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Reading the Romance: Women, Patriarchy, and Popular Literature

3.74  ·  Rating details ·  444 ratings  ·  50 reviews
Originally published in 1984, Reading the Romance challenges popular (and often demeaning) myths about why romantic fiction, one of publishing's most lucrative categories, captivates millions of women readers. Among those who have disparaged romance reading are feminists, literary critics, and theorists of mass culture. They claim that romances enforce the woman reader's d ...more
Paperback, 288 pages
Published November 30th 1991 by University of North Carolina Press (first published October 17th 1984)
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Claire Reads Books
Aug 22, 2020 rated it really liked it
4.5 ⭐️ Outdated for sure and limited in scope, but still a FASCINATING look at romance reading and an invaluable consideration, more broadly, of how to read popular fiction / mass-produced cultural objects. Also provides an opportunity to look at how far romance, as a genre, has come since 1984.
Ms Radway believes the romance novel (heterosexual; from the '70s and '80s) is not truly a novel; rather, she says, it is a myth. Like Joseph Campbell's hero monomyth (The Hero With a Thousand Faces), she attempts to track the path of the romance monomyth. She separates her analysis into two section: the act of reading the romance and the narrative structure of the romance.

One major theme Radway presents centers around the idea that a reader not only enjoys her escapism, but she receives import
Yes, this book is thoroughly academic and a little out of date, as one might expect from a book published in 1984. But when I reached "CHAPTER 2: The Readers and Their Romances", things go more smoothly.

Mass market romance novels took off in the 70's so, by this time, a firm fan base was established among Midwestern housewives. On the surface, I have little in common with the test group, but it was interesting to see where our interests intersect.


Writing Reading the Romanc
Dec 07, 2007 rated it really liked it
Recommends it for: bodice rippees
Shelves: chicklits
It's possible this is so dated by now as to be nearly irrelevant, but it's still very, very dear to my heart, by which I mean this vulnerable, untamable organ thumping passionately beneath my soft, pale, untouched, perfectly rounded breast.

This book made the point awhile ago that the pantsuit-wearing masses don't just passively consume popular culture, but actually do create their own meanings in ways that aren't always immediately obvious to the fancy-pantser degree holders who think they know
Jul 08, 2011 rated it really liked it
This book is an ethnography of romance readers in the earlier 80s. The author doesn't come out and say so, exactly, but my impression is that these are women who were reading, like, crack-addict levels of books.

It's great. The author gets into why they were reading, what they liked and didn't like, what the romances were potentially giving them in terms of enabling them to interpret and negotiate their own marriages and kids, etc.

I love it so much. I don't even know why. I love that it takes t
Sep 22, 2012 rated it liked it
Let's just begin with the often mentioned phrase that this book is outdated. It certainly is. Or at least I definitely hope so. What I found striking is that I didn't find it very critical. The conclusion seemed to be the most critical part of the book. I would have preferred more criticism throughout the individual chapters. Also, I kept waiting for a more general approach to the whole topic. The inclusion of the Smithon women was alright, but not enough in my opinion. What is a romance? I stil ...more
Oct 26, 2010 rated it liked it
Read only part of this for a course. An ethnography of women in a fly-over state who read romance fiction. Looks at why they do it, why romances, how they use reading as a way to cope with patriarchal relationships and expectations. Some of the conclusions are iffy, but a milestone text for ASKING people why they do what they do, rather than ASSUMING you can figure it out because you're such a smarty-pants intellectual.
Roxana Chirilă
Sep 12, 2014 rated it really liked it
An interesting book, really worth reading, even though the study is done on a relatively small number of women, and despite the fact that you can feel the way Janice Radway looks down on her subjects.

Otherwise, it contains a number of really neat things, such as the ordinary structure of the romance, the effect of romance novels on women's lives, considerations on escapism... Quite interesting, quite fun.
Mar 05, 2011 rated it really liked it
This paper was for a class and a little more academic than most of my reviews, but it's still a book review, so it's getting included here.

