Romance, Historical, Contemporary, Paranormal, Young Adult, Book reviews, industry news, and commentary from a reader's point of view

The Reader and Consent

Robin (aka Janet here at the blog) wrote a paper which was presented this past spring’s PCA conference. The core of her paper is the reason that readers have different responses to forced seduction is based on the reader's grant of consent to the act. In essence, the reader is acting as proxy for the heroine in either withholding consent (rape) or granting consent (seduction). It's a more nuanced argument than this, but ever since I read her paper, I began to think about the reader and consent in books.

All readers come from a different place because none of us have had the same upbringing and same life experiences. These experiences and biases affect our ability to grant consent or go along with where the author is leading us. It's the old "It's not you, it's me" refrain.

For example, it is hard for me to read a legal romance and grant consent to the liberties taken with the law. This was a huge issue for me in Nancy Gideon's Chased by Moonlight wherein the lead investigating officer on a murder case was sleeping with the prime suspect and even kissed him in the interrogation room. But witness this commenter's response:

Now because it is a piece of fiction I don't care if the a police procedureare right are not. I know it's not that way in real life and this is just a book.

She was able to give her consent to this scene whereas I was not.

In Willing Victim by Cara McKenna, the heroine wants to be ordered around during sex in an extreme way, yet the author is careful to convey that this is at the heroine's own direction at each step of the way so that the reader can give consent to the simulated rape. McKenna starts off with a test to prove to the reader, the hero's restraint. “Michael” is their safe word.

"Michael."

His posture transformed in an instant. He sat down next to her on the bed, hands clasped between his knees, wary eyes on her face. "Too rough?"

"I'm not sure. I think mostly I just wanted to test the safe word. I think I needed to know you'd stop, if I asked you to."

"Always."

It helps a great deal that these scenes are almost all from the female's point of view so that the reader knows she is hot for every increasingly demanding and threatening act:

Laurel made a fearful, breathy noise and was rewarded with a few violent thrusts. "Stop," she panted. "Please."

"I said shut up."

"Please, stop. "

"Fine. Gets me hot when you beg, anyway. "

She alternated pleading with helpless noises, the role-playing arousing her more than she'd imagined possible. Flynn felt godlike behind her, insanely strong and powerful.

Maya Banks uses this technique of being in the heroine's point of view for a struggle scene in her upcoming "Four Play" contribution (ellipses in place of actual content to attempt to make this post somewhat safe for work):

A decadent thrill washed over her at the thought of Brody forcing his way into her resisting body. Oh yeah. Nice. It obviously didn't pay to be too accommodating. She'd stop that nonsense right now. – Then, as if realizing her game, he gripped both hips and held her in place-

"I told you what would happen," Brody said, but he didn't sound very sorry at all.-.Oh God, he was big and it hurt and she loved every second. She wiggled and squirmed, trying everything she could to unseat him.

But the reader as proxy (not stand in) but proxy works on levels even beyond ones that involve a sexual situation.

Ever put down a book? Why? Sometimes it is because the story is boring but sometimes it is because there is something in the story that bothered you.

This happened to me recently when I was reading a book the other day. The hero declared (to another person) that he was in love with the heroine and I put the book down, metaphorically speaking. I wasn't ready to go there with the hero. The author hadn't prepared me well enough for that scene to happen and thus I wasn't satisfied with the direction of the story.

I read one story in which I entirely skipped over a sex scene because I wasn't ready for the couple to have sex yet. The hero had done something bad and I needed groveling for him before the heroine allowed him the pleasure of sexual intercourse with her.

And, of course, as I alluded to at the beginning, every reader has a different point at which she consents to the scene. For example, the groveling in an Heir for the Millionaire by Julie James was sufficient for me, but for commenter Holly, it was not, leading the book to be a wallbanger for her:

Based on the recommend I downloaded this to my ereader. I just finished The Greek and the Single Mom by Julia James. I just gotta ask-what the heck were you smoking when you gave this a B? Please tell me you were feeling maudlin and had polished off a bottle of wine before you read this. Shaking head in dismay.

I finished the story and only because I paid a LOT of money for my ereader did I not chuck it at the wall. OMG!!! Just OMG.

*Possible* Spoiler ahead. But then this is often an HP kind of plot device so maybe it isn't a spoiler.

The guy feels like he's the aggrieved party all the way through? Exsqueeze me? He was the ultimate in asshat angry boner men and it didn't take me long to figure that out. His reaction to finding out about his son was-poor. She's vindictive? Say what?

You know, your review appealed to me because you talked about a fiesty heroine with a spine. Yeah, she had one-right up until the end of the story. Then it appears to have been surgically removed when both she, and I, were not looking.

Near the end of the story the guy commits a calculated, manipulative act with despicable intentions. And the heroine, once he tells her what he did, thanks him for having committed it instead of properly hunting for a spoon with which to dig out his heart (assuming he has one) – cause you use a spoon to make it hurt more. (Alan Rickman/Robin Hood reference). She THANKS him!! Is she an idiot? A masochist? You know she can't be a masochist because I read BDSM and even masochists aren't THAT masochistic. OMG. Again.

By the time that the HEA rolled around, this reader wasn’t prepared for it. She didn’t consent to the HEA because the hero committed an egregious act and did not redeem himself sufficiently in her eyes. It didn’t matter that the heroine consents or excuses this behavior, the reader hasn’t consented or excused the behavior thus making the HEA unbelievable for that reader.

