Books Genre Meta Writing

Romance and narrative structure

At Brooklyn Arden, Cheryl Klein is saying interesting things about narrative elements of the romance plot, YA, and Taylor Swift; Malinda Lo responds to a question in Klein’s comments about how those narrative elements may or may not change in queer romance plots.

Allow me to geek out for a moment. (I taught a class in fall 2009 on the development of the category romance, which means I have thought way too much about the building blocks of romance narratives.) What’s fascinating to me is how Klein’s list of narrative elements overlaps with but does not exactly match the set of narrative structural elements laid out by Janice Radway in Reading the Romance, a sociological study of romance readers published in 1984. (Pamela Regis’s A Natural History of the Romance Novel proposes something similar, though Radway’s [EDIT: specifically structural narrative] analysis suits me better because it’s more Proppian.) If you study popular fiction as an academic, Reading the Romance is a core text. [EDIT: I don’t mean that it’s an uncritically celebrated text, just that people still consider it important, despite its flaws, as one of the early cultural-studies approaches to a particularly literary genre & its readers.] According to the blurb on the UNC website (linked above), RtR

… 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. [KB: Interesting distancing there, considering that Radway is also a feminist, literary critic, and theorist of mass culture.] They claim that romances enforce the woman reader’s dependence on men and acceptance of the repressive ideology purveyed by popular culture. Radway questions such claims, arguing that critical attention “must shift from the text itself, taken in isolation, to the complex social event of reading.” She examines that event, from the complicated business of publishing and distribution to the individual reader’s engagement with the text.

Radway’s provocative approach combines reader-response criticism with anthropology and feminist psychology. Asking readers themselves to explore their reading motives, habits, and rewards, she conducted interviews in a midwestern town with forty-two romance readers whom she met through Dorothy Evans, a chain bookstore employee who has earned a reputation as an expert on romantic fiction. Evans defends her customers’ choice of entertainment; reading romances, she tells Radway, is no more harmful than watching sports on television.

“We read books so we won’t cry” is the poignant explanation one woman offers for her reading habit. Indeed, Radway found that while the women she studied devote themselves to nurturing their families, these wives and mothers receive insufficient devotion or nurturance in return. In romances the women find not only escape from the demanding and often tiresome routines of their lives but also a hero who supplies the tenderness and admiring attention that they have learned not to expect.

Radway may question the claims made by other critics, but as the end of that passage suggests, she also reinforces some of their findings. Specifically, she suggests that romance novels teach their readers to create fantasies that will render their unsatisfying marital relationships more satisfying by applying the rules of the hero’s “transformation” to their husbands: he rarely shows me tenderness, but because he does show it occasionally, he must secretly feel it all the time; those moments are the only moments when he allows himself to show it, but knowing that tenderness exists should be enough. This is, of course, a super depressing idea — the notion that escapist literature only serves to reify the status quo, in this case by preventing women from questioning their relationships/gender roles/the patriarchy/etc. — and one that I imagine pisses a lot of romance readers right off. I can’t say I completely disagree with the notion that the romance plot as it exists in most mainstream romance novels [EDIT: I should say “most mainstream novels in the era Radway was studying,” which is what I meant] reinforces the status quo, but this particular formulation of that idea sure does assume a major lack of self-awareness on the part of the readers in question. (See this interesting blog post at Teach Me Tonight about Radway’s assessment of the Smithton readers.)

Radway is rightly criticized for the condescending tone she often adopts when writing about the women she studies — there’s sometimes a certain element of the pruriently ethnographic in the way she talks about what they really get out of reading romances (which is not always identical to what they say they get out of it). If I remember correctly, she addresses this in the preface she added to later editions of the book. Regardless: this book is still well worth reading, as is Radway’s A Feeling for Books (1999).

And now to the geekiest bit. My students read Radway’s chapter on the “Ideal Romance,” in which she uses the Smithton readers’ responses to a survey to build the narrative schema I mentioned before. This is how Radway describes the building blocks of their ideal romance:

  1. The heroine’s social identity is destroyed.
  2. The heroine reacts antagonistically to an aristocratic male.
  3. The aristocratic male responds ambiguously to the heroine.
  4. The heroine interprets the hero’s behavior as evidence of a purely sexual interest in her.
  5. The heroine responds to the hero’s behavior with anger or coldness.
  6. The hero retaliates by punishing the heroine.
  7. The heroine and hero are physically and/or emotionally separated.
  8. The hero treats the heroine tenderly.
  9. The heroine responds warmly to the hero’s act of tenderness.
  10. The heroine reinterprets the hero’s ambiguous behavior as the product of previous hurt.
  11. The hero proposes/openly declares his love for/demonstrates his unwavering commitment to the heroine with a supreme act of tenderness.
  12. The heroine responds sexually and emotionally.
  13. The heroine’s identity is restored. (RtR 134)

