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Review: Getting Inside Your Head: What Cognitive Science Can Tell Us about Popular Culture, by Lisa Zunshine

Lisa Zunshine’s Getting Inside Your Head: What Cognitive Science Can Tell Us about Popular Culture rests on a fascinating assertion: that the appeal of popular culture relies on its ability to engage us in the practice of theory of mind (ToM), “the evolved cognitive adaptation that makes us attribute mental states to ourselves and to other people” (xi). Zunshine claims that we are “a culture of greedy mind readers” (11) ever eager to exercise our innate ToM abilities, and since real life proves an inadequate supplier of sufficiently complex occasions we turn to fictional texts.

Chapter 2, “I Know What You’re Thinking, Mr. Darcy!”, discusses in detail what Zunshine terms “embodied transparency”: those moments in fiction—especially important to romance narratives—“when characters’ body language involuntarily betrays their feelings, particularly if they want to conceal them from others” (23). Zunshine claims that in order for moments of embodied transparency to be effective and satisfying, three conditions must be met. First, the character’s transparency must stand in stark opposition to other characters’ relative lack of transparency or to his or her own lack of transparency moments before or after (the rule of contrasts). Second, moments of embodied transparency must be brief (the rule of transience) in order for the transparency to be believable as well as to prevent us from becoming uncomfortable from observing emotional nakedness for too long. Lastly, characters become transparent through their very effort to hide their true feelings (hence, the final rule of restraint).

Having laid out these important concepts, Zunshine then spends the following chapters either exploring a caveat of embodied transparency, demonstrating how a popular culture text or genre is reliant on such moments, or both. In Chapter 3, for instance, Zunshine briefly discusses “sadistic benefactors”: characters who are not content to wait for moments of embodied transparency but who force others into those moments. In chapter 4, Zunshine points out how certain arenas, like theaters, were once treated as spaces in which someone’s true feelings could be observed; it is this belief, after all, that prompts Hamlet to stage a play in order to gain definitive evidence of Claudius’s guilt. And [End Page 1] when Julia Roberts’ character in Pretty Woman is moved to tears at the opera, this moment of embodied transparency helps us see that although she may not have the polish of the upper classes, she has something they lack: authentic emotion. As Zunshine points out, however, once the word is out that people are using a cultural activity to observe others and gauge their true natures, these events then become prime opportunities to engage in false shows of emotion that can be used to manipulate the onlooker. Thus, Richard Lovelace affects to be affected by a moving drama in order to fool the naive Clarissa.

Later chapters are devoted to particular genres. Chapter 5 explores key scenes from Hitchcock’s Notorious (1946)and Stephen Frear’s The Queen (2006), among other films, in order to illustrate that the need for restraint in moments of embodied transparency arises “not because restraint is good in and of itself but because restraint may be used as a means for interestingly complex embodied transparency” (85). Chapter 6 very briefly takes on cinéma vérité, photography, and the comedian Andy Kaufman, but its most interesting point relates to the UK series The Office (2005-2013), particularly its penchant for making us uncomfortable by encouraging us to gawk at others during moments in which they are uncomfortable; relishing others’ negative moments of embodied transparency is often considered rude and so we feel we are misbehaving. In Chapter 7, Zunshine briefly investigates reality television, arguing that its appeal has to do with our assumption that those we watch are ordinary people and not actors, and that their moments of embodied transparency are therefore putatively more authentic. Chapter 8 considers how songs in musicals can (but do not necessarily) function as moments of embodied transparency.

The book closes with an examination of painting. Chapter 9 begins with a discussion of “absorptive” paintings, a genre that depicts subjects who are “not aware of the presence of the beholder” (146) and thus would seem to offer premier examples of embodied transparency. Zunshine points out, though, that it is not only the subjects of a painting upon whom we may exercise our ToM abilities. We may also try to analyze the mind of the artist who created the painting or perhaps scrutinize the reasons behind our own emotional response to the work of art. Chapter 10 contrasts the “proposal composition” with “problem pictures.” The proposal composition, a compositional pattern common to later nineteenth-century European painting, focuses on a woman’s ambiguous response to a man’s proposal to advance their relationship. Such paintings give the impression that male intentions are transparent while women’s require interpretation, a tendency we might assume expresses contemporaneous anxieties about the inscrutability of women. But Zunshine notes that this presumption is complicated by the fact that the proposal composition overlapped in time with problem pictures. These ambiguous paintings show both men and women absorbed in thought, yet neither gender is more readable than the other.

The appeal of Zunshine’s book results from the general usefulness of her theoretical framework; embodied transparency is obviously a key aspect of popular culture, and one need not accept Zunshine’s sweeping claim that “no cultural form will endure unless it lets us attribute mental states to somebody or something” (12) in order to see the pertinence of her claims and the applicability of her concepts. Scholars of popular romance, I think, will find the ideas she details especially relevant to their studies; after all, romance frequently relies on miscommunications, manipulations, and missed cues between characters which the reader/viewer can see through with an often agonizing clarity. [End Page 2]

In addition, Zunshine’s prose is more lively, personal and funny than one might expect from a formal academic study involving such heady concepts as theory of mind. Each chapter begins with a humorous summary of what’s to come. The opening synopsis of Chapter 2, for example, reads as follows:

In which a new concept is introduced; a phobia is revealed; a four-letter word makes a bold-faced appearance (but the French take the blame); Frederick Wentworth betrays himself; Elizabeth Bennet rejects Mr. Darcy; Bridget Jones triumphs over a rival; Tom Jones can’t see what’s in front of his eyes; and the author admits that she has no clue what her nearest and dearest are thinking. (20)

The stylistic frivolity of this passage is characteristic of Zunshine’s prose, yet the flippant tone in no way dumbs down the reading but instead makes the ideas seem more relevant and relatable.

My major complaint about the book is that it does not satisfy the promise of its title: this is not really a book about popular culture. Although it gestures toward some truly popular texts like The Office and reality television, Getting inside Your Head primarily deals with classic literature and film and other genres more highbrow than low, such as musicals and painting. The problem that results is not simply a matter of inaccurate titling. Rather, the omission of the most popular and contemporary forms of popular culture from the study—including, say, advertising, graphic novels, video games, and current genre fiction—raises the question of whether Zunshine’s claims regarding the centrality of ToM hold true within popular culture’s ‘lowest’ forms. Perhaps embodied transparency is simply a penchant of high culture. Perhaps, in fact, appeals to ToM are used to distinguish high culture from low. At any rate, I found myself wishing Zunshine had turned her incisive gift for analysis toward culture truly meant for the masses. [End Page 3]

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Review: The Princess Story: Modeling the Feminine in Twentieth-Century American Fiction and Film, by Sarah Rothschild

As I began outlining this review of Sarah Rothschild’s The Princess Story: Modeling the Feminine in Twentieth-Century American Fiction and Film, the cult of princess-hood appeared to have reached an all time crescendo. Previews for the live-action Disney release, Maleficent, featuring Angelina Jolie as the sinister fairy who curses Princess Aurora (otherwise known as Sleeping Beauty) began circulating. A month earlier, social media was dense with parent-produced viral videos of their children singing—even weeping—the lyrics to “Let it Go,” a song from Disney’s Frozen (2013), an animated princess film which chronicles the journal of two royal sisters, one of whom is cursed to freeze everything around her. The film is loosely based upon Hans Christian Andersen’s The Snow Queen. My own daughter received an invitation to a “princess party” where guests were asked to dress up in costume as their favorite Disney princess. The family that sent this invitation assumed (incorrectly, in our case) that all young girls must own a Disney princess gown, indirectly suggesting, perhaps, that the ownership of such garb is requisite to being an American seven-year-old girl. It might be tempting to suggest that such fantasy is the stuff of childhood, yet one of America’s oldest family-owned bridal companies, Alfred Angelo, boasts a Disney Fairy Tale Bridal collection so that adults may don bridal gowns which “reflect the style and sensibility of Disney’s iconic princesses,” and even The Walt Disney company itself offers an online service to assist engaged couples to plan and book “Disney Fairy Tale Weddings” as well as honeymoon experiences.

Sarah Rothschild is well aware of the enormous role that such royal fantasy plays in the lives of children and adults. As the mother of two girls, Rothschild writes that her impetus for The Princess Story: Modeling the Feminine in Twentieth-Century American Fiction and Film sprang from such “personal experiences with princesses” (2). “As … mother and a feminist,” writes Rothschild, “I wrestled with this: What was I allowing American culture (and Disney in particular) to teach them? Would they outgrow this phase? Would their future life decisions be impacted by their princess play?”(2). [End Page 1]

This series of questions introduces Rothschild’s five-chapter study, which is rounded off with a short conclusion. In order to frame her project, Rothschild first identifies what constitutes a “princess story,” ostensibly to make allowances for characters like Mulan or Ella of Ella Enchanted who are not born as princesses per se, but essentially become them over the course of their narrative arc. By Rothschild’s definition, princess stories articulated in films and in books and are “different from fairy tales, meaningful in ways that intentionally send messages to girls and women” (1). The stories, according to Rothschild, instruct the audience on “how to become a princess through modeling, through commentary, and often through actual princess lessons” (2).

Rothschild’s chapters progress in a roughly chronological fashion, studying the content and production of American princess stories (both in literature and film) contextualized by the three waves of feminism. The book begins with a study of Frances Hodgson Burnett, her ties to first wave feminism, and how such ideologies influence themes and decidedly feminist lessons in her novel A Little Princess (1905). Moving forward, chapter two traces the development of Walt Disney’s first animated princess stories: Snow White (1937), Cinderella (1950), and Sleeping Beauty (1959), respectively. Chapter three recovers what Rothschild describes as “ideologically intent” princess stories, citing a number of all but forgotten stories written during the second wave of feminism which promote feminist ideologies of gender equality. Chapter four itemizes and critiques latter Disney princess stories which, according to their creators, offer messages of female empowerment but essentially fail at this task. The films studied here include The Little Mermaid (1989) Beauty and the Beast (1991), Pocahontas (1995) and the aforementioned Mulan (1998). Chapter five has the broadest range of analyses. It is dedicated to the study of an impressive number of examples of what Rothschild determines “third wave princess stories,” including mainstream films like The Princess Diaries (2001) and Ella Enchanted (2004) as well as a large number of lesser-known young adult princess books. The conclusion chapter briefly locates princesses in the genres of science-fiction and romance.

