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Dear Author

A case of mistaken identity?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

As Sarah Frantz explains,

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

Erastes says,

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

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

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

And Veinglory’s:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dear Author

Hello, I’m Jane. I have a lot of reader baggage.

kitty

Jennifer Crusie, the writer of one of my favorite contemporary romances, Welcome to Temptation, wrote the following:

Somebody asked me in an interview once what the responsibilities of the writer and the reader were. I knew the responsibilities of the writer inside out, but I’d never thought about the responsibilities of the reader; to me, anybody who paid money for my book was pretty much fulfilling her responsibility. But it was a job interview, so I thought about it and decided that the responsibility of the reader was to read the book with an open mind, to not read the words “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away,” and say, “I don’t believe that.” To give the writer a fair shot at inviting her in, to maybe broaden her viewpoint some. If all a reader wants is fiction that repeats her own world view, she’s asking the writer to reinforce her,not entertain and illuminate.

The problem is that readers come to a book with a lot of reader baggage. Take commenter Laura V who wondered if there was a cultural gap which prevented her from relating to the heroine. In The Sheik and The Virgin Secretary because Kylie describes herself as coming from good “peasant stock” but then references tanning and pedicures, but from Laura’s experience in the UK, tanning salons and pedicures aren’t as plentiful as they are in Robin’s home state where cheap nail and tanning salons are everywhere. Lidia, Harlequin Presents fan and reader at Iheartpresents.com blogged that she couldn’t read romances featuring first cousins. Daniela blogged about how she had a problem with siblings and even best friends to lovers theme. Some people don’t like a certain amount of violence. Some people don’t read books with explicit sex and some people won’t read books when the bedroom door is closed.

I will rarely read books featuring adoptees because authors often trivialize the emotional experience and I can’t relate. I thought that the treatment was so trivializing of the experience. I will rarely read a book that features lawyers because I simply cannot allow myself to suspend my disbelief regarding the antics the authors portray lawyers partaking in (we still have the moral turpitude clause, people!). I can’t read those books that feature wills that require people to marry other people because that is generally not enforceable. Poor Jayne won’t read them either after I told her that.

***

Even beyond my person bias is the book bias. I’ve read so many romances – thousands of them – that to some extent all books suffer reader baggage built up from previous authors. Everytime I come across a love triangle, I think of Janet Evanovich’s refusal to make her characters move in any significant direction and wonder if this author, too, will string me along for thirteen plus books on the slender edge of the relationship triangle. Everytime I read a paranormal with a vampire and werewolf lover, I wonder if it will become some horrible debacle wherein the heroine begins not only to bed the vampire and the werewolf but every goblin, faerie spirit, and shapeshifter known and unknown.

***

Last week’s comments showed that we all have bias and filters when it comes to reading a book. Robin wrote about independent heroines in romance and how they challenge the very structure of romance. The comments revealed any number of positions, all valid:

DS said

I like heroines who have a worthy goal outside of a relationship. And some of my favorite couples are outside the strict bounds of romance for that reason. I like the idea of a partnership of equals.

Growly Cub said:

I’m not sure I understand why one would need to write/want to read a romance about persons who are truly better off by themselves. The whole premise of romance, to me at least, is that despite the obstacles, the hero and heroine will be better off together rather than apart. I cannot really see the place of a true anti-heroine in romance because by the definition I get from the essay, she would not be suitable to a relationship. So if there’s to be one, the heroine would have to give up something that’s essential to her person which does not make for a healthy, happy couple in the long run or a sane, fulfilled heroine.

Stephanie Z said:

I’m pretty young and just barely engaged, but I’ve been living with the fiance for the last year and, as far as I can tell, we’re more like a Venn diagram. There are still areas that are distinctly "me’ and distinctly "him,’ but there’s a nice overlap in the middle that is "us.’

***

No reader is a clean slate. Every reader comes with his or her own special baggage. We will read things into the book that aren’t there based on our personal experiences and biases. Juror consultants tell you that jurors will adopt a certain way the story is told and then fit the subsequent facts into that story or disregard facts that don’t fit with the story. I think readers are like that. We read into stories identities, backgrounds, excuses, reasonings for characters and stories that we like. We ascribe negative attributes, read negative inferences for the characters and stories we don’t.

When you look at Janine’s review of the Spymaster’s Lady and the subsequent commenters who saw Annique as almost infantile v. the opinion of other readers such as myself that saw Annique as truly unique and competent in her spy games, so competent that it took three able bodied men (okay, one was seriously injured) to capture her.

It’s why when you find a reviewer you trust, you can rely upon their recommendations. they probably have a similar frame of view.

***

While it may not be fair for the author to have to confront such a beleaguered reading audience, the fact remains that people who are of an age, who have any life experience will have formed opinions regarding certain individuals.

There is the author that can overcome those problems/issues/biased frames of references but no one author will be able to win over every reader.

It’s hard as an author to come to grips with this and I think it is hard as a reader too. I know in the case of some authors, I’ve felt that they have written above me even though I consider myself to have a certain modicum of intelligence. I’ve kept reading some author because I find their style of writing something that I want to like but never really do. I’ve had authors on the pedestal and when I don’t understand their writing or when their work doesn’t work for me, I do think there is some deficit in me.

What I think is happening is less that there is a deficit in me or a deficit in the writing but that our frames of references are so different; our tastes so different that we won’t come to an agreement about the valuation of “good.”