Radway’s mapping out a particular plot, of course — the plot that her survey respondents said they liked best and felt was most successful — while Klein and Lo are both talking about narrative elements more individually. But there are still some direct overlaps: separation, sacrifice, “being known,” “moral education.” I would be really curious to know if many romance readers today would cite a similar plotline as their “ideal romance,” or if they’d be more likely to pick out individual narrative themes/building blocks and cite those. And I also wonder if the above narrative is often reproduced in gay romance, or not — since there are, as Lo points out, other narratives that often dominate gay romance, at least as it’s depicted in the mainstream (some negatively, some more positively). Thoughts? Observations from people who actually read romance regularly?

EDIT: Please see my comments below to Carolyn and Jessica about Radway’s book and my interest in it (which is about the structural geekiness described above, not about her theories regarding why women read romance novels). I didn’t clarify this well enough in my original post. Sorry!


  1. What interests me is that the plotline cited is basically Pride and Prejudice, which probably explains why there are such crazy numbers of sequels, spin-offs, and other P&P related media out there. I mean, it’s P&P stripped down to its romance novel essentials, losing all the social commentary or ambiguity in the characters (like how Elizabeth basically goes “Hm, nice house, too bad I turned the owner down”), but if that’s the ideal romance plotline, it’s also easy to understand why so many people who might not otherwise be your typical reader of early 19th century fiction consider themselves Austen fans.

  2. Argh!!! There is just so much here that is patronizing and just wrong. I find it quite interesting that no one suggests that non-romance readers are unable to separate fantasy and reality or that they are deliberately covering reality with the fantasy (supposedly) contained in their reading.

    Is anyone applying that same thinking to other genres? What fantasies do readers of Mysteries or Thrillers pull out of those books and use to compensate for alleged inadequacies of their lives?

    “Specifically, she suggests that romance novels teach their readers to create fantasies that will render their unsatisfying marital relationships more satisfying by applying the rules of the hero’s “transformation” to their husbands…”

    What? Seriously, what? Not all romance readers are married. There is no evidence to suggest that married romance readers are unhappily married — quite the opposite, actually.

    I’m quite tired of academics approaching Romance with the conviction that readers of romance read these books because they are psychologically deficient.

  3. Maren, yeah, absolutely. We read Emma in the class I taught Radway in, so we talked a lot about how Austen’s plots had become archetypal (Klein mentions Emma and P&P as archetypal “moral education” stories). And then Austen herself was borrowing a lot, too — the structure of P&P is not dissimilar to the structure of Burney’s Evelina.

  4. Carolyn — the reason that Radway talks about marriage is that almost all the respondents to the survey she did were married, and did express unhappiness about their marriages in their survey responses, apparently. But then she does draw sweeping conclusions from that, and that’s what loads of readers of her book have had a problem with, and for good reason. I think the fact that she wrote the book more than 25 years ago is relevant — in 1984, when it was published, she really was trying to argue that romance-reading was an interesting, valuable thing (presumably addressing other academics who didn’t think it was worth their time to analyze romances), and that her survey respondents reported feeling empowered by their reading. But her own analysis of their responses, and of the specific way they said they felt empowered, is definitely patronizing.

    As somebody who reads a lot of eighteenth-century lit, what I find really interesting is that (male) writers in the 18th century totally did suggest that all young female novel readers were unable to separate fantasy and reality! The novel itself was thought of as dangerous because of this — basically, it wasn’t till the 19th century that it became a more “respectable” form (and more men were writing novels then, of course).

    I agree that romances and their readers are often singled out for mockery, but I do think you probably could find negative cultural stereotypes about, say, cozy mystery readers — do you think? And writers of other genre books definitely do contend with prejudice from more mainstream literary establishments (cf. the whole “Franzenfreude”/Jodi Picoult/Jennifer Weiner thing this week).

    Thanks for your comment!

  5. Perhaps others with more experience will chime in, as I am semi-new to romance both as a reader and an academic, but my understanding is that the Radway is considered, at best, a “core text” in the sense of its historical importance to the development of the academic study of popular romance, but that it is no longer (if it ever was — I have serious methodological questions about that study as do many) applicable to today’s romance novels or readers.

