Janice Radway is not popular with romance scholars. Back in 1984, Radway’s Reading the Romance was one of the first scholarly books to take romance seriously, but its anthropological approach and its mixed assessment of the genre have made it unpopular with fans and academics alike. When I cited Radway positively in an essay at Salon, romance aficionados lined up to kick her (and me!)
Maybe the best anti-Radway brief I’ve read is Kate Moore and Eric Murphy Selinger’s wonderful analysis of Jennifer Crusie’s novel Welcome to Temptation. Moore and Selinger argue very persuasively that Welcome to Temptation is a direct response to/takedown of Radway.
To summarize very quickly, when she interviewed a (small) group of romance readers, Radway found that many of them felt that romance novels were empowering because they provided a form of self-care. Women Radway talked to were the caretakers in their family; they had to look after kids and husbands, and provide love and support. But they had little opportunity to receive love and support themselves. Reading a romance novel was a way to demand personal time. Moreover, the plots of romance novels, in which a hard, dangerous, difficult man, revealed depths of love and care, acted out, or mirrored, the act of self-care, presenting women as worthy of love and imagining a world in which men could be motherly too.
Moore and Selinger suggest that Radway rejected, or was skeptical, of this interpretation offered by her interviewees. I think it’s a little more complicated than that; in my reading, Radway didn’t refuse to believe what her informants said, but rather wondered if romance’s function as emotional compensation might end up distracting from programs or efforts for real-world change.
In any case, as Moore and Selinger say, Crusie’s novel is constructed as a kind of refutation of these worries. The protagonist, Sophie, is a Radwayian caregiver; raised by a single and irresponsible father, she spent most of her childhood caring for her younger sister and brother, and she continues to organize her life around taking care of them to such an extent that she isn’t even able to articulate her own wants. The first step for empowerment for her is admitting to, or carving out a space for, her own interests and desires.
Sophie is in the town of Temptation working on a photo shoot with (or really, for) her sister Amy, when she meets Phin, the town’s mayor. He and Sophie are attracted to each other, and one night after a few drinks Phin offers to, essentially, be Sophie’s romance novel, by performing oral sex on her and giving her “an orgasm you don’t have to work for.” Sophie shilly-shallies, quoting Tootsie (“I’ve read The Second Sex. I’ve read The Cinderella Complex. I’m responsible for my own orgasm.”) But eventually she says yes. The result is not (as Radway would have it) disempowering, but quite the reverse. By letting Phin take care of her, she becomes more able to take care of herself. She is inspired to write some sex scenes for the movie she and her sister are making, and begins to be more aggressive about what she wants in her life and her relationships, refusing to take care of Amy any more, and asking Phin first for more sex and then for marriage.
Moore and Selinger argue that one of the ways that Sophie is empowered is through a greater ability to read. Phin (besides being a mayor) is an owner of a bookstore; he represents both reading and sex (or romance novels, in other words.) When she comes to Temptation, Sophie is so alienated from her self that she can’t see what’s in front of her; she “reads” Phin as a small-town, callous, patriarchal ass, based on her own bad experiences with such folks. Letting him take care of her helps her take care of herself, and allows her to act more forcefully and (relatedly) to think more clearly.
So that’s a (very simplified) paraphrase of Moore and Selinger’s argument. I’d urge you to read the whole thing in order to see the way they fully and ingeniously flesh out the thesis. It’s a lovely piece of work, and, again, I think it’s very convincing.
However, I have (to no one’s surprise) some caveats. First is Phin himself. Again, Phin is the owner of a bookstore, and he often talks about getting Sophie to read more. He is definitely symbolically supposed to stand for romance novels, and for greater skill with texts, as Moore and Selinger argue.