Janice Radway received her BA (with highest honors) in and 1971 and her Ph.D. in English and American Studies in 1977 from Michigan State University, and her M.A. from the State University of New York at Stony Brook. When Reading the Romance was published in 1984, she was an associate professor in the American Civilization Department at the University of Penn
This is my all-time fav feminist media studies book. Radway unpacks the term "escape" beautifully. She argues how reading romance is a harmless activity that women do to fend themselves off from their domestic duties. It provides a grounded account of how this reading practice facilitates the Smithton women to create their own spaces to learn things or travel in their chairs. Women can identify with the heroines in the fairy tale narrative structure to explore the social consequences of romance, ...more
Sep 16, 2017 rated it really liked it
Radway wrings an impressive amount of ideas out of a modest ethnographic study. Despite this book's age, most of the ideas in this book continue to be illuminating and relevant.


Indeed, it was the women readers’ construction of the act of romance reading as a “declaration of independence” that surprised me into the realization that the meaning of their media use was multiply determined and internally contradictory and that to get at its complexity, it would be helpful to distinguish
Oct 22, 2009 rated it liked it
I'd been wanting to read this book since I read a chapter from it in a Feminist Theory class in grad school, so when I came across a used copy, I nearly raced to the checkout counter to buy it.

But when I finally read it, I wasn't as tickled as I'd hoped I'd be. I found Radway's writing style to be, if not precisely dull, sort of lacking in the kind of flourishes and flashes that make you want to read more of her.... I'd finish a paragraph, and then find myself needing to recommit all over again
Apr 04, 2012 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I think I suddenly understand why Twilight is so popular...

This was a fascinating book. Romance isn't a genre I particularly enjoy reading, but since I'm writing a paper on Seventeenth Summer and Why We Broke Up(neither of which are quite romances according to the definition that Radway develops), I thought that it would be negligent of me to not read this. And I wasn't disappointed!

Radway details a case study that she did of a small(ish) group of women who are heavy romance readers (multiple no
Feb 02, 2015 rated it really liked it
Janice Radway's book Read the Romance is an interesting book. It revolves around her ethnographical study of a specific set of women in a specific community in the United States. The upside is that from an ethnographic research perspective, it's very detailed and complete. Plus, it was one of the first studies of its kind. The downside is that it's from the 1980s and it is very obvious that Radway, as a feminist, is not impressed with, and looks down on, the women she is studying. She did not co ...more
Alexandra Michaelides
A very interesting look at a genre I'm not too familiar with. The book is mostly recounting the opinions of a group of well-read romance fans. Not to discount Radway, but in a way I wish she had written a different book. I would have loved a more in-depth discussion, using multiple feminist perspectives to frame and give a greater context to the responses of the sample audience. Especially I wish Radway had spent more analysis on the issue of rape in romance novels, especially when the 'hero' is ...more
Pomme de Terre
Jan 31, 2018 rated it really liked it
I know Radway's supposed to be outdated now, but I thought this was still super interesting and not as condescending as I was primed to expect it to be. I imagine I'm not the only one who read this because they wanted to talk about their complicated love for romantic narratives, because putting aside its fidelity to the reality of romance reading, that is what it felt like. A long, satisfying, in-depth talk to someone about a topic you have a lot of passionate, jumbled thoughts on. A lot of the ...more
Jun 12, 2007 rated it really liked it
I found this a very interesting approach to the analysis of what women get from romance novels. It's certainly flawed in the sense that it surveyed a very small sample of women whose opinions were probably dominated by the leader of their group, but the questions as asked seemed likely to yield results that take the romance readers' opinions seriously. Of particular value is the notion that just because a romance publisher publishes a book doesn't mean that the audience, having bought the book, ...more
Sep 10, 2011 rated it it was amazing
Radway's study is a treat among academic books. Her style is highly accessible, and she presents her findings in a sensitive, interesting and engaging way.

