Posts Tagged ‘Janice Radway’
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” .”) [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]
Radway, Janice. Reading the Romance: Women, Patriarchy, and Popular Literature. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 1991. Print. [End Page 3]
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:
- 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?
- 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.
- 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]
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]
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). 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]
 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]
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]
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. 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.
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]
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]
Studying the Romance Reader, Then and Now: Rereading Janice Radway’s Reading the Romance
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, 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. 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 me, and 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.
 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]
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]
I’m something of “a spy in the house of love.” I don’t “do” romance. And yet Reading the Romance has had a significant influence on foundational work in my field of fan studies, and on my own work as well.
Radway was initially confronted with a highly theorized (perhaps over-theorized) method of approaching the relationship of reader to text – one in which the reader largely seemed to be secondary. In “Women Read The Romance: The Interaction of Text and Context,” which pre-dates Reading the Romance, Radway observed: “Because these interpreters do not take account of the actual day-to-day context within which romance reading occurs, and because they ignore romance readers’ own book choice and theories about why they read, they fail to detect the ways in which the activity may serve positive functions,” (54) as opposed to the accusations of romance reading being a frivolous waste of time or worse. My own journey into fan studies began on a similar trajectory, when confronted with a body of literature that, while enormously useful in setting the stage for looking at what fans do, was still either over theorized, or only approached from a select few theoretical positions (fans were poaching on the traditional preserves of producers, or female fans were engaged in guerrilla warfare against hegemonic, male dominated culture). None of this exactly explained my own experience as a fan and none addressed pleasure. Again, what seemed to be missing in early descriptions of fans, even when those descriptions were presented positively, were the fans themselves.
Well before the first work of its kind within fan studies, then, Radway’s ethnographic approach served as both roadmap and reminder that we must not exclude the reader from the text and we must not be too quick to impose our own assumptions on the reading and viewing practices of others.
Even more significant to my own work on fan cultures, however, was Radway’s confrontation of the guilt and shame associated with reading romance. In her interviews with the romance readers of Smithton, Radway heard not only guilt over the time and money spent on such a culturally unsanctioned activity, but more important, the shame arising from women expressing sexual desire through the act of reading (Radway, Reading the Romance, 103-104). Thirty years on we’re still ashamed of our “indulgences.” Several semesters ago, for example, when I had first begun to teach a class that included a unit on fan cultures, a student came to my office hours to discuss her final paper. She wanted to [End Page 1] write about Buffy fans. But she did not want anyone else in the class to know that she was a fan. She then proceeded to relate a story about her involvement in online Buffy communities. There she had found an outlet that she did not feel was attainable in her “real life” where she felt constrained just telling others that she loved the show. And she certainly would have never told anyone that she wrote fan fiction. Not even her best friend was privy to her “addiction”. Fortunately she met others in the community with whom she eventually became close – particularly one girl who it turned out was the same age as her, shared the same interests and, they discovered as their friendship around the television series blossomed, lived in the same area. They eventually arranged to meet.
Perhaps you see where this is going? The girl my student met online was, in fact, her best friend. Neither had felt comfortable in telling the other, both sought the comfort and anonymity of online fan communities as a refuge from the shame entailed on liking something that much. Not surprising in a culture that continually tells young women and girls that their dearest held and emotionally important interests (One Direction, Twilight) are ridiculous wastes of time.
And when we’re not busy internalizing all that shame the media is happy to step in to remind us how silly we’re being – or worse. Indeed the media continues to take delight in pointing out how “crazy” or “twisted” we are. Not much has changed since Radway cited a “scornful feature” in a local newspaper focusing on romance readers (Reading 104). Reporters’ joy at unearthing what they see as the worst aspects of fandom and holding them up for everyone, including the objects of that fandom, continues unabated. At the recent screening of an episode (“The Empty Hearse”) of the BBC’s Sherlock, Caitlin Moran, a television critic and author perhaps best known for her book How to Be a Woman, had no problems shaming other women by asking Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman to read an excerpt from a piece of slash fan fiction pairing their characters. Moran might have thought this would be amusing especially given the tone of this particular episode which focused on the fictionalized fans of Sherlock Holmes who have come together to discuss his “death” and theorize over how he might have faked it. The writers first poked fun at the fans within the episode itself and then the moderator shamed them further at the screening.
Chat show hosts like Graham Norton and Alan Carr also use the “overheated” reactions of fans as fodder for humor. Recently Alan Carr asked guest Tom Hiddleston if he ever Googles himself. When the actor said he didn’t, Carr replied “Well don’t – my god – the fans! The stuff that people talk about you is so twisted!” Cue fan art depicting Hiddleston’s character Loki (in the Thor and Avengers films) pole-dancing. Of course only moments before Carr had displayed enthusiasm for a suggestive scenario involving the actor and himself playing the front and back ends of a horse respectively. His own sexualized response to Hiddleston was played for laughs. The fans sexualized response was played for ridicule.
