Revisiting Radway for a Renewing Perspective on the Future of Romance Fiction

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Writing in The Cambridge Companion to Popular Fiction, Fred Botting’s piece “Bestselling Fiction: Machinery, Economy, Excess” reminds me that there are two sides to a coin, and I understand that an individual can realistically only see one physical side at a time. When Botting invokes Janis A. Radway’s assertion that women read romantic fiction because of “…an underlying dissatisfaction” (164), I remember that the Radway study is one good source for understanding not only an academic perspective on the topic of why women read romance but for some of the history of my favorite genre.

Revisiting my copy of Reading the Romance: Women, Patriarchy, and Popular Literature by Radway, I was rewarded with a refreshing look at a historical perspective on the popularity of romantic fiction through the lens of how the publishing industry developed in America. Radway provides a thorough yet succinct review of books as a commercial commodity leading me, the reader, from the first printing press at Cambridge (America) in 1639 to how newspapers created a national hunger for serialized stories to the explosion of gothic romance novels in the early 1970s and how that set the stage for the contemporary world of publishing and reading romance.

What Radway reemphasized for me was the cold, hard truth that publishing is a business whose goal is to trade a relative product for the consumer’s money on a repetitive, reliable, and consistent basis. And that the romance novel industry led the way with particular publishers (i.e., Avon, Harlequin, etc.) intentionally seeking out emotionally stimulating content and consciously creating then delivering a targeted advertising campaign to a particular customer base: women. This foundational market took the bait, so to speak, beginning in the 1960s and have been the bedrock of the romance novel buying population ever since.

Radway’s chapter “The Institutional Matrix: Publishing Romantic Fiction” on the history of paperback publishing juxtaposed with the rise of romance reading actually allowed me to understand what Botting expressed in Cambridge Companion Chapter 9 about bestsellers and how the pulp novel industry led to the current state of affairs in popular genre fiction publishing.

Simply put, Radway’s history of publishing chapter (written several years before Botting in Cambridge Companion) culminates with claims that American women did and do devour large numbers of romance novels in order to repeat a specific type of reading experience, but that it isn’t sufficient to say that this is the only explanation for the popularity of the genre and the historically high sales. She makes it clear to me when she states, “The romance’s popularity must be tied closely to these important historical changes in the book publishing industry as a whole” (45).

Whether this ‘reading romance repetition habit’ is due to “an underlying dissatisfaction” with women’s position in the patriarchy as Radway and others propose, there is no definitive conclusion for me to glean except to say that the reading experience can’t be discounted and nor can the direct relationship to the industry at large.

In my opinion, the Cambridge Companion writers echo Radway. Botting ends with external forces-alteration, novelty, and desire-contributing to the production of bestsellers. Another contributor to CC, Erin Smith, wraps up her thoughts in a similar fashion by indicating that production, marketing, and consumption are king. Radway reiterates her accounting of romance novels as a point of consumerism by, what I see as a precursor of Botting and Smith, by claiming, “Commodities like mass-produced literary texts are selected, purchased, constructed, and used by real people with previously existing needs, desires, intentions, and interpretive strategies” (221).

They all agree that bestsellerism is mostly about marketing to consumer desire.

It’s evident to me from these three perspectives that the business of publishing is an important side of the coin. As a genre writer, I must keep a keen eye on it, but that I must also approach my work as marketable merchandise that will slake the buyer’s thirst but will also create a craving (dare I say addiction?) in the reader to return to take sip after sip after sip.

I believe my soon-to-be-released historical romance novel has the potential to quench readers’ thirst for unique historical settings and because I have two characters whose stories I plan to expand on for sequels, the possibility exists for repeat buyers. I’ve done a considerable amount of specific research on the American frontier in the late 1700s, but not everything I learned appears in the first book of the series. I have research and plot ideas in reserve to write at least two more books set in the same time period.

Considering that Radway and Botting point out as imperative the importance of marketing a novel to create long term reader relationships, the challenge for me will be finding historical events and or commemorations to “hook” my stories on to show a publisher that there is valid potential for interest in my themes and stories today and in the future.

All good things,

Joy

Works Cited

Botting, Fred. “Bestselling Fiction: Machinery, Economy, Excess.” The Cambridge Companion to Popular Literature, edited by David Glover and Scott McCracken, Cambridge University Press, 2012, pp. 159-174.

Radway, Janice A. Reading the Romance: Women, Patriarchy, and Popular Literature. Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina Press, 1991.

“Write what you know”

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I read, write, and study historical romance. My most recent completed manuscript is 470 pages long and currently designated as “historical fiction with romantic elements.” The distinction is because the couple in the story doesn’t meet (meet-cute) by page five of the novel. This is kind of a burr under the saddle for me because I believe that historical romance readers, no matter how experienced, want and appreciate the world-building and character motivations at the start of a book regardless of how long it takes for the two main characters to eventually collide.

However, the contemporary industry standard of the heroine and hero appearing within the first five pages is applied across the sub-genre board. So, I’m presently stuck with the label of “historical fiction with romantic elements” because a lot has to happen to Molly, Romney, and America before they find each other and start their journey together. I hope that makes sense. At first, I was dismayed by the nomenclature, but I’ve embraced it now because it’s not that big of a deal…until I go agent and publisher shopping. Since I don’t have time to pursue that part of the process yet, I’ve decided not to angst over it. Spoiler alert: Molly and Romney end up together.

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The book is my response to “write what you know” and to fill a void in historical romance offerings. Frontier America, specifically the Northwest Territory, was a rough era and not viewed by some publishers and readers as romantic enough to be a popular setting or time period. I live and work in the belly of this particular beast, aka The Mid-Ohio Valley, and the research is literally at my fingertips. My house is near the Ohio River where my characters almost drown. I work on the campus of a local college whose library has one of the most extensive Special Collections of pioneer history in the country. There are actual pioneer cabins preserved and on display in a local museum that I drive by every day on the way to work.

However convenient, it hasn’t been easy, but I don’t read, write, and study historical romance because it’s easy. I do it because I’m fascinated with the human project. I’m in total awe of women who cooked without an electric stove or wiped up spills without paper towels or any number of other modern civilities we live by today that were non-existent in early America.

They must have been really strong-willed people driven by something that helped them survive seriously difficult situations so that you and I can be doing this amazing thing (having a meeting of the minds via technology) right now. I think the “something” that propelled and motivated them was love, and I respect the hell out of the men and women who paved the way for me in spite of the mistakes they made. I read, write, and study historical romance out of respect for the past, curiosity about humanity, and the love of words. Most of all, I want to believe that love conquers all. So, don’t burst my bubble, okay?

I’ve gone overboard with telling you a “little” about my project. Now, you understand why my manuscript is so long.

I’m more concerned about the condition of the publishing industry lately than the length of my manuscript. We live in the “United States of Amazon,” and it’s their prowess and whims that have me wondering constantly how to really connect with readers. Publishing is the EASY part thanks to Amazon (and others) literally giving birth and providing respectability to the self-publishing concept, but I worry about getting the message out to pull readers into my books. More on this later.

All good things,

j

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