One goal of this study, according to Rothschild, who is Lead Faculty for English at the Art Institute of Washington, is “…to set out princess stories as a subgenre worthy of examination” (2). The lucidity of her focus is appreciated, yet it is relatively difficult to argue that princess stories in (film and fairy tale form) have not received scholarly attention. Many feminist scholars have studied such stories for decades, arguing, for example, that the ideological, phallocentric underpinnings of Disney princess films are problematic. Kay Stone makes many important points in 1975 in her essay titled “Things Walt Disney Never Told Us” (published in The Journal of American Folklore). Stone argues that Disney relies upon gender stereotypes and pigeon-holes the animated princesses into roles of domesticity and passivity. Such similar conclusions about the Disney franchise of princess films are echoed in both Rothschild’s second chapter (“Disney’s First Princess Stories)” and fourth chapter (“Disney’s ‘Feminist’ Princess Stories.”)

In chapter two, Rothschild asserts that the early Disney princess films represent patriarchal viewpoints and the characters in the films counter many of the strides made by first wave feminists. Through close readings of scenes in the films as well as through her study of Walt Disney’s biography and attitudes regarding gender and women, Rothschild concludes that the early films employ chauvinistic attitudes and gender stereotypes such as depictions of docile, passive, princesses who are often relegated to domestic chores and [End Page 2] duties. The only women in the films who do exert agency, as Rothschild points out, are categorically evil and typically killed off. Very similar themes and content are present in later Disney princess films such as The Little Mermaid (1989) despite being marketed as being more progressive in regards to gender. Male characters still remain at the forefront of most of these later Disney films, and a variety of anti-female themes emerge.

Such conclusions about early and later Disney princess films (and the fairy tales used as their inspiration) are academically sound and well-written, but have been previously recognized by scholars like Stone, mentioned earlier, as well as many others over the course of several decades. Marcia Lieberman, for example, offers a feminist critique of fairy tales in her 1972 essay “‘Some Day My Prince Will Come’: Female Acculturation Through the Fairy Tale”, and  two decades later in 1995, June Cummins criticizes Disney’s Beauty and the Beast for encouraging “young viewers to believe that true happiness for women exists only in the arms of a prince” just as earlier Disney films suggested in previous decades (22). Others have pointed to the representation of white, middle-class values in Disney films, indicating their buttressing of normative sex and gender values, for example Clare Bradford’s chapter in The Disney Middle Ages: A Fairy-Tale and Fantasy Past (2012), and Jill Birnie Henke, Diane Zimmerman Umble, and Nancy J. Smith’s feminist readings of five Disney films in their essay titled “Construction of the Female Self: Feminist Readings of the Disney Heroine.” In addition to these essays and chapters, there are a number of other book-length projects which scrutinize princess culture and Disney films, notably From Mouse to Mermaid: The Politics of Film, Gender, and Culture in Disney, edited by Elizabeth Bell, Lynda Haas, and Laura Sells (1995), Kill the Princess: Why Women Still Aren’t Free From the Quest for a Fairytale Life by Stephanie Vermeulen (2007), and Cinderella Ate My Daughter: Dispatches from the Front Lines of the New Girlie-Girl Culture by Peggy Orenstein (2012)—to name three such studies.

Because Rothschild’s call for legitimatization of the study of princess stories, then, appears to be ex post facto since so many others have been studying princesses, in particular Disney versions, a much more innovative site of scholarly intervention is Rothschild’s objective in the project is to “link the changes in the American princess story to those sought and brought by the three waves of feminism” (3). Rothschild’s book traces the trajectory of such princesses in American popular culture whilst attempting to connect the thematic content of such stories with ideological content. “I use the princess story to examine the dialogic nature of feminism and patriarchy, forces for progress and forces for tradition” explains Rothschild (3). Forces, which according to Rothschild are “embodied by the first, second and third wave feminist princess stories on the one hand and by the Disney Studios’ princess story on the other” (3). Rothschild’s assertion that there are, indeed, feminist princess stories is where the book offers a new vantage point for studying such cultural productions, albeit a polemic one. Though Rothschild defines these stories as methods of teaching young girls how to be princesses, a question that remains is whether we should want our young girls to become princesses in the first place (which is arguably a different, yet related, project).

Because of the great number of Disney-focused studies, the chapters that are most engaging and innovative in Rothschild’s book are those which are focused upon princesses outside of the franchise. Chapter one’s analysis of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s 1905 novel A Little Princess as well as the study of Burnett’s private and public life ultimately serves to recoup Burnett, as well as the novel, as emblematic of the first wave of [End Page 3] feminism. Though Burnett is not typically categorized as such—not actively participating in the movement—Rothschild makes a compelling argument to demonstrate Burnett’s commitment to women’s empowerment through a variety of evidence, including a detailed plot analysis of A Little Princess and study of biographical details of Burnett’s own complicated life. To Rothschild, A Little Princess demonstrates “the prototypical princess story, representing…all that a princess story can be: the story of a bright capable heroine who learns about herself and about the world around her as she assumes the identity of a princess” (52).

Chapter three’s rediscovery of feminist princess stories is also inventive and encompassing, offering textual examples from a number of fairy tales produced for and by feminists that many readers are likely unfamiliar with. Rothschild describes several projects that Ms. magazine brought into fruition including the Free to Be…You and Me recorded album of stories and the Stories For Free Children, a regular feature of Ms., both of which presented stories with feminist messages. The goal of such texts, according to Rothschild, was “to change the stories which acculturate children in hopes of contributing to social change” (91). Most of these stories are all but forgotten for a variety of reasons including the fact that they were too narrow, too alienating, and became dated rather quickly (92).

Chapter five moves into a critique of what Rothschild calls third wave princesses, arguing that the young adult princess stories produced in the last 20 years or so “took into account feminism and the new expectations of girls and women in American society,” and as such, “this combination of new expectations and old role models produced some very interesting works, illuminating the tension between traditional expectations and newer social expectations in a culture changed by the women’s movement” (169). Chapter five is well-researched and offers an impressive number of examples of princesses who defy sexist stereotypes about gender. In many cases, this new generation of princess shoots her own arrows and saves the prince from disaster rather than the other way around. According to Rothschild, these contemporary royals do not necessarily conform to conventional standards of beauty, and they often exert agency and control in their kingdom. The third wave princess, as Rothschild argues, is  far more independent than Disney’s insipid Snow White. That being said, the princess archetype still comes with thousands of years of patriarchal tradition. Though Rothschild claims that Disney made “subversive changes” (169) to the film adaptations of Meg Cabot’s The Princess Diaries and Gail Carson Levine’s Ella Enchanted, not all feminists would agree that there can be a mainstream feminist princess story. Though the princesses that Rothschild describes are more enlightened than their predecessors, they still are princesses, and it will take some time to subvert centuries of sexist representations and signifiers such as weakness and passivity that are also often associated with the title.

The conclusion of the text also leaves room for further development; it seems far too brief in comparison to the other well-developed chapters. At the end of the book, Rothschild quickly summarizes princesses in both science fiction and romance in a mere eleven pages (when some of the other chapters are over 40 pages long) while suggesting the trajectory of princess stories to come. (It is surprising, also, that the chapter ignores one of science fiction’s most well-known examples of princess—Princess Leia of the Star Wars franchise—as she consistently transgresses stereotypical images of the passive princess in the span of three films). Finally, though Rothschild opens the project by citing [End Page 4] the difficulties American parents may encounter negotiating a path through princess culture, one leaves the text feeling that this tension remains unresolved—that is, it is unclear how Rothschild’s daughters’ or other girls’ “future life decisions [will] be impacted by their princess play” (2). Perhaps this is a vein of study that deserves speculation.

In the end, however, the book’s accessibility and Rothschild’s engaging writing style ultimately make it an appealing text to a very broad readership, extending beyond those academics who study gender, fairy tales, romance folklore, film to a general readership. [End Page 5]

Works Cited

Bradford, Clare. “Where Happily Ever After Happens Every Day” The Disney Middle Ages: A Fairy-Tale and Fantasy Past, Ed. Tison Pugh. New York: Palgrave Macmillan (2012): 171-188.

Cummins, June. “Romancing the Plot: The Real Beast of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast” Children’s Literature Association Quarterly 20.1 (1995): 22-28.

Lieberman, Marcia. “‘Some Day My Prince Will Come’: Female Acculturation Through the Fairy Tale.” College English 34.3(1972): 383-95.

Henke, Jill Birnie, Diane Zimmerman Umble, and Nancy J. Smith. “Construction of the Female Self: Feminist Readings of the Disney Heroine.” Women’s Studies in Communication. 19.2 (1996): 229-249. [End Page 6]

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Review: Romance: The History of a Genre, edited by Dana Percec

Dana Percec’s Romance: The History of a Genre is a collection of essays by Romanian scholars, which seek to explore the ‘genre of romance’ (viii). It is the second book in a proposed project exploring ‘the evolution and dynamics of a number of literary genres in today’s global culture’ (viii). The first publication as part of this project (published in 2011 in Romanian) was O poveste de succes. Romanul istoic astăzi, a collection of essays examining the historical novel. The editor notes in the foreword that the current volume grew out of an enthusiasm for ‘the equally popular – and even more controversial – genre of romance’ expressed by a number of contributors to the earlier collection (viii). Essays in the book include examinations of various subcategories of ‘romance’ literature, but also of film, television and social media.

