, that is, on questions about the kinds of cultural competencies that are learned as a consequence of certain social formations and how those are activated and perpetuated within and through multiple related genres or discourses. Thus, just as one might want to ask what sorts of social grammars prepare adolescent boys to understand and take interest in slasher films… so one might also want to ask what competencies prepare certain women to recognize romances as relevant to their experience and as potential routes to pleasure. (pg. 10) “Escape”: leaving conditions behind and its intentional projection of a utopian future Romance reading as a form of individual resistance to a situation predicated on the assumption that it is women alone who are responsible for the care and emotional nurturance of others. The hero’s ministrations were nearly always linked metaphorically with maternal concern and nurturance. (pg. 12-13) Success, in effect, became a function of accurate prediction. That prediction was ultimately dependent on the capacity to control the interaction between an identifiable audience and a product designed especially for it. (pg. 29) As one reader explained, “Sometimes even a bad book is better than nothing.” The act of purchase, then, does not always signify approval of the product selected; with a mass-production system it can just as easily testify to the existence of an ongoing, still only partially met, need. (pg. 50) At first glance, Dot’s incipient feminism seems deeply at odds with her interest in a literary form whose ultimate message, one astute observer has noted, is that “pleasure for women is men.” … [but] many of the writers and readers of romances interpret these stories as chronicles of female triumph. (pg. 54) To qualify as a romance, the story must chronicle not merely the events of a courtship but what it feels like to be the object of one. (pg. 64) Clifford Geertz maintains that all art forms, like the Balinese cockfight, render “ordinary everyday experience comprehensible by presenting it in terms of acts and objects which have had their practical consequences removed and been reduced… to a level of sheer appearance, where the meaning can be more powerfully articulated and more exactly perceived. (pg. 72) The sad ending logically ranks high on their list of objections because its presence would negate the romance’s difference and distance from day-to-day existence, dominated as it so often is by small failures, minor catastrophes, and ongoing disappointments. In addition, without its happy ending, the romance could not hold out the utopian promise that male-female relations can be managed successfully. (pg. 73) … an “intelligent” man would be more likely to appreciate and encourage the extraordinary bilities of the ideal heroine…” (pg. 82) The focus never shifts for these readers away from the woman at the center of the romance. Moreover, men are rarely valued for their intrinsic characteristics but become remarkable by virtue of the special position they occupy vis-a-vis the heroine. The romantic fantasy is therefore not a fantasy about discovering a uniquely interesting life partner, but a ritual wish to be cared for, loved, and validated in a particular way. … What the Smithton women are looking for in their search for the perfect romantic fantasy is a man who is capable of the same attentive observation and intuitive “understanding” that they believe women regularly accord to men. (pg. 83) These women are telling themselves a story whose central vision is one of total surrender where all danger has been expunged, thus permitting the heroine to relinquish self-control. Passivity is at the heart of the romantic experience in the sense that the final goal of each narrative is the creation of that perfect union where the ideal male, who is masculine and strong yet nurturant too, finally recognizes the intrinsic worth of the heroine. Thereafter, she is required to do nothing more than exist as the center of this paragon’s attention. Romantic escape is, therefore, a temporary but literal denial of the demands women recognize as an integral part of their roles as nurturing wives and mothers. It is also a figurative journey to a utopian state of total receptiveness where the reader, as a result of their identification with the heroine, feels herself the object of someone else’s attention and solicitude. (pg. 97) In discussing the therapeutic function of true fairy stories and folk tales, Bruno Bettelheim has argued that they perform the fundamental service for children of creating and maintaining hope… Not only do they indicate specific psychological solutions to problems… but they also hold out the promise of future solution for the child who cannot see the way to negotiate the necessary journey at the present moment. (pg. 100) Because the implicit content of the cultural message linking female identity with sexual attractiveness stipulates that a woman's value is produced only when she is recognized by a man, women who accept this image of themselves must seek validation as sexually desirable partners. (pg. 106) When the reader can demonstrate to her husband or to an interviewer that an exchange has taken place, that she has acquired something in the process of reading, then her activity is defined retroactively as goal-directed work, as labor with a purpose, which is itself desirable in cultural terms. (pg. 107) In summary, romance can be termed compensatory fiction because the act of reading them fulfills certain basic psychological needs for women that have been induced by the culture and its social structures but that often remain unmet in day-to-day existence as the result of concomitant restrictions on female activity. vicarious emotional nurturance Attention of powerful and important person provides her with the sensations evoked by emotional nurturance and physical satisfaction Reinforces sense of self / value because hero sees the heroine as worthy of concern (pg. 112-113) It’s concealed message, however, is the more significant one, for it legitimates through assertion the notion that commodity consumption is an adequate and effective way to negate the “pain” produced by disappointments, imperfections, and small failures that are an inevitable part of human life… Happiness is not an emotional condition one creates for oneself through action; in advertising, it is a thing that one can buy. (pg. 117) … [T]he good feeling this woman derives from reading romantic fiction are not experienced in the course of her habitual existence in the world of actual social relations, but in the separate, free realm of the imaginary. The happiness she permits herself is not only secondhand experience, but temporary as well. By resting satisfied with this form of vicarious pleasure, the romance reader may do nothing to transform her actual situation which itself gave rise to the need to seek out such pleasure