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Romance and the Boundaries of the Self

Today’s guest opinion is brought to you by Jessica from Racy Romance Reviews. Jessica started blogging in 2008 and has provided some great reviews as well as thoughtful commentary. She first came to my attention by Janine linking to one of Jessica’s posts. (Word of Mouth, isn’t it grand?). Jessica started reading romances in 2007 after a decade of not reading fiction. She, like us, is the typical romance reader which is to say she’s not typical at all. She’s a self described feminist, a Ph.D., and most of all, a lover of the romance book.

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Romance is defined by its exploration and celebration of romantic love. That said, I’ve been surprised and delighted by the number of  other  important themes that are explored in the genre. I think it behooves romance readers to discuss these non-romantic themes, because romance writers tend to bring a unique focus to these themes, and because highlighting the ways that romance authors approach nonromantic themes can help to forge links between a belittled genre and more respectable ones.      

Consider the theme of selfhood in romance.   In some ways, every single romance is about selfhood, since the romantic ideal says that until we meet our counterpart, we cannot truly be our  best  selves, our  complete  selves. What’s unique about this, is that the self is defined as fundamentally relational: people are not silos, who choose to enter relationships as they might choose to engage, or not, in hobbies, but rather, people can only  be who they are  with relations of the right sort with other people. I personally believe that the valorization of this relational way of viewing the self is a key source of the feminist potential of romance, but I also think it gives romance, as a genre, some unique and important things to say about questions of selfhood and personal identity  per se. I have been amazed at the number of romances I have read, across all the subgenres, that deal centrally and directly with the metaphysical question of what is self and what is nonself.    

What would it take for you to become another, different person? First, consider loss: is there one essential thing, say, your memories, or your physical body, or your career, that defines you? What could you lose and still be you?    

Or we can come at this in terms of gain: what new material or spiritual/nonmaterial substance could you take in, while still being you? And would you consider this new addition "really you"?  

Some characters are so identified with a job or skill that to lose it is to become a different person. In Suzanne Brockmann’s  The Unsung Hero, Tom, a Navy SEAL commander, has sustained a head injury that makes him distrust his own judgment: he’s not sure about what he sees, or about how to assign meaning to events. For Tom, this loss of his mental faculties is not just potentially career ending, but  self-ending as well. It’s heartbreaking to follow his thoughts along a route that always stops dead at his possible resignation: he can’t imaginatively project himself into a future where he doesn’t, in some important sense, exist.   But Tom’s growing relationship with Kelly provides a tether to which he can hold while exploring these uncharted waters.  

For others, it’s the loss of cognitive capacities themselves that threatens identity. Laura Kinsale’s  Flowers From the Storm  also explores the impact of brain injury when the hero, Christian, sustains a cerebral hemorrhage that leaves him unable to express himself in speech.   The "Mathematical Duke" becomes vulnerable, frustrated, terrified, and dependent. Is he still the same man? It’s his relationship with the heroine that helps provide the bridge between his old self and new.    

In Charlaine Harris’s fourth Sookie Stackhouse book,  Dead to the World, vampire boss Eric Northman loses his memory. With his memories, Eric is confident, ambitious, ruthless and selfish. Without them, he’s still got that innate confidence, but it’s layered over with fear and a new sense of empathy for others brought on by his precarious existence. Is it still Eric? This question is crucial for Sookie, whose attraction to him has become safe for her at the same time it represents taking unfair advantage of him.    

Many paranormal romances utilize demons and other supernatural forces to explore the same theme. In J. R. Ward’s  Lover Eternal, Rhage, a vampire, has been cursed. He has a demon "inside" him, which emerges in moments of intense emotion, transforming him into a violent dragon. The dragon is totally "other", and Rhage is not self-conscious when he is in dragon form. He was responsible for being cursed, so is he responsible for the dragon’s behavior?   His relationship with the Mary is crucial in helping him to reconcile vampire and dragon by claiming the dragon as a part of his self.    

Ward’s vampires are a separate species from humans, but in other paranormals, the state of being a vampire itself represents an identity challenge. For a hero who was once human and is now vampire, does blood lust represent an external force? When does the "humanity" become other? After fifty years? A century?    

In Linnea Sinclair’s  Games of Command, Branden Kel-Paten, who is cybernetically enhanced, struggles with the attempt to determine which of his desires, feelings, and beliefs are his, and which are implants or external.   It’s his love for the heroine that inspires him to try to define which parts of him are "self" and which are not.    

