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Posts Tagged ‘Reading the Romance’

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]



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]


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]


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]


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]


Radway Roundtable Remarks
by Katherine Larsen

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]

 Works Cited

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]


The Politics of Popular Romance Studies
by Lynn S. Neal

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]


To My Mentor, Jan Radway, With Love
by Deborah Chappel Traylor

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]

Works Cited

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]


Reading the Romance: A Thirtieth Anniversary Roundtable, Editor’s Introduction
by Eric Selinger

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.”[1]

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.

[1] 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]


“The Heroine as Reader, the Reader as Heroine: Jennifer Crusie’s Welcome to Temptation” by Kate Moore and Eric Murphy Selinger

In July, 2011, an opinion piece in the “consumer commentary” of the British Journal of Family Planning, Reproduction, and Health Care sparked a brief flurry of worry and debate on both sides of the Atlantic about the pernicious effects that reading popular romance fiction might have on women’s contraceptive choices. On inspection, the essay turned out to have no solid basis in research or data; indeed, although its author, Susan Quilliam, was the author of several self-help books, she had no medical or academic expertise of any kind.[1] The piece and its reception, however, remind us of the persistence of the idea that reading romantic fantasy misleads women as to the nature of their circumstances and condition in life. It makes of the female reader, in short, a “female Quixote” (Lennox, 1752), a Catherine Moreland (Austen, 1818), or an Emma Bovary (Flaubert, 1856).

In the 1980s, this concern was central to the early feminist studies of popular romance fiction, even among scholars who considered themselves to be defending both the genre and its readers. Tania Modleski’s early essay “The Disappearing Act: A Study of Harlequin Romances,” for example, suggests that in immersing themselves in “the wonderful world of Harlequin Romances” women find themselves rewarded for the same kind of “self-subversion,” as opposed to self-advocacy, that haunts them in the world outside these novels (Modleski 435). Janice Radway, a few years later, was equally wary. “Although in restoring a woman’s depleted sense of self romance reading may constitute tacit recognition that the current arrangement of the sexes is not ideal for her emotional well-being,” she observes in Reading the Romance, “it does nothing to alter a woman’s social situation, itself very likely characterized by those dissatisfying patterns” (212). Despite the fact that the romance readers she interviews explicitly tell her otherwise (see, for example, 100-102), Radway remains skeptical of their claims that reading romance changes their lives for the better, and she hypothesizes instead that reading the romance causes readers to stay trapped in unhappy or chafing personal circumstances. “This activity,” she writes, “may very well obviate the need or desire to demand satisfaction in the real world because it can be so successfully met in fantasy” (212, emphasis mine).

When romance authors begin to write their own critical essays on the genre in the 1990s, they often take up the question of romance’s effect on its readers. You can find accounts of the genre as heartening, empowering, or leading to various forms of psychological health in many of the essays gathered in Jayne Ann Krentz’s anthology Dangerous Men, Adventurous Women (1992), notably those by Laura Kinsale, Linda Barlow, Susan Elizabeth Phillips, Mary Jo Putney, Diana Palmer, Kathleen Gilles Seidel, and Krentz herself. The claims made by these authors frequently echo those made by the readers Radway interviews (but does not quite believe); likewise, several of these authors take on Radway, Modleski, Kay Mussell, and other scholars by name, quoting from their work and defining their own views against those of the academics. Clearly, then, by the start of the 1990s, academic accounts of popular romance were well known within, and contested by, the romance community. By the middle of the decade, when Jennifer Crusie began to study, write, and write about popular romance, those accounts and debates might well form a part of an aspiring romance novelist’s education.

Several of Crusie’s early category romances, including Anyone But You (1996) and The Cinderella Deal (1996) can profitably be read in dialogue with first-wave popular romance criticism, serving as implicit defenses of popular romance fiction and the act of reading it. Likewise, many of Crusie’s essays, especially those published in 1997-1998, draw on her own life experience and her graduate training in literary studies as they defend the genre against charges from both the patriarchal right and the radical-feminist left. Perhaps her most accomplished work in this vein, however, is found in the New York Times bestseller Welcome to Temptation (2000). In this novel, Crusie implicitly confronts flawed popular and critical conceptions of the romance genre, including the notion that romance is an undemanding and addictive form of fantasy that misleads women readers about their actual lives. Without simply dismissing what is problematic in our relationship with the fictions we enjoy, Crusie offers a nuanced argument for the liberating power of reading and writing the romance. Over the course of the novel, Sophie Dempsey, Crusie’s protagonist and a figure for the reader and writer of romance, becomes a reader of her own self. Her romantic relationship with the novel’s hero, mayor Phineas “Phin” Tucker, encourages her to have fantasies that become a means of reading what lies inside her and of reading the world of things and people around her. Crusie argues through Sophie that active participation in imaginative experience can connect a woman more fully to herself and to others, that it empowers her to transform her life and the life of the community around her, and, further, that whether this possibility is realized depends on the quality of responsiveness to experience in the reader—either a real experience or a fictional one—and not at all on the subject matter of the experience, whether it is a real-life relationship or a popular romance.

Fantasy, Vanity, Reality

Crusie, Radway, and ordinary readers agree that a boundary exists between “real life,” “the world [we] actually inhabit,” “the world of actual social relations,” and “the separate, free realm of the imaginary” (Radway 55, 60, 117). According to the critics of romance, however, from 18th century moralists to Susan Quilliam, confusion between the two realms seems to be the inevitable effect of the genre, at least on women readers. Crusie does not deny that individuals can confuse fantasy and reality, but rather suggests that confusion about boundaries between the two realms is not specific to women or to one form of fantasy, the romance, but rather arises in the vanity and egocentrism of the person experiencing the fantasy. To make her case, Crusie opens the novel by locating her heroine’s imaginative experience as a reader and writer in the larger context of accepted imaginative experience in American popular culture. She then juxtaposes her heroine’s fantasy experience against the experiences of a cast of secondary characters, both male and female, whose participation in popularly accepted forms of fantasy, those not subject to critical derision for association with women, leads them into moral error.

When Crusie’s heroine Sophie Dempsey arrives at the edge of the title’s small Ohio town, she expects problems to appear “like bats, dive-bombing them from out of nowhere” (2). She is quoting a film, as Crusie heroines often do (in this case, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas), and, in the process, announcing her awareness that things might not be as they seem. Sophie’s experiences as a filmgoer confirm what she already knows from her grim adolescence as the daughter of an itinerant, small-time con artist: small towns are “dangerous” (2). Behind the blue skies, waving maple trees, and fluffy clouds, Sophie instinctively looks for the Bates Hotel, the bats, and the host who offers fava beans and Chianti. Where Sophie’s younger sister, Amy, sees “Pleasantville,” Sophie sees “Amityville.” She finds the “deserted tree-lined road before them” leading to Temptation “ominous” (3). “A muddy river stream[s] sullenly under a gunmetal bridge at the bottom of the hill,” the houses are “smug,” and a “flesh-colored,” “bullet shaped,” and “aggressively phallic” water tower dominates the landscape, each detail suggesting that this town embodies a world overshadowed by masculine power (4).

