Janice Radway challenges popular (and often demeaning) myths about why romantic fiction, one of publishing's most profitable categories, captivates millions of female readers. Many feminists, literary critics and theorists of mass culture have claimed that romances reinforce the woman reader's dependence on men and acceptance of repressive ideologies purveyed by popular culture. Radway questions such claims, arguing instead that critical attention 'must shift from the text itself, taken in isolation, to the complex social event of reading'.
Reading the Romance investigates that social event, from the complex structures of publishing and distribution to the individual reader's active engagement with the text. Using a provocative approach that combines reader-response criticism with anthropology and feminist psychoanalysis, Radway asked forty-two readers to explore their reading motives, habits and rewards. She found that while the women in this group used their reading of romantic fiction both to protest against and to temporarily escape from the limited roles prescribed for them by patriarchal culture, the romances paradoxically make those roles seem desirable.