As we saw in our brief account of the Victorian woman reader, the idea of a mass public has typically been a source of worry to the main centres of respectable middle-class opinion and has often been seen as possessing feminine characteristics. In the late 1850s the novelist Wilkie Collins was shocked to discover that ‘the great bulk of the reading public of England’ preferred ‘penny – novel Journals’ to his own novels, a semi-literate audience he half-imagined as ‘two timid girls, who are respectively afraid of a French invasion and dragon-flies’ (quoted in McAleer 1992: 1—2). But at least he believed that this ‘unknown public’ could be won over.

A long quotation from Collins’s essay subsequently appeared as one of the epigraphs to Queenie Leavis’s Fiction and the Reading Public (1932), one of the earliest attempts at a systematic analysis of the modern book market. But Leavis’s forecast was far less optimistic than that of her predecessor. Surveying the use made of public libraries, for example, Leavis argued that, despite the achievement of universal literacy, ‘the book-borrowing public has acquired the reading habit while somehow failing to exercise any critical intelligence about its reading’ (Leavis 1979: 21). Among the factors she cited as responsible for this lack of discrimination was the role of women in selecting library books and thus determining what texts will enter the home. According to one librarian:

if a woman is taken up with a house all day, she doesn’t want tales

about married problems or misunderstood wives – she knows enough

about these already; she can’t be bothered with dialect after a day’s work, and historical novels aren’t alive enough. What she enjoys is something that is possible but outside her own experience. . .

(Leavis 1979: 22-3)

For Leavis this turn to undemanding or escapist forms of literature represented the ‘disintegration’ of the serious reading public and in some respects her argument parallels the account of the structural transformation of the public sphere later advanced by Habermas. Both critics chart a process of decline from the eighteenth century to the present, much of it due to what Leavis calls ‘the increasing control by Big Business’, though she also mentions other causes like the growing anti-intellectualism of a governing class whose men are expected to be ‘simple but virile’ rather than cultured and intelligent (29, 155). Leavis’s account of the degradation of reading therefore seems to involve the feminization of a culture that upper-class men had largely abandoned. However, while she fails to think through the gender implications of this line of analysis, Leavis does paint a picture of a society in the grip of a shallow, feminine emotionalism. To help flesh out this claim she uses the impressionable figure of Gerty MacDowell from Joyce’s Ulysses to epitomize the modern reader, characterizing her as a young woman whose predigested attitudes are drawn from ‘memories of slightly similar situations in cheap fiction’, who ‘thinks in terms of cliches drawn from the same source, and is completely out of touch with reality’. The imaginary Gerty is thus all too ‘typical of the level at which the emotional life of the generality is now conducted’ (195—6).

In attempting to explain the success of the popular fiction of her day, Leavis argues, largely on the basis of extracts from readers’ letters supplied by twenty-five authors, that these kinds of novels ‘excite in the ordinary person an emotional activity for which there is no scope’ in modern life. But precisely why emotional expression is assumed to be blocked among the majority of the population remains unclear. Leavis variously points to the decline of religion, to the failure of many modern individuals to develop fully, and to the effects of an increasingly specialized division of labour. Yet, while she does concede that novelists like Marie

Corelli or Florence Barclay are ‘genuinely preoccupied with ethical problems’, her steadfast belief that these texts have very little redeeming value prevented her from looking closely at how they were read and how the act of reading was related to the reader’s social situation (63).

The sorts of assumption informing Leavis’s study were fairly commonplace among cultural critics in the 1930s and it took several decades before they came under scrutiny, not to say empirical investigation. To gauge the extent to which the questions asked about readers have changed in recent years, the best place to start is Janice Radway’s Reading the Romance (1984), first published a little over half a century after Leavis’s book first appeared. In broad outline Reading the Romance is not hard to summarize, though its detailed findings are sometimes quite complex. What Radway does is to take one of the most despised categories of popular writing discussed in Fiction and the Reading Public (though neither Leavis nor her book are explicitly men­tioned by name) and try to show that there is more to domestic romance or the romantic novel than critical prejudice would lead one to expect. Her boldest move is to shift the spotlight away from the formal properties of literary narratives and on to the meanings that women readers ‘find’ there. This might sound as if reading is a purely individual or subjective affair, a matter of each reader’s uniquely personal relationship to a given text. But, following the work of theorist Stanley Fish, Radway regards reading as an act that occurs within a community of readers using the same ‘interpretive strategies’: in other words, what a text is and how it might be read are to be understood through the shared conventions and social values of an ‘interpretive community’ (Fish 1980: 161).

