Janice Radway: Reading the Romance

[Readings] (08.08.08, 8:08 pm)


Radway examines the role of romantic fiction in the space of popular literature. She finds that romantic fiction fulfills the needs of middle class women whose needs are not being met by their marriages and roles in life. Radway is approaching this from the perspective of feminist criticism, but finds the role of the romance is extremely nuanced and complex. It is impossible to tell whether romantic fiction is ultimately empowering or disempowering to women in these situations.

Romance serves as an interesting object of study in the analysis of adaptation and simulation, as it is an example of a means of simulation (romances immerse the readers in highly structured operational worlds) that serves an interesting purpose for the readers. Initially it seemed that this would be an interesting text to consider in the aim of extending adaptation games to a broader audience (which did turn out to be the case, Radway describes several concrete things romance readers get out of their fiction), but it also is highly important from the perspective of model reinforcement within simulations. Romances satisfy women’s needs that are not met by patriarchy, yet the texts reinforce that patriarchy is the ultimate happiness and satisfaction. What features of simulation could be employed to subvert this process rather than reinforce it?


Radway starts by discussing her process as ethnography, and describes Geertz’s take on it as a constructive approach. There is a conflict between empiricism and constructionism, representation and interpretation. The question is ambiguous how much we construct a culture by reading it, versus how much we can observe objectively. (p. 5) The reading process (with romance especially) is a form of construction, to readers serves as a declaration of independence. Communities form around collective interpretation of works. (p. 7) Radway is especially informed by Nancy Chordorow’s work revising Freudian psychology. By that, the way reading serves as need fulfillment illustrates the gap in social structure. (p. 13)

The publishing institution, in its early development, leads to disposable, serial, “formulaic” paperbacks. There is established an orthodoxy of formula and format. (p. 29) Gradually, the publishing system develops a “semiprogrammed issue”, which is a product that has content, but is primarily established by format. Readers know what they are going to get. The need for this relates to middle class anxiety (Paul Fussell reference!) relating expectation to product. Product is content to satisfy expectation. (p. 45)

Dot’s incipient feminism: ostensibly conservative, but espouses progressive ideas in her values. Reflects complex social value system. Views independence and marriage/patriarchy as compatible, wheras feminist crituque does not. Reading is seen as an active activity, rather than a passive one. There are active components in selection of material, and interpretation of such material. (p. 54) One of the important qualities of romance: what it is like to be an object of love / romance. Question of identity and perspective in the view from the heroine; vicarious sensation. (p. 64)

The sexuality of the romance is nurturing in nature, and needs to be uplifting in the end. Successful romances need to pay explicit attention to emotions to be appealing to romance readers. The female sexual emotions revolve around some of the following: Hesitancy, Doubt, Anger, Confusion, Loss of control, Exhiliration. How would these be expressed in a digital form? Requires emotional representation. (p. 70) The most important quality of a romance is a happy ending. This completes the cycle of support and redemption. There is a complex understanding and set of requirements for romance to be successful (or not objectionable). Must reinforce happy monogamy. (p. 74)

There is a matter of relative independence at work in the reader’s minds. “The Smithton women seem ot be struggling simultaneously with the promise and threat of the women’s movement as well as with their culture’s now doubled capacity to belittle the intelligence and activities of ‘the ordinary housewife.'” There is strong importance of the assertion of the heroine’s uplifting identity and intelligence, even though she is shown to be vulnerable and needing to be loved. “In the utopia of romantic fiction, ‘independence’ and a secure individual ‘identity’ are never comprimised by the paternalistic care and protection of the male.” (p. 78-79)

Domestic dynamics of reading (as compared to TV, etc) are an expression of privacy, and essentially resented by husbands. The standard role of motherhood and wifeness requires an effacement and abnegation of self. This contrasts with strikingly solitary and private activity such as reading. In role where women spend all their time caring for others, reading is a self-care activity. (p. 92) Reading is escapism, but also compensatory: relieving tensions, diffusing resentment (!), indulging fantasy. Essentially ‘harmlessly’ expressing suppressed emotions. (p. 95) Romance also considered to be a kind of “education” but this is at peculiar odds with fantastic nature.

