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:
- The heroine’s social identity is destroyed.
- The heroine reacts antagonistically to an aristocratic male.
- The aristocratic male responds ambiguously to the heroine.
- The heroine interprets the hero’s behavior as evidence of a purely sexual interest in her.
- The heroine responds to the hero’s behavior with anger or coldness.
- The hero retaliates by punishing the heroine.
- The heroine and hero are physically and/or emotionally separated.
- The hero treats the heroine tenderly.
- The heroine responds warmly to the hero’s act of tenderness.
- The heroine reinterprets the hero’s ambiguous behavior as the product of previous hurt.
- The hero proposes/openly declares his love for/demonstrates his unwavering commitment to the heroine with a supreme act of tenderness.
- The heroine responds sexually and emotionally.
- 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!