in the first place. (pg. 117-118) … preoccupation with the gradual removal of emotional barriers between two people who recognize their connection early in the story.... (pg.123) Because their family histories have created in them what Nancy Chodorow has identified as a “complex, relational self,” romance readers need to avoid such feelings of emptiness by integrating important intimates into their psychic structures who will reciprocate their interest. This profound need, which Chodorow maintains is rarely filled adequately by men because they have developed asymmetrically into individuals who do not define themselves in relation, is confirmed obligingly and addressed vicariously, then, by this story that relates another woman’s successful journey from isolation and its threat of annihilation to connection and the promise of a mature, fulfilled female identity. (pg. 138) … the wish to regain the love of the mother and all that it implies- erotic pleasure, symbiotic completion, and identity confirmation. (pg. 146) The reader is not shown how to find a nurturant man nor how to hold a distant one responsible for altering his lack of emotional availability, Neither is she encouraged to believe that male indifference and independence really can be altered. What she is encouraged to do is to latch on to whatever expressions of thoughtfulness he might display, no matter how few, and to consider them, rather than his more obvious and frequent disinterest, as evidence of his true character. (pg. 148) Despite such internal variation within the genre, however, all popular romantic fiction originates in the failure of patriarchal culture to satisfy its female members. Consequently, the romance functions always as a utopian wish-fulfillment fantasy through which women try to imagine themselves as they often are not in day-to-day existence, that is, as happy and content. … This longing, born of relational poverty, is implicit in all romantic fiction... (pg. 151) … one assumes, as so many students of the genre have, that the romance originates in female masochism, in the desire to obliterate the self, or in the wish to be taken brutally by a man. Investigation of romances highly valued by their readers reveals, however, that the fairy-tale union of the hero and heroine is in reality the symbolic fulfillment of a woman’s desire to realize her most basic female self in relation with another. What she desires in this imaginary relationship is both the autonomy and sense of difference guaranteed by connection with someone experience as “other” and the erasure of boundaries and loss of singular consciousness achiever through union with an individual indistinguishable from the self. (pg. 155) All romances grapple with at least one fear prompted by current sexual arrangements. The fear of the consequences of masculinity is usually dealt with by evoking male power and aggression and then by demonstrating that if not illusions they are at least benign… fear of an awakened female exuality and of its impact on men is usually dealt with in the ideal romance by confining the expression of female desire within the limits of a permanent, loving relationship. (pg. 169) She must also turn back to her daily round of duties, emotionally reconstituted and replenished, feeling confident of her worth and convinced of her ability and power to deal with the problems she knows she must confront. When a writer can supply a story that will permit the reader several hours of vicarious experience living as a woman who flourishes because she receives the attention, devotion, and approval of an extraordinary man, that writer will have written an ideal romance in the judgment of Dorothy Evans and the Smithton readers. (pg. 184) “The technique of the aimless glance.” - Umberto Eco There is little need for that reader to attend to the nuances of any particular novel in order to understand the nature of the story. Her energy is reserved, therefore, for the more desirable activity of affective reaction rather than prematurely spend on the merely intermediary task of interpretation. (pg. 196) The peculiar, but nonetheless crucial, fact that these novels are consumed repetitively by the same readers guarantees that the first recurrence of a familiar phrase, stock description, or stereotypical event in a novel still partially unread will inform the reader that the fate of these “new” lovers is as immutable and irreversible a the already completed and fixed destiny of any mythical deity… the ritualistic repetition of a single, immutable cultural myth. (pg. 198) The romance’s peculiar narrative strategy seems to encourage the reader in her desire to have it both ways. She can read the story as a realistic novel about what might plausibly occur in an individual woman’s life without having to face the usual threat of the unknown… Reading in that case, would be, as the women have said, a ritual of hope. Repetitive engagement in it would enable a reader to tell herself again and again that a love like the heroine’s might indeed occur in a world such as hers. She thus teaches herself to believe that men are able to satisfy women’s needs fully. It should also be pointed out, however, that in participating in this “mixed” discourse with its contradictory suggestions about the contingency of human life on the one hand and its predetermined nature on the other, the Smithton women unconsciously perpetuate a familiar, ideological argument about female identity and freedom… Although they possess novel personalities and participate in some unprecedented events, women in romances, like mythical deities, are fated to live out a predetermined existence. That existence is circumscribed by a narrative structure that demonstrates that despite idiosyncratic histories, all women inevitably end up associating their female identity with the social roles of lover, wife, and mother. Even more successfully than the patriarchal society within which it was born, the romance denies women the possibility of refusing that purely relational destiny and thus rejects their right to a single, self-contained existence… this literary form reaffirms its founding culture’s belief that women are valuable not for their unique personal qualities but for their biological sameness and their ability to perform that essential role of maintaining and reconstituting others. (pg. 207) [I]t cannot be overlooked that the fictional world created as its consequence also reinforces traditional female limitations because it validates the dominance of domestic concerns and personal interaction in women’s lives. The reader thus engages in an activity that shores up her own sense of her abilities, but she also creates a simulacrum of her limited social world within a more glamorous fiction. She therefore inadvertently justifies as natural the very conditions and their emotional consequences to which her reading activity is a response.