    You write: “I would be really curious to know if many romance readers today would cite a similar plotline as their ‘ideal romance,’ or if they’d be more likely to pick out individual narrative themes/building blocks and cite those. ”

    One way to begin to answer such a question would be to frequent the many blogs at which romance readers address these questions to themselves and each other. I notice that there is not a single romance site in your list of links.

    You mention Teach Me Tonight, an excellent resource run by Laura Vivanco, a leader in popular romance studies. Other sites where serious (if not always academic) discussion of romance take place are the new online Journal for Popular Romance Studies (, Dear Author (, my own blog (, Isn;t It romance? ( I see you are twitter. you may want to follo @sonomalass, @redrobinreader, @cjewel — hi Carolyn! — @growlycub, @lazaraspaste, @jonathanaallen, @ericselinger, @sunita_d, @mcvane. Most of these are PhD holders in the humanities, but all of them know a hell of a lot about romance.

  6. Jessica, thanks! Yes, I know that Radway is considered outdated, and I can see that that wasn’t clear enough in my summary of her book. I only added that summary because I thought many people who came to this post might not know about the book, and I wanted to give some context about Radway’s original argument.

    What I like about Radway’s book isn’t her characterization of romance readers — it’s the attempt she makes to break down the romance narratives she’s given by her survey respondents (which are mostly derived from ’70s-era books like The Flame and the Flower — into structural elements in a Proppian style. My students only read the structural sections of the chapter on the ideal romance; we weren’t attempting to use Radway’s theories about why romance readers read romance. I hope that clarifies my interest in Radway’s book, and I’ll mention this comment in the post itself in an attempt to clarify.

    I hope it’s clear, too, that this is a post made in the spirit of admitting that I know very little about contemporary romance (the class I taught had even less to do with it; it was all pre-1970s). Reading the posts made by Cheryl Klein and Malinda Lo made me think about one of the few books on romance novels I have read in depth, and in the course of writing up this post I thought of some question I hope to have time to explore in the future; hence my last paragraph, which certainly isn’t meant to suggest that nobody out there has thought about those questions. I appreciate the links you left — I’ve visited some of those sites before but many of the Twitter users you mentioned are new to me (except @sonomalass!).

  7. Thanks for clarifying, Katharine. I don’t find it surprising in the least that in the past (18th/19th C) men believed women would be harmed by novel reading. The cultural stereotype was one of inferiority, which had to have been challenged by reality, since in fact, women are not intellectually inferior. What’s disheartening is how that stereotype persists today. Radway herself makes that same leap, and she’s by no means alone. People are still making that leap of logic.

    The same argument is embedded in the NYT Franzen discussion. Women’s writing is inferior and the male perspective of women’s lives is more worthy. Never mind the number of male writers in the literary canon who have written fundamentally unrealistic women. Heck, never mind that Franzen’s book is horrifically flawed with respect to his female character.

    Too much (but not all) of the study of romance seems to be based on the assumption that the subject matter is unworthy, the readers inferior and the stories themselves lacking in depth or worth.

    Cozy mystery readers do tend to be women (as do the authors) and it’s been amply pointed out in the writing community (see Laure Lippman’s blog) that when the NYT reviews a mystery, it’s not a cozy, but the type of harder-edged story enjoyed more by men. As I pointed out in a recent blog post, the NYT, when it reviews genre, reviews only genres that are popular with male readers.

    The subtle and harmful prejudices against anything considered female-centric persist. It may not be as overt as in the 18th C, but it’s just as pernicious. Academics (speaking broadly here, definitely not directing personally) should be paying attention to what prejudices they have internalized and at least attempt to strip them away from their analyses.

  8. Katharine, Radway is not merely outdated, she also didn’t have any clue about how to conduct a questionnaire study and knew only very little about the romance genre. To make matters worse, her attitude towards the genre, its readers and writers is prejudiced in the extreme.

  9. Sandra, thanks for your comment. Are there any particular critiques of Radway’s questionnaire-design methods you’d recommend? I’m not a sociologist and admit to being way more interested in the parts of the book focused on structuralist analysis of the romance plot in 1970s romance novels than on Radway’s analysis of her readers’ more subjective responses. (Edited to add that I would be interested to learn more about people’s critiques of her questionnaires, though!)

  10. Carolyn, I think you’re totally right that the prejudice against cozy mysteries & their readers in particular is a prejudice against the perceived femininity of that mystery subgenre. (And your comments about Franzen’s book on your blog are really interesting — I haven’t picked it up yet but am leaning toward “not going to bother.” There’s just so much other stuff I want to read right now!)

