Janice A. Radway

Janice A. Radway teaches in the literature program at Duke University. Before moving to Duke, she taught in the American Civilization Department at the University of Pennsylvania. She says that her teaching and research interests include the history of books and literary production in the United States, together with the history of reading and consumer culture, particularly as they bear on the lives of women. Radway also teaches cultural studies and feminist theory. A writer for Chronicle of Higher Education described Radway as "one of the leaders in the booming interdisciplinary field of cultural studies." Her first book, Reading the Romance (1984) has sold more than 30,00 copies in two editions. Her second book, A Feeling for Books: The Book-of-the-Month Club, Literary Taste, and Middle-Class Desire appeared in October of 1997. What follows is a topic-outline of the introduction to the English version of her first book.

Editors' note: Radway's introduction to the British version of her book reminds us of the importance of the context of intellectual production whilst outlining her study of American romance readers as an "interpretive community." Her auto-criticism remains one of the few examples of a multi-layered analysis of a hugely popular fictional genre and its readers (p. 2).

Reading Reading the Romance

1. introduction

I am writing a new introduction to the English edition (1987) of Reading the Romance (1984), in which I study the particular nature of the relationship between audiences and texts. My theoretical claim to be doing something new will seem odd to a British audience. Nevertheless, my book takes up questions that British feminists and cultural studies scholars have tackled. I would like to discuss those questions, and so say something about the political implications of Reading the Romance (p. 62).

British readers will note that the argument is directed to American Studies scholars working in the USA, who have been preoccupied with the following question: What can a literary text be taken as evidence for? This focus may seem oblique to people who have read the book as a contribution to feminist scholarship or to communications studies theory (pp. 62-63).

American Studies

In 1977, I was hired by the American Civilization Department, University of Pennsylvania, which by the way had a reputation for challenging an earlier American Studies orthodoxy. That orthodoxy, formed in the late 1940s and the early 1950s, developed as a reaction to the hegemony of New Criticism in American English departments. Disturbed by the preoccupation with formalist criticism, some students of American literature demanded that the study of classic American literary texts include the study of the historical context in which they were conceived. American Studies programs grew out of this movement. At this time, most scholars still believed that the most reliable record of the American past could be found in the country's "greatest works of art" (p. 63).

The American Civilization Department began to elaborate a critique of the assumption that works selected on the aesthetic criterion would be representative of the larger selections of the population that had never read such books. These scholars argued that "elite" literature might be taken as evidence for the beliefs of only a particular section of the American population. They claimed that, if accurate statements were to be made about "ordinary" Americans, the popular literature produced for and consumed by them ought to be the focus of attention (p. 63).

the ethnographic turn

I was hired because I had studied popular literature. My thesis director, Russel Nye, was among the first scholars to study American popular culture in the USA. They promoted (as a method of analysis) formal textual analysis and textual exegesis (pp. 63-64).

When I arrived, my colleagues were employing ethnographic methods to make sense of American culture. They defined culture in anthropological terms, thinking of it as the whole way of life of a historically and temporarily situated people. Interestingly enough, our ethnography-oriented classes were initiated about the time the launchers of the Birmingham Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies [CCCS], including Raymond Williams and Stuart Hall, launched their classes. Mind you, Marxism played a small role in the turn to ethnography in American Studies (p. 64).

2. my study

The ethnographic turn began to have relevance for me. I wondered how I might answer the following research question: What can a literary text be taken as evidence for? I wanted to discover how particular communities actually read particular texts. At the beginning, I focused on ethnographies of reading (p. 65).

Note: Radway asked 42 readers--she called them the Smithton women--to respond to a questionnaire exploring their "reading motives, habits, rewards" with respect to romance fiction.

3. approach

I conceptualized this project--Reading the Romance--as a response to a set of theoretical questions about literary texts. I thought that empirically-based ethnographies of reading would give me a more accurate description of what a book meant to a given audience.

rethinking ethnography

I soon modified my approach, having realized my ethnographic descriptions were interpretations, i.e., my constructions of my informants' constructions of what they were up to. Like Angela McRobbie, I now believe that "representations are interpretations." I no longer feel that ethnographies of reading should replace textual interpretation completely. I now recommend a multi-focused approach, which attempts to do justice to the ways historical subjects understand and partially control their behaviour (pp. 65-66).