As an aside, you might notice that all of my examples are of heroes. I had a hard time coming up with heroine examples. This might well be due to my limited exposure to romance (at only about 150 books, I’m an infant compared to the gang at DA). But   since this is a letter of opinion, I’ll stick my neck out and say you’re more likely to find heroes facing these sorts of questions in romance, because it’s more common for men to define themselves in terms of isolated properties, like skills or vocations, than women, who are more likely to define themselves in terms of their relationships (and I don’t have space for all the usual caveats, but, believe me, they are there in my mind). That the heroines bring the heroes around to this view of personal identity is, in my opinion, an important source of female empowerment in romance.  

I think the explorations of selfhood in the books noted above (and the many others I could name) constitute an important engagement with both an enduring literary themeand  some of its very contemporary manifestations.   This brings me to the third reason I think it’s good to highlight these not-directly-romantic themes. An exclusive focus on romance as the champion of love and sexuality contributes to the idea that romances are about escape and escape only.   I can’t speak for others, but I have found my romance reading to be very relevant to real life issues and challenges.    

To use just one example: I work part time in a hospital, and I was recently having a bit of a debate with a cardiologist who refused to deactivate a patient’s pacemaker, despite the fact that the patient was near death and on "comfort measures".   The pacer, he argued, had been implanted a decade ago. It was inside her body and now   "a part of her", and to turn it off would be akin to removing a kidney that had been transplanted a decade ago.   As he was talking, Branden Kel-Paten flashed into my head.   Kel-Paten had been a Biocybe for years, but had never accepted his enhancements as fully "self" – not even the cognitive ones, which you would think would be harder to reject. Just because something has been inside you for a long time, doesn’t mean it  is  you. Is romance escape? It sure didn’t feel that way when I was standing in an ICU having this discussion.  

We’re faced with lots of biomedical challenges like this today: outliving our cognitive capacities as dementia sets in, or even our organic capacities as we are sustained by machines. We will soon have new reproductive options that will create identity issues for our children (who are your parents if it took five people to make you: the sperm donor, the egg donor, the surrogate mother, and the two infertile people who commissioned you? Who are your parents if you are a clone?). With our PDAs and smart phones, and laptops and wireless connectivity everywhere, we are already cyborgs, albeit not yet with the seamless integration of the organic and the mechanized. I’d like romance to get the credit it deserves for exploring these issues of selfhood, and for doing so in a way that valorizes relationship, connection, empathy, and creativity.  

And why would I care about that? Didn’t I read Jane’s Romance Apologia Scale? Yes, I read it and loved it. And while I think level 4 is the right attitudinal stance, in conclusion, I’d like to offer a feminist argument in favor of at least occasional level 3 type responses to the dismissal of romance by TPTB. First, most romance writers are women, and if romance pays worse than other genres, it’s a feminist issue to see that equity is achieved. Combating false stereotypes and insisting on the value of what’s denigrated can be one means of doing this. And second, most romance readers are women – even women who don’t read romance are associated with the genre — and the dismissal of romance is connected too closely for my comfort to the dismissal of women  per se  to allow it to stand. Respect and self-respect may seem ephemeral, but they are important bases of a good human life, and in this case they are closely related to the material bases for such a life. For me, those are good enough reasons to keep trying to make the case for romance.  

Thanks so much to Jane and the gang at Dear Author for inviting me to do this, and for those of you still with me at the end, thanks for reading!

Guest Reviewer

29 Comments

  1. Ann Somerville
    Dec 30, 2008 @ 05:30:56

    Absolutely fascinating article. The themes of self and completion are very strong in m/m. The ‘completion’ concept is present in almost every story I’ve seen – that men become stronger when they find a partner who has the emotional abilities they lack. Typically in m/m, one partner is emotionally labile, vulnerable and voluble, the other the strong, emotionally repressed or socially awkward one who hates talking about his feelings (as for example in K A Mitchell’s Collision Course). Even when not as extreme as this, gay relationships in the context of m/m are seen as complementary, not matching like with like.

    The trope in m/m which most explores the concept of losing part of one’s self is hurt/comfort – where one partner is physically or psychically injured – and it’s up to the other partner to heal him in some way. Again, K A Mitchell used that in her Regularly Scheduled Life.