The term ‘romance’ is a difficult one. In everyday usage, the word can refer to patterns of sentiment, emotion and behaviour in non-Platonic relationships – and to such relationships themselves – but also to idealizations, fantasies and fictionalizations that may have little to do with personal love. A ‘romantic relationship’ draws on subtly different valences to a ‘romantic view of the past’, for instance. In literature, the word becomes perhaps even more problematic. Romance originally identified language of composition; medieval ‘romance’ designated texts written in vernacular languages, specifically Old French, to differentiate them from those written in Latin (this usage survives in the designation of a group of European languages as ‘romance languages’). Soon after the first French ‘romances’ were written in the second half of the twelfth century, the term began to be used to categorize the content, rather than the language of such works of fiction. By the end of the Middle Ages, the word began to be associated with any work of fiction, but particularly those of a fanciful and fantastical nature, that was written with entertainment, rather than instruction, as its primary purpose.

Through early modern and modern writings, understandings of ‘romance’ began to diverge into roughly three categories (to use broad strokes): nostalgic fictionalizations of the past or of different cultures; fictional depictions of love relationships; and all fiction [End Page 1] (evident in the modern French word roman). These understandings are further problematized by the characterization of a late eighteenth-century/early nineteenth-century school of poetry and thought as ‘Romantic’ – the term now coming to identify a particular mode of representing and relating to the natural world. In the twentieth century, ‘popular romance’ came to be recognized as a genre of print fiction, though ‘popular romance’ in this context has a different meaning to ‘medieval popular romance’ (verse or prose fiction, usually of a chivalric or fantastical nature, written in a vernacular other than Old French).

This outline of some – though not all – of the usages and understandings of the term ‘romance’ is intended to highlight the challenges facing Percec’s project. The book’s subtitle – the ‘history of a genre’ – implies a focus on ‘romance’ as it applies to literature (and, later, visual and social media), but also a sense of the development, divergence and continuity of the term. An immediate problem is encountered: what continuity exists? Is romance a ‘genre’ that can be defined and delineated? And does this definition and delineation bear historical scrutiny? Surprisingly few critics have turned their attention to this challenge, and few cross-period analyses exist. The relationship between contemporary popular romance fiction and, for instance, twelfth-century Old French verse romances has been given little critical attention and, as such, a ‘history’ of the term (or genre) of ‘romance’ has rarely been attempted. A notable exception to this lack of cross-period focus is Barbara Fuchs’s Romance (2004; reviewed in JPRS 3.2), which seeks to explore continuities in fiction from the classical to the modern periods.

Percec’s collection is therefore both ambitious and unusual in its proposed scope. It is clear from the foreword that the editor’s intention is to take a wide view, but also to begin with some assumption of continuity. She notes: ‘Romance is a genre which, after ups and downs over the course of its thousand year history, now holds a leading position in the international publishing market.’ (viii-ix) However, this statement, while ostensibly giving some sense of the scope of the collection (and the implicit focus on the contemporary publishing market), introduces the first of several problems with Romance: The History of a Genre. The seemingly throwaway reference to the genre’s ‘thousand year history’ lacks a secure grounding in literary history – the eleventh century is rarely associated with the ‘birth’ of romance and, in fact, contradicts Percec’s point a few lines later that ‘early forms of romance’ were found in ‘classical antiquity’ (ix).

As Percec’s foreword continues, the history and definition of romance becomes more confused. She notes, for example, that the second section of the book will explore ‘gothic romance’, describing this as ‘a subgenre which is gaining more and more popularity today’ (x). Further comment reveals that ‘gothic romance’ is to be understood as including ‘the Gothics and Charles Dickens’s romance of Merrie England’, as well as Don Quixote. Notwithstanding the lack of clarity regarding the works classed as ‘the Gothics’, and the somewhat unorthodox characterization of Dickensian fiction as ‘Merrie England’ romances (unless this is intended to evoke his Christmas tales), categorizing these texts alongside a seventeenth-century pastiche of earlier chivalric fictions results in a conflation and collapsing of categories, rather than an interrogation.

Though the book’s foreword is somewhat disappointing, the introduction that follows presents a clearer attempt to engage with the vexing questions of ‘genre’ and ‘history’. Nevertheless, the same issues begin to arise. Percec begins with a quote from Valerie Parv’s The Art of Romance Writing (2004) noting some of the judgements and [End Page 2] condemnations heaped on (here unspecified) romance fiction and its readers (2); this is followed by a brief outline of some statistics testifying to the popularity of romance fiction in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. Drawing on the work of Jayne Ann Krentz and the ‘Smart Bitches, Trashy Books’ website, Percec gives an overview of some of the ways in which contemporary popular romance fiction is dismissed and classified a ‘lowbrow genre’ and a ‘mass cultural product’ (2).

The initial paragraphs of the introduction imply a focus on a subgenre of contemporary fiction publishing and its readership, affirmed later with a lengthy quote from Janice Radway’s 1991 study. However, this is immediately belied by a return to ‘[e]arly romance’, here described as beginning with ‘Plato’s influence’ (2). Percec makes reference to the Old French word romanz – using Helen Cooper’s work on medieval and early-modern romance (2004) to define this term – but misunderstands the context in which Old French began to supersede Latin as a language of poetry. Obscuring the nuances of secular and aristocratic culture in the high and late Middle Ages, Percec suggests that the use of languages other than Latin meant that fiction was ‘accessible to both male and female, lay and clerical, upper and lower classes’, before asserting a common misconception that medieval romances were ‘circulated in oral form’ and were thus accessible to ‘both the literate and the illiterate’ (2). Due to a slight – but significant – misunderstanding of Cooper’s use of the word ‘vernacular’ (in Cooper’s work, as is usual in medieval studies, ‘vernacular’ is used to distinguish between authoritative and non-authoritative written languages, not to imply oral or colloquial forms of communication), Percec associates ‘early romance’ with ‘the stories everybody grew up with’ (2), creating an image of medieval romance as a far more democratic and populist genre than is strictly accurate.

This focus on the (perhaps) minor misapprehensions of literary history in the opening pages of the collection are not intended to be an exercise in scholarly point-scoring. Rather, I wish to address the apparent impossibility of the task with which the book concerns itself. Considering medieval romance, Kevin Sean Whetter (2008) argues that ‘modern criticism has consistently failed to agree on romance’s essential generic features’ (47); he further points to Ad Putter’s assertion that critical vagueness about the genre is ‘a natural reflection of the vagueness of the term in the Middle Ages’ (48). Reflecting on contemporary popular romance, Pamela Regis characterizes the genre as ‘ill defined’ (7). Given the lack of definition and the ‘vagueness’ of romance as a ‘genre’ – as well as the sustained inconsistencies in how the term is employed and understood throughout history – a cross-period, cross-cultural ‘history’ of romance seems an almost insurmountable challenge.

And this problem of ‘vagueness’ permeates throughout Romance: The History of a Genre. Percec’s introduction goes on to refer to romance as an early-modern ‘narrative form’ distinct from poetry and drama (4); early-modern ‘popular retellings of English medieval heroic tales’ (4); an escapist ‘mode’ of writing favoured by historical novelists (5); an ‘umbrella term’ employed ‘to include subgenres such as Gothic’ at the end of the nineteenth century (5); periodicals and cheap novels of the 1890s (6); a type of ‘Victorian adventure’ fiction, exemplified by Arthur Conan Doyle and Robert Louis Stephenson (5); ‘the modern, consumerist equivalent of the fairy tale’ (6); and a general term for a ‘romantic story’ (6). These shifting usages are employed uncritically, with an assumption of continuity and common ground. [End Page 3]

More dramatic, perhaps, are the inconsistent – and, on occasion, incompatible – understandings of ‘romance’ in the essays collected in the volume. The first chapter is Codruţa Goşa’s ‘Sex and the Genre: The Role of Sex in Popular Romance’, which begins with an unequivocal definition of what constitutes a piece of ‘romance’ fiction; this definition is cited directly from the Romance Writers of America website and from the personal website of Jennifer Crusie (15). Goşa’s chapter thus considers ‘romance’ to be a contemporary classification of fiction based on publishing categories; it goes on to consider the representations of sexual behaviour in a very small subset of such fiction – three US novels (published in 1989, 1993 and 1999), chosen due to their availability in Romanian translation, which is taken as an indication of their international popularity (17). Based on this selection, the author suggests that she can ‘safely argue’ for the construction of a conservative reader who ‘does not like to work hard in order to grasp what is going on’ (27). The complex issues raised by the use of works in translation – as well as consideration of the respective conservatism or creativity of the translations used in the study – are not addressed in the chapter.

Despite some issues with evidence and methodology, Goşa’s chapter at least seeks to offer some framework for understanding its subject matter as ‘romance’. However, the chapter that follows – ‘In a Facebook Romance, but it’s Complicated’ by Andreea Verteş-Olteanu – depends on a somewhat different interpretation of the r-word. In this essay, ‘romance’ is employed to mean a non-Platonic, love relationship. Examining some of the means through which relationships are developed, presented and mediated by social networks – specifically Facebook – Verteş-Olteanu considers ‘romantic love’ and its communication as a sociological and interpersonal phenomenon, which seems to be at odds with the book’s claim that it is exploring a ‘genre’ (presumably of fiction or art). Again, there are problems with methodology with this chapter, and the author makes numerous conversational asides assuming a reader complicit with the particular characterization of social media presented: ‘Above all, everybody shares pictures from their holiday!’ (33)

The section of the book devoted to ‘Gothic Romance’ begins with Ana-Karina Schneider’s essay ‘“Time to Call an End to Romance”: Anti-Romance in the Contemporary British Novel’. The author here attempts to draw a distinction between ‘romance’ and ‘the novel’, arguing that ‘[n]ovels deploy a varied repertoire of strategies that distinguish them from romance’ (69). It is clear in a reference to Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey that late eighteenth-century Gothic fictions are to be understood as ‘romances’ rather than ‘novels’, and that the former category is fundamentally associated with the sensational and the sentimental. This distinction is complicated by references to ‘comedy’ as a separate mode of writing – drawing both on older delineations of modes of fiction, and on the work of Frederic Jameson – and the chapter ultimately fails to give any concrete sense of either generic categorization or characterization. This is further compounded by a subsequent essay – Daniela Rogobete’s ‘The Twilight Saga: Teen Gothic Romance Between the Dissolution of the Gothic and the Revival of Romance’ – in which ‘the sensational novel’ and the ‘Romance’ are figured as both opposing modes of writing and ‘unexpected allies’ (112).