  11. I have a lot of scattershot reactions that have not yet been elevated to the status of responses, so to save everyone from the chaos of *that* process, I’ll start first by asking if you (Katherine) have read Cathy Davidson’s Revolution and the Word, Mary Beth Norton’s Liberty’s Daughters, or Lori Merish’s Sentimental Materialism, the first two of which are canonical in the study of popular literature from the 18th century forward (especially since we’re dealing with largely American written Romance here, yes?).

    The 18th century, particularly, in both England and the nascent America, represents, I think, an extremely complex fabric in regard to women and literature (via attitudes, social context, and popular fiction written by and for women, as well as male-authored literary texts like Moll Flanders and Shamela).

    The slide into Victorian morality, which itself is very conflicted and constantly subverting its own tenets, has many influences and sources, and I think we sometimes overestimate the influence of, say, Richardson on the topic of women and literature from the 18th C forward. ;D

    And then when you look at some of the 70s Romance and it’s foundations in Modernist authors like Hull, as well as her Victorian predecessors, who in turn were influenced by the highly popular captivity narratives, etc., I think it’s very rich ground for the study of contemporary Romance.

    IMO Radway’s work is not formalistically strong (it seems to me that Regis’s book would be far more attractive to someone working from a Proppian perspective), but a muddle of faux-sociology, bad reader response, and the worst of cultural anthropology packaged in the guise of responsible literary analysis. In the spirit of full disclosure, I’m more of a post-colonialist with deconstructionist roots, but I’ve personally had a very hard time meaningfully distinguishing Radway’s focus on the elements of Romance and her negatively prejudiced views about Romance readers. But even within a cultural studies paradigm, I think Radway’s work fails the sniff test.

    If Radway is right that we cannot study Romance separate from its readers (and I don’t agree, but that may be because I’ve yet to see a strong base of good reader response work on the genre), I’d just ask whether the work *she’s* doing is helpful to understanding the genre and why.

    Because if it’s about the elements of the genre, doesn’t Regis, who really focuses on a more formalistic analysis, do a better job of that? And if it’s because of the reader response aspects, shouldn’t the narrow width of both her mastery of the genre and the sample of readers she focused on give us great pause?

    It’s not the age of Radway’s book that troubles me. After all the 80s gave rise to an essential collection of feminist literary and cultural studies, ushered in, of course, by Gubar and Gilbert’s The Madwoman in the Attic. What troubles me is the way it does not, IMO, even measure up to analyses like Davidson’s and Merish’s, where superficial assumptions about patriarchy and the role and freedom of women are rigorously questioned and inevitably nuanced.

    I apologize for the vehemence of my comments here, but I have suffered through so much ridicule of the academic study of genre fiction by its readers, that I feel a certain resentment over the way Radway’s terribly problematic book continues to enjoy sometimes unchallenged approval, *especially* when other scholars have and are doing work that *should* IMO have broken her hold by now.

  12. Robin, thank you very much for your thoughtful comment — I am really glad to be hearing from so many people who have thought more about criticism of contemporary romance than I have, and who have read more about post-Radway critical approaches.

    To answer your questions: I haven’t read the Davidson, Norton, or Merish books you mention, though I will definitely look for them now. My academic focus is late c17-early c18 British lit; I’m interested in transatlantic criticism, but between the diss and my fiction writing I haven’t delved into it except narrowly, for particular research projects. The class I taught was also more focused on the British romance tradition in the Burney/Austen/Heyer mode (which, to be fair, is very influenced by Richardson, even if his influence is often overstated elsewhere). If I teach the class again, I would love to work out a way to study more contemporary romance and to encompass the American romance tradition, but I’d need to do a great deal of reading first.

    I read Regis’s book more than a year ago; I remember that I didn’t find her formalist analysis as compelling as I’d hoped at the time, which is why I used Radway’s schema above as a way to generate discussion in class. (It was definitely not something I offered to my students as a key to all romances or anything like that.) But honestly, I can’t tell you why I reacted that way to Regis’s structural analysis, off the top of my head, so I’d need to go back and look at the book again before saying anything more.

    And no need to apologize for being vehement! I understand the frustration of seeing an academic book that you consider poorly done continue to be cited as a model, believe me. : )

    Again, thank you for commenting.

  13. This is not to say that the sociological or reader-response type questions should not be asked about the romance genre, but I, for one, am interested in romance fiction being studied as literature, or at least the same way as one would study other other genres. If we’re not all sitting around wondering “What DO readers get out of reading Coetzee??, “Why DO they read Coetzee?? Who ARE these readers of Coetzee??” “What buried fantasies or frustrations are readers of Coetzee working through??”, then why are those the questions that occur to people when they study the books women read, women write, and women publish?

