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Ever After: Reading the Women Who Read (and Re-Write) Romances

From: Theatre Topics
Volume 6, Number 1, March 1996
pp. 51-69 | 10.1353/tt.1996.0005

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Theatre Topics 6.1 (1996) 51-69

When I first decided to stage a performance centered on the popular romance genre and the women who read these novels, I envisioned a performance that would combine their reading experiences with a re-telling of one of their favorite novels. Unfortunately, I was totally ignorant about the romance genre. I knew romance fiction was (and is) immensely popular and profitable. I had heard the statistics numerous times: an estimated twenty million people read them in over ninety countries, and sales of these novels exceed $200 million annually. Yet numbers alone did not explain the popularity of the genre. What compelled so many women to read these novels so obsessively? What did a romance novel offer that other genres did not? And what unique relationships did these women readers create with the characters in the novels and with other women readers? Such questions launched me on a path that led from the romance section at a local bookstore to the last available seat in a darkened theatre. Almost five years have passed since I first conceived the idea for The Rainbow Season: Romancing the Romance. This essay is, in part, a description of that unconventional journey, for it did not follow a linear pattern. No single, overarching question guided my research. I did not have an hypothesis to prove or disprove. Instead, I had a hunch, an interest in women and how they spend their leisure time; and I had a creative vision, one that brought together women, reading, romance, performance, and a happy ending.

Pre-Production Research: The Ethnographic Study Feminist in a Foreign Land

Because I was not a fan or even a casual reader of romances, I initially had some difficulty finding women to interview. On the advice of a sales clerk at a local bookstore, I contacted Kay, a person recognized in the community for her knowledge of the romance genre. Kay, who eventually became the "gatekeeper" for my study, questioned me at length about my motives before she told me about the existence of an informal romance reading group. We met two more times before she invited me to a meeting, warning me that these women had experienced prejudice and a great deal of ridicule for their reading practices; as a result, they distrusted anyone from the feminist or academic communities who might portray them in a satiric or mocking manner.

Before I could gain entry into the group and into the women's homes for private interviews, they wanted some guarantees from me. At those early meetings, the women asked me many questions about my research, questioned my motives, and took considerable time deciding if I were someone they could trust to represent them and their perspectives fairly. Because I knew the group distrusted academicians and feminists, I had a dilemma. Gaining entry to their group was critical to the study. If I emphasized my role as a feminist scholar and expressed my views from that perspective, they might not talk with me. On the other hand, remaining silent seemed deceptive.

As I struggled with this issue, I realized that my roles as feminist and ethnographer are not necessarily in opposition; both require me to respect the views of the people I study. I explained to the group that my goal was to learn their views, not to impose my own. I was asking for acceptance into their private meetings because I believed that they were the "authorities" on the subject of popular romance. I did not want to force any member of the group to talk with me; I wanted each woman to volunteer. Because I did not want to hinder their group interaction or diminish their reading pleasure in any way, I let Kay know that if my presence became uncomfortable for the group, I would terminate the study. This was, of course, risky, since I had already invested a great deal of time and energy in the project; yet I felt it necessary to make this promise to Kay and the other readers out of respect for their feelings. With this understanding in place, I joined the reading group.

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