Worse yet, in my experience, are those times when these two responses to fans – shaming and being ashamed – happen simultaneously. The audience at a recent screening of Shakespeare’s Coriolanus starring Tom Hiddleston was, not unexpectedly, made up of a large number of the actor’s fans. During the intermission and after the more easily identified fans (they were wearing customized tee-shirts and carrying handbags with the actor’s face prominently displayed) passed by, an usher standing at the end of our row informed my husband and me that: “Those are Hiddlestoners.” There was something just [End Page 2] skirting disdain in her voice. During the next ten minutes or so of conversation however she revealed that she not only knew about, but avidly read and even analyzed fan fiction, was familiar with a wide variety of fan practices, and spoke the language of fandom fluently. All the while she was at pains to differentiate herself from those fans who more openly expressed their fandom.
As researchers I’m not sure that we’ve escaped that shame either. I’ve been to several panels just this weekend at the PCA conference where panelists have joked (somewhat uneasily) about their fan activities – justifying them as “research” – always careful to emphasize the scare quotes to an audience of like-minded “scholars.” And I’m no different. In fact, when I mentioned that recent performance of Coriolanus (which I saw twice) I put Shakespeare first and distanced myself from the Hiddlestoners just as much as the usher did. The act of going to see this play certainly needs no justification. That I may have seen it because of the actor might need justification under certain circumstances. That I went to see the play because of the actor’s seriously dangerous cheek bones is a fact I’m not always comfortable sharing.
And this points to another issue Radway’s work raised thirty years ago and one that continues unresolved. Radway put theory to the test by finding out what readers actually did with their texts, but was also careful to distance herself from her subjects and from the object of their enthusiasm. In contrast, Henry Jenkins (and subsequent practitioners in the field) embraced and celebrated his inner geek. We’ve been arguing about the efficacy of aca-fandom (the question of whether we need to be members of the groups we study in order to fully understand them or whether we need to keep our scholarly distance) ever since.
Thus, if Radway’s work provided early practitioners in my field with a way forward, by listening to consumers of popular culture and by deftly addressing the shame attendant on that consumption, re-reading it also reminds us that we need to confront and resolve our own multiple identities as fans, as romance readers, and as academics. [End Page 3]
Radway, Janice. “Women Read the Romance: The Interaction of Text and Context”. Feminist Studies, Vol 9, No. 1 (Spring 1983), pp53-78.
—. Reading the Romance. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press 1991. [End Page 4]
There is so much to celebrate about this book and its place in the field, but I’ve been given very little time, so I’d like to focus my brief remarks and questions around the politics—past and present, then and now—that come with studying popular romance. Reading the Romance helped pave the way for popular romance studies; however, as we know, research choices impact careers. So, I’d like us to consider together how the politics of our various disciplines have shifted (or not) to accommodate this topic of study. My thought is, to misappropriate a quote from Radway, that we might “activate the critical power” of our “pink ghetto” (18).
In the introduction to the second edition, Radway describes the context in which Reading the Romance took shape. She chronicles how the American Civilization Department at Pennsylvania fostered scholarship that critiqued the dominant orthodoxy proffered by many English and History programs. This orthodoxy “assumed that the most reliable and complex record of the American past could be found in the country’s ‘greatest’ works of art” (3), whereas the American Civilization Department embarked on a “heretical” challenge by studying “ordinary” people, “popular” literature, and popular culture.
If this was the case in the 1980s, it was similar for me in the mid-1990s as a graduate student in American religious history. I am part of a field dominated historically by a focus on sacred texts, writings about these texts, and control of these texts—namely the Bible, Sunday sermons, and religious institutions. Ministers and missionaries, churches and Sunday schools, and perhaps some Nathaniel Hawthorne and Harriet Beecher Stowe are often standard fare. However, these were not the people or the texts that drove my interest in religious studies. Rather, my concern then and now was in how contemporary people, ordinary people, were constructing the concept of religion and creating religious meaning through popular culture forms. With its ethnographic approach, contemporary focus, and theoretical sophistication, Reading the Romance provided me with a scholarly model. It demonstrated ways to bring together production and consumption, textual analysis and reader response. It also helped imbue my topic with some legitimacy. It opened up the possibility for me to write my dissertation and eventual book on evangelical romance novels and their readers, Romancing God.