    I don’t think the exploration of these ideas is peculiar to romance, though. How many adventure stories are about a hero going back to a place or battle of former failure, and triumphing at last? Or conquering some overwhelming fear? How many movies have been made about people overcoming disability with the help of a lover, male or female?

    people can only be who they are with relations of the right sort with other people.

    This is the essence of the human existence. John Donne said “No man is an island entire of itself”. A human alone, is not human. We literally cannot do it on our own. So all romance does is focus on that aspect of human nature, and highlight it. But it didn’t invent the idea, nor is it unique in examining it.

    I'd like romance to get the credit it deserves for exploring these issues of selfhood, and for doing so in a way that valorizes relationship, connection, empathy, and creativity.

    Amen, sister. So many good points, so much to talk about and think about. Thank you for writing this.

  2. Joonigrrl/Leslie
    Dec 30, 2008 @ 05:32:57

    Great discussion, Jessica. I’ve really enjoyed reading your blog for some time now.

    On the topic of self/non-self, I wanted to mention a heroine example because I’m in the middle of (finally!) reading Hostage to Pleasure – it’s the first thing that popped into my mind. In Nalini Singh’s Psy-Changelings books, her Psy heroines struggle with their sense of self as it relates to being part of the larger PsyNet and as members of a race that has eradicated (or tried to eradicate) emotions through the Silence Protocol. To feel any emotion is viewed by the Psy as a serious flaw. In order to avoid rehabilitation or death, they are forced to hide or deny the existence of an essential part of themselves. Their relationships with their passionate Changelings lead them to discover a life with emotions and beyond just the PsyNet.

  3. carolyn jean
    Dec 30, 2008 @ 08:30:46

    Jessica, thank you for this thoughtful and thought-provoking essay. I love your anecdote about Kel-paten and the ICU. I could really see both sides of that, and the Kel-paten story really does have something to offer to the debate.

    I see romance and the subgenres as an exciting center of creativity and exploration, and your insights about the theme of selfhood are right on, and helpful to my own reading.

    Another angle on the selfhood theme: I also think of the way many paranormal heroines, such as, say, Lara Adrian heroines, or the one in Kresley Cole’s latest, come to accept, understand and love formerly problematic parts of themselves once they meet their mates and enter the paranormal world. They weren’t flawed all along, they just didn’t understand their special powers. I always love that sort of storyline.

  4. Aoife
    Dec 30, 2008 @ 09:00:11

    This is a very interesting and thoughtful article, Jessica. The construct of “self” is particularly interesting, I think, when applied to women/heroines, because so much of our male-centric culture places women as “completers” for others. Women are routinely expected to give up bits and pieces of themselves to enable their children, or sometimes their spouses/partner/SO’s, to become complete. One of the things that Romances allow us to do is to examine that dynamic from a safe distance.

  5. veinglory
    Dec 30, 2008 @ 09:42:23

    I think heroines in romance routinely go through some kind of self-actualisation completely unrelated to the relationship. In fact a common theme is that they need to do this before they *can* commit to a relationship.

  6. K. Z. Snow
    Dec 30, 2008 @ 09:46:02

    Isn’t discovery or reinvention of self what most fiction, from popular to literary, is about? Pare every story in every genre down to its thematic core, and this is likely what you’ll find.

    It goes without saying, really. People write for other people, not zebras or protozoa or coelacanths, and nothing interests us more than ourselves. Engaging readers would be virtually impossible without attention to characters’ essential humanity and its attendant, familiar struggles.

  7. Jory Strong
    Dec 30, 2008 @ 09:47:17

    Excellent article. The romance genre can offer so much more than the escapism of boy meets girl (or anoher boy, or a boy & girl…) and they live HEA.

  8. Jessica
    Dec 30, 2008 @ 10:37:26

    Thank you for the comments and reactions. Some specific responses that come to mind:

    @Ann Somerville:

    I don't think the exploration of these ideas is peculiar to romance, though.

    I agree. In fact, I was making this very point: romance explores this theme, just like other genres do (although I think romance has a uniquely relational take on selfhood).

    @Aoife:

    so much of our male-centric culture places women as “completers” for others.

    This is the rub, right? We want to valorize feminine strengths without capitulating to pernicious stereotypes or rewarding the deformities oppression has caused.

    @veinglory:

    I think heroines in romance routinely go through some kind of self-actualisation completely unrelated to the relationship.