In these first perceptions of Temptation, in which Sophie relies on her experience of popular films, she does appear to be an anxious mis-reader of her environment, much like Jane Austen’s naïve heroine Catherine Moreland in Northanger Abbey. Yet in a significant twist, the fantasies from which Sophie derives her first flawed reading of the town of Temptation are not associated with women or with romance, even of the gothic variety. Furthermore, from the moment Sophie arrives in Temptation, she finds herself surrounded by other characters immersed in fantasies, as though—in this novel, at least—such immersion were simply part of the human condition, not an isolated or unusual case. Crusie gives each of these self-absorbed individuals a different and commonly accepted form of fantasy experience. Few critics of popular culture would condemn high school plays, local repertory theater productions, small-market newscasts, or stagy wedding videos as potentially harmful; instead critics assume participants in these activities can navigate between their on-stage experience and ordinary life and benefit from their involvement in imaginative acts. Yet each of the supporting characters turns out to be so deeply immersed in an apparently innocuous fantasy that he or she grossly misreads his or her familiar environment and relationships with others. Clearly, then, it is not a specific genre of imaginative experience that misleads or deludes its participants, nor is it women in general as participants in fantasy who feel its potentially harmful effects. Rather, as Crusie’s narrative demonstrates, the flaw lies in the characters themselves.

Consider, for example, the overlapping fates of Frank and Georgia Lutz and actress and sometime porn-star Clea Whipple, all of whom grew up (unlike Sophie) in the Ohio town of Temptation. Before the novel begins, Clea and Frank, who played opposite each other in a high school production of The Taming of the Shrew, pretended, for the show, to be in love. In an adolescent failure to distinguish fantasy from reality, they went on to have sex (very disappointing sex, at least for Clea), and this in turn precipitated Frank’s hasty marriage to a jealous Georgia, who faked a pregnancy to trap him and spite her rival.

At the start of the novel, Clea has returned to Temptation to make a video that will, she hopes, restart her film career. The chance to see Frank again immediately stimulates her capacity for fantasy. Before they meet, he is “Frank the football star, Frank the high-school-theater leading man; Frank the wealthy developer; Frank the generally magnificent” (23). Alas, although he has continued to play that high-school leading man, ever more inappropriately cast as a youthful hero, the real-life adult Frank turns out to be “pudgy, badly dressed, and annoying” (36). When we first encounter him in the novel, he is eagerly waiting to play the lead in the Temptation production of Carousel, opposite his wife, Georgia, the “Coppertone Toad,” (54) who imagines that with an application of suntan lotion she and her son’s twenty year old girlfriend can be mistaken for sisters. Clea promptly loses interest in the actual Frank, and instead casts Frank’s twenty-year old son Rob as the leading man of her current fantasy and would-be comeback film.

Crusie casts a cool, appraising eye on all of these characters. The Lutzes don’t come off well: as they continue to “play” the youthful leads, both husband and wife lose their dignity in vanity, and they pay for their lack of self-awareness in a loveless marriage that was always, after all, based on a lie (Georgia’s faked pregnancy). Clea, though, comes off worse. Abandoning her fantasy of a reunion with Frank, she concocts a new one, a sort of narcissistic caricature of a woman-empowering romance novel plot. It is, she explains, “a great story, about me coming home to meet my old high-school lover and being disillusioned, and then meeting his son, who seduces me and sets me free of my past, and I drive off into the sunset with him, getting everything I ever wanted” (177, italics are mine). Although she describes this as “a real woman’s fantasy” (177), Clea’s plot could not be further from the fantasies enjoyed by Radway’s Smithton readers, who repeatedly emphasize their interest in the developing relationship between the hero and heroine, and not simply in the heroine’s individual triumph. When Clea acts out the fantasy she has scripted for herself, not only on film for Amy Dempsey’s camera, but in the “movie set” of a town, Temptation, seducing Rob and humiliating Frank and his wife Georgia, the ego-centrism of her fantasy-life proves to be entirely anti-romantic, undermining the Lutz’s marriage just as it undermined Clea’s own marriage to the callow and selfish anchorman Zane Black.

As the novel goes on, the Lutzes’ self-absorption gradually makes them objects of our pity. Clea’s, by contrast, becomes more and more morally disturbing; ultimately, she turns out to be capable of watching with “depraved indifference” (370) as her ex-husband Zane dies in front of her. The most pernicious form of fantasy-entrapment in the novel, however—even worse than Clea’s, because it threatens to infect a whole community, and it leads to an actual murder attempt—belongs to the Garveys, Stephen and Virginia, a couple who cast themselves as the moral “pillars” of Temptation, and are seen as such by Sophie (see 6, 7, 8, and 27).

The Garveys’ initial act in the novel is a face-saving fiction, a lie about which of them was driving the beige Cadillac that hits Sophie and Amy’s car. We do not learn this right away, however—instead, we learn that the Garveys are publicly and consistently contemptuous of fiction. They are not readers, film fans, or theater-goers, and they are keen on censorship, especially when it comes to anything sexual. Not simply hypocrites, they are profoundly self-deceiving, so caught up in lies about their own morality and importance to the community that they cannot distinguish the real version of events from their subjective version. Their lack of experience with imaginative fiction renders them unable to judge character effectively. (Virginia, for instance, simply admires celebrity; she has no capacity to judge the character of either Zane or Clea.) A pervasive and unconscious subjectivity shapes their interactions with others, which renders them bad citizens, bad neighbors, and bad parents.

Virginia’s version of events, in particular, turns out to be so detached from reality that it borders on the criminally insane. A former store clerk, Virginia married up in marrying Stephen, the son of one of the town’s two most politically powerful families. (The other, even more important, is the Tuckers.) For over twenty years, she has devoted herself to the fantasy that her daughter, Rachel, will marry the town’s mayor, Phin Tucker: a marriage that would end the generations-old, quasi-dynastic rivalry between the two families and would certify Virginia’s position in the upper circles of Temptation society. Utterly incapable of seeing herself as others see her, Virginia perceives others, including her daughter, as projections of her own wishes and resentments. She offers, in effect, a nightmare version of the maternal “nurturance” which Radway argues romance readers seek from romance novels and specifically from romance heroes (Radway 137), and Virginia’s daughter Rachel does everything she can to escape her mother and find good sex and independence, not nurturance, in a relationship with the deliciously non-heroic “Eeyore of LA,” porn producer Leo Kingsley (182).

Clea, the Lutzes, Virginia and Stephen: each of these supporting characters, whether female and male, has developed a controlling fantasy that inflates the self and distorts his or her relations with others.[2] Without ever having read a popular romance, each fails to distinguish between a fantasy world and the real one. In contrast to those misperceiving characters, Crusie’s protagonist, Sophie, is an exemplar of how a woman’s interaction with fiction can, over time, make her more perceptive of herself and her world. Without ever showing Sophie reading a romance novel (or any other kind of novel, for that matter) Crusie uses the novel’s heroine and her evolving relationship with Phin, its hero, to show how that devalued figure, the romance reader, can negotiate the difference between the fictional worlds she enters as she reads and the world of “actual social relations” (Radway, 60) that she returns to, and can change, when she is not reading.

