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Alpha hero

Dear Author

Alpha, Beta, and Reading Against Type

One of the things I enjoyed most about the essays of Michelle Sagara and Elizabeth Vail on the alpha and beta heroes in Romance was the range of comments and interpretations of both heroic types. How could the same type produce so many different, and often conflicting, ideas of what constitutes an alpha? What is that strange alchemy that produces such different interpretations of the same characters? Is it really that we all have such different definitions of the same types, or is it more that these are artificial categories we fill out with our own expectations and desires?

For genre fiction readers, character types are an important way in which the genre answers reader expectations. Conforming to them is a strength in that they create genre continuity (and therefore formalistic boundaries) and they manage reader expectation around what kind of experience a book will ostensibly deliver. However, character types can also be a weakness, keeping the genre narrowly confined to certain acceptable categories and courting staleness through over-replication.

Also, to what extent do types allow us to be more passive in our experience of certain books. For example, if I “know” what a Linda Howard alpha male hero is, then to what extent will I read any Howard book through the filter of those expectations? And how do those expectations shape my perception of other books that appear to be similar, at least on the surface?

It’s no secret that I’ve been feeling reading malaise with Romance lately, and while I know it’s more me than the genre, that malaise has become self-fulfilling, because I haven’t been open to finding that book that breaks pattern and surprises me. It’s not that the books aren’t out there, but there’s something about the combination of my expectations and the ease with which the genre can mirror those back through “typical” characters, tropes, and conflicts, that I failed to fight through it.

Until, that is, I read Anne Bishop’s Written in Red, the first book in her Others series that is not a Romance, but that has a definite relationship with romantic elements at its center. Almost everything about Written in Red and A Murder of Crows confounded my expectations and preconceived ideas about how cultural and racial difference is constructed in genre fiction, as well as what it means to be alpha or beta within a romantic paradigm, and in the process, made me question my own reading prejudices and preconceptions.

Archetypes are written and re-written in genre fiction to the point at which they become typical – at least in the eyes of readers. We have all sorts of ways of referring to the so-called alpha hero: alphahole, caretaking alpha, warrior alpha, protective alpha, abusive alpha, etc. Similarly, the beta hero is often associated with certain typical qualities: scholarly or bookish, less physically large or imposing, less assertive or aggressive, more emotionally open, etc.

In the abstract, it all seems so simple and so clear. Alpha heroes are aggressive, while betas are more collaborative. Alpha heroes are dark, brooding, and physically imposing, while betas tend to be slimmer, fairer, and less moody. But how many of these character types are uncomplicatedly rendered in actual books?

Anne Bishop’s Others series brought into relief for me the extent to which the clear distinction may be more fiction than fact. For those unfamiliar with (currently two-book) series, it features a young woman named Meg Corbyn, who escapes from a life in which she is ritualistically and involuntarily bled for prophecies purchased by the rich. As a cassandra sangue, she is technically human, but is also something else, something unique enough that she ends up imprisoned and exploited for her “gift.” And yet, her gift comes with dangerous side effects: she is in danger of losing her mind from one too many cuts and prophecies, and the euphoric response she has to speaking her prophecy can become a dangerous addiction (these are both addressed in the second book, A Murder of Crows). Although Meg has been isolated from the world, she knows enough from the images she has been taught to find her way out of the compound and eventually to Lakeside, a community of terra indigene. The community’s leader, Simon Wolfgard, is both enraged and intrigued by Meg, enraged by what he perceives as her weakness and intrigued by the fact that although clearly human, she does not “smell like prey,” which is what most humans potentially are to the terra indigene.

Intrigue wins out, and Simon hires Meg as the human liaison of Lakeside, which means she accepts deliveries and mail from human businesses and sorts and delivers it to the Lakeside residents, ranging from vampires to Elementals to the terra indigene who take on animal forms but are not animals. These different beings reside in a complex and complicated nexus of agreements and relationships, and find solidarity in their opposition to and power over humans, many of whom are represented as selfish, petty, immature, and intolerant.