There are some strong essays in the collection. One highlight is Irina Diana Mădroane’s ‘Watching Celebrity Selves on Reality TV: Class Transformation and Viewer (Dis)Empowerment in a Romanian Reality Show’. Here, Mădroane examines reality TV shows documenting the life and fortunes of Romanian celebrity Monica Columbeanu, as well as giving some attention to the critical and popular response to the show. In a [End Page 4] relatively short essay, Mădroane considers the class and gender implications of Columbeanu’s constructed celebrity, as well as the anxieties revealed in various commentaries. Undoubtedly a thorough and careful study, I question the inclusion of this essay in a collection on the genre of romance. Aside from a couple of brief references to Columbeanu’s relationship with her partner, their marriage and subsequent divorce, there is little in this chapter that relates to any of the (albeit conflicting) definitions of ‘romance’ presented elsewhere in the collection.

Perhaps more clearly situated within the scope of the project is Reghina Dascăl’s ‘Raj Matriarchs: Women Authors of Anglo-Indian Romance’, which contrasts the novels of Maud Diver and Flora Annie Steel within the context of ‘Victorian imperial authority’ in ‘post-mutiny India’ (179). Drawing on contemporaneous anxieties of race, gender and class, the author examines the divergent ways in which Anglo-Indian romance fiction negotiates identity politics, Victorian and post-Victorian social mores and responses to colonization and colonialism. In its careful attention to both content and context, Dascăl’s chapter potentially comes closest to addressing the book’s proposed concerns regarding ‘the versatility of the literary genre of romance’ and ‘its potential for controversy’ (11).

Overall, Romance: The History of a Genre does not offer a strong intervention in the field of literary romance studies. While the intention behind the project is a bold one, the essays assembled in the collection (as well as the introductory material) ultimately fail to address the underlying challenge of such an endeavour. Without a secure and consistent ‘history’, a definition of a ‘genre’ or generic continuity will always raise more questions than it answers. These questions are valuable and, as yet, have received little critical attention. What is ‘romance’? Is there a coherent history and development of the term and its employment? What is the relationship between medieval romance, early novels, the Gothic, historical novels and contemporary romance fictions? Percec’s collection promises an examination of these questions, but they remain, sadly, unanswered. [End Page 5]

Works Cited

Helen Cooper (2004), The English Romance in Time. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press

Barbara Fuchs (2004), Romance. London: Routledge

Pamela Regis (2003), A Natural History of the Romance Novel. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press

Kevin Sean Whetter (2008), Understanding Genre and Medieval Romance. Farnham: Ashgate [End Page 6]

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Review: Happy Endings in Hollywood Cinema. Cliché, Convention and the Final Couple, by James MacDowell

Not only do we know how it will end, but we know it will end well. Boy gets girl, or girl gets boy, and they live happily ever after. The happy ending depicting the union of a couple is synonymous with Hollywood cinema. Fritz Lang (1948) described the happy ending as the following:

The traditional happy-ending is a story of problems solved by an invincible hero, who achieved with miraculous ease all that his heart desired. It is the story of good against evil, with no possible doubt as to the outcome. Boy will get girl, the villain will get his just desserts, dreams will come true as though at the touch of the wand. (26-27)

James MacDowell suggests that a majority of film scholars have assumed the prevalence of ‘the’ happy ending or simply a happy ending, and as a result have not attempted to investigate it more deeply. A key figure in film studies and a scholar of Hollywood cinema, David Bordwell claims “of one hundred randomly sampled Hollywood films, over sixty ended with a display of the united romantic couple” (1986: 159 as cited by MacDowell, 2013, 2). The happy ending is standard, necessary, typical, usual, formulaic, and so on and so forth. Indeed, MacDowell begins his query with a long list of descriptors pulled from the texts of key figures in film studies used to describe the happy ending. For MacDowell, the presumed happy ending of all Hollywood films is a false reputation that has been largely assumed. In his Happy Endings in Hollywood Cinema: Cliche, Convention and the Final Couple, MacDowell offers an over-due book-length examination of the Hollywood happy ending.

Taking on this monolithic topic, James MacDowell’s text does well to muscle its way between the giants of film studies. Through unexpected pairings and meticulously detailed analyses of films, MacDowell dismantles this “agreed matter of common sense” (3). [End Page 1] MacDowell focuses specifically on films that deal with romantic love which end with the “one especially famous feature associated with the ‘happy ending'” (1): “boy gets girl” (Lang, 1948) or the uniting of the romantic couple. The designation MacDowell gives to the happily ever after twosome is ‘the final couple’, a nod to slasher genre theorist Carol Clover’s final girl. MacDowell’s intention is to approach the topic broadly so as to “permit a better view of what the ‘happy ending’ can be and mean, as well as provide some alternative theoretical groundwork that may serve either to supplement, qualify or revise existing scholarly commonplaces” (14) so that, eventually, “individual assessment must replace automatic pronouncements stemming from assumptions about the feature’s inherent homogeneity” (55).

The book’s inaugural chapter, “The ‘Happy Ending’: The Making of a Reputation” works to lay MacDowell’s critical foundation. As mentioned, MacDowell begins with the claim that film studies has largely treated the Hollywood ending like a Platonic Ideal: ‘the’ happy ending, rather than a happy ending. Indeed, these quotation marks are a device upon which MacDowell relies heavily to mark the distinction between a presumed fixed concept and a flexible signifier. MacDowell strategizes to undo the allegations that all Hollywood films end happily, that we know what a happy ending is, that the happy ending is ideologically conservative, and that the happy ending brings closure (an inherently ideologically conservative mode of narration). The book is then divided into four sections that cover homogeneity, closure, unrealism, and ideology.

In “The ‘Happy Ending’ and Homogeneity”, MacDowell’s first task is to trouble the assumption that all Hollywood films end the same way: with ‘the’ happy ending. This simplification, for MacDowell, is due in part to what Hollywood cinema culturally represents: a mass-produced form of escapist entertainment — a prejudice lingering from the writings of Adorno and Horkheimer. In order to trump these critiques, his analysis begins with the romantic melodramas of the Classical Hollywood period (1939-1950), an era that is believed to be the most highly codified period of Hollywood film production due to the restrictions mandated by the Hays Code. Many of these films end with the “culmination of a courtship or a romantic reunion” (MacDowell, 23-24), but their happiness is not untroubled. MacDowell lists films such as Remember the Night (1940) and I’ll be Seeing You (1944), in which the final couples are separated by the woman’s incarceration, and The Clock (1945), in which a couple meets and is married less than 48 hours before the male protagonist is shipped off back to war. The final couple has attained love: a love that is understood to persist even if the couple is not together, and even if their happiness is not troubled. Love, under the sign of marriage and not happiness, is the ultimate triumph of these films.

Having argued for variation in the Hollywood ending, the second chapter, “‘Happy Endings’ and Closure,” works to dismantle the association between the final couple, the happy “ending”, and narrative closure.  MacDowell defines closure as the creation of an appropriate sense of finale for the audience. The relative aperture of the narrative determines whether the ending will feel happy, and feel like an ending. While the final couple is a feature of the ending, “the convention will serve varying closural functions depending upon the varying needs of different films, and that these functions will be dictated not by the final couple’s mere presence, but by its employment” (96). He discusses Sleepless in Seattle (1993) as an example of a film that builds toward unifying the couple, but remains open rather than offering closure: the ultimate moment of the story is [End Page 2] the beginning of the couple’s romance. Similarly, he refers to The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) and The Graduate (1967) as films that remain ‘open’. Thus, Hollywood films do not always end happily, nor do they always completely end.

In Chapter 3, “‘Happy Endings’ and Unrealism,” MacDowell analyzes the Hollywood ending as a sort of wish fulfillment, and argues that Hollywood’s presumed optimism need not be tempered with pessimism, but an “inevitable uncertain future” (131). MacDowell cleverly notes that even Hollywood films often refer to the Hollywood ‘happy ending’ as a way to suggest that reality is tough. “If you want a happy ending,” Judah (Martin Landau) says in Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989), “see a Hollywood movie”. What is unreal about the Hollywood happy ending is that ” life contains its share of happy moments, but not the overwhelming majority share repeatedly granted by the conclusions of Hollywood films” (100). MacDowell argues that films such as Pretty Woman (1990) and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004) demonstrate a nuanced approach to romance, which includes complications, change, and impermanence. For MacDowell, Pretty Woman concludes with a realistic attitude towards its own unrealism, thereby acknowledging that the couple’s happiness is neither permanent nor secure, and Eternal Sunshine’s ending suggest that the couple is satisfied with trying for happiness, despite their already experienced heartbreak.

Having argued for variation, ambiguity, and complication in the Hollywood ending, MacDowell finally examines the socio-cultural meaning of the happy ending in “‘Happy Endings’ and Ideology”. MacDowell draws upon theorists such as Stuart Hall, Anne Swidler and Janice Radway to offer brief commentary on how the romance is read and understood by its audience, and employs what he terms ‘romance-focused media theorists’ to address the shifting socio-cultural meaning of marriage and love. The cliché of the happy ending carries the ideological import of life-long monogamy in a romantic relationship, values which Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy) in Before Sunrise (1995) circumnavigate and engage with before deciding on their own (un)happy ending. MacDowell’s reading of the film renders the ending open, yet more deeply pessimistic than I understand it, and dismisses the continuation of Jesse and Celine’s navigation of happiness and monogamy in the following two “Before” films: Before Sunset (2004) and Before Midnight (2013). MacDowell concludes his vindication of the Hollywood happy ending with a reading of the Indiewood film Shortbus (2006), and lauds the ending for featuring both narrative closure and a happy ending. Shortbus‘ happy ‘subversion’ occurs, for MacDowell, when the final couple’s happiness is secured not in each other, but through intimacies with strangers, proving the happy ending’s “capacity for great ideological flexibility” (187). Despite his reading of Shortbus, MacDowell concludes that the happy ending as a “convention itself appears to be so relatively flexible, no ‘subversion’ is necessarily required in order to create ‘happy endings’ which are complex, ambiguous, or in some other way simply distinctive” (192).