However, what I was unprepared for (and I take full responsibility for my 20-something idealism and naiveté) was the ways my work would be received, or perhaps, [End Page 1] more accurately, the ways people projected their own ideas about evangelicals and romance novels onto my work. It ranged from having respected professors in my field ask, “How could you study that crap?” to stereotypical understanding of evangelicals to not getting jobs because search committees thought my topic meant I was either pro-evangelical or anti-evangelical and either way, I clearly read romance novels, so I was beyond the pale. By the time I had a job and my book came out, I was, quite frankly, too tired of defending my topic to say much more about it at conferences or to pursue it further.
So, reflecting on my own history and the genesis of Reading the Romance prompts me to ask: What are the current politics of popular romance studies? Have things changed? If so, how have they changed? We now have popular romance sections at national meetings, an International Association for the Study of Popular Romance, and more people entering the field, so what are the current challenges that we face as professionals who study popular romance or related topics? It has, clearly, in some ways become more legitimate to study popular romance, but does this acceptance bring with it new challenges and new questions?
Let me be more specific by referring again to the religious studies context. Some things have changed in U.S. religious history. Scholars have critiqued the existing “grand narratives” of the field and the practice of constructing such narratives, and, as a result, the field has become more open to people studying popular culture. In fact, there are popular culture sections at our national meeting, the American Academy of Religion. These changes have enabled individual scholars to pursue more diverse topics and use increasingly varied methodologies; however, what is valued and “taken seriously” in the field seems to remain relatively unchanged. Studies of religion and popular culture continue to remain at the margins, characterized as micro-studies, “soft,” and “fun,” while others apparently do the “real,” “hard,” and “serious” work of scholarship. For example, in the past twenty-five years, the North American Religions Section of the American Academy of Religion, which acts as a gateway unit at the conference and in the field of American religious history, has not dedicated even one entire session to “popular culture.” And many of the recent jobs in the field of US religious history (there are not many) have gone to scholars trained as historians—historians of ministers, the colonial era, the people and places that dominated the “old” grand narratives.
Perhaps I’m paranoid, or maybe these transformations simply take more time, and I hope you will tell me that it is different in other fields, but I do think we have here a great opportunity to discuss together the relationship between popular romance studies and the larger scholarly endeavors of which we are a part. I look forward to our conversation. [End Page 2]
This panel was organized with each member giving a different perspective on Reading the Romance at its thirtieth anniversary. Clearly, I’m here to give the historical perspective, and I’m happy to do that. I have a lot of history with this book—in fact, my history with the book and with Jan Radway herself reaches back almost 28 years.
My first memory of Jan was, I believe, from the fall of 1988 or spring of 1989 when she came to Duke University, where I was a new graduate student. Those were the glory days at Duke, with Stanley Fish as chair of the English Department and Fredric Jameson chair of the Comparative Lit program. They had come to Duke only a year or two before I did and promptly embarked on a hiring spree of top literary and theory scholars that was the talk of the academic world. It was as part of that hiring spree that Jan came to Duke to give a job talk. I remember most of the details of her stimulating and excellent presentation, which was an early chapter on her Book of the Month Club work (Reading the Romance had already come out a couple of years before). But frankly, when I remember that talk what is clearest in my memory is the image of Jan herself, striking in this very stylish two-piece suit—I think it was yellow and black—and she wore the coolest earrings. (I would learn later that she always wore very cool earrings.) I remember thinking she was the epitome of everything I wanted to be, and I must have had some sense of how personally important she would be to me, because I had already decided to write a dissertation on the history of women’s popular romance.
Lucky, lucky me. Jan came to Duke in 1989, and, along with the fabulous Jane Tompkins, co-directed my dissertation, which I completed in 1991. There weren’t many places in the country one could have written a dissertation on romance in those days, and nowhere else on earth I could have found two such perfect powerhouse female mentors as Jan Radway and Jane Tompkins. Jan was a hot young scholar, not quite forty years old, who had already made an enormous impact in cultural studies with the 1984 publication of Reading the Romance, a scholarly work that really changed things for me personally but also changed the study of popular culture in general and women’s romance in particular. Jan’s monograph, along with Tania Modleski’s Loving with a Vengeance in 1982, virtually created the field of popular romance studies which everyone in this room has inherited today. While Modleski’s work was first by a couple of years, I think it was the [End Page 1] methodology of Jan’s book that truly legitimated the study of popular romance and made it the locus of inquiry on feminist theory, the body, popular culture, and reading, thus really widening the audience far beyond those interested in popular women’s novels.
Through its ethnographic method, Reading the Romance became an important book for many scholars in many different fields. Just one example—about ten years ago I was putting together a syllabus for a cultural theory class for Ph.D. students in our then-new Ph.D. Program in Heritage Studies. I had gone to scholars in each of the disciplines which fed students into the program, asking those scholars to recommend what they considered important works utilizing cutting-edge theory in their own fields; I made sure they understood I was seeking these recommendations in order to use these works in my course. Imagine my surprise when Sociology chair George Lord recommended Reading the Romance as the best book to help students understand methodology and theory in Sociology! So this book has had enormous impact on many fields and among many who have had little or no scholarly interest in women’s romance.
