An interesting book and a pretty good read. With the exception of the first chapter, which is anenlightening but pretty dry history of book publishing, the author writes with an enganging and personable style that's highly unusual for an "academic" book. I picked it up thinking that I'd browse through it and found myself reading it cover to cover. There's a bit of the usual feminist/critical studies rhetoric but it's neither bombastic enough nor pervasive enough to dampen the book's accessibility nor its credibility.
What keeps the book interesting is the author's ongoing engagement with a smallish group of midwestern romance readers. The group makes up the core of her study and she cites interviews with these readers as well as statistical results from a questionnaire. An undercurrent which runs through this book but which Radway doesn't directly address is her conflicted relationship with this group. On the one hand, she is seems to respect them a great deal and doesn't want to dismiss them the way many romance readers have been dismissed as mindless and passive women. Indeed, part of her analysis is that the romance novel is a complex response to power relations between men and women and that it does not simply reinforce the status quo. On the other hand, she seems to suggest that the readers she's interviewed aren't entirely aware of this agenda--that they simply read to escape.
Radway refers over and over again to the idea that the women she's interviewed read romances in order to experience vicariously what they are missing in their lives. She makes a pretty interesting case, but it's significant, I think, that she never asks the women about whether or not they think they are missing anything in their lives. Thus, though interesting, the book takes a sort of, "I know what you really need and why you really read these books even if you don't" mentality. She cares about and respects these women and she listens closely to their experiences and opinions. But she still thinks she knows their motivations better than the readers themselves. I'm not sure it's really so much condescending as conflicted.
It would have been interesting to have Radway actually address this issue with the readers she interviewed or at least in an afterword to the book. I wonder if the women she interviewed read the book and what they thought about it if they did.