    I agree with you, but this is not a post about self-actualization. Self-actualization involves actualizing a potential which is already there. The question of personal identity involves what attributes you can lose or gain without becoming a new person.

    @K. Z. Snow:

    Isn't discovery or reinvention of self what most fiction, from popular to literary, is about? Pare every story in every genre down to its thematic core, and this is likely what you'll find.

    Absolutely, but what follows from that? Are we done with literary criticism or philosophy of literature now that this point has been made? For my part, I still think it is worthwhile to talk about specific themes in literature and how different genres take them up.

    Thanks again for the comments!

  9. katiebabs
    Dec 30, 2008 @ 11:22:08

    Thank you for an very insightful article. :D

  10. Noelle
    Dec 30, 2008 @ 11:42:27

    Jessica,

    I just wanted to say how much I thoroughly enjoyed your article.
    I also came to romance much later than most readers and consider my own point of view to lean in a more feminist direction. Your writing style and keen analysis are spot on. You have definitely won a new reader to your blog!

    The theme of selfhood is such a relatable internal conflict, I think especially for women. And I have a theory as to why you see the theme more in heroes. But it may be more of a personal preference than a theory.
    Many Many women struggle with who and what defines them every single day. Such as, if my email address is Mom2grls@xxx am I letting the role of motherhood define me at the loss of something else or am I helping the feminist cause more if I let my career define me instead?
    These questions are part of our daily lives and romance is an escape, at least for me. I might not want to read about a heroine just like me. It hits too close to home and the story looses its escapist appeal. But if the hero struggles with selfhood it’s still relatable and interesting while giving it enough distance to keep the fantasy and giving it that added bit of “They might not be so different from us after all”

  11. Vivian
    Dec 30, 2008 @ 13:38:40

    I think it behooves romance readers to discuss these non-romantic themes, because romance writers tend to bring a unique focus to these themes

    I think this is a very good point. Most people who don’t read romance (or who base their judgments on only one book out of thousands) think that all of romance is light fluff and big, sweeping endings. Sometimes it is, but sometimes it’s not, and when it’s not is when it gets really interesting – and to be honest, those are the books I remember.

    I know this totally goes off what you were saying about self, but I think I cannot elaborate further so eloquently on what has been said before me so I will say this instead, as another example supporting what I quoted at the top.

    I just finished Megan Hart’s newest book, Stranger last night, and I think she is a very good example of bringing non-romantic themes to romance novels, even if her books aren’t very normal romances to begin with :) Because the heroine is a funeral director, Megan Hart was able to explore death in such a depth that I was surprised. I won’t presume to say that it hasn’t been done in romances before, but there was such a focus on it that was pretty enlightening. A lot of what was examined and the themes revealed by this exploration is nothing new since death has been written about since well, forever, and especially after reading some pretty depressing novels where death is omnipresent, it really isn’t new. But what was fresh about it was how death affected the heroine and narrator, Grace, especially because her inability to believe that it is better to have loved and loss than to have never loved at all leads her to the premise of the novel. The novel, while a romance, is a study of how Grace learns to live so that death is not the first thing she thinks about in regards to relationships, that endings aren’t…the end, really. And her relationship with the hero furthers her discovery. Also, through Grace’s eyes, we see how death affects so many people in so many ways. It was just really eye-opening for me.

    Sorry if it’s totally off topic, but I’m a huge Megan Hart fangirl haha and her books always affect me so deeply I can’t NOT talk about them for days after. And I think all her novels are a good example of exploring non-romantic themes.

    Also, to Noelle: I think your theory on women’s identity is a good one. I think that’s what makes women’s fiction, romance or not, so wonderful to read. After I read Jane Porter’s Flirting With Forty I was really affected by the themes because it was about this heroine who uh..yeah turns forty and doesn’t want to be just a mother anymore. Even though I’m decades away from that age, this book still resonated with me because self-identity is always a constant through a woman’s life, I think.

    Gah I can’t stop. In response to veinglory‘s

    In fact a common theme is that they need to do this before they *can* commit to a relationship.

    Oooh yes! Especially in one of my favorite romance novels, Jennifer Crusie’s Bet Me :) But we definitely see this in so many other novels.

    Thank you for this wonderful article. I discovered your blog a few weeks ago and have been avidly reading since – you always have the most wonderful insights into novels that I always enjoy reading.