    To me, that is the feminist question for my fellow academics.

  14. Jessica, I do wonder what people get out of reading Coetzee! I’ve only read Disgrace, and while I recognize his skills, I did not enjoy it in the slightest.

    But to be less flip, you have a good point — that’s kind of what I meant by “pruriently ethnographic” in my original post. Women’s interests are often seen as something to be poked at and analyzed from a safe distance. (And that was absolutely true in the eighteenth century, too.)

  15. Also, for Robin and anyone else who’s curious, as I’m seeing some speculation on Twitter about the course I taught: it was an introductory lit class focused on primary texts (Haywood, Burney, Austen, Heyer, Atwood, and one Joyce Carol Oates short story). The secondary criticism we read mainly centered on those texts, too, and the main goal of the class was to teach close reading and to introduce students to literary discussion practices. The Radway and Regis they read — and I think they actually read more Regis than Radway, page count-wise — were meant to be discussion-starters near the beginning of the class, when we talked about the idea of the “romance plot,” not romance novels per se, since we weren’t reading contemporary romance novels in the course.

    And now I really ought to get back to the diss! Apologies if I go quiet for a little while.

  16. This is a fabulous discussion. I’ve been lurking, but I do want to ask about Katharine’s original question as posed. As this outlines the general plot of Jane Austen’s novels such as P&P, then an argument might be made that since Regency historicals are still the leading historical genre, that this structure of the “ideal romance” holds true, at least for historicals.

    But there are a couple points I wonder at, but am not equipped to answer:

    – What variations of the structure are evident in today’s Regency historicals? And are those variants reflective of any sort of “modernization”, i.e. appealing to the courtship rituals of the modern era vs. the ones of Jane Austen’s period?

    – For readers that cite this structure as the most preferable, how much of that harkens back to holding up Jane as our patron saint, of sorts? I.e. Do historical romance readers who are not as familiar with the Jane Austen canon also hold this as the ideal structure? Or maybe that question would be moot if today’s historicals still follow that structure very closely.

    Thanks all for the discussion. It’s very thought provoking.

  17. @Jeannie Lin: As a reader, I can tell you that I definitely would not describe that as my “ideal” Romance, although I do not really look for a particular structure, plot-wise or thematically, beyond the central focus on a romantic relationship and an emotionally satisfying ending.

    Nor do I think most Romance follows that structure, although historicals are probably more apt to, since they so often deal with social status differences between the protags. But I tend to ascribe a lot of that to Romance’s roots in Classical Comedy (where the “old” social authority must be toppled and demolished by a “new” social authority, often symbolized by a quest and marriage of a young couple representing the “new” society).

    @Katharine: One of the reasons I think Cathy Davidson’s book, in particular, is so relevant to this discussion is that she looks not only at novels produced for and consumed by women, but she also looks at how and why they read these books — that is, often collectively (which I think has some interesting parallels to contemporary online and RL Romance communities and groups). As for why, one of the things she talks about extensively is the way in which for many women, marriage was one of the most significant events in their lives and the *choice* of a husband one of the most important they could and would make.

    Contemplating, analyzing, and discussing the characteristics and implications of this choice as it was represented in the novels of sentiment and sensation Davidson analyzes was extremely important and socially relevant for these women, she argues. Davidson also makes a very compelling argument for the ways in which these reading experiences/discussions were potentially subversive for women.

    In this, Davidson’s work represents an alternate feminism from the kind Radway exhibits, in that, instead of characterizing women as passive victims and agents of patriarchal social structures, Davidson investigates the ways in which women evaluated and challenged social strictures and found avenues of empowerment that may not have toppled patriarchy but that also didn’t make them mere passive vessels, either, but gave them a dimension of agency not always contemplated among some schools of feminist theory and historical scholarship.

    IMO an approach like Davidson’s would be far more interesting and revealing than Radway’s. Even at the most superficial level, for example, substituting Romance for the novels of sentiment and sensation that represent just one of the literary kin of genre Romance, one could look at how hetero Romance written over the years has often reflected the kinds of choices and responsibilities women struggle with — career, marriage, family responsibilities (from taking care of a parent or a sibling to having children, etc.) and how reading Romance might be a way of contemplating and negotiating all this. Not that I’m advocating this approach, but at least I think it would start with a much different set of suppositions than Radway did, and therefore move in an entirely different direction.