When I started to read Bishop’s series, I was made aware of those critics who do not believe the books adequately represent cultural and racial diversity, especially in regard to Native Americans. But for me, what stood out about Written in Red, was first how it seemed to elude any sort of one-to-one racial or cultural analogy, and second, how, if I had to pick any analogy, it would have been the pre-American period of the early 18th century, especially in the areas where the Iroquois Confederacy leveraged their power against both the English and the French governments. Because despite the colonial and conversion minded settlers, and the greedy land interests and political double-talk from the Europeans and their colonial governments, there was also much more indigenous diversity and authority than a lot of people realize, especially previous to the end of the French and Indian War in 1763.

Looking at cultural and racial differences during that time requires a shift in paradigm, because neither category existed in the way it does today. The Lenape (Delaware), for example were pretty consistently at war with the Iroquois nations, significantly endangering their robust persistence. The complex societies populating what we now refer to as North America were different in language, cultural mythology, and customs, and even when the Europeans arrived, alliances were formed that capitalized on long-existing antagonisms between indigenous societies.

This, for me, is how the Lakeside community reads. The paradigms of race and culture as we use them now don’t really apply. For example, Police Lieutenant Crispin Montgomery is described as having dark skin, but we find that our casually; it is not something anyone specifically comments on in the books. When asked about where he was born, he says, “My father’s family immigrated to Thaisia from Afrikah a few generations ago and settled in Toland. Most of my mother’s family still live in the Storm Islands.” Moreover, Montgomery is one of the few humans Simon Wolfgard and his fellow community leaders trusts and actively works with to keep the peace between humans the Others.

The Thasia reference seems to echo the theory of the Bering Strait Land Bridge. However, if you push the analogies too far in any direction you run into a wall. Café owner Tess, for example, invokes the characteristics of Medusa, while Meg seems to represent both her Cassandra typology and shamanistic practice. Erebus Sanguinati, the head of the vampires, plays the part of the stereotypical gentleman vampire in a decidedly affected and intentional way. And Simon, while most comfortable in his wolf form, is neither human nor wolf. He “mimics” humans but is not human. And he has adopted some of the characteristics of wolves, but is not strictly wolf, either.

Similarly, the relationship between Simon and Meg does not develop in expectedly romantic ways. Although they are both drawn to each other and share a rapid and deep level of emotional intimacy, their attraction is never once defined by how each looks. Not once does Simon think of Meg as pretty, and the one physical characteristic he responds to most strongly is her dyed hair, which smells awful to him. Similarly, in human form Simon is a bookseller with wire-rimmed glasses, which suggests a beta character, even though his true identity as not-wolf-wolf plays with the whole notion of alpha. And despite his decisive leadership of Lakeside, Simon lets his father act as figurehead, and finds himself completely befuddled by his feelings for Meg, frequently taking missteps with her. As for Meg, partly because of her isolation, she has no primary experience with romantic feelings, even though she seems to have a pretty good understanding of sex and how her body has sexual sensations. So while she is innocent in some ways, she is also smart, strong, and courageous, leaving the only home she knows and learning to live in a world that presents myriad dangers to her well-being and her life.

Because of their unique situation, Simon and Meg mostly express their affection through playfulness, especially when Simon is in wolf form. He likes it when she cuddles and kisses his wolf body, and when he is in that form, he is not intimidating to Meg, even though that could be perceived to be a more stereotypically alpha form. At the beginning of Murder of Crows, he is sleeping with Meg as wolf, and when she accidentally pushes him off the bed, be turns human in order to communicate with Meg and then gets back into bed in human form. While Simon did not understand it at the time, that incident adds a level of anxiety in Meg that they spend the entire book trying to work through. And even then, Simon registers Meg’s fear in animal terms, saying, “. . . she acts and smells all bunny-weird about me being there in human form.” They continue to try for friendship, but in some ways the emotional intimacy of that connection is deeper and more dangerous than simple sexual attraction.

In fact, the books are very focused on interpretation, translation, and reading the signs. When Meg experiences a prophecy, it is in words and images that must be translated. When Meg adapts to Lakeside, she is constantly trying to read the living faces of those around her, because she has mostly been educated through pictures. When intentions are inferred without thoughtful examination, disaster can occur – literally. One of Montgomery’s challenges, as a human policeman who wants to work with the terra indigene, is reading between the lines and making himself understood to a community that is inclined to see humans as untrustworthy and dangerous.