  12. MCHalliday
    Dec 30, 2008 @ 13:54:35

    In some ways, every single romance is about selfhood, since the romantic ideal says that until we meet our counterpart, we cannot truly be our best selves, our complete selves.

    While genre and hybrid romances are about selfhood, they are not always based on the romantic ideal of joining with a counterpart in order to obtain completion. There are heroines seeking and gaining individuation themselves, and many women can relate to this alternate path. I, for one, have ridden the rockiest of love roads on the bare back of a wandering donkey with bony protuberances, and it was only after reading Nathaniel Branden's, The Psychology of Romantic Love (1980), the notion of autonomy preceding successful romantic love became clear:

    “Autonomous individuals understand that other people do not exist to merely to satisfy their needs…They are ready for romantic love because they have grown up, because they do not experience themselves as waifs waiting to be rescued or saved; they do not require anyone's permission to be who they are, and their egos are not continually ‘on the line'.”

    It is not always possible to put off a bond of love until maturity but with a goal of achieving individuation as a personal responsibility, it can make for a more successful relationship prognosis. The pursuit and surrender to love in Romance need not be false to be enjoyable and might garner more respectability if was less so.

  13. Brie
    Dec 30, 2008 @ 14:26:50

    Hi Jessica, great article. There is a lot to touch on but I don’t have much time so I’ll speak to this point.

    Is romance escape? It sure didn't feel that way when I was standing in an ICU having this discussion.

    I’ve never understood why romance is labeled as an escape and other genera’s aren’t. In my opinion, any fiction, mystery, fantasy, science fiction, etc., then would all have to be defined as an escape as well, since the reader is immersing themselves in a world that does not truly “exist” and reading about characters that are not real. I don’t know where it happened, but somewhere along the line the word escape in relation to romance has become a negative connotation. As though the only way a person would read romance was if they were trying to get away from the real world. And if that is true then what is wrong with that? Sometimes life sucks and if picking up a soapy romance takes me away from the pressure of everyday life for a few hours then so be it. Same with every other genera out there that serves as a mental get away.

    And in many ways Romance is not an escape. Many of the authors who write these stories that grip us so write from a place of honesty, therefore their characters emotions, thought processes, problems, obstacles, etc. come from a place very real to the reader. How many of us have read a book and had it touch them to their very core? Whether it was because they were able to relate to a situation that one of the characters went through or because the story was poignant in a way that other books they had read weren’t? How many of us have read about a heroine finding herself and cheered her on, and saw a little of our self in her?

    I guess what I’m trying to say is that in many ways romance is an escape, but no more of one than any other fiction genera, and maybe non fiction as well. And in many ways romance is more than anything that can be labeled or defined. We romance readers know that sometimes romance just is.

  14. veinglory
    Dec 30, 2008 @ 15:31:54

    I would disagree with your definition of self-actualization (vague gesture in the direction of my PhD in psychology), but if you prefer put ‘identity change and development’ in the same place in the sentence. Romance protagonists are generally female, it is they that changes while the hero often changes only in relation to her. That is my observation anyway. but it may be that I selectively read books with substantial and realistic female protags with a substantial character arc. Examples can be found where the male is more transformed but I still feel the reverse is more common.

  15. Heather Massey
    Dec 30, 2008 @ 19:22:07

    Very insightful post, and I enjoyed reading it.

    One recent heroine that comes to mind in relation to definition of self is Admiral Brit Bandar of Susan Grant’s MOONSTRUCK (science fiction romance).

    Bandar has a chip on her shoulder and some serious control, grief, and anger issues. Those elements make her character arc a worthwhile trip imo.

  16. Robin
    Dec 30, 2008 @ 21:29:40

    Great post, Jessica!

    I’m wondering if you’ve read Pamela Regis’s A Natural History of the Romance Novel, and if you have, how you read her concept of “ritual death” as one of the steps toward the HEA.

    For me that relational sense of self is a double-edged sword. When it points toward a heroine or hero who is not self without another, I can get edgy (“I am nothing without the love of a man!” kind of thing), but in a more metaphysical sense I think it’s necessary to be integrated and interdependent within an extended network of “others,” both intimately connected to us and not so intimately connected. And ITA with your idea that forging links to other genres via non-romantic themes can help draw Romance out of the literary naughty corner.