But, of course, all of us in this room have a deep interest in popular women’s romance, so, in particular, and after thirty years, what does this book mean to us?
By the time Jayne Ann Krentz’s anthology Dangerous Men and Adventurous Women was published in 1992, there was already a revolt of the academic daughters in motion, in which young aspiring scholars, struggling to find critical space in the wake of Jan’s important book, began to criticize her methods and conclusions. I also criticized Jan for many little things (many of which now, rereading the book, I think were pretty unfair); overall, I think I was criticizing her for not championing women’s romance and its readers and authors energetically and loudly enough. It became popular at PCA panels on romance in the last two decades for young scholars of women’s romance to mention Reading the Romance and then try to distance themselves from it—a sort of Bloomian Anxiety of Influence, I think.
Jan’s book was so big, and so important, many scholars, rather than explicitly building on it, struggled to find their own critical space in which their ideas could appear to be anything other than derivative. Of course, the field has found new things to investigate, the most promising perhaps the in-depth study of individual authors, but in a competitive industry where scholars struggled for the big, overarching theoretical statement about romance that could set them apart, Jan’s book sometimes seemed more of a threatening roadblock than a stepping stone to new investigations. In short, Reading the Romance may have been too good.
Getting ready for this conference, I did something I haven’t done in several years, and that was to drag out my pitifully bedraggled and dog-eared copy of Reading the Romance and reread it, cover to cover. I’ve read much of what’s been published in this field since 1988, and I don’t hesitate to claim that this book is still the best piece of scholarship available. Rereading it I was struck once more by her freshness and insight into the genre, as well as by the unfairness of many of the criticisms of her work. Jan notes that “the nature of the [Smithton readers’] operation suggests that it is unsatisfactory for an analyst to select a sample of romances currently issued by American publishers, draw conclusions about the meaning of the form by analyzing the plots of the books in the sample, and then make general statements about the cultural significance of ‘romance’” (49). Most of the scholars in this room will heartily agree with Jan’s claim here, and yet several of us, including me, have accused Jan of doing what her own statement admits shouldn’t be done. [End Page 2]
There are valid criticisms of Reading the Romance, to be sure, including Kathleen Gillis Seidel’s criticism of Jan for her failure to consider that how well or how poorly a romance is written may have more to do with readers’ satisfaction with the book than does its feminist politics (Krentz 169). It’s precisely Jan’s analysis of the feminist politics of romance novels that seems to rub some scholars such as Pamela Regis and many of the genre’s authors in just the wrong way.
She writes that romance is concerned with “the possibilities and difficulties of establishing a connection with a man who is initially incapable of satisfying a woman. Thus the romance is concerned not just with the fact of heterosexual marriage but with the perhaps more essential issue for women—how to realize a mature self and how to achieve emotional fulfillment in a culture in which such goals must be achieved in the company of an individual whose principal preoccupation is always elsewhere in the public world” (139). While, as Eric Selinger has pointed out in comments to me, she may be guilty of stereotyping men here, her personal experience as a married woman and mother, as well as her sympathetic understanding of women readers, still comes across and still challenges us to avoid stereotyping women readers and instead take what they tell us seriously, as she did.
The primary material in her book is still important and much of it still unduplicated, like the chart showing the frequency of direct responses on why readers read romance fiction—not “because [they] like to read about the strong, virile heroes” but much more frequently—as the two most frequent responses, in fact– “[f]or simple relaxation” or “[b]ecause reading is just for me; it is my time” (61).
Perhaps the most valuable contribution Jan made to the study of women’s romance, besides her methodology and careful attention to why women read, is the way she ties an often deprecated form of popular culture to one of the most complex and important theoretical discussions of the last two decades, which is the discussion of the meaning of female subjectivity. She claims, “On one level, then, the romance is an account of a woman’s journey to female personhood as that particular psychic configuration is constructed and realized within patriarchal culture” (138). We still haven’t fully explored the ramifications of that claim, I think, and especially the layers of meaning that might develop if we bring in the later theories of scholars such as Judith Butler concerning performance and heteronormativity.
In conclusion, what is the importance of Reading the Romance thirty years later? Quite simply, I don’t think we can or should study romance without it. I still feel, thirty years later, that nothing better than this has been written on this topic. And if I didn’t tell you that at the time you so generously mentored me, Jan, I’m so happy this panel has given me the opportunity to tell you now. [End Page 3]
Krentz, Jayne Ann, ed. Dangerous Men and Adventurous Women: Romance Writers on the Appeal of the Romance. 1992. Reprint, New York: Harper Paperbacks, 1996. Print.