As scholars of the popular romance, it is redundant to argue for the acknowledgement that popular romantic texts are more nuanced, varied, and critical than some might allow. While MacDowell’s intention is shake loose the confines attached to the happy ending, at times the text becomes too polemic, and it seems that MacDowell is guilty of indulging in hyperbole in order to get his point across. For example, MacDowell criticizes Lang for his acceptance of the sweet solution, while ignoring Lang’s proviso that sugar “is more nourishing and far safer than arsenic” (cited in Bordwell, 1982, 2), and fingers [End Page 3] Bordwell’s work as dismissive, yet without noting that Bordwell too takes on the question of closure in Hollywood cinema (see Bordwell, 1982).

While MacDowell attends to unpacking ‘the’ happy ending and the happy ‘ending’, little attention is given to the ‘happy’ ending. Despite the recent affective turn that has inflected various disciplines including film studies, MacDowell has forgone a theoretically engaged discussion of happiness, and the happiness of the happy ending. For example, Sara Ahmed’s (2010) work on happiness emphasizes the role that socio-cultural evaluation and judgment take in determining happiness. In order to more fully understand an endings’ happiness it is first necessary to attend to whatever the dominant cultural has valued and has assumed as bringing and causing happiness. For example, the happy ending of The Clock may be dampened by impending difficulty. However, not only has the final couple had good fortune or ‘hap’ that has brought them together, but they have also attained a culturally valued status (heterosexual marriage) that, in turn, assures their happiness.

Save for the final chapter, MacDowell holds off on any socio-cultural analysis. Bracketing questions of changing socio-cultural values and meanings has allowed MacDowell to narrow his concerns to the functioning of the narrative. However, in doing so, he has likewise voided the narratives of engaging in more significant meaning-making, and has ignored any development in genre formation. The work of Barry Keith Grant, for example, whom MacDowell references, argues that “genre movies allow for an economy of expression through conventions and iconography” (2007, 8) — a line of inquiry that MacDowell skirts. As Grant (2007) emphasizes, genre conventions undergo change, whether through evolution or development. The happy ending evolves through its relationship to a changing socio-cultural ethos. The Graduate, for example, ends not by affirming the married couple but by beginning a new couple as Elaine (Katherine Ross) escapes with Ben (Dustin Hoffman) on a public bus they’ve managed to flag down. As MacDowell references, a deeply romantic reading of the film, like that by the protagonist of 500 Days of Summer (2009), believes in Ben’s happily ever after, instead of wondering “what the hell now?” (90). MacDowell’s emphasis on closure and Ben as the focus of the narrative ignores any discussion of the changing cultural values around marriage and women’s agency — Elaine after all has just been married to another man and simply ran out midway into her ‘I do’s’. Similarly, the evolution of the happy ending to be inclusive of other kinds of happiness and romantic formations as evidenced by Shortbus could provide an alternate way to discuss the progression of the convention.

Overall, however, MacDowell offers an engaging and critical examination of the Hollywood happy ending — a topic that has been overlooked for too long. The discreet chapters offer clear and focused argumentation, and the introduction does well to situate the clichéd position of the happy ending. This accessible text would make a valuable addition to any course reader on popular romance or Hollywood cinema. [End Page 4]

References

Ahmed, S. (2010). The Promise of Happiness. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Bordwell, D. (1982). ‘Happily Ever After, Part Two,’ Velvet Light Trap, 19, pp. 2-7.

Grant, B.K. (2007). Film Genre: From Iconography to Ideology. London, UK: Wallflower Press.

Lang, F. (1948). ‘Happily Ever After,’ in Roger Manvell (ed.) Penguin Film Review 5, pp. 22-9. [End Page 5]

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Review: Deconstructing Twilight: Psychological and Feminist Perspectives on the Series, by Donna M. Ashcraft

Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight Saga has created a polarizing media franchise for the better part of the past decade, encompassing books, films, dolls, travel tourism, jewelry, and lately, academic interest. Its popularity has spawned a host of imitators and imitations, not to mention the entire sections of bookstores that are now given over to selling said volumes. It is time to recognize and reconceive what impact hybridized romance fiction of Twilight has had on the romance genre, and what that means for both romance readers and scholars. To date, there are probably a dozen volumes of academic and popular analysis on Meyer’s books, many of which are thought-provoking and rigorous works of scholarship. Unfortunately, Donna M. Ashcraft’s Deconstructing Twilight is not one of these books.

The volume promises an investigation of the series using feminist and social psychology theories, distancing itself from literary critique. While psychological analysis of the fictional characters and their relationships is an interesting theoretical exercise, as a book-length study it falls rather flat. Chapters on “The Motherhood Mystique,” “The Work-Family Dichotomy,” and “The Damsel in Distress” discuss the women of the series; the chapter “Dr. Jekyll or Mr. Hyde?” discusses the men. The chapters “Feminist or Feminine?” and “The Embodiment of Patriarchy” analyze feminism and feminist theory as applied to Meyer’s texts. While Ashcraft makes good arguments regarding each of her points (best summed up as: the women aren’t feminists, the men are patriarchal, and together they reinforce traditional roles; also, both Edward and Jacob are abusive and this is bad) they are backed up by weak research that lend the feeling of reading an undergraduate thesis to what should be a professor’s work. The majority of citations are culled from the Twilight books themselves as well as Meyer’s website; others are pulled from a dozen academic works and a host of popular resources. (A particularly egregious example comes from an assertion that the Twilight books are “based upon classics in literature: Twilight is based on Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. … and Breaking Dawn is based on two of Shakespeare’s plays, Merchant of Venice and A Midsummer Night’s Dream” (205). The source? An article [End Page 1] from The Examiner.) The only references to romance scholarship as such are to Radway’s classic Reading the Romance (1984), Dixon’s 1999 volume on Mills and Boon,and Juhasz’s essay from 1988 on reading romance fiction.

Ashcraft also unfortunately succumbs to the classic fallacies of reader-response criticism; because the Twilight series is bestselling, she assumes, its readers therefore view the relationships depicted in the books positively. Throughout her analysis she refers to “fans of the series” in a derogatory way, referencing their presumed opinions without citation. This is particularly grating when another study, Leavenworth and Isaksson’s  Fanged Fan Fiction: Variations on Twilight, True Blood, and the Vampire Diaries, also published in 2013, examined the same texts through the fans’ own words and often found that fans’ opinions were divided regarding Meyer’s work. Even without access to that book, however, the entire body of fan studies scholarship available across over twenty years should demonstrate how problematic it is to assume that fans of any sort subscribe to a singular view of any text. Alas, Ashcraft’s concluding statements regarding readers’ inclinations towards “confirmation bias” and their “need to preserve their theories on the tales” (224) seem to say rather more about her views than those of Meyer’s readers.

I would recommend this book to an undergraduate writing a paper on the topic; a more general audience would likely find the discussions of theory uninteresting, and the specialized reader will find the study problematic altogether. In retrospect, the book as a whole seems like an inflation of what could have been a fascinating article, but for what it is, it falls far short of what it could have been–and that is a pity. [End Page 2]

Bibliography

Dixon, Jay. The Romantic Fiction of Mills & Boon: 1909-1995. London: Routledge, 1999.

Juhasz, Suzanne. “Text to Grow On: Reading Women’s Romance Fiction.” Tulsa Studies in Women’s Literature 7: 239-259, 1988.

Leavenworth, Maria Lindgren and Malin Isaksson. Fanged Fan Fiction: Variations on Twilight, True Blood, and the Vampire Diaries. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Co., Inc. 2013.

Radway, Janice. Reading the Romance: Women, Patriarchy, and Popular Culture. 1984. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1991. [End Page 3]

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We’ve Come a Long Way, Baby: Reflecting Thirty Years after Reading the Romance
by Mallory Jagodzinski

The publication of Reading the Romance made room at the academic table for doing scholarly work on romance.  Radway’s book has made it possible for me to pursue scholarly work that I not only enjoy, but also hold near to my heart. Yet doing popular romance studies today can sometimes be made difficult by some of the impressions of romance left in the wake of this text.  Nearly everywhere I go as a scholar, people know Reading the Romance – or, at least, they know bits and pieces of the work. Peers, colleagues, and even professors make comments about romance novels, patriarchy, and bored housewives and wait for me to make my own dismissive comments about the genre. This is usually the point where I gently remind people that Reading the Romance was published before I was born, and that just as romance (like all genres) constantly reinvents itself while maintaining its core identity, so, too, does romance scholarship, or at least it ought to do so. Indeed, in her revised introduction, Radway herself remarks that less than ten years after her work’s initial publication, she is struck “by how much the book’s argument is a product of a very particular historical moment,” a moment “colored not only by [her] own previous academic trajectory and by the past development of the specific community [she] intended to address but also by a larger intellectual environment that impinged on [her] work invisibly and from a distance, but no less forcefully for that” (1).

The “particular historical moment” of Radway’s work is, in part, the one when scholarship informed by second-wave feminism met the “bodice-rippers” of the 1970s and 80s. As a reader of romance novels and as a third-wave(ish) feminist, I often find these older novels both appalling and frustrating. As a scholar, however, I find it equally frustrating that the historical moment captured by Reading the Romance is often taught in the academy as the contemporary moment, both for the romance genre and for its readers. This easy dismissal of thirty years in the history of the genre refuses to acknowledge the changing content of the novels and the changing demographics of the romance reading community, and it refuses to consider the producers and readers of romance novels as active agents, which Radway herself insists upon. (“The romance is being changed and struggled over by the women who write them,” she writes in the second edition’s “New Introduction” [16].”) [End Page 1]

Although my professors and fellow students mostly ignore this ongoing struggle and change, the women who read romance novels outside of the academy don’t just take note of it; they talk about it, often in sophisticated ways.  Whereas Radway notes that the Smithton women “rarely, if ever, discussed romances with more than one or two individuals” (96) the online romance community of our “particular historical moment” makes it possible for readers to discuss romance novels on a grand and even global scale at review sites such as Smart Bitches, Trashy Books, All About Romance, Dear Author, Love in the Margins, and many more. Not only do readers discuss individual romances, they discuss shifts in the genre and in the industry.  And even though the genre’s total readership cannot be conflated with the smaller segment of  readers and bloggers (who are often white, middle-class, and college-educated), the readers who take part in online discussions are not only conversing about the novels they read, but critiquing them as well.