The reader’s grant or withholding of consent is not the same thing as being a placeholder. Instead, it is where the reader is emotionally within the story and where she will allow the story to take her Whether the reader grants consent for a particular emotional movement can and will vary based upon the reader’s experiences and personal biases. A woman who was the victim of sexual assault likely has a very different line for consent when it comes to forced seduction as opposed to the reader who has never experienced such an experience.

If an author gets a number of complaints about a particular book maybe it was because she hadn’t fully paved the way for the reader’s consent. Or it could just be that it’s not you, it’s me.

What do you think? Are you, as a reader, consenting?

Jane Litte is the founder of Dear Author, a lawyer, and a lover of pencil skirts. She spends her downtime reading romances and writing about them. Her TBR pile is much larger than the one shown in the picture and not as pretty. You can reach Jane by email at jane @ dearauthor dot com

59 Comments

  1. Tweets that mention The Reader and Consent | Dear Author -- Topsy.com
    Sep 21, 2010 @ 04:44:42

    [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Harriet Smart, dearauthor. dearauthor said: NewPost: The Reader and Consent http://bit.ly/9YNxtJ [...]

  2. ka
    Sep 21, 2010 @ 05:25:55

    Wow, Jane … great essay and question! I find myself in several of the scenarios that you describe – sometimes consenting, sometimes not. Will ponder your essay and question throughout the day.

  3. Lexxie Couper
    Sep 21, 2010 @ 05:31:59

    Personal context is very important to any reading of a novel. I think, no matter how one might wish to leave their personal experiences behind when they pick up a book, on a very deep subconscious level, that is impossible.

    Just as the personal context of an author impacts on what they write, so too what the reader has experienced in their life is brought to the pages and-to an extent-placed upon the characters (particularly the heroine in the case of female readers).

    I had to put aside a highly aclaimed book just recently. The writing was evocative and highly sensory, but the subject matter delt with a stalker/attempted rape. As a victim of a stalker, I could not, no matter how hard I tried (and I did try very hard) put my memory of that experience aside. I could not give consent to the heroine allowing or accepting the hero’s approach in dealing with her stalker/attempted rapist and as such, didn’t finish the book. Which is a real shame, because I’ve been told it is brilliant.

  4. joanne
    Sep 21, 2010 @ 06:10:55

    There is something that I notice that happens a lot with the First Page entries here on DA; it’s when an author knows his/her characters intimately and assumes the reader does too. No, we don’t.

    It’s the author’s business to show me why her characters are behaving in a certain way or agreeing to, or allowing, certain behavior in others.

    If the writer hasn’t shown me that the character being forced is okay with that- that the character has reasons that this works for them in these circumstances and that the character isn’t just nuts- then the story becomes unacceptable(and yes! ereaders make it soooo difficult to toss a book at the wall).

    Part of the consent I grant at the very beginning of a book is based on trust in an author’s integrity. Writing in the romance genre allows for plenty of lateral movement (ha, ha!) but If that trust is broken- if the main characters become caricatures or looney rather then romantic figures- then bye-bye.

  5. Shiloh Walker
    Sep 21, 2010 @ 06:30:29

    It’s just going to depend on the book, I think. If the author has sold me the story, the world… then generally, yes, I am.

    The few exceptions are the ‘stop’ things for me-but those are the stops points for a lot of romance readers any way-things involving actual rape, abusive actions, etc.

    One ‘stop’ point for me is a parallel of yours-I personally don’t like many books involving nurses or doctors-the exception is when I know the writer is a nurse or doctor. Otherwise, too many people get crap so far off all I want to do is hurl the book. It’s stuff that probably wouldn’t bug a layperson, but it stands out like a sore thumb to me, which interferes with my reading enjoyment.

    If it pulls me out of the story, I guess I’m not so consenting.

  6. Merrian
    Sep 21, 2010 @ 06:31:35

    Oh yes! It is our consent that is neccessary which is why when events occur in a story they have to be necessary to the story and believeable in terms of the characters otherwise they are gratuitious and that is the thing I won’t give consent too. Even though I am not a lawyer the scenes you mentioned would throw me out of the story because they are lazy and inherently dishonest so I would be afraid of other dishonesties and short cuts in the story. This is at the minimum, poor world building. Even though I read fantasy and science fiction, ie. the ultimate in ‘not real’ I expect there to be internal consistency in the structure of the world and the characters as well as the plot; these are part of what I consent to and a reason I will withdraw my consent as well. So to go back to the point about dubious consent I can consent if the story gives me something to consent too which is the heroine’s ultimate safety and well being and respect for her personhood.

  7. farmwifetwo
    Sep 21, 2010 @ 06:55:48

    Not even close.

    I think it was the first Edge book by Cherry Adair and he raped her within the first 50 pgs. I don’t care if she’s asleep, he was a voyeur and put the thoughts in her head = RAPE!!!!!

    I couldn’t believe how many people said “oh, how romantic”… WT????

    So… I quit right there and never went back to it.

  8. Taryn Kincaid
    Sep 21, 2010 @ 06:56:26

    Excellent analysis. I find I will allow more things in a fantasy or paranormal, even in historicals (especially a time period I know little about), than I will in a contemporary. Much harder for me to suspend disbelief in the real world.

  9. GrowlyCub
    Sep 21, 2010 @ 06:59:55

    My issue with consent lately is that I’m having a super hard time granting it for totally implausible, historically unlikely and often outright dumb setups.

    And even if I can get past the opening chapters, that sense of ‘no way’ stays with me the whole book and makes it more likely that I’ll pick up on other issues that I might otherwise have overlooked.

    It’s much easier for me to forgive an egregious error or ridiculous plot development late(r) in the book, but if the ‘hook’ is flawed, the whole story is tainted.