However, that symbol often seems more symbol than actuality. The book tells us Phin is a reader, but it doesn’t do much to show us he’s a reader. Phin isn’t associated with particular authors; we don’t know what he’s reading, or what books are central to him as a person, the way we learn that (for example) Houseman and D.H. Lawrence are important to Robbie Turner in Atonement. It’s been a couple weeks since I read Crusie’s novel, but I can’t remember a single scene of Phin reading in Welcome to Temptation. He talks about how he needs to get Sophia to read, but we don’t see them exchanging books or talking about what they’ve read. He’s supposed to be a reader; it’s symbolically important for him to be a reader; but the book does little to convince us that he’s actually a reader.
Instead, Phin is defined not by books, but by pool. He says at one point that pool is the closest thing he has to a religion, and we see him engaged in multiple games — with Sophie’s brother, with Sophie herself — at important points in the plot. The most vividly imagined detail of the bookstore is not a book, but the pool table.
Pool is (unlike reading) very gendered male, both physically (those long sticks) and in the mano-a-mano competitive ethos. In vacillating between Phin-as-reader and Phin-as-pool-shark, then, Crusie is also vacillating between a vision of reading-as-empowerment and a vision of empowerment as embedded in more standard (patriarchal?) pursuits. It’s as if Crusie herself doesn’t quite believe Radway’s interlocutors when they say that reading or self-care is empowering. If you’re going to show empowerment, someone has to beat someone else — and, indeed, Sophie’s moment of triumph occurs when she defeats Phin at pool, convincing him he has to marry her. It’s as if Crusie, with Radway, can’t quite imagine the transformative effects of reading; helplessly, power becomes about phallic symbols.
Along these lines, the end of the novel seems more ambiguous than Moore and Selinger claim. When Sophie comes into town, she sees a sign saying, “Tucker for Mayor: More of the Same.” Sophie imagines that mayor is some aging patriarch that no one would want to have sex with, only to discover that the mayor in question is the very attractive Phin. The Tucker for Mayor signs have been in Phin’s family for a long time; The Tuckers have been mayors for generations, always using the same sign (they have boxes of them.) Phin doesn’t really want to be mayor; he does so out of family tradition and a sense of obligation. When he and Sophie agree to marry, he decides he’s going to retire after his next term — and Sophie suddenly realizes that she, herself, could be the next Tucker mayor. As Moore and Selinger say, “The slogan will remain unchanged, still offering “more of the same,” but the gender and background of the “Tucker” in question will actually be quite different.”
But how different is this difference? We’re supposed to be on Sophie’s side, and agree with her that she would make a good mayor, just as Phin did before her. But if you take a step back, the politics of Temptation don’t look quite so beneficent. Phin is on a town council that includes his mother and a bunch of friends. All of them appear to be white and middle-class; all are families that have known each other forever. The town government is incestuous, homogenous, and nepotistic. Are there black or Hispanic people in town? If so, what do they think about the generations and generations of white male Tucker rule? If there aren’t, then that means that sometime, somewhere in the past, some Tucker took steps to make sure there weren’t (see James Loewen’s Sundown Towns.)
Phin’s power is validated because he is, as Moore and Selinger say, “something of an unhappy patriarch” — much like our current President is supposed to be. But patriarchy isn’t fundamentally changed just because the guy in charge makes a big deal about having a conscience. Nor is it fundamentally changed just because the patriarch in question is of a different gender. A corrupt, exclusionary, dynastic government is a corrupt, exclusionary, dynastic government whatever the personal predilections of whoever happens to be lucky enough to hold the strings of power. Empowerment, for Sophie, doesn’t mean overthrowing or changing the patriarchy. It just means that she gets to be the patriarch. Like the sign says, she’s “More of the Same.”
In the end, then, I don’t think Crusie refutes Radway. On the contrary, I think she confirms most of her insights. Radway felt that romances could provide a sense of personal empowerment and strength for women (which is certainly feminist), but that they failed to envision, or engage with, broader social change. And, sure enough, Welcome To Temptation provides Sophie with power and agency, but gives her little to do with that agency except win at pool and fit seamlessly into the existing power structure. For Crusie, Temptation, and patriarchy, don’t need to be changed — you just need to read enough romance that you feel welcome there.