Reading an Old-Fashioned Novel (or a Hero)

Before discussing Crusie’s heroine Sophie, let me briefly pause to note an account of women’s reading that is essentially contemporary with Radway and Modleski, yet quite contrasting in its conclusions. Published in 1982, just between Loving with a Vengeance (1981) and the first edition of Reading the Romance (1984), Rachel Brownstein’s Becoming a Heroine: Reading about Women in Novels offers an overlapping, but considerably more positive account of how a woman’s reading, however private an act it seems, can also be a way of interacting with the actual world. “Reading an old-fashioned novel,” she explains—that is, as opposed to a novel inspired by the “New Feminism” (24)—offers real-world benefits to readers, since it

makes a woman’s secret life public, valid, as more and less real as everything else. Recognizing the problems and the conventions of a woman-centered novel, the reader feels part of a community and a tradition of women who talk well about their lives and link them, by language, to larger subjects. Looking up from a novel about a girl’s settling on a husband and a destiny so as to assert higher moral and aesthetic laws and her own alliance with them, the reader can feel the weight of her woman’s life as serious, can see her own self as shapely and significant. (24)

Brownstein is not speaking of reading popular romance novels here, but her description of the plots and values of those “old-fashioned novels” makes it clear that they are in fact romance novels, at least according to Pamela Regis’s working definition of this genre from the 18th century to the present: “a work of prose fiction that describes the courtship and betrothal of one or more heroines” (14). In Brownstein’s account, then, the romance reader enters into a “reflective, observant life” that stands in sharp contrast to the unreflective, self-involved lives of Crusie’s flawed secondary characters. Reading, a sojourn in the free realm of the imaginary, leads to a wider and richer perception of the real—although “the real” turns out to be a complex, not entirely obvious thing. “Looking up from a novel,” in which a reader has encountered “talk” and “language” that links her life to that of others, the reader finds her life as “valid and as more and less real as everything else” (14). More and less, not more or less: a shift which suggests that the fabric of reality has its own elements of fantasy, of story, woven inextricably within it.

Brownstein’s account of the reading experience in a literary context may differ in tone from Radway’s less optimistic account of reading romance, but it squares remarkably well with the accounts given by Radway’s interview subjects, women who form a community in which they are able to discuss what Brownstein calls “the conventions of a woman-centered novel” (24) and connect their reading experience to their experience as wives, mothers, and friends. These Smithton readers might well have been on Crusie’s mind when she constructed Sophie, the heroine of Welcome to Temptation. Sophie’s alert consciousness may link her to the larger tradition of heroine-centered fiction, but like the Smithton readers described by Radway, Sophie is characterized first and foremost not by self-awareness, but rather by a profound (and profoundly gendered) sense of herself as a caregiver, a nurturer of others who is never nurtured in return. After the death of their mother in an automobile accident, Sophie mothers and nurtures her sister Amy and her younger brother Davy, and she continues to do so in a self-abnegating way even after they are all adults. Early in the novel, when asked by Amy to articulate her own desires, she thinks to herself that she doesn’t really have any, outside of caring for her family. “When she thought about it, it was sad,” Crusie writes. “Thirty two years old, and she had no idea what she wanted from life” (68).

At the opposite extreme from characters like Clea and Virginia Garvey, who are unable to see reality through the lens of their fantasies, Sophie sees only reality. Or, at least, she sees a “version” of it: one in which, she tells Phin, “you have to be careful all the time and you get nothing for free” (95). In the conversation leading up to her first sexual encounter with Phin, Sophie might be momentarily distracted by the effects of rum and diet coke and the “romantic” ambience of moonlight and a flowing river—the word “romantic” comes up a half-dozen times in the scene—but she is quick to notice a “fish stink” that spoils the mood. “Reality,” she calls it, “making its usual appearance just when she was getting somewhere” (94).

Sophie insists that her fish-stink “version of reality” is “empowering” (94): a term that she seems to have derived from pop culture representations of feminism. “‘I’ve read The Second Sex. I’ve read The Cinderella Complex. I’m responsible for my own orgasm,’” she tells Phin, quoting the movie Tootsie (93). Since she also quotes early and often from Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, The Manchurian Candidate, Psycho, and Silence of the Lambs, however, we might well conclude that her wary realism stems from something else: a determination not to base real-world actions on a controlling fantasy, of whatever sort, the way that characters in these four movies do. (Trapped in altered psychic states, these characters are extreme versions of the deluded characters who surround Sophie in Temptation.) This determination, however, has not allowed Sophie to escape a conventionally female destiny. As the novel begins, she is in a relationship with a man who presumes to interpret her to herself—named Brandon, like the hero of Kathleen Woodiwiss’s The Flame and the Flower, he is Sophie’s former therapist—she’s sexually repressed; and she’s responsible for the care of younger, though adult, siblings. Sophie’s resistance to fantasy in general, and especially to fantasies about anything “romantic,” has enabled her to pride herself on being self-sufficient, but it has not provided her any affirmation that her “secret life,” in Brownstein’s terms, is “valid,” “real,” “serious,” “shapely,” or “significant” (24). In fact, that “secret life” has grown so secret, she hardly knows it’s there.

For Sophie to get to a new version of reality, then, she must begin by allowing herself to entertain fantasies. Unlike Catherine Moreland, Emma Bovary, or a Smithton reader, Sophie has no pile of romances by her bed to let her escape into a fascinating (or dangerous) fantasy life, nor does she have a shelf of “old-fashioned” literary or domestic fiction, of the kind extolled by Brownstein. Her access to fantasy, to fiction, to reading as an affirming and self-transforming act, comes, instead, through Phin. Phin is connected with reading in multiple ways. As they drive into town, Sophie and Amy first encounter him as a text to be read: his name appears in full on a small sign “in antique green” that says “Phineas T. Tucker” (3). The rusting sign leads Amy to speculate that “Phineas T. must be older than God;” and to imagine that “he hasn’t had sex since the bicentennial,” immediately evoking associations of Rotary Club meetings, expanding waistlines, and old boy networks. When they meet in person for the first time, Phin turns out instead to have “broad shoulders, mirrored sunglasses, and no smile,” a look that sends “every instinct [Sophie] ha[s] into overdrive” (25), especially her instincts for perception and interpretation. Uniting her experience of film with her actual history of living in a series of small towns, Sophie reads Phin as the embodiment of “every glossy frat boy in every nerd movie ever made, every popular town boy who’d ever looked right through her in high school, every rotten rich kid who had belonged where she hadn’t” (25). She may not be reading him like a book, but she views him like a movie, and even hears “ominous music on the soundtrack in her head” (25).

Sophie’s initial “reading” of Phin connects him simultaneously to men she has previously encountered and to male characters in movies she has seen—movies in which women like her are not the romantic leads. This reading places them on opposite sides of any number of binary oppositions: insider and outsider; male and female; established authority and resistance to it; college educated and under-educated; upper class and no class. (Sophie may arguably have achieved middle-class status as an adult, but her upbringing as a drifter haunts her, as when she describes Phin as “starring in The Philadelphia Story,” while “she looked like an extra from The Grapes of Wrath” [28].) To the experienced romance reader, of course, these tensions merely set the stage for a familiar plot structure: one in which a hero who is, as Radway says, “wealthy” or “aristocratic,” an “active and successful participant in some major public endeavor” (130) falls for and elevates, through marriage, a poor but honest heroine.

