Reading the Romance
by Janice Radway
1984 • 274 pages • University of North Carolina Press
In Neil Gaiman and Kazuo Ishiguro’s conversation on genre, Gaiman recalls reading an essay by C.S. Lewis in which Lewis points out that the only people who seem to be unduly concerned with people reading escapist literature sound a lot like jailers. Gaiman is misremembering; it’s a Lewis essay (collected in On Stories), but the anecdote is actually Tolkien’s. Accusations of escapism have plagued the speculative fiction genre since… I’m gonna go with mid-century because we’ve had speculative fiction since the dawn of time. (Of course, nowadays it’s compounded by people complaining about speculative fiction isn’t escapist enough by being remotely inclusive. To quote MD Laclan, “if you think Star Trek is apolitical, I cannot help you.”) In fact, I’m struggling through Lydia Millet’s novel Mermaids in Paradise because the main character, whom I gather I am supposed to sympathize with, finds her husband’s fantasy gaming his only major flaw and expresses disgusted bafflement at his hobby. (She gets better, right? Right?) But speculative fiction is so hot right now, with the cultural ascendency of Marvel, Comic-Con, and the like. DC Studios’ woefully grim output is desperately trying to prove a point that we all already know: sf ain’t just for nerds anymore. (Actually, the secret is that we are all nerds for something in this beautiful life. But don’t tell Sadman.)
While speculative fiction is slowly and unevenly lurching to mainstream acceptance, however, its generic sister romance remains an eternal punching bag, even in the wake of the massively popular Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy. (I always feel like I end up here, in this particular ditch, trying to defend certain parts of the Fifty Shades phenomenon while trying not to toss my cookies at its treatment of consent and implication that all kinksters are psychologically broken. Woof.) It’s a reputation the genre has suffered from ever since it coalesced into a neat marketing category, as we see in Janice Radway’s 1984 exploration of why women read romance, Reading the Romance.
Radway tackles such a large question by looking at a smaller sample size. In the (pseudonymous) town of Smithton, a romance reader and bookseller named Dot is considered an authority on good romance novels. Through correspondence and communication with Dot, Radway interviews a cross-section of her readers to try and divine why the genre, especially the formula is so appealing to them, especially in Reagan-era America.
As we’ve established, I’m a reader-response theorist from stem to stern. (Born a fan, die a fan, so on, so forth.) So it’s historically fascinating for me to see Radway calmly and patiently explain not only what reader-response theory is, but why she thinks it’s a good idea to examine the Smithton readers’ material in that manner. Great swathes of Reading the Romance will be familiar to and resonate with anyone who has read Textual Poachers or even participated in fandom, especially fandoms with especially troublesome texts. (I mean, I’ll say it: Sherlock. Like Sherlock.) Radway is not interested in passing judgment on the supposedly objective qualities of these texts; rather, she wants to know how they use these texts.
And they do use them as an escape, even embracing the term. When Radway asks Dot why her readers aren’t particularly interested in reading about more uncomfortable topics, Dot retorts, “Why should we read depressing stuff when we have so much responsibility?” (98). The Smithton readers are primarily wives and mothers whose very homes are sites of incredible and often self-abnegating responsibility. Their reading—almost exclusively romance—is both their escape and their safe space. Over and over in Radford’s interviews, they describe how relaxing and all-consuming reading is and how necessary it is to shore up their emotional energy for the tasks at hand. Many of them describe their husbands being angry or unhappy about their reading, which speaks volumes about the access these men assume to their wives.
The novels might seem formulaic, but, as Radway elicits from her interviewees, that’s often the point. In the shadow of the second wave of American feminism, these novels offer a safe space for these implicitly conservative women to explore more radical topics. The supposed indifference of men is reinterpreted, assuring them that men’s emotional lives are truly different and not just stunted by toxic masculinity. Spunky, fiery heroines nonetheless find a place for themselves in the patriarchy (especially in historical romance), assuring them that women’s independence and agency is not incongruous with the way things are.
And there’s the catch: no matter how radically these women read these stories, they find value in how they reassert the system in which they live. They sense that there’s something about their lifestyle that troubles them, but they’re contented with these stories instead of, say, joining the second wave. This is tap-dancing terribly close to calling them “escapists” and meaning it, so I do want to clarify: in the words of the Spinster Aunt, these women are just painting with the crayons that are available. This isn’t something inherent to the romance novel or the idea of escapist entertainment. It’s how these women are using these stories. Stories that don’t sufficiently reconcile them to the system they live in are considered offensive. While it’s gag-inducing to read about what level of rape these women are fine with having in their romance novels, Radway pushes through to point out that they only find it acceptable if the rapist is the endgame for the heroine. Novels that glorify sexual assault without the “excuse” of love or otherwise fail to reassure them are treated as garbage. (In one woman’s case, literally so.)
Of course, this is all still 1984. One of the most haunting things about Reading the Romance is the knowledge that romance as a generic community was just budding. Most of Dot’s readers don’t even know each other. (Okay, I knew the tense thing would come up at some point in this review. Hey, we almost got all the way there!) Without community, there’s no opportunity for conscious-raising and the improvement of the genre. While I don’t swim in those waters, I do know that the genre has grown over the intervening decades—Maya Rodale, author of Dangerous Books for Girls, swung by the Mary Sue on Monday to explain exactly that. But while the realities of Reading the Romance are a little less pertinent, it’s still a fascinating exercise in reader response theory and the uses readers derive from their texts.
I rented this book from the public library.