Reading the Romance: Women, Patriarchy, and Popular Literature

Originally published in 1984, Reading the Romance challenges popular (and often demeaning) myths about why romantic fiction, one of publishing’s most lucrative categories, captivates millions of women readers. Among those who have disparaged romance reading are feminists, literary critics, and theorists of mass culture. They claim that romances enforce the woman reader’s dependence on men and acceptance of the repressive ideology purveyed by popular culture. Radway questions such claims, arguing that critical attention “must shift from the text itself, taken in isolation, to the complex social event of reading.” She examines that event, from the complicated business of publishing and distribution to the individual reader’s engagement with the text.

Radway’s provocative approach combines reader-response criticism with anthropology and feminist psychology. Asking readers themselves to explore their reading motives, habits, and rewards, she conducted interviews in a midwestern town with forty-two romance readers whom she met through Dorothy Evans, a chain bookstore employee who has earned a reputation as an expert on romantic fiction. Evans defends her customers’ choice of entertainment; reading romances, she tells Radway, is no more harmful than watching sports on television.

“We read books so we won’t cry” is the poignant explanation one woman offers for her reading habit. Indeed, Radway found that while the women she studied devote themselves to nurturing their families, these wives and mothers receive insufficient devotion or nurturance in return. In romances the women find not only escape from the demanding and often tiresome routines of their lives but also a hero who supplies the tenderness and admiring attention that they have learned not to expect.

The heroines admired by Radway’s group defy the expected stereotypes; they are strong, independent, and intelligent. That such characters often find themselves to be victims of male aggression and almost always resign themselves to accepting conventional roles in life has less to do, Radway argues, with the women readers’ fantasies and choices than with their need to deal with a fear of masculine dominance.

These romance readers resent not only the limited choices in their own lives but the patronizing atitude that men especially express toward their reading tastes. In fact, women read romances both to protest and to escape temporarily the narrowly defined role prescribed for them by a patriarchal culture. Paradoxically, the books that they read make conventional roles for women seem desirable. It is this complex relationship between culture, text, and woman reader that Radway urges feminists to address. Romance readers, she argues, should be encouraged to deliver their protests in the arena of actual social relations rather than to act them out in the solitude of the imagination.

In a new introduction, Janice Radway places the book within the context of current scholarship and offers both an explanation and critique of the study’s limitations.

Nanci Arvizu, Writing and Reviews Editor

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3 Comments

  1. Perfect for the feminist who LIKES happily ever after Janice Radway does a terrific job of crossing and blurrign the lines of academic critical writing. Never before have I read a book that looks critically at a literary reality but manages to do it in a personable, friendly way. By the end of the novel, I felt as if Janice, Dot, and the other ladies of the reading group were my personal friends. As a graduate student in literature whose focus is feminist literary studies, I have often found my choice in studies at odds with my passion for…

  2. Conflict of Interest Makes it Interesting An interesting book and a pretty good read. With the exception of the first chapter, which is an enlightening but pretty dry history of book publishing, the author writes with an enganging and personable style that’s highly unusual for an “academic” book. I picked it up thinking that I’d browse through it and found myself reading it cover to cover. There’s a bit of the usual feminist/critical studies rhetoric but it’s neither bombastic enough nor pervasive enough to dampen the…

  3. A major contribution to the field of cultural studies I was disappointed to see that an earlier reviewer found the book condescending. I think it is true that when the book was written, for a largely academic audience, back in 1984, she probably felt she had to bend over backwards to have her work taken seriously by academics, so she couldn’t have written “as a fan.” But condescending? I really didn’t think so. This book was inspirational to me when I was trying to find a way to approach the material I study (and personally enjoy),…

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