  10. Anne Calhoun
    Sep 21, 2010 @ 07:17:40

    In McKenna’s book it’s very, very clear from the beginning that these two characters role playing during entirely consensual acts. As long as that’s obvious, and I mean OBVIOUS, I don’t have any trouble with scenarios like that. I have more trouble with books where the emotional connection isn’t deep enough to explain the outcome of a scene or the story. That’s where I stop reading, or feel unsatisfied afterwards.

  11. Estara
    Sep 21, 2010 @ 07:32:57

    Very much this.

    I was recently reading the newest hardcover of one of my favourite auto-buy authors (Sherwood Smith, Coronets & Steel), who I rarely rate under four of five stars (and most of her books are 5 stars for me), but I was so sorry and waffled four days to write my honest review on GoodReads.com because her heroine had some TSTL moves that I just couldn’t condone.

    I continued to read the book for the world-building and the other characters, but if she had been the only attraction I probably wouldn’t have finished. And a big personal button was that the heroine was a lot like me at that age (only I wasn’t as athletic ^^). And she wasn’t a teenager so I expected more sense when deliberately heading into danger/problems she has been cautioned against.

    The author mailed me (I’m part of her Fan LJ community and regularly comment on her own LJ, also I was one of the first reviews on GoodReads.com after the book came out) and explained a few bits of why she had written her that way and I could actually follow that reasoning, but in the book ITSELF this was – for me – not shown clearly enough.

    Fortunately, other fans of hers didn’t have that reaction:
    - Another LJ community fan : five stars
    - Angela James: four stars
    -My review of Coronets & Steel: three stars

  12. Estara
    Sep 21, 2010 @ 07:38:43

    Gah, I messed up the links:
    Five star review
    Four star review
    My review

    *sigh*

  13. cead
    Sep 21, 2010 @ 07:41:07

    @Merrian:
    Even though I read fantasy and science fiction, ie. the ultimate in ‘not real' I expect there to be internal consistency in the structure of the world and the characters as well as the plot; these are part of what I consent to and a reason I will withdraw my consent as well.

    This, absolutely.

    @joanne: There is something that I notice that happens a lot with the First Page entries here on DA; it's when an author knows his/her characters intimately and assumes the reader does too. No, we don't.

    Yes! I’ve become warier and warier about taking chances on debut authors for exactly this reason; the only debut I’ve managed to finish (let alone enjoy) in the last six months to eight months or so was Courtney Milan’s. The unpolished prose style one often encounters in debuts probably makes it harder for the author to give the reader the world-building s/he needs. Experienced authors are guilty of this too, but if their prose is good and the book has other things going for it, it’s less likely the book will be a DNF for me.

    Two things that particularly bug me are when the author clearly thinks her hero is super-hot, and the reader doesn’t know why; and when one or both of the leads decides s/he is in love, and, again, the reader doesn’t know why. The former is annoying but not necessarily a dealbreaker; the latter I really can’t get past. In particular, I love books in which the couple has some sort of prior association, but lots of these totally fall apart because the author hasn’t done a sufficiently good job establishing the couple’s previous relationship before having them fall in love, and with this storyline, that’s crucial.

  14. Ciar Cullen
    Sep 21, 2010 @ 08:12:28

    Great essay. But… I’m having a lot of trouble comparing, for example, my annoyance at books that blow archaeology (I have a doctorate in that field) and books that make me feel squicky because of forced seduction. One hits me at an arrogance level, the other as a more visceral one. As much as I would hate to see the author have the main characters rip archaeological materials from the ground in an unprofessional manner or steal artifacts in the manner of Indy (the extreme end of getting it wrong), it would be much, much worse for me to think that the heroine is getting raped (the extreme end of getting that scenario wrong). You make goods points, of course. I cannot relate to the forced rape fantasy, etc., because of my personal history. To me, it’s not funny, clever, or sexy. I know, however, that this is a very common fantasy. In other words, this is a very, very tough area, as you point out. For me, “forced seduction” is a wallbanger.

  15. Isabel C.
    Sep 21, 2010 @ 08:23:19

    With the exception of scenes like the ones above, where the heroine is pretty obviously playing a game, I never consent to rape/forced seduction, or to a hero dominating the heroine’s life. (There was one novella where the hero basically threatened the heroine into changing her clothes, and she was all “tee hee, this means he loves me” and…no. I think I finished that only because it was the only reading material around.)

    I also have a hard time consenting to naive or fragile-and-scared heroines, and certainly to the ones with rape or abuse as backstory.

    On less weighty issues, professional details don’t bother me, nor does absolutely strict historical/geographical accuracy–the errors have to be pretty egregious to throw me out of the story. On the other hand, dialogue that sounds too modern or stilted will yank me right out.

  16. Hydecat
    Sep 21, 2010 @ 09:20:53

    This is a fascinating concept. I don’t have anything to add to the discussion at the moment, but thanks for writing this post and bringing it up!

  17. dick
    Sep 21, 2010 @ 09:35:55

    Like Joanne, I think it’s the author who gains my consent or rejection. If the author provides mitigating factors, I can accept nearly anything that occurs in a romance. For some things, such as rape, those factors have to be unusually compelling. Still, the foundation of romance is that the heroine’s love is akin to Christ’s, and even rape, if the author plots it right, is no exception.

