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).