And many things in the books simply defy easy explanation and translation. From the characters who only partially exemplify “types” to relationships like that between Simon and Meg, it is tempting to read everything through an existing paradigm, and yet simultaneously impossible. At once point in Murder of Crows, Simon and his grizzly bear friend Henry are trying to comprehend Meg:

“She’s not terra indigene, Simon,” Henry said gently. “She’s not one of us. She’s human.” “She’s not one of us, but she’s not one of them either,” he snapped. “She’s Meg.”

In some ways this is an incredibly comforting exchange, because Meg is being considered as an individual outside of a particular type, with all its preconceptions and judgments. For Meg, Simon is similarly unique in her experience, and thus the reader sees him that way through Meg’s eyes. These are two characters who must be “read” in a different way – both by the reader and by each other — if they are to work as a couple. And yet, the exchange also presents difficulties, because outside of a familiar paradigm, it can be difficult to read signs that can prevent disaster. And that is part of the complexity of the situation in Bishop’s series – if, for example, Meg’s prophecies are misread, death and community devastation is likely. It’s not simply a matter of a simple understanding; the inability to communicate, collaborate, and mutually comprehend one another can easily be fatal. And as for Meg and Simon, how can a wolf who fears becoming more human successfully mate with a female whose uniqueness also inclines her to madness and even death? What seems inevitable between them also seems impossible.

Although the Bishop books push the envelope in many ways, they are a provocative example of how much easier it often is to imagine a “type” in theory than in practice. And for me, the experience of the books actually refreshed my interest in Romance, because they disrupted the expectations I had grown comfortable with in my own genre reading. And once those expectations are disrupted, perhaps I will see certain types differently in books I might otherwise pass on or read through the filter of previous perceptions.

None of this resolves the tension between the reader’s expectations and what the text objectively delivers. However, it does make me wonder how much many of the books that stand out in the genre do so precisely because they can be read through so many different reader filters, and not because they present the same kind of character type to every reader. In other words, is there really such a thing as an alpha or beta hero, or do we, as readers, build these types from individual judgment and expectation?

Accumulation or: The Problem With Too Many Dukes

Accumulation or: The Problem With Too Many Dukes

One Too Many Die Hard Movies

At our recent m/m roundtable, Sunita and I had a bit of a discussion in the comments about the Out for You and Gay for You tropes in m/m romance. That discussion and various others around the internetz got me thinking about Problems in Romance and the nature of them.

I’ve come to the conclusion that for the most part, the issue is not so much that a particular thing exists – it is more that there exists too much of it. That is, it is more the frequency of the thing which has a cumulative effect and that then becomes the problem.

Apparently in Regency England there were 27 real life dukes. (Earls were a lot more common).   (I think there must be at least one more now because William is Duke of Cambridge and I recall that title was newly created, but I stand to be corrected on that).   One historical romance story which is about one duke is not in itself a problem. Arguably, 27 stories (let’s be egalitarian and say they’re all from different authors but it probably doesn’t matter) featuring one duke would also not be a problem because the representation of dukes vis a vis the rest of the population was about right.   I haven’t done any empirical research but I expect that most historical romances don’t feature more than 27 dukes in any one book.   So, the representation in one example of a historical romance is probably not that big a problem.   That is to say, if one reader read one (or possibly up to 27) historical romance(s) featuring a duke she would probably not have a skewed version of reality (at least as it pertains to their number within the population).

But, as we all know, there are way more than 27 dukes in romance. A simple Amazon search on “duke” comes up with 29 pages of historical romances – and that is just the tip of the iceberg.

Sunita pointed out:

And I don’t think manufacturing hundreds of dukes never hurts anyone. Basically we’ve turned Georgian and Victorian England into a romance amusement park. We’ve erased the politically active working class, we’ve made Chartists and Luddites and agricultural workers into comic relief and/or people to be saved by the aristocracy. Sure, none of them are alive now, but their descendants are.