  12. 4 out of 5

    Matt

    I'd been wanting to read this book since I read a chapter from it in a Feminist Theory class in grad school, so when I came across a used copy, I nearly raced to the checkout counter to buy it. But when I finally read it, I wasn't as tickled as I'd hoped I'd be. I found Radway's writing style to be, if not precisely dull, sort of lacking in the kind of flourishes and flashes that make you want to read more of her.... I'd finish a paragraph, and then find myself needing to recommit all over again I'd been wanting to read this book since I read a chapter from it in a Feminist Theory class in grad school, so when I came across a used copy, I nearly raced to the checkout counter to buy it. But when I finally read it, I wasn't as tickled as I'd hoped I'd be. I found Radway's writing style to be, if not precisely dull, sort of lacking in the kind of flourishes and flashes that make you want to read more of her.... I'd finish a paragraph, and then find myself needing to recommit all over again to read the next paragraph, and this went on all through the book. If I were an editor, I think I would have asked for sections, something to break up the book, but instead, there are a lot of forty page chapters, with nothing to break up the casual sameness of the prose. I'm being too harsh: there's a lot to like in this book, and at her best, Radway is very open to the idea that these women are doing something really empowering, and almost even ennobling when they read the romances they enjoy. But I don't get the sense that Radway likes the romances much, despite her evident enthusiasm for Dot and her customers, and I think I found that a little jarring. Also, I found those elements of Chodorow's thought Radeay keys into a little off-putting-- the idea that women are never fully socialized to be individuals and therefore build their lives as being "in-relation" is interesting on a sociological level, but when you psychologize that, it sounds a little silly, at least to me. But the book seems to take it seriously, and I found that a little off putting, too. Like I keep saying, there's a lot here to like, but also some parts that really had me scratching my head and thinking about areas and approaches Radway had used instead of those she did.