For example, in my current work on the representation of interracial romance in mainstream historical romance novels, I have found that the overwhelming whiteness of romance has not gone unnoticed by readers. At the romance blog “Heroes and Heartbreakers,” Elizabeth Vail’s observation that the genre is “whiter than sour cream” received over thirty comments, while Sarah Wendell’s “The Subtleties of Race and Culture” post on Smart Bitches, Trashy Books received 99 replies and generated a discussion regarding the publishing and marketing segregation of African-American romance (par. 2). Olivia Waite recently completed a blog challenge titled “Intersectional Feminism in Romance from A to Z” where she examines portrayals of diversity in romance through an intersectional feminist lens in order to understand how these representations both comply and contend with systems of oppression. This is not to say that discussions of the genre weren’t happening prior to the Internet, but that the scale and accessibility of these conversations has changed. While the founders of these websites and blogs help facilitate the reading habits of readers in the same manner that Dot does for the Smithton women, a new reader to the genre has access to a particular archive that documents not only where romance has gone but also directions it could go.

I found my voice as a young scholar by speaking to some of the changes in the romance genre and industry since Reading the Romance was first published in 1984, and this seminal text helped lead me to a community of readers both inside and outside of the academy: readers who understand the genre is more than just a formula with the requisite happily ever after and want to discuss romance in a sharp and intelligent manner. Romance has come a long way in the past thirty years, and this next chapter in our history will reflect changes and developments in the genre brought about by readers, authors, and scholars. Although she doesn’t always get credit for it, Janice Radway was one of the women who launched these ongoing critical and creative conversations.  Her work documented its historical moment, and helped to bring about our own. [End Page 2]

Works Cited

Radway, Janice. Reading the Romance: Women, Patriarchy, and Popular Literature. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 1991. Print. [End Page 3]

 

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Rattling the Toolkit: Methods for Reading Romance, Gender, and Culture
by Katherine Morrissey

I want to begin by setting the scene. It’s 2007 and I’m stumbling my way through my second semester as a master’s student. I’m reading Judith Butler for the first time and, unsurprisingly, am completely panicking because I need to explain gender performativity to the rest of my class in three days. To manage this freak-out, I turn to a coping mechanism beloved by graduate students everywhere: total avoidance. Instead of working on my Judith Butler presentation, I decide to begin reading a book assigned for a research methods class. And thus begins my relationship with Reading the Romance.

I start with this story, not because I want to reminisce fondly about the traumas of my early graduate studies, but because I want to focus on the context in which many media and cultural studies students are introduced to Reading the Romance. Reading the Romance was first presented to me as a kind of methodological toolkit, a template to be used for designing research projects. Within this context, the fact that Reading the Romance was also a book about romance was almost incidental or, at least, positioned as secondary. And I think this positioning is significant. Different scholars first encounter Reading the Romance through any one of a number of lenses: as methodological teaching tool, work of feminist theory, analysis of reading practices, or, as a study of popular romance.  My relationship with Reading the Romance always seemed to focus first on methodology and, next, on the role the project played within a larger debate on how to study media and culture in the 1980s and 90s.

Reading the Romance works tactically to fold the study of production and reception into an analysis of texts. The project is organized so that it moves from what Radway calls “the institutional matrix” for romance novels, to an ethnography of readers and, finally, to Radway’s own analysis of romantic texts through the lens of feminist psychoanalytic theory. Part of what always draws me back to Reading the Romance is the way the project puts the researcher in dialogue with a genre, a set of romance novels, and a particular reading community. Reading the Romance places different textual encodings and decodings side by side. It is structured as a conversation both within and across academic, feminist, and romance reading communities. Today, the information presented in Reading the Romance continues to be discussed and debated among these same communities. Each time [End Page 1] I read it, I find myself wanting to ask both Radway and the Smithton romance readers new questions. In this way, the dialogue that Reading the Romance initiated continues to unfold.

Radway’s project also insists on maintaining a sense of ambivalence about the romance genre and how best to study its role in women’s lives. Ien Ang states that “Reading the Romance is inspired by a deep sense of the contradictions and ambivalences posed by mass culture, and by a recognition of the profoundly unresolved nature of critical theory’s dealings with it” (Ang 228). This ambivalence regarding the relationship between scholars and popular culture can be seen in Reading the Romance’s original introduction. In it, Radway expresses concern with scholarship that relies solely on textual analysis as a means of studying culture. She argues that this approach risks “hermetically seal[ing] off [texts] from the very people… [critics] aim to understand” (Qtd in Ang 227). Reading the Romance’s response is to puncture this barrier and bring readers into a researcher’s analysis. However, the act of breaking this seal presents its own challenges. Even when working to represent other voices, researchers are still scripting and filtering the conversation. Also, in the process of studying cultural discourse, we may inadvertently shore up the very cultural privileges we want our work to interrogate. In this way, the contradictions and ambiguities that we seek to interrogate within popular culture inevitably bleed into our work.

This leads me back to my opening comments regarding my introduction to Reading the Romance. It seems significant that the romance part of this project is so often positioned as an understood element of the work. The implication being that feminist media scholars, naturally, will study romance to help us analyze patriarchy. I will be the first to admit that I began studying popular romance for exactly this reason. I was interested in representations of gender and sexuality in popular culture. Clearly, I assumed, this meant I needed to pay attention to romance. It didn’t matter that I was also a lifelong romance reader. Or that, as a queer feminist, my personal relationship with romance was filled with many fruitful moments of frustration, negotiation, and pleasure. Even amidst all my cultural studies training positioning texts as part of our larger cultural ecosystem, I was still keeping romance at a distance. I was seeing romance more as a handy object to be poked at than a vibrant and constantly changing part of my own cultural discourse.

Part of Reading the Romance’s work in 1984 was an attempt to break through a hermetic seal between texts and their reading contexts. Perhaps the next stage of our work with Reading the Romance requires that cultural scholars retool their approach to romance yet again, reconsidering what it means to use this category of storytelling as a lens into gender, sexuality, and culture. After all, romance is hardly a distant and discrete object of analysis. Romance is a discourse we are always already a part of. The effort to view romance as something that can be isolated risks distorting the role that its discourse plays in our lives. Romance is either present or possible in most of the media we read, watch, and interact with: a narrative that appears across media, physically pleasures us, and that, at some point, many of us try to enact in our daily lives.

I want to conclude by listing three key questions I am thinking through as I consider my own research on romance and its role within cultural discourse:

  1. If romance is so ubiquitous, why is a company like Harlequin so often given the power of “speaking for” both popular romance genres and for women? [End Page 2] How do I ensure that one company’s voice isn’t privileged above others in my own work?
  1. Given how modular and diverse romantic storytelling is, how do I study romance comprehensively? As a researcher, I have a very practical desire to closely read specific sets of texts. However, in the context of media and cultural studies, romance is not simply the romance novel, but a broader cultural construct that appears in film, television, print, and digital media. If I isolate a particular set of texts or a single reading community for analysis, this omits numerous other forms of romantic storytelling and other reading and writing communities from my view.
  1. Finally, if studying gender and culture requires being attentive to variance and to the differing responses people have to texts, how do I ensure that I am always studying romance and media culture from a multitude of perspectives? What methods might we use to trace the ways that different romance reading communities and texts are already in dialogue with each other? And in what other ways might media scholars continue to push their methodologies further, adding to the tool-kit provided by Radway’s study a generation ago? [End Page 3]

Works Cited

Ang, Ien. “Living Room Wars: Rethinking Audiences for a Postmodern World.” The Audience Studies Reader. Ed. Will Brooker and Deborah Jermyn. New York: Routledge, 2003. 226 – 234. Print.

Radway, Janice A. Reading the Romance: Women, Patriarchy, and Popular Literature. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1991. Print. [End Page 4]

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From Reading the Romance to Grappling with Genre
by Stephanie Moody

I first encountered Reading the Romance in the fall of 2007. At the time, I was a first-semester graduate student in the Joint Program of English and Education at the University of Michigan. At the start of my doctoral journey, I had every intention of developing a research topic around adolescent literacy practices in out-of-school contexts. As a former high school English teacher, I was fascinated by the heated discussions my department colleagues and I frequently had about how best to connect the reading and writing done in school with the reading and writing students did on their own. But one evening, as I was avoiding the readings that were due for my composition theory class, and instead re-reading one of my favorite romance novels, it occurred to me that what I was reading in school and what I was reading out of school had serendipitously aligned.

In my composition theory course, you see, we were reading about genre. More specifically, we were reading about rhetorical genre theory, whereby scholars examine how everyday genres – the medical history form, the course syllabus, the customer feedback survey – are shaped by and reproduce rhetorical situations and social actions. Now, at the time, my understanding of genre was quite different: it was either where I was situated in Blockbuster when looking for a movie to rent, or it was the romance novels I was reading – a type of “genre fiction” that was, for all intents and purposes, literary fiction’s low-class nemesis.

Given their interest in how everyday genres are enacted in particular contexts, by identifiable discourse communities, and for specific purposes, rhetorical genre theorists have often intentionally moved away from focusing on fictional genres that, as Amy Devitt notes, “are read by multiple audiences at different times and places, apart from [their] initial situation and community” (709).[1] Nevertheless, the more rhetorical genre theory I read, the more I wondered if and how I might examine the popular romance genre within this framework. And so I vividly recall a moment that October when I rushed to my advisor’s office to share with her that I was drastically changing my research topic. The first thing she said was, “Wonderful! Go read Radway.”