The setting for Radway’s research is the suburb of a midwestern American city she calls by the pseudonym Smithton, a site partly chosen because of its physical and cultural distance from New York where most of the publishing industry’s major decisions are made. Radway focuses upon a network of women grouped around a bookseller named Dorothy Evans who published a regular newsletter that served as a guide to her customers and fellow readers by reviewing new titles, offering information and, perhaps most important of all, defending romance fiction against the ridicule that has often been heaped upon it in the press, the home and the workplace. This advisory and ideological work required a delicate sense of balance, moving between the authors and New York editors who increasingly sought her advice on their manuscripts and the regular romance readers who turned to her to help them save time and money. Dot’s proudest boast was that she would never usurp her customers’ ‘right to choose their own reading materials’, limiting herself only to making suggestions ‘from my own experience’. So while her judgements necessarily reinforced well-worn genre categories, she was also careful to insist on ‘respecting [the] personal preferences’ of her readers (Radway 1987: 52-3).

As well as looking at Dot’s pivotal opinion-shaping role, Radway carried out in-depth studies of forty-two of her female newsletter subscribers, asking them questions about their lives and their tastes in fiction. Her findings defy neat enumeration, for romance reading is revealed as an ‘indistinct’ or multifaceted activity, a ‘complicated, polysemic event’ (209). It is not possible to infer unambiguously from their reading whether these romance novels either help to reconcile these women to their lives or make them more restless, more critical. Not all romances are equally successful, for example, and those that are judged to fail do so because, however absorbing they might be, ultimately they leave their readers without a sense ‘that men and marriage really do mean good things for women’ (what Radway calls ‘the promise of patriarchy’) and consequently impair their feelings of self-worth and self-confidence (184). On the other hand, the social meaning of romance does not reside solely between its covers. Radway suggests that the act of reading itself, regardless of a particular novel’s content, is simultaneously ‘combative and compensatory’ for these women:

It is combative in the sense that it enables them to refuse the other – directed social role prescribed for them by their position within the institution of marriage. In picking up a book, as they have so eloquently told us, they refuse temporarily their family’s otherwise constant demand that they attend to the wants of others even as they act deliberately to do something for their own private pleasure. Their activity is compensatory, then, in that it permits them to focus on themselves and to carve out a solitary space within an arena. . . where they are defined as a public resource to be mined at will by the family.

(Radway 1987: 211)

What matters most of all, therefore, is that reading the romance signifies a break in family time, a point of relief or suspension within the everyday that arises out of, but is countermanded by, ordinary domestic routine. The keen sense of disappointment that is sometimes aroused by an unsatisfactory text is a product not just of the puncturing of utopian desire, but derives from the highly charged, intensely cathected moment in which reading takes place. Because the reader is literally pleasing herself, the temporary deferral of her responsibilities to others creates a volatile mixture of hope and a sense of guilt that can easily be triggered by frustrated narrative expectations.

Radway’s account of why these women read romances could be said to follow a kind of situational logic that is based upon the fit between the properties of the genre and the lives led by her respondents. Yet what bonds the women to their preferred texts is not their experience alone, but their involvement and participation in a collective discourse about romance reading that articulates their opinions and their enthusiasms. This discursive field or tradition serves as the medium through which the act of reading takes place, infusing it with meaning and value, principally via the circulation of Dot’s newsletter. ‘Dorothy’s Diary of Romance Reading’ activates the Smithton women’s ‘interpretive community’, making texts and readers what they are.

