By the end of my first full day with Dorothy Evans and her customers, I had come to realize that although the Smithton women are not accustomed to thinking about what it is in the romance that gives them so much pleasure, they know perfectly well why they like to read. I understood this only when their remarkably consistent comments forced me to relinquish my inadvertent but continuing preoccupation with the text. Because the women always responded to my query about their reasons for reading with comments about the pleasures of the act itself rather than about their liking for the particulars of the romantic plot, I soon realized I would have to give up my obsession with textual features and narrative details if I wanted to understand their view of romance reading. Once I recognized this it became clear that romance reading was important to the Smithton women first because the simple event of picking up a book enabled them to deal with the particular pressures and tensions encountered in their daily round of activities.
Radway, J. A. (1984). Reading the romance: Women, patriarchy, and popular literature. Univ of North Carolina Press.
Before Joanna Russ or Patricia Frazer Lamb and Diana L. Veith had tentatively started writing about Kirk/Spock slash, and before Henry Jenkins or Camille Bacon-Smith had begun their ethnographies of fandom, before fan studies was even a thing, Janice A. Radway sat down with a group of women who avidly read romance novels, trying to understand why. As the quote above indicates, Radway’s initial interest was in romance novels as a textual form: how do they work, what stories do they tell, what messages do they send, and just why are they so damn popular? What she didn’t expect was how deeply romance novels were intertwined with her research participants’ day-to-day lives. She found she couldn’t just focus on the texts – she had to look at the practices of those who read them too. While Reading the Romance isn’t a fan studies work as such, it marked a key shift in cultural studies, from looking at texts alone to looking at what audiences did with texts, from viewing audiences as entirely passive to recognising their agency. This in turn enabled others to start asking the kinds of questions that eventually established fan studies as a field.
(Oh, and the book helped establish popular romance studies as a field too – talk about overachieving! Over the next few weeks I’ll be posting some more quotes from popular romance studies research, partly because a lot of it is fan-centric, and partly because fanfic and romance have quite a lot in common, so understanding one helps with understanding the other.)
I’ll leave you with a quote from one of Radway’s research participants on what happens when she picks up a romance novel: “Because I think men do feel threatened. They want their wife to be in the room with them. And I think my body is in the room but the rest of me is not.”