To our surprise, then, as well as Sophie’s, both her and our initial “readings” of Phin turn out to be incorrect, or at least incomplete. This small-town aristocrat finds his position at the top of the patriarchal pyramid in Temptation to be “mind-numbing” (14), and as he presides over a tedious town council meeting in the opening chapter, he turns out to be stuck between the “sepia-toned” photos of past Tucker mayors and the narrow, repetitive prospects for his future (13). (The family campaign motto, trotted out for endless campaigns, haunts Phin: “Tucker for Mayor: More of the Same” [10].) His power, rooted in his family’s history, is exactly the sort of political, legal, and financial power that Radway says women “do not possess in a society dominated by men” (149), but this Volvo-driving, golf-playing, college-educated mayor of a small town, son of its most prominent family, emblem of male privilege in America, is no figure for the “autonomous masculinity” Radway sees in romance heroes, and still less for the contemptuous brutality Modleski observes in an older generation of heroes (Radway 148, Modleski 437). Far from displaying “male emotional reserve, independence, and even cruelty” (Radway, 158), Phin is consistently seen by the reader as living “in relation” with other people: colleagues, friends, and family. His ties with those around him, including his relationship with his young daughter, may be flawed by his own lack of self-fulfillment, but they are unmistakably loving, and as the novel begins, Phin is utterly at home with domesticity.

In fact, as we learn a bit later in the novel, if it weren’t for his sense of family duty (a sense he shares with Sophie), Phin would just as soon stop being mayor and retire to his second job as owner of the town bookstore, Tucker Books. Located in a “pale green Victorian” house, this store seems as “old-fashioned” as any domestic novel described by Brownstein, and Phin lives right above it, yet another link between him and the art of fiction (22). In fact, since Phin is the character who utters the novel’s title phrase—“’Hello, Sophie Dempsey,’ her worst nightmare said. ‘Welcome to Temptation’” (25)—we might say that as the novel begins, at least potentially, Sophie and Phin are not just its heroine and hero, but figures for the reader of this very romance and for this very romance text.

Trading Textual Strategies

With all of this textual and metatextual material in mind, let’s return to the novel’s initial sex scene, the scene where Sophie’s transformation begins. In this scene, we now notice, Phin offers sex to Sophie in the precisely the same way that the romance novel, in Radway’s account, seduces its female readers. In the critic’s view, romance fiction supplies the Smithton readers “with an important emotional release that is proscribed in daily life because the social role with which they identify themselves leaves little room for guiltless, self-interested pursuit of individual pleasure” (Radway 95-96). Phin, in turn, encourages Sophie to go for “pleasure” with “no guilt,” “no responsibility,” to leave her social role behind and “let somebody take care of you for a change,” to “be selfish” and lose herself temporarily in a (sexual) fantasy, proving herself to be—not prudent and nurturing—but “wild,” “reckless,” and “satisfied” (95-96).

We are not, however, finished with this seduction scene. Radway, after all, interprets romance fiction as merely “compensatory literature,” a temporary respite from the female reader’s “social role” that does not enable, and may even discourage, actual lasting change (95). Phin does more, introducing Sophie at once to sexual and textual pleasures. His sexual invitation to Sophie, for example, arises from a twist he gives to an old Appalachian song, the first “text” (aside from himself) that he brings to the story. The song’s lyric about a woman wandering the mountains in search of a new lover sounds at first like a lovely fantasy to Sophie. But when Phin reveals that Julie Ann, the heroine of the song, meets a bear in the woods and becomes a ghost, Sophie immediately rejects the “romance” of the song. The “bear” in those lovely woods is like the river’s “fish stink”—reality intruding on fantasy to destroy it. Phin, the bookstore owner, quickly shows Sophie the power that an experienced reader actually has over the text at hand. Without missing a beat, he rewrites the end of Julie Ann’s story, telling Sophie, “Okay, she’s not dead. The bear ate her, and she came her brains out” (93). Phin’s revision of the song shows Sophie two ways of being an active, creative reader. You can find yourself in a text as a character, as he spontaneously casts her as the heroine and himself as the bear, and you can even enter the text as an author, changing its “version of reality,” in this case, the ending, to make it less menacing and more enjoyable. (It’s notable that his punning revision of the song leaves the key verb unchanged: the bear “ate her” in both versions of the song, but what that phrase means is changed utterly.)

In direct contradiction to the argument that romance reading renders women passive and invisible, then, Crusie designs the interaction between her hero and heroine as a dynamic of liberation. In fact, these early scenes can be read as a step-by-step rewriting of those early academic worries about the effects of the genre. Where Modleski argues that reading Harlequin romances invites a woman “to obliterate the consciousness of the self as a physical presence” (435), for example, the first effect of Phin’s presence and the oral sex he offers is Sophie’s increased awareness of her body. She becomes more corporeally real to herself. She has been ignoring injuries and nervous habits. Now she feels “every muscle and nerve in her body celebrating” (98), and the process does not end here. In the scenes that follow, she also becomes more psychologically real to herself, more self-aware. As soon as the sexual “mindlessness” fades, she realizes that she has just “cheated” on Brandon, her ex-therapist, and she leaves Phin to take responsibility for her behavior by calling Brandon and confessing. In a comic twist, he responds like an academic romance critic responding to a romance reader, refusing to take her word for what has happened and interpreting her behavior in psycho-political terms. He first describes her behavior as “going for a little harmless excitement by necking with an authority figure” (102). He then further defines her actions, saying,

You’re rebelling against the oppressive social structure that’s made your family outcast, by corrupting its most powerful and popular adherent. And now you’re sending me a wake-up call—literally—that I’m not paying enough attention to you (102).

Compare Brandon’s interpretation to Radway’s claim that the romance reader identifies with the heroine when “she secures the attention and recognition of her culture’s most powerful and essential representative, a man” (84). Like a condescending scholar, he speaks with smug assurance that Sophie’s actions in relation to Phin can be explained in terms of her victimization at the hands of an “oppressive social structure” (102), and he refuses to believe that what has happened signals any real change in her.

Sophie, however, refuses to accept his interpretation. In a sign that her own transformation has begun, Sophie listens to her body’s message of satisfaction and refuses to be convinced by Brandon’s interpretation of her behavior. Not only does she insist that no interpretation can change the reality of her encounter with Phin, but she shows that she has learned some of Phin’s textual strategies. Brandon’s suggestion that they will soon get her “straightened out,” for example, leads Sophie to consider that she might choose to be “bent,” and she does not hesitate to identify specific sex acts, claiming them in frank, colloquial language. Far from confusing fantasy and reality, then, Sophie has gained perspective on her real situation. She is absolutely clear that her enjoyment of and satisfaction in her sexual encounter with Phin are bad signs for her relationship with Brandon, and as she acknowledges to Amy the nature of the encounter—“Phin was sort of a kinky fantasy, sex with a guy I don’t know, swept away in the dark by the river, all that stuff” (105)—she begins to realize Phin’s role as a key to discovering her “secret life,” in Brownstein’s phrase (24), not just as someone who has fantasies, but as the active author and reviser of them. She takes ownership of the encounter by “reliving the whole thing all over again, dwelling lavishly on the moments that were particularly perverse and unlike her, fixing the awkward parts. By the time she’d reviewed it a couple of times, it was so glossy, it could have been a hot scene in a movie” (106). The romance reader becomes romance writer; her mind “click[s] along, rewriting her night,” and she begins to type, coming to terms with her experience through creating a text.