Reading the Romance presents the results of Radway's study of a group of female "popular romance" readers. From her discussions with them, and their responses to questionnaires, she pieces together their likes, dislikes, and motivations, presenting a surprisingly interesting insight into why "popular romance" is so popular. She also offers a
Aug 09, 2011 rated it really liked it
A brilliant read. It is rather dated--it was published in 1984--but nevertheless has incredibly important things to say, and its main social and political points are still relevant today, especially regarding a woman's role in society. (My edition had a 1995 updated Introduction by the author, which was very helpful.) Radway makes it clear that everyone's position matters, and her ethnography on female readers of romance books brings that point home. I could go on and on about this book, but suf ...more
Apr 27, 2013 added it
Shelves: theory-criticism
(UNC Press 1991 reprint)

What the psychoanalytically based interpretation reveals is the deep irony hidden in the fact that women who are experiencing the consequences of patriarchal marriage's failure to address their needs turn to a story that ritually recites the history of the process by which those needs are constituted. They do so, it appears, because the fantasy resolution of the tale ensures the heroine's achievement of the very pleasure the readers endlessly long for. In thus reading the
Amanda Hamilton
May 17, 2013 rated it liked it
"The romantic narrative demonstrates that a woman must learn to trust her man and to believe that he loves her deeply even in the face of massive evidence to the contrary. The fantasy's conclusion suggests that when she manages such trust, he will reciprocate with declarations of his commitment to her.

...sound familiar? ;)

Just checking her Wikipedia page, the author is still alive and now I'm curious what she would have to say about the paranormal romance genre or even the BDSM boom brought on b
Sep 22, 2013 rated it liked it
She raises a lot of important points, but she could/should have been less condescending towards romance novels and their readers.
Aug 02, 2020 rated it liked it
Shelves: to-read-romance
I was fascinated by the interviews and some of the history of paperback books in the US. Overall, however, the tone was condescending (e.g. "we might join hands with women who are after all, our sisters," implication of romance readers in need of uplift from 'real' feminists; romance readers described as exploring their reality as "appendages of men"). My biggest complaint was that Radway could only conceive of feminism as "real" if she heard the expected scholarly language, shibboleth. She was ...more
Oct 01, 2018 added it
Recommended to shatine by: marbleflan
I wasn't sure how much I'd get out of this, since it's a pretty dry book published before I was born about a genre I don't read. But I could transpose it onto fanfic (parts of it worked interestingly well, parts interestingly did not), and the focus on the the actual reading of books, and the readers, was new to me. Real live books, interacting with humans in the wild! I wish my high school English classes had had anything along these lines.
Ortinbae goes AWOL to read
Jun 18, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: gender-studies
This book is the best, I love it and I recommend that you read it.
Apr 19, 2020 rated it really liked it
Fascinating look at romance novels, publishers, the patriarchy, and the women who read romances. Really dense book--some headings or chapter breaks would have been good.
Brenna Sherrill
Sep 12, 2020 rated it really liked it
Academic reading can be fun!
C.E. G
Nov 10, 2011 rated it really liked it
Recommends it for: romance readers, because I want to hear their reactions
Really interesting and nuanced study of Midwestern romance-reading housewives in the 1980s. Radway examines their reading habits, traits of successful and failed romances, and how readers view their experiences. I was expecting a feminist defense of romance, but her conclusion was much more complex than that. She concludes that romance is a way for women to take time for themselves and form community with other readers, which is sort of a feminist act. But this is tempered by the texts themselve ...more
Feb 01, 2009 rated it liked it
Shelves: owned
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
Jan 14, 2014 rated it it was amazing
When I was assigned this book by my thesis supervisor, I didn't dare to hope that it will be very much readable or enjoyable. But it was! Even though this book was disussing reading habits of housewifes in the 80s, I found out that I read many of the books discussed there in my teens. Radway thorougly examined the Smithton women's reading habbits and provided many an interesting analyses of the novels and their impact on the said readers. I could do without the psychoanalyses detour, but I guess ...more
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