Deserving love and our own genre expectations
One of my favorite things about blogging here is that I can write about a germ of an idea and see it grow and blossom in many different directions and to places I had not even anticipated. Last week’s post on emotional justice is a great example of that, because when I initially thought about the concept for that post, I hadn’t been thinking beyond the protagonists, and I had taken for granted the idea that love and happiness were distinct virtues in the genre.
So when the discussion began to move in different directions, as people introduced and discussed new issues, it made me think about how we don’t all share the same genre expectations, especially when it comes to how we define and accept happiness for the various characters in genre Romance. Some readers cannot stand motorcycle club Romances, while others can’t abide cheating heroes. Some readers find m/m more equitable between the protagonists, while others appreciate a dramatic power struggle. And that doesn’t even count the instances in which we embrace something in one book we unequivocally reject in another.
Then there was this comment from Jami Gold that really challenged my own genre assumptions:
If I don’t feel that either character deserves love and happiness, it’d be a hate read, where I’d root for them to get together only to clear out the gene pool for others. ;) If one deserves love and the other doesn’t, that’s not romance to me. That’s abuse waiting to happen (or maybe not waiting, depending on the circumstances of the character’s unworthiness).
I must admit that I have a knee-jerk negative reaction to the idea of Romance protagonists “deserving” or earning love. For me these concepts convey a kind of Protestant moralism that feels unnecessarily judgmental. I am not a fan of the idea that people don’t deserve love, or that they need to do something to earn it – a version of the grace v. good works debate, but in a more secular context.
But as I thought more about it I wondered if Gold was even thinking along these lines. After all, the strength of emotional justice in the genre means that we all have a sense of good and bad, acceptable and unacceptable, when we’re reading. So what’s the difference between the idea of deserving love and the basic impulse to accept or reject the outcome of a romance? At some level it all comes down to expectations and the way our reading experience interacts with and engages those expectations – whether it’s to meet, insult, reinforce, challenge, or expand on them.
When we talk about genre expectations, I think we’re often referring to common tropes and motifs, as well as how we see the genre structured. Romantic pacing, common courtship rituals, HEA/HFN, character development, stereotypes and clichés, etc.
That we can share love for a single genre and yet have such different experiences of its books is part of the amazing alchemy between book and reader. But there is another level at which we are engaging with the text, a dimension that implicates our own perceptions of right and wrong, good and bad, acceptable and unacceptable. Morality, ethics, spiritual beliefs, personal experience – all of this and more informs our genre expectations, even though we so rarely talk about how this happens as we read and discuss books.
I know that the fan fiction concept of the id vortex, or id reading has gained popularity in genre fiction, but if we’re going to follow Freud into that wilderness, let’s include the ego and the superego, because they work together. The ego, or the conscious mind, helps keep the unleashed appetite of the id in check, while simultaneously managing the expectations and rule-setting demands of the conscience (superego). If the id is all about the deepest emotions, the superego is all about social values and boundaries (ethics and morality), and the ego maintains the balance through rational awareness of and engagement with the world around us. And all of these parts of our mind help shape our responses to what we’re reading, positive and negative, enjoyable and unenjoyable.
For example, if on a purely emotional level we enjoy fantasies of sexual force, but are convinced they are morally improper, that conflict will be in play when we’re reading a book with that particular element. How it will be in play, and what the ultimately outcome is, may never be fully predictable, in part because our engagement with the written word is so intellectually, emotionally, and ethically complex. But we’re all still experiencing, rationally processing, and judging (id, ego, superego) as we read, even if we’re doing it so automatically that we don’t even consciously distinguish each dynamic from the others.
One of the reasons I dislike the idea of judging reader tastes as right/wrong, good/bad is because of this complex interplay of psychological and emotional factors at work in how we engage text. At the same time, I wish we talked more openly about how our individual expectations of different books are shaped, and in turn, shape our experience of those books, because I think it might help for others to better understand where we’re each coming from.
For example, are you a reader who wants characters to act as exemplars or role models, or do you feel more comfortable when you can identify with one or more protagonists? If you define yourself as a comfort reader, what is comforting for you, and why? If you claim to want your own boundaries challenged, what does that take and what makes that process more or less successful for you? I think sometimes what seems so obvious to us is not at all discernible to someone else, in large part because their own reading expectations are shaped from a different place and in a different way.
So going back to the idea of emotional justice, for example, how do you even define the concept? Why, for example, is an assassin hero okay or not okay? Why is a motorcycle club less or more acceptable than a military setting? What qualities or actions require redemption, and what is unredeemable? What, in other words, shapes your genre expectations, and how do those expectations reflect your own emotional desires, perceptions of reality, and social ethics and values?