reading the romance

I’m reading Janice A. Radway’s 1984 classic Reading the Romance, an ethnographic survey of a small group of romance readers in a town called Smithton in the late 70s/early 80s. It’s one of those Bayardian books-I’ve-never-read, though I knew vaguely what it says, and it’s so interesting, particularly because the romance community is very like fandom:* overwhelmingly female and marginalized (by comparison to mainstream/masculinized literature), with a large overlap between readers and authors, and even with a semi-institutionalized role for beta-readers (manuscripts in some romance lines are beta-tested on 200 readers before being finally cleared for publication; one particular Big Name Romance Reader not only regularly receives galley proofs of new romances for review, because the publishers noticed how influential her newsletter was, but also beta-reads for professional romance authors). It’s also fascinating for me, because I don’t read your actual formula romances (Mills & Boon/Harlequin, etc), but I do read a lot of chicklit (which is clearly related to the romance genre) and I do read a lot of slash – and particularly old-school slash, which bears a pretty close resemblance to the romance as Radway describes it here (I’ll put some quotes below). So, while I’m pretty convinced by Radway’s conclusions about the function romance reading serves in relation to heterosexuality, it does make me wonder what happens when the romance is m/m (and of course the late 70s/early 80s really was the golden age for romantic-type slash: I should read Joanna Russ’s essay on slash again, because I think it’s roughly contemporary both with Radway’s book and with Russ’s own essay on Gothic romance, the brilliantly named ‘Someone’s Trying To Kill Me And I Think It’s My Husband’, which you might be able to read on Google Books here).

More thoughts on this later, maybe, when I get round to my substantial post on chicklit. In the meantime, some interesting quotes from Radway, whose main argument, as I understand it, is that romance reading serves a compensatory function: it (a) marks off some private space (‘escape’, ‘relaxation’, a ‘treat’) in the lives of women whose primary role is to take care of other people, and who, as wives/mothers in traditional nuclear families, do not have anyone in their lives whose primary role is to take care of them; and (b) allows women to participate in a communal female fantasy about being recognized as wonderful people and protected, nurtured, and cared for by someone bigger than them (here Radway is drawing on Nancy Chodorow’s work in The Reproduction of Mothering, about how adult women never get to ‘regress’ temporarily and pleasurably into the role of child and be mothered by someone else, while men are ‘mothered’ by their wives). Anyway, Radway says, eg:

For Dot and her customers, romances provide a utopian vision in which female individuality and a sense of self are shown to be compatible with nurturance and care by another. (p.55)

Dot and her customers are more interested in the affective responses of hero and heroine to each other than in a detailed account of their physical conduct… [they] are interested in the verbal working out of a romance, that is, in the reinterpretation of misunderstood actions and in declarations of mutual love rather than in the portrayal of sexual contact through visual imagery. (p.66)

(This one really intrigues me, because [some] contemporary slash is of course both about the ‘verbal working out of a romance’ and ‘the reinterpretation of misunderstood actions’ and highly sexually explicit: might the difference be because of the difficulty of portraying specifically female sexuality?)

Male brutality is a concern in recent romances, not because women are magnetized or drawn to it, but because they find it increasingly prevalent and horribly frightening… The romance may express misogynistic attitudes not because women share them but because they increasingly need to know how to deal with them. (p.72)

The Smithton women overwhelmingly believe that sex is a wonderful form of intimate communication that should be explored only by two people who care for each other deeply and intend to formalize their relationship through the contract of marriage. For them, the romance is neither a recommendation of female revolt nor a strictly conservative refusal to acknowledge any change. It is, rather, a cognitive exploration of the possibility of adopting and managing some attitude changes about feminine sexuality by making room for them within traditional institutions and structures that they understand to be protective of a woman’s interests. (pp.74-75)

*Damn you, Janice Radway, for your careful research and thoughtful methodology making me nervous about such sweeping generalizations! Plz, dear reader, to bear in mind that this is a blog post, and Radway’s book, as mentioned, is a classic ethnographic survey (and, well, a book).

Advertisements
This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

9 Responses to reading the romance

  1. Garboil says:

    (This one really intrigues me, because [some] contemporary slash is of course both about the ‘verbal working out of a romance’ and ‘the reinterpretation of misunderstood actions’ and highly sexually explicit: might the difference be because of the difficulty of portraying specifically female sexuality?)