  18. Julia Rachel Barrett
    Sep 21, 2010 @ 09:38:10

    Very interesting post. I think you bring up what we all pretty much agree is true – everyone sees a book through different eyes. I often find that a reviewer has one take on a book, either highly recommends it or takes an intense dislike to it, yet I have the exact opposite reaction. I agree with the premise – not only must the heroine consent to the hero, I have to agree with her – that he is what she really wants at that moment. It is easier to discern what the heroine wants if a yes/no encounter is told from her point of view.

    I consider the casting of an asshole male as the hero a plot device, one I don’t particularly care for. Are we, as women, supposed to be attracted to a jerk? What am I to assume that says about us as a sex? There’s a difference between a bad boy with a heart of gold – a character I find very appealing, and a flat out asshole who we are supposed to what…reform in our minds…or he’s supposed to have a ‘come to Jesus’ moment? That never works for me.

  19. Christine Rimmer
    Sep 21, 2010 @ 09:56:12

    Really excellent post, Jane. As an author, I do get emails from readers who didn’t “consent.” One woman who worked with battered women really got upset with one of my books when a character (not the hero) struck his wife when he found out she had slept with his enemy and that, as a result of his wife’s betrayal, his only child was not his own. It was one blow. Cut her lip. They separated right then and didn’t get back together in that book. Still, the reader was up in arms because the man who struck his wife was a sympathetic character and she could never accept a man striking a woman unless that woman had at least physically threatened him. I have to say, I saw her point and in a later book, had that man go through counseling to deal with his anger.

  20. Deb
    Sep 21, 2010 @ 11:15:11

    I agree with Dick. I give myself consent to buy and read a book. A fine writer can take a reader through violence, et al., in a way which may challenge a reader, but does no harm to the reader in terms of belief system.

    The mere fact of reading violence does not in any way, indicate I condone/consent to the violent act, whether in the fictional world or real world.

  21. Kate McMurray
    Sep 21, 2010 @ 11:23:49

    I agree with Ciar Cullen, I think there are two different issues here.

    I personally have a hard time with any kind of sexual violence, so I tend to avoid books that I know will have it unless someone insists the books are exceptional. Thus I’ve read a couple of BDSM romances where I definitely consented (as did the characters) and everything was believable. And I’ve read a couple of books where I thought, “Nope, that’s definitely rape,” and thus didn’t consent, and didn’t buy the HEA.

    On the other hand, I think not consenting to, let’s say, evidence in a novel is a different thing. There, anything that pulls me out of the story is a problem. Getting the facts of a profession wrong, for example, especially something legal/police procedural where the likelihood of events working out that way in real life is really slim could ruin a novel for me. (Likewise setting. I was talking to a friend about this recently; we were discussing how Jack Bauer is able to navigate New York so efficiently on 24 when in real time, it would take half an hour or more to move between locations… which, of course, makes for boring television. But then we New Yorkers were sitting there arguing, “Well, if he were driving and took the Queensboro Bridge, he might make it there in twenty minutes, but if it’s rush hour, all bets are off…” and then, boom, the story loses plausibility. TV is different from books, but I feel like there’s kind of a larger burden of proof in a novel, and I’ve read some real doozies that got facts/settings wrong.)

    And I’m reading a book right now that shall remain nameless, but one character already fancies himself in love with the other, and I’m sitting there going, “Dude, you’ve been on two dates. Come on now.”

  22. evie byrne
    Sep 21, 2010 @ 11:29:57

    I love the metaphor of consent, Jane.

    And to follow it, I’d say consent comes from trust. When I read, especially when I’m reading a new author, I’m judging things like world-building, research, characterization, and prose. Not in a super-conscious way, mind you, but as the book progresses, and I’ve hit no walls of stupidity, I’ll begin to trust the author. And as long as I trust the author, I’ll let them take me almost anywhere.

    What I’m saying, is that I can be seduced in to consent via execution.

  23. TKF
    Sep 21, 2010 @ 11:36:29

    @Deb: It’s not about condoning the act, IMO. It’s about being forced to accept an HEA after the hero has raped the heroine. I simply can’t consent/accept the HEA (and I'm clearly not including sexy, consenting, BDSM stories in this group). There's no amount of groveling that will ever convince me that that particular man can be trusted. And I don't willingly shell out money and time to celebrate the love of rapists and the battered women who love/forgive them.

    This is totally different than when I simply can't buy into the world building (whether the problem is historical inaccuracy, holes/contractions in the paranormal set-up, or clear misunderstanding of medical/legal/LEO procedure). Those just make the book a bad read, as opposed to something that feels nearly violative (I'm with Ciar Cullen on this one).

  24. Jinni
    Sep 21, 2010 @ 11:48:57

    The issue for me is always those ‘ethical’ lines. I’m investigating you, but falling for you. I’m your lawyer, but want to sleep (and do) with you. I’m your doctor, but am hitting on you. I love romance, but life comes with boundaries and I wish authors respected them. It takes something spectactular for me to overcome those kinds of issues. I’m looking for people pushing their ‘emotional’ boundaries, not societal ones.

  25. Author on Vacation
    Sep 21, 2010 @ 12:26:42

    What a great article. Thanks, Jane. It really got me thinking about my own reading habbits and preferences.

    I agree the elements conducive to “reader consent” are many and complex. What “works” for one reader won’t do for someone else.

    A HUGE let-down for me? I read a Sherrilyn Kenyon novel after a close friend raved about how GREAT the author’s books are. I FORCED myself to read the novel (it took over two semesters) and NEVER “warmed” to it. I was honestly bewildered by by Keyon’s popularity. I just didn’t “connect” with her at all.