Constructing a New “Version of Reality”

In her essay “A Story of Her Weaving: The Self-Authoring Heroines of Georgette Heyer’s Regency Romance,” Karin E. Westman tells us that heroines who trade in the “currencies in which men trade—money, sex, and wit” “succeed in authoring their own stories” (166). The realization that she can interpret, revise, and author her experience, using the medium she is most familiar with, surprises and empowers Sophie—a heroine named, Crusie has said, after Heyer’s heroine in The Grand Sophy[3]—and those around her notice a change. Clea and Amy, for example, read Sophie’s “script,” are surprised and impressed, and ask her to write more, eager to appropriate Sophie’s experience for their own purposes. Even the physical environment around her changes, at least in Sophie’s interpretive gaze. Earlier in the novel she metaphorically “reads” the wallpaper pattern of the farmhouse kitchen where she works as a set of “mutant cherries” (65; 110): reminders of her own humiliating loss of virginity to a town boy who used her for sex but discarded her as a person unworthy of his respect and affection. Once she has reshaped her experience with Phin into a text of her own making, Sophie realizes that she has “misread” the wallpaper based on her history as a victim and an outsider, and she recognizes that the print on the wallpaper is a faded set of apples, not cherries, the change in fruit suggesting a considerable change, however unconscious, in how she interprets her past.

Realistically, Crusie does not let a single exposure to fantasy to accomplish a complete transformation of her heroine. Such change does not happen overnight, nor does it happen in a vacuum. Amy and Clea may want more scenes, but Sophie doesn’t think she can write more, and within hours, a deliberately cruel and contemptuous comment from Clea’s husband, Zane, sets back Sophie’s brief progress toward self-realization. Zane’s claim that “Sophie couldn’t write for Sesame Street,” that “she’s so repressed, she’s sexless” (115), attacks her for usurping two of the male currencies to which Westman refers in her essay on Heyer: sex and authorship. When Sophie tries on her own to write a new scene based on penetrative intercourse (the “Phallic Variation,” she calls it), Zane’s “voice [keeps] interrupting her thoughts” (117), as though contesting her right to phallic authority. Her “two hours” of composition are “anguished,” and she erases the words on her screen six times because they are “stupid.” As she looks at the wall, “the cherries sneer back” at her. “Evidently they hadn’t gotten the good news they were apples” (118).

At this point in the novel, then, fantasy and authorship fail Sophie, leaving her unable to silence self-doubt and resist the patriarchal backlash embodied by Zane. Crusie helps us understand why they fail her through the novel’s second sex scene, Sophie and Phin’s first “Phallic Variation.” As they have sex, Sophie is unable to respond—indeed, she decides Zane is right about her, that she’s too “detached” or “prissy” or “straight” for “headbanging sex” (135). But the real reason for her lack of inspiration earlier, and lack of satisfaction in the act, lies in her motivations: ultimately, she’s “doing this to write a sex scene for a movie she [isn’t] even sure she want[s] to make” (135), not as a means of escape or self-discovery. Once again, Phin-the-text comes to her aid. Unfazed by her lack of response, he asks her what her fantasies are when she masturbates. Though she won’t answer as he reels off possibilities, he intuits one of her fantasies from her reaction. It is, appropriately, a “discovery fantasy,” and Phin feeds her sense of it, until once again Sophie experiences a spectacular orgasm, “discovered” not just by her sister, who walks in as they’re having sex, drawn by the sound of a shattering lamp, but by Phin (who “discovers” what she wants, metaphorically illuminating it by breaking that lamp) and by Sophie herself (who “discovers” that she can in fact be, as Phin puts it, both “kinky” and “heart-stopping” in her sexiness [141]). The next morning Sophie writes the new “lamp scene” without difficulty, breaks off her relationship with Brandon, and agrees to “sacrifice herself to the mayor” to get another great scene for Amy’s project, happily thinking to herself “I have ideas” for it (146).

In the chapters that follow, Sophie becomes an increasingly active and imaginative participant in her lovemaking, not just taking charge of exactly how kinky and exciting it will be, but demanding to learn from it, scene by scene. “This is like college,” she tells Phin: “I never got to go [ . . . ] And I always wanted a degree. So I’m getting it from you” (156). Her sexual education changes her overall “version of reality,” rendering it decidedly more optimistic. As she leaves one encounter, for example, she “look[s] dazedly out at Temptation’s Main Street baking in the late-afternoon sun” and thinks “Nice little town” and “Pretty” (159), a far cry from her initial sense of the town as “bat country.” This is only a momentary glimpse, one that can be (and is) quickly dispelled by reminders of her position as an outsider, but such moments become increasingly common, and increasingly native to Sophie, as the novel goes on. Although she is repeatedly tempted to persist in her former construction of reality, particularly romantic reality, she soon learns to correct herself without prompting:

Well, that was men for you. She glared at the cherries across from her. Took what they wanted and then—

It occurred to her that this thought wasn’t getting her anywhere. It was the same thought she’d been having for fifteen years without any insight or growth, it was the thought that had led her into two years of mind-numbing security with Brandon, it was the thought that had kept her from having the kind of wickedly abandoned sex she’d been having since she’d met Phin. It was, in short, nonproductive.

Worse than that, it was boring.

‘I’m through with you,’ she said to the cherries. ‘It’s a brand-new day.’ (166).

When Phin appears a page later, Sophie is literally reconstructing her reality by repapering the kitchen in brand new “apple” wallpaper, and Phin finds her irresistable. “I had you at ‘hello,” she exults, revising the heroine’s moment of triumph from Jerry McGuire in the direction of female agency (the original says, “you had me”) and telling Phin, as she leads him off to the shower, to “imagine the possibilities,” a clear reversal of the imaginative power dynamic between them (170).

By the second half of Welcome to Temptation, Sophie’s transformation is complete, at least on the sexual level. Rather than Phin and Sophie mutually discovering Sophie’s fantasies, the two begin to act out Phin’s—but this time, the progress is played for comedy, not just because his are so familiar and quickly declared (he knows this side of himself quite well), but because their execution gets interrupted by multiple, increasingly dramatic events across the central chapters of the novel. Because of this repetition, we get to see Sophie taking the lead, per Phin’s fantasy scenario, over and over again, reinforcing our sense of her new, Phin-like confidence. In fact, after one interruption, Sophie jokes about her effect on him in phrases that mirror Phin’s early cockiness: “You were repressed,” she tells him, “Which is why God sent me to save you” (288; Phin says the same words to her on 141). Her intimate nickname for him throughout these scenes, “bear,” recalls their first encounter on the dock: “your fantasy, bear,” she tells him, for example (287). And their final sexual encounter in the novel is an almost move-for-move revision of the first, as Sophie handcuffs him to his own bed, tells him that in her version of the ballad, “Julie got the bear,” and proceeds to give him an “orgasm he doesn’t have to work for” (330). Authorship, authority, and sexuality are inextricably (and quite playfully) intertwined.