  13. 4 out of 5

    Carly

    I think I suddenly understand why Twilight is so popular... This was a fascinating book. Romance isn't a genre I particularly enjoy reading, but since I'm writing a paper on Seventeenth Summer and Why We Broke Up(neither of which are quite romances according to the definition that Radway develops), I thought that it would be negligent of me to not read this. And I wasn't disappointed! Radway details a case study that she did of a small(ish) group of women who are heavy romance readers (multiple no I think I suddenly understand why Twilight is so popular... This was a fascinating book. Romance isn't a genre I particularly enjoy reading, but since I'm writing a paper on Seventeenth Summer and Why We Broke Up(neither of which are quite romances according to the definition that Radway develops), I thought that it would be negligent of me to not read this. And I wasn't disappointed! Radway details a case study that she did of a small(ish) group of women who are heavy romance readers (multiple novels a week). The differences between 'good' romances and 'failed' romances are interesting, and the conclusions that she draws about why people read romances ring true to me. While some of the ideas might be dated at this point (the book was written in the early-mid eighties, if I'm not mistaken), I think that a lot of it still holds true for the romance genre today -- especially when I think about books like Twilight, as I said above. I definitely recommend this for anyone who is interested in academic theory relating to popular fiction in general, but particularly romance.

  14. 4 out of 5

    Alicia

    Janice Radway's book Read the Romance is an interesting book. It revolves around her ethnographical study of a specific set of women in a specific community in the United States. The upside is that from an ethnographic research perspective, it's very detailed and complete. Plus, it was one of the first studies of its kind. The downside is that it's from the 1980s and it is very obvious that Radway, as a feminist, is not impressed with, and looks down on, the women she is studying. She did not co Janice Radway's book Read the Romance is an interesting book. It revolves around her ethnographical study of a specific set of women in a specific community in the United States. The upside is that from an ethnographic research perspective, it's very detailed and complete. Plus, it was one of the first studies of its kind. The downside is that it's from the 1980s and it is very obvious that Radway, as a feminist, is not impressed with, and looks down on, the women she is studying. She did not conduct this study from an objective standpoint, which is really too bad. Some of her conclusions seem very sexist for someone who calls themselves a feminist. Plus, she attempts to generalize many of her conclusions to US women in general, which is impossible. Her study sample was not only small, but geographically and demographically very limited. Reading the Romance, however, does provide great historical research information for someone (like me) studying popular romance fiction in the 21st century. It provides an interesting view into the past and what academics thought of popular romance fiction in the 20th century. It also has a lot of promise as a repeatable study sometime in the future with a much larger demographic spread across the United States and North America. Overall, the book was useful for my research and I'm positive I'll be quoting it in my thesis. However, I did not agree with many of Radway's conclusions and thought her objectivity was seriously flawed.

  15. 4 out of 5

    Alexandra Michaelides

    A very interesting look at a genre I'm not too familiar with. The book is mostly recounting the opinions of a group of well-read romance fans. Not to discount Radway, but in a way I wish she had written a different book. I would have loved a more in-depth discussion, using multiple feminist perspectives to frame and give a greater context to the responses of the sample audience. Especially I wish Radway had spent more analysis on the issue of rape in romance novels, especially when the 'hero' is A very interesting look at a genre I'm not too familiar with. The book is mostly recounting the opinions of a group of well-read romance fans. Not to discount Radway, but in a way I wish she had written a different book. I would have loved a more in-depth discussion, using multiple feminist perspectives to frame and give a greater context to the responses of the sample audience. Especially I wish Radway had spent more analysis on the issue of rape in romance novels, especially when the 'hero' is the perpetrator. (To which I say, what the fuck? Why? What? How?) Yet, at the same time I understand that she wanted to let the readers speak for themselves rather than pontificate about what it is they 'really' meant. Still, I can't help but be disappointed that it wasn't until the conclusion that the issue of the hero violating the heroine, yet still remaining the hero (again, what the fuck) that this was seriously questioned, all too briefly for me. Perhaps Reading the Romance is simply a great springboard for discussion of male aggression, violence against women, beauty, gender roles, heteronormativy, and marriage. I know it's got me thinking. Also, it has me wondering how romance novels have, if at all, changed greatly since RtR was published.