Radway, Janice. Reading the Romance: Women, Patriarchy, and Popular Literature. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 1991. Print. [End Page 4]
At the annual meeting of the Popular Culture Association/American Culture Association (April 16-18, 2014, Chicago), scholars of English, cultural studies, fandom, religious studies, and other disciplines gathered to mark the thirtieth anniversary of Janice Radway’s Reading the Romance: Women, Patriarchy, and Popular Literature. Around the world, this ethnographic study of the romance readers of “Smithton,” a small city in the American Midwest, has become a touchstone for the study of all forms of popular culture—or, rather, of how forms of popular culture are used and, sometimes, transformed by their audiences. Yet as An Goris observed at the 2010 IASPR conference in Brussels, Radway’s work has also been controversial, and its reception within the field of popular romance studies has sometimes been marked by “harsh and even unforgiving critiques” which amount to a form of “Ritual Matricide.”
As co-chairs of the PCA Romance area, Goris and I hoped to advance the conversation about Radway’s work by bringing together senior faculty, junior faculty, and graduate students to talk about the book, its reception, and its continuing importance, both in the academy and outside of it. We invited the author herself to join us, and she very graciously accepted our invitation. At the last minute, a death in the family kept her from attending—but the packed rooms at both PCA roundtables remained packed even after her absence was announced, a tribute to the lasting and expansive significance of this study.
Because these were roundtable sessions, much of the time was devoted to conversation. The pieces that follow cannot capture that lively debate, but they do hint at its parameters and crucial themes. We begin with a personal tribute to Radway as mentor, as well as scholar, by Deborah Chappel Traylor, a student at Duke in the late 1980s whose dissertation American Romances: Narratives of Culture and Identity was co-directed by Radway and Jane Tomkins. Lynn S. Neal, author of a more recent ethnographic study of romance readers, Romancing God: Evangelical Women and Inspirational Fiction, encountered Radway’s work in the 1990s. As she explains in her remarks, she found in it a “scholarly model” for taking seriously the ways that ordinary people create “religious meaning through popular culture forms.” This model has not, in Neal’s experience, had the kind of transformative impact in religious studies that it has elsewhere—as, for example, in fan studies, the discipline of our third contributor, Katherine Larsen. A “spy in the house of [End Page 1] love,” Larsen addresses the impact of Reading the Romance on her discipline and on how she thinks about issues of shame and the complex self-positioning involved in contemporary “aca-fandom.”
Several of the roundtable speakers addressed the differences between the historical moment of Reading the Romance and our own. Jessica Matthews, our fourth contributor, explores the differences between the romance community Radway describes in Smithton in the early 1980s and the networked, interactive communities of romance readers, authors, bloggers, and scholars she herself studies. The challenge of abundance haunts her, as do enduring issues of ethics. What haunts our fifth participant, Heather Schell, are the “residual effects of the distrust and acrimony of the 1980s and ‘90s,” a time when “my scholar heroines,” Radway and Tania Modleski, were “tarred as villains by some popular romance novelists and scholars.” In “Love’s Laborer’s Lost” Schell explores some of the reasons for that anger, and also some of the stages in the ongoing reconciliation, not just between authors and scholars, but between generations in the scholarly community.
Our last three pieces, by our youngest participants, show the field of popular romance studies moving beyond this moment of intergenerational acrimony. In “From Reading the Romance to Grappling with Genre,” freshly-minted Kent State professor Stephanie Moody outlines how Radway’s account of the mostly solitary practice of romance reading in Smithton thirty years ago has shaped her own research into contemporary “romance genre participation”: the array of “digital, social, and literate practices” that romance readers now engage in, both on and off-line. Katie Morrissey, a “queer feminist” and a “lifelong romance reader,” encountered Reading the Romance first and foremost as a methodological toolkit: an early attempt to break down the boundaries between texts and their reading contexts. Her own dissertation work builds on that methodology, but refuses to isolate romance narratives in popular fiction from the broader discourse of romance that that we are “always already a part of,” both in the media and in lived experience. Finally, current Ph.D. candidate Mallory Jagodzinski—born after Reading the Romance was published, as she pointed out to groans and applause at the PCA roundtable—laments how excerpts of Radway’s study have come to stand for the book as a whole, leaving the readers and novels discussed in Reading the Romance to stand for the genre and its audience, but she doesn’t blame the author for this problem. Quite the contrary: as she studies the critical conversations underway within the online romance reader community—some of them sharply critical, and politically sophisticated—she sees them as the natural continuation of debates that Reading the Romance helped to spark three decades ago.
