A Quill Pen

Reading the Romance:

Women, Patriarchy, & Popular Literature

In her book Reading the Romance: Women, Patriarchy, and Popular Literature, Janice A. Radway explores the apparent fascination of romantic fiction to many women, and examines the needs this literary genre fulfills for its readers.

Our required reading was the Introduction and the first four chapters. The Introduction contains a more up-to-date critique of the study, while chapter 1 explains the technological advances that made the romance fiction phenomena possible.

Chapters 2 and 3 describe respectively the statistical breakdowns of the study group of women, and the reasons for and needs met by reading romances.

Generalizing, the author seems to indicate while all the readers in her study group profess to be happily married mothers and wives, the romances fill an important lack in their lives. The readers are nurturers and renewers of the families they are a part of, but due to social constraints they find themselves isolated and in need of nurturance themselves. The romances fill that need for them.

However, this relief is but temporary; repeated reading is needed to sustain it. Thus in the crudest sense romance reading could be said to be addictive.

Nevertheless, the author is careful to also point out that repeated reading of this literary genre has beneficially influenced the lives of many of its readers. Finally, she also explores the explanations utilized by the women to justify dedication of some significant portion of time and money to romance reading.

She notes the two major reasons given are: the romances allow their readers to 'escape,' and the readers claim romances teach them about the world they'll probably never see. The conflicting logics behind each explanation are also covered in some depth.

Radway's discoveries concerning the women readers seem to parallel Levine's concerning the direction the sacralizing creators of "culture" seem to wish to push their ideas. The romance books are described by their individual readers as absorbing, renewing, and illuminating; art is also supposed to edify and uplift, to be appreciated by individuals rather than a mass.

However, the repetitious creation of romances -- as well as the huge number of romance readers -- functions to prevent romances from being considered as art. Nothing mass produced can be true Art, according to its 'high priests,' therefore romances are merely popular culture.

Romance fiction simply isn't elite enough -- frequently its creators are former readers. Thus romance reading can be best likened to what Levine describes as participative or 'low-brow' art.

Because the readers frequently become writers, the audience becomes part of the performance. Because it is mass produced, it is an art form for the masses, and because it is appreciated by the masses it cannot possibly be truly creative, nor truly uplift or ennoble.

I find the culture mavens have apparently based their assertions upon fear and distrust. Like any subculture, they fear being swallowed up and forgotten (or worse, ignored); of becoming part of the (to them) vast, frightening, homogenous 'masses.'

Like many subcultures, they distrust the 'common man,' finding him incapable of governing himself either politically or artistically; they further distrust education as a means of civilization but instead believe only force (of one form or another) will suffice.

Like many subcultures, I suspect their increasingly hysterical assertions of individual elitism will in the end make them hollow, ritual-bound keepers of sterile and heartless products which inspire no one; that doom them to becoming an out-moded and/or forgotten back-eddy in the ever-moving river of cultural development.

However, I find their sacralization of culture amusingly apt in one sense, although I don't think they take it far enough. Marx describes it best, and I feel his words are just as apt for art as religion:

Religion is ... the heart of a heartless world, just as it is the spirit of spiritless conditions. It is the opium of the people.