  16. 4 out of 5

    Pomme de Terre

    I know Radway's supposed to be outdated now, but I thought this was still super interesting and not as condescending as I was primed to expect it to be. I imagine I'm not the only one who read this because they wanted to talk about their complicated love for romantic narratives, because putting aside its fidelity to the reality of romance reading, that is what it felt like. A long, satisfying, in-depth talk to someone about a topic you have a lot of passionate, jumbled thoughts on. A lot of the I know Radway's supposed to be outdated now, but I thought this was still super interesting and not as condescending as I was primed to expect it to be. I imagine I'm not the only one who read this because they wanted to talk about their complicated love for romantic narratives, because putting aside its fidelity to the reality of romance reading, that is what it felt like. A long, satisfying, in-depth talk to someone about a topic you have a lot of passionate, jumbled thoughts on. A lot of the ideas Radway was turning over resonated with me personally, so for that I'm grateful. On the other hand, yes: one can't really draw such generalising conclusions from such a small sample size; I didn't fully follow that psychoanalysis chapter (in part because I still find psychoanalysis kind of dubious), and I'm surprised Radway didn't comment more on how race and class influenced the women's romance reading. It didn't have to be the focus, but some of the women reference texts with plots that exotified its men of colour love interests, and Radway, to my knowledge, never comments on that. Surely the establishment and uncritical acceptance of Asian/Middle Eastern settings and heroes as "exotic" fantasy spaces is related to the women's white, middle-class identities?

  17. 4 out of 5

    Sarah

    I found this a very interesting approach to the analysis of what women get from romance novels. It's certainly flawed in the sense that it surveyed a very small sample of women whose opinions were probably dominated by the leader of their group, but the questions as asked seemed likely to yield results that take the romance readers' opinions seriously. Of particular value is the notion that just because a romance publisher publishes a book doesn't mean that the audience, having bought the book, I found this a very interesting approach to the analysis of what women get from romance novels. It's certainly flawed in the sense that it surveyed a very small sample of women whose opinions were probably dominated by the leader of their group, but the questions as asked seemed likely to yield results that take the romance readers' opinions seriously. Of particular value is the notion that just because a romance publisher publishes a book doesn't mean that the audience, having bought the book, is satisfied with the story. (Most category romances are published once and then vanish from print, so sales figures would be limited and prove only that the book was packaged attractively and conventionally for the genre.) One interesting result seemed to be that the readers were not inclined to look for clues to the hero and heroine's characters in their actions -- rather they took the character descriptions at face value. If the author describes the heroine as spirited and intelligent, it doesn't matter if she doesn't have two thoughts to rub together and lets other characters control her actions: spirited and intelligent she must be.

  18. 4 out of 5

    Sarah

    Radway's study is a treat among academic books. Her style is highly accessible, and she presents her findings in a sensitive, interesting and engaging way. Reading the Romance presents the results of Radway's study of a group of female "popular romance" readers. From her discussions with them, and their responses to questionnaires, she pieces together their likes, dislikes, and motivations, presenting a surprisingly interesting insight into why "popular romance" is so popular. She also offers a Radway's study is a treat among academic books. Her style is highly accessible, and she presents her findings in a sensitive, interesting and engaging way. Reading the Romance presents the results of Radway's study of a group of female "popular romance" readers. From her discussions with them, and their responses to questionnaires, she pieces together their likes, dislikes, and motivations, presenting a surprisingly interesting insight into why "popular romance" is so popular. She also offers a characterisation of what constitutes the ideal romance, and the failed romance, and goes on to examine the effect continuous romance reading might have. This is an ideal starting point for anyone researching contemporary romantic fiction. Radway doesn't start with a bias either for or against the genre, so this is likely as impartial a study as one could hope to find. It might also appeal to readers of romance themselves, who are interested in discovering why this form appeals to others, or who are looking for some recommended reading. Genuinely interesting, genuinely readable -- a fantastic study, from a fantastic critic.

  19. 5 out of 5

    Kara

    A brilliant read. It is rather dated--it was published in 1984--but nevertheless has incredibly important things to say, and its main social and political points are still relevant today, especially regarding a woman's role in society. (My edition had a 1995 updated Introduction by the author, which was very helpful.) Radway makes it clear that everyone's position matters, and her ethnography on female readers of romance books brings that point home. I could go on and on about this book, but suf A brilliant read. It is rather dated--it was published in 1984--but nevertheless has incredibly important things to say, and its main social and political points are still relevant today, especially regarding a woman's role in society. (My edition had a 1995 updated Introduction by the author, which was very helpful.) Radway makes it clear that everyone's position matters, and her ethnography on female readers of romance books brings that point home. I could go on and on about this book, but suffice it to say that her interrogation of literary studies, and her choice to study the "act of reading" instead of strict analysis of the actual text that is being read, makes me think more about how reading, as an experience, is individualized and idiosyncratic. I got a bit bogged down with the psychoanalysis discussions towards the middle, but I give Radway credit for attempting to theorize the emotional and affective experience of reading for women in the 80s. I look forward to reading the more current scholarship that has since been made possible because of this incredible book.