I did. And then I re-read and re-read. I found that some of Reading the Romance resonated with me completely as both a romance reader and as an emerging researcher. Like the women in Radway’s study, I too found myself reading romance novels to relax, to escape to fantasy worlds, to become the heroine, and to practice a form of self- [End Page 1] care. As a researcher, though, what struck me as most exciting about Radway’s study was the distinction she placed between “the event of reading and the text encountered through the process” (11). In other words, her work suggests that while romance narratives may reproduce heteronormativity, the women in her study read romance novels as a way to cope with heteronormativity. In essence, Reading the Romance demonstrates that the literacy practice of romance reading produces a range of social actions that support, complicate, and exceed the romance narrative itself.

My research is heavily indebted to Reading the Romance. Radway’s study took seriously women’s everyday reading practices around popular texts by not only examining the texts themselves but also by talking with readers of them. This ethnographic move laid the groundwork for future cultural and qualitative studies of readers and reading. More specifically to my own work, Professor Radway’s analytical distinction between the meaning of the text and the meaning of the event of reading “empowers us to question whether the significance of the act of reading itself might, under some conditions, contradict, undercut, or qualify the significance of producing a particular kind of story” (210). In other words, in what ways do consumers’ varied uses of romance novels co-produce the romance genre simultaneously and alongside romance authors?

If Reading the Romance explores the question: Why do women read romance novels? then my own research asks: What do individuals do with romance novels in addition to buying and reading them? Drawing from rhetorical genre theory, literacy studies, and cultural studies, I frame genres as participatory constructs and I examine the various social actions, literate practices, and subjectivities individuals enact as they participate with and shape the popular romance genre. My interviews and book discussions with romance readers have led me to shift the focus away from romance reading as a solitary and single literacy practice to romance genre participation as comprised of multiple digital, social, and literate practices. By considering how individuals read, read about, write about, and talk about romance fiction, I demonstrate that romance readers co-produce the rhetorical situations in which romance novels circulate and are used; maintain intimate connections with friends and family members; engage in collective and civic action both online and offline; co-construct genre-specific knowledges and practices; shape the polysemic meanings of textual conventions; and therefore not only consume but also co-construct the romance genre.

I further argue that the pleasures derived from popular romance novels stem in part from the ways in which individuals use them to demonstrate readerly and writerly expertise, connect with others, and explore sociopolitical relations between men and women. These findings do not mean that the power dynamics among genre participants are equal; but they do demonstrate the ways in which genres are dynamically constituted and re-constituted through particular contextual enactments and practices. As Catherine Schryer notes, genres are never really fixed or static but rather “stabilized-for-now” (200). By examining the ways readers shape genres and consumers shape popular culture, I situate my own research alongside Radway’s by suggesting that the appeal of romance fiction cannot be explained solely through a consideration of text or of reader but instead must be understood through an examination of the multiple and relational ways individuals use romance novels to escape from, connect to, and build their social worlds. [End Page 2]


[1] I have borrowed this line almost verbatim from my dissertation, which includes a fuller discussion of everyday genres and rhetorical genre theory. See Affecting Genre: Women’s Participation with Popular Romance Fiction[End Page 3]

Works Cited

Devitt, Amy. “Integrating Rhetorical and Literary Theories of Genre.” College English 62.6 (2000): 696-718.  Print.

Radway, Janice. Reading the Romance: Women, Patriarchy, and Popular Romance. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1984.  Print.

Schryer, Catherine. “The Lab vs. The Clinic: Sites of Competing Genres.” Genres and the New Rhetoric. Ed. Aviva Freedman and Peter Medway. London: Taylor and Francis, 1994. 105-124. [End Page 4]

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Love’s Laborers Lost: Radway, Romance Writers, and Recuperating Our Past
by Heather Schell

Once upon a time, a group of romance novelists in America banded together and formed a professional organization. (That time was, to be more exact, 1980.) And once upon more or less the same time, several scholars began writing about popular romance. I think it’s fairly safe to say that Janice Radway and the other scholars exploring this area at the time did not see themselves as “scholars of popular romance,” but rather as scholars examining romance to learn other things, such as, in Radway’s case, how the meaning of a text might be constituted by a reading community. Nonetheless, there was suddenly a critical mass of women—some authors, some scholars—working industriously on and around the area of popular romance and, for worse rather than for better, they were operating in ignorance of each other’s efforts. Their eventual discovery of each other’s work was not a happy surprise. Instead, it was a fairly destructive collision that would effectively derail the possibility of popular romance scholarship as a field for several decades. Even now in 2014, after much hard work towards rapprochement on the part of IASPR, the RWA, and many good-willed individuals, residual effects of the distrust and acrimony of the 1980s and ‘90s linger, and sometimes even reproduce themselves.

What on earth happened? That’s the question I asked myself when, in the mid-2000s, a research project sent me back towards scholarship on popular romance and I started to piece together the detritus of a destructive conflict, years after it had taken place.

I remembered Reading the Romance quite fondly, from my time in the English M.A. program at Georgetown University, where I had also completed my undergraduate degree. GU was not exactly a forerunner of progressive thought at the time. Studying a work written by a woman was still pretty unconventional in the English Department, where I took a course on satire whose syllabus included not a single work by a female author. (When asked, the professor explained that women didn’t write satire. It never occurred to me that he could be wrong about this, so I spent the semester convinced that I was incapable of understanding the definition of satire.) The brave professors who worked in Women’s Studies, meanwhile, frequently found themselves targeted by conservative students and alumni and unsupported by the administration. Indeed, Women’s Studies faculty would occasionally find offensive publications and caricatures shoved under their [End Page 1] office doors when they got to campus. But these women taught us exciting, revolutionary things.

I can remember reading a friend’s paper that applied some of Radway’s ideas to M.M. Kaye’s The Far Pavilions and feeling intellectual exhilaration—we could write about works written by women! We could write about non-canonical texts! We could write about popular culture! We could even . . . wait for it . . . write about non-canonical popular texts written by women! And Radway’s book—like Tania Modleski’s Loving with a Vengeance, which we also read—gave us a way to do this work, because it was obviously a very academic book, full of theory and research and authority. I have never, before or since, had such an experience of being at the center of something so important and so enlightening, where every day unveiled new discoveries. In some ways, I can blame my decision to pursue a Ph.D. on Radway and Tania Modleski; I even chose Modleski’s alma mater for my doctoral work.

After the master’s degree, the fun part of graduate work was over. I wrote about Ebola and other hemorrhagic fevers. I spent years tracking down British sailors’ accounts of cannibalism, and big-game hunters’ reminiscences of killing tigers. And I didn’t keep up on anything happening in the world of popular romance. You can imagine my surprise and dismay, all those years later, to discover that, at the same time I had been reading about hunters’ practice of waiting for a tiger’s wounds to “stiffen,” my scholar heroines had been tarred as villains by some popular romance novelists and scholars. In fact, the 1990s for our field look a bit like a particularly thorny series of peace talks, in which one volume’s promising efforts towards reconciliation are undermined almost immediately by another volume’s renewed hostilities. Krentz’s 1992 collection, Dangerous Men and Adventurous Women, was a high point here, and the book’s attempt to speak across the divide is emphasized by a back cover blurb from Radway calling for “feminist literary and media critics” to read the book. By contrast, two issues of Paradoxa from the late 1990s could serve as a case study on what not to do in conflict resolution. The journal’s 1997 special issue on romance included a piece by Tania Modleski, “My Life as a Romance Reader,” alongside work by junior scholars and romance authors. (Some contributors straddled the great divide, like Jennifer Crusie Smith.) Taken aback by what she later called the “insane optimism” of the issue overall, and by the “vitriol” directed at Radway, Ann Barr Snitow, and other foundational scholars—including herself—Modleski wrote an unhappy follow-up essay, “My Life as a Romance Writer,” which drew an equally unhappy response from the special issue’s editor, Kay Mussell: a missed opportunity for real exchange that the field is still trying to make up.

To some extent, this ebb and flow of recrimination still continues today, with newer novelists and scholars running across earlier writing and getting all worked up again. I include myself here; when I recently looked back at the piece I wrote while catching up on this debate, “The Love Life of a Fact,” I was shocked to see my own anger spilling into the article. Again, this was anger towards people I had never met for saying unfair things about other people I had never met. Years ago.

So, what caused all this anger? One reason, surely, is that the intended audience of early scholarship on popular romance turns out to overlap only partially with the actual audience for this work. Radway herself notes this in the revised 1991 introduction to Reading the Romance: “whatever her intentions, no writer can foresee or prescribe the way her book will develop, be taken up, or read” (2). And the key audience neglected [End Page 2] by Reading the Romance and its companions was the romance writing community. I think the insult was even bigger: romance novelists, newly organized and proud to see themselves as women whose writing made other women happy, found themselves not only criticized for causing harm, not only pitied as victims of false consciousness, but erased as novelists. Gone. Radway wrote of “the romance” as “a fixed myth embodied in other nearly identical ‘novels’” (199). For a romance novelist reading one of these early works on popular romance, the clear impression is that these scholars saw romance novelists as interchangeable cogs in a machine generating undifferentiated and potentially harmful mass culture, not unlike the “pink slime” in fast food hamburgers. It’s not a pleasant picture. From the perspective of the elitist “high culture” definition of literature at the time, Radway was daring to allow that “romances seem to function as novels do” (199), but it seems unlikely that many romance novelist would have read that cautious comparison as a compliment.

Today I doubt that any of us here would feel we had to reserve the term “novel” for literary fiction. In fact, Radway herself would probably not have been putting the term “novel” in scare quotes (as in that reference to “nearly identical ‘novels’”) if she had written the book a decade later. At the time, however, scholarship applying the idea of “mass culture” to popular works had not figured out the limitations of a factory-based metaphor of “mass production,” which obscures the difference between a widget and a genre of fiction.[1] And theory-driven literary scholars knew that the author was dead—Roland Barthes had killed him about fifteen years earlier. Further, almost all of us wrote about the works of authors who were not just theoretically dead but actually dead; a critic did not have to worry about delivering a conference paper on the Brontë sisters and discovering them right there in the audience. All of this would have made it hard to see romance writers, especially before the growth of the RWA helped make them visible.  If the rest of us had been young faculty writing scholarly works on romance at the time, would we have seen past all these disciplinary blinkers to celebrate romance novelists? It’s a nice fantasy. Perhaps we would also be the antebellum plantation owner’s widow who manumits all her slaves, operates a station on the Underground Railroad, encourages her family and staff to adopt a healthful, low-fat diet, and, in the later post-war years, fights tirelessly against importing kudzu. In other words, we could only have done it if we were time travellers.