  17. RfP
    Dec 31, 2008 @ 01:23:43

    you might notice that all of my examples are of heroes. I had a hard time coming up with heroine examples. This might well be due to my limited exposure to romance

    If you really can’t come up with heroine example, I think it IS partly selection bias. Consider that most of your examples are books that I’m not interested in, because summaries like these lead me to suspect they’re so hero-centric that the heroine might bore me. So I’d say, along with veinglory and others, that romance is very much about the heroine’s journey. Because I gravitate toward books with interesting heroines’ journeys. (Flowers From the Storm, e.g., is fascinating on the topic of loss of self, but the heroine and the romance do nothing for me. I’d like the story better if Maddy were a nurse and there were no romance.)

    That said, I may not understand exactly where you’re drawing the lines in your definition of self-actualization, etc, because my first reaction was, like veinglory’s, that romance is chock-full of examples, in almost every book. I’m probably being dense, as it’s very late here. However, I do see the difference between a character’s journey in general and what you say about defining the self here:

    I'll stick my neck out and say you're more likely to find heroes facing these sorts of questions in romance, because it's more common for men to define themselves in terms of isolated properties, like skills or vocations, than women, who are more likely to define themselves in terms of their relationships (and I don't have space for all the usual caveats, but, believe me, they are there in my mind)

    I agree with you that fewer heroines than heroes are defined that way in romance, but I disagree that that’s because it’s reflective of real life. However, this way of framing self-definition gets at an issue I often have in reading romance: I don’t find many heroines presented as having real skills, deep intellectual or creative lives, or a genuine vocation (with the sort of dedication that doesn’t put the hero’s career first when lurve changes everything). It’s not only about placing the heroine in the position of accommodating the hero; it’s about not giving her a strong sense of self or unique place in the world to begin with. Why does Maddy’s only special skill have to be do-goodery? Where are the Iris Murdochs in romance–the brilliant women who face a loss of self?

    Or in more contentious words, why is it the hero who’s more often described as having a singular skill or vocation? Why is it often easier to know what a hero’s passion is than a heroine’s? (Buying shoes doesn’t count. Kids and taking care of others only count in rare cases.) Perhaps because that focus and sense of self, and perhaps even that way of taking center stage, is admirable in a man, but problematic in a woman? I’d go for that answer before “Because that’s how men and women are”.

    BTW, I agree with others above that paranormal/urban fantasy sometimes makes the heroine’s journey more explicit, and I think contrasting mainstream romance with its offshoots casts a useful light on the issue. E.g. I think both heroine-centric urban fantasy and chick lit often place the heroine’s struggle in the limelight. (Perhaps not coincidentally, I also think of both genres as “younger” cousins of romance, more geared toward my peers who aspire to kick asses rather than mend white picket fences.)

  18. Jessica
    Dec 31, 2008 @ 06:19:03

    @MCHalliday:

    While genre and hybrid romances are about selfhood, they are not always based on the romantic ideal of joining with a counterpart in order to obtain completion.

    Great point, and I agree with you. I didn’t mean that a hero or heroine can’t be autonomous until they fall in love. My point in regards to autonomy is that relationships are not, in the world of romance, necessarily threats to autonomy. Sometimes, in other fiction, the “pure self”, is the one without any “outside influences”. There’s supposed to be an untouched core. That’s the concept of selfhood I reject, and that most romances I have read reject.

    @Brie:

    don't know where it happened, but somewhere along the line the word escape in relation to romance has become a negative connotation.

    I love your point, and agree completely. Why is this?

    @veinglory:

    I would disagree with your definition of self-actualization (vague gesture in the direction of my PhD in psychology), but if you prefer put ‘identity change and development' in the same place in the sentence.

    Then let me stress that my “definition” of self-actualization wasn’t meant to be anything technical. It helps to know where you are coming from … and I should have been clearer about where I was coming from.

    I didn’t use the term “self-actualization” because I think (wrongly, probably) of self-actualization as becoming a better self, not a different one, and I think of it in terms of psychological properties only.

    When I talk about self and identity, I am doing metaphysics, not psychology. So, while it might be a psychological property (say, memories) that, without which, a person A becomes person B, but it might just as easily be a “physical” trait [recognizing that psychological properties are also physical, but you know what I mean] (one’s body, or a part of one’s body), or a relational property, like having a certain type of career or being in a certain type of marriage, for example.