  20. 5 out of 5

    H

    (UNC Press 1991 reprint) What the psychoanalytically based interpretation reveals is the deep irony hidden in the fact that women who are experiencing the consequences of patriarchal marriage's failure to address their needs turn to a story that ritually recites the history of the process by which those needs are constituted. They do so, it appears, because the fantasy resolution of the tale ensures the heroine's achievement of the very pleasure the readers endlessly long for. In thus reading the (UNC Press 1991 reprint) What the psychoanalytically based interpretation reveals is the deep irony hidden in the fact that women who are experiencing the consequences of patriarchal marriage's failure to address their needs turn to a story that ritually recites the history of the process by which those needs are constituted. They do so, it appears, because the fantasy resolution of the tale ensures the heroine's achievement of the very pleasure the readers endlessly long for. In thus reading the story of a woman who is granted adult autonomy, a secure social position, and the completion produced by maternal nurturance, all in the person of the romantic hero, the Smithton women are repetitively asserting to be true that their still-unfulfilled desire demonstrates to be false, that is, that heterosexuality can create a fully coherent, fully satisfied, female subjectivity. (14)

  21. 5 out of 5

    Amanda Hamilton

    "The romantic narrative demonstrates that a woman must learn to trust her man and to believe that he loves her deeply even in the face of massive evidence to the contrary. The fantasy's conclusion suggests that when she manages such trust, he will reciprocate with declarations of his commitment to her. ...sound familiar? ;) Just checking her Wikipedia page, the author is still alive and now I'm curious what she would have to say about the paranormal romance genre or even the BDSM boom brought on b "The romantic narrative demonstrates that a woman must learn to trust her man and to believe that he loves her deeply even in the face of massive evidence to the contrary. The fantasy's conclusion suggests that when she manages such trust, he will reciprocate with declarations of his commitment to her. ...sound familiar? ;) Just checking her Wikipedia page, the author is still alive and now I'm curious what she would have to say about the paranormal romance genre or even the BDSM boom brought on by "Fifty Shades of Grey" (or Fiddy, as I like to call it XD) because OH MY GOD, this explains so much the things about romance novels that I never even considered were tropes or even why they were tropes, like why the characters are so similar to each other (the Spunky Tomboyish Woman and the Virile and Masculine Man) from story to story, the plot structure, even the writing itself.

  22. 4 out of 5

    Kristen

    She raises a lot of important points, but she could/should have been less condescending towards romance novels and their readers.

  23. 4 out of 5

    Adelaide

    I was fascinated by the interviews and some of the history of paperback books in the US. Overall, however, the tone was condescending (e.g. "we might join hands with women who are after all, our sisters," implication of romance readers in need of uplift from 'real' feminists; romance readers described as exploring their reality as "appendages of men"). My biggest complaint was that Radway could only conceive of feminism as "real" if she heard the expected scholarly language, shibboleth. She was I was fascinated by the interviews and some of the history of paperback books in the US. Overall, however, the tone was condescending (e.g. "we might join hands with women who are after all, our sisters," implication of romance readers in need of uplift from 'real' feminists; romance readers described as exploring their reality as "appendages of men"). My biggest complaint was that Radway could only conceive of feminism as "real" if she heard the expected scholarly language, shibboleth. She was very invested in the idea of “imaginary” emotional care care. Maybe the Smithton women, as feminists, believe the woman’s experience should not be entirely invisible. Maybe they are interested in centering women’s emotions and pleasure as a RADICAL challenge to patriarchy? ---- "I think it is absolutely essential that we who are committed to social change learn not to overlook this minimal but nonetheless legitimate form of protest. We should seek it out not only to understand its origins and its Utopian longing but also to learn how best to encourage it and bring it to fruition. If we do not, we have already conceded the fight and, in the case of the romance at least, admitted the impossibility of creating a world where the vicarious pleasure supplied by its reading would be unnecessary." I have never heard social critics imagining a world in which reading other forms of fiction is "unnecessary" as if pleasure and entertainment are only used in Dystopia. Let's advance social change that benefits women and read romance, thank you. ---- "Dot treats language, then, in utilitarian fashion as a tool for accomplishing some purpose. In sum, it "says" things." "It is important to point out here that these practices are not cited as evidence of the lamentable quality of writing in popular romantic fiction. Indeed this writing can be judged harshly only if one agrees with Henry James that all fiction ought to demonstrate with subtlety rather than tell overtly." Heaven forbid that words might *say* something in books. ---- "The Smithton women excluded this novel [Bitter Eden] from the romance category because it ends not by closing with a vision of the promises of marriage but with a demonstration of the need to accept distraction, sorrow, and imperfection as inevitable components of adult human existence." Two objections to the phrase“components of the adult human existence”: 1. Children also experience distraction, sorrow, and imperfection. 2. I think “adult” is used here as a tacit value judgment, implying that whatever is demonstrated by the Smithton readers’ preferred novels is childlike. Classic infantilization of these “not feminist enough” women.