It is important not to literalize the notion of ‘community’ in this formulation. The Smithton women are not readers who are organized or who meet regularly. Rather, they represent a virtual community or a symbolic community, linked solely by the values which they share. As Radway notes:

Because the oppositional act is carried out through the auspices

of a book and thus involves the fundamentally private, isolated experience of reading, these women never get together to share either the experience of imaginative opposition, or, perhaps more important, the discontent that gave rise to their need for the romance in the first place. The women join forces only… in the privacy of their own homes and in the culturally devalued sphere of leisure activity.

(Radway 1987: 212)

Radway is therefore in no doubt that ultimately romance reading ‘leaves unchallenged the male right to the public spheres of work, politics, and power’ (217). In short, despite the self-awareness that the newsletter provides, this fragmented reading public lacks the cultural resources to challenge the terms of its own fragmentation.

Although she emphasizes the role played by a communal discourse in sustaining their reading habits, Radway often writes as if there were a natural affinity between women readers and romance novels. Indeed, if one reads Radway’s study in tandem with, say, Ken Worpole’s essay ‘The American Connection: Masculine Style in Popular Fiction’ (1983), it is easy to build up a somewhat exaggerated picture of how reading is gendered. Worpole argues that from the mid-1930s onwards many British working-class male readers found in American writers a tough vernacular realism that seemed to resonate with their own experiences of the harsh realities of living and working in the city. Yet Worpole is particularly concerned with those men who were politically active and his anecdotal evidence seems to suggest that it was their socialist ideology that drew them to the critique of urban corruption in novelists like Upton Sinclair and also in the hard-boiled detective fiction of Dashiell Hammett. Put another way, it is likely that socialist ideas provided the leading element in the popular aesthetic (or ‘interpretive strategies’) that governed or structured these men’s mode of reading. By contrast, the Smithton women’s preferences appear far more indeterminate. For, in their case, the suspension of time inherent in the act of reading is potentially compatible with a whole variety of genres or sub-genres (the racing thrillers written by Dick Francis have a wide female readership, for example). Yet, in practice, they seem to ignore these alternatives. One weakness of Reading the Romance is that, for all its plausibility, it does not entirely explain why it is this particular literary formula that appeals to the women Radway studied rather than another.

On the other hand, there are some indications that Radway’s sample is unusual. They are remarkably dedicated readers and very few are ‘avid television watchers’; rather surprisingly over half the sample never watched soap operas (Radway 1983: 76). As Steven Connor has warned, there is a danger here of ‘turning commercial into ethnographic homogeneity’ and then of mistakenly assuming that this group is ‘typical of the readers of mass-market fiction’. Before jumping to conclusions we should consider the possibility that:

Romances are not read only by romance readers but also by readers who are not ‘romance readers’ (academics, for example), or who will not remain so, or who have not always been so, or who are only occasionally so (though they may be intensely loyal during the periods when they are); to specify only these variables.

(Connor 1996: 21)

Connor’s point is that reading is generally far more fluid (or mutable) than Radway can envisage, especially under (post)modern conditions. Today, readers are increasingly likely to have what Connor calls ‘multiple allegiances’, moving between different kinds of fiction and different kinds of reading experience. This may well be true, but we can also turn this argument around by suggesting that the act of reading is in itself characterized by a greater degree of interior (or psychic) mobility than Reading the Romance is prepared to allow. Much of the psychoanalytically inspired work on fantasy and fantasy scenarios stresses that the process of identification is not fixed but passes from character to character, so that crossing the boundaries of gender can be an integral part of the reader’s imaginative absorption in narrative time (see Kaplan 1986). Responding to this criticism, Radway has conceded the possibility that women ‘readers do not identify only with the romantic heroine but in fact identify in multiple and wandering fashion with the seducer, the seduced and the process of seduction itself’ (Radway 1987: 243). And elsewhere, pushing this point one step further, she has begun to see modern subjectivity as ‘nomadic’, shifting ‘actively, discontinuously. . . via disparate associations and relations through day-to-day existence’ (Radway 1988: 366). The wheel has come full circle.