The ideal romance challenges the traditional gender roles [before submitting to them?]. Several examples given describe highly independent and tomboyish heroines. (p. 125) Ideal romance tends to subscribe to a Proppian narrative grammar. These still have other themes, but ultimately subscribe to the following model (p. 134):

  1. The heroine’s social identity is destroyed.
  2. The heroine reacts antagonistically to an aristocratic male.
  3. The aristocratic male responds ambiguously to the heroine.
  4. The heroine interprets the hero’s behavior as evidence of a purely sexual interest in her.
  5. The heroine responds to the hero’s behavior with anger or coldness.
  6. The hero retaliates by punishing the heroine.
  7. The heroine and hero are physically and/or emotionally separated.
  8. The hero treats the heroine tenderly.
  9. The heroine responds warmly to the hero’s act of tenderness.
  10. The heroine reinterprets the hero’s ambiguous behavior as the product of previous hurt.
  11. The hero proposes/openly declares love his love for/demonstrates his unwavering commitment to the heroine with a supreme act of tenderness.
  12. The heroine responds sexually and emotionally.
  13. The herione’s identity is restored.

Male characters in ideal romances have peculiar characterization. There are double perspectives, must have exemplary or exceptional status as heroes. The male is initially distant or aloof (not nurturing) and later becomes converted or is realized as nurturing. This forms peculiar expectation/fulfillment pattern that implies a thing or two about the husbands in the readers’ marriages. (p. 140)

The ideal romance implies inevitability of love and resolution. The failed romance suggests work and struggle is neeeded to maintain status quo or bar disaster. The labor of the failed romance mirrors the work exerted by the readers as wives and mothers. The structure of the ending is what will allow a text to “make it” to be classified as a romance. (p. 162) Another failed romance, “The Court of the Flowering Peach” makes explicit the fantasy nature of the romance. Implies that the ideal relationship and romance is ephemeral and/or impossible. Sounds like a great story, but fails the happy ending requirement pretty bad. (p. 175)

Earlier, the romance was described to be held by its readers as an educational experience. The escapism is at odds with the education and knowledge building of the real world. After all, ideal world is fantasy and definitionally not real, so how does it build knowledge about the real world? (p. 186) Readers assume straightforward and unambiguous prose. When readers intend to read works, they do not want convoluted subtext and meaning, but rather clear prose/instruction. This reflects sim games without reflection of the rule systems or meanings. Rather, value or rule system is assumed or taken for granted, never addressed explicitly. (p. 190) Romance follows peculiar strain of detail and realism (as compared to the realism of the novel as described by Ian Watt). Descriptions and scenes are heavy with detail, but of setting, not of character or mood. References to Umbert Eco’s idea of “the technique of the aimless glance”. (p. 194) There is a Jane Austen reference! Austen is hard to understand by readers, they wish to be passive recipients of the story, rather than an active interpreter. (Note that this is at odds with claims made earlier) (pp. 197)

Romances work in a storytelling cycle. Since this is semiprogrammed issue, most of the stories are variations on same theme, are essentially retelling tropes with variations, as in the oral tradition. This falls back to the notion of Barthes’ mythology. Umbert Eco points this out explicitly concerning retellings of Roland the Paladin. “Therefore, the act of retelling that same myth functioned as the ritual reaffirmation of fundamental cultural beliefs and collective aspirations.” (p. 198) The mythological sameness of the romantic heroines is predetermined. There is rigid cultural role establishment. The act of reading is a partial protest, but reaffirms the culturally defined female role. (p. 208)

Romance relates to Jameson and the utopian movement. (p. 215) Mass produced art has a cultural power (ideology of contemporary cultural forms), consider other mass produced art, such as games. “If we can learn, then, to look at the ways in which various groups appropriate and use the mass-produced art of our culture, I suspect that we may well begin to uderstand that although the ideological poower of conteporary cultural forms is enormous, indeed sometimes even frightening, that power is not yet all-pervasive, totally vigilant, or complete. Interstices still exist within the social fabric where opposition is carried out by people who are not satisfied by their place within it or by the restricted material and emotional rewards that accompany it.” (p. 222)

Reading Info:
Author/EditorRadway, Janice
TitleReading the Romance: Women, Patriarchy, and Popular Literature
Tagsspecials, media theory, narrative, feminism
LookupGoogle Scholar, Google Books, Amazon

No Comments »

No comments yet.

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URI

Leave a comment

You must be logged in to post a comment.