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A case of mistaken identity?

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That was the end of Grogan… the man who killed my father, raped and murdered my sister, burned my ranch, shot my dog, and stole my Bible!

If you’ve ever seen "Romancing the Stone," you’ll recognize this line as the last one in Joan Wilder’s latest Western, the one she’s narrating at the beginning of the movie. One of the most amazing things for me about that movie is the way it makes fun of Romance stereotypes, all the while reaffirming them left and right, ending up a perfect cinematic replica of genre Romance (albeit without the Bible). Joan Wilder, who may have sighed wistfully over her heroines’ adventures, gets a story to surpass them all, full of anger, passion, villainy, and jungle humor, happy ending included. A fantasy come true.

Which some apparently believe to be the heart of Romance. If you saw the trailer featured on the Smart Bitches for an upcoming Romance documentary, you might have caught several authors talking about the genre:

"It’s a fantasy; it’s how you really . . . you want your life to be."

"Creating a fantasy for these women who . . . sometimes they live only in their books."

"Getting an alpha male to commit is a very important part of life . . . and it’s also an important part of a book."

And just last week, Romancing the Blog columnist Angela Bendetti raised the question of whether (as one editor apparently asserted) women who read Romance "want to be able to place themselves in the story." Really?

I know there’s a lot of eye rolling when this subject comes up. I bristled when I heard those comments in that documentary trailer, wondering when the hell we were going to dispel this notion that women read Romance because that’s how we want life to be. To which I say: blech. You couldn’t pay me enough to put up with some of the crap – and some of the heroes — that happen in Romance.

Yet the stereotype of the woman vicariously living the fantasy of love everlasting through the adventures of a fictional doppelganger persists. And unfortunately, I think it makes it really difficult to talk about how and why people do read, let alone read Romance, and how we do or don’t relate to particular characters and scenarios. And whatever kind of identification does occur inevitably gets characterized as "living only in the books."

Now I’m sure there are people who live only in books – including SF/F, horror, mystery, medical textbooks, Dostoyevsky, whatever – but I think that’s well beyond the norm. I also think that perfectly sane, well-adjusted readers do find themselves immersed in the world of a book, perhaps even feeling like a bystander or a participant in the action. If we’re lucky, that is. If the book is written well enough to draw us fully into its reality. But I don’t think that’s the same thing as living through a book.

As Sarah Frantz explains,

. . . there’s a big difference between self-insertion and character identification. I can identify with a character (or with all the characters, as long as there’s no serial killer), I can really *get* them and their motivations and feelings, and not want to be one of them or take their place. I’m much more a "fly on the wall" reader-I enjoy seeing the story unfold in front of me like a movie. TBH, I don’t even understand how one would self-insert into a book.

Erastes says,

Most of the time the heroine is nothing like anything that I admire or would aspire to be like. (Ok, perhaps slim, with copper curls, I’d aspire to that-) I like to read a story about someone ELSE not put myself into that position because that would just make it a very dull journey for me.

And heading toward the other end of the spectrum is GrowlyCub’s comment:

As to the self-insertion, that’s an interesting question and I think most of that would be happening on a subconscious level. I think I’m more like Sarah, a fly on the wall observer, but possibly I’m inserting myself in the sense of wanting to experience the intense emotions, the commitment/Happy Ending/believing that it’s possible.

And Veinglory’s:

I self insert and I read mainly M/M. I think a large section of the core M/M market do. I don’t begin to understand why we wouldn’t. If I can imagine being Conan the barbarian, or Fiver from Watership Down, or a sentient spaceship, or anything else in fiction, why not imagine being a man having sex. IMHO that is a large part of the point of M/M almost none of which is written in omniscient.
[note: the original editor’s comment was made in the context of m/m Romance’s viability for a female market]

Veinglory’s comment echoes something Laura Kinsale argued in her famous "placeholder" essay, "The Androgynous Reader" from Dangerous Men and Adventurous Women: Romance Writers on the Appeal of Romance, namely that if the female reader identifies with anyone, it’s with the hero, since, in Kinsale’s view, Romance is a hero-driven genre. As for the heroine, she may be a placeholder, but that does not maker her a cipher. Instead, "the reader thinks about what she would have done in the heroine’s place . . . asking the character to live up to the reader’s standards, not vice versa." The reader is not identifying with the heroine, which would entail "the sensation of being under control of the character’s awareness." Instead, she is distanced from the heroine, judging her, identifying instead with the powerful hero.

Frankly, I think we see a good deal of both identification and placeholding in Romance reading. Jane and I were talking about reader responses to Blair Mallory from Linda Howard’s To Die For. Jane hated Blair, and I loved her, even though neither of us personally identified with her. Sugar Beth Carey from Susan Elizabeth Phillips’s Ain’t She Sweet is another character that seems to draw the ire and appreciation of many readers, some recoiling at Sugar Beth’s self-centeredness and others finding her sass amusing. I personally don’t think it’s possible not to bring some personal baggage into liking or disliking a heroine, although I do think that a reader can understand and evaluate a heroine’s character within the context an author establishes — that we can be both analytical and experiential in our reading processes. In this sense, perhaps every heroine serves some placeholding function for the reader. In fact, I’d argue that many characters in Romance would be potential placeholders for the reader.

As for identification, I think that happens, too, depending on the scenario and the character. For example, isn’t that exactly what readers are invited to do during certain sexual fantasies in Romance? One of the reasons the rape fantasy persists in popularity is the insistence that the fantasy functions symbolically as a means of vicariously experiencing a pleasurable loss of control, especially for the female reader who feels overburdened with responsibility in her own life. The reader who absolutely cannot identify with that feeling might object to the fantasy as something else. I also remember a Romance author (Sabrina Jeffries, I think) explaining that part of the virgin heroine’s popularity is her ability to give the reader a chance to rewrite her own disappointing loss of virginity into something more meaningful and powerful. Is that really the case? And then there was a very moving letter posted on the Smart Bitches and addressed to Nora Roberts, in which a reader talked about how the Eve Dallas books were helping her heal from her own terrifying experiences and memories of childhood sexual abuse. I have a really difficult time finding that particular instance of reader identification to be a bad thing.

More generally, how many readers haven’t felt a surge of some vicarious emotion when reading a Romance novel, whether that be pride when the heroine finally stands up for herself, relief when she narrowly escapes a fate worse than death (cue ominous music), excitement when the hero prepares to battle for his lady love, exhilaration as the hero and heroine take their revenge on the bad-ass villain who dared to hurt innocent children and/or animals? If we cannot relate to any of these things, to any of the characters about which we read, where is the pleasure of reading? Or of writing, for that matter?

Could it be possible that the reader alternately views the heroine – or the hero – as a placeholder, a doppelganger, a stranger, a friend, a lover, a rival, an old enemy, or anything in between? That our perspective and our sympathies and our emotions can be engaged – or not – to varying degrees and with varying levels of absorption throughout any book or series of books? That doesn’t mean we have to live vicariously through the books, it just means that at different moments, with different characters, and through different points of view, we are being offered the opportunity to connect to a fictional world, a fictional persona, in a way that engages us, moves us, enthralls us. I actually think this is kind of healthy — that it promotes empathy, at least.

Ultimately, this seems to be about two issues: control and reality. Now if someone is living through a book to the point where the book’s reality intrudes on or takes the place of what someone does in their day-to-day life, there might be a problem (although think about the absorption some authors describe in their writing process – I get positively loopy just writing an academic article free speech!). And I guess if the reader is constantly comparing a Romance hero to her boyfriend or spouse, well, that might be an issue. But it seems to me that there is a huge gamut between letting a book or character take over one’s life or consciousness and putting oneself in the place of a character for a couple of hours. And who’s to say that place even has to be occupied by the heroine? If you really want to get crazy (har har), let’s talk about whether or not readers identify with the villain, especially in those first-person POV scenes. After all, what’s the point of writing those scenes with a first person POV if it’s not to have the reader occupy the villain’s mind for the stretch of that scene? Does that make us all potential serial killers?

isn't sure if she's an average Romance reader, or even an average reader, but a reader she is, enjoying everything from literary fiction to philosophy to history to poetry. Historical Romance was her first love within the genre, but she's fickle and easily seduced by the promise of a good read. She approaches every book with the same hope: that she will be filled from the inside out with something awesome that she didnʼt know, didnʼt think about, or didnʼt feel until that moment. And she's always looking for the next mind-blowing read, so feel free to share any suggestions!

54 Comments

  1. Jennifer Estep
    Jul 15, 2008 @ 07:48:42

    To which I say: blech. You couldn't pay me enough to put up with some of the crap – and some of the heroes -’ that happen in Romance.

    I totally agree with you here. Some of the heroes should be locked up as stalkers — or heavily medicated to get them to mellow out.

    Could it be possible that the reader alternately views the heroine – or the hero – as a placeholder, a doppelganger, a stranger, a friend, a lover, a rival, an old enemy, or anything in between? That our perspective and our sympathies and our emotions can be engaged – or not – to varying degrees and with varying levels of absorption throughout any book or series of books?

    I think engaging people’s attention and emotions is the whole point of books — telling a story that entertains or enlightens or captures the reader’s attention on some level. As an author, you want people to be able to relate to your characters, to empathize with them, as you mention. If there isn’t that connection, that interest (however fleeting or deep), what’s the point of writing? Or reading? At that point, they really just become words on paper. And that’s just sad.