I think it is the same in Gay for You and Out for You. There are real life versions of these stories. They’re nowhere near as common as the representation of either trope in m/m romance would suggest however.

I could go further. How about the Alpha hero? Or the Billionaire? Infidelity in New Adult? The problem, it seems to me, lies not in one book, or even a handful. But at some point (and I don’t know what that point is exactly), one more romance tips over into too many and the accumulation of them as a group becomes the problem.

There is another side effect. Some may say that any Alpha is one too many but I think that the bigger issue is not so much that there are books which contain them, but that there are so many of them, they can make discoverability of other books more difficult.

The first person who ever wrote the “sassy gay friend” probably based that on a real person. I’m sure in the population, at least one exists somewhere. But a stereotype becomes a stereotype because it is copied and copied and copied. And, all of a sudden, the “sassy gay friend” is seemingly everywhere and appears to make up a large proportion of gay representation. (There is also the issue of the stereotype becoming a kind of “shortcut” and therefore being only shallowly drawn – it is almost as if authors expect readers to “import” characterisation from numerous other books to round out what is missing in the story at hand. But that is an issue for another day).

It is all well and good to say that fiction is fiction and readers are savvy enough to know what is not real – but, are we really? Or, are we always? If I read a book set in Africa – a place I’ve never been and know little about, I’m likely to suck that information up like a sponge and assume it to be true. When I read a book set in our world, my default is to assume what it says about the world is true. Unless I know it is not or unless what is incorrect is pointed out to me, I would never know.

When I saw the movie The Duchess, I was taken aback by how apparently heartless and awful the Duke of Devonshire was. I think I knew that not all dukes were romance heroes but I had to have a bit of a conversation with myself about Ralph Fiennes’ performance and what must have seeped into my consciousness from so many books about dukes who love passionately and with fidelity, dukes who would never dream of merely bending their new wife over the marriage bed (sans foreplay and afterglow) and just sticking it in to get the job done. And The Duchess was still a fictionalised version of events; I haven’t forgotten that either. Even so, Ralph’s portrayal is likely much closer to the truth than what is in most romance novels. I hadn’t realised I had taken so much of the romance genre mythology in.

And there can be an insidious effect from the problem of too many. Perhaps it is that a large portion of the LGBTQ community is under-represented or worse, absent, from the romance genre. Perhaps it is that the romantic, emotionally compelling stories about people who are out and proud are pushed aside in favour of a trope like Gay for You. Perhaps it is more subtle – maybe it is that authors/publishers believe that a historical romance without a duke won’t sell, so we don’t get the stories we might love about the Chartists and Luddites. Or those stories that do exist are hidden behind 150 dukes and so are hard to find. Perhaps an author, looking at the proliferation of dukes thinks her Chartist book won’t sell and therefore writes a book about a duke which may not be as good as the one she really wanted to write.

The discussion is difficult when it comes down to a particular book though. Because ONE book about ONE duke isn’t, in itself, wrong, is it? And why should book 254 (say) be the book that makes things problematic? Where is the tipping point? What if the very first duke book a reader reads contains fictional duke number 1543? For that reader, it is her first duke. How does the individual reader who is exposed to very little of each individual “problematic thing” fit into all of this?

And who’s to say that the 1468th book about a duke won’t be an absolute cracker which brings something new and fresh to the genre? Should a queer person whose own lived experience is “Gay for You” not be able to write a fictional book based on that experience? Should the straight person who writes an Out for You book which deals with the challenges of coming out and the risks and pitfalls that might present to a relationship be not allowed to write that? Is the woman who is married to an Alpha Carer not allowed to write an Alpha hero? Because there are already too many? Do we ban billionaires? That doesn’t seem right either.

Perhaps the challenge for a reviewer is to judge the book on its own as well as within the wider context of genre. But even that is difficult. My own experience of Motorcycle Club romance represents about .003% of my personal reading library. I know there are many, many more MC books out there but I haven’t read them. So how do I judge the wider context?

In a general sense, I think it is okay to like problematic things. But I also think that those things should be talked about and critically examined.

So, this is me, talking about a problem of accumulation. I’ve no answers, only a lot of questions and thoughts – but it’s at least the beginning of a conversation.