Fictions at Work: Language and Social Practice in Fiction

London and New York
Publication year

See in particular Chapter 4, entitled "Escaping into Romance," pages 75-116.

I will argue in this chapter [...] that romance fiction offers women participation in ultimately successful heterosexuality, in the service of upward social mobility, and a kind of triumph for femininity - and all without any transgression of society's expectations concerning gender identity. To put it simply, women can achieve what they want through their 'natural' (i.e. naturalized) femininity, not by subverting it.

Using romance fiction as an example, in this chapter I will examine the socially reproductive potential of fiction, including an exploration of the function of fictions as 'escapism'. I will refer to two extensive ethnographies on romance readers. One of these, carried out in the United States by Janice Radway (and published as Reading the romance 1987), was my source for the notion of romance as 'escapism'. The other is some unpublished British research (Owen 1990). After examining a Mills & Boon romance in some detail, I will give some attention to examples of a contrasting sub-genre of romance fiction: the 'photo-romance' produced for teenagers. In conclusion, I will consider the impact of feminism on the genre, examining the way feminism within romance is articulated in a discourse of bourgeois individualism. (75-76)


The kernel of these romances - the achievement of a fulfilling loving relationship - is irreproachable. The obstacles to their comfortably inevitable conclusions are recognizably real and serious: miscommunication, bad faith, mistrust that is believed to be well-founded, misunderstandings of all sorts. The problems with this genre, for me at least, lie with the relatively circumstantial details: what the heroine finds attractive in the hero, how they interact (especially how the hero's overwhelming desire is expressed), what they have to look forward to, who they think they are better than. (80)


The Mills & Boon novel which is examined in detail is Kate Walker's No Gentleman, "not because it provides extreme or even typical examples - it doesn't - but because it is recent and, not least, because I enjoyed it more than some of the earlier titles I have read" (81).


In British magazines for teenage girls, the photo-stories (stories presented in comic strip form but using photographs) frequently deal with loving relationships between teenagers. For this reason, we can view them as a sub-genre of romance. They are, however, strikingly different from romances aimed at an adult audience, such as the Mills & Boon fiction we were concentrating on in the previous section. For one thing, the happy ending - the defining characteristic of a romance as far as the Smithton readers are concerned - is not always supplied. For another thing, the use of fiction for moral guidance of non-adults is apparent, and sometimes very heavy-handed. (99)

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