    Yet the stereotype of the woman vicariously living the fantasy of love everlasting through the adventures of a fictional doppelganger persists.

    This always makes me roll my eyes too. I read romance because it appeals to me. Just like I read fantasy and mysteries and other books because they appeal to me. Because they are fun and well-written and entertaining. There’s no other deep psychological reason. Why do some people like unicorns and others like rainbows? Because we’re all hardwired differently. Simple as that.

    As for placeholding and identification, I think it’s interesting, but ultimately just a lot of academic talk. We all have our different tastes, preferences, and reactions when it comes to books, movies, whatever. Why can’t we all just live and let live?

    I personally don't think it's possible not to bring some personal baggage into liking or disliking a heroine, although I do think that a reader can understand and evaluate a heroine's character within the context an author establishes -’ that we can be both analytical and experiential in our reading processes.

    Absolutely.

    Overall, I think books are like vacations. They all take you away to another world. Some of them are good; some are bad. Some places you want to visit more than once; some places you don’t. You like some of the people you meet; others, you want to tear their hair out. Some scenes and images stay with you a long time; others you forget the second you’re not looking at them anymore.

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  2. Keri M
    Jul 15, 2008 @ 08:00:33

    Very well stated and I agree. I just read romance because I enjoy the stories. I have been brought a time or two to tears by a book and am not ashamed of it. I could not stand Blair Mallory and I loved Sugar Beth Carey. I have not met to any women who said to me..I only read romance because I want my life to be just like a book. (eye-rolling) big time. Keri

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  3. Sherry Thomas
    Jul 15, 2008 @ 08:09:00

    As for identification with the hero, Bettie Sharpe has a most shrewd observation on it. She said that if we identify with the hero, it’s not because romance is necessarily hero-driven, but because the hero is most often the one with the power in the book.

    I agree entirely. George Lucas once said that after the release of Star Wars A New Hope (the first one back in the 70s), he was surprised to see how many kids identified with the villainous character of Darth Vader. Then he realized that it wasn’t so surprising, because Darth Vader was the most powerful figure in the movie, and kids hungered for power.

    We all do, in one way or another, whether it’s real worldly power we lust after, or simply the power over the chaos of our daily lives. So why not identify with the character who is put-together and in charge?

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  4. Corrine
    Jul 15, 2008 @ 08:09:06

    More generally, how many readers haven't felt a surge of some vicarious emotion when reading a Romance novel, whether that be pride when the heroine finally stands up for herself, relief when she narrowly escapes a fate worse than death (cue ominous music), excitement when the hero prepares to battle for his lady love, exhilaration as the hero and heroine take their revenge on the bad-ass villain who dared to hurt innocent children and/or animals?

    Completely agree. In fact, if I don’t have some sort of visceral reaction – a hard gut clench or rapid heartbeat, heart melting or tears of sorrow, happiness and/or rage – I consider the book subpar. I wouldn’t say that I personally live through the romances I read and in no way do I even picture myself in the scenarios presented, but I certainly empathize, cheer, cry and get frustrated for the characters.

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  5. Patty H.
    Jul 15, 2008 @ 08:19:39

    I want the same thing from a book that I want from a movie: for it to be ingaging during the time that I am connected to it.

    Whatever the book(or movie)promises is what I want, wether it be to provoke a thought, scare me, anger me, or tickle my heart (or libido).

    The difference with a book and its characters is that we are mentally filling in the visual, applying our own feelings and experiences-or lack of-to what we imagine. It becomes on some level, personal, which may be why people often respond so viscerally to some books.

    It amuses me when I ‘love’ a book and a someone else ‘hates’ it. Why? Because I love to see how we can perceive the same thing SO differently.
    I have the same reponse when I come across ‘romance haters’. Why? Whatever their response is, I feel like it gives me a peek into their psyche.

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  6. Christine Merrill
    Jul 15, 2008 @ 08:29:43

    If readers are only doing this to identify the characters, how screwed up do I have to be, as a writer? To produce this stuff, these people would all have to be me. And these are not all happy people.

    Damn. Gonna need more therapy.

    I’ll admit to working through some issues, using the characters from my stories. But they are not the issues that the characters are going through. I do not have their problems, nor do I wish to. And without the problems, the conflict, there is no story.

    There might be some metaphorical demon slaying, with everything being a place holder for something else. And the guarantee of a solution to problems at the end is important. One of the big differences between real life and fiction is that problems in fiction resolve when the story ends. Real life can stay a mess forever.

    I think it’s way overthinking the issue to say that readers are reading to identify with the characters. More likely, we enjoy having reinforcement of the idea that good conquers evil, love conquers all and broken things (and people) can be fixed.

    And I would definitely say I read and write for emotional response, before character. There are measurable physical responses in the reader, to the emotions on the page. Books can scare you, they can make you laugh or cry, and they can make you hot.

    The same goes for movies. We watch Silence of the Lambs to be scared, not because we want to be stalked and killed.

    In the course of a story, you can go through a variety of physical responses in a short time. It’s vary cathartic. And often more appropriate than having strong reactions to real life.

    Real life isn’t supposed to be an emotional rollercoaster. But rollercoasters are fun. Books are a safe way to get a collection of highs and lows, without having to constantly screw up your own life and relationships.

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  7. KCfla
    Jul 15, 2008 @ 08:39:48

    Overall, I think books are like vacations. They all take you away to another world.

    BINGO!
    ( Thank you Ms. Estep!)

    I read to get away, if just for a few hours/minutes, from RL. I read to *visit* places, people, etc. that I’m unable to- be it due to time ( historicals/fantasies) or my ever shrinking wallet ( so NOT getting my trip to Europe anytime soon!).

    If it’s a good book, then the emotions are a “release valve” if you will. My kids even know when I’m *in* a good book, when they hear me laughing or see me crying while I’m reading.

    I don’t read to *be* the H/H. Most of the time, they are so unlike me it’s laughable.

    Doesn’t mean they’re not fun to read about though.

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  8. K. Z. Snow
    Jul 15, 2008 @ 08:56:26

    I still maintain the phrase self-insert sounds like a response to the imperative, “Go fuck yourself” — i.e., “Hey, good idea! Would you pardon me a moment? I believe I’ll self-insert right now.”

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  9. DS
    Jul 15, 2008 @ 09:08:05

    I also remember a Romance author (Sabrina Jeffries, I think) explaining that part of the virgin heroine's popularity is her ability to give the reader a chance to rewrite her own disappointing loss of virginity into something more meaningful and powerful.

    If I was into virginal heroines then this would make me think twice about admitting it. I don’t think there is a really an all encompassing statement about why people read certain genres. I essentially read whatever I find that interests me.

    I have to admit that some romance readers seem extremely picky about the plot and character which means that they are looking for something I am not in a book.

    In fact, long before the web became part of my informational life, I ran into someone I really liked as a person but whose reading tastes made me scratch my head because they were very, very specific, even down to the point that the heroine must be pregnant by the end of the book or it wasn’t a satisfying reading experience for her. I quickly learned that I could not recommend books to her that I enjoyed because of the adventure or the humor or the author’s take on a historical period unless they met her requirements.

    I’ve never been able to tease that one out.

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  10. Leah
    Jul 15, 2008 @ 09:41:32

    One of the big differences between real life and fiction is that problems in fiction resolve when the story ends. Real life can stay a mess forever.

    I think it's way overthinking the issue to say that readers are reading to identify with the characters. More likely, we enjoy having reinforcement of the idea that good conquers evil, love conquers all and broken things (and people) can be fixed.

    Amen.

    (Hope I did the quotes right)

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  11. Kimber An
    Jul 15, 2008 @ 10:35:18

    My tastes are so varied I’d have to have an overpopulated multiple personality disorder to self-insert myself into all of them.

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  12. Bev(BB)
    Jul 15, 2008 @ 10:41:15

    I remember the first time I ever got into a discussion about this topic online – right after first reading about it in Dangerous Men Adventurous Women – and coming away scratching my head, thinking that was as clear as mud and about as deep as most swamps. It’s just that some of the explanations for things that people try to pass off as clearing all this mumbo-jumbo up are only more mumbo-jumbo. Really.

    And the thing that gets me even more is when someone tries to apply it to another genre and it doesn’t work because it is mumbo-jumbo for the most part. Or worse, tries to explain how it shouldn’t be applied to any other genre because romance is “unique” and all that crap.

    Oye.

    Storytelling is storytelling, reality is reality and fiction is fiction and, seriously, I sometimes truly get the feeling that we “lowly” romance readers are not the ones with the major psychological/societal problems if they think they’re fooling anyone into believing we don’t know what’s what and they do. (rollings my eyes big time)

    Really, who’s living in a fantasy world built on false premises about us?

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  13. Darlynne
    Jul 15, 2008 @ 10:54:30

    Engage me, that’s all I ask, want or look for in a book, movie or music. And I will read, watch and listen without wanting to assume the qualities, characteristics or experiences presented.

    Children turn bath towels into Superman’s cape, wield sticks as light sabers, become prunes in bathtubs they see as pirate ships; they enthusiastically take on the role of the heroine/hero from something that has captured their imagination. It does not automatically follow, however, that women want to don a long dress and be pursued across Scotland by Dageus MacKeltar … wait, what?