    I think I was not clear that I really meant that Tom Paoletti, for example, would be a different person, literally, if he left the SEALS, “Tom 2.0″.

    @Robin: No, I an woefully underinformed, despite Laura Vivanco doing her best to school me.

    I agree completely with you about the double edged sword (which Aoife also mentioned above). On the one hand, there’s the urge to reclaim and valorize the feminine, but on the other, the recognition that what “feminine” means has been determined to some extent by unjust gender (and other) relations, and that some of these traits or capacities may need to be jettisoned or altered. (Speaking a bit hyperbolically here.)

    Did I mention that I love blogging about romance almost as much as I love reading it, namely because of wonderful discussions like this? You’ve given me a lot to think about, and reminded me of how much I have yet to learn. In particular, I will pursue the question which several of you mentioned, of the relation between the heroine’s autonomy and the ultimate HEA, and the question of why the escape of romance, but not, say, fantasy, has earned derision.

  19. Theresa Sand
    Dec 31, 2008 @ 14:16:38

    I think you brought up a very interesting point in regards to male heroes as examples of selfhood or “change.”

    I’m a voracious romance reader and I’ve found that your statement about the lack of heroines in regards to this idea of “change,” is somewhat true. For the most part, I’ve found that heroines are somewhat static, and their change is nothing compared to that of the hero (such as Sebastian St. Vincent in Devil in Winter, versus the heroine, Eveline). Of course a lot of romances feature the sexy rake character, who more or less “changes” through the love of a woman.

    I think perhaps in regards to the roles between hero and heroine–the heroine is mostly static because she “changes” the hero with her love and/or acceptance of his flaws. The heroine, it seems, is the strong force that creates the change, while not particularly going through that change herself.

  20. Jessica
    Jan 01, 2009 @ 09:39:37

    @Theresa Sand: You raise an interesting point: I am not a writer and I don’t really know any writers, so I wonder what comes first: the idea that “this will be a rake story”, for example, and then the character arcs follow this pattern where the hero changes more, or does an author start with a character (like J.K. Rowling famously said Harry Potter walked into her mind fully formed), and then think about plot. Probably different for different folks.

    Thanks for your comment.

  21. KMont
    Jan 01, 2009 @ 13:36:19

    Great post, Jessica. I think it helps me understand some points you’ve made on your own blog too.

  22. Margie
    Jan 02, 2009 @ 00:16:39

    I really loved your post. I was especially interested in the parts about how we define ourselves through our relationships. I’m only an undergrad psyc major, but we talk a lot in my classes about how big a role relationships and how we think others see us play in our self identity, to the point where we have different ‘self identities’ depending on who we are around at any given time (I heard this was true for both sexes. Actually I hadn’t heard before that men define themselves externally more than women, although it makes sense based on other psychological differences.)

    I love reading romace, but I think I often missed a lot of the ‘serious’ psychology themes and issues because I told myself that romances were so unrealistic/fanciful. Thank you for showing me how wrong my I was!

  23. Tumperkin
    Jan 02, 2009 @ 10:13:28

    Interesting post Jessica, as always. There is a sub-set of romance novels in which the major character journey is the hero’s and the heroine guides/heals/rescues him in some way. She has some sort of insight that he lacks and that she teaches him. I think that that particular trope is incredibly appealing to a lot of women. So you might have this story in which the big strong hero has to do all sorts of manly and courageous things, but ultimately it is the heroine who ‘saves’ him. I’ll admit to liking that trope, but when I think about the books I’ve really really loved, there is usually growth on both sides and a mutuality of fault/virtue between the hero and heroine.

    And I have to agree with RfP – it remains dismaying how few heroines are permitted to have the same level of vocation or creativity or passion about something in life other than home and family, as heroes frequently/usually have. Possibly that’s because a lot of readers are genuinely much more interested in heroes than heroines. But it’s a bit like the ‘mantitty cover debate': do readers buy mantitty covers because they love them or because they’ve got no choice?

  24. Jessica
    Jan 03, 2009 @ 08:19:58

    Gosh, this is the post that keeps on giving!

    @KMont: Thanks KMont!

    @Margie: It sounds like you have been making the same journey I have .. coming to understand that romance is not a monolith, and has a tremendous amount of variation.

    @Tumperkin:

    And I have to agree with RfP – it remains dismaying how few heroines are permitted to have the same level of vocation or creativity or passion about something in life other than home and family, as heroes frequently/usually have. Possibly that's because a lot of readers are genuinely much more interested in heroes than heroines.