In Reading the Romance, I attempted to deal with literary production and consumption as a complex social processes. Marxist literary theory (on ideology) reinforced my on-going interest in feminist literature. I chose the Gothic Romance because my participation in a feminist consciousness-raising group had made me curious about feminist scholarly writing. I had hoped to bring together my feminist "personal" life with my supposedly non-gendered academic work. This transformation was slow: I spent seven years writing the book (p. 66).

considering Fish's theory of interpretive communities

The study emerged as a function of my theoretical concerns. I had started with the assumption--formulated by reader theorist Stanley Fish--that textual interpretations are constructed by interpretive communities using specific interpretive strategies. Thus, I still thought of reading as interpretation and saw the project as one of focusing on the "differential interpretations" of texts. Only when the Smithton women repeatedly told me about the meaning of romance reading as a social event in a familial context could I see that my study intersected with work being done in Britain (pp. 66-67).

thinking about audience research

Thus, romance readers and the way they articulated their concerns pushed me into the audience-studies of Paul Willis, David Morley, Angela McRobbie, among others. I was surprised to learn that the women readers constructed the act of reading as a "declaration of independence." I wanted to distinguish analytically between the significance of the event of reading and the meaning of the text constructed as a consequence (p. 67). What the book became was an account of romance reading as a form of behaviour.

I take up this theoretical position: (a) "there is no overall intrinsic message or meaning in the work"; (b) the work "comes alive and communicates when readers add their own interpretations and understandings to the program"; and (c) "there can be as many interpretations of a program [or text] as individual viewers bring to it." Nevertheless, we can see patterns in what viewers and readers bring to texts and media messages in large part because they acquire specific cultural competencies as a consequence of their particular social location. I argue that similar readings are produced because similarly located readers learn a similar set of reading strategies and interpretive codes which they bring to bear upon the texts they encounter (pp. 67-68).

We can detect patterns to what viewers and readers bring to texts and media messages--because they acquire specific cultural competencies. We detect similar readings when readers employ a set of reading strategies and interpretative codes (p. 68).

I turned to Fish's notion of "interpretive communities" to theorize these regularities and then attempted to determine whether or not the Smithton women operate on romances as an interpretive community. We should remember that Fish tried to account for the differing interpretations in the academic community. But did the Smithton women form an "interpretive community"? They formed a relatively homogeneous group: they not only gave remarkably similar answers to my questions, they constantly referred to the connection between their reading and their daily social situation as wives and mothers. I theorized that reading romances is related to the notion of "patriarchal marriage."

thinking about a genre-based theory of interpretation

David Morley talks about the mechanisms of (this) determination in his study, The "Nationwide" Audience (1980). Morley suggested that audience research might be more successful if it turned to a genre-based theory of interpretation and interaction--instead of a simple encoding-decoding model. Such a theory (he says) might more adequately theorize the process of reading as a complex and interrelated series of actions. A genre framework would thus focus attention on the kinds of cultural competencies that are learned as a consequence of social formations (p. 69).

A theory in which genre is thought of as a set of rules for the production of meaning--operable via writing and reading--might explain why certain sets of texts are interesting to particular groups of people. The question I would ask is: What competencies prepare certain women to recognize romances as relevant to their experience and as potential routes to pleasure?

4. findings

Reading the Romance attempts (a) to understand how the Smithton women's social and material situation prepares them to find the act of reading attractive and even necessary; (b) to characterize the structure of the particular narratives the women have chosen to engage; and (c) by means of psychoanalytic theory, to explain how and why such a structured "story" might be experienced as pleasurable (p. 70).

social and material situation

Most of the first half of the book deals with the social and material situation within which romance reading occurs. I survey the social forces resulting in the mass production of romances during the 1970s and the 1980s. Again, the Smithton women saw reading as a way of participating in a large, exclusively female community. They repeatedly explained their reading as a way of temporarily refusing the demands associated with their role as wives and mothers; they said that romance reading functioned as a "declaration of independence," as a way of securing privacy while at the same time providing companionship and conversation. In this way, I unpack the significance of the word "escape."