    Most would probably consider me part of Kenyon’s “target audience.” I love paranormal romance and I’m a huge fan of classical mythology. I also enjoy the urban fantasy trends in popular fiction. These elements figure prominently in Kenyon’s work, so we should have been a great “match.”

    I’ve come to realize the disconnect for me with Kenyon’s work was my disagreement with her portrayal of various mythological characters in her work. Prominent mythological beings have been reinvented beyond recognition of their origianl (classical) representation, and I just can’t accept them.

    Another, more general “disconnect” I experience is with stories set in my hometown, New Orleans, by authors who don’t research the city well.

    An author friend of mine likes to write stories set in New Orleans. She prides herself on her “authenticity,” her bios mention she has close family ties to the region, visits often, etc. I don’t find her work authentic at all and I don’t enjoy it.

    On the other hand, I recently read an EXCELLENT self-published short story set in New Orleans. Although I had no doubt the author probably never visited New Orleans or knew much about New Orleans beyond a few street names, I enjoyed the read anyway. The story clearly communicated the author’s fantasy of what New Orleans is like and, to some extent, at least, she got it right. Nor was her effort accompanied by any type of pretentious promotion of herself as a “real New Orleans author.”

    As a reader, I was willing to suspend disbelief and “cross over” from my (real) New Orleans to the author’s fantasy version of the city, and I enjoyed the experience.

  26. Elyssa Papa
    Sep 21, 2010 @ 12:37:13

    Fantastic blog, Jane. For me, if it’s going to be a forced seduction, then I have to know the heroine is on board all the way. If she says no, thinks no, or isn’t into it then it bothers me a lot and puts me in a place of I don’t want to finish reading this book because the hero doesn’t respect her enough. I still do not buy the HEA in WHITNEY, MY LOVE because of the rape. And it’s always a no for me when the hero punishes the heroine in a physical way–but role play and them being into physical things, like the McKenna book is a different matter. Like Evie Byrne said, it all depends on the execution.

  27. Darlene Marshall
    Sep 21, 2010 @ 12:51:35

    This is a fantastic essay, and I’d love to see it in the syllabus of college classes on the romance genre. The idea of reader consent is one I’ll be thinking about the next time I’m reading a book with edgy material.

    Thanks for sharing!

  28. joanne
    Sep 21, 2010 @ 13:14:40

    @dick: Just to be crystal clear, because I think we’re saying the same thing, but a rape fantasy that is acted on and is completely consensual is not the same as rape. PERIOD.

  29. Holly
    Sep 21, 2010 @ 14:07:37

    This is an awesome analysis of the fine line an author walks when writing about forced seduction vs. rape.

    I have a pretty high tolerance for forced seduction in the books I read, but I find that as I get older, my willingness to consent for the heroine has diminished a whole LOT. In any story I read where this is included as part of the plot, as a reader I’ve reached the point where I need to see the heroine’s cons or a quick “Are you okay?” from him with a “Yes” from her. But I need it.

    I read a lot of BDSM erotic romance and some of my favorite authors do a super job of making me buy the hero’s actions. If they miss the mark, the book becomes a wall banger.

    I was kind of surprised (and gratified – thanks for the ego stroke) to see my comment included in the post, but it does illustrate the point that two readers can see the same story VERY differently.

    That story still bugs me. LOL The hero’s behavior just lost me. Earlier in the novella, I might have been able to forgive him. But by the time the end rolled around, the author had done a great job making the heroine a sympathetic character. I was rooting for her. But the hero remained a jerk. He didn’t even try to put himself in her place. He just made blanket assumptions about her. His final act was the last straw for me. He wasn’t happy until he destroyed her and then he realized, “Ooops. I guess I was wrong about you. My bad.” Shudder.

    I still think that hero deserves to have his heart carved out with a spoon. But I’ve had some time since I initially read the story so I’m not quite as outraged. Now, I’d use a grapefruit spoon instead of a soup spoon. See…I can be kind to the jerk. -evil grin and a wink-

  30. Ridley
    Sep 21, 2010 @ 14:12:30

    If it’s done well, I’ll consent to lots of things. But, if an author is going to bend the rules, there has to be a good reason for it.

    Brooke McKinley’s Shades of Gray is a good example. It has an FBI special agent hooking up with an informer. That’s a big huge no-no, right? But, it works within that particular plot. Miller, the FBI agent, is closeted and living a big huge lie. I saw his decision to hook up with Danny to be one part impulse and one part insurance. Tanking his career ensured he couldn’t go back to the lie, even if he wanted to, so he was insuring himself against his character weakness rather than just acting recklessly. I could buy that.

    I won’t consent to the bends in reality that only seem to add plot expediency or if they seem to make a statement I disagree with. Pretty much every romance I’ve read with a disabled heroine renders her child-like and dependent. Phantom Waltz was particularly egregious about it. Since that’s just not how it is, I needed a good reason for it, and never got one. It just makes the heroes seem pitying and self-aggrandizing that they’re condescending to marry these near-children to take care of them.

    Forced seduction falls into that same category. I can buy it – Sebastian Verlaine comes to mind – but it usually just succeeds at making the hero look like a douche. It doesn’t upset me, as I read and enjoyed Stormfire just fine, but it almost always feels like a cheap plot device. I need justification. Why is the hero breaking the rules? Why is the heroine okay with this? How does this not make the hero unsympathetic?

  31. Jane
    Sep 21, 2010 @ 14:14:29

    @Holly: I loved your comment and am always interested in hearing other reader’s reactions particularly if they are so different than mine.