    All kidding aside, I don’t want to be the character in any book, romance or otherwise. And I am insulted when someone ascribes to my love of books the notion that I am fulfilling a fantasy or living my life vicariously. I am engaged, though, and that’s a wonderful thing.

    Really, who's living in a fantasy world built on false premises about us?

    Good question, Bev.

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  14. Gail Dayton
    Jul 15, 2008 @ 10:55:22

    All art is about the emotional experience.

    Think about it. Music is auditory emotion. Paintings and sculpture and the like are visual emotion. Dance is a physical expression of emotion. Poetry is word emotion. Theater (which includes movies and TV) and literature (in which I am including all genre fiction as well) are Story emotion. The arts have existed as long as man has, and they have always been about emotion and have always been ways to express and process emotion.

    All of the arts can tell stories, but theater and literature are Always stories. And stories are about emotion. There are some stories where I get so mad at the hero, I want to snatch him baldheaded–and if he doesn’t suffer enough to deserve the happy ending, I’m not happy with the book. It doesn’t matter if you “identify” or “self-insert” or by what means you participate in the emotion. It’s the emotion that matters.

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  15. Bev(BB)
    Jul 15, 2008 @ 11:18:27

    It doesn't matter if you “identify” or “self-insert” or by what means you participate in the emotion. It's the emotion that matters.

    Well, of course. And if that was all this was about there would be no issue. It isn’t, though. The problem is that the discussions have always been muddied by who we identify with and whom we “insert” ourselves into and all that mumbo-jumbo.

    And it’s just ridiculous because then what about the rest of the characters in the story? Talk about tunnel vision.

    I actually literally got a migraine one day trying to follow one of the convoluted explanations of this stuff. It hurts my brain. ;(

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  16. Jessica Barksdale Inclan
    Jul 15, 2008 @ 11:26:46

    What I like about all reading is that I can get into someone else’s skin for a while, walk around, and then get out–close the book and walk away. That character will take me places I can’t go while parked in front of the Safeway waiting for my boyfriend to buy the chicken. Sometimes, I’m happy about the time in another skin, and sometimes (especially if the book is well written and the character creepy) I need a shower.

    I don’t read to NOT identify. I read to identify and learn and think other. And then I go home, so to speak. If people do otherwise, and read for other reasons, fine. Great!

    Romances have the advantage (I think) of taking readers through one of the most thrilling aspects of being alive. Falling in love. If you don’t want to fully engage with the story, you can. If you want to do that self inject/insert thing, great, too.

    I’m not sure why there is an emotional reaction to one way of reading, though. Yes, it does effect the way romance writers and readers are looked at, but why not just sit down, open up a book, and forget about it.

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  17. Susan/DC
    Jul 15, 2008 @ 11:55:47

    One of the big differences between real life and fiction is that problems in fiction resolve when the story ends. Real life can stay a mess forever.

    Reminds me of a quote from Oscar Wilde: “The good end happily, the bad unhappily — that is what fiction means.”

    I also remember a Romance author (Sabrina Jeffries, I think) explaining that part of the virgin heroine's popularity is her ability to give the reader a chance to rewrite her own disappointing loss of virginity into something more meaningful and powerful.

    I remember this discussion and noting that it certainly wasn’t my fantasy, which might explain why I don’t care if the heroine is a virgin or not.

    I’ve spent some time thinking about M/M romances lately and have tried to figure out why they are not high on my list of books to be read. I certaily don’t disapprove of them, and I liked Jane Lockwood’s “Forbidden Shores” and Anne Henredeen’s “Phyllida”, but each of those books contained a M/M/F triangle, which is a rather different beast. As far as M/M books go, I understand intellectually the appeal of reading about something outside my own experience (it’s one of the major reasons I read, after all), and I certainly understand the appeal of two heroes to lust after. But there’s something missing for me, and in the end I have no deeper explanation than that I need a woman if I am to self-insert (that phrase may be particularly apt when speaking of M/M books) or to identify with or whatever it is I’m doing. I find that a bit odd, since if asked directly I don’t particularly identify with 99% of the heroines one finds in romances, but for whatever reason — based on my personal psychology, my feminist background, whatever — I need that female protagonist in there somewhere, even if she’s only 1/3 of the relationship. What I also find odd is that if the book is not a Romance (with the capital R), M/M relationships don’t bear the same burden — there clearly is something I’m looking for in Romances, whatever that may be, that I don’t care if I find in literary fiction, mysteries, etc.

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  18. Monica Burns
    Jul 15, 2008 @ 12:29:37

    Overall, I think books are like vacations. They all take you away to another world.

    Great analogy! I feel that way about any book I pick up. For me, books of any fictional genre are fantasies. It's why it's called fiction. Books might utilize real emotions and depict real situations, but in the end it isn't an absolute reality. It's one author's perception of a situation(s) designed for the purpose of entertaining. I freely admit to living through characters vicariously when I'm reading. Once the book closes, I'm back to my ordinary, yet occasionally unique, daily life.

    I read to escape that life for a few hours. I don't want to think about gas prices, a kid about to go to college, my boring day job, the jerk who stole my parking space. It's all about immersing myself in a story where I choose to be or not be the heroine/ hero/ villain or other character for however long the book lasts. I keep this in mind when I write because IMHO, the whole point of a good piece of fiction is to escape.

    …if it's not to have the reader occupy the villain's mind for the stretch of that scene? Does that make us all potential serial killers?

    Good fiction is often cathartic on numerous levels. I love characters like Thomas Harris's Hannibal Lecter. I'm horrified and yet quite taken with the character. His actions repulse me and yet I can't help but like him for his brilliance and cultured nature. Making it even more difficult is that most of his victims are boorish and emulate the type of people we run into everyday who irritate us. His reaction is murder, and yet at the same time that dark side in me goes, “all right!” when he takes out a jerk. While I would never react as Hannibal does, I think when we read a character that represents the dark side in human nature the book we can expunge some of our own darkness in the process of reading or writing the character.

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  19. Lori Borrill
    Jul 15, 2008 @ 12:34:41

    What annoys me is that no one makes these assumptions about any other genre of fiction. It’s only romance, and only romance because romance novels often involve women reading about sex. Despite this country’s fascination with the subject, there’s still a huge constituency of people who are intimidated by the idea of women having an interest in sex, or–the horror–being sexually liberated. And of course, when people are intimidated by something, they try to either diminish it, or explain it away in some nonsesical manner that helps them sleep at night.

    So, okay, sure. I secretly wish I were Eve Dallas so I could fly around in Roarke’s jet. No, really. I want Roarke and his jet…and his money.

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  20. Robin
    Jul 15, 2008 @ 12:35:01

    As for placeholding and identification, I think it's interesting, but ultimately just a lot of academic talk.

    I often think academic talk can add valuable things to these discussions, but in this case it seems to have created a mutual hostility. Romance readers and authors feel judged and put down by academics, rejecting out of hand, IMO, anything that smacks of an academic orientation. And because of the insults dealt to Romance by academia, which still have not been completely atoned for (will anyone ever forgive the Radway book?), I think that this discussion has become frozen. I don’t know, exactly, how to open it back up, but I wish we could, because I think there’s a ton of interesting stuff here, stuff that doesn’t simply boil down to identification v. placeholding.

    I have not met to any women who said to me..I only read romance because I want my life to be just like a book.

    I know there are cases where readers have advertised their extreme loyalty to a particular series by claiming the hero for their own, or something like that. And there are other instances that people could share. But I don’t know how much of that is talk-talk, and how much of it is real psychological immersion. As commenters on Karen Scott’s blog pointed out, that total immersion was something they practiced in adolescence, when personal identity is still in formation.

    As for identification with the hero, Bettie Sharpe has a most shrewd observation on it. She said that if we identify with the hero, it's not because romance is necessarily hero-driven, but because the hero is most often the one with the power in the book.

    I would agree with this — at least I think it’s one reason why readers would identify with the hero. And it makes me wonder whether or how paranormal Romance, with its kick ass heroines, for example, would change the reading paradigm. Or whether it’s a bunch of different characteristics that a reader finds to identify with in the reading experience. As I hinted in my piece, I’d love to talk a bit about how we’re invited to share the villain’s POV in a number of Romances. That fascinates me, actually.

    I wouldn't say that I personally live through the romances I read and in no way do I even picture myself in the scenarios presented, but I certainly empathize, cheer, cry and get frustrated for the characters.

    As a very objective reader, I often wish I could be one of those who is easily immersed in a book I read. There’s almost always some analytical distance for me, and in the rare cases where there isn’t, it’s an amazing experience for me.

    The difference with a book and its characters is that we are mentally filling in the visual, applying our own feelings and experiences-or lack of-to what we imagine. It becomes on some level, personal, which may be why people often respond so viscerally to some books.

    Jane and I were talking about this difference, and I tend to have the same view as you do. I think this might also be why a book turned into a movie can go terribly wrong for some people. I’ve felt sometimes that when a book goes to screen it becomes an entirely different work, even when the script is relatively faithful to the bare bones of the story.

    If readers are only doing this to identify the characters, how screwed up do I have to be, as a writer?

    I think this is why some of those author comments from that documentary trailer really threw me. Clearly the belief is out there, because, well, people are articulating it! Blogger Meriam commented on a recent post about the phenomenon of the headless heroine on book covers. And I have to wonder if that’s intentional — coming out of a belief that the reader will insert herself into the heroine’s body.