    For example, when you contemplate the fact that marriage has, within a small “r” republican social tradition from the 18th C forward, been a model and a microcosm of society (insert numerous asides on Enlightenment philosophy, social contracts, and changes in the concept of love and romance), the focus on marriage in romantic plotlines (not all Romance aims at marriage) has political, economic, and social import, and may not necessarily just have emotional resonance for the individual reader. Issues of class difference, racial difference, cultural difference, species difference, and the like are not just structural or formal elements of the genre but have all sorts of destabilizing potential for the status quo (whatever that is — it seems to me that’s another term worth contemplating), inviting engagement at multiple levels simultaneously.

    That women who read Romance don’t necessarily contemplate these facets of the novels doesn’t mean they aren’t engaged in some socio-political contemplation (maybe even subversively so) when they read Romance novels. But Radway’s work, despite seeming to rely on some sort of formalistic basis, is IMO sidestepping her own lack of knowledge of the genre by relying on and perpetuating infantalizing stereotypes of women as victims of patriarchy, capable only of escaping through novels, despite any claims to the contrary. Moreover, her work, IMO, reduces the Romance novel to a relatively static fantasy, which is something that Regis works very hard not to do, even though she’s focused much more directly on the essential structural backbone of the genre.

    It’s not clear to me from your comments or your post whether your students are actually reading genre Romance (I am thinking — and please correct me if I’m wrong — that by “category Romance” maybe you mean genre Romance, since categories only represent a part of the entire genre) or just Radway and Regis. It’s also unclear to me how much of a Romance reader you are or aren’t, since your post reads to me like that of someone who doesn’t much read the genre (I’m sorry if I’m misreading this). Calling Romance “escapist literature,” for example, has always struck me as problematic, in so far as it’s not a phrase applied to any other type of fiction, despite the fact that all fiction invites the reader to escape his/her world for that of the novel. Further, I’d argue that even as many women might say they read Romance “to escape,” that doesn’t mean there aren’t other things going on during the reading process or other draws of the genre that aren’t necessarily consciously being identified or articulated.

    Anyway, I love that you’re connecting Romance to its impressive literary pedigree, since this is something I don’t feel is always done, despite the overt connections people make to Austen. That Romance is not really considered literature in anything but the broadest sense is such a pervasive assumption that I think people sometimes really believe that it was spontaneously created by Harlequin at some unidentifiable moment. Sadly, I think Radway has done more to perpetuate that kind of nonsense than to challenge it.

  18. Great to see this conversation! Thanks for starting it, Katharine.

    Is most of this based on your one course on the genre? I’ve taught about twenty now, from undergraduate surveys to graduate seminars, and I’ll confess, I find Radway less and less useful–to the point that I don’t even use her in my undergraduate classes.

    Most of the problems I have with Radway’s work have already been listed by others. The one I want to hone in on, from a pedagogical perspective, is the awkwardness of her “schema.”

    Unlike Regis’s less Proppian list of eight “elements,” Radway’s list veers unpredictably between different levels of abstraction.

    Some of her points are general, and could me instantiated in a nice varieties of ways: e.g. “The heroine’s social identity is destroyed.” (Does that EVER happen in a Julia Quinn novel?)

    Others, though, are extremely local and specific: e.g., “The heroine interprets the hero’s behavior as evidence of a purely sexual interest in her”; “The hero retaliates by punishing the heroine.”

    Regis’s “elements” stay more consistently at a rather high level of abstraction (“the meeting,” “the barrier”), and give students a much more powerful instrument for exploring what makes each new romance interesting, at least in my pedagogical experience. “What does this novel do with the ‘barrier’ element?” is a useful investigatory question; so is “in what ways does this novel portray the society where we begin as ‘corrupt'”? Radway’s list, by contrast, invites use as a sort of checklist: “heroine interprets hero’s interest as sexual–check; “hero punishes heroine–check,” etc.

    As a morphology of historical romances published by Avon from 1972-1981, Radway’s schema may have some continuing use. Regis’s is based on a much larger sample size, and seems to me to be aging pretty well, so far.

    I hope you’ll get to teach the class again. If so, you may find some of the new work published at the Journal of Popular Romance Studies ( (plug plug plug) of some use and interest as well.

  19. This is just so fascinating! I admit I got a geeky little thrill out of seeing this discussion come out of Cheryl Klein’s and my blog posts which were totally not academic at all. 🙂 I actually have read Radway’s book! I read it when I was in grad school studying fan culture (I was in a cultural anthro PhD program). I totally see now why her book has been criticized so thoroughly — her methodology is not good. A small sample doesn’t necessarily mean bad data, but she was clearly not doing rigorous ethnographic work. However, I think what I found so interesting about her work was that she was crossing disciplines, and I actually did feel that she treated her informants with respect, although it clearly has not come across that way over the decades.