 For the full text of Goris’s remarks, which came in response to the conference keynote by Pamela Regis, see her article “Matricide in Romance Scholarship,” Journal of Popular Romance Studies 2.1 (2011). [End Page 2]
“Matricide in Romance Scholarship? Response to Pamela Regis’ Keynote Address at the Second Annual Conference of the International Association for the Study of Popular Romance” by An Goris
“What do Critics Owe the Romance?”, one of three keynote lectures at the 2010 IASPR conference, is a strong and much-welcome contribution to the development of a meta-perspective on the practice of popular romance criticism. Such self-reflexive, meta-critical accounts of the scholarly study of popular romance fiction are still rather rare. Indeed, although the field of popular romance studies is currently booming, there are relatively few discussions of the state of the art of popular romance criticism which thoroughly consider the scholarly and conceptual origins and histories of this rapidly developing field. Moreover, the few meta-critical reviews that do exist have such a wide-ranging group of studies to cover that they rarely manage to move beyond an enumerative overview of the different scholarly claims that have been made regarding the popular romance novel. With “What Do Critics Owe the Romance?” Pamela Regis does precisely this: she looks beyond the enumerative overview that merely establishes and describes differences between different studies and starts to consider both how and why such differences occur. This brief response to Regis’ endeavour argues that while her meta-critical efforts are overall strongly commendable and insightfully identify and elaborate upon some of the key challenges of romance scholarship, Regis’ overall disregard for the historical and theoretical frameworks in which other scholars work could be considered problematic.
In order to get a grip on some of the dynamics that underlie the diverging interpretations of popular romance novels put forth in different scholarly studies of the genre, Regis adopts as a methodological approach the rhetorical analysis of literary criticism as texts constituting a discourse community. This approach allows her first to establish that the critical community of popular romance scholars shares a set of values, and second to analyse how the critics’ different positioning of the object of study (the contemporary popular romance novel) in relation to these shared values informs the rather different findings, interpretations, claims, and conclusions formulated by each of them. By emphasizing the notion that all romance scholars are essentially answering the same, community-imposed question—namely, are popular romance novels complex?—Regis draws attention to a core issue that all romance critics have in common, regardless of their many different approaches, frameworks, and objectives. Each act of criticism, Regis’ analysis makes irrefutably clear, requires the scholar to take up a position in relation to the object of study—requires, that is, a basic conceptualisation of the romance novel. It is in this process of conceptualising the romance novel, Regis essentially argues, that one of the core explanations can be found for critics’ rather differing takes on the same genre.
One of the most important elements of Regis’ discussion is her eloquent articulation and clarification of one of the basic methodological issues that has haunted the critical community of romance scholars since its inception: the methodologically sound selection of study-texts. As Regis implies, popular romance criticism has a somewhat problematic reputation in this regard: many older studies—like the ones by Ann Snitow, Tania Modleski, and Janice Radway—make quite general claims about the entire genre of “the” popular romance novel despite being based on rather small and/or undiversified corpi. As Regis points out, these methodologically problematic overgeneralisations are often based on a too simplistic conceptualisation of the romance text and reveal that these scholars tend to underestimate or overlook the complexity of the popular romance genre.
However, Regis’ critique of these older critics, correct as it may be, fails to recognise the historicity of these studies—that is, it does not sufficiently take into account the historically and conceptually vastly different context in which these early scholars of the genre were working in comparison to their present day counterparts. Indeed, when these early critics started conducting their at-that-time highly innovative, groundbreaking studies, they were facing somewhat different conditions than we are today. Scholars like Janice Radway, Kay Mussell, and Tania Modleski, who were operating in a context in which hardly any previous scholarship on the genre existed, were taking on a huge and virtually unexplored body of literature that was, nonetheless, surrounded by very strong cultural associations of sameness and simplicity. Negotiating these circumstances, these foundational scholars indeed made too general claims on the basis of too small and undiversified corpi, but the knowledge needed to correct them was simply not accessible to them in the academic context in which they were situated. While Regis then indeed identifies a problematic aspect of these older studies, in now evaluating these methodological errors a consideration of the original historical contexts in which these studies took place—the virtual inexistence of any scholarly knowledge about the popular romance genre and the nearly complete lack of a scholarly tradition or exemplary previous study to guide the way—might further elucidate part of the underlying causes of this methodological problematic.