    If it's a good book, then the emotions are a “release valve” if you will.

    I think this is a huge part of reading, actually. And again, while it requires some level identification with what we’re reading, it doesn’t, IMO, entail a complete loss of boundary between the reader and the book. And that, it seems to me, is what some of the stuff about reader identification seems to assume — that any time a reader is identifying with a character in a book that they are doing so at the expense of their *self*, which I think is an incorrect assumption.

    I still maintain the phrase self-insert sounds like a response to the imperative, “Go fuck yourself” -’ i.e., “Hey, good idea! Would you pardon me a moment? I believe I'll self-insert right now.”

    I can’t say I disagree, lol.

    I quickly learned that I could not recommend books to her that I enjoyed because of the adventure or the humor or the author's take on a historical period unless they met her requirements.

    What fascinates me is how you can be really in sympathy with someone’s personality and belief system, but still have totally different taste in books. Now I think your example is a very extreme version of that, but in general, reading preferences seem as much chemical as rational in their logic.
    Leah: Yup, you did the quotes right, lol (I say this as someone who is notorious for screwing up the html codes).

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  21. Bev(BB)
    Jul 15, 2008 @ 12:50:31

    there clearly is something I'm looking for in Romances, whatever that may be, that I don't care if I find in literary fiction, mysteries, etc.

    The term I think you’re looking for is “The Relationship” and in some way’s I tend to believe it’s a heroic entity unto itself unique to romantic fiction that we do identify with and track on an emotional level. Most people think the power of the creation myth is the baby or kingdom (marriage) at the end. It isn’t. That’s only an occasional by-product. The power is in the two becoming one to begin with. Modern romances reflect that power even in their languages and images.

    Does anyone honestly believe dual perspectives became popular because it was technical correct? Or because readers responded to the emotional power behind them?

    And dual perspectives are probably the biggest arguments against identification and placeholding I’ve ever seen, too. I usually have a hard enound time keeping track of whose hands are where much less which one’s eyes I’m looking through, people. Personally, there are times when I just want to watch, er, read, thank you very much. ;D

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  22. Deborah Brent
    Jul 15, 2008 @ 13:04:34

    I live in the real world where bad things happen. People get sick and die. Children have illnesses that limit their lives and learning disabilities make school a place of torture. Not to mention what goes on in the WORLD outside of my life. I read to escape. I don’t want to be the heroine, have the hero as my own, time travel, encounter a vampire or live in a drafty highland castle. I want escape for a little while. That’s it. No big philosophical discussion on do I want to “insert” myself into the story. I want to be entertained. If I want deeper meaning out of my reading there are a libraries filled with books that can uplift my soul. That is not the job of a romance novel.

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  23. Robin
    Jul 15, 2008 @ 13:07:49

    My tastes are so varied I'd have to have an overpopulated multiple personality disorder to self-insert myself into all of them.

    One of the things I wonder about it whether the fact that some readers seem to have pretty narrow tastes in reading material has indirectly promoted this idea that readers put themselves into the character of the heroine. But yeah, where does that leave readers who prefer a myriad of different types of books and characters?

    Really, who's living in a fantasy world built on false premises about us?

    Apparently, it’s not simply people outside the genre, because the editor’s comment that started this whole thing last week works for a major NY publisher. And then there are those author quotes from above. And even though she isn’t a Romance author, I wonder how the persona of LKH has impacted these beliefs — I mean, hasn’t she come out and said that she puts her RL men into her books as alter egos? In any case, she seems to be pretty comfortable breaking down some of those boundaries. That she keeps getting associated with Romance, though, might say something about how it’s Romance that is perceived this way.

    Children turn bath towels into Superman's cape, wield sticks as light sabers, become prunes in bathtubs they see as pirate ships; they enthusiastically take on the role of the heroine/hero from something that has captured their imagination. It does not automatically follow, however, that women want to don a long dress and be pursued across Scotland by Dageus MacKeltar … wait, what?

    I think many would argue that women are infantalized, worrying that Romance continues this trend. Certainly, the belief that women can’t maintain the boundary between self and book is infantalizing, and clearly it’s an idea that persists inside and outside the genre. Unfortunately, I think it’s made it very difficult to talk about these issues without clinging to some polarized position (it’s all entertainment v. it’s dangerous character identification).

    All art is about the emotional experience.

    I think that some of this comes from the moral dimension of art, or what some believe to be the moral imperatives of art. From parables and allegories, fairy tales and morality tales, there has always been this thread of socialization and moral instruction in art, which I think gets amped up whenever you’re talking about women and, gasp, sex! Like we can’t have certain emotional responses without some kind of moral awareness. IMO it’s a really complicated issue but one that’s central to how Romance is often talked about and perceived.

    What I like about all reading is that I can get into someone else's skin for a while, walk around, and then get out-close the book and walk away.

    I think this is how it is with most people and most genres of fiction. I tend to be very resistant to gender based arguments about why Romance is dissed, but in this case there seems to be a very strong gender bias in how this whole identification issue is played out. I wonder if it’s partially a belief that women read from emotional rather than intellect, and that we can’t just “walk away.” And yet, obviously we do, or we wouldn’t, couldn’t be reading so much, lol.

    I find that a bit odd, since if asked directly I don't particularly identify with 99% of the heroines one finds in romances, but for whatever reason -’ based on my personal psychology, my feminist background, whatever -’ I need that female protagonist in there somewhere, even if she's only 1/3 of the relationship.

    Which suggests to me that even if women do identify with a female protagonist, it doesn’t necessarily have to be about being the love or sex object. Sometimes it may just be a POV thing, or a political/social sense of identification. Or something else entirely. I don’t have the virgin redo fantasy, either, so I can’t relate to that personally, but I know I feel more comfortable reading a book where there is a smart female who seems to know what’s going on around her (although she need not be the protagonist). Is that about identification? Maybe. But it’s a complicated sense, and I think that even readers looking to redo their own sexual memories might have a more complicated relationship to the heroine than that, too. Because I’ve always felt that sexual fantasy is different than Romance as a whole (that it’s not just a genre of “fantasy” in that way).

    Good fiction is often cathartic on numerous levels.

    And the catharsis IS important, which is something that IMO often gets lost when we talk about character identification. For what purpose? I understand where the assumption comes from that readers simply want to be the love/sex object in the story, but I think it does the whole idea of identification an injustice. As you said, sometimes it’s as much about expelling as it is about absorbing, and it’s that dynamic interplay between reader and book I think we’re drawn to as readers — however that may manifest itself for each of us.

    Despite this country's fascination with the subject, there's still a huge constituency of people who are intimidated by the idea of women having an interest in sex, or-the horror-being sexually liberated.

    Including a lot of women, lol. Personally, I think a lot of Romance is an attempt (not necessarily conscious) to grapple with and work through some of our greatest fears and insecurities about sexuality, especially female sexuality. The rules we feel constrained by, the sense of shame many women still have around sex, the sense of physical and emotional vulnerability women still have, not only in relationships, but in terms of sexual and domestic violence. So to see things reduced to a sense of women sinking themselves into some fantasy irks the heck out of me. And yes, I think in this case the gender issue is paramount. In many ways I think the gender argument as it relates to Romance is overstated, but not here. Here it seems that the female thing is central to the perception that women are reading *merely* to identify, as if that’s some bad, dirty thing to begin with.

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  24. Christine Merrill
    Jul 15, 2008 @ 13:44:08

    Clearly the belief is out there, because, well, people are articulating it! Blogger Meriam commented on a recent post about the phenomenon of the headless heroine on book covers. And I have to wonder if that's intentional -’ coming out of a belief that the reader will insert herself into the heroine's body.

    Going over my stack of covers, this seems to be more British than US. And more often than headless heroines, it’s headless heroes.

    So, can we stand the idea that she is not us, but feel that she, whoever she is, should be going for a guy we think is sexually attractive?

    Really, I wouldn’t be so bothered by the idea that there is a role playing, escapist element to reading, if it didn’t come with a judgmental undercurrent that says we’re doing it because our own lives are inadequate. If we were:

    thin/pretty/young/desirable/sexually active/satisfied with our mate/not so damn pathetic that we can't deal with real life

    we wouldn't need romance novels. It's really pretty insulting.

    And maybe we like virgin heroines because the first time isn't always the best time. But that would mean that we are all totally obsessing about the first time, and can't move on with our lives. Maybe those virgin heroines have something to do with the fact that there are a lot of historical periods, and cultures where virginity was the norm for unmarried females, and first love is often seen as the most intense.

    I'm pretty sure Lizzy Bennett was a virgin, before Darcy got hold of her. But that's not why we keep reading the story.

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  25. Lori Borrill
    Jul 15, 2008 @ 13:50:06

    Robin, you’re right. It’s not just men. I doubt thriller writers spend much time answering to a backlash from their graphic scenes of women being brutally raped and murdered (and it’s almost always women being murdered, isn’t it). But write a book with consenting sex between adults and it’s reduced to the classification of porn and everyone’s scratching their heads trying to analyze what cheap thrill women could possibly be getting by reading such trash.

    What does that say about the state of our society?

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  26. Bev(BB)
    Jul 15, 2008 @ 13:55:41

    Really, who's living in a fantasy world built on false premises about us?