The Empowerment Plot

If the only result of Sophie’s exposure to fantasy, fiction, and Phin were a change in her sex life, of course, Crusie’s brief on behalf of romance would be rather limited. It would suggest that romance was essentially reducible to erotica, or even pornography: a claim that has, of course, been made about the genre, sometimes as a criticism and sometimes in its defense, by academic critics. Instead, Crusie distinguishes between the limited sexual version of her transformation and something broader or deeper, of which sex is only a part. She draws that line of distinction in two ways. First, she has the first group of sexual fantasies that Phin elicits from and acts out with Sophie becoming part of the script she is writing, while the later love scenes do not. That script, in turn, is then filmed and edited into the two contrasting versions of Clea’s comeback video, Cherished (Amy’s vision of “classy porn” for women) and Hot Fleshy Thighs (Leo Kingsley’s decidedly non-classy version of what his male market wants). Yet even as usurped or corrupted by others, Sophie’s work as an author retains its liberating effects: Cherished helps Rachel Garvey get out of town and make a new life with Leo, becoming a producer in her own right of female-oriented pornography, while Hot Fleshy Thighs, stolen by Stephen Garvey and shown on local cable TV, provokes a political firestorm for Phin and ultimately becomes the catalyst that breaks the old political “version of reality” for the town.

That firestorm would have destroyed Phin, not the Garveys, however, were it not for the other transformation of Sophie: the one that is not reducible to her discovery of her sexual “secret life,” but that is just as clearly dependent on her learning to “read” herself in the safe context provided by Phin. In the second half of the novel, in addition to the sexual encounters that are connected to Phin’s fantasy, we find a series of encounters that are mediated primarily by the couple’s growing companionship and intimacy. Traces of fantasy play may show up: movie quotes, flirting with fictional roles, the use of the word “bear,” albeit as a verb. (“He whispered ‘Now’ in her ear and rolled to bear down on her,” we read in one scene [307].). Alongside these, however, we find declarations like “My dad would have loved you” and questions like “So how was your day?” (306). Post-coital pleasure and emotional security blend into one another for Sophie, who feels “safe and satisfied and better” after their lovemaking (308). In this context, Sophie’s abilities as a reader of herself come to the fore, and she draws on this capacity to recognize and name her own mental and emotional states. “When they were both calm again,” Crusie writes, “she told him the truth: ‘I love you’” (308).

Phin, however, despite his comfort with sexual fantasy, has not learned to read his own heart as clearly. Although both Sophie and the reader are sure that Phin loves her (“of course he did, the dummy, she had no doubts about that,” she thinks), that love is now as much Phin’s “secret life” as Sophie’s sexual fantasies were to her at the start of the novel. He now needs her to mediate that knowledge for him so that his “secret life,” the emotional one, can be consciously known. Sophie deliberately steps into that role. After years of fleeing from her family legacy of con artistry, she tells herself, it is time for her to “be a Dempsey,” to use her family skills at interpersonal manipulation to “get what she needed”: which is, in this case, to get Phin to admit that he loves her (309). In the pages that follow, Sophie uses these skills in a pair of crucial scenes that show the private and public impacts of her transformation. Privately, she metaphorically re-reads what she knows of Phin’s weaknesses (“Sex. Shirts. Pool.”) and uses a combination of her sexual allure and grafter upbringing to defeat a distracted Phin at his living room billiard table, leaving the stunned Phin to declare to his friend Wes, the local police chief, that “I’m going to have to marry her” (314). Publically, at the Town Council showdown that results from the airing of Hot Fleshy Thighs, she uses exactly the same skills of “reading” a crowd and manipulating its emotions to bring the town around to Phin’s side, turning them against the Garveys. These are, we note, the same skills at the con that she used unsuccessfully in a scene at the start of the novel, interrupted by her sister Amy, but having accepted and embraced them as “a Dempsey” she now seems fully empowered to use them.

Alongside its sexual liberation plot, then, Welcome to Temptation also insists that Sophie’s encounter with fantasy (Phin) eventually leads to the more far-reaching, real-life empowerment that Crusie and other romance readers—in Radway and elsewhere—have long claimed on behalf of the genre. A comparison with one of Crusie’s early essays is revealing, since in her “Romancing Reality” essay, Crusie cites an anecdote from Susan Elizabeth Phillips to explain precisely this empowering effect. (The Phillips piece in question is her contribution to the Dangerous Men, Adventurous Women anthology.) According to Phillips, Crusie notes, even “a best-selling novelist and happily married wife and mother” might need a little sojourn in romance, and when Phillips “sat down after a tense time in her life to relax with a stack of category novels,” she found “something magical” happening: she “felt better. Calmer. In control.” She writes that the novels did not offer the fantasy she thought romance novels would, “that of a wonderful man or a glamorous, fulfilling career. I already had those things.” Instead, she writes that the “fantasy” they gave her was “one of command and control over the harum scarum events of my life–a fantasy of female empowerment” (55).

This is a beauty of a fantasy, especially since it’s not fantasy at all. Phillips already had command and control, and to this day she remains one of the most empowered women I know. The romance fiction she read simply reminded her of her own capabilities, thereby reinforcing her own experience of reality.

Like Phillips, Sophie is “reminded of her own capabilities” by her encounters with Phin, and those encounters leave her ready and able to embrace her talents at “command and control.” In the novel’s version of this empowerment plot, however, the excursion through fantasy does not “reinforc[e] her own experience of reality.” Rather, it enables her to have a new “version of reality,” one which changes not only her relationship with Phin, but also the social world around them. In fact, because he is the mayor, the two changes turn out to be one.

The Marriage Shift

As I argued a few pages ago, Mayor Phin Tucker is something of an unhappy patriarch, just as trapped as Sophie is in a deadening, “mind-numbing” world of sameness and repetition. (To underscore this parallel, the adjective “mind-numbing” appears twice in the novel: once to describe Phin’s years as mayor [14] and once to describe Sophie’s years with Brandon [166].) Phin is as burdened by his social role as Sophie is, and as concerned with family duty; in fact, his family pressures, embodied by his mother Liz, might be read as even more ominous, given the multiple references to Psycho that crop up throughout the book. Phin is no Norman Bates, driven to murderous madness, but he is, by his own admission, “stuck” (another adjective the novel applies both to Phin [33] and Sophie [68]). No wonder he responds so eagerly to the opportunity to meet the “loose” women who have shaken up the Garveys by their mere arrival in Temptation (17), and no wonder his mother responds so coldly and threateningly to his increasingly public relationship with Sophie, not just to Phin’s face, but behind his back, visiting Sophie early in the novel to remind her precisely where she stands in the socio-political structure of Temptation.

Liz plans to intimidate Sophie, or, if that fails, to buy her son’s lover off, as she did his late first wife, Diane. Sophie, however, is unshaken, and she uses her initial, primarily sexual capacity for fantasy to present Phin’s mother with an image of her son simply as a man, stripped of his social and political trappings, “gorgeous and smart and funny and kind and skilled” and “sexy as hell” (163). As their relationship develops beyond the merely sexual (“We’re more than just the sex,” he tells her), Sophie’s impact on Phin likewise reaches beyond the sexual. It reveals to him just how frozen and dangerous his relationship with his mother has become, and he stands up to her, ordering Liz to “back off or you’ll lose us” when she tells him and his daughter, Dillie, to stay away from Sophie. When all three Tuckers meet up with Sophie at a Little League baseball game, Phin pushes back against his mother’s wishes to make his romantic relationship with Sophie obvious to the community at large, since “his smile to her pretty much telegraphed to everybody everything he’d said before”; when Liz angrily tells him that Sophie has “destroyed” his life, he agrees, adding that the life she destroyed was “a fucking wasteland; all Sophie did was clear the brush” (351-2).