The romance readers of Smithton use their books to erect a barrier between themselves and their families. The simple act of reading a book serves as a way of declaring themselves off-limits. I try to make the case for seeing romance reading as a form of resistance to a situation predicated on the assumption that women alone are responsible for the care and the emotional nurturance of others. For them, romance reading creates a feeling of hope. I wondered about the conditions that prepared the Smithton women to choose romances from among all the books available to them. How did the heroine's experience foster their ability to see the heroine's story as interesting and how did it account for their willingness to see their own pleasure through the heroine's at the moment when they were directly confronting their dissatisfaction with traditionally structured heterosexual relationships? (p. 71)

psychoanalytic theory

In looking for a way to link a specific desire with a particular route to the fulfilment of that desire, I turned to psychoanalytic theory in general and Nancy Chodorow's feminist version of Freud in particular. Apparently, the Smithton women felt an intense need to be nurtured and cared for, despite their universal claim to being happily married. Romance reading addressed needs, desires, and wishes that a male partner could not. Chodorow's theories helps me explain this ongoing search for the mother (p. 72).

the structure of romances

This psychoanalytic account of romance reading postulated that, even after the oedipal turn to the father and heterosexuality had been negotiated, the Smithton women felt an ongoing, unfulfilled longing for the mother. Consciously and unconsciously, they pointed to the fact that, in ideal romances, the hero is constructed androgynously. They emphasized the fact that they valued his capacity for tenderness.

Chodorow's theories helped me explain what I thought were the twin objects of desire underlying romance reading: the desire (a) for for nurturance represented/provided by the preoedipal mother and (b) for the power/autonomy associated with the oedipal father. That is, romance reading permitted the ritual retelling of the psychic process by which traditional heterosexuality was constructed for women.

Chodorow's revision of psychoanalytic theory thus helped me explain the construction of the particular desires that seem to be met by the act of romance reading. It also explains how via the romance narrative female subjectivity is brought into being in the patriarchal family. It reveals a deep irony: women who are experiencing the consequences of patriarchal marriage's failure to address their needs turn to a story which ritually recites the history of the process by which those needs are constituted. They do so because the fantasy resolution of the tale ensures that the heroine achieves the pleasures the readers long for. In thus reading the story of a woman who is granted adult autonomy, a secure position, and the completion produced by maternal nurturance, all in the person of the romantic hero, the Smithton women are repetitively asserting to be true what their still-unfulfilled desire demonstrates to be false, i.e., heterosexuality can create a coherent, fully satisfied, female subjectivity (p. 73).

5. concluding remarks

To conclude, romance reading is full of conflict. The account of the romance developed here is similar to Valerie Walkerdine's account of girls' comics as a practice that channels psychic conflicts and contradictions in particular ways. It is similar to Alison Light's argument--in her analysis of Daphne Du Maurier's novel Rebecca--that women's romance reading is "as much a measure of their deep dissatisfaction with heterosexual options as any desire to be fully identified with the submissive versions of femininity the texts endorse." Romance imagines peace, security, and ease precisely because it sees dissension, insecurity, and difficulty (p. 73).

the crucial question

The crucial question surrounding the act of romance reading is: What ultimate effect has the fantasy resolution on the women who seek it again and again? Does the romance's endless rediscovery of the virtues of passive female sexuality merely stitch the reader ever more resolutely into the fabric of patriarchal culture? Reading the Romance ends with no answer to this question and others related to it.

Recent critical work on the romance reveals that the genre has found it necessary to engage feminism among other contemporary matters. Ann Jones argues that, as a result, the contradictions within the genre have intensified. I have found that many of the more sexually explicit romances come very close to validating female desire--yet these romances fail to unravel the connection between female sexual desire and monogamous marriage. The editorial guidelines (quoted on p. 74) highlight this problem.

the struggle over the romance

Over the years, the romance is being changed--and the women who write romances have struggled with the form. In fact, the struggle over the romance is itself part of the larger struggle for the right to define/control female sexuality. Catherine Kirkland--who studied a group of romance writers--found that most had been avid readers before they turned their hand to writing. Some may want to promote changes outside the privatized family environment (p. 75).

Romance writers and readers are themselves struggling with gender definitions and sexual politics on their own terms and what they may need most from those of us struggling in other arenas is support rather than criticism (p. 76).

Works Cited

Radway, Janice. 1987. "Reading Reading the Romance." In Studies in Culture: An Introductory Reader, ed. Ann Gray and Jim McGuigan. London: Arnold, 1997, pp. 62-79.

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