    Apparently, it's not simply people outside the genre, because the editor's comment that started this whole thing last week works for a major NY publisher. And then there are those author quotes from above.

    Seems to me that might only mean they’s bought into the propaganda themselves. Or not even understand what the heck they’re talking about either. OTOH, I’m not saying some readers don’t believe/feel that way. What I am saying is that I’ve never even understood the explanations of what the terms meant in the first place and I think I’m a reasonably intelligent person. And that was after originally reading the essays in Dangerous Men, Adventerous Women in the first place, much less getting multiple explanations online.

    Identification and placeholder could exist but if they do, they don’t just exist in romance novels the way people have been trying to make them fit for the last couple of decades like round pegs in square holes. They exist because readers do this identification thing naturally when they read the stories regardless of the genre. Or character.

    Or not.

    That’s always been my beef with the explanations. It never made sense that they were so fixated on the “roles” of the characters when they couldn’t even explain in simple terms what the heck they talking about. It’s all fine and dandy to say the heroine is a placeholder – except when the hero doesn’t even show up but for a couple of chapters at the end of the story, then how does one explain things? Whom do I “identify” with then? See, that’s a major problem in the theory. In most of the earlier romances, these almighty heroes weren’t even in evidence for major portions of the storylines. Difficult to identify with someone not there.

    And now we have kick-ass heroines who take care of themselves for the most part. Sigh. I defy anyone reading a Shelly Laurenston romance to tell me they’re going to identify or want to identify with the hero for most of her books. Uh-huh. I read the first Magnus Pack book and immediately wanted to go out and buy a baseball bat. If you know what I’m talking about then you’ve read that book and it has nothing to do with the hero or the heroine. Well, not in that book, anyway. ;)

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  27. Jody W.
    Jul 15, 2008 @ 14:01:53

    To expand on what KZ said, “self insert” also brings to mind the classic ding(aling) of detailed sex scenes: the tab A, slot B criticism.

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  28. Jill A
    Jul 15, 2008 @ 16:03:50

    I don’t have a well-thought-out point, just some random thoughts:

    Perhaps some readers actually self-insert and live the book through the heroine’s eyes, but if that was the majority, why are most romance novels in 3rd person POV or shifting POV? Why aren’t they mostly 1st-person from the heroine’s perspective?

    I don’t think this is just a romance genre thing. The only reason it gets called out and exaggerated so it seems like a problem is because romance is mostly read by women. Fantasy is the other genre that I’d think this happens most clearly – who doesn’t identify at least partially with the main character who saves the world, alone or in a group? It doesn’t mean they actually want to be taken to another world and fight in epic battles and use magic and kill the evil overlord, the same way that I don’t really wish I had a neglectful father and gambling brother and had to sell myself into marriage with a mysterious viscount.

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  29. Bev(BB)
    Jul 15, 2008 @ 16:48:50

    Perhaps some readers actually self-insert and live the book through the heroine's eyes, but if that was the majority, why are most romance novels in 3rd person POV or shifting POV? Why aren't they mostly 1st-person from the heroine's perspective?

    Yeah, but identifying with the herione in a 1st person pov would actually make sense. It’s the heroine being a placeholder that I’ve truly never got. Because apparently even when it’s 1st person heroine’s pov, we’re still supposed to identify more with the hero and use the heroine as placeholder? Oye.

    I banged my head up against that one so many times years ago that I finally gave up and just ignored the entire concept as being nuts. Placeholders, not identifying. I can actually get identifying but to me it shifts even within stories as various characters do, well, stuff. We “identify” with them. Or at least we should if the authors are doing their job right. To me that’s the entire point of writing. And reading.

    But placeholders? What?!? Do not get.

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  30. Robin
    Jul 15, 2008 @ 17:39:46

    Really, I wouldn't be so bothered by the idea that there is a role playing, escapist element to reading, if it didn't come with a judgmental undercurrent that says we're doing it because our own lives are inadequate.

    Exactly! And unfortunately, I think this judgment has so tainted the issue that it’s tough to dig too deep into the issue without having Romance readers beg off, afraid that it’s going to turn into a “what wrong with Romance (readers)” diatribe.

    I doubt thriller writers spend much time answering to a backlash from their graphic scenes of women being brutally raped and murdered (and it's almost always women being murdered, isn't it).

    And that seems so backward to me. I know that there’s a lot of controversy over violence toward women in Romance, but in Romance, at least, I can see why it’s so prevalent — after all, it’s something that we, as women, have to face, if not personally, certainly in general. So I can see the fixation and even the need to work out some of these issues. But I also wish we’d look at what’s going on in other genres. Like you said, what’s with all the violence toward women in other genres? Is it symbolic, and if so, symbolic of what? Where is the line between writing about women being victimized and writing women’s victimization?
    This is a really big issue for me, because I think we have a tendency to blink over violence when it happens in all aspects of our media, but we focus endlessly on sex and sexuality. It seems so backward to me, lol, and it’s not just men who are participating in the double standards.

    To expand on what KZ said, “self insert” also brings to mind the classic ding(aling) of detailed sex scenes: the tab A, slot B criticism.

    Which, along with the masturbatory imagery, seems to reflect the whole judgment about this sort of identification to begin with — that it’s a problem, somehow, a *lack* on the part of female readers.

    Perhaps some readers actually self-insert and live the book through the heroine's eyes, but if that was the majority, why are most romance novels in 3rd person POV or shifting POV? Why aren't they mostly 1st-person from the heroine's perspective?

    An especially interesting point considering how many readers seem to dislike first person narrative. It kind of strengthens the idea that the heroine is a rival for the reader, rather than a substitute. I’ve never actually understood the resistance to 1st person narration, unless I think more about the idea that the reader identifies more with the hero, and therefore needs his POV directly. Or perhaps it has to do with the idea that the reader needs to *choose* or have the flexibility of shifting who they want to identify with at any point in the book. First person fixes the reader within the consciousness of the narrator, where third person semi or fully omniscient allows the reader to shift perspective along with the characters.

    It's the heroine being a placeholder that I've truly never got. Because apparently even when it's 1st person heroine's pov, we're still supposed to identify more with the hero and use the heroine as placeholder? Oye.

    I think there are a number of problems with Kinsale’s argument, which may have contributed to the widespread confusion the piece seems to have created. I can focus on particular aspects of her argument clearly (that, for example, the reader measures herself against the heroine — wondering actively what she would do in the heroine’s place, as Kinsale puts it), but I think that when Kinsale tries to expand on that theory, she gets tripped up in a series of ongoing academic discussions on identity, feminism, and theories of reading. And that creates complications in both the theory and Kinsale’s explication. What I find useful in the article is this whole notion of analytical distance between the heroine and the reader, the differentiation between that and the reader who passively adopts the heroine’s choices and actions, as if the reader were the heroine. Beyond that, things get murky, IMO.

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  31. Bev(BB)
    Jul 15, 2008 @ 18:25:54

    An especially interesting point considering how many readers seem to dislike first person narrative. It kind of strengthens the idea that the heroine is a rival for the reader, rather than a substitute. I've never actually understood the resistance to 1st person narration, unless I think more about the idea that the reader identifies more with the hero, and therefore needs his POV directly. Or perhaps it has to do with the idea that the reader needs to *choose* or have the flexibility of shifting who they want to identify with at any point in the book. First person fixes the reader within the consciousness of the narrator, where third person semi or fully omniscient allows the reader to shift perspective along with the characters.

    For me it’s not any more complicated than that’s it’s a romance and I want to “see” both (or all) povs in relationships. Which means that there has to be a very good reason to limit the pov in a romance for it to pass inspection. I loved Gabriel’s Ghost by Linnea Sinclair when it first came out in ebook format and was totally absolutely surprised by the fact because for years I’d avoided them, 1st person, like the plague. It worked because of his secret and the surprisingly “Gothic” feel to the science fiction romance. I have no problem at all with 1st in mysteries and fantasy and never have, though. Significantly, it’s only romance where there’s always a relationship that I draw that line.

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  32. RfP
    Jul 15, 2008 @ 18:33:55

    An especially interesting point considering how many readers seem to dislike first person narrative. It kind of strengthens the idea that the heroine is a rival for the reader, rather than a substitute. … Or perhaps it has to do with the idea that the reader needs to *choose* or have the flexibility of shifting who they want to identify with at any point in the book.

    Perhaps some readers dislike 1st-person narrative because the POV disrupts the reader’s ability to “self-insert”. I.e. the heroine’s internal voice isn’t how the reader would have played it herself.

    That’s *not* to say “Romance must be 3rd-person so readers can ‘self-insert’”. I *don’t* think self-insertion is some fundamental explanation of romance’s popularity, but I do believe many readers do it some of the time (in all genres) and it may even be some readers’ dominant mode of engaging a text.

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  33. Robin
    Jul 15, 2008 @ 22:19:06

    For me it's not any more complicated than that's it's a romance and I want to “see” both (or all) povs in relationships. Which means that there has to be a very good reason to limit the pov in a romance for it to pass inspection.

    I don’t mind first person pov in Romance, but I think it puts a greater burden on the author to find different ways to reveal the perspective and inner life of other characters, especially the other partner. But there’s something about the intimacy forged with a first person narrator that appeals to me, and I think it can actually be quite powerful within a romantic context, if, that is, the author has the skill and commitment to making the relationship transparent in the ways that count.