Well before he admits to Sophie that he loves her, then—a declaration the novel postpones until its final triumphant pages—Phin finds himself freed by her from his “stuck” status, realizing in the process that he wants to replace that “wasteland” with a public, legal relationship. Just moments after being beaten at pool, in fact, is when he tells Wes “I’m going to have to marry her” (314). Not sex, not love, but marriage seems crucial here. Why?

First-wave romance scholars often lamented the connection in romance between fully expressed female sexuality and heterosexual marriage. Radway, for example, found it frustrating that even in ostensibly progressive novels, “in every case, these romances refuse finally to unravel the connection between female sexual desire and monogamous heterosexuality” (16). Crusie, by contrast, frames the issue of marriage in terms of a redefinition of heterosexual power dynamics. Most romances, she argues in an early essay, “feature a struggle between the heroine and the hero to achieve a balance of power defined by their own terms so that the commitment that takes place at the end of the book is not a surrender but a pact” (“Romancing Reality”). Like other female novelists before her, then, and like Pamela Regis, a more recent romance scholar, Crusie sees in fictional marriages at the ends of novels the opportunity to signal not a woman’s proscribed destiny—say, her submission to compulsory heterosexuality—but a shift in a society’s structure and values. As Regis explains, the role of the wedding at the end of a romance novel is to make clear the change that has taken place in the broken society in which the love story is set: an indication, for her, of the genre’s debt to Shakespearean comedy. A literary novel like David Vann’s Caribou Island might argue that marriage is “the death of self and possibility” for both partners (194), but the romance novel is concerned with marriage as a measure of the freedom a particular society affords individuals to marry whom they will. For Regis, then, the hero and heroine choose to marry when the plot liberates them from barriers that have constrained them in old patterns, and their marriage signals that those barriers and patterns are no more (Regis 15,33).

Regis, in describing the fall of the barrier between lovers, specifically cites the line in Pride and Prejudice in which the “union [of Elizabeth and Darcy] must have been to the advantage of both” (Regis, 17). Where Regis describes this moment as a moment in which “the heroine is free of the barrier,” Crusie writes this moment as a moment of mutual liberation of hero and heroine, Phin and Sophie (Regis, 17).

In the town of Temptation, the patterns that constrain hero and heroine alike are summed up by two motifs introduced to the reader in the opening pages and repeated throughout the novel. As Sophie and Amy drive into town, they encounter in quick succession the Tuckers’ campaign slogan, “More of the Same” (10) and that flesh-colored, ostentatiously phallic water tower, which tells us that the particular “sameness” that’s being repeated is patriarchy itself. In such a context, a purely sexual relationship between Sophie and Phin cannot provide real freedom. It’s simply too easy, for them and for Liz, to interpret their sexual relationship as part of a familiar pattern from the old patriarchal version of reality: a prominent man (a “town boy,” one of the “hill people”) seeks sexual release with a woman outside his class and community (a “loose” woman, a “cheap” woman, one of Phin’s “liaisons,” a bite of “the devil’s candy”). In sleeping with each other, they might simply be “crossing the tracks,” betraying family and class loyalties, consorting with “lepers,” with “Not Our Kind,” and so on. The static, unchanging, patriarchal social order of Temptation has plenty of room for them to meet in the shadows, even as it codifies a version of marriage—embodied in the Lutzes and the Garveys—that is as unhappy and unequal as any feminist scholar might fear.

By the end of the novel, however, each of these motifs has been transformed, and with it, the underlying pattern it represents. The water tower remains in place, but a series of new paintjobs and rainstorms has changed what it resembles: first a phallus, it then looks like a lipstick, and finally like a breast, an image simultaneously sexual and maternal. If the phallic water tower symbolized the constraining power of patriarchy over the town, that hold is broken—not through a revolutionary change, like tearing down the water tower entirely, but through a subtle shift that you have to be a “reader” of the tower, an interpreter, to notice. The meaning of the Tuckers’ campaign slogan undergoes a similar shift. In the final pages of the novel, Phin proposes to Sophie, brings her his mother’s ring, which all the Tucker brides have worn, to seal the deal. After some hesitation, she agrees, and he tells her that he’s through with being mayor after this term, so they’ll be left with boxes of unused family campaign posters. Thinking of those posters, Sophie has a sudden realization—not just about them, but about her talents and her future life. “She could make a difference,” she thinks,

She was good at making people do what she wanted. She was born to make people do what she wanted. “My God,” she said, as the full meaning of her family’s legacy for lying, cheating, and scheming hit her.

She was born to be a politician.


She leaned back against Phin. “I think I’ll take your name,” she said, smiling up at him sweetly. “Sophie Dempsey Tucker. It sounds…” She looked at the ring again. “…powerful.” (380-81)

The slogan will remain unchanged, still offering “more of the same,” but the gender and background of the “Tucker” in question will actually be quite different. Just as the water tower now signifies female power, not patriarchy, just as Julie Ann’s being “eaten” by the bear means sexual pleasure, not her death—indeed, just as the bear may have been, in Sophie’s version, “gotten” by Julie Ann—the external facts remain the same, but their meanings have changed, especially where gender and power are concerned.

Crusie invites us to extend this analogy still farther. The marriage between Phin and Sophie, we imagine, will look at first glance like any other marriage: they are married, as are the Lutzes, the Garveys, and so on. Under that superficial sameness, however, the power dynamics of the relationship will be entirely different. This couple will share what Crusie’s essay calls a “balance of power” between husband and wife; in fact, their “pact” will probably cede more power to Sophie, just as Phin seems to like it. (“Your life just changed,” she tells Phin on the final page of the novel, “but it’s okay. You can trust me” [381].) Just as girls’ weddings at the end of 18th and 19th century novels represented shifts in the patterns of earlier societies, Sophie and Phin’s “marriage is a new pattern for each of them, and a new pattern for the town.

And since a culminating happy marriage is a characteristic feature of the romance novel as a genre, we can extend the pattern one step further still. As read by the first generation of critics, back in the 1980s, romance novels seemed to offer “more of the same” in terms of sexual and marital roles, whatever their readers and authors might have claimed. Crusie suggests, by contrast, that this sameness likewise masks a subtle but substantial change in gender roles and power dynamics. Radway is quite right that we have not left “monogamous heterosexuality” behind, in this as in so many romance novels (16). But not all monogamous heterosexuality is alike, this final scene suggests, and just as the familiar signifiers of marriage—including the engagement ring that Sophie stares at with such obvious pleasure—need to be read well and in context in order to be truly understood, the same is true for the familiar signifiers of the romance novel genre.


In several of her essays from the late 1990s, Jennifer Crusie tells the story of how she became a reader of romance reluctantly, even warily, in pursuit of her doctoral dissertation. Like Sophie, she expected the worst from the books, but in the process of reading “one hundred romance novels” for her research, she found a form of narrative that “promised that [ . . . ] a woman [ . . . ] could strip away the old lies about her life and emerge re-born, transformed with that new sense of self that’s the prize at the end of any quest” (Let us Now Praise Scribbling Women,” March 1998). That transformation spills over, Crusie testifies, such that “when the heroine emerges transformed from the romance story, so do I. So do all romance readers.” Crusie’s own “new sense of self” included becoming “a romance reader, and then a romance critic, and finally a romance writer”; the plot of Welcome to Temptation echoes, distantly but unmistakably, this account of Crusie’s becoming a novelist.

