Popular Romance and Its Readers

Publication year

In this chapter [...] I shall be focusing my attention largely on the "deep structures" that help to elucidate, if still not fully to explain, the "great enigma" of romantic love in its more popular literary and cultural manifestations. The first subsection thus offers a broad overview of the work of Tania Modleski (1982) and Janice Radway (1984) who, in the 1980s, were instrumental in making feminist and other scholars revise their opinion of popular romance in its more "degenerate" forms: first, by showing why the deep structures of such fiction have proven so compelling for women readers; and, second, by arguing that those readers must be considered active, rather than passive, consumers of the genre. This overview is followed by another on deep structure in which I suggest some new ways in which the compulsive reading/viewing of romance texts can be explained by drawing, first, on the insights derived from recent "Trauma Theory" and, second, on Ernst Bloch's (1986) work on "day-dreams" and "anticipatory consciousness." As will be seen, these two models could hardly be more opposite in the ways in which they account for the workings of the human psyche, but both, I feel, help us to understand the narrativity of romantic love a bit more clearly (that is, why love exists "as a story").

Ernst Bloch's work on "anticipatory consciousness" (1986) also links with his interest in "beautiful foreign places," in the human subject's ability to create a "better world" for him- or herself, and I take this proposition as my lead for the final subsection of the chapter, which is about "Romantic Locations" and the role of space/place in popular romance texts. After exploring the implications of Bloch's utopianism with regard to the prevalence of exotic locations within the genre, however, I move into a discussion of how such an emphasis on space, place, and historical moment may also be read - quite oppositely - as a sign of their cultural or historical specificity. This final section of the chapter therefore acknowledges some of the main ways in which the popular romance genre has been transformed over the past 40 or 50 years, and raises the crucial question of to what extent romantic love can be liberated from the institutions and orthodoxies (in particular, heterosexual marriage and courtship) with which it is traditionally associated. (522-523)