    I agree with you on the BDSM thing. One reason I like BDSM in ero romance is because the authors really get into the headspace of the characters whereas I don’t think that kind of mental rumination goes on in other books (There was a Carina Press book that I particularly didn’t enjoy because it was pretty much all fucking and very little thoughtfulness).

    I wonder what you would think of Cara McKenna’s WIlling Victim. I loved her voice in that story but the emotional part just gets revved up when the story cuts off. She’s got a Harlequin Blaze coming out next year and a Samhain contemp and I’m hopeful she takes her talented voice and gives me more emotional intercourse.

  32. Jane
    Sep 21, 2010 @ 14:17:29

    @evie byrne: Ah, I love this sentence of yours “What I'm saying, is that I can be seduced in to consent via execution.”

    This is exactly what I was trying to say because the metaphor of consent goes far beyond the sexual for me. I need to be ready for every emotional exchange. It’s not that you can’t surprise me, but if I’m not ready as a reader, it is really hard to go there (whereever there may be) with the author.

  33. Jane
    Sep 21, 2010 @ 14:19:02

    @joanne: I wonder if romance as a genre being eroded over time has left me with less trust. I still remember, bitterly, how I felt after reading the Cameron Dean series (and I will never, ever be convinced that wasn’t ghost written by three different authors posing as one).

  34. Sunita
    Sep 21, 2010 @ 14:53:46

    I need to be ready for every emotional exchange. It's not that you can't surprise me, but if I'm not ready as a reader, it is really hard to go there (whereever there may be) with the author.

    This. I have a different attitude toward the unexpected in genre fiction than in lit fic or nonfiction. In genre I’m already reading with expectations of comfort and predictability, even as I want a book to surprise me (in a good way).

    Sometimes that works against me in the initial reading, i.e., I’ll like it better the second time around because I can appreciate what the author is doing rather than being wrapped up in what I’m looking for her to do. I have learned to think about what I’m bring to the book when I open the first page. Of course, sometimes the book stays a wallbanger or DNF the 2nd or even 3rd time around.

    When I find an author who takes a trope I generally dislike and makes it work for me (or makes the book work in spite of it), I really treasure that, and I’ll stick with that author for a long time. That’s why I can’t say there are any stories/plots/characters that I absolutely refuse to read. It’s too rewarding to be proven wrong.

  35. Billie
    Sep 21, 2010 @ 15:49:34

    Some of my lst romances were by Rosemary
    Rogers. I could only stomach a few because
    of all the rapes committed by the hero,
    sometimes over and over again. I could never understand the forgiveness of these
    act by the women. I always felt Rosemary
    had to be a man or she just hated women.

  36. joanne
    Sep 21, 2010 @ 16:44:05

    @Jane: Yes to the genre being eroded somewhat – but I think it’s also opened up some new avenues for romance so we just have to do more digging to find the gold.

    The ghostly Cameron Dean only got me to consent to half of his/her first book. I don’t like my romances without a HEA and I don’t like my vampires involved with slayers. *grin*

  37. Marianne McA
    Sep 21, 2010 @ 17:55:51

    @Ciar – if you’ve never happened across it, you should try and find the BBC series ‘Bonekickers’. It’s … an incisive account of what it must truly be like to be an archeologist in today’s world.

    It’s so entirely awesome that I actually bought the DVD of the series, for fear I’d never get to watch it again. (If you drink at all, it’d probably be even more compulsively watchable with added alcohol.)

  38. Michelle
    Sep 21, 2010 @ 18:28:40

    I think people are more demanding of correct facts/details in their line of work. I am pulled out of the story if they get major facts wrong. I remember on one board objecting to a story line where a doctor falls in love/ends up with a patients mother. I pointed out that this is most definitely unethical, and the physician would be in grave danger of losing his license. I was told it was a great story and I was over thinking it. Baaahhh.

  39. Lynn S.
    Sep 21, 2010 @ 21:36:48

    Good question. I had so much work to do today and all I wanted to do was think about the issues you have raised here.

    I remember a quote from an author that said something along the lines that a reader should not identify with the characters in a novel. (I want to attribute it to Tolstoy, but I’m probably wrong there.) At the time I didn't quite grasp what he was getting at but when you mentioned Robin's ideas on the reader as proxy for the heroine something clicked and I think I now understand what that author meant. Opens up lots of ideas for me. Is Robin's paper available online? I'd be interested in reading it.

    As far as consent goes, I don’t find it necessary to my appreciation of a novel. Any problem I have with the presentation of an issue is based on the skill of and care taken by the author. I do see how personal experiences in your own life could make certain subjects within a novel too painful or anger inducing for some readers to deal with. I find the real proxy situation in novels is that one or more of the characters serve as proxy for the author and a reader should always be aware that the author is leading them somewhere and that it may not necessarily be a place they want to go.

    This also brings to mind your blog post about Katherine Beutner's Romance and Narrative Structure and the general subject of taking the romance genre seriously. Difficult to do considering the business issues involved with the selling of books, the genre labeling, and the pervasively kitschy marketing of romance fiction. But the more people who present it for serious consideration the more people will realize that it deserves that serious consideration. So keep up the good work.

    To me all fiction of a certain length should be considered a novel. I prefer novels with strong romantic elements but a good book is a good book regardless of how it is marketed. I know when I pick up a category title I am going to it for entertainment and escape and am pleasantly surprised when I find something more, especially considering the publisher-based restrictions involved. However, when presented with a novel whether labeled as fiction, mystery, fantasy/sci-fi, romance, or the egregiously titled women's fiction, I think a reader should be given more than simple diversion. I want to be left with ideas to contemplate and words to remember after the book is finished. This doesn't happen for me as often as I would like, generally I am well entertained at best. When it does occur though, I am one happy reader.

