De-gendering and De-genreing some of Radway's Conclusions about Romance Reading

By Laura Vivanco on

Shelley Trower, Amy Tooth Murphy and Graham Smith revisited some archived interviews dating from the 1980s and carried out in the UK. The interviews were conducted for an oral history project in which 'the central focus was consistently family life: the daily, the domestic, the routine' (555) and 'Within this broad spectrum interviewers asked questions specifically relating to reading. They asked interviewees if they themselves read, if other family members read, whether there were books in the house they grew up in as well as their current home, and whether they attended a library in the past or the present' (555).

Janice Radway, who carried out interviews with women romance readers in the US slightly earlier, had an 'approach [which] led her to think about reading not only as interpretation of books’ contents but also as an activity. The women explained their reading as "a way of temporarily refusing the demands associated with their social role as wives and mothers"' (556). What Trower, Murphy and Smith discovered was that their 'archive supports Janice Radway’s findings in Reading the Romance (first published in 1984) that women read for escape and as a form of resistance to domestic roles, but it also shows that such findings may be applied more broadly than romance to other kinds of readers and reading material' (554).

While it was the case that in the UK interviews 'mothers’ reading is often portrayed as being escapist, broad and indiscriminate, whereas fathers’ reading is more commonly depicted as directed, often with a functional basis, rather than being solely a leisure activity' (555), Trower, Murphy and Smith propose 'that men similarly engaged in escapist reading in using it to erect a barrier between themselves and their families' (557):

In many of the interviews, the image of men reading newspapers becomes a central scene in daily family life. Specifically, that image is often of a solitary reader, the man and the newspaper a single unit, closed off from the rest of the family. If the novel delays mothers’ engagement with domestic work and her family, [...] it is the TV news or the newspaper that delays the father’s arrival at the dinner table and his interaction with the family. (570-71)


Male newspaper reading, then, may be comparable to female novel reading in providing a way of making time for oneself or for resisting engagement with the demands of a family. A difference is that while the women read before carrying out domestic work – such as preparing meals – the men here read before, during, and after their consumption of meals. It is also notable that men’s reading is often framed in narratives of consistency and temporal regularity, while women’s reading times are snatched moments or conducted in stolen time. Men’s reading is also very much on show, like a Do Not Disturb sign, whereas women’s reading is often furtive, involving strategies for keeping it undiscovered like running around doing the housework after a day of reading. The men in these interviews seem to use newspaper reading as a communication barrier, while women seem primarily to be putting off domestic labour. Radway’s observations that women’s reading often gives them time out from their families’ needs, ‘a task that is solely and peculiarly theirs’, cannot precisely be mapped on to men’s reading. For many women whose work is entirely or at least largely within the home, reading may be crucial for establishing opportunities to escape or ‘switch off’ in that same environment, whereas men’s work is more usually outside the home. [...]


Bearing in mind the differences between gender roles, reasons for reading (to avoid housework and/or to avoid family communication), reading material and value judgements of that material (women’s novel-reading being denigrated more usually than men’s non-fiction reading), the activity of reading may nevertheless be comparable in some respects. The ‘100 Families’ archive indicates how men’s reading can be as escapist as women’s reading. [...] Although it is only women who are said to get ‘lost’ in fiction, and whose reading is regularly disparaged or defended against pervasive stereotypes of romance novels as frivolous, further investigation into men’s reading could reveal the different but comparable ways in which it provides a way of demarcating time and space away from domestic reality. (572)


Trower, Shelley, Amy Tooth Murphy and Graham Smith, 2019. '"Me mum likes a book, me dad's a newspaper man": Reading, gender and domestic life in "100 Families"', Participations 16.1: 554-581.

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