But in neither Radway’s early nor her slightly later arguments does reading figure as anything other than an individual practice. So, instead of swinging quickly from one style of analysis to its polar opposite, it is worth pausing for a moment to consider some of the evidence about the social occasions of reading, limited though this is. In fact, organized reading groups have a long and by no means negligible history, one that often connects them to the ideal of a public sphere. At the turn of the nineteenth century, American reading circles were linked to the women’s club movement, for example, and in Texas in the Progressive Era women’s reform groups also grew out of literary societies or book discussion groups. Indeed, according to current British research, reading groups continue to have ‘a discernible civic dimension’ in which serious reading is conceived as a means towards becoming a responsible and ‘fully informed’ member of society (Hartley 1999: 18). Political activity can bring reading circles into existence too, though sometimes indirectly: one of the Texas groups studied by Elizabeth Long (1986) in the early 1980s had its origins a quarter of a century earlier in a network of League of Women Voters members.

The women in the four groups in Long’s exploratory study were therefore very different from those in Radway’s sample. They were typically college-educated, belonged to affluent, white middle-class families, and tended to be in full-time professional jobs. The groups ranged in size from seven to nineteen members and would read a mixture of novels and nonfiction, excluding only those texts that they considered downmarket, undemanding or ‘trashy’ (reading romances or thrillers was out of the question, though an exception might be made for a writer like Dorothy L. Sayers). Books were selected according to an implicit ‘hierarchy of taste’ based upon ‘a vague humanism that defines reading truly great books as a morally and intellectually enhancing experi­ence’ or, in the case of nonfiction, because of their ‘social relevance’ (Long 1986: 598—9). While such judgements display a marked deference to established centres of cultural authority such as universities or elite cultural journalism, they are not set in stone: the New York Times Book Review started to fall out of favour once it began including genre fiction and mass-market paperbacks.

However, once a book has been chosen, its treatment in the reading groups is not particularly reverent or constrained. The women describe their discussions as ‘playful’, by which they mean that their talk is allowed to jump from topic to topic, and also that they ‘are willing to entertain a variety of readings’ (603). What matters in discussions is not so much the free expression of opinion as the tacit granting of permission ‘to take risks by making idiosyncratic connections, to bring forward personal experiences, to play with categories’: there is little evidence of any ‘interpretive community’ at work during group meetings (604). Within the general rubric of seriousness that legitimates the group, reading can combine a sense of exhilaration with self­exploration or self-analysis. Although its somewhat anarchic clamour of different points of view reflects the individualistic values of modern American life, the pleasure taken in the free play of ideas means that, unusually, these discussions are regarded as valuable in themselves rather than simply being a means to an end.

But is there anything distinctively feminine about such groups? This is a very difficult question to answer. Long’s subsequent work suggests that women are far more likely than men to start or join a reading circle. Out of over seventy reading groups she located in Houston, Texas, forty-two were women’s groups, twenty-eight were mixed, but only three consisted solely of men. Long provides little systematic information about the latter, but at least some of her evidence from the mixed groups shows male readers gaining insight into their childhood through memories released by reading about fictional characters in a way that is similar to the responses of women readers. However, these reactions are not necessarily typical of male readers and may possibly be encouraged by the experience of reading with women. For, as Long stresses, ‘women seem especially to merge psycho­logical boundaries in this fashion’ (Long 1987: 320). Nevertheless, it is clear that the male and female readers whom she studied shared a broad commitment to an unexamined realist aesthetic in which the credibility and psychological interest of the narrative reside in the possibility of identifying with its principal characters. And in this they seem to differ from the women whose reading consists exclusively of fiction such as romance aimed specifically at a female audience, since Radway’s respondents and also most of the women who took part in Bridget Fowler’s recent survey of Scottish romance readers, actively distinguish their preferred genre from the realist novel. In the eyes of these readers ‘formulaic romance’ provides ‘an idealised vision of an unalienated, yet hierarchical society’ in which ‘patriarchy fosters protective love and true nobility of mind justifies privilege’. For those who are ‘enmeshed within the confines of kinship and still dependent economically on men’ it remains ‘the “dream-book” of the family’ (Fowler 1991: 175).