In a new introduction for the 1991 re-release of her book, Janice Radway wrote, “What is needed, I have come to feel, is a recognition that romance writers and readers are themselves struggling with gender definitions and sexual politics on their own terms and that what they may need most from those of us struggling in other arenas is our support rather than our criticism or direction. To find a way to provide such support, however, or alternatively to learn from romance writers and readers is not easy, for we lack the space and channels for integrating our practices with theirs” (18). We now have that space and those channels, and much of that opportunity was created here, by Area Chairs of the PCA Romance section who would go on to create IASPR and JPRS, organizations whose value more than compensates for their horrible acronyms (sorry, but it’s true. Jeepers, what were you people thinking?). Romance scholars and romance novelists sit in the same room and talk to one another; we may not always agree with each other, but at least we listen. Essays attend not just to texts but to their authors, their editors, their readers, their conditions of publication, and even their translators.  At long last, romance scholars have a community, [End Page 3] with the concomitant opportunities for cross-pollination and the growth of new knowledge.  And I think our HEA with our scholarly predecessors is long past due.


[1] For an extended discussion of the origins and limitations of the “mass-production” metaphor, see “On Popular Romance, J. R. Ward, and the Limits of Genre Study” by Mary Bly.

My thanks to Phyllis Ryder for the title of this piece. Also, I am grateful for the sharp eyes of GW students Alex Huh, Joe Adsetts, CC Bennett, and Austin Fruchter. [End Page 4]

 Works Cited

Bly, Mary. “On Popular Romance, J. R. Ward, and the Limits of Genre Study.” New Approaches to Popular Romance Fiction: Critical Essays, ed. Sarah S. G. Frantz and Eric Murphy Selinger. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland), 2012. 60-72.

Radway, Janice. Reading the Romance: Women, Patriarchy, and Popular Literature. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 1991. Print.

Schell, Heather. “The Love Life of a Fact.” How Well Do “Facts” Travel?: The Dissemination of Reliable Knowledge. Ed. Peter Howlett and Mary S. Morgan. (Cambridge: Cambridge UP), 429-454. [End Page 5]

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Studying the Romance Reader, Then and Now: Rereading Janice Radway’s Reading the Romance
Jessica Matthews

I read Janice Radway’s Reading the Romance in 1995, the first year of my graduate coursework. The book was a required text in my cultural studies course, a course where I had been struggling to grasp a catalog of cultural theories: Frankfurt School, Birmingham School, and the “-ists,” as I used to call them: Marxist, feminist, and new historicist theories. When my professor added semiotics and the critical techniques of reader-response and psychoanalytic criticism, I soon felt overwhelmed. To be honest, I’m not sure I ever completely understood all of those theories and critical approaches, and for those I did, I was sometimes skeptical about their use in the study of literature. But Reading the Romance proved me wrong“So this is how you apply theory to practice,” I thought. “By using the tools of other disciplines, you can study literature by studying the people who read it; you can analyze reading as a reaction to the social, political, and cultural forces in a society.”  Thus, I came to value Reading the Romance more as a primer for how to do cultural criticism than for its arguments about the impact of patriarchy, feminism, and consumer culture on romance readers.

Those arguments have certainly been challenged, but I would like to consider the research process Radway used to study romance readers, the logistics of the study itself, for I, too, study the “romance reader and her act of reading.” When I reread Radway’s book for this panel, I was struck by the difference 30 years has made between her research process and mine.

Those differences, of course, are due to the extraordinary technological change of the last twenty years. Radway used mailed questionnaires and face-to-face interviews to study a small group of romance readers similar in socioeconomic class and geographic location (a city suburb that goes by the alias “Smithton”) in order to “discover how actual communities actually read particular texts” (Radway, 4). I seek to discover the same thing, but I rely almost entirely on virtual evidence (computer-mediated communication (CMC) in online forums, Facebook, Twitter, and blogs) from virtual communities to study any romance reader anywhere who has a connection to the Internet and can write in English. Radway has been criticized for generalizing from such a small population,[1] but I cannot help but wonder what it would have taken to study a much larger one without the aid of the Internet, especially among readers of a genre who did not have nearly the public voice [End Page 1] they do now. Yet I also know that the large sample populations we can study today raise equally important questions about validity.

If Radway were conducting her study now, “Dot,” (“Dorothy Evans”), the bookstore clerk who recommended romances to the Smithton readers, might be a blogger with a review site rather than the author and distributor of a print newsletter. “Dot” would tweet her recommendations to her “followers” on Twitter or to her “friends” on Facebook. Regardless of where she chose to share her expertise, a scholar could track and archive her comments. And there would be many, many “Dots” to study. The sample population challenge today is not scarcity; it’s abundance. It’s also finding a way to deal with the diversity and mutability among readers of romance. More than fifteen years ago, Cheryl Harris in Theorizing Fandom (1998) was concerned about the sheer variety and constant change among fan communities in general: “fans are constantly in flux,” she explained, and “Worse, they are prolific” (4). Today, the veritable hive of romance blogs and discussion forums is both an abundance of riches and a Tower of Babel for the romance scholar. How can one accurately make generalizations about so large and varied a sample? It makes me long for the homogeneity of the Smithton women.

And it is the Smithton women who spoke loudest to me when re-reading Reading the Romance for this panel. Hearing Dot’s voice throughout the book, I grew to admire her, as if she were the heroine of the story, and all too often I wished she did have a blog so that I could interact with her. I kept wondering what she would think of a site like Smart Bitches, with its sassy discourse and cheeky tone. Would she sneer at our academic blogs or be thrilled to see them? I had so many questions I wanted to ask her, and I had to temper the expectation of interactivity so ingrained in me now and remind myself that it would have puzzled the Smithton women who had little expectation of it at all.

One of the most important details I noticed on this re-read was the fact that few of the Smithton women knew each other until Radway brought them together for the interviews (Radway, 96). The majority of them had never discussed romances with a community of fellow romance readers, but it’s clear that they welcomed the opportunity to do so. That lack of interactivity seems almost antediluvian to me because there are now so many online romance communities that invite comments: individual reader blogs, author blogs, and Facebook and Twitter accounts for both. No romance reader need read alone anymore unless she wants to. But the glimmerings of organized romance communities do appear in the conclusion of Radway’s Reading the Romance: Radway’s first mention of the Romance Writers of America (RWA), then just four years old and already a national organization. (Radway, 218-219). Though RWA successfully organized romance authors, not readers, Radway’s mention of it suggests that she saw clear evidence that interactive romance communities were beginning to emerge.

Those communities are easier to find now, and they are, as Harris noted, prolific. There is no shortage of opinions to research and analyze. And yet I wonder about the ethics of studying them virtually rather than face-to-face.[2] The Smithton women gave their permission to be studied; most of my virtual readers do not. To be sure, their opinions are already publicly available, yet they were not opinions given to me to use. The Smithton women talked to Radway; the readers I study talk far more to each other than to meand others do not talk to me at all. And I worry about the ethics of researching acts of reading that are done in private and for a variety of personal reasons even if the discussion of those acts is public. Radway even notes that the Smithton women “value reading precisely [End Page 2] because it is an intensely private act” (Radway, 92). And yet the urge to talk about that act with others, now easily observed in publicly accessible forums, suggests that for some readers, the private act triggers a social one. Perhaps the positive, though private, benefits of reading romances that the Smithton women describe, particularly the feeling of “emotional sustenance” (Radway, 12), can also be gained by connecting publicly with the romance-reading community.  This interesting dichotomy produces rich opportunities for study, but how we conduct these studies, and do so ethically, continues to challenge romance scholars.

Underpinning Radway’s research and my own is the same question: “Why do women read romance?” Why, I ask, do we want to know this? Are we trying to legitimate the reader’s purpose in order to legitimate the genre? Validate women’s choices and support romance readers? Most likely, all of the above. But I also study why women want to talk about reading romances. What do they gain by moving from a private dialogue with text to a public one about the text? This is, after all, similar to what Radway did with the Smithton women, which is why her study was so groundbreaking. She read the Smithton women as culturally constructed texts and then went public with her analysis. Her conclusions are still controversial, but her inquiry shows us that romance readers gain more than pleasure from the act of reading the romance; they also gain “affective self-support” (Radway 96), such as increased self-esteem and the benefits of fellowship, when talking about their reading experiences with others who share their interest.

And it is the nature of that gain that continues to intrigue me, which is why, after rereading Reading the Romance, I thought more about the Smithton women than anything else. If they did read romances for “emotional sustenance” and as a form of protest, do they still read romances today? When I finished rereading Reading the Romance, it was the biggest question I had.


[1] Radway acknowledges the limitations of her sample size and cautions against using her conclusions as anything more than hypotheses that need to be tested (48-49).

[2] Several scholars have investigated the ethics of researching online discussions. See Catherine Driscoll and Melissa Gregg, “My Profile: The Ethics of Virtual Ethnography.” Emotions, Space and Society 3 (2010): 15-20. Web. See also Katharina Freund and Dianna Fielding, “Research Ethics in Fan Studies,” Participations: Journal of Audience & Reception Studies 10.1. (May 2013). Web. See also Inger-Lise Kalviknes Bore and Jonathan Hickman in “Studying Fan Activities on Twitter: Reflections on Methodological Issues Emerging form a Case Study on The West Wing Fandom.” First Monday 18.9 (Sep 2013). Web. [End Page 3]

 Works Cited

Harris, Cheryl. “Introduction.” Theorizing Fandom: Fans, Subculture and Identity. Eds. Cheryl Harris and Alison Alexander. Cresskill, NJ: Hampton P, 1998. 3-8. Print.

Radway, Janice. Reading the Romance: Women, Patriarchy, and Popular Literature. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 1991. Print. [End Page 4]

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