  40. Jane
    Sep 21, 2010 @ 21:50:32

    @Lynn S. Robin’s paper isn’t online but I think she will post something next Tuesday – a condensed version of it.

  41. Kaetrin
    Sep 21, 2010 @ 21:51:52

    @Jane. I get what you mean about consent. I recently picked up Michelle Reid’s The Purchased Wife (along with a couple other of her titles after reading your review of The Bellini Bride). I got to page 31 and the “hero” said (actually, he “blasted down at her”) to his injured-and-in-the-hospital wife “This had better be your awakening cara, or you’re dead.”

    I gathered from comments that this guy does an awesome grovel at the end of the book but I just couldn’t get there. The book started off with so much vitriol between them and no basis (for me) to believe they’d ever truly loved each other – I don’t care if he grovels, I couldn’t “consent” to continuing any kind of reading relationship with this asshole. Obviously, others think differently but I (somewhat to my own surprise) found it too much. I have 2 others of hers on my reader but am waiting until the sour taste goes before I try to read them so I can give each a “fair” appraisal rather than go in expecting more of the same.

    I’m not sure I would have understood your point so well if I hadn’t had this experience recently.

  42. Kelly
    Sep 22, 2010 @ 09:30:09

    The McKenna book was HOT. The hero was a good guy, liked the heroine and didn’t want to hurt her physically or emotionally. The heroine was mentally and emotionally capable of saying No.

  43. Lynn S.
    Sep 22, 2010 @ 09:35:25

    @Jane: Thanks, I’ll keep an eye out for it.

  44. dick
    Sep 22, 2010 @ 10:42:01

    @Joanne:
    I agree. I was thinking, when I wrote the comment of the differences between Putney’s “Dearly Beloved” and Dodd’s “A Well-Pleasured Lady.” Putney manipulates the plot and characterization in such as way as to provide reasons that, although not acceptable in real life, within the “story” allow the reader to accept the HEA as a possibility. That doesn’t occur in WPL.

  45. Robin
    Sep 22, 2010 @ 12:28:55

    @Ciar Cullen and @Kate McMurray: Although my own thinking about this idea has been much more limited than Jane’s, I don’t think there are two separate issues here. For me, as a reader, there is a general question of whether, at any point in a book, I grant my permission for the story to continue, or from the opposite direction, whether the book secures my buy-in.

    Beneath that umbrella, there may be several types of things that win or nix my buy-in. Worldbuilding is one of those — whether I recognize that the research is incorrect or insufficient or whether there is simply too much or not enough detail for me to remain invested in the story. How the characters are drawn and how they interact (i.e. what happens to and between them) is another thing that can make or break my buy-in. If the protags act in a way that seems illogical or if one or both of them does something I just cannot tolerate, I might withdraw my permission for the story to continue and close the book.

    While the reality is that this buy-in is part of a dynamic relationship between book (and by extension, author) and reader, from the reader’s perspective, the onus is on the book to secure the buy-in. So as a reader, I am going to conceptualize my permission in terms of how the book works — whether it offers me sufficient motivation for the characters, whether it offers me logical and appealing worldbuilding, whether it wins my trust, loyalty, engagement via a strong voice, a powerful storyline I *need* to finish, or compelling characters. Some authors will ultimately win my trust to the point that I will follow them virtually anywhere. Others are on a book by book basis. Some on a page by page basis, depending on my experience and my knowledge of the work. But it all boils down to whether the book has secured my buy-in to the point where I continue to consent to the story as it’s told.

    Is there a difference in the emotional investment I feel between withdrawing consent over what I perceive to be illogical worldbuilding (I am thinking of a Rom Suspense book I once read where the *undercover* law enforcement agent is obliviously doing everything possible to break his own cover), as opposed to, say, a perceived rape? Possibly. However, in the end it’s still about whether I buy the fictional world and whether I consent to spend more time there and accept the terms as presented.

  46. Angela
    Sep 22, 2010 @ 14:02:32

    Such a fascinating post and discussion.

    Some authors will ultimately win my trust to the point that I will follow them virtually anywhere. Others are on a book by book basis. Some on a page by page basis, depending on my experience and my knowledge of the work. But it all boils down to whether the book has secured my buy-in to the point where I continue to consent to the story as it's told.

    This. Absolutely.

    When I’m reading the book I have given the author a certain amount of trust to begin with. I start at a set level (for example’s sake, we’ll say with a new-to-me author). Then as I read they either gain, or lose my trust, my consent, as the story goes. Any number of things can take this away for me, but it’s much less likely to happen with well developed characters whose actions are sufficiently explained and a well-wrought world where the author picks their rules and sticks to them.

  47. Janine
    Sep 22, 2010 @ 14:46:49

    I’m only halfway through the comments, so forgive me if I repeat something someone else has said.

    I so agree with Evie Byrne that it’s the author’s role to seduce the reader into consenting through execution. I love to feel seduced into turning the pages when I read, and when I feel I succeed at that with my writing, it’s a great feeling.

    With regard to setting up a character’s reaction or action in a way that seduces the reader with its “believability” (for lack of a better word), I think a lot of that comes down to what I think of as setups. If I plan to have a character race into a burning house to save the family photos, then I need to show how much those photos mean to that character earlier in the story. Maybe she looks at her photo albums over and over, caressing the edges of the pages lovingly. If I don’t see something that convinces me she loves those photographs, then when she runs into the burning house, I won’t buy in.