    Perhaps some readers dislike 1st-person narrative because the POV disrupts the reader's ability to “self-insert”. I.e. the heroine's internal voice isn't how the reader would have played it herself.

    That may be true, but I have to say that some of my favorite Romances are those where the heroine’s voice is very strong, even though the story is not told in her first person pov (The Spymaster’s Lady comes to mind, for example). I actually think voice is an underperformed aspect of the genre, at least in that sense of providing a really unique sensibility for the heroine and hero. And yet it’s one of my very favorite aspects of reading, especially in Romance, where I find the relationship so much more fulfilling when the characters feel like living, breathing individuals.

    I just finished a book (which reminds me that I need to write up the review, lol), and while competently written, I feel I could substitute a bunch of heroes and heroines for the couple in the book. Plucky, idealistic heroine, jaded and alienated hero — mix with water, bake, and voila: one Romance novel. Sometimes a classic recipe can be repeated over and over again with delicious results, but when it comes to books, I’m easily bored, I guess.

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  34. RfP
    Jul 16, 2008 @ 00:52:32

    That may be true, but I have to say that some of my favorite Romances are those where the heroine's voice is very strong, even though the story is not told in her first person pov

    I’m oriented more that way too, but there are obviously people who read differently. I’m just playing devil’s advocate, as I don’t think we should discount “self-insertion”–that is, for some readers some of the time. Not for all readers all the time, and not exclusively for romance.

    I can hardly wait to move on from this topic and stop using that horrible term. “Self-insertion”. Snort.

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  35. Laura Vivanco
    Jul 16, 2008 @ 08:58:51

    the stereotype of the woman vicariously living the fantasy of love everlasting

    That raises the question of whether “love everlasting” is a fantasy. I wonder if a lot of the cynicism/criticism of the genre comes from people who don’t believe in “love everlasting,” or even “love that lasts until two people die” and so do see it as a “fantasy.” No doubt there are some romance readers who think that too. And of course, if it’s a fantasy then it would have to be lived vicariously, because it wouldn’t be possible for any real person to live it for themselves. However, for those of us who do believe that enduring love is possible, it (a) isn’t a “fantasy” and (b) many of us may be living it in our daily lives.

    That said, as Deborah Brent observed,

    I live in the real world where bad things happen. People get sick and die. Children have illnesses that limit their lives and learning disabilities make school a place of torture. Not to mention what goes on in the WORLD outside of my life.

    Even if one believes in enduring love, it’s pretty difficult/impossible to avoid the realities that Deborah mentions. My response to that is a bit different to Deborah’s though. She says that

    I read to escape. [...] I want escape for a little while. That's it. No big philosophical discussion on do I want to “insert” myself into the story. I want to be entertained. If I want deeper meaning out of my reading there are a libraries filled with books that can uplift my soul. That is not the job of a romance novel.

    I wouldn’t say that I read romance to “escape”, but I do read it at least partly in order to be reminded of the positive aspects of “real life.” I know that I can depend on a romance to remind me that, along with all the bad things that happen in life, there are also good, happy things. For me, that’s something that does “uplift my soul.” I think it’s the job of a romance novel to end with “an emotionally-satisfying and optimistic ending” (RWA) which will remind me that enduring love does exist in this world and that it’s as much a reality as the bad stuff that can leave me feeling emotionally drained and pessimistic.

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  36. Jill A
    Jul 16, 2008 @ 09:38:32

    For me as a reader, I find the idea of passively letting the heroine’s, or anyone’s, perspective take over and just going along for the ride odd. I cannot do that – I’m always, even while reading excellent books that have me enthralled, reacting to the characters’ actions and thoughts with my own reactions, kind of like watching a movie. It feels more intimate than a movie because I’m in my own head and imagining everything how I want to see it (and it’s a blend between ‘seeing’ in my head and something more abstract), but it’s definitely a fly on the wall or silent observer type of experience. Perhaps I’m in the minority and many people feel like they’re one of the characters, but I don’t, even when I identify with one of the characters strongly, actually imagine myself to BE them.

    I don’t know if I’m making any sense, but this is interesting!

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  37. Bev(BB)
    Jul 16, 2008 @ 09:44:10

    I don't mind first person pov in Romance, but I think it puts a greater burden on the author to find different ways to reveal the perspective and inner life of other characters, especially the other partner. But there's something about the intimacy forged with a first person narrator that appeals to me, and I think it can actually be quite powerful within a romantic context, if, that is, the author has the skill and commitment to making the relationship transparent in the ways that count.

    Only if the writing truly is focused on the developing relationship and not overly focused on the individual narrator. Then it becomes too much like a personal journal and way too narcissistic for my tastes, which is why I do not read chick lit and am very picky about which plots I will read done in 1st. Or by which authors. I got way too much of that in the older books when I first started reading romances to want to go backwards, thank you very much. ;p

    That’s not to say there’s not a time and place for the form, just that I choose when I want to read it and usually it’s not in my romances. :D

    OTOH, I can’t even remember the title – but it was one of Jo Beverley’s medievals – I distinctly remember one done in very limited third person heroine for at least the first half of the book that I very much enjoyed because of the “surprise” element. I say surprise because it wasn’t so much a mystery as the hero had a secret he was keeping until after they were married. They got married about halfway through, she found out and then we started getting his POV, too. It was – different.

    I think the point I'm getting at is that I think I tend to notice more when the limited POVs work well for specific reasons than I do when I don’t like them for decidedly lackluster ones. Then I just don’t like the books and may or may not chalk it up to the POV.

    But, yes, it can all play a part in whom we “identify” with in the story. I still say that can shift, though, within any story, romance or not. Case in point, in the one I just mentioned, the shift in POV definitely made for an extremely logical and emotional change in sympathies that swings back and forth between the two protagonists as the relationship progresses. And I have no doubt at all that Ms. Beverley being the writer she is meant it to happen exactly that way. Or at least hoped it would be that way for the reader.

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  38. sallahdog
    Jul 16, 2008 @ 10:38:43

    If I enter a fantasy of being in the story that I am reading (sometimes I do, sometimes I don’t) I find I generally fantasize that I am another character interacting with all the characters (I used to write fan fiction before I realized I sucked at it)… I was talking to my daughter last night (she is a teen) and found that she does the same thing… I don’t think I ever inserted myself in the heroines place(oh I probably did at one point or another but I can’t remember when).. I was always the buddy…

    Personally I dont think identifying or self insertion(snicker) is a bad thing, its just gotten a bad connotation because its (gasp) romance… You think James Bond fans (guys mostly) don’t think about being in his place while reading those books? BS… I think a lot of people who won’t admit it, DO place themselves in the books they read. Otherwise there would be no fanfiction writers out there, or people who write books that were inspired by other books, or write for series books like the star trek series…

    But because this is romance, some people are afraid to say it, because people will accuse them of having masturbatory fantasies or something… hokeyyy… whatever.. as my kid would say…

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  39. MB
    Jul 16, 2008 @ 13:54:40

    …well I don’t know about you, but I, PERSONALLY, am MUCH more interesting than any romance-novel heroine out there!

    Maybe it’s because I’m 3-dimensional???

    (I would like their lives, money, and great men though sometimes.)

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  40. Jessa Slade
    Jul 16, 2008 @ 14:48:30

    You couldn't pay me enough to put up with some of the crap – and some of the heroes -’ that happen in Romance.

    As someone who lives with a moody broody bad boy, I fervently agree.

    All art is about the emotional experience.

    Exactly. I read romance for the same reason I eat chocolate: the anticipatory pleasure at the beginning, the emotional high in the middle & the sweet satisfaction at the end. But I’m never… okay, rarely confused about the role of dessert in real life.

    What annoys me is that no one makes these assumptions about any other genre of fiction.

    Oops. And I’m feeding right back into the stereotypes with the chocolate thing. But I think you’re right that this borders on one of those cautionary lectures about how reading matter should be of an “Improving Nature” for the fair sex.

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  41. Monica Burns
    Jul 16, 2008 @ 16:02:27

    she gets tripped up in a series of ongoing academic discussions on identity, feminism, and theories of reading.

    I’m inclined to believe it’s like calculus. It just is. A book entertains us. *grin*

    From a psychology POV, I think self-insertion could probably be considered role-playing, something psychologists tell us is a healthy thing. They also say fantasizing is good for us as well. It would be interesting to see a survey done from that aspect with regard to self-insertion and the results. For the best accuracy one would need to survey a completely random population.

    It wouldn’t surprise me to learn that more people insert themselves into a romance character’s place than those who don’t. Putting oneself into the place of any book character is not that much different from people who belong to organizations like SCA, Star Trek fans who role play, etc.

    Reading is entertainment, and even nonfiction can be entertaining (Devil in the White City is a good example). I wonder how much self-insertion is clearly evident to the reader and how much of it subconscious. When I pick up a book, I don’t intentionally mean to self-insert, but I recall moments when I have done so and it’s been an unconscious effort vs. deliberate. I don’t consider myself boring, in fact, I’m very complex (just like most people).

    Personally, I don’t think it’s how romance readers view themselves (boring, interesting, name your poison)as to whether they self-insert or not. My intuition tells me it’s simply because they find it entertaining to do so. It’s just one more part of the reading experience. It’s fun.

