Happy Readers or Sad Ones? Romance Fiction and the Problems of the Media Effects Model

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A persistent pattern in criticism of romance fiction from the late 1970s until the present is the oscillation between those who condemn the genre by denouncing romance as having an inimical effect on the minds of women, while, in contrast, defenders of romance argue that reading romance does nothing of the sort. Indeed, romance fiction defenders argue, romance fiction improves women's lives because of the happiness it brings to its readers. Both of these positions are predicated upon a media effects model of reading that is fundamentally behaviorist in its theorization of the audience. This behaviorist model assumes a direct correlation between consumers and their behavior [...]. In this chapter, I argue that this media effects/behaviorist paradigm of understanding the romance audience is inherently flawed, in that both sides of this debate construct a fantasy reader who is in one way or another dependent on romance fiction. I then suggest an alternative approach to understanding romance fiction and its consumers through a creative industries approach that seeks to uncouple this notion of readers and dependency. (206)

In this light, reading romance is an act of consumption in which the reader-consumer participates actively and deliberately as an aspect of identity formation. This shift to the reader-consumer of romance short-circuits the debate over how reading romance can be understood because if romance reading is understood as action, the principles of selectivity and industry will inform reader engagement. (211-212)