    Anyway, I’m certainly not up to par on current studies of romance or romance readers. But all of that sneering at women readers (and writers!) of romance is definitely alive and well. Practically every genre of fiction that is not written by a man is sneered upon, including YA, which is what I’m writing. Sometimes I feel like the more things change, the more they stay the same.

  20. @Robin: Very well put! Which is why I questioned whether readers who described, implicitly or explicitly, the elements mentioned in Radway’s structure were perhaps a certain slice of the historical romance/Regency reading population. Go back 10-15 years and the scope of romance was much more limited. I think Eric’s comments about Radway addressing perhaps the “morphology of historical romances published by Avon from 1972-1981” also hits upon what I was theorizing: that Radway’s list has validity, but there should be further qualifications as to what that structure really addresses; a small subset of very popular romances and worthy of discussion, but not a more global scheme.

    Definitely Katharine’s call for comment on and an updating of Radway’s structure feels appropriate with those thoughts in mind and I’m glad the question was posed.

    @eric – “Regis’s “elements” stay more consistently at a rather high level of abstraction (“the meeting,” “the barrier”), and give students a much more powerful instrument for exploring what makes each new romance interesting, at least in my pedagogical experience. “What does this novel do with the ‘barrier’ element?” is a useful investigatory question; so is “in what ways does this novel portray the society where we begin as ‘corrupt’”? Radway’s list, by contrast, invites use as a sort of checklist: “heroine interprets hero’s interest as sexual–check; “hero punishes heroine–check,” etc.”

    This is wonderful! This would have been my followup question. What considerations are there to a more generally applicable sort of “hero’s journey” for romance structure? I’d hope for one that spans cultural barriers too. In that @Robin’s statements regarding classical comedy resonated with me: “But I tend to ascribe a lot of that to Romance’s roots in Classical Comedy (where the “old” social authority must be toppled and demolished by a “new” social authority, often symbolized by a quest and marriage of a young couple representing the “new” society).”

    This principle seems more broad and universally applicable and transcends Jane Austen, Regency and western historicals, it seems. What young couple in any culture doesn’t feel that they’re combating the old guard to fall in love? I can see applications to several canonical Chinese romances–and the resolution at the end of those romances regarding the “old” social authority…wow, that path can be a book in itself!

    I’m very intrigued that Regis has discussed this sort of more universally applicable structure. Thanks for bringing that to our attention. I was very, very impressed with her discussion of feminine/feminist discourse and the romance genre the one time I’ve heard her speak.

  21. Jeannie: thanks for your comment, and for pointing out that the narrative that Radway describes does seem to suit the traditional Regency historical, at least, pretty well. I agree. And to get back to my earlier comment to Robin about Regis & Radway, I think that’s why I found Radway’s narrative schema useful for that particular class — because we were focusing fairly tightly on romance narratives that inspired or were derived from the Regency romance. Your questions about contemporary Regencies are also great — I’ve been meaning to look into them, for personal interest as well as in terms of thinking about future iterations of that class.

    Robin: to answer your question, I’m not a frequent reader of contemporary romances, but I have read a bunch of Heyer. And I’m thinking that I ought to have explicitly limited my comments to Regencies/books related to the Regency tradition, since that’s the form of the romance plot I’ve spent the most time thinking about. (I was really thinking of this as a noodly little blog post inspired by a few other blog posts and not as a referendum on Radway, I have to admit!)

    Thanks also for your summary of Davidson, which continues to persuade me that I should take a look at her book. I’m not always convinced by arguments that characterize the limited empowerment women did have in a particular sphere as proto-feminist — I think the drive to identify c18 women and their writing as proto-feminist has been tied up in complex ways with the politics of recovery and canon revision, or at least that’s been my experience regarding the authors I study. (Margaret Ezell is excellent on this in Writing Women’s Literary History.) I recognize those arguments as a hugely important step in drawing attention to previously subterranean elements of women’s history, but it often seems to me that they end up eliding evidence that doesn’t suit a more celebratory view of women’s history — basically, that there’s always a need for a “next step” in which we then go back and look at the texts yet again to refine the generalizations that sometimes get created in that re-discovery phase. No idea if any of this applies to Davidson, of course! I look forward to reading her book, and thank you again for spending so much time writing up your thoughts on her approach.

    I don’t think it’s accurate to say that the term “escapist literature” is a phrase that’s not “applied to any other type of fiction” besides romance — fantasy and science fiction sure get that label, and I’m guessing mysteries do too, and probably horror as well. I didn’t intend the phrase to sound pejorative. I write fantasy and the contents of my blog should hopefully demonstrate that I think genre writing deserves thoughtful attention — or at least rambling blog posts! And academically, I work on things like early c18 amatory fiction: definitely escapist popular literature and definitely full of fascinating literary & cultural meaning.