Whereas the methodological flaws of excessive overgeneralisation can then be, to an extent, if not excused at least explained with regard to the work of the earliest generation of popular romance scholars, this is a different matter today. As the field is moving from the foundational discussion of generalities to a more mature discussion of specifics, the need for a well-considered methodology in the selection of texts as well as in the manner in which the texts are analysed becomes urgent. The field’s genealogical development from studying the popular romance genre’s general properties to focussing on more specific and particular aspects of (subgroups within) the genre is currently ongoing and can be observed in numerous recent works of romance scholarship. It is visible in Regis’ own work, particularly in her much-cited A Natural History of the Popular Romance Novel—perhaps the most influential study of the genre published in the last decade—in which the author devotes two sections to a general discussion of the romance genre and then moves on to a thorough analysis of individual romance authors and novels. Other instances of such recent, more narrowly focussed scholarly discussions of popular romance abound; think for example of recent scholarly work on geographical subgroups of the genre (e.g. Juliet Flesch’s excellent study of Australian romance novels), on particular subgenres (e.g. Lisa Fletcher’s magisterial analysis of historical romance novels), on particular publishers (e.g. Paul Grescoe’s study of Harlequin and Joseph McAleer’s and jay Dixon’s studies of Mills & Boon), on individual authors (e.g. Sarah Frantz’s work on Suzanne Brockman [2008; 2010] and J.R. Ward and my own doctoral dissertation on Nora Roberts) or even individual novels (e.g. Eric Selinger’s sophisticated discussion of Laura Kinsale’s Flowers From the Storm). While such studies use more self-evident and coherent principles of corpus selection, it remains methodologically crucial to adopt a constant and unwavering vigilance for the actual representativeness of the particular with regard to the whole for which it is envisioned to stand. This methodological concern is all the more important in popular romance studies because both the (early) traditions of this developing field and the cultural stereotypes that stubbornly continue to surround its main object of study tend to obscure the diversity and complexity of the genre’s cultural reality that these studies aim to unlock.
Whereas Regis’ concern for the methodologically sound selection of study texts in the study of popular romance novels is very commendable, there are other aspects of her account that are perhaps more problematic, though not less intriguing. One of these elements is the scholar’s acknowledged attempt to gloss over or look beyond differences in theoretical approach or conceptual framework between the studies she critically discusses. That is, although Regis herself advocates “theoretical self-awareness [ . . . ] in any critical endeavour,” she proceeds to compare these critical endeavours without much consideration for their different theoretical and conceptual frameworks. Although this approach is inspired by the findings of the rhetorical studies that form the methodological basis of Regis’ argument, this does not change the fact that the risk of ignoring theoretical positions is that one remains blind to the impact of one’s own theoretical position. This position is relevant to Regis’ meta-critical discussion because it plays a role in shaping her critique and evaluation of other scholars’ acts of romance criticism.
Regis’ own theoretical position fundamentally influences, for example, her evaluative discussion of Janice Radway’s classic Reading the Romance, which is, apart from Regis’ own work, perhaps the best-known and most influential popular romance study to date. Regis’ approach to the study of popular romance is one which she herself characterises in A Natural History as “a traditional literary historical approach” (112) in which the primary site of interest is the text and the secondary site of interest the broader historical and socio-cultural context in which the text figures. Following this approach, Regis defines the genre and traces its history on the basis of textual and narrative features—an impressive endeavour that includes the identification of the now famous eight essential narrative elements which, according to Regis, define the romance novel. Although Regis convincingly argues that the concrete textual embodiments of these eight narrative elements undergo multiple diachronic and synchronic changes in response to wider historical changes, her core position is nonetheless that the romance novel—as literature—is defined by its narrative (that is textual) properties. Underlying this approach is a conceptualisation of romance novels as literature and of literature as something that is primarily and pervasively textual.
While this is of course a perfectly legitimate, interesting, and insightful approach to the study of the popular romance novel—indeed, Regis’ definition of the romance novel is often cited in scholarly and other discussions of the genre—like any other approach it is one which highlights certain aspects and disregards others. For example, Regis pays little considered critical attention to such elements as the materiality of the text (its peritext, that is its physical properties as not only an aesthetic form but also a material object in the world), the reader (that fascinating figure that seemed to endlessly intrigue but essentially elude a scholar like Radway), and the institutions fundamentally shaping both the production and reception of these novels. It is, however, towards these aspects of the genre, which Regis’ approach conceptually obscures, that many scholars, including Janice Radway, have directed most of their critical effort. Radway, who carries out an ethnographic study of romance readers, is, unlike Regis, not primarily focussed on the romance novel’s textual properties, but in the reader’s use and interpretation of this text. While Radway does indeed, as Regis points out, seem to hold a rather simplistic conceptualisation of the romance text, this conceptualisation might in part stem from the fact that Radways’ main conceptual interest is not in the romance text as such—as is Regis’—but in the popular romance novel as a strongly gendered socio-cultural phenomenon.