    I wonder if anyone’s done a comparison between the percentage of sexually explicit content in het vs. slash? I feel like someone must have done, and it would be interesting to know. Although possibly conflated by age of the authors and intended audience, because I get the impression the internet het community on places like ff.net is somewhat younger on average. You might be able to control for the age bias by looking at het vs. slash print zines from the 80s, since those fan communities tended to have fewer teenagers? Obviously Sentinel and Pros are worthless here and Man from Uncle and Doctor Who have weird fandom structures, but if you used Star Trek OTS or Blakes 7 you might be able to get a relatively unbiased sample. You could just do Blake/Avon vs. Cally/Avon and see what you got- that way you could control for protagonists vs. OCs and one shot characters, which I imagine would be a problem with Kirk/Spock vs. Kirk/Chick of the Week.

    I definitely feel like I’ve read more explicit slash than explicit het, but my reading’s so slash-biased that that’s absolutely meaningless.

  2. nowandrome says:

    Ooh. And a comparison between het fanfic and mainstream-published romance would be really interesting anyway (I have to confess I always forget that het exists).

    B7 would be relatively easy to do, both because it’s one of my fandoms and because it has a brilliant archivist, Sarah Thompson, who kept track of all paper publications into the late 90s. Thanks to her, my gf owns all the paper-published A/B ever written, so we’d just have to track down all the A/C – and I’m going to Redemption this year, so could spend a bit of time in the zine library…

    One of the difficulties of comparison might be that B7 had a particularly nasty slash war back in the 80s, and so slash and gen were particularly fiercely differentiated, ie you had to warn for all slash content no matter how U-rated, but not for non-explicit het (this persists to this day in the pre-set ‘sexual content’ buttons in the Hermit library, which default to ‘kissing/non-explicit sex’ for het and ‘none whatsoever’ for both m/m and f/f). So there are really different generic conventions/expectations for slash and het, in that het could be tucked into gen stories but slash not so much. (When I was active in B7 fandom in 1999-2003ish, there was a vocal movement for ‘gen slash’, which is basically canon [action-adventure stories where m/m relationships are backgrounded and taken for granted.])

    But I have now read more of Janice Radway and have many more thoughts about romance, slash, mpreg, & etc, which I hope to get round to posting either here or on the Dreamwidth journal…

  3. Garboil says:

    One of the difficulties of comparison might be that B7 had a particularly nasty slash war back in the 80s, and so slash and gen were particularly fiercely differentiated

    Hm. I didn’t know that; that’s actually why I said MfU was no good, because it has similar issues (and also the Chick of the Week problem). It’s funny how partial the internet window into fandom history can be; I know some things about the B7 zine era (like the crazy preoccupation with everyone’s caste designations, which were mentioned maybe twice on the show but somehow ended up as the preferred epithets for all the characters; WTF was that?) but I had no idea about this.

    But I think this problem may haunt us in most pre-2000s fandoms. I know it’s true for Transformers (where I’m very familiar with the fandom history) and I’m not sure about Star Trek TOS (it’s not a fandom of mine) but I’d be shocked if it weren’t the case there as well. The trouble with slash being subversive (however subversive it is) is that people treat it like it’s subversive. XD It’s probably not a problem in Sentinel or Pros, but it’s not a problem for the very reason that makes them useless for this study, so…

    You might be able to control for this at least partially by only including stories where the romance is at least a major part of the plot. No ‘gen slash’ or ‘gen het,’ in other words, just stories where some or all of the dramatic tension comes from wondering whether or how Avon hooks up with whoever.

    X-Files might also serve us well here, because they have a weird fandom structure of their own. It’s not one of my fandoms, but I’m given to understand that the Mulder/Scully people and the Not Mulder/Scully people so loathed each other that Mulder/Scully became as divisive as slash was in a normal 90s fandom, and had to be cordoned off with the same vigorous boundary policing that was normally applied to slash. So if you ran Mulder/Scully against, say, Mulder/Krycek, you might have a good comparison, because no one could sneak Mulder/Scully into plotty genfic. It may be a bit post-zine, but it’s pre-ff.net, which I think is probably the key criterion for controlling for age bias.

    What do you know about Highlander fandom? I’m not in it but I know that has slash and recurring female characters, so it might occupy a space roughly comparable to B7 but with less internecine wank.

    • nowandrome says:

      Yeah, people seriously never talk about the B7 wars. It’s like that bit in the Tribbles episode where they ask Warf why the OS Klingons look different and he says WE NEVER SPEAK OF IT. They got very nasty, is all I really know. Similarly with the Alpha/Delta thing, I dunno. Maybe because there’s so little information about canon society, and people glommed onto whatever they had? Or Janice Radway would say it’s because romances are necessarily about power. Me, I suspect it’s something to do with US constructions/fetishization of the British class system, but this is basically only because MFae Glasgow insists on writing Vila’s dialogue in cockerney when Michael Keating is maybe one percent less RADA-Received-Pronunciation than the other actors.