    Eric: thanks for your input and for the journal plug — I’ll check it out! Yes, when I wrote up this blog post, I was working from my experience preparing for the one class I’ve taught on romance narratives (again, not on contemporary romance novels, as I said above). I take your point about the universality of Regis’s narrative elements. As I said to Jeannie at the beginning of this comment, I found the specificity/checklist style of Radway’s schema helpful as a conversation-starter for that particular class, given its reading list, but I can see how Regis’s approach would be far more useful in classes where a variety of romance forms are being discussed.

    Malinda: thanks for stopping by. This post is about things which are all pretty tangential to what I do as a critic, too, in case that hasn’t become obvious by now! But I agree: the feeling I got from reading RtR was that Radway thought she was being respectful and taking romance seriously, however badly she managed her project. I’m not saying that my feeling about her intentions should mean more than the reactions of romance readers, of course. In fact, the reaction that I see from romance readers to her study reminds me a great deal of the reactions I’ve seen from fandom to outsider-written studies of fan culture/fan-produced work. And the lesson I’ve seen emerge from that is that it’s incumbent on the outsider conducting the study to 1) be as methodologically careful and sensitive as possible and 2) solicit input from the community on how the study should be conducted and what it actually means to the community. Clearly Radway didn’t do either of those in ways that were satisfying to her study subjects or to later readers.

  22. the narrative that Radway describes does seem to suit the traditional Regency historical, at least, pretty well. […] I think that’s why I found Radway’s narrative schema useful for that particular class — because we were focusing fairly tightly on romance narratives that inspired or were derived from the Regency romance. […] I have read a bunch of Heyer. And I’m thinking that I ought to have explicitly limited my comments to Regencies/books related to the Regency tradition, since that’s the form of the romance plot I’ve spent the most time thinking about.

    I haven’t ever taught a course on romance novels, and I’ve never drawn up a list of their narrative elements, but I have tried my hand at classifying and analysing the central relationships in romance novels, and it seems to me that they depict a variety of different types of relationships. As it happens, Evelina and The Grand Sophy, two of the novels you included on your syllabus, were ones Kyra Kramer and I quoted in our essay.

    It seems to me that Radway’s 13-point description doesn’t accurately summarise The Grand Sophy‘s plot because Sophy certainly doesn’t have a “social identity” which is destroyed, and she doesn’t seem to have any difficulty in interpreting Charles’ behaviour correctly. Turning to other Regency romances by Heyer, one can find Sir Waldo, Freddy Standen and a very large number of other Heyer heroes who would never dream of punishing their beloveds, and there are a fair number of Heyer heroines, including Frederica and Drusilla, who far from interpreting “the hero’s behavior as evidence of a purely sexual interest,” remain completely (or almost completely) unaware of their hero’s romantic interest in them until the final pages of the novel.

  23. Laura, thanks very much for the link to your essay — the whole issue looks fascinating and your article in particular. Will definitely be reading it.

    I totally agree that Radway’s description doesn’t suit Sophy point by point — one of the things we talked about in discussion was the ways that Sophy deviates from the patterns set up in Evelina and Austen’s books, and how Sophy’s ability to flout social norms while not losing her social stature in any truly damaging way goes far beyond Emma’s boldness, for example. (And Emma is already kind of a fantasy of female power, I think, though a more limited one; she has the weak father figure, the independent wealth, the land. But not the tendency to shoot people in the arm to get what she wants, more’s the pity. Though if anybody gets to shoot anybody in the arm in Emma, I think Jane Fairfax ought to get a shot at Frank Churchill.)

    Re: your point about other Heyer novels that don’t match up to Radway’s list: also very true. What I should probably have said in response to Jeannie is that I agree that Radway’s schema is a useful thing to reference when considering Regencies, not necessarily that it “suits them well.” (As I said above: a conversation-starter, not a key.) Some of Heyer’s books feature a lot of elements on the list, and some hardly any. But given that some books that were antecedents to Heyer’s writing do feature many of the elements Radway mentions — Evelina certainly does — I still think the comparison can perhaps be useful even if the schema itself turns out not to suit the book in question at all. (Am I making sense? Sorry, I’m on about day 5 of not sleeping well this week and am in the middle of revising a diss chapter, so while I’m doing my best to keep up with everybody’s wonderful comments, I’m a little brain-drained.)

    Thanks again, all, for the great discussion!

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