    This is one reason I love Ann Aguirre’s Sirantha Jax and heroines like her.

    Not to get too far off topic … but one of the most surprising things to me has been learning that so many female readers identify with the hero. At first I thought this was great, but now I think it reflects the fact that readers are looking for a certain kind of character arc to identify with, and they cannot find it in heroines.

    One of my favorite New Yorker cartoons has a brother and sister, and the girl looks up at the mother and asks, “Why does he always get to be the boy?”

    Why indeed?

  25. RfP
    Jan 03, 2009 @ 19:01:38

    This is one reason I love Ann Aguirre's Sirantha Jax and heroines like her.

    Not to get too far off topic … but one of the most surprising things to me has been learning that so many female readers identify with the hero. At first I thought this was great, but now I think it reflects the fact that readers are looking for a certain kind of character arc to identify with, and they cannot find it in heroines.

    Jax was one of the heroines I thought of when I first commented; she reminds me of some kick-ass urban fantasy heroines whose passions and struggles are at center stage throughout the book.

    I’m of the hybrid view myself: if readers identify with a character, it’s with whichever character’s the most identifiable-with for a *variety* of reasons (and probably varying with time too), not always the character most like the reader in terms of sexual identity.

  26. Romance and the Rake « Theresa Sand
    Jan 05, 2009 @ 08:59:23

    […] 5, 2009 by theresasand There is an excellent article on Dear Author called “Romance and the Boundaries of the Self,” which discusses identity in romance […]

  27. Tumperkin
    Jan 05, 2009 @ 14:08:00

    I don’t think that readers necessarily identify with the hero – I think quite often they literally fall for him. I think that comes quite strongly in many romance reader blogs.

  28. Anita C.
    Jan 30, 2009 @ 01:12:41

    I know I’m late to this thread, but…

    Wait, when you’re talking about one of my absolutely favorite books, “Flowers From the Storm,” can we give Maddy some credit for making some huge changes in her self-actualization, too? She leaves her religious sect (Quakers?) and, to a certain extent, embraces her husband’s secular world. And she does it because she realizes the limitations and the judgmental aspects of her sect, and recognizes her “destiny” as being the one who brings bits and pieces of enlightment to the “new” life she takes on (such as teaching her husband not to be such a spendthrift with that great fortune of his, and opening a school for the workers’ children on her husband’s estate). That’s a long way from the Maddy I met in the first chapter.

  29. nekobawt
    Feb 05, 2009 @ 13:03:56

    also late to the conversation, but nonetheless this is a topic close to my heart. suzanne enoch’s griffin series deals heavily with identity and self.

    * in “sin and sensibility,” eleanor griffin “declares independence” from her super-overprotective brothers in order to make her own decisions and figure out who she is besides A Griffin before she settles down to a marriage with Lord Whoever. along the way, valentine st. corbett (one of my favorite male protagonists) also learns a few things about himself and becomes a reformed rake and a leeeetle bit less mysoginistic. (*grins*) this is probably my favorite romance novels of all time because of their…journey, i guess. becoming “an item” while remaining two separate complete people.
    * the next book, “an invitation to sin,” deals with zachary, the youngest of eleanor’s three older brothers, and the question of purpose. he lacks one, his love interest has one, her six or so sisters and mother also have one (turning him into a husband for one of them) zaniness ensues and along the way he decides to breed cows. no, really, cows.
    * in “something sinful,” charlemagne griffin, the middle brother, meets sarala, whose father recently inherited a title which necessitated her family’s return from india. her mother is determined to turn sarala-the-“indian princess”-with-Mad-Bizniss-Skillz into sara-the-proper-english-lady-who-isn’t-into-any-of-that-nasty-unladylike-stuff. there’s not a whole lot of “finding one’s self” in this one so much as “asserting one’s self and finding a place for it (coincidentally in a marriage with one of the wealthiest men in england),” but the conflict between sarala and her mother strikes a cord in me with the “someone wanting you to be something you’re not” part. i’m sure most of us can relate to that…
    * in “sins of a duke,” we have sebastian, the eldest and the duke, versus princess josefina of costa habichuela. the question of self is more emphasized on the angle of whether the heroine and her family are who they claim they are, and what are they REALLY up to and the consequences of such, etc.

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