If we turn for a moment from accounts of reading romance to accounts of the experience of reading generally, where for the critic there is neither bias against the gender of a reader nor against her chosen genre, we find reading acts and the likely effects of reading described in comparable ways, without alarm or condemnation or special pleading. In James Wood’s account of How Fiction Works, he explains:

Literature makes us better noticers of life; we get to practice on life itself; which in turn makes us better readers of detail in literature; which in turn makes us better readers of life. And so on and on (Wood 63).

Wood does not imagine that the details of a story confuse us about the difference between what is real and what is imagined. He rather asserts that our imaginative experience and our actual experience interact to strengthen our perceptions, and to perceive differently is, perforce, to be a different person, even if ever so slightly. (“As I am,” says Emerson, “so I see.” The inverse is also true.)

Katherine Lever’s The Novel and the Reader, A Primer for Critics cites three knowledgeable sources—Percy Lubbock, The Craft of Fiction, Gordon Gerould, How to Read Fiction, and Joyce Cary, Art and Reality—for the suggestion common to each of them that “the reader of a novel is [her]self a novelist” (Lever 44). Lever and her fellow analysts of the act of reading do not condemn readers for “los[ing] ourselves in the imagined world” or letting “the actual world fade away from our consciousness” (Lever 46). In fact, according to Lever,

A good reader can be so lost to actuality that he does not hear bells ring, or smell food burn, or see shadows fall, or feel the tug of a child’s hand. Everything else is forgotten because he is lost in the world of the novel” (Lever 46).

The very act and effect—losing oneself—that draw so much condemnation from Modleski or Radway when a book is a romance read by a woman seem to be the acts and effects associated generally with the practice of reading novels. Lever’s imagined reader is male, but she makes an interesting list of details of domestic life to which his reading renders him oblivious. The act of becoming lost in a book in the face of domestic duties like cooking or tending to a child seems to Lever to have value in itself when neither gender nor genre is an issue. Lever claims this value for becoming lost in a book because her understanding of reading is that it is fundamentally active, not passive, and that the reader is in effect a co-creator with the novelist (Lever 44). Crusie, Brownstein, and ordinary female readers have long said that reading novels that are “old-fashioned” or “woman-centered” (Brownstein 24), including popular romance novels, also entails this kind of active, creative reading. Such reading makes us better “readers of life” in general (Wood 63), and as readers of life, we become co-authors of life, or at least of our own lives.

Far from disappearing into fantasy, Sophie Dempsey emerges from her imaginative experience to become a fully realized, freshly empowered “reader of life.” She has always “read” the world around her—clouds, houses, cars, wallpaper—and even the first page of the novel shows this impulse at work, as Sophie “reads” the landscape around her as she drives into Temptation. “Maple trees had waved cheerfully in the warm breeze, cotton clouds had bounced across the blue, blue sky, and the late-August sun had blasted everything in sight,” Crusie writes—yet “Sophie had felt a chill,” knowing that this “riotously happy, southern Ohio landscape” must really be “bat country” (1-2). Sophie reads, we might say, in a particularly pessimistic, even cynical way, one she has learned from her unhappy upbringing and from the movies she has watched so often. Her wary realism, as she sees it, gets summed up by the phrase she sighs to herself, grimly and sarcastically, at the end of the opening scene: “Nothing but good times ahead” (11).

Crusie ends the novel with a reprise of the opening description, which Sophie now reads through an optimistic, self-assured lens. “Behind [the new family of Dillie, Phin, and Sophie], maple trees waved cheerfully in the breeze, cotton clouds bounced across the blue, blue sky, and the early-September sun glowed on everything in sight” (Crusie 381). The promise of the thousands of campaign posters in Phin’s house—“more of the same”—has thus been fulfilled, but with a twist, since time now seems to be moving forward, not just from “late-August” (1) to “early September” (381), but into an upbeat future. Sophie’s conclusion, likewise, is the same but different. “’Nothing but good times ahead,” she says aloud, and kisses Phin, imagining a life in Temptation that will be filled, not just with sex and love, but with public social purpose, “mak[ing] a difference” (380). Like the readers of “old-fashioned” and “woman-centered” literary fiction described by Browstein, Sophie has begun to imagine herself as something more than herself: as a heroine. This particular transformation, Brownstein suggests, is properly (or at least initially) the province of reading imaginative works, of immersing oneself in fantasy, rather than of engaging with critical or philosophical texts. “To want to become a heroine,” she writes,

to have a sense of the possibility of being one, is to develop the beginnings of what feminists call ‘raised’ consciousness: it liberates a woman from feeling (and therefore perhaps from being) a victim or a dependent or drudge, someone of no account. The domestic novel can be credited with strengthening and shaping female reader’s aspirations to matter, to make something special of herself, (Brownstein xix)

In Crusie’s revisionist account—presented both in essays and in novels—we can credit the popular romance novel with this “strengthening and shaping” power, too.

Works Cited

Brownstein, Rachel. Becoming a Heroine. New York: Penguin Books, 1982. Print.

Crusie, Jennifer. Welcome to Temptation. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2000. Print.

—. “Defeating the Critics: What We Can Do About the Anti-Romance Bias,” Web. Jan. 2011.

—. “Let Us Now Praise Scribbling Women,” Web. Jan. 2011.

—. “Romancing Reality: The Power of Romance Fiction to Reinforce and Revision the Real,” Web. Jan. 2011.

—. Untitled entry. The Writer’s Digest Character Naming Sourcebook. Writer’s Digest Books, 2005.

Holmes, Linda. “Romance Fiction and Women’s Health: a Dose of Skepticism.” Web.

Krentz, Jayne Ann, editor. Dangerous Men and Adventurous Women: Romance Writers on the appeal of the Romance. University of Pennsylvania Press, 1992. Print.

Lever, Katherine. The Novel and the Reader. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, Inc., 1960. Print.

Modleski, Tania. “The Disappearing Act: A Study of Harlequin Romances.” Signs, Vol. 5. No. 3 (Spring, 1980). Pp. 435-448. JSTOR. Web. Jan. 2011.

Radway, Janice A. Reading the Romance: Women, Patriarchy, and Popular Literature. Chapel Hill: The University of North Caroline Press, 1991. Print.

Regis, Pamela. A Natural History of the Romance Novel. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2007. Print.

Strehle, Susan and Carden, Mary Paniccia, Eds. Doubled Plots: Romance and History. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2003. Print.

Tripler, Jessica, “Susan Quilliam: an Expert in What, Exactly?” Web.

Vivanco, Laura. “Danger! Romance Novels!” Web.

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[1] For a point-by-point debunking of Quilliam’s piece, see Holmes and Vivanco. For a detailed expose of Quilliam’s credentials, see Tripler.

[2] This list of minor characters is not exhaustive. Zane Black has his fantasies and delusions, which he tries to impose on reality, as does Amy, whose devotion to self-interest blinds her to the merits of the two films she is making: the audition tape for Clea and the secret documentary she is taping on the side.

[3] “Sophie in Welcome to Temptation was named after Georgette Heyer’s The Grand Sophy (although I changed the spelling),” Crusie writes, “because I loved the way she went around fixing people, and that’s what my Sophie does too, although not with the ruthless enthusiasm of Heyer’s heroine. My Sophie is stuck fixing people; Heyer’s loves doing it” (Writer’s Digest Character Naming Sourcebook, 237).