Radway herself demonstrates a recognition of the important difference between these two approaches when, in the conclusion to the 1984 edition of Reading the Romance, she notes the importance of “analytically distinguishing between the meaning of the act [of reading romance novels] and the meaning of the text as read” (210). The text as such—Regis’ primary site of interest—is of less importance to Radway than the ways in which the text is used by its readers, which, Radway’s account continuously indicates, are highly complex. The “patient unravelling, translating, decoding, interpretation, analyzing” (Wilder 105) that the topos of complexity implies is then performed by Radway not in her discussion of the romance text, but in her discussion of the romance reader, the process of reception and the material production of the text read. If we (re)consider the question of complexity to not pertain solely to textual properties, but to the romance novel as a cultural phenomenon, Radway answers it with a resounding affirmative. The fact that Regis’ overlooks this kind of complexity in her otherwise impressive and articulate discussion stems, it seems to me, from her own conceptual position which obscures or disregards non-textual issues. This brief example then indicates that Regis’ own theoretical position is relevant to her meta-critical discussion and, more generally, that in such meta-critical endeavours an awareness of theoretical positions and conceptual frameworks is important.
On the whole it seems to me Regis’ discussion can be interpreted as an example of a broader developmental dynamic that is currently taking place in the field of popular romance studies. As the field matures the natural tendency arises to look back at its foundations and, in an attempt to distinguish the present from those past origins, to identify, analyse, and even emphasise certain problematic aspects of older popular romance studies. Such endeavours could be considered as figurative instances of ritual matricide in which scholars like Radway, Modleski, and Mussel function as the figurative mothers of the field who, in order to create the possibility for the field to grow up, develop, and mature, have to be figuratively “killed”—taken away, put aside, moved beyond. This process is a natural mechanism of evolution and growth and one which on the whole has positive effects; as is apparent in Regis’ discussion, it enables a much-needed identification and analysis of problems and errors in earlier studies. This is itself a necessary condition for present and future studies and scholars to improve in these regards and avoid making the same mistakes as their predecessors. Although critical accounts such as the one by Pamela Regis can then be placed within a positive broader dynamic that stimulates the further development, maturation, and improvement of the field, prudence is called for in such endeavours because they run the risk of overstating or exaggerating the problematic aspects of older studies. Indeed it seems to me that in particular Janice Radway’s Reading the Romance, perhaps because of its fame and enduring identification with popular romance studies (certainly in the eyes of scholars outside the field), is regularly subjected to quite harsh and even unforgiving critiques which seem to create and perpetuate a stereotypical image and too simplistic interpretation of this complex and theoretically sophisticated study. In this regard Regis’ present meta-critical account is mainly to be praised, since it moves beyond the stereotypical interpretations of past studies and presents a thorough and well-considered critical discussion.
This brief response to Pamela Regis’ meta-critical discussion of popular romance scholarship has pointed out some of what I consider to be the account’s strongest and weakest points. While I endorse Regis’ identification of the methodological problem of overgeneralisation as one of the main challenges that the field of popular romance studies faces, I also critique her account for being too ahistorical and undertheorised. I briefly attempt to demonstrate the potential problems of such a disregard for theoretical positions in meta-critical discussions. In this context I must acknowledge that, much as Pamela Regis’ theoretical position influences her meta-critical discussion, my own critique of her paper is shaped by my position as a scholar inspired by post-structuralism. Instead of considering the clashing of such theoretical perspectives as problematic, it is my firm belief that if we manage to continue to achieve meetings of and conversations between these, and many other, critical and theoretical perspectives—as we did at the 2010 IASPR conference—the future of popular romance studies look brighter than ever before.
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Flesch, Juliet. From Australia with Love: A History of Modern Australian Popular Romance Novels. Fremantle, W.A.: Curtin University Books, 2004. Print.
Fletcher, Lisa. Historical Romance Fiction: Heterosexuality and Performativity. Hampshire: Ashgate, 2008. Print.
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Selinger, Eric. “Milton, Cavell, Kinsale: Thinking Through Flowers from the Storm.” Popular Culture Association / American Culture Association National Conference. New Orleans, April 2009. Address.
Snitow, Ann Barr. “Mass Market Romance: Pornography for Women is Different.” Radical History Review 20 (1979): 141-61. Rpt. in Women and Romance: A Reader. Ed. Susan Ostrov Weisser. New York: NYU Press, 2001. 307-22. Print.
Wilder, Laura. “‘The Rhetoric of Literary Criticism’ Revisited: Mistaken Critics, Complex Contexts, and Social Justice.” Written Communication 22.1 (2005): 76-119. Print.
 Amongst the most important state of the art accounts of romance criticism are discussions by Juliet Flesch (11-23), Pamela Regis (3-7), Kay Mussell (6-13) and Sally Goade (1-5).
 Both Juliet Flesch and Kay Mussell provide somewhat similar meta-critical considerations in their above mentioned overviews of romance criticism, though neither of these accounts is as elaborate as Regis’ present one.
 Mussell’s study (1984), which is based on a corpus of over eighty romance novels, is somewhat of an exception in this regard.