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  42. Robin
    Jul 16, 2008 @ 16:32:26

    I'm just playing devil's advocate, as I don't think we should discount “self-insertion”-that is, for some readers some of the time. Not for all readers all the time, and not exclusively for romance.

    Absolutely. I certainly don’t read every book the same way, even if there are some baseline similarities and habits I have. Actually, I think most people read in different modes, perhaps without even realizing it. Which is part of what frustrates me about the generalization that Romance is a genre in which readers view the characters as fantasy surrogates. First of all, I have problems with how the word fantasy is often applied to the genre, and also I have issues with the surrogacy concept.

    That raises the question of whether “love everlasting” is a fantasy.

    Well, in that sentence I was actually focused on what I see to be a stereotypical view of Romance as fantasy, and since the core fantasy element for many readers is the HEA, I think that there probably is a strong bias against the notion of enduring love.

    As for the way love is represented in Romance, however, I do think it is idealized, which is not the same thing as fantasy (although perhaps the terms are conflated by some who seem them as equivalent) — that whether or not enduring love is possible in real life, the Romance genre’s representation of enduring love is coded in a certain way that marks it as distinct from “real life.” That it may give readers a real life emotional boost would be the affective component of the genre, although not necessarily as a mirror. IMO, love in genre Romance may be representations in nature, symbolic even, yet it may inspire real life faith in the power of love, if that makes sense.

    To be perfectly honest, I find that the representation of enduring love in a good deal of Romance to be pretty anemic — more idealized telling rather than nuanced showing. That some of the characters are not mere stand-ins but are more like interchangable, generic dolls, and the realization of their happiness to be a bit fantastical in its production and representation. So in some Romance there is for me a fantasy element to the love relationship, even though I would not represent the genre itself as fantasy. And in a RL environment where the divorce rate is so high, and where no matter how happy one’s relationship might be, there are couples all around, long-standing couples, breaking up and divorcing, it may be that more and more people really do see enduring love as a somewhat fantastic happening. Although that wouldn’t necessarily make a genre that portrays enduring love as fantasy; I think that kind of analysis would have to take place from book to book.

    I'm always, even while reading excellent books that have me enthralled, reacting to the characters' actions and thoughts with my own reactions, kind of like watching a movie.

    In terms of the relationship between reader and Romance heroine, I think you’re getting close to that whole placeholder notion — that the reader might be enraptured, but is constantly measuring the character’s actions and choices.

    I still say that can shift, though, within any story, romance or not.

    I agree, and I bet if we all started paying more attention to the way we read, we’d notice a lot of shifting in our consciousness, sympathies, identification etc. But most of us don’t, because part of the experiential magic of reading is the automatic occurrence of these things.

    If I enter a fantasy of being in the story that I am reading (sometimes I do, sometimes I don't) I find I generally fantasize that I am another character interacting with all the characters (I used to write fan fiction before I realized I sucked at it)

    Fan fiction was playing around the corners of my brain as I was writing this piece, because I kept thinking that there was a connection I could expand on if I really thought about it. In some ways, it seems fan fiction is the representation of exactly this kind of character identification/surrogacy — another level or two of perspective shifting, manipulated from the outside, that is. I’m wondering what fan fiction writers and readers would say about this issue.

    …well I don't know about you, but I, PERSONALLY, am MUCH more interesting than any romance-novel heroine out there!

    Three dimensions is a good start, isn’t it?! I wonder, sometimes how many RL men would even find Romance heroines desirable, let alone marriageable.

    But I think you're right that this borders on one of those cautionary lectures about how reading matter should be of an “Improving Nature” for the fair sex.

    Which is itself sort of fascinating, because those moral arguments about what women read are aimed at having women replicate certain values as portrayed in “model” literature. So perhaps that’s why the anxiety is there on the other side — the presumption is already that women’s minds are malleable, I guess. Which may be the root of the problem, lol.

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  43. Robin
    Jul 16, 2008 @ 16:35:35

    From a psychology POV, I think self-insertion could probably be considered role-playing, something psychologists tell us is a healthy thing

    I kept thinking about that old Jungian chestnut “you are every part of your dream” when I was reading the Kinsale essay, and I think that tends to fit within the role playing paradigm, as well. Entertainment or not, I do think it builds empathy, at least, and is, perhaps, a way of exercising the imagination, and perhaps even of more complex problem solving kills. I wonder what the occupational breakdown is of people who regularly do role playing.

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  44. Laura Vivanco
    Jul 16, 2008 @ 16:57:05

    As for the way love is represented in Romance, however, I do think it is idealized, which is not the same thing as fantasy (although perhaps the terms are conflated by some who seem them as equivalent) -’ that whether or not enduring love is possible in real life, the Romance genre's representation of enduring love is coded in a certain way that marks it as distinct from “real life.” That it may give readers a real life emotional boost would be the affective component of the genre, although not necessarily as a mirror. IMO, love in genre Romance may be representations in nature, symbolic even, yet it may inspire real life faith in the power of love, if that makes sense.

    Is it like the comment made about fairytales, that they could be “unreal, but not untrue”? In other words, the events/characters may seem unreal/not very true to life, but there is nonetheless some emotional truth embedded in the story? I think that might well be true for many romances.

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  45. Robin
    Jul 17, 2008 @ 00:57:39

    Is it like the comment made about fairytales, that they could be “unreal, but not untrue”? In other words, the events/characters may seem unreal/not very true to life, but there is nonetheless some emotional truth embedded in the story? I think that might well be true for many romances.

    Definitely. Which is one of the reasons, I think, that some readers can have such a strong positive reaction to some books, while others have a very negative reaction. It often seems much more than an issue of taste to me, because even books that meet the same superficial criteria can evoke very different reader responses. Ultimately, I think readers make an emotional connection to certain books that occurs instead of or in addition to whatever their aesthetic response/evaluation might be. It took me a long time, in fact, to keep from flinching when I read reviews that seemed to rely solely on how well the reader connected to the characters and the romance (the emotional truth, as you put it). I’ve become more willing to embrace the importance of that connection in any Romance novel evaluation, but I still personally prefer reviews that address both the emotional and aesthetic/technical aspects of a book.

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  46. Bev(BB)
    Jul 17, 2008 @ 10:02:08

    Definitely. Which is one of the reasons, I think, that some readers can have such a strong positive reaction to some books, while others have a very negative reaction. It often seems much more than an issue of taste to me, because even books that meet the same superficial criteria can evoke very different reader responses. Ultimately, I think readers make an emotional connection to certain books that occurs instead of or in addition to whatever their aesthetic response/evaluation might be. It took me a long time, in fact, to keep from flinching when I read reviews that seemed to rely solely on how well the reader connected to the characters and the romance (the emotional truth, as you put it). I've become more willing to embrace the importance of that connection in any Romance novel evaluation, but I still personally prefer reviews that address both the emotional and aesthetic/technical aspects of a book.

    Interesting.

    You do realize, Robin, that that very last sentence in a nutshell is why I decided not to review a long time ago in a galaxy far away. Okay, well it wasn’t that extreme, more different website, different decade, but it was definitely after first running up against the odd review mindset online and realizing that, um, quite a few things didn’t actually add up.

    Yes, I am a devoted romance reader and I enjoy the emotional aspect of romances more than any other genre. I will defend that side of them to my dying day and sometimes I think it will come down to that. ;) I am also, however, a fairly logical and organized tech-geek and appreciate the technical side of things as well even if I am not truly a writer or, more specifically, an academic in the field of literature. I saw the contradiction right off of what was being called “reviews” around the web then and now and consciously made the decision to let it go . . . as long as they didn’t try to pin them on me or force me into that mold.

    That ain’t as easy as it looks.

    But even back then, there were two camps. Those that thought the reviews should be more about the technical aspects of the books and those that thought the reviews should be a more emotional response to the books. I’m not sure I would go so far as to say it’s because we identify too strongly with the characters or not, however, that we can’t analyze the technical aspect. The truth is that some of us can. And do. On a fairly regular basis. How in-depth remains to be analyzed. That isn’t the issue here, though.

    What is an issue is that a great many readers who call themselves reviewers choose not to analyze the technical at all, either because they don’t have the skills and don’t want to wade into those waters in the first place or because they simply choose not to taint their reading experience one way or another with those concerns. Does that benefit the genre overall? Frankly, I would think that if they’ve made that choice, consciously or even unconsciously, they don’t care one way or another. And that’s okay because contrary to popular belief not everything is about gaining respect for the genre. A lot of it is just about enjoying what one reads.

    To me, the emotional connection you’re talking here about isn’t so much about individual characters in the books, regardless of how powerfully written, as it is the entire package. When I talk about emotional realism, there’s no way it’s about a single character within a story because that character has to be interacting against at least one other character to generate some kind of emotion. Don’t they? Unless we’re going for some type of Crusoe story and even then, he has his memories for us to share or it’s going to get boring fast, emotionally at least.

    The emotions we respond to are never about just one character and those emotions are what we identify with in the first place regardless of whether it’s romance or not. It just so happens that it’s in romance where the emotions are the most intense and on the surface so of course they’re going to be the most noticeable and picked upon. That’s one big reason why I can never buy into the placeholder idea, will never accept the ridiculous concept of inserting ourselves into one character whilst at the same time identifying with a stronger one. It just defies the entire logic of what storytelling is about to begin with. If we’re already identifying with the story itself, the author has already done their job. They’ve sucked us in. We are there. Why would we be psychologically floundering around for an anchor to hold us to reality?