  24. 4 out of 5

    shatine

    I wasn't sure how much I'd get out of this, since it's a pretty dry book published before I was born about a genre I don't read. But I could transpose it onto fanfic (parts of it worked interestingly well, parts interestingly did not), and the focus on the the actual reading of books, and the readers, was new to me. Real live books, interacting with humans in the wild! I wish my high school English classes had had anything along these lines.

  25. 4 out of 5

    Ortinbae goes AWOL to read

    This book is the best, I love it and I recommend that you read it.

  26. 4 out of 5

    Morgan

    Fascinating look at romance novels, publishers, the patriarchy, and the women who read romances. Really dense book--some headings or chapter breaks would have been good.

  27. 4 out of 5

    Brenna Sherrill

    Academic reading can be fun!

  28. 4 out of 5

    Zovig

    This was a reread for Intro to Am Studies. Such a great book! Definitely dated in some of its analysis, but still valuable to read.

  29. 5 out of 5

    C.E. G

    Really interesting and nuanced study of Midwestern romance-reading housewives in the 1980s. Radway examines their reading habits, traits of successful and failed romances, and how readers view their experiences. I was expecting a feminist defense of romance, but her conclusion was much more complex than that. She concludes that romance is a way for women to take time for themselves and form community with other readers, which is sort of a feminist act. But this is tempered by the texts themselve Really interesting and nuanced study of Midwestern romance-reading housewives in the 1980s. Radway examines their reading habits, traits of successful and failed romances, and how readers view their experiences. I was expecting a feminist defense of romance, but her conclusion was much more complex than that. She concludes that romance is a way for women to take time for themselves and form community with other readers, which is sort of a feminist act. But this is tempered by the texts themselves, which is in many ways instruct women on how to find limited power within the patriarchy without actually subverting it. Very second-wavey and outdated, but still, interesting. I'd like some of my romance-reading friends to tell me what they think of it, because I feel like people my age approach the genre with a very different attitude. It'd also be interesting to compare romance to chick lit, which I've seen described as looking for "Mr. Right Now" (whereas romance is looking for "Mr. Right"). I feel like I know a lot more people my age who read chick lit than romance, and I'd be curious to see someone study that genre in a similar way.

  30. 5 out of 5

    Patrick

    This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here. I had to read this book for a graduate class. It's an in-depth ethnographic study of a group of women who belong to a Romance Literature Book club. It's a study that explores why they say they read Romance books, what books they like and don't like, what they say is good about them, the themes in the books and the themes in the books they reject. Ultimately, it asks the question of what these women are looking for. The women claim they see the books as a way to escape their humdrum lives, boring I had to read this book for a graduate class. It's an in-depth ethnographic study of a group of women who belong to a Romance Literature Book club. It's a study that explores why they say they read Romance books, what books they like and don't like, what they say is good about them, the themes in the books and the themes in the books they reject. Ultimately, it asks the question of what these women are looking for. The women claim they see the books as a way to escape their humdrum lives, boring marriages and also to empower themselves as females since all the heroines in the book are "free thinkers" who express themselves and are "spunky." But in reality, every book ends up with the women not getting true satisfaction or being able to find happiness until she finds a "good man" who can satisfy her sexually while allowing her to "serve him." Pretty interesting, I thought.

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