      In B7 fandom there used to be ‘gen’, ‘slash’ and (weirdly) ‘adult’, which might make it possible to filter out gen-het and just compare ‘slash’ and ‘adult’ stories.

      I think I have a couple of friends in Highlander, but I know basically nothing about it except that every time anyone mentions it Freddie Mercury starts singing THERE CAN BE ONLY ONE in my head.

  4. Garboil says:

    this is basically only because MFae Glasgow insists on writing Vila’s dialogue in cockerney when Michael Keating is maybe one percent less RADA-Received-Pronunciation than the other actors.

    God, yes. I remember this; it made me want to stab things. Poor Vila, he was horribly underrated in the zine era. You’d think a fandom about an anti-facist revolutionary cell wouldn’t uncritically adopt a caste system like it was going out of fashion, but apparently not. I had this whole theory at one point about how he was the moral fulcrum of the show because everyone’s readiness to treat him like garbage is the human face of their total ineptitude as revolutionaries (their tendency to deconstruct the master’s dome using his tools, to use your phrasology) and how B/A PGPs that write him out therefore tend to collapse structurally because they’ve missed the whole point of the show. Except I don’t think the writers realized that was the point of the show, but then, that’s sort of the beauty of Blake’s 7, isn’t it?

    which might make it possible to filter out gen-het and just compare ‘slash’ and ‘adult’ stories.

    But then the slash category is going to include everything from gen-slash to NC-17, isn’t it? You’d get the same problem as looking for het in gen, but from the other side. I suppose you could just compare NC-17 stories from het and slash and see what percentage of the total word-count on each is erotica.

    • nowandrome says:

      I don’t think the writers realized that was the point of the show, but then, that’s sort of the beauty of Blake’s 7, isn’t it?

      VERY MUCH SO. It’s a beauty that crystallizes out of the half-plotted, half-completely-randomness of the show, which ends up making it a more complex world than any of those newfangled ‘we have a show bible and we know where everybody lives’ ones, but more satisfyingly complicated than a show that just doesn’t try for consistency at all. Or I think so.

      I like your reading, too, though I don’t see everyone’s tendency to treat Vila like garbage as clearly as you (and I know lots of other people), too! But part of my investment in B7 is that I like them as revolutionaries. I think they do a pretty good job, actually. (Except for Blake in Season 3, when he should be seizing control and inexplicably isn’t.) So my co-ordinates for reading will be different from yours there…

      • Garboil says:

        It’s a beauty that crystallizes out of the half-plotted, half-completely-randomness of the show, which ends up making it a more complex world than any of those newfangled ‘we have a show bible and we know where everybody lives’ ones, but more satisfyingly complicated than a show that just doesn’t try for consistency at all. Or I think so.

        Me too. Like, would Avon even work if Paul Darrow had understood the character at all? This is what concerns me about possible remakes. Avon’s love for Blake is the driving force behind about 50% of the show’s plot, but I don’t think an actor who realized Avon was in love with Blake could have given us Avon’s epic emotional dishonesty, without which he would not be the neurotic Space Libertarian we know and love.

        I like your reading, too, though I don’t see everyone’s tendency to treat Vila like garbage as clearly as you (and I know lots of other people), too!

        I think some of that may be generational? Fandoms definitely seem to go through characterization fads, especially this one (Tarrant was inexplicably popular at one point) and I definitely came in when Vila’s star was on the ascendant. So I’m probably inclined to be more generous to him- and therefore, harsher on everyone else- than someone who was watching from a purely neutral position. Avon had me at “This was all my fault.” “We know.”, so it’s not like I’m exclusively a Vila supporter, but ironically I think that actually made me more more pro-Vila, because it meant I always mistrusted Blake. I was ready to jump on any failures of leadership he might exhibit (I think I feel about Blake roughly how you feel about Dumbledore, LOL), which then made me hypersensitive to Vila getting screwed. Of course, he got screwed a lot more by Avon, but then, Avon never claimed to have any leadership ability or tried to drag other people along on a crusade, so I don’t hold him to such a high standard.

        I like them as revolutionaries. I think they do a pretty good job, actually.

        They get points for effort! In fairness, they did pretty well at running missions and not getting killed, under Blake. I actually think it’s one of the show’s great strengths that it admits you can’t defeat a totalitarian state with sporadic bouts of terrorism. Because… you can’t, historically. You either need an invading foreign army or for the Servalans of the world to get fed up with the old regime. One alien battleship is not a revolution. But most shows are so invested in letting the protagonists defeat the Dark Lord that this kind of politic realism never enters the picture.

  5. nix says:

    (I haven’t anything to add, but I’m reading these comments with great interest!)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s