    Unless of course we’re considered to be poor unstable creatures who need one.

    And there’s the rub.

    Ain’t going there, people. Do any of you really want to?

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  47. lisapaitzspindler.com » 2008 » July » 17
    Jul 17, 2008 @ 11:32:02

    [...] –Do I want to be Joan Wilder when I grow up? Dear Author takes a look at what readers get out of the Romance genre. [...]

  48. AndreaS
    Jul 17, 2008 @ 12:39:30

    Now, I didn’t read all the comments, but here’s my little opinion.

    I do not place myself as any character in the story. After some long thought, I’ve decided I read as I have termed an “emotional vampire” (but not a sex vampire, please). I like heroines I wished I was friends with and heroes I find attractive. But moreso, I love to experience their emotions with them. Feel the highs and lows, the sexual tension. Like I’m a tiny little bug riding along on their shoulders.

    The heroines never need to look like me, it’s certainly more fun if they don’t act like me. I get to experience and feel vicariously through the book for a short while. So if I’ve had a bad day at the office, I can go and read about somebody having a very good day. Which brightens my day.
    Okay, this is officially rambling and not making sense. Sorry.

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  49. Jessa Slade
    Jul 17, 2008 @ 17:00:41

    Unreal but not untrue.

    I think I’ve found my future tattoo…

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  50. Laura Vivanco
    Jul 17, 2008 @ 17:46:14

    Jessica, I got it via Jennifer Crusie’s The Cinderella Deal (it appears in this excerpt). She’s mentioned in this essay that

    Folklorist Max Luthi says that fairy tales are “unreal but not untrue” because they deal with the greatest themes in literature and life, and much of genre fiction, grounded in myth, legend, and tale, retells those primal stories for adults. Fairy tales, Luthi says, promise the reader a just universe, and so do the genres.

    in another essay Crusie quotes from him and gives a source:

    As Luthi has pointed out, “Fairy tales are unreal, but they are not untrue: they reflect the essential development and conditions of man’s existence” (70). [...]

    Luthi, Max. Once Upon a Time: On the Nature of Fairy Tales. NY: Indiana UP, 1970.

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  51. Kathleen O’Reilly » Blog Archive
    Jul 18, 2008 @ 09:44:20

    [...] because I wanted to write about this the other day, but I’m keyboard-deep in book-writing, DearAuthor had a post on why people think women read romance.  The conventional wisdom at one time was that women inserted themselves into a romance as a [...]

  52. Shirley
    Jul 18, 2008 @ 15:26:03

    It's not just men. I doubt thriller writers spend much time answering to a backlash from their graphic scenes of women being brutally raped and murdered (and it's almost always women being murdered, isn't it). But write a book with consenting sex between adults and it's reduced to the classification of porn and everyone's scratching their heads trying to analyze what cheap thrill women could possibly be getting by reading such trash.

    What does that say about the state of our society?

    It says that in the more than half a century I’ve been reading romance, things haven’t changed. I want to say too that the ‘book with consenting sex…’ part should be clarified. A book with consenting sex written by a WOMAN – sans a few that are considered ‘literary classics’ – are called ‘porn with plot’, ‘porn for women’, ‘bodice rippers’, et al. Some men write pornography for magazines and adult only book stores – but they don’t have backlash either. And some men put quite a bit of graphic sex in their books – but they don’t get shelved in Romance and they certainly aren’t taken to task or disdained, generally speaking, for doing so.

    Perhaps that’s the real crux: The idea that women shouldn’t read graphic sex. They certainly shouldn’t write graphic sex. Women shouldn’t be titillated by the how fabulous the hero is in the sack, they shouldn’t enjoy escaping into a fantasy world(whether they ‘become’ the characters or simply are along for the ride), they shouldn’t ‘waste’ time on ‘fluff’. And they most definitely shouldn’t want, desire, or enjoy doing any of the aforementioned.

    These ideas are archaic and antiquated, but for all my years, they are the comments I get from snobbish friends or coworkers over and over again. How can I read romance novels, they’re trash, they’re junk, they give women an unrealistic view of life (not sure what women this comment is talking about because I never once thought I’d have orgasm after orgasm when I started having sex), or even better romance books are degrading to women (HA! Feminism is great, but that line is bullshit). For all mankind’s advancements, most of this planet still takes the view that women should and shouldn’t do certain things. It’s sad, but that’s how it goes.

    Maybe by the time my granddaughters are my age, it’ll be different.

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  53. Monica Burns
    Jul 18, 2008 @ 15:43:56

    Perhaps that's the real crux: The idea that women shouldn't read graphic sex. They certainly shouldn't write graphic sex. Women shouldn't be titillated by the how fabulous the hero is in the sack, they shouldn't enjoy escaping into a fantasy world(whether they ‘become' the characters or simply are along for the ride), they shouldn't ‘waste' time on ‘fluff'. And they most definitely shouldn't want, desire, or enjoy doing any of the aforementioned.

    Yep, be a Madonna in public and a whore behind closed doors.

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  54. Robin
    Jul 21, 2008 @ 00:53:40

    What is an issue is that a great many readers who call themselves reviewers choose not to analyze the technical at all, either because they don't have the skills and don't want to wade into those waters in the first place or because they simply choose not to taint their reading experience one way or another with those concerns. Does that benefit the genre overall? Frankly, I would think that if they've made that choice, consciously or even unconsciously, they don't care one way or another. And that's okay because contrary to popular belief not everything is about gaining respect for the genre. A lot of it is just about enjoying what one reads.

    I understand the desire of some readers not to engage with Romance analytically. The friend got me reading the genre — an academic, mind you — isn’t interested in reviewing and formally critiquing Romance, even though she’s by nature a very analytical thinker. So I get it. What bothers me is the implication that we shouldn’t be looking at the genre closely because it can’t withstand the attention. Because if that’s the case, then the reviewers aren’t the problem, lol.

    As far as the question of what constitutes a review, I prefer to read and write reviews that address more than whether a book was “romantic” to the reader. Because that level of subjectivity just doesn’t give me enough information about the book to help me make any kind of connection with the book or the reviewer, or to make a decision about whether I want to read the book. And as far as discussion goes, it makes it hard to have any lengthy exchanges about a book when you stick only to that level. That doesn’t mean that I think books that only focus on the emotional issues of a book aren’t reviews; it just means that for me, they’re not critique, which for me is part of what I enjoy about reading and reviewing. And by critique I don’t mean criticizing the book; I am referring to the process of applying some analysis to the book, even if it’s simply at the level of whether and *how* the book did or didn’t work for the reader. I don’t need the formal analytical terms to find a review analytical. Analysis, to me, is a process, a talking about the *hows* and *whys* of the book’s impact on the reader. It’s saying, “I found the characters to be unsympathetic because . . . ” rather than “these characters were jerks period.” In other words, it’s not the forwarding of conclusions without some clue as to how they were arrived at. And I think that lots of analysis occurs on this level in casual genre talk, more, perhaps, than in some reviews (especially in many of the comments that are called reviews on Amazon).

    The heroines never need to look like me, it's certainly more fun if they don't act like me. I get to experience and feel vicariously through the book for a short while.

    I hadn’t thought seriously about what it would be like to see myself projected into a Romance novel, but I think it would freak me out. Of course, I’ve never really understood why people would want to watch themselves on film having sex, either, fwiw.

    Jessica: LOL!!

    Laura: thanks for the source.

    Perhaps that's the real crux: The idea that women shouldn't read graphic sex. They certainly shouldn't write graphic sex. Women shouldn't be titillated by the how fabulous the hero is in the sack, they shouldn't enjoy escaping into a fantasy world(whether they ‘become' the characters or simply are along for the ride), they shouldn't ‘waste' time on ‘fluff'. And they most definitely shouldn't want, desire, or enjoy doing any of the aforementioned.

    Unfortunately, I think as many women as men believe this. Whatever patriarchal roots these views have, women, IMO, have internalized them to the point that we now claim them as our own and pass them down to our daughters and young girls as a whole as they grow into young women. IMO if women were truly comfortable with our sexuality, the genre of Romance would look much different than it does now. In some ways I think the genre allows women to express and feel what they don’t feel free to in RL, but in other ways I think it perpetuates double standards and constrained values. Which I why I like being aware of these issues as I read, so that I can continue to measure my own attitudes against the books. I just don’t think that attitudes will change substantially without our paying attention to them.

    Yep, be a Madonna in public and a whore behind closed doors.

    I don’t know if you’ve seen the AMC series “Mad Men,” but it takes place in the 60s, and there is one scene in which a young woman is seeing a gyn for a birth control pills prescription. The doctor sternly tells her that she is not to “abuse” the medication, or he will pull her off it, insisting that he’s not there to “judge” her, but continually warning her not to become a “strumpet” and therefore unmarriageable. Even though she needs the prescription in the first place because on her job (as a secretary at a big ad agency), the men expect certain benefits. So she is expected to be available, but must not appear loose. In some ways we’ve made progress (e.g. fundamental right to contraception for unmarried women codified by the Supreme Court), but in others we’re still in that double bind (e.g. expected to be available but not “slutty”).

    ReplyReply

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