    One of the factors that comes into play here is subtlety. I personally don’t like heavy, obvious foreshadowing most of the time. I prefer it when I don’t guess what will happen next, yet still find what happens next convincing and believable.

    The challenge for writers is that since readers are different, what is too heavy-handed for one may be too subtle for another. I think that that, in addition to differences in life experiences and backgrounds, is another reason why perceptions of a book will often differ.

  48. Angela
    Sep 22, 2010 @ 15:00:24

    @Janine – I have to agree with you about not liking obvious foreshadowing. I think the best description I’ve heard for what I like was from Karen Marie Moning when she said “I believe a really good story gives you enough of the facts so that shortly before the truth comes out, you’re onto it, and hopefully, when the time is right in this series, you guys will know in your gut whether it’s a baby grand or a couple of sofas pushed together, before I yank the sheet off the covered furniture you’ve been staring at…”

    That’s exactly what I love most. I like not really knowing, but being made to think and speculate. Then at the end, when I know what was really going on, I want to be able to look back and say ‘Yeah, I can totally see how we got here.’ I don’t want the author to pull something out of left field no matter how well it works.

  49. Janine
    Sep 22, 2010 @ 16:12:56

    @Angela: I do like to be surprised, but the surprise has to be believable to me. To use my example from above, I don’t want to anticipate that the character will run into the burning house. I want to be surprised by this, but I also want to find the character’s actions convincing and believable.

  50. Angela
    Sep 22, 2010 @ 17:12:57

    @Janine: It’s definitely a hard line for authors to walk like you said, but I totally agree with you :)

  51. Bella F.
    Sep 23, 2010 @ 00:58:28

    Wow, now this post is something that really got me reflecting. I’m fairly new to the romance genre so I’m not familiar with all the different tropes, trends, or even authors, and everything is shiny to me. I have not yet read a romance book where rape or forced seduction happens, but then again maybe it’s just that my personal reader’s consent line is drawn further than others? (I doubt it b/c so far the romances I’ve read don’t even include rough sex,lol) At this point I’m not really sure yet but I’ll definitely consider it after every book I finish from now on! Thanks Jane, and I look forward to reading Robin’s Tuesday post.

  52. Hydecat
    Sep 23, 2010 @ 10:52:53

    I popped in earlier to say this post was fascinating, and I’m popping back in to say that I ran this concept by my class today (I’m teaching an undergraduate course on popular genres) while we were discussing how differently people can react to the same book. My students really seemed to like this idea and found it a useful approach to thinking about popular fiction. I’ll probably link to this blog post so they can see the whole discussion.

  53. willaful
    Sep 23, 2010 @ 10:53:08

    What a great post — you’ve put a name to something I have often wondered about in my own relationship with romance.

  54. Cara McKenna
    Sep 23, 2010 @ 12:22:51

    Man, I need to stop relying on Google Alerts to tell me when my ears are burning! Late to the party as usual.

    Thanks for citing Willing Victim as an example of how to do consent right. God love me if I hadn’t, given how contentious that story’s kink is. And thanks to the folks who had kind words to share about their reading experiences in the comments.

    To Jane-’track me down at next year’s RWA National and I’ll endeavor to give you all the emotional intercourse you can handle. And never fear, we’ll figure out a good safe word beforehand.

  55. Jane
    Sep 23, 2010 @ 17:40:03

    @Hydecat I’d love to hear more about your class conversation, particularly the applicability outside the romance genre.

  56. Hydecat
    Sep 25, 2010 @ 12:46:56

    @Jane: We were talking about the mystery genre, and specifically about Officer Down by Theresa Schwegel. There’s a love plot in the novel (but not a HEA) that significantly impacts how the heroine-detective behaves. Many of my students disliked the book because they felt that the heroine acted in ways that were unrealistic and crazy. They didn’t buy the fact that her emotional involvement with this man would cause her to make choices that run counter to her training as a police officer and/or basic common sense. I, on the other hand, believed that her craving for the security of a loving relationship could reasonably overwhelm her professional responsibilities. So, we talked a bit about romance, and how the reader has to consent that the object of love is actually worthy of love for a story to work. And then my students suggested that in mystery fiction the reader also has to consent, to the believability of the crime or to its solution. If the reader doesn’t feel like they have access to the clues and the logic, they might not consent to the detective’s solution, but each reader has a different point at which they feel comfortable with the clues and the logic they are given. I think there may be fewer personal triggers in the mystery genre that would cause a reader to withhold consent because there is frequently less emotional involvement in the plot, but the basic concept still holds. Anyway, we’re just starting our unit on Romance (with Pride & Prejudice) so I imagine we might revisit the idea of consent more fully in the next couple of weeks.

  57. The Book Smugglers » Blog Archive » Smugglivus 2010 Guest Blogger: Jane Litte of Dear Author
    Dec 09, 2010 @ 11:32:04

    [...] reviews, as well as writing thoughtful articles about the genre (like this recent one about Reader's Consent). Jane is also quite possibly one of the most knowledgeable people when it comes to ebooks and [...]

  58. What Janine is Reading, Late Summer/Early Fall 2011 - Dear Author
    Oct 25, 2011 @ 12:14:07

    [...] thought a lot about the issue of reader consent as I read The Time Traveler’s Wife this time, about how Niffenegger manages to pull this [...]

  59. What Janine is Reading, Late Summer/Early Fall 2011
    Mar 18, 2012 @ 10:35:22

    [...] thought a lot about the issue of reader consent as I read The Time Traveler’s Wife this time, about how Niffenegger manages to pull this [...]

%d bloggers like this: